Why should people want me in their community?

By Peter Ninemire, prisoner of the drug war

Society needs to realize that everyone has the capacity to learn, grow and change. I know I have in countless ways. I often tell people that the last 10 years I served in prison may have been the best thing to ever happen to me. The next 14 years I have left to serve is a waste of taxpayer's money and my life except for the fact that I would never let that happen.

Society is wasting a very valuable asset by leaving me, and a lot of other nonviolent offenders, in prison. There is a point of diminishing returns on many of us. The public is losing out on much more by what I have to offer than the amount of money wasted on housing, clothing and feeding me each year, not to mention the loss of taxes I would be paying annually. I do have a lot to offer. Let me explain.

I have taken whatever deprivation these places can throw and learned how to rise above it. That's what life's about. Not crying about it. We never know what we're made of until our back is against the wall. I have learned a level of patience, tolerance, respect and humility that I never knew existed, and turned it into determination and persistence that equals perseverance. I now have these virtues ingrained in me. They will now serve and benefit me for the rest of my life, and especially in the real world.

Throughout this prison experience I have been forced to take the kind of deep, hard and long look into myself that most people should, but never have to do. Much retrospection has led to deep introspection. It has been about me turning resentment, pain, anger, and sometimes hate, into taking complete responsibility and accountability for my life. I have come to learn about taking true accountability for my actions and to quit blaming everyone and factors outside myself for my problems. I have come to know for a fact that personal ownership leads to release from suffering. Once you do that your happiness is based a lot more around your state of mind than your particular circumstance or situation in life.

I am no longer reliant upon material possessions and constantly being entertained for happiness. Even though I know I must have goals and stay motivated, I also realize that a lot of these desires and longings are the source of most peoples' unhappiness. I have come to realize that the only real satisfaction in life comes from helping others. He profits most who serves best. I've come to understand that you can only have what you give to others.

My life is now about spirituality, service and civic activism as opposed to the greed and self-centeredness that brought me to prison. The government's prohibition on drugs preys on this inherent nature in many of us confined for drugs. I once told a journalist doing an interview with me about our Prison Buddhist Meditation group that I don't want to diminish the ridiculousness of the government giving me 27 years for growing marijuana. I can't justify their action, but me getting here and what I do about it is on me.

What I have done with my life since coming to prison is get active with almost every inmate program and organization at this institution, as well as others on the outside. As a path toward hope, coping and accepting my situation when I came to prison in 1991, I worked with a group of guys to establish the NAACP inmate organization as a means to support FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums). We have been doing that ever since.

The next thing to evolve out of this organization was the Jericho Road Youth Counseling program. We wanted to dissuade at-risk youth from the community from making the same mistakes we made with our lives. I have been very active counseling youth since its inception in 1994, and for several years have been teaching a mandatory 30-hour counselor training program to potential inmate counselors. I can't begin to describe the positive impact I have seen this program have on both the many inmates and youth who have participated in it. Maybe none more so than myself.

Several years ago I was elected president of the Rocky Mountain Club. This 100-member inmate organization sponsors social activities and events on the compound and serves as a liaison between the staff and inmate population. Amongst other classes, after quitting smoking myself, for several years I have been teaching Smoking Cessation Classes on a continuing basis. I also was among a core group of men who, along with staff, helped initiate and implement a Toastmasters Public Speaking Program at this institution.

Beyond the tremendous amount of confidence and self-esteem I gained from the many programs and causes in which I have participated, the most important outcome was finding true meaning and direction in my life. Now I have seen first hand that you really do get out of life what you put into it. I now have no doubt about what I want to do with my life if our society's judicial system would ever provide me the opportunity.

If I were released from federal custody today, the first thing I would do is establish a youth counseling program similar to Jericho Road while in custody of the Kansas Department of Corrections. Because it isn't a mandatory minimum sentence, I would be eligible for parole after serving 2 years of my 4 - 10 year state sentence there. (This state marijuana conviction added 10 years to my federal sentence, but is still running consecutive to it.)

During my stay with the Kansas Department of Corrections I would continue working on my degree in Psychology and Counseling. After release I begin working for my best friend who is Director of a Boys Home in Kansas. He has promised me a job as a youth counselor in his business.

After working there for a couple of years, and satisfying all requirements of my parole, I would move to Washington, D.C. so that I could be more active in a couple of social causes about which I feel very deeply. By then I would quite likely have received my degree in psychology and counseling that I am currently working on, and I would continue working with youth in some capacity. And lastly, I want eventually to enter into prisons as a committed professional and implement a couple of programs that would be based around facilitating the same kind of change in others that took place within myself while in close custody.

After what I have been through the last 10 years of my life in here, I have no doubt about accomplishing what I just set forth. Other than losing family members and loved ones, the loss of one's freedom is the most precious thing one can suffer. It has instilled in me a drive and hunger to prove myself that I believe few people have. I believe it is part of the reason I have seen people who have left here become tremendous successes within a few years of their release. This tremendous hunger to succeed and do the right things with my life is another reason that society should want me in their community.

Why should people want me in their community? In a nutshell I think that most, if not all, taxpayers would find what I have just outlined much more useful than paying $25,000 a year to keep me locked up for the next 16 years of my life. I sincerely and genuinely have changed in prison and have a lot to offer society. Truthfully, I am only one of thousands of people who have made personal changes but will never receive consideration for being ready and capable to make a contribution to a community because the current federal mandatory minimum sentences are wasting some of the best human assets to be found.

As a footnote to this I would add that one of the most rewarding experiences I will take away from prison has been positive interaction with people from every different country, race, culture, and background imaginable. I believe I found this to be especially true as a person who grew up on a farm in rural northeastern Kansas. My cultural perspectives were very limited in that place, and I believe this contributed to a longing, a desire for adventure, from the time I was a child. Who knows now? Such speculation may also have had little to do with me ending up here in this closed community.

I have come to truly realize that the color of a person's skin or ethnicity should never even be a consideration in life. We are all here to help each other learn, grow and persevere together. As far as religion goes, I feel that most of them serve a very useful purpose inside prison, if for nothing else than helping someone get back in touch with human roots. Personally, practices of Buddhist faith helped me not only reclaim my roots, but for the first time in my life, really begin to get to know myself.