Lessons from Prison — Justin Paperny

On Monday, I was followed on twitter by @JustinPaperny. I get followed by random accounts all the time, but something made me check this guy out. His bio offered a free guidebook to prison if you texted a certain word to a certain number. I did as it said and within a minute or two had this book in my inbox.

I have worked with federal prison consultants before, and many of them really know their stuff. Justin, however, had actually been in a BOP institution, serving 18 months (really, a year) for a white collar offense.

Lots of former inmates write books about their experiences, or post on popular blogs published for the inmate-and-their-loved-ones community. I don’t often read these accounts, to be honest. My experiences have put me in touch with high-priced consultants, some of whom even know how to “game” the federal system, if one can accurately say such a thing, to make it more likely that a defendant will go to a certain institution. Some of these experts are lawyers who simply have so much experience, and have done so much research, that they know a shit ton about federal prisons. Alan Ellis is the first among them, in my opinion, and his prison guidebook sits on my coffee table for me to pick up when one of my federal clients is in the last stages of his case and I have to figure out a good place to suggest to him.

Lessons from Prison is engagingly written, and is partly memoir and partly a guide to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Paperny got sent to a private institution, Taft, and it shows. The book was published in 2009, meaning he had to have been out for a little bit, and he talks about how it wasn’t plagued with the overcrowding that federally owned and managed BOP institutions were.

In 2017, this is laughable. Oftentimes, privately run BOP institutions are even more crowded than their federal counterparts. To be clear, I’m not casting any doubt on his credibility; I’m just saying that things have changed drastically since Paperny served his time.

What I really loved was his description of his time spent wtih Arthur. I liked reading about that man’s discipline when it came to his health and fitness. If I was talking about a client of mine, I’d say he “had his head on right” for a stint in prison. It’s all about what Viktor Frankel talked about in his book: having a purpose, a focus. (That was only one part of what Frankel talked about yes, but that’s the corollary I’m drawing.) From what I understand from my reading and from talking to former inmates, including my clients, whether you make it through prison in one piece physically and/or mentally depends on if you’ve got your mind right: focused on what you need to do, putting one foot in front of the other, keeping your mouth shut, following the rules, staying in your lane, and not starting shit.

It’s always great when people have exercise equipment or books or sketchpads or typewriters. It keeps them entertained and focused. It always makes me so mad when I see grandstanding from some trust fund idiot in Congress, talking about how we spend too much money on amenities for prisoners, like weights and equipment. Dumbass, that’s what keeps inmates occupied, keeps the guards safe, and keeps trouble at a minimum in prisons. Shut the fuck up.

I liked his connection with Michael Santos, and Santos’s desire to be heard, his drive to reach the community of soon-to-be-inmates, people who would benefit from his experience. He had two rules for how to thrive in prison: know thyself (Socrates), and know thy enemy (Sun Tzu).

The part about the Holocaust-denier guard made me cringe. Imagine having to hold your tongue – for your safety, for your freedom – about something that was basically an erasure of the suffering of your people. Gross.

I’ve heard the thing about being in prison making you more tolerant of others. However, I think that’s only if you’re lucky. Too many people come out of prison battered, broken, not quite right, angry at the world, unable to connect, and all but certain to go back. And it is a damn tragedy.

This is a quick read.  It is one man’s simply-written account of his expereinces in a BOP institution. It’s pretty obvious why this would be on my Lawyerly Bookshelf, and I’m going to use the insights I gained here to continue to advise my clients that are going to head into a federal prison (some of the lessons are able to be translated to state prison, too, of course).

We all need all the help we can get, and we need to help each other through this life. Many men in the custody of the BOP (Bureau of Prisons, should have clarified that earlier) helped Justin get through his twelve months, and he wrote this to help others get through their time. This is a very, very good thing and he should be commended for it.


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