Saturday, July 11, 2015


"The good and the bad mixed together to cause the trunk to spring up from the ground diagonally. The branches broke some windows and damaged the roof as the twisted tree grew up alongside the house.  I don’t break any windows anymore." -Douglas Smith

Who is Douglas Smith? 

When I was in high school, my classmates voted on the typical superlatives:  “Most likely to…Most Popular…Friendliest.”  They decided my personality deserved special recognition, so they created the Wally Cleaver Award, noting my consistently straight-laced behavior and earnest demeanor.  Ironically, none of my friends in prison would object to the award.  They always said that I would make a terrible criminal.  Yet, there I was in prison.  Obviously, Wally Cleaver never wound up in prison.  It took me years to let go of the notion that I was a good, straight laced person who fell victim to a physiological addiction.  Happy, well-adjusted people don’t use crack cocaine, and they don’t go on robbery sprees when the money runs out.  Often, the face you show to the world springs from a darker place.  I’d rather not waste my second chance at life showing a face to the world that doesn’t match what’s inside, even if that means I have to relinquish my high-school moniker.  I’m just a guy trying to stay sober, and to do something with my days that creates the opportunity for a second chance for someone else who made a mess of their first act.  I do it all imperfectly. I try to forgive myself for that.    

I disagree.

You disagree that I forgive myself?

No, I disagree that you do it all imperfectly. As someone lucky enough to work with you, I’ve seen first-hand how incredible dedicated and meticulous you are. We all at TCJC respect your work ethic so much. But, it seems to me you have trouble accepting praise. Do you agree?

Praise is alright [laughs]. 

So, what are you up to these days?

Wake in the morning, drink coffee, write, exercise (kind of a yoga, Pilates, interval training hybrid mess), meditate, drive to work, and try to turn work into play. I don’t like to call what I do during the day “work”.  I have my dream job.  It’s not something I ever would have found on my own.  In fact, the opportunity literally fell in my lap.  I get to advocate for people who made past mistakes.  I get to advocate for treatment instead of incarceration.  I get to show policy makers what recovery and rehabilitation look like, and give them reason to believe it’s possible.  I get to do everything that was always scary and challenging for me, like writing, researching, and public speaking.  Yet, I somehow find the words I need when I need them.  I don’t like to leave work, because it’s not “work” to me.  Who gets to say that about the thing they do every day?  When I finally leave my job, it’s often to attend a recovery meeting.  Sometimes, I give fellow addicts hope.  Most of the time, they are the ones helping me.  On the weekends, I hang out with my daughter.  It’s an amazing life for someone only one year out of prison. 

What makes you unique?

What makes me unique? It’s hard for me to say.  I can tell you what is unique about someone else, but not about myself.  It feels strange looking too closely in the mirror to see what stands out. Usually, it’s something that ought to be picked, trimmed, or plucked.  

I disagree. You are uniquely optimistic. But in terms of your life today being different than the average person only one year out of prison, why do you think that is? 

I’m not sure, because it’s not me. I was a volunteer at a crisis hotline in undergraduate, and there I met a woman who was helping the formerly incarcerated re-enter society. Something had gotten into her soul about helping incarcerated people. She had all these great, big ideas and she was the one who connected me with TCJC.  So after six years of doing nothing but wanting to recover, to live a life with some kind of meaning, authentic and real, things just happened. Good things happen to you when you’re connected with your calling.

And what is your current relationship with the criminal justice system?

I served 5.8 years on a 15 year sentence for four counts of 2nd degree robbery.  They paroled me onto the Super-Intensive Supervision Program, which is kind of like a modified house arrest.  I can work, run errands, and attend 12-step meetings.  I have to plan these activities two weeks in advance, and I wear a GPS monitor to ensure that I never deviate from my schedule.  I’m under review for removal from intensive supervision and placement onto a regular parole caseload.  I’ll be on parole until November, 2023. 

Wow. Until 2023?

Yeah, that's nothing compared to some. 

If you could change one moment in your life prior to entering prison, what moment would it be?

There are so many things I would change.  That’s a difficult question.  It’s not just about making a different decision at the time I committed the crimes that led me to prison, it’s about halting the downward slide into addiction altogether.  The seeds of addiction were planted long ago, and may also be genetic.  It might be the semester in college I discovered how alcohol and drugs diminish my potential.  I would have reached out for help right then.  No one gets over addiction without help. 

You've always been very open about your experiences with substance abuse and addiction. Has your experience shaped how you look at the criminal justice system?

Certainly. If it's up to me, no one will ever go to prison for possession.  No one will ever be revoked on probation or parole for failing a UA.  Addiction will be seen as a disease, not a crime, and good treatment will be available to those who want it.  Even those who commit crimes to feed their addiction will receive compassion in far greater measure than consequences.

And if you could go back to the day you went into prison, what advice would you give yourself?

Don’t make friends with anyone until you see their friends and learn how they spend their down time. It’s hard to break away from a negative character who wants to pull you down, especially when you are locked in the same cell block together.  Stay with the winners.  Just watch for a while.  You’ll see who they are. 

So your friends played an important role in your prison experience?

Yes. No one supports you like a friend in prison.  Your friends in prison know the truth about you and accept you anyway.  You don’t have to hide your imperfections around them.  They pray with you – no one prays with you in the free world.  When you’re feeling down, your friends in prison listen with an expression on their faces that tell you they genuinely understand what you are feeling.  When you finally make parole, they stand near the exit to the unit so that they can say goodbye one more time. 

Did you feel that there were a lot of guys in prison similar to you?

Hell no. It was painfully lonely. I had to learn to be interested in people; interested in people from different cultures and backgrounds who often didn’t have anything in common with my background. And it was as hard for them as it was for me.

Who was your closest friend in prison?

I had several close friends.  Jag, my 12-step sponsor became like a father to me, especially after my own father died.  He’s in his 70’s, and looks like the retired aluminum siding salesman he was in  the free world.  Kevin is a few years younger than me.  He came from a good home, and was President of Baptist Student Ministry in College.  Few people could relate with me in the way that Kevin could, understanding painfully well how the things we hide inside eventually make their way to the surface.  Porter and I had nothing in common, but he knew how to be a supportive friend.  We’d pool our resources to make giant bowls of nachos on Saturday nights.  We’d tell each other stories about our lives, and marveled about how different we were from one another.  I always said I’d name my next dog after him. I hope he understood that I meant it as a compliment.  Don’t make me name just one closest friend. 

It sounds like you built up a good support system, but I'm sure the days were still very difficult. What was your darkest day in prison?

The day my father died. 

And does any one day you spent in prison stand out brighter than the rest?

I became a trustee after serving about 3.5 years.  I worked for a mechanical department that managed the fleet of gas-powered vehicles. The department supervised a satellite shop at a unit two-hours away, and they would transport vehicles between the shops. They got approval for me to renew my driver’s license so that I could help with transport from time to time.  My brightest day of prison was driving a pickup truck with a horse trailer hitched to the back, by myself (my boss drove another vehicle and I followed him), windows down, Johnny Cash singing on the radio, traveling down a country road north of Huntsville.  That was a very good day.  You were expecting me to say the day that I learned about my parole, huh?  That was a bright moment for about 15 minutes, and then the anxiety about the unknown gripped me for weeks.  No, I’ll pick the Johnny Cash pickup day, because I can still feel the air on my face as I drove down those shaded East-Texas roads, sun glimmering through the branches hanging over the road, singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” along with Johnny.  I think he’d probably pick that day, too.  

For you personally, what was the most difficult part of re-entering society?

Speaking of the crippling unknown that comes with re-entry, did you receive resources in prison that helped you prepare for life post-release?

By the time I completed 5.8 years, I had a very large stack of program certificates.  I took everything available to me from chapel-based programming to Windham rehabilitative classes.  I took classes from Lee College.  I had OJT certificates from Texas Correctional Industries.  I never missed a 12-step meeting.  I had a mentor and was a mentor to others.  I tried to do something every day that would create a solid foundation upon which to build a life after prison.  It would be very difficult to point to one resource as pivotal.  It was the combination and consistency that made the difference.  It was also finding a supportive group of friends who were similarly committed to living a different kind of life. 

What advice would you give to someone preparing for the release of a loved one from prison?

Give it time.  Go slow.  Keep social events to a minimum.  Stay focused on helping your loved one to meet parole conditions and find a job.  The edge will wear off on its own.  Don’t expect things to go back to “normal”.  The new “normal” will be better than you imagined.  Just take it slow. 

Okay, lightening round questions. Post-release, what have you found to be the most humorous?

Listening to people who have never been to prison evaluate what they could have done differently when things don’t go as they planned, and take credit when things do go right.  In prison, you learn how little control you have over events in your life.  All you can do is wake up each day and try to do your best, and let the same mysterious force that set you free from prison take care of the rest.   

How about the most challenging?

Not allowing discouragement to set in after months of rejection.  My 12-step sponsor reminded me that discouragement is just another word for self-pity. 

And lastly, the most surprising?

Marvelous and unforeseen things happen to you when you don’t give in to discouragement.  The job I have now is nothing short of a miracle.  The volunteers in prison assured me that all the bad of my past would be turned to good one day.  They were right.

I'd like to thank Douglas Smith for being my guinea pig and first blog guest. I met Doug in January when I came to work for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. I was immediately swept up by his contagious optimism. He is an incredibly hard working and passionate advocate for criminal justice reform, and I am honored to call him a dear friend.  I'm currently trying to convince him to start his own blog, so stay tuned. I will post the link to his blog here if I can ever persuade him to create it. Trust me, he has so much more to say :) 

UPDATED: Doug has given in, and started his own blog! Read it by clicking here!

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