| From the inside, looking out
by Donald Leeper
In 1965, my prison number was 25381-138. I was
21 and expected to be in prison until I was 54. I was an outlaw
with an attitude. I was an outlaw to the marrow of my bones. I was
also an alcoholic and I used to play off of that when I got into
trouble, blaming my antisocial behavior on my drinking problem.
This kept me out of prison many times when I was arrested for minor
things. However when they arrested me for a capital crime, kidnapping
(taking a hostage during a small time robbery), and shooting some
bullets at the police, the judge said that I had pushed society
too far. The judge, taking pity on me because of my youth, thought
that 33 years would mellow me out.
In my career as an outlaw I sold drugs, pimped
girls, hijacked trucks and robbed a few stores. I was not a big
When I went to the US penitentiary in Terre Haute,
Indiana in 1965, I was the youngest inmate there. In my nine years
there I never had any serious problem with the other inmates or
the administration. My prison friends were in the Outfit (Italian
Mafia) and they were the most normal people there. They had strong
family values, loyalty to their friends, and were great entrepreneurs.
Their mood was predictable and they wouldn't go crazy on you without
warning like some of the other prisoners. They generally behaved
in such a manner that would earn acceptance almost anywhere. They
used violence as a tool, to be applied with some objective.
My friends had the respect of the other inmates
and we were left alone by the prison administration. We ate special
foods pirated from the Officers' Dining Room. We has comfortable
housing, and living, as we were, in our own universe, sat out most
of the race wars, drug wars, and a lot of the day-to-day personal
conflicts and disputes that seemed to occupy a great deal of the
time of the other prisoners.
In my prison career I worked in the Library (as
the chief clerk), Electric Shop (as the electronic technician),
and for six months I took care of the pigs on the prison farm.
I read a great deal and acquired my education
from the prison library. I spent nine years in prison, and served
five years on parole. Since my release from prison on 1974 I have
received only one traffic ticket.
When I was growing up, those individuals that
lived beyond the rules and regulations of ordinary society fascinated
me. Killers, bank robbers, pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealer were
my heroes, and the people I wanted to be like, and the people I
wanted to spend my time with and have the respect of. Because I
got into drugs and alcohol at a very young age (14), these chemicals
contribute to fantasizing and idealizing the outlaw life.
I liked the fact that outlaws were men, and they
stood up for themselves, and didn't take shit from anyone. They
resolved their issues and disputes, applying violence rather than
meditation. I thought this was more manly than the normal way of
By the time I ended up in court I was violent,
crazy, and extremely dangerous; and society didn't have any choice
but to lock me away for its own protection. I wasn't a suitable
candidate for any treatment programs, other than the not-so-tender
therapy of the Maximum Security of the Federal Penitentiary.
I grew up within the American version of Norwegian
culture where I was never touched, hugged, told that I was loved
or valued. Everyone was very reserved and they never expressed their
feeling. I had very low self-esteem and I never felt (and I was
constantly told) that I fit in or belonged. In my extended family,
everyone was very technically capable in the woodworking and building
trades. My father was a small businessman.
I didn't do well in school and had to repeat the
sixth and eight grades. I was very depressed for most of my youth;
and I never had a good feeling until I was turned on to alcohol.
From my very first drink, I drank alcoholically. I drank for 29
years--however, that's another story.
When I was released from prison in 1974, I had
been ensconced in the outlaw community for over 14 years. I considered
myself a career criminal and thought that I would end up either
being killed by the police or dying in prison. I wasn't happy with
myself and I desperately wanted a new life. There I was, just out
of prison, depressed, alcoholic, without any formal education, no
employment skills, and with limited social graces. And, this is
very important; I had spent a great deal of my youth and my entire
adult life as a member of a community that was at odds with everyone
Because I had known my parole officer for many
years, and I had several thousand dollars in my prison account,
he did not require that I have a job or that I go to a halfway house
as a condition of my release. I was released cold.
Being on my own, lonely, and without a close friend,
I checked myself into an alcoholic recovery house where I stayed
for two months. I found an employer who was very understanding of
my past and thought I deserved a chance to do something with myself.
I was the only felon in the recovery house and on the job.
While at the recovery house I attended the usual
AA groups. I also become involved in a movement that called itself
OUR (Obtaining Universal Reinforcement). I went to the first few
meeting because I was bored and I wanted to get out of the house.
OUR was not addiction treatment per se, but had to do with positive
affirmations, the application of behavioral psychological principles
to the verbal system, and assertive training. There was a whole
community of OUR folks at the time that had their own literature
(about the application of OUR ideas to everyday life). There were
plays and short stories. I was told that OUR was started by a psychologist
by the name of Ken Swift.
I was accepted into the community and made new
fiends who were tolerant of me, and my addictions, and my past.
They didn't make moral judgments upon me or my life. Because of
their behaviorist viewpoint, they didn't feel that I had some inner
quality that made me bad; but that I was a product of my environment.
They believed that most behavior was learned and that it was possible
to learn new ways of doing things. They didn't believe in punishment
or criticism but took the position that positive reinforcement was
the most humane and effective way of doing things. They gave me
some love. We hugged a lot and gave each other positive strokes,
and some of the girls were very kind to me and gave me some romance.
I had some mystical experiences because of my
OUR Training, which were somewhat metaphysical. I perceived, experienced,
knew, felt, how everything in the universe is interconnected, and
interdependent, and everything is as it should be (including me).
I knew that I was an integral part of life and by expansion, the
Cosmos. I felt that I belonged here on earth, and for the fist time
in my life I didn't feel at odds with everyone and everything else.
I wasn't depressed any more and I felt good without using drug and/or
I am not a spokesman for OUR. I don't believe
that they are in existence any longer.
I would like to give brief analyses of the elements
that contributed to my leaving the outlaw life. First, when I left
prison, I completely (unintentionally) disassociated myself from
my past. I didn't hang out with other outlaws or ex-convicts. For
that matter, when I was firmly entrenched in my new life, I didn't
associate with other alcoholics, not even those in recovery. I got
a good job (I felt so bad about myself that I didn't think anyone
would employ me). I made new friends who were stable, sober, warm
and accepting. They gave me the love and support that I didn't get
from my white middle class culture that I grew up in. My new friends
didn't have serious problems and were somewhat normal. I learned
how, through the OUR teachings, to get what I need from life without
stealing or resorting to violence.
Instead of violence I learned about positive reinforcement.
I learned how to get what I wanted in life through assertiveness.
Part of the movement was Assertive Training. I became so skilled
in the use of these tools (and all the OUR teaching) that I became
an instructor and held my own workshops, seminars, and weekly groups
to give to others what had been freely given to me. For the first
time in my life, I was a somewhat respected member of the community.
I felt that the new culture that I was involved in, with its human
values, acceptance, love and support, was a healing society that
repaired the damage that was done to me in my youth by being risked
in an uncaring middle class materialist bring-home-the-pay-check-and-you-don't-have-to-show-any-love
life. Once I felt truly loved, accepted and valued in life the elements
that compelled me to be antisocial and behave violently dissipated.
A very important element in my rehabilitation
was that I completely got away from the criminal subculture. And
this mean not only active criminals, but also any groups (therapy
or otherwise) that have the commonality of being a felon. I feel
that these groups, that are very popular now, are only extensions
of the criminal subculture. As long as you are hanging around with,
and identifying yourself with the outlaw life, even as an ex-outlaw,
you have never really left it behind. As for myself, I kept my prison
record secret for many years. I have just gone public with my prison
time and my alcoholism because I feel that I have something constructive
to contribute to the dialog that swirls around these issues.
In conclusion, I'd like to say that the root of
criminality has to do with a culture that has twisted and destructive
ideals and values, and doesn't value diversity or emphasize acceptance
Donald Leeper is a free lance writer
and a survivor of both the American Justice System and the American
Mental Health System. He lives in Ukiah, California, where he is
active in the Mendocino Environmental Center, Earth First! and the
Alliance for Human Rights.
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