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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 time player.

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 settling things.

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 else.

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 alcohol.

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 and love.

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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