Prison Time

A good friend of mine was recently released from prison after serving three years for a fraud conviction.  He had proof of his innocence but wasn’t allowed to enter it into evidence. As he put it ” The District Attorney and the police conspired together to convict me and they succeeded.”

He told me his story and shared the inadmissible evidence. I personally know this guy and his character. I believe him. But, we live in an age of rules, regulations and laws that make it difficult for even the most honest of people to stay within the law. And, of course, we have different laws for different people. (Hilary Clinton serves no time).

Naturally, my friend was more than concerned about finding a job following his release. Surprisingly, he found one fairly quickly. Today, he is back on his feet. He does not feel stigmatized. In fact, according to him, his story now makes great dinner table conversation! The response that he gets from colleagues and peers, once they found out about his prison stint, is, curiously, indifference.


We now live in a society where everyone knows the system is rigged.  There is no stigma attached to having been in prison because the general public knows it can happen to anyone. Well, almost anyone. (Remember Hillary Clinton?). Simply stated, people no longer trust our police or the legal system.

When I was in high school, I took Russian Studies and learned about the Russian Revolution and the horrors of the Gulag. The Gulag was established by Joseph Stalin. It was a work camp that existed from  the 1930’s to the 1950’s and imprisoned around 14 million people. The writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote many stories about the horrors of the Gulag and his books describe the terrible circumstances that innocents suffered. The Gulag became a prototypical symbol of an out-of- control-government and a warning of what could happen to you on its whim. Later, schools taught students about the Gulag to warn others about the perils of an overzealous government forcibly condemning its people to imprisonment.

Remarkably, the United States penal system has has now surpassed the Gulag in terms of the sheer number of those imprisoned.  What is more shocking is that our prison population has reached an ominous milestone over the past few years. The number of Americans who were in jail and prison, including former inmates, is approximately 19 million people as of 2010. This number exceeds the 18 million people who endured Soviet Gulag incarceration between 1929 and 1953.

The Conservative media seems to gloss over this story. I listen to quite a bit of Conservative talk radio on a daily basis and all I hear from the pundits is how free our country is. But how free can a country be when we have the highest incarceration rate in the world?

I have both traveled and worked in other countries. I can state firsthand that we are not, in many ways, the freest country in the world. I have been amazed by how much easier it is to do certain things in other countries. For example, I found the medical care and dental care in Australia much more affordable and accessible than here in the U.S… without all of the paperwork. I was amazed how easy it was to do business in Hong Kong. The city is now considered the best place in the world to start business. Take a listen:

When I worked in banking in the U.S., I had to be licensed and regulated. My emails were continually monitored. My conversations taped. Anything we sent out was vetted by lawyers. Americans have become so enslaved and yet we think all this monitoring is “freedom.” If I had broken any of those myriad of laws and regulations, I could have easily ended up in prison…like my friend.

Our ever-increasing laws are complex and arbitrary, which greatly reduce our freedoms and daily ensnare more and more of us.

For example, Martha Stewart was convicted and went to jail for making money on a trade (“insider trading”) that harmed no one. Yet Stan O’Neal, who bankrupted one of the largest financial firms in the world (Merrill Lynch), causing the loss of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, walked away unscathed. No jail time, millions of dollars in personal profit and the unfettered ability to start over again. When most Americans hear this injustice they siply shrug. We have come to expect these inequities and unequal application of the law.

There is no longer fairness in our justice system.

The increasing incarceration rates and resulting diminution of our freedoms is partially caused by the move to criminalize all manner of activity; but especially drugs. Whenever the U.S. has cracked done on drugs, it understandably worsened the problem. Alcohol provides the classic example: It wasn’t much of a problem before the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, and it hasn’t been one since its repeal in the 1930’s

The Prohibition of the ’20s turned the Mafia from a small underground group of disconnected individuals into centralized big business. It turned citizens and businessmen into criminals. “The War on Drugs” has done the same thing for drug dealers. Its turned petty drug dealers into kingpins. (As an aside, “The War on Poverty” has created more poor people. You’d think we’d stop making war).

Making a product illegal artificially turns both users and suppliers into criminals. The illegality makes the product vastly more expensive than it would otherwise be and opens the black market floodgate that draws in not only more seasoned criminals but also entices those who alter the substances with deadly fillers in order to maximize profit.  Crime becomes a health crisis as well.  In addition, many users who become addicted are driven to crime to finance their habits. Because of the risks and and reduced supply, profits for suppliers are huge and, therefore, attract the most greedy and ruthless people to run these organizations.

When you combine corrupt law makers with a corrupted justice system then add prisons and illegal activities run for profit, you create a dysfunctional and deadly incentive to arrest and imprison people. Such is where we have arrived.

Welcome to the Land of the Free.


For more information on the business of the prison system, check out this book

Rolling Joints Saved My Life

I was stuck in a Mexican prison.


I don’t look Hispanic even though I am. At the time, I had blond hair and blue eyes and weighed 140 pounds soaking wet. I was in here because I had been caught by the Mexican police for carrying marijuana and sentenced to thirty days for my crime. I was stuck in a massive prison pen with hundreds of other inmates who were hardened criminals. They were all thick and dark with a multitude of tattoos covering their bodies. I didn’t look like any of them, which only made me stand out even more.

It was early and I hadn’t been beaten up, as of yet, because the prison guards were still around to keep the prisoners away from me. But once it got late I was done for… and was told so by many of the prisoners. I needed to formulate some type of plan. Quickly. There was a good chance I’d be dead by morning.

As I scanned the prison floor, I saw a group of inmates rolling joints. They all had short fat fingers and were clumsy in the way in which they rolled. They were spilling the leaves all over the ground and the joints ended up being too fat and loosely wrapped. I approached the leader of the group who was supervising the activity and told him that I could roll the joints tighter, smoother and faster. In addition, I informed him, the joints would reduce the spillage by 20% thus increasing his profits. Shocked that I spoke Spanish, and eyeing me with disbelief, he told me to prove it. So I rolled him the tightest and most perfect joint he had ever seen.

Right then and there I fell under his protection and started rolling joints for him. During my short time in prison, I was never harassed and got my own bed to sleep in. I spent the next thirty days rolling joints morning, noon and night and showed his crew the right way to roll them as well. Ah! what irony.  My misspent youth that had caused me to end up in prison was the same thing that saved my life.

My friend, Henry, told me this story years ago. He had just been passed over for a promotion. His time spent in jail came up on an old police report during a background check.  He knew he was living on borrowed time with the company. He was ultimately let go. But, today he is at a new company doing just great.

Life is funny that way.  Random skills that you pick up along the way are the ones that can save your life.

As a kid, I spent my summers in Ecuador away from my friends and the things that I knew and liked. But along the way, I learned Spanish and developed relationships with people I still do business with today.

Knowing Spanish and helped me in many ways.  That one skill made me millions of dollars in compensation trading in international markets. The thing I liked the least about my childhood wound up benefitting me the most.

Nowadays, I spend lots of time on soccer fields with my kids and it is quite common to run into second generation Mexicans who can’t speak their native tongue. The looks I get when they see an “American” speaking their native tongue is priceless because they know they themselves fell short in that endeavor. They had the same opportunity I did but they just never took the time to learn their language.

But, my experience and prosperity from being able to speak Spanish has broader application. Many successful people have created fantastic careers incorporating their supposed “unproductive times” into creating new ventures.

The sports writer Bill Simmons incorporated his love of TV, movies and sports and merged all three to become one of the top personalities at ESPN. In his youth, while his friends did their homework, Simmons would watch TV all day. It got so bad that he has said that there are some movies he has watched over one hundred times. Not all of them classics.  The Karate Kid is one such movie he has used to incorporate into his articles.

Simmons was so adept on the forefront in writing about the merger of sports and pop culture that he became the leader of this new genre. His approach was unique and humorous. An article about the Boston Celtics, his favorite team, might have analogies and references to One Hot Wonder songs and characters from the TV show The Real World. The juxtaposition of those two themes was so hilarious and over the top that his articles were a delight to read!

At the time he indulged in TV and  movies he felt he was wasting his time; but, instead of using it as an excuse he used it to his advantage. His depth of knowledge of pop culture gave him a window into the soul of America and his writing tapped into that movement. Simmons used his time to become a curator of all things pop culture and combined that with his love of sports to become one of the most interesting sports writers of our time.

The acquisition of seemingly useless skills also benefitted Mick Jagger, lead singer from the Rolling Stones, who became the front man for the group even though he had no musical skills. As a child, Jagger was on a TV show produced by his father who was a physical education teacher.  On the show, Jagger would demonstrate and go through the exercises his father had taught him. Little did he know that he  was learning how to preform! He learned where the cameras would be and how to enhance his presence on screen…skills that would benefit him years later when he became the singer who would achieve fame and fortune.

Often in this super competitive life we lead, the dead times, the seemingly unproductive times, can be the seeds of a new venture hardly imagined. And, at times, greatness can come come from the intersection of two skills, like pop culture and sports to create an entirely new genre as Bill Simmons showed.

Then again, maybe one day that random skill you acquired along the way might save your life.