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Crime and Punishment: Part 2: A rebirth behind bars
A state prison inmate writes about the lessons he's learned

How much punishment is enough? Is everyone in prison a threat to society? Does prison serve to rehabilitate? Last week, Isthmus ran an article on a local man who's served time in prison for drug use and counterfeiting. This week, we present an essay written by a former Madison resident who's still behind bars, but who claims to have learned his lesson.

In the past 18 months, I have learned more about human nature, truth, self and life than ever before. It has been a time of extreme pain and shame. Yet it has helped me to experience love, hope, friendship and faith on a scale I have never felt before. And it all took place behind the walls of a maximum security prison.

I am an inmate at Green Bay Correctional Institution, serving out a four-year sentence for aggravated battery and old parole time. I am not a victim. I blame no one else for my path in life. These choices are mine to own completely. I've spent the greater part of my 38 years eagerly feeding the machine of self. For 20 years I allowed, even welcomed, my addiction to rule me.

From my boyhood in Madison to today, I have had people in my life who cared about me. Too often, I was not one of them.

After multiple incarcerations, youth and adult drug treatments and a whole host of family and friends attempting to exorcize my demons, I finally realized my bottom was when I stopped digging the ditch. It wasn't prison that changed me, but it was in prison that I changed.

My turnaround, ironically enough, began with an act of violence. In July 2007, when I was in the state's medium security prison at Kettle Moraine, a child molester told me that the girl he had raped was his "girlfriend"; she was 9. In an instant I struck, breaking his eye socket and landing myself in the "hole."

Pacing the cell for hours at a time to stave off boredom, I would daydream of drugs. Winning the lotto so I could smoke crack for the rest of my life. In the room, a former occupant had left a Bible and an address to a Christian outreach program. It remained in the corner, unmoved even for the weekly cell cleaning. For months I paced right by it.

One day in September 2007, I picked it up. Before long I was writing a letter to the outreach program.

Wasted opportunities

I grew up on Madison's east side. Until I turned 10, I thought my family was normal, even boring. Then, in a five-month span, my alcoholic father was booted from the house, my best friend, a bulldog named Maude, died, and I was sent to the children's treatment unit at Mendota.

I returned home for a few months, but my mother could not handle me, or my brother Trent. I was sent away again, this time to St. Aemilian's, technically an orphanage, in Milwaukee. Trent was shipped off to a halfway house up north. I ran away a couple of times, once to live in inner-city Milwaukee, once back to Madison to see my mom.

Eventually, I found my way back to Madison, living with my biological father and his wife. I would eventually move back with my mother and attend Sennett Middle School. From age 13 to 15, I bounced around, finally ending up with my father when I began my freshman year at East. Trent stayed with my mom.

My best friend, Mike, lived on the east side too; his house had Pop-Tarts, and his sister was cute. One day when I was 13, as the speakers pounded out Iron Maiden, Mike turned me on to pot. I loved it. All the pain, fear and isolation fell from me. By my freshman year at East High, I was also using alcohol, speed and LSD.

My criminal career began when I stole some sunglasses and a Heath candy bar from the Walgreen's on Cottage Grove Road. I remember loving the rush. I soon graduated to other offenses: burglary, drugs, theft. My early exposure to institutions removed all my apprehension over consequences. Drugs gave me escape, and my new family was about crime.

I was 16 years old when I entered the state's juvenile detention facility at Wales, and 18 when I left. Around this time my mom remarried - ironically enough, to a prison guard. They recently celebrated their 20th anniversary.

Soon after I was released from Wales I was arrested for a string of burglaries, this time ending up in an adult prison.

At times it looked as though I might get my act together. Appearances can be deceiving.

Love at first sight

I remember the first time I saw Rebecca. I was sitting on the couch at the apartment I shared with my brother on East Washington Avenue. I had just been released from prison. I was 22 years old. It was love at first sight.

Rebecca helped me bring my life to another level. I got a job at St. Vinnies and was happy. Rebecca would be my best friend. Or could have been; it was around this time that I was introduced to crack. My first time was in the basement of a dilapidated house on a road trip. I took a hit and felt a familiar escape. Life suddenly got a whole lot easier.

Rebecca and I were married in Janesville in November 1993. Four months later I made a promise to our newborn daughter. "Saige," I said, "I promise to stop. I promise to be here for you, to love you and protect you."

Less than three years later, every promise I made to Saige was shattered. Divorced and broken, I returned to Madison. In 1997, at age 26, I was sentenced to eight years in prison for robbing the safe at the car dealership where I worked as a salesman.

Rebecca had little to do with me while I was incarcerated. When I was released, in 2002, she and I did try to work things out. But I had other priorities - feeding my addiction.

It was the pattern of my life. I got great jobs, including advertising project manager, that I pissed away due to drug use. I had people who cared about me that I betrayed. I hopped from place to place, spending all my money on crack.

In 2003 I got into an altercation with my girlfriend. I struck her. It was the first and only time I hit a woman, one of the lines I once vowed never to cross. This crime is the greatest source of shame in my life; I hate to think of the sick feeling people will get when they read this, how they will hate me for it. I do.

Incredibly, the judge gave me only probation. I had no intention of serving it successfully. I dreamed and thought only of drugs.

I violated my probation by hopping a Greyhound bus to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to live with my brother Trent. That led to stays to Orlando and New Jersey, where I was finally caught and extradited back to Wisconsin. In September 2006, I entered prison for the fifth time. That's where I am today.

Like a sweet sun shower

And thus it was, by degrees, that I found myself in the hole at Kettle Moraine, pacing my cell, until I picked up that Bible and wrote a letter to the outreach program.

I remember wanting my life to change. I wanted to live again, to be free from my addiction. I thought about Rebecca and Saige, and the REO Speedwagon line "like a sweet sun shower." That was my feeling. Amid the yelling, rapping and door banging of those around me, I resolved to crawl out of my ditch.

The outreach program passed my letter on to Joe and Barbara. They began to write, and then to visit. The couple live in Marinette. Joe, a retired paper executive, is 76; Barbara is 61. They are wonderful Christian people who are caring and encouraging on every level.

Joe and Barbara gave me a hope I could never find within these walls. Talking to prison staff will leave you feeling like you have a film covering you. I remember when a mental health staffer knocked on my door during her weekly check-in. "Need any puzzles?" she asked. No, I said, but I would like to talk to you about adjusting my thought processes to be more honest and not tell lies. Her response blew me away: "Well, just don't lie."

Then she left to ask the inmate in the next cell about puzzles. She had a Ph.D.!

Bad news comes in threes

In the fall of 2007, when I was still in the hole, I received a series of three letters from my parents in Madison. The first informed me that my stepsister had died; she was 34. The second, the following month, brought news of my grandmother's passing. This was followed a few days later by a letter that contained the most painful words I had read in my life. Rebecca, my former wife and mother of my child, the greatest love of my life, had died.

Rebecca had died at 36, the victim of a blood clot. My parents had waited several months to tell me. My daughter was 13 years old. (She would remain with her mom's husband, the man she calls dad, who continues to love her and raise her with her two sisters.)

I fell to my knees and raged against God. The hate toward myself came out in a scream. Needing to communicate, I told a guard what had happened; his reply was "oh." I put in a request to psych services; two weeks later a doctor stopped by, speaking to me through my cell door. She could have allowed me out for a talk, but chose not to.

Thank God for Joe and Barbara. These two strangers took a risk and saved my life. They walked me through the hell, listened to my pain. Gently, they showed me how to live and trust God, advising what Scriptures to read. By the time I was brought to Green Bay, in November 2007, as part of the punishment for the fight, I was stronger and more committed to recovery than I thought possible for me.

Since then other contacts have strengthened me. I was paired at Green Bay with Eric Hainstock, the young man who shot and killed his high school principal when he was 15 (see "Free At Last," 8/1/08). He was 16 when we became cellmates.

Eric helped teach me to be a good parent and friend. For 10 months, he was my son. I watched him grow and improve in every area of his life. I gave him all my love, and that gave Eric a chance to be free. When he cried I hugged him and said it would be all right. I expressed each day that I loved him and was proud of him.

My relationship with Eric brought good into both of our lives. I got to know the Rev. Jerry Hancock, who runs the Prison Ministry Project out of Madison's First Congregational Church ("Holy Redeemer," 1/2/09). Jerry began visiting me, helping me address my flaws and defects. He and my other friends - Joe and Barb, a couple named Bill and Dorothy, and, of course, my parents - changed me through simple care and understanding.

Last October, a prison captain came to my cell. Eric was on a visit at the time. He led me to another part of the prison, pointed into the cell hall and said, "This is where you live now."

I asked what was going on, why this was happening. I begged the captain to be able to say goodbye to Eric, to tell him we were being split apart. He replied, "I don't have to tell you anything."

A seed you plant

That's how things go in prison. The staff view us as numbers and not as people. The environment has corrupted them. You hear it when they speak to you - that is, talk down to you. Sometimes they laugh in our face or mock us. On two occasions as I was being released from prison, I've had guards say to me, "You'll be back."

Prison does not turn anyone's life around. A system so desperately in need of its own correction is incapable of helping anyone. But people helping people, treating each other with love and respect, will ensure we have fewer inmates coming back.

Surely, we must believe people can. It must be a seed you plant and a true desire. It requires something prison is not set up to provide - people who care about and believe in you.

The transformation of my life owes to the kindness and generosity of others, strangers who have become friends. I take no credit for myself. My best thinking got me where I am and caused many people pain. I am sorry to all of my victims. I owe you my change.

The road ahead will not be easy. I will need support and encouragement once I am free, on May 13, 2010. But as long as my foundation is built on the teachings and love of God, I will make it.

My dream is to someday work with at-risk youths and adults. I would love to plant a garden with my mom and see her smile. I want her to be proud of me. I will work to establish a relationship with my daughter, now 15 and living in a community outside of Madison.

I will treat each day as a blessing.

To write: Brannon J. Prisk, 171927, Green Bay Correctional Institution, P.O. Box 19033, Green Bay, WI 54307.

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