THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What I Learned When I Spent Five Months at the Federal Prison Camp at Terre Haute

Thirteen years ago, when I directed Illinois' largest public interest organization, I let my enthusiasm for its progressive goals overwhelm my good judgment. I floated checks between the organization's accounts to keep the organization's programs alive. No banks lost any money and I didn't personally benefit. But my actions violated the law.

As a result, seven years later, I was prosecuted and -- after pleading guilty -- ended up spending five months in the Federal Prison Camp at Terre Haute, Indiana.

For me, this was certainly one of the low points of the last decade. The entire episode was incredibly difficult for my family and friends -- and especially my wife, Jan Schakowsky, who is a Member of Congress. Jan was extraordinary. She visited me every weekend - returning from Washington to Chicago, and then traveling by car five hours each way to and from Terre Haute. It was a hard time.

But like many low points in life, I learned a lot from my stay at Terre Haute that I would never have fully understood if I hadn't spent time there. Four things particularly stand out:

First, I learned a much deeper respect for the rule of law. I'm not talking here about our sentencing system -- and certainly not the American prison system (more on that later). But my experience with the criminal justice system made me focus on the critical importance of the rule of law -- and how stupid I had been to disrespect the law -- even for what, at the time, seemed to be a worthy goal.

The rule of law -- and due process of law -- are, of course, essential components of the system of progressive values. The evolution of civilized society has hinged on the creation of nonviolent methods of dispute resolution that have allowed us to escape a world where "might made right." That requires the rule of law.

And the progressive commitment to equality also requires that the standards used to resolve disputes arising from each individual's behavior have to be the same for everyone -- standards that are embodied in widely-accepted laws that are approved through democratic procedures.

The rule of law protects us from the arbitrary, capricious, and oppressive use of power. It protects us from unfairness and tyranny.

But part of the reason for my increased respect for the ideals of fairness and the rule of law was the great gulf I discovered between the ideal of the fair rule of law -- and the reality of our criminal justice system.

So my second big lesson was gained from a first-hand crash course in the gaping shortcomings of our system of criminal justice -- especially the Federal system of sentencing, parole and prisons.

Let me tell you a fact that few people know. One fifth of all of the prisoners on Earth are in the United States -- though we have only 5% of the world's population. That's right, here in the Land of the Free, we imprison five times more people than the average for the rest of the world. The reasons: mandatory sentencing laws in general, and our drug laws in particular.

The first thing I realized when I arrived at Terre Haute was that I was the luckiest person there. My sentence of five months was one of the shortest of anyone. The average at Terre Haute was at least six years. And there were people there who had been incarcerated for ten, fifteen and twenty years -- all for non-violent offenses.

Let me give you an example. I become friends with a 28-year-old African-American guy from Chicago who was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison for selling three grams of crack cocaine.

In high school he had gone to military school on scholarship, and he did a year of college. He quit college because he could make $10,000 a week selling drugs as part of a gang. As a young guy he never thought about the downside of 10 years in jail. He had a wife and two kids.

He agreed that it was a good thing for him that he had gone to jail for a while. He'd turned his life around, and hoped to work organizing to change the things that lead to disaster in poor communities when he's released. Because he was in the Camp, he didn't have to worry about continuous involvement with the gangs in the Medium and High Security Prisons.

So far sounds good, right? The problem was the Federal Mandatory Minimum drug laws gave the Judge no discretion in sentencing him to at least 10 years in prison. When I met him he had seven more years to go.

And it didn't matter that he could make a huge contribution to the community now, because Congress did away with parole -- there are no longer any parole hearings in the Federal system.

The entire American correctional system had about 550,000 inmates in 1985. Today, it has 2.6 million -- mostly because of mandatory minimums and no parole.

The cost of the system has gone from $9 billion a year in 1985 to $60 billion a year today.

And most importantly, the recidivism rate is 67%. Two-thirds of inmates will return to prison after being released into our communities. That is a national scandal.

The education program for inmates is horribly under-funded. When I was at Terre Haute, most of the teachers were fellow inmates-- some of whom were good-- but there was not a serious commitment to prepare inmates to return to society with radically upgraded skills or education. By the time I left, a college program was being set up for some inmates. That was a big step. But fundamentally, the education and rehabilitation programs in federal prisons are massively inadequate.

There is really no reason why most of the young men I met at Terre Haute -- most of whom were incarcerated for at least six years -- should not leave the facility with a trade or college degree. But instead, most were simply "warehoused" for years.

Let's be clear. The need for reform is not mainly about fairness for inmates. It is primarily about what's good for America. It's about wasted lives, billions spent to support them in prison and endangering the safety of our communities when they return.

Lesson three. This experience gave me a life-changing lesson in the power of friendship.

My friends, family, colleagues and clients all stuck with me the whole way. At a time when it would have been more convenient for old friends to delete me from their Blackberries -- I will never forget how important it was to me that they stood by my side.

I received a flood of letters. Of course at mail call, it was the people who had been there the shortest amount of time who got the most mail. And there were some inmates who never got a piece of mail, never talked to anyone on the phone, never received a visitor.

I met dozens of people whose wives and family had deserted them. It's tough to wait for someone who is in jail for 10 years when you're 25 and have a couple of kids to support and raise. One former lawyer (he had to give up his law license when he was convicted....but he played the piano, quite well) told me that his wife had told him that she signed on to be the wife of a prosperous lawyer, not a "broken-down, ex-con piano player." She kept their seven-year-old from visiting him for his entire five-year term.

Friendship and family are incredible things.

Lesson four. Five months of incarceration taught me that freedom is a very precious thing.

I was in minimum security prison camp. There was actually no fence. But though there was relative freedom of movement inside the camp, your life was never your own. Multiple times each day, everyone had to be present for a count. You wore the clothes you were issued. You could make a very limited number of phone calls -- 30 minutes between calls and they were limited to 15 minutes per call, and a total of 300 minutes per month each month -- all subject to monitoring. No one could call you. Your mail was opened. You could have a limited number of visitors each month in monitored, completely controlled circumstances. If someone violated a rule he could be sent to the "hole" -- confined to a tiny cell in a disciplinary unit for 23 hours each day -- sometimes for months -- while the infraction was investigated.

Inmates could keep only a limited number of books or personal items. "Lights out" was the same time each night. And, of course, you couldn't leave. You couldn't control where or when you came and went.

There are so many little things I will never take for granted again.

The day I was released, Jan and I stopped for gas and a coke and I was struck by how good it felt just to be treated with common, every-day respect by the sales clerk. It seemed special ...to be able to pick up the phone and call someone on a whim...or simply tell someone they can call you back. It struck me as never before, how wonderful it is to have the freedom that our country provides -- freedom that is so easy to take for granted...until it is gone.

Melville's hero, Ishmael, in Moby Dick, ruminates early in the book about how he always sleeps with an arm or a leg sticking out of the covers on cold nights, because otherwise he wouldn't be able to fully appreciate how warm and cozy it was under the covers.

Prison certainly makes that contrast clear when it comes to freedom and our ability to exercise power in a democratic country. In prison, you have very little freedom and very little power in a completely undemocratic society. Now -- from the vantage point of a free person -- it was like sticking my leg out of the covers on a cold, cold night.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.