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Kiriakou writes: "I thought that when I was released from prison in early 2015, after blowing the whistle on the CIA's illegal torture program, I could step right back into my life and live happily ever after. Nothing could have been further from the truth."

Inmates return to their cells at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. (photo: David Swanson)
Inmates return to their cells at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. (photo: David Swanson)

Does Every Felony Sentence Need to Be a Death Sentence?

By John Kiriakou, Reader Supported News

08 March 19


thought that when I was released from prison in early 2015, after blowing the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program, I could step right back into my life and live happily ever after. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Four years have passed since I got home and things still aren’t back to “normal.” With that said, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I have 20 years of government experience with the CIA and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I was an on-camera commentator for ABC News. But now daily life is a struggle. I work three different jobs to put food on the table. I’m not at all unique. That’s the rule, not the exception.

Imagine, then what life is like for someone who has been convicted of a violent crime. Imagine what it’s like even if that crime was committed decades ago, as a juvenile who has since done his time, “reformed,” and gone on to try to lead a productive life. It’s just not possible. That impossibility – the roadblocks that ex-felons face trying to reintegrate into society – are what lead to recidivism. If this administration or any other is serious about prison reform and sentencing reform, reintegration, coupled with education and job training, has to be at the top of the agenda.

I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. James Watson did something stupid when he was 17 years old. He robbed a man at gunpoint after taking him to an ATM machine to withdraw money. Armed robbery is, of course, considered to be a violent crime. Taking the man to an ATM was deemed to be kidnapping. As a result of those crimes and a subsequent gun charge, James was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served 15 years.

During those 15 years, the teenage James became the adult James. He took classes in prison, made restitution to his victim, and did his time without incident. And when he got out, there was nothing waiting for him. James tried – hard – to get a job. He was willing to take any job. But there were none. James has a lot of friends who wanted to help, but were not in a position to do so. He decided to travel to Greece, and later the Philippines, to look for work. He even spent time as a mercenary, fighting courageously alongside Syria’s Kurds against the terrorist group ISIS. That’s not a career, however.

James returned to Montana and has been on the verge of homelessness and bankruptcy ever since. What company would hire a “violent” felon? What apartment complex would rent an apartment to one? James thought that he had done his time, only to realize that a felon never really does all of his time. The punishment, the ostracism, follows you for the rest of your life. And in the meantime, he’s getting older. His body is beginning to break down from years trying to earn a living as a professional mixed martial arts fighter, so hard labor is not possible. It seems that only clemency would help him.

What does a person do? For many ex-felons, literally the only alternative to homelessness and unemployment is a return to crime. Don’t forget that, reformed or not, ex-felons have spent years around other felons. People in prison love to talk about their crimes and their cases. A person can learn a lot. (In my book “Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison,” I detail how, in 23 short months of incarceration, I learned how to manufacture meth, how to set up a Ponzi scheme, and how to defraud the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among other things.) It’s not the kind of education most people would want.

The bottom line is twofold: Jobs and forgiveness. There is an active campaign across the country to “ban the box,” whereby employers would be prohibited from asking on a job application whether the applicant has any felony convictions. That’s a great idea in theory, but all an employer has to do is to google an applicant. They don’t need boxes on applications anymore. What ex-felons need is job training and an apprenticeship program. Employers could receive tax credits for hiring newly-released prisoners, training them, and giving them a job. The government, whether state or federal, could bond them. They’d likely be on parole or probation anyway, so the prospect of returning to prison would probably ensure good behavior.

The tougher of the two is forgiveness. How long does society hold a grudge against a person who has been convicted of a crime? How long does a person have to be punished? How do people like James support themselves without having to return to a life of crime? These are questions that we should be asking of our elected officials. In the meantime, if you have a job available in the state of Montana, let me know.

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John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act – a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration's torture program.

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+19 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-03-08 14:55
Just one more reason why the US desperately needs massive prison reform. What good does it do society in general to have people return from prison and they cannot find a job or establish a normal life. They become a danger to society. This is a deliberate risk created by the DOJ and the bureau of prisons.

The right thing to do would be to commit prisons to re-habilitation . Every prisoner should have education, job training, and counselling. As they near release, they should work outside the prison. They should make connections on the outside so that when they are released they have somewhere to go and some people who know them and can help them. The goal of prisons should be to help convert a criminal into a productive and healthy member of society.

But I just don't see anyone in politics or the criminal justice system who would give a damn about this. They are all bent on vengeance and punishment. They all want to destroy the lives of the people they catch. Mueller is famous for his comment that he loves putting people in prison. He appears not to know he is giving people a death sentence as Kiriakou describes. Why isn't it a crime for people like Mueller to do what he does. He destroys lives, just as much as a rapists or an armed robber.

America has no answers for the questions Kiriakou asks at the end. The Muellers of this country really don't give a shit about these questions. The are "hunter/killers ." And they love their jobs.
+9 # DD1946 2019-03-09 10:28
What Kiriakou talks about is the unnecessary punishment we inflict AFTER the sentence is served. Do you think people (like Mueller) should just stop investigating, trying and sentencing the accused because prison might ruin their lives? What should we do with them instead?
-1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-03-10 07:43
DD-- "Do you think people (like Mueller) should just stop investigating, trying and sentencing the accused because prison might ruin their lives? "

In Mueller's case, yes I do. But more generally, I think the criminal justice system is wrong about 80% of the time, so what do you do with any system that is wrong about 80% of the time. Stop it. Shut it down.

About half of all people in prison are there for drug offenses. Another quarter are there for minor property offenses. Another ten percent are there for immigration offenses. None of these people should be sent to prison and have their lives ruined. We need these people to be healthy and productive members of society. We different sorts of institutions to help these people get straightened out.

Of course, I think violent people should be taken out of society. But they account for only about 2 percent of the prison population.
+7 # 2019-03-09 00:56
It is a tragic situation in all respects. An important point is John's concern for our humanity, our forgiveness. We all know the system is biased and that certain people are more likely to be arrested and/or to receive harsher sentences than others. Whether that was the situation or not here, it is important to remedy these horrible wrongs and encourage people to be the best and most productive they can be. The current system handicaps and stigmatizes a huge part of society, if not before the first arrest then certainly after release, probably without exception. This is counterproducti ve and an unfortunate reflection of who we are as Americans. Other countries put us to shame in these regards. I have a lot of links on my site -- for me this is right up there with the Intel Apparatus as necessary to revamp, reform, and humanize. Demand valid, reliable, and verifiable oversight. As John suggested, make the incentives work. If someone has done their time it could also be made illegal to discriminate based upon offender status. Moreover, there is no guarantee that someone without a record has not or will not commit a crime. As unfair as the system is, this further burden on those released is still punitive and not forgiving, contrary to what America stands for.
+16 # tedrey 2019-03-09 08:55
All this was powerfully asked and illuminated in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables."
As a society, we still have no sympathy and no forgiveness for our Jean Valjeans. (Not to mention our John Kiriakous and Chelsea Mannings.)
+1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-03-10 07:45
Ted -- yes, indeed, the system keeps on running and grinding people into bits. It has its own logic and energy. It does not see the lives it destroys.

We need more Victor Hugos today.
+5 # BKnowswhitt 2019-03-09 13:45
A man who has served his sentence doled out .. has met the merit .. asked forgiveness and is sorry for it .. deserves COMPLETE MERCY .. that is the basis one of the tenets at least of Christianity .. this is abominable and the Left that supposedly cares about justice .. should embrace it .. not abhore it ..
+5 # jimallyn 2019-03-09 22:11
I make it a habit, whenever I see a homeless person with their cardboard "Please Help" sign, to stop, walk up and introduce myself, and after chatting with them for a few minutes, give them a few bucks. I mentioned having done this on Facebook one day, and a friend told me I shouldn't give anything to that particular person, because he is a convicted sex offender. I looked him up, and sure enough, he was convicted of a sex offense - 23 years ago, in 1996. The fact that he is out on the streets tells me that he has not re-offended, if he had, he'd be back in prison. He served his time, and now wherever he goes he has to register as a sex offender. In some states, he would have to tell any potential employer that he is a registered sex offender. So, how the hell is he supposed to get a job and support himself? He can't get a job, we have quite effectively prevented that. But he's still got to eat. What do we expect him to do? We have pretty much left him no option but crime, whether it be petty thefts, drug dealing, writing bad checks, or whatever. This is no way to run a nation. We have all but guaranteed that this man will live a life of crime. That's wrong. He's paid his debt to society, he shouldn't have to serve a life sentence. I told my friends that I was not going to stop giving to this homeless man regardless of what they thought about it. He's a human being. He's got to eat. And I believe that giving to this man is what Jesus would have me do.
0 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-03-12 06:08
jim -- "after chatting with them for a few minutes, give them a few bucks. "

I try to do this too. But my money is gone in the first block. There are so many homeless people now. At almost every intersections, there are homeless people asking for money.

Why is this not front page news. It was in the 1980s when Reagan was president. And there are far more homeless people now. Many of these people are veterans of the Bush II / Obama / Trump permanent wars.

How come there is almost no talk of homelessness in the media? It is disgusting.

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