'The first thing that came to my mind," remembers Tom Miller, "was to arm myself with a screwdriver. The Rodney King riots were taking place in Los Angeles, and the tension in the yard was incredible. Everybody seemed ready for a fight."
Miller, 52, is telling me about his 1992 stint at a prison firefighter training camp near Boulevard in East County. He went to the camp as part of an 18-month incarceration for selling illegal drugs. A job assignment in the tool shop gave Miller easy access to the weapon he suddenly counted on to protect him. He did not have to use the screwdriver that day, but other prisoners were now on notice.
I ask Miller whether inmates back then ever wanted him to get weapons from the shop for them. "All the time," he says, "and my answer was always the same. 'No.' It was the same answer I gave to guys who offered me booze or drugs."
While on bail before entering prison, Miller joined a 12-step recovery program where he met an ex-con he credits with teaching him how to act in prison. "I was very scared of going to jail," says Miller. He is grateful that the man, who became his first recovery-group sponsor, also spoke to his mom, who was worried what would befall him in jail. "The guy told her, 'I can't say your son will or won't get hurt in jail, but one thing is certain, that if he keeps drinking and using, that's going to be a problem in there.' And the talk gave her a lot of comfort," says Miller.
Miller kept up his recovery program in prison and continued it after getting out. He obtained an associate of arts degree in substance-abuse counseling from San Diego City College. At the same time, he worked with a therapist, first as a client and later as a trainee. "The man became my mentor," says Miller, who for the past 12 years has been counseling people either going to prison or getting out -- and their families.
In the meantime, a company called DrPrison.com appeared in San Diego. Its purpose was to prepare people to survive prison stays, to avoid being killed, beaten, raped, or robbed. It was founded two years ago by management consultant Steve Scholl, who had spent most of his career troubleshooting for large construction project-management companies.
How, you ask, does a management consultant end up counseling soon-to-be inmates in the art of surviving prison? "What piqued my interest," Scholl tells me, "was a series of conversations I had with an old friend who just finished 15 years of doing time. I talked with him at length about his experiences in prison. It fascinated me. And even though I had no prospect of going to prison, imagining what it's like scared the heck out of me. My feelings were probably like a lot of peoples', especially people who are drawn to television shows like Prison Break and documentaries that show various aspects of prison life. And if the number of these shows is any indication, there are many folks out there who have a fascination with what goes on in prison."
As his friend explained the tactics he used for coping with prison life, Scholl had a moment of recognition. Many of the tactics were the same ones he was used to sharing in management consulting. On the basis of these recommendations, Scholl wrote a 30-page manual on how to deal with prison life. And his friend worked as his partner in getting DrPrison off the ground.
I remark to Scholl that comparing business and prison tactics seems entirely fitting. He gives me a polite nod and then acknowledges that Martha Stewart paid for services much like the kind his company offers before she went to prison. We agree that if Jeffrey Skilling, in his business life, had made use of DrPrison's insights, he might not now need them for life behind bars.
The original DrPrison partners eventually went their own ways. But this summer Scholl met Tom Miller. On the basis of Miller's 12 years of prisoner counseling and Scholl's experience with 22 clients so far, the two have decided to expand DrPrison. To date, the company has worked only with people heading for prison. Now it intends to continue helping prisoners while they are incarcerated and when they get out, including arranging anger management and parenting classes and assisting with parole requirements. And it is offering services to prisoners' families. To customize service, it will outsource consultations according to gender, race, and other factors. Miller and Scholl are currently spreading the word about DrPrison through bail bondsmen, defense attorneys, and therapists.
There is an objection to DrPrison that some people are sure to make. I run it by a small donut-shop coffee group one morning. Why should anyone, I ask, want to make prisoners' lives easier? Aren't they being jailed to suffer for their crimes?
A woman observes something about prisoners not all being the same. Lester Mathis then offers a tale. By his own acknowledgement, Mathis is a "tough guy" and has gone through some hard times. But he says several years ago police arrested him for failing to show up in court to face a misdemeanor charge. "Somehow they accidentally put me on the fourth floor at county jail, which is where they process all the felony people. I was only there a short time, but one day I accidentally threw this great big guy's lunch away. He saw what I did and started giving me hell about it. I apologized and, since I still had my own lunch, I gave it to him. And that settled things down. But those felony guys are a different sort. They've got nothing to lose, and they don't care what they do to you, especially if someone shows weakness. They'll punk somebody and then start trading him around to their friends," says Mathis.
In other words, although prisons and jails do house hard-core sociopaths, far less dangerous people pass through too. Tom Miller tells me that the first seven days on the inside are the most dangerous because the jailers haven't yet segregated inmates according to their crimes. "Fairly mild-mannered people will be thrown together with murderers, who later will be separated from the others," he says. And he argues that helping all prisoners is justified. "If any of them learn how to take care of themselves in prison," he says, "they are bettering themselves. Once people get a taste for improving their lives, they want more of it." And that's why Miller and Scholl believe that what they teach will help their clients not only in prison but beyond.
So I ask, "What do you teach?"
They have a seven-step program, they say, which they consider a trade secret for business reasons. But, in summary, it's something like this. In prison you constantly face inescapable situations, serious or trivial, that other inmates force upon you. For instance, someone might steal your shoes and you end up walking around barefoot all the time. "You can't call the cops," says Miller, "and you can't leave." Isolating can work for a while in some situations. "But other prisoners will not permit loners for long and will force confrontations in the yard, where everybody eventually has to go. They want to see how you'll act."
Scholl tells me that in their first consultations with clients, he and Miller try to discover "emotional vulnerabilities." "When you first walk into the yard," he says, "the other prisoners will be looking for them. Are you a hothead? A controller? A pleaser?"
So DrPrison tries to alert clients to the emotional signals they are likely to give off. "We find them by pushing their buttons in the consultation. Then suddenly, when we've hit the right one, they will react strongly." And the idea is not to stop reacting in that way entirely, but to control your style, use other styles, and vary them according to the situation. "Even the strongest and most controlling prisoner," observes Miller, "cannot get away with threatening behavior all the time. Five other prisoners will easily take him down."
The three main coping styles in prison, according to Miller, are the Controller, the Pleaser, and the Loner. Each is effective for protecting yourself sometimes, but never as an exclusive strategy. Doing something for somebody, such as acquiring money or stores from home, will become expected, and you may have to say no in a forceful way. It's the varying of styles that will save you.
"Sometimes you may have to fight," says Scholl, "but winning the fight is not crucial. Even if you get beat up, you are likely to land a few good blows. And the willingness to stand up is what gains respect."
The work with prisoners' families is likely to take up a big percentage of DrPrison's time in the future. That's because one of the greatest fears many people have who go to prison concerns what will happen to their relationships while they're gone.
Miller tells me of a woman who wrote a first letter to her son in jail. "It read, 'How dare you disappoint the family?' It berated him something terrible. I told her, 'Not good. All this is going to do is bring about resistance. You're not an agent of change here by doing this.' She had no idea. She thought she was going to make him feel bad so he'd have a change of heart. That's not what was happening. I told her he's only going to say something to please you because he needs you. So she finally called me last week to read me a new letter. She wrote, 'I know when you get out there will be a lot of blocks to your getting ahead in society. But you told me once you have an interest in photography.' And she sent him a magazine on photography."