Op-ed: ‘We need to understand the needs of all men and all women alike; even if those next to you have a past that is criminal’

JonPaul Heinz | Prison Education Program Student

People’s perception of prison, or those who dwell inside of prison, comes from their local news affiliate or television shows like “Orange is the New Black,” “Wentworth,” “Dateline,” “Locked Up” or “Cops.” Some of what is seen has validity behind it, but much is exaggerated to meet the high standards of drama for television today, often in problematic ways. Most of those who are confined to these walls made a mistake, a mistake made after living responsibly for many years. Prisoners are not the monsters or career criminals that television or other media portrays them to be. There are some who would definitely fall into that category, but more likely than not, those people will never see the world outside of prison walls.

My name is JonPaul Heinz, most who know me or who have known me well will call me J.P. Inside these walls, though, I go by another name: Inmate number 1267946. As of April 26, 2019, I will have been continuously incarcerated for seven years. I was arrested at the age of 22. Today, when someone types my name in the Google search bar, all they will see is my crime. They will not see I am ex-military, that I come from a big family, love mixed martial arts, barbeques or that I love to run. You also wouldn’t know that at the time of my arrest I had a full-time job as a cellular technician traveling around the country. I paid my taxes like a normal citizen. Before my crime, I was a law-abiding citizen. I made a terrible mistake in anger and now I am here.

When you walk into these walls and are labeled as a prisoner, your past life becomes erased and only your crime remains. Your previous life and who you were are only held by the family and friends who are still in your life. Prison reduces everything about a person that made them fully human. Most would like to believe that once someone comes to prison, society is safe and that the Department of Corrections (DOC) lives up to its name by making that prisoner better for the world when they are finally released. Most believe that prison is trying to rehabilitate prisoners completely. But prison is nothing like that at all. The DOC calls us “offenders” to label us for committing offenses against the community, as if coming to prison were not hard enough already. If a prisoner wants to get better or better themselves, they have to do it all on their own. DOC mandates we take classes to earn certain privileges. This is wrong, it takes away from the learning we would get from choosing to take classes on their own. Prison is the environment that takes one’s normal process of thinking and replaces it with a prison mentality, something that is almost inevitable. A prison mentality is one where you do not trust authority, you look down on inmates with certain crimes, you do not trust the justice system and you cannot side with any authority even if they are right. You cannot let your guard down in any way or else you will be considered weak and be targeted as prey. This mentality becomes the way in which you survive. One does not leave prison mentally stable, all that happens inside these walls cause one to leave mentally unstable.

For me, as of late, as much as I’ve tried over the past seven years to keep a mindset of responsible thinking, one that focuses primarily on my release, I feel like I am beginning to falter. It is getting harder and harder to keep steady. I fall under the “Dangerous Crime Category,” MO Code 556.016. This states that I am to complete 85 percent of my sentence before I am to be released from my incarceration. So 85 percent of my 12 years is 10 years and two months. As of March 2016, I was told that 677 of the days I spent incarcerated do not count towards my sentence. This pushed my original eligibility for release from 2022 to 2024. For the past three years I have fought with the DOC and the counties in which I was convicted to get my time back, but to no avail. I am not any further along than I was three years ago. Because of this, I find myself getting more depressed every day that I stay here. I should only have three years left before I can possibly go home, but now I have five years. My only hope is that someone helps me with my time, the laws change dealing with minimum mandatories or that the governor writes me back and helps me out. Prison makes keeping my hopeful and responsible mindset harder and harder. If I want to survive these five years I have left (at the most) and keep myself whole, do I keep my old self—the one that kept me responsible and hopeful for so long—or do I become the fully institutionalized inmate that prison almost inevitably leaves in its wake? If I allow myself to become institutionalized, I allow the part of me that I remember, the part of me that made me who I am, to completely disappear.

Most believe that longer sentencing and harsher punishments are the way to go when sentencing criminals. Put them away for life, lock them up and throw away the key; these are some of the things most people would say when they hear of criminals committing crimes. When this happens, you sentence that person to a chance of never functioning correctly again. Anyone who serves a sentence of longer than seven years is put at a distinct disadvantage. They lose chances at new emerging job markets putting them years behind most people, lose ties to family and friends who could help them in the future, lose relationships with their children and put at an educational disadvantage. Yes, we committed these crimes and we need to be punished, but are you aware that we will be back out there? We need every chance to thrive upon release. For me, I am fortunate enough to have a chance with the education Washington University is providing. Washington University has given me the chance to walk outside of prison with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. Currently, I am projected to have this degree by 2021. But even with this degree, I am still at a disadvantage because of the time I have left to serve, and because of the social stigmas behind my crime. If we are to ever come together as a society as a whole, we need to understand the needs of all men and all women alike, even if those next to you have a past that is criminal. I am scared. Scared of the time I have left, scared of who I might lose and scared that all my time spent in here will always leave me down and out. We need reform, reform to ensure a bright future incarcerated, as well as the rest of the world.

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