Home Features Clean Slate: How 1,197 days in prison led me back to GRCC

Clean Slate: How 1,197 days in prison led me back to GRCC


SeanSquare-webBy Sean P. Mulhall

My first attempt at college did not go so well. After three semesters I had a grand total of one credit, and that was from golf class.

One contributing factor to my failure as a college student was the fact that I did not have to pay a dime for tuition. I had done exceptionally well on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) tests in high school. And because of that success the state of Michigan paid for my tuition and books, loaded $200 on my RaiderCard, and cut me a check for around $800 each semester. I did not feel any guilt dropping classes halfway through the semester, because I wasn’t paying for it, my parents weren’t paying for it, so, “who cares?”

Another major reason for my lack of interest in school was what I like to call my “extra-curricular” activities and the lifestyle I was living at this point in my life.

My parents divorced around the time of my high school graduation, and the way I deal with my problems is to ignore them. Act like it never happened. The best way to do that was to move out. A buddy and I had been working at Meijer and saved up enough money to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Working minimum wage and less than 30 hours a week made it difficult to pay all the bills and still have fun. By have fun I mean what a lot kids that age would consider fun. I liked to drink and smoke pot.

I was a 19-year-old, fresh out of high school, and I never gave a damn about my education. Having a mother in the field of education made it difficult for me to express this mindset. Not only is she an educator, but she has been steadily taking some form of class her entire life. She is currently the principal of an elementary school, has a master’s in education and still finds time to take classes online for her Ph.D. So, although I did not necessarily enjoy or value the idea of higher education, I enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College in the winter of 2007.

I was working at Meijer as a cashier and taking a full load of classes, so when I got home it was party time. Our apartment was the place to be for anyone from my grade who stayed in Grand Rapids. We had parties every night and kegs on the weekends. I started to sell a little pot here and there. I figured, “I know where to get it and a lot of people who want it. I might as well make some money.”

The longer I sold pot, the more people I met who wanted it. I started making enough money that I quit my job at Meijer. In April of 2008, I took LSD for the first time and had a life-altering experience. Instead of opening my eyes and realizing the direction I was headed in was the wrong one, I dug myself deeper in the hole. I had started to make enough money to quit my job at Meijer. Soon after, I quit school and started selling drugs and partying all day, every day.

At this point I was dealing large amounts of pot and owed my dealer, we’ll call him Joe, around $2,000. He offered me an opportunity to clear my debt in early 2009. All I had to do was ride along and help him drive to California and back. I looked at it like a vacation. All expenses paid, a week away from the stresses of being on call 24 hours a day, in Northern California. I agreed and we headed west.

Everything was going smoothly. We stayed out there for a couple days, Joe took care of his business and I hung out. I went on a seven-mile hike through the redwoods, trying to spot a herd of Caribou. I didn’t actually find them until I was pulling out of the parking lot of the state park and they were in a little field next to the road. I made sure to see the Pacific Ocean on that trip. It was too cold to swim, but that didn’t matter. The seemingly unending water is truly breathtaking, no matter how many times you see it. I also went to see the Clint Eastwood film, “Gran Torino,” in an old-fashioned theater that looked like it had been built before Clint Eastwood was born.

When the time came to get everything ready to leave I was a little shocked. I knew what I was getting myself into, but was unaware of the volume we would be hauling back to Michigan. There were four garbage bags full of pot that we had to prepare for the ride back. We used supplies bought at the local Harbor Freight and Tool to vacuum seal each one, three times, and wipe down each layer with ammonia. We then transferred the shrunk down bags into large duffel bags, which we sprayed with the stuff hunters use to mask their scent from deer. We loaded the bags, totaling roughly 40 pounds into the trunk of the car and took off.

Joe drove first, through the mountains, to Reno, Nev. where we stopped at a casino, ate a steak and played blackjack and roulette. We were about to leave the roulette table, and hit the road, but I decided to play one last spin. I put $20 on my lucky number 33 and spread the last of my chips around the board. The dealer spun the wheel and dropped the little metal ball. I couldn’t believe it, somehow it landed on 33. I won over $700 on one spin of the roulette wheel. I told myself luck was on my side.

I took over driving from there and drove into Utah, through Wyoming, Nebraska, and most of Iowa. Just a few exits away from the Illinois border, around Iowa City, I stopped to get gas. I woke up Joe and he asked how I felt. I told him that I could probably make it home, but he should take over anyway.

We were headed for the home stretch, Illinois, Indiana and finally the great state of Michigan. I smoked my last cigarette and fell asleep in the back seat.

It didn’t seem like very long before I woke up to the car slowing down. We had just filled up on gas, so there was no reason to be stopping. I thought it was odd and asked what was going on. Joe said we were being pulled over. Right then is when I started to worry.

The Illinois State Trooper asked Joe for his license and registration. According to the police report I would read later his hand “was uncontrollably shaking” as he handed the cop his I.D.

SeanWriting-webThe cop then asked where we were headed. Joe told him that we were on the way home from visiting my brother in Boulder, Colo. I have a brother, two actually, but neither of them have ever even been to Boulder, much less lived there.

The officer happened to have family there and asked what part my brother lived in. Joe didn’t know what to say to that. He hesitated and said he couldn’t quite remember.  The cop then told us that he was going to write a warning for speeding and that he’d be right back. At this point I had a feeling that my life was about to drastically change.

Ten minutes later the cop came back and told Joe that a K-9 unit had arrived and asked if it would be OK if they ran the dog around the car.

Joe told the cop to go ahead, since we had been so cautious in preparing the pot for the trip home. The dog started in the front and the K-9 officer led it to the back of the car.

When it got to the trunk it started barking.  The original cop was still at the driver’s window.

He asked Joe to open the trunk. Joe did, and shortly after that he was asked to exit the vehicle.

They put him in handcuffs and led him away. This would be the last time I ever saw or spoke to him. A different cop then came to the car and asked me to get out. I wasn’t wearing shoes or socks. He told me I could put them on. I found both shoes, but only one sock.

I was taking too long and the cop told me to get out, so I put on my shoes with only one sock. I can remember walking, with my hands cuffed behind my back, toward the cop car past the back of our rental where the duffel bags were open showing all the passing motorists our trunk full of pot.

Once at the police station we were put in separate holding cells. They interviewed Joe first. I fell asleep.

When it was my turn they told me that they already knew everything they needed to know.  All they needed from me was to confirm the information he provided. I told them I had no idea what they were talking about and that I wanted a lawyer.

After about a half hour of going back and forth with them they finally convinced me that if I cooperated they would make sure I received a lighter sentence. I admitted to my part in it and was sent to the Henry County jail.

During the first week in county jail I realized I was not getting out of this situation. I was going to prison. I didn’t know for how long at that point, but I knew that this arrest was going to follow me for the rest of my life. I looked back at all the mistakes I made in my life, trying to pinpoint exactly where I went wrong. I could not narrow it down to a single moment, or bad decision, because I could always go back further. But one of the major things that always stood out to me was deciding to stop going to GRCC.

I told myself that when it was all said and done I would start fresh. I would go back to school, get a degree, find a career and live a normal life. As much fun as I had in those few years, it wasn’t worth it. I just wished that I had a normal, boring life.

After five and a half months in county and four court dates I was sentenced to seven years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. I headed from the Henry County jail to Stateville Receiving Center on my 22nd birthday.

The two weeks I spent in Stateville were the longest, scariest and most boring of my life. I was locked down 24 hours a day, in a tiny cell, with only one other person at a time.  Those two weeks seemed longer than the six months in county.

At least in county there was a little bit of movement. I could play cards, read the books I wanted and talk to my friends and family, whether it was by letter, phone or visit.

People never believe me when I tell them the food was actually pretty good. It seems especially delicious in my memory, because I always compare it to the cold slop they served at Stateville. In Henry County I gained over 20 pounds, just to lose it all again in Stateville. I read the Bible and the same issue of National Geographic, ads and all, over and over again.

Somehow I survived and headed to Jacksonville Correctional Center and then to Pittsfield Work Camp shortly after that.

It took a few months to finally adjust to my situation. I realized that I wasn’t going anywhere for a long time and I had to make the best of it. I was surrounded by men who were different from the guys I hung out with.

The one thing I had in common with everyone was that we were all convicted criminals. Most of them were inner-city gang members or country folk incarcerated for meth related offenses or drunk driving. I decided that I would be looked at as an outsider if I acted like myself.

I am a fan of cinema and the art of acting, so I started to play the part of an inmate. I would watch the guys around me and pick up on the subtle things they did every day. I started to talk in a dialect I call prison-speak. In the IDOC it was a mixture of Chicago slang and the drawl of someone from a more rural setting. I mostly kept to myself and didn’t really speak unless I was spoken to.

As time passed, I fell in love with reading. Reading fiction was an escape. It didn’t matter what was going on around me. Whatever book I was reading would transport me to a different place, with different people. I never really knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, just that I wanted to go back to school. After reading “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, for the first time, I realized that I wanted to write. I always enjoyed writing, but never thought about it seriously. After finishing that book I decided my ultimate goal was to be a novelist.

In prison, the best way to communicate with friends and family back home is to write letters. I wrote many letters and had my brothers lobbying all my friends to write to me. The best part of every day was mail time. The excitement I felt lasted all morning until the mail arrived and if I was lucky enough to receive something, I would read it right away. That night I would respond. I also kept a journal periodically, but the best way for me practice writing was to write home.

I was released from prison on June 11, 2012, after 1,197 days incarcerated in the Illinois prison system. My mom was there to pick me up. On the way home we chatted like nothing had happened. She knew I didn’t want to spend those first few hours talking about the last three years. She filled me in on my siblings and her job. I told her that I wanted to enroll in school that fall. She asked if I thought it was a little too soon, but I was adamant. I was almost 25 and wanted to get started turning my life around immediately.

It took a little while for me to get back on track. I didn’t need a job at first. I was living with my mom and everyone I knew wanted to take me out to eat or buy me drinks. I was a celebrity. It was cool at first because I felt so popular; it didn’t take long though before I realized that I was popular for all the wrong reasons.

Of course my good friends genuinely missed me and just wanted to catch up on lost time, but there were people who wouldn’t have given me the time of day before. They just wanted to buy me a drink so they had a story to tell their friends about the guy they knew who went to prison.

It took a couple months adjusting back to normal life. It was almost harder mentally to try and become myself again, than it was to change myself in prison. I had been playing the role of this other person so long that I forgot who I was before. I became that guy.

Shortly after returning home I finally realized that I could never go back to that person. He did a lot of dumb stuff, made bad decisions and got himself arrested. I had to become another person once again.

One night a buddy of mine threw a party in my honor. Him, another friend and I stayed up later than everyone else. We sat by the pool as the sun came up.

The conversation was deeper than usual since there were only three of us still awake. I had been feeling depressed because of how hard it was to adjust and I was upset with the fact that I had friends who died while I was gone and I was complaining about being free.

I couldn’t make sense of it and had a little bit of a breakdown that morning. I started crying uncontrollably.  Tears streaming down my face, I tried to explain what I was feeling to my friends.  They did their best to comfort me, but the only thing that would help was to let me cry it out.

Once I stopped, I sat in silence.  After a while I stood up without saying anything and walked to the pool and off the edge. I stayed under for a couple seconds, thinking about everything. When I broke the surface I had what some people refer to as a rebirth. I had become that new person.

When I started dating my girlfriend she would pay for everything. Dating her made me realize that even though I was going to school and doing well I had lost focus on my goals.  I was partying too much and I didn’t want to be a degenerate any longer, so I started looking for work.

A few places, restaurants mostly, seemed promising, but turned me down once they heard about my past.  The interview would be going great, even though I didn’t have much of a work history. I always had a reference from someone who worked there. When they asked me about a criminal history I would tell them the truth, because I wanted to live a more honest life, but as soon as I brought that up the smile on the face of the interviewer would vanish immediately.  The interview would end shortly thereafter. It started to get a little frustrating.

Then one night I was hanging out at a friend’s house in Eastown. A buddy and I were walking to the gas station and I noticed a help wanted sign in the window of a family run pizza place.

I said to myself, “What the hell?” and walked in. I asked for an application and the owner told me to come in the following night for training. I walked out confused and told my friend, “I think I just got a job.”

Before I knew it six months had gone by. I had a girlfriend I really cared about, a good job, a car (that I bought from my boss) and an apartment above the pizza shop I worked at. School was going great. I had gone from academic probation to the dean’s list my first semester back, and raised my GPA 1.4 points.

Almost two full years after starting over I have retaken three out of the four classes that were zeroes on my transcript and raised my GPA to a point higher than it was my freshman year in high school. All it took was actually wanting to be here. I now pay more attention, take better notes, participate in class and actually study for tests.

Sometimes I will get a reminder of my not so distant past, anytime I visit my parole officer or when people ask me questions about what it was like. The one I find most odd is when I’ll be walking down the street, or shopping at the store, and see someone who looks familiar.

I ask myself, ‘Where do I know that guy from?’ Sometimes it comes to me right away, other times it takes much longer, but I always figure out why I recognize them. They look like inmates I spent time with in Illinois.

These instances used to be bothersome, because I didn’t want to think about prison. I wanted to look ahead and move forward. Now I realize all I have to do is look at what I’ve accomplished in a little under two years since I returned home.

I know I will never be able to forget about those three years and that’s probably a good thing. It’s the inspiration I never had before to keep me focused on succeeding in life. I need to get past it and move forward then I can go for that normal life I’ve been dreaming of.