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My Road to Freedom: Part 3

The conclusion to my journey with Addiction, Solitary Confinement, and the Secret Service.

True Story based upon actual events.

If you haven’t read the previous entires leading up to this, you can read them here:
Part 1 & Part 2


A Solitary world

“This is only day one,” I said to nobody. “This is only day one.”

It’s safe to say that any day you wake up in solitary confinement is going to be a bad day. The Bureau of Prisons call it the “Special Housing Unit,” or “SHU” (pronounced like shoe). I’m not sure what the federal government’s definition of “special” is, but just know that theirs is far different than yours or mine. Theirs involves 23 consecutive hours locked in a concrete cell no bigger than a closet, by yourself, given only the most basic essentials for survival. They bring you as close to death as they possibly can, while giving you just enough to survive. It’s almost as if they want you to feel death without having to fill out the paperwork that would come from you actually dying.

Lying on my back on the cold concrete floor, I wiggled my toes and dug the backs of my hands into my eye sockets. “This is only day one.” Day one was here. Day one is that day you spend most of your drug-addicted life trying to outrun. Day one is the bounty hunter always but a step behind, constantly stalking you, waiting for you to slip up and not be able to get your hands on the drugs you need to stay well. I hadn’t gotten “high” for years, my tolerance to opiates was too strong. If my addiction were a football game, I wasn’t even trying to get high from the third quarter on. I was just trying to not get sick.

The game was over.

Day one.

Day one was here.

Solitary confinement is the jail inside of jail. It is a vacuum. It exists in the void of the things it snatches from you. It’s the complete and total absence of hope, of ambition, of dreams about anything that resides outside of its walls. I’ve seen some of the most hardened criminals scream from the torture that comes without any human contact or stimulation. I’ve gone back and forth in my life about capital punishment, but there is no doubt I would choose death over a 10 year sentence in isolation.

After a couple hours of sleep from the traumatic day which preceded (see parts 1 & 2) I woke up to the sound of keys jangling, followed by the unlocking of a slot in my door, it was 4am and breakfast was being served. Breakfast -like all meals in the SHU- is eaten in your cell. I was given a tray with a plastic spoon, and some kind of mush. I kept the spoon, and gave the mush back to the guard. I kept the spoon because it was something tangible, something i could touch and hold. Besides my spoon, I had a plastic bag with a 1 inch toothbrush, toothpaste, a mini bar of soap, and a handbook on the rules of the prison/federal holding facility I was in. Ironically my spoon would come in handy, but it wasn’t for eating.

You’ve never experienced boredom in its purest form until you’ve sat on the cement block in a 6×8 cell and counted cinderblocks for 12 hours. Your options for activity are limited to your thoughts, and being left alone to your own thoughts can be dangerous. Sanity is pushed to its edges. All you have are you and your thoughts.

One of the side effects of opiate withdrawal is insomnia, which occurs from day 2 and lasts about a week. So to make matters worse, I couldn’t sleep, at best two hours a day -or night- I could never tell the difference anyway. There was no natural light where I was locked up, the only way I knew what time it was, was when I would be given a meal. In fact the only way I knew how many days I had spent in the SHU was by holding on to each plastic spoon that was provided with breakfast.

There was a small blacked out window in the back wall of my cell, about the same size as the slot on my cell door that they would pass my meal trays through. I never realized the functionality of a window that doesn’t let light in, my only theory is that it’s yet another tactic to demoralize inmates. I was surrounded by the same static view, every hour of every day. A few days into my stay I again found use for my plastic spoons, taking the handle side of the utensil to slowly chip away at the rubber-like molding which surrounded the window. After a few days I finally broke through and created a tiny hole -no bigger than the tip of a pencil- but still, if I looked hard enough I could see a small portion of a traffic signal’s yellow light. This was a mental win for me, I would spend hours looking at the light turn yellow, imagining who might be driving through that light, and how fortunate they are to be free. It was as if I was stranded on a deserted island, watching a plane fly high above. I knew there was no chance anyone could see me, but to see a glimpse of reality, somehow provided a brief reprieve.

Once I got through the excruciating first few days of the opiate kick, the boredom set in ever more, exacerbated by the fact that there wasn’t shit to do. Or to look at. Or to listen to. If i wasn’t staring at the traffic light, I just stared at the ceiling, or the walls, or the door. Those were my four forms of entertainment. No books, no TV, just my thoughts. Closing my eyes, my recent courtroom appearance from the day before, played on loop. Over and over and over.

Bail or No Bail?

“Mr. Mendoza,” said the DA, “we’re going to recommend you get bail and go to rehab.”

Music to my ears. Bail meant I could get out of court, and getting out of court mean I could head south, straight to Mexico. Go to Mexico, get my freedom back, get some opiates in my system as fast as possible, and never come back. Of course, this meant burning my step-dad for the $20,000 he was putting up for my bail. But I justified my thinking as all drug addicts do. I’ll just scam some more money, and I would send it back to him I thought. I wouldn’t be able to cross the border back home, and being a non-violent white collar criminal I felt I’d be safe, a low priority on the FBI or US Marshall’s list, especially living in Mexico.

It’s precisely this ability of drug addicts to rationalize whatever shitty decision they’re about to make that non-addicts don’t seem to understand. The idea of ripping off my family for $20K, was sadly an easy choice at this point. Opiates were like oxygen to me, and I was just about out of breath. It’s this lack of accountability and quasi-sociopathic thinking that allows us to hurt the people closest to us with ease, without even really feeling bad about it.

“Matt,” my public defender told me, “we’re going to get you out of here today. Everyone involved, including the DA, wants to send you to rehab. So cheer up. You’re about to get out of here.”

Suddenly, my withdrawal symptoms didn’t feel so bad. My whole drive up with the Secret Service wasn’t so bad. Hell, the hospital running out of OxyContin wasn’t even so bad. Shit, I was home free.

As my mouth watered at the thought of getting out of there, Judge Arthur Nakazato addressed me.

“I see all parties have agreed to your bail, Mr. Mendoza. You are all lined up to go directly to a rehab facility, is this correct?”

“Yes, sir,” I told him. My plan was to let probation drive me to rehab, and I would sneak out that night. “I am looking forward to rehab, sir.”

“You’re a drug addict Mr. Mendoza?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“And you want help?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You want to change your life around?” he asked. His questioning was persistent, and my detox symptoms, while lessened by my prospects of bail, still clouded my judgement. I didn’t realize he was walking me directly into a trap.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “I want a fresh start in life. I’m done with the drug world and the criminal world. I just want a second chance.” I was lying through my teeth. I didn’t want a second chance. I wanted a re-do on my first chance. My mistake wasn’t becoming a guy who spent six-figures a year on an OxyContin addiction.

My mistake was getting caught.

Lying came so easily to me. Part of me felt like the world was finally returning to normal. Me lying, society falling for it, me living happily ever after, not giving a shit about anyone or anything else, the drugs would numb those feelings like they always did.

“Mr. Mendoza, I’m curious,” he said, prying, “if you wanted help, you must have reached out to someone in your family recently?”

This was sort of a trick question. Did my family know I was a drug addict? Of course. How could they not. But had I told anyone that I was actively using or wanting to get help? Shit, no! Admitting that I was a drug addict would have required a strand of honesty, some sort of connection to reality, that was completely non-existent in my life.

I lived by the liars creed: lie, lie, lie. And when your lie gets holes poked in it — lie bigger.

I’d done this dance with police officers, lawyers, loved ones. In situations like this, it was best to simply tell your inquisitor what they wanted to hear.

“Yes, sir,” I lied. “I just talked to my step-dad about two weeks ago and told him that I wanted help. That I didn’t want to live this life.”

Judge Nakazato paused, looking proud of himself for something.

“That’s interesting, Mr. Mendoza,” he said. “It seems that the court had a good long chat with your step dad today when he was faxing in the paperwork for your bail.”

Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit.

“And it says right here that your step dad had no clue that you relapsed, or that you had been using for the past year.”

I stood there, silent, without a response. My mouth was open, just in case one wanted to slip out, but none did.

“I’ve seen this happen too often, and I don’t think you really want help, I think you’re trying to play me for a fool,” said the judge. “And I’m no fool.”

He paused, looking down at me, a hard stare. Right through me. We stared at each other in awkward silence. Finally, he spoke.

“BAIL DENIED.”


There is no real “time” in jail. It certainly doesn’t exist in solitary confinement. Wait — the government doesn’t participate in “solitary confinement.” That’s been deemed inhumane. Instead, they administer “special housing” and just confine you solitarily.

Semantics.

I’m not sure how many days went by, but the kick was actually easier than any kick I’d gone through before. There’s something about the inability to get more drugs that makes the withdrawal process progress more quickly, maybe its because your brain knows it can’t get more, so it doesn’t put up that kind of fight. It surrenders to the fact that you’re locked up and you’re not going to get high. Don’t get me wrong, it was still one of the most physically painful weeks of my life, but I think the mental anguish actually helped balance things out, after all, your body and mind can only go through so much.

I was in the SHU because they don’t put detoxing inmates in the general population. That’s for everyone’s safety. When you’re kicking, you can’t sit still, you can’t quit complaining, you can’t stop throwing up. You’re wiggling and aching, moaning and crying. You’re not exactly an ideal cell-mate. In fact, you’d get your ass kicked pretty quickly, while being in no condition to defend yourself.

So, they stuck me into the only place where you get your own cell, solitary.

There’s really no better symbolism for where drug addiction takes you than being in a cell, surrounded by cement and grown-ups paid to babysit other grown-ups. I was completely alone, and that solitude actually helped me maintain my addiction for a lot of years. I was by myself in the world, and therefore could do whatever I wanted because it only affected me. I hadn’t seen my own father for two years because, quite simply, I chose drugs over my connection with him. Drugs take you and strip anything that might get in the way of getting high away, leaving you completely alone to do whatever you please without considering how it may affect other people.

So here I was. Alone, stripped of nearly all human contact and human connection. By myself, nobody else around, reading the fucking “welcome to jail” manual they give out to all prisoners, about 10,000 times because there really wasn’t anything else to do other than count blocks…


A Boy and His Father

I resented my Dad for abandoning me in the same way a petulant 5-year old hates his mom for not getting the candy bar at the grocery store. I was essentially the grown-up version of that, and I use the term “grown-up” loosely here. I was a “grown-up” according to my birth certificate and nothing else.

Blaming him for trying to reach out and help, meant I didn’t have to take accountability for the fact that I got myself arrested by the United States Secret Service for running scams to support a drug habit. Shifting blame to someone else was just easier.

And for a drug addict, the path with the least resistance is the path you take.

*Knock *Knock *Knock

“Mendoza,” yelled a guard I could hear but not see, “get off your ass. You have a visitor.”

I still felt like shit, but I did as I was told. This was only my second time out of my little cell. The other was for “yard” time, which is nowhere near as fun as it sounds. The yard for solitary consisted of another cement box, only slightly bigger.

Slightly.

Like my box, there was no natural light, no sunshine, no nature. No sky, no clouds, no stars at night. Everything inside jail is artificial and sanitized. You know that beauty that exists in nature? Locked up, that beauty is whitewashed down to a few carbon atoms necessary for survival.

The guard led me into — wait for it… another box, this one with a phone on the wall and a large plate of glass separating me from the civilization on the other side. Seated on the other side was my father, the man who gave me life, forced to endure speaking to his son by prison phone.

I hadn’t seen my father for two years. My hair grown out, down to my shoulders and hygiene suggesting I’d gone from living in a Tijuana hotel to a Secret Service road trip to a solitary confinement detox, my dad looked frightened. Not frightened at me, but frightened for me.

The fact that I even noticed my father’s demeanor meant the drugs were almost completely out of my system. When you’re high, you don’t notice little shit like demeanor or peoples’ feelings or how you hurt others. But coming down, you begin to notice these things.

I may not have realized at the time, but I was reconnecting with humanity, ever-so-slightly.

I wanted to tell my dad some bullshit story about my innocence, but before I could speak, he beat me to the punch.

“Matthew?” he asked slowly, making sure I could hear him. “Matt, can you hear me?”

I nodded my head, expecting a lecture.

“Matt, I just want you to know — no matter what happened, I love you. I love you and I’m here for you. No matter what you did, I want you to know that.”

Of course I’d heard my father tell me he loved me before, but it never felt like this. The combination of the setting I found myself in with my body clearing the drugs out hit me right in the gut.

I looked on, unsure of how to respond.

“Matthew,” he said into the prison phone, “I love you.”

After stealing from him, lying to him, and abandoning him after he did nothing but try to help, he was still there for me. It didn’t make sense, but he was.

The rest of the conversation is a blur. The guard eventually told me my time was up, and I looked my dad in the eyes. Seeing how much he loved me actually hurt me, but it was a hurt I needed to feel. Like putting peroxide on an open wound. It burns like hell. Stings. But it’s necessary, allowing the process of healing to begin.

Walking back to the SHU after that, I could feel something inside of me begin to change. I wasn’t sure what it was. But I was sure that I’d felt it.

Seaweed, Plasma and Viagra

I began the process of coming back to life in my last days of solitary. I ran around my little cell, pretending like I was a running back crossing the goal line, diving into my bunk for a touchdown. It must’ve looked insane to the guards who checked in from time to time to make sure I hadn’t hanged myself, but I suppose they were used to seeing crazy. One night an inmate charged with cleaning the facility slid a Men’s Fitness under my cell door, and I pounced on it like some kind of starving animal. Compared to the complimentary “Inmate Guide” I’d been reading, this shit was Shakespeare. I read every inch of that magazine.

Did you know the chemical composition of seaweed is nearly identical to human plasma? I do, because I fucking read about it in 35 hour segments. Day after day. I’m talking small print. Photo credits and pharmaceutical advertisement side effects. To this day I eat seaweed, appreciate photography, and am scared to death of Viagra.

Eventually they transferred me into general population, where my public defender informed me that I’d have sentencing in four months, and would be looking at between 2–5 years. If the judge liked me, it’d be closer to two years. If he didn’t like me, it’d be closer to five. Last I remembered, Judge Nakazato wasn’t my biggest fan. Shit, I would’ve have been surprised if he added perjury to my rap sheet.

Every night while the inmates were in lockdown, my job was to clean the showers. I learned to love the work. I began taking pride in doing a good job, and appreciated being out of my cell. My perspective on everything began shifting. Instead of feeling sorry for myself for being stuck in a cell, I began to appreciate my time out of it. Instead of focusing on the friends who abandoned me, I began seeing the role I played in pushing them away. And instead of hating my family, I couldn’t help but feel the love they showed me while I was locked away.

During my stay, I had four visitors: my mom, step-dad, father, and step-mother. It was a sad realization that I didn’t have any “real” friends. The ones who knew me, who I thought I could be myself around, who were always there for me? The ones I ditched my family for? None of them came to visit. None of them wrote me letters. Not a single one of them put money on my books, or sent me books to read. None of them looked at me through soundproof glass while holding a dirty pay phone handle, tears in their eyes, telling me it was going to be ok when every piece of their demeanor screamed that it was anything but ok.

My family on the other hand? The ones I chose drugs over? Chose life in a Tijuana hotel over? Completely abandoned for years on end, resentment to my core, anger in my heart — who I had the nerve to pretend I hated? They visited me every week.

They made sure there was money on my commissary account, so that I could eat cup of noodles and canned sardines, instead of the nasty jail meals. They sent me reading material. They accepted my collect calls.

They taught me what it meant to love someone unconditionally.

Johann Hari said it perfectly in an interview I read recently. He said:

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.”

One of the reasons it’s so hard to kick drugs is we addicts learn to isolate, cutting ourselves off from the rest of productive society. We learn to kill that whatever-the-fuck-it’s-called that connects one human being to another. We numb that. That’s why we can hurt so many people and still sleep at night. Once you kill that thing connecting you to other human beings, you can screw over as many human beings as you need to in order to get your drugs.

I’m not an advocate of prisons for drug offenders, because I never saw much rehabilitation being offered. There is a reason that recidivism rates are at 70% (meaning 70% of those who enter prison, end up going back.) However I will say for me, that prison did accomplish the one thing that nothing else had ever done, it forced me to take the drugs out of the equation. Thanks to that, and thanks to a loving family, I learned to re-connect with society. With humanity. Love taught me how to be human again.

From the time I got there, my family never stopped visiting. I grew close to them in a way I never would have on the outside. They told me how I’d hurt them, and I listened. I felt it. They told me how they loved me. I felt it. In a funny way, I got to know my parents while I was in prison.

Imagine that.

A Second Chance?

About four and a half months in, I got a new public defender, a gentleman named Jesse Gessin. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was four months in to what my old public defender said would be a 2–5 year sentence. By that point, the person representing me felt a bit irrelevant.

“Hey Matt,” he told me, a few days after first meeting him, “I think we should ask for bail again.”

“Bail?” I asked, a bit incredulously.

“Yeah, man, I think we have a shot at an appeal.”

“Umm… so I’m not sure what the previous public defender told you, but Judge Nakazato hates me. I lied to his face, in court. He’s not going to grant me bail.”

“Well,” said Jesse, “You have a new judge, and you have a new lifestyle, and I think your best bet is if you can get out on bail, you can show the courts that you’ve turned your life around.”

Jesse always seemed to believe in me, I’m not sure why, but for a guy who has had his share of public defenders (that’s not a great pick up line) Jesse stood far above anyone else. Jesse truly cared for his clients, and he seemed incredibly passionate about what he does. But what truly set Jesse apart from other lawyers I had experienced, is that he always treated me as an equal. When I talked to Jesse, it was as if he was a friend trying to help me out of a desperate situation. I’m happy to call Jesse a friend to this day.

One thing you learn in jail is to not get your hopes up. You learn this by constantly getting your hopes up day after day in your first few months and having your spirit crushed every time. It hurts, at first. But after awhile, you eventually come to grips with the fact that you’re not going anywhere for a very long time. Once that happens, your time passes a little more quickly, a little more smoothly.

“Yeah, ok,” I told him. “We’ll see.”

Several weeks later, instead of what should have been my sentencing hearing, we were in Federal Court to appeal my bail. Presiding over the court that day was Judge Andrew Guilford. The difference between how Judge Guilford looked at me compared to Judge Nakazato was night and day. Standing before him, I realized the judge wasn’t the only thing that had changed in the courtroom that day.

“Matthew Mendoza?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re a drug addict?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you like help?”

“Yes, sir.”

The answers I gave were stern and sincere. I was in a better place mentally, physically, and spiritually. The OxyContin fog was lifted and I’d learned how to be part of human civilization again.

Judge Guilford looked down at my file.

“Mr. Mendoza, we judges don’t normally like to overturn decisions of the judges who came before us.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you were denied bail by Judge Nakazato?”

“Yes, sir.”

He paused, a long, drawn out pause.

“Here’s what I’m going to do, Mr. Mendoza,” he said. “I’m going to put my reputation as a judge on the line, and I don’t do this very often. Statistically speaking, this is a foolish move on my part. But I’m going to trust you. I’m going to get you out of jail, and you’ll be dropped off at a rehab facility where you will spend the next 6 months. Tonight will be your last night in custody until sentencing, we will push that date back 10 months, and we will see how you do in rehab.”

I stood, dumbfounded. I was getting out of prison.

“Please don’t let me down, Mr. Mendoza.”

I wanted to laugh, cry, jump, hug the judge. I’m getting out of here. Tomorrow morning!

“I’m going to make you proud, sir. I’m going to do this.”

He looked on, eyes squinted a bit, measuring my sincerity.

“I wish you luck, Mr. Mendoza.”

“Thank you, sir.”


Why I Look at the Stars Every Night


Leaving the jail the following morning, I felt the sun on my face for the first time in nearly five months. You don’t appreciate the feeling of natural light and nature until you’ve had it taken away.

Or given it away, I suppose.

The probation van loaded me up to take me to rehab. I thought back to my first jail appearance, the one where I planned on sneaking out on my first night and heading to Mexico. I thought about how badly I wanted to get high that night. I remembered how easily I made the decision to rip my step-dad off for the $20,000 bail he was putting up in my name.

That guy was an asshole, that guy wasn’t me. Thanks to a host of people and a lot of love, I wasn’t that guy anymore. I still had a long road ahead of me, a sentencing date that was still filled with unknowns, but for the first time in a long time, I had hope. I knew there would be pain and consequences for the mess I had created, but I no longer wished to run from those. I learned that love was a feeling that conquered any high.

I imagine that most of you want to know how things turned out with my prison sentence. Maybe that’ll come in a later story, but this is where my road to freedom reached it’s finish line. Regardless of what my future prison sentence held, I was already free. Remember, that “the opposite of addiction is human connection,” I had this, and my sobriety is what gave me my real freedom.

That night I laid down outside, in the grass, looking up at the night sky, the stars I hadn’t seen for nearly half a year, but had dreamed about every day. It was surreal, but this time it wasn’t a dream. To this day, the stars still hold that nostalgic weight of knowing what it’s like to truly feel freedom.

Redemption. Family. Human connection. What came out of my mouth next was in the tone of hope and excitement.

“This is only day one,” I said to no one. “This is only day one.”

The End

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Thank you to everyone who has spent the time reading my story, it has been an incredible experience to receive the feedback from friends and strangers alike. Thank you to my family for making this story possible, thank you to my friends that continue to teach me about love. Thank you Jason Smith, and the team at the writing co-op for helping to edit, proof read and more.