A Troubled Young Life

In the first part of our week-long series Beyond Prison, New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein introduces the story of former inmate James Gilbert, his incarceration and return to society.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

All this week, you're going to hear about a young man named James Gilbert. He's in his late 20s, tall, muscular, affable, bright. He's a salesman--and a good one--for a small computer company in New Hampshire. But there often comes this awkward moment in conversation with new friends or people he meets in business. Five years ago, James got out of prison.

Mr. JAMES GILBERT (Former Inmate): They just see me as another one of the corporate guys with them. And a lot of them don't know that I have a past or I, you know, was in group homes or I was in prison. Like, I mean, you can't tell someone you're doing business with that, `Yeah, I went to school in a juvenile detention center.' I mean, how does that work?

CHADWICK: More than half a million people get out of prison each year. In the first part of our series Beyond Prison, New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein begins the story of James Gilbert's transformation.

DAN GORENSTEIN reporting:

As a teen-ager, James terrorized his family. He scared his parents so much they locked their bedroom door at night. As young as 11, his parents sent him to one of his many stays at a group home for troubled kids.

Mr. J. GILBERT: Ninety-five percent of the kids that were in those institutions that I was in were there because they had no where else to go, because they didn't have families that would take them or they'd committed crimes to get there and they had to be there. I was there because my family wanted me there, and that was painful. That hurt to know that your own family doesn't want you home and that's why you're in these places that people who can't get out are. And all your parents have to do is tell them is that you want to go home.

GORENSTEIN: James and his parents never quite figured out how to get along. James was restless and aggressive. His parents responded with strict rules, but James saw those rules as too rigid, while his parents saw his restless energy as defiance.

Mrs. ROSE GILBERT (James Gilbert's Mother): When he worked his way out of one the residentials, he came home and it was obvious that he really didn't want to work towards staying in the family unit.

GORENSTEIN: That's James' mother, Rose Gilbert. James was 15 at the time.

Mrs. GILBERT: He was extremely verbally abusive. You couldn't set any limits with him. There was that fear of--I mean, `Is this kid going to do something drastic in the middle of the night like pull a gun on us or a knife?' I think it was just the fear of the fact that he had become so oppositional defiant that there was no way that we could control him in our home anymore.

(Soundbite of "Ain't No Thang")

GORENSTEIN: The final confrontation between the boy and his parents came during an ordinary argument over music.

(Soundbite of "Ain't No Thang")

OUTKAST: (Rapping) They got the nerve to ask me why I do the things I do. I got the nerve to serve you up just like a Raider do...

GORENSTEIN: Rose and Ed had banned harsh rap in their home and inevitably, one day Ed heard the forbidden sounds thudding from James' room.

(Soundbite of "Ain't No Thang")

OUTKAST: (Rapping) We having a smoke out in the Dungeon with the Mary Jane. It's just a...

Mr. ED GILBERT (James Gilbert's Father): We knew there was things going on in his bedroom, and I was looking for those CDs. But when I looked down in the cold-air return of the heating system, which is right here, I took this cover off and he had taken some beakers out of the science class at the high school and was growing marijuana inside of here. And that's when I confronted him with it.

Mrs. GILBERT: He was so mad that we found all that. And we said, `We have to report this because, first of all, you're not going to have this in our home, and it's illegal and you're not allowed to be doing that.' And at that point, there was such violence my husband--I could tell that he was getting afraid because he said, `If James starts hitting me, I want you to call the police.'

Mr. J. GILBERT: When I went to leave, my dad was in the doorway. I asked him to get out of the way. I said--I told him to move; he wouldn't move. I asked him again to move. He wouldn't move. I told him, `If you don't get out of the way, I'm going to hit you.' And he wouldn't get out of the way, so I hit him in his face and he--his head fell back. And he'd taken my door off the hinges because they didn't feel at that point that I needed a door on my room anymore so they could always see what I was doing in my room. And he had hit his head on the hinge of the doo--of where the door frame was and he had cut the back of his head.

Mrs. GILBERT: They got into, like, a fist fight and a struggle in the middle of the hallway and there wasn't much room, so they were banging around in there. And I called the police, and the police came and got him and he was so violent and so mad.

Mr. E. GILBERT: He said, `If I had had a gun,'--he said to the police, `If I had had a gun, I would have shot the SOB.' That is what he said.

Mr. J. GILBERT: I hated them. I hated my parents. I couldn't stand being around them. I didn't respect a thing they said. I didn't want to leave the group home I was at. I did not want to go back to the house.

GORENSTEIN: James got his wish. The 15-year-old was sent to the juvenile detention center for the next three years. When he was released at age 18, he drifted from apartment to apartment, drank hard and used drugs often, ultimately selling cocaine to an undercover police officer. He was sentenced for up to four years and shipped to the Concord Men's Prison.

Mr. J. GILBERT: When you first walk in, there's this huge steel door. As you get out of the sheriff's car, you're shackled. You walk up the stairs into this big brick building that you've never been to before. And you get in, the door slams, and it's a hollow hallway so it just echoes--Doong, doong, doong. That's pretty much where my mind was. There was definitely no plan or no understanding as of what's going on around me. It was kind of just like, `Oh, (censored),' you know, `what have I got myself into?'

GORENSTEIN: James was given one chance to avoid serving his full sentence. He could get out before his 21st birthday if he could complete the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Laconia, New Hampshire. For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein.

CHADWICK: And the Beyond Prison stories continue tomorrow.

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