A Friendship to Transform a Life

New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein continues the story of former inmate James Gilbert. On Wednesday, we hear about his friendship with fellow inmate Mike Guglielmo — a friendship that would help him transform his life.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick, back with DAY TO DAY and our series this week, Beyond Prison.

This is the story of a young man named James Gilbert. From age 11, he's been in and out of prisons and juvenile detention centers and drug rehab places. He was eventually released and today he's doing well, he says, because of a friendship he formed with another prisoner.

Mr. JAMES GILBERT (Former Inmate): You see this guy comin' in with--covered in tattoos and he never wears his shirt, carrying a bunch of books, five-foot-whatever, swaggering back and forth like he's untouchable. And I was just like, `Huh? You know, who is this guy?'

CHADWICK: New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein now continues with the story of James Gilbert and his friend.

DAN GORENSTEIN reporting:

That tattooed, strutting inmate was Mike Guglielmo. He was well into his 22-to-45-year sentence for an incident that happened one December night in the mid '80s. On that night, Mike, drunk and high on cocaine, fired shots at police from an apartment window.

Mr. MIKE GUGLIELMO (Prison Inmate): My coup de grace that I committed in society was a five-hour standoff with the police while armed with a machine gun and a silencer and over 100 rounds were fired. To me, that was the ideal way to go, or to die in a blaze of gunfire as--like a hero, a soldier, you know, charging the machine gun nest, and that's what I tried to fulfill. So I tried to get killed. I tried to realize my ideal death. It didn't work out that way.

GORENSTEIN: Instead, Mike was hauled off to prison. Deemed a danger to others, he was placed in solitary confinement, but even sitting alone in a cell didn't make Mike reassess his life. That moment came when he took a basic education test.

Mr. GUGLIELMO: And they do adult basic education in there--Right?--found out that I had a 7.4 level of education. I was 23. I was just humiliated. So I said, `Well, I can't have that. I gotta change this.' So I started to take classes to get my GED. But also I felt so humiliated that I had so shamed my family that I had to rectify that. I had to do something to make them proud.

GORENSTEIN: With his parents footing the bill, Mike went on to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees. This impressed James.

Mr. GILBERT: After meeting Michael, that was one of the things that--you know, talking with him about how he had come in with an eighth-grade education and how he has his master's degree now. And, you know, he'd mastered in philosophy and a paralegal. And I was just amazed that somebody would take the time that they had in prison to gain an education like that.

GORENSTEIN: Mike was equally impressed with the 20-year-old James.

Mr. GUGLIELMO: He carried himself well, and I felt that he was a good kid and that I wouldn't mind knowing him. You know, Jim is tall, he's got--he was in decent shape. He wasn't overshape. You know, he dressed--we wasn't disheveled so obviously, he had some pride in his appearance. He wasn't a loudmouth, wasn't trying to project something that he wasn't. He was just being him, and that, in itself, is credible.

Mr. GILBERT: You know, he'd invite me to come eat him every once in a while. I mean, at first, I go, you know, `No, thanks, because I don't know you.' After a while, it became a daily thing, and we would have dinner together and he would just basically take welfare food out of the cupboard and mix it all together in a hot pot in a plastic bag. That would be a full-course meal. And, you know, we started talking and he'd tell me some of the stories about places he's been and some of the battles that he's gone through, where he wants to go with things, what his expectations are, what his goals are.

Mr. GUGLIELMO: Most of the guys in prison--I mean, most of them are just--they're bad machines. You know, their whole existence revolves around chasing drugs, watching TV, drinking coffee, playing cards, playing games, you know. It's like their whole life is goin' by them and they don't even realize it. They're just losers.

Then there's the few that are trying to change themselves and want to be something. They're trying to redeem themselves and they're trying to decriminalize themselves. Those are the few; they're the exception, not the rule.

Mr. GILBERT: I think Mike was on a path to kind of make a difference, and I think that that was something that he saw in me, was somebody who had the potential to not be like the filth that he was around for all those years, something that he was trying to grow out of, something that he was trying to get away from being.

GORENSTEIN: After a while, the guys decided to become cell mates.

Mr. GUGLIELMO: And then, you know, when I got him in the cell, you know, it was just like, you know, you need to do this and you need to do that and you need to get an education. And I'm--you know, I'm a pretty abrasive personality. It's abrasive, but likeable.

Mr. GILBERT: I'd come home from school, I'd be learning statistics or, you know, whatever I was taking it for a class at that time, I'd come home, there'd be magazines on my bed. `You gotta check this article out. I saw it when I was down over at the school.' And it was pertaining usually to something that I was interested in and he would give materials supporting my desires, and I thought that was kind cool. It was really kind of like a teacher.

Mr. GUGLIELMO: He saw that he could accomplish something through his intellect by completing classes and reading magazine articles on particular computers, computer sciences and that he understood it. Even more important, `Holy (censored)! What an insight, an epiphany. I understand this.' So what do you do then? You just continue to progress further into it and then you just start to develop goals and you start to pursue them.

Mr. GILBERT: Probably 60 to 70 percent of life is timing, and I was at that point where I was sick of the world around me and I didn't want to be part of it. And I was smart and I did--and I was trying even before I met Mike to do what I had to do, but the environment wasn't, you know, nurturing that. It was sustaining what I was trying to achieve. It was going against it. So I was constantly swimmin' upstream. And when I ended up, you know, moving in with Mike, it was like he was swimming downstream with me.

GORENSTEIN: Their cell was a classroom, a refuge. It boasted a healthy supply of books and magazines, and James and Mike pasted slogans like `A man's character is his destiny' on the walls.

Mr. GILBERT: That's how I did the rest of my time. I would work out because it kept me--relieved the stress and that was a way for me to vent my anger. I would go to school. It was a way for me to occupy my mind. It was a way to better myself in a productive manner. And I would go to work in the kitchen for my $1.50, $1.75 a day.

GORENSTEIN: Mike and James had their little world, but it was impossible to avoid the larger one around them, the world that valued brawn over brains.

Mr. GILBERT: There was a pretty large gentleman that I worked with in the kitchen. He wanted one of his friends to work where I was working and told me that I needed to get out of the kitchen, that it wasn't--you know, I couldn't work there anymore because he wanted his buddy to come up and work. I don't remember what his exact words are. He said, `You either leave as'--I said, `I'm not leaving.' He said, `Well, you wanna bang? You wanna bang?' I mean, that was the situation that was instigated and it's not something that I had wanted.

Mr. GUGLIELMO: He was upset. He was furious. He didn't know what to do. You know, he told me, `This guy disrespected me. He said he was going to do this, that and the other thing. What am I going to do? I should take him out.' I said, `You gotta take him out.' I'm--I said, `It doesn't matter. It's just--you don't have a choice. You have to take him out. Otherwise, he's going to be running around the prison and they're all going to be talking (censored) about you and other people are going to start disrespecting you, and you can't have that. Whether you win or lose, you gotta hurt him and you can hurt him.'

GORENSTEIN: For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein.

CHADWICK: Tomorrow on the Beyond Prison series, James Gilbert has to fight.

I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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