A New Life on the Outside
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick. Back with DAY TO DAY, and the conclusion of our series Beyond Prison.
This is the story of a young man named James Gilbert. He spent years in detention centers, drug rehab places and prisons. He was there for more than a decade. He was last inside a few years ago and was released at the age of 22. At least he learned to use his time. He took psychology classes, studied computers and rebuilt a fragile relationship with his parents. But his friend and cell mate, Mike Guglielmo, the guy James credits with turning his life around, remained locked up.
Mr. JAMES GILBERT (Former Inmate): I remember the day I left, Mike gave me an address and a way to contact him, because I always said I can't mail him direct. I was going to be on parole. He was going to be inside. You know, that's not legitimate behavior. And I can understand and appreciate why.
CHADWICK: New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein now has the conclusion of the James Gilbert story. First, here's more from Mike and James.
Mr. GILBERT: He hands me this piece of paper and he says, `Jimmy,' he says, `I've been doing this a long time,' he says, `but this is the acid test of friendship.' I says, `The acid test?' I says, `Well, what do you mean?'
Mr. MIKE GUGLIELMO (Inmate): The acid test of prison friendship is whether or not you ever hear from that person again, you know, because people always say, you know, `I'm going to do this for you, I'm going to do that for you.' Yeah, yeah, whatever. `Now when I get out, don't worry, I'm going to write to you and I'm going to take care of you.' Whatever, you know, whatever, because people say it all the time, you never hear from them again.
Mr. GILBERT: You know, within the first three weeks that I was out, I wrote a letter. Got a letter back.
DAN GORENSTEIN reporting:
Mike had served almost like a parent to James in prison. Now James had to get that support from his family. But the last time James had gotten out of an institution, the juvenile detention center, he hadn't been allowed home. This time, his parents welcomed him.
Mr. GILBERT: That, I think, was the point where the relationship with my parents really changed, when it got to the point where they said, `Yeah, we'll take him home,' you know, where they actually put themselves out there and took a risk and actually brought me home, you know, vs. all the times when I was kid when that didn't happen. And how could I say no?
GORENSTEIN: But while his parents saw clear transformation in their son, perspective employers just saw another ex-con.
Mr. GILBERT: When I first got out, I worked at a company called Weathervane. It was a seafood restaurant. It was a really horrible job, you know. It was stinky, hot, sweaty. And I'm an intelligent guy, and most people that were working there weren't really people who I saw--either they were young kids or they were older people who kind of just were stuck doing what they were doing, and you're treated differently. They would want to put you in the crappy positions, whether it was pots and pans or they would have you clean the grease traps or they'd have you scrubbing Frialators, while they had other people doing the work that would be more desirable.
GORENSTEIN: James went through several dead-end jobs, and when he finally had the chance to apply for a job as a computer salesman, he hid his past. He didn't mention prison in the first interview or the second. For a month, James strung the company along. Finally, the interviewers called his bluff and challenged him to explain the three-year gap in his work history.
Mr. GILBERT: And so I, you know, told them--I says, `You know, I could'--I said, `I can either lay it all out here on the table or I can tell you a story how I was in college for three years and I dropped out of school. That's why I don't have my diploma,' blah, blah, blah. And I was like, `Well, here's the deal.' I was like, `You know, when I was young, I made a mistake and I got arrested for selling drugs and I did a little bit of time. Now I'm out and I'm here. You want to judge me on that, you can. If you want to look at the interviews prior before you had this knowledge and you were looking at me as an individual and as a person with the skills set that could be an asset to your company, then we could go that route.' And they're, `Well, we'll think about it,' and they called me back probably three or four hours later that day and hired me, and I've been here four years now.
GORENSTEIN: While James was securing his job, back at prison, Mike received a sentence reduction hearing. Mike invited James, now out on parole, to speak on his behalf.
Mr. GILBERT: I got up, I introduced myself and I was like, `Yeah, I'm James. I was Mike's cell mate.' And I don't know what else to say. You know what I mean? I said, `This is--you know, Mike's always had a goal of helping other people succeed and making changes,' and I says--you know, and I says, `Now I'm a successful sales rep at a computer company,' and I says, `I've been doing well for myself.' And I was like, `I don't think that I would have had all that if--you know, if he wouldn't have had an impact on me,' and I was like stuttering my speech and I couldn't talk and my thoughts weren't straight, so I felt like an idiot and sat down quickly.
Mr. GUGLIELMO: That was the acid test right there. He stood up in a court and said, `I lived with that man in his cell, and because of him, I'm a different person.' Stood right up in open court and said that to a judge in front of the whole room full of cops that hated my guts. The karma repaid when he stood up and, to me, it was like, you know, when Al Pacino was yelling everybody down in "Scent of a Woman"--Right?--when he was on stage, going, `You're all a bunch of dogs, and you got a ship of rats and you're all going to sink!' Right? And after, he said, `This is a man right here, and I'll go to war with him,' and he said, `Hoo-ah!' That was like--you know, when James did that, it was like, `Hoo-ah! Yeah, there you go, right there in your face. I did something good. I changed somebody in your system that you couldn't.'
GORENSTEIN: Mike got his early release. Since then, Mike and James have managed well for themselves. Mike has his own siding company, owns a house and supports a family. He achieved this, he points out, in spite of what Mike calls the felon's scarlet letter.
Mr. GUGLIELMO: We rehabilitated ourselves, or more properly `habilitated' ourselves, and have become, you know, productive members of society, although many doors in society are continually slammed in our faces. For instance, me, I tried to--you know, I have a master's degree. I tried to get jobs in law offices and everywhere. Didn't even get a call back. You know, as soon as they see `felon,' they're all done. So I had to start my own business to make any money, because no one's going to give me a break.
GORENSTEIN: James lives in a one-bedroom apartment in New Hampshire's Upper Valley. On nights and weekends, he's a volunteer firefighter and EMT for his town. He'd like to get his record expunged, but even if that happens, he, at times, can't avoid bumping into his past. One night, a call sent his EMT team to the house of a former schoolteacher.
Mr. GILBERT: I walked into--a couple nights ago, actually, I walked into my teacher's house on an EMT call. And I was the first one in the front door, and the look on his face was just, like, shock, confusion and terror all at the same time. This is the guy who's going to be treating his mother.
GORENSTEIN: James says he likes those moments, when he gets the chance to prove to people, like his old schoolteacher, he isn't the person they thought he was. For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein.
CHADWICK: If you missed earlier parts of the Beyond Prison series, they're at our Web site, npr.org.
NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.