Community Leaders in Taft Camp

By · Monday, July 13th, 2009

Carole and I are grateful for opportunities to contribute to the lives of others.  A few weeks ago, David and Tuvia, two men who recently joined our community at Taft Camp, kindly introduced us to their wives, Judy and Gila.  Our limited time with family in the visiting room is precious, so we can’t afford to socialize for long periods, but I was pleased to have had an opportunity to spend some time talking with David this past week in the camp.

David and Tuvia gave me a gift when they told me that their family members and friends frequently turn to my daily blog postings as a source of information for life at Taft Prison Camp.  As a long-term prisoner, my constant challenge is to lead a life of meaning, of relevance, and it pleases me to no end when I hear that my writing on the prison experience eases the anxieties for family members of my fellow prisoners.  Both David and Tuvia have adjusted well.  Although they look forward to returning to their families and community in Los Angeles soon, they’re making the most of the brief sentences they serve here in Taft.

I see both men each morning, as we exercise at the same time, soon after the sun rises.  While I’m running laps or strength training with pushups, they’re committed to a brisk walk, frequently conversing with other prisoners from the Israeli community.  The time at Taft Camp gives them a break from the busy pace of the active life they lead outside.

David and Tuvia have been business partners and friends for more than two decades.  Their business is an American success story, one that employs more than 100 people and makes significant contributions to society.  Although their separation from family and community challenges them, they both serve brief sentences and will return home before year’s end.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to have met them.

 Family members of David and Tuvia want them home, of course, but I have a different perspective.  Since I work tirelessly to write about the prison experience and to promote the need for reform, I consider it a privilege to share time with successful businessmen and community leaders.  Had David and Tuvia not joined me at Taft Camp, I don’t expect that either would have given much thought to the troubling state of America’s prison system.

When David and I spoke, he told me that experiencing the system first-hand upset him, as he considered it a great untold story of America, one that is telling in its lack of compassion.  Although he served a six-month sentence that inconvenienced his family, since he has been at Taft David has met many men who have been separated from society for 10 years and longer.  To him, such sentences do not make sense for a responsible society.   They render an individual incapable of returning to their communities as contributing citizens, and they punish the family in unconscionable ways. 

David is a big believer in the importance of making contributions that strengthen society, and he plays an active role investing his time and resources to improve communities in both California and Israel.  It is because of his personal commitment to community investment that David feels so saddened by the human waste laid out by America’s prison system.

In the United States, David contributes to his community by expanding educational opportunities to groom leadership.  To improve society, he recognizes the importance of educating young people, and as a successful businessman, he has reached a stage in his life where he derives a quiet, internal satisfaction in helping other people reach their highest potential.  It is because of his experience in community investment that David so clearly sees the value that could come from reforming America’s prison system.  David told me of an effort he led in Israel to resolve a similar problem. 

While vacationing with his wife in Jerusalem, David felt troubled by the growing numbers of at-risk adolescents he saw wandering the streets.  Some were homeless; many were abusing drugs, leading shiftless, directionless lives.  Wanting to change such conditions, David coordinated a meeting with contacts he had in the military.  They military did not have a program in place to help change the lives of young people.  David couldn’t stand the thought of so many wasted lives, and so agreed to fund a pilot program that would take 30 boys off the streets of Jerusalem and, through military training, set them on a path to responsibility.  Today, the program has been instrumental in helping more than 3,000 people mature into fully functioning and contributing citizens.  America’s prison system could use that same type of community investment. 

David acknowledged that people from business and leadership communities were unaware of the growing problems with America’s prison system.  Until he experienced it himself, he wouldn’t have believed that non-violent people served such lengthy terms.  Such a system could only lead to ruin and the waste of human lives.  Most people he has met who have been incarcerated for long periods walk differently; talk differently and behave in ways that will lessen the chances of their finding meaningful employment upon release. When people leave prison with less of a chance to function in society than when they began serving their sentences, the need for reform becomes compelling.

Both David and Tuvia will return to their communities soon.  They will bring a new perspective with them, as they have now seen and experienced the inside of America’s prison system.  A positive lesson, David said, was that his time in Taft Camp will help him appreciate some of the basic gifts of life.  He will never take for granted the value of a quiet meal at home with his wife, or the many other blessings he and his family enjoy.  To remind him of his time in Taft, David said that he would hang his dusty sneakers in his office, and when he looked at them he said he would remember the very different challenges he had to overcome in prison.

It has been a privilege for me to meet and learn from both David and Tuvia.  I am hopeful our meeting will begin a long friendship, as Carole and I could use their help and guidance with the efforts we make to bring reform to America’s prison system.

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