My story, and how this is all possible
How I got here
My story, and how this is all possible
This post will be relatively long, and not of the technical or humorous content that I hope to write in the future, simply because the tl;dr just doesn’t cut it here. You don’t just throw out words like “dev-log from my prison cell” and not follow through with a story… Not if you expect anyone to read your blog anyway :P
My name is Preston Thorpe, I’m 31 years old and I’ve spent just under 10 years of my life in Prison (all for non-violent drug crimes.)
I am currently incarcerated at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, Maine. More importantly, far more importantly, I am a software developer,
open source maintainer, contributor and all around enthusiast. I am a Rust fanatic (and currently rather
Ocaml curious), and I am one of those
Arch linux(btw), Neovim, Alacritty, Tmux, tiling window manager loving geeks that do everything possible from the command line.
Idk who will even end up reading this, but thats the whole idea of blogs right? Ideally maybe the Primeagen will read it at some point, I feel like it’s right up his alley. I have lots of respect for him, I really appreciate him sharing his own story and particularly the message of working hard for what you want, and also to stay away from bullshit/drugs. He has actually been a pretty big inspiration for me in the tech world and I’ve been following him for over a year now. So on the off-chance that you’re reading this: Thanks for everything you do, you have been an enormous inspiration to me, and the only source of entertainment I’ve allowed myself for the last year+.
The (relatively) short version: I was a stupid 17yr old computer geek, spending my highschool years in the ‘05-‘09 warez and torrent scenes(r.i.p. oink.cd) and was kicked out of my parents house for being a stupid 17yr old like many kids are, but instead of ending up broke and homeless sleeping in my car or on couches (I did that for a bit too though), and coming back to Mom + Dad’s apologetic, as I’m sure was their plan; I ended up stumbling head-first into the world of the pre silk-road/Dark-web internet wholesale drugs. This was a place where chemicals could be bought for pennies from sketchy companies in India, China, and there were vendors in Canada, Holland, Germany, etc that sold bulk of whatever you wanted all by email referral.
So instead of coming back home broke and apologetic, I ended up pretty deep into this and soon was making tens of thousands of dollars a week, very much unapologetically. At age 20, I was arrested the first time. I was caught (mostly) with MDMA coming in the mail from Vancouver.
Fortunately for me, this was my first offense, otherwise I’m sure they would have been happy to charge me for the many more packages they probably could have proved that I had received.
I have found that I adapt pretty well to just about whatever situation I happen to be put in, Prison was no different. Although, these people were very different from the hippie/raver/music festival people I dealt with on the street. These people were hardcore addicts, who many of were into crimes and a lifestyle that I had no part of. The thing about prison is that it has its own sub-culture, it’s own lingo, it’s own set of morality.. and this is enforced by an extremely negative group-think, strict mindset that we are criminals: we hate cops, we hate rats, pedophiles, thieves(only if you steal from other inmates, you can steal whatever you want from any grandma on the street) and anyone that has ever “PC”‘d (asked for Protective Custody due to fear of violence from another inmate(s)). This mindset is strictly enforced on everyone living in population, and spending a few years around such negativity will change anyone. In prison, there is nothing to do: except get tattoos, work out, and wait for some kind of drama to unfold so you can either watch something go down, or participate in it.
A few years later, I left prison with $0 in my pocket (lawyers and commissary are expensive, and nobody pays you what they owe you when you come in), to a rooming house with hallways that smelled like crack-smoke and were filled with parole officers and junkies. I was left with the difficult choice of either living there and walking to a temp agency with hopes of making $10.50/hour doing manual labor (without an ID or social security card at this point), or getting on a bus to NYC to see some associates, and coming back in a week or so with $15-25k in my pocket and living in comfy luxury hotels until I could rent an apartment… I chose the latter, obviously, and was back in prison after 14 months of addiction and misery.
I have been incarcerated now on this sentence since May of 2017, I came in with a terrible attitude, a terrible outlook on life, and no hope for my future. I have spent almost 3 years all-together in 22-23hr solitary confinement over the years (10% of my life?), and at one point I had truly become one of the people that looked at me when I first came to prison at age 20, and asked “Is this your first bid?”, to which everyone replies “first? I”m not coming back here!”, to which there is always laughter from the older heads. Everyone says that, but everyone comes back…
My shenanigans and the ‘influence’ I had in the relatively small prison system that I came from, ended up getting me put on an inter-state transfer list after 13mo in solitary confinement (for no disciplinary action.) “Safety and security of the facility” is the official reason it says on my classification paperwork. Little did I know, this would be the best thing that would ever happen to me.
Because I had no disciplinary action, and I guess very some fortunate timing, I got transferred to Maine, which is not a state that I thought was even an option as it does not have a reputation for taking ‘problem’ inmates from other states.
The prison system in Maine is different from all others, as the inmate population is insulated from most of the street/prison gangs that generally run things. Not having to deal with the Politics and the drama was refreshing, and a bit of a shock at first. Quickly I realized that my time could just be spent on myself, trying to improve my life or just do what I wanted with my time. I began to focus my time on things like teaching myself about organic chemistry, and finance, options trading, and I began for the first time to realize that I might be capable of more than what I had resided on, and that I could end doing whatever I put my mind to.
I had previously accepted my fate, as one must when you get a 10+ year sentence, otherwise you’ll go insane constantly thinking about what you could have done different or what you could have been doing with your life. But I had accepted my fate, as a criminal. I had accepted the identity, and the lifestyle, and the misery, and the mindset that comes along with it.
One day, I woke up and looked around me, and had what can only be described as an epiphany. All of a sudden, all the conversations I would hear about drugs and war stories, all just sounded like absolute bullshit to me, and I was suddenly ashamed that I ever participated in it. From that point, I no longer felt like it was okay or normal that I was locked up in a cage, and the acceptance and self-identity as being a ‘criminal’ no longer felt like something I was okay with.
When it was available to me, I enrolled in College through the University of Maine Augusta, and before classes even started, I was completely enthralled with the idea of learning how to program again (it had been 15 years since I had done some PHP/Perl + simple websites, so not a lot had left over). But wait.. Who else has an opportunity to spend 12+ hours a day learning something for years? With no other obligations or responsibilities? It all of a sudden clicked, that I would dedicate the remainder of my time to learning everything I could about computer science, and teaching myself software development. The next year and a half would be spent exactly this way, to the very day I write this. There is zero substitution for hard work, and I intend on continuing to use every moment of my remaining sentence to improve myself and my skills.
During the pandemic, staff were sympathetic to the residents here, who were unable to see loved ones, and unable to spend their time on the internet when everything was shut down and we were locked in our rooms like they had. This brought about the internet being brought into a prison system, for probably the first time in the country. Being technically inclined, led me the opportunity to work for the education department and I ended up helping considerably in getting things working properly. And I still do.
After helping with the network for some time and implementing some software solutions for the DOC, when I asked for permission to seek remote employment, they obliged. I was one of the first people in the country to to be allowed to be on “remote work-release” from a medium security prison.
I believe this highlights the fact that you cannot take opportunities that you are not given, and I would never be in the position I am now: a completely changed man, working full-time from my cell, with a career doing what I love not only programming, but also helping improve the system.(details); if this opportunity wasn’t given to me in the form of a laptop and limited internet access. This is an incredibly rare situation, Maine is the only state in the country where these particular opportunities exist at all (and for a limited number of residents, currently just those enrolled in College, and there are many restrictions).
I would like to bring whatever awareness possible to the importance of education and rehabilitation for those 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated (particularly those affected by the war on drugs, like myself, who has spent 1/3 of his life imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes). Access to education and technology is severely limited in the U.S. prison system and I am incredibly fortunate to be in a situation where I am permitted to have remote employment and access to participate in things like Open source projects.
I am very grateful for the opportunity, but I recognize that this is very much the exception and not the rule, and the success of the Maine model of corrections should highlight the absolutely embarrassing lack of opportunities in the rest of the system, to do anything but become a bitter, broke criminal; deprived of not just your freedom, family, financial security and reputation, but also of your self-identity as someone worth investing in changing. We need to do better as a society, and understand that, yes, there are people in the system that deserve this kind of punishment, but a large majority of our prison population are just regular people… non-violent drug offenders like myself. There are plenty more, like me, that are capable of being responsible, productive, tax paying members of society if given the opportunity, but you cannot expect anyone to change when you just lock them up in a cage with a bunch of other criminals where there is a subculture of endless negativity.
If you are interested in helping support the education of incarcerated and justice-impacted individuals, please consider donating to a company like the one I currently work for, Unlocked Labs or similar non-profits like The Last Mile or Recidiviz that are working to improve the system of mass-incarceration and provide opportunities for the incarcerated to learn and grow.
Thanks for taking the time to read this…
EDIT: Wow.. I definitely wasn’t expecting this to get to the front page of HN. In light of this, and some harsh, but undoubtedly fair comments that were made(as well as some completely ignorant ones). I would like to add some clarification on a few things.
I have been an opioid addict for over 10 years, and I am currently to this day, on suboxone, being treated for OUD. As well as treatment to cure the HEP C that I got from IV drug use. As an addict, and as someone that has seen this lifestyle, and drugs in particular claim the lives of countless friends (2 of them extremely close to me. RIP Mark Bochner, Scott Young.) I am absolutely, and forever will be ashamed in any participation I had in that lifestyle and perpetuating the scourge of the misery and loss, and addiction. I would like to apologize publicly to anyone that has been affected by this, and there is no excuse for my actions, other than the same (terrible) one I give am forced to give for all of them. That I was young, ignorant, addicted, and I held absolutely no value for own life any more than I obviously valued the lives of others. For this I am genuinely sorry on a level that could never be properly communicated.
There is a very common theme in the system, where people are very open about accepting their fate. Jokes are often made about how short someone was ‘on the street’, or bets will be placed how quickly someone will be back (always in months). Everyone speaks about getting out as if it is a temporary thing, like a vacation from their accustomed fate of prison or death. This is incredibly contagious, and when someone loses all value for their own life in acceptance of that fate, it creates a population of miserable, hopeless people with nothing to lose. As stated in the original post: I did not value my own life, nor did I believe I was capable of anything more than what I had resided to.
I would like to be a part of changing this attitude. I would like to give someone a reason to want to stay free for longer than it takes to get out and overdose or get arrested again. I want to make change something that is within reach. The fact is, that 95% of people in the Prison system are getting out one day, and will be your neighbors whether you like it or not. We tried for 60+ years locking people in cages with worse people, and then letting them out. Maybe it’s time we think about what it takes during this time of punishment, to foster the kinds of changes that made me the man I am today, and no longer the ignorant kid that got me here in the first place.
Unsolicited advice for anyone seeking to learn computer science or software development in 2023.
How I got here is already far too long, so I must include a separate post for all the credits and gratitude I need to extend to those who made this possible.
Following up on the first impressions post, let’s solve a problem in OCaml and compare the Rust solution.
Humorous article, completely unrelated to, and written before, the others ended up actually on the front page.
OCaml: First impressions