Peter Ninemire said he was a rebellious Kansas farm kid but that he lost control when his dad passed away when he was in his early 20s. “The reins came off of the wild horse,” Ninemire said.
He was caught growing marijuana and faced 24.5 years in prison, which became 27 years. His first night in federal prison in 1991, he said, the man in the cell next to him hanged himself with his sheets.
“I woke up in the middle of the night,” Ninemire said. “I thought, ‘Wow this is not going to be fun, this is going to be a journey.’ ”
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We could either live our life or do the time, and I decided that I was going to live my life.
Peter Ninemire, who served 10 years in prison
He realized he had a choice. “I wanted to have a bigger purpose and calling in life than just being a prison inmate,” Ninemire said. “We could either live our life or do the time, and I decided that I was going to live my life.”
Many of the current prison reform efforts in states and in Congress include proposals for allowing prisoners to work off time if they show evidence of growth inside. Many prisoners he saw fell further into the mindset of a criminal, Ninemire said, and would return not long after they were released.
Ninemire earned a reputation for being the most positive person in the prison, he said, and sometimes people called him “the mayor of Englewood prison” for trying to mediate disputes between prisoners and the staff at the federal prison in Colorado. He helped start a counseling center for youth and a chapter of the prisoner advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He realized he liked social work.
President Clinton commuted Ninemire’s sentence in 2001, just 15 minutes before he left office, and Ninemire went back to college and got his master’s degree in social work from Wichita State. At first he had nightmares of still being in prison, but now he counsels former prisoners like himself who are dealing with the psychological effects of substance abuse. His Wichita counseling company has five employees.
But many ex-offenders he counsels don’t have the financial and emotional support he received from his family in prison and after. One family member was on the board at a substance abuse center, and his brother is a priest.
“I have patients every day – they are so talented and yet they can’t get a job,” Ninemire said. “As soon as (companies) see that they have a felony conviction on that box, they’re done.”
His calendar is booked with six to 11 sessions a day, he said, where he helps people with substance abuse problems.
“The time I spent in prison, the 10 years, is one of the best things that ever happened to me because I needed an intervention,” Ninemire said. “But did it need to be 10 years? I don’t know that it did.”
The time I spent in prison, the 10 years, is one of the best things that ever happened to me because I needed an intervention. But did it need to be 10 years? I don’t know that it did.
Peter Ninemire, former prisoner
In 2013 he showed his daughter, who was born soon after he left prison, the prison in Colorado where he would still have been if not for Clinton’s clemency. He noted the irony of being at the prison in a state that had since legalized the cultivation of marijuana, which he had been sent to prison for.
“I’m trying to give back for everything that I did wrong in the first 25 years of my life,” Ninemire said.
Tisa Micheaux, 56, said she’s never been able to recover from the year she spent in prison in her late 30s.
Before that she’d been a housewife who stayed home and took care of the kids, mostly, she said.
But a messy divorce in her early 30s led her down a path toward drug addiction and crime to support the addiction. She shoplifted and received probation for using someone else’s credit card.
She had tried 30-day drug rehabilitation programs a couple of times, she said, but they weren’t long enough to get it out of her system. She would tell her parole officer that she wasn’t going to go pass her drug tests over and over, she said, but never got the help she needed.
I just don’t like the rejection. After so many rejections I just gave up. I have a lot of skills, I have a lot that I can offer society.
Tisa Micheaux, former prisoner
Then one day, in July of 1998, as she was driving down the highway, after several days of being high and not seeing her kids, she flipped out and turned herself in to a police officer on the side of the road. She was thrown in jail for violating her parole and ended up serving about nine months in prison.
She hated it, she said, and decided she wasn’t going back. She didn’t like losing control, she didn’t like the way the officers talked to prisoners, and she didn’t like being away from her three children.
She hasn’t been back to prison since 2000 but she’s also never had work again, she said. “It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve tried a lot,” Micheaux said. “I just don’t like the rejection. After so many rejections I just gave up. I have a lot of skills, I have a lot that I can offer society.”
Koch Industries is one of a number of prominent national companies that recently decided to “ban the box” that required people like Micheaux to give their criminal history on job applications. But Micheaux is skeptical because most companies will find her record when they get her Social Security number.
In the past few years, she’s volunteered for Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) Kansas, the local chapter of a national group that advocates for former prisoners. But she’s had to live off disability pay because, she said, she was diagnosed with a drug-induced psychosis.
All of my kids talk about how (my drug addiction) impacted them. We’re still struggling to heal from it, we really are. It’s a slow process.
Tisa Micheaux, former prisoner
The ripples of her drug addition still follow her family, she said. “All of my kids talk about how that impacted them,” Micheaux said. “We’re still struggling to heal from it, we really are. It’s a slow process.”
Her son is now in prison himself, she said, and her daughter lost custody of Micheaux’s grandchild to foster care. Micheaux tried to take custody of her 2-year-old grandson, who was in foster care, but she said the court wouldn’t let her because of her criminal record.
If federal criminal justice reform legislation is passed, resources are going to be needed to help people like her, she said, not only to help prevent them from re-offending, but to help make them productive members of society again.
Otherwise, Micheaux said, “They’re going to try to survive any way they can.”