January 5, 1971 – May 3, 2014
In the preface to his amazing book on prison reform, Facing the U.S. Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong: an Ex-Con’s View of the Mistakes and the Solutions, Shawn Ramey Griffith wrote, “By the time many people read this after it has been published for five or ten years [the book was published in 2012], unless I receive some very good medical treatment, there is a good chance that I will be deceased. I do not feel another 20 years of life left within me. The system literally sucked the life out of me through stress, inadequate medical care, substandard nutrition, and callous treatment. It damaged my heart (for which I now take medication), my brain, and my nervous system. I have been stabbed, beaten, maced, confined, robbed, threatened, bacterially infected, and medically neglected so many times that I am worn out.” He was 41 when he wrote that and had been out of prison for only a few months.
On May 3, 2014, at 4:40 a.m. Shawn was found dead in his cell at the Manatee County jail in Palmetto, Florida, an apparent victim of suicide by hanging.
After over 23 years in prison, he was dropped back in a world that wanted little or nothing to do with an ex-con. In the two years since his conditional release from state prison, Shawn had a lived a whirlwind. In many ways, particularly when it came to women and making ends meet, he was overwhelmed. He precipitously married right away and was soon separated. When it became apparent that he could only find odd jobs at minimum wage, he set himself up as an independent contractor to paint houses. It was a major struggle to make a go of it but after a year of basic futility he landed a $30,000 painting contract at an apartment complex. Just when things were looking up, disaster struck..
He was arrested in Bradenton on February 6, 2014 on charges of burglary and arson and sent to the Manatee County jail. He called me numerous times from jail over the next three months. The first time he called he spoke so softly I could hardly hear him. He was ashamed of himself for his bad judgment. A young woman he was dating at the time turned out to be a heroin addict. He told me she had burglarized the house of her former boyfriend and set it on fire. When she was arrested she told the police Shawn was responsible. Both of them ended up being charged.
As a person on conditional release, the arrest was a violation of his parole. Even if acquitted of the charge – the trial was not scheduled until December – Shawn was sure he would be sent back to prison to serve the remaining three years of his sentence. If he was convicted, he expected to spend the remainder of his life in prison.
He told me there was no way, particularly after writing the book he did exposing the malfeasance and corruption in the Florida penal system, that he would return to prison. So when a friend of his called me the day after his body was discovered to say he had committed suicide I was shocked but not entirely surprised.
Just as Shawn Griffith was an extraordinary person, he was extraordinarily unlucky. When he was released from prison in 2007 he was a model candidate for conditional parole. At age 21 he had been sentenced to 22 years in prison for flashing a gun and robbing a man of $30. He robbed to support his crack addiction, a lifestyle he adopted at age 16. Over a 14-year period in numerous state prisons he took over 40 accredited correspondence courses with emphasis on criminal justice, psychology, and marketing. From Ohio University he earned an assosicate's college degree and carried a grade point average of 3.5. All that time he also volunteered his time as an adult basic education teacher to hundreds of inmates. He was fully rehabilitated and ready to start a new life.
Seven weeks into his release he was making his way, working a full-time job and passing each of his weekly drug screens. With his family, he attended church services every Sunday. Then the bottom fell out. One night when he returned home an hour after his 7 p.m. curfew – he had been at a job interview – his parole officer was waiting for him. She did not care that he had just been offered a job as a data processor that paid $32,000 a year. She sent in the paperwork that revoked his release and Shawn was sent back to prison to serve the final six years of his original sentence.
What was so extraordinary about Shawn was what he had overcome. The thought and research he put into writing Facing the U.S. Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong represented a monumental accomplishment for someone who had dropped out of school at age 12 and spent over 23 years in some of the worst run prisons in the United States where no thought – only lip service – was ever given to rehabilitation.
Crime Magazine was proud to excerpt his book. On January 14, 2013 we published his article “Drugs Inside U.S. Prisons” and on April 8, 2013 his article “Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons.” Like his book, the articles demonstrated that there are few people writing today with the knowledge and facility Shawn brought to bear on important prison issues. This big hulk of a man with a shaved head and quiet demeanor was full of compassion and empathy. He was a true believer in righting wrongs.
In the final chapter of his book he ends with a section entitled “A Final Word to Convicts – Do Not Give Up.” He writes, “God willing, one day you will get out and there will be people who aid you in the process. But you know as well as I do that the real challenge is to remain focused on where you’re going now and where you want to be in 10 years. As ex-convicts, we can be our own greatest friends or our own greatest deceivers. Our futures are truly in our own hands.”