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I Nearly Lost My Freedom Because I Couldn’t Pee in a Cup

After 21 years in federal prison for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, I'm now living in a halfway house. I can go out to work and visit my wife, but I'm sometimes reminded how vulnerable my new life is.
(Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

A few days ago at 6:30 a.m., just as I was getting ready to go to work, I got called down to the front desk of my halfway house in St. Louis. I have lived here for the past two months since being released from federal prison after doing 21 years of a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug conspiracy.

“Do you have your ID?” the desk clerk asked me.

It was time for a drug test. One of the conditions of my release to the halfway house is that I’m required to take a breathalyzer every time I return from a work, business, or recreation pass. I’m also tested for drugs once or twice a week.

But so far, every drug test had been a swab test, which is painless and quick—way easier to do than the urine samples I had to submit while incarcerated. But this time, for some reason, they wanted urine.

I have always found it hard to piss on command. Not because I am using drugs—I have been clean and sober since 2002—but because the whole act of pissing in a cup while somebody watches me is uncomfortable. Being somewhat used to it doesn’t make it much easier.

So here I am, first thing in the morning, ready to sign out on a pass and get to work by 8 a.m. Trouble was, I had just taken my morning piss and didn’t need to use the bathroom. I told the clerk this. He gave me a 12-ounce cup of water and told me to drink it and wait.

I should soon be given a pass for my first weekend visit. I am looking forward to this because I will be able to spend the night with my wife for the first time in 21 years.

He also told me that I couldn’t drink any water besides the one cup he was giving me. I had to sit in the waiting area where he could see me until I was ready to go.

Bureau of Prisons drug-test policy states that “an inmate is presumed to be unwilling” if he or she doesn’t urinate within a two-hour period. In the halfway house, I’m still technically in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, so their rules apply to me. The urine test procedure is the same as it was in prison—but in prison I had less to lose.

This means that failure to provide a urine sample for the halfway house within two hours would be considered the same as a providing a dirty sample. I would be put on administrative hold at the facility, which would effectively end my new freedom and my job, and could potentially even result in my return to prison.

I was sweating it—even though I haven’t taken so much as an aspirin or Motrin since coming to the halfway house because I don’t want there to be a chance of anything showing up in the tests.

For me, using drugs or alcohol is not an option and not even something I want to do again. I identify as an addict and worked the BOP’s Residential Drug Abuse Program program, although I don’t personally use a 12-step program. I wake up every morning and say I will not use drugs and alcohol today, and that has worked for me for over 10 years. Drug use would only get in the way of the things I wish to accomplish—first off, maintaining my freedom.

As I sat there waiting to provide a urine sample, I thought how embarrassing it would be to have to call my job, working as a courier for a law firm, and tell them I couldn’t come to work because I couldn’t piss in a cup. Then I imagined having to break the news to my wife, who I have finally been able to spend time with after losing so much of our lives together due to my prison sentence. My reality was either piss in the cup before the two hours was up or say goodbye to it all.

I was putting pressure on myself to perform. I wanted to go to work and I wanted my recreation pass later that day to see my wife. But doubt clawed at me. What happened if I couldn’t piss? I was in agony, for real.

Finally at 8:15 a.m.—15 minutes after I was supposed to be at work and 15 minutes before I would have failed the test—I got myself together and provided the sample.

To say I was relieved after an hour and 45 minutes of stress is an understatement. I could go out into the world again. It was like a breath of fresh air.

This is what I am dealing with as I regain my freedom and adjust to the world. I have a six-month term in the halfway house; January 27, 2015, is my finish date.

I try to stay busy and work as much as possible. The halfway house has a tiered system: I started out at Level One, which means you get no passes. Then after orientation I was moved up to Level Two, which meant I could get passes to search for jobs.

I found a couple of different jobs right away. But when they discovered I was in the halfway house they decided they didn’t want me. I have found that the stigma of being an ex-con just released from prison is real. Being discriminated against is not something I am used to, but I am dealing with it.

But through my friends and family I eventually found two jobs that would take me—a night job as a line cook in a restaurant, as well as the daytime courier job. After a couple of weeks to get the paperwork done, I started working regularly, initially staying at Level Two and only being allowed out of the halfway house to work.

It wasn’t bad. I was out in the world, driving, working, and making money. I didn’t get to see my wife very much, but that would soon change. After paying my subsistence fee—handing over 25 percent of the gross of each of my paychecks to the halfway house—I advanced to Level Three and began getting six-hour recreation passes. This meant I could finally go home and spend time with my wife.

I have found that the stigma of being an ex-con just released from prison is real. Being discriminated against is not something I am used to, but I am dealing with it.

By the end of September I had moved up to Level Four. I should soon be given a pass for my first weekend visit—a chance to go home for the whole weekend. I am looking forward to this because I will be able to spend the night with my wife for the first time in 21 years. Waking up with her and holding her all night seemed like a pipe dream during all those years in prison. Now it is about to be a reality.

Being trusted to go out in the community and work to make a living is really big for me. When I got that first paycheck I was very happy. I took a photo of myself holding the check and posted it on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter (forms of technology that I have just discovered for the first time).

The next step for me will be Level Five, which means home confinement, with attendance at the halfway house required at certain times.

Being here is all about accountability. Passing the drug tests and breathalyzers, being on time to check in, being where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there, going to my drug treatment aftercare classes twice a week, and in general being on good behavior all helps to prove that I belong out in the free world.

Prison already seems like such a long time ago. It is receding into the background and the life I had before I went to prison is starting to come back. It is like my mind is compartmentalizing those 21 years and filing them away.

My past will always be there but I don’t wake up thinking I am in prison. I just can’t wait to go to work in the morning so I can be in the halfway house as little as possible. I don’t associate with the other people in here. I don’t know what they are doing and, for real, I don’t care.

I have my wife and my family. I have goals I want to accomplish, things I want to do and learn. New technology is crazy—tablets and smartphones everywhere. I always think people are calling to me but it turns out they are talking on their phones with a Bluetooth. And I don’t even smoke, but when I see that a carton of smokes is like $50 and gas is $3-something, it’s insane. When I got locked up, a carton of smokes was around $8 and gas was around $1.

But other than that, I think I have adapted well so far, even though a lot of people told me I would have a hard time. I am wholeheartedly embracing this adventure. It’s just terrifying how close my inability to piss in a cup came to ending it.

This post originally appeared on Substance, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Last Week I Nearly Lost My Freedom Because I Couldn’t Pee in a Cup.”