Journal Entry: Douglas Jason Way-02/18/2024-OWNING IT

Journal Entry

The look on my friend David’s face indicated that I had just said something distasteful. We were in the camp visiting room discussing what guys did to land themselves in prison. After giving the breakdown of drug, gun, and white-collar convictions, I explained to David that many of the men were willing to frankly discuss their histories. While the complex legal landscape and aggressive prosecution were themes that muddied the waters of how my fellow campers shared their stories, very few laid claim to complete innocence. My final conclusion was, that although it was often the case that guys were convicted of crimes that did not exactly match their actual misdeeds, and that most had experienced injustice in the process, at some level every one of them made decisions that placed them in harm’s way.

I included my own case, complex as it was, in this determination and David was rising to my defense. “What did you do to put yourself in harm’s way?”, he asked. The path that I walked to be able to answer his question in the spirit of true accountability was long and at times arduous. I had coincidentally taken the final steps not long before David’s visit while reading a book called Extreme Ownership.

Written by two former Navy SEAL team leaders turned business consultants, Extreme Ownership lays out the principles of SEAL leadership, foremost among them, accountability. Their perspective is equally applicable to individual character building and leading teams and was summed up when they wrote, “Total responsibility for failure is a difficult thing to accept, and taking ownership when things go wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage. But doing just that is an absolute necessity to learning, growing, and improving.”

There was a time in my life when that idea would have been off-putting in the extreme, to borrow the word from the author’s title. Prior to getting sober, I was slippery and morally relativistic. I made an art form out of rationalizing my irresponsibility and poor decision-making. Mentors in my spiritual tradition of recovery pounded into my head that the problems in my life were of my making without exception and that it was unacceptable to selfishly sleep-walk through life doing harm to others.

Putting these lessons to use built my character, but it did not guarantee that I wouldn’t stumble and fall. When I failed, I was taught that I needed to own it, make amends, and keep my side of the street clean. Practicing accountability did not make me perfect–far from it–but it did make me a better man. I brought this mindset into my legal proceedings and was shocked by how misfit I was to my new reality.

For the uninitiated, the journey through the criminal justice system can feel like being a foreigner in a strange land where the culture and language are unintelligible. My confusion was particularly acute related to accountability. In my paradigm, justice meant restoration; an honest account of harm done, coupled with a willingness to make amends to the fullest extent possible. This is not how it works in the federal legal system.

Our system is adversarial by nature. The accuser attacks, necessitating that the accused defaults to defensiveness. Further discouraging accountability is the fact that we define justice primarily in terms or retribution rather than restoration. It is only natural that a person facing the threat of harm will attempt to avoid or minimize it at all costs.

We have also allowed our system to evolve in such a manner that it is nearly impossible to hold law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges accountable, even for egregious misconduct. They are typically subject only to sanctions meted out by their peers and that almost never happens. Due to legal precedent, citizens have no recourse in the courts either. This double-standard is readily apparent in the behavior it produces, and it tends to entrench cynicism rather than produce productive outcomes or personal growth.

Instead of fostering true accountability, our system attempts to coerce contrition and submissiveness to authority. Men and women will demonstrate contrition, but their motive is all too often to attempt to manipulate rather than make amends. In their hearts, they are still rebellious toward authority because, in their estimation, the record demonstrates that it is illegitimate.

By the time I arrived in prison, I knew that I had work to do to heal the wounds of a seven year legal battle, and to get back in line with my principles. As I talked to the men in the camp, I saw how the fight came to define them and their attitudes. I did not want that to be my fate.

In the stories of my fellow campers and in the books I read, I learned just how convoluted our legal code has become, and how perversely affected by biases and incentives prosecutorial practices are. The drug war is fought with magic tools like “ghost dope” and conspiracy. We cannot pick a lane between the freedom to bear arms and gun control. And the realm of white collar crime is mind-bogglingly confusing. In this context, it is tempting to look out the window at the dysfunction of the system and those administering it, rather than in the mirror at our own flaws. But the more I heard guys rationalize away their own fault due to the legal context, the more I knew that it wouldn’t work for me to come to a similar conclusion. My belief in accountability as a guiding principle demanded otherwise.

I was prosecuted under a law that has been successfully challenged for its vagueness by a federal agency that had previously determined that the products and operations of the company I consulted for were legal. One of the men who hired me threw me under the bus to save his own skin, and then repeatedly perjured himself while “cooperating” with the government. Serious ethical questions were raised by the manner in which I was prosecuted, and the appellate court acknowledged administrative errors and unfairness in my trial. The punishment I received was disparate to my level of involvement. I have experienced abuse, disrespect, dehumanization, and degradation while incarcerated.

Every one of these things is true. And every one of them is also entirely irrelevant to my accountability. The simple truth is that the harm that came to me as a result of my entry into the system would not have happened if I had not decided to take the consulting engagement. The loss and pain that my family and friends have experienced was not caused by the system, it was caused by me and my poor judgment. There were red flags that I either failed to see or ignored, and even if there weren’t warning signs, the outcome is still the outcome. I own it.

Getting to full ownership is not easy. My motivation for wrestling mightily with true accountability is that I can see how holding onto rationalizations and shirking responsibility sabotages character. For me to come home believing anyone or anything else was at fault for this hardship would be tantamount to trying to build a new life on a shoddy foundation. I promised my family that I would come home stronger in body, mind, and spirit than when I left, and that commitment includes accountability.

The other reason that I am willing to be accountable, learn my lessons, and make amends is that I would like to experience the freedom that comes with being made open to receive grace. As Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote in Accidental Saints, “And receiving grace is basically the best shitty feeling in the world. I don’t want to need it. Preferably, I could just do it all and be it all and never mess up. That may be what I prefer, but it is never what I need. I need to be broken apart and put back together into a different shape by that merging of things human and divine, which is really screwing up and receiving grace and love and forgiveness…”

David cares enough about me to defend me and I love him for that. The beauty of true accountability, however, is that I don’t need to defend myself nor have others do so for me. The battle is over and I am free. The ability to feel free while incarcerated, and even more important, to not bring prison home with me when I am freed, is a byproduct of the grace that ownership makes possible.