Prison Never Leaves You: A Visit from Richard Stratton

Prison Never Leaves You: A Visit from Richard Stratton


This week, The Fortune Society was grateful to have a visit from Richard Stratton, award-winning writer and filmmaker who first came here as a client after release from prison in 1990. Richard, also a former Fortune Board Member, returned to inspire the community with his story of winning his own release from prison by becoming a self-taught jailhouse lawyer and building a career in writing and filmmaking. Throughout the event, he shared how despite his accomplishments, his experience in prison still impacts him today—a sentiment that many in the audience could empathize with.

“Part of my mind is still locked up,” he said.

Richard’s journey is detailed in his memoir, In the World: From the Big House to Hollywood. He initially faced a 25-year sentence in prison for marijuana smuggling, and at the discussion, he described how a rocky relationship with his father contributed to this path. While incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Richard began educating himself about the criminal legal system in order to appeal his sentence. As he studied, he became fascinated with the law and even helped other incarcerated people appeal their cases. He wrote his own appellate briefs, and after going through an arduous appeal process, won his release after eight years inside.

“I wrote my way out of prison,” he said.

After release, he recalled feeling a certain “euphoria” until he realized the enormity of the challenges he would face reentering society. He came to Fortune for help navigating them.

“[After release], you realize you’ve got to get a job, support [yourself], find a place to live…,” he said.

Despite the obstacles, Richard went on to build a career in writing and filmmaking. In addition to his memoir, he’s authored Kingpin: Prisoner of the War on Drugs, and produced films related to the criminal justice system, including the documentary mini-series, Gotti: Godfather and Son.

30 years later, however, prison still impacts Richard. Reentry has never stopped, and making the mental adjustment from prison to the outside world has been a life-long process. Richard openly shared how he continues to face PTSD, and sometimes finds himself suppressing instinctual violent reactions to certain situations. After prison, daily circumstances became stressful—Richard recalled a time when he went out for coffee, only to feel alienated from the people around him. He felt like he didn’t belong.

“[Experience in prison] tattoes on your brain,” he said.

Ultimately, it was writing that gave him the strength to survive in prison. For Richard, it was therapy.

After sharing his story, Richard answered questions and gave advice to members of the Fortune community who are currently reentering society like he did. His insight was a poignant reminder of the lasting trauma of justice involvement. Richard’s story shows the work that remains in making the criminal justice system fairer and more humane, and what’s possible when people are given the chance to rebuild their lives.

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