Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 1 of 7: The Path to Prison


At the age of 18, I was a high school dropout who robbed three banks, and was on his way to maximum-security prison.  There didn’t seem to be much reason for hope.  But ten years later, by excelling in academics after my release, I would begin my doctoral studies in political philosophy at the University of Michigan.  On the surface it appeared like I was living the American dream: I had a good comeback story, a bright future, I was young and physically fit and I always had a girlfriend.  By our cultures’ standards, I should have been happy.  But I only loved and trusted myself.  There was no room for God in my heart and in my understanding of the world, and so I was slowly dying from the inside out.  And I knew it.  Then one day in April 2007, while doing yard work, God reached down and reversed the course of my life with the resounding intervention: “I love you and I forgive you”—followed by an infusion of his divine love.  From that moment on I set aside everything I thought I knew, and pursued this love.  I was surprised to soon find that the source of this love was Jesus Christ, and that my home was the Roman Catholic Church.

An Escape Into Prison

So let’s start with the obvious question: How does an eighteen year-old come to the shocking decision to rob banks?  For it was a real decision, a decisive break that I carefully considered and turned over in my mind for months.  So unlike many robbers, my crime was not a crime of opportunity or an immediate response to the ache of a drug addiction.  But I suppose I robbed banks for the same reason that many poor souls turn to drugs or suicide: because I was without hope, saw no path forward and needed out.  My mind had become uninhabitable to myself as I was deeply estranged from myself, from others and from God.  At that time I thought I was at an impasse: I dropped out of high school after being suspended seven times my senior year, and I’d just quit my job because I couldn’t manage my anxiety amongst the ups and downs.  I thought that robbing banks and the prospect of prison would be my escape—for I assumed that I would get caught since I knew that nine out of ten bank robbers end up in prison.  I know it sounds crazy—a wild paradox—but I was making an escape into prison as a last attempt to salvage myself.  And believe it or not it actually worked and exceeded all of my desperate hopes.  But we’ll get to that later…

Before I robbed banks I’d been committing an escalating series of petty crimes: vandalism, fistfights, and large and small thefts.  I’d prowl about at all hours of the night with like-minded friends and seize opportunities to destroy or steal property from anonymous strangers.  It was a very strange thing to do night after night, and so what was I up to here?  On the one hand, the thrill of danger briefly made me feel alive and in control, and I knew that robbing banks would just ratchet up the thrill.  On the other hand, I was striking out at the very anonymity of strangers—the fact that I was alienated and disassociated from others.  They had their lives that were separate and totally unknown and unconnected to me, and I hated that separation. This view had its origins in the troubles in my home.  When I was a child my home was marked by conflict and instability, and I felt isolated in my fear and helplessness.  I always fantasized about escaping into the woods to live alone, but I knew that was impractical.  And so I wanted someone to intervene—some neighbor or stranger—but no one ever did.  And so I viewed that separation as a threat, a betrayal, a sign that notions of justice were a fiction since real justice depends upon the fact of interconnected lives—a genuine community.  Since I had no hope that life was ultimately just, and found no consolation from others, I gradually retreated into myself as into a fortress.

In this way, I responded to my experience of suffering and the evil in the worst possible way: by recoiling in my pride, ashamed of my wounds and human weakness, by vowing never to be tread upon again, and by spreading my hidden pain.  Shortly before I started robbing banks I had taken to heating up a knife on a stove and pressing it against my bare chest.  I thought the searing burns would harden me and replace or cover my deeper pain.  I had burns on both sides of my chest and I thought that they looked like a pair of wings, and that they were a promise of liberation—that I was freed from those past years of fear and helplessness.  And so I liked the fact that the burns would bleed when I lifted weights, and coupled with the pounding of the barbells, it re-assured me of my own strength, and filled me with confidence.

Posing with money--note the scars on my chest

Not surprisingly, harming others and myself didn’t release me from my misery, but just deepened my sense of turmoil and despair.  Finally, I became alienated in some deep sense from life itself, from existence, from the ultimate meaning of things.  Of course now I know that all of these things add up to the fact that I was alienated from God—who I didn’t even believe in at the time.  Even so, I couldn’t bear this alienation, and so I held the strange view that the radical act of robbing banks would help me break through the gray facade of life and scratch the bottom of existence.  I thought that robbing banks was so out of the ordinary, such a break from the normal, that it would cause a kind of metaphysical rupture and I would finally see life for what it was.  I was like Captain Ahab who thought he could storm heaven by hunting down Moby Dick, the white whale.  His famous whale hunt was a metaphysical revolt, a supreme act of self-will—of egoism—against a seemingly indifferent and cruel existence.  Fortunately, unlike Captain Ahab, I didn’t take a crew down with me.

Captain Ahab cursing heaven

Well, robbing banks didn’t offer any metaphysical breakthroughs, but I did find the first two robberies novel and exhilarating.  But the third robbery did not have the same effect, and I was once more thrown back upon myself—as upon a dead thing.  And now, unlike many drug addicts who want the high and escape to continue, I just wanted out.  Fortunately, by this time a fellow criminal tipped off the local Portland police that I had been robbing banks in Washington in exchange for the reward money and other considerations.  The police soon raided my house, but they made an error and apprehended a friend standing outside the house instead of me.  I was inside the house at the time and heard the screech of converging police cars followed by shouting.  I immediately knew what was happening.  I grabbed a semi-automatic rifle from under my bed and held it waist-high.  I didn’t have a desire or plan to shoot it out with the police—it just seemed like that’s what bank robbers are supposed to do when the police arrive—you go and grab your gun.  I held the gun for a moment, and it was cold and heavy.  Then a bright thought of hope flashed through my mind, “I don’t want to die—I’m young!”  I threw the gun back under the bed and ran out the back door wearing only boxer shorts.  I was arrested a short time later.

I thought bank robbers wore fancy suits

After my arrest I was immediately full of joy and relief.  I suppose I looked like someone who was just released from prison, and not someone who was going away for a while.  In fact, the in-take officer at the jail found my behavior so unusual that he wrote on the back of my in-take form that I might be crazy, or what he called “a little 1…2…3…4”.  What the officer didn’t know was that I had a new lease on life.  I was alive, young, and would now spend the next few years trying to put myself back together.  And so I happily told the detectives everything they wanted to know, and was relieved to confess and hold nothing back. I threw myself on the mercy of the court, and though my complete cooperation was not a strategic move, it actually had the effect of netting me the lowest possible sentence.  The Federal government had the option of prosecuting my case with an automatic minimum sentence of fifteen years, but since I had no prior felony convictions they had mercy on me and turned me over to the State of Washington for a lesser sentence.  Now I was worried when I was assigned the county’s so-called “hanging judge”, but during my sentencing hearing the normally dour judge could not restrain some smiles and laughter as he examined me. I had spent most of the money on silk suits and a fast car like some character from a 1930s gangster movie, and so the judge realized that I was not so much a dangerous character as a pathetic young man who was almost playing at being a bank robber.  Unfortunately, while the judge had some hopes for my rehabilitation, the state did not, and so they opted to send me to a maximum-security prison.  The prison officials thought it was best to gather most of the “bad apples” in the same place, and so they stocked one particular prison, Clallam Bay, full of angry young men and hardened cons.  It was known among inmates as a “gladiator school”, and that would be my new home.  

Clallam Bay prison on a rare sunny day

Now the common view is that getting sent to a maximum-security prison is the worst thing that could happen to an eighteen year-old, but like most things in life, the truth is more complicated.  In prison there are basically two kinds of inmates: those who are welcomed into and enjoy the benefits of convict society—that little society that convicts create for themselves despite whatever the prison staff are up to—and those who are effectively ostracized and serve their time on the edge such as sex offenders, “snitches” and the “weak” or “scared”.   If you’re welcomed into convict society you live according to a rule of convict justice known as the “convict code”, and it creates the benefits of extensive black market trade, mutual protection, and some degree of respect for persons and property.  It also helped to create a shared worldview, and that furthered a sense of solidarity and provided the building blocks of friendship.  Since there is a dramatic difference in the quality of life between the outcasts and those on the inside—the so-called “solid cons”—my future depended upon where I would come to stand. 

I knew it was crucial to make the right first impression since mistakes have a long shelf-life in prison and your reputation can follow you from prison to prison.  Part of me welcomed the challenge of being eighteen and in a maximum-security prison.  I knew that fear is easily sniffed out, and in truth, I wasn’t afraid.  I had vowed with an icy resolution that no one would ever bully or dominate me again, and I had boxed enough and been in enough street-fights to like my chances.  The solid cons—the inmates who basically ran the prison—watched me and gradually put me through a series of subtle tests in order to sift through my character and determine what kind of inmate I was.  They observed whom I sat with in the chow hall, how I acted on the weight pile, and how I reacted to tense situations.  They kept me at arms length as they weighed whether this “youngster” was one of them: someone who was dependable, cool-headed, tough, honest and respectful to fellow cons, or whether I was a loudmouth or frightened or undisciplined.  After watching me for several weeks, I was grudgingly welcomed into convict society.  At first, I was just welcomed as a matter of justice and mutual advantage.  Since I seemed to be a solid con, the other solid cons had a kind of ethical obligation to accept me, and it was also to their advantage because the more solid cons then the more buyers and sellers in the black market as well as the greater the group security and oversight.  But what began at first as a grudging acceptance, turned into real friendship and a sense of community and solidarity.


  1. I just listened to your interview with Roy Schoeman. It was fantastic! I posted the link to my facebook. The part about our thoughts coming from one of three places was so intriguing. Sometimes I have bad thoughts, and then I think, "Well, you can't help that a thought comes into your head, right? I wonder where it's coming from and whether it is a sin. In confession, a priest has said that as long as you don't entertain the thought it's not a sin. But I'm not sure what "entertain" means. Unless it's just not acting on it. It is a relief to know that thoughts can come from outside yourself, from "good" Spirits, like God, the Holy Spirit, angels and saints, and bad spirits--the enemy, the devil. The third way thoughts come is from human origin. And lately my mantra is "Dear God, please take me out of my own head! It's boring in there and I want to have thoughts of You. I am driving myself crazy :--)

    1. Too funny. I think many of us spend too much time buzzing around in our own heads. God asks us to decrease so that He might increase in us. But that can only happen if we follow scripture, "Be still, and know that I am the Lord."

  2. I remember your days of petty crime that you mention here. I have a very vivid memory of you coming out of a grocery store with little wine bottles in your sweatpants. What a wild ride you've been on.

    1. Good to hear from you Carlee. Sorry I didn't see this comment sooner.

      Yes, it's been a wild ride. God blessed me even in dark times with people like you. Even though I was a seventeen year old fool, listening to your story back then and recognizing your good heart was a lesson I remembered. It helped me understand and love people better even though I had a long way to go.

      And sorry I was such a jerk. You deserved better!


Please exercise charity and patience when you comment or your post might not be published. Thank you!