When I first started to write this article, it was almost an easy choice because the most memorable person I got to know in prison is O.J. Simpson. We first met when I had to complete a 2-mile run for a military program within the prison that I had joined. After I had ran, I lay on the ground, breathing heavily and wondering why I would subject my 46-year-old body to such punishment. O.J. came over to me, peered down and said, “Damn, you act like you be tired.” My first words to ‘The Juice’ were, “Fuck (pant, pant)… you.” He laughed and helped me to my feet and said that us old people have to stick together. I resisted the urge to tell him he was about 3 decades older than me and I wasn’t old… yet. O.J. suggested that we walk around the yard because he was going to do that anyway and it would help me to catch my breath. As we walked around, I noticed that he had a book by Clive Cussler in his hand. He explained that he had always love to read and it was one of life’s greatest joys for him. That proved to be true because he always had a book in his hand wherever he went.
My initial impression of O.J. Simpson totally went against what I had perceived him to be, although, I also wasn’t far from wrong. He is brash, out-spoken, egotistical, and loves attention. But he’s also uber-smart and very friendly. Additionally, he’s very guarded. The only people he really associated with outside of prison were his family and attorney. Every night, he received a lot of mail. The majority were from women that he didn’t know. He usually handed these letters out to guys who didn’t have any friends or family out in the world. He had a big heart towards those who face the struggle alone. He would go out of his way to bring a smile to their faces, even if it meant simply buying them an ice-cream sandwich.
O.J. and I would talk daily. I especially loved looking at his photos. He had pictures of him with Hollywood stars, famous athletes, and even presidents. I listened willingly as he talked for hours about each and every one of them. And believe me, once O.J. started talking, it was practically impossible to get him to stop.
On our last walk together, O.J. was stressed about his impending parole hearing. I told him that it was certain that he would go home. He had done everything Nevada had asked, so there was no real reason to deny him parole. Eventually, a week later, O.J. was taken and locked away in the infirmary for what they call ‘safety reasons,’ until he paroled in October. I, or no one else, got a chance to say good-bye and good luck. But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. O.J. will be released and forget about prison and everything and everyone, as well he should. He and I weren’t great friends, but we were friends. It’s ironic that as he looked out for those who needed it, I unknowingly did the same for him.
Although that’s memorable, it isn’t exactly influential and if I am to write about the most influential person I met in prison then that honor goes to another inmate… Jonathan Daniels. Jonathan is the battalion leader of a military style program called the Structured Living Program, SLP for short.
SLP is located in Lovelock, Nevada and has been around for over two decades. The uniqueness of this program is that although there are many boot camps across the U.S., they usually prevent offenders from going to prisons by receiving a lesser sentence or having their charges dropped if they complete the camp set up inside the prison. It had always been thought that it would never work with inmates who had already been convicted, many serving harsh and over bearing sentences. What would be in it for them to enter a very rigid and structured program and do what’s required of them? But SLP is showing that there is a large core of inmates in the penal system who are looking to better themselves in any way necessary and to instill some discipline and structure in their lives. Because without structure there is chaos, and chaos is what happens when someone lives in an unpredictable manner, absent of rules and organization. This type of lifestyle usually leads to death, prison, or some other type of unfortunate condition. SLP has this structure and that’s what has attracted inmates, including me.
In January of 1990, I was arrested and eventually convicted of killing a cab driver in Las Vegas. I received the death penalty and at the age of 19, I spent the next 20 years on death row, alone and with very little hope. But in 2011, the Supreme Court overturned my sentence and I was released into the general population. I had spent more than half my time in solitary confinement and now came the hard part of piecing my life back together. I knew I was behind the eight ball when it came to a lot of life’s lessons and needed to get myself beck to ground zero and spiral upward from there. Because no matter where you are—prison or not—life still requires you to grow, mature, and achieve your full potential as a human being.
I heard about the Structured Living Program from an inmate who had graduated from there and decided it would be the perfect program for me. So, I filled out an application and waited to join the program. Finally, in April of 2016, I was transferred to Lovelock Correctional Center to enter SLP. The only reservation I had was that at the age of 45, I might be too old to be rolling around in the dirt playing G.I. Joe. It was a Thursday evening and the first person I met was Jonathan Daniels who personally meets all the new recruits. There were six of us and I was the oldest by far. It only added to my trepidation. Daniels told us that on Monday we would have an official interview with the Drill Instructor, Ball. It didn’t take much to put the pieces together. The Drill Instructor is a regular corrections officer. SLP is its own separate entity. It’s in its own unit and encompasses 84 inmates. When Ball is absent, Jonathan Daniels assumes control of the program.
That intrigued me because here was a program whose complete mode of operation is centered around structure, yet here was an inmate like me who was quite literally (because he’s African-American) the H.N.I.C. That actually went against structure because I’ve been around long enough to know that in no way, shape, or form does an inmate have any control over anything that is prison related. But Daniels has the power to lock the whole unit down if he so chooses to or administer punishment for those who have broken on the rules. That’s why it’s imperative that the battalion leader be someone who has the complete trust and confidence of Drill Instructor Ball and other staff members. If he’s too soft on the inmates, he loses that trust. If he’s too hard, he loses respect of his fellow inmates. In the grand scheme of things, he is no different than anyone else. There is no hierarchy when it comes to prisoners. Everyone is in the same boat and no one is higher than anyone else, no matter what position or title someone holds. So, Daniels has to make men out of boys which sometimes require ruling with an iron fist, while at the same time not overstepping his boundaries as an inmate. A hard, if not impossible trick to pull off.
But Daniels does it well and has been for the past three years. Who he is now is a far cry from who he was. Jonathan grew up in a family of four. Although he was raised by his mother and grandmother, at the age of 13, in an effort to feel a sense of belonging, to be a part of a family, he joined the Rolling 60s Crips. He spent most of his time fighting and using drugs. On January 20th, 1995, at the age of 19, Jonathan was arrested and charged with murder for the deaths of two convenience store clerks. He was sentenced to four life sentences without the possibility of parole and sent to a maximum-security prison for 20 years. Jonathan was heavily involved in prison politics which basically insures the separation of races and the complete obedience of its members. He was also the leader of prison movements, almost all of them negative. He did drugs, committed many acts of violence, and was disruptive towards staff and anyone in authority. Thanks to his actions, Jonathan found himself in solitary confinement. A counselor offered him a chance to use his leadership skills in a positive way. Daniels contemplated the offer and decided that it was time to make a change in life. He had read a quote by Cato, “I would rather have men ask after I’m dead, why I have no monument rather than why I have one.” He figured it was time to be known for something positive. So, he signed up for the SLP.
At first, Jonathan was skeptical, but soon started to buy into what it was trying to do with inmates. After all, SLP’s motto is, “Changing Hearts and Minds.” And that’s what it was starting to do to him. Eventually, his way of thinking changed and consequently, so did his actions. He rose up the ranks and was rewarded by becoming the next battalion leader. Since that time, the changes he’s instilled have caused it to ascend to new heights.
When I first met Daniels, he took to me right away. I think because he saw a little bit of himself in me. We were about the same age, had been locked up for over 20 years, came from broken homes, and had an ungodly amount of time to serve. We also share an unquenchable desire not only to excel, but to help others do the same. However, at first I thought that he was going out of his way to embarrass me or put me down.
When I came into the program, I was grossly out of shape. In SLP, daily work-outs are mandatory. Trainees are tested and timed in push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and the 2-mile run. I sucked in all categories. It was as I feared. When I first signed up, the only reservation I had was, maybe, I was too old. SLP definitely proved to be a young man’s game. The program and Drill Instructor Ball don’t accept excuses of any kind and Daniels pushed me to my breaking point and beyond. The first time I ran those dreaded two miles, I did it in a blazing 20-plus minutes. No one does real good on their first run, but even by that standard, that time was downright pitiful. All that did was cause Daniels to personally take me under his wing and whip my sorry butt into shape. It was two months of pure torture, but I started to feel and see the changes I was going through. I cut five minutes from my time and started looking and acting like a responsible person. The program only works for those who are truly committed to change. Those who aren’t are weeded out and dismissed. This is how Drill Instructor Ball and battalion leader Daniels want it and they make no apologies. I was more than ready to meet their tough demands. The graduating class rate for each platoon is very low. That’s because of the challenging nature of SLP. A lot of guys just can’t cut it and they either drop out or get kicked out. I vowed that I wouldn’t be one of those guys. Unlike conventional boot camp that are seen on t.v., there isn’t a lot of screaming or getting in someone’s face. If a person chooses not to give their all or they are disruptive, they’re dismissed without hesitation. Only those who are serious about change are wanted. Keeping guys motivated is Daniels’s biggest challenge.
After getting me to the point where I can walk up a flight of stairs without using a respirator, Daniels decided it was time to go to the next phase of the Degradation of Frederick Paine. One morning, out of the blue, he asked me to march the battalion back from breakfast. My first instinct was to say no and face the consequences of disobeying a direct order because marching 84 men is like having the reins of a team of Clydesdale horses. It’s difficult keeping a whole battalion in step at a proper cadence and this should be reserved for experienced people only, not someone who still laughs at his own farts. Needless to say, I failed miserably. The Titanic wasn’t as big of a disaster. I almost laid on the ground, curled up in the fetal position, sucked my thumb, and called for my mommy. Afterwards, I apologized to Daniels for sucking so badly. With a gleam in his eyes, he clapped me on the back and told me not to worry about it. And I’ll be damned if the son-of-a-bitch didn’t do it again the next day! And that’s the way it went until I marched the battalion like I was Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman. Daniels explained to me that he did that because people, like a bad football team, get accustomed to failure and the only way of overcoming it is taking yourself out of that losing comfort zone. He was absolutely right and I learned a great lesson. It helped propel me upward.
But Daniels’s main contribution to my life came when he wanted to upgrade SLP’s Color Guard. The Color Guard is responsible for the raising and retiring the American flag every day. For the longest time, he had been dissatisfied with their performance and was at a loss as to what to do. Out of everyone in the battalion, the Color Guard are expected to be the most disciplined, honorable, and trustworthy. They’re supposed to be the best marchers and their behaviors are supposed to be impeccable. But due to past problems and guys not measuring up to standards that had been set for them, Color Guard had become a rag-tag group of guys whose duties were to put up and take down the flag, only. One day, Daniels decided he would make Color Guard their own platoon and they’d have a platoon leader, responsible for the actions of the Color Guard and they in turn would be accountable for their own behavior. Daniels figured that the person for new Color Guard platoon leader should be yours truly. I didn’t know what to say. I was honored, but knew what a huge task this was going to be and I wasn’t sure if I was qualified to do it. But he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, which was strange because I had never been in charge of anything in my life. Here I was, trying to find my own direction in life and here he was, entrusting me with a platoon of men to train and develop who would be proud members of this battalion. I had no idea how to do that. Jonathan looked at me and said, “Paine, do you know how to take something to the next level? You just believe in yourself and do it.” It was a very simple answer, but I knew what he was trying to tell me. Instead of worrying about how my guys would react to the changes I wanted to make, I should just trust in what I envisioned for the platoon and just… do it. And I did. Before too long, the Color Guard went from the laughing stock of SLP to a respected group of individuals. The more successful they became; the more confident I became in myself and my ability as a leader. For the first time in my life, I felt a measure of pride. Through bad decisions and lack of common sense, I had committed a terrible crime and messed up my life almost beyond repair. When I was on death row, part of me had given up because I had deemed myself a failure and thought I could never atone for all the lives I had ruined, including mine. To go from an extreme low to an extreme high was something that I didn’t expect and I know that I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg.
A month ago (from this publication), I graduated from the SLP program with honors. It was a tough goal to accomplish, but I did it. Doing so only proves what Daniels preaches to the battalion on a consistent basis. His belief is that every day you wake up is a chance to change, a chance to be better than you were the day before. No one has to be a slave to yesterday because yesterday has nothing to do with today. If yesterday you were irresponsible and a thief, today you can wake up and be more responsible and vow not to take anything that’s not yours. Whatever the case may be, every morning is a blank piece of paper and it’s up to us to choose to start anew or not. But to do that, you have to put the sins, mistakes, and failures behind you and turn your head towards the future.
That’s where I’m aiming and I thank SLP, especially Jonathan Daniels, for pointing me in the right direction. Even though I’m out of the program, today he asked me if I wanted to be the Charlie company platoon leader. Of course, I’ll do it because the chance to help others who need guidance is something that I can’t turn away from. I haven’t made a strong contribution to my environment yet, but I’m on the right path. The example Jonathan Daniels set forth shows that anything’s possible if you’re willing to put the effort into achieving what you want. Nothing’s easy. If it was, we’d all be doctors and famous athletes. But life requires that you live it to the fullest. Fulfillment only comes when we push ourselves to the farthest reaches that we are capable of. The purpose of life is to matter, to count, to stand for something, to make some difference that we lived at all. Once we do that, we’ll not only know how it feels to let go of mistakes of the past and live for today, but to also know how it feels to be human.
Frederick Paine was on death row before his sentence was overturned in 2009 and he was re-sentenced to life without parole for the murder of a cab driver in a robbery gone wrong.
Frederick Paine #32945
Southern Desert CC
PO Box 208
Indian Springs, NV