Hank Shea: An open letter to Tom Petters as a man entering prison

  • Article by: HANK SHEA
  • April 10, 2010 - 5:56 PM

Tom: The court has imposed its sentence, and now you need to prepare for what lies ahead. I am writing to give you a few things to think about as you wait for the Bureau of Prisons to determine where you will serve your time.

I have not been involved in your case, but I encountered many people like you during my 20 years as a federal prosecutor. I have also worked closely with more than a dozen white-collar offenders over the last eight years, all of whom served federal prison terms. So I have an idea of what awaits you.

Although you already have experienced a loss of freedom and privacy and control over your life, you still have critical choices to make.

You may feel that your life is over. It is not. First, you need to decide to come to grips with what you know to be the truth.

You can continue to admit nothing and point the finger at others through the course of a fruitless appeal. But eventually you will recognize the need to accept responsibility for your wrongdoing. This will begin a long, difficult process of breaking down all your past denial, blame and rationalization.

It is never easy to come clean with one's conscience. But only then can you begin to heal, and to regain a measure of self-worth.

As you know, you won't be heading to a federal prison camp, such as the old Air Force base in Duluth, where most Minnesota white-collar criminals do their time. Given the length of your sentence, you will not be eligible for that type of minimum-security facility. You will most likely be sent to a low- or medium-security federal prison, with guard towers and high fences, holding mostly drug offenders facing long sentences and often with little education or work experience.

Once in prison, you will have to make another important decision. In federal correctional institutions, everyone is required to work. How you spend that time will be up to you. You can do the absolute minimum menial jobs, collect your 12 cents per hour, and stay the same as you are now. Or you can begin to rebuild your character and rekindle self-respect by challenging yourself each day to improve yourself and the lives of your fellow inmates. Let me tell you how.

Educating inmates reduces their likelihood of recidivism. You should volunteer to teach inmates to read or to speak English. Tutor inmates who are seeking GEDs; help them with their math or science problems. Prepare short-timers for job searches or interviews and explain to them what it takes to keep a job.

Take satisfaction in every inmate you help, knowing that they will have a better chance of staying law-abiding after their release because of you.

In the years ahead, you will have a lot of time to reflect. Use some of it to seek reconciliation for yourself and then forgiveness from others. Although it may seem foreign to you now, you still have the potential to improve the lives of many others in this world. But first you must heal yourself by coming to terms with what you have wrought and trying to make amends in whatever way you are able.

While you will never repay those you have harmed, you can seek their mercy and understanding through written apologies and the sincere expression of remorse. From some, forgiveness will never come (but don't assume this means your amends meant nothing to them). From others, particularly family and friends, forgiveness will be granted, and it will sustain you.

You should never give up hope of bettering yourself and others. In later years of imprisonment, set larger goals. Employ your management skills and experience to assist other inmates and even the Bureau of Prisons in improving prison literacy programs and ESL tutoring. Work to expand inmate volunteerism (such as reading for the blind). Promote prison reform from within.

Strive not just to be a model inmate yourself, but to help tens, then hundreds, of other inmates become the kinds of people who can make it on the outside.

You can build a legacy different from the one with which you will enter prison. Doing so is the path to personal recovery, peace and redemption. I urge you to take it.

Hank Shea, Minneapolis, is is a former assistant U.S. attorney and a senior distinguished fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law (

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