Diagnosed as devoid of empathy, he learned to care while in federal prison.

Overview

Ben Aldana once thought he lacked empathy. He once actually got an official diagnosis of “anti-social personality disorder.” He felt numb most of his youth, and slipped into crime and drug trafficking after high school.

It wasn’t till he was in federal prison working as a dental and then a medical assistant, that he began to understand the suffering of others, and get mad when it was unnecessary. After prison he married became a father, graduated from Utah Valley University and then attended law school at BYU, working in the summers with public defenders offices in New York City.

Ben's story

UNTIL HIS MID TWENTIES, when he was in federal prison, Ben doesn’t remember a time when his emotions were not stunted. He struggled to connect with other people, to care. Some of that he now traces to his parents divorce when he was 8, his mom’s remarriage when he was 9, a move across the country to Oklahoma at 10 and another move to Utah at 13. These disruptions, he now speculates, triggered something deep inside, and as he became a teenager his emotional distance from others became anger and indifference.

BEN SOON FOUND bad friends and began doing bad stuff. He committed his first felony at 13, stealing a shotgun, and was soon stealing other items and vandalizing property. The courts gave him plenty of chances, but at 17 they sent him to a youth wilderness program, an experience that, he says, only confirmed his arrogant sense that he didn’t need others.

BEN BARELY GRADUATED FROM high school and started work pouring concrete. It was a miserable life with miserable people, he says now. But at the time, that suited him. A friend introduced him to meth, and he began using on weekends. “But after you are awake for 48 hours on the weekend, how do you show up for work on Monday?” he said. So he started using during the week as well.

METH GOT EXPENSIVE, fast. Soon, Ben decided he had to deal to support his own habit. He sold to others at work, but eventually his boss told him he had to stop or leave. So he left and began selling full time. Ben eventually found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the DEA busted a warehouse he was at with a meth buddy. Ben had been buying iodine to supply the friend’s meth lab, and didn’t realize he had left a trail.

“I was playing with fire,” he said, “but I had no idea how hot that fire was.”

BEN ALSO DIDN’T REALIZE how serious the game was. Sitting in county jail, without bail on federal charges, he began seeing people coming back from court with 20, 30-year and even life terms for doing exactly what he had been doing. “I was playing with fire,” he said, “but I had no idea how hot that fire was.” With a long trail of legal debris in his wake, Ben accepted an 8-year plea deal and headed off to federal prison in Oregon.

BEN WAS A LANDSCAPER for his first two years in prison. Every federal prisoner has to have a job, and his job as a “landscaper” was to get a bucket and pick up trash in the yard for one hour a day. Some job.

HE VISITED THE DENTIST one day and noticed that inmates were serving as dental assistants. That would be a great job, a real job, he thought, and put in a request. Several months later, they called him and hired him. In his job as a dental assistant, Ben was helping an overstretched dentist, who tried to serve the whole prison but with inadequate time and resources. The dentist improvised and did his best, but Ben was frustrated to see that inmates were being denied routine crowns and root canals. For anything beyond the simplest fillings, the only answer was pulling the tooth.

Ben was frustrated to see that inmates were being denied routine crowns and root canals. For anything beyond the simplest fillings, the only answer was pulling the tooth.

NOW HE WAS learning skills, helping people, watching people in pain, and feeling for them. “I was learning empathy,” he says. This was remarkable, because before he was sentenced to federal prison he had been evaluated by a psychologist who concluded that he had “antisocial personality disorder.” Put simply, this meant he was thought to be devoid of empathy.

WHILE BEN WAS WORKING in the dental clinic as well as taking care of various responsibilities he had in the medical clinic, there was a MRSA outbreak in the prison. MRSA is a staph infection resistant to most antibiotics, and can be quite dangerous. To fight it, serious efforts need to be taken to clean and isolate the wounds, and to teach those infected how to care for themselves properly. The prison was doing none of this. Frustrated about what he was witnessing, and helpless to do anything about it, Ben sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon detailing the medical neglect.

Ben’s real cognitive therapy came in his work, which he describes as “leaving the prison every day I went to work.” 

SHORTLY AFTER HE SENT the letter, prison officials started taking MRSA infections seriously, and Ben was fired from his job. Ben has no regrets for doing what he did. He believes it was the right thing to do, and actually ended up with a better job when things were all said and done; he became an instructor in the education department, teaching a class on the topic of infection control. But it was a disappointing window into prison politics, and he was not surprised when the Veterans Administration hospital scandal broke. “Business as usual,” Ben said.

BEFORE HIS RELEASE, Ben completed a “therapeutic community” addiction program that was supposed to offer cognitive therapy, but Ben’s real cognitive therapy came in his work, which he describes as “leaving the prison every day I went to work.” He also liked to get up and run every morning, which the rigid schedule of his addiction program thwarted. For many inmmates, he knows, the program would be valuable. But his chief critique is that leaving the program participants in the toxic environment of the main prison undermines their efforts to change people. “Anti-social behavior is necessary to survive in prison,” Ben says, “and it’s like they are asking you to live in two different worlds.” Instead, he would like to see these programs moved to an entirely independent facility, separating prisoners participating in the programs from those who are not.

“Anti-social behavior is necessary to survive in prison,” Ben says, “and it’s like they are asking you to live in two different worlds.”

BEN THEN SPENT TIME in a halfway house, and then continued therapy at the Salt Lake City Odyssey House, a nonprofit addiction center. After Ben’s release from the halfway house, the Federal Bureau of Prisons would no longer cover the cost of his therapy. He continued with his treatment, paying out of pocket to see the therapist. He also started college at Utah Valley University. Things were going well.

NAVIGATING TRAFFIC at a busy UVU intersection one day, he got blinded by sunlight and misjudged oncoming traffic, resulting in a minor collision. He panicked and fled. In the moments after he fled, he asked himself why. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I had no drugs. I hadn’t committed a crime. I had a license and insurance. Why did I flee?” He called the police to turn himself in, and they directed him to his parents home, where an officer was already waiting for him.

THE FIRST OFFICER he spoke with could have been a therapist instead of a police officer. He helped Ben to understand how he had fallen prey to a conditioned reflex, an emotional trigger that he hadn’t prepared himself for. “What did you use to do whenever the police would show up?” he asked. “I would run,” Ben answered. “Most guys throw in the towel when they get to this point,” the officer continued. “Don’t give up.”

“I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I had no drugs. I hadn’t committed a crime. I had a license and insurance. Why did I flee?”

WHEN THE CASE went to court, the public defender told Ben he would almost certainly be going to jail, mainly because of his criminal history. He decided to hire a better attorney. Her solution was to put off the case until the end of his first semester in college. This, she reasoned, would allow him to prove that his flight from the accident was truly an isolated incident. He earned straight A’s that semester, and had no further problems with the law. His employer, his therapist, his landlord, and a professor all wrote letters to the court on his behalf. The prosecutor found all this persuasive, and decided to give Ben another chance. “But If I see you in the next year for even a speeding ticket, you are going back,” he said. “Fair enough,” Ben answered.

SIX MONTHS LATER his probation in the accident case was terminated early, and one month after that his federal probation ended as well. In the four years since his release, he has earned his college degree and gotten married. His wife brought one child to the marriage, and they now have one of their own as well. He will start law school in the fall of 2015.

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