“I haven’t experienced freedom in so long, my biggest fear is to have that taken away,” said Woodstocker Ryland Koller, who has been partially released from prison after doing eight years for robbing a heroin dealer in 2011. “I wake up in a cold sweat, thinking some technicality will come up, and I’ll have to go back in. Sleep has been elusive.”
With the help of a close friend, architect Bob Young, 35-year-old Ryland has found a place to live and a job, which will enable him, if all goes well, to proceed from part-time confinement at a work release facility to a conditional release program, with five years of supervision. “Most of these guys get out and have no support,” said Bob. “They’re on their own, and they end up committing another crime.”
When the two men first met, Ryland was 15 and going out with Bob’s youngest daughter, Rebecca, a relationship that lasted eight years. During that time, Bob’s wife, Linda, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Ryland was there to help support the family through the trauma of her death. A tight bond was formed.
“I used to race mountain bikes,” said Ryland, who worked as a technician for Overlook Mountain Bikes in Woodstock. While on a training ride at Onteora Lake, he had a smash-up that caused the separation of his clavicle. After five hours of surgery, he was put on a heavy regimen of opioid painkillers, which led to addiction. When he was cut off from pain management, he said, “I had no option but to go to the street to buy more. Heroin was more affordable and in abundance. In a year, I lost my job and my significant other, Rebecca, who I loved greatly. I was inconsolable and unapproachable. There was no intervention that could reach me.”
Resorting to crime to support his habit, he robbed a known heroin dealer, who contacted the authorities and had him arrested. Ryland had no support system. His addiction-related behaviors had alienated his friends. Bob had moved to North Carolina and was out of touch. Ry’s mother was having financial and health problems, while his father, a Vietnam vet, was on disability due to PTSD and effects of Agent Orange.
“At the time, the opioid epidemic was not yet mainstream,” Ryland said. “There was no drug court, and the judges were far from lenient. I was sentenced to 10 years on a plea bargain.” He spent two years at Clinton Correctional Facility, the maximum security state prison from which two prisoners escaped in 2015. Later he was transferred to the multi-security level prison at Fishkill.
Ryland already had skills in woodworking and metal fabrication, so he worked at metal shop in the Fishkill prison. One day he was accused of stealing two cutoff wheels for a grinder used for cutting metal. “What would I do with cutoff wheels?” he scoffed. “They couldn’t cut butter unless they were spinning at 14,000 rpm.” He was given 360 days in the Special Housing Unit, or SHU (pronounced “shoe”), a euphemism for solitary confinement, with no visits, no packages, no phone calls. “I was beside myself. It was just an oversight. They found the two cutoff wheels in a locked, authorized secure area.”
However, the documentation that the wheels had been found did not reach the proper authorities. All his efforts to correct the situation within the facility failed, so he filed an external petition. “It took a year to get a response and a decision from a judge reversing the charges and expunging them from my record. That was time I lost participating in programs that could’ve gotten me out six months earlier. It caused trauma that impaired my mental and physical health.”
When Bob learned of Ryland’s incarceration, he made visits to the prison. Eventually, Young moved back to Woodstock. About a year ago, it was clear that Ryland was heading toward release, and Bob began laying the groundwork for a life after prison. “A lot of people I contacted were wary, and as an architect, I know a lot of people,” Bob said.
Before prison, Ryland admitted, “I had a propensity towards violence when under the influence of alcohol. You’d think I’d have evolved into a violent monster. But prison pacified me. I learned to control my emotions and my aggression.”
To qualify for the temporary release program, he had to complete a comprehensive alcohol and substance abuse program. “It’s modeled after a therapeutic community, but most people are just trying to have some time off. They’re not serious.” When arrested, he had gone through heroin withdrawal with no assistance, sweating and vomiting through the pain. “I’ve learned to embrace my abstinence. I never want to be under the influence again, where I’m not completely in control of my emotions. I’ve attended NA [Narcotics Anonymous] periodically and found it beneficial. I’d like to continue.”
After being approved for temporary release, he waited six weeks for his first furlough due to a clerical error. At last he was allowed to spend four days a week outside of prison, staying at a cabin built as a studio for an artist who was a friend and former client of Bob’s. Then Ryland had six weeks to find a job, or he would be dropped from the temporary release program. “You’re not allowed to have a telephone, so you can’t call to make appointments,” said Bob. “You can’t have a car, so you need people to get you to appointments. We can do it, but how do people do it who don’t have support? They’re lost.”
Ryland’s family members were able to pitch in with rides. Bob set up several job interviews, and Ryland was hired by a woodworking company in Shokan. He still has to go back to the work release facility two days a week, until his conditional release date, August 12, which will mark eight years, six months, and five days of incarceration.
“I lived by my mind and my wits,” Ryland said, explaining how he survived in prison. “I knew how to carry myself. There are gangs, the Bloods and the Latin Kings. Prison Etiquette 101 says, no gangs, no drugs, no association with known sex offenders and no homosexuals. Then you can remain relatively safe. But there are people facing life imprisonment without any possibility of parole. They have nothing to lose. They might wake up one day and want to run a piece of steel through some guy’s head.”
It helped that Ryland is 6’5” and solidly built. “I had my share of altercations, but they didn’t escalate. The guards tell you, ‘If you fight, do it in the yard, not the mess hall or the cells. If you touch one of us, we will kill you.’ On a daily basis, someone would get stabbed or beaten.”
Life at Clinton revolved around the yard, a sand-covered expanse ringed by weight courts, all of them segregated. “There’s one for white guys, one for Rastas, one for Muslims…You can’t set foot on someone else’s court without permission. The yard looks like a post-apocalyptic shantytown.” The space is scattered with 50-gallon drums cut in half, and the inmates are supplied with wood so they can build fires in the drums to keep warm in the bitter upstate winter. Grates are placed over the fires for cooking. Before the escape, men were allowed to bring net bags of food from the commissary. One group had a business cooking and selling empanadas.
Currency in prison is cigarettes, which inmates can buy at the commissary with credit earned by working. Most menial jobs, such as maintenance or working in the mess hall, make as little as 16 cents an hour. Ryland was a carpenter at Clinton. He inherited a job framing windows out of quarter-sawn red oak for a prison church that had been funded by Lucky Luciano.
“The administrators treat you as if you’re less than human, as if you’re not entitled to rights,” Ryland said. “They offer very little help in your rehabilitation. They lock up you and let you survive by your own devices. Not wonder the recidivism rate is so high. I pride myself on my intelligence, integrity, and ability to persevere. That’s how I was able to make it through this horrendous time.”
Back in the community, it’s awkward running into people he knew in the past, but so far most have been welcoming. “There are those who see me for what I am, and others who have reservations, who knew me during that difficult time of my life when I was not sober. They assume it’s made me jaded and cynical. But my employer trusts me. My skills are valuable, and I would never jeopardize that trust, but there’s no way to know for sure what will happen.”
The anguish of incarceration has left its imprint. Like a veteran with PTSD, Ryland carries emotional distress and the fears that wake him in the night. But the experience has also given him a new appreciation for life. “Cliché as it sounds, I see life measured in fleeting, intangible moments, the here and now, not what you’ve been through or what’s ahead. You appreciate the people who love you. Bob’s help has been paramount. Without him, I wouldn’t have found employment this quickly. I have an impeccable support system.”
After sleeping in a six-by-nine cell, within the cacophony of the cell blocks, it’s eerily quiet in the rented cabin. “Things you used to take for granted have a newfound meaning. My little cabin is the Taj Mahal.”