Prison Breaks


After hitting rock bottom, JD Stier crawled back up and became a voice of experience. Photo: Jeff Miller.

His life was a downward spiral until JD Stier ’04 and a persistent teacher saw a way out.

When Luke Matthews looked out on the students in his anthropology class, JD Stier stood out. He radiated intelligence and asked interesting questions. He was also obviously high.

“And then one day, he just disappeared,” says Matthews ’95.

It was 1998, and Stier ’04 was taking classes at Madison Area Technical College as he awaited sentencing for possessing and dealing marijuana. Stier was, he explains, “thinking foolishly that if I was back in school, doing all the right stuff, that somehow they wouldn’t send me to prison.”

It didn’t work.

Soon after Stier’s disappearance, Matthews’s wife came home and asked, “Do you know a guy named JD?” As a psychiatrist who conducted intake interviews with state prison inmates, she had talked with Stier that day. Armed with an address and prisoner number, Matthews wrote Stier a letter. It was the start of correspondence that continued throughout Stier’s two years behind bars and nurtured the longest of long-shot dreams: getting a UW–Madison degree.

Prison capped off Stier’s roller-coaster adolescence, which saw him twice sentenced to juvenile detention. He was president of his freshman class at Madison’s Memorial High School when he was arrested the first time; he and two friends took joy rides in stolen cars and committed a string of burglaries. They were filled with anger, his fueled by discord at home resulting from his mother’s failing health and the breakdown of his parents’ marriage.

Still, Stier managed to graduate from high school in 1996 with good grades before failing his first semester at UW-Oshkosh. He was selling marijuana rather than showing up for class and exams. “I turned eighteen, and the court let go, and my parents let go, and I was back into some stuff even bigger and deeper,” he says.

By summer, he had returned to Madison and was dealing out of a downtown penthouse apartment and spending his nights partying. That lifestyle ended when a drug task force executed a search warrant and found a duffle bag stuffed with marijuana and $10,000 in cash.

Being sentenced to prison had an upside, though, putting an end to a life of running, hiding, and lying. Stier was sober and stable.

Meanwhile, Matthews bought a stack of postcards and sent one to Stier each week, with a simple message such as, “Get better, not bitter.” He suggested books to read, reminded Stier that he would not be locked up forever, and urged him to focus on getting a degree. Although Matthews considered it a small act, it loomed large in Stier’s life. He began taking courses through UW Extension and got hooked on philosophy, sometimes reading every assignment three or four times until it started to make sense.

“I’d been living like a rock star for a couple years, doing everything to beat my brain,” he says. “I didn’t know how to pronounce the philosophers’ names, I’m sitting in a prison cell with no one to talk to, but I got what they were saying.”

Michael Behrman ’04, a friend who first met Stier in an MATC class, says Matthews empowered Stier to take his life in a different direction. After serving twenty-five months of his forty-two-month sentence, Stier was released. He returned to MATC for two semesters and, after earning straight As, transferred to UW–Madison in 2002.

“There was no question that he was driven. He thought he had a chance to transform himself, and he took that very seriously,” says Russ Shafer-Landau, a UW philosophy professor who taught Stier’s introductory ethics class. “It seemed clear to me he didn’t want to waste any time. … He was constantly reflecting on his past experience and, I think, used that as a baseline from which he would measure his progress.”

While on campus, Stier marveled at the social activism demonstrated by those around him. “They raise money; they travel; they march in the streets; they work on campaigns — that was my life at the UW and has been my life since,” he says.

He solidified his friendship with Behrman and with Kou Solomon ’06, a “lost boy” from Sudan (see On Wisconsin, Summer 2008), who had also transferred from MATC. “My own prison experience, which seemed so dramatic to me, paled in comparison to what Kou’s life had been like,” Stier says.

The three best friends traveled to Kenya when Solomon reunited with his family for the first time.

Stier also worked with teens at Connections Counseling, an outpatient alcohol-and-drug treatment center, using his “street cred” to “speak some no-nonsense,” as he wished someone had done with him.

In summer 2008, he seized an opportunity he had never imagined: working as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Four months after the election, Stier got a phone call. While his history would keep many people from getting a job interview — much less a job — it was that very life story that led Obama drug czar Gil Kerlikowske to name him national outreach coordinator for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Just a few years earlier, the office had funded the task force that had arrested Stier.

As he helped plan Kerlikowske’s visits to events and organizations around the country, Stier says he also relished the chance to be “that one voice in the room [that can] articulate how these policies actually trickle down and affect direct services.”

Most recently, he accepted a job offer to be campaign manager for Raise Hope for the Congo, a project of the Center for American Progress, which is building a grassroots movement to advocate for Congolese women and girls.

Ten years ago, Stier recalls, his highest ambition was getting out of prison, going to college, and finding a job that was an honest living. Yet, last year, he escorted his mother through the West Wing, showed her the Oval Office, and stopped by the Rose Garden.

“No one in prison,” he says, “thinks they’re going to work at the White House someday.”

Jenny Price ’96 is senior writer for On Wisconsin Magazine.

Published in the Fall 2011 issue

Tags: Alumni, Humanities, International, politics

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