From Prison to Promise

Cody Boden, at the age of 32, is armed with enough clever truisms to be a life coach. And he’s not far from it in his current role as Care Manager at the Second Chance Center, a Colorado nonprofit organization whose stated goal is to successfully transition formerly incarcerated people to productive lives in society. “The war on drugs doesn’t end when there isn’t a solution,” Cody points out; and he is working to be a part of the solution.

At the age of 19, Cody threw himself headfirst into the military – by way of sniper school. The intense training, expectations, and bonds with his platoon members offered a welcome distraction for a young man still reeling from the recent loss of his grandfather, a man who represented intelligence, hard work, and success.

In 2006, Cody and his platoon were deployed to Baghdad. The atrocities he witnessed and the assignments he was required to carry out while there left an indelible mark. After losing close friends and engaging in wartime missions most can only fathom as an action movie plotline, Cody was medically retired from the military with a 60% traumatic brain injury, not to mention the numerous other physical injuries he suffered after his time as a self-proclaimed “walking mine detector.”

His physical injuries led to numerous prescriptions for opioids, which at first, Cody used responsibly. “For my back, I was taking OxyContin. And I wouldn’t drink on it. I wasn’t addicted like I ended up being. Friends would call me up like, ‘Cody, let’s go drinking,’ and I wouldn’t take my medication.”

But Cody’s back wasn’t the only part of his body that suffered trauma from his time as a military sniper. He struggled to find a way to honor his friends and to reconcile the fact that he was still alive with the fact that they weren’t. Survivor guilt coupled with PTSD led him, ultimately, to addiction and prison.

A night of drinking and shooting pool escalated to violence when Cody’s cousins were confronted by several men in a bar demanding their money be returned after losing a few games. Among the crowd was a Northeastern African man who spoke no English, and who Cody, still struggling with PTSD, registered as a terrorist. “Show, Shout, Shoot” – Cody processed a garden-variety bar brawl as a military attack, displaying his weapon, firing warning shots, and “de-escalating the threat.” Luckily, no one was fatally injured, but what should have been his rock bottom was just Cody’s introduction to prison.

Following a defense based on an impaired mental condition and a plea deal, Cody served 18 months at Arapahoe County prison, during which time he received an education on the use and sale of pills, rather than treatment for his PTSD. The experience was a devastating blow to Cody’s self-esteem. “When I did 18 months in Arapahoe County, life changed. And I found people who didn’t care who I was, that I could be the lowest of life and nobody gave a fuck. The worse I was, the better off I would be.”

After his release, while on probation and in need of money, he began putting that prison-sponsored drug education to use. Cody’s VA doctor had prescribed a litany of prescriptions with street value – methadone, OxyContin, Xanax, and Adderall – without so much as a checkup. “Without even seeing me, a mountain of pills . . . full prescriptions. I haven’t been taking them for 18 months, and you’re going to give me the same dose I left on?”

Cody was in pain, and it wasn’t just physical. He describes his descent into addiction and selling drugs as “a slow erosion of morals,” a combination of self-medicating and appearing “dope sick” to other users, dealers, and police as a way to insure himself against criminal charges. “If I looked like a crackhead, no one would know I was a dealer.” But, his insurance ran out. What began as taking pain medicine led to Cody snorting and ultimately shooting up opioids. “If you keep going to a barber shop, eventually, you’re going to get a haircut.”

That haircut landed Cody back in prison when he was accused of a non-drug-related felony. That charge led to three additional drug distribution charges. And when it came time to make a deal with the prosecution, Cody weighed his options. The non-drug-related felony charge carried a sentence of 8 to 24 years and was ultimately bargained down to 15. The distribution charges carried a cumulative potential sentence of 36 to 108 years as a result of sentencing rules that allow for tripling the time for drug-related felonies committed by someone on probation. It was a no-brainer; Cody took the plea for the non-drug-related felony and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

During Cody’s time in prison, he continued to use. An inmate, including one with an addiction to opioids, diagnosed brain trauma, and PTSD, can get his hands on anything from meth to heroin, and it’s not even an especially difficult feat. The drugs fed his addiction and offered an added bonus of serving as a coping mechanism for a young man still in so much pain, who didn’t quite fit in. “I was unwilling to conform to the social norms of prison racial etiquette.” In other words, Cody wasn’t willing to join a gang.

Eventually, Cody decided living as an addicted inmate was not for him. Literally looking in the mirror one day, Cody didn’t recognize who he was becoming. “If you want to see who you’re going to be, look around.” Cody looked around; he didn’t like what he saw. So, he began participating in a therapeutic community (TC) program while in prison, started taking responsibility for his station in life, and got clean. He was released for good behavior after serving five years.

Not everyone in Cody’s shoes would have been so fortunate. TC programs, as Cody explains, are designed to treat “high-functioning, middle [class], white men,” the same people, Cody opines, who designed such programs.

Cody moved from prison to a halfway house and another TC program, the Independence House Fillmore in Denver, which he lauds as “a great program” where he finally received some much needed, effective assistance with regaining control of his mental health and life.  Independence House provided Cody with eight hours of treatment per week and led him to the Second Chance Center where he humbly began as a volunteer maintenance worker and where he found overwhelming support and encouragement to continue turning his life around. The environment at Second Chance Center, where Cody quickly bonded with the Center’s Executive Director, Hassan Latif, was so welcoming, that soon Cody was spending well over 40 hours there per week.

Today, Cody remains clean, has been out of prison for a year, and has managed to tap in to a staggering amount of motivation. He’s been promoted at the Second Chance Center to a full-time Care Manager position, and he attends college full time as he pursues his goal of becoming an addiction counselor. His work at the Center is challenging but rewarding, and he gets audibly and visibly choked up when talking about his project with at-risk youth, noting that “the compassion barrier is really hard to break.” But he’s found a way to do just that. When he talks about one of his current clients, his enthusiasm is contagious. “Anytime he calls, I light up and get excited because I know he wants to do the right thing!” That spark of wanting to do the right thing is enough to keep Cody going. He relates to these kids and wants nothing more than to serve as an approachable and realistic role model for them. “They look up to you and want to recreate [your lifestyle].”

When reflecting on his time both as a soldier and an addict, Cody summarizes it in one neat, if heart-wrenching sentence: “I protected society only so I could destroy it.”

Anyone who meets Cody is sure to see a passionate, caring person who is doing everything to step back into that role of society’s protector. He has managed to find strength and purpose out of a traumatic past and broken penal system that could bring out the worst in any one of us. The fact that it brought out the best in Cody isn’t a testament to the system. It’s a testament to his character in spite of the system.

- Laura Fischer