Jim Carney

Tom Moe knows about prison.

For more than five years, Moe, now a retired Air Force colonel, endured torture, isolation and brutal conditions in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war facility.

On Thursday, he told more than 200 probation officers, social workers, counselors, nonprofit leaders and others concerned about the plight of ex-offenders in Ohio and their entry back into society, how he coped with being imprisoned for so long.

“I spent some years locked away in a prison from society, and maybe it was for different reasons and under different conditions than the people we are concerned about today, but I believe there are lessons to be learned from this that apply to both of us,” said Moe, whose F-4 Phantom was forced down by a weapon malfunction in 1968.

Moe, the director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Affairs, spoke at the Ohio Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition meeting held in the Akron-Summit County District Library’s main branch auditorium. The talk was part of a program designed to find ways to keep released offenders from returning to prison.

Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, hosted the meeting. He also serves as chairperson of the Ohio Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition and said the mission of his department is simple: reduce repeat offenders.

Terry Tribe Johnson, coordinator of the Summit County Reentry Network, said Summit County has a way to go to catch up with Ohio on the issue of repeat offenders.

While in Ohio, the rate of repeat offenders is 31.9 percent, the rate in Summit County is nearly 40 percent.

“Re-entry is not being soft on crime, it is being smart on crime,” she said.

Moe said while he believes conditions in Ohio prisons can be harsh, it can be said that those jailed in Ohio prisons today “don’t face the systemic torture and depravation perfected by my communist captors. To be frank, my fellow prisoners and I endured beatings and interrogation and near total starvation and the crudest conditions imaginable. We had no way of knowing a release date. We didn’t have a sentence.”

Moe spoke of coping mechanisms he used during his imprisonment in North Vietnam.

“We had to maintain our cool,” he said. “It was important to maintain our emotional spirit. We had to look inside ourselves for the little spark we could rekindle to keep hope alive.”

Sadly, he said, when that fire went out “even the strongest among us did not survive.”

The one thing his captors did not control, he said, was his mind and his spirit, in spite of horrific conditions, torture, starvation and isolation.

He spoke of his own difficulty returning to life after POW camp when he came home in 1973.

For those who are returning to civilian life after being incarcerated in Ohio, Moe urged that they be mindful not to get caught up in “what if” thinking. He called that mindset destructive.

“No matter what the circumstances may be, we must include in our plan for life our plan to deal with life’s realities,” he said. “Learn from your mistakes ... make a plan for the future and pursue it with determination and hard work.”

He also advised ex-offenders to plan for reality, although that doesn’t mean they should plan to fail.

“Be prepared for an alternative course if the way you planned is not open,” he said. “Associate with good people. If you end up needing help, seek it, but look in the right places. Don’t quit. There will always be someone who can help you.”

The fundamental rule, he said, ‘‘is keep the spirit strong and be positive about life after prison.’’

In Ohio, he said, the state is dedicated “to help those who’ve paid their debt to society and then want to re-enter and move on with their lives.”

For more information about the Summit County Reentry Network, call 330-643-2558.

Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at jcarney@thebeaconjournal.com.