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Todd Wiese holds two filled stockings that were among the 200 he gave away to brighten Christmas for Maquoketa area children in 2021.

It’s a story we’ve heard before. The downward behavior spiral began during his adolescent years in Maquoketa, getting in with the wrong crowd. It led to trouble with the law and developing bad habits.

By the time he was 14, he had started taking drugs, eventually progressing to methamphetamine.

Ultimately, he was taking a heavy dose of 4 to 5 grams of meth a day “just to function.” He was in and out of jail. He attempted suicide. Along the way he started dealing and manufacturing meth. Eventually, he was charged with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine and was found guilty following a trial in Scott County District Court. He received two 10-year sentences in state prison and a 10-year sentence in federal prison, to be served concurrently.

The future for 33-year-old Todd Wiese didn’t look good.

“I didn’t want to live; I hated my life,” he recalled.

That’s the Todd Wiese I didn’t know. Doubtless I had recorded his name and encounters with law enforcement when I was covering the Maquoketa Law Center and District and Magistrate courts for the Sentinel-Press at the time. But I don’t recall him.

The Todd Wiese I have gotten to know showed up at the Maquoketa Community Cupboard, where I volunteer, during our regular Friday morning distribution hours a week before Christmas Eve. He set up a table along the line of tables where clients slide their boxes as they are filled with their food selections.

Todd lugged in a couple of plastic tubs overflowing with red and green Christmas stockings filled with apples, oranges, snacks, coupons for free pizza slices and a visit to the Maquoketa Area Family YMCA, small toys and other stuffers perfect for kids. As clients passed by, Todd placed a stocking in their box for each child or grandchild they may have and wished them a merry Christmas.

The stockings were, I learned, part of an inventory of some 200 stockings he purchased from $600 of his own money he allocated for the project and, with the help of several friends, filled with items he either purchased or were donated by Maquoketa businesses. The next week he gave more stockings away at the battered women’s shelter in Clinton and through other social service agencies and contacts.

We got to chatting. Burly but reserved and soft-spoken, Todd agreed to relate his story in hopes that it might strike a chord with others who may see themselves starting on the path he was on. I’ve learned how Todd, now 45, went down the wrong road, dealing and doing drugs, getting caught and doing 10 years. A brief stint in state prison was followed by a transfer to the federal system, where he did time at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Rochester, Minnesota, and Milan, Michigan.

One of the good ones

We hear a lot about prison recidivism and how it becomes a revolving door to many offenders. This is one of the good outcomes we see way too seldom. In the nearly 18 months since he was released from prison in July of 2020 and after 25- plus years of drug addiction, he has returned to Maquoketa, built a support network, stayed clean and sober, has custody of his two minor children and a satisfying full-time job on the overnight shift at UFP Technology in Clinton. After finding the right path while in prison and helping other inmates, he wants to continue to share his story on the outside and help others, both on the outside and behind bars, who are on the wrong path.

“While I was in there, I turned my life over to Christ,” he said. “I started taking a lot of introspective looks at myself and finding the core issues of who I am and my mission and my purpose in life. I started helping people get their GED, facilitated public speaking. I taught people on the inside and outside dads how to communicate with them. Now I’m learning how to live for the first time in my life without drugs. Now I’ve found myself wanting to do something for my community after all these years of taking and taking and taking and disrupting Jackson County and other counties around it.”

He credits two epiphany-like experiences while in prison that motivated him to change his life. He remembers the date of the first experience: Aug. 28, 2014, when he called home and learned that his mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

“My first thought was, if this was my mom’s time, I wanted to let her know that her youngest son has got control of his life and she can rest in peace. She’s still alive and she’s doing well.”

His second realization occurred when he was sent to the federal prison medical center in Rochester, which works with the Mayo Clinic. He was assigned to help care for other inmates who were in the hospital dying.

“They had a hospital right there on the campus where we cleaned their rooms, took them to the restroom, fed them, pushed them outside, wiped food off their mouth and helped change their bedding, diaper or whatever needed to be done,” he recalled.

“I told myself I did not want to be one of those inmates dying in bed with another inmate holding his hand. I finally realized it was time for me to set down this childish stuff and grow up and be a man. They always told me that growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional. I finally figured out what that was about.”

He enrolled in a spiritual growth program called Threshold designed for inmates who will be re-entering society.

“It’s basically a bunch of classes that teaches you community building, mock interviews, you do all kinds of things. It’s pretty much peeling back the onion and getting to the core root of the problem,” he said. After completing Threshold, he came became a mentor and worked with other inmates entering the program.

“That was amazing. I took public speaking classes there because I knew I wanted to share my story and help other people when I got out. If I can do it, they can do it, too.”

At the Milan, Mich., facility he completed an intensive drug treatment program that helped rid him of the addiction.

“I did 18 months of drug programs, anger management, things like that. I graduated as valedictorian and became a tutor for the next guys coming in.”

Another program, Life Connections, helped him firm up his values and sense of responsibility as he was about to be released.

Todd also credits people he met along the way with helping him find his path. There was Chaplain Kendall Hughes, whom he met at Leavenworth.

“As I look back on it,” he said, “I was after materialistic things —bthe fast life. I was worried about the things that I didn’t have and I forgot about the things that I did have. Growing up, my mom was an amazing woman; she raised four kids to the best of her abilities. I loved her to death, but before I knew it I was so deep in the hole that I could not get out of it without help.

“The triggers that sent me down the wrong road were all materialistic things and being glamorous and showboating and arrogance. I grabbed ahold of that and never looked back. I knew I could get it with money by being in the drug game. That led me to being in and out of jail and I never really learned.”

While in prison, he said, “you have nothing but time to think about your actions and the ripple effect and the people you hurt along the way. I still stay in contact with a couple of them (inmates). We hold each other accountable and talk about our highs and lows.

“We make sure we tell someone we love them; that is very important. There is a lot of good people that are locked up; it’s just that they made bad choices. It doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. That’s what I want to show society--that we can change, we can do this. But we need their help as well to give us a chance to live and breathe and walk the righteous path. We just made some poor decisions.”

Reforming the system

Staying sober is a day-by-day process.

“My sobriety begins every day when I wake up and give thanks to God, knowing that I can be sober for that day, make it through and start over the next day. I still have cravings; I still have triggers. It’s how I respond to those thoughts and those triggers that keeps me functioning. If I see that my desired consequence will take my on the right path, then I have no problem taking that opportunity. But if my consequence is going to lead to me relapsing or making a bad choice, then I do not hesitate to say no.

“I have full custody of my kids. I don’t want to tell them dad messed up. I will not break their hearts ever again in that aspect of my life. Family is most important; I found that out when I was locked up. I found out who were my true friends and who really cared about me and loved me.”

Asked how he would reform the prison experience, he would like to see more centers for long-term, 18-month inpatient treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction.

“You come in, go through detox, you start doing chores, getting more responsibilities and after three or four months you can gradually go out and get a job and you’d still take classes five days a week. It would be like a school, but I’m learning different tools so I can have tools in my toolbox so when I get out, I have a better chance.

“By 18 months, I mean a living, breathing drug program. It gives the guys a chance if it’s drugs, alcohol or whatever landed them in that spot. If they don’t make it through, then you talk about long-term incarceration. If we could have programs like that, that gives more people a chance to be successful in life.”

He said his ultimate goal is to go back into prisons and share his story and experience “and show them that they’re not just a number, that they can have a name and they’re important to us, they’re important to their kids, they’re important to their family. No man, no woman should be lost due to a bad choice.”

He hopes to share his story by speaking in schools and to other groups and working with organizations such as the Area Substance Abuse Council, where his sister is a counselor, and the battered women’s shelter in Clinton.

He also plans to continue giving away Christmas stockings and hopes to double the number to 400 this year.

“I’m forever grateful for the man upstairs that helped me make it through the tough times, didn’t let me commit suicide, gave me meaning and purpose. It took me 45 years to figure it out, but I figured it out. I just want people to know that Todd is a good person.

“I want to show them that people who made mistakes can learn to make good choices. I want to send hope not only to fellow inmates who are incarcerated but to others out here who are still struggling. That’s my mission.”