One of my clients told me about this Today Show segment with a former star of the TV series Prison Break, Lane Garrison. In less than 30 minutes (in 2006) he made a series of mistakes that cost a teen boy his life and landed Garrison in jail for 40 months - after he pleaded guilty to all changes against him.
He did a horrible thing - and a family lost their son. As Garrison admits, he deserved the jail time. But while most kids his age (he was 26) would have fought the charges and tried to plead them down, he stood there in front of the judge and court and the cameras and said, "Yes, I am guilty."
That takes courage and strength. We all mess up, seldom as bad as that, but do we own the mistakes and face the consequences? Would we "man up," as Garrison calls it in the interview, if we were in that same spot he was in?
I'd like to think I would, but I'm not sure I would be that strong.
'Prison Break' star not free from pain of actions
Lane Garrison owned up to deadly accident but wishes he could make it better with family of dead teen
In 2006, actor Lane Garrison, then best known for his role on “Prison Break,” made 26 minutes worth of terrible, tragic decisions.
At a supermarket near his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., he accepted an invitation from star-struck high schoolers to go to a party. He went, he drank and then he left the party with three teens to get more alcohol. While driving, Garrison jumped a curb in his Land Rover at about 50 mph and hit a tree. The accident killed Vaughn Setian, a 17-year-old Beverly Hills High School student, and injured two 15-year-old girls.
When the time came to go to trial, Garrison did something you don’t often see celebrities do: he owned up to his actions. On May 21, 2007, he pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving and providing alcohol to a minor. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison. For the first time since his 2009 release, the actor spoke about the experience Monday, on TODAY with Matt Lauer.
But Garrison has more to say about his experiences. He wants young people to know what life is really like behind bars and that not being able to contact the Setian family has been one of the most difficult parts of the experience.
“I wish I could have talked a little bit more about what life was like inside prison so that people could understand the consequences of their actions. Really see what’s going on inside of a prison, inside of a jail — which obviously I put myself in,” Garrison said after his TODAY interview. “Waking up in a cell covered in ants and roaches. Being tortured by guards. Not having anything but four walls. One of the things about jail that’s weird is that you’re sent to a place where you’re supposed to sit there and think about your actions and their consequences and why you’re there. And I think now, it turns more into — the minute you go there, it’s just survival.”
Survival is one thing. Knowing you’re wholly responsible for a family’s grief is an added challenge. “There’s a family that doesn’t have their son. The least of my worries was doing jail time. The whole notion that I was responsible for someone losing their life, that’s what really ate me up inside,” Garrison said. “This is something that I am never going to get over, they’re never going to get over.”
Getting through prison — eight different prisons, in fact — was something Garrison did by making the choice to be a “bright light in a dark place.”
“These people were in so much pain, no matter what crime they committed — and I didn’t ask, because in there you’re all the same. You’re a number, not a name. Most guys can’t leave, they can’t write, their parents were drug dealers and they were doing drops for them on their way to school by the time they were 11 years old. They’ve never had one chance, let alone two,” Garrison said.
“There were days in there that I felt, ‘how can I help these guys?’” At one point the actor organized a talent show. As president of the substance abuse program at one prison, he was able to use the program’s budget to get a Thanksgiving dinner delivered. Garrison recalls the reaction he got afterward: “There was a man over in the corner and he calls me over and is sobbing. He’d been locked up for 15 years. And he said ‘I want to thank you so much for doing this for us. Just the smell of real food gave me back all the memories of my family that I’d forgotten. I haven’t smelled real food in 15 years.’ And there are days like that that I’d think, I’m in here for a reason.”
Through all of this, Garrison wishes that he could have contact with the family of the young man he killed. Through his attorneys, he has reached out to the family. During the trial, Garrison was ordered to not make contact with the victims, which was difficult for him.
“It was eating me up inside. I literally wanted to scream. Walking into a courtroom and having the family right there and not being able to say anything literally made me go insane,” he recalled. “I just wanted to scream and say this is who I am; this is who I’m not. If you want to slap me, punch me, whatever. I just wanted some kind of contact with them. I pray to God that over time, that will happen.”
In the meantime, Garrison is moving forward with his life, but that too is taking time. After his April 29, 2009, release, it took him about a year to be able to function on a level close to normal, much less work. “My nervous system was shot. You’re desensitized after, by all that you’ve seen. And as an actor, that’s the worst thing you can be. To be a good actor you have to feel life, and observe life. And it felt like I came back from war. It took me about a year to adapt, to hug someone, to be able to tell someone I love you. Or even be able to hold a coffee cup. Post-prison, I was jittery.”
Garrison is currently appearing on a multi-episode arc on “The Event,” his first television work since his release (he’s also written a screenplay, “One Heart,” and participated in “Graduation Day,” a PSA about drinking and driving).
“It’s amazing,” he says of being back at work. “I want to do it every day. When I show up on set, I feel like, ‘this is my home. I’m supposed to be here.’ There is nothing better to me.”
Regardless of where Garrison’s career takes him, he is certain about the events of December 2006. “There was no other choice than to say, ‘I’m guilty. I made a bad decision.’ This family is in pain because of me,” he said. “I’m just trying to tell people what it’s like so they don’t make the same mistakes.”