A look inside the deeply flawed US prison system

May 20, 2010 was a day I will never forget.

I had been up late the night before.

The worldwide premier of “Running America” played at the Carolina Theatre downtown. My father, Charlie Engle, had produced and starred in the film, which documented his unsuccessful attempt to break the record for fastest crossing of the U.S on foot.

After a long day of school, I was in desperate need of a nap.

As I sat in the car on the way home, fighting to stay awake, I received a phone call from a number that I didn’t recognize.

It was my dad, calling from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office.

He proceeded to tell me that authorities had detained him earlier that day outside his apartment, and that they still had not informed of his charges. He said they were keeping him overnight and that he would call me as soon as he could.

He then told me he loved me and not to panic. And then his time was up.

It was a short call, lasting barely over a minute. In that short time, my brain was still fighting to comprehend whether it had been real or not. But it was all very real.

We came to discover that IRS Special Agent Robert Nordlander was responsible for the initial investigation into my dad after seeing news coverage of “Running the Sahara,” a documentary following my father’s 4,600 mile run across the Sahara Desert in 2006 to create awareness of the water crisis in the area.

He personally invested 700 hours into my father for two months, going through my dad’s tax returns, his mail, even his garbage, only to come up with no substantial evidence of financial deviancy.

After staging a full-scale operation involving an attractive female undercover agent — my parents are divorced — Nordlander finally found something that he could use against my father.

My father was accused of having illegally inflated his income on two stated-income mortgage loan applications back in 2005–06.

Not only was this something that millions of people did before the housing market crashed, it was something done by mortgage brokers, unbeknownst to him.

He would eventually serve 21 months in federal prison for mortgage fraud, though found not guilty of providing falsified information.

I got to visit him five or six times, at a minimum-security prison in Beckley, W.Va.

The visiting room was surprisingly informal, almost cozy, with a deep-grey carpet and murals painted on the walls. In the corner, a 6 -foot-7 inmate whom my dad had become friends with distributed toys to children.

Every time I visited him, I would see dozens of children playing games while their parents talked, their smiles contrasting with the concerned looks of their parents.

The majority of the inmates at Beckley were drug offenders, many of them middle-age men serving mandatory sentences of 10 to 20 years.

When 40-year-old men are still serving sentences from drug charges imposed when they were teenagers, there is a problem with the system.

There is little chance for reconstruction in our system. It prosecutes to punish, not to rehabilitate.

Although I will never get those two years with my dad back, we have been able to make up for lost time.

But, how do you make up for 20 years?

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