Brad Bender describes how returning home after serving prison time is fraught with difficult adjustments. Photo: Denise Civiletti

After 10 months in federal prison, four months in a halfway house and two months in home detention, Brad Bender is once again a free man.

The former Southampton Town councilman is back home, but the life he’s come home to is vastly different than the one he left. And in many ways he’s not the same man who surrendered himself at the Lewisburg federal prison camp in September 2016.

Bender was sentenced to two years on a federal conspiracy charge for his involvement in a multimillion dollar drug scheme led by a Riverhead physician assistant. He prepared himself as best he could for his incarceration, selling his home and car and most of his personal possessions. He packed up what remained and placed it in a storage facility, paying the rent in advance. He didn’t know what to expect at Lewisburg and he was more than a little scared.

As he took the long bus ride to central Pennsylvania to surrender himself that September morning, he thought about how he’d allowed addiction to destroy everything he’d worked so hard to accomplish.

He’d lost it all: his marriage, his construction business, his reputation and standing in the community.

“I had kind of become the guy I wanted to be — involved in my community, someone people could respect,” he says.

Bender had come a long way. He left home at age 15, about a year after his parents divorced. It was an abusive household.

“I had zero self-esteem,” he says.

He’d known he was a gay since about fifth grade, but in Wisconsin in the 1970s, there wasn’t a lot of support for a gay kids like him.

Bender used marijuana and began selling it too. He lived on his own, renting an apartment and working in a factory. But in his early 20s, he got laid off and decided to go stay with his grandparents, who lived in East Hampton.

“It was a new place, new people and no drugs,” he recalls. “But by the time I was 29 I had a pretty bad problem.” He struggled with what he calls “a very bad addiction” and overcame it — on his own, with no support network, no program and no help. Looking back on it today, he realizes it was only a matter of time before he’d succumb to another addiction.

Bender was prescribed oxycontin to relieve pain from a work-related injury. In the ensuing weeks and, eventually, months, he became addicted to them.

“I really didn’t realize how bad it had gotten… until it was,” he says. “I needed the pills just to feel normal. I felt sick without them,” he recalls.

“I was living as a functional addict. I set it up in a way where I could go to work all day.” Bender remembers having to leave town board meetings to go to his office and take some pills. “I would be sitting there squirming around because I felt uncomfortable,” he recalls.

“So having gone through all these different phases in my life and trying to be someone I’d — even myself — somebody that I respect — and I lost it. I worked so hard for that,” he says, his voice growing thick with emotion. “I worked so hard for that. And then to lose it — for what?

Bender’s rock bottom came when federal agents showed up at his door to arrest him in November 2015.

He’d been selling oxycontin pills to an acquaintance, he says, believing the man was taking them for pain. But he was selling them to others instead.

Life as he knew it ended abruptly.

Federal prison could have been much, much worse. He did his time in a federal prison camp. It was a minimum security facility. There were no cells, no locks no walls. He was assigned to a job on the facilities maintenance crew. He was paid 17 cents an hour. 

He applied for and was accepted into the drug rehab program, a 40-week program, and was moved into a 160-man barracks-style housing unit.

“Bunk beds and lockers,” he says. “Lined up in two wings, 80 men to each wing.”

Completing the drug rehab program got his sentence reduced by six months.

In addition to the program, he and some other men started their own 12-step group. He’d begun a 12-step program while still in Riverhead, living in a sober house before he began his sentence. He says he can’t imagine living without it. At times, it’s been his sole source of support.

Life in prison was isolating. “You keep to yourself for the most part,” he says. “You learn to avoid looking at people — it’s considered disrespectful.” That’s something he’s working to un-learn. A job he had at a Home Depot in Manhattan while he lived at a halfway house in Brooklyn helped him learn to look at people again. But he still struggles with it.

When he came home to the Riverhead area, he rented a room from a friend, Vince Taldone — one of the few people he counts among his true friends. He was on home detention for two months and wore a GPS ankle bracelet for that time.

For those two months, he had to plan his every move a week in advance and enter his itinerary on the computer. He had to call in when he left for work, when he got to work, when he got home, when he went to the gym or the grocery store.

Bender, who is now 57, bought a home in the Riverwoods mobile home park. Another friend, an electrical contractor, gave him a job. In his spare time, he works out at the gym nearly every day and works on his house. He’s thinking about getting involved in transition work, to help others transition into the community following incarceration. He says he realizes his return was a lot easier than it is for most people, because he had the resources to prepare for it in advance.

“I’m trying to learn how to be single for the first time in 25 years,” he says. He had two long-term relationships that account for most of his adult life. “Now I’m learning how to depend on myself.”

Bender marvels at how much stuff he had and how little he learned to live with while in Lewisburg. “You’re issued three pairs of pants, three shirts, seven underpants, seven T-shirts, seven pairs of socks and one pair of big jalopy boots,” he says. He bought a pair of Nike tennis shoes from another inmate with six chicken packs; the single-serving foil packets were sold at the commissary and were used as currency among the inmates, along with tuna packs and postage stamps.

“You live out of two small lockers,” he says. “It gives you a new perspective on the stuff you accumulate.” He used to love to shop and had an extensive wardrobe — 20 suits, 30 shirts, 100 ties. It’s another addiction, he says. “I keep telling myself less is more.”

People ask Bender if he’s happy to be out of prison. Of course, he is. But the adjustment isn’t easy. “My life isn’t the life I left,” he says. This one is new territory.

Bender said he’s committed to living by the “eight attitudes of change” he learned in the rehab program, where the inmates in the program started each day by reciting a “philosophy statment” that reads:

Today we’re becoming new men because we came to treatment for recovery. We’ll challenge irrational beliefs, form healthy relationships and break criminal behavior. We’ll be honest, responsible, willing, open-minded, caring, objective and display humility and gratitude. Today we go forward with purpose, and the knowledge of who we are, what we can become and what we can accomplish in this program and in our lives.

“We said that every day,” he says. He still recites it to himself every morning. “There’s another place you’ll find those attitudes too and that’s in the 12-step program,” he notes.

“If you can live your life by that program, if you can do that, then you’re going to be all right. So that’s what I’m going to do.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.