JOSHUA FIELDS HAS QUITE a rap sheet. Drug addict, burglar, armed career criminal, domestic abuser, assault on a corrections officer.
But — and this is the point of this article — he is not a sex offender.
Yet for eight years, Fields, who is now 39, bore the scarlet letter of sex offender. And he carried that brand in the worst of places — maximum-security wings of federal prisons.
That meant eight years of fear, eight years of beatings, eight years of segregation units that meant no participation in desperately needed rehabilitation programs.
And throughout his ordeal, federal prison denied that anything was wrong with his classification and ignored orders from a federal judge to correct the error.
Fields is now free and living in Manchester.
Earlier this year, a frustrated U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty took the unusual step of shaving two years off the minimum of his prison sentence and ordering his immediate release.
In a 30-page order, the chief federal judge in New Hampshire noted that federal prison officials had repeatedly assured her that Fields was properly classified.
“It wasn’t a sentence; I was tormented,” Fields said last month when we spoke in the south Manchester apartment he shares with his newlywed wife.
“I’ve paid more than my full punishment, more than the normal person that gets sentenced,” Fields said.
He said he endured four significant beatings over the years. The most recent took place just days before he was released. He had been transferred to the local Strafford County jail, and an inmate had done an internet search, found his case and attacked him, taunting him as a “chomo,” prison slang for a sex offender.
So when Fields appeared before McCafferty, he sported a black eye, bruises and a broken orbital bone.
“It doesn’t matter how big you are when they send three guys after you,” said Fields, who stands 6-foot, 1-inch and weighs 220 pounds..
When ordering his release, McCafferty bluntly stated that Fields poses a danger to the community.
But the judge reasoned that he will be out eventually. And in a sad indictment of the prison system, the judge said Fields has a better chance at getting drug abuse and mental health treatment outside of prison than in.
No official at the federal prisons would be interviewed for this article. A spokesman assured me in an email that the prison system takes the safety of inmates and misconduct of staff seriously.
One person doesn’t like the risk the judge is taking — one of Joshua Fields’ victims.
“It’s just mind-blowing to me,” said his ex-wife, Laurie, who was arrested with Fields in 2014 for a burglary crime spree that led to his federal charges. Laurie said she had a job in the Maine court system when she met Fields.
She was going through a divorce and was attracted to his tattoos, his cigarette smoking and his tough-guy aura, she said.
He led her into a world of drugs and at one point kept her locked up for three days and beat her, she said.
“My entire life crumbled because of this man. He’s not a good man, he’s not a victim,” said Laurie, who did not want her married name used. She has remarried, now works as a house painter and lives in New Hampshire.
Federal prosecutors did not object to Fields’ release. But like prison officials, they would not be interviewed. (One important question — are they investigating any crimes on the part of prison officials, such as lying to a judge?) Prosecutors sent an email that stressed that Fields is on parole, must submit to drug testing and attend counseling.
Fields assures me that he is trying to succeed on the outside.
He works as a heavy equipment operator and attends intensive outpatient treatment at the Farnum Center three times a week and mental health counseling twice weekly, which he said is beneficial.
He is trying to live a simple life with his wife, Julie. This summer, he spent free time going to Hampton Beach, playing XBox and watching movies in their apartment.
His wife sees the good in him, Fields said. “If I didn’t meet her, I might not be alive now,” he said.
Fields’ story, McCafferty noted, is a lesson on how little it takes to be classified as a sex offender.
In researching Field’s background, corrections officials read a police report about a domestic assault. It said Fields touched his wife’s breast while shoving her. Although Fields has no history of sexual assault, the prison official wrote that Fields “groped” the victim’s breast, which was enough to trigger the sex-offender classification, or in this case misclassification.
“He (the probation officer) took the word and altered it to ‘groped.’ He knew that would cause me that type of status in the Bureau of Prisons,” Fields said.
Fields’ life has not been easy. His father introduced him to marijuana at age 9. His mother attempted suicide before he was a teenager, which drove him to painkillers. By 16, he was using heroin and cocaine.
He’s been diagnosed with several mental health illnesses, including PTSD, thanks to his prison experience.
The prospect of death or assault is constant in prison, he said. Inmates carry homemade weapons. You join a gang to survive. Corrections officers find ways to let inmates know about your classification.
He thinks corrections officers should be forced to wear body cams, just like police.
“You don’t know the depths of what takes place in these prisons,” Fields said. “They’re ruining peoples’ lives.”