Why you should care
Forget Orange Is the New Black. Ferranti’s books are among the most realistic looks into prison life.
Over the last 21 years, 43-year-old Seth Ferranti earned a master’s degree, got married, launched a writing career and founded a publishing house. And he did it all from behind bars.
In 1993, Ferranti, a 22-year-old high school dropout, was sentenced to 304 months in prison. The self-proclaimed “rebel without a cause” was a first-time, nonviolent offender whom prosecutors had deemed a drug kingpin. In late July, after serving the required 85 percent of his federal time and getting 10 months chopped off his sentence for completing drug rehab, Ferranti walked out of the Federal Correctional Complex.
It feels like forever. I spent 21 years in prison, and that whole time in prison is like a distant memory.
- Seth Ferranti
How does a child of the suburbs with “very loving and supportive parents” end up sentenced to 25 years in prison? According to Ferranti, who resides in a halfway house in St. Louis, “I was a kid. I made a mistake. I was a little misguided. I was addicted to drugs, self-destructive.” Ferranti tells OZY that while he was a drug dealer, he was no Tony Montana — just a casual supplier of LSD and marijuana to college kids on the East Coast. But prosecutors, he says, judged him on what they thought he could become. “They looked at what I had set up and thought, ‘You know, this guy could really start cranking stuff out. He could really have a big organization.’ ” It was big, according to the U.S. attorney — Ferranti and his crew distributed more than 100,000 doses of LSD in the Fairfax, Virginia, area. The prosecutor put the street value for each dose at $3 to $5.
At the same time, Ferranti began correspondence courses in creative writing and worked on the short stories that would turn into his first book, Prison Stories. The idea behind the book, Ferranti says, was to provide readers with a 1990s version of prison books, such as 1981’s In the Belly of the Beast. Finding that the independent publishers who showed interest in Prison Stories wanted him to tone down his “too raw and too real” work, and make it more about the street and less about prison, Ferranti got entrepreneurial and started his own imprint, Gorilla Publishing.The 6-foot-2-inch, athletically built Ferranti, who fancied himself a Jim Morrison/Henry Rollins type in his younger years, made the most of his time, keeping his head down, getting educated, beginning a productive writing career – following in the footsteps of writers such as Edward Bunker and Dannie Martin – and even getting married. He began with poems published in various fanzines and branched out into covering intramural sports, mainly basketball, on the prison yard. That’s how he met publishers of the street magazines Don Diva and F.E.D.S. As Ferranti recalls, the “homeboys” of the founder of Don Diva — which was also founded from inside a prison — asked him to write a first piece on prison basketball player Ron Jordan.
Certainly, his work isn’t for everyone. It’s not always polished, per se — and it can be more than tough to swallow. But if you’re in the market for work that tells you about prison and the streets, Ferranti’s your guy, says Ethan Brown, an investigative journalist and author of Snitch, a book about the criminal justice system and the prison population. Ferranti knows “the more significant players in the streets precisely because he served time with many of them,” Brown says.
The former felon is quick to point out that his wife, Diane, whom he met in St. Louis six months before he went to prison, while running marijuana from Dallas to St. Louis, is the driving force behind the publishing company and website. Ferranti wrote on a typewriter from inside the prison; he mailed out manuscripts, which Diane edited and converted to Word docs. They discussed edits through the mail, sending letters back and forth. On the inside, Ferranti faced “countless” problems from prison officials for trying to run a business behind bars. So he told them it was all in his wife’s name and under her management.
Ferranti’s problems didn’t end with his book publishing. Sometimes the subjects he covered in the articles he was writing for magazines and websites, such as the drug trade, cigarette trade and cell phones in prison, got him sent to the hole. “The prison staff would come and lock me up, and they told me, ‘Ferranti, we don’t care about your writing. But you pissed the warden off, you pissed the assistant warden off, so we’re going to lock you up, and you’re going to sit back here for 30 to 60 days. Think about what you write so you don’t piss off our bosses again.’”
Even getting a degree was controversial; Ferranti’s parents, who were footing the bill for his classes, which cost in the $30,000 range, were forced to contact their senator after their son was denied access to the 20 books required for a previously approved literature course. Why? Not because of the content of the books, but because prisoners are allowed to have only five books in their property at any given time, he says.
When I met Ferranti, he was eight weeks out of prison and on his first weekend pass from the halfway house. Of those eight weeks, Ferranti says, “It feels like forever. I spent 21 years in prison, and that whole time in prison is like a distant memory.” Today, he is is currently “underemployed” as a line cook in the St. Louis area, where he makes $9 an hour. His future goals are to keep writing and to move into documentary filmmaking. As he said, minutes before heading to work, “I have a lot of time to make up.”