What it’s like to go from prison bars to handlebars

Justin Paulin made himself a promise in prison. If he could get out, stay clean and find a job, he’d buy himself a motorcycle. Behind bars, he’d sit on a bench, dreaming of open roads and the wind rushing by his face. That vision of two-wheeled freedom helped get him through some dark times.

Now, after the better part of a decade in federal custody, Paulin’s done his time. He’s out and he’s not using. He’s a certified truck driver with a good job and he’s buying a house with his girlfriend.

And he’s got his bike.

Covered in tattoos all the way to his chin and wearing a broad grin, I met him in a Denny’s parking lot on Saturday. He was astride a 10-year-old, yellow Suzuki GSX-R1000. He told me he hadn’t washed it but the bike was gleaming and spotless. It looked fast.

“I wasn’t a huge fan of the color,” he said. “But it was what I wanted for a bike. The most important reason I bought it is just because I enjoy riding, the freedom of being on the road.”

While serving time on a federal drug charge, Justin Paulin, 33, made a deal with himself: If he could get out, get a job and get his life together, he'd celebrate by buying a motorcycle. This spring, he did just that. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

While serving time on a federal drug charge, Justin Paulin, 33, made a deal with himself: If he could get out, get a job and get his life together, he’d celebrate by buying a motorcycle. This spring, he did just that. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Until late last year, Paulin, 33, wasn’t free at all. He was in federal prison, serving 112-month sentence for conspiracy to launder money. He was also on the hook for trafficking 1,200 pounds of marijuana.

“I just felt like I was above the law, or I could do what I wanted and basically not deal with the consequences later,” he told me over coffee.

He was wrong about that and entered federal custody at the age of 24.

“When I first when in, I was really bitter,” Paulin said. “I blamed everybody else but myself for what had happened.”

He credits a drug treatment program in prison for changing his attitude. Taking responsibility for what he’d done was the program’s first step. Another step was constructing a plan for change.

“At one point, I kind of sat back and realized what kind of situation I’d gotten myself into,” he said. “I’d lost everything. That’s when I really sat down and made some goals for myself, what I wanted to do, how I was going to achieve them and how I was going to get where I wanted to be. I knew that when I came home, if I went back to the same lifestyle, I’d be considered a career criminal. My next sentence would start out at 15 years. I really had to have a plan on what I was going to do.”

That plan involved getting a job, which he’s done. He got his commercial truck driving license and is delivering cement six days a week. Living in Portland, with his girlfriend, he’s managed to stay on the straight and narrow.

Saving money from that job, he bought his bike at the start May. He’d had several motorcycles before he went to prison but they all came from ill-gotten drug money.

“I appreciated them but not the way I appreciate this one — because I’ve had to work hard for this one,” Paulin said.

Justin Paulin, 33, sits on his 2007 Suzuki GSX-R1000 in Portland on Saturday. Paulin served nearly a decade in federal prison on drug trafficking charges and had a goal of getting out, getting his life together and buying a motorcycle. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Justin Paulin, 33, sits on his 2007 Suzuki GSX-R1000 in Portland on Saturday. Paulin served nearly a decade in federal prison on drug trafficking charges and had a goal of getting out, getting his life together and buying a motorcycle. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Now, he rides with his father and his girlfriend but mostly by himself,

“It’s hard to really compare it to anything else,” he said. “You don’t have a radio. You’re just listening to the exhaust. You’re focused on riding. Your mind’s clear.”

It gives him time to think, like the time he had on the inside. He missed a lot while he was away, including his mother’s death and her funeral.

“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t reflect on something that happened in there.”

Aside from the drug treatment program, Paulin credits his family with helping him stay straight on the outside. He’s grateful for that.

“I’m really not the same person as when I left,” he said.

Even though he’s learned a lot, he says it’s hard to give advice. He remembers what it was like, being young, angry and incarcerated. He knows it was hard to hear anyone above the din of his own anger.

“I don’t really know what to say to somebody, to get them to listen,” Paulin said. “I just know that nobody’s going to give you anything. They might give you a chance but you’re going to have to prove it for yourself.”

Justin Paulin, 33, rides his 2007 Suzuki GSX-R1000 in Portland on Saturday. Paulin served nearly a decade in federal prison on drug trafficking charges and had a goal of getting out, getting his life together and buying a motorcycle. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Justin Paulin, 33, rides his 2007 Suzuki GSX-R1000 in Portland on Saturday. Paulin served nearly a decade in federal prison on drug trafficking charges and had a goal of getting out, getting his life together and buying a motorcycle. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.