Breaking and Entering

breaking and entering

No one in prison likes a thief.  They target those they perceive as weak or look for targets of opportunity.  When lockers are open there are always eyes watching to see what you’ve got.  Being inattentive even for a few seconds can cost you.  Not padlocking your locker or footlocker even for a brief time and leaving it unattended will provide an opening for theft.  While a thief may run up into a cube and open a predetermined locker for a predetermined item in a snatch and grab, most theft is conducted by a cubemate.  They will even come up to you later and lie to your face pretending to empathize with you and your loss.

Some steal for the thrill, some are hungry, some as a passive aggressive way of expressing hatred for an individual, and some are desperate to pay their debts.  Given the culture in prison, the others living in the cube may know who did it and condone the action.  On rare occasions they don’t and then things become interesting.  Theft is premeditated and sometimes conducted by a crew.  Locks may be enough to slow them down but generally once their minds are made up, they will keep trying until they succeed.  In the end if you are marked as a target your property is as good as gone.

Lockers used in prison housing units look like any locker you’ve seen in a locker room at the gym.  A little over a foot wide and about six feet tall and about 20 inches deep.  In Level II and above the lockers are bolted to the wall.  In most Level I cubicle settings they are free standing.  In every housing unit that I lived in, the majority of the lockers exhibited damage from years of abuse.  Due to security concerns, lockers with internal rods used to secure the top and bottom of the door had the rods removed to prevent their use as weapons.  This means that the only point at which the door was secured was the middle.  This left the top and bottom corners susceptible to leverage that could be used to pry them open sufficiently to reach inside and grab whatever was in reach.  At my last Level I the maintenance department was delivering a replacement locker to my housing unit on a weekly basis.  The old lockers were being repaired and the corners of the doors reinforced with steel bar welded into them.   They were then returned to the unit when the next locker was broken into.  Too bad they weren’t being proactive and simply replace all the lockers with refurbished ones.  Just goes to show how little concern they had for the inmates

The footlockers used to be fairly secure.  They were made from ply-wood with metal trim adjoining all the corner seams and a rugged clasp for the padlock.  Over the years the quality of the footlockers decreased to keep the cost down. One time an older style footlocker was stolen in my Level I housing unit by throwing it over the wall from the back hall to the front.  Late at night you could hear the thin wood box being broken up into small enough pieces that they could be disposed of in the trash to get rid of the evidence.  At least 10 years ago a switch was made to an all metal style with a piano hinge lid with a weak clasp and no internal support to strengthen the corners of the lid.  These were easy to pry open.  I had one that was so forcefully pried open by a thief that the clasp broken off at the weld.  When I was moved to a different facility the footlocker was deemed to be damaged and the Property Room would not let me have it back.  I had to order another footlocker to replace it.  The cost was about $100 including tax and delivery.  If you had more property than could fit in a duffle bag you had no choice but to buy a footlocker.  There is a mechanism by which you can try to get the state to reimburse you for damage to a foot locker if you can prove it is the result of staff actions, which they will deny since it was by their inattention and not direct action that the damage occurred.

When unit security is lax the thief will steal repeatedly being emboldened by his success.  A favorite time for theft is during meal times when the majority of inmates are out of the unit for 15-25 minutes.  During that time if the unit officers are not making their presence known then larger items like footlockers will be broken into or TVs stolen.  To avoid the cameras that are positioned to look down the hallways, people and goods are transferred over the walls that separate the cubicles.  Because this problem was so bad the MDOC was forced to erect a metal fencing barrier to separate the front and back hallway cubicles, but not the side by side cubicles.  You can’t identify suspects if you can’t find them on camera with goods in their hands.  When it is an inside job it is even more difficult.  Even eyewitnesses will not say anything because being a snitch in prison is not a healthy vocation.  It is safer to not get involved unless the cubemates act as a group to deal with the situation since none of them wants to be the next victim.

There are a lot of people in prison who made a living by stealing out in the world and old habits die hard.  Most people in prison will continue on living how they lived in the world and even embellish on it.  But thieves are the worst.  They have no moral sense of conscience to dissuade them.  Only the threat of physical violence by getting caught by another inmate will slow them down.  They don’t even worry about getting caught by staff since the odds are so strongly in their favor.  When caught there is usually only a slap on the wrist for punishment.  Officers may write tickets, but only in extraordinary cases will theft between inmates result in restitution.  In contrast if the theft is against the state, they will charge exorbitant replacement costs.

When a thief is identified in the housing unit, he is a marked man.  Generally speaking, the only recourse is violence, and that only feeds into the dysfunctional prison culture.  If you don’t have anything to lose and feel like you have a chance to win you might try to seek revenge or have others help you.  If you don’t have acquaintances or accomplices to do this or can’t risk losing a parole, you may have to simply accept it.  It certainly helps to put things in proper perspective.  Nothing is more important than freedom, it is after all only stuff.  But for those who have little or nothing and everything they do have is hard won with scant resources and no ability to replace the stolen items then the stakes can be much higher.  People have died in prison in disputes over a single Raman noodle which costs $0.34.

House Arrest

 

house arrestBeing on parole is not freedom.  Too many guys coming out of prison think that having received a parole that they have earned their freedom, that their sentence is complete.  But that is not the case.  While on parole you are still under the control of the MDOC.  Parole is prison without the razor wire.  You have a parole agent who keeps track of you, meeting regularly to monitor your compliance with the stipulations of your parole specified by the Parole Board.  They have absolute control over whether you stay out or return to prison for any parole violations.  On parole you must successfully complete some specified term living in the community, sometimes with severe limits on where you can go and what you can do.  This varies from person to person and is based on the crime committed and other factors.

A typical parole can last up to 24 months.  The stipulations of the parole generally require that the parolee maintain regular employment.  You must also pay a supervision fee and any outstanding debts incurred during incarceration in addition to any unpaid court costs, fines and restitution associated with the felony conviction.  Frequently programming such as AA or NA may be required for those with a history of alcohol or drug abuse.  Additionally, some receive their paroles with program requirements waved while they were in prison because they were classified as “low risk” to re-offend during a psychiatric examination but must now take programming from an approved vendor as a condition of parole.  Failure to successfully complete programming will result in a revocation of parole.

After the conditions of sever deprivation, loss of personal control and decision making in prison some are so focused on redressing the privations that they quickly violate the terms of their parole.  For some it is satisfying the urge to indulge in their addiction for alcohol or drugs.  For others it is about hustling to get the money together to resume their lifestyle.  However most of these hustles are illegal.  Once a person has been in prison the odds of them returning are greater that they will return to prison than the odds for a person who has never been going for the first time.

tether-e1552099483450.pngTo address this problem the MDOC has tightened the conditions of parole in some instances so that it is in actuality “house arrest.”  All excursions from the residence must be approved in advance.  Many are paroled on GPS tether to prevent cheating.  At this level of control, the parolee is practically helpless and becomes reliant on family and friends to take care of many of the tasks that they would like to do for themselves, thus continuing to experience the conditions they experienced in prison.  With this level of control those without a support network are at a severe disadvantage.

Housing itself is a problem.  Transitional housing is in sort supply and in many communities is non-existent.  Those coming out of prison may only have a matter of weeks to find employment and permanent housing before being forced to leave the Parole halfway house.  Then there is the problem of finding affordable housing for those with a felony conviction, especially sex offenders.  Many apartment complexes and landlords will not rent to felons.  In some places such as Oakland Co there are a few rental companies that will but not in every community and not in sufficient numbers to address the current level of demand.

Employment is not as much of a problem as it used to be given the present economic environment.  However more needs to be done to train felons for jobs that pay a living wage.  Many are forced to take minimum wage jobs without benefits or career potential.  The MDOC has made changes to its Employment Readiness initiative over the last few years by revamping their vocational programing but much more needs to be done to ensure that people coming out of prison are employable.  Movements to “Ban the Box” have gained traction in the last few years to at least give felons an opportunity to interview for a job before they are eliminated from consideration for a position in some places like the city of Detroit.

While commendable movements like this are just the tip of the iceberg.  So many are coming out unprepared to hold steady employment due a lack of a basic education or even basic literacy skills.  As a tutor I saw it every day first hand, the lack of interest or desire to join mainstream society.  The smug satisfaction on many of my students faces knowing that they could simply wait out any requirement to earn a GED let alone make satisfactory progress toward earning one and still get a parole.  No thought toward a living a life as a productive member of society.

For many who have served long prison sentences returning to society has significant challenges.  Technology has changed everything: smart phones, the internet, shopping, the workplace, even cars.  Nothing looks familiar to someone who last saw the free world in the 1980s or 1990s.  Life is far more complex than it was, especially from the perspective of someone who has lived a very simple and highly controlled life.  The ability to learn and adopt technology can have a very steep learning curve for someone who isn’t familiar with it.  Then to make it more complicated parole stipulations may prevent the parolee from accessing technology.  Sex offenders are prohibited from having smart phones or computers with internet access.  Some convicted of financial crimes are prevented from having bank accounts.  A convicted murderer on parole has fewer restrictions than many other felonies.

One thing that is certain is that no one really wants to go back to prison but for some it is easier than reintegrating back into society.  What is needed are advocates and mentors; either family, friends or strangers willing to help parolees make the transition.  There are faith-based organizations, church and para-church ministries and other not-for-profit organizations out there that have programs to help.  The problem is that there are not enough organizations, people and resources available in all the places that they are needed.  Secondly, the information available to prisoners preparing for parole is often out of date and incomplete.  Inmates aren’t able to communicate with these organizations easily or effectively to make the necessary arrangements.  Since many don’t have someone on the outside to make arrangements for housing or employment in advance when they are paroled it becomes an immediate crisis.  The last thing a parolee needs is more stress.

Many inmates when preparing for their parole hearing make a Parole Plan in which they lay out what support is waiting for them upon release.  Unfortunately for many it is ‘pie in the sky.’  What looks good on paper in order to impress the parole board may not be worth the paper it is written on.  For example, the employment opportunity that I listed in my Parole Plan was voided by one of the stipulations of my parole.  For some, they are forced to parole back to the county in which they were convicted rather than being allowed to choose a location with more access to resources because they don’t have family there.

Something else to note about parole is that the conditions stipulated by the parole board remain in effect for the duration of the parole.  There is no easing of restrictions based on the completion of certain milestones such as completion of required programing or finding gainful employment.  Parole agents may in some cases have fewer contacts with the parolee but can at anytime show up unannounced to check on you.  For the most part parole is stick and no carrot, there is no reward for cooperation and good behavior.  No graduated easing of restrictions to allow for a true transition back into society.  In some cases, parole officers will make it even more difficult for their parolees by denying requests to approve housing, employment or other activities for reasons that seem mercurial at best.  They may also actively seek to find reasons to revoke a parole or to at least scare the parole with threats of incarceration-the scared straight approach.

While there have been changes to parole in recent years to reduce the number of parole violators being sent back to prison, still more needs to be done.  The MDOC needs to do a better job of preparing the 95% of their inmates that will return to society.  There should be more Reentry programming that focuses on linking those soon to be paroled with agencies and organizations that will be able to provide access to services, programs, resources in the area where they will be paroling.  Access to employment services including in-prison hiring interviews, pre-enrollment for Social Security, Veterans benefits, and Medicaid would go a long way to preparing parolees for success.  Parole should be a transition, not more punishment.  A way to help put the parolee on the right track rather than a revolving door back to prison.

50 Things I Learned in Prison

  1. Toothpaste is a better glue than Elmer’s.
  2. Ramen noodles can be the base ingredient in a gourmet meal.
  3. RAP music is Really Awful Poetry.
  4. Sometimes you have to pay extra just to get the basic free service.
  5. You can’t trust authority. If you see their lips moving you know their lying.
  6. You can educate ignorance, but you can’t fix stupid.
  7. Privacy is an illusion and personal space is dimensionless.
  8. The only difference between COs and inmates is that the COs lack conviction.
  9. While the menu looks good on paper, the reality is something completely different.
  10. Prison beds have more in common with a medieval torture rack than a place to sleep.
  11. Not only is justice blind, it is deaf, mute, and retarded.
  12. Inmates can be charged outrageous prices for inferior products because they are a captive market.
  13. Common sense is not very common.
  14. Prison health care services are careless, dental services are toothless, and the mental health services are crazy.
  15. Prison is like Motel 6, they’ll leave a light on for you.
  16. Mother doesn’t live here so you have to clean up after yourself.
  17. Behavioral issues are best handled with diesel therapy.
  18. Even when you are right you’re guilty.
  19. It’s their house and their rules, I’m just a guest.
  20. Floor sealer makes good shoe polish.
  21. Coffee is the nectar of the gods.
  22. Eating gas station vending machine food in the visiting room is like dining in a 5-star restaurant compared to the chow hall.
  23. Silence is not only golden, it’s priceless.
  24. I miss my Lazy-boy!
  25. It’s pronounced “pole-ees”.
  26. “Snitch” is a four-letter word.
  27. Hygiene is not optional
  28. Forty qualifies you as old.
  29. Fifteen minutes on the phone goes by in a heartbeat.
  30. Men gossip worse than women.
  31. The truth will not set you free.
  32. Beards are a fashion statement, tattoos are a fashion faux pas.
  33. There is a direct relationship between a man’s IQ and his level of respect for women.
  34. You are guilty until proven innocent, and since no one is innocent, QED.
  35. There is no place like home.
  36. The general public is not getting their money’s worth from the MDOC.
  37. It’s the Michigan Department of Corruption.
  38. Dogs at the pound get treated better than inmates.
  39. Prison is no place for picky eaters.
  40. The prison pay scale is criminal exploitation.
  41. Lawsuits are cheaper than proper health care.
  42. Inmates are like mushrooms: Kept in the dark and fed BS.
  43. Low expectations lead to poor outcomes.
  44. Might makes fright.
  45. If you don’t get your hopes up you won’t be disappointed.
  46. You can’t force someone to change; they have to want to.
  47. Harsh prison sentences punish more than just the guilty party.
  48. Some fashion statements should be revised before being made public.
  49. Dental floss can mend anything.
  50. The way to claim success is to keep changing programs before the failures become too evident.

Two Sides of a Coin

Two Sides of A coin
photo by Jamie McCaffrey

Think of a coin.  The image that is stamped on the head and tail is just a thin facade on the surface.  Forever bound together yet separated by the vast bulk of the material. Likewise, victims of crime and those accused of committing crime have one thing in common, both take issue with the criminal justice system.

Victims are made to relive their traumatic experience over and over.  They may be made to feel like they are somehow at fault for having something bad happened to them.  From their perspective the system is slow to move, and all too often denies them the justice they seek.

The accused feel that there is a rush to judgment, that facts don’t matter, and their side of the story is irrelevant.  They believe they are being railroaded into taking a plea agreement to avoid extremely long sentences because of the fear that even without physical evidence or multiple eye witnesses that they will be convicted.  Guilty until proven innocent.

In our modern democracy with guaranteed rights one wonders how either perspective could possibly be true, let alone both, yet they are.  It is the system that is the problem. Crime has been part of our society from the dawn of time but the way we deal with it is prehistoric.  Modern society has applied science to evidence collection; psychology to profile criminal behavior; trained investigators evaluate information and identify suspects; and the media spreads the word and enlists the public’s assistance to track down the perpetrator.  Then the lawyers and courts get involved and everything goes sideways.  Truth doesn’t matter only procedures and precedence.  Under the law, black and white have taken on new definitions the only have meaning in that context.

Humans are the ones who makes decisions about the charges; humans weigh the evidence; humans reach a verdict; humans pass judgment; and humans carry out the sentence.  It is the human factor that thwarts, short circuits, circumvents, or stymies the rules and regulations set in place to safeguard the process.

Evidence is planted, missed, or ignored.  Witnesses are coerced, intimidated, or discredited.  Police brutality, corruption, racial profiling, entrapment, illegal interrogation, false confessions.   Political agendas, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel.  Fallibility of witness memory.  Victim statements manufactured and manipulated by leading questions.  The wrong person picked out of a lineup. Innocent people are convicted in sent to prison.  Guilty people get off on technicalities. The real perpetrators get away with murder even.

Humans with their prerogatives and passions; their intelligence and ignorance; their biases and beliefs; their motivations and methodologies; their dedication and dispositions are the cause when the prosecutor brings charges or decides to close the case; the jury gets the verdict right or  gets the verdict wrong; when a person is convicted by a judge or when another judge overturns a conviction; when the parole board grants a parole or when they deny it.

You see it is all connected and yet disconnected at the same time.  Both functional and dysfunctional; both transparent and opaque; both fair and biased.  The one thing it is not is perfect.  It may be the best we have, but we need to see it for the flawed system that it is and take that into account when preparing to cast stones.  In John 8:7 Jesus said, “Let he that is without sin cast the first stone.”  Studies have shown that in the state of Texas more than 5% of those put to death for murder were later found to be innocent.

So, what are the odds that someone convicted of a lesser crime might be innocent? Maybe we should save our vitriol for someone who truly deserves it rather than applying a liberal dose to every case.  In a previous century tar and feathering was carried out by a mob of angry citizens. Today it is a virtual tar and feathering that happens in the media and on the Internet.  As a society we have become quick to judge and condemn others while demanding grace and mercy for ourselves.

The problem is that we can’t judge ourselves, we are at the mercy of the court.  Maybe, just maybe if we took a little more time and care in our decision making; looking before we leap; thinking before we act; putting ourselves in the other persons shoes; and “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us,” occasionally we wouldn’t find ourselves in such a messed-up situation. You can’t undo harm and there are no take backs in punishment.  Saying “I’m sorry” or “My bad” can’t put things right. As the nursery rhyme says, “All the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” And this is true whether he was pushed, jumped, or fell.  Regardless of whether you are the victim, or the accused just remember that we’re all in this together for better or worse.  Blaming others, excusing ourselves, or sticking your head in the sand can’t fix the problems in the criminal justice system.  Be part of the solution rather than the problem.  Hold the system accountable.  Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.  Demand better treatment for both victims and the accused, or someday when you find yourself in the system it will be too late.

 

You Might Be A Prisoner If:

An homage to Jeff Foxworthy

  1. You try to buy things with Ramen Noodles.
  2. You call out in a restaurant “Cookie for a burger!”
  3. You send a written request to your doctor for an appointment.
  4. Three times a day you stop what you’re doing and go sit on your bed.
  5. You never make phone calls that last more than 15 minutes.
  6. All the outfits in your closet are identical.
  7. You can tell military time but you don’t salute officers.
  8. You get signatures in your day planner for every appointment.
  9. You get your hair cut with children’s safety scissors.
  10. Instead of being chased by a posse, the posse travels with you.
  11. You wish your gin had been brewed in a bathtub.
  12. You sleep with the lights on for safety.
  13. You gossip worse than women about other men.
  14. You expect and accept “No” for an answer.
  15. You are willing to stand in line at the worst restaurant in town.
  16. You work for only pennies an hour.
  17. You have to pay your roommate to get him to take a shower.
  18. You paid for your tattoos with coffee.
  19. Convictions are something on your rap sheet, not something you believe.
  20. Earning a GED is considered a significant achievement.
  21. You answer when people call you by a number instead of your name.
  22. Instead of working 9 to 5 you have hard labor from 5 to 9.
  23. You use a Bible as a doorstop or a wedge for your bunk.
  24. You think HOPE is a four-letter word.
  25. You think that instant coffee is the elixir of the gods.
  26. You think that life and death is just fun and games.
  27. You watch free cable but are not staying in a hotel.
  28. The way you say ‘Thank you’ is “Good lookin’ out” and mean it literally.
  29. All your worldly possessions fit into a duffle bag but you don’t deploy overseas.
  30. The majority of the furniture in your room is bolted to the floor or walls.

Everything Is Backwards In Prison

Backwards

  1. We lock our closets but we can’t lock the bathroom door. In fact, in many prisons there isn’t a bathroom door.
  2. The best food you get to eat is vending machine food in the visiting room or gas station food from the commissary. The chow hall food is practically inedible.
  3. The windows don’t have any curtains but still fail to let much light in.
  4. It is dark in the housing units, yet people complain when you turn on the lights.
  5. When you do turn on the lights they are still not bright enough to read by.
  6. Bath soap and shampoo are used to wash your personal dishes.
  7. The day room is most crowded at night.
  8. We use chairs as a ladder to climb unto the top bunk instead of sitting on them.
  9. Emergency count is never an emergency and always takes longer than regular count.
  10. In the chow hall they feed grown men kid’s meal portions.
  11. Disposable plastic silverware is used over and over forever.
  12. Guys talk about the ugliest women as if they are beauty queens when they would never give them a second thought out in the world.
  13. We refill the ink barrel of our favorite disposable pen.
  14. We recharge disposable batteries.
  15. Laundry comes out of the wash looking dirtier than before it was washed.
  16. Headphones are used to block out sound.
  17. The family we were tired of listening to can’t talk long enough on the phone.
  18. We sometimes have to lock-up to get free of a bad situation.
  19. New flat screen TVs have smaller screens than the old CRTs and cost 50% more.
  20. Some work only to steal.
  21. The MDOC pays students to go to school.
  22. Some inmates have their people put money in other prisoner’s trust accounts because they can’t have any in their own.
  23. We brush our teeth before meals.
  24. No good deed goes unpunished.
  25. Bad behavior is expected.
  26. We learned that the truth will not set you free.

Freedom

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  This is the opening of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776.  The nation born from the struggle to achieve better treatment for its people by casting off its oppressors commemorates its freedom from July 4th rather than from September 3, 1783 when Great Britain signed the peace treaty ending the revolution and acknowledging the sovereignty of the United States of America.  Freedom was not granted by the oppressors, rather it was taken by force by the oppressed.  Unfortunately, not everyone in the country can celebrate freedom today.  Millions of men and women are incarcerated in jails and prisons all across the country.  When you don’t have the ability to participate in life, liberty, or pursue happiness there really isn’t much to celebrate on a national holiday that you can’t experience.

Christmas is a religious and cultural holiday.  Thanksgiving remembers the difficulties of establishing a home in the “new world.”  Memorial Day acknowledges the sacrifice of our soldiers to defend us.  Labor Day acknowledges the efforts of the people to make the engines of commerce run.  Those in prison can find connection to some or all these holidays, but Independence Day in my experience was different.

Prisoners have had their freedom taken away because they violated societies code of conduct.  Why take away freedom?  Because after life, liberty is the most valuable thing a person can possess.  It is like the punishment we received as children when our parents took away our favorite toy.  We didn’t like that but when that didn’t work, what did they do?  They put us in time out, which escalated to grounding when behavior fails to conform to expectation.

Parents do this because it works, sort of.  When we were little it didn’t take much to pursued us to behave.  But over time the punishment increased in severity as the effectiveness diminished.  The same thing happens with adults.  Harsher punishments for more heinous crimes and 3 strike laws to increase penalties for repeat offenders.  But just like children over time with repeated offense the effectiveness diminishes.

Nonetheless when you are in prison you are not free, but you remember what freedom was like.  You miss it terribly because all around you are reminders of what you have lost and what it takes to deny it from you.  On one hand you watch the officers and staff go home every night, cars driving by on the streets beyond the fences and the TV brings images of what’s passing you by.  On the other hand, you can’t get away from razor wire, monotonous routine, and loneliness day after day.  All of these are enough to drive you crazy and the last thing you want is something like a holiday dedicated to freedom to rub salt in the wound.

Holidays are times when people in the world get together with family and friends, take road trips, and gorge at feasts.  Prison can only offer pale facsimiles that leave little to be desired.  Once upon a time there were picnic holiday meals served on the big yard with burgers and hotdogs cooked on the grill, as the old timers tell it.  But any pretense of holiday celebration is long gone.  Holiday meals are only slightly distinguishable from any other meals.  Like putting fixings on a burger and ice cream on pie.  At my last prison the local community fireworks display was visible over the tree tops for those that had a view from their housing unit windows facing that direction.  While they drew the attention of a few guys, most simply complained about the noise.

Holidays meant that non-custodial staff would have the day off, so things like the library or gym callouts would be cancelled.  This always caused complaints, since these callouts would not be rescheduled for another day.  The visiting room was always crowded on the holidays.  Holidays meant limited hours compared to the normal visiting room hours of operation.  Vending machines run low and there is no one to refill them.  Lots of irregulars working means that chaos rules.  All this takes away from the enjoyment of having contact with family or friends.

The phones are always busy on holidays as guys call home hoping to make contact with family and friends visiting the house that they wouldn’t normally get to speak with.  Providing that you can get through.

After the Independence Day holiday is over there is an almost audible sigh of relief when things go back to “normal” at least until the next holiday in September.  The only independence day that a prisoner wants to celebrate is the day that they are released from incarceration.

Brush Strokes

vincent_van_gogh_prisoners_walking_the_round
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Prisoners Walking The Round” also called “Prisoners Exercising” painted in 1890.

It is really easy to paint everyone in prison as being the same.  Hardened criminals who are as monochromatic as the walls surrounding them with black hearts and dark thoughts that only know destruction.  But that like most popular perceptions about prison is not just an over-simplification, it is wrong.   Prison is a microcosm of society with people from all walks of life, many of whom I’ve tried to describe in this blog.  There are colorful, creative people who have done some terrible things and are paying the price.  However, rather than letting darkness consume them they are taking the proverbial lemon and making lemonade.  They do this pouring out their creative energy in painting or writing.  The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project has for more than two decades hosted an exhibit of art by Michigan prisoners and for ten years have published an annual volume of creative writing.  The annual art exhibit and reading are held in Ann Arbor and Detroit and are open to the general public.

Works of art and writing are submitted to a selection committee at the U of M Humanities School.  Those that are accepted cover a wide range of subject matter from real life to flights of fancy and from poetry to non-fiction.  Many of the works of art are available for sale with the proceeds going to the artist.  The creative writing is published in book form that is available for sale by U of M.  At the reading, mainly family and friends are invited to read on behalf of the incarcerated author.  I was one of the rare authors who had paroled between the submittal and the reading and could present my own poem “Ode to Ramen.”  A humorous but truthful analysis of the importance of Ramen Noodles to prisoners.

It is fascinating to see how others view their life behind bars in color or black and white.  The diversity of perspectives and experience is showcased nicely through this program by U of M.  So much of life behind bars is a mysterious secret that very few get a glimpse of first hand.  There should be more programs like this that provide an outlet for inmates than can be witnessed by the public.

Here is the poem that I wrote regarding one aspect of prison life that was published in “Concertina Maze” The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Vol. 9. 2016

Ode to Ramen

Like many prison inmates I own my very survival to your savory, salty goodness.  The MRE of the penitentiary.  You are always there when the chow hall lets me down to satisfy my hungry longing for sustenance.

Your noodley presence is the only constant in a place where no one knows what tomorrow may bring.  More enduring than a Bunkie, waiting patiently in my locker to be called upon in a time of need.

Honeybuns and bagels may come and go, but your pasta lasts forever.  You never grow old or mold, having a half-life rather than a shelf life.  Meant to be crushed yet you are indestructible.  Immortality incarnate.

Haute cuisine you may not be, yet comfort food you are.  A staple ingredient in every dish, the most versatile of wonder foods.  You inspire me to new heights of cookery as master chef of the microwave.

Flavor is your claim to fame.  Packets of hot spicy intensity or meaty mellowness that travel far and wide beyond the expectations of ordinary condiments, to lift the spirits of diners in desperate need of taste enhancement.

Your value transcends your caloric content to become the currency of the land.  Exchanging hands to pay our debts, you wander far before you spend your last to ensure that I will make it ‘till the dawn.

Hail to the noodle!

Care Less

The old adage is that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is never truer than in prison.  I have encountered very few employees of the MDOC that I could honestly say cared about anything more than their jobs.  Not doing their jobs well, just keeping them.  Actions speak louder than words and the way some of the COs yell that’s saying something.

An example of a CO that is not treating inmates with respect is when they get on the PA and call for you by saying, “Hay get up here!”  They use profanity and humiliation to publicly denigrate inmates.  Using strong arm tactics, such as tearing up a person’s property when doing a shake down and taking property such as TVs as contraband in retaliation for a perceived slight.

Food service workers that would rather throw food away then feed a little extra to the inmates that work in the chow hall.  Supervisors that refuse to write work reports with a perfect score, on the principle that we’re convicts.  Medical staff that put company profits ahead of providing life-saving health care service. Vendors that make huge profits off of those who can least afford it.

From the inmates’ perspective it is really easy to be cynical about attitudes when those who have been entrusted with the care and feeding of inmates treat them worse than dogs at the pound.  People who are always looking for an angle are jaded about the motives of others.  Respect and the lack there of is a central premise of the prison culture.  Inmates can spot a fake a mile away. Sincerity, truth, and information are of great value and in short supply.  The few MDOC staff members that have these elusive qualities are respected.  For the rest animosity, antagonism, a never-ending game of cat and mouse, with scores to settle and vendettas that result in guys going to the hole and COs getting hurt.

What is needed most by people who have received so little of it in their lives is having someone care about them as a person.  To see them as more than a number and a pay check.  To see them succeed, to go home and never come back.  Once that happens, then maybe inmates will listen a little more carefully to what they are being taught in school and programming.  Maybe they’ll be more cooperative with the system instead of being hell bent on destroying it from the inside.

I am not naive to think it will cure all the problems and that the hostility of people being held against their will, will go away. But would it really hurt those who work for the MDOC to start treating inmates as people?  To do their jobs conscientiously with the goal of treating inmates as customers or patients instead of merchandise that is simply warehoused and shipped from place to place.  We may be damaged goods, but we need help to put us back together, not to be thrown on the junk pile and discarded.

As human beings we are composed of bodies, souls, and spirits that require a lot of nurturing.  The resources required to this are not cheap, but the fact is that prison as it currently exists causes more harm than good.  It is failing to do the one job it is entrusted to do- that is to protect society by rehabilitating those who have been deemed unfit for a civil society.  It is unfortunate that people end up in prison.  An ounce of prevention is worth more and certainly costs less than a pound of cure.

But until the legislature and the general public are willing to pay the true cost of meeting the goal of reducing crime by addressing the root causes they are stuck instead paying for the cure.  Don’t let it be money just flushed down the toilet, but rather well spent by corrections professionals who act the part and take their jobs seriously and care about making a difference.

A Bird In The Hand

Deseases of Cannaries Looking Outwards

 Books by Robert Stroud are still in print today.

The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud raised and studied birds while he was incarcerated at Leavenworth.  A convicted murderer, he published Diseases of Canaries in 1933, which was smuggled out of prison and sold.  He even ran a successful business from inside prison.  While not allowed to keep birds at Alcatraz he instead wrote a history of the penal system.  He was incarcerated for the last 54 years of his life and spent 42 of those years in solitary confinement.  A dangerous, violent man who eventually became one of the best-known examples of self-improvement and rehabilitation in the federal prison system.

While no one is raising birds in their cells for sale in the MDOC, I’ve seen a few that had the birds feeding out of their hands in the big yard.  Prisons are generally not located in heavily populated areas and are surrounded by farms, fields and forests.  The result is that there is a fair amount of wild life present.  Deer, wild turkeys, muskrats, foxes, opossum, raccoon, skunk, chipmunks, and dozens of species of birds.  It is the small animals and birds that can come and go as they please through the perimeter, obviously the larger critters will only be visible outside of the fence, but a deer did get inside the fence one time.

I’ve watched guys hold out their hand and feed birds with crumbs of bread taken from the chow hall.  Standing still with their arm outstretched near a bird perched on a fence or bench.  The bird will hop onto the hand and feed for seconds at a time.  Red Winged Black Birds, Chickadees, and other song birds that to some extent have become accustomed to humans can be coaxed from feeding nearby to feeding out of hand.  No sudden movements, no noise, just patience.

Birds perch on fences, however in prison that can be dangerous since there is usually razor wire involved. I’ve seen countless one-legged birds hopping about. That’s a high price to pay for hanging out in prison just for the sake of a free meal.

Chipmunks are another species that benefits from inmate’s willingness to feed the animals, which is of course against the rules.  Chipmunks hide in holes and are nervous by nature but can be coaxed out with a few peanuts.  I’ve never seen one feed from a hand, but there was a game to see how close you could get to one.

Prison being prison, not every story is cute and cuddly. While I was at my first level I facility, several inmates got into trouble for catching, killing and trying to cook a duckling in the microwave.

Large open grassy areas tend to attract geese and ducks, especially if there are even small temporary bodies of standing water nearby.  The big yard may look like a tempting location to raise a family.  Inmates will step aside and allow the mother duck to lead her ducklings from one location to another across the yard.  Ducklings grow fat from all the bread crumbs tossed their way.  Free from predators 1ike foxes, hawks become the greatest threat.  The ducks are closely watched and any loss to the family group is noted.  Some guys find great joy in in watching the ducklings mature and are saddened when they fly away at the end of the summer.  I think a part of these inmates who have invested their time and emotions into these ducklings flies away with them when they leave.  You can see it in their eyes as they watch the ducks experience freedom that the inmates can only dream about.

Unlike Hogan’s Heroes or Shawshank Redemption the MDOC doesn’t use guard dogs.  I’ve heard of dogs being brought in from the state police to search for drugs but that is about it. There are however several facilities that have begun raising puppies for the Leader Dogs for the Blind program. Writeups in the newspapers speak highly of these programs and the success rate that these dog programs have. They were going to set one up at my last level I facility but the new warden changed his mind.  The inmates had already been selected and moved into a housing unit and the kennels had been built in the housing unit, but no dogs. There was one dog that came to live in the prison however.  An officer had passed away after an extended illness and her dog was brought in in anticipation of the dog program.  While not actually part of the program the dog was to be looked after and cared for by the inmates.  It became the most popular individual on the compound. I would see it sometimes being taken for walks around the track during yard time.  In the winter someone even made it a winter coat by cutting up a prisoner coat to make one with little sleeves for the front legs and an orange stripe across the shoulders just like the rest of the prisoners had.  Doted on and spoiled rotten with lavish attention the dog was the center of attention everywhere it went.  It became a sort of therapy dog for everyone at that prison. No one would dare to abuse or in any way hurt the dog or they would suffer the wrath of several hundred dog lovers.

Mich Dog
Photo: Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press

They say that dogs are man’s best friend and that they don’t judge us but give unconditional affection.  For many in prison that type of attention is exactly what prisoners need.  In a place where there is so much negativity to find something as relentlessly positive as a wagging tail.  To have something to care for and about when it feels like you’re forgotten and alone.  To have a reason to do something for someone besides yourself.  To be responsible for the well-being of another creature when your own is under duress.  If one dog could do that what would 20 dogs do? The fact is that dogs make a positive contribution to the facilities that have them.

Mich Dog Program
Photo: J. Scott Park / AP

There is a tremendous demand for these dogs and it would seem that while having the dogs would make for more work the dividends paid by the positive mood they bring that every warden should be clamoring to get a program at their facility.  Unfortunately, that is not the case and you need to ask why.  Just like Robert Stroud who benefited from a warden who saw the value in his bird research and gave him a second cell to house all his birds only to lose it all when a new warden came and didn’t see the value and thought that he only deserved punishment and harsh treatment.  It all goes back to the question: Is prison only about punishment or should rehabilitation be the focus?