un-Happy Birthday

(When Milestones become Millstones)

I have previously written about celebrating holidays in prison.  Now I would like to focus on birthdays.  Unlike holidays in an average prison of 1000 people there is probably at least one being celebrated or ignored by at least one inmate every day.  Then you add in the birthdays for wives, children, parents, and siblings there are literally hundreds of birthdays being remembered. The separation caused by incarceration is most acutely and painfully felt on these most important days. Missing these milestones in the life of the family cuts deeply into the psyche of those who prided themselves on their ability to provide for their families.   Even those that did acknowledge their failings in this area often took pride in the accomplishments of their children.  While I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, I believe that many men in prison would rather celebrate their family’s birthdays and completely ignore their own.  I came to this conclusion by listening to how men would talk about their families, even in some divorced or separated situations.  The number of photographs pinned to their head board showing wives and children backing up their talk. 

The difference between holidays and birthdays in prison is simple: Government holidays mean a break from the normal routine with programming cancelled and special meals served.  On your birthday if you are fortunate to have a visit you can eat vending machine food.  For those that choose to celebrate their birthdays in prison the occasion will be a low key event that might mean a cook-up of some sort with an associate or two.  For those who don’t value their liver, there is spud juice available in just about every prison housing unit.  The daily routine is pretty much the same as any other day.  Work and school assignments continue as usual.  Some luck few will receive a birthday card in the mail from family or friends.  I would get books from places like Barnes and Nobles delivered to me from my parents.  No surprise parties.  No birthday cake and ice cream.  No packages wrapped with festive paper, ribbons, and bows.  Many might call home if they have money on their phone account or people who would accept collect calls for the 15 minutes just to hear a familiar voice.

Birthdays are a personal event that are celebrated from our first to our last year except for some religious groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses.  In the western world they mark the passage of time and our developmental progress.  Some have special significance such as turning 16 and getting a driver’s license or 21 and getting to drink legally.  When I turned 18 it meant that I was eligible for the military draft.  Middle age is generally considered to be 45.  The standard retirement age is 65.  We often judge our success or failure in life by evaluating our progress on achieving goals by certain ages.  Getting married in our 20s.  Having children by our early 30s.   Having the kids out of the house by our 50s.  Having the mid-life crisis in mid-life.  If we achieve our goals by some certain age, we feel a measure of accomplishment and peace of mind.

But being sentenced to serve time in prison changes the math for many.  When the judge pronounces the sentence, the first thing you do is figure out how old you will be if/when you get out of prison.  All of the normal milestones are tossed out the window.  Now it is simply a matter of whether or not you will live long enough to see freedom.  The calculations are can be radically different, for example:  Person A is 17 and sentenced to 5 years and simply shrugs their shoulders, accepting that a few life goals will need to be postponed.  Person B is 17 and receives a life sentence and stands in stunned silence, knowing that life is over before it is truly begun.  Person C is 45 years old, receives a sentence of 25 years to life and realizes that by the time they are eligible for parole their parents will most likely be deceased.  Person D is 72 and receives 5 to 15 years and knows that it could be a death sentence.

I have met all of those people in prison.  About 95% of people who are sentenced to prison will be released at some point.  There is a revolving door of individuals serving 2 to 5 years for various mostly non-violent offenses.  If you are sentenced to serve less than seven years most likely you will do your time in a level I facility.  These short sentences for most people, especially those under the age of 30, are just a slap on the wrist which doesn’t do much to change their perspective on life.  For some coming to prison for these short periods of time was simply a vacation.  Level I facilities have the most freedom and access to the largest number of activities, education, and programing for inmates.  Time flies quickly when there is plenty to distract you from counting the years, months, and days until you will be free again.  Your life may be on hold for now but when you get home everyone will be there to greet you.

I suspect that those over the age of 30 tend to count even these shorter sentences as lost time.  While in the prime of life the disruption to earning power can be catastrophic.  It can mean separation from the wife and kids.  It can mean the lose of careers, homes, cars, and other items of value to the individual.  These losses could be due to having to pay court costs, fines, and restitution.  It could be the result of a prison divorce.  It hurts and for some they may never recover.  When you lose so much of what you identify as part of your self-identity, gaining your freedom again comes at such a high cost that you wonder if it is really worth it to be free.   These thoughts can take a person into some very dark places.  It is not just the ones who are serving a life sentence that consider or commit suicide in prison.

At age 44 I was sentenced to prison for 8 to 12 years.  My career and 20-year marriage ended.  I was separated from my life, my family, my friends.  I found myself in a very scary place for which I had no prior experience to prepare me for.  When I was served with divorce papers while I was in the country jail, the first question they asked me was whether I felt like harming myself.  I said, “No Sir” and went back to my cell clutching the divorce papers from my soon to be ex-wife’s lawyer.  I cried myself to sleep many nights, all the while hiding any emotion behind a blank facade.  I had no interest is spending time in the “Bam-Bam Room” where they took away your clothes and gave you a garment made out of carpet-like material and Velcro that looked like it was designed for the Flintstones, and kept you under 24-hour observation.

After Quarantine I was sent to Level IV.  I was locked down, restricted from having many necessities or very many luxuries including privacy, and time just seemed to stop.  I had to serve nearly 2900 days to reach my earliest release date.  The thought of not being free until I was 52 and then still on parole and not really free was mind boggling.  From that perspective it was all up hill, like climbing Mt. Everest by starting your trek from the shore of the Indian Ocean.  You can’t even see the mountains, let alone the summit.  I had spent 6 years attending college and graduate school but there was no comparison for what I had to endure in prison.

Roman Milestone Marker

Jails and prisons are specifically designed to break a person’s spirit, their will, their stiff-necked stubbornness.  The goal is to control you in such a way that you will be unable to fight back and thereby be more easily managed.  While I can’t put an exact number on the percentage, it is certainly in double digits the ones that resist, fight, and struggle against the system defying the officers and rules.  They are ones that find themselves serving time in isolation and if/when they leave prison, they are far worse off than when they went in.  It leaves me wondering if instead of breaking their spirit’s, it simply broke the person. 

The thought of missing X number of Christmas’, Independence Days, or birthdays never factors into the equation when a person thinks about committing a crime and is therefor not a deterrent.  There may be however some truth to the idea that it might cause a person to hesitate when thinking about committing another crime.  There is also a quality factor to consider in addition to the quantity of time when looking at prison time.  Serving time in college to get a degree, while living in dormitories, going to class, the library, the gym or track, and working on campus just isn’t in the same league with doing time in prison.  In prison there are only two options: Either you do your time, or Your time does you. 

Some of the most well-adjusted inmates I knew were the natural lifers in Level II.  When sentenced to life without the possibility of parole you are sent to Level V maximum security and you must work your way down to Level II.  They won’t take shit from anyone that would interfere with their ability to enjoy their little bit of freedom and access to luxury goods.  They won’t hesitate to put someone in their place, even if it means going up to level IV or V again.  They’ve got nothing but time.  My level II Bunkie was a lifer.  A little old man who had been down since the 1970s.  He didn’t care who you were or how much time you were serving, the odds were it wasn’t anything compared to what he had already done.  Life was simple for him: Detroit Tigers baseball and coffee.  It used to include cigarettes until they took them out of the penal system in Michigan in 2008. 

For those whose sentence looks more like a basketball score, prison can be a life sentence by another name.  When serving a sentence of 50 to 75 years the odds are against you seeing your freedom again.  If you are sentenced as a young adult, it is theoretically possible that you will be paroled but the world and people that you knew will be long gone.  I served time with guys who had never used a computer or a cellphone.  They only saw these technological marvels on the TV and it scared them.  The already knew that they would be lost and unable to adjust to the alien world that awaited them.  Prison doesn’t prepare you for life in the free world.  There are no classes on how to use the internet to find a job, get services and goods, or look up information.  Being paroled at an age that automatically qualifies you for Social Security when you’ve never paid into the system means that you will get the lowest amount possible.  An amount that it will be impossible to live on when you have no one left to live with.  Once you have lived your adult life as a ward of the state it is impossible to live any other way.  I’ve seen grown men purposefully get a misconduct in order to keep from being paroled.

For me, the time I spent in prison was more of a marathon than a sprint.  I kept close track of the mile markers.   Four months for time served in the country jail; One month in Quarantine; Seven months in level IV- One year down and 7 to go.  I worked, I read books, I walked the track and worked out as I could.  I immersed myself in religious studies and the church.  I set up schedules to ensure that I occupied my time.  I counted the missed holidays and birthdays by writing letters home and cherishing the visits and phone calls.  I learned what it was like to be lonely even when you are never alone.

I was promoted to level II having served more than six months ticket free in level IV.  I might have served longer than seven months but for a chance meeting with the Resident Director who was filling in for the Unit Councilor.  Level IV housing is at a premium and when he found out I had been there 7 months ticket free; I was moved the very day that the councilor got back from vacation.  I packed all my worldly possessions into a duffle bag, slung it over my shoulder and carried my TV in my arms, clutching my transfer pass to level II.

I spent 2½ years in level II, with the same Bunkie, in the same cell.  I was fortunate that we got along so well.  From being locked down 22 hours a day or more for the last year to only being confined to my room for count time was a major change.  I was able to acquire things like gym shoes and art supplies.  I could spend hours outside in the fresh air.  After being on the waiting list for a year I got a job as a tutor in the GED program.  Time really started to speed up.  I still didn’t feel like I could see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but I felt like I was moving forward.   I wouldn’t describe myself as artistic but rather as creative.  I began to make my own greeting cards to send home for holidays and birthdays.  Each one uniquely crafted for the recipient.  The only gift that I could give to my family was to share with them my life, as strange and limited as it was.  My prayers and dreams were filled with the past and the longing they expressed to have it back.  From my reflections I learned how ungrateful I had been for what I had and vowed that if given the chance I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

One rainy afternoon I was called to the officer’s podium and told to pack up.  My bed was needed for someone coming back from the hospital and since I had a bottom bunk detail, they couldn’t move me to a top bunk, so I was being moved to level I.  I had hoped to spend at least another year in level II since everyone told me that it was far better than level I.  I went from a 2-man room with my own room key to an 8-man cubical in a pole barn.  I went from bright lights and a window to a dark dungeon lit but the glow of television screens.  I had 4½ years left to my ERD and I found myself in gangland.  Where level II was controlled by the lifers who managed to keep a lid on the violence and theft that threatened their way of life, level I was like the wild west.

I still had my job as a tutor, my library and church call outs, but the quality of life decreased significantly.  It was like going back to elementary school complete with playground bullies.  I found that I didn’t have as much time to reflect on my past because I was too busy watching my back.  Some guys couldn’t hack it and would get misconducts just so they could get sent back to level II or rode out to some other prison hoping for greener pastures.  When I reached the halfway point of my minimum sentence it wasn’t like a roller coaster reaching the peak of the first hill where the ride would get interesting real fast.  I could tell you at any giving time how many months I had left.  However, from the trench warfare perspective that I had at the time it didn’t fill me with hope.  I still couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I turned 50 in level I.  Notice I didn’t say celebrate.  Turning 50 is one of those milestones that people like to celebrate.  For my 40th birthday we had a party at the Toledo Mudhens stadium with my family and closest friends.  I don’t think I even bothered to tell the guys that I associated with that it was my 50th birthday.  I don’t remember if I had a visit on my birthday or some other day that week, my parents were very faithful about visiting me so I’m sure they came to see me then.  My life goals were no longer attainable, and I had no idea what the future would hold for me.  I trusted God had a plan for me.  I knew that my parents were there for me and would help in any way that they could.  I just had far more questions than answers.

When I reached 2 years left to my ERD I began to think about parole and what would be required of me.  I had to take programming that unless it was waved could result in an automatic flop by the parole board.  I took all of the self-help programming I could in the absence of the required programming.  I even had the help of a consultant who worked with me to prepare for the parole interview.  I put together a parole plan which listed my goals for housing, work, and successful reentry into society.  That is about the time that I started paying attention to what was happening to others as they went to the parole board and received their decisions.  You know what they say about plans, that they never survive contact with the enemy.  What seemed like good solid plans with family support, waiting jobs and completed programming would crash and burn in an instant based on the oftentimes seemingly capricious whims of the parole board.  They only provide canned language to categorize their decision that wouldn’t explain or justify why you did or didn’t get a parole.  Appeals seldom if ever work to get a reconsideration. 

After doing all that I could I entrusted my future into God’s hands.  And with six months left to my ERD I met with the member of the parole board assigned to conduct my video conference parole hearing.  Hearings generally last no longer than 30 minutes but you have to spend hours in the waiting room before it’s your turn.  The suspense and anxiety were palpable in that little room crowded with others that also have no idea if today meant freedom or failure.  The best you could hope for was when a guy would come back to the waiting room before being sent back to his housing unit and let you know if they thought their hearing went well or not.  Parole board members are appointed by the governor to serve a specific term.  While I had been in prison there had been two different governors that had made changes to the parole board.  Decisions that were made during my plea bargain had been based on the recent history of the parole board at that time, but what I was facing was very different from back then.  My representative was herself a prior parole board member from a decade previous and while she felt confident that the hearing had gone well, all we could do was wait.  So, I waited on pins and needles to hear the decision that would tell me if the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train. 

It takes about a month for three members of the parole committee to issue their decision.  It comes to you either from the hand of your housing unit counselor or “under the door”.  If it comes from the counselor then it is good news.  If the unit officer passes it out with the mail, then it is bad news.  Mine was good news and it was like I returned to my bunk by floating on a cloud.  After 7½ years my nightmare was coming to an end.  There was light and life at the end of the tunnel.  But as they say, “it was all over except for the shooting.”  Having learned that I had received my parole I wanted to shout out for joy, but I knew better.  The day I got my parole somebody else got a flop, and in their anger might try to get you to lose yours.  There were also guys that had a long way to go to see the parole board and might figure that getting a misconduct wouldn’t hurt them 3-5 years down the road, so they wouldn’t hesitate to harass someone who now couldn’t afford to fight back.  Prison is a twisted place where a lot of inmates would rather rain on your parade than wish you well.

The advice I had gotten from an associate was to not tell anyone there that I got a parole and definitely don’t let them know your release date.  So even while the burden has been lifted, I had to keep it inside.  While I eagerly made plans with my family and waited for them to be approved by my parole officer, I had to continue living the same life I had been.  The only difference was that the time was really flying now.  Nearly 8 years of patience, perseverance, pain, and prayer came down to just a matter of weeks, then days, then hours.  Believe me, I did the math and kept it current in my head.  What started as out as journey that was up hill all the way was finally coming to an end.  I had made it.  I had reached the door.  No turning back, I was going to be free at last.  Well, almost, sort of free.  I had to serve 2 years on parole, which is the standard in Michigan.  I just figured that anywhere was better than being in prison. 

I never did understand why guys would rather max out than take a parole.  I think they were just afraid that they couldn’t trust themselves to follow the rules and would come back to prison due to a parole violation or catching a new case.  Some guys are like that.  Given their freedom that they don’t know what to do with they waste it on stupid things and go back like the 10 Israelite spies and give a negative report of the promised land.  Serving a flop is tough but serving a parole violation is tougher.  Michigan has an indeterminate sentencing system.  Most felonies are given a minimum and maximum release date.  When you get a flop, it is generally for 12-24 months.  Sometimes you will get called back early for another hearing, generally because you’ve completed required programming.  When you are returned to prison for a parole violation you will see the parole board and they will make a decision about how long the additional sentence will last, but no longer than the max date.  If you are PV-New Bit, then you have committed a crime for which you will have to serve time for that case plus additional time for the parole violation.

Coming back to prison may either serve as a wake-up call to say, “Hay Stupid, what were you thinking?” or self-condemnation, “You are a fuck up and you got what you deserved!”  How a person deals with adversity says a lot about their character.  When you get knocked down do you get up or give up?  Do you re-evaluate your plan and make the necessary changes or do you keep going thinking that it will somehow be different this time?  Admitting mistakes is hard for a proud man and prison is full of them.  Truly pride does come before a fall. 

My 55th birthday was a celebration.  I had completed my parole and was discharged from my sentence with the MDOC.  After 10 years I could bask in the sun.  My life will never be what it was before I went to prison and I don’t want it to be.  I’ve moved on; I’ve grown; I’ve healed; and I’ve learned to be content.  I’ve got my ministry; a new job, which might become a career; a new relationship; and my God who is faithful.  That is truly a milestone.

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