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.

Fund Raisers

The Prisoner Benefit Fund, or PBF for short, plays an important role in the daily life of prisoners in the MDOC.  The PBF pays for things like:

  1. Office supplies and materials for approved prisoner organizations;
  2. Approved self-help programs such as hobby craft, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and religious activities;
  3. Prisoner compensation for verified property losses where the prisoner was not negligent;
  4. Escort costs for prisoner funeral or sick bed visits;
  5. Recreational equipment and supplies (e.g., athletic equipment);
  6. Special maintenance and capital outlay projects;
  7. Entertainment events;
  8. Cable/satellite television services.

In practical terms the PBF is responsible for prisoners having any luxury items like weightlifting and exercise equipment; baseball, basketball, soccer equipment including the fields; musical instruments and sound equipment; coffee for AA meetings; basic cable television programming and selected DVD movies.

The money to fund these programs mostly comes from the prisoners themselves.  Profits from the prisoner store and vending machines; pop can deposit refunds; photo tickets; confiscated prisoner funds; donations from outside organizations; interest from invested funds; and fund raising are the sources available to the PBF.

According to Policy Directive 04.02.110 FUND RAISING ACTIVITIES Section D states:

“A PBF may be permitted to conduct fundraising activities through which funds may be solicited and collected from other prisoners at that institution.  To do so, the PBF must submit a written fundraising proposal to the Warden for review.  The proposal must include the proposed use of the funds, a detailed description of the fundraising activity, and supporting documentation if the funds are to be used for a charitable donation.  If the Warden supports the fundraising activity, s/he shall forward the proposal to the CFA Deputy Director or designee for final approval.  The Warden shall be notified of the final decision and shall ensure the PBF is notified.  If approved, the Warden shall designate a staff person to supervise the fundraising activity.”

Fund raising is a very popular idea while I was incarcerated.  The minutes from the Warden’s Forum were full of proposals by inmates to raise money.  Most of these had noble causes like donations to various charities as the basis for the request, while others were a bit more self-centered.  Most fundraising revolved around the sale of food.  Pizza, burgers, donuts, and the like were the typical items.  Since fundraisers are specific to a prison the sources for goods was generally local as well.  Venders like the one that supplied food for the visiting room vending machines were easier to work with because they already have contracts and financial systems for payment already in place.  It was much more difficult to try to arrange for other businesses such as a local pizza or sub shop to navigate the bureaucracy for what might be a one-time event.

It was routine for these fund raiser proposals to be shot down by warden.  It could be simply that the proposal lacked enough details or that recent behavior by inmates did not merit the privilege.  Whatever the reason fund raisers were not a common event. When one was approved it big news.   The news would travel through the housing units like wildfire.  Gossip always travels faster than facts so it would often be that misinformation would take days to be corrected, as the block reps are besieged by an endless line of inmates seeking clarification.  When the official posting went up and the details were finally made known it was never as good as the promise, such as the selection might be less or the prices higher.  Inmates can always manage to find something to complain about.  But without fail inmates by the hundreds would scrape together enough money in their trust account to fill out the order form and the disbursement. 

It would be like having an extra holiday when the big day finally arrived. Like the anticipation of Christmas morning the thoughts of treats that haven’t been tasted in years dance in their dreams.  Some see an opportunity to make a little profit by selling these rare items at a premium to those who didn’t have funds in their trust accounts at the order time.   A similar phenomenon happens on Super Bowl Sunday when sack lunches are served for dinner with a sub sandwich, chips, carrots & celery, cookies, fruit, and juice. 

Movement in prison is controlled.  The higher the level the more restricted, so it isn’t as simple as setting up a table in the gym and letting everyone line up.  There needs to be order and security.  Whenever there are goods involved, they will be targets for theft.  The delivery was handled several different ways that I recall.  At the multi-level facility, the individuals who had placed orders were called by the housing unit to go pick up their purchase.  And if memory serves me correct, at the level 1 facility it was on the daily itinerary call-out sheet.  Either way there would be extra officers posted to oversee the distribution.  It seemed that every time some little old man who ordered goods would be robbed before he managed to make it back to his bunk.  You needed to travel in packs and with bodyguards at times to ensure your safety the same way you would pickup a Secure Pack. 

The all-time best idea for a fund raiser that I thought of would be to sell Girl Scout cookies.  You might as well back up the semi-truck to the sally port.  I can guarantee you that they would break records for fund raising for both the inmates and the Girl Scouts.  If there was a downside, I really couldn’t see it.  I’m not advocating to send the girls into prison to sell cookies, parents sell cookies for their girls all the time in the workplace.  All that would be needed is a very big stack of order forms.  The cookies sell themselves; they would remind many in prison of a taste of freedom.  The idea for this fund raiser would be that all the prisons would participate with the proceeds distributed to the local Girl Scout organizations.  Nothing beats Girl Scout cookies and it would be a great opportunity for those in prison to give back.

But like a lot of great ideas I’m pretty sure the wardens would never go along with it.  Luxury items or comfort foods for prisoners aren’t very high on their priority list.  They don’t have to give a reason all they have to say is “NO” and dismiss it like yesterday’s trash.  While I’m sure that there are a few reform minded wardens in the system who would approve of such a fund raiser most would rather not be bothered since they follow the “all stick and no carrot” philosophy of prisoner management.

Green Dot

green-dot
Reloadable Green Dot VISA online shopping cards and Money Pak cards are for sale at many convenience stores.  (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

It sucks to be poor.  Some who are in prison were accustomed to having the finer things of life when they were out in the world.  Some had enough to get by and get a few luxury items too.  Some lived hand to mouth, scrambling to keep cash flowing in the absence of a steady paycheck.  And some had nothing living on the streets, sleeping in homeless shelters, and eating at soup kitchens.  This is also a good description of what life in prison is like.  In prison there are the “haves” and “have nots.”  Everyone comes to prison with nothing but the clothes on their back and then those are taken away, but after that…

Prison starts with quarantine at the Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center (RGC) which according to the MDOC website, “serves as the facility responsible for intake processing of all male offenders who are adjudicated adults sentenced to a term of incarceration with the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Prisoners with new commitments, parole violators, and youthful offenders are received at RGC for assessments, screening, and classification prior to their placement in general population prisons throughout the agency.”

“Prisoners receive a variety of psychological, medical, educational and security classification evaluations upon arrival at RGC.  Prisoners are all medically screened by professionally trained correctional health care staff during the intake process.  Prisoners are subjected to twelve days of intake processing prior to being classified for transfer to a general population facility capable of meeting their medical, program and security needs.  The average length of stay at RGC is 30 to 45 days.  Prisoners with significant medical needs or prisoners involved in parole revocation hearings are held at the facility until their medical or due process concerns are resolved.”

While at RGC there is a limited commissary available for those who have money in their trust account.  I was fortunate enough to bring a check with funds left over from my county jail stay, so I had funds available to order basic hygiene items, shower shoes and postage stamps.  For those that don’t come to prison with financial resources they must reach out to family and friends via collect phone calls to try to secure funds.  For first time offenders or those who are PV-new bit there are no job opportunities available in quarantine, so no source of earned income.  Most will have to wait until they are transferred to another facility to get funds to acquire the basics, let alone creature comforts.

Money cannot be sent directly to prisoners since they are not allowed to have access to currency while in prison.  While I was incarcerated the MDOC changed the procedure by which those in the public could put funds into a prisoner’s trust account.  Instead of sending the money to an MDOC address, the funds must be sent to a third-party company called JPay which managed the process by accepting credit cards through their website or by money orders to their PO Box.  JPay works with most state corrections departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to offer a variety of services some of which have been adopted by the MDOC.

Not everyone who wants to send money has a credit card.  For those who need a credit card because a traditional debit card won’t work there are companies like Green Dot.  Green Dot offers a prepaid pinless debt card that functions like a credit card that is widely used especially in urban communities.  The practice is so common among prisoner’s family and friends that Green Dot is not just a noun, but it is also used as a verb referring to the process of transferring money.

Green Dot is used to go beyond transferring money into an inmate’s trust account but is also used as a way of transferring money on behalf of one inmate to a party designated by another inmate.  Usually this is done to get around having funds garnished to pay restitution, fines, and outstanding court costs when sent to an inmate with outstanding court debts.  An inmate will find someone who doesn’t have their funds garnished and have money placed in their account to so that they can use that inmate as a straw purchaser for their commissary.  Green Dot is also commonly used to pay off gambling debts, drug & alcohol purchases, and store-man tabs.  Additionally, it might be used to pay for jailhouse law services, tattoos, and protection/extortion.

This obviously only works for those who have connections to financial resources on the outside.  Many in prison simply don’t have connections to family or friends that can or are willing to send money.  For instance, drug users may have already burned their bridges to family and friends by previously stealing from them to support their habit.  Something I heard of happening was that some guys, even some who were married would develop relationships with several women who they would get to send money to support them in prison.  They would call and send JPay emails regularly to all of their women requesting money and then dump them when they didn’t get it.  They would even schedule visits so they could get that fine vending machine cuisine.  One time a guy was having a visit with his girlfriend when his wife showed up unannounced.  From what I heard it was quite the scene in the visiting room.  The COs had to separate the women when blows were exchanged.  A risky business, but one that continues to be played out in prisons all over.

I read recently that a graduate student published his finding that Raman Noodles are now the primary currency in prison.  I got a good laugh about that.  It wasn’t a state secret and anyone who has been in prison in the last decade could have told him that.  But that covers the small stuff, and there are only so many bags of coffee that you can stick in your locker for the bigger stuff.  The more items like that you have the greater a theft target you become.  Stacking up cash either in your trust account or somewhere else out in the world is far safer.

Green Dot or its financial equivalent is what many of the “haves” use to maintain their lifestyle while in prison.  By purchasing these cards with cash at grocery stores they can be difficult to trace but as good as cash to settle debts.  Easy to acquire and use, it serves a purpose that its creator never envisioned.  It is true that “money makes the world go ‘round,” and since the world doesn’t stop even though it feels like it for those in prisons, access to money is crucial.  Like the old VISA commercial said, “It’s everywhere you want to be.”  In this case however it might be more accurate to say, “It’s useful even in places you don’t want to be.”

Butt Naked Fish

This is a reasonable representation of what Butt Naked Fish looks like in comparison to a regular breaded fillet.  

Not much needs more to be said about food service in the MDOC than to mention “Butt Naked Fish.”  This will elicit a visceral response from anyone who has served appreciable time as a prisoner.  BFN is an unbreaded fish fillet that has more in common with particle board than Van de Kamp’s.  Most prisoners would describe it as a square white hockey puck made from fins and scales.  It wasn’t seasoned yet the flavor is indescribable.  Generally, it was served on the Diet Line for people with a medically restricted diet like diabetics however, from time to time it would make an appearance on the menu for the regular food service when there was a shortage of the breaded baked fish normally served.

I heard stories from the old timers about getting giant cinnamon rolls and coffee for breakfast.  Pork chops, fried chicken, beef liver and other real protein sources were served as a regular part of the menu.  At one time the MDOC had its own dairy, slaughter house, and farms that provided the majority of the food stocks for the chow hall.  Prison work camps supplied the labor.  Then a series of unfortunate events involving prisoners resulted in the closing of the work camps and the elimination of the prison farms back in the early 1980s.  This corresponded closely in time with the “tough on crime” movement that more than doubled the number of people behind bars and put a significant strain on the department’s budget.  Food service was severely impacted, and the goal was put in place to feed inmates for $1 per day.

There have been a number of changes in food service in the last few years as the department sought to reduce costs further under Governor Snyder.  Food service was outsourced to Aramark a national vender that provides meals to a number of state prison systems, in the attempt to reduce cost by leveraging increased buying power.  When the contract was put out for bid none of the original bids met the targeted cost savings.  On rebid Aramark was awarded the contract.  In what I would describe as a rocky relationship, Aramark replaced union food stewards with minimum wage inexperienced personal.  The officer’s union lost something like 350 staff positions and was bitter and resentful about that and went out of its way to ensure that privatization of the food service failed.  They didn’t care about the impact it would have on the 40,000+ inmates.

After several years of struggling to hire and retain sufficient staffing to provide oversight of the inmates working in the kitchen, contraband smuggling, illicit sexual relationships between staff and inmates, and fines for failing to meet contract obligations, Aramark decided to give back the contract.  Trinity was then given the contract at several million dollars above what Aramark had been paid.  Trinity basically took the Aramark employees and the problems continued the same as before.  Articles appeared in newspapers across the state detailing issues involving the food service and calls by many to return it to department control.  In 2017 it was announced that Trinity would be leaving, the food service returned to the department, and jobs returned to the union.

What is lost in all this is the effect it had on the inmates.  Food quality and quantity decreased meaning that there were many times when inmates went hungry and not by choice.  Hungry natives are restless natives.  Back in the day it was understood that one of the ways to keep the prison population under control was to make sure that they got fed.  Today though prison is all stick and no carrot.  In the roughly 30 years that the department tried to limit the food cost to $1 per day for each inmate, food and labor costs have increased significantly.  The only choice was to buy cheaper meal alternatives and reduce portion sizes.  For instance, instead of fried chicken breasts baked leg quarters were served and over time they shrank in size.  I once observed that on days when chicken was being served that there were fewer pigeons to be seen on the yard.   Ground meats like hamburgers or meatballs that looked and tasted like there was more filler than beef or turkey caused many inmates to ask, “Where’s the beef?” like the old lady in the Wendy’s commercial.  The Hot dogs and Polish sausage had the consistence and taste of a rubber hose.

Pizza was served by the single slice that were the size of a 3×5 index card.  For a guy that used to eat a whole medium and sometimes a large pizza all by himself, this just didn’t satisfy me at all.  One time the pizza would be so over cooked that it was as stiff as cardboard with burnt cheese on it, and the next time the dough would still be raw in the center of the pan.  This sometimes occurred in the same meal service, it was just luck of the draw if you got an eatable piece.

Calories from other sources such as potatoes, which are a starchy carbohydrate, make up a sizable portion of the meal.  Mashed potatoes, Garlic mashed potatoes, Oven browned potatoes, Cheesy potatoes, Potato salad, Baked potatoes, Tater tots, and Potato wedges.  Potatoes were served on average four days a week and sometimes for both lunch and dinner.  I heard that at one facility the food service director owned a potato farm and sold his crop to the MDOC at his facility.  There were an unusual number of food substitutions where potatoes replaced the scheduled rice or pasta, go figure.  Now I like potatoes, but when they are cooked in such a way that they are uneatable, they provide no nutritional value and simply end up in the trash.

Boiled collard greens, spinach, and cabbage; canned green beans, mixed vegetables, and corn; cooked beets (not the pickled ones); and carrots that looked like they came from a deer hunters bait pile, were cooked until they are flavorless and devoid of nutritional value.  When a menu change introduced peas to the rotation a friend of mine exclaimed, “I thought these had gone extinct!”

In recent years meals like Turkey ala King and Turkey Tetrazzini were added alongside old staples like Chili Mac as ways to stretch the budget further. Why is it that on every menu there is always one meal that doesn’t look good on paper let alone in reality?  Back in the day it might have been Chipped Beef on Toast, which was affectionately called “S#*t on a Shingle” or a modern dish like Turkey Teriyaki (Turkey Teri-yuk-e) or Salisbury Patty (Salisbury’s Mistake).  There were those who didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t eat the main dish with the beef, chicken or turkey included, so at lunch and dinner there would be a meatless alternative offered.  It would sometimes be the same dish with soy substituted for the meat, at other times it was beans.   Occasionally the alternative was better than the primary offering like when they served Spinach Au Gratin.  But like everything else in the chow hall it depended on who cooked it, so some days it was a lose-lose situation with no clearly better choice.

The best part of the meal was the 2 slices of wheat bread and the desert.  The bread was store bought, so it was hard for them to ruin it.  I would take it back to my bunk to make a peanut butter sandwich.  Desert was either a cookie or a piece of sheet cake.  They used to serve ice cream before Aramark took over.  At one facility we used to get ice cream donated by a local dairy company when they had a manufacturing hiccup and mixed in the wrong type of nuts or something.  In fact, a number of Michigan food manufacturers donated or sold off-spec but still eatable food products at significantly reduced prices to the MDOC.  The practice of accepting these ended when Aramark took over.

Breakfast was a rotation of oatmeal, grits, or Ralston (Cream of What?) or All Bran as a cold cereal alternative.  Older menus offered waffles and sausages once a week.  Newer menus mixed in coffee cake, gravy and biscuit or French toast bake (the French don’t take credit for this).  Most inmates didn’t even bother getting up for breakfast.  Generally, food service started too early and offered little incentive to go, unless they were serving peanut butter, which we would bring back to save for that peanut butter sandwich later.  Eggs, even powdered eggs were not served at all during my time in prison.  I had a diabetic roommate one time that got hardboiled eggs in his snack bag.  He didn’t like them and would trade them to me for what ever I had in my locker that he could eat when his blood sugar got too low.

Coffee wasn’t part of the meal service like it was back in the day.  The options were milk or a juice like apple or orange for breakfast, and for lunch and dinner a Kool-Aid like drink, or water.  The serving size was listed as 1 cup, but the plastic cups were small, and I don’t think could hold 8 ounces without spilling.

If you look at the published menu included below you will see that it looks a lot like a public-school lunch menu.  The menu had a 6-week cycle where the lunch and dinner meals were switched, so the reality was 3 weeks of menu variety.  While it looks good on paper, I can assure you that the paper tastes better.  As I have described elsewhere theft was a major problem, especially after it was turned over to Aramark and Trinity.  This had a significant impact on the meal preparation.  For instance, when a recipe called for spices, the required amounts would be issued to the inmate cook.  If he decided to steal the spices and sell them on the yard, then the dish he prepared would be bland.  Likewise, the Kool-Aid drink mix came in powdered form and if the person preparing it decided to take some of it then the drink would taste watery.  Many guys would take the seasoning packs from Raman Noodles that they would purchase in the commissary to season the meals in the chow hall.  I did that on a regular basis, but I also noticed that the food served in the chow hall was like a flavor blackhole.  No matter how much seasonings or hot sauce I put on some dishes it didn’t seem to make a difference.

On several special occasions when volunteers from a faith-based organization came into the prison and shared a meal with us in the chow hall, I got to observe first-hand the reactions of people who had never tasted prison food before.  The experienced volunteers who knew better than to eat the meal would stick to the fruit, but there was always one rookie who would try the meal.  Without fail we would hear the next day that the brave volunteer who tried the food ended up sick overnight.  To say that prison food is an acquired taste would be an understatement.  Conversely, I heard from more than one guy who had returned to prison that there would be a period of adjustment when I went home as my body got used to real food again.  The only good thing that I can say about prison food is that it is better than what they serve in the county jails.

menu page 1

 

Sabotage

self sabotage

A guy with a parole in his pocket gets caught with spud juice.  (Happens more often than you would think.)  His “friends” tried to talk him into closing his brewery, but he told them that he needed to stack up coffee bags since he was going to Detroit Reentry Center (DRC) for a residential substance abuse program and he needed to be able to buy heroin while he was there.  His friend’s comment was I guess he didn’t really want to go home.

Guys on parole are sent back to prison for violating the terms of their parole because of drinking or drugs all the time.  Equally as often it is something else like staying out after curfew, missing work or meetings with their PO or having police contact because they got into a fight or were out joy-riding.  This happened to a guy I know, and the observation of another parolee was “I guess he didn’t serve enough time.”

Whether in prison or on parole some guys have their eyes on the wrong prize.  Instead of focusing on gaining and keeping their freedom they are seeking other things.  You’d thing they would know better than to play with fire, but it’s obvious that they didn’t learn their lesson from being burned the first time.  For some it takes a long time to figure out what is truly important.  There is statistical proof that people age out of crime.  People in their forties and fifties are significantly less likely to commit crimes than people in their teens and twenties.  Prison has a revolving door for those who continue to commit minor felonies and receive sentences from 2-5 years in length.  Three strike laws were enacted to address these habitual offenders by increasing the length of their sentences in the hope that they would learn their lesson. 

According to recidivism rates those who committed major crimes such as murder or rape and served long sentences are less likely to reoffend and return to prison than those who committed crimes like domestic abuse or selling small quantities of drugs who received shorter sentences.  You never hear of someone who spent two 10 to 20-year sentences in prison going back with a third sentence which is basically a life sentence.  So, it is true that with age comes wisdom.  Even the most stubborn, hard-headed, strong-willed outlaw learns that if they stay in the game too long there are only two options, either be carried out in a pine box or hauled off in handcuffs.  The older they get the better retirement looks.

For those in prison eagerly looking forward to their parole there is another form of sabotage that happens.  Sometimes other people in prison, who may have years to go before they will even be considered for parole or have already been denied parole will try to get someone else’s parole revoked.  You might say that misery loves company.  There are those in prison who would go out of their way to do this for any number of reasons.  They could be bored, racist, malicious, vindictive, or simply sadistic by getting pleasure from causing pain to another person.  For this very reason I know a guy who didn’t tell anyone in prison that he got his parole, let alone his parole date.  The morning he paroled, he got up early, dressed in his street clothes, packed his stuff, and went to the officer’s station.  He didn’t say a word to anyone.

In prison kite writing is a way of life for some.  Kites are notes written to the administration.  There is a mailbox in every housing unit, and it is easy to write the warden or unit counselor.  Most do this by signing someone else’s name in order to remain anonymous.  They make allegations about another individual which may or may not be true, but sufficiently provocative to draw the reaction of staff.  This is known as “dry snitching.”  It is a passive aggressive tactic that works well enough that it’s not going away any time soon.  Claim that someone is threating you, that so-n-so is doing such-n-such, or that your bunkie has a cellphone, shank, drugs, or other serious contraband, then sit back and wait for the show to start.  Nothing can ruin your day like being called off the yard to see the Inspector to answer questions about an allegation that you sexually assaulted another inmate.

Getting a Class I Misconduct after receiving your parole and prior to release will result in the loss of your parole and earn you a 12 to 24-month flop.  It might even raise your security level or get you rode off the compound.  At the very least you will have your property tossed like a fruit salad, be forced to prove your innocence, and lose sleep trying to figure out who wrote the kite.  In a place where you are guilty until proven innocent the threat is real, and you need to constantly watch your back. 

I had a cubemate that started stealing from me the last month prior to my parole.  I had started to sell off my possessions that I wasn’t going to take home.  Prison is not like death, you can take your personal property with you, but why would you?  I would come back to the cube after work and find something small missing like my earbuds.  We both knew that I wouldn’t do anything about it and risk my parole, so every couple of days something else would turn up missing.  Then this guy who didn’t have anything was able to get a black market TV.  I’m sure my other cubemates knew what was going on, but nobody said anything.  On the morning I left prison I slipped under his bed and used my padlock to secure the TV’s power cord to the bed.  This would force him to cut the cord in order to move the TV.  There were a number of sweeps through the housing unit at that time looking for TV’s that weren’t on the inmate’s property card and securing the TV to his bunk would make it impossible for him to hide it.  I hope that there is a special place in hell for prison thieves.

Of course, it is those that sabotage themselves like in my opening example that is the primary problem.  Prison isn’t about rehabilitation.  Programs like the Phase I and Phase II substance abuse classes that are required for those whose crime involved alcohol or drugs or for individuals who have a history of substance abuse, but from what I’ve seem most people treat the class like a joke.  For more serious cases there are residential treatment programs where more in-depth programming and counseling is available. With the demand for bed space in these programs there tends to be a mentality on the part of those running these programs to simply push the inmates through so that many of the participants come out unchanged.  Change doesn’t happen unless the individual wants to and for many going to prison wasn’t hitting rock-bottom yet.  Intellectual arguments, reciting facts and figures, or telling horror stories about others isn’t enough to persuade many who are happy in their addictions to want to change.  They have learned to say the right things to convince the powers that be that they have changed.  They get their long-awaited paroles but can’t fly straight long enough to get out or complete their parole.  In the end the only person they have fooled is themselves.

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.

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.

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.