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.

Who Is the Paul to Your Timothy?(Or the Timothy to Your Paul?)

(While I was at Central Michigan Correctional facility, I was involved with the Protestant All-Faith church and with Keryx.  I was never chosen to be a leader of either group, but I was active in supporting roles.  For a while I helped run sound for the church and volunteered to read scripture, pray, and give a testimony, or a meditation from time to time.  In Keryx I was a small group leader and served on the inside team for several weekend spiritual retreats.  Prior to that I had served as the inmate leader for the church in Level IV and as a soundman for the Level I/II church at Cotton Correctional facility.

This article came from my attempts to help when there was a sudden change of leadership because the MDOC rode out the leader and a relatively inexperienced replacement was chosen.  I firmly believe that church leaders are called by God and that scripture has a lot to say about the characteristics of church leaders.  Different organizations have different organizational charts, some have individual leaders listed while others rely on leadership teams.  In reality they are all teams of one sort or another, since no one can do it by themselves and especially in prison where there is no guarantee that you will be there tomorrow.  Continuity is a problem when there are not individuals in the church willing to help in the transition or provide support to leaders who are often placed into difficult and chaotic situations.  As I have said in a previous article: Being a church leader involves the arcane art of herding cats.)

This article is also a little unusual in that it is not strictly a meditation or instructional narrative.  There is also a fair amount of commentary about my experience with the prison church looking back on my time there, which ended nearly four years ago.  The church in American prisons is a persecuted church.  There are many in prison both inmates and staff that have no respect for the Christian faith.  Those who profess faith in prison are often singled out for abuse.  Like the early church or those in non-Christian countries there is a different dynamic at work.  Many volunteers that come to worship with us commented on the differences they saw between the free world churches they attend/represent and the prison churches.  There was a unanimous acclamation that they loved to worship with us because they could feel the movement of the Holy Spirit and the earnest faith expressed by men whose freedom was only on the inside.


Timothy was a young Christian taught the scriptures by his mother and grandmother.  He traveled with the Apostle Paul on a missionary tour because the Christian brothers in his hometown spoke well of him (Acts 16:1-3).  While they spent time together Paul trained Timothy for leadership.  Confident in Timothy’s ability to do the job, Paul left him at Ephesus to deal with the issues of the church plant there (1 Timothy 1:3).  We are blessed to have two letters written by Paul to Timothy providing tremendous insight into pastoral ministry.

Paul did not do this once, but at least twice that we know of.  Paul left Titus in Crete to complete the task of organizing the church planted there (Titus 1:5).  By this we can see that it is a model for preparing young Christian leaders through training in a hands-on way and then mentoring them once they have been appointed to a position.

In modern times, training for ministry has taken on formal academic methodologies in divinity schools in the western world.  However, the old model established by the Apostle Paul still works in the third world church and in places such as prisons where it is practical, efficient, and necessary.  While every prison has a chaplain who oversees religious programming, it doesn’t mean that he actually runs any specific faith- based programs in a Clerical sense.  Prisons rely extensively on outside volunteers from the thousands of organizations from across the country and the religious spectrum to provide religious instruction to inmates.  Some of these groups may provide mentoring programs for the inmate leaders of the church, however that was not the experience at the first prison where I was incarcerated.  The chaplain there, who I worked with when I served as the inmate leader of the Level IV Protestant All-faith church, did not provide much in the way of guidance, let alone mentoring when it came to how I was to lead my flock.  I never heard him preach at any services and do not believe that he was ordained by any faith group.   At the second prison the chaplain was an ordained minister and worked with the inmate leaders, but I believe in the MDOC that this was the exception rather than the norm.

To be clear I am not referring to discipleship, I am specifically referring to leadership.  Every leader should be actively involved in his own personal discipleship with other mature believers.  As the mission statement for a church I attended stated:  “We are to be disciples who make disciples.”  Any discussion of Christian leadership must begin with the premise that those called and chosen for leadership are earnestly working out their own salvation within the body of Christ. 

So, what do you do when you find yourself in a situation as a young inexperienced leader selected for a position for which you have received little training?  Do you assume that based on your previous life experience and knowledge that you will be able to figure it out as you go?  Do you try to model your ministry based on a TV preacher adopting the affectations and mannerisms you admire?  Do you assume because you’ve been appointed as leader you must act the part by being large and in charge?  We all like to think we’ve got some new, innovative, or powerful concept we’d like to implement to put our signature on the ministry to mold it to fit our vision and personality.  There is no doubt that a lot of thought and prayer goes into the process; but just as there are no Lone Ranger Christians, there can be no Lone Ranger Christian leaders.

As a young leader in the church, who are the Christian brothers you are receiving mentoring and advice from?  Even Billy Graham had an inner circle of prayer warriors who he often turned to for guidance.  They were always free to speak their minds and faithfully held him up in prayer for every decision in the ministry.  If Billy Graham would not operate without a support team, can any Christian leader believe that they don’t need one?

In Exodus, Moses literally needed the support of Aaron and Hur when the Israelites fought the Amalekites.  While Moses held up his staff, the Israelites were winning the battle; but when he put his arms down, the Amalekites would start winning.  Aaron and Hur made a place for Moses to sit down and then they held his tired arms up to ensure the victory (Exodus 17:8-16).

Moses couldn’t do it on his own.  Moses who is listed among the great people of faith in Hebrews 11 needed help.  Joshua was in the thick of the battle acting as Moses’ general.  Aaron who was high priest and Hur was one of Moses’ aides had accompanied Moses up onto a mountain that overlooked the site of the battle.  Aaron and Hur are the ones who diagnosed the problem and came up with the solution to Moses’ dilemma.  By supporting Moses’ arms, they ensured that God’s power flowing through Moses would continue until the enemy was defeated.

Even with God’s power flowing through him Moses got tired.  The same is true for any Christian leader, after all they are only human.  No matter how filled with the Holy Spirit you are, you can’t do it on your own.  Burn out is the top reason why many clergymen quite the ministry.  Leaders need their strongest laypeople to come alongside them to support them.

These mature believers, operating out of Christian love, prior experience, and guidance from the Holy Spirit are a resource provided by God.  They may be former church leaders themselves or possess a lifetime of experience sitting in the pew.  These counselors, having a sense of the congregation are able to provide young leaders, especially, with insight or information they themselves may not perceive or possess.  Leaders make decisions and these counselors may provide confirmation of a course of action before implementing it or suggest alternate possibilities for consideration.  The counselors are not presently called to be leaders but are pillars which support leadership while living in the body.

Everyone, especially those in positions of authority need to be actively engaged in accountability relationships.  They must be willing to place themselves into a situation where those who are capable can speak truth to power.  These counselors must be able to pray intelligently for the leader by getting to know this person, not in a casual friendship type relationship, but in a strictly confidential, deliberate, honest, spiritual way.

Leadership tends to be an insular position, so it is not recommended that a leadership team serve exclusively as the support team for each other.  Experienced members of the leadership team should be actively engaged in mentoring the new members and assist them in establishing their own support teams.  This multi-layered approach should ensure that leaders remain in touch with and accountable to the church body which they oversee.

I attended a church for many years near my home where the denominational organizational chart for each congregation called for both a Pastor’s Cabinet and a Leadership team.  The Pastor’s Cabinet was comprised of the elected delegates that represented the church at our annual conference.  They would meet with the pastor to talk about issues facing the church and served as the team that would work with the conference superintendent when conducting a search for a new senior pastor.  These people would serve for several years and would then be replaced by others voted into the position by the church membership during an annual election.  The Leadership team was also elected by the church membership to serve for several years to discuss and plan for local church issues and events.  There were even several other small groups such as a Worship committee that provided input on specific areas of ministry.  With all of these dedicated people advising the pastor you’d think that he would have all the input necessary to make decisions, right? 

One wise pastor who served there did something that many of his predecessors didn’t, he put out a call to the congregation for a prayer team.  He wanted people to commit to pray for a specific member of the pastoral team.  The pastors would then communicate to their prayer partners areas of specific needs both personally and in the life of the church that they needed others to lift up to the Throne of Grace.  Like Billy Graham, this pastor got it.  It’s not about technical, financial, or theological expertise, it is about the power of prayer.  When we follow the admonition to “Be still and know” only then are we able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. 

Pastors and other church leaders tend to be some of the busiest people I know, and it can be a challenge for them to truly be still.  Don’t assume that because they have the title and responsibility that they don’t need specific prayer support.   Prison is one of the noisiest places to live.  There are only a few hours of the day when it is truly quiet in the housing unit, generally in the dead of night after lights out or during count time.  There are also no places where when can go to be alone.  Jesus set the example of retreating to a lonely place to pray and in prison it is hard to follow that example.  I would use count time, the forced periods of inactivity that happened several times each day to read the Word, meditate and pray.  These regular daily times provided me with the power, clarity of thought, sense of purpose, and direction that I needed to write what became the basis for many of the articles posted to this blog.  It is what allowed me to redeem my time in such an evil place.

The secular model of leadership often paints leaders as strong, decisive, charismatic, and knowledgeable in their field of expertise.  That is not how the Apostle Paul described Christian leadership.  Below I have listed 12 characteristics from Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus.  I have paraphrased them into modern language with the goal of making them practical in a prison setting.

Suggested Qualities for Leadership Team Candidates

  1. A mature believer- knowledgeable in the Word and grounded in prayer – 1 Timothy 1:18-2:4; 2 Timothy 3:10-17.
  2. Sensitive to the needs and concerns of the people – 1 Timothy 5:1-16
  3. Wise enough to know when to get out of the way and let others speak – 1 Timothy 1:3-7
  4. Always seeking to encourage and develop talent- grooming others for leadership – Titus 1:5.
  5. Has a good reputation both inside and outside of the church – 1 Timothy 3:7.
  6. A track record of involvement in available ministry activities; more than consistent attendance – Titus 3:14.
  7. Humble- has a real servant leadership mentality – Titus 1:6-9.
  8. Able to control his tongue – 1 Timothy 3:2-3.
  9. A passion for seeking the lost and teaching those new to the faith – Titus 2
  10. Willing to accept criticism, seek guidance, and work toward consensus as a team member – 2 Timothy 2:14-26.
  11. Willing to place himself into relationships where he can be mentored by those more senior to him in leadership, to develop his leadership skills – 2 Timothy 1:13-14.
  12. Willing to place himself into relationships where he can mentor those more junior to him in leadership, to develop their leadership skills – 2 Timothy 2:2-7.

There are many other characteristics that could be mentioned, but the point I’m trying to make is that God uses us whether or not we feel that we are ready, if we are willing to make ourselves available to be used as a vessel for the Holy Spirit, which is the one doing the work through us.  We will make mistakes, but the best leaders are the ones who can admit their mistakes, learn from them, and continue to move forward. 

The last observation I want to make is that Christian leaders have a bullseye painted on them by Satan.  He works extra hard to bring down those who are in authority, because he thinks it undermines the message of the Gospel.  All throughout Paul’s ministry he encountered opposition.  An example is recorded in Acts 19:23-20:1 where there was a riot in the city of Ephesus, because the local silversmiths felt that Paul’s preaching of the Gospel was hurting their business of making idols of the local goddess Artemis.  Paul had to leave Ephesus where he was having a tremendous ministry because of this and left Timothy to take over the ministry.  Which takes us back to the beginning.  A young leader finds himself in the position because the previous leader was ridden out.  The very issues that the previous leader was dealing with will become your issues.  Satan will come at you hard right out of the gate in order to stop you even before you’ve had a chance to get started.  Paul reminded both Timothy and Titus about this in his letters.  It will happen and you’ve got to be aware of it.  The only protection you’ve got is prayer.  James 5:16 says that “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  So, find some prayer warriors to go into battle with you because “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

In closing I want to mention the second half of the title for this article.  ‘Who is the Timothy to your Paul?’  If you are a seasoned ministry leader, who are you bringing along to lead after you’ve gone?  Moses had Joshua to lead the children of Israel into the Promised land.  Eli the High Priest mentored Samuel. The prophet Elijah mentored Elisha to be his successor as prophet to the nation of Israel.  Jesus had the 12 disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Don’t get so caught up in the daily struggles of ministry that you forget the future.  Use the talents God has entrusted you with to multiply.  Invest in the individuals whom God brings to you to grow and expand the ministry by teaching them the ropes and when the time comes delegating authority so that they can experience leadership while there is still someone there to guide them and answer their questions like Paul did.  

“Like Being in Jail”

During the Corona virus pandemic many states, including my home state of Michigan, have issued some form of Stay Home order for the general public and specifically request that people with Covid-19 or think they may have been exposed to it, to self-quarantine for some period of time.  When this first started, the news was full of dire warnings and bleak statistics as the virus spread far and wide throughout the world.  Over time as the news started to become more hopeful sounding with signs of flattening the curve and progress toward a vaccine and effective treatments the natives, as they say, are becoming restless. 

The federal and state governments have been working, sometimes together and sometimes at odds to manage the crisis.  Everything from trying to ensure that there is enough PPE for first responders to sufficient hospital beds and ventilators for the critically ill to emergency economic funds to help out individuals and business are being organized, implemented and communicated to the people to ensure the wellbeing of our nation.  Not everything has gone smoothly.  Mistakes have been made.  With this novel coronavirus much is still to be learned about methods of transmission, who is at greatest risk and how best to protect them.  Information, opinion and fake news has come from many sources to cloud the issues, second guess the experts and mislead the public about every aspect of this situation.  People following the verbal ramblings of the president and other charlatans have tried unproven and dangerous treatments, which have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.

Every day there is more bad news about the economy, job losses, and the effect that the shutdown is having on businesses and individuals.  The difficulties of finding basic supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies coupled with social distancing requirements have made shopping a chore.  Add to this the boredom that comes from running out of projects to work on and having caught up on sleep and your favorite television programs.  The insanity of trying to work from home while home schooling the kids and worrying about friends and loved ones.  These difficulties combined with the improving weather of spring and the social tendencies of our species have turned the occasional grumble regarding the inconvenience of the whole situation into a growing chorus of displeasure.  Often the focus of this complaining is the very government which was elected to handle these types of situations if/when they occur.

Protests have been organized across the country by those who think that government has overstepped its authority by temporarily closing businesses, banning public/private gatherings, and limiting freedoms that the protesters hold near and dear.  Social media outlets have been asked to police themselves regarding event notices that might be encouraging activities that are illegal during this period of declared state and national emergency.  Protesters waving flags of various origins, toting assault rifles, and flaunting the social distancing advisories march in the streets exercising their rights of assembly, free-speech, and to bear arms.  As the SNL skit about Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s response to the protests in Lansing said, “It’s live free or die, not live free and die.”  What does open carry of assault rifles have to do with Covid-19?  As one pundit said, “You can’t shoot the virus.”  Any display of force is by its very nature coercive and there is no place for it in a democracy.

Protesters carry rifles near the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As with any crisis there are people trying to take advantage of the situation.  While the number of major crimes decreased during the initial weeks of the pandemic those numbers are increasing again, especially as thieves target closed stores.  Police departments like most first responders have been hit hard by the virus and many officers are either sick or in quarantine.  This puts a strain on the police to maintain patrols in areas of high crime and respond to calls for aid by those experiencing the life-threatening symptoms of Covid-19.  Police chiefs from the across the country are seen nightly on the news pleading for people to stay home, obey traffic laws, and behave themselves, sometimes to no avail.

On television the trend for talk shows is for the personalities to do their shows from home.  The late-night comedians spend their time lampooning the president, life in quarantine, and the idiots who have earned their 60 seconds of infamy.  The daytime shows continue to pander to celebrity, as if those who can most afford not to work can really relate to those who can’t even file for unemployment due to the overwhelming number of people applying.  The poster child for this may be Ellen DeGeneres.  She made a joke on her first show back after 3 weeks off that those of us who have been there found to be in unbelievably bad taste.  She compared coronavirus self-isolation to being in jail.  “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days, and everyone here is gay.”  She has a beautiful, spacious mansion in sunny southern California, with her own green space.  Social distancing is not a problem, she hosts her show from her comfy chair and her guests are all virtual. 

The real situation in jails and prisons across America is slowly being revealed by investigative journalists following up on first and secondhand accounts of what life behinds bars is currently like.  Every day I read at least a half a dozen articles from the Marshall Project, the New York Times, Huffington Post, USA Today, Detroit News and Free Press, The Atlantic, and the LA Times just to name a few, that clearly show that neither Ellen nor any other person not currently incarcerated live under conditions even remotely similar to those found in even the best jail.  The picture that these articles paint is very bleak.  Our correctional institutions were not prepared for coronavirus.  Not only that but the system which they are a part of has failed to respond in a timely manner to things like the implementation of CDC guidelines on the control of infectious disease, governmental and court ordered population reduction strategies, and  conducting sufficient testing to determine the true scope of infection. 

Infection rates in some facilities now exceed 50% of the inmate population.  In some regions, the jail or prison is the hot spot responsible for the spread of Covid-19 throughout the community at large, because of the infection rates among correction officers and staff.  Prisons are typically not located in large metropolitan areas with access to hospitals capable of handling more than a few intensive care patients. The result is that inmates are filling up the ICU so that people from the community must go elsewhere.  The notorious prison medical system has exacerbated the situation through callus and unsympathetic care that has resulted in the deaths of prisoners in their cells, which they claim never reported any symptoms to staff.  Inmates report that medical staff do not change gloves between patients; sick inmates are not segregated from the general population immediately; and inmates with mild to moderate symptoms are told to suck it up and sent back to their cells without medications to ease their discomfort.

Attempts by the MDOC to quarantine sick/recovering inmates by setting up quarantine units in several prisons to isolate them from the general population has resulted in the spreading of Covid-19 from one prison to another which had previously been virus free.  The only staff overlap between the quarantine units and the rest of the compound was the medical staff.  There have also been reports that inmates working as cleaning porters have been forced to clean up after infected inmates without any PPE.  The spokes person for the MDOC has repeatedly denied allegations regarding conditions inside of prisons, the same as they have for every other inmate’s complain.  The response as always is that the inmates are lying and that the MDOC has everything under control.  This time he will have a harder time explaining the body count.

Ohio is the only state so far that claims to be testing all its prisoners at all its facilities.  Michigan to date has completed testing at one facility and is now conducting comprehensive testing at a second facility.  This however does not include the correction officers or staff.  At other facilities only those inmates who meet certain criteria are tested.  Since this virus presents itself with such a wide range of symptoms and levels of severity, including asymptomatic infections; only complete testing of inmates and staff can identify the true number of cases.  Given the scarcity of test kits available, it is not surprising that more testing has not been conducted.  Unfortunately, prisoners comprise one of the most vulnerable populations alongside nursing homes and should be a priority.

Compared to the “real world” prison is a place where reality: including things like common sense, empathy, manners, personal hygiene, health care, personal space, and access to PPE is extremely limited or non-existent.  ICE detainees have gone on hunger strikes for more soap and toilet paper.  The federal Bureau of Prisons failed to follow the Justice Departments mandate to reduce prison populations by sending thousands of eligible prisoners home to serve out the remainder of their sentences under house arrest.  Juvenile detention facilities likewise have been slow to release minors who have been deemed to pose no threat to society.  Advocacy groups have been bailing out people who couldn’t afford bail and have been in jails awaiting trials, which have been postponed because the courts have significantly reduced case loads while conducting hearings remotely.  In some states, even after prisons and jails went into quarantine mode, inmates were sent out on work assignments where they risked either catching the virus or spreading the virus into the community.  For example, until just a few days ago inmates from the Rikers Island jail in New York were used to dig graves in a cemetery for the city’s poor.

COVID-19 quotes set to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Quarantine and self-isolation. Stay Home Stay Safe. Limit contact to others. Prevention the spread of Coronavirus. Stock vector illustration.

Directions to inmates from the MDOC regarding how to protect themselves from the coronavirus have been described as confusing, contradictory, inadequate and/or misleading.  The MDOC instructed MSI, its prison factory service to begin producing cloth face masks for staff and inmates.  It then began to issue 3 masks each to inmates with directions to wear them whenever they leave their cells, but only at facilities which have had a positive case diagnosed.  Even after the pandemic was known to be circulating in prisons, inmates are still being released on parole or probation without being tested to see if they are infected or being instructed to self-isolate for 14 days.  Inmates being paroled can’t find access to critical services that are usually provided by governmental or non-profit agencies to get started in their community placement.

In March when the first signs of community spread of the virus were reported, the MDOC like most other jails and prison systems closed their visiting rooms and banned outside volunteers and program instructors from entering the facility.  Internal programs like GED or mandatory programing continue with fewer inmates allowed to attend each class.  Fewer inmates where allowed to go to chow at one time to promote social distancing.  In the level 1 facility where I was housed, in the chow hall we had 4-man tables which barely had enough room for 4 trays.  Even cutting the seating in half leaves you eating face to face with another person.  In some places where the infection rates are highest the chow halls have now been closed and the food is delivered to the inmates in their cells.

To allow inmates to communicate with their family and friends prison phone companies like Global Tel Link are providing weekly free 5-minute calls to inmates.  Email services like JPay have given inmates free electronic stamps to allow them to write home using the kiosk located in the housing units.  This sounds like a nice gesture from companies who have made millions of dollars from selling overpriced services to inmates for years.  The reality is that phones and kiosks are used by dozens of inmates daily and the limitation on the types of cleaning/disinfectant products allowed means that inmates who uses these devices put themselves at risk.  Sanitizers and cleaning products containing 60% ethanol, or 70% isopropyl alcohol have been shown to be the most effective against the coronavirus however, only dilute bleach is allowed.  The old technique of putting a sock over the phone may not protect you from contracting the coronavirus when you put the handset to your face. 

Approximately 95% of all inmates in the US will be released back into society when they complete their sentence.  Unfortunately, Covid-19 does not discriminate in who it infects.  There have been numerous tragic stories reported in the news of inmates within days, weeks or months of being released who have contracted the virus and died.  One of the saddest was the case of a women in jail who gave birth while on a ventilator and later died without ever getting to know her child.  Another involved a man who had been incarcerated 44 years.  He was convicted of murder at age 16.  He had turned down parole earlier in the year, intending to ‘max out’ his sentence and leave prison a free man.  Having reconsidered that decision after the pandemic started, he was scheduled to be paroled in a matter of weeks when he passed away from the virus.  Technical parole violators who have been sent to jail or returned to prison have gotten sick and died. 

Jails and prisons are like petri dishes which culture microorganisms.  Even in the best of times they are unsanitary places full of unhygienic people.  When I was in jail awaiting my court hearings there was no warm/hot water available in my cell, only cold water from the sink and shower.  The soap provided was so poor that it did not foam or suds making it difficult to wash after using the bathroom or before meals.  Very few people are incarcerated in single-man cells, most are crowded into dormitories with a hundred other people.  Social distancing is just not an option so when one gets sick, many get sick.  Getting a cold or the flu in prison is miserable, getting Covid-19 for many could be a death sentence.  Knowing this, the level of fear among inmates is running extremely high. 

Incarceration is a stressful situation in the best of times, now it is nearly at panic levels.  Around the world and even in the US there have been prison riots over fears about Covid-19 and what it could do inside the walls.  Video from a cell phone that had been smuggled into the Wayne County jail in Detroit showed inmates with their tee-shirts pulled up like masks over their faces pleading for help.  Pictures of the Cook County jail showed a window with a message spelled out in toilet paper calling for help.  In addition to the non-profit organizations that were bailing people out of jail, others have begun to supply soap free of charge to inmates that were not getting it otherwise.  While gestures like this are appreciated, they do not address the underlying issues that are putting so many people at risk.

Prisoners hung signs pleading for help in a window of the Cook County jail on Tuesday.
Credit…Jim Vondruska/Reuters

Since the early 2000s prison populations in many, but not all states, have been slowly but steadily decreasing.  Violent crime rates with a few exceptions have also been decreasing during this time according to FBI statistics.  According to a recent report from the MDOC the prisoner population in 2019 was at 96.9% of capacity.  There was also a reduction of 445 beds due to prison closings that resulted from the decrease in population.  What they are not telling you is that the current prison capacity is double of what they were originally designed for.  I was in two different prisons with level 1 pole barns that had originally been equipped for 80 men.  There were 4 men assigned to each cubical.  Now there are 160 men in the housing unit and 8 men to a cube.  When I was in level 2 and level 4 the cells were two-man rooms.  While level 2 was designed that way, level 4 was not, they were supposed to be one-man cells with their own toilet and sink.  Instead of addressing the overcrowding issue by keeping prisons open with fewer inmates the MDOC decided to maintain few prisons in order to offset cost increases while keeping its $2 Billion budget flat. 

It is not a case of Monday morning quarterbacking to say that this was a fatal mistake.  Many people have been speaking out about this problem for years, yet the MDOC ignored the warning signs such as outbreaks of norovirus that have resulted in prisons being quarantined on a regular basis.  The sad thing is that unlike the Flint water crisis there will be no Attorney General investigation, no one will lose their jobs, and no one will be held responsible for the criminal negligence that has led to the unnecessary loss of life that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

Having said all of this, I hope I have made my point that self-isolation at home is not like being in jail.

Anti-Social Distancing

It has been widely reported in the news recently about the fears of what could happen with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading inside of jails and prisons.  There has been much talk but little action nation wide to reduce the population density by releasing non-violent offenders and those with high risk factors such as the elderly or those with sever chronic health issues.  Defense attorneys and prisoner advocates along with some District Attorneys have petitioned the courts and the various state correction agencies to act on humanitarian grounds to little effect so far.

In Michigan, the MDOC itself can do little to reduce prison population due to Truth in Sentencing.  This policy was enacted by a vote of the people and would require a super-majority in both houses of the legislature to overturn.  Michigan is about the only state in the country which enacted this draconian punishment back in the 1980s that still persists in this failed deterrence strategy.  It was part of the Tough on Crime policing laws, where inmates would not be considered for parole until they had reached their Earliest Release Date (ERD).  Combined with harsh sentencing guidelines Truth in Sentencing caused an explosion in the incarceration rate which lead to the current over crowing situation. 

Now Michigan prisons are full of inmates serving long indeterminate sentences.  While your Earliest Release Date (ERD) might be 7 years, your maximum release date could be 15 years.  The result is that there is no guarantee that you will qualify for parole after serving 7 years.  There is no good time or disciplinary credit unless you were sentenced before Truth in Sentencing.  Longer sentences and harsher policies like the 3-Strike law mean that the number of older prisoners has increased significantly as a percentage of the total inmate population.  This runs counter to the evidence that people typically age out of crime and the fact that the number of older convicts going to prison for the first time is significantly lower than for those in their teens, twenties or thirties. 

Inmates in general tend to be in poorer health than the general population.  This is due in part to the large number of older inmates, but also to the number of inmates with underlying medical conditions, mental conditions, and/or addictions.  Combine this with poor health care which has been the subject of oversight by a federal judge, the result is that even in good times there are needless deaths due to inadequate treatment, medication and therapy. 

It’s been known for many years that jails and prisons are a breeding ground for disease.  Tuberculosis, Hepatitis, HIV, MERSA, Norovirus, and Influenza, just to name a few, have been of significant concern.  In the MDOC, Hepatitis and Influenza vaccinations are available.  TB skin tests are performed routinely.  Prior to release all parolees are tested for HIV.  Every year there are individual prisons quarantined due to an epidemic of one sort or another.

It’s been well documented that prisons are severely overcrowded.  Even with falling rates of incarceration in Michigan, the MDOC closes prisons rather than reduce population density because of the cost savings.  Housing units that were originally designed to hold 80 men now contain 160.  Single beds were replaced with bunk beds.  Desks were removed to make room for additional lockers.  This effectively reduced the square footage allotted per inmate by 50%.  Infrastructure could not be updated so toilets, sinks and showers have double the utilization.  This happened all across the MDOC.

In prison, access to cleaning chemicals is limited.  The cleaning chemicals available are highly diluted because concentrated chemicals can be weaponized.  Heavy bathroom utilization combined with unsanitary conditions due to inadequate custodial maintenance and poor personal hygiene by many inmates, leads to a breeding ground for germs, bacteria and mold.  Add in outdated, inoperative ventilation and old plumbing subject to frequent backups, you have a recipe for disaster. 

While I was incarcerated, I experienced a norovirus quarantine.  It was the only time when dilute bleach was made available for the inmates to clean their areas of control.  5-gallon buckets of bleach water were put out with a few rags and was moved from cube to cube down the hall.  The problem was that not everyone participated in the housekeeping and I’m not sure how well the common areas of the units were cleaned.

Like most of the epidemics in prison, personal hygiene plays a big part in transmission.  Hand washing isn’t widely practiced and there are lots of places where there is no access to soap.  Places like the school building bathroom frequently did not have soap, let alone toilet paper.  Hand sanitizer is not available because it contains alcohol.  The mouthwash doesn’t contain alcohol either.  Alcohol pads from medical used by the insulin dependent diabetics are contraband.  The basic tools used to combat the spread of infectious disease are either not practiced adequately by inmates, poorly implemented and executed by staff,  or prevented by policy as security risks.

Policy says that soap made by MSI will be supplied to inmates as needed.  That didn’t mean that soap was always available.  Housing units generally only order a certain amount based on their budget as determined by the unit counselor.   State soap didn’t have the best reputation, so if you had the funds in your trust account, you would order soap from the commissary. 

Recent news from the MDOC website reports that Michigan State Industries (MSI) is making masks and other PPE for officers and inmates.  Like the recommendation from the CDC that the general population should be wearing cloth masks when going out in public, the MDOC has begun distributing masks to inmates in prisons with confirmed cases of COVID-19.  This fails to take the rest of the CDC guidelines into account.  Inmates can’t separate themselves from others who might be showing the initial symptoms of the virus.  Instead staff must make the determination to quarantine the inmate pending the result of a confirmation test.

Masks without the proper way to clean your hands before and after handling them or being able to properly clean and sanitize them, can lead to contamination.  If anything, they will provide a sense of false security.  When doctors, nurses and first responders who have been trained in proper PPE handling techniques are getting sick with the virus, what chance do inmates have?  In an article I read recently the author concluded that wearing a cloth mask was better than wearing nothing.  Hardly a strong recommendation, but still better than simply pulling up your tee-shirt over your nose which has been shown to provide almost no protection.

At the time of writing this article the number of inmates in the MDOC with confirmed COVID-19 cases was 338 with 2 deaths.  Thirteen of 29 prisons had confirmed cases.  Thirteen other prisons in the MDOC had tested at least one inmate with negative results.  These numbers have doubled in a week and appear to be following the same trends experienced in the general population.  Changes such as suspending visits, stopping outside volunteers or tours from entering the prisons did not prevent the virus from entering prison.  One prisoner in the upper peninsula contracted the virus while he was in the local hospital where COVID-19 positive patients were being treated.  Inmates arriving from county jail may have also brought in the virus.  However, the most likely avenue for the virus to get into prison was through the staff. 

Staff entering prisons must undergo a daily temperature check and answer a series of questions about possible exposure as they enter for work.  If this is anything as thorough as their inspections for drugs, cellphones or other contraband, then it won’t be long before the virus is in every prison.  This is serious and in addition to 142 staff members testing positive there have been two staff deaths reported.  COVID-19 is a silent killer that is often contagious before any symptoms become apparent.

There have been a number of unusual facts about this Corona virus that are particularly troubling.  First there the observation that the virus kills more men than women.  Then there is the issue around how the virus is affecting brown and black communities and individuals at alarmingly higher rates than in the general population.  Also, the elderly and those with underlying health issues are specifically vulnerable.  Finally, there is the issue of access to health care.  The percentage of men significantly out numbers the number of female prisoners.  There are a much higher percentage of brown and black ethnicities incarcerated than in the general population.  There are a large number of inmates who are either elderly or in very poor health.  Finally is the problem of prison health care even in the best of times. This will combine into a perfect storm that the MDOC and all other jails and prisons, either state or federal are not capable of handling.

When this pandemic is brought under control and life resumes its new normal, my concern is that the successful measures taken to combat the spread of this disease will be eased or rescinded altogether.  That the more onerous measures such as restricting visits and access by volunteers, lock downs and restricted movement by inmates will continue.  And that the lessons learned will be quickly forgotten or ignored by administrators and legislators.  When it comes to corrections there is more than a tendency to cling to the failed, outdated, outmoded policies and procedures of the past.  There is a conscious effort to maintain the status quo, resist change even in the face of significant pressure, and a lack of real accountability in a critical branch of government.

If you have loved ones or friends currently incarcerated- pray about them; reach out to them; speak out for them. 


For information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is affecting those in jail or prison I recommend the coverage being provided by the Marshall Project website.  It is the best source on the internet for daily updates of news being reported across the country the affects our loved ones and friends serving time behind bars.

For specific updates regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in the MDOC, information can be found on their website at: https://medium.com/@MichiganDOC/mdoc-takes-steps-to-prevent-spread-of-coronavirus-covid-19-250f43144337

Reflections on Praying Scripture

While I was incarcerated, I spent a lot of time in prayer.  I studied prayers in the Bible and what scripture had to say about prayer.  I read many books on prayer by both classic and contemporary authors.  All for the purpose of understanding how to pray better.  I was in a dark place and needed to learn how to prayer rightly.  I needed to learn how to not just make my requests before God, but how to talk with Him. 

In prison I memorized several hundred verses from Genesis to Revelations.  As I power-walked around the track on the back forty I would recite the scriptures adding one upon another until I could speak scripture non-stop for over an hour.  I would meditate upon the scripture to understand its meaning and application in my life.  I often needed to pray about the scripture because it convicted me of my sinfulness, my failure to be obedient in this or that area of my life.

My Bible became a coloring book as I underlined and highlighted verse after verse.  Re-reading scripture gave me new insight and understanding as I connected more and more scriptures together.  I wore out several Bibles in the 8 years I was behind bars, but the tattered and worn pages spoke volumes about how I spent my time.  In a place where Satan rules God reigned over me.  My time in prison wasn’t a cake walk and it certainly had its moments of pain and heartache.  Even though I walked through the shadow of the valley of death on a few occasions, God was with me and in me.  His Word comforted me, encouraged me, guided me and sustained me.

Every year I read the entire Bible through from cover to cover.  I read different translations like the NKJ, NIV, RSV, The Message and several others.  Each time I would learn something new as I gained deeper understand about the text I was studying.  Even though the translations might use different words to say the same thing, each one I read helped to bring out a more complete understanding of scripture then I had before.  I filled journals with notes on my studies of the Word, the commentaries, and the libraries of Christian books that I consumed. 

All my education, my enlightenment, my revelations led me to one over-riding conclusion: the Christian faith is about a personal relationship with God Almighty.  The only way to have a relationship is to communicate and the only way to communicate is to talk.  But what do you say to the one who knows you better than you know yourself?  If you do have something to say, how do you say it?  What is the right way to talk to God?  While I can write well enough, I do not consider myself a public speaker by any stretch of the imagination.  I had no idea, so I turned to what other’s had to say in order to figure it out. 

There is the model of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.  There is the Book of Psalms, the original prayer book.  There are acrostics like ACTS; Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication that organize prayers.  There are the traditional prayers of the Daily Office, some of which date back hundreds or even thousands of years.  There are simple popcorn prayers that are spontaneous, short, and to the point.  There are earnest cries for help when all hope is gone, and words fail us.  There are songs of praise and worship that are prayers set to music. 

The Bible is full of examples of both right and wrong ways to pray.  Abraham, Moses, King David, King Solomon, Jabez, Job, Elijah, Peter, Paul, and Cornelius to name a few prayed in a way that was pleasing to God.  All saw God working in their lives as a result of their prayers.  Cain, Nadab and Abihu, King Saul, the Pharisees didn’t pray in an acceptable way and it had disastrous consequences. 

One of the most important concepts that I learned was the power of praying scripture.  When we speak to God using his own words in the correct context there is power.  The power of praise, especially in the midst of battle.  The power of repentance in the face of sin.  The power of Truth in a world of lies.  The power of forgiveness instead of retribution.  The power of God’s unmerited grace and mercy to redeem lives.  The power of hope in the face of overwhelming odds.  The power of certainty in a chaotic situation.

Praying scripture fills us with the Holy Spirit so that we can have the power of love in response to hate.  The power of joy in a time of sorrow.  The power of peace in the middle of the storm.  The power of patience in a moment of haste.  The power of kindness in a cruel world.  The power of goodness in a heartless situation.  The power of faithfulness in a faithless generation.  The power of gentleness in a brutal environment.  The power of self-control in an impulsive society.

Praying scripture gives us the power to change lives, especially our own.  The power to defeat the devil, because he can’t stand against God’s word.  The power to heal physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  The power to alter the future through divine intervention in the lives and situations of man and nature.  The power to forgive, including ourselves.  The power to overcome fear, doubt, and the lies that have been spoken at us by others.  The power to grow deeper and stronger in our faith.  The power to influence others for good.  The power to overcome addiction when all other methods have failed.  The power to obey God in opposition of man.  The power to save the lost. 

Praying scripture brought the Word to life in me.  Praying scripture taught me the ways of the ancient church.  Praying scripture connected me with millions of other people around the world.  Praying scripture awoke in me a desire to learn more scripture.  Praying scripture changed my way of thinking.  Praying scripture set my mind on things above.  Praying scripture gave me the answers to life’s questions.  Praying scripture taught me whose I am. 

Praying scripture is poetry in motion.  Praying scripture is faith in action.  Praying scripture allows no room for self.  Praying scripture leaves our souls bare before the Almighty.  Praying scripture is claiming the promises of God.  Praying scripture is a child speaking to his Father.  Praying scripture is humble obedience to our Creator.  Praying scripture is the most honest thing we can say to God.

Dear Heavenly Father,

Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit in me. Cast me not away from your presence, take not your Holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of my Salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. 

You have told me through your word to pick up my cross and follow you daily, to crucify my flesh with its passions and desires, to flee youthful lusts and sexual immorality.  To put off the old man that grows corrupt and put on the new man made by God in true righteousness and holiness.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart the acceptable in your sight.  You have called me to walk by faith and not by sight.  To forget what is behind and press on toward the goal that you have called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Lord I submit to you, resist the devil, draw near to you and humble myself before you.  You are the potter and I am the clay I cannot tell you what to make me into.  However, I would humbly ask that you would make me into a vessel fit for your service whether of noble or common use.

Surround me with your angels.  Put a strong hedge of protection around me.  Shelter me in the shadow of your wings.  Protect me from spiritual attack.  Protect me physically.  Guard my character and my reputation.

May your love and faithfulness never leave me that I will have favor and goodwill with both God and man.

Spirit of the living God fall fresh on me.  I thank you for your unconditional love and generosity.  For providing for me according to your riches and glory.  I knowledge that all I have comes from you.  You have blessed me beyond what I could have ever asked for or even imagined.  Thank you! Now to him who is able to keep me safe until the day of Christ’s return, I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ.

 Amen.

I have included an example of one of my scripture prayers that became like breathing for me.  I would not just recite my prayers, but rather let my prayers ascend to heaven as an incense offering filling the air like a sweet perfume.  Sometimes spoken out loud, other times whispered in my heart but always with the space for God to respond with his still, small voice.  I have observed that we often are in such a rush to pray to the extent that we don’t allow God to get a word in edgewise.  How can we have a conversation if we don’t take time to listen?

For me prayer has become a special time that I cherish and savor.  Like a fine meal, each course brings its own sensation, its own unique flavor and when I’m done, I know that I have been in the presence of Almighty God.  He satisfies my hunger and thirst.  He gives me more than I dare to ask for.  He fills me with anticipation for the next time.  His infinite variety means that it never gets old, stale or routine.  It is always a balanced meal in which I receive exactly what I need at the time I need it.

Even though I had the support of my family, a prison church fellowship, and a few men I would dare call friends it was prayer that got me through my time.  Despite the overcrowded conditions of the housing unit, most inmates experience a deep sense of isolation and loneliness.  While the drone of everyday life there made it difficult to sleep and hard to concentrate at times, I was assured that God heard my prayers and that his abiding presence would never leave me nor forsake me.  He was closer than a brother and always just a heartbeat away.  I trusted Him with my life, I still trust Him, and I will always trust Him because He is faithful. 

Winter 2017 News Letter

(Excerpt from the Christmas News Letter)

Greetings Brother,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! The day I mailed out my Christmas cards I got a letter from a guy with a JPay about the new mailroom policy. So I tried again and at least some of the facilities that I write to didn’t like my holiday stationary. I was just trying to bring a little holiday spirit to a place where it is sorely lacking. Oh well. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again. No use for me to complain about MDOC policy, since I know you already hashed it out.

I apologize for not writting sooner. During my absence I want to assure you that you were always in my thoughts and prayers. The most important thing is for you to know is that you are not forgotten, you have worth as an individual, and God loves you. I believe that we must be life-long learners, never satisfied that we know it all, rather humble enough to recognize that there is something to learn from everything that we go through. Either we are learning about ourselves, others or the world around us. Don’t be judgemental, but gracious: treating others as you want to be treated. We all want a second chance, so we should be willing to give others one as well.

Prison may be the worst thing you have ever experienced in life, showed you the worst that humanity has to offer, the most difficult and fustrating bureaucracy, the most insensitive and incompetent authority figures. Apathy and animosity abound, but you can choose to live above the fray, not roll in the mud, and live free, even behind bars.

During this holiday season my prayer for you is that you will have peace. Peace about your past, your present, and your future. Peace over the decisions you can make, and the ones that are out of your control. Peace with yourself, your family, and those living around you. A peace that causes other people to take notice and sets you apart from the crowd. A peace that surpasses all understanding.

Your Brother in Christ.

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.

Nothing New Under the Sun

(cartoon by J.D. Crowe/Press Register) SC 1 ST Berkeley News – UC Berkeley

King Solomon famously stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that “there was nothing new under the sun.”  Three thousand years ago man’s folly was already tending to repeat itself.  Patterns of behavior and the propensity to do evil were well documented back then.  Man’s inhumanity to man is the same old sad tale repeated over and over, unfortunately it is not limited to those who choose to do evil.  While researching for the writing of this blog I have read a number of prison memoirs and research papers and it is apparent that the observations that I make about prison and prison life cross both space and time.  From a World War II German Military prison to 1970s Great Britain; from California to Texas to Michigan and prisons in between; from the 1930s until today, written by theologians and PhDs to the uneducated, unifying themes regarding prison life and treatment of prisoners demonstrate that my observations of life inside the MDOC in many ways are both honest and disturbing.

Ones does not expect in the twenty-first century to encounter ideas and practices discredited long ago to be the standard operating conditions.  That America and all it claims to stand for has been set aside in one area of governing a civil society is both disturbing and alarming.  As I was writing this essay there were images of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man on the news and an advertisement for a new TV drama about a group of criminal investigators whose job was to ensure that the innocent were not wrongly convicted.  The abuses of the criminal justice system are finally making headway against the “tough on crime” agenda of the politicians, police, and corrections agencies in this country.  Grass roots organizations are cropping up in every state of the union calling for reform.  Even the president, whether you agree with his polices in general or not, has gone against the conventional wisdom of his political party and seeks to introduce some reforms into the federal corrections system.

A recent news article put a spotlight on the fact that we are not talking simply about convicted felons, but that a much larger number of people accused of misdemeanors that don’t even carry jail/prison time are serving time simply because they can’t afford bail.  According to a 2016 report by the Department of Justice over 11 million people pass through 3000 jails in the US every year.  People are even dying in jail from lack of urgent medical care and proper oversight in over-crowded and antiquated facilities.  During the recent arctic cold blast, a jail in Brooklyn, New York was plunged into darkness and freezing cold for several days when the electric and heating service to a portion of the facility was interrupted by an electrical fire.  The inmates were apparently tapping S.O.S on the windows of their cells calling for help.  The warden of the facility denied the severity of the problem even while inmates were calling the defenders office and pleading for help.  My own experience in jail was a cell so cold that frost formed on the inside of the window, no extra blankets and only a thin cotton jumpsuit for warmth in a room so cold you could see your breath.  So, I can empathize with the desperation of the situation and believe that it is true contrary to the official statements of the warden.

George Bernard Shaw once said “Some men see things as they are and ask why.  Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”   I find myself falling into the first category.  Don’t get me wrong, we need dreamers but after living through the nightmare of prison I don’t sleep very well at night.  Change must happen and the longer it is put off the higher the cost both financially and in human terms.  That is the point of prison reform.  Not just the recognition that there is a problem but there needs to be action taken to address the issue.  Not studies to determine the severity of the problem or pilot programs to explore alternatives.  The experts have already done these.  It is up to the people to demand that those in leadership of our government stop denying or minimizing the problem but take the advice of those whose occupation and preoccupation is focused on the problem.  It is like global warming.  People look at the cold winter and ask where is this so-called “global warming?”  The problem is that global warming is a poor term often used out of context when the issue really is “human activity induced climate change.”  A short catchphrase doesn’t properly encapsulate the issue.  The use of the phrase “prison reform” has the same sort of problem.  People look at crimes reported on our 24/7 news cycle and think that our society is less safe than it once was.  FBI crime statistics have shown that crime rates for all major categories have decreased steadily since the 1980s.  They then give credence and credit to the stricter laws and harsher penalties for causing this trend.  Research has shown that other factors have had a greater effect on crime reduction and that the stricter laws and harsher penalties have actually hindered what would have been even larger reductions to crime rates.

Prison reform is about addressing the underlying causes of crime and taking a reasonable approach to punishment.  Broken homes, single parent families, education, addiction, and poverty are at the core of prison reform.  Shutting off the street to prison pipeline that is responsible for the severe overcrowding, and all the problems that come along with that is what we are talking about.  The racial disparities in incarceration rates among the minorities from urban environments.  The aging infrastructure of prisons and jails that our society can’t afford to maintain let alone build more.  The erosion of respect for others different from ourselves that allows us to justify treating them not just poorly but as subhuman.   As somehow not deserving of basic human rights even thought they are enshrined in the Constitution.  This is was prison reform is about.

To know about a crime either before or after it occurs and failing to do anything with that knowledge is to be considered an accessory and makes one guilty by association.  So, wouldn’t it be true then that to ignore the advice of experts regarding the urgent need for prison reform could rise to the level of criminal negligence at the very least, or a gross misconduct in office and breach of trust by politicians who cling to alternate facts or decry reporting on prison problems as fake news?  For once I would like to see Solomon proved wrong that there is something new under the sun.  I pray that the logjam will be broken, and long overdue reforms will be instituted to our criminal justice system.  This will only happen when the people hold their representatives accountable and demand better treatment of our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our friends, neighbors and aliens.

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.