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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the opening of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776. The nation born from the struggle to achieve better treatment for its people by casting off its oppressors commemorates its freedom from July 4th rather than from September 3, 1783 when Great Britain signed the peace treaty ending the revolution and acknowledging the sovereignty of the United States of America. Freedom was not granted by the oppressors, rather it was taken by force by the oppressed. Unfortunately, not everyone in the country can celebrate freedom today. Millions of men and women are incarcerated in jails and prisons all across the country. When you don’t have the ability to participate in life, liberty, or pursue happiness there really isn’t much to celebrate on a national holiday that you can’t experience.
Christmas is a religious and cultural holiday. Thanksgiving remembers the difficulties of establishing a home in the “new world.” Memorial Day acknowledges the sacrifice of our soldiers to defend us. Labor Day acknowledges the efforts of the people to make the engines of commerce run. Those in prison can find connection to some or all these holidays, but Independence Day in my experience was different.
Prisoners have had their freedom taken away because they violated societies code of conduct. Why take away freedom? Because after life, liberty is the most valuable thing a person can possess. It is like the punishment we received as children when our parents took away our favorite toy. We didn’t like that but when that didn’t work, what did they do? They put us in time out, which escalated to grounding when behavior fails to conform to expectation.
Parents do this because it works, sort of. When we were little it didn’t take much to pursued us to behave. But over time the punishment increased in severity as the effectiveness diminished. The same thing happens with adults. Harsher punishments for more heinous crimes and 3 strike laws to increase penalties for repeat offenders. But just like children over time with repeated offense the effectiveness diminishes.
Nonetheless when you are in prison you are not free, but you remember what freedom was like. You miss it terribly because all around you are reminders of what you have lost and what it takes to deny it from you. On one hand you watch the officers and staff go home every night, cars driving by on the streets beyond the fences and the TV brings images of what’s passing you by. On the other hand, you can’t get away from razor wire, monotonous routine, and loneliness day after day. All of these are enough to drive you crazy and the last thing you want is something like a holiday dedicated to freedom to rub salt in the wound.
Holidays are times when people in the world get together with family and friends, take road trips, and gorge at feasts. Prison can only offer pale facsimiles that leave little to be desired. Once upon a time there were picnic holiday meals served on the big yard with burgers and hotdogs cooked on the grill, as the old timers tell it. But any pretense of holiday celebration is long gone. Holiday meals are only slightly distinguishable from any other meals. Like putting fixings on a burger and ice cream on pie. At my last prison the local community fireworks display was visible over the tree tops for those that had a view from their housing unit windows facing that direction. While they drew the attention of a few guys, most simply complained about the noise.
Holidays meant that non-custodial staff would have the day off, so things like the library or gym callouts would be cancelled. This always caused complaints, since these callouts would not be rescheduled for another day. The visiting room was always crowded on the holidays. Holidays meant limited hours compared to the normal visiting room hours of operation. Vending machines run low and there is no one to refill them. Lots of irregulars working means that chaos rules. All this takes away from the enjoyment of having contact with family or friends.
The phones are always busy on holidays as guys call home hoping to make contact with family and friends visiting the house that they wouldn’t normally get to speak with. Providing that you can get through.
After the Independence Day holiday is over there is an almost audible sigh of relief when things go back to “normal” at least until the next holiday in September. The only independence day that a prisoner wants to celebrate is the day that they are released from incarceration.
It is really easy to paint everyone in prison as being the same. Hardened criminals who are as monochromatic as the walls surrounding them with black hearts and dark thoughts that only know destruction. But that like most popular perceptions about prison is not just an over-simplification, it is wrong. Prison is a microcosm of society with people from all walks of life, many of whom I’ve tried to describe in this blog. There are colorful, creative people who have done some terrible things and are paying the price. However, rather than letting darkness consume them they are taking the proverbial lemon and making lemonade. They do this pouring out their creative energy in painting or writing. The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project has for more than two decades hosted an exhibit of art by Michigan prisoners and for ten years have published an annual volume of creative writing. The annual art exhibit and reading are held in Ann Arbor and Detroit and are open to the general public.
Works of art and writing are submitted to a selection committee at the U of M Humanities School. Those that are accepted cover a wide range of subject matter from real life to flights of fancy and from poetry to non-fiction. Many of the works of art are available for sale with the proceeds going to the artist. The creative writing is published in book form that is available for sale by U of M. At the reading, mainly family and friends are invited to read on behalf of the incarcerated author. I was one of the rare authors who had paroled between the submittal and the reading and could present my own poem “Ode to Ramen.” A humorous but truthful analysis of the importance of Ramen Noodles to prisoners.
It is fascinating to see how others view their life behind bars in color or black and white. The diversity of perspectives and experience is showcased nicely through this program by U of M. So much of life behind bars is a mysterious secret that very few get a glimpse of first hand. There should be more programs like this that provide an outlet for inmates than can be witnessed by the public.
Here is the poem that I wrote regarding one aspect of prison life that was published in “Concertina Maze” The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Vol. 9. 2016
Ode to Ramen
Like many prison inmates I own my very survival to your savory, salty goodness. The MRE of the penitentiary. You are always there when the chow hall lets me down to satisfy my hungry longing for sustenance.
Your noodley presence is the only constant in a place where no one knows what tomorrow may bring. More enduring than a Bunkie, waiting patiently in my locker to be called upon in a time of need.
Honeybuns and bagels may come and go, but your pasta lasts forever. You never grow old or mold, having a half-life rather than a shelf life. Meant to be crushed yet you are indestructible. Immortality incarnate.
Haute cuisine you may not be, yet comfort food you are. A staple ingredient in every dish, the most versatile of wonder foods. You inspire me to new heights of cookery as master chef of the microwave.
Flavor is your claim to fame. Packets of hot spicy intensity or meaty mellowness that travel far and wide beyond the expectations of ordinary condiments, to lift the spirits of diners in desperate need of taste enhancement.
Your value transcends your caloric content to become the currency of the land. Exchanging hands to pay our debts, you wander far before you spend your last to ensure that I will make it ‘till the dawn.