Friday, August 29, 2014

Dancing Behind Bars

Not Exactly Dancing with the Stars

I tried to prepare myself for life behind bars before surrendering to prison: the lack of freedom, the bad food, the many rules, the aggressive inmates. I talked with former inmates, read prison message boards and watched America's Worst Prisons on cable TV, learning that I shouldn't cut in line and should sit with the white boys at dinner. I thought I was pretty well prepared, or as well as a white-collar felon with no prison experience can be. But it turns out that I was not prepared at all, that once piece of crucial information was missing from all the advice I received. And what was this missing golden nugget? Much to my subsequent regret, no one told me that I should practice my dance moves.

You see, almost each and every week I'm asked (ok, pretty much forced) to stand before 100 fellow inmates and wiggle my arms and shake my butt to the beat of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" or some similarly uplifting song. All by myself. With 200 eyes on me. Did I mention that this is in front of 100 inmates? All cheering and clapping and yelling "more, more, one more time!" And me looking like the world's biggest idiot. If this sounds like a nightmare, it more or less is. Except that in a real nightmare I'd be doing all this naked. At least that's what I tell myself to make the reality a little less bad.

I suppose I should explain. Here at RDAP we have a daily meeting called the "Up Meeting". We do various things at this meeting, including serious things like informing the community about news, developments, program changes, etc. Former RDAPers who are being released from prison come to speak with us about their thoughts: what they gained from the program and how they plan to apply it to their life on the outside. In short, serious, useful stuff. 

We also dance. 

I suppose I should clarify. This isn't some prison version of the high school prom - no mass of inmates jiving in the rec room arm in arm. This isn't a conga line of men in greens or a group rendition of the chicken dance. This is a take-your-turn, individual style of dancing, akin to a ballet solo by the lead ballerina. Each inmate gets his day in the spotlight, his day to shine. Up in front of everyone. All alone.

If someone had told me before I entered prison that I'd soon be standing up in front of 100 inmates and putting the moves on I'd have told them they were crazy. Those who know me will immediately understand: this white boy really can't dance. I can feel the beat in my head, more or less, but somehow that doesn't translate into moving my hands and feet at the proper time or in the appropriate way. In short, I am a terrible dancer, the kind that should (and has, until this incarceration) stuck to wiggling in the crowd or crashing about in a mosh pit. I'm pretty much a realist, recognizing my dance limitations from an early age and pouring my energies into more fruitful pursuits.

My first attempt at prison dancing was pretty pathetic: a few wiggles and a huge blush of shame. But after that faltering first attempt my thinking changed. What the hell, I decided. Here I am in prison. I can't exactly sink any lower. So what do I have to lose? Compared to the humiliation of becoming a felon, the humiliation of public dancing is nothing. So I decided to let it all hang out. And I did. I'm not sure what exactly you'd call my dance. Basically, it's a fairly unique agglomeration of random dance moves I've accumulated by osmosis throughout the four decades of my life: a bit of 50's style hands sliding on the knees, some 60's hippie swaying, a bit of 70's jive, even the arm wiggling of the chicken dance and the hands-over-the-head finale of Walk Like an Egyptian.

And you want to know the absolute strangest thing of all? My little dance, the worst dance in the history of the world - something more akin to the rain dance of some aborigines in the jungle than anything that might be recognized as modern movement - became the hit of this prison. Really. I'm now known as the inmate dancer. My dance is referred to at times as the Sprague dance, at times as the "dolphin". At least 10 times per day, inmates come up to me and ask me to show them my moves. When I walk around the grounds I see people imitating me. They cheer me on when it's my turn to dance. The roar is deafening. Last time around, I received a standing ovation. If there were a prison version of youtube, my dance would have at least 100 hits.

I'm under no illusion that they're cheering because I'm actually any good. But I like to think that they're cheering at more than just the inanity of it all, the vision from hell of a middle age lawyer making a fool of himself, a real-life Pee Wee Herman. What I hope they're cheering at is an introverted guy making an effort to connect, to change, to break out from his shell, by showing the world (or at least this little sub-section of it) that it's ok to make mistakes, that we're not always perfect. Because, I've realized, the only way I'm going to recover and become a better member of society is to break down the walls I built up and learn to dance to a new tune. Both literally and figuratively.

Our Incarceration Policy is Failing

A Few Interesting Statistics on Inmates, Prisons and Recidivism

With my budding interest in all things prison related, including issues related to incarceration, recidivism and crime, I read with interest a few fascinating statistics from a recent issue of the Economist that demonstrate that incarceration as a crime-reduction strategy is misguided, expensive, ineffectual and just generally stupid. I'll comment more on these later, but in the meantime I thought I'd set them out for consideration:

- In the U.S., the ratio of prisoners to violent crime is now four times what it was in the 1980's. This has resulted in a nearly 10-fold prisoner increase over the last three decades with a concomitant increase in expenses. 

- America's incarceration rate is 707 per 100,000. The highest in the world! In comparison, England's incarceration rate - the highest in Europe and a place where prisons are undergoing a crisis of overcrowding - is "only" 149. Even this compares unfavorably to Germany's rate (78) and the Netherland's (75). If you ask me, the US incarceration rate and the vast sums we spend on a worthless and harmful policy is a national disgrace.

- The basic idea of the lock-em-up approach is that if criminals are locked up they are not able to commit crimes. Makes sense, right? But statistics demonstrate that "banging" up prisoners (as the British say) does not reduce crime. For example, in countries and states such as the Netherlands, California and New York where incarceration rates have dropped sharply, crime has continued to drop as well. 

- Prison is, in fact, an incubator of crime. In the 2000's, statistics show, up to 40% of felonies were committed by ex-cons. Recidivism rates push 70%. Statistics of a healthy, successful system devoted to rehabilitation? Hardly.

- Interesting factoid: the Netherlands actually has more prison guards than prisoners. My dream is that someday we'll be able to say the same about the U.S.

The Prison Rumor Mill: RDAP, Artificial Sweetener and Saltpeter

Check out my latest post [] on the prison rumor mill at the Etika LLC site.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

If I Were in Charge….

Tongue-in-Cheek Ideas for Prison Reform

My posts lately have been pretty serious, even a little dark, focused as they've been on why I'm here and what I hope to gain. So in honor of the impending weekend - one of the last of summer, to boot - I decided to lighten things up a bit with a bit of humor. Or my attempt at it anyway. So without further ado, here are a few tongue-in-cheek ideas on how to improve the lives of inmates.

1. Casual Fridays: Prison is one of the last places in America untouched by the wave of casual Fridays that swept the country beginning in the 1990's. It's not as if we wear suits and ties here on the inside, but we are expected to dress up in our "greens" on Friday, just as any other week day. As I write, I'm sitting at the computer in my drab green shirt buttoned up to my neck, green khaki pants and yellow belt, dreaming of the gray sweats I'll be able to throw on at the end of the day. 

2. Conga Lines: Growing up, I spent my Saturdays at the roller-skating rink, locked arm-to-waist in long conga lines of fellow skaters, bobbing to the beat of Rock the Kasbah and Whip it Good. The aisles of the prison barracks, long and straight as they are, would be perfect for inmate conga lines. All we need is a bit of music and permission to groove on out. I vote for the chicken dance - my personal favorite.

3. Fart Zones: In prison you're hardly ever alone; privacy is a scarce commodity. The barracks are crowded, the chow hall lines are long and the bathroom is never empty. This presents a problem for those of us brought up with the notion that to fart in public is a social faux pas: where to let it rip? Many inmates do not appear encumbered by this social constraint, releasing their pent up gas whenever the urge strikes. But for me and others unused to cutting the cheese in public, what would be great are designated fart zones where we could go to relieve ourselves of all the gases created by the endless supply of chow-hall beans. Just a thought.

4. Prison Saying of the Day. Since I've been down I've heard certain sayings over and over again that I rarely, if ever, heard on the outside. These include "That's Craaazy" (pronounced similarly to "Heeeere's Johnny"), Uh Huh Uh Huh and I'll address these all in a later post. But in the meantime I propose that we have an official word or saying of the day, to be used as often and as loudly as possible by each and every inmate.

5. Tattoo Show and Tell. Tattoos here are creative and ubiquitous. But it's considered bad form to stare, to try to decipher the intricate curlicues that cover many inmate's every spare inch of skin. One funny example that I did see recently was a neck tattoo consisting of an arrow toward the Adam's's apple and the words: "Please cut here." In any event, my point is that, to overcome the taboo of unmitigated staring, prisons organize events in which prisoners show off their tattoos while describing them to other cons.

6. Theme Song. What could be better for morale than a theme song, a chance for all the inmates to lock arms, sway to and fro and let their vocal chords loose? We did as much growing up at Scout sleep away camp. In my view, something from the Sound of Music would work perfectly: uplifting, pro-social and encouraging of brotherly love. My vote goes for These Are a Few of My Favorite Things (with a few words adapted to our current reality): Bars on the Windows and Green Mush for Dinner, These are a Few of My Favorite Things....

7. Knit-Off. They teach knitting in prison, although here it is called "yarn welding".  This is not a joke but honest-to-god fact. Of an evening, many inmates sit at their bunks darning baby socks, caps and the like. Why not turn this passive pursuit into a competitive sport? I would move it out to the backyard, right alongside the basketball court and soccer field, where inmates gather for intense and competitive matches. Tie a knot correctly and earn a point for the team.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Right Where I Belong

Believe It or Not, I'm Grateful for Where I am and What I've Got

Since I've been "down" I've learned all I could have ever hoped to know about transporting drugs, everything from how to create the perfect stash space in a car, truck or semi, to muling to transporting across state lines. I won't provide any "how to's" here other than to say that actual drug shipping in its banality does not appear much related to the popular image shown on TV and in the movies of underground tunnels, shootouts and drug busts. As mundane as it may seem, I've learned that a surprising amount of interstate drugs are shipped via FedEx, UPS and the good old postal service. Not exactly Cannonball Run.

I mention this example not to promote criminal behavior but to demonstrate the point, made in my last post, that prisons often serve as a laboratory for crime, a place where inmates go to make the contacts and learn the skills that will turn them into better criminals upon their release. Here I am a white collar offender, not the least interested in or with the slightest knowledge of drug trafficking, and by mere osmosis and some innate curiosity I've picked up on the tricks of the trade. Imagine what I could do if I was truly dedicated to perfecting my craft. Combine this with a cat-and-mouse culture that, much like Communism, promotes rule breaking - petty theft, man stores, contraband sales, smoking, shirking work, etc. - and you have an incubator for dysfunctional behavior out in the big wide world behind these walls.

I didn't think much about this dilemma at the ordinary prison camp (called "South Camp" here at Lompoc). I'm a prison neophyte, after all, unschooled in all the accepted ways of this place. I basically just accepted things for the way they were (with a bit of complaining on this blog). Compared with the stories I heard of "Diesel Therapy" and detention centers and higher security prisons - the real pens, in other words - camps seemed pretty light as far as things go. While rule breaking is endemic and I witnessed the occasional smash up with a chair or a lock-n-sock, at least the threat of serious violence was not a real concern.

Before I could completely settle in at South Camp, I transferred over to the RDAP treatment program here at North Camp, only a minute or two by van but a vast distance in terms of attitude and approach. Here, at this place, with its endless rules and its experimental home-grown community of big brothers and holding people accountable for their behavior, the differences were brought into stark relief. I at first complained about all these rules and I still can't say that I really like them. But I've come to approach obeying them as a challenge. Not only do I not want to get up in front of the entire camp to proclaim my violation, but I've decided that this "rule abiding behavior" is really representative of the new me. 

Before, out in the world, I was always trying to get around the rules, both petty (speeding) and grand (stealing $10 million) and even as a lawyer helped my rich clients get around the laws they did not like. That was my job, after all. Same at South Camp: I picked and chose which rules to follow, the level of risk I was willing to take. Not here at RDAP. My new policy toward rules, a policy I plan to carry with me out into the world, is "no risk and all reward". It's part of my newfound focus on recovery, on coming out of here a better person than what I came in. My earlier behavior got me here, to prison, after all. If I have one goal it is never, ever, ever come back to this place. If that means following the rules - everything from obeying the speed limit to the rules of my eventual probation - then I'm all for it. A guy just came back here for 24 months for drinking a beer following his release. I'm determined not to let that be me.

At times, in my posts, I take a "me" vs. "them" approach, playing up the differences between my outlook and reactions - such as wearing boxers to the shower at South Camp - and the reactions and beliefs of certain other inmates. Although all the examples are true, and some are even humorous (and/or troubling), by highlighting them I may be conveying the impression that I'm somehow setting myself apart or taking the attitude that I don't belong here. Really, nothing could be further from the truth. I deserve to be here just as much as any other inmate. Maybe more, considering the lack of excuses for my behavior. Compared to those here for "dealing, not stealing", I had so much yet threw it all away.

Not only do I belong here, I feel privileged to be here, right where I am. Really. Here, I'm not one of the vast majority of prisoners who is simply warehoused, to be eventually released as an unimproved (if not downright spoiled) version of his pre-incarceration self. I've been given the opportunity to move beyond the mistakes of my past, and I'm determined to take it. Only time will tell if I'm able, as I have in the past, to capitalize on the opportunities provided to me. Based on past experience, and with the beacon of my kids urging me forward toward success, I'm confident that I will come out of here a better, more capable person.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Prison Society Explained

Life on the Inside v. Life on the Outside

I sometimes describe the prison experience as like looking at life through a funhouse mirror. Attitudes and approaches that are valued on the outside - qualities such as caring, honesty, openness, empathy - are viewed on the inside not as strengths at all but as weaknesses. To be seen as tough, in control, is paramount. Rules are meant to be circumvented; prisoners and guards engage in an endless cat-and-mouse. Show feelings other than aggression, anger and attitude and you'll - as likely as not - be considered weak; fair game. 

As an example, I like to smile. At the regular camp where I resided until recently, amongst a pretty broad segment of the inmate population, this was seen as a sign of weakness, not as a sign of friendliness. Another example: a neighbor of mine at that camp, a Mexican American, befriended a black inmate. He was then, he told me, pulled aside aside by "his kind" and warned to get in line and ditch his friend or suffer the consequences. Observing official rules and ensuring that your neighbors do too is not seen as good neighborliness as on the outside but as that ultimate prison taboo: snitching. Nor is one inmate allowed to tell another inmate what to do. It's a Lord of the Flies, dog-eat-dog world where strength is prized, contraband is king and loyalty to your kind is not only expected but enforced. 

This micro-culture, this state of affairs, is expected, tolerated, even, at times encouraged for the order it brings. But why should this be so? Why should such a culture, a culture so at odds with the outside society, a culture that actively discourages reintegration and teaches all the wrong values for legitimate, law-abiding success, be the way of the prison world? As the old saying goes, felons often learn in prison how to be better felons.

I haven't been "down" long enough to completely absorb the prison values and culture. It still feels foreign to me, despite its similarities - in its love of the gray - to life in Russia; I'm just not sneaky enough or sufficiently motivated to break the rules. Do I really need a shot of hooch or a contraband phone? No, I do not. Nor do I want them. I continue to value the rules of the outside community, which sometimes sets me apart from the long-time inmate in terms of attitudes toward what's right and what's wrong. 

Me and my ilk, as a matter of fact, are placed into our very own category: self surrenders. These are inmates, typically but not solely white collar, who were granted the privilege of turning themselves into prison as opposed to being arrested, hauled off in chains, and locked up for the duration of their trials in nasty detention centers and county jails. Self surrenders, in contrast, are seen as somewhat soft, a little spoiled, unschooled in the real ways of prison.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those long-termers who have assimilated so well that they are, in effect, institutionalized: more comfortable with the rules and ways of the inside than with the laws and customs of the outside community. To me, anyway, this institutionalization seems an entirely negative phenomenon. The goal, in the end, other than that for lifers and violent felons, is to reintegrate back into society, is it not? To transition as seamlessly as possible away from the ways of this place into the means of the wide-world outside the gates. 

Which leads me to a big question and the topic of my next post: why is it that prison society in so many ways the opposite of regular society? And, if this is the case, what can be done to counteract that? Surprisingly enough, I feel that I have the answer. Or at least one of them. Because I'm living it every day here in this RDAP program. Here, a new community has been created, one I'll describe in more detail in my next post. It's a community designed with its own rules and laws to counteract the prison mentality. And surprisingly enough, it works. More or less. The statistics - on future success, on recidivism, bear this out. It requires some additional investment - there's really no warehousing here - but it seems to me the results are worth it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Monkeys at the Zoo

On Display at the Prison Safari

Our camp's jogging track passes within 15 feet of a fairly busy two-lane highway that connects two neighboring towns and the air force base. Several days ago I was walking the track when a white minivan with Oregon plates passed by, driving so slowly that it caught my attention. I looked up in surprise to see an entire family staring at me wide-eyed through the glass. The woman in the front passenger seat was pointing, and I could see her lips move, as if she were saying: "Look, there's a real live inmate!" The children in the back gaped, their noses pushed against the window. I smiled at them and waved. They looked away, embarrassed, and drove on, apparently satisfied with their brief glimpse of this exotic species on the local prison safari. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I go out almost each and every day to the far edge of camp. There, lying atop a battered mat under a huge eucalyptus tree, I practice my yoga moves as I look up at the vast blue California sky. At times I see eagles circling like gliders high above me; at other times, jet airplanes pass high overhead: both impart a sense of flight, of freedom, of possibility, a feeling opposite to that which I felt on display at the track. Lying on the mat I can forget where I am, who I am, what I am. For a fleeting second, the world, my opportunities, feel boundless. I feel, once again, as I did at the age of twenty: that I can do anything if I just set my mind to it.

Of course I know that's not possible. With age - and mistakes such as mine - comes recognition: recognition that life entails choices, that choices have consequences, that consequences can be painful and limiting. This recognition, though at times depressing, is not all bad. I've come to realize that recognizing my limitations and focusing my energies is a part of my recovery.

So how am I? I ask myself that every day. And each day I get a different answer. As an initial matter and as I've said before, I feel that I'm right where I belong. I committed crimes and am paying the consequences. While the justice does not exactly rise to the level of "poetic", it does feel right. By paying my dues I hope to be able to move on with my life. I also feel lucky to be part of this treatment program. I'm an inmate who's not just warehoused but one who's invested in. Just because I was educated and successful doesn't mean I wasn't dysfunctional. I was. In many ways, not least of which was my drug addiction. Through this program I'm learning to confront my failures and - hopefully - address them.

Unfortunately, change comes hard when you're set in your ways, an old dog like me used to doing what I please. The suffering I have caused my family is truly unforgiveable. At times thinking about the effects of my actions on my kids lays me low. I'm finding there are certain topics I can barely talk about without crying. But the suffering I have caused to myself and others also motivates me: to get out, to recover, to find my footing once again on the outside, to learn from my mistakes. To be there for my children like a good dad should. All is not lost. Not by any means.

I'm also finding that after all the years in Russia I've become more of a foreigner than I actually thought. It's not just that I'm in prison and around inmates all day. It's that I've forgotten in many ways how to relate to Americans: how to hang out and "shoot the shit," how to talk about sports and movies and TV shows, how to joke. The fact that over the past two years, following my return to the US prior to prison, I've basically isolated myself, living a solitary existence in darkened apartments, doesn't help. I now feel like a hermit just crawling out of his cave. And I have to admit that it's tough: tough to be around people all day, tough not to have privacy, tough to be part of a community not of my choosing. But it's also fulfilling in some strange way: having people always around, while not exactly a cure for loneliness, is somehow comforting.

Not that I'll miss this place when I'm done. While I'm scared for the future, of living life as a felon, I can't wait to get on with it - my life - limited as it may be in ways that it wasn't before. I dream of the halfway house, of reuniting with my kids, of the excitement of that first job, that first bus ride, that first visit to a normal restaurant, that first flight on an airplane. I even, in my dreams, try to embrace whatever new limits, new challenges I may face. Quite honestly, while I wouldn't wish the prison experience on anyone, it is an adventure, an event, from which there's nowhere to go but up.