Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Entertaining the Troops

What Not to Say in Prison

Some may be surprised to learn that we have an occasional assembly here at camp, an event during which prisoners and officials briefly address the 'population' with various proscribed items of interest, everything from upcoming holidays to commissary hours. A few select inmates are randomly selected to speak on narrowly defined topics, including weather, local news and prison news. I was selected to participate for the first time this week. My topic? Entertainment.

Enthused by my opportunity to practice public speaking and enlighten the population, I dove into the Week in Review section of the New Yorker magazine. There I found various interesting entries, including a concert by the Grateful Dead's first lyricist and a summer classical concert series that had developed into a surprise hit. I wrote these down and practiced my presentation. 

The night before I was to give my address, long after I had my little speech down pat, a fellow inmate rushed up to me and asked to see my list, telling me that it would have to be approved (read "censored") by the various powers that be. I  gave him my notes, which he took with him to a review committee. Several hours later he came back to tell me that all my proposals had been rejected.

Why? Too obscure, uninteresting to the target population and generally unacceptable.

Still undaunted but now a bit more cognizant of the audience, I next turned to the entertainment section of USA Today. There on the front page I came across four interesting items. The first was a piece on a new PBS nature documentary called Sex in the Wild, about how wild animals procreate. The second was about how ABC, after years of lily-white prime-time programming, has rededicated its current lineup to diversity, including with a new show called "How to Commit Murder." The third piece was an announcement by Marvel Comics that Thor would henceforth undergo a sex change and become a woman. The fourth was about Willie Nelson's new album, his first in 15 years.

I wrote these down and turned them in. I expected some resistance to the news about Thor but thought the others would be approved. Who could object to a straight piece on PBS, after all? Soon enough the results came back: all my proposals but the Thor announcement had been rejected. The nature documentary was rejected because any mention of sex is prohibited. The programming announcement was rejected because the news could incite ratial divisions. And the Willie Nelson item was rejected because Willie Nelson represents anti-social elements in the population. 

At this point, I felt like giving up but determined to give it one last try. Before I could do so, however, my contact came back with a pre-approved list of announcements, together with a very strong recommendation that I agree to them. The first: an announcement that milkshakes are America's most popular cold takeout (most popular flavor: chocolate). The second: that some apparently famous guy by the name of Adam Levine was marrying some supposedly beautiful Victoria's Secret Model. And the third, in a fit of compromise: approval of my Willie Nelson proposal, so long as I made no mention of touring (anti-social behavior) or his age (age discrimination). Finally, I was informed that the Thor announcement was rejected after all.

So there you have it: the latest entertainment in prison.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kale in the Kitchen

Where's Our Corn?

This morning when I arrived at work in the kitchen I was in for a surprise. The usual processed fair - canned spinach and corn, frozen collard greens - had disappeared, only to be magically replaced with homegrown cucumbers and fresh kale. Yep, you heard me right: fresh kale, the super food, the trendy food, the super-trendy food. Apparently now it's not only hipsters in Williamsburg who can enjoy the stuff but inmates in federal prison.

It's funny to say, but I guess I had to come to prison to join in the trend: I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd never had the stuff before coming to this place. And I'm not exactly sure what the fact of its appearance here says about the trend itself. Is the kale trend dead? My guess is that prison is pretty much the end of the road for most hipster trends. Hipsters, apparently it's time to focus on toast, the new "it" food according to a recent NPR broadcast.

I ate a bunch of stuff and can truthfully say I liked it, although "love" would be stretching the point. Kale reminds me pretty much of spinach, maybe a little tastier. We didn't really do anything special with it either, although it came out pretty yummy: we chopped it up together with some carrots, lettuce and the garden cucumbers and served it as a salad. I'd be interested to hear from readers how kale is served in the more imaginative restaurants.

I guess you could say I would be fibbing if I were to write that the kale was an unambiguous hit here in prison. Many passed up on the opportunity to partake in this latest trend. A few were overtly skeptical. "What is this s---?" one of them asked me. Another asked if he could have canned corn instead (answer: no). But an inmate or two did give it a try - with a liberal dose of dressing - and there may have even been a few converts. I suppose that's how a trend begins: one person at a time. Even here in prison.

I would be surprised to see kale again tomorrow in the kitchen. How the food arrives at the back door of the kitchen and who selects what food actually makes its way to our doors is pretty much a mystery to all of us kitchen workers. Maybe it's a new initiative from on high in D.C. - the trickle down of Michelle Obama's healthy school lunch crusade. Or maybe it's just a wild fluke, the mistaken diversion of a kale delivery from Santa Monica to Lompoc. My guess is that it's a random, one-off occurrence, akin to a full solar eclipse.

In any event, I'm not complaining. It's fun for once to be on the cutting edge of a trend. Three cheers for kale!

C-O Blues

In Trouble in the A.M.

Friday I awoke at 4 a.m. as usual to get ready for work. Although I'm still finding my rhythm, this typically consists of stumbling past rows of bunks filled with sleeping, snoring neighbors to the bathroom, where I splash my face with water and brush my teeth, all the while avoiding the half-crazy stare of the bleary eyes in the mirror. Having completed those minor tasks I then wait at my bunk: the start of the work day is governed not by a particular time but by when the guards complete their morning count. This consists of two officers, or CO's, in prison parlance, walking past the bunks with flashlights as they count the inmates.  Count happens at random times somewhere between 4:15 and 4:45.

As I sat waiting for count I remembered a little rule I'd been taught: to put my shoes atop a piece of newspaper on my locker every Friday so that the orderlies could properly clean my "neighborhood". I didn't have any newspaper so went searching for some in a small room a few rows back that contains the barracks' ice machine, garbage cans and microwave. When I emerged, I saw by the dance of flashlights in the distance that count had started. I walked back to my bunk and stood at attention, anxious for the CO's to pass so that I could get to work.

The guards completed their count and I was just leaving my neighborhood for the door when one of the guards passed me. He stopped some rows back from mine and began to yell at another inmate, a wonderful colleague and friend of mine who was also preparing for work. I couldn't hear what the guard was saying other than that he was mad and ended by repeating "shut up" over and over. I waited for my colleague out of solidarity, so that we could walk to work together to explain to our boss why we were late.

As I stood there, another inmate ran up to me to tell me that my colleague was getting yelled at for what I had done: entering the back room. Apparently the guard considered this a serious breach of protocol and blamed the inmate with the bad luck to be standing closest to the door.

My heart dropped. As I've written before, prison is not a democracy. Far from it. Every inmate dreads a confrontation with a guard and the serious consequences that can follow. Yet this was even worse: someone else was being blamed for my actions. I immediately knew that I needed to take responsibility. I have many faults but shirking blame is not one of them. I asked the inmate what to do and he suggested I go talk with the guard and admit my guilt.

So this is what I did. I'm a pretty low-key, diplomatic person and apologized profusely. The guard lectured me about how CO's are always right and inmates are always wrong. He also told me that that room was off limits in the morning and told me that I was forbidden to take a shower or wash my face in the bathroom. But in the end he accepted my apology. Unfortunately, by then the issue had ballooned and the problem was no longer my "transgression" but my colleague's attitude problem.

To cut a long story short, all was eventually resolved and we both made it to work, about 40 minutes late. Later that day, however, it turned out that rumors were circulating that I had known from the start that my colleague was being blamed for my actions and failed to come forward. In prison, this could be a serious breach of protocol and lead to long-running, dangerous animosities. It also happened to be untrue. So I've spent the last two days apologizing to my colleague - who, to his credit, did not blame me and immediately accepted my explanation - and explaining what happened to others. Finally, the scandal now seems to have passed. But it's an interesting lesson in how little things can quickly blow up to big ones in prison. And a useful reminder about who holds the power.

Be Careful What You Wish For

From Cutting Grass to Cutting Onions

Faithful readers may recall a few wimpy complaints in past posts about my job weed whacking at the nearby air force base. But now I'm wondering what all the fuss was about as I reminisce about the benefits: plenty of fresh air, views of trees and fields, contact with civilians. It seems I've forgotten the brutal work, the flying rocks, the relentless sun. You see, I happened to have received just what I wished for: a change of jobs. Not that I had any role in selecting the new job that would be assigned to me through some mysterious process. Little did I know that the new job would be much more difficult. 

Now, instead of boarding a bus at the late, late hour of 7:15, following a leisurely breakfast of grits and chicory coffee in the chow hall, I'm the one slaving away in the hot kitchen preparing those very grits and coffee. For the privilege of feeding my fellow prisoners, I now wake up at 4 a.m. to be at work by 4:15. 
Despite inmate complaints - hot dogs again!, the coffee's cold!, enough beans already! - food really makes this place go round. In a place of many rules and rituals, it's one of the highlights of the day. Meals follow count and are awaited with great anticipation. Although they're typically rushed (we workers want to get everyone in and out as quickly as possible) it's a chance, just like on the outside, to catch up with friends. Which makes this job important, one of the few truly important jobs where "make work" is the typical approach (and its inevitable result: "pretend to work").

I'm embarrassed to admit that I may have been one of those complaining inmates before my little job switch. Ok, maybe the food is institutional and not exactly made up of the highest quality ingredients. For example, today I read the ingredients list for the American cheese and was surprised to learn that it contains no milk. Apparently, palm oil takes the place of dairy in our dairy food. And most of what we serve comes straight out of boxes. But I've come to see that an incredible amount of work goes into churning out those under-appreciated meals. That and, surprisingly enough, some love and dedication. Some of my colleagues put incredible effort into their jobs, going above and beyond the call of duty each day.

As for me, I guess you could say I'm still adjusting, stuck on the hard work part of it as opposed to the love and dedication. Cooking for so many hundreds is an incredible grind, busy and stressful. Today, for example, I spent hours feeding onions into a shredder - my eyes still hurt.  It's not that I'm lazy or mind a good onion cry. Rather, it feels like strange, full-circle deja vu. My very first job in high school was serving food to patients in the local hospital...and cleaning trays when they were through. This new experience is almost identical, yet much earlier (at the hospital, I worked the dinner service after school) and much more stressful.

In addition, working in a prison kitchen carries with it some unique aspects. For example, the knives are carefully guarded by our guard in residence, who watches over us with an eagle eye. As are the rags. As is the food. The knives, perhaps unsurprisingly, are in fact locked to large metal rods with huge padlocks. More troubling, soap is also in short supply as is training on hygiene. You get the idea.

But I have a tendency to complain when presented with new challenges. Check back in a month or so and I'll let you know how it's going. Given how it's been going so far, I suspect I'll be reminiscing about the joys of the kitchen as I adjust to my new job....at the wastewater treatment plant down the road.

Guest Post: Cinnamon

A Fellow Inmate Describes His Experience with Prison

Note to Readers: As I've mentioned in previous posts, several fellow inmates here at camp have volunteered to share their stories on this blog. I'm proud to present the first post in what I hope is a continuing series, an eloquent piece from a fellow inmate who decided to contribute under the pseudonym "Cinnamon", or "C". I consider C a true friend: he not only reached out to me on my very first day but has been a source of support and guidance ever since. C tells me he can trust me and feels comfortable speaking with me, so I hope the feeling is mutual. In any event, C tells his story better and more eloquently than I ever could, so without further ado:

The pants were not that tight. I noticed they fit a bit snugly around the mid-section of my buttocks but nothing too extreme. If only they could have seen me a week earlier in my perfectly fitted Uniqlo jeans. But I was quickly coming to realize that my world was changing, as was the cut of my jeans.

I had just picked up my new pants from the prison laundry. I was quite happy to have them because they were a welcome change from the size 44 I had been handed by laundry upon arrival at prison. My first experience with laundry involved me, a tall, thin, lanky guy with a size 33 waist arguing with a 400 pound long-termer with a degrading and condescending communication style who stood between me and my clothes. After some degrading banter about size and other things, I accepted the size 44 and used a canvas cloth belt to hold them up for the next couple of days. Even this I considered a vast improvement, as just 8 hours earlier I had been standing naked at prison check in while being ordered to "lift my junk". I was then placed in a holding cell clothed in a huge jump suit with the letters "FEDERAL INMATE" emblazoned on the back.

After several days of sporting the huge pants, which bunched up around my waist and felt like a parachute, I was determined to get into a pair with a waist at least a tiny bit closer to my actual size. I went back to laundry and made my case. Apparently, my pleading was successful as, a few days later, they handed me a new pair. As I put them on I noted they were a bit too small, but after my previous experience I decided small was preferable to big. Over the past year my fashion sense had also improved as a result of my new community, which had much more fashion sense than the one I had existed in for the previous 30 years. Based upon my newfound knowledge, tighter was definitely better.

So here I was walking down the long barracks that I now called home. The barracks is about 34 years old and houses 168 inmates, who share 5 showers, 3 urinals and 3 washing machines. Lines, waiting and irritation are a part of my new life. We are all in here for some supposed crime ranging from mail fraud to theft to drug dealing, although most of us took plea deals and never tried our case. Very few dare to risk a loss in trial given the huge sentencing disparities that could result.

As I walked down the aisle, I heard chuckles from somewhere behind me. As I approached my bunk area, a guy in my neighborhood said to me: "If you are propositioning and you have sugar in your tank than things can be arranged." He added: "Those pants are too tight and if you were in the Low Security prison across the street there would be a line of guys ready to take you up on your offer." 

Oh my! Was he talking to me? I'd never heard the term "sugar in your tank" before. Could it mean what I suspected it did? My intentions were to keep things a secret, mind my own business and discuss nothing personal. Prison is run by a set of subdued rules governed by your ethnicity or race, or, in prison terms, your "car". You are surrounded by alpha dogs and it is a difficult place to find friends. I wondered how a guy like me would ever be accepted.

You see, only a few days earlier my boyfriend of one year - yes, my boyfriend, who I'll call "B" here for the sake of this post - had dropped me off at prison. We made so many promises to each other to make it through this "speed bump". B promised to care for my kids and my ex-wife, whom I still love very much. She is the most amazing person on earth and possesses all the wonderful things that people esteem in a woman, my best friend and the only woman I will ever marry or love romantically. Because she is so amazing I realized she deserved the truth. And going through an indictment and being sentenced turned out, strangely enough, to be the ideal time to come clean with her, to shed all facades and to be honest about who I am, who I've always been. After 17 years it was time to come out!
B and I met only two months after I moved out. I love him and he's supportive of my past. B loves my ex and my kids and has been caring for them while I'm away. We are willing to wait for each other - despite this detour - so that we can pursue a future, a future that I have dreamed of for many, many years. Ironically, less than 10 months after meeting, I was sentenced to this camp and we were separated for the duration of my stay.

The day of check in was supposed to be quick and I was supposed to be tough. Early that morning B and I woke up at a hotel in Los Angeles and drove to Lompoc. I was feeling sad but strong. As we approached the prison grounds my heart sank. The vast expanse of barren earth is divided into three different prisons, all with different security levels: the Camp, the Low and the Medium. I wasn't sure which one I would be serving my time in. As we approached the site, it was the medium that first caught my eye. The medium is a penitentiary and is about 60 years old. It looks rough, is made of concrete with small windows, a double fence and forbidding guard towers. Looking at it, I was quite sure that Satan - or his little brother - must live behind its walls. 

This seemed far too harsh a place for a lowly retail bank employee like me. I mean, the loans that were my eventual undoing, 7 in all, were funded way back in 2006 under loose income parameters implemented much higher up in the food chain than my position. I simply submitted them electronically based upon the stated parameters for approval somewhere way up the chain. Eight years later I was taking the fall. No one higher up in the echelons of the vast bank was ever prosecuted. How could I be headed to a prison that looked like the house of Lucifer?

Then I saw the Low. It was sinister but somewhat less so. There were no guard towers and there were fewer rows of barbed wire. Still scary but less intimidating. As I walked up to the front gate, a prison van pulled up and out came 11 guys shackled tightly together, shuffling through the dust. Terrible sadness filled me, combined with fear and dread. I made it through the front door, where a very unfriendly guard ordered me back to the Medium. What?? The house of Satan? 

My heart sank. I ran quickly out, hopped in the car, and told B to get me out of there. I needed more time. We turned around and left. After driving some distance up the street I decided that running was not the answer. We pulled over and both got out. I walked over to B and wrapped my big arms around him and cried, a deep, painful, soul-wrenching cry. I was no longer strong. My day had come and I was at what is often called rock bottom.

After we both cried, we reviewed our promises, wishes and hopes for the future. I mustered up a bit of strength and told B I was ready. We drove straight to the receiving mouth of my new hell. It was quick. We approached the gate and called the guard tower on the speaker. The metallic, unfriendly voice ordered us to drive to the front, where I got out and B drove away. I watched with tears in my eyes as my beautiful love drove off, receding into the distance. Just before he turned the corner he honked his last good bye, the plaintive sound a call to me to be strong.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

All Questions Great and Small

Just to Prove that I Haven't Lost My Sense of Humor...

To wrap up yet another wonderful week I decided to do again what I did last week: post on various thoughts and questions as opposed to filling your screen with paragraphs of text. So, join me as I ponder various questions and hypothetical's, both momentous and mundane.

Exciting News: I received an appointment reminder from the dentist at mail call. My appointment? 54 weeks from today.

Favorite Way of Killing Time: Yoga (although I suppose the words "yoga" and "killing" should not be used in the same sentence).

Quote of the Week: Thou Art That  (Just don't ask me what it means. I'm still trying to figure that out.)

Fun Moment: I was on the phone yesterday with my daughter. When she first got on, the connection was bad and I mistook her for her brother. So the whole time we pretended that it was actually him on the phone. The result was some atypical empathy as she tried to put herself into his shoes, as in: "I'm mad at my sister because she pushed me and grabbed my computer."

If I Were the Warden: I would adopt one little aspect of good corporate culture and introduce casual Fridays at the prison camp. Gotta start somewhere, after all.

Sad Moment: Watching fathers taking their kids to the swimming pool at the airforce base as I whacked weeds across the street. I wanted more than anything else for one of those fathers to be me!

Big Disappointment: Another weekend with no visitors.

Little Question: Are the urinals in the bathroom a free-fart zone where normal social niceties do not apply? Just wondering.

Big question: Is the primary purpose of prison rehabilitation or retribution? You can bet I have my opinions on that, opinions that could very well diverge wildly from the reality I see around me.

Small Decision: not to cut my hair for the duration of my stay. Yikes! There's actually a charity that takes donations prisoners' locks. Not sure what they do with them though....

Last Remaining Addiction: Diet Coke

Unpleasant Discovery: Although I can read dense legal documents, philosophy texts leave my head spinning.

Lesson of the Week: Prison is a constant game of cat and mouse. Just when life seems relatively easy, the silly games begin.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Learning the Art of Self-Censorship

Freedom from Free Speech

Something happened yesterday I really want to tell you about. Really. It was abasing and humiliating while at the same time troubling and interesting. It was an incident - or, rather, a series of them - that made for a miserable day but would make for a compelling blog post. Now that I've whet your appetite it's time to let you down gently: I'm very sorry, but I can't - or should I say won't? - go there. Why, you may ask, have I suddenly tucked my tail? Me, your intrepid chronicler of life behind bars? Read on and you shall learn.

Back when I lived in Russia in the early years of Putin's reign I used to take a holier than thou attitude when it came to journalists and the press. I knew some of them from my journalistic days and always gave them an earful. Why are you such cowards, refusing to report what's really happening based upon some vague threat of a crackdown? Stand up, speak up, I used to say, in imitation of Bob Marley. A few brave souls did, with incresingly tragic results: prison, exile, even death. As time went on, more and more writers began to toe the line until only a few incredibly brave men and women remained, some of them forced, like Masha Gessen, to write from exile. 

By the time I fled Russia I fully understood the insidious power of self censorship. But I never really thought I'd experience such repression for myself. Or succumb to self censorship. And then, suddenly, I did understand and I did succumb - right here in the United States of all places. And I'll bet you can guess where.

A popular saying amongst the more enlightened prisoners is that you check your rights at the door when you enter this place. I guess you could say that I'm learning this lesson through some firsthand experience. The sad truth is that in prison you have no right to write, no right to communicate with the outside world, no right to tell it as you see it. Rights are not rights around here, but privileges. And privileges can be easily taken away. Just like in Russia, the vague, unclear rules give vast authority to the powers that be to interpret regulations as they see fit. The result is a writer - me - who feels compelled to self censor.

Maybe this is all as it should be. I'm torn on the issue but would like to see a real debate. What rights should prisoners enjoy in a modern, progressive society? Should they enjoy freedom of speech (with certain clearly defined limits)? Should they have the right to communicate as they wish with the outside world? To publish their thoughts from behind bars? Or does their criminality preclude this, make them ineligible while incarcerated to enjoy basic constitutional rights? Are our prisons little islands of censorship (and, self censorship) in our flawed sea of democracy?

In any event, in my own self-interested, craven case, I'm learning to practice the art of self censorship. I'm finding that, just like most Russian journalists, the same journalists I used to consider cowards, when it comes right down to it, I'll side with self preservation over free speech almost every time. I don't want to go to the hole, I don't want to become the focus of undue attention, I don't want to risk anything that might lengthen my stay. I owe that much to my family. I'd like to think that this is my only rational choice. But if I'm being perfectly honest, it's also a cowardly one.