Thursday, September 25, 2014

Blog Reactivation

For various reasons too convoluted to address at the moment, I was unable to continue with my blog for the duration of my incarceration. Over the coming months, I plan to re-activate this blog through new posts devoted to my experiences as well as the re-posting of previous posts devoted to my life behind bars that I was asked to remove. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

I'm dressed, as I write this, in my red "inmate" jumpsuit and shower shoes with a three-day stubble and a bad case of "bed head", as a fellow inmate calls my standard hairdo. I'm not a slob and keep myself clean and more-or-less presentable. But my basic attitude to fashion in prison is: Why Bother? In that, I'm in the distinct minority.

The majority of my fellow inmates spend a great deal of time gussying themselves up. They preen and iron and shine. The bathrooms are filled with inmates trimming and buffing and brushing. Many men sport tattoos and spend hours fixing their hair, washing their clothes, ironing their duds and, yes, shaving their bodies.

I'm not knocking their efforts. In fact, I admire them...sort of. Time here can be quite monotonous and monochromatic. Fashion - whether in hairstyle or clothing - is a way to express a bit of individuality, for prisoners to reclaim a piece of their lives. As for me I guess I'm realizing that I got dressed up on the outside - to the extent I did at all -for reasons other than self esteem that are completely absent on the inside: namely, to project authority, uphold social niceties and attract women. There, I've said it, admitting to the frivolous side of my nature.  

Left alone and to my own devices, I'm most happy with sweats and flip-flops. And I guess I don't feel the need to dress up for a bunch of other men.

Prison house fashion can be quite creative. The basic impediment to self expression is that from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. inmates must wear their "greens," i.e., their prison issued garb of green khakis, green shirt and black shoes. Not much room for self expression there.

Some inmates subtly circumvent these restrictions by wearing clothes that are different but similar enough not to catch the guard's attention: a pair of non-issue black boots, for example, or a camouflage hat in place of the standard green cap. There's actually quite an underground market in such goods although there's always a risk of getting singled out by a guard, as someone did yesterday for a non-standard hat. Other inmates spend hours ironing their duds on the one shared ironing board in the barracks. As for me? No surprise, but a few wrinkles really don't bother me.

At other times, we can wear what we want but the selection must come from clothes that are (or have been) for sale in the commissary, which mostly means sweats, tennis shoes, shorts, etc. Here again, creativity reigns: some people wear shorts over their sweats, others wear sweats with the legs pulled up, others wear only t-shirts no matter what the weather, some roll up their sleeves. 

The primary expression of fashion is in regard to hairstyle and facial hair. Although the standard prison hairdo is a buzz cut or a shaved head, many spend much time and money on getting their hair just right. While I have yet to go to the barber inside and plan to avoid it as long as I can, maybe even all 50 months, prisoner haircuts are widely available, for the equivalent of a dollar or two. Word of mouth swirls about which to patronize, which to avoid. Who's good at the urban thang, who will do a nice conservative comb-over. The commissary also sells a wide variety of hair creams and gels for those who want to get gussied up in the after hours.

As for me, I'll make do with my bed-head and stubble as I do my time. I admire those who keep up their dignity and morale by spending their time on fashion and appearance, but it's just not for me. I guess I'll just wait until I'm on the outside again and trying to find a job and impress the women. Until then, vive le facion!

One Month Down

I wasn't going to write today. Not only did I sleep in - until 5:45! - but I barely, managed to motivate myself to go to breakfast. It's Friday after all and I'm just plain old feeling lazy, looking forward to a weekend full of....full of what? Good question. But my big weekend plans, or lack thereof, are a subject for another post. Instead, I decided that I owed it to myself and to you, my dear readers, to force myself to sit down at the keyboard to commemorate my first full month in prison.

So if you'll indulge me in a bit of self-congratulations: One down, forty-nine to go! Yay! Almost there. Great job, Leigh! Keep it up. 

Of course, as usual, I'm being a bit ironic. Although my sentence was for the seemingly eternal amount of 50 months, with a bit of luck (including halfway house, good time and RDAP) it will hopefully work out to only about half that. It better, because that's how I keep myself sane. Nonetheless, the completion of my first month feels like an accomplishment.

Why is that? It's not like I did anything particularly special to survive the month - the passage of time is completely out of my hands, after all. But in prison, I'm finding, it's how you spend your time that matters. And also how you think about it. 

Have you ever had one of those busy, busy days where you wake up and suddenly, before you know it, it's evening and you're getting ready for bed? Or an exciting day where time just flew? Or a boring day spent lying around on the couch where the time between breakfast and lights out seemed interminable? Or an afternoon at work that felt more like an eternity?

If you have had any of those experiences you will understand where I'm coming from, because in prison you can multiply those feelings by one hundred and come up with a pretty good approximation of the passage of time behind these walls. The best way I can describe it is that time here becomes malleable. Or, as I described it on Justin Paperny's Etika LLC blog, time twists and stretches like taffy.  So what I do is keep as busy as my old mind and body permit. There's work, of course, an involuntary business spent weed wacking. But there's also reading and writing and yoga and exercise. The more I do, I find, the faster time passes.

In alcoholics anonymous you learn, as part of your recovery, to live day by day. I always sort of scoffed at that idea. I like to look out far ahead into the distance while planning and preparing for the future. I thought: what's so bad about thinking ten years ahead and saying to yourself that you'll be sober then? 

It took a trip to prison but, now, I finally understand. If I sit here today and think about spending the next X (49???) months at this place, it's liable to drive me crazy. But if I think about today, making it from morning to night, that seems eminently doable. So that's what I do. And that's how the first month passed. And you know what? It passed passed quickly. I just hope the next passes just as fast. 

And the next. 

And the next. 

And the next.

Breakout? No, Breakdown

People here tell me I'm doing good for my first month: that I seem well adjusted, happy, relatively content. And I am. Really. In my blog posts I play up the absurdity of the place a bit for dramatic effect but the reality is that, now that I've settled in, most days are relatively uneventful. Although it's most definitely not a resort, it's hard to complain about yoga every night (free) or a weekly massage (three bars of Irish Spring soap). I've even joined a group called Toast Masters to master the miserable art of public speaking for that distant day when I'm back out in the real world making big bucks by recounting my journey to the dark side.

So, you see? All in all, not so awful. I even manage to laugh once in a while at a bad prison-house joke (usually related to farting, women, the food or the general absurdity of the place). I'll devote another post sometime to the lamer jokes we laugh at here on the inside.

But to say that it's been smooth sailing from start to finish would be an overstatement. There are, truth be told, a few things that get me down, so down that I feel I might momentarily lose it. At the top of the list is any reminder of my children. We had what you might call an untypical relationship with our daily Skype sessions and periodic full-immersion visits. But we managed to make it work. That's obviously all gone now and I miss them terribly. I try to control my thoughts because if I let my mind drift to them then....breakdown! The tears well up and I need to find a door to hide behind.

Other breakdown issues include:
- my sentence (day-by-day is the only way to go. If I think forward to 50 months from now I just can't deal);
- my dog (I miss Sorbet!)
- my old apartment
- my family, including my sister, my mother, my father, my grandparents

Of course I miss other things but those are really the only issues (at least that I can think of at the moment) that threaten to set me off in a truly depressive way. I felt similar on my various forays abroad so the feeling is not new: call it a vague, painful homesickness. 

Truth be told, it's generally advisable not to let your emotions show too much while in prison: emotions are a sign of weakness and if there's a cardinal rule to successfully doing time it's to show no weakness. Weakness, in this place, makes you vulnerable.

The strange thing is that we're all of us here in the same boat. Every single one of us miss loved ones on the outside. Of course, the emotions are stronger in the beginning but there's just not getting used to the separation. A few people have opened up to me to say that in the first few months they broke down all the time: weekly if not daily if not hourly. 

Yet we all try to hide our feelings, pretend that all is fine. If you look around this place at any given time, you'd swear that all the men just love to be here and really don't miss anyone on the outside. But us guys: we're generally good at masking our emotions. In this place you have to take the tough-guy exteriors with a grain of salt. And of course in here, where emotions are a liability, that's more true than anywhere. My advice to any future con: keep your chin up, carry on (it's really not that bad) and soldier through.

There's no shame in crying, but here on the inside it's best to hide it away.

The Early Bird Gets the...

Good morning dear readers. It's 6 a.m. and the camp is slowly coming to life: the fluorescent banks of lights above our bunks have flashed on to groans and grunts, the e-mail computers have whirred to life, the door to the bathroom is banging open and shut as prisoners with bed-head traipse to the toilets, and the food truck has parked out behind the chow hall, ready to disgorge its load of yellow slop (corn grits to you Southerners out there). I'm now sitting at the computer next to a fellow inmate with hiccups and a case of the burps (no doubt from the grits) who enunciates each word out loud as he types it

As for me, the day began long ago, at 4:15 to be precise. There have been days, I'm sorry to report, where this was an involuntary occurrence, a result of the hard mattress, loud snores and sore joints. But today and most days before that this minor act of self torture has been entirely voluntary.

Now, I'm not bragging (ok, maybe a little), but those who know me well will be amazed at my newfound early-birdishness. Left to my own devices, I'd probably sleep until 11 and go to bed after midnight. But per my plan, I left my own devices behind me at the prison gates, determined to turn over a new leaf in my effort to be a happy, productive citizen behind these gates. One part of that plan was (and is) to get up early, not only to enjoy a bit of solitude before the masses raise their messy heads, but to get in a bit of writing and thinking and yoga. A bit of me time, as the baby-boomers say. A bit of time without people like the distracting, mumbling prisoner to my right.

Last week I fell off my schedule a bit. The weed whacking was getting me down and tiring me out and my 4:30 alarm was coming way to soon. So I slept in for a few days only to be awakened with a rude jolt by the guard flipping the switch at 6:15 to the blinding banks of lights above our heads. Not only was this not my preferred way to start the day but I found that I really missed my little dose of solitude.

There's something magical about those dark, early morning hours, when I'm alone with my thoughts and writing in my notebook. Out of the entire day, this is when I truly feel free, when I'm able to forget for a short time where I am. I may be living in my head but, to me, it feels as if I'm soaring beyond these walls. Without it, I feel as if I'm constantly surrounded by people, like Tom Hanks's character stuck in the airport for months.

There's a long-term prisoner here who I really admire, a man by the name of Gary (I've changed his name) who has been here for years and, in the process, transformed himself into a yoga- and zen-master. Not only can he stand on his head for hours at a time but he rises regularly at 3:30 a.m. to meditate in his bunk for 2 hours before count. During this time, he says, he feels free. As you can see, I'm not the only one: maybe it's just that the two of us are crazy, but I actually think we've hit on something here, a method to keep sane and happy amidst the tumult of our overcrowded, raucous day.

Although I don't want to peer too far into my crystal ball, it'll be interesting to see if I manage to stick to this schedule not only for the duration of my stay but out in the real world as well. But in any event, here's a toast to all you early-birds out there. After years of resistance, I now realize what I've been missing.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Camp Cupcake (Part 2)

Happy Monday everyone! I'm having one of those don't-feel-like-doing-much-of-anything days - maybe because it's still only 6 a.m. and foggy, maybe because I'm not looking forward to weed whacking, maybe because it's Monday - so this post will be short. As promised Friday, I'll just wrap up my description of the camp and its surroundings before returning tomorrow to more profound thoughts.

I think I've already mentioned the more pleasant aspects of the camp: that it's located near the ocean (although we can't see it from here), that it's on a high bluff with views of a valley and distant mountains, that there's a big open territory where we can walk and lay in the grass. The more unpleasant aspects include the view to the North (of our higher security neighbors), the poorly made tumble-down green buildings, the cramped barracks where they warehouse us, the attitudes of the guards.

The history of the camp is actually pretty interesting. Back in the day (the 70s and early 80s) the territory where the camp is located was actually the golf course and swimming pool area for a true Club Fed: a minimum security white collar prison located where the higher security prison is now with the reputation of being more like a resort. Back in the day, it held such prominent felons as Ivan Boesky and was famous for serving steak and seafood for dinner and letting its inmates order out. But with Reagan's get tough on crime policies the cushy place was closed and replaced with high-security facilities for the truly violent. About 10 years back, the camp where I am now was reopened as a shadow of itself on a corner of its former territory.

The territory itself is pretty large but there are a lot of inmates housed here so it always seems like there are people out and about. I'm a private person who likes solitude so I often find myself searching out nooks and crannies where I can be alone, at least for a few minutes. As with much of cheapskate government construction in California (think elementary schools) the buildings themselves are low and poorly made, built as temporary structures, the kind that wouldn't survive one winter in a Northern state (or an earthquake, for that matter). They are scattered randomly throughout the territory. 

My favorite building in the morning is the chapel. It has a bunch of small, private rooms where people go to pray or play guitar or (in my case) write. It's also the most well-constructed of all the buildings so sitting there you almost feel like you're in a normal office building somewhere. It also has a toilet with a real-live lock though so it's hard to relax while you do your business.

Next in line is the law library, a short, squat building next to the chow hall where we eat our meals. It is filled with books and computers for e-mailing. It is much busier and louder than the chapel but I often write here in the afternoon. Then there's the visitors center, a pretty, cafeteria-like building set amidst the flowers and trees. I haven't yet had any visitors so can't report on the building from the inside, but one inmate has made it his personal project to fix up the grounds that surround it so that the whole area now looks nice and inviting. Finally, there are various open "outdoor" buildings: a lean-to filled with televisions where inmates sit in the evening, the commissary where, once-per-week we buy our stuff, banks of wooden telephone booths.

And then there are the grounds themselves. Only portions are surrounded by fences and there aren't any real gates or barbed wire. During open hours we can walk about and that's pretty much what we do. Yours truly is up to about 5 miles of speed-walking per day, a good way to kill time and keep in shape. Various activities are interspersed: there's a weight pile and exercise equipment, a volleyball court, a Bocci-ball court (haven't tried that one yet), a baseball field. Personally, I like the far end of the track because from there you can gaze out across the valley and toward the mountains and almost feel free. I often stand here looking out at the vista, forgetting, if only for a moment, where I really am.

I would imagine that many of my readers will think that, based upon this description, it's not all that bad. And that's pretty much true: it could most definitely be worse. But for me, it's not so much about my surroundings but about all the psychological aspects: the demeaning atmosphere, the counts, the restrictions, the lack of freedom, being separated from my family.

Of course it's nice to have some trees and the ability to walk around but in the end that's all only some strange sort of quasi-freedom, not the real thing. What keeps me going is delving into my mind, living in my head, meeting people, and keeping busy. So it's not really about the grounds or the buildings or anything like that, but something more ephemeral....hope maybe.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Ad absurdem

Tuesday evening a short message appeared on the prison bulletin board: normal operations were to be suspended the following day and the prisoners locked down in their barracks the entire day. The reason? Bring your child to work day. Yes, that's right. Staff would be bringing their children to work and so the prisoners had to be locked down and hidden from view. 

I have nothing against the practice of bringing children to work. In fact, I think it's a wonderful tradition. I've done it myself in the past and took pride in showing my children the exciting life of a corporate lawyer (they were most excited about the vending machine down the hall). But if I worked in a prison I think I might think twice. You can hide the prisoners away but you can't hide the reality of what this place is: a warehouse for wrongdoers. I'd be worried that this reality might be a little too "real" for young children.

This incident got me to thinking about the larger absurdity of prison life. I've heard a number of prisoners joke that you have to leave your common sense at the gates when you self surrender. They might have something there. "Go figure," is one of the most common expressions.

For example, why do we have to stand for some counts and sit/sleep for others? Why do we have to wear certain clothes until 3 p.m. and other clothes after? Why does it take over a year to get an appointment with the dentist for a teeth cleaning? Go figure.

I'm not complaining. These are all issues I expected coming in: in prison we live inside the walls of a government bureaucracy, after all. Bureaucracies are not typically known for their efficiency and common sense. And as prisoners, we're not in a position to do anything about anything at all. 

But I suppose it still is worth considering in my spare time, before time takes its toll and the absurd becomes the ordinary. I already feel that happening, in fact, as I adjust to the realities of life behind bars just as Alice adjusted to the strange life behind the looking glass.

I suppose that's both a good thing - no sense in vainly flailing, like Don Quixote, against the system. But it could also be a bad thing: the more I adjust to this twilight zone the more difficult it will be to readjust to life on the outside. Some long-timers so completely adjust to this "reality" that they are unable to function on the outside. I suppose only time will tell if the absurdity around me eventually wears off and makes me absurd as well.