Friday, September 12, 2014

Russia, do I Miss You?

Let Me Count The Ways...

I've been teaching Russian to a fellow inmate, a big, burly, lumberjack of a guy with a thick brown beard whom I'll call Paul. We've started, fittingly enough, with that most important category - swearwords - so the experience has been as useful for him as for me, dredging up as it has certain long-dormant words that were at one time crucial to my survival in rough-and-tumble Moscow. 
More seriously, it's been interesting for me to view Russia through Paul's deluded eyes. You see, Paul plans to move to Russia the second after he's released from prison and the travel strictures of probation. He views Russia as a magical place free of America's more onerous societal and social mores. He dreams of overindulging in vodka. Of ogling pretty young women without worry of a feminist backlash. Of freedom from onerous taxation and pervasive surveillance. Of being able to think and act in a decidedly non-PC way. In short, of being able to cavort and drink and swear and act in a Don-Draper-goes-international manner in which middle-age Americans have long ceased to indulge. Unsatisfied and disillusioned with the US and what he thinks he's learned (as an inmate) of its very flawed democracy, he's latched onto an even more flawed kleptocracy as the answer to his prayers.

The experience is interesting for me because Paul's view, with its focus on freedoms, is the opposite of how I've long thought of Russia. It's just been such a long time that I've heard the word "Russia" associated with the words "free" and "freedom" that it got me to thinking whether I ever thought the same. Upon reflection, I realized that, once upon a time, way back when I first moved to the place in 1995, I did, although my markers were different: not the ability to drink or stay up all night but the transformation of a totalitarian system into what I thought was a new burgeoning democracy. I saw a Russia transforming before my very eyes, a Russia becoming (or so I thought) free and democratic. 
How depressingly wrong I was. In terms of freedom and development and openness and optimism so much has since changed for the worse. Not that Paul accepts my protestations: he's made up his mind that in Russia he'll be free to do as he pleases. And maybe he will, if what he pleases is to drink vodka all night. Just goes to show, I suppose, that one man's idea of heaven can be another man's idea of hell. 

As those of you who know me know, by the time I fled Moscow at the tip of the oligarch's sword those several years ago, I was incredibly disillusioned with the place. Burned out. Fed up. Admiration had long since turned to hatred: for the more sordid aspects of the culture, for what I saw as a harsh indifference to equality and democracy, freedom and enlightenment, as a result of my experiences working with its corrupt and crude elite, its billionaire oligarchs. The collective ideal still held by the majority, the big-brother-in-the-Kremlin-knows-best mentality, the stuck-in-the-peasantry attitudes toward gender and child-rearing and politics, the barely hidden xenophobia and racism, all of those things had soured me on Russia, despite my near-assimilation and the country's rich and deep culture. While I loved many Russians, I really had come to hate their country. Since then, it's only gotten worse, with Putin's ascendency to near Stalin-like power and near-Stalin like demeanor.
So despite the awful circumstances of my departure, and my fervent wish to be wherever my family happens to be (which for much of the past three years was Russia), my overwhelming feeling for these past years was: good bye and good riddance. But you know what? I do, in my own way, miss the place. Not enough to go back. Or to wish I could recreate the mistaken bourgeoisie life that I so crudely shredded with my theft. But the fact is, Russia was a major part of my life for many years - a domineering parent, an overbearing friend, a dysfunctional spouse - but a major part nonetheless. 

As I sit here, images of my lost life - what I do miss - flash through my mind: of our "dvor", or courtyard, where my kids and I spent countless hours playing on the slide and the swings; of my first new car ever, a tiny green Czech Skoda that strained to reach 50 mph; of skating with Vanya and Teo on a frigid winter afternoon on the frozen pond at Chistye Prudy, taking breaks for swigs of hot chocolate from a thermos; of evenings at the kitchen table with friends and family, eating sushi and sipping Georgian wine; of our apartment and khachapuri and traffic jams and bums and weddings. In short, of life. Russia was my life. For a long time. And the jarring, violent way that it was torn from me, like a jilted lover from my arms, still stings. Russia, for me, has come to represent everything I have lost.

I don't expect to go back. Ever. Nor do I really want to. My family, thank God, is no longer there and, unlike Paul, who in his disillusionment with the US has
latched onto a distant shangri la that is little more than a mirage, I don't idealize the place. Despite my tepid nostalgia, the bad in my mind still far outweighs the good. For me, after all my travels, the US is good enough for me, even if my version of the US happens for the moment to be a prison. The fact is, I've seen worse. So unlike Paul, and many other prisoners, who've essentially been disenfranchised from the system and view their country and government with disillusion, if not derision, I've finally realized where I belong. And, sad to say, it's not Russia, that failed kleptocracy across the sea. So until someone convinces me otherwise, I guess I'll go on disliking the values and beliefs propounded by Putin and his ilk.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Blaming the Mailman...

...For Bad Financial News

Most evenings I anxiously await mail call in the hope that I'll receive a letter from friends or family. Barring that, I'll settle for the latest issue of New Yorker or Vanity Fair, the two magazines I subscribe to. This week, however, the mailman has been the bearer of little but bad news. Bad financial news, to be exact. It's not, to be sure, that I was expecting good financial news: haven't had much of that in quite some time. But this news truly takes the cake. 

On Monday, I received a notice from the IRS that I owe an additional $20,000 in back taxes. In my previous life, even before I stole money from the oligarch, this would have been little more than a pittance, a mild nuisance to be cured by sending a check the next day. Not any more. In my current situation, $20,000 might as well be $20 million. Both are equally out of reach.

Then on Wednesday, just as I was recovering from the shock of the IRS bill, I received a notice from the Justice Department. This notice was formatted the same as a typical bill, just like the one you might get from the gas or phone company. We've all seen them: a sheet of paper with a perforated section at the bottom to be detached and enclosed in the provided envelope together with a check for the requested amount. Even the language was the same: please pay this amount in full immediately, and in any event not later than the indicated date. The only thing that set it apart from the typical utility bill was the amount. Instead of the usual gas or electricity bill of $50 or $80 or maybe even $100 in a particularly bad month, this bill was in the amount of $1,416,360.85.

I couldn't help but laugh. Then cry.

First, I should state right up front that no, this is not a typo; no misplaced comma or period here (unfortunately). This is the amount I owe in restitution, the difference between what I stole from the oligarch and what I returned to him; the amount our considerate federal government intends to collect from me over time and return to that billionaire Russian, sanctions notwithstanding. So the amount itself - though large and depressing - was not a surprise. I fully expected to have this humongous debt, this constant reminder of my crimes, hanging over me for the foreseeable future (if not the rest of my life). 

What surprised me was the unequivocal nature of the request itself: please pay NOW! As if I have that amount sitting in my bank account. As if the government doesn't already know of my dire financial straits. As if a repayment plan hasn't already been arranged. While in prison, I pay $25/month toward restitution, an amount almost (but not quite) covered by my generous kitchen salary. At this rate of repayment, I've calculated, it will take me only about 4,000 years to repay the full amount. Unlike the restitution invoice, at least the IRS notice took account of reality: the response has a box that can be checked stating that I am currently unable to pay.

Unfortunately, not only do I not have any money in my checking account but I don't even have a checking account. Or a savings account. Or any account at all. You see, my actions and my incarceration have left me more-or-less destitute: much more in the red than in the black. The funny thing is that in prison it's not that much of an issue. There are many here worse off than me and my basic necessities - a roof over my head, food on my plate - are provided free of charge by our kindly government. And the extras - e-mail, phone, commissary treats - while not exactly cheap, are covered by considerate relatives.  But what comes next - my eventual return, penniless, to the real world - is an endless cause for concern, despite the fact that it's still almost two years away. While I dream of little else of rejoining my family, rejoining the world, I can't help but stay up the occasional night worrying about how I'll support myself and my kids.
The depressing thing is that when I tell people here on the inside what I did - and I'm forced to do that nearly every day here in the treatment program - they can't believe I'm broke. "Where's the money?," they ask. "Where'd you hide it?" Many of them seem to seriously believe that I have a few million buried somewhere in a hole in the ground. Or a Swiss bank account. Either that, or they believe my protestations that I'm completely broke and consider me the biggest idiot in the history of the universe. Inmates tend to be a money-obsessed lot, and the vast sums that passed through my greedy hands are an endless source of fascination for many of them. 

That, however, is a topic for further exploration in some future post. As for now, I can't wait to see what comes in the mail next week.

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.

Inmate.com

The Prison Rumor Mill: RDAP, Artificial Sweetener and Saltpeter


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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 Inmate.com. 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.