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. 

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 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 vodka. And of pretty young Slavic girls unspoiled by American feminism. And of freedom from onerous taxation and pervasive surveillance. Of being able to think and act in a decidedly non-PC way.

In short, he dreams 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 ascendancy 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 my kids 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, or until I, like my inmate brothers become completely and totally disillusioned with this flawed old US of A, 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 dancing 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 on the moves 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, esq.

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.

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.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

RDAP

My apologies for the delay since my last post: my life has taken a few twists and turns since I last wrote and, to be honest, I was just too overwhelmed for the past few weeks to keep up with my writing.
Of most importance to me, my recovery, and the length of my sentence, I was accepted into the residential drug treatment program, commonly referred to as RDAP at Lompoc Prison Camp. The program is near to – but separate from – the regular camp. So I had to move to a new bunk in a new barrack and basically start over from scratch.
For those who don’t know, RDAP is a Congressionally authorized 9-month program focused on drug abuse and criminal thinking that, if completed, can take an entire year off of an inmates sentence. In fact, other than good time or a pardon, it’s really the only way that a white-collar offender can reduce the length of his or her prison sentence. Participants are also guaranteed at least 6 months of halfway house. The result is that with RDAP and good time, my 50 month sentence will be cut almost exactly in half.
Needless to say, getting into the program was my number one priority. That said, acceptance was by no means assured – many are turned away. Certain specific guidelines have to be met in the sentencing process to be considered and I worked hard in the time leading up to my incarceration to ensure I'd be accepted.
Like most of the participants, my main reason for coming to RDAP at Lompoc Prison Camp was for the year off. But now that I am here I’ve come to realize that the program is actually valuable in other ways. It’s not all about addiction but rather about the thought processes that led me and others to take the bad decisions that led us to prison. It’s making me think more about why I did what I did, with the result – I hope -that I will end up a better person with a better understanding of why I broke the law. When most of our system is geared only toward warehousing inmates who will be released unprepared and eventually return to prison, it’s actually fulfilling to be part of a program geared toward making participants better people out in the real world.
That’s not to say that I love it here. As some of our counselors like to say, they don’t give the year away; we have to earn it. The program is time consuming and rigorous and some parts of it – parts I’ll address in later posts – are not at all fun. I always thought of myself as a conscientious, considerate person but I’ve found myself struggling to abide by all the little requirements, everything from how you have to make your bed to what you wear to where you work. It’s a bit like boot camp.
The program here at Lompoc is not the only RDAP program. There are others scattered around the country, at both prison camps and low-security federal prisons. If you are facing incarceration, Justin can assist you with considering the alternatives. The RDAP program at Lompoc is considered to be the best run but also the toughest – the Ivy-league of RDAP programs, if you will. On the West coast, the only other RDAP camp program is at Sheridan, outside Portland. This is unfortunate because the BOP is considering moving the Lompoc program away from the camp to the neighboring Low-security prison. This will mean that for future white-collar inmates, the only option for RDAP will likely be Sheridan. I’ll write more on that in a later post.
In any event, I’m hanging in there and doing my best to connect the dots in my life to figure out why I stole all the money from the oligarch. If you are facing incarceration, I encourage you to contact Justin so that he can walk you through all the considerations related to RDAP, and whether or not to apply. I can’t tell you I am exactly enjoying RDAP, but as I like to say, I would walk barefoot across hot coals to shorten my sentence by a year. I owe it to myself and, more than that, I owe it to my family.

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, among 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.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Few Thank-You's

A Quick Shout Out to Friends and Family


I'm limited by the cost and time limits on prison e-mail, phone and snail mail in how I respond to individual messages of support. I just want to let you know that I do receive them, that they mean a whole lot to me and that it sometimes takes me a while to respond individually. Please keep your messages coming: they make my days and keep my spirits up. If I forgot to mention you, it means that I may not have received your message yet or that my mind blanked in my allotted 15 minutes at the computer: each post is an exercise in frantic speed-typing.


So without further ado:

Judith L: thank you once again for your support, both spiritual and financial. I really appreciate that you have taken the initiative to reach out. I hope you're able to reconnect with Amy and others. I look forward to spending time with you once this is all over.

Reidster: thank you so much for the card. I know how little you like to write, so for you that must have been the equivalent of Tolstoy writing War and Peace. I really appreciate it and will write back soon. We did have some great times, didn't we? I hope you're having an equally great summer. Don't worry: I don't blame our long-ago transgressions for my current prison sentence although we did cross the line a few times.

Linda: thank you for the kale chip recipe. Because of you, today we made them in the chow hall. They were for the guards but most of the kitchen inmates tried a bite.  I can't say they were a resounding success: most of my co-workers spit them out in the garbage can. But for those of us who appreciate such things they were truly delicious. 

Nancy B: David says he loves you MORE! 
(He bunks near me and in large part because of you is surviving his experience with grace and aplomb (much more than me, I'm ashamed to admit)).

Alice/Ari: I can't wait to see you here. Your efforts to keep contact with me and to come visit mean a whole lot to me. Don't miss your chance to see an honest-to-god prison. Don't worry: it's not as bad as you might think. Ari: good luck with your move.

Bobby: Thank you for writing me that wonderful message. I'm glad you've been enjoying reading my posts. Your support and loyalty to Cinnamon and his family is truly remarkable. Your long wait will soon be rewarded. I hope we someday have the chance to meet. And I'd love to plug your interesting invention on my blog: prison toilets are a huge untapped market!

My Sister: thank you for being there for me and for doing so much to make my time in here bearable. Thank you too for being the glue that holds our family together. Happy Birthday!!!!

Jason L: I'm sorry I couldn't make it to your release. I was coming over from North Camp just as you left. Best of luck re-establishing yourself and your life. If anyone can do it successfully, it is you: Manhattan's been awaiting your return. Just so you know, when you left, a bunch of us cried: out of joy and sadness, both. South Camp won't be the same without you. I imagine you reading this from the outside and want you to know that I am jealous. And happy for you.

V and T: I hope you're not reading this but that someday you do. You're my love and my life, what keeps me going. I think about you almost every minute. I wish I could have been there for your first day of new school. But, as always, it sounds like you handled it well. I'm sorry for all the changes I forced upon you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Top 10 Lists: Prison Sayings

A Dictionary of Interesting Words and Phrases I've Learned Behind the Fence

I can imagine what you're saying: enough posts about being sick already. I agree. Not to make excuses, but some of you may know how it is when you're feeling low and craving sympathy. Sympathy, it turns out, is in short supply in prison so I've been seeking it out vicariously in my posts. In any event, I'm feeling better and only sneezed on the food a few times this morning. So far, no epidemics. 

To lighten the mood and because I haven't done one of these in a while, I decided to do a new top 10 list: interesting words and phrases I've heard in prison. Be warned: a few of these aren't for the faint hearted. Some others are pretty tame. The truth is, there are a ton: prison is full of its own peculiar lingo. But these are what I could come up with on short notice.

10. Try not to sneeze in the food. 
Readers of my blog the past couple of days will recognize this phrase. I feel I've already said enough on this one. It is what it is. My only advice? Keep on sneezin'.

9. Watch out for the ChoMo's/Gumps.
Inmates talk endlessly about these two prison-house bogeymen. "ChoMos" is prison slang for "child molesters", the least popular type of inmate. "Gumps" is a derogatory term for homosexuals, another not particularly popular type of inmate, unless it's just for a "ride on the inside" or "gay for the stay" (i.e., doing the dirty with other guys only while incarcerated). ChoMo's are not eligible for camps, but camp inmates gossip endlessly about the supposed vast army of them behind the next-door low-security prison.

8. Give me a love hug.
I work with a huge black man named Mr. Love who, fittingly enough, is full of love. He likes to go around giving bone-crushing bear hugs he calls "love hugs". I've been on the receiving end of a few of these. He always asks if I want it from the front or from behind. Love hugs are painful but surprisingly therapeutic. 

7.  A Reverse Oreo.
This is when a black guy is standing in line between two white guys. I've been the cookie part of the Oreo several times already. 

6. Gummy Bear.
Sorry, this is really too gross to describe. Let's just say that it's a phrase to describe placing certain bodily fluids on a door handle. I haven't actually seen (or felt) one of these; thank God. 




5. Lock-in-a-Sock
A favorite prison weapon. Take one sock. Take one combination lock. Put together. Swing. I have witnessed this already several times. The end result is usually a broken nose or big bruise. The end-end result is that someone gets sent to the hole.

4. Riding in your car/Picking your ride
These phrases relate to "riding" with your race and showing race loyalty. Some mixed race and minority inmates have to proactively choose which race to "ride" with. For example, I know of one red-headed, white-skinned white boy who "rides" with the blacks and talks like a man from the ghetto. "Car" also refers to the group of men you lift weights with. In my case, I have a yoga car.

3. Workin' the man store.
The phrase "man store" refers to an inmate who works as an unofficial commissary. The problem with commissary is that you can only go once per week. Each camp has men that serve, basically, as after-hour 7-Eleven's, selling soda and snacks for packs of mackerel to hungry inmates. Some underground man stores traffic in contraband. All are illegal, though the food/soda man stores are usually tolerated.
2. Awfulizing.
This is RDAP speak for complaining or making things sound worse than they really are. The word is surprisingly addictive. Try using it a few times and see what you think. People may look at you strangely but they'll get the point.

1. Diggin' up in her.
Inmates use this phrase to describe you-know-what. What can I say? Crude but to the point, I guess.

Under the Weather Part II

My Visit to the Nurse

As an update to yesterday's post on my cold/fever, I woke up this morning feeling none the better for a good night's rest. So, determined to make up for yesterday's missed opportunity to see the nurse, I skipped both a shower and breakfast, threw on my greens and caught the bus to South Camp for 6 a.m. sick call. When the driver dropped me off at the old, wood-post building a few minutes later, I took my place in a line of wheezing, sneezing inmates that snaked out the door. I felt right at home.

As I slowly approached the doorway the raspy voice of the nurse became increasingly audible. Unlike a typical doctor's office, where they usher their patients into an inner sanctum to be examined behind closed doors, the prison nurse had an open-door policy.

I watched from the line as she poked at hernias, gave shots of insulin, looked down throats, peered at fungus covered feet and yanked down shorts to examine privates. Her cursory exams were accompanied by loudly barked commands: wear shower shoes; if your hernia bulges, poke it back in; sit down if you feel dizzy; keep away from eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus trees? What's wrong with them, I wondered? In any event, they're all over the place.

When my turn came I walked through the door with a bit of trepidation, hoping she wouldn't have to peer anywhere private for the edification of the line behind me. Before I had even entered the room the nurse glanced up at me and grunted: "You're not getting any time off from work."

Taken aback, I nonetheless decided to press on. Although obtaining a lay-in to miss work was part of the goal, my primary concern was feeling better while not infecting half the camp in the bargain. "I really feel bad," I said. "I'm coughing and sneezing and feel hot and dizzy."

"Allergies," she barked. "It's the eucalyptus trees."


Ahh, now I got it: the eucalyptus trees were to blame for all ills. Strange that Vics Vapo-Rub contains eucalyptus. "I've never had allergies," I said. "And I've been raking and cutting grass around the eucalyptus since I got here."

With that the nurse finally seemed to notice me. She pulled out a thermometer and took my temperature. A few moments later it beeped: 101 degrees. "Hmm," she said, apparently surprised that I wasn't lying about my condition. Next she looked down my throat. "Red and swollen," she said to herself. Finally, she listened to my chest: "Congested."

The nurse jotted something on a pad of paper. Here it is, I thought to myself: the golden "lay in" that will let me take a day or two off from work until I feel better. Instead, she turned to me with a grunt and asked: "Do you have $2 on your account?"

"Yes," I answered. "But why?"

"That's the co-pay. We're done here and I'm going to deduct the charge."

To readers of this post, $2 may not sound like much. But to put it in perspective that amount is equal to almost 20% of my last month's salary of $11. So for me it's plenty: worth it if I get the lay in, otherwise decidedly not.

"Is that it?" I asked, incredulous. "You didn't tell me anything. What about work?"

"Like I said, I don't care what you say or what you're sick with. You're not getting any time off."

"But I work in the kitchen."

She looked at me with a sneer, as if my concern were stupid. "So?"

"I'm worried I'll get my germs in the food. I work with raw vegetables and make salads."

"Turn your head away from the food if you have to sneeze. It's as simple as that."

"Anything else? Will you prescribe anything? What should I do?"

"Next," she called, over my shoulder. I took the hint and walked toward the door. As I departed she called after me: "Take some Motrin, if you've got it. If not, aspirin will do. And keep away from eucalyptus trees."

I feel better already.

Chicken Blues

Disgruntled Employee or Spoiled White Collar Criminal?



I stood before a giant steel rack at least 7 feet tall stacked with trays, each of which was filled to overflowing with a dripping, oozing mass of chicken parts. Blood and viscera dripped from the trays to the floor, which was slick with shards of fat and feathers. To my right bubbled an enormous metal pot filled with a gurgling witches brew of blood, guts and drumsticks.

My job was to manhandle each incredibly heavy tray from the rack to the pot. Once I dumped the parts and filled the pot, I was to thrust my arms up to the shoulders into this gunk to separate the half-frozen parts.  Next I was to drain the blood, which gushed from a drain in the pot over my boots, take a huge plastic oar, and stir the chicken as it basted in the goop.


Now, I know from recent experience that I can happily chop onions all day: the relentless crying is not really a reflection of my inner state. I can mop the entire chow hall. Twice. For an inspection that never materializes. I can even clean toilets, scrub the grease pit, dump garbage cans and heave 100 pound bags of spuds. All with a smile on my face. Or at least not a grumpy frown.

But with the chicken let's just say that the smile was strained. I couldn't help but think of how I was doing all this - at 4:30 in the morning - for a paycheck of $12/month. I couldn't help but think of my past: of my hated high school job de-boning frozen chicken at our town's Kentucky Fried Chicken.

My mood was so poor, my smile so strained, that the lead cook, a gruff and bossy fellow inmate with a communication problem, noticed my state. "What's wrong?" he asked abruptly.

"Nothing," I muttered, wincing for a moment before plunging my arms back into the blood and guts.


The cook turned to leave, or so I thought. Fine with me. Every exchange with him, no matter how minor, turned into a confrontation. I grabbed the oar and made ready to stir. Instead, he whipped back around and barked, an inch from my face: "You had a maid, didn't you?"

I looked at him in surprise, unsure how to respond. My first thought was what the f--- does that have to do with anything? That's pretty much how I responded.

"Answer me," he grunted, his voice rising.

"No way," I said, digging in my heels. "I'm not answering that."

This went on for a few, relentless minutes. Finally, unable to take it anymore, I pulled my arms from the muck and walked to the back of the kitchen, grabbed a broom, and pretended to sweep. As my anger cooled and the blood congealed on my arms I considered the exchange.

Where I had seen myself as a justifiably (or so I thought) disgruntled employee unhappy with doing what was objectively a very shitty job that reminded me of a past I did not like, my colleague, or so I surmised anyway, saw a spoiled white collar criminal "too good" to do the work. That many of the other inmates - white collar or not - would not do that work either was beside the point. He saw me in a certain light colored by his background and mine. In my self pity, I had failed to consider that point of view.

The fact is that this happens often in prison. I'm not judged by who I think I am but by certain outward trappings: the color of my skin, my education. Certain stereotypes then come along with those assumptions: that I come from a privileged background (I don't), that I fail to admit my wrongdoing (I do, though many white collar criminals maintain their innocence). Hence the cook's focus on whether I had a maid.

I try to catch myself from doing the reverse, but I occasionally find myself falling into the same trap: judging a drug dealer from the hood or a border jumper from Mexico based upon stereotypes rather than the man as a person.

In my next post, I plan to "go deep" as they say here at RDAP, and look at how I'm really doing, what I'm really feeling. And I promise to stop writing about the chow hall.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Under the Weather

Being Sick in Prison Ain't No Fun

Well, it finally happened: I got sick. 

Boo-hoo; poor me. 

Thank you for indulging me for a second there: I guess you could say I was searching for some sympathy. You know that feeling-sorry-for-yourself, bring-me-some-soup feeling of being sick? That urge to crawl under the covers and mope around until the virus goes away? I've got that. Big time. It's just that I have no comfy bed to crawl into, no soup, no one to complain to. Try complaining about an illness around here and all you'll see are inmates' backs as they run in the opposite direction, away from your deadly germs.

But before you go out and buy me get-well cards rest assured: it's really just a chest cold. I'm not dying, just feeling a little out of sorts. So I'm not really complaining. Except maybe I am.

The fact is, it's no fun to be sick in prison. When you're sick here every little thing - from getting medicine to treating your heartburn - is like pulling teeth; often, obtaining the cure is almost worse than the illness. And my sickness is pretty minor. Just imagine what it's like for those suffering around here from serious illnesses. I see it every day and it's awful: men hauled off for shoddy operations then dumped, catatonic and in terrible pain, back onto their bunks to recuperate as best they can. But that's a subject for another post.

A minor sickness here - a cold or the flu or a bit of barfing or diarrhea - starts with a 6 a.m. visit to the nurse at a nearby camp. Miss the "sick bus" - as I did - and your doomed to carry out your day as you normally would: no medicine and no permission from the nurse to "lay in" (as a day off from work is called around here). The result? Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work you go. Even if where you work happens to be the chow hall. In my case, I've been busy all day sneezing into the food. You're also out of luck if you happen to get sick on the weekend: no nurse, no sick call, no medical help. 

Let's just say you manage to get sick right on time: on a weekday before 6 a.m. What you need to do is to stand in a long line for an appointment with a health care employee (the word nurse seems overly generous) who suffers from a "Nurse Ratchet" complex. She takes delight in belittling patients and doubting your illness. She also slams the door closed every few minutes for cigarette breaks behind the building. If she happens to be in a good mood and you manage to successfully plead your case, you'll get one of those prized lay-ins for the day. If your illness extends beyond then you'll have to make your way back and plead your case again. 

What will most likely happen, however, is that you'll be subjected to a suspicious stare and ordered to get out and get back to work. If you're truly sick you'll have to come back over and over and over again - each morning at 6 a.m. - until you have successfully proved that you are really on death's door. A neighbor of mine has a serious and debilitating hernia: he spends his days pushing protruding body parts back into place. The treatment recommended by the nurse? Aspirin. Lot's of it. 

Don't get me started: stories about prison health care could fill hundreds of posts. For perspective: I ate lunch with an inmate who fell deathly ill with spinal meningitis and other illnesses while locked up. He eventually lost his leg and spent a year in a prison medical facility. Over chicken legs, he told me about the crazy old cons in wheel chairs who used their disabilities as a free pass to "talk punk". Apparently threatening or hitting a wheel-chair bound con resulted in a one-way ticket to the hole. These men - all in their 60's and 70's - used that pass to scream insults at and threaten their fellow invalid inmates. His bunk mate, an invalid dying of cancer, stabbed a pencil through the ear of a deaf inmate, also dying of hepatitis, outside their bunk. 


I can think of nothing worse than dying in prison: knowing that you'll never be free again, that the last thing you'll see is an uncaring nurse and the bars on your window. Yet every day many, many do. If you ask me, there should be a policy of compassionate release for terminal inmates. There's not. But that too is a topic for another day.

I'm actually surprised it took as long as it did for me to get sick. From day one, I've been looking around me at the close quarters, haphazard hygiene and stress of prison wondering when the next epidemic will hit. The barracks seem specially designed as a virus incubator.

But despite the fact that my Bunkie and some other neighbors came down with the flu, I was spared. Until now. But I'm pretty sure I'll survive with just a bit of temporary suffering. I'm just thanking my lucky stars I only have a bad cold. As should be clear by now, it could be much, much worse.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Prison Prepster

Making Fashion Out of Prison-Issued Garb

I never considered myself a particularly fashionable person. Not only do I value function over form, but I consider haute couteur a real waste of money. I have my own style - what might charitably be labeled "Target chic" - but it's more utilitarian and comfortable than anything else, with its emphasis on loose-fitting slacks and t-shirts and pullovers. Even in the old days during my lawyer interlude, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a tie and dress-shirt.

So while I'm not exactly a fan of prison-issued garb - the greens are drab and the lack of zippers (considered a security threat) annoying - the transition was not particularly difficult for me or my ego. In a way it's even liberating: there's no need to think each morning about what to wear. It's green khakis, green dress shirt, white t-shirt and black boots. Or nothing. My morning sartorial dilemna can be summed up as follows: Hmm, should I wear the faded green khakis today or the green khakis covered in white paints spots?

The weekends, however, pose a minor challenge: the dress code is relaxed and we can wear other clothes, so long as they're purchased at the commissary. This pretty much limits the field to gray sweats and shorts and sweatshirts and long-sleeve t-shirts, even gray and white long underwear are fair game. Despite the limitations, these variations present a welcome change from our week-day uniforms. Inmates, it turns out, are surprisingly creative: some wear their shorts low on their wastes, practically around their ankles; others wear long-underwear under their shorts. Some wrap shirts around their heads like bandanas.
Then there's my usual weekend getup: gray shorts, white socks, tennis shoes and white t-shirt (untucked, of course, except in the dining hall, where tucked-in attire is mandatory). Basic, yes. But comfortable. And as good for lounging on my bunk as walking the track or doing yoga. The only addition I make to this standard getup is to tie a gray sweatshirt around my waist. Mornings are cool here, afternoons hot, and evenings cool again, so just as I did on the outside, I like to have a just-in-case layer around my waist to cover all eventualities.

Except that this outfit is considered by many inmates to be terribly outre and far too fashion forward for prison. Apparently - or so I've been told now a few too many times - the outfit is asking for trouble. Why? It's considerd to be snobby and preppy, the ultimate thumb-your-nose at the system approach of a white collar criminal. As an example, I was walking to my bunk just moments ago after circling the track. A neighbor of mine approached, repeating the words, "Really? Really? Really?" over and over again. I thought he was having some sort of a meltdown.
"Really what?" I asked.

"Where did you go to school?" he asked.

"What does that have to do with anything?" I said without answering.

"You're way too preppy," he said.

What else is there to say to that but "whatever?" In fact, that's just what I did say, although in a fashion compromise I threw my sweatshirt on my bunk before coming to write this e-mail. 


Although I suppose I can understand his point of view, I'm not quite ready to give up my long-sleeve backup. Not quite yet, anyway. It's just too practical and convenient. And considering that he was wearing, gray long-underwear under sagging white shorts, combined with shower shoes and white socks, I'm not sure I'm ready to take his fashion advice. Is a sweatshirt around the waist a sign of preppy overdo on the outside? I already can't remember.

Just for the record I have never ever ever ever considered myself a prepster, even during my dark college fraternity days.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The BoP Smile

Who, Me Institutionalized?

A fellow inmate told me yesterday how to identify long-term inmates: look for missing teeth.  Since then I've been examining smiles and - sad to say - his strategy works. Very few cons incarcerated for 5 years of more have complete smiles.

Health care in this place - and dental care in particular - is sadly deficient. The cure-all prescribed for all problems is aspirin. For toothaches, if the Tylenol doesn't work, the pliers are the next line of treatment.

But this post is not about prisoner medical care. For a country that struggles so much over universal care, coverage here in prison is, perhaps not surprisingly, not a major priority. Rather, the point I'm trying to make is that incarceration, over time, takes its toll both mentally and physically. At the same time as the teeth and other body parts deteriorate, the mind is often warped. The result is institutionalization.

A few days ago I ended up as a bystander in a heated debate between two inmates over this very topic. One had accused the other of being institutionalized and the other, unsurprisingly, had taken offense. The argument was, in part, over definition: one con interpreted the word to mean something akin to brain washing; the other was arguing that many people on the outside were just as institutionalized: by work, by family, by status. But however you define it, the concept is not pleasant, suggesting as it does some sort of ability to thrive in the warped environment of prison while being unable to function out in the real world.
My sentence is comparatively short and I expect to spend most of it struggling to adapt to this place - to the culture, to the huge mix of obnoxious personalities, to the "prison hustle", as I call the endless push for small 'victories', everything from an extra piece of chicken in chow hall to a bottom bunk to a better job. To me it's all just not worth it.

But those in for a long time - in particular those who've spent time at high-security joints - have the opposite problem. They've had to adapt to survive, if not thrive, in ways that make readjustment to the outside world hard, if not impossible.


The fact is, the skills it takes to be a 'good' prisoner are not at all the skills it takes to be a good citizen. In prison, domination, sneakiness, selective rule-breaking and loyalty (to your race, to your bunk mate, etc) are valued above all else. It's a lord-of-the flies, winner take all mentality. Rule breaking and stealing are part of daily life. For those without outside support, hustling for cash to buy things at commissary is essential for survival. Not exactly useful skills on the outside, or at least not if you are aiming for anything more than basic survival. Or success on Wall Street. 

The result, at least in my definition, is institutionalization. And our system does almost nothing to counteract it. Hence, our extremely high recidivism rate. I'm lucky to be participating in one of the few - if not only - program that actually invests resources to counteract institutionalization. I may not be particularly needy of this particular focus, but it's nice to see that given sufficient resources and effort it can work for many. It's just too bad that it's only available for those with a drug addiction and not more broadly for all cons.