Friday, May 30, 2014

Animals, Animals Everywhere

I received a lot of positive feedback on my post about the kitties (thank you Gleni!), so I decided to carry on today with the same theme. In a fortuitous coincidence, I've had a few more unexpected encounters with the animal kingdom since the felonious social gathering around the flock (gaggle?, herd?, group?, pride?) of cats.

First of all, I've befriended one of those ferile felines (forgive all the alliteration - it's 6 a.m. and I'm feeling a little loopy before my acorn coffee). She's a pretty black and white number with a narrow head and long tail. Reminds me of a childhood cat we had named Mittens (or was it Sneakers?, in any event some article of clothing) that lived a short but happy life before crawling under our back porch to die. When the chow-hall chow includes something edible for cats (a hit or miss affair; often, what they serve is inedible to feline and human, both) I bring a piece out for her to eat. She's particularly fond of fried bologna. I'm trying to think of a name for her. Suggestions are welcome.

Yesterday afternoon I was laying, eyes closed, under a pine tree at the edge of the baseball field at the back of camp, dreaming of freedom and listening to the wind in the trees. I must have nodded off because some time later I was woken by a tap-tap-tap on my chest. I jerked awake, expecting a prisoner to be standing over me, maybe someone who wanted to use the field for ball practice or, heaven forbid, a guard who disproved of my lounging.

But what did I see? Two little beady eyes staring down at me, only an inch or so from my face, gray feathers, a pointy orange beak. There was a little baby bird hopping around on my chest. Suddenly, from behind, I heard a loud guffaw. I turned to look and saw two toughs, muscled, drug-dealing cons by all appearances, enjoying the show. After the bird hopped away for richer pastures, the three of us ended up talking about the flora and fauna of this place - there are some beautiful blue herons that stand in a field behind camp each evening - and it turns out they're not so bad after all.

Then, last night, just after count as we were preparing our bunks for bed, a neighbor of mine started screaming like a little girl. "Ew, ew, ew" he yelled, pointing at the bunk ahead of mine. "What is it?" the occupier of that bunk, a nice young Hispanic man from LA asked. "What's wrong?"

"Ew, ew, ew!"

We looked closer. And then we saw. A big old black spider, with a fat round body and long legs, was crawling on, then under, his pillow. Just as we spotted it all the lights went off - the transition from light to dark at camp is a very sudden affair. A mad scramble ensued to find the spider in the dark and then smoosh it. It took about five minutes but, woe to the spider, the hunt was eventually successful.

For those who don't know, I'm a spider-phobe. So now I've been checking my bunk extra closely each evening before bed. So far, all I've found is a mosquito: I didn't think there were supposed to be those in California. In any event, that wayward spider is still the talk of the barracks, the story taking on a gladitorial slant in the retelling, as if a lion had been slayed upon the back fields or a jackal caught raiding the chicken coop. Well, we prisoners take our excitement where we can get it and lately, it just so happens, that excitement has been found in the animal kingdom.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Entering the Twilight Zone

Before I start this entry, I'd like to make a brief shout-out to all of you who have been sending me message via Facebook, on this blog and even by good old snail mail. I really appreciate it. I haven't yet figured out a good system to respond, but just wanted to let you know that I have received all your messages and really appreciate your thoughts and attention.


Yesterday, I entered the Twilight Zone, a place so seemingly normal that, given my drastically altered reality, seemed bizarrely off-kilter. In this strange twilight zone, I saw car washes and gas stations and condos and Burger Kings. I saw normal people out going about their business - walking, shopping, driving. I saw women. I saw kids. I saw all the things, the normal, every day things, that I don't see here at camp. In fact, it was all so normal that it seemed nothing short of extraordinary.

This was not some dream of my previous life, some flashback to an earlier reality. This was my first day on the job at Vandenberg Air Force base, a place made famous for its rockets and fighter planes. Not that I saw any planes or runways or missiles. And not, as I've already mentioned, anybody offered me a Whopper. Contrary to expectations, all I saw was what for all intents and purposes looks pretty much like a normal suburban town, albeit one filled with men and women in uniform, including prisoners in their bright red jumpsuits. As I mentioned yesterday, a select few white collar criminals - including, now, me - are bused daily from prison to serve as proud mascots to the outside world of prison society doing the necessary work that no one else wants to do.

So what did I do? Per expectations, I whacked weeds. And whacked. And whacked. And whacked....a three-man team of white-collar weed destruction. This morning I hurt all over and my ears still buzz. One of my fellow whackers told me I'll soon get used to it. Other than the noise, and the sun, it's actually not so bad. Like raking, I can whack myself into a trance in which the time slides slowly by. I like to think of it as much-needed exercise and, given the soreness of my muscles today, I may be right. Ironically, though, given California's bad drought, all we're really whacking is dead grass and rocks, which somewhat defeats the purpose. 

Yesterday, as I whacked before lunch, as my thoughts drifted to the prison food I knew would soon be delivered, I dreamed of walking into the nearby Burger King and ordering a Whopper. My mouth began to water. We are able to use certain restrooms throughout the base so I strolled into a neighboring gas station to pee. Passing by the plethora of stuff - candy bars, ice cream, hot dogs, soda - I couldn't help but gape. In my previous life I would have bought something. Anything. Maybe a chocolate chip cookie. Or a Red Bull. But, alas, I have no money, no wallet. My only ID is the fluorescent red jumpsuit that identifies me as a prisoner. 

So it was as if I were looking through the glass at an alternate reality, a Twilight Zone reality, from which I and my fellow prisoners are indelibly separated. Maybe, come to think of it, that's a good thing: no Snicker's and M&M's and Cheetos to lead me into temptation. Although I sure would like an ice-cold Diet Coke right about now....or a Whopper.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Getting Down to Business in Federal Prison

A few weeks have passed since I checked in to Lompoc Prison and I’m beginning to feel more-or-less at home, at least as at home as it’s possible (or I want) to feel. The truth is, I’m trying to find a balance: I don’t want to assimilate too much and forget about the outside world, nor do I want to hold myself aloof. I see people on both sides of that fence: those that actually like it here (so much so that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they eventually return) and those who walk around with sour, holier-than-thou frowns, stubbornly refusing to accept that we’re all in this together. Like I said: I’m trying to find a balance. Some days I’m more successful than others. Justin Paperny told me this would be the case.
One thing that’s helped me adjust, to find a balance, is my years abroad. In many ways, this place is like a foreign country with its own strange customs and rules and culture. I’m used to doing what it takes to assimilate – going along to get along – while at the same time holding back to keep true to myself. I’m somewhat solitary by nature so have no problem sticking to my guns when newfound friends pester me to “waste” time with them.
Another thing that’s helped are the goals I set before coming in. The sad fact is that many here – the majority? – have really only one goal: doing their time. While this is an admirable and unavoidable goal – doing time is what prisoners do, after all – it’s not enough. In my experience, it’s far too passive and morphs quickly into wasting time.
I’m finding that what it takes to transcend the system is to grab time by the horns and make it yours: do unto it rather than having it do unto you. Otherwise, as very many do, you end up wasting time just for the sake of making it through the day: watching TV, gabbing with friends, playing cards, napping, even staring at the wall. Unlike in the outside world, there’s so much time that unless you’re careful and proactive, it loses its value and you waste it.
For those on the outside, this may all seem strange, incomprehensible. But I’m finding that prison life has a strange effect on time, stretching it and twisting it like taffy. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard fellow cons talk about “killing” time. The goal? To make the day go faster. Killing time by watching a long movie (the Hobbit was shown last night for movie night), working out for hours, hanging out with friends.
With my goals I’m trying to resist that. I like to think that I’m not killing time but using it. I spend much of my time – per my plan – writing. Some days I don’t feel like it. I’m lazy by nature, at least where writing is concerned. After a day spent weed whacking, writing is the last thing I want to do. But, at least so far, I’ve stuck to it. That stick-to-it-iveness may be the secret to success. I know that if I walk out of here in two years with nothing to show for it I’ll never be able to forgive myself.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It’s only been a few weeks after all. So all my goals – reading, writing, yoga, exercise (maybe even learning to play guitar) are still in progress. I’m not yet able to touch my toes though I’m getting close. But if I can stick to my goals – as I intend to – I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to eventually walk out of here feeling that I used my time. If not, if all I managed to do was kill time, I’ll have failed in my prison experiment.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Holiday Fever

In case you're wondering, no one's given me a Whopper yet at the airforce base. Or a fry. Or anything but sidelong looks of fear as they make wide-births around me and my weed whacker.

But I don't care because it's Friday afternoon, on the eve of the long Memorial Day weekend. In honor of this big occasion, my first holiday spent in prison, I plan to make this a short post. Not that I have anything important to do but rather that I figure that you, my readers, are busy preparing for barbecues and trips, and thus are too busy to read this blog.

Don't worry about me stuck here in Lompoc as the holiday approaches: I'm not at all upset, or at least not all that much, since it's not a holiday I associate all that much with what I really miss: family. Just as on the outside, it's biggest meaning for me is that it promises a day off from work on Monday. Yay! No weed whacking for three whole days. We'll see if I'm as lighthearted when the big holidays roll around: Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Christmas. Those days will, I expect, be much, much harder, days that I mope around missing my kids, bemoaning my fate. 

Before I fall into melancholy let me take you back to the big weekend at hand. Not only do we have a long weekend of leisure but the powers that be have organized a plethora of activities to keep us prisoners busy. Unfortunately, the traditional Memorial Day activities - beer, barbecues, trips to family - are strictly verboten. So our creative counselors have come up with some original diversions. On the way over to the computers, I jotted down tomorrow's schedule (which starts at the un-holiday-like time of 7 a.m.):

7 a.m.: Pinochle
8 a.m.: Ping Pong
9 a.m.: Soccer
10 a.m.: Pickle Ball
11 a.m.: Spades
12 p.m.: Bean Bag Toss
1 p.m.: Hillbilly Horseshoes
12 p.m.: Basketball

Exciting day, huh? So while you're off enjoying your holiday activities, maybe even eating a Whopper, take a moment to think of me, here at Lompoc, getting down to Hillbilly Horseshoes. Come to think of it, I haven't the faintest clue what that might be. I hope it's nothing like Hillbilly Oysters. Pickle Ball? Spades? WTF? Keep tuned for real-time updates - for all I know I may have a hidden affinity for these great sports. I'll let you know what they are once I learn myself. 

As you can see, for a prison this camp provides a lot of outdoor activities. In response to several requests from readers to describe this place, I was going to segue from the holiday into a description of the grounds of the camp itself: what the place looks like, how it's laid out, where we can walk, what we can do. But I've already broken my promise to keep this post short so promise to return to the topic in a day or two, once I've had my fill of Pickle Ball.

Have a great holiday everybody!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Whacking Weeds

Bummer! Bummer! The job assignments for newcomers were posted yesterday evening and I got just what I didn't want: Vandenburg Air Force Base. What this means is that I will board a bus at 7 each morning for the short ride over to the nearby base. Once there, I will spend my day whacking weeds in a bright red jumpsuit with large white letters across the back that read: "FEDERAL INMATE". I'm surprised they didn't add the word "Caution!" before "Federal". Or maybe the word "dangerous."

It's not that I'm lazy (ok, maybe a little) or have any bias against whacking weeds (ok, maybe a little). I really don't have any feelings one way or the other about whacking, having never performed that vital task. What worries me is the loud puck-puck-puck of the smoky little motor on my tender eardrums, the endless days under California's hot summer sun, and clomping around in my huge black boots. Yup, you got it. I'm a wimp. Too many years behind a desk have made me soft. 

Actually, I am being partially facetious here. I have done hard labor plenty of times in the past - carrying out the trash from the kitchen, for example, or bringing in the mail. I even de-tassled corn once for a summer job in high school (if you don't know what that is, don't ask). What worries me most is the effect the job could have on my writing. I've been devoting a solid 4 hours per day to writing and would love to continue with that. But I've seen the Vandenburg guys return in the late afternoon in their dirty red suits. They look pooped, covered in grass particles, dust and dirt. Soon to be me. I had hoped for an orderly job which, though it does involve cleaning a row of urinals and toilets used by 300 men with bad aim, requires only a good hour or two of work per day.

One thing I know is that I'll be in good company. Vandenburg is the dumping ground for many white collar criminals, whose skills aren't exactly in high demand in the farm, the electrician's shop, the laundry or any of the other more typical jobs to be found here in camp. I may be from Wisconsin but, unfortunately, I never learned how to milk a cow. But I do hear there are some perks. It's nice, I'm told, to get away from the camp, to see a bit of normal life. There's even, so they tell me, a Burger King, though of course inmates can't go there, not in our red caution suits and without any money.

Who knows, maybe some bleeding-heart airman will throw me a Whopper as I stand whacking weeds outside the entrance.

So much for writing, for now anyway. I'm already dressed in my red jumpsuit and off to whack some weeds. I'll let you know how it goes....and if anyone gives me a Whopper.

Choosing Your Ride

I was talking last night with a young hispanic man from Los Angeles, very bright and engaged, who has a very long sentence for selling a few grams of meth. "You know what?" he asked me. "We probably would have never even talked or met on the outside."

At first I wanted to contradict him, to say "no, who knows?, maybe we would have met. Maybe we would have talked." But then I began to think about it and realized that he was absolutely right. In my previous life, I could go days, weeks, even months without talking with someone of color or a different nationality. Now, not an hour goes by without some interaction. 

The melting pot nature of camp is one aspect I actually like, an aspect I wish were reflected a bit more in outside, everyday life. Here in camp we have Americans - white, black, brown and red -, Mexicans, Italians, Japanese, Armenians, Indians, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Russians. Even a Brit or two. We're all thrown in here together and we all interact, for the most part, civilly. Although there's some clannish behavior, everyone here seems to get along pretty well. The only overt racial division I've seen is that one row of tables in the lunchroom is designated (unofficially) for blacks. I learned this the hard way, on my first full day, by sitting in the black section of town. This resulted in a few stares and comments but no catastrophes. Newbies are all allowed some initial mistakes.  Several of the TV rooms, too, are reserved for one ethnicity or another, though because I don't watch TV here I can't really comment on that.

That's not to say that prisoners, in their free time, don't tend toward their own. It's a natural human reaction, I suppose, to want to be with people "like" you, whatever that means. As a result, on a typical evening you'll find Hispanics joking with other Hispanics in Spanish, white collar criminals congregating in the chapel, and blacks in the clubhouse. One recreational melting pot is the weight pile and exercise machines: there everyone interacts together over the common goal of building big muscles. 

This relative racial harmony is a far cry from what I expected. I expected different races and ethnicities but didn't expect such peaceful coexistence. After watching Sons of Anarchy and its jailhouse scenes one too many times, I guess you could say that that I came here expecting the worst. From what I've heard, the prison camp is the exception: the higher security prisons just down the road are, I'm told, full of racial tension and segregation.

Those most caught up in the injustice of these racial prison-house politics (including many at this camp) are those who don't fit neatly into any particular ethnic group. I'm thinking of the men here with mixed-race parentage. Or the second generation Hispanics who grew up speaking English and don't really think of themselves as Mexican or Columbian or Peruvian. Prison doesn't shy away from such difficult identity issues and actually has a phrase for this very conundrum: "Picking Your Ride."

It's accepted that, here in prison, you need to choose a place to belong, a place defined by your ethnicity: i.e., you've got to pick your ride. But while this choice is limiting, prison culture doesn't impose an outside measurement on the result. In other words, you get to pick your own "club", your own racial identity, your own ride. It's not imposed upon you. As a result, I've met people here who, though by all appearances outwardly Hispanic, identify with the whites and hang out with them. I've met a black man who identifies as white, and a white man (my yoga instructor) who ran with the blacks while in a higher security prison.

Confusing, right? And a little strange and far too binary: what if you want to "hang" with more than one group? That's harder to do. After all, it's called picking your ride, not your rides.  It's expected that you choose only one car. But it's also somehow refreshing to see all these topics of race and identity and belonging up here on the surface. In our everyday lives out there on the outside, these are all issues that are repressed, covered up, ignored. Not here on the inside, not here in this imperfect melting pot that both mirrors and reflects outside life in strange, magnified ways.

Until tomorrow. I'm off now to pick my ride.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


It's Friday evening around 4:30, just after our dinner of chicken lo mein, which in fact more resembled mushy spaghetti with peas. I'm torn about whether or not I should be looking forward to the weekend. The days between Friday and Monday, with few scheduled activities, definitely tend to drag. But I am so tired from this work regimen they're putting me through that all I want to do is drop.

I spent my day hoeing, raking, pushing wheelbarrows and hauling rocks. Don't ask me why, but of those, raking is my favorite. With raking, I'm able to zone out in a zen-like trance: rake, rake, rake rake; it's somehow relaxing. The other tasks are just hard work, plain and simple. To keep my spirits up, as I do them I tell myself that I'm getting a lot of exercise. Too bad I hate to exercise.

This camp is not called a "work camp" for nothing. The place is based on work and prisoners constitute almost all the labor. Without us, the place would quickly grind to a halt. There's an entire 800 acre dairy farm all staffed by prisoner-farmers (poor cows), there's the Air Force base where all the menial tasks are performed by prisoners, there's the groundsmen and the dishwashers, the orderlies and the laundrymen. The list goes on. There's even a prisoner at the beck and call of the commanding officer. Until we are assigned permanent jobs (after jumping through a bunch of silly bureaucratic hassles) we'll continue with the landscaping. I'm hoping for a job that leaves time for writing.

As may be expected in a system predicated on forced labor and a pay rate of approx $0.05 per hour, prisoners are not the most energetic workers. We're dedicated to doing our time with a minimum of effort, although there's no way way around the fact that hoeing, shoveling and the like are all very hard jobs. I was raised to work hard so struggle here with my inner drive to do a good versus the pressure from other prisoners to do as little as possible.

The entire system reminds me of the communist system in place in the Soviet Union and the early years of post-Soviet Russia in which workers, hired for life, received a pittance but could never be fired. The result? Everyone tried to do as little as possible. Same thing here. There's absolutely no incentive to exert yourself. What're they gonna do? Raise your pay to $0.06 per hour? There are some who try to work hard out of an inner work ethic, but they are held back by the other prisoners, who don't want to be made to look lazy (even though they are).

Perhaps that is too cruel - I'm not sure even the most intrepid workplace manager would be able to motivate this distinctly un-motivated work force.  The goal is to do as little as possible for as short as possible a period of time. If you think about it, after all, the camp represents a system of indentured servitude where you have men working in what is essentially a system of forced labor at commensurate rates of pay doing work - farming, distribution, land management, landscaping - that should and could be done by the private sector.

Well, enough thoughts of work for a Friday afternoon. Let us now turn our thoughts to the two glorious days of loafing that await. TGIF.

Monday, May 19, 2014

La Cuenta

After the first overly-exciting days, I decided to move my posts from their day-to-day recounts to various themes. Don't worry: I am still counting down in my head and will return to the countdown at key dates: anniversaries and the like. It's been almost two weeks now: you'll definitely hear me cheering when a month has passed. In any event, today's theme is "the count."

The count (la cuenta in Spanish, if you're curious) is an annoying part of prison life. No, it's not "the count" as in Count Dracula on Sesame Street. For the uninitiated, it is what it sounds like: the guards count us to make sure no "heads" have wandered off. Twice per day and three times at night the guards walk through the barracks and count all the prisoners. I'm sure it's not the most scintillating task for the guards, but for the prisoners it's doubly annoying. We have to be on time (if not early) even though it rarely, if ever, starts on time. We also have to stand silently at our lockers for the duration. 

What this means in practice is that I can't get up before 5 a.m. (the time of the morning count) or go to sleep before 10 p.m. (the time of the evening count), both of which I'd like to do. It's a reminder that our schedules are, for the most part, chosen for us, not the other way around. The other annoyance is that the guards aren't particularly punctual. While we could get in humongous trouble if we aren't in our spot at the appointed time, the reverse obviously does not hold true.

Yesterday I had a scary experience. I woke up early, as I always do, and glanced at the clock: 5:15. I climbed down from my bunk and wandered with my towel to the bathroom. I was in the middle of washing my face when I looked up to see a guard glaring down at me. Turns out, the count was late and I jumped the gun. He ordered me gruffly back to my bed but, luckily, did not write me up.

Yesterday, a man fell asleep outside and was late for evening count. He wandered in just as the guards were finishing. They yelled at him for a long time and eventually marched him out - guards really, really don't like to have to count twice. It takes a lot of effort to count to 200, after all (especially when your IQ is probably only a quarter of that). If you miss the count, the guards will, more likely than not, send you to the SHU (segregated housing, i.e., isolation). No one wants to go there, hence, we all take "the count" seriously.

We have one guard who starts his count each evening with the Marine's "Hoo-Yaa" call. He counts out loud as he saunters down the aisles. "Thank you all for being here," he said last night. "Without you, I'd be flipping burgers somewhere."

What a touching sentiment. It's nice to know that I am contributing, in my own small way, to his employment prospects. Whoever said we prisoners do not contribute anything useful to society clearly had it wrong.

Hasta manana (my Spanish is getting good in here).

Originally posted 5/19/14. Re-posted 1/16/17.

Having Fun Yet?

I've been getting up early in order to start my day ahead of the hassle and bustle - a bit of quiet time before the onslaught when I can almost forget where I am (at least for a few minutes).

Yesterday evening I went to a yoga class and really enjoyed it. I also attended a Toastmaster's meeting - where you learn public speaking. Events like these make the time go faster. Without them, time slows to a crawl and the time between dinner and lights out at 10 stretches for an eternity.

I'm determined to have a positive attitude about the whole experience. I can see those people around me who do - those who participate in events, attend courses, take advantage of the little that is offered, maintain good cheer - and it seems to make a huge difference. Home is where you make it, after all. I spoke last night with a young Mexican man who talked of the fear and frustration of his trial but said that, to his surprise, he actually found prison to be fun.

Fun? That's not exactly a word I'd use to describe my least not yet and probably not ever. But there are recreational facilities, fast friendships, a certain camaraderie of us-v-them - we're all in this together after all. So the strange fact is that some people actually enjoy prison, maybe even come to prefer it over the uncertainties and difficulties of real life. "Three hots and a cot," one guy told me. "Could be worse." That and guaranteed employment and even a semblance of medical care.  

Personally, I don't find it fun, or comforting or pleasant or, well, really any positive word. Loss of freedom, rude guards, all the negatives are too omnipresent to let me think I'm having fun. I guess, though, I am gradually finding my place in the hierarchy. Basically, what I'm finding is that, whether I want to or not, I'm considered just another one of many white collar felons doing what other WCF's do: complain about their derailed circumstances, tell their stories, get a bit of exercise, maybe take a yoga class. Although we all now have calloused hands - I pushed a wheelbarrow full of rocks all day yesterday - there is something different about us, be it background, or experience, or education. Maybe we're just spoiled. I don't know.

Time to go to breakfast. Today's a big day: we find out our permanent work assignment. I'm not lazy, and I'm not hoping for "fun" in the way of work. But I am hoping for a job that's light on work so that I can focus on writing.

Until tomorrow.

Originally posted on 5/19/14. Re-posted 1/15/17.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

One Week Down

Only 115 To Go

In my posts I’ve been taking a blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute look at my exciting first week. For a change, I decided to fly up into the sky, high above my confined existence, for a bird’s eye approach.
So what grand conclusions and wonderful deductions can I draw after my first week? What wise and profound conclusions? Few, if any, other than that I don't really like. As the great Rodney Dangerfield once put it, “It ain't easy being me.” 
I suppose you can say I’ve settled in for the full nine rounds and am in the process of finding my place this new world of mine. As they say in AA, I’m just trying to take it one day at a time. If I do that it’s manageable. I wish I could keep my mind from jumping forward though: when I think of the full length of my sentence, of spending all those weeks and months and years in this place, it seems an eternity. My friend and prison consultant, Justin Paperny, told me I would feel this way initially.
My major conclusion after Week 1, if there is any at all, is that prison isn’t as bad as I expected nor is it as good as I had hoped. What it is, at base, is a somewhat demeaning, somewhat confining, somewhat bureaucratic exercise in enforced separation from family, from work, from the world. I hate that deprivation, that separation, from what I love, as do most of my fellow inmates, but it is survivable. Over time the sense of being cut off begins to fade, as the prison camp becomes your new (albeit unwanted) home.
For now, this separation, this sense of being cut off from normal, everyday life, this feeling of being stuck inside a crazy funhouse, is what gets to me most. My separation anxiety is tempered somewhat by the fact that I was already separated from my family, my children. But it still hurts. 
I miss little things. Skype. Facebook. Chatting on the phone in the privacy of my own home. A trip to the library. I miss everyday normal things that I previously didn’t value like a trip to the grocery store or a discrete gawk at a pretty woman walking down the sidewalk or an hour with a book on the couch. Sorry bud: no couches in prison, though there are plenty of books.
As a result of this separation, little things take on greater meaning. For example, yesterday I bought a radio at the commissary and – JOY OF JOYS – flicked the switch and entered the magical world, as if on a magic carpet, of All Things Considered. For an hour or so, in other words, I entered the real world: it reached over the fence to touch me.
Aside from separation, the biggest upset at least in this first week, the thing I didn’t prepare for because I didn’t expect it, is the distorted sense of time. Time drags in prison and it takes attention, diligence and ingenuity to fill the day with meaningful activity. I’m trying my damnedest to avoid little temptations like TV and naps, and to stick to my regiment of writing, but I still find myself wandering around, bored.
As time goes by, I find myself adjusting bit by bit, acclimating to this strange place. We humans are adaptable creatures after all. Compared to what I’m sure my ancestors survived in aeons past, this ain’t nothing. The initial, terrible, stress of the very first day is slowly receding. The feeling that this is my reality is quietly taking hold, despite my determined resistance. I don’t like the fact that I’ll be here for the next 2+ years, but I’m doing my best to accept it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Here, Kitty Kitty

Dear readers, in my previous post I left you on the evening of my first day. While there was some continued excitement, I decided for the sake of versimilitude. and to catch my posts up to reality, to skip ahead to day three. So here goes:

I expected a dorm filled with bunk beds. I expected a chow hall and a comissary. What I didn't expect is a family of stray cats. I'll get to that in a moment.

Slowly, I'm beginning to adjust, top meet people. I'm a bit standoffish by nature and in this prisonhouse atmosphere I'm even more cautious. It's hard to tell who is nice and who is trying to scam you.  What is clear is that some people here are weird (myself included?). There's Bob, who I've mentioned before, who appears to have stumbled blindly through life until he eventually stumbled right through the prison doors. He's here for failing to file taxes, but the way he acts, I wouldn't be too surprised if he'd never heard of the concept of paying taxes. He believes that each of our birth certificates are actually money bonds upon which the government can pay its debt. Within his first minutes he got into trouble for taking pictures outside the prison as if he had just arrived at Disneyland. 

Then there's Bill, a man convinced of the existence of the Socialist Republic of America. In his view, that's most definitely not a good thing,  given that Grand Dictator Obama is at its head, preparing to send us off to prison camps and deprive us of our freedoms. He tries to explain to me what brought him here but I just don't get it - it's far too convoluted.  What's clear is that he's convinced he's innocent. Given his views, it's ironic that he ended up in probably the most communistic place here in our United States, a prison camp where, as they used to say in the Soviet Union, they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work. Upon release, Bill intends to leave the US permanently behind for the joys of Ukraine, namely revolution and pretty Slavic girls ready to treat him as the king of the castle.

The purpose of this post is not to trash my fellow prisoners, but to highlight the diversity among us. I will write more down the road about the various characters I meet. But please permit me just a few more general observations. The first thing that struck me is all the people, at least among the "white collars", who claim they're innocent. In the stories I hear, it's always someone else who's to blame. I'm one of the very few who admits openly to my wrongdoing. Either our justice system has made a series of very terrible mistakes, or someone in this camp is lying. But without internet - no Google fact-checks here - there's really no way to know. Sometimes I'm proud to own my wrongdoing, to call a spade a spade.  But sometimes I'm almost convinced of these tales of innocence and feel myself a true schmuck amidst the wrongfully convicted. 

Second, people are surprisingly helpful in a guileless way (not merely in order to gouge me for something later). Gordo, my bunkmate, a chubby Hispanic man (who's name, in fact, means Fatty in Spanish) can't speak all that much English but goes out of his way to make me feel welcome, plying me with spicy Cheetos (those things are hot!), contraband ice cream and cake. Soon, I'll be Gordo too. Other gifts over the first days include a pair of tennis shoes from our barrack's resident Syrian, a pillow from a Chinese American from San Francisco, shower shoes from who the hell knows who, and a pen and paper from a film producer and former CIA agent. These initial acts of kindness reaffirm my basic belief that most people, including felons, are good at heart. 

My constant refrain: Good people sometimes do bad things.

So back to the cats: this morning, as I am leaving the commissary after lunch, I almost trip over a posse of at least 10 nearly identical black cats. They are milling about, meowing and rubbing on legs, surrounded by a circle of inmates. I approach warily, considering the possibility of a prison camp version of cock-baiting. What I find, to my surprise, are a number of inmates feeding the cats with lunchtime leftovers. Cats aren't picky after all and seem to enjoy prison food. I make introductions (with the inmates, not the cats), bump fists, and realize that this is a nice group of guys, guys I could be friends with even if not for our circumstances. We stand around for 30 minutes talking.  You can't judge a book by its cover, but apparently "cat feeding" is a nice test of character, one that I consider a prison "life lesson": only befriend those who are willing to feed a stray animal.

Originally Published 5/16/2014. Re-posted 1/15/2017

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thank You

Dear readers, thank you for all the messages and words of encouragement. They reach me here (thanks to my mother) and I much appreciate them. I'm still adjusting,  so words from the outside cheer me up, as does mail at mail call. 

In this short post, I just wanted to mention that my contact address is on the "contact" tab on my blog. I look forward to hearing from you.


Originally Published 5/15/2014. Re-posted 1/14/2017

Day 1: First Impressions at Lompoc Camp

Our first minutes at the camp are filled with bustle and commotion, yelling and questions and fist bumps. I only remember snippets:

Being led to a bunk. "This is yours," the guard grunts, pointing up at a tiny steel cot perched atop another cot high above the floor.

"How will I sleep on that?" I wonder. "What if I fall off?

Cries of "Wassup," and "We got us some fish".

Not sure if the cries are directed at me. Apparently today's new crop of convicts is bigger than usual. It's as if the anthill's been stirred up.

A tall, middle-aged man with a big gut walks over. "At least you're white," he says to me in greeting. 
I've never been told that before. It's not exactly something I feel I should take credit for.

"Yeah, that I am," I answer. "So are you."

"This is my bunk," he says, pointing to the lower steel slab. "You're my bunkie."

He seems nice enough - I am white after all - but I begin to panic that I'm housed with some sort of neo-Nazi.  He holds out his fist.

"What's he doing?" I wonder. Moves it toward me. I'm a little slow, a little out of touch. Finally I get it: fist bump, the universal prison handshake. I raise my fist in reply.

My Aryan bunkie ponies up some stuff for me: holey sweatpants 4 sizes too big, some shorts that could fit a cow. But I'm not complaining. I appreciate the gesture: he's trying to welcome me. 

Someone hands me some more stuff - i don't see who: toilette paper, a thin brown blanket, a towel. I'm at a loss what to do next so decide to make my cot. Needless to say, I struggle. The bunk is about 6 feet in the air and only several feet wide. Every time I try to slip on the sheet, the paper-thin mattress slides off and falls. I realize that there's no pillow.

My Aryan bunkie laughs, takes charge. He shows me how to knot the sheet and tuck in the thin blankets.

Just as we finish the guard returns. "Time to move."

"What?" Aryan asks. "He just got here." 

"Mixup somewhere," he grunts.

The guard points to another bunk toward the front of the room. Another top bunk. Lower bunks are reserved for old-timers, a sign of prestige. I also notice that I'm being transferred to the Hispanic part of town. I'm not at all racist but have heard enough of prisonhouse race relations to be at least somewhat nervous. A short fat man with brown skin and closely cropped black hair smiles at me. I smile back. We bump fists.

"Gordo," he says.

I remember enough Spanish from high school to know that this means "fatty". A fitting name.

Just in case, I ask, "Is that your name?"

"Yes," he says as he gestures toward a folding chair beneath the bunk. "Use this if want," he says.

I don't understand the significance but say thank you. Later, I learn that he's inviting me into his house, bidding me to feel welcome. He's a long-termer and there are a lot of subtleties of prison-house culture (i.e., all of them) that I do not understand. He hands me some super-spicy Cheetos topped with hot-pepper sauce.

I decline.

He insists.

I try one. My face turns red, my throat burns. I feel welcome, I guess. I wonder if I should be suspicious.  Something inside me tells me no. 

I climb, wobbly and unsteady, to my bunk. Stare about. The place is hustle and bustle; cramped; bunks stacked floor to ceiling, no open space but a narrow path through the center. It reminds me of an overpacked airport after a storm. I can't imagine a day in this place, let alone a month, or a year, or two. My sentence stretches out in front of me like all eternity. I want to walk away, leave, escape, get out.  I feel isolated, cut off from the world. I don't yet understand the culture, the words, the rules, the rhythm of my new world. It's like moving to a new country....a country called 'hell'.

The hardest part is that, although there are a ton of rules, nothing is written down. Inmates pelt me with hours and rules and times. Be here, do this, don't do that. I wonder how I'll remember them all. I begin to write things down: time for lunch, where I can walk, where not, what to wear and when. How to wear your ID (inside your shirt so that it's hidden-go figure!). Some of these rules I learn by breaking them: my fellow inmates are great traffic cops, it's better to be stopped by them than by the gestapo guards.

Time out. To be continued tomorrow.

Originally Published 5/15/2014. Re-posted 1/14/2017

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Day 3, Continued

Dear readers: I'm continuing with my flashbacks to Day 1 from my notes on Day 3. Someday soon I'll be caught up to the present and will switch to topical posts. Thank you to those who have been responding on Facebook: my mother forwarded me your comments.


The three of us stand silently in our small cell fronted by bars and backed by a metal toilet without a seat or lid. I have to pee but don't want to do it in front of the others. I decide to hold it. I finish my forms in about 20 minutes (skipping, as I mentioned, the question regarding death) and stand staring through the bars, avoiding eye contact as if we are scared of each other (which we are).

After about an hour of this, I notice that the gray-haired gent is struggling with his forms. "Can I help?" I ask. I decide that my inner nature, my natural impulse to be friendly and helpful has to win out over wariness and caution. If it doesn't, I'll have lost something of who I am.

"Thanks," he says, surprised. For all I know, he thought I was a crazy mass murderer.

I help him with his forms. It turns out he's not the sharpest tack on the board - a topic I'll return to at a later date - but he seems nice enough.

"What are you in for?" I ask, in the first of many times I'll ask the inmate's favorite question over the next few days.

"Tax evasion," he says.

I sigh: another white-collar felon. "Are you going to the camp?" I ask.

"What's that?" he says. "What are you talking about?"

I think of all the research I did, all the worrying about where I was going, all the talks with my lawyer to prepare, calls with former inmates about what awaits and what to expect. This man clearly came unprepared. I hope it won't come back to haunt him, but, unfortunately, over the next few days, it will. I'll return to that as well, although to give him credit, I'm not sure I'd be as with it at 60 as I am at 44.

Before I can answer, a screech erupts from somewhere down the hall, a real scream from hell. I hear pounding feet. The clang of metal. A bell begins to ring. "Lockdown," someone screams.

I have no idea what to do. A few seconds later, a guard runs by and  yells at us to turn around. We quickly obey. A few minutes pass. I can't see what's happening, just hear the confusion, the yelling. By the sound of it, someone's being dragged away.

Finally, a guard approaches. "Follow me," he says. We are led to another cell, a bit larger but jammed full of people. I look around me, see a bunch of tough looking dudes. Who are all these guys? Are they lumping me together with high-security inmates? We stand like cattle, lowing and jostling as the hours pass. "Where are you from?" I finally ask the guy next to me. " The prisoner's favorite opening line.

"Transferring in from Terminal Island," he answers.

It turns out that these men are being transferred to Camp Cupcake from all over the West. Some have served time in higher security prisons and are now reaping their rewards for good behavior.  I still have to pee - the refrain of the day - but there's no way I'm going to do it in front of 20 guys. A few do: when you gotta go, you gotta go.

A guard wheels a gray box toward our cell. I smell something that can only be described as food. He grabs a key, opens the door.  "Eat" he grunts as he slams the trays through the door.

My first taste of prison food.

I look down at my tray. Two hot dogs. Something brown. Something green. I manage a few bites. I'm not picky but can't manage this.

Before we finish, a guard walks in and takes our trays. He throws some jumpsuits our way. We dress. Now I look like an inmate. I'd been warned to expect a finger up my butt but the worst thing that happens is that I'm patted down. My lucky day, I guess.

We stand in line for about an hour and then, in late afternoon, are led to a van in the outer courtyard that will take us to the camp, my home for the next two years.

We drive for 5 minutes, pull in. I'm nervous; don't know what to expect. I glance about. Can't imagine spending an hour in this place, let alone years.  Crowds of inmates dressed in brown stand about watching. Seen from the windows of the van they appear sinister, threatening. We're ordered to climb out. Eyes follow us; cat-calls ring out: Fish! Here come the fish! (Prison slang for new inmates.) We're led in a line to a squat building. We enter into a long, low room filled floor to ceiling with narrow little bunk beds. And men. And lockers.

Out of time. To be continued tomorrow.

Original Post Date: 5/13/14

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Greetings from Camp Cupcake

Note to readers: I'm sorry for the delay. There was some mix-up with my funds and I couldn't access e-mail (which, alas, does not come free in prison) until yesterday. But never fear: I've been diligently scribbling my thoughts with a tiny nub of a pencil in a yellow legal pad. Although I'm now on Day 7, I decided that at least for the first few days I'll give you a stream of consciousness directly from my journal about my thoughts and feelings. So without further ado, here we go with Day 3:

Day 3

This is my first real diary entry. Days 1 and 2 were just too scary and disorienting. I also lacked money for the commissary, so spent my time scrounging for scraps of paper and pencil nubs to scribble down my thoughts. What I ended up with were a few unintelligible pages of random thoughts:
  - this place sucks
  - how am I going to survive 2 years here
  - I'm going to run away

Stuff like that. You get the idea. I've basically been a walking zombie (for that I can possibly also blame the one-two punch of caffeine and nicotine withdrawal). 

To recap from memory and the snippets of jumbled scribbles: my mother drove me here, to this place affectionately called Camp Cupcake, two days ago to self-surrender. When we saw the place, she broke down and I had my first real second thoughts. It's not that the place appeared from
the road to be sinister or evil, but if you saw it you would most definitely not want to go there. The road to the complex fronts a barren field of dried grass edged by barbed wire. Squat gray buildings hover in the distance alongside a guard tower. My mother had to catch a plane so I sat on the trunk of a Eucalyptus tree across the street, staring at this place that would be my home for the foreseeable future. I couldn't imagine living there. Not even for a day.

There are actually three separate prisons here: Camp Lompoc (i.e., Camp Cupcake), the prison camp which I now call home, a low security prison and a medium security prison. The latter two are probably more what you think of when you think of prisons. Depressing places with marching guards, barred windows, yelling in the hallways, the clang of steel doors. I know this because I checked in at the medium - it's a dismal, dark, scary place.

Well, what can I say?  It took all the effort I could muster to stand up off the stump and walk down the long road to the prison. Self-surrendering is strange - as if you're voluntarily reporting for your doom. Finally, I entered the gate and told the frowning guard I was here to self surrender.

"ID please," he grunted.

"What? ID? Sorry. I didn't bring any." I thought I was suppposed to arrive with nothing but my body.

"Sorry, can't surrender without ID," he said.

"But, but..." I explained my situation - no ID, mom already left with my wallet, no way to get it back. He pointed to a metal bench. I sat there for about an hour before another guard arrived. Apparently they decided to let me in. Lucky me!

The man glared down at me. "Flip flops?" he asked. "What were you thinking? Don't you even know how to check into prison? What is this world coming to."

I didn't know that flip-flops were not allowed. I followed him silently to a concrete barrier and a gate. "Fire in the hole" the guard screamed. I jumped as a concrete and steel door slid open. To my right as I entered I saw a thick plate-glass window of a holding cell. Leering faces (mostly black and brown, I feel compelled to add) pressed against the glass stared out at me. One man, a tall, bald-headed gent, raised his fist, stared at me and banged the glass. Another flicked his wrist at me in some kind of sign (don't ask me what it meant).

"Oh no," I thought. "Please don't put me in there with them."

Thankfully, the guard led me to another cell, a tiny space with bars on one side, an open toilet on the other and nowhere to sit. "Won't put you in with the baby killers," he said. He then handed me a tiny pen and a reaf of forms. "Can you read?" he asked.

I nodded.

"Fill out what you can," he said.

I leaned against the concrete blocks and began to write. The first question? "Who to contact in the event of death." In my first act of minor subservience, I left it blank. I'm not planning to die around here.

My hands shook. A few minutes later another prisoner was led to the cell. We stared warily at each other. He didn't look too intimidating - a gray-haired man of about 60. A few minutes later another arrived: a barrel chested, huge-muscled young man. We focused on our forms and didn't speak, each of us nervous and wary of the others.

And so went my first hours at prison. I'm out of allotted time so will carry on tomorrow where I left off.

Original Post Date 5/11/14

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Out of Time

I'm usually quite eloquent and wordy, at least where writing is concerned. Finding words to write is usually not my problem; my problem is writing too much. But today I'm mostly just speechless and grumpy - I want to be alone and not to think about tomorrow.  So please forgive my in-eloquence on this last post from freedom. I'm not going to run or do anything stupid like that. And until now I've been counting down with impatience, ready to get on with it already. But now with one day left I suddenly want more time. Go figure. I hope that in a few months I look back on this post, and on my feelings today, and realize it was much ado about nothing.

In mundane news, I've been puffing away all day on my e-cigarette. No offense to my friends and family, but I'm going to miss good old nicotine more than anything. I haven't smoked real cigarettes for the last five years, but my e-cig is a constant companion. I dread the withdrawal I know will hit me tomorrow morning, just when I don't need it. Bye, bye, old friend. 

I also already miss my children. Our relationship is conducted via Skype and soon that will be no more. I'm thinking about them fast asleep at this very moment in Moscow. I wish more than anything that I could hug them one last time. 

Today has been filled with calls from family - although I'm not in the mood to "hang out" I appreciate that everyone has reached out to connect one last time. I wanted to take this moment to thank all of you - friends and family both - who have offered support over these past difficult months. Your kindness has helped me get through a tough time. When I decided to go public with my problems I expected the exact opposite: scorn and condemnation for my stupidity. While I still got a tiny bit of that, so many people reached out to help me along that I was overwhelmed. I made some new friends and connected with some old. I wish the circumstances were different but it means a lot to me that so many people stepped up to the plate.

I've heard it can take a week or two to reconnect with the outside world through e-mail and phone. Apparently there are some bureaucratic hurdles to overcome. But rest assured that as soon as I am able I'll be posting (with the help of my mother and sister) once again.  If readers send me messages or comments my mother and sister will be doing their best to ensure that I eventually receive them.

I have posted my contact information on the "Contacts" tab of my blog: please write!

So....So long.

It's time for a new adventure to begin.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

One More Day of Freedom

Finally, after all the worrying and waiting and wondering, the big day is almost here: a day from now I check in to Lompoc Federal Prison Camp. This will be a short post because my to-do list is still long and the hours are short.
In some ways I am relieved. I ran track in high school and in the days before a race would work myself up into a nervous frenzy. Finally running the race was a big relief in comparison to what preceded it. This whole process leading up to prison reminds me of that. So in a sense I’m actually looking forward to tomorrow as a chance to finally move beyond all the worry and get on with my new life.
But I’d be lying if I said I weren’t nervous. I picture myself standing before the gates of that place tomorrow – tomorrow!! – staring up at my home for the next three years. Even now, with only hours left to go, I can’t quite believe it.  I don’t want to believe it. It doesn’t seem real. But I know it’s true, it’s real, that there’s nothing I can do to avoid it.
With Justin and others’ guidance I’ve been trying to prepare myself mentally for the big day. But it’s hard to prepare for something that’s so hard to imagine. I’ve been focused for the past weeks on my “to-do” list, which helps keep my mind off the many imponderables. I sent my new prison self some money by Western Union. And I thought of a bunch of new to-do’s this morning – packing clothes, taking one last trip to the grocery store, writing this post – to keep me focused for this last free day.
But I am feeling a little weird. It’s difficult to describe.  For example, by chance a big family reunion was scheduled for this weekend in Los Angeles – one of my cousins is having her Bat Mitzvah. Earlier, I had big plans to attend, to say good bye to all my relatives. But when the time came I bailed. Not only did I not want to become the center of attention on my cousin’s big day, but the thought of saying good bye to a hundred relatives while responding to their “how are you feeling’s” filled me with dread. So I stayed home to focus on my to-do’s. I don’t regret my decision.  I suppose if my children were here I’d be spending every minute with them. But they’re not – we said good bye via Skype – so I’m finding that in these last few hours I really want to be alone.  So I am. All alone.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Snap + Massage

I don't have much left on my "to do" list, which probably says something more about the length of the list than about my efficiency in checking items off. One thing that wasn't there but which I decided to add at the last minute was a massage. 

For whatever reason, I just love massages - the poking, the prodding, the feeling that I'm a loaf of dough on the kneading board. With ample time and money, I would happily go every single day, perhaps with a break for Christmas and Easter. And - though I don't know for certain - I suspect that massages aren't provided in prison or, if they are, that I wouldn't appreciate the strings that come attached. So off I went for a massage - in LA, salons are on practically every corner - and now I'm back, an hour later, $25 poorer and much more relaxed. I'm so relaxed, in fact, that it's hard to even lift my fingers to type.

I suppose that it should come as no surprise to anyone that my muscles were perhaps a little tense. I am getting older, but I don't blame age for my recent aches and pains. No matter how you look at it, how fervently you try to convince yourself that it's just the start of another adventure, the weeks leading up to prison can be a stressful time, a time that makes your muscles ache and your shoulders throb. 

I spent the past two days in the company of a producer from Snap Judgment, a nationally syndicated program aired on NPR. I told my story, with a few meanders and detours, pretty much from start to finish. All told, I blabbed for almost six hours, with short little breaks to wait for loud cars to pass and weed-eaters to stop eating weeds. Honestly, I didn't know I had so much to say (or that there was so much background noise in what I thought to be a very quiet house). 

It will be interesting to see how they manage to pare those six hours down to ten minutes, but I have no doubt that they will do it well. If you haven't checked out the program, you should, and not just because I will soon be featured. They take a very interesting, unique approach to storytelling. I don't yet know when my story will be ready, but I'll try to post a notice on my blog when the big day comes.

Dredging up all the ancient history of my sordid past was not exactly fun. At times, I felt as if I were telling someone else's story. I wish it was someone else's story, to be honest, but unfortunately it was me doing all those awful, stupid things. I may have been a bit too forthcoming - it's easy to forget, sitting in a living room with one other person and talking into a microphone, that you're actually speaking to the entire country. But I'm intent on telling my story as honestly as I can, not to whitewash any of the details, because only through complete honesty will I ever be able to even begin to transcend what I did.

In any event, after all was said and done, after I'd bared my soul, after the producer had hopped in her car and drove off for the airport, after all of that, my shoulders hurt like hell. So off I went to get a massage. 

I'm glad I did.