Monday, June 30, 2014

Here Comes the Weekend

TGIF or Anxiously Awaiting Monday?

It's Friday a.m. and all I can say is TGIF. No happy hour awaits, no sushi-combo at the local Japanese restaurant, no vanilla latte at Starbucks, no binge watching Walking Dead on Netflix. But do I care? Well, maybe a little... But that doesn't mean I don't look forward to weekends here with a passion. Most people think I'm crazy.

Except for my time amidst Type-A New Yorkers after law school, I have never been around so many weekend haters as here in prison. Why is that? Interesting question. I suppose, in part, it's for some of the same reasons those New York investment bankers and lawyers sat at their desks all weekend long: to avoid reality, to hang out with colleagues, to pass the time, to avoid thinking about what miserable lives they really led.

Being here (and being in New York) I've come to realize that quite a few people don't deal all that well with unstructured time. Without hobbies, without reading, without exercise, time becomes the enemy, an exercise in boredom. Faced with an hour or two, they're at a loss.

What I've learned in my time here is that time is flipped on its head from what it is on the outside. In regular life, between work and family and chores and commutes, there never seems to be enough time. In here, it's the opposite. No family, no chores, no commutes = way too much unstructured time. As an economist will tell you, when there's too much of a given good, it's value is debased. That's the case in prison with time. The only things we have more of than time are milk and rules and guards. Time, as a result, is something to be dreaded, something to be wasted.  The problem with the weekend? Way too much unstructured time.

The trick to a productive stay in prison (and no, that isn't an oxymoron: I firmly believe that prison stays can be productive) is successful time management. I'm not perfect at it - I waste time and procrastinate just like the next guy - but I really do try.

When given the opportunity, I fill my time with reading and writing and yoga and walking. Those things are just interesting and fun for me. And the whole time I'm busy with those activities I'm thinking to myself: thank god I'm not weed whacking. I do get bored but for the most part I manage to schedule my weekends with things I like to do. Plus a few naps.

On the flip side, many of my friends in this joint fall into a funk. They play endless hands of cards or stare at the clock or nap for hours or force themselves to lift weights when they really don't want to. Eight or 12 straight hours of free time stretches out like an eternity. They miss their jobs, however menial and demeaning they may be: at least when you're slopping up after cows or driving a riding mower time tends to speed on by.

I'm off now to weed whack, to put in those last few hours of prison time before my "me time" starts. I can't wait.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

One Degree of Separation

So Close, Yet So Far; The Real Hardship of Prison

I hear the voice, that cute, clear little voice - that voice I would recognize anywhere: "Hi Papa. I miss you." 

My son. 

Then another voice: "Papychkin, where are you?" 

My daughter. 

It's all I can do not to cry. Ok, I admit it, I do cry, although I try to hold it together for them. Only after we speak do I run to that one place I can cry in private: the toilet stall. Where others go to poop, I go to cry. 

Thankfully, this was not another one of my vivid prison dreams, although I've had plenty similar. This was an honest-to-goodness conversation with my beloved children, the first contact I've had with them in 7 weeks. I have not spoken with them since I checked myself into this joint. No way to call them, no way to Skype. No way to mail. Prison is still in the dark ages when it comes to international communications. 

But now they are here. Close. Only two hours away. In the same country. In the same state even. They arrived last night after a long flight from Moscow. The prison phones were already off for the evening so I first spoke with them just moments before I sat down to write this. Usually my posts go through a bit of filtering. Not this one. It's direct from brain to keyboard. 

After all of our forced separation - that endless period following my abrupt departure from Russia in 2011 - it's almost too surreal to believe. I've dreamed about this - their move - for years, about once again being close on a daily basis, about regaining a foothold in their everyday lives, about tucking them in for bed at night just like a normal father. There's only one small catch: my dreams did not involve prison.

The desire to be out there with them is almost too much to bear. Yesterday I could barely weed whack so intensely did I want to be standing at the airport to meet them, to kiss them, to wrap them in my arms. When I heard their voices this morning - so close yet so far - it was all I could do not to run from this joint to meet them. 

While my situation is a bit extreme, what I'm getting at is the true pain - the real frustration - of prison. Despite my many blog posts to the contrary, it's not the food or the bunks or the guards or the showers that make prison so difficult. It's not the bureaucracy, brutality or indifferences. What makes prison difficult, above all else, is the prolonged, enforced separation from loved ones, from the innocents on the outside that suffer right along with us.

I call it the pain of forced separation. And it is suffered by all of us in here, whether our family is just down the road or a continent away. Something about the fact that we inmates forced this hardship, these trials, on other, innocent parties, friends and family who are out there struggling because of us, and who we are unable to help from behind these walls, is particularly awful. This helplessness compounds the pain.

I know that I'm not the only one to suffer this pain of separation, this guilt of suffering, this overwhelming desire to be there for my loved ones. I see the pain in the eyes of other inmates as they sit at the phones. And in their excitement and longing when they run to their bunks to open letters after mail call. Or in the anticipation with which they await visiting day. Although in our daily lives here we hide our true feelings beneath a facade of toughness, the pain of separation endures.

My family's move, of course, holds out the promise of weekend visits, of daily calls. It also means a lot that has nothing at all to do with me: a chance for my kids to experience normal American life, to go to a neighborhood school, to make new friends. It also, I'm sure, will entail some hard adjustments. My kids were born in the U.S. but have never lived here. Their mother last lived in the States in 2001. That's what worries me: I won't be able to help them, to support them, to problem solve like a normal father, from at this camp.
But that feeling, that frustration, just encourages me and spurs me on to redouble my efforts to be there for them now in the limited ways I can, and to keep focusing on bettering myself and planning for the future so that when I do get out, I can be the father that I want to be, that perhaps I once was.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Learning the Ropes

Since I got here to federal prison camp I’ve been proud of my bunk-dismount technique, a swan dive from the upper rungs in which I catch myself, with grace and poise, on the steel locker opposite my bunk. It’s a technique (or so I thought) that demonstrates my athleticism and newfound yogic balance. Little did I know that it’s also a no-no. My neighbor – who’s wizened in the ways of the place – politely informed me yesterday that every time I dismounted, I was jolting the men in the bunks ahead of me with the domino-effect of my locker tilting against the bunk. I had no idea, but was glad to learn: jarring the wrong person could lead to a punch in the nose.
So too with walking around the camp in shower shoes: I’ve been doing it for two reasons, first because it reminds me of the outside, where I walked everywhere in my flip flops, and second because it’s comfortable and helps me recover from the weed-whacking blisters that appear as a result of our awful work boots. So much for that. I learned last night from a different old-timer that this was yet another no-no. One that could get me in trouble with the guards.
I could go on. For example, I walked to the shower this weekend in my long, prison-issued boxers and was told that by doing so I was broadcasting to the whole barracks that I was “available”. Then there’s the confrontation I had with a guard over failing to pick up my mail at mail call. Or the time recently that I innocently strayed into an unmarked forbidden area which we are apparently expected to “just know” is off limits, as if we were born with that knowledge.
As you can see, I still have more to learn.
At the other end of the spectrum, I find myself laughing at the naivet̩ (dare I say stupidity?) of the newcomers, never mind the fact that only a few weeks ago I was exactly like them, floundering about as I struggled to find my way. As I listen to them complain about the things I already accepted a long, long time ago Рthe bad food, the bureaucracy, the annoyance of re-count РI wonder how the old-timers ever put up with my whining and complaining in those first few weeks.
Actually, I exaggerate a bit. The truth is, I’m an empathetic guy. After all, I was in those exact same shoes not long ago at all and can vividly recall those first few disorienting, disheartening days. What the passage of time has taught me is that, as the old saying says, time heals all. We humans have a remarkable capacity to learn, to adjust, whatever our circumstances. What may have seemed awful or unacceptable only weeks ago can become accepted and tolerated with the passage of time.
The trick, as a prisoner, is to adjust and accept, to tolerate and to “get along”, while at the same time keeping sight of your inner self, maintaining your inner values and your sense of right and wrong, who you are. It’s one thing, for example, to do what it takes to fit in, to put a veneer of toughness on your face or to conceal aspects of your past from your fellow inmates. That’s called self interest, self preservation, even self respect. It’s another to lose yourself in the atmosphere, to become a thug or a bully, or a judgmental prick, someone you really aren’t, someone you don’t respect, in a misbegotten effort to gain respect around this joint or belittle others who may not act or think like you.
So as you can see I’ve learned something in these first weeks but still have a lot to learn. But I’m determined not to lose myself – my values, my goals and my qualities – in the process.

Flaunting My Stuff

Learning the sexual subcurrents.

I shuck my one dirty old pair of sweats like an old cocoon, grab my towel, bar of soap and bottle of Prell, and head down the hall to the shower in my white t-shirt and briefs. Not to brag about my hygiene but it's a daily occurrence: I've made this very same walk each day since I arrived at this place. The only difference? This time I'm wearing a new pair of gray underpants - the long kind somewhere between boxers and briefs - I'd just bought at the commissary instead of the standard baggy white prison-issued boxers.

I enter the bathroom and smile to myself: the line, often long and incredibly slow (the subject of a future post), is mercifully short. Only one guy stands in front of me, a short, heavily-muscled dude with a shaved head and skull tattoos. In other words: nothing out of the ordinary. I stand behind him minding my own business when he turns toward me, invading my space. I take a step back.

"Your first time?" he barks.

"First time what?" I answer.

"Prison, man, prison," he says, a sub-current of derision in his voice. For those on the outside who might think that being in prison just one time is actually a good thing (or at least better than being here many times), think again.

Once here you quickly learn it's bad, at least among a certain subset of the population, to be a newbie. There's a pride taken in having served and returned for more, or having served at some point in a high-security joint. It means you know the ropes. That you're a real man.


"Fuuuuuccccckkkkk." He grunts, looks away. "Figures," he adds after a moment in a derisive voice.


"Look at you, man. Have some respect. Cover yourself up. Unless you want it, that is."

I'm dumbfounded. With my long t-shirt and long boxers the only protruding skin is from my knees down and neck up.

"What are you talking about?" I ask, already hating this conversation. When will those showers free up?

"Yo, dude, you gotta wear some shorts man. Those who've really served time are gonna think you're offering something, strutting your stuff. Are you available?"

I can't believe it. Really? Go to a small, Midwestern town, as conservative as they come, seek out the local golf club, and you will see every single man in the locker room engaging in much more risque behavior. 

"What about the white boxers?" I ask. "Are they ok?" I wonder whether I've been telling the world for the last six weeks that "my stuff's" on offer. 

He doesn't answer. "Yo dude, jus cover yourself up. Wear some shorts."

Another guy walks into the bathroom to wash his face and addresses my "instructor". "Yo dude, wassup?"

My Instructor shakes his head. "Sexually frustrated, man, sexually frustrated."

I hope to God that I'm not the cause.


Nightmare on Camp Street

Nighttime shenanigans in the barracks.

One of these scenes is real, one not. Can you guess which is which?

Scene 1: I see them on the ground over behind the commissary: two shiny pennies. Today must be my lucky day. I reach down to pick them up. Just as I'm about to touch them, a guard - the very guard who sent someone to the hole a few months back for touching a dollar bill in the visitor's center - runs up yelling. I pull back my hand in the nick of time, just millimeters from being sent to quarantine in the hole for committing that most dastardly of prison violations.

Scene 2: I'm lying asleep in my bunk, dreaming dreams of junior high, of bullies and bad times. Suddenly, a sharp tap on my shoulder. Then another. One of the farm boys playing some stupid trick - that one where you look over your shoulder to see who's tormenting you and no one's there. I reach my hand back and push, hear a grunt.  Right on target. Shows that farm boy right. Another poke. Damn! I open my eyes, to find my hand on a scowling guard's uniform. The barracks are dark. He holds up a black box and shoves it in my face.

"Blow," he says. "Blow."

So which do you choose? Scene 1 or Scene 2? Should I let the cat out of the bag? The truth is that both of them are real in the sense that I really thought them, it's just that one was a dream and the other not. Confusingly, when I woke up this morning I thought the reality was, in fact, the dream. So....drum roll please: the dream was scene 1, the reality scene 2, although either one could have just as easily have happened.

As for the money, one of the great and terrible taboos of our existence is that we are not, under any circumstances, to touch money. Never ever ever. No pennies, no nickels, no hundred dollar bills. We do so under threat of death and, if not that, some other equally terrible punishment. Why? Not exactly sure about that. Who needs money when you've got currency in circulation in the form of mackerel? They seem to do the trick. And it is true that a hapless con got sent directly to the hole - to solitary confinement - during visiting day for helping a family member put a dollar bill into the vending machine. So you see, in the hands of prisoners money is considered toxic. 

As for scene 2, as I said, it really happened. Last night. I was deep asleep dreaming of pennies when I began to be tapped. It was all as I wrote above: I thought it was all a dream. But no. The guards were walking around the barracks at two in the morning breathalyzing each and every inmate. I'm happy to report that I passed. I heard that everyone else did too, at least in our barracks.

The other barracks, barrack B, is known around here as the party dorm. Apparently over there some guys were caught not only drunk but doing other stupid stuff related to locks and contraband. Hence the nighttime raid. At the moment, the prisoner rumor mill is swirling so consider this hot off the presses. I'll provide updates if they come along.

Until then, be careful with your money.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


For most of my life I’ve considered “spirituality” to be a dirty word. I suppose you could call it my own little rebellion. My parents were ex-hippies, seekers and health-food nuts so once I became an adult I rebelled by focusing on cold hard facts and eating Twinkies. Just as before me they had rebelled against their parents by becoming seekers and health food nuts. I shudder to think how my children might rebel.
In any event, in my case I raised rationalism to a religion and sought solace in news and current events and logical thinking. It was only partly happenstance that I became a lawyer: deductive reasoning focused on ‘just the facts ma’am’ fit my own self-imposed predilections. No room for spirituality in my worldview. In the process, I lost site of myself, who I am, what I value.
Regular readers of my blogs may have noticed that finally, now, after all that has happened, after all the pain and heartbreak I have caused, I’m beginning to belatedly wonder whether my way was the wrong way and, if so, what way is the right way. I would have to be a complete idiot to claim that all was well with my mind and my actions. Something clearly wasn’t working. Not only was I an out of shape, delusional, addictive punk before coming to this place but my beliefs, my ways of thinking, had clearly led me astray. With all the resulting self destructive urges as I flailed about, I did not value what I had or properly consider my path. Where had all my logical thinking, my rationalism gotten me? Nowhere that I wanted to go, that’s for sure. The biggest shame is not that I led myself down the wrong path but that I dragged so many others along with me.
That questioning – admitting that something was wrong – made me open to new ideas but it did not show me a new path. Suspecting that you have erred does not mean that you then realize what that error is. But the questioning did make me come to this camp intent on taking advantage of this “opportunity” (more on that below) to discover myself at what is, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of a very basic and no-frills two-year retreat, the kind of thing you do – like trekking across the Australian outback – once and never want to repeat.
What I did first was focus first on the obvious: my flabby muscles and overall lack of fitness. To rectify that I began to walk, jog and do yoga. A few months in and the benefits are clear: I feel so much better and can even do a headstand. The other yogis and I joke that out there in the real world it will be funny to joke at yoga class about where we learned our asanas.
But running around the track did not really address my spiritual void. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with a bunkie who’s used his very long time behind bars (over 10 years) to better himself in many ways: to become a true yogi, a master of philosophy and an expert in meditation and ancient Eastern religions. He’s my Buddha and when I start to complain and grumble about this place and life behind bars he sets me straight. Your job, he said, your only task, is to discover yourself and take as much as you can from this opportunity afforded to you.
Opportunity? Prison? Yes, that’s how he sees it. Where many have become bitter and resentful as they flail at the government and their unfair sentence, he has used his time to look inside himself, to discover who he really is. Where else, he asks, do you have this much time to focus on what is important to you, to meditate, to follow your whims, to read, to seek. It would be easy to waste it all away, as many do, watching TV, but he reminds me that that would be a shame. And he’s right.
I won’t go off (yet) on my newfound discoveries in meditation or spirituality behind bars – I’m just starting to read about the dharmas and the chakras and the Zen. Suffice it to say that I have a newfound appreciation for these ancient ways of looking at the world and the motivation to explore my innermost thoughts and desires in order to avoid making the same mistake again that led me here. I see others doing the same – not necessarily through Zen or Buddhism but through discovering who they are. They are a minority, to be sure, but quite a few men here use this time to better themselves and discover their inner direction. I’m not saying my way is the right way. Many pass over spirituality for organized religion. Some are “born again” behind bars. Others focus on education or journaling or writing letters. There are many ways to find your path in prison. The most important thing is to seek it, as no one here will hold your hand and lead you to the promised land. You have to take the initiative and do it yourself.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Giving Speeches: Enriching Yourself Behind Bars

Yarn welding anyone?

The inmates sit on metal chairs as they jab long sharp instruments reminiscent of some sort of medieval torture weapon. They twist and turn them, stabbing them into the soft material as they wince in concentration, sweating from the effort. What could this be? A lesson in the art of the shiv? Some secret prisonhouse ritual? Read on and you shall learn....

Faithful readers of my posts may be forgiven for thinking that life here is an endless drudgery of head counts, bad food, TP runs and uncomfortable bunks. Well, those all may be ever-present aspects of our daily life, but there are a number of groups and clubs available for those determined to enrich themselves. 

Last night, for example, in one room of the chapel inmates gathered to learn iron welding (translation: knitting for felons), which I described in the first paragraph but have yet to learn. In the next room over a group met for a college-level course on family therapy. And in the main hall, inmates gathered in their dress greens for a club on public speaking called Toastmasters. Despite my fear of being the center of attention, I was among them. And not only among them, but giving my very own speech.

Toastmaster clubs exist on the outside as well. It's a group of people (all men, here at Lompoc) who get together to give speeches to each other and provide feedback. You progress through a number of increasingly demanding speeches until you graduate from the program. Last night was my first speech, called the "Ice Breaker", devoted to a topic I know well: myself. Another newcomer, also coincidentally enough, a lawyer, also gave his first speech.

As I stood up I joked that for our lucky listeners tonight was lawyer night: two for the price of one. Expectations, as you can imagine, were high given our vast education and the erudition and wit expected from such distinguished speakers - my counterpart is a graduate from none other than Harvard Law School. Contrary to popular belief, however, lawyers do not learn public speaking in law school. The sad secret is that most really suck at it...

Including me. 

Yes, sadly, it's true. My speech did not go perfectly from start to finish. Not even close. And this despite the pep talk someone gave me beforehand. "Where better place to give a speech than in prison to a bunch of felons?" he said. "It's not as if you're appearing before the Supreme Court or at the Academy Awards."

No pressure, in other words. But I was still nervous. More or less. Ok, more than less. But I'm determined to face this little fear of mine despite any temporary elevations in blood pressure or resulting minor heart attacks.

Now for the stats that demonstrate said suckiness:

- During the course of my speech I said "um" 23 times (yes, someone actually counts). For those of you who aren't sure, that is a lot.
- I spoke to only one side of the room, completely ignoring the rest.
- I lost my place and had to look at my notes - which, because of my bad handwriting, I couldn't read!!
- And for the real kicker: for whatever reason, I turned my back on the audience and began speaking to the ceiling. I realized I was doing this but at the time it seemed perfectly natural. An audience member told me later that everyone else was looking at the ceiling too, trying to figure out what I was looking at. (Answer: Nothing at all). 

In my defense, I'm making it sound a tiny bit worse than it was. At the very least, I wasn't accused of bloviating, as another speaker was.

The sub-topic of my speech was my name (Title: What's In a Name?) and I told a lot of jokes that got a good reaction about my name's various iterations, including the many ways its pronunciation has been slaughtered here in prison. I also talked about my nickname - Boo - including its history and etymology.

I hadn't thought of this beforehand, but the other members of the club - only half jokingly - told me that knowledge of this nickname (could be risky in prison. "Little Boo" doesn't exactly have an aura of toughness about it.) But they promised to keep the information within the group: what's said in Toastmasters stays in Toastmasters, they said.

And because of my speech another inmate, a big, strong, tough man, was motivated to share his nickname with the group: Cookie.

Reading Up a Storm

I like to read. I can’t remember when I first lost myself in a book but it’s just one of those things I grew up with and have always enjoyed. There’s nothing I like more than to spend a Sunday morning on the couch with a book or, in the prison version of the same ritual, in my bunk with a book. Coming in to prison, I just knew that I would spend a lot of time with my nose in a book. If you have interest in my prison advice you will follow my lead and read aggressively.
Admittedly, I was a reader before prison and will be afterward. So it’s really no surprise. What’s truly inspiring are all the inmates – and there are a lot of them – who discover reading here on the inside. I can’t count the number of men who’ve told me they never picked up a book until they stepped through these gates but are now voracious readers. Ok, so a lot of the books I see propped open before lights out might not be great literature – crime fiction along the lines of James Patterson is really popular here in the clink – but I’ve always believed that it’s not what you read but whether your read that’s important. Some prison advice: read books that relate to the obstacles you will face upon relief.
For a long time I lived by my own belief: I read a lot but was not exactly particular about what it was I was reading. Following Justin’s and others’ prison advice, I arrived at prison determined to change all that, to read history’s great literature during my time on the inside: the Greek philosophers, TolstoySteinbeckHemingway, Rushdie. Nothing unique or unpredictable: just the top 100 or 200 on history’s list of great literature.
In preparation, I gathered up a bunch of books from area thrift shops for my sister to send me. I also prepared a wish list on Amazon of select books for family to send to me. Luckily enough, the prison library also turned out to be well stocked so that my sister hasn’t actually had to send any yet, although I have received a few Amazon books from friends. It’s only been a month but I’m well on my way. I won’t divulge yet what I read – that’s for another post – but I’m keeping a reading list and writing down quotes that move me.
One thing I’ve discovered is that what started out as a task has quickly turned to enjoyment. Although some books are a harder slog than others (sorry Kerouac, but I hated “On the Road”), overall I’m enjoying the greats just as much as my typical light read. Another thing I’m finding is that my circumstances draw me to particular quotes that I wouldn’t have even noticed before. In particular, any references to crime, punishment and prison catch my eye. For example, consider this quote about prison by Steinbeck written now almost 100 years ago but as true today as it was then:
“I’m a-gonna tell you somepin about bein’ in the pen. You can’t go thinkin’ when you’re gonna be out. You’d go nuts. You got to think about that day, an’ then the nex’ dy…That’s whay you got to do. Ol’ timers does that. A new young fella gets buttin’ his head on the cell door. He’s thinkin’ how long it’s gonna be.”
Or how about this quote from Rimbaud about his own inner prison of the mind:
“I still get very bored. In fact, I’ve never known anyone who gets as bored as I do. It’s a wretched life anyway, don’t you think – no family, no intellectual activity.”
Not a very good attitude at all, but as writer Paul Theroux put it, Rimbaud reveled in his suffering, complaining “even as he was rather enjoying it.” There are a lot of men in here like that. If anyone has any other good prison-related literature quotes I would love to hear them.
The point I’m trying to make is that whatever your circumstances, it’s possible to find meaning and relevance in even the most ancient literature. I’m finding that there’s something exciting and thrilling in that discovery, the discovery that despite the centuries that separate us, we still thought in some ways alike. You certainly don’t have to come to prison to discover reading, or the classics. But if you do happen to be following in my footsteps, I certainly do encourage you to consider following my prison advice and become a bookworm. At the least, it’s a way to kill time, a goal not to be scoffed at in prison. At best, it can be an enriching, rewarding experience that can open your eyes and give you new perspective on your experience.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Red is the New Orange

Watching Orange is the New Black in Prison 

Picture this: 

A bus drives down a narrow blacktop road through parched fields filled with dry grass and scrub. It's still early - around 7 a.m. and there are no other cars on the road. The bus turns left onto a dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust as it drives toward a square, corrugated-metal barn-like structure in the distance. The barn is surrounded by a chain link fence, behind which lies a large gravel lot filled with cranes, tractors, piles of chipped wood and gravel. Visible from the windows of the bus are a family of ground squirrels, including several tiny babies with upstretched tails.

The bus pulls to a halt in front of the barn.  The bus doors open and 15 or so men in red jumpsuits emblazoned with large white letters shuffle out. The letters spell "FEDERAL INMATE". Some of the luckier men, with the latest fashion in jumpsuits, also have black letters above the white that spell "CAUTION: FELON". The men trudge single-file through the gate, enter the barn and plop heavily onto two old couches and a scrum of discarded chairs scattered haphazardly around two old tables. The usual morning disputes ring out: "Yo, you're sitting in my spot." And: "Who the fuck's been poking around in my locker?" And: "Who touched my shit? Where's my shit?"

Some men begin to grill bread on the skillet, some to make coffee. But most stare glassy eyed at the TV in the corner as one man - always the same man, mind you, our designated movie picker - fiddles with the DVD player. Soon, the screen lights up and Piper Kiernan and her motley assortment of prison-house friends appear. The men come to life along with her, cheering and laughing as the scenes unfold. The experience is decidedly interactive, as the men cheer loudly at the particularly raunchy girl-on-girl scenes, boo the guards and nitpick about the details. 

So begins another day for the cons on the weed whacking team.

The above is a brief description of my place of work, the barn where I spend my mornings and afternoons in between bouts of weed whacking. Not exactly what first comes to mind when you think of prison, is it? Little supervision, out alone in the middle of nowhere, no phone, no one around. Last week, we even found a large rattle snake inside a box. One of the cons bravely chopped off its head with a shovel. When I can, I take a nap inside the cab of a huge green crane.

But the purpose of this post is not to describe work but to mention the decidedly bizarre experience of watching Orange is the New Black from behind bars with other prisoners. A few of the more recent inmates and I had already watched bits and pieces on the outside. Most have not. For them it's a revelation. For me, it's almost more entertaining to watch their reactions than the episodes themselves.

This group can be a demanding lot, finding fault with little inconsistencies, unrealistic plotlines, inconceivable actions. The first item of note are the little details they got right: the ID cards (white and orange with black letters), the pillows (dirty white with blue stripes), the drab institutional look of the place (decade-old paint, cinderblock), the uniforms (ours are green, not orange as in the show, but the general shape and fit (or lack thereof) are the same. So no quibbles there.

The guards are also surprisingly realistic. In fact, we have identified a specific matching guard for each of the guards in the show. Scary. In a few cases it's a stretch, in a few others the similarity is eerie. It's like playing a bit part in an episode of Twilight Zone where you're watching a life parallel to yours unfold onscreen.  Of course, some of the more risky sexual behavior of the guards is quite farfetched, although I suspect that when you have male guards in a male prison the possibility for misbehavior is diminished. But when it comes to weirdness and peccadilloes, my view is that we actually have the TV show beat.

The problems come in around the edges. The prison building itself on the show is quite a bit nicer than ours: the rec room, all the inside areas to hang out. I couldn't imagine that our minders would ever actually let us hold elections, as happened (to decidedly mixed results) in the show. All the dancing and fights and screaming and searching for chickens are also very unrealistic. My favorite comment from our barn: "Yo, dude, what's all this chicken shit?" In second place: "Man, that Piper, I don't get it. Which way she swing, to the chicks or to the dudes?"

Monday, June 16, 2014

Father's Day at Prison Camp: Missing My Family

As I walked yesterday morning across the camp toward the library, I looked through the trees toward the visiting center and the long line of visitors waiting at the front door. Mothers, fathers, kids, wives: everyone was visiting for father's day. On the other side, behind a fence, stood the inmates in their green dress uniforms waiting to be called.

I was happy for all the men who had visitors but, just like sometime's it's hard to talk with someone who only has a month or two left on his sentence, so too it is hard to see so many visitors when you don't have any. Ok, I was jealous. And homesick. Most days it's more or less ok but seeing that long line made me feel lonely and cut off. I dreamed of looking through those trees and seeing my son and daughter waiting to see me.

The hardest part for me is that I haven't spoken to my kids since I checked into prison camp. It's not becaue I don't want to. The truth is, I miss them terribly, never more so than on this day.  But they're still in Russia and I can't call internationally from here. So it's been a long time since I've even heard their voices. I worry that, to them, it's as if I dropped off the face of the earth.

On Friday afternoon, before all this happened, I was listening to a piece on Science Friday on NPR entitled "Are Dads Necessary?"  No surprise here, but all the many experts they gathered concluded that they are. Without active fathers involved in their lives - fathers who are there to play with them, listen to them, help them with their homework - children grow up to be less happy, less successful adults. An interesting quote from one of the experts on the program was that "there's no such thing as quality time, just time." Another recent new piece highlighted the crisis of incarceration, in particular the effect that imprisonment has on the children of felons. It's a rarely studied issue but experts conclude that the effects are great.

Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment but these "truths" were hard for me to hear. My big regret, the elephant in the room, the source of endless guilt, is not what happened to me but what I did to my children, my family. The more I listened, the more upset I became: it's hard to hear about the importance of active dads when you've totally and completely abdicated your role. My ex-wife recently wrote to me that my son craves attention from adult men. It's not hard to figure out why: I just wish that attention could be from me. 

The thing is, before all my self-inflicted problems arose, I prided myself on being the perfect dad. I loved to spend time with my children and was always there for them. I helped them with their homework, coached their sports teams, played with them on weekends, taught them to swim, spent hours on the playground. I was one of those annoying, overly-involved modern fathers making up in one fell swoop for all the uninvolved fathers and father's fathers who came before. But the thing is? I loved it. Almost every minute. I'm nurturing by nature and found an outlet for my love. And then my world, and the world of my family, came crashing down. All because of me and what I did.

So, as Freud might say, there's a bit of supressed guilt pent up within....

But all is not lost. My aunt and cousin had planned to visit but were prevented by bureaucratic delays in getting their names on a list. I'm sure they'll come soon.

And, joy of joys, my kids are about to move to Los Angeles so - I hope, hope, hope - frequent visits await.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Interview on National Public Radio: Snap Judgment Does a Segment on Me

Snap Judgment, a weekly program broadcast nationally on NPR, interviewed me before I went to prison about the things I did that led me there. They have now finalized the episode and have made it available here. It will also be broadcast starting this weekend on most local NPR stations. Check your local listings: each station has its own broadcast time. Note that I haven't heard the piece myself. They interviewed me for almost six hours over two days so it will be interesting to hear how they edited my babbling about my past misdeeds. I hope I don't come across as too much of a schmuck. But I did what I did and fully admit that I was an idiot. The least I can do is own up to my mistakes and learn from them.

Friday, June 13, 2014

In-N-Out: Temporary Friendships at Camp Cupcake

For those of you who know me or have been reading my angst-filled blog posts it may be hard to believe, but I have actually made some friends my first weeks here. There's Dave, a former CIA officer and film producer with whom I share a love for writing, Justin, a lapsed Mormon from Utah with whom I walk around the track and commiserate, and Ivan, a 3rd generation Russian American whom I trade Russian swear words at work. (Note: all names and some identifying features have been changed).

For the most part, these are friends of circumstance, people with whom I developed a camaraderie by dint of common suffering and shared experiences. Fast friendships like those formed by GI's in a war, I suppose.  But I could actually see some of these friendships continuing someday on the outside, if we were actually given time to develop them. But the unsurprising fact about life in prison is that it is incredibly unstable. As soon as you've made friends with someone, it seems, they're transferring out or away or being released. Or you are. This instability, this impermanence, makes life here more difficult, especially for those, like me, who have longer sentences.

In my case, I've only been here a little over a month and Dave is already transferring to another camp for RDAP, Justin will be released in a month or two, and Ivan was switched to a different job. In that same time frame, many other people that I know here were transferred out to other camps (there's a constant flow between Lompoc and Taft, in particular), moved into and out of the drug treatment program, released to freedom, sent to the hole for punishment, etc., etc. I'm not used to the instability, the impermanence, of it all.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

And it's not just the prisoners. The guards and counselors transfer around as well, in particular between the three prisons that form the Lompoc complex. There's a huge variety amongst the guards: some nice, some tolerable, some crazy. When a good one comes along, you hope that the transfer is forever. It never is. For example, there was an incredibly strict and controlling guard that was transferred out a few months back before I got here. Prisoners still tell stories about him and his various exploits. Now he's coming back. A wonderful counselor was just transferred out. In-n-out, up-n-down, around and around. 

I've noticed that, after a while, the long-time prisoners tend to withdraw. To them, it's just not worth it to form new temporary friendships all the time. Too much work, too much trouble, too much pain of friendship followed by separation. The result is that quite a few of them are isolated and lonely. My sentence is somewhere in the middle for a white collar felon - not long, not short - so I hope that I will not fall into this trap. I have a tendency to isolate as it is but in this place you need at least a few normal people to talk with to avoid going crazy.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Won't You be My Bunky?

It's 4 a.m. and I'm looking out from my upper bunk. I'm way up in the stratosphere - it's almost like peering out from the crow's nest of a ship adrift at sea. From my lookout,  variously-shaped and sized lumps - whales, porpoises, mackerel, sardines, blow fish (see below) - are dimly visible flopping in the murk. Snores and grumbles, like the lapping of waves against the beach, ripple through the night. A few wayward souls, their eyes squinted like creatures from the deep, stumble toward the bathrooms. 

Maybe my analogy is a bit stretched but this, the most peaceful, quiet time in the barracks reminds me of life at sea on a calm night. As soon as the lights come on at 6 the place will transform into a hurricane, but for now it's quiet. I do my best writing at 4 a.m., my flashlight trained on my notebook. I feel myself a sleepy sailor bravely charting new territory from atop my narrow perch.

Just a few hours ago this place was a beehive of activity, just as hopping as the main drag of an Italian seaside town on a hot summer night. In our world, each row of bunks constitutes a little street and each set of upper and lower bunks constitute a row house with its own little family and ecosystem and character. The rows, just like streets, even have addresses (mine, in case you're wondering is 5C0-001).

As a newcomer, I'm granted the honor of an upper bunk, a narrow, uncomfortable space perched precariously over 6 feet above the floor. Like a crow's nest, I reach this space by a set of tiny round steps that cut into my feet.

The only advantage, to which I alluded in the first paragraph, is the view: I like to lay on my bunk gazing out at the sea of other bunks around me. Luckily for me, one radio station manages to evade the blocking system (104.1, Pirate Radio) and I pop in my head phones and lay up there lost in my own little world.

My bunkie (or, as he pronounces it in Spanish, "Mi Boonkie") is a fat, kind-hearted soul by the name of Gordo (which means fat, in Spanish) who plies me with Moon Pies and spicy-hot Cheetos. (To continue a bit with the sea analogy, his friends also call him "blow fish"). He's been inside for ages (going on 7 years) for a minor drug deal but his release date is now approaching.

The most pertinent factor about Mi Boonkie is that he's extremely popular: at any given time, crowds of Hispanic men congregate around my bunk like men in the plaza of a village on a hot afternoon. They love to cook and have adopted me as their honorary Mexican. Although I can rarely follow what they're saying (although they joke that I'm fluent because I happened to know the word for soup, my high school Spanish has proven wholly inadequate to the prison experience) I enjoy sitting with them nibbling on Cheetos.

In prison, your bunk is, in essence, your home, with the narrow pathway out front between your bunk and your locker your yard. For those who have been "in" a long time, these distinctions are very important. Just like on the outside, you can't just barge into someone's home without knocking. You must politely ask permission to enter or to pass. Problems arise because the bunks are lined up end to end so that there's a constant stream of passersby who want to cross through to get to another bunk. Etiquette demands that they ask permission. Sometimes they forget. Tempers occasionally flare as a result of these "trespasses".

As a newcomer, I'm not particularly vexed by these traditions. You could say that I have an open door policy where my bunk is concerned. You will most often find me lying atop my bunk reading a book or a New Yorker, or talking with one of my neighbors. You may also find me poking around in my locker, vainly searching for my Moon Pies or Diet Coke. As in life wth my apartment, so in prison my locker is a terrible mess. 

Let me just touch on that subject of lockers. In front of each bunk is a gray, steel box about chest high similar to the lockers many of us had in high school. While the subject of these lockers is deserving of its own post, suffice it to say that they take on a huge importance in a prisoner's life. That's because they contain all our worldly posessions: our food, our clothes, our books, and, most importantly, our photos and letters from friends and family. Just like a home, each locker is decorated to the tastes of its owner: some are covered with swimsuit models, some with photos of children. Mine has both pics of my kids (I look at them all the time!) as well as one of Sorbet, my dog (thank you Dawn for sending that!).

I'm running out of time and space but before I go, I just wanted to mention that yesterday evening, one of the old-timers, a calm and collected yoga-master, asked me to move to his neck of the woods, to be his bunky. Apparently this is quite an honor: the equivalent on the outside would be choosing a roommate, an important decision. Typically, they don't let you pick and choose your Boonkie in prison but apparently he has some say in the matter. In any event, his bunky is leaving and he wants someone to his liking to "room" with him. I'll let you know how it goes.

Until then, enjoy your freedom!

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Month Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the next. 

And the next. 

And the next.

Breakout? No, Breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Early Bird Gets the...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 9, 2014

Camp Cupcake (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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