Thursday, August 7, 2014

Oh, Ugh!

This Isn't Fun

So here I am a few days into this new camp and this new program. Let's just say that - so far at least - it's not particularly fun. 

I arrived a few days ago on a bus with a group of other new guys. The first few minutes were ok as we dragged our plastic bags to our new bunks. First impressions were even favorable: compared to the other camp, the barracks here are relatively light, clean, spacious and comfortable. But before long, as the old-timers filtered into the dorm, the fun began.

My first notice that this wasn't an ordinary prison camp came when I stepped away from my bunk for a moment to ask a neighbor a question. Before I could cross the aisle, several guys were in my face informing me that I had just broken an important rule. As I soon learned, you cannot leave your area before 4 p.m. unless all your items are in stowed away in your locker; no shirt or book or brush can be anywhere to be seen. Then I made my bed, only to be informed that it was completely wrong: the pillow can't touch the headboard and the blanket has to be folded down exactly 1 inch. Later, I walked to the bathroom to wash my face. Before the water touched my skin someone was informing me that I was using the wrong sink. In the evening, I stepped outside only to be yelled at for stopping on a painted yellow square. The worst crime? Stepping off the path onto the white gravel that's replaced the grass in this drought-prone area.

I'd heard stories about the place before I came in - about all the rules, about the particular culture. RDAP is a favorite topic of conversation at the ordinary camp: rumors abound about how they brainwash you, about the endless rules, about a punishment called a "pull-up" in which you stand up before the entire population and admit your transgression, however seemingly minor. But I wondered to myself how hard it could be. I consider myself a courteous person and tend (despite my crime) to follow rules. I also understood the basic concept: to create a self-contained, law-abiding community out of a disparate group of lawbreakers and addicts.

But the program, I quickly realized, took these ideas of accountability and community to an entirely unexpected level. Especially for a prison, where creatively circumventing the rules is an entire way of life.

The first problem for me was that very few of the rules were written down. We were apparently just expected to know them. The second was that I was not used to getting etiquette and behavior lessons from fellow inmates. So, I'm ashamed to say, I got a little defensive. Especially when someone criticized how I blew my nose, how I brushed my teeth and how I flushed the toilet. I started thanking my fellow participants for their comments through gritted teeth until, at 4 a.m. the next morning as I prepared quietly for work amidst a sea of snoring and farting inmates, I was informed by a fellow early riser that I had not washed my hands properly after sneezing. I grunted and turned away without a 'thank you'. Later I was told that my behavior was not pro-social. 

But I'm doing my best - the first few days are considered a "grace period" before the actual punishment begins. I'm using up, it seems, my allotment of free passes until the pull-ups start to fly. But it's not as bad as hazing week at the fraternity in college: no green underwear, beer bongs or screaming in my ears. Or my first week in prison at the other camp, which was nearly infinitely worse. In some ways it's even fun and instructive: a useful lesson in humility and how to follow the rules. I just wish there weren't so many of them.

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