Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Entertaining the Troops

What Not to Say in Prison

Some may be surprised to learn that we have an occasional assembly here at camp, an event during which prisoners and officials briefly address the 'population' with various proscribed items of interest, everything from upcoming holidays to commissary hours. A few select inmates are randomly selected to speak on narrowly defined topics, including weather, local news and prison news. I was selected to participate for the first time this week. My topic? Entertainment.

Enthused by my opportunity to practice public speaking and enlighten the population, I dove into the Week in Review section of the New Yorker magazine. There I found various interesting entries, including a concert by the Grateful Dead's first lyricist and a summer classical concert series that had developed into a surprise hit. I wrote these down and practiced my presentation. 

The night before I was to give my address, long after I had my little speech down pat, a fellow inmate rushed up to me and asked to see my list, telling me that it would have to be approved (read "censored") by the various powers that be. I  gave him my notes, which he took with him to a review committee. Several hours later he came back to tell me that all my proposals had been rejected.

Why? Too obscure, uninteresting to the target population and generally unacceptable.

Still undaunted but now a bit more cognizant of the audience, I next turned to the entertainment section of USA Today. There on the front page I came across four interesting items. The first was a piece on a new PBS nature documentary called Sex in the Wild, about how wild animals procreate. The second was about how ABC, after years of lily-white prime-time programming, has rededicated its current lineup to diversity, including with a new show called "How to Commit Murder." The third piece was an announcement by Marvel Comics that Thor would henceforth undergo a sex change and become a woman. The fourth was about Willie Nelson's new album, his first in 15 years.

I wrote these down and turned them in. I expected some resistance to the news about Thor but thought the others would be approved. Who could object to a straight piece on PBS, after all? Soon enough the results came back: all my proposals but the Thor announcement had been rejected. The nature documentary was rejected because any mention of sex is prohibited. The programming announcement was rejected because the news could incite ratial divisions. And the Willie Nelson item was rejected because Willie Nelson represents anti-social elements in the population. 

At this point, I felt like giving up but determined to give it one last try. Before I could do so, however, my contact came back with a pre-approved list of announcements, together with a very strong recommendation that I agree to them. The first: an announcement that milkshakes are America's most popular cold takeout (most popular flavor: chocolate). The second: that some apparently famous guy by the name of Adam Levine was marrying some supposedly beautiful Victoria's Secret Model. And the third, in a fit of compromise: approval of my Willie Nelson proposal, so long as I made no mention of touring (anti-social behavior) or his age (age discrimination). Finally, I was informed that the Thor announcement was rejected after all.

So there you have it: the latest entertainment in prison.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kale in the Kitchen

Where's Our Corn?

This morning when I arrived at work in the kitchen I was in for a surprise. The usual processed glop - canned spinach and corn, frozen collard greens - had disappeared, to be magically replaced with homegrown cucumbers and fresh kale. Yep, you heard me right: fresh kale, the super food, the trendy food, the super-trendy food. Apparently now it's not only hipsters in Williamsburg who can enjoy the stuff but inmates in federal prison.

It's funny to say, but I guess I had to come to prison to partake: I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd never had the stuff before coming to this place. And I'm not exactly sure what the fact of its appearance here says about the trend itself. Is the kale trend dead? My guess is that prison is pretty much the end of the road for most hipster trends. Hipsters, apparently it's time to focus on toast, the new "it" food according to a recent NPR broadcast.

I ate a bunch of stuff and can truthfully say I liked it, although "love" would be stretching the point. Kale reminds me pretty much of spinach, maybe a little tastier. We didn't really do anything special with it either, although it came out pretty yummy: we chopped it up together with some carrots, lettuce and the garden cucumbers and served it as a salad. I'd be interested to hear from readers how kale is served in the more imaginative restaurants.

I guess you could say I would be fibbing if I were to write that the kale was an unambiguous hit here in prison. Many passed up on the opportunity to partake in this latest trend. A few were overtly skeptical. "What is this s---?" one of them asked me. Another asked if he could have canned corn instead (answer: no). But an inmate or two did give it a try - with a liberal dose of dressing - and there may have even been a few converts. I suppose that's how a trend begins: one person at a time. Even here in prison.

I would be surprised to see kale again tomorrow in the kitchen. How the food arrives at the back door of the kitchen and who selects what food actually makes its way to our doors is pretty much a mystery to all of us kitchen workers. Maybe it's a new initiative from on high in D.C. - the trickle down of Michelle Obama's healthy school lunch crusade. Or maybe it's just a wild fluke, the mistaken diversion of a kale delivery from Santa Monica to Lompoc. My guess is that it's a random, one-off occurrence, akin to a full solar eclipse.

In any event, I'm not complaining. It's fun for once to be on the cutting edge of a trend. Three cheers for kale!

C-O Blues

In Trouble in the A.M.

Friday I awoke at 4 a.m. to get ready for work. Although I'm still finding my rhythm, this typically consists of stumbling past rows of bunks filled with sleeping, snoring neighbors to the bathroom, where I splash my face with water and brush my teeth, all the while avoiding the half-crazy stare of the bleary eyes in the mirror. Having completed those minor tasks I then wait at my bunk: the start of the work day is governed not by a particular time but by when the guards complete their morning count. This consists of two officers, or CO's, in prison parlance, walking past the bunks with flashlights as they count the inmates.  Count happens at random times somewhere between 4:15 and 4:45.

As I sat waiting for count I remembered a little rule I'd been taught: to put my shoes atop a piece of newspaper on my locker every Friday so that the orderlies could properly clean my "neighborhood". I didn't have any newspaper so went searching for some in a small room a few rows back that contains the barracks' ice machine, garbage cans and microwave. When I emerged, I saw by the dance of flashlights in the distance that count had started. I walked back to my bunk and stood at attention, anxious for the CO's to pass so that I could get to work.

The guards completed their count and I was just leaving my neighborhood for the door when one of the guards passed me. He stopped some rows back from mine and began to yell at another inmate, a wonderful colleague and friend of mine who was also preparing for work. I couldn't hear what the guard was saying other than that he was mad and ended by repeating "shut up" over and over. I waited for my colleague out of solidarity, so that we could walk to work together to explain to our boss why we were late.

As I stood there, another inmate ran up to me to tell me that my colleague was getting yelled at for what I had done: entering the back room. Apparently the guard considered this a serious breach of protocol and blamed the inmate with the bad luck to be standing closest to the door.

My heart dropped. As I've written before, prison is not a democracy. Far from it. Every inmate dreads a confrontation with a guard and the serious consequences that can follow. Yet this was even worse: someone else was being blamed for my actions. I immediately knew that I needed to take responsibility. I have many faults but shirking blame is not one of them. I asked the inmate what to do and he suggested I go talk with the guard and admit my guilt.

So this is what I did. I'm a pretty low-key, diplomatic person and apologized profusely. The guard lectured me about how CO's are always right and inmates are always wrong. He also told me that that room was off limits in the morning and told me that I was forbidden to take a shower or wash my face in the bathroom. But in the end he accepted my apology. Unfortunately, by then the issue had ballooned and the problem was no longer my "transgression" but my colleague's attitude problem.

To cut a long story short, all was eventually resolved and we both made it to work, about 40 minutes late. Later that day, however, it turned out that rumors were circulating that I had known from the start that my colleague was being blamed for my actions and failed to come forward. In prison, this could be a serious breach of protocol and lead to long-running, dangerous animosities. It also happened to be untrue. So I've spent the last two days apologizing to my colleague - who, to his credit, did not blame me and immediately accepted my explanation - and explaining what happened to others. Finally, the scandal now seems to have passed. But it's an interesting lesson in how little things can quickly blow up to big ones in prison. And a useful reminder about who holds the power.

Be Careful What You Wish For

From Cutting Grass to Cutting Onions

Faithful readers may recall a few wimpy complaints in past posts about my job weed whacking at the nearby air force base. But now I'm wondering what all the fuss was about as I reminisce about the benefits: plenty of fresh air, views of trees and fields, contact with civilians. It seems I've forgotten the brutal work, the flying rocks, the relentless sun. You see, I received just what I wished for: a change of jobs. Little did I know that the new job would be much worse. 

Now, instead of boarding a bus at the late, late hour of 7:15, following a leisurely breakfast of grits and chicory coffee in the chow hall, I'm the one slaving away in the hot kitchen preparing those very grits and coffee. For the privilege of feeding my fellow prisoners, I now wake up at 3:30 a.m. to be at work by 4:15.
Despite inmate complaints - hot dogs again!, the coffee's cold!, enough beans already! - food really makes this place go round. In a place of so many rules and rituals, it's one of the highlights of the day. Meals follow count and are awaited with great anticipation. Although they're typically rushed (we workers want to get everyone in and out as quickly as possible) it's a chance, just like on the outside, to catch up with friends. Which makes this job important, one of the few truly important jobs where "make work" is the typical approach (and its inevitable result: "pretend to work").

I'm embarrassed to admit that I may have been one of those complaining inmates before my little job switch.

Ok, maybe the food is institutional and not exactly made up of the highest quality ingredients. For example, today I read the ingredients list for the American cheese and was surprised to learn that it contains no milk. Apparently, palm oil takes the place of dairy in our dairy food. And most of what we serve comes straight out of boxes.

But I've come to see that an incredible amount of work goes into churning out those under-appreciated meals. That and, surprisingly enough, some love and dedication. Some of my colleagues put incredible effort into their jobs, going above and beyond the call of duty each day.

As for me, I guess you could say I'm still adjusting, stuck on the hard work part of it as opposed to the love and dedication. Cooking for so many hundreds is an incredible grind, busy and stressful. Today, for example, I spent hours feeding onions into a shredder - my eyes still hurt.  It's not that I'm lazy or mind a good onion cry. Rather, it feels like strange, full-circle deja vu. My very first job in high school was serving food to patients in the local hospital...and cleaning trays when they were through. This new experience is almost identical, yet much earlier (at the hospital, I worked the dinner service after school) and much more stressful.

In addition, working in a prison kitchen carries with it some unique aspects. For example, the knives are carefully guarded by our guard in residence, who watches over us with an eagle eye. As are the rags. As is the food. The knives, perhaps unsurprisingly, are in fact locked to large metal cables with huge padlocks. More troubling, soap is also in short supply as is training on hygiene. You get the idea.

But I have a tendency to complain when presented with new challenges. Check back in a month or so and I'll let you know how it's going. Given how it's been going so far, I suspect I'll be reminiscing about the joys of the kitchen as I adjust to my new job....at the wastewater treatment plant down the road.

Guest Post: Cinnamon

A Fellow Inmate Describes His Experience with Prison

Note to Readers: As I've mentioned in previous posts, several fellow inmates here at camp have volunteered to share their stories on this blog. I'm proud to present the first post in what I hope is a continuing series, an eloquent piece from a fellow inmate who decided to contribute under the pseudonym "Cinnamon", or "C". I consider C a true friend: he not only reached out to me on my very first day but has been a source of support and guidance ever since. C tells me he can trust me and feels comfortable speaking with me, so I hope the feeling is mutual. In any event, C tells his story better and more eloquently than I ever could, so without further ado:

The pants were not that tight. I noticed they fit a bit snugly around the mid-section of my buttocks but nothing too extreme. If only they could have seen me a week earlier in my perfectly fitted Uniqlo jeans. But I was quickly coming to realize that my world was changing, as was the cut of my jeans.

I had just picked up my new pants from the prison laundry. I was quite happy to have them because they were a welcome change from the size 44 I had been handed by laundry upon arrival at prison. My first experience with laundry involved me, a tall, thin, lanky guy with a size 33 waist arguing with a 400 pound long-termer with a degrading and condescending communication style who stood between me and my clothes. After some degrading banter about size and other things, I accepted the size 44 and used a canvas cloth belt to hold them up for the next couple of days. Even this I considered a vast improvement, as just 8 hours earlier I had been standing naked at prison check in while being ordered to "lift my junk". I was then placed in a holding cell clothed in a huge jump suit with the letters "FEDERAL INMATE" emblazoned on the back.

After several days of sporting the huge pants, which bunched up around my waist and felt like a parachute, I was determined to get into a pair with a waist at least a tiny bit closer to my actual size. I went back to laundry and made my case. Apparently, my pleading was successful as, a few days later, they handed me a new pair. As I put them on I noted they were a bit too small, but after my previous experience I decided small was preferable to big. Over the past year my fashion sense had also improved as a result of my new community, which had much more fashion sense than the one I had existed in for the previous 30 years. Based upon my newfound knowledge, tighter was definitely better.

So here I was walking down the long barracks that I now called home. The barracks is about 34 years old and houses 168 inmates, who share 5 showers, 3 urinals and 3 washing machines. Lines, waiting and irritation are a part of my new life. We are all in here for some supposed crime ranging from mail fraud to theft to drug dealing, although most of us took plea deals and never tried our case. Very few dare to risk a loss in trial given the huge sentencing disparities that could result.

As I walked down the aisle, I heard chuckles from somewhere behind me. As I approached my bunk area, a guy in my neighborhood said to me: "If you are propositioning and you have sugar in your tank than things can be arranged." He added: "Those pants are too tight and if you were in the Low Security prison across the street there would be a line of guys ready to take you up on your offer." 

Oh my! Was he talking to me? I'd never heard the term "sugar in your tank" before. Could it mean what I suspected it did? My intentions were to keep things a secret, mind my own business and discuss nothing personal. Prison is run by a set of subdued rules governed by your ethnicity or race, or, in prison terms, your "car". You are surrounded by alpha dogs and it is a difficult place to find friends. I wondered how a guy like me would ever be accepted.

You see, only a few days earlier my boyfriend of one year - yes, my boyfriend, who I'll call "B" here for the sake of this post - had dropped me off at prison. We made so many promises to each other to make it through this "speed bump". B promised to care for my kids and my ex-wife, whom I still love very much. She is the most amazing person on earth and possesses all the wonderful things that people esteem in a woman, my best friend and the only woman I will ever marry or love romantically. Because she is so amazing I realized she deserved the truth. And going through an indictment and being sentenced turned out, strangely enough, to be the ideal time to come clean with her, to shed all facades and to be honest about who I am, who I've always been. After 17 years it was time to come out!
B and I met only two months after I moved out. I love him and he's supportive of my past. B loves my ex and my kids and has been caring for them while I'm away. We are willing to wait for each other - despite this detour - so that we can pursue a future, a future that I have dreamed of for many, many years. Ironically, less than 10 months after meeting, I was sentenced to this camp and we were separated for the duration of my stay.

The day of check in was supposed to be quick and I was supposed to be tough. Early that morning B and I woke up at a hotel in Los Angeles and drove to Lompoc. I was feeling sad but strong. As we approached the prison grounds my heart sank. The vast expanse of barren earth is divided into three different prisons, all with different security levels: the Camp, the Low and the Medium. I wasn't sure which one I would be serving my time in. As we approached the site, it was the medium that first caught my eye. The medium is a penitentiary and is about 60 years old. It looks rough, is made of concrete with small windows, a double fence and forbidding guard towers. Looking at it, I was quite sure that Satan - or his little brother - must live behind its walls. 

This seemed far too harsh a place for a lowly retail bank employee like me. I mean, the loans that were my eventual undoing, 7 in all, were funded way back in 2006 under loose income parameters implemented much higher up in the food chain than my position. I simply submitted them electronically based upon the stated parameters for approval somewhere way up the chain. Eight years later I was taking the fall. No one higher up in the echelons of the vast bank was ever prosecuted. How could I be headed to a prison that looked like the house of Lucifer?

Then I saw the Low. It was sinister but somewhat less so. There were no guard towers and there were fewer rows of barbed wire. Still scary but less intimidating. As I walked up to the front gate, a prison van pulled up and out came 11 guys shackled tightly together, shuffling through the dust. Terrible sadness filled me, combined with fear and dread. I made it through the front door, where a very unfriendly guard ordered me back to the Medium. What?? The house of Satan? 

My heart sank. I ran quickly out, hopped in the car, and told B to get me out of there. I needed more time. We turned around and left. After driving some distance up the street I decided that running was not the answer. We pulled over and both got out. I walked over to B and wrapped my big arms around him and cried, a deep, painful, soul-wrenching cry. I was no longer strong. My day had come and I was at what is often called rock bottom.

After we both cried, we reviewed our promises, wishes and hopes for the future. I mustered up a bit of strength and told B I was ready. We drove straight to the receiving mouth of my new hell. It was quick. We approached the gate and called the guard tower on the speaker. The metallic, unfriendly voice ordered us to drive to the front, where I got out and B drove away. I watched with tears in my eyes as my beautiful love drove off, receding into the distance. Just before he turned the corner he honked his last good bye, the plaintive sound a call to me to be strong.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

All Questions Great and Small

Just to Prove that I Haven't Lost My Sense of Humor...

To wrap up yet another wonderful week I decided to do again what I did last week: post on various thoughts and questions as opposed to filling your screen with paragraphs of text. So, join me as I ponder various questions and hypothetical's, both momentous and mundane.

Exciting News: I received an appointment reminder from the dentist at mail call. My appointment? 54 weeks from today.

Favorite Way of Killing Time: Yoga (although I suppose the words "yoga" and "killing" should not be used in the same sentence).

Quote of the Week: Thou Art That  (Just don't ask me what it means. I'm still trying to figure that out.)

Fun Moment: I was on the phone yesterday with my daughter. When she first got on, the connection was bad and I mistook her for her brother. So the whole time we pretended that it was actually him on the phone. The result was some atypical empathy as she tried to put herself into his shoes, as in: "I'm mad at my sister because she pushed me and grabbed my computer."

If I Were the Warden: I would adopt one little aspect of good corporate culture and introduce casual Fridays at the prison camp. Gotta start somewhere, after all.

Sad Moment: Watching fathers taking their kids to the swimming pool at the airforce base as I whacked weeds across the street. I wanted more than anything else for one of those fathers to be me!

Big Disappointment: Another weekend with no visitors.

Little Question: Are the urinals in the bathroom a free-fart zone where normal social niceties do not apply? Just wondering.

Big question: Is the primary purpose of prison rehabilitation or retribution? You can bet I have my opinions on that, opinions that could very well diverge wildly from the reality I see around me.

Small Decision: not to cut my hair for the duration of my stay. Yikes! There's actually a charity that takes donations prisoners' locks. Not sure what they do with them though....

Last Remaining Addiction: Diet Coke

Unpleasant Discovery: Although I can read dense legal documents, philosophy texts leave my head spinning.

Lesson of the Week: Prison is a constant game of cat and mouse. Just when life seems relatively easy, the silly games begin.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Learning the Art of Self-Censorship

Freedom from Free Speech

Something happened yesterday I really want to tell you about. Really. It was abasing and humiliating while at the same time troubling and interesting. It was an incident - or, rather, a series of them - that made for a miserable day but would make for a compelling blog post. Now that I've wet your appetite it's time to let you down gently: I'm very sorry, but I can't - or should I say won't? - go there. Why, you may ask, have I suddenly tucked my tail? Me, your intrepid chronicler of life behind bars? Read on and you shall learn.

Back when I lived in Russia in the early years of Putin's reign I used to take a holier than thou attitude when it came to journalists and the press. I knew some of them from my journalistic days and always gave them an earful. Why are you such cowards, refusing to report what's really happening based upon some vague threat of a crackdown? Stand up, speak up, I used to say, in imitation of Bob Marley. A few brave souls did, with increasingly tragic results: prison, exile, even death. As time went on, more and more writers began to toe the line until only a few incredibly brave men and women remained, some of them forced, like Masha Gessen, to write from exile. 

By the time I fled Russia I fully understood the insidious power of self censorship. But I never really thought I'd experience such repression for myself. Or succumb to self censorship. And then, suddenly, I did understand and I did succumb - right here in the United States of all places. And I'll bet you can guess where.

A popular saying among the more enlightened prisoners is that you check your rights at the door when you enter this place. I guess you could say that I'm learning this lesson through some firsthand experience. The sad truth is that in prison you have no right to write, no right to communicate with the outside world, no right to tell it as you see it. Rights are not rights around here, but privileges. And privileges can be easily taken away. Just like in Russia, the vague, unclear rules give vast authority to the powers that be to interpret regulations as they see fit. The result is a writer - me - who feels compelled to self censor.

Maybe this is all as it should be. I'm torn on the issue but would like to see a real debate. What rights should prisoners enjoy in a modern, progressive society? Should they enjoy freedom of speech (with certain clearly defined limits)? Should they have the right to communicate as they wish with the outside world? To publish their thoughts from behind bars? Or does their criminality preclude this, make them ineligible while incarcerated to enjoy basic constitutional rights? Are our prisons little islands of censorship (and, self censorship) in our flawed sea of democracy?

In any event, in my own self-interested, craven case, I'm learning to practice the art of self censorship. I'm finding that, just like most Russian journalists, the same journalists I used to consider cowards, when it comes right down to it, I'll side with self preservation over free speech almost every time. I don't want to go to the hole, I don't want to become the focus of undue attention, I don't want to risk anything that might lengthen my stay. I owe that much to my family. I'd like to think that this is my only rational choice. But if I'm being perfectly honest, it's also a cowardly one.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Two Down, Forty-Eight To Go

Doing Time:  Lessons Learned in my First Two Months of Prison

Haul out the champagne; shoot off the fireworks. It's time for a little pat on the back, which I suppose I'll have to give to myself as touching in prison is pretty much verboten. I've reached the second mile-marker in this long prison marathon: two down, and only forty-eight to go. 

I wasn't going to write about this little milestone. I really wasn't. And because I wasn't I'm actually a few days late (July 5 was the real anniversary). But I felt I owed it to my readers - and maybe even to myself - to do a little summing up, to take a step back from the mishmash of daily posts to let you know how I'm really doing and in the process maybe remind myself that I'm doing ok at this game of doing time. Read carefully because I hereby promise I won't do it again until I've reached a year (ok, maybe 6 months if I'm in the mood).

So how am I doing? Good question. The honest answer: pretty good, all things considered. Although my posts may suggest otherwise, the honest-to-god truth is that, though I hesitate to say I'm thriving, I'm most definitely surviving. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the sum total of my aspirations. I didn't come to prison expecting nonstop fun and laughter, after all. 

Of course, my answer to the question would also depend on when you ask.

Try me in the morning just after I've opened my eyes and  you might get a mumbled "this place sucks". I find that split second between dreaming - when my imagination runs free and I could be anywhere - and the moment when I remember where I really am to be particularly brutal.

Try me in the afternoon, after I've done my asanas, laid out on a blanket under the shade of a eucalyptus, had a nice conversation with a fellow con on the meaning of life and talked with my children for our allotted 15 minutes, and I might say, "Hey, this place ain't so bad."

Try me in the evening and I'll be, as often as not, missing my kids, dreaming of walking down the road to LA to kiss them good night.

What actually prompted me to sit down this morning to write this post was a talk I had at breakfast with a man named G--, a Syrian Christian and owner of a liquor store in a suburb outside of Los Angeles.  He's here for accepting food stamps for "prohibited goods" (read: vodka and whisky) over a period of several months some years ago. Now he's getting out after a year behind bars and - dare I say it? - I'm sad and jealous. Sad because I can honestly call G-- my friend. 

Plain and simple: I'll miss the guy. He's an open, funny, warm man who we call the "den mother". He's the first with a smile and to welcome the new fish with a fist bump and some shower shoes. Without him, this place just won't be the same. Jealous, because I want him to be me: I want to be walking out of this place with a smile on my face. Seeing my friends leave leaves me feeling stuck, lonely, jealous. Ok, I know: my time will come someday. But the departures of other cons throws off my carefully calibrated system of living firmly in the "now". One Day at a Time is how I approach my time. I was never much for sloganeering but it seems to help me now.

The reality is that I approach my stay as an adventure, an experience that, while never to be repeated, is to be accepted and, as much as possible, enjoyed. Although it may sound strange, coming to this camp felt in many ways like my past forays abroad. I found many foreign cultures to be much less strange than this purportedly American prison culture. My reactions to prison have also been almost identical to those I had when I moved way-back-when to Yugoslavia, to Estonia, to Russia: homesickness, befuddlement over the weird new culture, difficulty learning a new language, a yearning to return to the safe and known. But as time passes I adjust and acculturate until, before long, I'm surviving and even - on good days - maybe even thriving.

So here's my shortlist of the things I actually like about this place after two months: some of the people, with an emphasis on 'some'; freedom from earning a living; bountiful time to read and do yoga; no commute; people to cook for me, clean my space and do my laundry; nice weather, beautiful views of the surrounding countryside.

And now for the bad: confusing, confining rules; insolent, abusive guards; constant crowds of men; random farts at all hours of the day and night; uncomfortable bed; random locker checks and breathalyzers; absence of fresh fruits and vegetables; lack of freedom; and, the big one: enforced separation from friends, family and society.

It's easy to see which list is longer. But I hope my 2-month update conveys my very real attempt to make the most of a less than perfect situation. No one, after all, would choose voluntarily to do time. But once you're doing it, the real crime would be to waste it away and come out and the end of the ordeal no better for it. I guarantee you that that will not be the case with me.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Rip Van Winkles

Sleeping Your Way Through Prison

Today is children's day at camp, a hastily organized, belatedly announced and sparsely attended visiting day especially for the children of inmates. The idea is nice and I applaud it. But, unfortunately, the execution is wanting. The day was announced only last week and because it is scheduled for a Monday instead of a weekend or holiday, very few people are able to attend on such short notice. My children included. 

But the purpose of this post is not to gripe or complain. I have written often enough already about how much I miss my kids. Rather, in this post I'd like to focus on another aspect of camp life that struck me a moment ago as I walked through the barracks to this computer: sleep.

We have the day off from work today whether or not we have children visiting, which is a nice side benefit. As a result, inmates are off doing their thing as if it were a Saturday or Sunday. Some of the industrious ones are lifting weights. Others are walking around the track. A few sit next to me typing e-mails. And a surprising number lay snoring in their bunks, including several who seem to do little else. I call them the Rip Van Winkles.

The Rip Van Winkles are a group of men, including several with long white beards that very much fit the image, who have seemingly decided to sleep out their sentences. This is easier said than done given that this is a work camp and we all have to appear productive. That and the barracks are always noisy. But somehow they manage. Every time I pass by their bunks, whether it be day or night, they are there deep asleep, snoring up a storm. At the same time as I wonder how they do it, I also occasionally envy them. On my bad days at camp I can't help but think that it might be nice to close my eyes today only to open them on the morning they set me free.  

Out of curiosity, I took this Rip V. Winkle hypothetical to some of my fellow inmates in an informal poll. A surprising number said that they'd consider it if cryonic preservation were offered on the commissary list or as an option in the nurse's room. But while it might sound tempting on a particularly bad day, most, unsurprisingly, said no. Many cited their families, saying that if they were alone in the world they'd do it but felt the obligation to be present to the extent possible for their families on the outside. Others mentioned their intent to better themselves while in prison - the waste of sleeping away their time. This is just how I feel: even if this hypothetical were, in fact, an option, I would not consider it for even a second. I want to be alive and awake and alert to call my kids, to learn yoga, to write in my journal.

I didn't talk with any of the Rip Van Winkles - they were all asleep after all. But I do wonder how
they do it. Are they depressed? Are they somehow able to turn off their inner clock? If I nap for an hour or two during the day than I can't sleep at night. I'd like to know their secret.

At the other end of the spectrum are the inmates who almost never sleep. A few of my inmate friends fall into this category, lying awake nights as they think about the outside world, about their loved ones, about problems they can't fix. Their eyes refuse to close as they toss and turn, disturbed by every snore and snort. These are people who say they didn't suffer from insomnia on the outside: the atmosphere in the barracks can cause sleeplessness in even the soundest sleeper. I have suffered from it myself a handful of times: the night passes extremely slowly as you lie awake in your bunk while people fart and snore around you.

Given a choice between the two I'm not sure which I'd choose. Luckily, I don't have to choose either. Although I wake up much more frequently than I did "out there", I'm able to get a  pretty good night's sleep. And although I do take the occasional nap, I'm by no means a Rip Van Winkle. That's not to say that every now and then I'm not tempted by the fantastical idea. One can always dream, I suppose. And prison provides ample time for dreaming...

Monday, July 7, 2014



For today's post I decided to try something different. Instead of writing a long - though of course not boring - post on a single topic, here's a little pre-holiday mixer of random thoughts and rants. Have a great Fourth everyone!

Call Out: A list is posted each afternoon by 3 p.m. of appointments for the next day. The appointments can range from a class to an administrative meeting to a doctor's appointment but the upside - for those who don't particularly enjoy their job - is time off of work. Through artful planning, I have managed to avoid work this entire week. No weed whacking - yay!

Shout Out: Thank you to everyone who has been writing me, both new friends and old. I've fallen a bit behind on correspondence. JY: BFF! It was great to hear from you; glad all is well. NB: your letter was a pleasure and a reply is in the works. Remembering now our night under the pines at the dacha drinking cognac.

CC from Kalamazoo: thank you very much for reaching out. I loved your letter and will write back. Thank you also to everyone who has commented on my blog - both publicly and privately. I read each and every comment but limit my responses to avoid overburdening my poor mother, who has to cut and paste everything I write.

Scream Out: There's been a buzz lately around this place about prison reform. Don't get me started on the many ways our system of justice is broken. It's not about me - I deserve my time and got what I think is a fair sentence. But some of these poor guys I've met - friendly, good people who long ago paid their dues - have been warehoused here for years, even decades, for committing relatively minor drug crimes. It's as if society threw away the key and forgot about them. Many of these men have spent over half their lives in prison, at great cost to taxpayers. But now there may be hope: congress and the sentencing commission are considering reform and the possibility of clemency is in the air. Although it may be too much to hope for with our dysfunctional politics, let's pray something passes.

Guest Posts: I decided to open up this blog to others - how much can one guy write about himself, anyway? Several fellow inmates are hard at work on guest posts as we speak. They should appear soon. If anyone on the outside has anything to contribute on the topics of this blog I would love to hear from you.

New Warden: We're getting a new camp commander; our old fearless leader has retired. What that means nobody knows. I'll keep you posted.

Family Day: Monday is family day here at prison. Yes, even prison, it seems, has a family day. Games, prizes, treats and fun for all: it promises to be a veritable carnival. Unfortunately, my kids can't come; still waiting for that first visit. But it will be interesting to see what the day entails.

Fireworks: I've been told that we might be able to catch a tiny bit of the Lompoc display from the edge of camp. I hope so. I love fireworks! If not, the Air Force often shoots off rockets from the neighboring base. Those we can see (and hear) all too clearly. Other than that I'm hoping for a quiet long weekend without fights, confiscations or breathalyzers.

Holidays: Happy Fourth of July everyone. Holidays are for family, for being together. Our family had a wonderful tradition going every fourth. Not any more. Holidays are tough in prison, there's no way around it. I like the day off from work but I hate the separation, the loneliness. For those on the outside there are ways to reach out: organizations that do things on the inside for inmates. When I'm out of this place I plan to volunteer.

The Politics of Television

Braving the TV Room in Prison

I squint over a sea of heads at a tiny screen 15 feet away as a mini slave strangles a mini horse and then looks meaningfully into a beautiful mini-princess's eyes. Just as they are about to kiss the room erupts into a raucous cheer. 

I look around. 

Have I missed something? 

Then I realize that I'm the only one watching the movie. Most of the other men have their eyes trained on a vicious, knock-down kick-boxing fight taking place on the screen to the right. 

"Kick him in the balls," someone yells. A few others are watching a reality show on the screen to the left about a naked man and woman dropped onto a mosquito-infested island. "She's not hot at all," someone calls out in disappointment.

A night out at the local cineplex this is not; this is movie night Lompoc style.

I'm braving the TV room for the very first time (with the help of my bunkie - I'll get to that below) and am quickly realizing that television in prison is way more than casual entertainment. What it is is a huge deal fraught with politics and tension with a constant Darwinian struggle over who will watch what, when it will be watched, and from which vantage point. So let me set our television scene:

Lompoc camp has not one but three - count 'em, 3! - television rooms. But calling them "rooms" actually gives them more dignity than they deserve. And the word "television" is a bit grandiose for the small, decrepit boxes that beam our shows.

The most visible room is not a room at all but an outdoor lean-to set squarely in the middle of the camp open on three sides to the elements. This is where the newbies go if they want to watch TV. There, a row of televisions sit propped on listing wooden shelves to the right and to the left of a very loud ice machine and microwave. Inmates drag their chairs from the bunks and prop them atop a slab of concrete as they try to see the screen on the other side of a constant stream of inmates walking to the ice machine and microwave. Cats crawl about their legs. Yesterday, I even saw a raccoon pass by in search of popcorn. 

Then there's the television room for bloacks which I will not describe in detail because - for obvious reasons - I rarely go there. But I've learned from my Chinese friends that, for whatever inexplicable reason, one of the sets in that room is set aside for the Asian inmates at camp. It's just that when they go there to try to watch it, there's nowhere for them to sit. And heaven forbid they try to change the channel.

Finally, there's the cracker room adjacent to the chapel reserved for - you guessed it - good ol' white boys. This is where I sat watching the movie described above, a flick entitled Pompeii and certainly one of the worst movies ever made. But I was only there thanks to the sharing nature of my long-term bunkie who ceded his "spot" to me for the evening.

You see, every square inch of this and each of the television rooms has long-ago been "claimed" by previous inmates. What may look to you and me like an empty linoleum floor is to an experienced con actually a carefully demarcated landscape of various territories more complicated than a map of the Balkans.

So heaven forbid that a newbie come in to watch TV. Wherever he sits, wherever he stands, other cons will vigorously enforce the borders, yelling at him to get out of so-and-so's spot. If he's lucky, they'll let him stand at the door. But if he doesn't happen to like the reality show or boxing match that happens to be playing, tough luck. Only a few, extremely privileged inmates - the very oldest of the old timers - have the right to select the channels.

And what do they choose? Let's just say that reality shows of all stripes are a particular favorite, especially if they involve scantily clad women. Boxing - an incredibly vicious form of the sport that I'd never seen before last weekend - is a close second.

But the absolute favorite, the one program that cuts across all ethnic groups, races and economic levels is (drum roll please): women's' softball. Yes, you heard me right. Every evening in each and every one of the TV rooms you will find scores of inmates glued to the TV as girls in long braids and tight pants throw big balls at each other.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Problems on the Outside

The Frustration of Being Inside When There's Trouble on the Outside

Two weeks ago I received terrible news. A close family member was in the hospital with a serious infection. Last week my family went through a big, very difficult adjustment - a huge move from one country, one continent, to another. This week - so far so good, all quiet on the prison front. But next week - who knows? Life is full of little surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant.

And where was I throughout all of this? You already know the answer to that rhetorical question: sitting here, twiddling my thumbs and pulling my hair, wishing I could help. When trouble strikes on the outside this can be a very difficult place to be.

I'm not the only one. I have a friend here on the inside who just broke up with his significant other on the outside. Another friend is estranged from his ex-wife and hasn't seen his children in 3 years. Yet another recently suffered the death of a sibling. A neighbor of mine in the barracks was telling me yesterday of a mother with cancer. Walk around the barracks at 3 a.m. and you will find many sleepless faces: most of them are up nights worrying about something or someone on the outside that they're powerless to fix or help.

I suppose it's no surprise. Life goes on, whether we inmates are a direct part of that life or not. Gather up 300 guys together and you're bound to find the full gamut of human experiences - traumas, joys, heartbreak, heartache - in their relationships on the outside. Many of these experiences would be hard whether or not we were "here" and our loved ones were "there". But something about the "here" of it all makes them so much harder. 

One reason, I think, is that we men like to solve problems - at least that's what I learned from reading Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In any event, I certainly do. But from here I feel stymied, cut off. Calling, organizing, rallying, comforting: all these "ings" are much, much harder from behind bars.

Case in point: my ex asked me to arrange for a family member to babysit our kids. A simple request, right? But it turns out the family member wasn't approved for my prison e-mail or telephone. Writing a letter would take weeks of back and forth. So I was forced to go a slow circuitous route through other family members.

But that's really a minor example. The true difficulty comes when loved ones are sick or sad or lonely. Telephone and e-mail are great but they sure don't beat a hug or a kiss or a kind word whispered in the ear. With children the difference is particularly great, the urge to reach out and comfort and caress instead of mumbling exhortations into the phone is overwhelming. When your child is sad or hurt or crying you want to kiss his knee and brush his tears away. It's as simple as that. 

A big problem is that, as prisoners, we already feel to a large extent as if we're derelict in our duties: not there because of our own mistakes to raise our children, support our families.

When trouble strikes those anxieties, those feelings of guilt, of failure, are compounded. We want - no, need - to be there to help, to fix, to console. So that leaves us prisoners pacing, frustrated, unable to be there for those we love in the way we wish we could. In the way we would have otherwise been had we not screwed up so badly that we ended up here.