For an example of institutionalization, listen to Section 3 of Prison: My 8,344th Day. It show how I pushed through a typical day during my 23 year of confinement.
Prison: My 8,344th Day—Section 3—Making Plans
I press the button to light the face of my Timex watch. The guards will pass by soon. I reach to my left, into the second compartment of my locker, and pull out a bag of whole-wheat bread. I unlock the twist tie, open the bag, take one slice that I set on my knee while spinning it, and fasten it closed with the twist tie. Then I lean back on my chair, prop my feet on the wall of concrete blocks, and listen for the sound of clinging keys as guards walk down the corridor, counting prisoners in their racks.
Each week I buy a new package of bread from the commissary. While I wait for the 3:00 a.m. census count to clear each morning, I savor each bite I take from a slice. I hear footsteps from the guards walking as I chew. The bread tastes fresh. I don’t use butter or any spread. I eat the crust first, nibbling around the outer edges. Then I bite into the doughy part and chew each bite slowly, thinking about my future.
Dave’s Killer Bread makes this package. The guy who started Dave’s Killer Bread served time in prison. When I told Carole how much I loved the bread, she sent me a story about him. While he did longer than ten years in the Oregon state prison system, Dave learned how to bake. After he got out, he joined his family’s bakery company. He started baking bread and branding it as “Dave’s Killer Bread,” a marketing ploy on his criminal past. The story inspired me.
The example inspired me. I loved reading stories about people who became successful after serving time. Society generally paints a picture of people encountering enormous struggles after release. They have a hard time finding employment, housing, or just fitting in. Dave’s story is that with determination, a person can overcome.
For decades, the thought of building a career motivated me. I understood that the world had changed since I walked into the prison system in 1987. I read extensively about the internet, cellphones, email, and technology. I believed that technology would open opportunities, but I didn’t know what I would do. I had never had a job before I went in. Since I expected to get out when I was 49, I wouldn’t have much time.
The story of Dave’s Killer Bread gave me hope. If he could convert all he learned about baking into a business, perhaps I could do the same. I itched to get into the market. Although I anticipated that employers would be reluctant to hire a man who served 26 years in prison, I could figure out ways to create an income stream through writing and developing courses to help others.
While I sit in the cell waiting for the officers to clear the census count, I stare at the wall in a daydream. I wonder about the progress I’ll make in the months and years. I’m scheduled to serve 38 more months. But I anticipate that administrators will grant a combination of parole and halfway house placement. Although I don’t know when prison administrators will make decisions, I calculate that I’ll serve my last year in a community-confinement program.
If I’m calculating correctly, I’ll transition to a halfway house in about two years. I try to visualize other steps I can take to prepare before administrators hatch me into the world. By then, I’ll be 48, without clothes or the basics that men my age take for granted.
What will I have to buy?
How much will it all cost?
I start adding. I think about what I’ll need to launch the business I intend to build. First, I’ll need modern technology. I don’t know the prices, but I expect computers and communications equipment to cost about $15,000. Perhaps that is too high. Maybe $10,000 to purchase clothes, and I might need a vehicle. With $30,000, I should be able to meet my immediate needs.
Years ago, I set a goal. I wanted to accumulate sufficient savings to cover all my living expenses through my first year of liberty. That means I wanted to pay for everything I would need to get started and still have enough money in the bank to live.
Writing helped me to stay on track. I earned money by ghostwriting books for others and writing books under my name. Those books helped me to support Carole while she worked through nursing school. They also helped me build the savings account I would need to launch my life.
We have more than $30,000 in the bank already. Once Carole completes her program, she’ll earn a good wage as a registered nurse. I won’t have the immediate pressure of making money to cover her living expenses. The money I earn from writing will grow the savings account I’ve been building. With those resources, I anticipate my adjustment to the world will be much easier than other men who returned to society after decades in prison.
I’m halfway through chewing my bread when the guards walk in front of my cubicle for the count. It gives me a sense of personal satisfaction when I think about the money I’ve saved. I’ve read that relatively few people outside of prison have saved sufficient money for retirement. Frank Sinatra used to sing that if a man could make it in New York, he could make it anywhere. I could bolster confidence by reminding myself that while serving decades in prison, I earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, published books, got married, supported my wife, and saved thousands of dollars to help me transition into society successfully.
These kinds of thoughts empower me throughout the day. The prison system feels exquisitely designed to extinguish hope. As a person who has climbed through decades, I always felt that my job would be to recalibrate, build strength, and prepare myself in ways to succeed—regardless of what administrators of the prison system do.
Finally, the guards reach the end of the corridor. They count David and me, and then they turn a corner to walk up the other side of the building. Their keys jingle as they move toward the front of the housing unit, counting prisoners along the way. It’s 3:01. My thoughts about the future persist.
By next March, I will have lived more than half of my life as a prisoner. It’s my handicap, and I’m always considering the implications. With unemployment rates at historic highs, my long prison record, my lack of work history, and my age, I consider the slim prospects of anyone hiring me for a job. It gives me a sense of urgency. I must prepare. Somehow, I will have to monetize what I’ve learned and experienced through all the years I’ve served in prisons of every security level. One strategy would be to consult with people who face government investigations or imprisonment.
In anticipation of business, I’ve written a series of websites. Although I’ve never used the internet, I’ve read extensively about how the internet works. Carole, the love of my life and liaison to the world, sent me articles and screenshots. From those images, I engineered websites that I hoped would accelerate my career once I got out.
The websites that I asked Carole to build would become a source of revenue. She has hired several web designers. I write words by hand, and then I send them to her. She types the articles and then sends them to the web designer. When the pages were live, Carole would print pages and send them to me. This process allowed us to work together and document the journey.
Documenting the journey has always been an essential part of my plan. Although I could not control how many people knew about my journey, I could control how much I wrote. The websites served as a tool for me, a resource. By writing every day, I had a tactic. The more I published, the more I would increase the chance of people knowing that I think differently. Instead of whining or complaining, I could create. I could build a stronger case for people to believe in me by making a more comprehensive record of what I accomplished in prison. I would have to be different from what they expected. If people believed in me, I could build confidence. That confidence would enhance prospects for my success upon release.
I wanted to increase traffic to my website. Yet I had to accept my lack of control over what other people did. Instead of worrying about what others did, I had to focus on what I could control. By writing blogs and articles every day, I could build a record. That record would become an asset. When authorities released me, I knew that I would learn how to create videos that would accompany all my writing.
Every day, I convince myself that people will find value in the instruction I offer. I would be able to show them that I never asked anyone to do anything that I did not do. If someone had explained the prison system and my options at the start of my confinement, I would have made better decisions. By making better decisions, I could have done a better job of persuading job to have mercy on me during sentencing. I would have to be more proactive, building assets and resources that would bring value to society. It would be the strategy to open opportunities upon release. I know that I must work harder than ever to prepare for success upon release. I must continue with tactics that allow me to create the tools and resources that will help me overcome the challenges I expect to face after release. Even though I don’t know when administrators will release me, I know the onus is on me to prepare for success once I get out.
I hear the guards walking down the corridor on the other side of my cubicle. Their jingling keys and heavy jackboots disturb the peace of the night. In about three more minutes, I can return to the quiet room.
My thoughts wander to a visit I had a few weeks ago with Dr. Sam Torres, a professor of criminal justice at California State University in Long Beach. He’s become a resource.
Before his academic career, Sam had a long history as a senior federal probation officer. He and I began corresponding several years ago after sending me an unsolicited letter. Sam introduced himself by saying that he had retired as a US probation officer. After retiring, he became a professor. To teach students about the criminal justice system, Sam required them to read one of the books I wrote, About Prison.
I felt a great sense of pride when Wadsworth offered me a contract to publish About Prison. In an instant, the major publishing house bolstered my spirits. I needed those accomplishments to feel like a human being, not simply a prisoner. Professionals offered a contract that would make me a published author—one of the goals I had set at the start of my journey. I hoped to build a stronger support network by selling books I wrote to universities. Those efforts opened opportunities.
But receiving that letter from Sam Torres brought more than validation for my work. He wrote that he had retired from US Probation. I immediately recognized him as a resource when I got his initial letter. He could help me understand the level of complications I would face from probation when I got out. I knew there would be complications when I transitioned from prison to probation. The responsibility would be on me to figure out how to overcome those complications.
During our visit, I probed to learn what Sam thought about the career plans I had made. Once authorities released me, I wanted to build a business. I felt well prepared to overcome the challenges of re-entry. With all that I had done in prison, I felt confident that I could succeed outside. I anticipated that the probation officer who supervised my release would be supportive, but I wanted to get Sam’s take.
Sam’s response jolted me into the reality of who I am.
“He might want to keep a close watch over you,” Sam said. “He might want to make sure you’re not selling dope again.”
I couldn’t believe anyone would say such a thing to me.
Several weeks have passed since that visit with Sam, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the cynicism he warned me to expect. I think of it every day. It feels like the sword of Damocles hanging over my neck. I thought I had built a record that would engender trust. I lived transparently as an open book. Sam’s message suggested that I should think differently. A probation officer might not consider my work to prepare for success while climbing through decades in prison.
According to Sam, the probation officer might only want to consider the decisions from my early 20s that led me to prison.
I am grateful for the insight into what I should expect, but Sam’s admonishment brings anxiety. He later clarified his statement. Just as I met some helpful prison officers during the time I served, I met others who did not support my efforts to prepare for success. They saw me as a prisoner. They wanted me to serve time, not write books or think about business.
Similarly, Sam said, a probation officer could go either way. I appreciated Sam’s honesty. I didn’t like what he said. Yet he solidified that I would always have to live in the world as it existed and not as I wanted it to be. I would face many obstacles and I would have to overcome.
I’ve read extensively about imprisonment. The struggles that afflict people who served time would not escape me. Once I got out, I would have to endure the same collateral consequences. I wouldn’t make excuses. The worst thing I could do would be to say, “I didn’t know this could happen.” I must anticipate challenges, struggles, and obstacles. And I must succeed anyway.
I am determined to live a law-abiding citizen and build a contributing, honorable life. Still, I have to acknowledge that recidivism rates exceed 60 percent. The thought of returning to prison or any further confrontations with the criminal justice system torments me. I have to grow stronger every day.
By the time I had served a few years in prison, all my dreams related to imprisonment. Recently, since I’ve been moving within striking distance of release, the dreams have become nightmares. While sleeping, I can see myself in society with Carole. Then, something crazy happens, and authorities bring me back to prison for something that I don’t understand.
I intend to leave prison strong, with the support and resources necessary to reintegrate quickly. Yet Sam Torres speaks from experience. I would be foolish to dismiss his admonition. Despite the way that I see myself, many people in society will never be able to see me as anything other than a prisoner. Some will want to send me back to prison, I suspect.
I will have to build the resources to stay strong and free.
I stand and lean outside my cubicle. The guards have moved on, so I know the count has cleared. My Timex says 3:08 when I sit back down in the quiet room. The papers I brought with me earlier are still scattered on the table, just as I had left them.
I continue writing Walter’s story.
At 3:38, I see a reflection in the tall window in front of me. It grabs my attention. With the darkness of night, the window serves as a mirror. I can see myself at the table, and I can see the hallway through the windows behind me. Two prisoners walk by. Each of them carries the gray vinyl mat and pillow from his rack. One opens the door leading into the storage room, and they both walk in. When they exit, their arms are empty. They look in the window and see me at the desk as they pass by. One of the men waves, and I nod in reply.
The two men have finished their time in the Taft prison camp. I’ve seen them around the yard, but I don’t know either one. Still, I stand and walk closer to the outer window when I hear the guard’s keys unlocking the heavy door of the housing unit. I watch them walk out on their way. I follow their movements as they descend the stairs into darkness and walk up the wide concrete pathway that leads to the camp’s control center. When they open the door, I see the light from the building’s hallway.
They’ve begun their walk to freedom.
A few times each week, I watch as people leave, each carrying a box of belongings. My time will come. I don’t expect my sentence to conclude while I’m in this camp. Unless something extraordinary happens, I’ll transfer from this camp to another prison before the spring of 2011. A strong possibility exists that I’ll leave in only six more months, as soon as December.
I don’t know where the people who walked out will go next. They’ll likely spend a few hours in a holding cell while guards process them out. Then they’ll probably transfer to another prison or go a halfway house somewhere. Maybe they’ve completed their sentences entirely, and they’re going home.
I am one of the few federal prisoners in the system who doesn’t have clarity on a release date. When the judge sentenced me, a different law existed. It gave me the right to parole. Since then, the law has changed. The federal government doesn’t operate a parole system for people convicted after November 1, 1987. Since I started serving my term a few months before the new law, I have parole eligibility. Authorities will transfer me to a prison where the parole board holds hearings because it doesn’t meet at the Taft prison camp.
Authorities do not always see people in prison as human beings. They can move us around like a warehouse manager shuffles inventory.
When the time comes, Carole and I hope that authorities will send me to the prison camp in Sheridan, Oregon. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter all that much. Authorities can transfer me anywhere. When I arrive at the next prison, Carole will relocate to the same city, and she’ll quickly find work as a nurse. She’ll arrange her schedule to allow us to visit as frequently as possible. This transfer will be my last, and I won’t have much longer than one year to serve before I carry my box of belongings and walk free from prison boundaries.
It’s a surreal thought to me.
What does home mean?
Will I feel free when I get out?
Moving away from the window, I return to my chair and sit. I’m not walking out of prison today. I curse myself for allowing fantasy to distract me from writing. I refocus my attention and put pen to paper, describing Walter’s background and professional experience. When the guard walks by the window behind me, I see that an hour of total concentration has passed. I’ve written the first six pages, about 1,500 words, and I’m more than halfway finished with the draft of Walter’s profile. It’s time to break for the 5:00 a.m. census count.
- What role models inspire the adjustment you’re making to prepare for success upon release?
- In what ways are you preparing tools, tactics, and resources that will help you overcome the obstacles that most people face after they get out of jail or prison?
- Describe how the decisions you’re making today will lead to more opportunities in your future.