Finding the right role models gave me the strength to climb through a quarter-century in prison. In Section 4 of Prison! My 8,344th Day, I pay respect to Mandela, Frankl, and Solzhenitsyn.
Prison! My 8,344th Day—Section 4: Role Models
I leave the quiet room and walk past the two guards. They’re speaking softly. A few steps away, people sleep in open cubicles. I am light on my feet so as not to disturb anyone. The officers don’t acknowledge me as I walk toward the laundry room.
I gather my clothes from the dryer and carry the bundle down the long hallway leading to my cubicle. The housing unit starts coming to life. Several people pass me in a rush to use the bathroom before the 5:00 a.m. census count begins. I nod to a few.
Nearly four hours have elapsed, and I’ve yet to speak to anyone. Very good! I cherish the silence.
David sleeps soundly on the bottom bunk. I’m careful not to make any noise that would disturb him, even though he sleeps less than two feet away from me. The clothes I pulled from the dryer are still warm, and I fold them over my lap.
The bundle includes elastic-waist khaki pants, one white t-shirt, one gray tank top, two pairs of gray running shorts, underwear, one pair of socks, and one white headband. I separate the running gear that I’ll wear later. I put the socks and underwear in the right-hand compartment of my locker. The pants and white t-shirt go on a plastic hanger.
It’s now 4:57. I reach for my Sony Walkman radio with the earbuds.
I don’t listen to the radio much and rarely watch television. Both activities rob me of time I could use to prepare for the challenges I expect to face upon release. Every weekend the camp administration rents movies for the institutional television system.
This past weekend, the people watched Invictus. I read great reviews of the film that depicts Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment aspects. Mandela’s story inspired me at the start of my lengthy prison journey.
I read his biography, A Long Walk to Freedom, many years ago. Authorities in South Africa released Mandela from prison around the same time that I began serving my sentence. I considered him a role model, someone I wanted to emulate.
To get through a challenging journey with dignity, Mandela taught me to strive toward contribution. By helping others, we help ourselves. Despite going through 27 years in prison, he lived without bitterness or anger. People from around the world revered his discipline, commitment, and generosity of spirit. I took away many lessons from his book, including that I shouldn’t complain about my challenges. Instead, I should create strategies to build strength, regardless of the authorities’ decisions or setbacks I might endure.
Other men who turned their imprisonment into lasting contributions to humanity taught me the same lesson. People like Viktor Frankl, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Elie Weisel offered guidance. From them, I learned discipline.
As an example, I choose to avoid watching television for entertainment. Every choice I make relates to the deliberate path I’ve set.
I know the challenges awaiting my release from interviewing more than 1,000 people who served prison time. I have a responsibility to prepare. If an activity doesn’t relate to the tools, tactics, and resources that I’m building to prepare for success upon release, more than likely, I’m going to pass. Whenever I get out, I’ll make time for television.
The radio keeps me current with what’s going on outside, in the real world. I listen to NPR news through earbuds. While waiting for the morning news to begin, I change to a classic rock station and listen to Hotel California by The Eagles. Lyrics from that song remind me of where I am:
“Welcome to the Hotel California. You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.”
I switch back to NPR just in time for the familiar jingle announcing the 5:00 a.m. news. I’ve relied upon stations such as NPR, CNBC, and Bloomberg for years. Besides being sources of information to keep me abreast of what’s going on in society, they served as examples of how businesspeople and leaders speak.
When I started serving my sentence, I noticed that people in prison spoke differently. They used vernacular, cadence, and word choices that differed from people in the business community.
I knew that I would serve multiple decades. If I didn’t make a conscious effort, I reasoned that I could pick up the bad habit of using lazy language. If I didn’t train myself how to speak and write like a businessperson or an educated person, it wouldn’t be so easy to open opportunities.
Knowing that I would need every advantage to help me overcome challenges, I trained myself on how to learn new words, use them in sentences, and enunciate them correctly. Radio news stations could help.
The NPR journalists continue reporting on the story of a devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While listening, I try to straighten out my cubicle. David’s locker stands beside the head of my rack. When I lie down before sleeping in the late afternoon, I set the books or magazines I will read on the top surface of his locker.
When officers inspect the cubicles, they don’t want to see anything left outside. I move a Bible, a book on Eastern spirituality, and How, a hardcover by Dov Seidman, from the top of David’s locker to the right-hand compartment of my locker. I also put a bowl and a water jug away. The officers would write disciplinary reports against people that left anything outside the locker. I fit everything I own in the tiny space each morning before going out to exercise.
The guards pass by my cubicle at 5:02—time to change into my running gear.
I put on shorts, a tank top, and black Nike running shoes that I purchased from the commissary last week. I put on my white headband and rest my sunglasses on my head. I grab a set of orange earplugs and my identification card. I take off my radio and return it to my locker with everything put away. I’m now leaning out of my cubicle, watching for a sign that the guards have finished.
The movement of other prisoners walking toward the front of the housing unit shows me that the count has cleared. I grab the hanger that holds my khakis and white t-shirt, then head toward the quiet room. On the way, I stop at Tim’s cubicle and hang my clothes on a hook at the entrance.
Tim is another person serving time in the camp, a young man in his 20s. He supports himself with domestic work around the unit—cleaning cubicles, doing laundry, and ironing. I pay him a book of stamps in exchange for ironing seven items for me each week.
Prison rules prohibit one prisoner from giving anything of value to another prisoner. Although officers have written a few disciplinary infractions against me over the decades, the only one that has ever stuck has been for giving something of value to another person in prison.
According to the disciplinary code, giving something of value to another prisoner falls into the moderate-severity category. After the guard charged me, a kangaroo court found me guilty of violating the rule. The conviction accused me of coordinating to pay another prisoner to clean my cell. The “finders of fact” sanctioned me with the loss of commissary privileges for 30 days.
Officers charged me with that infraction 11 years ago, when I was in my 12th year of imprisonment. Since then, officers have charged me with many other violations of prison rules. Disciplinary infractions led to my transfer from the camp in Lompoc to the camp in Taft.
I prevailed over all disciplinary infractions, except for one where I gave something of value to another person in prison.
Early in my term, when I accepted that I would serve a lengthy sentence, I made it my business to understand how prisons operate. The US Congressional Printing Office publishes the CFR Code of Federal Regulations series. I found the federal prison rules in Title 28 of the CFR, section 500.
All prison libraries carry Title 28, Section 500 of the CFR. Every few years, I reserve half a day to read through the rules. While living in prison, it’s crucial to stay current with regulations that the system expects people serving time and staff members to follow.
Understanding the rules doesn’t mean I commit to following them all religiously. My objective has never been to live as a model inmate. I define success differently. I strive to emerge from prison successfully, with skills and resources that will enable me to land on my feet and live the rest of my life successfully. I am indifferent to the label “model inmate.”
I find the term inmate condescending. A counselor once tried to compliment me by saying she considered me a convict rather than an inmate. I dismiss all labels in here. They’re offensive. I’m in prison, which makes me a prisoner. But I am also a man, an American citizen, a husband, son, brother, uncle, and friend. The labels we put on people in prison do not serve them well. Although administrators may want a person to live as a “model inmate,” a cost may come for those who choose to follow all rules.
I willingly violate rules when doing so will help me overcome the cycle of failure that prisons perpetuate. For example, instead of abiding by regulations and ironing my clothes, I pay Tim to iron them.
If I were to iron the clothes myself, I would expose myself to the potential for conflict. The housing unit has only one iron for 125 people serving time. I try to minimize the possibility of unnecessary interactions with the other men serving time. That’s a defense mechanism.
I can control my behavior, but I cannot control the behavior of others. Petty annoyances can send unbalanced prisoners over the edge. To accommodate for the volatile world of imprisonment, I take precautions.
Latent volatility exists here. Regardless of security level, all prisons separate men from their wives, children, and communities. News from home isn’t always good. Wives and loved ones sometimes move on. When people receive unexpected or unwelcome information, they can snap.
Although once well adjusted, I’ve known men who became crazed after they received terrible news from home. The less exposure I have to such volatility, the safer I feel. Avoiding interactions with others has been an integral part of my strategy.
Being alone gives me a sense that I’m exercising more control over my environment. Solitude brings stability and helps me make progress toward reaching my goals. I don’t iron clothes because I don’t want to interact with people who consider laundry services or pressing clothing to be their exclusive domain.
Washing my clothes doesn’t expose me to the same problems as ironing. When I load clothes into the washer before 2:00 each morning, almost everyone in my housing unit is asleep. I’m not risking exposure to the possibility of confrontation. I wash my clothes, dry them, and fold them before most men wake. It’s not a problem. But I’d rather pay Tim to iron them each day, and I willingly accept the risk of violating the prison rule.
By devoting time to understanding the Code of Federal Regulations, I take another step toward protecting myself. I have many recollections of how my knowledge of the CFR saved me from problems in prison. Had I not known the rules, issues of imprisonment could have put me on a different trajectory.
For example, I remember the series of events that led to my transfer through various federal prison camps. While confined at the camp in Colorado, St. Martin’s Press published my book Inside: Life Behind Bars in America. When staff members learned I wrote the manuscript and sent it out for publication, they threatened to charge me with a disciplinary infraction. My knowledge of the CFR saved me. I could cite the Bureau of Prisons’ Program Statement. It authorized people in prison to write manuscripts. Rules provided that we could send those manuscripts out for publication.
Military leaders have taught us a great deal. To win the war, we sometimes must lose a few battles. Although I prevailed in overcoming the disciplinary infraction for “running a business” from prison, administrators transferred me from the camp in Florence, Colorado, to the camp in Lompoc, California. I didn’t mind the transfer from one minimum-security camp to another, especially since transferring to California brought me closer to home.
However, after serving a couple of years in Lompoc, authorities cited me with the same disciplinary infraction. Some staff members don’t like people writing books. Rather than abiding by the Program Statement that expressly encourages people in federal prison to write manuscripts, they create obstructions. When officers learned of my writing at Lompoc, they locked me in handcuffs. They took me to the segregated housing unit. When they heard of my publishing efforts, they accused me of “running a business.” The officers threatened to send me to a higher security prison.
While locked in solitary confinement, I hand wrote letters to my wife. We had planned for this type of challenge. On my website, we published the segment from the CFR that expressly authorized and encouraged people in prison to use their spare time to write. The websites we maintained gave Carole a resource. She could rely upon the website to document the systematic steps I took to prepare for success upon release. With my website as a resource, Carole could advocate on my behalf.
Carole connected with Maureen, a high-level administrator at the Bureau of Prison’s regional office. Typically, administrators have a very cynical view of people serving time, especially people who have done multiple decades.
Maureen reviewed the website that published my writings. Those writings made a favorable impression. She began to advocate for me. With her support, the region expunged my disciplinary infraction. Rather than transferring me to a higher security prison, Maureen sent me to the camp in Taft, which worked in my favor.
Had I tried to live as a “model inmate,” I would not have become a writer. Had I not become a writer, I would not have a website. If I didn’t have a website, I wouldn’t have succeeded in getting publishers to bring my writings to market. Had I not published my work, I would have had as many opportunities. Had I not known about the Code of Federal Regulations, I would not have succeeded in persuading staff members to delete the many disciplinary infractions I received for “running a business” from inside a federal prison.
The more we know about our environment, the stronger we become.
While waiting for the morning census to clear so I can go outside to exercise, I write my daily blog entry. Carole will publish the entry as part of a journal recording my daily progress. By publishing the journal on my website, I create a permanent record. It shows how to muster strength through adversity. The journal will become an asset I leverage to launch my career when I get out.
Although I’ve never had direct access to the internet, I read about the technology extensively. I’m aware of its immense power. I get inspired by reading books about how people use the internet to build businesses. I’m confident that I’ll be able to launch my own business when I get out. By recording my progress every day, I will be able to show how yesterday’s decisions relate to the success I’m building, day by day. Regardless of where we are, we can always work toward creating a better life.
When release comes, I anticipate that people will have preconceived notions. People aren’t used to interacting with a person that spent a quarter-century in prison. That’s the reality I expect. No sense complaining. Instead, I must anticipate such challenges. I must prepare to succeed anyway.
My website and the thousands of pages I published online will validate that I’ve built an extraordinary record. Those writings will be an extensive résumé. They show that regardless of the bad decisions I made during the recklessness of my youth, I’ve responded well to the challenge of confinement.
I post a daily journal to describe my observations and experiences. I write about prison to help people understand the implications of mass incarceration and how it influences the lives of millions. Through writing, I aspire to offer hope, to show others that even though lengthy terms of imprisonment, people can create meaningful, contributing, positive lives.
At the bottom of my daily journal entry, I record the progress toward my exercise goals. Fitness has been a central part of my adjustment from the beginning.
In December of 2008, I committed to running every day until authorities released me from prison. In 2010 I furthered my commitment by adding strength training: pledging 100,000 pushups before the year’s end.
The journal shows that I’ve run 548 days without a day off as of yesterday. The total distance amounts to 4,877 miles. Since January 1, 2010, I’ve completed 63,000 pushups in increments of between 2,000 and 4,000 each week.
As Nelson Mandela wrote, it’s a long walk to freedom.
Questions to Consider:
What role models give guidance for the journey you’re on now?
In what ways are you thinking about the challenges ahead?
In what ways do you prepare to conquer the challenges ahead?