To succeed through the challenges of a lengthy prison term, we must put priorities in place. We may endure inconveniences today in order to put ourselves on the pathway for higher levels of success later.
Prison! My 9,344th Day—Section 8
The administration doesn’t staff our housing unit with an officer during the day. By 8:00 a.m., most of the people have left the housing unit. They’ve walked to their assigned job details, participated in classes, or walked out to do their own thing.
A few officers roam around the camp to keep an eye on things. People in the camp have the liberty to coordinate their schedules, and the officers leave them alone for the most part.
Surprisingly, many men waste time. They sit in front of television sets, watching back-to-back, scripted television shows. In prison, shows like The Kardashians, Teen Mom, and titillating, provocative talk shows like Jerry Springer captivate the men’s attention.
We’re supposed to address staff members with the appropriate prefix, either Mr. or Ms. Today, I see Mr. Smith, a tall man with sandy hair and an easy disposition walking through the housing unit. He doesn’t bother anyone.
I’m indifferent to the officers and don’t interact with them too much. I’m always courteous, but I don’t solicit conversation. I’m grateful when they ignore me, leaving me to work on independent projects. Besides the officers, I report to two other staff members—a counselor and a case manager.
Counselors and case managers don’t offer much personal guidance. They are more like warehouse managers, while people serving time are like inventory. A counselor oversees bunks, jobs, and visiting lists. Case managers monitor release dates and assess when a person may qualify for transition to another prison or some form of community-based confinement.
I walk down the long narrow pathway between the cubicles on the left side of the housing dorm. When I reach the end, I turn right into my cubicle. David has cleaned the room. He is a hard-working young man whom I respect because of the way he serves his time.
David is in his late 20s. Both of his parents immigrated from Mexico, and they reared David with cultural values from Mexico rather than the USA. It’s strange because he was born in this country. Despite living his entire life in California, people in his community ridiculed him for speaking English when he was a child. He prefers to watch television shows in Spanish and listen to Spanish music. His accent suggests that he grew up with his first language being Spanish from Mexico.
David didn’t grow up with the opportunities that I took for granted. No one in his family encouraged him to pursue an education or a trade. He told me that his family members didn’t consider illicit drug sales an inappropriate way to earn a living. David dropped out of school early, fell in love with a girl from high school, fathered two children, and sold drugs to support the family. A federal judge sentenced him to serve an 11-year sentence.
David doesn’t whine about the sentence he serves. Instead, he works to the best of his ability to make the most of his time. He welcomed me into his cubicle soon after I transferred to Taft from the camp in Lompoc. His story moved me, and I wanted to help him in every way I could.
David grew up in a household that discouraged education but celebrated drug dealers. Such a background launched him into the prison pipeline. Political leaders do a great disservice to our country by locking millions of nonviolent people in prison. When those people grew up in socioeconomic conditions that set them up for failure, we should consider alternatives.
The longer we expose a person to corrections, the less likely those people are to function. As recidivism rates show, prisons make people less likely to succeed. I must prepare for success, regardless leaders have designed this wretched system.
I also want to teach David the steps he can take to prepare.
Since we began sharing a cubicle, I’ve mentored him to the best of my ability. He studied every day, and he passed the test that led to his GED. Now he works toward a college degree. Besides schoolwork, David has a full-time job repairing wheelchairs for the needy at the camp. He earns extra income from people that pay him to clean cubicles, wash sneakers, or launder uniforms. I respect his work ethic, humility, kindness, and commitment to building a better life for his wife and children.
Tim did a fine job of ironing my clothes. After removing the hanger from the hook on my cube’s back wall, I pull off the white t-shirt and khaki pants. I lay them on my mattress slowly to preserve the sharp crease.
The clothes may be prison-issue, but they’re all I have, and I try to keep them neat to present myself well throughout the day. I never know who I’m going to meet or what opportunity will open, but I always want to make a good impression. I put the hanger inside my locker because rules prohibit me from leaving anything outside my locker when I’m not in the cubicle. Then I dress.
It’s 9:10. I go over my morning’s productivity. Since starting my day more than seven hours ago, I’ve written several pages, run 10 miles, and completed 700 pushups. Now I’m ready to make one of the big decisions of the day: What am I going to eat?
I position my plastic chair directly in front of my locker. While looking inside, I consider the options. I go through this ritual every day. I prefer to eat here, alone, rather than in the chow hall for many reasons. I’m blessed to have the option.
I began the practice of eating alone much earlier in my sentence. Like waking early, eating alone has been a part of my conflict-avoidance strategy. The chow hall in a high-security penitentiary gathers several hundred people, making them volatile spots. I wanted to avoid the explosive eruptions that frequently took place during meals.
The men segregate themselves as if they’re in tribes. Rather than living as one group of people in prison, the men identify as part of specific groups. One person in a clique becomes accountable for every other clique member. I did my best not to interfere with the path that others were on and tried to stay alone.
Once I built sufficient financial resources, I began purchasing all my food from the commissary. I became accustomed to eating alone. As my resources increased, I could eat better food.
When my security level dropped, the volatility of my surroundings became less intense. In medium-security prisons, I didn’t see as much stabbing or bludgeoning. People still attacked and hurt other people, but with less frequency. In low-security prisons, the level of violence dropped further, with severe disturbances being rare. Once I transferred to prison camps, I saw about as much volatility as a person would find in a corporate office park or postal office. Still, I preferred to eat alone and avoid the chow hall.
Besides being crowd-averse, people that cut lines annoy me. If I go to the chow hall, I carry a news magazine. If I read while waiting in line, I am not wasting as much time. Besides that, I block the anger that would upset me if I were to see scores of men cutting in line—which frequently happens in camps, but not so much in higher security prisons.
I’ve never cut in line. To cut in line would offend every person behind me. It would not be consistent with the type of character I want to build. Every day I think about the character I’m building.
By striving to develop myself, I’m always thinking about other people and how I will be able to influence opportunities when I am home. Good character will help. The less frequently I expose myself to the chow hall, the less exposure to conflict or disturbances.
I’m indecisive about what I want to eat. I have apples, bananas, onion, tomatoes, green peppers, and lemons in a knit bag hanging in my locker’s right vertical compartment. In the middle compartment on the left side, I see bags of dehydrated beans, precooked rice, angel-hair pasta, tomato sauce, tabouli, and tuna. I have a bag of raw almonds, raisin bran, rolled oats, and granola. I also see garlic and olive oil.
Sometimes, I get lost in thought while staring at this food. Looking at the boxes of pre-packaged food won’t feed me. The question comes down to how much I want to prepare. I have writing projects to complete, making me reluctant to waste time cooking a hot meal. Instead, I pull a bowl from the bottom compartment. I pour rolled oats inside, then sprinkle some granola on top. I count out 12 raw almonds and bury them in the cereal. Then I walk to the bathroom to get hot water I can pour over the cereal.
When I return to my cube, I set the bowl on David’s locker. While the cereal absorbs the water, I sit at the steel table mounted against the wall beside David’s locker. I put a plastic top on the table’s surface that can serve as a cutting board. I cut an apple into cubes and slice a banana. The steel table is only 12 inches deep, too narrow to write on comfortably. If I had a better writing space, I’d spend my time in this cubicle, working in relative privacy from within a windowless, concrete cube. Instead, I only use the table for preparing meals.
Cutting the fruit takes more time than it should because all I have is a plastic knife. It’s hard plastic, but it’s still pliable and rather dull. We don’t have access to real knives in prison for safety reasons.
I look forward to eating with metal spoons, forks, and knives when I’m released. Since my prison term began on August 11, 1987, I haven’t used anything besides plastic.
I’ve grown accustomed to this life. Some people overcome the cutting problem by breaking apart shaving razors and pulling out the tiny blades. Although the razor would cut through an apple easier, if an officer caught a person with the razor blade, he would charge the person with a disciplinary infraction of the highest level.
The officer may know that the person only wanted to cut an apple. Yet he would have personal reasons for wanting to charge a person with possession of a weapon. If an officer charges a person possessing a razor blade, he may stand out as a candidate for promotion to lieutenant.
Living in prison for decades has conditioned the way that I think. I’ve learned to think about others. What do they want? Like anyone else, a prison staff member wants a better life and more opportunity. The prison system doesn’t reward staff members for “correcting” behavior. If they help people in prison, they may get a career block—with a reputation for being “an inmate lover.” If they want a promotion, they need to enforce rules.
Learning to think about the people around me has been very helpful throughout my journey. Other people will always look out for their interests. The more I consider this reality, the more I prepare to make better decisions.
To consider breaking a prison rule, I need a better reason than making it easier to cut an apple. I have broken many prison rules. Rules prohibit me from earning money from the books that I write. Yet I consider it far more critical to earn resources that will support Carole and that I can rely upon to ease my transition into society when my sentence ends.
When I finish cutting the apple with my plastic knife, it’s 9:35. I pour the fruit into the bowl of hot cereal, wipe up the mess I made, then return to the chair in front of my locker and sit. The dormitory is quiet, especially here in the back. I appreciate the solitude to eat my meal in peace.
The double doors of my locker are open. While savoring each spoon of cereal, I stare at pictures of Carole that I taped to the inside of the locker doors. Ninety-five more hours until we visit. I hope she’s typing the manuscript pages I sent, updating my blog, or doing something with the various websites we maintain.
The workload I create is too much for her. Recently, I asked Carole to tap into our support network. We need to find more volunteer typists. I hope she has secured assistance. I expect to send her several hundred handwritten pages in the days to come. Someone will have to type those pages, and I’d like to get them back before she resumes school in two months.
I’ll call her for an update after I finish my cereal.