Prison: My 8,344th Day—Section 9—Planning
While sitting in front of my locker’s open door, I study the calendar I’ve taped above Carole’s picture. We have six-and-a-half months remaining in 2010. What will I accomplish during this time?
I anticipate that I’ll interview three to four more people. Those people will tell me their stories, and I’ll write profiles or case studies that others can use to make better decisions. This material will become an asset for the business I intend to build upon release.
When the time is right, I’ll publish the stories in books and lesson plans, resources I will use to teach business people how to avoid investigations and charges for white-collar crime. Besides this writing project, I intend to finish a second manuscript that I’m writing specifically for at-risk adolescents.
I’ve spoken with hundreds of at-risk adolescents through a youth outreach program since I’ve been here at Taft. Every day, the criminal justice system brings in thousands of teenagers. They sleep in detention centers or spend their time in reform-type schools. The book I’m writing for them will describe strategies I’ve relied upon to overcome adversity. I intend to distribute this book in schools and juvenile facilities.
As I study the calendar, I’m convinced that I can bring both projects to market by the fall of this year.
After finishing my bowl of cereal and fruit, I set the bowl down beside me on the concrete floor while I stare at the calendar, contemplating how I’ll finish out the rest of this year. If I finish writing the content for the at-risk kids this summer, I can generate resources to publish in September. I’ll reserve time in October, November, and December to raise sponsorship funds. The money will open opportunities to distribute to other institutions or organizations that can use the books as a resource.
Cynical people think that I’m wasting energy by spending so much writing books that I frequently give away. When they challenge me with questions about the logic of my strategy, I offer an analogy, starting with a question: When is the best time to plant an oak tree?
When I ask that question, many people venture a guess—winter, spring, morning. The people don’t know how to answer.
“The best time to plant an oak tree,” I tell them, “was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”
To grow a strong oak tree, however, we should do a lot more than plant seeds. We also must nurture them so they grow roots. Fertilizer helps us to feed the seeds with nutrients. The fertilizer, of course, comes from livestock manure. The seed must grow through the manure before developing into a strong tree.
While in prison, the analogy suggests, we’re like seeds. We grow stronger by spreading deep roots and growing through the manure.
To clarify the analogy, I explain that I don’t write to sell the books. The books sell me. They help others see me as something more than a man in prison.
Books have become a part of my branding efforts. I build support and bring people into my life through my work here. Once authorities let me out, I’ll leverage all I create to open income streams.
At least that’s the plan. If nothing else, the exercise of writing helps me feel productive—as if I’m doing something that will help our family. I must remind myself that the job market won’t be friendly to a person that served decades in prison. I’ll create my way.
My watch reminds me that it’s 9:50, and I only have about a half-hour before the morning census count. I store the bowl in my locker— unwashed for now—to save time. I push my chair in to hold the locker doors closed and walk back to where I left my writing gear earlier this morning before my exercise.
Before gathering my belongings from the room, I stop by the phone area. We have three phones on each of the two walls at the dormitory entrance, and they’re all available. Our housing unit holds about 150 men, and it’s rare to see open phones. I push my access code and the buttons to dial Carole’s number.
For several years, rules limited people in federal prison to 300 minutes of monthly telephone time. For that reason, I reserved almost all my phone time for talking with my wife.
The telephone restrictions make things hard for people in prison and their families. Rules force a person to choose how to allocate phone time, choosing one person over another.
My mother and sisters have been supportive of me through the journey, and they understand that Carole is my link to the world. Most of the people in prison have children. Although my mom and sisters know that I want to reserve most of my minutes to speak with Carole, children would have a much harder time understanding rules that prohibit them from talking to parents.
I press the timer button on my watch as soon as Carole accepts my call.
“I miss you,” she greets me.
“What have you been doing for our family today?” The phone-time restrictions have made us accustomed to speaking in clipped sentences.
“Typing the blogs you sent.”
“Thanks. I’ve sent you a lot. Did the mail come yet?”
“I received a letter from you, two blogs, and seven more pages for the book.”
“Excellent. Do I have any messages?”
“Justin sent a message. His lawyer said that the IRS approval for the foundation should be ready by August. Several students have sent emails. One of them wrote….”
I interrupt. “Honey, let’s not waste our phone minutes going over the minutiae. Just send those details. What else?”
“I talked to Cheryl. She sent the edits directly to you.”
“How bad are they?”
Cheryl has been a close friend and mentor. She and her family have been assisting me for longer than 12 years. I always send my manuscripts to Charyl because her editing skills improve the flow and coherency of my work.
“You have to show more, tell less.” My wife relays a writing lesson that I have been slow to learn.
“Okay. I’ll brace myself. What else? Did you find volunteers to help you with the typing?”
“Yes. We’ll get it done.” Despite our separation, Carole and I have developed a good working flow, getting things done through unusual circumstances.
“That’s almost a minute,” I’m looking at my stopwatch and see that we’ve used 40 seconds. “I love you, and I’ll call you after lunch. I can’t wait to see you.”
I disconnect the call at 57 seconds and reset my chronometer while walking to the quiet room.
“I’ve been covering the office for you, Professor.” My friend Bali greets me by bowing his head and bringing his open hands together when I walk into the room. “You’re late. Where have you been?”
“I had to shower, eat, and I called my wife.”
“How is Carole?”
“Wonderful and always encouraging.”
Good. Will she visit this weekend?”
“I’m counting on it.”
“How many phone minutes do you have left?”
I shake my head in disappointment. “It’s bad. I used too many minutes yesterday. We have more than two weeks left in the month, and I only have 107 minutes. How many do you have?” I ask.
“Very good!” He does the wobble with his head that I can’t follow. “I have 168 minutes still, and I’ve already called once this morning.”
I sit at the round table across from Bali, my back to the wall, the window to my left. I look outside. The sun shines brightly, reminding me that I’m another season closer to release. I see a mountain range about 10 miles in the distance, and inside the courtyard that is immediately outside the window, I admire a palm tree, the closely cropped lawn, and the well-kept walkways.
“The grass used to be so green here,” I tell Bali. Since rules changed that prohibit watering, the grass has baked. It’s now indistinguishable from the dirt.
“The sergeant says we must conserve water. I cannot even use the pipes anymore to water my roses.”
Bali has a job assignment of maintaining the gardens in front of the housing unit.
“What pipes?” I don’t understand him.
“The pipes to water.” His head wobbles, but I don’t know the gesture.
“Do you mean that you’re not allowed to water with the garden hose?”
“I must fill a bucket with water and carry it to my roses. Have you seen how nicely they are blooming?”
I’m going to miss Bali when he leaves in four months. My last friend in prison, Steve, an electrical engineer and prominent entrepreneur in his 60s, served nine months for an obscure crime related to his company’s pension fund.
Steve and I spent a few hours talking together every day during the final months of his brief sentence at Taft, but he completed his term last November. The probation officer supervising Steve doesn’t permit him to correspond with people in prison. He calls Carole to update her on his experiences from the halfway house.
When Bali concludes his six-month sentence, I don’t expect the probation officer who supervises his release will allow us to communicate.
“If I wanted to buy a home,” I ask, “would my long prison term make it hard for me to get financing?” Bali owns a real estate company and a mortgage company, so he should know.
“Your mortgage will depend on factors such as your credit rating, your debt-to-income ratio, and the amount of down payment you apply to the purchase price. The prison term won’t disqualify you.”
“But I don’t have a credit history.”
“Don’t worry,” Bali tells me, “I will help you. When you’re ready to buy a house, call me.”
If those kinds of assurances would appease my anxieties, I’d be the luckiest person in the world. I can’t purge thoughts about how I will generate the income I will need to grow old without financial stress. I discuss how I intend to convert my experiences into a business model that will support Carole and me.
“Don’t worry.” He smiles at me, a glow of serenity on his face. “You will do very well. Happy is the man whose wants are few. The fewer the wants, the happier the person. One who has no wants is the richest person.”
“Then I should stay in prison.”
“You’re doing very well here, and you will do very well outside. I can tell from your discipline. You work much harder than anyone I know.”
“I work because I want to provide for Carole the same way that other men provide for their wives.”
“Do you know the story of Alexander the Great?”
“I know what I’ve read,” I answer. “He studied under Aristotle, and he aspired to conquer the world.”
“He may have been a student of Aristotle’s, but Alexander didn’t learn from the wisdom Aristotle offered. For one thing, Alexander never learned the lessons of balance or moderation.”
“Alexander was a king,” I shrug.
“He was a man,” Bali corrects me. “It wasn’t until just before Alexander’s death that he understood the value of life. If he had, Alexander said that he would not have wasted so many breaths in useless worries or pursuits.”
Bali goes on to elaborate on ancient history. Before he died, Alexander said he wanted his hands kept out of the coffin, facing upward. He planned to conquer the world, but he wanted people to see that he died empty-handed.”
Bali meditates for two and a half hours every day. Despite earning millions from his businesses, he lives as a portrait of humility.
From people in prison, I learn. I appreciate their insight.
After listening to his discourse, I resume my work, outlining my writing duties for the rest of the day and recording progress in my Day-Timer while I wait for the officer to announce the census count.
What do other people in prison have to say about the adjustment strategy you’re using?
How do the opinions of others influence your decisions?
How would you describe the mindset and values of the people closest to you in jail or prison?