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Chapter Four: 1990-1992
Clip 14 takes us deeper into chapter 4 of Earning Freedom. This 20-minute clip describes challenges I face to find my first mentor.
Mark takes me seriously. He listens as I express my strategy for wanting to learn how to speak more professionally. “If I don’t train myself how to communicate well while I’m in here, I’ll be at a disadvantage when I get out. I’m trying to transcend this place, make it over these walls. When I leave here, I don’t want everyone I meet knowing that I’ve spent my whole life in prison. I don’t want my diction to give me away.”
Mark considers me for a second. Then he offers a suggestion. “I’ve got a friend you should write. He’s a professor. My sister’s always trying to straighten me out. She introduced me to him.”
“You’re kidding! You have a friend who’s a professor?” I can’t believe this good fortune. Mark offers this idea of introducing me to his friend casually, as if it’s no big deal.
I’ve been living in prison for three years. I’m around felons. I feel evil all around me. It’s hard to imagine being around leaders. Books and learning transport me out mentally. But I know where I am.
To me, a university campus is like a mythical setting. I’ve been studying, accumulating credits, and building my transcripts. It’s all abstract. I can’t imagine having a personal connection to the university. It’s surreal to think that I could connect with an actual professor.
“He’s from Chicago,” Mark tells me. “For now he’s in Chapel Hill, at the University of North Carolina. We write every week.”
“Is your sister a professor?” I ask.
“She’s not a professor. But she works with the university. Bruce, my friend, heads the program she’s with. It’s some kind of renewal center for educators. Do you want to write him?”
“Do I! This is the best news I’ve had since I’ve come in. I’ll write him tonight.”
“Fine. Give me the letter tomorrow. I’ll send it off with an introduction.”
The next morning I give Mark the lengthy letter I want him to pass along to Dr. R. Bruce McPherson. I describe who I am, what I’m doing in prison, and how hard I’m working to change my life. I try to express how grateful I’d be to learn from him, and how hard I’d work to prove worthy.
* * * * * * *
A week passes, and I’ve been waiting to hear back from Bruce. I’m sitting on the lower rack when a guard flicks an envelope beneath my door. I lean over to pick it up. The return address tells me it’s the letter I’m waiting for, from North Carolina. For a moment I just hold the envelope in my hand, looking it at. I’m thrilled that he wrote me back. Excitement runs through me. I’m 26-years old. But I open the envelope with the same giddy anticipation of a child. It’s like I’m a kid waiting for birthday money from his grandparents.
In his letter, Dr. McPherson wrote that he’d be thrilled to mentor me. He asked for a visiting form so we could visit. He said that he sent me a book that the university’s bookstore would send separately.
I pass the letter to Windward, wanting to share my good fortune.
“What’s the big deal?” he asks after reading. Then he tosses the letter back.
“What do you mean?” Windward’s indifference puzzles me. I tell him that Bruce is a professor. Doesn’t he get it? “He wants to help me” I say.
“Help you?” he asks. “You forget that you’s got 45 years. What can he do fer you?”
I tell Windward that Bruce can help me in all kinds of ways. It’s not so much about what he can do for me, I explain. I’m just glad to make a new friend.
“Big fuckin’ deal! What can he do? He’s probably a fag.”
“Why would you say that? He’s an educator, he has his own life out there. And he’s offering to help. Why would you insult him?”
“Don’t cry, little guy.” Windward mocks me when he sees that he got to me. “I’m just sayin’, what the fuck can he possibly do for you? You’ve got to think about what people want, Dude. Why would he want to write someone he doesn’t know? Don’t make no sense.”
Windward fits right in to the culture here. He not only accepts that he’s defeated, a criminal for life. He expects failure for everyone around him. Nothing good comes with the prison experience. If someone else succeeds in overcoming pessimism and despair, that person’s success threatens his belief in failure as the inevitable. Failure is comfortable to him. It’s a real concept. Working toward anything different, or better, upsets his equilibrium.
“Give me back my letter.” I’m learning. In this darkness, I’ve got to keep my enthusiasm inside. Sharing victories, no matter how small, only breeds more sarcasm.
With the news of Bruce’s interest, I feel like I’ve climbed ten steps up my virtual ladder to freedom. If nothing else, his friendship will lift me from the caverns of ignorance where I dwell.
* * * * * * *
My counselor, Mr. Skinner, received Bruce’s completed visiting form. He calls my office supervisor, Ms. Stephens. She tells me that Skinner has summoned me to his office.
The counselor sits at his metal desk in his cubbyhole office. He’s reading from the visiting form that he holds in his hand. “Does you know a Bruce McPherson?”
With greasy gray hair and a stained white shirt, his appearance, like his office, is a disorganized mess. The office stinks of stale tobacco and his body odor.
“Yes,” I answer. “He’s a professor and he’s helping with my school work.”
“So you sent him this visiting form?” He flicks the form with his fingers.
“Well he’s not getting in. I’m not authorizing him to visit.”
The dehumanization continues. Prisoners have to ask permission for everything. I’m used to the malevolent satisfaction some staff members get from denying requests. Still, this denial is more of a slap to my dignity than most. Bruce’s mentoring can help me grow.
I don’t understand why the counselor won’t authorize Bruce’s request to visit, so I ask. “Can you tell me the reason you won’t let him visit?”
“Simple, he says. “You didn’t know him ‘fore you started servin’ yer sentence. That’s all the reason I need to deny him.”
“But he’s a professor. He’s offering to teach me. Why would you block that?”
“I don’t care if he’s the Pope. We gots rules in here! We don’t know why he’s coming to see you.” He stares at me. “What you got goin’ on with him? We got to think ‘bout security of the institution, son! Rules is rules. They say that to visit, relationship had to exist ‘fore you was locked up.”
“Counselor Skinner, I’m from Seattle. No one visits me. Dr. Bruce McPherson is someone who can guide me. He can help me through my prison term. Can’t you make an exception?”
“Go back to work. Give me your pass to sign.” He’s unwilling to listen any longer.
I’m dejected. I walk back to the business office. I sink into my chair and hold my head in my hands. Our country goes to war over human rights violations. Yet counselors like Skinner violate human rights every day of the year.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ms. Stephens straightens a stack of papers on her desk. She can see my despair. “You look like you just got 45 years.”
She’s trying to lighten the mood in her caring way. Right now, I just want to grieve over all the indignities of being a prisoner. I don’t like having to ask permission for friendship. And I especially don’t like being denied.
I just sit, staring out the window.
“What happened?” she asks again, giving me her complete attention. I know that she wrestles at moments like these. There’s an awkward balance. She’s a staff member, a part of the prison machine. But she has a natural tendency to empathize my plight. We sit in the same office every day. We relate like two “normal” people. It’s not like I’m a prisoner and she’s a staff member. We’re two people, even though we have live with a ridiculous ethos that splits us apart, as if we don’t share a common humanity.
Ms. Stephens knows about Bruce. She has been totally supportive of efforts to advance my education. The factory rules forbid prisoners from working on schoolwork. I’m not supposed to read, write, or do anything personal during the workday. It doesn’t matter that I’m an efficient worker. I’ve got good organizational skills. Each day I complete the daily responsibilities in two hours. I’m supposed to sit ideally when I finish my duties. But she lets me do my own thing.
She intervenes whenever her colleagues reprimand me. As long as I finish my work, she doesn’t mind that I study on the job. Her office has become my sanctuary. She nods her head when I tell her about Counselor Skinner denying Bruce visiting privileges.
“Let me talk to him,” she says. “Take a walk while I make a call.”
I leave to pace around the outer office. A dozen prisoners sit at their desks. They’re sipping from stained coffee mugs and passing their time discussing the story dominating the news. I saw it over the weekend.
Some crazed leader from Iraq, Saddam Hussein, ordered his military to invade a neighboring country, Kuwait. Talk radio listeners can’t get enough of the story. The entire episode strikes me as being bizarre.
I grew up when the United States was at peace. The thought of one country invading another seems like something from the dark ages. The talk radio shows buzz with conversation about our national security being threatened by Hussein’s aggression. Some commentators suggest that our country might go to war.
It doesn’t make much sense to me. But it’s all over the news. A lot of prisoners are energized by this military action. They’re speculating that if we go to war, opportunities might open. Maybe laws will change. The government might parole prisoners into the military. Such a scenario seems plausible. I’ve read that during previous wars, like the Vietnam War, judges offered offenders the choice of either joining the military or going to prison. I’m not hopeful that changes will come for me. Yet this sudden shift in global events causes me to think. I wonder what else could take place in the world over the next 23 years that I have to serve.
Just before I started serving my sentence, President Reagan told Gorbachev to “tear down the Berlin Wall.” I didn’t know much about global politics then. But at the time, a unified Germany seemed absurd. I grew up learning about two completely separate Germany’s, an East and a West. Then, just last year, the Berlin Wall came down. And just like that we had Germany, not east and west Germany. Just Germany. Changes unified the country. Then the Soviet Union crumbled, ending the Cold War. When that war ended, I thought there might be hope that some day America’s ridiculous Drug War would end too.
According to all the chatter in our office, we’re moving dangerously close to a very hot war in the Middle East. I don’t understand it. But I’m not nearly as interested in what’s going on in the Middle East as the other prisoners. They’re talking about the possibility of war with a lot more passion and enthusiasm than I can muster. Unlike most of them, I don’t have a burning animosity toward the US. I can’t wait to leave prison and return to society. Where I’m living right now feels about as far away from America as a man can get.
I circle around toward my office. The walk has improved my mood. I’ve breathed. I’ve allowed my frustration to dissipate. With all the speculation about war, I’ve reminded myself to keep the bigger picture in mind.
Bruce’s friendship and guidance isn’t contingent on us visiting. Whether I’m allowed to visit or not, I’m going to make it. The dehumanizing culture may pressure me. But my attitude and deliberate actions restore my inner strength. I know I’m going to make it through, and there’s dignity in that.
I take a look into the office. Ms. Stephens is busy at her desk. She’s not on the phone, so I presume it’s okay to walk in. Just to make sure, I ask.
She smiles and nods. “When you go back to the housing unit you’ll see a new visiting list. I had a chat with Counselor Skinner. He said that he would put the new list on your bunk, and he approved your friend.”
My face turns red. I thank her for her kindness, but I’m uneasy. It’s troubling to me. I don’t like to prostrate myself with requests for special interventions just to visit with a friend. He wanted help me. It’s dehumanizing to have to ask permission for a visit.
Ms. Stephens saw that the counselor got to me, and I’m bothered by it. I don’t like being so weak. After years in prison, these kinds of indignities aren’t supposed to bother me, but they do. I shouldn’t let my aggravation show. “Sorry to have troubled you,” I say.
“Don’t be. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by this organization I work for.”
I shrug my shoulders. “It is what it is, and by now I ought to be able to roll with it. But sometimes the pressure gets to me. Regardless of how hard I work, I’m always going to be a prisoner, indistinguishable from anyone else in here.”
Ms. Stephens’ elbows rest on the desk. She clasps her hands beneath her chin. She listens openly, sympathetically. “Look. I can’t imagine what you’re going through inside. There’s not much I can do to help. I’ve been in this job for 12 years and I do see how hard you’re working. Others might not see it. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to help if I wasn’t convinced that you’re sincere. That’s what I told your counselor. I’ll tell anyone else who asks. You’ve got to let me help when I can.”
My eyes water as I listen to her. I know Ms. Stephens is taking a position that the system discourages. As a staff member she isn’t supposed to be personal with me. I’m an inmate. The BOP motto for staff members is to be “firm but fair,” and that means she is first supposed to consider my status. Fairness requires strict adherence to prison policy. If the policy states that prisoners cannot visit with people they didn’t know prior to imprisonment, then staff members are supposed to follow policy. Fairness requires counselors to enforce the policy across the board. That’s Counselor Skinner’s position. It’s the kind of oppressive rigidity that threatens to suffocate prisoners. I feel it every day, and I’ve felt it more than a thousand days so far. I wonder how I’ll make it through. By my count, I’ve got nine thousand more days to go.
I want to walk over and hug Ms. Stephens. Her concern validates me. Her kindness restores a spirit and energy that prison crushes so effectively. I cherish this moment. I’ll remember it. It’s more evidence that God is with me, strengthening me with what I need along the way.
- * * * * * *
My schedule keeps me in the business office all day. I’m in classes learning from professors in the evening. Late into the night, I’m volunteering on the suicide-watch tier. I’m more productive than I thought possible. I enjoy challenging myself by setting goals that I write out. I send the goals to family and friends. And I encourage them to hold me accountable.
Reaching my goals is one thing. But I can empower myself more when I exceed the goals I set. I’m obsessed with my personal records and with my daily journal. They’re effective in motivating me to reach milestones that others insist are beyond a prisoner’s reach.
I’m accumulating university credits. I’m working through a formidable reading list. Even though I learn on my own, I’m understanding and enjoying classical literature. I still like reading Plato’s Republic. I also enjoy Dante’s Divine Comedy and Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. To me, reading these books are clear signs that I’m really learning. I summarize what I learn in book reports that I send to Bruce. He evaluates my writing and offers suggestions. He returns the reports. They’re always bleeding with red ink. His corrections broaden my education and awareness. Even though we’re apart, he’s teaching and mentoring me.
I didn’t grow up in a home like Mark’s. Both of his parents held advanced degrees. They emphasized the importance of higher learning. My parents were different. They taught me the importance of hard, physical work. In an effort to make the best use of my time inside, I’m work hard, but with my mind. By developing writing skills, I’ll have more opportunities when I get out. I’ll succeed when I’m released. I’ll show that I’ve conquered prison. It will be a victory, because this system is designed to perpetuate failure.
My vocabulary is improving. The index cards I keep in stacks of 50 now number 1,000. By mastering words and definitions, my spelling has also improved. When I respond in class, I express myself in the language of the university rather than the penitentiary. When I listen to NPR or read The Wall Street Journal my confidence goes up. I understand words and concepts that used to baffle me. Whenever I have questions, I know where to find answers.
Since I’ve charted the progress I want to make by 1997, the end of my first decade, I know exactly where I should be in 1992, at the halfway point. I also know where I’m supposed to be now, in 1991. I’m four years into my sentence. I’m only a year away from earning my undergraduate degree.
I’m exceeding expectations. I’m ahead of schedule, but I’m still racing to beat my timeline. The penitentiary can rock with violence and corruption scandals. But I’m oblivious. I’m so absorbed with my work that news of stabbings, beatings, and investigations into staff corruption don’t concern me.
I know how to stay under the radar.
I’ve determined that a bachelor’s degree won’t be enough to get me where I want to go. The judge’s refusal to reconsider my sentence doesn’t matter. Neither does the prosecutor’s statement that 300 years in prison won’t be sufficient punishment. There’s a judicial mindset of finality. It’s unwilling to bend. I have to build a great record. It has to be strong. Maybe it will warrant consideration for a commutation of sentence. The president is the only person who has the power to commute my sentence. I must work harder than ever. I must achieve more than anyone thinks possible in order to prove myself worthy. I’m going to keep at it.
END CLIP 14
You’ve just listened to a free audio clip from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term. I’m Michael Santos. Visit Prison Professors.com. We help people prepare for success through prosecution, sentencing, and prison. Our digital products bring value to prison systems, schools, and corporate training. Visit Prison Professors.com to learn more, or find us on YouTube. Learn how my partner Shon Hopwood and I can help you. Stay tuned for the next free audio clip. We invite you to subscribe to our podcast. Please share and leave an honest review, wherever possible. If you’d like to engage in the discussion, please leave a comment.