Life behind prison walls and life on the outside have some remarkable similarities. In many ways prison is a microcosm of society with a lot of the same moving parts. I have endeavored to highlight much of this sameness, to demystify to some degree the incarceration experience.
In a lot of other ways the two experiences have nothing at all in common. I felt like my life was on hold on the inside. I educated myself, learned and strove to be productive. And to a large degree I was successful. This didn’t change the fact that the world moved on without me, leaving me behind no matter how hard I tried to keep up. It was an existence more than actually living. I know that may sound like a distinction without a difference, but I suppose if you’ve never spent any length of time locked away then you might not have any idea what I’m talking about.
There is a kind of emotional death that takes place out of necessity. Pondering the reality of prison and the years lost would be too much to handle, so mental compartmentalization occurs. Coming out of prison has included a resurrection of sorts. At the very least it has necessitated me learning how to live again in a thousand little ways that I never could have anticipated.
I’m still learning.
A woman in her fifties at my place of employment was making conversation to punctuate the dullness of the job. I wasn’t much paying attention, was instead lost in my own thoughts. Then she made a statement that jarred me from my reverie.
“I’ve never seen a fight in real life. Maybe a little pushing or shoving, but never ever seen a fight in person.”
It was a jolt to me because I had seen fights. During my lengthy period of incarceration I had witnessed too many physical assaults to accurately number. I didn’t have to wonder whose life was more the aberration, but this did lead me to some serious self-reflection as I am on the cusp of transition.
Some big life changes are coming, as if I haven’t had an enormous amount of change already in the past months beginning with my release from prison. I’m about to get married, become part of a family. A whole new start for me with challenges and potential pitfalls that I can’t even yet imagine. With new chapters come new priorities.
This will be my final post for a while.
This may be a disappointment to some of my loyal readers. To those who know me, I’m sure you understand. I need to go live my life, to put my past behind me and learn how to live again. This isn’t me turning my back on those friends I left inside or trying to forget their struggle. After sixteen years one month and three days spent behind prison walls I can never forget. I do have plans to expand and revamp this platform, to make it available for other voices than my own. But right now I need some distance. I need to live without the looming deadline of having to psychologically revisit the hell that was my life for so long.
Disclaimer and Warning: Some of the language used in this post would be offensive to most reasonable human beings. I know I was shocked and offended when the authority figure employed by the Department of Corrections said them to me. As always, I’ve endeavored to be as accurate as possible in my transcription of dialogue.
“Most of these guys are nothing but a buncha pansies and fags. That or child molesters. I swear damned near every white guy in prison is here for touching kids and it makes me sick of my race. Don’t worry, I know you ain’t one of them. I looked you up.”
I had no idea how to react to that. Gratitude? Indifference? A swift kick to his gonads? If only that were an option. He was definitely deserving of that and so much more. Correctional Officer Jarvis had a lot of strong opinions and ideas about prison inmates. And he didn’t stop there.
“If it was up to me they wouldn’t even be in here. Just kill ’em. That or castrate all of the sick bastards. That would stop them, right? It would make me happy to know they’re walking around with nothing down there!”
Here he paused to laugh uproariously at his own witty phrasing before continuing his rant.
“I know which ones they are too. They have a look about them you know? I can usually just tell. Then when I look them up I’m almost always right. You, I didn’t really think so, but I had to check to make sure. You know that, right? If I was gonna have you working for me I had to make sure you weren’t some kinda baby raper. You get that, right?.”
I nodded numbly. Felt like that was what was expected of me.
“Good. Good. Yeah, you’re here for something way different than that aren’t you?” He wore a knowing grin, like there was some joke that only he and I were privy to.
I nodded again, raised my eyebrows in acknowledgement. Wasn’t sure what to say, or what would come out if I tried to say something.
“Yeah you are!” Another inappropriate laugh.
“Just glad you’re not one of them sickos. You know what though, as much as I hate them, it’s the rest of the inmates who get on my nerves too. They all complain about everything. And they’re so pampered. You guys get better food than a lot of people out in the world. You get free healthcare and cable TV. A roof and a bed. Doing better than a lot of people out there. And all I hear you guys do is bitch about everything around here. Like it’s hard to live in here. You guys all have it so easy. If I were in charge you wouldn’t be getting any of this stuff.”
“No TV, no lifting weights in the gym, no hanging out on the yard, no commissary shopping, none of that. Two meals a day is plenty. And you wouldn’t be sitting around just doing nothing. Everybody would be out doing something, working, not just sucking up time.
“Oh! And no fucking school either!! You know how stupid it is that all these dumb blacks and beaners who can barely spell their own fucking names get to take college classes? Pisses me off! They didn’t give a shit about school when they were out there selling dope and shooting at each other, did they? Now they want free college? Fuck them! They’re all just gonna get out and go right back to doing the same shit. Why the hell should they get college? Some of them have more college than I do! Just using the system. They’re not learning anything, just trying to make it look good so maybe they can get out early with some good time. Should have to do all their time.
“Probably just want to get out so they can go bang that white girl they write and tell her how much he loves her. Dumb bitch doesn’t know he’s just using her. And why’s it always gotta be a white girl with these guys? Why can’t they stick to their own race instead of ruining mine?”
C/O Jarvis paused briefly to reflect and catch his breathe.
“You know, all these guys complain, but if I were in here I’d be fine. I mean, it’s not like you guys have it hard. If I had to do, like, a year in prison, I could do it no problem. I wouldn’t even buy a TV. Be a waste of money. I’d go to the library and learn something. Shit, I’d get in school. How you like that?
“But really, if I was in here, you know, doing my time? I could do it no problem. A year? Easy. And I’d make sure I’d beat some fags and niggers too. I could get away with it. Mostly I’d focus on the molesters. That’s easy to get away with. Most of us C/Os don’t give a shit about them. A lot of us would just look the other way. A lot. Shit, we would love to join in if we could. I might have to do a little time in SEG, but I’m not a pussy, I could handle it. All you guys bitch about how hard you’ve got it, but I could do some prison time, no problem at all.
“Shit, we could be cellies, right?”
He had asked me a direct question this time, and I knew I was expected to respond to him. He wanted an answer. He certainly didn’t want the truth.
The truth was that I wanted to call him a racist, sexist, despicable, ignorant piece of shit. I wanted to let him know that he has no idea whatsoever what life is like living inside. He thought that because he came and spent a few hours that he could handle the mental anguish of being locked away from everything he has ever known and loved. That he could navigate the politics of gangs and races without offending the wrong person and being beaten for some seemingly insignificant slight. The privileges he mentioned taking away are by and large mandated by law to promote rehabilitation-although those are in such short supply as to be insignificant-or else they are put in place to keep a potentially volatile populace pacified.
Not all correctional officers, in my experience, are so completely oblivious. There are plenty of this ilk, but not all. But it was this officer who was waiting on my answer. It crawled from my lips in a muffled cowardly chuckle.
“Yeah.” I felt like I had defiled myself.
C/O Jarvis had a justified reputation for being a colossal prick. I was on his good side because I worked as a porter (janitor) for him and wasn’t lazy about keeping things clean. Nothing would be accomplished, and nothing good would come, from me telling him even a fraction of how I felt about him. All it would do is put a target on my back and be an invitation for him to make my existence a living hell. I have seen C/O Jarvis lie in order to ensure inmates he didn’t like were hauled away for punishment. He was the worst kind of bully-one who has been imbued with authority. Rather than face the potential and far-reaching ramifications I said nothing.
Call it cowardice if you will. But walk in my shoes a while. Sometimes cowardice and self-preservation have some remarkable similarities.
C/O Jarvis was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant. It was a move that baffled a lot of people, both inmate and staff alike.
Once I was released from prison I sent reports of my claims of professional misconduct like this to the director of the Department of Corrections, and to the governor of the state. After two and a half months I got a response. Their stance is that, since I am no longer currently incarcerated, the issues I raised are moot. And so abuse continues.
Tee was jittery, squirrelly, and excelled at getting on people’s nerves. Mine included.
A Bit Bizarre
There was an entire cornucopia of eccentricities that were tied to Tee’s personality. He talked too much, and discussed topics that no one wanted to hear about. Like the color and composition of his daily bowel movements. His laugh was a loud, grating guffaw that aggravated the most patient of individuals. The arrangement of his living space was something that he was very anal about–he had to have everything positioned just right. He always wore two shirts, no matter how hot it got. He was very protective of his feet and would freak out if someone got close to them.
Love To Hate
His head was bulbous and bald. Or, balding to hear him tell it. He had the classic horseshoe around the sides, but the top was merely a few sad stray hairs and nothing more. His eyes were blue and huge. Nose pronounced. Tee had a very expressive face. With his personality and demeanor it was a face that people just seemed to want to punch.
I lived in the cell with Tee for a little over a year. For most of that time we were the only two white guys in a six man cell, and so by unspoken prison logic and rules we were best friends. Just kinda how it goes. I’m not saying that friendships don’t or can’t occur across racial lines, but guys are quick to fall in with their own. Especially when things get serious or dangerous. Due to Tee’s annoying ways, severe situations arose suddenly and often.
Tee had some of the most potent smelling farts I’ve ever had the misfortune of having invade my nostrils. When guys would complain and yell at him about it, his features danced into expressions of giddy whimsy, and it really did look like he was laughing at them and at the expense of their olfactory glands. It looked that way because he was laughing at them. He was kind of a prick like that. In Tee’s defense, it’s better to let it out than to hold it in, and he couldn’t just walk out of the cell when we had to remain inside for certain times. Though it did seem odd that his flatulence seemed to get exponentially worse at night when we were all trapped in the cell together.
Whenever one of Tee’s behaviors would send someone over the edge I would be called upon to act as mediator, referee, peacekeeper. Sometimes literally having my name yelled by Tee, or by someone else to inform me that Tee was in trouble. I can’t possibly calculate how many skirmishes I had to deescalate in order to keep a fight from erupting. Tee was the worst kind of confederate to have when it came to these confrontations. He was a loudmouthed coward. He loved riling people up, but flinched and shrank when the appearance of real violence reared its head. He could not back up any of his tough talk. So I had to step in the middle. Usually literally. I hated always having to do it, being on call as the calming factor when Tee’s safety was on the line. In the aftermath he usually thought the whole thing was funny. I always answered the call because I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had stood by and let him get assaulted.
When Tee’s release date arrived a lot of people celebrated. They were rejoicing that he was leaving, not that he was going home. Once he had walked out the gates and taken his irritating traits and noxious gas with him there were a dozen guys or more who eventually confided in me that the only reason they hadn’t beaten Tee’s ass was because he was my friend. And he was my friend.
Me and Tee
Tee wasn’t always an extremely difficult person to deal with. We had several common interests that we could bond over, and he was one of the rare people I met behind prison walls who was capable of carrying on an intelligent adult conversation. At least some of the time. He was also batty and vexatious, and at times I wanted to throttle him. I yelled at him more than a few times, but it was no deterrent.
He was high strung and squirrelly and all kinds of aggravating. But when he was gone I missed him. Because he was my squirrelly. And he was my friend.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own lives, problems, worries and hurts that a cocoon develops. This structure is meant to insulate us from harm, but in so doing it isolates us from the world around us. It also traps in the pain. This is never a good thing. At the time, I was entombed in my own grief and self-pity.
Around this time I took a survey for one of the college courses I managed to complete while incarcerated. I was instructed to put a check next to every major life event that I’d experienced within the previous twelve months. Stressful things like death of a friend, death of a family member, divorce, moving to a new city. Each was assigned a numeric value.
When everyone had finished adding up their history of stressors the professor revealed that anyone with a stress number over 100 was at risk for all kinds of physical and psychological maladies due to their extremely high stress level. She encouraged those in that category to take steps to counter the stress because of the potentially unhealthy psychological and physical effects. She recommended seeking out a counselor to talk to and lauded the benefits of deep breathing. My score was nearly four times that–385. I laughed. Deep breathing exercises were not the solution to all my problems.
What I Deserve
I’d suffered too much. It felt like I was losing some psychological war of attrition that the universe had been waging against me. Divorce, deaths, prolonged imprisonment, broken relationships. I was deeply entrenched in my unhealthy mentality. I couldn’t get out of it. I didn’t want to. I was comfortable in my chrysalis of self-loathing and silent lamentation. Mental masochism can be a terribly seductive pastime, especially when we’ve deceived ourselves into thinking that we deserve to suffer. Suffice it to say, I was in a very bad place. It took a blind man to show me the way.
I was working in the chow hall, on the serving line where trays were filled and passed to the unending line of inmates. I’d risen through the ranks swiftly and had the coveted position of tray pusher. I was responsible for controlling the flow of trays. Without me there would be chaos and piles of food on the floor. I’ve always thrived in stressful high-stakes work environments.
This day in particular was burger and fries day, which is cause for celebration for most inmates. I couldn’t have cared less. Joy wasn’t a thing with which I was well acquainted. It probably didn’t help that I’d had to deal with an endless string of threats, insults, and accusations of being “The Police” (pronounced with an exaggerated hard “PO” sound, and a terribly offensive thing for one inmate to say to another) because I wouldn’t put more fries or an extra patty on their tray. No one seemed to care that the four foot eleven tiny tyrant Food Supervisor always at me hip would’ve caught and reprimanded me if I had tried to add a single kernel of corn or extra ketchup packet to the assigned portion.
I was floundering in a mire of my own making. Standing at the front of the serving line, running on autopilot, pushing trays and letting the insults from inmates wash over me while the admonishments from my superior needled my back. Towards the front of the single file stream of inmates making their way to the tray pick up window there was a duo walking side by side, which is a grave violation of policy, and one which is usually met by C/Os yelling and gesticulating like feral idiots. So, naturally their tandem nature caught my attention immediately. It wasn’t until the pair were three people from me that I saw the closest man’s unseeing gaze and noticed that he had the other man’s upper arm in a loose grip to guide him. It was when the blind man asked his aid a question that I received my lesson.
“What are we having?”
“Burgers and fries.”
The blind man’s face blossomed with the purest expression of joy that I could have ever possibly conjured in my most vivid of imaginings. Where there had been merely bland features, life and animation appeared as if conjured by some incantation. Three simple magical words: burgers and fries.
His enthusiastic response wasn’t yelled loudly, but had an emphasis and relish that conveyed how fortunate and blessed he felt to be receiving such a beloved meal. His ability to express such depth of emotion and delight over such a seemingly insignificant event was sobering to me. The experience put a crack in my emotional barricade and forced me to confront my toxic wallowing. It began to nurture a change in perspective within me.
Every good thing is a gift, and should be received with the same awe, joy, and gratitude displayed by children on Christmas morning as they tear at packages to reveal the coveted present they’d been so longing for. This pertains to the clothes on our backs, the music in our ears and hearts, the breathe in our lungs, and the food on our plates to name just a few. In my insular grief I’d lost sight of this truth, and had to be shown the way by the unseeing.
“C’mon man! Come over here. I’ll beat your ass!! Come step in this shower room and we can handle this right now.”
Rigger’s face and bald head was red with rage. His eyes seemed suitably wild, and his words certainly carried plenty of threat. To the uninitiated it appeared that he was ready to rumble, that violence was forthcoming. To me he was terrified and desperate.
Behind the Curtain
Reality was much different than the facade that Rigger would have everyone believe. The man he was threatening, a guy named Whitey, was actually a good friend of his. They’d known each other for years both in and out of prison as they were both repeat offenders several times over. They’d had an argument and falling out less than an hour previous.
Rigger had been crushing pills. Whatever random painkiller, mood stabilizer, muscle relaxer, or anything at all that he could get his hands on. He’d take his surreptitiously procured medications and hide in the bathroom. There would be a lot of tapping and banging as the drugs were crushed down into a suitably fine powder. Then it was all piled together and snorted as an ill-advised cocktail of miscellaneous prescription medications that Rigger didn’t have any prescriptions for. Even if he had, I don’t believe “nasally” is how a medical professional would recommend the pills being taken.
Rigger had only been back from the hospital a day or two. He had overdosed on the cockamamie concoction that he’d been snorting. Whitey and I had both witnessed him seizing, shaking, and foaming at the mouth. Rigger was able to lie and convince everyone, even the treating nurses and physicians, that it was a seizure. Whitey knew better, and when he saw that Rigger was back to his old lunatic tricks, he told him in unvarnished language just how much of an absolute idiotic moron he was.
There was yelling and cursing in abundance as Whitey performed his one man impromptu intervention. Rigger sat silent like a chastened child through much of it. There wasn’t anything he could say to defend his actions. Whitey’s tactics may have been deserving of criticism, but his anger and frustration was coming from a place of concern and affection for his friend. Unfortunately, most inmates feel the need to maintain the facade of machismo lest they be perceived as somehow weak, or less than, so Rigger could only take so much before he had to balk at Whitey’s words.
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about! I had a seizure. This stuff doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
“Really?” Whitey responded with a tone which conveyed that he couldn’t believe Rigger would lie so effortlessly to his face. “Do you think I’m that stupid? Do you? Huh? How long we know each other bro? Hmm? You know I know what the hell you’re doing. That shit’s gotta stop.”
“Who the hell do you think you are anyway? I do what I want.”
“I thought I was your Road Dog.”
“Oh that’s just bullshit you tell people. You don’t give a damn about me. We met over a state tray bro. It don’t mean shit.”
“What!? I had you over to my place last time we were out there together. You’re the one who’s on bullshit, and you know it.”
“Well what’s it to you? What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m trying to get you to get your head out of your ass!”
“No you’re acting like a bitch, telling me what to do.”
The B Word
One of the most confounding things I experienced during my years of incarceration was the evolution of the usage of that particular B word. When I started doing my time it was the ultimate of insults. Calling a guy that derogatory designation was akin to a literal slap in the face, an affront which could not be allowed to go unanswered. I can’t even begin to put a number to the amount of times I saw minor disagreements or disputes escalate into violence due to the arrival of that particular word on the scene. It used to have a malevolent kind of magic to it.
The last couple years of my incarceration, as a newer, younger generation of convicts were beginning to predominate the prison population, I was appalled when I first heard the word slip so effortlessly from their young lips. The first time it happened I tensed and started looking for the quickest avenue of retreat to ensure that I was a safe distance removed while the melee ensued. Instead the two kids (that’s how I saw them, and that proves I’m old) just laughed and exchanged the most egregious of insults a dozen times between one another. The B word now, to them, is like saying “dude” or “bro”.
Whitey and Rigger are not of this new generation. Rigger didn’t technically call Whitey a bitch, he just said he was behaving in the manner of one. It’s a fine line that Whitey didn’t respect or recognize as significant. In his mind he’d just received a metaphorical slap to the face and would have to respond accordingly.
“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU SAY!!!?”
Whitey exploded like a mini neutron bomb. He was maybe 5’ 5” and that’s probably being generous. To look at him he didn’t appear physically imposing, but he had a terrible temper. I’d seen the results of this before when he and his cellie had once started swinging on each other because Whitey felt the other guy was spending too much time on the toilet.
Well-adjusted, Whitey isn’t.
When he got wound up he was similar to a raccoon that has been backed against a wall. A small but driven whirlwind of violence, not to be underestimated. Whitey lunged toward Rigger, coming within a quarter inch of physical contact. Even though he had to crane his neck upwards to look Rigger in the face, Whitey still managed to be intimidating. The genuine, undiluted rage helped a lot.
Rigger looked instantly cowed, realizing he had crossed a line and was in a scenario that almost certainly had to end with violence. Whitey snarled and yelled too fast to keep up with his profanity and insults. Rigger backed down physically and psychologically. It had the appearance of a literal shrinking. Myself and another inmate got between the two of them. I had to restrain Whitey and it was like trying to contain a sac of ferrets squirming with lithe muscles. Whitey challenged/invited Rigger to meet him in the shower room where there were fewer prying eyes and they could fight to settle their disagreement. He made sure to drop the B word about a dozen times so that Rigger would know that he’d been insulted to the fullest. The inference being that if Rigger were to not show up for the fight, then his status as a bitch would be cemented.
Juvenile schoolyard games abound behind prison walls.
I got Whitey extricated from the situation for his own good. Even managed to calm him down. Close to an hour had passed. We were sitting in the dayroom, just being nonviolent, passively watching a table of guys play cards, when Rigger walked to the middle of the dayroom. He took his shirt off, mustered his imitation ire, and issued the ultimatum for Whitey to meet him for a fight in the shower room.
This entire maneuver was a calculated one. Rigger had used the intervening time to go and pack all his belongings so that when he went to Segregation his possessions would follow him as opposed to being ransacked by all the greedy, sticky-fingered inmates who could get close to them. And a few officers with especially loose scruples. By stepping into the dayroom and removing his shirt there was a good chance he’d be taken away to SEG. Issuing a threat of violence to another inmate in full view of the C/O made his trip there an inevitability. The whole thing was a ploy, an attempt to save face and look tough, when in reality, if he had really wanted to fight the time would’ve been when Whitey was in his face.
Rigger didn’t want to fight. I can’t blame him.
I grabbed Whitey by the arm and he about bit my head off, but I held him in check. The usually taciturn C/O became suddenly indignant and animated. Rigger was carted off as he hollered threats and curses that were completely hollow. The unenlightened inmates thought Whitey had avoided a fight. Those like myself who were more experienced knew just how cowardly and laughable Rigger’s display had been.
For two years behind prison walls I spent as much waking time as was possible in the library. Being surrounded by books was a panacea to counteract the moments of insanity and aggravation that often characterizes prison life. The solitude was a balm to soothe my scarred psyche. When my supervisor dubbed me “Senior Library Clerk” it was a meaningless title that came without any perks or other tangible benefits. I couldn’t have been more proud.
Then it was all over. Library closed.
I transitioned to a position as a clerk in the legal library where I quickly made myself a valued asset. It wasn’t the same. I always felt like I was just filling and killing time. I managed to “sneak” back into the library on occasion to try keeping it in order since as soon as it was shuttered it became a dumping ground for all manner of printed ephemera. Mostly trash. Literally. Despite the fact that the law of the land requires that inmates have access to library materials, it would be over three years before anyone was hired in the position.
During those three years I endured a number of injustices. Legal, physical, psychological. I experienced levels of pain and despair that I hadn’t felt in many years, and time had largely dulled those recollections. The immediacy of the moment had a catastrophizing effect on me. I felt like blameless Job, King David, Christ on the cross – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I had largely made it through the worst of my trauma, and with just a few months remaining on my sentence I noticed a change. People were becoming more annoying. That, or I was simply losing grasp of the ability to ignore and let slide all kinds of annoyances.
New Boss, New Opportunity
When I heard that someone had been hired to open the library again, I thought, perhaps a bit arrogantly, that I’d be able to show this new person how things are done. I figured at the very least I could explain how her predecessor and I performed all the minutia of running a library since my supervisor had actually been trained and earned her Master’s Degree in the Library Sciences. (I was tickled to learn that the “Library Sciences” is a real thing.) The new librarian on the other hand was a correctional officer transitioning to the job and not necessarily entirely qualified. Or at least not accredited. I asked certain staff to vouch for me and make an introduction. Working in my library again (and, yes, that’s how I thought of it, as mine) would be reward all it’s own. However it would also have the added benefits of giving me time away from people and making my last chunk of time move more swiftly.
Despite the glowing recommendation and strenuous advising to accept whatever help I offered, she wasn’t interested. As I briefly mentioned a few things about how we had operated the library, some of the difficulties we’d had to negotiate, and offered my assistance in getting it up and running again before I went home, it was obvious to me that she wasn’t listening. She was waiting for me to stop talking so she could say what she wanted. And then she did.
She criticized our filing system, how we labeled and shelved books, how we arranged different book collections. She outlined her plans to revamp the whole system with an air of superiority, as if she were the first librarian in the history of curators to ever imagine implementing these plans and policies. After she had already side-stepped, rebuffed, or ignored my offers of assistance numerous times I didn’t bother to inform her that her plans were naive at best. Her big design included ideas that had already been denied, were contrary to established law, or were a complete waste of time because they didn’t take into consideration the transitory nature of prison. I said nothing. I thanked her for her time and left.
This encounter bothered me for days. Her criticisms were unwarranted and came from a lack of understanding about the many hurdles and roadblocks we’d had to negotiate. I took great pride in transforming that library from a dumping ground to a smoothly run operation where books were clean, repaired, labeled properly, and everything was in it’s right place. A place where people came to learn and be lifted, if only momentarily, out of the drudgery of their prison life. In many ways, turning that into what it became was my life’s work up to that point. I could refer to it as a mark that I’d left in this world. To have it dumped on so effortlessly, with seeming callous abandon felt mean and unfair. The more I stewed about it the angrier I got.
“Who was she to say anything? She doesn’t even know what she’s talking about!” That was my mentality.
After a few days of lost sleep and mental grumblings over her behavior I came to the realization that she was, in her own way, doing exactly what I had done when given the latitude. She was organizing and doing things her own way. I dimly recalled people scoffing at some of the policies my supervisor and I had implemented. The thought dulled the edge of my ire. Then came a revelation. As revelations go it’s actually rather elementary, a no-brainer really, but it rocked me back on my metaphorical heels with all the efficacy of a sucker punch.
I would never see my library again. My strong sense of ownership was offended by this notion. I was just under two months from my release date, and it was finally dawning on me with the slowness of a winter’s sunrise that I was actually going home. The day that I had so longed for and daydreamed about was right around the corner and about to become a reality. An actuality. Tangible. This would mean letting go. Learning to let go.
Letting go of my library, my routines, my defenses. My friends who I’d known and seen nearly every day of my life for almost four years. Men who I’d come to think of as family, brothers. Men who I could never again contact, for a period of up to six years in some instances, in accordance with legal mandate or else risk violating the terms of my release and potentially being remanded to prison.
It was bizarre. The strangest of sensations. To think that the place which had confined me and restricted my freedom in a thousand ways, both legal and illegal, would hold certain aspects that I would miss when I was gone. I’d hated it for so long, for all it had taken from me or kept me from, but on the precipice of being rid of it forever I knew I’d miss it.
I wouldn’t miss the harassment or the violence and bad food, the confinement and pettiness. But I’d miss people. I’d miss the sense of self-worth that came from being trusted and relied upon and whose opinion was valued. Inside I knew how to navigate prison life and politics, and it was rare when a day passed without someone seeking my input on some legal issue they were wrestling with.
Outside of prison a thousand things baffle me. Even once I’ve gotten answers to my questions I’m often still in a state of confusion. Most recently I was confounded by an automatic paper towel dispenser. I was so accustomed to paper towels being a cherished and hoarded commodity behind prison walls that I was momentarily stupefied by the sudden embarrassment of riches. I could have as many as I wanted. I didn’t know how long to hold my hands, waiting, how much would be sufficient for the job. I ended up with a wad that was much more than I needed. I guess I’m still having trouble letting go.
I was down to single digit days, and I noticed that the new librarian hadn’t been around in a while. I assumed she was diligently at work in one of the other library collections around the facility that she’d be tasked with maintaining. That wasn’t the case. I was informed by two different staff members that she was no longer the librarian, but had instead become the newest counselor. The consensus was that she had merely used the librarian position as a stepping stone to get the coveted counselor gig that she had wanted all along.
To my knowledge the inmates still have zero access to library materials and current periodicals despite the fact that the law requires the prison to provide inmates with access to these.
I am still learning to let go, but letting go doesn’t include turning a blind eye to injustice.
My understanding of the process was that it was a rubber stamp formality. The whole thing just a big show put on by the prison administration to give the appearance that they were actually doing something important and substantial. These impressions had been forged from conversations with dozens of inmates over the years who were nearing their release date. I readily admit that my ideas had also been heavily informed by own cynicism. I now know that it was even a bigger joke than I could’ve ever imagined.
MSR. Mandatory Supervised Release. This is not parole. Judges, attorneys, employees of and representatives for the Department of Corrections, even prison inmates—everyone uses the terms as interchangeable. It isn’t accurate or appropriate. There hasn’t been a formal parole system in this state since 1977.
Anyone who has ever seen the film Shawshank Redemption, or about a thousand other pop-culture examples, has a basic understanding of the formal parole system. The convict goes before a panel of individuals, The Parole Review Board, and states their case as to why they are a good candidate to be released on parole. This hearing only happens after they have served a certain portion of their sentence. If the individual is deemed unfit or not ready for parole then he remains in prison for a period until he gets another chance before the board. If the person is released, it’s a type of conditional discharge, meaning that there will be certain conditions or rules he must abide by. Things like not leaving the state, not breaking the law, securing a proper residence and job, reporting to a parole officer, submitting to random drug tests. This parole system allowed for some latitude and provided an avenue through which an inmate could, ostensibly, prove his ability and willingness to make positive changes in his or her life and mindset. These positive changes could then serve as reasons for releasing an inmate on parole.
Mandatory Supervised Release is a whole different animal. MSR is another type of conditional discharge so the actual restrictions or rules put in place for the individual once he or she is released from the penitentiary are essentially the same as under the parole system. The big and undeniable difference is what occurs prior to the inmate’s release. MSR requires that each inmate to serve the entirety of the term to which their judge sentenced them. This is then followed by what is essentially a second sentence, a set period of years required to be served on the conditional release of MSR. With the lack of rehabilitative programs and the rise of truth in sentencing laws, for many, there is no avenue by which an inmate can demonstrate that they are rehabilitated, nor is there incentive to do so. Let me explain.
In this scenario there are four hypothetical offenders who are all given a ten-year sentence. One is sentenced at 50 percent, one at 75, one at 85, and the last is to be served at 100 percent. These percentages are mandated by the type and severity of the crime for which a person is incarcerated. The person sentenced at ten years at fifty percent would serve a five-year prison term, but would be eligible to earn reductions for involvement in educational and rehabilitative programs. The remaining three must serve seven and a half, eight and half, and ten years respectively. Beyond the rare occasion of a legal technicality or loophole, there’s no way they will serve one single day less than these percentages. A person serving a sentence at 75 or 85 percent could be made to serve up to the entire ten years if he or she were to do something extreme like assaulting a staff member, possessing a weapon or drugs, trying to escape.
The Real Truth In Sentencing
As long as the inmate only breaks the minor rules they can stay in trouble their entire time behind prison walls, thereby demonstrating their inability or unwillingness to abide by the constraints of authority, and still be released after serving the mandated percentage of their sentence. On the reverse, an inmate could stay out of trouble, spending his or her time earning every single certificate or degree, taking all available classes to change their felonious ways of thinking, and perhaps even learn a skill or trade they can use in the future to secure gainful employment.
None of it matters.
The quality of life for these hypothetical inmates would be drastically different, but their behavior, whether good or bad, wouldn’t alter their release date or the number of years they’d have to abide by the restrictions that the conditional release known as MSR will put on them. Therefore, the onus for seeking out a rehabilitative activity or mindset falls squarely on the inmate. These men and women are expected to change their entire way of thinking and being with little to no encouragement or opportunity. Furthermore, for even for those who want to take advantage access to school is denied or delayed for years because class space is very limited and priority is given to those inmates who are eligible to earn good time credit off their sentence. I had managed to earn enough college credits for an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. I also took a number of other classes and received certificates of excellence. These mattered to me, but when I went before the Prisoner Review Board, I found out just how little goodwill all my hard work had engendered in them.
Prisoner Review Board
Since the instituting of MSR, the Parole Review Board became largely obsolete. It was rebranded as the Prisoner Review Board and their function became mostly ornamental. The decision-making process removed the human element and turned it into a mathematical equation. Both rehabilitative behavior and minor disciplinary issues during my incarceration were inconsequential. I had committed a violent crime, so certain specific restrictions would be placed on me as conditions of my release. X + Y = Z. I knew all of this as I sat and waited for my name to be called, yet adrenalized nerves still jangled within me as I rehearsed in my head the statement I had prepared about what I’d done with my time in prison and how I changed as proof of my rehabilitation. I was determined to say my piece, whether or not it had any effect.
As I walked toward the officer who had called my name I glanced at the clock high on the wall and saw that the minute hand was suspended between 9:55 and 9:56. I was directed to a seat across the table from an elderly man whose surprisingly smooth brown skin reminded me of a highly polished and much loved piece of antique furniture. Without looking up he asked my name then shuffled through the papers in front of him to locate mine. He was tiny, frail. If he had stood up I doubt he would’ve achieved a height much past five feet. An unadorned cane leaned against the table next to him, which he would’ve had to use if he were to stand. His head was large, round, gleaming bald and seemed out of proportion to the rest of his body. He was slouching carefully in the chair as if his spine would no longer hold his torso upright. The button up shirt he wore seemed to billow around him, and small round spectacles finished the ensemble. The overall impression was of an old, wizened cartoon turtle.
Reading from the report, he asked me to confirm certain facts. My name, my crime, my sentence. He never looked up from the piece of paper as he addressed me. He never asked if I’d done anything positive or worthwhile with my time. He did ask if I’d ever been to segregation, which is the standard punishment for moderate to serious rule breakers. I explained that I had, but that all charges had been expunged. It was the opening for which I’d been waiting. I segued into the violations of my freedom of speech when the warden discovered I’d been writing essays which chronicled instances that occurred inside his prison and having them posted on this website. The other PRB member at the table to my left was waiting for her next appointment. She overheard my claims and turned to look, reacting with wide-eyed shock. The turtle man in front of me didn’t react at all. I shamelessly plugged this website, but from there the words withered on my tongue. I felt like I was calling into a chasm and nothing was returned, not even my own echo. All that I had prepared to say seemed mute, entirely pointless. His demeanor was obviously uncaring, bored, dismissive.
He read to me the specific conditions I’d have to adhere to during my three years of MSR, all of which were based on the circumstances of my crime. The intervening sixteen years of incarceration, and my behavior during that time, had no bearing whatsoever. He had me sign the report at the bottom, told me I’d receive a copy of it in the mail, and I was dismissed. During the entirety of my time with him he had never once raised his head to look me in the eye. As I left, I checked the clock—10:00 on the nose. The whole ordeal hadn’t taken more than four minutes.
They could’ve simply mailed the report and skipped the face to face since nothing I said or did had any effect. However, doing it this way they could claim I had a hearing with the Prisoner Review Board and make it sound like something with gravitas rather than what it was; nothing but window dressing to provide a pretense that there is a thoughtful and measured consideration of each individual about to reenter society, when in fact there is no such consideration. It was a joke and an absolute waste of time, money, and resources. All symptoms of a broken system in much need of reform.