Posts Tagged ‘inmates’

It seems to me that I am always criticizing our prison system. But yesterday I had a very positive experience in a local pre-trial center.

I had the privilege of taking a famous writer to this facility. As you probably know, pretrial facilities separate people, so that those who were in a crime together cannot work on their stories. As a result there are many separate sections in pretrial, and they can’t be mixed.

The famous writer did not object to speaking to only two of the six or so units. She was her usual engaging, personal self. Nothing was a problem for her, having her picture taken with the men, moving through all the heavy metal doors, and repeating her talk three times, twice to the men and once to the staff.

Everyone was in a good mood. Was it her charm? Was it the fact of having a NYTimes best seller visit them? Was it that I only saw a small segment of the staff and of the inmates?

Whatever, the morning was filled with laughter and good cheer. There are staff who are human beings and inmates who know how to get along with staff.

It was a lesson for a critical person like me.

Prison officials are experts at euphemism. Just a reminder as to what euphemism is:

The substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit, as in

Pre-owned for used or second-hand

Enhanced interrogation for torture

Wind for belch or fart

Convenience fee for surcharge

“Neutralize” for “kill”

 

Correctional Centers for prisons. Very few get ‘corrected.’

Convicted offenders are called ‘inmates,’ labeling them as institutionalized and powerless, instead of calling them ‘prisoners.’

‘Feeding Time” is for prisoners. ‘Meal Time’ is for staff.

Guards are just that, they keep prisoners from escaping.

They are not ‘correctional officers,’ living unit officers, classification officers etc.

For more on this, see the latest edition of Out of Bounds, from the prisoners at William Head Prison, page 23

I, for one, fail many times to avoid the euphemisms associated with prison. It’s something to work on.

Call him Irving, an amazing inmate and an amazing person. I first met him in my creative writing class. He was one of those rare students that I could give a few writing principles to and he would run with them. Soon he was turning in amazing stories, one about a man from a Louisiana bayou, environment and correct Cajun accent as well.

He loved his First Nations’ heritage and wrote a story which brought his tribe to life for me.

He and I talked about the prison’s lack of release planning, and he began to develop some ideas.

Soon he was moved to the Okanagan area where his original offense had occurred. While he was there, he developed a full release planning program and talked the admin into letting him run it. Guys about to be released signed up for his program and he put them thru it. Who will pick you up from Pretrial? Where will you go on your first day out? And so forth.

His prison record was perfect and I was surprised he was still in prison himself. Finally, he came in front of a judge, who took a look at his prison record and his letters of support (one of them was mine). The judge did not add any time, he just told him to finish his current sentence.

An amazing thing happened next. A police car picked him up, and he thought he was on his way back to prison, but instead the police took him to a half-way house in the Okanagan area. He was filled with joy and excitement – he could visit with his mother and his sister. Within a week he had two jobs and was following the rules of the half-way house to the letter.

A month went by. The warden of a large prison noticed the fact that this model prisoner was in a halfway house instead of a federal prison. Without delay he sent a squad car to the Okanagan to pick him up. Never mind that the warden already had 300 prisoners who needed lots of help they weren’t getting. Never mind that his record at the halfway house was perfect. Back to prison.

I met him the next morning. He was sad that he had to give up his two jobs, sad that he couldn’t see his sister or mother, and sad that he had to endure more prison. I told him to contact a new woman on the prison staff. I went to her myself and asked her to help Irving. She said she would. (but she didn’t)

He came back to my writing class. “You know, Ed, what we need is for the staff to see what happens in this class. We should invite them to come.”

“It’s okay by me, but you’ll never get them to come.”

I was wrong. He did get them to come.

A year later he was paroled. Here was a man who long ago got the message that crime didn’t pay. The prison system brought him back when he was doing fine and then dragged their heels to release him. Again, prison jobs were more important to staff than helping inmates.

Dennis Haines has written articles for us in the past.

I’m back with my continuing adventures in the real world. The irony is that I have noticed that “real world squares” are not that much different from cons in the joint in some ways. In the month and a half that I have been out I have been observing people and how much the same we are. And to think that I used to feel like I didn’t fit in with normal people and now I find out that we aren’t that different after all.

Case in point, I take the same bus to work every day Monday to Friday at roughly 6:30 am and there are a group of regulars who are taking the same bus. I find that I always sit in the same spot and that everyone else tries to as well. The funny part is that if someone is sitting in someone else’s regular spot, you can actually see the annoyance on their faces at the interruption in their routine. It brings me to mind of people’s spots in the dining room in the institution, except it doesn’t end in violence.

That’s not the only place I notice the same type of behavior. In the lunch room where I work everyone has staked a claim to their chairs and although I don’t believe they would get violent over it, they will tell you if you are sitting in their spot.

So what I’m getting at is that I find it strangely comforting that regular people exhibit the same behaviors that I’m used to from the institutions. I was concerned with my level of institutionalization, but I’m finding that observing the world and putting it in perspective is really helping me along. As people we are all the same, and we all have our little comfort zones. Sometimes these zones are challenged, but it’s our reactions that set us apart.

I write these types of thoughts as a little bit of therapy for myself but also in the hope that maybe someone else who is just getting out will read them as well and maybe be comforted. I hope that I can send a message of hope to someone else who just got out and may or may not be struggling. I hope to let them know that every day out in the community is an adventure just waiting to be undertaken. For me it’s my time to take life by the horns and live it in the best way I can and, if I’m lucky, I can help someone else out along the way.

Dennis Haines has told me specifically that he wants his name and email revealed. He would appreciate any comments you have. You can send them directly to him if you want. dhaines429@gmail.com

Some good news from a man who’s written for this blog several times.

It wasn’t so very long ago that I found myself sitting outside of the federal institution that I had just spent some quality time in.

Sitting out there waiting for my ride to come and drive me to the halfway house I had some time to reflect on the journey that had brought me to the bench just outside the prison on a sunny Monday morning in June. The bench was reminiscent of a bus stop and I was sitting there waiting for a ride because I didn’t want an escort from my former keepers and instead asked a community volunteer to give me a ride.

The view from outside was actually kind of weird, probably due to the nine years that I had spent inside of various provincial and federal institutions as part of my journey to that bench. I had the vague sense of foreboding, like the rover truck would come speeding up and stormtroopers from inside would come streaming out of the gate saying that the parole board had made a mistake and that I would be returning to my cell.

Since I had received the decision on Thursday of the week before I still didn’t really believe that it was going to happen. Seriously, why would they let me walk out the door.

What got me to that place in the sun was a lot of hard work and a final willingness to accept that I needed to do something different. I had spent years railing against the system to no avail and, in the end, it was my reaching out to community volunteers and asking for help that paved the road to happy destiny for me.

For me it was interacting with many volunteers that made me feel like I could be part of the community and for that I will be eternally grateful. It was also the hard work of an IPO (institutional parole officer) that made it all possible for me to be liberated from the confines of my surroundings.

I’m not saying that the system is perfect, it most definitely is not (especially under the conservative government), but I now understand that rehabilitation is an individual thing and that prisoners need to take responsibility for their past and for their future.

It would, of course, be easier if there were opportunities for vocational programming and if the CSC(the prison administration) or community parole took some initiative and worked with employers in the community to find employment opportunities for those who were honestly doing the work to better themselves.

The CSC has become more punitive in nature in recent years and as a result there is more resentment building up inside the institutions. I’m not looking for some utopian vision of the prison system, just something that would be more progressive for those who are looking to make a change and, perhaps, don’t know where to start or who to turn to.

All I can say is that I finally figured it out and if I can figure it out and get parole with my record maybe there is hope for our flawed system after all.

I set up a bursary to help inmates with further education. I understood that education was the proven way out of crime. But some men and women had already obtained a high school diploma, so the prison system would do nothing for them. And there were others who just wanted to take a college course in a subject they were interested in, high school diploma or not.

I moved carefully at the beginning. It would be better if the donations were handled by a trusted group that could issue a tax receipt to people. I talked to the John Howard Society and they agreed to sponsor this effort. http://www.edgriffin.net/bursary.html/

Now comes the failure. I’m not out in the streets promoting this bursary. Yes, I mention it now and then in this blog, but I don’t contact other businesses, or certain charities or rich individuals. Why not?

Maybe I’m afraid of people yapping about “Those dirty convicts, I wouldn’t give them a dime.” I pay attention to stories in the news about criminals and I must say the media is far from objective. I know that with some people, I would have to remind them that these are human beings we’re talking about, human beings who are going to get out of prison someday.

Maybe it’s just my nature NOT to raise money. When I was a Catholic priest, I absolutely hated to raise money. Several times a year the bishop would send a letter that we had to read at every mass, raising money for this or that Catholic charity. I said to myself that I didn’t get ordained to raise money. Either I skipped it entirely or I skimmed over it.

That sounds like an excuse to me. What’s the matter with me?

Today we have a guest blog from an inmate in a US federal prison in California.

A Guide to Dining in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Christopher

While the days of gruel in a tin cup have long gone by for inmates confined in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, no one imprisoned in today’s facilities will accuse their captors of providing a five-star dining experience, either. Most federal prisoners will agree that a key component of happiness behind bars is ensuring that the food they eat is close to the latter category. Napoleon once said, “An army marches on its stomach.” A similar adage applies to prison: a well-fed prisoner is a happy prisoner.

Meals Supplied by the Federal Bureau of Prisons: The Chow Hall

Most general population BOP (Bureau of Prisons) facilities serve three meals a day in a dedicated cafeteria-type area (the “chow hall” in prison lingo). Most chow halls offer fixed tables, usually with four to six stools bolted thereto. Inmates are permitted to choose where to sit, subject to local custom, and, of course, the ever-present peer pressure, which can be strict in nature. At some prison facilities, particularly high-security ones, where one sits is — literally — a matter of life and death. Fights over seating can be deadly.

Food is obtained via chow lines, much like at a high school cafeteria. Inmate servers, under the watchful eye of BOP food service staff, dole out servings of food onto plastic trays as inmates march through the line. Serving sizes are, at least in theory, strictly controlled, but a wink and a nod to a friend serving food can be helpful just the same.

The “mainline” offerings are determined via a national menu that uses a five-week cycle of variety. The lunch fare is predictable. Hamburgers and fries have been served on Wednesday afternoons since time immemorial; baked or fried chicken is also a weekly staple. Unfortunately, so is chili con carne, chicken pot pie, and “fish,” usually in the form of processed discs or rectangles. At some prison facilities, an actual dessert is served on the line, at others, an apple or small packets of cookies.

Lunch is usually supplemented by a hot bar or cold bar for self-service. In days gone by, rice and beans, soups, salads, and various vegetables were available daily, but in today’s tight fiscal climate, a tray of lettuce or green beans is more likely. Soups made from leftovers might also appear.

Dinner, served around 5 or 6 at night, is much like lunch, but with cheaper entrees and fewer side items. Desserts are no longer served at dinner.

Breakfasts generally consist of a rotation of cereal, “breakfast cake,” and, several days a week, pancakes, waffles, or biscuits and gravy. Milk is served at breakfast (and no longer at other meals, where water and fruit punch/juice are served).

For those with special dietary needs, i.e., religious restrictions and medical issues, the Federal Bureau of Prisons offers alternative items at most meals. Those who require Kosher or Halal meals, for example, can sign up for meals meeting those standards. Low salt and diabetic meals are also offered.

Eating From the Locker: Food Without a Chow Hall

Not surprisingly, many federal prisoners never set foot in a Federal Bureau of Prisons chow hall. For those who can afford to do so, eschewing government-issue fare is certainly a viable option.

Virtually every federal prison offers a commissary, where a variety of foods and sundry items are sold. While many prisoners spend their funds on candy bars, potato chips, sodas, and other snacks that the BOP is happy to sell them, it is still possible for inmates to purchase nutritionally sound food products as well. Most facilities sell single serving tuna packets, rice and beans, sandwich meats and cheeses, nuts and other relatively healthy foods. With the aid of a microwave or hot water supply, resourceful prisoners can dine on homemade pizza, cheesecakes and other surprisingly tasty fare. The quality of prison cooking can vary, but a quick romp across the Internet reveals numerous cookbooks for prisoners available.

Moreover, there is always a healthy trade in stolen food items, from fresh meats and poultry to fruits and vegetables and baking goods. With a tradition of liberal supervision over such matters by Federal Bureau of Prisons staff, there are even plenty of inmates who make a living cooking for others.

Today, no one will starve in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but how well one eats is a question with many possibilities.

We’ll hear more from Christopher next week about prison education. If you want to contact him, I’ll be glad to pass on a message to his email.

Inmates should form a union.

Say that line and all manner of objections will arise. “Criminals should not say how they will live their punishment.” “This is a terrible idea – Guards and staff are in charge of the prison, not a bunch of illiterate scum bags.” On and on.

Stop a minute. Think of the idea. Recall the famous line: “Everything that rises, must converge.” It’s the title of the book Flannery O’Connor was working on when she died. But it has a philosophical meaning also – people or a group of people who rise up will converge or meet with the very people who opposed them. If a group of convicts struggle to change the rules they live under, they may or may not succeed. But they will learn what the staff, the guards, are like and they will come to respect them, even if they don’t agree with them.

Everything that rises, must converge.

Here’s an example. Inmates are now told what programs they need before they can move on to a lower security or even be paroled.

But it would be better if the inmates themselves had some say in what programs they were to take. A man might object to taking Anger Management because he’s had the program before and it didn’t help. Or he knows that his real problem is getting along with people who pretend to be better than him. Or – the most common reason – the inmates know that Anger Management is presented by a former mean guard who attended a three month training program on Anger Management, which didn’t do anything about his meanness.

Everything that rises, must converge.

Let’s say a group of prisoners gets together and forms a union around the idea that they should have some say in what programs they are to take. Nobody chooses Anger Management.

Staff gets very upset and cancels the idea that inmates should have a say. The inmates respond by not going to any programs. They stay in their cells.

Time goes on. Administration approaches an inmate who wants to get to minimum, another who wants a PFV (private family visit) with his girlfriend and so forth. If these inmates break the boycott, they’ll be granted their requests. But if management can spy on the union, the union can spy on management. The union finds out which inmates are going to become scabs.

By the next morning, the scabs are in no shape to want anything. No different than any other strike, scabs are dealt with severely.

Though I’m opposed to this violence, I know it will happen. But in the long run, everything that rises, must converge. Union and management slowly see the humanness of the other side. A compromise is reached – the inmates will be asked what programs they want and why before any assignments are made.

Everything that rises, must converge.

For years people said that miners should not have a union, that fast-food workers should not unionize, that teachers should not form a union. I look forward to the day people will talk about inmates having a union.

I started teaching in a Canadian prison in the early nineties. I met a few inmates who had been in the prison’s college program in the eighties. All of them were changed people, men and women. Maybe there were some failures, but I never met any. These people had studied literature and science and math, all the usual programs of a university degree. The instructors came from a near-by university, Simon Fraser University. I never saw the program in action, but I learned about it from the students and from comments made by administration.

  •             Sarah seemed to know who she was after taking the program. She was no longer a failure, a drug addict, but she was a proud woman who was ready to write and to teach at a high school level. While she was in college, she stayed in the prison’s infirmary in this all-male prison.
  •             Tom learned about the environment and after his release, he became an environmental employee for the government.
  •             I don’t know where Luke ended up, but I could tell by talking to him that he was finished with the life of crime.

Why did the administration kill the program? I got a lot of different answers from people:

  • Because the average family had to pay for university education for their children and these evil convicts were getting it for nothing.
  • Because a degree was too much for the average convict. Never mind literature or science, these guys needed a good welding program.
  • Because graduates of the program began to question everything in the prison and in fact the whole institution.

Parents know that a high school diploma is not enough in today’s world. Their children need a college education, even a master’s degree, to succeed. Yet the prison system stops at grade twelve. If a student wants more, he has to pay for it himself or herself.

This is why I started a bursary with the John Howard Society. This group helps inmates in prison and out of prison. They give a tax-receipt for donations. Inmates apply for the grant and if they succeed, the John Howard Society sends money not to the individual but to the institution. This year three inmates split twelve hundred dollars, rather their universities did.

The only fund-raiser for this project is me. I’m not very good at that, but I want it to succeed. I really do believe that education is the way out of crime. I’m going to change the way I sell my 7 books – 25% of the sales will go to this bursary. That’s a little more advertising and a little more money.

I’d appreciate any suggestions about how to advertise this bursary.

P.S.  “Harsh Justice: Comparing Prisons Around the World” would be a great fit for your blog. Here’s the link: http://www.criminaljusticedegreehub.com/worldprisons/.

P.S. #2 “How Big Is the Drug Trade?”, that I think falls right in line with theme of your blog. Here’s the link: http://www.top-criminal-justice-schools.net/drug-trade

They called him Doctor, not because he was a medical man, not because he had a Ph.D, but because he was so smart and such a great orator. We’ll simply call him Doctor X.

If the prison system needed an inmate to stand up and speak for all inmates, they called on Doctor X. He knew how to walk the middle, keeping the guys happy and the system happy. In my writing class, he stood out, producing poems and essays that won him awards.

While he was in my class, he got a new trial, calling up the many details that had led to his previous conviction.

I followed the case closely. He and another man met each other in Seattle, and they decided to visit some women in Vancouver. They hired a taxi in downtown Vancouver which took them to the girl’s address. Outside the apartment, the police later discovered the taxi driver murdered, shot in the head.

The justice system wanted the other man to come to Canada for the retrial. He refused. As the trial went on, it became clear to me that it was the other man who had killed the taxi-driver. He was a much bigger man than Doctor X, and had all the characteristics of those who commit murder. While Doctor X had gone on with his studies and his efforts to help his fellow inmates, the other man ran into constant trouble with the law. His very refusal to come to the retrial indicated to me his guilt. This was the old story of not telling on another man, even if it meant your own imprisonment.

No matter who did it, the taxi drivers in our city wanted a conviction, so once again, Doctor X was found guilty.

After his release, he married a local woman, and they had three wonderful children. They worked hard to raise them as good citizens. When Doctor X finished his sentence and parole, he was shipped back to the United States. Without telling his employer of his past, he got an excellent job back East, which he held for almost ten years. He proved his ability in a very responsible job but then, as always seems to happen, somebody found out about his past and told his superiors. They fired him immediately. Many of his friends objected to this, but I knew it was inevitable. It’s a real problem for an ex-con: tell the truth and not get a good job, or don’t tell the truth and get caught years later.

I haven’t heard yet how Doctor X is supporting his family now.

An inmate should not protect another person, even if he fears for his life from that person. Being accused unjustly of murder seems to me to be a living death.

Another point is to tell the truth when you get a job. There are people who will hire you, if you show that you are stronger than what’s been said about you. Yes, many people will automatically refuse you, but it’s much worse to devote ten years of your life to a company and then be fired in one day.

How do we help ex-cons get a job? Many of them want to prove themselves. They want out of the life of crime. I’ve often thought of a company called EX-CONS, a bonded company, construction, cleaning, what have you. Any ideas?