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.

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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.