SIMPLE THINGS

So, to paraphrase a Groucho Marks joke; there I was in prison, staring at a deer in my state issued greens. How he got in my greens I’ll never know!

A simple thing like walking from my dorm to the grievance department twice a day for work – we returned for lunch – afforded me some great outdoor time. While only about a quarter mile, it was outside and the view was great. It expanded over several fields, down a little valley and up the opposite hill to where you could even glimpse a bit of the super highway. I could smell the fresh cut hay of those farmer fields and, if lucky, see deer grazing as I slowly walked to work. I could hear and see birds of all kinds. It reminded me of my childhood growing up on a dairy farm in central New York. But then I would think of my father and what he would have thought knowing his son went to prison on a pornography charge and I have to think of something else.

I grew up on a dairy farm, working hard for a kid. But it really was enjoyable work for the most part. Even the shoveling of manure, cleaning the gutters in the barn wasn’t that bad. Only in the cold weather were things difficult when we tried to stay warm performing our work. The barn, with over 60 head of cattle, was actually warmer than our big old farmhouse. But the summer time made it all worth while.

When I now walk to and from work, I remember working in the field like the farmer presently was doing. Cutting, raking, baling and hauling the hay. That was then, this is now, and I had kept going through all those youthful times and progressed forward, so I now must do the same. One more step at a time toward getting out just as I had done one more thing at that time to get through, doing any number of things farmers do to get things accomplished and finished.

Another similarity I noted were the strict rules and their enforcement. It was just like my strict and authoritative father. His way or the highway, similar in both places. Unfortunately, I transferred the traits of my earthly father to the Heavenly Father I hardly knew and was more afraid of than drawn to. Only now since I have given myself to God have I learned more about Him and His unconditional love for me. Maybe that is why it seems so overwhelming, that anyone could love me despite what I have done. Growing up on that farm gave me a great work ethic and taught me the value of working for what you want. Regrettably, often as a kid and later as an adult, I tried to take short cuts and get the results I wanted without the regard for others, quite different from the family atmosphere in which I grew up. I often worked at circumventing the rules but now had to conform to them. Trying to reconcile all that has happened, all that I have done and the resulting consequences made it hard to see how my dad, or my Heavenly Father, could look favorably toward me. It is still especially difficult when visitors from that past come to visit.

As when my sister-in-law came to visit last week, another simple thing but  a total surprise. And she came bearing gifts. My wife had told her how valuable certain things are in here and can be used to trade or barter for other things. Since real currency is difficult to come by and is only put in your account, not handled by the inmates, anything of value and negotiable was prized very dearly. Like cigarettes, flags (stamps) and even toilet paper, especially in the maximum security facilities I found out. I had recently learned to roll cigarettes, rollies as they were aptly called, to trade for food. I bought a pouch of tobacco from the commissary and proceeded to acquire whatever quality food I could by trading the rolled cigarettes. Fresh fruit, chicken or even the coveted coffee cake when they would serve it in the mess hall. Fresh vegetables or other healthy treats from guys packages was what I went for mostly. Oh yes, and those great little dixie cups of Bryne Dairy chocolate ice cream! It was amazing what guys would trade for a simple rollie. And real cigarettes were better. So when she brought me a whole case of Marlboro’s –Thank you Jesus!

Again I had the problem, though, of reconciling the past and present. How could she be so gracious to me after what I did to her sister? Why would she show such favor to a selfish egomaniac like me? Take time out of her busy schedule, drive over two hours and bring me a gift? Could I have done that if the situation was reversed? Is this the love of God showing through His people that all the Pastors in here were talking about? Wasn’t I supposed to do the same? When you begin not liking yourself, it seems it is often difficult to fully appreciate others and their kindness to you. I was certainly overwhelmed.

On the walk back to the dorm, carrying that brick of Marlboro’s, smelling the fresh cut hay, seeing God’s beauty and abundance all around, I could, for those few moments, cherish His love and the simple things that I felt even here inside corrections.

7/13/07 LETTER TO JACK

Editor’s Note:  Jack was a good friend and my Pastor’s husband on the outside. He wrote often and visited when he could.

7/13/07
Jack,
Thanks for your letter – whenever you send it, it’s appreciated. No pressure believe me! I have way more time to respond – no grass to mow, places to go, things to do so I take it as it comes – that is one thing this place hammers home to me. There is nothing I can do BUT go minute to minute, working with what is given. God had a plan, & I, like Solomon & many others, strayed, attempting to make my own plan. I am grateful I didn’t suffer some of his wrath as some Biblical figures did! This feels like quite a lot however, I’m sure these are things you realized & lived a long time ago, attempting to live outside God’s plan for you. I realized that, tried to do what was best at times, but obviously failed miserably. I am grateful for another opportunity – not chance, as that sounds too much like it’s ify or having to do with luck. I believe we make our own luck and create opportunities now, whether we like the ones we create or not is truly a different story, but we nevertheless have to live them. That is another thing I know!

Pardon my rambling. It might be the 98 degree temps we had today (95 yesterday), the state of fatigue of playing a full game tonight (basketball) and I am on my 3rd letter as I await a phone opportunity to call my wife. With 55 guys & 2 phones, it’s tough. They shut off @ 11 pm – 8 am & various other times during the day, but I am only able to call her collect and haven’t been successful lately with catching her. It’s frustrating, but then again it’s a lesson in faith and acceptance. Deal with it. Pick the file cabinet up off Rte. 104 and deal with it.

Yes I miss people like the ones you mentioned, though the shame & guilt return when I think of people I have not had an opportunity to talk to since this “train wreck” happened. I used to see & talk with him @ Reading Buddies – something else I miss & probably will not be able to resume. But I am working on a couple other projects for inmates that will carry over to the outside if we (another guy from work & I) can get it off the ground. God works in those mysterious ways. Then there’s that book of course…..

It is interesting with all the guys going home or being transferred – or even going to the box – the flavor of our floor here @ B Center has changed a good deal in the last couple of weeks. A lot of new faces, many younger guys who are already very experienced with prison life. It definitely shows in the selection of T.V. shows. It is not so much that I watch, but I use the day room to write (like now) as I do not want to turn on the light in our four man room with one guy asleep. It also attracts bugs and there are no screens on the windows. (hey, we’re prisoners, we don’t need no stinkin’ screens!) The smells of the kitchen behind me & the heat of this large (40’ x 16’ ish) room is a bit much at times. Unlike others, I do not like to hang my clothes on the drying racks less they smell like rice and beans or jack mac – hard especially when it’s my pillow case – makes me hungry when I go to bed!

Wed. Feel pretty good today (my knee) considering I played the whole game last night – it’s sore, a little swollen, but worth it. I find the confidence I feel on the court helps off it. Guys I don’t know come up & compliment me – they usually call me O.T. (old timer) or Bird! I realize now how shaky some of my decisions were in subsequent months after my arrest. Should I do this or that, choose this or that. My choice of guys to work my business was aided by my former partner thank goodness as I was off the mark myself. While right in it, I thought I was okay. Months later I realize that and other choices were not my best. Now I am building back up to, as Cheryl says, “do the next right thing.”

You mentioned ESPN & the Hot Dogs. (my son took his first trip to Coney Island recently) I am amazed there is enough stuff for all the channels on cable. No wonder picking your nose through a picket fence makes headlines as they have to find something to fill it up. The AM news has depressed me so I do not and cannot watch. NYC has so much crime, but I remember Rochester had equal amounts.

The guy I’m working with on a program we want to start here behind the wall has been here for a murder during a robbery – since 1987. He was in his early 20’s so he doesn’t know cell phones, internet, lots of things. It is like a time warp in some ways, and hence our program basis. (among others)

As I re-read this letter (and yours) I see how scattered I am. – haha. Guess that speaks to my mental state!

Take care Jack, and not to worry about the frequency of writing. I thoroughly enjoy your letters as you get to them.

God Bless & Peace to you,
Van

LIFE INSIDE CORRECTIONS

It has been pretty difficult lately as I struggle to keep an even keel in these troubled waters inside corrections. I guess it I am still learning what I don’t know.
The Bible says to know what you are supposed to do, but doing according to your own will results in the person” being beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know yet committed things deserving of stripes shall be beaten with few.” (Luke 12:47-48) Guess I will receive slight chastisement as I know what I need to think and feel, but do not fully know things. In here if one is not careful, the response may be far worse. Because I knew better on the outside, guess I am getting what I deserve – the many stripes – so to speak by being inside corrections.
Of course the Bible speaks of spiritual and mental warfare. Behind the fence and wall I notice it is more physical. If we are not getting it from the CO’s, it is from other inmates. It is so surreal to see such behavior, truly man’s inhumanity to man. It is always a punitive atmosphere, always assuming the worst in someone, that we did something (or will do) wrong and thus are treated accordingly by most CO’s with a negative attitude. I can only imagine the next rung up as being true war.
I see guards exercising their authority with such malice and actually getting enjoyment out of it. Now that is not to say all are that way as I have encountered several who really do have an interest in being fair and under control. The problem seems to be in here that there are always those who take advantage, on both sides, and cause problems for all. It is not bad enough that some who are in control are on power trips, but then the good ones get pushed to their limits as well.
If you do not like rules, never come inside corrections that is for sure. There are rules for everything: when to get up, when to lay down, how to stand and when and even where to stand, how to get there, how to look and even how NOT to look! And those are just a sampling. And yes, they capsule them all in a little yellow book of some 40 plus pages, but about a third of the inmates are illiterate and 50% do not have a high school degree or GED so the use of it is debatable.
Por ejemplo – yes, I’ve relearned some Spanish and wished I’d paid better attention than the D I received in freshman college Spanish, a lesson there – there is a rule about not destroying or altering State issue property. Now while that makes sense, you would think it would be administered with a little common sense. But as Buck Henry so aptly said and it definitely applies in here, “common sense ain’t so common.” I do not take issue with not breaking the furniture or state issue dull green clothing (no bra burning!) But a friend who, upon getting in behind the wall at 18 with a 25 to life bid, was so distraught and, coupled with his slower mental abilities, tried to commit suicide by hanging himself with his state issue boxers. Well, let’s not bother with any why’s or suppositions or offer counseling, let’s write him up, called a ticket, and send him to the box, that omnipresent threat of an all expense trip often threatened in Cool Hand Luke.
Fortunately I have never been a guest there but have heard enough about it that I do not want to venture there for a visit, so maybe the threat does work for some. Stories of CO’s spitting in the food – if they actually deliver it –or withholding mail and other reading material are just some of the tales told to me of guys returning from there, thus adding to the “just wait till your father gets home” type threat they use in here.
So I follow the rules, or have learned to do much better. That is great when you know what the rules are. Problem is, they often vary from CO to CO and prisoner to prisoner. “You’ve disrespected me” is one key catch-all phrase that has caused many a fight or stabbing between inmates. What one guy means and accepts is not necessarily equal to all, especially when you throw in race and religion in the mix – or apparent sexual orientation, but that is a whole other chapter. I often feel this ‘disrespected’ saying is used as a reason to exhibit the toughness of someone so others will fear him and/or leave him alone, the old bully tactic. Underneath they often are really so afraid or do not really care of the outcome due to their presence in here. As I have mentioned before,any sign of weakness in here is seen as blood in the waters to a bunch of sharks. And they certainly are present in many forms inside corrections.
So I have struggled at times knowing I would be better off to keep my mouth shut, look away, or not even go someplace. Sometimes I get so caught up in my own grief, more of the selfishness that brought me here, that I fail to see the landscape around me and gauge correctly what is going on. It’s a continual learning process and I have been fortunate I have not gotten my butt kicked or worse. Thank you Lord! That is why I take solitary walks in the yard, (the large open space, fenced/walled in of course) often lost in thought or prayer and escape even if just for the briefest of times. This is my new normal.
I also find if I continually put myself in communication with Jesus and give it all to Him that situations work themselves out – definitely good advice for here or out there. I just have to process everything to see it. Fortunately I have nothing but time in here to do such contemplation, I just need to be conscious of where I do it. Others have their remedies or ways of handling the mental and emotional stress. But as Joshua said to the Israelites before his death, “…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) It has saved me as it has thousands of people down through the years. May it continue to do so for me here inside corrections.

UPSIDE DOWN KINGDOM

I was thinking how normal it is to write a letter, one of the few “normal” things that go on in here. But as I may have stated previously, things are a little upside down.
But then I guess that begs the question, what is normal? For a prison – or correctional institution as they now want to call it though little correction occurs – what goes on is probably quite normal though I cannot tell as I have no reference. I know sleeping is normal, but when I do finally drop off, often after crying myself to sleep, then wake, it is not the normal I am used to seeing or hearing. That is if I do drop off to sleep, which many nights for a variety of reasons does not occur or, if it does, only for a while. There are guys talking, crying, snoring and making other bodily noises and radios playing. Then there’s the C.O.’s who check on us, generally without regard to being the quietest. As I have stated before, I do not know what I don’t know.
So I have to make a new normal for myself on what is and is not. That continues throughout the day. My new digs in the four man room are an improvement in some ways over our single cell of the maximum security facility. However that means little to no privacy either. We have a small locker next to our beds to store food and our extra clothes which really are not much as we only have state issue duds at present. So all in all, a bit different from the 2,800 square foot house that I left.
At work another inmate gave me a sheet that someone I do not know wrote some time ago how this place is a little mixed up – a different kind of normal. He entitled it “The Upside Down Kingdom” and I thought it is very appropriate:

If a prisoner isn’t careful, by the time he’s released from confinement his perception may become so warped that right appears wrong & the virtuous things appear distastefully unappealing. Anyone with half a sound mind entering a prison environment will soon discover that prisoners govern themselves by codes and rules that counter their own best interest. In prison, an arrogant man convicted of killing is respected above the intellectually sophisticated man or prisoners with moral conviction. In prison, you can’t afford to smile too broadly too often, nor dare possess a genuine friendly disposition for these behavior traits are considered unmanish and soft. You see, in prison the prisoner who displays a hateful, vengeful and vicious temperament is the one admired and notably recognized by his equally miserable peers. In prison, good men are despised while vile men are praised. Prisons are upside down kingdoms and it’s human subjects are manipulated by backward values, deviant codes and non-progressive criminal philosophies.
In prison, a prisoner is mocked and counted a traitor if he talks about his turning over a new leaf and legitimizing his life. He is ridiculed if he discloses a desire to become a faithful family man to one woman and maintain employment to provide for his household. A prisoner is frowned upon who devotes his energy toward education or acquiring vocational skills above the interest of wasting decades playing basketball or lifting weights in the yard with his dead head peers.
In prison, men are more concerned with appearing composed in the face of personal crisis than they are with being honest about their feelings or with learning to ask for help to resolve their conflicts. The average prisoner has no place for words such as love, compassion, loyalty empathy, sacrifice and commitment: according to their definition and vocabulary, these are dirty words. Networking or pooling resources together for the common good is a foreign concept and or met with suspicion and distrust. Trust, honesty, responsibility, integrity are more dirty words with no usefulness in prison – the upside down kingdom. Ideally, prisoners should fill each correctional institution’s educational classes until they are bursting at the seams. We as prisoners should engage vocational programs to where there is standing room only. If we as prisoners were working with sober, mental clarity, our prison environment could be transformed into universities of higher learning or monasteries to attain deeper insightfulness and spirituality. There exists among our ranks men with brilliant minds and high powered perceptions, men who have participated and can compete well in corporate America. Men who become so disillusioned with their peers that they’ve given up the drive to work with them.
They’ve questioned themselves – why bother, what’s the use? But as bleak as the answers to these questions may be, as educators and leaders our answer must echo the sentiments: “because we have a moral obligation to do so.” It will never be easy standing up against the forces of ignorance in the upside down kingdom. But easy or not, it is the thing that men of moral fiber are compelled to address in order to look themselves in the mirror.

I am not sure when this was written but it unfortunately still applies today. I hope as I get further into this enforced “time out” phase of my life I will be able to maybe make a change, however small, in this paradigm. Who knows, if I can bring some of my usually “normal” life into this upside down normal I might even be able to help some along the way. Wouldn’t that be great? After all, I was helped by a priest and I know I feel Jesus and the Holy Spirit helping me everyday to make required inside corrections. He has said “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So I may be able to pass it along as the movie “Pay it Forward” shows.
Anyway, much to digest. Whether upside down or inside out it is my new normal and I must learn to live with it lest I come to harm. So far so good in that respect.