THE PROGRAM

The other thing that happened on Saturday was a total dorm clean-up, a regular feature here in the ISOP program I understand. First, the task leaders of the dorm, a part of the inmate governing body called Structure, assigned chores for everyone, from cleaning toilets and bathroom areas to day room and the outside covered porch where the smokers go. Everything was supposed to be cleaned, though some people’s definition of clean was different from mine.

The other thing that happened on Saturday was a total dorm clean-up, a regular feature here in the ISOP program I understand. First, the task leaders of the dorm, a part of the inmate governing body called Structure, assigned chores for everyone, from cleaning toilets and bathroom areas to day room and the outside covered porch where the smokers go. Everything was supposed to be cleaned, though some people’s definition of clean was different from mine.

I had grown up cleaning, whether it was in the house, cow barns or farm equipment. If my brother and I didn’t do an acceptable job for my father, we got to do it again, so I learned the hard way to do it properly the first time. It actually was a good thing as I carried it over through college and on to my future adult life in the many apartments and later houses I occupied. So cleaning here inside corrections was not such a big deal. After all, I lived here too, and as with most things I do, I take pride in doing a good job.

So, Monday came and the counselors came and we didn’t have to go anywhere, only to the large day room. They sat with us in a very large circle where all of us looked at each other. Since there were over 40 guys, some kind of sat behind the main circle. They were ones who had been in the program and us newbies, about 10 of us, had to introduce ourselves to everyone. Where we were from, our instant offense (our crime that brought us here), what we wanted to accomplish in the program and lastly, one special thing about ourselves or what we liked to do.

There were two counselors and one psychologist heading up the group, though the latter didn’t spend much time in the dorm, rather his main function was in the classroom. Turns out they worked with our dorm as other similar counselors worked with the other two dorms in the building, usually at the same time as our conferences. The counselors covered the basic rules once again as well as what to expect in the months to come. Our journey through the program would culminate with our self assessment and explanation of our instant offense, all explained in our story which would be read in a small group which included the psychologist assigned to us. No one, including me, was looking forward to that task, which probably accounted for the several moans and groans from the audience. Many inmates had been in the group for some time and were well advanced in the program, some almost ready to finish up and leave.

So here I was, among the other newbies once again, ready to do whatever it took to get out and get ready for my parole hearing next year in March. To successfully have credibility there I would need to complete the program, so I was all ears. Obviously others didn’t care, as they joked and clowned around behind the backs of the counselors and at every chance they could.

The counselors then began to introduce the new leaders of the Structure group that would lead us inmates, a process they renewed every two to three weeks or so. That way many people would get an opportunity to be on the so called governing board of the dorm and have a say, hopefully learning some skills along the way and not just abuse of power. There were more than just the community leader and his two co-leaders. There was an creative energy director, librarian, task leaders, and historian, each performing their special functions, I was told, and had obvious obligations that went with the office.

The community leader would run the meeting, using his two subordinates when he wanted to turn a topic over to them for discussion or leadership, or if a vote was required, the three of them could decide the outcome.

The creative energy director planned activities for our Friday meeting in the dorm sessions as well as any outside ones we may have by ourselves or with other groups, all done in conjunction with the counselors of course.

The librarian brought information on books and articles that might prove helpful in our necessary and periodic writing required in the program as well as managed the in-dorm mini-library.

The task leaders called us to meeting and attempted to keep guys in line, handing out writing punishments or the equivalent when they deemed it necessary. They also oversaw the cleaning in the dorms, assigning groups for each task and guidelines as they saw fit as well as approving all our work. You guessed it, the newbies start out on the cleaning crews, either mopping or washing floors, cleaning the bathrooms, or dusting and cleaning in the day room or any other part of the dorm.

The historian chronicled our meetings and acted like a secretary, though I think the name was picked as no one wanted to have a girlie title. He would also bring in relevant information from past meetings or outside information should he find any.

The counselors would oversee the whole thing but it appeared they let things run there course unless things really got out of hand or someone seemed to abuse their power, as was evident, I was told, with certain community leaders. The whole purpose of this hierarchy was to mimic societal governing bodies and give us all a taste of what it was like to be in various roles with varying amounts of authority. I suppose the counselors wanted to prepare us for the outside world where we would be subjugated to such power from others and give us a taste of the outside while inside, especially since most all of us would be on parole for some time once we left.

Even though over 50% of all State inmates were illiterate by DOCS statistics I had read, that did not mean they were stupid. So I did not mention to anyone my leadership background at this time, though I knew the counselors knew from my rap sheet and records. After all, they had degrees in street education that I lacked, and many had prison credentials that in here would trump any sheepskin I possessed.

So the meeting had an abbreviated schedule because of all the other changes going on today, but we were assured this Friday’s meeting would be back to normal. We broke for lunch and were told to report to the program building after lunch.

On the way to lunch some of my roommates gave me a quick overview of what would happen there – discussions of topics the counselors might bring up and other “boring” stuff they would relate. As a note we were called to the mess hall by dorm location and could walk there without escorts, though there were CO’s all along the walkway, always in sight of each other should they be needed. Once inside the hall, we went through a cafeteria type line, served food by other inmates who were supervised by a civilian, and sat by dorm at tables directed by a CO as he filled up the room of large tables. In this facility we were allowed real silverware, though upon leaving we had to show our fork and spoon to a CO prior to putting them in a dishpan. It sure made it easier to eat over the plastic ware we had in other facilities. We could leave when finished and didn’t have to wait for the entire dorm, another change from previous locations. However, we couldn’t take too long eating as other dorms came in and the room would fill up again, necessitating free space for them. Other than the quality of the food, it wasn’t a bad system – for prison.

So it was back to our ‘home’ and get ready for the “On the Program” shout from our dorm CO when we would all trudge out to our program in another building about a quarter of a mile away along a similar walkway many other inmates took to get various places. Some were going to the education building for GED classes or to assist there as teacher’s assistants, TA’s. Other service work assignments like my transitional service or grievance work necessitated inmate help. Some were coming back from food service duty, done till evening meal. There actually were several occupational classes held here at Mid State such as landscaping, welding, carpentry, plumbing and electrical, horticulture, and small engine repair which usually filled quickly from the over 1200 inmates here. So the walkway was a busy place, where much ‘business’ occurred.

As I went off to our program session, I wondered where God was in all this.

UP & DOWN

A small victory came on Friday, while also bringing with it a degree of angst. I was shuttled off to the 12 man room but assigned to a bottom bunk. So good and bad all rolled into one, up then down!. There was another hooper in this room who knew me from the court, so that made it a little better as he announced OT was okay. When the CO called me to the bubble with a couple other inmates, I didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately it was all just relocation within the dorm.

I also received a note in that evening’s mail that I had won the grievance on my lost bag of items – not the recent one but my bag of items denied when I first arrived was sent home, or at least I thought it was. I should say, it was supposed to be, but I have a feeling the inmates working there helped themselves to most of the items and sent them home all right – to their home. The CO in charge had no explanation when I brought a grievance against him and the department. I had the paper of what they kept and were supposed to return. I also had my wife swearing nothing was returned. Turns out when the grievance department investigated, the facility had no record of anything sent out either. It only left one outcome available – repay me for the lost items. I needed a receipt for most items especially the expensive hoodie sent in, and fortunately my wife could supply a charge card receipt. The value of the other items was estimated, so I was informed the grievance hearing, which I did not even have to attend since it was pretty cut and dry, had found in my favor and I would be awarded the amount of the missing items. Guess my time in the grievance office and working with claims had paid off. So another up.

However, I knew my present grievance had little chance of success as no one person could be pinpointed. Plus it was my word against everyone else – the facility, grievance department, all other inmates, everyone. Was I now one of those “frequent fliers”, always grieving something? In reality I was most concerned about my radio and glasses, so another down.
To get my original pair of specs I had to go to medical to have them evaluate me for glasses. Unfortunately, that is only done twice a month when the optometrist visits the facility. So that meant getting up before 6:00 AM to go to medical and sign up for his next visit. Then I had to wait for the all important call out for that examination. I then had to again get up and down to medical by 6:00 AM to wait in line till called for my exam. When I had accomplished all that, I sat in front of a machine with dials and lenses that looked to be one out of the Smithsonian. Anyway, he confirmed I needed glasses and said good-bye. After about two or three weeks they finally arrived. Another 6 AM trip to pick them up, ones I really only used to read. I had actually used cheap ‘cheaters’ on the outside. Inside corrections, one pair is paid for by DOCS, the rest are on you. And no, you cannot have them sent in from the outside. Why? Because DOCS said so. So I would have to begin the process all over again. More down.

As for my radio, I had ordered it from a catalog approved by DOCS. It was a clear plastic transistor radio right out of 1960. Every electronic item – radio, CD player, clippers, typewriters, anything, had to be clear plastic so CO’s could check and make sure nothing illegal like a weapon could be housed inside. They could also check the item to be sure it was not tampered with in any way. I had also ordered a special headset with volume controls, but they were rejected at intake here at Mid State and were in that missing bag that was not sent home. Luckily someone had some unused ear buds they gave me, so I could listen again with pleasure up until I moved and lost it.

Music has always been a big deal with me, both vocal and instrumental.
I had sung in junior and high school chorus, been in the church choir since grade school, even sung and played in a couple of rock and roll bands. I was in the marching band and orchestra in high school and also played a short stint in a community orchestra. I loved music. I even took one semester of piano in college, trying the bass fiddle for a bit and even trying to learn the violin, an instrument my mother had played when younger. However the lessons for the latter were ultra expensive and I was very busy with college sports to keep it up. But the love of music stuck with me throughout my life, so listening to the radio and the various musical programs and talk shows was great. I was fortunate to have that radio at work back in Fishkill’s Grievance Department, but was not allowed to take my radio anywhere out of the dorm there or here. Long story short, I missed my radio. Now this is where I once again discovered how God works.

I was walking the walkway to the gym on Saturday afternoon when I noticed the friend I had often weight lifted with in the outside weight area at Fishkill. I guess I was kind of down and when asked the cause, explained to him my lost bag and content story. He surprised me when he said he’d look into it. Not really knowing what that meant but feeling uplifted that someone cared enough to lift my spirits even with a false promise I bounced into the gym for some pick up basketball. Buoyed by the possibilities, even slim ones, I played well, then went back to the dorm. Up and down.

On the way, a couple of guys I knew asked why I was talking to that guy on the way down to rec. I explained and they then explained he was the leader of the Latin Kings, one of the notorious gangs inside corrections. Right, I said, picturing the leader of the Latin Kings to be someone taller, bigger and meaner than my friend. But then I remembered he told me back when we talked in Fishkill how he knew martial arts and had beaten back four cops who were trying to subdue him before two more had to shock him multiple times to stop him, the crime that landed him here. Hmmm, maybe there was some truth to that rumor.

So in the yard on Sunday, a place I liked to go even in cold weather just to look at the uninterrupted sky and breath fresh air, I saw him in the outside weight pit where he motioned me over from my walking laps. He started walking and talking with me, telling me he thought he had found my radio, and that it he could get it back for a brick. (a brick was a pack of cigarettes) My glasses that I was worried about were long gone, probably a banger or shiv by now (weapons) as were any cooking items.
I was stunned. He knew the guy who had stolen my bag and now was extorting money from me for him? It was my radio, and I deserved it back. He said the guy who had done it didn’t know who’s bag it was and that he himself intervened when I had told him my story the other day. He added, think about it and let him know. I knew one reason the guy probably wanted to get rid of the stolen property was because it had my ID number on it, a ticket for sure should he be caught with it in his possession. The only person he could sell it to was me.

I returned to the dorm and spoke with a couple of guys who not only knew my lost bag story but who knew my friend was as well. We all understood there was no going to the authorities or grieving it. Right or wrong it was prison justice. They were just surprised he even bothered to help me with the whole thing. It sure didn’t seem right to me, paying twice for something that was already mine which I could prove. And a brick was not that easy to come by, something that I would have to buy on commissary or have someone bring in a package.

Talk about an education. It was an interesting situation, like nothing I had ever been involved in before. God seemed to be working even when I was not, or rather even when I couldn’t. Why was I again trying to take control and do it all myself? All I did was make it definitely more up and down.

ISOP

Talk about culture shock. It was a big one just getting this far inside corrections. Now I was placed into a dorm of all sex offenders with all types of mental abilities or lack thereof labeled the Intensive Sex Offender Program. I was not really used to constantly being around people who were not always playing with a full deck, so daily involvement with some would be interesting to say the least. Of course I am sure many if not most were wondering the same about me.

By far the oldest guy in the dorm I guess I was a little put off by the young lads rifling through my belongings when I arrived. With the counselors there and not really controlling their actions kind of told me what I was in for. After we all were accepted in, a general meeting was held in a large room called the day room which also housed the lone television, microwave and toaster. The counselors went over the rules and what to expect. We were told they ran a tight ship and expected us to all tow the line, else we would be expelled, loose our good time, and could even earn that free trip to the SHU. (Special housing unit, also known as the box or solitary) We would eat together, go to program together and do activities together. Get used to one another they said.

Beds were expected to be made daily and have a quarter bounce off them. We were not to get under the covers except at night, with all program homework completed before any recreational or television time. Under no circumstances were we to posses any pornography, something I felt was evident. How or why would one want to get it inside corrections anyway? Then they added there would be no photographs of children except approved ones, and even then, not posted or hung up in rooms. This bothered me in a way, but I understood. Mine were both over 18 so I felt not really affected. There were some other minor regulations, but others would be covered on Monday the 7th when we would be matriculated in and programs would be resuming for others. Be honest, be real and the program will help you they advised. Otherwise, it will be a waste of time for all.

We were showed our rooms, a six or 12 man one. I lucked out in the six man one, and not surprisingly I was again assigned the top bunk. Here we go again. I had not even heard back on my first request from the last dorm and was again put in the awful position on the top steel platform, where any movement made by either bunk bed party was felt by the other. When I groaned at climbing up, guys reminded me I was in prison and didn’t matter to anyone, better get used to it. Of course they were right.

Out in the day room guys were congregating and talking, some watching television. All of the sudden the dorm CO yelled out my name. Surprised and anxious I went to the ‘bubble’ or room where he was housed to inquire. He asked if I was going to be a troublemaker, or “one of those type of guys”. I really had no clue what he was talking about so I said no. He said I better not be. Then he handed me a pass and was told to report to Ms. Sowich in building 1 where I worked.

It was late morning by the time I made it there, relieved I was not headed somewhere else. Turns out my fellow co-worker in the call-out office was having computer problems and the CO there had contacted my boss to get the job done and out as it was late, hence her SOS to me. Still a bit shaken at how everything was going that morning, I took a look and after rebooting the computer, managed to get corrections made. The CO approved the list, then remarked that maybe my co-worker should go back to the paper cut and paste method he had done before, as this type of tardiness from the department would not be tolerated. I was going to explain I was not involved anymore, but decided to simply give the old “yes sir” response.

I returned and went over a few more basic things with my fellow worker and some tips on correcting any future snags like the one he had experienced. I guess he really didn’t understand it all as he previously indicated he had, or maybe I went too fast, so I printed up some blank lists he could copy and write on to help separate and visualize each individual organization and department on the call-out list. About that time, just before lunch call back to our dorms, an angry Ms. Sowich came and explained I would be returning there until I started on Monday because this type of work would not be tolerated, so whatever the problem was it needed to be fixed. That would be fine with me as there was nothing else to do with my time until then really, and I didn’t care to sit around the dorm. Guess the poop was really running downhill.

After lunch, before returning to work, I lay on my top bunk reflecting on my day so far. Lost bag containing my radio, glasses, cooking stuff and who knows what else. Loss of several food items upon moving into a ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ type environment where I was given another top bunk assignment, only to be called out by an angry CO to go back to work where an angry CO greeted me before my angry boss finished me off. I cried on that top bunk of my new six man room, not just for lost items but also for all the losses I had caused and experienced. It was a good cry.

Somehow the thought that this must be the kind of times St. Paul was talking about in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 when he said “in every thing give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you,” came to me, as did what James writes in 1: 3-4 that “knowing this testing of your faith produces perseverance, and let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Today’s activities show me I have a long way to go. Hopefully I will make the necessary inside corrections to emulate those righteous saints. Otherwise, no telling what might happen without any hope of a better life inside or out.

WRITE A GRIEVANCE

It is said, and I believe, “there is no honor among thieves.” From my experience, there is none between criminals inside corrections as well, no matter their crime. Given an opportunity, people revert, it seems, to their default position – lying, cheating, stealing, putting themselves before others (especially God), taking advantage of others, whatever.

The end of the year was coming quickly and my new job, hardly a month old, was also coming to an end. Ms Sowich promised me my job back when I got out of the program, whenever that would be, so that was some relief. But I truly was ecstatic about my fortune of getting so quickly into the program, and hopefully on the track to getting back home, righting the ship I had so badly keeled over, and getting on with my life.

I was feeling so happy that on New Year’s Eve, not a big holiday inside corrections anyway, I once again heard my name to “pack up.” By now I had accumulated some stuff, not only food, but some dishes and cooking implements as well as many more clothes. My wife and I had finally figured out the system of what was and was not allowed so we would stop the postal merry-go-round of getting something sent in only to get it sent back because it was the wrong color, style, had logos or initials on it, or some other reason causing it to be returned. I had also been journaling quite a bit since emerging from the fuzz of meds, even before as best I could. It is a therapeutic way for me to create a record and means of tracking the history and measuring changes, hopefully progress, through my “epic” journey inside. I write dreams, opinions, nudgings from the Holy Spirit, happenings almost too unreal to believe and just random thoughts. I found a sense of relief writing down these things as it released them from my memory thereby lightening my load as the baggage I carry is enough. I even, at times, contemplated a book culled from all of this that might enlighten others and perhaps guide their path away from the pitfalls I have had. (Prison For Dummies anyone?) This too, I feel, is a prodding from the Holy Spirit, to use my light provided my none other than Christ Himself, to shine brightly for others, not hidden under job, family, fears or other “baskets” that I, in a weakened state, use as an excuse to hinder others view. But I digress.

I had still managed to accumulate four gunny bags full of stuff. Of course one was mainly books and other reading material, a second cooking pans and items, reading glasses and radio with ear buds. Another was mainly food as I had just received my money and finally had a commissary buy and used all $ 40.00 to my advantage. The other two were a mixture of clothes, state issue blanket, sheets and a towel, plus my Bible. So when the call came, I madly stuffed everything inside and readied for my move. If you are lucky, you get a mate or someone you know, as well as you know anyone inside, to assist. Interestingly, few stepped up. Actually, no one did, so I would have to make two trips. I knew no one wanted to get any closer to those sex offender program dorms than they had to for fear of reprisals even though in a month or two or ten they would most likely end up there, the nature of this particular facility. There comes a separation when certain truths are uncovered in life, where some people, not being able to understand or accept differences whatever they may be, distance themselves from those of opposing views/beliefs/circumstances. It happens all the time in here, and on the outside as well.

It happens in politics all the time. Red state, blue state, dyes of the aisle. At a party or gathering you hear someone espousing views to which you disagree and you detach yourself even if only mentally from that person or group. Similarly, religion can cause riffs in people, even families. Once one is born again or revived in their relationship with Christ – what religion is all about really in my mind – a parting from others may need to be endured. Even in sports guys especially slide to the side of a fan of their favorite team while shunning a hated foe. They are not even ON the team or profiting from it, yet simply because they wear the colors of the “other side” they are hated. I won’t even get into the distancing of yellow, red, gray, black or other gang colors because again I digress.

So there I was, four sacks of stuff quickly thrown together and guys scattering everywhere going to their morning programs, avoiding me as if I was a leper. Well actually, to them I was. They may have felt if they went to that special program dorm – a whole scarlet letter in itself – that they may get branded themselves.

Just a week earlier I had helped a guy move there on my way to work, carrying two of his bags thinking I wanted to get a better look at where I was heading. We both heard cat calls on the way there such as diaper snatcher, rapo, predator and others I do not want to mention. Fortunately I could leave while he had to stay.

There were actually four dorms for SO’s, two on the first floor and two on the second. They looked just like all the other dorms, but then, I was only in there a few seconds and had to leave to get to work before movement stopped or risk a ticket. No tickets, my mentor had cautioned if I wanted to leave early with all my good time. Any infraction would sacrifice some of that time making my release date further down the road, something I wanted to avoid at all costs.

So I had to take my bags downstairs as my house was closing and everyone had to get out. I struggled taking two trips, asking for help from the downstairs guys who reacted with similar hostility when they found out where I was going. Even a trip to the box seemed preferable. So I placed the bags near the downstairs outside door where I asked the CO monitoring movement if he could watch them for me. My first mistake.

I got an ear full from him about cluttering up his hallway, causing others to gawk and mill about which actually only served to alert everyone that I was moving and couldn’t take all my stuff in one trip. Thanks a lot. Some guy volunteered to watch them for me, saying he was destined to move there next week. He kind of looked familiar, but I was in a bind so I consented. Second mistake.

I dragged a bag in each hand about a quarter of a mile away to my new, upstairs dorm and deposited them inside the door asking if they would be safe there. Yes, replied a counselor who was welcoming other lucky soles with me. I explained about my other baggage and rushed back to retrieve them before movement was over, not running of course, as that is not allowed.

To my surprise – not really – the guy was gone and so was one of my bags. No one in the area knew what had happened to either one, the guy or the bag, and the hall CO rained down the typical “who do you think you are” speech, then told me to get a move on before movement was over. As to my missing bag, I got the usual “write a grievance”. What was it the fox said as he ate the gingerbread man as he carried him across the swollen river? After all, I am a fox. They are thieves, putting their needs and desires above all, profiting off someone else.

So I sulked back to my new dorm, wondering what I had just “donated” to the system once again. Inside the dorm, it seemed as if I was leaving the frying pan for the fire. Inmates were collecting newcomers bags and dumping them out on tables to go through per and under the direction of the counselors. “Oh, can’t have this,” said one inmate as he put a book aside. “Lost something” said another as he helped himself to some cookies from an open bag. I winced knowing I had an open bag of chips and cookies and who knows what else.

Soon my turn came and they emptied out my stuff. I watched out of the corner of my eye while telling the nearest counselor about my lost bag. She suggesting filing a grievance, surprise, surprise. Then she began asking me about my crime and what brought me here. While this was going on I noticed not only other inmates going through and helping themselves to my food but also what they did not uncover. Obviously my radio was gone. All my cooking stuff as well as a couple of journals plus my reading glasses. You would think getting the latter back would be easy, but not inside corrections. Later when telling my new home dorm CO about my lost bag and lost glasses predicament, I go the usual “write a grievance.”

So I knew what I was in for all ready. But my radio! I had only just received it a few weeks earlier while in Fishkill and enjoyed it so much. News, sports, weather, NPR programming and more, all connections to the outside world I left and made me feel “normal.” I thought maybe it might turn up because all electronic property had to have the inmates DIN number (department identification number) inscribed on it by the facility personnel.

The inmates finally finished going through my stuff and just laughed when I suggested my lost bag contents timely return. They echoed the counselor and CO, write a grievance.

So my good fortune getting into the proper facility, then quickly into the program had an auspicious start, that was for sure. But then, where was my faith? Proverbs says if you faint in time of adversity, you faith is weak. Well, guess I am no Charles Atlas in the faith department at this point. I prayed it would get better and that God would provide me the strength to carry on and do good for His glory. Is it any wonder God wants us to focus on Him, forsaking all others, even ourselves just as Jesus did, not even thinking of Himself but dying for us and covering our sins? What a role model for me and others to follow. Do it and all else seems not to matter.
Meantime, I had to live the reality of what was now. Welcome to the ISOP. Certainly no honor among thieves here. For all the good it would do this time – my word against who? – I wrote a grievance.