THE STORE

So, I guess it doesn’t take much to derail me from being the true follower I desire to be. Since moving in the four man room I had become comfortable with life inside corrections to the point of taking advantage of my situation, just as I had on the outside prior to my offense. In other words, I was right back where I started. Now that I think about it, it sounds just like the abuse cycle we have been studying in our course work. Pretend to be normal, build up, act out, justification, repeat. I was in the first phase. Will I ever learn?

So I have been blessed many times over, especially compared to many or even most in here. With the sale of my business on the outside, I have been able to keep my daughter in college and my wife in our huge house. She even has enough to send a small amount monthly to my account so I can have a full buy at commissary every two weeks. That is more than many guys as some do not even have enough to purchase anything more than ramen soup or peanut butter. The State keeps the prices real low, supposedly at their cost, to help inmates who have very little. We do receive .15 per hour for our course work per week, figured on 30 hours, the normal work week. But that is only $ 4.50 a week. Even when ramen cost .15 each, it doesn’t allow much wiggle room, especially for smokers. Thank goodness the mess hall allows you to take out up to four slices of bread. But that is all, nothing else.

It seems some people go through their food supply before they can resupply. Their “eyes are bigger than their belly” as my dad always used too say. In actuality I have noticed very little impulse control evidenced. I have a feeling that is why we all are in here, no impulse control.

Now to the build up phase. At various times guys would wander down to the end of the hall and inquire if anyone had such and such to eat. So, being the entrepreneurial type guy I am and was on the outside, I decided to satisfy their cravings when I could. At first I joked they would have to pay me back double, as I too wanted those cookies or chips or tobacco (I don’t smoke but use for trade) or whatever. Two for one, no matter what it was. However, it became such a ritual for some that I planned my shopping around things I could “sell”, my acting out phase. This simply added to my stash to double again. Not a bad deal for me, and guys knew if they had to come all the way down to the end of the hall to get their fix on things, it would cost them. I didn’t even have to tell them, they just knew. If they wanted it that bad, they would have to pay the price. Maybe they would then learn. Yep, the justification phase.

Then I was nudged, something I couldn’t really put my finger on, but something told me I was not being the disciple I thought I was. One night while laying in repose just before sleep, I couldn’t shake the notion I was to stop my store. Was I being a good follower or just mouthing it on Sundays and at Bible Studies? Was my fruit what Christ would have wanted from someone sprouting off Him, with Him being the vine and me being one of his branches? Obviously not. I felt convicted and couldn’t sleep. I resolved to end the charade and make amends, repay much like the tax collector vowed to Jesus when confronted with his sin of overcharging his constituents in the gospels (Luke 19 v8)

It was truly amazing the first time someone came to do business and found me giving out stuff. Of course, then the flood gates were opened. I think they thought I was being a patsy, but I explained my motivation for those who would listen. Some did, many wondered and all were grateful at their new found fortune. The best thing was I was also blessed Seeing the look on some of their faces the first time it happened was priceless. Of course I then began looking at any thing else in my life where I was pushing the limits or thought of only myself, just as I had done on the outside.

What I came up with was my taking sugar out of the mess hall. Yes, stealing, one of the ten commandments we are not to do. As usual, I justified it as fodder to trade for items I liked or could use, whether from the mess hall or from packages. There were many coffee drinkers who were put out when I informed them I was out of the stealing business, something that went against my faith. I am sure some wondered why it took me so long to come to that conclusion – I did. Most were just pissed, saddened they had to find another source or go without, only thinking of themselves, just as I had been doing. But right was right and I had been so wrong, again being a smorgasborder of the faith when it worked for me.

How would I ever be an example for others inside or outside corrections when I had hidden sin? Since I had learned that all sin carries the same weight, one is no worse than another, it really didn’t matter which commandment I violated, because if I broke one, I desecrated them all. The ground is level at the cross,our Bible study leaders would admonish us, with all sinners being equally wrong in our transgressions before the Holy One. The only thing to do was repent and turn away from our wrongdoing. That is what I did, and it felt great, even better than knowing I was getting the finer end of the two for one deal. Now my customers would have that elation when they left, and I knew I was back on the road to recovery, and I could look everyone in the eye, knowing I was a better disciple for my efforts. Time to get off the abuse cycle.

I wanted to continue examining my behaviors for such transgressions, something I had not really done before, certainly not on the outside. There I was all about me and what others could do for me or my business, what I could get in return. It is amazing it had not caught up to me before this, but the Lord had other plans for me I believe. I do not think it would have stuck with me out there, not have made the impression it did inside corrections, seeing their faces and knowing I had helped someone with such a simple thing as say, giving a bag of chips.

It also returned me to my original mantra adopted after being arrested and coming to my senses: no more secrets. I wanted to be an open book, practice what I preached and continue to be so when I was on the outside after being paroled next year. What a better place to practice than with my fellow inmates who only thought about the here and now. I had not been careful and had fallen in the same thinking pattern as them when I am called, as a follower of Christ, to be better than that. It is a continual legacy we are leaving my favorite Bible teacher had said. “Bringing every thought captive” Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10 v5. I couldn’t live with one foot in the world and the other in the Kingdom of God. It just doesn’t work that way. I needed to be aware and not fall into being content or thinking I was doing alright because I was going to church and all that.

Keeping Christ with me at all times of the day and night, both feet in His kingdom, was something I found helped. If He was with me, would I really do what I was doing or saying? That was a powerful thought that began to serve me well. Otherwise I would not be able to help others avoid my pitfalls. I needed to take the plank out of my own eye before I could help my brother take the speck out of his as Mathew says in 7 v5.

So the store was closed, but my heart was opened.

A DECENT GUY

The new normal is getting old, just as it seemed to on the outside. Program, rec, sleep, repeat. Guys getting busted for porn or other infractions with free trips to the box. Repeat. Our Structure meetings on Friday afternoons do break up the program monotony as we seem to be repeating some of the earlier learned material. We go over it again because new guys are coming in to fill the vacancies left by those exiting to the box or going home.

To that end we have a decent new guy in our four man room, a Christian who I can share with and discuss many relevant issues, a big relief. He is older than most but not quite up to me. Guess I am one of the older offenders, one who never learned how to deal with his emotions early in life to avert this train wreck.

The ISOP basketball tournament is history, with us coming in second place. I thought I played well, but there were not really many ballers on the team. When I subbed out, it became more of a disaster, with guys running around not knowing what they were doing. I know more practice would have helped, but that is water over the dam right now. At least I made a good showing and that has seemed to cement my good standing with other inmates and CO’s alike. Hey, anything that helps my stay here is beneficial.
Even the new assistant superintendent took notice, though that is probably because he is from my hometown. He is a decent guy, and when I first heard his name I didn’t put two and two together, as he was a few years behind me in school. He had many brothers and one sister who was in my grade, so I am sure he knew my name. It truly was embarrassing, and I wondered if he was talking back home about my fall from grace. Only a couple of years prior to my coming inside I played on a high school alumni team with two of his brothers and a couple of cousins, winning the MVP T-shirt in a victory over other alumni. Now, here I was playing in prison for what, ISOP glory?

The summer basketball leagues are starting soon, and I am thinking of playing on a under 40 team, as I have played with many of those guys at rec and know I can stay with them. Maybe that will help with the new/old routines, The over 40 team will be guys I have met and know, not the same Muslim team of before. I wasn’t asked and their coach has left, so I felt is was time to move on. It will be interesting playing outside with new guys.

Also of note was the little excursion I took one Saturday night from the gymnasium. I went down to play, having lifted the night before and really wanting to run and play basketball, but there were not too many guys around. (maybe they had dates?) So I ended up playing with younger guys who really did not have great skills in basketball shall we say. Well, I payed the price, catching an elbow from one as he wildly tried to block my shot. Immediately I knew something was wrong when I felt something running down my cheek.

Sure enough, he had split open my left eyelid, right above my eye, the place boxers often get cut. The regular CO’s there who had seen me dozens of time just shook their heads and were angry, mainly because they had to do paperwork. Over the next few hours I had to repeat telling how it happened at least a dozen times. Other than the gym CO’s, everyone thought I was in a fight. The regulars had seen me play so often, even in the tournament, they attested it was just “an old guy doing his thing, which he shouldn’t have been doing, getting what he deserved.” Yes they said that. Then the sergeant quizzed me, then the infirmary personnel, the CO’s who volunteered to drive me to the hospital (as the infirmary did not have qualified personnel to stitch me up properly) and the nurses at the hospital. Long story short, it took roughly five hours for me to return with seven stitches. The two CO’s who transported me and ‘guarded’ me at the hospital were discussing if they should take me back before their shift ended at 11:00 or get some overtime and wait, as if they could control it. I just stayed on a bed, waiting to get someone to examine me and hopefully get me some ice, which I had requested when I first got there but never did receive. It was just another showing of how inmates don’t rate, inside or out.

Once back at Mid-State, a new CO on the night shift, one I didn’t know, drove me back up to my dorm. He must have known I liked to play as he cautioned me, not yelling or even talking down to me, that even though I was a good player, to save it for the outside, do my bid and leave whole, as these guys are animals in here and could hurt me worse that I got. I was a little surprised at that as I truly thought my injury was an accident, but I got the sense he knew what he was talking about. Then he drove me up to the sex offender dorm, not a coveted place to live, but again no judgment on his part. Heck, he even had me ride up front in the van, something I never saw anyone do before. Usually inmates ride in back behind the wire mesh grating. Quite a change from my interaction at Fishkill when I received a little scrape during summer league play there.

I was just coming off the outdoor court after a win and headed back to the dorm when a CO in the bubble called me over. Thinking I was in some sort of trouble I went in. He greeted me with “nice game”, then asked where I received the cut on my forehead. I didn’t even know I had one. I joked I must have hit it on the rim and kind of touched his arm jokingly and he smiled. It didn’t last long as his sergeant had come up at the end of our talk and saw me touch him. Immediately the CO turned away from me and concentrated on his paperwork documenting my injury while the sergeant lit into me with the “who do you think you are” routine, threatening me with striking an officer and being out of line and many other things I don’t remember, ending with I don’t ever want to see your face in here again.
My head had immediately gone down as did my spirits from the good game. He wouldn’t let me look at him anyway and told me so. After conferring with the CO, he finally gave me a pass to go back to my dorm as movement had ended before his tirade did. As I left, I saw part of the reason he was showboating, a rookie female officer was tagging along behind him.

So when this Mid-State officer took time to consul me, it felt ‘normal’, as one older guy to another. It truly was amazing, after so much of the abuse I had witnessed between inmates or inmates and CO’s. There are actually caring people inside corrections, real ones, decent ones, and I had just met one.

ON HIS PATH

Things have been going fairly well, with the program work humming along, life in the dorm tolerable, and as I get used to this new normal, life inside corrections passes fairly quickly and easily. It is difficult to explain that last idea, as being in here is not my number one thing to do, but it is showing me so many things I need to work on, namely myself and making the time pass. It used to seem to drag until I got into the ISOP.

The work continually humbles me, showing me what a prideful man I am and was when I committed my IO. No hiding that fact. I was thinking only about me and my well being, not looking at the big picture of my life and family, least of all my Maker. Here, I have not only the time to do that looking, but help in doing so by way of the counselors. The homework assigned as well as that we cover in class points us to answers for a better me. All I need to do is continue to train in such a way as to put others before me. After all, that is just what Jesus lived and taught and wants us to do as well, hence the acronym JOY – Jesus, Others, Yourself. Oh that others in here might do the same, but then that is their problem, though it affects me with their shenanigans.

Fortunately I was moved not too long ago to a four man room down the end of the hallway. It is great as no one just walks down here (usually) because there is no exit past our room, so they have to have a reason to venture down here making our room a bit safer, and hence, us. My roomies are pretty low key guys, no drama, with one going home next month. I enjoy conversations with a couple of them, though it is usually surface type discussions, nothing too deep. I’ve tried to bring up my beliefs and feelings about finding hope in Jesus as a guiding light in my life, but they seem to echo many others in telling me they are happy it works for me, but it isn’t for them. I later think I need to tell them I didn’t work with an ‘it’ but rather a who, Jesus, and maybe that would help them if they tried that instead of an it. But they wave me off before I can get any traction, so for now I let it slide. At least they know where I stand and aren’t sneaking up on me at night or causing any problems by day.

The league basketball is over for me right now, and we are actually getting ready for a ISOP tournament where dorms play other ISOP dorms for the ‘delight’ of all program guys. It is a mandatory event, something that is supposed to foster team building and camaraderie amongst all, hence all must participate in some way, on the court or in the stands. My league play kept me in great shape for this, as most of the other guys are a bit lacking in physical endurance. Fortunately we have numbers on our side, many guys. We have had practice a little during evening rec, but some chose not to do so as they would rather go to the yard where they can smoke than give that up to practice. I don’t hold much hope unless the other dorms face the same dilemma. Time will tell as we have till the middle of next week to form a cohesive unit. Unfortunately I am the tallest, so that makes me their center.

I do not mind playing that position, but that usually means you play with your back to the basket. I spent a great deal of time in high school, college and after perfecting facing the basket moves, but after a little practice it comes back. I had to do both on my league team, as the center we had often was in foul trouble. That team had played together at least two years and had never made the playoffs before I showed up, so all of us were pleased to make it to the semi-finals. I was surprised, by that time in the schedule, to find so many who were still out of shape. Of course the most common suspect was smoking. I have always prided myself on endurance and was rewarded with usually playing the whole 40 minutes, often because no one else was willing to go hard, or couldn’t, for the entire game. Regardless, we all seemed to part friends despite our religious differences.

So now I use my evening time for recreational basketball, working out, or attending my Bible studies. My days are filled with program work, my evenings are filled with those activities, so time seems to fly by quickly, with Friday coming too quickly. I say that because it seems to drag on the weekend, mainly because of no schedule. That is why I dislike weekends, quite the opposite of being on the outside I must say.

Unless I know I will have a visit, I have nothing to look forward to and often spend Saturday afternoon in the yard walking the dirt track mindlessly thinking of things to mentally escape. A couple of times on either weekend day I have been called to the yard CO shack to be notified I have a visit. Those are the surprise ones, friends I didn’t know were going to bless me, as I usually know when my wife or brother are coming and hang around in the dorm. Sundays after church is also a drag, even more so as most do not like to go out Sunday evening, probably because they want to rest up for Monday. With over 1200 guys here you’d think someone would want to do something besides watch television or smoke in the yard. Guess the latter is why I can stock up on good food and treats from the mess hall.

I still trade rollies for food, usually the rare fruit – apples, oranges or bananas, heck even prunes though most guys give me all of those I want for free – and even the ¼ chicken we get on occasion, usually twice a month. I also try to trade with guys getting packages, as when their own smokes run out I am a good source for their addiction and they are more than willing to trade away even a coffee cake or chocolate dixie cup of ice cream to satisfy their needs. After all, I am still trying to gain back some of the 25 pounds I  lost since first arriving.

I must say also, my spiritual work has helped my mental state a great deal. I now have that hope in Christ that offers eternal life in Him, far more than the freedom on earth provides. Sometimes, when in repose, I think about my new beliefs and scriptures will pop in my head, usually relaxing me and helping me know He is with me, such a wonderful feeling I must say. To think I am on the right path makes it all the more rewarding, and also helps the time go by as I work toward that payday of parole release next year. It is also quite humbling,something I need, to know the Maker of heaven and earth not only thinks of me, but forgives me even when I cannot.

While my wife is non-committal on everything right now, I think it is partly because we do not know what will really happen next spring and can only hope. I know what I would like to happen and know it will take a good deal of work on both our parts to put our marriage back together again. Rebuilding that broken trust will take time, the same time that is flying by now, and a continued effort to remain on His straight and narrow path. As the Scriptures say in Matthew 7 v 13-14, …”..for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in there. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” My goal is clear, to stay on His path.

TRAIN ON

Limping along, I continue to train in His ways, learning a myriad number of corrections that need to be made along the way, from the program, institution as well as on the court. I am thankful He is patient, or a term the Bible uses I like better in this case, long suffering. I picture God waiting patiently for me to return to Him, much like the prodigal son, and suffering because I am so slow to learn and don’t quickly get the point, even often for a long time. I know I must follow this path if I want to get through this program and make my first board next March. Not easy, and there are many naysayers, but that is the goal I am working towards.

I am learning new things daily from the counselors in the program. Cycles of behavior, things to look for and things to avoid to prevent re-offending. Often it is basic information presented in a way that makes us look at ourselves in a different light, even from our victim’s point of view. Of course each counselor is different in their discussing these things and leading us to a clearer vision. And while we are to focus on ourselves and not others, certain findings have affected our trust level of those instructing us.

For example, the lone male adviser had a wife and three young children we found out. Yet he decided to leave them and take up with someone he spent more time with: a younger, single female counselor in our program. And have a baby with her. Yet they are qualified, in the DOCS system, to instruct us on appropriate conduct, offender free actions, and owing our behaviors. Many discussed their hypocrisy rather than program material, and I could understand their point. The old ‘do as I say not as I do’ mentality does not sit well with many of my program mates. It was a hot topic back in the dorm most days. It was also why little respect is often shown them in class as well as during the Friday in-dorm program meetings, with side conversations, ridicule and sarcasm abounding.

It seems that type of inexcusable behavior is normal inside corrections with the CO’s as well. Tales of guards getting caught having oral sex performed on them by counselors or staff are well documented and even esteemed by some. I knew some indiscretions occurred as I had found back at Fishkill when I replaced the grievance clerk because of his affairs with a female officer. So nothing surprises me anymore, especially when I see CO’s show favoritism and rule breaking allowances toward some and harshness and even cruelty to others. I know the hierarchy and respect them even when they don’t deserve it, as that is what the Bible teaches in many places and forms, respecting those in authority. I have learned so much more about such things after my many Bible studies which delve into these topics. Oh that the CO’s would read and understood them as well. Not easy to always follow, but necessary, else chaos would rule. (although it seems it already does)

I am actually blessed in the supervision department as well as the CO who oversaw the call-out office where I worked those first few weeks here was a decent guy who actually liked me I thought,or at least was civil and treated me like a person and not just an inmate or number as so many do. In ISOP, there are the same regular officers most days. The other day one called me aside and asked me where I got that good jump shot he had heard about. I said something about God giving me a talent, but he said he and others had heard about it. I had never seen him before the program, so I knew they had their communication network just like the inmates did. Fortunately it was for good and not for evil. It seemed to me he backed off me after that, not giving much mind.

On the court, I also learned there were certain unwritten rules. The inmate referees had their own axes to grind I found, and used the opportunity to express themselves, shall we say, to their advantage. I continue to keep my head down and don’t comment to others – ref’s, CO’s or counselor by the way – about their behavior. But on the court, grudges seemed to be held. Maybe because I was in a sex offender dorm and program. Maybe because I was white and over 50% of the inmates in the DOCS State facilities were black. Maybe because we were winning and beating their friend’s team. Maybe a thousand other reasons. That is why I was ecstatic to find out civilians were officiating the playoffs which we were now in.

Daily life presents constant opportunities for me to show my new found faith – and way of being. As Rick Warren says in the first sentence of his book Purpose Driven Life, it is not about me. Since first reading that book I have attempted and trained to make that evident, though I seem to count the failures more than the successes. I just finished reading that book, having taken it out on loan from the Prison Fellowship meetings I had just started attending. In the program, I contribute but keep my mouth shut when I, in the past, would have made sarcastic remarks in the guise of being funny. Or in the dorm, keep my mouth shut when I could gloat or brag about my accomplishments of the past, or even of my work inside. After all, I reasoned, the only reason I was safe and hadn’t been beat up like other sex offenders was because of God’s protection, not of my own doing. I really had no other explanation. It definitely is not about me I had to remember.

So I feel if I can do the corrections in here, I can do them anywhere. Train, train, train. Once again, practice makes progress, not perfection.