THE NEW LAST YEAR

Things have progressed toward my finish line, so much so that I have trouble remembering all of them. Several people visited me again during the holidays, yet nothing stands out. Well, with the exception of my wife’s visit which told me a great deal of what NOT to expect when I return. She had taken her wedding band off and was a bit standoffish, something I understand but did not want. My daughter and son also visited at separate times, such a great time each. And yet I go on, day to day inside corrections as if this will be my life from now on. Quite crazy to say the least.

I have heard about a re-entry program one of the other facilities is running geared specifically for guys from Rochester where I committed my instant offense. It sounds like a great program that I could benefit from greatly, as it centers on getting your life together for re-entry so you succeed and not come back, something far too many guys seem to do. It would mean leaving this honor dorm, my cushy life facilitating and doing resume work helping guys here that are about to renter, but it might help get me ready and prepared me for my new life outside corrections.

It’s amazing really how I have grown used to this life. Maybe it’s the peace I have with everything. Or maybe it’s knowing that sometime this year, most probably in November, I will finally be released. Whatever the reason, I go on with everything as if I were on the outside, except I know I am not in control of my life. It may be that giving up control over everything, as one has to in here, has made it easier to give up all to God as I attempt to do. Regardless, I work, play, worship and simply enjoy life as I go. Oh sure, guys are getting beat up around me. It’s a wonder I haven’t in so many ways. Most are SO’s, and some ref’s as I mentioned before. And there are always the gang fights that result in beat downs and cuttings. We also have had more self mutilations of late where guys will cut themselves. Then we are locked down while the haz mat guys come in to clean up the mess.

Unfortunately I witnessed the tail end of one such occurrence when I returned early from the yard one evening. Blood everywhere and the offender screaming loudly, nothing I care to see again. I guess matriculating OMH guys into general pop isn’t going as someone planned, with more such happenings and fights as a result.

But I have been spared from all it seems, blessed beyond simple understanding. Oh that these blessings would continue to my board in March, but I feel they will hit me simply because of my impending CR in November. Regardless, I plod along, helping all I can while here, knowing eventually my time will come to also be released.

My good friend, probably my only real friend, William is being released in May. He is very happy but reserved, as this is his second time here, having come back on a parole violation from his first bid. He knows the game, but despite that, has been beaten in his dorm of late. He spent a short time in the infirmary, but then returned none the worse for wear. It is such a shame guys get away with that, but I guess the authorities are too busy to be concerned with small altercations, especially when they involve sex offenders. Plus I guess they feel it serves as a warning for others, that everyone is a potential target, so be on guard, something that then makes their job easier.

Someone asked me what I focus on besides my spiritual work, which in actuality takes a good deal of my time, and I simply said surviving. I have planned produce purchases with guys who grow gardens this year, but mostly I do not plan too far ahead, not knowing exactly what will transpire. William’s situation has taught me that. Also, the Biblical story of the rich man planning on building new barns in Luke 12 v 14-21 has reminded me not to get too far ahead of myself, especially with material things, as none of us are promised tomorrow.

I also think I am coming to the end of my proverbial rope with this prison thing and just want it to end. However, I know from what so many have said, especially ones who have been out there and have come back, that the real test will be on the outside, where you have more freedoms and no CO’s to watch you. When you are on parole, it basically means you are finishing your bid on the outside rather than inside, but still under their control via a parole officer. There will be rules and limitations, probably more than I will like, but that is just part of this Jumanji world that I must complete to get off this crazy merry-go-round and get back to any kind of normal life.

I realize now that much of it will be uphill, especially without my wife and her support. My brother continues to be steady and a stalwart of support, as do my kids. But as in here, and with any repentance and turn from addiction, the decisions and outcomes depend on me and my actions, not just what I think or say. I will forever have to prove myself to God and others and not be defined by any labels this place or society puts on me. That will be the challenge. But then I am a competitive person and will put those attributes to work for my good rather that anything else, starting now in this a new and my last year inside corrections.

GETTING ON

Part of the danger of getting used to this life in green inside corrections is not paying attention all the time to areas of trouble. I have been safe for so long, at least staying whole as we say here, that I go about my daily business as if I am not in danger. While I am at peace with being here, and I haven’t been threatened, at least lately, and I feel pretty safe. And as I described before, it appears many CO’s are looking out for me as well.

The last time I really felt threatened goes back to early in my life here after transferring to Mid-State. I was in general population after being transferred out of reception. I wanted to use the phone to talk to my wife but it was count time. So after count I went to the empty phone booth to use it as one was already in use. As I began dialing, I noticed an ID card laying under the phone of the shelf. Not really knowing why it was there, I proceeded. Just as the recording was asking my wife to press three to complete the call a guy came and hung me up. He was medium height and ruggedly built and looked upset. He asked me if I saw his ID and what did I think I was doing? I said using the phone and he said let’s go to the bathroom.

Now at the time I didn’t know that was the place most things get “worked out” between inmates, as there are no cameras and it is out of sight of the CO bubble. (Just use your imagination) So I said sure and followed him in. He turned near the sinks and again asked me what I was thinking, using the phone when he had his ID there. I kind of noticed others had left when we entered and he was tensing his face, and I even thought he balled up his right fist. I simply said I did not know the rules and thought it was open and ready for use. I noticed I was a good foot taller than him but also several years older.

Now I know my way around a fight and have studied karate for a couple of years when I was younger, so I know good defensive tactics. I was not feeling like mixing it up with this guy but didn’t want to be branded yellow either, as inside corrections that label will follow and haunt you for your stay. However, fights inside corrections are no holds barred, anything goes. So we stared at each other for a couple of minutes, then he said he’d let this slide since I was a nubie. We didn’t exactly shake hands when we left. But neither one of us were letting the other know we were scared and I think both of us were happy it ended this way. I know I was.

I did notice the CO glance at us as we exited, meaning he knew something was up either because he saw the beginning of it or someone made mention. Often I have noticed they let confrontations play out when it’s green on green and only get involved when things get lopsided or threaten others, or turn on blue.

But since then, after learning many prison ways and keeping vigilant, I am still still whole and unhurt. The same could not be said for many SO’s or even some of my fellow referees. Yep, I was blessed that I had not been beat up after crucial games as other ref’s had when on the walkway home after the game. It left a shortage of referees as well, one that guys weren’t too anxious to fill. That put the burden on civilians and even the head of physical activity who filled in from time to time. On more than one occasion after I did a game with one of the civilians, I was asked if I wanted an escort back to my dorm. I guess I felt protected by greater powers than they could offer and didn’t really feel I was a target. Plus it would actually make things worse in the long run, giving the impression I was special. Nothing more enticing to some criminals than getting it on with a brown noser.

To date, through football and basketball refereeing, I have had no problems. However, that does not mean I can take anything for granted, especially as time goes on. Moreover, this facility also has a growing number of inmates with mental issues going into the OMH unit. You never know when one of them may pop off for who knows what as I had experienced in my work in Transitional Services early on. There, however, CO’s and civilians were always nearby.

So most days were business as usual: work, home to the honor dorm, workout, Bible study, work outs or even evening walks in the yard. Then more of the same. Weekends were often boring without any visits and usually resulted in time in the gym or yard. I relished being called in for special assignments at work. By the time Sunday evening Bible study comes I am ready for the week to start.

Of course I am also ready to get out of here but am more at peace knowing I will probably have to go to my CR (conditional release, 2/3 of your total bid) in November even though I go back to parole in March. Everyone gets another chance at parole every two years, though many guys skip the drama of going to the hearing, especially lifers. They know they’re getting hit, so why go through all the work and emotions. My friend William says I won’t make it this time either, so I am not getting my hopes up this time.

As we near the end of the year and my last Christmas inside whether I get hit or not, I have to say I am used to this life and working on skills that I will use when I return to life outside corrections. I get to practice the fruit of the spirit the apostle Paul speaks of in Galatians 5 v22, love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Believe me, that is a challenge, which I know will continue later in my life. I now believe God put me here so I could work on myself as I sure wasn’t going anywhere good in His kingdom out there and needed this time out.

I truly believe that, which is probably why I am more at peace with things now. I even told my mother these things the last time I called which I think also helped her mental state. Hey, at 88 with her youngest behind bars she needs all the reassurance she can get.

My solace is coming from Jesus and my growing relationship with Him. Despite all my problems, my location and place right now, He is giving me more than I thought would ever come.

TIME PASSES III

To tell the truth, I don’t recall all the time passing. I enjoy my work, especially in the OMH Unit. We flowed from the ART Course into Phase III, then another of the same for different guys preparing to be released. The walk down to the building over a half mile away is a delight in all types of weather. No one seems to bother me or even ask for a pass for my presence on the deserted walkway.

My other work in Phase III with the other inmates is also going well. I had reports come back that guys got jobs because of the resume I helped them generate. Kudos to God I continue to say, as He was the one who gave me all talents and knowledge I testify, confusing some and even allowing conversation with others.

My basketball playing went well again, getting into the finals in both the under 40 and over 40 leagues. Heck, I even played on a volleyball team just for something different. I also continue my refereeing, gaining a few extras bucks that help with commissary. I continue some basic weight training as well as my evening walks in the yard, in all seasons. All in all, I feel in good shape physically, mentally and spiritually.

Life in the honor dorm is good, having gained the respect of others and the day-to-day CO’s who work there. In fact, the regular day guard often asks me to perform cleaning tasks that others could do but not as painstakingly as I do, especially in his personal bathroom. I play chess with a few guys, help some in school subjects, and trade for fruit and vegetables with any who comply. In fact, I had a regular guy I was actually buying from, mainly peppers and zucchini he received in packages, until he was transferred to another facility.

He was working outside the fence in the administration building, doing cleaning and maintenance early in the day or later in the evening. Seems he and another guy I knew, who worked part time in Transitional Services, were very friendly with a civilian female secretary who worked there. Then they were transferred. Turns out my associate from work was caught selling sniffs of that ladies panties for a flag! (stamp) My veggie supplier friend and he were also caught having sex in the office with that woman. Guess they forgot someone is always watching, in this instance on a camera. Though she had a husband and family, she was dismissed, losing her pension also, all for a few quickies with inmates. I was told that sort of thing goes on frequently and my mind returned to the guy in the Grievance office at Fishkill also caught with a civilian. What bothered me the most was the loss of fresh vegetables!

Good things keep happening to me in many ways, whether being overlooked by CO’s or extended privileges. My boss at work, also a believer by the way, who had to print all the lists and schedules I generate, let me print and copy just about anything I develop. I told him about my idea, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to start a home maintenance and repair business when I get out. To that end, I had developed a tri-fold brochure for it which he reviewed and allowed me to print. Letters to home or friends were also done, as well as work and letters for him of course.

A real strange event that happened a couple of times that, at the time I didn’t understand, occurred while at work. The assistant deputy of the facility stopped in to see me in my office at work and ask how I was doing and if everything was all right! I didn’t put two and two together till speaking with my brother on a visit. Turns out he was a lad from my home town, a few years behind me in school, who obviously remembered me and was checking in to see if all was okay. I was stunned and pleased at the same time. That type of thing just doesn’t go on in here, with a clear dividing line between green, blue and everybody else. He even stopped me on the walkway one day to check up on me, with several CO’s and other admin guys around. So I feel really blessed and watched over even inside corrections. It caused me to remember back a year before I offended when I played in a high school alumni basketball game with a few of his brothers and a cousin or two, as he was from a large family in my hometown. I played really well that day and even went out with some of them to celebrate afterwards. So it was amazing I didn’t make any connection at first. It also left me wondering what he thought of how I turned out after all these years. What a disappointment for sure.

There was another blessing of having my own office. When we had moved over to the program building, things were chaotic for a bit, but then rooms and offices were assigned and I was given a 8 x 10 office with a window. So cool. I even was given my own computer, with no internet of course. It was still strange considering my charge but not when considering all I was doing for others, inmates and blue shirts alike. It was there I work on guys resumes, letters for many, including some of my own, class lists and anything else requested of me. It was where I would get called to do work on holidays and even weekends when needed by staff, something I didn’t mind as long as it didn’t interfere with a visit, which it never has yet.

So I was beginning to see there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and prayed it wasn’t a train! Guys were going home all around me and I now believed it was going to happen to me, such a change from when I started or even a few months ago after I was hit by the parole board. There was a guy who went to civil confinement, a place no one wants to go where they can keep sex offenders indefinitely, but I really didn’t fear they would take me. You had to be a repeat offender and have other issues as well. Time is continuing to pass, no necessarily flying by, but at least passing.

What would life be like when I got out? Would I be able to reconcile with my wife? What would I do for work? Would I be shunned as I heard so many other sex offenders were in communities all over the state? Would I be able to continue my faith so none of this would matter? As time continued to pass I prayed I would stay strong every day, but knew the biggest test of my life would be outside corrections.

YOU MIGHT ASK

While facilitating Phase III one day and working on a resume for a guy, I was asked why I am so passionate about Christ being the answer for my addictive behavior. I would offer that is the answer period. Because He is. Not just for any particular type of behavior or lack of it, rather anything and everything. When your focus goes off me and onto Him – not just something else – true healing and growth can really begin, I told him. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but I am getting better at taking opportunities to mention my faith.

It took several years for me to genuinely believe that I was truly forgiven,  that Jesus died for me and took my sins to the cross, even if I did nothing but believe in Him. Now don’t get me wrong, I still have moments of shame, guilt and doubt. The joy I now feel, though, because of His guidance and love is what I would want for ALL people, addicted or not. Because He works even on desperate sinners like me is why I need to get the word out about my transformation and what Christ can do for everyone. After all, I am in good company because the twelve apostles, those closest to Jesus, went through the same transformation as I have gone through.

Now let’s also be clear, nothing about my being born again is easy. Any child birth, even with an easy labor – if there is such a thing – is difficult. A new life emerging, all that pain and discomfort, proves worth it when you behold the new life created. Similarly I feel, God looks at a born again Christian the same way. Christ said he would leave the 99 to search for the one lost sheep and rejoice when he comes back to the fold. (Luke 15 v4) I can now behold more fully God’s handiwork first hand in me and other believers. “For you formed my inward parts, you covered me in my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 139 v 13) He knew what lie ahead for me and needed to let me experience it so I could grow into the new life.

Because of your rebirth, you may lose friends as I have. “Jailhouse religion” is the common term for many who come to Christ inside corrections, then leave it at the door upon leaving. Time will tell if this rebirth lasts outside corrections. Many may believe you are only playing a role and do not believe or trust it. They may not even like the new you. It is too much for them to grasp that you are no longer addicted to the same things as before or as they still are, or that you act and think differently now. Putting Christ first will do that, change your total perspective on everything, just as He meant it to be. This transformation is needed to move you out of your cocoon and become the beautiful new creation God intended you to be. If that caterpillar could talk, I bet he would say he‘d rather go to sleep and simply awaken as a beautiful butterfly than having to go through all the tedious work of spinning a cocoon around itself after finding the perfect spot, then waiting many weeks later to transform into that new creature.

It is, however, the journey of a life time, one so worth the cost. I feel it is also important not to forget the pain along the way, where you have come from and what you have gone through lest you slip back and forget the price you have paid, which is so easy to do, and neglect the eternity you have gained. I know it is difficult to contemplate doing all this for the next life, especially if you do not believe in a Heaven or Hell. But Jesus reminds me in my guide book, the Bible, that if I keep silent “even the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19 v40) Worldly things begin not to matter as much and following Christ does. Romans 12 v2 tell us “be not of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. So giving up a few things will be necessary, as is following your own desires as it was for me. Again, Proverbs 3 v5-6 is still my mantra.

Besides, we know where our addictive behavior, sooner or later, will get us. Been there done that. Yes, I thought I could get away with it, live a double life and did for longer than I care to admit. Oh, you like it the way it is you say? Well, how’s that really working for you, your family and friends? Selfish me said I don’t care, I matter most, I deserve, I want, I need, blah, blah, blah. God said in Psalm 52 v “cast your burden on the Lord and He will sustain you in times of trouble,” which He sure has for me here inside corrections, although I didn’t believe Him prior to my being reborn.

Now I didn’t say all this to the inmate who queried me, but I did give him the main points. He seemed to understand, at least how it applied to me and gave him some pause I believe. Since he is on his way home, I hope it might help him and give him something to think about. All I can do is plant the seed and know God will water it. (1 Cor. 3 v6)

It also reminds me how blessed I am for being where I am emotionally and spiritually. Thank you Jesus! It isn’t always easy as the last year has proven, but is a great deal better than the life I was leading the last several years.

ANOTHER YEAR DOWN

So, the New Year begins much as the old one ended, with me using my time to practice what I preach about God’s goodness, giving me peace even in this place. Several people from home visited me around the holidays, relatives and friends. Even my hoop playing crowd visited me again, prompting more kidding about starting a traveling basketball team. Only one more round of Christmas/New Year’s Holidays to go.

My wife came but seemed a bit distant and sad in some ways which I can fully understand. This whole ordeal has taken it’s toll on my family in many ways. I was also blessed to have my son and daughter visit with her, so it was like a family again in a way which brightened everyone’s spirits. It’s never enough time, and parting is still very difficult. Fortunately I am able to wave to them when they depart from the parking lot on my way back to my dorm. I am not sure if there were any dry eyes between us which seems the norm for many during this time of year.

By now I have the trading for holiday meals down pretty good, giving up my turkey roll and similar deli food, the can of soda, and hamburgers and hot dogs of our New Year’s meal for something of value later on – the ¼ chicken, boiled eggs, bran cereal, fruit and even the coveted coffee cake. Oh yes, and Bryne chocolate ice ream dixie cups. Yum. There is a routine of viewing the weekly menu when it gets posted Sunday evening that starts the bartering here in the honor dorm as I know happens in other dorms.

I feel the Holy Spirit has been nudging me to inspect myself and my life even more. Maybe it’s the helpful civilians who come in for weekly Bible Studies that I attend who have acknowledged growth but push for more. It may be some of my reading on sex offenders or other addictive people that is working on me. Or maybe it is simply the Scriptures coming alive in my life which I take more seriously than I ever have before that cause me to pause and think. Whatever it is, I feel all this inward growth bursting out of me.

So I felt a nudging that I needed an outward expression of this inward change. I think it started when I spoke to my mom last week. I was able to talk with her when my brother “gets her on the extension”. You see, we are not allowed to call cell phones, yet that is all my mother has. My brother has a land line and is able to make a three way call so we all can converse. Because the powers that be do not like this type of call, I have to be careful how I do it. Also, calls are monitored and even recorded in some instances. I was told of a guy making a drug deal on the phone when authorities came and arrested him right on the spot. Big brother IS listening. So anyway my brother came up with the idea of saying he would go get my 87 year old mother “on the extension” so she could talk with me. Whether they knew about it and turned a blind eye or I was not of concern I will never know, but I am able to finally talk with my ailing mom.

She has always called me Jim or James as does one of my sisters. After all, it is my given name, James Van Wagner. Van became the nickname given me when there were too many Jims on the college basketball team. Heck, even one of the assistant coaches was Jim. I didn’t like Wags or Jimmy so that fitting one word moniker stuck. For years, I was Van to everyone. Many never knew my real name, even calling me Van Van Wagner. Since he was the guy who committed the instant offense as well as other undesirable behaviors, I got the idea it was worth it to change to my given name, showing a change not only in name but personalities as well.

My friend William understood but said I would always be Van to him, not because he didn’t appreciate the changes he is witnessing but because he was unable to see me as a James. Maybe a Jim, which I did not want, but not a James. Others were okay with the idea but were slow, understandably so, to make the change. Most would stumble when addressing me or leave off a name entirely. My family understood as did my friends, although that did not mitigate the fumbling over what to call me when greeting me.

I made the announcement in church one Sunday morning, telling the inmates gathered there my reasoning and desire to show a true change had taken place. The pastor had been having me give announcements every Sunday and gave me a fair amount of leeway doing it. In fact he said he liked how I tied songs or Bible passages together in giving the weekly notes and times of Bible studies guys could attend and the how to’s of doing it. Truth be told I would pray for the Holy Spirit to lead me that morning, having no idea of what I was going to say or how it all fit together. Several times I tried to pre-plan some elaborate idea or story all to have it change at the last minute when I felt a nudging to go a different way. It always worked out much better when I listened to those proddings rather than do it on my own. That in itself was a lesson.

So I felt it was time to announce the inside corrections in me that necessitated a change in names. I don’t remember how I tied it into all that I was supposed to say about Bible studies and other announcements I was supposed to remind guys of, but the Pastor later thought it was brilliant. I said give the glory to God who has been orchestrating these much needed changes.

And He surely had been good at doing it. Here I was telling even my mother I was okay with things despite being restricted, in prison and away from everyone. Such a lesson I do not think I would have learned any other way, much like what happened to Joseph and his family. Had he not gone through what he went through as I re-read his account in Genesis, the twelve tribes of Israel would not have made it through. Similarly, had I not been lost then found God, I would not be in the state I am in now. My goal is to carry it outside corrections which will be the difficult part.

Another year down, 22 months to go until that trial would begin.