Thursday, February 11, 2010

#17 What is Honor Grade (RETRO)

What is “Honor Grade”?

First off, Happy Mother’s Day to all…although here in my part of the world it is raining, and we expect to see it much of the day…no prob.

Yesterday was kinda our celebration of Mother’s Day because we had family and friends come over for a big dinner, video games, kung-fu movies, talking, laughing and all kinda stuff like that. It was a blast.

Because of that, I didn’t write any blogs yesterday and didn’t do any work on my writing. Sometimes you just have to step back and enjoy life for a minute or two. So today I wanted to make an early blog, as it is near 11am.

Today I was checking my emails and ran across a new reader who was telling me about her loved one who was in minimum custody and wanted to know a little more about that. Having spent some time there, I remember quite well my experiences there… in fact it’s the basis of my books, “Grades of Honor”.

A play off the phrase, “Honor Grade”.

So I figured, why not talk about this a bit before I go answer my emails. Maybe later I can work on my projects, and see if I can polish off my first prison blog book. I can see now that I am going to need a new printer to be faster in what I do. I know I can take it to Staples and have the make copies, but at 49 cents each, you gotta be kidding!

Besides, I’m just not that comfortable with them looking at my stuff. I am sure they don’t read it, but I’ll feel better printing it myself.

When you guys get a chance, feel free to email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com and ask how you can support my writings, or ask about my books or even ask me about a particular prison issue.

So…what is Honor Grade? What is Minimum Custody?

Minimum custody is the part of prison that is likely the least known to the general public…ironic because more guys go through it than any other security level. See, when you look at television at prison stories and movies and the like, they always show you the absolute worst places they can find.

Negativity sells.

So the prisons you see on National Geographic and places like that are usually supermax prisons or maximum security prisons, or close security prisons. But very, very rarely do they show you the minimum security prison, so for the novice in prison issues, this almost does not exist.

So what’s it about?

In my state of North Carolina, minimum custody is called “Honor Grade” because in theory it is supposed to be a reward, or a promotion to inmates who have been in prison in higher security levels. As you well know, the higher the security, the less the privileges and more restricted the movement.

In just the opposite, the lesser the security, the MORE privileges you have and the MORE movement you are allowed to have on the prison grounds. This is key because for any person who has been incarcerated for a period of time, the privileges you get can mean everything to you.

In a way, think of it in financial levels. If you’re working at a low paying job, just making it by on bills and stuff, you are pretty restricted in what you can really do. I mean, that trip to Hawaii just ain’t gonna happen right now. But what if you got a much better job and won $50,000 in a lottery. Then things change because you are not as restricted in what you can do. You may still not be able to go to Hawaii, but you can definitely take a nice trip somewhere close and enjoy yourself. Bills are not as bad a problem as before and you have more freedom with your money.

Now, say you hit the jackpot for $10,000,000...

Many more things open up to you as to what you can do. That trip to Hawaii is certainly on the “to do” list now, and bills are not a problem at all (as long as you manage it right). There is almost unrestricted movement financially because you have many more privileges to work with. It’s almost unrestricted freedom.

That’s kinda how minimum custody can feel to many guys.

There are probably many reasons why prisons have minimum custody, for example, the prisons want to try to separate the “short timers” from lifers. Why? It makes sense if you think about it. If I am getting ready to go home in 3 weeks and 3 or 4 guys have life, they’re gonna feel pretty discouraged seeing me leave, knowing they can’t.

And some of you don’t understand what I just said. You think I’m lying.

When I was at Pasquotank Correctional, I was one of about 40+ guys in a dorm, and over time I had gotten to know most of them, as they got to know me. Over time you get to know someone because you see them every day. One of the younger guys, probably like 23 or something, was going home because he had finished his time. On the day he left, it felt like there was a fog of burden on a lot of guys because they saw him leave.

You don’t think much of it because it wasn’t you, but when you are in prison and get to know people, even if they are not your best friend, you still knew them, and when they leave, it’s like a part of you wanted to go to…knowing you can’t. It’s a depressing feeling.

So I think that is one reason prison move guys to minimum custody if they can. In the situation I described, that guy remained in medium custody, so there are always exceptions to the rule.

A second reason is based on something a case manager told me. He said that prisons moved guys with shorter times to minimum to get them adjusted to society by putting them in communal living…in other words, dorm living.

Prisons seem to think that if you put 40+ guys in a big room and have them sleep on bunk beds with virtually no privacy at all, this will get them adjusted to “being around other people”. Personally I think it’s a bunch of crap because I hated it. I was no longer in control of my environment because I had no privacy unless I laid on my bunk and put my jacket over my head. Sometimes I had to do that just to whisper a prayer, since there was nowhere else to do it.

But I may be in the minority on that, because more guys like the dorm life because they get to be around others. But I wonder if it was that, or being able to hustle more, or the privileges that came with minimum custody. I think the idea of forcing guys to live in communal situations has it’s place, but how many of YOU are living in a communal situation with virtually no privacy? Your home or apartment or mansion allows you to go anywhere and find privacy, unless the entire place is yours privately.

The idea of prisons to get inmates to live together in minimum custody has it’s points, but it just does not work well for me. To me, you live under less control of your environment as a person in minimum than in higher security levels.

But clearly the greatest reason for minimum custody is to reward inmates with the privileges that come with being in a lower custody level. The mere idea of this can be used as a rod or staff against inmates. If you do bad, you won’t make honor grade, or if you do good, you’ll be put in honor grade.

Or….if you KEEP doing bad, you’ll be sent BACK to a higher custody level. It has happened many times…almost to me.

There is no question that you get more freedom in minimum custody, from the time on the yard to the times you get to use the phone, even the visits are better. I mean think about it, would you rather meet your loved one at a visit behind plastic shielding or would you like to have a visit with them outside, in the picnic area on the prison camp, and bring some McDonalds to the visit for him to enjoy?

No contest.

As an inmate, would you rather be able to call home once a month, and have to sign up a week in advance, or would you like to be able to call home anytime you want between the times of 10am and 10pm, and use the phone as many times as you want?

No contest.

If you HAD to choose, would you rather work on road squad with restraints on and a couple of officers with shotguns, or work on road squad with no restraints, with one officer who trusts you as much as you respect them, and be able to eat lunch outside the camp and, on rare occasions, have a wonderful member of the town bring some home cooking to you for lunch?

No contest.

Inmates all desire to make it to minimum custody because for one reason, it means they are getting close to going home soon. Not necessarily 6 months, because you can be in minimum custody for years…I was. But the benefits are much greater.

There is much more freedom to be able to do your time. You can spend more time on the yard, most times under NO supervision. Remember, this is for those that the prison has deemed “worthy” to be in minimum custody, so a guy that has “jumped the fence” will probably not be given minimum security because he cannot be trusted.

But in addition to these things, there are other benefits as well. Perhaps the most prized is work release. This is where an inmate can get a REAL job that pays REAL money. I’m not talking about 30 cents a day, I’m talking the legal minimum wage, or higher.

This is important because if a guy as been in prison for any length of time, he’s going to need money to start his life again. I told you guys how NC prisons give inmates a $45 gate check to start their lives over…and yet people keep wondering why inmates keep going back to prison.

I wonder if people see the insanity of that. Taxes to cover the cost for one inmate in prison for one year exceed $30,000. If you can find a way to keep that inmate out when he gets out saves everyone money. But if you “invest” only $45 in a man and expect him to create a new life, what happens when he fails…he comes back to prison and we’re spending another $30,000+.

It boggles me that society does not like giving ex felons a second chance, and will grumble at spending pennies on their rehabilitation, not realizing that every time an ex felon fails, it costs society tens of thousands of dollars. Multiply THAT by 100 inmates, or 1000 inmates, or 10,000 inmates and you see the bigger picture.

Anyway, work release is one of those gems that minimum security provides. A second is home passes. Home passes are exactly what they sound like…the inmate gets the chance to go home for a short period of time. Depending on the prison and state, this is very rare. But I actually did get to make friends with a guy who did have home passes, and we became pretty good friends until the shipped him to another camp a few months later.

The opportunity for an inmate to leave the prison grounds is huge, but the opportunity for him to go back to familiar surroundings is much greater. To be able to “escape” the prison life, if for just one weekend, is like heaven to an inmate. The hope is also to show them the difference in “freedom” and “bondage”. When you can compare both side by side, it should make a great impact on whether you want to ever see a prison again.

But these are not automatic. Some people think that just because you make it to minimum custody, these are guaranteed…not so. These have to be earned, just like the custody level itself, and that falls in the hands of your case managers. They decide if your actions in prison, and your charge, and other criteria, qualify you for a home pass. Now obviously, if your home is like 10 hours away from the prison, you’re likely not gonna get a home pass. But if your home is maybe an hour or so from the prison, and you qualify, it is quite possible.

There is also another benefit called “CV” passes, or Community Visit” passes. These are similar to home passes and work release, where you are allowed to leave the prison for a certain period of time. And just like the other two, you are allowed to wear regular clothes…not prison clothes. This is also a huge boost to a lot of guys. But community visits are passes where the inmate is allowed to leave by sponsorship of an organization, like a church.

Example: Let’s say a church in town wants to sponsor an inmate to maybe have him talk about prison to the youth, or help start a prison ministry. They’d have to get the approval of the prison, and if everything works out, they can become a legit group to sponsor an inmate. That inmate, whomever is selected and approved, would have the opportunity to leave the prison on certain days for a limited period of time under the care and supervision of that group, and to be returned to the prison exactly when needed.

This is done on several prisons, although I was never a part of it. In fact, some prisons actually sponsor inmates on programs where inmates go to schools and talk to the youth about how bad it is in prison.

To me, and from what I have seen in this, a lot of it is bogus because prisons don’t let the inmate share all the truth, they want the inmate to tell all the very negative things and “scare” the youth from wanting to go to prison. I have two problems with this…first, nobody ever WANTS to go to prison, so that angle is never truly addressed. Second, the inmate is tearing his self esteem little by little by degrading himself and making himself the face of “evil” for the benefit of others. I don’t think the prison ever truly considered that they have a charge to also rehabilitate those inmates, not continually tear them down.

Still, the chance to just get out of the prison, wear real clothes and see the free world seems to outweigh the negatives of a lower self esteem. These and the other benefits are what make the minimum custody levels much more desired than the higher security ones.

Well, I hope that helps some of you. I can get more specific if need be, but I just wanted to kinda paint an outline. At any rate, I wish all the mothers a great Mother’s Day, understanding many of you have a loved one in prison. Keep your spirits up and stay encouraged.

Email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com to ask how you can support my writings, or purchase my “Grades of Honor” books, or ask me about other prison issues.

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