Monday, March 1, 2010

#78 Prison University (retro)

Prison University

“Prison is just like college, they have dorms, you can go to class and everything”

That’s what someone told me when I was in county jail. The guy who said it never went to college, and here I was, a college grad, thinking that the world of prison might have some hints of where I spent the best years of my life.

I’ll blog some thoughts on that in a moment, but first I certainly want to wish all of you a great weekend with Memorial Day coming. For a lot of folks, from Friday to Monday will be one long vacation. I’ll be hanging out at home, taking it easy.

Be sure to email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com to ask how you can support my writings so I can continue to give you my best, or ask me about my books and other writings that might be of help. Or, ask me about some prison issues that I might be able to blog out.

Or, make a nice comment on one of the 7 blogsites I chat on. It helps.

Anyway, I wanted to blog out some thoughts tonight (11pm) on how some things in college may have prepared me for prison. Now, I could not have ever, EVER known that a few years after my graduation I would be spending time in prison; but it happened.

I went through an absolutely turnaround in life. College was indeed the best days of my life…so far. I enjoyed each of those four years and can’t put into words how it felt to be a student on a campus with guys and girls around you that were there to enjoy life and learn.

Prison was the exact opposite. It was the worst days of my life, and I dreaded being around some of the most defeated souls in the world… and for a second I started to type in, “the most negative people in the world”…but that isn’t true. I have known people who never went to prison that are so negative that they’d make angels curse.

It is obvious that the main thing I got out of college was a degree. I earned my B.S. in Radio and Television, and minored in Journalism. It is sitting somewhere in the attic. But it was much more I learned in college that may have prepared me for prison.

Now again, I say this in retrospect, because while I was having a blast in college, there was absolutely NOTHING, that insinuated that I would end up in prison years later… and that better be a lesson to some of you who turn your snouts up at ex felons. Nobody plans on going to prison, but in any set of unfortunate circumstances, anyone could end up there. Your tomorrow is filled with just as many unknowns as mine were, so be careful how you judge people.

So what did I learn in college that prepared me inadvertently for prison? There actually were some things, as I sit here and think about it. I would list a few things, not in any order: faith, writing, people skills, and compassion for others. I will never say I was the best person, and I know there are many or most who are better than me, but I am never going to say I am worthless just because I am an ex felon.

I am worth something, even if many don’t believe it. Even though society rejects me, even though I have been rejected by prisons and even prison support sites, I am still worth something. And some of that was instilled in me through my experiences in college. That is not to say I learned it there, because I had a life before I went to college, as we all did from birth to about 18 years old, but it was in college that these traits were refined. They would come in handy years later when I went to prison.

Writing was one thing that was clearly refined in college. Before I went to college, I did like to write, but had no venues of how to write or where to direct my writing. I am a huge fan of the late Charles Schultz, the creator of “Peanuts”, and I used to try to write short stories using those characters. Mind you I was in about the 5th grade or so. But in college I was able to cut loose, writing poems because I found out that there were many poem contests (although most were bogus). I was also able to start writing scripts and plays, and spent a lot of time in my dorm writing. I also wrote for the campus newspaper and still have a lot of my articles. I wrote as the entertainment writer, then moved to sports writer and eventually sports editor by my senior year.

In prison one of the things that got me through was my love for writing. At first it was hard to do, as indicated in my first book of “Grades of Honor”. At that time the balance was far to great on the fear and depression side. But months later, once I found the strength and peace, I was able to get back into the hobby I loved doing, which was writing.

And maybe some of that Journalism came out of me too, because once I started writing about prison issues, it took hold. I actually got started writing in newspapers in college when I wrote an editorial about a “slave auction” that one of the fraternities was having. I challenged the idea that even for a charity, to use that definition was insulting to many students on the campus. They changed the name about a year later.

It let me know that if you write something with some intelligence and heart, somebody is going to listen. I found that to be true in prison as well. Sure a lot of prison officials will blow it off, but if written to enough people, someone is going to listen.

People skills was another ability I think I refined in college. In high school I was not the most popular guy. I could have played sports, but we just could not afford for me to do so. I wasn’t the best dressed either, but I was one of the top 10% graduating class and I did get an award in drama. Funny I should be saying this with that class reunion coming up this weekend, and me too embarrassed to go…

But in college I multiplied my efforts. I got involved in the campus radio station, the campus newspaper, several student organizations and acting classes. By my junior year most people knew who I was, and by my senior year, I was well known. Not necessarily the most popular guy, but because I had worked with so many different people, I was well known. It was also during that time that I dressed as best as I could when going to class. Maybe it was the reverse of how I dressed in high school because there wasn’t a lot of money in the house, but now in college I had a few more dollars and always dressed handsomely. At any rate, I knew a LOT of people in college.

Those people skills might have been helpful while in prison, but I also think you have a kinda aura that will either draw people or repel them. Some people can “sense” if you are likeable to be around or not. When I was in prison, I was fearful of many things, and actually preferred to do time alone in a cell. The 17 months I spent in a county jail were very hard, but it would have been much harder had I spent it in a dorm or communal cell.

But those same people skills helped me to get along with most inmates. Some guys might have 6 months left, others might have life, but I tried to treat each guy like I would like to be treated. I never asked anybody about their charge because it was none of my business anyway. I never asked how much time they had left either. But I usually waited for someone to start a conversation with me first, rather than inviting myself to them. In prison you don’t know what a person could be thinking inside, so best to leave him be unless he wants to talk.

I actually did make a lot of friends in prison, guys that I was comfortable with. Granted they are all inmates, but so was I, and I realized that if I did not extend my hand of friendship to some of them, my time would be much more difficult. It’s just hard to do time with no one to talk to.

That leads to Compassion for others, and I think this is where most people miss it. We are led to believe that prison is full of evil and mean men that hate everything in life, including other life forms. But we forget that MOST guys in prison will return to society, and many don’t want to do anything to jeopardize an early release.

But there is something about a person who in prison will continue to care about other people. This was something I tried to do while in prison, but learned while in college.

There was a situation where I was working the “party show” on a Friday night. I was the DJ at our campus radio station and I was on from 9 to midnight. At midnight I was to be relieved by another student, who was to run the station by himself from about midnight to about 3.

I was used to my show and had done other shifts, from Christian rock to even classical, so I knew the drill. But when you are ready to get off at midnight, you are ready to go…but the guy didn’t show up. So I waited and waited, getting more frustrated at the time. Finally the guy showed up, and I recognized him from our station meetings…

The guy is blind.

Not totally blind, he can see, barely, but he IS in fact legally blind. When he came in, I had assumed that he knew enough about running the board (the control room), otherwise they would not have allowed him to work this shift.

Well, maybe they did, but it was clear that he didn’t quite know enough to do this on his own. Damn, why did they stick me with this guy at this hour?

All I wanted to do was sign off, take my music back to the dorm and crash. I was already dreading the walk up the inclined hills to my dorm after midnight. As soon as I turn it over to him, I was out of there.

But I talked to him before I left, and he told me how excited he was, getting his first chance to be on the radio by himself, something he said he always wanted to do. He was so excited but I saw at the very beginning that he was not fully prepared to go on.

So I helped him get started by cuing up the first record and helped him to time it. Because the control room has lots of bright light buttons, he could indeed make that out, but it was clear he needed a little help to get his flow. I decided to sit in and help him.

I cannot say how long it was, but I am very sure it was well over an hour that I sat with him and helped him work the boards. I was tired and ready to go back to the dorm, but I just could not leave him like that…it just would not be right. I did everything I could to help him remember what to do, and he was slowly catching on.

But there was no way I could stay up to 3am, I just didn’t have that kinda energy, so once I felt he was doing fine, and he assured me that he would be ok, I could leave. I think he told me that he had a friend that would come sit with him, so with that in mind, I felt I could go back to my dorm and get some much needed sleep.

In prison, I think I was able to use that to keep my mind off my misery. And the funny thing is that the more you do things for others, the less inferior you will feel. Even if its just to God and yourself, you know that you can do some good if you put your heart into it.

There are indeed a lot of nice guys in prison, but ironically I think some of the most comfortable to be around were guys that weren’t too stuck up in the Bible… do you know what I mean by that? Some inmates are so stuck in the Bible, quoting scriptures and trying to be righteous that they forget the fellow inmates that need a helping hand. I mean, if you praise God all day long, and ignore the people right beside you, what good are you doing? There are many, many inmates right now that could use some compassion by other inmates. And it’s not beyond reason either. If a guy can fight with another inmate, then a guy can also help another inmate. Anything negative done in prison can be equally changed to a positive, if the inmate really cares to help someone.

I wrote in my journal about a guy I happened to meet while at Dan River Prison Work Farm. He seemed to be a cool guy, and he came over to me one day while I was writing a grievance on the camp. He asked me if I could help him with a problem he had, so I listened.

It appears he was on another camp, and had a home pass. He was allowed to leave the prison for I think 48 hours, and for awhile it was working fine. But something went wrong on the form one day, where they seemed to have given him a much shorter time than he was supposed to get. I think it was something like they gave him an 8 hour pass, knowing that the home he was going to was more like 4 hours away. If so, then he’d literally have to leave, go to that place and immediately come back and hope he gets back in time.

He told me a lot of his situation, and I actually still have my notes on it, and he asked if there was anything he could do. In addition, he walked with a limp, and needed a crutch and did need some medical attention for his leg. He told me that he felt he was retaliated on by the prison and sent to Dan River, which many inmates believe is one of those “retaliation prisons”…

By that I mean there are prisons that you get sent to that are out of the way, and not that desirable. I ought to know, I have been to a few.

I sat down and constructed a grievance for him, and also helped him identify other people to write to about his problem, and his need to get to a prison facility that can accommodate him medically. To be sure, he should not be walking around with a bad leg, and here at Dan River, there is a lot of walking.

Whatever we did must have worked, because almost sooner than I wanted, he was transferred out of the camp…odd because usually an inmate must stay on the camp up to 6 months before he is allowed to transfer, but he was there only a few weeks.

While at Tyrrell Prison Work Farm, a young guy, about 5 years younger than me, had got fed up with working by himself as a packout worker (one who makes the bagged lunches for road squads and inmates leaving the prison grounds). There was supposed to be 2 inmates, but with him being the only one, it was too much work. He got upset and quit, but was forced to go back to work under the threat of a writeup and being put in seg for failure to comply with orders.

We talked about it, and I asked him what he was going to do about it. He said that there was nothing he COULD do, and he had to go back. I could tell the kid was upset with it, but had no real choice…or did he?

I asked him if he’d let me write a grievance for him, one that puts the ball in the prison’s court and forced them to do something to help, or be seen as ignoring the needs of an inmate. I wrote one and when he came back about a half hour later to read it, I could see him grin from ear to ear. He liked what he read, and I think what it also did was give him a sense of empowerment.

You see, if you do your time under the prison’s thumb, you have no power. No power, no self-esteem, no confidence in yourself. This is what prisons want from every inmate. Yet if they get this from them, what then are they releasing back to society. YOU think it’s reformed human beings…I say it is defeated human beings, and a defeated man cannot contribute to society.

I asked the guy to make sure to hand it to an officer, preferably the sergeant in charge. One could mail it, but it could get “lost”, and by handing it to an officer, they are supposed to sign it to prove they got it.

He takes the grievance and delivers it, and shortly afterwards, he gets called to the sergeant’s office. They try to talk him out of it, so he can throw it away, but I told him if he does that, there is no guarantee that they will help him. I made sure to put the names of the kitchen supervisor and the sergeant he had talked to before on that grievance, so everyone will know who is accountable. Apparently that sergeant didn’t want his name dirtied, so he wanted to make a “deal” with the young guy.

Ultimately the promised to get him help, but the needed him to continue to work because the packout job is important to every inmate who leaves the camp during the day. So he agreed, and seemed pleased that for once, the prison listened to his needs, rather than just expecting him to work.

I personally would have pushed further, but if he was happy then I was too. I made a pretty good friend with him, and was actually sad to see him go home on his release date a few months later. I know it’s good to see a guy leave prison, but it’s one less friend you would have.

And all this leads to my faith, which I was able to refine while in college, or at least start. I told you about how I was able to get a miracle to finish college when money was very low, it was my first time applying faith to a problem, and getting a result. That same little idea, that same faith, would be something that protected me during my time in prison, and help me to do a lot of things while in prison. It was also the same faith that helped me after I got out, and how I was able to pay my restitution. And maybe it’s that same faith that keeps me writing these blogs, even after I had given up on it more than once.

As I said, I would never have guessed or wanted to be here writing about prison issues, but here I am. It allows me to see that in some ways, prison is kinda like college, but only if you have been to both and can apply one to the other. After all, college is supposed to prepare you for life…how was I to know that part of that life would be prison?

So it’s with faith that I suppose I write, hoping that I am getting through to the readers enough so that some will see my sincerity and want to support my efforts. I cannot tell you how much it empowers me when people read my blogs and email me to ask if they can send me a gift. I cannot tell you what it means when someone emails me to ask how they can get my “Grades of Honor” books. You cannot possibly know what it means when a person reads my blogs and emails me to tell me how much it helps them.

It reinforces to me that I have a place and maybe a charge to help people understand that prison can be a very negative place, but there still must be hope. I went through it and sit here typing blogs about it. I went through the suicides, the anger, the frustration, the shame, the depression, the stress, the failure, all of that. But I also had a lot of help as well, in that Someone was looking out for me, and I got through it. Further, not only did I get through it, I can write about it.

Think about this; I have been writing since about 2001, maybe early 2002, and I may have covered less than 5% of my journals…only 5%! I can do more, I can share more, as long as I have support. I have to have faith that it will be there, that I will get more readers and more support. And faith is not a stranger to me.

I learned that in college…and used it in prison.

Gotta fly, email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com to ask how to support my writings.

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