Is Prison Good for Anyone?

I’ve thought about this question for a while now and even spoken to some other inmates about it. I think it’s interesting that I’ve learned to live with people in here with little or no regard for what their offenses were. I feel like on the outside, such information about a neighbor would be vital – you would WANT to know. Here, it’s universally recognized that ignorance is better.

I think there are inmates who’ve done and continue to be capable of doing terrible things; they should be punished. Is this particular type of punishment GOOD for them? I don’t know. But I think the world is probably a little safer with some of these people off the streets. I also believe that there are many people in this place who were over-prosecuted or simply made a bad choice at the wrong time. The difference between these two types of inmates is that the former laments getting caught, the latter laments their action. Prison is probably a good place for the former; I don’t know if it’s a great place for the latter.

For the over-prosecuted/bad decision-makers, I don’t know if prison does them any GOOD. Does it punish them more than they could punish themselves? Does it help them … help them with what? Help them by assuring them they’ve paid the price for the crime they’re convicted of? It’s hard to say. Then again, they’re convicted, as I am, of doing something against the law. Is prison supposed to be good/reformative for the inmate, or is the inmate’s incarceration supposed to be good for their victims/society? I can understand how people would think the threat of prison and the example imprisoned offenders set for others can be good for a well-ordered society. But I think that balance should constantly be re-evaluated. Is it? I don’t know.

I’ve noticed that often inmates distinguish between “good guys” and “nice guys.” The “good guys” have questionable convictions, or it is understood that they made a bad choice that doesn’t belie the type of person they really are. The “nice guys” are friendly and might help you out in any way they can, but they have a serious disorder.

There are also some people in here who recognize that they have, or had, a problem. They’re open about the crimes they’ve committed, sometimes too open because most people don’t want to hear about other inmates’ crimes.

Some people here should be separated from society – prison is probably good for these guys. They form their own community here, they’re taken care of. Some of these inmates are the “nice guys” who just haven’t been able to overcome their disorders. But this group also includes people with anger/control issues, people who manipulate others, who bully smaller, vulnerable inmates, who antagonize others for their own entertainment. These are the people who make me feel uncomfortable – I can only imagine how the guards, particularly the female guards who are often the subject of their attention, feel.


Getting Short

I asked Russ during our last visit to think about a few things he wanted to do once he got out. Here’s the list he came up with: 

1. I need to see my son, visit with my father, and somehow thank the friends who’ve stood by me throughout this whole ordeal. I don’t know about the mechanics of these things, but I’m aching to do them … I’ll have to figure out HOW as soon as I get my feet under me and get a feel for what this new chapter is going to be like.

2. I want to wake up on day one of freedom and go for a 5 to 10 mile run – maybe get lost. I want to just go out in whatever direction the wind takes me and get lost in the sunlight, the breeze and do something I love.

3. Also on day one, I want to eat my favorite restaurant, the Cheesecake Factory. I’m going to eat a basket of their rye bread with butter, drink a gallon of their passion fruit iced tea, and order more food than I will be able to finish, including cheese cake, of course.

4. Speaking of food, I also want to go to a mall and sit in the food court. I’ll gorge myself on some decadent fast food … Chick-Fil-A, maybe? But really I want to just watch the people go by.

5. While I’m still focused on food: I want to go to a huge grocery store and fill up a cart. I can only imagine the random assortment of food I’ll walk out with. I want to stock up on all the things I’ve gone without over the past three years: fresh fruits, dark chocolate, juicy steak … and a whole bunch of other stuff that I won’t know until I see it.

6. Since it’ll be August when I get out, I want to find a nice outdoor pool and dive in. I want to swim!

7. I really need to check my email. Somewhere among the hundreds of thousands of emails I’ve missed, there are probably messages from good people I’ve lost touch with.

8. There are practical things that are also on my list: buy a car, turn my cell phone back on (hopefully), and get started at my new job. I’m excited for these things because they mean I’ll be transitioning back to normalcy.

9. I also need to make up for some lost cultural experiences. I want to bar-b-q with friends, download all sorts of new music to my iPod, and reactivate my Netflix account.

10. If I can pry myself away from Netflix, I’d also like to buy a guitar. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in here, it’s that you’ve always gotta be bettering yourself in some way – teaching yourself something. You’ve gotta make a habit out of finding new hobbies. I think because life is so busy people forget how important it is to find new hobbies and get passionate about them for a while.

11. Along that vein, I’ve been thinking about ways I can volunteer. I’ve spent my whole life (minus the past three years) in a service-oriented profession. I think it’ll make my transition from the military and from prison a lot easier if I can create some continuity with my previous life by volunteering at Habitat for Humanity or something similar.

12. I’ve also been thinking I’d like to set a reachable goal for myself – who knows if I’ll be good at this new job I’ve got, if I’ll have a good relationship with my parole officer, if I’ll be able to manage this transition well. But I WILL be able to summit Pike’s Peak. I think I’ll need that sense of accomplishment  – so that’s definitely on my list.

13. Speaking of which, I’ll need to convince my parole officer that I’m not a dirtbag – that I won’t be a problem for him over the next few years.

And so many other things. So so so many other things. But that’s all for now.

Red Tape, Schmed Tape

Talked to Russ on the phone yesterday after a long hiatus. He used up all of his phone time and money trying to keep in touch with his family during his mother’s last days. So he’s been trying to keep phone calls, which cost him a pricey $0.32/minute, to a minimum since then.

He said he’s been working on his appeal to the parole board (a separate and lesser process than his appeal of his conviction) and he finally got a copy of the parole packet the USDB sent off to Washington. He had been eagerly awaiting this packet.

If you haven’t been able to keep up with this whole post-conviction judicial process (and let’s face it – I can barely follow it even when I hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak), here’s a quick synopsis:

Russ went through a local parole board at the USDB before the federal board met in D.C. to discuss his parole. Along with various letters and documents that Russ gathered for his parole board, the USDB sent a packet that included their own paperwork and recommendation. When he stood before the local board they told him he wouldn’t know their recommendation immediately, but following his federal parole board he’d get a copy of it. Well, he did. Except the entire thing was blacked out and redacted, so he has no idea what the local board actually recommended. So that’s helpful.

ImageEven less helpful: the USDB didn’t include copies of Russ’ most recent documentation. A big part of the parole process is accepting responsibility for one’s crime (we discussed his parole process here, here, and here). But the federal board saw paperwork that said Russ hadn’t accepted responsibility for his crime and had as a consequence, “refused” treatment. In fact, Russ has accepted responsibility for his crime and has completed all treatment available to him. He’s put his name on the waiting list for treatments not yet available. (That’s another story – the system is so back-logged that he’ll have served his full sentence before a slot opens up for his “mandatory” treatment. But if he’s paroled, he’ll be able to enroll in the same treatment in the civilian world almost immediately.)

The good news, if you can call it that, is that the red tape bamboozle may increase his chances at successfully appealing his parole.

Happy Halloween!

Bad News

Nearly two weeks ago Russ received news that his mother was ill. Last week, on Thursday, August 22, she passed away.

From conversations I’ve had with Russ over the years, I gleaned that Russ wasn’t terribly close to his parents. I think from an early age he felt he didn’t have much in common with them. He spent most of his childhood at the homes of nearby friends. But his mother, father, and sister always held a special place in his heart.

When Russ began making enough money to live comfortably, he began sending his parents a stipend, even when he had a family of his own to provide for. During deployments, he squirreled away his hazardous duty pay with plans of eventually putting it toward a new house for his parents and sister. He wasn’t going to buy them a mansion, but he wanted to make sure they could live out their golden years in relative comfort.

Once Russ’s paychecks stopped coming and he had to dip deep into savings to pay for legal fees, he couldn’t afford to support his family any longer. He stopped sending stipends, he annihilated his “golden years house” fund. A few months ago, as he wrote here, he called home and found out his father had found his sister’s fiancé lying dead in the backyard and a few days later, their home was foreclosed upon. HIs sister and her three children found a relative’s house they could sleep in at night while his parents slept in the family car. They had no insurance, so the abdominal pain his mother felt went untreated until the day she was admitted to the ER. She was diagnosed with advanced cancer that had spread through most of her body. She was given two weeks to live. She lasted nearly one.

The last few months of her life, Russ’s mother was homeless. His father, now well into his 70’s is still putting in long hours driving big rigs to put food on the table.

Unfortunately, the societal ailments of homelessness and incarceration intersect all too often. In Russ’s case, I’m sure his family could have avoided this junction if he hadn’t been convicted and incarcerated.

Please bear with Russ while he deals with his family tragedy. There may be a considerable pause in his writing.

Observation Report

We haven’t been visiting with Russ quite as often as we were in the first year of his incarceration. In those initial visits, he had lots to tell us about the culture of the USDB, the weird time warp of prison time, and his emotional state upon being subjected to it all. As time went by he stopped telling us what was going on inside because for him, every day was the same – there was nothing to tell. Prison visitation is an odd beast. It’s not like having someone over for dinner. There’s nothing to take pressure off of the conversation – there’s no conversation prompts like a book on the coffee table or odd piece of art, no TV program to muse, no food to provide fodder. So our visits have gotten fewer and our conversations more halting.

I know Russ is anxious these days, and I’ve been thinking that my usual practice of filling dead air by babbling on about mundane things Russ hasn’t experienced in years doesn’t seem like the best practice. So I determined I would get him to talk about some of the minutiae of prison life that we’d never discussed.

I didn’t realize that guards search his cell about once a week. It’s not a total

A typical prison cell at the USDB

A typical prison cell at the USDB

tossing, and it’s not something many inmates worry over because there’s no real contraband floating around the place. That said, there’s always something the guards could write you up about, depending on their mood. Magazines, apparently, are an easy and ubiquitous target. Magazines. There’s a rule, which I’ve mentioned before, forbidding “trafficking,” which, in practical application, means that no inmate can give another inmate anything. So Russ, for example, who has a subscription to GQ, can’t trade it for another publication when he’s finished reading it. And if your cell is searched and the guards find a magazine with an address label identifying someone else as its initial recipient, they can write you up.

“Some guards don’t care. During their ‘search,’ they’ll lean on my wall and flip through the latest GQ. Other guards will confront you about it if they see a magazine that has its address label ripped off, but typically, if you’re honest and say, ‘yep, you’re right, I messed up,’ then they’ll let you go with a warning. But if you’re stupid and don’t even take the address label off, it’s a pretty quick write up. Then when your parole board comes around, they’ll see a page in there that says, ‘written up for trafficking.’ That doesn’t look good. Even though I doubt anyone in here has ever had the opportunity to traffic anything harder then a Playboy, it makes it sound like you’re a drug dealer.”

Russ said it’s so easy to get written up for  small things – whether you’re record at the USDB is clean, or riddled with write ups is largely dependent on the mood of the guards that day. Luckily, Russ hasn’t had any write ups at all – not even an observation report. He’s hoping that small fact will help sway his parole board.

p.s. If you’ll notice in the photo above, the cell has a little stainless steel sink/toilet combo that’s sort of interesting.


It reminds me of this, the very apex of tech-eco-toilette.



No News is No News

Russ’s sole focus these days is his parole hearing in D.C. Russ can’t attend and now has very little control over how it goes. He’s asked his ex-wife and my husband to travel to D.C. and speak on his behalf. We’ve been waiting to hear when the board is scheduled so we can buy plane tickets. If all goes as it should and his hearing is scheduled soon, he could be out on parole as early as November!

Russ had his local board a few week ago. Supposedly, that board made it’s recommendation regarding his parole and sent it  to the D.C. board, but the offices there haven’t received his case file yet and therefore can’t schedule his federal board. Russ, meanwhile, is anxious. He’s been calling often, frantically asking if we’ve heard anything.

Nope, nothing yet.

Brown is the New Black

I don’t normally write  posts of my own on this blog I maintain for Russ, but I think I should publish a short note regarding a TV show I recently watched called Orange is the New Black by Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds.

The first season of the show, which is now available on Netflix, follows a “yuppie” white woman through the first few months of her 15 months sentence in a women’s prison in upstate New York. The story is an adaptation of a book written by the real life version of the show’s main character.

I heard about the show via an article on TV|Line and immediately started streaming the first episode. I didn’t consciously decide to watch it because I wanted to get a glimpse of what

Russ’ life might be like, but that’s what I think I got. The show illustrates many of the nuances of prison life that Russ writes about in his letters and tries to explain in his posts. Like Russ has described the inmate population at the USDB, the women’s prisonsubculture is divided along racial lines. There are what Russ calls “heavies,” who, for the most part, keep the discipline and structure of the prison just as effectively (if not more so) than the guards do.

Here’s a great Q & A between Jenji and my favorite entertainment website, TV|Line.