A Day in the Life…(part one)

I wake up to a soldier knocking on my cell door. It’s 1331 (1:31 p.m. for you non-military chapter17figure48types). The soldier is one of my treatment counselors for the Reasoning & Rehabilitation (a.k.a. R&R – but obviously not the good kind) treatment program I’ve been attending for the past few months. The classes are two days a week for about six months. I wasn’t on the pass roster today so I thought the class had been cancelled – apparently not. Now I’m late for a treatment. I get up and take a leak in my trusty toilet/sink combo unit. I pee into the toilet sideways so my back faces the door, not wanting to give anyone a free look at my junk. Some genius designed the pod so that, when squared to the toilet, taking a piss allows everyone in the common room to take stock of your delicate bits. I wash my hands and find that my towel isn’t dry. The steamer in the laundry is down. I hate getting up this early on a work day. I decide to make a quick breakfast before I go to treatment. I put a packet of oatmeal, a scoop of peanut butter, and some sunflower seeds into my special version of tupperware – a small, round container left over from a special order of christmas cookies. I put two scoops of freeze dried Folger’s coffee into my cup and push the button on my cell intercom. The guard in the control booth comes across the intercom – “Control.” I ask him to pop the lock on my door. The door opens with a harsh, metallic click. I make my way groggily to the opposite wall of the pod’s common area where the hot water pots are. I put a little water into my oatmeal and coffee cup. I sit at one of the metal four-person tables that are bolted to the floor throughout the common area. My treatment group might be waiting on me, but I decide to take a few minutes. I need this coffee – this freeze dried coffee. Prison_Furniture_Supervison_Model I put my bowl back in my cell and walk over to the side door that connects my pod to the medium custody pod next door. Between the two pods are a couple of offices and a classroom used for group treatment. I push the intercom button next to the door. “Control.” I tell the guard I’m going to treatment. “Go get your blouse.” I’m wearing my white under shirt with my brown uniform pants. This is a first. I’ve gone to treatment without my over shirt on before. Ugh – but not a huge deal. So I go back and get it. I finally get into the R&R classroom and I see that four people are still missing. both guys from N pod are missing. They must still be on lock-down for the two fights that happened last week. One guy walks in shortly after me and the facilitator says that we need to begin. Today’s class is about controlling our emotions. One of the guys argues for a while about people not being able to control their emotions, only their reactions to emotions. We list what makes us angry and share our top three triggers. Thankfully, class ends quickly, the counselors seem to have some place to be and our late start meant they couldn’t conduct a full session. I go back to my pod and see they’re issuing monthly rations a day early. I’m glad – I’m running pretty low on coffee. I sign for my rations and put them in my wall locker in my cell. I’m pretty well-stocked on rations now – after spending almost $80 (the maximum allowed) for the first time. A couple of guys in the pod ask me to play dominos with them. I play for about 45 minutes before I go over to the phone to make a call to a friend. I talk for the full 30 minutes allowed at a cost of about $10. What a rip-off. This phone card company gouges us like crazy. Still, it’s cheaper than the company we used when I first arrived here. By the time I finish with my phone call, it’s 1550 (3:50 p.m.) and they’ve announced work recall. All the day-time workers (the majority of the population) start streaming back into the pod. the noise level picks up and the prison news gets spread. Word has it that one of the more childish and annoying inmates was taken to the SHU (special housing unit – a.k.a. max security) for horsing around with another inmate and bumping into a guard. The guy annoys me, so I’m not too torn up over the news. More to follow. xoxo — Russ

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.




Another Helping of Stress


My parole board is right around the corner. How did it get here so fast? Have I really been in here that long?

I’m still trying to secure three key documents that a parole packet needs. But even if I do manage to get them, it’s hard to be optimistic about parole. I think the parole rate for the USDB is less than five percent. Additionally, I’m in my appeals process which to the parole board means I’m unwilling to accept responsibility for my crime.  But if I abandon the appeals process, then any chance I have at getting my verdict overturned is gone.

On top of all my legal issues, I have two final exams to complete to get my MBA. Coming from this bizarre institution, the degree may not mean much to anyone else, but for me, the correspondence courses have helped the last year pass quickly. After I’m done with these two exams, I won’t have any schoolwork to keep me busy – I’ll have to find something else.

Family Drama

It was brutally painful to be away from my son and then-wife when I deployed to Iraq and being apart from my son for another 15 months while I was in Afghanistan was another knife to the gut. I didn’t realize it then, but I must have found some comfort in the fact that if something terrible happened, the Army would send me home on emergency leave so I could take care of it. The USDB isn’t so lenient.

Deploying, sadly, got me pretty accustomed to being away from the people I care most about. So while it still hurts every second of every day to not see my son, it’s unfortunately something I’m used to coping with. What I’m not used to coping with is the shit my dad just told me.

I recently called home and got some wild news. I haven’t lived at home for some time now – probably about 17 years. My sister, on the other hand, has lived with my parents her entire life. She now has three children ranging from one to 13 years old. My dad is a 76-year old truck driver and is the sole breadwinner for the entire household. With his paltry income and social security – plus a regular stipend from me – they were making ends meet. I had an account where I used to stash a little money every few weeks so that one day I’d be able to buy my parents a modest home where they could live out their golden years. But when I was hauled off to prison, I stopped sending them cash and have had to use most of my savings on legal fees.

So when I heard that the bank foreclosed on my parents’ mobile home and they’re living out of their car … it hurt. My inability to do anything for them or anyone else just keeps slapping me in the face. My dad told me this news in the same matter-of-fact, nothing-can-be-done tone he used to deliver another blow: that he’d found my sister’s fiancé dead body in the backyard a few weeks before they’d moved out of the trailer. What?!? Her fiancé had trouble with drugs in the past and was in rehab last year. My dad found him dead the day after he overdosed. I still haven’t really wrapped my mind around all this news. I feel like the world is crumbling.

My parents have never been good at managing their money and my sister has never been good about choosing partners – so although it’s not a huge surprise, it’s still immeasurably difficult to imagine my parents’ destitution and my sister’s heartbreak. And while my family is out there suffering, I’m stuck here, unable to do anything. Unable to fulfill my promises of comfort in their retirement and unable to comfort my only sibling.


Sequestration News

The effects of the sequestration have infiltrated the USDB!

For the past decade, despite rising costs and inflation, each inmate has been authorized to spend $35 on health and comfort items each month. To order, an inmate has to have a source of cash. Some are sent money from family & friends and others have jobs in the prison, such as the laundry detail. There are a lot of inmates who don’t have jobs and don’t receive money from outside – so they’ve never gotten health and comfort items. Perhaps for those poor souls, the recent cuts won’t make much of a difference.

People have already been able to buy fewer and fewer items as the years go by and costs rise. Now, the $35 allowance has been lowered to $25 and all food items have been stripped from the list. No more goodies.

I also hear that now all inmates must have over a 10 year sentence in order to come to the facility. In some ways, this is good news. It should staunch the flow of inmates that continue to overburden the facility’s capacity.

There’s still a rumor of an imminent Federal Exchange, but those should become less necessary if the rumors are true and fewer convicts will come here. I don’t know where those with lesser sentences will go…maybe straight to federal prison?


Quiet Riot

A recent visit with Russ left me feeling a little leery about the future of the USDB. I wrote previously about the change of command that occurred at the prison. The new boss made seasoned guards wary and keen on enforcing rules that had been allowed to go lax – for a variety of reasons, but largely due to their impracticality. Though the rules weren’t changed per se, their enforcement was and that caused some quiet unrest among the prisoners according to Russ.

The change of command also meant an influx of new guards (military police) unfamiliar with the culture of the USDB. Most of the new guards are young and inexperienced and are taking their positions of authority a little too seriously according to a few inmates. Russ reports that the influx of guards has come in small waves and each new wave is responsible for training the wave that comes after. Soldiers who’ve been on guard duty for roughly two weeks are “training” their fellow privates. Russ says it’s going about as smoothly as you would expect it to.

While some of the seasoned guards are taking the rules a bit more seriously, some of the new guards who have yet to conceptualize the USDB’s delicate prisoner-guard relationship are nonchalant about rules and timelines that the prisoners take very seriously. I’ll let Russ explain:

“The evening guards consistently call the recreation periods late which short changes the prisoners rec time. Each housing unit is scheduled for 65 minutes in the weight room four times a week. There is an NCO who’s supposed to direct the movement of inmates over the guard radios. The times never change and only one housing unit is allowed in the weight room during each 65-minute block. So when the NCO forgets to announce the rec time or, more commonly, the guards aren’t listening carefully to their radios and don’t hear the rec call, then the inmates have two options: they can stand patiently by the guard desk and hope that the guard realizes a rec time hasn’t been called, or they can engage a guard and ask directly. Engaging a guard in this manner is tricky – especially now. The guards are young and don’t know the rec schedule and their newfound power has gone to their heads a bit – so they’ve responded dismissively. “They’ll call it when they call it.” or “That’s not my job.” Every time they call rec time late or fail to call it at all, that’s time the inmates will never get back. It’s not like the prison is going to comp us a weight room session that we missed because the guards weren’t paying attention. Stuff like that is SO important when you’ve got nothing else. The inmates are getting really frustrated. But if they show their frustration at all to the guards who aren’t calling rec time properly, they risk getting written up for disrespecting a guard. That charge carries punishments that include losing custody grade (e.g. moving from min. to medium custody) and also goes on your parole record which allows a parole board a convenient reason to deny parole for bad behavior.”

Russ thinks the inmate frustration coupled with the guards’ inexperience and attitude are turning the USDB into a pressure cooker. Not to mix metaphors – but there’s more. The icing on the cake is that a couple of alleged “ring leaders” from the August 2010 riot at the USDB have been returned to general population. They were “heavies” back in the day and their re-entry into gen pop has caused some interesting ripples in the current social order.

Current heavies and these old-time heavies are speaking privately. The rest of the inmates observe their hushed conversations and it makes the whole place buzz like a poked bee hive. No one knows what’s going on and everyone has suspicions. Russ also has his and he’s worried about the mental state of the old-timers. They’ve now spent years in max security where they were locked in a tiny room for 23 hours a day. He can only imagine where their heads are after that kind of isolation.

Russ thinks the most likely reason for bringing the old-timers back into gen-pop is so they can be transferred to a federal prison. I guess it’s easier for the USDB to hand off a medium custody inmate than a max custody one.

Regardless of reason, their presence is causing a stir that, on top of the new guards and new command, is troubling.

A Great Visit

My son stuck around for a few days and came to visit me three days in a row. He stayed the whole day on Wednesday through both visitation times.

I hadn’t slept at all the night before he arrived, but the joy of seeing him kept me awake and alert all day. I asked about the call from Child Protective Services and discovered it was more about an issue between his mother and her current husband and had little to do with him. He’d not been harmed. I can’t express how relieved I am, but I still worry about his home situation. I’m so powerless and absent.

Seeing him was wonderful, though. He’s such a great kid (how he’s turned out so well is beyond me). We played cards and took turns reading to each other out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He kept getting snacks from the vending machines in the visitation room to share with me. I think he wanted to treat me to something to feel like he was helping me out in some small way. I didn’t have the heart to refuse a single piece of the candy he offered even though I was light-headed from the sugar rush as I walked back to my cell at night.

The hardest part was having a real man-to-man talk about what I’ve been accused and convicted of and what it means for our future.