Over the ho-ho-ho-lidays

The Christmas meal was a bit of a disappointment. We’re still eating in the gymnasium because the project to re-floor the dining facility is behind schedule. Shocking that a government construction project hasn’t finished on time. I don’t mind the folding chairs and tables as much as the heavy reliance on meager helpings of cold cuts. I used to enjoy lunch meat. Nevermore.

I did get an early Christmas gift. A guy who really annoys me got jumped by grinchsome other guy during dinner. It’s not surprising because, like I said, he’s annoying. It’s almost comforting to know that he annoyed other people – maybe that means I’ve not completely lost my mind. The best part, however, is that he was sent to the SHU (special housing unit, a.k.a. max custody) and will likely remain there well after I’ve departed. That’s one guy I don’t care to see again in my lifetime.

Mega-Million Jackpot

(Note: this post was sent to me in the form of a letter and I wasn’t sure Russ wanted me to post it. I waited until I confirmed he wanted it posted before writing it up, so it’s a few weeks old.)

I was woken up today after only two hours of sleep. A guard was standing directly outside my cell.

“A Miss called for you,” he said.

That’s not some prison-term. I think he was trying to tell me that a woman called for me, but the fact that he was making me decipher this message and its lack of real information annoyed me. I was exhausted from working the night before, but I knew that I wasn’t on the pass roster and I didn’t have any scheduled appointments. I pushed the button on the intercom in my cell so I could speak to the sergeant in the booth. He said someone had called, but the line had cut out before he got any details. I told him I was tired, I was going to bed, but if they called back to wake me up. About 15 minutes later, another knock on my door.

“The CJA office wants to speak to you.”

The CJA office is where you go for attorney phone calls and powers of attorney and I hadn’t made an appointment with them. So I was confused, but figured maybe my attorney was calling.

I came out of my cell and started for the CJA office. Halfway down the hall I stopped to chat with another inmate and he told me he’d heard the parole analyst requesting me. That made much more sense. So off I went, now at least semi-confident that this wasn’t going to be a wild goose chase, also very nervous that I was going to be told that my appeal to the parole board had been denied. It was too soon for that, though – they shouldn’t be getting back to me until mid-January.

In the analyst’s office, I groggily took a seat in front of the desk.

“I’m sorry to call you in so early, but I’m about to be out of the office for a few days. I wanted to give you the results of your appeal to the denial of your parole before I left,” she said.

I wasn’t prepared for this. I’d had hours to prepare myself emotionally for the results of my initial parole board and it still hit me like three tons of bricks. This was out of the blue … a full month early. Nothing happens before schedule in here. Nothing. I wasn’t sleep-blurry anymore. I took the sheet of paper she handed me across her desk and scanned it feverishly.

Reversed. It said ‘reversed.’

Suddenly I was tingling all over … I was nearing a cliff, but I couldn’t let myself jump just yet. I might not have a parachute. Did that mean what I thought it meant?

“You were granted parole on your appeal. Your release is about seven months from now in July,” said the parole analyst.lottery jump

Typically, they give you 90 days notice, not seven months notice, but I’m not complaining. I signed the notification and walked back to my housing unit on a cloud. I didn’t realize how thoroughly I’d abandoned hope of parole, but you can’t imagine the change in perspective I felt. It felt like winning the lottery.

Immediately I wanted to call everyone and tell them the good news. Unfortunately, I only had $3 on my phone account and calls are 32 cents/minute. Ahhhh!!!

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!


Today I glanced over at a table in the chow hall and sitting there together were two of the more well-known inmates: Manning and Sgt. Bales (and a mysterious third party).

**Correction. I thought Russ was referring to Hasan as the third party when he wrote this post, but apparently he wasn’t. He couldn’t tell me the name of the guy he was referring to, but he said it wasn’t Hasan. It was someone else who’d committed a mass shooting, but he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. I haven’t been able to find someone matching the criteria Russ gave me. I’ll get some clarification next time I see him! Sorry for the confusion.

A Day in the Life, Part II

After count clears, the pods are called to dinner in a rotating order. Everyone gets 20 minutes to eat. The food is pretty good. I mean, it’s a prison – it’s prison food. But it’s not bad. In addition to the main line, there’s an all-you-can-eat salad bar with bread and fruit. At the end of each pod’s 20 minutes, guards go around kicking out loiterers.

We walk back to the pod and hang around until evening recreation, which starts at 6:00 p.m. every work day. We sign up on the activity roster for whatever recreation we want to participate in. You can lift weights, go to the gym, the rec field, music room, craft shop, or library. Those are the most popular choices. You have to pick and choose – not all options are open during the entire rec period, so you have to figure out which you can schedule. There’s plenty to do to keep busy.

Today I’m going to the craft shop for an hour, then heading to the weight room. That will leave me time to shower and get ready for night time work call at 10 p.m.

I shower and pack up the food I’ll eat at work tonight. We get a bagged lunch – typically with lunch meat, bread, fruit and vegetables. It’s not quite enough food for a seven hour stretch of work.

The Count (a Sidebar in A Day in the Life)

At this point in my incarceration, the count amounts to no more than a single sentence. The count happened, as usual, at 4 p.m. But I feel such brevity doesn’t give the count its due. So in this second installment of “A Day in the Life,” I’m going to break down a very small, but vital part of my day. The count.

Maybe you’re not interested, but let’s face it: I’ve got plenty of time to explain this. And honestly, the count gets under my skin some days.

The count happens every day at the same time. Every prisoner must be accounted for by two guards (separately) to ensure that the inmate’s still alive, in the right cell, and hasn’t had his face bashed in.

It starts with a little crackle over the guard’s radio in the control booth. He usually keeps the volume up loud enough for us to hear this initial warning. Less than a minute later, usually right around 4:03 p.m., the official announcement blares over the facility-wide PA system. It is followed quickly by a more localized notice from the sergeant in the control booth:

“Stand by for count!”

(In medium custody the Sgt. says, “Lock down for count.” Minimum custody inmates are allowed to leave their cell door cracked during count but medium custody folks have to “lock down.”)

The count procedure is always a little entertaining – or at least it’s what passes for entertainment in here. Despite its mind numbing predictability, at least a few guards and inmates are always unprepared.

The guards account for every inmate by marking their presence on a laminated sheet of paper. It’s pretty low-tech. Invariably, there’s a guard ransacking the control booth in search of a grease pen or looking around for an absent counting partner.

Without fail, at least one inmate refuses to hasten his toilette regimen or a game of pinochle is deemed too important to pause. So we wait. I suppose it’s a small way of asserting themselves – of making it seem like they’ve got something more important to do than be imprisoned. But that’s a damn small reward to balance against risk getting “charged” for interfering with the count.

While we wait, a chorus of heckling slowly builds. On the rare occasion when a female guard is doing the count, you’ll hear a few, “Let me get that’s.” It’s embarrassing. Often it results in an even slower count.

At some point, everyone gets to the right place. Inmates stand in their cells displaying their ID badges and guards make their rounds.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 6.16.44 PM

In my minimum custody pod, people are occasionally reprimanded for pushing the boundaries of the SOP (standard operating procedure) by talking to other inmates around their cell doors. It’s sort of counterintuitive, but the inmates who push hardest against the count procedure are typically the ones who’ve only recently made it into minimum custody. It’s the mouse and the cookie, I suppose. Put an inmate in min. custody where he doesn’t have to be locked in his cell during count, and he’ll want to talk to his buddies as well.

The counting of inmates, once started, only takes a few minutes. But it’s always a little more stressful than it really should be. Not because of the depressing groundhog-day nature of it all or the annoying assertions of personhood, but because the inmates are never quite sure which standards we’re going to go by today. The count, more so than any other event, is the daily ritual with the most pendulous standards. Yesterday it was fine to just be sleeping in your bunk with your ID badge affixed to your cell door during count. Today, you must be standing at attention with your ID badge held at shoulder height in front of you. Tomorrow…who knows?

The inconsistency makes the whole procedure a little nervey. Like I’ve mentioned, small things – miniscule things – can get blown way out of proportion here. Inmates cling desperately to whatever tiny freedoms they have (like being able to take peanut butter packets out of the dining facility – when they stopped allowing us to do that, there was much grinding and gnashing of teeth). So when a guard tells an inmate who’s sitting on his bed, “Get up, you have to get up and touch your badge for count.” More often than not, the inmate will start arguing. And what is never a good idea when you’re in prison? Arguing with your guards, that’s what. I’ve seen inmates sent to the SHU (max custody) because they used “provoking words or gestures” towards guards who told them to get up and touch their ID badge during count. That said, I’ve also seen inmates give guards lip and have nothing happen. I’ve seen inmates sleep through count with no negative repercussions. I’ve also seen them lose custody and get sent to medium security because they were asleep for count, and rather just than wake them up, a guard submitted paperwork.

Me – I’m not playing these games. I’ve read the SOP and I do what it says. There’s no way I’m risking parole on this count B.S. So when I was standing at my door with my ID badge attached to my left breast pocket, as per SOP, and the guard doing the count told me he needed to see me touch my badge, at first I laughed – because obviously he was messing with me. Then he stared me down and that peach fuzz mustache he was trying to grow was pretty intimidating. So I touched my damn badge. That was attached to me.

Give a private a cookie…and he’ll want to lord it over every one.

Min. custody folks can return to the common room and get back to whatever time-passing activity they were doing before count started. Med. custody inmates, however, have to remain in their cells with the doors locked until the facility-wide count is complete. If it takes more than an hour to “clear the count,” then everyone gets locked in their cells and another count is conducted. Big sigh. And then everyone starts rotating through the dining facility for dinner. Another count complete.

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