Our society is in a collective moment of reckoning with the sins of our past- at least those of us willing to be honest are. Centuries of harm caused by colonialism, slavery, racial oppression and a western world dominated by the interest of white men have culminated into a barrage of modern-day resistance movements and widespread critical discourse on these themes.
One space where this discourse is distorted- if present at all- is within the walls of American prisons, especially male prisons. Here, the historical plagues of racism and misogyny are endemic; centuries of racial hostility manifest into extreme segregation, and a violently toxic masculinity poisons the seeds of any debate about women’s rights or roles in society.
It is predictable, even if ironic, that communities of people deemed expendable by society would exhibit the symptoms of the society’s most virulent illnesses. A vast majority of prisoners experienced adverse childhoods in poor, racially segregated pockets of America and many were also witnesses to, or victims of domestic violence. But like any guilty party, America attempts to bury the evidence of it’s most egregious sins, rather than confront them directly. But prisons aren’t burial grounds- not permanent ones, anyways. 19 out of 20 prisoners will eventually return to the society which deemed them unfit.
The lack of exposure to conversations about topics like racism and hyper-masculinity is just one more obstacle to add to the catalogue of stumbling blocks in the path to healthy reorientation and reentry to society.
Outdated and outright appalling narratives about women and ethnic groups are still dominant themes in prison culture. Over- incarceration and overcrowding in prisons has led to unsafe environments and the prioritization of security to the point of apathy towards educational pursuits, leaving little will to address issues like these, which derive from lack of exposure to informed discourse. From the correctional regime’s perspective however, information is the enemy- any force that would empower the population would also make them more of a risk.
If the system’s purpose is to administer “justice” on the behalf of the public, then they are doing a great disservice to the public by sheltering prisoners from intellectual growth with increasingly prohibitive measures. The lack of access to local resources like guest lecturers and volunteer educators leaves a prison population isolated from cultural debates and community engagement which could provide purpose for their lives. These are the types of discussions we need to have if we want to produce anything resembling “justice” within a prison, and build communities of formerly incarcerated people who are ready to make a better future for all of us.
These Top Three Posts have the highest number of views on Quora.com, where I’ve had a total of 105 K views (all content) since I began posting answers on December 16, 2018. https://www.quora.com/profile/Wayne-T-Dowdy
Most viewed posts within the last thirty days (01/25/19-02/25/19):
Answered: January 26, 2019, by Wayne T. Dowdy
How are new inmates treated when they first come to prison?
Prison life has a lot of variables. The older cons often keep a new prisoner at a distance until they learn more about them, such as their criminal history and certain characteristics (e.g., depending on the old-timers, most want to know if they’re a rat, sex offender, coward, drug user, rich or poor).
If the new prisoner gets accepted, he will be looked out for and provided things people need walking in the door with nothing but a blanket roll (e.g., in the federal system: sheets, blanket, mini-care packet with a small packet of soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and a tooth brush).
Then there are those who will befriend a new prisoner to use and take advantage of, while others will truly befriend the new arrival by treating him the same way he wants to be treated.
Most new people are greeted by other prisoners, who will ask questions, with the main ones being, “Where you from?” “Who you run with?” or some variants, thereof, and if accepted, will provide the new prisoner with needed items, such as cosmetics, a few soups, maybe even a radio and headphones, if he has impeccable credentials for life inside prison.
If rejected or from the wrong area or gang, he’ll get run off the compound or carried off after suffering more physical abuse than he may deserve.
21 k Views, 39-Upvotes
Can you survive and stay healthy on food provided to you in prison? Is the food clean and nutritious enough, or do you need to order out like the rest of the inmates?
Updated: February 19, 2019, by Wayne T. Dowdy
I can only write about my life while serving time in the Georgia Department of Corrections and in the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons. This is what I wrote, in part, on December 19, 2016 in “Gratitude and More”:
“12/25/2011: On Christmas Day, I sat in my cell reading my favorite magazine (THE SUN). “Chow time,” the guard shouted.
“I rushed to the chow hall. Inside, I sat at a rectangular table of four with three of my peers. One person stood to leave. Each of us exchanged Christmas greetings, wishing him a Merry Christmas before a 27-year-old youngster sat down to take his place.
“The one who sat to the right of the youngster had just complained how the Cornish game hen was small. I had previously tried to maintain the attitude of gratitude at the table by commenting how it was good, though, it was smaller than those we had had in the past. It was still tasty. I simply agreed with the other guy about it being smaller than usual. I labeled it as a “Cornish Game Chick.”
“That’s when the youngster sat down. “There sure are a lot of complaining people at this prison,” he said.
“His words filled me with guilt. He had once told me that both of his parents were still in state prison. I realized his parents were probably doing worse than all of us at the table.
“The youngster’s comment helped redirect the nature of our conversations toward what we were grateful for.
“I shared my favorite saying by an author whose name I do know to give him or her their credit due (“I complained of having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”).
“I continued to express gratitude for the well-prepared meal; knowing we were all fortunate to have what sat before us, as we compared our plight to others incarcerated in state and other federal prisons, who probably wished they could eat as good as we were.
“This is what we had to complain about: a Cornish game hen, black-eyed peas, which were really good; collard greens, rolls or wheat bread (I chose wheat bread); an individually packaged cherry pie, chocolate cup cake, and some other stuff I probably forgot. I ate my fill.
“Each of us walked away feeling more grateful for the meal we had been blessed with because we had stopped for a moment to remember the less fortunate in life.
“Not only do I have two feet and nice shoes, I have a fat belly filled with gratitude. I hope each of you have a wonderful Christmas meal and feel fortunate for the freedom you share in a less than perfect world.
“ Along the same theme as above, I wrote this on America’s Turkey Day:
“THANKSGIVING DAY 2016: Happy Thanksgiving Day to each of you. If you feel like you don’t have much to be thankful for because of the hardships life has thrown at you this year, stop to think of all you have to be grateful for; perhaps you have food to eat; two feet, two arms, shoes on your feet, and clothes to warm your body, a place to stay and be safe. Feel fortunate.
“When I find myself disgruntled for having to wait for an hour in the commissary to purchase a few items, I try to stop and remember those who wish they had my problems, financially able to shop for a few items needed to maintain a decent level of living inside this prison. That makes me feel grateful for the opportunity, rather than disgruntled and agitated for having to wait as I listen to loud mouths shouting to the man next to them, disturbing the peace, killing the sound of silence.
“Upon remembrance of the less fortunate, I find myself grateful for the simple things in life I often take for granted. Be thankful for those you have in your life who love and care for you. Happy Thanksgiving!” [End Quote] GRATITUDE AND MORE
[2017–2018]: The recent federal budgets reduced available funds to prison administrators. When a warden saves money by operating under the approved budget, he or she may receive a bonus. At the last federal institution I lived at, the warden received hefty bonuses by reducing the operating cost.
Thousands of dollars saved came from her reducing food service expenditures and by reducing staff, much like private prisons operate to theoretically save taxpayer dollars.
Many times I sat eating and feeling regret for those who could not afford to have food in their locker to supplement the meal; however, overall, the food was well-prepared and most of the staff allowed inmates to go through the line twice, because they knew the meal was less than what the menu required to meet dietary requirements for adequate nutrition.
State prisoners are probably fed less but could survive with what is served. Though they could survive, that does not mean they would not walk away hungry and suffer from health-related issues due to dietary deficiencies.
5.1k Views, 15-Upvotes
When does the day start for inmates in federal prison?
Answered: February 4, 2019, by Wayne T. Dowdy
From my experience, when the day starts for federal inmates varies according to the prison and the employment position held by the prisoner. For most of the prisons I was in, which included four United States Penitentiaries and one Federal Correctional Institution, the doors opened by 6:00 am under normal circumstances.
In the lower-security prisons, certain prisoners assigned to food service (chow hall) may leave the unit for work as early as 4:00 am, whereas the majority who work in the chow hall won’t leave until approximately 6:30-7:00 am.
Those schedules and processes vary according to the security rating of the prisoner and institution. For instance, high-security institutions that house inmates assigned as Max. Custody, may not allow those inmates to work in certain positions where more readily-available weapons or tools may be used to aid in an escape plan, or during high-risk periods (when visibility is reduced, such as when foggy or before sunrise or after sunset).
For thirteen of the thirty-years, I was a maximum custody prisoner which required that I stay in a high-security institution; however, the only consistency in management techniques to control me was inconsistency. The way I was managed because of my custody/security rating, varied according to the Captain of the institution.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ program statement for Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification (P.5100.08), approved 09/12/2006, and other referenced documentation, establishes security protocols for management of its prisoners.
In the Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (UNICOR), where I worked for most of the thirty-years I served, we reported to work at 7:30 am. The cell house doors opened at 6:00 am for the general population to begin their day.
2.8k Views, 11-Upvotes
If I add in the fourth, the previous champ comes in with 18.4 K total views and 84-Upvotes.
How does serving time in a federal prison compare to serving time in a state prison?
(Question Modified) Answered: December 26, 2018, by Wayne T. Dowdy
When I first began my sentence, an old-timer said, “The states control you physically and the feds do it psychologically.”
I found that true. The feds use incentive-mechanisms to control its prisoners (gives prisoners something to lose, recreation privileges, more freedom of movement, better living conditions; something authorities take or restrict access to for misbehavior).
The typical prisoner mentality in the federal system is milder, less violent than many state prisoners. Again, an old-timer gave me a few words of wisdom:
“The federal system lulls people to sleep because it’s more laid-back, and there’s not as much violence every day, so guys forget where they’re at because they get away with so much. And then when one of them does something stupid to the wrong person, he gets stabbed or killed.”
I behaved better in the federal system than when I served time in the State of Georgia, where violence dominates every day activities.
My published writings show the difference between the young knucklehead I was while serving time in Georgia where I didn’t have much to lose, in comparison to the responsible man I become, due in part to the aging process and having programs available to help me change. Read The Price of Change by Wayne T. Dowdy, Midnight Express Books, for an example of the differences in my behaviors in the State versus the Federal system.
Being paid for working in the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) made a significant difference because it allowed me to take care of myself, rather than to burden my family for support, and that made me feel better as a human being.
The difference in my behavior illustrates the effectiveness of incentive programs, as well as the difference in the life of a prisoner serving time in a federal or state system; however, prisoner experiences vary.
__________________________________________________________ Purchase the latest paperback novel by Wayne T. Dowdy, Guns, Drugs and Thugs: Drug Store Spree, $6.95 USD at Amazon.com
[I posted this as a Guest Post, with permission of the author. Now I am posting it as regular post for it to receive more views, because of the value I feel it holds to those who visit this page and others associated with going to prison and related issues.]
Nothing could have prepared me for the day that I got arrested. It was a bleak January morning in 2008 and I was at my rented house with my mom and two of my sons. I was not surprised by my arrest since I knew it was going to happen although just didn’t know what day. The knock on my door filled me with apprehension as I answered it. The moment I laid eyes on the man standing in my doorway, I knew exactly what he had come for. He was accompanied by a couple of police officers and that’s when the exhaustion and relief hit me all at once. I was glad the waiting was finally over while consumed with a fear of the unknown.
The very worst part of that day was not the arrest itself, nor the shame in what I had become. Watching my family, witnessing me get arrested was one of the worst gut-wrenching feelings that I would ever experience and probably never forget. The detective was kind enough to let me tell my then four-year-old son, a lie that he was taking me to the police station to help them out in catching a criminal. It wasn’t entirely a lie, he just wasn’t aware that the criminal was his own mother. The detective didn’t even handcuff me until we were outside by the police car out of sight by my young son. To this day, I will never forget the sorrow, regret and shame that I felt on that day.
One of my older sons was there also who was well over the age to understand. I hated that, at 17-years old, he was watching his mom slowly turn into a monster right before his very eyes. Falling from grace in your children’s eyes, in my opinion, is much worse than falling from grace in your mother or father’s eyes. What a way to get to know your mom’s true colors. The darkness and depression on that day was overwhelming and my future was bleak to say the least.
Without going through all the legalities of the charges just yet, in a nutshell, I was arrested for embezzling at my bookkeeping job for a home products company. I thought I had sealed my fate and was headed for several years in prison. At the age of 37, I had lived long enough to understand that I was facing a very difficult future. What hurt me the most was that I stood the chance of not being there to raise my youngest son. That was very important to me because in my mind at the time, he was the last chance I had a being a good mom. I had literally fucked up with all my other kids. I always wanted to be a good mother, but let other things get in the way, including my crazy mind.
I wanted a change so bad at that time in my life. I had been pretending to the world that my life was fine and that I was financially capable of handling everything on my own. I had become exhausted with the pretenses and with the dependency on the extra paychecks that I was illegally writing to myself. That’s why I was relieved that it was over.
Despite my overwhelming sorrow and self-loathing, I mustered up the courage to change my attitude almost from day one. I had decided on my ride in the police car that I was going to do my very best from that day forward. I knew I needed help mentally and emotionally and had made a decision to do my part. What’s that saying in the Bible about sweeping out demons? Something along the lines of when you clean one out, several more come back in. Little did I know that I would be in for experiencing the most challenges that I ever had experienced in my life by deciding to become a criminal.
Prisoners shout various Early Warning Codes to forewarn others. I recently learned that at some Georgia prisons, the Early Warning Code is “Twelve,” which I learned on Quora.com. At one prison, other men used Top Rock or Bottom Rock to indicate where the staff member walked (top or bottom tier).
The reason an inmate may shout that (12) is because, for instance, that a correctional officer or staff member enters a living area at the “12 O’clock” position, or that “12” is just one of the many “Early Warning Codes” used.
Staff may exhibit the same behavior, after getting used to prisoners using the Early Warning Code to let others know they’re on the prowl.
In the early Eighties I was at the Georgia State Prison (GSP) in Reidsville (The Great White Elephant), where the first version of “The Longest Yard” was filmed that starred Burt Reynolds. We used “Fire in the Hole” as our Early Warning Code to forewarn others that a correctional officer or staff member was entering the cellblock/living area.
Several staff members would walk in the door and shout, “Fire in the Hole.”
That may be because, in 1982, a federal monitor said that the Federal government had declared the prison as the most dangerous prison in the United States. Vincent N., the Federal Monitor appointed to monitor the prison for compliance with a Federal lawsuit (Guthrie v. Evans), made the claim of which I still challenge as factually incorrect.
I was an inmate representative in reformation process, voted in by my peers to represent the Whites for mediation during racial and legal disputes (to help resolve issues without killing each other and to help get the prison in compliance with the court orders).
I said, “How can we be the most violent prison when more people got killed in the New Mexico prison?”
“That was during a time of riot,” he said. “We’re talking about a time of non-riot. During a general run of the prison, y’all had thirty-five inmate-to-officer attacks, fifty inmate-to-inmate attacks, and six-murders.”
I suspect that because of the extreme level of violence, most staff members did not want to walk up on prisoners doing something illegal or unauthorized, which would require an un-favored response that may result in another staff assault.
In the past, one correctional officer had been robbed and killed by prisoners. One prisoner removed a watch from his arm as he lay dying on the floor from a heart attack.
During my four-year stay at GSP, a male correctional officer was raped by a prisoner, of whom the prisoner had put a knife to his throat and pulled him into the cell, where the unthinkable happened.
The era of violence at that prison ended. Reorganization resulted in the reduced violence, as the more dangerous prisoners are more closely monitored and controlled.
But I am sure there are still those who will shout whatever the trending “Early Warning” signal may be for a staff member entering the area.
[Updated with comments on August 9, 2019, a year after walking out of the prison gates (08/28/2018), still attempting to recover from the damage caused by thirty-years and ten-days inside the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons.]
Prison damages people. Those who spend decades in prison are damaged in many ways, all of which I will not go into. For instance, exposure to violence or physical abuse that people deal with, or repressing natural tendencies to fight when having to comply with irrational demands; e.g., like ones I wrote about in “The Truth About Incarceration, Part I” (https:/straightfromthepen.com) and “Authority and a Prisoner’s Story” (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/508702).
DON’T GET PERSONAL: A less than obvious example of damage, occurs for someone like me — a southern gentleman by nature who likes to assist people I see carrying a heavy load or otherwise look to need help; especially, women, who represses the natural desire to help. To engage in a personal conversation may also create difficulties.
At times, I resist the desire to offer help due to fear of causing a conflict for the damsel in distress. I still offer to help in certain situations. Because of prison regulations and the warped, unwritten code of prison ethics, I may avoid speaking openly about an issue I would normally speak about to a person I feel I can help by offering a suggestion.
The person may or may not accept a helping hand. In such a situation, an inmate may decline assistance at the fear of being seen as weak or vulnerable. A staff member may decline due to fear of another staff member suspecting improprieties between him or her and the compassionate prisoner. Personal conversations and any type of transaction between staff and inmates are viewed as inappropriate by many prisoners and staff alike. Humanity prohibited!
INSTINCTS DENIED: My instinct is to help others. Sometimes I don’t because of the risk I may put the other person in by doing what comes natural. Knowing that my act of kindness may harm the other person, makes me reluctant to offer the assistance my ethics and natural instincts tells me to do, as a decent human being.
Upon release, I will have to undo decades of damage done by the prison experience: suppressing healthy emotions and needs. I must learn to be a normal.
[I continue to work on behaving as I normally would do as a free citizen, if not for the damage caused by the extensive incarceration. I still struggle when it comes to relationships. I am a decent, loving, kind, and gentle human being, who doesn’t have to pretend to be bullet proof.]
I sent out the following message to a friend who posted it on social media for me. A lot of people liked it so I will share:
“03/05/17: To all my Faithful Friends: I hope March brings each of you lots of love and success or whatever your hearts desire. For me, I’d be happy to be able to walk through a park or to sit on a lake to listen and observe the beauty of nature; to give someone a hug, kiss someone special, or to just be able to sit and watch animals; or to pet a dog, cat, rabbit, or a chicken. 🙂 Hell, I’d be happy to watch some fish swim around in an aquarium. I am looking forward to going to the Georgia Aquarium to see some really big fish! So much in life people take for granted until it’s gone. One day soon I will be reentering the human race. Then I will be able to interact with each of you like a normal person. Have a great day! Wayne”
[Georgia Aquarium: I walked by the Georgia Aquarium en route to a job fair at the City of Refuge, but have not been to watch the fish swim. I will go soon now that I’m working and can afford to buy the tickets. Everything is expensive! Update 08/02/2020: I did visit the Georgia Aquarium with loved ones and enjoyed the experience but was shocked by the entry-cost and food prices.]
The above indicates the desensitization of prisoners. For over 28-1/2 years, my physical contact with other humans and mammals has been severely restricted. That is definitely true on an intimate level about lovers and sexual intercourse! During this sentence, I have resisted romantic-relationships. I’ve only been involved in three since 1988, and only one of those included physical contact (hugs and kisses on a visit).
At U.S.P. Atlanta, I had one female visitor I got to hug and kiss, and some mice to pet. 🙂
In Lompoc, California, I got to take care of a friend’s pet house sparrow, and to go outside to feed the seagulls, crows, other birds, and ground squirrels. I fed the ground squirrels until the administration poisoned them. 😦
In a relationship, I love to hug and touch, to put my arm around my mate’s waist or shoulder, to sleep with my arm around her to maintain contact. I guess I am by nature, a “touchy-feely” kind of guy. In prison, I sleep alone and touch myself.
SEXUAL REPRESSION: In 1980-81, when I took psychology in college, I seem to recall that a prominent psychologist or psychiatrist wrote about the damaging effect of suppressing sexual feelings and desires. If that is true, I must be more damaged than I realize. Perhaps I need a therapist, now!
In my opinion, sexual repression is a leading causes of mental illness in America.
Around 1997, a Nevada, Holier-than-Thou politician, pushed a bill through Congress that prohibited federal prisoners from receiving magazines or books containing nudity. [Ensign later resigned due to negative publicity about his extramarital affairs.]
CENSORSHIP & COMPLEX REASONING: Several years ago, the prison mail room staff rejected an issue of Smithsonian I subscribed to because it contained nudity. I appealed.
The program statement makes an exception for educational or anthropological content, as one may see in National Geographic; however, understanding an “exception clause” requires cognitive thinking; an ability to comprehend the subject matter and its relation to the provision; to then analyze the situation and decide whether the matter before one’s eye, does in fact, contain what constitutes a permissible exception, a far too complicated process for someone who may not have a GED, I reckon.
The Smithsonian Board of Directors has Supreme Court justices and politicians. If I was wrong in my assertions, the justices and politicians on the Board of Directors support publishing and distributing pornography.
I appealed the decision to reject my Smithsonian. I took it to the highest level in Washington, DC. No one involved comprehended the “exception clause” and upheld the denial of my magazine. Censorship won because I didn’t want to spend $500.00 to litigate the matter in federal court, where someone with the required intelligence could understand the educational/anthropological, “exception clause.”
PERVERSION & THE POLITICIAN: Since that policy took effect, I saw a dramatic increase of inmates put in the hole (confined to a cell 23-hours per day, restricted from purchasing most commissary items, using the phone, email system, etc.) for “gunning down” female staff members (masturbating or exposing genitalia while watching the woman). That may qualify as abnormal behavior.
The politician who sponsored the censorship bill, later came under fire for getting caught cheating on his wife. Throughout the years, many of the politicians who come up with such bills did what prisoners in the Georgia prison system called “Shifting the Heat,” which is to say or to do things to put the focus on other people to keep it away from themselves.
CELIBATE BY CHOICE: In prison, I remain celibate because I choose not to participate in homosexual activities, my only other option since I do not have or attempt to have sexual affairs with staff members. Even if involved in a heterosexual relationship with someone, I still couldn’t engage in sexual activities, even if someone visited me. While visiting, prison rules limit physical contact to hugs and kisses when greeting and leaving. Therefore, I remain celibate and will do so until I reenter that part of humanity upon release from prison.
LOMPOC CA: In 1999, while I was at the United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, California, a tall and pretty, female staff member worked in M-Unit, along with a male staff member known to create drama with staff and inmates alike.
M-Unit is where those of us with high profiles were kept. I lived in it because I was a maximum custody prisoner. The administration scored me as Maximum custody due to violence and an escape in 1981, when I was a 24-year-old knucklehead in the Georgia prison system. Today I am a model prisoner.
PRETTY WOMAN: That tall and pretty woman was a mother of three. The male guard wanted her to sit in a booth where the correctional officers, who worked in the unit, had a phone, small desk, drawers, and a cabinet to store their personal and work-related items.
She rebelled. Instead, she chose to speak with me, within his view. We stood talking on a tier, in an open area, where others could hear our conversation. To learn how she might help raise her children, she asked about my childhood and history, and wanted to know what I thought lead to me spending my life in prison. Our conversation was wholesome, no improprieties of any sort.
The next time I saw her, she asked if I’d be willing to give her an affidavit about our conversation, if she needed it.
“Sure,” I said.
The male guard wrote a complaint against her for fraternizing with an inmate.
Because of that experience, I sometimes avoided conversations with female staff members, who may have only wanted to engage in conversation to ease their tension from working in a male prison.
When sexually attracted, I must resist the impulse to flirt or to make an advance. A rejection might result in a trip to the hole and a damaged ego, the damaged ego being the worst casualty of rejection.
[Today, I resist the urge to flirt or ask for a date because of some of the BS generated through the ME TOO movement, where many people filed complaints and alleged sexual abuse by those in power positions (most of which were legitimate complaints, I suspect). The main reason is because of personal circumstanceand for reasons I wrote about in previous blog posts, and because I don’t think it’s what I need until I become more accustomized to living on the outside.]
As damaged as I may be from the prison experience, I will blend into society when I am released. With a little help from my friends, and maybe a therapist or two, I will be okay and become a success story.
[Returning Citizen: I am a success story, as are all of the men and women who returned to society and have not returned to prison life.]
Purchase books by Wayne T. Dowdy from your favorite bookstores or Amazon.com. For best buys on eBooks from his authors page at Smashwords.com.
Prisoners do not have a choice about which prison authorities place them in, nor can they control who moves in a cell or dormitory where they live. At least, legally they cannot, but sometimes do. Those facts often led to prison violence and negative results. Prison does not have to be negative as a whole.
DANGEROUS CHARACTER: Five months before I was arrested, a woman gave birth to a child who grew up to be a tall, handsome, muscular, young man. He moved into the cell with me on September 21, 2016. I later learned that he was a paid hit man who severed limbs for a living.
He showed no mercy to the living or the dead as he wielded a chainsaw to accomplish his goals; a highly dangerous, Indiana Jones type of fellow. He used a shovel and stepped outside the boundaries of the law when he chose to dig up remains left behind by people before him in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina.
How can another man close his eyes to rest when knowing he is locked into a 8′ x 10′ x 12′ cell designed for one, housing two men in a bathroom, while knowing the other occupant is so dangerous that he dared to dig deep into the soil for artifacts left behind by Cherokee Native Americans?
HIS CRIME: Arrowheads, that’s right, arrowheads, rocks; he’s in prison for digging up rocks, approximately thirty feet outside an authorized area.
HIS SENTENCE: one-year probation for a non-violent crime. And then he violated the terms of probation and landed in a prison cell with a man serving thirty-five years for violent crimes, a man with a long history of committing crimes of violence.
SHARED HISTORIES: Both of us have a history of substance abuse. He still struggles. I do not. I have lived clean and sober for almost twenty-two years since he was about seven years old.
On August 1, 1985, I was released from the Georgia prison system. I was twenty-eight years old, his age. I read the tea leaves and saw him traveling down the same path that I did. The path that led to me spending most of my life in prison for committing crimes to get high.
During the past five months, I strived to be a positive influence in his life by showing him parts of my life that lead me to “here.” My life proves people can change.
My hope is for him to get out and stay out of prison. He made the mistake of choosing the road of Bad Decisions. That does not mean that he must continue to travel down that road.
Good people make bad mistakes, too!
MENTORING IN UNLIKELY PLACES: He has stayed clean and sober while here. I have mentored and tried to help him avoid making decisions with negative consequences. He listened more often than not and will leave here next week to go back to the peaceful town at the foothills of the North Carolina mountains, where he has a loving family waiting to help him get on with his life.
WHAT IF: What if he had been assigned to a cell with a practicing addict or knucklehead who thrived on drama? Seeing or smelling drugs makes it more difficult for an addict to stay clean; especially, when that addict is trapped in a cage with demons he or she fights every day of their life.
In prison, it is common for peers to encourage violent responses when the actions of others are perceived as being disrespectful. I encouraged him to think of getting back out to be with his family when dealing with perceived threats to the ego.
What if we had not gotten along and got into fights? I would have probably got my old ass beat up, maybe even accidentally or intentionally killed, or otherwise have had to commit a serious act of violence to protect myself.
Historically, a lot of youngsters ended up in graveyards by messing with old folks. Besides that, a person can’t win beating up elders: they look bad if they beat them up and look bad if the older man or woman beats them up, so it’s best to just leave the old, cantankerous rascals alone with their muscle rub, Tylenol, and multiple medications to treat ailments.
What would have been my cellmate’s chance of using prison as an opportunity to change his life, if he had instead fallen into the darker side of prison life, where men prey upon each other to appease their self-interest, rather than to support changes that increase a prisoner’s chance of getting out to live a better life as a productive member of society?
Many men and women come to prison and never get out because of decisions made before or after incarceration. Society loses when its citizens perish in prison.
ANOTHER LOST LIFE: In “A Prisoner’s Story,” I began by writing about the murder of “Bandit.” He battled with another prisoner inside a cell at U.S.P. Lompoc. He lost.
I wrote, “I had known him for several years. He and I were all right with each other, but I knew that by the warped sense of justice, silently written into the prison code by unknown authors, that he had it coming because of what he had done to others. Bandit was a gangbanger who ran with his affiliates and extorted weaker prisoners so that they could buy heroin with the money. He was also one of the many who I have seen get out of prison and return, a recidivist. All he needed to walk out the door as a free man was to survive four more months.”
Based upon such experiences, I know how easy it is to make a fatal mistake or to make bad decisions with long consequences. I made such a decision when I agreed to steal a car to commit a jewelry store robbery that never happened. I got into the car with two people who became my codefendants in the bank robbery and associated crimes that I am in prison for committing.
It is easy to land in prison for decades or the rest of your life.
I conclude A Prisoner’s Story with, “I have seen many lives devastated by coming to prison for petty crimes and then learning new tricks from old and new prisoners alike, just as I did. One thing the gullible prisoner fails to consider is the source of the information: Someone sitting inside of a prison and bragging about how easy it is to get away with crime does not have impressive credentials, considering that they “are” in prison. If crimes went as planned, then prisons would not be filled to capacity, as they are in the United States. People have to wait in line to come to prison, because there is a long waiting list, especially for the mentally ill, dope fiends, alcoholics, illegal aliens.”
[Purchase “A Prisoner’s Story” as part of ESSAYS & MORE STRAIGHT FROM THE PEN by Wayne T. Dowdy at http://www.straightfromthepen.com or at your favorite online or offline bookseller.
NOT A TYPICAL SIXTY YEAR OLD: “You aren’t like other old people are. You like the same music I do and I can talk to you about how I feel or anything else.”
That’s true. I am not like a normal man approaching sixty. Experts say that using drugs arrests a person’s emotional growth and development. I started using drugs at the age of eleven, so I am really thirty-three going on sixty.
Because of that, we can laugh and joke, or engage in meaningful conversations to show the follies of our pasts that ultimately led us to be in a prison cell together. By us being able to do so, helps him to see why those behaviors are not productive and give a good reason to avoid doing it again.
A GOD THING: When he first arrived here, the staff at Receiving & Discharge told him to move to cell #409, which was the cell I had moved from that morning. A prisoner who practiced Islam influenced the cell house officer to move him into cell #414, the cell where we now reside.
BLESSINGS: He told his mother about the positive influence I was in his life. “Mother said God knew I needed to be around an older person that I’d listen to,” he said. God does work in mysterious ways.
God put him in the cell with me without asking my permission. How dare He do that! He gives me what I need, not what I want. In this case, it turned out to be a rewarding and positive experience. God answered my prayer. Before he moved in, I prayed my next cellmate would be someone not into any of the things I do not do.
I am not into drugs, alcohol, weapons, or anything illegal. I am almost a saint, Saint Wayne, I may be called one day. I let all cellmates know from the start that I do not get high and do not want any BS around me. When I told him that, he said, “That’s a blessing because I am trying to change my life.”
We knew God had put him right where he needed to be. God also put him in the cell with me because he was the type of person I needed to be around because I love helping others who want to change their lives in a positive manner.
In my life, God has always worked in mysterious ways. Who would think He lived in prisons, too?
TREE SURGEON: Back to my chainsaw wielding cellmate. He is a tree surgeon people pay to come cut or trim trees to improve the safety of their homes by removing threatening tree limbs, or to beautify their property by taking out unsightly trees and forage. Trees hate to see him coming!
Wayne T. Dowdy writes Straight from the Pen. Visit http://www.straightfromthepen.com today. Follow his blogs on straightfromthepen.wordpress.com or waynedowdy.weebly.com.