Cry Baby, Santa, and the Easter Bunny

Someone once asked me what the holidays are like here. I chuckled to myself before answering. That’s actually a very good question. Well, I thought, there’s many ways I could answer this question and none of them are short and sweet. So I simply said, “If you only knew.” I was part serious and part kidding. Nothing here is normal during the holidays!

This is originally part of an entry from my journal from 2017. Before I wrote for all of you, I used to write just for myself. It’s a form of self-therapy and my way of staying focused. After some consideration, I’ve decided to share it with you in this post. So, let’s get on with it I say.

The holidays are the hardest time of the year for anyone incarcerated. Guys get depressed and irritable. They mope. They drift. This time of the year magnifies the truth of your situation; that you cannot be with the ones that you love because of your actions. For most guys, the holidays are the exclamation point behind this fact. Mercifully, the holidays become less painful as time progresses, especially if you’ve been pulling a long sentence. It has nothing to do with caring less, but everything to do with learning how to cope. You learn how to control your emotions and how to distract yourself enough from always thinking of home. You also learn how to deal with those around you better.

As I write, it’s Thanksgiving 2017. The holidays have arrived again. I always throw myself a celebration, usually centered around making something to eat. Inmates call it making a ‘break’ (which, to thoroughly confuse all of you, in This World can be meant as a verb as in “He’s breaking,” or a noun, as in “I made a break,” or even an adjective, as in “Let’s break.”). This year was no different. I made burritos and ate enough food to feed a small village, me and a couple of guys, and I’ll do it again on Christmas and New Year’s. It’s how I celebrate the holidays and it’s how I stay grounded.

It wasn’t always like this for me though. Several years passed before I stopped feeling sorry for myself during the holidays. This time of the year used to be very depressing and I loathed it. But once I took responsibility for my situation, and began viewing life through a new lens, the holidays became happy for me again. Yeah, I’ve had my bad moments over the holidays. There’s tension amongst the inmate population and it is easy to run into someone who is irritated or pissed off. As an example, using the phones during the holidays can be downright harrowing. At my institution there are six phones in every cell block, all of them situated in a tiny room that’s shaped like a gas chamber. This is better than some institutions in the country, but still crappy because there are only six phones for hundreds of inmates.

Six…phones.

On Thanksgiving, everyone wants to call home. You’re lucky to get a hold of a phone let alone one when you need to. As a result emotions run high for some guys. It’s common to hear arguments. Yet, Thanksgiving pales in comparison to one other holiday: Christmas.

Christmas is the worst! Not only does everyone use the telephone, but there’s always guys who are visibly irritated. Throw in that one idiot who is always on the phone yelling at his wife or girlfriend and you have a powder keg awaiting ignition.

Then you have those that are simply grumpy because they hate themselves and they hate life. You may not notice them at first but they’re around. I always keep an eye out for these types. These are the men that go from zero to Cry Baby in the blink of an eye over the stupidest things.

“Hey, you grabbed the phone I wanted!”

“You’re talking too loud!”

“You’re redialing!”

Wah-wah.

I can’t begin to tell you how annoying it is to hear someone cry because you’ve redialed. First off, the phone system here sucks. It’s like this at institutions the country over. Calls constantly get dropped for no apparent reason; the phone you’re on decides to work intermittently; the sound cuts you in and out; you can’t hear your caller, and the list goes on. Every offender in the country can attest to this. Redialing has become almost a recognized finger sport it’s so bad.

There will never come a time where I will forfeit talking to my family just because someone doesn’t like it. Not going to happen. Sometimes this becomes confrontational. Early in my incarceration I literally fought, had to hit Cry Baby with the very receiver my father was on over something like this. All the while I could hear my father wondering what was happening on my end. I could hear him calling my name!

Then, when it was over, I went back to my conversation. It may sound crazy, but I tell you this is common during the holidays. Everyone expects something to happen, that’s how bad it is. You get used to it though.

What about other guys?

Many times I’ve been the one on the phone as the man next to me fought someone over the exact same thing. This always makes talking on the phone an adventure. There’s little space in the phone room as it is. When a fight erupts, those of us on the phones engage in a type of dance, moving and weaving around the two men fighting. Every time this happens I find myself thinking that hopefully they finish soon—there’s only 15 minutes per call.

Of course, the holidays are what you make of them. Guys around here can be a joking lot, and contrary to popular thought, there is a lot of laughter that goes on.

It seems like every Christmas someone dresses up as Santa Claus, or the festiveness of the holiday sparks someone to decorate the area. During years past, my institution has even held holiday decoration contests where we are encouraged to participate in decorating the housing unit. When I was at the higher security levels, this consisted of decorating your cell door or perhaps a community area in the cell block. It is awkward to be sure, as hardened cons resolutely refuse to participate, and you are guaranteed to hear about it if you participate.

However, in minimum security it’s different. The old school inmates here are men who have earned their way down, and most of them have long since shed that type of mentality. Holiday decorating consists of decorating all the communal areas as most facilities at this level do not have cells but open dorm bunk style plans. Frankly, it’s quite a sight to behold. Convicts tattooed from head to foot, rapists, thieves, and drug addicts all together in a shared common purpose: to celebrate the holiday season. The other 51 weeks of the year half of these men wouldn’t dare talk to the other half! Let alone cut out a construction paper snowflake. I smile thinking about it.

One more story before I go. Last year at Christmas, I went outside to walk in the freshly falling snow. Most guys stay off the yard when the weather is like that, but for me it’s a moment of peace and beauty in a dark and violent world. When I returned from my walk, I had barely thawed when I noticed that there was candy on my bunk. Out of fear of perpetuating a stereotype (‘never accept the candy on your pillow!), I was immediately suspicious. Who in the world would do such a thing? I wondered. At the moment where I had convinced myself that I had to get to the bottom of such a lewd joke, I turned and noticed that ALL the bunks had candy on them! What in tarnation, I thought, is going on?

“Hey, Christopher!” someone shouted from across the way. It was my friend Miami (and yes, he’s from Miami).

“What?” I said, but didn’t look.

“Ho-ho-ho!” he replied.

I looked and to my chagrin, there was Miami, his laundry net bag in hand full of candy as he went bunk to bunk passing out the bounty. He had made a Santa beard out of what, Lord only knows, and he had a red stocking cap with a poofy white ball on top that he had obviously knitted himself. “Ho-ho-ho,” he bellowed as he faded into the far distance. I stood there marveling. Just when you think you’ve seen everything you realize you haven’t.

There’s something about the holidays that brings out the better sides of guys. It isn’t always negative. One Easter some of the old schoolers created a sign informing everyone of an Easter egg hunt on the yard. They then posted it onto the cork message board in the units and what do you know? Dozens of guys showed up on the yard ready to hunt eggs! It was hilarious. I sat alone off to the side at one of the benches, drinking from a cup of coffee as I marveled at the scene. At first I was surprised at how gullible grown men can be, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that gullibility had little to do with it. Deep down, we all remember what it’s like to be a kid. The thought of an Easter egg hunt and the subconscious desire to mentally flee from This World was enough. Nevermind that it’s ludicrous that an Easter egg could ever find its way into a prison yard!

I know I started this post talking about how the holidays are stressful for some guys, but most men are able to make light of it all. If you can’t smile and laugh during the holidays, what’s the point?

—Christopher

Rehabilitation and Punishment

Today my mind has been on the revolving door of minimum security. I see guys come and go and come back so often that I frequently joke with guys leaving that I can hold some of their belongings for later. The inevitable response is a chuckle and “you won’t see me again!” Perhaps. But I usually can spot the guys who haven’t changed.

My incarceration has taught me a lot about myself. Here in Ohio, corrections has a dual mandate and that is to rehabilitate in addition to punish. Thus it is called the “Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.” I have a lot to say about this as the rehabilitation mandate is often underweighted by administrators and viewed without regard by the state parole board. I’ll cover this in detail as I go because this extracts a terrible cost from society when true. Those issues aside, offenders in Ohio may find themselves attending self-help programs, trade or educational classes such as GED studies or college classes (hosted and paid for by the local community college itself) as they serve their sentence. Most other states have a single mandate and that is to warehouse offenders until one’s sentence ends. In those states, the corrections mandate reads: “Department of Corrections.” Inmates there often find themselves sitting in a cell most of the day or working alongside a public road cleaning up trash. Each approach to incarceration has its strengths and weaknesses, but by far rehabilitation has the greater edge.

The rehabilitation mandate here has had a positive impact on me. Staff and offenders that know me will attest to this. It has enabled me to change my thinking and outlook on life. Unfortunately, the rehabilitation mandate is frequently misunderstood by the public and within the public sphere the vocal opposition minority is often heard and wins out in the end.

With regard to rehabilitation, change occurs when two critical elements are present: 1) a genuine desire by the offender to change, and 2) the active and constant assistance of correctional staff in steering offenders toward that path of change. When offenders and staff take rehabilitation seriously it is impossible for an offender not to change.

I have a great interest in rehabilitation. This wasn’t always so, but time changed my outlook on life. I have a unique perspective and extensive first hand experience. I’ve also studied and researched these topics, recently completing the first volume of a 3 volume criminal justice series (“By Unfair Means: A Look at the Ways of the Offender”; you can read Part One of my book here) for the criminal justice student and those working in community and institutional corrections. The thrust of the work is about how offenders can be helped to discover the path of rehabilitation, and how discovery is facilitated through staff intervention and assistance. I’ve witnessed the consequences when offenders and staff shun these efforts. The path to change is damaged and the cycle of crime perpetuates itself at a great cost to society. Rehabilitation is the key to reducing the rate of recidivism in the United States, and to breaking the cycle of crime. I speak from experience.

Unless you have a loved one that’s incarcerated or know someone that is, talk of rehabilitation probably doesn’t cross your mind. Worse, the proliferation of popular crime and punishment shows only serve to reinforce the public psyche the aspect of punishment. After all, shows where the offender ends up in rehabilitative programming and counseling instead of a cell all day doesn’t make for good entertainment. Yet, without these elements the cycle of crime is guaranteed to continue unabated.

I feel deep remorse for my past actions. I was a different man all those years ago, and I hope that the individual that I harmed and those that were affected by my actions can someday forgive me. Forgiveness, I’ve discovered, is one of the most difficult things that can ever be done in life. Without forgiveness, anger and hate is all that remains. Both will destroy you and I’ve witnessed this here firsthand.

Years ago a drunken driver killed a member of my family, only to serve a few years in prison. A child’s life was cut short. For years I became instantly angry whenever I met someone incarcerated for DUI. It wasn’t until I made the personal decision to forgive the man who killed my step-brother where I no longer felt anger towards my peers convicted of similar crimes. It was hard to make that decision but I am thankful I did for it has been healing.

Sadly, this same offender went on to kill another person while drinking and driving upon his release. How is this possible? I’ll tell you. The offender’s state has but one mandate: to punish. Warehouse offenders until the end of their stated sentences and nothing more. I have no doubt this man will repeat past mistakes, because without rehabilitation the cycle of crime continues. There is no getting around this.

Monsters Exist

So many people have asked me to write about my experience while incarcerated. For a long time I refused. I could not understand why anyone would want to know about what life is like being incarcerated.

Once when I was just a boy, Dad told me that there were no monsters. I awoke one night to something, maybe a sound from within the shadows of my bedroom or a thud from outside my window, what I couldn’t tell you. But whatever it was, it woke me screaming. Screaming as loud as I could.

I remember Dad dashing into my room wide eyed and alert, ready to defend his son from whatever evil was trying to take him. Before I could say anything, I found myself enveloped in Dad’s arms, held close to protect and in that moment I knew I was safe. Dad was here now. He’d said that everything was going to be okay, and that I had a bad dream (what dream? I don’t remember a dream). I muttered something about monsters I’m sure, because I remember him saying, “Son there’s no such thing as monsters. Go back to sleep.” And, since Dad was always right, every little boy knows this, I went back to sleep.

Why did Dad lie to me? For half my life I believed him, that there were no such things as monsters. I tried to convince myself that he lied to protect me from the cold truth of the world. That monsters exist and that they are everywhere. Maybe he had hoped like every father does that his son would be the lucky one and would never have to experience the truth. That in the end things would be okay.

As of this writing, I’ve been incarcerated for a little more than half my entire life. Time has changed my view of the world, and now I think I will write for you. I now understand why people want to know. Monsters do exist and I have found them—all of them.

Dad knew the whole time.

He knew.