Saturday, April 28, 2012

Time to Learn

By Jeff C.

I. The Ostrich Approach

"Somewhere behind a partition a clock was wheezing as if under some strong pressure, as though someone were strangling it." --Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

IN THE BEGINNING I...well, after doing all this time, you might think I'd have something resoundingly profound to say about time, but the subject of time comes up in prison less than you might think. Less than I would've thought anyway. No hash marks on the wall, no X-ed out calendars. Time both expands out so far it makes outer space seem infinitely finite, as though its vastness were suffocating you; and time can also shrink down to the next paycheck, the next commissary day, the next palliative television show, or just the next escapist nap. Usually.

Even though I'm bombarded by the ever-present "having" to get through the days here (surely the overwhelming dogma) I belong to a sub-community that strives for a different take on this life.

Granted, I flail and fail in my attempts to ever stave off all such rancid tasting waste. I succumb to all the typical frittering fancies that provide that endorphin rush a square like me can handle. Everything from your rapt goober-stare at comforting re-runs whose punch lines I already know before the set-up, to your other numbing over-indulgences too numerous to list. But I genuinely feel bad for wasting a day in prison by not always preparing for my days out of prison. So that guilt ought to count for something.

Here's an example: I've little in common with Henry, one of the guys I eat meals with in the chow-hall. Certainly on the surface it might seem like we're alike in that we're both clean cut (me a little more clean, him a little more cut), tall white guys in decent physical shape in our thirties (me a little more on towards 40, he more near 30), we've both made some ridiculously poor choices to earn our bunks here (but thankfully we didn't physically hurt anyone), and we're both not complete idiots. Usually.

But time divides us.

About a month ago when the "lifer" that usually sits with us wasn't there I finally asked Henry how many days he had left.

"Under a hundred," he said and then, after a bite added, "or a couple of years."

Washington state felons convicted after 1984 are no longer under the parole system and as a result we know coming in our time range exactly: the Earliest Possible Release Date (EPRD), based on "earning" any "Good Time" and (if we so choose to embrace full knucklehead-dom) we know what our max date could be. For me that three years and three months of Good Time the DOC could thrust upon me for idiocy at any time has helped keep my overlarge nose overly clean. Shiny, squeaky clean.

But Henry's answer didn't make sense because unless he had a serious infraction impending he'd know one way or the other if he'd lost any Good Time--and they usually only break off six month chunks; and besides, if all that was hanging over him he'd likely be in Segregation.

When I asked Henry what he meant he explained that he had a "retainer" on him in California that was still pending. Meaning that after he's done his twelve years here, he might or might not get picked up and taken down to a "real" prison.

Certainly to the uninitiated, Washington state's little green and growing starter-kit prison industrial complex might seem like a "real" prison (what with all the concertina wire draped about, the 30 foot imposing walls between erect AR-15-toting guard towers, and the whole warehousing of society's undesirables), but compared to the massive overcrowding, real gang violence, and daily fear-for-your-life existence of a California, a Texas, or a down South "real" prison, our little prison seems like...well, last year on the local (I suppose we'll call it) "news," this place was called "PrisneyLand." "Happiest place on earth," indeed. At least compared to one of those California prisons one could gawk at, if one so chose, on the weekends during MSNBC's never-ending series "Lock Up," et al. Even at our state's two "hardcore" "Closed Custody" prisons there are fights, but generally quickly stopped fistfights, rarely stabbings. Rarer still, rapes. Much less murders. Thankfully guys like Henry and I don't need--or want--to join any sort of supposedly protective, clearly manipulative gang; we can just be. In those "real" prisons where men fight, shank, rape, and murder on an, apparently, regular basis such "opting out" of that cycle isn't allowed. Usually.

But what mostly makes Henry and me so different isn't his lack of knowing when his ultimate release date will be or from where, but in how we, separately, face that looming date.

I asked Henry if he had been taking any of the few pre-release programs that are offered (mostly by outside volunteers; not DOC organized and paid-for). He dismissed the topic with a "joke" because his subterranean fear of "what's next" was too sensitive of a subject. I know this because I do this. But what I also do to break free from that wheezing pressure of my own future is something more than burying my head in the sand.

II. Assailing Entropy

"It is a greater advantage to be honestly educated than honorably born."--Desiderius Erasmus.

I'm not sure if it's "in spite of" or as a way to "earn" all those entertaining over-indulgences I can submerge into and sometimes claw my way back out of, but I am able to look at myself in my scratched and literally triple-knuckle-dented stainless steel mirror (not from my fist, mind you), and I'm able to feel like my days aren't totally wasted because of how I assail time. That's about the right image: attacking time by creating, building, and caressing that lovely mistress called learning.

I wish that I was one of those freaks that disdained all "popular" entertainment and devoured whole shelves of the library's non-fiction section. I wish that the siren song of high-gloss, high-production value, and highly addicting entertaining distractions didn't, well, distract me from--among other things--completing my bachelor's degree. And I wish that the one program that keeps our collegiate coterie interested in bettering ourselves wasn't going through some torturous growing pains.

I haven't left this small hilltop prison in Monroe, Washington, or so much as been in a vehicle since I arrived here from the "hardcore" State Penitentiary in Walla Walla back in the fall of 1999, but I have been able to see this prison change in hundreds of confusing and insane ways. But by far the best thing about it all has been the opportunity to watch and be a small part of what has become a welcoming community of convicts and volunteers who, as that weathered but worthwhile phrase goes, help us help ourselves.

The various acronymed Anonymous folks are great, the local "Lifers" group is always amazingly ambitious, and we're all but drowned in volunteers who only want to "save our souls," but for those of us who don't partake of those particular flavors of Kool-Aid, we're lucky/blessed enough to be able to exercise that usually atrophied grey muscle behind our thick skulls and actually earn a college education.

Actually, we earn something more than just that.

My memory's a little fuzzy at the edges on when and how I first heard about academic--not vocational--college classes being offered free here at the Reformatory. But I remember crisply the absolute joy those first few classes offered. A pleasure and excitement to get to class that I'd never experienced before.

Certainly these were not my first college classes. I'd had a few night classes in the military, I'd shuffled through nearly a year of mornings-before-work classes at a community college, and I'd been using my Montgomery G.I. Bill money to putter through some correspondence courses. But these classes were different.

These classes were "outside" and "inside" people coming together in what has always felt to me like a group involvement, not some top-down, sit-down-and-shuddup classroom.

Likely that's because one of our group's two founders is an amazingly generous person. The first class Carol Estes taught that I joined was a Small Business Management course that she was entirely unqualified to teach. She knew nothing of the subject and it showed. Repeatedly. What's also shown over the ten years that I've been privileged to know her is that she's an expert in almost every other subject.

As an English major with writing and editing credentials she's deftly taught English Composition and has carefully exhausted entire red pens on my rough first drafts in Advanced Creative Writing. Repeatedly. She's brought in her own keyboards to teach a music course (the only course that I've ever "dropped") and as a trained concert pianist she has dumfounded us with her artistry. She's far more fluent in German than I--and I lived there for nearly four years (though we've yet to offer that class). And she's a prison reform lobbyist who genuinely cares about us, which is proven every time she takes the long and not inexpensive ferry ride to and from her home across the Puget Sound to get here. I could praise the estimable Carol like I only could my own mother--to give a hint of the unending generosity of them both. But during that first business class we floundered along well enough with our co-founder, helping each other out (a pattern that's never stopped expanding), and taking what we could from our resident "expert" who regaled us with stories of the small business incubator he ran--even through our jokes about his Ben Stein delivery.

What sealed my love for this community, however, was the Humanities: Great Books class taught by Carol Estes who, in this class, was at home. I'll be kind and not torture anyone with a summary of my multi-faceted and multi-twisted points, but defending my theory that Franz Kafka's character in The Metamorphosis had not, in fact, actually become a man-sized bug, earned me--over the course of that hour--an amiable debate partner and close friend. Atif (a well-read, slight Canadian import of Pakistani extraction, with an increasing portfolio of inspiring writing) of course proclaimed I'm ridiculous for thinking that. Repeatedly. And for about twelve dozen other quixotic theories over the years in everything from Shakespeare to philosophy and auteur film theory to the supposed genius of his beloved Nietzsche and his infallible Kubrick. In short, Atif is a green tea sipping snob (I use the word affectionately) who is "cultured"--I'm just not sure if it's through classical music, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Review of Books (NYRB), or if he's cultured á la a Petri dish. (If you suspect me of hyperbole, consider this: I once asked him to go walk in the Big Yard with me and he responded, without missing a beat, "Walk? What am I--a peasant?") But to be fair, anybody who intro'd me to David Foster Wallace, Nabakov, and most especially the Oxford English Dictionary will always warm the cockles of my heart.

But that's exactly what makes this collegiate atmosphere so enriching. We get to gather and rub our ideas together about subjects that are a better form of escape than even the most engaging story arcs of modern televised classics like the labyrinthine "Lost," the shiny "Firefly," or the pun-tastic "Arrested Development," to honor some fallen (i.e. cancelled) soldiers. (Focus, Jeffrey, focus.)

As it's said all too often around here though, "don't get it twisted"; this is no pristine Elysian utopian oasis hidden in the grooves between whatever circles of hell where prison likely dwells. Absolutely, we don't discriminate with standards, nor with what a guy's crime may be. Nor whether he's got a release date. Many prison college programs across the country--of which there's few--don't allow lifers to participate, or only if there's space available; here they make up the core of our TAs and internal "Advisory Committee."

It's not all pinky-raised tea parties and fuzzy rainbow inclusions though. There's a convict cliquishness that isn't totally crushed and it occasionally lurks in some of our classrooms. But where on "mainline," many of us emphatically don't interact or only give that respectful nod of recognition in passing, in class everyone gets to proffer their not-always coherent theories (even when others roll their eyes inwardly at, say, the belief in Gregor Samsa's metaphoric--not literal--bugdom).

III. "What the frick, Frick?"

"Criticism isn't the tough part; it's how you react to it."--Ernest Hemingway

It's not as if the only friction that's frothed up comes from members of differing literary theories or--forgive the term--"classes" of convicts. (Don't get me started on that particular issue.) Just as the offering has grown from a sporadic class when possible, to a smattering of classes at the same time, to now a (possibly) too-full spectrum of courses, the guys have grown as well.

During our teething stage we collectively were transitioning away from that old comfort of The Convict Code where "disrespect" rules all and any loss of "face" thoughtlessly demands the smashing of someone's. My memory's a bit befuzzled on the exact when of this particular incident (let's call it that vague "a while ago"), but I certainly remember the how--though I disdain to name the who, as we've grown so much since that time.

Our classes are in the same building as our library, law library, and various bureaucratic offices in fluorescent-lit, security-camera-eyed, and down-the-hall correctional-guarded rooms with butt-numbing chairs and old school green chalkboards. A typical class is anywhere between 25 students to an attritioned-down and more manageable half- or full-dozen students sitting behind tables that are usually circled up or pushed together. (Certainly the Spanish, Human Geography, and Math classes all tend to face frontwards towards our new gleaming whiteboards; yes, we've only recently joined the 90s in school supplies.)

I believe it was an Advanced Creative Writing class where this tense-inducing "incident" occurred. It was with our sponsor, Carol--who, I must say, handled it all with aplomb. It was a somewhat typical prison pecking order bit o' barking in response to what he believed was a criticism of him, not his writing, and Big Frick got all loud and aggro against the smaller Frack (not that Frack couldn't, as the term goes, "handle himself"). But what disturbed me on a visceral level more than the whole social awkwardness that all public displays of aggression make me, a child of divorce (who often quotes Rodney King--sans irony), cringe-up from my coccyx to my neck and shoulders and through to my jaw was that this, I'll admit, relatively minor incident occurred in front of our venerated sponsor and in our sacred zone of what feels like "not-prison." As if you tried to bully-pick a fight with someone in front of your beloved grandmother, at church.

After it escalated and Frick stood up, as if he was going to do something, I said, "Congratulations, you've established your alpha maleness. Now can we get back to the discussion?"

Obviously this didn't immediately end it, but with all the other various comments from the room, it was enough to get Frick to simmer down and realize that he was in the wrong.

Now, I don't relate this to show how my "brilliant negotiating skills" swooped in to save the day (mainly because usually my mouth gets me in far more trouble than it's ever gotten me out of) but that's because I don't believe it really would've come to anything more than the growling. Granted, if when Frick had stood up across the table, Frack would've stood up to his chin, then it's possible that it could've accelerated beyond any stopping it. Thankfully it not only didn't, but we've never had any violence happen in our little university of ours that truly transports us beyond these bars of prison.

No, I only digress to this point to show these two men now some 6-8-10 blurry odd years later: both active "Advisory Board" members who offer up competing and complementary ideas and who have remained "infraction-free" for all of this time because--I believe--this University Beyond Bars (UBB) has given them, and all of us, something to cling to besides Big Yard machismo and a Convict Code that takes from our futures but never gives back to it--the exact opposite of what the University Beyond Bars does.

IV. A Few Good Teachers

"'10 percent of the people inside these walls still have minds, but there is nothing for these minds to play with. So this place is twice as painful for them as it is for the rest. A good teacher just might be able to give their minds new toys, Math or Astronomy or History, or who knows what, which would make the passage of time just a little more bearable.'"--Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Hocus Pocus

Perhaps an examination of a typical week will elucidate how much the University Beyond Bars lights up on this otherwise drab, dark place.

On Thursday I had two hours of always awesomeness with Roger Sale, professor emeritus of the University of Washington. Every class I'm amazed at the recall, wit, and insight of this published author (of books and manifold other publications, like the aforementioned NYRB) who casually says things like, "I've not thought about/read that" (poet, author, play) "in 25 years..." and then he'll close his eyes and in a matter of moments out of his near-octogenarian mouth and through his wavy white full beard he'll pour forth a dozen lines, with nary a pause. He's also been known to break out into song. His lines from "Kiss Me, Kate" during our reading of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing was mesmerizing; who knew that show-tunes could enthrall a class of supposedly hardened convicts.

Normally we'd get three hours of Roger's witticisms. My little buddy Atif and I are hoping to collect his best bon mots to bind and gift to him on his 80th this summer (here's two of my recent favorites: "Hemingway, who did not, by the way, have a great IQ" and of Stephen Crane: "There's a word-maker who says, 'Watch me, see what I can do.'"). But this week we had to share Roger as he volunteered to give a brief little intro to Shakespeare in preparation for an upcoming outside theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. And he was, as ever, charming to not only an additional twenty guys--nearly all of whom he's never met--but also to another volunteer (who's young enough to be his granddaughter) when he said he'd do the palm to palm miming as Romeo to her Juliet when the star-cross'd lovers first meet, "but not the lips to lips bit, as we're both happily married."

On Saturday I had intended to go to our twice-weekly Study Lab. A large room that breaks up into groups not by "class," but by course, where it's common to see tables of guys going at their far, far, far beyond-me math (I'm an English dude who doesn't even recognize some of them thar newfangled symbol-like thangs they use in their Cal-cu-lus; as I crested in Algebra and Logic). Another table will often have men dissecting their most recent English Composition essays (something I actually can help with since it uses symbols I've learned how to at least pronounce) or some Spanish II or even a tiny island of Japanese as well (unfortunately the Japanese hasn't been offered for any credit--yet).

All the other classes (the Supreme Court seminar, Sociology of Media in the Digital Age, Sociology of Deviance, Intro to Ethics, History of Western Civilization I, African American History, Biology, and Astronomy) are represented as well, and it's a sight that often astounds volunteer, convict, and guard alike. Not because, of course, we're not capable, but because we're such a dichotomous contrast to how the rest of this prison "does their time"; for the few of them not in the UBB that are into (let's call it) self-betterment, the form that that usually takes is exclusively and repeatedly pushing, pulling, and tugging around not unheavy weights. So to see decidedly former gang members and immigrants and the ostensibly "cool" fellas, among others, all working together is disarming at first. But we all get used to it and forget how unusual it is until, say, a new volunteer comes in to (as I like to joke) "babysit" us during our Study Lab and comments on it.

But this particular Saturday I skipped out on the Study Lab to be able to join a rare weekend inside Advisory Board meeting where we on the "inside," um, "advise" the UBB on what we, collectively, need or any issues and we all come up with ideas how to do better and, of course, offer any fundraiser ideas (suggestions always welcome--just saying).

During this weekend's Advisory Board meeting we got to meet a volunteer at "Purdy"--the only large and long-term prison for females in the state. He explained to us how "The Village" sprang up there at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in the town of Purdy. The Village's education branch is similar, it sounds like, to our inside Advisory Board for the University Beyond Bars. But where we've had the benefit of over a decade of letting the outside UBB volunteers know of the bureaucratic, ah, maneuvers one must thread carefully in order to accomplish anything in a timely manner (and always in an almost obeisant manner to the obesely middle-managed DOC), The Village is starting from scratch after the UBB was able to only offer one for-credit course there at Purdy before financial obligations constricted us. But the women sound like us: fanatically desirous to learn--and willing to work for it. Though they've no funds--yet--for any for-credit classes, they're learning the material and assembling portfolios that they hope to someday be able to turn in to some accredited university to earn some credit.

Money has always been an issue with the UBB, now more than ever. But what the UBB has always done to save on the ever-increasing cost of tuition for our ever-increasing number of students is take Course Credit by Examination (CCE) tests for half the price of a typical $720 correspondence course through Ohio University's College Program for the Incarcerated--the only (known to us) program that accommodates a lack of internet access for its distance learning. But the trouble with CCE tests is that they're all about the final. Oh, certainly, each student has to show up to class, do the assigned homework, and then take a "pre-test" that's made up by the UBB to qualify for that final Ohio University CCE test where whatever you get on the final is whatever you get for the course. And for many of our students who earned their GEDs after coming to prison, that's a recipe ripe for performance anxiety.

But because nobody in the UBB has ever wanted to waste any of the limited UBB money (not to mention the fact that, ahem, some of us are always in competition to get the A when our snobby friends "only" get an A-), we combat that inherent test stress as much as we can. Our Study Lab times help, as do our TAs that live for this stuff. And for some of us who enjoy playing Alex Trebek (okay, just me), it's worth the effort to make up an entire "Jeopardy" game and have a study session that incorporates all the course's info into two rounds, plus Final Jeopardy; and yes, if you don't put it in the form of a question you lose your turn--even if you've already blurted out the right answer. Actions have consequences. (This much we've all--or at least ought to've--learned.)

But our strongest asset in preparing our student body for these not exactly inexpensive tests is our faculty of volunteer teachers. They drive up to this not exactly centrally located prison from all across the Pacific Northwest. None are paid and all continue to do a rather difficult thing: prepare students for a test that they, the teachers, have never seen. But since our teachers are mostly professors, teachers, and grad students from various colleges and universities they're adept enough to adapt to this rather odd situation. Plus, of course, a certain level of camaraderie develops since it's us, the students and our teachers, facing-off against some faceless Ohio test-designer's best. We're winning--not only great grades, but against our former, wasteful selves.

Not all of what the UBB does, however, is strictly about for-credit AA degrees and bachelor degrees. We also offer many not-for-credit purely edifying opportunities. We have on select Saturday evenings our "Salon Series" (the name derives from the gathering of artists' work at the Salon d'Apollon of the Louvre Palace in Paris from long before we were even a country) where guest speakers come in and share their expertise. We've had a cellist perform, a history of unions lesson, a class on relativity; and many other guests who give seminars on fascinating subjects. Usually.

Ever other Friday afternoon a University of Washington professor (the always entertaining and dedicated Gillian Harkins) and a still somewhat overly reverential grad student gather a gaggle of us guys to gab about books like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and my boy Kafka's The Trial, to name a few. And we "close read" them and discuss them for a not-for-credit Literature and Society class that I, as a perspiring writer, gladly forfeit a half day's pay to soak in all that juicy good stuff (to put a vivid visual to it).

This Sunday I spent the afternoon in our Documentary/Film not-for-credit class facilitated by a new volunteer with a contagiously positive outlook on everything. This week's film, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, wasn't nearly as riveting as the documentaries we've had like Taxi to the Dark Side and Inside Job ("a disturbing, in-depth look at the highly questionable interrogation practices used by US military guards on prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay in the years following 9/11"--truly real "real" prisons; and "the definitive film about the economic crisis of 2008 and the role of Wall Street in modern society," to quote their back flaps). The documentaries provide livelier group discussions afterwards--but I'm a political wonk, so please excuse my lack of "culture" in this.

There's one other essential not-for-credit service that the UBB continually provides that needs credit: transitioning students from state-funded and mandated GED classes and testing (done separately through a local community college contracted and paid for by the state) to our no-tax dollars UBB college classes (Pell Grants were killed off long ago). Though it's essential that guys are getting their GEDs (a prerequisite before joining the UBB), we offer both Math and English Prep classes to get new students (that can't "test out") up to the level of taking our demanding college classes and writing essays--things that many here have never done--plus that whole “math” thing. As with many of our classes, it's a constant tag-team of teachers and convict TAs that bring these guys up to speed--never leaving anyone who tries behind.

I don't know if all of this is a utopian model or not, but it is an idyllic island of interest- and intellect-building in an otherwise insanely ignorant institution.

V. "More money, more problems, please"

"(R)esearch indicates that college-level programs have the greatest impact of any correctional programs on reducing recidivism and they pay for themselves over time. (Stephen) Duguid deduced that 'the key factor in employment may not be skills or training, but the ability of the individual to sustain a stable employment record, and that is more concerned with self-esteem, communication skills, the development of good work habits, and cognitive abilities associated with a liberal education than a result of vocational training.'"--Osa D. Coffey "A View from Corrections" in Higher Education in Prisons: A Contradiction in Terms?, Miriam Williford, ed.

Due to manifold "inside baseball" reasons but mostly because of our current not exactly thriving economy and as a result of a private grant that didn't last like we had hoped and expected, the University Beyond Bars expanded too quick, too fast. As a result, I inadvertently lied to many of our new students when they asked me about the obligatory "warning" we give each new semester that "Funds may not exist to be able to pay for any for-credit tests." I told them the truth: that the UBB has always said that but they'd never not come up with the money, even if it was a bit delayed (we once did some film classes and completed our portfolios--an option not usually available--but didn't get credit for our work for over a year; once we'd fundraised the money). I told these fresh faces to not worry about it, adding, "Just study and be ready to take the test--ignore all the rumors."

What I wasn't ready for was the fact that this time the rumors turned out to be true. With visibly broken hearts from our volunteers we were told that there was no money to pay for the current semester's tests but if anybody had funds or family/friends to pay the $310 per class, they could do so. But otherwise, for now, the UBB is operating only with enough funds to pay for the not inexpensive books for our next semester.

Obviously this news has come to us as a disappointment and for the guys who were just starting their postsecondary educational careers, I worry that this will be an all-too devastating defeat. Unfortunately some have dropped their classes, even though the semester is almost over; but most of us are sticking to it--even if the not-knowing what comes next aspect of this bleak future makes those ostrich-head sized holes look rather inviting.

We in the UBB are brainstorming on even more fundraising ideas and our outside volunteers are doing the piles of paperwork for potential grants. (Anybody out there got an "in" with one of Warren Buffet's wife's "Sunshine Ladies?" They're funding Walla Walla's prison education program. Just asking.)

And we've scaled back, considerably, on what we are offering for the immediate future such as the number and types of classes (we'll be reusing books for sure, where possible). Though it's fantastic that the ladies at Purdy are forging ahead with the Freedom Education Project of the Puget Sound, I hate that we can't expand there (and to the other prisons in Washington) as we'd hoped--at least for now. But at least we're going to work in concert with FEPPS, sharing books, newsletter/website space, and Salon Series speakers, where possible. We know all too well how difficult it is to get a program like this instituted in an institution that, by default, is reluctant towards change--this type of change anyway. We just hope our learning experiences--including the one we're currently in--will help them as they grow.

The UBB has too many dedicated people--both "inside" and "outside"--to be anything close to dead. Two more new future teachers showed up this week to Study Lab to introduce themselves and none of our current volunteer faculty are going anywhere. But we're well aware that we need to grow considerably stronger before we try to expand again. The current question we're asking ourselves is "How can we make ourselves attractive to funders?"

On a personal level though, I don't want to hide from these all-too-common fiscal realities that so often we're sheltered from in here. But the question of what to do on an individual level provides a different type of anxiety.

After this news broke I asked a close friend, whom I deeply respect, how his studying was going and he told me that he was losing motivation. Without being able to take the tests for two or three or sometimes four classes it is difficult to study with the same level of commitment. He, like me, is still going to his classes (I'm only in one for-credit course right now: American Literature, 1865-1918 because as a senior with only about seven courses to go for my bachelor's, I can't use any under 300 level courses--which is all we're offering except the American Lit one). But that acquisitional oomph has been drained some. Knowing about his family situation I asked him if he could ask them for the money--which for his three or four classes would be between $930 to $1240--not exactly the same as asking for a pair of $40 kicks, of which he's not the kind of guy who would ask anyway.

He softly said, "I've put them through enough."

He didn't have to say anything more, I knew exactly what he meant: I've burdened them enough on a constant basis by my choosing prison. I've disappointed them too many times. I've asked too much of them. I don't want to hurt them anymore. I'll suffer this alone.

Perhaps there's an element of pride in this, because I know his family and I know that they'd want to help; but I also respect his choice to find another, slower (and possibly not successful) way. There's no doubt that I want to write them for him--knowing that they'd be happy to sacrifice some for him--but it's not my place.

As for me and my family, I feel all the same things but I have an option he doesn't. The ten-year time limit on my G.I. Bill ran out long ago, but I at least saved some of the money I made, as one of the lucky few, when we had minimum wage paying jobs years ago. I had intended to save that as my re-start-up fund when I get out (so that I wouldn't have to lean on my family so much for all those same reasons stated above). But I know that my chances are slight to slim to earn a living wage straight out of prison, even less so without that one line on a résumé that proves to an employer that I'm capable of sticking to something that isn't easy but requires sacrifice. So I'll use that nest egg now and hope that the future will take care of itself.

But the vast majority of UBB students don't have such options, difficult or no. Some don't have families; most don't have any that can spare hundreds of dollars. And virtually all jobs in the prison (of which there's not enough of) top out at a salary of $55 a month, less deductions.

Since hearing this news about the UBB I also heard that my table-mate, Henry, found out that despite its insane debt and prison overcrowding and Henry already doing 12 years in this state, California wants its pound of flesh from him too. I reminded him that no matter how hard it gets down there to keep his nose clean because we hear they've got "Half Time" down there (while up here violent felons like Henry and I only get 15% off for good behavior--or the now new standard of 10%). So he'll only have to endure that real, all too real, prison system for likely a year or two--assuming that he can avoid trouble down there; never a guarantee no matter how square one tries to be. Though I wish I could, I can't do anything for Henry.

But in this drab, dark regimented routine "Reformatory" that gnaws days and years off of us I can (and will) continue to help support with my time and art-donations the University Beyond Bars in order to create a positive community that does that rarely done but often proclaimed thing of reform.

If you'd like to learn more about the UBB, visit, a 501(c) non-profit organization.

Comments, critique, conversation, and cease-and-desists cordially welcome at:

Jeff C.

1 comment:

Kay said...

Great post! I sent you an email, I hope you get it.