Thursday, December 17, 2015

Impure No More

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By Jeff C.

Part 1: In Yer Face
Listen–I want to run all my life, screaming at the top of my lungs. Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting the gladiator. Don’t stop to think, don’t interrupt the scream, exhale, release life’s rapture. Everything is blooming. Everything is flying. Everything is screaming, choking on its screams. Laughter. Running. Let-down hair. That is all there is to life. --Vladimir Nabokov, Gods

It is a year to the day since I was released from prison and I'm doing now today what I was told I couldn't do.

Eleven point five months ago, after I got out of Work Release, I tried to donate blood—something I'd often wanted to do over the previous 18.5 years—but I was not allowed to at the Puget Sound Blood Center because I had answered the following question honestly:

“In the past 12 months have you been in juvenile detention, lockup, jail or prison for more than 72 hours?”

Weren’t they going to test my blood for contagious diseases anyway before they used it in a transfusion? Of course. The paperwork itself says that they will contact me if they find something troubling.

No, this was all about not wasting their time even testing my blood if I was so recently in prison.

I will admit that getting this denial from them—not for who I was or what was maybe inside of me but for where I had been, for what I had been tainted with (even if only by proximity)—twisted up something inside of me. Not in anger or sadness, but in something akin to an impending righteous indignation. 

It's been long enough, let's do this

So, for the last 11.5 months, on my way to work in Bellevue, I have walked past this Puget Sound Blood Center building with an eye towards to this very day. I knew that, on the exact day when I had been released from prison for 12 full months, I would come back here and answer that same question just as honestly and be impure no more. 

Part 2: Unsupervised
“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.” --John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
At my scheduled first Monday of the month meeting with my Community Corrections Officer (CCO) in October I was informed that because I was classified as “Low level Risk of Reoffending” and, most importantly, because of the Bruch court decision, I am no longer required to report to him. I no longer have to ask permission to leave the county. I no longer will have home visits from him and his coworkers. I no longer have to pee in a cup. And instead of reporting every month and doing all those things for a total of two years after my release, I only have to go into the office and, without speaking to anyone, use their kiosk handprint reader to add to the computer system if I have an address change, if my employment changes, or if I have any contact with the police from traffic tickets upwards. And I have to do this until all the Good Time I never lost has expired.

My CCO and I shook hands and I’ve not heard from him since.

I am a free man.

Sure, there might be an asterisk to that in that I have to now report to that kiosk for LONGER—until March of 2018 instead of December of 2016 as that’s when all my Good Time is up and I’m officially, completely, free of the DOC, and apparently I have to ask permission of my sentencing judge to leave the country until March of 2018—but this is free enough.

Even free enough to give blood. 

Where's my cookie?

Part 3: Giving Back
“My mistakes are my life.” --Samuel Beckett, How It Is
I have overtaxed myself. I know this. I have stretched myself too thin. I know this. I have committed to too many non-profits. I like this. 

My proudest two non-profit-related moments this year came through the University Beyond Bars. One was organizing a Volunteer Appreciation party where I found a place to donate the space and hors d'oeuvres and we had a fantastic time. The other was being a “table captain” and filling a table with a very generous group of people who (I’m totally bragging now) collectively gave more than any other table at our 10th Anniversary Gala fundraiser. 

Hangin' with Angela Davis

But just being a part of the everyday stuff for the UBB and as an editor for Minutes Before Six and now helping out, some, with the Washington Coalition for Parole all help to make me feel like I’m at least beginning to make up for the drain that I’ve been on society during those 18.5 years. 

(My friend, upon reading a first draft of this and in response to that last sentence said, “I protest. I think the 18.5 years you were sentenced to, especially if we compare it to other countries’ sentencing laws, was SO disproportionately more than any drain on society you might have caused on the one day of the incident that caused your incarceration.  I would say that for most of that 18.5 years it is SOCIETY that drained you, and it is society that owes you.  I would hope that you instead feel that you are getting to at last make up for all the time that you’ve been BARRED from contributing to society.  You don’t owe society shit.”)

The Salesman

To that passionate response I’d only add that it feels more than right to be able to give back to organizations with people in them who feel this way. Though it is true that despite what my sentence might have been, in this country or another, it was 18.5 years and in this state, according to the DOC’s own website, that’s $124.74 a day times 6752 days equals $842,306.85 total or, divided by every single person in Washington State, 7.062 million, that’s $8.39 that I owe to each breathing man, woman and child. Which is all just a bunch of calculations that simply mean: we spend too damn much money supporting the prison industrial complex and, of course, I have indeed been a financial drain upon society.

But I am trying to give back. Even if it stretches me thin, I have rewritten who I am from the internal guilt of those 18.5 wasted years, and even if I don’t owe society shit, I desire to remake society into one that refuses to let such a (financial and human-potential) waste occur anymore.

Blowing Off Steam

Part 4: Busyness
“Prison has always been a good place for writers, killing, as it does, the twin demons of mobility and diversion.” --Dan Simmons, Hyperion
I have watched, at most, ten movies in this last year; I used to devour movies. (I’m okay with this.)

I have read, at most, zero books in this last year; I used to maul my way through books. (I’m not okay with this.)

I have neglected so many things. I used to be so organized. I used to be so invested in political news. 

I used to be up on my world events. I used to be interested in arguing for entertainment. 

I no longer have time for such things. 

I love that my life is so damn FULL. I love that I have a plethora of people that I love and who love me and to whom I try to give of myself. 

The Honey-Do

I love living with my sister, who gives me Honey-Do lists, and working on the garden and house together. It’s not always a blast cleaning out the gutters or scooping dog poop, but I have been told that except for in the very midst of a full-blown stressquake I have an almost overwhelming positive attitude. Perhaps I’m trying to make up for 18.5 years of suppressing full-blown, uninhibited laughter—not that I was a buttsore sourpuss in prison, but there is an attitudinal shift that I have over others out here, it seems. The daily stresses of traffic and customer service and all that slide off me, it seems, a lot easier than others. 

The Honey-Do, Part Deux

Maggie, my lovely girlfriend, asked me why I continue to do everything so last-minute, procrastinating and living in such a seemingly stressful manner (for example, writing this right now as I avoid my editor’s email asking me where this piece is). I made some faux-witty dismissive joke in response, but I think some of the real answer may well be that I’m incapable of doing things any other way and, simultaneously, I am so engrossed in enjoying life in every nectar-sucking moment that it’s hard to do things like organize receipts or write about life instead of living it.

A Year's Worth of Excellent Bookkeeping

Part 5: Amazing Friendships
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” --David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
Making friends in prison wasn't too difficult (sometimes remaining friends for years with the people you live with and argue with and who often get transferred elsewhere is an entirely different story, though), but it's different out here. Scheduling time to meet up is...a challenge, to say the least. As is that first initial, "Um, would you like to, I don't know, sometime, go meet for a cup of coffee?" Suddenly I'm a shy 15-year-old again. And keeping friendships green and growing takes work, too. It's not as easy as "Hey, next rec[reation movement] wanna go walk in ovals?" 

Making Friends

But one great thing over all that is texting. I have texting friendships with a couple of really good people. One is a wonderful young woman from Norway, Ine, who has an old soul and with whom I have bonded over not only music and Star Wars (yes, I'll be going to see Episode VII before the year is out; the first movie I'll have seen in the theater since at least 1995 and the first Star Wars movie I've seen in the theater since, I'm guessing, “The Empire Strikes Back,” as I was locked up during all the prequels) but also over our own life dæmons. And what's, to me, weird (as in unusual for me but not creepy) is that we've only talked on the phone once, briefly. We met on Instagram over chit chat but have become very important to each other, as only super close friends can. But, as those who know me well can attest, I can write a bit. And so can Ine. And though there’s a 9-hour time difference, and therefore conversations can take a few days, it’s an honor to get to be in the life of someone so special.

Rare Down-Time

I have met another person who has become—primarily through our affinity for texting full paragraphs, through our adventurousness, and through our common interests of changing the criminal “justice” system—my other super close friend. Loretta Lynn, the Lichen Lady, is also the person who I can’t seem to say No to because her enthusiasm is my cattle prod. And she has not only gotten me to help out with my now third non-profit (Washington Coalition for Parole), but is relentless in making sure that I continue my artwork and finish my baccalaureate degree, and soon. It’s a joy (albeit a time-consuming joy) to be prodded to do, to be, better and to hopefully offer the same in return.

Part 6: Long-Distance Love
“We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.” --John Lennon
A year or more in any long-distance relationship can be difficult, perhaps even more so when one of those people is me: a person who is getting his life together and learning (and often failing) to get it all right (I have made some mistakes in my relationship with the lovely, tolerant, and forgiving Maggie of Scotland), but we’re making it work. And work well. Mainly because it isn’t work; we laugh our arses off and tease each other near mercilessly and confide our fears and worries and console each other through the dark times and listen to each other throughout our days and nights—even though those days and nights are flipped around (we say “Good morning” about three times a day, each). 

Enjoying the Good Life

It’s easy to work through distance and time zone problems when you love each other for who you really are, talk to each other no matter what, and truly listen to each other (and it doesn’t hurt when the other person knows you so well that they don’t let you pull the shit that has ruined your past relationships). Maggie is an amazing woman and I’m lucky to be able to create a life with her. We both look forward to her next trip here (her last one was for 16 fantastic days in the summer and her next one is during Valentine’s Week before I ask permission to go to Scotland in the summer of 2016). And we’ve promised to make sure that the window blinds are closed next time so that my sister doesn’t have to initially wonder, while out in the garden, “Why is Jeff doing push-ups on his bed?”

She Tolerates Me Very Well

Part 7: What’s Next?
“He had spoken himself into boldness” --James Joyce, Ulysses
I have an appointment to give my blood again in five weeks. Assuming I’ve not been permanently contaminated by the 18.5 years in prison.

I do wonder, though, what does this whole thing say about us, as a society, now that I’m a part of it again? Are we okay with warehousing people in such conditions where we don’t even care if they become so contaminated that we not only don’t want their blood to come in contact with us, but we don’t want their thoughts to either? I am well-versed in the “safety and security” mantra of the DOC to know what they’d screech about prisoners having essentially unfettered access to the internet; but it’s not just about the “dangerous” information that prisoners could gleam from the scary internet if they were given access, the DOC’s entire stance is that prisoners’ thoughts are contagious to the outside world. Don’t believe me? Ask any reporter if they get to interview prisoners without the DOC public-relations staff members right there, hovering. Ask if any prisoners have been punished for writing non-inciteful words. Ask yourself why most people only refer to prisoners as a punchline. 

Kickin' Arse at Work

What’s next for me, though? Currently I’m kickin’ some arse at work (weird beyond comment having the president and VP call me a “superstar” in the hallways, weirder still realizing that I’m in the 86th percentile of income for Americans, weirdest still that I’m suddenly uncomfortable talking about my income when through the Army and prison everyone knew what everyone else made), I’ve got a great family (who love me and support me despite my busyness and my often inability to remove my nose from my phone), I’ve got wonderful friends (who I commune with via my nose in my phone and occasionally in person), I’m lucky to have a lovely girlfriend (who seems to take joy in calling me a clown and seems to love it when I do things that would embarrass other, lesser, women), I don’t do conventional entertainment anymore because I’m volunteering all over the place (follow @UBBSeattle and @MinutesBefore6 and @WAParole on Twitter as I tweet for them; yeah, who knew that this prolix person could be contained in 140 characters?), and I’m somehow in great enough shape (still biking to work; though I did promise my Mom to get my driver’s license before the year is out). 

The Poseur

I don’t know, exactly, what is next. What’s great is that—unlike how I felt for so many of those 18.5 years in prison and how I felt last year when I was rejected for many jobs by HR departments and how I felt when I was told that my blood wouldn’t even be tested to see if it was impure—I no longer feel like I’m a second-class citizen anymore. I am, I feel, working my way back up to full citizenship and I’m looking forward to voting in the next election. And I’m seeing if I can help get those left behind, in prison still, a voice, an education, a vote, and/or a chance at parole.

Time Enough To Do It All

--December 11th, 2015

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urban ranger said...

I love these pieces by Jeff about his life in the free world. Very inspiring and amusing.
Good news stories are always welcome and a bit thin on the ground, so thanks Jeff.
(Although the 'push-ups on the bed' were maybe a wee bit TMI)

Hang on to that positive attitude, Jeff.
All the best to you.

A Friend said...

As Jeff's editor and friend, I agree with Urban Ranger that he tends to overshare. You should hear what he's like on the phone! But this is part of his charm, or so he tells me. I think we can all agree that Maggie is some kind of saint.

Anonymous said...

I always smile when a new Jeff C post pops up on MB6. I've followed Jeff here for a few years now, and it's inspiring to see not only the life changes but the joy of being alive and free.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I've been following your posts for a while. Your last post is truly joyful. I'm glad you're doing well and will surely continue to do so. America's criminal justice system is so barbarically unjust. There are small indications, however, that our country is poised to change its attitude--slowly, but it will happen.

gord said...

Looks good on ya

Jeff C. said...

Urban Ranger: Thank you so much. I’m glad that you love my pieces about my retraining into the free world. Whatever do you mean with this TMI? Too much information? Never. Pshaw. ;) I will most definitely hang on to my positive attitude. All the best to you, too.

A Friend: Dear editor and friend: don’t even try to deny that I’m not charming with my oversharing. But you’re right that Maggie is, indeed, a saint. Though I have pictures of her waving her hand in massive frustration that, when she is sainted, I plan to submit for the statues in her honor.

Anonymous I: I’m glad that you always smile when a new Jeff C post pops up and that you’ve been following me for years (and I thought the paranoia was all in my head). I’m honored to be have my joy of being alive and free be an inspiration. I will admit that, at times, in the corporate job that I work in, I’m not troubled with the, well, seemingly small things that are griped about; I’ve got a Master’s in Patience, with a minor in Surviving Bureaucracies, so I’m rarely phased by such things.

Anonymous II: I certainly hope that you’re right that our country is poised to change its attitude about its criminal justice system’s barbarity; certainly things like John Oliver’s regular reporting on the issues helps. As does the truly bipartisan politicians who (for fiscal or moral reasons) want to de-escalate the behemoth growth of the Incarceration-Industrial Complex. Thank you for your kind words about how joyful my last post was and for following me for years; I appreciate that.

Gord: Thank you; freedom certainly does look good on me. As does giving back. Everyone should try both.

SuzieQ said...

Jeff. I think you're doing amazing, and are an inspiration. I can only hope that somehow the media can get a hold of you and tell your story. It could serve as proof to those who don't believe that people can change, and as an example to those who are in favor of our ridiculously long sentences in this country that they're doing it wrong!

The absolute delight that you find in even the small things - is so good to read about. And the fact that you're giving back despite what's been done to you is also amazing. Keep your chin up and keep moving forward. I hope this new chance at life being free serves you well, and you have many happy years.

I, too, have followed you for years. It's been great to watch your transformation, and being able to see you enjoying your freedom. Good luck, sir!