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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Memoir To Madness Part Four

 By Christian Weaver

To read Part Three, click here

Justin:

You'd be surprised by how thoroughly you saturate my writing. You're an icon, a symbol, a style and a theme. In addition to your dominance of my "private mythology," what you are and represent as a TYPE is overwhelming. It disturbs me like a ghost, like old Marley in chains. You're that sinister double.... you're the Quiet Twin, the Jealous Twin, the Crazy and Damaged and Terrible Twin. You embody violence, the id, the shadow, the brute. You symbolize the link between brilliance and madness. But there is also great courage and a passion for justice. It's the origin of your name. There is Justin the Just, the Defender of the Weak. You run like a thread throughout my poems and my stories. You appear unannounced, looming vast and ferocious... then you plunge into the depths like the wicked white whale. I wonder if you suspect how many poems you've inspired? I think I’ll annotate a few and let you see what I was thinking. I wrote the first at fourteen:

Laughter in the Rain

I saw you once as a true person
When I was young and bold
But you became a fleeting shadow
A phantom to behold.

I saw your face through the mask you had on
I saw you were afraid
I chased love with reckless ambition
But you stood in the shade.

You know your smile never hid your anger
I saw you bleed in rage
The world with me was blessed with many dreams
You only saw the pain.

And even through the hills of sadness
Even through the rain
In my mind I saw you coming
But you never came.

And even through the shadows of sorrow
I still watch you from afar
Even through my traces of madness
I still wonder what you are

And I hear laughter in the rain...


Notice how the speaker ties his growth into fear (no longer "young and bold") into his brother‘s declivity (lines three and four). But this "fleeting shadow," "phantom," and "mask" is itself caused by fear. But here the brothers cope differently: whereas the speaker seeks love -- or romance and friendship, a running toward humanity -- his brother turns; inward and avoids human contact (line eight). But the speaker is not fooled by this mask of shy smiles. He sees the angst and the rage, the mutilation, beneath.

As the years roll by the speaker loses all hope. Through his bouts with depression ("hills of sadness," "rain"), he clings tenaciously to the prospect that his brother will recover -- but it never happens (lines fifteen and sixteen). The speaker’s ordinary sadness becomes grief or despair (shadows of sorrow"): he no longer knows his brother and they slowly drift apart. This affects him in two ways: 1) he grows obsessed with his brother and starts to follow and stalk him ("watch you from afar"), and 2) he battles mental illness ("traces of madness"). As the tragedy concludes it is raining heavily; he has trailed him from a distance when suddenly, like lightning, a peal of laughter breaks out. It‘s the cackle of insanity.

Note the parallel elements: the brothers unearth fear in the beginning and mental illness in the end. Though they suffer and deal with them in ways that differ greatly, they experience them together. Note the change of the title's meaning using nothing but the context. "Laughter in the Rain" denotes gaiety and lightness. One reads it at first and thinks of couples or children -- or perhaps some fun seniors -- as they frolic in the patter of a cool April shower. This is innocence, the ideal... it‘s the speaker and his twin before the entrance of fear. When the phrase is used again in the final line it means precisely the opposite of what it did in the title.

And did you notice that the poem seems to know that we'll go crazy? It's instinctive and unconscious, like inspiration itself. Any poetry I write seems to work like a dream; it uses images and symbols to reveal my own psyche, who I really am, to my conscious mind. It's so familiar with my nature that it predicts what I'll so many years in advance - even down to fine detail!

“But poetry is prophecy, as I shall soon make clear. It is especially self-prophecy. I have never seen it fail to guess the future, the fate, the self-becoming of its author. The unconscious (or the instincts) is what creates it fully formed inside the mind of the poet. It is closer to transcription than it is to creation. That is why the poet, like the reader, is perplexed by its contents. He too must interpret!"

My early poetry was dripping with little omens and hints. Remember "Sad Poetry"?:

Of weeping eye and paper face:
This hand, this pen, this thought, this trace
I want within your mind to waste
These feelings born inside of me.
Battered and twisted, in disgrace:
This heart, this mind, this soul, this face
I want within your heart to taste
The killer born inside of me.

I am the bitter, Silent Boy
Lost in the land of the social toys
My feelings are shattered easily
So I just write sad poetry

I compose sad poetry.

Note the intense inferiority, which approaches self-hatred (lines 3 and 4). This is counterbalanced by a dawning awareness -- tentative at first, then dramatic and bold -- of my purpose in life (lines 12 and 13). I have found a new calling. Lines 10 and 11 are another self-prophecy, in a way; I was talkative in my youth (obnoxiously over-social when inebriated or stoned) and wasn't diagnosed with social phobia until my twenties. Line 8, "The killer born inside of me..." anticipates a crime that was eleven years distant. What's foreboding about this line is that I, unlike you, was not vengeful of violent. My anger was self-destructive. When I was arrested for murder there were people who thought that I was covering for you. As one of our friends said, ‘Nobody thought it would be you.'"

Here's an excerpt from what I wrote about the poem's hidden meaning. The attitude's rather pompous but it makes a good point:

"Finally, it perceived what only I -- and perhaps Hitler and John Gacy -- understood: the inverse proportion between violence and art. Or rather, the direct proportion between violence and unactualized artistic potential. That poetry/art was in the same poem as murder/violence implies a relationship, no matter how latent. Many years later I would clarify this bond with a maxim so brutal as to wield a blunt object: THE GENUINE ARTIST, IF HE CANNOT CREATE, WILL INEVITABLY SEEK TO DESTROY."

Of course you recall "Angel Flesh," which I wrote at 16. The images of death, of demonia, and gobbled upby evil, of the rabid desperation of my final few years (before I plunged into murder), are quite clear to me now. 

Emaciate my haggard form
Till even the bones become well-worn
And Anoxexia admires me
Sweet Jesus on the skeleton tree.

Shaky hands and powdered stones
Bleached cow skull and pile of bones
Reminds me of something...
Reminds me of me --
Ageless principalities!
Celestial cities carved from ice
Where human kaleidoscopes entice
The immortal beings to sacrifice
A little divinity, and love
And some angel flesh and angel blood.
From wounding words to crushing stones
Angel flesh -- wrap around these bones
Slipping surrealistically...
Diabolic spirits cover me.

The more I eat, the thinner I grow
The more I study, the less I know
The more I destroy, the more I see
A demon incarnate -- known as me!

Line 5 ("Shaky hands...") was scribbled several years before I'd tasted hard drugs or was familiar with their properties. I intuitively used "stones" (close to "rocks" -- i.e., crack rocks, rocks of cocaine) to describe the drug's texture. All the images of atrophy meant nothing at the time, for I was healthy and stout. But then I moved to New Orleans and started losing weight rapidly. In the span of 6 months I had lost 40 pounds. What was weird is that my appetite grew larger, not smaller: I actually felt like I was starving. I started thinking I was cursed like that lawyer on "Thinner" (the Stephen King novel) and I could physically feel the presence of anxiety and fear; they would burn through the calories that were meant for my body:

"A soul that's on fire treats the body as fuel."

Finally I fell into neurosis, paranoia, hypochondria (I believed I was perishing of some loathsome disease) and the first of several stages that would end in psychosis.

The story behind the poem is sort of Icarus-meets-Faust. It‘s about a young man who grows obsessed with immortality. This supra-human lust is not a matter of degree (quantitative superiority) but of type (qualitative superiority). He wishes to transcend the human race altogether. By the end of the poem he is turning into something -- but it is certainly no angel. He's an imp, a demon! I guess the moral is much closer to King Midas than Icarus.

In the next few letters we'll discuss your own poetry. I will anyway, you bastard.

Christian


To be continued...


Christian J . Weaver 271262
BCCX - 24B - 202
1045 Horsehead Road
Pikeville, TN 37367



Wednesday, January 21, 2015

21 Years of Living Dyingly

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Death has two faces: one's own 
Death, and the death of those we
Love.  Wisdom looks into the eyes of
Each face and sees what it must.
A.C. Grayling



It's around 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve.  I am supposed to be writing an entry to be mailed out on the 2nd.  It says so right on my calendar: “Send out AP article today, NO EXCEPTIONS.”  I'm not generally in the habit of procrastinating like this, especially when I talk to myself in all caps.  Actually, I've been attempting to pick the lock on the gates of inspiration for over a week now, to no avail.  I've never wanted to write something less, never felt so inadequate to the task.  If you are reading this, they are in the process of killing my best friend, Arnold Prieto.  I'm supposed to eulogize him, and I can't seem to find my words.



I've never been very good at this sort of thing.  My habit is to disappear and distract as much as possible when my emotional state is unsettled.  My modus operandi is to over-intellectualize matters;  I locate a literary reference or quote that seems pithy, something I can throw up in neon so that your attention is diverted, and then dive out the escape hatch and hope you didn´t notice.  In fact, that was my plan, to talk about The Plague, Camus' allegory of what happens when you exist in a society where death stalks you at every corner, not as an event but rather as a state of existence which persists beyond the ability of man to alter or end it.  I could have written at least four or five pages on this novel, tied it all up with a bow, showed how in Oran there are only “the townspeople” and “the volunteers,” and how Arnold was one of the latter.  It would have been decent, but it wouldn´t have had anything to do with my friend, only with my inability to somehow summarize his worth.  It would have been a betrayal.  Arnold wasn't a “volunteer”; I am.  And he thought such attempts at courage-in-adversity silly and pointless.



It's just not good enough to say that Arnold was good enough, to say that he was an honest man in a den of thieves.  Explaining what I mean by this requires you to understand our context, which you cannot do, and the content of a shared history, which would take me years to describe.  Eight, in fact.  And I just have no idea how to distill all of that down to a form that someone from your world would understand.  I'm used to much of what I say and write being lost in translation.  When it comes to the few friends I have back here and how we have attempted to survive and thrive in this hell, I don't even know how to use the transmitter.



The truth is, we probably shouldn't have been friends in the first place.  We have almost nothing in common.  He's not political.  He couldn't be persuaded to learn what it meant to be right or left wing.  If one were to plot out what he believes on a map, he'd be pretty firmly in GOP territory.  To rile me up (and, oh, does he ever know how to press my buttons), he talks about how Edward Snowden should be executed and how the NSA is nothing to worry about if you aren't breaking any laws; I won't even go into his views on Authority, save to say that they spiked the hell out of my blood pressure.  About the only thing we do agree on is religion, though he came to this position in a way that vexes me and I came to mine using methods he thinks are unnecessarily complicated.  We had great arguments, but somehow none of them were ever fatal to our friendship.  It's weird.  I can't explain it.  It's never happened to me before.



Years ago, Kevin Varga came to our dayroom and asked several people to participate in a little thought-experiment he'd come up with.  Imagine, he asked the guys, that a prison transport aircraft crash-landed on an island somewhere.  How would we live?  What would we do?  All kinds of solutions were offered, most of them representative of the sort of posturing that convicts engage in when in large groups;  it would have been a bad day for purported snitches, suffice it to say.  Neither Arnold or I said much, but I later asked him what he would do.  All he wanted for himself was to get away from everyone else, build a cabin with good sight lines, and live his life in a manner which fit him.  He said he didn't need to ask me, that he already knew that I would build a raft and take my chances on the high seas.



He was right, and I've thought about this island often over the years.  I take risks.  I am never satisfied, more often than not, bored out of my mind.  I have a very north German way of taking the good things for granted and focusing on the things that went wrong.  This all makes me annoying as hell.  Arnold was way more Zen than I am, without even knowing what Zen was about (which to my way of thinking is the only true Zen).  He wanted so little, expected almost nothing from the world save occasional small victories and disappointments.  For those of us that loved him, it was hard to see him exist in a world with such minimal horizons.  Still, it was impossible not to admire his way at times.  His ups and downs were manageable.  Nothing really shocked him; he'd seen it all in 21 years behind bars, and he fully recognized that the spinning bottle of misfortune will always eventually point at you.  He just took the downtimes squarely on the chin, picked himself up, and moved forward. Zen.



This is probably why my weirdness didn't annoy him as much as they do with nearly everyone else.  He just accepted me as I am.  He was remarkably loyal to me, a quality which is in short supply around this joint.  He is one of the only two or three guys I know back here that are universally liked.  Seriously: you couldn't find anyone around here that hated the man.  You probably don't understand how rare that is, because you don't live in a place that is constantly divided by cliques and the ever-evolving games they play against each other for power.  The rest of us creep around, trying not to step on any landmines, all the while laying our own.  Arnold just stayed the hell out of the fields.  He taught me much in this respect, and most of the antibodies I've developed over the years against infections of drama were originally grown in his petri dish.



The man could draw.  He was one of the best artists back here, and one of the most sought after because he wouldn't charge you an arm and a leg.  Same with his speakers – he had some of the best sounding units around, and he charged half of what I do, annoyingly.  He just valued his time less than most.  He was always honest in his dealings, also annoying at times because this extended to the officers.  When I'd get on him for messing up one of my intensely intricate plays, he'd just shrug and say that officer so-and-so was someone's mother or sister, and I'd slink away feeling like so much pond scum.  For people who claim that prison never makes anyone better, all I would have to do to prove them wrong is to point to Arnold.  He was just that noble.



Years ago, Arnold and I spent about a year working out like maniacs.  We did all manner of body weight exercises, push-ups, burpies, twenty different exercises involving the chin-up bar.  We also ran, sometimes for 90 to 120 minutes at a stretch.  When I run, I zone out, just trying to live in the moment and not pay attention to anything or anyone else.  One day, eight or nine months into our program, for reasons I don't recall, I suddenly noticed that for every lap Arnold was running, I was doing nearly two.  I spouted off in what I believed to be a righteous indignation.  You know, “you are cheating me and yourself” and similar windy militant trash.  He thought it was hilarious, and it was, though I couldn't see it at the time.  What I also couldn't see – what I didn't understand until much later – was that Arnold didn't give a crap about running, his waistline, his cardiovascular system.  He was just doing what he had to do to spend some time with me.  You can count on the fingers of a blind butcher's hand the number of people in my life who went so far out of their way to be my friend.  Convicts don't talk about love.  There's just too much testosterone in the air for that, too many jackasses that would misconstrue such things for their own twisted purposes.  We talk instead about respect, which can mean both love and fear, sometimes at the same time.  I'm too close to his death right now to see the full extent of his loss.  I'm sure I will write more about Arnold once I have gained some distance.  All I can say now is that there hasn't been a man I've met in m ten years that I respected more than Arnold.  And I know that if somehow these walls fell and you had to deal with him, you would have respected him too, though you wouldn't understand what he had to go through to become the man he was.  I will miss you, brother.

A Challenge To The Dark

shot in the eye 
shot in the brain 
shot in the ass 
shot like a flower in the dance 

amazing how death wins hands down 
amazing how much credence is given to idiot forms of life 

amazing how laughter has been drowned out 
amazing how viciousness is such a constant 

I must soon declare my own war on their war 
I must hold to my last piece of ground 
I must protect the small space I have made that has allowed me life 

my life not their death 
my death not their death…

Charles Bukowski


Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Other Death Sentence

CondemNation: The Struggle To End Death By Incarceration
Written by Right to Redemption and submitted by Terrell Carter

Pennsylvania has over 5,400 men and women condemned to serving life sentences without the possibility of parole—death by incarceration. Prior to September 2012, there were even more. But thanks to the United States Supreme Court's recognition of the evolving standards of decency, the Justices ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to condemn a child to serve a mandatory life without parole prison sentence. See: MILLER v. ALABAMA 132 s.cr. 2455 (2012).   This case hopefully will provide 500 human beings who were convicted when they were children a second opportunity at living productive lives.

But there still remain 4,900 men and women condemned to death by incarceration. Pennsylvania does not now nor has it ever had parole for men and women condemned to die in prison. The framers of the Pennsylvania Constitution in their infinite wisdom realized that to condemn a human being to a Life-Without-Parole prison sentence is to kill the human spirit and destroy any and all human possibilities and potential. In order to avoid institutionalizing hopelessness, the framers of the Pennsylvania Constitution provided a mechanism allowing human beings to demonstrate qualities expressing their transformation, such as: a contrite understanding of their negative and destructive actions and the impact their decisions had on families and the suffering on the communities at large. Thus showing their diligence on improving themselves to become productive members of the community. If they were able to show that they had undergone this process through education and program compliance they could then apply to the board of pardons for commutation.  Commutation is a form of mercy that allows a human being to serve the remainder of his/her life sentence on parole. Upon applying, if a person could get a majority vote (there are five members on the board of pardons), his application would then be viewed by the sitting Governor, who would make the ultimate decision on that person's freedom. 

In l997 this process would be forever changed, effectively shutting the door on thousands of human beings and their hopes for redemption. The rationale for this draconian measure was one man--Reginald Macfadden. After being incarcerated for twenty-five years for the rape and murder of a elderly woman, in 1995 Macfadden's life sentence was commuted. At the time of his release the prisoners who knew him were shocked. After all, it wasn't a secret that Reginald Macfadden was mentally disturbed. But what they didn't know was the fact that,what facilitated Macfadden's release was his cooperation in the successful prosecution of a prison assault case during the Camphill prison riot. Desperate for a conviction, the authorities made a deal with a man who they knew hadn't been rehabilitated. Sufficient to say that not long after Macfadden's release he raped dn murdered two more elderly women. 

In the Pennsylvania governor's race of 1995, this one tragic event became highly politicized. Tom Ridge was able to defeat then-Lieutenant Governor Mark Single. Mark Single sat on the board of pardons and voted for Macfadden's commutation. Tom Ridge used that vote against him and promised to keep Pennsylvanians safe by keeping the “MURDERERS” behind bars forever. Out of all the promises made during this gubernatorial campaign season, this was one promise that was kept. Ridge won the election and once in office, he immediately went to work making good on his promise. The first thing that he did was put a halt to all commutations, even the ones that were granted. The next thing he did was put a ballot question before the Pennsylvania voters that would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution's commutation process. With a low voter turnout, Governor Ridge was successful. The Constitutional Amendment was prepared in 1995 and in 1997 it was voted into law. A special session was called by Governor Ridge, No, 1 section 9. The ballot question stated: 

"Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require a unanimous recommendation of the Board of Pardons before the Governor can pardon or commute the death sentence of an individual sentenced in a criminal case to death or life imprisonment, to require only a majority vote of the senate to approve the Governor’s appointments to the board, and to substitute a crime victim for an attorney and a corrections expert for a penologist as board members?” 

This amendment would make it virtually impossible for anyone who was condemned to a life sentence to have his/her life sentence commuted. It also magnified a system that made justice expendable. Litigation went on for eleven years, and the condemned lost in the Third Circuit: See PA. Prison Society V. Cortez, 508 F.3d 156 (3rd cir 2007).   The case was sent back to the lower court, and the condemned once again appealed to the Third Circuit and lost on the merits. The court held that the constitutional right of those sentenced to life-without- parole were not violated by the 1997 Amendment.

With the avenue of commutation effectively shut down, the intent of the framers of the Pennsylvania Constitution, to avoid institutionalizing hopelessness, has been negated and as a result thousands of men and women are being held to account for the actions of one man--Reginald Macfadden. Hopelessness has become a contagion infecting the entire Pennsylvania criminal justice system, and in the process, undermining the very ideals of repentance and redemption that the Quakers, the founders of Pennsylvania and the first penitentiary, had in mind.

As a result of this monumental struggle for parole eligibility, two years ago a group of men came together and formed a committee called Right To Redemption. We realized that parole eligibility for people convicted of murder is not a popular issue with the public. After all, we’re talking about people who have caused great loss and pain to the public: i.e., to families and communities. We are not the same individuals we were 20, 30, 40 years ago. Every human being would like the totality of who they are to be more than just their worst act. The sentence of Life Without Parole (LWOP) does not even consider the possibility of change in a person.

As the death penalty continues to lose popularity in this country the sentence of LWOP is being marketed to the public as an increasingly viable alternative. Sadly, many opponents of the death penalty have proven to be the strongest proponents of LWOP. They do not see that this sentence is just as final as the death penalty; it is America's other death penalty. LWOP is death by incarceration, or according to some more astute minds, it is the “death penalty in sheep's clothing.”

The Right Tb Redemption believes that to sentence someone to LWOP is to say that he or she is irredeemable. How can anyone but God determine that? We believe this systemic negation of the human capacity for redemption is a crime against humanity. Therefore we call on forces of goodwill everywhere to come together, consolidate and champion the human right to redemption and dignity in any case or circumstance; to advance the idea of forgiveness for those deemed worthy; and to help the criminal justice system and the public see the rightness of embracing the prospect of redemption over unceasing retribution.

LOG ON TO OUR FACEBOOK PAGE: RIGHT TO REDEMPTION 

Terrell Carter BZ-5409
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244

* * * 

Life Without the Possibility of Parole: LWOP 
By Arthur Longworth

Tony liked math. I saw him send away for math books and teach himself calculus and trigonometry in here. Then, somehow, he got other prisoners interested and he taught them too. He always worked, Even after he lost part of his hand in the license plate factory, he got another job right away. He ran a lot too. If they let us into the yard for three hours, he’d spend every minute running. And he encouraged others to run. He bought candy bars and coffee from the prison store for prizes and sponsored races that he didn’t run in - I think so others would have a chance to win. Because if he had run, they wouldn’t have.

Ever know anybody like that? I can’t help but feel that Tony was worth something. He cared about others and he lifted spirits in here, many times, I knew him for as long as he was in prison - which was 25 years - until he hung himself in his cell earlier this year.

Tony had LWOP. He was one of about 50,000 men and women in this country (1) who have that sentence. In fact, I’m one too - I got it more than 30 years ago, not long after I left the last state boy`s homes I grew up in. Although my face doesn’t accurately represent this sentence. because two-third of those who have LWOP aren’t white people (66.4%) (2). 65% who have this sentence received it for a non-homicide offense (3), which, I’m ashamed to admit, isn’t me either. But I do know this sentence. Because it’s impossible not to know it when it’s been your experience for as long as you can remember. That’s why I want to talk about LWOP - honestly - because inside these walls it doesn’t feel like people outside are doing that.

COURTS
Our legal system defines LWOP as non-capital. In other words, no different than any other prison term. So courts uphold this sentence in ways the US Supreme Court prohibited for capital punishment more than 40 years ago. This means that LWOP can be - and is in Washington State -- handed out as a mandatory sentence that neither judge nor jury have any say over. And LWOP cases don’t get the kind of representation as cases the court does recognize as capital. It’s not even close, A well-off shoplifter in this state can get better representation than a poor person facing a LWOP sentence

There’s a lot wrong with that. But the root of the problem is the hypocrisy of a legal system that holds the actions of those it judges to a different standard than it holds its own. Think about it - courts assess culpability, or weigh out the blameworthiness, of an individual by viewing their crime through the lens of intent. Right? Think about it. The intent of an individual committing a crime defines what the crime is, often it’s the difference between 1st degree and 2nd degree or a different charge altogether. It’s a fundamental principle of law. It doesn`t make sense that a sentence issued by a court isn`t viewed through the same lens, When the intent behind a sentence changes from allowing for the possible reform of an individual to his or her death in prison - when that is specifically what you send someone to prison to do, to die here - how is that sentence not fully capital?

POLITICS
Lawmakers have a different take on LWOP, In fact, it was politics that created this sentence In 1972, state legislatures across the country enacted LWOP statutes in response to a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty (4). Our state was no exception. Although this sentence was originally enacted only to be used for those who would otherwise have received the death penalty, had it been in place at the time. However, once LWOP was on the books, lawmakers expanded its use through the idea that this sentence is a way to be “tough."

What’s wrong with this is that sentencing so many people to LWOP, without reviewing them at any point in their sentence, isn’t toughness. That’s not tough. And I don’t say that self-righteously, because I only learned it myself through the crime I committed as a young person. Not having compassion - not caring about any human being, no matter who they are, or how much you feel you’re different than them, or angry at them, or you think you hate them, or whatever - none of that is toughness. It’s ignorance

CAMPAIGN TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY
Enmeshed in politics is the national campaign to abolish the death penalty, although death penalty opponents seem to derive their understanding of LWOP from the courts because they endorse this sentence as something less than execution. Their campaign promotes LWOP as a “safe and just" alternative (5), a mercy. Maybe death penalty opponents are misled by the term "life." I assure you, if you shared this experience with us, you would understand that LWOP is not life.  In fact, that`s exactly what it isn’t.

Promoting societal acceptance of LWOP legitimizes death in prison as a social practice and has repercussions far beyond this sentence - it supports all death in prison sentences and, frankly, frames them as a condition that isn’t so bad. Know that this kind of sentence is inhumane - it’s torture -- in the eyes of the rest of the world. For that reason, the international campaign to abolish the death penalty doesn’t support it. A campaign that does support it, even in the face of such racial disparity, grates against the history in this country behind the term “abolition.”

ACADEMIA
The academic community comes the closest to understanding LWOP, Academics at least look at it objectively, They’re the ones who coined the term “warehousing” to refer to prison as it is used nowadays: packed full of people with long-term sentences with no serious system of reform or review. They describe LWOP as “exclusion” (6) (albeit. permanent), analogizing it with "banishment" (7) - a punishment from the Old World that predates incarceration. 

But academics don’t quite have it right either. The term “warehouse” isn`t accurate because a warehouse doesn’t harm or destroy what it stores, it doesn’t cause the product inside it to become less useful or compatible with society. This does.

Neither is this mere "exclusion." Prison in the US isn`t a place where you go and merely “do time.”  There’s nothing passive about it - it’s an active, aggressive form of punishment.  You may not see this outside prison - and maybe that’s what the walls and fences around prison have come to be used for, to keep you from seeing that bad things happen to people in here as a matter of course. In reality, "doing time” is getting used to watching people be harmed and destroyed in from of you. We become hardened to it - I guess because we really don’t have any other choice - we steel ourselves against it as a means of continuing to eke out our own existence, but that doesn`t change what this is. No modern society has prisons as harmful as ours (8). And nothing is worse, or more aggressive, than being in here without hope. This isn’t "banishment." Let’s be serious - you didn`t stick us on a ship and send us to America - that`s not what this is.

LWOP
So, what is LWOP? Not what institutions or individuals outside the experience say it is, but what is it really?

I can tell you that none of us who have this sentence got it for nothing. And because of that- because of the crime I committed as a young person - I’m not writing to advocate for or against this sentence. My intent is to relate it - to try to convey it to you - so you can decide for yourself whether or not you think a state institution should be doing this, or at least if it should do it to so many people.

The only way to even begin to understand LWOP is to imagine how you would feel if it were happening to you. Think you can do it? For anyone willing to try, let me describe for you what you would experience

LWOP is hopelessness. Every day you wonder how much closer you are to the end of your sentence. You can’t help it, because that’s a human being’s natural reaction to incarceration - to yearn to reach its end, no matter what it is. You learn to survive if you can, to exist, but it`s only a holding on, a dogged refusal to quit. It’s not because there’s a pathway in front of you down which you might walk in order to redeem yourself. In no point in this sentence are you allowed in any way to make up for the crime you committed as a young person -- no matter how vast the difference between who you were at the time of the offense, and what you do or make of yourself in the decades after. Nothing is in front of you except the end point of the sentence, all you were really sent to prison to do, to die here. With no point to work toward other than your own physical expiration, your will to live invents, it tums in on itself. You feel as though you’re being crushed, as though you can’t draw in breath, as though you`re only pretending to still be alive.

LWOP is the death penalty. And when it`s happening to you, you realize you don`t have the same luxury as everyone else - the luxury of being able to pretend that that`s not what this is.

Notes
1. Ashley Nellis. “Tinkering with Life: A Look at the Inappropriateness of Life Without
Parole as an Alternative to the Death Penalty” (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, Jan.2013),

2 Ashley Nellis and Ryan S. King, "No Exit; The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in
America” (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, July 2009).

3. Ibid.

4. Furman v. Georgia (US Sup. Ct.. 1972).

5. Safe & Just Alternatives website (http://www.sjawa.org/get-the-tacts).

6. Sharon Dolovich, “Creating the Permanent Prisoner”,

7. Ibid.

8. Robert Ferguson. Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, Harvard University
Press. 2014.


Arthur Longworth 299180 C238
Monroe Correctional Complex
PO Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272
To watch Art deliver his essay to a live audience at the Concerned Lifers Organization Conference, please click here



Thursday, January 8, 2015

Welcome to the Big House

By Timothy Pauley

1980 was a bad year. When it began, I found myself living in a van, which I parked in the lot of the factory where l worked. This provided me with a bathroom and shower at least. My bed was a sleeping bag perched atop the inch of foam padding under the carpet on the floor of my van.

I was young and resilient. This was not a circumstance I expected to continue, and it didn't. A few weeks into the new year, I was able to rent a room on a house nearby and it appeared life was looking better. On February 22 my optimism proved to be premature.

That evening, I was cleaning a raw materials conveyer belt that ran from a four-story silo to the root of a building that housed a huge furnace where glass bottles were made. The end of the conveyer was about twenty feet above the roof and the forty-foot length of the conveyer mechanism was encased in metal, with small inspection portals every few feet. There was a catwalk on one side of the structure, which permitted one to walk the entire length of the belt.

My job was to open each inspection portal, scrape the material that had fallen off the belt into a bucket, then dump it back onto the moving conveyer. This was done with a two-foot metal rod that had another piece of metal welded to the end to form an I shape. At the opposite end was a loop to provide better grip.

It was 7:00 PM when I climbed the ladder to begin this task. Methodically I went from one inspection cover to the next, scraping the excess material into my bucket. This was a task I'd performed many times before and five minutes later I was at the end of the conveyer. I opened the last inspection door and began scraping. As I thrust my tool in for one last pass, one of the staples that spliced the belt together caught the end of my tool. In an instant, the belt jerked my hand into the space between the belt and the huge drive roller. Try as I might, the mechanism was relentless.

In seconds it had pulled my entire arm into the space, with the belt tearing at one side of my arm and the drive roller at the other. My left hand slammed into the place under the housing where the safety kill button was supposed to be. Nothing but metal. It seems the catwalk had been built on the wrong side and the actual button was on the opposite side, some twenty feet in the air. Apparently nobody had noticed until that moment.

I let out a scream that came from the very depths of my being and pulled with all my might in an effort to resist this powerful force. It was no use. The belt continued to run for another two and a half minutes. When the belt began slipping on all the blood and torn flesh, the automatic safety kill stopped the belt. Although, safety kill is not an accurate term as this particular device was not designed to protect people, but to stop the machine when it became plugged and was slipping on excess material falling from the belt. 

When the belt finally stopped, it was dead quiet. I'd been expecting to see help on the way, but instead there was nothing. As I looked around, there were only two places on the ground that had a view of my position. One was in the middle of a busy highway and the other was an empty expanse where raw materials were stored. I was screwed.

It didn’t take long to realize that I was the only one authorized to be in this area. I was also the only one likely to have any business in the raw materials yard I was looking down on. It was 7:05 and the soonest I could expect anyone to venture to this part of the plant was at least twelve hours later, and more likely sixteen. I had to think fast.

My first strategy was to grab any object I could reach and throw it over the edge of the roof. My hope was that metal objects raining down would attract someone's attention enough to motivate him to come look. I was able to reach two metal inspection covers and two large bolts that secured them. One at a time I pitched them over the side, then waited.

By 7:15 it became apparent nobody was coming. My clothes were soaked in blood and it seemed at this rate I would be running out of that pretty soon. I didn't realize that the way I was pulled into the housing had forced me to keep my wounds above my heart and that, coupled with the pressure of the machine and the friction burns, had mostly stopped the bleeding. These facts would have been meaningless to me even had I known them. If I didn't get out of that machine; I was going to die.

So I started pulling. Hard. At first there was no give at all. I soon found myself contorting my position to put my foot up on the housing for leverage. Once that was secure, I pulled for all I was worth. Slowly I could feel my body moving away from the machine. The pain was constant, whether I just sat there or whether I pulled, so I continued to pull as hard as I possibly could. I was able to get nearly all the way clear. But my hand would not come free.

It was 7:25 now and I could actually stand up. My arm bone was completely exposed now but my hand would not pull free frown the machine, no matter how hard I jerked. I looked around once more and noticed activity in the raw materials yard. A driver was delivering a load of sand. He had a huge dump truck, with a dump truck style trailer attached. His routine was to dump the trailer first, disconnect it, then dump the main load, after which he would reattach his trailer and be on his way.

On this occasion, he'd brought his fifteen-year-old son along for the ride. As Scotty, the driver, maneuvered to hook his trailer back up, the boy stood in the yard getting some fresh air. In desperation, I pulled off my white and blue baseball cap and began waving it frantically. It seemed like a long time but right before he turned to head back for the truck, the boy saw me and pointed. Soon Scotty was standing next to him and they were both looking my direction. It was 7:30.

A few minutes later, maintenance workers were hurrying up the catwalk, tools in hand. The wave of relief that swept over me was short lived. Instead of immediately cutting the belt and freeing me, they began to disassemble the machine. I was livid. Expecting to pass out at any moment, I had no comprehension for their methodical approach and began hollering at them. Finally they decided to go ahead and cut the belt and moments later I was freed. It was 7:35. I'd been caught in the machine for a full thirty minutes.

As I pulled free from the belt, l could see my entire forearm bones. The flesh that had covered them was hanging off my wrist like a glove. Even though I could see this, it still felt like my hand was in its normal spot. My mind had yet to adjust to my new reality.

The maintenance workers encouraged me to lie down and wait for help to arrive. I was so wired on adrenalin, there was no way that was going to happen. I hurried down the catwalk and began climbing down the ladder. Moments later I was in the parking lot as the fire engine arrived. They encouraged me to sit down on the back of the truck to await the ambulance. The same adrenalin that had kept me alive prevented me from that and I paced erratically until the medic van arrived a few minutes later.

As I laid down on the gurney in the back of the ambulance, I asked to be made unconscious. I knew they were going to saw off my arm and I would be a cripple forever after. I just wanted this day to be over. But that's not how these things work. First you answer questions.

In spite of several pain injections, I was fully conscious until the moment I was lying on the operating table and they put the mask on me. The last thing I remember was a catheter that seemed like it was a hundred yards long being inserted. That actually hurt worse than my arm. My adrenalin had completely counteracted the pain medications. 

I woke up in intensive care with all manner of hoses, tubes and wires sticking out of me. Much to my surprise, my arm was still attached. In fact it was sewn to my chest. For the next two days I faded in and out of consciousness as my body recovered from the near death experience. Eventually I was moved to the burn ward. This was necessary because I had second and third degree friction burns all over my elbow area.

Each morning, a doctor would come in and peel away a new layer of charred flesh, then apply a new burn dressing. The pain this caused was easily equal to that of the conveyer belt. The only difference was that, while the conveyer belt was a surprise, I knew the peeling was coming each day. 

In 1980, pain management was a developing science. Due to the prevalence of heroin and opiate addiction, doctors were reluctant to prescribe adequate amounts of painkillers. This meant that each morning, as I sat on the edge of my hospital bed, I would fade in and out of consciousness as I became overwhelmed by the pain of having scraps of flesh pulled free from my arm. After several days I asked a visiting friend to bring me a bag of weed to help me cope with these traumatic events.

My new routine became centered around preparation for the daily peeling. At seven I'd have breakfast. At 7:30, as soon as they retrieved the trays, I'd begin smoking pipeloads of weed. At 8:30 the doctor would arrive to administer my daily peeling. I'd continue to fade in and out of consciousness during these events, but the weed helped considerably. On one occasion, as I struggled to maintain consciousness, the doctor told me that if I didn't smoke so much weed this wouldn't be happening. Had I not been in so much pain, this might have elicited laughter. In my mind, without smoking so much weed, I'd have been unable to endure these events.

Two months and five surgeries later, I was released from the hospital. My arm was semi-functional but was still swollen to about the size of one of my thighs. I had to return to the hospital every day for physical therapy and dressing changes. I also had to wear elaborate contraptions on my arm to stretch the torn muscles. I was missing about three inches of flesh from my elbow area, and what was left had to be stretched to make due. 

The day I was released from the hospital, my downward spiral ensued. First I went to have a few beers with some friends. Afterwards, they dropped me off at the place I was living and the gravity of my situation started to overwhelm me. I was a cripple.

From that moment, I spent every minute of every day, trying to drink and smoke my pain and despair away. I spent most days sitting around feeling sorry for myself and had frequent nightmares that threatened to rob me of my sanity. Eventually I became paranoid. Four weeks out of the hospital I went out and bought a pistol. 

Less than eight weeks after I was released from the hospital I found myself sitting in county jail for shooting two men. It was a senseless crime and the moment I sobered up, that fact became obvious. I was horrified at the realization of what I'd done but it mattered not; once you jump off that cliff, there's no going back. Now I was in the staging lanes for one of the most violent prisons in the country. At least the nightmares stopped. They were promptly replaced by insomnia ....

***** 

Nine months after my arrest, I boarded the bus headed for prison. My right arm was still badly incapacitated. I could move the three fingers opposite my thumb and I could bend my elbow almost to a 90° angle. The skin grafts hadn't finished healing, however, so I required daily dressing changes and my arm was still swollen almost twice the size of a normal arm.

I was entering an environment where many of those around me were looking for any sign of weakness to exploit. In fact, weakness was nearly the only character defect that was not tolerated. Drug addiction was celebrated. Dishonesty was encouraged. But weakness was exploited. Bad things happened to people who were perceived as weak.

The thing I had going for me was the exact same thing that was dragging me down. Murder charges. When I went to court this meant everything was all bad. As it related to adapting to the predatory environment of jail and prison, however, it helped me avoid much of the victimization I might otherwise have experienced.

I didn't realize it at the time but the conventional wisdom held that even though I was soft and ignorant to the ways of the streets, I would be in prison for a long, long time. People considered that making an enemy of me early on might not go so well for them once I'd been in prison for a while and adapted. Of course I was oblivious to this, but it was probably the reason I wasn't raped or robbed. With all the mistakes I made, I undoubtedly would have been, if not for this.

The mistakes came early and often. In jail I learned a little about how prison works and how to be a good convict. This education kept me from doing anything likely to get me murdered, like telling on someone or running up debts I couldn’t pay. Had l done these things, it would not have mattered how much time I was serving, there would have been severe and immediate consequences. This was especially true for someone like me, who had no support amongst the regulars. 

But there were also many who gave me bogus advice. Often the people most willing to share their wisdom are the ones who you never want to listen to. Over the years I've seen a lot of people who like to do this. I suspect their motivation is strictly the entertainment value of watching the ensuing wreck when someone actually follows their advice.

The first major mistake I made was not buying into the racial segregation dynamic that ruled prison at that time. I was told to keep to my own kind from the moment I hit county jail. But I'd been raised to disregard racial differences and to view everyone the same. In my parent's world that was good advice. In prison in 1980, it was a recipe for disaster.

A couple of black guys latched onto me early on. They tried to pretend to be my friend, all the while trying to play me out of money. I later learned this was called “game.” They offered me deals to sell me weed. After I bought some they sent their friends to try and buy some from me. When I sold them some, they didn't pay up like they were supposed to. It was all some kind of test to see if I could be made into a sex slave.

Typically when a young white guy gets to prison and starts hanging out with blacks, the other white guys will have nothing to do with them. Eventually this lack of support is likely to turn out badly. Often they get raped, then converted into someone's bitch, to be passed around or sold at the will of whoever lays claim to them. Since they voluntarily chose to side with the blacks, nobody will help them, even if they do put up a fight. A lot of that has changed over the years. Much of it no longer applies once a person is established, but this is exactly how it was when I arrived at prison.

The way this worked for me was that Walla Walla was a very violent place. The conflict resolution mechanism of choice was widely acknowledged to be stabbing or bludgeoning your adversary. This wasn't merely an option. It was expected. Letting things go or refusing to stand up for oneself could, and likely would, have disastrous consequences.

When the first guy didn't pay for the weed I sold him, I asked the black guy who'd been pretending to mentor me, if I was required to stab this guy and, if so, how would I get a shank. I was a stupid kid with no idea how things worked. I was probably lucky I asked him because I didn't exactly know how to do this anyway. This principle had been impressed upon me by many people already. Since he'd been behind the whole deal, he advised me just to let it go, which was just what I wanted to hear.

I tried to get him to explain to me the conflicting information I'd been getting. Why was everyone telling me violence was called for and he wasn't? He ran some line on me that convinced me it was okay to not do anything. This was fine with me. Had I actually been required to stab this guy, it’s just as likely he'd have ended up killing me anyway.

That evening, he and one of our other cellmates followed up on this. Later I realized I was very close to the getting raped part of their plan. They asked me what I would do if I was jumped in the shower and raped. I told them I'd have to stab the guy. Then they wanted to know what if there was more than one. So I'd have to stab all of them. Then they told me what if they were bigger than me and tougher than me. What if they would kill me. So I told them that if my choices were to be someone's bitch or dying, I'd take my chances with dying. 

They gave this some thoughtful consideration. After a short while, they told me I had to move to another cell the next day. At the time I didn't put all this together, but looking back, that is exactly what was happening. Had I been a short-timer, it wouldn't have mattered what I answered, but being a lifer the principle mentioned earlier literally saved my ass. 

So, I bounced around from cell to cell. I took several beatings for minor transgressions over the course of my adjustment but I never told and I never ran from them. Unbeknownst to me, these two things counted heavily in my favor amongst the people who were running things (not the guards) and were the beginnings of a favorable reputation. But that wouldn't help me until much later.

I was eventually shuffled off into a cell with three Chicanos. The guys I had been sharing a four-man cell with wanted to move in their friend so they talked these guys into letting me move in. During my first months in prison, I’d been getting all kinds of advice that later turned out to be bogus. Everyone had to have a shank. You never talk to the cops. I'm sure there were many others, but these are the two that tripped me up. So I found a piece of metal and scratched it on the cement until it had a point on it. The finished product was an eight-inch ice pick like thing. I pushed it into my pillow. Three days after I moved in with the three Chicanos, the cops searched the cell and found it, What I hadn't been told was that, while nearly everyone had access to a shank, NOBODY kept it in their cell. 

When the cops find a shank, they take all the occupants of the cell to the hole immediately. Unless one of them admits it was his and the other occupants didn’t know about it. But I'd been told you never talk to the cops. So we all went to the hole, the other three having no idea why.

Once I got to the hole, I found out about this but by then it was too late. I tried copping to it but the guards wouldn't let me. When I went to my hearing the hearing officer thought the other guys had put me up to riding their beef. He would not believe this shank was actually mine no matter what I said. He suggested I just check into protective custody.

Nearly everyone who'd given me advice on how to do time had impressed upon me that going to PC was considered one of the worst things a convict could possibly do. I declined his offer. So three of us had to do thirty days in the hole and one poor guy had to do sixty.

The two guys who got out the same day as me (we were all returned to the same cell) got back before me and stole all my stuff. When I finally arrived, my clothes and other belongings were gone and they claimed it was like that when they get there. None of their stuff was missing.

Now I was the idiot that got his whole cell sent to the hole. Nobody wanted me to move in with them. The guys who were in the cell warned me that I should not be living there when their friend got out of the hole. With no place to go, I did not heed their warning.

When he got out, he waited until after lock up that nigh; then beat me down. First he gave me a choice to become his bitch. I refused so he issued me a beating for the trouble I'd caused him. On this occasion I didn't really fight back, I just covered up and took my whipping. I had it coming.

I was told I had to move. Even though it conflicted with the whole not talking to the cops thing, I went to my counselor the next day and told her I had to move to another unit. She wanted to know why and I finally just told her I was having problems that were likely to turn ugly if I didn't get moved out of the unit. Instead of throwing me back to the wolves, she put in an order to move me to another unit.

With all this constant drama and the threat of being raped, beaten, or killed looming over me every minute of every day, the whole concept of how much time I had to serve was not something I had the luxury of contemplating. I was more concerned with how to live to the end of my day or the end of the week.

In my new unit I lucked into a series of good cellmates (the new unit had two man cells instead of four) who actually helped me understand how things really worked.

So far all my transgressions had been stupidity, not treachery, so as soon as I learned how things really were, life got better immediately. I fell in with folks of my own kind and many of my brother lifers began getting to know me on a personal level. After a few years I was accepted as one of them and was no longer in danger of being victimized.

The other thing that helped me in this regard was that I began lifting weights when I first got there. Back then weight training wasn't nearly as popular as it has become, but I had an arm that didn't work right. I was in a place where any sign of weakness was likely to be exploited so I wanted to fix that as quickly as possible. So along with my social transformation came a physical one. As I learned how to act right, I also became a physical specimen that was better suited to both take a beating and give one. I'm sure this helped with my adjustment as well.

Ironically it was the building muscle armor project that got me started on the road to rehabilitation. After a couple years of lifting, I began entering and winning powerlifting contests. This was the first time in my life I'd ever been good at anything. But it was just a part of learning to cope with my new reality.

When I‘d arrived I had no idea whom to trust and ended up trusting all the wrong people. While I had to suffer some consequences for that, it wasn't nearly as had as it could have been, and was for many others I saw over the years. After a while I learned how to spot a creep. Just like after a while I learned how to cope with the reality of what my life had become. I made a bunch of mistakes and learned from the ensuing consequences. My first three or four years in prison were consumed by this recurring pattern.

Wrapping my mind around the concept that this would be my life for the foreseeable future and perhaps even forever, didn't kick in until I'd crawled out from under the learning prison process. It was then that I began discovering what tremendous potential I had. First I found I was good at powerlifting, then it was sports, then school. One thing led to another as l worked at building a life for myself that was reasonably fulfilling.

The major strategy tor this process was built on the concept of ignoring nearly everything that was in the world from which I'd come and instead focusing on the things available to me where I was now. Instead of concerning myself with all the things prison was depriving me of, I did what I could to fill my days with meaningful activities.

Once I'd built some self-esteem, my life was better in prison than it ever had been outside. Recognizing myself as a worthy person helped seriously mitigate the hardship of knowing I was stuck in prison. And this self-realization permanently changed for the better all the ways I interacted with the world. But it was a long process and I still managed to make a jackass of myself many times before it was over.

Timothy Pauley 273053 A316
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777


Thursday, January 1, 2015

BEGINNING ANEW

Part 1 (of 2): “Quasi-Freedom” 
by Jeff C.

QUASI-FREEDOM Day 1:

AFTER GIVING AWAY nearly all of my wonderful stuff, after anxiously paging through the only entertainment in my room (a borrowed art book), and after having my very last wasteful nap in prison, the cell doors racked in my now echo-y room on a tier in which I'd dwelled on since the ‘90s and within 15 minutes I was in a van uncuffed, unshackled, looking at shapes and sizes of cars I'd never seen before, staring at people texting while driving, and gawking at the sheer amount of summer skin on display. 

The surrealness of this moment pressed down on the back of my eyes and, during the van-ride to Seattle, I knew I could let myself cry if I merely allowed it to happen. In the van, seeing shades of green an RGB screen can't duplicate, seeing Mt. Rainier not on a license plate but floating lazily above the clouds, and having my ears pop for the first time since my last vehicle ride 14.5 years ago, I did, indeed, allow the tears to leak out, deftly wiping them away so the convicts in the van with me couldn’t see them; now, on the sidewalk, able to walk away as freely as a dog into traffic if I so desired to be that stupid, I wouldn't let anything interfere with the overwhelming influx of sights, sounds, and feelings—both emotional and physical—because, yes, I did, indeed, reach down and touch the earth. Somehow I refrained from kissing it.

QUASI-FREEDOM Day 3:

AFTER TWO DAYS of running down the stairs each time a garble name is blasted on the PA for [Muffle Garble] to report to the front desk and it mostly being for me, after unblinkingly staring out my bay window (my #$%@*^ Bay Window!) that overlooks Seattle's 8th Avenue and Cherry Street with a view of not only trees that go all the way to the ground and of all the amazing boat traffic in the Puget Sound but also I stared from my second floor windows at the people in summer clothes (or lack thereof), and after plotting my route out on an awesome wall map (which suddenly isn't illegal in this particular DOC facility) of downtown Seattle, the unlocked front door was pushed open by me to take in my first few hours in 255 months not under the ever-watchful eye of the Department of Corrections or their cameras. I had three mandatory stops (with no allowable “deviations” to other locations): 1.) the bank (irony heavily, surreally noted that it was my last stop before prison), 2.) the Department of Licensing (oy vei, I'll spare you the stressmare that was—all because the DOC apparently hadn't noticed that 5 months prior there'd been a price hike on people who hadn't had an ID in over 5 years so the check they'd given me wasn't enough), and, 3.) the Metro for my month bus pass.

Bishop Lewis Work Release
But mostly I looked at all the tall buildings with a craned neck, glanced glimmeringly at the gadgets over people’s shoulders, and tried not to gawk at all the beautiful people all while trying not to seem like an alien and/or tourist who wanted (as I was later described to want to do) to lick all the shiny things. But my eyes weren't merely hungry—they'd been starved and hadn't known it until given that first taste and suddenly my eyes were ravenous (and quick to leak). I couldn't stop looking at all the new—it seemed—everything. It would take an hour to catalog all the things I'd never seen before. Yes, cable TV over the last 925 weeks allowed me to feel like I wasn't completely a stranger in a strange land, but TV is not reality. Despite what it loudly proclaims.


QUASI-FREEDOM Day 6:

MY EMOTIONS RANGED from the über-giddy to the grittingly stressful on my first day of job searches. Giddy because, especially in one of the most beautiful summer weeks of sunny weather in downtown Seattle, I was among the crowds. Just being able to walk amongst people was, at that time, almost too much—in that it was a combination of stimulation overload and I needed to not succumb to—what?—perhaps the self-pity induced by the complete waste I’d chosen my life to become. That slimy feeling always slithers underneath the surface—especially when faced with the majesty of crowds or whenever someone talks about what they’ve done/accomplished in the last nearly two decades. Shit, merely mention 401(k)s, mortgage payments, or any other adult, responsible thing to me and I either scramble to change the subject or defend myself with some lame feign at humor because I basically constantly feel like I am where I’d’ve been if fired, identity thieved, and had no insurance when all my stuff burned to ash in front of my eyes and it was all my own doing—essentially I feel I’m far behind where I ought to be in life and I don’t even get the American luxury of blaming someone else (and my only defense against this oppression is repression).

The Smaller Buildings of Seattle
So going out and interacting with people  who have no idea what I’ve done, where I’m from, how I’d fucked up my life, or how beautifully alien the lights, sounds, colors, and textures are to me—it’s all both fascinating and intimidating.

But the intimidation wasn’t just internal, it was external as well because I did have a job to do: finding a job. Bishop Lewis Work Release gives its residents (note: no longer “inmates”) 30 days to find a job or...well, go back to prison. Yet, they only allow its 68 residents to go but thrice a week to the Seattle WorkSource to use its services and something else quite important. I’d been fantasizing about and tantalized by glimpses over bosses’ shoulders and on television and in magazines and out of the mouths of the babies that come into prison in the last 15 years who grew up on and in it: the fabled, mythical, magical internet. The beholder of all information. The place I (and all who know me) knew, before I ever double-clicked once, that I’d become instantly addicted to. Hype, like hope, can be a dangerous thing, though. I never had to curse my way through dial-up speeds and blue screens of death (like polio and the Salem Witch Trials, these were only things I’d ever read about, not lived through, so I had no fear of them). But as a result of missing out on all that, I never instilled a (perhaps healthy) layer of calloused cynicism towards the internet. As if your only source of information about some exotic locale was slick, glossy travel brochures that intentionally never enlightened you about mosquitos, malaria, and airline meals—that’s what I knew about the internet: all the hype, none of the frustration. Oh, sure, I’d heard horror stories about malware and identity theft and iCovets being robbed at crochet needle point—but I’d assumed that they’d worked most of the kinks out of the internet when they’d upgraded to The Internet 2.0 and one could at least easily find out simple information at the speed of Google.

Seattle's Public Library
What I hadn’t expected was such a plethora of counter-intuitive mis-design on so many websites. Sure, absolutely, many sites are fantastically user-friendly, but there are simply far too many that seem like they were never gone through—e.g. if a job is offered in Seattle from a company’s website and that is one of the multiple choice selections, then why isn’t there a Washington State selection or at the very least don’t block forward progress by saying, “All required fields must be filled in”—or is there a Seattle, Florida, that I’m not aware of?

Companies often hire outside efficiency experts because they have that outside perspective, so, if I may have the attention of all the content providers on the internet: Few have a better perspective on this than moi—design, check, then have someone else check if it actually works. Oh, yeah, then actually fix the damn problem. Let’s get this shit right, people. This isn’t just for me and my frustration level; it’s to make the world a better place.


Sunshiny Seattle
I somehow signed up for my first email account (not always an easy thing to accomplish with zero internet skills and no phone number or other email address to be its backup; but thankfully my sister had created a different one for me that I used as the “source” one to send password changes to). I then...proceeded to be really rather annoyed that the televised hype that the various search engines turned out to be as they sputtered into my lap with an often overwhelming plethora of  just plain useless and irrelevant supposed answers. Silly me, I’d been fooled into thinking I could type in a question and get something useful back. Not 634,981 results in 0.18 seconds—not a one which is helpful.

That afternoon I also filled out my first job application in an art supply store and quickly realized I needed to go back to that stammering internet and get those oh-so-important-to-an-employer essentials like my elementary school physical address. 

Job Searching with Seattle's Freemont Troll
On job searches I also quickly learned something else by entering businesses. When out on a job search I'm expected to go to more than the two pre-approved businesses per three or four hours I'm out there, but there's a catch: I can only go into businesses if and only if I document the business name, address, whom I spoke with, phone number, time I arrived/left, and provide proof I was there—not always an easy task, especially considering that threat of “being sent back” if caught deviating. So, when a business doesn't have an application, a business card, or even a matchbook with their number on it, one hopes that at least there'll be a napkin or a take-out menu or something—either that or hope that the work release will believe you that they don’t. Therefore one quickly becomes adept at looking in windows and scanning for stacks of business cards before stepping one foot inside. A large percent of the guys who go to work release don't make it through their 4 to 6 months without being sent back (it seemed, from my stay, that it was about 50 to 60 percent, but after talking with the staff, they said it’s lower). Granted, a high proportion of them go back for just that—being high, but there are still the deviators who do not pass go and go directly back to jail or prison. But, yeah, drugs/alcohol tops the list, followed closely by having/using a cell phone. And bringing tobacco into the facility.

During that first week of job searches I, of course, got lost in Seattle essentially daily and asked people on the street for directions, but the first time a guy pulled up his Google Maps app and tried to hand me his phone, I put my hands up in the air and spewed forth how I wasn't allowed, you know, like I’d be shot for typing in an address on a phone.

Job Searching Near the Bubblegum Wall
But the one thing I quickly learned whilst job searching was that many businesses look at you like you're from another century when you ask for an application because it's, of course, almost all online now. But when you're forced with the threat of a really rather serious—or else—to go job searching for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, and only 9 of those 35 hours can be online at the WorkSource, you quickly either accept the first job offered or you commute daily to Stressville like I did. I will give the DOC credit for one thing, though: they instill, with this job search schedule threat, a great job hunting work ethic; I concur that when looking for work whilst unemployed, it should be a full-time job. Certainly some of my fellow residents have never put that much concerted effort into a job search (and, sadly, many still don't—instead taking the first food service back room job or end up sorting through garbage for minimum wage), but still—it's a rare good DOC idea. 

QUASI-FREEDOM Day 9:

OH, MY FEET. Blisters. On my feet. On my heels. On my toes. Between my toes. Brutal blisters that Band-Aids don't stop from hurting and which make walking beyond painful. Blisters that soon callous, then re-blister in new spots. Blisters that make one plan their job searches within a very short distance. 

A FEW NEW THINGS SINCE 1996:



  1. AUTO-FLUSH TOILETS nearly everywhere. Auto-sinks nearly everywhere. Auto-towel dispensers nearly everywhere.
  2. Cotton-candy pink, Smurf blue, and royal purple hair colors on nearly all age groups.
  3. Yoga pants.
  4. Mini-mini cars. (Car2go’s are adorable, I just want to pick ‘em up and rub their bellies.)

  5. SuperMini Car2Go Equals Adorable
  6. e-books/e-book readers.
  7. Nipples on mannequins (not in a sex/lingerie store).
  8. Dorsal fins on cars (apparently for Blue Tooth devices).
  9. Talking crosswalks, with seconds counters, with attitude (WAIT! WAIT!).
  10. e-cars.
  11. The 12th Man cult of the Seattle Seahawks with “12” or the blue and teal colors of this football team nearly everywhere.
  12. Credit-card street bicycle/helmet rental stations.

  13. Bikes for rent in Seattle 
  14. Legal marijuana, medicinal. Legal marijuana, recreational. People smoking pot at bus stops, next to kids. Kids smoking pot on the bus, not realizing their joint is still lit.
  15. e-bikes.
  16. Gluten-free markets.
  17. Patterned yoga pants.
  18. Earlobe stretched—do you even call it—piercings. (I had seen a few guys in the last few years who had these but because they weren’t allowed the jewelry/stretchers, their earlobes hung deflated, and sad.)
  19. Flagpoles (without flags) on shopping carts.
  20. Blindingly bright white headlights. Strobe-like/annoying cop car lights.
  21. CCTV cameras nearly everywhere—so much for thinking I’d not be on camera all the time after prison.
  22. The sheer quantity of facial (as in cheeks, nose, lips, etc.) piercings.
  23. Advertisements on grocery store floors.
  24. Sidewalk pet poop baggy dispensers and poop receptacles.
  25. Flavored bottled water.
  26. Phỏ-punned restaurants. (What the Phỏ, Phỏ Yummy, Phỏ In and Out, etc.)
  27. Recycle bins on downtown streets next to garbage cans.
  28. Blow-up Christmas yard decorations.
  29. e-cigarettes.
  30. ASCOB yoga pants.

The Hidden Needle
QUASI-FREEDOM Day 13:

“SO IS THAT an official job offer,” I told the hiring manager sitting across from me after a half an hour interview.

“Yes, yes it is, Jeff. We'd like you to take either the commission on-call jewelry sales job working for me or that non-commission position in women's dresses. Which suits you best?”

I answered him and he was fine with my choice, and here is where I took a deep breath and, in a serious tone, put to use the advice my Veteran's Affairs (VA) rep had given me just the day before and said, “I need to put something on the table. About a year after I was honorably discharged from the Army I made the biggest mistake of my life and, unfortunately, committed a felony. Since then I've remained working, completed my AA, volunteered for two non-profits, and am four classes away from completing my bachelor's degree. But I am currently in work release. I fully understand if [well-known retail chain] isn't able to hire me, but I needed to be up-front with you about this.”
I then answered his uber-polite request to know what the crime was and I answered him, adding, 
“Thankfully, no one was hurt. Do you think this is going to be a problem?”

“Had you've chosen the commission job with jewelry it might've been a concern to the background check people, but I don't think it'll be an issue for the women's dresses department.” I started working there a few days later; I was more than thrilled and took copious notes during my first couple of days of video training and I'm not sure the smile ever left my face.

QUASI-FREEDOM Day 17:

ON MY SECOND and a half day with—um, let's call them Das Schnäppchen, I was wearing my newly purchased uniform of black shirt and pants and I had just finished my cash register training (far less interesting than the video on what to do if a “shooter” comes into the building—run, hide, and then, if needed, fight, in that order). I did the cash register training in an empty room on one of the eight machines there next to yet another computer-screen “trainer” and I was on my way to take my lunch when a gentleman from Human Resources (HR) asked me to come into his office where he asked me for further details of my crime.

I provided all he needed and, for about four minutes, expanded, in detail, all of my rehabilitation. He sent me back and said he'd contact me after he and his two fellow HR co-workers had a meeting about me. 

Two days later my Community Corrections Officer (CCO) called me into her office and told me that the HR guy from Das Schnäppchen said, “We don't work with people in work release.” And she asked him if I could work there when I get out and he, apparently, just repeated that, “We don't work with people in work release.”

Although that wasn't ideal, as I told my VA rep after she sent off an unhelpful (for me) but highly encouraging (to me) email to the HR guy prior to the HR meeting about me, “I look at it this way: this was better than a mock interview because there was pressure to do it right without a 're-do' and I did well enough to actually get the job, so I'll just do it again.”

But hey, I did get paid to watch videos for two and a half days and besides, the jokes about me working in women's dresses were sadly stale and unoriginal after day two anyway.

My Bay Window and Part of the View I Have of the Puget Sound

QUASI-FREEDOM Day 25:

MT. RAINIER EXTENDED all the way to the ground.

QUASI-FREEDOM Day 26:

TECHNICALLY I WAS days away from being sent back for not having a job yet, but was it 4 weeks or 30 days that was the ultimate deadline? Were they going to tell me I had two days left to get a job? Would it matter if I was hired, but my start date wasn't for a few days? And did I get credit for the job I had but didn't quite get fired from? (Another reason to be sent back for, potentially.) These questions, and where I was going to go to work, caused me more duress than each night from being 6’2” tall trying to sleep on a 6’ long bed with nowhere to poke my feet off or through and repeatedly being awakened by leg cramps which I was barely able to bite down on in the middle of the night to stop from waking my first roommate since 1999.

Thankfully a new friend took pity on me after seeing my portfolio of artwork and got me a job painting houses. Though I never got to be as fast as the great guys on the crew, I was often tasked to do the “artist” detailing that others, I think, didn't have the patience for.

And not only was my starting pay higher than the 2.5 day job with Das Schnäppchen, but I got my first ever retroactive pay raise (20 percent more) after the first two weeks on that first paycheck and I got another raise shortly afterwards. But best of all, the stress of being sent back was gone and, since I'd been upfront with the lead-man from the initial phone interview that I was actively looking for other work, I was allowed to work the days and hours that fit my interviewing and still be employed for enough time to not only satisfy the DOC and keep me from the stick of being sent back, but it was enough to qualify for me for the carrot of being checked out of Work Release like I’m a library book to go out on my first “social” visit.

On a Social Visit to the Seattle Art Museum with my Mom

FIRST EVER INTERNET PURCHASES:

  1. TWO PAIRS OF glasses, much needed.
  2. A stack of books the DOC wouldn’t ever let me buy, much desired.
  3. A device I’ve coveted for the 10 years or so I’ve known of its existence and very much needed: nose hair trimmers.

QUASI-FREEDOM Day 42:

AFTER ABOUT 6599 days of not ever being able to go to anybody’s home, after seeing pictures and hearing descriptions of homes and pets, and after undeviating behavior for not just 42 days of quasi-freedom, but for however long it was that qualified me for Work Release, I was approved to be checked-out, yes, like a library book, by my sister as long as I was returned within 10 hours. The late fee is, you guessed it: being sent back, or at the very least, like if under 15 minutes late, losing the privilege of going out on these “socials.”

But to remain eligible for them requires a combination of things: infraction-free, be at Work Release for 30 days, turn in your first (and all) paychecks (because Work Release costs $14.50 a day, whether you’re working or not), and you must work at least 32 hours in the last 7 days. To qualify for three socials, not just two 10-hour socials per week, one must work 40 hours or more in the last 7 days. I, technically, might not have qualified for this first social visit when I did (and maybe ought to have waited a week or two to stay all “legal” but I, um, creatively interpreted the rule) because my painting job only paid us every two weeks but I turned in that 2.5 day job paycheck from Das Schnäppchen and just hoped that they’d count it. They did and I was eligible for my first time going to my sister’s home, see what will be my own room, and—something I’d worried about— something my sister did think I was ridiculous for when, prior to coming over to her home, I admitted that I was slightly nervous about meeting her four dogs and begin the process of winning them over and having them accept me as family. I was willing to bribe them with bacon if need be. Thankfully, though, they just want attention, petting, and, obviously feed them some SNACKS! 

Over 18 years I’d seen the prison’s drug dog many times (and been “hit on” by it, falsely, as well) and a few times some blind church guy would come in and let us pet his guide dog if he didn’t have the guide-harness held. But it’s not even the same as getting on the floor and petting a pack of adorable and friendly dogs. Nothing is.

Touch, actually, is a strange thing. There’s a limited number of things one has the opportunity to touch in prison and my sense of touch (at least for the “exotic”) atrophied but, thankfully, I’m in physical touch therapy—trying to rehabilitate my fingertips to the idea of touching tree bark, the wild grasses grown in concrete planter’s pots in downtown Seattle, soft fabrics, and, yes, the soft fur on the top of Mr. Man’s head. I’m working my way up to human skin.

In prison I was one of the lucky few who were allowed to have trailer visits. This was where my family would come bring food in and we’d make a weekend of eating, talking, playing games, eating, watching DVDs, and eating. Basically just being a family. Connecting in an environment that, unlike the visiting rooms, isn’t tyrannical and almost clinical. But even then, during trailer visits, it wasn’t quite a true vacation from prison. Firstly, the trailers were physically behind the walls so the view was the same: a 30 foot high old, crumbling, weed-covered wall that despite its age and wear, still kept everything without wings, a tail, or a badge, solidly from leaving. Secondly, the guards would “count” us in two ways: one by me standing outside and waving howdy doody to the guards in the tower and, two, by coming in for a “health and welfare” check—these would alternate and come at times that would exasperate my early-to-bed mother far more than me, perhaps because she wasn’t as used to dealing with an inflexible, uncaring bureaucracy.

My First Convertable Ride
But a social visit is entirely different. On my first one I went to my sister’s and did chores like sweeping her roof of pine needles and moss (and while that might not sound like a rowdy wild time, after being what internally has felt like a burden upon my family for over 18 years, I am glad and honored to be able to help out first where I can…time permitting). I also got to ride in her convertible and obviously eat, a lot (some important things don’t change). Eat so much (and such rich food) that I, yes, did get back to the Work Release and, later, puke up all that great food; it tasted better the first time.

Earning my Supper on a Social Visit
Essentially, though, what socials do is let me feel like I’m a fully-functioning, contributing non-caged, actual human who has loved ones that don’t need supervision to be around. On my first social visit I asked my sister to bring a camera. Because after over a month of zipping around and across not only downtown Seattle, but, as I grew more comfortable (in thinking I could get back in time), zipping all around from Burien (down south) to the U district (north) to west Seattle (that’d be west) and to Bellevue (you guessed it: east) with not only my expanding job search (now using that bus pass to its full advantage and not just going to places within walking distance) but also because of my new job as a painter, I had seen so very much that I wanted to document. Hence the camera. 

Stacking Wood on a Social Visit
Getting sent back is the threatened stick, but socials, to be sure, are the biggest carrots the DOC has to offer.  Even given the conditions that some complain about; heck, before I got to Work Release, some guys told me that it’s a rip-off and a scam. I currently pay for my stay here as a “resident” at Work Release—and am happy to pay it (though, it should be noted that those who aren’t happy typically have massive chunks of their checks taken due to debts and are left with very little). But, yeah, I’m happy to pay $14.50 a day for the right—nay, the privilege of earning at the bare minimum of $9.32 an hour for 32 hours a week to earn my socials.

I Guess it is True
But, at the risk of getting political, let’s, for a moment, expand this outward: it costs $46,897 to house an inmate in Washington State [figures from 2010]. Now, while I don’t believe we should be making a profit from the incarcerated (and I’m sure they don’t…well, other than all the jobs generated, but that’s another question), the fiscal concern is often brandished about with respect to incarceration. Yes, it absolutely is expensive—more so the higher the security level (though that’s often a play by the guards’ union to get more workers at more pay to do less work, but that, too, is another question and, admittedly, hearsay and conjecture). But according to the RCW (Revised Code of Washington) I’ve read prisoners are eligible for Work Release at 12 months “to the gate,” as it stands, not the 6 months that is currently in practice. If the DOC would invest in more Work Release facilities at an initial large investment, to be sure, it would help pay their way two-fold: residents would help pay their way and they’d not be incurring the heavy expenses that come with an actual incarceration, prison-style. My napkin math says that for six months a resident will pay $2,610 and for a year $5,292 and while that’s not much of a dent in the $23,448 for six months of incarceration or $46,897 for a year, because there are less staff, no walls, and no guns, the actual cost of incarceration will be massively lowered. Just a thought, people, just a thought.

Besides, if the DOC did anything besides a lame feign towards rehabilitation it’d not only reward more guys for longer, with the carrot of social visits, but help them build a nest egg for themselves for when they get out. And that’s possible because the Work Release facility is super strict on how much of your own money you’re allowed to spend while in here and certainly it’s going to reduce recidivism by giving guys more (of their own hard-earned) money upon their release.

Me and a 10 Dollar Hoe
QUASI-FREEDOM Day 93: 

WITH FULL PERMISSION from my Community Corrections Officer, I was able to go to my first “outside” University Beyond Bars event and speak to all the donors who so generously support the UBB. I was slightly nervous there and a few of my jokes fell flat (as they should since I’m only percentage funny—oh, I’m funny, but only a percentage of the time), but overall it went well and it was great to be able to get hugs from teachers who have known me for years.  

THINGS I HAD TO RELEARN (OR LEARN FOR THE FIRST TIME):

  1. ADJUSTING TO THE harsh, almost overwhelming metallic taste of non-plastic utensils.
  2. How to chew gum (not how to chew it, but what flavors to pick from…okay, maybe a little bit how to chew it as I’d not chewed any gum for over 18 years—and I’ll admit, reluctantly, that I did bite the inside of cheek…and lip).
  3. That you shouldn’t click on a link INSIDE an email, but instead put it in the link up top (who knew that malware was buried in a link).
  4. That websites can be counter-intuitive and not make it easy to go backwards: I sent a birthday gift to Scotland which arrived addressed in my name because “the internet is hard,” I told her, but really because I couldn’t figure out how to change the shipping address name be different from the billing name.
  5. That food is hot; not just an industrial kitchen grade hot, but steaming, burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth hot.
The View from my Bay Window


QUASI-FREEDOM Day 127:

AFTER THE PAINTING job became less than full time I had to get another job. Even though I’d created a position in that company which had never existed before (office administrator, bringing the company into the computer age), I needed more work not just to satisfy the Work Release, but also to qualify for the, to me, all-important social visits with my family (I missed out on one weekend because I didn’t have enough hours when my Mom was in town and that perturbed me greatly). So I took one of those jobs that I knew would hire me because they had other guys from two different Work Release facilities in Seattle working there. I was hired on the spot by the owner (who, I later found out, hires essentially everyone who can speak/read English) and I basically made myself a full-time employee by telling the secretary, after I’d started and was discussing my hours, that I only took the job because I was expecting it to be full-time. 

But I have never felt so…creepy doing a job before. Sales, in and of itself, isn’t icky—if you’re providing a good or service that people want, it’s all good. But this job causes people to cry and caused me to cry, too. 

A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: FOR THE LAST month of my quasi-freedom I’ve done maybe not a horrible thing, but certainly a bad enough thing that doing it makes me feel not just icky, but like I branded my karma with some irreparable harm. But I’d like to now, for you, dear reader, at least try to chalk up some good karma points—I doubt it’ll make up for all the harm I was paid to do, but still.

After my painting job dried up to non-full-time status I took a soul-sucking minimum wage job as one of those very annoying people that call you up (with caller ID blocked) asking for money, even if you’re on the national Do Not Call list (“Thankfully charities are exempt from that so that we can raise needed funds for…” reads the rebuttal). Yes, I’m one of THOSE people. Granted, this may not be the worst job there is in that we’re not rude, just insistent. Thrice insistent. As in, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been out of work for a year, just got diagnosed with leukemia, and your dog just ran away—but you actually don’t need anything now to help out…” The one and only thing we’re allowed to end the call for without rebutting twice is the death of a spouse (though I’ll always feel like there’s some slime on my soul for convincing a son to donate in his mother’s name after she lost her husband, his step-father). But in a hope that there might be SOME good to come of all this…here is what I’ve learned that I hope might help you:

There is no rebuttal to even a polite “Take me off your call list”—but please note: there are different versions of this. The “simple” one, at a less scrupulous business like where I worked, gets you off their list for about 70 days and then they’ll call you again. Or at least that’s what the owner of this company said. The more complicated one requires one of two things: (a) either get loud and livid or, better yet, (b) take a few minutes to ensure they absolutely never will call you again by acting like you’re interested, get all the required info (full names, physical address, phone number, registration number with the Secretary of State, tax ID number) and then threaten to call the Attorney General—trust me, they listen to that particular stance. But if you say “take me off your list” before you know who they are, why would they need to take you off?

Always, always, always ask for a specific percentage of how much money actually goes to the charity. Do not accept a paragraph answer that lawyers you away from your actual question. Repeat yourself until you get an actual number. Yes, a for-profit company making money for a non-profit deserves to make some money, I suppose, but do you want to support the charity or the people making money off of the charity? If you truly want to help them, get the info (at this place they’d only reluctantly give out the website info so that people could donate directly as they didn’t get a 60% cut of each of those dollars), and donate directly.

Remember, three is the magic number. Unless there’s some special circumstance, if you politely say no three times, the call will end. Once gets you to the first rebuttal (and there will always be a rebuttal to any “reason” other than “I’m not interested”), twice gets you a second rebuttal (often at a cheaper price), but the third no lets them know that you’re not budging and they’d rather spend their time on the weak-willed; and don’t doubt that there are some who are—on our “taps” calls (a disrespectful label as it’s used as a way to describe people who’ve given in the past and not only do we “tap” them again, but we keep on tapping them until they tap out) we try to only ever talk to the spouse who gave in the past; the other spouse is the one to avoid as they’re usually the one to say, “Take us off your list.” One guy answered my initial greeting with, “No. No. No. There, you’ve heard three of them, now go on to your next call.” This made me laugh—and remember, not everyone who works at such places are soulless.

In four weeks I saw at least two dozen people get hired and then get laid off if they couldn’t get a sale in three 4 hour shifts or, more likely, quit because they simply couldn’t deal with either that much rejection or that much heartache. I will admit, it was hard hearing my first woman cry on the phone to me (her husband just lost his job after being diagnosed with leukemia—but she WANTED to give, she just couldn’t and this caused her to cry and I couldn’t do anything but offer hollow words; talking about it later with someone close to me she told me it’s sometimes easier to breakdown to a stranger, because there’s no pressure to “keep it together”), but it’s also not easy talking on the phone when someone tells you a heart wrenching story. For me that came when a woman told me that she and her husband just lost their business—it’s weird, there were much more intense stories told to me (often within 3 minutes of a conversation), but this one got me choked up and made me say something, I hope, consoling and then ruin the next call because I was all choked up and I was glad the guy hung up so I could go wash my face and try to compose myself. By all means, some of the people there say some horrible things when they hang up the phone about the donors, but not everyone is like that; some are just trying to make some much-needed money in a legal way. And many of them, me most definitely included, will consider their brief stay there with that necessary job as one of the worst jobs they’ve ever had. 

Seattle's Columbia Tower (Had an Interview on the 42nd Floor)
A NOTE ABOUT ANONYMITY: AFTER A COUPLE of months and at least a dozen interviews that went, as far as I could tell, fantastic, but without getting many call-backs I began to wonder aloud if it was maybe more than, possibly, being overqualified. I then Googled myself and saw that if you typed in my first and last name plus Seattle, up popped Minutes Before Six (MB6). And while that’s great for many ways (because I’m proud of what MB6 is doing and stands for), I felt like it was possible that potential employers were Googling me and finding out, without doing an expensive background check, that I’ve been in prison (and for a very long time, for a very serious thing). And, if that was true, then I was maybe making it far too easy for such potential employers to dismiss me and my abilities without giving me a chance to prove that I’m not that dumb 23-year-old kid anymore.

Pike Place Market Graffiti

Pike Place Market Graffiti, My Contribution
All that to say this: regretfully, for now, as I’m looking for (as I say in these endless interviews) “not just a job, but a career,” I have removed my last name from this website. Certainly anyone worth their investigative dollar would still easily find out that I’m a felon and what those felonies were, but there’s no sense in doing their job for them. Although I’m doing this for, I think, sound reasons, I do feel selfish for this choice because not everybody gets to (potentially, partially) hide from their past. In fact, I imagine that there’s a few readers of this site who read this site because many of their people writing it can, and do, well, speak freely in a way the free often can’t, but I hope that my dropping my last name will allow me to continue to speak truth to power, and not just cower away from the potential consequences for speaking up. 

Seattle's Wheel at Dusk
QUASI-FREEDOM Day 152:

IN BETWEEN MY split-shifts of a soul-sucking job (for which I was most grateful to turn in my two weeks’ notice), I filled out after-the-fact application paperwork for my very first job with full benefits and a 401(k). I smiled when he had me only complete the first and last half of the application, skipping over the parts he’d crossed out which included that dreaded question which has killed many a job for me (even after truly killing it in an interview): “Have you ever committed a felony?” 
Oh, sure, there are other phrasings to this question—including the “in the last 7 [or 10] years” one—but this wasn’t the first time I was instructed to skip this. No, when I got that 2.5 days long job at—oh, what’d I call it?—ah, yes, Das Schnäppchen, the in-store, on-line application I filled out had a peculiar (to me, then) phrasing about this question. It said: CRIMINAL BACKGROUND INFORMATION: If you are currently residing in or applying for jobs in HI, MA, MN, Newark NJ, Buffalo NY, Philadelphia PA, RI or Seattle WA, the below questions should not be answered with a “yes” or “no” but instead with “I currently reside in or am applying for jobs in HI, MA, MN, Newark NJ, Buffalo NY, Philadelphia PA, RI or Seattle WA.” The reason for this is that there was a grassroots campaign to “ban the [criminal history] box” on applications so that convicted felons could at least get an interview before that stuff came up.

Seattle recently passed the “Ban the Box” law. This was, as I understand it, because of the movement of the same name  which is all about allowing felons at least a shot at an interview because if they see the box checked, “Yes, I have committed a felony” the application obviously gets chucked, all too often. Absolutely there are jobs in which I’ll never ever qualify for (and I’ve still no idea what about my résumé that draws financial planner/insurance recruiters to me like my eyes to yoga pants—even but for a glance), but I’d still like to interview for the others.

True, there are jobs in which I get that I have forfeited my right to try out for. But there are still a lot of other jobs which, when I checkmark that box (and often have to describe what the felonies were), I know I’ll never be considered for—not because I’m not qualified or because I’m barred from doing that job, but because—from their point of view—why bother? Maybe it’d be different if the economy was hiving and there wasn’t a very low 4.6 percent in Seattle as of September 2014 [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics] of busy little bees unemployed, but it’s an employer’s market, so companies get to be choosy. Also, because the law isn’t exactly fully know about, let alone enforced, companies still have these questions in their applications.

But I just hope that the smirk I had on my face signing my hiring paperwork doesn’t get wiped off by yet another background check although thus far they’ve all been conducted (and paid for) after I admitted I was a felon; it’ll be interesting to see if they go back over 18 years if they’ve not been told ahead of time that there’s a there there. But it was certainly pleasant to be offered a job after an interview (I’ve had over half a dozen of these job offers in the last 5 months) and not have to pause, shift tones, and “need to put something on the table.” Maybe now, finally, I can just do the job I was hired for. Do the job I know I’m capable of. Do the job long enough, good enough, professionally enough that by the time any background check comes back they might just say, “Hey, he’s a worker—let’s keep him.” One can always hope, right? 

Out Pumpkin Hunting for Halloween
QUASI-FREEDOM Day 152:

AFTER A LONG 18 years, 4 months, and 20 days, I woke up (early, obviously) ready (quite obviously) to get out of prison. After I gathered up all my bedding, washed it, had my room checked for cleanliness, gave the rest of my stuff I didn’t need away, and signed myself out, I grabbed my backpack of stuff and walked out the front door, a free man. Freedom. Is there any word better than that? Is there any better feeling than that? I don’t know, but I’ll let you know in part two, when there won’t be any “quasi-” to this freedom.

What I Actually Wore Out on Halloween To and From Bishop Lewis Work Release (sans Dog)

—December 2014

Jeff C.
jeff@minutesbeforesix.com