Thursday, October 13, 2016

To Be Useful

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By Isaac Sweet

The vacuum cleaner started making a loud, obnoxious noise. It smelled like something was burning. Frustrated, Mom shut it off and walked away. I didn't know if her frustration was limited to the broken vacuum or how much could be attributed to raising four kids on her own. I was just happy that she wasn't frustrated with me--this time.

I was the only male growing up in a home dominated by four women: my mom and three sisters. I was number three of four in the birth order. Naturally, the majority of youthful mischief in our house included me. My sisters didn't get in much trouble with their dolls, clothes, and lipstick. But anything I ever put in my pockets (frogs, matches, pocket knives, firecrackers, etc.) evoked some form of theatrical reaction from Mom, and subsequent punishment for me.

I didn't like seeing Mom frustrated because most of the time it was because of me. That's why I wanted to help her so much. I'd heard some people refer to me as "the man of the house," and even at nine years old I recognized the prestige of that title and the hint of the responsibility it implied. Grandpa was the man of his house and whenever something broke, he fixed it. I knew where Mom kept some tools. I had a vacuum cleaner to fix; I just had to wait until she wasn't looking.

Using a screwdriver, I removed the screws and cover plate from the bottom of the machine. A wad of string, hair, dirt, and gunk had wound itself around the moving parts. I managed to remove the belt and revolving brush and then dug that stuff out of there. I had vacuum cleaner parts and little piles of dirt and gunk spread out all over the place (like any other respectable kid my age) when Mom came in. I was busted.

Mom had a flair for the dramatic. I was used to her theatrics. I was accustomed to seeing her bolt out of a chair in an attempt to rescue one of us kids from some hypothetical danger. There was occasional yelling -- especially at me. She would even scream and jump up onto a chair at the mere sight of a spider (she actually called the police on a spider one time, but that's a story from before I was conceived).

This time was different. Like every other time I had been caught mid-mischief, Mom yelled "What are you doing?" But this time, instead of the tirade that normally followed there was an electrically charged silence. A whole new level of mad. So I started explaining to her what pieces I'd taken apart and what the problem was. I pleaded with her to let me finish what I'd started and promised that when I was done her vacuum cleaner would work. The unthinkable happened. She let me.

When I was finished and Mom had visually inspected my work, she plugged in the vacuum and turned it on. It worked. My sense of relief was overwhelming but the look on her face was priceless. Thus began my lifelong love affair with being useful.

* * *

During my transition from childhood to young adult, I associated with some friends who didn't have my best interests in mind. Many in my family warned me about my associations, but I knew what I was doing -- or so I thought. It wasn't until I received an ultimatum from one of my so-called friends that I realized I was in over my head. I lacked the courage and the integrity to make the right choice so, a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday I drove the getaway vehicle from a crime I genuinely wanted no part of. Afterwards, I was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and assault, and sentenced to serve just over 35 years in prison.

I spent the first decade or so of my prison sentence in denial. I felt the system had failed me. I felt I was, for the most part, innocent and had become mere collateral damage in some "tough on crime" political war. It wasn't until I was in my late twenties, after a conversation with a friend about culpability, that I began to understand my responsibility for the crime. If it weren't for me and my truck, it wouldn't have happened.

I cannot adequately articulate how sorry I am to all who were affected by my poor judgment. I say "all" because the ripple effect of collateral damage in its wake continues today. I have dragged a number of my family and friends into this lifetime of misery with me. The emotions I experience regarding the poor choices of my youth, which cost so many so much, culminate in a rock bottom, lowest of the low feeling. But, instead of wallowing in self-pity, I use that detestable feeling as motivation, fueling and galvanizing my commitment to live the remainder of my life with honor and integrity. I define that as: simply doing the right thing, in every situation, to the best of my abilities, regardless of who or if anyone is watching. I'm not foolish enough to think I won't falter from time to time, and I know that by my participation in a crime that caused so much suffering, I forfeited the possibility of any righteous adjectives being etched on my headstone. But maybe, just maybe, as I live out the remainder of my life, I can inspire or influence someone else who could still have them chiseled on theirs. I still want to be useful.

* * *

Being useful in prison is quite the dilemma. No one is allowed to "fix" anything. I doubt that rule was designed exclusively to discourage prisoner productivity and ingenuity, but it's become the end result. That seems counterintuitive to public interest. Most people I 
communicate with generally prefer that prisoners emerge from incarceration with the skills necessary to function in society. So sometimes I question the wisdom of the professionals who dream up policies within the DOC. Nonetheless, once an item belonging to a prisoner malfunctions, it is considered contraband and subject to disposal. The only exception to that rule is in the workplace, and then the item must belong to a staff member or the prison itself. At nearly every job I've had I have proved myself mechanically inclined and gained the confidence of my supervisors regarding equipment repair.

I held my last job for five years. I served as a machine operator and mechanic at the prison's Print Factory. In that position I had the opportunity to fix all kinds of equipment including some pretty complex machines. One of the major surgeries I performed was on a printing press and entailed completely disassembling the top half of the machine. I had to remove all that stuff to reach the internal bearings that needed replaced. A few days later, that machine was reassembled, properly adjusted, and back in production.

About a year and a half ago a new guy started in the shop. On his first day he inquired about a malfunctioning electric pencil sharpener. I motioned towards the tool cart and he took the initiative. The first time he put it back together the pencil sharpener was running backwards. We shared a laugh but a few minutes later it was fully functional, and this kid, who probably hadn't touched a tool in a few years, was beaming. I was happy to be sharing the shop with someone who shared my mechanical inclination -- someone else who could speak my language. That’s how I met Johnny.

Johnny was in his mid-twenties and had been in prison for a few years. He was a bright young guy who had worked after school at a vacuum cleaner sales and repair store. Even though we both had a history of vacuum cleaner repair, that was the extent of our common ground. He transitioned from selling vacuums to peddling drugs and made a reputation for himself by joining a gang and packin' a pistol -- which was eventually what led him to prison.

The primary objective of the Department of Corrections is to incapacitate Johnny for the duration of his prison sentence. I had a better idea. I wanted to help him and our respective communities by teaching him as much as I could. My hope was that through what he learns and from successes he experiences, he would realize enough of his own potential to put down the pistol and pick up the tool belt. So, I capitalized on every opportunity to show him as much as I could. 

Sometimes, that included working on stuff we weren't supposed too. I'm not a big fan of violating the rules, but as I've lived out my life in the DOC I've learned that not all of their rules have ethical value. And sometimes doing the right thing is in violation of the rules, like soldering the wire back on a pair of headphones so that some old codger doesn't have to spend thirty dollars and wait two months before watching John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart re-runs on AMC again.

One day, during our lunch break, it happened. Johnny was head down, elbows up, tongue hangin' out, diligently trying to repair a pair of headphones, when a prison guard walked up. This particular guard had the disposition you'd expect from someone who is perpetually constipated. He seemed angry and aggressively sought opportunities to flex his authoritative muscle. It's possible he resented how talented and mechanically inclined Johnny and I were. So he wrote an incident report that got Johnny and I fired. In the report I was accused of being the "lookout." An absurd assumption because after more than twenty years of prison experience, had I been the "lookout," Johnny wouldn't have been caught. But, anyone believing guards are always honest is simply disconnected from reality.

I'll miss wrenching on those machines but most of all I'll miss the opportunity to work with Johnny. That job offered me the platform to facilitate conversations with him about his future. It gave me the opportunity to share with him the ethos by which I strive to live and to show him what it looks like in real life. Working alongside me, Johnny was gaining experience, building confidence, and rapidly maturing into one of the best hiring decisions of his future employer. But trying to explain all that to anyone as mentally "bound up" as Mr. Constipated is fruitless. I'm not going to be discouraged, I'll just look for alternative ways to be useful.

* * *

Many people claim to be experts about criminal justice and the administration of corrections, but not many of them have viewed the issues from my perspective. I'm thirty-nine years old and I've lived my entire adult life in prison. I know what motivates and discourages prisoners. As far as education and rehabilitation, I've got a pretty good idea about what works and what doesn't. I have experienced both as student and mentor. I actually care about my outside community too. It's more than just a place I see on TV--It's where my family and friends are, and where I will go when I'm released. And I care about people in the world, like Johnny, who come to prison, mature a little, visit me for a few years, and then go home.

When Johnny returns to his community he will strengthen it. But his prison experience and growth is anomalous. The problem is, it shouldn't be. The legislature must redefine the mission of our State criminal justice system, and with it the delivery of our correctional services. It's time to stop tinkering at the edges of this thing and do a major, sweeping overhaul. It's time rehabilitation reemerges as the centralized theme of our criminal justice system.

Experts agree that education is the best tool for crime prevention and recidivism reduction. And there are some politicians with the courage to pursue some unpopular pieces of legislation, designed to improve public safety through education in Washington State. However, others are deeply entrenched in their otherwise convictions, like Senator Mike Padden, who serves as the Chair of the Senate Corrections Committee, and single-handedly refused to allow any legislation of the sort to pass through his committee last year. The return on investment for education vs. incapacitation in terms of crime prevention and reducing recidivism has already been established. This means a criminal justice system endowed with educational opportunities would be fiscally cheaper because of fewer future crime victims. Maybe the good senator and his cohorts would feel differently if the next time an uneducated former felon victimizes someone, they were to go to that person, look her in the eyes as she's mourning the loss of her innocence or a loved one, and try explaining how her sacrifice was worth it in their war against improving public safety through education. 

There is one fundamental flaw in the education--equals--rehabilitation equation. Most young prisoners don't recognize educational opportunities as privileges. To maximize their potential positive effect, the Legislature must revisit criminal sentencing and incorporate substantial incentives motivating prisoners to capitalize on those additional educational opportunities. The most responsible and effective way to do that is to reinstate parole. One stroke of the legislative pen could immediately change the paradigm in prison. Instead of hordes of prisoners sitting around with their feet up waiting for a release date, great numbers of them would seek opportunities and apply themselves to whatever they are learning, in an effort to earn back their freedom.

The overwhelming majority of us will return to our respective communities. Which will make for better neighbors, those who were warehoused? Or rehabilitated? We all have a vested interest in public safety. Please, take the initiative Johnny had with the pencil sharpener, and fix this broken thing. Contact your local congressman and ask for responsible justice legislation that restores "rehabilitation" as the centralized theme of our criminal justice system.

Isaac Sweet 752399
WSRU D-2-27
P.O. Box 777
Monroe WA 98272-0777

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Isaac

I like your essay; I think it expresses very well the need to be useful, to fix things, to improve the world just a little bit. Being unable to do any of that must be a major frustration of prison. You seem to be one of those people with great skill at fixing things and adapting things and making it all work. I am sorry you lost the job that gave you such satisfaction; as you say learning those skills would be a major step to rehabilitation, however you want to define that word. I hope people in charge come to their senses and see what they have destroyed and I hope you can find other ways to get some pleasure in using fixing and teaching skills.