No Grief: Here’s the deal, if you are in a Federal prison, how do you grieve the death of your child when you have no freedom, no privacy and cannot attend your child’s funeral? You grieve poorly or you don’t grieve at all, that is the sad truth. My wife witnessed this scenario play out several times, the wailing echoing throughout a building, weeping from the depths of a person’s heart. An inmate’s son who was two months old when she started serving ten years, unexpectedly dies at the age of ten when the mother has only one month left of her sentence. We’re talking serious heartache. What happens if an inmate blessed with the training to provide grief counseling tries to start a support group behind the wire, to help fellow inmates who struggle with processing their losses? Why you turn it down of course, change is bad. How does it promote the orderly administration of a Federal corrections facility? So then what happens if a husband tries to mail a package of five paperback grief handbooks to his wife who happens to be serving time in a Federal facility? They are returned to sender. How about mailing a single paperback book on grieving to that same spouse five separate times? They are delivered, our Federal tax dollars at work. Remember, compliance and control are key in prison. Any change is questioned and challenged, especially originating from an inmate.
This scenario actually took place while Patty served out her twenty-seven month sentence. It is shared not to depress, but to reveal the continuing punishment that takes place long after the judge hands down a sentence. Do the crime, do the time; I get it, but piling additional punishment brings nothing to the equation. This breeds an environment to break a person, not just punish them. A broken person with shattered dreams should be less defiant, right? Here’s the problem with that, many inmates will be released back into society as “damaged cargo” carrying unresolved grief, anger, and low self-esteem. They will then try to succeed with what’s left of their life journey. Old survival habits return, many reoffend and the cycle continues when the inmate returns to prison with the mandated longer sentence. We then wonder why they fail in their attempt to adjust to life and survive on the outside. The system is broken thus the inmate comes out broken. Why should you or I care? As taxpayers, we shell out an average of $30,000 per year to house an inmate within a broken system that perpetuates itself. Just by doing the math, we should require the corrections system to demonstrate a proven success rate for released inmates. If a person has paid their debt to society, shouldn’t they get a shot at the American dream, even if it’s the second time around or is forgiveness obsolete? On the other side of the issue, if you are senior management of a for profit corrections corporation operating private prisons nationwide, you want bunks filled. One person’s failure is literally another person’s return on equity. Their perspective, don’t change a thing, we like three strikes and you’re out. Get lobbyists or their reps tucked into legislative task forces and kill any sentencing reduction proposals before they ever see the light of day. Fill the bunks, don’t empty them. Sounds like a “bridge to know where” scenario to me, perhaps more course correction is in order. But I digress.
Good Grief: Truth is stranger than fiction. Every Federal corrections facility has to respect a person’s religious beliefs, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Native American, Wiccan, or whatever. Part of Patty’s prison routine to stay mentally fit and hopeful was to read the Bible, pray daily and spend her “free” time in the chapel. Imagine her surprise when it was announced that chapel hours were going to be significantly reduced to allow the chapel to be used for watching television. Here is an account of what happened when my wife challenged an employee’s decision, in this case the director of education, to reinstate chapel hours. To begin with, every prisoner has the right to file a complaint, known as a “copout,” which Patty chose to do. She submitted a complaint about the restricted chapel hours and copied not only the education director, but several ranking administrators above her, including the warden. Unbeknownst to Patty, thirty other female inmates independently submitted copouts in support of her original complaint letter. Please remember, this is a request to restore prison chapel hours for prayer and reflection. Long story short, the Federal prison chaplain, sadly a weak example of spiritual leadership, did not contest the education director’s decision, a stunning rejection of prayer in favor of television. In the payback department, the education director responded with a stinging rebuttal accusing Patty of trying to incite a riot, because of the number of women who wrote in support of her original complaint. Good grief, you must be kidding! This was serious retaliation leveled against Patty by an employee angered at being challenged, made to look foolish in the eyes of her peers, and by an inmate no less. Ultimately nothing came of the accusation of inciting a riot against Patty, but the expected payback was delivered. More television won over prayer because a prison chaplain wouldn’t defend chapel time and one female inmate who defended time for prayer was accused of “inciting a riot.” You can’t make this stuff up.
Getting Grief: Here is the actual email update I wrote on 11/8/09, where a guard took exception to something I did to help two young girls struggling with a vending machine in the visiting room of the Pekin Illinois camp:
“The guard running the Saturday visiting is known for being a by the book jerk. Twice a specific vending machine with chips and chocolate bars did not drop the item purchased, so being who I am, I got up, and rocked the machine, the items dropped appropriately, the girls, who were visiting their mother went off with their items, and I sat down, twice. So this guy stands up in front of the gathered visitors and inmates (aprox 100 people), “May I have your attention. Do not rock the vending machines, if you break them you buy them, you break them you buy them; if the vending machine company should be called; you could be prosecuted!” Hmm, was that directed at me? Now if I was to approach this guy and politely advise him that I was a law abiding guy helping 2 girls, that he did not intimidate or impress me in the least … the payback would be endured by my wife later on, not me, so I bit my lip. This is the subtle and not so subtle power corrections officers have over people in these settings, some like it a little too much. In fairness, other guards are very laid back, mellow, and a delight to be around.”
The next time you chose some quiet time versus watching television, when social media details yet another high profile fall from grace, or if a vending machine cheats you out of a dollar, reflect on the moment. My wife’s faith in God allowed her to emerge from the petty paybacks, drama, grief and prison power trips with an appreciation for many things taken for granted on the outside. Patty is strong, beautiful and inspiring. She has paid her debt to society. If you think prison is “Club Fed,” ask anybody who has done time, chances are good you’ll get some grief.