Hey, What’s Your Number?


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We all live with a myriad of numbers. Often our identity and career is shaped by them, like it or not. How about your DOB, being first born, SS#, DL#, passport#, cell#, ACT score, GPA, credit card#, credit score, pin#, license plate#, employee#, second marriage, web passwords, draft# (in sports or during Vietnam), the # of Face book friends, likes, blog followers, website hits or bounces and that doesn’t include business metrics. These days, if something moves or breathes, it is measured, monitored and numbered, that is the new normal. So talking numbers, the last time I checked; hopes, dreams, self esteem, emotion, joy, laughter, ambition, love, freedom and faith couldn’t be defined by a number. What a relief.

So how does this relate to Marriage Behind Bars? At the risk of sounding like a Debbie Downer, several years ago I searched my wife’s name on the Federal Bureau of Prison’s website, this was before Patty knew when or where she would serve 27 months. I was stunned to find that she had been assigned an inmate number. My lovely wife was 14247-041; it took my breath away, she was a simply a number; the first demeaning step in the corrections process. So what are the numbers as it relates to my wife, this writer, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and our great country? Buckle up, let’s do the numbers.                      

Patty? She became 14247-041, was sentenced to 27 months, owes $180,000 in restitution, is court ordered to make payments of $500/month and received three years supervised release. While incarcerated, she earned 12 cents/hour as a baker, 200 ladies shared one microwave, three ladies shared 80 square feet of living space, and 50 ladies shared five sinks. Patty spent 29 days in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU) before being moved to another facility having done nothing wrong.  She endured one unresolved toothache for a year and half, had zero personal safety issues, lived in three federal facilities in two states, got at least one letter daily and upon release, submitted 68 resumes in Duluth, Minnesota and got one temporary job from a friend. No pity, just the numbers.

Gerry? He plead guilty to consuming roughly 300 pizzas over the 23 months in Patty’s absence,  gained ten pounds, survived his own cooking with zero heart attacks; however admits to two smoke related incidents involving the microwave, zero doctor or dental visits for three years, fell down the stairs once, unclogged the laundry chute once (after clothing went missing for a week and a half), replaced one waterline to the house at City insistence ($6,000); drove 25,000 miles to visit Patty with zero tickets, zero accidents, zero road kill; walked Chili the malamute each and every night while home; zero gambling, zero chasing, zero boozing, zero sick days from work, and went to church weekly when in town.

America’s numbers? The United States leads the world in incarceration, with 25% of the world’s inmates, despite having 5% of the world’s population. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2012 there were 6,937,000 offenders under the supervision of adult correctional systems in American. That means either behind bars, on probation or on parole, federal state and local. Here’s another way of framing that same statistic: 2.9% of adults (one in thirty five) were on probation, parole, or incarcerated in prison or jail.

One last set of numbers before you hit the antidepressants and drink your lunch: the Federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) inmate population was roughly 25,000 in 1980 and now is 216,738 (as of 12/26/13), an 800% increase; currently 28,862 inmates (13%) are held in privately managed for profit facilities; 14,147 inmates are female (6.7%); 32 inmates are under age 18 and 4,276 inmates are age 65 or older. The average cost to keep a Federal inmate behind bars is $29,000 and the BOP budget request for fiscal year 2014 is $6.9 billion, roughly 25% of the Department of Justice’s entire budget, and these are just the federal numbers. Remember, one in thirty five adults is under some form of supervision, this excludes the youth of America; the juveniles. Bartender, make it a double, light on the water.

These are sobering numbers, sad numbers, overwhelming numbers, especially when you’re wife is one of them. What do we do? To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” We may have to think outside the box, soon. Leaving a path of destruction, be it ruined lives, families or governmental budgets, does no one any good. Failure as a nation is not an option nor is ignoring the situation. While humbling ourselves, perhaps we should check what other democracies are doing. Imitation is the best form of flattery.  As citizens we should become better informed about this corrections situation, remain informed and challenge politicians who work for the taxpayer as to what they are going to do about it. What’s their platform? The knee jerk political response maybe to attack the credibility of the questioner; “Not a high priority right now, sounds like you’re soft on crime, trying to coddle the criminals, I’m trying to balance the budget, keep America safe, big picture stuff.” A suitable response might be “Hey, read these numbers and weep pal; ignore your lobbyists and pollster, do something constructive like govern the country for a change and maybe your approval ratings will break 10%.” If for no other reason than the skyrocketing costs, these numbers can no longer be ignored, these numbers don’t lie.

 I personally believe the pendulum is finally swinging away from three strikes and you’re out, rigid mandatory minimums and a failed war on drugs. Prosecutors and elected judges need to rethink their decision about who to charge and how to punish them. The good ones already are. I no longer get outraged when I see defendants sentenced for a fraction of the time my wife served and yet their case involved hundreds of thousands of dollars more. I now realize that most likely those judges see the futility, damage and expense of lengthy incarceration for first time non- violent white collar offender. To regress a moment, in my opinion, Patty’s Minneapolis based Federal judge, who is still active on the bench, lacked such foresight and discernment, a prosecutor’s dream. Sadly, taxpayer dollars were wasted once again. To be clear, some inmates are beyond rehabilitation and represent a clear and present danger to society; I get it. I also appreciate good law enforcement. It’s an extremely difficult job on a good day, frequently taken for granted. You seldom see the really good police work done quietly without fanfare on CNN. Bad situations defused seldom make national headlines; if it bleeds then it leads.

In closing, I am only one man, with a wife, two sons, two cars, two jobs, one voice and one vote. I remain quite optimistic about the future.  I believe historians will look back and wonder; “What were they thinking?” So many budgets and lives ruined at such a cost, some of that expense can be measured, some cannot. Despite mind numbing technical capability to measure and track most everybody and everything these days, be it the NSA, your bank debit card or even the local convenience store asking for a zip code when you buy gas; it’s reassuring to know that some things still defy numbers. To name a few, that would include faith in God, hope, love, freedom, dreams, self esteem and the desire to help others behind bars whether real or emotional. These cannot be boiled down to a single number, count me in.

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