Thursday, August 22, 2013


(One of the first pieces of advice to someone stuck in a deep hole...unable to see anything but darkness around them...stop digging.)

     The process of being indicted, pleading, being sentenced and surrendering to go to prison causes many who experience it to go into shock.  I am embarrassed to admit this condition lasted for me well into my first year in Beaumont, Texas.  (Beaumont is a story for another day but suffice it to say it is considered by "inmates" the worst compound in the entire Bureau of Prisons)  I have vague, and sometimes no memories of numerous court dates, decisions, discussions about my fate. (I wish I knew then what I know now, I could have participated more in my fate)  When I first got to Beaumont, a number of my roommates (cellies to old style cons) said they wanted to take away my shoelaces and belt at night for fear I wouldn't be viable the following morning.

     Everything had been taken from me.  My job, career, reputation, and future were wrecked as far as I could tell.  You haven't lived until you watch the news-crawl on CNN or MSNBC and there is your name along with the accusation of engaging in a crime which may be the only one worse than what Michael Vick was accused of.  My family is left behind in tatters, 2/3 of their income gone...tens of thousands of dollars in debt just for legal fees.  (n.b. a complete waste of money)...more day-to-day debt piling up...embarrassed and humiliated and forced to explain actions by their husband or father which to them were inexplicable.  People you thought were friends throw you under the bus as fast as they can and with great relish...they always knew there was something wrong with you...they were always suspicious...they weren't that close to you to begin with...some, even at your worst moment, try to use the situation to their advantage. (blackmail anyone?)  When all is said and done, the amount of time to be served is less relevant than the damage and ramifications and psychic destruction already reaping their toll.

     None of the above is intended to sound like whining or crying or bemoaning poor me.  I screwed up...made horrible choices...hurt strangers I didn't know...devastated friends I did ego and pride led this parade of destruction and I have no one to blame but myself.  However, that being said, the description of what the process does to the individual is relevant because last night I watched a man taken out of my unit on a gurney after he attempted suicide by cutting his throat.  (we don't know if he succeeded or not, and will never be told officially one way or the other)

     We were kept outside for quite some time.  As I wandered about, snippets of conversation wafted towards me.  More than once I heard men admitting they too have had thoughts about suicide at one point or another while in government custody.  I am one.  Before my disaster became public, it seemed like a good idea to just cease to exist.  No one would find out about my stupidity and sins and my family would be spared all the publicity and embarrassment and humiliation.  It was a win/win least it seemed that way to me because I was still digging and it was getting darker and darker.

     The inmate last night had reportedly been seriously depressed almost since the day he arrived.  According to rumors, he had been taking meds while outside, meds which were denied to him in here.  He was convinced no one, not his family or friends, colleagues or society in general, would forgive him.  He had told people he was sure the government would never leave him alone.  (not an unrealistic belief considering what we now know about massive data mining and spying)  He had a very short time before he was to be released, (in here it is called being short to the door), but the closer he got to leaving, the more it was reported he was scared and despondent and convinced of the hell which awaited him.  He had lost all hope.

     Hope appears to be something without which we can't function as a society.  Hope is what convinces the young to forego immediate gratification and pursue an education, or other avenues aimed at producing a better future, and it is feeling hope-less which convinces so many to engage in behavior which is self destructive...convinced the future holds nothing for them.  Hope is why we marry and commit to one person.  Hope is what enables us to persevere through the darkest of times knowing there is a dawn coming.  Hope is vital to making it through the day.

     Losing hope is what tears people and nations apart.  Only the hopeless can be recruited to become human bombs.  Only the hopeless can be convinced to engage in genocide and persecution.  Only the hopeless will think an act of selfishness can be transformed into one of selflessness.  The more hopeless a society, the worse of it is.  The war on terror is clearly a war between those who feel hopeless and see no future vs. those who believe conditions and environments can improve.  The most important metric of our society is not the stock market or the health of the auto or home's not G.D.P. (Gross Domestic Product) or manufacturing's not even how many newly minted billionaires there are this year.  The most important factor determining our national survival is whether or not we and our children have hope.

     Despite Attorney General Eric Holder's recent pronouncements, the American prison system, and criminal/justice industry, will not be fixed if a few less people are jailed.  If you want people to come out and not commit crime again, they have to emerge with the hope things can be better.  This system destroys hope.  Once someone is convicted and incarcerated, they lose everything, or think they do.  The people who run this system are accessories to the suicide attempt.  This person needed psychological intervention...needed possible medication...needed professional help all of which is available in limited amounts if at all in here.  He needed reassurance from outside he was till loved and valued.  He needed to know after he paid his debt to society he would get another shot at redemption.  (unfortunately, the punishment never is prohibited, entire professions off-limits, skills and expertise acquired over a lifetime useless, employers refused to hire and church congregations turn their back.)

     Why couldn't this man find hope?  Despite the inhumanity of this place, many inmates apparently tried to talk to him, counsel him, Dutch-uncle him, pay attention to him.  He was a daily reader of scripture and some tried to point out the God of both Hebrew and Christian scripture is a God of hope with a message of reassurance and forgiveness.  Nothing seemed to reach him as the drumbeat of hopelessness, composed by those who built this system, drowns out the loudest Amen or Alleluia.

     At the end of the day, my love for my wife and children, (and their professed love of me), and the realization I had already hurt them once with my selfishness and out-of-control ego, convinced me I couldn't do it again.  This, along with support and love from both friends, and strangers who have become friends...acts of kindness from convicted felons who populate my world these days, helped me to overcome despair and hopelessness.  My sin gave way to the epiphany of a forgiving God always willing to welcome a prodigal son back home and a belief second chances is possible.

     I am so lucky and blessed and my prayer for this man last night if his attempt fails...he opens himself to the love of his God...this system which failed him miserably becomes more accountable...he comes to realize no sin is too heinous to be forgiven and living a full life is the best way to secure the redemption he seeks.  My hope for him is he comes to see his life as a gift and understands there are second and even third acts if one is willing to get up off the floor.  We all need hope whether in prison or wherever we are and we only get it by acknowledging we are not in this alone and refusing to let anything or anyone dehumanize us or convince us the future is to be feared rather than anticipated.  If I can do it, so can you... I hope.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


 If you didn't know it, there are rules in prison which are actually separate from those promulgated by the powers-that-be.  Maybe "rule" is the wrong term.  These are suggestions or perhaps they are the result of peer pressure.  Believe me, when the 6ft. 5 inch, 250 pound African American gentleman, with arms bigger than my thighs, comes to your bed to take umbrage with the fact you committed a social faux paux near his bunk, you realize the danger inherent in not adhering to both spoken and unspoken taboos.

     Some of these are straightforward common sense...Don't tell your neighbor who lives three feet from you how lonely you are.  If he has tailored his T-shirts with ruffles on the sleeve and then dyed them various shades of puce, this is a particularly stringent rule to follow.  If your bunkie is listening to his MP3 player, and singing along with his favorite rap song about "killin' bitches and ho's who go to show and provide the honey with blo" and you are asked what you think, don't answer.  You don't know if you are being asked to comment on the social significance of the lyrics or his ability to carry a tune and offering an opinion on either is a recipe for disaster.  When eating in the cafeteria, the "chow hall" to us convicts, it is considered bad form to take a spoon full of chicken noodle casserole (this is something which should be used to glue heat shields to the shuttle then they would never come off) knowing your gag reflex will cause you to project it across the table.  It turns out your parents were right about not eating with your elbows on the table.  When eating meals with 300-400 other men, all competing to see who can finish their meal in 5 minutes or less so the brain doesn't recognize what the stomach knows, if you jostle someone with your elbow and they have to stop shoveling or you cause them to miss the epicurean delight which is grits for dinner, you can find yourself in a world of hurt.

     Many of the customs come into being due to the bi-lingual nature of prison life.  As someone yells in Spanish, you are faced with a number of dilemmas.  Is he yelling at me?  (since for some reason being held behind bars seems to cause decibel levels to rise exponentially, just hearing yelling or ranting isn't enough of a clue)  Immediately, you have to determine if it's directed at you by making the ever-dangerous choice to have eye contact.  If what you see is glassy, far-off and rolling up into their head you break off contact immediately and pretend you just found the tennis ball on the leg of that chair over there an item of endless fascination.  If your stare is returned, you have to quickly sift through the few words you have picked up searching for the ones which might be attacking your ancestry or promising to gut you like a fish vs. a sprightly "good evening and how you are this fine night?"  One of the best rules I have been taught when confronted by the above scenario is to look interested, captivated and completely engaged while you say "Que?"

     Today I discovered something which if it is not a rule or custom to be followed in prison, it should be.  I found myself sitting in front of a TV watching a movie entitled "Yes, maybe".  It stared Ryan Reynolds, Rachel Weiss, Amy Adams and Elizabeth Banks and one of those precocious, cute, annoying child stars with the vocabulary of an Oxford Don and sweet enough to be a threat to any diabetic in the room.  If you haven't caught it yet, this is a romantic comedy.  Boy meets girl, and girl and girl and tries to explain to his daughter which one is her mother as she affectionately calls him a "slut".  Why would anyone in prison watch a romantic comedy?  I am separated from everyone I love, considered by many a piece of society's dregs, and need to avoid thoughts about cuddling and romantic dinners as well as any reflection on sexy women, king size beds (my mattress' sleep number is negative), silk sheets, sultry soft music while eating real food in a posh restaurant, all of which can put you in a funk you won't be able to shake for month.

     I sat there, with a 6ft 7 inch, one-legged Hispanic colleague sitting behind me sniffling, and as the movie ended it was impossible to explain why I had sat through it.  OK, I know some reasons...I was willing to watch anything as long as it wasn't from the History Channel which is on here almost 24 hours a day.  I could not take another 30 minutes of two guys searching through junk exploring all the "treasures" they "picked".  Is there any television left which doesn't involve someone trying to pawn items to three or four of the dumbest people you have ever met?  Would you really want any car customized by "the Count"?  How many more programs will there be about swamp people, gator guys, moonshiners or truckers who haven't figured out yet driving on ice is not exactly a good idea?  (and the South wonders why they have to deal with negative stereotypes?)  Most of this is the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard, so when I got a chance to see good looking people able to complete full sentences, living in a city like New York, I couldn't let it go.

     So, the newest rule or custom has to be no more " rom coms" while a guest of the government.  No more sound tracks intended to touch your heart while beautiful people try to decide where to hook up in their gorgeous, wood-floored, Upper Eastside condos.  No more being drawn or sucked into wondering will they or won't they and fight to keep "ahhhh" from coming out of your throat.  No more being reminded how much your stupidity and ego has cost you as you think of romantic and wonderful bunches at Perry's, lunches at Pier 23 or dinners at Liverpool Lils with the one you love and your children.

     The powers-that-be won't allow R-rated movies because somehow the violence, language (because you never hear a discouraging word or expletive in prison) or sex might cause problems.  Perhaps they should extend that concern to romantic comedies which will always make us wistful about things we miss, cognizant of all the separation from those we love, mindful it's our own fault we are where we are and restless for the day we can return to a world we took for granted at our own peril.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


At a press conference, President Obama refused to characterize N.S.A. leaker Edward Snowden as either a whistleblower or a patriot.  He countered those descriptions by saying the debate going on in this country about N.S.A.(National Security Agency) spying was something he had already put in motion and "...we would have arrived at the same place we are now whether Snowden's leaks had occurred or not."  The President was lying.

     At a hearing of his judiciary committee, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy also condemned Snowden, but then in the next breath admitted the debate on this subject could not have taken place without the information he revealed.  Leahy, along with Oregon Senator Ron Widen and Colorado Senator Marc Udall, admits all of this information was one could mention it publically...senators who had concerns about civil liberties and the 4th amendment had to raise those concerns in private out of the public eye...his hearing would never have been possible before Snowden.

     We now know the head of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Asked if the N.S.A. was vacuuming up billions of bits of information about American's phone calls, emails and all online activity, Clapper said no such program existed.  He dared to lie in front of senators he knew could not contradict him in public and he didn't care if a rebuke came in private.  After Snowden's revelations, Clapper had to publically acknowledge his lies.  He will suffer no punishment for his actions.  (do you remember what they tried to do to Roger Clemens for supposedly lying about BASEBALL?)

     Recently, the House of Representatives came up 7 votes short in an attempt to end the N.S.A. spying program.  Democrats and Republicans showed bi-partisan outrage for what they had learned from Edward Snowden about this unprecedented government intrusion.  Is there any doubt about whether this amendment and subsequent vote would have taken place if Snowden had stayed quiet?

     Obama promised some reforms of the N.S.A. spying.  Maybe they will look at a few less calls...maybe they will open up the secret F.I.S.A. (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court to more scrutiny...maybe there will be an oversight group which will include some civil libertarians.  Despite these inconsequential, and by no means guaranteed, steps the president did not narrow the scope or continued overreach of the spying.  It will be business as usual for the N.S.A.  Obama said he welcomed this debate and now we know was rigged.

     The past couple of weeks show in clear details how Snowden is the classic whistleblower.  He was an insider who saw something wrong.  He knew enough to realize any complaints or concerns he might have will go nowhere if he presents them through regular channels.  He has to go outside the government to get anyone to pay attention.  As all whistleblowers learn first hand, he also discovers he will be vilified, pursued, attacked and portrayed as a traitor by those protecting the status quo...all for daring to air the dirty laundry of the N.S.A. and this administration in public.  Despite, or maybe because, he didn't believe his country would punish him for committing truth, Snowden went forward.  He didn't trust the corporate media for good reason, so he went to the British newspaper the Guardian and journalist Glenn Greenwald.  He knew they would publish what he had.
     The result is Americans, and now Europeans, are aware of this massive invasion of their privacy.  France, Germany and other members of the European Union, have discovered they and their citizens are being spied on and they want answers.  If Snowden doesn't blow the whistle, everyone goes along in blissful ignorance at how the 4th amendment has been severely compromised.

    If the President doesn't want to call Snowden a patriot, it's only because he and his administration got caught with their fingers in the cookie jar.  He knows there is no distance he can put between himself and Bush/Cheney on national security policy.  His legacy will "not" be one, which differentiates him from the Bush era.  He has compromised all his promises on creating a different model of government on national security and civil liberties.

     The president will not meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin.  He was perfectly willing to meet with Putin despite Russia continuing to sell arms and anti-missile systems to Syria prolonging the Syrian civil war and creating severe national security problems for this country...despite Russia's refusal to agree to stringent sanctions against Iran for attempting to build a nuclear weapon...despite Russia passing a law making it illegal to support homosexual rights threatening gay athletes who compete in the Olympics in Sochi.  However, when Russia granted Snowden asylum, now the president has had it and won't sit down with Putin.  Snowden took a huge swipe at the emperor's clothes and in sticking his head up found out there are quite a few people who want to blow it off.

     As far as patriotism is concerned...a patriot loves his or her country; wants the best for it, wishes it to live up to its principles.  An American patriot wants the government to honor the constitution and be honest with the people.  Snowden had access to the deepest, darkest, most sensitive secrets this nation owns.  He could have revealed information compromising covert agents and operations, (like Cheney did to Valerie Plame), identities, intelligence practices as well as real-time information on our very real enemies.  He consciously chose not to reveal what he knew.  He didn't sell secrets to our enemies, like the Walker spy ring, or give it away out of ideological convictions like Jonathan Pollard. Snowden blew the whistle on something hidden from Americans which he felt they should know.  He walks in the shadow of Daniel Ellsberg and others who would not go along to get along nor were they willing to just look the other way.

     President Obama was at the podium of a press conference talking about the N.S.A. because of Edward Snowden...the House vote was because of Edward Snowden...Leahy's hearings were because of Snowden...Clapper's come to Jesus moment about his lies was brought about by Snowden...any kind of new oversight of the N.S.A. is because of Snowden...America could use a few more Snowdens.

N.B.  The recent closing of Embassies in the Middle East and other areas has been seized upon by N.S.A. defenders as proof of how the agency works and the efficacy of its spying and intercepts.  These defenders crow at how critics will now have to be silent and the criticism of the agency will go away.  Really?  Communications between Yemen and Pakistan were intercepted revealing a possible plot.  No phone calls to American Americans in a chat room or searching Google for a good Ethiopian American nexus at all.  How did sucking up every bit of online activity by average Americans result in information about threats to foreign embassies?