#220 When inmates must defend the honor (retro)

June 6, 2010 at 11:54 pm Leave a comment

When Inmates Must Defend The Honor

Today is a nice cool Sunday morning as I start this blog; as many of you know I didn’t blog yesterday because it’s been kinda quiet on the email side. I did get some emails from some of you wishing me well in my war against allergies…

Today I feel almost perfect. Thanks for your well wishes.

I say “almost” because I learn that unfortunately there is no soda in the refrigerator…so looks like I have to drink water…not that I’m complaining (much).

But I feel pretty good today, yet with no emails asking about prison issues I wanted to write something today. It would have been easy to just go back and copy and paste a blog I did months ago, but I didn’t want to do that. So I went to my room and pulled out a folder of journals, letters and such that I wrote while in prison. I figured I can use something to share a blog with some of you today, and I found one. It actually is something I touched on a few blogs back.

I mentioned several blogs back about how we tried to petition the prison as inmates about how the road squads were fed? Well, I actually have the letters I wrote with me, and I wanted to try to cover this situation for you.

The reason for this is to share with you that sometimes inmates MUST work with one another to defend their honor…or dignity if you will. Now, I know that as some of you read this, you might feel that this may be foolish. I mean, inmates deserve whatever happens to them, right? They ought to just do their time, shut up and learn their lesson.

But that is not the definition or “correction” or “rehabilitation” is it? And isn’t that why they were sent there in the first place?

There is indeed a lot of discipline involved and very restrictive lifestyles in prison, I ought to know, but that does not mean a person gives up on his right to believe, think and reason. Often times the path to rehabilitation begins when an inmate respects himself and the humanity around him. Isn’t that what society wants?

But you won’t get that if every inmate is treated like a dog, only to be released after being institutionalized yet expected to have a halo around his or her head. Society is only fooling themselves, but will be quick to point the finger at the person the moment he or she fails again.

Well, in prison I learned that if you did everything they told you to do, you would be a complete failure to yourself. Prisons don’t condition you to respect humanity, they condition you to embrace failure and submit to a life of damnation. It’s easier for them to control inmates when they can put this burden or yoke over them, rather than inmates who are trying to change.

And for an inmate to change it often means starting while IN prison, not after they get out. Odd, because prisons don’t encourage that. This situation of the road squads is a perfect example.

I have not gotten to this part in my books of “Grades of Honor”, because at this pace, this actual situation might be in book 5 or 6, which of course I have not written yet. This takes place at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The camp is actually 2 camps, one is, as I understand now, close custody (used to be close/medium) and the other is a minimum custody camp. The latter is where this situation takes place.

While I was there, I worked as a dorm janitor, which I HATED, but the job had to get done, so there was no need trying to complain. The camp wasn’t big, maybe about 120-150 inmates there, and a good number of them worked on the road squads.

For the novice reader, “road squad” is the jobs where prison inmates get to leave the camp and usually work on the sides of roads picking up trash. They can do other things, but most people have seen inmates on the sides of streets or highways picking up OUR trash.

Most guys actually like the job, because it keeps them busy and gets them off the prison grounds for a few hours a day. I’m not kidding, most guys I knew looked forward to leaving the prison, and sometimes the weekends or holidays were a drag for them, especially if they didn’t have a visit.

Anyway, I had gotten to know a lot of the guys, since it was a small camp and I stood out like a sore thumb. Guys knew that I liked to write and that I “looked like I went to college”. Some guys called me “professor”, although I clearly wasn’t older than most of them.

But when you do your time, while also respecting the other inmates, there becomes a sense of trust or at least understanding. Society believes that every inmate wants to fight every other inmate, not true. Many prisons are full of guys that just want to make their time as easy as possible so they can go home. I spent quite a bit of time on the Pasquotank camp, and after awhile was quite comfortable.

Add on to this that Pasquotank was notorious for denying transfers. It was almost IMPOSSIBLE for an inmate to get a transfer, because let’s face it, Elizabeth City is on the edges of North Carolina, right on the Atlantic Ocean. That means a much, much further distance for visitation travel for anyone who lives further inland. It made it difficult for a lot of guys, and made the camp less desirable.

But because it was hard to leave, we all stayed together longer, meaning you got to know almost everybody pretty well. And maybe that’s where the connections began to get stronger. You get to know someone and what they can do, what they believe and what they stand for.

On the camp, they have what is called a “Town Hall Meeting” once or twice a year. This is a meeting held by the administration of the camp to help address issues that the inmates have. Think of it as a public grievance meeting.

I was told how bogus these meetings can be, and I wanted to go. From what I understood, only one person per dorm (4 dorms) could be designated to actually speak for the inmates. I actually had several guys ask me to represent the dorm, since they knew of how I liked to write about prison issues. My dorm already had a guy, and I was not about to challenge that. So I went as a participant and took notes.

One of the biggest complaint was that of the meals served by the prison to the road squad. Generally speaking, because they work off the camp during the day, it would be an inconvenience to bring them back to the prison to serve them lunch, so they have bagged lunches. These lunches consists of bologna, cheese, an apple and water….

OK, LET’S PAUSE HERE FOR A MINUTE.

I have to stop here for a second because I know what some of you are thinking. You all have heard the myths of inmates only getting (or deserving) bread and water, so some of you might be wondering why I am making a fuss over this lunch that these guys are getting. To many of you it isn’t important.

That’s where you are wrong.

The next time you go out working in the sun doing a lot of physical work, take a lunch break and have a sandwich, apple and water and see how much energy YOU get back before going to work. Society has the options of taking an extra break, grabbing a candy bar or one of those energy drinks. Some of you go down to McDonalds, or maybe Applebee’s or some other place to eat.

The human body needs food to replenish the energy, otherwise the body is not in the best shape to continue the work.

Prison is not about destroying an person’s body (or at least it should not be). Those guys on road squad are out there cleaning the city for hours every day, and in order for them to do their best, they need to replenish their strength when they take their lunch break.

So what purpose do you serve by giving them a skimpy meal?

“Well it’s not like they’re being fed less than inmates on the camp!”

That’s where you’re wrong again.

And this was a strong argument by the road squad. While they are out there working in the sun, eating bologna sandwiches, the inmate population back on the camp was having pizza, or hamburgers or some heavy meal. The fact was that an inmate ON camp ate a better lunch than road squads OFF camp. That wasn’t fair to those guys.

A third point was that the road squad argued that they were supposed to get a rotation of meals. Maybe today was bologna, tomorrow peanut butter and jelly, maybe the third day pimento cheese sandwiches (which I hated).

But being served bologna sandwiches every single day wears on a person. No variety in the meals can break a guy’s spirit. I heard many guys argue about this, and because a large part of the camp was road squad, you heard it more than once.

So this was all brought up at the Town Hall Meeting, and they were promised that this would be resolved…and it never was.

Guys were getting more and more upset because it just seemed that they were not being treated with any respect. After all, minimum custody is called, “Honor Grade”, and to be moved to minimum custody is called a “promotion”. If these are positive changes, then the position of being in minimum custody ought to be one desired. Guys in the camp were becoming more disappointed each day, going out to work and being fed a bologna sandwich and apple, while we on the camp had a much better meal, AND the options of going to the canteen.

To me, it seemed like a problem they have to deal with, after all, I was a dorm janitor. I actually hated the job because I did more work and was paid less than when I was in medium custody. At 40 cents a day, and being broke, it was very hard getting week to week with no money. And working 6 days a week, that $2.40 was all I could look forward to for months on end, until mom sent me something.

I was still adjusting to prison life, even though I was finding my spots, but to be sure, I had my own problems. It would have been easier to just let it be and let them handle their own problems.

But I could not do that because those guys were part of the environment I was now in. They had a problem and if I turned my back and ignored it completely, then what kind of person would I be? I have been in situations where I welcomed help, and sometimes you don’t need a bolt of lightning to encourage you to help someone. You have to let your heart lead you.

Besides, I had made a few friends who were on road squad, and when they told me of their situation, I had to help. Or at least try.

See, this isn’t about changing the world, it’s just about helping. But in a strange way, it changes YOUR world. My world at the time was Pasquotank Correctional, minimum custody. Everything on that camp was part of my world. If things went well, we can all do our time better, but if there is stress on the camp, then everyone on the camp feels it, whether it is road squad or inmate population, because we are all connected to that camp. If 60+ guys on that camp are stressed because they are tired of being fed the same sandwich every day, that stress affects the entire camp, which also affects how I do my time.

So indirectly, we are all connected. So their problems were also mine. And if so, then I felt the need to try to help. That’s where the petitions came in.

One of the inmates had suggested that if we write a petition, they would HAVE to listen. But nobody was willing to do it. So I did. I identified 3 targets to send these petitions to: the warden of the prison, the Unit manager and one of the case managers. I asked the guys that if I wrote a petition and signed it, would they sign it as well. Many said they would so I got started.

This is the letter I wrote, addressed to the warden, Mr. Sutton:

“We the inmates of Unit 5 write to you in grievance of this camp’s poor attempt to provide the road squads with decent lunches. As minimum custody inmates we are supposed to enjoy privileges that medium and close custody would not have, but instead has not been so. To make matters worse, the road crews have been poorly attended to regarding lunch.

Every day the road squad receives bologna, cheese, an apple and water. According to Ms. Smith, the Food Service Supervisor, we are supposed to receive a rotation of lunches. Unfortunately this is not so, yet inmates on the camp eat pizza, tacos, cheeseburgers and so on. We don’t need to tell you that this is grossly unfair, but typical of how we are treated in a camp that is supposed to be “Honor Grade”.

We are out of options on how to change this situation, so we have started writing grievances. If this does not work, we will start writing to DOC, Legal Services and as many sources as it takes to find answers to our problems. We truly hope you can rectify this situation soon, as we are quite tired of the runaround”

That was what I wrote, and when guys saw it, I could tell that there was some sense of hope in it. Not that I had solved anything, but these guys now had something credible to debate with. Up until now it was just talk and I am sure one or two guys wrote a grievance before, but if so the camp might retaliate by taking them off road squad. But what are they gonna do to me? I wasn’t on road squad to begin with.

I had 7 guys sign the petition at that time, which was written on August 26th. I dated the top when I wrote it, so it is correct. I then wrote a second petition to Ms. Smith, the Food Services Supervisor, which goes as follows:

“On August 6th, at the Town Hall Meeting, you were addressed the issue about how CWC, DOT, ECSU and other road crews were being fed the same food every day. These packouts consisted of bologna, cheese, an apple and water. We believe this treatment to be highly unfair, especially when inmates on camp can eat pizza, tacos, cheeseburger and so on. You told us at that meeting that the road crews should be getting a rotation on the lunches, and that you would check on it. That was 3 weeks ago.

We are tired of eating the same food every day, and have tried to be patient while Unit 5 attempts to rectify this situation, but to this point it has been “all talk”. We are supposed to be “Honor Grade”; isn’t it time we were respected as such?

We await some action on this matter. If nothing changes, we will write as many letters to DOC, Legal Services and every source available to see that we are treated in a fairer way than we have been.

Now, to clarify a couple of things.

I mentioned “Legal Services”; that is, in my experiences, a complete joke. I can write a blog on how I think the state of NC is paying millions to these people to reject inmates claims and help, when law libraries would have been cheaper. But I’m gonna let you guys continue to think that the NC Legal Services actually is better….learn the hard way…

Second, I mentioned “CWC” and other groups. Those are each different groups of road squads. “CWC” stands for Community Work Crews. “DOT” stands for Department of Transportation, and “ECSU” stands for “Elizabeth City State University”, where a couple of inmates work.

I had 6 guys sign that petition and wrote a third, to Mr. Futrell, the Assistant Unit Manager of the camp:

“We are writing in grievance to this unit’s poor attempt to provide the road squads fair meals. For well over a month the work crews have received the same packout, consisting of bologna, cheese, an apple and water. At the same time inmates on the camp eat meals consisting of pizza, tacos, cheeseburgers and various other meals. We have voiced our opinion to this unit numerous times, only to receive no change in the situation.

At the Town Hall Meeting on August 6th, Ms. Smith, the Food Service Supervisor, assured us that she would change this situation. Three weeks later, nothing has changed. As inmates of what you call “Honor Grade”, we expect to be treated better than we have been by this staff. If PCI cannot feed their work crews fairly, then you leave us no choice but to start writing grievances on you and this camp as well as writing to the Division of Prisons, the Department of Correction, Legal Services and any other source to make sure we, the minimum custody inmates of Pasquotank Correctional Institute, are treated fair.”

That petition was signed by 7 inmates.

When I finished writing the petition, I started going around the camp, soliciting signatures. Some signed, others read it and liked it, but were afraid to sign. Others were completely afraid to sign, and warned me of the idea that I could be charged for possibly starting a riot, which is a very heavy charge.

(something I actually was charged for while at Sanford, but beat that charge)

The petitions took off pretty well, and lots of guys knew about it. I think even an officer or two read it, so I know the word got up the ladder. My goal was to get enough signatures and present them to the unit managers, or mail them directly to the warden. The fact that I have the original papers with me now clearly shows that we never finished the act.

Why?

I’ll have to check my journals to get the exact reason, but I do know that the prison changed and DID start changing the rotation for the guys on road squad. In fact, I think one of the road squad guys said they got double portions sometimes. I think I remember one of the guys on the road squad tell me,

“Somebody in the office must have heard about them petitions and it scared the hell out of them”.

But whatever the reason, it is clear that it was those petitions, or the THREAT of those petitions that changed the situation. I am also quite sure we wrote grievances on this as well, but I have to find that in my folders to prove it. But it was no secret that we were putting a petition on this issue, the officers knew it and several had read it. And I am also very sure some of those who were afraid of signing it were the first to tell officers about it.

The end result is what we all wanted, for those guys who work out there to have a better meal than what they were being given. Like I said, I didn’t work road squad, but I knew enough guys on that camp to be concerned when they all started getting down on this issue. I had the advantage of a better meal on camp, and if I had a couple of dollars, to buy me a cold soda or some snacks when I wanted. Guys on road squad had to wait until they got back to camp to make canteen.

And because we all lived together, their stresses can be mine as well, I mean, having 60+ angry guys on the camp can make anybody’s time harder. Yet I think it goes deeper than that, maybe something I didn’t fully understand at the time. Deep inside, you have to CARE about other guys to do something like that. Not like an angel or some saint, just a humanistic quality to care about other’s welfare.

I didn’t HAVE to write those petitions and I sure didn’t have to sign my name first, but I did. I didn’t HAVE to go around soliciting signatures, but I did. I didn’t have to do anything to help, but deep inside, I knew these guys needed some help. I could not promise anything, but at least I could try.

As bad as prison is, there are times when inmates have to stick up for one another to help another person out. Now sometimes guys get this twisted when it comes to doing things in prison, but I truly believe that if you heart compels you to help a person in need, then it is a very compassionate spirit about you. I have had guys stick up for me while in prison, and I have been in positions to return the favor. Sometimes inmates have to stick together if they are going to cope with their incarceration.

Anyway, as I said, the issue was resolved and the guys felt much better about it. I actually felt kinda good knowing I helped a bit, but knowing it wasn’t all me, since the petitions were never formally sent. But I do believe that the unit manager and assistant manager had gotten wind of what we were doing, and certainly many officers knew, so the camp was quite aware of what we were doing.

Sometimes you don’t have to always put on the armor and grab the sword to go to war, you just have to be committed to do it if things don’t change. I think the prison saw that we were going to do what we could to get a resolution, and they realized that we were indeed serious.

That was one of many situations that happened at that camp, some of which I hope to share in future books of “Grades of Honor”. I would eventually be kicked out of the camp for a pretty controversial issue, one that sent me to Tyrrell Prison Work Farm. But that is another story.

Anyway, email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com to ask how to support my writings, or ask about my books or even ask me to blog about prison issues.

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Entry filed under: girlfriends with boyfriends in prison, God and prison, inmates, jail, LostVault, mothers with sons in prison, prison, prison abuse, prison blogs, prison books, prison cards, prison food, prison jobs, prison mail, prison pen pals, prison support sites, Prison Talk Online, Prisonbid, rehabilitation, son in prison.

#219 Dinnertime in prison (retro) #221 The day after prison… 2 years later (retro)

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