Sunday, July 5, 2020


In theory, prisons should perform the dual function of rehabilitating and deterring its convicts from becoming repeat offenders. Inmates would be trained with a skill to make an honest living once they get out. And prison life made uncomfortable enough to leave those subjected to it in search of a better way.

Well, maybe in other countries those in control are doing a good job on this front. But judging from my experience, I’d have to give the BOP a failing grade here in the USA. To be fair (to the BOP), I was locked up in a transient facility where most inmates would not be serving a lot of time. So I can understand why the authorities might skip over our prison. But there were some prisoners “down” for a year or two. And if you incarcerate somebody for that duration, you ought to have programs in place to help him make a living upon release to society. 

When it came to rehab, it was mostly non-existent at MCC. Though I personally had no financial need for skilled training, most others did. And whether I did or not, even I was hoping to get some if for no other reason than to fix my plumbing (or car) when the need arose after I was released - or to simply have something to occupy my mind. Alas, there was really almost none to be had!

The plumbing jobs were administered by a hispanic man who rumor had it, took care of his own. So if he wasn’t hispanic - and had no experience or expertise in the skill - he wasn’t likely to get that job. And if a non-hispanic and inexperienced inmate did luck into that employment, he’d be hazed forthwith. One inmate told me he was soaked to the bone performing a task that the others knew would give him a good dousing. Similarly, the electrician jobs went almost exclusively to loud-mouthed gangbangers of color. Maybe I was imagining things, but rumor and my vision claimed differently.

In fact, the only employment which seemed to be open to all regardless of race, ethnicity, or experience was suicide watch. And that was hardly employment that might help an inmate navigate the square world on the outside.

With respect to course work (as opposed to the mostly non-existent on-the-job training I just described), the BOP was equally lacking. I was told by my first bunky (Benji) that the prison offered a class in commercial driving (big rigs).

I figured “What the hell! Let me learn how to drive a big rig.” I asked the head of education when I could sign up. He looked like a deer in the headlights when I presented the question. In reality, there was no course in commercial driving. It, like much else at MCC, existed only in the theoretical - and not actual - realm.

Finally, 9 months into my sentence, the prison actually offered that course (though the prison brochure claimed it was a constant offering) in commercial driving. And who taught it? An actual teacher? Not quite. Try an inmate who was serving 6 years for the crime of transporting cocaine across state lines in his rig. Was he qualified to teach the course? Maybe. Maybe not. 

In theory, there was a GED class for the many inmates who’d dropped out of high school and never got a degree. My bunky Chan was tasked with teaching that class by virtue of the fact that he volunteered for the job (Chan was not one to do physical labor) and had a college degree - albeit no experience teaching. Whether I questioned his abilities as a teacher was irrelevant. The BOP did not.

It was all moot anyway. Chan reported that the woman who administered the program was only semi-literate herself - and mostly absent. I roomed with him for 4 months, and he never (not once) descended to the library (where the education department was located) to teach a class. Occasionally, somebody would stop by for a little tutoring. But mostly, Chan sloughed him off. He wasn’t getting paid to do the job and really, had little interest in doing it. His teaching position simply fulfilled a requirement that all inmates work. All in all, hardly an educational scenario in which any student - let alone slacker inmates - could excel.

Oddly, John, an inmate with a PHD from Berkley in Astro-physics, was allowed to teach a college-level course in Astronomy. In truth, John was brilliant. And the course was excellent. Far and away way too cerebral for the surroundings. But really, what is an inmate going to do with the theoretical knowledge John’s course of study provided those matriculated in his class? While I enjoyed his presentation - and others did as well - the class certainly wasn’t going to help a prisoner make a living on the outside.

The federal government has a program called RDAP, an intensive 500 hour course with which druggy offenders with more than two years remaining on their sentence can enroll to trim a year off their time incarcerated. Two things about that program: 

First, it wasn’t available at MCC. Because most (but not all) inmates in our prison were transient, the BOP didn’t bother. Those who managed to qualify were sometimes shipped out to another facility to participate in that program. But not always. It was a struggle many qualified inmates endured.

And second, nobody I knew who applied for RDAP really did so with an eye toward reforming. They were simply losing a year off their sentence. From what I heard, guys mostly talked out their drug shit, reminiscing to their old get high days while the teacher might interject here and there to direct the conversation. In short, the “high road” was not in evidence in that program.

On to the subject of recidivism. You would think that a country as modern and forward-thinking as the United Sates of America could figure out a way to convince its first-time offenders to not offend a second time. But unfortunately, not even close. While at 68, my entrance into MCC was but my first go-round in the federal system, I was almost alone in that distinction. The prison was filled with guys who’d been in and out several times before. There were precious few of us who were rooks. And the ones that were struck me as people who didn’t hurt anybody…would not ever return…and probably never would have been incarcerated in the first place in another modern country.

One thing I noticed about the majority of prisoners (and especially those who’d been in and out for years) was how comfortable they were with prison life. The problem is if you’re a criminal type, you have a plethora of like-minded guys to hang out with behind bars. You can relate to most of the other inmates. You don’t really have to make a living. All your housing and food is provided for you. You got your three hots and a cot! That’s significant for some inmates. All they’re really missing is women. And if they could get that, I’m quite certain that a surprising percentage of prisoners would choose to stay. It’s called being institutionalized. And trust me, there was no shortage of institutionalized prisoners at MCC.

Clearly, this is not a formula to prevent recidivism. So many of the inmates had been in and out of the system so many times - for so long - that I coined a term for what turned out to be the majority of the prisoners at MCC. I’d say so-and-so had done the “Grand Tour.” Meaning “they’d been everywhere man, they’d been everywhere.”

And actually, much of the conversation in prison centered around conditions and features in a wide menu of prisons. “When I was on the compound,” or “at Canaan…or Laretto…or Otisville…or Danbury…or Fort Dix,” were words and phrases I constantly heard in prison. Even Paul Manafort’s conversation had that institutionalized feel.

It has occurred to me that making prison an absolutely horrible experience during which inmates are tortured to the point that they’d do anything not to return might prevent recidivism. But it would also induce rioting - and murders - and suicides - and basically, a laundry list of collateral damage I can’t even fathom. Honestly, I don’t have the answer to the recidivism problem. And from my experience in the system, the BOP was as clueless as I - if not more.

I can only report that the issue was not addressed properly where I served my time. And clearly, from the stats, however the BOP is trying to rectify the problem isn’t working particularly well. Thus, we have all those inmates doing the Grand Tour. While I’m confident I won’t be one of them, I can’t say that the majority of my fellow prisoners at MCC can honestly make the same statement. The USA has a problem in this area. And that problem is at least being acknowledged if not rectified. Keeping so many prisoners behind bars is getting too expensive for the American taxpayer. Which is mostly why the situation is being addressed. Sympathy for the devil is in short supply.

1 comment:

  1. Take a look at Norway's Halden prison. Maximum security. Compare it to MCC that is "low" security. Halden has no barbed wire or electric fences. All the cells each have their own flat screen TV, mini fridge, toilet with shower, and an unbarred window so you can actually get sunlight. Halden houses murderers and rapists but they are served on normal porcelain plates with actual silverware, the prison has workshops (like actual workshops not like class workshops - a metal shop for example) where prisoners can learn an actual profession. The prisoners get access to the kitchen and a grocery store from which to buy produce to make their own meals and they can receive conjugal visits. The staff is encouraged to develop interpersonal relationships with the inmates to prevent aggression and they actually staff teachers, healthcare workers, even personal trainers. That's how you prevent the grand tour. You treat these people as if they are people that are actually going to be re-entering society because they are and will be rather than just treating prison as human storage. Unfortunately in America, trying to introduce humanity into prison as a politician gets you a free jab from your opponent as being "weak on crime". A country that touts itself as holding Christian values dear but failing at Matthew 5:38-40's turning the other cheek and instead reverting to Hammurabi's eye for an eye or worse.