Friday, September 3, 2010

Doing Time

For as long as I can remember I always get the blues at the end of the summer and have the sense that I’ve squandered the season. It’s over 35 years since I was a student and as a teacher I always worked summers but I still cling to the childish expectations of thrill and ease and romance. Summer never really pans out.

After two years of driving lessons and futile trips to just about every DMV in the county, the eighteen next month year old is licensed. I drive nearly 3000 miles in a ten day period. The plan is that the new driver will take over the wheel for parts of the journey but after about an hour he is bored and tired and I don’t bother. He sleeps in the backseat most of the time. I listen to books on tape and make his brother poke him to wake up when there is particularly splendid scenery.

We visit some colleges in Oregon. I am reminded that admission and financial aid applications and deadlines are going to be a nervous making pain in the butt. I applied, was accepted and then moved away to college when I was younger than my oldest son. My mother filled out a financial aid application but otherwise I completely made it happen. I realize how far out of the realm of possibility this would be for my own child. The college admission process is more complicated than it was in my day but truly, we are also way more hands-on than our parents were. For the kid’s sake I know I must campaign for him to become less helpless but finesse it so he doesn’t mistake my effort for the withholding of love.


Back home he is less indifferent to driving, as there are films to see and friends to visit, in the waning days of summer. It is really amazing not to have to chauffer him but despite my lobbying for his greater independence, turning the keys over to him induces anxiety of near vomit proportions. He is permitted to drive from home to my office, the route that is most familiar to him, to pick up his brother. They drive to a theatre three blocks away. I order him to call me as soon as he arrives and pace like a caged animal waiting for the phone to ring. Finally, I call him. The movie has just started. They are fine. He has forgotten to call. I return home and they are due back from the theater shortly and there is a palpable physical relief when the dogs, who recognize the sound of the car from half a mile away, begin to bark. My mother seldom remembers my name and no longer forms coherent sentences. The last time I visit though, as I kiss her goodbye she says “Drive carefully.”


At the bleakest point on Interstate 5 we pass the Pleasant Valley Correctional facility where one of the prisoners I write to is transferred recently. I send him a birthday card from Mount Hermon but otherwise, I do not write the inmates their weekly letters during my vacation and as we pass the off ramp to the prison in 100 degree heat, I feel sheepish. The last letter from Pleasant Valley describes how several years ago the writer had a toothache and his request to visit a dentist was ignored for months. He lanced the swelling with a razor blade and worked the tooth loose and pulled it out by himself. He attached the tooth to his request to see a dentist and was finally given an appointment.

The dentist noted that the infection was so pernicious that all of his upper teeth would require extraction. Perhaps this is exaggerated but several days after receiving his description, a report on the state of medical services in California prisons since they fell into federal receivership recounts the case of an inmate who died of sepsis due to an untreated abscessed tooth. My pen pal was fitted with dentures but because he is indigent, it is difficult for him to get denture adhesive which is usually provided to prisoners only through the canteen. Because his sentence included a large fine, funds in his trust account are garnished by 33%. After a lot of red tape, the fixative is provided but this and all medical visits are subtracted from the already negative balance of his trust account and he is unable to order hygiene or food items from the canteen.

The inmate was moved from Mule Creek Prison to Pleasant Valley because this prison is better equipped to treat a number of his medical ailments, one of which he has described to me frequently, is neuropathy. The point of the abscessed tooth story is that he’s seen a commercial on television about a class action suit pertinent to Polident, which apparently has caused Zinc poisoning related neuropathy. I am his only conduit for information about the class action suit and will research and print my findings to send to him. I’m not sure how a successful class action settlement would benefit a prisoner with a life sentence except maybe completing forms and writing letters might be a good time killer.

Last year, due to his indigence, I agree to order and pay for the quarterly shipment inmates are allowed to receive. When I receive the list of items he wants, I am a little surprised to see oysters, which are not kosher, as my connection with him is through a Jewish social service agency and he purports to practice Judaism to some extent. The real red flag is that he requests the items be sent to another prisoner and his rationale for this seems specious. I presume I’m being gamed and perhaps helping him pay off a debt. I am slightly miffed but not really surprised. The man will be in prison until he dies. I can’t change him. I continue to write him weekly, fulfill his research requests and buy him an occasional book. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if he games me and lies. What matters to me, and I think, separate of his opportunism, to him too, is that I remember and respect his existence, something every human, no matter how fallen or ruined, deserves.

There are three letters, one from each inmate, when I return from vacation. I dread opening the one from Pleasant Valley because the last letter contained the graphic depiction of the dental problems and the class action lawsuit research request. The latest letter contains another request to order a quarterly shipment ostensibly for his new cellmate, a Dutch national with no outside resources to place the order on his behalf. If the order is placed directly from a prisoner’s trust account, a service fee is imposed by the prison. I am to receive a money order to pay for it but it feels more like a nuisance than a mitzvah.

The other lifer I write to is in the San Diego area. His letters are clever and funny but larded with requests for books and stamps. I sense with him too that my consistent weekly letters cheer him but he also tries to get whatever he can from me, the most recent letter containing a list of books. He also frequently alludes in great detail to the shortcomings of the prison medical care system. I sense he is also prone to exaggeration but indeed that report of the quality of services since the federal takeover indicates that medical care is still gravely inadequate.

My third pen pal and the one I genuinely consider a friend and not a mere mitzvah project is Alan in Tehachapi. Despite the grimness of his circumstance, he is always upbeat and while he does occasionally require a book or some research on the Internet he asks so graciously that I don’t mind. He makes far fewer requests than the other two pen pals and is the only one on whose veracity I rely. There is a difference in personality and character but also, Alan is the only one of the three inmates who will be released and perhaps he is the only one who really feels that cultivating integrity is worth the investment.

Alan’s last letter is a happy one and indicates some progress towards mending his marriage which has suffered due to his long incarceration. I am pleased for him but also have trepidations as the seven years until he gets out will pass differently for him in prison than for his wife navigating in the free world. Alan requests very little but he wants a book of guitar songs which I order for him on Amazon. I order a used copy from an independent seller, as I’ve done for other prison orders but apparently the packaging looks amateurish and the book is returned to the seller. Prisoners are allowed to receive books from bona fide book merchants but only stamps, envelopes and paper from individuals. I will have to order a new copy of the book directly from Amazon. It is remarkable how prison complicates even the most simple of transactions.

Card stock is a treasured item for many inmates. It is used for artwork, greeting cards and models. The pack I send to Mule Creek is rejected but I have good luck with Pleasant Valley. Paper models are a popular time consuming hobby. I print out patterns on plain paper for cars and planes and send them to Mule Creek and the inmate traces them onto cardstock. Now I can print these directly on to cardstock. I wonder how many hours it would take to trace a model containing oodles of intricate parts. I wonder how it feels knowing that every hour, day, week, month is essentially the same. How would you experience of the change of seasons and other markers of time? How is it when there is only an occasional letter or a piece of fruit on the lunch tray to distinguish one day from any other?

I am ritualized in my use of time. After tending to responsibilities at the office, I write Alan on Mondays. I send him my blog and Himself’s and other pertinent writings that will interest him. If it’s Tuesday, it’s a letter for the Pleasant Valley inmate. I also send him several pages of Sudoku puzzles weekly and often paper model patterns and football schedules. I write the San Diego inmate on Wednesday and include a week of L.A. Times crossword puzzles with solutions for the more difficult Saturday and Sunday puzzles and several pages of Sudokus. Thursday and Friday are reserved for the writing of the blog and while I am not doctrinaire about the word count, most pieces run in the area of 2000 words. While on vacation I post a piece to the blog, although somewhat shorter than my average. I do not write to the prisoners. Returning to the office on Thursday I decide to go a second week without writing them, putting my own writing and catching up at work first but I feel bad that they will go for two full weeks without a letter.

I look at the list of deadlines pertinent to college applications and other requirements for getting two teenagers through another school year. There is not enough time, although the little there is passes excruciatingly slowly when my Seventeen year old is out with the car. Mostly though, summer is too short but I am thankful for my full hours. It is good for me to devote a few of them each week to those for which time is just a sameness altered only by death.

3 comments:

Fionnchú said...

Thanks for this glimpse into your life and those near and far who are close to you. I was thinking about you when I realized in the middle of this so far sleepless night that I had forgotten to read
and post in the flurry tonight of son's plans, so here 'tis. Dogs join me in welcoming you and the boys home. xxx me

Anonymous said...

Thank you for supporting inmates. You are making a huge difference in their lifes. You are helping them survive prison.

The California prison medical is so bad, the Feds had to take it over. It is unlikely inmates are exaggerating when complaining about any problems within California prisons.

The prisons are at over double capacity because many of the politicians use tough-on-crime, rather than smart-on-crime, as a platform.

The three-strikes law that does not work as voters intended actually sends people to prison for 25-years-to-life for stealing a pizza! At $50,000 each year for each inmate, the unreasonable sentences are wasting salvageable lives and bankruping California.

Schools are accountable for student outcomes. Toyota is accountable for its cars. Why are prisons not held accountable for inmate outcomes? Of course, there are mentally ill and certain others who will never be model citizens. But,it is upside down to reward government-run and for-profit prisons with bigger budgets, more employees, etc., when they fail in their job of rehabilitation and people return to prison. We should use proven rehab programs to save incarceration cost and help prevent new crime and new victims.


Thank you again.

Layne said...

Thanks for your kind words. Recent reports show a bit of improvement in medical care since the fed takeover, but not enough. The powerful guards union and the politically expedient "get tough on crime" position certainly don't nurture a more humane take on corrections either. It seems the system is just hopeless and our only hope is to raise awareness among compassionate individuals.