Sunday, January 27, 2008

Who Is That Man?

After putting my belongings in my locker, Gary, my new "cellie" asked if I'd like a tour of the facility. I said sure, and off we went. The heat blasted me as I stepped out the door into the compound. The August afternoon was in triple digits as we followed the hot concrete sidewalk away from our unit.

As we walked around the upper yard, Gary pointed out the "chow hall" and the library. He pointed a cursory in the general direction of the chapel and then across to the infirmary. We continued walking until we reached the recreation area. A large dirt track circled the soccer and softball fields in the center. The basketball court was filled with black "NBA" wannabe while the volleyball courts were filled with Hispanic men playing a version of volleyball that they must only find south of the Border. Inside, the smell of sweat filled the room as men worked out on stair steppers, stationary bikes and treadmills. I looked around for the weight benches but Gary told me that TCI didn't have any weight lifting equipment at all.

Into the next room we went and here there men around pool tables where the air was filled with laughter and cussing. That was to be something that I would never get used to in this place...the profanity. It seemed everybody used it and it wasn't something that I would get immune to. Along the walls, men of all colors were sitting, some playing guitar, others accordions. TV's hung from the wall, the sounds of various sports shows muted.

As we walked back, Gary informed me that I needed to be back at the unit by 1:00 because the compound would close and I hadn't checked out. He left me at the library and I slowly walked across the baked dirt compound toward my new home. As I approached the 10 foot high cyclone wire fence and gate that enclosed my building, for a moment I seemed to leave my body. I simply looking down at this man who seemed vaguely familiar wearing a white t-shirt and khaki pants and heavy work boots. "Surely that couldn't be me", my mind thought. This is a prison compound, what would I be doing here?

But as I walked closer to the doors, and the PA system loudly announced that the compound was now closed, I was drawn back into my body...and the reality hit me. It was me walking so slowly across this barren yard. And I was truly in a prison compound. For the next 36 months, I would continue to have this same surreal experience of wondering if this was actually happening, or if it was all just a dream. No where in my worst nightmares had I ever thought this would be happening to me.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Place Called "Home"

I watch crime shows today through a different lens than I did in 2004. The mind games that the media portrays between the police and the accused are closer to being a reality than they are to fiction. I sat in the waiting room of the prison for about 20 minutes. A pleasant lady walked through and saw me sitting there and asked if I was going home today. I could only wish. I politely said no, that I was beginning my sentence today. She gave me a slight nod, one that you can't really read and walked out the door.

A few moments later, two men in uniform came into the waiting room from the back office area. I'm not a small man, but these two looked like they probably, or at least could have, played college football. There wasn't a smile or a hint of a smile between them. They asked me for my ID and I politely, yet nervously, removed my driver's license from my wallet and showed them my paper directing me to surrender myself today. After scanning my license, they asked in a not too friendly voice if I had any property with me. I picked up my nearly empty backpack and handed it to them. They put on their latex gloves and began to search the pack, carefully removing each item. Once they were convinced that I didn't have anything illegal ( I guess) they handed it back to me and told me to follow them.

We walked through the office area where women with pleasant faces were answering the phones. "Good morning, GEO Group Taft, does this call pertain to an inmate?" I must have heard those words fifteen times as I sat in the waiting room. As I walked past the women now, I could put a face with the voices. I was led to the rear door and directed to face the window and put my hand behind my back. For the first time in my life, I was about to feel the cold, hard metal of handcuffs on my wrists. I had been fortunate during my arrest and subsequent court hearings to have never had to be "cuffed" or wear the leg shackles that you see so many times on the TV screen and in the movies. I could hear the "click" of the cuffs as they locked into place behind me.

I was walked across a short, barren yard to another building that was called "R&D", or ""Receiving and Discharge". Once there, the cuffs were removed and I was told to stand next to the wall. The guard point to a spot to his left and then I was briefly blinded by the flash as the camera took the picture for my ID card. I was asked again if I had any personal property and I explained that I had been told on the phone that I could bring my Bible in with me, as well as wear a white T-shirt and shorts, sweatpants, white socks and white tennis shoes. One of the guards took my Bible and looked through it and handed it back to me. They checked out my clothes and nodded their approval. Then, they looked at my shoes.

I was wearing a pair of fairly new Nike basketball shoes. They had a little bit of blue around the heel, but they were predominantly white. One of the guards nodded to the other, a silent message perhaps, and then told me the shoes would have to shipped home. No explanation...just a directive. I quietly slipped the shoes off my feet and they handed me a pair of blue slippers to put on my feet. The rest of my belongings...a windbreaker, my khaki shorts, my wallet and the shoes where then haphazardly tossed into a box and Paula's name hastily written on the cover. They asked me to check the address to make sure it was correct and then sealed it with tape. A paper was shoved toward me to sign, acknowledging that the items had been sent home.

Phase one was over and I was led back to a holding cell and told to wait until I could be further processed. I was again about to experience a first...the sound of a heavy steel door clanging shut behind me and the click as the lock was turned. I sat quietly in the cell, alone with my thoughts. I seemed like I was hovering over this man I didn't really know, but thought maybe I recognized sitting in the cell. "Certainly, this can't really be happening to me" I thought.

Another 20 minute wait and I was directed to an office where a short, bald headed man sat. He told me his name and then pulled out several sheets of paper and started asking me questions. I don't remember all of the questions, but one still stays with me.

"Do you feel that you will be in any danger if you are placed in the 'yard'?"

"No", answered quickly, without really thinking about the question. Several more questions went by, and then it dawned on me..."should I be afraid of being in danger?" I started to interupt the counselor asking the questions but the look he gave me quickly told me the question could wait. After he was done, he asked me to sign the paper. Before I put the pen to the signature line, I asked him if I should be afraid. He responded merely with the statement that a psychologist would see me in a few moments and he would answer any questions that I had.

Back to the holding cell for another wait. The duration was shorter this time and I was returned to the same room only this time a funny looking little man with a scraggly beard sat at the desk. He introduced himself and said that he was a psychologist and that I would be seeing him at times during my stay at TCI. We talked about my crime and my sentence and he told me that it was dangerous for any kind of "sex crime" inmate to be on the yard. But he told me that I appeared to be "OK" and not under too much emotional duress. He also warned me not to tell anyone, and he repeated "anyone" why I was in prison. Because I was white, and "professional looking" with a good hair cut and no tattoos, he said most inmates would assume I was in for some kind of "white collar" crime like tax evasion.

He sent me out of his make-shift office and on to the nurses for a quick physical. The height and weight were take, a quick eye exam and then the blood pressure cuff was placed around my arm. The nurse put the stethoscope to my elbow and listened for the pressure. It was a little high she think...but said it was not out of the normal range. Back to the officers that brought me in and I was pointed to a stack of thin mattresses laying on the floor.

"Pick one up", the officer said. Silently, I bend down and grabbed a thin, green, plastic mattress. With the mattress slung over my arm, the door was opened. The brightness of the sun blinded me momentarily as the blast of heat entered the room. The officer pointed out the "unit" that I had been assigned to and he gave me my ID card. "10935-085" was my new identification. It didn't take me long to plant those eight numbers in my memory bank. I was told to go to the laundry first to get my bedding and assigned clothing and then report to my living unit.

And then it happened. I stepped out into the "yard". It was lunch time and the compound was filled with men dressed in khaki pants, work boots and white t-shirts. I could hear unfamiliar voices calling out to me, "Hey, did you just surrender?" "Where you from, white boy?" I ignored the voices and walked toward the building I had been pointed to. No map. Poor signage. No escort. Just me, my Bible and an ugly green mattress that may have been 6" thick.

In a matter of moments, I found myself in front of a counter and a man in white t-shirt and khaki pants filling out a paper with my name on it. He took my ID and completed the form. Then the three sets of clothing and two blankets and sheets, along with a thin pillow and pillow case were passed through his window to me. Then the worn pair of black work boots and a laundry bag. The paper was slipped through the window for my signature and I picked up my laundry items and started for the door. The inmate who had just assigned them to me could see that I was struggling and kindly offered me a large garbage bag to carry them in. I took it with a word of thanks and stuff the items in the bag.

Once again, with the mattress over my arm, my Bible tucked up under my armpit and the garbage bag filled with my new belongings in hand, I headed for my new home. The sun felt hot...100 degrees hot as I made the short walk. The officer sat at his desk as I entered through one of the double doors. I handed him my ID and he looked on his chart of available beds.

"28 up" he said, and then yelled down the expanse of the large open room that was to be my living space for the next 36 months. Soon, an over-weight man in his late 30's came up the hallway and introduced himself and walked me back toward my "cube" He pointed to a locker and said that it would be mine. There were still some items in it and he said our other "cellie" would be back from lunch soon to clean it out. He was storing some of his extra stuff in it while it was vacant.

I looked around the small 10'x10 cube. Two standing lockers and a bunk-bed with another bed on the opposite wall. A small desk with a round swivel seat attached. Barely four feet of space separated the bunk beds from the single bed opposite it. The cube had six foot high cinder block walls while the room itself had 20' high ceilings. Eighty-four cubes and nearly 175 men called A1B their home. Over the next 36 months, so would I.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

An Officer Will Be With You Soon

The room was like so many I had been in before. The thin comforter on the too hard mattress. The whining of the air conditioner. The smell of the sneaked cigarette taken in the "non-smoking" room. The little bottles of shampoo and lotion arranged like little soldiers next to the sink. I usually enjoyed staying in motels. There was always a little bit of excitement about it that never went away. Probably because it was an experience I never really had as a child. As a family, we didn't have much opportunity to go on vacations and stay at motels. My only experience as a child was staying in motels when I was on the wrestling team and we travelled to tournaments.

I tossed my backpack on the floor in the corner...nothing to hang up. I put my few toiletry items on the counter next to the sink and then found the bed. I reached for the phone and called Paula. She was already getting settled into the condo back in Leavenworth. She had driven there directly after dropping off at the bus station 26 hours earlier. She was ready to move on with her life and to get settled back into her own house. She had stayed with our sister-in-law for six months and we were both so thankful for Deb's love and grace. But Paula was ready to get back to what might finally become a "normal" life again.

The visit was pleasant. We had grown close again during the month before I got on the bus on that cool August evening. Not intimately close...but close spiritually. We had spent three weeks getting the condo ready for her to move back into. Painting. Cleaning. Decorating. Making it "her" home again. The minutes flew by as we just talked and visited. She wondered how I felt...was I scared or anxious. "Yes" to both questions. I told about the trip and walk over from the bus station. When I got ready to hang up, I told her I didn't know when I would be able to call her again. I told her I loved her and set the phone back in the cradle.

I laid on the bed and let my eyes just stare off into space. I could hear the sounds of the Bakersfield night off in the distance as they seeped through my window. The regular sound of the ice machine dumping its load down the hall was the only other sound that broke the near silence. I got ready for bed, but sleep didn't come easily. I had set the alarm for 5:00 AM. I had a transit bus to catch at 6:45 and I wasn't really sure where the transit station was. I didn't have cab fare in my pocket so I know I would be walking where I needed to go in the morning.

I jolted from sleep as the obnoxious sound of the little alarm pierced the room. Wobbly steps led me to the bathroom as I reached in and turned the shower on. As my luck would have it, there was no hot water. Just something that might be considered luke warm. I think I've swum in swimming pools that were at a higher temperature. I let it run for a while, hoping I was just a long way from the hot water tank but time didn't deliver me a hot shower. A quick shave and then Colgate on my toothbrush and I attempted to clean away the taste in my mouth. The toiletry items were tossed in the waste basket along with my socks and underwear as I put fresh ones on. I knew I wouldn't be taking them with me where I was going.

The clerk at the check out counter was pleasant. He took my credit card and swiped it through his machine. "Accepted" flashed on the screen as I signed my name. His look was perplexed as I asked him for a pair of scissors. I took them and walked to the corner and quickly cut my credit card and debit card in little tiny pieces. I didn't look over my shoulder to see if he was watching. By this time, I didn't really care what others thought. I handed them back and thanked him and walked out into the late California summer morning.

As it turned out, the transit station was only about 15 blocks away. The walk was refreshing. There was little traffic at that time of the morning. A few street people were still sleeping in the alleyways as I quietly walked past. On another day, I might have paused in front of the shop windows but not this day. I terminal area was empty when I got there. I checked the board and found the location of my bus pick-up. As I sat on the hard bench waiting, there were several young men in the area that at any other time might have made me a little nervous. But I had nothing to give them if they wanted to rob me. And if they wanted to hurt me...I was on my way to prison, did I really care? At that time and place, the answer is no. In my mind, it might have been a relief.

The bus arrived and we started on the hour long trip out to Taft. As we left Bakersfield and headed west into the southern end of the San Joaquin valley, I was amazed at how much it reminded me of the Yakima home for almost 25 years. Ugly, brown hills crept up the horizon as the miles passed by. When we arrived at Taft, I told the driver I needed to be dropped off at the Taft Regional Transit stop. She didn't know where it was, so I just had her drop me in the center of downtown. I went into the restroom at the bus stop and changed out of my khaki shorts and into my sweat bottoms. I put my t-shirt on under the polo shirt I was wearing and once again went in search of a phone booth to find a phone book. As my luck would have it, all the phone books had been stolen. I went into a little diner and asked the clerk at the counter if I could borrow their phone book. A quick glance and I found the address I was looking for.

For the first time that day, as luck would have it, I was only about six blocks from the the transit office. I walked down the empty streets until I found the address. I went to the window and asked when the next shuttle was going out to the Taft Correctional Institution. It was uncomfortable to say the words. Maybe they would just think I was going out there to visit someone. Thankfully, they didn't ask any questions and told me to wait by the street and the shuttle would be there in about 15 minutes. I found the shade of a tree and waited.

The small shuttle bus pulled up to the curb and I walked up the two short steps and found myself a seat. I handed the driver two quarters and settled back. I was the only passenger. I told the lady behind the wheel where I needed to go and she pulled out. As I sat there, my mind was still numb. And then I heard it...the soft sounds of Christian music coming from her radio. I silently thanked God for this little gift of grace. The driver asked if I was going out to visit and I sheepishly said no. I was going out to surrender myself. She glanced up at me in the mirror and then said that people make mistakes all the time. No condemnation. No look of fear or disgust in her eyes. In fact, there was a look of compassion. As we pulled into the driveway and then up to the entry, she wished me well and said she would be praying for me. I don't know if she followed through on the promise of prayer, but I know that prayers followed me inside those razor wire fences. I stepped off the bus and into the lobby and told the lady at the desk who I was and that I was surrendering. She told me to have a seat and wait. An officer will be with you soon.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Journey on the "Hound"

The summer night air was beginning to cool as we stood in the bus station parking lot. Diesel fumes filled the air, choking any sweetness that may have been there. My mind was too numb to notice...the air could have been filled with the aroma of beautiful roses and my senses would have been immune. We had waited in Jason's SUV as long as I dared - this was a bus I couldn't afford to miss. I took a hold of Jason and gave him a hug and a love and then looked at Paula. We embraced and I felt the softness of her lips as she kissed me goodbye. The taste of her lips was as I had remembered them. It had been six months since the last time we had any form of intimacy
Jason and Paula looked as numb as I felt. Their eyes were empty, as I'm sure mine were. None of us knew what to expect as I got ready to get on the bus. The last six months had been more than any of us could truly comprehend, but the next thirty-six posed even a greater enigma. PRISON! How can anyone who has never been in trouble, or even known anyone who had been in this kind of trouble, begin to predict what the future was going to hold.

I went into the terminal to pick up my ticket, glancing back as they drove away. They heading in one direction, me in the opposite. There were no tears to choke back...they had dried up months before. My mind kicked into its analytical mode as it often does when I'm not wanting to deal with the emotional situations I find myself in sometimes. The terminal was packed with people. Young. Old. Male. Female. Probably every color was represented. I hurried to the counter to make sure there was room for me on the bus. Even though I had pre-paid and had a confirmation number, I was feeling a little paranoid. My mind kept worrying, "what if I miss the bus or there isn't room for me?" "What will happen if I can't get to the prison by noon in two days? Will they put out an APB for me?" I couldn't let any of that happen. I may have been rude and cut people off getting to the counter, I really don't remember. Too much of that moment is just a haze.

It was getting dark as we finally loaded. Every seat was taken. I didn't have to worry about checking any luggage, all I had was a small backpack that I carried my Bible, a sandwich from Subway and a T-shirt and sweatpants. It fit easily under my seat that was midway back next to the window.

It had been years, almost a lifetime since I had last ridden a Greyhound bus. It was when I was in my early teens and I had gone to Spokane with Mom and my brothers and sister to go Christmas shopping. It seemed exciting then. Not so tonight. The seat wasn't comfortable, and there was no anticipation of what kind of cool presents I could find to buy for my family. I'd been on a lot of other buses in the interim between then and now. All of them school buses as we'd travel from one school to next to compete as I was a high school coach when I was a teacher. This seat felt nearly as uncomfortable as I remembered those had been.

By the time we reached Tacoma, my Subway sandwich was half way gone. I didn't want to eat it all...I figured I would probably be hungry sometime tomorrow. I had a few dollars in my pocket that Jason had given me before he dropped me at the bus terminal. Somehow in my mind, it seemed wrong that he was giving me money. But the past six months had begun to humble me and I accepted it with a grateful heart. I knew that there would be things that I needed once I got "there" and didn't want to waste any of the precious few bills that I had.

As the night faded, the towns drifted by. It seemed that we stopped at nearly every wide spot in the road all the way to California. No way to get comfortable enough to sleep. Even as the passenger load decreased and there was no one in the seat next to me, it was impossible to stretch out. They just don't make the seats in those buses for men who are over six feet tall. By 2:00 AM, we were in Northern California and it was time to service the bus. Two hours in an empty bus terminal with nothing to do and no where to go. I thought about laying down on one of the hard, empty benches, but I was concerned that if I fell asleep, I might miss the bus when it left. I was travelling alone, so there was no one that I could count on to wake me. So I just sat, reading day old newspapers, every poster on the drab, colorless walls. I didn't allow my mind to think forward, to try to predict what it would be like in 48 hours when I would be sleeping in a new place...a place where they housed criminals and the bars had windows and they locked the steel doors each night.

We finally pulled out and found ourselves on the empty blacktop heading south once again. As the sun began to creep up and soften the darkness of the night, I was able to pull out my Bible and find solace and comfort in the words I found there. The Book had become my refuge and my strength during the past six months. The words jumped off the pages in ways they never had before. It was more than just a good history story to me now...the words had power and had begun to change my life. As I read, the miles and minutes passed by. I finished my reading and pulled out a paperback that I had picked up in Seattle before I got on the bus. The 200 pages flew by and I soon found myself closing the book and looking out the windows once again.

There was a time when I would have loved the view. I would have wondered what was growing in each field. How close was I to San Francisco, or L.A.? But not today. Today, it was just an empty landscape. My mind didn't absorb the beauty or the wonder of the creation that passed by at 65 miles an hour. It was empty, numb...even slightly scared. Scared may not be the right word...perhaps apprehensive would be a more apt description. I've never been afraid of the unknown, but I just couldn't wrap my mind around what was happening and what I would face in only 24 hours.

The conversation of the kids in the seat behind me drifted up to my ears. High school students heading to a recruiting station to get tested for the military. I was tickled by the bravado of one of the boys. He was going to be a "SEAL" and he was telling his classmates how hard the training was going to be and how easy it was going to be for him to get through it. The dreams of I miss them. My dreams had turned into the nightmare I was living today.

The bus arrived in Bakersfield 25 hours after I walked up the steps in Seattle. I walked into the terminal and headed to the phone booth to check for a phone book to find a city map. No luck. Like phone booths all over the country, someone had managed to rip out the phone book pages that I needed. I looked around the terminal and found a city transit map so I could find out where my motel was. When I had called for reservation, the clerk had said that it was right across the street from the bus station. I looked, and she was wrong. It wasn't there. Fortunately, I had the street address, and I soon found myself walking down the dark, deserted streets of Bakersfield, going in the direction that I hoped would lead me to my motel. The street numbers passed by and it appeared I was going in the right direction. After 20 minutes, I spotted the sign. With a relief, I walked into the office and checked in...then up the stair to my room. The last room I would sleep in for 1086 nights that I would be able to enter and exit at my will.