Saturday, March 22, 2008

Robert and the "Sisters"

Until you actually spend some time in a place like this, it's really difficult to know if the stereotypes we have about what kind of people are in prison are real or simply misperceptions. I had seen movies and television programs that had the full bevy of characters you might expect. You see the "bosses", the one's who seem to get whatever they want...items that none of the other inmates seem to have. And there are the "fish", inmates that are brand new and seem to be lost all the time. There are snitches, enforcers and thieves. They always seemed to be there on the big (or small) screen, but did they exist in real life?

A week after I got to this new place I called home, a new guy moved into the unit. His name was Robert and he was quite a bit younger than I was. He was a Mormon and had spent some time in the army, and in fact, had served in Desert Storm in Iraq. He apparently noticed that I was a Christian...I guess the fact that I always seemed to have a Bible in my hands was probably a big "give-away". We became friends (if that's the right word in this place) and spent quite a bit of our free time together.

He was an interesting specimen. He said he was in "Club Snoopy" because he had cut the barrel off of a shotgun because he wanted to commit suicide after his girlfriend broke up with him. I learned never to discount someone else's story, so maybe it was true. (He also said he was a direct descendant of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church...but again, who really knows.) He taught me how to play chess, a game I hadn't played since I was in high school. He was very well read and we would talk about all kinds of different things. He would share his letters from back in Utah with me and it became pretty obvious that the letters that he mailed out were probably just as bizarre as the ones that he shared with me.

On many evenings, we would walk the track just to kill time. One night, as we were walking, we noticed "them". They were pretty easy to notice. It was a group of three African Americans. They were sitting on the bleachers next to one of the softball fields. What help to set them apart from the other inmates, and in particular the African American inmates, was the way the made up their hair, their fingernails and the way they put their make-up on in the mornings. Most of us didn't use make-up, especially since it wasn't available at the commissary. And maybe because most of the men here didn't wear make-up, but these three did. Robert decided to call these guys the "Sisters"...a pretty appropriate title.

The "Sisters" would talk like girls and definitely worked on having all of the feminine mannerisms they could muster. They crossed their legs tightly and "limped" their wrists. They talked in falsetto voices sand and danced around like the stereotypical "fairies" most of us would picture. At times as we would walk past them, they would be talking about guys they been with on the outside before they ended up in this place and it seemed they would raise their voices to make sure those around them could hear. Or maybe, they just wanted one of us to hear them.

It soon became apparent that one...or maybe all...of them liked Robert. They would stare at him every chance they had. If we were walking into the chow hall and the "Sisters" were sitting at a table eating, they would stop and watch Robert walk in. It was like wolves sizing up the next meal from the sheepfold. It soon became almost a joke and we both would simply laugh.

But then, Robert's bizarre side came out a little bit. He had been sharing stories about the "Sisters" to some of his buddies back in Utah. He tended to exaggerate a little bit about what they might do to him, but then, maybe Robert knew something I didn't. About a week after Robert got a letter from his friends, he decided that it might be "fun" to actually talk to the "Sisters" and get his picture taken with them to send to his friends. As we talked about it, we knew there might be some danger in that plan since one or more of them might think that Robert actually liked them and might want to develop more than just a distant relationship.

Sadly, all of Robert's plans for a picture were interrupted. Apparently, the "Sisters" were having some other problems on the compound and one day, they just simply disappeared. I learned over the three years I was there that disappearances were common. The rumor mill reported that they had all "PC'd" themselves (asked for protective custody) because they were being threatened by some men in their unit. Like all rumors, there was never any way to substantiate it, but they never did return to the compound. And Robert never did get to have his picture taken with the "Sisters" for his friends back home.

It didn't take very long being on the compound to realize that the stereotypes really do exist. I was soon to become acquainted with more of these characters who could have come right out of Hollywood.

Monday, March 17, 2008

G.A.P.S. in my Character

After I had been working at my new job in the Chapel for about a week, I made an appointment to go in and talk with the Chaplain. He was ex-military and no nonsense and I needed his opinion on an issue that was eating me up. Every since I had entered this place, everywhere I turned, I was being told to lie about why I was here. It was tearing me apart.

As I sat down in the Chaplain's office, I visited for a moment and then got right to the meat of the issue.

"I'm not sure if you know why I'm in prison but I think I need to tell you. I was arrested for possession of child pornography. That's really not the worst part of it. The pornography was of gay boys...mostly teenage boys."

There, I'd said it. Chaplain Krantz sat there looking at me with a look on his face that I couldn't quite read.

"I didn't know why you are in here and it really doesn't matter. Are you gay? That really doesn't matter to me either...that's between you and God. What is it you wanted to talk to me about?"

Now it was my turn to just sit there and look at him for a moment. This was not going quite like I had planned it in my mind. I had to quickly regroup my thoughts.

"Well, I'm really struggling with the reason that I'm in here. I've been told by just about everyone that I've met that it's not safe for me to tell the truth, and part of the reason that I'm in here is because I wouldn't tell the truth to people who may have been able to help me. I can't keep living a lie and I need some advise."

"It's no ones business why you're in here. And you just need to tell them that. Just explain that your past is behind you and that you are working to become a new person. Is there anything else?"

He looked down at the paperwork on his desk, and I took that as a signal that the visit was probably at an end, so I told him no, and I thanked him for his advise. I stood and left his office and went back to my own desk in the outer office.

Could it really just be that simple? I had my doubts, but what he said made sense to me. Over the next several weeks, I thought about it a lot and continued to read my Bible and some other Christian books that I had checked out of the library.

One night as I was walking the track in the rec yard, the word GAPS came to my mind. As I continued to walk and think, and try to talk to God in the midst of the music blaring by the basketball courts, the guitars and accordians players in the grass and the profanity from the other men who walked past me, the word GAPS continued to roll around in my mind. Pretty soon, words started to fill into place. The "G" became "greed", a word I had figured out helped to describe my past several years. Next, the letter "A" was replaced by "angry". I didn't really feel angry, but I knew God was giving me the word for a reason. Angry was followed by "pride" and I definitely knew where that word was coming from. Although I had convinced myself for years that I wasn't a prideful person, God had peeled that lie away. Finally, the word "selfish" completed the acronym. Greed. Anger. Pride. Selfishness.

It made sense as I thought about it. Every man that I had met in prison had one of these characteristics in common...most had more than one. It occurred to me that we were all in prison for the same reason. We had GAPS in our character, and that resulted in us (me) making a really poor choice(s) that led us here.

It turned out to be so simple. I wasn't asked by a lot of people why I was in prison, but God had given me an answer that wasn't a lie...and an opportunity to witness for Him. I was here for the same reason everyone else was. I'm a sinner, pure and simple. And so is everyone else. No more lies! Just a simple declaration that like all men, I have G.A.P.S. in my character, and they led me to this dark place.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Invited In!

On Labor Day evening, as I was walking back from the recreation yard, I passed one of the clerks that I had met in the Chapel. He was there when I turned my application form in and he had said hello and introduced himself as David. He was an attractive young man, in his 20's. Not the image one has when you try to picture a "convict" in your mind. As we passed, he asked me if I was going to join the guys down in the recreation yard for popcorn and sodas. I started to say "no", when something in my spirit stopped me. Instead, I asked "what time?" and he said in about 15 minutes. He said that Billy was already down there and that we were meeting down on the north end by the Bocce ball courts. I thanked him for the invitation, and turned around and headed back to the "yard".

As I reflect back on that moment, I see a significance that I didn't realize at the time. I don't have a clear understanding of the reasons that I did what I did to end up in prison. I don't know why I was so hooked on going to chat rooms and looking for teenage boys to talk to. I can't begin to pretend that I comprehend what need deep in my being that those chats filled. But I have come to understand that I was definitely looking for something that was missing from my life. Relationships with other men!

I'd like to be able to say that I had never been invited into a group of men before, but that would be a lie. In fact, a big part of my life was being with other males. I had been a high school athlete and coached high school boys for twelve years. In my old church, I had been invited to join the men's group, but I always declined. I'm not sure why...I just don't think I understood the importance. But as I use my 20/20 hindsight now, I can see how deeply important it really was.

As I wandered over to the group that was collected around a blanket on the grass, Billy welcomed me and introduced me to the other men who were there. Some of these men definitely met my preconceived notion of what convicts looked like. The tattoos. The long hair. The buffed bodies crafted by hours spent working out. But others looked like men I sat next to in church, or worked next to in the schools. They could have been my next door neighbor or the sales clerk in the store at the mall. Hands were shaked and names, which I promptly forget, were exchanged. I was handed a soda and given a place to sit on the blanket with this group of men that I would learn to love over the next three years.

The conversation wasn't filled with the profanity that I was bombarded with every other place on the compound. It wasn't filled with vitriolic words for the government and the injustice of the justice system that sent us here. Instead, it was about Jesus. It seemed every conversation that I was listening to in some way centered on Jesus. Whether is was talking about the message the Chaplain had given the day before, or Bible study that the men took turns leading on Tuesday nights or laughing about the antics and errors of the men on the church softball team, it was all centered in some way on Christ. I had never been around men like this before. And strangely (I'm embarrassed to admit) I enjoyed it. It was pretentious or arrogant. It wasn't a bunch of men talking hypocritically about how good they were. It was just a group of men who were sharing in some way God's grace in their lives.

I was amazed that I had travelled 1100 miles to meet a group of men like this. But I had to smile and chuckle to myself at God's wisdom and divine planning. He knew exactly what I needed. And He knew exactly where I would find what would fill that need. I needed to feel like I belonged. I had always been a part of a group, but it seemed I was always the leader and never just a member. This was different.

As the evening grew into night time and the loudspeakers announced that the compound was closing, we picked up the blanket and our trashed and started back to our individual units. One of the men, Jeff, invited me to join him and a group of guys in the morning for a Bible study they had each day around the tables here in the yard. I had never been in a Bible study and on another day, I probably would have begged off and said I was too busy. But I could tell this was too important. Not just being in a group and studying the Bible, but being a "part" of the group, a group of men. A group where I didn't need to be in charge, but someone that had been invited in. Little did I know how significant accepting that invitation that night would be and the influence it would have over my life for the next 154 weeks.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

"My Clock Struck Midnight!"

As I was driving to work the other morning, I was listening to a local Christian radio station as I normally do and a song came on that is very popular right now on the charts. The title is called "Cinderella" and I'd heard the song many times before. But on this day, it impacted me in a new way.

I listened to the artist as he sang the words that told the story of a man who had a daughter and how she loved to dance. It starts with the daughter as a little girl, and as most little girls do, she considered herself a little princess and she had been invited to a ball at the prince's castle and she needed to practice her dancing. She tugged at her dad's leg, begging to dance with her so she would be ready for the big gala.

As the song, progresses, the girl grows older and there are continuous opportunities for her to practice dancing. Her high school prom, and then ultimately, her wedding. Each time, she goes to her dad and asks him to practice with her. He relishes the opportunity and he compares it to the story of Cinderella. Remember in that story, the prince is dancing with Cinderella, but as the clock strikes midnight, Cinderella runs away because she knows that the magic spell that had made her beautiful and dressed in a beautiful gown for the Ball would disappear. The father wanted to take advantage of every moment that he would have with his daughter, because he knew that one day, like Cinderella, his daughter would leave home.

The words to the strong brought strong emotions to my heart that morning. I have three granddaughters. Three beautiful little girls that I haven't seen for almost four years. Three beautiful little girls that I may never see again. Before I made the bad choices that led to my arrest, my oldest granddaughter was entering that age where she wanted to dance. Paula and I would go to her house and she would put on a princess dress that my wife had bought her and she would dance for us. I would love to watch her. She loved to dance alone...she never asked me to dance with her. But to just watch the joy on her face and she spun and twirled brought joy to my my heart.

Listening to the words to the song brought back the harsh reality that she was gone. All of my grand children were gone from my least for now. Perhaps forever. I can't be like the prince in the story and take the glass slipper and go searching for the princess(es). I know where each one lives. But they are no longer part of my life. My choices closed the door to that relationship. As I listened to words to the song on that morning drive to work, I realized that my clock has already struck midnight, and my grandchildren are gone.