Excessive Noise

Written by Eric Burnham

Personal growth, to me, means becoming the person I was designed to be. I’m not too sure where the balance is found between nature and nurture in the formation of my spirit as a unique human being. I do know, however, that I’m just one incarcerated man trying to overcome my past mistakes and make a positive impact on this crazy world. I kind of think that’s what life is all about: taking the bad and using it for good. Eric Burnham #12729124 Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution 2500 Westgate Pendleton OR 97801

March 12, 2021

We live in extremely hard times. The last year was certainly one of the more daunting of my life. The theme of 2020 was “If it can be shaken, it will be shaken.” And the theme of 2021 may be “transition.” Yet, whether or not 2021 turns out to be a year of growth depends greatly upon perspective. Where you stand usually depends on where you sit. Perspective can become difficult to apprehend amongst excessive noise. Allow me to explain.

In March of 2020, the Education Department was shut down because of a really aggressive outbreak of influenza here at E.O.C.I. Finally back to work on June 5, and then the first cases of Covid-19 are detected at the prison, on my unit. My housing unit goes on quarantine for what turns out to be over 60 days. By the time my unit comes off of quarantine, we had all contracted the virus, myself included, and although two men died as a result, the majority of us recovered fairly well. However, the coronavirus outbreak had become so widespread at E.O.C.I. by that time that the Education Department had been shut down until further notice.

In September, my job, visiting, and virtually all recreational activities had been shut down for 6 months. Football season began, and I started playing fantasy football with some guys on my unit. That turned out to be an unwise decision that would shape at least the next year of my life, perhaps even longer.

On December 19, I was handcuffed and escorted to disciplinary segregation, placed in a cell by myself, where I stayed until after the new year began. They informed me at the time that I was under investigation for gambling. I heard nothing about what was going on for two weeks. Finally, on the 15th day, I was given a misconduct report. On January 6th I went to my hearing and attempted to explain, but the hearing officer determined I had violated the rule against gambling by playing fantasy football. My 18 years of clear conduct made no difference.

While I do feel the direct consequences were fair – credit for time served in segregation and release that same day, the indirect consequences were disproportionate, in my opinion. I lost my 18 years of clear conduct; I lost my job as a tutor, which I had been doing for 13 years; I lost my level and incentive housing, and I lost my access to automation for schooling. I am now on a regular, non-incentive dormitory-style unit, and given the Covid-19 restrictions, I’m unable to do really anything but sit on my bunk, although I do have school stuff on which to focus.

Where I am is a warehouse for discarded, forgotten people, and I’m adjusting to my new reality. The ignorance and distorted thinking patterns of those who surround me are staggering, but it is difficult to blame them. Virtually nothing is being done to help them rectify the situation – and you can’t expect people who have never known how to change to suddenly and spontaneously know how to be different than they have always been. These men have no direction, no guidance, no objectives, and no reasons. They are unmotivated. The unit is chaos, and the men are aimless. And while I am certainly responsible for the mistake I made – I chose to play fantasy football, which is against the rules – these aimless men see that my 18 years of clear conduct did not earn me a break or even a benefit of the doubt. They see that although I spent 13 years helping others by tutoring them in the G.E.D program, it made no difference to those in authority. What message does that send to an increasingly younger prison population? Noise.

When I sought leniency after my hearing from the administration here at E.O.C.I., the man in charge of Rehabilitation Services was cold, self-righteous, and unwavering, which surprised me, given his own moral failings. A few years ago, this man, while married to someone else, had an affair with his boss, who was the superintendent at the time. As a result, the superintendent was fired, and his wife devastated. Yet, not only does he continue to work for the Department of Corrections, he holds a merciless paradigm toward the incarcerated. I don’t care that he made a personal mistake – life can be complicated and we all make mistakes. I just wonder how he can make such an egregious mistake and yet fail to exercise any empathy at all toward people like me… a man who merely played fantasy football. Noise.

Yes, I made a mistake. I broke the rules. I acknowledge it, and I take responsibility for it. I just feel the punishment is disproportionate, and the people in charge who set the standards of discipline for those of us who are incarcerated seem to set different standards for themselves, which seems to fly in the face of any framework of rehabilitation. Sure, they extend us the respect of professionalism, to a point, and the appearance of due process, but they do not extend the respect of humanity – because acknowledging our humanity is to accept we will make mistakes. Allow me to provide an example of the difference.

While I was in segregation, certain officers would pass books, magazines, or even various food items from cell to cell when asked. Then, all of a sudden, they would no longer do it. Apparently, the staff had a meeting, and the head of security told the officers that they are not allowed to pass items for inmates. He told them that if they find it happening again, the cameras will be reviewed and those officers seen passing items will no longer be allowed to work in segregation. The respect of humanity, in this particular example, is that the segregation officers were given a warning by those in charge – because human beings get careless and make mistakes.

I had 18 years of clear conduct, had been on incentive housing for 15 years, had worked at the same job tutoring others in the Education Department for 13 years – earned a Bachelor’s degree in 2015, a Master’s degree in 2017, and I’m currently about 20 months from completing my Ph.D. program… yet, I received no warning. I was placed in handcuffs, and everything I had earned over the last 20 years was taken away from me… for playing fantasy football. Noise.

It becomes difficult not to get discouraged. I see how we are treated in here every single day – even when we are following the rules and doing good. I see how the standards are different for those in authority. I see how so-called leaders politicize the concept of rehabilitation and prison reform. I see those who have worked in the prison system for decades and done virtually nothing to change anything, but when the lights are bright and the cameras are rolling, the pretend to be advocates for reform. I also personally experience unrealistic expectations of perfection in order to maintain my institutional incentives even after I’ve earned them. Noise.

Let me be clear: I am not the victim. I am not whining or saying I am entitled to anything. Yes, I feel the punishment is disproportionate, but I can overcome. I can shut out the noise. I can be greater than my greatest excuse. I can work harder, do more, and be better. That is not my issue here. I am strong-minded, emotionally intelligent, considerably educated, and highly motivated. I will succeed and defeat the hurdles in my path. My questions are not about me. My questions are about the men around me, the men who are young, impulsive, under-educated, immature, and without purpose. As they search for meaning in this dark place, can they black out the excessive noise? When they see that two decades of doing the best an incarcerated person can do simply does not matter at all to those in authority, why should they try? What positive examples do they see? They already don’t know how to change. Now… they don’t know why they should. It’s just too much noise

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1 Comment

  1. Tina

    Great piece. Thanks for this contribution. (You’re preaching to the choir on this end).

    Reply

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