More Than A Number

More Than A Number

Inmate 1-2-6-6-4-1-7-5 — that’s my other “name.” The name I’m forced to answer to on a regular basis lest I be found in disobedience of a direct order by refusing to answer to a state-issued number, insisting on being called by the name my parents gave me at birth. In others words, when you come to prison your personal identity is no longer considered central to your existence but rather something you forfeit the minute you were convicted and sent to a state or federal prison. Perhaps it was designed to dehumanize prisoners, make them feel they are no longer worthy of being afforded the same identity as those outside these walls; but this would be pure speculation. Whatever the case, I refuse to accept the degradation and institutionalization that becoming a number over my name places upon me. And thank goodness countless others don’t accept this inhuman form of treatment either.

I am continually encouraged when I walk in the visiting room and find it full and vibrant with family members and friends who are there to visit a bunch of “numbers.” They find great comfort in spending quality time, laughing, crying, and holding hands with their “numbers.” It confirms the notion that people truly can be gone but not forgotten. How easy (theoretically) it would be for those who love us to get on with their lives when we come here. Surely they could find enough things to do throughout the day to occupy their time; they don’t need to accept our calls, come visit us, and write us letters, right? I mean, who in their rational mind would waste their time on a number, anyway?

I am also perpetually in awe at the sheer talent that exists in such a restrictive, callous dwelling. One would logically suspect that prison would squash and squeeze the life out of anyone here, rendering them useless, unmotivated, and devoid of interest in doing anything productive and challenging for the years they’re here. Thank goodness this is anything but true! To the contrary, it appears that prison has a way of producing any and all hidden talents that people never knew they had, often to their amazement. Artists create pieces that have rendered themselves speechless. Mechanics and builders learn their crafts from a technical aspect that they never understood before, enabling them to land good-paying positions in their respective fields when they are eventually released. Musicians: where do I begin? It’s always mesmerizing to actually watch a guy pick up a guitar, harmonica, or keyboard for the first time, study and practice the foreign instrument diligently for months and years, finally reaching the point where he can play inspiring, crowd-pleasing solos.

As a tutor I have had the privilage of working with men on their formal education for over 11 years now. I always find it remarkably touching to see a man begin the GED curriculum with zero confidence and even come within seconds of quitting out of frustration; then months (or years) later I see him at his graduation donning a cap and gown, hugging and crying with his family who are there to celebrate their momentous occasion. They are invigorated about life for the first time, understanding they now have more opportunity than life had ever showed them prior to that point. Tell them they are nothing more than a number. Tell their families that their loved ones are nothing more than a mere state identification number.

Clearly my examples of human potential and value could go on for pages, but why belabor the point? Instead, I will close with this: it is true that I am referred to as a number — a statistic even — but I also know I am so much more!


Letters From Prison: I am no longer intimidated

Letters From Prison: I am no longer intimidated

Support for people who have been convicted of a crime is not a popular cause – but only because we’re not looking at it from the proper perspective. Support does not mean providing cable tv, video games, and haute cuisine – it means humane treatment and care, mentorship, education, and outside support, so that each incarcerated person emerges whole, equipped to live a productive, crime-free life. The most common reason that people end up in prison is that they have no positive social networks. The inherent darkness and isolation of prison only exacerbates that – which in turn leads to high rates of recidivism. Ninety-five percent of incarcerated people will be released into our communities, so their success and well-being directly impacts all of us.

Suffering is the problem, not the solution.

Below is a note I received today from one of our adoptees, Josh.

My name is Josh and I have been in and out of lock up facilities since I was 12 years old. Throughout my life I have had little or no support from anyone in my family. Due to that I went in search for support from the wrong people such as drug dealers, gang bangers, and other kids like me.

At the age of seventeen I commited a robbery and was sentenced to six years in the Indiana Department Of Corrections. At seventeen! I have been locked up for over five years and during that time I have had no support from my family. No visits, no phone calls, no letters, no love. In my five years I have seen so many people go home and come back to prison because they had no one to help them adjust to society.

After being locked up for so long, people forget how to function in the real world. MOST inmates are intimidated by the thought of going home. That is so sad and wrong. I used to feel the same way. Then I was introduced to a wonderful family called the Adopt an Inmate family. They introduced me to a loving, caring, and supportive mentor. Because of the support she has given me, I am no longer intimidated by the thought of getting out — because I know there is someone who will be with me and help me.

The saying goes, ‘Two wrongs dont make a right.” How is condeming someone to life behind a wall, alone, right?

Image credit Yoann Boyer

Letter To My Younger Self

Letter To My Younger Self

Dear Martin,

I write to you from the other side — the side that awaits you if you don’t change your course of action soon.

I know you are going through an extremely difficult time right now as you seek independence while trying to figure out your identity. Most teenagers find themselves doing the same thing. Your friends are very influential right now, and I understand that no one wants to be shunned by their peers, but please believe me when I say what you have been doing to impress them and gain acceptance is NOT who you are and will only lead you down a path of self-destruction.

I know you started drinking because you are very shy and wanted to come out of your shell, but if you knew what I knew, you’d stop right now. You wouldn’t pick up another drink if you knew you would become a full-blown alcoholic within the next two years; if you knew your alcoholism would eventually cause you to tragically take two innocent lives by drinking and driving, leading to a seventeen-and-a-half year prison sentence! Martin, you’re better than that! You’re smarter than that and can make it in this world by pursuing what makes you happy — not what others want or expect from you.

You have so much potential. I see it beneath your bravado, tough-guy exterior. You don’t have to put up this facade with me — I know you . . . better than you will ever know! You’re not a gangster, thug, or tough guy — who are you kidding? No, you’re passionate about art and writing, so why not pursue those with everything in you? Trust me, you will not regret taking this path in life; it sure beats the alternative — the one that surely awaits you if you stay on the destructive path you’re currently on.

Man, if you only knew the pain you’re putting your mom through by going to jail for those stolen car escapades you and your brother have been going on with your so called friends. Are you crazy?! You’re already putting yourself in a category that makes it more likely you’ll end up in prison than college! How do you think your mom will feel about that? Believe me, Martin, her pain will be immense. In fact, it very well could contribute to her death some years from now! You don’t want that on your conscience, do you? But imagine how happy she would be if you did what you’ve always talked about doing, going to college to be an architect.

You don’t want to be where I am, where you’ll be told when you can shower, use the phone, watch TV, eat, and go to bed. You don’t want to miss your nieces and nephew’s birthdays and Christmases for the next seventeen and a half years, do you? It is beyond dejecting to have to watch them grow up in pictures and visits every six months or so. Trust me, that would make you regret every decision you are currently making in your life, Martin.

There are countless men where I am who routinely reflect on their lives when they were your age, expressing how they wished they had made different choices that would have kept them from this dreaded place. I am amongst them. I pray you change soon so you’re not counted among us as well. Change before it’s too late!

I see what you and your friends do. Where do you think that will lead you? Seriously, I want you to take a moment and ponder where you think those things will get you. Do you think there is a future in doing drugs, drinking, and stealing? Look around you; name one successful alcoholic or drug addict! Listen, I’m not here to lecture you; I never liked that either when I was your age, but as I now sit here in a concrete cell staring out of a narrow window into a courtyard with a basketball hoop and barbed wire, a huge part of me wishes I had paid attention to what those older people were trying to tell me. Clearly they knew things I didn’t, even though I thought I knew what I was doing. I only tell you these things because I love you and don’t want to see you end up here — this dreaded place that surely awaits you if you keep on your treacherous path. They even already have a number assigned to you if and when you show up here!

I want you to reject what those who claim to be your friends want you to do because when you really think about it, you should be able to see they don’t have your best interest at heart. Be true to yourself, believe in yourself, and give yourself a chance — you deserve it. Deny these people the opportunity of ever being able to use that state inmate identification number — ever!


Your Older Incarcerated Self

What Really Matters

What Really Matters

It took several agonizing months of listening to cellmate’s stories before I realized that my innocence didn’t matter. At fifty-one, I’d had a pretty full life. So, what really matters?

This 17-year-old African American boy, arrested in front of school merely because he stood next to somebody suspected of a robbery, was in real trouble. By all accounts, he won’t have a future. A felony will abruptly cut short his high school career, and possibly his life.

The police report he shows me rules him out as a suspect. The accomplice he’s alleged to be wears dreadlocks and has a good four inches and thirty pounds on him. Neither the police nor the prosecutor thinks this matters. He will likely plea out because he doesn’t have the resources to fight them. He’s just another defendant, a black one at that, to his court-appointed attorney. To the prosecutor: another notch in her lipstick case. The public doesn’t know and likely wouldn’t care if they knew his story. “He shouldn’t have been smoking in front of the school,” they’d probably say.

I spend hours on the phone at sixty cents per minute, convincing my sister to “sell it all.” She does, but can’t bear to sell my truck.

“I want you to have it when you get out of prison,” she says.

“It really doesn’t matter,” I say. “It’s just stuff.”

Nine months later, at the Holliday transfer unit, I’m in line for commissary when I see the boy from county. He signed for a year probation, violated, and was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary. I tell him I’m sorry.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. I try not to cry.

My sister and I talk on the phone a lot. The rate is much cheaper than it was in county. It’s only twenty-one cents per minute. We decide to start an organization to help people like the young man I couldn’t help. We call it Adopt an Inmate. Dot Org. I talk on the phone and my sister does all the work.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I think I’ve found my calling.”

Two and-a-half more years pass. I am on the phone with my sister.

“I have bad news,” she says. She draws out the story, hoping to soften the blow. This only increases the suspense. Turns out my truck is probably totaled. Her voice breaks. The accident is fresh.

“What about you?” I ask. “Are you hurt?”

“Well … I don’t know how but I seem to have hurt my pinky.”

A split-second later and she would be a no-answer.

I don’t care about the truck she cries for. She’s disappointed because she wanted to preserve just one thing of the life I had before. But it really doesn’t matter. God preserved what really matters. I and hundreds of adopted inmates around the country know what really matters.

Footnote: I vividly remember talking to my brother on the phone while sorting through his belongings, asking him what to sell and what to keep. Craigslist shoppers were traipsing through his house, looking for bargains. Most everything he had was sold or given away in our desperate rush to clear out his house in a few days – once we finally accepted that he was not going to be released anytime soon. We couldn’t afford to keep paying rent on his place in Texas. Then about a year later, the same with my belongings, when I decided to move from California to my mother’s house in Oregon, to be with family until the trial. It was easy to get rid of most of my stuff – except for a few loved items. I can still hear my brother’s voice, “You know what? You don’t need it.” Of course he was right. Sold!

His truck was totaled. We had just paid it off the month before, four years into the nightmare. My mom and I felt like warriors. For a week or so.

The good news is that my brother was just approved for parole. Also, my pinky is healing. Now we just have to figure out what he’s going to drive.

My Reluctant Ministry – Family

The most remarkable part of being locked up is not the lack of remorse and compassion from these prisoners, but the level of humanness of these so called hardened criminals.

A man came to me the other day because, he said, I was a father and he didn’t know what to do about his family. They still didn’t know he was in jail where he’s been for two months. He was brimming with tears over the mess he found himself in when he was arrested.

Mostly, I get to help men understand the complexities of the legal system. Something just about everyone in jail has a very hard time with, but on those all too many occasions when God sends someone my way who needs a pat on the shoulder, a kind word, or even some affirmation that this event does not define who they are and that they mustn’t let it consume them, I am thankful I was the one who God allowed to be there for them. Even here, imprisoned.

Families these days take on so many different forms and this one was no exception. He’s not with his son’s Mom anymore in the conventional sense, but her other kids call him Dad too and he has been active in their lives as well. This man had been away for two months and hadn’t spoken to or written his family because of the tremendous amount of shame and self depreciation he was dealing with. Though we live in a world of technology and information at our fingertips, he was hoping to find some solace and encouragement to reach out to the only people on earth who even cared if he was seen, ever, and let them know where he is; the Mom at least, the kids, of course, require some diplomacy and a delicate balance between total disclosure and compassionate honesty. I knew his struggle all too well.

I’m still trying to help him make sense of the legal system, but two days later he told me he got out not just one letter, but four: one to the mother of his child and one each to his child and her two others from previous engagements. While he described the tremendous weight that he felt had been lifted from his shoulders, the tears welled in my eyes this time. There hasn’t been an answer yet and I pray that whatever the answer that comes is one he can pull enough strength from to know how important it is that we humans not just be there, but we reach out to the family we have in the eyes of God.

That family includes the entire human race.