Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Prison Tales – My Friend Sam, Part Three

This is part three of a continuing series looking at my friend Sam’s prison stay for selling overloaded fireworks. A monetary fine would have been sufficient punishment; Sam is a good person and hardly a licentious reprobate. But I suppose the Federal government goons think there aren’t enough decent, hard working businessmen in prison.
Part One is here.
Part Two is here.
I’ve been to visit Sam in prison three times now. He’s been there since May of this year. I am trying to go every month or six weeks in a rotation with other friends and family so he has constantly revolving company. Visiting hours are 8am-3pm on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays. There is an extremely and intentionally confusing point system applied to each convict regarding visitors. They are allowed either 9 or 12 points per month, the specifics are unclear. Each visitor represents a point. Except on the days they get two points. Holidays are no points. It makes no sense ... brought to you by the Federal government, ladies and gentlemen! Sam has a friend who lives in Viet Nam who keeps threatening to visit—I’d hate for him to come halfway around the world, only to be turned away at the prison doors because Sam has too many points for the month because no one can understand or calculate the system. But then, I’m not even sure the authorities understand the point system, so it may not matter.
Anyway, I’ve learned the visitor registration system well, so I smoothly engaged the guards and entered the visiting area. No watch, no wallet, no shorts, no hand grenades. Just driver’s license and a car key. And pants. Sam came out looking fit and happy to see someone not dressed in gray. He’d had a recent haircut (done by another convict for a cost of seven stamps) and looked good enough. I couldn’t help but notice how white his hair is getting. Middle age affects us all, but I’m sure the stress of the last few years had something to do with there being more salt than pepper on top. It’s thick as ever, though.
We hugged hello, then sat down in a crowded room of visitors. The visiting area is full of square rows of uncomfortable airport-style seating (well, it is a prison). We shared a square with a busy Hispanic family with some entertaining and energetic children. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was a typical family with young kids and grandma in tow at the mall, instead of visiting day at the Federal prison.  Sam asked for news and gossip and I did my best to supply. He filled me in on how life was going behind the walls in the “work camp.”
The worst thing about minimum-security prison (which tends not to have the violence and abuse of maximum security) is the tedium. The sameness. Every day report for head count. Breakfast. Activities, reading, lunch. Work or job activities. Dinner. Head count. Sports or free time. Bed. Next day, rinse and repeat, until your time is served. Sam said he made out a schedule so he would know what he had to look forward to. He was going to utilize his teaching experience to teach a speech class, but only two folks signed up and it was canceled for now. As a devout Catholic, he goes to Mass on Tuesdays and helps with the Communion service on Sunday mornings. He attends a few classes and tends to have plenty to read. He does have a job cleaning rooms and makes a little over $10.00 per month for his efforts. He said the mind-numbing monotony can make the prisoners a little stir crazy, and asked me to encourage folks to write and visit him as much as possible to take his mind off things, at least for a few minutes at a time. He said a 50 year-old prisoner had recently committed suicide, and that had cast a pallor over the entire prison. Sam didn’t know the man, but we both felt sorrow for the devastating effect on his loved ones. A work camp, minimum security or not, is still a prison.
Our talk turned to some of the other folks inside. I asked about some of the things his fellow convicts had done to be sentenced to the camp. Here are some of them:
- Wire fraud
- Stole an identity, then bought an Escalade. Did not make any payments, somehow discovered and caught by the police.
- Rigged an ATM scam to get cash regularly from ATMs all over the city.
- Doctor who wrote drug prescriptions for cash and sex. Caught in an FBI sting and took a plea for seven years.
- Lawyer convicted for ethics charges
- Pharmacist convicted on drug charges
95% of prisoners were there for some type of drug-related crime. I’ve never taken an illegal drug, never even tried a joint. But this statistic did make me want to rethink, or at least examine, our nation’s drug laws. That’s an awful lot of prison real estate taken up and families ripped apart by non-violent felons. Do they really need to be behind bars for years at a time? What lesson do these folks learn? How to go broke? How to lose their family? In my mind, this would not apply to anyone caught selling drugs to children. That should be swiftly punished by the death penalty.
Sam usually destroys the visiting room vending machines on visits, since on the whole prisoners are denied sweets and soft drinks. However, he had just had lunch, so he only went through a honey bun, a Yoo-Hoo, a Pepsi and a cup of coffee. He also had a hamburger from the sandwich machine that looked a little ... dubious. But, it’s amazing what they’re doing with weasel meat today.
I asked him if his release date was more definitive. He said he thinks he can get out sometime in June of next year, with home incarceration until August. Then parole for three years and he’ll be a free citizen again. Unable to vote or carry a handgun due to his felony, but free nonetheless.
Promptly at 3:00pm (the three hours I was there flew by), a guard announced visiting hours were over. We embraced goodbye. I promised to take care of a few things for him on the outside and return soon. Walking out those doors, leaving my best friend inside for several hundred more rounds of card playing and floor mopping, had the same effect on both of us; sadness and despair. Only 234 days to go until I get my friend back.

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