A Prison Story: Profit By Any Other Name

Standard

Along came the sunlight. Two days had passed since Christmas, since all the merriment. Two days since millions of people around the world had all insisted that they’d celebrated their deity by stringing up brightly colored lights to a tree and singing songs about a green monster who’d ransacked the houses of a small town and run away with everyone’s holiday goodies.

In the middle of a field sat a concrete monster of a building, rounded in barbed wire and bathed. That sun, that bright, godforsaken center of Sol, had the back of my next sweating – not that the perspiration was its fault. I was inside the concrete monster in front of large bay window hoping that I’d be able to make it in to see an uncle of mine. He’d been remanded to the building for more than decade and we’d recently struck up a correspondence.

One of us had written to each other once a week since my aunt passed away from cancer. Years before there’d been a blowout. Of course, he was in prison then too, so it wasn’t a blow out in the usual fashion. I’d stopped driving up to see him because I didn’t have a reliable car and my worst fear in the world was being stuck on the side of some road. Yeah, too many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries will do that to you too.

I received a letter one day blasting me for not being supportive, for not having more compassion for what he was going through inside. Nineteen year old me thought that the letter was ridiculous. Twenty-six year old me thought that letter was bogus too, but understood the situation more. Age was kind to me. It’d pushed my hairline up a few inches and given me new tools to understand what was going on in someone else’s head. I’d could always understand the world, but grew up not-fully grasping interactions with people around me. When you’re stuck in a place against your will and it seems like there’s no one willing to back you up, you think things. I understand the nature of captivity and being a human lot more than I did then.

I stood in that prison welcome lobby with all that glass a different person. I was ready to have a real conversation with him about what he planned to do when his stint was over. I was anxious to hear his attack plan. I don’t get eager often, but I was today, burning sunshine and all.

Which was why I found it ridiculous that after standing there for twenty minutes they wouldn’t let me see him.

Two guards sat at a computer station talking back and forth about my visiting history. They wondered why they couldn’t find me in their “system.” They had me sit down in front of that window with its unfiltered light and wait while they researched this particular hiccup.

“When was the last time you were here,” a lump of woman asked me. “In September,” I said. “Was it a special visit,” she wondered. “I was hear telling him his sister had died.”

She made busy work on the computer in front of her, presumably looking for something that said who I was officially. You know, as if the Virginia State driver’s license that was good enough to let me through a TSA checkpoint, buy alcohol, and vote for the governor whose picture sat smiling to the left of her wasn’t official enough.

Her working diligently allowed me to take the whole situation in. There were people, like me, waiting around behind the desk. They’d been cleared to see their loved ones. A set of lockers and vending machine sat to the far left, people were stuffing anything and everything in those. Another guard was taking coats and running them through the metal detector. I heard another guard from behind a partition instruct a visitor to throw away a tissue that sat in his pocked used. You know, because the used tissue was a threat to prison security.

I don’t have a problem with authority figures. There are laws that need to be enforced, and punishments that need to be administered. Right then, I stood staring at the guard behind the desk’s ridiculous looking black framed glasses, two-toned hair and smug face it occurred to me that I’m not exactly a fan of those who profit off those punishments. Unfairly, I stood there quietly focusing my disgust with society on her.

I’ve always noticed an air of content whenever I’ve come to this prison. How much do these guys make? Is it enough to explain why they always seemed so relaxed and comfortable? They seem to have a regular appointment with a hair stylist, each appointment resulting in a hair design more audacious than the last. Their demeanor wreaks of job security. “It’s a tough job,” I thought to myself. “Cut these guys a break.”

I took back my license after the guard with the two-tone hair and her boss had passed their judgment. According to them, I’d only been allowed to see my uncle months prior because their “system” was down. Basically, she threw them, that other visitor’s center crew, overboard. They hadn’t known who I was then which meant that they shouldn’t have let me in. They couldn’t let me in now because I hadn’t registered in advance on their website – even though I’d already filled out a form the last time.

When the mind works properly it thrives on analyzing information. As I walked to my gray Fiesta I wondered about the families of the people who’d committed crimes in the State of Virginia. I thought about the price they pay for knowing and caring about someone in a prison complex in the middle of nowhere surrounded by cheap motels and a McDonalds with poor customer service.

The people inside a prison have been found guilty of crime by a jury of their peers. We all sit idly by and let the prison system punish them with no problem. What about their family members, their wives, husbands and children? These innocents didn’t stand in front of a jury, but they’re paying like those inside.

Statistically, families of inmates are more likely to be poor, which in turn means they’re less likely to have internet access. They’re less likely to have a reliable car that’ll make it out to the middle of nowhere. Even if they have reliable transportation, they’re less likely to have what it takes to drop a full tank of gas to get them there.

Families of prisoners are less likely to have that extra money lying around, but services like JPay take a cut of every transaction – there’s no way there isn’t a comfortable profit margin in their rates. Supporting an inmate is ridiculously complicated. There are monthly phone services that you need to pay for. Stamps that you need to pay for – god forbid some kind of email service was implemented at no cost (JPay offers paid service of their own). The vending machines in the prison visitor center charge amusement park rates for a Pepsi like staring at the drab walls, guards’ well-kept hair and audacious finger nails is a sick tourist attraction.

I know that they’re guilty of a crime, but it’s hard to understand why anyone is comfortable with the roadblocks and profiteering going on here. Some of our most vulnerable children turn into criminals. We lock them away, give them nothing in terms of trying to better their lives when they get out. We make money off their dreams; we charge them for jail-house certificates that might not earn them enough to stop for a cheeseburger on the route leading back to society. It’s profiteering, plain and simple and we’re all comfortable with it. At the very least, we’re all willing to look the other way and justify it to our friends with, “Well, they shouldn’t have did what they did to get in there.”

How comfortable are we with mugging their families though. Are ok with setting up arbitrary roadblocks to visits in the name of security; are we pleased by every time we manage to sell their families sugar water at absorbent prices because it has been miles since it felt safe for them to stop and buy something at a more reasonable price? How about selling them cheap clear wallets for their coins for which the prison profits. Taking almost half of the $100 their families couldn’t spare already in the name of “punishment?” What about telling people who are statistically less likely to have access to the internet to go online and register for their visit 90 days in advance.

We’re all comfortable with punishing law breakers. At what point did we all become ok with letting the state use some of our guilty, but vulnerable citizens as bait for a cheap shake down?

Turns out, arm chair philosophers were right. Crime does pay. We were just looking in the wrong direction expecting the hand off.

And Now an Endorsement: Dark & Day by Israel Gray

1472037_618681301507433_1017097435_n
Standard

I’m realizing more and more that young adult fiction is a comfortable thing for me. The first fiction book I ever read for fun was for young adults. If you’re wondering, it was that ridiculously beloved series from J.K. Rowling. A few months ago, I was sent a copy of Dark & Day by Israel Gray and after stalling in it a few times because of my workload I finished it this week.

I found Dark and Day to be a pretty good book. You’re following Jono, a young boy who lives in Polari and is exactly the healthiest of guys. He has a normal family, but it’s clear he doesn’t feel that he measures up. He’s even more worried about what’ll happen when he joins The Dark’s military academy.

Dark and Day is a book that plays on your sensibilities. And writer Gray isn’t subtle about it. In between envisioning what it was like to visit the military academy I played around with the book’s themes in my head. Jono is forced by weak health to choose between serving in the military and getting the upgrades he needs or staying home and struggling with them for the rest of his life. At a sanctuary another character mentions in passing that how good can a government be if they require the sick to sacrifice they’re life to get what they need. I’m paraphrasing, but I’ll always remember that line.

Pacing, felt off in this book, particularly before arriving at the military academy. While some characters felt fleshed out and life-like, I was left wondering about motivation and a lack of character development. I’m hoping that Jono has a clearer progression from normal pre-teen to hero in the next book. I felt like that should have happened before this book’s finale, but Gray is planning a series and I can understand why I’d be left wanting more.

Dark and Day is worth every bit of $2.99, I know because even though I was sent a copy I purchased another halfway through so I could keep it in my Kindle library. It’s a great book that filled my need for twists and coming of age stories. If you share that same need, it can fill it for you too. Even now I’m still wondering which side is right, the Dark or the Day.

And Now an Endorsement: Startup The Podcast

Standard

Every so often I have to remind myself that I’m part content writer and part business owner. As long as QuickBooks is working and the trains are running on time, I forget that I should probably be out there looking at new opportunities for paige aiden Media to grow and all. This week I started listening to Startup, a documentary-style podcast chronicling This American Life’s Alex Bloomberg’s decision to start his own podcast network.

Listen to the show folks. It doesn’t just make you feel good about being a business owner, it’s also a pretty decent chronicle of podcasting in general.

My only triumph

Standard

For most people a triumph is something in the future. It’s always that next thing that’ll take them to a new point in their career. Maybe it’s that car that they’ve always wanted, but could never quite afford. It’s surviving that next medical treatment, or escaping from the office early enough that their children actually see them before bed time.

The strangest thing about triumphs is that people seem to barely remember them after they’ve made them happen. Every once in a while they stare off into the distance and recall that time when everything felt right and they achieved something they always wanted to, but it’s not constantly in the back of their mind.

I don’t do triumph. I’ve never been a guy to stare back at anything I’ve done in a positive light. There is always something that I could have done better. Some piece of the pie I could have thought of differently and truly done something epic. That is, except for one thing I did roughly fifteen years ago.

It was in the fifth grade. I’d always been a modest student. The thought of an education didn’t just bore me. It made me angry. Here were these people who’d gone off to some magical place outside of my turbulent, violence-ridden neighborhood and come back to educate me in ways I didn’t really care about. They’d semi-adopt you for 8 months and then they’d leave and go back to their cozy lives with nice cars, nice houses and dinner parties. I marveled at these teachers’ lives, their personalities and their mannerisms, but I flat out didn’t give a crap about the knowledge they had to share with me.

To be clear, it wasn’t that education was discouraged in my family. No, I wasn’t being trained for life as a field hand or anything. When you have two kids and you didn’t finish high school, clearly there were other things that came first. Chances are that if you ask any African American who grew up in the areas I lived in – we moved a lot – they’d tell you the same thing.

One day during that fifth grade year I went home and decided I’d play their game. I put down the Power Rangers in Space Red Action-Figure with glowing helmet and got to work. I read my history book all night, and when it was time for bed, I kept reading it despite getting stern warnings from my parents to go to bed or risk having all of my books taken.

Richmond Public Schools always had a love-hate relationship when it came to teachers sticking to text books for instruction and so months went by before I ever got the chance to actually use anything in that history book. In the spring of 1998, when John Glenn was making a return to space and Chicago was just as relevant for its sports team as it is now for people being shot in the ass, my fifth grade teacher handed me a test paper on American history. This wasn’t some lame movie. There were no voice overs declaring “I got this.” Instead, something magical happened. I looked down at the test in and knew the answers. Not just some of them. I knew the answer to every single question. They all came out like a burst of fire, an invisible energy that flowed from the tip of my Ticondegra #2 pencil. I signed it “Travis Pope” and took it to my fifth grade teacher Patricia Jackson.

Pat Jackson was an African American teacher in every sense. Forget cardigan sweaters, this woman had a closet full of garb that must have come in a box with a logo featuring a flat landscape and an African elephant. She wasn’t just stern. She was relentless. Did something wrong and she would serve up a hot tin can of verbal ass whopping like you wouldn’t believe. She was generous with her praise and stingy with her respect. In Pat Jackson’s world you were hers to do with however she pleased.

That day in 1998 I handed her back the test she’d handed to me six minutes before. I stood there frozen. I wanted to see her reaction. Her admiration for me finally showing some promise. Here was tangible proof that I wasn’t an idiot. She looked up at me and down at the paper I’d just handed to her. I saw a red pen appear from out of thin air. Checkmarks were made. First there was one correct answer, then two and twenty. All of them were right. Every single one.

Having also deduced that one of her poorest students had managed a perfect score on a test she hadn’t prepared any of them for, she looked at her watch. Jackson’s eyes poked out from underneath her mass of face and African cloth garments. She shook her head as if she was possibly thinking about the amount of time I’d wasted not participating in class for all these months. Instead of vocalizing her amazement, she called out to Sandra to ask how far along she was on the test. When Sandra replied question seven is when I realized things had gone wrong.

In a flash, my desk had been emptied to make sure there were no books open there. Before I knew it, my pockets were empty too, turn inside out by the beast herself. Pat Jackson forced me to stand there under the gaze of every clique and classmate as she interrogated me about my cheating techniques. “You couldn’t have finished this. She’s less than half done. I go with what I know,” she told me. Quickly it escalated into something else. I was escorted from the wall-less classroom that only had chalkboards dividing it from the classrooms of others. Disciplinary referrals were written and my mother was called to the school because I’d become a distraction in the classroom.

At that moment I felt it. The only time I’ve ever been perfectly satisfied with something that I’ve done. Since then, everything else I’ve achieved has felt minor, like little kick-knacks on a to-do list. I wasn’t satisfied about the test – she’d taken off points because I’d forgotten to write my middle initial between my first and last name and robbed me of my perfect score. I’d forced one of these teachers, these champions of extra reading and peddlers of gold stars to take everyone in the room seriously, not just the ones she expected to flourish. I’d gotten a reaction out of someone with my mind and the truth that I’d put on a sheet of notebook paper. Life doesn’t get more magical than that.