Letters From Prison 2006 #14- Friday Night Pizza

Friday Night Pizza
Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth. June 21, 2006

Since the prison served fried fish fillet (or grilled 'cheese' sandwiches) every Friday, it is often a night when the inmates "eat out." Obviously the source for this culinary excursion is either the commissary or the black market. Muff, one of my cellies, used to be a cook at several of his previous seven prisons and he wanted to show his solidarity with me by "cooking" a pizza.

I ordered a 'pizza kit' from the commissary, which consists of a pizza shell and a packet of pizza sauce. I also purchased a spicy beef log (summer sausage) and three packets of string cheese. So I thought we were all set.
It would cost us about $7 from the commissary for a pizza about 8-10 inches in diameter.

That same Thursday evening, another inmate stopped by the room and asked if we needed any pizza shells. He works in the bakery section of the kitchen and had 4 pizza shells he had made for sale--for 1 stamp (39 cents) each—a real bargain. He said they were made from flax seed and whet germ and also included some jalapeno pepper in it to give it a little extra zing. I looked at Muff and he agreed it would be a good deal so I made my first prison purchase from the 'alternative economy' inside. The beef log was large enough to accommodate an extra pizza or two but we obviously needed more cheese, sauce, and, if desired, other toppings.

Friday afternoon, another inmate stops by with an onion and a green pepper! I don't know if Muff "purchased" them or whether it was a friend of his doing him a favor. We went to the chow hall for supper (fried fish nuggets, overcooked carrots, and macaroni and cheese--with a hardened piece of something like pound cake topped with frozen strawberries and sauce, meant to approximate strawberry shortcake), ate a little to tide us over, and then went to the Harrison Ford movie, "Firewall," showing at 5:30 pm at the theater. (Supper is served at 4:45.)

I stood back and watched Muff do his thing. With a plastic knife from food service and with no plate or cutting board, Muff cut up the beef log, cheese, onion, and pepper on the inside of the lid to his tupperware bowl he had purchased at one of his previous prisons. (Here, everyone "cooks" in either a tupperware bowl or a pottery bowl made in the Hobbycraft area.)

These ingredients were cooked for two minutes in the dorm microwave, stopping to stir them halfway through. The pizza shell was prebaked in the food service kitchen so the next step was to spread the pizza sauce on the
shells. Since we had only enough for one, Muff tracked down someone who had salsa from the commissary and that got mixed with the pizza sauce. Muff's piece de resistance was adding mackerel as a topping. I was not convinced of the efficacy of such a move so he only put it on his own pizza. It sounded too much like anchovies to me!

Since we needed more cheese, Muff found a guy down the hall who had 3-4 more pieces of string cheese and in exchange we made a third pizza to give to him since we had enough toppings. Since the mackerel was already mixed in, he got his "with" but he didn't mind at all. Each pizza was “baked” for 2 minutes in the microwave and with a cold can of soda pop each, we had our Friday night feast.

When I get home, I'll have to call up Domino's and see if they deliver a "prison Special"!

Letters From Prison 2006 #13- Stuck on Stupid

Stuck on Stupid
Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth. June 9, 2006

"Trucker," the burly, tattooed white man in his 40s is inside for dealing dope--"all kinds." My first week in the joint and I'm sitting across from him in the chow hall. "Hey newbie, how much time did ya get?" When I respond that I'm here for "only three months,' he scoffs and replies that isn't even enough time to do the paperwork. When I further volunteer that I was busted "for protesting torture at a U.S. military base," he is skeptical. "Nah, they don't bust you for just protesting." To which I reply, "They do if you enter the base and get charged with trespass."

"That's not a felony, they don't send you to prison for a f*****g misdemeanor!"

"Well, the last time I was in a federal joint, I did six months for another misdemeanor for protesting," was my reply.

"You mean you did this before, got time, and now you are in here again for the same thing? You must be stuck on stupid!"

Is Trucker correct in his assessment? As someone said, "doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results is the definition of insanity”. Maybe instead of pleading not guilty at our trials we should opt for the insanity defense. Does doing time for civil disobedience make any sense?

If one's goal is not merely to Close the SOA but to also address the national arrogance and insecurities behind it, going to prison allows one to further examine the psyche of our nation. It is here that the marginalized, dissident, and dysfunctional are warehoused. (More accurately it is in the county jails, state penitentiaries, and higher security level federal prisons more so than the minimum security "camps" that one finds more of the marginalized. There, and with the homeless population in our urban streets, under the bridges, and those subject to arrest for "urban camping.")

Whether one is reading the Bible or the daily newspaper, reading it on the "inside" of the Prison Industrial Complex gives one a different perspective than when one is outside the prison walls, bars, or "out of bounds" signs.

Not many guys want to listen when they are caged--but they do want to talk and be heard. They need to process their “case” verbally—to vent the anger, sometimes at oneself and/or one’s associates, and always at “the system.” Cultural competition doesn’t end at the prison entrance. In some ways, competition is more intense in prison than on the streets because of the constant close proximity. Part of the competition can express itself in “I’m badder than you” one-upmanship. Another factor is the “scarcity” mentality that we are all in competition with each other to get one of the few [whatever] is left. Whatever the reason, one does not want to appear vulnerable “inside.” Any sign of “weakness” is often exploited by fellow cons. An atmosphere of defensiveness and self-justification is not conducive for personal healing. No one mistakes prison for a therapy session.

But who is willing to throw the “stuck on stupid” slander on Mohandas Gandhi—one so revered for his principled nonviolence which sent him to prison numerous times that he was given the title Mahatma (great soul) or Bapu (father) by the Indian people? In a collection of excerpts from his writings entitled All Men Are Brothers, Gandhi explains ahimsa or nonviolence. “Nonviolence, on the other hand, has no cause for fear. The votary of nonviolence has to cultivate the capacity for sacrifice of the highest type in order to be free from fear” (p. 110). Going repeatedly to prison rather than compromise his principled commitment to nonviolence helped Gandhi overcome his fears—maybe he wasn’t so stupid.

“Our nonviolence would be a hollow thing and nothing worth, if it depended for its success on the goodwill of the authorities..... [Civil] resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force... If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul force. It involves sacrifice of self (p. 115).

“Suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears, which are otherwise shut, to the voice of reason. Nobody has probably drawn up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I and I have come to this fundamental conclusion that if you want something really important to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man. Suffering is the badge of the human race, not the sword” (p. 118).

Maybe those of us working to close the SOA and change the foreign policy of our nation are “stuck on stupid.” Or maybe, just maybe, like Gandhi, we have begun to realize that in choosing prison, we hope to go beyond what is rational and “speak to the heart.” Time will tell.

Letters From Prison 2006 #12- A System of Snitches

A System of Snitches
Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth. June 7, 2006

One of the worst epithets that is hurled in prison is "snitch." A snitch is one who agrees to testify against another, serve as an informant, provide information to "the police," or to "cooperate" with the Justice [sic] System. Without snitches, the whole criminal justice system would collapse. At present only less than 5% (some say 2 or 3%) of criminal cases go to trial, the balance are "resolved" with plea bargains in exchange for the "promise" of a lesser sentence upon conviction.

Throughout the pre-, present, and post-incarceration periods, the Domination System (to use Walter Wink's designation) depends on turning one against the other. I'm quite sure this was the case prior to the War on Drugs but this civil war has greatly exacerbated the need for informants. The initial case begins with the police stumbling on to the discovery of the presence (or sale) of illicit drugs. (An aside--it is interesting which drugs are criminalized and which ones are prescribed rather than proscribed. Caffeine is ok but amphetamine is not. Tobacco is--or used to be--ok but not cannabis. Alcohol but not Ecstasy. One could go on and on.) The other common initiation of the case comes about via "undercover," "entrapment," or other clandestine law enforcement activity. Actively attempting to purchase illegal drugs on the street somehow is included under the rubric of "law enforcement" if initiated by a cop.

After the initial bust, the one arrested is frequently "encouraged to cooperate" with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which often comes sweeping in to make what should be local or state charges magically become a federal offense. Maybe it is because drugs often "cross state lines" or are illegal under federal statute when states can't be trusted to be serious enough for enforcement. (States might not have enough evidence to convict you--'conspiracy' puts the burden on you to prove that it is not true.) Recently, the feds have tried to supercede state laws regarding the medical use of marijuana. Like the Pentagon or military contractors hawking pet weapons systems, the DEA is a bureaucracy designed to justify its own existence--resulting in the "need" to continue to "lose" the war on drugs in order to keep the tax dollars flowing into the enforcement side of the equation.

When one is arrested for possession or attempting to sell illegal drugs, pressure is put on the captive to "disclose" or "rat out" who you got it from and/or who you normally sell it to. In the usual course of things, one would not be inclined to divulge that information, so the DEA and/or the district attorney or prosecutor gives one an incentive--if you cooperate and give us the names of others, we'll put in a good word for you when it comes time for you to be sentenced for your crime.

In the late 60s and early 70s, as illegal drugs were proliferating in [white] American culture and celebrated by rock groups and other counter-cultural heroes, the enforcement and penalties varied greatly from state to state. Being caught with only a joint of marijuana in Texas could land you behind bars for 5-15 years while in California and Oregon it was at most a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, when one was even prosecuted. That began to change when President Nixon announced a “War on Drugs” and ironically named Elvis as an honorary enforcement agent. Since that time, elected officials have tried to out-do their political opponents by showing that they were tougher on crime than the others. As a result, laws were passed to mandate tougher and longer sentences, including the notorious "mandatory minimum" laws that prevented judges from being "too lenient." Often, the new laws did not mandate a ceiling or maximum amount that could be imposed so elected District Attorneys would frequently threaten a whole range (like 10-30 years) in order to secure "cooperation" from a defendant who faced such a draconian sentence.

The more one "cooperated" (the larger the number of other "dealers," "suppliers," "customers" one turned in or the more valuable the target one disclosed--the "Kingpin" or the money launderer), the better one's bargaining power in requesting or obtaining a reduced sentence. This has led to the absurd reality found today in most Federal Woman's Prisons where the husband or boyfriend is using and dealing drugs and "turns in" his wife, or girlfriend as an accomplice to get a lesser sentence. The woman, who at best is a minor accessory or, at worst, is not even involved in the trafficking has nothing to bargain with and ironically ends up with a longer prison sentence than the original perpetrator.

Since the system is designed to benefit the turning on others to help oneself, it is open to widespread abuse. Since the word on the street is such that "so and so" deals drugs, why not add him to those names I turn in so I can get a lesser sentence? The more I turn in, or the greater amounts of illegal substances I claim they possess or sold, the more valuable my testimony will be in exchange for fewer years in prison. So, when you are arrested for possession or sale of drugs you are informed that "you are looking at 20-40 years of prison time. Are you sure you can do all that much time? Don't you want to cooperate with us and reduce the time (in prison) you are facing?" And here the cycle of snitching begins.

The names that are produced by this method become the new targets of the DEA officials, who now can spread their nets farther. However, most of these new targets aren't caught with drugs in their possession or while in the act of selling them. So a new charge has to be invented to cover these cases: conspiracy to possess (or sell or transport or distribute) illegal drugs. And they base the "amount" of these fictitious drugs on the "testimony" of the informant. Remember, the greater the amount, the more valuable the testimony and (hopefully) the greater the reward.

Never mind the Federal Criminal Code [Title 18 US Code 201(6)(3) -- whoever directly or indirectly, corruptly gives, offers, or promises anything of value to any person... With the intent to influence the testimony under oath...as a witness...before any court or officer authorized... To hear evidence or take testimony...shall be fined... Or imprisoned for not more than fifteen years, or both...] which identifies such conduct as bribery. If one is promised a reduced prison sentence in exchange for testifying against others, one has been offered a bribe according to the federal statutes. It is my estimation that more than one-half of all the convicts presently incarcerated in this federal prison camp either have received reduced sentences in exchange for agreeing to testify against others or have been charged with a crime on the basis of someone else’s threatened testimony against them. I say “threatened testimony” because, again, most cases do not go to trial but are settled by a plea bargain. The reason for this is the well-known likelihood of being assigned a longer sentence if one “wastes the court’s time” by insisting on having your “guilt” proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Prosecutors and judges prefer to not have to take the time to try cases that can be “settled out of court.”

If being a snitch is frowned upon on the outside, it is positively life-threatening on the inside of the prison walls—especially in the higher security level prisons. Even to be seen talking to a guard or staff member at a medium or high security prison could put one’s life or health in jeopardy, because the assumption is that one only talks to “the police” when you are ratting out someone else. It is safest to do one’s time with as little interaction with “the screws” or the “turnkeys” as possible. However, the prime motivation to become a snitch on the inside is fear. Higher security prisoners are always on the lookout for weakness—especially embodied in “fresh meat” or “new fish” who are thrown into these warehouses. It is well known throughout the culture that “hard core” prisons feature a lot of rape, assault, and intimidation within the inmate population.

Oftentimes a person will think that snitching to a Corrections Officer (CO) will help land you in “protective custody” (aka solitary confinement or at least out of “general population”) thus protecting one from such dangers. But there are very few places within the prison system where one can hide out free of the threats of others. Somehow, some way, “they” will get to you.

In minimum security prisons there is sometimes the na├»ve and mistaken impression that at least some of the COs are “fair” or might have your best interest at heart. Especially for those new to the prison system, “first-timers,” those who are in for “white collar crimes,” or young “kids” still not disabused of the proclivity to “respect those in authority” this can be a problem. The guards are not your friends, not your confidant, not there to help you be “rehabilitated.” The longer one is incarcerated, the more aware of the “selective enforcement” role the COs play within the system. Guards try to elicit information about contraband (who has what stashed where?) and to determine who-did-what-when? If there was a fight, who was involved? Who is supplying the contraband cigarettes or alcohol to others? Who is smuggling the green peppers, fried chicken, or fruit out of the kitchen?

There is even the practice of “dry snitching” when an inmate complains to a guard about something another (unnamed) inmate has done that makes your job or life inside harder. “I can’t do my job [cooking the meals] because “they” keep stealing all the onions from here.” Or, “there is so much smoke in the bathrooms before (or after) the meals that I can’t go in to wash my hands (brush my teeth...).” ”Guys keep reserving seats for others in the theater so I can’t watch the movies I want to see.” All of which will just lead to the COs taking more repressive measures or overreacting to the perceived situation.

Are there “benefits” for snitching inside? Will the guards treat you more justly? I don’t plan to find out. No one wants to be labeled a snitch, even at a minimum security level camp. And, after one is (finally) released from prison, most inmates are assigned to a halfway house for up to six months and usually several years “on paper” (reporting to a probation officer under the threat of being sent back to prison—being “revoked”). In this post-incarceration period, there are many “hoops” one has to jump through in order to not be “violated.” The halfway house personnel and the probation officer have all types of rules to follow. Often, the local police will also know who is on parole or probation and pressure or threats are brought to bear to “help” them solve “crime.” The system is set up for you to fail.

The Prison Industrial Complex is designed to be self-perpetuating—if prisons actually did try to rehabilitate convicts they would be “working themselves out of a job.” Instead, it is one of the largest growth industries in the U.S. Today. And much of the growth can be attributed to the snitch system.

Letters From Prison 2006 #11- Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Steve Clemens. FPC Duluth. June 4, 2006

The Who used to sing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” back in the early 70s. In the lyrics, the “new boss was the same as the old boss.” In slave days, sometimes a slave was sold to another plantation for a variety of reasons: the boss (master) was sleeping with his wife and wanted the man out of the picture; maybe the boss had debts and sold the slave for needed cash; often slaves were sold to discourage ‘organizing’ on behalf of the indentured, which could lead to the most feared consequence—a slave revolt. As of the passage of the 13th Amendment, the only legal slavery in the U.S. today is the prison system.

In Food Service at FPC Duluth, the Correctional Officers (COs) have switched roles for the next month or two. Mr. Randall is now “policing” the bakery, veggie prep and cooking areas. Mr. Haslett has responsibility for the dining room, pots and pans and the dish pit. At Count Time he outlines his rules: if your area is cleaned up to his satisfaction, and if you signed out on the sheet before the 7:30 a.m. Count, you are free to go until your next assignment after the count has cleared.

This is different from Mr. Randall’s (old boss) style. Under the Randall regime, after your area was cleaned up, you were to remain in the dining area until lunch, biding your time reading a book, writing a letter, listening to your radio, or napping (if you could on the hard, fixed-to-the-table chairs). The building doors were locked and you couldn’t leave. Despite all the signs forbidding “personal objects” in the mess hall, Randall allowed food service inmates to have books, radios, even newspapers in the mess hall between meal shifts. Other COs, who are often in the building at meal times to “police” the lines, will take books or radios from inmates if they are caught having them in the dining area.

One never knows which rules will be enforced by which staff member at any given time. It is one not-so-subtle way to remind the inmate that you are not in control of your situation. So, under the new regime, yesterday several of us spent an extra hours scrubbing down the walls, washing off the rolling shelves, “detailing” the stainless steel counters and garbage trough to make our area “spotless” for Haslett’s inspection. He came in as we were part way through and pointed to the wall by the silverware area, which is virtually inaccessible because of the location of the chute that feeds the garbage pulverizer. He told us to scrub down that wall. We did the best we could and then remained in the dining area until lunch was ready.

Today, day 2 of the new boss, we cleaned our area before count, signed the sign-out sheet and waited for count to clear. I grabbed my coat and book (I’m now reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven after finishing The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong yesterday) and headed for the door with the other inmates who were leaving. As I approached Mr. Haslett, he asked, “Where are you going?” I replied “210,” my dorm assignment. “Where is your work area?” was the next inquiry. “The dish pit.” “Well, go back there and make sure it is spotless.”—So, back to work. Steve #1, our crew leader (at one time 3 of the 6 of us assigned to a.m. Dish room were named Steve!) told us to just clean up a little and we’ll likely be able to leave in 15-30 minutes. Sure enough, that is what it took and we walked out the back door unimpeded.

The inconsistencies of styles of enforcement are unfathomable. Although he doesn’t take food for his own use (or to sell) out of the building, Steve #1 was caught red-handed by the lieutenant on Memorial Day, placing a plastic milk box with a bag of green peppers, tomatoes, and onions in the ceiling panel above the dish pit, for another kitchen inmate. Caught in the act by the lieutenant! We knew he was “going down.” Maybe he’ll be sent to the hole. Certainly he’d be given hours of extra duty. The Lieutenant who Steve tells me is a pretty ‘fair guy’ told him “I’ll call you later to see me” since the lunch rush time was just beginning. Steve is a hard and conscientious worker and any CO assigned to the kitchen is well aware of that. So far, with two full days passing since then, there has been no “punishment”—just watching the succulent veggies get dumped into the garbage chute, to be gobbled up by the pulverizer.

Case-in-point #2: the CO most despised by every inmate I’ve talked to is “Robocop.” Mr. Waleschki (or however the name is spelled—everyone calls him Robocop not to his face) clearly hates his job and just as clearly despises the convicts he is hired to “police.” Rumor has it that he “got beat up” at Sandstone (the closest FCI (higher security level) to our camp) and he is also a union representative here. As much as I support organized labor, it sometimes has the unfortunate ability to attract power-hungry jerks who use their power to prevent their own firing. When Robocop does mail call, he yells into the loudspeaker “mail call is right now and if you want it come right now!” and he starts mispronouncing half the names on the letters, magazines or newspapers as he reads them off.

He once pages my co-defendant and friend John several times for his mail pickup and since I knew he was in the music room practicing for an upcoming concert the “Big Charles’” group, I asked if I could get his mail. Robo barked at me, “Tell LaForge to get his ass over here when he is paged. I’ll throw his ass in the hole next time if he doesn’t pick up his mail when I page him!” I explained that he could not hear a page when in the soundproof practice room of the music center — and although we never know if mail call will be before or after supper at our dorm (it comes between 3 and 7:20 pm so far), my intervention on John’s behalf obviously fell on deaf ears. Robocop screams at us to “shut up” is there is any talking during count, one time insisting on doing a “recount” just because he thought the noise level was unacceptable to him.

So, when word came down that Robo caught Justin smoking in the dorm, I knew there would be hell to pay. Justin, a 20-something kid just joined our dish pit crew last week and only has two weeks to go before he is released from here to go home with an ankle bracelet (home monitoring instead of the usual halfway house first). When I asked him the next day if he got ‘busted’ by Robocop he said, “Yeah.” Robo told him he was going to search his locker so he’d better “come clean” and Justin handed him the 151 cigarettes (!) he had in it.

Besides the market value (at five .39 cent stamps per cig if sold individually), the new May 1 policy calls for immediate shipment to a higher security prison plus the loss of good time, visits, calls and commissary for one year if caught with 21 cigarettes or more. So Justin was “up the creek without a paddle.” But—so far—he’s been told he has to do 50 hours of “extra duty” in the next 2 weeks before he leaves. Are they not shipping him because of the paperwork involved, with only 2 weeks left? What “message does it send” when the “new policy” is not enforced? Will it be enforced next time? By another cop?

The “new boss” and the “old boss” are both in control—you aren’t. But there is no consistency, either.