Report from Terre Haute
As many of you know Jan and I have two great Golden Retrievers, Lucky and Buddy. They are litter mates, but in many ways their personalities couldn't be more different. When we go on walks Buddy has to run between two trees—he just can't bring himself to walk—the prospect of what lies ahead is just too exciting for him to wait.
Lucky, on the other hand, keeps his head down and strolls along. He enjoys every small scent and morsel of anything organic that comes his way.
In many ways I usually go through life like Buddy. One thing I'm learning here in prison is how to be a little more like Lucky. The pace is very different from what I'm used to. I walk slower. I stand in line a lot. And between the pace and the fact of being here, I have become much more appreciative of little things that I always took for granted.
The pace itself has allowed me to really see—and appreciate—lots of things.
--The smell of grass as I walk around the track early in the morning.
--The massive number of ground squirrels (or chipmunks—or whatever they are) that occupy the grounds. (The other day I saw a mother chipmunk standing on her hind legs looking out over the grass—and behind her was a choir of six baby chipmunks doing exactly the same thing.)
--How much I like playing pool. I'm getting better by the day but I am still definitely no match for many of the guys here.
--How much I like walking—I did four miles this morning on the track.
--I'm really getting into softball. There is a league with some pretty good teams playing every night. I was very pleased to have beaten out an infield hit in the "0ver-40" Fathers Day game.
--The pace has given me time to get back into reading some fiction.
Scarcity also really makes you appreciate things you normally have in relative abundance:
--The ability to go when and where you want. Freedom is a hell of a thing. You really realize it when it is taken away.
--Making phone calls without waiting in line. We also have to wait 30 minutes between calls and they are limited to 15 minutes per call and 300 minutes per month. You can't leave voice mail messages and calls all begin with a recorded tape to the recipient that says: "This call is from a Federal Prison."
The slower pace has its benefits, but let's face it, I will be much happier when I can get back to my Blackberry, cell phone, e-mail and computer.
--The ability to see and talk to family and friends. It really hits you how precious your friends—and the people you love—are when you can't see them and talk to them and hold them.
--Privacy. I realize so much more how much I value having privacy. Sixteen of us live in a 25 by 20 foot room. It is very rare when you're not with someone. Your mail is opened and your phone calls are monitored. It's easy to be alone here, that is, to go off into your own world. But it's not easy to get privacy. This is all done in prison, of course, in the name of security. We'd better do our best to make sure that we don't allow the whole country to become like this in the name of security.
--Lower bunks. For newcomers these are very scarce. I have an upper bunk. I didn't have any clue how much I appreciated my bed at home, one that doesn't require me to climb a little ladder up five feet to get into bed.
Experiences That You Get by Being in Prison That You Couldn't Get Anywhere Else.
There are quite a number, and I am learning a lot from them:
--Fellowship. There is more mutually supportive fellowship here than I have ever experienced in any other group. My impression is that this really changes as you go to more secure institutions. In High Security prisons I'm told that racial groups are virtually 100% separate and the territory is controlled by various gangs. Here that is simply not true. People generally support each other.
--Life Stories. There is a very diverse group of interesting life stories here. They range from the five guys who own and manage a big concrete firm (they were convicted of price-fixing) to the brilliant 40-year-old white guy from central Wisconsin who was a dope wholesaler, to the former baggage handler at O'Hare who was convicted, on virtually no evidence, of conspiring with two other guys who really did steal cargo (sometimes, of course, you only get one side of the story here, but I read the transcript of this guy's trial. He got three years based on one four-year-old piece of hearsay evidence from a third party; his case is on appeal) to the Hispanic guys who play fabulous soccer.
Two other things in particular I've noticed:
*Prison is a very democratizing experience. It's kind of like the grandstand in a baseball park, with everyone sitting next to each other eating the same hot dogs and cheering at the same plays. Whether you're a rich executive or a kid from the street, while you're here you're on the same team. When you walk into the dining hall at noon, there is a sea of green uniforms all alike. When you walk into the dining hall at dinner, there is a sea of white t-shirts and cut-off sweats, all alike. When "count time" comes, everyone stands against the wall. Everyone thinks the same arrogant guards are jerks.
Things That You Learn to Appreciate Because It Becomes Obvious That They Could Be Much Worse:
--Living in the shadow of a high-security prison makes it clear every day how lucky you are….how much worse things could be. As we walk by on the track, you regularly hear the loud speaker at the hig-security prison blare out "Down on the ground, face down, NOW!" Ambulances arrive to deal with stabbings regularly.
--My five-month sentence is close to the lightest sentence here. There are many people here finishing 10- to 15-year sentences. I know several people who got 15 years for selling pot. A good friend here was told by the Federal Prosecutor that he would get NO jail time and he got 28 months. He has a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. There is one guy here who was offered 18 months if he would enter a plea agreement. He believed he was innocent, demanded a trial, was convicted and got 25 years.
--There are many people here who have no prospect of family or community support when they leave, and whose only work experience is selling drugs. Odds are, of course, they will be back in prison.
--I've talked to dozens of people whose wife and family have deserted them. It's tough to wait for someone who is in jail for 10 years when you're 25 and have a couple of kids to support and raise. Of course that goes for some of the white collar guys, too. One former lawyer (he had to give up his law license when he was convicted; now he plays piano, quite well)told me that his wife had told him that she had signed on to be the wife of a prosperous lawyer, not a "broken down, ex-con piano player." She has kept their seven-year-old from visiting him for the last three years.
So all things considered I have come to appreciate a lot of things that I took for granted before I came here and to realize that I am one of the luckiest guys around -- in or out of jail.
When you get down to it, I know how very lucky I am to have an unbelievably loving wife and family and so many spectacular, supportive friends. I am deeply appreciative...
Robert Creamer is serving a five-month sentence in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. This is the fourth in a series of prison reports from Creamer, a political activist from Chicago.