Saturday, March 8, 2008

Prison Life-ee

When I arrived at Florence West Prison on the morning of April 5, 2007, my agenda was a modest one: Remain as inconspicuous as humanly possible until I could determine the relative safety of my environment.
Loyal readers (by "loyal,'' I mean those folks who are bright, curious and refined enough to follow these posts regularly) will remember that while in county jail I was coerced into becoming part of the inmate power structure, a process that ultimately ended in my being the "head'' of the white inmates of Durango Jail Building 4, A Pod for a span of three weeks. My administration will pass into history little noted. That is not a complaint, by the way.
So when I got to Florence I was perfectly content to let the other inmates run the asylum, so to speak. Oh, after I grew comfortable with surroundings and knew which inmates could be reasoned with, I did offer my opinions on things from time to time. But for the most part, I avoided any "causes.'' My goal was to do my 88 days in relative obscurity.
Except when it came to one matter.
Say that word aloud. Now, operating on assumption that your are not an idiot, I am confident that you pronounced it as a one-syllable word. "Keef.'' As in "Leaf.'' As in "Brief.'' Am I correct?
Of course. How else could you reasonably pronounce it, right?
Well, when I arrived at Florence West, there were approximately 487 inmates on the yard. About 480 of them pronounced the word as "Key-fee.''
There are certain things that inmates simply cannot be forced to do. You cannot make them stand single file. You cannot make them eat green jello. And you cannot make them embrace the fact that certain letters are "silent'' in certain words.
By now, you are probably wondering why something so trivial would set my teeth to grinding. Well, I am hard-pressed to articulate why it would be so. It just did.
And it did not help matters that the word "Key-fee'' was regularly on the lips of every inmate on the yard, including the non-English speaking segment of the population.
Keefe (or key-fee, if you are an ex-con reading this) was the name of the company that provided the commissary for the inmates. To further insure that the company name was forever mangled by "Joe Convict,'' the company had its own line of products. For example, you could order say, Folger's Instant Coffee or Keefe Instant Coffee. Keefe had an extensive line of generic products.
So every time you turned around, some inmate was invoking the company name. It was "Key-fee messed up my order!'' or "I'll give you two Key-fee brownies for a the rest of your Key-fee tortillas,'' or "Key-fee just raised the price on sodas.''
I was a good sport about this for quite some time. In fact, I thought it sort of funny at first. I would gently correct the inmate: "It's pronounced, "Keef.'' The last "e'' is silent, see?''
But as the weeks passed, it began to gnaw at me. Ultimately, I was convinced that the other inmates were bringing the word into conversations needlessly, just for spite.
I felt most certain of this one June evening during our "Prayer Circle'' when the inmate who was leading the prayer - a bright well-educated man who I will not identify beyond stating that his name is Brian Cox and he's from Phoenix and attends church at Calvary Chapel Tri-Cities - opened the prayer thusly: "Father, thank you for your many blessings. Thank you that our Key-Fee orders came in on time. Thank you for all the many fine Key-Fee products we have at our disposal. We pray that your spirit will be with those in charge at Key-Fee so that they will not raise their prices again.''
Incidentally, I am 0-for-1 in the "calling down lightning from heaven'' department.
I kept fighting the good fight, though. Well, until the last two weeks of my sentence.
I remember sitting next to man named "Sarge'' as he was filling out weekly commissary order. "Dang,'' he - being a salty old convict - said in so many words, "those Key-fee donuts are as expensive as the dog-gone regular ones!''
"It's pronounced Keefe,'' I said.
He looked at me. He looked at his order form. "No,'' he said. "It's Key-fee. See? There's an "e'' on the end.''
I gave up.
"Fine-ee,'' I said.
As I walked away shaking my head, I heard him call after me: 'Hey, Slim. Chill, OK? You shouldn't be embarrassed about it.''
Now, I am not saying that being surrounded by people who - defiantly and deliberately -pronounce silent letters in words is the worst thing about beitng in prison. But it's on the short list, as far as I'm concerned.
No, there is nothing pleasant about prison life-ee.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Prison and Mill Ave.: Part II

I was browsing through a shop about a week ago, looking at greeting cards when one particular card caught my attention.
The card read: "I am not here to fix things. I am here to observe and pass judgement.''
I had to laugh out loud. Ever notice that the best humor is often found in a truth exposed rather than a fiction concocted?
And this card hit me square between the eyes.
You might call it an occupational hazard. For 25 years, it was my job to "observe and pass judgment'' as a journalist. That's what I was paid to do. But I cannot attribute that
inclination simply to my career path. I've always been prone to having a strong opinion, which perhaps creates a chicken-and-the-egg premise: Did I become a journalist because I had a natural tendency to be opinionated? Or did I become opinionated because I spent 25 years as a journalist?
Let's pause here to discard one long-held myth that you often hear from readers, i.e., readers want their journalists to be strictly objective.
This is not only an impossible demand (we are all shaped by what we are taught,, what we experience and what we assume based on those influences) but an undesired request. No, what readers really want from a journalist is someone who shares their biases. That is why the same news story can be viewed as biased by one reader and strictly objective by another. A journalist's work is corrupted, at least to some degree, at its conception and continues to be corrupted all along the way, including at the breakfast table.
Now, the reason I mention all this is because of some points raised by readers of my previous post "Prison and Mill Ave.''
In that post, I wondered aloud why many churches are enthusiastic in their efforts to minster to convicts - through various prison ministries - but less inspired to provide help to ex-convicts. I wondered why members of a church in Glendale would spend their weekend nights handing out tracts on the street corners on Mill Ave. in Tempe rather than the street corners of their own town.
Well, maybe I assumed too much. Maybe there are churches who actively minister to those prisoners when they are released. Maybe, they keep up with those convicts and are there waiting for them when they return to their communities. And I had to think to myself, "If that were true, how would I know of it?'' And I have to concede that the possibility exists. Maybe those good folks from Glendale are prominent on the street corners of their town, too. I don't go to Glendale, so how would I know.
So, that's a question I would put to those who are involved in the prison ministry. Do you know when these men will be released from prison? Do you know where they will be going once the gates closed behind them? Have you helped connect them with a church in that area? If they are going to live near your church, have you examined any job or housing possibilities?
You know, by nature and, most likely, by divine design, churches have enormous networking possibilities. Chances are, there is an ex-con who is a plumber and a church member who owns a plumbing company who could use a good man. Chances are, there is someone who owns rental property who could use a tenant.
Make no mistake. Prisoners need Christ. And prison, it might surprise you, is fertile ground, mainly because you check your pride at the gate when you walk in. There is no delusion of self-confidence when you hit that exercise yard. When you get to prison, you get a uniform, a number and as much humility as you'll ever get. And grace looks first to the humble.
Yes, prisoners need Christ. They also need a place to live. They need a job. And they need to feel that they are accepted, that they belong. They need to be included and encouraged and inspired. They need to feel like they are being helped because they are being valued.
You know what they don't need? They do not need to feel as though they are someone's "moral obligation.''
In the eyes of God, we are all criminals. Sometimes, as we "observe and pass judgment'' we forget that, I think.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Prison and Mill Ave.

Today is March 2, 2008. One year ago today, I stood before a judge at the Superior Court in Phoenix and pleaded guilty to a felony DUI charge. I was taken into custody and spent the next 122 days in jail/prison. Along the way, I lost my career as the Trib's Metro Columnist, a relationship that I had hoped would help me endure that awful crisis, my self-esteem and just about everything else that I valued.
A few weeks before that fateful day, when it became more and more clear to me that I would be headed to prison, I bought a CD by the Christian group Avalon. The CD was "Faith: A Hymns Collection.'' I must have played that CD a thousand times or more as I awaited that awful day when I would give up my freedom and face a future full of uncertainty. I cannot tell you what a comfort those old hymns were at that point in my life.
Well, it's been a year since that day. Today, I went to a new church, one I had ridden past on my bike many times. I had noticed the church before, but never attended. But last week I saw a banner outside the ChristLife Church on Warner Road in Tempe. It read: "Avalon, performing in the 8:30 and 10 a.m. services.''
On March 2.
So, if you happened to be there this morning and saw a gray-haired, middle-aged man weeping quietly as Avalon performed it was probably me. I guess I'm getting sentimental in my old age.
In the weeks before I went to prison, I recalled the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in the Book of Daniel. Threatened with being thrown into a furnace, they told the King that they served a God who could deliver them and, even if God didn't deliver them, they still wouldn't worship the idol the king demanded them to worship.
You probably know the story. When the three were thrown into the furnace, the King noted in amazement that there were four men walking around in the furnace, unscathed by the fire and one of them, according to the king "had the form like unto the Son of God.''
Sometimes God delivers us. But sometimes he just goes into the fire with us. God didn't deliver me from prison, but I'm convinced he was there with me at Durango Jail and Florence West Prison the whole time.
And it brought to mind something I have found very interesting.
You know, most every church has a heart for convicts. Just about all of them are involved in a prison ministory of one kind or another.
Ah, but ex-cons. Well that's often a different story.
I think it's that way with a lot of churches.
Friday night, I went down to Mill Ave. in Tempe. I had coffee at the Borders, ate at Fat Burger and later had ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery. I walked along Mill Ave., just people-watching mainly.
A group of people were handing out tracts and telling people - actually they were shouting above all of the noise of the busy street - about how they could avoid going to hell.
I approached one of the people handing out tracts and asked him where they were from. He said he was from a church in Glendale.
I don't know much about Glendale, I'll admit. But it made me wonder if there aren't any lost people in Glendale. Or on the street where those people live. Or where they work. I wondered if maybe these good church people considered the patrons of Mill Ave., especially condemned. Maybe they feel those folks out there partying in the clubs on Mill Ave., are somehow more lost than their neighbors whose sins are perhaps a little more palatable. I don't know, of course. But it did make me wonder.
I think a lot of Christians like to proclaim the gospel at arm's length. It's one thing to visit a prisoner when he's locked up. It's altogether different to minister to a released convict who might show up at your doorstep or need something beyond a word of encouragement. It's easy enough to tell a drunken college kid about the error of his ways. It's another thing to have that conversation with the couple next door, people you see every day and don't offend you in any obvious way.
I know a little bit about that.
It's one of the things I have learned in the past year.