August 1st, 2023
I bet people wonder what a man learns after thirty years of incarceration. I spoke to my niece a couple of weeks ago that I had not spoken to at length , in over two decades. This was possible because of the tablet my department of corrections had given me for the purpose of building relationships with family and friends. At first my niece, Miranda was very firm and assertive in telling me who she has become. I sensed she was expecting criticism of some kind from me. But, I agreed with her well thought out and convinced philosophy of the way the world is. Her voice softened and we had a wonderful conversation. I love her so much. She is always battling with herself emotionally and I totally get it. I never will intentionally antagonize her and in my old age, it isn’t important to be right or even agree with. I just want to enjoy listening to the voices of my loved ones rattling on about anything they want. After three decades of incarceration, I’ve learned to listen. With two ears and one mouth, I listen twice as much as I speak.
Reliving the Good, Bad and the Ugly
March 31, 2023
I just had one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I spent twelve hours over two days visiting two family members in the prison’s visiting room. Lace 41 years old and Liv 14 years old traveled from Portland, Oregon to see me. I have listened to Liv call out “I love you uncle Mike” over the phone for her entire life. This was the first time she and I have looked into each other’s eyes and spoken. She loves school, soccer, boys, and family. Every second of life is precious for her and us. Liv was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer just over two years ago (Rhabdomyosarcoma). We didn’t speak on it. Each time we came close she would begin fiddling with empty food wrappers on the table. Lace and I reminisced and brought familial memories to life for Liv to hear. The good, bad, and ugliness of a dysfunctional family and my eventually robbing banks. We spoke on how Hollywood romanticizes the crime of robbery from Robin Hood to George Clooney in “The Seven.” I explained that people are traumatized by these crimes. Bank robbery is not romantic or victimless. Everyone present is stripped of their civil rights and don’t know if they are going to live or die in those seconds. It was counterintuitive to paint myself in such a horrible light, but necessary for her to see me as the parole board and others do. Liv sees me reconnecting with my family, true self, and community in general. I am digging deep to restore the loving and social being I am. Being trusted enough for Lace to share her precious baby girl with me is something I will not sacrifice. I want to live the rest of my years with family in a home and not with strangers in a prison. Being hugged tightly and kissed on the cheek lightly is one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life. I am grateful to all that helped make this visit go so well.
A Grateful Uncle,
A Typical Morning
September 8, 2022
Waking up on the wrong side of the bed in prison can’t be helped. Since the beds are attached to the wall on one side, there is only one side to wake up to, and that’s in prison. But the quietest time in prison is from 11pm to 5am. Out of respect, all TVs, radios, and loud conversations cease after 10pm. I wake at 4:30am when the guard slams the locks open on our doors. Some guards put a little more snap into turning the key to ensure a bang loud enough to be heard 50 feet away. Occasionally, a guard will not be such a hater and will thoughtfully unlock it quietly. That kindness is always appreciated and welcomed. My celle rises and makes us both coffee. I often continue in lying in bed with my eyes closed. I hear him say, “Coffee’s on your shelf.” “Thank you,” I sleepily respond. Then I hear all the sounds of a person getting ready for the day. Going to the bathroom, washing his face, getting dressed, and when he’s finished, he lets me know by saying, “The floor’s all yours.” The cell is five and a half feet wide with only 22 inches of walkway, so there’s room for one of us on the floor at a time. At 5:30am the porter can be heard preparing a mop bucket that has one bad wheel to mop the tier before we are let out for chow. By that time, we are both fully dressed with spoons and forks in our pockets, ready for the walk and line to pick up our trays in the chow hall. That’s when the noise starts and doesn’t stop until 10 or 11pm.
September 5, 2022
After eight years of ducking and dodging prison politics, I was finally in a Level Two prison–in San Quentin–and walking to my first for-credit college class. I was with another student named Steve. I explained how I had made a decision to abandon being a criminal in exchange for going to college. It was the first long-term plan I had ever made in my life. I told Steve that I thought I could earn a passing grade if I worked hard enough. He said that I should shoot for better than that. I argued that whether a doctor gets an A or a C, he’s still a doctor. He asked which doctor I would want working on me. For some time, Steve would not know how powerful that question would be. It haunted me. The fact was, I did not believe I was capable of earning an A. He motivated me to put my all into my new class and I earned an A- in intermediate algebra! Today, with only four credits to go, I’m holding a 3.51 GPA. Thank you, Steve.
What a Trip
August 28, 2022
What a trip. For over two decades I’ve listened to other prisoners describe their trips to ‘outside’ medical appointments. I often wished for a reason to be taken. Having to dress in an orange carrot suit, handcuffed to a waist chain, and shackled. This is enough for many to refuse the trip. When the opportunity finally came and I was asked if I wanted to refuse, “Hell no, let’s go!” was my response.
I came to prison at forty and am sixty-two now. I eagerly accepted the chains. Two guards were my armed escorts. The vans have cages constructed in the interior and there are two-by-four inch holes in a grate that covers the windows of a white van. It is enough to view the world from inside. As soon as we cleared the big gate, passing through the 25 foot walls, the visual world exploded. A panoramic of colors and distances not seen in so long, except on TV, captivated my whole being. I shifted my trussed up body so my face was flush to the grate, excitedly peering through one of the holes. Instead of seeing in yards, I could see for miles! The depth and dimensions of the real world are not captured on a TV screen. I could see the sunlight dancing off the water of the bay. The surface appeared to be covered in dazzling diamonds. Absolutely mesmerizing! All of the sudden a deep sense of sadness began to well up inside me. The realization of all the beauty I have been missing for so long threatened to overwhelm me. My eyes began to water. Everything blurred as I shook my head refusing to succumb. I’d waited a long time to take this trip and wanted to miss nothing.
I didn’t miss a thing. Besides all the vivid colors there were thousands of cars of every shade and shape. The same I noticed were the drivers. One lady looked over and saw me peering out of the van and smiled kindly. It felt good to be seen and warmly waved to. For years I’d been watching “Motorweek” to keep up on automotive technology. Now I was identifying all the different makes and models. Combustible, hybrid, and all electric. The freeway is like a huge moving car show. The award by far went to an Eddie Bauer Special Edition truck with everything a person would need to tackle and conquer the Badlands. Big knobby tires, lights everywhere, and protective armor along the bottom edges of the lifted body. The driver of the van made me feel like I was on a roller coaster ride. I laughed out loud from the giddiness of traveling so fast. Then I was shocked into silence by the surprising size of the windmills. I knew what Don Quixote must have felt like. Those machines are gigantuous! I’ve never seen anything that big moving.
Arriving at the hospital I walked, if that’s what it can be called in shackles, past people that either smiled warmly or kept their eyes averted nervously. I had my thumbs hooked into the waist chain like a cowboy and held my head high. Broken or not, I didn’t want to look like it. Shackles are difficult to master. I still have scabs on my achilles tendons from taking too big of a stride and the stainless steel digging into my skin.
The return trip was just as exciting with one significant difference. When I saw the prison in the distance, I was taken back by how small it is. The world I have created on the ‘inside’ has all the activity of the outside. I rise from my bed, commute to work five days a week, take night classes in college, engage in healthy activities on weekends, make new friends, and forget old ones. I do laundry, clean the house, read, watch TV, and go to sleep just to do it all again the next day. But, I do all of this within a walled area of five to ten acres. I was surprised at how big my world is in such a small space. I would eagerly go out into the outside world again. All I can say is: what a trip.