Land of Lost Opportunities – by Richard Roy

“I was naked and you clothed me; I was in prison and you came to me”.
Matthew 25:36

“The secret of success is focus of purpose”.  Thomas Edison

      The big time has come to FCI Oakdale. A local Toastmasters club, part of Toastmasters International, is sponsoring a club ‘Inside the Fence’.

      This is a huge commitment on their part. These unpaid representatives donate their time, subject themselves to background checks and undergo physical searches just to get in the gate. All this on the off chance there might be men on the inside worth reaching, and wanting to be reached.

      Over 120 inmates attended the information session; men hungry for opportunity. By the end of the meeting, 30-40 men expressed an interest in moving forward to form a club. Most of who fell by the wayside are challenged by the $36 semi-annual dues and a one-time $20 materials fee. Most inmates earn 12-17 cents per hour and work a lot less than 40 hours per week. Twenty paid memberships are required to establish a new club.

      Being in Toastmasters in the free world, I was sorely disappointed to find no formal social organizations exist behind the bars at FCI Oakdale. In the state prisons of Louisiana there are numerous groups allowed to organize as a way to normalize inmates back into society. Speak up Jay Cees, Veterans Groups and Toastmasters make their organizations available as a means to introduce inmates to opportunities they may not have previously had on the outside.

      Is it worth it? One study indicates an astonishing 1% recidivism rate for those inmates actively participating in Toastmasters while incarcerated. I’d settle for that.

      A large percentage of my fellow inmates will benefit greatly from a little constructive work on vocabulary and grammar. It is a constant source of dismay to hear virtually every statement include the analogy of intercourse with a parent: “Hungry as a m- -f- – er”, “Hot as a m- – f – -er”, well, you get the idea. Exposure to creative word choices abound. Should one choose to document, one would learn of a “squizz; “as in “can I get a squizz of that cheese”. Cheese purchased from the commissary comes in a squeeze bottle so a portion of squeeze cheese becomes a “squizz”. “Skrate”, as in “not left or right but skrate”, is another expression that grates like verbal sandpaper.

      The need for education as a method of rehabilitation stands readily apparent. GED  classes have a long waiting list. Conversations defy logic. Grown men are amazed that Thanksgiving Day this year again falls on a Thursday (actual conversation overheard in the chow line).

      In 1970, 73% of Americans thought the primary purpose of prison should be rehabilitation. By 1995, only 26% of Americans believed in rehabilitation (Hallinan, Joseph T.; “Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation;” New York: Random House, 2003).

      I admit it; I was naïve before coming into the system. I envisioned the opportunity to leave here armed with new found knowledge and introspection. I reasoned, surely the Bureau of Prisons is loaded with experts and the latest techniques to rid men and women of their anti-social attitudes and behaviors. The experts would be backed by officials, political and bureaucratic, eager to release productive citizens back into society to make amends. Just like Hokey Pokey Anonymous: A Place to turn yourself around.

      Instead, no support groups exist; Alcoholics Anonymous? Uh-uh; Al-anon? Nope; Narcotics Anonymous? Ha; Sex addicts Anonymous? Why are you even on my compound; serious psychological issues? We’ll try to squeeze you on the callout for next week. The little help that is available requires waiting months to move to another facility hundreds of miles away where you wait many more months to be accepted into the program; provided you meet the restrictive parameters for admittance.

      Even minimal education opportunities are squandered. Want to see a Vo-Tech program where building maintenance students never pick up a saw or turn a wrench? Or how about a Horticulture class that doesn’t grow anything? And how is it a population with a literacy rate of 47% produces class after class of perfect 4.0 students? What would you say to an adult education book, and test, on ‘Integrity” that has the answers annotated so the test taker is not required to actually read the material or engage in critical thought? Read the institution’s admission and orientation handbook. The A&O manual references an Apprenticeship Program in many areas such as HVAC and Plumbing. Now use the Freedom of Information Act to see how many graduates completed the program in the last two years. I’ll save you some time; the answer is none.

      Congratulations to Chaplain Madrid for facilitating Financial Peace University. This is a 13 lesson program from common sense finance guru and national talk show host Dave Ramsey. But why are there only 15 men taking the course? Why isn’t this a prerequisite to release? Why wasn’t an announcement placed on every bulletin board in every unit? The bocce ball tournament announcement seems to make it there.

      There are many well-meaning people employed by the Bureau of Prisons; some of them work at FCI Oakdale. These individuals do their best to not become cynical in their daily interaction with inmates. The American public owes those employees a debt of support. We must change the political will of the people back to one of education as a method of rehabilitation.

      Educate, financially responsible people who have paid their debt to society can only result in a win-win for all parties. I do believe a rising tide raises all ships. But if the ship is still tied to the dock by a lack of education or understanding of debt then the ship will only rise so far before it takes on water and sinks.

      I send kudos to Warden Ask-Carlson of FCI Pollock (formerly of FCI Oakdale), unit manager Mr. Pierce, counselors Papillion and Smith and the others working to establish Toastmasters in this institution. There are men here who acknowledge we screwed up. Now we desire the opportunity to fix it. We need your help.

 

 

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