-THE LETTER- by Tony Casson

Like most people, I receive more email than ‘snail’ mail, so I was rather surprised the other day to hear my name during mail call. Most of the time, that occurs only to announce the arrival of a package, a book, or a magazine, and on this particular day I was not expecting any of those items. Upon being handed the letter, I looked at the return address, only to see that it belonged to a church of which I was not familiar. Nor was the writing which addressed the letter to me in a hand I recognized.

The letter was from a woman named Judy, and she was writing out of concern for a close friend. His name is George, and he is the godfather of one of her children. George is awaiting the day he is to self-surrender here at Oakdale, FCI, much as I did a little over 4 years ago. In searching for information on the institution itself, she came upon these Chronicles. Judy indicated George’s crime is the same as mine and she is concerned for him. I got the distinct impression that prison is a new experience for him, as it is for so many who are guilty of this, and other, internet computer crimes. Like all who are unfamiliar with the whole concept of incarceration from the perspective of experiencing it firsthand, George wonders what awaits him.

Judy’s concern for the welfare of this man is touching. She acknowledged reading that I am leaving soon, but she requested that I extend a hand of friendship to George and help him to find his way around if I should still be here when he arrives. This place can be quite surreal to those walking in off the street and who are accustomed to more civilized surroundings. There are adjustments to be made by those incarcerated, as well as by those on the outside who care about them, and I will do my best to offer advice to both.

My response to the letter is in two parts. The first is in an open letter to Judy; the second, an open letter to George. In presenting the letters this way, perhaps the information may be useful to others as well.

-AN OPEN LETTER TO A CONCERNED FRIEND-

Dear Judy,

I thank you for your kind letter. I was deeply moved by your obvious compassion, kindness, and concern for George’s well-being. In your letter you indicated that you had read an article I wrote where I encouraged people to get involved with some of the organizations dedicated to working for positive change in the way our government ‘leaders’ deal with this very serious and destructive problem sweeping our nation like a California wildfire fanned by Santa Ana winds. I reiterate that encouragement here. Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) national and state organizations are an excellent place to start.

George is fortunate to have a friend like you, Judy. For your part, and for others who know someone facing what George is facing, or who is already in a place such as the one from which I write, I would like to offer some tips that might make the experience less frightening or foreboding than it is for all concerned.

  • Communication is important, and hearing our names at mail call is something we can never tire of. We want to know what is happening in the lives of those we care about and we like to see pictures of life being lived on the outside. There may be concern that pictures will make us sad, and that is true on one level, but reassurance that those whose lives our behavior has impacted are still capable of carrying on, laughing, smiling, growing, and enjoying life outweighs whatever negative thoughts or feelings may be experienced.
  • I will say it again, “Communication is important”. Hearing the voices of those we love is something we need. Please take the time and visit “Google Voice” to obtain a ‘free’ local phone number for your inmate to call. The difference between having this number for someone living out of state is this: 15 minutes with a Google Voice number is $.90, whereas that same 15 minute call without it is $3.15. That’s like getting three calls for the price of one, plus a couple of soups from the commissary. It is very important that you take the time to do a little research. The correct area code is 318, but do not accept, or select just ANY prefix in the 318 area code. It MUST be a prefix that is specific to Oakdale ONLY, and there are only 2, I believe.
  • Books are always welcome. You can mail up to 5 paperbacks at a time, but do NOT mail them in a box. Mail them in an envelope-type mailer and do not mail more than 5 paperback (NO HARDBACK BOOKS MAY BE SENT FROM HOME) books or magazines at a time. More than 5 will result in ALL being returned. Official rules call for the package to be marked “Approved Per Policy”. If you purchase magazine subscriptions, provide them with something educational like Smithsonian or National Geographic. I received both while here and they were always in demand by others.
  • We do not have Google in here. We do like to ask people to look things up for us, and it is surprising to me how many people have difficulty getting that done. We know people on the outside are busy, but help where you can. I never felt unloved by family or other relatives, but the defining relationship of my stay here was the one developed with the friend of my sister’s I have written about many times in these pages: Diane Woodall. People do not have to be family to care about others or to reach out to help. The many, many, MANY pages of research Diane provided me with assisted me greatly in producing this body of work. It may not be what many people expected: A prison tell-all, full of the bad things that happen in prison and the tough conditions and circumstances. It IS prison, there is no denying that, but as Anthony (my Son) subtitled this blog, it is MY story, and I chose to use that story to chronicle my thoughts, but also to chronicle the changes my constantly growing relationship with God have wrought. I did what you need to encourage your friend George to do – focus on building that relationship with God and let the relationship lead him to the process of building a plan for the future. This place can defeat a person. This much is true. But each individual makes the decision to ALLOW that to happen. More on this in my letter to George. Diane’s diligent efforts on my behalf have contributed greatly to my ability to believe in the plan God has for my future. You have exhibited “Diane-like” qualities. I think George is very lucky. Not as lucky as me, of course! 😉
  • Inmates are allowed to bring in a Bible if they self-surrender, but I do not know the rules regarding hardback editions. Leather and paperback editions may be brought in or mailed from home. All hardback books of any kind must come from the publisher. If a Bible is not brought in, arrange to have one mailed in as soon as possible after arrival. I suggest a “One Year” Bible in the translation of your choice, and an accompanying “Life Application” Study Bible in the same translation.
  • Pick up a couple of devotional books to have ready to send in to your family member or friend as soon as they have arrived at their destination. “MY Utmost For His Highest”, Streams In The Dessert” are two wonderful sources of guidance, inspiration, and food for thought that have proven valuable to many people for decades. My own recently published collection of daily thoughts meditations, “TODAY IS….A Gift From God” is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HKKL1RE. (Please do not think this is a shamelessly self-serving promotion. I am confident the messages God helped me to write will add something to each day for George and anyone else who purchases it.) Also, do not think that all three would be too many, as that is not the case. I read 6 different daily devotionals (including my own), and each one provides me with something useful to help me make the most of each day.
  • In all that you do, try to remember that nothing is forever. It is very difficult for many individuals to see their way through to the light that shines at the end of the tunnel (no matter HOW long the tunnel may be there is always light there). We may have a tendency to be full of self-pity at times. Be patient with us, but do not allow us to wallow in it.
  • Most important of all, support, encourage, and help your ‘inmate’ to make God the focus of their life. Many may have Him as a PART of their life, but that is not good enough. He must BE their life. Everything else must flow from that relationship; everything else is a part of our lives, but NOT God. There are many here who would disagree with me, but all I can do is try to impress upon people the amazing things He has done for me, and continues to do. The relationship He has built with me sustains me, and provides me with the Hope I need to have confidence in the future. I am not unique, or special. What He does for me, He will do for all who ask. This is not as difficult as we make it. It is unfortunate we allow it to appear that way.

May God bless you, Judy for reaching out on George’s behalf. I hope this information, and what follows for George, is helpful.

And now for George himself:

-AN OPEN LETTER TO GEORGE-

Dear George,

Your friend, Judy, wrote to me and asked me to help you. This letter represents that attempt. I pray it helps a little.

When you pull up in the parking lot on the day you are to surrender here at Oakdale, you will be filled with a variety of emotions. The razor-wire topped fence surrounding the compound can be quite intimidating to those not accustomed to seeing it. You will park in the visitor’s section and will reluctantly walk to the entrance. Walk confidently through the front door with your Bible in your hand, and God in your heart. The person sitting at the front desk will take it from there. Have the person dropping you off stay there until you are taken into the prison itself and have changed out of your street clothes. They will give you a bag to put your clothes in and they will give it to that individual. Leave your wallet with that person. Try to get your driver’s license renewed before you come in and leave it with someone out there. If it is valid when you leave that is one less thing to concern yourself.

This word will be easier for me to type than for you to put into practice as you find yourself totally under the control of strangers: RELAX. Everything you will experience from this point forward will be new to you, but you will come to no harm. You will be ‘processed in’ through R&D, receive your PPD (TB Test), and escorted to the S.H.U., which is the Special Housing Unit. It is also where they segregate self-surrenders until their PPD is read. Personally, I think it goes beyond that and is intended to let you know where you will go if you misbehave. It is not comfortable, but it IS temporary. 5 days for me, but I have known others who were in there longer. I didn’t like it, and have never visited again.

Again, just relax. Pray, read your bible, ask for books (You may or may not be successful getting them. It depends on who is working. I believe being polite and respectful helps. I read 3 in 5 days, but they were not anything I would have selected in the library. Still, I didn’t know I could bring in a Bible, so I did not have one to read. I would have read a milk carton.)

I spent 25 years in the restaurant business, and many of them were spent training new managers. One of the first lessons I tried to instill in them was this: From the moment we walk in the building, every action we take is geared towards leaving. This simply meant that we worked throughout the day and didn’t save things until the last moment. Going home was our goal. We tried to enjoy our job but leaving was the ultimate objective. Unlocking the door was simply the first step taken towards locking it at the end of the day.

Prison is no different. Focus on leaving and work toward that goal from the moment you enter. Enter with a positive attitude and you will stand a better chance of maintaining it once you are here. I chose God as the source of my strength, courage, and desire to improve myself. There are other choices one can make. I offer Him as the best one and no person on the face of the earth can tell me otherwise.

In the S.H.U. you will eat, read, and sleep. That’s pretty much it. You and your ‘cellie’ will take turns using the facilities. Privacy is, for the most part, gone, at least in the S.H.U., and to a lesser degree in the housing units. The degree of relative privacy you have depends on whether you are designated to a unit with 6 man cells, or 2 man cells. I am in Allen 1 and I have been grateful to God every day for my 2 man cell.

When you are released from the S.H.U. you will no doubt experience a second round of angst as you make your way through the compound to your housing unit. Being released from the ‘hole’, you will likely get out during a time when other inmates are moving around as well, instead of just after 4 PM count, which is the norm. The ones you pass and the ones you see in the housing unit will all look at you. It’s not you, personally. New people are interesting. People recognize individuals from other places, from home….it is just plain odd. Just ignore them and head for whatever room/bed is designated for you. If you happen to be designated to Allen 1, seek out Phillip in 132, or Brandon in 127. Given you have a few weeks to surrender, plus the time you will be in the S.H.U., I doubt I will still be here, but you can stop in 208 and say hello to my ‘cellie’, Pete. If you are assigned to any other unit, find out when you can go to the chapel, go there when you can and ask for Phillip, who is one of the orderlies there. From a spiritual standpoint, he can guide you to the programs and offerings that are here. He will also give you a pretty accurate overview of how things work and where things are.

You will adjust, and I can say this because we all do. The individuals who don’t are rare.

I cannot state unequivocally what your prison experience will be like, because it is different for everyone. I do believe that those who are miserable here each day make themselves so. I am thoroughly convinced that each day is a gift from God and we must make a conscious choice to use it to serve Him. In doing that, He will reward us with Hope and will fill us with optimism. Our past is there for us to learn from, but it does not have to deny us our future, although it surely will if we allow it to. I could write on and on about this place, but your attitude and your faith will determine how YOU see it. Perhaps Judy can share some of the other articles I wrote for my blog, such as “With Eyes Wide Open”. Perhaps she will share them all. I hope she shares this letter at least, and that you find it somewhat helpful

I have never found anything extremely negative to write about this place. It is prison, and people have jobs to do. As in any situation in life, not all people are friendly, and some can be particularly difficult, but for the most part, the staff here is made up of everyday people with families to take care of who are doing a job, making a living and getting on with their lives. I have not encountered any who are really hateful. Irritating, yes. Admittedly there are a few of those. My own personal experience has been that if you are respectful, upbeat, clean, personable, and demonstrate a sincere willingness to improve yourself, your interaction with the staff will be minimal, and positive when it does occur. They have plenty of problems to deal with and they really don’t want you to be one of them. Immaturity and irresponsibility are the order of the day for many inmates. Don’t be one of those. I made it a point to not create problems for others, and I have lived a productive four years in a place I would rather not be, but where I allowed God free reign to do His work. He has done a great job, I think. Let Him work on you.

The institution itself is pretty clean and in relatively good repair. The food is better than millions of people eat each day and thanks should be given for it. You will be safe and there are ways to report those who would cause you to think otherwise. Look to inmates who look to the future and are not defeated by this experience. Get involved with those who are working to change themselves, and maybe you will be able to help change others.

My words may be woefully inadequate, but I think I have done about all I can for you here. I wish you the best of luck and will pray for you. There are plenty of decent people in here, not the least of which are the ones I mentioned. I am going to miss many of them when I leave. Perhaps Judy can email me at TodayIsAGift52014@gmail.com and let me know how you are doing.

God’s peace to you, George.

Best wishes,

Tony Casson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s