A WITNESS by George

Death has been on my mind recently. A lot. And though Easter – the Christian celebration of Jesus Christ rising from the dead – has just passed, my mind keeps returning to death, to winter, and not to resurrection, to rebirth, to spring. Why do I feel the need to write about death, especially from inside prison?

This is my first blog post of 2015. January through March was a particularly gloomy time for me. Some of it was due to endless overcast days filled with chilly Louisiana temperatures and rain. Lots of rain. Some had to do with a prevailing feeling of loneliness. The winter was bleak.

I tried to force writing topics: New Year resolutions, finding hope in spite of being in Oakdale, blah, blah, blah – some way to launch 2015 in a positive and uplifting manner. However, all of my attempts felt Pollyanna-esque at best. So instead of veiling myself in false enthusiasm, I decided to cocoon myself in despondent introspection until my soul was ready to change seasons.

During this time, death struck. Fellow inmates, whose friendships now rank as dear as family, have lost loved ones on the outside. Aunts, grandmas, mothers have passed, carving emotional holes in my friends that are difficult to fill while incarcerated. There is no attending a wake, funeral, or burial service. Mourning or celebrating the deceased’s life in the community of loved ones is not an option. Given our current technology, it would be easier for an astronaut in the space station to be present via satellite than it would be for an inmate.

Prison is exile.

Diagnoses of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or serious accidents are a death knell for the exiles. The haunting proclamation of mankind’s mortality cannot be ignored forever, though we all live our lives as if that bell will never toll. I’ve seen grown men collapse to their knees on the sidewalk from overwhelming grief after receiving such news from home.

Death becomes even more difficult to deal with when a fellow inmate dies of natural causes in his bunk. Life’s fragility becomes the spectre in the room who must be addressed. It is a cold, hard-hitting, unremorseful reminder to those of us locked away from our families, friends, and freedom that begs the question: could I be next?

Peter Becker died in his bunk on February 28, 2015. His sudden death highlighted the loneliness and abandonment of prison for me. For as many friends as I have made at Oakdale, and the many more that Pete had here, at the end of the day, or at any moment for that matter, it simply comes down to me and my maker. That truth is my spectre.

“He was a really good guy,” a close friend remarked in the hours after Pete’s passing. And then after a contemplative silence, “Prison is no place to die.”

I agreed on the surface. Pete was a good guy: curmudgeonly kind, loyal, charitable, good-humored with a wicked wit, and a proud father and grandpa. But “prison is no place to die” dug below that surface. It dug down into my psyche; seeping into my cocoon, feeding my gloom.

Prison is such a removal from real life that death, a reality in the free world, seems surreal here. Prison is supposed to be a place where you walk out the door after serving your time, not a place where you’re carried out in a body bag before your time. That dissonant chord struck me so profoundly that I was forced to seek a resolution to the question – why death here?

The month of March passed, and I still had no answer. Though unresolved, I am a realist. I know no one lives forever, and any breath could be one’s last. However, I felt the need to proclaim to the world, the universe, that “prison is no place to die” – for anyone! But a proclamation wasn’t what I was looking for, and proclamations from prison are not often heard.

In a moment of clarity, with Easter closing in, I realized I was seeking redemption as the answer. Pete’s redemption. More specifically, I was seeking his public redemption as a convicted felon. In a very real way Pete died twice, and I wanted to know where was his second chance – his shot at redemption?

Coming to prison is a form of death; a first death. The death of a life as one knew it. It is a painful, often times slow and very public suffocation of every aspect of life: financial, professional, personal, and familial. And in that dying, one passes from a known realm into one of the unknown – the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

Life here is an existence of bureaucratic illogic, which for those who deal with bureaucracy often, the word “illogic” is indeed redundant. To emerge from prison “rehabilitated” is to have personally tamed or exorcised the demons of one’s past in spite of the BOP staff’s best attempts to assist, or derail (depending on one’s level of cynicism), with federally mandated “re-entry” programs.

Programming boxes get checked, not because staff is concerned about the quality of the program offered or the proficiency of the inmate instructor or the inmate student, but because if boxes aren’t checked, staff get in trouble themselves by not having their supervisors check off their own personal performance boxes. BOP boxes must be checked. A checked box is the goal, not actual rehabilitation.

This is the realm, the life we live in prison, where Pete’s second death occurred. A death that was much more finite than the first metaphorical death he was subjected to by the prosecution’s path to prison. “Prison is no place to die” because the opportunity for public redemption is trumped by that death.

Where does one find the hope of spring when winter provides no glimpse of renewal?

Looking out of my cell’s window at April’s green grass and clover, the robin egg-blue sky, and feeling the sun’s warmth streaming in, I now see a ray of hope, a nod toward redemption as exampled in Pete’s incarcerated life; the life between his two deaths.

His redemption was witnessed by those of us who knew him as the man better because of his conviction to life rather than the man lessened by his conviction to prison. How I wish he could have been his own witness to the free world; that he had lived to reunite with his daughter and son, and taken his grandkids fishing – something he longed to do. He had turned the page on his past, and I witnessed a redeemed man. I’m sorry that more “outside” people – his family, friends, and the community at large – couldn’t have been a witness to that too.

Ultimately, maybe redemption isn’t a matter of how many people witness it. The fact that it was witnessed by those who were living the life alongside Pete may be evidence enough. And as a witness, maybe my testimony via this blog to those of you who have your freedom may lead you toward a path of understanding. An understanding which could shake off a winter of cold-heartedness and blossom a springtime of forgiveness and offered redemption.

I’m looking out my window again, and the medical team is speedily pushing a trauma gurney across the compound yard toward medical. On it an unconscious inmate is frantically receiving CPR. The struggle between life and death, even on this glorious spring day, continues inside the razor wire of Oakdale, as it does every second across the globe.

I hope there are testimonies of redemption for us all. Maybe it is time to break out of our cocoons and witness. Witness the opportunity for and the power of a second chance.

[Click here to read Tony Casson’s touching witness to Peter Becker, with whom Tony shared a cell while at Oakdale FCI.]

A Note From Tony: I was happy to wake up this morning and see this post by George from Oakdale FCI. George writes them and mails them to my ‘other’ Diane (still the original and best!), who types them and posts them for me (us).

Even when individuals are attempting to be constructive and live redemptive, introspective, and productive lives, our government, in its infinite wisdom, does not allow interaction between men in prison and those on supervised release.  I am grateful to Diane for her continuing support of those who are incarcerated, and of yours truly.

This post, while beautifully written and profoundly touching in its honesty, definitely shows a negative side to prison life which I would like to address. As Diane S. (my new, OTHER Diane!) struggles with adjusting to being an inmate’s wife, she cannot be shielded from the fact that these emotions do exist inside the confines of the prison environment.

That is not to say that life there is always mournful, morose, or melancholy, but it certainly can be a difficult place at times. There are times of laughter as well, and it is the rare individual who spends their entire time in prison living in a world of sadness, depression, or negativity. I know that George is, by nature, an upbeat and positive person, and from what Diane S. has written, so is her husband Chris. These men will deal with the ups and downs of prison life but will create more ups than downs.

I hope they find each other and get to know each other. George lives in my old housing unit, Allen.

George, thanks for writing so well. You honor these pages. Diane #1, you ARE still #1, and Diane S., you have my utmost respect and admiration.


“So encourage each other and build each other up…”  1Thessalonians 5:11

An idealist believes the short run doesn’t count.  A cynic believes the long run doesn’t matter.  A realist believes that what is done or left undone in the short run determines the long run.  -Sydney Harris

A year ago I observed two young men rushing across the compound, adult continuing education books in hand.  As they neared the library they were intercepted by the warden (this warden has since retired from the BOP).

From my vantage point I could see nothing wrong: they were in prison khaki, not running, and stood respectfully as the warden addressed them.  After poking his finger at them for a few minutes, the warden motioned to someone outside my field of vision.  The yard officer rode up in the golf cart from his station at the key.  The warden pointed at the inmates and then in the direction of the key/housing units.  The warden headed to the administration building while the rest moved out of my sight.  Ten minutes later the operations lieutenant escorted the two young men to the “hole;” the disciplinary housing unit.  A couple weeks went by before I had the opportunity to speak with one of the men.  He told me the warden considered them out of bounds even though the housing unit officer and two yard officers allowed them out of the unit and across the yard at the end of the hourly move to participate in re-entry programming.

This is where my pre-incarcerated faith in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) shattered.  I assumed the dual purpose of incarceration was punishment and rehabilitation.  The odd report or news article laying out the failure of rehab did nothing to dispel the idea that it must be the inmate’s fault if the programming didn’t take.  It never crossed my mind that BOP leadership erects barriers to rehabilitation.

Friction, properly applied, is a wonderful thing.  It is the factor that allows our motivation to grip and propel us forward.  A corrections officer making a decision to encourage inmate participation in re-entry is one such example.  But place an icy patch on that highway to rehab, now a soul slides out of control.  Where will he regain traction?  What direction will he face when he suddenly shoots forward again?  Or will he simply slam on the brakes, shut down, scared to venture forth under his own locomotion, fearful of more ice patches.  Understand, there are a lot more inmates who choose not to prepare for re-entry than do.  Those who start in the right direction are rare individuals and need all the encouragement we can give.

I am afraid entire generations are lost to our society.  Little consideration is given to the long term consequences in the frenzy to lock up the bad guys.  Many questioned George Bush’s decision to go back into Iraq without a clear exit strategy.  Yet in our creep to mass incarceration we allowed those same politicians to mire us in a war against crime with no exit strategy.

A lot of the men I live with are incredibly ignorant but not stupid.  Many, though, were engaged in entrepreneurial activity acceptable in their peer group or neighborhood.  They were working within the limits of their knowledge and understanding, not letting ignorance hinder the desire to succeed.  Unacceptable as a social norm?  Sure.  Predictable?  Absolutely.

So now we (society) have locked up the bad (ignorant yet entrepreneurial) guys.  Where do we go from here?  Is it enough to stick them behind razor wire and cross our collective fingers as we hope they figure it out?  Unchecked incarceration is unsustainable as now thousands of unprepared men and women are poised for release.

My hope for our political leaders is a rethinking of mass incarceration.  In the meantime I implore the BOP leadership to consider the consequences of friction, properly applied.  Make it easy – rewarding even – to do the right things:  continuing education, spiritual awareness, financial planning, business opportunities.  Make it more difficult to access time wasters.  Propel men into productivity.  Return men to their community armed with the knowledge and skills for fruitful lives that contribute to society.

And you, dear reader, ask yourself, “are my actions providing traction for those around me?”  Are you encouraging advancement with thoughtful, considered words?  Or do you blurt out the first thing that comes to mind without regard to its long term effect because it is convenient or the way you were reared?

Use the precious time you have available to lift up those around you; friction, properly applied.