Daily mail call brings letters from friends and family filled with support and encouragement, sorrow and disappointment over the circumstances that brought me to Oakdale FCI; and buried between the lines is a macabre interest in knowing what happens inside the concertina razor wire. Hence, their ultimate question, “What is prison really like?”
Maybe you or a loved one, are coming to Oakdale, and have found your way to Oakdale Chronicles seeking an answer to the same question?
Oakdale FCI is a low security prison, so you can erase those images of the cable show OZ where Chris Meloni often bared his backside to insure viewership. You can also erase Scared Straight, Locked Up, Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz, or any other media driven portrayal of violent prison life. This is a “low”, and not the “pen” where lifers rule with a “we’ve got nothing to lose” mentality. One inmate calls this place “Camp Fluffy” – he began his time at a maximum security penitentiary before working his way down through security levels to arrive to Oakdale.
Now, this place isn’t a cakewalk either. You do have to keep your wits about you. Fights do happen and people do get hurt. Even if fluffy, this is still a prison. Plus, if you’ve been convicted and labeled a “sex offender,” there are a few extra things to keep in mind.
Naturally each experience is different because our individual personalities are different. But in as much as we are individuals, there is a sameness to the prison experience. And it is how you, the individual, deal with that sameness which will dictate your journey here.
I assume the same is true for those going into the military, and in a way, federal prison is run like the military – with one glaring exception. The military breaks the individual down to rebuild him as a team member; a cohesive mindset working toward a common goal. Prison is about keeping the individual down, under control, with the non-team mantra “You do you; I’ll do me.” This translates into “You do your time your way and I’ll do mine my way, and as long as your way doesn’t get in the way of my way, we’ll have no problems.”
With that in mind, here are my philosophical musings and practical tips one might want to wrap one’s brain around before arriving, since coping with prison is about a state of mind. Officials may lock up the body, but they can’t lock up the mind – one still has sole control over that.
1. Inmates are always wrong; staff are always right. This may be the hardest thing to get used to, especially as a sex offender. Generally speaking, most sex offenders are college educated, have either run their own businesses or had upper management positions, and contrary to popular belief, have been law-abiding citizens with no previous criminal history. In the “free world” they were responsible, contributing members of society. Because of this, there may be a continued expectation of cause and effect logic: If I’m not breaking the rules, then I’m not doing anything wrong. That expectation is no longer valid.
In prison you are a convicted felon, which translates into GUILTY. Always GUILTY. It is the new prison through which you are viewed: You are only after one thing, the manipulation of every situation to suit your twisted “criminal” intents. This is how the staff views you. They’re trained to think this way.
Generally speaking, staff are not college educated, some only have to be working toward a GED instead of already possessing one, and they are hired from the local pool of available labor.
Please understand that I am not trying to demean or degrade the staff. However, it will help to comprehend that your new world is governed by people who will look upon you and treat you as something less than a civilized being – regardless how civilized your behavior. That is their mindset. Also sex offenders, or “SOs” (the more modern nickname versus “cho-mo,” or child molester, which is slowly becoming more antiquated), are still at the bottom of humanity’s pecking order.
Logic and fairness are not everyday commodities. Ignorant inmates and staff still use “cho-mo” even though the vast majority of SOs had no actual contact, of any kind, with a minor. Remember, you are guilty in the eyes of the law, therefore fairness is something you lost by crossing inside the razor wire.
Be prepared to have your daily expectations of what you’d like to accomplish either be fulfilled or stymied by the moody whims of others. Prison is a moment by moment exercise in the adaptability. Fail to adapt and you’ll only find yourself frustrated, angered, depressed, or in trouble. Those are hard ways to do one’s time. Negativity is not your friend. Seek positive energy and choices when faced with hindrances.
2. Respect. You will never hear more about the word “respect” than while in prison, nor will you hear more about its opposite, “disrespect.”
When staff uses “respect,” they usually follow it with condemnations of “be a man,” “a man acts like…,” or “real men don’t….” The favorite saying is “You treat us with respect and we’ll treat you with respect.” You’ll soon be able to gauge for yourself what respect means when coming from the staff.
As for inmates, respect and disrespect are everything. Respect translates into common courtesy. “Please,” “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and “I’m sorry,” are just good manners. Remember you are living with a large number of men – some of whom were raised with manners and some who were not. You will encounter plenty of guys who are selfish – blindingly so – but that shouldn’t prevent you from taking the higher road. Choose patience, generosity of spirit, and selflessness over selfishness.
Men are very much driven by public image. Cut in line and you are being disrespectful, because your action says that you are more important than everyone behind you. No one wants to be publicly shown as unimportant or weak. Respect is a pack mentality. And though not everyone can be an alpha dog, and on some level there shouldn’t be one, no one wants to be disrespected into being a bitch – and that is the simple prison truth of it.
Tony Casson once told me something very important about respect: “If respecting you means allowing you to disrespect me, then you won’t get my respect. Respect is a two-way street.” A lesson that some inmates and staff could learn from. Be honorable.
3. Trust. When you arrive in prison, trust no one in the beginning. That applies to staff and to other inmates. People will tell you all kinds of things in prison – talk is cheap. Let their actions speak louder than their words. Take your time in developing friendships. Be cautious about revealing too much about your private life or personal circumstances.
There are genuinely nice, decent people (staff and inmates) in prison, but there are also people who will try to manipulate, steal from, and abuse you through intimidation, extortion, or through becoming your new best friend in the blink of an eye. Be wary of people who ask too many questions, or who act like they are doing you lots of favors – sometimes they’ll use that to get you to do something for them as payback. Keep in mind, you came to prison alone and you’ll leave along. You need to rely on your own better judgment of situations and people.
Prisons are full of characters: decent and indecent, mentally stable and unstable, calm and violent, trustworthy and backstabbing, guilty and innocent. You are now one of those characters too. Plus if you are a SO, your actions reflect on the group as a whole. Act beyond reproach and with integrity, and you’ll demonstrate that the negative assumptions about SOs are wrong. Act the fool, and you’ll only fuel the fire of stereotypes. Again, it is about respect – don’t disrespect your fellow SOs by feeding stereotypes.
Over time you’ll develop friendships, and even then, you only need to share whatever you want to share. You’ll meet a myriad of diverse personalities from conniving millionaires to saintly crack addicts. Personally I would lay low and survey the landscape at first. Don’t brag about money, family, or your job, and don’t lie to bolster yourself up. There may be no honor amongst thieves, but no one wants to associate with a liar. It’s about integrity and respect.
Being too chatty or chummy with staff will cause other inmates to label you a “rat” or a “snitch.” And like in junior high – no one likes rats or snitches. Staff may glean information from you that could get other inmates in trouble. Gossip is big here and it is jokingly referred to as “Inmate.com.”
Staff are never your friend. That is a simple truth. Even the nicest and kindest should be kept at a professional distance. Whether actually true or only perceived as true – no one likes a tattletale. No one.
4. You don’t have to tell anyone your exact charge, AND don’t ask anyone what their charge is. The first question you’ll be asked when you arrive at your housing unit is, “What are you here for?” No one is asking about the details of your case. They simply want to know which group you belong to. If you are white, the question is asked so people will know whether to hand you off to the white drug felons (a.k.a. “Dirty White Boys” or “Haters”) or off to the SOs. If you are another race you’ll automatically be passed on to your applicable race before being asked why you’re here. Other races seem to accept their SOs, whereas white SOs are cast off by their race to the land of the educated.
As a SO your answer should be “Internet” or “pornography.” Those are the simplest answers to get you directed to the other SOs in the unit. From there you’ll be asked what kind of supplies you need – personal hygiene products, shower shoes, basic rec clothing; the things to tide you over until you are able to go shopping at the commissary. Groups’ kind of look out for their own.
As for staff, they may ask what your charge is too. Again, the simplest answers are “Internet” or “pornography.” Keep in mind, every comment people make to you in response about your charge does not demand or deserve a comment by you in return. Better to avoid confrontation, especially with staff, because again, inmates are always guilty. Seek ways to rise above the circumstance. Sometimes silence is best.
5. “Where are you from?” This question is really asking whether you’ve arrived from another institution via a transfer, or from a county facility, or if you’ve self-reported directly to Oakdale. The answer indicates how much prison knowledge you have. A transfer means you know the ropes; self-reporting means you know nothing.
From here you’ll probably be asked what state or city you’re from. People like to know who their “homies” are. It is a way of beginning to make connections. Know that you do not need to give any more personal info than that.
6. “How much time do you have?” This is usually the last major question you’ll be asked by inmates and staff. If you have five years or less (under sixty months), “That’s nothing” is the likely response. Even though your life may have seemed destroyed when you were given your sentence, compared to most inmates that amount of time really is nothing. So on some level, consider yourself lucky. I bet you didn’t think there was something lucky about your sentence, did you? It does give one perspective.
The majority of SOs seem to be serving between five and ten years. Of course there are people who have been sentenced from fifteen to twenty-five years. Try to be considerate to those by not saying, “Wow! That’s a long time,” or something else as demeaning. They’ll feel bad enough knowing you’ll be going home before them. Again, you are now in a brotherhood of sorts. Respect is paramount.
7. You will survive Oakdale FCI. Whether you can imagine it or not, you will survive your sentence at Oakdale. People with longer sentences than you do. You’re not the first to make this journey, and sadly, you won’t be the last.
There are many ways to survive something; some negative, some positive. You’ll meet plenty of people who are on one of those paths, and others who are completely oblivious that there is a path at all. Recognizing their state of mind may be a way to gauge which path you’re on. Some people remain bitter and angry, a victim of their own circumstance. Some live in a state of denial by avoiding the real cause for the actions that landed them here, a victim of believing their only fault was in getting caught. And some accept the time here as an opportunity for transition – a transition into transformation.
But transformation takes hard work, honest exploration, and a committed attitude to rise above your old self. And the biggest obstacle you will face is yourself. No one here – and I mean, no one – has all of the answers or all of the resources to mend you unless you want to repair, reform, and evolve. That evolution begins and ends with your commitment to yourself in the face of what at times may seem to be insurmountable odds.
Now I believe that God is the rock to build your new commitment on. I also believe that there are no quick fixes; God works in His time, not ours. It is true that people may change for the better even if they don’t know God. Whether they realize it or not, the positive and difficult steps they take forward are the same steps that Jesus calls us to take as Christians. Jesus is reaching out, revealing Himself to them. How much more helpful and hopeful is that journey with God Almighty at your side instead of attempting it alone? Trust and seek His hand.
I can only successfully survive this journey of prison through God’s love. That is my strength and confidence – my trust. If you can attempt it without that, then the more power to you. However, deep in my heart, I know that if you watch and listen, God will reveal Himself to you during this experience. It is in those moments of revelation where you’ll have the opportunity to learn, grown, and flourish.
I hope you seize that opportunity; that you’ll plant, nurture, and harvest great things from that seed of new life. Know that you’ll survive Oakdale FCI – and that your transformation is my wish and prayer for you, and God’s invitation to us all.
- If you are self-reporting directly to Oakdale FCI, contact them by phone at (318) 355-4070 to find out what you are allowed to bring with you into prison: such as a simple wristwatch, wedding ring, religious symbol on a chain around your neck, cash money to be deposited onto your commissary account (for sundries and phone calls), prescription eyeglasses and case (2 pairs), prescription medications, a Bible, a contact list of names, addresses, and phone numbers of family, friends, lawyers, etc.
- Policy changes all the time, so CALL to double check the above list in advance of self-reporting.