WELCOME 101 by George

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.

“GRADUATION DAY” by Tony Casson

I am a firm believer in the need for more than ‘rehabilitation’ if individuals are to actually accomplish anything resembling noticeable, and meaningful, changes in lifestyle, behavior, and actions. We all have heard “If you keep doing the same things, don’t be surprised if you keep getting the same results”. Prison provides an excellent platform from which to launch changes within our lives IF we are dedicated to the fundamental belief that something in our life NEEDS changing. It should come as no surprise if I tell you many individuals do not seem to want to change much of anything, except perhaps the fact they are incarcerated.

For those who realize that their lives need to be lived differently, it is not enough to simply try to adopt new practices, hobbies, or job skills. True change can only be accomplished through a complete, intensive spiritual transformation. Look at it this way: In an old house, black mold is apparent by looking at the walls and ceilings. An investment is made in paint and the time is taken to do the painting. The end result looks pretty darn good.

For a while.

The effects of the cover-up may even last QUITE a while, but sooner or later the problem is going to rise to the surface. Why? Because the ROOT of the problem was not fixed. The problem was not eradicated and replaced with something new, strong, and resilient to the mold itself. Unless all of the affected areas are cut out and replaced with new material, nothing much changes, and before too long, what temporarily gave the impression of being new looks exactly the same as it did before, perhaps even worse. Perhaps more dangerous. Perhaps more deadly.

There ARE men in prison who recognize the need for change. No, that’s not totally accurate. There ARE men in prison who recognize the need for a complete spiritual TRANSFORMATION. There are men in prison who sincerely and completely want to walk out of prison different on the inside than they were when they walked in. Some might use the negativity of the environment as an excuse for not successfully completing that transformation. Some may point to the plethora of temptation that permeates the environment. Some may point to a lack of dedicated staff, programs, or opportunities, and find their escape from the work required by blaming others. The simple fact of the matter is that GOD gives each of us the power to transform our hearts, which gives us the ability to transform our lives. We can accomplish this without ANY cooperation or participation of others, without ANY program, without ANY involvement of anyone besides ourselves, and many (certainly not anywhere near enough) men DO allow God to help them undergo just that type of complete and total spiritual transformation which can change the course of a human life.

There will be skeptics and cynics who will view the following claim with something less than acceptance, belief, or any other positive response: I have worked very diligently, with purpose and determination, to allow God to guide my own spiritual transformation. I have sought the companionship and counsel of like-minded individuals, and I have endeavored to benefit those around me with encouragement that all is not lost; that life is just beginning, if we choose to allow God to be the focus OF that life; that He can make us new people, and He will, but WE must welcome the transformation and be ready to ACCEPT it.

Most of my personal work was done in the relative privacy of my cell, but I had the opportunity to attend a 10 week class through the prison chapel this past October. It was a small-group study called “The Miracle Of Life Change”, and there were 15 of us in the group. The program was produced by Chip Ingram, and included workbooks and a DVD series. We were also given homework after each session which consisted of some very probing questions. Signing up for the class, I was excited, as were the others I spoke with. It was a positive offering in a truly negative environment. The class began with total immersion on the part of all involved, but it wasn’t long before we began to experience difficulties, most of them centered on the fact it took 7 months to complete that 10 week class due to frequent cancellations and rescheduling. Something which began on an extremely positive, upbeat note, became something cumbersome and intrusive. Enthusiasm waned and those participating just wanted it to be over. We finally completed the class and a ‘graduation’ ceremony was scheduled. I was asked to give a short speech. Despite the fact the class had become a long, drawn-out affair lacking in continuity, as I set about the task of writing the speech, I discovered that it held more relevance to what I had been doing for the past 4 years than I was initially ready to give it credit for. I realized the importance of the material, the message, and my own motives, and put into place the LAST lesson I was to extract from the class: Nothing in life is perfect. It is only by working through the imperfections and not letting them derail our original purpose that we truly learn how to live in the free world, how to cope, how to become different people than the ones who walked into this place.

I set about the task of writing a speech I felt reflected the positive benefits of the class, the experience of taking the class, the things that were shared and discussed between the men in the class, and I looked forward to the day I would give the speech. That day dawned and at lunch, an hour or so before the ‘ceremony’, I was told there was a sign on the door of the chapel stating, simply: “GRADUATION CANCELLED”. Not postponed. Not delayed. Cancelled.

This announcement was met with nothing other than resigned acceptance. It had become, after all, the ‘nature of the beast’. I was going to simply file away a copy of the speech and cancel my original plans to turn the speech into an article for posting in these Chronicles. Lessons are everywhere. God leaves crumbs for us to pick up in every situation we encounter and it is only when we allow our hearts and our minds to be opened that our eyes can finally recognize this fact.

The speech I wrote follows, but this statement, which was not a part of the original speech, SHOULD have been. Rather than insert it into the speech itself, I offer it as an afterthought since a few individuals have read the original speech, and some of them may read this article. That statement is this:

People, places, and other outside influences do NOT determine our ability to transform who we are. The ability for a definitive, complete, worthwhile transformation comes from inside of ourselves, and it is put there by God. If we are determined to purge ourselves of the habits, thoughts, actions, modes of speech, activities, practices and lifestyles which contributed to our incarceration, there is nothing anyone can do to prevent that from happening. The power of God trumps all the negativity, rescheduled classes and cancelled ceremonies that can be thrown at us, and when we let the negativity of our surroundings take our focus off of our purpose, we are only demonstrating we have taken our focus off of God.

Some time back I introduced an acronym I had created, and I will re-introduce it here:








I – and only I – am personally responsible for the Miracle of my OWN life change, and I accept that responsibility. I have been incarcerated and I have not liked it, but I gladly have accepted PRISON.

Here, then, is my “Graduation Speech”. I hope you enjoy it.

First of all, I would like to thank each member of this class for the time we spent together. There were deeply personal and revealing moments shared, some of which were painful to discuss, all of which contributed to the personal growth of those sharing, as well as of those with whom they were shared. I would also like to thank Ms. Johnson for making the class possible. For such an opportunity to be presented in an environment like this demonstrates a level of concern not often witnessed, and while nothing in life is perfect; while there is always room for improvement in everything we do; Ms. Johnson’s dedication to the purpose of the class cannot be denied or diminished, and should be held within the minds and hearts of all who participated as a very bright spot in a place capable of incredible darkness.

For some of us, Chip Ingram’s “Miracle Of Life Change” course of study is very aptly named in that the ability to change our lives IS a miracle in and of itself. Miracle – or simply the result of very focused, hard work – if we are to leave this place different people than the ones who arrived here, the need for a transformation of our hearts and thought processes was indicated by how we had all lived our lives previously and what we did individually to arrive at this particular destination.

The reasons we all had for feeling that a spiritual transformation was required, varies from person to person, but I would like to read something from my book, “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, that I believe represents where we all began in our search for that transformation within ourselves. It is the message for August 14th, and it is titled “Today is the perfect day to take back what was stolen from us”.

It goes like this:

Every single one of us has had something stolen from us by Satan. No one has escaped except for Christ. We have all given in to temptation and we have all sinned and every time we have sinned we have allowed Satan to take something else from us. We have been his willing victims.

He has stolen dignity from some of us. From others, he has stolen decency. He has stolen our faithfulness to our spouses and our faith in God. He has stolen our truthfulness, and he has stolen our integrity. We have let him slip away in the darkness with our morality, and we have let him get away unnoticed with our kindness. He has pocketed our happiness, and smashed the windows to our souls and left the space empty. He has cheated us out of our love for ourselves, leaving us unable to love anyone else. He has conned us out of our certainty, leaving us with our doubts.

When we weren’t looking, he walked away with our compassion and left disdain in its place. While he distracted us with self-indulgence, he swiped our desire to help others and replaced it with selfishness. He has stolen our tolerance while trying to convince us that hostility and impatience were better suited to our personalities.

He has stolen our sight, making it impossible to see the pain of others and he has taught us to lie, cheat, and steal while we have hungrily pursued the education.

More than likely, what Satan has stolen from you is somewhere on this list. If not, it needs to be added, because everyone has lost something. Some of us have lost more than one thing, and perhaps more than a few of us have lost it all. He will try to prevent you from calculating your exact losses. He will try to cloud your judgment, distract you, or take something else from you. He pretends to be the best friend you have ever had, but he is – in reality – the biggest danger you have ever faced. He will suck everything good out of you until there is nothing left but your last breath and then he will take that as well.

But the Good News is that today is not going to be like yesterday. Today we are going to take it all back. God has been waiting for today for a very long time, and He is glad that it is here. We must reach out and ask God to take our hand and tell Him we want everything Satan has stolen from us. Today is the perfect day to take it all back, and God is the Perfect One to help us all get it.

God is the Perfect One, indeed!

Proverbs 21:31, in the New Living Translation tells us that, “The horse is prepared for battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord!”

WE are those horses, and Chip Ingram’s “Miracle Of Life Change” helps us to prepare for the battles ahead. Now that this class has ended we must be acutely aware that the end of this class is NOT a signal to allow ourselves to think that an irreversible change has come over us and what each of us had allowed to be stolen from us, and has hopefully been returned, will remain permanently safe – that those things can never be stolen again. The end of this class is NOT an occasion to pat each other on the back in congratulations simply to move on to the next item on our list of “Things I want to do in prison that will look good to my PO.” The end of this class is not an indication that we can let down our guard and live life in a carefree manner with no regard for what we have learned, or the progress we have made.

The end of this class is merely an indication that the rest of our life has BEGUN and we have been provided with valuable tools with which to help us live those lives differently. The end of this class is the BEGINNING of our opportunity to prove to others change is possible. The end of this class is the START of new responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our friends, and to God. The end of this class marks the INITIATION of our need for vigilance, to prevent Satan from slipping in the back doors of our lives to begin his work again.

We should be careful broadcasting the words, “I am a changed man”. Ecclesiastes 5:7, in the New Living Translation begins, “Talk is cheap”, and we all know this to be true. Nor does a certificate of completion, a diploma, or a notation in our file offer definitive proof that we have learned even one thing or taken anything more than the first step in transforming our lives. It is only through our actions, the manner in which we live our lives, and the way we treat other people that we can provide testimony to the fact that something is different; that we have allowed God to enter into our hearts and purge us of who we were; that we have allowed Him to make us new; that we have learned and that we LIVE the lessons of this class, and the lessons we receive reading God’s Word each and every day. Only by SHOWING others who we have become can the true miracle of our individual life changes be verified.

Completing Chip Ingram’s course is a step in the direction of new lives, and now that we have taken that step, we are better prepared to take each successive step, never getting ahead of ourselves, but never falling behind either. We must stay focused on Christ, keep following His example, and we must keep putting to use the things we learned as we explored our old behaviors and replaced them with new ones. The course materials we were given should remain with us as reminders of the work we have done, and as sources of valuable assistance to continue that work.

The Miracle Of Life Change is an ongoing process, and I will pray for God to provide each one of us with the strength, courage, wisdom and desire to continue what we have started.  Thank you.