What Prisoners Want   1 comment

LELA: My guest today is long-time friend Bern S. He was a close friend and our entry into jail ministry. The friendship came first. We agreed we wouldn’t use your full name … that you’ve had enough of being infamous. So tell us a little bit about yourself.

BERN: I’m originally from the Northeast by way of Texas, but I’ve lived in Alaska for 35 years, so I think I can call myself an Alaskan legitimately. Right?

LELA:  Definitely. Alaskans don’t hand out that title casually, but you’ve done auto repair at 40 below zero, had the wits scared out of you by a bear, and hold a black belt in Copper River salmon fishing, so you definitely qualify. And you’re married to an Alaska-born woman and have Alaska-born children. You get bonus points.

Related imageBERN:  Ooo, like extra credit!  Love it! So your audience now knows I’m a family man and a salmon fisher. I also am a Christian who goes to church when I feel like it and an inventor of wood stove accessories. But that’s not why we’re here today, so ….

LELA: It’s been, what, 24 years?

BERN:  Coming up in September, yeah.

LELA:  You ended up in jail, right?

BERN:  For four years, yes. I don’t like to talk about it, but I stalk you on Twitter and this gal was going after you, so I called you up and said “Interview me!” You didn’t even know she was having a meltdown.

LELA:  I knew, but I was ignoring it. So, we’re not going to talk about what you did to go to jail. That’s in keeping with my belief that felons should have their records expunged when they’re done serving their time. If I could do that for you, I would.

BERN:  I know that. You’re one of the few people who knows the whole story. You’re also one of the few people who has supported me through all of it and I appreciate that.

LELA:  Ain’t nothing good in me. Tell me about prison.

BERN:  Yeah. It sucks. You think the punishment is having your rights taken away from you and visiting your family through glass, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

LELA:  Like?

BERN:  I think people think this is whining ….

LELA:  People think any complaint by a prisoner is whining. Just accept your punishment.

BERN:   Right. Out of sight, out of mind … unless you’re family or a good friend.

LELA:  So, whine away, man! Let them believe what they want.

BERN: Okay. If anyone qualifies for PTSD diagnosis, it’s gotta be prisoners. Not all the guards are bad. Some treat you human, but the whole system is set up to make you feel helpless and hopeless. I’ve had 20 years to think about this and they just want to break you down in hopes that you will never want to go back there again. They change cellmates, like, almost daily. You maybe get to have the same one for a month or two, but not usually. You get to know a guy and then he’s gone and you have no idea what this next guy is all about. Maybe he’s just trying to do his time like you are, maybe he’s an abusive asshole … and anything in between. And you’re sharing an 8×10 cell with him, so you are going to know each other far too well by the end of the first day.

LELA: That sounds chaotic.

BERN: It drives home that you have zero control over your life.

LELA: And you think that’s the point?

BERN: I hope they have a point. I know, you don’t think they have a point.

LELA: That’s how I’m going to write it when I use it, yeah.

BERN:  They wash all the clothes together so your underwear ends up blue or tan. I’ve heard that some prisons it’s pink. It drives home the fact that you’re sharing underwear with hundreds of guys. And then there are the scrubs and deck shoes you have to wear. At least at Spring Creek I got to wear sort of street clothes because I was one of the workers.

LELA: You got to work in prison?

BERN: I was one of the few. I wasn’t a career criminal. I had skills going in and so I got the highest paying job in the complex – 60 cents an hour doing maintenance.

LELA: By maintenance, you mean plumbing, heating, electrical repair … not janitorial.

BERN:  Technically, but when one of the guys in Mike Mod would flush his pants to cause a disruption on a Sunday morning, I’d end up having to clean up the backup, so in reality …. But the State of Alaska no longer does prison industries anymore, so I’m not even sure that my job would be available now.

LELA: Why’d they close down the prison industries? I know they used to make coffins at Spring Creek and there was a furniture store and they used to wash all the Alaska Marine Highway linens at Lemon Creek.

BERN: They said it was financial, but I don’t know how you could get cheaper than paying someone 30 cents an hour to wash clothes.When I would do maintenance, the real workers would never go into the really yuk places and they didn’t clean up feces. That was all me. And I was glad to do it because it meant I was doing something and I got paid.

LELA: Talk about how important that is.

BERN: Doing something or getting paid?

LELA:  Both.

BERN:  Boredom is the biggest punishment. I missed my family. I missed trees. I missed my dog. But I could focus on a date when I would get out and that got me through that. I’d write letters to my wife and talk to my little girl … and my dog … on the phone. But it was the day-to-day that just ate me up. You’ve got nothing to do. The prison library is mostly a joke. There are fewer books on their shelves than on yours. And if I had to read another Zane Grey novel …. There was schooling available then too (not anymore) and I made use of that. But the fact was that I couldn’t fill all the hours I had and working helped with that. Working eight hours a day at 60 cents meant I had $4 a day. I could buy shaving creme or a pad and pencil or an anniversary card for my wife. If I saved up, I could get a gift for my daughter without having to ask my wife to put money on my books so I could buy it.

LELA: I hear it in your voice. It’s humiliating even 20 years later.

BERN: Humbling but not as bad as the mind-numbing boredom of staring at four walls with nothing to do and knowing tomorrow would be exactly the same. Imagine doing that for two and a half years.

LELA:  I can’t.

BERN:  C’mon, writer chick, I bet you could if you tried. Guys would get into trouble just to break the monotony. Of course, that didn’t work out for them because they ended up in segregation staring at even closer walls and sometimes it added to their time. I was fortunate that I had a job to go to because I served exactly the amount of time I was required to serve and not one day more and I didn’t lose even an hour of good time. I couldn’t have done that with nothing to do.

LELA: Good time?

BERN: If you’re good, they take one day off your sentence for every three days served. So, I was sentenced to six years to serve (with probably after), but I only actually served four years.

LELA: And you served the last 18 months in a halfway house, right?”

BERN: That was a whole other kind of humiliating and frustrating, but the good thing there was I could go to a legal job with real wages. I remember how annoying it was that the halfway house would put it in an account and refuse to let me have more than about 20 bucks. I wanted to be able to contribute to my household and they wouldn’t let me. “Well, what if your wife decides to leave you? You’re going to need that money when  you get out.” My release counselor actually said that. I was, like, “man, if she didn’t leave me yet, she’s not planning to leave me now.” Meanwhile she’s driving a car that’s falling apart and working two jobs trying to keep our daughter in clothes and I’m still having to ask her to help me with my expenses. It sometimes seems like they were trying to break up marriages.

LELA: A friend who was a prison guard claims that is part of it and a part he really regretted being a part of.

BERN:  Tom?

LELA:  Yeah.

BERN:  One of the ones who treated us like humans and the administration made him pay for that.

LELA:  He’s enjoying his retirement. So, then you got out. You’re still married. You have two children … they’re adult-ish now. You own your own business. You own a home. You vote in elections.

BERN:  My wife is made of tough stuff … like one of those aspen trees that grows on the bluffs in Chitina. I can’t say enough good things about her. I kind of had to start my own business because the felony kept getting in the way. It just kept coming up. You’d think that after 20 years it wouldn’t be an issue, but employers … well, their insurance companies, anyway … never let you forget.

LELA: Which is why the borderline anarchists are working on a ban-the-box law. I’ll keep working to my dying day to make our criminal justice system stop stigmatizing people for life. It might not work, but I’m not going to stop. Is there something you want ordinary people to know about you and people who have been through what you have been through?

BERN: We’re people just like you. Some of us went into the system for something we didn’t plan and would take back if we could. Others made law-breaking a career, but you know, they don’t put people in jail for that in Alaska anymore. Human have brains and deserve better than staring at four walls for years on end. But more than that, there’s dignity in work and in getting paid real money for real work and prisoners deserve dignity. The reason I called you up was that the person going after you was totally wrong. I’m not illiterate or retarded and neither were most of the guys I was in with. Don’t make the mistake of thinking drug-dealers are ill-informed or idiots. They worked in a system that involves the voluntary exchange of goods. They ran a business, even if the government didn’t get a cut. So it’s not up to suburban housewives and college graduates with a degree in social fluff to decide for us what we can and cannot do with our lives and what few options we have when we’re inside. I participated in a university scientific experiment that involved giving a periodic blood sample and keeping track of what I ate. I actually bought my wife flowers for Valentine’s that year. I got asked last year to take part in a follow-up to that study and I did. If it was a good cause, I’d be glad to take part in an experiment like that now. There’s one where you get to spend a couple of weeks in a closed-up hotel while they try to expose you to the flu so they can develop a vaccine. They pay you $5000 for it. I’m trying to figure out how to put my name in for it because it sounds like easy money … depending on what the actual paperwork says when I read it. I’m obviously going to read that pretty carefully before I sign my name on the dotted line. But more than that … the flu kills and so I think an actual effective vaccine against it would be a good idea and I’m willing to help with that. And you see, that’s where I’m trying to find significance in my culture … a feeling that I’m still a contributing member of society even if society thinks I’m a pariah.

Your troll was partially right … in a broke-clock-right-twice-a-day way — that there were some awful things that happened in the past. Prisons were awful back in the day for very different reasons than they’re awful now. There were medical experiments that were done on prisoners that were cruel and just wrong. You knew about those?

LELA:  Sure. The LSD experiements and the Malaria Project come to mind. There were a lot more than that, but I’d have to look them up to remember them all. But those were decades ago (literally 40+ years ago) and prisoners prevailed in court and are now some of the most highly-protected medical research subjects in the country.

BERN: Absolutely. There are laws — informed consent laws that prisons and medical researchers have to abide by these days. You can even consult your own lawyer before signing. And there’s always a prisoner advocate about to consult too. They won’t let you not consult them. Your troll apparently doesn’t know about those. Which isn’t very surprising. A lot of people don’t actually study anything. They read something a website they agree with writes and they just agree with it without checking the facts. They do it on both ends of politics. And then again, there’s all the people who have never talked to someone like me, let alone anyone actually in prison now, and just assume crap as if they know. There’s this attitude … I run into it even now … that if you’ve ever had a run-in with the law, you must not be very bright. Sometimes I want to just grab people by the shoulders and scream “You could be next, you naive idiot.” Of course, that would be considered assault so I’ll settle for saying it on your blog.

LELA:  They’d probably arrest me for it too. Thank goodness for the internet where you can’t actually shake someone to death. Yes, there are ethical concerns in prisoners taking part in research. There are ethical concerns in non-prisoners taking part in research. It’s research and you could die of the flu if given the flu. But I can’t help think that people like her who object so strong have bought the line that research can be done with computer models instead of actual living subjects. They scream and yell about animal research, never asking if that means the drug will be tested directly on humans and then they scream and yell about human research … and I’m not sure what they think the alternative is. And yet if they get some condition, they want to be treated. Maybe doctors should just start saying “Well, sorry, but we had to stop that research because we couldn’t get enough test subjects.” Then they’d sue the doctor for not treating their condition.

BERN:  Your uncle is a researcher, right?

LELA:  Cousin … yes. I can’t imagine where MS treatment would be today if the attitudes that prevail now were in existence in the 1970s through the 90s.

BERN: More to our topic, HIV research was stymied in the 1980s by concerns about using prisoner research subjects. There’s more IV-drug users in the prisons than in the general population, but you know, they might feel coerced if asked to take part. Imagine how many people died because there were all these huge hurdles to allowing someone like me to take part in a clinical trial just because I was behind bars.

LELA:  And the amazing thing to me is that my advocating for that got me hit with a label of not being compassionate.

BERN:  There’s a lot of phony compassion out there … people who haven’t got a clue, but are certain they know better than the people who are actually involved. They define compassion oddly. And they frequently base their opinions on the opinions of those who haven’t been involved. Nobody should ever be forced take part in something they don’t want to take part in. Everyone should have a choice. Prisoners are pretty good at saying “hell, no!” when it’s something they don’t want to do because they’re already doing something they don’t want to do. But not understanding the basic need for people to have significance … to feel like they’re contributing to society … that seems pretty uncompassionate to me. Yeah, you need to make sure they know what they’re doing, but let people who have so few choices in life make their own choices about whether to give a little blood or whatever. It might just help them to feel like a worthwhile human being again.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-prisoners-be-used-in-medical-experiments/

 

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