When I Was In Prison

This is one of the most inspiring and intriguing articles I have ever seen on FB. Not just for its subject matter, but what he says is straight from my heart. When I say I have been there and done that, I mean it right down to the last iota. It’s not just what he says in print. What he says between the lines you feel in your bones doesn’t need explanation, at least not between him and me. “When you come out of prison, you have nothing” Look around you right now; everything you see is what you have and more. Now imagine it’s ALL gone; in a fire or a tornado, you lose it ALL. That is what he is saying when he says, “you have nothing.” “no home, no money, and no job.” He qualifies what nothing amounts to, nothing. If you are lucky, a halfway house catches you before you fall again, and most likely, you will fall again.

The halfway house only staves off the inevitable. “The only thing you have is your social standing. And returning is preferable if your social standing in jail is perceived as higher than that on the outside. This one post could be the Genesis for a discussion about all the parameters of prison, prison life, and trying to make it on the streets. And THE STREETS, society doesn’t have a clue. A job and a place to stay do not make a success. A man once asked me, “how do you make it.” I immediately responded, “you have to take a lot of shit.” I’m just being honest here.

When I left prison, I had a box of books and $22.00. I went to a halfway house then (1978) after I left the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. They don’t even have halfway houses anymore in most of the country. Today, a homeless shelter would have been my future. Before transferring to the MCC, I was in the U. S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo. I have to respond to his statement about one’s social standing. One’s identity which a person feels he is.

I will be out of order today, but it is essential to get out of the way so that the other chapters will be understood more. Today is another ‘commercial break’ because I found this small article I had saved, and I rarely find somebody speaking your mind. Saying what you want to say, exactly how you want to say it.

There is a social hierarchy in prison; you are either feared, respected, or paid no attention. The highest status you want is to be considered GOOD PEOPLE. There are no awards…it’s in the acknowledgments you receive as you are recognized throughout the day. You see people all the time in the chow hall where you eat with the same 3 men 3 times a day, in the halls as you traverse going from destination to destination, in the yard, participating in sports. Everywhere you go, you are being acknowledged (or not), “Hey, what’s happening?” Nothing, you reply. And that’s it. Your respect. I’ll repeat what the author said above. “The only thing you have is your social standing. And returning is preferable if your social standing in jail is perceived as higher than that on the outside.

Community Organizer

In contrast to my stays at other institutions, my time at the MCFP was almost enjoyable. Any former convicts reading this are going to think I am nuts. Mark my words, the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners is very much a prison. There comes a time in a prisoner’s life when he no longer needs to prove himself. At 26 years old, with almost a dozen prisons under my belt and with as many years served, I felt confident about my standing. Every prisoner’s experience is almost always paused upon entering a new prison until you see what’s there. In my previous stays at most of the prisons I had been in, I was constantly in trouble and spent considerable time in the ‘hole .’I would often self-destruct if things weren’t as hard as I thought they should be.

When God changed me, He didn’t just take out my stony heart. He gave me a new mind as well. With no experience, I became the Editor of the Prison paper and later the photographer. I organized banquets for our social club, talent shows for the prisoners, and MC’ing them. I raised funds for causes in the community where children were concerned. On one such occasion, a college intern came into the Recreational office and asked Mr. Creson for permission to organize a talent show for the men. Mr. Creson said, “If you want to organize a talent show, you must speak to him.” And pointed in my direction.

God had done a fantastic thing, skills where there had been none, respect from the staff and prisoners, and most of all, a desire to be used in this capacity. None of which I possessed before accepting Christ. God’s fingerprints were everywhere in my life. Another reason I accomplished what I did was in the manner of how things worked in prison. If I wanted to organize an event in prison, I could go to the men I needed and ask for their involvement. No Man Is An Island wrote Thomas Merton, which is true in prison. I had taken a course on Delegating Authority. I utilized its principles of giving those I asked responsibility for taking care of certain aspects of whatever was needed. The respect of the other prisoners across ethnic lines was imperative. This experience on the inside would carry over to the outside when I was released. Man, was I surprised to find that it profited me nothing to people on the streets.

I ran for public office three times in my life after my release. The Park District twice and once for the office of alderman in city hall. In almost every instance, I had none of the support on the streets that I had in prison. Oh, there were men and women in my life who stood out in helping to pave my way into society and acted beyond the call of duty. But where it took a large body of the response, it just wasn’t there.

When Hands Across America came into play, I successfully organized a body of folks from Reba to join in that effort. Still, I was mostly a lone wolf in my efforts to become a community activist.

I gathered a bunch of baseball cards and solicited half a dozen kids to join me in a class where we would discover how a baseball card could be used to learn math, geography, and creative writing. We held the courses in the basement of our building for the first two years. Cheryl Joyal, a resident in the building and a member of Reba Church, pitched in and bought tickets for all the kids to go to a White Sox game. Another church member, Jim Gillette, suggested I take the concept to Robert Crown Recreational Center, and they would give me a room and even pay me. And that they did, but I had one proviso, you cannot charge the kids for their participation. After the third and final year (I wasn’t going to have these kids have to pay anything.), they agreed the first year, but the following year they changed their position and wanted a nominal fee, as they put it.

We discovered the traveling secretary of the Chicago White Sox, Chuck Bizzell, lived in Evanston. We invited him to one of our classes, and although the kids were at least 12, he gave a very informative and exciting talk. We asked him back to our year-end banquet, where he gave a great speech again, but the parents dominated the questions this time. Still, a great time was had by all.

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