This post is part of a series on what it’s like to be an atheist in prison. To read other parts in the series, click here. Some of these inmates have done things that, to many of you, will be unforgivable. I will be disclosing some of their names, so you can easily find out what they’ve done to end up in lockup. You may be disgusted to find out their crimes, and you have every right to be. This series, for the most part, will not be about their crimes. I’m interested in painting a picture of what life is like for nonbelievers in the joint. If you find it is too upsetting to be part of giving them a platform, please choose not to read this. You don’t have to be part of it.
With that said, I’ve sent each inmate some preliminary questions to get the conversation going. If you find you have questions that arise as you read their responses, please post them in the comments below or email them to me: email@example.com and I will make sure the person gets them.
Mike is serving a sentence for the murder of his father. He claims the killing was in self-defence. He completes a 20-year sentence this year after being caught on the run in Mexico in 1998. He is likely to be released in May but kept on supervised parole for his natural life. This portion of his letter is carried on from last week’s, which you can read here.
Everyone probably sees something different as being the hardest thing about prison. we all have our own particular histories, problems and priorities. For me being innocent and still being forced to be in prison and on natural life post-prison supervision sucks pretty bad. Also, anytime I plead my case to the court or get asked questions about it by prisoners, I say I am innocent. No one believes or cares unless they, too, are innocent or have been screwed over pretty hard by the government. Most people in prison are guilty even though some are only guilty of offences that either should not be crimes or should not elicit such an excessively hard sentence. A lot of inmates resent people who are not guilty because it makes the guilty feel or look bad so they reflexively attack us. The courts do not want to admit they make mistakes or are very flawed and sometimes corrupt. District Attorneys, police and judges are all on the same team as the rest of the government. They are very biased against you and because they have the power and rarely get punished even when caught red-handed in malfeasance, they easily ignore valid appeals claims, violations of constitutional rights and innocence. So, in essence, just stating the facts of government malfeasance and your innocence starts a lifelong battle with a lot of people around you especially very pro-government people like correctional officers who are ex-police officers, etc.
More generally the prison and its rules do a good job of isolating you from the real world outside the prison. This prevents you from or severely hinders your ability to better yourself or situation. You’re just rotting away, trying to maintain your sanity and struggling to educate yourself or whatever your focus is. In prison, it is far, far easier to waste your time trying to entertain yourself. That is what the rules allow for and promote: television, card games, weights (although they keep trying to remove them), basketball court, day room to talk crap with your prison buddies, religious events and worship and basic GED education. That’s why most people spend most of their time working out, watching TV, listening to the radio, playing cards, eating unhealthy canteen food. Generally, prisons facilitate you wasting your time. Anything to actually better you or your situation usually ends up being propaganda. So, most people trying to better themselves or their situation have to struggle against the system constantly. So it rarely happens – or at least to great effect it rarely happens. The system, by default, encourages people to degenerate and come back to prison. It’s a self-sustaining industry. Again Oregon is not as bad as some other states in which conditions are really bad and have a 70% to 80% recidivism rate within 3 to 5 years. Oregon I believe only has a 60% recidivism rate in 3 years. But there is virtually no other place where a 60%+ failure rate is considered a success. Prison and the system at best fail more than they succeed and we wonder why we keep needing to build more prisons, hire more police, make more laws, go in-debt to fund it all just to fail. It spirals out of control until you have a serious economic crisis then the solution is to overcrowd and make it all worse until finally, you have to start letting people out of prison early or lose lawsuits and the courts force you to. Then, as soon as the economy recovers, they go back to doing it all again.
In many in prisons, if you are broke it is very hard to make any serious money. Oregon at least pays you an average of $40 a month for a job so you can get basic stuff like toothpaste, toothbrushes etc. Unless you owe fines, court fees or restitution. Then you are completely screwed and have to resort to crime, asking family members, or hustling people on the outside to send you money. The whole system runs on money. You need money to educate yourself : books, CDs. correspondence courses. You need money to call your people. You need money to litigate your criminal case on appeals. Filing fees can be several hundreds of dollars, plus copies and postage and other expenses. You still have little chance of being successful unless you have outside help or professional investigators, paralegals and lawyers that are actually competent and motivated to work for you to win your case. That takes lots of money, sometimes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If I had 200-300 thousand dollars at trial to hire a good attorney I would have never been put in prison or would have only gotten manslaughter at most. I might have won my appeal by now and had a new trial.
Being forced to live in small spaces with just enough weights, food, space, tables, seats and phones to fight over promotes the formation of gangs and makes it so that you need to get in with the stronger people/gangs to make sure you get access to basic equipment. Either that or you have to fight for it sometimes.
My day-to-day life consists of eating far too starchy and fatty foods – although food in this state is not as bad as it is in many other states. I also struggle to get at least 4 hours sleep, especially now that I am in a minimum dorm. It’s noisy, there are always lights on, the bunks wiggle a lot. I’m often struggling to make headway with exercising and lifting weights, trying to get stronger and healthier. This is getting harder the older I get but I can still bench over 220 lbs, squat 300-plus lbs, deadlift 400 lbs, do 10 pull-ups wide grip, 1000 sit-ups in under an hour, etc. Not great shape but doing okay. I can’t wait to get out of prison into a real gym so I can work out on good equipment. I’d like to burn off 20 lbs of fat so I can see my abs. I also want to get good supplements and lift heavy weight to grow more muscle. I also am still try to educate myself, reading medical, science, and technology books. I’m often taking lots of notes, writing so small to condense the information so that the information from 100 books fits into the space of one stack of notes. Prisoners are very limited on how much property we can have. Right now it is limited to about 12 cubic feet or about two-thirds to three-quarters of a 55-gallon drum. Sorry about writing so small but I am limited to one ounce for mail unless I get a really expensive special envelope with more postage. I also work my prison jobs. I used to be a cook, working five hours a day. Then, I switched to washing dishes so that I only work about one and a half hours. That way I have more time to study and work out. I also daydream off and on about the outside things I want to do, inventions I want to build, memories of people I knew and places I’ve been etc. I struggle to stay sane and not let all the little things that annoy you about prison after twenty-one years drive you nuts.
I have never done drugs, I never smoke tobacco and only drank alcohol a few times other than tasting different types. I’ve only been drunk two or three times in my life, and never high, although I grew up with my father habitually smoking pot in the house. I probably inhaled more secondhand smoke than most serious dopeheads from infancy to about ten years old. I had an uncle that got caught importing a million dollars of cocaine into Oregon when I was about ten or so, and my father was a drug dealer/addict and alcoholic. I had plenty of access and opportunity to do drugs or tobacco or alcohol, but it never much appealed to me. I do not know why. I had many of the traditional troubles, situations and reasons that many addicts cite for why they become addicts. I have had access to drugs and alcohol in prison and now the minimum dorms I live in are filled with tobacco smoke. It is ridiculous. I inhale so much.
I have read some Alcoholics Anonymous stuff which seems fairly wise, honest and straightforward like the Serenity Prayer. I have never seen a non-religious alternative and would probably not know how good it would be if I did see one. I am not really qualified to comment on such things because I am not an addict and have not participated in AA or NA.
I want to know what you think of the things Mike has said – do you believe it’s possible he is innocent? Let me know in the comments! Or if you would prefer to write to Mike yourself, you can send him a letter:
Michael Webber #12362542
4005 Aumsville Hwy SE
Salem, OR 97317 US
Mike sent me close to 8000 words, so I have to split this up. That means you’ll get the final part of his letter next week. Make sure you’re signed up to receive updates in your inbox as I post these. The form to sign up is in the top right sidebar. Or you can follow me on Twitter for all my updates: @godless_mom
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay