Monday, February 16, 2009

Awkward Encounter at Taft Federal Prison Camp

I had an awkward encounter in the bathroom of my housing unit at Taft Camp. I was washing my face when Mark walked in. Mark was another prisoner with whom I had been friendly in the past. As he turned the water on from a sink a few down the line from the sink I was using, I acknowledged him in greeting.

No response.

I finished rinsing my mouth after brushing my teeth. Thinking that perhaps Mark had not heard me because of the running water, I said good morning again. Mark then looked over at me.

“Don’t you ever talk to me again.”

“Excuse me,” I said, bewildered at his aggression. It was before seven, and I was oblivious as to why he would come off so angry.

“You heard me. I hate all of you mother……’s. You rich, USC (expletive deleted) who come through here and serve time as if you’re on vacation. F… you. Don’t ever talk to me again.”

Mark was a man in his early 60s. He was a white-collar offender serving time for violations of securities laws. We had known each other the entire time that I had been confined in Taft Camp, and we always had been cordial to one another. I did not know what had set Mark off, but I did not inquire further. I gathered my toiletries and returned to my cubicle, very much disturbed by the encounter.

Before preparing for my morning exercise, I sat in my cubicle, trying to come to terms with what had just happened. Frankly, it shook me up a bit. I was not frightened, but concerned about what I may have done to elicit or provoke such a reaction from Mark. His response was not what one would ordinarily expect from a morning salutation.

I realized that despite the relatively easy adjustment I had made to life inside Taft’s federal prison camp, I was still in prison. It was real. People were separated from their families. Their wives were leaving them. Their children had forgotten them. The assets they had worked a lifetime to accumulate were gone. Futures were bleak. People were drowning in misery and some clung to bitterness as a means of coping.

In all the time I had served, I had shown only courtesy and respect to the men around me. As a prisoner, I felt as if that kindness would serve me well within the population. Other prisoners, however, did not find it so easy to act with a common civility. They were angry, for whatever reasons. Although I could control my own behavior, I could not control the behavior or adjustment patterns of the men around me.

Serving time in prison required balance, an equanimity and focus on the importance of our decisions. At times, I felt as if I were crossing a high wire. I had to advance from one point to the next. One false step would threaten all that I had gained. Any other response besides walking away from Mark’s outburst may have provoked him further. Had I inquired further, the altercation may have escalated into conflict, with no upside.

As I sat in my cubicle to gather my bearings, I reminded myself that discomfort was a part of the prison experience. Regardless of how easily I felt that I was acclimating, I was living in a cauldron, and eruptions could blast without expectation. By keeping the importance of family and friends and my release date in focus, I found it easier to discipline my adjustment. Serving my time with dignity did not mean that I had to engage in conflict.

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