July 22, 2015

Too Much Time in Federal Prison

This morning I woke up, worked on my book, wrote in my diary, walked the track, practiced yoga, helped an inmate prepare a motion to expunge an old DUI, ate breakfast, read a magazine, practiced guitar, talked with my kids and…..looked at my watch.

9:30 a.m.

So I walked the track again, stood for count, wrote a letter to my grandparents, talked with my bunkie and ate lunch.

10:45 a.m.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Time – bad ol’ time – weighed heavy on me today. In part it’s my own fault: unlike most inmates, I religiously avoid TV, determined to make the most of my time and avoid zombification. Also, as a recovering lawyer I still tend to watch the clock, as if every minute could still be billed, the opposite of the Zen approach to time recommended in many prisoner advice books. Not to mention that I’m unable to spend time how I really want to: with my kids. But sometimes I envy my bunkie, who alternates his day pretty evenly between sleeping and watching TV. I would have mentioned eating, but since he does that while watching it doesn’t merit a separate category.

It’s ironic that one side effect of imprisonment is to give an inmate too much of what is usually a very scarce resource on the outside. Too bad that instead of time they don’t suggest a prison reform that gives us more of some other precious resource instead: gold or platinum would do for me. Part of it is inevitable, I suppose. Here away from friends and family we’re stripped of many of those things – house and home, family and friends – that consume so much time on the outside. Those of us at work camps like Lompoc still have work of a sort to keep us busy, but that still leaves the weekends… And we’re all of us here counting down the days until that wonderful day when the gates open and we’re thrown out on our rears. Other than death, real life has few such finite, time-related, big events. From experience I can say it tends to mess with the mind. They don’t call it ‘doing time’ for nothing.

Time has never seemed so malleable to me as it does now, like taffy that tends to stretch and elongate. Some days, filled with work, writing, yoga, calls home – fly by. Others draaaaaaag. Like today. And I’m a generally industrious person. Since coming to prison I’ve completed RDAP, the intensive 9-month behavioral modification program, wrote half of my next book, learned guitar, taught myself to write left handed (don’t ask), walked between 5 and 10 miles per day, taken two college-level courses and learned to stand on my head for up to 30 minutes. Not to mention all the letters, daily phone calls with my kids, blog posts. Among other things.

Other than my own diligence, for much of that I have to thank Justin Paperny for his honest prison advice. He used his time in prison very well – writing his blog, then book Lessons From Prison, preparing for his post-prison career – and now works with others (including me) to help motivate them to do the same. But even still…. Looking at it optimistically, I’ll just call it too much of a good thing, like a quadruple hot fudge sundae when a double would have done just fine.

To toot my own horn a bit, most of my fellow inmates deal worse with time than me. They get bored, count the days, wonder when their out date will ever come. There’s an inmate who spends his days on his bunk, staring at the ceiling bouncing his leg. Another is a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, sleeping away his sentence. I imagine the post-prison exchange: “So what did you do in prison?” “Well, I stared at the wall and um….well, I stared at the wall.” To give inmates’ their due, the good-ol’ BOP is pretty infamous for its emphasis on correction over control, for its lack of attention to the productive use of inmate time. Warehousing is an overly-polite way of describing what they do.

But even with all my self-directed activities I’m not always immune to the dictatorship of time. Time has a nasty habit of worming its way into many conversations. The most common question: How much time you got? (Meaning, how much time is left on your sentence). Other overused phrases:

– “It’s a good way to kill time.” (Overheard a few minutes ago in regard to lifting weights)

– “My day’s dragging, dog, dragging.”

– “I’m bored.”

– Or, my favorite: the inmate who counted down the final year of his sentence by how many chow-hall hamburgers he had left to eat: 52, 51, 50. Drove me completely crazy.

On that very theme, this blog post has been a wonderful way to kill time, 17 minutes and 29 seconds to be exact. And with that, I’m off to walk the track again. And if there’s time after that, I may just stand on my head, thinking…..about time.

Leigh Sprague



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