Once it was a typical Lifetime-style movie. After a tragic setback, the heroine relocated to a new town where no one knows her. In their unfamiliarity with her, the community underestimates her until she reveals – piecemeal – her mysterious past and the strength that kept it entombed inside her.
That story might have worked in the 1980’s and 90’s but it would never fly today. The heroine’s new community will know her life story before she can change the name on her mailbox because, well, Google. The fact that no one is the keeper of her own narrative anymore makes TMI impossible. Society’s savage when it comes to secrets. If he could have seen society’s modern insatiability when it comes to secrets, F. Scott Fitzgerald would double down on his (alleged) observation that there are no second acts in American lives.
I’m wouldn’t have been so bothered by my felony convictions and imprisonment if they could’ve been concealed; that’s how narcissistic I was when I got here. The fact that someone would know about my prison stint bothered me more than the actual conditions of custody themselves. Nights on these two-inch mattresses were filled with divine bargaining. God could extend my prison sentence – a significant one already – if I could just be sure that no one would ever know I’d been here.
My skyward offers have gone unheard and I can now accept that my thinking was delusional. But I found my cure reading two gospels that confinement forced me to examine more closely than I ever would have before: the Bible and Howard Stern’s Private Parts. Amongst other lessons like “poor in spirit” has nothing to do with a bad attitude, disciple Matthew teaches that it’s not necessarily love that wins; it’s humility. “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled” – which I knew because I thought I was too important to be jailed and yet, here I am – but sometjing I hadn’t even considered: “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It’s exactly what happened to Stern. After vowing to his audience he would never lie to them again, he let loose truth all over his listeners, revealing genital realities, lecherous inclinations, bodily functions and unabashed humanity. His failures and embarrassments coronated him the King of All Media.
I have no idea if Howard knows this, but he ripped a page right out of Jesus’ playbook in structuring his kingdom. The disciples, according to Deacon Dolan, were a bunch of outsider weirdos, the Beetlejuices and Nicole Bass’ of ancient Israel. Matthew himself was a tax collector, which at the time, was worse than being a robber and a snitch together. Saint Peter was a manic hot-head who nobody wanted around, “the stone the other builders rejected.” Others were bumblers. I’m sure one of them had a high-pitched voice like Eric. And yet they, too, built an altar where millions worship. The apostles were a Wack Pack.
The proof that you have real power is an ability to take people at such deep margins of society and make them revered, historical. And you can’t do that unless you get to their level by exposing yourself as the most rejectable incompetent ever, so reviled that they want to nail your Fartman costume-covered ass to a cross.
You’d expect a system of rehabilitation to recommend radical confession, but even they know what I’m planning to do is dangerous. Correctional staff advises you to conceal your past for as long as you can get away with it.
“Admit it only when asked,” instructs the re-entry counselor at the prison. From employment to school applications to any endeavor that requires acceptance, the general wisdom is to let people do a few things – like 1) get to know you; 2) learn that they like you and 3) stay seated on the other side of the table – before you detonate your details on them.
Not only would I feel like I was springing essential information on people after well after it was opportuned, the wait-to-reveal strategy doesn’t work if what all these recidivists tell me is correct. Even the legal protection from these Ban-the-Box laws that are bouncing around to prevent potential employers from asking about a criminal record until everyone’s about to seal the deal – will make me look like a liar when I don’t disclose my past right away. People will hold the convictions against my character anyway and my explanation – Everyone told me not to say anything and you didn’t ask yet! – will probably undermine any promise I might have projected.
That’s why I know I need to tell people I did time very soon after I meet them. Almost immediately. Like, before I tell them my name.
“Oh no, you’re not feeling the effects of a felony conviction, are you?” the nice people will fear, knowing that collateral consequences assure that punishment never ends in this country.
“No, I’m feeling the effects of thirteen of them,” I will say.
I’m flattering myself that this practice will be efficient and extremely honest, but it will really be a form of aggression, classic preemption. When I tell people I’ve been in prison, a silent “You got a problem with that?” will hang in the air with all the subtlety of swinging nunchucks. Subconsciously I want to retain a victim mentality, so if anyone is going reject the other, it can’t be me pushing someone away.
Pretty much everyone knows someone else who’s considered as bad as I’m made out to be. Sometimes that person is themselves. I was in prison and revealing it is not only true, it gives people permission to have problematic pasts. The sinkhole of mass incarceration has sucked in so many lives that new acquaintances might even reveal their own justice involvement after I lift the shroud of shame.
Especially if their convictions pre-date a digital age, many of them probably never told anyone outside of their family because they didn’t have to. No one could unearth their histories without their consent but their secret burdened them with a heavy thought: what will happen if someone eventually finds out? As the first person they’ll come out to, I plan on relieving them because, per Matthew and Howard, there’s no need to be ashamed of anything that’s real.
Others have very good reasons to be wary of an ex-con. I feel no obligation to convince them of any other way to behold someone with a criminal record. Take me. Leave me. Your call. That’s freedom.
Besides, this is an efficiency matter. Spilling a sordid past is a great social sorting mechanism. If someone is going to hold it against me in the future, I want the rebuff up front and to waste no time.
Abject rejectability might not make me a queen but I think it will be my edge when I re-enter society. Opening the interpersonal trench coat and exposing all that deserves cover is likely the only way I can compete when I leave. Instead of putting my name on my mailbox, I’ll put: Inmate No. 330445.
When people ask me:
“Paper or plastic?” (I don’t even know if that’s still a choice being offered), I’ll answer:
“Prison. I was in prison.”
“Do you want fries with that?” someone will pose to me over a cash register. I will reply:
“I want you to know I was with the worst of the worst in prison. And sort of I fit right in.”
When a server asks me:
“Have you decided on anything for today?”
“I’ve decided that this meal is better than anything I ate in prison for years. I worked in a kitchen there, you know, a unique place where the customer and the server are both always wrong.”
When a physician inquires as to how I’m doing, I’ll answer:
“My health’s okay, but I’m terrible person. I think I’m smarter than you, yet I wasn’t smart enough to keep my ass out of the joint, much less finish graduate school.”
When some perfect, stable person whose quick moves dodged them right out of dysfunction uses that collected, cucumber tone with me:
“Hey, what’s going on?”
“Prison exacerbated my every disorder I have and made my mind a sieve, so nothing.”
Eventually they’ll get so tired of of this that they’ll get very stern with me:
“Ma’am. I have other things to do here. It doesn’t make any difference in my life that you were in prison.”
And I will say:
And I will win. So I will fix my crown upon my head, whereupon it will crash down on my knee or my foot, making me shriek in pain and display my weakness for all, because that’s what the powerful winners do.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM SEPTEMBER 18 – 24, 2017
In an attempt to control the opioid epidemic, drugstore giant CVS is going to limit new patients with new prescriptions for opioid drugs to seven days’ worth of pills – which means all of the prescription fraud is about to shift to Walgreen’s and Rite-Aid unless they follow suit. This is a good idea overall, I think, but someone I spent time with in prison pointed out that she takes opioids legitimately (meaning she has a non-forged script) and pain makes it hard for her to leave the house. If this rule applies to her, she needs to leave the house four times more now. I hadn’t thought of that because I was concentrating on a memory I have of another woman I met at York CI who forged a doctor’s signature so well, the only way he could tell if he wrote it was to check his patient files. Her forgeries were for people whom he never examined. I bet she’ll avoid CVS now. It won’t be worth the risk of arrest for seven pills.
A $75 speeding ticket case has reached the Iowa Supreme Court and it’s not some diehard self-represented person who won’t let it go. The case is actually very important because it’s about privatizing police services. Cops with a private company are writing tickets to bad its bottom line. Innocent people are getting caught up in someone else’s agenda. Congratulations, Marla Leaf (the petitioner who got the bogus ticket); now you know what prison discipline feels like.
Another lawsuit was filed, challenging the wages paid to detainees by private prisons, this time in Washington State. The last one was filed earlier this year in Colorado. I have always said this is bad move. If anyone has to pay detainees or inmates a minimum wage, they’ll just hire people outside the facility and then people inside will have nothing to do. These lawsuits might shut down the entire job program within these facilities and that’s a bad idea. All it will cause is more idleness for people inside. Do you need directions to the Devil’s workshop?