418 | Roadblocks to Progress

January 17, 2016
Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
Letter #418: Roadblocks to Progress


Dear Family,

For the past couple of months, the band equipment, located in the housing unit across from ours, has been locked up. No bands were allowed to use the instruments, and not even us music tutors could access the equipment. The plan, my boss told me, is to move the secure cage from the other unit into our unit’s multi-purpose room. That way my boss could keep a better eye on how it was being managed, and whether or not it was in keeping with his stated goals for the program.

In the meantime, since the band program was shut down, I adjusted the schedule in our own multi-purpose room to make space for the bands to practice. Then, I reached out to the various band members from each of the eight bands and invited them to begin practicing during the times allotted to them, using just keyboards and guitars. I figured we could work out any issues with the schedule before the equipment cage and all the instruments were moved to our unit, and our unit staff could begin to get used to the process involved with hosting bands every day.

Everyone was glad to begin their practice schedule again after the two-month break, excitedly talking about the possibility of a concert in the future. Well, not everyone was glad that our unit, Navajo Unit, would receive the band instruments and sound equipment. The guys who took advantage of the program in the past and misused it were not happy to not have the access they once had, and they refused to even step foot into our unit or participate in any way in the music program. No great loss; we all were relieved.

Eventually, it just happened. One day I entered the multi-purpose room as usual, and there was the big secure cage with all the band equipment in it. Remember, that even though I was a music tutor like all the other original band members, I wasn’t welcome to use the equipment for the first nine months. Just the cool kids used it, never teaching anyone, while I set up the piano side of things. Now, here I was, with all of the equipment in my own multi-purpose room. To top it off, I was put in charge of it. Mr. Lohman said that, given the recent history of the program, with guys taking equipment to their cells and making unauthorized recordings, he wanted it to be run “as well-organized and problem-free as the piano program.”

One thing I have noted during my time in prison is that there is a great need for initiative, organization, and diligence. Days, weeks, and months can easily slip by unnoticed, with absolutely nothing to show for it if you simply follow the herd. No one HAS to do anything, except for those who have to finish their education and those who are given a full-time job, such as working in the kitchen. Otherwise, an endless cycle of eating and sleeping with a few games of dominoes in between is the norm.

Even my closest friends, who wanted the music program to succeed, were motivated to volunteer their time, and were willing to help with whatever I needed, couldn’t see the very clear next steps to make it work. I had to create the practice schedules, inventory sheets, staff expectation lists, student agreement forms, sign-up sheets, teacher schedules, etc., etc. And even though there probably is someone else who could have created the necessary systems to help everything run smooth, no one else is even thinking about what is needed. I don’t understand it.

I don’t mind leading, let me be clear, especially when appointed as the leader. But it is surprising to me how complacent and dispassionate nearly everyone else is. I’ve tried to make sense of it, of course, wondering if it is because of their own personality or because prison life has made them that way.

With everything you hold dear stripped away, with rejection from most of society, with no meaningful occupational pursuits, and with the normal, healthy pressures of being a man completely or partially missing (providing for a family, household responsibilities, etc.), many of us in prison begin to feel a different kind of freedom. But is freedom from difficult or challenging responsibilities really freedom? I think not. Rather, for many, a bondage to complacency and laziness develops.

For others, the stark reality of vast amounts of time left to serve on their sentences brings a brand of despair that gnaws at the back of your mind, an ever-present reminder that you aren’t wanted back into your community. Not now, not later, but much, much later. This breeds an attitude of wait-and-see, where it is easier to put off indefinitely the simple tasks and responsibilities so common to normal society, such as health and wellness, education, communication, and vocational training. Granted, some of these tasks can be more difficult in prison, with a lack of online access, proper nutrition and supplements, and limited resources to draw from. Even communication is relegated to 1970’s-era, pre-email, pre-cell phone, pre-social media days, making keeping in touch with friends and family atypical and difficult at best.

My hope is that I can help inspire, uplift, and encourage men here to think beyond their adopted life of comfort and ease by working to learn music, practice hard, and have something positive to show for the years we’ve tossed away. “Redeeming the time, for the days are evil.”