440 | The Dreaded Ducat

June 19, 2016
Sunday, 10:00 p.m.
Letter #440: The Dreaded Ducat


Dear Family,

Last Sunday night I received a small 3″ x 5″ piece of paper, a “ducat,” the method this prison uses to summon you to voluntary (church services, e.g.) or involuntary (mailroom, e.g.) activities. Normally the ducats are routine, my pass to teach choir or pick up a book sent in for me. This ducat, however, was what we refer to as a “bad news” ducat, one that notifies you of a change in program you didn’t request or wish for, such as being given a job in the kitchen or being placed in a drug and alcohol class all day.

My ducat said I’d been placed in a vocational class to learn the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) trade, something I’ve always dreamed of doing. As a little boy, I would stare at the heater vents in our house and wonder who put it there and why they hadn’t installed an air conditioning unit at the same time. I dreamed about installing air ducts and … no. No, I never dreamed any of that. I’ve never hoped to learn more about that whole industry, and when I arrived at this prison, I never asked my correctional counselor to please put me on the waiting list for one of the vocational classes. I did not hope to “learn a trade” while in prison, and I certainly did not hope to be placed in a vocational class that will eat up three hours of my time every morning and three hours of my time every afternoon.

Before you become overly critical of me, you may recall that we have been through this little hypothetical scenario before, when I was placed in the all-day carpentry class at La Palma Correctional Center a few years ago. Think about your life, right now, today. Now picture this: you are minding your own business being a law-abiding citizen, just following the rules. Then, out of nowhere, you receive notification via certified mail that you have been selected by the government to participate in mandatory military training in case the United States goes to war seven years from now. You will learn how to drive and operate tanks and other ground support vehicles. Oh, and it will be super easy to squeeze into your day: every day from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and every afternoon from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., conveniently located just a couple of blocks from your house. Sounds awesome, right? Exactly what you always wanted, right? You, six hours a day, Monday through Friday, for eight months. Not something you’d want to do, eh? What, you supposedly have “other” things you’d rather be doing than learning how to drive an armored vehicle? Well, I’m not that into learning how to install heating, ventilation, or air conditioning units, but I don’t have a choice in the matter, so have a bit of compassion for me, will you?

To be completely honest (a refreshing, new activity I’ve been exploring over the past eight years), it took me about one minute to get used to the idea of me having to spend day after day in a class with information that I have no desire to learn and can see no possible need for. After all, I reasoned with myself, “not liking it” was not going to change the fact that I would be attending the class. I might as well start liking the idea, even if I don’t exactly, well, like the idea.

I began to evaluate, again, how effectively I spend my time. Am I sleeping too much? No, it is rare that I get all seven hours. Do I waste time? Not that I can see … for the past two months, I’ve watched no television or movies in an attempt to get everything accomplished I’d like to get done and still have time for the normal interruptions from guys wanting to talk with me. I couldn’t see how I could afford to lose six hours every day for the next eight months, and then I thought about how many guys, especially some who are in prison or homeless or without a job, would want to take my place in this class. I also wished I could know who they are so I could work something out where I could let them do exactly that.

Then, every day this past week, I got ready for class, left my dorm at the correct time, and waited out in the main hallway for the door to the outside area where the portable classrooms are to be opened. Nothing. Every day, morning and afternoon, I’d repeat this exercise. No heads-up from the powers that be, mind you, who knew all along that there was no HVAC instructor. No, that would have made too much sense. Instead, I got to feel as if I was being granted a little mini-vacation every day, a chance to get just a few more things done that I wanted to do, a chance to learn to be grateful for every little “free” moment I have in my days. I learned to value each moment and try to not let meaningless pursuits creep in to my days.

Eventually, just today, I got a new ducat, saying I’d been re-assigned to a different vocational class: Industrial Painting. It will be just three months, which I am grateful for, and the teacher is highly experienced and has his master’s degree in teaching. I’m sure the class will be informative if not interesting.

Besides this, an upcoming Prison Reform ballot initiative to allow the California prison system to make sweeping changes in “good behavior” credits may affect inmates like me who are classified as “violent offenders.” We are currently not eligible to obtain “milestone” educational credits, worth a week off your sentence each, with up to six weeks per year maximum earned for taking classes. If this long shot of a possibility happens, this three-month painting class could earn me five weeks off of my sentence. I just know that in any case, I need not question the course of my life but only my attitude in response to the factors I cannot change. Thank you for praying!