February 20, 2020
Thursday, 12:30 p.m.
Letter #484: Cobb Salad with a Side of Squirrel
I’ve only been here at Avenal State Prison for two-and-a-half weeks, but God has already blessed me with beautiful indicators of His love for me. These all came in the midst of arguably the most difficult trial I’ve faced since coming to prison—something I’ll share about in my next letter, Lord willing. For now, some highlights of the past several days:
- I’ve saved the best news for first … my closest friend over the past four years, Daniel, paroled today after eight years of prison! I got to talk with him as he was enjoying his day with his bride-to-be, Monique. Daniel is a true, loyal, compassionate friend who was always available to lend a listening ear and speak truth to me. I got to witness his growth in the Lord these past several years as he yielded his time (and incredible guitar talents!) to the Lord.
- On my first day here, I made a comment to an officer working in my building that I know I stand out because I’m not very “tough-looking.” He shot back, “No, you’re even scarier because you’re always smiling.”
- This prison yard and its building layouts are quite similar to Salinas Valley State Prison, where I served a year-and-a-half of my time, straight after three months of reception, twelve years ago. At SVSP, we had to walk single-file to breakfast and dinner in the chow hall and back to our building, in the same order as we came. Here, the staff lets us move around in the chow hall so that there is always a row of tables being cleaned and a row where new arrivals are being seated. Once your row needs to be cleaned, you can fill in someplace else while you finish your meal. This is a privilege similar to how we had it at Golden State, which allows me time to, for example, eat four servings of a delicious spinach salad last night.
Well, my first breakfast here, I followed the guys from my building, in fact from my dorm of nine guys, all the way to the chow hall. Then, I happened to move to a different table partway through the breakfast service. On the way “home,” I met a nice guy named Victor and followed him back to the building, where we parted ways as I went up the corner staircase up to my dorm. Except that my bunk was empty, and the dorm looked … different.
A guy with tattoos all over his face approached me. “Are you lost?” he asked, making this experience feel like that time I got separated from my parents at the mall.
“I … think … so … ” I said, frantically scanning my brain for the picture of my address that I’d written in my Day Planner.
Tattoo Face approached the Lost Child and said, soothingly, “Do you know what building you’re supposed to be in?” which sounded the exact same way he would say, “Do you know what your mommy’s name is?”
Gratefully, my building number flashed into my head, and I told him, “350!”
He smiled. “Well, this is the 330. You passed the 350 on your way here.”
I thanked him, aware that I was, on this chilly morning, the only inmate not wearing a dark blue jacket since mine hadn’t been issued to me yet, so I stood out even more in my light blue shirt, no tattoos, and smile. At that point, I just ran down the stairs, walked back to the building entrance, acknowledged the building officers who had noted I was seriously out-of-bounds, then smiled and waved to the two hundred inmates watching me. #awkward
- We have really tame pigeons, squirrels, and a family of cats on the yard. (Yes, the cats are all black. It allows those inmates who believe they’ve run into a bit of “bad luck”—rather than a major sin problem!—to blame their incarceration on black cats continuously crossing their path.)
I’m not exactly a pigeon guy myself, but who doesn’t think squirrels are absolutely adorable? (Shame on whomever you are.) Well, thanks to the introduction of almonds into my lunch sack every so often, I was able to feed the squirrels … from my hand. At one point, as I squatted down, I was able to have a total of three squirrels on my knees, standing on their haunches and taking the almonds from my fingers from my fingers with their tiny hands and stuffing—I mean STUFFING!—their cheeks full. Oh. My. Gosh. #thisisntprison
- Several guys in my building are lifers, some called “El-wops” for the acronym LWOPS, for Life With Out Parole. Tension, despair, and rage exist on a whole different level at these kinds of institutions, different than the private prisons I was just at for ten years, where everyone had an out-date. I asked an inmate what the big metal box on the wall contained, just near the building entrance. Bold white letters read: EMERGENCY CUT-DOWN KIT. Matter-of-factly he said, “For when you hang yourself, they can cut you down.” Right. In an environment with no sharp objects for obvious safety reasons, you need sharp objects for … safety reasons.
- Beginning January 1, California prisons began a healthier menu initiative (that obviously did not affect the menu at the private prison I was at). I noticed the changes immediately upon my arrival, with all salads at every dinner now including fresh vegetables in them like bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, and spinach leaves along with salad staples of lettuce, carrots, and purple cabbage. At least three dinners per week also include milk, yogurt, prunes, and either apples or bananas is every-other-day fare. My favorite meal? Cobb salad, complete with an amazing salad base plus hard-boiled egg, cheddar cheese, and roasted chicken breast with fresh bell pepper and onion on the side. Thank You, Jesus! I’ve actually never complained about the taste or portion size of prison food for my entire term … but I can certainly appreciate incredibly delicious, healthy choices!
- An officer close to retirement told me he’s thought about doing non-profit work in another country, and I shared some ideas on how he could maximize his effectiveness by partnering with existing NGOs and local ministries who could utilize his land holdings. He shook his head slowly and said, “Wow. Clearly, this is what God wanted me to hear.”
God has certainly given me much to be grateful for, and I humbly look forward to all He plans to teach me in the days ahead. Thank you so much for praying!