Saturday, January 21, 2012

Who Am I? Who Are You? What’s On Your iPod?

Trying To Keep Pace With The Modern World From Prison

Dateline: January 22, 2012

A fellow prisoner’s mother sent him the current best-selling biography, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Shuster, 627 pages, $35.00), and he let me read it. Mired deep in prison, isolated from the fast-spinning technoworld “outside,’ the exhaustive story of the Apple Computer co-founder and inventor of the Mac, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, brought me almost up to date on what I’d missed over the past thirty-four years. No matter how hard I’ve tried: reading newspapers, magazines and books, educating myself, taking every class and program available, it has been next to impossible to keep up with the marvels of the modern age from “inside.”

I’ve never listened to Bob Dylan on an iPod, never held one in my hand, never downloaded music from the iTunes Store, never “swiped” a multi-touch screen of an iPad, never used an app on an iPhone, but after reading the fascinating story of Steve Jobs, a brilliant genius and world-class a__hole, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011, whose drive to change the world was partly fueled by his birth mother’s abandonment and his subsequent adoption, I realize why so many people need them. Steve Jobs’ inventions indeed changed the world.

My own computer experience began as a freshman at the University of South Florida in 1968. the first class I enrolled in was “Fortran Programming” for the IBM 360, a behemoth computer that took up an entire floor of the College of Engineering. The concept, “user friendly,” had not been invented yet, and everything about Fortran Programming was a trial. Each student had to buy a box of blank IBM punch cards in the bookstore, find the key punch machines on a different floor, and figure out how to turn on the machine, how to load the cards, and then to punch the little holes in them. This was before we could even think of writing a program, which usually came back with “Error, Error, Error” printed across the wide sheets of white and green computer paper.

My first encounter with an Apple computer began in 1980, in prison at Union C.I., Raiford, when I became the clerk of the Golab, the groundbreaking prisoner self-improvement program in the Southwest Unit. The only computers in prison then were a few in the classification office, connected directly to the DOC mainframe in Tallahassee. No prisoner had access to a computer.

A newly-arrived prisoner who’d been a radio Shack manager, told me he had a brand new Apple II computer and a couple hundred floppy disks at home, and if I could figure out the paperwork and get the approvals, he would donate the equipment to the Golab. He would teach me how to use the new computer if he could have access to it. Deal. Only months before, I’d convinced the Golab president, Martin J. “Lucky” Stack, to buy an RCA color camera, VCR, and color TV for the program, which we used for video feedback of mock job and parole interviews, making teaching/training tapes, and other innovative uses we made up as we went along. When “Lucky” Stack, a retired U. S. Navy captain and decorated war hero, saw how useful the video equipment was, he jumped on the tech train. He got the computer donation approved, saw the potential, and bought one for himself.

That was the first computer in the Florida prison system accessible to prisoners. Once we got it, nobody in the power structure paid any attention to it, and we worked with it unimpeded seven days a week, for years. In the following years, prison education programs obtained grants for computer instruction, and my early training with the Apple II positioned me to jump into these programs and teach various computer classes up to college level, including instructing prison administrators how to use their newfangled machines.

Over thirty years later, with the epidemic of sexual predators going to prison for kiddie porn and other computer-related crimes, a paranoid prison system has severely limited prisoner computer access. Convicted murderers are known as the most reliable, trusted workers, at the top of the prison social hierarchy, with sex offenders at the bottom of the barrel, but so many of them have filled the prisons in recent years that sheer numbers of prisoners with sex charges have made them seemingly more accepted. But the prison authorities forbid sex offenders computer access, and rightly so.

Steve Jobs would have approved of that policy. Criticized by some for his refusal to permit any apps on the iPhone that allowed pornography, he defended his position by saying, “You might care more about porn when you have kids. It’s not about freedom, it’s about Apple trying to do the right thing for its users.”

The iPod story spawned a question that I’ve never been asked, but has been asked of most everyone with white earbuds: “What’s on your iPod?” When she asked President George W. Bush what was on his iPod in 2005, Elizabeth Burmiller reported in the New York Times that he had selections from traditional country music singers including Bush favorites by Van Morrison and John Fogerty. A Rolling Stone editor analyzed Bush’s selections and commented, “One thing that’s interesting is that the president likes artists who don’t like him.”

Someone said that simply handing over your iPod to another opens you up like a book, that your musical selections define not just what you like, but who you are. If that is true, I am Steve Jobs. Or at least we have the same taste in music.

Steve Jobs’ iPod was heavy in Bob Dylan albums, his hero, and also the Bealtles. He had songs from seven Beatle albums, including A Hard Day’s Night, Abbey Road, Help!, Let It Be, Magical Mystery Tour, Meet The Beatles! and Sgt. Pepper’s Loney Hearts Club Band. The Rolling Stones were represented, as were many sixties artists such as Aretha, B.B. King, Buddy Holly, Buffalo Springfield, Don McLean, Donavan, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp, Simon and Garfunkel, and even The Monkees and Sam the Sham. Show your age — if you’re not at least fifty, you’ve probably never heard of some of those artists.

As he neared death, Steve Jobs thought more of getting older and his birth, as many people do. One of his favorite artists was Joni Mitchell, who put up her daughter for adoption and wrote the song, “Little Green,” about her little girl. He played Joni Mitchell’s greatest song, “Both Sides Now,” with its lyrics about being older and wiser: “I’ve looked at life from both sides now/From win and lose, and still somehow/ It’s life’s illusions I recall/ I really don’t know life at all.” She had recorded that song many years apart, first in 1969, and then ‘an excruciatingly haunting slow version” in 2000. Playing the latter version, Jobs noted, “It’s interesting how people age.”

I agree.

Perhaps when I am freed, I can ask Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell, to download a copy of his iPod playlist, since we thought so much alike.

By the way, what’s on your iPod?


Monday, January 16, 2012

“Ye of Little Faith:” The Lost Boys Christmas Party Follow Up

Dateline: January 10, 2012

The response to the December essay about Christmas in prison surprised me. Something about the experience touched more than a few people. I am grateful for the positive comments and encouragement, and want to follow up on how the event turned out.

One of the crucial ways of developing Christmas spirit in the negative environment of prison is through singing Christmas carols. Only a few people have radios in here, which have poor reception and limited pick up out here in the middle of nowhere, so if you want music you have to make your own. Two weeks before Christmas, I’d only enlisted two carolers, but I wasn’t worried. Getting them to sing a few Christmas carols every night as practice was the hard part. As the men heard the songs over a two week period, more and more began humming the tunes, subtly infusing them with Christmas spirit.

When I first went around the housing unit ─ we call them, “dorms,” but the term has nothing else in common with college housing ─ a number of prisoners, the “haves,” quickly signed on, agreeing to participate. A minority of scoffers and doubters ─ mostly “have-nots,” but some “haves,” said they weren’t interested. I told them they were welcome to share in the food and celebration, whether they contributed or not. Prisoners are distrustful. They’ve been conned, lied to and tricked so many times, and have conned, lied to and tricked others in turn, to the point where they look on anything that sounds good with suspicion and skepticism. That’s okay. I’ve learned how to deal with the hard cases.

Two days before Christmas, five men ─ “haves” ─ had made major commitments to purchase canteen food to feed the dorm, but it only works if more prisoners contribute, even if it is only a ramen noodle soup or some saltines. On Friday night, two major contributors and I went from bunk to bunk with a mesh bag seeking donations from the fence sitters.

“Is this thing really gonna go down?” one asked.

“I don’t think it will work, but I’ll throw in a bag of beans and rice,” another said. “Thanks.”

“Man, I ain’t got nothing to give.”

“That’s okay. It’s Christmas. We’ll have something or everyone, even if it isn’t much.”

“I don’t believe in Christmas. This is just a scam.”

“No, it’s not.”

So it went. We collected a surprising amount of food, mostly the dry ramen noodles, beans, and cheese puffs, but also tuna fish, chili and beans, and beef stew in the bag. It still wasn’t enough to feed eighty-five men on Christmas night. When one man said that, I told him they told Jesus the same thing two thousand years ago, right before He fed the multitude with a few fishes and loaves, and we would feed everybody in the building even if it was only a spoonful of tuna salad on a saltine. As it turned out, we had a lot more than that.

One man brought three bags of instant coffee and gave out spoons of coffee to all who wanted it, all Christmas day. Coffee is a big deal in prison. Most men drink it, but most don’t have any. Anyone who buys a bag quickly learns to say no, or risk finding himself bum-rushed by beggars who will drink his last cupful if he lets them. To drink several cups throughout the day without the guilt of having to ask someone if they could spare a spoon “until my money come in from home,” knowing none is coming, was truly a welcome Christmas gift to many “have-nots.”

Several men who couldn’t contribute food offered their labor in preparation. Sixty packs of the ramen noodles and other dry ingredients went into a large plastic bag. That wasn’t going to be enough. A few men got the Christmas spirit, went to the canteen, and came back with more supplies. Into the bag. Add gallons of hot water. Mix it all together. Get the choir organized and singing Christmas carols, the louder the better. All it takes is one spark to get a fire going. Men began drifting over to see how it was coming. Mattresses had been rolled back so the steel bunks could be used as prep areas. Old newspapers were laid down to contain the mess. The carolers sang on. The food was ready.

Most everyone got out their bowls and spoons and lined up. In prison we know how to line up. The chow line, the canteen line, the mail line, the laundry line, the line to go to work, to go to medical, to the chapel. Everywhere is a line. Hurry up and wait. Someone once suggested that the judge should just say, “I sentence you to life standing in line,” and get it over with.

We didn’t know how far the food would go, so the first time through, the bowls were only half filled. Then they came back through a second time. After several Christmas songs, a lively rendition of “Jingle Bells” broke through the tough guy fa├žades, and the singing got boisterous with more people joining in. Several men stayed off to the side, trying to ignore the celebration, but the Christmas spirit was contagious, and the other men went to them.

“Don’t you want something to eat?”

“It’s really good. Where’s your bowl? Try a little.”

Some people have to be convinced it’s okay to have fun and share with others. It’s a good thing we set some aside for the singers, or there would have been little left after a couple of dozen men went through the line a fourth time. I went through twice myself and was full.

One of the scoffers came to me later and said that he’d served nine years in prison, and this was the best Christmas he’d ever had, even on the street. He thanked me for talking him into it, getting him involved, and for putting it all together. That was thanks enough for me. To see so many normally scowling, angry and unhappy men laughing and singing “Joy To The World,” eating and sharing with others, getting along, not arguing, made all the effort worthwhile. I wanted to prove a point ─ that we could rise above our circumstances if we worked together. Point proved. Let us show them what “faith-based” means.

A twenty year old prisoner approached me hesitantly. TWENTY years old! Was I ever that young? He looked fourteen. I shuddered to think of the hell he’d gone through, being sent to an adult prison as a teenager. “Tender vittles,” they call those boys. You’d better fight, and learn to “wear an  ass-
whuppin,’ ” to keep your manhood and self-respect in such an environment. I added it up ─ when he was born, I was serving my thirteenth year in prison at Polk C.I., working in the chapel, painting, writing, and growing flowers, besides my other duties. He could have been my grandson. He called me Mr. Norman.

“Mr. Norman,” he said, eyes averted. I waited him out. He looked up at me. “Could I see that picture you took again?”

The previous week, Libby and I had taken a photo in front of the Christmas tree in the visiting park. I had showed it to several fellows when I came back, so they could see how nice the Christmas tree looked, since few of them would be going for a visit.

“Sure.” I got it out and handed it to him. He looked at it for about a minute.

“That’s a good picture of you, Mr. Norman. You look happy.”

“It’s good to have someone who loves you.”

“I don’t have anybody who loves me,” he said, eyes downcast again.

“Surely someone loves you,” I said. “What about your mother?”

“You don’t know my mother. Leave her out of this,” he said. “You know, I never had a Christmas. We didn’t do that. But, today, this Christmas party and all that, the singing, it made me feel different, like someone cares.”

“I care.”


He walked away.