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143. Earning Freedom by Michael Santos
Lompoc Federal Prison Camp / meeting Lee Nobmann / Writing books in prison. Chapter Twelve: 2005-2007 Months 209-231 ******* Mr. Smith is the camp guard on the evening shift. He likes war books, particularly those about World War II and the Third Reich. Generally, I avoid guards, as instinct tells me they’re out to score points with their superiors by writing disciplinary infractions. But someone told Mr. Smith that I’m a writer. He likes to talk to me about my work and his career, especially about his time as a soldier in Iraq. Smith once told me that he likes violence, and that he’s “good at it.” He’s also disappointed that a reprimand for using excessive force on an inmate blemishes his employment record; that record, together with low scores on aptitude tests, hinders his chances for a job with the Highway Patrol. He dresses the part, riding into the camp each afternoon on his Harley, wearing a black, chrome-studded bomber jacket, a white helmet reminiscent of a Prussian soldier, and mirrored sunglasses in thin metal frames. I see Mr. Smith when I return to the camp after finishing an evening shift at the powerhouse. When I ask him for my mail, he hands it over and initiates a conversation. “Read your book,” he nods his head and squirts tobacco into his disposable cup. “Good stuff. Only objection I got is that you write prison guard ’stead of correctional officer.” “I’m describing prison from a prisoner’s perspective,” I explain. “It’s what I see. Why would that bother you?” “Because we’re not just prison guards. We’ve got training, policies we follow to maintain order.” “I don’t write ‘guard’ to demean anyone, but I’m trying to show the reader accurately what prison is about. In 19 years, I’ve never felt the system was trying to correct me, or anyone else. Although it’s called ‘corrections,’ and ‘correctional officers’ supposedly staff the system, the primary emphasis is on protecting the security of the institution. That’s guarding the prison, not corrections.” “Thing is, ain’t nothin’ much we can do to ‘correct’ half the knuckleheads we got runnin’ ̓round the joint. Only thing they understand is a swift kick in the ass.” “That’s where we disagree,” I counter. “The use of force instead of incentives is the main reason the prison system has such a high rate of failure, wasting billions of dollars in taxpayer resources.” “How’s it not workin’?” Mr. Smith smirks. “Ain’t no one escapin’.” “That’s because you’re guarding the prison, but you’re not correcting anyone. Incentives that would include mechanisms for prisoners to work toward earning freedom would change that. They would motivate more people to grow and prepare for success.” “Sounds like a bunch of liberal bullshit.” He spits into his cup. “Fancy yourself a conservative, do you?” “Damn straight.” He walks around the desk and drops into his chair. “Small government and all that?” “You got it, brother. Stars and stripes all the way.” “Then how do you explain your government paycheck and guaranteed pension? You’ve got what, a high school diploma, but you’re pulling down enough to buy a Harley, a boat, an RV, and you get more vacation than anyone in the private sector. For what?” “Maintain’ order. That’s what.” “I guess that’s your take. From my perspective, prisons cause more harm than good. I write what I see.” “You and I ain’t so diff’rent. I could see us on the outside, bringin’ the little ladies out for a bite while we chug brewskies and disagree over how the world ought to be run.” “That’s going to have to wait. I’ve got seven more years to be corrected.” ******* Lee Nobmann surrenders to Lompoc Camp in early July of 2006. He’s in his early 50s, clean cut with snow-white hair, clear blue eyes, and a stocky build. He’s alone, sitting at a picnic table that overlooks a lush valley on his first day. I’m at the next table and notice him as a new face, one that looks more like a businessman than a prisoner. I’m always fishing for prisoners from whom I can learn, especially businessmen whose stories I can write about in White Collar. While I’m stealing a glance at the title of the book he reads, trying to gather clues of his interests, our eyes connect. “Are you a fan of John Grisham?” I ask him. “What’s that?” he smiles. “John Grisham, the author of your book. Have you read much of his other work?” I walk toward his table. He flips the book over to look at the cover. “I just picked it off the shelf in the library. I was looking for something to kill time.” I put out my hand. “I’m Michael Santos. Welcome.” “Lee Nobmann,” we shake hands. “Have you settled in okay?” I ask. “I’m getting the hang of it,” he nods his head. “It’s a little slow.” “Believe me, it gets easier. How long are you going to be with us?” “About a year. How about you?” “I’ve got seven more to go, but they pass quickly, I know.” “Ouch. It hurts to hear you say it.” I smile. “It’s not so bad. I’ve been in for a long time.” “Really? How long? I’ve met some guys who’ve been in for several years?” “I’ve been in since 1987. I’m finishing my 19th year.” “My God! And you’ve got seven more to go? That’s an entire life. How old are you?” He asks. “I’m 42.” “What did you do? If you don’t mind my asking?” “No, I don’t mind. I didn’t pay my taxes.” “You’re kidding.” “Well, I sold cocaine, too, but that’s beside the point.” He laughs. “Are you serious? You’ve been in prison for 19 years? How come you look so normal? I thought you just came in too.” I nod my head. “What can I say? I’ve earned a gold medal for serving time.” “That’s the craziest sentence I’ve ever heard. Sorry to hear it.” “I’ve been blessed in many ways. I’ve got a great wife, and through writing I’ve found a way to connect with the world.” “What do you write about?” “Prison,” I laugh. “It’s the only world I know. I try to give readers a look inside.” “What do you write? Articles or something?” “I write books.” “No kidding. You can do that from here?” “I do.” “Are any of them published?” “A few. I’m writing a new one now for white-collar offenders, a book that can help businessmen and other professionals understand more about the system.” “I could’ve used something like that. I didn’t know squat about what I was getting myself into.” “What kind of work do you do?” “I’m in retail.” “What do you sell?” “Lumber.” “Is that against the law?” He laughs. “I’ve got a tax case.” “You mind talking about it? I like learning from guys like you.” “No, I don’t mind. It’s not that interesting though. I took some business deductions I shouldn’t have.” “It might not be that interesting to you, but I’m sure businessmen from across the country would like to know how taking deductions can lead to a prison term.” “When you put it that way, I guess you’re right,” Lee acknowledges. “Are you still in business?” “Oh yeah.” “Good size company?” “It’s fair,” he nods his head. “How many employees?” I look for a sign that will tell me who I’m talking to. “We’ve got close to 500.” “Five hundred employees,” I laugh. “You call that a fair size company?” He smiles, his eyes sparkling as he bounces his hand in the air. “Keep it down. I shouldn’t have said that.” “Why not?” “It’s probably not a good thing to have going around in a place like this.” “What kind of revenue does a company like that take in?” “We should do about 450 million this year.” “Four hundred and fifty million dollars? That’s a monster of a company. Is it public?” “No,” he shakes his head. “It’s a family business.” Lee and I talk at the picnic table until we have to go in for the 10:00 pm census. After the count clears, we return to the picnic table and talk until midnight, enjoying the warmth of summer and each other’s company. He’s down to earth, really at ease. I prod him with questions about how he built his business and I respond to his questions about what it’s been like to live as a prisoner. I’m glad to have a new friend, someone I can admire and learn from. For someone in prison, a friend is the greatest thing in the world. ******* It’s Monday, August 6, 2006, the day that Inside: Life Behind Bars in America hits bookstores across America. I wrote the proposal and sample chapter more than two years ago, and I’ve worked on the project in one way or another every day since. As I walk from my rack down the center hall of the housing unit to the bathroom, I check my watch. It’s only six in California, but nine on the East Coast and bookstores have opened in New York, Washington, Boston, and other big cities. I stand in line waiting to use the sink, wondering whether anyone’s reading my book. In only seven more years I’ll walk into a bookstore or library and see books on a shelf with my name on the spine. But now, I need to remove the rice, beans, and hair someone left in the drain filter of the sink so I can brush my teeth before work. My job in the powerhouse gives me a great escape from the crowded feeling of the housing unit. I like to spend time in what I’ve come to call ‘my office.’ It’s small, only enough room for one, and I’ve personalized it. From a guy with skills in arts and crafts, I bought a frame for a picture of Carole and me sitting beside each other during visiting. He wove the frame from discarded potato-chip bags, which is part of his prison hustle. On the shelf above my desk, I have dictionaries, reference books, quotation books, and an almanac. When I close the door I’m alone, productive. The guards on duty leave me to my work, except when they need help with their own projects. “Did you see this?” Mr. Lime asks me. He works in the office next to mine as the shop supervisor, and he hands me an Internet printout from The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review. Ed Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote about my book, Inside, and the full-page review has my photograph. “Thanks,” I say. I feel validated, because although I’m a long-term prisoner, my work is now published in open society and this review will forever bolster my résumé. I strive to prove worthy of Carole’s love and of the support I receive from so many people. It thrills me to have the review that exposes my work to millions. “You got a copy of the book?” Mr. Lime asks. “I’ll have some this week, assuming the mailroom passes them through.” “Let me check it out.” “You bet, boss.” Two hours pass and I’m using a plastic spoon to dig tuna from its pack when Mr. Johnson opens the door behind me. I set the pack down on the credenza and spin my chair around to face him. His smoker’s rasp, out of the left side of his mouth since his cigarette is on the right side, adds to his East Texas hillbilly twang. I like him. “Caught that piece ̓bout ya in the paper,” he said. “Thanks,” I reply. He stands in the doorframe, papers in his hand, with the unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. His tie is loosened, the top button of his blue shirt undone. Through brown reading glasses he studies the papers he holds. “Can I help you with something?” I ask, gathering that he wants something. “If ya please, I’d like ya ta take a look at some papers.” “Anything, of course.” “Job's comin’ up, project manager for the city of Santa Maria. I done filled out a résumé, cover letter, and what have ya. Seein’ as yer a writer and all, think ya could look it over for me?” “Absolutely.” Mr. Johnson passes me his papers and then stands watching over me as I read through them. I’ve been working as the powerhouse clerk for six months and we have an easy relationship. He uses profanity when he tells me stories about his weekends. He says that he watches a standup comedian by the name of Larry the Cable Guy. Despite the familiarity, I’m intuitively uncomfortable evaluating his shoddy writing and don’t know what I should say. “Would it be okay if I made some suggestions?” “You betcha. I was hopin’ ya’d fix it up.” “It would probably be easier if I retyped it.” “Fix whatever it needs. I know I got some weaknesses, seein’ as I didn’t finish college and they’re asking’ for a college diploma, but I’ll be retirin’ with 30 years in the Bureau, runnin’ facilities of ev’ry size. That oughta count for somethin’. Doctor it up as best ya can.” “I’m going to need a few hours.” “Take as long as you like. I’ll pick’r up tomorra.” He walks out, leaving me alone. ******* Jeff, a recent Lompoc arrival from Seattle, is in the beginning months of a 10-year sentence for selling cocaine. I’m standing in the narrow space between my bunk and my locker when he taps me on the shoulder. “Have you seen this article?” Jeff passes me the magazine section from The Seattle Times, Sunday, September 24, 2006. My picture is on the cover, showcasing a story by Stewart Eskenazi, the same guy who covered my trial for the newspaper. My letter to him in 1988 led to an interview and a front-page story where I expressed regret for selling cocaine and committed to using my time in prison to reform and contribute to society. The reporter’s follow-up story, two decades later, describes my progress. Jeff’s parents had sent him the magazine to encourage him as he began serving his sentence. I open the magazine and I flip through the pages. “I’ve read the text of the article. But this is the first time I’ve seen the magazine. My sister sent me a copy but I haven’t gotten it yet.” “Dude, I can’t believe you’ve done all that from prison.” Jeff nods in admiration. “It’s been a long time. Can I hold onto the magazine? I want to show it to a friend.” “Sure. My mom ordered your book for me.” “Cool, thanks for the support. I’ll give you back the magazine when I get mine.” “Keep it.” He says. “Thanks, I appreciate it.” “No problem.” I walk through the narrow passage between bunks and turn down the crowded walkway to Lee’s bunk. He’s sitting on the metal chair in front of his open locker, wearing gray sweats and black reading glasses. He’s placing his crisply folded clothes on the locker shelves. “Can’t you pay someone to do that for you? CEOs don’t do the grunt work.” Lee laughs, brings his finger to his lips. “Some things a guy’s gotta do for himself. What’s up?” “Check this out.” I hand him the magazine. “Whoa! Cover story,” he smiles. “That’s cool.” “I’ll leave it with you. Let’s meet out on the picnic tables after count.” “You bet. Thanks.” The guards don’t take long to count the 340 camp prisoners at Lompoc, and by 4:20, Lee and I walk with the crowd shoulder to shoulder down the dorm’s narrow hall as if we’re all part of a cattle herd. Some prisoners even moo. Once we pass through the door and we’re in the clear, he tells me how impressed he was with the article. The sun is still warm as we move into California’s Indian summer. “Why aren’t more of these guys doing what you did?” Lee asks. “Seems all anyone wants to do around here is play cards and waste time.” “It’s not really their fault. Prison has a rigid structure, and it doesn’t offer any hope for these guys. A prisoner can do any number of things that’ll bring him more problems, but there’s no mechanism that encourages him to better his life or shorten his sentence. Trying to get an education is almost impossible with all of the staff resistance. He can’t work toward improving himself, and since the system doesn’t see him for more than the crime that put him in here, the default response is to just give up and accept that prison is for serving time.” “You didn’t.” “It was different for me. I had so much time to serve that I knew prison was going to eat up a big chunk of my life. I didn’t want it to define me. I knew that I didn’t want to be prisonized, and I knew that if I didn’t educate myself I’d never be able to function outside.” “This system is messed up. We’ve got to do something to change it.” “That’s what my work is about. One advantage of having served this much time is that I have credibility with other prisoners. I hope to show them by example that with discipline they can develop skills that will prepare them to reenter society and have meaningful lives. Few want to live as criminals, but when they don’t believe in themselves, they give up. That failure pattern starts when they’re young. Without understanding the consequences, kids drop out of school, join gangs, sell drugs, and when they come to prison, they fall further into failure. Through example, I hope to show how they can climb out.” “But how? The people who need the message most don’t buy books. Many don’t even read.” “They only read about what interests them, and you’re right, they don’t buy books. But if I write about people they identify with, experiences and lifestyles they identify with, I can help. What I need is sponsorship. I need to find businesses and organizations with a social conscience that will buy and distribute the books to those who need them. When I’m out, I’ll find those sponsors. I hope you’ll help.” “Why wait until you get out?” Lee asks. “I’ll sponsor you right now. What would you like to do?” As we sit at the picnic table, Lee listens as I pitch two book ideas. I propose interviewing prisoners who will talk about their criminal histories. Specifically, I want to write about people who quit school, joined gangs, and became involved with drugs or crime. I suggest a book that would profile prisoners and be followed by a series of open-ended discussion questions for the readers to consider. With Lee’s sponsorship, I could produce and distribute the books free to schools with large groups of at-risk kids. Teachers and counselors could use the books to show actual stories of the consequences that follow criminal decisions. The second book would be for adults who are beginning their terms in prison. That book would also tell prisoners’ stories, but the stories would highlight steps they took to turn their lives around and to live responsibly. This book would show how anyone could use discipline and readily available prison resources to prepare for a successful life upon release. “What would you call that one?” Lee asks. “I haven’t thought it through yet, but I’d base it on what I’ve learned.” “I’ll sponsor those projects right now. Count on me for $75,000. That should give you enough to write and print both books, distribute them at no charge, and take the pressure off Carole while she finishes school.” “Are you serious?” “Believe me, my family’s been blessed in many ways,” he says. “I’m completely serious. One lesson I’ve learned is that supporting worthwhile projects for society comes back a hundred-fold. Besides, after all the work you’ve done in here, you deserve it.
Duration: 23 min