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Snapshot of A Solution

Snapshot of A Solution

 By Davin Douma

What if I could show you a way to reduce the costs of incarceration by half?  What if I could show you a way to get prisoners to change the way they view themselves and the world they live in?  What if I could show you a way to reduce the growth of criminal activity in the one place (prison) it seems to flourish the most?  What if you could get prisoners to be responsible citizens?  What if we could change the whole dynamic of incarceration in this country?  Would it be worth your time to listen?

Do you know why rehabilitation programs in prison don’t work?  It’s simple really.  The amount of time and energy expended in a rehabilitation program is miniscule compared to the negative influence of the prison environment.  Please let me explain that statement.  Let us say a prisoner, for whatever reason, signs up to take a prison program like Thinking For A Change.  The program is basically sound and provides good information and advice to prisoners.  The man who takes the course spends about two hours a week for six months in the course.  That means he gets a positive influence from the program for a total of fifty-two hours.

Fifty-two hours of good influence looks good in a vacuum, but prison programs don’t operate in vacuums, they operate in prisons.  In the same six month time period the prisoner takes the program, he has to face the reality of the world he lives in.  The threat of being killed, or assaulted, or robbed, or raped, or abused by a guard.  He lives in a world of stress and drugs and gangs.  In the same six month time frame he receives 2,860 hours of negative influence.  In other words, for every hour of positive influence he gets from a program, he gets fifty-five hours of negative influence.  The program simply can not compete with the environment.

The solution to changing the high cost of incarceration and reducing the number of victims and making rehabilitation more effective is the same for each.  You have to change the classical model that has proven to be a failure for the past two-hundred and twenty years.  It isn’t 1790 anymore.  Nor is it 1890.  So why are we still building and operating prisons the same way?  Haven’t we learned anything in the past two centuries?  Are we so entrenched in the way things are that we blind ourselves to the ladder leading out of the hole we are in?

In 1790, and in 1890, and in 1990, and now in 2010 we are still building prisons the same way.  Steel and concrete cages.  The physical structure of a prison may not sound very important, but it is actually the cause of most of our problems.  Early prisons, like the Walnut Street Jail, were built like fortresses so that criminals could be kept inside.  Those were the most effective security measures of the time.  The walls were stone and brick and the doors were steel and bars.  In essence, we built cages for humans like we would for exotic animals in zoos.  And as time passed and populations grew we just shoved more and more men into the same small spaces.

The prisons built in 1890 and 1990 are remarkably similar to the ones in 1790.  They generate the same kinds of feelings in both prisoners and guards.  They generate the same high costs.  They generate the same victims.  They generate the same violent criminals.  When our prisons failed, instead of looking at what we had built, we looked at what we were producing.  We thought that since men and women coming out of prisons were worse people, they obviously needed to stay in longer to fix them.  We went from giving out five year sentences for robbery to fifty year sentences.  We went from giving out six months in jail for a DUI to fifteen years.  We went from sending pot-head kids to group homes to incarcerating them in adult prisons for life.  Each time the system failed us, we punished the criminals even more.  It is similar to the idea that if you just hit your kid harder he will stop misbehaving.  That doesn’t work either.  It actually makes the kid worse.

 Copyright  2010. Davin Douma


A Pertinent Question amid U.S. justice system’s revolving door

Here is a link to an excellent article by award winning journalist, Leonard Pitts JR. He clearly points out the insanity of our current punitive judicial system.

Big Fish in Little Ponds

Big Fish In Little Ponds

By Davin Douma

             Not long ago I was enjoying a little road time.  It was early September and the sky was gray and the day was that pleasant cool we all notice after the heat of summer has run its course.  In Oklahoma we call it Indian Summer, but everywhere you go they have a name for it.  Road time to a prisoner means you are being transported someplace.  Sometimes a prisoner is going for a day and sometimes for a lifetime.  In this instance I was manacled and shackled and boxed.  Boxed means I had a black box on my cuffs that was attached to a chain around my waist that prevents the picking of locks and keeps the hands in a relatively fixed position.  If you wear the box for an hour it is merely uncomfortable.  That day I would were it for twelve hours, and feel the pain of it for days.  Papillon is never far from my thoughts.

            The purpose of the trip for me and the other three guys in the white corrections van was a hospital run.  I was getting an ultrasound of my abdominal organs to help determine if I had cancer.  Two of the guys with me were going for chemo treatments and the other was getting a check up after his disease had gone into remission.  We were all sick or post sick, and all enjoyed the ride and the chance to see the outside world again.  For me, the drive through Oklahoma City was the first time I had been outside the prison fences in five years.  Five years might not sound like a long time to most people, but it was longer than world war two and I felt every day of it.

            Because so much time passes between trips for a lifer, the changes in the outside world are hugely noticeable.  All the cars had changed, the speeds were faster, and everywhere I looked there was a driver with a cell-phone stuck to their ear.  Many of the business had changed and most of the big billboards on the side of the road had new advertisements.  Off all the differences the one I noticed the most was the addition of Indian Casinos.  Five years earlier there wasn’t a one, now there were dozens with neon lights, packed parking lots, and posters of curvy women in evening gowns with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  The signs were a stark contrast to the blue-haired women and retired men who made up the bulk of the casino’s clientele.  Knowing that and understanding the deception just made me want to go there even more.

            The drive to the hospital was made in the early morning hours while the sky was still dark and the pull of sleep still strong.  It was the ride back after a full day in restraints that showed me the world through the barred windows of the van.  Seeing the outside world was like the experience of a five year old in a confectionary store.  Everything looked so good and yet you knew you couldn’t get a taste of any of it.  There was the hope tinged with desire, but also the loneliness of memory.  I thought about what it would be like to walk through the parking lot of the mall we just passed.  I thought about what it would be like to be sitting in the car next to the van.  The one with the pretty girl on the phone and the yellow skirt that showed me some thigh.  The things I missed weighed heavily upon me.  The trip was turning out to be an experience of minor torture.  There I was stuck behind a glass window and forced to watch a world go by that I could only gaze upon.  A world so vast it was beyond my ability to comprehend.  In such moments I often think of how much I gave away in that instant of violence over twenty-five years earlier.  I thought of what I had given up and what it would have meant to me.

            Prison is such a different kind of place and small in comparison.  A place where lots of men with no skills or ambitions can rise to the top of the heap through vulgar behavior.  A place where the lowest common denominator is the greatest.  A place were one is limited in almost every way.  But is it really all those things or is that our perception.

It is true that in prison the worst behavior is regarded as the best.  It is true that men with no education or training usually end up running the place.  It is true that the distance between the fences is tiny compared to the distance between horizons.  But do people on the streets really live in all that space?  Do men in prison really live between the fences?

            As we drove down I-35 and passed the stores and restaurants and casinos I thought about the scale of the world I lived in compared to the free world.  The place I live is not actually inside the fences.  The place you live is not actually between the horizons.  We live in our heads and in our hearts.  We live in our memories and in our contrived histories.  We live in that place we create for ourselves, be it big or small, gutter or mansion.  The outside world, the one beyond the confines of our minds, plays only a small role in the lives we actually live on the inside.

            How many people know a successful man or woman who lives in misery?  How many lonely couples are there driving on the highway in separate cars?  How many poor people do you know that have great sex lives?  Since when is the world beyond ourselves the creator of success and happiness?  Those things are mined and forged within the cauldron of our consciousness.  Who says a man in prison can not find contentment?  Who says a woman in jail can not find peace within herself?  When we stop allowing the outside world to be a dictator, we find the freedom of choice within.

            In prison there is a saying used by those people who are successful in prison and failures on the streets.  These are the people who come back, time and again, to the only place they know and understand.  “It is better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.”  The reality is that we are all small fish living in small ponds.

Copyright 2010. Davin Douma

Lowered Expectations

 Lowered Expectations

by Davin Douma

         We’re all a bunch of lazy bastards.  We don’t want to take out the trash.  We don’t want to mow the lawn.  We don’t want to expend any more energy than we absolutely have to.  Is that a human trait, something endemic to the species?  Or is it a symptom of the modern era, a byproduct of 21st century thinking?  In the end it doesn’t mater where it comes from or its evolutionary purpose.  It is what it is and we have to deal with it.  The consequences show up in all parts of our lives.  The part I’m most concerned with is how it relates to prisons.  Prisons are a pet project of mine.

            What do we expect from prisoners?  I’m being rather general here when I ask the question.  What do we as a society expect from the men and women we incarcerate?  Do we want them to make better decisions in their lives?  Do we want them to behave and stop being criminals and drug addicts and malcontents?  Do we have any goal or destination in mind when it comes to the people who break our laws and live in our correctional facilities?  Or are we just playing catch with ourselves in the dark?

            The same question can be asked of the men and women who run our prisons.  What do we expect from a prison guard or a warden?  What do we expect from a case manager or a correctional counselor?  Do we have any idea what we want these people to do on our behalf and in our names?  We pay their salaries and yet most of them do jobs that are as mysterious to us as the depths of the sea.  What do they do and what do we think they should be doing?

            We could easily extend this most basic of questions to our judges and politicians.  What do we expect of them?  Do we expect anything at all?  The bar is so low in our society that anyone can be a politician or a judge.  As long as they have a pithy slogan and promise to hammer the law breakers, we seem to be happy.  Life without parole for pot heads.  Jay walkers should be shot on site.  Anyone who disagrees with the basic premise that criminals should be severely punished, drawn and quartered if necessary, is un-American and a supporter of the Taliban.  Doesn’t everyone know that Osama Bin Laden is a criminal too.  They’re all in on it together.

            If we (society) don’t set the standard then there isn’t one.  How is a former criminal in prison supposed to put his life back together if he doesn’t know what is expected of him.  Dogs chase balls because they think its fun and they are rewarded for it.  When the ball is thrown we expect the dog to get the ball and bring it back.  Simple expectation.  Pat him on the head and throw it again.  He’ll chase the ball all day as long if you pat him on head each time.  He has a purpose and a place and role to play.  Is there anything more basic than that?  In human terms we call this purpose and meaning.  It is fundamental to who we are and the contentment we can achieve in our daily lives.  Purpose and meaning.

            Public employees, like prison guards and wardens and correctional counselors, have to be told what we expect of them.  They produce a product.  If a car manufacturer sold you a lemon there would be consequences.  Why would you accept lemons from the correctional system?  Are the recidivists acceptable?  When a car thief becomes a burglar or a robber becomes a murderer is it just accepted?  Do we even care so long as it doesn’t happen to us?

            When judges don’t do their jobs we end up with people on Oprah who were wrongly convicted thirty years ago.  Do you know how many people have been released from death rows because of DNA?  Do you know how many poor bastards don’t have DNA in their cases to prove their innocence?  Do you have any idea how many people we have put to death in this country before DNA evidence existed?  Getting arrested and convicted is easy in this country.  Getting a wrongful conviction overturned is almost impossible.  Who’s job is it to make sure that things like this don’t happen?  Why are there no consequences for the men and women of the bench when they screw up?  If you do something stupid in your job, you get fired.  Ever hear of a judge being fired?  When no one is held accountable there are no standards and expectations are irrelevant.

            When a politician proposes an outrageous sentence for a minor crime there are no naysayers.  The next politician just tries to come up with something even more outrageous.  He or she wants to prove they are tuff on crime too.  Look what I can do.  What does that sentence cost us?  Instead of expecting people to think, to use their minds and explore viable solutions, they do stupid things and get rewarded for it.  The dog in this game isn’t returning the ball.  He picks it up and runs away and buries it in a hole some place.  How many balls are you going to throw before you realize the dog is playing a different game?

          I can ask the same lame questions all day long but the answers aren’t coming.  People first have to care.  I think people just don’t want to be bothered.  We don’t want to know what goes on in interrogation rooms.  We don’t want to know what goes on in prisons.  We don’t want to participate in the process of justice or rehabilitation.  Don’t talk to me.  Leave me alone and let me be.  Isn’t Dancing With The Stars on tonight?

Copyright 2010. Davin Douma

Prison Welfare

October 6, 2010

A Reform Essay


By Davin Douma

             If you’ve ever had a cat or a dog you know that each has its favorite spot in the house or yard.  It is that place they return to most often for a nap, or a moment of tranquility.  All living things do this most basic of acts, including people.  We find a comfortable spot, a place where we feel safe and content, and return to it as often as possible.  Ever wonder why a soldier who hates war can love the military?  Ever wonder why a prisoner returns to prison.  The light of the sun feels good on your face in the morning.

            I used to wonder why I saw the same men in prison over and over again.  I’ve been in prison since I was a kid, literally, and have seen men come and go.  My stay in the joint has been a long one without breaks, but most of the men I have known are in and out every five or six years.  The free-world, life beyond the razor wire fences and armed gun towers, is like a vacation for them.  It’s a trip to Rome, or Paris, and a taste of something exotic and exciting.  But like all vacations it comes to an end.  The money runs out, the fantasy tarnishes.  Although they miss the lights and the sounds and the tastes, it is good to be home again after their adventure is over.  Home is a strange meaning to attach to prison life, but the strength of man’s ability to adapt is also his weakness.

            What is it about prison life that is so enticing?  It can’t be the gangs or the drugs or the violence.  In prison men are brutalized, dehumanized, and degraded.  They rob each other, they rape each other, they create a world of disillusion.  In prison the ethics and morals of the common man are turned upside-down and backwards.  It is the most vile and most aggressive that are revered and respected.  The pecking order is a deadly creation that keeps everyone in their place.  You only move up through aggression and violence.  A swing of a lead pipe or stab of a prison shank.  Character is built in puddles of blood and humanity is discarded like so much refuse.

            Yet, even though prison is a horrible place, it quickly bores its way into your psyche.  In prison were everything is acceptable, the most horrible people can find friends and companionship.  Rapists can compare notes.  Child molesters relive their conquests.  And sociopathic murderers experience the death rattle over and over again.  Perverted humans can find a home in a concrete room with a steel door and ballistic glass window.  Prison is an accepting home that they can not create for themselves in the world beyond the fence line.

            I used to think the enticement of prison was that it was camp for adults.  A place where one has no responsibilities, no expectations, and no effort is required.  I thought that prison was simply easy for people who didn’t want to work, or pay their bills, or meet their family obligations.  Thinking that way was rather simplistic and surface oriented.  There is a lot more going on than that, and a lot less.  It is amazing how much effort the malcontents put into their prison lives.  They have their hustles to make money.  They have their gangs to watch their backs.  They have the manipulations they work on the guards.  And they have the syringe they ply on their families.  Most of these men spend all day and many a night figuring out ways to improve their prison lives.  If they put as much effort into walking the straight and narrow they would be righteous men.  If they put the same effort into business they would be rich.  But rich and righteous are not their goals, just as they are not yours.  The men in prison seek the same thing for the same reasons that everyone else seeks.  They just have a different way of going about it, at a different address.

            The prisoners in their cozy world only represent half of the story of the prison welfare system.  The other half, the half that gave me the key to my more modern understanding, is the guards.  The guards work in the same world but they don’t see it the same way.  Yet, they too have found their place in the sun and like the feel of the warmth on their cheeks.

            If you have no ambition beyond a secure paycheck, then the work of a prison guard is for you.  If you can sit all day and stare at a video monitor, then the life of a prison guard is for you.  If you can mindlessly follow procedure and accomplish absolutely nothing, then the life of a prison guard is for you.  If you can look the other way, then the life of a prison guard is for you.  This is how we see prison guards, but only part of the story.  They are this, and less, and much more.

            Prison guards are not bad people, they are just people like everyone else.  It is the easiest path in life that is most followed.  This is true no matter what your job description says.  If you can be paid to accomplish less you will most often do it.  It isn’t laziness or a lack of caring, it is an evolved survival sense that says the easiest meal with the fewest risks is the best.  Somnambulistic life choices are the common threads of our civilization.  These are the choices made by criminals and cops, prisoners and prison guards.  To expect these people who earn little wages and less respect to do more is like asking a frog not to hop or a cat not to pounce.  It is their nature and we pay for it every day.  If you want better results you must pay for them.  If you want better prisons, you must choose them.

            Prisoners pass on their understanding to their children in quiet and unspoken ways.  It starts with one generation and leads to the next.  Fathers and sons and grandfathers have a tendency to follow similar paths in life.  This simple principle is true of prison guards as well.  A father gets a job and does it for twenty years.  He has a daughter who also gets a job and she does it for ten.  Then her son gets a job and he follows the same path.  Three generations of uniforms in one family, whether behind the fence or watching it, this is not unusual.

            The circle and cycle of prison life hasn’t changed in over two hundred years.  Prisoners keep coming back, and prison guards keep showing up.  Their common thread is the world they have created.  A world of subtle meaning and daylight shadows.  Prison is a place we don’t talk about or think about.  Yet millions of people live and work there every day.  They build their lives like in any other industry, products and producers, creators and consumers.  Is there really such difference between the colors of the uniforms.  Prison guard blues and prisoner grays.  Both groups have found their place in the universe.  Like trees they extend roots and tie themselves to their futures.  Prison welfare.

copyright 2010 Davin Douma

Wolves Eat Dogs

  January 4, 2011

A Reform Essay


By Davin Douma

             I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the chow hall watching the ebb and flow of prisoners during a yard movement.  Men in grey were going from point A to point B as quickly as possible without running.  Their brogans were making a distinct clopping sound on the concrete.  It was December, heads were down, the wind was cold, and a disembodied voice was yelling at prisoners over the loudspeaker whenever they stopped for any length of time.  “It’s called movement for a reason!  Kick rocks!  You in front of the admin building!  Yeah you, with the gray cap, get moving.”  Most of us ignore the yelling.  What are they going to do, put us in prison?

            Ever since I was a kid I have been a people watcher.  I used to go to the mall and just sit on the benches in the middle of the esplanade and watch people do their thing.  You can learn a great deal just by watching if you pay attention.  Moms herding their kids.  Husbands looking bored and stupid holding a purse.  Young girls screeching and young boys horse playing.  You get the picture.  In prison, if you pay attention, you can see why things are so screwed up.  You can see why prisons create worse criminals going out then coming in.

            In prison there are two sets of rules.  There are the rules the guards set up and the rules the prisoners set up.  If you break the guard’s rules you go to lock up, a jail within the prison.  If you break the prisoner’s rules you could die.  When the two sets of rules come into conflict, as they often do, the prisoners follow their own rules first.  After all, lock up is a lot easier to deal with than a body bag.  The rules that prisoners come up with are not nearly as important as who is creating them and how they are enforced.  If you want to know who and how, this is where movement watching gets interesting.

            When two men are coming towards each other on a sidewalk, someone is going to have to give space.  Where one stands in the pecking order determines how one behaves.  The higher man just keeps walking straight and gives no ground at all.  The lower man moves to the side.  This all happens as a result of a slight glance each man takes of the other.  One’s posture, one’s pace, one’s carriage, and one’s reputation all play a role.  But what is the secret ingredient?  What is it that makes one man step aside and one man walk on?  The secret ingredient in the pecking order is aggression.  Alpha males outrank betas, and super-alphas outrank everything.  This same principle holds true outside of prison as well, but not nearly to the same degree.  The difference between an alpha and a super-alpha is the same difference between a dog and a wolf.  Wolves eat dogs.

            At this point you might be asking, what does this have to do with the prison system making criminals worse?  In any social environment there are people who set the pace and people who follow.  In a corporation the leader sets the pace, establishes the mood, and basically determines how everyone will behave by his own example.  If the boss yells and screams at people then the men under him will eventually use similar tactics.  Remember that the top of the heap, the winner, is the person who gets emulated, not the loser, not the kid in the mail room.  In prison this social truth has serious ramifications.

            The guy at the top of the heap in prison is the most violent, most sadistic, and most deplorable.  In prison the worst is the best.  The man most likely to stab you with a shank is the one you move for on the side walk.  He is the one who builds a retinue of follows.  He is the one that sets the mood.  When you have a real bastard as the top dog of the cellblock, everyone else in the block gets just that much more aggressive.  More people get into fights, more people use drugs, more people brutalized other prisoners.  The belief is that if you are a bad ass everyone will leave you alone and you are less likely to be a victim yourself.

            In prison, the maniac at the top of the pecking order gets all kids of breaks.  Like in the free world, the top dog gets rewarded.  He gets better cells.  He gets better food.  He gets deferential treatment from staff (they don’t want to deal with the problem).  Other prisoners see this and learn from it.  If you don’t want to be a victim, be a victimizer.  The kid coming into prison for five years is well down the pecking order.  The only way he is gong to move up is through aggression.  Give the kid five years in the joint living with predators and he will either come out a predator himself, or someone who did a lot of their sentence on their knees.  On the inside, the young and the old have it the worst.  When that car thief comes back to prison it’s going to be for burglary or robbery or maybe even a homicide.  People on the streets are not going to be prepared for just how aggressive he can get in a bad situation.  The lessons he learned for dealing with stress he learned from the super-alpha.

            Prisons do offer a number of rehabilitative programs.  But they simply can not compete with the environment itself.  For example, if a prisoner takes a program like Thinking For A Change, they will get fifty hours of positive enforcement over a six month time span.  At the same time the prisoner will receive 2,912 hours of negative enforcement from the prison environment.  There is no comparison.  Prisons simply can’t get people to think about living positive lives when they spend the majority of their time trying not to get robbed, beaten, raped, or killed.  But luckily there is a solution.

Historically prisoners have been dealt with as a group.  Everyone is lumped together based on felony convictions.  What needs to happen is a separation of the predators from the prey.  Predators need to be incarcerated in prisons where they can only prey on each other.  Predators, and especially super-predators, only make up between 12 and 15 percent of the prison population.  This can be verified by the number and category of misconducts issued each year.  There is no connection between the crime a predator is sent to prison for and the predatory behavior in prison.  In other words, prison predators are not necessarily doing time for a violent offense.  Frequently, they are nonviolent offenders doing time for drug  convictions or behavior related to gang affiliations.  Predators needs to be segregated based on their behavior in prison, not their behavior prior to prison.

By taking the bad apples out of the basket the others have an opportunity to do something positive.  Not everyone is suddenly going to find the right path in life, but at least this way they will have a chance.  The real beneficiaries of this change would be society.  If you don’t want monsters coming out of prison then society needs not to create them.  The only way to change what comes out of prison is to change what goes on in prison.

copyright 2010 Davin Douma

The Label

 October 2, 2010

A Reform Essay


By Davin Douma

             When I was a kid I used to watch the news to catch the perp walks outside the local court rooms.  I’d see guys in orange jumpsuits with the word PRISONER in bold black letters on the back.  It was a common sight I was familiar with that didn’t get old.  Sometimes the guy was on trial for murder, and sometimes rape.  It was the big offenses, the serious offenses that showed up on the evening perp walks.  The drug pushers and car thieves and burglars didn’t make the cut.  I didn’t think about it much at the time because I didn’t make a distinction between prisoners.  Criminals were just criminals and they all deserved to burn.  Twenty-seven years in the joint has changed my perspective a little, but maybe not in the way you might expect.

            The news stories today that surround criminals are different.  The perp walks outside the courtroom aren’t gone, but they are rare.  Most of the stories about prisoners these days deal with budget problems, tougher sentencing, and drug offenders.  Although the prison population in this state is relatively flat, the tax base in our economy has been declining.  There is less money available to imprison criminals and politicians are looking at ways to reduce costs.  One of the savings initiatives that pop up every year or so is a plan to give breaks to nonviolent criminals.  Our state statutes are dotted with little laws that give nonviolent prisoners more good time, shorter sentences, and access to special release programs.  Oklahoma has been playing the nonviolent labeling game for decades but the results haven’t panned out.  The prison population hasn’t declined at all.  Not once in the state’s history.  The system keeps looking at the nonviolent criminal but at some point we just have to declare the horse dead.

            Labeling someone as a nonviolent criminal is useless.  The distinction between violent and nonviolent is completely arbitrary.  Worse than arbitrary because it implies a reality and meaning that is false.  The way we as a society define nonviolent is by comparing it to violent, but the violent label is just as misleading.  What are the truths behind the labels and why do we use them if they’re so inaccurate?

            I understand that all humans have a pathological need to categorize.  We do it with apples, we do it with cars, we do it with entire nations.  It is our way to try and understand a thing by lumping it into a group, and them making general observations and assumptions about that group.  We say that a bass is a certain kind of fish, different from a perch, and it behaves in such and such a way.  After categorizing and analyzing we think we understand the bass, but in reality do we?  Only the bass knows the truth and it isn’t saying a word.

            Nonviolent offenders are people who haven’t yet been convicted of a violent offense.  Notice I used the word ‘convicted’ and not ‘committed’.  To commit a violent act is to become a violent offender, yet who in this world at some time or another hasn’t acted violently.  Ever been in a fight?  Ever made a threat?  How many times have you fantasized about a Mack truck running over the car that just cut you off on the freeway?  If you use the convicted nomenclature as the general distinction between violent and nonviolent, then everyone starts as a nonviolent offender.  And if everyone starts there, and the category includes us all, then the category makes no distinctions and is not a real category.  It is meaningless.

            The thing to keep in mind about criminal behavior is that it either increases in severity and or frequency, or it decreases.   Because of the upside-down and backwards world of prison culture, prisoners either become better or worse people, there is no staying the same.  Car thieves become burglars, burglars become robbers, and robbers become murderers.  This ladder of offenses starts at the low end of nonviolent behavior and works its way up.  For the violent offender the pattern is often the opposite.  Once a criminal has served a long sentence for a violent crime, say twenty years, he is done.  Although there are no absolutes when it comes to recidivism, some principals, like older cons laying down, are well establishes.  At the top of the ladder there are only two choices, stop climbing or go back down.  Both are improvements.  This little tidbit of prison knowledge is a good example of a counter-intuitive truth.

            Nonviolent offenders, generally speaking, are more likely to commit a violent offense than a violent offender.  The recidivism rates for nonviolent offenders are significantly higher than for violent offenders, and since criminals are moving up on the ladder of offenses it stands to reason that nonviolent offenders actually pose greater risks to society than do violent offenders.  This understanding has been around for a long time, but it isn’t acted on by people in the know.  Politicians don’t pass laws to release violent offenders because they have spent their political careers denouncing them.  It isn’t politically correct to release a convicted murderer or armed robber.  It doesn’t matter that the person might have served thirty years and statistically presents no meaningful threat to society.  The label of violent offender that has been stuck on the felon like a sticky-note is not removable and more akin to a tattoo.  Only the nonviolent offender, the gang banger with the three prior drug convictions and the pistol and the stolen car, is acceptable to release.

            When it comes to catching and prosecuting criminals, nonviolent offenders really put it to the taxpayers.  A nonviolent offender who commits five felonies before he commits a violent offense costs five times as much as a violent offender who commits one crime and serves the same time.  The nonviolent offender with five convictions who serves three years on each does fifteen years.  His cost of incarceration is the same as the violent offender who serves fifteen for one offense, but, the difference in cost comes from the repeated arrests, the repeated trials, the repeated processing, the repeated legal fees.  It is the repeats that cost.  Think of all the people it takes to run the justice system and all their salaries.  Their existence is based on repeat customers. 

            When it comes to managing prisoners and their costs, the nonviolent offender is the bane of the correctional system.  Visit your local prison and tour the segregation unit and you’ll see why.  Segregation units are where problem prisoners are kept.  It is a higher security, a higher level of supervision, and consequently, higher costs.  Segregation units are primarily filled with men serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.  It is the gang bangers, the drug addicts, the tattooed freaks that fill those beds.  Lifers in contrast, men serving time for homicides, rarely cause any problems and most will serve long sentences and never see the inside of a segregation unit.  The prisoners most likely to rob other prisoners, to assault other prisoners, to rape other prisoners, are nonviolent offenders.  Nonviolent offenders are younger, more aggressive, and less likely to change their ways regardless of what you do to them.  Chang comes with maturity, and does not correlate to sentence length.

            When one honestly compares the costs of violent and nonviolent offenders, social as well as monetary costs, the labels prove to be completely misleading.  In the end we just have to ask ourselves a simple question that is based on the premise that eventually everyone gets out of prison.  Who do you want living next door?  The man who served thirty years for a homicide and now is a productive member of society, or the nonviolent-drug-addict-gang-banger looking to score a few bucks for their next fix?  I think the answer is a no-brainer, but then I’m not running for political office.  In politics the truth is fluid, like tax dollars and social agendas.

copyright 2010 Davin Douma


 October 19, 2010

A Reform Essay


By Davin Douma

             There are many things the government is not very good at.  For example, they have a hard time keeping a budget.  They can’t keep a schedule.  They can’t keep their own size reasonable.  And they can’t tell the truth.  There are a lot of other things they don’t do well, but an exhaustive list would be exhausting.  Instead we should look at something they do very well.  Lying.  Lying is kind of a harsh and cold word.  It is not a word that they themselves use so instead we should think of their activities in this area as either propaganda or disinformation.  Disinformation sounds like the softer of the two.

            The government has three branches and each practices its own disinformation.  For those of you who slept through civics in school, the three branches of government are the legislative, the judicial, and the executive.  The legislative branch is composed of the house of representatives and the senate.  These people create laws.  Whether or not the laws are good or bad is a separate issue.  Only the legislature can create laws.

            The judicial branch of government is the courts.  The job of the courts is to insure the laws are applied fairly and evenly and that such laws do not exceed constitutional restraints.  Again, we can debate how well they do their job but we can all agree on what their job is.  The final branch of government is the executive, whose job it is to enforce the laws.  To do this the executive is divided into departments that each has an area of operations.  The department of justice is about law enforcement, and the department of energy is about energy, the department of state is about treaties, etc.  Each branch of government has its area of responsibility, and oversight of the other two branches.  In this way no one ever gets all the power and in theory the people maintain control.  In theory.

            The problem is that both the branches and departments are all competing with each other.  They compete for power which is generally determined by budget size.  Whoever has the largest budget has the most personnel, the largest infrastructure, and the most power.  To get more power you need more personnel, more infrastructure, and both of these require more money.  The money comes from the taxpayers.  That would be you and me and all the little people who don’t work for the government.

            Take the executive departments as an example of how government operates.  To get more money you have to demonstrate more need.  The greater your needs, and the more vital the service you claim to provide, the more money they can get their hands on.  This money is in turn used to hire more personnel, create more infrastructure, which in turn requires even more money to maintain.  Notice the nice little circle there.  Circles don’t have beginnings or ends.  They just keep going round and round.

            Take the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) as an example.  They have become very good at disseminating disinformation to support their growth as a governmental agency.  They tell the public and the legislature that inmates file thousands of lawsuits a year that they have to defend against.  This requires them to hire attorneys, paralegals, investigators, and secretaries to fight the good fight.  All these personnel have to be paid and they have to have a place to work.  That means we have to build them offices and provide them with desks and chairs and computers and phones and copiers.  All this infrastructure has to be built by someone and maintained by someone and that means more personnel and more money and more infrastructure.  There’s that circle again.

            The lawsuit claim is a good one.  Those dirty prisoners have to be fought and beaten.  Can’t let them get away with anything like proper medical treatment or healthy food.  The only problem is that there aren’t thousands of lawsuits being filed every year.  There is if you count all fifty states, but Oklahoma only has to fight its own prisoners.  It doesn’t defend the suits in Kansas, or Missouri, or Texas.  In fact, there are only around fifteen law suits filed by prisoners in the civil courts against the DOC at any given time.  These are law suits that are almost always settled out and usually for a few thousand dollars or less.  The rare case of a medical suit that costs millions is exceptionally rare and the result of the DOC killings it prisoners in inhumane ways.

            The state spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on its defense of these lawsuits.  They spend twenty or thirty times as much money on lawsuits then what the suits actually cost them.  They get away with this huge expenditure of resources because people think the department has to defend itself against thousand of filings.  Technically, the DOC is right that all those suits get filed every year, they just don’t get filed in Oklahoma.  And here is the real rub, the DOC doesn’t actually fight the suits.  It is the state attorney general’s office that fights the suits.  They bill the taxpayers for the same costs as DOC does.  At the ice cream shop this is called a double dip.

            Another example of disinformation by the DOC is their ability to let people out of prison.  When a prisoner can be released is not determined by DOC.  The department doesn’t get to let people go just because they want to or because they are overcrowded.  A sentence has to be discharged, commuted, or paroled and DOC doesn’t have the authority to do any of the three.  So the next time you see a DOC representative on television telling you that if they don’t get their funding they will have to let the murderers and rapists out, don’t buy into it.  The state has never let murderers or rapists go because of funding problems.  They will stack murderers and rapists like cord wood in cells before that happens.

            DOC has been massively overcrowded since the mid 1980s.  All cells are double-bunked and dorms are packed well beyond capacity.  But, growth in the system is not what taxpayers have been lead to believe.  In state prisons only around twelve hundred beds have been added in the last twenty years even though the budget for prisons in the same time frame has tripled.  The number of employees DOC pays have doubled in the past twenty years even though there has been almost no growth in the number of prison beds.  There are less then five thousand in private prisons, but they represent only around sixty million in costs, not the three hundred million in funding growth over the past twenty years.  Yet every year DOC demands more money.  They actually hire people to lobby the legislature to get even more money.  Am I the only person who sees a problem with the government lobbying itself?  More personnel, more infrastructure, more money.  You better give DOC what it wants or they are going to have to let the murderers and rapists go.

copyright 1020 Davin Douma

Bunker Construction

 December 10, 2010

A Reform Essay


By Davin Douma

             The first time I really thought about it was in the visiting room.  My father had come to see me and we were talking about an article in the paper.  The room was packed, the noise just bearable, and at the next table was a crying baby.  If you’ve ever been in a prison visiting room you know what I’m saying.  Anyway, the subject of prison construction came up.  A state senator had been lamenting the cost of building a new prison.  Sixty million dollars is a lot of money for place that only houses fifteen hundred men.  Think about it, sixty million is a fortune by any standard.

            I happen to live in a prison that houses around fifteen hundred men so when I went back to my cell I started looking and thinking.  The walls are pre-stressed concrete reinforced with steel.  The door and window frame are steel and the glass is three inches thick and would easily stop a bullet.  The sink and toilet are metal and so cold they make your rectum contract.  The cell I was living in was typical of all the cells I had ever lived in.  There was nothing special about it except maybe its cost of around forty thousand dollars to build.

            The following week I went to the prison library and looked up prisons in an encyclopedia.  There were pictures of prisons that had been built a hundred years ago that looked just like the place I was living in.  According to the encyclopedia the first prison in the country was built in 1790, and it was the same too.  The old joints were stone and mortar, the new are concrete and steel.  In over two hundred years nothing had really changed.  Prison cells still looked like bunkers.  With all the modern technology available why were we still building things the same way?

            There is this idea in corrections that cells have to be built like bunkers so that prisoners can’t tear them up of break out of them.  Maximum and medium security prisons, where most states house their felons, all look essentially the same.  This idea makes sense in the event all prisoners behave alike, but in reality they don’t.  The trouble-makers in prison, the men who destroy their cells, prey on others, and are generally a pain in the ass, make up less then twelve percent of the population.  This is a proven statistic.  Even if you add some leeway just to be safe, fifteen percent is about all you really have to worry about.

            That number, fifteen percent, is important because it tells us how many bunker-like cells we need.  More importantly, if tells us how many we don’t need.  Eighty-five percent of the prison population doesn’t have to be housed in forty-thousand dollar cells.  That is something of a revelation if you pay attention to it.  It means that the vast majority of prisoners can be housed in structures utilizing conventional construction.  The cost of such a cell is only a few thousand dollars when utilizing modular designs and methods.  Instead of building a prison that costs sixty million dollars we could build one that only costs nine million and does the same job.  And the cost saving don’t end there.

            In a bunker style prison there is a lot of supervision.  We have to pay a lot of people to keep an eye on the prisoners because they might do something we wouldn’t like.  But, when you separate out the bad fifteen percent you don’t need that same level of supervision.  Prisoners who are essentially docile can be managed with one third the level of supervision.  In fact, eighty five percent of the population will manage itself if you set up the prisons properly.  Manpower is typically eighty-five percent of your cost when it comes to running prison.  A prison where the bad apples have been weeded out can be operated on one third the budget or less.

            Its one thing to say you can build and run a prison cheaper, but another thing to do it.  Are there any examples that have use this model?  Actually there are.  If you look at the prisoner of war camps the United States built during World War Two you will have one example.  Both the US and our allies built POW camps and housed thousands upon thousands of prisoners.  We did it here and in Europe and had very few problems.  In fact, when you consider that those facilities housed some of the best trained soldiers in the world, German SS troops, soldiers who had been trained to cause problems and escape, the designs were actually very successful.  Surely those facilities would be adequate for simple criminals.

            Today we could build those same kinds of facilities that would be even more secure.  Today we have motion detectors, electric fences, surveillance cameras, coiled razor wire, etc.  It’s important to remember that it is the perimeter fence that keeps prisoners inside.  Part of the old idea with bunker designs was to make cells escape proof.  But prisoners who attempt to escape from prisons don’t try and escape from cells.  They wait until they are outside their cells to make the attempts.  It isn’t the cell that is the real protection for society, it is the perimeter fence line.  POW camps had men in gun towers with machine guns to guard the perimeter.  We still do that today, but we can reinforce the line with modern technology and make it even more secure.

            Building and operating more cost effective prisons is not that difficult once you get beyond the tired mentality that has been doing the job for decades.  Corrections, like any other profession, gets stuck in ruts and patterns that people fail to recognize.  We sometimes think the only way to do something is the way it has been done.  Especially if we are invested in the old ways and don’t want to change.  In America we build nuclear reactors, planes that fly into space, and computers that can do billions of calculations a second.  Surely we can build a better prison.  I haven’t even touched on the benefits of rehabilitation when we separate out the bad apples.  It isn’t rocket science.  We just have to do a better job.

copyright 2010

Pulling Chains

Pulling Chains

By Davin Douma

           In a prisoner’s life there are a number of moments that always stand out in memory.  Every prisoner’s experience is unique, but the generalities remain the same.  For example, the first fight you have in jail or prison will remain in your mind forever.  Your heart races, your palms sweat, and you have no idea how it is going to turn out.  When you’re locked in a cage with other men there is no backing out of a physical confrontation.  There is no walking away.  No turning the other cheek.  And no forgiveness.  What is truly frightening about the fight isn’t the punches and the kicks and the choking.  It’s the anticipation of the punches and the kicks and the choking.

            For me, the first real stand-out moment as a prisoner was pulling chains.  The term pulling chains is a euphemism for that moment you leave jail and go to prison.  The term comes from the experience itself.  In my day, we (the prisoners being transported) were pulled out of our cells early in the morning, chained hand and foot, and shackled together in a long line.  The sun wasn’t up yet, the guards were gruff, and breakfast was a bologna sandwich.  We were then marched down to a waiting county van.  As the line moved you were pulled forward and backward constantly by the men in front and behind you.  Hence the term pulling chains.  The shuffling of the feet and bobbing of the bodies was caused by the restraints, and made us all move like penguins.  The sound of the event stands out in my mind distinctly.  Ten men in shackles all jingling and jangling at the same time.  It was a chorus of metal rattling against metal and scraping on the concrete beneath our feet.  The experience is unforgettable, but not for the reason you may think.

            Those of us who have had surgery are members of a common club.  We know what it means to walk into the hospital with doubt in our minds.  We know what it means to lay on that cold table with the lights above and the busyness of people in masks all around us.  We know the trepidation that comes from the intra-venous needle they stick in our arm and the fear of not waking up.  We think all kinds of horrible thoughts and have visions of the morons who attend our funerals.

            Later, when we wake up in the coolness of the recovery room, with the blurry vision and the bad taste in our mouths, we feel a massive weight lift from our shoulders.  We are alive and stirring and suddenly things are not so bad.  The reality of the situation turned out to be small, almost disappointing, compared to the scenario we had envisioned.  Such is the way of anticipation and dread.  Luckily, most people don’t have to deal with this kind of situation very often.  Not unless you are chronically ill, or a soldier, or a prisoner.

            I got to thinking about pulling chains after having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a vet.  Although he is serving a very long sentence, he once served his country in Vietnam.  We were talking about that feeling shared by all combat vets who have been in a fire-fight.  The worst part is the thinking about it before it happens.  It is the feeling in the pit of the stomach, the shaking of the legs, the shallowness of breath.  Sometimes soldiers sweat so badly they blind their own eyes with salt.  Sometimes just the opposite happens and they get so thirsty they empty a canteen in a few gulps.  The reality, once the shooting starts, is not nearly as bad.  Things happen quickly and there is little time to think.  There is the popping of firecrackers and the buzz of bullets in the air.  Then you are moving and shooting and yelling and your senses are alive and rushing.  Before you know it the shooting has stopped and the mop up begins.  You stand up, you look around, and you vomit the anxiety out of your body.  Pulling chains is a lot like that.

            When I was in the old county jail in Tulsa I was kept in the juvenile tanks because of my age.  The juvy tanks were a world unto themselves.  We fought over food, we fought over the bunks, and we fought out of boredom.  There is no prison in the world as dangerous as a juvy tank.  We never knew from one day to the next what was going to happen.  It was the anticipation of combat all the time and we were wired maniacs because of it.  As bad as it was the life I knew was preferable to the one I didn’t.  Pulling chains was the debarkation point.  It was the end of the devil I knew and the beginning of the devil I didn’t.  What you don’t know is the seed of fear that grows into the tree of anguish.

            I remember eating breakfast one morning when a trustee popped his face in the bean hole and looked at me long and hard.  He was an experienced con with a time-dot on his cheek and the grunge-mouth of a meth addiction.  I was sixteen and scrawny and had learned to be mean.  The trustee smiled at me and said, “They’re gonna love you where you’re going, boy.”

            I gave him the bird and went right on eating.  What he said was not a new thing to me.  I had been thinking about prison constantly since I was convicted and waiting on pulling chains.  For the previous year I had listened to the horror stories of what happened to kids in prison.  I knew I was in for a rough time.  Knew I’d have to get a shank as soon as I landed.  Knew I might have to stab a few people to get the message across.  But the roughest time was already happening to me.  It was in my mind and in the shaking of my hands.  My imagination was running wild and nothing good was coming out of it.

            Everyone who pulls chains, even experienced cons, feel fear and trepidation.  But the experienced con has an idea of what is coming.  He worries about debts he still owes and old arguments unsettled.  These are minor things compared to what a kid thinks.  It is the hospital experience times ten.  It is the feeling of combat that goes on for hours instead of minutes.  It is the serious contemplation of death, both of others and your own.  When the van pulled into the razor-wire covered fences of the prison, I was ready.  I was prepared to kill anyone who looked at me sideways.  I was ready to die, and I expected it.Anticipation and dread.  Nothing in life or death is as bad.  Some things you never forget.