When is a Man a Man?

My friend Corey lives three hours away, yet I get down to see him just two or three times a year. He never comes to see me, and it will be at least another four years before he has the opportunity. For nearly four years, Corey has lived in a minimum security federal prison, so he’s not quite halfway through his “bid”.   Before he went to jail, Corey was a star among public school teachers, the guy who won the district’s golden apple every year. He surprised and impressed us all when he happily quit that job for awhile to be a stay-at-home dad to his newborn daughters, because his wife – a physical therapist – earned a larger paycheck. Funny, acute, unflappable, he was that guy who could tell from a slant glance that a student had lost his lunch money or that a friend had lost his dog, then stepped in to help.

Your image of a minimum security prison may include open fields, an honor system fence, maybe even putt-putt or golf.   That’s not where Corey lives. To visit him, a guard walks you through a fortress-like 20-foot high concrete wall topped with coils of razor wire and backed with a second razor wire fence and then a third all surrounding a compound of low-rise concrete bunkers with slit windows high on the wall, the compound itself set deep in a piney woods. Yes, there’s a ragged softball field surrounded by a jogging track and even a paved basketball court. I’ve never seen anybody on them. The most significant feature of the landscape is another bleak compound squatting just up the hill. That’s the medium security prison where any infraction can get you sent. The rumors of what goes on inside those walls are chilling. Corey says it’s the number one incentive for following the rules on his block.

The visiting area is a boxy room lined with folding chairs, presided over by a sleepy guard seated high at a judge’s podium. All the prisoners wear custodian-style beige uniforms, tucked in at the belt. They play checkers with their kids or nod helplessly at their wives’ stories. Nobody’s supposed to hold hands or touch, except on greeting and goodbye.  You’re allowed to bring in a baggy full of quarters, so your host can gorge on vending machine hot pockets and Hostess cupcakes he can’t get elsewhere. Watching Corey snarf down junk food is all I need to know about the quality of prison food. (Last winter I committed a five-alarm infraction, but got away with it. I hid a homemade Christmas cookie in a fold of my sock, slipped it to him as he ate, and marveled at the dexterous way he hoovered the contraband in one bite between chomps of potato chips, his only acknowledgment a quick wink.)

Here’s the weird thing and the reason I wanted to share this anecdote anyway. Somehow sitting with Corey for a few hours in that harshly lit bunker always raises my spirits! The guy is simply irrepressible. Five years ago, a SWAT team swarmed into his living room, wrestled him down to the floor and cuffed his hands behind his back while his kids were brushing their teeth for school. Since then he and his family have gone through a kind of Kafkaesque hell. But if you thought Beyonce could make lemonade out of lemons, you haven’t met Corey. Somewhere along the way, he looked squarely at his situation and decided there was nothing to be gained from moping. He calculated that a counter-intuitive role might help him navigate the thuggish middle school society behind bars, that role being the guy willing to help. So he offered to write letters for guys, shared the books and magazines some of us send him, angled for a library job where he could guide other prisoners to helpful resources, and parlayed these opportunities into a web of barter that would make Catch-22’s Milo Minderbinder blush.

Here’s an example, and I can only hope to recount all its permutations correctly. The basketball court needed to have its lines repainted but a cranky guard refused to approve the work. The prisoner who most wanted the paint job gave non-smoker Corey a pack of cigarettes, which he parlayed to a laundry room attendant for an extra pillow swapped out to a shop attendant for a bucket of paint and a brush. Mysteriously, a whole row of toilets backed up while the cranky guard was on duty, and by the time he finished overseeing the swabbing of the bathroom floor, the basketball court wore a spanking new coat of paint. What did Corey win in this flurry of bargaining?  Respect.  Cred.  The fun of getting one over on the boss. That’s Corey. I call him the mayor.

It gets better. Frustrated at the ridiculous ethnic clannishness behind bars, he built a bridge in the form of a prisoner-led two-way ESL program where Spanish and English speakers teach each other their languages. Last I heard, the program was up to eight classes a day, and Corey’s Spanish had gotten pretty good. In fact, Bureau of Prisons inspectors commended the administration for the program, though they had done nothing to support it beyond grudgingly providing a classroom. None of this effort will reduce Corey’s sentence by a single day. It wins him no favors inside. But he says it keeps him sane. The metaphor he uses is the old tv comedy Hogan’s Heroes.

There’s a lot more. The best way to learn about it all is in Corey’s blog. He isn’t allowed access to the Internet, so he sends me the essays via snail mail, and I post them for him (http://federal-bidding.blogpost.com/). Reading some of them will give you a flavor of his wit, spirit and unflagging humaneness in a place intended to dehumanize.

So we sit on plastic chairs for a couple hours, and most of our talk involves the travails of maintaining some kind of relationship with his family via short phone calls, letters, and occasional visits. He’ll introduce me to a guy he’s written about in his blog, such as the Bird Man who communicates only in chirps or the flamboyant transvestite who somehow makes prison garb stylish (and who insists on vacuuming the floor every day at 4 am). He tells me stories that leave me shaking my head. And when he departs through one door while I go out the other, I find my mood lifted, all the silly things I fret about shrunk to their proper size. Corey’s dogged resilience in coping with the exigencies of the day shame me into a smile. I ran across a quote by an author named Stuart Brent that seems to apply. He wrote, “When is a man a man? Only when he can stand up to his bad luck.” By society’s yardstick, federal prison inmates may rank as the lowest of the low, but Corey, in squarely facing his situation, daily proves himself a man’s man.

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