The Hoosegow Abyss -Part 10

Eddie G. games the system, but does he? Faced with a crisis of faith, which way does he turn?

Playing Politics

Each prisoner organization at MCF could hold an annual banquet in the chow hall using the kitchen to prepare food. Prisoner members could invite two guests from the outside. I was the informal banquet coordinator for both HASTA and the Jaycees. Each year I tried to make the banquets larger and more elaborate: my last year at MCF I arranged for a Mexican mariachi band to play at the HASTA banquet, gratis. I had a professional photographer donate his services, and a local Roman Catholic volunteer group cooked Mexican food donated by a local restaurant owner whose son was a HASTA member.

The chow hall was decorated in the traditional green, white, and red Mexican national colors, and we hung a big Mexican flag! HASTA speakers from throughout the state attended, as did various politicians. We were even allowed to dance with our visitor guests and I was taken aback when Joe A., by now the deputy warden, asked me if it was alright if he danced with my sister. I asked my father what he thought about the request and he said it was up to my sister. I consider that last HASTA banquet one of my proudest achievements; to pull it off I had to call in every favor I could get from staff, many of whom complained that I was “pressing the envelope this time.” It helped that the staff HASTA coordinator signed every request I gave him, but I also had grown to know there were limits and stayed away from causing serious staff problems.

At the time — -when the powers that be still supported rehabilitation — -MCF was known as a very innovative prison; the warden had a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan and was the former treatment director for the entire department of corrections; he had some very definite ideas on how he wanted MCF run. Because of the MCF’s reputation, many outside groups from various disciplines wanted to tour the place and the Deputy Warden A. instructed me to tour most of these groups. Back then we could have some private clothing, and I was told to report to the Control Center dressed in my best clothing.

I remember touring a man and a woman who had recently completed their secondary education degrees and wanted to tour the school. Normally a staff person would accompany a tour but let me do the talking. This time the deputy surprised me by introducing me to our guests and telling me to take them through the school, the housing units, and then to the officers’ dining room if they wanted a snack. As we were clearing the security gate the deputy took me aside and said if anyone questions what I was doing, have them call his office.

We completed the tour (they declined the snack) and as we walked back to the Control Center the lady asked me if I wanted to go out to lunch with them. I smiled and said, “I don’t think the deputy warden will permit me to do that.” She then said, “What does the deputy have to do with your having a lunch break?” To which I replied, “The deputy neglected to tell you I am a prisoner.” She tilted her head with surprise, but continued to visit me for the next ten years.

The last HASTA banquet almost got cancelled because of a program scheduling conflict. MCF utilized many religious volunteers who got permission from Warden Wells to hold a four-day retreat to take place in the school gym and other school rooms. The Christian group got permission to “occupy” the school building gym: windows were covered with paper and eighty mattresses were placed in the gym as overnight accommodations for forty prisoners and forty male volunteers. The event was called a Cursillo, and the volunteers were from all walks of life: lawyers, businessmen, doctors, dentists, as well as laborers and one millionaire that I know of. The Muskegon County Prosecutor even attended. The problem was that the time scheduled for the retreat conflicted with when I wanted to hold the HASTA banquet, and I already had the band and cooks and outside speakers and guests committed to the date we had set.

The deputy warden told me I had to change the banquet date because they didn’t want that many non-staff located in two different areas of the prison. I panicked! I asked why the retreat couldn’t change its time and was told the warden had made his decision, period. However, the deputy warden said the volunteer coordinating the retreat was given office space in a temporary modular building that had been used by the school before the new school was built, that the volunteer was scheduled to be in today, and that I was free to see him and state my case in the event he might be open to changing retreat dates. One thing I liked about working with the deputy was that he rarely just said “no” to my requests; he usually provided an alternative and left it to me to make it work.

I was never enamored with religious volunteers proselytizing in prisons. My experience was, for the most part, that they came to prisons to surreptitiously indulged their voyeuristic enjoyment of being with prisoners and nothing up to this point had changed my opinion. Most of the volunteers I had met, particularly the women, were fans of pulp fiction, especially true crime novels. What better way to get your kicks than rubbing elbows with hardened criminals who flatter you, however ingenuous? As far as I was concerned, they were using us, so why not use them?

I decided I was going to try to intimidate this volunteer into changing the retreat date. I recruited six of the nastiest Hispanics I knew — -all big, tattooed, and ugly — -and we walked into his office unannounced and stood in front of his desk. The man didn’t flinch, but instead sat and listened. When I was finished talking, he smiled and said it would be easy to change the date because he had just set it, and that he could move it a up or back a week. He also said there was one condition: that all of us in the office would attend the retreat. His first stipulation was I would have to attend, to which I immediately agreed thinking I would say “yes” then not go. Then he added, “I want those six gorillas with you to also attend.” I said that was fine, but then he said they had to make up their own minds. I said they will do what I tell them to do, but he insisted they say if they would come. They all said they would be there. I turned to leave and the volunteer told me to wait while he made a phone call. He explained our agreement to whomever he called, then asked, “How is G’s word?” He listened to the response then told me the person he spoke to said if I gave my word, then that was it. I knew I was trapped and had to be all in, as were the thugs with me.

Cursillo

I didn’t know much about Cursillo other than it was a four-day weekend, so I asked around to see what I had gotten myself into. I learned that the program came from Spain and originally was for Roman Catholics, but the MCF volunteer group modified the program to welcome anybody. The program attempted to show that Jesus was “real” and that He loved everyone; the group felt that by expressing their love for Christ to prisoners, that somehow we would see what it meant to accept the Lord. I didn’t want any part of what they were selling, but I remembered when they had run the first MCF Cursillo some months back, the final day they bussed in a bunch of women, some of which were pretty good looking.

The Cursillo weekend came and my strategy was to get thrown out of the event early. We were told the sleeping arrangements, and I realized I would be separated from my crew, I announced that the sleeping arrangements were not acceptable, that we were to sleep together or we wouldn’t participate. The staff coordinator, a guy named Fred Goff, knew me and that I didn’t back down, so instead of saying “no,” he asked why it was so important. I explained we were in an open gym, that some prisoners saw me as a thug leader, and that I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping away from my crew and their protection. To my utter astonishment the coordinators went for it! They arranged for my crew to sleep on both sides of me. I wanted to get tossed from the program but Fred, et. al., out-smarted me.

The Cursillo volunteers brought in their own food and drinks and during the first day we took breaks with goodies such as potato chips and pop, pretzels and Little Debbies. We looked forward to the breaks and eventually my crew and I discovered where the food was being stored. We helped ourselves because the storage area wasn’t locked. I thought for sure our snack theft would be discovered and I would be summarily ejected from the program. Well, we were discovered by an outside volunteer, but instead of making a big deal of it he pulled me aside and asked that I not let anyone see what we were doing. He didn’t ask me to stop! Foiled again!

Apparently, there wasn’t much I could do to get thrown out, so I spent the first evening introducing myself to the volunteers, asking where they were from and what they did in life, thinking I might as well see if any of these people could be prisoner organization resources. In addition, they might be personally useful to me down the road, since I had every intent of eventually being released from prison.

I don’t remember much of the second day’s speeches and small group discussions because I wasn’t listening, only looking forward to the breaks.

It was on the third day I noticed my guys falling off. There was a session on forgiving yourself by letting God forgive you, and they had us write what we wanted to be forgiven for on small slips of paper. That whole day the volunteers spoke on how Jesus forgave us, and his dying on the cross, and it really meant nothing to me. But my crew loved the acceptance they were getting from the outside volunteers despite looking like the thugs they were: muscles, scars, and lots of ugly. But these outside people were hugging them and asking questions about families and childhoods; they felt accepted and more importantly they felt forgiven.

I watched my crew drop like flies, accepting the program 100% and accepting the Lord into their lives. I didn’t interfere. My crew kept pointing out to me how the outside guys were showing them in the Bible how God would forgive anyone for anything as long as they asked for forgiveness and that, as they put it, “If this is real, we want to be part of it.” I was skeptical because I have witnessed many religious leaders do pretty bad things, only to fall back on God’s grace and forgiveness to safe their sorry asses.

I had to admit that I too liked the attention from these outsiders. I suspected they didn’t respect me, or like me except as you like the beauty of a cobra. I believed they felt sorry for me. No, they pitied me. But pity is okay if the alternative is punishment, or worse, to be ignored.

Seeking Redemption

At the end of the third day, in the day’s twilight, we were taken outside to a grassy area behind the gym. The pieces of paper containing our forgiveness requests were put in a metal can and set on fire. We were told to pray as we watched the smoke rise from the can and disappear in the air; as Jesus accepted our guilt and took away our burden of shame. I remember thinking I BELIEVE IN GOD…I BELIEVE HE CAN FORGIVE ME IF HE WANTED TO. That maybe if I were sincere in asking forgiveness, that this could work. If there were some sort of gift, or blessing, or forgiveness that could come from my just asking, I wasn’t willing to miss out for lack of asking. That’s when my mind flashed back to the Jackson hospital when the doctor said I should thank God for being alive. After being stabbed, I remembered my mother (who had always been religious) saying God had a plan for my life — -that the reason I wasn’t killed was because He was going to use me for some good I didn’t now know about. I liked that idea.

I thought of my victims and how I ruined their lives forever. I remembered their cries and screams and struggles, how they eventually went into some sort of trance to deal with the pain and humiliation and how I didn’t stop, all along feeling strong and manly while despising their vulnerability and helplessness.

So that night when they lit the fire and the smoke and little bits of fiery paper rose and skipped into the night, I felt a sense of peace and acceptance. Forty outside men from all walks of life took me in, those doctors and businessmen, and farmers, and even a prosecutor! all took me in. They talked about the love of Jesus, and that Jesus was willing to live inside us if only we would open our hearts and let Him in and not be so hard-hearted. Hard-hearted! I knew they were talking about me.

The last speech on the last day, a Sunday, was given by a Roman Catholic priest named Fox who talked about how we always hurt the people we loved the most, and how we never tell these people how much we love them until we are talking to their casket. I sat immobile in that prison gym thinking how I’ve been a burden to my parents, and at 29 years-old I hadn’t told my mother I loved her since I was ten.

I don’t remember ever crying, but that Cursillo day I cried until my T-shirt was damp. I cried and my body shook and I couldn’t stop crying. I was stripped, helpless, emotionally naked. Guilty and damned.

Memories: of my Dad telling me that when I was one or two years-old I always wanted Mom to carry me but because she had to cook and clean she couldn’t always do it, so I wrapped my arms around her leg and sat on her foot and she hobbled through the house doing chores, all five feet of her having given birth to me, a ten pound eight-ounce baby; of getting in a fight at school and running away from the principal who wanted to spank me and my Mom, nine months pregnant with my sister telling him he wasn’t to lay a hand on her son; of Mom going to counselors and priests for advise on how to handle me… and me blowing it all off; of my Mom getting a driver’s license for the first time in her life so she could visit me in prison when Dad had to work.

Certainly, I’d heard the phrase “we always hurt the ones we love” but it meant nothing to me until Fr. Fox talked about it. I listened and felt weightless then very heavy. Others choked-up, but I cried aloud, sobbed, realizing the pain I had caused so many people. For weeks after the Cursillo, volunteers would come in and remind me of my crying, but I wasn’t embarrassed. Something had been washed away leaving me feel new and more open; something that took with it a need to prove how tough I was at the slightest provocation. None of the other prisoner participants ever mentioned my crying, because they also knew me as Eddie G., a guy you don’t mess with. But I now knew I could be something far better, that a better person was nudging that old Eddie out or at least boxing him in, that it had been coming for a while, slowly, first as a vague notion in that Jackson hospital bed, and now with the confidence born of redemption.

The last night of the Cursillo we all took turns at the microphone saying what the experience meant for us. It was my turn at the mike and I was trying to convey how I felt about the Cursillo, about the attitude I came in with and how as events challenged my defenses they melted away. I glanced down for a moment to compose a thought and when I looked up I saw my parents in the back of the room! My mother was standing on a pile of what I think are room dividers so she could see and be seen above the crowd. Unknown to me, the staff coordinator, Fred Goff, had arranged for my parents to come to the prison, no small thing because MCF is near Lake Michigan, and my parent’s home in Saginaw was near Lake Huron, at least a four-hour drive.

I dropped the microphone and rushed to my parents and hugged them and kissed them and told them how much I loved them and how sorry I was for everything I was putting them through, for the burden and humiliation I visited on them. My mother cried and my father chocked-up and Mom later told me when they got home that night Dad cried all night. I told them that from now on I was going to do my best to be a son they could be proud of, that I knew God had given me another chance. I have spent the past 36 years trying to keep that promise to my parents, and even though they are now both dead I will continue to keep that promise. On a later visit my parents said they forgave me and I knew God had forgiven me and that is all that mattered. I have written to others, including my victims, but I have never heard back; and I’m okay with that because it’s up to them to either forgive me or not and I know there is nothing more I can do about it. I had been given a new life and it was up to me to not blow it.

After the Cursillo I told prisoners who came to me with information on illegal activities, who wanted advice on how to do one illegal thing or another, that I was no longer interested in any of that stuff. I was finished with any involvement, nor would I any longer give advice. This didn’t sit well with some guys, but they knew my reputation and weren’t willing to risk challenging me.

I spent months writing letters to my sisters and brother, my grandparents and anyone else I thought I had disrespected or offended in the past.

To my surprise, I found there are many opportunities for redemption in prison: I helped prisoners write letters to judges, attorneys, courts, and immigration officials. I helped illiterate guys write and read their personal letters to families and friends. I was called to the Detroit Federal Court building to testify in a lawsuit Hispanic prisoners brought against the Michigan Department of Corrections for lack of Hispanic programming…they considered me an expert on such programming, or the lack thereof. Before I testified, an administrator told me that if I took the stand, I would never get out of prison. I thought about this threat and decided if Jesus sacrificed himself for me, the least I could do is help my Hispanic brothers. I testified and we won the lawsuit and MDOC was forced to implement Hispanic programming throughout the system.

A slim book from the MCF library entitled The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius stuck in my mind, particularly the following:

“It is your duty in the midst of such things to show good humor and not a proud air; to understand, however, that every person is worth so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself.”

Often during visits Mom told me to take advantage of any available programming. “You get yourself ready and let God do the rest.” Of course, she was talking about my eventual release. As it turned out, she was right. I looked forward to release, but it became apparent that would never happen until I moved to make it so. I now saw prison programming, staying out of trouble, and the connections I made outside, as the key to eventual release. Given the violent nature of prison and the need to be guarded, I entered a period of constructive despair.

A New Life

I gave up the loan shark business, though I will admit I had my doubts about how I would survive without an income. To my surprise, many people stepped forward and helped by placing small amounts of money in my inmate account.

I redoubled my efforts working with the MCF prisoner organizations and received many letters and verbal expressions of support, including a letter from Governor William Milliken. And as I kept working to help others at MCF, something unexpected happened: it just seemed to make more sense to me to try to do the right things. Prison isn’t easy, but if you try you can make your life worthwhile. Many people don’t understand how I could be a criminal within the prison system for so long, and during just one weekend retreat do a complete turnaround. Well, turning around is not sudden; it is an accumulation of thoughts and experiences that coalesce around a powerful catalyst; it is a realization if you don’t change you will die miserable. There are different ways a person can seek redemption, but for me personally, I can only explain it by asking you to read from the Bible, Mark, Chapter 5, verses 1–20. If the Christian Bible is not for you, then consider that the Buddha said: “All that we are is a result of what we have thought. We are made by our thoughts; we are molded by our thoughts.” We become what we think.

After over five years I was forced to leave MCF. I had been interviewed by the parole board and ordered to transferred to the Michigan Reformatory Dormitory, a minimum-security facility with no walls, fences, or other security barriers. From there I was to be released. I didn’t want to transferred so I went to Bill Weideman and asked if he could help. He immediately called the Parole Board and suggested I be given a gate pass at MCF, which would allow me to work with outside maintenance and yard crews, as well as drive on official business in the nearby Muskegon community. The parole board refused saying they wanted to see how I would handle minimum custody and wanted me transferred as soon as possible.

As saddened as I was at leaving comfortable MCF, I knew I had to continue to do well in new situations if I ever hoped to convince the parole Board I should be released, for as Marcus Aurelius also said:

“A man who leads a life of tranquility and reflection, who is not disturbed at home and meddles not with the affairs of the world, may keep his mind at ease and his thoughts in one even course. But such a man has not been tried. All his ethical philosophy and his passive virtue might turn out to be idle words, if he were once exposed to the rude realities of human existence.”

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Joseph Abramajtys

Joseph Abramajtys

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The Hoosegow Abyss -Part 8