A Gamble

I had second appointment with the prison’s psychologist this morning. I had actually been looking forward to some intelligent conversation all weekend, but the session was brief and uninteresting.

When I arrived in his office, he said, “you always look so put together.” I thanked him but honestly had no idea what he meant because all inmates wear the same black boots with oversized khaki pants and shirt. Perhaps it was the book I was carrying that made me look so “put together.”

Later this afternoon, while waiting to speak to a counselor in the Education Services department, I noticed something peculiar. There was a young, black kid making copies over by the photo copier, and whenever he’d hear a door open from down the hall, he’d quickly take whatever papers he was copying and hide them under a nearby rug. Then, when he was sure the coast was clear, he’d crouch down, remove the papers from beneath the rug, and continue copying.

He was making gambling tickets.

Gambling runs rampant in the prison, and whenever there’s a football or basketball game on television, the housing units shudder with the sounds of inmates cheering for whichever team they’ve bet their money on. It’s always impossible to make phone calls on those nights.

Since cash is not allowed in prison, postage stamps are the unofficial currency which inmates use for everything from gambling to purchasing goods and services from other inmates–both of which are not allowed but common.

Older stamps (stamps less than 44 cents) are called compound stamps and have a value of 25 cents each. Books, or flats, of old stamps (there are 20 stamps to a flat) are valued at $5 each. A flat of newer stamps (stamps of 44 cents or more) are worth $8; however, if a new stamp is detached from its flat, that individual stamp’s value can depreciate to 25 cents depending on who you’re doing business with.

Personally, I stick to purchasing everything at commissary. Too many arguments can erupt over unfair exchanges or unpaid debts between inmates.

When I finally caught the attention of the counselor in charge of continuing education, she shuffled me into her office and sat down at her computer. I couldn’t help but notice there were no extra seats for guests, perhaps her subtle way of deterring long conversations. I stood beside her desk and told her I was interested in pursuing another degree–preferably a master’s.

“Well, let me just warn you that if you’re ever transferred to a different institution, your credits probably won’t transfer with you. I wouldn’t want to see you waste your money.”

That wasn’t the response I was hoping for. She turned in her chair and grabbed a book off a nearby shelf.

“Read this,” she said handing it to me. It was a guide for inmates interested in continuing education which lists colleges that offer degree programs to incarcerated students.

Before leaving, I asked, “Has anyone ever received a master’s degree here?”

“No,” she said without hesitation.

I walked away feeling completely deflated.

Afterwards, I wrote a somber letter to my parents venting my frustrations. Why isn’t anyone in this institution willing to help someone who genuinely wants to do good? I don’t want to sit on my ass for the next 10 years and rot.

I told my parents that the only thing I’ve been looking forward to is seeing them this Saturday, the day after my 25th birthday.

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