Voices Unlocked

Holidays Behind Bars

November 25, 2023 More Than Our Crimes Season 1 Episode 5
Voices Unlocked
Holidays Behind Bars
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Have you ever wondered what holidays feel like behind bars? We unlock this topic via an insightful discussion with our guest cohost, Ray Dodd, a formerly incarcerated paralegal, and a "lifer" named Wayne La Fleur, who recites an emotionally charged poem. 

Our conversation also ventures into the realm of prison reform and the impact of  photocopying mail, the introduction of tablets and the consequences for mental health, especially during the holiday season. 

We round off our episode with a deep-dive into the diminishing ways for families to send gifts and the varied perceptions around New Year's. We also share some tips on how to share the holiday season when writing and talking to incarcerated individuals. And, if you want to spread your holiday charity to people inside federal prison, we invite you to join send a message of appreciation to members of the More Than Our Crimes network. Our goal is to show that those behind bars are seen, heard and valued. 

Follow this podcast so you'll be informed when new episodes are uploaded (twice a month). Meanwhile, read more stories and learn how you can contribute to reform; visit MoreThanOurCrimes.

PAM BAILEY, HOST: Hi, I'm Pam Bailey. I am co-founder of More Than Our Crimes, which produces Voices Unlocked, a podcast in which we try to bring voices in federal prison to the outside world so you can see the humanity behind bars. Our guest co-host today is Ray Dodd, who served 25 years in prison. But now he's a paralegal with the Washington Lawyers Committee so he's able to really be an advocate for prison reform. But he's also an author. So, Ray, do you want to tell the audience a little bit about your book?

RAY DODD, GUEST CO-HOST: Oh, sure. Sure. My book is entitled "Essays of My Journey Through Incarceration into Philosophy." The book is titled that for a reason, mostly for educational purposes. I wrote this book throughout probably the last five years of my incarceration. I had been jotting down all these ideas. And I put it into a book form. And the principle of it is how philosophy shapes the mind, and how people believe in these ideas that shape their philosophical views. So, I just tried to loosely kind of pin it to incarceration spaces where people are in these spaces, and whatever their surroundings and environment was, they subscribe to philosophically. Sometimes it's good. And sometimes it's bad, depending on where you are. And the purpose of the book is to educate people in and out of prison that, when you are constantly in something, you tend to be part of that something, even if you don't realize it, because your belief in how to get through it. So, I self-published it a few years ago, after I was released. And I put it on Amazon. And, yeah, it's a teaching tool more than anything. 

PAM: In a way, I think it applies to what we're talking about today, because we're focusing on holidays. Because, you know, as we start the fall season, I mean, a lot of us outside love this time of year, because it's whole bunch of holidays sort of close together. You've got Halloween, you've got you've got Thanksgiving, you've got Christmas, you have New Year's, and of course on top of that, you know, birthdays and that kind of thing. It got me thinking. We get excited, right? Because whether you really celebrate the holidays or not, it's time off work, you know. So, it's sort of a special time of year. But what does that really mean to people inside prison? Do holidays really mean anything? And so, the person I interviewed this time, who's still inside prison, about this subject is named Larry Wayne LaFleur. He's currently incarcerated at the Sheridan federal prison in Oregon. 

And I wanted to start with...He's really an amazingly talented man.  Actually, most of the people I interview, I'm impressed by them. But Larry wrote a poem. And I asked him to read it himself. But he has a life sentence, a federal life sentence. At the federal level, there's not much of a chance other than compassionate release to reduce that. He's been in 35 years so far. And as we think about holidays, you have to remember the context in which these people people live. So let's let's listen to a little bit of his poem, and it reflects sort of his philosophy, his mind frame right now. Let's take a listen.

Slowly becoming numb. 
Basketball, weight pile, handball 
only fill time. 
The work, the hobbies, 
none of it quiets the mind.
Days turn to weeks 
and weeks turn to years. 
The first decade in. 

Death, parents, 
friends, grandparents. 
Birth, life and new kin. 
People stop writing, 
meaningful contact is slim. 
The first 15 years in. 

If not for the horrible dreams, 
would I know why I'm here. 
I've taken all the classes, 
stayed sober and clean. 
Every single day is the same routine. 
Feel lost and forgotten. 
The second decade in.

PAM: So, Ray, I'm wondering, to what extent you relate when you hear that poem. That's a poem from somebody who is seeing time pass by. And we also sort of hear increasingly in his poem is that he has a sense that he's not getting out. And I don't know, did you ever feel like that? Your sentence was 18 years to life, right? IRAA came along, the DC bill that allowed you to show a judge that you're rehabilitated and should be released. But before that bill, did you find yourself feeling and thinking the way he does?

RAY: So, you know, I won't say that everyone feels the same, because prison has a way of desensitizing you to hope. Part of that falls into that psyche, and that philosophy, of life. And this is why you have people that turn to drugs, suicide, the whole nine yards. People are moved and energized to the point that, you know...I hate to paint a broad stroke of: This is the way that people will feel, because that's not true. You know, people deal with trauma differently. And so, in the case of that feeling, I've always had this idea in my head that I was going to find a way, no matter how many times that I failed in court, no matter how many letters that got denied, no matter how many motions. So, you know, when it comes to having that hopeless feeling, I can't say that I ever felt that way. I have felt that it was going to probably take me forever. And what I use as a barometer of when I probably felt tapped out, was when I felt like I wouldn't make it home before my immediate family passed away. So that was kind of like my thought process to keep me pushing through. 

When I hear these types of poems, it reminds me of people expressing their journey. And their journey is captured in a way that's unique to their circumstances. Like, for instance, some people have children and some don't. So, those are motivating factors or depressing factors. When it comes to holidays, some people are desensitized to holidays; they don't look forward to a holiday because it really doesn't have any value for them. And in some cases, people use holidays as a mechanism to cope, or to celebrate life. So you know, it's a very complex idea...of whether or not you'll survive and having that thought in your head that one day I will get out of jail. Even though you may have 10 life sentences...Think about the people who have what I call overkill of sentences. You know, you only have one life and you get 10 life sentences? That alone should be a violation of the Constitution,  cruel and unusual punishment. How can you get 10 life sentences and you only have one life? So, yeah. I will say that I feel those poems when I hear them because it gives me a peek into that individual's life. Some people identify with those journeys, and some don't. But overall, I think that it has a message and it's a peek into someone's life this going through that.

PAM: I have to say, that poem, you know, really pulls at the heart, for me at least. I mean, it's sad. But when you talk to Larry as an individual, he's actually pretty upbeat. You know, he's very lucky. He has a wife who really loves him and is very connected to him. And five grandchildren, as you'll hear him talk about it. So, he has that. He has a very active, strong support system, which a lot of people don't have. Right. So, it's fortunate. He's a delight to know. In the first part of the interview, because he has been in prison for so long, he can remember a time before I got involved in prison reform, which is around 2020. I've never been able to send my friends in prison an actual card. You know, it's always sort of struggle to figure out how do I help them celebrate? How do I make this special for them, because I can't send in any kind of drawings or cards. But he recalls when there was a different time, when it was a little bit easier to to mark holidays in some way. That's what he talks about in this first part of the interview.

LARRY: Like I said, I've been in prison since 1989. And when I came to prison, we got mail, just mail. They opened it up and they gave it to us. So, that means we got greeting cards, birthday cards, holiday cards, all of that stuff. Two years ago, I think it was right before COVID or right at the start of COVID, they started photocopying all of our mail. We get nothing but photocopies for mail. And they did warn us; they said it was due to drugs in the institution, that they were trying to eliminate drugs coming into the institution. So now we only get photocopies and they don't photocopy greeting cards. They will send them back, unopened, to our family. So, it has changed the holidays drastically for most men in here. The holidays aren't easy in prison to begin with. People miss their family, their family traditions, doing doing their holiday thing with the people that they love. And in here, that was sort of a little bit of a lifeline to help a little bit. And they took that away.

RAY: I remember when we were getting those postcards and Christmas cards. And one of the things that's most memorable for me that I recall was not really the content of the card. It was the fragrances on the card, because in prison, people don't realize that you lose a lot of your senses. And when I say senses, it's because you're constantly around steel, concrete, you know. There are no perfumes and colognes. And so when the mail comes and you can smell it before it gets to your door, it's a refreshing feeling of a piece of the outside world. You know, it puts you mentally in somebody's department store. And so those were the memorable moments when we were receiving cards when I was in there. Then they transitioned and they started photocopying and not allowing returns, which was probably like one of the worst things that they have done. Because when people are looking forward to loved ones and that connection, to reach out to them, it's like a part of the incarceration that holds people together. That knowledge that someone cares and keeps up with them, or at least checks on them. And they don't feel alone. The reason that they mostly said [for the switch to scanning] was the introduction of contraband into the facility. 

PAM: Drugs? You're talking about drugs? 

RAY: I'm talking about drugs. The drugs that they were talking about were drugs that were being sprayed on cards, and of that nature. But that was a very small number. Probably, if you had to guess how many people are in prison versus how many people try to get drugs in prison, it's probably 1%. But because the 1% is frowned upon and looked upon as the reason behind whatever's going on in those facilities, that 99% were penalized for it. And so it's gotten got so bad that even with lawyers, sending in legal stuff that has nothing to do with a card, they're doing the same approach. And so, you know, there's really no oversight in the BOP, when it comes to their practices of taking away stuff. 

PAM: It seems to me...I'm gonna give an example in a second about how they are increasingly restrictive, usually because they're afraid of drugs being smuggled in. And yet, drugs are still extremely prevalent. So, obviously, that hasn't worked. And you have to balance...this is what Larry's gonna talk about next...you really have to balance, and they don't seem to do this, balance the, "Okay, we're gonna stop this 1% of drugs from coming in" against the mental health cost for people who are spending years in prison. And at some point, when when is the cost of mental health greater than that little bit of drugs you're preventing from coming in? 

What I asked Larry about is,...They've introduced tablets. I don't know if they had tablets in prison before you were released, but now they have tablets in the prison. They can watch movies, and they get their music that way. But the talk is that the use of the tablets are going to expand. And one speculation -- I don't know if it's real or not, but I suspect it might be, because it's happening in some state prisons already -- that they're going to scan the mail into the tablets, so that you're not actually getting any physical mail at all. It's just gonna be something you read on your tablet. And I asked Larry about what he thought about that possibility and what effect that would have.

LARRY: I think that will be worse, honestly. So, like for me, I'm blessed. I have five grandchildren. And they write to me, and even though they're just photocopies, I cherish the photocopies of those letters I get. Even with the small amount of space I have to keep stuff, I usually keep stuff my grandbabies write to me, especially around the holidays. You know, the hand-drawn turkey, pumpkins in the leaves and whatever they draw. That is really special. So, if they do go to the tablet, that would take even more away from any long-lasting joy I can get out of that. I know guys in here that haven't been locked up that long and the holidays aren't hard for them. I've been locked up 35 years and the holidays get harder and harder. You get more and more callous to not being able to enjoy family and friends. And then the administration is trying to cook a good meal and act like "oh, you need to be in the holiday spirit, because we gave you this really good meal." But one or two good meals a year doesn't make up for the rest of the year [this call is from the federal prison] and what they put us through on a daily basis. They, you know, smile and stand in the chow hall and tell you Merry Christmas or Happy Thanksgiving, but the other 360 days of the year, they're not really that attentive to what's going on or how you're feeling about any given thing.

RAY: When it comes to the tablets, you know, I can see that it could evolve into contact-less mail. And there goes the sniff and the smell of perfume and cologne. There goes, you know, being able to hang on your wall the picture that your kid sent you, or something that someone drew you. It's incredible how desensitized that the system has gotten to feelings or humanity, that element that you can't replicate through a tablet. So, you know the downside to this, and they won't say it, is who's going to be responsible for downloading and copying all this stuff to make sure people get it. Because they're already screaming that they're short of staff. When you talk about transitioning from receiving mail to scanning it, that means now you probably have one or two people in the mailroom that are going to be tasked with opening, reading -- because they scan through the mail to make sure there's nothing that's inappropriate -- then they have to download and upload it to the tablets of individuals that probably are around anywhere from 1,100 to 1,600 people in one institution. 

So, you're talking about people not receiving mail possibly for months. And when they receive it, it'll be like...It was Christmas when it was sent, but you get it in March or April. Again, with no accountability, because they say they sent it. So it just doesn't make sense, the transition that they're proposing, because it doesn't address anything because even when they do that they'll still have drugs in the institution. And it's no secret that a lot of the staff are the main people that bring it in. And so they can't blame it on the mail any longer. And, you just get another layer of detaching someone from society, 

PAM: You know, what's crazy? I mentioned that the state systems are already doing this. I write to a prisoner in New Mexico, and what I have to do is, I have to mail anything I send him to Florida. There's actually a business, another way for somebody to make a dollar, right? There's a business that reads and scans. And so anything I mail, even though he's in New Mexico, I have to mail to Florida. And then, as you said, it actually does result in delay. And then it goes from Florida to New Mexico. To me, that actually is another way to make this a prison-industrial complex. Some other outfit is now making money off of the prisoners, while they get just glowing images on a screen. 

I asked Larry next what holidays actually mean in prison. You know, to what extent can they and do they celebrate? He he addresses that directly. 

LARRY: What they really mean in prison, Pam, is just another day. That's the honest truth. It's just another day and it means, more than likely, we'll get a good meal. They don't celebrate and we don't celebrate them. We don't make big deals about them. It's just another day. For most of us, it's a day we don't have to work and it's a good meal. The quicker they're over the better, because as the holiday season comes around, the depression level and people's moods go way haywire. And it makes it a little bit tougher to deal with individuals. People just get grouchier.

RAY: So, I like how Larry put in perspective that people essentially  disengage with holidays, especially the longer that you have been in prison. Because, you know, it's just another day, especially when you are denied opportunities to have physical touch with your family and in most cases, spend any good amount of time with your family. So, like Larry was saying, most people wake up knowing that they'll get a better meal -- not necessarily a better meal that we would think of. I's just "okay, we'll get a turkey and cheese instead of bologna and cheese. Or you might get a slice of pie. You might get some eggnog. It's something that is so minute that we out in society wouldn't look at as special. But for them, being in that space, you know, anything, especially a stick of bubble gum, is special. 

But one of the things, from my own personal experience with holidays: I had a very strong relationship with my immediate extended family members and friends. I won't say it was depressing, but I didn't wake up on a holiday morning feeling like, I should celebrate it. For me, it was another day. Of course, I was looking forward to a piece of pie, the eggnog. I was looking for, what could I gain out of this day that tomorrow, and the rest of the year, I'm not gonna be able to get. And so, you know, a lot of people have these ideas. Again, everyone isn't in the same boat. Some people wake up and don't have anybody to call, or no one to look forward to reaching out to them. So their experiences could be quite different. It's a very... I guess for some people, it's emotional. 

Overall, I think people try to be joyous because it's just the thing to do. But you have a lot of conflicting emotions, especially in a men's prison. I don't know how it is in a women's prison. But in a men's prison there, you got someone who might be upset, because they can't get on the phone at a certain time to talk to the kids or loved ones. And then you have some that you know, they're good. It doesn't make a difference if it is Christmas or if it was Halloween. It's all the same.

PAM: I remember, one year, my cofounder Rob Barton was locked down right over the holiday season, so he couldn't even have phone calls. But interesting: I was mentioning the state system before, and the one thing that New Mexico at least is better at -- and I don't know why the federal prisons can't do this -- they have an outside service where I can order food that's not available on the commissary, special foods, and have it sent in. It's inspected and approved, and they have a special holiday basket, you can send.

RAY: Like a holiday gift basket. Yeah, so the federal system used to do that. The federal system evolved. The federal system used to let you wear your own street clothes at one time. We used to have quarters in our pocket and put it in the phone machine. So, it has drastically changed over the years. Part of the reason is because they started bringing more state inmates into the facilities than actually federal inmates. 

PAM: Why would that make a difference? 

RAY: The difference is because at one time, the predominantly federal population was white collar crime, or some type of cartel, you know. It was people with money, basically. So, when you bring in people from state systems who don't have money, then you're treated a lot different. So, it's a major factor.

PAM: I hear that all the time, that federal prison has gradually gotten worse in a lot of ways. Lockdowns, the way you're treated. I asked Larry next, if family members can't send cards in, what can they do? What do they do? You know, what can you do, so at least there's a little bit of special family time during holidays. He talks about that.

LARRY: The only avenues for family to do something special for the holidays are if you happen to have a visiting day on or near a holiday to come see you. They can send you books from a company like Amazon or one of the book companies. But they can't send you books personally. It has to come from a company. They can send you magazine subscriptions, and they can send you money. That's really about it. There's not a whole bunch that family can do for federal inmates to help them celebrate the holidays. They have closed down every avenue and made it even harder. Now, they can't even send us pictures, unless they go through Photo Pigeon or Shutterfly or FreePrints. A family can't just put pictures in an envelope and send them to us. We don't get 'em.

PAM: I asked Larry next about New Year's, the New Year's holiday specifically. Because I was thinking, that of all the holidays, New Year's is so focused on the excitement of starting a new year. And what would that really mean in prison? When time becomes all the same, it's sort of hard to mark milestones. And so, Larry makes a very interesting comment about how it's a little bit different depending on what your sentence is.

LARRY: For some people, it is. For people who have a long time, definitely New Year's is nothing to really celebrate. Myself, with my life sentence, New Year's is just another year passed and another year starting where I am. But I have a lot of guys around me that are excited for the new year because it's closer to home. It's closer to the door for them. They get really excited about it, which I can't blame them, I would too. I'd definitely get excited if I knew I was going home.

RAY: So, New Year's. I've never thought of it as a way of, again, I was coming into this situation with a life sentence. So New Year's was another year. What it meant to me was another year on this sentence, which was endless. So it didn't have any type of specialty to it. Whereas, maybe some of my other peers were one month or a year closer to their out. And so although New Year's is supposed to be like this benchmark of, you know, living on the earth and breathing and wellbeing, it doesn't necessarily feel the same way in a prison setting. Because, depending on what your sentences are, it could be a reminder of, "You got a long way to go," or it could be a reminder that you got a short way to go. So I wouldn't say that many people would, you know, look at New Year's any different than they would any other holiday, unless they have a short end date coming up. But at the same time, I wouldn't say that people discount it either, because some people take the blessings that, "I'm able to make it through this process X amount of years now."

PAM: What does the prison do for New Years. Do they do anything? 

RAY: So, again, it has evolved, I don't know what the current state is; it used to celebrate it with a meal. Everything is celebrated with a meal. 

PAM: So, like what would be a New Year's meal?

RAY: A New Year's meal  used to be...This is how it evolved: It used to be steak and something. And then it went to chicken and something, a Cornish hen and something minus the alcohol, of course. And it varies. And then it got to the point... I can't recall; maybe the last one that I actually had in the BOP was like 2019. If I recall correctly, it was a bologna and cheese. 

PAM: Oh God, that's sad.

RAY: And I don't eat bologna. And it was partially because we were on lockdown at the time that this was going on.

PAM: And I'm thinking that because short staffing is so bad at the prisons now that, it would seem like all the staff would want to take off for the holidays. So, there might be more of a risk of meals like balogne because they don't have enough staff. I don't know. 

RAY: I mean, staff take off all the time. Like, it just got bad, to the point that staff take off for Staff Appreciation Day, staff take off or whatever. And there's no explanation to the population of what's going on. They're just locked down.

PAM: So, you know, the thing that I struggle with all the time, because I have so many people I talk to in prison, is what do I say? I don't want to say something... I don't want to ignore the holidays. I don't want to be inane about it either. Like, say "happy holidays." What does that mean? You know, "Merry Christmas"? So I asked Larry, what should people like me, who have friends or family in prison, what would be appropriate to say? And this is what he says.

LARRY: You should acknowledge it; don't not acknowledge it. Just be yourself. Don't be fake. If you're talking to somebody in prison who's got a long time or a short time, just be yourself. They know. Just show you care, even though they might not let you know that it touches them, it really does. That's my beep. It's getting ready to hang up. Yeah, just be yourself, be honest. Because that's what guys want; they just want honesty. And if you guys are really wanting to wish them a happy new year, and Merry Christmas, they really will enjoy that. It helps. It really does.

RAY: So that's interesting, when it comes to what do you say to a person during the holiday season. And, again, you know, they're individuals. It's really not a broad paint brush for, how do you address people? Some people, again, have different perspectives on what a holiday means. If who you are corresponding with is someone that is into the holidays, then of course, you know, the Merry Christmases and happy holidays. If someone who you correspond with is not necessarily into it, just do a check in, like "how you doin'" -- more of an inquisitive approach probably would be more helpful and impactful than just assuming that they're in a jolly, old spirit. 

And so, again, one of the things that I always advocate is, a lot of times we tend to do it unintentionally, but we broad-stroke it and we do a disservice when we do it. We should always individualize it to amplify a collective story. And that collective story is, some people are happy, but some people are sad. So who do we negate in trying to highlight what it is, when we should capture both because they're all in that same space. And sometimes happy and sad don't mix together, which comes to conflict. "You might be too happy today. Well, I'm too sad today. And what are you smiling for?" And that leads to fights and chaos. It's this philosophy of misery loves misery. Misery hates happiness. And, you know, it's sad, but it's part of that psyche. And, you can't control what everyone else does, but you can control what we do. 

So, my suggestion to anyone out there that, you know, you know a loved one, you have family, friends, or you just correspond with people out of the kindness of your heart...The check-in is always important. You don't just assume that because you're happy or you're in a holiday spirit that the person you're talking to is in a holiday spirit.

PAM: What I do is I focus on the one theme that I think ties this fall and winter holiday season together: thankfulness. And I turn it around, because... I know that maybe they can't feel thankful for a lot... but I turn it around and say, "As I think about what I'm thankful for"...And this is true. I'm thankful for knowing them. I have to tell you that my correspondence with these individuals..Everyone I've interviewed I can truthfully say has really added insight to my life and gives me inspiration. So many of them have shown amazing resilience that I sort of wonder if I could have, so it's an inspiration to me. So that's usually what I do. I check in, but then reflect back that they are seen and heard. And that I'm thinking about them on this day. I'm not just thinking about what's going on in my life. And that's what I found sort of resonates with them. 

And so I thought that what we'd do is try something special this year. And if our listeners, viewers would like to also let the people in prison know that "Hey, I don't know you personally, but I've been learning about you through this podcast, Voices Unlocked. I want you to know that I'm benefiting from these stories and you're seen and heard, you can send a message that you'd like to... Well, actually, maybe what would be even better is to send a message to info@morethanourcrimes.org and we'll randomly choose somebody and tell you a little bit about them. And then you can craft  a personal message, and we'll send it in for you. I think that would be really great for the More Than Our Crimes network, because I've been telling them about this podcast and to let them know that people are listening and hearing and want to know more about them That's why we try to interview a different person every time. That would be really amazing. So I invite you to do that. Again, it's info@morethanourcrimes.org. 

And on that note, we will end this episode. I hope you will subscribe, follow, and share it with your friends.




Definitely do that. Thank you

Exploring Incarceration and Philosophy
Mail Restrictions
Prisoners' Perspectives on Celebrating Holidays
Supporting Loved Ones in Prison
Supporting Prisoners With Personal Messages