Weekly Roundup: Rip Van Winkle’s Christmas Edition

“Alright,” I asked the men standing next to my Accord, “where did you do your time?” The surprise both of them affected in response was, I felt, at least partially genuine. How did the long-haired guy in the Turnbull&Asser three-button-cuffed shirt recognize their state-issued post-release mufti of grey crew-neck sweatshirt, dark-grey sweatpants, and blue watch cap? After a moment that stretched a bit longer than any of us wanted, the stooped and greying white guy said,

“The Wall. Mansfield. Just did fourteen years. But I ain’t been out more than nine months in a row since I was nineteen.” His companion, a broad-shouldered black fellow with blue ink tattoos on his hands and an expression made owlish by the state-issued aviator-style plastic glasses, nodded.

“Yeah. Mansfield for me, too. Ain’t been down as long as all that, though.”

“Well,” I responded, “let me see if I can figure out where that McDonald’s is.” They’d stopped me as I was getting into my car, asked me if I knew how to find the nearest McD’s. They didn’t say why, but I could guess: along with the grey sweats, they’d been given a meal card of some type. Surely they were hungry. We were standing outside a line of hipster-friendly lunch spots, full to bursting with self-consciously vibrant and diverse locals, but I could see the suspicions behind their eyes. After a few years at Mansfield, they’d have a native antipathy to the deliberate darkness and crowding of those restaurants. Their instincts would tell them that places like that were good places to be invisibly and unexpectedly hurt. Three things any prisoner wants: a wall or empty hallway to your back, clean bright light on clean surfaces all around you, and free space, measured by two steps and an arm’s reach. Then you can ratchet down from the immediate animal responses of violence and scuffle to the merely human ones of observation and conversation. A drone hovering overhead would have remarked on the neat triangle of our respective positions, each of us more than an arm’s length apart.

“You gonna call them?” The white guy was confused, because I had my phone out and was poking at it.

“No,” I said, “I’m looking up directions.”

“Jesus,” he replied, open-mouthed. “You can do that on a phone now?”

Although there are exceptions, not all of them intentional, Ohio inmates are by and large unable to access the Internet in any form. There are legitimate reasons for this, but in the modern era where few people can be bothered to write a letter by hand or even answer their phone when it rings the net effect of prison Internet policies is to further isolate inmates from society. To be in an Ohio prison is to be asleep after a fashion, Rip Van Winkle dozing through years of unchanging surroundings and fixed routines and sharply constrained horizons. The mile or so they’d walked from the downtown jail to the corner of Main and Fourth was a greater distance than any they could have covered at Mansfield without crossing their own tracks. You think things like that don’t matter and then you start to consider what it would be like if you spent fourteen years never having a chance to see anything different. Even as we spoke, the black fellow was swiveling his head around, looking at the ten-story building next to us the way tourists in New York gawp at the Freedom Tower.

“Take a left there,” I pointed, “and then the McDonald’s is on your right after a ten minute walk.” We could have ended the conversation there, but we did not. Chattering in the cold, we talked about conditions at Mansfield, the job market, and the oddly arbitrary phenomenon known in Ohio as post-release control. This state doesn’t do parole. You serve your whole term and then you’re subject to the whims of a “PRC” officer. They can keep you from traveling, pick your job. You might defy all the statistics and all the stereotypes and start your own business and make a stack of money and buy a beautiful new house ten months after you get out of prison only to find that your PRC officer, whose house is half the size of yours, won’t let you move in for half a year. Just because he doesn’t personally approve of you having a house.

There is little love lost between prisoners in Ohio and the system that guards them. Two or three prisoners are killed mysteriously every year. During the Lucasville riot in the Nineties, one guard was strangled. It is also commonly believed that seven of the correctional officers were gang raped.

I had a couple bucks in the car. I pressed it on the white guy; he objected twice, like a Japanese executive being presented with a gift, then took the money. “You two have a couple of drinks on me. Where are you going next? You got family waiting for you?”

“I ain’t got anybody left,” the older man said. The black fellow looked at the ground, flexing his hands in and out.

“I’m hoping that I do, but I ain’t heard in a while. Gotta get on that bus and find out.”

We shook hands. As they turned to walk away, I felt compelled to say something else. “It’s a hard road ahead,” I stammered, uncomfortably aware that I sounded like a bad mix of a self-help book and a pre-electric Dylan song, “and there will be times when you might feel like you have to whip some ass. ‘Cause that’s what you would do inside. But that’s not a reason. In fact, there’s no reason for that. There’s no reason to go back. I’m right, aren’t I? We’re all grown. There’s no reason to go back.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” the black man said. “No fuckin’ reason.”

“No reason,” his companion agreed. The three of us smiled, ruefully. Because it wasn’t as true as we wanted it to be, because you don’t wind up in prison in the first place without being the kind of man who sometimes strikes without thinking. Then the two men squared up their shoulders and walked away, like you would on the yard. Eyes up, alert, not a hint of teenage swagger but also no suggestion that you’d move out of the way if you were shoved. Successful prisoners have a remarkable amount of inertia in their physical carriage. The survival of the monarch butterfly comes solely from its ability to not be worth the trouble to eat.

“Oh hey,” I yelled, because I’d forgotten. “Merry Christmas.”

* * *
For R&T, I discussed the deadly side effects of lower speed limits and shared my Christmas list.

At TTAC, I reviewed new restrictions on Tesla Superchargers and asked the readers about the golden age of pickups. Brother Bark reviewed the newest way to experience Rallycross in the US.

21 Replies to “Weekly Roundup: Rip Van Winkle’s Christmas Edition”

  1. Disinterested-Observer

    The second, possibly first, best part of ‘Heat’ is the scumbag restaurant manager telling Don what’s what contrasted him throwing the manager to the ground when he decides to go with the crew. I have no sympathy for predators who hurt people, but I also cringe whenever some keyboard commando says “play stupid games, win stupid prizes’ regarding a property crime or ‘Darwin award’ for a 15 year old who died in a crash running from the cops.

  2. Dirty Dingus McGee

    Quite an interaction. Most folks probably would have pissed their pants in that situation. I’m pretty familiar with dealing with folks who have been released from prison, 2 of our current employees have done time. One, federal time, other did state time. There have been 3 others over the years, whom I still talk to on occasion, that did time. They are good employees but don’t suffer fools out in public.
    As for internet access in prison; what you and I consider access isn’t there. Federal prison has Corrlinks which is an email that eligible prisoners can use, if they are approved and can afford it ($.05 per minute, reading or writing). Other access is on a cell phone, illegal of course, of which there are usually plenty inside.

    • rwb

      One reason I respect Jack is because he is absolutely the type of person who would not just spend 15-20 minutes having an earnest conversation with a couple of dudes he could tell had just been released from prison, but who would start that conversation.

      Also job-prep training on basic computing skills, including using the internet, seems like it would be a worthwhile program to offer inmates, but what do I know.

  3. John C.

    On your xmas list, I couldn’t agree more on the cloth. A 72 Olds 98 Regency had great cloth. A 76 Audi 100LS had great cloth. An 80 Saab 900 had great cloth. A 85 Toyota Century had great cloth. All different from each other. But now nothing but leather. Don’t any designers live in hot climates?

  4. -Nate

    ” a wall or empty hallway to your back, clean bright light on clean surfaces all around you, and free space, measured by two steps and an arm’s reach.”.

    40 years on, this hasn’t changed .

    Only last year have I allowed my Sweet to face the door and my back to face any public room .

    I hope those two make it .

    I’m off the read the link about speed limits .


  5. Ronnie Schreiber

    That’s some superb writing right there.

    “The golden age of pickups.” Wouldn’t that be the late 1950s with PAFs at Gibson and Abigail Ybarra wound single coils at Fender?

  6. Tomko

    Wow! Another great tale of mistakes made and opportunity lost. Perhaps a hidden allegory for the birth of the saviour? Nevertheless a touching seasonal sentiment that could serve to inspire a Ridley Scott classic.

    Thank you Jack, and happy Christmas.

  7. Wulfgar

    Most men such as these have aged out of much of their lack of impulse control. And once they are convinced it’s not worth going back, they do what they have to to stay free. But no, they don’t suffer fools well as has been noted. I spent 30 years in law enforcement and have a number of opinions regarding how our criminal justice “system” functions. And doesn’t.

    • Dirty Dingus McGee

      ” how our criminal justice “system” functions. And doesn’t.”

      I would go with mostly doesn’t if the goal is rehabilitation. I’ll throw my 2 cents in on the federal system, as it’s one I’m more familiar with. Inmates that are physically able, and can qualify, get a “job” in the prison. One man I know quite well, as I visit him 2-4 times a year, has a job as a maintenance man. For an approximately 30 hour week his pay is about $17.50. PER MONTH. If an inmate wants anything beyond the basics that the prison provides, a cheap pair of boots, 5 pants shirts socks and underwear, bar of soap and some cheap shampoo, a razor and a comb, they have to buy it from the commissary. If an inmate needs any medicines, from aspirin to blood pressure medicine, unless they are indigent they have to pay for it. So you can compare, here is the current commissary list;


      Unless a brand name is specified, these are all generic, lowest bidder goods. Now, if you compare those prices versus the pay from those who actually have a job inside, that’s one hell of a gap. Therefore, folks on the inside have to come up with a hustle to get some commissary money. Legal tender, beyond commissary, is stamps. Stuck together back to back they are as good as cash money. The preference though is to have whoever the inmate is “working” for, have their friends/family on the outside put money on their “books” for commissary.

      Job training inside is pretty spotty There are some educational opportunity’s but .they are also pretty thin. In the federal system, you cannot send books, magazines or catalogs to inmates. The only ones they can get MUST come directly from the publisher. I have contacted various publishers over the years to try to buy stuff and have it sent. 99% can’t be bothered, no matter how much you offer to pay (within reason).

      So now the inmate has come up to his release date, minimum of 85% of the sentence in the federal system. Unless they have family or friends coming to pick them up, they, their “street clothes” and what ever else they are allowed to take from the prison, are dropped off at the Greyhound station. They then have between 24 and 48 hours to report to the halfway house they were assigned to(a lot of these are closing, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). Once they get established in the residence, they have to get a job. Unless some miracle occurs, it’s some minimum wage job. Permission has to be granted for them to work any overtime, and it has to be verified by the employer. They are responsible for their transportation to and from their job, so most halfway houses are near mass transit. Unless they are in the house when meals are served, the same crappy food as one gets in prison, they have to buy their own food. They are required to give 50% of their take home pay for “rent”. They will live at the halfway house for a minimum of 6 months, longer if they break any of the rules.

      So doing some quick math federal minimum wage $7.25X40=$290 gross.After deductions figure about $240. take out $120 for rent, probably $15-$20 for transportation( bus, taxi, Uber), $25-30 for meals, and $10-$20 for personal items(remember, they are starting from scratch) that means they could bank between $50 and $70 per week. After 6 months that would give them a bank account of $1200 and $1700. With that bankroll they now have to find an apartment. And folks wonder why the recidivism rate is so high.

      TL;DR System seems designed for failure of an inmate on the outside.

      • Wulfgar

        Good summary. And the state systems have even fewer resources. I don’t want to believe the system is intentionally set up for people to fail but it damn sure isn’t helping them with a plan to succeed when they leave prison.

        • Eric H

          You should believe that the system is set up to maximize recidivism.
          For-profit prisons want all the inmates back as soon as possible.

          • Wulfgar

            I said I don’t want to believe that 😉

            On a serious note, not a single one of the people I worked with in law enforcement was invested in making this happen. I realize they are all being painted with a very broad brush the past few years but even the most marginal officers had strong standards for arrests.

        • Dirty Dingus McGee

          “On a serious note, not a single one of the people I worked with in law enforcement was invested in making this happen. I realize they are all being painted with a very broad brush the past few years but even the most marginal officers had strong standards for arrests.”

          Having had many interactions with LEO’s over the years, I would guess you worked in a small rural area, without many interactions with “outsiders”. Whenever I have had dealings with LEO’s, as soon as my info is ran I get questions about past problems and current associations. In past years when I was on probation for various stupid shit, almost all alcohol related, most seemed to assume I was up to something. It seemed I was always being pulled over or questioned for something stupid, improper lane usage (didn’t leave the lane, just moved in it), following too close(even if there was a gap big enough for 3 cars), a tag that was crooked( on a damn rental car), loitering(leaning on my own vehicle having a smoke), etc. Now it wasn’t ALL police that did this, but it sure seemed to be a lot of them. Many seemed determined to find SOMETHING, especially rookies trying to build their career. I had one rookie almost cry one night when he couldn’t write me a DUI, due to the fact I had drank nothing. There was an empty beer can in the bed of my truck (apparently thrown in by someone in a parking lot, I hadn’t had a Budweiser in 30 years), so even though the roadside breath tester kept showing zero (4 times blowing in it), he KNEW I had been drinking. Finally a supervisor showed up and I was free to leave, after damn near an hour side of the road.

          Now again, it’s not all LEO that act this way, but it seems in recent years, there is a feeling that you are guilty of SOMETHING when you have dealings with them. If you have more than a couple hundred dollars in cash, you MUST be selling drugs, if you’re driving at 2 am you MUST be on your way home from a bar, if you’re in a rough neighborhood, you MUST be looking to buy drugs or hookers.

          When LEO treats everyone as an enemy, THEY end up being looked at as the enemy, whether you are black, white or purple..

          Just my $.02, YMMV

          • Wulfgar

            No doubt – and not here to defend anyone who doesn’t treat people with respect regardless of their profession. Local and state law enforcement in this country is such a hodge-podge of leadership, training and equipment it leads to wildly varying enforcement styles. I do think that LE training has taken a turn to an “us versus them” mentality the past decade which leads to pumping out militaristic automatons such as those you mentioned with your experience. They only know one style of enforcement and it has certainly tainted many opinions as well as yours.

            I worked in an agency with 1,000 officers in a majority African American city and our enforcement was certainly different from surrounding cities. Happy to be retired so back to discussing cars 😉

          • Dirty Dingus McGee


            I was by no means attempting to downplay your experience or attitude, just pointing out some prevalent attitudes. You sound like a guy I would have a beer with, if I still drank beer.

            ” back to discussing cars”. Works for me. 🙂

  8. Joe

    Mr Baruth! This is one of the reasons I follow you! The humility you express towards people with much less education and smarts than you! One of the nicest things I have read period!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.