Author’s note: I received this letter late last year from Anthony Byam, who is currently incarcerated. The moment I read it, I knew his story was one that deserved and needed to be told. It is beautifully honest, and reflects back to us all of the ways in which we must work to make this country a place where help is not so impossible to come by. A place where we give all of our people their best chance. I hope you will read the following with an open mind, and perhaps more importantly, an open heart. After all, the best way to learn is to listen. Lastly, if I have been taught anything from this life it is that you change the world by being brave, and he has done just that. It is an honor to provide my usual column space this month to Anthony and his story, which has been minimally edited for clarity and length.
I read your article on the Oct. 14 edition about the American prison system and I admit, I was moved. I am a prisoner myself in Oregon at Snake River Correctional Institution.
You’re probably wondering how I came across your article in Oregon state. I grew up in Enumclaw so I like to read the paper.
I noticed you said, “Kids not going to school was the symptom of an issue, not the problem itself…” referring to jails and homelessness. I couldn’t agree more.
I dropped out of high school my junior year because I was homeless and didn’t care anymore. In a concise timeline of my life, I started going to jail first, then I was homeless, then dropped out of school. So I can say skipping out on school didn’t cause my lifestyle. I’d be interested in knowing who made this claim and how did it come for them to believe this.
I’m going to share my personal account of why prison systems don’t work but first I want to talk about calling the police. This is necessary and relevant ‘cause you can’t have jails without arrests and you can’t have arrests without police.
I think defunding the police is ridiculous. We do need them, but only in the most extreme cases. People abuse the tool of calling the police. With how many people do this on a nationwide level, should anybody be surprised when some of these stories — starting with a call as trivial as a “suspicious” person walking down the street or a small verbal dispute — make the headlines? (Police are responsible for their share of unnecessary encounters too.)
I’d understand if a suspicious person was lurking around a building and not walking down the street or if a verbal dispute got physical, or it seemed it might. Calling the police is like handling a gun, it’s not something you play with, it’s a dangerous tool you should handle with care. Otherwise, why would you want a stranger involved in your affairs? Police are real life people with real life problems, capable of making mistakes like everyone else. When calling the cops you have to ask yourself — would you trust any one of your neighbors, even the drunk that lives at the end of the street, to take the reins of your life and make decisions you have no control over? That’s what you’re doing when calling the police.
I’m not saying police are good nor bad. I’m just saying that there’s a misconception that because they are in uniform, that means they don’t make bad decisions.
My knowledge of why incarceration doesn’t work started in Enumclaw. I was homeless in Enumclaw, the jail became a second home. Can’t complain when it’s winter and you’re getting three meals and a cot. It was a routine that lasted years. I would get arrested for small things like stealing from a store or drug possession, do time in jail for a while, get released and do it again.
Eventually, I learned to steal cars. I was 20 and figured it was time to move on from the streets of Enumclaw. At the time I truly thought I could visit the 48 on stolen cars. I got jammed up for my first two felonies for stolen cars outside Portland, OR. I did a few months and then was released. I fell into the same routine, but in Oregon, it came with serious charges. For the next year I was in and out of jail for stolen cars and “burglaries” for being in unoccupied or abandoned houses. (What could the courts do? They can only lock me up.)
Like my fortunes, my decisions went from bad to worse with the mistake I made in November 2012, robbing an individual for his car. At this point I, understandably so, posed a threat to society. To prison I went.
Now I won’t argue. I have to pay my dues, but I do wish it was in a more productive way. I have a stack of communication forms asking people whom oversee my case about such things as whether or not I can go back to Washington when I parole or what programs are available for when I parole. Every response back I am told to ask again when I’m six months to my release. I have 10 years and I can’t make plans till I’m six months to my release? So I have no plans for life after prison, no foundation, only an idea.
You’re probably wondering, well, is there anything that will prepare me for release? Of course there is, what kind of savages do you think these people are? Just joking. Seriously though, they have an automotive program that takes 15 people a year out of 14,000 in the state. Slim pickings, huh? They also have an electricians program that takes 10 people just in this prison out of 3,000.
There is a call center that provides a lot more spots, maybe about 100. Prisoners are contracted out to ridiculously wealthy companies like Demand or Tinlin. They pay you well for a prison job, too. Not enough to pay bills, which for most of us are in the thousands of dollars, such as court, restitution, institution fines, and medical items such as glasses or dentures. Not to mention, we have to pay for a lot of our things such as hygiene.
Fines are common in here for misconduct. It’s not hard to get misconduct, all it takes is a guard with a bad day catching you sleeping through prison count or forgetting to wear your ID in the corridor. Fines range from typically $50 to $200. I’m no economist, but it doesn’t take one to realize something doesn’t add up with the real-world fines and cost and prison pay.
Speaking of misconduct, another thing that comes hand in hand with fines is “hole time”. They love throwing people in the hole here. It’s the same solution for troublemakers on the streets in the real world — lock ‘em up! These hole sets (as they are called in here) range from seven to 180 days. Other than occasional health services and the guards’ routine of serving meals there isn’t much human interaction. We talk through the crack of the door or the vents but it is hard to hear. I don’t know about you, but to me this seems like a pretty anti-social punishment for someone you want to prepare to function in society. I’ve seen plenty come out of the hole after a 180 not the same.
These are just some of the problems I’ve seen that contribute to the bigger picture.
Like so many of my other cinder block homes I’ve learned to be content here, but I have anxiety for the day I am released as well as being excited. I’ll be 31 when I parole. I’ve never had a full time job, my own place, or paid bills. Your edge helped take an edge off that anxiety knowing people care about the incarcerated.
Forget those salty people in the Letters to the Editor section. Keep writing what you write.