D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e    May 2006

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The fight to raise the minimum wage moves to the local level.

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Voices from the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility.

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Get your feet wet at the Gila River Festival.

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Las Cruces musician Randy Granger plays his way to the top.

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Inside Stories

Three voices from the Southern New Mexico
Correctional Facility.

Introduction by Jeff Berg

I like the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility. That is not to say that I would want to live there, of course, but in the non-corrective time that I have spent there, doing research for past Desert Exposure articles, it has brought me a bit of a better understanding of something I once knew nothing about and, more important, of myself.

Approximately 6,600 adult inmates are housed at the 10 correctional and detention facilities scattered around the state; the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, west of Las Cruces off I-10, can hold up to 810 inmates. Another 18,000 or so New Mexicans are on probation. Prisons are an immense and never-ending subject of debate, as are the methods that they use to help educate and rehabilitate prisoners.

Recently I had a chance to lead a creative-writing class at the prison, thanks to Project SOAR Coordinator Rose Ann Hernandez. The class is conducted annually, each year under the auspices of a different local author or writer.

I was hesitant at first, since I had never done anything like this. I was unsure of my skills, especially since, as is probably obvious to all readers and editors, I am self-taught. I have made myself the hack I am today. But after careful consideration, and being able to recruit three guest instructors—David A. Fryxell, the editor and publisher of Desert Exposure; poet and haiku expert Joe Speer; and fiction/screenplay writer Rod McCall—to help cover the eight-week program, I decided to take the chance.

The students and I set three goals for the class. The first was to compose all or most of an issue of the Paul Oliver Times, the monthly in-house paper done by the inmates (named for the prison's 300-bed Paul Oliver Unit, which holds minimum-restrict custody adult male offenders). The second was to create the annual anthology that will contain work by the students and perhaps a (very) local artist or two. The third, with the good graces of Publisher Fryxell, was to create this article.

The number of students who attended the class varied from week to week for several reasons: Some were released, another transferred, some showed up when they remembered or were not busy doing something else. We had up to 12 men in attendance at various times.

From that group, three of them agreed to share their work with Desert Exposure readers. Each article that the students turned in or read to the class as in-class work was honest, open and well-written. Even though the educational range of the men ranged from grade-school dropout to former (and soon returning) psychology student at NMSU, I found that each man had a great amount of writing skill and many creative ways to share it.

Here are portions (due to space limitations) of the essays submitted by the three men who chose to partake in this project:

 

Welcome to Planet Prison

By Jovan Edwards

Edwards is also the editor of the Paul Oliver Times, and has
had his work published in Giant Magazine.

          Prison is like a planet in the solar system. We all know that these planets exist, but unless you have an interest in it, this planet will stay on a rotation of its own, never making a sound. Unless you're a true resident of prison, you can make all the trips you want to it, read all the books and studies ever written about it, but you will never slightly grasp the concept of truly being incarcerated. Even within these walls, depending on the level and region of your facility, you may never experience the "American Definition of Prison." You may spend 10 years of your life in a New Mexico prison, and you may never experience the same prison lifestyle you may get by being in a California or Florida prison.

It's funny that in many places the public school systems have a program called "Scared Straight." They bring high-school and middle-school students to the prisons to supposedly "scare them straight." The first time witnessing this program, I was at a Level III prison, and two or three other inmates witnessing this program started recalling where they had participated in the Scared Straight Program. I'm thinking to myself, "Did this program not work, or what?" Continuing my time in Level II prisons for the next year and a half, I've seen approximately 15-20 Scared Straight tours. I think the schools need to change the name of the program to "Camp Cupcake Walk in the Park Watch Your Parents' Tax Dollars Hard at Work for the Homies to Kick Back and Play Dominoes, Cards, Chess, Checkers, Handball, Basketball and, for the Slightly More Motivated Inmates, Watch Them Take Free College Classes That Your Parents Probably Cannot Afford to Offer You Because the Government Keeps Raising Their Taxes to Pay for These Inm
ates and You'll Probably Have to Turn to a Life of Crime to Ever Earn Your Parents' Money Back Tour."

These are just a few of the activities that the kids see on these tours! It's weird, because our day might be dragging along and then you have the tour come through the building. Our spirits are lifted a little because we are seeing different faces, not the same old tired-looking guards and prison staff. So, when the tours come through the units, the kids never really witness the down moments of prison because we're practically having a good old time, and we present a good image to them.

What the program should do is send them to a Level IV or V. The Level IVs and Vs are so harsh that if you show a current Level II or III prisoner one, they would think twice about "catching that write-up" (a report about an infraction by an inmate). Show the kids a completely new world where you are locked down 23 hours a day. Show them inmates being handcuffed just to take a shower.

Let them come to Planet Prison and hand a Level V or IV inmate his food through a slot in the door, and let them sit and ponder, "Am I going to be one that watches this place through a telescope or am I going to be on the next spaceship destined to make a one-way trip?"

 

Getting Past the Pain

By Alexander Mollineda

      Life doesn't have to be this way. You and I may be of a different race, culture, economic status or even nationality. It doesn't matter if you are wearing prison clothes, designer clothes or business suits; we all have one thing in common. We are living, breathing human beings with a precious gift called life. Even in "segregation" (solitary lock-up or "the hole"), a man may feel as if he is rotting away, even though he is offered opportunities by completing correspondence courses by mail.

Deep within us there lies a seed of greatness waiting to germinate. Deep within us lies endless potential. Deep within us lie natural talents and gifts, and we should never be content with something less than we are capable of. I have assessed my life—to look at where I've been, to look at where I am now, and looking to where I'd like to be going. It's never too late to take charge of my life and become all that I can be. I have made the decision to keep my dreams within reach, make new goals that are achievable, carry on commitments and ambition to cultivate my seed of greatness. I need a sober, open mind with an insatiable desire to learn, with a positive outlook, a healthy lifestyle of well-being and having faith and trust in myself while acknowledging God's will for me.

Clearing the misconceptions about a man in prison means knowing that doing time in the Department of Corrections can be incredibly motivational and exhilarating. Once you get past the pain, in can be taken as a type of reform school, getting back however much you're willing to put in. Yet others may come to call prison home—staying stuck with an attitude of "stinking thinking," and doing the same thing they did on the streets. They dwell within to brew a distasteful, rancid cup of hate. They give up, finding the pain too hard to bear, being stubborn or stuck in selfish pride, not being responsible or even trying to make amends for harm caused. The penitentiary becomes their mother; clothing, feeding, and guarding them. And when their time comes to leave, if it ever does, they will carry nothing but the rot inside. It will fester and erupt, the sickness of their disease too great, returning them to the Department of Corrections prison, where they will rot away and die.

Now is an opportunity for me to look forwards rather than backwards, to direct my own personal future based on what I look for out of life. Now is a time to take an optimistic look at finding new ways to achieve by searching and seeking, and feeling better about myself. This experience of freedom from addictions and dealing with emotions and learning about behaviors is a miracle, which continues to unfold. I have taken a grasp on my life, which once spun out of control! I have educated myself by enrolling in college, becoming involved with my children and family, working a 12-step program to better myself by sharing similar stories, and learning who I really am by participating, listening, giving of myself and truly caring.

God has given me this truth. He has given me the power to overcome and see beyond what the "home boys" think. I believe through prayer, meditation and a steadfast mind I can ask those whom I've hurt throughout my addictions and the victims of my past crimes for forgiveness. I'm sorry for the hurt and pain I caused, and I'm still working on making amends, but the door is open, the path is cleared.

With this all said, I owe my life to God, to those who encourage and uplift me. I give thanks to those who have prayed with me and for me and have helped me get this far. I have learned that no man walks alone, not when he has faith and trust in a power greater than himself, not when he no longer doubts, but believes.

 

A Time and Place in My Life

By Ritchie Simplicio

       The gavel came down hard, like a bang from a .44-caliber pistol, and the stone stare of the judge before me was locked onto my eyes without a blink. His voice resounded within me like an echo, to be recalled time and time again. The words felt like ice running through my veins, chilling me to the bone as he shouted, "Take this man to prison!" For an instant my world stopped spinning and a sound broke the air of that courtroom when someone behind me started crying. It was my mother.

I started my prison term on Oct. 8, 1993. I was 29 years old, and was sentenced to 16 years for the crime of second-degree murder. It was a day in my life that was so surreal, as if somewhere between the handcuffs, leg irons and final goodbyes from the courthouse, I was going to wake up and go home. But it wasn't a fantasy. And when I did wake up it was going to be in a cell somewhere.

That night, the reality had yet to create its foundation. At "lockdown," a word I would become very familiar with, I sat on the edge of my bunk inside an 8-foot-by-10-foot cell with a stainless-steel toilet and sink combined, and a cement floor that if it could talk would say, "I'm cold and dirty." The guard came by and slammed the gate to my cell—BAM!, another sound I shall never forget, and that noise caught my attention. I wasn't going home, and I wasn't going to wake up from a bad dream, and I was in for a life-changing experience of survival.

The first two years of my imprisonment were a constant learning and relearning of prison tactics and strategies. I had to fight to prove I wasn't weak; I had to fight to keep from going insane. The biggest fight I had, though, existed within me: The decision to accept my position as being where I was and living the way I was, and being treated as such, had not yet been made up in my mind. I still felt I could live outside the walls, razor wire and gun towers—that somewhere out there, I still had some say so, some control.

I was wrong.

One night in 1997, I could hear the wind blowing hard and sand was bouncing off my fiberglass window. I got up to look outside. As I stood there staring out, a chill of loneliness overcame me, and I placed my hands on either side of that slim six-inch-wide window, and I shook my head and cried. In that moment of depression came a relief of acceptance as I spoke to myself: "Well, Ritchie, this is your life, live it," and I stopped crying.

In September 1998, I experienced an afternoon that would change the rest of my prison experience. It was a hot afternoon and my Native American brothers and I had just returned from a sweat-lodge ceremony. Our softball team, the Warriors, was scheduled to play in a tournament game, so a few of us had to go back to our units to make the next 2 p.m. movement (periods when inmates are allowed to move from one activity to another) on the compound, and then to the recreation yard. On the way back to my unit, a bro of mine, Carlo, stopped me and said, "Watch your back, I heard something." I made my way back to my cell with all of my instincts on edge, expecting the unexpected.

Once the movement was called, I met up with my Native brothers, and told a couple who were closer to me to "watch my back." As the softball game progressed, I saw it coming. By the time the fight had ended, I had 14 different stab wounds to my left arm and torso, and the other person lay bloodied, due to the trauma of an excessive beating from an aluminum baseball bat.

About three hours later, I was on my way to a hospital in Albuquerque, riding in the back of an ambulance and feeling an unexpected peace about myself. Strangely, even though I was all cut up and facing the unexpected, just to know I was in a different environment than prison made me feel almost human again.

The healing process was painful and isolated, as I spent the next few months recovering in "the hole." I had lost 23 pounds; the other person had what I heard was irreversible brain damage. It was during this state that I experienced the core of my definition of who I was, or wasn't going to become.

Somewhere in-between the bitterness of my tumultuous existence to gain revenge, I found a peace that surpassed all my understanding. It occurred to me during one of my monologues with God, when He spoke to me in that "still and quiet voice." In my desire to gain understanding, I heard His voice tell me: "Forgive him." I shouted, "NO! I want to kill him!" This match continued for about a week, until, broken by my pain and anguish, I said, "I'll try."

One night I sat down on the edge of my bunk and contemplated how to forgive someone who had tried to kill me. I remember taking out a sheet of paper and trying to write a request for forgiveness without sounding weak. I knew the worker who brought the trays from the kitchen, and he did me favors, so I figured he'd deliver an envelope for me to the next cell block. When he came by, I had the envelope in my right hand and it weighed like a ton. I grabbed my tray and dropped the letter on the floor and left it there. I couldn't give it to the man I had addressed it to, the person who became a part of the mental and emotional suffering so powerful that it broke me. I felt I had failed yet another test in my life as the envelope lay there on the cold floor, staring back at me.

That evening, feeling broken and spiritually weak, I spoke to God and apologized for not being courageous enough to get the envelope delivered. Suddenly, I felt different, no longer a disappointment. I heard that "still and quiet voice" tell me, "You forgave him." At that moment I realized that my life had purpose to survive without seeking revenge or restitution. I found that I could choose to live or die.

That day I chose to live.

It seems the act of forgiveness never ends. I have reason to be thankful, that I can still feel pain and joy in my life, and regardless of mistakes made, I'm still alive to repay my debt in whatever way my God creates opportunity for me to do so.

Yes, indeed this is just another time and place in my life.

 

Ritchie Simplicio is scheduled for release this month.

 

Senior Writer Jeff Berg says he strongly believes
in forgiveness, except for politicians.

 

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