A Cry from Behind Prison Walls

Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee
Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee.

Dear Readers,

I teach creative writing two days a month at a local state prison:  Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee. I wrote a column here about The Lifer's Club, and how they serve the community.

A letter recently arrived from one of my students, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. It's been sent to every major newspaper in Tennessee, and several in Virginia and Georgia.  One reporter asked for my phone number in an email, then never called. No one else responded except a reporter in Memphis who said he was "too far away" to do anything about the situation.

If you have any connection to power, possess a conscience, and wish to alleviate the misery these fellow human beings are experiencing, please help.

At this point, I cannot reach anyone who cares.

To: Tennessee Newspapers and Fellow Christians
From: Anonymous Inmate, TN Prison System, NECX
Date: 3 March 2022

Dear Media Representatives and Fellow Christians,

This is my first time writing a letter imploring help due to institutional issues.  The Tennessee Department of Corrections is in a state of crisis. Staffing has been in decline for roughly the past ten years due to the depredation of our previous commissioner, Derrick Schofield.  His successor, Tony Parker, made no changes to Schofield’s policies, and thus nothing improved. Parker has announced his retirement effective November of this year.

The staffing issue came to a head in 2021 with COVID’s fallout, and most Tennessee prisons are in a perpetual state of pseudo-lockdown. Our facility had faired the best in the state until recently, and actually maintained a state of semi-normalcy until October 1st.

Our staff began leaving in droves this summer due to issues with our current warden, Bert C. Boyd, who has been in charge of this facility since mid-2019. Simply put, he treats his staff like garbage but Nashville won’t can him. At the “town hall” meeting outside the prison on September 30th, community members and ex-staff aimed their grievances at Boyd. Whatever was said, about seventy more staff, each with a year’s paid leave built up, didn’t show up for work the next day.

We’ve been in lockdown since October 1st. Boyd calls it “restricted movement” because “essential” inmate workers still get to work (i.e., kitchen, laundry, suicide watch, and of course, the TRICOR industrial plant). For purposes of this letter, I’ll refer to it as a lockdown.  I am an inmate who leaves his cell less than eight hours a week and has to defecate three feet from another man with a sheet in between.

Since October 1st there have been no religious programming, no educational programming, no parole-mandated pre-release programming, no incentives, no leisure time or law library access, and we are fed three cold meals a day on Styrofoam trays.

Some weeks we are allowed out of the cell on weekdays for a few hours. Other weeks, we are allowed thirty minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a shower and a phone call. On weekends and holidays, nobody comes out of their cell unless they have a visitor.

The few remaining officers are often made to work sixteen-hour shifts, and there is only one officer to watch two units. The emergency call buttons have been disabled since Schofield came into power, so if you have a serious medical emergency while the officer is in the other unit, you die. One man had a stroke and wasn’t able to get attention for thirty minutes. Then, medical refused to send a wheelchair so it took another thirty minutes for him to reach the infirmary with assistance. Apparently, medical has been told:   “not to respond unless the inmate is non-responsive”. Thankfully, this particular individual survived.

As staff continues to resign, gangs have gone wild. It turns out the locking mechanisms on the doors are extremely easy to defeat, so gangs move about at will.

Holes were found pried in the complex’s fences, allowing gangs to rob the “incentive” units. The administration responded by adding padlocks to the cells (in violation of fire codes), which the “problem” units promptly jammed or broke.

The inmates’ legal aides were considered “essential” workers for a few weeks, to absolve the administration of denying us access to the courts (four legal aides can’t serve the function of access for over 1,500 inmates). However, on November 4th, the gangs broke into the library and stole surge protectors and other equipment, and since then, even legal aides have been denied library access.

Before legal aides were given the boot, one created a flyer supplying information about civil rights complaints filed against Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi for analogous circumstances, as well as contact information for the U.S. attorney’s office.

Our assistant warden saw the flyer and said: “I’ll nip this in the bud,” and made a beeline for the mailroom. The mail has been noticeably delayed since then.

On November 22nd, a gang staged an uprising in Unit 11 and took control of the unit for the day and part of the night. The local sheriff’s department and the Community Emergency Response Team from Nashville had to be mobilized to regain control of one unit.

If the gangs had coordinated, they could have easily taken the prison and staged a mass escape. The incident was reported on the news as: “Fight at Northeast Correctional Complex” leaves one inmate hospitalized”. A friend of mine was on the cleanup crew and spoke of bloodstained shirts, pepper-spray-soaked blankets, and hundreds of rubber bullets strewn about the unit.

I intended to file a grievance over denial of access to the courts, but it turns out the grievance sergeant is among those who have abandoned ship. When the associate warden was asked how grievances will be resolved, he responded: “We’ll do the best we can.” Our facility now has no system for resolving internal paperwork.

The mental health of the inmate population has declined severely with this ongoing situation. I serve from time to time as an inmate observer (suicide watch), but I resigned due to a shift-hour change and the horrific conditions to which observees are subjected.

They are often kept in cells with feces-smeared walls, dressed in nothing but a paper or cloth gown, and sleep on a bare concrete slab. Guards neglect and sometimes even mock the detainees. One man was so mentally out of touch that he would lie on the slab in his own waste, and when a guard told him to get in the shower, he stood in the shower for an hour without turning on the water. I personally heard a mental health administrator cuss out a man for being on his third trip to the program for cutting his wrists.

Those still serving as observers say the caseload has doubled, and the smell is so bad from the mentally ill flinging waste through the door cracks that the observers have to be stationed in a break room outside the corridor.

Now our warden is planning to restrict our phone accounts to only allow one ten-minute call per day because he can’t stop inmates from breaking out of their cells to make calls. This will further restrict our ability to contact lawyers, as well as our families during the holidays.

The situation is being covered up to keep the public blind to its severity, but if this continues unabated, something bad is coming. We see no light at the end of this dark tunnel. The feds or the National Guard should have been called in long ago.

Thank you for your time and attention.

In struggles,

(Name withheld in fear of retaliation)

The following letter was sent to Tennessee State Representative Scotty Campbell after the inmate's letter arrived:

Dear Senator Campbell,

My name is Michael “Gene” Scott, and I volunteer two days a month to teach composition at NECX.  The enclosed letter was written by one of my students, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

This letter will be published openly on my website (genescottbooks.com) for the world to see.

Prison officials at TDOC were also contacted, and we expect them to ignore the issue until something really bad happens.  We want to be on record that we contacted everyone with influence before that occurs. 

Copies of this letter have been or will be sent to every major newspaper in the state.

Should you doubt the veracity of the enclosed letter, please investigate. We’d love to learn of any more truths that need to be exposed about NECX, its warden, and elected officials sitting on their hands while gangs run free inside. We stand by this account and welcome an investigation into the truth of the matter.

Thanks for showing a little interest last month, but the situation has deteriorated markedly while the public waits for positive action. Each new day equals new horrors pressed onto human beings inside NECX – both inmates and staff – humans you swore an oath to protect.

Please let me know what you are doing to keep the people of Johnson County safe when it’s only a matter of time before the bloodshed spills over the walls.

In Christian service, and wonderingly yours,

Michael “Gene” Scott

 

The Tongues

The Tongues
The Tongues

Hate and fear?  They’re learned. 

The tongues,

The tongues will kill.

Lying lips

Cause blood to spill.

You saw

With your own eyes.

How all those lies

Allow crazies to

Thrive.

All that poison 

Comes

From older, 

Dirtier tongues.

Cause it’s learned.

Hate and fear are learned.

The jaws

The jaws will jack.

Just like addicts

Addicted to crack.

You saw

With your own eyes

Jaws jacking lies.

Will our country survive?

All that poison 

Comes

From older, 

Dirtier tongues.

‘Cause it’s learned.

Hate and fear are learned.

 The tongues

Revel in fear.

Love to spread hate

While choking back

Tears.

The tongues

Kill goodwill.

The tongues 

Exist only to squeal.

All that poison 

Comes

From older, 

Dirtier tongues.

Cause it’s learned.

Hate and fear are learned.

Viral Humans

Like many of you, I spent the morning chatting with friends around the nation, self-secluded folks holding their friends’ welfare in their hearts as the latest plague descends.

Life-long friends in Nevada. Colorado. Minnesota. Illinois.  And they’re all saying the same things:

  • This pandemic will change the way we live going forward.
  • Truth always floats to the top, eventually.
  • The Earth shrugs off humans as needed.

My buddy in Reno is a medical doctor (psychiatry) and believes we are a virus, ourselves.  This is not a new idea:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals.

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not.

You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.

There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.

Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.

You’re a plague.

-- Agent Smith (Matrix, 1999)

During our conversation, it occurred to me that humans have taught this viral concept to their offspring throughout the ages:

Genesis


Unsurprising, if God is truly Omnipotent. One of our Methodist ministers over the years, Larry Owsley, tells this wonderful story.

He’s a pretty bright guy, and was an advanced reader for his age when he climbed up into his grandmother’s lap and asked:

Can God do anything?

Oh yes, he can do anything, she said.

Can God seed the universe using comets containing DNA particles?

Her face turned red.  She thought for a moment.  Then said:

No, he certainly cannot do that!


My wife and I have avoided the fray, but we’ve heard about runs on toilet paper, guns, and especially ammunition.  Do you think all our bullets are produced in the U.S.?  That would be a logical assumption, but it’s a global business.

Send Lawyers Guns and Money …

The mayor of Champaign, Illinois recently signed an executive order banning alcohol and gun sales.

Back when Obama was first elected, I happened to be in a gun/vacuum-cleaner store — customers called it The Suck and Shoot — and the owner, a short fat man, climbed up on the counter and screamed:  “Get your guns now!  This bastard is taking your guns!  Better get your guns now!”

I live in East Tennessee, and that wasn’t surprising.  Having grown up in the Midwestern gun culture myself, I was not alarmed to see racks of machine-guns (semi-autos easily reconfigured) lining Mahoney’s Outfitters when I first moved to town.  Dan Mahoney, an Irish tenor with a beautiful voice, has soloed in our church choir for decades.  He doesn’t have to stand on the counter and scream.

Fear has already accomplished a stellar sales promotion.

A run on guns.

Whether we buy into the idea that humans are a virus or not doesn’t matter.

What matters is how we react to the situation. 

Call your friends. Call your loved ones.  Call the elderly in your church, parish, synagogue, or mosque. Let them know you are thinking of them, that you care.

My friends in Colorado and Nevada have millennial children nearly the same age as my own.  We know their characters.  This is their chance to shine, and we know how they’ll act.

There are a lot of good eggs in that petri dish.

Let’s pray they outnumber the grabbers, grifters, and scoundrels always emerging from the viral slime in troubled times.

 

 

The Lifers’ Club

The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way.  When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly.  Kept our distance.

After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.

“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.

Uh.  This is why I love her.  No one else stands up to me this way.

So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee.   Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.

Hank and AJ.

Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape.  The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget.  Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.

The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.

Fast forward thirty years.

My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives.  We asked about the Fergusons.

“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said.  “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”

These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville.  He’s married and has a son in high school.

A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.

Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55
Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55

Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes.  That was the first of our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons.  Since then  I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.

But it’s not about me.  I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.

And one of the best local ministries now blessing my life is Kairos, an international prison ministry working in ten countries and thirty-six US states.

Texas welcomes Kairos into every one of its prisons because it drops the recidivism rate — those returning to prison after release — to 10% if the resident attends monthly Kairos sessions.

According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice
According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice

Kairos Statistics
Kairos Statistics

Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates.  I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry.  Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.

Harold’s old prison name was Thumper.  Why?  If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell.  One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.

Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.

Not this Thumper.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises.

Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history.   Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.

While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.

“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said.  “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”

“Because Thumper no longer exists. “

Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.

Then he told me what they do:  a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines.  And the final plank?   Lifers' Club Charter


Lifers pool their limited resources to help others. 

They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids.  Clothed and fed the homeless.  Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school.  Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.

Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.

How to Survive Life in Prison
How to Survive Life in Prison

The Lifers' Club Course Contents
The Lifers’ Club Course Contents

I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.

One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.

Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers.  And that’s ugly.

To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive.  Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:

One man's childhood memory...

I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.

We may be free, but do we cherish it?

Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that.  There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.

We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:

Hebrews 13:1-3

We all can lift ourselves.  By simply lifting others.

While living up to the standards of the Lifers’ Club.