17 July 2007

By the Numbers

I’ve never been very good at math. After scraping out a C in Algebra my freshman year in high school, I waited until my senior year of college to finally take “Math for Liberal Arts Students.” I can still multiply by nines on my fingers, but that’s all I remember from that class.

These days, I’m surrounded by numbers. For starters, there’s the six digit Department of Corrections identification number. When someone enters the system to be incarcerated, he gets a number. Then, no matter how many times he goes out and comes back in again, that same number identifies him. No matter the alias either. A guy could have sixteen different names, but there’s only that one number.

In January, we started using a batch of numbers that began with 300XXX. Now it is July and we’re up to 3008XX. I’m sure there are some numbers within that 8000+ range that haven’t been used for one reason or another, but consider that within seven months, we’re already 8000 numbers into that 300XXX batch. Yes, that means that more than 1000 new people per month began their journey through the detention system.

Fourteen months. Thirty-nine months. Three hundred twelve months. No one gets sentenced to years in prison; they get months. Is the larger number supposed to be more intimidating, perhaps? Usually I can do the arithmetic. Three hundred twelve months translates to twenty-six years. It’s hard to do the calculation when you’re looking into the face of a 20 year old.

Many offenders are skilled in the use of the RCWs, the Revised Code of Washington, in other words, the laws for the state. DOC has its WACs, a list of infractions, by number, from least to greatest. The lower the number, the smaller the infraction. Anything over 500 rates a major infraction and a serious consequence. A 501 is not a pair of jeans. It’s homicide.

Then there’s the Department of Corrections math. This is worse than trig because there is half-time, third-time, and good time. Some sentences allow for a person to serve only half the assigned time, with the understanding that if you mess up, you come back to do all of the time. Same with third-time. Not quite as generous, but still an incentive to do well behind the bars. Good time is what you get for spending time in county jail, and here not all county’s are equal. Some will give five days of good time for every ten spent in jail, carving off some of the prison time at the other end. Other counties are stingy, giving barely a day for 30 days spent in county. I haven’t figured the rationale on that one.

There’s “sixteen days and a wake-up.” That’s the answer a man gave me when I asked when he was getting out of prison. Sixteen more full days, then he’s out right after breakfast, if he stops long enough to eat it.

Levels get their numbers as well if you’re a sex offender. Level one, the least likely to re-offend, level three most likely. But in prison, no one wants to talk about being a sex offender. Most of them figure out some other crime with a similar sentencing structure and adopt that. “Meth with intent to distribute” and “assault” are common substitutions.

There are the numbers that belong to emergency contacts, aggravatingly disconnected far too often, in my opinion. The most popular item to be gotten from the chaplain is not a bible or other religious book. It’s a three by three address book, a place to put phone numbers and addresses. The PIN to use the phones? It’s usually on a strip of tape behind the ID badge. The phone numbers come in handy to stay connected to family and friends. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes the phones don’t work or the lines are too long. Sometimes the family has a block on the phone.

A man in my office yesterday was about to leave when I asked him who his emergency contact was. He shook his head. “I don’t have anyone.” I pulled my Outraged Chaplain routine and asked him why not. After some mumbling, he finally said there was only a family he’d lived with years ago, but he hadn’t been in touch with them. Why not? Shame, guilt, a thousand things. A few minutes later, he was talking to the man he considered his father. They were both sobbing. When he hung up he said, “They thought I was dead. They called all the hospitals and the morgues. They thought I was dead.” He went back to his unit to write them a letter, using the precious numbers of the address he had to learn all over again.

Seven thousand resources, one thousand inmates and families helped. Those are numbers for the Transitioning Offenders Program. And $1000 was the grant we received from the United Way of Mason County. Someone has counted the number of paper clips and the cases of paper we’ve run through since last December.

Seventeen thousand pounds of vegetables. That’s how much was harvested from two gardens at the prison. It all went to four different foodbanks in two counties.

And then there are the “I can’t believe you’re telling me this” numbers. Like the man who told me that he’s 51, tired to coming to prison. “I have kids!” he told me. “Thirty-seven kids. By 15 women.” I tried to do the calculation on child support owed. I should have paid more attention in math class. It just doesn’t compute.

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