James Madison University
Shenandoah Valley Oral History Project
Oral History Interview With: Greg Michael
Interviewer: Joanna Lee
Place: Massanutten Regional Library
Date: April 23, 2006
Audio File Size: 42.4 MB
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General topic of interview: The interview delves into Greg Michael experiences with the criminal justice system in the State of Virginia.
NARRATOR: Greg Michael
DATE: April 23, 2006
INTERVIEWER: Joanna Lee
PLACE: Massanutten Regional Library
Occupation: Yoga instructor
Greg is a third generation organic farmer. He grew up in West Virginia and has a younger brother and sister. He had a close relationship with his brother while they were younger; however, they have gone separate ways since Greg left the farming world. Both his parents are no longer here today; however, his relationship with his mother seemed to have been a good one based on the interview. Greg Michaels was married, and is now divorced. Out of this marriage came one daughter who is now 21-years-old. He hopes to develop a relationship with his daughter in the near future. Greg was convicted of selling five-thousand pounds of marijuana and a small amount of ecstasy, and charged with money laundering. He was sent to prison for 168 months (14 years) which was a mandatory minimum. Today, he is back in society and works as a yoga instructor in West Virginia. He has done a few talks and wants to increase awareness. Greg has had a few of his works published in magazines such as “Talking Leaves.”
Lee: Today is Sunday, April 23, 2006. I, Joanna Lee, am the interviewer and Greg is the narrator. This interview is taking place at Massanutten Regional Library, in downtown Harrisonburg, VA. Greg, do I have your consent to the taping of this conversation?
Michaels: Yes, yes you do.
Lee: All right, could you tell me a little bit about your background, like where you were born and what your family was like?
Michaels: I was born in a farm family in West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia. Um, I’m a third generation organic farmer. Um, my grandfather was really into organic farming and he was one of the first intentional organic farmers. So, I grew up in a really, really beautiful place. with woods and ponies and when I was a kid and I spent a lot of time in the woods and in, in nature and I loved it.
Lee: Mm-hm, did you have any siblings?
Michaels: Yeah, I have a younger brother and a younger sister.
Lee: What was your relationship like with them.growing up?
Michaels: Um, with my brother we were really close when we were really young. And then, as I got older, and started to, um. uh. look around outside of the farm, outside of our environment, you know, and I started thinking about what the rest of the world was like then we tended to drift apart.
Lee: Um, how much, um, of an education did you have growing up?
Michaels: My formal education, I didn’t, I went up to the eleventh grade in high school. Yeah, I actually didn’t, uh, finish high school and I’m pretty much self-educated.
Lee: Did you, um, go to school all throughout West Virginia, was it — ?
Michaels: I, uh, yeah, went to school in Northern West Virginia, where I grew up.
Michaels: Actually, I started, uh, the first place I went to school was a two-room schoolhouse, so it was like a little country school – first, second, and third grade on in one room and fourth, fifth, and sixth grade in another room. (laughs)
Lee: (laughs) Um, could you tell me a little bit about some holidays that you shared with your family – anything in particular that, uh, had special meaning to you?
Michaels: Well, um. Christmas.always was special. And, uh, there was usually was time when, we didn’t have, my family wasn’t, they were probably lower middle class, I guess and so, that was usually when we got a lot of clothes, ya know, to, for the rest of the year. But, um. we, uh, it was a time where our whole family would get together, you know, and have dinner and really, really have a sense of, you know, we were pretty close-knit in that all my family were farmers and we all lived in the same region. And so we would all get together in, uh, during holidays and when we were working in the summertime, we would help each other out, you know, putting in the hay for the hay fields and stuff like that.
Lee: Um, do you have any children and are you married?
Michaels: I was married and, um, I was divorced after I was married for five years.
Lee: Okay, and, um, did you have any children?
Michaels: Yeah, I have a daughter, she’s 21 now. And, uh, we aren’t, we don’t have a close relationship.
Lee: Okay, um, what was life like – did you have any other jobs, um, that you had throughout, that, um, were you trying to make ends meet or was it just something you liked to do for fun, was there anything in particular?
Michaels: Uh, with, uh, you mean with the, um, with the drugs?
Lee: Oh no, just like any kind of jobs, like growing up.
Michaels: Oh, growing up?
Michaels: Yeah! Yeah, I did a lot of things like that, because I grew up on the farm, I knew how to work really hard. I was used to hard work. And, so, usually when people were around like the construction company, or another farmer, or somebody like that in that area, when they saw how hard I could work and how much I could get done, they wanted to, they wanted to hire me right away.
Michaels: So I would do, I would do things like that. just to, um, you know, make some extra money, whenever I was a kid.
Lee: Um, all right. Going into the crime, did you have any other experiences with the police or the criminal justice system before, um, your actual incident for why you went to prison?
Michaels: Not too much. I, um, I. it was my first offense, so I didn’t have a criminal history.
Lee: Okay, all right. In your own words, can you tell me why you went to prison?
Michaels: Um, why I went to prison?
Michaels: I was, um, convicted of selling marijuana and a smaller amount of, of ecstasy. Um, I, uh, they also charged me with money laundering, which was actually just, uh, me sending some of my money Western Union to somebody else and they called it money laundering, so, it wasn’t any elaborate scheme or anything. It was just, you know, selling money, but, uh, yeah, I was convicted of selling, uh, a lot of marijuana, I guess. Like about 5,000 pounds.
Lee: Um, had any of your family members or your friends had experience with the criminal justice system?
Lee: Any – okay. What was going involved, uh, or what was going on at the time that, uh, you decided to sell drugs. Were there any other people involved in particular? Were there any regulars, I guess, I don’t know.
Michaels: Um, well, you know, it was something that we, I mean, the first time I ever sold stuff was probably when I was about 15 or 16 years old, and we, we just planted some seeds up in the garden on the back, in the garden we had on the back of the farm. And, we were just, you know, like high school kids. And we had some seeds and so we, pop – popped them in the ground, and they grew up into, uh, 6 foot plants, so (laughs) so, uh, so we were amazed, you know, uh, you know, so we started, uhh, you know I thought, well it would be real cool if we could sell some of this and make some money too, you know. So we did.
Lee: Um, how did you get caught?
Michaels: Uh, I actually was doing it for quite a few years, you know, on and off for a long time. Um, eventually, you know, I kept hearing that, that these people, like DA people, um, had like some kind of a thing for me or what that they, that they felt like it was a personal thing. And people were coming to me and telling me that, you know, that they had been called in, and that they have been questioned, and that these people were really after me. And, uh, eventually, what they did was, they.because they didn’t, they didn’t actually catch me with anything. they actually did some things that were illegal. They did some illegal searches. Uh, went into people’s houses. They did some things that, that were, you know, really illegal too, in order to, uh, in order to coerce people in to testify against me.
Lee: All right, um, let’s see. Um, were there other witnesses of the, oh I guess, of the crime? Um, I guess you said that with your friends that told on you. What was your reaction? Or, how did they arrest you? Did they like come into your home. and just take you away?
Michaels: No, actually it was in the news. Yeah, they did come into my. they came into my parents’ house. Uh, when my father was there. And I didn’t actually live there, they just, that’s where they went. They scared him, they came in with like gun out and stuff and they scared him. And, uh, I was actually at a friend’s father’s funeral and, uh, so I heard about it, it was in the news. And, uh, so I left. I mean, I left the area. I was really in the process of, of making a, a new life, trying to set up a way to start a new life somewhere else.
Lee: Right, well, then how did they get you then?
Michaels: I, um, was. two other people were indicted with me, and, they were both close friends of mine and, uh, I wanted to help them, I didn’t feel right about leaving and moving into another country or something like that and just leaving them to deal with it by themselves. So, when I moved, I moved away to another city and, uh, set up some new identity papers and things like that, they, um. I contacted one of my codefendants and, um, he was cooperating with them, he was helping them. He had already started helping them with the, uh, Feds and the case. And, so, when I called and tried to help him, I tried to, I arranged for a really good attorney for him, and I also offered to help him leave the country if he wanted to. And, um, he was basically just talking to me, trying to help them get me.
Michaels: So that was how they found out where I was, and they came and started looking for me there until they found me.
Lee: Oh, okay. Um, how were you treated by them, once they caught up to you?
Michaels: Um, at first they were very casual – the marshals were very casual on the streets and, uh (clears throat). They. uh. they handcuffed me and I was, I had heard some, I had heard, I have read some things like from Amnesty International and I got a, I had a bad feeling about one of them in particular. I had, I just had a bad feeling. And so, after they handcuffed me, I tried to escape, I tried to run. Which I couldn’t run away because my hands were cuffed behind me.
Michaels: So, they tackled me and that really made them mad. So they put me in the back of the car and put manacles on my legs and put a seatbelt across me. And then the three of them stood outside and talked out on the sidewalk for a little bit. And then one of them opened the door and came in and, and punched me really hard in the stomach and knocked all the wind out of me. And said, “See this is what happens to assholes like you.” And. then, they got in the car and as they were driving down to MCC where they were taking me to the jail, they were talking about, one of them was still pretty mad and, uh, they were talking about killing me. So, he was, so he was saying, “Why don’t we just take him down to the Hudson and take the cuffs off of him and I’ll put a bullet in him.”
And, uh, so they. they, uh, they talked like that for a while. And I made a comment at one point, that.that, um, made them even madder, ya know, because they were threatened, because of what they were talking about. And, uh, so, but they took me down to the jail. And I don’t know if it was because they were just talking or because there was actually a woman on the sidewalk, that saw the one guy hit me (hand pounds into the other) while I was cuffed up in the backseat of the car. So.so, they, uh, might have known there was a witness. to that.
Lee: Right, wow. Um, for, um, did you have, did you have to go through the court system before you went into prison? Is that –
Michaels: Yeah, I went to trial.
Michaels: Which, uh.
Lee: Did you have a court appointed lawyer, or.
Michaels: They sent me a court appointed lawyer.
Michaels: Even though I told them that I had an attorney that I had retained in Pittsburg. And, um, this court appointed lawyer. his, his only objective was really to get me to cooperate and give information to him. And, I kept telling ’em that I didn’t need him and they kept. he kept coming to see me and, and sayin, you know, “I’ve talked to the DA to give you this deal, or that deal, if you’ll help them,” you know. And I said, “I’m really not, I’m not going to. I know I’m not going to,” so, I have to go to trial. And, um, so, I actually, but, I had, I had a pretty good attorney in Pittsburg, which he eventually withdrew because he had been, he was actually threatened by the district attorney. Um, [laughs].
Michaels: So, I ended up with a different attorney, but it was my own attorney. but it wasn’t, it was like my second choice, not my first choice.
Lee: Oh, how do you think, um, your attorney handled the case?
Michaels: In a relative way, he handled it pretty good, you know. There were, he made what I thought were serious mistakes, and I’m sure that most people that get convicted feel like their attorneys could have done better, ya know, but, I mean, I was convicted of, uh. selling. there were some counts that I was convicted of that I was actually never there. And, one of them, it actually couldn’t have even happened. I mean, some of the counts were real, but some of them weren’t. And there’s not really any way to defend yourself against these phony counts because it’s, they’ve put this stuff together and so you can’t, you know, it’s hard to defend yourself against them.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Um, were you able to tell the judge what had happened like prior to how you have been treated by the cops – did any of that get brought up again?
Lee: No? Okay, um, could you describe what went on in the court room – how long did it last? Were you there for a consistent amount of time?
Michaels: Yeah, it lasted for almost a week.
Michaels: Um, a jury trial.
Michaels: And, um.the, um. the jury convicted me on 12; I believe it was 12 counts out of a 65 count indictment.
Lee: Um, were there any witnesses present at your – ?
Michaels: Yeah, they had a lot of witnesses. Like I said, some of them were actually talking about real things, and then they had witnesses who came up and described things that I had never, and people that I didn’t ever know, that had identified me on, from the witness stand. There were a couple of those.
Lee: Um, were there other witnesses who could have been called, that, um would have told the story differently, or that would have maybe helped your case?
Michaels: I’m sure. Yeah. (laughs)
Lee: (laughs) Okay.
Michaels: Well, I mean, i-if you want an example – I don’t know if you have time –
Lee: Yeah, oh yeah, I do.
Michaels: I’m convicted of. one of the counts I was convicted of was selling an ounce of ecstasy in the basement of my restaurant in Morgantown – I had a natural food restaurant. And, uh, the witness for the government said that I sold him an ounce of ecstasy in the basement of my restaurant, and because of that, I was convicted of selling ecstasy within a thousand feet of a school property, which carries a mandatory minimum. And, also a stigma attached to it. And, uh, and the school property was actually a vacant lot surrounded by a chain-link fence that was about 700 hundred feet down the street from my restaurant. There was nothing there, not even cars parked there. And, there’s no basement in my restaurant. There’s no basement in the building. Like the witness, the witness described this whole scene to the jury of how he came to my restaurant and bought this ounce of ecstasy from me in a place that doesn’t even exist in the building. And, uh, if I had, if I could have been free on bond or something, I could have gone to the court house gotten an architectural drawing of the building and shown them to the jury and said, ya know, the place where this, that this witness is describing this thing so vividly for you, that they convicted me of, doesn’t even exist. Not only that, but it’s within a thousand feet of school property. So, um, I mean, that was, ya know, that was one of the things I felt like my attorney didn’t really do his job, ya know, because he could have proven it and he didn’t. And I was in pri – ya know, I’m being held in a can – it’s really hard to make phone calls, it’s hard to get help, so, ya know.
Lee: Were you not physically at the. jury then, or the –
Michaels: No, I was at the trial.
Lee: Oh, you were at the trial?
Michaels: But, you can’t just stand up and say, “That’s not true.”
Michaels: You know, I’m telling my attorney, and my attorney is saying, “Don’t worry about it, I’m taking care of it.” And he didn’t take care of it, you know, so the jury convicted me, you know, of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. So.
Lee: Um, do you, uh, was this publicized?
Michaels: It was in the media some, but not the details of the trial. But, my indictment, they made a big, they made a big production out of it. You know, like it was a huge thing, and I was this huge king pin. And, then, after I was convicted there were all these people there.
Lee: Okay. What was your sentence – your actual sentence that they gave you?
Michaels: It was, um, 168 months? 5 months? It’s 14 years.
Michaels: Yeah, which was the mandatory minimum. in the, for the amount I was sentenced for. Yeah, my sentencing. which is not same amount that I was convicted of.
Michaels: So that’s, there’s like a big difference between what the jury convicted me of and. what I was actually used against me in my sentencing. Which, I don’t know if you want to learn more about that.
Lee: No, I do (laughs) Yeah.
Michaels: (laughs) But, it’s pretty crazy, you know.
Michaels: the way they do it.
Lee: Um, could you go more in depth with that, like, what else, um.
Michaels: Well, what they do is, the jury. I was indicted and convicted of the 12 accounts which added up to about 900 pounds of marijuana, once some of the stuff was converted to marijuana for sentencing purposes. was like the ounce of ecstasy, they convert that to marijuana and to calculate your sentence. I don’t know why, but that’s how they do it. Anyway, so it came up to about 900 pounds which would have meant, like a 5 year sentence or something like that. Um, then what they do is, after your convicted, the jury goes home and they have the clerk of the court draw a pre-sentencing investigation report, a PSI. And on a PSI, she calculates that I’m responsible for 12,000 pounds of marijuana.
Michaels: According to all the hearsay, and unsubstantiated things that have been said by, a lot of them by snitches, who are actually, trying to get immunity or trying to deal their way out of their own legal problem. And so, she ended up with what they all, what they all said which was not substantiated at all; there wasn’t any other proof of it and it came to 12,000 pounds which put me in the 20 to 30 year sentencing range and they call that “relative conduct.” So, when you go to your sentencing, you’re not, you’re not being sentenced for what you’ve been convicted of. You’re being sentenced for all these little bits and pieces of things that people have said to them. And, they’ve included in their investigation and that’s, and that’s how they sentence you. So, I challenged some of that in my, uh, sentencing, and, fortunately, I had my own attorney. And, um. the, uh, I was able to get some of it thrown out because some of it was just so ridiculous that even the judge, the judge wouldn’t leave it in there, even though he was a conservative judge. So, I got it down to the 14 to 20 year range.
Lee: Okay, um, how did you feel when the verdict was read to you?
Michaels: Uh. I felt. (sigh). Uh, I had a feeling of resolve. Just that, you know, I had. that I had stood my ground.that I had, I didn’t tell any lies. You know, I didn’t try to pass my problems onto some other people, you know, and throw it off on them. Like people did to me. And so, I felt like, well, if this is what happens, you know, when you, when you do that, then, you know, I’ll just deal with it, you know?
Lee: Mm-hmm. Um, how are your family members dealing with it? Did they, were they, um, did they know what was going on?
Michaels: Yeah, they were at my trial, so they were pretty devastated, you know. My parents were shocked, you know, because they saw, they saw, they knew that some of the things that I was being convicted of weren’t true. You know, and, um, you know, and I told them, I said, some of these things, you know, I did sell marijuana, and I sold, compared to most people, I sold a lot of marijuana. You know, but, I’m being convicted of things that, you know, that aren’t even real. That people just put this stuff together, you know, to make sure that. they convicted me.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Um, were there any family members that weren’t told about your arrest and your conviction? Did anyone sugar-coat it for anyone?
Michaels: Yeahhhh. I think my mother was, uh, I think people who were further away. you know, that weren’t close enough. Of course, it was in the media, so, most of my family knew about it. But, yeah, there were some people, like my cousins that my mother had. when they had asked where I was, my mother, uh, told them that I was working for the government (laughs).
Michaels: And I, when she told me that, I told her, “Don’t tell people that anymore because people were going to get the idea if they hear that I’ve been busted. and that you tell them that I’m working for the government, they’re going to get the idea that I’m doing something, something undercover against my for-former friends.” So, I didn’t want her to give people that impression.
Lee: Right, um, did any of your family members visit while you were in prison?
Michaels: Yeah, yeah. my immediate family and one of my aunts. She was pretty good about coming to see me. And she was a good friend through that time – sent me cards and came to see me.
Lee: Um, um, did family members have any difficulty through the process of trying to see you? Um, like for example, I know that trying to call people from prison is really expensive, um, did that play into.?
Michaels: Uh, yeah, we had a lot of problems. We had uh, uh. you know, the phone rates are, are many times more than the, the usual rate outside when you use the phones in there. Um, the visiting was difficult. You know, my mother, uh, you know, when they had to, uh, take off their shoes and sort of be pat-searched to get in, you know, my mother always was really upset, you know, when she had to go through that to come and see me.
Lee: Um, so was there anyone that you wanted to see, that didn’t come? Or, couldn’t come?
Michaels: Uh, yeah, there were a few people.
Lee: Do you want to go into that, or.?
Michaels: Um, there were, um, people that I was very close to that um. one of my partners who had died of a respiratory disease. uh, his daughter, you know, we were pretty much family, you know? I mean, we were a family, an extended family. And, um, she never came to see me the whole time and I was just really surprised in that she never came because, you know, we really cared a lot about each other, you know? I was just visiting her a couple days ago, actually, but, you know, it’s. it’s different, you know, our relationship is a lot different, you know, after going through all that time.
Lee: Mm-hmm, right. Did she know right away that, um, you were in prison, or was it just because she didn’t know?
Michaels: Oh, she knew.
Lee: Oh, she knew?
Michaels: Yeah, and I, uh, a lot of people I figured the reason why they didn’t come to see me was because people were afraid. People were afraid that, just by. they were afraid even, you know, if I mailed – sent them mail, that it was going to. you know, when people see that, that these guys can do whatever they want, sometimes, you know, some of them, well, I’m not saying all of them. But, some of them, obviously, do. Then, it scares people and because then they think, well God, even if I correspond with them, and they think that I’m somebody, that they want to go after them. it doesn’t matter if they’re doing anything or not. They can still get in trouble.
Michaels: And, so, it’s – people are afraid of the government.
Lee: Mm-hmm, um, what prisons were you in?
Michaels: I was in FCI, Cumberland, actually, the first, the first place I was, while I was waiting for designation, I was in, uh, I was in a regional jail during my pretrial time, which was about a year. And then, I, after I was sentenced, I was, put in Morgantown in what they call a “shu” – which is the hole; a segregated housing unit.
Michaels: And I was kept there for 11 weeks in a, in a isolation cell pretty much – with one other person, so it wasn’t isolation completely. Um, and then I was designated to Cumberland Maryland. And, so, I spent 4 and a half years in a higher security, behind a razor fence, and then I spent another 5 years at the minimum security camp, after that.
Lee: Uh, let’s see, were you in a work program? I heard a little bit about that, like where people work in prison to get like money.?
Michaels: Oh, like in the Unicore industries?
Michaels: Nah, I didn’t do that. I always felt funny about it, and also because I’m a vegetarian, I, um. when I first got there, and I realized they had a vegetable prep department, in the, in the food services, I wanted to work there. Because I figured that was a way for me to, uh, stay healthy and get enough to eat. So, I actually worked in vegetable prep the whole time.
Lee: Um, you had mentioned something, at the talk, about the food that had come in. that, um, they were, they weren’t. I don’t know what the word is, that, um – I lost my train of thought. I’m sorry, that the food that came in while you were working, wasn’t up to par, that you couldn’t really use anything with what you were given, or something. could you tell me more about that?
Michaels: Yeah there was some, uh, there were some people that the, uh, administrator at that time, and the assistant manager, and it seemed like there was some corruption there that they were doing. They had something going on where they would get rotten produce delivered and we would have to just throw it away. And, uh, and I would ask them about it, I would say, “You know, I can’t put this, I can’t put this in the food, you know, this stuff is spoiled.” And, and. I would ask the assistant manager and then he would say, “no problem, I’ll give them a call, they’ll replace it.” Ya know. And so, they would get like 30 cases of rotten bell peppers and he would replace it with, like, 5. So, uh, you know, then there was. and then, you know, that would be it for the week. So, I mean, there were things like that going on. And, I think, eventually, they were, they were, I know that they were fired, I think. I think they may have, uh, actually had some legal problems over there, that, you know, at some time. at some point. But, I mean, they were there for years, you know?
Michaels: You know, so, there was nothing. when you’re an inmate, you’re not really. there’s nothing you can do. with, about things like that. You just, you just deal with it.
Lee: Right, did you have access to education or job training while you were in prison?
Michaels: There’s no, uh. they have little courses in prison, um, most of them are taught by their inmates.
Michaels: Uhm, like, if an inmate knows. you know, if he has a degree in something, you know, he might teach a class in it, uh, and there’s some of that, that goes on, but as far as actually having a, uh, job training or something like that, yeah, there wasn’t anything like that. going on. where I was.
Lee: Okay, um, in your own words, what was prison life like? How were you treated?
Michaels: Um. overall, m- I was treated pretty well.
Michaels: Ya know, the staff liked me. most of them. There were exceptions, like the one corrupt assistant manager. And, so I did, I did get locked up a few times in, which, at first I didn’t realize you can actually go to jail when you’re in prison. And that is when you get locked up and get sent to the hole. And so –
Lee: What’s the hole?
Michaels: That’s, uh. it’s called the “shu” – the segregated housing unit.
Lee: Oh okay.
Michaels: And so that’s where you get locked into, a small steel cell, with, uh, a little slot in the door where they, uh, put a food tray through – three times a day. And, um, you can. you have a potentially an hour outside of that cell every 24 hours, but when you do, you go from that cell into just pretty much like a cage where you can actually see the sky through the chain link thing over top of you. But, you’re still in like a pretty small area, small cage, so, it’s definitely a very confining difficult place. You don’t have access to telephones to call anybody or anything like that.
Lee: Um, I’ve always heard about like all these, um, like that there’s all this stuff going on in prison, like what you see in movies and stuff. was that, was that realistic at all. what you’ve seen?
Michaels: Well, what have you seen in movies? Well, I mean, what type of things?
Lee: Oh okay, for example, I’ve seen, um, just like for no reason, like, I hear about, like, rape that goes on in prison. And, like, how the guards would just, um, beat the inmates for no apparent reason. How inmates would have to, like, defend themselves by, like, sharpening, like, whatever they have, just, like, for self-defense.
Michaels: Yeah, yeah in the prison where I was in Cumberland, there were some rapes, some attempted rapes that I, uh, knew about that went on in my housing unit. So, I assume that, uh, if that was going on in my housing unit, you know, it was probably going on in some of the other ones. There were 8 housing units where I was. As far as beatings by guards, there didn’t seem to, that didn’t seem to be going on there. As far as it being a dangerous environment, where people felt like they had to, um, have weapons to defend themselves, I – I felt like that sometimes. I wasn’t into weapons and knives and stuff, but, sometimes I thought about it. because it could be a really tense environment. And people are packed together, they’re overcrowded, in a space that was, you know, 2 to 3 people in a space that was designed for 1. Ya know, all through, you know, up to like 1,500 people. And, some of them had mental problems, so, uh. serious, uh, people with serious problems and they were violent, some of them, so, uh, ya know.
Michaels: There were stabbings, and, ya know, there were. just in my housing unit, there was several serious stabbings in the time that I was there, for four and a half years. And I know that there were things going on in the other units.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Was it between inmate and inmate, or more guard and inmate?
Michaels: It was usually, it was between inmates.
Michaels: Yeah, there were a couple fights with guards – like fist fight type things going on.
Michaels: But. but, the stabbings were always between inmates.
Lee: How were they punished? Like, if something bad happened, or, if. did the guards, did they just turn their backs and pretend like it didn’t happen?
Michaels: Um, no, they, um. if you, if they knew who it was, they would generally pull them out. If it was something like a stabbing, you, you, uh. get a certain type of a violation called a “shot.”
Michaels: Uh, which. you, you have different series of shots, depending on the seriousness of the violation. And those shots can raise your point level of your security points. And, so, if it raises the level of your security point level, to a certain degree, then you get a transfer out to a, from, well, I was in a high medium security prison. So, the next step would be the penitentiary.
Michaels: Which was a high security maximum.
Lee: Is that the highest?
Michaels: Well, that’s, yeah, uh, it’s – it’s a maximum security and they have these things called the super max, which I guess are even more confined and limited. But.
Michaels: I don’t really understand the difference between a super max and a max.
Lee: Can you, um, I’m not really familiar with all that. Um, can you tell me the difference between, like, all the different levels in prison?
Michaels: Well, I was in a high security – a high medium.
Michaels: Which was one step down from a maximum. the penitentiary.
Michaels: So, uh, when guys in the penitentiary, when their point levels would drop.
Michaels: Which you’re, you’re scored for various things, like you’re scored according to what you were convicted of. Like me, I was in a high security level because of the quantity of marijuana that I was convicted of, or that I was sentenced for. So that gave me, what they called, “the greatest severity. security level.” Which had, which meant that I had to stay behind a razor wired fence that I couldn’t be – I couldn’t go to camp.
So you have the penitentiary, you have the high medium level, where I was, then you have what they call a “low” or a “medium,” then you have a low, which is, um. I think a low doesn’t have a fence, I’m not sure, I’ve never been to one. And then, there, there’s the minimum, which is a camp, which is what people in prison call a “soft time,” rather than “hard time”. because you don’t have the threat of violence all the time in camp. So it’s a lot – the, uh, tension isn’t there. So it’s a lot easier to survive.
Lee: Right. Um. have things changed, have you noticed, um, through the 14 years that you have been in, um, transferred to different prisons. did you see any change in particular? Um, between. had they progressed better or, like, did they, um, did crime, like, drop? I don’t know.
Michaels: Um, no, I think they got worse.
Lee: It got worse?
Michaels: Yeah, they, um.
Lee: Do you think it will continually get worse throughout time, in general, or.?
Michaels: I think probably because, uh, well, there was a thing passed called the Zimmerman Bill. Which took away some of the things that prisoners had in prison, so. like, access to musical equipment, um, like, you know, they had a music room where you could go. There was a sound board, and, you know, you could hook a different instruments up to mics and, and have bands in prison. There were weight machines and things like that, so, uh, people had things to do. And, you know, uh, when they passed this particular bill, it was some conservative politician. They decided that people had it too nice in prison, and so, they took all that stuff out. So, they, they eliminated a lot of the funding that was going into, uh, the things that, you know, were like outlets for all this energy and, you know, stress release. Um, that a lot of the inmates had, you know, which was working out, you know, and things like that. And even in some prisons, I heard that they, they aren’t even allowed to do push-ups anymore. Like they, you know, I don’t know why, I don’t know what the rationale is but I know this, there was one up in Ohio where you could actually get a shot and, uh, get locked up, get thrown in the hole for doing push-ups. Uh, most of them, you could work-out, you could still work-out, they just took all the equipment. Because they felt like, it was too nice or something.
Lee: Right. Is a “shot” like a point system? Is that what it is?
Michaels: Well a shot’s a violation.
Lee: Oh, a violation. Okay.
Lee: What was a typical day like for you? If you couldn’t, if you didn’t have all those “nice things” that they took away, um, what did you do – I don’t know – throughout the course of the day? Like in prison, was it, was there like a set schedule, I guess?
Michaels: Well, uh, yeah. In the high, in the high medium prison they have what they call “the controlled movement.” So, you can only move from one place to another on the hour. And they have a ten minute time period. So you have ten minutes to get usually to where you’re going, where you have to go. You know, you might have to go to laundry to pick something up at laundry. So, you have to wait for the ten minute move, you go to laundry, and then, even if it only takes, like, a minute to pick up some sheets or something like that, you have to wait for the next hour, the next ten minute move. And, the same thing went if you were like going to a religious service or if you were going up to the gym area, the rec yard is what they called it. Whatever part of the prison you had, you had these controlled movements. And so it was really difficult to get around. Sometimes, people couldn’t make it to their religious services and they’d be really upset. And, you know, it could – it could be really frustrating.
Lee: Right. How were the facilities, did you have to share a room with someone else in your cell?
Michaels: Oh yeah, there were, there were th– . in the high medium, there were three man cells. And there were two man cells. Well this, these cells were designed for one person.
Michaels: Ya know, so, basically what they did is, they just took another bunk bed and put two more people into a cell that was designated, you know, was designed with enough space for one human being. And so, you know, if you were lucky, if, if you didn’t have any problems, you could go to a two man cell after a while, instead of a three man cell.
Lee: Did it cause a lot of problems between your inmates and you?
Michaels: Yeah, uh. it caused a lot of stress. It raises the stress level in people in a crowded environment.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Right, do you believe anything needs to be changed in which prisons are run or operated?
Michaels: (laughs) Yeah, I believe there’s a lot of things that need to be changed.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Can you give me a few examples?
Michaels: Uh. well, one is prisoners need to have access to education. You know, they need to be educated. Rather than. I mean, they, uh, they have requirements in prison now that they have to take GED classes, or something, if they don’t have a diploma. And that might be a good thing. But, as far, as, like, actually, like learning trades and things like that, I mean, pretty much prisoners depend on other prisoners, you know, to do that. Like, I tutored a Cuban guy in English when I was in there.
Michaels: And I’m not even a high school graduate. You know, but I’m, I’ve read a lot and am self-educated, so.
Michaels: You know, I was tutoring him in English enough and, you know, I taught Yoga which wasn’t a scholastic thing, but, ya know, it was something that I had learned. And, so I tried to share it with as many people as I could, when I was in there.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Um, how were your interactions with other inmates? Do they have cliques and loners and stuff?
Michaels: Oh yeah.
Michaels: Yeah, there was definitely.it’s a heavy, heavy, real heavy, as far as the cliques.
Michaels: And, uh, especially in the higher security. And there, it’s dangerous.it could be dangerous to be a loner.
Michaels: It doesn’t necessarily, I don’t – I’ve heard that in penitentiaries that, you know, if you’re a loner, you’re pretty much a target, you know. But, in these places, it’s not quite that bad. But there are a lot of people there who, uh, came from the penitentiary and that’s the life – that’s the reality that they’re used to. And so there was a lot of, um. people felt a lot of pressure to join some group or another while they were in there.
Michaels: And I was an exception, ya know. And, but, I even saw people who. there were occasionally guys that came in, that sort of, um, stuck to me, you know, because they felt like they were protected, ya know. if – because people respected me in there.
Michaels: And, so, uh, they were, they were, you know, they would be like following me around all the time, you know, they were with me as much as they could be, because they felt, like, you know, that nothing would happen to them. as long as they were hanging out with me.
Lee: Um, what were you allowed to bring into prison? I know that, I heard they, like, make you take out, um, piercings and they won’t let you bring in, like, I don’t know, just a lot of stuff.
Michaels: You can’t have anything really personal in prison. The only things that you’re allowed to keep are a religious necklace, like a cross or something, and, um, a wedding band. And, you know, that’s only if they’re worth less than a hundred dollars.
Lee: Right. Um, if you needed more clothes or shoes, what would you have to do to obtain those?
Michaels: You would have to go to a prison laundry, that, uh, the laundry services.
Michaels: So, you have to put in a request form and. and, uh, and then make an appointment and then you have to go up there on the move, and on the hourly move, on the right day at the right time. And, uh, you know, you could pick up. you’re allowed to have like three uniforms or something like that. And, um.
Michaels: You know, you’re allotted this amount of clothing, you know, uniforms and a set of sheets.
Lee: Um, did they – did you have to pay for all that? Or was that kind of given to you?
Michaels: Yeah, we didn’t pay for it.
Lee: Oh, you didn’t pay for it?
Michaels: No. You could buy, you could buy sweatshirts and stuff in the commissary.
Michaels: And um. you know, they would supply you with sneakers and sweatshirts and you could buy your own underwear and socks and all this stuff from the commissary, you know?
Michaels: It was kind of. the prices were always inflated, you know.
Michaels: You know, compared to – compared to anywhere else outside.
Michaels: But, um. yeah, you could – if you had money, you could kind of supplement what they were giving you by buying stuff.
Lee: Mm-hmm, and how did you make money? Just by working throughout? Was that.
Michaels: Yeah, I actually, um. you know, I had to, I survived in prison. everybody has, uh, most people have a way that, uh, something that they do in there, to survive. You know, unless you already have, uh, if you have a lot of money then you could get – keep getting sent in, then you could – you’re one of the people that pays other people to do things for you or whatever. So, there are people in there that iron people’s clothes or do this or do that, that provide little services for them, you know, and it’s – it’s against the rules. But, it’s almost, you almost have to do it, you know, in order to. if you just eat what they serve on the line. to you, and you uh. do everything exactly by the book in there, you, you’re going to end up being really unhealthy. If you have a long time, it’s going, you know, it’s going to put a lot of wear and tear on you. So. so what I did was I worked in vegetable prep and, and besides having access to my own. sometimes, you know, I could provide a little bit to other people and for that, I could exchange for other things that I needed, like vitamins and stuff like that.
Lee: Um, let’s see. Um, are there any people that were in prison that are also out now that, or that are still in prison, that were memorable to you that you had – that you shared like a close relationship with?
Michaels: Yeah, oh yeah, definitely. And, you know, there was a problem, you know, you’re not really supposed to associate with anybody that was, that was in prison with you.
Michaels: But, you know, people do bond, you know, and. friendships form. And it’s pretty common that people stay in touch with each other, even though you’re technically, you’re not allowed to.
Lee: Why is that?
Michaels: I’m not sure.
Michaels: They, I guess they just figure that, that’s a way to keep people away from. uh. maybe their rationale is that, you know, maybe if inmates get together with former inmates the more likely that they are to commit another crime or something. I don’t know what the rationale is. But, I mean, I know that a lot of times, inmates – former inmates – are helping other inmates. You know, in a, in a positive way. Like helping them out with jobs and things like that even though it’s technically, you know, you’re not allowed to do that.
Michaels: But, you know, they understand what the problems are, or. and so, they help each other out.
Lee: Mm-hmm, what was the transition like, from prison into, like, the real world – going back into society? Was that really difficult?
Michaels: It’s. much more difficult than I had imagined. I didn’t think that I was going to have some of the problems, you know, that the, um, the amount of time that went by, you know, was almost like being. you know, dropped. uh, it’s almost like – it’s like being ripped out of something, you know, and, uh, and all of a sudden you’re just dropped right back into it. only, now, you know, a lot of my family are gone. My father died while I was in prison. Um, you know, my three grandparents died while I was in prison.
Michaels: You know, so I came back and everybody is so much older.
Michaels: And people that were dear to me are gone. And people that I thought, that I thought that I was close to – friend wise – a lot of them were afraid.
Michaels: You know, and so they are afraid to become targets of the same kind of thing that they saw happen to me. And so they, you know, they would distance themselves.
Lee: Right, um, did you have to go through the whole parole thing? Is that – ?
Michaels: Yeah, I’m still on probation.
Michaels: Yeah, yeah.
Lee: Did you have any problems getting paroled?
Michaels: Well, they didn’t do parole – they don’t do parole.
Lee: Oh, they don’t?
Michaels: No, parole is. they changed the law, uh, before I was convicted. And, um, so they don’t do parole anymore in the federal system. And, that means that you don’t – even at the best – in the best possible outcome, you have to do 85% of the time that you’re given. So, you know, you’re allotted a certain amount of good time. um, which. in a 14 year sentence, I would get a year and a half good time. Whereas, you know, back in the older days, or whatever, they. you know, you might have done a half of your sentence than if you had a record like mine, you might have been released with parole because I didn’t have any violations, I didn’t have any problems other than a few minor violations for. for food, which was because I had, uh, a problem with the assistant manager there.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Did you – did they provide any type of, um, programs? Like I know that here, they have like the Gemeinschaft Homes where people that come out of prison go and they live there for a given amount of time and then it helps them, um, get back to society where they, um, can go looking out for jobs.
Lee: But, they are kind of like watching over you in a little bit, too. Did you have anything like that?
Michaels: Mm-hmm, I had to do, uh, six months in a halfway house.
Michaels: Yeah, in West Virginia.
Lee: What was that like?
Michaels: It was, um. it was.kind of. sometimes it just didn’t – some of it just didn’t make any sense to me. I mean, uh, you know, there were, uh, a lot of people crowded into a dingy house and, uh. you know, you have the freedom to go out and look for jobs – get a job and stuff like that, which was good, you know, to be able to get out. outside of a prison environment, you know, after all that time. I think though that, that the way that it was set up. the environment, I think that it, it causes problems for a lot of people. And, some people end up going back to prison because they can’t deal with that, because it’s, it really is a high stress environment to the halfway house.
Michaels: You know, it’s – they tend to be in, they tend to be in, um, dirty, rundown kind of places and they’re usually in neighborhoods where there’s, uh, like a high crime, like a lot of crack and stuff like that. And so, and the one that I was in, even though it was a town in West Virginia, it’s not – there’s not – it’s not a big city with, like, a ghetto, but it was like right (slaps hand) in the middle of the only street where there was a lot of crack dealing and stuff like that. And so, so it’s like in a weird environment, ya know, to, to have to come out of. And now, it’s like, you have to stay here, you know.
Michaels: And so it was strange.
Michaels: But. I mean, I’m pretty adaptable, and I feel like I adjust, you know, I’m pretty good at adjusting to whatever comes, you know, so. you know, just making the best of it.
Lee: Mm-hmm, were there any positive things that came out of the halfway house?
Michaels: Yeah, I think, um. they had a counselor there and you were required to have some counseling. And the counselor, apparently, had read my file. And he told the other counselor that he wanted, that he wanted me, you know, that’s what the other counselor told me. That I was really, that I had a really interesting file, or whatever. So, you know, we got to be – I thou – I think we got to be pretty good friends. You know, and so it was, that was actually very positive. And he, you know, and he’s repeatedly said that this is a really unhealthy environment, this is not, you know, he had problems with it.
Michaels: And so it was good for me to see that, here was somebody who’s employed by the government to do this and they recognized that this is not right.
Michaels: That this isn’t the right way. this is not how you get people rehabilitated, or reintegrated into society, you know.
Lee: Okay, um, did you have any problems, um, trying to find a job once you got out of prison?
Michaels: I, um. I really didn’t. Uh, a lot of people did. But, I’m not. I wasn’t your typical inmate in prison. Um, you know, I was fortunate, I got, you know, through whatever circumstances, maybe because of the way I grew up, because I didn’t grow up in a terrible environment.
Michaels: Um, I knew how to learn things on my own and, so, I decided that yoga was a good way for me to, you know. I saw that, I had a lot of time and I was worried about how old I was going to be when I was released and so that was a big worry for me and that I was going to be an old man when I was getting out of here and, you know, my life’s going to be over, ya know?
Michaels: Uh, and so, I decided to, um, learn – practice – yoga, and meditation that, that I figured that the stress. I could see that stress was what was really killing people in there, you know, more than anything. And, and, um, so I practiced yoga and got pretty good at it and then I started teaching it to other people. And so I spent 10 years teaching yoga in prison and, you know, got yoga programs set up and got pretty good at it. So when I got out, it just so happened that while I was in prison over that 10 year period, yoga got very popular in the mainstream culture. And so, when I got out there was a demand for yoga instructors, so I went and knocked on a few doors in town, where I was in the halfway house, and I asked them if they would be interested in a yoga instructor and I got hired immediately by two places.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Did they take into account, like, your past? Or did they, did they have an interview process where you had to describe, like, what happened and all that?
Michaels: For. for a job?
Lee: Mm-hmm, for your job.
Michaels: Yeah, they. I told them immediately.
Michaels: You know, I said I. I was a convicted felon, I was convicted of a non-violent crime involving mostly marijuana and, you know, I’m on probation. I offered to give them a demonstration. Told them, you know, I think that I’m a pretty good yoga instructor and, um, they, they really liked me and, um, I had the director of one place, she went. she had to have me approved by the board, the board of directors had to approve hiring me.
Michaels: So they all had to know, you know, what my history was. And, uh, I was actually hired in two places, you know, the board of directors looked at my history but, like I said, I’m not a typical – I wasn’t a typical inmate.
Michaels: In that, I was doing things like writing articles and sending them out and they were getting published in magazines and stuff. And, so when I was going to these places, I could go. I could show them, “Look here’s an article that I wrote about yoga. here’s pictures of me in a magazine, you know, an international magazine. and, uh, practicing yoga.” And so, you know, I had these things and they saw that, you know, and, that gives people a different impression. You know, they, you know, realize that there’s.
Michaels: That there’s not just some stereotype, you know.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Did you feel like you were ever being judged. by other people?
Michaels: Oh yeah. Mm-hmm. Yeah, I would feel like sometimes like, um, people would be. really friendly to me, and, you know, and some people, you know, obviously. liked me, you know, they were interested in me, attracted to me, you know, when I would first come, come into a place. And then I could kind of tell when the word, when they heard that, you know, that I had, I came out of prison or something like that because all of a sudden, you know, there, certain. some people’s demeanor would change and just be like, oh you know. you know, you could just, I could just tell that they were being shut down. Shut down, you know?
Michaels: And so that was hard.
Lee: In that light, would you, um, try and explain what had happened? Or, would you just drop it and..?
Michaels: I generally would, would just drop it.
Michaels: Mm-hmm, because, you know, I still have, you know, there was still other people that do like me regardless.
Michaels: You know, who see me as me. Where I, you know, where some image that they have, you know, and, uh, so, you know, you have some people, I guess, who are. um, mature enough, or. or perspective enough to, uh, to, um, see – look at people and judge them, you know, on who they are or what they do, rather than, you know, some abstract thing.
Lee: Right, um, did you have any problems readjusting into your family?
Michaels: Uh. yeah. I had some, you know, there were probably not as much as most people probably did and, uh.
Michaels: But, you know, I was still surprised because I feel like I’m pretty on top of things. And, uh, I stayed on top of things. even, even in that environment.
Michaels: And, um, you know, I prepared myself for, to, you know, I saw where my problems. I tried to identify my problems, you know, and I tried to work on myself. You know, because you don’t have anything else to work on, you know? And I was working on myself anyway before I got busted, um. I’m getting away from your question a little bit.
Michaels: So, and, um. ask me the question again.
Lee: Oh okay, did you have any problems readjusting back to your family?
Michaels: Um, my mother had asked me to please come home, you know? And stay with her because my father had died, and she had gone through a terrible depression for a while. And, I felt like sometimes, like, the only thing that was keeping her from doing something, or dying you know, were, were these phone conversations that I would have with her from prison. And it was a really difficult time and so I promised her, I said, you know, “I’ll come back.” And she said, “I’m just afraid that you’re just going to, you know, hook up with, you know, an old girlfriend” or something like that ’cause my old girlfriend lived in California and she was coming out to see me every year and spending like a week with me.
Michaels: And she was afraid that I was going to move out to California, and, uh, you know, leave her alone. And so I was like, “No I’m going to come home and I’m going to stay with you and I’ll help you finish your house.”
Michaels: But before. like the year before I went home, she, uh, found a boyfriend, a fiancé (laughs).
Michaels: And so (laughs), and so it was kinda funny because you know, here I, made these plans to do this to. you know, and when I got home, it was like. he’s there, he’s living with her, basically.
Michaels: And, um, you know, and I remember after I was there for about three months, then she said, “You know, you’re going to, and I know you’re going to want to get your own place.”
Michaels: And so I was like, “Oh okay.” (laughs) “so you don’t want me to stay here and finish the house.”
Michaels: So he’s going to finish the house. which was okay, but it was just, you know, it was like funny to, uh, come back into all these situations where people’s lives were so different, you know?
Michaels: And, uh. which was, it, it was, it felt good, you know, I’m glad that she. and I’m really happy for her and I really like the person that she met, so.
Michaels: You know, I sup – I give her a lot of support for that.
Lee: Um, were your cousins ever told the truth about, um, your past? Like when they – have you seen them at all, like.?
Michaels: No, I haven’t seen them, the ones that my mother said that to about me working for the government.
Michaels: Um, but I have seen some of my other cousins that came to visit me while I was, when I came home. And, um, you know, they were curious, I mean, they were curious to see, you know, what had happened and, uh, I think most people were surprised because, through, practicing yoga, and doing what I do, and being a vegetarian and, I’m actually, it’s like everyone else aged a lot more than I have because I think, because I do those practices.
Michaels: And so I think they were all, like, really surprised when they see me ’cause they expect me to be, um, kind of, um, broken, you know?
Michaels: And, so, you know, I’ve gotten much stronger. And, you know, I’ve, I’ve. um found some balance in my own self, you know.
Michaels: You know, a finer balance and, so, I think they can kind of pick up on that and are surprised. it’s not what they expect.
Lee: Mm-hmm, um, were there any particular people who made things easier or harder for you?
Michaels: Um. easier or harder. Um. well, there were actually people that did both. that made it easier, and then there were times when it was harder.
Lee: Mm-hmm, what did they do?
Michaels: Well, you mean, like people from outside that came, or.?
Michaels: Yeah, like my old girlfriend, Jamalla, she, um. she’s a doctor in Berkeley, California and, um. so she’s really busy, super busy, but she would take, like, a week out. and, a whole week and just spend a whole week visiting me. You know, would fly out here and spend a week over here visiting me. You know, we would write each other and call and stuff.
Michaels: But, you know, over the years, you know. the, uh, amount of time that I got, at first, it was like something that. I looked forward to and, like, you know, that week would sustain me, like, all year. And I knew that, like, I was going to see her again. Um, and, uh, she was coming to spend time with me and that was it. You know, even though, and she would, she had another boyfriend, another lover, or whatever, but, she – they were open about that.
Michaels: And I knew that she still loved me and. uh, she still had hopes that we were going be together, I think. And, I could see how the amount of time, when the time went by that, when she got to be a certain age, she, um. she started worrying like there was – she was going to be too old to have a child. And, um, I don’t know, and when she started talking about it to me, like. and that was like, you know, “I want to have a baby” and, um, I was like, “Well, there’s really nothing – there’s not much I can do, I can’t do anything about it, you know.” You know, they don’t have conjugal visits and, you know. and so, she was like, you know, months would go by and then she would be like, “My nesting instincts are kicking in, you know, and I want to do this and that.” And she kept saying, “Isn’t there any way you can get out any sooner or is there any way you can get your time cut? I’ll help, I’ll hire an attorney.” And I was like, “You’re being, you know, don’t waste your money because, you know, there’s no way that I’m going to get a time cut.” And um, so, eventually, she, um. you know, she decided to have a baby with her boyfriend in California, and you know, they’re married now and, uh, he’s a really nice guy.
Michaels: But, you know, going through this whole process. over that period of time, I mean, it was. it was so good for me, and at the same time, it was just so challenging too, you know.
Michaels: You know, to have to, to have to. just to see how time. how the way that people use that, you know, the, the length of time that they give you. to watch, you know, your family pass away, and watch. the woman that loves you and that you love, you know, get older, and uh, you know, she just feels like she just has to go and, and have a life, you know. So, you know, I can only. I can’t even. you know, going through what I went through and, uh, with a 14 year sentence. You know, I think about the guys in there that have 30 years, you know for some. you know.
Lee: Um, how do you feel about, um, telling people you meet about your past? Do you think that’s an issue with you. or?
Michaels: Well, I don’t. the only reason why I’m. when I don’t tell people about my past is because I want them to know me before they know that. I want them, I don’t want them to pre-judge me.
Michaels: and to kind of lock me into some small thing in their mind, ya know. and. uh, other, if I don’t feel like they’re going to do that, then I have no problem sharing, you know, what I’ve gone through. You know, I feel like I have actually some insights to the, uh. I can share from my own experiences, just like most people do, you know?
Michaels: And, um. yeah, I don’t mind telling people about it. I don’t. I would like to have people already accept me before that, you know. so.
Lee: Mm-hmm, um, how do they react if you do tell them. or when you do tell them?
Michaels: Well, different. different people react differently.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Can you give me an example of, like, a negative and a positive way that they’ve reacted?
Michaels: Um. well. let’s see [pause]. Well, I’ve had people who. they feel like, um. um. [pause]. You know, like, like in my work, you know, I have, I have people who. you know, I know that they probably, they felt like they were taking a chance whenever they, when I told them.
Michaels: You know, like, I could tell that they were a little worried, you know, that they were like, that they liked me, and it seemed like a good thing, so they hired me.
Michaels: And now they’re like looking at what I’ve done for their business, or whatever, as far as increasing their business and other clientele likes me a lot and, uh, you know, I’m very popular with, within the, uh, places that I work.
Michaels: That, um, you know, that they feel like, you know, like they took a risk and. and they trusted me based on, based on face value, you know?
Michaels: And now that they’ve been, um. what’s the word for it? They’ve been justified in it or they’ve been rewarded in that, you know, because they trusted me in that. So, I get, I get a lot of positive feedback from those people. You know, and I think that they, they like the fact that, you know, I do what I do well and, they feel like I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles, you know.
Michaels: in order to do it. So, they.
Lee: Um, are there any long-term, negative results from being in prison?
Michaels: Yeah, there definitely are. I mean, there are times when, you know, there are times, like, my mother told me that sometimes I get, like, bitter, you know? It’s not very often, you know.
Michaels: But, occasionally, I guess everyone has their times when they get down.
Michaels: There’s still a lot of. you know, because that took up such a long time of my life that, you know, a lot of things that I interpret things the way that I did in prison, so. you know, a lot of times, um. you know the way that people act toward each other in prison, in general, sometimes I’ll tend to. I’ll see people, you know, they’ll act a certain way. They’ll be doing a certain thing and I might interpret it in my mind that way that I would have if we were in prison.
Michaels: But, it means something different out here. It’s not, you know, it’s a different culture going on in there. And so, sometimes, you have to make that mental adjustment. It’s almost like. it’s almost like if you were living in a country that, where you were like speaking in a different language all the time.
Michaels: And then, you have to, like, translate it in your mind.
Michaels: So, like, I had to translate what people were doing around me sometimes.
Michaels: Uh. because I’m automatically interpreting and it’s still like, it’s like a prison thing.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Um, have there been any, um, positive results from your experience?
Michaels: Yeah, yeah there have. Um, one of the positive things that I would say is that, um, you know, when I was very angry with – at the government.
Michaels: You know, that, um. I had a tendency to do what a lot of people do and that is that I lumped people, I lumped people altogether, you know. And I was just, like, if you worked for the government, then, you know, then you were definitely somebody I did not like, you know? And, and, after living in the, in the prison environment, um. you know, I lived in a place where I was with these people who would work for the government constantly, you know, over a period of. some of them I’ve known for 9 years, continuously. You know, in the food service department and some of the people that worked as correctional officers, and you know, you find that some of them are really good people.
Michaels: And that they kind of almost have to keep a lid on it. that they’re good people because, otherwise, they would be ridiculed by, by some of the other people that they work with. But, uh, you know, I’ve had to, you know, I’ve had to. I’m glad that I can see them as people. and not just lump them all together. And say, you know.
Michaels: that all these people are, you know, are. these people are actually, uh, oppressing people, or something like that, you know?
Michaels: In my mind, that’s how I looked at it. And, you know, I want to see things as they. I want to see the truth and, you know, even if that’s not always the comfortable thing. You know, I want to know what the reality is and, and, um. so I’m glad that I actually got to develop relationships in. I actually still recall people that work there, that are friends. So, you know, if I heard myself saying that 20 years ago, I would have laughed at myself, you know, for that?
Michaels: But, yeah, you know, there are still some good people there.
Lee: Um, do you feel you have been able to put your prison experience behind you, or will it always affect how people relate to you and how you live your life today?
Michaels: Um, I don’t think it’s going to affect how people relate to me that much.
Michaels: because of the type, the way that I live. I don’t, um. you know, I don’t do the type of work where I go in and fill out an application and it says, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony.” you know?
Michaels: That kind of thing. It’s more like, you know, I know how to do business for myself and, um, you know, I’ve been working in my own business, so I’m not. you know, people that you do business with, in the world, you know, they don’t want to know do you have a college degree? You know, they don’t want to know, have you been to prison? They’re not asking you questions like that. They want to know, you know, do you have. yoga mats and do you have, you know, herbs that are good for the joints and these are the kinds of things that I’m starting to do business with now.
Michaels: And, um. uh, and that and I’m teaching yoga. So, so I’m teaching yoga and I’m selling yoga related. products.
Michaels: And, um, you know, I have a. I’m working on a deal right now with a company, uh, she’s got a yoga vacation company. and she does, like, yoga vacations to tropical paradises – you know, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and places like that. And so, you know, I’m trying to work out a partnership, a limited partnership with her, where I have access to her 4,000 person e-mail list and, uh, we advertise my products in her website and things like that. So, you know, those kinds of things, I just, you know. I’m still affected by the experience that I’ve had in prison. And I probably will be to some degree. Um. you know, in a way it’s kind of a death, where it’s kind shattered. And you, you have to reintegrate yourself. in your own self, not – not with society, but just in your own self. You have to put yourself back together and, you know, and some people do that and they turn out, um, really bitter and mean, or broken. I’ve been fortunate to be able to come out stronger and healthier, and I think with, uh, a lot of insight.
Lee: Um, you mentioned that you had a 21-year-old daughter, um, would you want to develop a closer relationship with her or.?
Michaels: Yeah, um, I actually plan on contacting her at some point. It really, right now, it’s, my. it’s the thing that I’m waiting for is just to have the finances to. I don’t want to contact a daughter that doesn’t know me and then not be able to say, “hey,” you know, “would you like to come down here or would you like me to come up there. would you like to do something.
Michaels: Or, is there something I could do for you?” You know. I would like to, you know, just at least have the ability to do something, you know, than rather just say “hey,” you know and all of a sudden, I reappear, you know, in this person’s life. Because she’s had somebody else as a father.
Michaels: And so I have to, you know. I try to think about it from how it might be for her, you know, and not have it be like this thing that shocks her – puts a lot of pressure – you know if she feels like all of a sudden. you know, all this pressure to, you know, I’d rather it be like something like an invitation, you know, if you’d like to get to know each other, you know, we could do that.
Michaels: and, you know, not feel like you’re being pressured to do anything.
Lee: Mm-hmm, how’d you, um, first lose touch with her? Was it just because the mother had full custody – was that how it worked out?
Michaels: Yeah, actually she had full custody. Sh – what happened was that she. we separated and we were living in different residences and. she, um, got back in touch with an old college boyfriend who lived in New York.
Michaels: And, um, her father, I think really, you know, encouraged the boyfriend and her. um, to have her move back up to New York. And, uh, we were in the middle of our divorce and, uh, the judge gave me visitation rights and my – my parents’ visitation rights.
Michaels: But, um. she wouldn’t allow us to see my daughter. And then, it seemed to hinge mainly on the guy she hooked up with. He was really insecure. Maybe he was afraid that she was still in love with me or something. And this was more like a. because it all happened so fast, she moved up there and then she divorced me and then she marrying him. I mean, I could see where he might be insecure about that, you know. and, uh, so whenever she and I would try to work it out on the phone, sometimes he would, like, start freaking out and take the phone away from her. You know, and it got, you know, and it just got to the point where. one time I drove up there to New York and I just asked her, you know, “Let’s just get together and let’s just work something out,” you know? And, um, you know, she pleaded with me and she said, you know, “I’m married to this guy now and I’m having a baby with him and if I see you, even to let you visit Maya – which was our daughter – uh, that my marriage could fall apart.” She just said that, “I just can’t deal with it.” You know, and so. you know, I had to decide what to do and so, I decided to let her go.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Well, thank you for the interview. Um, well, could you tell me a little bit about. is that the stuff that you have written? Could you tell me a little bit about that? [Points to the stack of papers next to him that he brought along with him for this interview].
Michaels: Yeah! Yeah, this is, um. I wrote uh. well, I’ve written poetry, you know, over the years since I was six years old. not a lot of them, but occasionally I would write poems and, uh, I play a dulcimer. I do, I do write my own songs now and stuff. But, uh, I took some of my poems and my song lyrics and I’ve, I’ve read about this publication called, Talking Leaves, which was an ecological journal.
Michaels: Coming out of the west coast and, uh, it’s an international journal, it’s a small journal but it goes out internationally. And, I, uh, I sent them a couple of my poems and just said, you know, “I’m in prison and, uh, I really like your journal and, uh, I really like what you’re about and I feel like I’m aligned with what you’re into.
Michaels: and, uh, here are some of my poetry, feel free to use it if you want.” And, so, the next thing I knew, I was getting an issue – I was getting some issues of it with my poems in it. And, so, I kept sending more stuff out and I’ve had more stuff published, in several different publications. I just started taking pictures – getting pictures taken of me doing yoga.And they were publishing – just about everything I would send them, you know, they were publishing it. And I got letters from people that were reading my stuff. not a lot, but, occasionally. And that was a big thrill for me, you know, to get a letter from somebody that really liked my poetry.
Lee: Mm-hmm. Was, um, writing, and all that, a good outlet for you while you were in prison?
Michaels: Yeah, I, uh, yeah.it was important.
Michaels: Um, yeah, it’s a. you know, poetry it’s always been like a way to say something, convey something, you know, that is really hard to put into a normal conversation. You know, in like normal sentences and stuff. And so you’re, you know, you’re trying to, uh, convey something, you know, with words. and, um, I also did that with images like, uh. like I did things like there was an inmate who would make these dream catchers. He would take copper wire and make hoops.
Michaels: And he would string these dream catchers up. which, it would take him, like, hours and hours to make one of them. And I asked him about them and he said, uh, he said, “You know, the dream catchers are made from one continuous strand – string. And there’s a spider at the center of it,” you know, and he was telling me about it and I realized that this was his meditation, you know?
Michaels: And, uh, so I took one of his dream catchers and I took feathers from, uh, just old raggedy feathers that fell off the birds that were landing. that were hanging around the sidewalks and stuff, around the prison. And so I would pick these things up on my way over to the room that I used to practice yoga and. then, I had a, an inmate photographer take a picture of me in a yoga pose and I sent it out and I had a friend make copy it, color copy it, and send it back to me, and I just cut it out and kind of glued it all and made like an image out of it. And they put it on the cover of, um, the magazine, you know? They really liked it.
Michaels: And so, my poetry too. So it was, it not only was it, um. great for me, and to feel like people valued my thoughts.
Michaels: out there because that’s one of the problems that you feel in there. it’s like you’ve been devalued to the point where, you know, you’re like this. you’re like in the untouchable caste now, you know?
Michaels: And, uh. you know, and to realize that here are these really nice people, you know, who really believe in preserving the earth and who care about their families, and they care about the land and, and they really thought that my. what I had to say was important and, and they put it in magazines many, many times, you know. So that. it was good in that way, and it was also good in that, the guys that were in there with me. that it uplifted them as well, you know. Like, when they see that somebody who’s in the same situation as them, is writing this stuff and, and they see it in these magazines and they realize that, you know, people value what you have to say, you know, even when you’re in prison. You know, if you can just get it out there, where they can hear you, you know? Then, you know, it really inspired a lot of people, I think.
Lee: All right, I don’t have any further questions, but, um, do you have anything else you want to share, or any other comments, or anything?
Michaels: Um. geez (laughs).
Michaels: Um. you know, one of the reasons why I’m here is, you know, there are people in there who, who had a lot of time, who I felt like. you know, of course, you know I’m not your typical mainstream person, obviously. So, but, I felt like, you know, for what they did. you know, for this person to have 20 to 30 years in prison, in the environment, you know, that I was in. especially in the higher security, you know, prison, you know, it’s just a terrible injustice. You know, and, I told them that I wouldn’t forget about them and I told them that I’d try and help them, you know? So, um. you know, I feel like. you know, my mother is afraid that I came down here to do this interview with you.
Michaels: There are friends of mine who have told me that I should not do anything like this, and that I shouldn’t have gone to the university and, uh, and spoken in front of a group of people. Um, because of, you know. you know, that somebody’s not going to like what I have to say. And that they’re going to try and retaliate against me or something like that. You know. these people. the reason why I had a voice, why I could get this stuff written and, uh, get it out, was because I had the, I had the benefit of knowing that there was a whole other world, you know. For some of these guys that grew up in some of the environments that they grew up in. I mean, they don’t even know that, that world exists. So how can they ever have a voice heard? You know? And so, I feel like, um, you know, I feel like there’s something that needs to be done, you know, for the people who are in there. that there is a lot of injustice in the way that people are being sentenced. and tried. and prosecuted. And, um. so, I would hope that, you know, until I can figure out some better way, some better thing to do, you know (laughs)
Michaels: Maybe these, maybe these things will help and that maybe, you know, it seems that people are being – that the awareness is growing, you know?
Michaels: That people are aware that, uh, I mean, it’s a terrible thing, you know, to be forgotten in prison. And, uh, you know, it’s, it’s very heartening to me to see that, you know, there are some people that care. and I think it really says something about the. you know, the, um. just the level of consciousness that, that, you know, that people have because, you know, in this world that we live in, and the culture that we live in, it’s really hard to. it’s really hard for people to care about things that they just really don’t – aren’t exposed to directly, you know, it’s not part of your life. And, so, to really care about people that you don’t know. that you might even be a little uneasy about, or afraid of, but, you know that there’s an injustice going on. You know, I think that, you know, it says a lot about people who are working to, to do something, you know. to make it a little bit better.
Lee: Oh, thank you.
* end of interview*