Tim Howard Beginners's Blog

On Cows and Carpentry

To M: Thanks for your response to my posting. It’s like getting a letter in the mail, which I love to do. You said you’ve watched some prison documentaries. Well, I’ll bet you learned more about prison from your nephew than you did from the documentary. Prison is a world in itself. And everyone’s experience is different. I’ll try and explain how it is with me. But I’ll have to come back later and start from the county jail where I started in Dec. 1997.

Right now I’m at the Varner Unit. I don’t count days, I count hours. I’m stipulated to Vo-tech and have to complete 1,440 hours before I can appear before the parole board again. And right now I have 180 hours. I get nine hours a day, Monday through Thursday, if all goes well. Sometimes we don’t get to go to vo-tech for one reason or another. We don’t go on Fridays and I have kitchen duty that day, which is not my favorite thing. I’m trying to get on Outside Lawn. Spring Break is fast approaching and that means we will be off from Vo-tech a whole week, plus the teacher has some flex time coming up. ☹ More delays.

Anyway, when thinking about attending Vo-tech, inmates have a number of different fields and probably four different prisons to choose from. I picked Varner because it’s a place where I’ve spent a lot of time: from August 2003 to December 2013 to be exact. I also spent some time at Tucker Max before that. I picked residential carpentry for several reasons. One, I really like woodworking and want to learn to make hope chests, china cabinets and the like. I have a kind of dream of being able to make a few of them for pregnant women and ladies who like to sew. Crazy or odd, I know. But it’s a hobby I want. It’s not for money. The other reason is to be able to fix the minor things that go wrong around my friends’ and families’ houses—maybe be able to save them a little money. I wasn’t very fond of my class when I first started. But right now, I’m enjoying it. One of the inmates who’s an intern is teaching a few of us step-by-step. He’s very patient and makes sure that you understand what’s going on.

I’m still not settled in here at Varner. The barracks I’m in is as foreign as any that I’ve been in. Plus, I’m still angry that I was stipulated to Vo-tech to begin with. The Parole Board will probably claim something along the lines of “making a productive citizen” out of me. Even though they didn’t bother to ask what skills I had before stipulating me.

There’s something the public should know about prison and its rules. The rules and guidelines look good on paper. But they don’t implement them worth a damn and at times they are at odds with what they are supposed to do. I’ll use myself for an example. Upon my arrival at Cummins Prison, I was put on hoe squad. Hoe squad has been around for years. It is just a mindless way to punish people. Now don’t get me wrong. I know prison is a punishment deal for lawbreakers and I agree about paying the piper, so to speak. When it comes to the actual farm work of the planting, harvesting, caring for equipment, animals, etc., damn right—get the inmates out. But mindless hoeing and useless activities? Come on.

Hoe squad is 60 days unless something happens. I didn’t do the full 60 days because I entered the P.A.L. Program (Personal Application to Life). It’s billed as a faith-based program that’s non-denominational. But they should be honest and say, “It’s a Christian program and if you don’t believe what we tell you, you’re outta here.” This program looks good on paper and the Parole Board even thought it was a good thing that I was in it and it’s supposed to be gaining some recognition on the outside. But in truth, it was a program run mostly by the inmates. I won’t go into detail about all the goings-on in there, but it wasn’t up to code. I was more stressed out in that program than I was during the years before awaiting trial. So I signed myself out.

About a week later I was in front of the classification committee. I asked to be transferred to Beef Herd. Keep in mind that it’s what the prison terms a 1-B job, which means outside the gate, and I was 1-C at the time. Well, luck was smiling on me that day and the assistant warden running classification that day decided to give me a chance since he’d known me for a time during my death-row stint. I ended up being assigned to Dairy. Well, after reading so many cowboy books and seeing Elsie commercials, I thought CRAP! Turns out though, the Dairy was a balm to my soul. It put me outside and working with cows, which I love. The job I was hired to do was take care of newborn calves.

After I was trained, my days started like this. Only seven guys can go out before daylight because there weren’t enough supervisors on Dairy. We would leave the unit at 5:30 a.m. and drive about two and a half miles to the Dairy. I get my buggy and fill it with calf bottles. The most I had on bottles at one time was 42. I make up all the bottles and off I go. It started out with me just putting bottles in holes and picking them up when they’re done. They had to be hand-fed for about three days or so until they were able to drink alone. I also had weaned calves to feed. Don’t misunderstand me. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to do this job. But if you liked it even a little bit, you were golden.

Now here’s another way I really got blessed. I had four free-world supervisors. All good guys. Three of those guys had degrees in fields dealing with animals. Multiple degrees. And all were willing to teach me however much I wanted to learn about the dairy business and livestock care in general. They even gave me books to read and started giving me hands-on training with the dairy cows and step-by-step maintenance of the pit, where the animal waste goes. They were teaching me what shots to give my babies and why. This was turning into something I could never have imagined. One of the supervisors and I even sat down and talked about a business I could start when I got out. All four agreed that if I could do my Vo-tech there, they would have me in tip-top shape before I left.

It seemed perfect. But then the Powers-That-Be said I couldn’t Vo-tech there because it wasn’t accredited, or something to that effect.

I told that whole story to show how some things look better on paper than in practice. Now, here I am at carpentry Vo-tech with a substitute teacher who, by his own admission, isn’t qualified to do this job. I’m taking a course to use as a hobby. Yes, I had other choices after they took me out of Dairy, but this is the one I’m more likely to be able to enjoy or use. Still, it’s only nine hours a day. Take out meals and breaks, and it’s probably shorter. If I wasn’t required to, I wouldn’t go. Compare that to the dairy. There, all my teachers and supervisors except one had more than enough training (and not online). I had a job where I started at 5:30 a.m. and didn’t come back till 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, and on Saturdays and Sundays it was 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. because you milk twice a day. So it was a seven-day-a-week job and I was loving it! The other inmates were actually making fun of me because I was up by 4:45 a.m.—almost to the minute—every morning, waiting to leave.

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