Food For Felons: The Orange Card
I didn’t wake up in a cell, for the first time in years. The first feeling I felt was -
The previous day I had traveled by bus from Federal Correction Institute Petersburg Virginia to a Halfway House in Baltimore, MD. I was given a bus fare and one set of clothes. I also received the few dollars on my commissary account as cash and had a grey mesh back filled with books and plans for my future.
I wasn’t technically released from prison yet, but I was transporting myself on public transit. The last time I was on a bus I was shackled at the hands and feet and guarded by armed men. Now I was unshackled and unsupervised. As the hunger built throughout the day I ignored it. Still being state property I intended on eating state sponsored meals.
But by the time I arrived and checked into the converted motel which sat across the street from the Coca Cola factory, the food was gone. And as soon as I walked through the waist high chain link gate I was locked down and forbidden from leaving my new home for any reason for the next seven days.
It wasn’t a punishment, I didn’t arrive late or break any rules. It was simply the policy.
The old wrinkled black man who explained the rules made it clear that after the lockdown was over I still didn’t get freedom of movement. Before leaving I would need to request a pass in advance from my counselor, and have it approved. Leaving without permission for any reason (or coming back late) meant being sent back to real prison. Passes were not given for things like “eating” or “grocery shopping”, as these were not essential activities.
There is a saying we have about the Halfway house. It is “halfway in” not “halfway out”.
After my intake I went to my assigned room. There were four metal beds covered with familiar thin plastic mattresses, but the lockers that they were placed next to were much bigger than I was used to. This made the small motel room, with one bathroom, very cramped. Two of the beds had sheets and were clearly occupied, so I chose an empty one, put my bag in the locker and went to sleep directly on the plastic mattress. I kept all my clothes on to avoid sticking to the mattress, a trick I had learned from experience. You don’t want to lay your skin directly on that plastic for a minute, much less 8 hours.
Naturally I woke up hungry. So the first order of the day was breakfast before searching for sheets and other ways to make my situation just a little bit better.
Going down to the chow hall I found a surprisingly short line. When I reached the counter I was handed a small plastic tray with a thin slice of some unrecognizable meat, a tiny scoop of oatmeal and what looked like half a biscuit square.
There was also a small box of milk. The kind that hadn’t been satisfying in grade school and certainly wouldn’t do much for me as a 200 lb grown man. But at least the water fountain worked.
I sat down, ate it all and waited for a good opportunity to try for some more. When I thought the time was right I tried, and was denied.
Feeling frustrated I returned to my room, brushed my hair 1000 times (250 front, 250 back and 250 each side), put on my durag and went out to find a place to work out. I found a deserted workout room with some rusty free weights and a few old broken machines.
I smiled for the first time since checking in, got a workout in and then proceeded to pace the parking lot, watching and learning, until it was time for lunch.
There I received my second small portion of the day, again without seconds.
It didn’t take me long to notice something odd about the food situation. Few people ate at the chow hall at all. The standard way of eating seemed to be returning from a pass with copious amounts of store bought food.
I knew from the rules that we were allowed to bring back food when returning. But as a bunch of criminals soon to be released from federal custody money was tight, and while there were certainly some people with good outside support, there was clearly something going on.
The big red flag was the lack of complaints. Inmates complain often and loudly. It rarely makes a difference but there is little to lose by trying. I knew that here people would be on better behavior because of the fear of being sent back behind bars, but someone should have been complaining.
It didn’t take me long to learn how the game was being played here. The word was that the staff was stealing the food out the back, and therefore the less they served the better. A big change from prison where the inmates were the ones stealing the food, so it was circulating among us.
The man who broke it down to me then informed me it didn’t matter. The state was still taking care of us. That’s when he pulled out his wallet and from inside it what appeared to be an orange credit card and said:
“Food Stamps, Nigga. That’s how you eat”
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as “food stamps.” You could get an Orange Card with $300 worth of credit a month — that you could use at almost any grocery store.
Every single grocery store in the part of town where we were living.
Naturally it was against the rules to get one, as the state was already providing us with “adequate nutrition”. But as my clothes were quickly getting looser a supplement to my current nutrition seemed like it was worth a risk. A credit card is a small easy piece of contraband to hide from the frisking and searches.
He also gave me the system for success. There was an office out on the north side of the city. All you had to do is find a bogus reason to leave on a pass, and jet up there. It needed to be an all day reason because the lines are long. Once at that office all you needed to do was fill out an application and wait in line. When you were called they would give you a quick interview and then an Orange Card.
Since you can’t really make money in prison (the highest paid jobs got you a dollar an hour), and we weren’t filing taxes, the computer system would have you as eligible. Of course there was a catch.
You can’t tell them you have a criminal record. Because if you answer yes to that question then you also have to pass a drug test. The test wasn’t the problem, (at least for most of us), but the logistics of getting one were. The testing location was across town and there wasn’t enough time. You aren’t pulling off a bogus pass two days in a row. A gap would close the file, forcing you to restart the process.
This wasn’t really a problem though, because it was known that the computer system at this office didn’t talk to the criminal record systems. So the solution was to say “No” and the great tax paying citizens of the country would foot your grocery bill.
All I had to say when I heard this was:
“Bet. Good look homeboy.”
The most common and useful bogus pass that we had at our disposal was “Healthcare for the Homeless”. Which is where we went to get our medical care. But since it was large, overcrowded and disorganized there was no way for the Halfway House staff to make sure that you were there. You could show up in the morning, sign in, get someone to sign your paper and disappear for the day.
And since healthcare is essential it had to be really clear that you were cheating the system to have it denied.
Most of us found a reason to go about once every two weeks. I have pretty bad allergies which used to occasionally develop into sinus headaches. During this time of my life “serious symptoms” of these developed about once every two weeks, and every so often I actually stayed to get prescriptions of claritin and sudafed filled — another way to save a few dollars.
Most of my fellow inmates used these trips to go home or visit friends. Especially of the female variety. I would use most of mine visiting Barnes and Noble in Powerplant by the Inner Harbor. I could hide in a corner in a comfortable chair and read in peace, without worrying about shit poppin off.
Healthcare for the Homeless was a 2.8 miles (4.5 km) walk down Monument street. We were supposed to be able to get bus tokens for our passes out, but much like the food they were really available.
Word was that you could buy the tokens meant for us at Lexington market. On the West Side of Town.
Eventually I would figure out how to stock up on free tokens in the Halfway house, but that came after my Orange Card. So I walked or when time was short, I ran. I knew all those laps around the track in prison would pay off one day. I was conditioning for the war I expected on the outside.
The day I planned to get my Orange Card I was filled with nervous energy.
Good. It helped me move fast.
I ran to Healthcare for the Homeless, waited in line and got my paper signed. Then I ran over to the office I was told about. I arrived sweaty and smelly but I was certainly not the only one there with a stench.
After a few hours it was finally my turn and I went into the office for my interview.
Which went well until I was asked the question…
“Have you ever been convicted of a crime”
The voice in my head said “No” sticking to the plan, but the word that came out of my mouth was
Then the voice in my head exploded at me.
“You fucking idiot, you fucked up your life and you fucked this up too.”
But my face remained calm, cool and collected.
The lady interviewing me told me that I need to pass a drug test. She says “don’t worry about getting back today, you can come back tomorrow”.
The voice in my head continued to berate me.
After she wrote down the address and directions I simply told her “I will see you later today.” l then casually walk out of the room, and exit the office. Once outside I broke into a sprint, shot down the staircase and started running towards the location of the drug test.
Like a cheetah chasing his prey I know my options are success or going to sleep hungry.
I got a little lost at one point but still made good time. Upon my arrival at the second office there was another line. I impatiently waited my turn staring at the clock. Eventually I was called to take the test and my results came back as negative.
On the way back to the Food Stamp office I don’t get lost. I am sweatier and smellier than I was earlier but successfully get my Orange Card.
My thoughts now turned to getting back to the Halfway House on time. I look at the clock and realize that I have plenty of time. I smile as I realize that I can stop at the grocery store and get some grub.
I jogged until I made it to the grocery story I was familiar with the area near the Halfway House. When I walked in the door I immediately had an anxiety attack. Too bright, too many people, too many options. I stuck my hands in my pocket, looked at the floor and started shuffling around the store trying to calm down.
When I got myself together I decided that what I need is protein and carbs. I got a rotisserie chicken and an enormous bag of kettle cooked potato chips.
But as I approached the counter I could feel my heartbeat rising again. Scenarios of this victory being taken from me began running through my head.
What if the card doesn’t work for some reason.
But when my turn finally came it worked just fine.
I even got a smile from the cashier. It was as if she didn’t know that I was a felon fresh out of the feds. I left the store clutching the unfamiliar plastic bag filled with food. I sped walked the rest of the way to the Halfway House.
Before I rounded the last cored I stashed the card in my underwear. We were often searched upon returning and my new Orange Card was a valuable possession. When I walked inside the worker lazily wanded me with a metal detector and let me inside.
When I reached my room I ate until I got sick..
But my upset stomach had no effect on the smile I had on my face as I lay in bed and thought about the next steps of my plan.
I wear a scarlet letter that can never be washed off. You might believe that we live in a society where once you have paid the debt for a mistake that you made, you are allowed to resume “life”. But it is simply not true. There are unwritten punishments for felons such as “life without opportunity” and “life without justice” that help stop most of us from ever becoming productive members of society.
People often ask me what makes me so different from the majority of men who after being released from prison end up back in prison.
When I made the decision to change and make a positive impact on the world, I didn’t expect the world to help. In fact I expected the world to do everything it could to make that task impossible.
I expected the world to do everything it could to bring me back down into the pit, whether that pit was behind bars or under the ground.
Change is hard. It is impossible if you go in with the expectation that because you made a decision that the universe is going to help you. You need to expect obstacles that will make it tough, and it will always be easier to give up.
Reality is not fair. Cliches like “work hard” or “do the right thing” sound great, but are not useful in really tough situations.
I was not willing to play fair and follow the obtuse and often arbitrary rules while being taken advantage of due to my early mistakes. There was no recourse, but there was remedy.
Finding a remedy doesn’t mean taking the shortcut or easy way out though. Because of what I had done I accepted that I would need to work harder to achieve my goals.
Having to pass a drug test to receive nutritional assistance when you have a criminal record is not an unreasonable demand. I complied, even though I don’t believe that drug users should be denied state assistance, with or without a criminal history. Drug abuse is a mental health problem, the criminalizing of certain drug users is the root cause of many of the larger problems in American society today.
But that did not make it ok to lie just to avoid an inconvenient extra step. I don’t have to think that something is “right” to agree that it is reasonable. And the fact that I was being mistreated in the Halfway House also did not justify lying.
Life is not fair. You can choose to complain about the injustices of the world or you can start working to create a better one.