By Scott Merrill

Evenor Pineda (left) and Joseph Lascaze at the Manchester Police Athletic League Ball in 2022. Courtesy Photo

Upon entering the New Hampshire State Prison (NHSP) system, inmates are provided a copy of the Manual for The Guidance of Inmates – a 74-page document resembling a company handbook that outlines the rules for living in and moving through the spaces of the state’s prisons.

The book is known by prisoners as the “Big Blue Bible.”

The document outlines the intake process and includes a rules section on sexual assault, solicitation, and coercion, forbidding all sexual contact with other inmates, Department of Corrections (DOC) staff, or volunteers. There is also a long list of other offenses – including the acceptance of anything of value from anyone without permission from the warden – that can lead to a variety of disciplinary options by the State.

The 2011 manual begins with an introductory statement from the DOC commissioner reminding prisoners to maintain a “positive attitude” and “conduct themselves appropriately” while in custody and that “appropriate recognition and rewards will come to those who become involved in academic, vocational, and other self-improvement programs.”

On the front page, prisoners are reminded that a $7.00 fee will be charged for losing or failing to return the manual upon release or transfer to another institution.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Smart Justice Campaign Manager Joseph Lascaze served on the education committee, as well as the Resident Communication Committee (RCC) while incarcerated. He says the RCC had suggested the creation of a resource guide that would supplement the guidance manual and provide a more positive set of possibilities for prisoners.

“Instead of just getting the Big Blue Bible, we wanted people to receive a few positive resources framed in a rehabilitative way,” he says.

A Different Set of Rules

For Evenor Pineda, who entered the NHSP for manslaughter in 2006, the rules in the Big Blue Bible and the “rules of engagement” on the inside were starkly different.

“We had our own rules,” says Pineda. He adds that forming relationships and coming to terms with his new world led him to gravitate toward gang affiliations he’d formed before prison.

“There’s a different set of values inside and you often have to look out for number one,” Pineda says. He was released from the NHSP in 2021 and today serves as intervention program coordinator for the Manchester Police Athletic League.

He recalls times when it was in his best interest to not see something that could potentially lead to his being questioned by corrections officers. For instance, he says, if someone was getting beat up, rather than go toward the fight, he would often walk in the other direction. He could turn on socially when he needed to, but says he mostly kept to himself when first sent to prison.

“The majority of guys I associated with were people I shared a gang affiliation with,” he says. “So that was the basis of a lot of my relationships at first. People look for others to kind of co-sign or vouch for them. For them to say, ‘he’s a solid guy,’ and not a sex offender or a rat.”

Protecting his reputation at all costs was a long-time reality for Pineda, but his attitude ultimately changed. Eventually, he befriended Oliver Hooper, a 52-year-old inmate currently serving time at the NHSP in Concord after being convicted of aggravated felonious sexual assault in 2006.

Hooper, who was sentenced to 50 to 100 years, describes his initial time behind bars as an adjustment period where time slowed down.

“It’s such a sedentary lifestyle,” he says. “You really have to keep your mind straight by trying to find things to do.”

On the outside, Hooper was a salesman. When he committed his crime, his wife was seven months pregnant. Six weeks after he was incarcerated, his son was born.

“My son just recently turned 18,” he says. “So, there was a lot mentally to deal with and that’s what gets a lot of the guys in here. Being down for 19 years now, my mindset has changed. I’m actually accepting prison – the environment that I’m in right now.”

Hooper says he dealt with the stigma of his crime when he first came to prison.

“It was hard. I was on the news, and it was a well-published case,” he says, adding that never having been incarcerated, he had what prisoners call PMS, or Prison Movie Syndrome, and that everyone was out to get him. “Obviously it was nerve wracking coming to prison, especially for that length of time. But I found out quickly it wasn’t always like that.”

He says his former wife sends updates and pictures of his children, but maintaining relationships has been difficult. However, he has been involved with the Family Connection Center (FCC) for over 15 years. The program is designed for incarcerated fathers who want to build and maintain a relationship with their children while they are incarcerated.

Hooper has also played a leading role in the RCC for 10 years, which is currently working with the administration on documenting programs and education prisoners receive.

“The DOC is very good at documenting disciplinary history, but they need improvement on the rehabilitation side to show what guys are actually doing in here to better themselves and not just disciplinary tickets,” he says.

An Expanding Circle of Friends

Pineda befriended Hooper as he was drifting away from his gang affiliations and learning to overcome stereotypes.

“There were definitely times where I became friends with somebody and then came to find out they had a history, whether as a sex offender or maybe they had told on somebody or something else that was unattractive,” he says. “In which case, I was like, ‘alright, well, I’m friends with you but I still have to maintain a healthy distance.’ But with time – as well as education and personal growth – these relationships became less of a thing for me.”

Lascaze, who served 13 years in the NHSP for armed robbery, says inmates incarcerated for a substantial amount of time evolve their awareness and understanding of others’ situations. Inside prison, he explains, people encounter several different personalities and conversations on a consistent and continual basis.

“You learn about human nature in prison,” he says.

Like Pineda, Lascaze recalls how he initially gravitated toward people with charges and lifestyles like his, but that he eventually became less abrasive and isolated.

“I had no direction at first and there was a lack of services for young offenders,” he says. “I spent a lot of time, about five years of my first eight years, between disciplinary units.”

Personal Growth and the Rules of Attraction

Pineda says any miscommunication in prison can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect, which can escalate into something very ugly.

“Guys try to project a sense of ‘don’t [mess] with me,’” he says. “A lot of guys walk around with the ‘mean mug,’ the ‘ice grill,’ the ‘chow-hall-face,’ whatever you want to call it – it’s their mask.”

He recalls an instance with a close friend that expresses the heightened vigilance he experienced in prison.

“We were cellmates, and we were joking around, acting like little kids – making little kid voices,” he says. “It was very comical, and we were laughing. But then we stopped and said, ‘I wonder what everybody’s thinking about us right now who can hear us.’”

In prison, there are unspoken boundaries between groups of people and individuals that made Pineda feel a sense of safety for a while.

“If someone had wandered into our circle or wondered why we were laughing and weren’t in our circle, everybody would just look at them and without even having to say anything, they would know to get the [hell] out of there. Inside, you can’t let anybody perceive you being weak or tarnish your name,” he says.

Pineda’s personal awareness and growth didn’t happen overnight. He credits much of it to various programs and the education he received that allowed him to build a sense of confidence. One of those programs was the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).

“That program allowed me to kind of show who I was to other people because it was a group setting,” he says, adding that he began to open up and become more vocal. “Other guys just never had an opportunity to see me express myself and articulate myself. History was my thing and in one of my courses the teacher and I would have really good conversations in front of the class and guys were blown away.”

Relationships in Prison

Zebadiah Kellogg-Roe, a current inmate of the NHSP in Berlin, says that even though the Big Blue Bible strictly forbids sexual contact in the prison, it still happens. Kellogg-Roe was convicted of four counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault in 2008 and sentenced to 20 to 40 years. He has spent most of his time in C-3 (general population), except for a period during COVID-19 quarantine.

“The overwhelming message I got from the system was that I’m a bad person and I could be made an example of,” he says. “My sense, when I came to prison, was that of being thrown away. And, of course, being shamed.”

Despite prison rules, he says, relationships do take place in prison.

“There’s a separateness that happens when you’re incarcerated or institutionalized,” he says, adding the median age of the New Hampshire population is one of the oldest in the nation. “But an incredible amount of sexual frustration exists here. There’s a lot of locker room talk – a lot of homophobia that’s expressed as innuendo.”

Kellogg-Roe says it’s unfortunate the DOC has organized the social interactions in prison to preclude more intimate relationships. The State Constitution, he says, mentions the true design of incarceration being to reform, not exterminate, and he finds this comical when compared to the lack of physical tenderness prisoners experience.

Corrections Officers

Relationships with corrections officers (COs) are complicated and can depend on a person’s experiences with the justice system. Pineda recalls a workout partner who was the third generation in his family to experience institutionalization in prison.

“One of his slogans was ‘they are not your friends,’” Pineda says. “It makes sense because he was beaten on more than one occasion.”

However, Pineda says that despite the Big Blue Book’s rules about staff and inmates being proper and formal, there was friendliness.

“Over time, the officers get to see who’s who and there’s obviously some that are more open minded than others and they let their guard down a little bit and friendships do develop in there,” he says. “One officer saw my kids grow up over the years. Before I left, they were teenagers. So, he saw them grow up and that kind of strengthened that bond with them.”

Kellogg-Roe’s experience of genuine friendliness with COs is that it’s taboo.

“Basically, you’re not supposed to know them, and they’re not supposed to know you, and therefore you don’t really learn anything from them,” he says. “I mean, they may teach you various things as teachers, but I’m not going to let anybody correct me.”

Pineda’s experience with the RCC allowed him to work with the administration as a prisoner and helped him to be objective.

“I can’t come at the commission talking about how these COs are scumbags and that it’s unfair how they’re treating us,” he says. “I had to understand the macro perspective.”

Sometimes, the rules could be used to make life easier.

The Big Blue Bible says inmates are not required to shave, but for those who don’t, “facial hair length of no more than one quarter inch” is allowed. However, sculpting a beard is prohibited and may result in disciplinary action.

Pineda says one of the ways COs sometimes checked beard length was by running a credit card over a prisoner’s face. If the card caught on the person’s facial hair, he was sent to shave. He says these “beard checks” might happen before a person was scheduled to go to the visiting room, which would mean less time with friends or family. To get around this, he and several inmates applied to become Muslims, which allowed them to have longer beards.

“This bought us a few extra days and prevented some of that lost time in the visiting room,” Pineda says, explaining that the Big Blue Bible allows prisoners “the right to practice [their] faith in a way that is consistent with [their] denomination as long as it doesn’t interfere with or compromise security.”

One Day at a Time

Pineda says one of the greatest observations he made in prison is that focusing on the negative makes people age differently, saying “there are guys that look 60 or 70 years old but they’re only 40 or 50.”

Lascaze says that although his prison journey was long, he “got to a point in time where things just clicked.”

“For me, there was a fundamental understanding that I had gotten myself into this and I could get myself out, and it didn’t matter when I was released,” he says. “I adopted a mentality like someone digging trenches in World War One – they didn’t know when they would reach the end. It was the same thing for me – perseverance – digging one day at a time.”