Voices
Krieg Barrie/WORLD

The small things

Honesty is the best policy no matter where you are

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

Today was our twice-monthly store day when we pick up the orders we've put in the week prior. Our order comes in a large, sealed, clear plastic bag. Policy states we are to check before opening the bag, to determine that we received everything. If we got shorted something but have already opened the bag, it's our loss.

I didn't order much this week, so it was a pretty easy task to check that my bag contained the two packs of batteries, oatmeal, and coffee-plus envelopes. Some time after having emptied my bag, it occurred to me that I had never checked my receipt. To my amazement, I discovered I had been charged for not two packs of batteries but 22-for a grand total of $46 and change. Policy being what it is, and the money being deducted from our account prior, I could only pray that my return to the store lady would be met with credulity.

She was not at the window when I arrived, but rather the guard who assists her on store day pick-ups. When I explained to him, he asked me if I'd opened the bag. I told him I had, to which he responded, "Well, looks like you're hit," while handing back my receipt. I kept my cool as he turned away, and said, "Look, that's over 40 bucks you guys mistakenly took out of my account. I can't afford that kind of an error."

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"Well, I'll ask her," said he, "but you know what the policy is." He returned a few minutes later and told me to step down to the next window.

There is a little moral in this story-which is why, beyond just sharing my day with you, I am telling you-and it is just this: Honesty is the best policy. You see, about a month ago I had ordered two boxes of oatmeal. When I got back to my unit I discovered three in my bag, yet had only been charged for two. All my cellies told me to count it a blessing, to keep it as repayment for the several times I've been shorted.

But no, I couldn't do that, so I asked the officer for a pass to go back to the store. When I explained my reason for needing to go back to the store, he was shocked. It was beyond his comprehension that a criminal would be honest. He wrote the pass, handed it to me, and said, "Just for that I'm going to knock two days off your LOP ["Loss of Privileges"]. So there was an immediate payoff, though one I wasn't looking for.

The bigger payoff came today when the store lady saw who it was that was making this unprovable claim of a $40 overcharge. After all, for all she knew there could have been 22 packs of batteries in the bag; the bag had been opened and emptied.

But when she saw it was me-the guy who had walked a half mile back to the store to return a $2 box of oatmeal I hadn't paid for-she said, "Mr. Peterson, do you know what the policy is?"

"Yes, ma'am, my fault. I saw the two packs and didn't notice the $46 charge on the receipt until after I opened the bag."

"OK, Mr. Peterson, I'll have this straightened out for you by Friday," said she. This would never have happened in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's wildest opium dreams had I not been "faithful in the small things," as prisoners are never taken at their word about anything. So as it turned out, a $2 matter of conscience a month ago saved me from a $40 loss today. God be praised!

Not that I share this story as a way of self-exultation: I did nothing special but only what was right, yet God honored it and so I honor Him. Beyond this, my cellies witnessed a good lesson today. When I had left here in hope of remedying the matter by talking to the store lady, they were like, "Yeah, right, good luck." When I returned triumphant, the first thing said by one of them was, "That would have never happened if you hadn't taken that box of oatmeal back a while ago. She probably remembered you." Yes indeed.

-David Alan Peterson is an inmate at a prison in Michigan

David Alan Peterson
David Alan Peterson

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