16 September, 2019

Showering in Prison Just Got a Little Less Luxurious


You've seen movies where prisoners stand naked, elbow to elbow, and soap up in a large steamy room lined with showerheads. Rooms like these are the source of that old "joke" about dropping the soap. Many old-timey hoosegows still employ that shower-with-a-shank model, but the Prison Rape Elimination Act that George W. Bush signed into law aimed to eliminate such dicey settings. Prisons being built today don't have shower rooms like this. The Missouri DOC's response to PREA includes policy mandating shower doors and curtains — all to the benefit of guys like me, who don't care for showering with one eye open and our backs to the wall.

At Crossroads (which is now temporarily closed), and here at ERDCC, each prisoner bathes in an individual stall. The cinder block walls go all the way up. There's a modicum of privacy, thanks to a thick gray vinyl curtain. Creepy peepers will still walk too close and peep over — it's what the so-called shower sharks do — but at least my bare white ass isn't exposed to the entire wing. I can push the button and close my eyes and let the cares of the day wash down through the big brass Smith Company drain grate.

Yes, I can push the button, for there are no knobs for turning the shower on or off, nor for adjusting the water temperature. There's only that single stainless steel button, and the water that flows when you press it is whatever temperature it happens to be. You won't know for sure until you're under the stream. It stays on for a predetermined period, thanks to an electronic timer. However long you need to soap up and rinse your face — it's about half a minute shorter than that. Then, like a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey While Streams of Watery Soap Sting Your Eyes (everyone's favorite!), you blindly poke around for that damn button.

This was how it was for the longest time, and still I looked forward to showering, to the feeling of washing away the day's vicissitudes, and to those warm minutes of quasi-solitude. Last week, though, my daily respite took a hit. As part of a big-time money-saving plan, ERDCC maintenance workers just installed delays on all of the showers. Now, when my blind button-hunts end, I've got to wait twenty seconds before pressing it does any good. Standing there, soapy, blind, and shivering, I can mash that button all I want, but there'll be no more water until it's time.

I'm enjoying my showers a lot less than I used to. On the bright side, what water I get is warm more often than not. There's also no limit on how many times I can press the button to get clean. Not yet, anyway.

06 September, 2019

Prison Politics Aren't What You Think They Are

A general public sense exists of people in prison being ignorant of goings-on in the wider world. I get this all the time, friends asking if I've heard of a particular well-known app, if I'm informed about the scandal du jour, or if I understand a certain new slang term. Sure, there's a lot that I miss by being locked up, but I have my own TV, subscriptions to numerous magazines, and a diverse social circle. I probably stay better informed than the average prisoner.

Until my 2001 arrest, I was very politically engaged. I had followed the latest presidential election very closely, attended political demonstrations, took fervent interest in civic matters, and frequently discussed local, national, and world politics with passion. (For context: my best friend went on to master in political science at Berkeley, and my ex-roommate became the administrator of a Planned Parenthood clinic.) Finding myself in prison didn't diminish my enthusiasm. I still listened to news on the radio, watched the twenty-four-hour channels in my cell, and conversed about policy and law with anyone willing to engage me on political matters. The lead-up to the 2016 presidential election changed everything.

Maybe it was a matter of feeling disenfranchised and so far outside of the system. Maybe it was turning forty and realizing that (to paraphrase Emerson) the crack of doom heard around the country was nothing but the noise of a pop gun. Maybe it was a lack of patience with the infantile puling and name-calling of the candidates. I turned off my TV with disgust one day and swore off all politics. When I realized that you can't, in this country, follow any news without getting at least a little of the slime of something political splattered on you, I gave up news media altogether. My news blackout enters its fourth year next month.

That big social circle I mentioned includes some who are very keen on politics. I don't have any problem voicing displeasure when they bring up a subject I studiously refuse to engage with them on. By and large, they respect my boundaries without complaint. However, in prison, it's said that there are no secrets. People talk. And as hard as I try, a guy can't help overhearing things.

Ours are highly politicized times. I have no scientific basis for what I'm about to say, but there might well be more people in prison who take an interest in politics, per capita, than there are in the free world. Arguments spring up around me throughout the day, and I can't go a week without hearing mention of either the president's staggering inhumanity or his greatness of character. "Democrats!" one will spit. "Republicans!" another will growl. Asked where I stand on the issues of the day, I resort to my stock reply, "I heard that the price of tomatoes has fluctuated again." If pressed for an answer, I ask my inquisitor who he'll be voting for in the next senate race — a practice that, more often than not, shames him into adopting another, less fraught subject.

Again quite unscientifically, it seems to me that the average prisoner here in Missouri leans Republican or identifies as a very conservative Independent. Those inclined to a Democratic perspective tend to be so more out of obligation, due to labor union ties, than because of progressive values. As far as apolitical prisoners are concerned, they tend to like the promises of Donald Trump quite a lot — particularly his anti-immigration stance — although none of his fans seem capable of enumerating any specific decisions or actions of note that the president has actually taken.

I hear this hasn't been a good year for tomatoes.

23 August, 2019

Canteen Day


Buying a few necessities in prison, at least at ERDCC, is less like popping down to the corner market than like calling ahead for your groceries and then, days later, standing out in the rain or hail or broiling sun, awaiting your pick-up. It's not ideal.

On Saturday mornings, every man's issued one toilet paper roll and tiny bar of soap. Call me greedy, but I insist on having a toothbrush, some toothpaste to squeeze onto it, and soap that doesn't give me a rash. Lotion's also very nice to have. So is coffee. At least the prison canteen offers an alternative to state-supplied sundries, even if it is overpriced.

The State of Missouri provides each prisoner a minuscule stipend every month ($8.50 for a high-school graduate), minus a percentage toward a mandatory savings account he'll collect upon release. I, on the other hand, have a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, and therefore no release date toward which the state can withhold money. I get my full stipend. Lucky me.

The canteen sells virtually everything prisoners are allowed to possess — acne cream and alarm clocks, Top Ramen and acetaminophen, TVs and towels, snacks and socks — a variety rivaled only by very well stocked truck stops. I've blogged about a few items in the canteen's inventory, but the full list of products sold here is several pages long. My staples are peanuts, instant Folgers, mackerel, and rice. I've also got a history with Werther's Originals and enjoy having a bag of them on hand when I can afford to.

Twenty-four hours is the cutoff for placing an order before canteen day. I prefer to lock mine in early. A touchscreen kiosk in the wing tells me in real time if the canteen's sold out of a particular item. They're perpetually out of something, and it's not always Little Debbie snack cakes. For my first three months at ERDCC, ink pens and typing paper were unavailable. Seventeen years' imprisonment has taught me to keep at least one month's worth of stuff on hand. You never know when a chink will appear in the supply chain.

My housing unit picks up canteen during our Wednesday afternoon recreation period. On a slow week, about hundred and fifty people gather on a grassy area at the center of the yard and listen for their names to be called over a loudspeaker. Once it is, they show their ID at the canteen window to collect their prepacked bag (or bags) of stuff.

There's no shade or shelter where we wait. That's why, on Sundays, I check the Weather Channel forecast. I was once bruised by hail on one arm and cut on the other, waiting to collect my order. That was unforeseen. If it's apt to be sunny and hot, though, I don't spend unless supplies are low. All this week, heat indexes are in the hundreds — brutal for someone as intolerant of summer temperatures as I am, but I'll risk a sunburn before I risk running out of dental floss.

At the kiosk in my wing, three days ago, I entered the four-digit code for each item I wanted to buy. As a creature of habit, I know them by heart. Coffee went up 10% last month. Thank goodness it's still a luxury within my means. I'm even able to splurge this week, thanks to a certain someone's generosity. The code for donut sticks is 1723, the only code I have to look up.

Over the loudspeaker in my wing, a guard announces that the yard's open for afternoon rec. That's the cue to grab my cheap Chinese sunglasses (code 1459) and go. The last time I waited for canteen was on a nice, cloudy day, and mine was the very last of about two hundred names called. It's a sunny 100° today. I wonder how bad the odds are that I'll be called first.