15 March, 2018

Scrambled Eggs with a Side of Savagery

With pillow imprints on our faces and 5 AM coffees scarcely swallowed, we file into the chow hall, take our trays, and sit. It's pointless to call them the usual crowd; Frenchie, Dave, and I surrounding the same table, in the same seats, day in and day out, like everyone else at his own table, all that ever really changes is the prison's menu.

"Morning, gents," I tell my senior-noncitizen tablemates. Or maybe it's "Greetings and salutations," or "Howdy," or an ironic "'Sup witchoo, Bloods?" We're not robots, after all, and I like to mix things up a little. "Anyone care for more toast?"

For a grizzled biker with a WHAT THE FUCK, RUN AMOK tattoo, Frenchie's got decorum to rival Emily Post. "I would," he says. "But just one slice, thank you. May I have some of that jelly, too?"

Frenchie sporks grape jelly off my tray, pinkie extended like a well-bred lady at tea, as I offer Dave the other slice. Even with teeth, the pale rubbery squares that masquerade as toast around here are a challenge to gnaw apart. I'm not shocked that toothless Dave declines.

The three of us salt and pepper our mess of eggs. Frenchie butters his eggs and lays his toast on top — a trick picked up from bygone cohort Jim (of the Old-Man Table, who transferred before Christmas). Eggs hold heat better than bread, so the margarine melts onto his toast, but the arrangement makes me think of building a sand castle. I toss Dave my five packets of sugar. He empties them into his oatmeal and drowns the lot in skim milk. We tuck in.

Not halfway through the fifteen-minute meal, the chow hall goes quiet. Around me, other prisoners prairie-dog, rising from their seats to get a better view. I hear that familiar arrhythmic squeak-squeak of sneaker soles on concrete: a fight.

I turn without getting up and see a couple of guys in state-issued grays and brown duck coats dancing around each other like boxers in the ring, but the lion's share of the action here's already over. Guards swarm from every direction to break it up, and both combatants surrender without fuss.

"Wasn't much of a fight," says Dave, while the scufflers are handcuffed and led to opposite sides of the chow hall.

I point out that one guy's eye is bleeding profusely. "He caught at least one good blow."

Two guards escort him out past our table. A rivulet of dark blood forks down his left cheek, jaw, and neck. He's squinting as though they'd sprayed him with Mace, yet no one had.

"A knife," mutters someone nearby.

So, he'd been stabbed in the eye. Once he was out, guards led his assailant through the same door. This one's boastful posture and smirk belong to a man who's just accomplished something big, but no one cheers as he makes his exit.

Dave makes a noncommittal grunt before attending again to his milky, oversweetened mess. Frenchie and I exchange a glance, then go back to our breakfast.

"What're they serving tomorrow morning, do you guys know?" asks Frenchie, after a bit. As if it matters.

28 February, 2018

Tablet PCs for Missouri Prisoners Will Be a Mixed Bag

After learning, four years ago, that the Keefe Corporation was selling prisoners tablet PCs and offering secure service to go with them, I wrote, "When Will Missouri Let Its Prisoners Join the Electronic Conversation?" Not that anyone at the Department of Corrections back then actually read my post, but a new Director of the Division of Adult Institutions did express an interest in acquainting prisoners with technology, which seems to have been the driving force behind the recent announcement that 2018 will be, for those of us imprisoned in Missouri, the year of the tablet.

A multi-page FAQ about the JP5s — the tablet that prison profiteers Jpay will soon issue us free of charge — went up on Crossroads' bulletin boards a while back. It verified a lot of speculations I made when Jpay became the state's contracted provider of online money transfers and "print-and-deliver" e-mail services for prisoners. (Let it never be said that I can't read the tea leaves.) Some things surprised me, though.

The tablets' promised features include:
  • secure e-mail (with image and "VideoGram" attachments available on incoming messages);
  • music and e-book downloads (with movie and game downloads as a behavior-based privilege);
  • KA Lite videos;
  • individualized assignments from education instructors;
  • some variety of daily news feed;
  • electronic access to the prison health and grievance systems, as well as caseworker communications; and
  • (eventually) phone service.
Jpay kiosks set up in the prisons will make video visits available, too.

Except for the education material (which apparently doesn't include the e-books), all of these things will cost money. Prisoners will pay 25¢ to send an e-mail, and who knows how much to download a song from what Jpay brags is "the largest music catalog available in corrections." The state says that its take from these features won't contribute to the DOC's general revenue but stay in the Offender Canteen Fund, which covers things like gym equipment, games and kids' toys for the visiting room, cable TV, and library books — all funded solely with markups on products sold in the prison canteens.

Prisons are full of people with addictive personalities and poor impulse control. Tablet PCs are going to be the best pacifier the DOC has ever seen. With their slack faces aglow above bluish screens, thousands of prisoners will join the ranks of the device-dependent, zombified and utterly inert except for their swiping, tapping, hovering index fingers, too entranced to kick up a fuss. I hope it renders them at least partially mute, also. I could use some peace and quiet.

As far as how a tablet will change my prison existence for the better, well, I'm looking forward to doing away with much of snail mail's delay, and if the Jpay app and website allow for cutting and pasting of text at the recipients' end these blog posts will become a hell of a lot more timely. Because the music I most enjoy tends to be pretty far outside the mainstream, I do worry that my listening pleasures will be diminished. (Somehow it seems unlikely that I'll find the Bolshoi, Xiu Xiu, or even Zola Jesus in Jpay's catalog. We'll see.) Depending on the educational videos' subjects and sophistication, that could be interesting, but I'm not holding my breath.

The rollout's going to take a while. No specific date's been announced. The bureaucracy first has to amend many long-standing DOC policies, and Governor Eric Greitens even has to get involved, revoking the 2007 executive order I posted about the effects of here, which was issued by a predecessor who thought video games and R-rated movies were somehow responsible for prisoner's continued bad behavior.

There is an incentive for the powers that be to quickly get their ducks in a row, though. A settlement between the DOC and a Missouri prisoner led to the Department banning all tobacco products and smoking/vaping accoutrements in its so-called correctional centers. Testy convicts with one less distraction and a dwindling number of incentives to play nice might prove to be more of a handful than 37,000 five-inch tablets.

16 February, 2018

The Whistling Plague

Those cherubic heads drawn in the corners of old maps, representing the four winds, with their puckered lips and Louis Armstrong cheeks? The little man who moved into my wing a few weeks back makes the same face but contributes nothing aesthetically pleasing by doing so. In fact, his presence only taints the already iffy wing ambiance.

Can a person ever be said to whistle aggressively? To rephrase: can someone whistle in such a way that the sound constitutes a deliberate imposition, a taunt, a challenge — a sonic fuck you to all within earshot? This loud little prick seems to spend all day blaring a tuneless mess out of his face. And now he's not alone.

Bad behavior is contagious. Suddenly, every guy running around with a chip on his shoulder has a song in his heart that he wants to share, however inartfully.

Noise is, across personality types and constitutions, a universal irritant. The louder it is, the more stress it induces. Ask the abused detainees of Abu Ghraib prison about AC/DC, or Navy SEALS about Hell Week's cacophony, or Manuel Noriega about the heavy-metal onslaught of his compound by U.S. forces' loudspeakers in 1989 — prolonged exposure to high-volume sound will drive you out of your mind.

Because of my neurological "complications," whistling of any volume or musical competency is generally on par with the smell of baby powder or, perhaps more relatably, biting a nice, big piece of aluminum foil. I dislike most of the people in my wing anyway. They act as if the world owes them something; they disregard the most common courtesies. The eruption of largely atonal whistling by people whose presence was already powerfully unpleasant is just shit-icing on the turd cake.

Why whistle in public at all? Like humming or singing to onself, it's a form of expression that's okay when you're alone — and basically not at any other time. Consider that no sane, reasonable human would, say, walk through their workplace honking at random. How is whistling different? In whose mind is whistling as piercingly as possible acceptable? And yet I am surrounded on all sides by those oblivious to their own behavior, and those too arrogant to care who's put off by it. Either failing goes a long way toward an explanation of why they're in prison in the first place.

Patient Zero, the small-statured man who brought the Whistling Plague upon us, moved in two months after someone assaulted him. He threatened and insulted a man using "his" shower, and that man leapt out, stark naked and dripping, to beat him down. Maybe someone else will get fed up with his dissonance, but even if I were that lucky there'd still be the remaining infected. My only hope against the Whistling Plague is my over-the-ear headphones.