02 July, 2020

Prison Race Relations in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter

As demonstrations sweep cities around the world, as monuments are pulled down, as rioters run roughshod and arsonists set buildings ablaze, as a dangerous pandemic sweeps through the world, as citizens sit at home, either out of work or working too much, and the grind of domesticity, of children, of spouses, of the hobgoblins of their own boredom and self-doubt, wears at the last shreds of their ability to cope, the message that penetrates prison's walls and razor-wire fences is this: it's bad out there.

It's bad in here, too — worse than usual. We worry about our loved ones, about their health and their jobs and their homes. Since most of the staff seem to care about their political alignment too much to wear a piece of cloth on their faces, we worry about getting sick ourselves. We worry about our neighbors' every sneeze or cough, about the general lack of adequate cleaning supplies, and about cohabitating, for an average of twenty-two hours each day, in a space the size of a home bathroom, usually with a near-stranger who likely committed some heinous crime and doesn't have our best interests at heart. We get few exercise opportunities, fewer opportunities to call the people we care about. We're afforded limited access to showers. And now we worry about racial tensions — a significant prison problem in even the best of times — flaring.

I wasn't at ERDCC in 2016, when riots rocked Ferguson, Missouri, fifty-odd miles north-northeast of here, but anyone who was could describe the tension that gripped the prison during that period of unrest. Any prisoner putting his hands up — whether or not he intended to signify "Don't shoot!" — was immediately whisked away to the Hole, under fear of him trying to incite something. Outside circumstances had the prison administration jumpy. What's discussed in meetings here now, I can only speculate. This climate of uncertainty at least has the prison population more sensitive than usual, particularly to matters of race.

On the yard last week, I heard a man preaching to several younger prisoners. He told them, "The white man is not your friend." He said, "The white man is pure evil." He looked right at me with such a look of unabashed hatred as he said it; although, I've only ever seen him around the yard from a distance. How should I feel about this?

Another person, a neighbor with whom I'd never spoken, let alone treated with less respect or cordiality than I give every other stranger, approached me, smiling like a child with a secret, to say, "You're a racist." With wide-eyed bewilderment, I asked, "What makes you say that?" His answer was a shrug as he turned and walked away. What would've been a more appropriate way of handling this exchange?

I hear racist remarks all the time, from prisoners of many races. Sometimes they're "jokes." Sometimes they're mumbled slurs. Sometimes they're aggressive taunts. I don't deal well with racial discrimination, nor hate speech. I speak out in criticism of them — I always have. My list of reasons for disdaining small-mindedness is decades long.

I've been mocked. I've been harassed. I've been discriminated against. I've been ostracized. I've been targeted by security guards and police. I've been physically assaulted. I've spent the last nineteen years of my life corralled, demeaned, and dietarily and intellectually malnourished within maximum-security prisons, at least partly because of the way others have perceived me. I hear the cries for justice going up, and I say, "I feel your pain." My differences can't be seen on my skin, but the frustration and suffering that comes with being "other" is very real to me.

Growing up with an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder, I used to get so frustrated that I couldn't make myself fully understood, that my heartfelt intentions and desires couldn't be picked up telepathically by everyone around me. Why did I need to explain my thoughts so often? Why were my intentions consistently misread? This imbued a fundamental feeling of unbelonging, which sank into my bones, ultimately becoming as deep and integral as an identity. Being different, my mother cautioned me at an early age, would be difficult, that my "gifts" would be weights that bore down when others felt confused or threatened by them. My mother, the prophetess.

Civil-rights activist Jan Willis writes, in an article for the Buddhist publication Lion's Roar, "The root of this problem is the very root cause of [suffering] itself, namely, the overexaggerated investment we each make in our respective Is." Until we are able to relinquish our obsession with conditioned identities — the idea that these things that make me me are somehow better or worse than those things that make her her, or him him — and that our identity is precious and unique, rather than a fragile soap bubble that conditions have blown a certain way but that ultimately is made up of the same stuff as every other precious and unique bubble, we're going to encounter division and strife.

Addressing a recent viral video of racism in action, in his recent personal essay, "Homecoming", the writer Hilton Als echoes Willis's point, imploring readers facing discrimination or harassment, "Listen to yourself, not to your accuser, because your accusers are always listening to their own panic about your presence. And if what they are saying — or shouting — threatens your personal safety, protect yourself by any means necessary. If you can protect yourself, you'll be around to love and take care of more people, and be loved and taken care of in return."

On the two days last week when those men made me the target of their frustrations, I didn't take it especially personally. I understand how frustration demands an outlet, and that the more intense the feeling, the more forcefully it demands. Better those men's ire fall on me, I thought, than someone with a chip on his shoulder, a fragile ego, or something to prove. But that misunderstood sense from childhood did arise. Strange to feel it after such a long time. I even wondered, Why me? Can't they see I'm not like that? I ought to have known better. As if any of us wears ourselves on our skin!

25 June, 2020

The COVID-19 Shutdown of ERDCC


With last week's COVID-19 testing out of the way, a total of thirty-odd prisoners and employees show positive for the novel coronavirus. The warden and the Department of Corrections alike assure us that these people have been removed from the general population, with staff quarantining at home and the prisoners isolated in two specially designated units.

And what of the people who might've had contact with the infected in the week and a half that passed before all the test results came in? The administration has a solution to that, too. Every wing that housed someone who tested positive is now under quarantine. As I write this, two wings of 1-House, three wings of 3- and 4-House, and all of 2-, 5-, and 6-House are confined to those locations. The rest of us are beginning out third month on daily five-cell rotations — only ten people out at a time, for a half hour or less.

Staff are required to wear masks and gloves anytime they walk into a wing on quarantine status. In my house, they wear their gloves but usually don't change them after leaving a quarantine wing, such as when they hand out our mail or search our cells. As with so many other standard operating procedures here, I have to wonder, What's the point? The administration's ideas might look good on paper, but in practice they're fouled up beyond sense.

Like most prisons throughout history, this facility relies heavily on the labor of the people confined to it. The mass moves forced on ERDCC's population, consolidating specific types of laborers in specific wings, thereby putting all of the institution's eggs in one basket, have now come back to bite the administration in the ass. Naturally, no prisoner was afforded a voice at the meeting where they ratified that terrible decision, so I can't really say "I told you so," but I did predict that moving all canteen workers, laundry workers, and factory workers into a single wing would cause problems sooner than later. Now, here we are.

With the population of just a few wings able to move around the institution, the slack has to be taken up by volunteers. Line servers in the dining halls are working extra shifts, as are cooks and dishwashers. This week's canteen orders have been packed and delivered to the quarantined units by an all-volunteer crew. Laundry is being done by an interim group of interim workers. A caseworker came through my wing, door to door, asking for assistance on behalf of the overtaxed kitchen.

The facility is as close to a standstill as possible without actually imposing a full lockdown. Meanwhile, as the number of cases continues to rise, the State of Missouri's opening up. If life at ERDCC is this restrictive now, what's going to happen when the virus really hits here?

20 June, 2020

Fourteen Books I Spent My Spring Reading


Brace yourself. My reading, these past three months, was intense. Most of it was nonfiction. At one point, though, I started reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, which is reportedly among the great Russian novelist's most esteemed works, and passed page 183 before realizing that the book wouldn't move past the sitting room. I love Dostoyevsky's other works — The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment — but the mannered doings and misunderstandings of prerevolutionary Russia's upper class, which seem to comprise the entirety of The Idiot's plot, reminded me a little of Anna Karenina, a book that tortured me for 800-plus pages. I was not going to live through that again.

Buddhist works, with their often repetitious nature, sometimes plod along, but at least I feel like I'm growing when I read them, rather than just growing moldy.

Consider Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination, an interpretation that I can definitely get behind. The Buddhist concept of dependent origination (also called "dependent arising," "interdependency," or any number of variations on this, based on who's translating Paticcasamuppada, a Pali term), refers to the Buddha's realization of the origins of suffering. In this book, Buddhadasa Bhikku cites ancient Pali sutras to boldly dispute the common Buddhist belief that one complete "turning of the wheel," an individual's attainment of enlightenment, takes three lifetimes. In plain English, he argues that reincarnation is a mythical remnant of the Hindu culture amid which Buddhism arose. He writes that this misunderstanding can be traced back to a mistranslation of the Pali word for "birth" that happened two millennia ago, circa 300 CE. To support this theory, Buddhadasa quotes multiple canonical passages attributed to the Buddha, but, really, the argument comes down to this: because Buddhist belief holds that there is no self, inherent being, or soul, what can be said to continue on after bodily death? Buddhadasa suggests that we "die" and are "reborn" with every moment, a marvelous flow of conditions stretching on and on, for as long as we do — you know, life.

The Soto Zen perspective in Grace Schireson's memoir, Naked in the Zendo: Stories of Uptight Zen, Wild-Ass Zen, and Enlightenment Wherever You Are, offered still more for me to enthusiastically engage with. Dr. Schireson's practical anecdotes, spanning her three decades' teaching and seven decades' living, are often deceptively simplistic. Her account of a Japanese teacher and hippie student's interaction at one particular retreat left me awed. Her story of a stray tomcat that terrorized her own feline friends inspired me as a small example of perfect magnanimity. Naked in the Zendo is a thin book that's much, much larger on the inside.

America in the 1960s was just being introduced to Buddhism, and, midway through that decade, Philip Kapleau returned from thirteen years of Zen training in Japan to compile The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment as an introduction to the practice for Westerners. His book is still considered Zen's most influential English-language text, next to Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (which I really want to read). Kapleau delves into esoterica, including practitioners' self-reported kensho (budding enlightenment) experiences, which Westerners probably ate up because they saw Zen as a mystical practice from an exotic place. Eventually those seekers probably fell away as they learned that Zen is actually a pragmatic, subtle thing quite at odds with their expectations. Alongside transcriptions of once-secret dokusan teacher-student interactions, however, The Three Pillars of Zen does offer sound, detailed practical instructions for developing skillful meditation practice. For all the book's shortcomings, it did answer a lot of my questions. It just raised even more.

After that, I read Riding the Ox Home: Stages on the Path of Enlightenment — essentially a short picture book by John Daido Loori.



The ten Ox-Herding Pictures (that's Scene Five, above) and their accompanying poems are considered a 500-year-old map to how one develops in Buddhist practice. The ox here is a metaphor for enlightenment. Daido Loori presents his usual clear, concise commentary at each step. The overall effect is inspiring for anyone engaged in Zen practice.

I also appreciated Daido Loori's overview in The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training. This book details the ways of the monks, trainees, and students at Zen Mountain Monestery, which Daido Loori founded and where he taught until his 2009 death. The Eight Gates of Zen addresses Zen practice with the author's typical poetic perspective. I loved his writing, as well as the helpful appendices that included a zazen checklist, lists of liturgies that readers can employ, and a long list of recommended reading organized by level of depth and complexity, so that anyone, from newcomers to more advanced students, can locate suitable material.

The question of why I don't claim M. John Harrison as my favorite SF writer is complicated, and it came up several times as I read his gorgeous little novel Signs of Life, a gift from the kind Constance M., whose acquaintance I'm very glad to have made. (Thanks again, Connie.) Harrison's deep characterization, in works whose prose rivals fine literary novels, sparks an emotional attachment that few other writers are capable of engendering. Signs of Life almost made me weep with its narrator's longing and frustration. That character's difficult, complex friendship with an erratic sociopath, and unrequited love affair with a moon-eyed dreamer seem to doom him from the start, and the book's all the more engaging for this. It bears mentioning, too, that the great majority of Signs of Life reads nothing like sci-fi. There were moments when I wondered how it got labeled as genre fiction at all. The answer comes late, and almost subtly. As for not considering Harrison my favorite, it comes down to pure unfamiliarity. Maybe once I read everything else he's done....

In The Buddha's Dream of Liberation: Freedom, Emptiness, and Awakened Nature, James William Coleman, cofounder of the White Heron Sangha, in San Luis Obispo, California, examines the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, the Sutra of the of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets. This sounds like what cloaked figures in a 1970s Hammer Films production might use in black-magic rituals; it's actually a breakdown of the three turnings of the wheel of dharma, on which Buddhist teachings are based.

The first turning was the Buddha's introduction of the four noble truths (that life has suffering, that the cause of suffering is craving/attachment, that there is a remedy to life's suffering, and that that remedy is the noble eightfold path). The second turning was the Buddha's revelation that he, in fact, had nothing at all to teach anyone. The third turning was the Buddha's clarification of the apparent contradiction between the first and second turnings, by describing awakened (small b) buddha nature, which is the ultimate realization and embodiment of the dharma. Coleman's book, The Buddha's Dream of Liberation, gives a concise, comprehensible, and seemingly comprehensive unpacking of these tricky concepts.

Albert Camus might best be known to college undergrads as that dude who wrote about an Algerian man who's shot dead on the beach for no reason (that novel being his first, The Stranger). The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a slew of noncollegia readers to buy his novel The Plague. I'd already read some Camus in years past, both fiction and non-, and thought this period of social isolation was as good an excuse as any to join the mob — as it was translated by Stuart Gilbert. Other than being a little musty, with outmoded spellings and euphemisms, there's a lot here to identify with. I wrote a little on this subject in an April blog post on prison quarantine, so I won't retread that ground here. Suffice it to say that the novel is quite good, regardless of how one reads it — or in what proximity to a pandemic.

Almost inevitably, I circled back around to John Daido Loori. His Cave of Tigers: The Living Zen Practice of Dharma Combat deepened my understanding of Zen, with transcriptions of real teacher-student encounters at Zen Mountain Monastery. Despite its name, "dharma combat" is a nonviolent encounter in which students face their teacher in public one-on-one exchanges that demonstrate their understanding of Zen. Because they defy dualistic, linear thought, these exchanges might seem confounding, mysterious, profound, or even asinine to an outsider. They struck me as all of those, at different times, but I came away feeling much more aware within my practice.

Plainspoken talks by Charlotte Joko Beck, at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, make up Everyday Zen: Love & Work. Beck's teaching style was straightforward, no-nonsense, and lacking the inscrutable qualities others teachers' lessons often have. She didn't talk much about enlightenment, the precepts, or koans. Instead, she was interested in conveying the essential nature of practice, usually in the form of sitting zazen. As the book's title implies, there are no esoteric teachings here; this is Zen for daily living, because Zen, after all, is daily living.

Zen Training, by the Japanese lay practitioner Katsuki Sekida, answers fundamental questions about the methods and philosophy of Zen, from the physiologies of sitting and breathing, to working with the koan Mu and comprehending the levels and varieties of consciousness. There's even a whole chapter on laughter. Sekida left little out, and his modern approach, while methodical, affords just the right amount of flexibility. This book would kick-start any logical thinker's Zen practice. Quite a bit here also enriches the existing practice of one who lacks a teacher.

After coming to the US in 1959 to teach, Shunryu Suzuki became an influential figure in the development of American Zen Buddhism. His Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, mentioned above, is considered a cornerstone English-language text on the subject. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai collects his lectures about the 1,200-year-old Chinese poem, the Sandokai, by the great Zen master Sekito Kisen. The wisdom found in the poem earned it the status of Zen scripture. Monasteries around the world regularly chant it, and its final couplet ("I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, / do not pass your days and nights in vain.") is often written on the wooden board that's struck to signal the beginning of group meditation. Meanwhile, Suzuki's affable teachings guide readers through the poem, line by line, to help us understand, and maybe penetrate, its layers of meaning.

Finally, in the mood for some silliness, I picked up the Tom Robbins novel Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. Although I distinctly recall the comic novels Jitterbug Perfume and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues sitting beside brainier fare on my father's bookshelf, I didn't read Robbins until the year before last. I was amused, once I did. And I zipped through the 445 pages of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates this week. It amused me, but I don't necessarily recommend it. Some books are like that. This one's about a degenerate Buddhist ex-CIA "errand boy" who eats his grandmother's parrot while under the effects of a powerful hallucinogenic drug in Peru, ends up wheelchair-bound by a shamanic curse, seduces his underage stepsister, and, on a mission to Iraq for an American gunrunner, falls in love with an excommunicated expatriated middle-age French nun — one hell of a trip, for sure.