04 December, 2018

Kiosk Chaos

Prisoners in Missouri can pay for music and download it to their new JP5s tablet, but the shopping involves a trip. And a wait to use this hideous thing.

JPay installed multipurpose kiosks just like this one in prisons throughout the state. One is in each wing of the housing units I've seen. Although the tablets have Wi-Fi connections to JPay's secure e-mail service, video transfers and monetary transactions require a physical syncing. I have to take my device downstairs, wait in line, plug in the USB cable that dangles so awkwardly from the kiosk's side, and wait a minute or so for data to be exchanged. Only then can I browse the media catalog.

The men with no imaginations and even less money seem to spend the most time on the kiosk, wishing for music they can't afford, and sampling those songs in fifteen-second intervals. The only way to hear anything on the kiosk is to lift its retro-style telephone handset to your ear and hope the wing's background noise isn't at screamy levels. Thus the bored music-samplers are not only getting a very abbreviated experience of their chosen material, the tracks' audio is also piss-poor. They're missing out quantitatively and qualitatively. This deters none of them.

Each prisoner gets a maximum of five kiosk logins per day, at ten minutes per session. It's still too much. The line forms early, usually right after the 6 AM count clears. At any given time, no fewer than two people stand waiting. This endures until evening lockdown, when guards practically have to pry someone's fingers off the metal trackball before he'll retire for the night. Whoever had been next in line has to then come to terms with squandering another stretch of time, and hope he can make it to the line earlier tomorrow.

In general, we residents of the honor dorm comport ourselves with more restraint and respect than prisoners in general population. Problems nevertheless arise. Keeping track of who's next in line gets tricky when someone promises the next spot in line to his buddy instead of the man who's been standing patiently nearby, waiting his turn. Being no doormat myself, I've had one tense exchange resulting from this. At least two confrontations over the JPay kiosks have escalated into fights in honor dorm units. In one, a man almost had an eye thumbed out of his skull. His opponent must've really, really wanted whatever song that was.

I've blogged here before about
the surprising amount of music suddenly available to me. Having some expendable funds means contemplating what amazing music I might spend them on. I'd also prefer to avoid grievous bodily harm. The most certain way that I know is to keep off the kiosk as much as possible. It's not an easy temptation to avoid.

01 December, 2018

A Poem


"I remember your son well," says one.
"We weren't friends but worked great together. He

was the perfect man to manage the front desk —
handsome and always willing to go that extra mile

for a guest." The mother smiles and nods
in the way one does, accepting condolences.

The elderly woman he's with looks elsewhere.
"How long has yours been gone?" the first mother

asks her, wincing, knowing the wound's too fresh.
The second works her toothless mouth in preparation,

then mutters, "Fifteen years last January."
She still burns a candle almost nightly,

lights a little flame for him, her youngest,
taken in his prime. And the mothers

look around them then and apprehend
the gathered. Those come to pay respects

are brothers, daughters, sisters, sons,
pals, partners, mothers too —

everyone attired for this occasion
differently. The charity jog freebie T-shirt,

the patterned dress, the hipster jeans, the inevitable
blue suit. Conversation ranges. Insurance, love

lives and lacks thereof, TV, illness, children —
one of whom looks up to see, in a flash like

a fish in an aquarium, his father's face
in the window glass. He cries out,

"Daddyyyyyy!" and the whole assembly turns
to watch him pass with Mama through

the waiting room's double steel doors.
Another family reunited for a few hours on

the prison's visiting floor.

* * * * *

The term visitation is defined by Oxford thus:

n. an official or formal visit, in particular: • (in church use) an official visit of inspection, esp. one by a bishop to a church in the bishop's diocese. • the appearance of a divine or supernatural being. • a gathering with the family of a deceased person before the funeral.
Multiple meanings of a word are like catnip for poets. I wanted to play with this one because its use by prison administrators has seeped into the vernacular. A lot of everyday people use "visitation" when they're talking about going to see little Johnny in the slammer. A lawyer or politician going to see a prisoner is one thing, but not Mom and Dad. The formality of this usage always put me off, the same way that saying "utilize" does, when "use" works perfectly well.

There are of course parallels between someone dying and someone going to prison. In the event that the sentence is life without parole (as mine is), even the courts formally acknowledge the similarity, employing the grim term "civil death" when addressing one's diminished Constitutional rights. So I set out to write "Visitation" as a poem that upends the reader's expectation — it starts out with all the trappings of a funeral gathering, then reveals the true circumstances only in the final lines. Whether or not it's successful I'll leave for you to decide.

28 November, 2018

The Icebreaker Speech

Today I completed my first project for Gavel Club: the five- to seven-minute autobiographical speech that Toastmasters International calls "the icebreaker." I brainstormed for weeks, trying to come up with the perfect gimmick for my monologue, before settling on something simple, straightforward, and maybe even good. It went a little something like this:
Good morning, Gavel Club members and guests, and our generous VIC, Mr. Curry, and thank you for this opportunity to officially introduce myself. For those of you who don't know — which is quite a few of you, since this is only my sixth meeting — my name is Byron Case.

Five days ago, I turned forty. Now, they say that age is just a number, but I remember my dad's fortieth birthday. His friends threw him a party, with black balloons and a cake in the shape of a gravestone. At least for him, forty seemed like a big deal. Maybe it is. The average male in this country lives to be about eighty. That means I'm either right at my peak or halfway to my end. The glass is half full or it's half empty.

I used to be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, through and through. "Negative" doesn't even begin. You've heard that old saying, "Every dark cloud has a silver lining"? Well, I was such a pessimist that I saw dark linings around every silver cloud. My friends even had a nickname for me: Byron the Blackhearted, Dark Cliffs upon which the Waves of Hope Break. (Ridiculous, I know, but my friends were kind of weird.) If you told me that you were getting a raise at work, I'd shoot right back with something like: "Too bad taxes will take most of it." If you announced that you were getting married, I'd probably ask, "Can I be invited to your divorce party?"

With an attitude like this, it's surprising that I had friends at all, weird or otherwise. But I don't want you thinking I was some grim character. I knew how to have a good time, and did. I had hobbies and interests. Writing, live music, dinners with friends, racing my car, reading, anything involving computers — I stayed busy. I even had a job in the hospitality industry, managing the front desk of a popular hotel in my hometown, Kansas City. What I'm saying is, terrible attitude that I had, I could still summon up a smile.

I was twenty-two when I came to prison — green as your neighbor's lawn. Before this, the closest I'd ever come to thug life was when I was fifteen and got my wallet stolen at knifepoint in the parking lot of a Wonder Bread store. I felt totally lost here. I did a lot of crossword puzzles, waiting for my appeals to make their way through the courts. At some point, though, I realized that I had to do something with myself. So I threw myself into the one favorite pastime that these circumstances allowed.

After about a year of sending my manuscripts out, I published a short story. The magazine paid me fifty-five dollars, but so much more important than that was knowing that my words were still relevant beyond the prison walls, that I could still speak and be heard by people beyond these boundaries. Writing became my lifeline, my purpose, the thing that I wake up excited for, then go to bed feeling good about. It turned my whole life around.

These days, friends call me an optimist. Some even say I'm too positive. They don't understand how anyone in my circumstances, facing life in prison without parole, can feel so much happiness. The well-being I feel today is greater than it ever was when I was free. Mr. Glass-Half-Empty is long gone. It took imprisonment for me to realize what's truly important in life, and in that way to find my purpose.

Five days ago, I turned forty. It feels like my prime. Life is good.