04 August, 2020

You Can't Polish a Turd, but a You Can Polish a Rusty Desk


Friday's mass move by my wing to another housing unit was the one, in my nineteen years' experience of moving cells, for which I was best prepared. This isn't to say that this go-round was especially easy, nor in any way fun, but it went off much, much better than most.

I have my neighbors to thank. While most people in the wing made do with what tiny containers they already had, the guys next door found several moving boxes to pack our stuff in. We also had an array of cleaning supplies at our disposal, for scrubbing and wiping away the filth of our new cells' previous occupants. We had improvised drain plugs for janky sinks, and extra shoelaces and twist-ties for bundling errant power cords and co-ax cables. Someone found a bottle of glue, for securing handy wall hooks. Someone else scored a bottle of floor wax, which, in a fine display of prison ingenuity, proved useful for sealing the large and copious rust spots covering the desks, thereby keeping shirtsleeves and skin from picking up orange smears of iron oxide every time they brush the desks' surfaces. You make use of what you have.

Not all wings are equal, and our new habitat has other minuses as well. At the moment you walk through the front door, the telephone situation becomes apparent. Rather than being mounted at a respectable distance from one another, like they are everywhere else, all four phones here are clustered on one side of the wing. Their placement is unfortunate for reasons of privacy and social distancing alike. If I can reach over and touch my neighbor's shoulder in the midst of a call, overhear the sweet nothings he's whispering to his boo, or take the brunt of his uncovered sneeze (because, despite COVID-19 and the disapproval of society at large, there are definitely people still guilty of committing that unhygienic atrocity), it should go without saying that we're too close.

Telephone proximity aside, this new wing is actually different from our old one in several ways. The doors are everyone's favorite of them. The housing unit where I spent the last year and a half used to be an administrative-segregation unit. Its boxcar-style sliding doors, whose bang upon opening was a hazard for anyone with a heart problem or some type of incontinence, frazzled many nerves. Anytime my door popped open, expectedly or otherwise, was a nasty jolt. (Yesterday I heard someone joke that they left him shell-shocked. I can't overstate the unease those doors brought; kidding aside, PTSD seems like an actual possibility.) The locking mechanisms in our new housing unit open as quietly as knuckle-raps on a pane of glass.

Everything here is flipped, a mirror image of what I got accustomed to. On the first morning my alarm clock beeped and beeped and beeped while I searched with a drowsy hand for the off button. Oh yeah, I belatedly realized, it's on the other side of the bed. If Jeff, my cellmate of the past year, was irritated by my tardiness at silencing the noise, he didn't complain. The sleepy errors continued the next morning when, stuck on autopilot, I failed to judge the distances involved after making the bed, bumping my head on the underside of his bunk. Fortunately, it was a low-speed collision.

The first night in any new cell can be difficult. The slow, quiet drip of the sink threatened to keep me up on our first night here, but my epic tiredness after a day of near-constant activity and low-grade stress won out. The almost chilly air helped. I've heard a lot of complaints about the temperature here, but I sleep poorly in warm rooms and was glad that our vent kicks out the cool. I've been consistently sleeping like the dead, maybe even better than I was before we moved.

31 July, 2020

Prison's Perpetual Relocation Program


There stood the assistant warden, at the front of the wing, telling us the news. His presence in the wing was unusual. Ordinarily, the higher-ups don't visit the housing units of prison's unwashed masses. I suppose this was a display of personal concern, less offensive than a diktat from on high. He asked, not especially loudly, for everyone's attention, then told us that we're all moving. Again.

If this seems like a repost of an old entry from a year or so ago, you're not just experiencing déjà vu. The ERDCC administration can't seem to run things without shuffling the prison's whole population around every few months. In the last mass move (of which I, thankfully, wasn't a part), they consolidated the good-conduct wings from all general-population housing units — a move akin to hitting "Undo" on the chaos from the previous major relocation, which took place just a few months prior.

We should all have moving down to an art, yet some still have difficulties, both with the mechanics of the thing and with change in general. The noise level in the wing has been high ever since, as prisoners whose heightened emotional states struggle for any possible release. Most of these guys aren't so good at emotional regulation. That's what landed many of them in prison in the first place.

A generous neighbor asked if I wanted a box. He'd found several large brand-new unassembled boxes somewhere. He sneaked the cardboard contraband back to our housing unit specifically for today's move. I was the lucky other person to benefit from his find. My clothing, bedding, and canteen all fit perfectly. Without it, I'd have to just pile random stuff on top of my packed footlocker and hope it didn't fall during the long haul across the yard.

That's what we're waiting for now: the go-ahead to load everything we own into a canvas-sided laundry cart and push it to the opposite side of the facility, where an empty wing awaits. Then there'll be a day of cleaning in store. For how long will this residency last? Someone asked the assistant warden that yesterday, when he stood there delivering the news. "It's permanent," he answered — exactly what the administration said the last two, three, or more times.

24 July, 2020

The Pandemic Has Ended!

That, at least, is what the prison administration at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center seems to believe, as normal operations resume throughout most parts of the institution. It's weird to think that, as the spread of COVID-19 reaches new daily record highs in certain regions, the Missouri Department of Corrections and ERDCC's warden have basically stopped trying to protect the 2,800 prisoners here — but that's exactly what's happened.

Individual wings of housing units no longer have separate recreation times. The table occupancy at meals is no longer being limited. The rule about masking in the dining halls was rescinded after less than a week and a half. Even as the US president eases up on his longtime obstinacy and calls for Americans to wear masks, the guards here are still not being required, nor even asked, to do so at any time. Few — maybe one in thirty — do so by choice.

"They're not making the offenders wear them," a caseworker was heard complaining yesterday. "I don't see why I'd have to."

That same morning, another guard, a sergeant, poked fun at a subordinate whose face was appropriately covered. The only part of the mockery that I found remotely funny was, "That's gonna be a real problem once the tan lines start to show." Otherwise, this person just fed my disappointment with humanity.

If such maskholery is prevalent among "correctional" employees in general, it's no wonder that (according to the Journal of the American Medical Association) state and federal prisoners are 5.5 times more likely to become infected than the average US citizen. Prisons are petri dishes, ideally structured for maximum viral and bacterial spread.

Fun fact: according to that same study ("COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in Federal and State Prisons," posted 8 July), regardless of age or race, we're also 300% more likely to die from COVID-19 complications. Thanks for that nifty opportunity, all you contracted for-profit medical care providers out there!

I wash my hands until the skin's tight and itchy. I wear a mask despite the jokes. What else can I do? I'm not worried about myself so much, but there are a lot of older, high-risk people around me in these close quarters, and I'd hate to think that I could be partly responsible for their contracting a potentially lethal virus. Someone should be concerned for their well-being.