26 March, 2020

Coronavirus: A Prisoner's Perspective


While COVID-19 continues its rampage, governments institute shelter-in-place orders, and people hoard enough toilet paper to get their households through months of nonstop diarrhea, I sit safe and sound in prison, concerned about the tumult but feeling a little detached. As a prisoner, I've basically been quarantined since 2001. I pity the nonessential-business owners and wage workers whose lives the virus is turning upside-down. In a different way, I also pity the fortunate salaried workers losing their minds after being stuck at home for a few days.

Adding to my sense of detachment, an e-mail I got from the Missouri Department of Corrections last week announced, "At this time, our goal is to continue to offer the same services and maintain normal operations to the extent possible. There are no plans to eliminate programming, recreation, canteen services or other functions." Although I can't go for a walk in the park, I can still hit up the library and attend Thursday-morning Buddhist services in the chapel. On the inside, right now, little is changing.

I heard a staff member complain how good he thinks we prisoners have it, because we, unlike him, aren't yet restricted from using the gym or hanging out in groups. Even under normal circumstances I dislike this type of shallow assumption. If prisoners really have it so good, why isn't a jealous public continually beating down the gates to get in here? Tempted as I felt to point out to that man the rule against gatherings of more than three inmates, I let his ignorance be.

At the time of this writing, one person in the Missouri Department of Corrections' custody (a male prisoner at WRDCC, in Saint Joseph) has tested positive for coronavirus. To the best of my knowledge, he was whisked away for real medical care quickly, but prisons are petri dishes; widespread contagion throughout that institution seems inevitable. We live in such closed quarters, and so few of my neighbors have even rudimentary hygiene. (I can't even count those I've seen sneeze without at all covering their mouths this week.) Frankly, I'm amazed that an endless, perpetual, all-out war against typhoid and dysentery isn't part of prison life. This place is filthy.

My janitorial job in the offices of its administrative segregation unit (aka "the Hole") now demands that I show up two extra days a week, just to wipe down every surface — from door handles to computer mouses — with bleach solution. At the end of each day's work, I initial one form and write down on a different one how much of which cleaning products I used. The thoroughness of my labor can't always be seen, but the offices do smell like a public swimming pool when I leave.

Most of the prisoners scoff at the notice on ERDCC's closed-circuit TV channel that says, "We have hand sanitizer strategically placed around the institution and flyers indicating the correct procedure to wash your hands." No one I know has seen any of the former. We all joke that the placement of hand sanitizer was "strategic" in that the administration deliberately put it where no prisoner could get to any. As for the flyers, I suspect that it'll take more than colorful pieces of paper to convince the slobs to scrub their greasy mitts once in a while.

Missouri prisoners are just waiting for contagion to sweep their facilities. Even with employee screening in place, COVID-19's speed and spread have most of us feeling like it's just a matter of time. With no grocery stores to decimate the shelves of, we instead stockpile Top Ramen and summer sausage from the prison canteen, prepping for the doomsday scenario that is a lockdown. But I, for one, refuse to panic-purchase. If (or when) a lockdown comes, I have enough savories to supplement the brown-bag meals of PB & J sandwiches they'll feed us for weeks. I'll stay busy, too, with books, art supplies, and, of course, my writing. It won't be too bad. It's you out there I worry about.

19 March, 2020

Five Books I Spent My Winter Reading

My neighbor and Buddhist acquaintance Tim brought me the first book on this season's reading list. Humanistic Buddhism: Holding True to the Original Intents of Buddha looked interesting enough. I don't generally judge books by their covers, but the delightful photo of its author, the happily aging Venerable Master Hsing Yun, could win over even the hardest heart. There was also that subtitle. I subscribe to a kind of originalist thinking where Buddhism is concerned, so of course "The Original Intents Buddha" also hit a nerve.

After the Buddha's enlightenment, there were schisms and geographic divergences. It's impossible today to speak to a stranger about one's own idea of Buddhism and be immediately, fully understood. To start with, there are Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana flavors of Buddhism, each of which divides into its own traditions, schools, and lineages. Having come from deeply irreligious tendencies, I appreciate how Buddhism recognizes the individual as being uniquely empowered to help him- or herself find liberation from the suffering that pervades existence. Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical figure (not to be confused with a prophet or deity), had a profound experience that he went on to teach as a philosophy, a simple way of life. Buddhism's religious trappings seem like so much gilding of the lily. Why embellish what's already perfect?

Humanistic Buddhism, as translated by Venerable Miao Guang, of Fo Guang Shan Monastery, wasn't quite what I'd hoped. The history of Chinese Buddhism featured heavily, and that was interesting enough. The book began with an explanation that Master Hsing Yun's "Humanistic Buddhism" is effectively a universal Buddhism, dispensing with the sectarian divides and embracing Buddhism's fundamental similarities. Cool, but the book soon devolved into an unfocused rant against politicians and other Buddhist organizations that, in his eighty years as a monk, Hsing Yun ran afoul of. Not so cool. I read it all, but by the end was disappointed that no uniting wisdom was forthcoming.

Less delightful in photos is Alan Moore:


You get the impression that from his pen flows brilliant madness. He wrote the excellent graphic novel V for Vendetta and coauthored the landmark series Watchmen, both of which went on to have successful lives as motion-picture adaptations. And yet his 1,260-page Jerusalem: A Novel won't likely go from page to screen in any era. A love letter to Moore's UK hometown of Northampton, Jerusalem taipses across centuries, playing fast and loose with history and conventions of readability alike. Moore's family, as well as past and current residents of "the Burroughs," as Northampton is sometimes called, might be tickled by his countless references to the city's cramped and crooked streets; I wasn't. My reason for finishing this tome was twofold: (1) hope would not die that a plot might congeal amid the happenstantially connected vignettes, and (2) I am frequently stubborn in the face of literature.

One of multiple positives to being confined at ERDCC, as opposed to Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent sixteen years, is involvement with the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program. I've blogged about SLU events before, but this whole semester is devoted to the Big Read — an initiative by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, to bring communities together with a good book. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, was the book in question. Even though I don't usually enjoy historical nonfiction, I tore though this excellent, harrowing account of nineteenth-century survival at sea, and had a lot to discuss, afterward, with other prisoners and the professors who visited us.

Going back to reading alone, I turned to the comparatively tame writing of Richard Peabody, a minor figure in contemporary American literature, who founded Gargoyle Magazine in the mid-'70s. Edited by Peabody's longtime friend in letters, Lucinda Ebersole, it collects stories, poems, and a novella — almost forty years of Peabody's writing, which, given the large span it covers, felt uneven, its high points rising from the imaginative form certain pieces take, its low points lurking in certain characters' overwrought emotional responses. Lauri B. thoughtfully ordered The Richard Peabody Reader for me, from my usually carefully curated Amazon wishlist. I didn't relish this collection, but Lauri's generosity (last year she gave me a thoroughly fascinating and quite helpful book about the cultural history of zombies) remains deeply appreciated.

Constance M. then delighted me with a Michel Houellebecq novel, The Possibility of an Island (translated by Gavin Bowd). Back in the summer of 2013 (as my reading list for that season shows), I read Houellebecq's dour metafictional take on the detective procedural, The Map and the Territory. That book deeply frustrated me on certain levels, but I recognized the seething intelligence of Houellebecq's writing and was intrigued by The Possibility of an Island's apocalyptic sci-fi premise. "The most important French novelist since Camus," Houellebecq's been called. That's not a comparison I'm prepared to make; however, The Possibility of an Island deals in existential theories and even deconstructs love, breaking it down to its most fundamental elements. A lesser writer would've fallen flat on his face, trying. The ground across which The Possibility of an Island traipses is rich with ponderings of several difficult, or at least uncomfortable, questions. It can't be denied that, however unlikeable Houellebecq's political or social ideals might be, he sees the Western world through eyes unafraid to peer beyond the veil of propriety by scrutinizing values, taboos, authorities, and sacred cows of every type.

The reclusive medieval Buddhist monks Yoshida Kenko and Kamo No Chomei, respectively, wrote Essays in Idleness and Hojoki. Meredith McKinney translated the Penguin Classics volume that includes both. These works paint a fascinating picture of two complex, surprising, often very funny humans. Both were recluses. Chomei lived alone in a hojo, a ten-square-foot hut, in the forest. Kenko, a well-known poet in his day, retained his highbrow social circle after abandoning worldly life in what's now Kyoto, and many of his fourteenth-century thoughts feel Twitter-ready, or at least suitable for microblogging. One extremely brief entry amid the 243 Essays reads, "A certain recluse monk once remarked, 'I have relinquished all that ties me to the world, by the none thing that still haunts me is the beauty of the sky.' I can quite see why he would feel this." It's tempting to imagine that his hashtags were edited out for print publication.

12 March, 2020

Cable Outage Means Convict Outrage


The TVs go black on a clear, sunshiny day, but I'm busy writing and don't know about it until my neighbor comes to the door. "Wha'cha think about the cable?" he asks, his rural Missouri twang slurred by lack of teeth. I peer at him over my glasses in a way that I hope conveys impatience.

You'll never see a man's mood turn quicker than when a prisoner starts missing his cable TV. On the rare occasion when the facility's cable goes out, the first resort of the TV addict is to games, music, telephone calls, or a nap. (Almost none will read.) My neighbor is one such person. After whole minutes of silence in his cell, he emerged, hoping to commune with someone as miserable as he is.

"I didn't even know it was out," I say. "I'm busy doing my own thing."

"Phew! Cable's been out since lunch. I don't see how you can go that long."

"My TV's been off since 5 o'clock yesterday," I tell him. Might it inspire him to questioning of his own viewing habits?

Taxpayers in Missouri don't contribute to amenities in their state's prisons. While I can't obliterate the suspicion that we prisoners are coddled with good food, full medical coverage, and free cable, I can point cynics to these qualifications: the food is mostly edible, the privatized medical care is shamefully inadequate, and that I'm paying an exorbitant price (just not in money) for this "free" subscription. For the record, I'd happily trade these luxuries for a cardboard box under a railroad bridge in a heartbeat.

My neighbor, maybe not so much. He rubs his mouth like a crackhead waiting for another rock and says, "Yeah, well, some of us can't just sit around like that."

This feels silly, giving life advice to a man fifteen years my senior, but I shrug and offer him one of my shiniest nuggets of wisdom: "Sometimes you've got to make your own fun."

"Fuck that," he says. "I'm gonna go ask them what's the deal."

The cable is paid out of a dedicated account fed by 20% markups to items sold by the institution's canteen, as well as to media for our tablet computers. It's a large account. Also paid out of it are gym equipment, library books and furnishings, board and card games for the housing units, religious service paraphernalia, and visiting room amenities — anything deemed nonessential to the running of the institution, in other words. But even if it's not officially acknowledged as such, the powers that be are fully aware that uninterrupted cable TV service is crucial to maintaining order.

My neighbor ventures out of the wing to harasses a guard in the control module and I think, That won't be the last I hear about it.

My prediction bears out. The evening's a loud one. Twice as many people as usual mill around the wing, desperate for distraction, seeking entertainment in the company of their cohort, left adrift by blank screens. I hide out in my cell.

Peace comes the next morning when many sleep in, unwilling as they are to endure a few hours without someone else putting the thoughts into their heads. Unconsciousness seems to me like a sad pastime. Yet again I wonder what's so scary about being alone with oneself.

Throughout the walk to the dining hall at breakfastime, every conversation I overhear is about how "crazy" it is that we're still unplugged after almost fifteen hours. The man behind me in line stops literally every guard he sees, to ask, "What's up on the cable?" Most of them arrived for their shift a half hour earlier and have no idea what he's talking about, yet still he fishes for... what, exactly? Even if someone were to say that Spectrum techs are on site, replacing filters or whatever, he won't be satisfied until he's sitting in front of his TV, images flashing at his eyes and sounds firing into his ears. Does he even realize that his hunger's insatiable?

"Crazy," he mutters. "Fuckin' crazy. They just hopin' some shit kicks off so they can lock everybody down and not have to worry 'bout us anymore."

This sort of threat of flipping out is common but mostly empty — passive-aggressive venting born of powerlessness. But idle hands being the Devil's playthings means that the vidiots will remain unoccupied for only so long before they do something stupid. My reason for wishing the cable repaired is different from most guys'.

Crazy, indeed. This is the world I live in.