21 January, 2021

The Best Job I Ever Had

In my last months of freedom I was living in Kansas City, doing medical claims repricing in an office on Ward Parkway. Medical claims repricing sounds complicated to a lot of people, maybe even slightly impressive. It shouldn't; it's glorified data entry, is all. Very tedious. But my ten-key skills were top-notch, honed by thousands of hours of online gaming and chat, so the job paid my bills. It even permitted me to set part of each paycheck aside.

Computer skills didn't notably enhance employment opportunities for a high-school dropout in Missouri, back in the '90s. So between ages seventeen and twenty-two, I worked a whole series of unrelated jobs: copy writer, toy-store warehouse drudge, restaurant host, tech support representative, photocopy monkey, telemarketer, convenience store attendant, video-rental clerk, retail sales manager, record-store guru, and a few I can't even remember. The best was managing the front office of a neighborhood hotel.

I collected some good stories in the year and a half I manned that front desk. A post about one memorable shift at the hotel showed up here in 2012.) That was a great year and a half, both in my personal life and my professional one. My arrest followed soon after. You'd think I'd never work a decent job again. I sure thought that.

At Crossroads Correctional Center I once quit a good position in the food-service warehouse, which I held for a year and a half, because I didn't want my longest-ever employment to be a prison job. That was my ego talking. I was still clinging to stubborn, ultimately meaningless principles then. The job was fine; it was I who had the problem.

My mother asked last week about my work. We talked a little about my hours and the recent discovery that, if I held my current job on the outside, I'd be making a salary at least in the high five figures, and it'd be several orders of magnitude easier because I'd have more resources at my disposal. (We can't even google shit.) Then I told her the bizarre truth: "Things are great. I'm excited to go in to work every day. It sounds weird to say, but this is actually the best job I've ever had."

I've blogged a few times about my position in ERDCC's media center – first when I landed the ideal prison job for a geek like me, then about the thrill of unboxing a new computer, and then how my horizons recently broadened to include video production. Even if you read these posts, you still have only the vaguest idea of what my work actually entails. I've considered doing a timeline post of my average day at work (similar to the one I did in "Anatomy of a Bad Day," eight years ago, except with a more positive spin). The biggest problem with that is, I don't have an average day. We do new, totally different stuff all the time. This job's unpredictability aggravates and delights me in equal measure.

But here's the thing: those words. "The best job I've ever had" wasn't hyperbole, wasn't my ignorance, wasn't me just saying shit to put Mum at ease about her son's circumstances. The sentiment was genuine. Never mind the rest, the dreary, tragic overarching circumstances of my life; I consider myself so fortunate to have the position that I do, to be able to do something for the community, which happens to bring me joy in the process. Regardless of their surroundings, how many people in the world are able to say that?

07 January, 2021

A Poem Possibly Kind of Inspired (in Part) by J. Alfred Prufrock's "I Have Measured My Life in Coffee Spoons"

[This poem was originally published in J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Volume 8, Number 2, published in the Fall of 2015.]

The Best Part of Waking Up

Some day I'll get bored
and tally up the exact weight and volume
of the freeze-dried coffee I've drunk during
my years' imprisonment:

the same stained plastic mug
every morning identical
for a decade and a half.

A packet of sugar crinkles in the dark.
Almost no light slips through
the cell's lone window. A slightly heaped
plastic sporkful of Folgers
dumped, dissolves.

* * * * *

I started and finished "The Best Part of Waking Up" in a single sitting – one of those poems that practically wrote itself. Even today it reads, to me, like someone else's work. Of course, I'm not delusional; intellectually, I know it's mine. That's why I'm asserting my post-publication rights now, putting it out into the world again.

2015 was a while ago. I still drink from the same red-lipped white mug; although, I don't put sugar in my coffee anymore. We can also add five years to the poem's "decade and a half." Otherwise, plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.

28 December, 2020

Imprisoned Artists and Crafters, Rejoice!

Paging through a Blick Art Materials catalog, I feel like a kid in a candy store, clutching a thousand-dollar gift card. This shopping spree was made possible by two recent developments: a prison policy change and the first round of 2020 economic stimulus checks.

To the first of these we owe an interesting bit of happenstance. In my many years' imprisonment, I never before witnessed a wholesale administrative turnover like the past few months at ERDCC have seen. Within a couple of months we lost the warden, deputy warden, institutional activities coordinator, chaplain, recreation director, and education director. And that's just the positions that I know about.

Historically, someone assuming a position of authority in a correctional center tends to assert that authority in some significant, usually unpleasant way – getting rid of a privilege the prisoners enjoy, or curtailing movement around the institution. When the last warden of Crossroads Correctional Center assumed power, her first decrees cut recreation times in half and instituted mandatory institution-wide lockdowns when fistfights broke out. Subsequent years did nothing to save her reputation among the population.

ERDCC's recent changeover has been painless. Every change I've seen so far has been positive. The most inclusive of these actually has the potential to change people's whole outlook on life: an expansion of the prison's "in-cell hobby craft" procedure.

When I first came to this facility, two and a half years ago, I was amazed to learn that prisoners here could order colored pencils and drawing paper from outside venders. It was the most meaningful approach to facilitating prisoner self-improvement I'd ever seen. Then my friend Zach, who was at Crossroads with me, wrote and said that Western Missouri Correctional Center, the prison where he ended up, allows its residents to mail order supplies ranging from acrylic paint and calligraphy pens to glitter glue and cross-stitch stuff. Reading his letter, I very nearly got jealous.

There was no reason to get emotional. About a month ago, ERDCC started letting us send off for a slew of different arts-and-crafts supplies. Charcoal, paint, markers, glue, origami paper, sketch boards, yarn, crochet hooks, needlepoint hoops, puzzles, snap-together model kits, popsicle sticks and so much more – there's hardly any medium, or tools for working with it, that aren't at least partly permitted now. Best of all, government stimulus checks, as well as any government payments yet to come, guarantee that anyone who wants to create will be able to unleash that creativity.

In the good ol' bad ol' days, Missouri State Penitentiary ("the Walls," where a lot of old prisoners did time) offered options galore to the creatively inclined. A guy I knew who did time there used to build grandfather clocks. Another tooled leather for wallets, purses, and saddles. One friend and former cellmate of mine remembers etching glass and making Tiffany-style lamps. A display case showed visitors these goods, with price tags attached, so the creators could profit from their work. The days of prisoners' self-sufficiency are probably long gone, but ERDCC's enabling of people's creative ventures marks a major turn for the better.

The Blick catalog has pages upon pages of artists' pens. I think I'll order five.