09 February, 2014

The Liability of Being Liked

I’ve been discriminated against for countless reasons in my life — for wearing too much black, for being too free with my speech, for hanging out with sketchy characters, et cetera, ad nauseam — but being popular was never one of them. Leave it to prison to change that. Prison: where weekends become occasions for mild dread, being a good citizen lands you in trouble, and sex is something to avoid at all costs. Very little manages to remain uncorrupted here.

A couple of months ago, my friend Davy Rothbart was touring to promote his latest book and the newest issue of his magazine, FOUND. He divides his busy, busy schedule almost exclusively between Ann Arbor and Los Angeles, so the tour’s Midwestern leg offered a rare opportunity for him to visit me here at Crossroads, one hour’s drive from Kansas City. It had been a while and I was excited to catch up with Davy in person. There was, of course, a hitch.

His itinerary put Davy in the area on a Saturday, with a Sunday evening departure. Not being immediate family nor my significant other, visiting hours limited him to a Friday appearance. Policy says that traveling further than 250 miles makes a potential visitor eligible for “special visit” consideration, however, so I filed a Special Visit Request form with the prison administration, citing the distance Davy was coming, plus the narrow window of opportunity involved. My last two visits with him were approved this way, as were several other friends’, because I only ask for a waiver of visitors’ status, not some extravagant off-hours affair. Nevertheless, the administration’s response this time was a denial: “Offender already receives frequent visits from friends and family.” You can’t have too much of a good thing, at least not around here — they won’t let you.

Adding injury to insult, being regarded as a worthwhile person to spend time with has now affected my employability, too. At multiple staff members’ urging, I applied for an open position in the staff dining room last month, where I worked as a server many years ago and was generally approved of. (Hotel front-desk hospitality skills really stick with you.) One of the civilian cooks (a “square,” in prison lingo) made a point of telling me how much my cleanliness and work ethic would be apreciated there, so I assumed that my hiring back to the job was all but guaranteed. I could almost feel carpal tunnel syndrome setting in from all the additional writing time a four-day workweek was going to afford me.

“Sarge would have to give you Friday, Saturday, and Sunday off,” a guard confided, the day after I applied. “He probably isn’t gonna do that, Mister Case. You just get too many visits.”

The fact is, although my mother drives up from Kansas City nearly every weekend, friends mostly live out of state and visit intermittently, as schedules permit. It’s not as if celebrity status invites stop-ins from so many fawning fans that I bump up against my monthly ten-visit limit. Yet the guards who have to amend their count sheet and fill out a movement pass every time regard me as a minor nuisance. More than once, remarks have been made about having to “escort Mister Popular to the door.” It’s a lot of flak to take, considering I don’t even get paid.

Ironically (because a measure of irony creeps into just about every blog post I write), the Missouri Department of Corrections has a lot to say about the myriad benefits of visits. As part of a state-sponsored program, I’ve even been directed by a caseworker to work on my “social deficits” through them. Sitting in her office, scrolling down a lengthy computer document at my annual review, she said, “This year I want you to work on your social. Can you think of any activity you could do that’d help with that? Like, maybe you could go out and play cards in the wing.”

Dumbstruck that playing cards was part of Crossroads’ correctional regimen, I could only blink at her while my brain rebooted.

“Oh, I know!” she piped, clearly tickled by her eureka moment. “You get a lot of visits, right? We’ll make your goal this year to get visits. Then, when you come back for your next review, I’ll ask what work you did towards your goal and you can tell me, ‘I got visits.’”

A record of this insanity is now a permanent feature of my institutional file.

We encourage visits; don’t expect us to let you have visits. Have your loved ones come see you often; don’t have your loved ones come see you too often. The logic doubles back, the snake devours its own tail, and I can’t reason my way past the paradox. No, I didn’t get the server job I applied for, but the kitchen job I have is tolerable and Davy just sent a card saying he’d try to fit in a Friday visit next month — so I guess I don’t have to.

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