23 August, 2017

Pain Rains from the Sky, Come Summertime

I've seen the injuries, from bruises the size and color of plums, to lips cleaved bloodily open, so I know what a dangerous place the prison yard can he. Fortunately, it's only for a few months each year, then softball season's over.

A track, handball courts, a big paved walkway, basketball courts — everything on Crossroads' two yards encircles the softball field occupying each side of the facility. This means that pop flies, when the softball gets hit at an odd point and launches up instead of out, can hurt people in any direction. Everyone freezes when one's sent flying, their eyes frantically scanning the sky for that day-glo yellow orb of pain hurtling along in an errant arc. It's usually older prisoners who get beaned, unable to hear the players shouting "Heads up!" again and again. Someone seems to get hit every game, yet the administration hasn't banned the bats, balls, and gloves.

Softball for some, dodgeball for the rest of us. And because of players' work schedules, games mainly take place in the evening, during the otherwise enjoyable three-month "night yard" period when the powers that be deem daylight sufficiently long for Crossroads' population to spend one hour of our evening recreation outdoors. I look forward to night yard not because I delight in summer temperatures or want to OD on vitamin D, but because it's my only way to get any rec on worknights.

The way that movement is controlled (a hallmark of maximum security is its limitation of prisoners' ability to go from here to there), after being released from the staff dining room, I usually return to my wing and stay there. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, however, I can wait around in my cell for about twenty minutes before there's a loudspeaker announcement of "Rec!" and brief hysteria to get out the wing door. Then I'm out and free to my thing.

The air is Missouri-muggy, the beating sunlight is only slightly refracted through the atmosphere, and the yard is kicking up the heat that its concrete spent all day absorbing. None of these conditions speak to me, but rec is rec. I like walking laps, stopping to do two or three sets of bodyweight exercises every time I pass the south picnic tables. My friend Zach often tags along, for conversation. We circle until my muscles give out or the yard closes, whichever comes first. Either way, four eyes are better than two, and Zach's presence also protects me, in vulnerable positions such as handstands, from catching a rogue softball in the face.

So there's a good-with-the-bad component to my evening rec, just as there is with everything else. Pro: I get some physical exercise and stimulating verbal exchange. Con: my nerves become frayed, tuning one ear for so long to that frequency voices reach when potential hloodshed is imminent.

Nowhere on the yard is safe, but I'm only too happy to trade a modicum of freedom for a proportionate risk. Hot, jumpy evenings of fun, here I come!

18 August, 2017

On Ten Years of Blogging from Prison

I hate this blog. I hate its title, its subtitle, its content. I hate writing posts for it, month after month, year after year, and checking its stats to see that visitors still aren't crashing the servers with their sheer numbers. I hate the rarity of comments on posts, even though I recognize this as more of a reflection of Internet culture than of my readership's engagement.

I hate paying for this ostensibly free service — for the pariahblog.com domain, for paper, for envelopes, for postage, for ribbon, and for the wear and tear on the typewriter I have to use because personae non grata like myself aren't trusted with even the most rudimentary Internet access.

I hate the delay that snail mail imposes between my writing of a post and that post's appearance online. I hate how slow this makes the process of correcting the typos that sometimes pop up. I hate that this slowness hinders me in addressing timely topical issues.

I hate the prevalence of this one enormous overarching issue in my life — being wrongfully convicted — which affects no one outside my immediate circle, and how hard it is to get strangers meaningfully engaged with an idea as abstract as "some innocent guy in prison for the rest of his life." I hate feeling like a demanding toddler or prima donna because I'm constantly vying for a place in the spotlight.

I hate the economics of empathy, the signal-to-noise ratio among the world's causes. I hate resenting every abused animal, sick kid, and unfunded filmmaker for whom public attention comes more easily.

I hate slacktivism. I hate false promises. I hate that others' good intentions don't make for viable currency in the justice-campaign marketplace. I hate that signing an electronic petition for a governor's pardon represents a significant inconvenience, given today's rapid-clickthrough habits.

I hate that a human life is weighed against political gain and, more often than not, found lacking.

I hate the endless task of figuring out new ways not to talk about my case with the idly curious who surround me. I hate other prisoners asking, when they haven't seen me in a while, why I haven't gone home yet. I hate going to bed at 10:10 every night, wondering when this will end, then waking up at 4:55 AM and wishing that it would, because, fuuuuuuuuuuuuck, this is no way to live.

I hate anyone saying that prison has "preserved" me, when I am terrifyingly aware of every iota of stress and anxiety that I endure every day, plus the countless hairline cracks from having aged sixteen years here.

I hate that my mother has to see me this way, and that I have to see her troubled by it. I hate being an inconvenient friend to the people I love. I hate not being able to do more for them all, and for myself.

I hate being in no position to decline anyone's generosity. I hate having my hands tied when it comes to supporting myself or doing good deeds. I hate this prison's lack of activities and programs — almost as much as I resent the hostility it levels on individual efforts to better oneself or one's surroundings through educational, creative, enriching, vocational, or philanthropic endeavors. I hate that Crossroads doesn't even have a consistently open law library in which to do the research that might change one's circumstances.

I hate having strayed so far from my topic. I hate that there are so many ways in which I could've written a tenth-anniversary post for this blog, which all would've said the same thing — that I have no desire to go on blogging, because this outlet for my observations and memories and laments and celebrations hasn't quite succeeded as my supporters and I hoped, and because there are so many other, more enduring ends that I could be working toward, but that I'm still going to release these dispatches from my cell indefinitely. I hate my sense of commitment. I also hate to admit this, but some irrational part of me believes that The Pariah's Syntax is actually an important part of my quest to retake my stolen freedom.

12 August, 2017

The Eternal Search

Contraband takes myriad forms, from the dangerous (shanks, zip guns) to the innocuous (excess photos, empty boxes), and guards' mission to rid the prison of it all is as Sisyphean as it is multifaceted. Still, they persist.

It seems that I can't leave the housing unit without someone wanting to touch me all over. Pat-downs are such a regular part of life at Crossroads, I almost don't resent them to the core of my being anymore. Walking to breakfast, at not quite 6:00 in the morning, one of the assembled badge-wearers smoking outside the dining hall will probably wave me over. Nothing's quite like a good manhandling, when it comes to waking a fellow up whose coffee has yet to do the trick. The popular prisoner will often get a second frisking on his way out. Who knows what malfeasance an apple-smuggler might get up to, after sneaking a Red Delicious back to his cell.

Showing up for my job, there's usually a queue of kitchen workers relinquishing their ID cards at the door and assuming the position. It's against the rules to bring anything into Food Service except the state-issued clothes on your back, but this rule wasn't always strictly enforced. Workers used to load up on crossword puzzles and sudoku, instant coffee and sugar, Bibles and Our Daily Bread booklets — to get through the many idle hours of their shift, when they're forced to just sit in one of the dining halls. To judge from the current tedium, you'd think the guards patting down deserve commendations. They pat-search everyone again at the end of every kitchen shift, but enough tuna, egg mix, and sliced cheese makes it back to the housing units (usually in plastic "diapers'' made of bread bags) to make you reconsider any reward for apparent thoroughness.

While stolen food is a perennial issue, some prisoners' cells pile up with other stuff that the administration prohibits. Being deprived of so much inclines one to hoard the littlest things. This so-called nuisance contraband is the first to get thrown away during routine cell searches. You probably have a junk drawer, or a whole closet of crap, at home. It's no different for the imprisoned person, who might keep a small Tupperware bowl filled with bread ties, thread, used batteries, fingernail clippers, broken headphones, adhesive wall hooks, empty bags, spare cords, et cetera, buried in his footlocker. I do. So does every cellmate I've ever had. Certain objects come in handy only infrequently. But the rules demand that everything in a prisoner's possession be kept to a minimum. Having more than one bowlful of miscellanea invites hassles.

Bigwigs in Jefferson City, the state capital, have enumerated the limit for each possible item a Missouri prisoner may own (e.g., one transparent-plastic TV, twenty CDs or cassette tapes, fourteen ramen soup packets, two bars of soap, seven pairs of underwear, two jars of peanut butter, one hundred postage stamps, two sets of headphones, ten pouches of loose tobacco, one tube of toothpaste, two jewel-free stud earrings, one cooler, fifty #10 envelopes, and on and on, surpassing tedium, into outright microscopy). I once had a guard confiscate a single package of ramen because I was in possession of fifteen after buying my allotted limit at the canteen that morning. The following week, the property room summoned me to determine what would be done with it. The staff member working the window rolled her eyes at the pedantry of the confiscating guard, slid the package across the counter, and said, "Eat it." So I did.

Some cell searches are excessive, even by the standards of the most slavish henchman. Policy states that cells are to be left in orderly condition when the guards exit, but I have survived incursions that left my space looking as if a natural disaster — a tornado or an earthquake of significant magnitude — had struck. Individual pages were strewn from folders, bags of foodstuffs had been pulled from sealed boxes and crushed, photos were removed from my album, splayed-open books sprawled over random objects, CD cases sat cracked underneath heavier things, laundry detergent and oatmeal was spilled, an eating utensil floated in the toilet, and everything else — everything else — was heaped on the bunks, irrespective of whether the stuff was mine or my cellmate's. Sorting out whose towel was whose came down to a sniff test.

Then there's the strip-search procedure endured before and after every visit. A guard has to watch me disrobe, waggle my tongue, show my open palms, expose my armpits, lift my soles, hoist my scrotum, and, in a final indignity, squat and cough, before he'll provide me with a set of visiting clothes. Strip-searches are also done, in cells, during shakedowns, when entire wings at a time are subjected to intensive cell searches by specially trained guards wearing camouflage fatigues — this composite violation being proof that, in prison, personal space is at best a temporary privilege, at worst a total delusion.

03 August, 2017

It's All in the Presentation

Smoked turkey medalions in a creamy tomato sauce with green bell pepper, white onion, and celery segments, served atop a bed of long-grain white rice. That's dinner — the entrĂ©e, anyway — except the prison's menu calls it "Creole." When I slide the tan plastic tray over Staff Dining's stainless-steel counter top, it's with a kind of flourish, and my plating is (considering what I'm working with) superb. The guard pronounces it "artistic."

Making prison food sound and look okay isn't something I'd ever call a talent. It doesn't have much applicability outside the restaurant business, which, no thanks. Staff members who are willing to eat institutional food prepared by prisoners wouldn't bat an eye if I served hastily slopped trays, so why do I bother?

This work ethic of mine is silly, like putting so much lipstick on a pig, but as long as I'm trapped in this sty....