29 March, 2018

More Ridiculous Administrative Typos

This is nothing new; I've written about the many unintentionally hilarious signs and memos around the prison before — in my book, for instance, or in this 2017 blog post — but this time Crossroads' revised visiting rules crossed a line. They went into effect months ago but have stared me in the face long enough that I can no longer fight the urge to share them with you. Anyway, check out this incredible twofer:
  • Visitors must clear the mental detectors to enter.
  • No arms are hands on the back of the chairs
Although some truly weird stuff does go down in prison, it's not quite to the sci-fi level of oddity implied by these imaginative malaprops.

23 March, 2018

Fifteen Books I Spent My Winter Reading

Not that I believe in making New Year's resolutions, but I want 2018 to be the year I finish writing the novel that's often seemed doomed to languish in its folder since I started it, accidentally, in late-2012 (ack!). With resumption and completion of that project in mind, I hit the research materials early. Although somewhat dated, Elaine Sciolino's Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran gave me a better grasp of contemporary Iranian culture than any other source I'd found. (Thank you, Mum, for sending it.) Then I boned up on matters survivalist and scavenger-related, using generously given birthday funds: Emergency, by Neil Strauss, and the fascinating true story of one man's twenty-seven-year hermitage in Maine, Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods.

Breaking from this nonfiction jag, I tried to savor the novels sent to me by Lana C. three months back (which I mentioned in my fall reading overview). Books this good are hard to read sparingly. The Course of the Heart, a gorgeous metaphysical fantasy by the masterful M. John Harrison, whose work in SF never fails to leave an indelible impression on me, was quickly followed by Jesse Ball's compelling How to Set a Fire and Why. Ball has written so many surreal, dreamlike novels that this one's more straightforward story line surprised me…but not by any means in a bad way.

Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl's Holocaust-survival-account-cum-existential-philosophy-treatise, validated many thoughts I've had about my life and how I share it with others. The Viennese psychiatrist's therapeutic method was familiar, in a way. Are all imprisonment experiences ultimately alike, psychologically speaking? Do those of us subjected to unjust sequestration have the same fixed number of possible responses? It certainly looks that way. But how inspirational Frankl's book is, just the same!

My friend John always sends me the sorts of uber-geeky books that no one else would. This time around, it was Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The long-defunct blog on linguistic concerns from dangling modifiers to hierarchical ontologies (you know, all the fun stuff) now exists only in part, in this paperback collection of posts that will interest virtually no one…except John and me. So, thanks for the gift, John.

The Vanishing American Adult, by prolific tweeter Senator Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, wasn't quite what his BookTV interview last year led me to believe. I expected a general-interest book of philosophy on living well and fully; I got a set of suggestions for parents hoping to inculcate character and a sense of meaning in their teenagers' lives. Still, the senator's greater points about what gives life substance and richness remain valid. Tidbits from his book fed into later thoughts that I had about how best to spend time, and about my visceral fear of squandering the minutes of my precious days.

A measure of my adulthood was temporarily relinquished for what came next. If you read my post on being an eternal and unabashed comic-book fanboy, then you can imagine the fun I had when I finally got to read the first Cerebus collection, by Dave Sim. There was an aura of legend surrounding the comic even in the mid-'90s, when my collecting peaked. This past December, the fortieth anniversary made my foray into the barbarian aardvark's realm kind of timely. Book One collects the first twenty-five issues — a two-and-a-half-year run — enough to see the art improve, the characters evolve, and a comprehensive world of magic and absurdity take shape. It was entertaining in a very different way from Daisuke Sato and Shouji Sato's zombie manga, Highschool of the Dead, loaned to me by Bobby and the Grub. (Astute readers will recall these wingmates of mine, from when I blogged about their handmade holiday-themed hanging heads, in last year's installment of "Halloween in the Hoosegow." They're into all kinds of nerdy shit, obviously.) It was my first manga and required some explaining. You read manga backward, I already backward, because they're translated from Japanese, but a few quirks of the genre had me asking questions. For instance, why the fixation on enormous breasts?

Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer) started out, "The Part About the Critics," like a dry cough. Some of this was comparative, I admit. It's worlds apart from the graphic novels above. But by degrees 2666 developed into a full-blown fever. My patience and resolve to turn all 900 pages were rewarded with a modern masterpiece that's by turns brutal, tender, baffling, and trenchant. Another translation, Coda: A Novel, is René Belletto's sixty-nine-page experimental work that, in my opinion, Alyson Waters needn't have wasted her prowess with the French language on. The book's basically a mélange of suspense, absurdist comedy, existential intrigue, and familial melodrama. Like I say about so much French cinema, Ça ne me plaît pas.

And finally, because short-form SF is a mode of a genre I'm apparently incapable of ever tiring of, I finished off the season with a couple of fat collections, the Al Sarrantonio-edited Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction and the phenomenal duo of David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best SF 17. The former was more of a mixed bag — maybe this is why it was a one-off anthology, rather than a series like the latter — but both carried me through the damp and dreary days of a waning, lackluster winter's end. Alternate history, extraterrestrials, interdimensional travel, near-future dystopias, the Singularity, and so on and so forth — all the themes and more. Imagining futures. There are worse ways to start a year. 

19 March, 2018

Living under the Thumb

Little no-nos that can get you a conduct violation and disciplinary sanctions here at Crossroads Correctional Center:
  • Leaving your hat or sunglasses on when you enter the chow hall
  • Repurposing a brown paper bag from the canteen as a trash or storage receptacle
  • Showing a tablemate at the library something in a book you're reading
  • Having more than twenty-five loose photos
  • Bringing a packet of sugar back to your cell after breakfast
  • Sewing pockets into your personal clothes
  • Failing to report a bruise, scrape, or cut, even if you don't know how you got it or that it's there at all
  • Exiting your cell without turning off your TV, radio, lamp, et cetera
  • Borrowing a CD
  • Being too close to someone else's cell door
  • Drawing a map, any map, even if it's a map of Middle Earth
  • Sleeping too deeply to hear the announcement of a custody count
  • Keeping a rag in your cell
  • Keeping any cleaning solutions in your cell
  • Not keeping your cell clean
  • Draping a cord or wire across your cell
  • Holding on to medication issued to you more than a month ago
  • Doing anything crafty or creative with stuff you've got lying around
  • Using the toilet when a guard walks past your cell, even if the guard didn't announce his or her presence in the wing
  • Forgetting to sign out after using a typewriter or law-library computer
  • Setting anything on your window ledge
  • Covering your shadeless lamp to block the glare of a bare forty-watt CFL bulb

  • Standing too close to the front of the wing when you're not on the phone, using the touch-screen canteen kiosk or one of the clothes dryers, or looking at the bulletin board
  • Placing anything under your cell door to dampen the shouting and noise of the wing
  • Tearing a page from a magazine, whether it's yours or not
  • Hanging a picture a few inches too far to the left, or the right, on your cell wall
  • Not letting a door close behind you
  • Leaving your ID in the pocket of your other pants
  • Keeping a bottle, box, tub, or bag after the foodstuff originally packaged in it is gone
  • Having a hole in your bed sheet
  • Loaning someone your pen for a moment
  • Arriving more than fifteen minutes late for a medical appointment
  • Wearing headphones in the wing
  • Amassing more than two bars of soap
  • Picking up basically anything you find on the yard
  • Hanging wet clothes to dry
  • Sitting on the stairs
  • Exercising in the wing
  • Letting more than six magazines stack up in your cell
  • Drinking too much before a guard comes to give you a random surprise drug test
  • Pulling your shirt over your nose to filter a bad smell
  • Walking too quickly
  • Walking too slowly
Sometimes the fact that I've only gotten three conduct violations in sixteen years (all of them minor) astounds even me.

15 March, 2018

Scrambled Eggs with a Side of Savagery

With pillow imprints on our faces and 5 AM coffees scarcely swallowed, we file into the chow hall, take our trays, and sit. It's pointless to call them the usual crowd; Frenchie, Dave, and I surrounding the same table, in the same seats, day in and day out, like everyone else at his own table, all that ever really changes is the prison's menu.

"Morning, gents," I tell my senior-noncitizen tablemates. Or maybe it's "Greetings and salutations," or "Howdy," or an ironic "'Sup witchoo, Bloods?" We're not robots, after all, and I like to mix things up a little. "Anyone care for more toast?"

For a grizzled biker with a WHAT THE FUCK, RUN AMOK tattoo, Frenchie's got decorum to rival Emily Post. "I would," he says. "But just one slice, thank you. May I have some of that jelly, too?"

Frenchie sporks grape jelly off my tray, pinkie extended like a well-bred lady at tea, as I offer Dave the other slice. Even with teeth, the pale rubbery squares that masquerade as toast around here are a challenge to gnaw apart. I'm not shocked that toothless Dave declines.

The three of us salt and pepper our mess of eggs. Frenchie butters his eggs and lays his toast on top — a trick picked up from bygone cohort Jim (of the Old-Man Table, who transferred before Christmas). Eggs hold heat better than bread, so the margarine melts onto his toast, but the arrangement makes me think of building a sand castle. I toss Dave my five packets of sugar. He empties them into his oatmeal and drowns the lot in skim milk. We tuck in.

Not halfway through the fifteen-minute meal, the chow hall goes quiet. Around me, other prisoners prairie-dog, rising from their seats to get a better view. I hear that familiar arrhythmic squeak-squeak of sneaker soles on concrete: a fight.

I turn without getting up and see a couple of guys in state-issued grays and brown duck coats dancing around each other like boxers in the ring, but the lion's share of the action here's already over. Guards swarm from every direction to break it up, and both combatants surrender without fuss.

"Wasn't much of a fight," says Dave, while the scufflers are handcuffed and led to opposite sides of the chow hall.

I point out that one guy's eye is bleeding profusely. "He caught at least one good blow."

Two guards escort him out past our table. A rivulet of dark blood forks down his left cheek, jaw, and neck. He's squinting as though they'd sprayed him with Mace, yet no one had.

"A knife," mutters someone nearby.

So, he'd been stabbed in the eye. Once he was out, guards led his assailant through the same door. This one's boastful posture and smirk belong to a man who's just accomplished something big, but no one cheers as he makes his exit.

Dave makes a noncommittal grunt before attending again to his milky, oversweetened mess. Frenchie and I exchange a glance, then go back to our breakfast.

"What're they serving tomorrow morning, do you guys know?" asks Frenchie, after a bit. As if it matters.

28 February, 2018

Tablet PCs for Missouri Prisoners Will Be a Mixed Bag

After learning, four years ago, that the Keefe Corporation was selling prisoners tablet PCs and offering secure service to go with them, I wrote, "When Will Missouri Let Its Prisoners Join the Electronic Conversation?" Not that anyone at the Department of Corrections back then actually read my post, but a new Director of the Division of Adult Institutions did express an interest in acquainting prisoners with technology, which seems to have been the driving force behind the recent announcement that 2018 will be, for those of us imprisoned in Missouri, the year of the tablet.

A multi-page FAQ about the JP5s — the tablet that prison profiteers Jpay will soon issue us free of charge — went up on Crossroads' bulletin boards a while back. It verified a lot of speculations I made when Jpay became the state's contracted provider of online money transfers and "print-and-deliver" e-mail services for prisoners. (Let it never be said that I can't read the tea leaves.) Some things surprised me, though.

The tablets' promised features include:
  • secure e-mail (with image and "VideoGram" attachments available on incoming messages);
  • music and e-book downloads (with movie and game downloads as a behavior-based privilege);
  • KA Lite videos;
  • individualized assignments from education instructors;
  • some variety of daily news feed;
  • electronic access to the prison health and grievance systems, as well as caseworker communications; and
  • (eventually) phone service.
Jpay kiosks set up in the prisons will make video visits available, too.

Except for the education material (which apparently doesn't include the e-books), all of these things will cost money. Prisoners will pay 25¢ to send an e-mail, and who knows how much to download a song from what Jpay brags is "the largest music catalog available in corrections." The state says that its take from these features won't contribute to the DOC's general revenue but stay in the Offender Canteen Fund, which covers things like gym equipment, games and kids' toys for the visiting room, cable TV, and library books — all funded solely with markups on products sold in the prison canteens.

Prisons are full of people with addictive personalities and poor impulse control. Tablet PCs are going to be the best pacifier the DOC has ever seen. With their slack faces aglow above bluish screens, thousands of prisoners will join the ranks of the device-dependent, zombified and utterly inert except for their swiping, tapping, hovering index fingers, too entranced to kick up a fuss. I hope it renders them at least partially mute, also. I could use some peace and quiet.

As far as how a tablet will change my prison existence for the better, well, I'm looking forward to doing away with much of snail mail's delay, and if the Jpay app and website allow for cutting and pasting of text at the recipients' end these blog posts will become a hell of a lot more timely. Because the music I most enjoy tends to be pretty far outside the mainstream, I do worry that my listening pleasures will be diminished. (Somehow it seems unlikely that I'll find the Bolshoi, Xiu Xiu, or even Zola Jesus in Jpay's catalog. We'll see.) Depending on the educational videos' subjects and sophistication, that could be interesting, but I'm not holding my breath.

The rollout's going to take a while. No specific date's been announced. The bureaucracy first has to amend many long-standing DOC policies, and Governor Eric Greitens even has to get involved, revoking the 2007 executive order I posted about the effects of here, which was issued by a predecessor who thought video games and R-rated movies were somehow responsible for prisoner's continued bad behavior.

There is an incentive for the powers that be to quickly get their ducks in a row, though. A settlement between the DOC and a Missouri prisoner led to the Department banning all tobacco products and smoking/vaping accoutrements in its so-called correctional centers. Testy convicts with one less distraction and a dwindling number of incentives to play nice might prove to be more of a handful than 37,000 five-inch tablets.

16 February, 2018

The Whistling Plague

Those cherubic heads drawn in the corners of old maps, representing the four winds, with their puckered lips and Louis Armstrong cheeks? The little man who moved into my wing a few weeks back makes the same face but contributes nothing aesthetically pleasing by doing so. In fact, his presence only taints the already iffy wing ambiance.

Can a person ever be said to whistle aggressively? To rephrase: can someone whistle in such a way that the sound constitutes a deliberate imposition, a taunt, a challenge — a sonic fuck you to all within earshot? This loud little prick seems to spend all day blaring a tuneless mess out of his face. And now he's not alone.

Bad behavior is contagious. Suddenly, every guy running around with a chip on his shoulder has a song in his heart that he wants to share, however inartfully.

Noise is, across personality types and constitutions, a universal irritant. The louder it is, the more stress it induces. Ask the abused detainees of Abu Ghraib prison about AC/DC, or Navy SEALS about Hell Week's cacophony, or Manuel Noriega about the heavy-metal onslaught of his compound by U.S. forces' loudspeakers in 1989 — prolonged exposure to high-volume sound will drive you out of your mind.

Because of my neurological "complications," whistling of any volume or musical competency is generally on par with the smell of baby powder or, perhaps more relatably, biting a nice, big piece of aluminum foil. I dislike most of the people in my wing anyway. They act as if the world owes them something; they disregard the most common courtesies. The eruption of largely atonal whistling by people whose presence was already powerfully unpleasant is just shit-icing on the turd cake.

Why whistle in public at all? Like humming or singing to onself, it's a form of expression that's okay when you're alone — and basically not at any other time. Consider that no sane, reasonable human would, say, walk through their workplace honking at random. How is whistling different? In whose mind is whistling as piercingly as possible acceptable? And yet I am surrounded on all sides by those oblivious to their own behavior, and those too arrogant to care who's put off by it. Either failing goes a long way toward an explanation of why they're in prison in the first place.

Patient Zero, the small-statured man who brought the Whistling Plague upon us, moved in two months after someone assaulted him. He threatened and insulted a man using "his" shower, and that man leapt out, stark naked and dripping, to beat him down. Maybe someone else will get fed up with his dissonance, but even if I were that lucky there'd still be the remaining infected. My only hope against the Whistling Plague is my over-the-ear headphones.

13 February, 2018

They Treat My Prison Cell Like It's a Model Home

I'm feeding a sheet of paper into my typewriter, first thing after my cellmate leaves for work, when the door cracks and our housing unit's Lilliputian day-shift sergeant peeks in.

"Mister Case?"

"Good morning," I say, expecting her to tell me I'm needed in the caseworker's office, at Medical, or any of the half-dozen places at Crossroads that might, on any given day of the week, surprise me with a pass. But no.

"I have a young gentleman here who just started," she explains, opening the door to another very small person, this one in civilian clothes, with a coiffure like Superboy's. "Would you mind if I showed him your cell?"

The paper wound mechanically around the platen. Oh, this again. "No, not at all."

Just like the lowest-numbered cell on the bottom walks tend to be the first searched in routine shakedowns, my cell, the first one on the upper tier, gets this type of attention often. I suspect that the bigger factors in its demo-model status are that I'm not a surly fuck all the time, and what the tiny sergeant tells her trainee as I step out for her guided tour: "It's very clean. They're usually not like this."

The two staff members point and gesture — at the arrangement of our footlockers, at my shelf of books and CDs, at Doyle's terrible fantasy art, and at other stuff I don't pay attention to because I use this time out as an excuse to head downstairs and add a couple of last-minute items to my canteen order. Before I'm done at the touch screen at the front of the wing, the sergeant singsongs, "Thank you!"

I half turn. Unable to think of anything more appropriate, I give a thumbs-up. This is not what people expect prison to be like.

30 January, 2018

Fiction Contest Frustration

I submitted my short story "Such Misery Moves through the World" to Glimmer Train's New Writers Contest last October. It was my very first time entering a writing contest. As exciting as you'd think this was, I put it out of my mind the moment the envelope went out.

A willed forgetfulness is a crucial skill for all writers who want their work to be published: we send out the submission, we log it in our records, and we move on to the next piece of writing that calls for our attention. Dwelling on the odds of a forthcoming acceptance is a sure-fire way of going insane — and not the good, clever kind of insanity, the checking-your-box-every-ten-minutes-while-pacing-a-furrow-into-your-floor kind. It isn't productive or pretty.

So I waited patiently. A few @Free_Byron_Case followers saw my #ByronSays tweet about the contest and probed for updates, otherwise I might've forgotten it altogether. My writerly anticipations lay mostly in wondering when the essay and poems already accepted elsewhere would be published. Whether this constitutes another kind of madness is debatable, but at least it's based on the written agreement to publish my work, not just wishful thinking.

Three months flew by. Then the envelope arrived. I managed my expectations by thinking, They returned the whole manuscript, but at least they'll have included criticism on the story.

The thirty pages of "Such Misery Moves through the World" were held together by a mini binder clip, my cover letter at the back. A printed announcement of winners had been stuck into the envelope, on top. My name wasn't on it. I read it twice to be sure. Riffling the manuscript pages revealed no footnotes, marginalia, symbols, underlinings, Doritos dust, or dried bodily fluids. I was disappointed.

I hadn't actually expected to win. Glimmer Train attracts a crowd of fiction writers who've yet to publish stories, so the competition is stiff. Also, the story I submitted is pretty fantastical — "Neil Gaiman channeling Garrison Keillor" is how I've described it, and speculative fiction is not the most likely to win over the magazine's editors. For the $18 entry fee, though, I'd think some indication that my manuscript was read by a conscious, literate, human being would've been a given. Other contests' entry fees entitle entrants to one-year subscriptions or copies of the publication they submitted work for. I only got that binder clip.

These things are contraband. Crossroads' mail room should've confiscated it but was apparently in too great a hurry. So, yeah, the one thing my first writing-contest entry got me I had to throw away. That kind of irony is almost good enough to put in a story.

15 January, 2018

Ever Faithful, My Brother Typewriter Returns to Me

When the correction ribbon started popping off at random times, uncoiling its spool quite inconveniently, I decided it was time to send the workhorse, my typewriter, away for a while.

I knew I'd miss it, but repairs had to be made. I rely on this machine too much — for typing this blog, journal submissions, personal letters, manuscript drafts for my endlessly unfinished novel, and more. It's the tool with which I daily ply my trade, writing. It's my avocation and my primary method of communication. Imagine your cell phone taken away and you'll get a pretty good idea of how I felt about setting Old Faithful in a box and shipping it to one of the last remaining typewriter-supply businesses in existence.

And then it was gone for a month and a half. How did I not lose my mind?

Thankfully, there was no shortage of excellent reading material on hand. I gobbled up a number of books. I even drew a little. Guys in my wing noticed that I came out of my cell a little (a very little) more than usual, too, so I suppose it was good for my social life.

Social, schmocial, though; I wanted to work!

I got a pass to pick up my typewriter from the prison property room, at long last, on Wednesday. I was downright giddy after carrying it back to the housing unit, plugging it in, and hearing the familiar buzz-click-click-click-buzz-buzz of its mechanical power-on sequence, and fell immediately to the task of clearing out my backlog — "triage for my to-do list," I called it.

All may be far from right in the world (I'm still innocent in prison; hey, details), but things in Cell 236 just got a hell of a lot better.