07 June, 2018

Ch-ch-changes (Turn and Face the Strange)

I mean, of course it was going to be different: new prison, new policies, new people. For most of the years I've "been down," my number one rule has been Don't get too comfortable. Spend long enough in the same place, though, and certain mores and means are going to worm their way into even the most mindful lifestyle.

I spent almost exactly sixteen years at Crossroads Correctional Center, in the podunk nowhere that is Cameron, Missouri, one hour north of my hometown. I heard countless complaints over those years — about Crossroads' food, its policies, its staff, its job availabilities, its canteen selection, its yard, and anything else you can imagine. I chalked this up to bellyaching. Many prisoners, maybe even most of them, just can't accept that prison is supposed to be unpleasant. For me, being so close to home meant getting a lot of visits. As long as I had the company of my mother and my dear friends, I'd have put up with any number of worse torments than Crossroads could dish out.

After my comrade in the literary craft jumped ship — not abandoning writing, only boarding a lifeboat to Jefferson City Correctional Center, nearer his familiar shores — Lefty wrote that he'd try to persuade me to follow if not for my mother. JCCC's computer center, extra recreation hours, and all-around modernity sounded good, but he knew that regularly seeing Mum meant much, much more than any of that stuff could. I never even thought about leaving, except in the sense of leaving prison altogether.

Then leaving was forced upon me. A whole other set of parameters thrown into my face, I was so tipped over that, for a short stretch, I couldn't even reliably keep track of the day and date. Sleep came fleetingly and without much depth. I was relieved that at least there's no 5 AM head count here — it's 6:00, and the added hour makes a world of difference now that I'm approaching normal sleep again. Part of the trick lay in finding a position where light from the wing and the yard, blasting through the cell windows, didn't shine right in my face.

The cells here at ERDCC are slightly more versatile than I'm used to. The metal desks aren't bolted down, and an honest-to-goodness chair (plastic, armless, beige) can be set wherever. The bunks running widthwise, not lengthwise, took some getting used to. Because there's no shelving, everything has to fit in or on the desk and our footlockers.

When I got around to hooking up and turning on my TV, I was pleased to find not only AMC and FX, which show the only series I care to watch, but also TCM , three channels of in-house movies, two channels that play music and music videos (Gothic, Industrial, Electronic & New Wave, every Thursday and Sunday!), and one that plays entire TV series, for bingeing things like all three seasons of Fargo, or the anime series Bleach.

Being relegated to general pop means more restrictive conditions than life in the honor dorm entailed. Until my status can be upgraded, as I'm working toward now, being locked down for eighteen hours a day (and a less unpleasant fifteen hours, on recreation days) is my new normal. My current cellmate isn't very clean, so I do a lot of spill-wiping and hair-sweeping when I'm not writing, but at least he stays out of my stuff and respects typing time. A short-timer here on a parole violation, he's got other shit on his mind. I let him watch my TV and he mostly stays quiet. Quiet is key.

The forty-minute periods we're out, morning, afternoon, and evening, to shower, use the telephones in the wing, get ice, play games, socialize, enter our canteen orders for the week, or see a caseworker, are always over too quickly. I can hardly wait until the tablet PCs arrive and make e-mail possible, so that some of the disconnect I feel will diminish. The Wi-Fi antennas are already installed in the wings and outside of every housing unit. It shouldn't be much longer….

My first week wasn't out before I hit the gym. Everyone gripes about its size, but it not only seems comparable to Crossroads' (minus one basketball court — good riddance), there are more available machines here. Moreover, acoustic tiling keeps the ballers' screaming from deafening anyone nearby. I'm still not sure if it's my imagination or if ERDCC is just a cleaner, better maintained facility. All of the equipment looks new.

The library actually is small, but there's a selection that'll keep me reading awhile. On my first trip there, I found eight books that were on my wish list. That was just from a five-minute perusal of the fiction shelves. The legal computers sat empty, every one. Research is going to be a breeze. I even submitted a job application while I was there. Unlike at Crossroads, the honor dorm here strictly requires residents to have jobs. I'm laying a foundation for greater freedom here, as well as for in the world at large.

Everyone knows about prison food. The word was that ERDCC's was some of the worst. Sorry, but I happen to find most of it a marked improvement. Besides the fresh bananas, Granny Smith and Fuji apples, and, improbably, kiwis, there's actually onion in things here. And meat. Only two entrées have put me off, so far: the tamale pie and the chili. One look at either one and you'd understand why.

No one prepared me for the visiting situation, how informal and unintrusive an environment the visiting room would be. When Mum got that wild hair and packed the car for a Saint Louis road trip, then tooled down I-55, bound for Bonne Terre, on the first Sunday of my stay, I fumbled my way to the opposite side of the facility and onto the visiting room floor virtually blind. Sitting down beside Mum's wonderful, familiar face, I was not overcome by the sense of being scrutinized at every moment (even if we were), but of sitting in on a spaghetti dinner in a church basement. Maybe the Sunday afternoon crowd was responsible — grandparents, children, mothers, a wife or two, babies. At our table, with smiling, friendly people milling around, Mum and I studiously took in our surroundings, then lost ourselves in conversation for the next three hours. It was a period during which I felt myself again, totally comfortable, in spite of where I was. That felt different, too.

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