26 March, 2020

Coronavirus: A Prisoner's Perspective


While COVID-19 continues its rampage, governments institute shelter-in-place orders, and people hoard enough toilet paper to get their households through months of nonstop diarrhea, I sit safe and sound in prison, concerned about the tumult but feeling a little detached. As a prisoner, I've basically been quarantined since 2001. I pity the nonessential-business owners and wage workers whose lives the virus is turning upside-down. In a different way, I also pity the fortunate salaried workers losing their minds after being stuck at home for a few days.

Adding to my sense of detachment, an e-mail I got from the Missouri Department of Corrections last week announced, "At this time, our goal is to continue to offer the same services and maintain normal operations to the extent possible. There are no plans to eliminate programming, recreation, canteen services or other functions." Although I can't go for a walk in the park, I can still hit up the library and attend Thursday-morning Buddhist services in the chapel. On the inside, right now, little is changing.

I heard a staff member complain how good he thinks we prisoners have it, because we, unlike him, aren't yet restricted from using the gym or hanging out in groups. Even under normal circumstances I dislike this type of shallow assumption. If prisoners really have it so good, why isn't a jealous public continually beating down the gates to get in here? Tempted as I felt to point out to that man the rule against gatherings of more than three inmates, I let his ignorance be.

At the time of this writing, one person in the Missouri Department of Corrections' custody (a male prisoner at WRDCC, in Saint Joseph) has tested positive for coronavirus. To the best of my knowledge, he was whisked away for real medical care quickly, but prisons are petri dishes; widespread contagion throughout that institution seems inevitable. We live in such closed quarters, and so few of my neighbors have even rudimentary hygiene. (I can't even count those I've seen sneeze without at all covering their mouths this week.) Frankly, I'm amazed that an endless, perpetual, all-out war against typhoid and dysentery isn't part of prison life. This place is filthy.

My janitorial job in the offices of its administrative segregation unit (aka "the Hole") now demands that I show up two extra days a week, just to wipe down every surface — from door handles to computer mouses — with bleach solution. At the end of each day's work, I initial one form and write down on a different one how much of which cleaning products I used. The thoroughness of my labor can't always be seen, but the offices do smell like a public swimming pool when I leave.

Most of the prisoners scoff at the notice on ERDCC's closed-circuit TV channel that says, "We have hand sanitizer strategically placed around the institution and flyers indicating the correct procedure to wash your hands." No one I know has seen any of the former. We all joke that the placement of hand sanitizer was "strategic" in that the administration deliberately put it where no prisoner could get to any. As for the flyers, I suspect that it'll take more than colorful pieces of paper to convince the slobs to scrub their greasy mitts once in a while.

Missouri prisoners are just waiting for contagion to sweep their facilities. Even with employee screening in place, COVID-19's speed and spread have most of us feeling like it's just a matter of time. With no grocery stores to decimate the shelves of, we instead stockpile Top Ramen and summer sausage from the prison canteen, prepping for the doomsday scenario that is a lockdown. But I, for one, refuse to panic-purchase. If (or when) a lockdown comes, I have enough savories to supplement the brown-bag meals of PB & J sandwiches they'll feed us for weeks. I'll stay busy, too, with books, art supplies, and, of course, my writing. It won't be too bad. It's you out there I worry about.

19 March, 2020

Five Books I Spent My Winter Reading

My neighbor and Buddhist acquaintance Tim brought me the first book on this season's reading list. Humanistic Buddhism: Holding True to the Original Intents of Buddha looked interesting enough. I don't generally judge books by their covers, but the delightful photo of its author, the happily aging Venerable Master Hsing Yun, could win over even the hardest heart. There was also that subtitle. I subscribe to a kind of originalist thinking where Buddhism is concerned, so of course "The Original Intents Buddha" also hit a nerve.

After the Buddha's enlightenment, there were schisms and geographic divergences. It's impossible today to speak to a stranger about one's own idea of Buddhism and be immediately, fully understood. To start with, there are Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana flavors of Buddhism, each of which divides into its own traditions, schools, and lineages. Having come from deeply irreligious tendencies, I appreciate how Buddhism recognizes the individual as being uniquely empowered to help him- or herself find liberation from the suffering that pervades existence. Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical figure (not to be confused with a prophet or deity), had a profound experience that he went on to teach as a philosophy, a simple way of life. Buddhism's religious trappings seem like so much gilding of the lily. Why embellish what's already perfect?

Humanistic Buddhism, as translated by Venerable Miao Guang, of Fo Guang Shan Monastery, wasn't quite what I'd hoped. The history of Chinese Buddhism featured heavily, and that was interesting enough. The book began with an explanation that Master Hsing Yun's "Humanistic Buddhism" is effectively a universal Buddhism, dispensing with the sectarian divides and embracing Buddhism's fundamental similarities. Cool, but the book soon devolved into an unfocused rant against politicians and other Buddhist organizations that, in his eighty years as a monk, Hsing Yun ran afoul of. Not so cool. I read it all, but by the end was disappointed that no uniting wisdom was forthcoming.

Less delightful in photos is Alan Moore:


You get the impression that from his pen flows brilliant madness. He wrote the excellent graphic novel V for Vendetta and coauthored the landmark series Watchmen, both of which went on to have successful lives as motion-picture adaptations. And yet his 1,260-page Jerusalem: A Novel won't likely go from page to screen in any era. A love letter to Moore's UK hometown of Northampton, Jerusalem taipses across centuries, playing fast and loose with history and conventions of readability alike. Moore's family, as well as past and current residents of "the Burroughs," as Northampton is sometimes called, might be tickled by his countless references to the city's cramped and crooked streets; I wasn't. My reason for finishing this tome was twofold: (1) hope would not die that a plot might congeal amid the happenstantially connected vignettes, and (2) I am frequently stubborn in the face of literature.

One of multiple positives to being confined at ERDCC, as opposed to Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent sixteen years, is involvement with the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program. I've blogged about SLU events before, but this whole semester is devoted to the Big Read — an initiative by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, to bring communities together with a good book. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, was the book in question. Even though I don't usually enjoy historical nonfiction, I tore though this excellent, harrowing account of nineteenth-century survival at sea, and had a lot to discuss, afterward, with other prisoners and the professors who visited us.

Going back to reading alone, I turned to the comparatively tame writing of Richard Peabody, a minor figure in contemporary American literature, who founded Gargoyle Magazine in the mid-'70s. Edited by Peabody's longtime friend in letters, Lucinda Ebersole, it collects stories, poems, and a novella — almost forty years of Peabody's writing, which, given the large span it covers, felt uneven, its high points rising from the imaginative form certain pieces take, its low points lurking in certain characters' overwrought emotional responses. Lauri B. thoughtfully ordered The Richard Peabody Reader for me, from my usually carefully curated Amazon wishlist. I didn't relish this collection, but Lauri's generosity (last year she gave me a thoroughly fascinating and quite helpful book about the cultural history of zombies) remains deeply appreciated.

Constance M. then delighted me with a Michel Houellebecq novel, The Possibility of an Island (translated by Gavin Bowd). Back in the summer of 2013 (as my reading list for that season shows), I read Houellebecq's dour metafictional take on the detective procedural, The Map and the Territory. That book deeply frustrated me on certain levels, but I recognized the seething intelligence of Houellebecq's writing and was intrigued by The Possibility of an Island's apocalyptic sci-fi premise. "The most important French novelist since Camus," Houellebecq's been called. That's not a comparison I'm prepared to make; however, The Possibility of an Island deals in existential theories and even deconstructs love, breaking it down to its most fundamental elements. A lesser writer would've fallen flat on his face, trying. The ground across which The Possibility of an Island traipses is rich with ponderings of several difficult, or at least uncomfortable, questions. It can't be denied that, however unlikeable Houellebecq's political or social ideals might be, he sees the Western world through eyes unafraid to peer beyond the veil of propriety by scrutinizing values, taboos, authorities, and sacred cows of every type.

The reclusive medieval Buddhist monks Yoshida Kenko and Kamo No Chomei, respectively, wrote Essays in Idleness and Hojoki. Meredith McKinney translated the Penguin Classics volume that includes both. These works paint a fascinating picture of two complex, surprising, often very funny humans. Both were recluses. Chomei lived alone in a hojo, a ten-square-foot hut, in the forest. Kenko, a well-known poet in his day, retained his highbrow social circle after abandoning worldly life in what's now Kyoto, and many of his fourteenth-century thoughts feel Twitter-ready, or at least suitable for microblogging. One extremely brief entry amid the 243 Essays reads, "A certain recluse monk once remarked, 'I have relinquished all that ties me to the world, by the none thing that still haunts me is the beauty of the sky.' I can quite see why he would feel this." It's tempting to imagine that his hashtags were edited out for print publication.

12 March, 2020

Cable Outage Means Convict Outrage


The TVs go black on a clear, sunshiny day, but I'm busy writing and don't know about it until my neighbor comes to the door. "Wha'cha think about the cable?" he asks, his rural Missouri twang slurred by lack of teeth. I peer at him over my glasses in a way that I hope conveys impatience.

You'll never see a man's mood turn quicker than when a prisoner starts missing his cable TV. On the rare occasion when the facility's cable goes out, the first resort of the TV addict is to games, music, telephone calls, or a nap. (Almost none will read.) My neighbor is one such person. After whole minutes of silence in his cell, he emerged, hoping to commune with someone as miserable as he is.

"I didn't even know it was out," I say. "I'm busy doing my own thing."

"Phew! Cable's been out since lunch. I don't see how you can go that long."

"My TV's been off since 5 o'clock yesterday," I tell him. Might it inspire him to questioning of his own viewing habits?

Taxpayers in Missouri don't contribute to amenities in their state's prisons. While I can't obliterate the suspicion that we prisoners are coddled with good food, full medical coverage, and free cable, I can point cynics to these qualifications: the food is mostly edible, the privatized medical care is shamefully inadequate, and that I'm paying an exorbitant price (just not in money) for this "free" subscription. For the record, I'd happily trade these luxuries for a cardboard box under a railroad bridge in a heartbeat.

My neighbor, maybe not so much. He rubs his mouth like a crackhead waiting for another rock and says, "Yeah, well, some of us can't just sit around like that."

This feels silly, giving life advice to a man fifteen years my senior, but I shrug and offer him one of my shiniest nuggets of wisdom: "Sometimes you've got to make your own fun."

"Fuck that," he says. "I'm gonna go ask them what's the deal."

The cable is paid out of a dedicated account fed by 20% markups to items sold by the institution's canteen, as well as to media for our tablet computers. It's a large account. Also paid out of it are gym equipment, library books and furnishings, board and card games for the housing units, religious service paraphernalia, and visiting room amenities — anything deemed nonessential to the running of the institution, in other words. But even if it's not officially acknowledged as such, the powers that be are fully aware that uninterrupted cable TV service is crucial to maintaining order.

My neighbor ventures out of the wing to harasses a guard in the control module and I think, That won't be the last I hear about it.

My prediction bears out. The evening's a loud one. Twice as many people as usual mill around the wing, desperate for distraction, seeking entertainment in the company of their cohort, left adrift by blank screens. I hide out in my cell.

Peace comes the next morning when many sleep in, unwilling as they are to endure a few hours without someone else putting the thoughts into their heads. Unconsciousness seems to me like a sad pastime. Yet again I wonder what's so scary about being alone with oneself.

Throughout the walk to the dining hall at breakfastime, every conversation I overhear is about how "crazy" it is that we're still unplugged after almost fifteen hours. The man behind me in line stops literally every guard he sees, to ask, "What's up on the cable?" Most of them arrived for their shift a half hour earlier and have no idea what he's talking about, yet still he fishes for... what, exactly? Even if someone were to say that Spectrum techs are on site, replacing filters or whatever, he won't be satisfied until he's sitting in front of his TV, images flashing at his eyes and sounds firing into his ears. Does he even realize that his hunger's insatiable?

"Crazy," he mutters. "Fuckin' crazy. They just hopin' some shit kicks off so they can lock everybody down and not have to worry 'bout us anymore."

This sort of threat of flipping out is common but mostly empty — passive-aggressive venting born of powerlessness. But idle hands being the Devil's playthings means that the vidiots will remain unoccupied for only so long before they do something stupid. My reason for wishing the cable repaired is different from most guys'.

Crazy, indeed. This is the world I live in.

02 March, 2020

A Personal Poem That Might Be Better Left Unshared


Joy Buzzer

Shelved at the video-rental store I worked at, at nineteen,
Were all the movies you'd expect, plus thousands
In a special section walled off from the general population
But accessible through a door, unlocked remotely
From behind the counter by a plastic doorbell-button.
The pornography the store carried was triple-X,
And the manager, whose lisp like dragon's breath singed up close,
Touted free employee rentals and the city's largest selection
Of bisexual flicks. He fished, but all I ever took home
Were Bowie's Ziggy Stardust concert film
And a Siouxsie & the Banshees compilation.
Some guys (of course it was always guys)
Strode across to the door, took the knob in hand,
And waved. For them I pressed the Joy Buzzer
Without delay. But with the skulking meek
Picking up DVDs of Antz and Apt Pupil and not reading
The plot summaries but, rather, casting glances
At nearby browsers before scurrying to the door the second
Backs were turned, I pretended pressing the button,
Seized by invisible laughter as they futilely tugged
And mugged aghast. We did a dance at that distance:
I shook my head, mimed confusion, then stooped again
In imitation of admittance, and they either tried the door
A second time or first spun to verify that eyes remained averted.
I tell you, I craved catharsis — for the shamed to see my thoughts
And know the one and only thing keeping them locked out.
But months of workdays went by without it, and I returned
To my cat and single-bedroom unit, to nights
Avoiding calls and company y in favor
Of sticking binoculars through the blinds
And reading smiling couples' lips
At the café across the street.


* * * * *

The situations depicted in this poem are, oddly (and sadly) enough, altogether fact-based. Maybe that's why I was never able to find a poetry journal or literary magazine interested in publishing it: they picked up on its reportorial vibe. This is why I decided it makes a better blog post than poem. Still, by virtue of form and language it is a poem. Can the poet say anything for himself that the poem itself doesn't reveal? Sure. That's the stuff of autobiography, though, and I'm not writing one of those

26 February, 2020

Decadence


It was the time I staggered up the cracked and buckled sidewalk, having just drank too much Congress vodka and Coca-Cola in the backseat of a friend's VW, and strove to keep my steps straight until the police cruiser passed or turned the corner. It was a miracle that the three flights of steps to my apartment didn't involve a tumble, and doubly astonishing that I successfully found the toilet in which to experience my first glorious, life-altering purge.

Or it was the time I occupied a Formica-topped table at Sydney's, with a rotating cast of the diner's regulars, for seven straight hours, drinking cup after cup of brackish coffee and excusing myself every half hour to "powder my nose." The lights there might've seemed too bright, but I felt incandescent. At dawn I couldn't find a toilet fast enough.

Or it was the time someone's mother asked me, after I inadvertently broke her backyard fence and terrified the family dog, to take my cocaine and devil-may-care attitude out of her house. Her daughter, the girl throwing the party, wasn't pleased, either, and would've given me an earful at school the following Monday, had I not dropped out the summer before.

Or it was the time I was a drunk (not to mention very high) passenger in the woefully inadequate backseat of my friend Abraham's old Datsun, singing "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" all the way through. In a British accent. While sitting upside-down.

Or it was the time I walked to work, in wrinkled chinos, from an acquaintance's apartment, the thick taste of the night before still at the back of my throat, then spent eight hours shilling Barbie dolls and remote-control cars to parents whose children's allowance exceeded my own income, even before you deducted for drugs.

Or it was the time I awoke fuzzy-headed on the floor of a bedroom belonging to a girl I didn't remember meeting, in a different city than the one in which the excitement of the night before began. Her pretty sister drove me home — a great personal inconvenience about which she didn't try to hide her vexation. I never saw either of them again.

Or it was the time Jason and Ash, humming in their respective intoxications, laughed in giddy falsettos at my tissue-plugged nostrils. They pointed out to me the blood-spattered carpet all the way to the bathroom. We resumed band practice once they caught their breath, forgetting my bloodstains on the basement floor, which had, by the next time we played together, darkened to resemble soy sauce, brown calligraphy ink, or oil leaked from a slowly dying machine.

Or it was the time I blacked out at an illegal warehouse party and came to on cold concrete, staring up into unfamiliar flashing multicolored faces — none of whom I recognized — and believed that my pathetic life was not my own.

What do these sad instances, and countless intoxicated others, add up to? How many years of ignorance before I reached this point! How much suffering! And while I might sometimes wish that those regrettable years had gone differently, that I had found a way to avoid so much more — and more enduring — agony, I always remind myself of their necessity. Without them, I couldn't have arrived at the mental peace I now know, free to live a life of deeper meaning, where the importance of certain things previously taken for granted has been rendered as clear and as bracing as cold water from a deep spring. That's well worth the streak of sad senselessness.

10 February, 2020

Where's the Time Go?


You think that because I'm locked up in prison I have all the time in the world? I don't. Time slips through my fingers just the same as yours does — yours and everyone else's out there — because I'm alive with purpose, because I color outside the lines, because even after eighteen years I refuse to become someone whose days pass in a gray blur of dominoes, TV, and masturbation between naps. I do things; I use my time.

Without exception, I'm up and dressed and drinking a glass of water before 6 AM. There's no sleeping through the morning count. Besides, I've got a whole day ahead of me.

But first, fifteen minutes of meditation. (I'll do another five hours from now, right before lunch.) It's a good way to begin.

Breakfast is served a little before 7, which gives me just enough time to eat and make it back to the house to shave and brush my teeth before work call. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings are my workdays. I clean the offices of the housing unit next door. It's an acceptable job I took a year and eight months ago, solely to avoid the eight-hour-a-day time suck that is kitchen slavery. No other position I know of here can beat three hours a day, three days a week, even if all I do is sweep, mop, clean a bathroom, shred paper, and put away files.

On days I'm off, I do my morning hygiene routine after breakfast, then check my e-mail and write replies for about an hour before turning to writing whatever's most pressing at the moment. Right now I'm taking great pains to write a synopsis for my novel-in-stories. Sometimes it's an essay, a poem, or a passage for my next book. At other times it's a blog post. At still other times I jot #ByronSays tweets. I probably juggle these more often than is recommended for real productivity.

My reading occasionally takes on an importance and an urgency that most people wouldn't understand. The Missouri Department of Corrections restricts its prisoners from having more than six books in their possession at one time. If someone surprises me with a couple of titles from my Amazon wishlist I've got to either be under my limit or ready to part with two of the books I already have. I like to be prepared. I also like to keep my New Yorker subscription from piling up, so after lunch I'll often pick up a book or magazine and read for an hour or, if I can fit it in, two.

In addition to my normal reading, I took on even more when I signed up for the NEA's Big Read, which the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program is facilitating here — a series of discussions led by visiting academics, about the book we're reading as a community, Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea. It's kind of like I signed up for a one-book club. I am clearly a literary masochist.

On Tuesday and Friday mornings, as well as every other Wednesday afternoon, I hightail it to the gym, where I work out for an hour or so. I do bodyweight training and like to finish with twenty minutes on an elliptical. On days when we don't have gym access, I spend the recreation period working out in my cell, shuffling my "Electronic Exhilaration" playlist at a volume the neighbors might not like but don't complain about.

ERDCC has laundry facilities that wash and (usually) dry prisoners' mesh bags full of dirty clothes, but the stuff inevitably comes back wrinkled, dingy, and smelling slightly sour. I buy my own detergent and keep my whites nice and bright by hand-washing everything I wear. Laundry's an every-other-day chore (plus weekly sheet days) that takes upward of forty minutes. It's meditative in its own way. I make it official by listening to Buddhist lessons on CD.

The odd Wednesday afternoons not spent in the gym are squandered on canteen pickup. Afterward, I dance around my cellmate as we unbag our stuff and put it away. It can take a while.

Thursday mornings, I spend two generally peaceful hours in the chapel, attending Buddhist service. I look forward to our services, led by whichever of us volunteered earlier that month. Our discussions are almost always the best I have here all week.

"Jeopardy!" airs at 4:30 on weekday afternoons. There's another half hour. I don't watch much other TV, now that Legion and Mr. Robot are over. Fargo's returning soon, though....

Between all of this there are telephone calls to make. I keep a lot of good people close to me. Staying in touch is essential. The phone situation at ERDCC is trickier than it was at Crossroads, where honor dorms offered six phones for the seventy-two occupants of a wing. Here the phones-to-prisoners ratio is one third smaller — not great. I wait in line and use them when I can. Unlike the people I call, who can carry me from room to room or store to store as they see fit, I'm tethered to a box on a wall by a very short metal cord. If I could draw, clip my nails, or whatever other trivial shit I felt like doing while gabbing away, it'd be nice to move a little during that time.

I'm in bed before 10:30 most every night, often fighting to stay awake that long, wishing I had more free time — maybe another three hours a day. I'd use it for drawing. I don't draw nearly enough.

04 February, 2020

Bachelor Pad? More Like Trick Bag!

I should've known it'd be something like this. The single-occupancy cell rumor I was excited enough to blog about (see "A Room of One's Own," from December) is a rumor no more. Unfortunately, its transition from the realm of speculation proves yet again that the hype often falls far short of the reality when dreams come true.

Half the wing gathered around the man handing out applications. Everyone wanted a form, probably out of curiosity as much as out of intent. Prisoners, more so than most demographics, transform into hungry wolves when free stuff's on offer. Ever the wallflower, I held back until the pack disbursed back to their respective dens. The ERDCC administration clearly failed to anticipate how desirable human beings might find the prospect of solitude — the guy was completely out of forms by the time I showed up.

My neighbor happened to get one, though, and it was he who granted me a look at the criteria. Common sense and eighteen years' experience in the DOC gave me an inkling of what the qualifications would be. Seeing them with my own eyes was still a downer.

Going five years without a conduct violation and showing "good institutional adjustment" seem obvious enough. More unexpected was the requirement that one attend an ongoing self-help group or education program, or that one complete a class in the ERDCC Learning Center every three months. Sure, fine, I thought.

Then I read this: "If removed from Privileged Dorm Status, (Single Cell) must wait 12 months for Honor Status, no wait for Pre Honor Status." Grammatically and logistically, this sentence barely makes sense to me — and I live here. However, having conferred with my fellow prisoners on the subject, I now understand. A resident of a good-conduct wing usually won't get the boot for one conduct violation but is out on his ass after a second within a year. Comparatively, a single infraction is all it'll take to land a lucky bachelor back in general population.

The situation sounds great but would be a little like performing a tightrope act. There isn't a single cell here that doesn't contain something, however piddly and inconsequential, that a searching guard couldn't write its occupants up for — too many books, a photo hung with tape peeled off an envelope, or a borrowed magazine, maybe. You'd have to be extra, extra careful. There's an everyday risk, just being in prison, of getting caught up in the midst of a situation you previously had nothing to do with. I can see how living in a single-man cell could lead to heightened concern — even outright paranoia. General population, with its twenty-hour-a-day lockdowns, few recreation opportunities, and iffy options for socializing, totally sucks. That'd be a loooooong way to fall.

After further consideration, then, I take back what I said about my eagerness to live the single life. Jeff's a good cellmate. I'm fine, living where I do at the moment. However, I reserve the option to re-reconsider my choice at a later date, should circumstances, or the rules of the single-occupancy-cell incentive program, change.

29 January, 2020

The Ohio Risk-Assessment System Doesn't Work on the Innocent

The wing's loudspeaker blares, "Byron Case, bravo two-oh-seven, report to the caseworker's office." However much I'd like to ignore the interruption or put it off awhile, I drop the book I'm reading and go. It's just downstairs, after all, and shouldn't take but a minute.

Being called to the housing unit's caseworker's office isn't unusual. Caseworkers in prison wear many hats. Privileged mail, what comes from lawyers or the courts, gets shunted straight to the caseworker offices, to be opened and its contents verified in the presence of the addressee. The caseworkers' duties also include witnessing signatures and fingerprints on the appropriate form when a prisoner sends money from his institutional account – for mail ordering books, buying art supplies, paying court costs, making child support payments, et cetera.

The page this time is not for me to pick up a letter or sign a check but to take a questionnaire.

"Have a seat," the man says as I enter his tiny office. I note the Millennium Falcon poster hiding a couple of square feet of one pitted, gray concrete-block wall. Something tells me I won't get out of here any quicker if I weigh in on the perennial Star Wars debate over whether Han shot first. He squints at the packet of about twenty stapled-together pages in his hands. "This is gonna take us a while."

He tells me that the Missouri Department of Corrections is implementing the Ohio Risk-Assessment System, which the packet concerns, as part of its parole assessments. "Bear with me," he says, slipping his reading glasses on. "You're the first person I'm doing this with."

Parole assessments? Someone must've made a mistake. Because I have a first-degree murder sentence, I'm not eligible for parole. I volunteer what should be obvious: "Um, I've got life without."

He sighs, "Yeah, I know. They're making us do these on everybody."

Pages riffle. Someone recently burned popcorn in the office microwave. It's not even 10 AM; who the hell brunches on popcorn?

"Okay, tell me about your crime."

"What do you mean?" I don't want to be doing this in the first place. The presumption of guilt just adds to its offensive nature.

The caseworker's hand swivels on his wrist, as if he's loosening up for a video game tournament. "Just tell me how the crime took place."

"How much room have you got?"

"Summarize," he says, in a tone that sounds, surprisingly, like one of patience.

I give him the facts: that my girlfriend and I were hanging out with my friend Justin; that we went to pick up another friend, Justin's girlfriend, Anastasia; that Justin and Anastasia had been arguing a lot and resumed arguing the moment we picked her up; that Anastasia got out of the car while we were stopped at an intersection; that I never saw Anastasia again, but that after Justin later left our company he went back to meet her; and that the next morning a sheriff's deputy found Anastasia's body lying in a cemetery, shot in the face.

The caseworker has been scribbling notes in pencil while I talk. At no point does he show surprise, nor particular interest.

"How have you taken responsibility for your crime?"

"It's wasn't my crime, so I haven't."

"Okay...." He scribbles some more, then asks, "What steps have you taken to rehabilitate yourself during your incarceration?"

"I don't know about rehabilitation, since I don't think I was dehabilitated to begin with, but I'm always working to improve myself. I do a lot of writing, reading, mindfulness practice. I'm an analytical person by nature – you know, reflective. I think a lot about the kind of person I want to be in the world. I recently started daily meditation."

He looks up. "No programs?"

I know how remedial the DOC's programs tend to be, designed as they are around getting through to the uneducated, selfish, and hardheaded... when they're properly administered at all. A neighbor once took Anger Management and came back with a sheet of rebuses he said they'd been making the class do for weeks:



Years later, I signed up for a class that might actually teach me something. It didn't. I got a certificate for a class they never finished teaching. (I blogged about the tremendous disappointment of Mindfulness Training in 2015.) So I meet the caseworker's gaze, keeping in mind that he's just doing his job, operating under a particular limited mindset, not deliberately working to offend me, and answer him.

"No programs."

Scribble, scribble.

It goes on like this for a half hour. For years, I've said that I'm almost glad, in a perverted way, not to have a paroleable sentence, since it means I'll never be confronted by a panel of antagonistic board members who think they know the truth and are capable of accurately judging people's character. This ordeal of undergoing the Ohio Risk-Assessment System feels nearly as bad as I always believed seeing the parole board would. Will I have to do this all again next year? Shit, I hope not.

23 January, 2020

"Serenity Now!" and Other Meditation Myths


The venerable Tibetan Buddhist teacher Thubten Chodron advises practitioners to set a particular time of day to meditate. She suggests mornings, when the mind is uncluttered by the events of the day. She isn't the only one. I've encountered this advice in a number of places, coming from a number of teachers. I'd love to follow it by setting a specific time for myself to sit in single-point focus. There's just one problem: I often literally can't.

I've ranted many, many times about the inconsistency of prison life. A guy just can't get settled. It's Murphy's Law: precisely when you think that you've got things figured out and have yourself a plan is usually when the rug gets pulled out from under you. The best you can do is to start with good intentions and roll with the punches.

Jeff and I aren't just cellmates, we're also both practitioners of the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. Neither of us is likely to graduate to bodhisattva status in this lifetime, but we do what we can. Funny how I ended up not only in a wing with four of ERDCC's other seven Buddhism practitioners, but living with one as well. It's an agreeable arrangement.

At last Thursday's service, I asked everyone in the group to name a single way in which his practice fell short. As each member of the sangha took his turn, we discussed practical tweaks to potentially remedy his shortcoming. Jeff and I were among the four who lamented our irregular meditation. I suggested to Jeff that we set aside a specific time every day, when we're both in the cell, that we might use to meditate together. By using the buddy system we might improve the other's practice while improving our own. Surprisingly, he doubled down: instead of one time, Jeff suggested two — a fifteen-minute session in the morning and a thirty-minute session after the 10 PM count. It sounded great, in theory.

We were quickly reminded that theory and practice don't always intersect. My head was half dream-fogged; I wasn't focused. I'm clearly no longer the night owl I used to be. After three days of staying up half an hour past my usual bedtime, I threw in the towel. If I'm being realistic about it, anything after 9 o'clock is too congenial to my nodding off.

We compromised by swapping the nighttime sessions for midday ones. Starting at 11 o'clock each morning, the prison spends about forty-five minutes under lockdown for a custody count, which seemed ideal — in between any activities, prior to eating lunch, and without the ruckus of the wing's seventy other residents. Our plan was to listen to a series of guided meditations on CD by the aforementioned Venerable Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron during that time. In that way, our practice might benefit from both analytical mediation and the fixed-point variety that I usually do. Yesterday was the first attempt.

It definitely could've gone better. About twenty minutes in, the wing's loudspeaker squelched and blared static for no apparent reason. Then came the slamming open and closed of someone's cell door. Next, a deafening announcement was made for one of the kitchen slaves to report to work as soon as the yard opened. Then a guard came in, keys wildly jingle-jangling, to slam the fire door. Count seemed to clear ten minutes earlier than ever before, because our door lock unlatched and the door exploded halfway across its track before either of us could fully open our eyes. We stuck with our meditation through the shouts, hoots, whistles, screeches, and reverberating clangs of the other prisoners emerging from stasis. Finally, at the early announcement of lunch (which we had no plan of going to eat), Jeff and I simultaneously burst out laughing. It was ridiculous, this expenditure of effort in the face of the world's absurdity. The world's a noisy place, but damn. This is true adversity we're up against.

Undeterred, we'll try again today, and the day after that. And if it doesn't work after a third attempt we'll try again, just at a different time. I'm not about to be deterred by a little scheduling conflict. I'll get up a half hour early every morning if that's what it takes to build my practice. I'll find what works. There's a reason it's called "practice," after all.

22 January, 2020

The Daily Mail

I finish writing my message and slide the card into its envelope. I remember how gross sealing envelopes used to be. Even minty envelope glue tastes like glue. Also, I hate thinking of the microscopic foreign bodies I'm licking off those sticky little strips. Not having to fuss with them is fine by me.

Except for stuff with lawyers' and courts' addresses on it (with which I haven't got much truck, since I exhausted my last procedural remedy in 2010), all mail has to be inspected by prison staff. Before weekday USPS pickups, someone opens and reads everything in that day's outbound post, making sure no one's calling down gang hits or writing sexually explicit messages. Then they tape the envelopes closed and send them on their way.

ERDCC doesn't do a bad job of getting everyone their mail. Magazines and papers stack up over the weekend and are therefore all that's delivered on Mondays. Otherwise, to the best of my knowledge, none of my mail's ever reached me later than a day after being delivered to the prison. I've heard horror stories of prison mail delivery in other states taking weeks.

There are too many rules governing the mail in Missouri prisons. After eighteen years' confinement to the system, I've internalized them all. Explaining them to friends and people I'm just getting to know — that can be tricky. To anyone unacquainted with this environment and its quirks, many of these rules will sound arbitrary, and possibly insane.

No hair or bodily fluids. That's one that might seem obvious. No paper that appears to have been at one time wet. That's another that isn't quite so obvious. I'm not permitted to receive anything done in magic marker or crayon. No one really understands that one. Stickers on the pages are forbidden. This confounds more people than I can count. Nor can I receive paintings, pop-up cards, photos with more than a couple of words written on the back, cards signed in pencil, photos in the same envelope as a letter, pages larger than 8½"×11", or more than five sheets printed off the Internet in one envelope. Figure out the reasons behind these rules and I'll pay you my entire month's pay — twenty bucks. Totally worth the trouble.

One item that I don't mind being prohibited is glitter. Glitter sucks. I'm actually happy to have someone checking to keep me safe from accidentally getting that evil stuff in my eye, which is where all glitter ultimately goes. (I'm convinced that glitter is just a failed DARPA project to weaponize birthday cards.) Overall, though, the rules are simply burdensome bullshit. If I were conspiracy-minded, I might think that they're intended to deter people from communicating with prisoners at all.

The card I've just addressed gets an ugly Purple Heart stamp. I'm a commemorative-stamp guy by nature, but the Purple Hearts are all the ERDCC canteen sells. Even a flag stamp would be preferable, but as long as it gets my card to its destination I can't complain.

The mailbox is a small white wall-mounted cabinet in the sallyport, the hallway that leads outside and to the caseworker offices. The sallyport also passes the housing unit's control module. Of course the guard working inside that dim terrarium today doesn't pay as much attention as he's probably supposed to. (What could he be reading for all these hours on that monitor? It's not like they can use Facebook on the state computers.) After walking downstairs to the front of the wing, I try to get his attention through the glass, idiotically waving my envelope over my head for what feels like fifteen minutes. I only get the door unlocked thanks to another guard who happens by with keys.

Had this been an actual emergency, the waving he just ignored would've been followed by screaming, fire, and general pandemonium. Inconvenience is a tiny price to pay to wish a friend well-wishes.

07 January, 2020

New Year, New Start


In the year 2020....

Some sci-fi masterwork of yore probably began with these words, then delved into a fantastical far-flung future featuring rocket cars, condominiums on the moon, and food in capsule form. The reality of this date, we all recognize, is a whole lot messier, but here we are, living the dream, one full week into the future.

I've started jotting some decidedly un-science fictional ideas in a composition notebook that hadn't been getting any use. Another book project bubbling up from the creative depths — or wherever such ideas come from — surprised me this past weekend. At this early stage, I'm not altogether sure I know how to classify it. "Speculative fiction" seems too vague; "horror" isn't it at all; "fantasy" involves too much whimsy. My elevator pitch would begin, So it's David Lynch meets Franz Kafka....

Last year saw me finish my first novel, a ten-part collection of interwoven narratives about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. (It has yet to be published. I can only do so much to push this process along.) Finishing that methodical work took a lot out of me. So much research! So many delays! I honestly wasn't sure when or if I'd write long-term fiction again. Now, unexpected but welcome, the Muse reappears. She looks different than when I last saw her. There's a wild look in her eyes, and I know that this one's going to be a much more frenzied, inspired affair than my last effort.

My sangha chose for our January theme "New Year, New Start." Like a mantra, we've been repeating it to each other at times when our adherence to Buddhism's precepts seems most strenuously tested. It's like advising our Buddhist brethren (and ourselves) to be mindful: "Hey, remember your practice." But it also serves as a source of inspiration. Every breath, every moment, every hour, every day is a rebirth. We are continually in this state of flux and therefore capable of an infinite range of changes.

According to Writing in Flow, one of the last books I read last season, falling into the deepest possible state of engagement with your writing project often demands that you perceive it as a challenge. Well, here's a fresh puzzle for my mind to work out — a weird new world for me to discover, with myself being remade in the process.

Beginning afresh can be intimidating. We humans are such creatures of habit. The familiar, the tried and true, the relatable — these comfort us but can also hinder our growth and leave us stagnant. I have the benefit of seeing the same gray concrete walls day in, day out. There's no way out. This sameness makes it essential for me to stretch my mind through the cracks, out into realms of thought and fancy to which reality sometimes pales in comparison.

This strange new book is going to be like nothing I've tried writing before. This year is going to be like none I've lived before. The two are connected, but there's more to it than just the imaginative journey I'm about to embark on. Other good things are happening. The world is constantly changing. We're constantly changing. Look around: we're already living a speculative-fiction future. This is amazing stuff.