11 November, 2022

Irregular Spaces

Among the many tidbits I absorbed during my insatiable reading as a curious kid, who labored to understand people and their motivations, was that interior spaces with geometrically irregular floor plans are more likely to be declared "haunted" than square or rectangular ones. A five-walled room, a room with sloping ceilings, a room with a crooked floor these are where, according to superstition, spirits are wont to play. Take one look at the weird geometries of the famous, supposedly haunted Winchester house, in California, and you can see how someone might be unsettled by architecture.

I don't know if real research has ever gone into the allegedly disorienting effect that bizarrely shaped rooms have on the psyche, but what firsthand effects I've experienced seem very real indeed. While I haven't seen any ghosts, I've felt the subtle yet undeniable pull of madness from occupying oddly shaped rooms for too long. No prison cell that's held me has been perfectly cubical. Plumbing seems to be the main reason for this. Modern cells are designed with an eye toward crude efficiency
efficiency of construction, not in terms of occupants' convenience. Closets housing pipes, valves, conduits, and cables impose themselves on our living areas in the form of diagonal walls. My cell alone has seven wall segments, which just seems excessive. My window looks more or less to the west how directly west I can't say. Another housing unit blocks my view of the sunset (and most of the prison yard). Nothing here runs north-south. For that matter, nothing even aligns with other features of the facility. Every building sits at a funky angle to every other one. The interior spaces defy reasonable dimensions. Hallways run at wonky angles. I have to assume that his design strategy is meant to impart a subtle but notable sense of disorientation in the prisoner population. Maybe its psychological warfare, but, more likely, it's a passive defense against escape attempts. I believe it succeeds on both counts. Windows in prison are a mixed bag. In the Hole, every cell window has downward-angled louvers bolted over it, so you can look outside and see a patch of grass, or maybe concrete, below you but nothing more. I don't claim to understand how this kind of deprivation is legal. In general population units, a window might just as likely look out on a wooded stretch or trees as on a concrete wall, a stretch of highway, a wastewater reclamation facility, or the prison's pickleball court. Not having a decent view is one thing; not having a bathroom is another. At least the cells at Crossroads Correctional Center, while identical in layout, featured bunks that ran at a 90-degree rotation and allowed occupants to hang a sheet and bisect the space for bathing or elimination purposes under lockdown conditions. These ERDCC cells are impossible to do that with. If you're after a bit of privacy, you can either ask your top-bunk cellmate to cover his head (and trust he won't peek) or build for him a blanket fort on the lower bunk. One way, he'll feel inconvenienced; the other way, he'll feel confined. Either is less than ideal.
Prison life is all about abstaining, making do, inventing, and improvising. Anyone who does enough time will experience all four in varying degrees. Despite the terrible architecture and ambiance, the human spirit finds a way to flourish here. Sometimes its as simple as covering a window or sewing a pair of pockets into your pants. Both can result in a conduct violation, but this doesn't stop people from doing them. We all crave order and are often willing to sacrifice a measure of security for it. If it were possible to rotate the buildings or create more efficient, comfortable routes from one part of the prison to another, someone would've done it, violation be damned. I know I would.

31 October, 2022

The Halloween in the Hoosegow That Almost Wasn't

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Candy and costumes and creepy-but-playful aesthetics pretty much construe a trifecta, as far as I'm concerned. For ten years I've decorated my cell on Halloween and thrown together a massive mess of nachos to feast on. But everything ends. Entropy, that gray-faced, ruined daughter of thermodynamics, guarantees the gradual decline of all things. Why should my long-standing tradition be an exception?

Let me be clear: it's not that I wasn't feeling the spirit of the season. Mornings in Bonne Terre have been black and cold; the evenings have been darkly cloud-smeared. This is my kind of weather. I waited all summer for it, and now that it's here, I meet it with gratitude.

Still, I have been feeling distant. The twenty-fifth anniversary of two friends' deaths
– the catalyst for much teenage misery and my twenty-one-year wrongful imprisonment passed like a dim shadow over last week. I dwelled in it, a houseguest aware that he's outstayed his welcome. Feeling down, but not completely dour, at least I moved through my days with purpose. I threw myself at work with the usual appreciative attitude and followed my joy into the free hours. Then, at some point I read about an ancient Buddhist exhortation to "dance in the charnel ground" that is, in a graveyard. That's a close approximation of the attitude I seek to cultivate. It's not about loving misery, it's about loving your life and living it, fully awake in every moment. There's only so much that an imprisoned All Hallow's Eve aficionado can do, but something clicked for me in that moment I read that, and I resolved to, if not dance, at least do a little two-step on the prison yard. Considering how much time I spend at work, and the few waking hours I'm actually in the cell, decorating in the housing unit seemed kind of futile. So, a week ago, I carried all of my decorations to work with me and asked my coworkers if they'd be interested in spookifying the place a bit. They threw themselves into it. We put skulls on the server cabinet and hung origami monster heads from the big screen. We stuck spider cutouts to the walls. A paper jack-o'-lantern leers from the refrigerator door in the kitchenette. Suddenly, every member of Team XSTREAM has caught the spirit of the season. Everyone wants to talk about spooky movies. A few of them are throwing in together to make a Halloween pizza.
And me? I broke down and bought the ingredients for nachos that I'd been thinking of doing without. I also scheduled a Bauhaus concert film to play on one of the TV channels that I run. Between the gothy music, the gluttonous junk-food gorge, and several other great entertainment options (my coworker scheduled David Lynch's Eraserhead for his channel), it seems that my feet have found their rhythm tonight.

14 October, 2022

Busy, Busy Me

"You're a busy man," an old friend wrote, astutely, in a recent letter. He must've seen that pie chart a few weeks ago. But what makes me so busy?

The crush of extra stuff to handle at work has finally wound down, but that doesn't make me any less busy. Luke and I undertook the production of a new TV series a biweekly, hour-long talk show for the prison population, which delves into important subjects such as purpose, rehabilitation, institutionalization, and so on. This in addition to our weekly cooking program, This Is Fire; our weekly music-exploration show, The Playlist; our intermittent computer how-to series, Tablet Talk; and the monthly Saint Louis University Speaker Series events that we video-record, package, and broadcast in-house. YouTube doesn't know what it's missing.

Sometimes I worry about burnout. How much dedication to the job is too much, before I'm considered a workaholic? Would I work this hard or this much if I wasn't limited to this prison life? And it's not just work that's keeping me occupied, either. I also have my duties as an officer of the Speak Easy Gavel Club.

When the club received its first written complaint about officer misconduct, it was my responsibility as Vice President to chair a disciplinary committee, which first had to determine the merit of the complaint, then hear evidence for and against the accused, and finally render a judgment that resulted in the club voting to suspend two officers' membership for one year. A friend suggested that I blog about the experience, but by the time the smoke cleared I was ready to shelve Robert's Rules of Order and never again say the words "deliberative standard." I'm sorry if that makes you feel cheated. Auditing the records of members' progress along the Toastmasters education track, putting together the club's 2023 yearly plan, and typesetting our newsletter in Microsoft Publisher have taken some time, too. I should have my Advanced Leader Bronze certification before the year's out. This may seem like a lot. It's not enough to stop me, though. Thanks to Saint Louis University, which I mentioned above, Shaheen Pasha, founder of the Prison Journalism Project at Penn State, will be here on Monday to discuss the history of journalism in prisons. My hope is that she mentions the current state of prison media, exemplified by San Quentin, which produces the excellent podcast Ear Hustle. A podcast or publicly available video production from ERDCC would make for a phenomenal opportunity
for the facility, for its population, and for the Missouri Department of Corrections as a whole. If Ms. Pasha touches on this, the information she shares could be crucial to the proposal I hope to write for the warden's consideration. If you've been reading this blog over the past several months, you might've noticed a slight inclination to thinking about a future outside of my current environment. Last night I had a dream that a coworker gifted me two pairs of shoes to wear when I get out of prison a dress pair and a casual pair. Both pairs were hideous, and I was overjoyed to receive them. No matter how ugly the shoes, they were a symbol of my immanent release. This from my sleeping brain. As much as I want out, I'm here now. And this is the point I'm trying to make. Even though I'm fixated on getting out of prison, I feel no less driven to change this environment for the better. There are people here who genuinely want to improve how they live, whether they're paroling in six months or sentenced to die in prison. The urge to live a life of purpose exists independent of one's legal commitment. Helping them to realize that feels like the right thing to do.
By staying busy helping them, I'm helping myself as well, in both the short term and long term. Who knows, maybe soon my ambition and intention will carry over into the outside world, where they can benefit the imprisoned and the free alike. In the meantime, I'll just maintain this slightly crazy schedule and continue to wear this small, contented smile.