15 June, 2024

Forget What You've Heard, Prison Culture Isn't Monoculture

Surprise: the movies and TV series all have it wrong. There's no one, defining culture in prison, and the differences between one unit and the next — even within the same facility — can be substantial.

A standard set of policies governs the Missouri Department of Corrections. Every one of the sixteen institutions within the Department have to abide by those, with a little wiggle room in the form of their own Standard Operating Procedure (which is nominally for clarification but is mainly used by prison administrations to deviate from the letter of departmental policy). SOP is where the details lie.

The DOC might allow its residents to mail order a certain type of art supply material, but if one maximum-security facility decides not to allow that item — say, tunes of acrylic paint — they're within their right to impose an SOP that clips a prisoner's creative wings. Case in point was Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent nearly seventeen years and never was allowed to order paper or colored pencils. My first month at ERDCC, I remedied that. Today I have several types, colors, and sizes of paper stock, as well as charcoal, water-soluble graphite, and watercolor pencils. Other maximum-security facilities let prisoners order craft glue, needlepoint supplies, et cetera. The decision to allow or restrict such things seems to be the wardens' discretion.

Top-down policies are one thing, but grassroots factors, arguably, have even greater effects on prison culture. After all, policies are enforced (or not) and followed (or not) by people. All it takes is one indifferent or ignorant guard and one unaware or brazen prisoner to dissolve any rule.

Then there are the unwritten rules. This is where culture, aka "how we do things here" comes in. In prison — in this prison, anyway — there's a taboo against spitting in the sink. When you're brushing your teeth, the expectation is generally to spit in the toilet. Why? I don't actually know. Because germs, I guess. They say, "When in Rome...," but my current cellmate and I refuse to conform to what we think is a silly custom. We still spit in our sink and clean it regularly, just like regular people do.

This makes us a minority, and there are plenty of other circumstances and conditions in which a status quo defines how everyone behaves. Different areas of a single housing unit can often vary in their customs. Here in B-Wing of Housing Unit 6, one of the places where a lot of people hang their laundry after washing it by hand is on the mesh underside of the stairs (never mind the filth that rains down from shoes as people ascend and descend). I've never seen people hang their stuff under the stairs in any other wing I've inhabited, yet here it's the norm.

Or take the practice of someone hanging their ID card on a shower when they come in from recreation, thereby calling "dibs" on it while they gather their shower supplies. In some wings, the reservation is honored, even encouraged, while in others it could end you up in a fight.
Consider, also, the segregation of telephones into whites-only and blacks-only phones. Here we are in the twenty-first century, but some members of the institution's population want everyone sharply divided in accord with racist ideals. In some wings at this facility (not mine, thank goodness) this practice is considered acceptable, even normal.
These differences aren't always negative. I've known wings that have a new-arrivals welcoming committee offering a little package of snacks and inexpensive hygiene products. I've heard of places where a whole wing will get together, one night a month, and prepare a meal. Sometimes you'll hear about a unit where residents periodically band together and deep-clean the place, where discourtesies are not permitted, or where there's some sort of self-organized game competition, complete with prizes.
It's always interesting to hear accounts of how things are at other facilities. A couple of years ago, the Missouri DOC cut off communication between prisoners at different camps. They never outright said why, but this practice of barring prisoner communication mirrors rules that other states have in effect. We don't hear much about customs in other institutions, except when someone transfers from elsewhere. Then it's like story time.

31 May, 2024

A Good Week: ERDCC Hosts Freedom Reads and My TV Talk Show Broaches Literature

Yet another fulfilling event took place last Tuesday, when I got to meet some of the staff of Freedom Reads, an organization whose goal is to bring the arts into America's prisons. They were here to coordinate judging for the inaugural Inside Literary Prize (voted on by imprisoned readers who read four finalists' books) and to present a reading and book signing by the poet Tim Seibels.

A very nicely designed brochure for Freedom Reads says, "Amidst the chaos and control that characterizes prison, its difficult to bring into focus the intellectual, cultural, and emotional loss that incarcerated people experience." That's certainly true. Diminishing the oppressive sense of chaos and control is what I try to do in my job at XSTREAM. The brochure goes on to say, "While there are many organizations dedicated to decreasing the number of people in prison, few focus on the burdens of prison for those imprisoned."

If my life, like a literary journal, had themes, this month's would be "touching literature," where "touching" functions as verb, not adjective, as in: "I extended a finger, touching book spines on the shelf." To have a direct physical engagement with literature and the literary world can mean more than simply reading in solitude. The people at Freedom Reads know this. It's why they do what they do.

This is to say, the poetry reading was cool, but the conversations I had with our guests from Freedom Reads were the best takeaway. They were so enthusiastic and engaged. As I quickly learned, two of them served time in prison. One's been out for seventeen months — after nearly thirty years in. Another did two years but even now can't be older than his mid-twenties. Their experiences were different, but they both had wisdom and insight to share. Engaging with them lifted my spirits, inspired me, and reminded me of a sometimes-overlooked value of literature: its power to connect readers with one another.

Last week was literature. This week's more of the same. How many people get to engage with one of their passions so effortlessly within their day-to-day? Sometimes I feel so amazingly fortunate.

I asked the Freedom Reads guys what books helped them through their time in prison. Their responses informed the on-air exchange I'll have with my guest for this week's taping of a reading-can-save-your-life episode of the talk show I host — a literature professor from Saint Louis University. I plan to talk with Dr. Lynch about the vital importance of reading, especially to people who are locked up. I've also asked him to supply me with a list of books he believes are essential reading for the imprisoned. I have my own; it'll be interesting to compare the two.

16 May, 2024

For If Dreams Die

Exactly when did I give up on dreams? I used to wake up on any given morning and be able to recall multiple dreams from the night before. Sleep was an adventure when I was a kid. I expect that's true for many of us. Then, at some point, we get busy. School or work take precedence in our lives. Priorities shift and we become practical, responsible beings emboldened by great purpose and propelled by tremendous efficiency, allowing no time for our minds to idle. We leave dreams behind, replacing them with aspirations — not the same thing at all.

A lot of kids and a few adults are capable of exercising conscious will in dreams. They fly, interact with the people being dreamed up, and generally control what happens in their dreams — a phenomenon called lucid dreaming. By no means have I researched the ability; although, years ago I did try to cultivate it by keeping a dream journal and practicing a recommended technique for enabling lucid dreaming.

The mnemonic involved asking myself "Is this a dream?" anytime I walked through a doorway. (Once you make that a habit, it's supposed to be easier to ask the question in an actual dream. The realization that you're dreaming is supposed to be all you need to start dreaming with intention.) Doing that got tedious, but the journaling was worse.
I'd hoped to improve my sleep. Sitting awake for long minutes in the middle of the night, scribbling half-legible notes of my latest dream, had the opposite effect. I lost a good deal of sleep and I never experienced a lucid dream. All I have to show for those efforts is a blog post about some of the crazier dreams I wrote down. Is this a dream? How many times in life do we ask ourselves if we're dreaming? We're often suspicious of extreme states. When shit goes off the rails, we often doubt (or hope for cause to doubt) what our senses tell us. The same applies when amazing things are happening. We question equally the reality of the good and the bad. As you already figured out, I gave up the journal. I also gave up the hope of controlling my dreams. Really, I gave up putting stock in dreams at all. What was the point of paying them any mind? Shakespeare knew about dreams, those of a midsummer night and otherwise, "begot of nothing but vain fantasy." The Bard recognized their ephemerality, their illusoriness. He cautioned against trusting them. The Buddha did too. Carl Jung, of course, disagreed. Sigmund Freud split the difference with his psychotherapeutic approach in the late 1800s, but cultures and traditions that put a high value on dreams endure to this day.
I guess I'm too much of an empiricist to take the view that dreams are either comprehensible windows into the subconscious or doors to other realms of existence. I never thought my dreams were trying to tell me something. Dreams don't exert a will of their own. They might feel alien, but even Freud acknowledged that they're very much our own weird, sometimes deranged children.
Even when I took an interest in oneironautics, the practice of lucid dreaming, I wasn't seeking consciousness expansion or a mystical cross-dimensional gateway. I just thought it'd be cool to steer my dreams in a different direction than they usually went on their own.

So far I've only been referring to dream-dreams. At some point in my life, however, I put not only nighttime dreams behind me, I also loosened the shackles of waking fantasy. Daydreams are so often pointless musings that get in the way of what needs to be done — and I say "needs" only in the sense that it impacts the self, not that groceries need to be picked up or you need to get an appendectomy. There's also the need of the spirit to grow, which I argue it can't very well do when you're busy pining after some shiny token of recognition, striving for wealth, or conniving to win authority.
In what I always found to be an ugly little couplet, some poet I no longer remember, wrote that if you let go of your dreams, life becomes "a broken-winged bird that cannot fly." I call bullshit. A life with purpose is good, but how might we rate the quality of a life governed by preoccupation? Will anyone claim distraction (or monomaniacal fixation) as their ideal? Doubtful. If the point is flexibility rather than uncompromising obsession, we have to be willing to take what comes, to be willing to adapt and not fixate on our unfulfilled wants every time life takes an unexpected turn.

I've said over and over that I'm happier not hanging my hat on hope than clinging to what might never be. I keep coming back to this topic, in conversation and in writing. I also wrote this blog post about hope when my case went back to the courts, which takes a peek at my feelings on the subject. Everybody needs a hobby.

Discovering contentedness despite seemingly arduous circumstances didn't come easily, and I do the world a disservice by not being able to articulate exactly how I did it — but I have, and even though I feel as if my dreams die a little more each day, life seems to get better and better as they do. I feel connected with the here and now, and I don't even need to ask if I'm dreaming. Why doesn't English have a word for the practice of lucid waking?