17 May, 2022

The End of Cards (and More)

Restrictions on having nice things are nothing new for anyone in DOC custody. Prison is, after all, one big, long exercise in deprivation. There's almost nothing that being confined here doesn't deprive a person of.

Even back when prisoners could mail order certain articles of clothing, I declined to buy a coat or a more comfortable boots, because I thought that my appeals would soon establish my actual innocence and I'd be released. Keep your creature comforts, I thought, I won't be staying long.

I haven't indulged in much over the years. One of the few pleasures that I never denied myself from the world outside came to me through the mail. There are so many creative minds in my circle. We're not really Hallmark fans, so I love the cards that they've crafted for me. Drawings, too. Letters from one friend were often scribbled on blank spots found in his sketchbook; more than a few people sent little drawings (or even paintings, back when those were allowed).

As of 15 June, however, all that's going to stop. The Missouri DOC's new mail policy imposes sweeping change to what used to be one of the most meaningful ways for prisoners to maintain relationships with their loved ones despite the distance between them. The policy bans incoming greeting cards and directs that every piece of incoming snail mail be sent to some processing center in Tampa, Florida. There, letters from loved ones will be scanned and forwarded to our tablets within three business days of receipt.
Privileged mail, magazines, and newspapers should still be addressed to the prison.

I get it. The DOC wants to remedy its massive drug problem by preventing paper and card stock drenched in roach spray out of the hands of the prisoners who smoke it for a cheap high. But what happens when these prisoners get out? Most of them have parole dates. Some are going home within a year or two. It'd be immeasurably more sensible to instill in them an appreciation for sober living and teach them the necessary skills to achieve it. Rather than address the underlying cause of these people's self-destructive substance abuse issues, however, it's cheaper – if only in the short term – to stop one of those substances from coming in.

Who needs to receive postcards of support, drawings from kids, or cards from friends anyway?

04 May, 2022

Prison Dreams

Rodney's been down, as we say, for over forty years. He says that he doesn't dream anymore, but I'm not sure if I believe him. Years on death row, plus two more in solitary confinement seem to me as though they'd inspire the wildest flights of fancy. Then again, I know how creatively stultifying my own surroundings sometimes feel, day in, day out, and what a tonic pictures of elsewhere (whether physical or mentally conjured) can be.

A couple of days ago, my friend Paul said, "I think I've transitioned to dreaming exclusively about prison." I doubt this, too. I don't think that Paul, scarcely locked up for a year and a half, is in a position to know what influence his fresh memories of freedom might yet exert on his dreams.

Even after twenty years, my dreams aren't usually restricted to this world of walls and chain link and razor wire. The people in them are only sometimes inmates. I once wrote a blog about my weird dreams that still paints a pretty accurate picture of my nightly subconscious adventures.

Last night's dream was decidedly a prison dream.

The prison in it wasn't a real prison. It looked instead like an amalgam of the three very different facilities where I've been confined. While I walked around it, doing whatever daily tasks the dream-me did, a large group of angry prisoners took up occupation in a particular zone and refused to move. They shouted obscenities at passersby – myself included – and put on their most menacing faces; however, their purpose wasn't clear.

What was clear was that they were doing a good job of intimidating everyone. Members of the prison staff spoke about getting home to their families before violence broke out, while they packed up office supplies like Ukrainian refugees before a bombing attack. I just drifted from point to point, watching wordlessly, a spectator, but with the sense that I wasn't quite there, as though I occupied another plane of existence, which only intersected with this one.

That was it – just a series of observations. No riot ever took place, nor did I never get away from the fearful chaos. I simply stood by, watching and waiting for the seemingly inevitable. Because of that, it felt a little bit like real life.

Maybe it was the execution that the state carried out yesterday, here at ERDCC. Protesters massed in front of the facility, behind sawhorses and faced with armed guards – an unsettling scene from TV, remixed by my brain at some point in the night.

Or it could've been yesterday's breakfast-table topic about State Representative Kimberly Ann Collins, the legislator championing Missouri House Bill 1922 to form an independent committee overseeing the Department of Corrections. That conversation had me thinking for much of the day about things I've seen since being transferred to ERDCC, the ways that this facility operates, and the ways in which it's broken.

Sometimes I do wish that, like my coworker Rodney, I didn't dream. The lasting effect of dreams often feels like a daytime haunting. Even the best of my days are freighted enough.

19 April, 2022

Keeping Bitterness at Bay

Locking someone away is a good way to make him a bitter man. And the longer the sentence, the more bitter he can become. Few doubt this, or that prison is a hard place. These gray walls and fences threaten daily to kill whatever softness resides within. Whoever's heart hardens after years of imprisonment, especially when their conviction is wrongful, as mine is, should be excused the hardening. It isn't easy to nurture a self under such conditions.

Still, I've somehow grown throughout these past decades. It hasn't been easy. My struggles were anything but steady. Lows were abyssal. Pains were crippling. I weathered intimidation, assaults, treachery, and wild slander by inmates. I incurred degradation, minor torture, coercion, threats, insults, and deprivation from my warders. My basic human psychological and social needs were ignored, and sometimes assaulted.

Despite this treatment, soft things within me have become softer with the passage of time. When I sit up in the morning and glance out the window, I greet most days with equanimity. I don't complain about the endless waiting – in line for meals, on a list for medical care, or for the return of my physical freedom. I'm grateful for the terrible food. More than once in recent years, expressing gratitude for a simple act of kindness has brought me near to tears.

People I knew before prison can tell you, I was the guy who could (and usually did) see the dark lining around every silver cloud. Some friends gave me the longest, most ridiculous nickname as a result: Byron the Blackhearted, Dark Cliffs upon which the Waves of Hope Break. Funny, right? Ha ha.

Except I was a miserable wreck. Oh, sure, I could smile and laugh and have fun, but these were each fleeting, hollow acts, lacking substance or depth. I had enjoyment aplenty; what I didn't have was joy. One is to the other as a fish is to the skill of fishing – the outcome and the source.

Before prison I was often bored. I did things to kill time. I squandered hours, days, and weeks. I believed that life was about pursuing hungers and thirsts (which I fancied up by calling "acquiring experience"). I hunted down and devoured what I called fun. In doing so, I occupied a kind of existential vacuum. Yes, I was young. And yes, it's the way of young people to mindlessly seek out indulgence and good times.

The more you make satisfaction a target, the more you miss that target and find yourself feeling that it's not enough, that just a little bit more might make you complete. Of course it doesn't. Still, this does nothing to dissuade from the pursuit. Then the snake eats its own tail. The cycle continues.

People who develop fatal disorders or diseases sometimes have experiences similar to mine with prison. It's been shown that knowledge of an imminent death gives a greater sense of meaning to people's lives. Some go so far as to say that they're grateful for their sickness, that they hadn't seen, until they became ill, what was truly important in life. These people have envisioned for the first time in their lives some kind of purpose. Whether that purpose is earthly or spiritual doesn't matter, only that they feel it.

The realization of a meaning, the placement of oneself in a framework that includes being of use and having some kind of future – these bring contentment to even us so-called hopeless cases. I have a great job, my writing, and relationships with people I love and care about. Above all, though, I have hope.

A friend who totaled her car in an accident took the loss of her independence pretty badly. When I called her, a few days after the accident, she voiced her worries about getting to work, running necessary errands, and just maintaining a social life without a car.

"The insurance company only provides a rental for two weeks. I'll have to take the bus to work," she cried, sounding for all the world like a woman on the brink of ruin.

"Well, there's your first mistake," I told her. "You're thinking about this wrong. Instead of saying, 'I have to take the bus to work,' you ought to say, 'I get to take the bus to work!'"

She fell silent. I couldn't blame her for feeling tipped over. Ten years earlier, the Byronic thing would've been to serve her the same reply awash in a tureen of sarcasm. My friend expected commiseration and instead got a friendly rebuke. Prison life had changed me. I was no longer Missouri's reigning Prince of Pessimism. I was someone else entirely. In her silence I heard the unspoken question, Who the hell am I talking to?

So who am I? Who is anyone, for that matter? Buddhists espouse the philosophy of no-self, the idea that because there are no definitive, fixed qualities that define "me," selfhood is just an abstract concept and can't be said to exist in any real sense. But of course – and here's the rub – Buddhism doesn't claim that we don't exist, because what we experience is being processed by someone. Thus we have at the core of existence a paradox: we simultaneously exist and don't exist.

Uncertainty tends to make logical people very nervous. We fear what we don't know. Because the future's arguably the most uncertain thing of all, we shore up our psychological defenses with lists, savings accounts, insurance policies, itineraries, investments, contingency plans, and more. When we're not busily preparing for the unknown future, we're lamenting the unchangeable past. The here-and-now becomes almost an afterthought.

Being present in a given moment involves a kind of surrender. It means abandoning the urge to impose oneself on what is, and letting it happen. Some find it terrifying. The desire to control is strong. But control is an illusion. Circumstances are like the winds and the currents. At any time, a storm could tear out of the west, or uncharted water could pull our little craft off course. The most influence that we can hope to exert is a little direction, when conditions are favorable. To fear winds and currents, therefore, is to suffer. To expect a certain set of outcomes is to deny possibilities.

Remember Groundhog Day? It's a comedy but offers profundity that a lot of viewers overlook because they're hung up on the big rodent and the high-concept humor. In the movie, cynical TV weatherman Phil Collins (perfectly played by Bill Murray) travels to cover a Groundhog Day festival in rural Pennsylvania. First a blizzard that he predicted would miss the area traps him in the town he so despises, then an inexplicable time loop forces Phil to relive the same day there, with no hot water, no real entertainment, and surrounded by the "hicks" he so despises. For Phil, it's a hell. He kills himself repeatedly but always ends up right back in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on the morning of February second.

But when Phil discovers purpose and begins acting on it, within the bounds of what's available to him, his day-long prison becomes a universe of infinite possibility. He comes to appreciate the people and forms bonds with them. He takes up piano lessons. He reads poetry. He learns to ice-sculpt. Forced to relive the same day unendingly, he pushes aside his cynicism and chooses to make his little world better, bit by bit. He saves a man from choking to death. He spends time with a homeless man he knows will die that night. He replaces someone's flat tire. He treats the woman he's come to love with respect and decency. Only after finally living what he calls "the perfect day," Phil wakes up, for the first time in a small eternity, on February third, the day after Groundhog Day.

How often are comedies that are actually funny give us the meaning of life without overt schmaltz and sentimentality? Even film critic Leonard Maltin thought Groundhog Day deserved an Oscar.

Unlike Phil, my prison isn't temporal but physical, made of concrete and steel. Being confined here, I could just surrender to despair and let myself languish. So many other prisoners do. Instead, I've learned how to make my world a powerfully dynamic one. I can still learn and teach, be of help to people, love and be loved.

My mind – my not-self – exists without boundaries. So what's to be bitter about? There are people living out there who can only dream of freedom like this.