05 May, 2021

Back at the End of the Walk

While brushing my teeth with the teeny, tiny toothbrush I bought in the prison canteen, I notice a piece of paper reflecting from over my shoulder, in the mirror. I haven't noticed it there before now, yet it definitely isn't new. Its yellowing corners curl inward; the paper looks exhausted, as if it can't wait to turn in for the day. Although the words are bold and black, it's curled so much that I can't read the message.

A cell is a cell is a cell. Sometimes, though, you spend longer than a few months there and you settle in. You get to know, from wiping it clean every few days, the topography of a particular concrete floor. You learn the bumps and divots of certain walls, spots where paint was torn loose as someone ripped down a hook, a handmade shelf, or other contraband amenity. You come to know the steel desk's rust spots too well. Then the prison administration moves you – because someone in a wheelchair needed your bottom bunk, or because there was a classification issue, or because someone in power just got a big idea to restructure the housing arrangements... again – and you learn such details afresh, in another cell that's exactly like the one before it, except not.

I moved to 6-House two Fridays ago. This is my first bottom-walk cell in fifteen years, and only the second at the far end of a wing. We don't see a lot of traffic in the form of passersby, which is how I prefer it. Streams of visitors cramp my style. My new cellmate's not especially fond of them, either, thank goodness.

There's a lot to notice about a wing when you first move in. If you're smart, the people are what you pay the closest attention to. In criminal parlance, you case the joint. You want a decent picture of what awaits in your new digs. How much attention are the neighbors paying you? Is the attention simply curiosity about you, or does it seem aimed at the belongings you brought along – appliances, clothes, and canteen foodstuffs? Watch the watchers. After that, check the overall state of the place.

The day I moved in, waxed and buffed floors reflected the damp laundry draped over top-walk railings. B-Wing presents an interesting juxtaposition: a kind of industrial-chic-meets-scrubwoman's-hovel ambiance. There are worse places. At least I lived around half of these guys before, from my last stay in 6-House.

I found my toehold quickly enough, this go-round. As usual, this mainly consisted of establishing routines with my cellmate, the same little pas de deux one always does while getting situated in a room that's halfway occupied. A series of questions beginning "Do you mind if I..." and "Can you..." ultimately leads to either successful cohabitation or someone nursing bruises while he seeks out another abode.

By the time my mouth is clean and rinsed, curiosity has got the better of me. I swing open the cell door to investigate what turns out to be a Missouri Department of Health notice. "Wash your hands," it reads, and presents a nine-part set of instructions on how to do so. Most likely, the page got taped to the fire-exit door as part of the Department of Corrections' "aggressive strategy" for handling the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: signs, hand sanitizer stations, a two-month mask mandate, and assigned dining-hall seating for half that time. "Aggressive," indeed. Whether my new cellmate read it or not, I can't say; he does know how to keep clean.

Take my sarcasm as a good sign. I'm able to notice absurdities such as this because I've reached the point here where I can let down my guard somewhat. My friend Luke was finally moved last night and ended up in a squalid rat-hole. He said that the corners of his cell had piles of compressed filth that required digging loose. He'll be on high alert for days yet. My coworker Gary, whom I mentioned in last week's post about settling in, moves today. I wish him the best, but I'm pretty sure, based on everyone else's luck, that I already got it.

28 April, 2021

All Good: An Update on Basically Everything

Fallout from last week's transfers was widespread but in my immediate surroundings has included: a gutting of ERDCC's Buddhist community; a looming, very valid fear that Team XSTREAM will lose two of its members (one temporarily, one permanently); and me not just getting a new cellmate but having to move to a whole other housing unit.

The first of these upsets might've been the biggest. In addition to being my cellmate of the last twenty-two months, Jeff was a member of the sangha and someone whose comments in our Buddhist group's discussions of history and the dharma was valued. Tim, my friend Luke's cellmate, is a good man whose company I always enjoyed. Our newest member, Sam, was just getting comfortable with the six white guys he sat with in weekly meditation. He said I was his most trusted friend here, which meant so much to me.

At Monday's Buddhist service, the chapel felt empty with only four bodies occupying it. Such was the unease that we felt (and because service started late), we didn't even meditate, we just talked about impermanence and the ultimate nature of reality until Luke struck the bell. Then we packed up our altar and made room for the Christians, whose turn in the chapel it was next.

"There are more transfers coming," is the rumor everyone's repeating. True enough, Round One left a lot of the lower-level prisoners that it was supposed to remove from our midst. At my Media Center job, our coworker Gary is the lone level-two among us maximum-security level-fives. Like Jeff, he was part of the latest cohort of Saint Louis University students here, who recently graduated with an AA degree in Liberal Arts. The Department of Corrections kept a transfer hold on SLU students, specifically to keep them from being swept up in the midst of their educations. No more. Tim and Jeff, Gary's fellow SLU alumni, had taken post-graduation jobs as teacher's assistants, this fall. The university assured them that their holds were secure. The DOC, however, doesn't make promises it's unwilling to break. So Team XSTREAM is now in the difficult position of having to consider replacement options for if and when Gary goes. Where does one find trustworthy prisoners with computer experience, a modicum of creative drive, top-notch time management skills, and solid work ethic? Truly, we have our work cut out for us.

And then there's the cellmate situation. They attain usefulness – those words, cellmate situation – way too often. Upheaval plagues prison life. I wish I earned a dollar every time I spoke the words in a sentence. I'd buy solace in the form of endless pints of chocolate ice cream.

But where was I? Oh, right, I was in Housing Unit 4A, where Jeff and I moved amid the last big inmate shuffle. I'm not there anymore. Jeff left, and then, after spending two days alone, wondering the whole time who I might get as a replacement, an announcement came over the intercom that twenty people were moving to 6-House. The names came in no discernable order, mine among them. Forty-eight hours' fretting left me surprisingly equanimous. Has anyone ever conducted a study on Tetris as a stress mitigation device? They should. I fit my stuff with less concern for where I was going than how I positioned things in my footlocker.

And when I got to where I was going, lo and behold, the cell smelled clean. Its occupant was at work in the factory, a neighbor told me. The bottom bunk was neatly made, the toilet bore no stains, and no nuisance clutter accreted in the corners, the way it does in some guys' cells and rodent nests. After wiping things down with disinfectant, my rag lifted away almost nothing. When my new cellmate came in from work, I recognized him from an earlier stay in this house, when he'd been a downstairs neighbor, never conversational but always cordial. I approve.

22 April, 2021

Waiting for Another Cellmate Is Nervewracking

The human with whom I've shared my immediate space for a year and a half just up and left – but not by any intention of his own. I think Jeff hoped to stay my cellmate until the day he paroled. The staff woke him from a dead sleep Tuesday morning (I was at work) and told him to pack his stuff. On my way back from work I saw him pushing a canvas-sided cart out of the house.

"I guess I'm on the transfer list," he said. "Been nice knowin' ya."

A year and a half, and that's how it ends. Jeff and I weren't close, but we were friends. His habit of playing devil's advocate could be infuriating, as was his tendency to turn every conversation into a verbal sparring match, but we got along. We had some very intelligent conversations. We also had fun. We could (as the vernacular has it) jail. This is no easy thing. I wasn't teary-eyed to see Jeff leaving, but I'll certainly miss him.

There were other moves. Four members of my Buddhist group left, leaving the sangha a shadow of its already rinky-dink former self. My friend and coworker Luke's cellmate, Tim, was one of them. Both Jeff and Tim thought their teaching assistant jobs for the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program were supposed to hold them here. So did the school, apparently. There might be significant fallout from all of this. We're likely also losing a valuable coworker, whose departure will put us at a disadvantage on several fronts, not least of which is finding a trustworthy, competent replacement.

Amid all the hullabaloo it's almost possible to forget my situation and put aside the anxiety about what this spin of the cellmate-roulette wheel might bring me. My first night alone in years wasn't anything to write home about. I'd considered staying up very late, burning the midnight oil to get work done on my novel. I ended up tuning just past the usual time. My eyes were burning from a long day's overuse, and I felt a slight tension headache coming on, so it was for the best. An extra-early morning, accompanied by Beethoven and the blackest of coffee was a far better decision.

I'm in a better headspace today. Now if I could just get past my nervousness at what the afternoon might bring...