18 November, 2021

Life in Fear

As do so many others, I live in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. My environment, this prison, with its faded green roofs and lethal electric fence, represents the epitome of unpredictability. Something could happen at any time that sunders whatever intentions I dared to set. My circumstances are pretty far from ideal. Imposing a level of suffering is the point of prison, after all.

I fear random lockdowns, which keep me from going to work at the job that I love. Lockdowns are declared for a plethora of reasons, but most often because of staff assaults, staff shortages, and staff barbecues. Some can last for minutes. Some engulf hours. Some drag on for days. During lockdowns there's no showering, no visits, no phone calls, no hot meals. If there's a search team en route, the cold water to everyone's cell is turned off to keep anybody from flushing contraband down the toilet.

I fear running out of ideas for my writing. Determined as I am not to become a "prison writer," I often turn away from writing about topics that hew too close to the standard, clich├ęd narratives of Hollywood movies and true-crime novels. "Write what you know" becomes a tightening noose when your vista of fresh experiences is limited by the number and type of books you can read, the conversations you have, and the discoveries you can make at your (admittedly amazing) job. Listening to other people's stories in weekly Gavel Club meetings adds perspective, and I sometimes catch Stories from the Stage on PBS, but my truly new experiences have become as infrequent as they are narrow in scope.

I fear the loneliness that follows loss. I'm not talking here about a misplaced hat; the loss of those I love, whether to out-of-mindedness or death, is a dread that chills me to my core. "Who am I in the absence of others?" is one of the great questions in Zen Buddhism, but I'm just not ready to grapple with this question outside the realm of abstraction. I profoundly love and cherish the people in my life. I don't want a life without them – especially not while I'm in prison. To live the kind of life as the forgotten here do seems unbearably sad. In my worst dreams I become them.

Living in prison's just the half of it. I fear the helplessness of decrepitude, of mine and of my mother's, neither of which is yet a challenge but very possibly will be, in due time. Worry for an aging parent in dire straits is bad enough when you're capable of providing at least some of the assistance they need. When you're literally trapped on the other side of the state, without impending prospects for release, the matter takes on a different, more bitter note.

I fear leaving prison. This is not to say that I'm by any means institutionalized but that I worry about my prospects in that brave new world you all have built in my absence. My period of imprisonment predates the iPod, the Patriot Act, smartphones, twerking, both Matrix sequels, the Iraq war, Billie Eilish, augmented reality, and cronuts. If my prison sentence were a person, it'd probably have an associate's degree by now. That is a lot of time to miss, a lot of cultural currency to be deprived of. I'm quick on the uptake and fairly tech-savvy, but could I find a suitable place in the world, one that's decent and self-supporting? No one can say, and the unknown is the scariest thing in the world.

I fear for the future of humanity, amid climate change, rabid partisanship, and our own shortsighted egocentrism that's created both. I fear that this thing on my arm could be cancerous. I fear that my petty, arbitrary aversions keep me from doing things I could learn to enjoy, or at least not mind. I fear becoming boring. I fear that I might never see New York City, London, or Tokyo. I fear that I'm too concerned with my looks. I fear that I don't practice zazen diligently enough. I fear never writing another publishable book. I fear dying in prison. I fear meaninglessness. I fear squandering time.

As I said before, these concerns are nothing unique. On the contrary, I know that you share some of these very same worries. The question is, what do we do once we identify them? Is acknowledgment enough? Do we bottle them up, letting them gnaw at our psychological well-being, a challenge to see how long we can live so repressedly? Do we resolve to change, then labor at reforming our subconscious? Do we break down and cry from sheer helplessness? Indecision will cripple us. We can't move without knowing how to decide, but we can't possibly know how to decide. Whatever can we do but live? The only true way out is by going through.

10 November, 2021

Go Ahead, Fence Me In

When five galvanized steel poles spring up in front of the house one morning, every prisoner in the unit reels with indignance. My thought: what harm will a few more fences do? Never mind the futility of getting outraged at what can't be controlled, I don't see how rendering our existing boundaries as real, tangible barriers hurts anyone.

We're already bounded by so many fences, not least of which is the lethal electric one that surrounds this place. The administration decided several months ago that each housing unit would get its own little recreation area, complete with pullup bars, dip bars, and a gate that opens onto the institution's main walkway. Once they're enclosed this way, prisoners assigned to one unit will no longer be able to slip into another unit and get up to mischief – the thefts, assaults, and daring little social calls that they currently do.

Accidental trespass is possible, too. Just the other day, as I was about to leave for work, I saw a resident of 5-House enter my wing and gaze around, wearing a very confused expression. He groped for the ID card clipped to his chest, as if to hide the yellow 5-B dot signifying him as an interloper in 6-B, then beat a hasty retreat. (In his defense, all houses at ERDCC do look the same.) This sort of thing soon won't happen anymore, after the fence project is finished.

"You won't be able to go nowhere except service and programs," one disgusted prisoner says to another when I pass them on the walk. "Ain't gonna be no more skating."

In my twenty years locked up, I've skated four times. Each time, I stepped out of bounds only because an obstinate guard wouldn't let me go where I was actually supposed to be. I just walked out, ignoring their shouts to come back. Technically, I suppose, this wasn't skating at all but occupies a gray area that could've resulted in a conduct violation, which might or might not have stuck at the hearing. Some people consider it their personal duty to skate multiple times each day, just for shits and grins.

"It's bullshit," says the other prisoner to the first. "How we supposed to get anything done?"

People who behave like him are the very reason these fences are called for. Patrick Henry famously said that those who give up their freedom for safety deserve neither. I don't see these fences as a curtailment of anything, merely a reinforcement of what's already in place. If anything, I see this fence project as the institution making good on its promise to maintain safety and security. ERDCC is so lax about so many things. A little more enforcement of rules will do everyone some good.

27 October, 2021

Who Wants to Work in a Prison?

From my limited vantage point, morale and attendance by prison employees seem to be at all-time lows. I say this three and a half years after reading a newspaper article about the critical staff shortages faced by corrections departments in Missouri, Kansas, and what was then seventeen other states. Since then, the problem has grown quite a bit worse.

On any given day, two-person operations at ERDCC are handled by individuals. Also, non-custody employees, including recreation staff and caseworkers, frequently have to do jobs that guards should be performing. Overtime is rampant. Ditto, mandated shifts. This is a real problem with wide-ranging effects.

I don't understand why the job economy's so bad right now, but I know that understaffing isn't limited to prisons. The COVID pandemic vacated many places of business, and a lot of employers now find themselves scrabbling to find people willing to work for them. A truck-stop gas station here in Bonne Terre is reportedly offering a $1,000 signing bonus. A news report said that professions previously requiring applicants to have a high level of education now accept those whose academic career went no further than high school. To work as a guard for the Missouri DOC reportedly takes nothing more than a state ID proving you're at least eighteen years old.

Caseworkers can be seen on many weekends (never mind their Monday-through-Friday schedule), supervising the dining hall, conducting wing walkthroughs in housing units, or helping guards do custody counts. When there's no one available to fill in, those counts, during which every prisoner is locked in their cell, can take an extra hour or more to complete, as the two people running a house take turns. One walks from wing to wing while the other stays in the control module, then they switch. This would be fine, except what if some emergency arose? Around here, you often can't tell when bad shit's afoot.

Worse yet, ERDCC's medical services have deteriorated since I first encountered their profound indifference, three years ago. The facility hasn't had its own on-site doctor in two years, and one of its two nurse practitioners quit a couple of months ago. I've submitted five Health Service Request forms for the same issue and have yet to even be seen by a triage nurse.

To keep the place hobbling along, programs and services are frequently cut without warning. For this reason, some non-essential departments, such as Clothing Issue and Property, are closed more often than they're open. Time out of our cells is curtailed several times a week, due to insufficient staff-to-prisoner ratios. Meals regularly run late because there isn't enough staff to allow us out until after the next shift change takes place.

I can't blame anyone working here for their lack of enthusiasm. Working in a prison surely sucks. The buildings are gross, the jobs are pretty unrewarding, and the residents, even at their best-behaved, can tax one's patience. The employee culture looks to be one of lighthearted joking around, but it also fosters gruff indifference. My guess is that jobs here attract two types of people: those who want to do as little as possible, and those who feel that they have something to prove. Neither makes for a great employee.

I've argued for years that the Missouri Department of Corrections should significantly increase entry-level employee wages. I believe this now more than ever. By raising wages for correctional employees, the DOC could be more exacting in their hiring and employee-retention standards. By onboarding only people with higher educations, they'd increase the likelihood of facilities keeping with departmental policies. By asking a bit more from employees, in every area – from behavioral compliance to dress codes – they'd lower the odds of costly lawsuits by aggrieved prisoners and mistreated workers, as well as promoting healthier work environments where people with lower stress levels get sick less often and prisoners aren't as likely to get frustrated and lash out violently.

Pay my warders better, Missouri; that's what this boils down to. I'm tired of seeing violence on the yard, missing out on precious activities, and being locked down for entire days, all because inadequate staffing is unconducive to vigilance.