17 June, 2012

Watching MSNBC’s Lockup While Locked Up

First things first: I’m no fan of the show in any of its lurid incarnations, from Lockup: Raw to Lockup: Extended Stay to Lockup: Extreme Makeover Edition, even when I’ve made up their titles. (Don’t bother checking your channel guide for that last one.) Watching from my upper bunk as knuckleheads wage war against guards, as low-level innovators demonstrate how to prepare a meal in a garbage bag, or as idle minds while away their sentences with endless weight training sessions, isn’t something for which I need a TV. Unless I was curious about how much better or worse prisoners have it elsewhere, shows like this strike me as Bizarro World takes on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.Yet a lot of prisoners do watch them, my cellmate included.

Then again, perhaps saying “watch” is going a step too far. The Saturday evening mini-Lockup-marathons MSNBC airs do occupy my cellmate’s TV screen, but they’re only paid occasional attention when he looks up from whatever book he happens to be reading. If something catches his notice — that another, luckier prison population is permitted conjugal visits, say — he puts his headphones on to hear all about it. What he learns, or how he benefits from this knowledge once acquired, I never ask. He’s been locked up sixteen years, five longer than me. I can’t imagine the shows offer him much in the way of heretofore unknown convict know-how, only more of the same-old.

Still, there it is. The show flickers at me while I listen to my routine Saturday radio programming, and sometimes my eye gets drawn. Even without sound, it’s easy enough to figure out what’s happening on-screen. One of the things I most dislike about Lockup is its fixation on the worst. True, prison’s a nasty place, no matter if it’s in Indiana, Israel, or Iceland, but must viewers always be presented with the most dangerous, decrepit, and depressing features a given facility has to offer? I fully understand that the tedium that constitutes most of one’s time spent in prison is problematic for television producers, since there aren’t many vicarious thrills to be found in watching two men in an enclosed space entertain themselves with conversation or silent contemplation for hours on end. (Although, my cellmate frequently laughs about how hilarious our conversations might strike anyone privileged enough to hear them.) Just the same, I can’t help thinking of the many ways Lockup might be improved by training its lenses more on the behind-bars behavior that surprises than that which confirms the gruesome stuff viewers may already expect.

Every prison is different. Custody levels and the facilities’ ages play a large role in determining what sort of culture will propagate within the walls and fences. The prison in which I’ve been housed is relatively modern, with limited prisoner movement and security cameras like Fort Knox. It’s hardly the Thunderdome known as San Quentin. Gang activity either goes unnoticed or does not exist. Stabbings occur with less frequency than on your average Sunday morning in some Argentinian backwater. The only cell extractions guards have to perform are on the hoodlums already in segregation for bad behavior. So rare are these things at Crossroads, when they do chance to happen, they’re the only events one hears about for weeks. I dare say, this place is thoroughly under control. No wonder Lockup hasn’t come to Cameron, Missouri, yet. If they did, they would converge on the lower-security facility next door, where prisoners with lesser sentences rampage, killing time with fights and drugs until they are released to run rampant on the streets once more.

Funny, that. The public’s perception seems to be that violent criminals are the last prisoners authorities ought to consider setting free, yet the great majority of violent offenders have been shown, in study after study, to be the least likely to commit another crime after their release. I’m hardly advocating the systemic turning-loose of assaulters and murderers, merely erecting a scaffolding to support my own observation that, of all the people I have had the opportunity to analyze during my imprisonment, those who committed the heinous transgression of taking another’s life almost always did so in a moment of uncharacteristic derangement and are otherwise some of the sanest, most normal (though I hate that word) people here. This was a surprise for me that ranks among the biggest of all my years in this strange place.

This past weekend, my cellmate turned to me, as MSNBC broke for commercial, and posed a hypothetical: “Would you agree to be on this show,” he asked, “if they came here?” I didn’t have to think about it. Knowing my Lockup aversion, he was surprised when I said yes. But what better way to divert their lens from madness than to show them a prisoner who doesn’t have to flood his cell in a desperate bid for attention — he can sit quietly in his cell, writing, and earn notice in a productive way, a fulfilling way, a way that maybe can even influence others for the better? Not every convict is a crook, nor every prisoner a criminal. Lockup could do some good if they let these little secrets out.

10 June, 2012

In Defense of My Indelicacy

You know, I’m aware that there’s still a world beyond these walls. It comes as no surprise to me that, after the morning of my arrest, eleven years ago, people continued commuting to work, embarking on road trips, buying home electronics, walking their dogs, making love to their significant others (or others they met in bars, or both), visiting museums, et cetera. Nor am I pained to acknowledge that my removal from circulation in the world failed to bring everything else to a grinding halt. I’ve got no delusions about my importance to the Grand Scheme, so how could I be upset to hear you effuse about how life’s treating you?

A certain delicacy. That’s what some treat me with for being locked away. As though I need shielding from their joie de vivre, these people censor what a nice time they had at the park, redact their account of the exciting birthday party they attended, and treat their recent upstate getaway like covert ops in my presence. Well, it gets old. I neither require nor desire a hermetically sealed existence to keep from contracting a virulent case of envy. I’m not nearly so delicate as that. If anything, I have an appetite for vivid reports from the outside. This place, this prison, with its never-changing-ness and nullity of spirit, is a drag. A mighty craving for stimulation is one of the main reasons I turn to the mail.

I am probably in the ninety-ninth percentile, among the one percent of prisoners here who send and receive the most stuff by post. If I’m not getting letters or cards, delivery days bring magazines, books, literary journals, friends’ zines, requested copies of writers guidelines, rejection and acceptance notices, subscription offers, invitations to writing conferences, catalogs. You know, mail. It comes regularly enough that, on days my name isn’t shouted by a guard at mail call, I suspect there’s been some mistake, that someone else could have been accidentally given something addressed to me.

Personal correspondence means the most. My cellmate doesn’t understand the logic of my system of prioritization for opening mail. He questions why I always save for last whatever I’m most looking forward to reading. For similar reasons, at different points, some have accused me of masochism. I’m just a pleasure delayer. Blame my mother, who taught me that the best way to appreciate something was to postpone it, let the anticipation build and build. Her example was a piece of pastry or cake, of which she advised me to leave the bit with custard, or the rosette of sweet, buttery icing, for last. Everything else followed from that. At five years old, I remember, there were adults who envied my will power. But my restraint was virtually effortless. I understood intuitively what it meant to savor the moment, rather than anticipate what lay ahead. Chocolate could melt gradually on my tongue because doing so prolonged its flavor without diminishing its intensity. Licks of ice cream were superior to bites, for a similar reason: the frozen-solid mouthfuls were less creamy and harder to fully taste. Postponement just made sense. To this day, I’m the only person I know who takes twenty minutes to eat a Snickers bar.

Sorting through the mail is no different. The periodicals and catalogs get set to the side for later perusal, then I open any self-addressed envelopes, which I know contain word from editors or publishers. Those out of the way, I scan for junk. I whittle every pile down, as though peeling the bitter rind from an orange to expose its succulent core. What’s left are pieces of delectable correspondence. Any cards are reviewed first; they’re quick reads. Letters from friends are the last pieces I attend to.

My friends are, by and large, a wordy bunch. Their missives often run for pages and pages. The mail rules at Crossroads don’t limit how long letters can be, even if enclosures (such as newspaper clippings and Wikipedia articles) are capped at five sheets. I once got a fourteen-page letter that was handwritten on college-ruled, loose-leaf notebook paper. Yesterday a letter from a different friend arrived, which was seven single-spaced pages of twelve-point text that, by its conclusion, left me wishing it was twice as long. Stories, jokes, complaints, anecdotes, rants — the sights, smells and tastes of everyday life: my imagination gleefully fills in anything my friends might leave unmentioned. And it is a transcendent state I enter when visiting the New York, the Seattle, the Los Angeles of my mind. I don’t have to have seen these places first-hand to be given memorable tours by their denizens. I love tasting the product of the little dumpling shop around the corner, smelling the salty ocean air gust inland from the west, hearing the distant sirens and helicopters of a low-speed car chase. I don’t think I could do without this proxy sense of living.

How could I survive this prolonged captivity, if not for such lurid, subtle, emboldening, heartbreaking, hilarious, somber, ramshackle, luxurious, petty, monumental accounts of the lives beyond these walls? Stripped of my vicarious joy, I might forget how life is supposed to be. Then, if I forget, how will I know what I’m supposed to be fighting to get back? Take off the kid gloves, friends, and let’s talk.