23 June, 2017

Creep Alert

Every morning, not long after everyone locks down for the 7:30 custody count, the wing's loudspeaker squawks, "There will be both male and female staff members working in the housing unit today."

This message is brought to us by former president George W. Bush and our concerned friends at the United States Department of Justice, who, several years ago, effected a piece of legislation called the Prison Rape Elimination Act — a bureaucratic dog and pony show predicated on the adorable idea that all we needed, to end sexual assaults in America's prisons, was to tape up a shitload of photocopied "STOP SEXUAL ABUSE! REPORT IT!" notices where prisoners could see them.

To be fair, I've never read the actual language of PREA. I assume that it's intended more to safeguard prisoners from staff members drunk on power than from our depraved fellow inmates. Why? Because when the DOJ conducted its preimplementation survey, I was one of the random prisoners who got a package of cookies for answering their anonymous questionnaire. It dwelled a lot on staff abuse, not so much on what happens behind closed cell doors. Here's another observation: Oreo Thins taste terrible.

Guards, cooks, and caseworkers have been escorted off these premises several times during my years at Crossroads, after inappropriate goings-on came to light. No surprise, they've all been women. I'm not taking a controversial position by saying that female prisoners get victimized more often, at least by staff. Around here, though, a sexual encounter with a staff member is something guys fantasize about. The upshot? PREA isn't meaningless to me — only for me.

No one in prison has ever sexually assaulted or coerced me; although, a few did threaten, back when I was fresh. More just flirted. So often was the ostentatious interest of an openly gay inmate directed my way, I got the joking label "fag magnet." Predators who tested me, all those years ago, all had reputations for accosting young white guys. They tended to play things cool, their technique being to stand aloof until the time was right, then act like some distant potentate descending from his throne to claim due tribute. Curiously enough, the (generally) heterosexual miscreants who stalk and ogle prison employees tend to be socially hyperengaged, with an apparent need to be seen and heard by everyone at all times. What this dynamic says, clinically, about the two personality types, I haven't figured out. But I see plenty of both.

Prairie-dogging is common, usually in the dining hall, which is fronted by windows facing the main boulevard. Female guards, caseworkers, and nurses stroll past regularly, and turn many heads when they do. Some of us dressed in gray aren't content to gawk from a seated position, though. They leap to their feet and crane their necks until the women are out of sight. Loudly enough that these lechers can hear, I start counting: "One creep, two creeps, three creeps, four creeps…" (I typically stop at eight or nine.) They never pay me any mind; their brains are otherwise engaged.

In the Hole, "gunning down" is fairly common. 1 wish I could blame sheer boredom-induced insanity, but no. Blatantly masturbating in the presence of or within sight of a female staff member somehow registers as acceptable behavior to those guilty of it. If the episode of Lockup I saw is to be believed, certain prisons in the South have a real problem with this practice in general population, not merely in segregation units.

I did once watch a team of guards in tactical gear perform a cell extraction. It took two cans of Mace to subdue their target and get him handcuffed, after which they led him to an observation cell. Wearing only boxer shorts and shower shoes, drenched from head to foot in burning orange chemical, the prisoner was incapacitated, scarcely able to walk a line, but he managed to maintain his full erection. On so many levels, it was a terrifying sight.

This kind of obscenity isn't sanctioned by the powers that be, yet behavior that I think should merit, at minimum, a verbal warning is tolerated. In this way, the less blatant stuff seems more insidious. Someone in a crowd leaving the chapel remarks loudly about a nurse's backside. A kitchen worker explicitly details what he'd like to do to his housing unit's caseworker. Rather than step over to be patted down by a male guard, a prisoner in line waits to be searched by the female, saying that he hasn't "felt a woman's touch in a long time." Staff members heard each of these but didn't make a peep about them. For reasons of prison politics and my own well-being, I kept my mouth shut, too.

It's no secret that I don't belong here. Nor do I leave any room for doubt that I want out more than I've ever wanted anything else. But witnessing these things makes me glad that these creeps are in here, setting my teeth on edge, not out there, doing real harm.

16 June, 2017

A New Poem on an Old Midwestern Custom

For the Album

The Man Upstairs must've run out
Of quarters to feed the machine.
So the rain stopped,
And pufferfish-faced aunts in rayon
Emerged to assail our virgin faces,
Hand-fluff their bouffants, and finally
Consent to being photographed.
Curious that no one thought to preserve
For posterity the impressive mass
Of flies descending on the deviled eggs.

* * * * *

From what I understand, it doesn't matter who your relatives are — family reunions all take place in one of the outermost circles of Hell. The kids have fun, visiting cousins not seen in a while, but the older you are, the more burdensome it becomes to make conversation with people whose lives intersect your own solely by dint of genetics. Between Uncle Joe's odious politics and Grandma Millie's casual racism, Cousin Gina's drinking and her husband Chauncy's efforts to sell everyone insurance, few moments of easy pleasure are had. Who doesn't breathe a little sigh of relief as their car pulls away from the park, content at being a distinct segment of the larger familial mass?

Maybe this is why people do it, reuniting the smaller parts of the unit as a reminder, a reassurance that your life may not be what you'd prefer but at least isn't like those people's.

09 June, 2017

Giving Yoga Another Go

Christina Brown's Yoga Bible was a gift to me, prompted by my wondering aloud, "Are there any Yoga for Dummies books that are worth a crap?" I'd been curious to know the answer for years — eight, to be exact — ever since the painful failure of my initial yoga experience.

To the surprise of everyone who knows me (myself included), I eventually got into bodyweight training. This mostly happened because I didn't want to invite early decrepitude. (Being a prisoner is bad enough for one's health, but I also led a stereotypically inert literary-geek lifestyle.) Bodyweight training was perfect for me, given my limited space, lack of equipment, and long-harbored fantasy about joining a circus.

My regimen now incorporates time with the gym's weight pile and a bit of cardio. As helpful as any exercise is for overall flexibility, my range of motion is more limited than the average man about town. I'm about as supple as a steak from Denny's. Also, how could I live with myself, forever cowed by a pulled… whatever had me hobbling for that week, in 2007, following my failed Triangle Pose? I had to give yoga a second chance — at least for long enough to make an informed decision.

I had a heads up that The Yoga Bible was on its way to me. New experiences in prison being a precious luxury, it was kind of an exciting wait. I tempered my enthusiasm with pragmatism, working out the logistical issues I foresaw:
  1. When would I practice?
  2. What would I wear?
  3. What would I use for a mat?
To the first: when something's important, you make the time for it. I committed to carving half an hour out of my non-workout mornings, when my cellmate's at work. This meant sacrificing precious writing time, but I've certainly squandered that in less rewarding ways. No excuses!

To the second: ash gray sweatpants and a T-shirt would suffice for yoga-wear. They'd have to. Nothing else I own is remotely suitable for stretching, folding, twisting movements.

To the third: since Department of Corrections policy doesn't allow for them, the prison canteen doesn't sell mats and I can't mail order one. Thoroughly wiping down the cell's concrete floor, I would lay down my state-issued fleece blanket, folded twice in half, and make do until figuring out something better.

On the morning that the book arrived, I leapt right in, cueing up an environmental-soundtrack CD for meditative ambiance, and settling on the blanketed floor.

Breathe in, breathe out. Abs firm and still. Ujjayi Pranayama took some getting used to. Once I was hissing through my nose well enough, it was time for Sun Salutations. Then I tried Cat Pose, various "releases," Mountain Pose. Then more Sun Salutations. For continuity's sake. For getting the feel for flow. Then I just sat, breathing on the floor, being.

Looking over at my cellmate's alarm clock, I was amazed: I'd been doing yoga for a full hour — twice as long as I'd intended. Not bad for a do-over.

I couldn't wait. The next day's practice began a half hour earlier.

03 June, 2017

Canteen, the Small Mercy

Lawsuits have kept prison food from becoming altogether malnutritious, but flavor and texture are hazy concepts and, therefore, hard to litigate. So, just because it will keep prisoners from dying doesn't mean the difference between slop and steak. (Consider, for example, the ongoing "meal loaf" dispute.)

I've had to stop eating most of the meat on the Department of Corrections' menu. Other guys say that the TVP — textured vegetable protein (AKA soy) — gives them wicked gas, but trial and error showed that it was the institutional-grade ground turkey making me feel gut-stabbed. The vegetarian options aren't guaranteed to please, either. While Crossroads' cooks make decent oven-browned potatoes, grits, and cabbage soup, they manage to foul up, with dismaying regularity, almost every variety of bean.

Compared to others here, I'm on velvet. Not only does my current job in the staff dining room afford me daily fresh fruit and the occasional raw vegetables, in whatever quantities I feel like eating, I also receive enough money to skip chow-hall meals, on my days off, now and again. Like it does everywhere else, money, in prison, buys choices for those who've got it. At no time is this more obvious than on Crossroads' "spend days," when the bulge of each bright red mesh bag emerging from the canteen to cross the yard announces who has the funds to furnish comfort and who's barely scraping by.
RC Cola — $.38 per can
Moon Lodge Hot BBQ Chips — $1.37 per bag
Jack Links BBQ Beef Steak — $1.31 per package
Mrs. Freshley's Swiss Rolls — $1.61 per box
Bar-S Hot Dogs — $1.99 per package
Big Daddy Charbroil Cheeseburger — $3.69 each
Banquet Fried Chicken — $7.99 per box
I've never bought any of these things, nor most of what else is on offer. The list goes on for pages, roughly 85% of it junk. The canteen's selection does change by degrees throughout the year, to keep total monotony from setting in; however, staples like ramen soup and summer sausage never go away, no matter how much I might wish they'd be replaced with miso mix and cashews.

For being a maximum-security facility, surrounded by a lethal electric fence, and housing "society's worst," Crossroads' wards appear well cared for, humping Santa sacks galore back to their housing units. Mine stay small. I keep meals eaten in the cell simple, with staples of rice, mackerel, instant oatmeal, powdered milk, roasted peanuts, and sundry spices — boring, maybe, but healthful-ish. Recipes invented by the general population are sloppy, oily variations on themes. Most are some kind of burrito thing, nacho thing, spaghetti thing, or throw-stuff-in-some-ramen-and-whip-it-into-a-slurry thing. (That last one's especially popular.) The two microwave ovens in my wing stay busy.

Cellmates have accused me of being a cheapskate for not splurging on treats. "I can't afford it," I tell them. It's a lie. Stuff like beef tips and pre-cooked bacon wouldn't be too rich for my blood if I simply switched to generic hygiene products, stopped buying stationery to write with, cut out postage stamps for correspondence, and gave up making phone calls. I could suck down up to two pints of ice cream each week — vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. I could heat honey buns for breakfast, nuke popcorn for movies, nibble candy bars for after-dinner snacks. I could build prison "pizzas," using crushed snack crackers for crust. I could be fat and… happy?

We make choices. We live with them. Clean and lean, maintaining a sense of purpose and social value — those are mine. But when the chow hall serves us cheeseburger macaroni that smells like cat food, I'm relieved to have some small luxury of choice.