24 December, 2019

The Missouri Department of Corrections Says "Happy Holidays!" with Treats... but They Don't Really Mean It

Every year at Christmastime, the Missouri DOC allots several tens of thousands of dollars from its statewide annual canteen profits and buys a treat bag for every prisoner in its custody. The bags usually come from Keefe Corporation, the Saint Louis-based prison profiteer. In addition to all of the Keefe Kitchens-branded products that they package specifically for institutional sale, the company also packs and ships these clear plastic bags filled with several varieties of holiday snacks, at multiple price levels, to institutions around America. Missouri prisons hand them out to the inmates two or three days before Christmas.

When we're told to lock down it's forty-five minutes earlier than usual. The guards make it to B-Wing with the sealed cases of treats a good deal later. They enter loudly, with two in the lead and another two taking up the rear, acting as if it's gold bullion they're escorting through the housing unit.

One of them shouts, "Show your IDs, gentlemen!" It's not exactly "Merry Christmas," but I don't have expectations of kindness from anyone working for the state, so I don't mind.

My cellmate, Jeff, ever the wise-ass, tells the guard who opens our chuck hole, "I'm disabled. It's strictly a mental disability, but I'm supposed to get an ADA bag, too."

The guy is visibly confused. Jeff laughs and says, "I'm just messin' with you, man."

"Oh," he cracks a smile as he passes the bags in. "Good one."

The chuck hole closes with a thud.

The four unmerry men in uniform leave, and Jeff and I root though this year's assortment of junk food. Years past offered bags that were truly indulgent. I used to be able to snack a little bit every day and still make my trove last until after the new year. No longer. With what little is in the bags now, I'm lucky to have a week's worth of sweets. Of course, it still beats a big, fat holiday goose egg.

In order of tastiness, from best to worst, here's an inventory of Keefe Holiday Treat Bag 2019:

  • One 1.5-ounce bag of Toad-Ally Snax (no, really!) Hanky Panky chocolate-drizzled caramel popcorn

  • One Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chunk granola bar

  • A 1.5-ounce bag of Cheez-It crackers

  • One 1.75-ounce bag of Cool Ranch Doritos

  • A 4-ounce bag of King Nut trail mix

  • A 1-ounce bag of Bud's Best Holiday Confetti Crém cookies

  • Four single-serve packets of Maxwell House Select Roast instant coffee (aaaaaand I'm back on the sauce)

  • A half-ounce packet of Peterson's Mini Pretzels

  • A 1-ounce bag of Bud's Best Holiday Candy 'n Cookies

  • An "original" flavor 0.9-ounce beef stick from Tomer Kosher

  • An Atkinson's "jumbo" (0.7-ounce) peppermint stick

  • One package of six Austin PB & J sandwich crackers

  • A 3-ounce bag of ¡Hola Nola! Creole tortilla chips

  • Two sleeves of wild strawberry Crystal Light energy drink mix

  • A 1.75-ounce bag of Crunchy Flamin' Hot Cheetos

  • A package of iced blueberry Pop-Tarts, with multicolored sprinkles

  • One 5-ounce package of Woopee Lemon Cremes cookies

  • Right away, Jeff and I traded a couple of things. I ended up with more Cheez-Its and a second granola bar; he got extra Pop-Tarts and those freakishly red Cheetos. I couldn't unload the Lemon Cremes on anyone, though. One guy we know ate six of them right away — half the package — and said that he vomited. Woopee, indeed! And to all a good night.

    21 December, 2019

    Thirteen (Mostly Buddhist) Books I Spent My Fall Reading

    My mother attended a reading by literary fantasist Salman Rushdie and afterward sent me an autographed copy of his latest novel, Quichotte. I've read almost all of Rushdie's work and, as a fan, would've loved to say that this book blew me away. Unfortunately, familiarity is exactly what limited my enjoyment of it. Quichotte is a twenty-first-century Don Quixote remix. His previous novels — particularly The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which played on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and The Satanic Verses, which infamously riffed on Islam — both rejiggered old legends to greater effect.

    Among the many books that @Free_Byron_Case follower Punker Bee surprised me with this year, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire: A Novel was the best so far. A 999-line poem and accompanying "notes" are the form taken by this very quirky story of political intrigue that builds to a very satisfying surprise ending.

    Somewhat less satisfying was the dystopian science fiction novel Pure, by Julianna Baggott. Its protagonist is a girl with a doll's head for a hand, who lives with her aging uncle and a tiny mechanical bug in the post-apocalyptic wastes and crafts delicate butterflies out of scrap metal. I should've known, by this description alone, that this was not he novel for me. Worse yet, it's final words were "The End of Part One" — a cliffhanger. I just let go.

    The Wings to Awakening is Thanissaro Bhikkhu's translation of various Buddhist texts dealing with the Buddha's core teachings. All are taken from the Pali Canon, the oldest known texts of Buddhist thought still in existence. Like everything from the Pali Canon, it makes for seriously dry, repetitive reading. I have no designs on becoming a monk, which would require me to take a vow to live by a truly epic set of precepts, but my friend Luke is a Theravada Buddhism practitioner and therefore believes that exhaustive study is just as important as — if not more important than — meditation, so this is the kind of book he'll be shoving my direction pretty frequently as we travel along the path of dharma practice.

    The Thai dharma teacher Dr. Thynn Thynn wrote Living Meditation, Living Insight to be much more accessible. It's conversational in style because this book is made up of essays responding to questions from the members of Dr. Thynn's dharma group. Accordingly, it dispenses with the theoretical and helpfully deals in practical day-to-day concerns from a general Buddhist perspective.

    Similarly, the former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor's excellent Buddhism without Belief uses only straightforward language. Batchelor shows the reader Buddhism through the eyes of what might be called an originalist, arguing that the historical Buddha wasn't some superpowered divinity but just a man, whose enlightenment experience resulted in the codification of what we now call the dharma, and that those teachings have value irrespective of a practitioner's belief in supernatural phenomena like reincarnation and prayer. Batchelor's suggestion is that Buddhists embrace a stance of studious agnosticism in order to better live in open-mindedness, practicing nondualistic thought. I can dig it.

    For my birthday, my mother got me a couple of books from my Amazon wish list. (Thank you so much, Mum!) The first was Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, an experimental fantasy of Kublai Kahn being regaled with Marco Polo's tales of far-off lands — cities with skyscrapers, cities on stilts, cities with dirigibles drifting overhead, cities of the dead.... It's a gorgeous little book, the stuff of dreams.

    The other book I received from Mum was Writing in Flow, by Susan K. Perry, PhD. It's an expansion of a study that Perry did for her doctoral dissertation on so-called flow experiences — mental states in which the person experiencing them undergoes a voluntary shift into a state of intense concentration, trying to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. Writers, athletes, painters, gamers, adept conversationalists — people from all walks of life experience flow at least once in a while. This book analyzes seventy-odd writers' unique descriptions of flow, then offers suggestions for how a reader might engineer conditions to more reliably enter flow whenever they sat down to write. True, Writing in Flow probably sounds like it's of much less interest to you than it was to me, but you're perusing the reading list of an atypically literate prisoner, so I'm not quite sure what you expected.

    D.T. Suzuki wrote the essays that comprise Zen Buddhism in the 1950s, just when Buddhism was first making inroads into America. Some of them feel sixty years old. Nevertheless, this collection offered a lot of fascinating (probably true) history, so I don't regret checking it out from ERDCC's chapel library. Ditto for The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra, by noted Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a short, beautiful little book containing not just a twenty-first-century translation of the Heart Sutra, Buddhism's most cherished, most oft-repeated text, but also the master's wonderful commentaries on it.

    Another anthology of texts from the Pali Canon, The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation, by Sarah Shaw , was next, followed by Acharya Buddharakkhita's translation The Dhammapada: The Buddha's Path of Wisdom. The former offers a glimpse into the sutras that address meditation practice in its manifold forms. It reads like a new car manual. The latter is more friendly, which is undoubtedly why tens of thousands of practitioners around the globe meditate on the simple truths contained in its 423 verses. Consider Verse 51: "Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them." Or Verse 125: "Like fine dust thrown against the wind, evil falls back upon that fool who offends an inoffensive, pure and guiltless man." Or Verse 228: "There never was, there never will be, nor is there now, a person who is wholly blamed nor wholly praised." Surely you can see the Dhammapada's appeal.

    My autumn reading ended with another Thanissaro Bhikku translation, Poems of the Elders: An Anthology from the Theragatha and Therigatha. The ancient texts known as the Theragatha and Therigatha are collections of enlightenment poems attributed to the earliest orders of Buddhist monks and nuns, respectively. Personal, vivid, and grounded, these poems express the profound joy of enlightenment, in hundreds of different ways, in poems by matriarchs and misanthropes, servants and shopkeepers, harlots and the high-born, robbers and rice farmers — a small sample of the myriad faces of early Buddhism, touchingly illustrating the dharma's unique accessibility to one and all. I found it inspiring.

    19 December, 2019

    The Body, Considered

    My first day in prison, I had to strip down to nothing in a tiny room full of other nude men, then show the inside of my mouth, spread my butt cheeks, and lift my scrotum for a guard with a flashlight and all the humanitarian spirit of a doctor at Auschwitz. Then I received a tiny towel and was directed into a shower room where another guard misted me with slippery chemicals from a pump-action bug sprayer. I felt demeaned, forlorn, weak.

    DOC policy demands a lot of nudity. Most people preparing for company just put on the right music, open their front door, and say hi. Before spending time with a visitor, I have to peel off my clothes and hoist up my junk for a stranger wearing a badge. Eighteen years into my sentence, I'm sometimes randomly strip-searched before getting to do my job as an office janitor, and I hardly think about it at all. I'm telling you this not for pity or because I'm a chronic oversharer but to make a point: it's hard to get precious about the human body when you're elbow to elbow, or stark naked, with someone else almost twenty-four hours a day.

    Being stuffed like sardines in a can might offend some people's sense of personal dignity. At ERDCC, this happens most often at mealtimes. There's no real consistency to when the prison population is released to the dining hall (or anywhere, a circumstance that I blogged about here). Hungry and expectant in the half-hour or so before a meal, a crowd of twenty to forty prisoners waits at the front of the wing. They stand, twitchy with impatience, staring out the window that looks onto the prison yard. The loudspeaker eventually beeps and rumbles with a guard's voice: "Mainline, gentlemen! Mainline! Let's go!" The men all jockey to be in front of each other as they bumrush the door. Heels are stepped on, odors waft, bodies jostle — all like cattle though the chute. Sometimes, when I'm really in the mood, I moo.

    Living in a very small space with at least one other human affords plenty of time to acquaint oneself with the biology of Homo sapiens sapiens, too — the body's most intimate smells, its sleep-and-wake cycle, its waste production, its squishy and solid sounds, its myriad modes of functioning and malfunctioning. A cell's door, according to its purpose, is more often locked than not. The inhabitants are trapped inside together. One can either resign oneself to it or throw a fit over his cellmate's every cough and fart.

    The psychological community refers to getting used to something as "habituation." It's considered to be a positive adaptation, a way of better surviving the world. The concept of habituation isn't new. Buddhist teachings from 2,500 years ago hold that the roots of dukkha — a Sanskrit word variously translated as "stress," "discomfort," or "suffering" — lie in the inevitability of old age, sickness, and death. A certain Buddhist practice therefore involves meditating on bodily corruption as a way of subduing passions and one's unhealthy attachment to physical form.

    Why worry about every wrinkle and spot?
    Everybody's got a body, and every body's got to rot.

    (I just made that up.) But back to my point.

    I used to have this idea that my body was some precious thing, not to be taken lightly or presented to unworthy eyes. I took a lot of vain pleasure in its form — its particular assortment of curves and angles, its unique range of motion, the tone and texture of the skin wrapping it.... Having been imprisoned since I was a very youthful twenty-two, it took a while for time's effects to become visible. My hair thinned first, then laugh lines appeared, then crow's feet crept into the picture. My ego underwent a minor crisis, as I stared into the mirror for long periods, fretting over how I might hide from the inevitable.

    Of all the things that a man wrongly imprisoned for life might worry about! How ridiculous a few tiny wrinkles and a less-bountiful coiffeur are, compared to my stolen freedom! But such is the strength of delusion — the delusion that the form in which we move through the world is under our full control, and the delusion that anything in this universe might remain as it is, unchanging, for any length of time.

    I often call my body "the meat machine." Zen Buddhist traditions refer to it as "the bag of skin." These aren't terms intended to offend anyone or provoke disgust, just to downplay the perceived involvement of physicality in selfhood. A vehicle is all the body is, for us to get around in. Too much attachment to it is futile and hazardous to your mental health. Although there's no question that living in this particular physical form influences one's life in countless ways, the body isn't who one is. I've treated mine very, very well for years, yet still it rebels and breaks down unexpectedly; it isn't even a faithful companion!

    Thinking of the body dispassionately is liberating. I'm not irrated by every snore and slurp my cellmate makes, my senses are no longer offended by mealtime cattle drives, and, most importantly, I don't feel degraded anymore during those all-too-frequent strip-searches. By abandoning attachments to the body, one lives so much better in it. What a beautiful paradox!

    09 December, 2019

    A Room of One's Own

    A while back, ERDCC's administrative staff surveyed the prison's general population, distributing surveys with just one question on them: Would you be interested in a single-man cell assignment as an incentive for good behavior? Peace and quiet and personal space aren't as popular as I would've assumed. Despite the countless compromises and inconveniences that are involved with sleeping in a bathroom with another man, some weren't tempted by the prospect of living alone.

    One could have legitimate reasons for not wanting to live by himself. The fear of being burglarized is one. Without a cellmate, one's chance of having his property or canteen items stolen increases somewhat. This could be because no one's around to keep watch, or because fewer sneak-thieves want to risk pissing off the wrong guy. Sex offenders are certainly more apt to be targeted, so they're less likely to have been interested in their own cell.

    Living alone, there's also greater potential for sexual assault. This is probably why one of the rumored forthcoming criteria for living alone will be having already served a certain number of years. Most people who've been locked up for a decade or more know how to navigate the prison environment and don't have problems with predators. Fresh meat would probably avoid a living situation that puts them at increased risk, anyway.

    Most people, however, seem to have expressed interest. The deputy warden acknowledged last month that once the prisoners affected by new sentencing guidelines are shipped out, their vacant cells will be made available as bachelor pads. Men who've gone five years without a conduct violation, are custody level five (i.e., maximum-security inmates), and have at least four rehabilitative programs under their belts will be eligible. As I mentioned above, more criteria and conditions will surely be added, but this is a fantastic start. My friend Zach always said that he'd pay rent if the institution would let him live by himself. I'd laugh every time, but in the back of my mind lurked similar thoughts.

    The company of others can be wonderful, but it exhausts me. I need solitude for my psychological well-being. And although I'm a reasonable person who recognizes that meeting halfway is usually best for everyone, not having to live with someone whose lifestyle is vastly different from my own is preferable. You want specific examples? Go and read the blog posts I wrote about Bruce, Ray, Hoss, Bob, Tracy, Snake, and Blake, seven truly terrible cohabitants (albeit, not the only awful ones) that I've been trapped in cells with over the years. Then try telling me I'm picky.

    My friend Luke and I have talked about this. He's been imprisoned for nearly as long as I have, and he loathes sharing living quarters — even with his good friend Tim, with whom he gets along perfectly well. It's a psychological thing. Being trapped in a box is stressful and undignified enough. Losing the last vestiges of your privacy and range of physical movement because another person has to occupy the same 110 (or so) square feet is beyond the pale. Now I picture the potentially immanent end to my cellmate situation. It's beyond appealing; it's tantalizing.

    To not have my sleep disrupted by someone else's snoring, insomnia, or late night snack-crunching! To be solely responsible for the cleanliness of the cell! To preside over the full expanse of the desk — for writing, drawing, typing, or preparing food! To unpack from my footlocker only what minimal stuff I want to see every day, rather than the ugly, immovable clutter of another person's institutional life! To write and read with minimal potential for interruption! To burn the midnight oil, or lie down to make an early night of it, as I see fit! To not get stuck waiting for someone's conversation to wind down so I can empty my bladder! To exit the space for a few hours, confident that my documents aren't being read, my food isn't being eaten, and my stuff, in general, isn't being abused!

    It wouldn't be a restoration of my freedom, but it'd definitely be a step in the right direction. My only question is How long will it be before can I sign up?

    28 November, 2019

    A Prison Thanksgiving

    The smells of turkey and liquid disinfectant vie for dominance in the dining hall. If anyone wanted ambiance, he came to the wrong place. There's a weeks-old blob of margarine disintegrating down the wall and a petrified mustard smear on the spork holder. This is barely an area suitable for human occupation, let alone for eating in. As my housing unit files through the door, a kitchen worker in a white bouffant cap and beard guard is lazily wiping crumbs and gravy spatter off the few unoccupied faux-woodgrain tables.

    Housing Unit Three was called to eat first today, and it looks (and sounds) like half of them are still here. There's supposed to be a rotation, but none of the guards ever keep track of who went first yesterday. Because of this (and several other factors), meals are never at the same time, from one day to the next.

    Seats are at an unusual premium this afternoon. Normally, my Buddhist cohort and I sit at the third table from the exit, but today, because everyone's crawled out of the woodwork for this special holiday meal, "our" table's occupied. It looks like the four of us will be eating separately. I'm fine with that. It's just another meal, as far as I'm concerned.

    I scan for the open seat that offers the least objectionable dining companions. There's time to look around a bit. The line's barely moving. Prisoners whose job is to scoop and ladle out the food seem easily distracted. They need to be reminded over and over again by the guards and cooks: "Let's keep those trays moving, gentlemen!" If there weren't a concrete wall keeping us diners from seeing how the servers treat the food going onto our brown plastic trays, there'd probably be all kinds of fights. I'm often glad there's a wall. Ignorance is bliss.

    The first two neon-orange sporks I grab have food stuck to them. You just have to keep drawing handles from the cups until you find a good one. Prisoners in front of and behind me complain. The prisoner in front of me remembers how "the Old Walls" (Missouri State Penitentiary) baked its own bread and gave every man a tray heaped so high with Thanksgiving vittles that he could barely even carry, let alone eat, everything on it. The prisoner behind me doesn't like the look of today's portions. "Man, they tryin' to starve us to death in this bitch!" I shuffle closer to the window. I'll be thankful to reach a table, preferably a fair distance from anyone wanting to bitch.

    It's Thanksgiving, so we get a couple of ounces of sliced turkey, a glob of mashed potatoes and gravy, a spoonful of gelatinous cranberry sauce, soggy iceberg lettuce salad, some canned corn, two slices of white bread, and a little slice of pumpkin pie. Everyone looks forward to it, yet everyone expresses dissatisfaction when it's served, even though year after year after year this meal and its portions stay exactly the same. I carry mine to a table where a pair of Three-House residents are finishing up. There are a couple of empty seats, and I hope that no one sits adjacent to me who wants to kvetch about serving sizes. I'm grateful when none does.

    As off-putting as the other prisoners' bellyaching can be, I try to be compassionate. Most people in this sour place haven't developed the same perspective as I have. They're still slaves to their negativity, helpless against it. Giving thanks for what they've got would be so foreign to them as to seem downright otherworldly. Only they can change their minds. I let them carp while I enjoy the meal. It's ironic that I, who never felt any love for this holiday, am one of very few here who understand and appreciate its purpose.

    20 November, 2019

    Happy Birthday, Dear Byron

    Getting older is no picnic. Most Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers will probably tell you that after they turned forty, happy birthdays got a little harder to come by. This is at least doubly true in prison, where joy is thought to be as mythical as Santa Claus and racial equality. Somehow, though, I manage to summon enough happiness to smile about turning another year older. You might reasonably ask how the hell I do it.

    When I was a teenager, people often thought I was ten years older than I was. Now that I'm "over the hill," everyone thinks I'm ten years younger than I am. Both perspectives have served me well. Appearances aside, however, age is taking its toll. My hair is thin. My vision sucks. My knees ache and crackle. My lungs are bad. Et cetera, ad mortuum.

    Whatever. Age happens to the best of us. There are worse things, besides.

    One of my lowest points, since the abduction that landed me in a prison cell, was my twenty-fifth birthday. I'd recently lost both an appeal and contact with a close friend. I slipped into a profound depression. Hitting the quarter-century mark seemed like a significant life event, and here I was, locked in a cluttered cell for days on end with a madman, not even allowed out for a shower, in the wake of a prisoner's vengeful assault of a guard. My severely mentally ill cellmate, Hoss, had schizophrenia and a hoarding problem, however, and being trapped in his presence, with his sloppiness and selfishness and constant whining about imagined injustice and persecution, made the pain of my wrongful imprisonment sting that much more sharply. Another item on my list of woes was that the institutional lockdown forced a cancelation of the special food visit I was expecting. Birthday cards and friendly letters poured in from all corners of the globe, but they only reminded me of all that I was being kept from.

    Instead of wallowing for weeks in that gray torment, I turned to creative ventures. Art and (of course) writing got me through the worst of it, implicitly reiterating that old truth: that in life, ultimately, no one's responsible for your shitty moods but you. The next year, I took fun into my own hands. I bought some special foodstuffs from the prison canteen and shared a little birthday feast with my new cellmate. I also splurged by mail ordering a few music cassettes. (This was a long time ago.) The love and well-wishes my friends sent that year had their intended effect, and I sailed happily through my twenty-sixth birthday.

    I can't legitimately claim all the credit for this. It'd be impossible to enjoy myself so much without that crucial ingredient to any happy birthday: love. Everyone out there who knows me personally or frequently reads this blog knows that I'm graced with the friendships of many smart, resilient, caring people. My connections to them are the glue that holds me together. To what state might I be reduced if not for them? On the anniversary of my birth, they shower me with cards, letters, and e-mails, as well as money, packets of pictures, and books — every type of gift that the Department of Corrections allows me to receive — and these mean the world to me. Locked in here, alone with society's dregs, my friends make me feel like a prince.

    This Saturday I'll turn forty-one. Three of these wonderful people will be here to see me and share a meal made with love by my mother. We'll sit around a table and eat and talk and laugh. The joy of those hours will be palpable. Afterward, I'll sit in my cell, listening to an album I downloaded that morning, reflecting on forty-one years of life, grateful for everything that I have.

    Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me.

    13 November, 2019

    Last Bites: A Different Variety of Prisoner's Dilemma

    Away with the notion that prisoners bound for the death chamber request kingly feasts: one of the most common last meals in America is a humble cheeseburger with fries.

    Few situations are more harrowing than anticipating one's own execution, so we can understand why the condemned man, whiling away his final hours, would want the comfortingly familiar. Who caves to exotic cravings at such a time, let alone thinks of eating at all?

    Tricksters throughout the long history of capital punishment have tried gaming the system, making outré requests to delay the process or piss off whoever would see them hanged, beheaded, shot, what have you. Gradually imposed restrictions curbed such efforts, so that modern last meals often have to come from vendors in the vicinity of the prison doing the killing. Since US prisons aren't constructed, by and large, in bustling cosmopolitan areas, last-meal options are frequently limited to drive-through fare. There's typically a low budget cap, too. No clever forestallments by demanding bird's nest soup, Mr. Multiple Murderer; you'll be lucky to get some KFC and a smirk from the warden.

    Although sentenced to life without parole, I'm not in the precarious position of awaiting formal execution by the State of Missouri. I can swear, however, that the chance I'd opt for a burger at death's door is exactly zero.

    Granola. That was my parents, growing up. We had VW Microbuses in the driveway, a prodigious vegetable garden out back, and rice cakes and lentils in the kitchen. Mama swore by the health benefits of eating bee propolis; Papa built his own food dehydrator. This is relevant because I was eight years old on the weekend I tasted my first soda and nearly gagged on its sweetness. My cousin gave me a withering look, then slugged hers straight from the three-liter bottle. I poured myself a nice glass of milk. Later, between turns at Super Mario Bros., she offered a Swiss roll. I took one bite, nothing at all like the cakes Mama made, then I ceded to my cousin the uneaten portion.

    Mama did a lot of baking, especially through the winter. Much of our heat came from a living-room wood stove with baking racks behind its firebox. When I was very small I sat close to it, enraptured by the flames. Their warmth was as much a comfort as the aroma of Mama's sweet whole-grain loaves. When the time came to pull the bread and let it cool, I was quick with the oven mitts. This makes for fine memories, but best of all was when Mama cut the first slice with her big round-tipped bread knife: that curl of steam escaping through the dark crust, that scent like no other, the slight bowing of the heel before it fell away and exposed the hearty inner substance, rich brown and supple, almost spongy. With a pat of salted butter melted across the surface and glistening, Mama presented that first slice to me. This remains my ultimate sensory memory, from a near-perfect childhood replete with them.

    I was arrested when I was twenty-two years old. The circumstances leading to and arising from this comprise a story already widely told, immaterial to this essay except to say that, after being tried by a jury and convicted, then sentenced to two life sentences, my diet radically changed.

    All the Sunday mornings Papa made from-scratch waffles or pancakes, all the bohemian get-togethers where friends gravitated to our vibrant kitchen, all the German dishes — Linsen und Spätzle, Zwiebelkuchen, Kalter Hund — on which Mama raised me, all the trips to the market, where farmers hawked their wares by the riverfront: flats of berries; boxes of leafy greens; brown eggs nested by the dozen in shredded newspaper; plump tomatoes in a hundred sizes and shades of red, yellow, and green; caged, round-eyed rabbits, adorably doomed to be stewed; squash in an earthy kaleidoscope of hues; nectarines, peaches, and melons so ripe that their scent carried thickly into the next row of stalls; eggplants like balls of night; plump, bright peppers; baked goods ranging from zucchini bread to strawberry rhubarb pie; myriad root vegetables like the toes of giants; and on and on, as far as I could see from atop Papa's shoulders. These experiences instilled in me a love for the beauty of food.

    By the time I struck out on my own, my first apartment's kitchen lacked a microwave but featured a small arsenal of cutlery, mixing bowls, and saucepans. I might have been the only teenager in the city who owned an Italian marble cutting board, a pasta machine, and a mandoline. I still shopped the market. I considered culinary school.

    Miniscule portions of the lowest-quality stuff legally classifiable as food made up meals in the county jail. The olfactory trauma I suffered from the bologna's kerosene stink there will never fade. An already slender young man, after my arrest I lost weight at a startling pace. My cheeks hollowed. My ribs showed. I'm not sure now if, in the days leading up to my trial, I ate anything at all.

    I fell into the Department of Corrections' custody thirteen months later, and my body nearly went into shock. In prison they served occasional fresh vegetables and fruit, and the portions, while hardly large, were comparatively generous. While the institution's food wouldn't win any awards, it was edible more often than not. Every so often it verged on tasty.

    As an incentive for good behavior, Missouri prisons grant inmates without conduct violations a couple of special opportunities each year. Food visits allow loved ones to bring four "food items," plus bread, butter, and individually packaged condiments, with them into facilities' visiting rooms. In eighteen years I've only missed two, due to minor infractions, and both instances felt like grievous losses.

    Food visits are a gustatory lifeline, my one real chance to feel anything akin to that long-distant pleasure once found in a kitchen full of friends. Invitations go out weeks in advance, and the guest lists are, by necessity, short. RSVPs are booked on a first come, first served basis. The meals we gather around aren't of cheeseburgers or fried chicken, popcorn shrimp or pork chops, but more salubrious fare, oftentimes lovingly prepared by my mother, who makes the five-hour drive to see me every month.

    Lamb rogan josh, chipotle meatloaf, vegetarian brick-oven pizza, fresh-from-the-butcher Knackwurst, big bowls of baba ghanouj, roast Guinea pig, lasagna and cannoli made by an old Italian woman who really knew what she was doing, grilled halibut, Black Forest gateau, Godiva chocolate cheesecake, soan papdi, croissants with Nutella and raspberry preserves — the years' standouts are too numerous to recount, and my mother laughs at how often I've declared, "This is the best food visit yet"; although, it so often is.

    Other food-visit tables end up littered with crumpled Sonic bags, Styrofoam take-out clamshells, and cardboard boxes from Imo's Pizza. After institutional rules changed, disallowing my mother's big, bright Frieda Kahlo bag, she started bringing transparent totes still brimming with enough colors to constitute exotica in this drab place. Wandering eyes take note. Even the prison guards overseeing visits often stop by our table to gawk, then crack wise about the shittiness of their own lunches. What does it say when a prisoner's meal elicits jealousy from someone who can eat almost anything, anywhere they desire?

    An argument can be made for the cruelty of capital punishment. Another can be made, likening life without parole to an execution of inhumane duration. If the latter holds a kernel of validity, either I'm exceptional for using adventure, variety, and spice to plan food visit menus, or existential terror takes longer than eighteen years to set in. Maybe my deadening is still in its early stages. What I'm certain about is that I'd choose an atypical last meal.

    On the eve of my death, what better than one of humanity's most basic foodstuffs: bread, oven-warm, if possible, with a dish of salted butter? The type of bread wouldn't especially matter. Whether it's rye, sourdough, toasted-seed nine-grain, challah, focaccia, Irish, or French, bread is bread. Bread fostered society's growth. Bread is good. Bread is (to wax poetical for a moment) life itself. In this choice would lie an irresistible symbolism, a nod to the cyclical nature of things — ending with the beginning.

    A soft center is revealed as the serrated blade splits the crust. A whiff of heaven floats free in a wisp. The slice falls, instantly cooling. This image compels and comforts me. It's no cheeseburger, but death and food are uniquely personal. It's a last meal. You should have it your way.

    31 October, 2019

    Halloween in the Hoosegow VI: The Ritual

    In prison, a mask is escape paraphernalia, even if it's just a paper cutout. If you're caught with one, you'll catch six months in the Hole. Giving anything away is similarly against the rules, assuming you're unlucky enough to be seen by a staff member petty and bored enough to write the conduct violation. Point being, taking trick-or-treaters at your cell door on Halloween can be a small challenge. I accepted it with childish eagerness befitting the season.

    Housing unit rules be damned, on the first day of October, I hung six monstrous heads from the doorframe, stuck spiders and skeletons everywhere, and put a jack-o'-lantern on the desk. If guards wanted to act like Halloween haters, I vowed, let them come and tear my decorations down! They're not dangerous or offensive, and they all come down after a month, regardless.

    I've been blogging about my love of Halloween for years. This semiannual series — my "Halloween in the Hoosegow" posts — has run the stylistic gamut, from straightforward nostalgia to overwrought horror-fiction parody, and, like the holiday itself, never gets old for me.

    It takes a while to get settled, to find a groove in any new place. I celebrated my first Halloween at ERDCC in what's become my traditional way, sharing mega-nachos with my cellmate, the only guy here with whom I was really acquainted at the time. And while that was a fine, filling evening, Hopper wasn't the kind of guy who made much of a fuss over All Hallow's Eve (or any occasion at all). A certain élan is called for, nights like tonight, which is why this year is kind of special.

    After a year and a half, I know some people. Several are in my sangha, the Buddhist group that meets in the prison chapel on Thursday mornings. I wanted to do something nice for them, so I bought some Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and jelly beans from the canteen yesterday and went full-on Martha Stewart, wrapping a Reese's and one of each flavor of jelly bean (except black) in a baggie, which I cinched with white thread and attached a black paper spider cutout to. I made seven bags — one to give to each member of the sangha.

    While I crafted giveaway candy bags, Jeff, my cellmate of the past three months, busied himself making sour taffy for trick-or-treaters. His ingredients? Powdered peach drink mix, powdered lemonade mix, coffee creamer, and water. Where there's a will, there's a way. I was surprised by how well it turned out. We discussed how to deal with those who come to our cell door. Jeff proposed requesting paperwork proving they're allowed to participate in Halloween (i.e., no sex offenders). It's Jeff's candy, so I'll let him handle that bit on his own, if he chooses to impose restrictions.

    I'll likely be too full to care what he does. The refried beans are already warming up. I'm prepping the rest of our copious nacho toppings, bumping my Halloween playlist as I slice the olives, mouth watering in anticipation. I'm cooking for four here. Luke and Tim, our neighbors across the wing, are going in on this meal. Preparing it early was necessary to accommodate their work schedules. The hour doesn't matter, though. Halloween is Halloween, no matter what time of the day you choose to celebrate it.

    And as the dark of night creeps on, I'll slip into a comfortable position for the lineup of horror movies on cable TV, my hunger thoroughly satiated and my burst of seasonal rebellion ended. Tomorrow morning, I'll pack up the decorations and bury them in my footlocker. There's a time and a place. Of course, sometimes it's not the place, then you've got to make it the place — hence, "Halloween in the Hoosegow."

    19 October, 2019

    Halloween Hootenanny

    Whether your Halloween plans include haunting the streets or lurking around your own home, a good playlist is essential. I spent some time curating a very Byronic one, heavy on the retro darkwave and post-punk sounds that I love, to soundtrack my spooky shenanigans. Since the Eve of All Hallows is the only time a year when other people don't seem to mind listening to the same music as me, I figure my playlist is worth sharing. Comments are encouraged (especially if I missed something)!
    1. Siouxsie & the Banshees, "Halloween"
    2. Ministry, "Every Day Is Halloween"
    3. Dead or Alive, "Something in My House"
    4. Killing Joke, "Night Time"
    5. Echo & the Bunnymen, "People Are Strange"
    6. The Cure, "Lullaby"
    7. Gary Numan, "Asylum"
    8. Rasputina, "Transylvanian Concubine (Yes Sir, Mr. Sir Mix)"
    9. Concrete Blonde, "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)"
    10. Depeche Mode, "Black Celebration"
    11. Oingo Boingo, "Dead Man's Party"
    12. Twin Tribes, "Shadows"
    13. Bauhaus, "Bela Lugosi Is Dead (The Hunger Mix)"
    14. Dave Ball and Jon Savage, "Dead Neon"
    15. 09 October, 2019

      The Only Consistent Thing in Prison? Its Inconsistency!

      Allow me to disabuse you of the idea that prison is a place of predictability and rigorously kept schedules. It's not. And while it's not quite twenty-four-hour-a-day havoc, either, a guy expecting dinner to be on time will grumble with disappointment just as often as he'll be satisfied.

      Custody counts here at ERDCC are scheduled daily at 6 and 11:15 AM, as well as at 4:30 and 10 PM. The facility's locked down for these, with everyone but kitchen, maintenance, and factory workers confined to their cells until each count clears. This happens within about forty minutes. Unless it doesn't. Because the staff is either incompetent or negligent, recounts, which drag the whole process out for at least an extra hour, seem to take place every week. Worse yet, the later a count clears, the farther back every other activity gets pushed — mealtimes, recreation periods, school classes, religious services.... Shit rolls downhill, always.

      A count can also begin late. On occasion, an ambulance has to drive in to handle an emergency beyond what on-site medical staff can handle. For institutional security reasons, all movement on the yard is halted until a visiting ambulance is back outside the fence. On days when the facility is below the minimum number of staff Missouri DOC is understaffed), guards have to shuttle from post to post, from housing unit to housing unit, to help out with counts. At least when delays are due to ambulances we're allowed back out of our cells before the next shift comes on duty. Staff shortages, on the other hand, suck for everyone, in both the short- and medium-term.

      Of course, drawn-out counts aren't the only interferences that spring up in the midst of prison life. Even more disruptive to prisoners' day-to-day existence are the lockdowns regularly called for less serious matters. Beginning a few weeks ago, the seventy-two residents of my wing have been made to lock down every time a guard wants to access the fire door. Guards have passed through this door multiple times a day for the past five months without it being a thing. Now, suddenly, prisoners in 1B have to pause their card games, cut short phone calls, turn off the microwave, leap from the shower, or log off the kiosk just so someone can briefly open a door to the outside — outside, yes, but still separated from freedom by two twelve-foot razor-wire fences and a lethal electric one. I guess this is what the "max" in "maximum security" refers to.

      As with everything else, I try to stay flexible. Getting my hopes up, developing expectations, or believing that I'm in some way entitled to more stability just because I'm innocent and wrongfully convicted won't get me anything but grief. This is the world; I'm just living in it.

      23 September, 2019

      Seven Books I Read This Summer

      Friends know that prison rules seriously limit the number of books that I can possess at any given time. There's only so much room in these cells and the footlocker that stows my stuff, so a DOC-imposed limit isn't a terrible impediment. But occasionally I'm caught off guard, such as when leisure time's been at a premium, with a full compliment of books on hand when an order of several more unexpectedly arrives. To keep my property numbers in line, I then have to hurriedly send an equal number out. People I know usually ask first, "How's your book situation?" Strangers surprise me.

      One such person is Veronica S., a person with whom I've never had any contact, who follows this blog and my case, and who has several times surprised me at random with orders of books from my Amazon wish list. The titles are obviously ones that I chose, but she seems to pick rather deftly, as if she knew what I was most in the mood to read at the moment. They delight and occupy me in the best way, but they also transport my mind from this place. When she — when anyone sends me a book, they're sending a fragment of freedom. It means so much.

      Dexter Palmer's novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion was one of the latest books that Veronica sent. It's sort of a steampunk revision of The Tempest, (yes, there's an airship), and while it had moments of literary beauty, Palmer seemed incapable of resisting a bit of goofball humor here and there that, for me, blunted the mood of this otherwise fine alternate-reality fantasy.

      Comparatively, Girl in Landscape engrossed me utterly. The third Jonathan Lethem novel I've read in a year, it's part parable, part coming-of-age story, part sci-fi, part Western — and it's every little bit as compelling as the last excellent Lethem novel I read, As She Climbed Across the Table. Both are highly recommended.

      And then there was the hard-bitten tech-noir of William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, who kind of returned to his roots in 2014 with the fast-paced The Peripheral. Gibson never did time travel before, and, technically, he doesn't do it here, either. The conceits at work here are quantum entanglement, the transmission of data streams to alternate timelines, and very, very rich hobbyists who get a kick out of playing god with those timelines by manipulating their financial markets and media. The fascinating concept, riveting plot, and trademark Gibsonian grit made a great, geeky alternative to summertime fun in the sun.

      The Civil War provides a backdrop for no other fantasy books that I know of. Chris Adrian, however, used it to great effect in Gob's Grief: A Novel, — part alternate history, part magical realism — about an optimistic young doctor's quest to resurrect his long-dead twin brother. The book's so large, so historical, so richly textured, so beautiful. That this was Adrian's first novel is nothing short of stunning.

      Neil Gaiman's The Sandman Omnibus Volume Two was a gift to me from the delightful Emily C., and equal in excellence to the previous volume. I adore Gaiman's graphic novels about Dream of the Endless and the people — well, not always people, but beings whose worlds brush against his realm of unconscious fantasy. Gods and demons, eyeless nightmares and ravens who used to be men, retired superheroines and creatures of folklore walk the pages of these tales. Rereading them for the first time in twenty-two years was such a treat. Thank you again, Emily.

      I wanted to feel my way around before I signed up for the prison's Buddhist services in July. To that end, I borrowed Buddhism, a 1961 history and what's-what compilation of scholarly works edited by Richard A. Gard. As introductions go, I could definitely have done worse, but what struck me most was how much history 2,500 years includes. This book doesn't scratch the surface.

      Several other books then came from Punker Bee, who follows @FreeByronCase on Instagram. For Read a Book Day, 6 September, I started and finished Jean-Christophe Valtat's English-language debut, 03 (translated by Mitzi Angel). A brief sprawl of a novel, it tracks a teenage boy's profound thoughts about the dark-eyed developmentally disabled girl across the street, while both wait for morning buses — his to high school, hers to a special-education academy. He calls what he feels for her love, and so he yearns for her notice, narrating, "[M]y own existence, hard enough for me to maintain with any robustness to myself, was, for those dark eyes — black as the inside of closed fists, reflecting less the outside world than the abandoned interior of a skull — a thing she never recognized but saw as a hazy blip on the landscape of those school mornings, an unremarkable little figure standing in front of the already shabby backdrop, a simple outgrowth, barely organic, of the bus shelter I leaned up against, my hands in my pockets, brain blowing on my eyes as though they were embers, trying to make my 'passion' seem that much more notable, more incandescent, but failing to send it over to the other side, across the cold magma frozen into tarmac by the organized disaster called society." It's that kind of book, and I loved it.

      So, to my three book benefactors, thank you, thank you, thank you! You made my summer something supremely special. I'm looking forward to this coming season of change, when I dive into the rest of those novels that Punker Bee sent.

      16 September, 2019

      Showering in Prison Just Got a Little Less Luxurious

      You've seen movies where prisoners stand naked, elbow to elbow, and soap up in a large steamy room lined with showerheads. Rooms like these are the source of that old "joke" about dropping the soap. Many old-timey hoosegows still employ that shower-with-a-shank model, but the Prison Rape Elimination Act that George W. Bush signed into law aimed to eliminate such dicey settings. Prisons being built today don't have shower rooms like this. The Missouri DOC's response to PREA includes policy mandating shower doors and curtains — all to the benefit of guys like me, who don't care for showering with one eye open and our backs to the wall.

      At Crossroads (which is now temporarily closed), and here at ERDCC, each prisoner bathes in an individual stall. The cinder block walls go all the way up. There's a modicum of privacy, thanks to a thick gray vinyl curtain. Creepy peepers will still walk too close and peep over — it's what the so-called shower sharks do — but at least my bare white ass isn't exposed to the entire wing. I can push the button and close my eyes and let the cares of the day wash down through the big brass Smith Company drain grate.

      Yes, I can push the button, for there are no knobs for turning the shower on or off, nor for adjusting the water temperature. There's only that single stainless steel button, and the water that flows when you press it is whatever temperature it happens to be. You won't know for sure until you're under the stream. It stays on for a predetermined period, thanks to an electronic timer. However long you need to soap up and rinse your face — it's about half a minute shorter than that. Then, like a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey While Streams of Watery Soap Sting Your Eyes (everyone's favorite!), you blindly poke around for that damn button.

      This was how it was for the longest time, and still I looked forward to showering, to the feeling of washing away the day's vicissitudes, and to those warm minutes of quasi-solitude. Last week, though, my daily respite took a hit. As part of a big-time money-saving plan, ERDCC maintenance workers just installed delays on all of the showers. Now, when my blind button-hunts end, I've got to wait twenty seconds before pressing it does any good. Standing there, soapy, blind, and shivering, I can mash that button all I want, but there'll be no more water until it's time.

      I'm enjoying my showers a lot less than I used to. On the bright side, what water I get is warm more often than not. There's also no limit on how many times I can press the button to get clean. Not yet, anyway.

      06 September, 2019

      Prison Politics Aren't What You Think They Are

      A general public sense exists of people in prison being ignorant of goings-on in the wider world. I get this all the time, friends asking if I've heard of a particular well-known app, if I'm informed about the scandal du jour, or if I understand a certain new slang term. Sure, there's a lot that I miss by being locked up, but I have my own TV, subscriptions to numerous magazines, and a diverse social circle. I probably stay better informed than the average prisoner.

      Until my 2001 arrest, I was very politically engaged. I had followed the latest presidential election very closely, attended political demonstrations, took fervent interest in civic matters, and frequently discussed local, national, and world politics with passion. (For context: my best friend went on to master in political science at Berkeley, and my ex-roommate became the administrator of a Planned Parenthood clinic.) Finding myself in prison didn't diminish my enthusiasm. I still listened to news on the radio, watched the twenty-four-hour channels in my cell, and conversed about policy and law with anyone willing to engage me on political matters. The lead-up to the 2016 presidential election changed everything.

      Maybe it was a matter of feeling disenfranchised and so far outside of the system. Maybe it was turning forty and realizing that (to paraphrase Emerson) the crack of doom heard around the country was nothing but the noise of a pop gun. Maybe it was a lack of patience with the infantile puling and name-calling of the candidates. I turned off my TV with disgust one day and swore off all politics. When I realized that you can't, in this country, follow any news without getting at least a little of the slime of something political splattered on you, I gave up news media altogether. My news blackout enters its fourth year next month.

      That big social circle I mentioned includes some who are very keen on politics. I don't have any problem voicing displeasure when they bring up a subject I studiously refuse to engage with them on. By and large, they respect my boundaries without complaint. However, in prison, it's said that there are no secrets. People talk. And as hard as I try, a guy can't help overhearing things.

      Ours are highly politicized times. I have no scientific basis for what I'm about to say, but there might well be more people in prison who take an interest in politics, per capita, than there are in the free world. Arguments spring up around me throughout the day, and I can't go a week without hearing mention of either the president's staggering inhumanity or his greatness of character. "Democrats!" one will spit. "Republicans!" another will growl. Asked where I stand on the issues of the day, I resort to my stock reply, "I heard that the price of tomatoes has fluctuated again." If pressed for an answer, I ask my inquisitor who he'll be voting for in the next senate race — a practice that, more often than not, shames him into adopting another, less fraught subject.

      Again quite unscientifically, it seems to me that the average prisoner here in Missouri leans Republican or identifies as a very conservative Independent. Those inclined to a Democratic perspective tend to be so more out of obligation, due to labor union ties, than because of progressive values. As far as apolitical prisoners are concerned, they tend to like the promises of Donald Trump quite a lot — particularly his anti-immigration stance — although none of his fans seem capable of enumerating any specific decisions or actions of note that the president has actually taken.

      I hear this hasn't been a good year for tomatoes.

      23 August, 2019

      Canteen Day

      Buying a few necessities in prison, at least at ERDCC, is less like popping down to the corner market than like calling ahead for your groceries and then, days later, standing out in the rain or hail or broiling sun, awaiting your pick-up. It's not ideal.

      On Saturday mornings, every man's issued one toilet paper roll and tiny bar of soap. Call me greedy, but I insist on having a toothbrush, some toothpaste to squeeze onto it, and soap that doesn't give me a rash. Lotion's also very nice to have. So is coffee. At least the prison canteen offers an alternative to state-supplied sundries, even if it is overpriced.

      The State of Missouri provides each prisoner a minuscule stipend every month ($8.50 for a high-school graduate), minus a percentage toward a mandatory savings account he'll collect upon release. I, on the other hand, have a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, and therefore no release date toward which the state can withhold money. I get my full stipend. Lucky me.

      The canteen sells virtually everything prisoners are allowed to possess — acne cream and alarm clocks, Top Ramen and acetaminophen, TVs and towels, snacks and socks — a variety rivaled only by very well stocked truck stops. I've blogged about a few items in the canteen's inventory, but the full list of products sold here is several pages long. My staples are peanuts, instant Folgers, mackerel, and rice. I've also got a history with Werther's Originals and enjoy having a bag of them on hand when I can afford to.

      Twenty-four hours is the cutoff for placing an order before canteen day. I prefer to lock mine in early. A touchscreen kiosk in the wing tells me in real time if the canteen's sold out of a particular item. They're perpetually out of something, and it's not always Little Debbie snack cakes. For my first three months at ERDCC, ink pens and typing paper were unavailable. Seventeen years' imprisonment has taught me to keep at least one month's worth of stuff on hand. You never know when a chink will appear in the supply chain.

      My housing unit picks up canteen during our Wednesday afternoon recreation period. On a slow week, about hundred and fifty people gather on a grassy area at the center of the yard and listen for their names to be called over a loudspeaker. Once it is, they show their ID at the canteen window to collect their prepacked bag (or bags) of stuff.

      There's no shade or shelter where we wait. That's why, on Sundays, I check the Weather Channel forecast. I was once bruised by hail on one arm and cut on the other, waiting to collect my order. That was unforeseen. If it's apt to be sunny and hot, though, I don't spend unless supplies are low. All this week, heat indexes are in the hundreds — brutal for someone as intolerant of summer temperatures as I am, but I'll risk a sunburn before I risk running out of dental floss.

      At the kiosk in my wing, three days ago, I entered the four-digit code for each item I wanted to buy. As a creature of habit, I know them by heart. Coffee went up 10% last month. Thank goodness it's still a luxury within my means. I'm even able to splurge this week, thanks to a certain someone's generosity. The code for donut sticks is 1723, the only code I have to look up.

      Over the loudspeaker in my wing, a guard announces that the yard's open for afternoon rec. That's the cue to grab my cheap Chinese sunglasses (code 1459) and go. The last time I waited for canteen was on a nice, cloudy day, and mine was the very last of about two hundred names called. It's a sunny 100° today. I wonder how bad the odds are that I'll be called first.

      07 August, 2019

      The Old Cellmate Switcheroo... and Some Dogs

      For the sixth time since transferring to ERDCC fifteen months ago, I moved. Like any real-world move, packing up, transporting, and unpacking stuff in prison is no cakewalk. Usually the new cell needs serious cleaning. This time, at least, my move was by request.

      The prison administration reserves the right to relocate people willy-nilly. A guy can ask to be randomly assigned another bed, but so-called convenience moves, those with a specific destination, require a form. (Almost everything in prison requires a form.) For this, a guy wanting to move has to not only write down where he's assigned to live and where he wants to be assigned, whoever he's switching places with also has to sign it. So do both his current and prospective cellmates. Getting all parties to agree to the arrangement can take effort. Tensions sometimes rise. Tempers sometimes flare.

      My latest move came about because Hopper, my more-than-acceptable cellmate of the past year, had had enough of our housing unit — its sliding cell doors, its staff, its population of creeps and assholes. That these problems were largely isolated to one wing made no difference to him. He wanted out any way he could. Volunteering to leave this housing unit, regardless of who he might get as a cellmate, seemed to belie his claim that I'm easy to live with. But Hopper was a cypher in many regards, possibly because even he had a hard time recognizing his motivations for doing most things.

      I might've been stuck with some Brando had it not been for Jeff. He'd been on my trivia team, back in February. As it happens, he was eager to replace the insufferable goon he cohabitated with. Jeff and I get along well and, for reasons of his own, the goon badly wanted to move to my wing. So our plan looked like an easy one-for-one swap. Then someone else heard about it.

      Starved for excitement, many prisoners turn into gossipmongers. I've met more than a few "static addicts" in my time, who rile people up and generally make more out of situations than is warranted. Despising drama as I do, I steer clear of that type. But the moment that word about Hopper leaving the house and me switching with somebody in another wing got out, the dramatists came to us.

      Weeks passed, during which Hopper and I got barraged daily with questions. Some wanted to know if we'd had a falling out. Others wanted to know who was moving over in our place. A few wanted to take over our cell, somehow, after we left. The more people get involved, the more apt a plan is to go bad, and for a while it looked as if one desperate party, who were flailing to realize their scheme for a parallel move, might foul up what Hopper and I had set in motion. He and I even had an argument, sparked by the pressure they, perhaps unwittingly, put on us.

      Caseworkers generally get in no hurry to handle convenience moves, even though the procedure takes mere minutes to complete. The day I came back from work and was finally told I was moving felt like a great unburdening. I packed my footlocker in less than an hour and a half, then tamped down the lid. Since I was only moving into the adjacent wing, I carried everything over by hand — my footlocker, TV, boombox, typewriter, fan, canteen food, cooler, and trash can — rather than use a cart. Jeff and I deep-cleaned the cell, to get the remnants of the last guy out, and I settled in before evening.

      It's better here. There are dogs. The animals being trained for the Puppies for Parole program live in the cells downstairs. Sometimes I pet them. Luke, the closest thing to a friend that I've made here so far, is just across the walk. We talk multiple times a day now. The wing itself is quieter and houses fewer abrasive personalities than the one I moved from. This is important. Crucial, though, is that Jeff is clean, even-tempered, fair-minded, and possessed of above-average intelligence. He's turning out to be a very good cellmate. As long as I've got peace of mind in that regard, most every concern can take a backseat. I can live like this.

      26 July, 2019

      Buddhism Behind Bars

      There is religion in prison. Some might say that prisoners are the most faith-filled people one could meet, and I wouldn't automatically have reason to disagree. To be sure, these circumstances will try a man.

      Weekly services for several different faiths, plus a handful of interfaith services, are offered at ERDCC. Some of my wingmates supplement their worship with mornings hunched at tables, studying Bibles and Korans. A nightly prayer circle also forms in my wing at 9 PM sharp. Some pray in their cells, hidden from sight. That's them — what about me?

      Thursday mornings occasion a two-hour Buddhism service in the chapel. When I walk in, the carpeted floor of the big room is clear of all but eight comfortable cushions and a folding table draped with a flowery aquamarine altar cloth. On the table sit a foot-high wooden Buddha, a book of scripture, the seven copper cups representing the seven-limbed prayer, and a stupa. Our singing bowl sits with us on the floor, atop a little blue and red satin pillow and sounds, when it's rung before the "Refuge" meditation, like thoughts dropped into a deep well. I like the singing bowl a lot.

      Attending these services is a new thing for me, even though I knew six of their attendees before I joined. Apparently my inclination is toward Buddhist philosophy as well as toward those with the mentalities of its practitioners. (Like minds and all that.) After all these years of living by precepts integral to Buddhism, officially declaring myself a Buddhist still felt life-altering. I'm just constitutionally averse to joining stuff. Groupthink freaks me out.

      Our group has no leader; although, it would be nice if someone from the outside world came in to offer us occasional guidance. We're a motley collection of individuals now. A different person each week volunteers in advance to open and facilitate, usually with a reading that we then discuss. Then there's meditation of some sort. Sometimes we discuss our meditation, too — what sensations we noticed, what thoughts came to the fore, what difficulties we experienced. The atmosphere is relaxed without being slack, sincere without being stuffy. We follow the Middle Path — one of the nicest walks I take all week.

      12 July, 2019

      Thoughts About Dying

      My recent thoughts have been fixed to an inordinate degree on death. Not Death, the cute, down-to-earth goth girl from the comic books, I mean my death, the big sleep, the end, the cessation of my vital functions and the profoundest nothingness that follows. I've been thinking this multiple times a day, in the middle of otherwise pleasant phone conversations, while I'm reading a good book in my cell, when my sleep breaks at odd hours of the night: Byron Case, you are going to die.

      The specter of death looms over my days' bland landscape like the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (One key substitution, courtesy of my sardonic mind: the soundtrack isn't Strauss but that song from Sesame Street, "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.") Death is big and weird and doesn't fit. I don't like it.

      I ask myself, What if up until right now was all that I got? Let it be placed in the record that I don't believe in a hereafter. We shuffle along, taking our roughly twenty-five million breaths, eating things, doing stuff we enjoy, doing stuff we don't enjoy, having stuff done to us, and meeting a few people along the way who, if we're very fortunate, value our company enough to shuffle side by side awhile. Then we lie down or collapse somewhere, and the show goes on without us. The shuffling along is what we get.

      And so I think about my footwork. I know that I'm a terrible dancer. Much has been made of the time a girl cried just because I performed a little soft-shoe in front of her. Dancing, however, is something else, laying the flattering unction to one's soul. I'm talking about shuffling and how well we do it.

      Between there and here, I've generally kept my head up and paid attention to my surroundings. I've also tripped and fallen... a lot. One could actually say that my life's been a succession of sometimes elaborate pratfalls followed by recoveries of questionable elegance. My continued imprisonment, while being a travesty of justice that's hurt worse than any other tumble I've taken, is also the best example of recovery I can point to. I could have let myself be mired in woe-is-me bullshit and cried myself to sleep every night of the last eighteen years, mourning the loss of all that I love — but no. I keep shuffling. My eyes don't drop below the horizon. Sometimes I even look at the sky.

      I've lived a rich life despite my poverty. Even trapped like this, under lock and key, I managed to find deep fulfillment. I rose above my situation. Here's a revealing tidbit: I had a dream, last week sometime, that I had a fatal heart attack while typing the final pages of my novel. Somehow it was scarier to leave the work undone than to simply kick the bucket. Purpose matters. Mine comes from writing and from the meaningful connections I forge with people beyond the boundaries of prison. These pursuits offer moments of beauty. They're what give color to the void.

      Regarding shuffling, I admit that I tripped some people over the years. Several times it was deliberate. Long before I learned how to be happy (and oh, it's an acquired skill, believe me), I got a sad satisfaction out of watching someone I disliked stumble. Once upon a time I slathered someone's Land Rover with five gallons of lard after he rear-ended my friend's new car and didn't apologize. I don't regret stuff like this, but I also wouldn't think of doing its like again. I prefer to maintain a certain high-mindedness. It's about personal dignity and sense of scale.

      Regrets constitute a whole other kettle of fish. I think the person who lives without regret is either a sociopath or engaged in some seriously unhealthy compartmentalization. You need regret for growth, to learn what not to do in the future. I cherish my regrets; they're rare jewels in the crown of a life well lived.

      I regret throwing that rock at the neighbor kid just because he pushed me down. I regret not kicking Happy in the balls when I had the chance. I regret the shitty coping mechanisms Young Byron got stuck relying on. I regret not telling Brooke, Dave, and Corbin to shove off. I regret not taking Justin and Stasia's problems seriously. I regret breaking Molly's heart. I regret ever feeling sorry for Kelly. I regret giving Tim (and a host of others, really) the benefit of the doubt. I regret throwing only the third or fourth punch. I regret every time I took the short way home. I regret how little time I spent drawing. I regret doing less than I could have to show my love. I won't go on, even though my list does.

      Certain myths hold that a man (it's always a man — one way you can tell it's a myth) at the gate, mouth, or shore of an afterlife waits to judge the souls seeking entry. If I fell dead at this very moment, and found myself face to face with this celestial bouncer, I'd justify my existence to him by pointing out that the balance of good and bad tips at a rather acute angle to the side of the former, that my shuffling has been, if not consistently then at least mostly of an agreeable variety, and he'd grant me passage, no sweat.

      Of course, that's easy to say. It actually sounds flippant, like I'm ready for that big, creepy black block to tip over and crush me whenever. That's not the case at all. I've got an indisputable, stubborn attachment to living. I want as much life (while remaining cognizant and in control of my bodily functions) as I can have. There's so much left to do — so much more to write, so much more to make of myself, so much more to give the world, so much more love to show those in my life who matter most.

      I'm not afraid to die, I'm just not ready for it yet. I'd tell this to the black thing looming over my shoulder in the mirror when I'm brushing my teeth, except it wouldn't listen.