28 December, 2020

Imprisoned Artists and Crafters, Rejoice!

Paging through a Blick Art Materials catalog, I feel like a kid in a candy store, clutching a thousand-dollar gift card. This shopping spree was made possible by two recent developments: a prison policy change and the first round of 2020 economic stimulus checks.

To the first of these we owe an interesting bit of happenstance. In my many years' imprisonment, I never before witnessed a wholesale administrative turnover like the past few months at ERDCC have seen. Within a couple of months we lost the warden, deputy warden, institutional activities coordinator, chaplain, recreation director, and education director. And that's just the positions that I know about.

Historically, someone assuming a position of authority in a correctional center tends to assert that authority in some significant, usually unpleasant way – getting rid of a privilege the prisoners enjoy, or curtailing movement around the institution. When the last warden of Crossroads Correctional Center assumed power, her first decrees cut recreation times in half and instituted mandatory institution-wide lockdowns when fistfights broke out. Subsequent years did nothing to save her reputation among the population.

ERDCC's recent changeover has been painless. Every change I've seen so far has been positive. The most inclusive of these actually has the potential to change people's whole outlook on life: an expansion of the prison's "in-cell hobby craft" procedure.

When I first came to this facility, two and a half years ago, I was amazed to learn that prisoners here could order colored pencils and drawing paper from outside venders. It was the most meaningful approach to facilitating prisoner self-improvement I'd ever seen. Then my friend Zach, who was at Crossroads with me, wrote and said that Western Missouri Correctional Center, the prison where he ended up, allows its residents to mail order supplies ranging from acrylic paint and calligraphy pens to glitter glue and cross-stitch stuff. Reading his letter, I very nearly got jealous.

There was no reason to get emotional. About a month ago, ERDCC started letting us send off for a slew of different arts-and-crafts supplies. Charcoal, paint, markers, glue, origami paper, sketch boards, yarn, crochet hooks, needlepoint hoops, puzzles, snap-together model kits, popsicle sticks and so much more – there's hardly any medium, or tools for working with it, that aren't at least partly permitted now. Best of all, government stimulus checks, as well as any government payments yet to come, guarantee that anyone who wants to create will be able to unleash that creativity.

In the good ol' bad ol' days, Missouri State Penitentiary ("the Walls," where a lot of old prisoners did time) offered options galore to the creatively inclined. A guy I knew who did time there used to build grandfather clocks. Another tooled leather for wallets, purses, and saddles. One friend and former cellmate of mine remembers etching glass and making Tiffany-style lamps. A display case showed visitors these goods, with price tags attached, so the creators could profit from their work. The days of prisoners' self-sufficiency are probably long gone, but ERDCC's enabling of people's creative ventures marks a major turn for the better.

The Blick catalog has pages upon pages of artists' pens. I think I'll order five.

18 December, 2020

Five Books I Spent My Fall Reading

Taking up a new job really changed my reading habits. While it didn't take away so many hours, it did refocus how I spend them. Much of what I read these past three months was computer-coding material for work – dense manuals of instructional, logical language that I picked through intently, deliberately, often doubling back in recursive bouts of questioning, of either the text or of my own coding aptitude.

Besides this, though, there were "real" books. Really good "real" books, even. First was The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, translated and with commentaries by the beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In its original Sanskrit, this sutra is known as Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita: the Diamond Sutra. It chronicles a discussion by the Buddha about the emptiness of teachings and of concepts in general. Some call the Diamond Sutra confounding. Followers during the Buddha's lifetime were unsettled by the section of the teaching that reads, "Tathagata [the Buddha] means the suchness of all things [dharmas]. Someone would be mistaken to say that the Tathagata has attained the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, since there is not any highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind to be attained." Referring back to his own teachings, the Buddha went on: "This is why the Tathagata has said, 'All dharmas are, in fact, Buddhadarma.' What are called all dharmas are, in fact, not all dharmas. That is why they are called all dharmas."

It's about the idea of a thing versus the thing itself, not mistaking the map for the destination, and not getting all tangled up in motives... I think. Anyway, The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion might not be a thick book, but this essential Buddhist text packs a lifetime's worth of teachings into its few pages.

The debut novel of Dutch poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, in a very different way, has a lot to say. The Discomfort of Evening won the 2020 International Booker Prize. A preteen farm girl's depression and desperation in the wake of her younger brother's death held some interest for me, but the Booker Prize-win attracted me more than the novel's synopsis did. Booker winners are typically excellent. The Discomfort of Evening is a very good, very dark book about the ways in which repression and isolation ruin lives.

Susanna Clarke's amazing first novel, the fully realized fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with its historical richness and intricacy, blew me away. I looked forward to buying and reading her next, but nothing else by the reclusive British author seemed forthcoming. A profile of Clarke I read this year in The New Yorker revealed that she suffers from a mysterious condition and spends days at a time shut away in a dark bedroom. Nevertheless, a new book was finally coming: Piranesi, Clarke's first novel in sixteen years. I mentioned the New Yorker article to several people and, without telling me beforehand, the generous Emily C. made Piranesi a surprise gift. (Thank you, Emily!) And what a gift! Mysterious, magical, startlingly funny, and somehow both simple and labyrinthine at once, the novel held me rapt from start to finish – well worth the wait.

Then came my birthday, when even more books flew in. For three of them I have my mother to thank. (Thank you so much, Mum!) The first of those was a book-length philosophical essay by John Gray, entitled The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom. In well under 200 pages, Gray traipses through subjects as seemingly diverse as Jewish mythology, the novels of Philip K. Dick, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Aztec history, prison, reality television (which Gray describes as its own sort of prison), Gnosticism, AI, and the surveillance state – all in service of his wildly entertaining, thought-provoking discussion of whether or not humankind has free will. No spoilers!

Also from Mum was Hermann Hesse's classic Steppenwolf, which had been on my list for a decade. Maybe because of my own Buddhist studies, I spotted shadows of the dharma in the Eastern philosophies vaguely espoused by the author. Only shadows, though. Hesse's book is a novel, not a 2,500-year-old sutra. As a general rule, a person should avoid works of fiction whose purpose is purely to preach (the Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, or anything by Ayn Rand), and, unfortunately, what Hesse seems to have attempted with Steppenwolf was less to tell the semi-autobiographical story of sad old Harry Haller than to promote a particular way of living.

A tantalizing Murakami novel still sits waiting for me. I've already started reading the long-awaited Sandman Omnibus, Volume III, as well as a fat collection of various writings by Montaigne. When these appear in my next reading post, three months from now, they're all but certain to get rave reviews.

16 December, 2020

Bloody, Awful Morning

Buddhism's first precept, "Refrain from killing," isn't what I think of first. That comes later, when I set the little mouse in the grass. She got stuck on one of the gym's glue traps overnight, and my coworker Gary made the grim discovery beside a supply closet. He lifts the paper trap two-handedly, holding it level while traversing the basketball court.

"What's that?" I ask as he passes me.

"We caught a mouse. I'm looking for someone to take care of it."

I feel sadness drape me like a soiled old shirt. "Take care of it?"

"I can't," Gary says, sounding so much like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh that a moment passes before I register what he's saying. "I just – I can't."

Sighing heavily, I consider what's going to happen. No good outcomes are possible. Whether or not Gary and I act, the mouse will die, and die awfully. She's been on the trap long enough that her tail, her feet, her belly, and even her little face stick firmly to the glue. An extraction attempt will probably cause injuries worse than death. In an even more urgent sense than applies to the rest of us in the world, she's doomed.

Glistening black beads, her little eyes, peer uncomprehendingly at this terrific world. Inside her, I imagine, ticks a tiny terrified heartbeat, lightning-fast. My own heart breaks. I don't want this. But what else is there?

We work in a gym, not a kitchen. There are no foodstuffs here for her and her rodent kin to despoil, no real harm to be done by their gnawing and nesting and other mousy business. Why must we have traps set at all? Must we humans exploit our primacy on Earth at every single opportunity? Is coexistence so untenable?

When I was three or four years old, my parents took me on a month-long Jamaican vacation. Our budget globetrotting skirted what most would call "roughing it." My parents had no problem sleeping every night, side by side, in a tent barely made for two.

One of the places where we spent a week was a coastal town whose cliff face was ceaselessly massaged by Caribbean waves. Free-range chickens had the run of the property where we stayed, fluffy chicks trailing them like iron filings drawn to a magnet, and I, in turn, was drawn to them – to almost every animal I encountered, really. But my inept fingers, when I reached down to cuddle one of the skittering yellow puffballs, either grasped too hard, or the animal writhed exactly the wrong way in my hands, and suddenly it lay, warm but still, in my open palm. I ran, crying, to my father, cradling its limp body like my most precious possession, now broken. As if Papa could undo what I'd done. As if anything at all could.

My father held me close. He reassured me. I wasn't bad; I hadn't done this on purpose. I had been clumsy, though. That alone fueled my sense of shame; I was normally such a conscientious boy. When my sobs eventually diminished, Papa walked me to the cliff. We cast the dead chick into the blue sea and I watched it bob along on the swells while the weight of the world pressed down on my narrow shoulders and I wished the little bird could just be okay again, just as it had been before my hand carelessly ended its life. This first encounter with death lingers with me somehow, like a phantom limb that tingles weirdly before a hard rainstorm.

My throat constricts as I walk out of the gym with the pitiable creature on this despicable trap. Lunch is finished. The yard is almost deserted. The bracing morning air stinks of a nearby trash fire. The mouse appears petrified, and so many things run through my head as I set the trap down on a firm patch of level soil. I think of pets I've loved and meat I've eaten, of dead philosophers and living dharma, of the insects I so often move from sidewalks to safety and that chick I killed thirty-eight years ago. I open my heart to the tiny creature whose impulses and terror I will never be able to comprehend. Tears blur my vision. Welling with a primal sadness that I haven't felt in years, I fold the trap in half and do the awful thing that has to be done. The entire world fails to fall silent in its grieving.

11 December, 2020

Add "Producer" to My Resume

In the wake of a rash of staff assaults, prisoner stabbings, and general badness, the warden and deputy warden of ERDCC were demoted or fired this fall. As a new administration takes the reins, changes loom. Astonishingly, the changes we've seen in the first month have been positive. The biggest, as far as I'm concerned, is the green-lighting of a multimedia-production studio to be staffed by my coworkers and me, aka Team XSTREAM.

Jefferson City Correctional Center has had a full-featured studio since the '80s – Jefftown Productions, which distributes such scintillating one-off videos as "Progressive Relaxation Techniques," "ParentLink," and the blockbuster hit of 2018, "JP5 Tablet Demo." A couple of other Missouri prisons recognized the benefits of this and followed suit. Various parties have striven to get a studio at ERDCC for years. Even with the full support of the Recreation Department, and a pledge for the donation of all necessary equipment by Saint Louis University's Prison Education Program, the previous warden denied every proposal that came his way. Our incoming warden seems more interested in progress and reform.

And so, earlier this week, Team XSTREAM rallied to adapt the large office that abuts the gym, moving furniture to accommodate a green screen, lighting, microphones, tripods, et cetera, leaving just enough room for what work the staff members need to do in that space. A couple of days after that, we set up cameras. Physical setup was the easy part. What proved to be more involved was the paperwork.

My coworkers brainstormed programming ideas – simple stuff that the four of us, none of whom have done video work, could produce and distribute via the prison's in-house cable system. We tried to think about diversity: a show hosted only by deaf and hearing-impaired prisoners, an LGBTQ+ program, an homage to Mystery Science Theater 3000, a special on positivity and purpose, a collection of tutorials on tricky school subjects, a how-to video on self-care and hygiene.... Our list of proposed titles and one-line blurbs ran to three pages. We didn't even include the programming that Saint Louis University, the Inside-Out Alliance, Ashland University, the Restorative Justice Organization, or the Speak Easy Gavel Club might want to generate.

I made official-looking Word forms for proposals, releases, and program approvals, created a production-schedule Excel spreadsheet, wrote the XSTREAM Media mission statement, and sent invitations for various staff members to appear on our casual interview series ERDCC Profiles, starting with our incoming warden and the new head of Recreation.

I also created an end-credits production logo to tack on to the first programs we produce. Sepia-toned footage of an octopus (the XSTREAM mascot, which we call Hank) hurry-scurryies across the ocean floor; our name flickers underneath, to the clatter of an old-timey film projector. It looks cool, in a ridiculous way that I deeply appreciate. Almost as importantly, my coworkers also like it.

Midweek, we recorded a demo, a silly proof-of-concept thing. First, Luke interviewed me on camera, then our coworkers Gary and Twon did the same. Quick-and-dirty drum-and-bass intro music was set atop a passable graphics intro, and the boss said, "Looks great, guys." He signed off on many of our development ideas right away.

Now the fun of creating those programs begins. I keep remembering the not-great "Weird Al" Yankovich movie UHF, in which a burger-flipping loser gets a job as programming director of a tiny failing public-access station and turns it into a smash hit, developing shows about every stupid, insane thing he can imagine. Could XSTREAM Media be my UHF?

Meanwhile, the Raspberry Pi situation (which sounds like a '70s prog-rock band) continues to develop, step by tiny step. Now if we could just set the damn things' clocks....

04 December, 2020

A Poem That Flirts with Meaning


There is much I mean to tell you.
Please take hold of my hand.
Follow as it points to the moon and we'll
share its meaning. Echoes, maybe egrets,
or rickets. Can we even know?

Long shadows cast at four disappear
before dusk. A trail of sundry shed skins
left in the wake – this burdensome embodiment.
Who was me at breakfast? At noon?
He navigated the catastrophe well enough,
and now I'm here. And now.

If anyone were keeping track I could
thank him and the host of others
who helped us through.
I'm just not interested.
With time and great effort, "they"
can become "we." To meld the universe
this way is too much for most,
flailing while snared in the shiny traps,
calming briefly when presented treats.

Bitter, bitter, and sometimes sweet,
the oft-handled mind melts fully away,
exactly like chocolate doesn't.

* * * * *

The last class before my cellmate earns an Associate of Arts degree from Saint Louis University is Philosophy of Art. He has the sometimes exhausting habit of sharing with me, no matter what I happen to be doing at the time, passages from every text he finds interesting. (I find this curriculum more interesting than World History, 1500 to the Present.) We've had a few in-cell philosophical discussions about import and meaning.

From neighborhood bookshop readings to MFA programs, questions about this stuff constantly dog poetry. Conversely, the teachings of Buddhism tell practitioners that this kind of intellectual searching is ultimately unimportant, that meaning exists with or without our cogitations, that mind-made distinctions are the root of our suffering, and that tranquility lies in learning to accept the perfection what is, as it is.

The poem above, entitled "Import," is a response to this, exploring briefly the machinations of the interpretive mind and conventional notions of meaning – not seeking answers, just exploring the question. But you probably figured that out yourself by reading it.

28 November, 2020

The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything Is...

Turning forty-two in prison could've been an invitation for depression. Just as likely, it could've simply passed without fanfare, an otherwise unremarkable Monday in a place renowned for fostering undifferentiated days. Something like a conspiracy unfolded, though. The people I love took steps to make my forty-second special. They made not only the day great but the week as well.

Goodness began trickling in last week, with the first of the birthday cards and a bizarre video on my tablet. Those colorful greetings came from all over, from neighboring states and countries on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean alike, all of them wishing me good cheer, good health, and, of course, impending freedom. Each card I opened brought a smile, so very appreciated. In the middle of one night, I awoke to several envelopes slid across the floor by the door. I had gone to sleep assuming that a guard delivered Friday's mail without me noticing. That hadn't been the case. (Like most things here, mail delivery times are wildly inconsistent.) Curious, but not wanting to wake Jeff with the crinkling of paper at 2:30 in the morning, I had to be content with stacking the mail on my footlocker and waiting until closer to sunup before opening my little trove.

Then, on Friday my Amazon wish list shortened with a single visit to the prison's property room. I left work early and crossed the yard, expecting to pick up a book; the officer brought out a small stack instead. I suddenly found myself at my allowed limit. As I've said many times before, this is a nice problem to have.

"Don't make any plans for dinner Saturday," said Luke, apparently eager to add "personal chef" to the descriptors I already have for him – neighbor, work supervisor, Buddhist services facilitator, friend. "I'm making lasagna and garlic bread. Happy early birthday."

He spent hours prepping. Near the end, I watched him carry a stack of bowls full of sausage to the microwave, what must've been six pounds of meat. My friend went all out. He presented me with a casserole-dish-sized Tupperware container full of the end product, plus two garlic-dusted bagels, for Jeff and me to share. Normally I get a food visit from my mother and friends. COVID-19 prevented that this year. But my early-birthday lasagna made for a good-enough substitute. Afterward, stuffed almost to the max, Jeff and I concluded the feast with some Little Debbie Star Crunches.

The mood that I met Monday with was one of quiet pleasure. Contentment. This is forty-two, I thought at my reflection above the sink. Not too shabby.

"I didn't get you anything," Jeff said by way of good morning, "But happy birthday." This sentiment from my cellmate, who usually just frowns on birthday celebrations, was cool. Maybe we can consider it progress.

At work I just loafed. My three coworkers offered me a free day, to let me just sit at my desk and watch whatever I wanted at the computer. I'm now nearly through all of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return. Since I accepted that I'd never get answers after the original run ended, being so close to them now, twenty-five years after I first saw the series, is a uniquely fulfilling gift indeed.

Later, once I came back to the house, I made phone calls, read a bit, and began making thank-yous for the many people who made the day extra special – because what better way to celebrate the anniversary of my birth than by appreciating everyone who contributes to this precious life?

20 November, 2020

The Chow Line

Certain people in prison don't follow the rules. They make what should be a simple procedure – waiting in line for food, taking the tray when it's shoved out the window – a thrice-daily struggle by the rest of us to maintain our patience.

Wheelchair pushers and those with special diets may jump to the front of the line. There's no rule saying that this is okay, it's just a custom that's developed over the years. Most everyone accepts it. But because it's an unofficial practice, there are no checks against others going to the front of the line, too, people without exceptional needs, who nevertheless seem to think of themselves as exceptional. They walk right past the rest of us, indifferent or oblivious to our frustration. It might actually be less offensive if they flipped us all the bird as they sauntered by. There's something to be said for honesty.

At popular meals, line-jumpers are especially prevalent. The moment a guard's not looking, they duck under the railing at the first available gap. Some are less blatant, only shuffling ahead a spot or two, to where their buddy's standing. After all, who wants to wait for food alone? I see at least a couple of double-tray getaways at any given meal, so the guard posted beside the window, tasked with ensuring that no one steals an extra tray, clearly isn't having the desired effect.

No line-jumper gets so much a finger wagged at them. In the two years I've lived here at ERDCC, I've never seen anyone reprimanded for that. The line only gets longer as more of those with special needs (and those who simply believe that they're special) pile in. I've actually seen the line-jumpers amass their own crooked line, approaching from the opposite side of the window. Ironically, as I waited and watched, it grew to be longer than the legitimate one. At that point you really have to wonder.

A couple of my acquaintances with money are fed up (no pun intended) with the hassle. They avoid ERDCC's dining hall as best they can, instead eating canteen-bought food in their cells. I've blogged before about the questionable food offered for sale here (see "Canteen, the Small Mercy" or "Prison Canteen Food Roundup"). There's some variety, but nutrition takes a backseat. The inventory mainly just allows for minor variations on the burrito.

Because I've got to have my vegetables and fresh fruit every day, I bear the line, hungry amid the unwashed masses. When the queue barely moves ahead, we ask ourselves, Are there no clean cups again? The kitchen's forever running out of something. Maybe it's sporks this time. Last week, the excitement for a unheard-of treat – enormous Famous Amos soft-batch chocolate-chunk cookies – was palpable. Rampant theft and line-jumping, however, cleaned out almost every last package. My wing was the second-to-last released to eat. With fifteen people remaining ahead of me, the line suddenly froze, then didn't move for twenty-one minutes. Everyone before us had gotten their gigantic calorific treats; once movement at last resumed, the rest of us got some stale off-brand vanilla sandwich cookies that cooks scavenged from the warehouse. I ate the chili but gave the cookies away.

When you're in line, you're in line, notionally locked in by a waist-high railing. It's almost like a Seinfeld scenario, if Seinfeld had been broadcast on HBO. The guy behind you, without exception, stands way too close. He sometimes has such bad halitosis that you'd swear someone soiled their pants – until he stops talking and the stench-cloud dissipates. Occasionally someone nearby farts. If the frustration of waiting in these conditions becomes too much, it'd take nothing to swing a leg over the rail and leave.

But often I feel like I've invested too much time to give up. I feel a sense of commitment. I say to myself, I'm gonna eat that shit if it kills me. Really, though, I hope it doesn't.

18 November, 2020

A Poem


Her name wasn't Dorito, but that's what I'll call her here
to preserve some semblance of childhood innocence.
She was in my gym class, Dorito was, and smelled
so nice to my eleven-year-old olfactory system.
Hyacinths and coffee beans, roasted dark, like
I eventually came to love. And back then I loved
watching Dorito's long blond braid
sway with each of her metered footfalls as we circled
the track. It was incentive enough for my frail
young self to stay close behind and catch her
scent after every few breaths gulped. Was it her
shampoo? Her mother's perfume? A rare disease
that altered her body chemistry in such a tantalizing way?

Pathetic Tantalus was condemned to spend forever up to his chin
in water, beneath delicious fruit hanging just beyond
his reach. The children of Zeus rarely
fared particularly well. And I, pasty, frail,
increasingly uncertain boy, never
caught up to Dorito. I resigned myself
to run along behind and hope
that she might slip, defying Newtonian physics
by falling backward into my arms, and that I
would somehow manage not to drop her.

* * * * *

"Crush" came in response to a conversation about the girl with whom I was naively smitten in sixth grade. How her memory arose, after thirty-one years, baffles me. Memory's strange mix of potency and frailty is ceaselessly astounding. For instance, I remember the black-and-white polkadot bow "Dorito" left behind on the bleachers one afternoon (which I took home, slept with, and sheepishly returned the next day), but not where I learned to ride a bike, nor what my father's voice sounded like.

06 November, 2020

A Direct Route to Madness

"I haven't seen you in so long," my mother lamented. She and I talk on the phone every other day, but COVID-19 procedures of the Missouri Department of Corrections include a moratorium on visits that's been in place since February. "Have you heard anything about when they're going to lift the visiting ban?" she wants to know.

In a certain famous play, an anxious king, hoping to avoid contemplating the unthinkable, waved the thoughts away while remarking how such hypothetical thinking was crazy-making. That old playwright (whoever he was) knew a thing or two about human nature, cutting straight to the heart of dissatisfaction when he wrote the king's line.

The Buddha also spoke about accepting what is. He taught that setting aside intellectual abstractions and doing things for their own sake was a key part of realizing contentment. Don't overthink shit, he said, more or less. Some of us might've heard this before.

Consider this anecdote. My dad and I were film buffs. Our wallets bulged with membership cards for movie-rental stores large and small. We also went to the theater about twice a month. After a late showing, one dark summer night, as we crossed the parking lot outside a local multiplex, I brimmed with complaints, as I frequently did, about scientific inaccuracies in the sci-fi flick we'd just sat through. As I remember it now, some scenes egregiously violated the law of gravity – seeming more fantasy than science fiction – and thereby got my dander up. I was roughly twelve years old.

There are so many tidbits that I came to understand only after my father's death. I wonder at times if I'd have realized what he sought to teach, even if he never said anything. In this particular instance, he casually opened the driver-side door of his little Honda and pierced me with one of those offhanded shards of wisdom that penetrates to your core without you feeling a thing until years later, when you're right in the middle of household chores or some utterly mundane, mindless activity, and you suddenly realize that wisdom for what it is. "It's called 'suspension of disbelief,'" my father explained, that night in the parking lot. "If you can't even stop picking things apart long enough for a movie, you're never going to enjoy anything in life."

I seem to recall someone once saying that ignorance is bliss. The trick just lies in accepting that not-knowing, in embracing it when you encounter it. This takes effort. Experience in the dark (figuratively speaking) can be good training. For the record, Pops was no bodhisattva. I'm hardly some enlightened sage, either, but I do have nearly two decades' experience living with uncertainty, thanks to prison's rampant inconsistencies. Heedlessness to the physics of zero-gravity no longer ruins movies for me; now I can usually recognize what's not worth fretting over.

I want to see my mother again, but she wants to know when we'll see each other again. Maybe that's too fine a distinction, but I think it makes all the difference. There's a little set of rules that I made up and try to live by.

Rule Number One: accept what you can't do anything about.

Rule Number Two: do what you can with what you can.

Rule Number Three: recognize when to employ Rule Number One and when to employ Rule Number Two.

How can I possibly answer my mother's question? Engaging in wild speculation has never been my bag. Anyone predicting the future, or how the post-pandemic world will look, is either lying or delusional. And yet people persist. The craving for certainty runs deep. If I tried to give Mum's question a meaningful response, it'd be nothing more than guesswork, which could only inspire unwarranted hope or invite despair. I want to keep it real.

So I tell her the truth – an answer, just not the answer. I let her know that her suffering isn't unique, telling her how no other Missouri prisons are allowing visits right now either. I tell her that I love her, that I miss her, and how glad I am to be afforded the multiple phone calls per week that we get. Many families have suffered far more painful, more complete separations than ours. We should consider ourselves lucky and focus on the good. There's certainly enough of the alternative in the world.

And then Mum sighs and concedes that I'm right, and we move on from there with somewhat lighter hearts. It's a disagreement I'm happy to have won – for both our sakes.

29 October, 2020

Many Felons Are Filing Their First 1040 Tax Forms in 2020

I'd never seen so many prisoners get so excited as when word of a federal court decision on the CARES Act and incarcerated persons reached us. The ruling determined that the IRS can't withhold the 2020 Economic Impact Payment – the so-called COVID stimulus – to anyone simply because of their imprisonment. Convicts nationwide suddenly had until 15 October to file a claim for the $1,200 check most every US taxpayer received months ago.

There were conditions, naturally. Anyone owing child support, or who'd been claimed as a dependent in the past year, was ineligible. Also, the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act allows the state to sue any prisoner who receives over a certain amount of money. More than a few guys saw the 2020 EIP as an excuse for the state to make a money-grab. The majority of my fellow prisoners, though, scrambled to get an IRS Form 1040 and mail that sucker ASAP. Three of my wingmates came begging for the stamps and envelopes necessary for doing so.

Having led lives of drug-dealing, theft, fraud, pimping, and a litany of other felonious livelihoods, at least twenty percent of my wingmates had never filled out a tax form before. They came to my cellmate and me for help. Being recognizably intelligent human beings, Jeff and I briefly became ad-hoc tax advisors, providing instructions to those not in the know. It became tedious only when the same two or three insecure guys came back multiple times, asking the same question again and again. But we muddled through.

The furor diminished by the weekend, as urgent excitement turned to eager anticipation. An extension of the filing deadline tempered people's expectancy a little. But there arose a curious phenomenon. Store men started selling out of their stock, as creditors came to borrow their limit of foodstuffs on credit. Illegal gambling spiked in popularity. The demand for mail-order catalogs went up, with guys compiling lists of things to buy with their stimulus money, from canteen treats to typewriters, sweatshirts to art supplies. The population was spending money before they even had it.

"There's a typical poverty-driven reaction to windfalls," a friend wrote to me in an e-mail on the subject. "We lose the ability to think long-term, and seek comforts first, paving the way for increased hardships ahead." While my family wasn't poor, I grew up in a home that stressed frugality and took a dim view of materialism. The recent flurry of spending behavior around here is alien to me; although, my friend's explanation makes perfect sense.

So where do we go from here? There's confusion about whether the EIP is actually just an advance on a person's future tax filings. Of more immediate concern is the rumor that the IRS, unwilling to release the many hundreds of millions of dollars that this ruling will cost them, has filed an appeal. Who knows if or when we prisoners will see any stimulus money. Meanwhile, the dining hall is serving spaghetti with meatballs for dinner. Other aspects of my life, thank you for asking, are similarly agreeable.

15 October, 2020

Unboxing a Raspberry Pi – a Special Treat

We thought our boss showed up bearing a notice for us to post on the prison's information channel. Instead, what he brings into the little room where I work among ceiling-to-floor computers and DVDs is a package the size of a cereal box. "Here you go, fellas," he tells Luke and me. "Play around with that and see what you can make happen."

The boss grins as Luke, my friend and on-the-job superior, pulls the box's cardboard tab. Cradled inside is our new project: a Raspberry Pi, a powerful, versatile, pretty amazing computer the size of a soap dish.

I resist the urge to coo, instead exclaiming over and over, "It's so tiny," as Luke removes each component of the kit – the board, the case, the power adapter – and sets it on the desk in front of us. The Pi's cooling fan takes up scarcely more space than three stacked quarters. The heat sinks are smaller still. I'm awed.

We ask the boss to copy some files from the Internet (which we, as prisoners, can't access) onto a Micro SD card, and before long we have a fully operational Raspberry Pi to tinker with. The plan is to assign one of these an IP address, hook it up to our local network, and pump a handful of video files out to it, so that prisoners without their own TVs can, during their recreation periods, come into the gym and watch movies. I've never done anything like this before, yet I feel completely capable of making viewing stations a reality.

The Missouri DOC offers computer-based jobs and training programs, but not many of them, and never at a facility where I was confined. The job that's come closest to the level of intellectual challenge and autonomy afforded by my current position in the media center was twelve years ago, when I clerked in the food-service warehouse at Crossroads Correctional Center. Most of what passed for mental stimulation there involved basic math and bantering with three zany coworkers. There's a reason that I never blogged about my workdays there.

One thing I have posted writings about is my techno-geekdom. (See "A Very Technical Boy" or "Hidden Pictures of an Elusive Past," for examples.) Following my sham of a trial, the judge ordered a pre-sentencing investigation be conducted by the Board of Probation and Parole – interviews with me, my supporters, and the family of the friend I was convicted of killing. This was purely a formality. State statutes demand that first-degree murder carries a life sentence without possible parole. The parole officer's final report said that I had "mid-level IT experience" and was interested in a job "working with computers" when I got to prison.

It took nineteen years, but here I am. It thrills me to have code at my fingertips, and hardware all around. I'm even allowed to bring music to work and listen to all the Kraftwerk or Gary Numan I care to – as long as I don't turn the headphone volume up too high and lose all track of time as I configure this Raspberry Pi.

09 October, 2020

Tom Waits Time Machine

"Tango Till They're Sore" is the fifth track on the timeless Tom Waits album Rain Dogs, released by Island Records in 1989. It clocks in at less than three minutes but that brief amount of time can do a lot. Its effect on me is a kind of time travel, twenty-three years into the past.

The song opens with an off-key barroom piano, perhaps one that's missing keys, and a metronomic ticking like someone tapping a sliver of plastic on a sheet of linoleum. The plinking melody is soon joined, all at once, by an upright bass, a couple of brass instruments, and the plaintive vocals of the Vagabond, the estimable Mr. Waits, whose voice makes Joe Cocker's sound almost AutoTune-smooth by comparison.

Without ever adopting an actual narrative, "Tango Till They're Sore" takes the perspective of a hedonist ruminating in a flophouse, considering how he wants his death, and subsequent funeral, to be. "I guess daisies'll have to do," Waits croaks, a man resigned to dying because he plans to have a good time in the process. ("Let me fall out of the window with confetti in my hair," the chorus pleads.) His list of final requests, for the funeral and beyond, includes a roast pig, a rousing New Orleans band, and someone hang on to his beloved clarinet "until I get back in town." You could call this funereal optimism.

I once mentioned the song in a short blog post that functioned as a belated eulogy for my friend Justin. Lounging around his condo with my friends, following a late-summer evening our favorite local record store, I heard Tom Waits for the very first time and practically climbed the walls to get away from the minor-key cacophony of Rain Dogs' opening track, "Singapore."

I warmed to the sound eventually. It just took a few listens. If I've learned anything about music in my years since, it's that some of the hardest stuff to hear can become the most satisfying, the most meaningfully enjoyable music there is. That's what Tom Waits was for me. It got so I couldn't get enough of his scratchy growl, his song's surreal characters, his devil-may-care musical style, and his singular persona.

As for that song from Rain Dogs, it came to be associated with Justin, a friend whose death comprises one half of the single most harmful, most enduring, most resented event of my life. Even today I can't hear it and not think of how Justin talked and talked about his funeral, about the different ways he'd thought about dying. He'd never discussed the way he actually died, of course, taking his own life within hours of his girlfriend's mysterious, grisly death. And that incongruity has contributed to the endurance of my feelings about the song, which are somehow simultaneously scornful and tender.

I appreciate difficult music that doesn't give itself up to listener all at once, the way a pop song does. I like the intellectual struggle to understand what it is that a piece of music is intended to do; why it works, sonically speaking; what message, if any, it contains. Working toward an understanding deepens a listener's relationship to it. Deep listening enriches your relationship to the music, giving it a chance to sink into your bones as you sink into its melodies, rhythms, and lyrics. Eventually it might even become part of you.

"Tango Till They're Sore" became a part of me more than half my lifetime ago. It's not a song I hum in the shower, nor one that I find myself wanting, at random moments, to hear. But when I get in a certain mood and feel like cueing up Rain Dogs on a warm Midwestern night, the whiskey-warped melody that starts plinking along, eleven minutes into the album, throws me right back into the long-past past. A resurrection. A revival. A memory not worth indulging but there, and strangely enjoyed, just the same.

02 October, 2020

A Nostalgic Poem, of Sorts

The Terrible Movie of You

is set in autumn and all at night –
static scenes of two teens talking
in a parked sedan, light
from the lot's sole lamp
cartooning your face Frank Milleresque.

When the window fogs it's not a heart
you finger there but a skull.
It cries real tears
for your heaped black jeans
and a Misfits midriff
dropped to the floorboard.

no one smokes on film except the occasional villain.
You draw your pack like a gun and fire
one up off the dying
ember in your boy's pale hand,
daring fate.

So very melodrama, you and he,
in your dooms complacent.
Even happy, a little bit.

I'm almost sorry I sneaked into this matinee.
The theater's sticky floors gum
my soles and remind
with every step down
and up the aisle
that intermission made me miss
the part at the swimming pool, where
you're white as the moon and
equally inviting – the part when,
while this silvery dreamshow flickers along,
your reflection in the ripples spills
up to touch you, toe to toe,
then disappears
in wavelets.

An echo
in a courtyard,
the pull of razor
across skin.

I return
to the cinematic dark
just in time to see
your eely curls writhing
wetly, as you stare
into the dark
November sky.

* * * * *

The role of biography in poetry can't be denied, but it's the responsibility of the poet to follow where the art leads, rather than stick closely to fact. There's a reason that police reports and news articles are so tedious. Interestingly, even though we think of those forms as being factual, neither one is inherently accurate. Police get things wrong, or simply lie. Journalists miss key details, ignore them, or have their diligent fact-finding obviated by the propaganda machine that is the media. This poem, about a girl I once knew, only flirts with truth – and in so doing, it says something deeply true.

22 September, 2020

Four Books I Spent My Summer Reading

Compelling evidence for the argument that it's less what you say than how you say it, The Corrections could be summarized: "a novel about a dysfunctional white Midwestern family." That'd be an awfully poor description for a novel so masterfully written. Jonathan Franzen's saga of a fractious family of five captivates with its language, titivates with its story, and infuriates with its characters' passive-aggression toward one another, putting other, more plot-driven titles to shame. The Corrections is recommended reading for anyone intimately familiar with the hypocrisies of people who place extraordinary emphasis on looking "normal" and being "nice."

Purity: A Novel, Franzen's more recent book, portrays more messed-up family relationships, this time against a backdrop of what seemed to be low-intensity suspense. I say "seems" because I might be wrong. See, I set that book aside after two chapters, unable to get into it at all. Then I picked up Donna Tartt's The Secret History and was instantly swept up in its tale of tension: a college murder and the paranoia and double-crossing that its privileged young perpetrators fall into after doing the heinous deed. Narrated with great erudition by one haunted participant, the story's effect is bewitching. Tartt won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Goldfinch. Just in reading The Secret History, her debut novel, I can see why. This book held me in thrall. I read its last 150 pages in one go, and at the end exhaled, suddenly conscious of having held my breath for who knows how long.

Between 1966 and 1995, the venerable Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera, the German Buddhist Hellmuth Hecker, and the monk Bodhi Bikkhu wrote a series of profiles of the Buddha's disciples. Their primary source was the Pali canon, the largest collection of religious texts on earth. They also studied an ancient collection of stories known as the Jatakas, and several millennia-old Buddhist commentaries. Bodhi later compiled them as the book Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, which my friend (and new boss at work) Luke loaned me. You might expect that, with that title, the book would be cover-to-cover mythic exploits. And sure, there are flying monks, a man morphing into a woman (and back), and a woman so pious that not even boiling oil can harm her. These are, however, mostly human stories that give life and color to the pale, static mental picture of ancient India most of us probably have.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, might sound like about the driest damn thing a guy could read, but I find propaganda – the systematic creation and distribution of half-truths and untruths favorable to government interests – fascinating. Using as examples the news coverage of such twentieth-century travesties as Vietnam War atrocities, Salvadoran "free" elections, and Cambodian genocide, the authors break down how media coverage gets slanted, spun, and outright silenced in service to the powers that be. Although Herman and Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent before the Internet's democratizing effects changed the mediascape, the propaganda techniques that these scholars detail have actually spread and intensified. The book could actually be more relevant today than ever. Thank you, Elyse M., for this enlightening read!

18 September, 2020

Stepping Out of the House

The skin of my arms excites at morning's sudden coolness. This week heralds the end of summer, and the gooseflesh that rises at the moment I walk outside is less from the change of ambient temperature than from my delight at the coming season. I do love the fall.

An irrepressible smirk crawls over my face. A passerby probably thinks I'm mentally unsound, but if I'm mad – by whatever standard you choose to judge it – I'm mad from joy. I take a deep, almost shaky breath. It's good to be alive.

11 September, 2020


Many animals in the wild are territorial. They establish particular ranges for hunting, mating, and general wanderings, into which others may stray at their own peril. Other animals understand territorialism's rules and can infer, from subtle environmental clues, when another creature calls that area home.

Walking through the park, I once encroached on what I quickly understood was the territory of a little brown-and-black bird. It fluffed up its feathers, spread its wings, and cheeped at me in a way that I'm sure other birds found threatening as hell. And the little peeper was right to do that. Gigantic, heavy-bodied human that I am, I had no business galumphing through its space, potentially endangering grounded chicks, smashing tasty bugs, or just messing up the environment, as we humans have a tendency to do. The little bird probably thought itself a real hard-ass after running me off, later bragging to all its feathered friends – as they bathed in dust or milled around, ingesting gravel – about the enormous creature it intimidated away.

Humans are territorial, too – intensely so. We have border wars, Zionism, tribal conflicts, and a thousand unique flavors of internecine struggles. Understanding this doesn't require a study to be conducted, nor even that you follow international news. But it's interesting to note that other animals generally settle territorial disputes in more humane ways than we humans employ. When a wolf shows its neck to his rival, the fight generally ends. In a squabble over land, can you imagine a person showing such leniency?

This tendency to latch onto one's immediate surroundings becomes really pronounced in prison, where gangbangers beef over what block of a street someone used to live on. I've seen vicious fights break out over matters as small as which man's turn it was to use a weight machine in the gym. Also, woe betide the man who accidentally sits down in the dining hall where another usually does.

This mad craving for anything to call one's own also contributes to the prisoner's hoarding tendency. Many tend to collect soap, plastic bowls, pens, bread ties, and countless other, often less useful, things – especially those who've been locked up awhile. It's ugly. I try mightily to avoid falling into the trap of maximalism, at least in part because I recognize the futility of seeking happiness in things.

Still, I've never been comfortable with people coming into my cell, or with stepping into someone else's. Cell searches by guards and visits from a neighbor make me feel equally uneasy. Both feel wrong in some visceral way, as if they're violations of the natural order. Practical concerns, such as COVID-19, don't factor in; I just like my space, even if I'm not currently occupying it. Since I don't consider myself a territorial guy at all, this just illustrates my point. The desire to possess runs deep.

Nobody pisses on the floor, but the ambiance turn does weird when new people move into a wing. Card players start shouting at one another. Buddies bunch close together and talk, casting wary looks toward the newbies. The volume of TVs and stereos is bumped up a notch or two. Someone does a set of pushups in view of the newcomers. Just like that little bird, people puff up and make a lot of noise.

I thought about this when a slew of new faces appeared in my wing the other day. (Look at that language: "my wing" – as if it were property that I held!) About half of the men I saw were new arrivals. One third of them I'd never seen until the day they moved in. I didn't like the unease that this fact triggered in me. Why am I trying to get comfortable here? Unlike most of those around me, I don't intend to stay. Either the administration will decide to move me again, or, in the longer term, I'll overturn my wrongful conviction and get out of prison entirely. In either event, this wing and its occupants, none of whom I really know, are merely a passing aspect of reality, which itself is in a state of constant change. Considering instability in this way, ironically, is a source of comfort.

03 September, 2020

Getting Out of the Cleaning Business

Prison jobs are generally unpleasant, unpaid affairs. Kitchen work, groundskeeping, and janitorial duties are the usual categories it falls under. I've done a little of each.

For the last two years, I cleaned the offices of ERDCC's administrative-segregation unit. My responsibilities were to empty trash cans, sweep and mop, shred papers, occasionally file away document folders, and clean one overused – not to say abused – employee restroom. The schedule was two or three hours a day, five days a week. I was paid only $20 a month, but it still beat working eight-hour shifts in the kitchen and having no time for myself.

My friend and neighbor Luke, who maintains the system that controls ERDCC's seven in-house movie, series, and information channels, offered me a job with him about a year ago. Experience with Windows computers was a must. Working knowledge of JavaScript helped. The only catch was that I had to wait for one of Luke's three subordinates to leave. Two were short-timers and bound to go at any time, but "any time" in prison terms is ambiguous. Those guys could be around for a month as easily as for a year or two.

This was the thinking, anyway, until mass transfers last week removed hundreds of low-level prisoners from the ERDCC population. One of Luke's coworkers disappeared in the process. His loss was my gain. Last Thursday, I was paged to the recreation department and given a tour of the media room: workstations, drive arrays, DVD library, the works. This was a formality; the staff had already vetted me. All that was left was the paperwork.

A set of doors in the gym opens into the Learning Center, a large room lined with TVs, where prisoners can watch therapeutic and educational videos during their recreation times. On one side of the Learning Center stands a grated metal gate. Someone hung a sign there: The answer to your question is NO. Tucked beyond it are two small, warm rooms of computer equipment – my new place of employ.

Monday was Day One. Sitting at a keyboard, being gently embraced by two curved 24-inch monitors, felt weird in the best possible way. Clicking my way around and typing experimental commands in the unfamiliar database was like blowing dust off some forgotten machine. My brain hadn't worked like this in nineteen years. I started out tentatively, as wobbly as a kid on his first bicycle. Luke had me input TV listings for our scrolling daily TV-channel guide. I made good enough time with that, they assigned me other tasks.

By Day Two I was digging into my bag of power-user tools. I even showed Luke a trick that he hadn't known existed. It was a good day. The first, I suspect, of many. The pay's better, the work's mentally stimulating, and the environment's fun. Best of all: I don't have to clean someone else's toilet.

16 August, 2020

Weekend from Heck

I already told you how my wing was on quarantine status after someone tested positive for COVID-19. It was great, like being promised a two-week staycation. Then came Friday afternoon.

I was looking forward to washing some clothes, eating dinner, taking a shower, and having the rest of the evening to play with however I pleased. When custody count cleared at 4:50 PM, the appropriate time, everyone's cell door clicked open. Everything seemed on track. Within a minute of opening our doors, however, the intercom shrieked, and the voice of the guard working the control module resounded.

"Everyone needs to lock back down," she said. "There is no inside recreation at this time. Return to your cells and secure the doors. Now."

Cries of dissent went up.

"Get the captain down here to tell us that!"

"She ain't talkin' to us."

"Bullshit, we're honor status!"

"She don't know what she talkin' about."

"None of y'all better move. Nobody lock down."

And so on. Everyone wavered as the compunction to obey battled the urge to defy what we all felt sure was a mistaken directive. It just had to be a miscommunication; good-conduct wings aren't subject to the same restrictions as general population, and staff have been mistaking us for GP in all sorts of ways since the day we moved into this house. Surely this was just one more.

Jeff and I stood on our doorstep, wondering what the hell was happening. We watched the guard get on the phone and wave her hand around, pantomiming frustration. A couple of minutes passed before she repeated the announcement, adding, "This is per the captain, guys. He said everybody's supposed to be locked down."

Slowly, reluctantly, everyone made his way to his cell. The snaps of door locks came like fat raindrops on a tent, sporadic at first, with increasing frequency. Within three minutes the wing looked uninhabited. All of 4A had complied; although, none of us knew the reason.

There's a story about the Buddha, which says that a monk with a habit of coming to ask for reasons – why this, why that, what if this other thing – was chided by the Enlightened One. "If you were shot with an arrow," the Buddha gently told him (I'm paraphrasing), "you would want to know who shot it, from what distance, and with what kind of bow string, and therefore die before permitting the arrow to be removed."

Neither Jeff nor I bothered with speculation. We've both been imprisoned for long enough to know the madness awaiting those who futilely seek those answers. Instead, we sat and waited to see if some inconceivable bullshit might shake loose of the bureaucracy tree.

A couple of nurses had wheeled a little supply cart into the wing and conducted nasal swab tests on ten random prisoners two days prior. I should've guessed that the lockdown would be related to that. Sure enough, the assistant warden, gloved and hidden behind an N95 mask, but still identifiable by his striped pink shirt, strode in to tape sheets of paper to doors downstairs. Each read "ISOLATION" in bright red block letters.

There goes the neighborhood, I thought.

We were released to the dining hall for dinner at 7:45 PM – over two hours later than usual. The breaded fish patty was warm enough, but the black-eyed peas lifted off my tray as a single lumpy brown mass, the pasta salad smelled four or five days off, and the vanilla pudding swam with alarming pea-size red shapes that reminded me too much of burst blood vessels to be edible. On the way back from dinner we spotted that pink shirt again and asked the assistant warden if we'd be allowed showers. In impeccable Bureaucratese, he responded, "We're not making plans for that at this time."

Peering into the wing an hour later, schadenfreude tickled my spine. Two telephone handsets dangled from their cords, left there by a couple of hopefuls willing to stoop to tactics to ensure they get phones without having to run when the doors open. By then I knew that we wouldn't be released from our cells that night. No shower for me wasn't so terrible, knowing there'd be no phones for them. (My frustration with the phone situation here is a matter of record.)

I did sleep poorly. I always do when I go to bed feeling less than clean. Such is my First World curse. Waking up on Saturday, I rolled out of bed, washed my face in the sink, sat zazen, and steeled myself for uncertainty.

We weren't allowed to bathe that day, either, as it turned out. Some sort of major move was in the works – the first weekend cell swaps I've seen in all my nineteen years. The idea, as I gathered, was to make enough room in Housing Unit 1 to turn it into an isolation unit, so that any prisoner who tests positive can pack his property and move there for long enough to get two negative test results. After that, he'll be moved to yet another cell, this one "permanent," with a new cellmate and all the problems that come with that.

I spent the day bouncing between books, a long magazine article on COVID-19 in China, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches (the unavoidable brown-bag staple in these situations), and the cell window. Jeff or I would periodically glance outside and sight a prisoner pushing a cartload of his possessions from 1-House. We had fun trying to identify each guy from a distance. I was winning until Jeff put on his glasses.

The safety and security of this institution take a backseat when the administration wants something done. Jeff was released to hazmat duty a few minutes past 9:00. In his absence, I swabbed parts of myself somewhat clean at the sink, sufficiently so for a night of sound sleep. When the thunder of my COVID-19-positive neighbors' footlocker sliding down the stairs woke me, at 1:34 in the morning, Jeff still hadn't returned. Nor was he back by 2:44, when the clatter of a different infected neighbor loading a cart awakened me again. The restlessness of my most sleepless night in months continued when Jeff finally came back, surrounded by a cloud of bleach, and reported some news. "The sergeant told me over half the night shift got laid off because so many people tested positive," he said. "They got one sergeant running both yards. It's crazy."

After four and a half hours' work, in the middle of the night, with strong chemicals in potentially infectious environments, he was at least permitted a shower. I'm pretty sure that we both fell asleep before he even climbed into his bunk.

On Sunday, Day Three, the craziness continued. Our door opened at 7:40. Jeff's name over the intercom meant he had to go disinfect more freshly vacated cells. Caseworkers, guards working mandatory overtime, and recreation staff bustled around our wing, sweeping up trash and distributing brown-bag breakfasts. (PB & Js again, naturally.) The housing unit manager, an office job whose scheduled days are Monday through Friday, worked the control module. She announced the plan to open three cells at a time, for everyone to get fifteen minutes to shower and place our canteen orders for the week. When Jeff returned from his morning labors, he relayed that an all-staff meeting was taking place. Things were happening – different things. Different was good.

Residents of the lower tier got their showers that morning. We upper-tier people had to wait. Kitchen workers booted up and were released to their regular assigned jobs right before noon, and for the first time since Friday we all got a hot meal, followed, an hour and a half later, by that long-awaited shower. The water felt hotter than usual, perfect for soothing the sore neck caused by Saturday night's tossing and turning.

A couple of those Friday phone jockeys jumped on to attempt a quick ride, but the phones were switched off. Once again, I shook my head and smiled.

Sunday ended with a whimper. A little writing, a little reading, a little night music. I went to bed feeling clean, braced for whatever Monday had in store. The critical staff shortage promises more of the same throughout the next couple of weeks – maybe better, maybe worse. Oh, what I would've paid to give the administration my two cents at Sunday's meeting!

With full appreciation for the seriousness of the novel coronavirus, its potential threat to both short- and long-term health, it's safe to say that the way that this situation is being handled here (or the powers that be at the Missouri Department of Corrections) shows the same disorganization and lack of foresight we see at every level of Missouri's prison system. Isolating the sick is good, but consolidating those who test positive only works if everyone else in their immediate surroundings tested negative, and if the people you're replacing them with tested negative, too. Otherwise, you're just muddying the water. Sending COVID-19-positive employees home is good, but why not give asymptomatic ones the option of working in the prison's isolation units, so as not to place uninfected staff at risk?

I almost feel like writing a cutesy picture book, á la Dr. Seuss: If I Ran the Prison. (Rule Number One: isolate people in their own cells!) It'd probably sell like hot cakes, but I've already got avocations, obligations, and chores to keep myself amply occupied. We'll call this a working staycation, then.

12 August, 2020


The distant ripping noise that woke me repeats, then repeats again, and I roll over on my bunk, suddenly alert and curious about this sound that roused me from what in retrospect felt like a deep sleep. What the hell's going on out there? A series of radio chirps, blurts of static, and indistinct, tinny voices precede a thump, instantly recognizable as the sound of a Rubbermaid tote full of someone's property set down on the wing floor.

This is common on the Department of Corrections' designated transfer days. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, guys get shipped to another prison. Something else is going on here.

Enough passivity. I sit up and pivot out of bed to see whose stuff is being packed up and taken away. Jeff, my cellmate, is almost as light a sleeper as I am, but try as I might to be quiet, my rubber sandals scrape the concrete floor with every step I take across the cell. Bleary eyed, I bring my face close to the door's narrow glass pane and look around.

The guard's downstairs, right on the other side of the wing, wearing a blue trash-bag smock, gloves, and N95 mask while she supervises the packing. The packer is Levi, one of the guys who attends my Buddhism service (or used to, before COVID-19, when we still had services). He's shirtless and displeased, and I immediately know what's happening. Levi isn't transferring; his elderly cellmate, Anthony, who was taken via ambulance to the hospital yesterday, must've tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital; Levi's being relocated to an isolation cell in 1-House, the unit we all moved from two Fridays ago.

I lie awake for many long minutes, considering the implications of this turn of events. The way ERDCC operates now, if anyone tests positive, his entire wing is placed on quarantine status for fourteen days – four days longer than the period currently recommended by the CDC. That wing eats separately and has a separate recreation period from the rest of the house. It gets no use of the gym. It's barred from Clothing Issue, the library, and the property room. Activity within the wing, from card games to walking laps, continues as usual. It's life as usual, then, except none of us goes to work.

For me, this means another two-week vacation. I'm perfectly okay with that; I occupy myself quite well. But poor Levi, trapped for a fortnight in the plague house! And poor Anthony, suffering unknown torture in the hospital's ICU. Thinking, What a mess, I finally fall asleep. It's an uneasy rest, and my alarm clock seems to rouse me far too soon.

04 August, 2020

You Can't Polish a Turd, but a You Can Polish a Rusty Desk

Friday's mass move by my wing to another housing unit was the one, in my nineteen years' experience of moving cells, for which I was best prepared. This isn't to say that this go-round was especially easy, nor in any way fun, but it went off much, much better than most.

I have my neighbors to thank. While most people in the wing made do with what tiny containers they already had, the guys next door found several moving boxes to pack our stuff in. We also had an array of cleaning supplies at our disposal, for scrubbing and wiping away the filth of our new cells' previous occupants. We had improvised drain plugs for janky sinks, and extra shoelaces and twist-ties for bundling errant power cords and co-ax cables. Someone found a bottle of glue, for securing handy wall hooks. Someone else scored a bottle of floor wax, which, in a fine display of prison ingenuity, proved useful for sealing the large and copious rust spots covering the desks, thereby keeping shirtsleeves and skin from picking up orange smears of iron oxide every time they brush the desks' surfaces. You make use of what you have.

Not all wings are equal, and our new habitat has other minuses as well. At the moment you walk through the front door, the telephone situation becomes apparent. Rather than being mounted at a respectable distance from one another, like they are everywhere else, all four phones here are clustered on one side of the wing. Their placement is unfortunate for reasons of privacy and social distancing alike. If I can reach over and touch my neighbor's shoulder in the midst of a call, overhear the sweet nothings he's whispering to his boo, or take the brunt of his uncovered sneeze (because, despite COVID-19 and the disapproval of society at large, there are definitely people still guilty of committing that unhygienic atrocity), it should go without saying that we're too close.

Telephone proximity aside, this new wing is actually different from our old one in several ways. The doors are everyone's favorite of them. The housing unit where I spent the last year and a half used to be an administrative-segregation unit. Its boxcar-style sliding doors, whose bang upon opening was a hazard for anyone with a heart problem or some type of incontinence, frazzled many nerves. Anytime my door popped open, expectedly or otherwise, was a nasty jolt. (Yesterday I heard someone joke that they left him shell-shocked. I can't overstate the unease those doors brought; kidding aside, PTSD seems like an actual possibility.) The locking mechanisms in our new housing unit open as quietly as knuckle-raps on a pane of glass.

Everything here is flipped, a mirror image of what I got accustomed to. On the first morning my alarm clock beeped and beeped and beeped while I searched with a drowsy hand for the off button. Oh yeah, I belatedly realized, it's on the other side of the bed. If Jeff, my cellmate of the past year, was irritated by my tardiness at silencing the noise, he didn't complain. The sleepy errors continued the next morning when, stuck on autopilot, I failed to judge the distances involved after making the bed, bumping my head on the underside of his bunk. Fortunately, it was a low-speed collision.

The first night in any new cell can be difficult. The slow, quiet drip of the sink threatened to keep me up on our first night here, but my epic tiredness after a day of near-constant activity and low-grade stress won out. The almost chilly air helped. I've heard a lot of complaints about the temperature here, but I sleep poorly in warm rooms and was glad that our vent kicks out the cool. I've been consistently sleeping like the dead, maybe even better than I was before we moved.

31 July, 2020

Prison's Perpetual Relocation Program

There stood the assistant warden, at the front of the wing, telling us the news. His presence in the wing was unusual. Ordinarily, the higher-ups don't visit the housing units of prison's unwashed masses. I suppose this was a display of personal concern, less offensive than a diktat from on high. He asked, not especially loudly, for everyone's attention, then told us that we're all moving. Again.

If this seems like a repost of an old entry from a year or so ago, you're not just experiencing déjà vu. The ERDCC administration can't seem to run things without shuffling the prison's whole population around every few months. In the last mass move (of which I, thankfully, wasn't a part), they consolidated the good-conduct wings from all general-population housing units — a move akin to hitting "Undo" on the chaos from the previous major relocation, which took place just a few months prior.

We should all have moving down to an art, yet some still have difficulties, both with the mechanics of the thing and with change in general. The noise level in the wing has been high ever since, as prisoners whose heightened emotional states struggle for any possible release. Most of these guys aren't so good at emotional regulation. That's what landed many of them in prison in the first place.

A generous neighbor asked if I wanted a box. He'd found several large brand-new unassembled boxes somewhere. He sneaked the cardboard contraband back to our housing unit specifically for today's move. I was the lucky other person to benefit from his find. My clothing, bedding, and canteen all fit perfectly. Without it, I'd have to just pile random stuff on top of my packed footlocker and hope it didn't fall during the long haul across the yard.

That's what we're waiting for now: the go-ahead to load everything we own into a canvas-sided laundry cart and push it to the opposite side of the facility, where an empty wing awaits. Then there'll be a day of cleaning in store. For how long will this residency last? Someone asked the assistant warden that yesterday, when he stood there delivering the news. "It's permanent," he answered — exactly what the administration said the last two, three, or more times.

24 July, 2020

The Pandemic Has Ended!

That, at least, is what the prison administration at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center seems to believe, as normal operations resume throughout most parts of the institution. It's weird to think that, as the spread of COVID-19 reaches new daily record highs in certain regions, the Missouri Department of Corrections and ERDCC's warden have basically stopped trying to protect the 2,800 prisoners here — but that's exactly what's happened.

Individual wings of housing units no longer have separate recreation times. The table occupancy at meals is no longer being limited. The rule about masking in the dining halls was rescinded after less than a week and a half. Even as the US president eases up on his longtime obstinacy and calls for Americans to wear masks, the guards here are still not being required, nor even asked, to do so at any time. Few — maybe one in thirty — do so by choice.

"They're not making the offenders wear them," a caseworker was heard complaining yesterday. "I don't see why I'd have to."

That same morning, another guard, a sergeant, poked fun at a subordinate whose face was appropriately covered. The only part of the mockery that I found remotely funny was, "That's gonna be a real problem once the tan lines start to show." Otherwise, this person just fed my disappointment with humanity.

If such maskholery is prevalent among "correctional" employees in general, it's no wonder that (according to the Journal of the American Medical Association) state and federal prisoners are 5.5 times more likely to become infected than the average US citizen. Prisons are petri dishes, ideally structured for maximum viral and bacterial spread.

Fun fact: according to that same study ("COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in Federal and State Prisons," posted 8 July), regardless of age or race, we're also 300% more likely to die from COVID-19 complications. Thanks for that nifty opportunity, all you contracted for-profit medical care providers out there!

I wash my hands until the skin's tight and itchy. I wear a mask despite the jokes. What else can I do? I'm not worried about myself so much, but there are a lot of older, high-risk people around me in these close quarters, and I'd hate to think that I could be partly responsible for their contracting a potentially lethal virus. Someone should be concerned for their well-being.

15 July, 2020

The Game of Telephone, Prison Style

Seventy-two prisoners sharing four telephones seems like someone's idea for the setup for an ultraviolent action movie, but that's what we contend with at ERDCC. This makes an eighteen-to-one ratio of prisoners to phones. Someone's always waiting in line. You're lucky when it isn't you.

There's a system, of sorts. The phones, each one a tough black archaic payphone-style receiver attached via metal cord to a stainless steel box on a pole, flank the wing entrance, two on the left, two on the right. The unofficial waiting area is by the support beam between them. Those disinclined to stand sometimes sit on the footlocker full of games no one plays, up against the front wall. It's common courtesy to ask, when coming to take your place in line, who all is waiting on a phone. At a glance, you can't always tell the difference between those standing around bored and those standing around with purpose. The system works adequately, most of the time. Breakdowns are generally the fault of two types of people.

The first type is what I call the Camper, the man who, once he takes a seat on the stool in front of the phone, might just as well be readying the space for an overnight stay. He has his address book, his tablet, headphones, some photos, a notebook and pen, a batch of personal letters, a bowl of food, a mug of some colored beverage or other, a pitcher of ice water, a damp washcloth, and maybe something to pick his teeth with after eating his meal there. He turns his back on everyone waiting. He kicks up his feet. He holds his headphones up to the receiver, to share a song he recently downloaded. He pointedly avoids looking at the clock.

The other type of problem caller is what I've dubbed the Teleporter. This is the guy who tells the last person line, "I'm after you," then vanishes and does something else. The Teleporter might not be seen for a half hour or forty-five minutes thereafter, rematerializing only after what had been the last guy in line gets a phone, thereby taking the current line's constituency by surprise: Where the hell was this guy five minutes ago? And now he wants to jump in front of me? The Teleporter breeds discord and dissatisfaction, and we all wish he'd get off his high horse to wait alongside the rest of us.

For the many years I lived in good-conduct wings at Crossroads Correctional Center, the prisoner-to-phone ratio was a far more workable twelve to one — 50% better than at ERDCC. During peak hours at Crossroads, such as right after coming in from meals, someone might wait ten or fifteen minutes, a perfectly reasonable amount of time, before making their call. Here, there are periods of the day when one is lucky to get a phone at all.

Requests for additional phones to be installed in ERDCC's good-conduct wings, which are open and active all day long, meet solely with stonewalling. "A feasibility study would have to be done," said one official response, as if Crossroads' performance, and that of its sister facilities, was insufficient proof of concept. ERDCC could cut down on a great deal of tension if its residents could more easily contact the people in their support system. More importantly, though, is that mounds of evidence show outside connections being one of the most effective elements in prisoners' rehabilitation. If a correctional center wants to live up to its name, why would it hamper its own efforts at effective correction? Unless, of course, it's not really trying to correct at all....

02 July, 2020

Prison Race Relations in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter

As demonstrations sweep cities around the world, as monuments are pulled down, as rioters run roughshod and arsonists set buildings ablaze, as a dangerous pandemic sweeps through the world, as citizens sit at home, either out of work or working too much, and the grind of domesticity, of children, of spouses, of the hobgoblins of their own boredom and self-doubt, wears at the last shreds of their ability to cope, the message that penetrates prison's walls and razor-wire fences is this: it's bad out there.

It's bad in here, too — worse than usual. We worry about our loved ones, about their health and their jobs and their homes. Since most of the staff seem to care about their political alignment too much to wear a piece of cloth on their faces, we worry about getting sick ourselves. We worry about our neighbors' every sneeze or cough, about the general lack of adequate cleaning supplies, and about cohabitating, for an average of twenty-two hours each day, in a space the size of a home bathroom, usually with a near-stranger who likely committed some heinous crime and doesn't have our best interests at heart. We get few exercise opportunities, fewer opportunities to call the people we care about. We're afforded limited access to showers. And now we worry about racial tensions — a significant prison problem in even the best of times — flaring.

I wasn't at ERDCC in 2016, when riots rocked Ferguson, Missouri, fifty-odd miles north-northeast of here, but anyone who was could describe the tension that gripped the prison during that period of unrest. Any prisoner putting his hands up — whether or not he intended to signify "Don't shoot!" — was immediately whisked away to the Hole, under fear of him trying to incite something. Outside circumstances had the prison administration jumpy. What's discussed in meetings here now, I can only speculate. This climate of uncertainty at least has the prison population more sensitive than usual, particularly to matters of race.

On the yard last week, I heard a man preaching to several younger prisoners. He told them, "The white man is not your friend." He said, "The white man is pure evil." He looked right at me with such a look of unabashed hatred as he said it; although, I've only ever seen him around the yard from a distance. How should I feel about this?

Another person, a neighbor with whom I'd never spoken, let alone treated with less respect or cordiality than I give every other stranger, approached me, smiling like a child with a secret, to say, "You're a racist." With wide-eyed bewilderment, I asked, "What makes you say that?" His answer was a shrug as he turned and walked away. What would've been a more appropriate way of handling this exchange?

I hear racist remarks all the time, from prisoners of many races. Sometimes they're "jokes." Sometimes they're mumbled slurs. Sometimes they're aggressive taunts. I don't deal well with racial discrimination, nor hate speech. I speak out in criticism of them — I always have. My list of reasons for disdaining small-mindedness is decades long.

I've been mocked. I've been harassed. I've been discriminated against. I've been ostracized. I've been targeted by security guards and police. I've been physically assaulted. I've spent the last nineteen years of my life corralled, demeaned, and dietarily and intellectually malnourished within maximum-security prisons, at least partly because of the way others have perceived me. I hear the cries for justice going up, and I say, "I feel your pain." My differences can't be seen on my skin, but the frustration and suffering that comes with being "other" is very real to me.

Growing up with an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder, I used to get so frustrated that I couldn't make myself fully understood, that my heartfelt intentions and desires couldn't be picked up telepathically by everyone around me. Why did I need to explain my thoughts so often? Why were my intentions consistently misread? This imbued a fundamental feeling of unbelonging, which sank into my bones, ultimately becoming as deep and integral as an identity. Being different, my mother cautioned me at an early age, would be difficult, that my "gifts" would be weights that bore down when others felt confused or threatened by them. My mother, the prophetess.

Civil-rights activist Jan Willis writes, in an article for the Buddhist publication Lion's Roar, "The root of this problem is the very root cause of [suffering] itself, namely, the overexaggerated investment we each make in our respective Is." Until we are able to relinquish our obsession with conditioned identities — the idea that these things that make me me are somehow better or worse than those things that make her her, or him him — and that our identity is precious and unique, rather than a fragile soap bubble that conditions have blown a certain way but that ultimately is made up of the same stuff as every other precious and unique bubble, we're going to encounter division and strife.

Addressing a recent viral video of racism in action, in his recent personal essay, "Homecoming", the writer Hilton Als echoes Willis's point, imploring readers facing discrimination or harassment, "Listen to yourself, not to your accuser, because your accusers are always listening to their own panic about your presence. And if what they are saying — or shouting — threatens your personal safety, protect yourself by any means necessary. If you can protect yourself, you'll be around to love and take care of more people, and be loved and taken care of in return."

On the two days last week when those men made me the target of their frustrations, I didn't take it especially personally. I understand how frustration demands an outlet, and that the more intense the feeling, the more forcefully it demands. Better those men's ire fall on me, I thought, than someone with a chip on his shoulder, a fragile ego, or something to prove. But that misunderstood sense from childhood did arise. Strange to feel it after such a long time. I even wondered, Why me? Can't they see I'm not like that? I ought to have known better. As if any of us wears ourselves on our skin!