29 January, 2020

The Ohio Risk-Assessment System Doesn't Work on the Innocent

The wing's loudspeaker blares, "Byron Case, bravo two-oh-seven, report to the caseworker's office." However much I'd like to ignore the interruption or put it off awhile, I drop the book I'm reading and go. It's just downstairs, after all, and shouldn't take but a minute.

Being called to the housing unit's caseworker's office isn't unusual. Caseworkers in prison wear many hats. Privileged mail, what comes from lawyers or the courts, gets shunted straight to the caseworker offices, to be opened and its contents verified in the presence of the addressee. The caseworkers' duties also include witnessing signatures and fingerprints on the appropriate form when a prisoner sends money from his institutional account – for mail ordering books, buying art supplies, paying court costs, making child support payments, et cetera.

The page this time is not for me to pick up a letter or sign a check but to take a questionnaire.

"Have a seat," the man says as I enter his tiny office. I note the Millennium Falcon poster hiding a couple of square feet of one pitted, gray concrete-block wall. Something tells me I won't get out of here any quicker if I weigh in on the perennial Star Wars debate over whether Han shot first. He squints at the packet of about twenty stapled-together pages in his hands. "This is gonna take us a while."

He tells me that the Missouri Department of Corrections is implementing the Ohio Risk-Assessment System, which the packet concerns, as part of its parole assessments. "Bear with me," he says, slipping his reading glasses on. "You're the first person I'm doing this with."

Parole assessments? Someone must've made a mistake. Because I have a first-degree murder sentence, I'm not eligible for parole. I volunteer what should be obvious: "Um, I've got life without."

He sighs, "Yeah, I know. They're making us do these on everybody."

Pages riffle. Someone recently burned popcorn in the office microwave. It's not even 10 AM; who the hell brunches on popcorn?

"Okay, tell me about your crime."

"What do you mean?" I don't want to be doing this in the first place. The presumption of guilt just adds to its offensive nature.

The caseworker's hand swivels on his wrist, as if he's loosening up for a video game tournament. "Just tell me how the crime took place."

"How much room have you got?"

"Summarize," he says, in a tone that sounds, surprisingly, like one of patience.

I give him the facts: that my girlfriend and I were hanging out with my friend Justin; that we went to pick up another friend, Justin's girlfriend, Anastasia; that Justin and Anastasia had been arguing a lot and resumed arguing the moment we picked her up; that Anastasia got out of the car while we were stopped at an intersection; that I never saw Anastasia again, but that after Justin later left our company he went back to meet her; and that the next morning a sheriff's deputy found Anastasia's body lying in a cemetery, shot in the face.

The caseworker has been scribbling notes in pencil while I talk. At no point does he show surprise, nor particular interest.

"How have you taken responsibility for your crime?"

"It's wasn't my crime, so I haven't."

"Okay...." He scribbles some more, then asks, "What steps have you taken to rehabilitate yourself during your incarceration?"

"I don't know about rehabilitation, since I don't think I was dehabilitated to begin with, but I'm always working to improve myself. I do a lot of writing, reading, mindfulness practice. I'm an analytical person by nature – you know, reflective. I think a lot about the kind of person I want to be in the world. I recently started daily meditation."

He looks up. "No programs?"

I know how remedial the DOC's programs tend to be, designed as they are around getting through to the uneducated, selfish, and hardheaded... when they're properly administered at all. A neighbor once took Anger Management and came back with a sheet of rebuses he said they'd been making the class do for weeks:

Years later, I signed up for a class that might actually teach me something. It didn't. I got a certificate for a class they never finished teaching. (I blogged about the tremendous disappointment of Mindfulness Training in 2015.) So I meet the caseworker's gaze, keeping in mind that he's just doing his job, operating under a particular limited mindset, not deliberately working to offend me, and answer him.

"No programs."

Scribble, scribble.

It goes on like this for a half hour. For years, I've said that I'm almost glad, in a perverted way, not to have a paroleable sentence, since it means I'll never be confronted by a panel of antagonistic board members who think they know the truth and are capable of accurately judging people's character. This ordeal of undergoing the Ohio Risk-Assessment System feels nearly as bad as I always believed seeing the parole board would. Will I have to do this all again next year? Shit, I hope not.

23 January, 2020

"Serenity Now!" and Other Meditation Myths

The venerable Tibetan Buddhist teacher Thubten Chodron advises practitioners to set a particular time of day to meditate. She suggests mornings, when the mind is uncluttered by the events of the day. She isn't the only one. I've encountered this advice in a number of places, coming from a number of teachers. I'd love to follow it by setting a specific time for myself to sit in single-point focus. There's just one problem: I often literally can't.

I've ranted many, many times about the inconsistency of prison life. A guy just can't get settled. It's Murphy's Law: precisely when you think that you've got things figured out and have yourself a plan is usually when the rug gets pulled out from under you. The best you can do is to start with good intentions and roll with the punches.

Jeff and I aren't just cellmates, we're also both practitioners of the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. Neither of us is likely to graduate to bodhisattva status in this lifetime, but we do what we can. Funny how I ended up not only in a wing with four of ERDCC's other seven Buddhism practitioners, but living with one as well. It's an agreeable arrangement.

At last Thursday's service, I asked everyone in the group to name a single way in which his practice fell short. As each member of the sangha took his turn, we discussed practical tweaks to potentially remedy his shortcoming. Jeff and I were among the four who lamented our irregular meditation. I suggested to Jeff that we set aside a specific time every day, when we're both in the cell, that we might use to meditate together. By using the buddy system we might improve the other's practice while improving our own. Surprisingly, he doubled down: instead of one time, Jeff suggested two — a fifteen-minute session in the morning and a thirty-minute session after the 10 PM count. It sounded great, in theory.

We were quickly reminded that theory and practice don't always intersect. My head was half dream-fogged; I wasn't focused. I'm clearly no longer the night owl I used to be. After three days of staying up half an hour past my usual bedtime, I threw in the towel. If I'm being realistic about it, anything after 9 o'clock is too congenial to my nodding off.

We compromised by swapping the nighttime sessions for midday ones. Starting at 11 o'clock each morning, the prison spends about forty-five minutes under lockdown for a custody count, which seemed ideal — in between any activities, prior to eating lunch, and without the ruckus of the wing's seventy other residents. Our plan was to listen to a series of guided meditations on CD by the aforementioned Venerable Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron during that time. In that way, our practice might benefit from both analytical mediation and the fixed-point variety that I usually do. Yesterday was the first attempt.

It definitely could've gone better. About twenty minutes in, the wing's loudspeaker squelched and blared static for no apparent reason. Then came the slamming open and closed of someone's cell door. Next, a deafening announcement was made for one of the kitchen slaves to report to work as soon as the yard opened. Then a guard came in, keys wildly jingle-jangling, to slam the fire door. Count seemed to clear ten minutes earlier than ever before, because our door lock unlatched and the door exploded halfway across its track before either of us could fully open our eyes. We stuck with our meditation through the shouts, hoots, whistles, screeches, and reverberating clangs of the other prisoners emerging from stasis. Finally, at the early announcement of lunch (which we had no plan of going to eat), Jeff and I simultaneously burst out laughing. It was ridiculous, this expenditure of effort in the face of the world's absurdity. The world's a noisy place, but damn. This is true adversity we're up against.

Undeterred, we'll try again today, and the day after that. And if it doesn't work after a third attempt we'll try again, just at a different time. I'm not about to be deterred by a little scheduling conflict. I'll get up a half hour early every morning if that's what it takes to build my practice. I'll find what works. There's a reason it's called "practice," after all.

22 January, 2020

The Daily Mail

I finish writing my message and slide the card into its envelope. I remember how gross sealing envelopes used to be. Even minty envelope glue tastes like glue. Also, I hate thinking of the microscopic foreign bodies I'm licking off those sticky little strips. Not having to fuss with them is fine by me.

Except for stuff with lawyers' and courts' addresses on it (with which I haven't got much truck, since I exhausted my last procedural remedy in 2010), all mail has to be inspected by prison staff. Before weekday USPS pickups, someone opens and reads everything in that day's outbound post, making sure no one's calling down gang hits or writing sexually explicit messages. Then they tape the envelopes closed and send them on their way.

ERDCC doesn't do a bad job of getting everyone their mail. Magazines and papers stack up over the weekend and are therefore all that's delivered on Mondays. Otherwise, to the best of my knowledge, none of my mail's ever reached me later than a day after being delivered to the prison. I've heard horror stories of prison mail delivery in other states taking weeks.

There are too many rules governing the mail in Missouri prisons. After eighteen years' confinement to the system, I've internalized them all. Explaining them to friends and people I'm just getting to know — that can be tricky. To anyone unacquainted with this environment and its quirks, many of these rules will sound arbitrary, and possibly insane.

No hair or bodily fluids. That's one that might seem obvious. No paper that appears to have been at one time wet. That's another that isn't quite so obvious. I'm not permitted to receive anything done in magic marker or crayon. No one really understands that one. Stickers on the pages are forbidden. This confounds more people than I can count. Nor can I receive paintings, pop-up cards, photos with more than a couple of words written on the back, cards signed in pencil, photos in the same envelope as a letter, pages larger than 8½"×11", or more than five sheets printed off the Internet in one envelope. Figure out the reasons behind these rules and I'll pay you my entire month's pay — twenty bucks. Totally worth the trouble.

One item that I don't mind being prohibited is glitter. Glitter sucks. I'm actually happy to have someone checking to keep me safe from accidentally getting that evil stuff in my eye, which is where all glitter ultimately goes. (I'm convinced that glitter is just a failed DARPA project to weaponize birthday cards.) Overall, though, the rules are simply burdensome bullshit. If I were conspiracy-minded, I might think that they're intended to deter people from communicating with prisoners at all.

The card I've just addressed gets an ugly Purple Heart stamp. I'm a commemorative-stamp guy by nature, but the Purple Hearts are all the ERDCC canteen sells. Even a flag stamp would be preferable, but as long as it gets my card to its destination I can't complain.

The mailbox is a small white wall-mounted cabinet in the sallyport, the hallway that leads outside and to the caseworker offices. The sallyport also passes the housing unit's control module. Of course the guard working inside that dim terrarium today doesn't pay as much attention as he's probably supposed to. (What could he be reading for all these hours on that monitor? It's not like they can use Facebook on the state computers.) After walking downstairs to the front of the wing, I try to get his attention through the glass, idiotically waving my envelope over my head for what feels like fifteen minutes. I only get the door unlocked thanks to another guard who happens by with keys.

Had this been an actual emergency, the waving he just ignored would've been followed by screaming, fire, and general pandemonium. Inconvenience is a tiny price to pay to wish a friend well-wishes.

07 January, 2020

New Year, New Start

In the year 2020....

Some sci-fi masterwork of yore probably began with these words, then delved into a fantastical far-flung future featuring rocket cars, condominiums on the moon, and food in capsule form. The reality of this date, we all recognize, is a whole lot messier, but here we are, living the dream, one full week into the future.

I've started jotting some decidedly un-science fictional ideas in a composition notebook that hadn't been getting any use. Another book project bubbling up from the creative depths — or wherever such ideas come from — surprised me this past weekend. At this early stage, I'm not altogether sure I know how to classify it. "Speculative fiction" seems too vague; "horror" isn't it at all; "fantasy" involves too much whimsy. My elevator pitch would begin, So it's David Lynch meets Franz Kafka....

Last year saw me finish my first novel, a ten-part collection of interwoven narratives about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. (It has yet to be published. I can only do so much to push this process along.) Finishing that methodical work took a lot out of me. So much research! So many delays! I honestly wasn't sure when or if I'd write long-term fiction again. Now, unexpected but welcome, the Muse reappears. She looks different than when I last saw her. There's a wild look in her eyes, and I know that this one's going to be a much more frenzied, inspired affair than my last effort.

My sangha chose for our January theme "New Year, New Start." Like a mantra, we've been repeating it to each other at times when our adherence to Buddhism's precepts seems most strenuously tested. It's like advising our Buddhist brethren (and ourselves) to be mindful: "Hey, remember your practice." But it also serves as a source of inspiration. Every breath, every moment, every hour, every day is a rebirth. We are continually in this state of flux and therefore capable of an infinite range of changes.

According to Writing in Flow, one of the last books I read last season, falling into the deepest possible state of engagement with your writing project often demands that you perceive it as a challenge. Well, here's a fresh puzzle for my mind to work out — a weird new world for me to discover, with myself being remade in the process.

Beginning afresh can be intimidating. We humans are such creatures of habit. The familiar, the tried and true, the relatable — these comfort us but can also hinder our growth and leave us stagnant. I have the benefit of seeing the same gray concrete walls day in, day out. There's no way out. This sameness makes it essential for me to stretch my mind through the cracks, out into realms of thought and fancy to which reality sometimes pales in comparison.

This strange new book is going to be like nothing I've tried writing before. This year is going to be like none I've lived before. The two are connected, but there's more to it than just the imaginative journey I'm about to embark on. Other good things are happening. The world is constantly changing. We're constantly changing. Look around: we're already living a speculative-fiction future. This is amazing stuff.