12 March, 2020

Cable Outage Means Convict Outrage

The TVs go black on a clear, sunshiny day, but I'm busy writing and don't know about it until my neighbor comes to the door. "Wha'cha think about the cable?" he asks, his rural Missouri twang slurred by lack of teeth. I peer at him over my glasses in a way that I hope conveys impatience.

You'll never see a man's mood turn quicker than when a prisoner starts missing his cable TV. On the rare occasion when the facility's cable goes out, the first resort of the TV addict is to games, music, telephone calls, or a nap. (Almost none will read.) My neighbor is one such person. After whole minutes of silence in his cell, he emerged, hoping to commune with someone as miserable as he is.

"I didn't even know it was out," I say. "I'm busy doing my own thing."

"Phew! Cable's been out since lunch. I don't see how you can go that long."

"My TV's been off since 5 o'clock yesterday," I tell him. Might it inspire him to questioning of his own viewing habits?

Taxpayers in Missouri don't contribute to amenities in their state's prisons. While I can't obliterate the suspicion that we prisoners are coddled with good food, full medical coverage, and free cable, I can point cynics to these qualifications: the food is mostly edible, the privatized medical care is shamefully inadequate, and that I'm paying an exorbitant price (just not in money) for this "free" subscription. For the record, I'd happily trade these luxuries for a cardboard box under a railroad bridge in a heartbeat.

My neighbor, maybe not so much. He rubs his mouth like a crackhead waiting for another rock and says, "Yeah, well, some of us can't just sit around like that."

This feels silly, giving life advice to a man fifteen years my senior, but I shrug and offer him one of my shiniest nuggets of wisdom: "Sometimes you've got to make your own fun."

"Fuck that," he says. "I'm gonna go ask them what's the deal."

The cable is paid out of a dedicated account fed by 20% markups to items sold by the institution's canteen, as well as to media for our tablet computers. It's a large account. Also paid out of it are gym equipment, library books and furnishings, board and card games for the housing units, religious service paraphernalia, and visiting room amenities — anything deemed nonessential to the running of the institution, in other words. But even if it's not officially acknowledged as such, the powers that be are fully aware that uninterrupted cable TV service is crucial to maintaining order.

My neighbor ventures out of the wing to harasses a guard in the control module and I think, That won't be the last I hear about it.

My prediction bears out. The evening's a loud one. Twice as many people as usual mill around the wing, desperate for distraction, seeking entertainment in the company of their cohort, left adrift by blank screens. I hide out in my cell.

Peace comes the next morning when many sleep in, unwilling as they are to endure a few hours without someone else putting the thoughts into their heads. Unconsciousness seems to me like a sad pastime. Yet again I wonder what's so scary about being alone with oneself.

Throughout the walk to the dining hall at breakfastime, every conversation I overhear is about how "crazy" it is that we're still unplugged after almost fifteen hours. The man behind me in line stops literally every guard he sees, to ask, "What's up on the cable?" Most of them arrived for their shift a half hour earlier and have no idea what he's talking about, yet still he fishes for... what, exactly? Even if someone were to say that Spectrum techs are on site, replacing filters or whatever, he won't be satisfied until he's sitting in front of his TV, images flashing at his eyes and sounds firing into his ears. Does he even realize that his hunger's insatiable?

"Crazy," he mutters. "Fuckin' crazy. They just hopin' some shit kicks off so they can lock everybody down and not have to worry 'bout us anymore."

This sort of threat of flipping out is common but mostly empty — passive-aggressive venting born of powerlessness. But idle hands being the Devil's playthings means that the vidiots will remain unoccupied for only so long before they do something stupid. My reason for wishing the cable repaired is different from most guys'.

Crazy, indeed. This is the world I live in.

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.