24 April, 2020

From the Plague House

Albert Camus wrote his novel The Plague in the aftermath of his native Algeria's occupation by Nazis in World War Two. It's a parable of wartime occupation that reads like a contagion drama. The COVID-19 pandemic has probably changed the way that most people see the world, so of course people are reading The Plague literally — as a straightforward account of a nasty viral outbreak. There's no reason for the book not to work both ways.

"And then we realized that the separation was destined to continue, we had no choice but to come to terms with the days ahead," reports the narrator of The Plague, regarding his fellow townspeople's response to quarantine. "In short, we returned to our prison-house, we had nothing left us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had speedily to abandon the idea — anyhow, as soon as could be — once they felt the wounds that the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it."

It's tricky, getting by, making do, not succumbing to the pitfalls of WITBO (Wishing It To Be Otherwise). The very real prison of ERDCC has been closed to visitors for over a month, and we're two weeks into the not-lockdown I blogged about last week. Aside from meals and my eight-hour-a-week janitorial job, the time I spend out of my cell adds up to fifty-five minutes a day — for showering, using the phone, and taking care of miscellaneous wing matters, such as syncing my tablet, placing canteen orders, or checking the balance of my prison account. Fifty-five minutes, even if I chose not to clean my body, doesn't meet the needs of a person's social health, especially if one has, like me, connections to the outside. I feel out of touch. It's very unfamiliar and very unpleasant.

A little creativity, then: I write when the words come. E-mails get more attention than this blog, which gets more attention than tweets, which get — it shames me to say — more attention than my novel. Inspiration enough to break out pencils and draw would be nice, but visually satisfying marks on paper, or even unsatisfying ones, have yet to manifest. Stealth-mode bodyweight workouts, in the mornings after work, lift my mood while my cellmate sleeps deeply. Otherwise I do a lot of reading (Camus, literature's King of the Absurd, being just this week). I meditate. I try to let go of the ache of missing those who are most important to me.

Shortly after this period of isolation began, I thought a lot about the future, about how nice returning to what passes here for normal would be. But the wounds made by the imagination, as Camus wrote, were too deep. Without even willing it, I recoiled from such fantasies and stuck myself in a here-and-now mindset. It's dull and it's tedious, but it beats the pain of wishing for something more. We all deal as best we can.

13 April, 2020

A Lockdown by Any Other Name...

The prison's not under lockdown but might as well be. ERDCC just took its "Viral Containment Action Plan" to the next level. Last Tuesday a mass e-mail landed in every prisoner's inbox, announcing the details of the Plan: "Feeding will be completed by one wing at a time per housing unit schedule. Canteen will be completed on a one walk at a time schedule, bottom walk then top walk. In house recreation will be on a Five Cell Rotation." The e-mail later mentioned, almost as an afterthought, "Yard recreation will be two wings at a time, on a rotation schedule."

In point of fact, by institutional policy, recreation can't begin until after every housing unit has been fed — a process that, under the current limitations, consistently takes most of the time allotted for outside rec. Administrative personnel can claim that this isn't a lockdown, gull ERDCC's population into believing that we'll get more than a few blinks of sunlight or a gasp of fresh air a couple of times a week, but in reality we're screwed.

A prime example was Saturday night. Shortly after dinner I removed my shoes and sat on my bunk to read. It was 7:30, and I expected no activity until our nightly allotted twenty-five-minute shower period, scheduled for an hour and a half later. Suddenly, everyone's door slammed open, startling me so badly that I fumbled the book in my hands. Then the guard in the control module announced, "Yards are open, gentlemen; you got two minutes to exit the housing unit," and really lit a fire under my ass. It had been a long day. Time outdoors would do me good. Still untangling my ear buds, I stepped out onto the yard, feeling considerable relief. Cool, breezy, overcast — this was weather I loved. Taking a counterclockwise course along the walk, I made one and a half revolutions before the yard lights came on, signaling recreation's end. I checked my tablet's clock; nine minutes was all the time we got.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciated those minutes beyond another human's immediate proximity. I also enjoy being able to take a shower more than once every three days. The degree of lockdown ensuing from, say, a riot or staff assault wouldn't afford such luxuries, but being locked in one's cell still equals a lockdown. Dishonest language and semantic games irritate me. Reporting to work five days a week, going to meals, bathing regularly, and making short phone calls a few times a week constitute more than what Missouri's Director of Corrections' Friday e-mail termed mere "operational adjustments." Let's call this period what it is.

08 April, 2020

Missouri Prisons' COVID-19 Preparations

If COVID-19 breaches the gates of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center — or, really, any prison — those of us confined would likely be screwed. There's too much common space. What space each person can call his own is intensely cramped. Everyone here shares his living quarters with another human. Three cramped dining halls serve the entire 2,800-man population. Half of us use the same gym, chapel, library, medical facility, and classrooms. How could one hope to stem the spread of a virulent contagion under these circumstances?

There's only so much that can be done, but steps are being taken. The Missouri DOC calls its efforts against an outbreak a "Virus Containment Action." It's shitty language to describe a good idea that's being inconsistently enacted.

A properly answered questionnaire and a temperature check are required before any employee gets past the gates. Hand sanitizer dispensers suddenly appear throughout the facility. Assigned seating in the dining hall mostly separates the occupants of one wing from another. At my janitorial job, where I tidy offices, wiping all surfaces with bleach solution is now part of my daily responsibilities. And still more changes are promised. Yesterday's e-mail from the Director of Adult Institutions says that masks for staff and prisoners will soon be distributed. Okay, I thought, but will it be soon enough?

Amazingly, the DOC's considered the social impact of this coronavirus. The Department went so far as to arrange limited free communication for all 34,000 prisoners in its custody. Every prisoner is now getting two free ten-minute phone calls and one free JPay e-mail per week. The average Missouri prisoner has to buy every necessary hygiene product (except soap and toilet paper) with an $8.50 monthly stipend. The small benefit of free calls and e-mail makes a major difference to those who can't afford regular contact with loved ones.

The DOC's commitment to minimizing the effect of COVID-19 on Missouri prisons impresses me, but its employees' enforcement of the Virus Containment Action are, at the institutional level, half-assed and inconsistent. No one responsible for putting the Action into action seems to put any thought into it. Temperature checks were implemented very late in the game. (That's what I've been told, anyway. It's not like I get to see the guards and caseworkers reporting to work.) Just as bad, the separation of housing units at meals and other times isn't rigorously enough enforced to make a real difference. One day we're segregated while eating — A-Wing on one side of the dining hall, B-Wing on the other — while the next day we're ordered to lump together in one big, germy group.

I wipe down the boss's keyboard and mouse with bleach solution, but he enters in the mornings without washing or sanitizing his hands after touching who knows how many door handles and surfaces between his car and his office. Heading down this epidemiological rabbit hole could drive a person mad, but we've got to follow it a little way down; the current state of the world demands we make a serious effort, or else we might as well be making none at all.

01 April, 2020

New Prison Rules as Precautions Against the COVID-19 Pandemic

It took this coronavirus to break my three-and-a-half-year news blackout. I felt its terrible relevance quite powerfully after a friend, a few weeks ago, sent me hard numbers for its predicted impact. With one look, I saw: everyone I know would be affected by this pandemic, one way or another. Now here we are, with most Americans anxiously sheltering in place, and I'm back to following the media coverage of current events. Like a fractal design, the crisis unfolds and unfolds and unfolds — every day, a little more reveals itself, seemingly without end.

The latest news at ERDCC came today. At this month's "Offender Council" meeting, one representative posed the question of whether a quarantine lockdown might take place. It might, came the answer. I can just imagine the squirming that resulted.

Meanwhile, however, we prisoners are not to play card games or have more than two people sitting together at any table in the housing unit. Cell visiting — hanging out in someone else's place — isn't allowed anymore, either. Despite the library's "one table, one man" rule, people still line up to enter like they line up for meals: close enough to smell if the guys behind and in front of them recently brushed their teeth.

I wonder what they're expected to really accomplish. The prison's administration seems to be saying, This, but not that. That, but not this. It's so much like the states of the Union all putting different policies in place, at different times, without any coordination. These efforts seem so foolhardy and illogical, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

If quarantine procedures do come to ERDCC, the kitchen will serve brown-bag meals of bologna sandwiches for the duration. For me, this was all it took. I finally caved, breaking into my emergency fund for last-minute canteen-list additions. By the time you read this, I'll probably be picking up my order for instant ramen, refried beans, canned chicken and fish, beef jerky, crackers.... If only this splurge felt like an indulgence! Instead, it feels like an obligation.