18 November, 2021

Life in Fear

As do so many others, I live in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. My environment, this prison, with its faded green roofs and lethal electric fence, represents the epitome of unpredictability. Something could happen at any time that sunders whatever intentions I dared to set. My circumstances are pretty far from ideal. Imposing a level of suffering is the point of prison, after all.

I fear random lockdowns, which keep me from going to work at the job that I love. Lockdowns are declared for a plethora of reasons, but most often because of staff assaults, staff shortages, and staff barbecues. Some can last for minutes. Some engulf hours. Some drag on for days. During lockdowns there's no showering, no visits, no phone calls, no hot meals. If there's a search team en route, the cold water to everyone's cell is turned off to keep anybody from flushing contraband down the toilet.

I fear running out of ideas for my writing. Determined as I am not to become a "prison writer," I often turn away from writing about topics that hew too close to the standard, clichéd narratives of Hollywood movies and true-crime novels. "Write what you know" becomes a tightening noose when your vista of fresh experiences is limited by the number and type of books you can read, the conversations you have, and the discoveries you can make at your (admittedly amazing) job. Listening to other people's stories in weekly Gavel Club meetings adds perspective, and I sometimes catch Stories from the Stage on PBS, but my truly new experiences have become as infrequent as they are narrow in scope.

I fear the loneliness that follows loss. I'm not talking here about a misplaced hat; the loss of those I love, whether to out-of-mindedness or death, is a dread that chills me to my core. "Who am I in the absence of others?" is one of the great questions in Zen Buddhism, but I'm just not ready to grapple with this question outside the realm of abstraction. I profoundly love and cherish the people in my life. I don't want a life without them – especially not while I'm in prison. To live the kind of life as the forgotten here do seems unbearably sad. In my worst dreams I become them.

Living in prison's just the half of it. I fear the helplessness of decrepitude, of mine and of my mother's, neither of which is yet a challenge but very possibly will be, in due time. Worry for an aging parent in dire straits is bad enough when you're capable of providing at least some of the assistance they need. When you're literally trapped on the other side of the state, without impending prospects for release, the matter takes on a different, more bitter note.

I fear leaving prison. This is not to say that I'm by any means institutionalized but that I worry about my prospects in that brave new world you all have built in my absence. My period of imprisonment predates the iPod, the Patriot Act, smartphones, twerking, both Matrix sequels, the Iraq war, Billie Eilish, augmented reality, and cronuts. If my prison sentence were a person, it'd probably have an associate's degree by now. That is a lot of time to miss, a lot of cultural currency to be deprived of. I'm quick on the uptake and fairly tech-savvy, but could I find a suitable place in the world, one that's decent and self-supporting? No one can say, and the unknown is the scariest thing in the world.

I fear for the future of humanity, amid climate change, rabid partisanship, and our own shortsighted egocentrism that's created both. I fear that this thing on my arm could be cancerous. I fear that my petty, arbitrary aversions keep me from doing things I could learn to enjoy, or at least not mind. I fear becoming boring. I fear that I might never see New York City, London, or Tokyo. I fear that I'm too concerned with my looks. I fear that I don't practice zazen diligently enough. I fear never writing another publishable book. I fear dying in prison. I fear meaninglessness. I fear squandering time.

As I said before, these concerns are nothing unique. On the contrary, I know that you share some of these very same worries. The question is, what do we do once we identify them? Is acknowledgment enough? Do we bottle them up, letting them gnaw at our psychological well-being, a challenge to see how long we can live so repressedly? Do we resolve to change, then labor at reforming our subconscious? Do we break down and cry from sheer helplessness? Indecision will cripple us. We can't move without knowing how to decide, but we can't possibly know how to decide. Whatever can we do but live? The only true way out is by going through.

10 November, 2021

Go Ahead, Fence Me In

When five galvanized steel poles spring up in front of the house one morning, every prisoner in the unit reels with indignance. My thought: what harm will a few more fences do? Never mind the futility of getting outraged at what can't be controlled, I don't see how rendering our existing boundaries as real, tangible barriers hurts anyone.

We're already bounded by so many fences, not least of which is the lethal electric one that surrounds this place. The administration decided several months ago that each housing unit would get its own little recreation area, complete with pullup bars, dip bars, and a gate that opens onto the institution's main walkway. Once they're enclosed this way, prisoners assigned to one unit will no longer be able to slip into another unit and get up to mischief – the thefts, assaults, and daring little social calls that they currently do.

Accidental trespass is possible, too. Just the other day, as I was about to leave for work, I saw a resident of 5-House enter my wing and gaze around, wearing a very confused expression. He groped for the ID card clipped to his chest, as if to hide the yellow 5-B dot signifying him as an interloper in 6-B, then beat a hasty retreat. (In his defense, all houses at ERDCC do look the same.) This sort of thing soon won't happen anymore, after the fence project is finished.

"You won't be able to go nowhere except service and programs," one disgusted prisoner says to another when I pass them on the walk. "Ain't gonna be no more skating."

In my twenty years locked up, I've skated four times. Each time, I stepped out of bounds only because an obstinate guard wouldn't let me go where I was actually supposed to be. I just walked out, ignoring their shouts to come back. Technically, I suppose, this wasn't skating at all but occupies a gray area that could've resulted in a conduct violation, which might or might not have stuck at the hearing. Some people consider it their personal duty to skate multiple times each day, just for shits and grins.

"It's bullshit," says the other prisoner to the first. "How we supposed to get anything done?"

People who behave like him are the very reason these fences are called for. Patrick Henry famously said that those who give up their freedom for safety deserve neither. I don't see these fences as a curtailment of anything, merely a reinforcement of what's already in place. If anything, I see this fence project as the institution making good on its promise to maintain safety and security. ERDCC is so lax about so many things. A little more enforcement of rules will do everyone some good.

27 October, 2021

Who Wants to Work in a Prison?

From my limited vantage point, morale and attendance by prison employees seem to be at all-time lows. I say this three and a half years after reading a newspaper article about the critical staff shortages faced by corrections departments in Missouri, Kansas, and what was then seventeen other states. Since then, the problem has grown quite a bit worse.

On any given day, two-person operations at ERDCC are handled by individuals. Also, non-custody employees, including recreation staff and caseworkers, frequently have to do jobs that guards should be performing. Overtime is rampant. Ditto, mandated shifts. This is a real problem with wide-ranging effects.

I don't understand why the job economy's so bad right now, but I know that understaffing isn't limited to prisons. The COVID pandemic vacated many places of business, and a lot of employers now find themselves scrabbling to find people willing to work for them. A truck-stop gas station here in Bonne Terre is reportedly offering a $1,000 signing bonus. A news report said that professions previously requiring applicants to have a high level of education now accept those whose academic career went no further than high school. To work as a guard for the Missouri DOC reportedly takes nothing more than a state ID proving you're at least eighteen years old.

Caseworkers can be seen on many weekends (never mind their Monday-through-Friday schedule), supervising the dining hall, conducting wing walkthroughs in housing units, or helping guards do custody counts. When there's no one available to fill in, those counts, during which every prisoner is locked in their cell, can take an extra hour or more to complete, as the two people running a house take turns. One walks from wing to wing while the other stays in the control module, then they switch. This would be fine, except what if some emergency arose? Around here, you often can't tell when bad shit's afoot.

Worse yet, ERDCC's medical services have deteriorated since I first encountered their profound indifference, three years ago. The facility hasn't had its own on-site doctor in two years, and one of its two nurse practitioners quit a couple of months ago. I've submitted five Health Service Request forms for the same issue and have yet to even be seen by a triage nurse.

To keep the place hobbling along, programs and services are frequently cut without warning. For this reason, some non-essential departments, such as Clothing Issue and Property, are closed more often than they're open. Time out of our cells is curtailed several times a week, due to insufficient staff-to-prisoner ratios. Meals regularly run late because there isn't enough staff to allow us out until after the next shift change takes place.

I can't blame anyone working here for their lack of enthusiasm. Working in a prison surely sucks. The buildings are gross, the jobs are pretty unrewarding, and the residents, even at their best-behaved, can tax one's patience. The employee culture looks to be one of lighthearted joking around, but it also fosters gruff indifference. My guess is that jobs here attract two types of people: those who want to do as little as possible, and those who feel that they have something to prove. Neither makes for a great employee.

I've argued for years that the Missouri Department of Corrections should significantly increase entry-level employee wages. I believe this now more than ever. By raising wages for correctional employees, the DOC could be more exacting in their hiring and employee-retention standards. By onboarding only people with higher educations, they'd increase the likelihood of facilities keeping with departmental policies. By asking a bit more from employees, in every area – from behavioral compliance to dress codes – they'd lower the odds of costly lawsuits by aggrieved prisoners and mistreated workers, as well as promoting healthier work environments where people with lower stress levels get sick less often and prisoners aren't as likely to get frustrated and lash out violently.

Pay my warders better, Missouri; that's what this boils down to. I'm tired of seeing violence on the yard, missing out on precious activities, and being locked down for entire days, all because inadequate staffing is unconducive to vigilance.

06 October, 2021

Another Night, Another Death

Ernest Johnson was executed by the state of Missouri last night. His killing was carried out by lethal injection at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center, right here where I'm confined. While someone in a small room administered an intravenous poison to Johnson's body, the dining hall served the prison population barbecue pork and a baked potato.

The recreation building was closed for the occasion, so I didn't go to work in the afternoon or evening. The same went for the library. Factory workers had their usual hours. The rumor was that everyone would lock down for the 4:30 afternoon count, as usual, then not be allowed out until morning, once the body of Ernest Johnson was good and cold.

The previous Missouri execution took place in May of 2020. ERDCC wasn't locked down then, but in the years before I got here, lockdowns on execution nights were de rigueur, as if to emphasize the fucked-upedness of the circumstances. You'd think that someone running a prison would want to de-emphasize the occasion – if not distracting the institution's population by showing a good movie, at least not eliminating all recreational opportunities.

In the hours before the execution, many prisoners in my wing grumbled about losing rec, as well as about the twin possibilities of a lockdown and a dinner of PB & J. My cellmate started to complain; I shut him down. A guy's dying! Neither cell confinement nor a brown-bag meal bore out, but that isn't the point.

I could go on a tangent about the circuitous logic of killing someone to show that killing is wrong. I won't. Nor will I weigh in on the constitutionality of executing a mentally deficient person. What astonishes me is the concern that these executions engender among those here. No one gave a tinker's fart for Johnson, of course, they just didn't want to lose crucial chess-playing hours. I want to ask where our heads are. More urgently, I want to know where are our hearts.

23 September, 2021

The Speak Easy Gavel Club VPE Redux

Remember how much I enjoyed my first days in ERDCC's Speak Easy Gavel Club, and soon after being elected a Gavel Club officer? Well, get ready to read even more about speechifying, honing leadership skills, and cultivating self-betterment, because yours truly has been elected once again to the position of Vice President Education in the organization.

Our club's normal period for elections is the month of June. COVID-19 cramped everyone's style. When the Department of Corrections allowed groups to meet again a couple of months ago, Gavel Club's old guard were itching to vacate offices too long held. (In the case of our now-outbound president, extraordinary – really, absurd – circumstances made him the longest sitting president in club history, at two and a half years.) Fresh faces were all too happy to step in and fill some of those offices. Whether out of others' deference or their fear, I ran for Vice President Education unopposed.

The VPE is the club's scheduler. Part of the duties of office involves tracking members' progress though Toastmasters speech and leadership projects, and helping them meet their goals. Other responsibilities include organizing club meetings and planning monthly themes for the year. It's a nice vote of confidence to be installed in such a position of influence, to be empowered to direct thirty-odd people's transformation into more effective, confident communicators.

My membership began as a lark. Probably because I was never really involved with Corporate America, I had only the vaguest idea of what Toastmasters did. Joining up with its affiliate, Gavel Club, was simply a matter of trying something new in my prison life. I spent almost seventeen years at Crossroads Correctional Center, a facility that offered almost no positive, structured activities. Then I came to ERDCC. Suddenly: stuff! Why not give this speechifying thing a go?

Delivering speeches never compelled me before. More accurately, I never considered public speaking as something that I might do. I'd certainly given performances – musical theater, violin recitals, making awful spectacles of myself – but of course I'd written plenty of essays. Coherently presenting series of structured thoughts aloud, using meaningful body language, maintaining eye contact with an audience, employing the right vocal inflections to express my intended message, and all the other aspects of good speechmaking involve a skill set I'd barely used before that morning, three years ago, when I delivered my Gavel Club icebreaker.

Honing my interpersonal skills, exercising a different type of mind-body harmony, building my improvisational abilities, and, most importantly, helping others do the same, are what the Gavel Club experience is all about. I can hardly wait to start this new facet of it.

21 September, 2021

Ten Years After Filing, My Application for Pardon Gets Shot Down

My hopes were never all that high. Governors, even when they do exercise their clemency privilege, rarely grant pardon. Why undo what the courts – those perfectly fair and just arbiters of truth – have done? Justice had its chance at trial. Still, this form letter on flimsy paper is a major letdown.

"Dear Offender Case," it begins.

My first thought was, Fuck you, you pompous twit. Would it have killed him to address me with a formulaic "Mr."? I envision a meeting of self-righteous DOC higher-ups, at which were discussed sundry ways of making sure the imprisoned feel good and low. I'm sure that suggesting the word "offender" won someone high praise. It succeeds in being simultaneously reductive and hyperbolic, a big, ugly brand on the neck of anyone who passes through the gates of a "correctional" center. Even if I were guilty of the crime that put me in prison, this designation would piss me off.

"This letter is in response to your application for Executive Clemency. I regret to inform you that the Governor has declined to grant clemency."

So that's that, then.

I filed my application for clemency in the fall of 2011, following months of research. Once I composed a straightforward narrative of my case and felt ready, I mailed my application form with a forty-one page summary of the case, a personal letter to then-incumbent Governor Jay Nixon, information relating to bipolar disorder (which Kelly Moffett was diagnosed with), a Kansas City Police officer's report, a copy of the 2007 book The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case, an excerpt from a forensic study titled "Eye Changes After Death," and Jackson County Sheriff's Department interviews with Robert WitbolsFeugen and Betsy Owens, Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's parents.

A bunch of my friends and supporters wrote letters that pleaded for Mr. Nixon to give me my freedom. The Office of the Governor forwarded these to the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, which manages all clemency applications for the governor. For a while, P & P even forwarded me copies of its responses. They must have some rule about only answering constituents, because I never heard about anyone living outside of the state hearing back, but still, a nice gesture.

My mother started a petition online, collecting signatures in support of my release. John Allen, author of that Skeptical Juror book, wrote a whole series of mailings to Governor Nixon, which picked the case to bits. Both John and Mum traveled to Jefferson City, Missouri's capital, to meet and talk with two successive governors' legal counsel. All of this for naught.

I'm not complaining that Governor Parson shot me down (or not only that, anyway) but that the act took a full decade to carry out and ended with an insulting form letter. Insult to injury.

Oh, but FreeByronCase.com got a cool new look and layout last week. At the same time, Framed for Life, Volume 3 hit Amazon's shelves and some journalists took an interest. My lawyer has been quiet for a couple of months, which I can only hope means the species of busyness that yields progress. Dedicated supporters are putting forth more energy, all at once, than they have in a while. All of this imparts the sensation of building momentum – but is that really what it is? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, shame on you, Governor Parson, for rubber-stamping people's lives away.

13 September, 2021

Six Books I Read This Summer

The season started in March, with a book my mother sent me, When This Is Over: Pandemic Poems, by Ralph James Savarese, an Iowa poet. I picked through its contents slowly, wondering at my disconnect from the world. The same happened after 9-11, when I listened to countless news radio broadcasts, failing to fully appreciate the immensity of what was being discussed. Because in September of 2001, I was locked in a cell and facing my own zero-sum existential battle, media coverage of the Twin Towers tragedy had a slight whiff of overreaction – a scent to which I'm deathly allergic. Savarese's pieces in When This Is Over similarly overtaxed my empathic algorithm. My response was less "So what?" than "Too much, too soon." Because several of his autobiographical poems mention his son, who is, as I am, on the autism spectrum, I hope he'll understand my stance and be forgiving of it.

For me, The Sandman Omnibus, Volume III, by renowned British SF writer Neil Gaiman, constituted a conclusion twenty-four years in the making. I started reading his gorgeous, lush Sandman graphic novels in 1997, when my friend Stasia loaned me what was then the entire run. The series ran for a while longer, spinning off several excellent tie-in miniseries, such as Death: The High Cost of Living and Sandman: The Dream Hunters, in the process. By the time Gaiman wrapped it all up, in the six-part Sandman: Overture, I'd moved far enough away from the world of comic books that even this award-winning literary work couldn't draw me back to the fold.

Now, however, I've made time enough to read the entire cycle through. As she did with the previous two dictionary-sized hardcover volumes, the ever-generous Emily C. sent me Volume III as a gift. And what a marvelous gift they've been! Like visiting old friends, from Martin Tenbones to Mad Hettie. No spoilers here, but I will say that the ending satisfied immensely, even as it left me in thrall to Desire and Despair.

Different forms of those presented themselves when I read the Framed for Life, Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3/4, the latest exculpatory endeavor by John Allen, who also wrote the series of Skeptical Juror books, beginning with The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case. Although he wrote that particular text before meeting me, we've since become friends. Subsequently, he's had ten years to research and refine the most thorough, logical narrative of the case of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's death, and my wrongful conviction for her supposed murder, yet. Framed for Life isn't for casual readers. It represents a systematic synthesis of data organization, information gathering, experimentation, and the author's obstinate willingness to raise a few hackles at the Jackson County Prosecutors Office, which these books show conspired to convict me, as well as many others (i.e., Theodore White, Richard Buchli, Ricky Kidd, et alii), with perjurious testimony, withholding and altering evidence, and generally being amoral shits. These weren't easy reads for me (see my "Framed For Life" post from mid-August), but I'm glad I made myself read them anyway.

Master Ma's Ordinary Mind: The Sayings of Zen Master Mazu Daoyi, by Fumio Yamada (translated by Nick Bellando), a Japanese Zen teacher, enriched my life at a rate of one saying per day. When I finished with that book, The Zen Sayings of Homeless Kodo, by Kosho Uchiyama and Shohaku Okumura, and edited by Molly Delight Whitehead, footed the bill. Both books offered straightforward teachings and commentary, but the latter did so from the perspective of three generations of teachers, beginning with the eponymous Kodo Sawaki, who died in 1966. The teachers in that book piggybacked off Kodo's words – and each other's. Imagine a posthumous correspondence with a parent and a grandparent. (Zen Buddhism is big on lineage and refers to one's teacher as one's dharma mother or father.) Both offered worthy insights.

For the literary gifts mentioned here, and for everything else that you do for me, thanks again, John, Emily, and my dear Mum. I appreciate all of you so much.

10 September, 2021

JPay Tweaks Its E-mail App and Stabs Meaningful Communication Right in the Heart

Like the naive victim of any confidence scheme, I dutifully complied when I got the notification, and synced my tablet at the JPay kiosk in my wing to download the latest critical update. I should've held out; being an early adopter is often costly.

Suddenly, the e-mail app I'm forced to use no longer allows line breaks. The button that should say "Enter," on the Android keyboard, instead says "Done" and returns you to the app's main screen. Goodbye, salutations! New lines, paragraphs, and blockquotes are things of the past, too. Could this be a glitch, an unplanned bug that renders our e-mail compositions as ticker-tape communiques? Or do JPay and the various Departments of Corrections with which it colludes have ulterior motives?

Despite the old saying about not attributing to malice what you can blame on incompetence, my bet lies squarely on the former. There's probably more money to be made by forcing prisoners to type messages as unbroken blocks of text. It makes the presentation of even moderately complex thoughts more difficult. Call me a formalist if you want, but how does a writer switch subjects without beginning a new line? A further impediment is that writing in one long line taxes the working memory of this underpowered JP5S tablet I'm using, causing it major slowdowns. Even now, these letters lag behind my thumbs' ability to tap them out – a lag that'll only get worse, the more I type. Shorter messages, in theory, should also result in more messages. At 25¢ per e-mail, more messages mean more money in JPay's coffers. You don't need to be an economist to figure this stuff out.

Communication, when you're imprisoned, is difficult enough. If I had to cite the single worst stressor in my life, it wouldn't be fear of my fellow prisoners, the emotional weight of legal concerns, or sharing a tiny personal space with a careless boob – it'd be the myriad restrictions placed on my ability to stay in touch with everyone I care about.

So now there's this. How much longer will it be (if ever) before the prison profiteers at JPay cut us a little slack? I think this is just the latest in a lengthy procession of signs that I need out of here. I'm too large for prison.

20 August, 2021

Missouri Irradiates Prisoners to Keep Drugs Out of Its Prisons (And I Feel Fine)

Here's something nice: I no longer have to strip naked then squat and cough in front of strangers before being permitted a four-hour visit from loved ones. Several prisons in Missouri have started using full-body x-ray machines to see if anyone's trying to secret contraband in or (for whatever reason) out of the institution.

My first taste of this, like a sip of goat's milk or a world without bees, will probably take some getting used to. I've been waiting for this visit from my mother for nearly a month. She and I waited much longer last year, yes, but since the Department of Corrections lets us vaccinated people visit, a month-long wait once again feels like a stretch of time.

The room where the big machine stands is still referred to as "Strip-Outs" by the staff – "Strips," if you're cool. Walking inside, ceiling-mounted cameras monitor in ten directions, presumably to document misconduct and shenanigans. This horseshoe-shaped room is not a place to be shy. I stand at one side, behind a red line taped to the floor, and wait for someone inside to call out, "Next."

When the guard posted there does, I round the corner and find the usual scene in Strips slightly altered. The scanner, a closet-sized unit with flat surfaces that someone tried to differentiate with two contrasting shades of hospital blue that somehow remind me of my grandmother's bathroom. A Department of Corrections emblem has been affixed to the side. The device, with its blunt corners and total lack of aesthetic considerations, manages to appear half futuristic, half retro – and one hundred percent institutional.

The guard who called me into the room is tall, with a small island of dark hair at the top of his head. It looks like he's wearing the world's tiniest beret. Standing behind a tall touchscreen control panel on casters, he tells me to choose my size of visiting clothes and change into them. Folded state-issued grays line the top shelf to my right. Of the bright orange foam shower shoes glaring out from the cabinet to my left, I pick a pair with "XL" written on the toes. Such stylish footwear for this afternoon get-together! After I exchange my own gray pants for a loaner pair and throw an almost-matching gray shirt over myself, the guard beckons me to step up.

"Put your feet on the feet and stand real still," he tells me, meaning the outlines of footprints on the floor of the device. I comply. The machine hums and clacks. Then take a step down. He rotates as I do, strategically angling the touchscreen on its casters so I can't see inside myself.

"What all does that show you?" I ask.

Without looking up, he says, "I can even see if you've had lunch."

What a concept: my pancreas has become a security concern.

When he says, "Enjoy your visit," I take it to mean that I'm cleared to enter the visiting room.

I'll be scanned again on the way out, when they'll compare the incoming with the outgoing. So many scans! I usually get at least one visit a month. Radiation's effects are cumulative. Will this give me cancer or otherwise mutate some random gland? I sure hope not. It's my mother who's come to see me; time with her is precious. Thus, in the way of anyone who makes regular life decisions that place their health at some degree of risk, in exchange for a short-term payoff, I kinda don't care what harm it can do. If it keeps me in contact with those whom I love, by all means, scan away!

13 August, 2021

Framed for Life



The latest bit of media about my case came out a few weeks ago – a four-volume book, titled Framed for Life. The author, John Allen, whom I now, in the decade since he published the first book about my case, think of as a good friend, hopes to influence a readership made up of politicians and investigative journalists.

With a scalpel, Allen's multi-part book dissects my wrongful conviction, showing how Jackson County, Missouri, prosecutors (now-disgraced Amy McGowan, in particular) committed fraud on the court in their efforts to convict me of murder. The books not only expose facts of my trial that were overlooked by virtually everyone, they're also a scathing indictment of what one judge called Jackson County's "culture of corruption." Or so I gather; I can't comprehend more than a few words of them, here and there.

I have copies of the volumes, generously furnished by the author, and I'm in the process of reviewing them. The thing is, this is stuff that I've been over and over and over a hundred times, and can barely assimilate any more. It's as though the parts of my mind where information about my case, the 1997 death of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, is stored have reached maximum capacity. MEMORY FULL, my brain might as well be saying. I even have a hard time talking about it; it incites an insidious kind of stress, the physical tells of which are twitchy eyelids, jaw and neck tension, and the occasional headache.

Nevertheless, I'm currently picking my way through Volume One of Framed for Life. It's slow going. This isn't because the book's a mammoth tome (it's actually quite thin) but because I can only take so much at a stretch before my tolerance hits its limit and I overload, unable to take in any more about perjury, withheld documentation, and lies, lies, lies, lies, lies.

It's interesting, if dismaying, to see old journal entries I made during the year I was held in the county jail before trial. I can still remember the splintery number-two pencil dancing uncomfortably in my hand, writing those thoughts in fear but under the somewhat protective spell of naivete. Those handwritten pages from half a lifetime ago – those I understand. Their language is unambiguous to me, the concepts they introduce are familiar in a visceral way.

I wish I could warn twenty-two-year-old Byron of the pitfalls awaiting him at trial, how stacked against him the deck is. But I can only sit reading, mute and impotent, as the travesty plays out on the page. Again.

How many more times will it, I wonder, before this is finally over. It gets so old. Or maybe that's just me, waiting for justice.

30 July, 2021

Damn These Indestructible Claws!

Just one question, really: is this a model for the Missouri Department of Corrections' prisoner of the future?

"Due to safety and security concerns," says the e-mail from Director Norman, "toenail clippers will no longer be sold in the Canteen and offenders will not be allowed have them in their personal property. Fingernail clippers will still be sold in the Canteen but only one fingernail clipper will be allowed in the offenders personal property."

Sometime before August 21, 2021, Missouri prisoners are being told to surrender our toenail clippers. These tools have been part of prison's basic personal hygiene products for way longer than the twenty years that I've been a guest of the DOC. Yet now, suddenly, they're a problem.

From next month onward, dinky pinkie clippers are expected to suffice for all inmates' nail-trimming needs. This poses a problem for those of us whose bodies grow extra-durable keratin. I can't clip my thumbnails with fingernail clippers any more than a butter knife can slit a truck tire. And don't even get me started on my toenails.

On my trips to Medical over the years, I couldn't tell you how many men I've seen soaking their feet in what seem like luxuriant conditions, their bare paws in a Sterelite pan full of warm Epsom salts, preparing for a pedicure. Every time, I wondered how bad their nails had to be to receive such service. The same for-profit entity providing their nail treatment withheld treatment for almost every other medical condition it faced. You can't get proper care for cancer, but a foot bath? Come on in!

Smartassery aside, I doubt they've considered the repercussions of this new restriction. I'm not the only person with tough claws who's stuck in the system. There are thousands of us. Take a second to consider this. Certain people are always going to do bad stuff, and they're always going to do it by whatever means are at hand. (And despite what you think, ample means are still going to be within reach, even after toenail clippers officially become contraband.) The DOC might as well turn the Medical lobbies of prisons around the state into nail salons. Wouldn't it be more sensible to leave our hygienic practices intact than charge Missouri taxpayers untold millions of dollars for prisoners' mani-pedis?

22 July, 2021

Homeschool May Have Saved My Life

My parents encouraged me to be honest about everything... except one. They said that if I was ever approached by an adult and asked why I wasn't in school on a weekday morning, while we browsed through the public library or shopped for groceries, I should definitely always lie.

Telling the bald-faced truth came pretty easy to a tactless little boy on the autism spectrum. Doing otherwise took some coaching. The response to strangers' inquiries that my parents concocted for me was, "I had a doctor's appointment, but I'm feeling better now." After that, Mum and Pops would fend off further interrogation by what I assumed were more sophisticated means.

In 1983, the year I started kindergarten, most Americans could still be taken to jail for homeschooling their kids. The state of Kansas, where I grew up, required state certification in order for anyone to teach. This requirement was only rolled back a few years later. Sad old Michigan didn't legalize homeschooling until 1993. Considered in this light, my parents' decision to keep me out of the public school system represented quite a little rebellion, hardly a minor risk to the well-being of our little family.

Most families choose to homeschool their children for religious reasons. Statistically, the majority of them are white Christian conservatives. We were of another sort: progressives whose closest involvement with organized religion involved frolicking in our own lush backyard Garden of Eden. Although we steered clear of dogmas, my parents' most impious acts involved occasionally name-dropping Mother Nature and referring to the Schmutz on people's faces on Ash Wednesday. I'm saying, amoral heathens we were not. Their reason for keeping me out of public school was to avoid what they considered the spirit-deadening effects of institutionalized learning.

My parents paid what must've been a handsome sum for the privilege. Every August, UPS delivered the secular curriculum to our front porch, heavy on ancient history and multiculturalism. I used to love opening those boxes. After prying three big copper staples out of their top flaps with a butter knife, each box opened to reveal stacks of brand new textbooks. The books all but bulged with knowledge, and it thrilled me to think that I'd be assimilating their contents over the coming months. I sniffed their aroma of glue and paper, and hefted their weight in my little hands. I riffled pages to peruse the illustrations. I didn't want to set them down.

Mum was my first teacher, as any mother should be to her child. She and my father ran a business out of our home, but his work involved full-time bustling around the city. In the evenings, he offered more help than she did at math, but staying home to run the office during the day meant she handled the biggest part of my instruction.

I couldn't have asked for a better teacher. Her patience brought us through the most frustrating lessons untraumatized, and the boundless enthusiasm she turned to my classwork helped me power through even my times tables. She also took me on mini adventures several times a week – to the health food co-op, to the auto mechanic's, to the bank, to pet stores, and wherever else the day took us. Sure, we took trips to local parks, museums, art galleries, and the zoo, but she taught me that even errands could become field trips, if one applied a smidgen of creativity.

Neither of my parents knew that I had a neurological condition. (In all fairness, they couldn't have; diagnostic criteria for Asperger's syndrome was still almost two decades away.) My enthusiasm for discovering even the most tedious minutiae about subjects that interested me awed adults. Rather than a child on the autism spectrum, they considered me a brilliant little professor. And my parents felt lucky to have a son so well-behaved, who didn't run wildly around the house or demand twenty-four-seven attention; I just read books, wrote my little stories, or drew quietly in my room. That I had to sleep on my back, with my hands folded together, was peculiarly sensitive to sounds, and had no filter in social settings didn't seem like a big deal. What did it matter if the smell of baby powder made their son angry – he started reading before age three. Sometimes weaknesses look like strengths.

My homeschool career ended after my parents’ divorce, when I enrolled at my first public institution, in Windsor, New South Wales, Australia. At first, being a foreigner seemed to afford me carte blanche. Anything unusual that I did was waved away as "just an American thing." But there are only so many personal tics that can be blamed on nationality before people realize that, no, you're just a weirdo.

After I found pariah status with my so-called peers, teachers started worrying that I spent too much time away from others, reading on the far edge of the schoolyard. One of my greatest strengths, my preference for being alone, looked to them like sadness at being cast out. Sometimes strengths look like weaknesses.

Had the other students just left me alone, public school wouldn't have been so bad. Early IQ tests showed that I had exceptionally high intelligence, so it's not like I couldn't do the work. Subjected to the cruelty of classmates and the tyrannies of abusive teachers, however, I started to circle the drain. Depression was just the start. Everyone who knows me knows what happened next: I washed down.

Dropping out of high school meant being seen by some as a loser or a failure, but public school was killing me. My parents had been right about its deadening effects all along – more so than they even knew. If we'd have been rich, I might've gone to the Montessori school they talked about, where my intellect could flourish in unhindered learning. "We aren't rich," Pops told me once, "but we're rich in culture." A fat lot of good culture did for my social standing with a bunch of ninth graders.

The argument my parents always heard was that, by homeschooling me, they deprived me of socialization skills crucial for my psychological growth. I might not be a pillar of social standing today, but I call bullshit. In light of my atypical neurology, the negative experiences I had in public school would've simply arisen earlier, probably at an age when I was less resilient. Delaying my entry to the public school system probably prevented years' worth of behavioral, emotional, and health problems, a few of which might've led to irreversible trauma.

American education has improved a great deal since the days of one-room schoolhouses and corporal punishment. Most of the necessities of modern life continue despite a global pandemic, thanks in part to technology, but mostly to humans' creative drive. Distance learning gave kids and parents a taste of homeschool. If it wasn't to everyone's liking, I'd venture to say that critics' idea of what school should be (in this case, a taxpayer-funded babysitting program) might benefit from revision.

I don't want to tackle the complex economic issues of school vouchers or educational coalitions in this blog post. I hardly claim to have all the answers to the country's ongoing education crisis. I just felt like voicing an opinion about a life-affirming experience that enabled me to excel in the areas of study that interested me most, drew my parents and me closer together, and quite probably diverted me from a path on which I'd have known a lot more pain, a lot earlier in my life.

I loved homeschool. I wish more kids who could benefit from it were in a position to, and that more parents were able to appreciate it as much as mine did.

09 July, 2021

Back to the Lectern

Hands up, who remembers my posts about Speak Easy Gavel Club! A few of you do; that's cool.

For those who don't, here's a brief overview: a few years ago I joined the prison's Toastmasters affiliate to bone up on my public speaking and leadership skills. Gavel Club presented an interesting scene. Members take turns delivering speeches, both prepared and improvised, within the formal structure of meetings. The whole setup is a hell of a lot more fun than it sounds, and was occasionally quite challenging.

But I got kicked out, my rapid ascendance through the club's ranks cut short, after I allegedly overstepped my bounds while performing my duties as a club officer. The Institutional Activities Coordinator gave me a rather unceremonious boot and said I could "maybe" sign up again the following year. (To save time, here's a quick and dirty account of the kerfuffle.) I wasn't happy, but what was there to do except heed the Dragon Lady's decree?

Looked at from that end, a year seemed like an eternity. Will I even still be at this prison then? I wondered. Shortly thereafter came COVID. Following that, the year that never was. Days and weeks and months merged into an even more than usually undifferentiated blur. If it was bad for you out there, restrictive official responses to the pandemic felt significantly worse here. One effect of this was to focus my attention on matters far removed from the revocation of my little speechifying club membership. I buried my "Competent Communications" and "Competent Leadership" handbooks deep in my footlocker and let the matter slip from my mind.

Until this week, when I saw a jumbo flyer posted in my wing. A smartly dressed clip-art man at a lectern appears on it, announcing that the Speak Easy Gavel Club is holding a membership drive. The message got to me. It triggered that old feeling of – what's patriotism called when it's directed at a small group of people with common goals? Yeah, I felt that. I'm so busy these days, but could I carve two hours out of my workweek to rejoin the Gaveleers, Tuesdays at 1:30 PM, in pursuit of personal excellence?

I talked it over with the handful of people who'd be affected by my stepping out; then, with their collective blessing, I dropped my request into the mailbox. I'm already contemplating my welcome-back icebreaker speech.

30 June, 2021

Them!

When the invaders came, their approach, from deep in the earth, was utterly silent, and by the time we saw them it was too late.

They came crawling, each of them on six hinged legs, enormous heads brandishing pincers strong enough to lift many times the creatures' own bodyweight, threatening to carry away our precious food. Thick armor covers their triple-sectioned bodies completely. Worst of all, their numbers are incalculable. Everywhere they're seen, they teem.

Our cells might be impenetrable, but they're not impermeable. The creatures find ways in. They're able to winnow through almost any crack, crevice, and hole in the building. As prisoners, so few options exist for shoring up our defenses against the invasion. We use what we can. First was vinegar, swabbed around the doorframe in an attempt to sabotage the trails of formic acid that they leave for each other to follow. That effort failed. Next, quantities of soap were used to seal the fire door through which most of them get inside. Still they came, black trails underfoot like living veins, pumping food crumbs and tiny biological materials.

Watching my cellmate crouch near the sink, crushing the intruders with little wads of toilet tissue, unsettled me. I prefer to leave bugs be if they're not harming or hindering. (I catch spiders and set them gently outside.) But no amount of talk would deter him from his genocidal fixation, which was when I saw that another, more direct tactic was called for. We had to deter, not annihilate.

A neighbor brought over a dish soap bottle filled with watered-down muscle rub. This, he assured me, would keep our floor insect-free. He squirted the milky liquid along the bottom of our doorframe. It left our living quarters smelling like an old taxi driver but would be worth the less-than-ideal olfactory situation if it kept the ants out.

Every morning since then, my cellmate and I check the floor before taking a single step. We periodically do this throughout the day, also, paranoid that the powerfully scented ointment hasn't done the trick. Yet it seems to be working. No tiny black forms have turned up in my cracker box, on my mint candies, or near the trash can – a definite win, for however long it lasts.

Now we know: muscle rub repels ants. If only there were something to be done about the drain flies darkly spotting our porcelain sink. Curse this winged scourge!

20 June, 2021

Eight Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Haruki Murakami has written very fine, very bizarre works of short- and long-form fiction, of which I've read over half. I feel confident in saying that I know his work well. So when my mother made a birthday gift of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (translated by Jay Rubin), from my Amazon wish list, I thought that I knew roughly what I was in for. More than 600 pages later, I realized how wrong I'd been. For my taste, the story of Toru Okada, an aimless thirty-something protagonist (like almost all of Murakami's narrators), and his search for, first, his cat, then his wife, meandered along, in stilted prose, for far too long before arriving at its propulsive ending. Part of me wants to blame the translation, the language of which feels stilted and out-of-date. The story never cohered for me. I found myself wondering if other readers agreed, so I had it googled. As it turns out, a majority of his fans call The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle their favorite Murakami book. I'm baffled as to why; it's easily my least.

For no reason but to be nice, a fellow book-lover named Kristy H. sent me several titles. I dove straight into Junot Díaz's story collection This Is How You Lose Her. I first read several of its stories in The New Yorker, about a decade ago. These tragic, profane monologues about love and loss confirm that Díaz is a writer with a unique voice, a prodigious talent deserving of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize he won for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I also read – and relished).

Kristy also sent the classic Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid's Tale. This was a reread, too. The narrative of a woman subjugated and half-brainwashed by an oppressive religious regime in what used to be the United States was worth revisiting. Last time, I'd been seventeen or so, and the book seemed like more of a warning against the perils of theocracy; this time, possibly because of post-#MeToo awareness, its central horror seemed more the mistreatment of women. Either way, Atwood was at the absolute top of her game when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale. I don't know if I'd want to watch the TV series, though. The novel's ending seems too perfect a thing to change for the sake of reaching a different audience.

On the opposite side of the spectrum sits Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's infamous tome, The Illuminatus! Trilogy. It had a lot going for it – the recommendations of not one but two friends, enthusiastic blurbs from reviewers, and a longstanding reputation as a cult classic. But a lot of the book, a fantastical tale of conspiracy and absurdity aswim with references and concerns that were probably foremost on the minds of its readers in the late '70s (the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Black Power movement). These bugbears have since lost dramatic punch. Or, maybe, I'm just not as easily amused as I used to be by absurdity and dirty jokes for their own sake. In either event, I wish The Illuminatus! Trilogy hadn't taken up space on my Amazon wish list for as long as it did.

The last book in "the Kristy Trove," Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes (translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin), contains a better brand of weirdness. Its first story, "The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women," is actually an excerpt from the novel I started this quarter reading. (The excerpt, standing alone, is much more enjoyable.) I usually enjoy Murakami's short fiction quite a bit, and this great collection was no exception. Thank you for these months of good reading, Kristy! I really appreciate them.

At various points along the way, I had my nose in dharma teachings. Because of popular misunderstandings about enlightenment (as the term is used in Buddhism) most people, especially in the West, are surprised and a little confused by the Zen tenet that we are – every single one of us – already enlightened, pure and complete, lacking nothing. Our enlightenment is just asleep, lulled into its inactive state by a world of phenomena and conditioning. In his Essentials of Transmitting the Mind-Dharma, the ninth-century Zen master Huangbo Xiyun reminds us again and again that there's nothing we have to do, nothing we need to attain, in order to cultivate our enlightenment. We already have what we need, right here, right now.

Commenting on this, the Korean Zen master Subul Sunim writes, "After having an 'experience' through your meditation practice, there is nothing you need to do but pass the time by going along with the flow of causes and conditions." The book I'm quoting from is A Bird in Flight Leaves No Trace, translated by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Seong-Uk Kim, a collection of commentaries (originally delivered as lectures) on the text by Huangbo mentioned above. I read just one account in A Bird in Flight each day, every time I locked down for the 11 o'clock count, then sat with it awhile, letting my mind orbit what it just took in.

Since I was usually in a receptive state after reading Sunim, noontimes often found me picking up Timothy Donnelly's latest collection, The Problem of the Many, and reading one or two of his poems in that particular mindset. This book came as a gift from Emily C., a delightful mid-spring surprise. (Thank you, Emily.) I love the voice that Donnelly writes with – by turns academic and plainspoken, mating in his poems the highbrow and the low-, to breathtaking effect. (I described his work as "breathtaking" before, when I wrote this May blog post in response to "Bled." It's true here, too) His newest collection seems less emotionally fraught, and less personal, than The Cloud Corporation, which I loved. But poems like "Diet Mountain Dew" and "Chemical Life" offer similar syntactic and linguistic delights without weighing as heavy on readers as many of those earlier poems did. Nevertheless, from here, too, points an accusing finger, drawing attention to our shirked responsibilities as stewards of history, of our race, of the environment, and referring back, again and again, to a hope that we flawed humans aren't a lost cause, and to a belief that all that exists is connected. The opening poem's final lines (following references to the Ridley Scott prequel Prometheus, a snake in Texas, and Baudrillard's America) phrase it well: "let particles of us entangle / knowingly with those of a gold encyclopedia / in the ruins of Vienna or an ear of teosinte across /an open border, a common source of being, before I / die – let us be, let being be, continuous, continuous."

The simply titled Look and See by Myokyo-ni is made up of twenty-five Buddhist teaching stories, with a commentary on each. The author, a Zen master from Austria, studied for more than a decade in Japan before becoming a nun and assuming the position of abbess at a British monastery. She practiced in the Rinzai tradition, which places particular emphasis on discipline. This, coupled with certain biographical facts, could be responsible for the old-fashioned writing style here. The stories are certainly ancient. Some, like "The Blind Men and the Elephant," are even familiar to Westerners. All have an invaluable lesson to impart.

11 June, 2021

A Travesty at Twenty

The fact that I am a murderer is well established. You can learn from many sources about my three-day trial, about how a jury of my peers decided that I must be guilty of killing my friend Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, of shooting her in the head just to see what it felt like to end another person's life. Not just any murder, either. Those jurors found me guilty of murder in the first degree – a killing accomplished after some calculation, homicide committed after a period of cool deliberation. Those dozen people on my jury had the power, as all juries do, to define what thereafter is called the truth.

In the decades since, courts either found nothing procedurally unsound in my jury's verdict, or they otherwise declined to review my case. Because the courts didn't dispute it, the verdict stands. It follows, therefore, that the jury's opinion must be true. And here we are.

Saying "my jury" implies ownership. Nothing could be less accurate. I don't even remember "my" jurors' names. The same goes for "my" case. I lay no claim to the events leading to my imprisonment, and certainly not to the cause of Anastasia's death itself. The vast majority of those things happened without my participation, beyond my knowledge.

The Internet, the great democratizer, offers enough information on which to base an informed decision about everything from politicians to peanut butter brands, if you pick decent sources. Because such information is free, the group convinced of my innocence, the Free Byron Case campaign, is bigger than the group that believes I murdered my friend. Unfortunately, fifty thousand people could believe in my innocence; it wouldn't outweigh the hope of the handful who want me to die in prison. Nor would numbers below a certain threshold change the fact that a conviction – any conviction – is far easier to get than to shake off.

I've tried, believe me.

Wait, do you believe me? Check your preconceived ideas. Are you part of the "Keep Byron Case In Prison" group, hate-reading my blog because the all-consuming fires of righteous indignation in your heart are easier to stoke than your grief and guilt are to assuage? Emotion has to come out somehow. I forgive you your wrongs against me, but is this the healthiest way to live?

Even before my arrest and trial, you people just knew that I was guilty. And you refused to rest until my guilt was declared. A couple of you interviewed friends and acquaintances, searched my car in my driveway, took photographs of my vehicles, dug through my trash, pushed the case's investigators to more deeply scrutinize me, and probably took other steps that I'll never find out about. If not for you, the authorities might never have suspected me of anything but dressing oddly.

I write this in "my" cell in a maximum-security prison. The date listed for my earliest possible release, in the Missouri Department of Corrections database, is 99/99/9999. It might as well be the thirty-second of Octember. My sentence of life without parole will allow me to leave prison only on the day that employees of the county coroner wheel my corpse out on a gurney, bound for some cold storage vault, and points beyond. And although this is exactly what certain of you asked for, you remain restless and unsatisfied.

These words don't come from a place of malice; despite my reputation as a provocateur, in this post I want only to point things out and ask questions that spark radical honesty. I want you to consider what is meant by "fact," by "peers," by "truth." Certainty plays no part. Records of my case exists, but what do they say? Interpretation is required, but who can we trust to perform it? Contrary to the popular conception, justice isn't about right and wrong. It's about who can deploy a more convincing argument. If we dispute one court's ruling, which court do we trust to decide otherwise? And what do we do when that court's rulings are questioned?

Who thinks of corporations as people, following the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, which gave corporations the same rights as individuals? If I were exonerated tomorrow, cleared of wrongdoing by a court of law, I'd be released from prison and the fact of my conviction would be removed – stricken, erased, undone. It will be as though it never happened. Would my memories of these lost decades be wrong? And who'd accept my new status? Would your mind change about me, based on that decision? If you say yes, isn't that just letting others do the thinking for you? If you say no, then what would it take to change your mind? If you know, why wait? What's stopping you from changing it now? How committed are you to your ideas? From where do your thoughts about my guilt or innocence arise?

These aren't easy questions. What makes life most worth living doesn't benefit from asking easy questions. The hard ones are another story, and the ones you can't answer at all are the ones that best define you.

I'm an innocent man who's been locked in prison for twenty years. I was twenty-two on the day armed men in black body armor thundered into my bedroom to take me away at gunpoint. I haven't been home since. I'm now forty-three. Despite years and years of emotional trauma, I have neither nightmares nor panic attacks, lasting depression nor crying jags, disruptive compulsions nor fixed obsessions, outbursts of rage nor periods of withdrawal. I doubt anyone would fault me if I did. But in reality my mental health is quite good.

I wake up in the morning and make my bed. I dress. I meditate. I make a cup of black coffee. I eat breakfast in a loud dining hall, surrounded by myriad human beings, some of whom don't bathe, many of whom are ignorant of inside voices, and I don't hate them. At 8 o'clock I go to work. I love my job; I like my coworkers. We laugh a lot together and do good things that affect a lot of people, whether they recognize it or not. When I'm not at my job in the Media Center, I'm reading or writing. The people I love keep in regular contact. I'm very fortunate to have a lot of good, caring people in my life.

If you think I killed Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, you're mistaken. Yet I'm also unequivocally guilty. I'm a murderer who didn't kill anyone. Am I making myself understood? If so, how can you stand it? Answer the question!

03 June, 2021

User Review of Prison Showers in Housing Unit 6B

Although the differences between the shower stalls, from one wing to the next, at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center would be unknown to the non-resident, they nevertheless abound. The canny, experienced prisoner will test each of the nine showers in any wing at ERDCC that he moves into. The following are my reviews, following research gathered from routine personal hygiene since I moved to Housing Unit 6B last month.

Shower SH130
Pros: This shower closest to the utility closet offers a strong spray of adequate width.
Cons: There is a noticeable smell of rotting food, possibly because its proximity to the wing's microwave provides a convenient pasta-draining station. Like all downstairs showers, SH130 affords a bare minimum of privacy from passersby on the top walk.
Verdict: Use it if you have to, but don't expect to come away feeling satisfied.

Shower SH131
Pros: This middle shower on the ground level features a spray that continues for at least one full minute after you press the button.
Cons: The spray is too wide to seem as if it's cleaning effectively. Gaps at the curtain's edge limit privacy even further.
Verdict: While using this shower, stand two feet or more from the showerhead, in the middle of the stall, to avoid exposing yourself.

Shower SH132
Pros: Some water does come out after you press the button, making this, technically, a functioning shower.
Cons: In addition to the usual privacy issues of a downstairs stall, SH132's water pressure can be described as piss-poor at best, possibly due to a blocked or faulty showerhead, which causes it to emit not a spray but an ultra-fine three- to five-second mist.
Verdict: Pretend this shower isn't even there, since, in a way, it isn't.

Shower SH140
Pros: The wing's handicapped-access shower is cramped and, because it's located behind a set of stairs to the top walk, can almost be thought of as secluded. Upper and lower showerheads can be activated simultaneously, for a sample of something that, in this environment, passes for luxury.
Cons: Because of the bench fixture and the semi-privacy, illicit smokers and masturbators frequent the handicapped-access shower. Slivers of state-issued soap bars and other, less pleasant signs of their presence are often left behind.
Verdict: Don't use SH140 unless you're indifferent to the idea of contracting hepatitis.

Shower SH230
Pros: Showering upstairs is an inherently more dignified experience. This shower at the top of the stairs delivers a moderately wide stream (as opposed to a spray) of acceptable force.
Cons: After the button's pressed, it stays on for just a handful of seconds, somewhat complicating the act of shaving. Very dim fluorescent lighting gives this stall the ambiance of a backwoods bait-shop restroom.
Verdict: The third-best shower in the wing is, nevertheless, a distant third.

Shower SH231
Pros: An agreeably strong spray of sufficient duration, and the appearance of relative cleanliness, makes this one of the three most popular showers for those seeking skin-cleansing.
Cons: There's often a line to use SH231.
Verdict: A prime time to get a good shower in this stall is fifteen to twenty minutes before the end of a recreation period, before the crowds clamor for it.

Shower SH232
Pros: No one want to use this shower
Cons: No one wants to use this shower.
Verdict: Don't use this shower.

Shower SH240
Pros: The spray duration and water pressure here are comparable to those of SH231, making this another popular choice for residents' shower times. Its bright light and apparent cleanliness seem inviting.
Cons: A very wide spray is fixed at an awkward downward angle that leads to fleeting, accidental bodily contact with the shower wall.
Verdict: Don't even bother.

Shower SH241
Pros: A powerful spray feels as if it's blasting the dirt off, and lasts just long enough, after each press of the button, to satisfy. Also, is it my imagination, or does the water seem hotter up here?
Cons: That this is the darkest shower stall in the wing isn't helped by the presence of what, possibly, could be black mold thriving in the back corners, near the floor. This does nothing to deter people from using it; it's the most sought-after shower in 6B, by far.
Verdict: Despite how it looks, SH241 is totally worth the wait.

01 June, 2021

Mandatory Breaktime on a Moment's Notice

We're in the middle of five different things at work, in the prison's media center, when our boss, one of several Recreation officers who oversees our area, pops his head in. "You gotta go, guys," he says. "They're sending everybody back to their house."

We each mutter our own profanity of choice before going through the steps necessary to shut down while also ensuring that no one's movie or TV series gets interrupted.

"Here," Luke says, passing Jacob a loop of co-axial cable before picking himself up off the floor. He'd been working on an RF modulator, to activate a new channel in our closed-circuit lineup.

"This sucks," Jacob says, turning to put some parts back in a box.

"Is everyone out of the database?" I project to the room.

Gary turns to Twon and asks, "Are those MP4s done ripping yet?"

"No response doesn't necessarily mean yes," I say when no one acknowledges hearing my question. "Okay, I'm backing up in five, four, three..."

Twon sighs, "It's at ninety-three percent, Gary."

"'...two, one. I'm backing up the database."

"Paul, did you turn off the vinyl cutter?" Luke asks our intern.

"Yeah. I pushed the roller arm down and put away the roll of red after I flipped the switch, too."

"Where's the mouse for 63?" Jacob want to know.

"Backup's done." I push my keyboard in and do a rush job of tidying the paperwork on my desk.

"Over by the... yeah, there."

Jacob wonders aloud, "I wonder what happened this time."

"Probably another staff assault."

"That'd be the forth in a week," says Gary.

"Did anyone check the volume on 70?" Luke asks.

"Who'd have thought? Violence in prison! Tsk, tsk," exclaims our sarcastic new guy, Paul.

"I did," I answer, regarding the troublesome channel that I manage. "It's good."

"Everybody got everything?"

Gary looks around and gravitates to possibly the most trivial detail. "Mouse check?"

"Are we leaving the monitors on?" Jacob asks.

"You gotta go, guys. It's a campwide lockdown," says our boss. "Leave 'em," he tells us.

"It's always something."

"I love this job, some days."

"Other days, not so much?"

"Man, I think I might've finally worked out this annoying-ass JavaScript string."

"That about sums it up."

"Do you think you'll be able to pick it right up when we come back?"

"Who got the viewing stations? Anybody?"

"I sure hope so."

"They're good. Door?"

"Got it."

"See you in a bit. I hope."

"See you guys soon," says the boss.

"I hope so," I tell him, and mean it.

Back in the cell, I sit alone and type a blog post to convey just an iota of the profound uncertainty that I live with. I've said before how inconsistencies are the only consistent part of life in prison. Not even a thirty-two-hour-a-week job can shield me from them.

Maybe when I finish this post I'll prepare a hot beverage and crack open a graphic novel to read – make a coffee break of this whole morning. Yes, that sounds like a great contingency plan.

19 May, 2021

A Timothy Donnelly Poem Pulled from My Files

Bled

by Timothy Donnelly

Thereafter it happened there would be no future
arrangements made as the present had begun
handing itself over to then past with such vehemence
whatever happened already happened before
or stopped its happening the moment it began.
To look forward meant looking in where you stood
astonished to be looking behind you instead
into the distance where the water's surface split
and spread to a pane of undisturbed waters.
Arguments among half-thoughts could continue
then as now and did, scattering particles
of gray on more gray, an expanse pinned down
at the corners but taught by a sea-wind to shudder
nonstop. To stand an oculus among that sea's
gray arrangements meant scattering half-
thoughts to such astonishment that whatever
began to happen split, spread, and handed itself
over to a past where having happened meant more
being stopped. To look with vehemence
disturbed the water's surface as arguments
wind made of the future now shuddered
distantly behind you. To look forward back into
the expanse of such waters meant to want
momentarily not to continue, seeing as to continue
meant what it did, but thereafter already
even to want that bled to no particular gray.


* * * * *


This poem comes from Timothy Donnelly's breathtaking collection The Cloud Corporation, a book of poems I stalked through some time ago. (I use "breathtaking" in both of its senses, because Donnelly's poems often consist of long, sinuous sentences that writhe and wriggle wonderfully, like those by no other poet I've read, and leave out-loud readers who don't pace themselves gasping.) Even though my take on "Bled" is of a poem specific to a place and time – possibly written during, or soon after, a long, morose seaside contemplation of life's ultimate futility – its subject is time, or, more specifically, the speaker's remembrance thereof. This is particularly fitting subject, in light of my frame of mind in recent days.

Zen studies lead one to understand that emptiness is clear and transparent, without quarters such as north, south, east, and west, nor separate time periods of past, present, and future. And since emptiness, in the Zen sense of the term, pervades everything, the idea time itself can be said to be meaningless. (Most theoretical physicists, and Mr. Donnelly, in this poem, probably agree.) But here we are, human beings stumbling around in the phenomenological universe, and what've we got? Nostalgia, homesickness, worry, fear – a host of emotions tied to time, and not a whole hell of a lot we can do about it. Write a poem, maybe. Sit with yourself, quietly, for a while. There are things, not all of them equally effective.

I think that's what Donnelly is getting at, here. He comes off, at times, in his work, as a fatalist, and "Bled" certainly shows us that side of him. There's an almost audible sigh of futility in the poem's denouement, those last lines where he declares that, although making an effort in life is meaningless, wishing that things were otherwise is equally meaningless. I love this poem for its resignation to what Albert Camus called the Theater of the Absurd, and for its bitter-heart-on-its-sleeve honesty.

05 May, 2021

Back at the End of the Walk

While brushing my teeth with the teeny, tiny toothbrush I bought in the prison canteen, I notice a piece of paper reflecting from over my shoulder, in the mirror. I haven't noticed it there before now, yet it definitely isn't new. Its yellowing corners curl inward; the paper looks exhausted, as if it can't wait to turn in for the day. Although the words are bold and black, it's curled so much that I can't read the message.

A cell is a cell is a cell. Sometimes, though, you spend longer than a few months there and you settle in. You get to know, from wiping it clean every few days, the topography of a particular concrete floor. You learn the bumps and divots of certain walls, spots where paint was torn loose as someone ripped down a hook, a handmade shelf, or other contraband amenity. You come to know the steel desk's rust spots too well. Then the prison administration moves you – because someone in a wheelchair needed your bottom bunk, or because there was a classification issue, or because someone in power just got a big idea to restructure the housing arrangements... again – and you learn such details afresh, in another cell that's exactly like the one before it, except not.

I moved to 6-House two Fridays ago. This is my first bottom-walk cell in fifteen years, and only the second at the far end of a wing. We don't see a lot of traffic in the form of passersby, which is how I prefer it. Streams of visitors cramp my style. My new cellmate's not especially fond of them, either, thank goodness.

There's a lot to notice about a wing when you first move in. If you're smart, the people are what you pay the closest attention to. In criminal parlance, you case the joint. You want a decent picture of what awaits in your new digs. How much attention are the neighbors paying you? Is the attention simply curiosity about you, or does it seem aimed at the belongings you brought along – appliances, clothes, and canteen foodstuffs? Watch the watchers. After that, check the overall state of the place.

The day I moved in, waxed and buffed floors reflected the damp laundry draped over top-walk railings. B-Wing presents an interesting juxtaposition: a kind of industrial-chic-meets-scrubwoman's-hovel ambiance. There are worse places. At least I lived around half of these guys before, from my last stay in 6-House.

I found my toehold quickly enough, this go-round. As usual, this mainly consisted of establishing routines with my cellmate, the same little pas de deux one always does while getting situated in a room that's halfway occupied. A series of questions beginning "Do you mind if I..." and "Can you..." ultimately leads to either successful cohabitation or someone nursing bruises while he seeks out another abode.

By the time my mouth is clean and rinsed, curiosity has got the better of me. I swing open the cell door to investigate what turns out to be a Missouri Department of Health notice. "Wash your hands," it reads, and presents a nine-part set of instructions on how to do so. Most likely, the page got taped to the fire-exit door as part of the Department of Corrections' "aggressive strategy" for handling the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: signs, hand sanitizer stations, a two-month mask mandate, and assigned dining-hall seating for half that time. "Aggressive," indeed. Whether my new cellmate read it or not, I can't say; he does know how to keep clean.

Take my sarcasm as a good sign. I'm able to notice absurdities such as this because I've reached the point here where I can let down my guard somewhat. My friend Luke was finally moved last night and ended up in a squalid rat-hole. He said that the corners of his cell had piles of compressed filth that required digging loose. He'll be on high alert for days yet. My coworker Gary, whom I mentioned in last week's post about settling in, moves today. I wish him the best, but I'm pretty sure, based on everyone else's luck, that I already got it.

28 April, 2021

All Good: An Update on Basically Everything

Fallout from last week's transfers was widespread but in my immediate surroundings has included: a gutting of ERDCC's Buddhist community; a looming, very valid fear that Team XSTREAM will lose two of its members (one temporarily, one permanently); and me not just getting a new cellmate but having to move to a whole other housing unit.

The first of these upsets might've been the biggest. In addition to being my cellmate of the last twenty-two months, Jeff was a member of the sangha and someone whose comments in our Buddhist group's discussions of history and the dharma was valued. Tim, my friend Luke's cellmate, is a good man whose company I always enjoyed. Our newest member, Sam, was just getting comfortable with the six white guys he sat with in weekly meditation. He said I was his most trusted friend here, which meant so much to me.

At Monday's Buddhist service, the chapel felt empty with only four bodies occupying it. Such was the unease that we felt (and because service started late), we didn't even meditate, we just talked about impermanence and the ultimate nature of reality until Luke struck the bell. Then we packed up our altar and made room for the Christians, whose turn in the chapel it was next.

"There are more transfers coming," is the rumor everyone's repeating. True enough, Round One left a lot of the lower-level prisoners that it was supposed to remove from our midst. At my Media Center job, our coworker Gary is the lone level-two among us maximum-security level-fives. Like Jeff, he was part of the latest cohort of Saint Louis University students here, who recently graduated with an AA degree in Liberal Arts. The Department of Corrections kept a transfer hold on SLU students, specifically to keep them from being swept up in the midst of their educations. No more. Tim and Jeff, Gary's fellow SLU alumni, had taken post-graduation jobs as teacher's assistants, this fall. The university assured them that their holds were secure. The DOC, however, doesn't make promises it's unwilling to break. So Team XSTREAM is now in the difficult position of having to consider replacement options for if and when Gary goes. Where does one find trustworthy prisoners with computer experience, a modicum of creative drive, top-notch time management skills, and solid work ethic? Truly, we have our work cut out for us.

And then there's the cellmate situation. They attain usefulness – those words, cellmate situation – way too often. Upheaval plagues prison life. I wish I earned a dollar every time I spoke the words in a sentence. I'd buy solace in the form of endless pints of chocolate ice cream.

But where was I? Oh, right, I was in Housing Unit 4A, where Jeff and I moved amid the last big inmate shuffle. I'm not there anymore. Jeff left, and then, after spending two days alone, wondering the whole time who I might get as a replacement, an announcement came over the intercom that twenty people were moving to 6-House. The names came in no discernable order, mine among them. Forty-eight hours' fretting left me surprisingly equanimous. Has anyone ever conducted a study on Tetris as a stress mitigation device? They should. I fit my stuff with less concern for where I was going than how I positioned things in my footlocker.

And when I got to where I was going, lo and behold, the cell smelled clean. Its occupant was at work in the factory, a neighbor told me. The bottom bunk was neatly made, the toilet bore no stains, and no nuisance clutter accreted in the corners, the way it does in some guys' cells and rodent nests. After wiping things down with disinfectant, my rag lifted away almost nothing. When my new cellmate came in from work, I recognized him from an earlier stay in this house, when he'd been a downstairs neighbor, never conversational but always cordial. I approve.