28 January, 2021

Hopes about Art, Dashed

Did it seem too good to be true when word came down that ERDCC was easing restrictions on what art supplies prisoners could buy? Sure, it did. I started out skeptical, but even the deputy warden confirmed that paints, fabric, measuring tools, and so forth would be allowed from now on. Everyone I know grew more and more excited, eager to put our hand to all kinds of new media. So great was our enthusiasm that it inspired a big meeting among the powers that be.

Admin meetings rarely seem to have positive outcomes for the facility's population, and this one was no exception. Yesterday's memo from the warden's office reached the media center, where I work, and instructed us to add an "In-Cell Hobby Craft" slide to channel 64, the institutional information channel. The only approved hobby crafts approved are still drawing and origami. So much for my fantasies of painting with acrylics, drawing with decent pens, and learning how to sew and stuff my own tentacular, bead-eyed, hideous Lovecraftian plush monsters.

Now, guys who availed themselves of the policy by going crazy with art-supply mail orders have sixty days to dispose of their treasures before the stuff will be considered contraband again. What the hell.

The whole misunderstanding arose from a confusingly written policy. This is what happens when a document is edited too many times, by too many bureaucrats who don't understand the particularities of life on the ground. I imagine the same thing happens all the time in corporate America, the military, and various state legislatures. The more-permissive hobby craft policy that everyone was going off of – the one that confused even the deputy warden – supposedly applies only to lower-level Missouri prisons, not to level-five institutions, where people are in for murder, rape, and possession of methamphetamine.

Except not. See, my friends Zach and Jim transferred to Western Missouri Correctional Center after the 2018 Crossroads riot. Both of them are serving life sentences in a level-five prison, the same as me; both of them report that WMCC allows all that stuff that we here at ERDCC were so jazzed to order. Why the discrepancy? Someone should form a committee and find out. Me, I'm going back to the drawing board – except, wait, drawing boards aren't allowed here. Shit.

21 January, 2021

The Best Job I Ever Had

In my last months of freedom I was living in Kansas City, doing medical claims repricing in an office on Ward Parkway. Medical claims repricing sounds complicated to a lot of people, maybe even slightly impressive. It shouldn't; it's glorified data entry, is all. Very tedious. But my ten-key skills were top-notch, honed by thousands of hours of online gaming and chat, so the job paid my bills. It even permitted me to set part of each paycheck aside.

Computer skills didn't notably enhance employment opportunities for a high-school dropout in Missouri, back in the '90s. So between ages seventeen and twenty-two, I worked a whole series of unrelated jobs: copy writer, toy-store warehouse drudge, restaurant host, tech support representative, photocopy monkey, telemarketer, convenience store attendant, video-rental clerk, retail sales manager, record-store guru, and a few I can't even remember. The best was managing the front office of a neighborhood hotel.

I collected some good stories in the year and a half I manned that front desk. A post about one memorable shift at the hotel showed up here in 2012.) That was a great year and a half, both in my personal life and my professional one. My arrest followed soon after. You'd think I'd never work a decent job again. I sure thought that.

At Crossroads Correctional Center I once quit a good position in the food-service warehouse, which I held for a year and a half, because I didn't want my longest-ever employment to be a prison job. That was my ego talking. I was still clinging to stubborn, ultimately meaningless principles then. The job was fine; it was I who had the problem.

My mother asked last week about my work. We talked a little about my hours and the recent discovery that, if I held my current job on the outside, I'd be making a salary at least in the high five figures, and it'd be several orders of magnitude easier because I'd have more resources at my disposal. (We can't even google shit.) Then I told her the bizarre truth: "Things are great. I'm excited to go in to work every day. It sounds weird to say, but this is actually the best job I've ever had."

I've blogged a few times about my position in ERDCC's media center – first when I landed the ideal prison job for a geek like me, then about the thrill of unboxing a new computer, and then how my horizons recently broadened to include video production. Even if you read these posts, you still have only the vaguest idea of what my work actually entails. I've considered doing a timeline post of my average day at work (similar to the one I did in "Anatomy of a Bad Day," eight years ago, except with a more positive spin). The biggest problem with that is, I don't have an average day. We do new, totally different stuff all the time. This job's unpredictability aggravates and delights me in equal measure.

But here's the thing: those words. "The best job I've ever had" wasn't hyperbole, wasn't my ignorance, wasn't me just saying shit to put Mum at ease about her son's circumstances. The sentiment was genuine. Never mind the rest, the dreary, tragic overarching circumstances of my life; I consider myself so fortunate to have the position that I do, to be able to do something for the community, which happens to bring me joy in the process. Regardless of their surroundings, how many people in the world are able to say that?

07 January, 2021

A Poem Possibly Kind of Inspired (in Part) by J. Alfred Prufrock's "I Have Measured My Life in Coffee Spoons"

[This poem was originally published in J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Volume 8, Number 2, published in the Fall of 2015.]

The Best Part of Waking Up

Some day I'll get bored
and tally up the exact weight and volume
of the freeze-dried coffee I've drunk during
my years' imprisonment:

the same stained plastic mug
every morning identical
for a decade and a half.

A packet of sugar crinkles in the dark.
Almost no light slips through
the cell's lone window. A slightly heaped
plastic sporkful of Folgers
dumped, dissolves.

* * * * *

I started and finished "The Best Part of Waking Up" in a single sitting – one of those poems that practically wrote itself. Even today it reads, to me, like someone else's work. Of course, I'm not delusional; intellectually, I know it's mine. That's why I'm asserting my post-publication rights now, putting it out into the world again.

2015 was a while ago. I still drink from the same red-lipped white mug; although, I don't put sugar in my coffee anymore. We can also add five years to the poem's "decade and a half." Otherwise, plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.