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.

22 April, 2021

Waiting for Another Cellmate Is Nervewracking

The human with whom I've shared my immediate space for a year and a half just up and left – but not by any intention of his own. I think Jeff hoped to stay my cellmate until the day he paroled. The staff woke him from a dead sleep Tuesday morning (I was at work) and told him to pack his stuff. On my way back from work I saw him pushing a canvas-sided cart out of the house.

"I guess I'm on the transfer list," he said. "Been nice knowin' ya."

A year and a half, and that's how it ends. Jeff and I weren't close, but we were friends. His habit of playing devil's advocate could be infuriating, as was his tendency to turn every conversation into a verbal sparring match, but we got along. We had some very intelligent conversations. We also had fun. We could (as the vernacular has it) jail. This is no easy thing. I wasn't teary-eyed to see Jeff leaving, but I'll certainly miss him.

There were other moves. Four members of my Buddhist group left, leaving the sangha a shadow of its already rinky-dink former self. My friend and coworker Luke's cellmate, Tim, was one of them. Both Jeff and Tim thought their teaching assistant jobs for the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program were supposed to hold them here. So did the school, apparently. There might be significant fallout from all of this. We're likely also losing a valuable coworker, whose departure will put us at a disadvantage on several fronts, not least of which is finding a trustworthy, competent replacement.

Amid all the hullabaloo it's almost possible to forget my situation and put aside the anxiety about what this spin of the cellmate-roulette wheel might bring me. My first night alone in years wasn't anything to write home about. I'd considered staying up very late, burning the midnight oil to get work done on my novel. I ended up tuning just past the usual time. My eyes were burning from a long day's overuse, and I felt a slight tension headache coming on, so it was for the best. An extra-early morning, accompanied by Beethoven and the blackest of coffee was a far better decision.

I'm in a better headspace today. Now if I could just get past my nervousness at what the afternoon might bring...

16 April, 2021

Showering Is My Favorite Part of Prison

"Don't drop the soap," people joke – a sure sign that they don't actually know the first thing about prison. One assumes that drunken guffaws often follow the remark, when they imagine a bunch of naked, sudsy men standing elbow-to-elbow in a big steamy room. I'm here to tell you, it's not funny.

Group shower areas do still exist in some American prisons; ERDCC isn't one of them. I shower every day, mercifully alone, in a stall fronted by a thick gray vinyl curtain that comes up almost to my chest. Figments of the public's homoerotic imagination notwithstanding, no one leers at me while I lather, scrub, shave, and rinse. I'm far more exposed while I making my way down the walk, from my cell to the shower, wearing only a T-shirt, boxers, and shower shoes, than I am in the shower itself. If this wasn't the case, I might be less inclined to enjoy shower time as much.

I used to use bath gel, which the prison canteen sells. Then I became conscious of how wasteful it was to throw so many plastic bottles away. Now I use bar soap exclusively. It leaves my skin dry, forcing me to use more lotion, which comes in its own plastic bottle that has to be thrown away, but at least I use fewer bottles this way. Sometimes I do drop the soap. It sucks, but only because of the little bits of grit and hair that I sometimes have to thoroughly scrub and rinse off of the bar before using it.

In an environment where peace and quiet are a near-impossibility, and solitude scarcer still, the thirteen- to twenty-minute periods I get to spend under a stream of water every evening are highlights of my days. Prison showers offer no temperature control knob, just a single button, but my body can relax under what is usually warm water, and my mind follows suit. I sink to a level of mere doing. I let awareness of my skin, of the rhythm of my breathing, of my sense of embodiment come to the fore, but I try not to attach myself to these things.

Thoughts inevitably arise, and when they do, I let them run their course. I file them away for later, when I'm in a position to consider their meaning and practicality. Showers are, for me, very meditative. Sometimes, though, I'll hum. Yesterday the prelude to a baroque cello suite came to mind, so I hummed Bach. Tomorrow's shower might be silent, or accompanied by a tune by Concrete Blonde. There's no telling what might spring up from the depths. Either way, I come out feeling refreshed, enlivened, and, above all, – clean.

When the institution's under lockdown, such as when one prisoner badly assaults another, or when staff shortages dip below the minimum required to run the facility, I'm not so bothered by being confined to my cell (where all my books, devices, and drawing and writing supplies are) as I am by feeling the day's dirt coating my body. It's not that I'm an especially oily person, just that I'm more sensitive to the oil than most. I never sleep well without a shower.

Decades ago, I was in a single-car accident, an end-over-end flip in a two-door sports coupe that could've killed both the driver and me. We clambered out, amid the tinkle of broken glass and loose change, and stood staring, in moderate shock, until the ambulance and tow truck arrived. After the ER, my apologetic friend took me to a twenty-four-hour diner, then home, where the first thing I did was peel off those bandages and run some warm water. It's no secret that a shower can be cathartic.

In prison it's no different. True, I don't have the daily traumas that some prisoners experience – I don't dodge gangbangers, sadistic guards, or butt pirates – but I appreciate the few minutes of me time when I'm alone and can let my guard down a notch, when my muscles relax and I can enact my routine: face rub, head shave, body scrub, rinse off, towel down, lotion up, and venture at last to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Every problem seems manageable after a shower, every worry fades just a bit. What's not to love?

05 April, 2021

Why I'm a Terrible Blogger

Pariahblog.com has come a long way since its start, about a hundred years ago, on the MySpace page a friend set up for me. Back then, I'd snail mail a short piece of writing from my prison cell (you can still read those 2007 posts – just check the archive) at a rate of about one per month. Then my friend would dutifully transcribe, spell-check, and post them for all to read.

Those early posts were necessarily sporadic. I had no Internet. For the record, I still don't. I didn't want to exploit my friend's generosity by making him type stuff all the time, so I kept my posts to a minimum. Writing one every few weeks wasn't good SEO strategy, but it had the benefit of being easy for us to maintain.

When he got busy with life and had to bow out, another friend took over. The person responsible for maintaining my blog actually changed many times over the years. Eventually someone took charge who could scan my typewritten pages. That system wasn't perfect – we still dealt with occasional typos, and the speed of the US Postal Service occasionally seemed glacial – but it felt pretty cool to still have a voice when circumstances conspired to bury me alive in a kind of silent grave. Now I have what passes for e-mail, and the whole process is an order of magnitude easier.

I fully recognize how fortunate I am. Not every prisoner, wrongfully convicted or otherwise, has the wherewithal to write regular dispatches, let alone ones that the outside world might read. And yet, for all this, I sometimes find myself squandering this fortune.

That I toil on this blog more than I do on my dark fantasy novel-in-progress, – which has all but stalled, two chapters in – is bad enough. Worse is the time I devote to any given post, which, if it's an especially deep dive, can take days. My reading list posts, such as this one, from last month, are the result of several months' notes, compiled over several days. The words you're reading at this very moment came together only after much humming and hawing, and represent a third revision of a much more generalized piece, a lament on time squandered when one should be writing.

I kept parts of the earlier drafts. Here's one now.

Advice for writers: start a blog. Also: don't spend more than an hour a day working on it. I take both of these messages to heart but am clueless about how to reconcile them. For instance, I sat down to compose this post a week late. All last week I'd been down on myself for getting too wrapped up in my job to come up with a post. Screw it, I finally thought, just write about how you wish you had more creative energy to spare, outside of work. That tuned into a slew of thoughts and reconsiderations, drafts and redrafts. Meanwhile, Chapter Three of my second attempt at a novel languishes. I know where it's going, I just haven't dedicated the time to see that it gets there.

And now here we are, with another blog post. It doesn't say much, really, because I don't believe I've got much suitable to relay right now. You've almost certainly not been entertained by it. For wasting your time I apologize. It seems that I've succeeded only in crafting an excuse, a copout, another drop in the bucket.