05 July, 2022

Pets in Prison

Here's something that you may not know about life inside the fences: all physical contact between people in prison is against the rules. This goes for headlocks, handshakes, and hugs alike just one more example of unhealthy psychology as it proliferates here, one more reason why prison is such a shitty place to be.

I don't see this as malicious. The rule probably came about because the Missouri Department of Corrections wants to make prison workers' jobs a little easier. For instance, let's imagine that a guard sees two people locked in what looks like an embrace near the handball court. She doesn't need to debate whether it looks more like knifing or necking she only has to respond to malfeasance. Reducing variables is a tried and true method of law enforcement, a culture that prison guards consider themselves a part of.

Streamlining is good and fine, it just doesn't usually lend itself to healthy interpersonal relationships. Although most prisoners have at least one truly bad deed in their past, they're still people. They still have human needs. How on earth does a person in this environment find nurturing or give it, which may be equally important?

There's the Puppies for Parole program, which gives qualifying prisoners the opportunity to train antisocial shelter dogs for human interaction. There's also a garden that uses the labors of a select few low-security prisoners to cultivate vegetables for local food pantries. These are options limited to only a handful of people. What about the rest of us?

Necessity is the mother of all invention. Accordingly, there's no shortage of ingenuity in the spiritual wasteland that is a maximum-security prison. Decades back, when the high gray walls of Missouri State Penitentiary still contained its bloody acres, guys made pets of a veritable menagerie of animals and insects mice, birds, spiders, cats. Pets weren't allowed, but that didn't stop many prisoners from using cheap tobacco in a shoebox as kitty litter, or from building their own cages out of tightly rolled newspaper strips.

It was easier to get away with things then. Less intensive training meant that guards were often more willing to look the other way when they saw someone just trying to make a home for himself in an inhospitable place. These days, permissiveness is the rare exception. Fat Moe, a guy I knew years ago, at another facility, holds the distinction of being the only person I've seen go to the Hole for holding a contraband kitten.

Moe worked Maintenance. He found the little orphan tottering around on the yard, behind a housing unit where he was mowing grass, and he instantly scooped it up into his coat pocket. He fed it milk and gave it love and played little games of chase and hunt-the-string with it, but after a couple of weeks "Cellie" was discovered by two guards on a round of random searches. Some case manager at the prison adopted the cat, and Moe spent six days in administrative segregation, denied showers and time outdoors, while staff debated his fate.

As much as I love animals and would love to share my time with a small furry (or scaly, or invertebrate) friend, I refuse to risk my relative freedom for one. That said, about fifteen years ago I had a praying mantis friend for a while. She had a damaged wing and couldn't fly, so I put her in a safe place and would stop by every day with gifts. "Here's a water bug," I'd tell her, or "I brought you a juicy cricket!" Feeding her was high drama, a literal life-and-death struggle right before my eyes, and she got pretty fat as a result. Then one day she died, either of illness or natural causes. I'm no entomologist.

My first summer here at ERDCC, a caterpillar showed up in my cell and I found myself taking care of another wayward little creature. This was, thankfully, an herbivore. I could get away with bringing back leaves and little wildflowers and grass blades for the terrarium my cellmate and I made from a peanut butter jar. Little Squirmy didn't stay squirmy for long; after about a week of gorging herself, she wrapped up tight in a cocoon and took an unfathomably difficult nap. We kept a close eye on her transformation, but there wasn't much to see. The brown package just hung there, unmoving. I had to have someone google how long the average pupation period lasted, just to be sure she hadn't died in there. When she finally did emerge, a beautiful black, orange, red, and white specimen, I let her crawl into the window beside my bunk and sit for hours, drying her wings with gentle, languorous flaps. That night we set her free on a flower bush outside the library.

For as much brutality as exists in prison, there's also tenderness. A lot of people here are simply damaged. Many were deprived love as kids, or given the wrong kinds of love. They might have mistreated people, but there's therapy to be found in the unconditional love of an animal. Entrusted with the opportunity to nurture another living being even a potted plant might be the first significant step toward their true rehabilitation.

Personally, I'd like to care for a cat. I don't want one for rehabilitative purposes, just for its companionship. To be sure, though, I'd like a great many things. The irony is, I don't feel that now is the time for them, nor the place.

27 June, 2022

The Difference Between Acceptance and Institutionalization (And Why I Still Want Out of Prison)

People first coming to prison enter a world of pain and anxiety. Even the biggest badass passes through the gates with a sense of trepidation, unsure about what, exactly, he's walking into. Will there be violence? (Answer: almost certainly.) Will personal dignity be threatened at every turn? (Without a doubt.) Will privacy become a dimly remembered vestige of a past life? (Do you really have to ask?) Depending on the kind of person you let prison mold you into, your fear will probably transmute as the years go by into either get-them-before-they-get-you aggression or some species of outright paranoia. Neither is pretty, and neither serves very well the person feeling them. They're nothing more than survival tactics. I've said this many, many times before: survival is very different from living.
Anything can become a habit, and I'll venture to say that more destructive habits exist in the world than constructive ones. It's no different for prisoners. If anything, people in prison have a higher-than-average tendency to develop self-destructive, dangerous, or otherwise gross habits. Blame it on laziness, mental illness, poor coping skills, life experience, hopelessness, or any combination thereof. The walls and fences can't talk, but these environs seem to suggest, to all of us hemmed in by them, that operating from a continual state of desperation is a valid solution to our woes. Therefore we face a decision every time we wake to the sight of these concrete walls. The choice seems simple: succumb or resist. Although few consider it, there is a third option. When you're frazzled, at your wits' end, and nothing in the world seems to want to go your way, it's possible to make a conscious decision to be okay with it, to look at your situation with equanimity and say, "Well, this is how stuff is right now, so I'll ride it out." This isn't some next-level Buddha shit, but it is a tricky skill to develop. I started doing zazen (seated meditation) about three years ago, and I can't say whether it's made much difference in my patience. I certainly haven't become the embodiment of serenity or anything. For my ability to face with calm demeanor even happiness most of what the days subject me to, I attribute my broad perspective.
Right now, I'm not in pain. I'm not crying with grief. I don't fear for my life. My stomach isn't growling with hunger. I'm not even all that warm, even though it's the middle of June. I'm sitting calmly, with a clear mind, things are pretty quiet, and I'm sharing with my fellow humans a bit of wisdom that I've realized. Things are okay. Let me say that again, so that the full meaning of this radical phrase can sink in. I'm in a maximum-security prison, and I'm telling you that I'm doing pretty good. You probably think I'm out of my mind. Far from it. Let me be clear about this. In my situation, radical acceptance does not equate to institutionalization. For a person to become institutionalized, they must forget how to function outside of prison, where "three hots and a cot" are guaranteed and you don't even need a job to get by. Institutionalization means that a person has given in, capitulated, allowed themselves to be reduced to the very thing that the system considers them a convict, a number, a criminal. I don't think of myself as any of these things. They haven't broken me.
I look at the day and see promise. I laugh at the absurdities that make other prisoners so angry. I don't get wrapped up in gossip, which just fuels dissatisfaction. And I certainly don't follow the news, which basically guarantees you a miserable morning. I hardly watch TV anymore, in fact. A good movie will sometimes come on; otherwise, I stick with books and podcasts for my leisure-time enjoyments. If I got out of prison tomorrow (something I dearly want), I'd do fine. I'm driven, creative, responsible, and adaptable. I shine especially brightly when challenged. Even my social skills are better now than they were twenty-one years ago, when I was wrongfully arrested for a crime I never committed. Whatever livelihood I sought to undertake, I'd excel at it. Most importantly, I don't feel or think in any way that I belong here. These are not the traits of one who's institutionalized. The gray-faced men who call prison their home (as opposed to somewhere they just are) can't claim to feel the same way. These are the traits of someone dynamically alive, who's ready for the world. Don't you dare confuse the two.

21 June, 2022

Three Books I Read This Spring

"What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?" This question has been posed by Buddhist teachers to students in the Zen tradition for 1,500 years. It's a koan, a question unanswerable by intellectual means, designed to short circuit a student's questing mind and bring them one step closer to the essence of being.

Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism (which we in America call Zen) Buddhism. He was a redhead of royal birth, either Indian or Iranian, who likely traveled the Silk Road to teach his "wall-examining" style of Buddhism in Northern China. During the country's T'ang Dynasty, Buddhist practice typically involved the endless study of texts and recitation of mantras. Bodhidharma's teachings took a more direct approach, de-emphasizing intellectualization and focusing instead on seated meditation. He taught practice over theory.

A short biography makes up part of The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, a deceptively small book containing the world's first writings about Zen's first teacher. Jeffrey L. Broughton's translation, which I read in April, took a little while to read, even though I skipped the many appendices. Ironic that a text eschewing complexity and one's intellectual grasping at Buddha's teachings should be loaded with scholarly whatnot. Still, this is the stuff of history; I paid it the attention it deserves.

Translation is such an underappreciated (not to say invisible) art. Like almost any car part, you usually don't notice it's there unless it goes bad. Broughton's translation ancient Tibetan and Sanskrit reads well. The contemporary poet John Ashbery's impactful translation of Arthur Rimbaud's surreal masterpiece, Illuminations, reads altogether differently.

Before the ever-generous Emily C. sent me this version of Illuminations as a gift, it had been on my wish list for years. That often happens with books recommended by other writers and poets recommend but no one else understands the relevance of. Rimbaud is truly a poet's poet. We envy the freedom he found within his chosen forms. Even his life was poetic. He published his first work at seventeen, after traveling with the older poet Paul Verlaine to Belgium, where the two had a torrid love affair. Then Verlaine shot Rimbaud during a quarrel and the young man returned to his family farm to convalesce. Thereafter, he basically gave up poetry altogether and died, at age thirty-seven, in the Horn of Africa, done in by a tumor on his knee.

Rimbaud's original French on the facing pages of this version of Illuminations allows the reader to sit, sounding out bizarre poems in a language one hardly understands, until, as the poet (via Ashbery) writes, "A white ray, falling from the top of the sky , wipes out this little bit of theatricality."

Comparatively, there are books that don't age well, and Tom Robbins's Jitterbug Perfume is one of them. I remember several Robbins titles on my dad's bookshelf, when I was a kid – Skinny Legs and All, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Their titles alone were sublimely ridiculous; I had no idea what kinds of stories they foretold. Then I came to prison and decided to see what had so clearly interested my father. Jitterbug Perfume is the fourth Robbins book I've read, and it's by far my least favorite.

Basically, Jitterbug Perfume concerns the quest for eternal youth by a couple of ancient narcissists. One is a former king of a pre-European tribe; one is an Indian widow from an undescribed mid-level caste. Along the way, they meet the Greek god Pan, go to prison, narrowly escape being burned alive by superstitious townsfolk on numerous occasions, become embroiled in the perfume business, and dress up for Mardi Gras as giant beets. I expected silliness, but the sexism and casually racist garbage that ran through the novel didn't pass muster. I finished reading it mostly just to avoid thinking of myself as a quitter.

02 June, 2022

And the Apps Just Keep on Comin'

The Missouri DOC once lost a lawsuit and had to allow prisoners to receive books that others ordered for them. For a long time, that held the record for the best development during my imprisonment. Now, though, we have the JP6S tablet and its cloud-based interface, and I'm thinking this might be a new high-water mark for the incarcerated.

The transition wasn't the smoothest. Everyone that I communicate with via e-mail had to manually migrate their user account from JPay to its parent company, Securus Technologies. Going several days without service sucked. On the day the new tablets arrived last week, the only thing we could do with them was read the terms of service, play sudoku or Chompin' Chaz, do math on the calculator, and listen to FM radio. I did a lot of reading.

After setting everyone up with the basics, the music player app appeared and allowed me to download MP3s bought with my previous tablet. The crush to download songs and albums lasted a couple of days. Then e-mail and the photo gallery showed up. Then VideoGrams and the newsstand.

New apps have appeared on my tablet at a rate of about two per day – an e-book reader with access to roughly 100,000 titles from Google's Gutenberg Project, TV show and movie rental, Khan Academy videos, and links to a few hundred podcasts. Today, if all goes according to the plan that Securus reps described to us last Thursday, I should have the long-awaited phone app.

Aging lifers with faded tattoos, who've never so much as touched a cell phone, loiter in the wing, poking at seven-inch screens, watching videos and reading e-books and trying to figure out how to change their wallpaper. There's a new player on the yard, and its name is Wi-Fi. I'm interested in seeing its long-term effects.

Someone from the Marshall Project approached me with the same question, shortly after Missouri announced its "Media Incentive Matrix." This was the name given to the DOC's planned system of virtual rewards for good conduct. The Marshall Project wanted to hear about any changes I'd seen – in existing privileges, in the facility's visiting policy, or in my fellow prisoners – since the implementation of the Matrix. I told them I'd love to participate, but the Media Incentive Matrix hadn't been implemented yet. It never was.

Nearly two years later, the apps are here and there's not a peep about the Matrix. Like so many other great plans hatched by the DOC's revolving brain trust, I suspect digital incentives to be a forgotten notion. With drug overdoses and general disorder on the climb throughout the system, now might be a good time to revive it.

17 May, 2022

The End of Cards (and More)

Restrictions on having nice things are nothing new for anyone in DOC custody. Prison is, after all, one big, long exercise in deprivation. There's almost nothing that being confined here doesn't deprive a person of.

Even back when prisoners could mail order certain articles of clothing, I declined to buy a coat or a more comfortable boots, because I thought that my appeals would soon establish my actual innocence and I'd be released. Keep your creature comforts, I thought, I won't be staying long.

I haven't indulged in much over the years. One of the few pleasures that I never denied myself from the world outside came to me through the mail. There are so many creative minds in my circle. We're not really Hallmark fans, so I love the cards that they've crafted for me. Drawings, too. Letters from one friend were often scribbled on blank spots found in his sketchbook; more than a few people sent little drawings (or even paintings, back when those were allowed).

As of 15 June, however, all that's going to stop. The Missouri DOC's new mail policy imposes sweeping change to what used to be one of the most meaningful ways for prisoners to maintain relationships with their loved ones despite the distance between them. The policy bans incoming greeting cards and directs that every piece of incoming snail mail be sent to some processing center in Tampa, Florida. There, letters from loved ones will be scanned and forwarded to our tablets within three business days of receipt.
Privileged mail, magazines, and newspapers should still be addressed to the prison.

I get it. The DOC wants to remedy its massive drug problem by preventing paper and card stock drenched in roach spray out of the hands of the prisoners who smoke it for a cheap high. But what happens when these prisoners get out? Most of them have parole dates. Some are going home within a year or two. It'd be immeasurably more sensible to instill in them an appreciation for sober living and teach them the necessary skills to achieve it. Rather than address the underlying cause of these people's self-destructive substance abuse issues, however, it's cheaper – if only in the short term – to stop one of those substances from coming in.

Who needs to receive postcards of support, drawings from kids, or cards from friends anyway?

04 May, 2022

Prison Dreams

Rodney's been down, as we say, for over forty years. He says that he doesn't dream anymore, but I'm not sure if I believe him. Years on death row, plus two more in solitary confinement seem to me as though they'd inspire the wildest flights of fancy. Then again, I know how creatively stultifying my own surroundings sometimes feel, day in, day out, and what a tonic pictures of elsewhere (whether physical or mentally conjured) can be.

A couple of days ago, my friend Paul said, "I think I've transitioned to dreaming exclusively about prison." I doubt this, too. I don't think that Paul, scarcely locked up for a year and a half, is in a position to know what influence his fresh memories of freedom might yet exert on his dreams.

Even after twenty years, my dreams aren't usually restricted to this world of walls and chain link and razor wire. The people in them are only sometimes inmates. I once wrote a blog about my weird dreams that still paints a pretty accurate picture of my nightly subconscious adventures.

Last night's dream was decidedly a prison dream.

The prison in it wasn't a real prison. It looked instead like an amalgam of the three very different facilities where I've been confined. While I walked around it, doing whatever daily tasks the dream-me did, a large group of angry prisoners took up occupation in a particular zone and refused to move. They shouted obscenities at passersby – myself included – and put on their most menacing faces; however, their purpose wasn't clear.

What was clear was that they were doing a good job of intimidating everyone. Members of the prison staff spoke about getting home to their families before violence broke out, while they packed up office supplies like Ukrainian refugees before a bombing attack. I just drifted from point to point, watching wordlessly, a spectator, but with the sense that I wasn't quite there, as though I occupied another plane of existence, which only intersected with this one.

That was it – just a series of observations. No riot ever took place, nor did I never get away from the fearful chaos. I simply stood by, watching and waiting for the seemingly inevitable. Because of that, it felt a little bit like real life.

Maybe it was the execution that the state carried out yesterday, here at ERDCC. Protesters massed in front of the facility, behind sawhorses and faced with armed guards – an unsettling scene from TV, remixed by my brain at some point in the night.

Or it could've been yesterday's breakfast-table topic about State Representative Kimberly Ann Collins, the legislator championing Missouri House Bill 1922 to form an independent committee overseeing the Department of Corrections. That conversation had me thinking for much of the day about things I've seen since being transferred to ERDCC, the ways that this facility operates, and the ways in which it's broken.

Sometimes I do wish that, like my coworker Rodney, I didn't dream. The lasting effect of dreams often feels like a daytime haunting. Even the best of my days are freighted enough.

19 April, 2022

Keeping Bitterness at Bay

Locking someone away is a good way to make him a bitter man. And the longer the sentence, the more bitter he can become. Few doubt this, or that prison is a hard place. These gray walls and fences threaten daily to kill whatever softness resides within. Whoever's heart hardens after years of imprisonment, especially when their conviction is wrongful, as mine is, should be excused the hardening. It isn't easy to nurture a self under such conditions.

Still, I've somehow grown throughout these past decades. It hasn't been easy. My struggles were anything but steady. Lows were abyssal. Pains were crippling. I weathered intimidation, assaults, treachery, and wild slander by inmates. I incurred degradation, minor torture, coercion, threats, insults, and deprivation from my warders. My basic human psychological and social needs were ignored, and sometimes assaulted.

Despite this treatment, soft things within me have become softer with the passage of time. When I sit up in the morning and glance out the window, I greet most days with equanimity. I don't complain about the endless waiting – in line for meals, on a list for medical care, or for the return of my physical freedom. I'm grateful for the terrible food. More than once in recent years, expressing gratitude for a simple act of kindness has brought me near to tears.

People I knew before prison can tell you, I was the guy who could (and usually did) see the dark lining around every silver cloud. Some friends gave me the longest, most ridiculous nickname as a result: Byron the Blackhearted, Dark Cliffs upon which the Waves of Hope Break. Funny, right? Ha ha.

Except I was a miserable wreck. Oh, sure, I could smile and laugh and have fun, but these were each fleeting, hollow acts, lacking substance or depth. I had enjoyment aplenty; what I didn't have was joy. One is to the other as a fish is to the skill of fishing – the outcome and the source.

Before prison I was often bored. I did things to kill time. I squandered hours, days, and weeks. I believed that life was about pursuing hungers and thirsts (which I fancied up by calling "acquiring experience"). I hunted down and devoured what I called fun. In doing so, I occupied a kind of existential vacuum. Yes, I was young. And yes, it's the way of young people to mindlessly seek out indulgence and good times.

The more you make satisfaction a target, the more you miss that target and find yourself feeling that it's not enough, that just a little bit more might make you complete. Of course it doesn't. Still, this does nothing to dissuade from the pursuit. Then the snake eats its own tail. The cycle continues.

People who develop fatal disorders or diseases sometimes have experiences similar to mine with prison. It's been shown that knowledge of an imminent death gives a greater sense of meaning to people's lives. Some go so far as to say that they're grateful for their sickness, that they hadn't seen, until they became ill, what was truly important in life. These people have envisioned for the first time in their lives some kind of purpose. Whether that purpose is earthly or spiritual doesn't matter, only that they feel it.

The realization of a meaning, the placement of oneself in a framework that includes being of use and having some kind of future – these bring contentment to even us so-called hopeless cases. I have a great job, my writing, and relationships with people I love and care about. Above all, though, I have hope.

A friend who totaled her car in an accident took the loss of her independence pretty badly. When I called her, a few days after the accident, she voiced her worries about getting to work, running necessary errands, and just maintaining a social life without a car.

"The insurance company only provides a rental for two weeks. I'll have to take the bus to work," she cried, sounding for all the world like a woman on the brink of ruin.

"Well, there's your first mistake," I told her. "You're thinking about this wrong. Instead of saying, 'I have to take the bus to work,' you ought to say, 'I get to take the bus to work!'"

She fell silent. I couldn't blame her for feeling tipped over. Ten years earlier, the Byronic thing would've been to serve her the same reply awash in a tureen of sarcasm. My friend expected commiseration and instead got a friendly rebuke. Prison life had changed me. I was no longer Missouri's reigning Prince of Pessimism. I was someone else entirely. In her silence I heard the unspoken question, Who the hell am I talking to?

So who am I? Who is anyone, for that matter? Buddhists espouse the philosophy of no-self, the idea that because there are no definitive, fixed qualities that define "me," selfhood is just an abstract concept and can't be said to exist in any real sense. But of course – and here's the rub – Buddhism doesn't claim that we don't exist, because what we experience is being processed by someone. Thus we have at the core of existence a paradox: we simultaneously exist and don't exist.

Uncertainty tends to make logical people very nervous. We fear what we don't know. Because the future's arguably the most uncertain thing of all, we shore up our psychological defenses with lists, savings accounts, insurance policies, itineraries, investments, contingency plans, and more. When we're not busily preparing for the unknown future, we're lamenting the unchangeable past. The here-and-now becomes almost an afterthought.

Being present in a given moment involves a kind of surrender. It means abandoning the urge to impose oneself on what is, and letting it happen. Some find it terrifying. The desire to control is strong. But control is an illusion. Circumstances are like the winds and the currents. At any time, a storm could tear out of the west, or uncharted water could pull our little craft off course. The most influence that we can hope to exert is a little direction, when conditions are favorable. To fear winds and currents, therefore, is to suffer. To expect a certain set of outcomes is to deny possibilities.

Remember Groundhog Day? It's a comedy but offers profundity that a lot of viewers overlook because they're hung up on the big rodent and the high-concept humor. In the movie, cynical TV weatherman Phil Collins (perfectly played by Bill Murray) travels to cover a Groundhog Day festival in rural Pennsylvania. First a blizzard that he predicted would miss the area traps him in the town he so despises, then an inexplicable time loop forces Phil to relive the same day there, with no hot water, no real entertainment, and surrounded by the "hicks" he so despises. For Phil, it's a hell. He kills himself repeatedly but always ends up right back in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on the morning of February second.

But when Phil discovers purpose and begins acting on it, within the bounds of what's available to him, his day-long prison becomes a universe of infinite possibility. He comes to appreciate the people and forms bonds with them. He takes up piano lessons. He reads poetry. He learns to ice-sculpt. Forced to relive the same day unendingly, he pushes aside his cynicism and chooses to make his little world better, bit by bit. He saves a man from choking to death. He spends time with a homeless man he knows will die that night. He replaces someone's flat tire. He treats the woman he's come to love with respect and decency. Only after finally living what he calls "the perfect day," Phil wakes up, for the first time in a small eternity, on February third, the day after Groundhog Day.

How often are comedies that are actually funny give us the meaning of life without overt schmaltz and sentimentality? Even film critic Leonard Maltin thought Groundhog Day deserved an Oscar.

Unlike Phil, my prison isn't temporal but physical, made of concrete and steel. Being confined here, I could just surrender to despair and let myself languish. So many other prisoners do. Instead, I've learned how to make my world a powerfully dynamic one. I can still learn and teach, be of help to people, love and be loved.

My mind – my not-self – exists without boundaries. So what's to be bitter about? There are people living out there who can only dream of freedom like this.

13 April, 2022

After the Courtroom, the Storage Room

The rain is light but steady as a sergeant escorts me across the loading area behind the intake building. I'm pushing a canvas-sided laundry cart, the kind used by housekeeping staff deep in the bowels of hotels, where no guest ever sees. Sarge, at least, has a hat. Water beads on my bare scalp and trickles down my cheeks.

We pass behind dumpsters and storage sheds. He's telling me that today's his day to work 7-House, but he got a call to run this brief errand. Another guard is filling in while he's away from the post, he says. It's good for her, he says. A little rain never hurt anyone, he says. "Anyone," in this case, meaning "us," meaning "him." The benevolent lies we tell ourselves to get though the day.

He unlocks the back door to the prison's TCU, where ERDCC houses its would-be suicides, people recuperating from surgeries, and those at death's door. If hospitals seem dreary, the dim halls and scuffed linoleum floors of the TCU makes them look downright cheerful, bringing to mind the afterlife's teal waiting room in Beetlejuice. So why the hell am I here?

I have to pore over my legal files tomorrow. Since they're too copious and sensitive to keep in my cell, the property room at one institution or another has stored them in a reasonably secure location since 2002. As long as I give one week's advance notice, I can request to access them anytime I need.

At first the documents were just in a fat accordion folder. It was small enough, I could tuck it away in my footlocker, away from prying eyes. Nothing's ever truly private in prison, but we cling to the vestiges of personal space where they appear. Filled with photographs, letters, and personal records, my footlocker is like a vault that I'd like to think no one visits.

Guards searching my cell over the years have likely skimmed through bits and pieces of what I keep at hand. I think reading the particulars of prisoners' cases bores them. Cellmates, on the other hand, are often bored. More than a few probably constructed for themselves a decent outline of how I came to prison.

The sergeant leads me through the TCU, past doors with inkjet-printed signs warning, DO NOT GIVE HOT COFFEE TO OFFENDERS ON SUICIDE WATCH. No nurses or guards here make eye contact as we pass on another. When we come to the opposite side of the building, Sarge unlocks the unmarked black door to what looks like a utility closet. I spot a few cardboard boxes bearing paper labels of prisoners' names and DOC ID numbers.

"Hang out here a second, Case. I gotta find your stuff," he says before disappearing. I stand beside the damp laundry cart, debating what to do with my hands. I hear intermittent thumping from the little room, as if the sergeant's hurling boxes around just a little too zealously.

It occurs to me: this is an aspect of the legal system that no one sees, the underbelly of justice. The documents that could be key to determining my fate – whether I'll ever again eat at a restaurant, sleep in a real bed, travel, make love, fix a flat tire, peruse a wine list, fall asleep on a couch, surf the Web – these documents are kept here, in some damp spare room between a padded cell and a cart with someone's half-eaten soft taco laying on it.

The sergeant slides a navy blue Rubbermaid tote out the door. A square of paper stuck on the front bears my name. I open the container to count the folders. They've multiplied over the years. There are seven now. Each court filing I make, each Sunshine Law or Freedom of Information Act request I submit, each letter I get from a nonprofit or legal professional – they're all here, indexed and chronologically organized as best as my circumstances allow.

One of the folders has warped. I pull it out. A trail of confetti follows, a tiny ticker-tape parade in celebration of my return to legal practice. No, some pages have just been rodent-eaten. A small yellow piss stain mars the letterhead of a prominent Kansas City attorney I had to fire, whose letter expresses indignance at being let go. Obviously, the mouse sided with me in that matter.

The vaunted halls of justice are made of marble, but this humble mess is the reality. This is how people who've been wronged by the system get out of prison: we rifle though old paper and mouse piss, and we review the facts over and over and over again.

When I get back to the cell with my files, I pour the accumulated rainwater out of the lid and start to dig. Out of a folder labeled Legal Correspondence I pull a stack of letters from places with names like the Midwest Innocence Project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and Spence, Moriarty & Shockey. The first of these is dated November of 2002. It's hard to believe I've been chasing justice for that long, and longer.

It'll be longer yet before I'm done, but I'm nowhere near giving up. My fingertips are dry from shuffling paper. My back aches from digging through this tote. I feel closer to freedom now than I did yesterday, and that's no small thing.

08 April, 2022

What Exactly Do I Do at the Job Where I Do So Much?

Enough questions have come up about my job here at the prison. I thought it was time to review what I do, for those who don't quite follow. Even though my work encompasses such a wide variety of duties that "typical workday" isn't an applicable label, I'll nevertheless try to explain it.

XSTREAM is the name of the prisoner-run media center at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center. We're like a little TV station inside the facility (except we probably do more than your average network employees). From two small roomfuls of computers and A/V equipment adjacent to the gym, we broadcast twelve dedicated channels of content for the prison population – movies, TV series, music videos, in-house video productions, program listings, and institutional information. From what I understand, XSTREAM pumps out more content than our equivalent at any other state facility in Missouri.

A database that was developed in-house manages our 12,000-plus hours of video on a 90-terabyte RAID server. From my desk I program two channels – EXCEL and The MiX. My coworkers Luke, Jacob, Paul, and Josh each run two of their own. Twon runs one. The responsibility of the team's newest hires, Danny, Steve, and Rodney, is to import subtitles into our system for the benefit of hearing-impaired viewers (a process that XSTREAM recently developed). I basically pick what seems like a good blend of programs for a given week, then schedule them to play, each in a twenty-four-hour cycle, with each showtime beginning on the hour.

We do a bit of videography work. An eight-foot-tall green screen in our studio serves as a stand-in for the exotic locations where we'd rather be shooting. I personally produce a weekly music show called The Playlist, starring my coworker Twon. He looks like a very small Snoop Dogg. Guests from the population bring a song that they love, we play a sample, and a fifteen to twenty minutes of conversation with Twon (aka "Twizzo") ensues, usually spiraling off into deep, fascinating realms. Recent discussions have covered drug addiction, intergenerational divides, self-esteem, grammatical and syntactical changes in hip-hop lyrics over the decades, Deaf culture, emotional regulation, and much more. I've yet to hear one bad word spoken about the show.

Our boss, ERDCC's Recreation Director, also has us writing and producing serious videos for distribution around the state. The first we did was "Out Inside," a production about transgender people in prison, meant to foster understanding by staff and other inmates alike. (Predictably, it caused a bit of a stir.) Now I'm heading up a suicide-prevention video that incorporates not just warning signs and "get help" messages but also proven tactics for fighting depression. Our boss supplied from the Internet any informational resources that we've asked for – Wikipedia articles, lists of trans celebrities, studies on the effectiveness of media campaigns, whatever was called for. We want to be sure to follow only evidence-based practices.

In addition to broadcasting stuff, XSTREAM is designing a software package called the Offender Management System, which tracks prisoners’ movement within the facility, based on where they most recently scanned their ID card. I designed its interface. The beta version has tracked comings and goings from the gym for the past six months. We're getting ready to expand it to track basketballs, weight belts, board games, and other recreation equipment that people can check out. Then we'll move past the confines of the recreation building. By the end of summer, we expect that the OMS will be operating in the chapel and programs rooms. Then in the library. After that, probably, in the dining hall. Then throughout the Missouri DOC.

Less grandly, in the here-and-now, we oversee the Learning Center, where people can come to watch on-demand educational videos, as well as newly released movies, at individual viewing stations during their recreation periods. The Great Courses lectures are popular. We also host a monthly theater event in the gym, when we set up a thirty-foot inflatable screen, concert speakers, a popcorn machine, and 100 chairs for qualified attendees to watch the newest big-budget Hollywood release. It's a good-behavior incentive that people really enjoy. Here's my team at a recent XSTREAM Theater event.

In short, we're lucky to have a boss who gives us broad latitude for creativity to flourish. I'm sure he's happy to have such a dedicated crew to help him look good at what he does. I deeply appreciate that, when giving a tour, he enters our area announcing, "And here are my nerds." I know I'm phenomenally grateful to have that freedom to geek out in this otherwise constricting place.

22 March, 2022

Four Books I Spent My Spring Reading

A lifelong bookworm, it's become my pattern in recent years to forego reading in favor of tending to the business of life. Still, somewhere between Buddhist practice, Gavel Club responsibilities, work hours, researching and writing a suicide-prevention video, sleep, essays and blog posts, personal correspondence, and keeping up with the periodicals that I subscribe to, I manage to carve out a little time for reading books of all sorts.

It might be easy to assume that poetry, given its short form, could squeeze in whenever a busy person like myself could spare five minutes. Maybe they're right. Maybe I just give poems too much elbow room. When I read a poem, I never stop after its first read-through. I usually give it three or more reads, two of them very slow, to peel away the layers and gain a better understanding. Cultivating the right mood for the experience helps with my comprehension and appreciation of the work.

Like otherworldly spirits, the poems of Belarusian poet Valzhynia Mort rose with grim faces from her recent English collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, to meet me. This was the first poetry collection I'd read in a while. It came as a gracious gift from Emily C., and it didn't disappoint. Mort writes with what feels like the collective grief of her family's last three generations. With this collection she seemingly becomes a poetic planchette that her ancestors use to spell messages from beyond the grave. Several times Mort (what a fitting name!) summons the voice of a deceased relative to relate a wartime anecdote. Her poems read like lived history through a dark lens. While my inept description makes them sound ghoulish, the poems in Music for the Dead and Resurrected are in fact hauntingly tender, a beautiful requiem for those who've gone before.

Poetry elevates and enlarges my life, but sci-fi is one of my truly great loves. Jeff VanderMeer's Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy is sci-fi of the finest sort. A strange phenomenon has taken over a small region of coastal land in what might be Florida, exterminating all human life while allowing animals and plants to flourish. An organization known as the Southern Reach sends in periodic research missions. Partly because all of them result in death or madness, I was reminded of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, especially those tying in with his Cthulhu mythos. Make no mistake, Area X is dark. The jacket copy calls it "almost unbearably suspenseful," which is 100% true. At many times I just wanted it to be over – not because it wasn't any good but because VanderMeer delights the reader with revelations while withholding even more. I desperately wanted answers; I got some.

My friend and coworker Paul had seen the movie based on Area X's first book, Annihilation. After I loaned him my copy of the trilogy he maintained a vision of Natalie Portman as the twelfth mission's biologist until the story took a particular, very dark turn. "I can't help thinking of her eyes!" he said, after he read one particularly haunting chapter. We got a lot of enthusiastic discussions about how crazy effective we found VanderMeer's storytelling, about terrestrial life forms, and about the absence of attention to the natural environment in most science fiction.

If sci-fi is one of my greatest loves, fantasy was one of my first. I still turn to the genre, usually when drudgery stupefies my day-to-day. A couple of story collections sent from a stranger, Jordan S., served as tonic during a recent slog. I don't know why you chose these particular books from my wish list, Jordan, both with their beastly titles, but thank you.

The first of them was North American Lake Monsters: Stories, by Nathan Ballingrud. Hulu subscribers might recognize this title from the credits of a show called Monsterland. I've never seen it. A positive review from a trusted source attracted me to the book, which turns the monster story on its head by shifting the focus from creatures to the people whose lives are affected by them. In the title story a former prisoner finds himself unable to relate to his edgy thirteen-year-old daughter, especially in light of her reaction when a huge slimy thing beaches itself on the shore near their cabin. In "The Monster of Heaven," a couple's rocky married life slips further into dysfunction when they place a sickly, mute humanoid creature in their dead son's bedroom. Ballingrud's are basically stories about human life and its messiness, with the occasional werewolf. I think the collection's a bit hit-and-miss, but the not-great stories aren't bad and the good stories are quite good – an overall win.

The other book Jordan sent was Fierce Creatures, a harrowing collection by Brandon Taylor. While not fantastical in any way, these heavily physical stories of everyday people occupy significant mental space – that is, psychological territory – to an almost overwhelming degree. Conversations between lovers, parents, and family members turn on a dime, and characters' minds rattle and shudder like a wooden roller coaster. Everyone in Fierce Creatures seems uncertain, unstable. I'll just say that if Taylor's noteworthy fictions represent what interactions are like for real-life neurotypical people, I'm relieved to have the brain that I do.

10 March, 2022

My Contribution to the Speak Easy Gavel Club's March Newsletter

The Speak Easy Gavel Club used to have a newsletter. During my brief turn as interim Vice President Public Relations in 2021, I resurrected the years-dead practice. (The VP PR is responsible for maintaining the club's website, but since ours is a prison-based club and lacking Web access, I figured a newsletter to be the next best thing.) Every month now offers helpful or informative excerpts from Toastmasters International, a member spotlight, a vocabulary-building Word of the Month, and articles on the monthly theme, written by club members.

I'm pleased to say that our newsletter just entered its second volume and is flourishing. Not only does our membership eagerly await new issues, we've been given ongoing permission by the administration to display current issues in a rack of pamphlets in the institution's programs/chapel hallway. Anyone can pick one up and enjoy the nuggets of wisdom within. That, and they'll get an idea of what Gavel Club's about.

When the new Vice President Public Relations asked me to contribute a piece on "growth" for the March issue, I enthusiastically said yes. I figure that it has a broad enough applicability to share with you, so here it is.

* * * * *

The Astonishing Availability of Growth Opportunities
By Byron Case, Vice President Education

This month's theme for our club is growth, the enlarging of our being. Growth means building on everything we've learned in the past and allowing ourselves to be shaped anew in every moment. Growth means changing to be more than we were. Every day – every moment – is a fresh opportunity for it.

But change can be scary. We get stuck in a mode of thinking that we have to be a certain way just because that's who we are. There's an old saying, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten." By doing the same-old, same-old, we'll stay exactly as we are. That's the very definition of stagnation.

Think of a bucket of water. When water sits for a long time without moving, all sorts of things end up in it – leaves, dirt, bugs, algae. After a while, it'll even start to smell bad. Now think of a river. Even though the river gets all that stuff in it too, it stays much cleaner. The difference is that the river is constantly refreshed. It's constantly flowing, fed by freshwater from upstream. The river exists in a state of continual change.

Of course, people aren't rivers. We can't always pour fresh experiences into ourselves and be renewed. We have responsibilities that stick us in routines; there are habits that we let ourselves get stuck in. But even though our day-to-day lives might be lacking in variety, we can still open ourselves up to new perspectives and ways of thinking.

Try reading a book about something you aren't especially interested in the library's full – and occasionally open! Learn a new skill; there are teachers all around you. Have a conversation with someone you might disagree with, and listen without debating or arguing.

There are countless means for growth available to us. We just have to be open to them, every day, every moment.

03 March, 2022

Not the End

If loving parents, not well-to-do but rich in culture, take their young son backpacking through Europe and Mexico for thirty days at a stretch, if they tour the American South with him in a van, if the three spend a month in a tiny tent on a Jamaican beach, rising each morning at sunup to the calls of venders hawking peanuts, pastries, and fruits, what will that boy come to learn about life's bounty?
          If a mother nurtures her only child's inborn talents by keeping him out of public school and, instead, teaches him herself so his precocious mind can feed as avidly as it wants, on real-world exploration and studious reading alike, how wide will the son's knowledge about life grow?
          If a sensitive seven-year-old's pet hermit crab – a creature few might find lovable – dies in its terrarium overnight, what will the ensuing three days' crying jag do to bring the boy closer to grasping life's incomparable preciousness?
          If the same youth, a decade on, loses his two closest friends to gunshots, and his father to HIV sixty days later, how fervently will he then believe that life must be lived with urgency, since it could at any point end?

Whatever ideas I had about life by age twenty-two proved largely worthless after the third day of trial, when the judge pronounced my sentence: life without the possibility of parole. In the state of Missouri it means exactly what it sounds like, and it's mandatory in cases of first-degree murder when prosecutors decline to pursue execution. I hadn't killed anyone, and staunchly maintained my innocence, but this was beside the point.
          A prodigy, a skilled artist, a gifted writer. By the time I stood in the courtroom that nightmarish morning, I'd been called all these things. Joining the workforce hadn't been my only priority when I tested out of high school my freshman year. My motivations lay elsewhere. Reading science and philosophy texts, coding JavaScript applications in my bedroom, debating political theory at coffeehouses, and frequenting local art gallery openings are not the pastimes of your typical dropout. Up until that day before the judge, everyone – everyone – promised me a bright future, saying I had my whole life ahead of me.
          My whole life. Suddenly it felt like a threat.

The initial years in prison were a hell. A nervous condition I developed made my legs itch so fiercely that I often went without sleep. The long stretches of inactivity were punctuated by periods of mortal dread, as I weathered the kind of storms all pretty boys encounter when they first come down.
          One night as I sat reading in my cell, a sexual predator barged through the door and grabbed my throat. "Fuck or fight," he hissed into my face. I dropped A Brief History of Time and obliged him with Option B, the first fight of my adult life. I came away with five pink crescents on my neck from his fingernails, but no significant physical wounds.
          Arguably, the tedium was more damaging. There are any number of ways to combat boredom, and I tried many of them. Crossword puzzles, drawing, writing letters to friends and my mother, watching TV, making tapes off the radio, playing SCRABBLE with my cellmate, sleeping long, and daydreaming about the reversal of my conviction that just had to be in store were enough to get by on. In the world of prison but not of it, I had no desire to join the drug or gambling circles, which felt beneath me. But my occupations were scarcely different from those, in principle. Everyone in prison is just looking for distraction, ignoring the fact that, even if we succeeded in passing today away, there would still be tomorrow to contend with. And what then? What was the point?
          The prison offered programs with names like Cognitive Thinking, Pathways to Change, Impact of Crime on Victims. All were insultingly remedial and lacking even a modicum of interest in participants' improvement. I vowed never to attend one. Surely I could do better on my own.
          Job opportunities were scant and, where available, often sad. Paying ones were rarer yet. And working as a line server in the chow hall, scrubbing shower stalls in the housing unit, or handing out sheets on laundry days were simply different meaningless preoccupations. When I took a position in the visiting room, snapping pictures of prisoners as they stood beside their loved ones, my twenty-five-dollar monthly paycheck bought some instant ramen and snack crackers from the canteen, but nothing meaningful or lasting.
          Patterns emerged in the pockmarked concrete ceiling above my bunk. My dreams took on unsettling vividness. I dwelled on memories of pleasures now denied. The people I love stared back from the pages of my photo album, untouchable and far, far away. Always something of a masochist, I held tightly to these moments of grief and near-madness. However bittersweet they tasted, they were unequivocally mine. No one could take them away.

The poet John Berryman, writing about the role of suffering in art, said that "the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business."
          I took my misery and turned it over and over, probing each crevice and raking every point of its topography. Prison, an environment like none I'd previously experienced, threw all distinctions into stark contrast. As an inveterate observer, I couldn't help but hone my perception to a razor sharpness. The edge of it cut through everything: priorities, expectations, delusions, certainties, desires, and all manner of bullshit. Gradually, I flensed away the superfluous, like a butcher removing fat from meat. I wanted to see how lean life could get.
          Spartan living became the norm. There was a petulance behind it, admittedly. I thought that this choosing to do without was how I loosened my captors' hold. But mostly the deprivation games were tests, challenges to myself. And to prove that what I wanted and what I needed weren't necessarily one and the same. I quit smoking, cold turkey. I gave up coffee for no other reason than to enjoy it more whenever my abstinence ended. I went on a multi-day fast, to see how long I could go without eating.
          Know thyself, says the ancient maxim. Prison offers more opportunity for this than anyone but the most obsessive ruminator might want. By experiencing pain and unease an introspective soul grows. With a deeper knowledge of myself came insights about the world.
          I committed almost all of mine to paper.

"How do I know what I think," asks one author, "until I've written it?" Ordering words to articulate thoughts leads to countless minute discoveries. The process is an intellectual delight even when the realizations are less than friendly.
          Unlike the Sisyphean effort of time-passing, the rewards of writing endure beyond the here and now. After the process of composition – which is, for me, always meditative – my essays, poems, fictions, and letters find their way into the world and are read. From this comes a sense of accomplishment, and, consequently, one of purpose.
          I could say that writing saved me, but oversimplifying my salvation that way would be as fatuous as it would be misleading. I saved myself. Writing is just a facet of who I am, inseparable from the whole. It's the outcome of long years of contemplation and suffering, testament to one man's journey through himself and the world that up to this point has helped shape him. It's also the product of that precocious youth's travels around the globe and his development of an early sense of value and discernment. It's both a distillation and an expansion, a means and an end.
          What will tomorrow bring? Will my wrongful conviction be overturned? If it is, what shape might my days take? How easily will I adapt to that brave new world? While these are natural questions to spring to mind, I'm not preoccupied by them, because they're pointless.
As a human being, all I can do is venture to stretch my limits a little each day and maybe help someone else do the same. If I get a tomorrow, I'll do it then, too. Ditto the day after that. Whatever comes, comes.
          I've got my whole life ahead of me. It feels like a promise.

02 March, 2022

By Restricting Communication, the Missouri DOC Claims It's "Helping" the Prison Population

In an e-mail blast to prisoners' tablets, the Missouri Department of Corrections feigned concern for our best interests by announcing that, effective 14 March, all inmate phone calls will be limited to fifteen minutes. "After 15 minutes, your call will be disconnected," it read. "After a 3-hour time period, you will again be able to make a 15-minute call."

This is just another in a long line of examples of the Department inflicting punitive measures on a group because of the bad behavior of a few. In my sixteen years at Crossroads, before I came to ERDCC, we almost never saw arguments or fights over telephone use. The good-conduct wing at Crossroads wasn't much different from the one I'm in now, except we had six phones to share, not the usual four. Here at ERDCC, the number of phones is one-size-fits-all affair. For years, people here have been asking for extra phones to be installed in the housing units. The institution's answer was either that this was a provider issue or that a feasibility study would have to be done. In other words, "We don't give a shit. Go lie down somewhere."

The Department absolutely should care. This new call limit widens the distance between prisoners and their loved ones. Studies show that such gaps adversely affect rehabilitation efforts. I don't know what kind of conversations the people who thought up this practice are accustomed to having, but a fifteen-minute limit will severely obstruct sustained dialog, which is exactly the kind of deep, meaningful exchange that keeps human connections healthy and strong.

Even after all this time, the half-hour phone conversations I have feel uncomfortably brief. When my loved ones and I get deep into ethics, philosophy, feelings, or matters relating to my case, even forty-five minutes seems too brief. I always keep an eye on the phone line, to ensure no one has to wait longer than fifteen minutes behind me. I realize that this consideration makes me an exception, but surely there's another way to stop people fighting over phones.

DOC bigwigs might ask, "So what?" I can practically hear their shrugs of indifference. But the new practice will create other problems that directly (and negatively) impact the Department.

Cell phone use in prisons is not allowed, and contraband phones have plagued administrators since the devices became small enough to conceal on one's body, after which prisoners use them for all the usual stuff – Facebook, e-mail, TikTok, and, yes, a variety of illegal activities. Poorly paid prison staff take payments to bring burner phones into their faculties. Just like in tech-deprived countries around the globe, the prisoners with phones often get their money back – and more – by renting them out for an hour or two at a time.

What's interesting is how innocent the vast majority of those calls actually are. After investigating calls made from confiscated cell phones, the Texas DOC reported ten years ago that over 80% of those unmonitored "security risks" were actually just people calling their mothers and other loved ones. Texas installed more phones in their facilities and illicit cell phone use plummeted. It's safe to say that the same will happen here in reverse, after mid-March.

Once phone time becomes scarce, its value will increase. Like every other precious resource, more people will seek to collect more of it. Theft and intimidation will proliferate as the opportunists acquire extra PINs for extra calls. New arrivals to prison once had to worry only about being coerced into gangs and sexual servitude. Now they'll also need to closely guard their PINs. I wonder if these issues were given any consideration before someone in the capital decided a fifteen-minute limit would solve anything.

25 February, 2022

Sunrise, Sunset

They clouded one's vision with red, or they practically deafened you with riotous orange. Some sweetened the world with honey and gold. Still others spanned the sky in thick waves of vermillion, violet, and peach so vibrant as to make a person weep with joy at witnessing such beauty. I remember the best sunsets.

All of them were seen in Picnic Point, New South Wales, Australia, the suburb of Sydney, where I lived from ages ten to eleven. I was a lucky kid. Just a few hundred paces down the street from my house was the perfect place to sit and watch the day dwindle. A stand of trees terminated abruptly at a cliff face overlooking a couple of tennis courts. Young Byron rode his bike down there at least a couple of times each week. A particular weatherbeaten boulder offered a perfectly butt-shaped contour for watching the sky-show.

On a different bluff, halfway around the planet and a number of years later, friends and I sometimes watched the sun come up over Kansas City railyards. We called the place Pendergast Point, because of a statue of renowned Kansas Citian William Pendergast that stood there. Its actual name was Case Park, but I didn't learn that until years later, when a fit of reminiscence prompted someone I know to google the location. It had been a place for lookouts. Because of an elbow in the Missouri River to the north, Civil War soldiers – and, before them, watchful Native Americans – could see for miles up- and downstream.

Case Park's wrought-iron benches sat all in an arc along what felt like the literal edge of the city. The kind of steep embankment that only an earlier, less litigious age would leave unfenced looked down at humming patches of interstate. After a very long night of activity, a couple, sometimes a handful, of young adults could sit there and be soothed by the gentle rise of another day. We sat in silence as the sun came up before our eyes. Its amber glow rimmed the hills surrounding railyards and reflected off the tracks, like veins of gold crisscrossing the city that we called home. The sunrise was our curtain drawn, the end of our revels.

While awaiting trial for first-degree murder, my neighbor in the county jail was a grizzled biker who went by "Frenchie." He'd shot a man dead for sleeping with his girlfriend, then beat and kicked the body until his own boot flew off. It was hard to make that violent image of drunken-rage Frenchie jibe with the man I ate meals and watched Survivor: Africa with. He had showed me pictures of himself snuggled up on the couch with Rootin' Rudy, his potbellied pig, and with the son he was so proud of. I watched him break down in tears, saying, "I'll never get to watch another sunset."

Years after our legal ordeals ended, Frenchie and I stood on the yard at Crossroads Correctional Center, where we both ended up, and I pointed to the sky. "Remember when...," I asked him, and he nodded. Through the chain link and razor wire, we saw the sun glowing poppy red at the horizon. It dipped lower and lower as we watched. I thought of Australia. I thought of friends come and gone. When the announcement came that the yards were closed, neither Frenchie nor I moved right away. We waited, each lost in his own thoughts, until the just-right moment came. When it came, we went.

09 February, 2022

Recovering from Lockdown

Three days without a shower, without a hot meal, without talking or writing to anyone beyond my cell, could've been much worse. After multiple incidents of multiple stabbings last week, the shit really hit the fan on Monday. Rumor had it that a staff member was assaulted in one of the GP houses. The prison administration decided to put a hold on the violence, halting all prisoner movement and communication for an indeterminate period of time.

To be sure, with all of us locked up tight, eating brown-bag meals, taking medication delivered to our own doorways, taking birdbaths (if cleaning ourselves up at all) in our sinks, further assaults were unlikely. Lockdowns are temporary solutions, of course. As soon as everyone is cut loose again, pandemonium can return. Thus came the goon squad.

On day two of our hermitage, I discovered that the toilet wouldn't flush. This is standard practice for shakedowns, so no one can use the commode to dispose of anything. I woke my cellmate with the news of impending havoc, and we braced for impact.

With predictable recklessness, black-clad guards from prisons all around the state descended on every wing of every housing unit here and wrecked up the joint but good. Their search objectives were, ostensibly, drugs and dangerous contraband. So-called nuisance contraband left with them too – empty bottles and boxes, hooks and pictures hung to walls, expired medication, and most anything stockpiled by the hoarders among us. They also emptied everyone's trash, which was nice.

We found the cell a mess, however, when they allowed us back into it. My typewriter lay under his bath towel, on his bunk. One of his dirty socks was in one of the bowls I eat out of. My shelf of canteen foodstuffs looked to have been churned – stuff from the back was at the front, and stuff from the front was in the back. I was glad not to have left any open containers there.

The rest of the days passed. I finished reading a book, then read two more. For the first time since we got JPay tablets, in 2018, the administration had deliberately turned off the prison's Wi-Fi. (How strange that concept seems!) I decided against banking e-mails to send whenever this was over. By then I could more fully explain what happened. The app deletes message drafts older than twenty-four hours, anyway.

There was a local news report about the incident, although I didn't see it. I officially rescinded my news blackout a couple of years ago, but I still don't often watch. I figure that anything important or relevant will filter down to me eventually. In this case, on our first day of relative freedom, when wings were released to breakfast one walk at a time, a neighbor sat at my table and shared what he'd seen reported: that it hadn't just been a regular assault, that someone had stabbed a housing unit manager who was now in the hospital. I used to be in a wing with the guy who did it. My opinion was that he was unstable, so I kept a good distance between us. It looks like I won't have to worry about that anymore; he's going to disappear for a while.

What might today bring for the rest of us? The Wi-Fi's back on, which is a good sign. Laundry, canteen, and factory workers were called back to their jobs. Some words about showers were muttered by a guard at breakfast, but that's still speculatory. I'm eager to get back to work, too, but I'm more excited about cleaning myself up. Birdbaths just don't do it for me.

28 January, 2022

My Speech for the Nineteenth Annual Speak Easy Gavel Club Banquet

Glossophobia: the fear of public speaking. It's one of the most commonly reported fears. How common? Well, there are a little over forty people in this room right now. Since roughly three out of four people report feeling nervous speaking in front of a group, at least thirty of us would probably be anxious about coming up here, standing at this lectern, and delivering a speech. They might get a little case of jitters, sweaty palms, faster heart rate. Or it could be mild panic, with lightheadedness and rumbling guts. Anxiety runs a whole gamut of symptoms.

Even those of us who aren't nervous about the actual speaking part of public speaking face challenges. What subject do we choose? What tone do we take? How do we craft a good, attention-grabbing introduction and finish with a meaningful message? Do we invite questions at the end?

So you see, no matter who you are, public speaking takes a pretty significant investment of thought and effort. Why on earth do we put ourselves through that? This is the Speak Easy Gavel Club's nineteenth banquet. How has this club continued to exist for nearly twenty years? Wouldn't it be easier to just... not?

A man named Ralph C. Smedley founded Toastmasters in 1924. It started out as one club, which met at a California YMCA. Within fifteen years, though, it grew into an international organization. Today there are Toastmasters clubs in 143 countries around the world – more than 360,000 members, all striving to become better public speakers. And just like us in this room, most of them struggle with either glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, or with the other issues I just mentioned. Why put ourselves though the stress and the hassle? Are we, and every other member of this organization, crazy?

I want you to consider this: if someone with a terrible fear of spiders – arachnophobia – decided to go down to the zoo and stare at tarantulas once a week, would that make them crazy? If someone afraid of heights – that's acrophobia, another common fear – took up climbing lessons, wouldn't you applaud their bravery?

In his inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." I believe that every Gaveleer in this room has realized the essential truth of Roosevelt’s statement. Week after week we come to club meetings and test ourselves. Some roles, responsibilities, and situations are more challenging than others, but we push the limits of our comfort zones. We leap right out of the cozy nests that would keep us warm and safe, and we try to fly.

We don't do these things because they're easy. Easy would be rolling out of bed, watching some TV, going out to rec, eating a soup, playing a few games of pinochle, staying up for The Late Show and going to sleep. That's easy. There's no challenge. Easy is tedious. Easy is boring. Easy isn't going to do anything for you. There's no reward in easy. To get lasting pleasure from life, we need challenges.

Now, when I say "challenges," I'm not talking about mountain climbing or deep-sea diving. You don't have to run a marathon in Siberia to reap rewards from entering a challenging situation. For some people those are all that works to help them feel alive. For the rest of us, non-life-threatening challenges work great.

Studies have shown this to be a universal human truth. But do we really need science to tell us this? If we didn't crave challenges there'd be no checkers or chess, no soccer or baseball, no Jeopardy! or Wheel Of Fortune, no pie-eating contests or marathons, and of course no Gavel Club.

Now I'm going to share with you a little secret. I joined the Speak Easy Gavel Club in 2019, but before then I never had any interest in public speaking. I'm a writer. The closest I'd come to this was doing readings at coffeehouses, which were fine but didn't really challenge or inspire me. My goal in signing up for this club wasn't to be the next Tony Robbins or Jimmy Swaggart, so what was the point?

Our growth as human beings depends on curiosity, a willingness to experience new things and meet new people, an open mind to what's possible, not only for ourselves but for the world around us. Having expectations closes us off to countless possibilities. I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I joined Gavel Club. I thought it'd be an interesting way to spend a couple of hours each week, and maybe I'd get to work out a different writing muscle group by writing speeches. What I got surprised me.

Firstly, I learned that writing is as different from public speaking as building a boat is from tap dancing. I know I'm a terrible dancer, but I'm having fun trying. Thanks for not walking out on my performance here. Secondly, I made connections that helped with an amazing job opportunity. I wouldn't have known working with computers within the DOC was possible, let alone been offered a position doing that, had it not been for Mr. Brown, who gave me the heads up when a position opened at XSTREAM. Finally, and most importantly, I found friends, people who I genuinely trust and care about, who make my life richer for being in it.

What doors might Gavel Club open for you? Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. Glossophilia is the love of it. Face your fears. You might find that you end up loving them.

06 January, 2022

Prison Programming with a Mission

Beginning on 1 January, I took over as the custodian of XSTREAM Therapeutic, one of twelve closed-circuit TV channels broadcasting to the population of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center. I willingly traded my previous responsibility, the prison's all-animation channel, for this one. In a true win-win-win situation, XTOON went to our resident anime fanatic, Jacob, who gave our sci-fi nut Paul his own movie channel, so that Paul didn't have to keep justifying the therapeutic value of, say, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Obviously, we get broad latitude in our programming choices, so handling XSTREAM Therapeutic ("XT" to us insiders) means big fun for me. It might not be so cool, except that we recently started receiving educational videos from the Web. How it works is, we give our boss a list of subjects, he goes into his office and returns an hour or so later with a hard drive full of MP4s for us to broadcast. This is a breakthrough that's opened up a veritable universe of possibility.

I've designated Monday as "Art Day," with documentaries on artists, "Great Paintings Explained" videos, poetry readings, and a drawing how-to thrown in here and there. That's followed by TED Talk Tuesdays. Thursdays are for nature and anthropology docs of the Nature and National Geographic sort. "Science Fridays" came from their equivalent on NPR. (We just got the Hubble IMAX documentary I never got to see, as well as cool videos on neuroplasticity, quantum physics, and microorganisms.) I also have a few academic lectures to satisfy the handful of lonely intellectuals skulking around this place. It's a good mix.

People often talk about things resonating with them based on their relatability. With this in mind, I've tried to get more BIPOC-generated content – especially when the subject is academic or falls within one of the fields typically associated with "white culture," such as publishing or classical music. I want this stuff to draw people in, then expand their horizons. Ultimately, I want to promote the empathy that's so sorely lacking in this place.

Because I'm a subscriber to the theory that no discipline better fosters empathy than the humanities do, I'm especially focused on the arts. With their woven webs of words, storytellers, poets, and writers offer real talk. Painters show us new perspectives. Musicians give us novel compositions packed with meaning. By repeated exposure to others' ideas beyond the hand-to-mouth reality of the streets, maybe the seeds of change will take root. Maybe self-esteem will grow. Maybe due consideration for someone else will gain foothold. Maybe inspirational fruit will be born.

Except in states like Vermont, it's an unfortunate reality that far too many of those identified as BIPOC in this country are imprisoned. (Although even in New England, black people constitute a disproportionate percentage within the criminal system.) I believe that XSTREAM's broadcasts should reflect this fact – albeit, without pandering to anyone. It's a point I've been tacitly making with a lot of choices on the job. And I think it's having an influence. Joining the push for inclusivity, our ad-hoc concert curator, Luke, has a growing list of black musical artists for the boss to seek out. (XT plays concerts on weekends.) I also run the Mix, another channel on our network, where I try to play mostly movies and series that feature black faces.

This whole effort could be nothing more than a quixotic attempt by a well-meaning but tone-deaf white person to do what he's deluded into thinking is right. No one's said anything to the contrary yet. In the meantime, if anyone has content suggestions, by all means, leave them in a comment below!