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.