14 July, 2022

Strange But True

Spending decades in prison lets a person say all kinds of slightly bizarre things that also happen to be true. Consider the following statements.

You can make glue from coffee creamer and water.

My annual job salary is $1,020. The last time I threw up was in February of 2001. These are three facts I can state, which also happen to be true. The first is something I learned by accident. The second is an unfortunate symptom of the carceral environment. The third seems like an unlikely bit of luck, combined with a fairly consistent diet of institutional food. I wash laundry in the shower. I have to get naked to see my friends.
Somewhere between the central joke of a "Seinfeld" episode and a throwaway line from a Chuck Palahniuk novel, these statements are also factual. If I thought harder about it, I could come up with a sizeable list of facts about my life that would seem strange to the average person all made possible by my being in prison.

Being here can definitely feel like some kind of freaky alternate dimension. Many prisoners make pizza crust from pulverized ramen noodles, stab each other over cellphones, and store illicit narcotics in their rectums. More than once, I've declared in a loud voice, "It's a madhouse!" without sounding even a little bit melodramatic.

However, it's possible to remedy one's sense of the otherworldly by taking a walk around the yard during a recreation period. I liken this to strolling through a park in a neighborhood that, although not the safest, lets you see people playing Frisbee, strumming guitars, shooting hoops, sunbathing, lifting weights, jogging, and hanging out with friends. The most normal moments here are often the ones spent outside the prison cells that have come to define us.
An interesting thought experiment: take the prisoner out of prison what do they become?

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.