21 March, 2023

Five Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Ever since my high-school girlfriend read the conceptually unique 1884 novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, it's been on my radar. I finally got around to reading Flatland during an afternoon lockdown this spring, exactly thirty years later. Some things just take a little time. Flatland's author, Edward Abbott Abbot, stretched readers imaginations and redoubled their perspectives with this whimsical piece of speculative fiction about the life of a square in a two-dimensional plane of existence. The square first theorizes then, suddenly and for no apparent reason, receives proof that a third dimension exists. He's visited by a sphere, a being with foreknowledge about the future, who speaks to the square about a matter of great import for every dimension of reality, hinting at, yet never revealing, a grand prophesy on the eve of coming to pass. He pulls the square into three-dimensional, one-dimensional, and, finally, single-pointed space, thereby blowing the narrator's flat mind. However, when the square returns to his native Flatland and reveals his knowledge to its rulers, he's judged a heretic and jailed. After its breezy beginning, Flatland grims things down significantly in its latter half, leaving me wondering what, if anything, Abbott intended as the message of this puzzling little novel.

Decidedly less ambiguous in its intent was the The Relive Box and Other Stories, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Good ol' T.C. rarely disappoints. With stories focusing on illegal immigrants, ethically dubious technology, and so-so parenting, Boyle's all over the map with his subjects, but never unclear about what his stories are saying. I loved rereading some of these stories from The New Yorker and Pushcart Prize collections where I first encountered them, and those that I never read before made reading this book a bit like eating a box of assorted chocolates diverse, but always delicious.

I read Boyle's contemporary prose in a traditional format, but I turned to the e-book reader on my tablet to read (somewhat ironically) humanity's oldest known work of literature. The library of free public-domain texts offered includes An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic on the Basis of Recently Discovered Texts, compiled and annotated for the Yale Oriental Series of Researches, published in 1920 by professors Morris Jastrow Junior and Albert T. Clay. It's a long title for a short work, but maybe this ancient epic deserves a bit of pomp. My primary interest in Gilgamesh fell on how it bears the indisputable marks of one tale pasted onto another, even older story
that of Enkidu, a primitive savage who's tamed and domesticated by a sophisticated, worldly woman. (Literature's very first meet-cute!) This edition features a translators' introduction that points to numerous seams where the story of Gish, its hero, was likely grafted onto that of Enkidu which didn't diminish but, rather, increased my fascination with the work. I had conceived of starting a book club here at the prison a while ago, but it was my friend and coworker Luke who suggested that we proposition the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program to supply us with books for it. SLU does so much here, but the representatives and faculty are always welcoming of suggestions as to how they might do even more. A book club seemed like the perfect thing. We wrote a formal proposal to SLU and the ERDCC administration, requesting permission to video-record the meetings and show them on TV, and the University took care of the rest. Our first iteration met three times to discuss the story collection Avery Colt Is a Snake, a Thief, a Liar, by Missouri writer Ron A. Austin. SLU, where Austin teaches, supplied us with fifteen free copies. I'd be lying if I claimed that there's any way I would have picked this book up, otherwise. Its comic-inspired cover seemed too hodgepodge, and the mention of an MFA degree in Austin's bio made me wary. The graduates of MFA programs too often turn out blah, tedious, undifferentiated fiction. Austin's was hardly that. These linked, often harrowing stories, with their shared, put-upon protagonist, Avery, served as windows into a community (i.e., North Saint Louis) that I never might've otherwise glimpsed. Many of them are also pretty entertaining. The discussions held in our book club's three meetings made for a really engaging experience. I can hardly wait for the next title! Meanwhile, I turned again to my e-reader and read F. Max Muller's translation of The Dhammapada: A Collection of Verses Being One of the Canonical Books of the Buddhists, published, in 1881, as Volume X, Part I, of Oxford's Sacred Books of the East series. Orientalism was en vogue in Britain at that time, and this translation from Pali was probably an effort to cash in on the national fixation.
The first Buddhist texts were inscribed on palm leaves 2,300 years ago, roughly two hundred years after the Buddha's death. Fortunately, early Buddhism's emphasis on repetition to preserve the teachings (total memorization of the Dhammapada is common among Buddhist monks) means that we can be pretty confident in the verisimilitude of what's been preserved. Translations of the Dhammapada the original teachings of the Buddha that came after this one probably succeed in putting finer points on the language than earlier versions. For instance, I question Fuller's use of "law" for what later translators call "dharma" or "teachings," and of "church" for the untranslated "sangha" (a group of dharma practitioners). But I doubt anything egregious enough to lead a reader astray slipped into Fuller's translation. At least, it comports with my understanding of Buddhist concepts, which is what matters.

It's worth noting that several people have sent me books within the past few months
Valarie V., my mother, and Kristy H. and that I'm grateful for the generosity and thoughtfulness they showed in ordering me literature they knew I'd love. Prison is prison, however, and I still haven't received them. I do have a grievance pending against the prison's mail room, the black hole into which many people's books seem to fall. One guy in my wing had a book show up eleven months after Amazon reported it delivered. No explanation was given.
I have these e-books on my tablet, at least, to keep me mentally engaged until the literary cavalry arrives. Expect to see my thoughts on some century-old texts in the next reading list I post, but please wish me luck that I'll finish it out with those missing titles by Angela Carter, John Daido Loori, and Kazuo Ishiguro!

13 March, 2023

Shower Sharks

For how long have there been jokes (or "jokes") about taking showers in prison? The most popular has to be "Don't drop the soap!" Locker rooms are just as often mentioned in this context. Communal showers are really to blame, but this isn't a post about that.

Newer prisons at least the ones in Missouri steer away from this particular flavor of institutional demoralization, favoring individual stalls over the shower rooms that invite such a slew of unpleasant circumstances. But even though there's no en-masse nudity in these places, a form of moderate predation on the naked endures. Its name is shower sharking.

Simply put, a shower shark is someone who watches others shower. This doesn't have to be an up-close violation. In fact, most shower sharks engage in the practice surreptitiously and from afar, catching glimpses here and there as they walk past someone in a shower stall, or positioning themselves so as to have a good side-eye view, often from all the way across the wing. Arguably the worst shower sharks are the shameless ones who set a chair on an upper tier that let's them stare down, unabashedly, at an angle revealing more of their prey than mere eye-level sharking would
but they're all creepy as hell. The stalls at Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent sixteen years, have doors that conceal an average person's body from chest to knee. The curtains here at ERDCC, the prison that's housed me since 2018, are comparable. Showers at both facilities are positioned near the front of the wing, at the end of each row of cells, which puts FM adjacent to a lot of foot traffic. Certain passersby like to sneak occasional peeks. One guy, whose cell is uncomfortably close to the shower with the wing's best water pressure (see my 2021 post on choosing a showers in prison for more on this selection process), often makes eye contact as he steps in or out of his door. On one uncomfortable occasion he paused to peer downward as I stood there, shaving my head, with my back to curtain. I spied his reflection in my shaving mirror and shouted, "What are you looking at, creep?" He hasn't peeked in on me since, but others haven't been so fortunate. A quick shaming of our local voyeur would probably do them as much good as it did me.
I suspect that shower sharks aren't all predators in the conventional sense. I doubt they'd seek out naked men to ogle if none presented themselves. Their sharking seems to be a crime of opportunity. Give us full-length shower curtains and the problem of shower sharking, like our naked bodies, will disappear.

01 March, 2023


"Care keeps his watch in every old man's eye," wrote Shakespeare, "And where care lodges sleep will never lie." This couplet from Romeo and Juliet encapsulates the nature of at least one form of insomnia, the scourge that is an overactive mind. The older I get, the less worry I feel, but this hasn't saved my sleep.

I lived through a period of chronic insomnia that lasted for about two years. High-dosage prescription sleep aids barely had any effect; restlessness stalked me through my days of walking death, fueled by caffeine and four hours' sleep, then hounded me in bed as I rolled and tossed fitfully, as though physical discomfort was my problem. Getting to sleep seemed impossible, most nights, even if I well and truly wore myself ragged during the day. This torture ended only after I sustained terrible loss and encountered real grief for the first time. As though I'd received shock treatment for my psyche, my mind seemed to reset after that, and I suddenly could sleep like the dead.

Things changed again upon my imprisonment. Jail sleep is a pathetic excuse for rest. Prison usually offers improved conditions, but not necessarily by much. Many factors here can interfere with the body's natural rhythm
light pollution, a cellmate's stirrings, guards' middle-of-the-night walkthroughs, neighbors' late nights, a heinously uncomfortable mattress, excessive or inadequate heat, and, yes, the care to which Shakespeare referred. With a wrongful conviction overshadowing one's life, as you can imagine, worry and woe tend to linger. Nevertheless, after a couple of years futilely pursuing acceptable sleep, I found rest again. I regained a state of mental peace, despite my circumstances, and slept soundly enough to forge a way through some of the most purpose-driven days of my life. Recently, though, for reasons obscure, the quality of my sleep changed yet again. In the 1992 movie Groundhog Day, the cynical weatherman Phil Connors, Bill Murray's character, finds himself physically and psychologically trapped in his least favorite place on earth, reliving the same day over and over (and over and over...). For the past month and a half, for no apparent reason, I've been sleeping the nonsleep that Phil suffers in Groundhog Day my eyes close at night, for no longer than a blink, then open in the morning, dearly wishing my alarm going off were just someone's idea of a joke. I've discouraged comparisons of prison life to Groundhog Day for a long time, because they always refer to its first half, in which Phil's pessimistic nature leads him to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Nobody talking about the movie is trying to invoke the positive, life-affirming message of the movie's latter half, which parallels that Miltonic phrase, "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." Regardless, I now admit to one similarity between my life and Phil's: we both sleep like shit. There doesn't seem to be much I can do about it. Unlike with the insomnia I suffered in the past, this is about the quality, not the quantity, of my sleep. The typical recommendations for solving this problem buy a new mattress, adjust the thermostat, take some melatonin, or simply wake up a bit later in the morning don't apply. Institutional regimen permits no such luxuries.
I'll be okay, though. I always am. And in those future moments when something like despair encroaches because my shut-eye sucks, I can at least take solace in knowing there's no Sonny and Cher song playing when I do rise to meet the day.

09 February, 2023

XSTREAM Kicks It Up a Notch

I don't know what you did with the first weekend in your February, but my coworkers and I spent a good portion of Sunday shooting video for seven different ads and public service announcements. Each one of them will play this week on the newest addition to XSTREAM's lineup, Channel X a platform solely for presenting original XSTREAM Media productions to our imprisoned audience. We're pretty excited about this, mostly because our studio work is a priceless outlet for creativity in such a drab place. With a whole channel all to ourselves, we get to create even more!

XSTREAM Media's studio consists of a green screen stretched across one wall of a little-used staff office in the gym. It sometimes feels like a temporary setup. We have to break down and stow our equipment, from sound-absorbing panels to video cameras, after every shoot to make room for our bosses, the recreation officers, to do... whatever rec officers use their office for. As studios go, ours manages to be simultaneously rinky-dink and impressive. We do a lot with what we have.

Rather than trying to hide our resource deficits, we often adopt a quirky (not to say janky) DIY aesthetic in our productions. We build props from cardboard. We make very creative use of camera angles. In lieu of a wardrobe, we sometimes place our video likenesses behind cutaway flight helmets, suit-and-tie combos, and outrageous hairdos, paper doll-style. Other prisoners are quick to tell us if they think something we're doing sucks. Since they never quibble with our creativity, they must think our stuff mostly works.

As we enter this kind of renaissance with Channel X, there's a spirit of real freedom at play. I'm planning a series of poem-a-day shorts to play between featured programming. We're also developing a game show called "I Knew That"; writing a series of daily affirmations to intersperse with our commercials; preparing informative, entertaining presentations for the host of a forthcoming movie-of-the-week series; and assembling a library of karaoke videos for a project we're calling "The Karaoke Threat." (I've already been challenged to sing the Danzig song "Mother on the show" a weird choice that I embrace in the spirit of the dare). Where we go from here is anyone's guess, but it's bound to be fun.

30 January, 2023

The Great Prison Wi-Fi Purgatory of 2023

After many months of solid service, the residents of ERDCC discovered this past week that the JP6S tablets loaned to us by Securus Technologies work fine until they don't.

It began innocently enough one morning, with just a few people unable to access their tablets' content. My cellmate and I could unlock our devices, but our neighbors couldn't. By noon it switched: they could, and we couldn't. Logging in felt like a coin flip maybe you'd get to access your e-mail, class work, music, and e-books; maybe you wouldn't. Everyone assumed that it was a glitch quickly to be remedied. Then the whole system went down.
Unlike our old JP5S tablets, which only downloaded software updates when connected via USB cable to a kiosk in the wing (leading to the sort of low-grade pandemonium I blogged about here), the JP6S is constantly connected to Wi-Fi and subject to very inconveniently timed automatic updates. The JP6S also depends on a Wi-Fi connection for its offline content. Forty-eight hours after a connection is lost, the device becomes a useless mass of silicon, heavy metals, and plastic, impossible to use beyond the lock screen. The tablets bricked and people lost their shit. Prisoners who'd been locked up for twenty or thirty years suddenly ceased being able to function. Some took to pacing. Many took longer-than-usual naps. The wing telephones clogged, as long, unruly wait-lines formed for the first time in nearly a year. "My games!" one man wailed, to no one in particular. I asked him what he did with his days in prison during the decades before tablets. He just blinked, as though I'd inquired into his understanding of epigenetics or Planck geometry. In my off-work hours I dug out and opened a book stowed in my footlocker for just this kind of situation. I could've just as easily drawn, painted, and watched TV. People often overlook the most obvious solutions to problems. We build our little nests and feather them with at-hand whatnots whatever's easiest, generally. Tablets have made much of the prison population lazy, de-emphasizing people's ingenious qualities in favor of a game app or endless music shopping. I don't want to be one of those prescriptivists who decry the dumbing-down of modern society by handheld technology... but damn.
New VideoGrams, e-mail, photos, and podcast episodes awaited me when, six days after service went down, a guard made her afternoon rounds and informed us that our tablets should be fully operational again. I was happy to have them all. The outage served as a simple reminder of the privileges that enjoy. In the same way as I recently appreciated my first sip of coffee after a two-month abstinence, the enjoyment I got from reading somewhat delayed messages from friends and loved ones was that much greater for the wait.

24 January, 2023

The Missouri Department of Corrections Will Soon Privatize

Ready or not, Missouri, here comes Aramark! The company famously under nourishing schoolchildren and supplying concessions to sports venues nationwide now stands on the verge of taking over the food service departments of every prison in the state. Despite imposing an increased burden on taxpayers and inviting safety problems at the facility level, someone in Jefferson City seems to think this is a good idea. I have to wonder who at Aramark they're related to.

For a couple of months, rumors of a takeover ran like roaches through the dining hall. The scuttlebutt was that minimum-wage workers from the free world would soon handle all food preparation and service; therefore, prisoners currently working in the kitchen would need new jobs at the outset of 2023. People here are prone to catastrophizing, though, so as my tablemates howled about some company with multiple lawsuits taking over the ERDCC kitchen, I adopted my usual wait-and-see stance.

Everything was cleared up when an article about the proposed takeover appeared on the wall of my wing, photocopied from the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch by a conscientious neighbor. (Prisoners sometimes do this as a public service when the news is pertinent.) The details were not encouraging.

According to the article, a $45 million contract will soon allow Aramark to provide food for prisoners in all of Missouri's prisons. Their estimated cost per meal is $1.77 but may change before the contract is finalized. Aramark will also offer free coffee to staff and sell food to prison employees and visitors. All this will take is a tax hike and everyone turning a blind eye to Aramark's questionable reputation. As it happens, the rumors about lawsuits might contain a kernel of truth. Two state corrections departments recently broke ties with Aramark, one saying that maggots were found in its kitchens, one alleging repeated food shortages, both claiming that Aramark periodically served rotten food. For whatever it's worth, certain state lawmakers question the soundness of outsourcing to a private company. Increased costs are one reason; dubious meal quality is another. How can it possibly be cost effective to let go the five or six state employees currently overseeing kitchen operations, just to bring in contracted supervisors to do the job? And who will watch the watchers and ensure that conditions here don't end up like those in Mississippi and Michigan, both of which kicked Aramark out? Years before coming to prison, I knew about the pitfalls of its privatization. I'd read enough horror stories about conditions at facilities run by Corrections Corporation of America (commonly referred to as CCA) and its ilk to deplore how people confined there are often treated. Violation of basic human decency should never be part of someone's sentence. Unfortunately, its hard to maintain ethical standards of operation when warders' primary concern is their own bottom line.
The Missouri DOC outsourced the processing of postal mail last year. Its medical services have for decades been contracted to one negligent company after another first CMS, then Corizon, now Centurion, and that's just during my time in the system. Pretty soon, Aramark will join their ranks. I'm less than thrilled to see how this shakes out.

06 January, 2023

A Post-Prison Poem

Thoughts of a Human Time Capsule

I have been away a while,
for many numbered nights and days.
It's okay to ask me questions about.
One thing you lose is modesty,
after half a lifetime doffing
your privates to uniformed strangers.

People seem somehow smaller now, sun-dried. Do they know that it looks like they're desiccating as we speak, canted luminously forward, and belittled by the occasional blue-white shutterless flash? I'll say this: things feel all wrong. Simply making a phone call's tricky. Shops claim to no longer recognize me. The scenery's so bright and busy, almost abject in its vacuity. It's a challenge to focus for long. Then come the silent nights, so still that all you can do is dream up sounds to be concerned about: creeping footsteps, distant key jingles. Closets aren't made for sleeping, yet here I lie, reservedly breathing. Brave new world
verging on unworldly wireless everything, endlessly witnessing, doomscrolling, streaming, disconnected. I'm freighted with a past but carry as one solitary point of pride a browser history that's pristine. * * * * * Years before I wrote this poem (which itself was years ago), I pleased myself by observing that someone who received a really long prison sentence essentially became a human time capsule, containing all of their earlier life and toting it around inside themselves indefinitely. Imagining myself as such a receptacle for era-specific miscellanea held some appeal. Yes, I could've conjured a more romantic image for the poem "a man in amber," for instance but the purposefulness of a container buried in the earth, with a carefully curated collage of today's civilization inside of it, better jibed with my sensibilities. Decades of popular entertainment, from The Shawshank Redemption to Tulsa King, have exploited the human drama of former prisoners' return to the free world. Writing Thoughts of a Human Time Capsule basically amounts to an acknowledgment of my interest in this plot device. For obvious reasons, it could even be said to preoccupy me. Just yesterday I learned that my friend Jim, my crossword-puzzling compatriot from the Old-Man Table was finally paroled. I felt so happy for him. Our fellow tablemate Larry, whom a parole board said would die in prison, was released two years ago. Thinking about the struggles these men now face concerns me even as the fact of their release raises my spirits. Both have close family who care very much about them a critical component of post-release success but the world they've entered is decades away from the one they left behind.
Jim and Larry are the time capsules my poem speaks for. So is everyone who survives many years in prison before being jettisoned into your world. The emotional and factual toll of that experience is one that I pity as much as envy.