29 September, 2023

Synthetic Drugs and Books – What's the Connection?

The year was 2009 when the Missouri Department of Corrections finally reversed its longstanding position and allowed prisoners to receive books ordered by people on the outside. I wrote a blog post expressing my joy at the change and, in the years that followed, more than once called it one of the best things that the state ever did to improve the conditions of confinement for those in custody. Can I take back that praise

The DOC announced in its August "Friends and Family" newsletter that, effective 25 September (i.e., this past Monday), prisoners would no longer be allowed to receive books ordered by people on the outside. Books now need to be purchased by the prisoners directly, using a certified check from their institutional accounts. Any books sent to us by caring, considerate people out there must be mailed off, thrown out, or sent away with a visitor.

Since the world's largest retailer, Amazon, hasn't accepted checks since 2004, this limits prisoners' options. Having to order from smaller venders with limited stock and higher prices, although good for local economies, is a notable hardship for those of us who count our every dollar. It also means that people will feel less inclined to send prisoners gifts. The DOC itself tells people not to send prisoners money unless they feel confident about how it will be spent. Removing people's option to order a book likewise removes the personal touch, in the same way that some say gift cards do.

And here's a funny thing: no one saw fit to tell us prisoners about what's being called a "transitional operation procedure" until two days after it went into effect. I only heard about it from my mother, who subscribes to the Department's newsletter. In the days that followed the announcement, news sources, such as Kansas City's NPR station and the Kansas City Star, started reporting on it.

Just today I learned that used books are prohibited as well, reversing twelve years of departmental precedent. Thanks a bunch, fentanyl.

That's right. A supposed uptick in drug overdoses is being blamed on books by the Department. I'm not making this up. A DOC representative claims that parties unknown are lacing the pages of books, magazines, and newspapers with synthetic drugs that they mail to the facilities, leading to increased overdoses in prisons across Missouri. (There's also some question about whether the numbers are actually increasing, or just being more frequently reported. I'll leave that for journalists to determine.) How method of payment for the books might change this is unclear.

The only meaningful outcome of this "transitional operation procedure" is a limitation on the volume and frequency of prisoners' access to reading material of their choosing. We're limited to the number orders we can place each year and limited in the number of books we can have in our possession at one time. Before this ban, people could order a book for someone in prison once a year or once a week and never have it count against that prisoner's order limit, because an order is defined as something purchased with money from the prisoner's account. It was win-win: case managers didn't have to trouble themselves with processing orders, and, assuming the books didn't violate censorship guidelines, prisoners got whatever books they wanted.

This decree by the Departmental powers that be should be troubling on a number of levels. It's not about prisoners getting to read a limitless string of bestsellers. It's about the ability to choose how and what one learns while imprisoned. Books offer an effective means for achieving the fundamental change in thinking that most prisoners so desperately need. This ban severely limits the potential for that change. Exactly what kind of people is the Missouri DOC trying to create here?

The Department representative quoted in that KCUR article mentioned above said that facility libraries make plenty of books available. I call bullshit. There's a reason that, until last month, I hadn't visited the library at ERDCC in three years – and it wasn't COVID. I would argue that most of what are considered essential texts in education are missing from prison library shelves. For example, ERDCC's library has no titles by Noam Chomsky, Marshall McLuhan, Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag, or Howard Zinn. I don't think there's a single nonfiction feminist text in the whole room. Nothing in queer studies, either. We do have a W.E.B. DuBois collection and a Ta-Nahisi Coates title, but not much else that might fuel a burn-off of someone's racist ideas.

In literature, the situation is even bleaker. There's some Nathaniel Hawthorne and dusty old Homer, but no Wallace Stevens, Ralph Ellison, Sylvia Plath, or Philip Roth. And forget about finding any daring, experimental, or milestone literary fiction more recent than about 1990. For a truly avid reader, the window offered on the world has become very small indeed.

There is a reason that Freedom Libraries are being installed in prisons all over the country and that numerous independent bookstores run programs that send free books to prisoners. They know both the power of books and the need for them. If only we could show the Missouri DOC.

22 September, 2023

Four Books I Read This Summer

Buddhism boasts a larger body of writings than any other belief system. Practitioners, of course, regard certain texts as more essential than others, and in Zen (called Ch'an in some other parts of the world), the most venerated of these are arguably the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, the Record Of The Transmission Of The Lamp, the Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, and Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. The Diamond Sutra represents a small section of the very long Prajna-Paramita Sutra, from which the renowned Heart Sutra also comes.

The translation of the Diamond Sutra that I read back in July is by Venerable Cheng Kuan, a Taiwanese monk ordained in Japan, who's lectured and taught in both America and Taiwan. His bio says he has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, which makes it all the more puzzling that he would render this already challenging text the way that he has. Venerable Kuan chose to invent his own terms that he believes approximate those for which no direct English equivalents exist. It doesn't make for easy comprehension. Where most translators would use a term such as "sentient beings" to refer to all life forms, Venerable Kuan goes with the unusual, inexplicably capitalized "Mutibeings." Where other translators leave the title "Tathagatha" (one of the Buddha's ten epithets, meaning "one who has thus come" or "thus-comer") as-is, Venerable Kuan dubs the Buddha the "Thus-Adventist," a term I've never seen or heard used before. It's just weird. The frequency with which Venerable Kuan does this kind of thing makes reading his odd translation of the Diamond Sutra somewhat difficult. I'll have to give this one another go later, with a different translator's rendering.

Using more natural language but focusing on a similarly incomprehensible premise is The Shapeless Unease, a delirious, haunting, beautiful memoir by Samantha Harvey. The book covers a yearlong period during which Harvey suffered crippling insomnia. You could call her experience a nightmare if that word didn't land too painfully far from the truth. This book is a wonder. The author's literary product is no mere procedural, that follows her means and methods of seeking relief. In another writer's hands, this might've ended up a blandly straightforward account of not being able to sleep and getting increasingly frustrated with that fact. Instead, Harvey brings a discursive, poetic flair to the matter, making this memoir a must-read.

From Act II, Scene Seven, of As You Like It come the famous lines

All the world's a stage And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts

We know them even if we're not well versed in the Bard's work, and many of us recognize that even in Shakespeare's time the idea of humankind as a great acting troupe wasn't particularly original Ol' Billy just said it prettily. Until the mid-1950s, however, no one seems to have ventured a systematic look at selfhood through this particular lens. Enter Dr. Erving Goffman, stage right, wearing a perfectly nice bowtie, to deliver his monograph The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the third book I read this season.

Goffman's sociology text takes the metaphor made so famous by Shakespeare's play to its logical extreme, positing that, in what he calls "Anglo-American society," selfhood is an imputed image based on a character played within a given field of action a result of a given situation, not the cause of it. He goes into great and often amusing detail to illustrate the point, citing studies, anecdotal evidence, and historical precedent. I liked how closely Goffman's conceptual framework aligns with the Buddhist idea that inherent selfhood is an illusion. I found a lot to appreciate about Goffman's study, in fact, and read much of the book with a knowing smirk intended for an audience of myself alone.

I wonder for whom I was performing when I agreed to partake in another round with the prison's book club. Our previous book was a short story collection by local writer (and super nice guy) Ron A. Austin. This time we went big, tackling the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Not only did I read this version once before, about ten years ago, I also tried to read the not-especially good Constance Garnett translation a couple of years before that. After that initial reading, this translation became my favorite work of Russian literature more unruly than Tolstoy's tedious Anna Karenina, more soul-stirring than Solzhenitsyn's harrowing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Considering how busy I am, reading a dense 800-page novel and going to biweekly meetings to discuss it may seem foolhardy. It's too much fun to say no to, though. Our book club is a collaborative project between Saint Louis University and XSTREAM Media. SLU's Prison Education Program supplies the books, and XSTREAM broadcasts every meeting on TV, in an effort to generate more interest in reading. The University sent a professor to lead the club meetings for The Brothers Karamazov, which made for an even richer experience that I was happy to be a part of. Our often lively discussions made decent television, too.

02 September, 2023

Half Life

Not to say that I've dreaded it, but I have not looked forward to today. After this, the balance tips. A younger, more pessimistic version of myself might've offered up a grim little quip in response something ironic like, "It's all downhill from here." My perspective now is a bit broader than it used to be. Still, by this time tomorrow, and for every day that follows, unless my circumstances drastically change, I will have spent more time in prison than I've spent free.

Forty-four years after my birth, and twenty-two after my wrongful arrest, today marks the midway point between two important dates a mathematical truth with which I'm finding difficulty coming fully to terms. It seems only logical that someone who's spent the greater part of his adult life imprisoned would be substantially changed (not to say wounded; not to say stunted; not to say irreparably damaged) by the fact, but I'm less concerned with what effects such a long period of imprisonment has wrought than I am with how one should feel about crossing this particular threshold. That distinction is one of immediacy. I have the rest of my life to deal with results, but in the here and the now my mind is reeling with conflicting thoughts.

We humans are pattern-seeking creatures. In the absence of visible order, we endeavor to impose our own. The zodiac, numerology, the I Ching, Libertarianism, psychology, Freemasonry, and other disparate systems represent society's attempts to wrangle reality into a quantifiable order, to make predictable the apparent chaos of our universe. To what extent they succeed can (and will) be argued elsewhere, by someone else. My concern is what to do about 2 September.

Surely this date means something, or should mean something. An anniversary is observed with intent, but this isn't an anniversary. An expiration date serves to predict a product's usability, but I'm not expiring, and neither is my sentence of life without parole. What, then, does 2 September represent? What is its ultimate import, and what is the most healthy way to process something of that significance? And so, uncertainty.

Like California's electrical grid, I've been experiencing rolling periods of inactivity. For several days in a row, at times when I should be most active and alive, I've experienced the greatest strain. Motivation is low. There's a strong desire to sleep more. The tendency is to pessimism. On Wednesday, rather than risk irritation with my coworkers, I chose to take a half day off. I washed some laundry, read forty pages of a sociology text, then sat in meditation, hoping that by setting an intention to befriend, and thereby release, the worry, resentment, and inferiority that arise when I think about 2 September, I might go forward without its weight on my back, no longer moved to be surly and uncommunicative with people because of something I alone feel. I don't know if it helped or not.

Oftentimes, the only way out is through. There's no breath exercise that will blow this insidious feeling away. Like a storm, it probably just has to be weathered. That's cold comfort for a man out in the rain, but it is a truth. Tomorrow I'll wake up and see the world with eyes made new by the myriad subtle changes that happen in every moment, always. There's some solace in that and in the hope that it engenders that the me who wakes up on 3 September easily finds the path forward and takes his step with grace and dignity.

15 August, 2023

I rise before my alarm goes off. Moving like a man oblivious to time, I unfold gray clothes and dress myself. Outside of the cell window, dark grass claws its way free of the soil, newly fed by summer rains. I piss. I pour a cup of water. The pungence of instant coffee soon fills the space. I sit in darkness, thinking assailable thoughts.

2. A jingle of some guard's heavy brass keys wakes me with a start. The clock at the end of my bunk reads 3:18 AM
still more than two hours before I usually wake up. I lie prone, eyes closed, listening to the whoosh of air from the ducts. Several cells down the row, a toilet flushes. From far away, sleep taunts me with a call of "Catch me if you can!" 3. In the grand scheme of things, this day won't matter. These breaths I'm taking now are nothing, from the unfathomable perspective of the universe's infinite void. Why bother at all with this alarm, this pathetic little device created to instill in the humans who use it a vain sense of purpose as we stumble about our minuscule lives? Why get out of bed? Why dress and shave and all the rest if this, in the cosmic sense, will all be over soon anyway? My stripped-clean bones' ultimate disintegration, these concrete walls' crumbling to dust, and the heat death of the universe itself are all inevitabilities so why expend the energy to get up? Yet somehow, I muster enough fortitude to open one eye.... 4. There was a song. Now I don't remember how it went. We were singing it together, the cast of The Simpsons and myself. I don't mean the voice actors who perform as characters for the show, but the characters themselves. We were in a Matt Groening version of Denny's, performing terrible, croony songs for the elderly midday diners. I wake up wondering whether it's stranger that my mind could envision me singing alongside cartoon characters or that I might dream about a TV series I haven't watched in more than twenty-four years. 5. Morning. The bed is the perfect temperature not so warm that I risk sweating, not so cool that I'll bother dragging my blanket up from the foot. I also, somehow, have found a comfortable position. The sheets are clean and still fluffy from yesterday's washing. I could stay right here, just like this, until noon except there's work to be done. 6.
I bolt upright and slap my alarm clock. I lie back down and stretch my arms, my neck, my legs, my spine. A thought crosses my mind: Exactly when did I become someone who doesn't care to sleep in?. Climbing down from the bunk, I slip. In the awkward process of righting myself, I twist my wrist to a point just this side of painful. For a moment, the temptation is to pre-emptively resign myself to a cavalcade of minor failures today. A moment later, I reconsider, regroup, and find my center. I embark.

31 July, 2023

A President's Vision

The twentieth annual Speak Easy Gavel Club awards and swearing-in banquet was held in the visiting room at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center yesterday afternoon. It's tradition for the incoming president to give a vision speech that gives club members a sense of what they might expect to see in the coming year. Here is the vision speech that I delivered to my fellow Gaveliers and the prison's Institutional Activities Coordinator, Deputy Warden, and Warden. Afterward, the warden twice said to me, "Let me know what you need." I'll take that as a sign that the club put our best face forward.

* * * * *

In the five years since I joined this club, I've witnessed a lot of changes in our fellow members, in our leadership, in our meeting times. My earliest meetings were attended by a VIC, a Volunteer in Corrections, Mr. Dan Curry, who came every week and not only oversaw our activities but walked the Toastmasters education path alongside us, fulfilling assignments in the manuals as he worked toward his Competent Communicator and Competent Leader certification. The enthusiasm he displayed was inspiring to a new member like myself, especially since I didn't fully know what possessed me to sign up for an organization that I always thought was for corporate management wannabes and aspiring youth pastors.

That's not me. I never had corporate ambitions or a yearning to spread the Word. The fact is, as some of you know, I'm a bit of an oddball. I grew up kind of quiet, kind of quirky, more solitary reader than team leader. Yet here I am, speaking to you as the president of the Speak Easy Gavel Club, at our twentieth annual banquet.

I don't want this to sound like an icebreaker speech, because those of you who are members already know me. I assume you do, anyway, and that that's why you asked me to run, then elected me to this office.

In the past year and a half, first as an interim officer, then for a full term, I served as this club's Vice President Education. I loved being VPE, and I think my experience typifies what the club experience is about. You know that old saying about there being those who are born great and those who have greatness thrust upon them? It's the same with leadership. I never wanted to hold office in anything. Then a previous VPE pulled me to the back of the room and basically told me to perform his duties for the three months before he went home. People saw that I was doing his job, so they made his job my job.

This is how it is, a lot of times. One piece of wisdom that I took from Mr. Curry, the VIC I mentioned a moment ago, was to ask of every situation, "What have I learned from this?" The thing I learned from being thrust into the office of VPE was that we often don't know what we're capable of until someone says, "Do this." How will you find out what you can do if you never try?

As VPE, I tried to introduce a variety of special meetings about one per month that stretched the boundaries of what members thought themselves capable, or of what they believed might be interesting, but still involved the communication skills and quick thinking that Toastmasters is known for. It was the belief of Mr. Ralph Smedley, who founded Toastmasters in 1924, that we learn best in moments of enjoyment. In that spirit, I tried to bring fun into the meetings while staying true to our educational mission.

My one-year term as VPE ended on the first of this month. I had to pass the responsibilities along, so I did that in the same way as it was done to me, by pawning the role off on some poor schmuck. Thank you, Mr. Peirano, for taking the mantle and bringing your attentiveness to that important position.

So, the presidency. The membership has chosen me to lead our club into 2024. I had an opportunity last Friday to meet with what incoming board members we currently have, and at that meeting I made clear my expectations of as well as my hopes for each of them as club officers. To sum this up in three words, that's: persistence, professionalism, and perspective.

Think about these clichés. "You get what you give." "It works if you work it." "You get out what you put in." Is there anyone in this room who doesn't believe that we'll improve ourselves if we fully embrace our responsibilities in this club? Is there anyone here who thinks we're in anything other the business of self-improvement? What I tried to do as VPE, and what I will continue to do as president, is remind every member of this club as often as I can that we became Gaveliers to improve our communication and leadership skills.

Okay, maybe that's not entirely true. Transferred here from a facility on the opposite side of the state, I signed up to meet people and to network. You might ask, "Why not just do that on the yard? Why sign up for a callout?" The answer's simple: a Gavelier has at least a spark inside that they're trying to coax a fire from a fire of enthusiasm, a fire of rhetoric, a fire like a phoenix, rising up from the ashes of another, former self, the self that came though that gate one, two, twenty, or however many years ago.

This club is a tool for self-betterment. We can use it to its fullest extent, but we that means work. And this involves more than just showing up every week, maybe being asked to serve as timer or to count speakers' crutch words or to deliver a TableTopics speech. It means planning what you're going to do and then doing it. I see a Gavel Club that's not afraid of taking personal risks if you were at our April membership drive event, or you saw it on TV, you see the superhero aerobics-class improv skit. That was silly, and those guys who got up to participate threw everything they had into the bit. That's the kind of fearless energy I love to see in meetings. I'd like to see it displayed more outside of the club, too.

I have a vision for this club that lies outside the scope of what we've been comfortable with so far, and what previous ERDCC administrators have allowed. I see our members not as mere Gaveliers but as future community organizers, business managers, peer counselors, heads of families, influencers, church leaders, city councilpersons, and so much more. I plan to invite guest speakers from outside and inside the facility, to host seminars that break down barriers and encourage productive conversation across boundary lines, and to nudge us all past our comfort zones to find the places where real growth takes place. I want to make an independent leader out of every single member of this club.

That's my vision, but how do we achieve it? How do we travel from one place to another? How do we build a house? How do we start a movement? How did I, as a new club member, become Vice President Education, or President, for that matter? How does a person do anything? It's actually the easiest thing in the world. You do the thing by doing it.

I want to do the thing, and I want you all to do it right alongside me. I see changes coming to ERDCC, and more importantly, I see a real hunger among its population for positive activity and meaningful structure. This club is uniquely positioned to give them both. That's the thing. I want to do it. Who's with me?

14 July, 2023

Swing, Batter! Suffer, Byron!

One of the most popular XSTREAM Media programs is easily Game of the Week. This in-house production produced by my coworkers and me is nothing more than video footage of a Recreation Department-sanctioned team sport being played in the previous seven days of its broadcast. Sometimes the game is Pickleball, at other times it's basketball. Whatever the sport, I dislike having anything to do with it.

For years, every annual "King of the Hill" sports event at ERDCC was recorded with a single video camera, then broadcast without graphics on the person's closed-circuit TV system and it was fine. That all changed when one of my coworkers bragged about the last prison he was at, saying in our boss's presence, "Back at Potosi, we used to tape every basketball game." It wasn't a week before the boss bought two $1,200 shoulder-mounted Panasonic video cameras and told us to start producing weekly sports broadcasts. So we do. I designed a logo for XSTREAM Sports that transformed the head of our vaguely menacing octopus logo into a basketball. Then I made a Pickleball version. Then I did one for softball. If they ever allow prisoners to play soccer in Missouri, I'll probably have to make a version for that, too.

If only that's where my responsibility ended. Every Tuesday, because no one else is available, the three members of Team XSTREAM who are too nerdy and/or crowd-averse to play team sports
Ridhwan, Jason, and myself gear up and head out to the diamond to record another "exciting" round of ball-and-stick. For the record, for those who don't know me or haven't followed this blog long enough to know, videotaping a summer softball game is pretty close to being as un-Byronic as an activity can get. (Attending the performance of a Journey cover band, accompanied by two excitable children, would be one that goes a step further.) I'm basically a human-mushroom hybrid and thrive in cool, dark places. There are three simple reasons why: (1) I don't tolerate heat, (2) I quickly scorch when exposed to direct sunlight, and (3) I don't understand the rules nor the mass appeal of sport in general. Nevertheless, there I go, every Tuesday, up onto the volleyball stand, to train a camera over a fence and record two back-to-back games of slow-pitch softball. The camera I run sits just beside the batting cage. The commentators who mike up and feed audio into my camera are a couple of wise-asses intent on roasting every player they can: "His teeth look like he just ate a box of Cheez-Its and didn't brush." "Here comes Charles Manson up to the plate." "Armstrong is a terrible player. Terrible." "His pants are so tight, they're cutting off circulation to his brain." "It's Sammy's birthday today. He's 88 years old and still pitching." And so on. About half the time, I get a headache hearing their yammering through my headphones for two hours at a stretch. It would help if they were at least funny.
Alas, sunburn and a sore neck seem to be my weekly lot in life now. It's a peculiar place to be. We don't have Nielsen ratings, just word on the yard. Like I said, though, the population seems to like it which is what really matters.

27 June, 2023

Two Books I Read This Spring

In the first chapter of Walter de la Mare's 1922 novel Memoirs of a Midget, the female narrator says, "It is true that my body is among the smaller works of God." (A journalist, we are told, once wrote this about her.) She adds, "But I think [the journalist] paid rather too much attention to this fact."

Indeed, Memoirs of a Midget runs from front to back with that sentiment. It imagines the life of a little person and her closest associations. The title today sounds outdated; at worst, even offensive. Such is the fate of a lot of literature that's fortunate enough to survive into subsequent centuries. Moving past the wording of the book's title, though, I found a lovely, bittersweet, compassionate story that treats its narrator's minuscule stature as secondary to the point that she's a complicated person with a deep inner life. Yes, Memoirs of a Midget encroaches at times on the borderlands of twee, owing mostly to its sentimentality characteristic of a lot of books of its time but it never quite goes over the edge. I'm glad I took the recommendation of the New York Review of Books on this one.

Toiling over the works of John Berryman for months gave me an appreciation for the poet, as well as for the origin of the Nick Cave lyric, "Bukowski was a jerk; Berryman was best / He wrote like wet papier mâché / but he went the Hemingway / weirdly on wings and with maximum pain" (from the excellent song "We Call upon the Author"). This is not to say that I enjoyed what I read, but I respected it.

The volume that I combed, Collected Poems, 1937-1971, edited and annotated by Charles Thornbury, brings together what I can only call the lesser work of this tortured, enraptured soul. It includes Berryman's collections The Dispossessed, Sonnets to Chris, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, Love & Fame, Delusions etc of John Berryman, as well as excerpts from Short Poems, His Thought Made Pockets & the Plane Bukt, Twenty Poems, and Poems
a veritable Berryman trove. Conspicuously absent is The Dream Songs, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. Thornbury writes that he omitted that work because Berryman didn't personally select and arrange that collection. I'm skeptical. Thornbury's introduction employs a quote from the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in which she writes of Berryman, "I have been struggling with these sonnets many beautiful lines but I do find him difficult." If Thornbury intended to (as I suspect he did) emphasize how challenging this work can be, avoiding Berryman's most read, highest-awarded, and, arguably, most respected work makes good, strategic sense. Accordingly, this collection feels at times like a test. Berryman owes a debt to Shakespeare, and his reliance on form and frequent use of bardic language give his poems a trying air of fustiness. I get the most out of him when he seems to try the least hard. In spite of how stuffy the fourteen-line structure can feel in other poets' hands, Sonnets to Chris, the 117 sonnets written for his mistress over the course of just six months, seem to mark Berryman at his most relatable, probably because the sonnets expose his humanity amid a torrid extramarital affair he was having at that time. I won't likely be reading the fantasies or children's books of Walter de la Mare. If I read anything more by John Berryman it'll be his much-lauded Dream Songs (and that probably not for several years). These high-flying books have put me in the mood for some very grounded nonfiction.

13 June, 2023


Within a couple of days of D.R. moving into the wing, I got to see the range of this young man's talent and humor. We met when he leaned his lanky frame through the open doorway of the production studio where my coworkers and I had just taped another episode of our in-prison cooking show, THIS IS FIRE. D.R. had been lured away from the basketball court by the smell of a Tex-Mex pizza our host had just made.

"What goes on in here?" D.R. wanted to know. In the dreary, do-nothing environment of prison, the bright lights and big green screen of our studio attract a lot of attention. Clipboard in hand, oversized headphones around my neck, I explained THIS IS FIRE's premise, then summarized the other TV programs that we create and broadcast. "Man," he said, "you're like a real producer!"

He and I ended up talking for a half hour, right then. I learned that D.R. was twenty-three years old about the same age as I was when I came to prison. He was an aspiring rapper from Saint Louis. He showed me, on his tablet, some clips of music videos that feature him rapping about being broke, having personality crises, and living as a young black man in a mad world of biases and belligerence. The kid had bars. I expressed sincere praise.

D.R lived upstairs in my wing. The administration moved him in as part of the mentorship program recently begun here at ERDCC. He was a mentee, a first-time offender who staff believed could benefit from being housed in an honor dorm, undertaking a regimen of self-reflection, and being advised by older prisoners with a good deal of experience doing time. It's weird to think that I now meet the criteria and have been made a mentor. I took a genuine liking to D.R. and spent some time with him, talking about his music, his ideas about living, his dreams, and making TV. He could rap off the cuff as well as write solid rhymes, and was serious about honing his skills. He also had a mischievous streak. As he told jokes, he slung his limbs around with an artless grace that I admired. He laughed freely and often. But I saw anger in him, too. When a guard asked him, more gruffly than necessary, why he was taking two dinner trays at the serving window, D.R. copped an attitude. He could've instead just pointed to the guy on crutches he was helping out. Just as it seemed as if a shouting match would develop, D.R. evidenced some restraint. I told him later that he handled it all right but had enough wherewithal to control his temper better in the future. I knew that involvement with positive activities now could set the stage for his whole sentence. It was all the more important because of the long road that D.R., fresh to prison, now faces. After he and I got better acquainted, I approached my boss to see about inviting D.R. to cohost a show we're developing, The Karaoke Threat, which is basically our answer to Wild'n Out. The boss said yes. I was thrilled to tell D.R. the news. Here was a chance for him to get in at the ground floor and establish himself as a personality with plenty to offer the ERDCC community
an opportunity that, had it come my way, might have changed the whole trajectory of my early years in prison. Like an excited kid, D.R. went around, crowing how he was going to be XSTREAM's first megastar. A couple of days after I introduced him to his cohosts, Luke and Kenny, my XSTREAM teammates, D.R. brought me a crude little illustration of himself onstage with an XSTREAM octopus logo behind him. He couldn't wait. "Just be patient," Luke told him one day. "We're waiting for a couple more people to sign up. Then we'll start taping." D.R. was itching to flaunt his hip-hop chops to the population. Meanwhile, life in the wing was tedious. There's only so much pinochle a guy can play every day before he needs to get out and start doing something. D.R. wanted a job. I advised him to wait until something better came along, but he got antsy. Since the kitchen's always hiring, that's the job he went after, to work the lunch shift. I wanted so badly for D.R. to outshine the image of the angry young black man that some people perceived him as. He could use his talent to such great ends. But when the guards hoisted him off the kitchen's greasy floor and took him to the Hole, D.R.'s first day on the job, any immediate hope for that disappeared.
It's been a week; I still don't know what exactly transpired that afternoon, why the guards used force to restrain him, or what initially sparked the conflict. I might never find out. I do know that we tape Episode One of The Karaoke Threat on Saturday. It won't be nearly as good without D.R. and his freestyling. I hope he's doing okay.

25 May, 2023

A Prose Poem


Listening to ten-year-old music podcasts can inspire melancholia.

This is particularly true when unmoored and far from any cultural shore. Music, technology, habits. When my thoughts drift to freedom, I consider the ethics of gas versus electric, methods for socializing, personal finance. The popularity of fitted shirts inspires minor anxiety. To be a stranger in that strange land! To shroud myself and adhere to wayward genres and write missives to a world that can never understand. To wake at an unseemly hour, meditate and stare into the predawn dark as if in defiance of all that's been done. (Notice I'm not directly blaming.) To return to the town, a nobleman of no rank, a man with dreams, however ostentatiously realistic. A cup of coffee. A splay of fruit on a white ceramic plate. A sunrise.
If this seems like nothing to you, old friend, wait till you get to be my age.

19 May, 2023

No Rest for the Weary

By the bylaws of the Speak Easy Gavel Club, I couldn't run for a second full term as Vice President Education. Not that I wanted to; being VPE takes work. After serving as an interim officer for seven months and then for a full term, I've done my bit to further the membership's communication and leadership goals. It's time for someone else to make the schedules, plan special meetings, and track members' progress along the Toastmasters education track.

I was fully prepared to kick back and rest on my laurels. The idea was to work on speech projects from Toastmasters' Storytelling and Communicating on Video manuals and that's all. I wanted a breather. Instead, a clubmate nominated me for President. One by one, over a period of a couple of weeks, almost half of the active members approached to ask me if I'd run. I caved. They voted me in. So much for kicking back.

Outgoing President Roberts is leaving office while the club is on an upward trajectory. Our previous president left in ignominy a minor scandal resulting in the club's first-ever disciplinary hearing, which I, in the capacity of VPE, had to chair. Roberts returned to active membership after a years-long absence, to run for and ultimately serve out the nine months remaining in our ousted leader's term. We were grateful, but not enough to keep him in office for another year

This is not to say that Roberts wasn't a good president. He succeeded in getting a state politician to RSVP as a guest for our annual awards and installation banquet. He also kicked the club's ongoing fundraiser into high gear with the purchase of a deep freeze for storing frozen foods that provide a higher profit margin than Mrs. Freshly's fruit pies offer us. It's no surprise, Roberts was expecting to be re-elected to serve a full term. I understand his disappointment, even though I think a little too much ego-fulfillment fueled his efforts.

Luckily, a Gavel Club or Toastmasters President does less than their Vice President Education has to. I've been training what I hoped would be my successor for months, and now he's taking my place in the role. I can hardly wait to hand over to him the massive black accordion folder that's taken up space beside my desk for a year and a half. The first thing I have to do is compose a vision speech for our upcoming awards and installation banquet.
I have plenty of ideas about how to improve and expand our club doings, including how to better the club's reputation among the prison's population. We'll see how successfully I can herd these cats. Maybe I'll get a chance to present a few speech projects too. Wish me luck!

03 May, 2023

Aramark's First Days at ERDCC

Hearty Vegetable Soup. Garden Salad. Powdered Sugar Dusted Pink Cake. The way those descriptors stack up on Aramark's menu for the Missouri Department of Corrections, you'd think someone were being paid by the adjective. It's a busy menu, and someone definitely put time and effort into adapting the American Correctional Association's standards to serve Missouri's requirements. A 2,800-calorie-per-day average strikes me as high, especially considering how many carbs they feed us, but what do I know?

The Thursday before last marked the beginning of Aramark operations at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center, following Missouri's weird choice to outsource its prison food service divisions. The line extended out the chow-hall door and halfway to the property room. Even people who live almost entirely off food they buy from the canteen turned out for the occasion. Everyone wanted to try something new. We hadn't even seen a menu yet many were just sure Aramark's offerings would be an upgrade.

Tuscan Turkey Cacciatore. Kettle Blend Mixed Vegetables. Glazed BBQ Patty. These items and many more fill the new six-week cycle of meals. Some, like the Fresh Baked Roll, haven't been seen in the DOC since the '80s. Others are renamed versions of stuff we've been fed for years. The Crispy Chicken Patty, for instance, remains a bland, breaded, processed-meat disk of dubious provenance. I'm not complaining; the processed turkey that Aramark serves might be an abomination, but frozen vegetables are a huge step up from canned ones.

As we enter Week 3, our overall dietary changes seem value-neutral. For every good thing that replaced something awful, there's an awful thing that replaced something I used to eat. I like the meaty, noodly mess of American Goulash, which is new, but not the Turkey Chop Suey, which seems to be nothing more than vegetable soup with bologna chunks. Much of my life could be said to be one long period of bologna avoidance. I'm certainly not going to start eating the stuff now, just because it's infiltrated the vegetarian meals.

It remains a mystery why Missouri lawmakers approved a budget increase to contract with Aramark. I suspected that such a move might have been nutrition-based. The fact that fresh fruit is only served once a day, at breakfast, kills that theory. Most days, they serve cake twice. Those with a sweet tooth hare happy, at least.

20 April, 2023

Less "If-Then", More "Is"

We live our lives in uncertainty, in the hypothetical. How many of your thoughts today have been about what could (or, in your opinion, should) be?

"If I got a raise, then I can afford a new laptop."

"If I see Jessie at the party, I can ask them on a date." "If we stopped people from littering in this neighborhood, property values would increase." From the minute to the monumental, from the greedy to the altruistic, our tendency is to birth thoughts that point us toward the future, that incomprehensible, ever-elusive destination. We build not only our ideals but also our perspective on clouds. Herein lies a foundation for anxiety, paranoia, and all kind of stress. If thinking like this seems impractical, consider for a moment the value of making accurate predictions in a cause-and-effect reality. The ape who doesn't choose food that's safe to eat doesn't live to forage another day. Smart creatures make observations, then infer from those what foods can be eaten. "If I eat the red berries, then I might get sick" is a reasonable conclusion if you've seen others poisoned by eating red berries. If-then is the cornerstone of logical thought. The problem is, it can also be a trap. If and then assume the present as a given. In doing so, they incline us to ignore it. Even when a thought is based in here-and-now, how often do our minds remain with the present? The mind's inclination is to leap from one association to the next. We're natural storytellers. We're fantasists. We think that it isn't enough to have a fudge sundae in front of us; we imagine it'd taste even better with chocolate ice cream. Why is it so hard to be happy with what we've got? For crying out loud, it's right here at our disposal! Why not rejoice at our good fortune to have that sugary, fatty calorific sundae to savor? Yet this wishing for something else is exactly how we respond to circumstances most of the time, even when the dissatisfaction is subtle enough not to seem, on its surface, like a genuine lack. While shopping: "The name brand would be better than what I'm buying." On YouTube: "That video looks more interesting than the ones I've been watching." [Click.] During an evening walk with the one we love: "Those crickets could be quieter." You see the illogic here. Our big, amazing human brains can be so dumb. If not, no office drone would tack to their cubicle walls pop-philosophy statements like "It is what it is." They'd deem such statements too head-slappingly obvious to be interested. The sheer proliferation of "It is what it is" is solid evidence that a majority of us live not here-and-now but in dreamland. The world in which we live is in some ways a figment, the product of whims and half-understood psychologies. To open our eyes and perceive the present reality
that is, to become conscious of the precise now, without superimposing an imagined other, an if-then is the very definition of contentment.

Simply: "My laptop does what I need it to do, and more." "Being romantically unattached simplifies my life." "Picking up the litter I see in my neighborhood is the right thing to do." "This sundae is delicious." Is statements we should make more of them. Easier said than done. Countless times each day, I remind myself to remain in the presence of the present. Countless times each day, I fall short. That's okay. The point is that effort is being applied. When I catch myself drifting off course, listing toward dreamland, I gently take note and perform a corrective nudge. I no longer suffer from depression or anxiety. I get fewer headaches. Even my digestion has improved.

I wonder sometimes if the reason I've made mindfulness my practice is as a psychological shield against the effects of imprisonment. The seeds of enlightenment were already there, but there's no doubt the soil was cultivated by this pared-down lifestyle. There's a reason that millennia of seekers have removed themselves from society and become hermits, monks, and wanderers. Contemplation demands distance. The distance imposed on me by prison has played an indisputable role in my growth. There's just no way of knowing how much.

I wonder about this, and then I realize that it makes no difference anyway. No matter the reasons, this is the life I'm living. I'm trying to make the best of it by treating it well. How are you treating yours?

30 March, 2023

The Happy Man

Max Brod, literary heir to Franz Kafka, believed that diaries never record the highs of life, only the lows. He wrote that diaries "resemble a kind of defective barometric curve," recording only what is "oppressive or irritating" to their keepers.

Notwithstanding Brod's somewhat cynical take, we need only think about the rhapsodic diary entries of a teenager in love, or of a researcher hot on the trail of some long-sought bit of data, to see how wrong Brod's absolutism about diaries truly was. Still, the man got me thinking.

Sure, the twenty-first century has diarists (in the strict sense of the word), but one of our most prevalent forms of personal journaling may be the blog. Without too deeply analyzing what, exactly, this blog is, I can say that The Pariah's Syntax comprises a fractured but honest record of my life in prison, from 2007 to the present
the closest thing I have to a diary. Reading over old posts, I have to further question Brod's sentiment, because while I do often blog about weird and unpleasant stuff (prison's no picnic, after all), there are also quite a few posts about funny exchanges, serendipitous moments, and simple joy. Readers have commented on my sense of humor as much as, if not more than, on the tragedy of my wrongful conviction. And don't forget the weekly comic strip I drew here for almost a year. While it wasn't strictly biographical, it directly drew from my experiences in the literary world, inherently kind of a funny place. This inconsistent online diary obviously fails the Max Brod test pretty badly. Someone, somewhere else claimed that it's impossible to write a good story about a happy man. Their premise was that desire and conflict are necessary to storytelling. Ache propels narrative; characters that want for nothing permit no plot. A writer has to know what drives those who populate the work, so that those desires can be either met or withheld in service to the narrative. The same is true of all writing, whether novelistic, journalistic, or bloggy. In writing this blog, week after week, I feel obligated to give you something at least moderately interesting to read about. In years past, that seemed easier. I could jot down an indignant, maybe snarky account of some prison-yard happening, and that'd be that. Sometimes readers even left nice comments. As the twenty-two year anniversary of my imprisonment approaches, I find it harder to muster much indignation. I accept too much without complaint. Basically, I'm too happy. Its a weird concept, I realize, but true. And who wants to read the thoughts of someone who responds to stressful situations with calm, or who smirks and says, "So it goes," when others see catastrophe looming? I wonder if I'm doing you a disservice by not conjuring up a little more irritation now and again. People who see me every day have spoken about my "Zenlike calm" in the face of harrowing circumstances. A neighbor who recently learned that I practice Buddhism was like, "Wow. That explains everything!" (I had to laugh; exactly what needed explaining?) However, it's true that this practice can incline one's mind toward peaceful acceptance. Does this mean that Buddhists make shitty diarists?
Putting that fruitless question aside, the next imponderable that I present is how might a writer keep satisfaction and harmony from killing a narrative? I suppose I mean that to be rhetorical. This isn't a post about crafting a story, nor about finding happiness. Not directly, anyway. I'm in no position to write about either. I'm just sharing with you, dear reader, what thoughts have recently popped up in my mind. Your comments, of course, are welcomed.

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.