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.