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.