15 June, 2024

Forget What You've Heard, Prison Culture Isn't Monoculture

Surprise: the movies and TV series all have it wrong. There's no one, defining culture in prison, and the differences between one unit and the next — even within the same facility — can be substantial.

A standard set of policies governs the Missouri Department of Corrections. Every one of the sixteen institutions within the Department have to abide by those, with a little wiggle room in the form of their own Standard Operating Procedure (which is nominally for clarification but is mainly used by prison administrations to deviate from the letter of departmental policy). SOP is where the details lie.

The DOC might allow its residents to mail order a certain type of art supply material, but if one maximum-security facility decides not to allow that item — say, tunes of acrylic paint — they're within their right to impose an SOP that clips a prisoner's creative wings. Case in point was Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent nearly seventeen years and never was allowed to order paper or colored pencils. My first month at ERDCC, I remedied that. Today I have several types, colors, and sizes of paper stock, as well as charcoal, water-soluble graphite, and watercolor pencils. Other maximum-security facilities let prisoners order craft glue, needlepoint supplies, et cetera. The decision to allow or restrict such things seems to be the wardens' discretion.

Top-down policies are one thing, but grassroots factors, arguably, have even greater effects on prison culture. After all, policies are enforced (or not) and followed (or not) by people. All it takes is one indifferent or ignorant guard and one unaware or brazen prisoner to dissolve any rule.

Then there are the unwritten rules. This is where culture, aka "how we do things here" comes in. In prison — in this prison, anyway — there's a taboo against spitting in the sink. When you're brushing your teeth, the expectation is generally to spit in the toilet. Why? I don't actually know. Because germs, I guess. They say, "When in Rome...," but my current cellmate and I refuse to conform to what we think is a silly custom. We still spit in our sink and clean it regularly, just like regular people do.

This makes us a minority, and there are plenty of other circumstances and conditions in which a status quo defines how everyone behaves. Different areas of a single housing unit can often vary in their customs. Here in B-Wing of Housing Unit 6, one of the places where a lot of people hang their laundry after washing it by hand is on the mesh underside of the stairs (never mind the filth that rains down from shoes as people ascend and descend). I've never seen people hang their stuff under the stairs in any other wing I've inhabited, yet here it's the norm.

Or take the practice of someone hanging their ID card on a shower when they come in from recreation, thereby calling "dibs" on it while they gather their shower supplies. In some wings, the reservation is honored, even encouraged, while in others it could end you up in a fight.
Consider, also, the segregation of telephones into whites-only and blacks-only phones. Here we are in the twenty-first century, but some members of the institution's population want everyone sharply divided in accord with racist ideals. In some wings at this facility (not mine, thank goodness) this practice is considered acceptable, even normal.
These differences aren't always negative. I've known wings that have a new-arrivals welcoming committee offering a little package of snacks and inexpensive hygiene products. I've heard of places where a whole wing will get together, one night a month, and prepare a meal. Sometimes you'll hear about a unit where residents periodically band together and deep-clean the place, where discourtesies are not permitted, or where there's some sort of self-organized game competition, complete with prizes.
It's always interesting to hear accounts of how things are at other facilities. A couple of years ago, the Missouri DOC cut off communication between prisoners at different camps. They never outright said why, but this practice of barring prisoner communication mirrors rules that other states have in effect. We don't hear much about customs in other institutions, except when someone transfers from elsewhere. Then it's like story time.

31 May, 2024

A Good Week: ERDCC Hosts Freedom Reads and My TV Talk Show Broaches Literature

Yet another fulfilling event took place last Tuesday, when I got to meet some of the staff of Freedom Reads, an organization whose goal is to bring the arts into America's prisons. They were here to coordinate judging for the inaugural Inside Literary Prize (voted on by imprisoned readers who read four finalists' books) and to present a reading and book signing by the poet Tim Seibels.

A very nicely designed brochure for Freedom Reads says, "Amidst the chaos and control that characterizes prison, its difficult to bring into focus the intellectual, cultural, and emotional loss that incarcerated people experience." That's certainly true. Diminishing the oppressive sense of chaos and control is what I try to do in my job at XSTREAM. The brochure goes on to say, "While there are many organizations dedicated to decreasing the number of people in prison, few focus on the burdens of prison for those imprisoned."

If my life, like a literary journal, had themes, this month's would be "touching literature," where "touching" functions as verb, not adjective, as in: "I extended a finger, touching book spines on the shelf." To have a direct physical engagement with literature and the literary world can mean more than simply reading in solitude. The people at Freedom Reads know this. It's why they do what they do.

This is to say, the poetry reading was cool, but the conversations I had with our guests from Freedom Reads were the best takeaway. They were so enthusiastic and engaged. As I quickly learned, two of them served time in prison. One's been out for seventeen months — after nearly thirty years in. Another did two years but even now can't be older than his mid-twenties. Their experiences were different, but they both had wisdom and insight to share. Engaging with them lifted my spirits, inspired me, and reminded me of a sometimes-overlooked value of literature: its power to connect readers with one another.

Last week was literature. This week's more of the same. How many people get to engage with one of their passions so effortlessly within their day-to-day? Sometimes I feel so amazingly fortunate.

I asked the Freedom Reads guys what books helped them through their time in prison. Their responses informed the on-air exchange I'll have with my guest for this week's taping of a reading-can-save-your-life episode of the talk show I host — a literature professor from Saint Louis University. I plan to talk with Dr. Lynch about the vital importance of reading, especially to people who are locked up. I've also asked him to supply me with a list of books he believes are essential reading for the imprisoned. I have my own; it'll be interesting to compare the two.

16 May, 2024

For If Dreams Die

Exactly when did I give up on dreams? I used to wake up on any given morning and be able to recall multiple dreams from the night before. Sleep was an adventure when I was a kid. I expect that's true for many of us. Then, at some point, we get busy. School or work take precedence in our lives. Priorities shift and we become practical, responsible beings emboldened by great purpose and propelled by tremendous efficiency, allowing no time for our minds to idle. We leave dreams behind, replacing them with aspirations — not the same thing at all.

A lot of kids and a few adults are capable of exercising conscious will in dreams. They fly, interact with the people being dreamed up, and generally control what happens in their dreams — a phenomenon called lucid dreaming. By no means have I researched the ability; although, years ago I did try to cultivate it by keeping a dream journal and practicing a recommended technique for enabling lucid dreaming.

The mnemonic involved asking myself "Is this a dream?" anytime I walked through a doorway. (Once you make that a habit, it's supposed to be easier to ask the question in an actual dream. The realization that you're dreaming is supposed to be all you need to start dreaming with intention.) Doing that got tedious, but the journaling was worse.
I'd hoped to improve my sleep. Sitting awake for long minutes in the middle of the night, scribbling half-legible notes of my latest dream, had the opposite effect. I lost a good deal of sleep and I never experienced a lucid dream. All I have to show for those efforts is a blog post about some of the crazier dreams I wrote down. Is this a dream? How many times in life do we ask ourselves if we're dreaming? We're often suspicious of extreme states. When shit goes off the rails, we often doubt (or hope for cause to doubt) what our senses tell us. The same applies when amazing things are happening. We question equally the reality of the good and the bad. As you already figured out, I gave up the journal. I also gave up the hope of controlling my dreams. Really, I gave up putting stock in dreams at all. What was the point of paying them any mind? Shakespeare knew about dreams, those of a midsummer night and otherwise, "begot of nothing but vain fantasy." The Bard recognized their ephemerality, their illusoriness. He cautioned against trusting them. The Buddha did too. Carl Jung, of course, disagreed. Sigmund Freud split the difference with his psychotherapeutic approach in the late 1800s, but cultures and traditions that put a high value on dreams endure to this day.
I guess I'm too much of an empiricist to take the view that dreams are either comprehensible windows into the subconscious or doors to other realms of existence. I never thought my dreams were trying to tell me something. Dreams don't exert a will of their own. They might feel alien, but even Freud acknowledged that they're very much our own weird, sometimes deranged children.
Even when I took an interest in oneironautics, the practice of lucid dreaming, I wasn't seeking consciousness expansion or a mystical cross-dimensional gateway. I just thought it'd be cool to steer my dreams in a different direction than they usually went on their own.

So far I've only been referring to dream-dreams. At some point in my life, however, I put not only nighttime dreams behind me, I also loosened the shackles of waking fantasy. Daydreams are so often pointless musings that get in the way of what needs to be done — and I say "needs" only in the sense that it impacts the self, not that groceries need to be picked up or you need to get an appendectomy. There's also the need of the spirit to grow, which I argue it can't very well do when you're busy pining after some shiny token of recognition, striving for wealth, or conniving to win authority.
In what I always found to be an ugly little couplet, some poet I no longer remember, wrote that if you let go of your dreams, life becomes "a broken-winged bird that cannot fly." I call bullshit. A life with purpose is good, but how might we rate the quality of a life governed by preoccupation? Will anyone claim distraction (or monomaniacal fixation) as their ideal? Doubtful. If the point is flexibility rather than uncompromising obsession, we have to be willing to take what comes, to be willing to adapt and not fixate on our unfulfilled wants every time life takes an unexpected turn.

I've said over and over that I'm happier not hanging my hat on hope than clinging to what might never be. I keep coming back to this topic, in conversation and in writing. I also wrote this blog post about hope when my case went back to the courts, which takes a peek at my feelings on the subject. Everybody needs a hobby.

Discovering contentedness despite seemingly arduous circumstances didn't come easily, and I do the world a disservice by not being able to articulate exactly how I did it — but I have, and even though I feel as if my dreams die a little more each day, life seems to get better and better as they do. I feel connected with the here and now, and I don't even need to ask if I'm dreaming. Why doesn't English have a word for the practice of lucid waking?

29 April, 2024

Rainy Tokyo Walkthrough Blues

Rain falls on the screen-lit streets of Tokyo. Cars pass the flashing storefronts. Billboard trucks, illuminated from within, trundle by. Lanterns cast their glow over scooters parked in alleys. People, sheltering under mostly transparent umbrellas, ignore each other except as noticing them is necessary to dodge and weave around other pedestrians. I watch the video and wonder where everyone could be going.

These walkthroughs are apparently popular on YouTube, where my boss downloads them for us to play on one of the in-house TV channels that my coworkers and I program and maintain. We've shown forest walkthroughs, downtown walkthroughs, lakeside walkthroughs, desert walkthroughs, park walkthroughs, beach walkthroughs.... Whether one exists I can't be sure, but about the only kind we haven't shown is a space walkthrough.

Seoul, South Korea, on a quiet snowy evening, was one of our most popular. It's been requested by several different people to replay since we first broadcast it last year on Relax. Relax is the channel where we show all of this type of content. (All of our channels have an X in their names, a tradition I claim to have started but the groundwork for which can technically be said to have been lain before I ever came to work at XSTREAM.) Some of the other things that play twenty-four hours a day on Relax include landscape flyovers, trippy fractal patterns, outer space photography, steaming cups of tea, nature footage, closeups of burning incense, and vacant jazz coffeehouses. We try to keep things varied. Walkthrough videos are probably a lot more popular where I live — in prison — than in society at large. At least out there you (theoretically) have the option to visit another place whenever you choose to do so. My options are more limited. Glimpses of the outside world, such as those offered by walkthrough videos, can be as refreshing as they can be melancholy. As I observe the people on Tokyo's wet streets, I also observe myself and consider the nature of my watching. Am I watching because Tokyo has been on my bucket list forever? Am I watching because of all the pretty colors? Am I watching because I miss the unique type of human contact that only takes place in a crowded metropolis? No matter what the specific reason, I recognize my watching as a symptom of WITBO — wishing it to be otherwise. Rainy Tokyo Walkthrough caught my eye because I'm dissatisfied with my current situation. I wish for something other than what is. I wish here and now to be there and then. Can you blame me? Part of Buddhist practice involves cultivating contentment and equanimity. For all my personal and spiritual development, for all the comments people make about my so-called enlightened state, I doubt I'm anywhere near Nirvana. I watch videos of nighttime in a Japanese city and dream of the sound my shoes would make splashing along its crowded crosswalks. I fantasize about the food offered in its intimate little restaurants. I ogle its huge billboard advertisements. I'm a prisoner of not only the state but of the masochistic workings of my own human mind.
The best thing to do is turn off the TV and turn inward, to sit awhile with the ember that is my humanity, let it smolder, let its smoke sting my eyes, let it slowly, at a pace impossible for me to measure or even conceive, exhaust itself.

10 April, 2024


I do a lot: President of the Speak Easy Gavel Club; head of the prison media center (aka XSTREAM); host of Real Talk, a televised forum about issues affecting imprisoned people; showrunner for several regular TV series; producer of a daily news broadcast; events coordinator for monthly speaking engagements, graduation ceremonies, and concerts; liaison for the ERDCC book club; and more.

Day to day, I fill several roles that demand a high level of performance brought to life's little stage. There's showmanship in what I do, but I'm really using the word "performance" here to mean "engagement" — attentive dedication to a task.

I make time to breathe. I do stretches in the morning, before leaping down from the upper bunk, because I know the day won't afford time to do them later. Moving forward, I keep a natural pace. I try not to rush. Sometimes I even dawdle. But my time is limited and other people's needs are frequently great, so discernment is required. You have to recognize the difference between a necessary pause and a waste of time. Amid the passing of hours, I weigh every moment, then lean as close as physically and psychologically possible in the direction that keeps me most balanced. The key is not to tip over. People think I do a good job of staying on an even keel. There was a time when ANNOYED was my default mode when interfacing with the world, so its fascinating to me that I'm now regarded as a chill dude. "I never see you look annoyed," an acquaintance said to me last week. A lot of the time I'm just too busy to be irritated. When you operate on a higher plane because some driving purpose compels you forward, there's no incentive to get lost in the weeds, obsessing about tetchy details. You literally can't be bothered with little shit when all your concerns relate to matters of sizeable significance.
I started this post to kind of talk through the awe that I sometimes feel at how busy I am. Sometimes I ask myself if I'm a workaholic. As long as I can continue to answer "no" to that question, I figure I'm good. It's just that I get to fulfill so many useful purposes through my job, to be creative, to exercise some agency during my life of confinement, and to make money on top of it all. May I be forgiven if I like these things too much.

21 March, 2024

Four Books I Read This Winter

Without the book club that I joined last year, this and the previous post about my reading habits would probably be shorter. We used to meet biweekly. Since December, to accommodate the professor's teaching schedule, our meetings went monthly. I read at the same pace, but now I eagerly anticipate the second Wednesday of the month.

Our club's selection this go-round was actually one that I suggested. I'd wanted for several years to read Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's novel about the identity and status of a black man in a society that only sees in him what they find personally or ideologically expedient. The other members of the club assented, and Saint Louis University bought enough copies of the book to supply our needs and then some.

From its opening pages to its harrowing epilogue, satire, symbolism, and seething anger suffuse Invisible Man. In between, the unnamed narrator recounts the long series of ordeals he's endured at the hands of people who seem to have more control over his life than he himself does. The man is villainized, fetishized, and bullied at every turn, and only in the final scenes does he come to a crucial realization and act in his own best interests. The book was written in the early 1950s but remains relevant. It fueled long, trenchant conversations with my fellow book clubbers and made for an enriching, eye-opening read. At several points in my literary travels over the years, I encountered references to a highly regarded work of social criticism, Amusing Ourselves to Death, written in the early '80s by a man by the name of Neil Postman. The author published a number of books that decried television's deleterious effects on society, the declining quality of education, and the ethical poverty of news media. I had to read it. Amusing Ourselves to Death sat quietly on my wish list for years before I found myself in the mood for a media studies text. (You know, as one does.) Since no one else saw fit to do so, I eventually just bought it for myself. The method that Postman uses in this short, sometimes quite funny book, is a systematic one. He first describes how our minds are shaped, then lays out his theory that TV is ruining both our attention spans and our expectations of what media should be, as well as eroding our receptivity to education. After that, he traces the history of American discourse from the highly literate pamphleteers among the American colonists, all the way to "PBS News Hour." There are times when Postman's subject matter will raise skeptical readers' eyebrows. Not sounding like a cranky old fart is hard whenever you're arguing that time has changed things for the worse. Postman fights this fight unflaggingly, however, and those who stick with him, even through his fartiest-sounding claims, will eventually be won over. It's difficult to disagree with the rationale of his ultimate conclusions. There's a reason that Amusing Ourselves to Death is still assigned in colleges today, decades after Postman wrote it. If anything, he's even more relevant in our current era of the listicle, the news blast, and the fifteen-second commercial. The now-deceased writer David Markson came to my attention through a David Shields book that impressed the hell out of me thirteen years ago, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Shields's book implicitly asks readers what they think about when they think about literature — what forms, what meanings, what rules? The two books I read by Markson ask these same questions, ostensibly in novelistic form. Both This Is Not a Novel and its sort-of sequel, Vanishing Point, try to be works of fiction without characters or plot. The degree to which Markson succeeds depends on what you think fiction is and how you define "characters."
This Is Not a Novel starts off with the line, "Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing." There's nothing quite like ennui to fuel a good book, but Markson doesn't give two shits about narrative. He writes it all ("with no intimation of story anywhere") from notes on index cards collected and meticulously assembled by the character he names Writer. This was clearly Markson's method, also. And Vanishing Point does the same thing all over again. The smell of metafiction is strong on these books. There's also a lot about death. Assuming that Markson did good research and isn't trying to dupe anyone, we readers learn from him that Darwin wrote of being "nauseated" by poetry, that Italo Calvino died of a cerebral hemorrhage, that Mitsubishi manufactured the torpedoes used in the Pearl Harbor attack, that Abraham Lincoln never saw Europe, and a thousand other seemingly random facts, quotes, and observations that comprise these two weird little books. I've got another one still waiting for me, Markson's The Last Novel, the final work in a triptych he completed before his 2003 death.

13 March, 2024

The Great Spork Shortage of 2024

Call them disgusting, call them malnourishing, or call them gross, but prison meals, regardless of the facility serving them, have been consistently eaten at the same times of day for as long as the carceral system has existed. Routine is the foundation on which prisons traditionally operate; however, time changes all things, and even the most fervently held tradition is no exception.

There used to be a time when a prison meal being postponed for anything less than a full-on security breach was unimaginable. The phrase "like clockwork" applied very well. And now? It can be argued that there's no good time to come to prison, but this is an especially bad time for it — at least in Missouri, and particularly at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center, where it seems that everything is in a perpetual state of falling apart. This includes the dining experience.

We eat from brown, five-slot plastic trays. When I arrived at ERDCC, in 2018, cafeteria-style utensil cups occupied a cart, midway through the line, where there were bright orange sporks to eat your food with and eight-ounce aubergine tumblers for drinking the watered-down Kool-Aid. But allegations of utensil theft eventually prompted the kitchen staff to relocate the sporks to the serving line, where they began doling them out, one per tray. This worked fine but did little to stop anyone from taking stuff out of the dining hall. A person used to catch a conduct violation if they brought their own cup or utensil to the dining hall — or anything personal, for that matter, including canteen-bought condiments. That policy hasn't changed. The second rule painted in big, black letters on the beige brick wall (right after "NO HEADGEAR") still clearly reads, "NO PERSONAL ITEMS," it's just that no one enforces it anymore. Less than a year since I last saw someone turned away for having a coffee mug in his hand, bringing one's own personal cup and spork is now actively encouraged. Guards frequently make announcements over the intercom before releasing the housing unit to a meal, saying that the kitchen has no clean sporks or cups. Consistency in the institution's day-to-day operations has slowly, frustratingly, eroded since I arrived here, but this just seems ridiculous. Irregular mealtimes and staff's frequent failure to announce important events are bad enough, but when institutional amnesia about mealtime must-haves takes complete hold, what's a hungry guy to do? I purchased my own sturdy plastic spork from the canteen for 23¢, but I'm not always packing. Yesterday morning's oatmeal presented a challenge that I didn't care to answer, but when they caught me off guard on chili mac day, a couple of weeks ago, I was happy to have clean hands. My fingers smelled like onions and spices for the rest of the day, but I didn't miss that meal.
The odds of not getting a spork with any given tray are now close to fifty-fifty. I should know better than to come unequipped, but stubborn expectations keep winning out. The DOC's new fiscal quarter starts in April; maybe they'll invest in a remedy to this issue then.

07 March, 2024

Losing: It Gets Easier with Practice

Just a week and some days after my last post, the Missouri Court of Appeals issued a two-paragraph opinion denying my motion to recall the trial court's mandate. The judge's ruling said, in essence, that my claims of fraud on the court weren't appropriate for that venue. It wasn't that the issues I brought to them were invalid but that another court would have to decade them.

This is exactly what the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, under a different judge, decided about different issues, the last time I filed anything in my case. In my appeal of the Missouri Court of Appeals' 2004 mandate, the court declined to make a ruling and passed the buck to the US Supreme Court with all the judicial thoroughness of someone in a hurry to get back to his lunch. I was as confused as I was angry. <<i>>They get to just do that!? They get to just say, "Nah, I don't feel like deciding"!? After that, I spent a several weeks preparing to submit my case to the highest court in the land — which rubber-stamped it the first day back from its summer recess. My lawyers scheduled a call with me last week. On the phone, they sounded nervous about breaking the news of this latest denial. I can't imagine how difficult it must be, delivering that kind of message to someone who's entrusted you with winning back their freedom. They did a good job. They always do a good job. "How are you feeling?" one wanted to know. "It gets easier," I told them. After twenty-three years of this, I'd be in a pretty pathetic state if I hadn't developed a decent level of resilience. My first line of defense against crushing disappointment is refusing to let hope develop into expectations (which are by their nature always unrealistic). The American court system is going to be the American court system, a source of some illogical, unjust, or otherwise shitty rulings. When that happens and deals a blow to hope, it helps to be okay with sitting in sadness awhile, giving myself permission to feel the all-over hollow ache of such a loss. It's been a week since the ruling. My lawyers are already hard at work, retooling our motion to submit a habeas corpus petition. The same day that I learned about the court's non-decision, I had to chair a business meeting in Gavel Club. Then I had to meet with the chaplain and try to arrange reinstatement of Buddhist services, which were suspended in January due to low attendance. Then I had to conduct interviews for onboarding a new hire at my job. Then I had work of my own to do — TV programs to produce, events to organize, data to crunch, deadlines to meet. Then I went to sleep. I did more the next day. The show must go on. So must I. At this point, going on is just kind of my thing.

22 February, 2024

A New Hope

A motion to undo my wrongful conviction was filed in the Missouri Court of Appeals in December. Katie Moore, the reporter for The Kansas City Star who interviewed me for her article about the filing, wanted to know how it felt to have my case back in court for the first time in thirteen years. Was I hopeful, she wanted to know.

I'd begun the interview feeling prepared to answer any question she asked about my case. That question, though, caught me by surprise. Was I hopeful?

For a stretch of recent history, having hope has been considered a blessing. Philosophers and theologians in our modern age tend to believe that hope is a great virtue. But older cultures had a different view. The ancient Greeks, for instance, considered hope an especially nasty flavor of self-deception, a corrupting evil. That age-old story about Pandora opening the box containing all the world's woes? (It was actually a jar, not a box, but whatever.) Hope was in there, unloosed upon the earth thanks to Pandora's curiosity, to humanity's great torment. An Italian proverb holds that a person who "lives by hope will die by despair." Referencing this, Addison wrote, "If we hope for what we are not likely to possess, we act and think in vain, and make life a greater dream and shadow than it really is." Although a young Nietzsche wasn't too keen on hope, either, he did come around in his later years. By the end of his essay on the ultimate futility of life, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus accepted hope, but only begrudgingly. The biblical proverb about hope deferred could provide the basis to an argument against hope. A comparable notion can be found in Buddhist teachings, which hold that wishing circumstances be otherwise ignores reality, the opposite of an enlightened mindset. Although there's been a general shift toward the line that hope is a good thing, it's not without detractors. There's always a cynic somewhere. I know because I used to be one. "Byron the Black-Hearted, Dark Cliffs upon Which the Waves of Hope Break," one clever friend dubbed me. I'll just say, you don't get that kind of moniker bestowed on you for being fun at parties. If that was then, what am I now? I want out of prison, of course, but I no longer feel desperate for that outcome. It's been so long since I had a fighting chance at freedom. Since my lawyers' filed our motion to the court, a chance has presented itself. I feel like a dog with a grape in its mouth
Is it food or is it a toy? and I don't really know what to do. The poet Marianne Moore wrote, "Hope isn't hope until all grounds to hope have vanished." (I've probably quoted that line on this blog before; what can I say except I like it that much?) I don't know what Moore intended by it, exactly, but her line nevertheless makes sense to me. You can't truly know hope until you've stared into the abyss which, as Nietzsche famously wrote, stares also back into you then continued moving forward anyway.
Right now, I'm just moving.

16 February, 2024

Open Door Policy

Twenty-five years ago, whenever I ventured out of my house in suburban Kansas, there was a good chance that I left the door unlocked. This wasn't forgetfulness; this was me deliberately skipping what I considered an unnecessary activity. 

Yes, I'd been burglarized before. Twice. When I was twelve, someone broke into that same house and stole several household electronic items — a stereo receiver, two TVs, and some other stuff I don't remember anymore. Four or five years before that, someone burgled the family vehicle at the height of New Orleans' Mardi Gras festivities, while we were in Louisiana on a road trip.

Thus I was not unaware of the potential for theft, but those losses both took place in spite of locked doors. If a deadbolt or a car door latch didn't guarantee that my belongings stayed mine, then there didn't seem to be the same level of urgency to lock up tight before leaving it unattended.

Less logically, though, I just didn't feel unsafe. At no point in my life have I actively worried about the security of my home. That continues today, in what you might think is the least likely of places.

In this level-five prison populated by people who've robbed and stolen, abused and even murdered, I leave my cell door unsecured far more often than I lock it.

I currently live in the cell at the farthermost end of my wing, past where the guards stationed in the control center usually look. It's a prime location for an illicit entry, if anyone felt so inclined. In the past two and a half years, however, I've gone out for hours-long recreation periods, for meals, and for work — all without locking my cell door — and I've never had a problem.

For all the talk you hear about the cutthroat nature of prison, it's not all dog-eat-dog. Pockets of genuine care and trust can be found. To the extent that I'm known by my fellow prisoners, I'm generally well regarded and respected. I'm greeted with smiles and waves around the institution, and even get an occasional hug at work. This is not what one expects in maximum security, and I can't say whether my reputation has much to do with the security of my unlocked cell. All I know is that I don't worry about some scoundrel coming in to steal my radio, filch some coffee, or pilfer through my cellmate's prodigious supply of canteen food.

Contrary to catastrophists' claims that the world today is more dangerous and iniquitous than ever, I believe the evidence that we (at least in the United States and most Western countries) are actually safer now than anyone in recorded history.

Think about it. You can travel to a nearby city without highwaymen trying to kill you for your clothes. You can walk into a bar relatively unconcerned about bandits or pickpockets. And you can walk the streets at night with a confidence born of having a portable communication and tracking device — your smartphone — in your grasp, at the ready, in the event that anything iffy transpires.

I basically live with seventy-one casual acquaintances and strangers, each with a documented history of criminal behavior, yet even when I'm gone my door is more often open than not. Am I crazy?

02 February, 2024


The view out my cell window isn't very good, but I don't especially mind. There are good views and there are bad ones, and for as many terrible ones as I've had, the decent ones outnumber them. It's surprising how much variety exists in views from the thirty or so cells I've occupied over these twenty-two years. The cell I sleep in now has nowhere near the worst.

The window faces mostly westward. It consists of two panes, side by side, each of which is four inches wide and about four feet high. Some kind of oily-looking residue on the outside blurs the view. Because three autumns' worth of rains have been unable to clear it, I assume it'll be stuck there forever.

As for what's immediately outside, another housing unit sits fifty feet away, on the other side of a little quadrangle of grass. Birds congregate in the greenery and on the roof of the other house. Sometimes, if I'm very, very fortunate, one of them — usually a starling, either the most curious or the vainest of the local avian species — will land on the ledge and admire itself awhile before flying away.

There's not much, other than the birds, to appreciate about this perspective. The roof of the neighboring house is too high and wide to see a horizon at sunset — or at any other time. Regardless, several high, blinding lights that stand on the yard outshine any stars that I suspect still fleck the night sky. One cellmate called these lights "UFOs" for the way they shine in your face while you're trying to watch TV or sleep. I just switched the end of the bunk on which I lay my head. Problem solved! Looking to the left out the window, I can see a twenty-foot-wide stretch of the prison yard, including part of the pavilion that used to shelter weight equipment (before that was removed for safety concerns). Any part of the yard that might be useful to see — to gather situational intel, such as whether or not mealtimes have started, or if the yard is closed — is concealed by another wing of my housing unit. The purpose of windows here is to allow in some natural light, and nothing more, so I'm grateful for what I have. Federal laws dictate how much daylight prisoners must have access to. There's probably some statute, somewhere on the books, that gives the minimum required dimensions for prison cell windows. I guarantee that no such rule for scenery exists. I'm lucky to feel no particular yen for pretty views. Before prison, I had a couple of apartments with windows that faced red brick walls and parking lots. It wasn't a big deal, even back then. Is something the matter with me, that I'm not desperate for novelty? On the wall of my cell hangs a small framed photo of a Buddhist monk. At this point, the guy's been sitting in meditation by that lake for years. At work, I haven't changed my computer wallpaper since 2021. Longfellow wrote, "In character, in manner, in style, in all things the supreme excellence is simplicity."
Asked what color I'd paint my cell if given the option, I say bone white.

12 January, 2024

The Podcasts That I Enjoy in Prison

Do you find it as weird as I do that people in prison can listen to podcasts? The list of available ones is limited, for various reasons, but our for-profit service provider, Securus, offers about 2,400 in twenty-eight categories, from addiction help to technology news. They're all free and can be accessed through the podcast app that comes pre-installed on the tablets that Securus provides Missouri prisoners at no cost.

Considering that iPods weren't yet available in 2001, when I got locked up, and the prison canteen sold cassette boomboxes but not CD players, this podcast thing still feels like a big deal. I listen to several hours' worth of podcasts a week more time than I spend reading, because my eyes are often tired from staring at computer screens at work. Podcasts only require ears.

For the curious or desperate, here's a rundown of the ones that I listen to most often. Some people have called me an intellectual. I'm not entirely comfortable claiming that designation, but it is true that I like to nourish my mind. There are some great podcasts available for that. Psychology and neurology give one such podcast, Hidden Brain, its backbone. Some recent episodes have explored the science of human potential, the causes of judgmental attitudes, and the biological purpose of beauty. Learning the causes and conditions of human behavior is endlessly fascinating to me. Naturally, then, I also enjoy listening to How to Be a Better Human, which looks at the same general subject matter as Hidden Brain, but with a more casual, often chatty tone. I find them both engrossing. For even headier stuff, I get my fix from Making Sense with Sam Harris, the podcast on which the renowned (or infamous) neuroscientist and religious skeptic discusses capital-I Issues
some timely, others timeless often with guests. The free version that I get only let's you hear half of Sam's conversations, but what I do get to hear is nevertheless satisfying. On Philosophy Bites, hosted by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, modern philosophers give summaries of great thoughts and thinkers from the past and present. I also like the longer-form (and less-frequent) discussions on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time: Philosophy. In the Buddhism category, several podcasts enrich my practice. Foremost are Yokoji Zen Dharma Talks and The Zen Studies Podcast, which each offer talks by a specific teacher. I'm also drawn to the Buddhist Society of Western Australia, which offers dharma talks and guided meditation in the Theravada tradition. Then there's a grab-bag of commentaries and talks (most of which are from Great Britain and Scotland) on Free Buddhist Audio, where listeners can find wisdom from just about any tradition or lineage. Finally, there's The Lion's Roar Podcast, which presents news, history, and general-interest stuff for practitioners of every stripe. Interestingly, one of my very favorite podcasts, 10% Happier with Dan Harris, isn't a Buddhist podcast per se, yet the host, former news anchor Dan Harris, has a lot to say about contemplative practice and mindfulness. Sometimes his guests are Buddhist teachers. He's also been known to speak about explicitly Buddhist concepts and metaphysics, but this is more a podcast for, as Harris phrases it, "fidgety skeptics." I appreciate Dan's humble snark, intelligence, and straightforwardness. Modern Mentor bills itself as a podcast about leadership and communication. I doubt its creators thought that leaders in prison would be tuning in. As someone who leads a team of extraordinarily dysfunctional people, I can use all the help that I can get, so I really value the tips and tools that Modern Mentor suggests. Of course, my life isn't all deep thoughts and motivated self-improvement; there's also music. All Songs Considered, from National Public Radio, opens a window to the world, through which I get to hear the latest in all genres of contemporary sound. For contrast, such old-guard critics as host Sound Opinions, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, review newer stuff but also lead listeners on tours of music's past, often digging deep in the crates for long-lost gems that become selections for their "Desert Island Jukebox" bonus episodes. Although I avoid anything overtly political, The New Yorker Radio Hour plays a lot of great stories that surprise and inform. And I do love learning. Stuff to Blow Your Mind, from iHeartRadio, appeases my inner geek. Their crazy variety of subjects ranges from astronomical phenomena to Dungeons & Dragons to the biology of animals throwing things, and basically everything in between. As someone who considers himself a bad-movie aficionado, their Madhouse Cinema episodes every Friday are especially fun. Finally, the storytellers presented on RISK! offer great entertainment. If you like The Moth Radio Hour or This American Life, as well as bawdy, frightening, or otherwise NSFW stories, this podcast will appeal to you as much as it does to me.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to listen to one of these fine podcasts. You should be too.

04 January, 2024

Nine Things the DOC Did Wrong in 2023

Every year, the Missouri Department of Corrections puts out an itemized list of its accomplishments from the previous year. To the straight-faced bureaucrats who run this system, I'm sure that the creation of these lists is a nice back-patting affair. To someone who sees things from the other side, however, the DOC's year-end lists read like so much cookie-seeking at best, and piss-poor propaganda at worst. The points that I find ridiculous, I laugh at. The rest of them inspire either a dismissive wave of my hand or a groan. Some evoke disgust.

The stink coming off the pile of warm shit that the Department tries to pass off as potpourri is occasionally too much to bear. Those who've read their Orwell probably remember the slogans released by the Ministry of Truth, described in his novel 1984. One of the book's many ironies was that the Ministry of Truth dealt in the creation and dissemination of lies. ("Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia" was a fiction that the loyal populous dutifully swallowed as it unremembered that Oceania was allied with Eastasia just months before.) Doublespeak was the vernacular of the land. So too is it in Missouri, with the DOC.

Go ahead and read their list, but do so with a skeptical eye. See if you can read past the spin and the omissions, then come back here and read this accounting of what the DOC really did last year. 1. They threw away a lot of money. At ERDCC alone, the concrete footing of a handball wall was poured on the yard — not once, but twice! The first time, maintenance workers dug a retaining wall and placed some big, expensive concrete blocks before someone had them tear it all down for a contractor to do the job instead. When someone from Central Office came to inspect the second attempt (for which it seems no one thought to consult an engineer), they declared it inadequate and nixed the project. This after the contactor collected their nonrefundable $15,000 fee. And don't even get me started on the hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of superfluous fencing put up this summer that isn't even being used now. 2. They tightened the limits on enrichment. Under the guise of keeping drugs out, the DOC banned books and periodicals from coming in to Missouri prisons, unless those books are paid for by check from the person's prison account. Given how hard it is to find books to mail-order without Internet access, this policy change amounts to a ban. Apparently, some DOC administrator is stupid enough to think that knowing how a prisoner pays for reading material makes it less likely that its pages will arrive here dosed with synthetic marijuana. Either that, or they're cynics who think the public is too dumb to know bullshit when they hear it. 3. They delivered false hope to returning citizens. By introducing the re-entry programs offered by 2nd Opportunity to the prison population, then not actually starting those programs, the DOC tantalized countless prisoners who have a desire to live righteously upon release. 2nd Opportunity teaches financial and employment-seeking skills to those who've been imprisoned. The Department paid for the program materials but has yet to allow anyone (at least at this facility) to use them. 4. They took credit for other people's work. Tens of thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables didn't cultivate and pick themselves for food banks and senior centers, nor were hundreds of quilts and knit hats self-created for people living in poverty, yet the DOC claimed to have donated these things. A few DOC employees making the phone calls and driving the vans to transport these donations means that they donated this stuff in the same sense as an Uber driver who drops off a woman in labor at the hospital can claim to have delivered a baby. 5. They ditched sub-par medical-care for something even worse. The for-profit prison health-care provider Corizon corporation, notoriously besieged by deliberate indifference lawsuits and wrongful death allegations, made way for Centurion, a company that seems to exist solely to mop up the blood when Corizon leaves a state. Since then, medication delays have been rampant and seeking treatment became a more cumbersome process. Anecdotal evidence suggests that treatment by the physicians has also worsened. 6. They killed four people. Despite rapidly diminishing support for the death penalty, Missouri carried out four executions last year, including putting to death an openly transgender person for the first time. Hooray for inclusivity!
7. They declined to adapt to the twenty-first century. Following the disappearance of Netflix DVD in September, the recreation departments of prisons around Missouri sought an alternative to getting DVDs by mail. Movies and series shown on closed-circuit networks inside the facilities have historically been the best prisoner-pacifying agents the DOC could have. Although multiple facilities already pay for limited broadcast rights, and switching to a streaming-based option would offer more content for less money than was being spent before, the Department denied those facilities permission to adopt a streaming model, citing reasons of copyright — which, again, are covered by the exorbitant quarterly payments that continue to be made for those rights. As usual, one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing.

8. They set the bar for minimum adequacy. With critical staff shortages statewide, dating from well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the DOC stuck to its guns, continuing to use bare-minimum requirements for prospective hires. A valid state ID showing you to be at least eighteen years of age is all that stands between you and a position of power over hundreds of people. (Personality disorders and volatile inferiority complexes are optional.)

9. They did what the data show to be ineffective. Despite countless peer-reviewed studies replicated over and over again, all around the world, the Department continues to favor stick over carrot. Under the current rules, a prisoner may be placed in administrative segregation for nearly any infraction, including accidentally bumping into a staff member, being asleep at the wrong time, or covering a cell window for privacy while using the toilet. There is no counterpart to these violations, however, that acknowledges good behavior. A transition to the reward model of behavior modification (which emphasizes incentives for desired behavior over punishment for behavior that is undesired) was proposed by former Director Anne Precythe several years ago. Ms. Precythe encouraged DOC staff to issue rewards, including special visits, vouchers for extra meal trays, and more, for good behavior. Although permission to pay for and order an annual treat package would be nice, it falls well short of being the type of meaningful reward that would create genuine change inside Missouri's prisons. Now that the Department is under a new Acting Director, who knows what might change.