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.