Monday, December 24, 2018

Gingerbread Whut?

Late night meetings in the Spanish TV Room among O.G. (Original Gangsta), Slugger, A-Rod, El Jefe and Mobile Vending.  Inmates posted up at the door to make sure no one from another unit enters.  Prepping an innocuous looking dude to be a spy, to infiltrate the other units.  Bad jokes circulate along the lines of “your mission, should you choose to accept it….”  Rounds of drinks (actually sodas) shared between groups of guys who never talk to each other.  Then a harsh debate that devolves into laughter over the best colors to use when … painting a four foot tall model of a lollipop?   Whut? 

You read that right.  We aren’t setting up for trouble.  No uprising in the works. 
No, we are building a 6-foot model of a Gingerbread House.  That’s right, all these BA convicts are pulling together with a shared purpose and guess what?  It’s amazing how much fun people are having.  Just goes to show if you give a guy an actual goal even guys you least expect can rise to the occasion.  The administration stumbled onto genius:  A Unit vs. Unit Holiday Decorating Contest.  At first the idea was met with typical cynicism.  They have official visitors arriving next week and want to put on a dog and pony show.  F___ them, most said.  But then one guy suggested, wait a minute, this might be fun, then another guy signed on, then a third respected prisoner joined in.  Their rationale?  Look, of course this is an administrative ploy (well, probably not, just dumb luck), but screw that.  Let’s just run with it.

That’s all it took.  Isn’t the old saying, “Incarceration is the Mother of Invention?”  So now we have gumdrop and candy painters, roofers, framers, background landscapers.  I crocheted a Santa Head to poke out of the chimney.  While maybe not Macy’s Parade worthy, our Gingerbread House beats anything you would buy at Michael’s.  No Lie!  I’d put it in my yard at home.  Pardon the language, but as one of our oh-so-hard straight from the hood gangstas put it when he looked up from his work covered in pink and purple glitter, “Damn, we got some talented-ass mother f______ers in here!  Why they let us waste away in prison?”  Funny and thought-provoking.  The human warehousing system we call the BOP Must Be Fixed!  But that is another letter.  For now, I just shake my head and smile.

I mean, maybe what we have here is the real holiday spirit.  Making the most of what you have, pulling together as a team, fellowship amongst diverse people.  Laughter.  Sharing.  A common goal.  Maybe I’m completely full of shit, I don’t know.  What I do know is that it’s a lot more pleasant to hear guys arguing over the proper application of glitter instead of Lebron vs. Steph and their Ticket!  So today we are mixing paints and hoarding cardboard.  January 2nd all this stuff will be contraband again, but oh well.  One Day at a Time!

Happy Holidays!!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Climbing the Mountain

Winter.   Cold.  Dark.  Game of Thrones?  Nope, prison, winter being the toughest season to make it through.  Less to do and more time to do it.  Luckily, I’m in the South.  Can’t imagine spending the long months of winter imprisoned in some place like Minnesota.  But even here, when it’s cold, you can’t go out.  Cooped up inside, guys grow antsy, restless, and irritable.  The noise increases.  Sometimes it’s like an all-day basketball tournament in a crowded high school gym.  “Showin’ out” reaches epic levels.  Showin’ Out?  That’s the intentionally loud, obnoxious, look-at-me behaviors.  Yelling, rapping, arguing.  Reverberating throughout the unit.  In better weather, people go outside when they can.  They play cards or dominoes, they share stories, pictures and food.  But this time of year, while it’s not northern cold, it is too chilly to just sit around outdoors.  Most days, if you stay active, maybe working out for an hour or so, you can tolerate it, but just relaxing, trying to get a moment’s peace in the out of doors?  Not happening.

So the indoor crowding and the noise, sharing of resources and frustration that comes of it amplify.  I mean, most guys are not in prison due to their mastery of delayed gratification.  They jump lines for the laundry or computer room, hog tables for games, take control of the tv channel.  Tempers flare.  Add in the holidays and being here instead of home and you end up with 140 men just praying for Spring.  What to do?

I think of each day as a mountain that needs climbing.  I get up and sling on my backpack of mental barriers (some guys pray, meditate, or pace – I crochet), take my first steps on the path.  I fill up a big jug of patience for the journey, then decide on a mantra to chant as I go.  Instead of a true mantra, I opt for a daily goal, as corny as that may sound.  It might be based on some kind of personal growth, maybe working out or studying Spanish or helping others; it might be something generic like “no negative talk.”  All ready to go, I start the climb.  Yes, there will be obstacles (internal and external) along the way, the path is steep.  Just slog along, focused on my goal and the mountaintop of bedtime.

Some days I make it through with ease; others I struggle to the summit, and at times I fall short.  However the climb went, at the end of the day I pop in my earplugs, crawl into bed (under the sheets! – see previous post) and review how things went.  What went wrong?  What went well?  What might I do better tomorrow?  Then I read for a few minutes, turn out the light, try to let go of the tension of prison life, and hopefully sleep undisturbed.

Then it’s morning.  I open my eyes and yep, still in prison!  I check the bars on the window, the cinderblock walls, and turn to the mountainous day ahead.  I get a cup of coffee, my crocheting, set my daily goal.  One of these days the climb will end with me walking out the front gate.  For now, though, even at the holidays, I just have to take it one mountain at a time.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Facts in Black & White

Just for fun, one recent rainy afternoon when everyone was stuck indoors, I set out on a sociological experiment here on the unit.  In an effort to explore racial stereotypes, I walked around asking people to complete the following sentence:  “All black (or white) people….”  Regardless of race or ethnicity, each person was asked to complete both sentences.  You may be thinking, that’s a risky thing to do, but I’m on good terms with most of the guys by now.  I think they see me as an open-minded person, essentially harmless, a friend to many and fair to all, etc.  Even so, I avoided the most virulently and openly nasty racists, because I didn’t want to stir up real trouble.  I went about my mission in the spirit of that old Eddie Murphy skit where he went undercover as a white man (you can look it up on them Googles).  So, for your reading pleasure, the results of my experiment:  The Facts of Life in Black and White.

All Black People:

Play basketball, are drug dealers, hate to blow their noses (weirdly, in prison this one appears to be sort of true), love horror movies, think Tyler Perry is a true comedic savant, are loud, think they can rap, yell at the tv during a movie, like big butts (…and they cannot lie…), and drink orange/grape soda exclusively.

All White People:

Pretend to like Tyler Perry, think liking Tiger Woods proves they are not racist, are rich, like to watch 60 Minutes on tv, somehow believe they could survive in the woods (like on one of those Discovery channel shows), can’t dance, can’t jump, can’t really play basketball, will take medicine for anything and everything, whether they need it or not (again, in prison, appears to be sort of true), think Ellen is better than Oprah, think they understand the stock market, and bought their drugs from black guys, but act like they weren’t criminals themselves.

Some of these answers made me laugh, some made me think, and others just had me scratching my head.  I guess we could have launched into a deep discussion about these stereotypes, but we didn’t.  You know what we did?  We laughed.  Hard.  We laughed because even as people came up with these comparisons, they knew they weren’t really true.  And sometimes just taking a step back, not taking ourselves and our attitudes so seriously, is a good thing (especially here in prison).  After all, life is hard.  Prison makes it harder.  But we don’t need to amplify all that by taking everything so seriously.  Happy Thanksgiving!  Peace out.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

How Do You Sleep?

Remember, as a kid, taking pride in making your bed?  Trying to tuck in the corners and get the pillows just right?  Then you got a little older and it became a choice.  Mom having to remind you, but you still did it, maybe even with a little effort.  Adolescence: Where Made Beds Go to Die!  As a teenager your mom is just happy if nothing is growing or living in the bed.  Eventually, you grow up, get married and accept the fact that you have to make your bed.  It’s what “responsible” people do.  Just when you think you have it figured out, you end up in prison, where up is down and down is up, and believe it or not, bed-making strategies can serve as a guide to the personality and mental health of your fellow inmates.  Bear with me a moment here; I’m either a genius sociologist/ psychologist OR my life is so lame that I see patterns in the most mundane events.

To begin, you have to understand the three sleeping camps:  (1) traditional, (2) extreme, and (3) hybrid.  These three styles of sleeping directly influence bed-making.

Traditional:  Picture the way you slept most of your life.  Fitted sheet, then neatly made up bed.  You “got in” the bed.  I fall in this category, even in prison, sleeping in as normal a way as possible considering my circumstances, fitted sheet-me-sheet-blanket.  To me, guys who sleep this way are the most well-adjusted prisoners.  Laid back, adaptable, and easy-going, they refuse to live like a Viking/heathen/nutcase, still holding on to some of our pre-prison habits and lifestyle.

Extreme:  Traditional doesn’t work for these guys, many of whom have spent time in higher security settings where you need to be unencumbered and ready to jump up at any moment.  Bed is permanently made up; sleep on top of everything wearing sweats, hat, and socks.  Jacket draped on top if it’s cold.  So you're ready to go if "shit jumps off!"  Nothing ever happens here that would call for such emergency readiness, but these guys are creatures of habit, most suffer from PTSD, they’re always edgy and jump anyway, and can’t even relax at bedtime.  They will do anything to keep their beds tight at all times.  They’ll sew sheet and blanket together, knot them down with shoe strings, even smuggle Velcro from the sweatshop to secure their linens.  When they get up in the morning, it’s like magic, the bed looks newly made!  A child could use it as a trampoline.  Guys who sleep on top of their made beds range from  a little off to totally bonkers.  At the far end of the spectrum, I’m talking “totally burnt,” as in “that dude is burnt” or “ese hombre esta quemado.”  Completely institutionalized!  Some even sleep in their boots!  They’ll tell you they started their bid at a place so dangerous that they had to stay completely unencumbered at all times.  Now, in this more relaxed environment, they can’t turn it off.  Which leads me to ask, What are we doing to human beings in these prisons?  Incarceration isn’t punishment enough – we have to scare people to death, too? 

Hybrid:  This group is generally populated by former Extreme sleepers, lazy guys, and a handful who just decide to sleep in this manner.  They keep their beds made, then sleep on top wrapped up in another blanket.  It’s efficient, I must say.  In the morning they just have to fold up the blanket at the end of the bed and go on their way.  These guys need to be watched closely for any changes in their sleeping/bedmaking style as a guide to their state of mind.  Are they moving along the spectrum towards Traditionalists or Extremes?

Guys in both the Extreme and Hybrid groups make fun of us Traditionalists.  They don’t need to spend the 2-3 minutes required in the morning to make their beds.  They have all 60-90 seconds free to. . .do more prison!  More time to do nothing at all!   We traditionalists, frankly, try to avoid the Extreme guys when we can.  They may be nice guys, wise and helpful at times, but they are unpredictable.  Sometimes, even, mind-bogglingly crazed.  The Hybrid crew?  A hodge-podge.  When a new guy comes on the unit, we all keep our eyes open during that initial probationary period.  Sounds weird, I guess, but bedmaking style is a key element in that assessment. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Fashion (Non) Sense

Ever vigilant for fashion miscues, the prison administration has issued a new memo:  "No cuffs, no folds, in your pants!"  Well, being on the short side, this relates to me.  Guards stop me to ask about my pants, and I politely explain that my tailor is on vacation.  They do not find this answer funny.  I then resort to plain-speak, offering that these are the shortest pants available and that laundry does not do custom-fittings.  Guys have gone back to laundry, explained their situation, but laundry does not hem.

So thanks to the new rule, I either drag along tripping over my own pants or I illegally cuff them.  Don't get me wrong, though.  I have no problem with uniform guidelines. I'm not cuffing as some jaunty fashion statement.  I simply don't like tripping when I walk.  But then this, just yesterday:

Guard:  Why are your pants cuffed?
Dangerous Criminal (me):  Because they are too long?
Guard:  Why?
DC:  Umm... (Is this a trick question?) Because I'm short?
Guard:  Why don't you get shorter ones?
DC:  Amazon doesn't deliver here.
Guard:  Are you being a smartass?  (Obviously yes; if he doesn't realize that....)
DC:  I just don't know what to tell you.  Laundry says this is the smallest size and you guys make me wear them.  How is my pants being too long my fault?
Guard:  (Having now reached the limits of his cognitive processing power) Get out of here!
DC:  Gladly.

And so it goes.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Plug & Play

As prison jobs go, for awhile there I had a great one:  English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher and Tutor.  I came up with the gig myself, partially just to break down some of the ethnic barriers in this place, and my co-teaching buddy and I gradually developed a curriculum that our supervisor described as the best ESL program he'd seen in his two decades with the Bureau of Prisons.  In most so-called educational courses in prison, people skip class a lot, but we had a waiting list trying to get into our program, all Spanish-speaking guys hoping to learn English and better themselves.  We worked hard at it -- a secondary benefit was me boning up on my Spanish along the way -- and we felt appreciated.  Anglos to our toes, we were accepted by the Latino prisoners, earning Spanish nicknames and status as honorary members of the family.  Eventually, we were teaching several classes a day, all without any outside instructors.  Friends on the outside sent us used Spanish-English dictionaries, some easy-reading novels, a couple fill-in-the-blank school books, but the rest was all us.

And then....

Out of the blue, you guessed it, we got canned.  No explanation, no justification, just canned.  When our supervisor spoke to the head of Education about the work we were doing, about how we were the best possible instructors for these courses, she replied, "They're just inmates.  We have 1200 others.  Pick two and stick them in the job, it won't make a difference."  Plug and play.  After all, none of us are individuals with any skills or education that might help another guy get a leg up when he finally goes home.  Interchangeable parts.  That's all we are to her.  I'd write more, but the whole thing brings me down.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Creeping Naziism

So the other day all World War II and Holocaust videos disappeared from the library.  A friend here says he saw them being shredded -- yes, shredded -- in an industrial strength shredder.  After verifying that yes they were destroyed, the rumor spread that a staff member had it done, because he's a Holocaust denier.  When pushed on this issue, staff admitted that yes, that's exactly what happened.  But it gets weirder.  Turns out there was one guy -- now in the hole -- who had been enjoying himself farrrrr (sic) too much while watching a Nazi Concentration Camp clip.  I'm at a loss what to make of this.  He was punished, so why then destroy all the videos?

Meanwhile, there's this new guy on the yard who has proclaimed himself an "Aryan."  He's wearing all the appropriate ink, knows a secret handshake of some kind, and he's all about hate speech, which he transparently masks under the umbrella of "White Pride."  He wanders about trying to recruit other like-minded fine Aryan specimens.  Here's one of his history lessons:  Did you know that the Aryan race (whatever that is) sprang up in the Caucasus Mountains, a mighty race of white, blue-eyed, super-intelligent men, who then spread in all directions, bringing civilization and enlightenment to the world?  All of history's great achievements, whether in ancient Greece, China, India, Africa, wherever, were the work of Aryans.  Unfortunately, some of these godlike humans mixed with other mongrel races (his words - not mine, please!) and civilization fell into decay.  Oh, but wait, a miracle!  Some pure-blooded Aryans survived, righteous and strong, in...where?  You guessed it:  Germany, the land of Teutonic perfection.  Blah blah blah, he rattled on about Nazi's, Jews, etc., you can imagine the rest.

But these knuckleheads he was ranting to, they were eating it up, just loved it!  He then charged them with never, under any circumstances, associating with prisoners who might be Jews, gays, or mixed-breeds.  He allowed that at times one might be forced to interact with such filth, but one must never, ever allow oneself to befriend a mongrel.  By the looks of this assembled rabble, I wanted to add that apparently you can't talk to anyone with more than three teeth and ten functioning brain cells either.  I'm telling you, this was the biggest collection of Hollywood-quality extras for a redneck horror film that you could find.  Like the zombies from The Walking Dead had stumbled onto the set of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Frankly, no one is particularly worried about this new guy and his recruits.  The most they can do here at Prison-Lite is stir up rumors and provide droll entertainment with their ridiculous hate speech.  They occupy their time listing all the people they hate and why, but they never do anything about it.  Sad, really, but it has given me an insight into how cult leaders do their work.  You get some losers to buy into this image of being downtrodden but superior beings with a holy mission of some sort, in this case to cleanse all America of those of us they call mongrels.  Not all that different from some of the nuttiness we read about happening outside of these walls, actually.

But up close, a few of us with discerning minds have noticed a few things:

(1)  Not a one of these self-professed Aryans is blond-haired or blue-eyed.
(2)  Their complete and utter obsession with "hating" gay people makes one wonder, do they perhaps protest too much?
(3)  They seem to hate each other, too.  In fact, the only thing they ever do together is rant about all the people they hate, just one big HateFest.

I'll leave you with this anecdote.  King Aryan, with his prominent swastika tattoos, approached an older Jewish prisoner on the Yard.  They spoke for a couple minutes before Hater-Boy slunk away.  Turns out the little Nazi needed a lawyer, so he went to the Jewish guy, who in fact was a lawyer on the outside and has helped many of us with writs and other legal proceedings over the years.  The lawyer asked, "If you hate Jews so much, why would you come to me for help?"  To which he replied "Well, I know Jews are good for something."  He was all puffed up, trying to bully the older man.  But then the lawyer told him this:  "You think I don't know you?  You think I'm scared of you?  Go get one of your Aryan buddies to write this thing!  Get out of my face!"  Told good and well and with tail between his legs, King Aryan shuffled off not just red-necked, but also now red-faced.