Beautiful Meaning

BEAUTIFUL MEANING

An ageless debate stagnates among us about whether the demoralization and morbidness of the Texas prison structure is present by intent, or just cause and effect.  However, no one reasonable denies that the end result is symmetrical.  Yet, just as there seems to be a pattern to the depravity, there also appears to be a hierarchy in the overcoming of it.  It’s subjective of course, and in some cases men submit to insanity or the ultimate despair before they can adapt, but the rest of us progressively mitigate the suffering.  It’s true what they say: you really can get used to anything.

I can speak only of my own scale of “triumphs over penitentiary malignancies and the speed in which each was accomplished, but through more than 20 years of involuntary observation I’ve noticed that the steady advancement towards apathy (In prison, apathy and adaption are pretty much the same thing), is common.  We get over it.  But true adaption to this environment cannot be obtained without incurring institutionalization, a psychological malady that prevents a person from being able to function normally outside an institution.  But I believe it’s a necessary evil for anyone serving more than 10 years.

I have, perhaps, reached the highest level of adaption possible, but when I first arrived, every aspect of this nether existence was torture and I knew I could never endure a life sentence of it.  Everything was nutrition, to sleep, to the very underwear on my body was unbearable.  The food was so vile I couldn’t eat more than a few bites at a time.  Sleep was impossible, the slamming metal and shouting ghetto voices never ceased and the undulating fear and self pitty of my thoughts raged their own symphony.  I found sharing underwear with strangers repulsive, yet no alternative was available.  As the months passed however, I learned to force down the disgusting food.  Exhaustion overcame the noise to give me sweet oblivion, and I repressed my revulsion to the point where I imperviously put on dingy boxers worn by hundreds of previous men, many of whom harbored terminal diseases.

Torments like the absence of privacy, the daily degradation, and the constant humiliation took longer to alleviate.  Have you ever had to empty your bowels in front of forty people­­?  Probably not, but you can imagine and possibly understand why I used to hold it in, sometimes for days, waiting late into the night for most but never all of the incarcerated population to sleep before I would relieve myself.  Sometimes my body betrayed me in the middle of the day and I was forced to drop my pants in front of everyone and take care of business.  It took a while but I got over it.  Same with the strip searches that took place several times a day; I was self-conscious about bending over naked and spreading by “cheeks” in front of a crowd, especially when women were present, but years passed and I finally refused to give my tormentors the satisfaction of my embarrassment.  Today I will be strip searched and I will in sincerity, not feel the slightest discomfort.

I recount these afflictions one at a time, but in reality a new prisoner is barraged by them.  The hierarchy of indifference depends upon the temperament of each individual, and which debasement touches closest to their heart.  Being somewhat pacifistic by nature, the casual violence of the penitentiary struck me to the core, probably more than most.  Yet, being locked into a 5’ x 9’ cage didn’t phase me, unlike it does many men, especially the unfortunate claustrophobic.  However, just as there are no claustrophobics in prison, because facing your fears is the ultimate cure, I finally stopped wincing at each witnessed act of violence.  But it took some time.

I hadn’t been here three weeks when I witnessed by first rape.  The shower room was as always jam packed with human flesh, and in the middle of the chaos I watched two of the largest men I’ve ever seen beat and sodomize a small white kid.  All the people who could see it either watched impassively or ignored it.  The one present guard directed his attention elsewhere.  I kept scanning the crowd hoping someone would intervene, but as far as I could tell, I was the only one remotely disturbed by the event.  Prison’s first golden rule: Mind your own business.

The same day as the rape, I saw two guards dislocate and break the arms of an old black man, evidently because he had cussed one of them.  A week later I saw my first murder, another kid, stomped to death in the day-room by a gang of inmates.  Each act of violence strengthened my resolve to withdraw into myself and avoid confrontation.  Somehow, I become inured to the violence.  On a Wednesday, several years into my incarceration, I was standing in the chowhall line when someone reached around me and cut the throat of a man in front of me.  I was soaked in blood.  But instead of feeling the horror or revulsion I once would’ve, I felt nothing except for a mild irritation that I would have to go hungry in order to clean all the blood off of me.  That’s when I knew I had finally reached the level of apathy necessary to maintain my sanity.

I’m serving my 21st year now and things have changed some, both in prison and within myself.  There’s still violence and probably always will be, but I’m neither fearful nor indifferent.  I allow myself empathy, but not to the point that I injure myself with it.  I have more understanding of the violence, or at least its cause.  Prison steals almost all the control from an individual, making him powerless.  A powerless person has very little dignity to cling to except for what he imagines.  To hurt someone who has violated whatever illusionary dignity that remains, or simply to lash out, is the only power many of these men feel they have.  Violence is a form of dignity for them, a twisted one to be sure, but a dignity nevertheless.  There are other causes for prison violence, rage and mental illness to name a couple, but in the end it’s usually about a helpless person trying to exert control.

Getting used to the physical violence was hard, but for the person I was, the verbal violence was worse; the coarse savagery of common interactions between inmates or even guards.  There is an aggression in our daily exchanges that normal people would consider very rude.  Courtesy, especially of a subtle variety is nonexistent.  Initially, whenever I asked a question or ventured a comment, the responses were invariably gruff, taciturn, or simply absent.  I couldn’t afford to be visibly upset, but any of the social customs here raised my blood pressure.  I almost smile now to remember how sensitive I was.  Politeness and consideration belong to an alien world that has little to do with the penitentiary.  I felt so out of place in this hostile atmosphere, and was soon convinced that every communication with guards and fellow captives was a potential land-mine.  I continued to withdraw deeper into myself, silent unless absolutely necessary.  Any time I was around others I was hyper-alert, like an antelope in lion territory.  I allowed myself to relax only when I locked in my cage, yet even then there was no real escape from the violent prison music, the cacophony of screams, slamming metal and catcalling; the noise was constant and ubiquitous, folding me into a psychological quail.

Eventually I discovered that some of the rudeness was a veneer, and not always antagonistic.  A great many men put on a show of being tough and antipathetic, but beneath their chest lies a common human heart, yearning for love and acceptance, yet terrified of rejection.  A great deal of the hostility I perceived was merely a projection of my own fears.  The harsh socialization was to be expected had I only given it thought.  Punitive ambience aside, any all-male environment will lack in overt courtesy.  Without the balance of females the tenderness of mothers, sisters and daughters, it stands to reason that the brutality and masculinity of men will be amplified.  Throw in the extreme deprivation and it’s no wonder things are a bit discourteous.

Unfortunately by the time I realized that much of the vindictiveness I perceived was artificial, I had estranged my spirit so thoroughly, I couldn’t rid myself of the fears and doubts about social interaction.  I too became habitually gruff and unfriendly in manner.  On the inside I was the same person, but I refused to make myself vulnerable in any way.  I made a few friends over the years (friendships that never lasted due to the transient nature of the sprawling Texas corrections system), but I couldn’t bring myself back to the polite and open person I’d been when I first arrived and my fears cheated me out of many would-be allies.  In the following 2 decades I managed to garner a great deal of respect from my peers, but little affection.

Violence: physical, verbal and mental, hostile environment, prostration, mortification, demoralization… which takes the longest to overcome?  As I’ve said, it’s relative, but I believe that for the majority of us, the most difficult monkey to get off our back is grief and yearning.  The loss of freedoms great and small.  The familiar comfort of home.  The laughter of children, the kiss of the sun, beauty of any kind, the slobbering love of dogs… the list of losses is infinite.  I think most of all we miss being treated like real people; surely the loss of humanity is the greatest affliction of incarceration.

Some of the short-timers will maintain the love and loyalty of outside relationships, but the majority of us are doomed.  Grief and yearning aren’t always something one gets over quickly.  It took me thousands of days to repress mine and frankly, there are still moments, alone in the dark, when haunted tears escape.  But generally, institutionalization has rescued me from mourning my former human existence.  The penitentiary is my life now and I only court pain by wishing for more.  So, have I finally reached the pinnacle of numbness?  In a way.  It seems to me that any torment can be tamed with the right blend of surrender and acceptance.  You can fight of course, but it’s stupid because you can change nothing.  Sometimes it helps me to remember that there are countless lives in this world that entail far worse suffering than mine. No one lives without conflict and many people including the rich and famous live in prisons of their own creation.  In some ways, I am more free than them.  If you put the hopelessness and injustice of my predicament aside, one could almost say I’ve been blessed.  I have no future to anticipate and a past so painful it’s a relief to forget.  Because of this I can do what spiritual leaders have always taught, I can actually live one day at a time, sometimes one breath at a time.  Thus I manage to expend many breaths in peace, if not happiness.

Despite however much the great state of Texas may disagree, I am definitely a human being, and peace just doesn’t seem to be a natural state of being for us.  New yearnings and angsts continue to find me even when I’m focused on my breath.  A new ill has steadily growth rather than regressed over the past few years.  It has occurred to me that it isn’t necessarily just the persecution of prison that crushes our souls, but the lack of purpose, the absence of productivity.  Socially, we are genetically programmed to contribute to the herd for mutual survival.  Despite how much technology and modern values have warped this premise, making t possible to safely live isolated, our DNA hasn’t caught on yet.  If you aren’t loving and giving to others, you begin to deteriorate and hate yourself.  We all have a deep need to produce, we all subconsciously need a meaning for our life.  A great many people live and die without ever being aware of this, but I have no such luck.  Granted, I’ve adjusted to the malignancy of my existence so thoroughly I can expose my anus to the world without the slightest compunction, but I torture myself because my life has no meaning.  I believe the worst castigation of incarceration is that it forbids us from contributing to something above or outside ourselves, it stifles our istinctive desire to create and be needed.

For life to be fully lived, it should have meaning, a purpose that guides, energizes and inspires.  This theme seems inescapable to me now.  It used to mystify me as I read about ancient societies where the ultimate punishment for an individual and banishment.  It was considered a death sentence.  That struck my modern culturally twisted mind as just plain silly.  Rejection hurts but I’d never die from it I thought, with the way some people are, I’d likely consider it a favor.  But now I’m beginning to understand.  Like the high number of elderly and terminally ill people around the world who die immediately after a major holiday… the explanation seems to be living up to that holiday was the very purpose that kept those people alive and that once that objective was achieved, there was nothing left to live for.  Or the inordinate number of people that die soon after retiring from a long career, and the many people who follow their lifelong spouses into death; these workers and lovers all lost their meaning and therefore their will to live.  I think a lot about that and its depression, mostly because I don’t have a reason to live either.  I’m still relatively young and healthy so my body hasn’t figured it out yet, but the years are flying by and it won’t be long before living becomes a true challenge.  Then what?

Viktor Frankl illustrated this question perfectly in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who survived the Nazi death camps of WWII.  Many of the men around him gave up and died because their suffering was so extreme it was easier to die than to live.  I’ve read it countless times because no book has ever inspired me as much to look inside myself.  The first time I read it, I envisioned the starvation, the cold, the disease, and the knowledge that all of my friends and family were likely being exterminated and that it was probably my destiny as well.  The question I asked was, could I have possibly clung to life through all of that?  It’s a subjective question and probably impossible to answer accurately, but I have a policy of being a brutally honest with myself as possible, and for who I am at this moment, there’s no way in hell I would’ve survived that.  There would be no reason to.  Beatings and freezing labor while slowly being starved to death; why bother when you could simply walk to the fence and receive the instant relief of death? Yet Frankl witnessed people who in the midst of starvation, would give their bread crust ration to someone they felt compassion for.  There were even individuals who kept their health, humor and altruism where bitterness, misery and naked greed prevailed.  Frankl concluded that it was inner meaning that distinguished these saintly survivors.  But what possible meaning could inspire someone to live gracefully through such intense deprivation and hopelessness?  Basically, that was the subject of Frankl’s masterpiece, and one I’m finding myself more and more obsessed with.  How can I find the self generated motivation to keep fighting against all odds?  I think hope has a lot to do with it, in my mind, Frankl’s “meaning” is synonymous with “hope,” and where does hope come from?

Frankl’s first explanation was love: a person may not have the will or strength to survive torture for themselves, but what if there’s someone out there waiting, someone who needs you?  Many of us endure for love what we never could for ourselves.  If you’re able to contribute to the welfare of someone you cherish, you’re fulfilling a deeply satisfying purpose.  If I had someone who cherished me, needed me, perhaps even I could’ve survived where so many gave up.  Love is definitely a meaning for living, maybe the most sublime meaning of all.  Unfortunately, love isn’t something many prisoners can have, after all, who in the world holds an inmate dear?  Even if they do, how long can it last?  Incarceration is the bane of love.  Not just the separation which is poisonous to all relationships, but the shame attached to caring about a “criminal.”  Imprisonment makes strangers of lovers and distant memories of families.  What man, completely separated from society for years can hope to maintain love or value from anyone in that society?  Ideals and fairy tales aside, love isn’t everlasting or stable, it requires sacrifice, it must be fed and made anew in order to survive.  A prisoner’s inability to commune or actively nurture outside relationships usually results in the death of love.  Someday I may again be in the position to earn love, but for now, it doesn’t seem to be a meaning I can aspire to.

Perhaps Frankl was aware that love wasn’t available for everyone, because it wasn’t the only meaning he talked about.  He also mentioned work.  If a man has a work unique to his ability, a task only he can complete, his labor and by extension himself, have meaning.  By placing value in his work, he gives himself a reason to get up in the morning and strive, regardless of his circumstances.

If there’s one thing allowed in southern penitentiaries, it’s work.  Work is in fact mandatory.  Sadly, they’re still modeled after the slavery plantations many of them formerly were.  The Texas Department of Corrections has numerous profitable industries to take advantage of their free labor.  Inmates pick cotton, make textiles, retread tired, mix chemicals, model furniture, signs, BBQ pits, and an ongoing list that seems infinite.  Yes, there’s plenty of labor to go around for an inmate, but its hard to take pride or find meaning in work when you know you’re being exploited.  There is no compensation of any kind, not even gratitude for the work we’re constantly compelled to do.  If they were to pay us just a penny a day, or give us a simple “atta boy,” I seriously believe it would make all the difference.  That’s what’s strange about Texas, they may take pride in having the nation’s most austere prison system, but they still give lip service to rehabilitation.  Yet, one of the few avenues of genuine rehabilitation they ould utilize to help prisoners and the society they’ll eventually be released to, is twisted into its opposite.  Instead of giving these men who suffer from chronically low self-esteem and no work skills some morale and work ethic, Texas turns them into bitter malcontents, teaching them to hate work and society, stealing their dignity for profit.

The state, either incidentally or by design, eliminates the meaning we could derive from our labor, but despite this southern tradition, there remains an innate need within many men to produce, invent, create.  From time immemorial, prisoners have found the ingenuity to make something from practically nothing.  Beautiful, intricate and simply unbelievable works have originated from many men who spend unfathomable amounts of time in a tiny cage, deprived of the most basic tools.  Not all of it positive of course, weapons and means of escape (both physical and mental), will always occupy the minds of the incarcerated.  One man cut his way through several steel barriers using the woven thread of his clothes and toothpaste.  It took him years of insane labor and it wasn’t even an escape attempt, he did it to get out of his cage to stab a rival gang member.   Yet other men have used those same years of crazy work to create things of beauty.  In fact, the majority of in-cage productions are about aesthetics, which are practically non-existent in a Texas penitentiary.  Complex models, jewelry and jewelry boxes made from the most rudimentary materials you could think of, like popsicle sticks and match sticks, yet so intricate and complex they’d be the envy of any craftsman; mostly constructed from tools such as a contraband paperclip or nail, glue made from commissary rice, dye extracted from the pages of magazines and you’d be amazed how diverse a tool a pair of fingernail clippers are.  They are lifelike sculptures made from carved dominoes or soap, beautifully complex necklaces weaved from different colored trash bags and sparkling picture frames made from the foil from the inside of chip bags.  Origami that would awe perhaps even a Japanese master.  I speak not of amateur efforts of which are plentiful too, but brilliant creations that take hundreds of hours in painstaking focus.  Prison gave birth to  some extraordinary  artists and craftsmen and this is no accident.  Its proof that there’s a human instinct to produce, a compulsion that must be met, even when it’s mostly discouraged or even forbidden by prison officials.

Had I personally never entered a prison, it’s highly unlikely I’d have ever learned to draw even a stick figure, but facing thousands of hours in a cage, the need to create something took hold of me.  I decided I would learn to draw; but I didn’t want to draw just anything or merely be good at it.  I wanted to draw life, and I wanted to do it in the hyper-realism technique I’d always though was done through some form of magic.  At first my attempts were so pathetic it seemed impossible.  But years of emptiness and a tenacious disposition worked wonders.  Presently, I believe I can pain realistic portraiture as skilled as almost anyone.  What I lack in talent I make up for in obsessive persistence.  I ask you; is anything more conducive for art than the mixture of suffering and monotony?

But despite the level of skill I’ve taught myself in art, I’ve failed to find Frankl’s meaning in my work.  I only have to picture myself starving and unbearably cold in a concentration camp… would my art lead me the strength and motivation to survive; is my art that inspiring?  Though I love to pain and few things in my life have satisfied me more, I don’t believe my art could bring me the hope necessary to live through that kind of hell.

Art isn’t the only work I tried to find my meaning in.  I never wrote an unprompted word before I lost my freedom.  Maybe a few letters to my wife and mom when I was in the Navy, but nothing like what you’re reading now.  If painting was a challenge, then learning to write has been a bloody nightmare.  Not only does it take copious amounts of thought and focus, but when you write about something painful, you feel the pain all over again.  It’s like intentionally stabbing yourself repeatedly with an ink pen.  Writing in prison is horrible, especially amidst the constant interruptions, noise and chaos.  Once again tenacity and emptiness served me.  Unlike my artwork, I’ve never been paid a dime for all the writing I’ve done, but I keep at it because no matter how cynical my world is, it failed to kill the dreamer that resides within my heart.  I keep thinking that if my words reach the right people, maybe it will somehow make a difference.  I want so badly to believe my writing matters, that it’s important, but I cannot, not yet.  Twenty years of being garbage has made it hard even for this dreamer to believe he can do something important or special.  Hence, Frankl’s first two meanings, love and work, elude me.  His other meanings, meaning through suffering, is one I confess to not understanding.  He said if you can find a reason behind your suffering, it can give you meaning.  But even if I were guilty of the crime that put me here, and I’m definitely not, how could that inspire me to live through hell?  Obviously, I’m missing Victor Frankl’s point.  The rest of his work is self evident. There’s people all over the world who’ve transformed their lives with a set purpose.  Meaning is an elixir.

The Texas Department of Corrections is probably the least humane sanctioned system we have in the U.S., but it’s still years ahead of a WWII concentration camp.  People have found meaning through far worse suffering than I’ve experienced here, so why am I struggling?

I often imagine I could easily find a meaning if I were free and able to make choices.  I could devote myself to the service of other people or even to the welfare of unwanted dogs and cats.  I could volunteer to make audiobooks for blind children, or organize protests against organizations that destroy the environment.  Even a less popular, perhaps crazy idea, I could lobby for prison reform.  I could do any number of things I believe are important and surely I could apply the same discipline and focus to something worthy that I have to selfish pursuits like painting and meditation…  But if it’s that simple, why isn’t everyone doing it?  I may be deluding myself that love and meaning would be easy to earn if I weren’t incarcerated.  It’s silly to waste energy speculating anyway, because however unjust, the dungeon I’m trapped in is my world and the only choice for finding my meaning.  Not that I’m foolish enough to believe hope would end my suffering permanently, but it’s got to be better than despair.

I’ve discussed my search for meaning with other men and most are as clueless as I am, with the exception of those whom believe religion is the answer.  Prison is full of men who’ve eagerly embraced one religion or another, but their actions never match their teaching, which was my experience in the free world too.  Hypocrisy aside, I’d love to find my meaning through religion, be it real or imaginary (In the end, what’s the difference?), but I cannot force myself to view religion as anything but completely unreasonable.  I’m not the kind of person who can embrace other people’s dogmas for my own comfort.  But one day I was discussing my options with a like-minded friend, brain-storming I guess.  It didn’t seem hard to list them, writing and painting as possibly meaningful work, reading, thinking, mindfulness and religion for meaning of spirit.  I asked my friend what he thought and he gave a suggestion that totally broke open my box.  He asked what I thought about being beautiful.  Before I could think about that, he asked if I noticed how the energy of our cellblock changed when Mwagi, ( a female African guard) works.  Of course; everyone notices.  Mwagi has an easy smile, a cheerful demeanor and never sweats the small stuff some of the other guards enjoy harassing you about.  When we’re lucky lucky enough to get her on our block, the whole atmosphere seems to take a big sigh of relief.  And that smile of hers…. It makes everyone feel better just to see it.  Some guards are just the opposite.  They hate life and seek to make everyone who crosses their path as miserable as they are.  When one of those works the block, tension crackles through the air.  We’re all worried about trouble and naturally, it comes.  But when emotionally intelligent guards like Mwagi and her smile work a shift, the energy is blessedly different.

“Mwagi’s beautiful, right?” my friend asked.  I could only nod.  Maybe not beautiful in the conventional sense, but her attitude makes her radiant.  That’s what my friend meant when he asked me what I thought about beautiful as a meaning.  Imagine being able to make people feel good with your very presence.  Imagine being a lovely shining orchid in the middle of a dark sewer.  It’s a lofty aspiration indeed, especially if you know anything about prison life.  The general rule is that kindness is weakness, and that to be thought weak in prison is the absolute worst.  It gives everyone justification to victimize you, steal your personal property and more.  The general consensus here is that if a man is weak, then he’s not really a man and deserves whatever comes his way.  It goes back to the twisted values of an all male culture.  Ironically, when we’re in the free world we instinctively protect the weak; women, children, pets – we feel rage when someone injures them, but in here?  A man who seems weak or effeminate is scorned.  Most of us overcompensate the opposite way to prevent any such impression, so being kind or smiling too much isn’t all that wise.  But there are always exceptions to the rule.  There are inmates that we all know aren’t weak, and they get away with being nice.  Most of these exceptions are black or Mexican, who in prison are automatically afforded more respect than whites because of their reputation for violence.  It’s a stereotype but that’s the way it is.  However, even southern penitentiaries are being forced to change, it’s no longer a given that nice guys will be raped or robbed, even they’re white.  Combine this with the fact that I’m a veteran prisoner known to be quite capable of defending myself, there’s no reason for me to follow the old status quo.  I can get away with smiling kindness and lose my gruff apathetic act.  And maybe if I did, I could generate the same energy that Mwagi does.

Why can’t I be beautiful?  Why can’t I ease the misery and suffering of the people around me even if just a little?  Why can’t I make a difference?  Isn’t that what meaning is all about?  Yet, of all the meanings available in prison, that may be the most difficult one for me to aspire.  I suppose the best way to change is to fake it till you make it.  Pretend to be something until you become it.  I’ve spent so long being gruff, anti-social and ugly to protect myself, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s who I’ve become.  I find it almost impossible to smile at prisoners I don’t know.  No doubt that’s partly due to the subconscious fear I’m sure still lies beneath the surface, but being nice to these men is so hard… would it be that big of a struggle if I was still pretending?  What happened to the nice guy I used to be?

Perhaps I’m like Mark Twain’s cat that sat on a hot stove lid.  She never sat on a hot stove lid again, but then, she never sat on a cold one either.  Those first years of course social interaction burned me.  Now, though I really have nothing to fear anymore, I simply cannot make myself open up again.

Almost 2 years ago a very special person died at the age of 20.  Her name was Allison Willen and the amount of lives she touched all over the world in her short time was simply extraordinary.  From orphans in Africa to handicapped children in New Zealand, to college students and disadvantaged kids in America, to a man thousands of miles away rotting his life away in a Texas prison.  Her attitude, her heart and the incredible life she lived was so unique and inspirational, her family and friends started a foundation and website in her honor.  Live like Ally, (LLA).  It’s to encourage others to be as intrepid, kind, and beautiful as she was, to find your potential and live life to it’s fullest.  Even though I’d lived twice as long as Ally, she was a role model for me, and I’d give anything to be like she was.  I’ve tried.  Last year I told myself that I too wanted to live like Ally.  I couldn’t help handicapped kids in New Zealand ride horses, but as my friend suggested, one can be beautiful under the ugliest circumstances.  So I tried.  I started small, by resolving to say hello to at least one stranger every day.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but I lasted  all of 3 weeks before I crawled back into my shell.

I’m not the only one who has failed to live like Ally.  A few of her friends from college have written to me since Allison’s tragedy.  They wanted to reach out to me like Ally did, be my pen pal and provide support.  They meant well and I didn’t doubt their sincerity, but none of them lasted beyond one or two letters.  Like me and my resolve do be kind to strangers, Ally’s friends made the same discovery that I did; it’s not easy to live like Ally.  Touching people and making a difference was her priority, which sadly is an unusual priority in our self-absorbed society.

We all saddle emotional patterns that seem unbreakable after a while.  Does that mean it’s impossible?  Of course not.  It just requires a lot of effort and commitment, more than most people will ever be willing to give as they stay in their selfish box.  But it can be done if one truly wants it.  If they’re willing to get back up time and again when they fall.  That’s how any difficult goal is accomplished.

I remember when I first decided I would start practicing mindfulness meditation.  It was a true challenge and boring as well.  I’d do it for a few days and then fall of for months.  Something I’d read would inspire me to try again, with the same results.  I lacked any consistency.  Much like someone who professes a desire to learn a new language or write a novel, the want was there, but no commitment.  Yet, I kept returning after each failure.  Finally my desire became determination and transformation occurred.  Today, medication is an integral part of my lifestyle and the rewards have been multiple.  I still get sidetracked sometimes, get so busy and tired that I miss days and fall into my selfish box, but it’s no longer a struggle to return to my healing routine.  Occasionally the absence even reinforces and improves the benefits.

The desire to live like Ally still resides strongly within me, and I haven’t given up trying.  I know that just like with meditation, as long as I keep getting back up, the reinforcements will become commitment and my past conditioning will be broken. I can be beautiful, I know it.  And perhaps that will become my ultimate purpose.  I refuse to give up.  Viktor Frankl never said meaning could be found without struggle.

 

 

[For more information on LLA, please click below for the official foundation website.]

Live Like Ally Foundation

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The Weather and other thoughts…

April 30, 2017
I suspect today is the last cool day of the season and I am already missing it with sadness instead of appreciating it with joy.  Merely by saying that, however, reminds me to live for the moment and to be thankful.

Another friend of mine went off the deep end into religion.  He was a drug addict and has transferred his addictive and obsessive personality to religion.

Religion is just crazy to me.  Always founded by some self proclaimed prophet who claims to know the secrets to the universe and the key to immortality.  People kill each other over this nonsense.  There must be some deep need in us, right up there with reproduction, a need to believe that there is something more than this short life.  And… maybe there is more, but how does this turn intelligent people into fools?  Perhaps there is a “God,” but surely a being so complex as to create trillions of organisms, planets, suns, is a bit too complicated to understand for us limited thinkers.

Like an ant trying to comprehend a computer.

We zealously believe these fanatical men who come along and make “God” into a human, the same way Walt Disney humanized animals, creating something we can love and understand.

So many people suspend all reason because of this deep need to believe in something more.  Perhaps my friend will awake from his stupor someday, but meanwhile I miss him and cant help but wonder if his addiction to drugs was that much worse, somehow.

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Shinful Meaning

SHINFUL MEANING

“How frequently in the course of our lives, the evil which itself we shun, and which when we fall into it is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance.” –Daniel Dafoe

 

Walking on the institutional concrete produced a throbbing so pronounced that most people would have attributed it to fractures.  But my legs weren’t broken – they only felt that way.  When I first heard the term “shin conditioning” I pictured women in terry-clothed robes receiving some sort of lotion treatment.  Serene, sliced cucumbers covering their eyes… I pictured a lot of things, but never blood loaded faces set in an expression of agony.  “Shin conditioning” had nothing at all in common with peaceful mending and was in fact the polar opposite, the process of battering the legs intentionally, to the point of injury.

There is a popular conception that the testicles are the most sensitive part of a man’s body.  Don’t get me wrong, while they are definitely touchy little bastards, but if you’ve ever been struck cleanly on that bundle of nerves just a bit down the inside of the shin bone you might argue that the resulting pain merits comparable standing to the family jewels.  A light thump of this nerve cluster produces a surprising amount of discomfort.  Given a firm rap, it will likely conduct a sensation of electrical current straight down through the neural pathways to the ends of the feet and you will swear your toes are on fire.  A well placed kick to this same area bring forth pain so severe it will thoroughly incapacitate the average Joe.  This was the reason why I was beating on my shins like some monastery freak in search of penance.  The theory is that by abusing your shins consistently you can numb (or perhaps even kill) the nerve endings and build bone density.  If you injure your legs often enough you will grow accustomed to the trauma and a blow to your shin will no longer fold you over in tears.  That is not to say it won’t still hurt like the Dickens, unless of course you are one of those amazing Iron Shin Kung Fu practitioners that bust baseball bats across their shin bones without so much as flinching.

The ability to withstand punishment to the legs is highly advantageous as a martial artist.  I discovered this during my first day of Taekwondo training when I was instructed to throw a kick, and another student to block.  He blocked alright, connecting with that special spot and I dropped like a sack of rocks, rolling back and forth on the cement in pure agony.  Most American martial arts schools teach their students wearing plastic guards to protect the shins. Lying on the cement this struck me as a fine idea indeed!  Unfortunately had I been able to find and keep a pair of shin guards within the penitentiary, my sensei was of the opinion that shin guards were for the weak, and his opinion was law!  I began pummeling my shins the very next day, discovering that a hardback book worked best.  By moderately ­­slamming it against my shins, I could induce the same texture and coloring as that of a cold, purple-yellow pizza.  At first my jaw hurt almost as much as my legs from the tight clenching.  I know it all sounds insane, but I was beating myself up so other people couldn’t.

The shin bone isn’t the only area of the body that people attempt to desensitize.  Many fighting disciplines incorporate knuckle push-ups and striking hard surfaces repeatedly in an attempt to toughen the hands.  Chinese Shaolin monks are known to practice Iron Kung Fu,­­ the process of conditioning a body part until it becomes as resistant to trauma as iron.  Shins, knuckles, forearms, abdominals the neck and even the groin are all conditioned.  You may wonder how does one go about conditioning his groin against injury?  It first begins with strengthening related muscles – hanging and dragging stones weighing more than 50 pounds from his genitals and then (and it pains me to write this) beating the hell out of it.  Most will spend at least an hour a day battering the area and rubbing it while practicing Qigong, the ancient exercise of controlling life’s energy, or Chi.

After amusing himself in this manner for some months, the monk could use his “iron” muscles to pull his testicles into his gut and then spread his legs imperviously before any attacker.  Talk about a party trick!  (Which is exactly what the Shaolin monks use this ability for nowadays, putting on a show for paying tourists and spectators and inviting anyone at all, to come and kick an iron groin.)  As useful as Iron Groin Kung Fu would be for most guys, I cannot imagine that there are more than a handful of men in the world who train this way.  There are degrees of insanity even for martial artists.  Besides – this is exactly why they make athletic supporter cups.

I am fairly sure that all the movies I devoured as a kid warped my young mind.  Watching Bruce Lee dominate ten thugs simultaneously without the need for superhero powers, perhaps with a little bit of Hollywood magic, but regardless established that he was the greatest fighter in the world, movies or otherwise.  Having been bullied since the ripe old age of five months when my father set the palm of my hand on fire because I wouldn’t stop crying, I knew tyranny and I feared it.  Watching Bruce Lee kick the tar out of bad guys made me feel hope, gave me something to imagine and I wanted to be like Bruce more than anything in the world.

Childhood dreams are just that, though, and you know how they go.  Most are silently assassinated by time and the realities of life. With the exception of kiddy-Taekwondo, the only self-defense I ever learned was Iron BIG MOUTH Kung Fu.  I wouldn’t throw my first spinning roundhouse kick until I was 38 years old, trapped in a place where even modest dreams rot away.  Interestingly, my little boy aspirations of being a bad ass might’ve laid dormant forever had I not been locked inside such a wretched place.  There are no adults in prison, not really.  When you take away all the choices, the control a man has, he comes to feel as helpless as a child.  Throw him in with a bunch of hate-filled thugs, abuse and dehumanize him daily, and it is no wonder that he shares the same empowering fantasies as a child.  My fairytale fantasies came back to life with a vengeance, but dreaming remains just that unless it is met with opportunity.

I wouldn’t call it a miracle but I also wouldn’t label it ordinary.  I met a man who held a second degree black belt in the art of Moo Duk Kwan Taekwondo.  He was the real deal – not one of those dime-a-dozen black belts it seems like every guy you meet lays claim to.  The odds of finding a true Taekwondo master in prison are about the same as coming across a wealthy celebrity; it happens, but not often.  Earning a legitimate black belt requires humble discipline and a rare work ethic, traits somewhat uncommon in the human warehouse of a prison.  This was the Texas justice system we are talking about after all, so chronically fallible over the years, crushing many good but poverty laced men beneath its wheels.  My sensei was one of the decent men of this world, another statistical tragedy behind the razor wire.

My sensei was much the opposite of a bully, at least when he wasn’t teaching.  He was a kind person, highly courteous to everyone and even fairly humble for an accomplished fighter, but his most distinguishing characteristic was his ability to genuinely laugh at himself.  It was amazing how easily he amused himself and even myself – a serious-minded individual.  I came to admire his playfulness tremendously particularly as he was able to maintain it amongst so many grim and hopeless men.  Certainly a blessing if not a miracle, I had met a man who could bring me to fulfill my early boyhood dream.

Maybe another reason childhood fantasies so often fizzle out is that children rarely consider the sacrifices necessary to achieve such special goals.  Nothing worth having comes easily and I aggravated my suffering by waiting to learn serious martial arts until a later stage in life.  Taekwondo is famous for its kicks, requiring above average flexibility.  At an age where most competitive fighters have long retired into teaching, flexibility was something that my aged body lacked (even when I was young!) and I learned that there was nothing quite like the pain of stretching inflexible muscles, beyond limits they had never ventured.

The irony of martial arts training did not escape me.  My golden aspiration to be like Bruce Lee was based on a deep fear of physical violence: the only bequest from my late, rather troubled father.  The last thing I wanted was to be hit and yet I accepted that it was the foundation for learning to fight.  Talk about a love-hate relationship!  I hurt every day, from flesh to flesh impact but also from being forced to work muscles that ordinary life never called upon.  I knew the only way to realize my dream was to face my boogieman and so I did, over and over again.  It was certainly not a cure-all, blatantly dancing with physical pain did not have enough magic to touch the battered child buried deep inside, but there were small, brief moments of serenity.  There were moments when I embraced the hurt and even laughed at myself.  I relish those fearless moments even now.

The rewards from Taokwondo training were multiple.  My physical strength and flexibility improved significantly.  I gained confidence and focus, which in turn allowed me to experience periods of great calm.  Most beneficial of all was that martial arts gave me something to strive for and somewhere to put my heart.  Men who have nowhere positive to place their energies always seem to be a miserable lot.

Tunakoshi once said that the ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat but in the perfection of the character of its participants. This seemed like one hell of an ideal to live up to, but if someone truly wished to excel in their chose martial art the guiding philosophies were bound to take root and spread throughout every aspect of the practitioner’s life.  The more time I send studying and training, the deeper I came to believe in the underlying theme (not unlike a religious conversion).  Everyone has a desire to believe in something and the needier a person feels, the greater their susceptibility to indoctrination.  In prison we are disposable people, and being so made me about as vulnerable as they come.  I was beyond desperate for a purpose and the eastern philosophies incorporated into the martial arts were enchanting music to my heart.  Maybe I could never perfect my character, but I could attempt to become more peaceful, humble, and kind, even if I spent the rest of my life in systematic degradation.  As long as I sought to better myself as a person, there might still be a chance of finding value within.

Another consideration was my mental health.  If you’ve ever met a man who’s spent 20 to 30 years in a toxic, artificial environment you know that it is not pretty.  After a while I began to exhibit some of the antisocial tendencies as those “deranged veteran convicts.”  It scared me and I didn’t want to go crazy, but I wasn’t sure it was entirely preventable.  For most of my incarcerated years I had disassociated myself from other inmates as much as possible.  Every interaction with guard or prisoner was a likely threat with a thousand predator games to avoid.  I withdrew and spent all of my open hours reading, drawing, and sleeping.  I sought anything to distract from the horror of my predicament and escape from the people surrounding me, who could only worsen it.  I wasn’t the only one.  A human warehouse is a sea of flesh, full of isolated islands and it brings madness because humans are such social and communal creatures, in need of interaction and love, almost as much as food.  Incessantly lonely individuals can’t help but succumb to serious mental illness in such a hostile existence.  I knew I needed human interaction to balance me out, or I would risk becoming one of those men who spent 24 hours in a cage screaming at nothing and carving sculptures from their own feces.

Even after I learned that the penitentiary contained as many good people as it did reprobates, I just couldn’t bring myself to come out from under my shell.  Being alone had become a damned comfortable security blanket, but Taekwondo helped to change a lot of that.  It placed me in a circle of men all working towards a common, positive goal.  By being with them it seemed as if every laugh was amplified and every pain lessened.  The shared camaraderie inspired feelings I would never have found in solitude and in fighting, we were also given permission to openly demonstrate physical affection, something few men are ever allowed to do in a hyper-macho environment.  When two men have exchanged blows, and suffered together it is okay to hug and hold each other for a minute.  I have come to believe that nothing heals the soul quite like a hug.

As I limped away from another session of shin conditioning, reflecting on who I was, where I was – beating up my legs was the sanest thing I could do.

 

[Edited: 8SEP2017 at the request of the author.]

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Zenless

Oh ugly day. If you’ve ever packed up everything you own in the world into laundry bags on a blistering hot day, lugged it all 332 steps to a dingy gym and, watched helplessly as chronically unemployable, petty-minded bullies used misguided authority to pick through every personal effect while disposing of whatever they saw fit – then you know exactly what I mean.

 

The worst part of today’s “major shakedown” was my inability to master my attitude.  I let the bullies shit in my head.  My only consolation was that I never let them see how much they got to me, hopefully spoiling a bit of their relish.  But in my mind and heart, I allowed their venom to circulate; years of carefully cultivated peace and self-control discarded in an instant.

 

I should probably give myself a break.  I haven’t done too badly buffering my mind over the years.  Authority makes tyrants out of so many people who may have once been courteous or shy, or normal and likable, but give them unquestioned authority and suddenly the demon is born.  I learned a long time ago to swallow my pride and indignation in this nest of ubiquitous Hitler’s.  I have absolutely zero control over anything done to me.  Lock me in a cage with no water, cuss me and abuse me without reason, castigate me whenever the urge strikes, I am helpless.  Helpless.  My natural inclination is to lash out the way so many prisoners do. Or nurse such a chronic and cancerous resentment that civilized thought becomes an anomaly.  But that’s a loser’s irony.  The only control you have, the only part of you that these tyrants cannot dominate, is your attitude, unless you let them.  There are moments of peace and contentment even here, but only if you relinquish your ego and notions of justice.

 

It’s not easy.  People’s perceptions are powerful and it blisters the soul to be stigmatized, to be considered disposable.  The way you’re treated by others has such an impact on the way you see yourself and the world.  It requires Herculean effort to keep your sense of self, to be a conscientious person – but it’s possible.  I’ve found it so very hard to erect protective barriers around my essential being; faced with the vileness, I attempt to withdraw into my mind’s inner bedroom and close the door, hiding until the latest tyrant finds another victim.  Of course, this compartmentalization of the mind is what many severely mentally ill people do as well, and there’s a danger I might someday be unable to find my way back, but it will be a madness of my choice rather than theirs.  Unfortunately, I’m not always fast enough to close the door of my bedroom and the bad guys win.

 

The bad guys…. Is that a joke?  These upstanding officers of justice with the American flag patch sewn on their Confederate gray uniforms?  Everyone knows it’s the inmate who’s the villain, the criminal, the scum.  Yet, think of life for a prison guard in Texas, an under paid, under-appreciated witness and participant in society’s largest scale of legitimized persecution.  Thousands of hours spent in such an environment isn’t going to beget gentle morality and in some ways, the guards are more corrupt than the inmates.  Not all of them, not even most of them.  There are good people in every situation, but even good guards face a great deal of peer pressure to never exhibit kindness or compassion in any form to a prisoner, and frankly, guards aren’t paid to be the good guys.

 

Actually, the door to my soul’s sanctuary gets left open more than I care to admit, especially during “major shakedowns”.  Despite all of my meditation and discipline, a major shakedown leaves me vulnerable to the anger and humiliation I keep trying to forbid myself.  What’s crazy is, when I compared myself to the prisoners around me, I always thought I had an advantage in avoiding the impotent outrage.  I sort of took pride in my stoicism, but on shakedown days, I seem to be the only one who becomes truly angry.

 

Not only is the average inmate seemingly unperturbed after a shakedown, it’s like this place takes on a holiday atmosphere.  When our masses come back from being violated in the old gym, guys are louder and laugh easier, just intoxicated with relief that the nightmare is over.  Up and down the cellblock you hear friends shouting at each other, some of them gleefully exclaiming that the didn’t lose anything during the shakedown, not a damn thing! So full of joy you’d swear they were given gifts rather than merely being allowed to keep what they already owned.  Other men will lament the loss of their radio or cherished magazines, but the bitching is insincere, unintended to change the celebratory climate.  Me?  Call me Scrooge.

 

True, I was once among the majority.  I remember the dread, the “lets just get this over with” set of mind, and I remember the blessed alleviation when it was done.   Well, time tempered all of that.  I no longer kill myself with stress in the beginning and I’m far from ecstatic when it’s over.  I pretty much view it as a root canal all the way through.

 

We average three major shakedowns a year.  They lock everyone in their cages for a few weeks and then search the prison.  During this time, inmates only come out for a shower three times a week and all meals are sack lunches:  two sandwiches per meal.  In Texas prisons there are major shakedowns and there are random shakedowns.  Random shakedowns are the real thing, they’re about security.  Major shakedowns are about the exercise of authority and spring cleaning.  “Random” isn’t meant literally, this type of search happens because they suspect an inmate has serious contraband like drugs, weapons or cellphones.  Or because they pissed off the wrong guard.  Major shakedowns aren’t intended to find any real contraband and they rarely do.  We are locked down and have plenty of notice to dispose of or hide any serious contraband before the search.  The whole lockdown and major shakedown are not taken very seriously by guards or inmates; it’s really just about going through the motions.  I won’t go deeply into the psychological reasons behind major shakedowns but they have the same elements as military boot camp rituals, designed to make individuals more submissive and pliable to authority.  I’m unsure if that’s the primary goal or the secondary goal behind scheduling major shakedowns, but the other part of the goal is to rid the prison of excess inmate property and nuisance contraband.  Nuisance contraband is defined as excess magazines, newspapers, clothing and plastic containers (an empty chip bag has many uses for an inmate:  a cooking container, a storage place for pencils, pens, etc., protecting envelopes from the humidity, organizing paperwork and much more), water bottles and too many groceries from the commissary.  The more property I have as an inmate, the more difficult it is to find real contraband in my cell in a genuine shakedown.  Just by making me carry everything I own such a long distance, they know I’m more likely to dispose of excess property.  But even if I’m strong and stubborn enough to lug the load all the way to the gym my property is still measured and pared by the guards.

 

Most inmates end up saving more than they can legally store.  I’m not sure why; perhaps we are overcompensating for having so little.  Whatever the reason, most of us are sort of pack rats, not wanting to throw anything away.

 

It’s always stressful to cull your property before a shakedown and we spend painful hours doing inventory of our meager possessions.  Which is more useful, the bag of colored pencils or the dictionary?  Which means more to your heart; the bundle of your daughter’s letters or the photo album with pictures of her?  You don’t want to choose, but choose you must.  It’s even harder for lifers like me who have no family or home.  Short-timers usually have family then can send their excess property to and retrieve it when they’re released.  Permanent loss is the lifer’s only alternative.

 

I may possibly have more personal property than a Buddhist monk, but I can still fit everything I own into a small box.  For most of my life I have idealized the notion, assuming that the less material I owned the simpler, peaceful and spiritual my life would be.  I still believe that but frankly, more material definitely doesn’t equal more comfort.  It’s amazing how attached one can grow to the most primitive of material items, and being forced to relinquish them really hurts.  Material sentiment seems exclusive to the human animal.  A favorite shirt, chair, cup… don’t we all value something?  We extend friendship to the inanimate and it must be hard wired into us: witness the child’s bond to a teddy bear, doll, or blanket.  I bet the commissary could sell pet rocks and we’d buy them, certainly we’re lonely enough.  A photo, birthday card, a bundle of letters from a loved one…how do you forsake these items like the worthless wood pulp they really are?

 

After two decades I sill have the memorial service announcement from my mom’s death.  It’s not heavy, doesn’t take up much room, but given my storage limitations, every little thing adds up.  I should’ve rid myself of this thing years ago.  I certainly didn’t get to go to the services, and it’s printed on cheap, yellowing paper.  It has a theme song I know my mom found completely lame.  I never even look at the damned thing, who wants to be reminded that the last person in the world who truly loved you is dead?  Yet I cannot bring myself to throw it away.  Someday a vindictive guard will trash it for me and I’ll thank them.  And hate them.

 

I’ve had a love affair with my artwork for a long time.  I’m no artist born, I usually correct a thousand mistakes to obtain the realistic detail I so admire in visual arts.  Even the smallest drawing can cost me many hours of intense labor.  So much effort I cannot help but feel that each piece of artwork contains a piece of my spirit.  But in this brick world, I’m not allowed to beautify my cage in any way, not with artwork or photos.  I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but I cannot think of any form of beauty that’s allowed in a Texas prison, I tried to store my artwork just so I could pull it out and explore it sometimes, but it’s impossible to keep something delicate from being damaged when guards are not exactly gentle with your property.  So I’ve made an effort to kill my bond to my creations, knowing I cannot keep a single one.

Is it loneliness that makes people cling to material items?  Loneliness is a simple fact for prisoners.  Even people you call friends are kept at a distance if you’re wise, because the first rule of prison is that you must never trust anyone – and for good reason, you are already helpless, to trust is to empower, and a friend can quickly become an enemy.  I certainly haven’t escaped the loneliness.  I find myself befriending the most unlikely suspects.  Most of the cages I’ve lived in have had a resident t Daddy Long Leg spider.  If not, I quickly find one and bring it home.  I name them, feed them and think about their well being.  Call my crazy, but I’ve been known to even talk to them.  Not philosophical conversations…they are after all only spiders, not dogs.  Instead I settle for apathetic uglies that scurry away every time I attempt to pet them.

 

When it comes to possessions it’s almost embarrassing to admit which one I value the most:  a plastic jug.  Oh, it’s undoubtedly useful and convenient, but worthy of affection?  Its’ pathetic how much I dread losing this plastic bottle.  True, they only sell small cups in the commissary and containers of any volume like mine are hard to come by in prison.  My bottle is made of sturdy plastic that won’t melt even when full of boiling water, has a large mouth for convenient cleaning and merely possessing it encourages me to drink far more water than most inmates, which is important in a prison system that suffers heat fatalities every year.  My jug is irreplaceable because they don’t make them anymore.  It used to contain spices, which is how it entered prison.  A kitchen that cooks for 5,000 men requires large everything and the spices used to come in these coveted containers.  Yes, my jug is invaluable and convenience extraordinaire, yet my ten-year attachment to it is ridiculous, especially since its loss is inevitable.  No one should ever waste energy working about the loss of a disposable container, but I do.  It’s contraband.  Any guard who sees it has the right to confiscate it and punish me.  Inmates always ask me how I’ve managed to keep it so long, especially through so many shakedowns and, would I consider selling it?  The answer is that I’ve jumped a thousand hurdles, undertaken superlative measures and it it the way some prisoners hide true valuables like money or jewelry and, my baby isn’t for sale at any price!

 

A major shakedown is designed to find minor contraband like my drinking jug.  Tape, rubber bands, paperclips, and other inconsequential but useful items, meaningless to the average person, but immensely handy to us dregs, is what they’re after.  A red ink pen is contraband only because it’s not sold in commissary like black pens, but for someone who does art it’s a wonderful tool, hard to obtain and painful to lose.  There are hundreds of harmless items an inmate treasures that are considered contraband and these are what the guards are searching for.  Obviously the term “major shakedown” is an oxymoron.

 

The there’s addiction; every person alive has one.  Drugs, cigarettes, and booze are the higher profile and judged ones, but religion, masturbation, television and sugar are just as powerful.  Even tiny habits can become problems, I had a cellmate who stressed out when he ha fewer than a hundred cotton swabs.  I found that amusing, but his distress was real.  Additions, no matter how innocent or “positive”, are marbled with pain.

 

As a free person I was addicted to snow skiing, movies, fast food and bad relationships; those dependencies died cold turkey when I became a prisoner.  But addictions don’t disappear into a vacuum, psychologically, something must take their place and mine were replaced by books.  Books? That’s positive right?  Everyone should read and learn; few pursuits are more virtuous….not.  like I said, even addictions labeled positive are toxic by nature.  Books weren’t a tool or learning or entertainment for me, they were an escape.  Just as a junkie eagerly taps her vein to obliterate the pain, I buried myself in inked paper.  There were days I spent 16 or more hours in a novel.  Whole days lost forever in someone else’s imagination.  There was really no difference between me and a druggie or religious zealot and the withdrawal symptoms were full of suffering.  Several times I have been locked in a cage with nothing, not a single piece of paper much less a book.  I could only escape with memories, which bring tears, daydreams that grow stale and Zen meditation, which becomes laborious after a few hours.  There was simply no escaping the agony of reality

 

It’s foolish to pigeonhole anything though, including addiction.  I’m quite convinced I would’ve suffered from true insanity if books hadn’t provided relief.  My dependency on escape reading has been tempered significantly over the years, but books remain a drug of sorts.  When I’m living in the pages, this vile prison reality recedes and I become part of the human story again, finding love, adventure, sentiment and beauty.  Tempered or not, it’s still an addiction and I nurture a terror of being without books.  So of course I overcompensate.  Despite the severe restrictions on what I’m allowed to own, my cage overflows with books.  During a major shakedown, this becomes a form of distress. I pay other inmates who have less property to carry some of my books through, but I still lose some to the bad guys and it hurts every time.

 

Today, four beloved volumes were confiscated from me.  I thought I had sufficiently pared my possessions down over the last few days.  I was wrong.  They have a new system involving a red plastic milk crate.  With the exceptions of shoes and appliances, everything you own must fit inside the crate, or else.  This new crate system is very unsportsmanlike because while we have sparse storage in our cages, the space we do have in our lockers and shelves is twice that of the milk crate.   As if this weren’t disappointing enough, thy put an insolent child in charge of the shakedown in the gym.  A gung-ho sergeant who wears his fragile ego on his sleeve, a man who throws his authority around like a pubescent big sister put in charge for the first time.  This inane antagonist insisted that no property peek over the rim of thee crate – god help you if a jar of peanut butter edged a millimeter over the rim!

 

Many an inmate got away with stacking property above the brim when Sergeant Big Sister wasn’t looking because out of the thirty or so guards shaking down, only the sergeant considered a level relevant.  Unfortunately for our protagonist, I had no such luck.  I remained the object of his tyranny the whole time.  I wonder why he picked me?  Perhaps my eyes didn’t show enough submission, or maybe I resembled an enemy, or perhaps he saw in me the greek god of a man he could never be.  Just kidding.  For whatever reason, he picked me.  Ordinarily I would’ve been up for the test, after all, it’s not like I don’t encounter hyper alpha males every day.  I usually laugh, greeting such adolescent antics with apathy.  But Sergeant Sadist caught me when my emotional immune system was already under siege.  As I sat on the polished concrete, packing my property into the crate, trying to use every available inch he stood over me flinging obscenities and spittle into my hair.  I attempted to keep my expression Zen, but my hands betrayed me with trembling as I hastily stuffed the crate, sweat literally forming a puddle beneath me.  I wore only a pair of boxers and I kept slipping as I scrambled around the crate gathering my belongings spread all about the floor and the Singing Sergeant Obstacle Course. Then I cut my finger on a stray razorblade, and every book I touched became stained with sweat and blood.  I got so flustered and full of anger I felt my eyes well up.  Meanwhile Sergeant Scourge was joined by a sycophant female guard whose profanity was far more eloquent than his. They finally told me I had less than ten seconds to finish packing the crate or they’d take everything.  I was so close to standing up and speaking my mind. So. Close.  But my intelligence stepped up and pulled me from the brink.  Ten years ago I wouldn’t have given a damn, I would’ve told the sergeant exactly how I felt and maybe even given him a fat lip.  Not only would this have cost me all of my material comfort, but an unwitnessed and handcuffed beating in an empty cage smelling of stale piss.  Today, I managed to react like a wise Buddhist monk…or like a sheep.

 

I stood up and carried the still-not-full milk crate to search table without a backward glance at my abandoned books.  It’s funny how something so important a few minutes ago can become meaningless in an instant.  All the careful planning and agonizing over what to keep or sacrifice – all that idiotic self-inflicted pain.  For nothing.

 

[Edited: 8SEP2017 at the request of the author.]

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Hopeless

There’s a friend in the next cell I’ll call Michael.  Michael is a fish, he’s done less than three months of a 60-year sentence, and everything is still new and appalling.  Like all fish in a Southern penitentiary, he alternates from horror to indignation because he still thinks like a human being.  I like Michael, he has a generous heart and a smile that flashes often and unselfconsciously.  It’s hard not to stare at Michael’s eyes sometimes, and I’ve noticed the other veteran prisoners do it too. His eyes still have some light, which makes them conspicuous in the dark existence.

Michael has countless photographs of his wife, Emily, and his five-year-old daughter, Lisa, whom he worships.  Completely blind to the boredom of others, Michael loves to show off his family pictures, each of which comes with a litany I’ve heard repeatedly, but with patience as I know it comforts Michael to relive moments of love.

I cannot help but to feel protective of Michael, he’s really just a kid, gullible and vulnerable.  I try to teach him how to carry himself, and how to avoid being raped or taken advantage of by inmates or victimized by vindictive guards.  To his credit he listens but he cannot seem to let go of his childish belief in fairness, or acquire the art of numbness.  Some lessons can only be learned through experience.

Like everyone else who comes to prison with a hopelessly long sentence, Michael seems convinced that it isn’t over.  He ingenuously believes he will win a court appeal, that his sentence will be reduced to some sane number, and that he will be reunited with Emily and Lisa, who’ve promised to wait for him no matter what. If it’s pointed out to Michael that the good ole boys in charge of the Texas Court of Appeals reverse their fellow judge’s rulings in less than one percent of all cases, he waves this fact away with the swipe of his hand hastily explaining why HIS appeal is different and how the merits of HIS appeal are superior.  Which is pretty much what all nascent lifers say.

I refuse to discuss Michael’s foolish faith in the court system anymore because it irritates me, saddens me.  I see Michael’s future as clearly as if it has already happened.  I’ve witnessed his story unfold a hundred times.  Michael is nothing but a statistic; he just doesn’t realize it yet.

Lifers are usually housed together and most of them share a propensity to fabricate hope where there is none.  They all know or have heard of someone who has overcome the appeals process and found their way back home.  They revisit these tales over and over, emphatically nodding their heads in agreement with unspoken amens, blithely ignoring reality and the astronomical odds against winning the judicial lottery.

It discombobulates me how differently I think compared to my fellow lifers.  It’s true that I too once harbored some unrealistic fantasies about the appeals process, and I knew, I just KNEW I had more right to hope than most, including Michael, because unlike him, I was innocent of any crime.  That delusion was murdered of course but even when my hope was at its apex I had sense enough to temper it.  Well, perhaps I’m being generous in saying that, but years later I’ve lived through enough to stifle hope altogether.  That makes me an extreme minority.  Somehow even after their appeals fantasies are destroyed, many lifers find some new optimistic fallacy to invest their faith in, and it strikes me as nuts.  Why do they insist on banging their heads against castles in the sky?

The incorrigible argue that anything, absolutely anything can happen.  Laws change, tough on crime political fads are fickle and every once in awhile, even the Texas parole board gives birth to new policies. There seems to be no end to the illusions these lost men create to avoid what’s painfully apparent: most of us will die here.  As a last ditch effort, some lifers find religion.  They commit to their new beliefs fervently, praying to Allah or Jesus for another chance to go home, ready to attack anyone who would question or doubt their new hope.

One particularly obscene hope that makes its way through the penitentiary every few years, especially when more U.S. troops are sent to the Middle East, is that the military will soon offer to suspend prison sentences in exchange for enlistment.  There’s absolutely zero chance of that ever happening, as anyone with a lick of sense would know, but such is the nature of hope.  Suddenly you see large groups of inmates doing extra calisthenics on the recreation yard to get in shape for the armed forces fitness test that’s sure to come.  A man I tremendously admired and loved once fell hard for this absurdity.  He was by no means stupid, yet his innate optimism was boundless.  I argued with him daily, citing my own military background and knowledge; I used analogies and logic, angry assertion, and finally soulful pleading, but my wonderful friend remained obstinately enamored.  So emotionally invested was I it felt like it was me who faced the crushing disillusionment sure to follow, rather than him.  Years later as I think back about that special man and the indelible optimist he was, I believe it may have been his relentless pursuit of hope, however foolish, that made me admire him the most.

And maybe it’s Michael’s misguided enthusiasm that attracts me to him; like a moth to a flame.  Not that I envy his incandescence, not even a little.  The brighter the light, the colder the darkness that follows.

I don’t know why it drives me crazy when people I care about in prison embrace such unrealistic aspirations or why I’m unable to generate such comforting delusions for myself.  Nor do I understand why I argue pointlessly, trying to convince them it’s far safer to practice acceptance instead of hope.  And that it’s more conducive to mental health to live in the moment, one breath at a time

I tell myself that they are unwise, that they are wrong and I am right.  I tell myself that my frustration stems from my concern for them.  If I’m to be frank, I sometimes tell myself that I’m better than them, that they are criminals and I am innocent.  And I tell myself I am stronger than they are because I face the agonizing truth without fairy tale buffers.  I tell myself a lot of things I guess, but how can I be sure I’m not the one suffering a delusion?  Perhaps I’m really just a coward.  Doesn’t it take more courage to hope than to despair?  Might they be empowering themselves and living a more quality existence than I?  Maybe, but I’ve been burned by hope before and I cannot bring myself to go near that flame again.

By the time the letter came informing me that I had lost my appeal and that I would likely spend the rest of my life in the hell that is prison, I had saved up enough Thorazine to kill a horse, because if sure didn’t kill me.  I thought I had executed the overdose perfectly:  I took two of the pills an hour before the rest so that I would fall instantly unconscious once I took the remaining two handfuls and therefore preventing myself from nausea and vomiting out the drug before my system could absorb it.  I was successful in that I did manage to digest all of the Thorazine before they discovered me and pumped my stomach, but a week later I regained consciousness and my escape attempt failed.  My failure took all of the initiative from me and I couldn’t find the energy to try again.  But I didn’t exactly regain the will to live either.  I stopped eating and cleaning myself, I stared at walls for days without feeling anything.  After a few weeks of this existence prison officials caught on.  They strapped me down and force fed me through my nose, and then they locked me in a cage naked, with nothing but thin flesh and protruding bones to cushion me from the cold steel and unforgiving concrete.  I couldn’t lay down for more than a couple of hours as it was too painful.  I suppose that misery trumps despair because I began eating “voluntarily” again just so I could have some clothes and a thin mattress.  As time passed I never really made a conscious decision to live, but somehow it happened anyway, one breath at a time.

Suicide is far from uncommon in prison.  I cannot quote numbers or statistics, but I personally know seven men here who’ve successfully killed themselves, and have heard tell of at least another twenty that I’ve never met on this prison farm.  I’ll be conservative and say that at least 22 men have committed suicide in the past six years here.  There are more than a hundred prisons in Texas so you do the math.  I cannot tell you individually why so many prisoners kill themselves, but I can speculate with one quote from Benjamin Franklin: “He that lives on hope will die fasting.”

Had I refused to hope even a little as I do presently, I never would’ve fallen so low   I hate to think of others experiencing the same demoralization, especially Michael.  Yet Michael faces a trial that I never had:  it’s not his quixotic aspirations of going home or even the malignant existence of prison that threatens Michael’s spirit the most – it’s the people who love him.

Like most lifers, Michaels’s friends and family will eventually desert him.  This is so common I can practically give a time-line and order of abandonment.  The lover always leaves first, be it girlfriend or wife (assuming she hasn’t been preceded by the friends, who rarely endure the arrest and trial.  The initial separation kills all but the most determined friendships and few friendships are described by the word “determined”).  I’m not sure why the lover is usually the first; romantic love may be the most intense lover there is, yet it also appears to be the most brittle, and dependent upon companionship.  Even in the military, which is viewed in a much more positive light than prison, I saw many a love die.  Separation is merely one component of prison’s poison to relationships.  The stigmatization, the financial burden and the very antithesis of the lovers’ separate lives all aggravate the severance and a life sentence butchers all hope of reunification.

The lover is usually gone before the first year of prison is over.  Secondary family like aunts and cousins are next, depending on how close the relationship was to begin with.  It’s true that an aunt or grandmother may send a card or money on Christmas well into a lifer’s sentence, but does a letter once a year signify love, or merely emphasize abandonment?

The siblings and father are usually gone by the fifth year, again depending on how close they once were.  That’s not to say they might not drop a letter once every few months out of some fading sense of duty, but as the years of separation grow obese, their hearts are no longer in it.  Much of the time it’s the mother who is last to abandon here son, sometimes until death.  But generally by the time a man serves his twentieth year, he is completely alone and disposable.

Michael will experience all of this, but presently he’s on the honeymoon of his incarceration.  He receives mail almost everyday, he goes to commissary each time it’s allowed, he gets two hour visit most weekends, and he spends a lot of time on the phone.  The veteran inmates know all of this is temporary, but the kids are always the last to see the end coming.  Michael would never believe me if I told him his family will forsake him, nobody wants to think of that.  Yet, I suspect the abandonment has begun.  Michael is already doing the phone drama with Emily.  One minute he’s shouting at her and the next he’s crying.  I don’t know the specifics of the conflict and it doesn’t really matter; they all shout and cry as they’re being left behind.  Emily and Lisa used to come visit two or three times a month, but its’ been eight weeks since they last came.  The last visit Michael will ever receive from his wife and daughter is coming very soon, it if hasn’t already happened.  The rest of his family haven’t shown any signs yet, but their last visit will come as sure as dusk. The letters will dry up with the phone calls and eventually Michael will be washing other inmate’s underwear for commissary.

There are some exceptions to this pattern of abandonment of course.  Some glorious exceptions actually.  I’ve seen guys do almost fifteen years and still get occasional visits from family including even the father and siblings.  And more amazing, there have even been some wives who’ve kept the faith.  I know one guy whose wife had come every weekend for e11 years, though this anomaly seems endangered because of his jealousy.  His wife recently confessed to a couple of affairs and he is not taking it well.  I told him he’s a fool; if someone loved me like that I wouldn’t waste a heartbeat begrudging here a tryst.  People have needs, they get lonely; does it truly matter what she does in her separate existence as long as she loves you and makes you a priority?  She endures the hopeless wait and you fault her for being human?  I want to shake some sense into him, but it’s his love to throw away.

I’ve heard tell of another guy whose wife stayed the course for twenty-eight years.  Twenty-eight years!  It’s unfathomable. A one-time romantic in my former life, it brings tears to my eyes just to imagine it.  But so rare are these cases they’re unworthy of wistful aspiration.

If you’re a wise lifer, you understand when someone you love finds somebody new, it’s not their fault you’re in prison.  But these kids are neither wise or understanding.  To them it’s betrayal plain and simple, and the ensuing bitterness hardens their heart.  I dread that for Michael because of how bright his light shines.  Despite the disdain I sometimes feel for his naïve hope, I find myself craving his presence.  I guess that subconsciously it makes me feel more alive.  When his torch is finally extinguished, I suspect my own vitality will darken some

This inevitable abandonment of lifer inmates may strike some as cruel or unfair.  Perhaps there are people who will read this and reflexively deny that they’d never abandon someone they love, even if that loved one were a prisoner.  Maybe you’re right and you’d be an exception, but consider this:  people change, and you’re not the same person you were ten years ago, you have new wisdom, beliefs and perspective.  Can you honestly predict who you’ll be twenty years from now?

There might even be some people who read this that have kept the faith with a loved on in prison if so, I commend your loyalty and admire your tenacity.  But for those of you who’ve parted ways with someone you loved, I tell you there is no dishonor in following a natural course.  Change is inescapable and it defines life.

Imagine if you will, two people that love each other deeply, they have shared laughter, joy, tears, profound experiences and their bond is strong.  Now imagine circumstances separating them for twenty years.  Consider the awkwardness of a possible reunion; it would be a meeting between two strangers.  Neither person is anything like they once were.  Change is constant for everyone but when we’re together, familiarity and companionship make the changes barely noticeable.  Apart however, we’re living an existence completely foreign to the other.  We cannot imagine the events, new relationships, and unique suffering that’s changing the other person’s whole personality.  Years pass and the person we once knew has a new life and relationships with people who understand and care about the person they are now rather than who they once were.

We place such an ideal on love in our culture than even I want to argue that separation cannot kill what’s in my heart if I truly love someone, even should twenty years pass.  I want to argue, but can I do it without being a hypocrite?  My son was born more than twenty years ago.  From the moment I first held him, freshly warm from his mother’s womb, I felt a love so sublime it overwhelmed me I still want to shout from the mountain tops that nothing could destroy that love.  But I haven’t seen my son since he was a baby; can I possibly still love him?  I don’t even know who he is.  If I’m to be brutally honest with myself, my son is a stranger and whatever love I feel is for nothing but a memory.  Love is personal and I would argue that love for a stranger is superficial at best.

Love isn’t static or permanent, it’s alive and dynamic, it has a birth and a death as all living entities must.  Starve it with separation and it dies.  Life requires nurture and love requires communion.  Prison, especially prisons in the south, deter the nurture of love.  Not just with enforced separation; two resolute people could fight the system, keeping a relationship alive with regular letters and occasional visits, but no matter how determined they are, they’re still living two different existences and it will grow more and more difficult to understand each other as time passes.  The constant castigation of a prisoner alters the very fabric of his thought process.  He must learn to roll with the blows or risk his mental health.  The only real way to minimize his personal damage is to leave the outside world behind and focus on surviving this one.  People who’ve never been brought so low as prison cannot begin to fathom what it does to someone’s psyche.  How many, no matter how strong the love, are willing to sacrifice the energy and frustration to even try to understand what changes prison is inflicting upon their loved one?  Not many, but again, life is full of lovely exceptions.

The best friend I ever had in prison was Pete.  Pete had a mother that surpassed the ordinary and it made all the difference in the quality of Pete’s existence within these malovent walls.  She made Pete a priority and gave superlative efforts to let Pete know she was invested in his fate, no matter what.  Such was her determination that even Pete’s sibling and secondary family were forced to stay involved or face his mother’s wrath.  Pete received regular visits, money, letters and made phone calls when Texas finally started allowing them.  He never hurt for books, magazines, pictures of home, or any other of the little things a prisoner comes to cherish.  Even Pete’s friends in prison, like me, were included in his mom’s benevolence, as she often sent me books and greeting cards on my birthday and Christmas.  Imagine!  To have someone care about your birthday after years and years of barely acknowledging it yourself!  Pete’s mother made it her mission to understand prison and the policies that governed her son’s life, establishing communication with reluctant prison officials and calling regularly when there was a question or problem.  A lot of guards in our huge prison would hear Pete’s last name and say: “Oh you’re Pete! Your mom is so cool!”  So involved was Pete’s mother it had to influence the way some employees treated him.  Pete didn’t much need to worry about some of the abuses other inmates suffered, because prison officials knew they’d be held accountable by the force of nature that was his mom.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Of course, Pete wasn’t a lifer and that makes a major difference, as it’s surely easier for a family to stay involved when reunification is possible, but involved on that level?  It was amazing.  And something tells me that even had Pete been a lifer, his mom would’ve went about it the same way.  Case in point: me, whom she has no reason to care about much less value as she would her son, even I still get occasional messages and gifts from her and Pete has been gone for years.

The commitment of Pete’s amazing smother was vital not only during Pete’s prison life, but even more so upon his release.  Pete has been a free man for several years now and I’d bet my soul he’ll never return to prison, barring Texas injustice.  That’s saying something in a system where recidivism is rampant.  Having that family support was crucial to him getting back on his feet.  Quoting The Atlantic magazine: “Incarceration pushes you out of the job market.  Incarceration disqualifies you from feeding your family with food stamps.  Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on a criminal background check.  Incarceration increases your chances of being incarcerated again.”   The last sentence is an understatement.  Here in the south, where incarceration and recidivism rates remain the highest in the country…actually The Atlantic said we lead the whole world in incarceration rates, and recidivism is a given.  The whole system is set up for failure in a man released from prison.  There are hundreds of jobs a convicted felon cannot hold by law and thousands more that wouldn’t consider employing one regardless of the law.

Pete’s post-release success story is so uncommon I tend to view even short-timers as lifers of a sort.  The only difference between them and me is that they’re doing a life sentence in increments instead of consecutively.  Most of them keep coming back, their sentences growing each time.  Soon enough they come to the realization that they’re disposable, institutionalized and that they have no place outside of a prison.

I often think of Pete’s mom when I consider these kids, these statistics around me.  She hurdled all of the obstacles a Texas penitentiary placed before her and they were considerable.  Southern prisons don’t promote family interaction.  Quite the opposite.

European prisons emphasize policies that prevent inmates from being isolated from their families and surprisingly, from society.  Their prison systems focus on rehabilitation, perhaps because they don’t want the recidivism rates that plague their American Counterparts.  They institute programs to keep prisoners mentally and socially adapted to the world they must be returned to.  Many Americans are conditioned to believe such programs are too liberal and soft on crime.  Yet Europe must be doing something right because their crime and incarceration rates per capita are much, much lower than ours.

While few American state prison systems even give lip service to rehabilitation anymore, there are still a few that make an effort to keep families connected.  Unlike Texas and her Confederate sisters who often place hundreds of miles between a prisoner and his family, some states do transfers within the state as a matter of course to make it easier for families, many mired in poverty, to come visit.  Their visitation hours are far more generous, the phone time unlimited and reasonably priced and letters are actually encouraged, again without limit on indigent postage.  Some prison systems even have counselors who will call the family when the inmate is struggling.  There are even a precious number of state prisons that still allow conjugal visits, though I can promise you it’s not because they are kind people or soft on crime.  Perhaps they use it as a behavioral tool, knowing men will make sacrifices for loved ones that they never would for themselves.  Or maybe they believe companionship and intimacy are vital to cement bonds that will surely die with enforced separation.  Maybe they do it out of common sense:  if you intentionally destroy a man’s contact with the world and poison his relationships, leave him without the humanizing traits of love and empathy, abuse him like an ugly insect everyday, year after year: what kind of person are you developing?  Or maybe those states do it because of the bottom line, it’s expensive to keep the revolving door of the justice system going.

But I personally have never had to worry about family.  Texas is where I am and more importantly, it’s where Michael is, and his family.  Texas brags politically about the punitive austerity of its prison system and that’s not likely to change no matter how high their recidivism rate becomes.  In the south, execution and warehousing are the only politically correct ways to deal with crime.  If you have family in this system the policies are clearly insinuating that you should abandon them or be persecuted with them.

I could hope for a different outcome, but I don’t believe Michael stands a chance.  In twenty years it’s almost certain that Michael will be as alone and hopeless as I am.  The world will have abandoned him and he in turn will have abandoned the world.

 

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The Black Box

 

I recently wrote about the one-hundred-dollar medical co-payment that the Texas justice system extorts from the families of its inmates and how criminal it is for a government to double tax its most poverty-stricken citizens simply for caring about a prisoner.  I also talked about how the co-payment policy costs lives because inmates can be so reluctant to pay that fee, they will often allow a minor, easily treated malady to fester until it becomes a life threatening emergency.  I even admitted that despite my own cognizance of such unreasonable behavior, I too have foregone medical treatment to avoid paying that hundred dollars.  What I didn’t mention was that even as I wrote that information, I’d been having an untreated heart problem for months.

And now, in a case of tangible irony, I can relate that on the very day I finished sharing that information, I found myself in an ambulance with a life threatening problem.  For the previous 6 months I’ve been having episodes where I suffer a deep weakness, shortage of breath and an erratic heartbeat.  It rarely lasts more than a few minutes, usually when I’m on the cusp of sleep.  I’ve basically suffered few symptoms during the day and even exercise quite vigorously without issue, so I hoped the problem was minor and would heal of its own accord.  Weeks went by and I still kept having heart episodes but I continued to avoid the prison infirmary because of that hundred-dollar bill.  Then one day my heart went crazy, making me weak as a kitten, so I decided to seek help, a hundred dollars be damned.  When I got to the infirmary I waited 3 hours on the hardest bench in Texas before they’d even hear my complaint, and by then my symptoms were gone again and my vital signs were normal.  I waited another 3 hours to see a physician’s assistant and when I finally got to talk to her I told her about the problem and how long I’d been having it.  To her credit, she ordered an EKG test on my heart which came back normal.  She told me nothing was wrong with me and that I was probably drinking too much coffee.

I paid a hundred dollars I didn’t have to suffer 6 hours on the bench from hell just to receive an ignorant opinion a dozen inmates would’ve given me for free?  I hated myself.  Not one time in 20 years have I ever received help from a prison infirmary, even when I suffered a herniated disk in my neck and spent 4 agonizing months in bed with a pinched nerve.  I felt so stupid for subjecting myself to that useless infirmary exercise again and paying for the privilege.

The heart episodes continued, but wild horses couldn’t have dragged me back to that infirmary just to be snubbed by some apathetic prison healthcare worker, so I hoped my problem would heal of its own accord.  Then one night, my body betrayed me.  It could’ve easily been the end for our protagonist, but as it happens, there have been an unusually high number of deaths at this prison unit recently and that fact likely saved my life.

I woke up with my body screaming for oxygen.  My extremities were numb, my hands whiter than my bed-sheets.  When I attempted to get up I fell to the floor too weak to stand.  I’m not sure how long I stayed like that, but I refused to call out for help.  Eventually a boss man came by counting and saw me on the floor.  He called on the radio for assistance and they took me to the infirmary.  Once again my vital signs were normal.  They told me I was faking.

I should mention that inmates faking illness is far from uncommon.  I’m not sure why, but I suppose it’s often an effort to get attention however callous and malignant, especially for some of the men in higher custody security levels who are forced to spend the majority of their existence in a stimulus deprivation cage.  There is a fair share of hypochondriacs I’m sure and there have always been hustlers, even before the hundred-dollar medical fee. And after the fee the number of hustlers only multiplied, those friendless souls that never receive any monetary help from the outside. The hundred-dollar fee doesn’t touch them because Texas is forced to provide medical care (such as it is) even to indigent inmates.  They go get whatever medicine from the infirmary that might sell on “the streets”, like antibiotics, cold medicines, Ibuprofen, athlete’s foot cream and anything else.  So, it’s true that many inmates fake their symptoms and the medical staff, much like the security staff, are trained to be skeptical about anything a prisoner says.  Unless an inmate has symptoms plainly visible to even the most ignorant layman, he is unlikely to receive emergency care.

They kept telling me I was faking, but I couldn’t stand up or argue with them.  I found out later from one of the boss men present that the only reason they called 911 was because of the heat they’d received over all the recent deaths.  I’m not ungrateful, but it still confuses me.  Where would this “heat” come from?  Who would care if an inmate dies and what difference would it make?  The general public is indifferent and inmates’ families are mostly poor and without political clout.  Who’s left to hold a prison accountable for unnecessary deaths?  It makes no sense, but I’m unlikely to ever figure out the answer.

When I arrived at the emergency room, my vital signs remained normal and in truth I was feeling much stronger.  Fortunately, non-prison hospitals aren’t so quick to accuse people of faking.  They did a blood test and discovered I had a critically low potassium level.  That surprised me; who thinks about potassium?  Who knew you could die from such a thing?  I was hooked up to a bag of potassium and admitted into the hospital.  The guards seemed a bit disappointed that they’d guessed wrong about my imposture.

My stay in the hospital was both sublime and horrible.  Sublime because of the way the medical staff treated me after 20 years of being treated like an ugly insect by anyone with a smidgen of authority.  After dealing with medical staff that openly hate men because of the prison uniform they wear I had no idea how to react to authority figures that treated me like I had the value of some human.  I kept welling up with tears every time someone said something nice to me.  I guess I’ve gotten so used to rudeness, I’ve forgotten how powerful simple kindness can be.

I have often compared the blandness of prison food with that of a hospital.  My bad.  I apologize to hospitals everywhere.  Another reason my stay was so great was because of the delectable fare.  I suppose the greatest blessing of prison is that it teaches you a deeper, tangible appreciation for things you never truly understood the value of.

Lastly, my hospital stay was lovely because of the adjustable bed and the real pillow.  A real pillow!  Oh how I fell for that hospital cushion, and the soft blanket that didn’t cause itching.  Then there was the TV!  They told me I was allowed to watch TV 24 hours a day and that’s exactly what I did, sleep be damned.  I have loved movies since I was a little boy and I miss them so much; I wasn’t about to lose such an opportunity to sleep.  Yes, all of these novelties were quite wonderful, but I didn’t get to sincerely enjoy them because I was miserably uncomfortable the whole time.

My ankles were shackled close together and a cold steel chain was attached to the shackles, running up between my legs, stripping every hair it touched and it touched many as I wore no clothing barring a paper rear-less hospital gown.  But the shackles and chain were nothing compared to the handcuffs.  Ordinary cuffs would’ve been wretched in themselves.  But the “black box” turned it into torture.  The “black box” is a piece of hard plastic fastened over handcuffs with a padlock that prevents any movement of the wrists.  No matter how hard you try to keep your arms close together to prevent the bite of the metal it’s impossible because it’s too unnatural to hold your hands in that position.  So, your wrists automatically pull apart and lean against the steel.  It’s highly uncomfortable and after a couple of hours it becomes an extreme torment.  I stayed that way almost 5 days.  My hands swelled grotesquely and ulcers developed on my wrists.  The guards refused my pleas to loosen the restraints.  They’re terrified an inmate will try to escape being outside a prison, so they’re very strict and security conscious.  Little did they dream I wouldn’t have tried to escape even unrestrained and unsupervised.  Twenty years in prison has left me with no place else to go.

The restraints were hell.  I talked about not sleeping because of the TV opportunity, but only exhaustion would allow a person to sleep with that much bodily misery.  I spoke of the delicious food, but meal times were the most painful as I fought the “black box” to try and maneuver food into my mouth.  I dropped more than a few bites of that precious food on my bed where I couldn’t reach it.  You wouldn’t believe how challenging it is to use a spoon when you cannot move your wrists.

The term “bed-sores” has never made much sense to me; how could a soft bed possibly cause sores?  Now I know.  I wasn’t able to turn over or adjust my body much because of the restraints.  As a result, my butt grew raw, and I’m sure the urine didn’t help.   A bed can indeed cause skin ulcers.

The smell was bad.  I reeked.  I kept having to urinate because of the I.V. fluids and I couldn’t master the art of peeing in a jug while lying down handcuffed.  I spilled urine on myself over and over; it went sour as time passed by.  The nurses weren’t allowed to give me a sponge bath because I was a low-life prisoner who might get off on it.  The nurses kept asking me if I wanted a laxative to stimulate a bowel movement.  I didn’t need stimulation.  I’d had the urge from day one, but no way in hell was I going to have a bowel movement while chained like a dog and all of those kind women around.  I was prepared to hold it for weeks if necessary.  Five days was nothing.

Like I said, the hospital stay was both lovely and miserable.

The medical staff performed some tests, but they never did figure out how I lost so much potassium.  Even after they restored my potassium level back to normal, it didn’t solve the symptoms I’d been having for months.  But they seemed pretty sure there wasn’t anything wrong with my heart.  I can only hope they were right.

Now that I’m out of the hospital and back in the apathetic environment of prison, I have 2 problems to worry about:  I don’t know how I’m going to retain my potassium levels or how I’ll know if I don’t have enough of it.  The doctor said she would prescribe potassium supplements but she forgot.  Either that or she figured the prison would ignore her prescription as many of the drugs prescribed to inmates from free world doctors often are because they’re either too expensive or there’s a possibility of abuse.  I have no idea if potassium supplements are allowed for inmates.

Despite these worries, I was relieved to come back to prison and escape the “black box”.  My wrists are still a mess even as I write this.  The return trip was another lesson in misery as well.  I wore only a paper gown in 40-degree weather and it was an ugly challenge to shuffle and edge my way into the dog kennel in the back of the van.  That’s what it’s called: “dog kennel” and for good reason, there’s about the same amount of space.  I barely fit, my knees crammed against a metal cage.  Many prisoners are too large to fit in the dog kennels and need special transport.  Unfortunately, I just fit.  Being chained up made getting up and into the dog kennel no small task and once inside, I was too far towards the back of the vehicle.  The thing is, if they wreck the van, a prisoner has no chance.  Surrounded by metal and no seatbelt, and chains preventing any limb movement, even a minor vehicle accident could mean death to a man stuck in the dog kennel.  My guards were both African nationals from Nigeria, as a growing percentage of Texas prison employees are.  Fewer Americans are willing to accept such a low paying, degrading job.  My guards barely spoke English and call me paranoid, but I was a bit worried about their driving skills.  So, even though it was very painful to slide my body along the steel bench to the barrier at the front of the van because the metal was ice cold and my ulcer covered ass kept getting stuck to it (one must attempt to slide because the space is too small to raise up), I figured the front barrier offered me the best protection in the event of a sudden brake.  If I stayed in the back of the van as my ass begged me to do, a sudden brake would’ve sent me flying to crush my skill against the steel barrier, because I couldn’t raise my arms to protect it.

The ride back was long and very cold, but somehow I felt proud because the cold didn’t seem to bother me as I remained focused on breathing and keeping my wrists positioned to prevent resistance.  I remained proud until we got back to the prison.  It was raining a bit and once I managed to wriggle my way out of the dog kennel, I was forced to shuffle in my shackles more than a hundred yards on the coldest, wettest sidewalk in the history of mankind, barefoot.  I was trembling so badly by the time I got into the building that one guard had to hold my arms still while the other one unlocked my restraints.  But I was finally free of the “black box”.

The night I went to the hospital, I’d been wearing my watch, t-shirt, tennis shoes and state clothes.  I was forced to remove everything and get on the ambulance naked.  When I returned, my property had been stolen.  I’m still pretty upset about that.  I don’t know if the guards or the inmates stole my stuff, but there’s nothing I can do about it.  I suspect inmates.  The guards steal a lot, but usually only commissary or jewelry.  It doesn’t seem likely that one of them stole my low quality tennis shoes.  I don’t know which loss hurts worse, the watch or the tennis shoes.  It was a good watch, one I assumed I’d have the rest of my prison life.  The tennis shoes were fairly new, purchased with the money sent to me by a friend who could ill afford it.  It will be a slice of hell trying to replace those shoes.

I know; I should just be grateful I’m alive, right?  I’m not.  I want to be alive AND wear my shoes.

I’m back under the prison healthcare system now…sort of.  Trust me when I tell you it’s not a very safe place to be.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you the medical staff hates inmates.  Maybe it’s different in other states, but why would it be?  Who in this world, after undergoing so much education and training in the medical field, would want to get stuck in a prison giving medical care to worthless scum?

The infirmary is required to see you after you return from a hospital.  Once again I spent most of a day sitting on a bench with a sore ass, waiting to see the same P.A. who stole a hundred dollars from me to tell me nothing was wrong.  I sat in front of her as she reviewed the hospital report on the computer.  She looked at me accusingly and said: “you’d be dead if your potassium level had been that low”.  She acted like I was the one who put that lab result in the computer.  She ordered more lab tests and and EKG, which I know will be normal after the dozens they performed at the hospital and once again I’ll be likely labeled a faker.

But I’m not going to let that happen.  No more entire days wasted on the bench for me.  No more antipathy and being chained like a dog.  I’m finished.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, I am a human being and not a green piece of shit.  I plan to refuse all future prison infirmary appointments, and if it turns out my heart issues are fatal, so be it.  There are worse things than death.

 

[Edited: 8SEP2017 at the request of the author.]

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Get Over It

The following piece of writing (I cannot bring myself to call it an essay), called “Get Over it”, is quite graphic and loaded with offensive language. However, unlike “Commissary Day’1, a previous essay, I cannot bring myself to edit or tame it because its coarseness is actually the whole point. Every kid who comes to prison needs this schooling, yet few enough ot them get it through verbal instruction.

Prisoners who read “Get Over It, invariably find it hilarious, though I seriously doubt anyone who’s never been to prison will. I guess inmates think it’s funny because it’s a penitentiary rite of passage they recognize all too well. Or maybe sometimes the only way to deal with a misery you cannot escape is to laugh at it.

“Get Over It” is a crude and sometimes exaggerated dialogue, but then, so is life in prison.

To all of you who read Prison Vitality and spread the word, I thank you very much. I also encourage you to take advantage of the feature on this blog that allows you to be automatically notified when a new entry is logged. I’m not sure if this leaves an electronic footprint that will get Prison Vitality more visibility on search engines, but it can‘t hurt.

Be well, one breath at a time.

GET OVER IT

“There is a point beyond which even justice becomes unjust.” ~ Sophocles

So it’s your first time down, eh kid? Have a seat right here on my bunk. Sit, I ain’t gonna bite ya. What kinda time dey give ya? Five years! For nabbin a purse outta car… Geezus, dey slammed ya kid. That’s a rough first bid, even for Texas. What are ya, bout eighteen? And ya threw away a whole life for a freakin’ purse? You’re pullin my leg, right kid? HA! Tell me da bag was loaded with diamonds! Tell me there was thousand dollar bills burstin from da seams! Twenty-three bucks and change!? . . . Nobody’s that stupid! What’n hells’ da matta with ya kid? Never stole nuttin in ya life . . . Did it on a dare, cuz ya wanted to be one a da guys. It was dumb but you’ll never fall for that again . . . Geeezus, shut the fuck up! Save that shit for da parole board! Ain’t a swingin dick in dis whole joint gonna wanna hear bout ya freakin Disney values. There ain’t nuttin with value in dis cess-pit kid, don’t ya know that? You . . . Whatever you think about. . . ain’t worth a shit. HA! You could be Mother freakin’ Teresa and no one would give a rats ass. You ain’t nuttin but a numbered turd to da world kid. And in here? HA! You ain’t nuttin but a warm hole!

Aw, stop da bawlin kid, cryin bout da worst thing you can do in da joint. Never show weakness. Not that you can help it… HA! Ya gotta do somethin’ for that angelic face, kid! You look 13 freakin’ years old! Tell ya what. . . picture in that pea-sized brain a yours, a whore. Go ahead. Picture her! She weighs just dis side of 500 pounds and she’s butt-naked. See those rolls of fat a jigglin, see her? Now see her squattin on da carpet takin a dump. Can ya see her? Whoooya! Da look ya got on ya face right now? Make it stick! Always look ugly as ya can kid. Otherwise they’ll have ya wearin Kool-Aid lipstick and panties in no time!

Ya ain’t no homosexual. . . HA Kid! I done told ya—ya ain’t even a homosapien no more! You’re nuttin but fresh meat. Ya give it, or they take it. It’s all da same. Da rules for a little white boy like you are real simple: Pay, fight or fuck. HA! All three if yous short of luck!

Ya don’t know how to fight. . . You’re shittin me! Hunnerd pound white boy from da ‘burbs, spent his whole life in front of a T.V. or that internet bullshit. . . Jelly for muscle, heart of a sparrow, and you’re tellin me ya ain’t some killer commando in disguise? Never woulda guessed kid. HA! Never in a million years! Purty as you are, wouldn’t matter much. These street thugs ain’t too bright, but dey can bring ya down faster than a pack a hyenas.

Rather kill yourself. . . HA! They all say that! And bout half of ’em mean it too. Seem like a dozen try to off dem selves every month . .. That’s some coward-assed-shit! But… tween me an you kid? I kinda envy their escape. Death just gotta be better than rottin’ in a Texas warehouse. So, I ain’t gonna try to talk ya out a nuthin, but geezus kid, don’t fuck it up. These bastards will make ya pay if ya do. Lotsa kids cut their wrists, but da bossmen know when ya mean it, so they’ll mostly ignore it, but if ya make a mess and make em sew ya up . . . HA! Lemme tell ya kid, you really don’t wanna piss em off. They’ll shackle yer ass and take ya to a psych unit, stick ya in a refrigerator room till you’re nuts turn blue; till ya beg and swear on yer momma’s head you’ll never try to off ya self in their prison again. HA! Not that begging will help! I think ya gotta do at least 48 hours in da icebox, no matta what. An after they finish with ya, they’ll bring ya back here and feed yer ass to da hyenas . . . and man . . . these thugs love defrosted meat straight from da psych unit. Cuz then . . . Well, ya done took away any doubt bout ya bein weak. If ya use a razor blade kid, get it right. Open an artery. Ta hell with your wrist. Go for da throat. Right. . . there. Feel that pulsing?

Forget overdosing on all them psych drugs they give out kid. Screw up and it’s da stomach pump . . . Trust me, swallowin a garden hose really sucks. HA! And da refrigerator treatment is guaranteed! I tell ya, da best ticket outta this shit hole gotta be hangin ya self… damned if I can figure out why. It can’t be no easy chore to hang ya self in one a deez tiny-assed cages, but you kids do it all da time. Me, my theory is da poor bastards end up stranglin to death before their fingers can loosen da knot. . . Either that or them bastards is crazy enough to sit there slowly chokin to death! Geezus kid, but make goddamned sure ya get it done . . . They bring ya back from da chokehold and you’ll likely be a brain dead freakin zombie! Your brain’ll be in La La land, but your asshole will be right here in da warehouse keepin’ some hyena warm.

Guards . . . HA! These boss men ain’t here to protect your ass! They’re here to collect a paycheck and not a big one. Some of em worse than da cons. They like young tight assholes too! You’re lucky though cuz da bosses is mostly rednecks on this unit. They love hurtin ya, but it’s their ego dat swells up rather dan their dick. Just be glad you’re 18. A little younger and ya’d be rottin in a Texas kid penitentiary. Da bosses there pass little white boys like you around like a whore.

Why is prison so hard on white folks . . . cuz whites is outnumbered like hell in da joint! Maybe racial integration is fashionable out there in “civilization,” but ya ain’t out there no more. HA! You’re in a freakin jungle! Same primal shit from a thousand years ago. It’s that tribal instinct—us versus them. Skin color da easiest way to know what team ya’s on. It’s older than history, kid. They’re different from us, so lets kill da bastards and take their shit! Men always gonna love war. It’s only da women that keep’em from ripping each other apart. Well, there ain’t no women in here . . . HA! And besides, there’s nuthin better else to do! Whoever got da numbers and weapons, got da license for tyranny. Tough luck kid, but you’re a minority now.

Me?  Yup, I’m white too, but I’m a convict. Mind my business and nobody fucks with me. Why? Cuz I fight like a Wildman and these thugs is lazy bastards . . . They want it easy. Show’em ya got a little heart to ya kid. Convince ’em ya got da balls to slide some steel between their ribs and they’ll respect ya, no matter how little you is. Yeah, I know you’re scared to death right now kid, but da feeling is just like some bitch breakin yer freakin heart. Ya get over it after a while. HA! You survive 20 years in dis place and even da meanest ghetto rat’ll think twice before take a bite.

You won’t be here in 20 years . .. HA! Well ain’t you just sooo special! I wish ya da best kid. I really do, but you’re a statistic now. Ever hear da words Recidivism rate?  No? Well, I know you’ve heard da slogan: Lets Recycle HA! It’s just some fancy words dey use to name all da losers spawned by da system. Mostly dumb ass punks like you. For some reason you youngsters adjust da fastest to this shit. Maybe cuz ya guys is fresh and impress ’em….but da system conditions you kids real easy. I’m telling ya this place gets so deep in yer head it never comes back out! HA! Texas penitentiaries generate more losers than Vegas! If ya did stupid shit for acceptance in da free-world, yous damn sure gonna do it in here. Children like you ain’t got da strength nor da sense to swim against da current. Sorry kid, but if I was bettin I’d lay odds that if ya ain’t dead in 20 years, dis warehouse is exactly where you’ll be. Me? I ain’t no kid. I’m strong and determined . . . They ever give me a sniff of freedom, I’ll stand on my head in a bucket a shit to keep it.

Whacha gonna do? HA! Time, kid, and lots of it! Everybody got their own way of doin time. There’s a million ways to numbness. Some guys spend decades seekin nuttin but entertainment. Watchin TV everyday, gambling on sports, playin dominoes and chess, tradin stories . . . anything to escape. Some guys fall in love with workin for da man. Only freakin prison system in da country dat won’t pay us sub-humans a few pennies for our labor. But these guys bust dey ass for da state anyways cuz it’s da only way they know how to keep from goin nuts. You can learn how to draw or educate yourself like I’m tryin’ to do. You can do a lotta of things with ya time kid. It’s up to you. But there’s hard time and there’s easy time . . . Your dumb ass can make yer life a burnin hell if ya ain’t careful. Keep ya mouth shut and mind ya own business. Don’t snitch. Stay outta debt and go easy on da drugs. And be real careful who you’re nice to. Kindness in da joint is taken for weakness. Got any money kid? Is mommy gonna take care of ya? Glad to hear it, but don’t ever answer dat question again, stupid ass. Money’ll make ya time a lot easier . . . HA! But it can make it throbbin hard too! Some a these guys ain’t gotta postage stamp to their name and they’ll play a thousand games to get your money, so don’t flash it around. Never trust anybody.

Me? HA! Don’t trust me neither kid! But yer luck ain’t all bad. I ain’t no piece a shit thug or hyena and I damned sure ain’t queer. See this palm? I call her Goldie Hawn. If I can’t get no lovin touch from a woman. . . I’m a gonna be faithful to Goldie till da day I die, see? Your money and your ass gonna be in big demand, but not by me. Keep da cage clean and wash your ass … we got no problems. And above all keep da shitter clean. That’s where we wash our bodies and our clothes . … DON’T MAKE ME SMACK YA! Ya damn sure will wash ya’self with toilet water! Ten times a day if ya needs it! This cage too small, kid. I ain’t gonna share it with stink. Dey shower us like animals. By the time you dry off, da press of all them bodies in the shower room will have ya filthy sweatin again.   Ain’t no air conditioning in dis warehouse kid. Ya gonna sweat 24-7, 8 months outta da year! Only way to keep clean is to use dat shitter water.

Aw geezus. Don’t start dat shit again kid … I ain’t gonna hurt ya. But you’re a fish and I gotta lace ya up on da rules. This place is real ugly at first, but you’ll get used to it. HA! Like a fish takes to water. Remember what I said about adjustin? All brain washin ain’t bad. Sometimes it heals a bastard. In just a few weeks you won’t think twice about bathing in da shitter. Won’t bother ya to take a dump in a room full a people. HA! Might not even bug ya when they force ya to spread your ass cheeks in that busy hallway! Trust me, you’ll get over all this shit. Ya gonna eat nasty food everyday, filled with pubic hairs, dead skin, cockroaches and Hepatitis C. Ya gonna share underwear and bedsheets with 4,000 nasty swingin dicks. Ya gonna be shoved into small, hot pits smellin like stale piss and stuffed with shouting beasts. Ya gonna get shit on every single day you’re here kid . . . But there will come a time when all of it will feel normal to ya. HA! That’s why ya kids can’t function outside da razor-wire . .. Ya done forgot you’re human bein’s!

Yeah, this is a small space … It’s makin ya nervous? Claustrophobia? HA! Lemme tell ya a secret kid. Ain’t no such thing! It’s just a ten dollar label for imagination. Ain’t a single case of claustrophobia in da penitentiary and look how small the cages are. Ya may think ya fear somethin—ya may think you’re scared shitless of it! Ain’t nuttin but imagination though and there’s an easy cure for that… Reality! HA! Or insanity! Believe me, you’ll get used to small space in no time. Get some shut-eye kid. You’re gonna need all your strength tomorrow.

Too much noise to sleep . .. Yeah, I guess prison music is da one torture ya never get used to. Stick some shit paper in your ears and be glad it ain’t you whose doin da screamin . .. Hell, then again, maybe I’m the only one who can’t get used to da prison music.  Maybe you’ll be happy makin your own savage noise in a few months….Didn’t I tell ya that kids adjust da’ fastest to this nightmare?

HA, Ya really ain’t gotta choice.

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