Them’s the three subjects I would like to discuss tonight, if I have time to get to them all before I needs must get to bed.
I have been reading about prisons recently, a subject that has always interested me, but about which I have not been able to read much due to my general lack of attention span and an inability to stay awake enough to get through any printed material longer than a poem. Those two still affect me, but due to a change of narcolepsy medication forced on me by my Medicare Part D insurance company, the stronger drug I take now does keep me awake (who knew?) and so I can read more — and when I fall asleep reading, I read again after I wake. In such manner I was able to rather quickly read the 2004 book, GATES OF INJUSTICE: The Crisis in America’s Prisons by Alan Elsner and am halfway through another book, even more recent, written by a prisoner. Then there are the manuscripts I have by my pen-friend, 44 year old prisoner serving ” life without hope of parole” since age 18. In them, both fiction, non-fiction and dramas, he gives a completely raw and naked picture of life behind bars in one of the nations toughest and more decrepit prisons, Walla Walla, in Washington State. The prisoner, I will call him Lance, is perhaps the best writer and best source of all three — certainly his auto-didactics over the past twenty some years has worked wonders, as he is now articulate and highly skilled. In terms of material, Lance of course has what I need and tells a better story than the other prisoner, despite his published- by -a -St Martin’s imprint book.
That said, what have I learned? Well, in brief, that Abu Ghraib and the behaviors we know about there and claim to deplore, barely scratch the surface of what goes on routinely in most prisons in this country, in my state as well as yours. And if not in every state, then those states ship their overflow to others, where they are then treated the same as residents…But my state has, among other things, a reputation for using restraints and seclusion in prisons as in hospitals much too freely; naturally prisoners (and to a degree, though less so, patients) have suffered grievously as a consequence.
Lance writes about the details of routine strip searches and the deliberate humiliation to which all prisoners are subjected as a form of dominance assertion by the guards. He writes about the deadly abuse of power in violent cell extractions and beatings and use of SMU (“the hole”) in which some remain for years and from which some never emerge. He tells us about his life as a juvenile, sent to foster care and from one abusive “home” to another abusive “home,” where it seemed the only reason for taking him in, as well as others, was the money paid for each child by the state, money not actually used for the children’s welfare, but for the home owners’ welfare only. The foster children were routinely starved, beaten and forced to work at slave labor jobs instead of going to school, or to work after and before school if they did. Worse, if he ran away from foster care, Lance was sent to juvenile hall, and then to Reform school for being intractable…In other words, as a ward of the state, he gained a criminal record simply by virtue of the fact that his parents died.
But as a ward of the state, he knew nothing else but foster care, and then juvy and reform school, so what else was he to look forward to but…Prison was not unexpected and when it came, it was a shock but not a big one. It wasn’t all that different, after all, from juvy. Now that he’s been there, in Maximum security, and now I believe, medium security, for 20+ years, he has a slight hope of reprieve hope that his lawyer might be able to get him if not out then a new trial. He did not commit the act that earned him the sentence. He was simply “there” at the same time, and considered a conspirator by association. In any event, I believe that people can change, and I think he is not the same kid that went to prison. I hope he is freed one day and that he has someone waiting for him who has the patience to teach him the ropes about society and how to survive, because god knows he will need it. And a place to live and a job and and and…So much is stacked against prisoners when they become ex-cons. They can’t get welfare or subsidized housing, or work in some fields, good paying fields, and most employers won’t hire them any way, and they cannot get food stamps…so what do they do? Many do not have drivers’ licenses, and would Lance even know how to drive? How would they obtain a legal id? And for what purpose if they can’t get a job etc. But surely they would have something, getting out of prison, to show to police checking on them etc. Can they collect SS if they do end up working for some time? Are they eligible for that? It just seems so impossible with all cards stacked against success that recidivism seems sometimes the ONLY recourse, and return to prison almost appealing after a certain point.
I saw the lawyer, Sharon today to give her a poetry lesson, one in payment for the legal advice she gave me so freely. I’ve been worried lately that she was angry with me, and not letting the secretary answer the phone, and only answering it when I called with my cell phone, because that one doesn’t have my name attached to the phone number. In fact, I was certain that I would appear there today at 11am and she would not be there, that I would have been stood up, so to speak. Deliberately so, because she wanted to teach me a lesson, my having missed my appointment last time, due to my hospitalization. I was really afraid of this and afraid even to open her office door this morning, lest I read anger in her eyes, or a plot therein.s
But no, in fact she was happy to see me, and when she saw that I had prepared a lesson on the Haiku, she was thrilled. She said he had always wondered what Haiku was and how it was constructed. Not only that but I had planned some writing exercises . This too pleased her no end. So when we finished, she said, That was terrific, I had such a good time! Which made MY day too, I can tell you. She thought I “read people well” and said so, thought I had somehow intuited her interest in Haiku. That was when I had to tell her what I had really anticipated when I came in today. This surprised her greatly, but she needed to hear it, so she would know how wrong her impressions of me could be. I left, but not before she asked me to come back in June when she would have more time and we’d do more poetry. She was really psyched, which boosted my mood all day.
My plans are all coming together for my upcoming trip to Washington DC. If anyone out there is planning to be in that city on Friday the 17th of April, I will be doing a poetry reading at the POTTER’S HOUSE, a restaurant and bookstore at around 9pm (the “show” a fund raiser for My Mother’s House (donation $15) starts at 7pm) But I will upload the poster next entry. Other than that, I have to pack, and make sure I have my ID and disability letter and SS card for the train, and and and,.. I have made myself a list over the last three days, adding to it as I think of things I need to bring. I hope that way I won’t forget anything essential…I will not have any books to sell, alas, as WE MAD is still held up at the printers. But no matter. I will have some business cards and postcards and that I have had printed (free!) and I will give those out gratis just to remind people the book can be pre-ordered.
Enough! It is 11pm and I MUST go to bed. So sleep well all you on the east coast, and you on the other coast, don’t stay up too late! Everyone else, I know you are too sensible not to try to sleep the proper amount, if you can…Remember, if people get less than 7 hours, they tend to gain weight. (A true statistic!) In any event, sweet dreams to you all.