Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why I Write

Yesterday was the first day of my creative non-fiction class. After the usual introductions, we read Terry Tempest William's "Why I Write." (In looking up the link for that, I came across another essay with the same title by George Orwell, so feel free to check that out too.)

After we read TTW's version, we were given about ten minutes to come up with our own and then share with the class. I'm sure I could sit down with that topic every day and never write the same essay twice. I hope so, because I'm not very happy with this version.
I write for myself. 
I write because it is the single constant- the only outlet continuously available  while everything else spins and whirls around me. I write because the physical act of drawing a pen across a keyboard is satisfying and meditative. I write to practice my handwriting and improve my WPM.

I write for other people. I write to make my mother laugh or choke with delight -- I write so that I can watch her face as she reads. I write to watch her reaction, to affect her on purpose with thought and intention, to make up for the expressions I saw in the moments when I spoke with no thought, intention or purpose. 
 I didn't read it out loud because everyone else's was funny, and I didn't want to seem like the creepy kid in the class who writes to quiet the voices. Which begs the question, why share it online?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Next New Thing

It is so much easier to update on a regular basis when I don't have to think of topics for myself, except the other blog is a poor example since I took most of last week off from there as well.

Anyway. Tomorrow I start classes again. I've signed up for two creative writing classes and one PE class (Zumba!). I haven't taken a writing class since I left Mills, which means I also haven't produced any polished writing since then either. I'm not 100% sure about applying to MFA programs (which means I'm not 100% sure I'll be accepted) but the timing seems right. If I can't find a library job, I might as well use my free time to pursue other interests. 

Of course, getting my career back on track is still my main priority, but writing is ... a compulsion. Might as well try to do something with it instead of just continuing to fill journal after journal with vague ideas and insecurities. If (WHEN) I find a job, I can always defer for a year, or apply instead to a low residency program. I have a lot of options. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pity Par-tea

In the wake of being turned down for another one of those perfect jobs, I was standing in the grocery store looking for garam masala to go in the vegan saag aloo I planned to make and instead came across a box of PG Tips tea bags and I started crying right there in the aisle.*

So embarrassing.

Those are the tea bags I used to buy when I lived in England. And they were sitting on the shelf next to a box of Hob Nobs and Cadbury's Digestive Biscuits, which I used to buy to go with my tea. In England. Where I used to live.

I loaded them all into my cart.  All I could think was I could be sitting in England right now, drinking tea and eating hobnobs (although with the time difference I would probably be drinking a pint and eating a curry) and I would have permanent residency status by now.  And a job. 

I can't believe I still feel this way sometimes. After a year, you'd think leaving England would not feel like a mistake I just made this morning. I wish it didn't feel like a mistake at all. 

I put the tea and the cookies back on the shelf. After traveling 6,000 miles they were super-expensive, and I knew they wouldn't taste the way I remember.

*I had the same reaction one time in England when Sainsbury's started carrying Oreos. What can I say? Processed food makes me emotional.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Futility of the Practical

My staff and I did a lot to try to make the library feel un-prison-like (and in some ways, un-library-like). We painted the walls a bright blue. We played loud music, we shouted across the room. Once we had a contest with giant rubber bands, trying to knock books off the shelves.  We did this as much for ourselves as for the prisoners, if not more so. When I say the prison could be a depressing place to work, most people nod their heads like they know what I mean. They don’t, but it doesn’t matter. But when I say it was also a lot of fun, they assume there’s something off about me. My anecdotes sometimes come off as unprofessional, but those antics were part of coping with the environment, just like gallows humor, and keeping your back to the wall.

A lot of my responsibilities took me outside the library and around the rest of the jail. I enjoyed this because it gave me a chance to remind the rest of the prison that there was a library, and me a chance to find out what was happening in other areas. I sat on several committees with members of the senior management team. The management structure of a prison is complicated, and I’m not going to waste words here with a detailed explanation. Simply put, the head of the prison is the Number One Governor. He (or she) is responsible for everything, if there was an escape, or a murder he would lose his job. Under the Number One is the Dep(uty), and then there are governors (managers) of each area – Security, Operations, Health & Safety, Diversity, Learning & Skills etc. All rules and policies put in place by the senior management team are implemented by the uniformed staff – the Officers and Senior Officers, and the civilians contracted in like me, the education staff and the nurses in the healthcare department. That’s as brief as I can describe it.

In a prison, the biggest gap in communication is between the SMT and the officers. The officers and the prisoners are closer. Some of the prisoners and staff had been living and working together since the jail opened in 1992. For the most part, they had good relationships. You’ll find the odd prison officer who hates the prisoners and treats them that way, and vice versa – there are prisoners who do not communicate with staff. That relationship, between prisoners and staff, is complicated and dangerous. Prisoners, understand why they are there and why the staff are there. Most of the inmates are murderers, arsonists, gang members, drug addicts and mentally ill. Keeping that environment calm and safe for everyone involved is the biggest part of everyone’s job. Over time, years I mean, one develops what is known as jail craft, the ability to assess a person or a situation, evaluate risk, negotiate and if necessary, use force. My four years was nothing – especially for a civilian; a well-run prison trusts the experience of staff to uphold its primary duty which is to protect the public.
In the time I was there, we had three Number One Governors, and four Deps. The rest of the SMT shuffled responsibilities every few months at the whim of the Number One in an effort to meet whatever performance targets or audit requirements had been set by the Ministry of Justice. Shortly after I left, the third Number One resigned under allegations of serious professional misconduct involving swapping difficult prisoners with other jails during inspections to improve  scores. One of those difficult prisoners committed suicide.

Prisons are an unfortunate, but practical neccessity of civilization. But the idea that anyone is really protected or helped in a prison is an illusion, an exercise in futility. 

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on January 21, 2011

Repenting at Leisure (in Prison)

Most of the guys in my prison, or at least the ones who were in for murder, had committed their crimes on impulse but some were the result of days or weeks of planning. Some killed with their fists or their feet or improvised weapons from materials nearby. I know of at least 3 who each strangled a woman with the scarf she was wearing and that is why the officers wear clip on ties and the use of dental floss is forbidden.  Others used illegally obtained guns. One poured gasoline through the letter box in the front door of his ex-missus and tossed a match in after. Some of the crimes were motivated by hurt and jealousy – crimes of passion; or perverse opportunity, or gangland revenge over perceived disrespect or drug deals gone wrong. Some were motivated by racism and hate.

I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t spend much time exploring their crimes unless they worked for me, or if they’d caught my interest for another reason. But as a member of staff with regular prisoner contact , I was expected to contribute observations about their behavior to their files, and in doing so I learned their crimes.

If a prisoner wants to progress from a high-security prison to a lower one, he must follow a sentence plan which is designed by the Offender Management department, and reviewed on a semi-annual basis. In addition to staying drug-free, out of trouble and employed, the prisoners are set a series of other targets to achieve including taking a series of reducing re-offending classes. These classes are a key part of the “rehabilitation” process and are supposed to promote Enhanced Thinking Skills, anger management and victim empathy.

That latter requires that the prisoners discuss at length the circumstances surrounding their offense, their motivation and their thoughts and feelings about it now. Their interviewers take meticulous notes and the information is accessible to any member of staff who may need to be aware of the contents or contribute to the files.

For prisoners who are appealing against their conviction or their sentence, it is not in their interest to discuss the crime with the staff, even though this perceived lack of cooperation may stall their progression through the system for years.  And unless they took some sort of plea agreement, most of the guys start out on appeal. This is probably why it takes a few years for the new prisoners to settle down into the routine of prison life.

Whatever their circumstances, those guys have plenty of time to think about how they got to prison. During the day, every measure is taken to occupy their time, to educate them or to elicit some kind of productive and purposeful activity, but still they spend at least 14 hours locked alone in a 6X10 concrete and steel box. For first timers, adjusting to this isolation is difficult. And for some, especially the mentally ill, coming to terms with their crimes can have a devastating effect. They lose their hair, double their body weight or halve it. They may harm themselves for attention, stop bathing, refuse medication, or stop communicating all together. 

But others take a more proactive approach. They read, learn a trade, earn some qualifications and mentor other prisoners. Their goal, in the words of one such prisoner, is to “be something other than older, when [they] get out.”

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on March 10, 2011

Mental Shock Absorbers

When I was 16, I crashed my car at an intersection just outside of Prescott Valley. I was going about 45 mph at the time, but the car I rear-ended was stopped at a red light. I remember slamming on the brakes and hearing the sound of the impact, but despite (or maybe because of) the fact that my forehead shattered the windshield, I did not feel anything. I opened my eyes and the entire front end of my car was folded up like an accordion – but the car I’d hit had only the slightest dent in its rear bumper.

My passengers and I walked away with bruises and a bloody nose, while an ambulance took the back-seat passenger of the car I hit. I remember she screamed and screamed while we waited for help and I didn’t understand. My car was totaled, and theirs was fine. Why was she hurt? The answer, according to my friend’s mechanic father, was the difference in our bumpers. Mine was full of Styrofoam, which then spilled all over the road. Their car had a steel bumper, which protected the car but absorbed none of the impact.

In addition to insulating car bumpers, packing electronics, and containing take-out food, Styrofoam is also used in bicycle helmets – another mental shock absorber. I’ve never had a serious cycling accident, probably because I never took to the sport, but almost everyone I know who rides on a regular basis has a story about how a helmet saved their lives. 

But not all shock absorbers are physical. The mind has its own way of protecting itself from a shock. I believe “going into shock” is actually one of them. Sometimes, depending on the trauma, the mind suppresses it. Or the trauma leads to a fractured personality or post-traumatic stress. If a mind is repeatedly subjected to disturbing  or stressful events, then it acclimates. It tries to cope, through meditation, or alcoholism, or exercise, or humor.

In the prison, whenever something bad happened, I always asked if any books had been damaged in the incident. This was not because I cared about the books (although I did), or because I knew that no one else gave a damn about them (which they didn’t), but because I thought it was funny. Someone gets beaten or stabbed in their cell, someone starts a fire or a flood, someone goes on dirty protest – whatever… are the books ok?

Maybe you had to be there.

The first time I asked, I was serious. There had been a flood in a cell in the segregation unit. The prisoner’s property had been bagged up to be disposed of, and I could see one of my books through the plastic. I asked if I could get it because I wanted the barcode to withdraw it from the library catalog. One of the officers handed me a pair of gloves and watched as I dug through the damp clothes and papers to reach the book at the bottom of the bag. “By the way,” he said. “That’s toilet water.”  I swore at him and threw the dripping book in the trash.  But after that came the jokes. 
*This post was first published at The Daily Theme on March 17, 2011