Alliances

2/1/19

On Sunday March 10th at 12:30 pm will be the first meeting of a gender and sexuality study/discussion group at MCC-WSR called “Alliances.”

Setting up this group has been a multi-year effort by many people and organizations. Specifically it would not be happening if not for the continued support of Black and Pink Seattle-Tacoma chapter, the sponsorship of three absolutely amazing people, as well as many other wonderful folks both inside and outside the prison.

Over the last three years we’ve had to overcome many setbacks and resistance from various quarters. One by one we’ve managed to outlast or outmaneuver each of those hurdles.

I don’t know what is next as far as organizing at WSR is concerned. However, I am certain that it will be the collective as a whole which charts our path forward, and I for one, am excited to contribute to it whatever that turns out to be.

There is no victory sweeter, than the building and cementing of connection.


3/10/19

Today was the first meeting of Alliances, a gender and sexuality study group here at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR). It’s been a long battle to make it happen and when I was walking to the meeting I was extremely nervous. I had all kinds of worries and anxieties around what was going to happen at the meeting. Who’s gonna show up? Would everyone be able to come together? How will we navigate potential problems? Or actual problems?

It went AMAZING! We had a great discussion about group norms, what we want the group to be, what is important to us, and what does all that look like in practice. Turns out, I was nervous for nothing. Next month already promises to have a larger group in attendance. With the nervous-making first meeting out of the way, we are, as a group, looking forward to figuring out what getting our feet under us and finding our stride. And after that, begin participating in the larger abolitionist collective here at WSR.
In short… ^_^ YaY! ^_^ Happys! ^_^

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Crediting My Voice

Exploitation is a very normal experience for incarcerated people, so much so that it becomes difficult for us, as incarcerated people, to figure out if we are being taken advantage of or not. There are many situations where I don’t know if my expectations are reasonable, if what I’m asking for is nothing but the smallest crumb, or if I’m coming off as an ego diven deva.

I want to have a voice, but I don’t want my voice to be usurped or stolen. I want to be part of various projects, but I don’t want to do a ton of labor for free when a free-world person would normally be compensated in some way. Unless of course, it’s a cause I believe in and I’ve chosen to put in the time and effort as charity. In any case, I don’t want the product of my labor to be passed off by someone else as their work.

Recently, I had someone ask me for permission to use something I had written, which I appreciated. This isn’t the first time and I sincerely hope it’s far from the last. When they asked they said I could be anonymous or be named. While I know many people in prison would prefer to be anonymous or use a pseudonym because they don’t want any media attention or they are worried about being targeted by the DOC for having spoken up.

For me, that ship has kinda sorta done did sailed. This puts me on the opposite side of things; I’m going to be targeted by the DOC anyway. Also, as far as I’m concerned, if a news story comes out about me that’s free advertising. I’m worried more about being exploited as a writer because I am in prison than I am about the DOC or news media. So if anyone wants to use an excerpt or otherwise quote me, just properly cite what you use. It’d be nice to have a comment stating what is being quoted and where it is being used, but that may not always be tenable especially if the person doing the quoting is a part of a volunteer program in the Washington DOC.

Like I said, I don’t know if the way I see this is reasonable, because the “norm” that people in prison are conditioned to is that we do all the work then are expected to congratulate prison administrators on the great job they did. Is any result better than outright robbery the same as being treated well? Or is it still being exploited, just not as severely? And how am I, as someone who is continually indoctrinated to exploitation on a daily basis, supposed to tell the difference?

Crossroads and Their Possibilities

When I lived up on Mt Spokane there was one particular intersection which was notoriously dangerous. It was just a couple of two lane roads, out in the middle of the barley and canola fields, that come together at almost-but-not-quite 90 degrees. If not for one of them being a state highway, it would have been a four way stop. Instead, the highway was a thoroughfare and the county road was stop signed, which is what made it so dangerous.

The open fields gave drivers the illusion of a clear line of sight, when in reality, due to the gentle rise and fall of the hills, nobody could see the cars coming from the other road until they were basically right there. The intersection being just off of 90 degrees meant that people would think it was a right angle and that assumption would throw off their estimate of how far away cars on the other road actually were.

I have no idea how many wrecks we saw there on the bus ride after school. It was to the point where our bus driver, V, (who was really cool) would slow down from the highway’s speed limit of 45 down to about 35-40 just to be safe.

At the beginning my junior year of high school it was our turn. A small car pulled up to the crossroad, and stopped. Then, in seeming slow motion, rolled into the intersection right in front of our bus. Some of us kids screamed, many of us braced our shoulders against the seats in front of us. The crash was like getting body-checked into a wall by a giant. The bus came to a stop and everyone sat eerily silent. It was only after I heard the quiet pinging of hot metal cooling that I realized the bus’ diesel engine wasn’t running.

Our V got up and yelled “anybody hurt? raise your hand if the person next to you needs help.”

No hands raised. All of us were okay. Thank goodness for small miracles. After checking in with dispatch, she asked if anyone knew how to use a CB radio. I raised my hand and she called me to the front of the bus. She needed someone to answer if dispatch called while she set up caution cones and road flares and checked to make sure there wasn’t any fuel leaking from either the bus or the car we’d hit.

Through the bus’ intact windshield and the car’s shattered one, it was obvious that any help for the person we hit would have to wait until a fire truck arrived with the jaws of life to pull any one out, and their odds of survival were closer to none than slim.

Our bus driver was only gone for a few moments, minute and a half tops, but of course dispatch called while she was out. I’ve always been good during a crisis, it’s afterwards that I get the shakes and collapse. “V has stepped out of the bus at this time. Can I take a message?” My voice shaking just a little to start, but gaining strength towards the end. At the time I was proud of myself for sounding professional, looking back I’m pretty sure I sounded like a voicemail inbox. I took a message. V came back. I returned to my seat.

It was less than 15 minutes between the time of the collision, and all us kids jumping out the back of the bus. We sat on the side of the highway for an hour or so, then got on another bus and continued up the mountain. It would have been business as usual except our bus driver had been swapped out with someone else.

Over the next month or so us kids constantly bugged the school’s secretaries about when V would be coming back to work. The new guy was okay, but he wasn’t her.

We all had to be interviewed by the insurance company rep, which was a pain, and I’m 90% sure that I was the last to know what had happened.

The car at the crossroad was being driven by an old woman. She had had a stroke, or something so similar as to make no difference, causing her to die instantly and take her foot off the break. Her car then rolled into the intersection. The story played out from there.

Our bus driver came back to work and we drove her batty with all the love, concern, and appreciation we heaped on her.

By the beginning of the next semester there was a stoplight with turning lane in the middle of all four directions at that intersection. Later, when someone pointed out that someone having a stroke at a red light is effectively the same as having a stroke at a two way stop, a roundabout was put in.

This is one of those experiences that could have been traumatic for me, and very well may have been for some of my peers. Instead, it has been a formative and transformative experience. One that I circle back to and will continue to gain new insights into myself and the world as I turn it over in my mind like a well worn worrystone.

It’s been said that myth-making is not exclusive to storytellers. Everyone has their own mythology built of their experiences and stories that resonate with them on a deep, personal, visceral, level.

In my personal mythology, crossroads are a major symbolic fixture. From Hecate to Robert Johnson to a bus crashing into a dead woman’s car after school, standing at the crossroads is agency and powerlessness fused into an amalgam for which the English language has not the ability to describe. We tell ourselves that we have the power to control which way we choose to go, while conveniently forgetting that we have no control over what choices are presented to us in the first place, or the choices of others at the crossroads with us. While a thousand small choices can lead to having no choice at all, or at least so few as to make no difference.

While sitting on the side of the highway waiting for the replacement bus, the shakes set in. The crisis past. All the choices I didn’t even realize I was making at the time, made.

I sat a little ways away from everyone else and looked out across the fields of canola. I could hear the hushed excitement or the other kids while they watched the emergency responders go about their jobs with rapt attention.

Flickers of insight danced across my mind’s eye. How things could have gone and how they did go in universes almost, but not quite, like ours. What had happened that day was exactly what was supposed to happen. Just as the the tragedies which played out for those other selves were exactly what were supposed to happen. I was grateful to be in this permutation of existence and still breathing. As opposed to another where emergency responders fought to stop the bleeding of the child next to me whose odds of survival were ever so slightly better than mine. Or a third where my life’s thread had been cut as the bus tipped on it’s side.

In that fleeting moment I glimpsed the grand tapestry. I realized that in one since I had a long road to travel before I made it to the crossroads, while in another I had long since left it behind.

Out on the Chain

Going out on the chain is the initiation rite of coming to prison, and an experience which periodically reinforces and reaffirms incarnated people’s identity as prisoners. While being arrested, booked into county, strip searched, charged with a crime, going to trial or taking a deal, and even judgement and sentencing are all singular experiences in and of themselves they are experienced by many people who have interactions with the criminal justice but are never incarcerated for a extended period of time. Only people with a sentence of a year or more are sent to prison. Only people who are sent to prison experience going out on the chain.

It begins with uncertainty. Knowing that we will be on the chain but, due to the ever present excuse of “safety and security,” not allowed to know when. This week? The one after? Next month? Every week chain day approaches with trepidation and hope. The awful stress of waiting to be taken into the unknown. The possible relief of it finally happening.

Jail is but a prelude to the lessons in waiting to be taught in prison. As with any adventure, days and hours of tedium punctuated by moments of furious activity and terror. Horrible, terrible, uncomfortable things that would make us late for dinner, if dinner weren’t reliability late.

They come for us at an hour of the day so young it may as well still be night. Sentence length a measure of danger level. Simple noun-verb pairs tell us the cliff is approaching. “Get up! Cuff up! Let’s go” Strip search conducted in monosyllables. “Strip. Hair. Ears. Mouth. Dentures? Plates? Partials? Hands. Lift. Turn. Feet. Bend. Ok, grab a pumpkin suit.” A full sentence and permission to cover our nakedness. We feel relief, and hate ourselves for feeling relieved.

One by one, we are decorated with the historic jewelry of our status. Chains. They wrap around the waist and are adorned with pendants which appear suspiciously similar to a grade-schooler’s bike-lock. Wrists locked in cuffs attached to waist. Feet bound by anklets of their own. Bright orange cloth covers our flesh while our dignity has been left in the dirty laundry hamper.

We march with unfound rhythm, led out to a waiting bus. Some cling desperately to pride, backs unbowed. Others shuffle hunched, they scream without words “don’t notice me, I’m not here”. We each find a seat, scattered like dandelion seeds. United in shame, isolated in shared circumstance.

A rumbling, vibrating box, perfectly lacking in all comfort. Windows are the privilege it the tall. The vertically challenged have only our inner ear to mark motion and stillness. The hours pass. And pass. And pass. And pass. And pass.

Sentence length is a measure of danger level. Simple noun-verb pairs tell us the cliff is approaching. “Get up! Let’s go!” Some cling desperately to pride, backs unbowed. Others shuffle hunched, they scream without words, “don’t notice me, I’m not here”. Leaving the bus is disorientation. We haven’t really gone anywhere. Have we? Yet we are in a new place exactly like the old. Rife with the decay of neglect and old age. Buildings a reflection of their occupants.

Bit, bridle, and hobbles removed from wrist, waist, and ankle. Strip search conducted in monosyllables. “Strip. Hair. Ears. Mouth. Denture plates? Partials? Hands. Lift. Turn. Feet. Bend. Separate. Ok, grab a jump suit.” A full sentence and permission to cover our nakedness. We feel relief, and hate ourselves for feeling relieved. Miserable food, cold comfort. Yet, our flesh yearns for it like ambrosia. The rite completed, each of us retreat and retire to caverns of artificial stone with portals we control not.

Nothing has changed but geography. No divine epiphany. No insight welling up from within. Just the imposition of undeniable knowledge.

We are prisoners. We are not valued.

We are slaves. We are not important.

This is what it means to go out on the chain.

Prison Breakfast

Incarcerated people have a special cynicism and perverse sense of humor when it comes to prison food.

For years, we have been given these absolutely disgusting sack breakfasts (like a sack lunch but different) which is commonly called a “boat.” This refers to the cardboard thing-a-ma-jig used to hold it together. These items have also all been given nicknames to reflect the collective opinion of them.

To give you an idea of this, I submit the following:

  • +Grape jelly is called purple snot and strawberry jelly is radioactive goo.
  • We get an oat and raisin paste breakfast bar which everyone calls a ‘bran bar’. However, when we get a bran muffin it’s referred to simply as colon cleaner.
  • The peanut butter and bread are reduced to their places on the food guide pyramid, fat and starch.
  • When we get oatmeal it’s called instant cardboard.

Thus, when I say the breakfast boats are universality despised, this is no exaggeration. The bran bars are notorious for being fed to seagulls out at yard, mostly because the finches and sparrows refuse to eat them and giving them to another person is a form of mild insult.

Remember when I said something about the nicknames for our food being perverse? Recently the menu was changed so that twice a week we get a granola and sunflower seed trail mix instead of a bran bar. It’s actually pretty good. There are very few people that don’t like it, and even they say it’s better than the bran bar because at least they can get someone to trade it for instant cardboard. So that stuff most people are willing to eat and thus does not get fed to the birds of course get nicknamed “bird seed.” It’s just how these things work in prison.

Trying to Understand My Heritage

I’ve been doing a lot of personal work this past year around the various aspects of my positionality, particularly the places where I have systemic advantage. One of the things I read in How We Get Free, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, has really helped me put into words the thoughts and feelings I have on this topic.

During the interview with Barbara Smith she talks about setting up Kitchen Table Press. Barbara Smith says: “… when we talked about who qualified as a woman of color, we came up with, after much discussion, that our definition of woman of color was any woman who identified with the indigenous people of her respective nation or land. One of the reasons we put it that way is that there are people of European heritage in Argentina, for example, Jewish women. Are they Latinas or not? Well, I think that we could argue that indeed they are, because of where they were born, and the language they speak, and the culture that they’re a part of. So, we made that decision that we were not looking for photographs of people. We just wanted to know if you identified with the indigenous people of your respective nation or country.” (pg 47-48)

Long before I read this I’d embraced the term “Celt” to describe myself because otherwise when I talk about my heritage it looks like this:
1/4 Welsh
1/4 Irish
1/4 Scottish
1/8 German
1/8 god only knows
And in that last 1/8 there are two family myths, one says Blackfoot and the other Romani. So ya, total mutt.

I really don’t like the term ‘white’, and the next alternative is the term ‘Caucasian’ (meaning “of the Caucasus Mountains”) doesn’t seem to fit all that well either. Thus, at the time I was sorting through how I describe myself to myself, Celt seemed to fit best. Since making that choice it’s been very rewarding studying the history, folklore, and myths of the Celtic peoples and has helped me become comfortable with my place in the world. It has also shifted my seeking for self understanding from “what am I?” to “what does it mean to be what I am?”

Like I already said, I really don’t like the term “white.” Here’s a few of the reasons why:

Due to racism and colorism in America, I am coerced into the category of “white,” was socialized “white,” and am expected to uphold white supremacy through the oppression of anyone not “white” and the rejection of my cultural roots. Because of this, only a small fraction of my Celtic heritage was given to me by my parents and grandparents mostly through music and holiday traditions. I only know that those traditions are apart of my Celtic heritage because of all the studying I’ve done. Culture is not meant to be passed on through the dusty dry tomes of academia. Traditions are meant to be living breathing things. The category of “white” robbed me of that cultural self understanding.

Furthermore, as a “white” person I am expected to stay within the confines of the “white islands” which spontaneously emerge in public and private space due to “white” people separating themselves from everyone else. This sets isolating limits on who, how and when ‘white’ people can interact with those outside their “whitewashed” social sphere. Isolation and the destruction of personal identity are the primary tactics used by abusers and totalitarian governments. This same mechanism is used by Colonial Empire to reinforce and perpetuate white supremacy and all the oppression which comes with it.

Because I am in America and am of Celtic descent, I am a settler. However (and this is a point I am still trying to figure out. Feedback would be awesome!), if I were to relocate to one of the modern countries which were once a part of the lands of the Celtic peoples (Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and parts of continental Europe) then I think I would be considered indigenous. In any case (back to things I know), by identifying with my ancestors who were oppressed by Empire, I have found I have a better understanding of some of the issues indigenous people and people of color in my life have talked to me about as a part of their experience of racism. While I don’t think I will ever completely understand all of it, just like I don’t think I will ever completely understand anyone’s life, including my own. I do think this has helped me understand these issues as more than just intellectual exercises or some feeling of nebulous undefined empathy (which is what I generally think of when I hear the term “white liberal guilt”). It in turn allows me to show up in a much more genuine way when I notice white supremacy or settler colonialism impacting my relationships or interactions. Because, at the end of the day, all the intellectualism in the world doesn’t matter when it comes to trying to being a better person in my day to day life. The way I treat people matters.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with it, but it’s a lot more than I had last year and I’m hoping to have a much better idea of what all this means next year as well. We’re all in process right?

Being Sick in Prison

I am sure that everyone can universally agree that being sick is no fun. Learning how to be good at taking care of yourself when sick is a part of the prison experience that often gets overlooked when people talk about incarceration. Of course, violence and fear are far more glamorous and attention-grabbing than runny noses and vomit. I can’t say I’m above this trend considering I’ve written multiple posts about prison violence and am only now just getting around to writing about sickness thanks to a head cold.

Incarcerated people are subject to a series of conditions which make it hard to avoid being sick and difficult to do proper self-care when we get the flu or a cold. The first of these is that many of the people who came to prison as juveniles seem to have an inability to understand the concept of “cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough”! They came to prison as kids and many of them have never quite managed to grow up, so they still act like kids. This makes them what pathologists like to call “disease vectors” and I refer as “plague bearers.” Combine this with the recycled air in the living units and this means that at any time I may end up walking through somebody’s free range sputum cloud. With 760 people in WSR, that’s a lot of people to pass the common cold through so, much like Louis Pasteur’s petri dish, there is a plethora of pathogens to be had by all.

This is then exasperated by sick building syndrome. WSR is roughly a hundred years old. There’s mold in the walls and who knows what living in the HVAC system. However, I am fairly certain a family of semi-sentient slime molds live the shower drains. These add up as stressors on the body’s autoimmune system and makes fighting off all those mutant “more than common” colds much harder.

So when, like myself, someone gets a cold in prison what is there to do about it? First off, under no circumstance do you ever go to medical. All they’re going to do is place you on quarantine meaning you can’t leave your cell for any reason including taking a shower. Sure, your meals get delivered to your cell front and you don’t have to worry about getting infracted for skipping school or work. I can’t speak for anyone else but, having to live in my own filth while competing for ‘America’s next top snot monster’ is not on my To Do list. So I stay in my cell, shower twice a day, and generally do my best to keep my cold to myself.

The next thing is eat. Prison food is bad enough as is, trying to keep it down with a queasy stomach take skill. I’m sure you’ve heard that old folk saying “drown a fever, starve a cold.” That’s bollocks. Being sick burns a ton of calories; anything you can eat and keep down is for the good, even if it’s total junk food. Supplement it with a multivitamin, and drink as much tea as you can. You can’t expect your car to drive without gas and a fully charged battery and you certainly can’t expect autoimmune system to do it’s job without the fuel and nutrients it needs to function.

There are two philosophies for this next part.

I say fevers, runny noses, and other symptoms are a good thing. They are the tools the body uses to kill off and flush out disease even while they make us miserable. Thus, I limit the amount of cold medicine I take to one aspirin at night so I can get 4 hours of sleep and a cough drop during the day to make it easier to breathe.

Other people take everything they can get their hands on in a desperate attempt to male themselves feel better. The trouble with this is by taking cold meds they are limiting their body’s autoimmune response which means it takes them much longer to get the disease out of their system and thus spend note time as a plague barer.

One of the things a lot of people new to prison wonder is “where do all these diseases come from?” They assume the prison is a closed system meaning everyone should eventually become immune to everyone else’s germs? Well… It doesn’t work that way. C/o’s pick up random diseases out in the world, then come it work and give them to incarcerated people. Generally volunteers have the wherewithal to stay home when they’re sick, whereas DOC employees prefer to share the contagion with literally everyone in the prison.

Being sick is no fun, but being sick in prison is worse. Some people have friends and partners that will help take care of them when sick, but many people (like myself) don’t have a network of support like that in here and the few people I do have can only do so much. This is why it has been so important for me to learn how to take care of myself and, because nobody else has the means to do it.