Observing and Avoiding Crisis

6/15/19

Being locked in a cage day after day is an experience that no one can truly understand until they’ve gone through it. All too often, people talk about the hardships and damage which arises from this environment or the damages of living a life that leads one to prison, but rarely do they hold both at the same time and think about how they compound each other.

I was recently given a new neighbor. Someone I had as a neighbor about a year ago. Back then he was going through some serious psychological issues. Screaming out self-directed profanities at the top of his lungs at all hours of the day and night. As if that mean little voice that we all have in our heads which tells us how terrible we are had direct control of his voice. He would rage at himself, beat himself, and curse himself, all while the rest of us were locked in our cages around him, baring witness to his pain.
After a couple months, he was finally approved to be moved to SOU, “Special Offender Unit.” a psych ward within the prison.

I don’t want to ‘diagnose’ him out of hand, because all too often what a person is going through is belittled and dismissed by the act of diagnosis. So I’ll say this: by his own admission, he hears voices.

I didn’t think much of him after he left. Didn’t want to. I spoke to a few of my confidants about my feelings around hearing him scream transphobic slurs, among many other things, at himself in the middle of the night as I tried to sleep. Then I moved on. While I had no desire to erase what ever damage had brought him to that extreme level of suffering, to move on I had to let myself forget, just a little bit, the panic of being woken from a dead sleep to that.

And now he’s back. In the cell right next to me. But different.

I’m not sure what treatment he may or may not have received in SOU, but I do know he received a Bible if nothing else. Now, when that angry voice begins he counters it by shouting Bible verses at himself. Mostly Romans and Acts.

Notice, a shift from shouting hate speech to Bible verses was enough for him to be considered well enough to not be in SOU anymore. In no way is his suffering less, he’s just employed a religious construct to help him deal with it. Thus his mental illness can be socially understood as a spiritual struggle, not as a psychological struggle and his suffering becomes acceptable.

To me, this is not actually better, and I doubt this represents a real improvement for him either.

Because we are locked in cells right next to each other every day, the sounds of his suffering is an unavoidable part of my current environment. Because I witness it, his suffering becomes my suffering. And not just because hearing his screams impact me, which they do.

Hearing him randomly yell at any given moment is scary because it forces me to recognize the potential within me, to have ended up like him. Schizophrenia and bipolar are common in my family tree. If I hadn’t faced my demons I very well could have ended up screaming at nothing, arguing that I am not a voice in someone else’s head with delusions of existence. Because that was the form my madness was taking back when I was a broken toy with little to no idea of how to fix myself. Back when I was little more than the traumas I suffered before prison and was spending 20 hours a day locked in a cell.

Thankfully, I made choices which have resulted in me reclaiming my sanity. Choices which rewrote the stars and created a reality where I am destined for a different fate.

Sadly, there is no way for me to bridge that gap for my neighbor. He has to find his own way and all I can do is practice compassion and kindness and hope he is able to make the choices he needs to make to reclaim his own sanity.

Just as not everyone has the internal resources to adjust to living in prison, not everyone has the internal resources to adjust to living in their own head.

So the next time you see someone who is obviously going through a mental health crisis, as difficult and scary as it is for you to witness, remember that it is infinity more difficult and terrifying for the person going through it. You can’t fix it for them, but you can gift them a little kindness.

Relationships in Prison

5/14/19

In prison, relationships become a special kind of messy because we, as incarcerated people, are living under the boot heel of American empire through the oppressions imposed upon us by prison officials.

This has caused me to develop rules around who, when, and in what ways I associate with others.

Some of my rules seem arbitrary, but every one of them has a rationale and an experience of things ending badly behind them. For example, I don’t let someone get close to me until after I’ve seen them angry or upset. This is because I’ve known far too many people who, 99% of the time are calm, cool, and collected, but when they lose their self-control… it’s ugly.

On the other hand, the relationships I have with the few people I have let get close to me are intensely rewarding. I need anything and I know I can go to one of the four people in my inner circle, if they don’t have it or can’t help me get it, they will always take the time to commiserate whatever I’m going through. And vice versa. Conversely, if trust is betrayed it hurts so much more. This results in a sort of tribalism. We will arbitrarily back each other up in the smallest things publicly, then bawl each other out in private.

A semi-ridiculous example of this happened last week. We were in acting class talking about art as entertainment verses art as social commentary or political statement. Someone I consider a friend, but not quite inner circle yet, argued that Britney Spears’ music has important and valuable messages to it beyond just entertainment value. In the class I agreed with him (because that is the social expectation), but the next day when we hung out at yard I roasted him. “‘Womanizer’ is obviously about sexism, and ‘Toxic’ has got to be about oil executives, so would you say ‘Oops I Did It Again’ is a political commentary on conflict in the Middle East?” There is an insanely high expectation of arbitrary loyalty which comes with even casual friendship in prison, paired with an expectation of calling each other on our BS.

This is complicated by one of the more insidious rules of the DOC. They criminalize affection. No hugs, no holding hands, no leaning on the person next to you, not even while you cry.

Of course, people do all these things anyway, but we have to be careful about it. If a c/o sees, or someone decides to snitch, there are consequences. This can range from a minor infraction and getting fired from a job (if a body happens to have one), to a major infraction and getting put in the hole, all the way up to triggering a PREA investigation and possibly getting sent to closed custody. What happens is completely arbitrary and dependent on how the c/o, sergeant and lieutenant want to treat it.

There are times it physically hurts to hang out for a couple hours with the small circle of people I trust, then have to go back to our cages, alone, isolated, and not be able to hug them good night. Having to whisper “I love yous” for fear someone will overhear and take it to mean something other or more than deep friendship.

Others seem to take this as normal, but for me it’s relatively new. If you had asked me a two years ago I would have told you about how absolutely alone I was. It’s taken me years to learn to trust, and just as long to find people I can trust, and then even longer to come to trust them.

I have four people. This time next year may or may not have five.

I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am a living breathing person. A primate. A mammal. A human animal. While it it is said seeing is believing, truly touching is truth.

Criminalizing affection deprives incarcerated people of basic human dignity and needs to stop.

Observations from Pill Line

5/10/19

As an extra credit assignment for my Antho 206 class, we were asked to do a mini-ethnographic study. Ethnographic studies are rarely earth-shattering or revolutionary in and of themselves. However, they do focus on analyzing a particular setting in detail. With this in mind, I chose to do an ethnographic study on people standing in the A/B morning pill line. Here is my paper and accompanying notes:

Standing in pill line

I observed the interactions of people waiting in line for their morning medication on the A/B side pill line of the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, over a period of six sessions, averaging twenty minutes each for a total of 120 minutes. The interactions between people in this setting is highly representational of the interactions between people in the men’s prisons of Washington state. Furthermore, these interactions are highly typical of people who have been acculturated to toxic masculinity, particularly the normalization of violence.(1)

Some of the ways that the normalization of violence manifests are subtle, particularly the contrast between the way people who have done time in closed custody and those who have only ever been to medium or minimum custody wait in line. Those who have done time in closed custody generally stand with their back to the wall and glance around regularly in a slow methodical scan of their surroundings. When they first enter the line they will nod, or say a quiet “good morning” to the person in front of them in line, then repeat this when someone gets in line behind them. This is less a greeting and more a symbolic interaction where each of the participants are signaling “I see you and I am not a threat.” If they know each other well, they may have a quiet conversation at this point.

In contrast to this, those who have never done time in a closed custody generally stand facing forward in line, will try to engage anyone they happen to be next to in conversation, and when they are told “it’s too early” or “please be quieter” will act as if they are being slighted or insulted. Eventually, over time, they will conform to the quiet which people are cultivating in the line. This is a subtle way that the culture of violence manifests. The point of the quiet is to pointedly create an atmosphere where no one’s temper will be set off, the assumption being that everyone is extra volatile and less in control of themselves while half awake and thus more likely to engage in violence.

An overt way in which the culture of violence manifests in pill line is through the people who are not in line for the purpose of getting their morning medication. These people usually stand in groups of 3-4 at the end of the line and have music playing loud enough to be heard 5-10 feet away through headphones resting on their neck. This music is usually gangster rap and the people listening to it have come to pill line for the express purpose of talking. They generally observe the quiet of the line by not being loud or boisterous or otherwise imposing on the people around them. As the line advances, they leave before rounding a corner in the hallway which would bring them into line of sight of a c/o. Both their music and their conversation serve to perpetuate toxic masculinity and is an example of acceptable male gender performance.(2)

Another way that the culture of violence manifests in pill line is how some individuals will “chase after” LGBTQ people, particularly trans women and those who are seen as promiscuous. These people will do their best to “just happen” to be next to the LGBTQ person they bear chasing, meaning they have a socially acceptable opportunity to speak with an LGBTQ person without risking the social stigma normally related to doing so. Often if the LGBTQ person moves to the back of the line, so will the person imposing on them. This is one of the few exceptions to the “don’t impose on people” social norm of pill line. This is specifically a manifestation of rape culture due to the indecent comments made by the person doing the chasing and the lack of consent allowed on the part of the LGBTQ person. This is one of the many bars that forms the cage of oppression LGBTQ people face in prison.(3) It is an unwinnable double bind where LGBTQ people have to choose between being ourselves or being safe. If an LGBTQ person is in a relationship or sleeps around then the assumption is that they cannot be raped because they are “obviously willing”. In these ways a perpetual threat of violence looms over the hears of LGBTQ people. These same tactics and assumptions are placed on people who are young and impressionable through the rationale that if they are not willing to (at minimum) posture willingness to fight over being imposed on, they are interested in sex.

If we take each of these examples individually, they do not seem to amount to a deep-seated corruption in the culture; however, when considered holistically and in context, we see that violence is more than just “approved of,” but is a key underlying assumption without which the cultural norms of prison become incomprehensible even when the activity in question does not at first seem to contain violence.

Footnotes:
1) Katz. Tough Guise. documentary
2) Goffman. theory of gender display and performance. from lecture
3) Fry. (2000) Gender Basics, Part One: Oppression, pg 10-16

Notes:

3-10-19 start time 7:00 end 7:25

most people stand quietly in one of two positions, back to the wall of the hallway or facing the front of the line

notable exceptions to the above: engage in hushed conversation. conversation is primarily about sports, complaints about conditions in the prison, women (in an objectifying way) upcoming things that individuals look forward to, such as receiving a food package or getting a job. three people constantly wander in small circles showing a high level of agitation Another group of people near the end of the line let others cut in front of them and use the pill line as an opportunity to talk to their friends. when they near the front of the line they leave before the turn in the hall brings them into the line of sight of the c/o

3-11-19 start: 7:05 end:7:25

people choose to move back in line in order to stand next to or with particular people in line. This has an effect of self-sorting a majority of people into racial groups. Those who are not self-sorted by race are either studiously ignoring those around them (self isolating) or have grouped together based upon some other affinity (religion, club membership, shared interest, etc) as is evidenced by their greetings to each other before their conversation lapses and they, like the majority of people in line, stand quietly.

3-12-19 start: 7:00 end: 7:15

People’s moods seem to have an inverse relationship to the amount of time the nurse takes to dispense meds. The longer the longer the nurse takes to dispense meds, the lower people’s moods become. I saw a violation of the social norm of not prying into other people’s business being quickly and sharply corrected through verbal jabs. This response may be tied to the amount of quiet seen in the pill line.

3-13-19 start 7:00 end 7:20

some people use the pill line as an opportunity to get out of the cell at 7 am. Others use it as a meet up location to talk or pass things/trade. There is one person who always takes a very long time at the window due to a combination of the large number of meds he takes and his constant arguments with the nurse. many people do not care if they are towards the front of the line or the back, as long as they are in front of him.

3-15-19 start 7:00 end 7:15

norm of people saying good morning upon first getting in line then going quiet. Few people listen to music while standing in line. they have their headphones resting on their neck or ear buds draped over their ears (as opposed to being placed in ears) with the volume turned up loud enough for everyone that is nearby to be able to hear. The music is usually rap or R&B with lyrics of a violent or sexual nature.

As people are lining up a small handful of people vie for positions next to someone who is known to be LGBTQ, or is young and impressionable. They then use the confines of the line as a means to have a “captive audience”. In some cases it is painfully apparent that the one being imposed on is using a plethora of tactics to end the conversation while the one doing the imposing is using a plethora of tactics to maintain the conversation. This includes following the person they are imposing on should they move back in line or leave the pill line.

3/16/19 start 7:00 end 7:25

The phrase “it’s too early” is a common refrain employed to communicate that the person on the receiving end of some action does not have the capacity to deal with the energy level of the person doing the action. such as sparking loudly, or greeting enthusiastically.

Update: Amber is out of the IMU

After spending several months in solitary confinement, Amber has finally been moved back into medium custody. She has been transferred from Washington State Reformatory to Twin Rivers Unit which, while not ideal for several reasons, has been good for her since TRU has significantly more trans women she can be in community with.

Normal posting will resume on this blog with posts every other week on Fridays for the time being. I apologize for the lack of content; I have been very busy with graduate school so it has been hard for me to manage this blog. I will queue up the remaining material that Amber has sent me while I wait for her to send me more posts once she has access to her JPay tablet.

-Megan

Gender Neutral Language

I think slang terms for referring to a person in conversation (like dude and mang) should be considered gender neutral. My reasoning has to do with my understanding of the subculture those terms come from.

I was designated driver for my stoner friends and thus, can legitimately pull off using the word “dude” in casual conversation. I would never say “dudette” because that would be disingenuous and if I had said that around my stoner friends I would have been laughed at as a poser. Only squares who don’t get it would ever say “dudette”, like in Disney’s “The Goofy Movie.” Calling a girl “dudette” would would mean pointing out how she’s different from the boys in the room and thinking about all that’s just gonna break my chill. That is, disrupt the positive atmosphere of the group and make it difficult to enjoy the moment.

Use of the word “dude” to refer to both girls and boys was actually an egalitarian linguistic norm. It didn’t erase the experience or presence of femme people. Trust me, you get a bunch of teens in a room smoking pot they’re gonna know exactly who the girls in the room are. There were multiple occasions where we were dividing up into teams for a game and someone said something like “boys vs girls is three on three,” only to be corrected that “Kim’s not actually a chick, he just acts like one.” I was still closeted back then so, accurate. My point being that because the word “dude” is gender neutral in the subculture it comes from and is only given a gendered perception in mainstream culture thus, it should be considered gender neutral.

Furthermore, from being in community with people from the structured gang culture it has become apparent to me that the word “man” has similar usage, though different connotation. In fact, in the structured gang culture, for a girl to be called a “mang” as opposed to being called a “bitch” would be a recognition of her strength and humanity. However, once again, the mainstream perception of the word comes with masculine overtones.

I cannot speak to other slang terms that have similar usage because I have not been in community with people from those communities. To come to a conclusion about the word “brah” I would have to spend way more time around weight lifters than I think would be (strictly speaking) good for my girlish figure. I would not be surprised to find a similar pattern there.

Rednecks (which I are one) get off easy. The closest we come to having a term like “dude” is an inarticulate grunt. And the next closest term is “ya’ll” (which my spell checker wants to spell wrong by putting the apostrophe after the “y”). Both are seen as gender neutral. In fact, quite a few redneck terms have made their way into the speech of people in queer communities. Such as folk, ya’ll, sorted and figger. As in “many folk figger I’m an effeminate gay guy, when I’m actually a trans gal. Usually, a quiet conversation gets that sorted.”

This has lead me to think about how queer people interact with the subcultures we come from, what we bring with us into our new communities when we leave our old selves behind, and how we navigate what other people bring to those communities.

It is said that, in the process of colonization the first thing to go is language. So what does it say if we erase the way people talk? Especially when if we took the time to properly understand what is being said, we realize that we would be ok with that language had we grown up with or lived in that culture.

As a trans person, I want people to recognize and respect my desire to be treated as the woman I am, and as a feminist I want all women to be treated with positive regard within their own cultures. So what does it say if I reject being treated the way a person would treat a woman positively in their own culture and attempt to impose my concept of how a femme person is to be treated in queer culture? Seems colonize-y to me.

All of Us Prisoners

There is a tool which is used to help people figure out if their relationship is abusive called “The Power and Control Wheel.” It works like this: physical and sexual violence are considered to be the rim, then the spokes of the wheel divide it into eight regions:

  • Using Economic Abuse
  • Using Privilege
  • Using Intimidation
  • Using Emotional Abuse
  • Minimizing, Denying and Blaming
  • Using Isolation
  • Using Children
  • Using Coercion and Threats

The ways that the Washington DOC uses each of these as a tool to dominate incarcerated people could easily be an essay (or book) unto itself. The trouble being that those who need to know about and understand these abusive practices most are invested in the continued abuse of people in prison themselves. The reason prisons, as a institution in society, are perpetuated is because people in positions of power benefit from their continued existence. Politicians get reelected for being “tough on crime,” corporations have exclusive contracts that allow them to have monopolies selling goods and services to prisons and the people in them, survivors of crime get sold a bill of goods when it comes to punishment and rehabilitation while police, prison guards, judges, and prosecutors enjoy job security and the benefits of government jobs. The public get to believe children are being protected, when in reality they are getting taken from a possibly unstable home life and placed in uncaring draconian “group homes” and “community resource centers” that are in fact little more than jails for children who have committed no greater crime than not having a stable relationship with their parents whatever the cause (death, criminalization, absenteeism, etc.).

People are subject to these systems of state sanctioned control because they do not meet some arbitrary measure of “respectability.” They are not seen as normal enough, they are not rich enough, they are not citizen enough, hetero enough, able enough, Christian enough, smart enough, pleasant enough, pretty enough, adjusted enough, white enough. Then, they are blamed for not being all these things that they have no control over.
Somehow this makes it okay in society’s eyes for them to be brutalized by police, sent to prison, or even outright murdered in the streets. It’s not okay.

Yet, that is the perception created by the observed facts, and perception shapes reality.
This afternoon I was laying on my belly in the grass out at yard. It’s been a couple weeks since the grass was cut so it’s starting to get a healthy length to it. (As opposed to the anemically short length most lawns are “tamed” to.) Lying there, with my head pillowed on my hands, I could shut my left eye and open my right, and see nothing but a tangled wall of grass. Knots and snarls with little beetles and bugs crawling about in search of love, laughter, and lunch. Conversely, I could open my left eye and close my right. The bustle of activity so close to the earth suddenly disappeared, replaced with the slow swaying of the tallest grass stems just starting to go to seed, daisies peppered the yard with color and fluffy clouds passing overhead completed the Elysian sight. If not for the 40 foot brick wall topped with razor wire in between.

See, this is what the DOC, and society as a whole is forgetting. No matter how nice a day it is, never mind if we were allowed to pursue our own studies or be left alone to seek the simple pleasures, there’s still that 40 foot high wall and men with guns who will shoot anyone that tries to go outside it. There is still a heavily armed police force in every city across the country and even more heavily armed army reserves who can be called on by the governor. We are ALL still in prison. The government’s perspective is that they have to control every little thing and if they can’t absolutely dominate a thing, it scares them. They are so lost in seeing the bustle of activity an inch from the ground that they’ve forgotten the overriding facts of the larger picture. This leads them to enforce domination, abuse, and oppression in literally all the ways.

The existence of the prison industrial complex in America makes prisoners of everyone; it just so happens that some of us are incarcerated.

Conflicting DOC Values

Sometimes I wonder if the Wa DOC realizes if lessons that they are teaching us incarcerated folks on a daily basis in no way resembles the lessons they want us to learn.

At least, the lessons they claim they want us to learn.

For example, the DOC claims they want us to to have a learn good work ethic. When anyone has a job we’re stuck there for the duration of the call out regardless of what we do, and we’re going to be paid for the duration of that call out. No more, no less. So a common philosophy that develops is if I get my work done, and if they guy next to me has their work done, do some cleanup then we can kick back and relax until more work shows up. The c/o’s don’t like this. They want to see us busy for the entire duration of the call out. This results in conversations like the following:

c/o: Get back to work.
me: I’m done with my job.
c/o: then help someone else with their job.
me: everyone in my area is done. Do you want me to go out of bounds?
c/o: then sweep or wipe down the walls or something.
me: already swept and since when do walls need wiped off?
c/o: well, just look busy.
me: wait, if I know I’m BSing and you know I’m BSing, then what’s the point of looking busy?

It might just be me, but what we have here is a failure to communicate. When an incarcerated person says “good worker” we mean show up on time, accomplish the task at hand with a minimum of fuss, do quality work, and lend a hand to fellow workers. When a c/o says “good worker” they mean look busy and don’t cause extra paperwork. Thus, the lesson is getting lost in the shuffle.

Another example of this is in the “offender change programs” that the DOC comes up with. They’re big on cognitive behavioral theory and hammering a solid guilt complex into a body. Now, they claim that this is “evidence based” and “best practices” in “offender reform,” which makes zero sense because recidivism is still crazy high and you can’t force anybody to change.

Yet somehow they still claim that if you force people to sit in a room they don’t want to be in and repeatedly tell them they have a cognitive defect (that is a form of flawed thinking) that they will not get in trouble any more. Furthermore, claiming not to have a cognitive defect is a cognitive defect. Claiming to have dealt with one’s traumas and damage through some means other than cognitive behavioral therapy is also a cognitive defect.

So essentially the DOC wants us to be honest and accountable but not if it gets in the way of them telling us what terribly delusional violent perverted drug addicts we are.
These programs take many different forms and in all of them the only good I have ever seen is when the discussion goes off script and people are given a chance to talk through their damage. However, the curriculum itself resists making space for people to have real conversations.

They ask questions like “when did you first realize you might have a drug or alcohol problem?” How is someone like myself who had plenty of opportunity to be a druggie but made the choice not to be simply because I don’t enjoy getting high supposed to answer that?

Or “write about your anger issues.” Had some when I was younger, but nine years of Wicca and Buddhism has taught me to have a healthy relationship with my emotions. Thus, I don’t have anger issues.

I also don’t struggle with delayed gratification, understanding cause and effect of my choices, empathy, money management, or any of the other things these programs are worried about. So I’m being reminded a lesson I was taught as a wee child in Christiandom: “Give the mean people the answer they want and they’ll leave you alone.”

I’m willing to bet good money this isn’t the lesson they set out to teach. They want to teach something along the lines of having care and compassion for one’s fellow beings and thinking before acting. Ya know, those lessons that are usually learned as a part of self understanding and working towards enlightenment. But they’re not teaching us that, they’re teaching us to do as we’re told to get the shiny certificate and move on. Last I checked a shiny certificate has never kept anyone out of prison. However, I have it on good authority that enlightenment is a path to true freedom regardless of one’s incarceral state.

The real clincher on all this is the ways in which people in positions of power within the DOC use their position to extort and manipulate incarcerated folks. Like with those “offender change programs” I’ve already mentioned, DOC employees don’t set those up, run them or are responsible for their success or failure. That job gets fobbed off on an incarcerated person who has no choice in the matter and doesn’t even get paid for their work. It’s considered “voluntary” with an option of getting tossed in the IMU for refusing to follow orders. This just happened to a friend of mine. Assistant Superintendent Wood asked for a couple “volunteers” to help set up her program at TRU. A pair of guys I know said they would if they could work on it together. She said sure. Then strung them along for over a year making it so that neither of them could make any other obligations for that entire time because they could leave on any given chain. Then when it finally came time to go, she only took one of them leaving both of them isolated from the support of the other for six months. The one who did get taken to TRU lost most of his property, was constantly harassed by the guards and generally treated like crap by Ms. Wood. Six months later she finally bright him back to WSR and is now telling him that he had better keep her program running here or else.

Keep in mind this is a mentorship program that claims to focus specifically on prosocial behavior and with respecting other people. Seems to me that Ms. Woods could use a dose of cognitive behavior therapy for her cognitive defect. Taking advantage of people is definitely not a prosocial behavior.