Love and Let Go

Editor’s note: trigger warning for animal death

Mandy was my first teacher in “The Things Which Truly Matter.” Love, enlightenment, connection. Lessons I have come to cherish as a person simply trying to figure out what it means to be a human becoming.

Half border-collie, half mutt. Mandy was a rescue pup who didn’t know her own name or understand that language was a thing. Say anything in a high pitched voice with excitement and she would take that to mean “come here and get a belly rub.”

Considering the ratio of belly rubs to vet visits, seemed to work out well for her.

She had a nose for good things. No, it was more than that. She expected good things and that expectation became self-fulfilling prophecy. A snuggle by the campfire, a hamburger set aside special just for her, an unexpected scratch behind the ears. Mandy would put herself right in the middle of everyone and wait for good things yo happen. Eventually they did.

By no means is this to say bad things didn’t happen. We all have our own version of vet visits and lonely afternoons. However, there are bad days, then there are Bad Days. On one particularly Bad Day I was swinging on the tire swing within the shady embrace of the ceder, pine, and birch trees in our front yard. Mandy came slinking into the yard, head down, tail low, and a soft whimper announcing her presence. Her every step shouted pain. She’d been smacked across the nose by a porcupine and had no idea of what to do about the quills.

I rushed across the yard, wrapped my arms around her and summoned my parents by the most efficient means I knew. I screamed my bloody head off.

My father tortuously pulled quills from her face with a pair of pliers while I wept at the necessity.

For the next month I snuck out my window each night and cuddled with Mandy in the dirt underneath the front deck until she fell asleep, then crawled back inside to bed, dirt smudged on my face.

About a year later, it was my turn to have a Bad Day. A bee stung me dead center of my palm while I played in the sandbox. IT HURT! It hurt more than falling out of a tree, more than slamming into a wall when learning to ride a bike, and more than being whipped by my father’s leather belt. I fell to the sand as if slain and wailed.

Mandy, cool as can be, flopped down next to me, forced her head under my arms and began licking my face. She didn’t do a thing to make it stop hurting, but she did make everything better.

These two experiences sum up what Mandy taught me of suffering. When there is pain, seek togetherness. Back then we were both young pups, still wet behind the ears. Years later, when I was growing from an impish incorrigible child into an angsty rebellious teen, Mandy was not just aging but aged.

Throughout middle school I spent many hours sitting in the yard, one arm wrapped around Mandy while reading a book with the other. Her left eye was clouded and she couldn’t move like she used to. Stairs were increasingly a problem for her arthritic hips. One afternoon, after another bad day of school, I watched Mandy walk up to me. She never did figure out that if she stayed I would come to her. She hobbled over, head down, tail low, her every movement whispered pain.

And I sat down.

And she sat down.

And we cried together.

Later that week we went to the vet. Mandy and I sat in the grass just outside the double glass doors. I held Mandy’s head. My sibling and parents stood nearby. The vet put the needle to a vein in Mandy’s back leg and pushed the plunger down. I held her cooling body and wept while my father got the SUV.

We buried her beneath the apple trees in the field beside the forest in Priest River. I held her one last time in the bottom of her grave, dirt smudged on my tear streaked face.

Mandy taught me some of the most important lessons I ever learned.

Expect good things.

When there is pain, seek togetherness.

Love and let go.

Prison’s Isolation

Today, I will be discussing, in summary, the overall patterns of maltreatment and denial of relationships of all kinds by the Washington state Department of Corrections (WA DOC) and supporting my assertions with anecdotal accounts. Some of these are from my own personal experience; others are drawn from the experience of others whose identities will remain anonymous for confidentiality reasons.

Furthermore, please note that all the anecdotal evidence in this essay occurred within a three month period. While there are exceptions to the overall negative treatment of relationships by the WA DOC, they are very few, highly limited, and usually dependent on the actions of a single WA DOC employee.

We, as a society, should care about incarcerated people being able to create and maintain healthy family, friend, romantic, and professional relationships both within the prison and beyond prison walls because relationships are of paramount importance to the human experience and necessary for habilitation, let alone rehabilitation. To look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we see that in prison the first two are technically satisfied (Food/Water and Shelter), the third is simultaneously met and threatened (Safety), and the fifth is available through various religious programs (Enlightenment). However, the fourth need (Relationship) is specifically attacked, limited, and dismissed by the WA DOC.

The first way the WA DOC undermines the ability for people in prison to have relationships is the destruction of lines of communication. I, like many prisoners, fear having only one way to contact anyone I know. Though, even when there are multiple ways for me to contact friends and loved ones, all of those routes can be cut off with no warning, no explanation, and little to no appeal process. I have had two people I used to message on a weekly basis blocked from JPay (an email-like message service for prisons). One of my friends who has been blocked is in New Zealand and they are particularly dear to my heart. But due to it taking three weeks for a letter to get from me to them, and three weeks back for their reply, we’ve been slowly losing touch. The other friend is local to the Seattle area and when blocked it took us weeks to connect on the phone. When we did finally get the chance to talk, I learned he had sent me a snail mail weeks before that I neither received, nor was given a rejection for.

This type of interruption of the ability to communicate is common and happens regularly with no reason or explanation given. There have been times when all our routes of communication (phone, email, and JPay) have been blocked simultaneously. This is why I make a point of trying to have everyone I am in regular contact with to have each other’s contact info. Doing so skirts on the edge of the WA DOC’s “no third party communication” policy. As in, if I have a penpal who sends me a letter with the following sentence: “My Nana says hi!”, that is a violation of policy and the entire message can me summarily rejected. Furthermore, while there (technically) is an appeal process, initial rejections are rarely overturned, and when they are, mailroom staff have the option to appeal the overturn. This entire process has absolutely zero transparency and no manual of how the various rejection and appeal mechanisms work. We are not told who to contact regarding appeals. We are only told to contact the “Superintendent Designee”, but not who that designee is. Nor are we told who to contact in Olympia (WA DOC HQ) about mail rejections.

This Kafkaesque process is only the beginning of the WA DOC’s anti-relationship policies and actions.

Prisoners are strictly forbidden from writing each other. For someone like me who has trouble finding and building a support network of friends or even acquaintances, this means every time I change facilities I completely lose all my social and emotional support in prison. Every time I walk onto a new mainline I do so blindly with no idea who’s there that may be a potential ally, or predator. And I can’t even share the feelings of isolation which arise from that with the people I have come to cherish, care for, and lean on, because they are all at a different facility and we aren’t able to write each other.

There are many other policies which limit and/or outright destroy the ability for friends and loved ones to support people in prison and for people in prison to support each other.

One person I know has had an ongoing issue with the mailroom rejecting/blocking letters between himself and his wife. They’ve been married a decade. This is because their letters keep getting flagged as sexually explicit when in fact they are simply the sensual endearments of two married people with a healthy relationship. He has had to fight for and defend his marriage from overt attack by mailroom staff imposing their prudish world view.

This is because people who have relationships across prison walls have to not just navigate each other’s hangups, thoughts, feelings, and needs, but the beliefs of the invisible stranger judging every single thing said, written, or drawn. An invisible stranger with the power to stop all conversation on a whim. They quite literally have the power to create a failure to communicate.

It is these sorts of policies which make having a relationship difficult, or in some cases, impossible. I am not even going to attempt to rank these in any way shape or form because what creates an insurmountable barrier for one couple or group of friends, may be completely irrelevant to someone else.

As incarcerated people, we do not have the ability to place funds on our own phone account. This means in order to speak with someone on the phone the outside person has to place money on our phone account or we can’t talk. The ability to make collect calls has slowly been rolled back and eliminated. One solution is to send money from the general spendable account to someone outside prison and have them put money on the phone account. However, if an incarcerated person doesn’t have someone on the outside they can trust with their money, then this is not an option. It is a common occurrence to have person B use person A’s phone pin to speak to a loved one who has a drug or gambling problem in an attempt to talk them out of their vice and into treatment, or generally to call home when some crisis has come up or person B simply hasn’t been able to check in for a few months and doesn’t want their people to worry. Sometimes coffee is used as currency to pay for the call, but far more often one person is just doing a favor to another for a good cause. This is a violation of about three or four rules, but they can get away with it. What they can’t get away with is for person B to send money to someone person A trusts and that someone put that money on person B’s phone account. Accounting nearly always catches and steals the money outright, claiming it is legal for them to do so, by policy of course.

Related to this issue is the rule that anyone outside prison can only send money to one person incarcerated in the WA DOC. Meaning if two brothers come to prison, their aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents would have to choose which one of the two to support. A person can get a special exception for direct family limited to parents and siblings, but everyone else has to choose one or the other to support.

The barriers in place are not limited to communication and who us allowed to support whom, but extends to only allowing anyone outside prison to visit one one person incarcerated in the WA DOC and the visiting room itself is a mine field of hazards to be navigated.

One person I go to school with received infractions for holding hands “wrong” in the visiting room. Neither of us could puzzle out what that even means. Did they waffle when they were supposed to pancake? How can there be a wrong way to hold hands? Many other people I know have received verbal reprimands for sitting too close, saying “hello” to people at an adjacent table, hugging too long at the beginning or end of a visit, having small children that are too rambunctious or any number of things which are simply a part of the human experience of love, friends, and family.

The WA DOC criminalizes incarcerated people being respected by staff. They dismiss the ties of relationship which connect us in a web of community. They are so enamored of the idea that Incarcerated people are on one side of the fence, and DOC employees are on the other that they cannot understand the following truth: any time two people are on opposite sides of a fence they are neighbors.

The next account is different than the rest I am presenting in that it is an exceptional situation rather than a common one.

We had a correctional officer (c/o) who worked here . His post was weekends in the chapel. He would shake an incarcerated person’s hand during the last week of their sentence before they released. In response to him shaking any incarcerated person’s hand for any reason internal investigations (INI) repeatedly put him under investigation for “being compromised.” His only crime being treating incarcerated people like human beings who happened to have made some mistakes. This is as opposed to how a lot of c/o’s treat us: like children, or worse like garbage or cattle. While there are many c/o’s who deal with us in a professional manner, it is rare for a c/o to treat us in a truly humane fashion, and rarer still for one to treat us with dignity and respect. He quit the WA DOC because he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his integrity for a pay check. The reality of the situation rather is that we need a couple thousand c/o’s just like him.

The WA DOC actively attacks incarcerated people for having relationships with each other, whether friendship or something more.

Thee are rules test make it a punishable offense to give another person anything. This means that if someone I know has a headache and I give them a bottle of aspirin, we can both be infracted. Same goes for sharing anything else. We are not allowed to put in on a spread (collective meal made from food off the prison store) or eat it together if we get away with putting a spread together. In order to engage in pro-social behaviors, we are forced to break the rules.

We are only allowed to eat together at mealtimes where we are supposed to have 20 minutes to eat. However, it is rare for us to have our full time and regularly only have 10-15 minutes to eat. Mealtimes are an important part of human socialization. By severely limiting the time and place we can eat they interrupt a fundamental community building activity. Breaking bread. By limiting our ability to share food and making mealtimes into the mere intake of caloric sustenance the WA DOC supports an atmosphere of fear and distrust.

Many c/o’s are quick to accuse incarcerated people of being “too affectionate” regardless of context, especially LGBTQ people.

I have been yarded in (sent to my cell for one to three hours) and threatened with infractions for sitting too close to someone I was speaking to, giving someone a hug, and holding someone’s hand while they recounted painful personal life experiences. Other people I know have been fired from their job assignment for hugging their friends in the morning when they show up or work or have had PREA investigations initiated or c/o’s making calls to INI.

The act of showing compassion, of being emotionally supportive of my fellow incarcerated people, of holding emotional space for another human being, is not tolerated.

The WA DOC claims these activities are disallowed by PREA. The problem with this is that it is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, not the Prison Kindness Elimination Act. And while we’re on the subject, it’s not the Prison Rape Elimination Act either.

I know of a couple in prison who have been in a healthy longterm stable romantic relationship and celebrated recently four years of living together about a month before one of them was promoted to long term minimum. This put them into a forced separation. The last time when this has happened one of them would get in just enough trouble to not be promoted. This time they’ve decided to stick it out because one of them has a year and a half left and the other two years until they get out of prison. They are now no longer able to be alone together, no longer able to be physically intimate, not even able to simply hold hands. Watching the pain and suffering they go through because of this makes my heart hurt. I can’t think of a worse punishment for good behavior than to be able to see your love each day, but not be able to touch them for fear of having their love taken away.

This is the kind of harm the WA DOC inflicts on people in prison who dare to let themselves be human and fall in love.

This draconian imposition extends to every facet of life in prison, including classes and programs. At one program I am a part of the sponsors informed us that they received a written warning for our group “laughing too loudly” (yes, joy happens in prison), “high-fiving” (as does spontaneous celebration), and “standing in a circle while holding hands” (we were doing a grounding exercise at the end of class). While most people may think a written warning means nothing. To us, it means that if we get a second warning within 90 days our sponsors lose their approval to come into the facility and our group will be canceled, most likely permanently.

In prison, the simplest acts of affection, compassion, and joy are seen as a direct threat to the misery a large portion of WA DOC employees believe we should experience. While not the majority of prison staff and c/o’s, they are numerous enough to contribute to an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. This trend is supported by c/o’s having a reasonable expectation based on experience of being backed up by their superiors and administration anytime they act in an overtly fascist manner. And if you think the word “fascist” is a tad bit strong… they are against hugs, holding hands, high-fives, and laughter. If that’s not fascism, I don’t know what is.

In conclusion, the WA DOC is opposed to healthy trust and reciprocal relationships between incarcerated people and anyone else both in and out of prison. They disallow lending a hand when someone is having difficulties, criminalize affection, frown upon mutual respect, and cannot tolerate compassion or caring. All of which is at the heart of friendship, and friendship is the foundation for all healthy relationships, romantic, professional, and otherwise. It is through the web of our relationships that we create community. The lines of that web connect people inside and outside prison in complex beautiful ways. The WA DOC has policies in place for the purposeful destruction of people’s ability to communicate and connect with each other which in turn destroys relationship ties and shreds that web of community.

How to Sleep Comfortably in Prison

6/24/19

In Washington, the standard state issue of bedding is two sheets, two blankets, one pillow case, one pillow, and one mattress. If the unit is especially cold the Sgt can authorize the issuing of a third blanket.

The pillow and mattress are made from the same flame-retardant plastic-y material which seems to be specifically engineered to pull heat from a body when it’s cold, and reflect heat when a body is all hot a sweaty.

The size of the mattress is slightly smaller than most twin beds. The mattress itself rests on a piece of painted steel plate or, if one is in the hole, a slab of concrete.

Learning to make one’s bed in a way that is actually comfortable to sleep in is a fine art and one well worth learning if one happens to be incarcerated. There are various approaches, many people swear by that whole “military bunk” thing where you can bounce a quarter off your sheets when its done. I, on the other hand, come from the “bug in a rug” school of thought. This is how I make my bed:

1) Acquire one extra sheet and two extra blankets.

2) Check all of them to make sure they are serviceable. This means that there are no weird stains, massive holes or other problems. Get fresh ones in necessary. It’s often necessary.

3) Compare the sheets. Identify two that have a small 5mm (3/16 in.) hole roughly 15 mm (5/8 in.) from the edge at the midpoint of each of the short edges.
Most of the sheets have them and if one does not, use toenail clippers to make a small cut in the sheet. If in the hole, you can use teeth (assuming you’ve got them). Otherwise, get creative.

3) Drape the first sheet over the mattress. Then, wrapping the sheet around the mattress, feed one of the corners of it through the small hole at the midpoint. Next tie the two corners of the sheet into a square knot. Repeat on the other end.
This secures the sheet to the mattress. Without doing this the sheet will slowly slip off of the mattress and have to be remade halfway through the night.

4) Take the second fluffiest blanket and fold it in half length-wise (That is the hotdog way for those of you who went to Brentwood Elementary, and for everyone else, fold a piece of paper in half two different ways then compare with a cheeseburger). Square the blanket so it mostly lines up with the mattress.

5) Drape the second sheet over the mattress and blanket, then secure it as described in step 3.
Congratulations! The icky state issue mattress has just been upgraded to a pillow top!

6) Slip pillow into pillow case and place pillow at head of bed.
What? I’m being thorough. Do you have any idea how many times I get done with this whole process and realize my pillow is sitting on the floor just out of reach? A lot. Ok? That’s happened a lot.

7) Fold one blanket and place on top of pillow.

8) Drape each blanket on the bed so that one edge of the blanket is lined up with the edge of the mattress nearest the wall. Drape the last sheet over all the blankets in the same manner.

9) Lay down on top. Hold the blankets with your feet by wrapping them around one foot then pinching them between your ankles. Also hold with one hand beside your shoulder.

10) Roll over once, schooch back to be against the wall, then roll over again. If you are skinny like me, you might be able to roll over a third time. This should wrap the blankets around your body making you resemble a giant human burrito.
Be careful to not accidentally knock your pillow off the bed just out of reach. I did say its happened a lot.

11) Enjoy being warm and comfy for once. If you forgot to pee before wrapping up, now would be the time to regret that.

Being a Writer in Prison

I recently got to read an article written by another incarcerated person who was discussing some of the barriers to getting published as an incarcerated writer (Longworth, Art. (2019) “Why it’s so hard to write in prison”. crosscut.com/2019/04/why-its-so-hard-write-prison. April 23, 2019.) which created a bit of a dilemma for me, because he’s in the same prison as me. So I can authoritatively say he is super exaggerating things. But on the other hand, he’s my fellow incarcerated writer, and I should support him.

Eventually I arrived at the following: To fight the PIC people need a clear and accurate picture of what they are up against. By putting out a false narrative he makes it harder for people who want to support incarcerated people to do that work.

Also, he took a cheap shot at the prison library. I may have mentioned previously that the prison libraries in Washington prisons are friggin’ awesome. This is the only point of his I’m going to directly address. As for the rest I am going to present what I know to be accurate and leave it at that.

In Washington, the prison libraries are actually a part of the Washington State Library System. They do have difficulties because the amount of books they can physically have is limited by the size of the room the prison gives them to work in. They are further limited by the DOC’s mailroom and anti-technology policies.

The books are not “outdated and moldering”. There is an average of a dozen new
books coming in on a variety of fiction and nonfiction topics every month plus the donations that incarcerated people make to the library. We have access to Inter Library Loans and can even get books from university libraries.

The library clerks do epic level book surgery on books that get damaged or are falling apart from the sheer number of people who have read them. As long as all the pages are there (or can be photocopied from another book) they find ways to keep the book alive.
Yes, books on the PIC are overrepresented in the library, but that is from prisoner donations. I will also grant that yes, the library doesn’t have many books about prison written by modern American prisoners. Seems there isn’t much demand for any that don’t come with a strong prison abolitionist critique and all those get banned by the DOC.

With that out of my system, here is as accurate a picture I can paint of what a writer in prison has access to in a Washington state prison. Keep in mind that I can only speak from my own experience and that experience is limited to where I’ve been. 15 months in county jail, 10 months in WSR (Monroe) back when it was closed custody, 8 years in WSP-WC (Walla Walla) closed custody and am now back in WSR, but it is now a medium custody facility.

If I am indigent, that is, if I have no money, I can always get the following each store day:
+ a pad of wide ruled paper (50 sheets – $0.79)
+ 5 golf pencils ($0.08 ea.)
+ 5 pencil top erasers ($0.04 ea.)
If I get everything I incur a debt of $1.49 plus tax. Further more I can get up to 10 prefranked envelopes for the current cost of a stamp plus three cents each.

As with many things in life, if I have money suddenly more options are open to me.

If I have some money, as in a penpal who sends me $10 every couple of months, I am then able to afford some of the following from the prison store:
+ 2 pads of wide ruled paper ($0.79 ea. – 50 sheets)
+ 2 legal pads of wide ruled paper ($1.42 ea. – 50 sheets)
+ 2 Typing paper ($2.16 ea – 100 sheets)
+ 2 blue pens ($0.21 ea.)
+ 2 black pens ($0.21 ea.)
+ 5 standard #2 pencils ($0.15 ea.)
+ 5 envelopes 9×12 ($0.10 ea. – postage needed)
+ 40 prefranked envelopes (cost of stamp plus 3 cents each)

If I have more monetary support from a penpal or if I have a job that pays at least $25 bucks a month, I move up a rung in the socioeconomic ladder and can afford to buy things through the art curio or from Union Supply. Thus I am able to get the following: (prices given are for items purchased from Union Supply)
+ College Ruled paper
+ Wide ruled composition notebooks ($1.35 – 100 sheets)
+ Pens of various colors
+ Colored pencils
+ “Art” board
+ 5.5 in. Safety Scissors ($2.00)
+ glue
(think super old school “cut and paste”)

For people who have a job in Correctional Industries or have a lot of penpal support, or just get blinkeringly lucky like I did. (Thank you Trans Women of Color Solidarity Fund) There’s two typewriters on the Union Supply package. One with no memory for $192.00 and one with a 32kb memory (roughly 15 – 25 pages) for $297.00. There is an additional cost of $15 s and h plus tax on typewriters.

While getting a typewriter is not easy, using one isn’t cheap either with ribbons costing $10 a pop.

Having a typewriter is nice. It has, at minimum, doubled my productivity. On the other hand, when I spent a couple months in the hole two years back I knocked out the prewrite for a couple of novels and got halfway through the rough draft on one of them. And that’s writing with a rubber flex pen and two lines of text on each line of my 79 cent indigent paper. As much as solitary confinement sucks, it’s an excellent time to write. Assuming I can keep myself in paper and pens by trading the desserts from my lunch and dinner trays with other people. (which is a story in and of itself).

Figuring out what to write is a universal problem all writers face. For incarcerated people there is an added layer. Do I want to be a prison writer who writes about prison, or do I want to try an be a writer who happens to be incarcerated and writes about other things.

I’m a genre writer, and an essayist. So I want to do both. It is really hard to get my fantasy and science fiction published. I don’t have internet access, so no digital submissions unless a penpal does it for me. Also, no googling calls for submission. It’s kinda hard to get your foot in the door if you can’t find the door. Conversely, I’m having very little difficulty finding places that will accept submissions of prison writing. The question then becomes which projects do I want to support with my writing? I know that paying gigs and places where I am cited as the author of what I’ve written are both few and far between individually, and I am yet to find somewhere that does both. (Seriously, if you know of somewhere, I have a half dozen people here at WSR who all desperately want to know. Please leave snail mail and URL as a comment.)

This forms a second layer of censorship after the DOC prison mailroom. I am a writer. If I write something, I want to see my name in print next to it, not due to ego (ok, maybe a little due to ego, but mostly) because that means I can put in on my resume which in turn makes getting the next thing I write published easier. Means getting paid for my writing becomes easier.

While I haven’t allowed getting paid to become a motivation for my writing, I would like to bring in some money to pay back all the wonderful support Megan and others have given me and possibly support myself for a bit.

Another consideration for where I submit my writing to relates to who’s the readership. Is this a newsletter that is (mostly) only going to be seen by other prisoners or is it somewhere that has a wider non-incarcerated audience. While prison newsletters are important because they are a space for us to talk to each other about our collective experience as incarcerated people, they usually don’t end up getting read much outside prisons. There was recently some fairly large news stories about prison conditions in Arizona and Louisiana prisons. It became newsworthy only when the feds got involved. I have been reading about those exact same issues for years in prison newsletters. What use is me calling out corruption if the only people who hear are under the same boot-heel I am?

Before anything I write gets to the point where it’s possibly getting considered for publication anywhere, it has to make it past the mailroom. Which is insane. I never know if something I write is going to get blocked. I sent out a picture of myself with frizzy hair last week, it got blocked because they claimed it would encourage other people to break the rules. I have no idea how frizzy hair equals rule breaking, but that is the level of logic we are dealing with here. Am I worried about being censored for the actual message I put out? Not usually. When I’m being critical of administration or going off about a political topic I really care about, I worry about being censored then and take appropriate measures. I’ll make sure to write out a physical copy before I hit send on the JPay. If it gets censored, I appeal the rejection and send a typed copy via snail mail. It’s frustrating, but not anything I can’t deal with.

Otherwise, they’re not that competent. I am mostly worried about having what I write blocked because of some random event that I possess exactly zero ability to predict, control, or even logically connect to what I’ve written. For example: about a year ago I was worried about being censored because there was a big crackdown going on around thumb-drives in the DOC. Since this here has absolutely nothing to do with thumb-drives, it would be par for the course to be censored in connection to that investigation. With all appeals going to the people that did the censoring in the first place.

There are some routes for getting writing out of the prison that circumvent the mailroom, but when people use those they place volunteer programs at risk of bring shut down.

Here’s an example of what I mean: When I was in Walla Walla I was a charter member of the closed custody Toastmasters club and I shuffled from one position to another of the club’s executive board. We knew the administration were looking for an excuse to shut down the club, so as a part of our regular club business we told our members to not do anything to give the administration an excuse.

Well… Someone who was not part of Toastmasters in the Walla Walla medium custody convinced the recreation director to make a video recording of him talking about how Washington needed to bring back parole. He then got the recreation director to smuggle it out of the prison and send it to his mom. The video was was placed on YouTube. Because the video was of an incarcerated person making a political speech, the administration shut down not just the medium custody Toastmasters, but the minimum custody and closed custody clubs as well.

This is how the WA DOC works. It was a speech. Toastmasters does speeches. They didn’t like Toastmasters. So they shut it down. Nevermind that the guy doing the speech wasn’t in Toastmasters.

This same (il)logic was recently applied to used books. (See Graham, Nathalie. (2019) The Stranger. “Washington Prisoners May No Longer Be Able to Receive Donated Books”. April 1, 2019. O’Sullivan, Joseph. (2019). Seattle Times. Washington corrections officials reverse ban, will allow prisoners to get used books in the mail. April 10, 2019) There’s a whole issue with this story that the journalists missed, but the essential issue is illustrated quite well. The WA DOC overreacts and only backs off from their draconian measures if there is sufficient public backlash.

This is the kind of thing I worry about happening with my writing. Censor me and I’ll find another way to get my words out to the world, which usually involves waiting a couple weeks before simply sending it out again. Repeat as necessary. But what if they use my words as an excuse to censor the voices of others? That’s what keeps me up at night after I’ve sent out a particularly controversial or inflammatory piece, because I have exactly zero ability to stop them if they choose to coopt my words and use them to hurt and silence others.

Granted, one thing that the WA DOC administrators like to do to people who piss them off but, who they can’t technically punish (like writers and legal beagles) is what some call “diesel therapy.” The administrators just keep transferring the person from one prison to the next so that they can never get comfortable, never put down roots, and end up losing most of their property when their ability to pay the shipping costs runs out or it’s “lost” in the mail.

Which is really messed up and not okay.

In summary, as a prison writer and as a writer who happens to be incarcerated I face many barriers to getting my name in print. Some of these barriers are because the WA DOC is opposed to me exercising my first amendment right, others are because of a culture that is not willing to accommodate people in prison writing about things other than prison, and lastly there is the issue of the world having gone digital while incarcerated people are stuck on analog.

Glamorizing these issues or exaggerating what is actually going on only serves to confuse things and make it more difficult for people outside prison to advocate for people in prison to be apart of the common discourse.

I am sentenced to a loss of liberty. I am not sentenced to a loss of voice.

Getting Books in Prison

6/20/19

Earlier this year, in April, the DOC put out a memo saying that they were going to block all donations of used books to the prison. When I first saw it I was a bit surprised because I had, over the years, received many mail rejections because some charity group or another had sent me a used book and no amount of appealing those decisions had ever resulted in me getting the rejection overturned. Thus my initial reaction. I had long sense filed this as one of those things that the rules technically said it was allowed, but was enforced in a way that was the same as a ban would be.

Upon learning more about the ban it turned out that the ban would include any donations to the library, chapel and volunteer programs who have, historically, been able to bring used books into the prison in support of their program.

Thankful, the status quo of the library, chapel, and volunteers being able to bring in used books was restored by Gov. Inslee who told the WA DOC to find a way to work with charities to give prisoners access to used books.

I had learned all of these things as they developed at the time and it is only now, at the end of June, that I have (finally) gotten to read news articles about the ban from the Seattle Times and the Stranger.

Graham, Nathalie. (2019) The Stranger. “Washington Prisoners May No Longer Be Able to Receive Donated Books”. April 1, 2019.

O’Sullivan, Joseph. (2019). Seattle Times. Washington corrections officials reverse ban, will allow prisoners to get used books in the mail. April 10, 2019

After reading these articles I was again, a bit confused. Both articles refer to “Books to Prisoners” in Seattle. If this is the “Books to Prisoners” based out of “Left Bank Books” then this would be one of the charities I mentioned earlier. I once tried to get books from them when I was in Walla Walla, but they got rejected by the mailroom for being used. At the time I was thankful to them for trying to send me books, and upset with the mailroom for wasting their money.

Furthermore, and particularly in regards to the Seattle Times article, the impression is given that people in prison get books just from charities and the library. It does not mention that incarcerated people can order books from mail order catalogs or that we can have our friends or family order books for us directly from a bookstore or publisher. There are, however, a few rules around incarcerated people in Washington getting books.

1. Any books ordered from a bookstore or publisher must be new. Incarcerated people cannot buy used books, nor can our friends or family members buy them for us.
2. For an incarcerated person to receive used books, they have to come from a charity and the mailroom has to recognize the organization as a charity. Otherwise those books will be rejected.
3. All books must pass through the screening process in the mailroom which comes with its own set of arbitrary standards and biases which vary based upon who happens to be working that day.

This means that if I need a textbook to continue my studies in a given subject, like art history, I have to hope that a charity has one in stock and will send it to me or I have to buy it new. I cannot have one of my penpals go into a college bookstore or look it up on Amazon and buy one for me used. There is no middle ground. Furthermore, if I do happen to get it sent to me by whatever means, I have to hope that the person doing the mailroom screening won’t reject it as being “pornography” because of the nudity common to paintings and drawings reproduced in art history books. This creates multiple barriers to someone in prison getting books on topics they are trying to study.

Yes, Book to Prisoners programs do good work, but they can only provide the books they are given, and most people choose to sell their used college textbooks rather than donate them to charity because they are so expensive. So if an incarcerated person wants a textbook on calculus, sociology, anthropology, physical science, computer science, philosophy, history, or really any other topic which there is a large divide between the cost of books written for general audiences, and books written for scholars and academics, how exactly are incarcerated people supposed to afford or luck into a copy of the books we need to sustain our studies? This argument doesn’t even touch on access to out of print books.

Allowing charities to send incarcerated people books is a nice idea, but it’s not even close to enough. By having a different standard for charities and everyone else, mail rooms are able to reject used books from a charity by not recognizing their charity status. Therefore to not stomp on our First Amendment right to freedom of the press they have to allow us to receive used books from any reputable source, meaning bookstores and overstock warehouses in addition to charities.

Too Much Talk

Editor’s Note: content warning for mentions of transphobic violence

Some of the people I know make a point of giving me any articles they find in magazines or newspapers that mention LGBTQ issues. Which I appreciate. However, most of the articles are about trans people being murdered, particularly trans women of color, or some politician pushing for legislation in their state which would be harmful to LGBTQ people.

I have come to a point where I don’t know how to feel about this anymore.

I used to get angry about it. Then for a while it just made me sad. Eventually I got around to feeling a need to do something about it at which point I used my position on the University Beyond Bars Education and Equity Team to coordinate API Chaya coming in to WSR to teach a 14 week class once a year on gender socialization, toxic masculinity, and domestic violence. Furthermore, systemic and domestic violence against LGBTQ people has already been brought up as issues we want to explore further in Alliances.

So now, I don’t know what else can be done about it from where I sit and I don’t know how to feel about having done what I can and that being so very little. I actually feel like I’ve done nothing at all because talking about a problem does not solve the problem. It’s a start towards solving things, but is not a solution in and of itself.

Which brings me back to where I began, when I see articles about trans people being killed, or politicians being hateful, it’s talk. It’s not a solution. How am I supposed to feel about that when creating more talk is all I’ve managed and more talk is not in any way going to cut it?

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.