Dispatches | June 04, 2014

litOnLockdown (2)

By Alison Balaskovits

Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is C. Fausto Cabrera

The art room is located on the third floor in the education department across the hallway from the vocational computer class. These programs are praised for the opportunities they create and rightly so.  Along with the GED program on the lower level, they are bullet points for the tours they give to community members. Yes, tours. Anyone can schedule a tour of Stillwater Prison.

The groups range from 10-20 people at any given time; some people wore suits and ties, but most of the time it is casual. The host walks them in leading them to the front of the room to meet our instructor for a few words about the program. Then they usually take the long way out past the outside wall so that they could view the artwork in action and on the walls.

There are always a couple of inmates (I say inmates because we are only labeled students within the program) that group up for your quintessential construction worker talk about women on the tour. Chitchatting, loud enough to hear, hoping to be noticed, looking for a little eye contact; grasping what would make them feel human again; a simple flirtation, making a man with options who retains a little appeal.

As a tutor in the program, I retain the ability to find something to do in the back tool room, out of sight. Where I didn’t have to witness the looks in their eyes making me feel like an animal in a zoo.  It’s how pompous rich people look at waiters in a fancy restaurant or in their gardens on large estates. It’s like they’re looking right through you. We are ghosts; no wonder why some act up for attention.

Once, the tour caught me while I was out working on a time sensitive painting I needed to finish. My station was set up with wet paint palettes and busy brushes so it’d cost too much to run in the back. One by one people walked by peering around the room. Part of me had the vanity to assume that they’d stop and marvel at my work and ask questions I assumed an artist in his studio might answer. The quiet power of shame is an overwhelming feat, and most of us just continued to work with our heads down peeking up from time to time with polite smirks like young schoolchildren on our best behavior. Some people had quizative, yet confused looks on their brows; some maintained a poker face while other kept the type of smile you often see in response to handicapped children, a look that says, “Oh, that’s good they give them something to do,” insinuating that our artwork doesn’t hold value.

After ten years of incarceration, to experience that eerie tension of those walking through like that. Not so much as a nod is a bittersweet. On one hand, I’d felt so low and dehumanized; but on the other, it was nice to know I still had a heart to break.

There is usually one woman in every couple of groups that knows who she is and transcends the social awkwardness by treating us like human beings. She asks direct questions and says hello when eye contact is made. This is the person who knows what justice is about.

They don’t bring the tours into the classrooms anymore. They just pause in the hallway between the two classrooms to explain the prestige of the programs we choose to join. Through the internal chicken-wire glass windows, they just look in the rooms pretending not to see us. Prison is normalized in their minds. I never thought those tours could get any more dehumanizing; until I saw those looks through the glass window and truly felt like an animal at a zoo.

In prison, there is an “us & them.” No matter your thoughts or feelings; no matter the strength of your self-perceptions or identity…there is a barrier between us and them. If you need an example, try to shake your boss’ hand, attempt to ask a guard a personal question, pat a teacher on the back or give the therapist that has saved your life a huge of gratitude. Being around people for extended periods of time bonds you. Co-workers, service people: barbers, stylists, mailmen, teachers, gas station clerks, bank tellers, whoever. There are unspoken bonds with anyone you start to see on a regular basis, and with that certain social boundaries. My unspoken bonds have razor wire fences that remind me that I am a villain. Mine tell me I am untouchable, a pariah. Yet, the whole function of prison is to make society better, and one way of doing that used to be to help me become a better person.  But there isn’t a day that goes by I am not seeped in regret and remorse, and I wonder what the point is. Because I hit that glass ceiling like a bird hits a window and I am reminder…

When you step into prison you receive a uniform. Your individual punishment is walking through that point A for however long they give you until you walk out the other door marked point B. Punishment now become collective. If there are more than a few fights, or just one big one…the individuals get taken to segregation, but then everyone gets locked down.

If some individuals abuse a “privilege,” then it is taken from everyone, forever. Sugar’s replaced with a substitute thought to cause cancer because people use it to make hooch (wine). Fruit is no longer delivered to the units for the same reason.

As needed, keep on person pain meds are regulated to unneeded schedules because a few have abused them. No real sustaining medical issue occurred. The restroom doors were taken off the stalls in education because a couple of people grouped up behind them (the individuals were directly ‘punished’ in real time.) “It’s just the way it is,” written on the tombstone of individuality.

What that is saying is that if someone is doing stupid shit to jeopardize what I hold dear then I better police them so it doesn’t get taken away. But that’s the kicker. You cannot police yourselves here because they will take you to segregation for intimidating, threatening or fighting. It’s a joke; the dollar bill on a string. They just want to yell and torture us. They create the problems, threaten you with the definition and then laugh at you when you are not allowed to solve it. What’s the point? It’s to give society the peace of mind that laws are established for the good of all. When will the joke of “dropping the soap” end? There are no dance cards to fill. What is wrong with us? Why are you fascinating by crime and punishment? Are you not entertained? Until you’ve met someone incarcerated and find they’re just like your neighbors, probably even better.

The bitter comes out of the sweet air-conditioning of the education department when I step out into the humidity of the hallway on brimstone summer day in society’s hell.  The air as cigarette smoke, like a sauna steam as my vision blurred and skin lathered with an insect-like itch. Days like these, I have zero ambition, save a small hope of there being ice left in the machines purchased by our phone profits. Oh yea, there is ice in hell when all the douche bags don’t hoard it. People fill bags and trashcans with it only to keep a few bottles cold for twenty minutes or so, idiots load three pitchers of ice water only to dump half of it out in an hour. It’s the idea of cold they collect.

Steps are heavy in jeans. I climb the scorching black stairs, I can feel their absorbed heat on my soles. The heat index raising degrees with each tier until I reach my floor on the fourth. The stairs are the precursor to the possibility of mail, and like an oxygen mask, I am relieved by the very thought of receiving word from the street. My anxiety builds despite the taboo of expecting anything worth a damn in prison. It has been a few weeks that I sent out a couple of letters have been waiting on some responses I put out the past couple of weeks. You can’t expect mail unless you send it, like karma. Will they finally have a come to Jesus and change their wayward ways and buy some stamps. “Do you need anything?” people asked with good intentions. “Just some pictures if possible. I haven’t seen the kids in so long.”

Without looking directly, I use my peripheral to see if there’s anything on beds or floors in the cells I pass. Did the guards already delivered the day’s mail? I get to my cell to see nothing new. I lean over the tier to see if I can see the two-man crew handing it out. I ask a neighbor at the galley rails and he just shrugs like he could give a shit less. I instantly hate him. He has given up on the world and I have repeatedly refused to. I spot the mailmen on the tier below, hope is alive.

Unfazed of course, change out of those hot ass jeans, plug in my fan to blow some hot air, but it’s the thought counting.  I don’t turn on the TV because any extra heat might provoke spontaneous combustion these days. For some reason, baby powder helps and I contemplate whether I should try the ice machine or just go for some of that slightly cooler filtered water downstairs. Our sink water tastes like the blood of thieves.

I lay back under the fan and start to nod off under the suppressing blanket of heat. The guard walks up, hesitates, double checks the nameplate, says my name like he hasn’t pronounced it a hundred times before. I sit up,  trying not to be too anxious. He sifts through a pile in a makeshift shoebox to hand me a few papers and a letter. Oh shit! My insides feel like a little school broad but this isn’t the time or place so I maintain my typical facade and thank him like I could care less.

There is always a brief moment where you acknowledge that this letter might change your life. A legal letter, a word from an old girl, or some bad news from that place you used to call home. It’s a weird anxiety that floats between hope and expectation.

The power of laughing is an adhesive that bonds people. It transcends a moment and throws it through time. “The time so and did this,” or “do you remember what so-and-so said that day?” I am not sure what happiness looks like exactly but I’m sure laughter is involved.

A major nuance of prison life is the dependence on laughter. It gets you through bleak situations. Were you to be a fly on the wall with no perception of context you’d mistake prison interactions with that of a high school or college. Victor Frankl spoke on the necessity of laughter in dire situations in his book Man’s Searching for Meaning, about surviving concentration camps during the Holocaust. People marvel at the elasticity of the human soul when facing such daily pressures. You’d be surprised what you get used to.

I read an article about a tour of college students that visited a Texas prison. They were appalled and offended by the amount of laughter and high spirits they witnessed. They were under the impression that we, as convicts should be “paying their debt to society” in more of an oppressive nature. Can there possibly be laugher in Hell?

What is it about laughter that makes us want to share it? A story, a joke, movie or sitcom; laughing alone just doesn’t feel complete. My barometer for comedic success is a sliding scale based on how many times I am amused and to what extent. I figure, in this day and age for a hour and a half movie the most you can expect to laugh out loud is at least three times, preferably for more than a second or two…five laughs is about average and seven is an arguable classic. If that’s the standard for a movie than from a twenty-minute sitcom a few smirks or smiles, a chuckle is worth making it into weekly rotation.

Tiers wit open bar fronts arrange our cellblock, so your neighbors are literally a shout away. During sporting events, you can hear cheers and clapping; at night if you want to tell someone a movie is on you can call for them, and of course you can hear someone laughing. There been nights when I heard more than a few people laughing in unison and surfed the channels rigorously in order to partake but I couldn’t find the show they were all entertained by. It was too late to shout out, but I guess I could’ve been a dick and just asked. But prison etiquette triumphed.

One night, I am sitting in my cell watching this new sketch comedy show cracking up! I mean dying! But it seems diminished because I am alone. After gaining my composure, the first thing I think of is how I have to tell someone about this. I contemplate calling out, but that’s a dick move. So every sincere laugh this show pulls out of me it’s like an investment, a stock. Now I am compelled to sell the show to anyone who will listen. As if I have part ownership and will succeed with it the next day. I’m even bringing it up in casual conversation to people I don’t usually talk to, campaigning for the show like it’s the answer to all of our prison problems.

I never consider that I may be placing the show on a pedestal, building the expectation too high bringing its potential. Isn’t it always the case, when you boost and brag about a weekly show to hype it up, the next episode is always the lamest one to date? Then every critique or rejection cuts straight to the heart as if you are being rejected…when it’s just our standard of comedy we are trying to affirm. But it didn’t matter because I was already invested, so to over compensate, every little thing they do is hilarious. In the end, it may have made the show better for me. At least until I find someone else who likes the show.

scanC. Fausto Cabrera has been incarcerated since July of 2003. He began to take writing serious in 2008 at the encouragement of a trusted professor. He is a part of the Stillwater Writer’s Collective and was included in the anthology, “From the Inside Out: Letter’s to Young Men Vol. 1”, available through Amazon.