Dispatches | January 31, 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.

Flossing With Razor Wire

Often I tell myself that prison won’t define who I am, won’t be my legacy, won’t be the story of me.

But prison occupies a chapter of my story. It is a chapter with infinite subplots; a chapter that winds and tumbles and burns and weaves and dives and rises from the ashes.

My prison story started as it does for every inmate newly committed to the Department of Corrections – at the St. Cloud Penitentiary, the ancient abysmal brute. And as every man in a Minnesota prison knows, the St. Cloud story begins in E-House – the teeming, brooding, screaming slum where open wounds and broken hearts collide; where days are dark and minutes feel like miles; where memory segues into complex regret; where prisoners get acquainted, or in many cases re-acquainted, with the mindless drag of incarceration.

I had grave questions when I got to E-House: who will be my enemies? What happens if I drop the soap? Where will the riot break out? When do I get shanked? Why is my cellmate nicknamed Psycho?

As a part of the orientation process, the DOC put me through a series of tests and screenings and appraisals in order to assign me a proper classification. In other words, they wanted to know how much of a pain in the ass I was going to be.

The Educational Department, after I was able to spell my name correctly on a piece of paper, deduced that I could read and write at a ninth-grade level. Health Services vampired a vile of blood from my vein and informed me that I did not have AIDS. Psych Services conducted a brief survey, during which I revealed my chronic consumption of tequila and magic mushrooms and gold spray paint and marijuana and powder cocaine and prescription painkillers and the fact that I was high as a bright blue sky when I committed every one of my crimes, and they determined I was a Low Priority for drug treatments. Those were all shrewd deductions, but I decided on my own, without the help of any experts, that I had a special gift for being out of control, not for being a criminal. If I were a gifted criminal, I’d be living in the Cayman Islands, driving an Aston Martin, wallpapering my villa with fifty dollar bills. But I wasn’t. My outlaw career was a disaster, and as a result I was ordered to spend a majority of my 30s wading through the penal cesspool, wearing elastic clown pants, flossing with razor wire.

There are the obvious personal and occupational repercussions of being a convicted felon. I’ve forfeited, among other things, my right to vote, possess a firearm, manufacture gambling devices, operate a funeral parlor, hold a liquor license, drive a school bus and/or enlist in the Navy.

But I’m okay with those sanctions. Shotguns and slot machines aren’t at the top of what I’m worried about. Nor are riots or shanks or dropping the soap or the sort of madness that stalked my thoughts back at E-House.

It’s the subtle repercussions of captivity that crush my spirit.

Deprivation.

I am a great lover of women. Whoa, did I say women? I meant food. I am a great lover of food. I become despondent when I think about deep dish pizza. Steaming hot and stacked to the heavens with roasted peppers and tangy tomatoes and silky smooth mozzarella. My mouth goes Sahara-dry when I dream about sushi. Slabs of raw, ruby-colored tuna chased with pickled ginger and flaming shots of wasabi. I weep like a sullen child when I see a grocery store ad in the newspaper. Bunches of emerald green grapes and sweet Georgia peaches and succulent strawberries and sun-kissed tangerines. I might sound like the lunatic who sits on the park bench and yells at the pigeons, but believe you me, after enduring years of greasy slop and institutional sausage, it sounds perfectly sane.

Estrangement.

The letters and phone calls and visits keep spirits afloat, but they can’t replace the real deal. Anybody doing a long stretch of time can sense the inevitable cycle of disaffection running its course, until there’s nothing left but smoky traces of places and people once known. The mailbox gets a little emptier each day. Acquaintances become strangers. Old friends fade away. Wives and girlfriends grow tired and lonely and go elsewhere for love. I know because I came to the joint married, and I will leave alone. That’s a real son of a bitch to swallow, but it’s part of the prison jackpot. No matter how much I love them or they love me, people have bills to pay, needs to meet, mouths to feed, lives to live. I can’t bribe them to care or beg them to stay or blame them for not wanting to play a fool’s game.

Evanescence.

I call it Fleeting Peon Syndrome. Life itself is fleeting, especially looking at it through the grand-scheme lens, but prison life is the pinnacle of transience. At any moment, no matter how long I’ve been on my best behavior or how many pleases and thank yous I say, no matter how many doors I hold or hands I shake, if I succumb to even the slightest imbecility, or find myself on the business end of the wrong-place-wrong-time-wrong-guy scenario, I’ll be cuffed up and trundled off on a dolly like Hannibal Lecter and disappear into a steel-and-concrete dungeon and there will be a new editor of the Lino Ledger by tomorrow morning and the sun will rise in the east and fall in the west and the pistons of progress will continue to churn and new fires will be kindled and old ones dashed and nobody will miss a beat or give a damn. That’s how prison rolls.

What seems like a lifetime ago, I was a free man. Then the great sledgehammer of fate dropped down from the clouds and I was arrested at pistolpoint and crammed into the back of a squad car and then chauffeured to the county jail and then to a segregation cell and then to a bitter courtroom and on to a maximum security prison and soon to a halfway house and then, after seven years of reaping the whirlwind, I will go back to where this mad epic unexplainable chapter began.

I will once again be a free man.

tim computerTim Boland is known as Convict #232240. He is the editor of the Lino Ledger, the newspaper at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Lino Lakes, where he writes a series of essays on prison life. He is, in his own words, “not a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser but a once-promising kid from the suburbs who went to State on a baseball ride and majored in creative writing and wrote for the campus paper and chased tight skirts and noble dreams but then one day drifted off and got reckless and lost in a cocaine smog and ended up arriving at a colossal achievement in idiocy.” He’s scheduled for release in 2015. 

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