“From seeing the bars~ his seeing is so exhausted
that it no longer holds anything anymore.
To him the world is bars, a hundred thousand
bars~ and behind the bars: nothing."
"The Panther", by Rilke
It's the boredom that kills you here. Oh sure, technically it is the sodium thiopental (or the PENTPHARBITAL if the local headsman runs out of the former) that really wrecks your internal organs, but boredom is the spiritual and mental sedative that numbs you, breaks you down to the point that the actual 6:00PM cocktail feels more like a relief than a punishment. Whatever death is, it is new, and something new after a lifetime in seg is always going to be, at the very least, interesting.
This boredom is carefully planned, the fruit of much labor. First, there were the consultants, men and women (but, assuredly, most were men) superficially trained in psychology and sociology who created the concept of a superseg prison. The theory behind these places is very old, but none of the horrendously cruel and dictatorial regimes throughout the history of mankind put this theory into widespread usage. No, it took America, the land of the supposedly free, the land of decent, down-to-earth Christian values, to allow this cancer to metastasize on a large scale. And spread it did, massively and uncontrollably, across all 50 states. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in prison management these days who does not swear by the efficiency of sensory deprivation and isolation style penal warehousing to break the spirits of their charges. Next came the architects and the bureaucrats, who brought in the engineers and the general contractors and the laborers, thousands of men and women (again, mostly men) earning their paychecks, all passing the moral buck on whether these places should have been built in the first place. It wasn't, after all, their plan. They aren't the bosses. It was somebody else's decision. They were only following orders.
Before you know it, tens of thousands of men and women are living this way, although "living" is probably a very poor and inaccurate choice of wording here. Stewing. Rotting. Of course, the real EXPERTS the ones who actually went to graduate school and who do real research - all decry the existence of such places. But it's too late for that. This thing has gone political now. The Demos Has Spoken. Sort of. What they really did was vote their anger over the glaring lack of a new model Mercedes in their driveway and a hotter, younger spouse. But the cretins they placed in office have figured out it is easy to get reelected playing whack-a-mole with prisoners, and take full advantage of this fact. I mean, they are criminals. (Cue evil and/or creepy music sequence.) And in any case, convicts can't vote. Never mind the budget gaps, or global warming. They hate crime, love babies, and won't ever forget 9/11. Thanks for four more years.
The thing about democracy is, you pretty much get the government you deserve. Let that one sink in for a moment or two.
This boredom is just the immediate expression of the real issue: a complete and total lack of a reason to continue breathing. This, too, is planned. They want you despondent; a clinically depressed prisoner is going to cause fewer problems, complain less and less about the violations of his civil rights that go on around him on a daily basis. In short - and to borrow a term straight from the criminology textbooks on this issue - he is managed. Maybe, just maybe, he will do us all a favor and off himself, saving us the trouble of having to deal with his needs for the next X amount of years. This is what they want - all they want - from the modern prisoner. Maybe you do, too. Certainly your taxes would drop a few dollars a year.
Even the strongest of us sometimes feel like obliging them.
Big purpose creates antibodies to the suicide impulse, but big existential meaning is difficult to find back here, at least when you are using the measuring stick provided to you by your former life. Like happiness, you have to find your purpose in tinier doses, and you have to file this away for the lean months and years, because these are going to come, sure as death, taxes and a Perry for President campaign in 2012. You have to learn to survive on small purpose, like a Bedouin creeping over the sands from well to well.
Most of these little victories wont mean anything to anyone besides yourself. Your friends in the world mostly wont get it. Hell, even the people around you mostly wont get it, or you. What most everyone lacks is context, the essence of what made you who you are. It is not their fault. These places are built to be unimaginable to people accustomed to freedom. That's the point.
So, basically what I am saying is this: when I toss up the details about some little project or device I've been working on, I am fully aware that they really are little. I don't know why I got so many angry letters over the "arrogance" behind my little comment that I had learned to make homemade multi-outlets. Chill. I know it is not a big deal. I wouldn't want anyone to accuse me of being immodest.
That said, I am the coolest freaking mo-fo ever to grace the hallways of 12-Building, for I hath made Yogurt in my cell! You may prostrate yourselves before me as I quickly edit out that sentence about immodesty.
This saga begins a few weeks back, when I noticed that the little Yoplait yogurt cups that they sell in the visitation room vending machines contain "Live and Active Cultures." You just can't go saying things like that to a person like me and expect nothing to come of it. I filed this information away, and did some calculations. Making yogurt is not rocket science, but I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to pull the feat off, given the scarcity of supplies I have access to. Milk, I could count on getting at least twice a week off the breakfast tray. Check. They sell powdered milk on the commissary list at a rate of $1.00 for 3.2 oz, so check that, too. Smuggling a yogurt back from visitation would be the tricky part, but, to use the patois of my world, I gots mad skills, yo, and wasn't too worried about this. I decided that it could be done, and set about my preparations.
Getting the half-pints of milk was the easy part. I simply stuck them up against the back wall of my cell, which is about the same temperature as the outside air. This kept them nice and cool for the several days I needed to get the rest of the supplies together. For once, it was nice to make the frigidity of my cell work for me.
Next came the dry milk, which I had to purchase from a neighbor since they apparently do not care enough about the budget deficit to allow us to buy anything from the commissary. Strictly speaking, dry milk is not a necessary item, but since I lack any form of thickening agent (pectin, gelatin, etc), I thought the powdered milk might help thicken things up a bit. Considering I am using non-fat milk, this ended up being a good call, because yogurt is markedly less aesthetically appealing when it looks like a milkshake.
Last came Operation: Yogurt Drop. Err, that needs some work; Operation: Enduring Dairy Freedom? Hmm ... Operation: Let Me Distract You Rednecks With A Great Story About Fishing and Beer So You Will Not Pay Attention To My Hands? Whatever, its a work in progress. Basically, all I did was XXXXX XXXX X XX XXXXX XXXXX then turned three XXXXX XX XXXX right and XXX XXXXXXXX XX XXX north tower XXX XXXX XXXX XX the hippopotamus driving a VW Thing that XXXX XX XXX XXXX XXXX XXXXXXX XXX X XXX coconut fondue XX XXX XXXXXXXXX XX XXX XXXX XXXXXX XXX XXXXXXX XXX XXXX XXXXXXX XXX XX X XXX XX Sunday morning neurotics XXX XXXX XXXXX XXX X XX XXXXX and so I says to the guy, look buddy, your truck was on fire when I got here and as for your grandma, well, she shouldn't have mouthed off like that XXXX XX XXXXX XXXXXXX XXXX XXXXX XXXX three dwarves dressed like ballerinas. See? Simple as breathing.
(This paragraph redacted by the TDCJ Gestapo, err, the Mail Room Screeners Guild for the Enforced Homogenization of Inmate Correspondence.
Have a XXXXX day.)
Now, to cook! I decided that it might be a good idea to heat up the milk for a bit first, to kill off any bacteria that might have snuck in while they sat under my bed. I was about to create paradise for the little buggers, and I wanted only the good bacteria to gain entrance to my little microbial Eden. So I built what we call a "stinger", which is amongst the most common of inmate contraband. This is basically four razor blades arranged in a series and then connected with a wire to the wall outlet. They easily boil a cup of water in no time at all and are a snap to fabricate. I heated the milk up until it started to froth, which I would guess to be around 190°F to 200°F. I then set the milk to one side, and filled up my HOT-POT with water. I placed the plastic insert inside the pot, and poured in the now sterilized milk, 2 tablespoons of dry milk, and the Yoplait "kicker."
The hot-pot has an annoying regulator built into it, which cuts off the electricity to the unit when the temp in the pot reaches around 120°F. This is a sorry ceiling for a cup of coffee, but probably about right for a bacterial incubator. These are the good bacteria I am referring to, the born again types, not the ones I just fried with the stinger. These bacteria consume the sugar found in milk, called lactose. As they do this, the milk thickens (or curdles, I think is the proper term, but I might be wrong on this) and lactic acid is produced. This is what makes yogurt tangy and which keeps the yogurt from spoiling.
The bacteria in Yoplait is listed as "Lactobacillus acidophilus," but I suspect that L. bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus are also both hiding in there somewhere. Yummy. The stuff we cram down our noise boxes without thinking about it, huh?
I set the hot-pot down against the wall and covered it with my towel, where it could ferment in peace. The whole concoction smelled slightly cheesy and ... well, not exactly awful, but neither was it pleasant after a few hours. I kept checking on it every two hours, and eventually decided that eight was the magic number needed to unveil my gastronomical chef-d'oeuvre ...
... which looked incredibly suspect. I mean, if you had a beaker full of toxic sludge from a bio-containment laboratory, and one full of my yogurt, you probably would not want to bet the farm on being able to pick the right one. There were these clumps of “something” throughout the final product. These might be curds, but this is not the sort of thing they teach you about in the suburbs, so don't take my word on that. Even more disturbing, there was this thin layer of greenish liquid sitting right on top. I stared at my masterwork, and despaired a little. But then I did what any hard-headed, moderately suicidal moron who had just spent half a day working on something would do, and mixed the whole mess together and ate a spoonful.
It tasted pretty bland, but not bad. Even better, it didn't melt my esophagus and cause me to vomit up my intestines. I bottled the stuff up in an empty peanut butter container and set it to chill against my back wall. The next morning, I had myself a well deserved morning treat.
I am now on my 9th generation of culture. I have managed to get the balance down between liquidity and tanginess, though I do think that my little bacterial slaves are getting weary, as the kicker seems less potent these days. I still can't seem to give this stuff away though. Only two of my friends have agreed to taste the product and I am pretty sure they only did this as a kindness towards me. You learn to humor Thomas a bit when you are forced to live around him, I think. I guess people get a little skittish when my eyes glaze over in the midst of waxing philosophic about bacterial strains and incubation times. I guess I cannot really blame them.
I have flavored my yogurt several different ways, my favorite being either the oatmeal flavored or the strawberry preserves flavored. I was rather disappointed with the overall taste when I put a vanilla ice cream in there to cook with the yogurt. I really expected that one to be good, and for some reason it just didn't come off right. This last batch with the strawberry preserves could almost be mistaken for store bought. Uncle Thom's Olde Style Family Yogurt: It Probably Won't Kill You. Since 1897.
All in all, a minor success. I enjoyed the challenge of doing something that had probably not been done here on the Row before. I did not get as much joy out of making it as I did from constructing my first SPEAKER or multi-outlet, but it did pass the time and it was a good experience.
I don't think I will have to keep my eye peeled for any competition, though. By far, the activity that the men on DR engage in most frequently to ward off the effects of existential vacuum is art. There are some surprisingly good artists back here, especially when you consider the dirth of real supplies they have to work with, and the fact that I have yet to meet a single one of them that wasn't basically self-taught. I am not saying that art always leads to rehabilitation, but this is proof that these men can learn new skills, something that every single one of us was labeled as being incapable of.
I have made a habit of accepting art as payment for black market debts since 2007. You can see many of these works HERE in my personal gallery. I have always thought that this ability was one that needed to be preserved for posterity, though I am not certain that anyone will ever care about this sort of thing.
The men here on Texas's DR basically have access to the following supplies: #2 pencils, off-brand colored pencils, and TDJC brand black ballpoint pens. That is it. My friend Prieto is one of the better pencil artists around here, in my opinion. He was kind enough to write a short piece on how he came to learn his craft, which you can read HERE.
Some of the artists work exclusively in pen, such as in THIS and THIS piece by Kosoul, and in this BUTTERFLY by Pelon. Pen is obviously less forgiving than pencil, as there are no takebacks.
The colored pencils are a remarkably cheap brand marketed under the name of Sierra. I daresay you would have to travel far and wide in order to find a brand of pencil that blends poorer than the Sierras. Despite this, some of these guys manage to make them work for them, as in this TIGER by my oId friend K9. (RIP)
A small minority take the time to make paints out of colored pencils, a labor-intensive task that generally scares off all but the most committed. To make the paint, you have to remove the graphite cores from the pencils, and then crunch them up into tiny shards and mix them forcibly with hot water. Seems like I might have written about this BEFORE, but perhaps my memory is failing me now that I am getting on into advanced old age. I mix some of my paints with other materials, especially toothpaste, as this increases the thickness of the paint. All brushes are made from human hair, carefully cut at the desired angle and then glued into a pen casing. All of this is contraband, and I have had cases written on me for these supplies. One day, these cases will be used by attorneys from the state to show that I am a habitual rule-breaker and should be denied clemency. I do not know which is more insane: that they would bother to make this argument at all, or that these attorneys will be paid thousands of dollars for having made it.
There are really only a handful of painters back here that I am aware of. I think the best is my friend ALIAS, with some examples HERE, HERE, and HERE. Alias is obviously not his real name; when I asked him if he wanted this stuff published under his real name, he said, "I don't care. Just come up with an alias.” Ahem. If only my artistic ability matched my capacity to come up with clever pseudonyms. Alias taught me everything I know about painting, and also how to use powders. This latter is a technique where, instead of liquifying the inner cores of the colored pencils, you carefully shave them down to a fine powder using a razor blade. Once you have collected this substance, you dab the end of a sock in it and lightly rub layer after layer onto the board. I often make stencils out of the cardboard backs of lined notebook paper reams, and then use these to make the forms of clouds, as in DAWN and LUX AETEMA. This can be a frustrating technique, ~ because if you allow even the tiniest of graphite shards to slip in with the powders, it will make a screamingly obvious line on the board when you press down on it with the sock. Then you have to add a cloud in there to cover it up. Or a tree. Or a whole line of trees. Cough.
I enjoy looking at this stuff. I admit that. But my attraction to the art produced by these men goes deeper than mere aesthetic appeal. It is rooted in the symbolism of what this art represents. Innate beauty. The ability to change, and to bear the stress and challenges of this world. I also recognize the fact that I have seen firsthand what happens when men do not engage in similar activities. There is nothing more intimate and horrible than watching someone you know lose their grip on sanity in daily - sometimes hourly - increments. What sins I have committed, I am paying for. So, too, are the men around me paying. Your atonement for allowing these places to exist is ongoing: every time you hear about some ex-convict raping or killing someone, blame the man. But blame the system, also, and recognize your place in that system, because nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Your lack of interest is a factor in the recidivism rates in this nation, which are higher than the rest of the developed world by many factors of ten. You have a part to play, and this place will only get fixed once you realize that. Someday we will figure out the right way to build these places. They do need to exist, after all. But this epiphany will not come because of some new theory out of some professor’s mind. Because we already know the solutions for creating prisons that rebuild human beings out of criminals. They do this all over the world. What is lacking there but overwhelmingly present here is our need for vengeance. You will only stop seeing your citizens die from violent crime when you stop paying into a system that promises pain and revenge, and realize that this need of yours is the fuel that makes the entire system run. It is really not that complicated. It only requires all of us to grow up a little. I’m not holding my breath.
To see a few more articles on prison-induced madness, see HERE, HERE, and HERE.
“If it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
"And I remembered the Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?" It doesn't take long to read the Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr
© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved