Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tattoo Program

By Kyle De Wolf

After I got locked up, I discovered that music classes were available in the leisure center. I took piano and organ lessons when I was a kid, and made some decent progress, but I gave up after a few years due to my family situation. After some of my kookier notions, like singing "Heilige Nacht" (Silent Night) in German at a Baptist church, did not go over as well as I'd hoped, I was convinced that I just didn't have the talent or ambition to succeed as a musician.

I drifted away from music over the years, but I have always harbored this deranged fantasy of performing original compositions on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans jumping up and down. So I figured, "What the heck? I might not go anywhere, but at least I'll have fun getting there." Over the past few years, I've taken lessons in music theory, mandolin, violin, guitar, cello, bass guitar, banjo, conga/bongo drums, and saxophone. I've even ventured to pick up the accordion and the Ukulele, although I must confess that I couldn't make any sense out of the former, and the latter is too easy to be worthwhile. I've also gotten back into piano, even though the amount of practice time I get (one hour a week) is deplorable.

I quickly mastered the mandolin, my first instrument, just because I always have to be different, and I was able to replace the old mandolin instructor when he left. I taught a few misguided souls how to play the mandolin, and I made some decent progress with them, except for the guy who was tone-deaf and had three broken fingers on his left hand. He should probably just take up painting. My inner German came out as I inflicted iron will, rigid discipline, and painful exercises on them, until they could give a beautiful rendition of "Wildwood Flower." It was very fulfilling.

So I was chagrined when I found out that the assistant warden and the captain were determined to take away all of our steel strings and give us nylon strings instead. They sold the violins, mandolins, banjos, and cello, so we don't have them anymore. All the guitars and bass guitars were fitted with nylon strings, which sound a lot like "rat's feet tinkling on broken glass." It is slightly better than banging a metal pot with a rolling pin, but not as much fun as playing an instrument.

The ostensible rationale for this change is that inmates were stealing strings to use as tattoo needles. When I heard that, it just broke my poor little anarchist heart. Why should I be punished for somebody else's infraction of the rules? Why the heck shouldn't grown men be allowed to get tattoos in prison? How do tattoos jeopardize the "safety and security" of the institution?

So I wrote a cop-out to the warden and proposed that he should establish an authorized tattoo program instead.  Inmates could be provided with a safe, clean facility in which to get tattoos.  They would pay for them out of their commissary account.  Inmates would be trained and certified to make tattoos.  They would be provided with proper equipment, including real tattoo needles. They would be paid for their labor and have the opportunity to learn a trade.  Inmates would make money.  The institution would make money.  People would quit stealing guitar strings.  Everybody would be happy.  It would be a win-win-win.

As you can imagine, I got nowhere with this proposal. The warden replied that he had the authority to make changes in the music program.  The local music vendor assured him that he could run a decent music program with nylon strings.  The local music vendor would never have self-serving motives. He did not have the authority to establish a tattoo program because the prohibition of tattoos is “national policy.”  Nobody in heaven or on earth has the power to change “national policy,” or even bring it up for discussion, which is all that I really wanted.  Much like Platonic forms, it is an absolute with which even GOD has to comply.  It is not possible to question “national policy.”  Even inmates will tell you, “Oh yeah.  It’s ‘national policy.' You can’t argue with that.”

In my opinion, it is all just begging the question. To say that one has the power to do something doesn't make it right, or even a good idea. To say that such and such is "national policy" doesn't explain why something so stupid and counter-productive became "national policy" in the first place. Just saying "Well, it's policy" is a lot like saying "Because, that's why!" Policy is just an excuse not to have to think about what you're doing and whether it really works. Just punch your timecard and go home with a smile on your face knowing that you've "done you're job," which is to accomplish nothing and ruin the few good things that were available.

I was pleased that the warden had to write a reply to my cop-out, and the assistant warden had to come down to the unit and speak to me in person about having written a cop-out to the warden. He told me that I should have spoken to him at mainline. I don't like to speak to the assistant warden at mainline because it prevents me from eating chow. I'm sure that I would have gotten just as far, which is to say, precisely nowhere, but I had more fun this way. Inmates are shocked that I would even dare to write such a cop-out. "What? Are you crazy?" they ask me. I think we all know the answer to that question. 

I spoke to a man who happened to be a former tattoo artist. I was hoping for a little sympathy for my cause. He was outraged. "I had to pay good money for an apprenticeship on the street," he told me. "Now you want to train somebody to take my job just because he came to prison!" I pointed out that if his work was as superior as he always liked to brag, it should speak for itself, and he should have no trouble competing. Furthermore, the program doesn't have to be free. Since the whole point is to stifle the underground economy, which results in the theft of guitar strings, I would like for it to be available to inmates who are not willing or able to pay the costs out of pocket. However, I could envision a loan that could be paid back later with interest. Tattoo artists could work off their debt in the program. So it would not be like prisoners are getting a free benefit just because they came to prison. The argument degenerated into name-calling. I called him a "protectionist" because he wanted to deny people opportunities and limit the market in order to protect his job from the pressures of competition. He called me a "socialist" because I wanted the government to offer a bunch of no-good criminals valuable job training that would somehow screw him out of a job. I was shocked. "What the heck are you here for?" I demanded. "Helping little old ladies across the street?" So I got nowhere with him either. He will probably go on to vote Republican. I can't help but feel that as long as people think only terms of resentment and crass self-interest, no progress will ever be made. But, then again, I just want my strings back.

Kyle De Wolf  14966-052
LSCI Allenwood
P.O. Box 1000
White Deer, PA 17887


Jenneke Den Outer said...

Would it be possible to ask Administration for gut strings? Have to admit I don't know if they can be fitted on the instrument mentioned, but if so, it will most likely improve the sound.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Kyle De Wolf:

Dear Jenneke, Thank you very much for your comment and your recommendation. I am certain that the administration will not give any thought or consideration to gut strings, especially since we already have nylon strings. The term "gut" concerns me. Would gut strings be made of real animal intestines? I am not sure that I approve of a method of producing sound which requires the disembowelment of sentient beings. In addition, one of the problems that I have heard about with nylon strings is that they lack the proper tension and thus the guitars are beginning to warp. I am not sure that entrails would offer any better tension. Thank you very much for your concern and suggestion. KDW