Thursday, April 26, 2018

What’s New, Youngin’?

By Vernon Robinson

“I don’t need that crap!”

Damn oldheads! Sometimes it seems like they are so stubborn.


They say that prison is a microcosm of the world. Well, if we’re a smaller version of the “outside” world, we must have inherited time displacement along with our disenfranchisement, because we are sometimes stuck in a time gone past.

Graterford Prison. The State Correctional Institution Graterford is one of the oldest penitentiaries in Pennsylvania, and it is definitely the largest institution in the state. Graterford is second only to Eastern Penitentiary in infamy. It is also the hub of all the state institutions. Residents from all the institutions around the state take cues from Graterford on issues affecting the prison population. They listen to the men of Graterford not out of fear, but a respect and admiration for the Graterford men’s ability to lead on pertinent issues – also, since it is not located in the middle of nowhere like the majority of other prisons, Graterford has more resources and a greater reach into the communities. But that predilection for Graterford’s wisdom may be waning.

The age of Graterford is reflected in its citizenry. It would be nothing to walk down one of the blocks that house the 500- or 600-plus individuals and come upon a group of men where a majority of them have already served at least 25-30 years in prison. Graterford holds the dubious distinction of housing the man who has served the most time in the country, and possibly the world: 64 years!

The men in Graterford are getting older and they’ve been fighting for decades, hoping they can pass the baton off to the younger men. But sometimes the age of some of the elders and the time they have served precludes the men from bridging the gap between different time periods. Not only are they unable to coalesce with the younger men, but it’s also sometimes hard to adapt to younger concepts that now rule the world. Needless to say, technology is one of those concepts.

The residents of Graterford are not completely oblivious to technological advances. We have televisions, so commercials alone are enough to “update” us on the newest products. But knowledge of the existence of new technology cannot supplant an experience with life-altering devices. So even though we’ve heard of Jetsons-style products, we still live in a Flintstones environment. 

Many prisons across the country, especially in the federal system, have been evolving with society, allowing certain aspects of the new world into their institutions. The “Feds” have given all their residents emailing capabilities, with an actual email address. But Graterford, seemingly intent on being outpaced and outdone, doesn’t look too kindly on progressive change. Just to be clear, Pennsylvania itself is slow in adopting widely practiced trends and marries itself to archaic ways of thinking. But Graterford, in particular… I don’t know. We just got remote controls for our televisions in 2008! Maybe Graterford is the “grumpy grandpa” of Pennsylvania. 

But in 2010, an event caused a little change in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections landscape. In an effort to save money, about 2000 select men from across Pennsylvania’s state institutions were sent to prisons in Michigan and Virginia. When the men came back – well, the ones from Michigan – they had tall tales. They talked of living in a prison that was a bit more humane. They also talked about something that they were sure was to follow soon in Pennsylvania: MP3’s, handheld music devices that we had only heard stories and seen advertisements about.

Some men had even brought their MP3’s back with them. Those men spent a large part of their day showcasing how the device was used. The MP3 technology was as foreign to the men of Graterford as a phaser gun used in the Star Trek movies was to people in the 1970’s. To be fair, Graterford houses some young men too, but the elder influence saturates the institution.  So while some younger guys know about MP3’s and iPhones, the disconnect between young and old doesn’t allow the young to share their knowledge with the old.

Nevertheless, the rumors began to swirl: “Pennsylvania is going to be getting MP3’s!” It was a firestorm, and people began to write their playlists out. The thought of hearing songs that you’ve yearned to hear was appealing. No more having to listen to the WDAS radio station to hear “the oldies, but goodies”. No more listening to old cassette tapes that sound muffled because they’ve been played incessantly over the years. The constant rumor caused individuals to write the administration and ask, “When are they coming?” But while we waited for these machines – we called them “iPads,” “MP3’s,” “computers” – the conversations continued about how these devices were used “in the Feds,” or “in Michigan.”

Probably sick of the deluge of inquiries about MP3’s, the administration finally responded: “The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections will allow a device that plays a cache of digitized music and possibly transmits emails.” The furor was ramped up even more, with individuals speculating about what type of MP3 we would be receiving. Some men had their family members look up different devices on the internet and print the advertisement out and mail it to them. All of a sudden, the “Best Buy” circular was the most popular from the Sunday paper. People were saving their money for the machine and songs!

At last, the curtain was drawn back! We weren’t being offered MP3’s, but a tablet-style device (they called it a tablet, how the hell would we know if that was an accurate description?). The tablet and its accompanying service was being offered in Pennsylvania, however, Graterford would be the last to receive it. So in Graterford, while the men in their 20’s, 30’s, and early-40’s lamented the fact that we’d have to wait longer, the older men couldn’t care less. And during this wait, men from other institutions who transferred to Graterford had stories regaling the use of the tablets at the institutions whence they came.

Finally, the kiosks were installed in Graterford, indicative of the fact that the tablets were soon to follow. Those who were eagerly anticipating this new service were invigorated. Those who had come from other institutions and already had tablets were now able to “sync up” their devices to the kiosks and order more music. The rumor about email capability was confirmed. At this point, the men were just waiting for the notice that the tablets would be sold at commissary. But not all were jovial.

“I don’t need that crap!”

“I ain’t payin’ $150 just to listen to music.”

“My Walkman plays just fine!”

“You need to put that $150 to fightin’ your case!”

“Aint’ no tablet gonna get you out of jail!”

Those were the statements of the cynics, mostly oldheads. Like I said, the younger men had seen this technology before, and they couldn’t wait to get some Jigga, Jeezy, or Rick Ross. But some of the older men looked at the tablets as another well-disguised ploy by “the system” to placate the men of the prisons and make them docile. You could almost hear them in their Abe Simpson voice: “The television is the tool of the devil!”

The detractors were right in a few respects. In prison, $150 can be used for causes greater than music, and the odds are that a tablet can’t get anyone out of jail, per se. I would like to think that if $150 is the determinant for someone to obtain freedom, they wouldn’t choose a tablet over their freedom. But the ability to listen to music of your choice and email your family, can sometimes provide solace. So the tablet becomes an amenity like any other commissary product. We just have to prioritize our spending practices.

Even though there were critics of the new technology, the implementation of the kiosks set a stage. It was the stage of transition… or evolution, you might say. And watching the development of a “new realm” was hilarious.

When the kiosks were initially installed, only the men who had come from other prisons that already had the tablets knew what they were and how they worked. We were told they were kiosks, but we didn’t know anything about them. To the average Graterford citizen, it looked like a television with an empty tube. We didn’t know that just by touching the screen the apparatus became “activated.” 

Once the “techies” from the other institutions showed us how the kiosks worked, men started to test the kiosks out for themselves – well, the men that were excited about the kiosks’ presence. Men began to look at the sample “apps” that were on the kiosks, using their own individual PINs to get admittance; however, each man’s access was limited to just the “Documents” app until their tablet was purchased and on its way. But some men were using the kiosk just to get a feel of it, marveling at the touchscreen technology that wasn’t established in the prison. Then the entertainment came from those who had decried even the idea of the tablets.

“Look at them. That stuff ain’t gonna help them one bit.”

The anti-tablet individuals would walk past the kiosks while people were using them and grumble words of that nature. The scowls they would have were symptomatic of the palpable disdain they had for anything outside of their comfort-zone. But even with their oppositions to the up-and-coming “it” thing, they couldn’t help it if their curiosity was piqued!

The nonconformists would wait. They would wait for the block to be relatively clear, which was usually during Main yard on a nice day, or immediately after work lines and school was called (realize, a block of 500-600 people can only get but so clear. However, these men would wait until most people were out of sight and the rest were not paying much attention to block activities). They would sometimes saunter past the kiosks multiple times just to survey the area. It would seem as if they were sizing-up the kiosks, like it was a Western-style standoff.

After that initial stalking ritual, they’d be ready to engage. They’d approach a kiosk and attempt to mimic the steps they saw others take. They had side-eyed the actions of other men using the kiosks and viewed it is a menial task. Nevertheless, they were slightly taken aback when they touched the dark screen and it lit up. I guess it is sort of odd to turn something on without an actual “On/Off” button.

Every step after that showed the naiveté of the men who had missed firsthand experience of decades of evolution. It would take a few minutes before they would recognize that their touch would elicit the motion of the prompt or cursor. But even that, was challenging. They would press their finger against the glass as if they were in competition with it, acting as if the glass had a strongman behind it providing 500-pound resistance. The force with which the men pushed the glass was completely contrary to the touchscreen concept.

Watching this interaction between man and technology was kind of comedic. It wasn’t funny because they’d struggle; it was funny to watch guys – mostly oldheads – covertly wrangle with the new machine after they had just scolded others for indulging in it. They’d be bent over, looking at the screen and poking at it like they were scientists in a testing facility. Some of the most amusing visuals would come when someone who had their face broke up would be squinting over their glasses, pushing the glasses up on the bridge of their nose as if that would help them better understand.

Eventually, the oldheads would have to acquiesce: I’m gonna have to call on somebody for some help! And that somebody would normally be someone that’s younger. So they’d look around for a minute, searching for a young man that they’d feel comfortable confiding in. That process of scrutinizing could take a few minutes, being as though trust is not easily attained around here. But once someone was chosen for the task, then they uneasy and roundabout solicitation would begin.

“Hey, youngin’, what’s up with this thing? I keep pushing in my number but it ain’t working. This thing broke already?”

In all actuality, this was a young man’s time to shine! The young men, finally, were able to teach the oldheads something. And they’d eagerly take on the task. As the tutorial proceeds, you could see the young guys intently trying to imbue their elder brethren with the understanding of technology. On the one hand, the oldheads seemed to forget that they had once spoken about these machines with vitriol in their voices, and they would now try to soak up as much information as they could so they wouldn’t have to have too many more of these conspicuous sessions.

“Alright… thanks, youngbuck.” That’s how these impromptu meetings always end. Those words of gratitude are delivered, but I’m not sure how sincere the oldheads are when they say “thanks.” Not because they don’t mean it, but because I think they are still engrossed in thought, really hoping that they have completely grasped what they were just taught. They speak in the direction of the instructor, but their mind is still on the kiosk. Both men walk away from the kiosk slowly, with the oldheads occasionally looking back as if to say, Look, kiosk, you ain’t gonna cause me trouble when I come back, right?

Even with the introduction and limited foray into the digital universe, the oldheads still weren’t that enthused about catching up with the outside world. The arrival of the tablets was just the next example of a forceful invasion into an antiquated world. 

We started receiving the tablets shortly after the installation of the kiosks. And when they got here, they were the talk of the town. Even though we had seen the tablets prior to them being sold at Graterford – because of the individuals bringing the devices down from other institutions – it seemed like our ability to buy them made us look at them more intently. The men didn’t know what they were looking at, they just saw it was new!

Coincidentally, the tablets were actually indicative of the nature of Graterford’s environment: slightly behind the times. While we weren’t privy to testing different styles of tablets, we were able to see other kinds of tablets through commercials and advertisements. We could see that our tablets – produced by Global Tel Link Corporation (GTL) – were different from the ones we had seen on TV or in the papers. Some of the differences had to do with security measures, but it was an ugly difference. An adequate comparison of our tablets could be summed up by this analogy: our tablets compare to the tablets in the streets as old, block cell phones compare to iPhones. They are bulky, heavy, and not appealing to the eye at all. But they were new to us!

After the first batch of tablets came in, men would be in groups, trying to figure out the nuances of the devices. Men would be touching and scrolling on the screens all day. They’d learn the difference between a “touch” and a “longhold” to make certain selections. Their tablet “shopping carts” were filled with the music they wanted to purchase, more than they could afford. Men were happy to be typing emails, seeming like they were “texting” their family members. And the first person that discovered the “cut,” “copy,” and “paste” functions on the tablet was the person who symbolically discovered fire!

The oldheads watched these interactions. They might have been sitting at the table as a younger guy was showing his friends how many songs were on his tablet. The oldheads would listen as the young guys would talk abut the Meek Mills and Kendrick Lamar they had just bought. The oldheads would see the elation in men’s faces – men that were not that young, but were slightly younger than the oldheads – after they had bought some Eric B. Rakim, Public Enemy, or even Sugar Hill Gang.

“Youngbuck, how that thing sound?”

Again, the younger men would jump at the chance to ingratiate themselves with the oldheads. They’d try to find a song that would be closer to the oldheads’s liking and let him listen to it. They they’d show the oldhead how to scroll, which could be funny because someone who hasn’t used this technology doesn’t realize that they can control whether the screen scrolls fast or slow.

“Oh, shoot, the screen went too far down!”

And then the young men would show the oldheads how to find songs in the internal catalogue. That would be the clincher; the oldheads, all of a sudden, would see the value in the tablet. I don’t want to assume that this is because they found these artists in the tablet’s catalogue: The Temptations, The Delfonics, The Dells, The O’Jays, The Whispers, or any number of groups from back in the day. Whatever the case, the fuse was now lit. Those machines weren’t so contemptable after all.

Now a lot of oldheads were beginning to take notice of the men who had bought the tablets, where before they would have just scoffed at them. If they had paid attention earlier, they would have noticed that some of the oldheads did buy tablets as soon as they were being sold. The few oldheads that had tablets would have their earphones on, mimicking The Temptations’ steps and crooning out loud like they were on the corner in their neighborhood. Those few oldheads that had bought tablets upon the initial offering were probably unaware that they essentially bridged a longstanding gap between new and old. GTL should have paid them for promotion!

Now the young, old, and everything in between, have tablets in Graterford. Now guys are song scouting by looking at friends’ lists to see what songs they might have that are worthy of purchase. The cell blocks sometimes bear resemblance to the streets, where men are walking down the block and typing on their tablet at the same time, reminding me of the video of the woman texting in the mall and obliviously falling into the mall fountain.

While the oldheads have become more accepting of the new technology, the email capability, to them, is still an affront to traditional methods of communication. Also, aside from the oldheads’ tight grasp on the past, GTL doesn’t help with its sphinxlike concept that our families have to navigate in order to set-up an email account for a person in here. So the clamor for red dots (indicators placed over our messaging app to show one has received an incoming email) is not as prevalent amongst the older men as with the younger guys. That is, until one of their younger family members from outside these walls almost compels them to start using the email service.

“Uncle Hasaan, I set up an email account so we could write each other, okay?”

Who could resist the attempts of a young family member who’s trying to keep in touch?

Today, tablets are almost as ubiquitous as shower shoes in Graterford. There are still some that oppose the introduction of this technology, and they are holding fast to their position. Plus, GTL’s shaky service and oft-failing devices does nothing to dissuade the dissenters’ viewpoints. But, overall, a below-average product has done nothing to stop the majority from attempting to be part of a forward-moving society. To see someone with a Walkman in here is like… well… like seeing someone with a VCR out there!

Has this technology affected the men who are in Graterford negatively? I don’t know. But I can tell you this: I used to say, that if all the power went out in the world, incarcerated people would have the best chance of surviving because we are so used to adapting with little to work with. We haven’t been “corrupted” by the lures of the world, no uncontrollable desire to text people. But, recently, the kiosks went down on a block in the prison… and that block’s residents are extremely eager for those kiosks to come back on!

I can’t decipher if the technological invasion is negative or not, but I no longer believe that we would be able to seamlessly adapt it the power went out. We now like to “text” too!

Vernon Robinson CB3895
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

Vernon Robinson is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution Graterford in Pennsylvania.  He specializes in editing and proofreading and has a few published works to his credit.  He is also the secretary of the Lifers' Right to Redemption Committee - a committee dedicated to the eradication of Life Without Parole sentences and educating the public about the Life-sentenced individual's capacity to change and become an asset to society.  Vernon considers his greatest accomplishment to be his beautiful daughter.  His hope is that some of the things he does will somehow influence others positively.

1 comment:

txsjewels said...

Hi Vernon, I really enjoyed reading your article. I've never considered what it would be like to be in prison and held in a timezone, only able to watch the world advances from an outside perspective. You are a good writer and give me a good idea of what it was like when technology came to your corner of the the world. Take care up there and sincere greetings from Texas.