Prison: a Practice in Preoccupation

There’s a common joke among inmates who have been sentenced.  Joke might not be an accurate term.  It’s one of those things people say, that reminds you of the obvious, yet something that is often taken for granted.  It’s not one of those repeated phrases that inspires a desire to coldcock the speaker.  Real early in my term, before I was sentenced, I’d  be asked something like “how you doing?”  or “what’s up” and found my self saying such detritus as “living the dream, one day at a time.”  Then one day, during the scorching hot summer in a central California reception center, my celly said it to me, and I never said it again.  It sounded so trite and idiotic, and perhaps it was the combination of 100+ degree temperatures or his inability to program with a cellmate, but I never said that crap again.  The phrase I’m speaking of is “you’ve got nothing but time.”

That’s the one thing I had in excess, everyday.  The CDCR puts you to “work” or “school” or “vocation”, but all you have is time.  Hurry up and wait.  Lock it up for count.  Get in line.  Wait, wait wait and all you’re really waiting for is another day to come.  But that surplus of time does give a cat some time to think.  Sitting in a two man cell and bouncing thoughts between your cranial prison walls is actually a gift.  Especially since at that point, digital distractions are almost non existent.

I had what I consider to be, the fortunate experience of getting to spend almost nine of my twelve months in cell living.  You’re either going to be in a cell or a dorm.  Personally, I dislike dorm living.  But it’s a crap shoot either way.  In a dorm you are allowed to walk around, there’s usually some sort of “day room” where you can watch some television.  However, there’s no privacy at all, there’s always someone up in your shit, and depending on the dorm you’re in, it’s always loud.  In cell’s you get a modicum of privacy.  It’s also nice because it leaves you in charge of the cleanliness of the cell.  In a dorm, you can keep your sleeping area clean, but when you live with 199 other men, it’s impossible to manage any more than that.  However, cell living is only good if you have a good celly, or you are in a single cell, which is not a common luxury.  In a cell, it’s essentially living in a small bathroom with another guy.  A good celly can make or break your experience.

At any rate, in a cell, I had a lot of time to think.  I also had a great celly for a few months there.  He was a 75 year old who was doing his second term for murder.  It was on a level II yard, as lifers can’t go any lower than level II.  Ol’ Max had been down since 1985.  Let’s go back a little bit.

When I was in county, you often could hear a number of cats complaining about the amount time they had to do.  I distinctly recall a dude carrying on about having to do 90 days.  Any amount of time you have to give up to the government is shitty, but if you did a crime and got caught, unless you have a legal Houdini, expect to do your time and please don’t complain about it.  Ol’ Max really shed light on this for me having been down (incarcerated) since he was 45 and now an aging cat, who, in his words, is going to die in prison.  He still kept up with a positive mental attitude.  Can you even imagine spending 30+ years of your life in prison?  That’s a lifetime to some.

I was able to gain some perspective on many of the things I was preoccupied with prior to my term and upon my release, interacting with free people again, it’s the thing I noticed the most.  Especially that first day out.  I think you could equate it to a superpower of some kind like x-ray vision, or a superhuman sense of smell.  I thought of it as being able to transcend the bullshit.  I’d have a conversation with some random train passenger (it took me 2 days of to get home, thanks CDCR for housing me on the opposite side of the state from where I live.)  and be able to see their preoccupation.  I could reflect on myself prior to my term and see the things I was preoccupied with.

Preoccupation is a prison unto itself.  The saying “can’t see the forest through the trees” is a sort of testament to this.  The mind is a tricky place and it can start playing tricks through obsession.  I believe this is not just a side effect of our busy short attention spanned world, but also just an inherent bug in our brains programming.  I think the simplicity of survival in an institutional environment cemented this for me, but also Max’s philosophy.

When I opened my twitter, for the first time in over a year, I was slammed.  The main thing that stuck out for me was the uproar over Mad Max Fury Road riding it as a feminist overture.   I mean, really, did they forget Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome?  Apparently they did.   I picked that movie as a flick I wanted to see with my aging Pops once I paroled because we had so enjoyed the previous incarnations of the story and it looked like a pretty sweet flick.  We weren’t disappointed.   Max helped those hippies get their art car to burning man.  It was a lot more exciting than I imagine that free loving festival would ever be sober.  Add in a load of acronyms I didn’t understand and twitter felt about as foreign as the streets I was walking on.

All that said, even with my current goals, I’m still carrying the baggage of having spent the last year behind bars.  You can say I’m preoccupied.  I plan on seeking some catharsis by expounding on the lessons I learned while on the inside, mayhap even telling a story or two on the experience.  The lessons might seem readily apparent to some of you, but again, perhaps you will learn something.

Short story taken from the Spirit of Tao translated by Thomas Cleary:

The Poor Man and the Gold

A poor man decided one day to get rich, so he put on his had and coat and went to town.  

As he walked through the center of town, pondering the question of how to obtain riches, his glance happened to fall on someone carrying a quantity of gold.

The poor man rushed up and grabbed some of the gold.  He was caught as he tried to flee.

The magistrate asked the poor man, “How did you expect to get away with the gold, with all those people around?”

“I only saw the gold,” Explained the poor man, “I didn’t see the people.”


I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow.

Is any one around here anymore?  It’s been a while folks, about 13 months in all reality, at least here on this site.  The events of this past year were enough to give me a strong sense of cosmic whiplash, the irony of my last post and twitter ramblings, well, that there is the divine between the lines.  To be honest with you all, I don’t exactly remember doing those.  I mean to say, I do recall writing a post in April, last year and I do recall using twitter in May of last year, but the specifics were foggy at best by the time I could once again, observe these walls.  I’d love to say that I walked away, to cleanse myself of the impurities and distractions of the interwebs, but I am unable to do so.

Sometimes, things fall apart.  Let’s just say, I’ve got enough experience with things falling apart that it’d be difficult to consider me a novice any more.  It comes in cycles over a period of years.  The first time things fall apart, that’s a fluke.  If you don’t know what it’s like, you can’t see it coming.  But after that, there’s no excuse, because hindsight is 20/20 and you can look back and see that you could see the fall coming.  It’s like when you’re on a good nod, for those of you who have ever been there.  You might be in the kitchen grabbing some water because the dope has stolen all your moisture and you’re feeling a bit dry.  You’re noddin, but you make it to the kitchen.  You place both your palms on the counter, the cabinet with the glasses seems a light year away.  Taking a second to look down at your hands on the counter, gravity decides to take over.  The counter is getting closer. Oh shit, here it comes.  Oh shit it’s getting closer.  Oh fuck, I’m going to hit the fucking counter.  Bam.  Forehead, meet counter.

That’s what it feels like when you feel things might fall apart.  It’s happening, but it feels like perpetual motion is already locked in and there’s no way to bail.  It’s like  when your opponents knight is in a position to check your king and attack your rook at the same time.  You’re going to take a loss there, but you’re king so save yourself.  Your rook, your castle is expendable, but you are not.  I am not.

So things fell apart, as they’re wont to do on occasion and I ended up spending a year in California State Prison.  Well, technically, 10 months, as I spent two in a county facility before I trundled onto the grey goose.  And if we’re going to get specific, I ended up at 4 different prisons since July of last year.  Cali Prison tour 2014-15.

I’ve been locked up before, the last time being about 8 years ago, for a 5 month stint in a county facility.  I looked at it with dread and a huge amount of anger.  But this time around, when I was looking down the barrel of a year in a state facility, it was just something I had to do and I did it.  What choice did I have?  Youngster ain’t got no choice to make, he made the choice months before even getting popped, and that’s the cold truth.

Stating it like the above makes it seem a bit nonchalant.  Oh yeah, hi and well met fellas, gee, yeah, I was gone for a year.  Not up to much, just you know, doing time.  Countin’ days you know?  Oh you don’t?  Well then, I guess there’s a few things I could tell you.  But I’m not going to go into all of that at this time.  It was one hell of an experience, and one I’ll never forget.  But I’m not going to get too far into it right now.  Live and learn, and I learned a lot.  Also, I’m not going to discuss my crime right now.  Let’s just leave it at, I did my time on general population yards, like everyone else who isn’t a baby toucher, mama raper, gang dropout, drug debtor or snitch.

Another interesting thing is, according to wordpress, it’s my anniversary.  That means for going on four years now, I’ve been writing here off and on.  So I took a year off, so to speak. Onward and forward, right now.  That’s all we can ever do, and boy, do I know it better than ever.  With that in mind, I’d like to say, welcome to any new readers, and thank you to those who are still around, or who haven’t disregarded this corner of the internet after a year of absence.  Also, I’d like to say it meant a lot to me to know that some people I’ve met around here were concerned of my whereabouts and well being after I disappeared.  I’ll also kindly request that you bear with me as I’ve not been on a computer but once in the past year and it’s been a little difficult to get my bearings.  Thus, things will be moving somewhat slowly in this fast paced world.  Also, if any of you have questions, drop me a line in the comment section, or hit me up on twitter at Rojo.