Impermanence

Faiello, Dean A.

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Transcript

D. Faiello Attica CF Impermanence I sat in my cell, dressed, caffeinated and anxious, waiting for my cell gate to open. The squawk box instructed inmates with 9:00 am call-outs to proceed to the first floor. But my gate remained locked. The Officer on duty was in the CO's galley cooking his breakfast. The aroma of bacon, mingled with French toast and vanilla, wafted onto the company. I was getting annoyed. I didn't want to miss the Cephas meeting. I had spent most of the last two days, the weekend, locked in my cell with little to do. It was Monday morning, and I needed to vent. I always felt better after attending a Cephas meeting. The group genuinely cared about us--our lives, our frustrations, our future. In prison, the concern and empathy they exhibited was rare. Most of the Correctional staff despised us. CO's usually got our attention by shouting, "Hey, stupid," or "Yo, asshole." The Cephas volunteers called us by our first names. As the minutes ticked away, I felt my face getting hot. If I missed the meeting, there wouldn't be another for a week. And I would be stuck in my cell for four hours, when the yard would open. But the prison yard was not a place to talk about emotions. The air was filled with testosterone, not sympathy. I'd rather sit in my cell and read. J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians" sat on my steel locker. The gate cracked open with a jarring bang. I quickly covered the two hundred and forty feet between my cell and the stairway, passing the CO who had spent the last hour cooking his breakfast. He poured maple syrup over his French toast without looking up. As I emerged from the stairway into the lobby, a phalanx of Officers, each with a thick wooden baton gripped tightly in both hands, greeted me with cold stares. I kept my head down, looking at the floor as I got in line with thirty other inmates. An Officer slammed the stairway door. I exhaled, and steeled myself in preparation for clearing the next five checkpoints. The escort Officer barked, "Forward." Two-by-two, in silence, we walked the brick passageway, like Carthusian monks heading to vespers. The only sound in the corridor was the clomp of our State-issued boots. Robotically, we stopped at each yellow line painted across the concrete floor until instructed to proceed. The Transition Center was a relatively new section of the prison. Its linoleum floor was still shiny. As I entered, an obese Officer demanded, without even looking at me, "Cell location," then instructed me to "sit in the bull pen." It was a holding cell, devoid of air and light, where minutes could become hours. It contained only narrow wood benches and a toilet visible to all. Of the two-thousand inmates in jail, only fifteen at a time could attend a Cephas meeting. Like nearly every prison program, there was a long waiting list. For the jail's addiction program, the list contained over one-thousand names. Most would never participate. As the Officer barked, "Cephas," the bull pen gate cracked open. I walked down a well-lit corridor with painted sheet rock walls. Each meeting room had wire-glass observation windows instead of the typical barred openings. As I entered the meeting room, I shook hands with the volunteers, and bumped fists with the inmates. Some of the guys called out, "Hey, yo, John, wassup?" Each week, we shared frustratins, talked about the mistakes we made, and struggled with change. As the weeks passed, I watched guys open up and share their pain, deal with their issues. Some progressed more quickly than others. It took work. But the rewards were tremendous. At one meeting, a guy was pissed at his co-workers. While he had been at the law library working on an appeal, they rearranged their work area, and got rid of his desk. He felt betrayed. Sitting in the meeting, agitated and angry, he told us, "I just wanna break their fuckin' faces, ev'ry fuckin' one a them." We listened, gave some feedback, talked about the consequences. By the end of the meeting, he was laughing and joking. He was still mad at his co-workers, but had no intentions of punching or hurting them. I recall a meeting where a guy told us that he finally divorced his wife after six years of legal wrangling. Rather than sell their house, and split the proceeds as a family court judge had ordered, she burnt it to the ground. He planned on getting revenge. There was no easy solution to his intense anger, but he took our advice and joined AA. I later edited a story he wrote about the incident, and published it in the AA journal. I like to think it brought him some closure on his loss. The Cephas meeting room was light and airy with windows on three sides. About twenty plastic chairs were arranged in a large circle. As I looked at the volunteers seated in the circle, I thought of their dedication. Inmate faces in the group often changed, but the same volunteers were there every week. Some had been attending meetings for twenty years. They showed far more commitment than we did. Despite our difficulties in getting from our cells to the meeting, it was only a fifteen minute trip for us. Many of the volunteers drove hours to and from Antioch. Once there, they waited, just like we did, to be cleared by the CO's to enter the meeting. Sometimes they received a hostile reception--rudeness, even name calling. I had heard stories of some Officers calling them 'tree-huggers' or 'mud lovers.' We were the mud. Sometimes the volunteers were left waiting, vindictively, in the reception building long after their program was supposed to start. But the volunteers always walked into the meetings with smiles and optimism. I envied their patience. Slowly, the meeting room filled up as inmates from each block arrived. One of the volunteers, Iris, in a denim skirt and white blouse, signaled to get everyone's attention. "Ok, I think everyone's here. I see some new faces. Welcome. Would somebody like to explain what Cephas is, and what the rules are, to the new guys? Billy, you've been coming to the meetings for a while. Why don't you explain to the new guys the history of Cephas?" Billy, just like the word Cephas, was a rock or foundation for the meetings. Incarcerated for over forty years, he had been attending Antioch's Cephas meeting for eighteen of those years. Sitting with one leg crossed and his hands serenely folded over his large belly, he pursed his lips. "Ok, well, let's see. Cephas was started at Attica in 1971, right after the riot there. It was one of the programs that came about in response to prisoner issues. Later, they added the program to other prisons, including here. The meetings are a support group, you know, a place where we can deal with our issues. Like, anger, or loss, being locked up, getting hit at the parole board. Boy, do I know about that." Billy's chin rested on his neck. He had been denied at the parole board twelve times. The guy next to me snorted and muttered, "Motherfuckers." Billy looked up. "We look at the ugly stuff, you know, our actions, the choices we've made. We try to learn from them. There's no easy solutions. You get out of these meetings what you put into them. You gotta do work if you wanna see results." Iris neatened some papers on her lap and flipped back her long, black hair. "Thanks, Billy. Ok, who wants to get started?" She looked around the circle, eyebrows raised. I announced that the meditation class had started up again. The previous instructor had moved to Colorado. I was happy for him, but disappointed the class had ended. Meditation taught me how to release anger. As worry, anxiety, or thoughts of revenge came to mind, I learned to let them go. As they vanished, I caught glimpses of serenity--diaphanous purple clouds that enveloped me. I also learned not to dwell on other's criticisms of me. When someone would say, "You's crazy," or "You's full of shit," I understood those words were merely someone's opinion. I came to see that their rejection was their loss, not mine. Meditation took practice and concentration. It wasn't easy. But it worked. I told the group to just write to the Dep of Programs if they wanted to go. Sitting next to me, a guy in a thin State tee shirt, grayed from laundering, said, "I got an anger problem. Real bad. I got mad time in the box. You think meditation help me?" "I don't know. It taught me to not let others control my thoughts, make me react. Sometimes 'cause a what someone says, you think you gotta do something. But you really don't. Give the class a try. If you don't like it, you don't have to go. It's voluntary." Billy looked into the center of the circle, at the floor, not directing his comments at anyone in particular. His hands were still folded over his belly. The pant cuff of his crossed leg rode high, exposing varicose veins and mottled skin. "I used to let others make me react, you know, push my buttons. I had a real bad temper. Someone would say something slick to me, you know, disrespect me. I could feel the anger surge and take over my body, like, the reaction was so fast. I had no time to think. I was just an observer, you know, watching the events take place. By the time I realized I was out of control, it was too late. I was surrounded by carnage. Things were broken, there was blood all over. I didn't even know whose blood it was. I would go into a blackout." I thought of my first, and only, prison fight. I remembered the events leading up to it, but the actual fight I had no memory of. Only by talking with guys who witnessed it did I find out what happened. My brain had stopped thinking. A guy sitting across from Billy, in a red sweatshirt and a red kufi, said, "Hey, yo, Billy, I ain't never seen you in the box. I just done six months straight in the snake pit. When's the last time you got in a fight?" "Oh, it's been years, lotta years. But it took me a long time to realize I could control myself. I had to change the way I thought. Which was not easy. I had to stop and ask myself, is this really a threat? Is it a threat to me? I mean, is this a threat to my safety, to my well-being? Or am I mad just because someone disagrees with me? Once I learned to think, to answer those questions, before acting, you know, just take a couple of minutes before doing anything, then I saw things differently. I could feel the rage subsiding. I could feel myself returning to normal, you know, my brain thinking logically again." The room was quiet for a moment. Iris readjusted her seat. I wanted to know how Billy learned to rewire his brain. "Billy, lemme ask you something. What brought about that change? How did you learn to do that?" "Hah. That's a good question." Billy uncrossed his leg and leaned forward in his chair with his elbows resting on his knees. "When I was at Auburn, there was this support group--Adult Children of Alcoholics. It was a program the volunteers there set up. It was like AA, but they weren't alcoholics. They all had alcoholic parents. That was a real awaking for me. I realized that my anger came from my childhood, from watching my parents fight, the drunken violence, from the fear, from my frustration with trying to keep my family together. You know, fixing everything. Cookin' and cleanin' when my folks was sleepin' with hangovers, or passed out. But I was just a kid. I couldn't fix everything. I didn't know how." "The room in Auburn was filled with guys who had gone through the same thing. It dawned on me I wasn't crazy. It was my childhood that was crazy. My insane, alcoholic parents." A sadness came over Billy. He fell silent, and stared at the floor. His large ruddy ears and pouty lips made him appear childlike, helpless. Drama, who had been silent and was sitting across from Iris, asked, "Billy, they got a program like that here?" "Nah, it was a special program volunteers had set up in Auburn. I've never seen it at any other facility." I looked around the room at the fifteen guys seated in the circle, wondering how many of them had no idea from where their anger came. Like a fog, it constantly surrounded them, poisoning all who encountered it. I was just beginning to look at my own anger issues through my writing. I had spent over twenty years medicating myself rather than confront my pain. I guzzled vodka and blew coke up my nose until I forgot who I was, forgot the anxiety that pervaded every cell of my body. I was frightened of my feelings, of my anger, of the anger I inherited from my father. Numbed oblivion calmed me, comforted me, making me feel safe. In prison I was unwillingly subjected to sobriety. I was terrified. The intensity of my emotions, in addition to the heinous brutality of my environment, seemed overwhelming. I had no crutch to support me, to dull the pain. Sobriety made the learning curve steep. Because I was fully aware of my emotions I dealt with my problems head on, with a clear mind. With both hand tightly gripped on the steering wheel, I braced for a teeth-rattling ride. In the third year of my incarceration, I found writing about the events smoothed the pavement. It gave me the ability to slow the action and view it from an observer's perspective. Clarity and peace developed. My actions and my choices came into focus. I began to see the sources of my pain, instead of being blinded by their intensity. At Riker's Island, awaiting trial, I played the tapes over and over in my mind, wallowing in my own filth, rubbing my face in the guilt. Once I arrived at Antioch, I joined my first volunteer program--creative writing. The teacher was a college professor who recognized the value, and importance, of prison writing. I began the process of focused writing, reconstructing the details, the dialogue and the actors. Embracing the pain, I accepted it, and the festering wounds, now exposed to air, slowly began to heal. Cephas meetings helped me to look at other issues I had avoided--like my relationship with the word 'no.' That tiny two-letter word infuriated me. I perceived it as a locked door, obstructing my way. I had mentioned during a meeting how mad I would get when Officers burned me on call-outs, preventing me from attending a volunteer program. It usually happened at night. Sometimes the CO simply didn't feel like escorting us to the school building--an exhausting 300 feet (round trip). Some CO's just didn't want to take time away from watching sports on TV to open cell gates. It infuriated me that I was trying to change, as the Department of Correction required me to do before being eligible for parole, yet the DOC, in effect, was blocking my efforts. I sat in my cell fuming. The Quakers offered an anti-violence program called AVP: Alternatives to Violence Project. It was a nationally recognized program offered in prisons from Auburn to San Quentin. I had been on the waiting list for nine months. The day before I was to attend the program, I returned to my cell from work. I had to ask the CO to open my gate. Standing at 'the bubble' waiting to speak with the Officer, I glanced at his name tag. I like to address Officers by their names--Mr. Miller, for example, rather than just "CO." As I stood there, he looked up from his clipboard. "Why you lookin' at my name tag? Don't choo ever look at my name tag! You got me? Where you lock?" I stood there, wide-eyed. "37 cell." "Then lock in, and don't come out!" He didn't open my cell for two days--no AVP, no yard, no chow. I ate ramen instant soups and did crossword puzzles until the regular CO came back to work three days later. I had to wait a year before finally attending AVP. Once there, I realized why the waiting list was so long. It was only a three-day program, but it was an intensive twelve hours per day. The volunteers, some of them Quakers, all of them kind and empathetic, took care of our every need. Sated with food, coffee and donuts, we participated in community building exercises, laughed, and shared our personal stories. We also took a good look at our anger issues, our frustrations, our old habits that led to arguments and fights. Eating, sharing stories, communicating, I felt like I had been adopted by a normal family. Iris glanced at me and said, "John, you look like you're somewhere else. Are you ok? Is there anything going on, anything you want to share?" I stared at her, saying nothing for a few seconds. "Iris, can I ask you a personal question? Well, semi-personal. Why do you come here? Why do you come to Antioch, put up with the aggravation, take time from your life, your family. It's a beautiful thing, what you do. Buy why do you do it?" Iris leaned back in her chair and smiled at me. "That's a fair question. I can answer that. Years ago I had been thinking about getting involved with some kinda community work, non-profits, that kinda thing. I was reading a book about Mother Theresa, and it made a real impact on me. One of the things Mother Theresa said stuck with me. She said 'the problem with the world is we draw the circle of our family too small.' She was fierce, real determined. The book said she absorbed suffering, holding the hands of those dying of starvation, tuberculosis, AIDS. She saw death. And she didn't turn her head. I never really did anything brave. I led a pretty sheltered life. I thought maybe walking into a prison, especially Antioch, would test my courage. I still get a knot in my stomach every time I pass through those big iron gates. Cephas not only tests my courage, but yours too. All you guys. Every time you walk in here, that shows courage. And I draw on your strength. It stays with me long after I leave this meeting." The steel door swung open. An Officer stuck just his head in the room and said, "Go-back." The meeting was over. Smiling, shaking hands, we thanked the volunteers, telling them, "See you next week." We filed out of the room, returning to the bull pen. It was full of guys from other programs, mental health appointments and Parole Officer interviews. I sat on a crowded wood bench. The air was stagnant and fetid. Someone asked, "What's for chow?" A wise guy answered, "State food." As the calm from the Cephas meeting enveloped me, conversations in the bull pen got loud. Guys with self-esteem problems shouted at each other. "Yo, hommie, you's losin' you swag, son." "Yo, quit playin'. I ain't losin' nothin'. I's from the Bronx, son." Facades and masks fell into place. Tough guy images resumed. The same guys that only minutes ago shared their pain now stuffed their feelings. Real change required more than one meeting. Changes in my own behavior took place slowly, over the course of years. Often, others noticed a change before I did. I had been attending AA meetings religiously, twice a week, for three years. I managed to get five years of sobriety under my belt, all while incarcerated. Alcohol was rarely seen in prison, but drugs were widely available. Guys often went to 'the box' for dirty urine's. I had successfully passed numerous urinalyses. That was a big change. I used to break out into a sweat at the mere mention of 'piss test.' But the biggest change I exhibited was in sharing my feelings, talking about what was going on down deep. My father had taught me to keep my mouth shut. Expressing my emotions resulted in swift retribution, usually a slap or a kick. Over the course of my three years in AA, I conquered my fear of opening up. I talked about my drug use, my behavior that led me to prison, and my faults--stubbornness, egotism, and low self-esteem. In AA, we had an expression for that--an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. I laughed, and through tears shared my secrets: lies, deceit, abusive behavior. I admitted I stole pain killers from my mother as she lay dying of cancer. I revealed my HIV status, learning that exposing secrets took away their power. However, not all the inmates in the programs were seeking change. Some were just looking to continue their sick behavior. Some had their own private agendas. As my participation in volunteer programs increased, so did my visibility and authority. I was elected to service board positions in AA: co-chairman, editor of the newsletter. My dependability led me to become influential with outside volunteers and civilian staff who coordinated the programs. I was invited to the volunteer recognition dinner each year, a catered affair packed with volunteers and administration officials. But as my influence increased, I became a target for those who were envious. At first, I dismissed the idea that guys would be jealous of what little I had. I was subject to the same rules, and abuse, as others. I got screamed at and burnt on call-outs just like everyone. I thought it ludicrous that guys would be jealous of my involvement in the same programs in which they could participate. But I had to learn the hard way that guys who had little of value on the streets placed great value on things I took for granted--a good vocabulary, a nice smile, acceptance by my peers. The image I presented--organized and confident--was perceived as a threat by those with self-esteem issues. When my co-workers first explained this to me, I laughed. "The way I talk? I gotta change the way I talk?" "My shirt, somebody's jealous of my tee-shirt?" I thought that was silly. I learned otherwise. At the center where I worked a facilitator was fired. I was blamed for his termination simply because I was influential and well-liked by the staff--the implication being I was a rat. The nonsense got even crazier. A fellow member of AA sent a 'kite,' a jailhouse letter, to the AA staff adviser. In it, I was accused of leaking information shared at a meeting to a district attorney. I was labelled a jailhouse snitch, and with the snow ball rolling, administration officials were warned my life was threatened. The advisor had no choice but to remove me from the meetings for my safety. The validity of the accusations was irrelevant. At the first AA meeting I missed, another member was elected to my position as newsletter editor. He had been a frequent critic of the newsletter, having run against me before, and lost. I was bitter. I had developed the newsletter from a one-page mimeographed sheet into a respected, and popular, journal. Rumors about me spread throughout the jail. Guys that used to see me in programs, smile at me, and bump fists, now averted their gaze. At times, I was greeted by icy stares. While I wasted much time ruminating about who could by my unnamed enemy, I eventually resigned myself to moving on. As I sat on my bunk at night, stewing, I could see the chapel through the barred openings of my cell. The chapel doors were open, indicating an AA meeting was taking place. The broad arched windows glowed softly. Narrow black mullions, outlining panes of translucent glass, formed a thin latticework. As my fellow addicts congregated in the chapel, I fantasized about revenge. How could they have done this to me? Which ones spoke against me? But as the anger slowly subsided, my own words came back to me--advice I often gave out while teaching my orientation class, guys just arriving at Antioch. "It's all about change. Embrace it, don't fight it. Nothing is permanent." How annoying, what a blow to the ego, to know the answer, but be blind to it. All the volunteer programs were geared to teach us how to deal with change. Sure, it's uncomfortable, aggravating, maddening. But if I could just let go, and surrender, I would find lambent glimpses of serenity in acceptance. In meditation class, the instructor often told us, "Suffering is caused by the desire, wanting things we don't have, or hanging on to things we do have, and don't want to lose. That's foolish, because eventually, all of it vanishes. If you can accept that loss now, you will be free of suffering." It was impractical to try to hang on to anything in prison. What little property I held, a few canvas sacks of 'things,' I retained at the State's discretion. One infraction could result in the loss of all of it. My prison job, the programs I attended, the positions I held in those programs, they were all temporary, fleeting things. The clothing I wore: State property, I thought of Viktor Frankl imprisoned in Auschwitz, stripped naked by his Nazi jailers--his family, his reading glasses, even his gold filled teeth, taken away from him. Yet, he never gave up, turning his suffering into wisdom and strength. He didn't let his circumstances defeat him. He adapted, and conquered, declaring, "The last of human freedoms is the ability to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances." I continue to support volunteer programs, generating interest about them in the orientation class I teach, getting guys in my block to attend. But it's a struggle. Many guys try programs for a while, but give up in frustration, fed up with the hassles from guards, and intransigence on the part of the administration. I try to help in other ways. As word got in my block that I was an aspiring prison writer, a few guys came to me for help with their own writing. They had tried attending the prison's creative writing class, but couldn't due to its limited size. I edited their works and encouraged them to persevere, sharing what I had learned from the volunteer who taught the class, a professor at a private college. I found it rewarding when guys took my writing advice and incorporated it into their work. I struggled with my own writing. We sometimes took our work to the yard, forming a picnic table of inmates with pens and writing pads. I fancied us at the Algonquin Round Table, trading quips and barbs, filling the air with smoke and profanity. On the days when my energy waned, they motivated me to keep going, slogging it out, one word at a time. Examining my white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, I reconsidered my fight to control my journey. Letting go, I resolved to explore the path ahead, and accept what came my way. After sixteen months on the waiting list, I was offered a cell in the honor block, a privilege for those who had avoided trouble. I had been hesitant to apply for the move because I had no idea what it would be like. Once I made the move, I was relieved. Afforded more freedom, I now spend less time in volunteer programs, and more time in solitude--reflecting, writing, and meditating. An essay I wrote about my life on the streets gave me some clarity on the events that led me to prison. I plant basil and oregano in the honor block garden. With the herbs I make tomato sauce using the recipe my Italian grandmother taught me on her white-enameled Hobart stove. As I pour thick garlicky sauce over rigatoni al dente, I practice mindfulness--being present in the moment, accepting what is. I try not to label events as either good, or bad. I try to accept them as they are with no judgement. August, 2010

Author: Faiello, Dean A.

Author Location: New York

Date: August 2010

Genre: Essay

Extent: 14 pages

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