When my roommate, Oatmeal wakes up and climbs down from the top bunk, I am shaken into a squeaking morning alacrity. The lights have been turned on in the common area, and I reach under my pillow for my watch and make squinty eyes at it. Seven. I am meeting Sara at Indoor Rec for yoga in half an hour.
Morning unit activity is a discord of its own relentless style. The restroom now echoes running showers, hairdryers, and “How you gonna leave water all over the sink like that? Your momma ain’t here. You in prison!”

What? We are where? In prison? For a minute there I forgot that I didn’t actually forget where I am. For a minute there, I forgot that it was not at all possible to forget where I am. No, I didn’t. I didn’t forget. How could I? God, I am so fucking sick of hearing inmates telling other inmates You in prison!  I mean really. I know. Everyone knows.

More room lights flicker on and lockers clank open and slam shut, combination locks, twist tictictic open then ticlunk shut and spin to hit the steel. Slam. Beds are being made, grey blankets tight and tucked. Over not under the pillow or else. Even if you don’t have to go to work you have to get dressed, full uniform, bed made. A few khaki bodies are already curled on top of tip top tight bunks

“Attention in the unit. Morning pill line is now open.” The loudspeaker cuts through the clatter like the operatic solo in a torturous underworld tragedy. Several hurry toward the door and out to Medical for their meds in a cup with a sip of water and then tongue out and up and ahhhhh and yes I swallowed it, even though there will still be contraband Seroquel for sale later on. The speaker continues its calls for Inmate So and So to report here and another to report to another place and lots of action ASAP. Always ASAP. Not, A.S.A.P. Never the acronym. Always the word. ASAP. In all caps because it is always shouted, and just a little louder than the rest of the shouted announcement. “Report to the Lieutenant’s Office! ASAP!”

Microwaves heat margarine-smeared honeybuns and instant oatmeal packets. The robot sigh of the hot water dispenser is steam out, shift gears, water in, steam out, sigh. A motley crew of attitudes line up to add water to plastic mugs ready with Folgers Instant, chocolate or tea. I am in that line with my own red and white mug, a cheap plastic abomination that looks like something I would get for an extra dollar at the gas station to save in the long run on Big Gulps. My disdain is painful, but thirty-two ounces of caffeine is the perennial start to my day and porcelain with a powdery matte finish is not an option.

I brew my Bigelow Tea variety pack, like I like to eat Skittles, in a very specific order. Earl Grey first, English Breakfast next, Constant Comment third. I trade the Peppermint with the woman across the catwalk who cuts my hair. She loves the peppermint and hates Earl Gray. We do these deals. We go room to room to do these deals. “Hey, know anyone who wants to make a trade?” Nothing goes to waste here. There is always someone who has nothing. I am down to my third to last Constant Comment this morning and make a mental note to make a list when I get back upstairs to my room, with my hot tea, which is exactly two teabags and two heaping spoonfuls of nonfat dry milk with one packet of Splenda. Stirred eleven times to the right, and eleven times to the left, and an estimated fifteen calories, which I will also write down in my little notebook that I carry around for keeping track of eating. And to make lists. Like what I need to add to my commissary sheet, new vocabulary words, workouts, Things To Do while I am here as well as Things To Do when I get out. Movies to rent, books to read, music to acquire, parenting ideas…things I read about in magazines, stuff. I have a lot of lists. My notebook is one of my lifelines.

I repeat “teabags” in my mind as I stir right and then left and walk back up the stairs that lead to the catwalk that leads to my room, trying very hard to not make eye contact. And I don’t. It’s a little game I play with myself to see if I can get there and back with no interaction. Friendliness invites invasion and I am cautious about these things. I make it to my room where Oatmeal is now gone, Boobs is probably in the shower and Peaches has made her bed and gone back to sleep in full uniform on top of it.

Weekdays here are called Programming Hours. Programming Hours, of course, refer to the time that the “programs” that have been  instituted to “rehabilitate” are active. And by “rehabilitate” I mean, project a façade that such things as rehabilitation happen here, contrary to recidivism statistics. However innocuous the aphorism may sound, it  still sits very Orwellian with me. If you met anyone who has been here for ten or more years, you would totally understand what I mean. It is little challenge to spot-on tell if someone has been down a long time by their obsessions with, most predominately but not limited to, floor wax and ironing.

The phenomenon of prison style dictates ironing deep creases in shirts, pants, pajamas, sometimes even sheets and towels. One of many ritual attempts to bring a sense of order to this bizarre world. Survival Tactics. Creasing becomes art. Becomes couture. Becomes culture. Love is boiled down to the ability to muscle polyester into a stiff, knife-edge pleat. Women risk The Hole by stealing sugar for homemade fabric starch. Irons and ironing boards turn dark and sticky with years of caramelized starching. Iron clothes. Iron will. Iron shackles, fetters, chains and handcuffs.

The Long Timers, the repeat offenders and the mindless followers who actually aspire to a mastery of prison culture, approach a tidy floor shine with equal compulsion, often buying floor wax off the contraband market, hiding it in Downy Fabric Softener bottles and seeing to it with a kind of reverence for the sacred, that a coat or two goes on each week. On the floor, and sometimes, for good measure, on the window sills, chair and wooden desk. Waxing. Ironing. Programming.

As much as I loathe this new language, and am righteous in my suspicion of its ineffectual nature, I use it whenever I can, in facetious fashion. For example, “Should I write this letter during or after programming hours?” and “This weekend has felt far too long. Sure will be nice to get back to programming hours.”  Semantics aside, it does keep everyone busy. Like a workday. These “programs” make the time seem structured and keep everyone moving. We even get paid for our “jobs”. Starting salary is twelve cents per hour.

I have to insist that words like “jobs” and “programs” and “rehabilitation” really do require all of these quotation marks. When I use these words in  this context, they are a weak facsimile of their intended meaning and no confusion is intended between them and the scads of signs around the compound that use these poor little marks, not to emaciate the meaning of words, but to “emphasize!” them.

Officer Maestas: “Unit Manager.”
Phone calls “15 minutes.”
Be “Quiet” in “Study” Areas.
I really “hate” it here.

I work for the education/recreation department grading tests for college level classes, teaching yoga, and occasionally before “Regional” comes to visit, I clean someone’s office. Filing, hole punching, and inserting things into three ring binders so that when said “officials” arrive, they can easily see whether or not the facades of the “programs” are still in place. The three-ring binders are the proof. Programs are determined successful by the proper alphabetizing of documentation in  a three-ring binder. A three ring binder in a three ring… circus.

Mostly, my job consists of sitting in the library, writing letters, reading magazines, and making lists. And since the yoga classes that I teach are in the evening, I am not required to be “on duty” until after lunch, which means I have the morning hours free to go to Indoor Rec with Sara and practice yoga. It took me seven months to work into this job. I paid my dues mowing grass, shoveling dirt, and washing garbage cans. After two raises, I make forty nine cents per hour and am one pay grade away from maxed out. One grade from the equivalent of being in the highest tax bracket on compound. The coveted Grade One pay grade is seventy nine cents per hour. My paycheck almost, but not quite, pays for my phone time each month. I rely heavily on the generosity of friends and family for shampoo, notebooks and tea. Asking for money is not easy. I am fortunate to have enough.

Because of yoga, getting dressed in the morning, like many simple acts here, is more complicated than it should be. I read recently that rehabilitation is achieved despite of, not because of our prison system. I couldn’t agree more.

See, in order to get the door unlocked so we can get into Indoor Rec where we will have access to yoga videos, we have to actually go inside the Education building, find the officer, and let him know we are ready. The problematic factor is that to enter the Education building during programming hours you have to be in uniform. Khaki button-up shirt, khaki elastic-waisted pants, black shoes. But to practice yoga, obviously, we want to wear sweats. We are not allowed to change clothes in public spaces and the only bathroom is in the Education building (where we are not to be out of uniform). Restrooms in the indoor rec building are forbidden. Too much privacy.

The fact that we go through this every morning would make anyone with a sense of efficacy think of radical ideas like: How about someone meet us out there with a key, or how about just have the building unlocked every morning at 7:30? But there are rules, systems, and a variety of people who interpret them.
You get the picture.

Or you are completely lost, in which case, you are really getting the feel of this place.

So I pull on my thinnest pair of commissary gray shorts and thinnest tee shirt, and over that, my baggiest khaki shirt and pants. Once I get into the room I can peel off my top layer and voila I’m in my grays with no real breaking of laws. Sara and I have decided to take turns doing the honors. Today is me.
I pass Ms. Maestas: “Unit Manager’s” office and push open the heavy glass door to the fall morning, still warm, still humid. The enormous Texas sky is cream and silver and silk and, for me, an infusion of life. It’s omnipresent and continually reminds me that there is still beauty, that my little boy and I are connected somehow by the ephemeral brushstrokes of this wide Texas sky. I want to inhale it. I want to fit this whole sky inside my lungs.

I want to go home.

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Meg Worden is a mother, master of complications and manifestor of abundance. She has been a columnist for the Lovely County Citizen in Eureka Springs AR and placed first for Ascent Magazine’s text writing contest in 2008. Meg believes a sense of humor is far more important than a sense of direction and knows for a fact she can laugh wildly amidst severest woe. Currently Meg is living in Portland, OR where she stays up late at night working on her memoir project about the two years she spent in Federal Prison. Find her at megworden.com

37 responses to “Programming Hours”

  1. Solar says:

    One posting is simply not enough. I want to fall into your book for days, for weeks. I want to fall into your life forever.

  2. Solar says:

    And all of it but especially this: The loudspeaker cuts through the clatter like the operatic solo in a torturous underworld tragedy.

  3. Uche Ogbuji says:

    “combination locks, twist tictictic open then ticlunk shut and spin to hit the steel. Slam.”

    “Creasing becomes art. Becomes couture. Becomes culture.”

    Love the evocative expressions. I may not want it to take me there, but it does.

    • Meg Worden says:

      Thanks so much, Uche. Glad I could take you there without you actually having to go. It’s no place for people. No sir.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    The robot-sigh of the kettle was perfect phrasing, Meg; I often wonder about whether these stories of your past will come to light on TNB, and how they’ll sound if and when they do.

    Boobs? Really? That was something that happened? I’m busy digesting the rest, but this was something that stood out to ask about.

    Boobs? That was a name?

    • Meg Worden says:

      Ha! Thank you, Simon. It is taking me some time to get things up here…with all the moving and transitioning, ugh. Writing has been hard. And it’s never easy broadcasting some of this stuff, you know? But it’s coming, Friend. It’s all going to come out….soon. 🙂

      Yes. Boobs is a real person. But, the clincher is, we didn’t call her Boobs to her face. Peaches was Peaches to her face. Oatmeal was a nickname that she was probably unaware of. I used these names, of course, to protect the guilty. There is a lot more where this story came from and I do go into the explanation of the names….but maybe Boobs is obvious??

  5. Captivating post, Meg. I have so many questions, but have a feeling that I should wait for the book.

    Until then, I’m going back and reading all of your other posts in hopes of catching up.

    • Meg Worden says:

      Megan, that is so nice. Thank you. There is a lot to this story and not much is on tnb…yet. The book is happening but may take awhile.
      Glad you liked it. 🙂

  6. Zara Potts says:

    Fabulous post, Meg. I was absorbed with every word.

    I love your use of onamatapaeic language and the gorgeous alliterative phrasing, as Uche said above – your use of language transports us into so many different places.

    What a wonderful taster.. can’t wait for more.

  7. Meg Worden says:

    So encouraging, Zara. Thank you, thank you.

  8. Judy Prince says:

    Meg, you’ve convinced me that I’d be babbling-insane within a week at prison. Even floor wax and clothes starch wouldnae be enough to save my brain. But, wait a minute, your lists—–yes, lists would save me!

    BTW, it was these two paragraphs following that convinced me of the nuttiness that’d descend upon me, that any logical, pragmatic action would be strangled in its babyhood:

    “See, in order to get the door unlocked so we can get into Indoor Rec where we will have access to yoga videos, we have to actually go inside the Education building, find the officer, and let him know we are ready. The problematic factor is that to enter the Education building during programming hours you have to be in uniform. Khaki button-up shirt, khaki elastic-waisted pants, black shoes. But to practice yoga, obviously, we want to wear sweats. We are not allowed to change clothes in public spaces and the only bathroom is in the Education building (where we are not to be out of uniform). Restrooms in the indoor rec building are forbidden. Too much privacy.”

    “The fact that we go through this every morning would make anyone with a sense of efficacy think of radical ideas like: How about someone meet us out there with a key, or how about just have the building unlocked every morning at 7:30? But there are rules, systems, and a variety of people who interpret them. You get the picture.”

    I loved the poetic: “A motley crew of attitudes line up to add water . . . . . .” Wonderful.

    • Meg Worden says:

      Thanks, Judy, for your generous comments. Love hearing from you. Yes, indeed, prison is devoid of all logic. It is no place for cognitive reasoning and is a daily practice in accepting the asinine. There are so many levels of ineffectiveness here and so very many levels of the way it affects, both going in and then again having to return to the “outside”.
      Oddly, maybe it’s just the writer in me, while it was horrifying for so much of the time and for so many reasons, it was a fascinating experience and one I wouldn’t change for anything.
      I am glad I know how unwell our US “Justice” system is functioning. And in the low security camp I was housed…well, I really don’t even know the worst of it.
      I’m also grateful everyday that Im no longer there.

      • Judy Prince says:

        I’d love to know your recommendations for changing the system, Meg.

        • Meg Worden says:

          I wouldn’t really know where to begin, Judy…these systems are so intertwixed there is no easy answer. The shifts are in education, healthcare and mores. I use the word shift lightly. Revolution is probably more accurate. We have had a war on drugs for so many years that has swelled our institutions and done nothing to actually curb drug use. All of the statistics around this are dizzying to my right brain. I tend to see the answer as an internal shift that radiates outward..
          So while that may all sound cop-out-ish. Maybe having been through this I would be expected to harbor big ideas and be out trying to make changes in the system, but that isn’t the case. I spend most of my energy trying to stay balanced after years of wide pendulum swings and making every effort to hold those lines steady for my child.
          Maybe just telling my story will be the light I am able to shine on this subject, maybe it will shift a few paradigms.
          Maybe. Maybe I don’t even care. I write it because Im still trying to organize the events in my own brain. I’d be lying if I said my motives were altruistic. I just need to turn it into a story. If it gave new perspective to someone else, that would be icing.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Megan, the “war on drugs” is a politician’s dream issue; it always gets votes and funding, despite the stats, as you mention. But that’s only one prob in the mix of several, as you also point out (education, healthcare, mores) and even more could be added.

          Your getting and maintaining balance, in my opinion, trumps every other action requiring energy expenditure.

          I remember a friend telling me of a major auto accident which left him severely disabled, and his having to go to an assisted living home where he was by far the youngest of all the patients. He stayed there several months, and what he and others experienced made him weep. Upon his release, he said at times he felt guilty for not throwing himself into righting the wrongs he’d witnessed and undergone, but he was trying to gather together the former threads of his life in order to live as a full human being and not a shattered one.

          Healing spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically happens in its own organic way, unique to each person. Individuals’ strengths come from different sources and at different times. It seems to me that paramount in each person’s group of needs is the need to feel worthwhile and worthy. Writing often fulfills those needs. It does for me, and it looks as if it does for you, as well. Thank God for it!

        • Meg Worden says:

          This is key. And nearly impossible for most of the people that enter the institutions somewhere on the shattered spectrum. Incarceration does nothing to rehabilitate, rather it robs what survival skills one may have and replaces them only with the tools to live in the institution. No surprise most end up in the proverbial revolving door.

          Here is the most awful observation I have about the whole experience (and I have so many): Getting out is even harder than going in.

          Writing does provide that nourishment for me as well. It gives me voice where I haven’t always had one. Now that I have started….it’s taken on a life of it’s own.

          So glad you’re here, Judy.

        • Meg Worden says:

          “…trying to gather together the former threads of his life in order to live as a full human being and not a shattered one.”

          This quote didn’t show up at the top of my reply…it’s what I was referring to as key.
          xo

        • Judy Prince says:

          My friend’s experience and reaction helped me to get a keener understanding of your reactions to your experiences, Meg.

          What you say, next, really made me stop and contemplate The Penal System very differently from my usual ways:

          “Incarceration does nothing to rehabilitate, rather it robs what survival skills one may have and replaces them only with the tools to live in the institution. No surprise most end up in the proverbial revolving door.”

          “Here is the most awful observation I have about the whole experience (and I have so many): Getting out is even harder than going in.”

          Because of your writing this post, I’m feeling so much hope for the difficulties you describe, Meg. Your post has brought awareness for us, different views of the problems and solutions. In his “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley wrote: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” [I’m going to expand that to include writers of other genre, naturally.] 😉 Others have noted that writers have more power than legislators.

          On a related matter, I recall reading about the Quaker Englishwoman Elizabeth Fry who was instrumental in prison reform throughout Europe, was the first woman to give evidence in Parliament, and whose portrait, since 2002, appears on Great Britain’s five-pound notes. Following is a brief timeline of her life from a 2002 BBC article, its URL next:

          http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/1998863.stm

          “Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer:

          •1780 Born 21 May in Norwich, England to a Quaker banking family

          •1800 Marries London merchant Joseph Fry, a member of the Quaker chocolate-making dynasty

          •1813 Visits Newgate Gaol. Disgusted by the conditions, Fry campaigns for reform

          •1817 Founds association to help women inmates, calling for the sexes to be separated and female warders

          •1845 Dies at Ramsgate having brought about penal reform across Europe”

          —–

          An online Quaker source gives the following narrative about Fry’s visit to the infamous Newgate Gaol, and after:

          “In 1812 she wrote in her diary ‘I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose’. Not long afterwards, Stephen Grellet came to see her to ask for help. He was a French aristocrat who had gone into exile because of the French Revolution. In America he had become a Quaker. While visiting Britain he had been given permission to visit some prisons, and had been horrified by the conditions he had seen in the women’s prison in Newgate. He found prisoners lying on the bare stone floors, and some newborn babies without clothing. He went to Elizabeth Fry, who immediately sent out for warm material and asked other women Friends to help her make clothes for the babies.”

          “The next day she went with her sister-in-law to Newgate prison. At first the turnkeys did not want to let her in as the women prisoners were wild and savage, but physical danger did not frighten her, in the way that public speaking and audiences did. Elizabeth and her sister-in-law did go in, and were very shocked at the conditions they found there – particularly when they saw two women stripping the clothes off a dead baby to give them to another child. They gave out the warm clothes for the babies and comforted the ill prisoners. Next day they returned with more warm clothes and with clean straw for the sick to lie on. On a third visit she prayed for the prisoners, who were moved by her sincere words of love for them.”

          “Although she could not forget what she had seen in Newgate, she was unable to visit it for another four years for family reasons, including the financial difficulties of the Fry bank, the birth of two more children and the death of their daughter Betsy, aged four. Eventually she returned before Christmas in 1816. When she went in some of the women were fighting, and the turnkeys thought she would be in real danger. She went in calmly and, picking up a child, asked the mothers ‘Is there not something we can do for these innocent little children?’ She spoke to them as a mother herself, without fear. The women prisoners recognised her concern for them and began to listen. She suggested they might start a school for the children to give them a better chance in life. The prisoners suggested one of themselves to be the teacher and went on discussing the plan after she had gone. When she returned the next day she found a waiting crowd who had tried to tidy and clean the prison and themselves.”

          “Elizabeth tried to get backing for her prison school, but her wealthy brothers-in-law who she turned to at first did not think it could work. Then she turned to women and set up a committee of twelve women – eleven Quakers and the wife of a clergyman. With her husband’s help she invited the prison governor and other officials to discuss her plan. At first the governor did not think her plan could work, but then he attended a Meeting at the prison and was so impressed with the behaviour of the women prisoners that he agreed to the school.”

          “The Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate not only organised a school for the children, they arranged for a woman to be appointed as matron to supervise the prisoners, and promised to pay her wages. They also provided materials so that the prisoners could sew, knit and make goods for sale, in order to buy food, clothing and fresh straw for bedding. They took it in turns to visit the prison each day and to read from the Bible, believing that hearing the Bible had the power to reform people. When they applied to the Corporation of London for funding for the school, the Lord Mayor of London came to hear Elizabeth reading the Bible to the prisoners, and he agreed to pay part of the matron’s wages.”

          “This was the start of a period of Elizabeth Fry’s life when she had extraordinary influence for a woman of her day. In 1818 she was asked to give evidence to a Committee of the House of Common on London prisons, the first woman to do so. Her experience of Quaker Business Meetings meant she was able to give her evidence clearly and well. She described in detail the lives of the prisoners, and recommended that women, not men, should look after women prisoners, and stressed her belief in the importance of useful employment.”

          “One area where she made important changes was in the treatment of prisoners sentenced to transportation to the colonies. One day in 1818 when she visited the prison she found some of the prisoners were about to riot because the next day they would be taken in ‘irons’ (hand- and ankle-cuffs and chains), on open wagons, to the ships that would carry them to Australia. Elizabeth Fry arranged for them to be taken in closed carriages to protect them from the stones and jeers of the crowds, and promised to go with them to the docks. In the five weeks before the ships actually sailed, the ladies of the Association visited daily, and provided each prisoner with a ‘useful bag’ of things the prisoners would need. They made patchwork quilts on the voyage, which were sold on arrival to provide some income. During the next twenty years she regularly visited the convict ships: in all 106 came under her care.”
          ——————–

          Here’s the URL for the entire piece:

          http://www2.gol.com/users/quakers/fry.htm

          Thanks for allowing me to go off on tangents—–and outrageously looooong ones, Meg!

          Judy snowbound in Norfolk, VA……

        • Meg Worden says:

          This is really interesting stuff, Judy. Thank you for the links.
          The quakers were instrumental in prison reform…yet, as happens with many (maybe all) good ideas that continue unchecked in a single direction…their penitentiary (places of penance – where thay believed people would be treated humanely and given the opportunity for silence, prayer and reform) are what we now have.

          While inmates are given beds, food, plumbing and the right to practice religions…there is some fundamental piece missing. Or many fundamental pieces.

          Many spiritual traditions call for abolitionism. It is unnatural for humans to wield power and determine the fate of others. How can we possibly decide who gets to decide? You should meet some of the Correctional Officers at these places. It’s mind-bending who is in charge.

          Have you heard of the famous Stanford U prison experiment by Phillip Zimbardo?
          Check this out…
          http://www.prisonexp.org/
          There is also a documentary (29min) on youtube.
          http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=677084988379129606#

          This is an incredible experiment using regular students randomly chosen to play the parts of prisoners and guards. The experiment had to be called off after only six days due to cruelty and abuse by the “guards”.

          So we are back to square on in finding any real answers on how to deal with the very very small portion of people who are actually a menace to society – who desperately need compassion, though may actually not be able to safely be a part of society. Because any kind of real prison reform would actually free the majority of those incarcerated for non violent crimes, as well as so many of the drug related murders that are so common (where both parties are shooting at one another and one ends up dead and the other in prison – this is an almost random selection deciding on who is “victim” and who is the “murderer”.

          Revolutions in education, healthcare, nutrition, etc… would change people and elevate society, of course. But we need a profound shift in the way humans view themselves, their personal identity and their true place on the spectrum of humanity.
          For we are not so different. We all have the potential to be the best and the most heinous people. We are far more fluid than people would like to believe, far more intangible than our need for attachment allows us to experience.
          Illusions can be protections for those that just aren’t ready to comprehend the hugeness of their being.
          So much the need to protect these deeply held versions of self by compartmentalizing others.

          I am not like that.
          I would never do something like that.
          That is an evil that must be punished, eradicated, hidden.
          I stand in judgement over what I am terrified I may become.

          Ok. I feel like just hopping a plane eastward so we can have a really animated, all-night, conversation with you. What a wonderful brain and kind soul you have, Judy.
          Someday, we meet.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Wow, Meg, your comment lays bare the essentials of penal reform, psychology and ethics—–and those essentials deserve and need much holding to the light like gemstones, to reveal their facets, colours and markings, and what created them.

          I can’t help but merge some of Reno J Romero’s comments (see his current “Friends” TNB post) about the Trickster with some of your observations about human nature.

          The closest I’ve gotten to incarceration was in Immigration Detention in the UK 3 years ago. Once they’d taken away all of my belongings, wallet and credit cards, and they closed that heavy door, I began to “get” how superficial was my “self” as understood by me and observed by others. I had no power over my life beginning at that moment. Thankfully, I was only detained for 6 hours, allowed to stay in England to see Rodent for 2 days, and then deported back to the USA. I won’t forget those feelings of incarceration and the de-person’ing of Judy. As soon as I got on the airplane (escorted by an immigration official), I took out my little notebook and began to write. Friends in the States were shocked at the story I emailed to them later. Several, apologetically, wondered what I’d done to deserve detention and deportation. And, though I know I did nothing to “deserve” those punishments, I had/have no legal recourse to clear my record.

          I now think that there is no thing I would not do in order to be “free”. You can see, then, that I of course agree with you that we each are not static beings; we change and respond in infinite ways to the inevitable challenges we meet—-and our responses are not always “good” or “kind” or “nice.”

          Above all, though, I feel it’s incumbent upon us to help others sort out and overcome their challenges, so many which could be avoided if we aimed at reform in the areas you note so wisely. …….”Survival of the spirit,” as one of my friends said when asked the purpose of poetry. We’ve a fantastic lot of opportunities to effect change, to tend to the survival of the spirit in each person.

          I’ve been significantly touched by your incisive conclusions and your writing, and would love to see them unfold. I’d love, as well, a free-roaming conversation with you in person as you suggest, but barring that, let’s keep a dialogue going on TNB in whatever ways that present themselves so that anyone can jump into the discussion. Let’s see where it takes us.

        • Meg Worden says:

          Immigration detention sounds like a helluva story, Judy. It is a strange and paralytic feeling to first realize you are, perhaps, not at all who you think you are. To be faces with your “naked exsistence” as Victor Frankel calls it.
          Have you read “Man’s Search For Meaning””
          While Victor Frankel had to endure a kind of hell in the concentration camps that I cannot even begin to comprehind – in fact there is a part of this book where he and some other inmates see a chain gang of actual criminal prisoners and are longing to be so lucky – he does a terrific job of teasing out the psychology of incarceration.
          How it takes the mind a good chunk of time to actually accept these bizarre circumstances of profound identity loss.

          And what is the trigger, the key that releases some out into the world with bitterness and heavy rage, while others exit with the impetus to be more radiant than before.

          Ah, humanity.

          You, too, have and continue to inspire me. You have a great gift for bringing out the best in a conversation.
          xo

        • Judy Prince says:

          I’m glad you called to mind Victor Frankel’s *Man’s Search for Meaning,” Meg. I’d read it years ago and thought Frankel one of humankind’s spiritual heroes. I’m eager to reread it, especially those parts in which, as you say, “he does a terrific job of teasing out the psychology of incarceration.”

          You had previously mentioned the Zimbardo experiment in which students assigned the role of “guards” inevitably became abusive to those in the role of prisoners. I seem to recall a somewhat similar conclusion in an experiment aiming to find which gender was more dominant. Role-playing “teacher” and “student,” the subjects, no matter which gender, behaved dominantly if they were the “teacher” and submissive if they were the “student.” What I found fascinating, as well, was that “teachers” paid little attention to the individuality of their “students,” whereas “students” carefully picked up on the personalities and behaviour of their “teachers.” This phenomenon occurs in minority/majority populations; that is, minorities well understand the habits and disposition of members of the majority population because it is a matter of survival to them, whereas majorities know much less about individual minority members.

          Searching for the teacher-student experiment, I came upon this and was immediately drawn in, Meg. It synopses Peggy Reeves Sanday’s book *Female Power and Male Dominance* (Cambridge University Press, 1982):

          “In this book, Professor Peggy Sanday provides a ground-breaking examination of power and dominance in male-female relationships. How does the culturally approved interaction between the sexes originate? Why are women viewed as a necessary part of political, economic, and religious affairs in some societies but not in others? Why do some societies clothe sacred symbols of creative power in the guise of one sex and not of the other? Professor Sanday offers solutions to these cultural puzzles by using cross-cultural research on over 150 tribal societies. She systematically establishes the full range of variation in male and female power roles and then suggests a theoretical framework for explaining this variation. Rejecting the argument of universal female subordination, Professor Sanday argues that male dominance is not inherent in human relations but is a solution to various kinds of cultural strain. Those who are thought to embody, be in touch with, or control the creative forces of nature are perceived as powerful. In isolating the behavioural and symbolic mechanisms which institute male dominance, professor Sanday shows that a people’s secular power roles are partly derived from ancient concepts of power, as exemplified by their origin myths. Power and dominance are further determined by a people’s adaptation to their environment, social conflict, and emotional stress. This is illustrated through case studies of the effects of European colonialism, migration, and food stress, and supported by numerous statistical associations between sexual inequity and various cultural stresses.”

          Delighted that you’re continuing our discussion, Meg, or “interruptions,” as one of my friends once called her and my conversations! HA! I love it!

  9. your startling choice of language and phrasing evokes image after image, flashes of light bursts like when you squeeze your eyes shut really tight…. stunning.

  10. Art Edwards says:

    What an amazing window into prison life, Megan. I’m captivated, curious, maybe a little scared.

    Are we getting more of this on 1/30?

    Art

    • Meg Worden says:

      Thanks, Art. The experience was all of those things as well. Captivating, curious and frightening.

      I haven’t made a final decision what Ill be reading on 1/30…but I’m definitely leaning toward a prison story. I’m looking forward to it and meeting you in person.

  11. Tom Hansen says:

    I freaking love this piece. Very nice writing. I especially love the herky jerky rhythm of the prose, the mix of short and long sentences. This is the kind of writing that makes me keep reading even if the story were to be about something I had no interest in. Bravo

    • Meg Worden says:

      Thank you, thank you, Tom. Glad I could keep your interest. 🙂

      • Tom Hansen says:

        No sweat. I didn’t mean to infer that prison life is not of interest to me, because it is. What I meant was the piece could have been about sports (well, maybe not sports, but just about anything else) and I would keep reading because the prose is so cool.

  12. Gloria says:

    Ah, Meg. I finally read. I’m so glad this ball bounced. Thank you for posting this. The last paragraph chocked me up.

    Your writing is gorgeous. You’re a gorgeous writer, Meg. Don’t stop. Even if you slow down, don’t stop.

  13. Meg Worden says:

    Thanks G. It hasn’t fully rebounded. This one came out during the dusting project…but worked just fine to reconnect me to this wonderfully supportive community. And it will bounce. Im feeling far more confident of that.

    Thank you, Gloria. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Even though it’s so hard to get together, Im so glad we are only a couple of miles apart. 🙂

  14. Awesome piece!

    It was a trip to see this up here. I just started working on a (hopefully) TNB piece about my very different experiences with the local maximum security facility.

    I have so many questions. But perhaps I should just wait to read more…

  15. Meg Worden says:

    Tyler, This is an interesting coincidence. I look forward to reading your story.

    I have a pretty good sized chunk of this story written and probably will be submitting more of it to tnb….but am also feeling a major rewrite coming on when life slows after my last move. So right now…I don’t know whats coming next.
    There are so many layers.
    So. Many. Fucking. Layers.

    I am totally up for questions.
    Let’s talk.

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