While I was working in a research laboratory at Stanford, my advisor mentioned that she was waiting for a package from ________.
“Oh, we got something from him,” said our technician John, “but it was just an Invitrogen catalog. Their rep brought us a newer copy last week, so I threw it out.”
“What!” my advisor shouted, causing him to jump. “Which trash can?!”
She and John rooted through the garbage together. Luckily the package had arrived that day. The now-gooey catalog (I was smashing a lot of cow brains in those days, and the bleached muck went into the trash) was still there.
We didn’t need another Invitrogen catalog. But it’s illegal to ship DNA through the mail, so researchers often smuggle it by dotting some onto paper then circling the spot. When you receive DNA this way, you cut out the circle, dip it in water, and then add bacteria.
The bacteria make more copies of your DNA. Antibiotics kill off any bacteria that aren’t helping. And the U.S. post office is none the wiser.
Then you can throw out the useless catalog.
I’ve been volunteering with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners project for about a decade. We ship books to people who would be otherwise deprived. Occasionally, though, administrators at a prison will instruct their mailroom staff to return all our packages. Or, worse, quietly pitch them into the trash. Months might pass before people inside let us know that our books aren’t getting in.
Usually, the administrators will relent and let us send books again, but it might take a few years of phone calls. During one such frustrating episode, I wrote a poem.
Sympathy for the Devil
I am a writer as in a vulture, plucking words from
others’ pain. & sing penance, but never loud enough:
we feast upon this world of hurt we’ve made.
Words might salve even the poor, so we send free
books to inmates. At one prison, packages never
arrived. We called & were told we impregnated
literature with suboxone. We lacked both will &
way: we have no budget; drugged pages wilt &
yellow; no one would read. Later I heard the state
was shunting sex criminals there. Books were
a privilege, underhandedly revoked.
inside: Aryan Brotherhood for whites, Gangland
Disciples for black men. We are free to believe in
post-racial America: in prison, meals might mean
a stack of trays sloughed inside a then-locked door.
Some men take two. Others will go hungry. The
ache of want sends us seeking for what symbols
of solidarity we find, hoping for allies against the
AB oft allies with the guards. Members reap
cushy jobs, access to visitors, untrammelled mail.
At the prison binning our books, gang & guards
were very close, COs inked in crosses, runic letters,
shields & shamrocks. Yet AB, there, was weak. So
they were fed sex criminals – easy, friendless kills.
A guard outs the doomed man’s past – everyone
lies, asked why he’s doing time – and members
murder him in the shower. They look tougher
than they are.
A dozen deaths. No indictments.
Activists began to smuggle phones, hoping to
document abuse. That’s when our packages ceased
to be received.
I’ve no deep love for these men –
friends of mine were abused. But if those who molest
should be punished by death, let’s force judge & juries
to say it. Not read a shadow sentence of 10 or 20 years.
We should say what we mean:
I sentence you to a cruel and unusual death. It will
come suddenly in a shower stall, faux-Odinist skin-
head slamming your head against the tile until your
bruised brain ruptures from repeated trauma. Your
eyes will loosen from their sockets, your skull will
crack, blood will whelm through your nostrils. In a
final indignity, bowels relax. You will know the brief
hell of hoping to live when you cannot. Your limp
body will drop while the water runs, cascading over
your corpse. Although news of your death will not
reach those who sentenced you, they will know that
justice has been done.
Quite likely, drugs were being smuggled into that prison. I’ve been told that it’s easier to buy drugs in prison than out on the street. Which is rough – people who are recovering from addiction often relapse after being sent to prison. In those bleak environs, there aren’t a lot of other ways to occupy your time.
The drugs weren’t coming from Pages to Prisoners, though. We always embalm our packages in tape so that correctional officers can’t tamper with them (as easily) on their way in. And, seriously, our organization doesn’t have the budget for drugs – we’re shipping donated books wrapped in old grocery bags! I’ve never tried to buy opiates, but I assume they’re expensive. Guys in jail sometimes mention how many thousands they were spending on their habits each week, which helps explain why they’re broke.
I understand why prison administrators worry, though. Scientists use books to smuggle DNA; you could illicitly ship a variety of drugs that way.
Although our organization ships books to people incarcerated in twelve different states, local prisons are the only ones that ban us. Which is sad. From a community perspective, we’d like to help people locally. We can recruit volunteers by mentioning that the people inside will be coming back to our community.
From a health and safety perspective, though, prison administrators would prefer that books come from out of state. Then they can feel more confident that packages are being sent by people who’ve never met the inmates.
The recipients would be like my colleague John, evaluating each book based solely on its title: an Invitrogen catalog? We don’t need that!
Or, after receiving one of the packages sent by Pages to Prisoners recently: sweet, advanced Dungeons & Dragons!
Prison administrators have good reason to keep drugs out. People’s tolerance wanes during their time in jail – somebody might take too much and die. Whereas they’re unlikely to OD on D&D.
Of course, prisons don’t have to be so bleak & punitive, let alone violent & PTSD-inducing. Prisons like we have in the U.S. don’t need to exist at all. And then organizations like Pages to Prisoners wouldn’t need to send books.