Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Visiting Marius in Prison (During My Family Vacation)

To read more about Marius Mason please go to  The painting is a self-portrait by Marius.

Marius Mason is at this point among those who could be called my old friends.  We first met when he organized a show for me in Detroit over two decades ago.  When I first learned that this friend and long-time organizer had also been involved with Earth Liberation Front actions entailing the destruction of corporate property and was facing an extremely lengthy prison sentence, I thought at least one of his friends would be able to visit him in prison on some kind of regular basis -- since, I reasoned, I was a touring musician with regular gigs in Texas.

I mention this because, for one thing, I knew that part of the reason Marius was being moved from Michigan to Texas was because certain (particularly political) prisoners are often selected for this kind of treatment in order to try to completely sever them from friends and family.  So I always figured Marius wouldn't have enough visitors there in Texas, and I made a mental note to schedule time for a prison visit whenever I was gigging in the state.

I also mention it because it's interesting, at least for me, to note how unexpectedly things can change.  When Marius first began serving his time in the federal prison FMC Carswell in Ft Worth I was still touring all over the United States at least once a year.  That stopped being the case years ago, and nowadays I'm very lucky that one of the very few places in the country where I can still plan on usually having one good gig a year is Houston, a city where I more or less lived in for several years, from just before former Texas governor Bush's invasion of Iraq to just after Camp Casey in Crawford.

When I put out the call to see who might be up for organizing gigs for me in 2018, I ended up with over forty gigs in Europe, and four in the US, of the sort that make it worth traveling to do without returning home broker than when you left.  Those four good gigs included two in California and two in Texas.  The Dallas/Ft Worth area was not among those two, but I made sure to work Ft Worth into the plan, in order to visit Marius.

These four gigs represented the most consecutive, good gigs I've done in the US in at least a couple of years.  This is by no means a reason to be optimistic -- not nearly enough to indicate that things are on the upswing at all.  But it was enough to make a plan to take a little family vacation, with my wife and one of our children, the baby, who still just barely could fly for free, since he doesn't turn two until a few days from now.

Because Reiko and Yuta were coming with me, we tried to get permission to add them to the list of approved visitors, but we were never able to get the prison authorities to mail us the necessary form.  In the macabre manner of these things, on the Bureau of Prisons website it explains that an inmate has to initiate the process of getting a new visitor approved by having the form mailed to the prospective visitor.  He tried to get the form mailed to us, but due to some bureaucratic morass, it never was sent.  Marius was under the impression that there was some way for me to initiate that process on the BOP website without him, but the last time he was allowed to have internet access was many years ago, so what's on the BOP website these days is completely theoretical for him.

Reiko and Marius remembered meeting each other, when Marius put together one of the last gigs he was able to organize for me before his arrest, when I was in Detroit with Attila the Stockbroker over a decade ago.  Marius can only have visitors who knew him before his arrest -- no fans who learned of him afterwards, or anyone else.  This includes me, and it should have included Reiko.  Anyone under the age of sixteen is exempted from this requirement, so the children of a visitor can also visit.

One of Marius's other approved visitors is radio programmer and anarchist newspaper editor Peter Werbe, who also makes a point of making a pilgrimage from his home in Michigan to Texas periodically to visit Marius -- and in recent years to visit me at the same time, as well.  I think this was our third rendezvous in Texas together to visit Marius and see the sights.  Last time the sights included adult activities like a visit to Daley Plaza, where JFK was assassinated.  This time, with my baby in tow, activities outside of the prison visit were more limited to the nearest park, and the old tractor in the backyard of our kind hosts in the suburb of Flower Mound.

As I mentioned, before going to Texas we were in California -- Berkeley and Topanga, specifically.  We drove down the coast between the two gigs, with a free day to see the sights.  This is just to say that we saw the LA area -- we drove into it, through it, to the airport the next day, and flew to Dallas.  But even coming from the megalopolis of LA, there is no way to be fully prepared for Dallas.  The whole way that Dallas is structured seems designed to make humans feel small.  Walking down the road you're constantly taking your life into your hands, since there are no sidewalks.  Walking at night without reflective clothing and a bright flashlight is basically suicidal.  People don't generally walk.

In some neighborhoods people don't even seem to drive, either.  Walking around Flower Mound felt like being on the set of A Wrinkle in Time, when the kids are transported to the planet that's been sucked in by the black cloud.  These rows of nice houses with no one apparently in them, no cars parked in front of them, all lining roads that are often four lanes wide with a big median in between -- with no cars driving on them.

On the "state roads" of Dallas -- these are not the interstate highways, but just the state highways -- there are cars, but the traffic isn't bad.  Dallas seems to be, to some extent, a refutation of all the environmentalists and European urban planners in the world who say you can't just build yourself out of the problem, you need intelligent regulations and mass transit and stuff like that.  Well, says Dallas, what if your state roads are sixteen lanes, and your interstate highways are basically 32 lanes?  (I'm not exaggerating -- if you include all the "frontage roads" it really is 32 lanes at times, at least as I would measure it.)  What then?  Then, it seems, you end up with a city that looks more like the moon than like a place made for people, but at least you don't have much traffic congestion.

We all flew in from California and Michigan on a Saturday night a couple weeks ago.  The next morning, Peter and I left Flower Mound and drove the fifty-minute drive from there to the prison in Ft Worth.  We stopped on the way at a Starbucks.  I mention this because it's true, and so mentioning it adds a little realism to the story.  But to that person who is going to ask why didn't we stop at an independent cafe instead, let me just say (a) you've obviously never been to the suburbs of Dallas, and (b) you're a better anarchist than me.  (And we flew to Dallas on corporate airlines and were driving around in a corporate rental car and filling it with corporate gas, and none of that really matters because lifestylism will not save you, but smashing capitalism might.)

I also mention this for all those of you rabid readers of the Fifth Estate these past 53 years who might at some point have wondered, Peter Werbe drinks drip coffee.  And he may be a brilliant intellectual and a very nice guy, but he doesn't know shit about espresso.  Which is probably best, because if he were an espresso snob like me he might not be taken seriously by anyone in Detroit outside of upper management.

So two anarchists were driving across Texas drinking Starbucks coffee.  What did they talk about?  The social alienation of hearing loss, the obsession with air conditioning in Texas, the central role of slavery in the economic development of the United States, and, of course, the Spanish Civil War.

Peter suggested I should write a letter to the Fifth Estate in response to a reference made to one of my songs in an article about anarchists guilty of romanticizing the International Brigades that fought in Spain in the 1930's.  I'm not sure about everything else in the article, but as for the reference to my song and my guilt in romanticizing the Fifteenth Brigade, yes, guilty as charged.  I completely agree with everything the person wrote in the article, and I have no defense that I care to offer for the line in which I say "they all stood side by side," because this line is bullshit, actually.  I didn't want to bother writing a letter to the editor that just said, "you're right," but in case anyone's interested, there it is.

In my defense, I also am guilty of romanticizing the peasant hordes that looted and burned the cities of Europe in 1848, religious fanatics like John Brown, and the wealthy, land-stealing British military officer who burned down the White House in 1814.  I am even guilty of romanticizing Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee as well as Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, and I probably shouldn't be allowed to call myself an anarchist.

The Prison

While most people reading this probably know exactly what it's like to go to a Starbucks, far fewer know what it's like to visit a high-security prison in Texas, so I'll try to remember details.

Once we got off the 16-lane highway and into the neighborhood in Ft Worth that surrounds the sprawling military base and attached prison there, the infrastructure spending represented by the massive highway was no longer evident at all.  Like so many blighted urban neighborhoods in the United States, the scene is far more reminiscent of a poor outskirts of a South American city, except without the people.  Most of the houses are old, one-story, falling apart, and instead of nice people making street food, there are unfriendly pawn shops and convenience stores, preying on the suffering people of the city.

At the prison there are many layers within layers of security, and a variety of different people in there, both in terms of workers and inmates.  It feels a little reminiscent of what I've read about US army bases in war zones like Afghanistan or Iraq.  First there's the disposable local guy, a lone guy in a flimsy little hut.  (When the suicide truck bomber arrives, this guy dies first.)

Most of the prison workers are people of color, and they are somewhere between civil and friendly.  Most have the air of someone who has served in the military and learned military discipline.  At the gate is a civil African-American man with a clipboard.  He looks at our IDs and gives us a piece of paper to put on our dashboard.

We drive in, then a hundred yards down we take a right, through a big fence, into the area where the actual prison is.  There are then more fences, around thirty feet high with NATO wire on top.  There are guard towers above them, and guards in new, white pickup trucks driving around a road that snakes its way around the tall fences.

The road looks like a walkway, just a bit wider.  Peter and I are, thus, walking on it.  A white man in a white pickup truck with an orange beard and a mean look on his face snaps at us.

"Get out of the road!"

He glared at us as he drove off, as if we were clearly rebels who had purposefully challenged his absolute authority.

Past the perimeter road, inside the fortress, there is a woman behind a tall desk, an athletic-looking African-American woman with a big, beautiful smile and shining white teeth.

After waiting for some time, Peter and I and a group of other visitors were led through a gate, if that's the appropriate term.  We were led past an entryway, where a steel wall several inches thick slowly closed behind us.  After each of us had had glow-in-the-dark ink of some kind stamped onto our wrists and checked in some kind of red lighting to make sure the ink was there, another massive steel gate slowly opened.  We were all then led along a walkway and into a big room filled with prisoners and visitors.

In past years, Marius has been kept in a prison within the prison, in a cell block of twenty that's kept separate from the rest.  More recently he's been allowed to live in the general population, which means sharing a tiny cell with three other cellmates, rather than having his own solitary cell, where the closest thing to a cellmate is what is known as a "vent mate" -- someone who can hear you on the other side of the vent in the wall, with whom you can have conversations, when everything else is quiet.


Peter spotted Marius before I did.  He knew what to look for -- he had told me there would be something different about him.  There was, and it was something easy to spot from a fair distance -- Marius was wearing a big white yarmulke.

I hadn't known about this development, but it didn't really come as a surprise to me.  Like Peter, I'm a born-again atheist, but I know many people who find many positive things from religious practices --meditating on and discussing ideas, finding community with other people, it can all be very centering and helpful, clearly.

Talking about Marius's newfound religious interest was a fairly obvious early conversation subject during the visit.  While Marius is studying Hebrew and the Torah and is very genuinely really into Judaism these days, the wearing of the yarmulke presents an additional challenge to the powers-that-be to deal with.  As people familiar with Marius's history are aware, Marius used to be Marie, and he is in a women's prison.  Only Jewish men wear yarmulkes, traditionally, not women.  But in prisons in the US, respecting the religious beliefs and practices of prisoners is a legal right.  (To whatever extent the right is enforced is another matter, of course.)

During the Obama years, Marius began to receive the hormone treatment that he had been seeking.  He is believed to be the first female-to-male trans prisoner to receive hormone treatment in a federal prison.  Now that Trump is president it's unclear how long the treatment will last.

Peter is involved with the Marius Mason support group, whereas I mainly just visit now and then and send the occasional book.  As with our previous visits, Peter has a mental list of questions he wants to ask Marius related to support work -- Marius's efforts to continue to receive hormone treatment and his desire to move to a men's prison in his home state of Michigan, rather than Texas, and other things.  The conversation moves a bit jaggedly between those kinds of topics and then to global politics or an appreciation from Marius about the plant and insect species that live within ten feet of where we're standing.

When your "natural world" is limited to a small patch of grass, it seems that the patch of grass gets a lot bigger in your mind.  In any case, Marius demonstrated a deep knowledge of each local weed and ant species.

I forgot to mention we had moved from the big, loud room filled with prisoners and their visitors to the fenced-in yard behind the building where there were a few shaded picnic tables and a patch of grass about the size of a badminton court.  Marius had been in the prison-within-a-prison for years, during which time he had never touched grass.  Just being able to stand in the yard still felt like a special privilege to Marius, it seemed.

For years, I had always been impressed with how well he seemed to remember what life was like before he began doing time in this place.  When I talked about doing things that he had not had the chance to do for years -- taking a walk in the woods, having a pointless discussion on Facebook, going to a protest, or any number of things -- it felt like I was talking with someone who had also just been doing such things as well.  On this visit, the fact that Marius had been in prison for so many years now felt like it was finally starting to set in -- mainly just in the moment when Peter took his sweater off.

In previous years, in the air-tight, air-conditioned, cement-walled room where visits with Marius used to transpire, the sweater was necessary for Peter to avoid catching a cold as a result of the visit.  Now we were outside.  The Texas sun can be very hot in March.  It was well into the 80's, and if you were standing on the grass there was no shade.  As Peter took his sweater off, it pulled his t-shirt up as well, so he was mostly topless for about half a second before he pulled his t-shirt back down.  

Marius flinched as if he had just been slapped.  This was clearly more flesh than he or many of the other prisoners had seen in a long time.  I'm sure other people noticed, but they tried to pretend they hadn't.  Marius explained that prisoners are expected to go into the bathroom just to do something like remove their sweater, lest they do exactly what Peter had just done, and inadvertently show some flesh for a moment.  Furthermore, the prisoners may never touch each other under any circumstances.  One of your parents just died while you were incarcerated and you could use a hug from a friend?  Too bad.

All of the prisoners are permanently clad in baggy blue or grey uniforms that seem to have been designed to make sure that no matter what the wearer looks like when dressed in anything else, they won't look good in these uniforms.  The uniforms the guards are stuck with are only slightly better.  This all contrasts markedly with the visitors there on visitor days (which is any weekend when the prison isn't on lockdown, in which case visitation hours can be canceled for the day).  The visitors are wearing the usual variety of clothing people wear when they're not in prison.  A large number of the visitors are children, from toddlers to teenagers, visiting their mothers.

On visitation days the prisoners basically have to go without lunch.  Any prisoner with visitors isn't in their cell, so they don't get lunch.  Instead, prisoners and visitors alike are stuck with the vending machines, if any of them want to eat all day.  Visitors can't bring anything in other than a bit of money and their car keys -- no food, notepad, recording devices, musical instruments, whatever, nothing else.  In the big noisy room where most people hang out during visitation hours there are several vending machines.

So just picture for a moment, visitors have often driven for many hours to come to the prison.  Many of them have camped out across the street from the prison entrance, where there is a campground, which is clearly there for poor visitors of poor prisoners who don't know anyone in Texas to stay with, who can't afford a motel.  There are many Oklahoma license plates among the visitors.  They get up in the morning and come to visit their relatives in prison, and the one place they can get anything to eat all day are these vending machines -- and at least on that day, one of them was just eating money and providing nothing in return.  Me and another visitor laughed together, seeing the obvious absurdity of the situation.

Marius is a vegan, which means just about the only thing in the vending machines he can eat is the popcorn with artificial butter flavoring.  He and Peter ate popcorn, I ate a granola bar, all of us wishing we could be sitting in a cafe somewhere eating real food, as I also wondered whether Marius even really remembers what it tasted like.

Every time I visit I wonder how we'll possibly fill the time, with about four hours to sit and talk, with no other distractions aside from other people sitting and talking.  One noticeable absence was anybody looking down at their phones, since no one was allowed to have one in there.  All the mothers are genuinely playing with their children -- none of them are watching videos or playing video games.

Taking a walk or playing music isn't an option.  But the four hours are always over before I'm nearly ready, just as we all seem to be thinking of five topics of conversation we hadn't had a chance to get to yet.

After we were led out of the prison one gate at a time, they checked the glow-in-the-dark ink on our wrists and gave us our IDs back, Peter and I really wanted to take a photo of ourselves with the prison in the background.  We went back to the rental car, grabbed our phones and walked back towards the prison, making sure to stay off the road we had been chased off of that morning.

"If you take a picture, we can take your phones," the man who had just driven up to us in his white pickup truck said.

I wondered if he was going to follow through with that threat, or whether he had not noticed that he had given us this warning too late.

"Are you going to write something about this visit in your blog?" Peter asked me before we drove off.  "I never know what to say."

"Sure, I can do that," I said.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for the report of your visit with Marius, David.
Thanks, Marius, for your efforts to save the world. I hope they let you out soon.