Billy and Sid only worked together one day a week. I don’t think the prison could’ve coped with them longer than that. It has to be illegal to have that much fun at work.
Sid usually arrived first while Billy dragged himself in a few minutes later, often looking half asleep or wholly hungover. I have no doubt that Sid was frequently in the same state, he just concealed it better. Occasionally they came in jovial, laughing and joking like work was merely an extension of the drunken festivities of the night before. Most days they were subdued and required multiple cups of strong coffee apiece to nurse themselves back to equilibrium. Once they had settled in, their hijinks ensued.
Fun and Games
Theirs was an easy camaraderie. They spent their time talking, laughing, and commenting on the programs on the TV in the dayroom. When that got old they played tricks on people. They would announce for someone to come to the bubble to get his pass for his prostrate exam. They would claim that a certain individual had “that package” (AIDS), and to be careful around him. They would publically announce that it was someone’s birthday, and then encourage everyone to wish them a happy birthday. This meant punching him the same number of times as his age. One inmate seemed to have a birthday every week.
Signs were posted with goofy sayings or crude sexual drawings on them. A list of inmates was posted that ranked the top five weirdos/creeps I the building. Sometimes this was characterized as a Most Wanted list. As in, these are the guys the officers want to get rid of the most. Billy and Sid always seemed to crack themselves up more than anyone else.
Business As Usual
This juvenile frat-boy mentality and casual bullying was par for the course. In the wider world it would be denounced; in prison it’s just another Sunday. Most guys tended to ignore them and tried to keep moving as long as the abuse wasn’t directly targeting them. CO Billy and CO Sid knew who the easy targets were. In spite of their behavior and how I’ve characterized them, they’re actually fairly well-liked by all—both COs and inmates.
Correctional Officers are not police officers or superheroes swooping in to save the day. Nothing so glamorous or exciting as that. Depending on the security level of the penitentiary where they work, and the area within the facility where they are stationed, it’s true that they can be called upon and must be ready in an instant to deal with violent or mentally unstable inmates. However, by and large, the most difficult aspect of their job is to stay awake as the dull, monotonous hours drag by. Little more than glorified babysitters.
I imagine this is why Billy and Sid enjoyed working together so much. While they were far from paragons of professionalism, with these jokers in the building there was rarely a dull moment.
The sensory deprivation of Segregation is such that any noise or voice in the corridor will more often than not make a guy rush to look out the door and see what’s going on. When I heard a loud metal on concrete slam outside my door, that’s exactly what I did.
The cell across from me was offset from mine so I couldn’t see directly into it, but the door was laying all the way open, flat against the wall, and I could see four officers in a loose circle around the door. Obvious sounds of struggle were coming from within the cell. Something came flying out of the cell and one of the officers caught it deftly and tossed it aside to the floor. I craned my neck and pressed in closer to the four-inch wide seven-inch tall rectangle window of plexiglass to spy that it was a red shoe. There are no red shoes in prison. Curious. I also saw two more officers standing at the ready off to the side.
The other shoe, a colorful shirt, blue jeans, a leather belt. All these were sent rocketing out of the cell. It dawned on me that the man being stripped must be right from the street, a parole violator. Around this time I began hearing sounds more animal than man—like a dog grunting and growling. One CO came out of the cell flushed and winded, followed by another in the same condition. A third exited, muttering curses, and he had a torn piece of cloth that he threw down in disgust. It appeared to be a hunk of underwear. Yet another CO left the cell in a huff and I had to begin wondering just how many were in there.
My answer came almost immediately as one Sarge and one more CO backed out towing the unruly inmate along. His arms were stretched behind him handcuffed, and another pair of handcuffs were fastened to the chain as an improvised leash they were using to direct him. One of the officers who had been standing around began closing the door, and the Sarge adopted sole tugging duty; he had to pull with his right hand, reach through the chuckhole of the partially closed door, and pass the controlling cuff to his left hand while the other officer corralled the inmate to keep him from trying to back all the way out of the cell.
There was surprising little noise. No hollering or screaming from either party, no barked orders. Just grunts and sounds of exertion, boots scraping against the door, heavy breathing, and chain rattling. Once the final maneuver had been accomplished, the door closed, inmate uncuffed, and chuckhole successfully secured, then the screaming began.
For five full minutes he beat and kicked the door, letting loose a torrent of threats and curses. They brought a jumpsuit, opened the chuckhole, pushed the clothing through, and slammed the trapdoor swiftly. More curses and threats. In my mind I labeled him “lunatic”. I paused to emphasize with the corrections officers who have to deal with individuals like this. It surprised me, but I genuinely felt empathy for the COs.
The guy beat on the door awhile, and called for a CO a few dozen times. Then he changed tactics and started hollering that he was going to kill himself. I didn’t believe him for an instant, and his claims only served to confirm my assessment of “lunatic”. There was more banging and calling out with claims of self-harm. He yelled, “CO!” ad nauseum. I wanted him to be quiet. I was fully confident that everyone within earshot wanted him to just shut up. A couple disembodied voices bellowed for him to do just that. Another one encouraged him to “off himself” and be done with it. Eventually a couple COs brought him a blanket and sheet, told him they’d bring him a mat as soon as they could, which they did. He didn’t make a peep the entire rest of the afternoon and night.
In His Shoes . . .
A while later an officer came by and put a piece of paper in the slot by the man’s door, which had his name and prison ID# on it along with “PV” in bold black letters. Parole violator. I began to ponder how he began his day, what that day might have looked like, and how it could’ve ended here for him. I thought of the terrible reality and shock to his system that being dragged back to prison must have been—how utterly devastating and discombobulating. I had to question my diagnosis of him as being far too simplistic and dismissive. I also had to admit that, if I was trapped in his horrendous shoes, I don’t know that I would’ve stopped kicking and beating the door so quickly or easily.
The heavy steel door slammed shut behind me with a dull finality. It was a sound I hadn’t heard in the nearly six years since I’d graduated to minimum security housing status where doors only lock from the inside and closing them is more an option than a requirement. Twenty minutes earlier I’d been standing in the law library, talking strategy with coworkers. It was from there that I was unceremoniously gathered, handcuffed and escorted to segregation. Officially at that point I still didn’t know for what reason I’d been taken to Seg. Unofficially I’d been given a heads up in hushed tones by a sympathetic party.
“It’s about your book.”
I stood alone in the center of the cell, all cold straight lines of concrete and metal, trying to make sense of the fact that I’d been locked up for my words.
I have always taken great pains, to the best of my ability, to maintain a certain degree of objectivity and anonymity with my essays. I have never revealed the state in which I am imprisoned; neither have I ever divulged the name of the city or penitentiary where I am incarcerated. I have changed the names of all the individuals who I have described. With these depictions of prison staff and inmate alike I have always strived for accuracy. This warts and all approach can’t help but feel unflattering to some, but people’s behavior isn’t always flattering.
When I began chronicling my prison experiences I did have an objective and purpose in mind beyond merely marking up good clean paper with my scribblings. I wanted to provide a glimpse into my world and demystify the prison experience to some degree by showing that prison is in many ways, a reflection of the world at large. Sometimes it is funny and absurd. Other times it can be violent, terrible, frightening, sad and lonely. Every so often it is beautiful, full of grace.
I knew that this type of honesty would mean writing accounts that detailed malfeasance, dereliction of duty, deliberate indifference, and even outright criminal acts by prison staff. My decision to use a penname was made in large part to protect myself. I feared that, should my true identity be discovered, there would be retaliation. These fears were realized, and so I found myself in Seg.
Charges were brought against me which were without merit. They were based on lies and assumptions as those in power tried to characterize my actions as being in violation of a set of rules written before the rise of the Internet. With all humility and zero bravado, I can say that they simply haven’t invented the rule to govern what I have been able to do through the posts on this website. Unfortunately both innocence and lack of evidence means absolutely nothing when caught in a system where the accusations are mere formality and a finding of guilt is guaranteed. No need to investigate when the end has already been decided.
I hadn’t broken any rules. However, someone didn’t like what I was writing. I had apparently offended and/or upset the powers that be. I was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to write a book without permission, and that they didn’t want me posting on this website anymore because the consensus was that I had “cast certain officers and staff in a negative light.” With no proper investigation, and ulterior motives galore, I was found guilty. My punishment was to be the loss of my job and six months’ worth of various restrictions put on my phone calls and commissary. The nineteen days I spent in Seg would be considered sufficient, but I was to be transferred to a different prison. These decisions were made, the paperwork signed, my fate sealed.
Early on in my ordeal I was able to impress upon my parents how serious the claims against me were, and how specious. This was nothing more than an attempt at censorship and a matter of my freedom of speech being squelched by individuals who didn’t like what I had to say. Through many phone calls, emails and lots of prayer the situation was remedied. I’m not entirely sure exactly which phone calls or emails did the trick, but I know my father is tenacious. As for prayer, I’ll borrow a phrase from someone wiser than I, and say that I don’t know how it works, but I simply know it works.
The day after the final judgment against me was signed and official, a higher authority intervened in deus ex machina fashion and everything was EXPUNGED. All charges and accusations. The entire negative report which characterized this website, my use of a penname, and the book Candy and Blood: Essays From Behind Prison Walls as being illegal, a violation of the rules, was EXPUNGED. Look that word up in the dictionary when you get a chance. Expunged; it’s a glorious word.
Today, August 12, 2018, marks two months since being released from Seg. The lies continue, and they choose to follow their own rules only when it suits them, so I haven’t gotten my job back. I’ve filed so many formal complaints (grievances) concerning this entire situation that I’ve begun to awaken from a night’s sleep with my hand hurting and stiff from constantly clutching my pen. I’ve had several interesting encounters with COs on the subject of my writing, some of which may appear in the coming months of posts. I’ve been able to examine and refocus on my faith and my priorities especially as I come closer to becoming a member of free society rather than a prisoner. Perhaps there’s no better catalyst for self-examination than long stretches of forced solitude.
My Bottom Line
In being reminded of how utterly helpless I am I was being forced to articulate to myself just what exactly it is that I stand for; what is important to me and why do I do what I’m doing. Many of my personal constructs and convictions were challenged, but it has come to this: In the face of all injustice and adversity stand strong and speak your truth—never let anyone shut you up.
Jake was wary as he eased his way hesitantly toward the door from which the voice was coming. There was only darkness from within the cell, which gave the disembodied voice the eerie effect of calling to him from an endless malevolent void. Jake knew from experience that it was ill advised, and potentially dangerous, to get too close to the cell doors. He worked in a psych joint, specifically the section that served to keep confined the most violent and/or unpredictable inmates who suffer from various and often severe mental health issues. Even with only a perforated steel grate through which the inmate could get to him, Jake had witnessed spit, shit, and piss pass through the small holes on multiple occasions. When the chuckhole was open, a deluge of waste and refuse could pour out. Yet even armed with this knowledge, Jake continued to advance upon the door from behind which someone was calling his name.
“Hey, man. Hey, Jake. Howyadoin’, man? Look, you’ve always been cool with me, never had any problem with you. You’re good with me, ya know? So I just wanted to give you a heads up. As soon as that C/O opens this chuckhole, I’ve got a whole cup of shit I’ve saved up for him, and it’s going in his face. Just so you know. You might want to stay back. Okay, Jake. Thanks.” The man’s tone was matter-of-fact, friendly, calm, casual. He could have been discussing a movie he saw recently, or the outcome of some sporting event rather than a planned fecal barrage. Once he fell silent, the man receded into his cell, leaving Jake to wrestle with what to do.
Jake worked amongst this collection of mentally unstable men five days a week and had managed to cultivate a decent rapport with many of them. It made for a slightly less stressful work environment and worked to keep him from becoming a target for an attack. All of that goodwill that he had built up, however, would evaporate if it were to be discovered that he had warned the C/O of the impending shit storm headed his way.
The warning would be perceived as snitching and make Jake ripe for revenge. On the other hand, if Jake didn’t tell the officer about the planned poop-throwing, blame would almost certainly land in his lap which would result in him probably being fired or worse. While this particular officer had always been cool with Jake, a C/O with a face full of feces is an unpredictable but volatile individual. Jake waffled over the decision briefly, but he knew what had to be done.
Each chuckhole door slammed open on its hinge with metronomic regularity. With every turn of his key and resounding metallic bang that resulted, the C/O edged ever closer to the cell where a calamity of crap awaited him. Upon arriving at the door in question, the C/O inserted his key as usual, but paused before turning it. “Back away from the door, “ he instructed the unseen inmate within. After a lengthy silence, there finally came a hesitant response.
“What? Um…no. Open my chuckhole; I want my food. Give it to me.”
“I said back up. Get away from the door.” The C/O had adopted his full-throated authoritative voice—similar to the tone a trainer would use to command dogs. “Back away or you can go hungry.” The C/O awaited a cogent response, and Jake stood to the side with a tray at the ready as it was his duty to pass it in through the chuckhole once it was opened–provided, of course, that poop wasn’t on its way out through said chuckhole.
Without warning, a bestial and unnerving noise erupted from the cell, a sound of equal parts frustration and rage. These were also the sentiments that colored what was said next.
“Jake! You told! You told, Jake! You’re a snitch!”
The C/O had enough presence of mind to backpedal with haste, and the splattering of excrement that managed to force its way through the small holes of the perforated steel window was minimal and ineffectual. The unstable inmate had mostly managed to merely splash his own waste back in his own face and coat the inside of his cell door with it. As Jake and the C/O bypassed the befouled cell and continued passing out trays, the disgruntled inmate carried on with his hollering of accusations concerning Jake.
It was a long two months of taking extra precautions and keeping his head on a swivel to avoid any payback before Jake was able to get a different job and get away from the house of the severely mentally ill. He didn’t exactly feel guilty for informing the C/O, but it also didn’t quite sit right with him that he had broken the trust of the feces-flinging inmate. It wasn’t snitching in Jake’s estimation, but rather something more like a gray area, and he never did come to accept what he had done.
Just in case there’s any confusion; I have zero access to a computer.
Some prisons in some states as well as certain federal facilities do provide limited computer usage to their inmates. I do not get that luxury. This means that I write everything out long hand and send it by snail mail to family or friend to type it and post it period. I have been far more fortunate and blessed than most of my fellow inmates to have reliable people who care enough to do this for me. However, in the end, I am working on their schedule.
During these summer months there will be a brief hiatus from new original content. To any of my regular readers I thank you for your faithful visits and ask for your patience and understanding. To anyone just passing by, there’s plenty of content to check out.
She fussed and fidgeted over the few items she had on the table just waiting for her visitor to arrive. I had seen her before, on numerous previous visits in fact. Her hair had once been brown but was streaked mercilessly with gray as it fell past her shoulders in straight greasy strands. A pair of overly large glasses with thick lenses dominated her face. Her clothes were shabby, plain at best. She was tall, slim, willowy, and put me in mind of Olive Oil’s older, frailer sister. On the few occasions when I had heard her speak it sounded like the frail, muted mewing of a newly arrived kitten. Listening to some COs talk let me know that she visited every week, sometimes more than once, and that she always walked all the way out to the prison for these visits. The officers ridiculed her for her obvious poverty and lack of transportation.
His clothes were covered in grime and filth, his shirt untucked. He looked disheveled and disgusting. His hair was a loose mop of gray and nearly white kept mercifully short atop his head, leaving him one less thing for which to care. The scruff on his face wasn’t a beard, but a thatch of stubbled scrub that was a few days past the razor’s appointment. He had the hollow-eyed confusion and hesitant shuffle of the extremely medicated. When he spoke it was a gruff baritone that sounded empty of some essential element, as if he was speaking from a long way off.
When she saw him she rose from her seat, and anxious excitement thrumming through her thin frame, and she met him halfway as he walked towards the table they had been assigned for their visit. She embraced him fiercely, laying her head against his chest and holding tightly as if doing so soothed some desperate aching need. He reciprocated with unsure slow motion movements. There was an unashamed openness about the scene that made me feel uncomfortable, as if I were spying on an intimate and private moment. Which, of course, I was. Intimate, that is, though there’s no real privacy in prison.
During the course of their visit she doted on her husband. He mostly struggled to remain present in the moment. Whatever mood stabilizers or tranquilizers he was being prescribed had him slogging through molasses both physically and mentally. Nothing came simple. She was patient, involved, almost animated, or at least as much as her mousey persona would allow. It had to be a chore at times, but she never flagged in her unconditional devotion to him. When it was time for them to part she clutched him once more with a desperation and unabashedness that was miraculous to behold. My chest ached at the tender beauty of her naked display of affection as she planted several quick kisses on his lips and face—he received each with drugged befuddlement. After he had turned to trudge away she continued speaking words of hope and encouragement to his receding figure. Once he was gone she looked utterly hopeless, lost, on the verge of tears.
I have no idea what crime landed this man in prison, nor am I award of the exact nature of his obvious mental health issue. After witnessing what I did, I do know that he is loved, and that rather deeply.
My visit ended only moments after his did and I was invited to enter the other shakedown room for my strip search. I complied with the officer’s wishes but asked why we couldn’t just use the one he had been exiting as I walked into the sally port that separated the visiting room from the shakedown room. I had always known this CO to be respectful, polite, and professional. It was me who was going to take my clothes off, but I was about to see an entirely different side of him.
“I just got done shaking down that stinky sonofabitch in there, you don’t want to go in there. It’s friggin’ disgusting. I’m so sick of it. Makes me want to puke. It smells like pure shit. He won’t take a damn shower. Should just turn a hose on his stupid ass and sandblast that shit off him.” There was a venomous and viciousness unlike his usual lackadaisical tone as he groused through gritted teeth. He was just getting started.
“And that wife of his isn’t too pleasant herself. Smells almost as bad, practically homeless. She’s always here way too early and we have to chase her out of the parking lot. After the tenth time you’d think she’d figure it out, she’d learn something. Dumb bitch. She should wander into traffic on one of her trips out here and save us all the headache.” After a few long and painfully silent awkward moments on my part he finished his thought while handing my pants back to me. “Yeah, Stinky and the Idiot. They’re perfect for each other.”
Though I had always had a high opinion of this officer, I believe that I was getting a glimpse at the unvarnished feelings shared by the majority of Correctional Officers. While it’s not true of them all, many COs have dealt with prisoners for so long, or with such indifference, that ofttimes they barely even see their wards as human anymore. And therefore certainly not deserving of human compassion.
There are a lot of white guys in prison who are sex offenders, or more specifically, child molesters. “Aggravated sexual assault” is one legal term to identify them. The aggravated portion references the fact that their victim was under age twelve or fourteen. Laws and terms differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in my experience the number of these offenders has become epidemic, especially amongst the white population in prison. I have often remarked facitiously that if I didn’t talk to sex offenders, then I’d never speak to another white guy in prison. As with a great many jokes, there’s more than a kernel of truth embedded in that statement.
For a long time these particular individuals were the most vilified of the prison population. They often faced ridicule, bullying and outright physical abuse from their fellow inmates and also from those wearing badges and tasked with insuring their safety. These inmates would often lie and say that they were locked up for some other more innocuous crime rather than admit their sex offence. This practice became so prevalent in fact that an inmate who was suspected of being a sex offender but who claimed to be incarcerated for dealing drugs, otherwise known as “having a drug case”, may have his assertion rebutted with the type of colorful quip which exemplifies the somewhat darker undertone of what qualifies as prison humor. An example would be; “Yeah, right, you’ve got a drug case. More like you drug that little girl off into the bushes.” Distasteful to be sure, but not an uncommon way of laying an entirely unsubtle accusation of pedophilia against someone.
Out of the Shadows
As the sex offender population grew it became common for them to band together and they’ve become emboldened to admit what they are locked up for, talking openly about their status as a sex offender, though often not often providing any details of their particular crime. Now they are such a large percentage of the prison population that they have infiltrated many social groups often unbeknownst to their fellow inmates. For the most part they are treated like just another inmate. Nothing more or less terrible than that.
The comfort of Christianity has long served as a respite for these oft put upon prisoners. Being a Christian man myself, I would never deign to say that God’s gift of grace is insufficient to bring about forgiveness, salvation and transformation in the life of any sinner, no matter what their sin. I do however confess with a certain degree of shame that I struggle with this concept of forgiveness for such a despicable crime and iniquity. Perhaps it is more that I tend to question the sincerity of many of these men I have known. In my experience it seems that the claim of a religious conversion, especially amongst child molesters, tends to be viewed as a dubious bit of trickery. A professed change for the sake of convenience rather than an authentic repentance. As best I can I try not to stand in judgement of a guy, but in some cases it’s not so much a matter of judging as it is recognizing something that is just plain wrong.
Russ was the charismatic country fried leader of an ever growing group of sex offenders. They would be gathered in the yard or seated together at church on Sunday, each of them deferring to Russ in all things. Russ knew his Scripture, could quote it chapter and verse, and seemed sincere as far as my fallible eyes could see, but there was something about him that set off an alarm in the intuitive wrinkles of my brain.
Upon closer inspection it became clear that he was proselytizing not for the cause of Christ, but was building his number of followers by behaving like the pied piper of pedophilia. Russ recruited them with a twisted type of pseudo-religiosity that was far too heavy on acceptance and much too light on repentance and change.
Since I’m a white man in prison who was attending church regularly, Russ assumed I was a sex offender and therefore a likely candidate for his brand of fallacy. It wasn’t long before he approached me with his amiable charm and understanding nature all wrapped up in the honeyed tones of a soft southern accent. His voice made you feel welcome, made you want to believe everything he was saying. I listened as he began with Bible verses that were accurate and sound, then noted as he proceed to bend them to his own improper purposes. We disagreed and debated. When I informed him that I was in fact not a sex offender he was unfazed, proudly admitted that he was one, and then continued his recruitment script. I steered the conversation toward repentance and shared my own shame and regret over my crime—a violent assault. I expressed how I hoped my victim could somehow forgive me, but wasn’t sure that it would ever be possible. When I pressed Russ for similar sentiments about his own victim his evangelistic façade finally fell and I believe I got to see the real Russ.
“Are you kidding? No! No way! I don’t feel bad. Why should I? Huh? Why?” He paused here, actually waiting for me to give him an answer as to why he should feel remorse for sexually molesting a ten year old girl. I noticed that his accent had lost its lilting dulcet quality and devolved into harsh guttural sounds which were befitting his ugly topic of conversation.
“I did it, nothing I can do about that now. Right?” I sensed that perhaps he might be heading in a less horrible direction. I was wrong.
“I did it. I like little girls. I like them and they like me. I did it and I’d do it again. I don’t feel ashamed. I won’t feel ashamed. I don’t have to. There’s nothing wrong with what I did. Nothing wrong with me. That is how God made me.”
Each short confessional sentence carried the weight of a small sledge to my gut. It literally knocked the breath from my body and I struggled to recall how to perform the automatic response of respiration. Even if my lips could have formed words and my lungs could’ve pressed out the air to deliver them, my braining was sending anything coherent to say. All that I possessed was a visceral hatred for this counterfeit Christian. Although I freely confess that the visions of me violently assaulting him which I began to entertain were extremely tantalizing, inviting, even comforting, they were also entirely unchristian. My rigid fingers curled into fists and adrenaline dumped into my system as my heart screamed its increase. Breath returned to my body, and in that instant my more primitive mind was bent on using every bit of newly restored oxygen at his disposal to destroy Russ. All logic and restraint had been usurped by outrage and undiluted fury.
“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get to your cells. Now!” The belligerent CO bellowed and headed straight toward us. He was a young guy, new to DOC and eager to earn a reputation as a tough-guy. He had just returned to the cellblock and saw Russ and I loitering and talking in the day-room after our designated phone call time. Completely unintentionally he became our salvation. Russ was rescued from my violent assault and I was saved from a stint in Seg. Russ fled to his cell while I remained riveted to the spot a moment longer, entertaining the possibility of carrying out my attack regardless of the CO and the consequences. I heard Russ delivering an obsequious apology dripping in saccharine southern charm. It was all fake. I had seen his true self and knew that his worldview was nothing but delusional heresy.