Seeing my buddy raving like a lunatic and watching him get handcuffed and hauled away was a shocking and brusque introduction to the hard realities of prison.
Phil was tall and skinny as a sapling. He grew up on the harsh streets of the inner city and had been a gangbanger most of his still-young life. He’d worked his way up and out of the worst of the squalor and made a name and place for himself selling drugs, so he could relocate himself and his family to a better environment. Our backgrounds gave us little in common, but we each were facing significant prison terms as we sat in the county jail and fought our respective cases. This provided a kinship between us since the vast majority of guys were looking at maybe a few years in the Department of Corrections, if not merely some county time or even probation. Phil and I were both staring down the same barrel of inevitable and lengthy prison time, just waiting for the trigger to be pulled.
The county jail that housed us provided zero time outside for recreation. There was a large room with a TV, law library, library, and ping pong table which we took advantage of for the one hour a day we were allowed, but other than that we were confined to our small cell block, which held nine men in total. Very small. Not much to occupy one’s time. Sergeant Patty was very kind and accommodating so for a brief period she allowed guys to have their family send in board games, provided they were still sealed in the original packaging. Risk, Monopoly, Clue, Stratego, Life, Trivial Pursuit; we suddenly had an abundance of ways in which to spend our time.
In a shockingly short amount of time, the games broke, pieces were lost, or the games simply became stale and boring. Many of them were also confiscated on shakedowns as it turned out that Sergeant Patty had severely overstepped her authority in letting the games into the facility. All of my reminiscing and memories of childhood that the games stirred within me also put me in mind of a card game, which I had spent countless hours playing in my pre-felon days. There was a scoreboard, but I could make that myself so I wouldn’t have to have it sent in only to have it confiscated. The notion of playing some cribbage thrilled me.
I took a flat cardboard box, which once held generic Ritz crackers, and drew up a board with sections that had twenty dots in each. Five dots were to move the players’ pegs forward, and I made enough for four players at a time. I made three hundred dots apiece—one thousand, two-hundred total. I didn’t find out until much later that a standard cribbage board is either 61 or 121 peg moves. For pegs to keep the score, I cut Q-tips in half with nail clippers, colored two pieces black with a marker, then wrapped the fluffy heads in bits of Scotch tape I’d scrounged from pieces of mail. (All inmate mail is opened before being delivered to the prisoner, but is often resealed with Scotch tape or a staple to ensure nothing is lost in transit.) Once I meticulously poked holes at each of the 1200 dots with a sharpened pencil, I had a workable Cribbage board and a deck of cards I’d bought from commissary. All I needed was an opponent or two.
No one knew hot to play Cribbage. No one had even heard of the game before. While I found that to be both impossible and exasperating, it was the simple sad truth. I was able to get a few guys to at least give it a try—always only one at a time—but none of them seemed to care for it very much. To be fair and honest, my explanation of the rules was often convoluted and confusing. I couldn’t really remember how to play at first, and relayed what little I could recall, but as we played I was endlessly amending the rules as they came back to me more and more. I’m sure it was an incredible inconvenience at the least, and probably more likely characterized as an enormous pain in the ass. It wasn’t until Phil came along that I found someone who could appreciate the game.
By the time Phil was placed on the cell block, I had worked out all the kinks, and had all the rules properly figured. He took to it with enthusiasm and would often come asking and harassing me to play, which was a nice change from me having to beg someone just to give it a try. There were even numerous times when I was tired of playing, but Phil was relentless in his desire to continue. It made the days pass by in a blink. We played innumerable games, from early morning to late in the evening, which served to take our minds off of our respective cases, and in so doing alleviated much of the anxiety that accompanies waiting for our unknown dire futures to unfold. Unfortunately, those futures had to arrive at some point, and we ended up taking the ride from county jail to a Department of Corrections processing facility together. At least I would know somebody.
I had always known Phil to be level-headed to the point where he appeared to be the epitome of cool—nothing got him riled. He seemed to take everything in stride. He had already been to the joint once before, and had given me the basics of what to expect when we first got to prison. Processing is an agonizingly slow and seemingly endless ordeal that begins with a strip search and shower. From there, an inmate’s picture is taken, as well as fingerprints and blood. Teeth are x-rayed, questions of all kinds are asked by half a dozen different people. There is a line of men stretching to infinity waiting to move forward to the next station before we can be put in a holding area to eat something. It’s tedious and aggravating to say the least.
I was glad Phil was right there with me, and remained so for much of the day. When we had gotten separated, it was only for brief periods before reuniting at the next point in the long processing journey. It had made things somewhat bearable, having a confederate of sorts, a touchstone to sanity in a place that I quickly discerned was incredibly insane. He seemed to accept it all with patience. At least at first.
As the day progressed, I’d noticed that Phil had become a bit more nervous and manic. He’d begun talking incessantly about Cribbage and how I was his Cribbage buddy. At first it was sort of funny, but before long Phil stopped talking to the others around us and he stopped talking directly to me as well. It became painfully clear that he was rambling aloud to himself about Cribbage and hoping he and I could be cellmates. He would rant on in a tangent complaining about all the waiting and cramped conditions, then loudly let it be known that no one had better try to attack him.
After we were fed, he complained about the food. I didn’t know what to make of Phil devolving into an unpredictable mess. I tried calming him, getting him to sit next to me when I could and talk about Cribbage or anything else that would keep him focused. I concocted a daydream of us being placed together in a cell and making another Cribbage board so we could once more spend hours playing. This tactic would work for brief periods, but then Phil would be on his feet again, pacing and raving.
Once processing was complete, there were four huge caged holding pens with maybe a couple hundred people in each. We were given a bologna sandwich, a small bag of potato chips, a packet of two sugar cookies, and an eight-ounce carton of skim milk. It had been nearly eight hours since we’d arrived, and Phil had only gotten worse as the day progressed. When all the food had been eaten and the garbage collected, a lieutenant instructed that when we heard our name called, we were to come forward and stand along a wall that he indicated.
Names began to be called until the entire length of the one-hundred foot wall was filled. They were then all escorted to a cell block located somewhere in the labyrinthine interior of the massive complex. Halfway through the third group, Phil’s name was called. He hesitated a few moments, jittering in his seat, before bounding up and striding toward his fate without a glance back or a goodbye of any kind. He was mumbling as he left, and I could hear it grow louder as he got closer to the line of men. When Phil was placed against the wall, my vantage point was about forty yards away, so I couldn’t precisely hear everything that was being said, but “Cribbage” was a recurring motif.
All the names were called for that group and I remained in my bullpen. Phil began to get louder and was gesticulating wildly, leaning aggressively towards the person in line behind him. He had attracted the attention of the nearest lieutenant who calmly strolled over with two C/Os flanking him on either side for a total of five security staff members. Phil spun toward them when the lieutenant called out to him. As soon as Phil took a step out of line and moved toward the group of men, he was spun right back around, handcuffed, and hauled away in such a quick and proficient manner that my mind struggled to process the notion that my buddy was gone.
I still have trouble reconciling the loud, raving, nonsense-spewing person I last saw with the Phil I had known and spent so many hours playing Cribbage and bonding with. A few guys that I’ve shared this incident with have even postulated that perhaps it was all an act or ploy in order to be adjudged mentally ill and thereby reap whatever benefits there might be had from that. I don’t particularly believe that theory, but have no other way to explain Phil’s behavior other than to say that prison can be more difficult for some people than others.
It was surely hard watching my buddy behave in that erratic manner and then be taken away, but it set the tone for more hard times to come.