Utter Joy

His utter joy put my grief to shame.

Self-preservation

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own lives, problems, worries and hurts that a cocoon develops. This structure is meant to insulate us from harm, but in so doing it isolates us from the world around us. It also traps in the pain. This is never a good thing. At the time, I was entombed in my own grief and self-pity.

Survey

Around this time I took a survey for one of the college courses I managed to complete while incarcerated. I was instructed to put a check next to every major life event that I’d experienced within the previous twelve months. Stressful things like death of a friend, death of a family member, divorce, moving to a new city. Each was assigned a numeric value.

When everyone had finished adding up their history of stressors the professor revealed that anyone with a stress number over 100 was at risk for all kinds of physical and psychological maladies due to their extremely high stress level. She encouraged those in that category to take steps to counter the stress because of the potentially unhealthy psychological and physical effects. She recommended seeking out a counselor to talk to and lauded the benefits of deep breathing. My score was nearly four times that–385. I laughed. Deep breathing exercises were not the solution to all my problems.

What I Deserve

I’d suffered too much. It felt like I was losing some psychological war of attrition that the universe had been waging against me. Divorce, deaths, prolonged imprisonment, broken relationships. I was deeply entrenched in my unhealthy mentality. I couldn’t get out of it. I didn’t want to. I was comfortable in my chrysalis of self-loathing and silent lamentation. Mental masochism can be a terribly seductive pastime, especially when we’ve deceived ourselves into thinking that we deserve to suffer. Suffice it to say, I was in a very bad place. It took a blind man to show me the way.

Tray Pusher

I was working in the chow hall, on the serving line where trays were filled and passed to the unending line of inmates. I’d risen through the ranks swiftly and had the coveted position of tray pusher. I was responsible for controlling the flow of trays. Without me there would be chaos and piles of food on the floor. I’ve always thrived in stressful high-stakes work environments.

This day in particular was burger and fries day, which is cause for celebration for most inmates. I couldn’t have cared less. Joy wasn’t a thing with which I was well acquainted. It probably didn’t help that I’d had to deal with an endless string of threats, insults, and accusations of being “The Police” (pronounced with an exaggerated hard “PO” sound, and a terribly offensive thing for one inmate to say to another) because I wouldn’t put more fries or an extra patty on their tray. No one seemed to care that the four foot eleven tiny tyrant Food Supervisor always at me hip would’ve caught and reprimanded me if I had tried to add a single kernel of corn or extra ketchup packet to the assigned portion.

Illegal Tandem

I was floundering in a mire of my own making. Standing at the front of the serving line, running on autopilot, pushing trays and letting the insults from inmates wash over me while the admonishments from my superior needled my back. Towards the front of the single file stream of inmates making their way to the tray pick up window there was a duo walking side by side, which is a grave violation of policy, and one which is usually met by C/Os yelling and gesticulating like feral idiots. So, naturally their tandem nature caught my attention immediately. It wasn’t until the pair were three people from me that I saw the closest man’s unseeing gaze and noticed that he had the other man’s upper arm in a loose grip to guide him. It was when the blind man asked his aid a question that I received my lesson.

Perspective

“What are we having?”

“Burgers and fries.”

The blind man’s face blossomed with the purest expression of joy that I could have ever possibly conjured in my most vivid of imaginings. Where there had been merely bland features, life and animation appeared as if conjured by some incantation. Three simple magical words: burgers and fries.

“ALRIGHT.”

His enthusiastic response wasn’t yelled loudly, but had an emphasis and relish that conveyed how fortunate and blessed he felt to be receiving such a beloved meal. His ability to express such depth of emotion and delight over such a seemingly insignificant event was sobering to me. The experience put a crack in my emotional barricade and forced me to confront my toxic wallowing. It began to nurture a change in perspective within me.

Renewed Mind

Every good thing is a gift, and should be received with the same awe, joy, and gratitude displayed by children on Christmas morning as they tear at packages to reveal the coveted present they’d been so longing for. This pertains to the clothes on our backs, the music in our ears and hearts, the breathe in our lungs, and the food on our plates to name just a few. In my insular grief I’d lost sight of this truth, and had to be shown the way by the unseeing.

Burgers and fries have that kind of power.

That’s why it’s called a happy meal.

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The Ploy

“C’mon man! Come over here. I’ll beat your ass!! Come step in this shower room and we can handle this right now.”

Rigger’s face and bald head was red with rage. His eyes seemed suitably wild, and his words certainly carried plenty of threat. To the uninitiated it appeared that he was ready to rumble, that violence was forthcoming.  To me he was terrified and desperate.

Behind the Curtain

Reality was much different than the facade that Rigger would have everyone believe. The man he was threatening, a guy named Whitey, was actually a good friend of his. They’d known each other for years both in and out of prison as they were both repeat offenders several times over. They’d had an argument and falling out less than an hour previous.

Rigger had been crushing pills. Whatever random painkiller, mood stabilizer, muscle relaxer, or anything at all that he could get his hands on. He’d take his surreptitiously procured medications and hide in the bathroom. There would be a lot of tapping and banging as the drugs were crushed down into a suitably fine powder. Then it was all piled together and snorted as an ill-advised cocktail of miscellaneous prescription medications that Rigger didn’t have any prescriptions for. Even if he had, I don’t believe “nasally” is how a medical professional would recommend the pills being taken.

Overdose

Rigger had only been back from the hospital a day or two. He had overdosed on the cockamamie concoction that he’d been snorting. Whitey and I had both witnessed him seizing, shaking, and foaming at the mouth. Rigger was able to lie and convince everyone, even the treating nurses and physicians, that it was a seizure. Whitey knew better, and when he saw that Rigger was back to his old lunatic tricks, he told him in unvarnished language just how much of an absolute idiotic moron he was.

Intervention

There was yelling and cursing in abundance as Whitey performed his one man impromptu intervention. Rigger sat silent like a chastened child through much of it. There wasn’t anything he could say to defend his actions. Whitey’s tactics may have been deserving of criticism, but his anger and frustration was coming from a place of concern and affection for his friend. Unfortunately, most inmates feel the need to maintain the facade of machismo lest they be perceived as somehow weak, or less than, so Rigger could only take so much before he had to balk at Whitey’s words.

Confrontation

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about! I had a seizure. This stuff doesn’t have anything to do with that.”

“Really?” Whitey responded with a tone which conveyed that he couldn’t believe Rigger would lie so effortlessly to his face. “Do you think I’m that stupid? Do you? Huh? How long we know each other bro? Hmm? You know I know what the hell you’re doing. That shit’s gotta stop.”

“Who the hell do you think you are anyway? I do what I want.”

“I thought I was your Road Dog.”

“Oh that’s just bullshit you tell people. You don’t give a damn about me. We met over a state tray bro. It don’t mean shit.”

“What!? I had you over to my place last time we were out there together. You’re the one who’s on bullshit, and you know it.”

“Well what’s it to you? What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m trying to get you to get your head out of your ass!”

“No you’re acting like a bitch, telling me what to do.”

The B Word

One of the most confounding things I experienced during my years of incarceration was the evolution of the usage of that particular B word. When I started doing my time it was the ultimate of insults. Calling a guy that derogatory designation was akin to a literal slap in the face, an affront which could not be allowed to go unanswered. I can’t even begin to put a number to the amount of times I saw minor disagreements or disputes escalate into violence due to the arrival of that particular word on the scene. It used to have a malevolent kind of magic to it.

The last couple years of my incarceration, as a newer, younger generation of convicts were beginning to predominate the prison population, I was appalled when I first heard the word slip so effortlessly from their young lips. The first time it happened I tensed and started looking for the quickest avenue of retreat to ensure that I was a safe distance removed while the melee ensued. Instead the two kids (that’s how I saw them, and that proves I’m old) just laughed and exchanged the most egregious of insults a dozen times between one another. The B word now, to them, is like saying “dude” or “bro”.

Whitey and Rigger are not of this new generation. Rigger didn’t technically call Whitey a bitch, he just said he was behaving in the manner of one. It’s a fine line that Whitey didn’t respect or recognize as significant. In his mind he’d just received a metaphorical slap to the face and would have to respond accordingly.

Backed Down

“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU SAY!!!?”

Whitey exploded like a mini neutron bomb. He was maybe 5’ 5” and that’s probably being generous. To look at him he didn’t appear physically imposing, but he had a terrible temper. I’d seen the results of this before when he and his cellie had once started swinging on each other because Whitey felt the other guy was spending too much time on the toilet.

Well-adjusted, Whitey isn’t.

When he got wound up he was similar to a raccoon that has been backed against a wall. A small but driven whirlwind of violence, not to be underestimated. Whitey lunged toward Rigger, coming within a quarter inch of physical contact. Even though he had to crane his neck upwards to look Rigger in the face, Whitey still managed to be intimidating. The genuine, undiluted rage helped a lot.

Rigger looked instantly cowed, realizing he had crossed a line and was in a scenario that almost certainly had to end with violence. Whitey snarled and yelled too fast to keep up with his profanity and insults. Rigger backed down physically and psychologically. It had the appearance of a literal shrinking. Myself and another inmate got between the two of them. I had to restrain Whitey and it was like trying to contain a sac of ferrets squirming with lithe muscles. Whitey challenged/invited Rigger to meet him in the shower room where there were fewer prying eyes and they could fight to settle their disagreement. He made sure to drop the B word about a dozen times so that Rigger would know that he’d been insulted to the fullest. The inference being that if Rigger were to not show up for the fight, then his status as a bitch would be cemented.

Juvenile schoolyard games abound behind prison walls.

The Ploy

I got Whitey extricated from the situation for his own good. Even managed to calm him down. Close to an hour had passed. We were sitting in the dayroom, just being nonviolent, passively watching a table of guys play cards, when Rigger walked to the middle of the dayroom. He took his shirt off, mustered his imitation ire, and issued the ultimatum for Whitey to meet him for a fight in the shower room.

This entire maneuver was a calculated one. Rigger had used the intervening time to go and pack all his belongings so that when he went to Segregation his possessions would follow him as opposed to being ransacked by all the greedy, sticky-fingered inmates who could get close to them. And a few officers with especially loose scruples. By stepping into the dayroom and removing his shirt there was a good chance he’d be taken away to SEG. Issuing a threat of violence to another inmate in full view of the C/O made his trip there an inevitability. The whole thing was a ploy, an attempt to save face and look tough, when in reality, if he had really wanted to fight the time would’ve been when Whitey was in his face.

Rigger didn’t want to fight. I can’t blame him.

I grabbed Whitey by the arm and he about bit my head off, but I held him in check. The usually taciturn C/O became suddenly indignant and animated. Rigger was carted off as he hollered threats and curses that were completely hollow. The unenlightened inmates thought Whitey had avoided a fight. Those like myself who were more experienced knew just how cowardly and laughable Rigger’s display had been.

 

 

 

Letting Go

For two years behind prison walls I spent as much waking time as was possible in the library. Being surrounded by books was a panacea to counteract the moments of insanity and aggravation that often characterizes prison life. The solitude was a balm to soothe my scarred psyche. When my supervisor dubbed me “Senior Library Clerk” it was a meaningless title that came without any perks or other tangible benefits. I couldn’t have been more proud.

Then it was all over. Library closed.

I transitioned to a position as a clerk in the legal library where I quickly made myself a valued asset. It wasn’t the same. I always felt like I was just filling and killing time. I managed to “sneak” back into the library on occasion to try keeping it in order since as soon as it was shuttered it became a dumping ground for all manner of printed ephemera. Mostly trash. Literally. Despite the fact that the law of the land requires that inmates have access to library materials, it would be over three years before anyone was hired in the position.

New Low

During those three years I endured a number of injustices. Legal, physical, psychological. I experienced levels of pain and despair that I hadn’t felt in many years, and time had largely dulled those recollections. The immediacy of the moment had a catastrophizing effect on me. I felt like blameless Job, King David, Christ on the cross – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I had largely made it through the worst of my trauma, and with just a few months remaining on my sentence I noticed a change. People were becoming more annoying. That, or I was simply losing grasp of the ability to ignore and let slide all kinds of annoyances.

New Boss, New Opportunity

When I heard that someone had been hired to open the library again, I thought, perhaps a bit arrogantly, that I’d be able to show this new person how things are done. I figured at the very least I could explain how her predecessor and I performed all the minutia of running a library since my supervisor had actually been trained and earned her Master’s Degree in the Library Sciences. (I was tickled to learn that the “Library Sciences” is a real thing.) The new librarian on the other hand was a correctional officer transitioning to the job and not necessarily entirely qualified. Or at least not accredited. I asked certain staff to vouch for me and make an introduction. Working in my library again (and, yes, that’s how I thought of it, as mine) would be reward all it’s own. However it would also have the added benefits of giving me time away from people and making my last chunk of time move more swiftly.

Uninterested

Despite the glowing recommendation and strenuous advising to accept whatever help I offered, she wasn’t interested. As I briefly mentioned a few things about how we had operated the library, some of the difficulties we’d had to negotiate, and offered my assistance in getting it up and running again before I went home, it was obvious to me that she wasn’t listening. She was waiting for me to stop talking so she could say what she wanted. And then she did.

Are you done?

She criticized our filing system, how we labeled and shelved books, how we arranged different book collections. She outlined her plans to revamp the whole system with an air of superiority, as if she were the first librarian in the history of curators to ever imagine implementing these plans and policies. After she had already side-stepped, rebuffed, or ignored my offers of assistance numerous times I didn’t bother to inform her that her plans were naive at best. Her big design included ideas that had already been denied, were contrary to established law, or were a complete waste of time because they didn’t take into consideration the transitory nature of prison. I said nothing. I thanked her for her time and left.

Rankled

This encounter bothered me for days. Her criticisms were unwarranted and came from a lack of understanding about the many hurdles and roadblocks we’d had to negotiate. I took great pride in transforming that library from a dumping ground to a smoothly run operation where books were clean, repaired, labeled properly, and everything was in it’s right place. A place where people came to learn and be lifted, if only momentarily, out of the drudgery of their prison life. In many ways, turning that into what it became was my life’s work up to that point. I could refer to it as a mark that I’d left in this world. To have it dumped on so effortlessly, with seeming callous abandon felt mean and unfair. The more I stewed about it the angrier I got.

What did you say!?

“Who was she to say anything? She doesn’t even know what she’s talking about!” That was my mentality.

After a few days of lost sleep and mental grumblings over her behavior I came to the realization that she was, in her own way, doing exactly what I had done when given the latitude. She was organizing and doing things her own way. I dimly recalled people scoffing at some of the policies my supervisor and I had implemented. The thought dulled the edge of my ire. Then came a revelation. As revelations go it’s actually rather elementary, a no-brainer really, but it rocked me back on my metaphorical heels with all the efficacy of a sucker punch.

Lesson

I would never see my library again. My strong sense of ownership was offended by this notion. I was just under two months from my release date, and it was finally dawning on me with the slowness of a winter’s sunrise that I was actually going home. The day that I had so longed for and daydreamed about was right around the corner and about to become a reality. An actuality. Tangible. This would mean letting go. Learning to let go.

Letting go of my library, my routines, my defenses. My friends who I’d known and seen nearly every day of my life for almost four years. Men who I’d come to think of as family, brothers. Men who I could never again contact, for a period of up to six years in some instances, in accordance with legal mandate or else risk violating the terms of my release and potentially being remanded to prison.

Strange Sensation

It was bizarre. The strangest of sensations. To think that the place which had confined me and restricted my freedom in a thousand ways, both legal and illegal, would hold certain aspects that I would miss when I was gone. I’d hated it for so long, for all it had taken from me or kept me from, but on the precipice of being rid of it forever I knew I’d miss it.

I wouldn’t miss the harassment or the violence and bad food, the confinement and pettiness. But I’d miss people. I’d miss the sense of self-worth that came from being trusted and relied upon and whose opinion was valued. Inside I knew how to navigate prison life and politics, and it was rare when a day passed without someone seeking my input on some legal issue they were wrestling with.

Outside of prison a thousand things baffle me. Even once I’ve gotten answers to my questions I’m often still in a state of confusion. Most recently I was confounded by an automatic paper towel dispenser. I was so accustomed to paper towels being a cherished and hoarded commodity behind prison walls that I was momentarily stupefied by the sudden embarrassment of riches. I could have as many as I wanted. I didn’t know how long to hold my hands, waiting, how much would be sufficient for the job. I ended up with a wad that was much more than I needed. I guess I’m still having trouble letting go.

Parting Insult

I was down to single digit days, and I noticed that the new librarian hadn’t been around in a while. I assumed she was diligently at work in one of the other library collections around the facility that she’d be tasked with maintaining. That wasn’t the case. I was informed by two different staff members that she was no longer the librarian, but had instead become the newest counselor. The consensus was that she had merely used the librarian position as a stepping stone to get the coveted counselor gig that she had wanted all along.

To my knowledge the inmates still have zero access to library materials and current periodicals despite the fact that the law requires the prison to provide inmates with access to these.

I am still learning to let go, but letting go doesn’t include turning a blind eye to injustice.

The Diagnosis

When my supervisor Ms. Thurman told me that I’d be getting a coworker I didn’t like it one bit.

Dream Realized

Working in the prison library was my dream job. Growing up, whenever I’d move to a new town or school, which was often, the library was always my place for solace. The new environment and all the strange kids was intimidating, frightening. Being surrounded by books made me feel comfortable, safe, happy. I think I always got along better with books and the people in them than those in the world around me. People in books are less demanding.

Behind prison walls I was inundated with new people and relationships to navigate. For a person whose most comfortable setting is to be alone, this was a nightmare of sorts. When I unexpectantly got the job in the library I was thrilled, and I quickly came to love my new position for several reasons.

Benefits

Being around books all day once more gave me a sense of belonging and contentment. I enjoyed helping the library visitors find their selections and even make a few humble recommendations of my own. My duties required me to be organized, meticulous, and detail oriented, which fit my natural tendencies perfectly. I also liked that there was always more to be done. Not only could I cross things off my to-do list, (yes, I mean that very literally) but when I finished there was an actual pile of books completed, which gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment. Working in this way I was provided a certain amount of autonomy and was often all by myself. This solitude allowed me to put my head down, focus on the task on hand, and get my work done. It also served as a beautiful respite from the crowded and loud cellhouse. I thought getting a coworker would ruin everything.

New Guy

Ramone was a few years older than me. He was a slightly built Mexican guy who was slim but obviously lifted weights regularly. He spoke Spanish fluently as well as English, albeit with a thick accent. Prior to his imprisonment Ramone had gone to college for accounting, mostly for the money. After interning at an accounting firm for a summer the idea of doing that for the rest of his life seemed a form of insanity. Ramone switched majors to kinesiology. He had been thinking about maybe physical therapy or sports medicine, but as is too often the case, his plans were derailed by a bad decision that snowballed and led inevitably to a series of even worse actions. I could sympathize.

Training

I took it as a sign of her confidence and trust in me when Ms. Thurman tasked me with training Ramone. Ms. Thurman saw my end results but wasn’t necessarily privy to all the steps of my particular process, which was probably for the best. Ramone was a quick learner, but I wasn’t the best teacher. I’d been doing it on my own for long enough that it became second nature, and so my instructions amounted to little more than to just do it. Given a little time I was able to adjust and not only show him step by step how to perform the tasks properly, but also explained why we do things certain ways so it didn’t seem arbitrary. My fears of losing all solitude and independence turned out to be unfounded.

Bonding

As long as we weren’t too busy Ramone liked going to the yard and gym, which was fine by me. During the course of our work we talked and got to know each other. I liked him. He was intelligent and inquisitive. Like myself Ramone was voracious reader, but he studied business texts, psychology case studies, and self-help books. Very little fiction. We had meaningful conversations about relevant issues, but also goofed around and had some laughs together. Our relationship grew so that it wasn’t all business. However, Ramone was also like me in that he was capable of quietly focusing on work and getting things accomplished. A rare thing in or out of prison.

My Diagnosis

For months Ramone had been complaining of back pain. There were times when he’d be working on labeling or repairing a stack of books and he’d have to stand up to do it, or he’d have to sit down to relieve the pressure. Often he’d just walk off, maybe stand in the corner and try to stretch. Nothing he did seemed to help much. More than a few times I told him he could leave, that I’d manage without him for the day. Since I had suffered with my own back pain issue in the past, I described for Ramone what I had gone through, the scans and treatments I’d had prior to my incarceration. I demonstrated a series of stretches and recommended some rest and recovery with walking being the most strenuous activity he was to engage in. One look at Ramone’s physique indicated that this diagnosis and course of treatment would be abhorrent to him. He loved working out. Lifting weights, playing soccer, running, these were how Ramone filled his days and did his time. He wouldn’t stop, no matter the pain. So naturally I made fun of him.

Ridicule

“What’s wrong?”

“My back is killing me today.”

“Did you play soccer yesterday?”

“Yes,” Ramone managed to squeak haltingly, lowering his head sheepishly.

“Well, that was dumb.” This is the kind of good-natured ribbing that I often needled him with.

Sometimes Ramone would claim that running actually made his back feel better, but I always disputed this as largely psychosomatic. I pointed out that these feelings didn’t last long and were in fact unsustainable because he couldn’t run all day every day. He was describing the aftereffects of a runner’s high, his body flushed with adrenaline and endorphins. Once that ebbed, he was right back to agony. I told him countless times that he needed to cut out all the exercise and let his body heal.

When he bragged about deadlifting 315 pounds—an exercise which is particularly stressful to the back—I called him an idiot.

One day he came in and immediately laid down on the floor. I told him that he should’ve just stayed in the cellhouse. He claimed he didn’t want to abandon me without any help. Then he spent most of the morning on the floor providing me zero assistance. This was a fact that I made sure to mention multiple times as I found reasons to walk over and around him despite the fact that he had chosen the most out of the way section of tile to quietly collapse on.

Deliberate Indifference

Ramone endured the kind of criminal negligence that I’ve come to understand as customary in prison healthcare. “Deliberate indifference” is a legal term used to characterize medical care that is obviously inadequate. One threshold that is used is whether a reasonable person, without any medical training, could look at the issue or complaint and deem it serious enough for further treatment.

For nearly a year Ramone sought appropriate medical attention. They gave him 200 mg ibuprofen for the pain. After months of return visits he received a prescription for muscle relaxants. Eventually weekly appointments with the physical therapists were added. This treatment was actually more extensive than most guys get. None of it did much to help the pain, and it did nothing at all to properly identify the cause of Ramone’s symptoms. He did finally have to dramatically cut back and then cease his exercise regimen. He kept asking for an x-ray or MRI scan. He was repeatedly refused. After receiving news from what he considered a reliable source, Ramone decided to try transferring to another prison. There was a degree of desperation in his decision, but after months of constantly worsening pain and being consistently denied the MIR he believed he needed, he was feeling fairly distressed. Ramone’s understanding was that the new prison was much quicker to approve guys for an MIR, and as much as he didn’t want to leave his good job and comfortable surroundings, he felt he had to take the chance. When he left I wished him well and hoped he would get the help he needed.

Ramone’s transfer was granted and executed with remarkable swiftness. That was a fact that I would revisit many times after I received the news. I would wonder if these people somehow knew and wanted to pass Ramone and his problems off to someone else.

The Diagnosis

I was working alone in the library. Ramone’s position hadn’t yet been filled. He’d been gone a little over two months. Ms. Thurman walked in with a purpose. She called my name. “Stop what you’re doing. Come over here. I have something to tell you.” I complied quickly, always eager to jump to any new task. Ms. Thurman was a very no-nonsense kind of person, professional and often all business. This tendency generally rubbed people the wrong way, but it was what I liked about her. I always knew where I stood with her. Until this moment. The look on Ms. Thurman’s face had me unbalanced. She was clearly disturbed.

“Do you want to sit down?” she asked, and I didn’t understand—it seemed out of context or apropos of nothing. “I have something I have to tell you.”

“Okay,” I replied mostly because I thought some response was expected. I didn’t sit down. Between us there was a short bookcase with three shelves. It was part of the reference section and contained an encyclopedia of anatomy that Ramone had studied endlessly for clues to his malady. Ms. Thurman was direct.

“I checked and saw that Ramone had a medical writ today. It wasn’t the first time that he’d been taken out to the hospital, so I called someone I know down where he is.” She paused an instant but pressed on. “He had his MRI and they did find something. A tumor. Ramone has spinal cancer. It’s very advanced they said.”

Later, I would contemplate how many confidentiality regulations Ms. Thurman violated to procure this diagnosis. In that moment though, I looked into her dark eyes, examined her face, analyzed her body language. I was searching for some slim sign that this was all a tasteless joke. Nothing in our relationship or time together should have led me to believe that this was a prank, yet my mind rejected it as wholly impossible. It had to be a ruse. I waited for Ms. Thurman’s mouth to turn upward into a grin. I waited for what felt like a very long time.

“He’s going back today for more tests. They’re going to see what their options are.”

“Options,” I said, not a question. “Okay. Alright. Options.” I was pretty sure his “options” were nil and none. “Spinal cancer. Alright. Okay.” My legs were gone. They weren’t numb. Or weak. There was nothing below my knees. I felt like I was bobbing unsteadily in a rushing torrent.

“Are you alright?” It was a stupid question and it unnerved me all the more because I knew Ms. Thurman was in no way a stupid person. “Do you want to go back? You don’t have to keep working. Just wait here.”

She was gone and I was sitting in a chair. I don’t remember either happening. I thought about all my jokes and jabs at Ramone about his back pain, and I felt like a world-class jerk. Guilt began to dig at me and take hold.

“Options,” I said to no one at all.

Unfeeling Assessment

Ms. Thurman had arranged for me to see a QMHP—quality mental health professional. She didn’t want me going back to my building until I’d talked to him. Apparently she saw something in my face or demeanor that she didn’t like. I agreed to it.

I was hurting, raw, confused, angry. A lot of that I let out to the mental health counselor who had thick glasses and looked like a hundred-and two-pound twerp. I spoke of my faith in God and his larger design, and how I couldn’t reconcile that with this new tragedy. The counselor ignored all else and seized on this. He recommended that I just trust God. His words sounded hollow, platitudes of the worse kind, and entirely insincere. They were a slap in my face to rouse me from my stupor of sudden grief. I silently chastised myself for opening up to this total stranger who clearly didn’t give a tinker’s damn about me. I shut everything down. Though he wasn’t particularly quality like his job title would suggest, he did notice this much. He resorted to the default query.

“Do you feel like you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else?”

I’d heard the question before and knew it was a trap. It was designed to cover the department of corrections from a liability standpoint rather than actually being concerned for my mental well-being. I snarled my response.

“No, I’m fine. I’m not going to do that.” I was dismissed a short time later.

Walking back to my cellhouse, I felt the burden of guilt for Ramone’s condition weighing on me. It wasn’t mine to bear, but I carried it all the same.

Sunburn In Seg

It had been so long since I had felt it.

Excuses

My job in the law library kept me busy, sure, but it was also an easy excuse. I could’ve put forth more effort, arranged it with my coworkers who were all amenable, and made it to the yard at least once or twice during the work week. Then on my two days off for the week—what were my excuses then? I had none that held any semblance of legitimacy. I had essentially embraced apathy and made lethargy my closest companion.

This was due, at least in part, to the fact that I had a significant portion of my bowel bulging forth from a tear in my abdominal wall. A hernia, for which, per department of corrections policy, I was refused surgery. Even though surgical repair of the abdominal wall is the only viable treatment for a hernia. I was told by a medical professional that it would go away on its own. That was a lie. When the intense burning pain would flare up I couldn’t walk, could barely stand or sit. I had to lay down. Mine was an inguinal hernia, in the groin area, the most common kind in men. When it became aggravated it would feel like someone had my testicles clenched in their fist and were squeezing mercilessly. And yet . . . the pain hadn’t become completely debilitating at this point, I still had good days. My choice to abstain from all yards at all times was one I made of my own volition. I may have made it to two or three yards in six months.

Scenery Change

I was placed in segregation, at first under investigation, but eventually numerous erroneous and very serious charges were levied against me. Ultimately this was because the warden didn’t like that, to use his words, I had “cast certain officers and staff in a negative light” when writing essays about my personal prison experiences. I imagine what he liked even less was that these essays were posted online and eventually collected together and published as a book.

Segregation is a bleak kind of solitude, and one’s thoughts can stretch out to explore avenues where one ought not be going. Considering the seriousness of the accusations being made, and their potential penalties, it made for a long Memorial Day weekend. Come Monday it was the tiny concrete slab outside my window, no more than seventy feet square and enclosed by fences and razor wire, that was about to become my new best friend. Seg’s version of yard. Two hours a day, Monday through Friday. Other than the thrice weekly showers it was the only time I’d be leaving my cell. It would also be my only real chance to interact with other people.

Looking The Part

I was up and fully dressed in my ill-fitting jumpsuit thirty minutes before it was time for yard. Prison jumpsuits are notoriously hot and uncomfortable, so I had to improvise. I had torn a quarter inch wide strip off the edge of my bedsheet and it became by sash/belt, so I could let the upper portion of my jumpsuit hand down the back and sides to just be wearing them as pants—it’s prison chic, I assure you. I also rolled up the pant legs so that they were cuffed into shorts that fell just below the knee. Finishing the ensemble was a plain white T-shirt, plain white socks, and plain white tennis shoes with the laces removed, and more strips of bedsheet used to tie them together so they wouldn’t flop off my feet. I had captured the look of the hardened con, and was ready to strut my stuff on the yard.

Absence

Having been locked in the cell for close to sixty-five hours straight I was nearly thrumming with excitement to get out. Anticipatory adrenaline was squirting and it had my heart humming, my limbs tingling, my mouth grinning. I was giddy with the thought of getting outside. My forced absence had apparently made me grow quite fond of it. When my time came, I obediently relinquished my wrists through the chuckhole to be handcuffed behind the back—it’s how things are done in Seg. Once outside, and the cuffs were removed, my shirt came off so that my too, too pale skin could become sun-kissed.

Indifference

To all who ask, I took some delight in saying I was a political prisoner caught up in prison politics because the warden didn’t like what I wrote and he was trying to shut me up. It was a freedom of speech issue. I said my writing was counter to their small-minded fascist ideals, so I got locked up for it. I was honestly tickled by the whole idea. I was also worried, nauseous, anxious, paranoid, and terrified, but yeah, tickled pink. I wore it like a badge of honor. No one cared. In Seg, everyone has their own problems to handle. I walked, felt the penetrating heat of the sun on my flesh, and enjoyed my slim sense of freedom.

Pleasant Surprise

Back in the cell I left my shirt on and performed some light calisthenics while my hernia screamed that I was an idiotic moron for doing so. My hernia was right. With my shirt drenched in sweat I waited for the shower. It wasn’t until I was in the shower stall with its low ceiling and light right on top of me that I saw for the first time the Pepto Bismol pinkness of my shoulders, arms, and chest. I’d been burnt something awful and hadn’t even felt it.

Sitting alone in my cell once more, I couldn’t stop smoothing my fingers and palms over my skin, feeling the heat it held, and relishing my first sunburn in years. I was doing mental arithmetic to figure exactly how long it would be until I could go to yard again.

Spicy Visit

“What are you lookin’ at? Don’t look at me!! Don’t you know these people are tryin’ to kill me?!” It got much worse after this.

Unexpected

I didn’t think I’d ever see Kerri again. My public defender who had so casually treated me to harsh news walked into the prison visiting room. She hadn’t changed a bit in more than a dozen years. Same wispy haircut and dark beady eyes. I assumed she also still lacked professionalism and basic human decency. She and a colleague were escorted past our table to the area behind glass walls reserved for noncontact visits, usually with guys who are in segregation. My visitor knew well my history with Kerri, and we marveled at this unexpected bit of happenstance.

When Kerri’s visitor/client was brought in he was being directed by the use of a chain leash around his waist which was standard procedure for guys coming from segregation. He was guided by a sergeant and two officers instead of just one sergeant as usual. After the anonymous inmate was chained to the desk on the other side of the glass from Kerri,

Sergeant Tank left the area but the two COs stayed just a few feet away. This wasn’t merely odd but had to have been a violation of the client’s right to have confidential communication with his attorney.

Disgruntled

While I was paying attention to my own visitor, apparently this privileged attorney-client conversation became heated. I can attest that it isn’t easy to stand in ankle shackles, a waist chain, and handcuffed to a ring bolted to the table. This disgruntled client was managing to do just that as he yelled at Attorney Kerri. Whatever his concerns might have been were lost, unintelligible through two panes of security glass, but he was clearly displeased with the degree and manner of representation he was receiving from his court appointed attorney.

Shocking, I know.

Whatever he was saying I imagined it wasn’t anything I hadn’t thought to say to the calloused woman. She gathered her materials and colleague and hustled out of there while the assembled COs attempted to get the man calm and seated. Kerri passed within a foot and a half of me and I bit my tongue against a million things I had to say to her. Speaking to another person’s visitor is an infraction of the rules which could’ve resulted in my visit being immediately terminated. Beyond that, however, I felt certain that anything I said would be a waste of words because she probably had no idea who I was. Another anonymous name on a file that had been processed and put into storage over a decade before.

Unpredictable

To their credit, the two officers had managed to get him seated and settled. To their soon to be shame they had failed to take into account this man’s reputation for dramatics. At the time I wasn’t privy to it, but later learned that this particular offender had become something of a sensation when CCTV footage of him berating his judge in open court had gone somewhat viral. Perhaps these COs aren’t so much to be blamed since cussing at a judge doesn’t necessarily correlate to a violent temperament. I know I’ve wanted to cuss at a judge once or twice. And yet, I feel they still should’ve known better and taken more extensive precautions. Then again, everything is so much clearer in hindsight. While this man was clearly unpredictable and volatile, who could’ve known that four security staff members wouldn’t be enough to handle him?

Chokepoint

Sergeant Tank returned with another officer for assistance. At a stout, solid six-five, Sergeant Tank was aptly named. It would have been ideal for the officers to surround their prisoner and act as a barrier to the civilian visitors, but the entrance to the no contact visiting area was a chokepoint that made this impossible. The ill-conceived configuration of the visiting room tables acted as an extension of this chokepoint making the lane too narrow to corral him effectively because the officers who were there to act as security had to fall in behind Sergeant Tank with the irritated inmate leading the way. When he claimed that “these people” were trying to kill him and bucked back against Sergeant Tank there was no one in a position to assist.

Conditioned

“They’re trying to kill me! Don’t you see that!”

Sergeant Tank had yanked him by the waist leash so he was close, but he was squirming and screaming for all he was worth. This was maybe two feet from a table where an inmate in his sixties was visiting with his wife. Two tables over from where I sat, less than ten feet away. It looked like he was about to lash out at the table for no other reason than it was closest to him. The assault seemed imminent, and who could say what he would do next? Every instinct told me to remove myself from the area and to stand as a meagre barrier between the suddenly violent inmate and my visitor. I am sad, and more than a little ashamed, to report that years of conditioning in prison had ingrained in me that you do NOT get up in the visiting room unless it is to ask permission to use the toilet. I sat, watching with sidelong glances, cringing at all the potential calamities that could befall us. What did happen, I did not see coming.

Precipice of Disaster

The three officers tried to reposition so they could be of some use. They shoved an empty table with its attached stools out of the way and tried to maneuver around other tables filled with inmates and their visitors. These three scurried comically to figure what to do, but there was nothing to be done, and it really wasn’t terribly funny because it was clear that there was no easy or quick solution to this crisis. It was a point in time pregnant with dread since I couldn’t imagine it not ending badly. I admit that I didn’t anticipate it going as terribly as it did.

The irate inmate was no small specimen—over six feet and more that two hundred pounds. Sergeant Tank wrapped him up in a bear-hug from behind, pinning his elbows to his sides while his hands were still cuffed and chained at his waist. Then Sergeant Tank lifted him bodily from the floor. It was an impressive feat, but only momentarily neutralized the threat. Fingers flailed frantically; feet kicked skyward. COs stood around, agape and helpless. The embraced inmate looked a little like a bug caught on his back with his limbs twittering the air for purchase to get back on earth. There was a magic moment, little more than an instant, when the fulcrum action of Sergeant Tank’s movement seemed to pause at the precipice of disaster and suspend itself in time and space. Reality crashed in the form of momentum and gravity. When the captured inmate slammed his head backward Sergeant Tank sprawled onto his back atop a blessedly unoccupied table and his captive came down hard on top of him. Chaos erupted, and Sergeant Kay rushed in to try to exert some control over it all.

Controlled Chaos

Sergeant Kay was a serious woman with frizzy dirty blond hair, a full figure and severe demeanor. She plainly didn’t put up with any bullshit or shenanigans. She was also kind, extraordinarily helpful and quick to smile. Those who didn’t know any better thought she was just another bully who had been given some authority to throw around. While the three COs finally figured out something to do—get the irate inmate off of Sergeant Tank—Sergeant Kay barked orders. Somehow, she managed to bark them firmly but politely.

“Everybody move over there to the other side. Get up and go against the wall. Everyone come on.” We moved. Ten tables worth of inmates and visitors began migrating en masse to the opposite side of the room like refugees fleeing a despot. Then people started screaming.

Proper Protocol?

I honestly don’t know what the proper protocol is in which Correctional Officers are trained when it comes to the appropriate circumstances for use of pepper spray. I imagine there is some set procedure, though probably there is a certain degree of discretion expected to be exercised. Based on the three COs and their stooge-like performance to this point, I’ve very little faith that they apply the discretion required and followed protocol. A big indicator of this is that Sergeant Tank got a faceful of the caustic spray meant for the irrational inmate. His was one of the voices we heard screaming along with the three COs in the scrabble with the irascible inmate—the inmate himself was yelping and yelling along with a few stragglers who didn’t exodus with requisite swiftness. I was standing with my back to the wall, my visitor to my right, and Sergeant Kay to my left and just ahead of me when everything changed.

Reinforcements

Directly to my left was the anteroom that led to the strip search room through which I had to pass to get back into the prison. It was the only way to enter the visitor room from within the prison, and the doorway suddenly burst with an endless stream of officers—dozens of them. A sea of black shirts and pants, too many to accurately count. They were everywhere, corralling us who needed no corralling. All the bodies kicked up and spread around the pepper spray molecules so the air became filled hacking coughs as it tickled the backs of throats.

Sergeant Tank was tenderly attended by an officer on each arm to assist him out of the crime scene. His eyes were blinking blindly and his face was red—no small feat considering that he was a fairly dark-skinned black man. I heard the irritant covered inmate wailing and gagging but didn’t see the condition he was in because he was carried/dragged/handled from the premises by a crowd of security staff while the remaining inmates and visitors were directed to a door that had been opened to an outdoor patio which inmates had been barred from using about a decade previous.

Rare Respect

Standing outside in the sunlight with my friend was surreal. It was a whole new setting for us. Everyone stood around squinting in the brightness, blinking and coughing from the pepper spray. Sergeant Kay stood with us, trying to extend comfort and apologies to make the best of the situation. Large fans were brought in to move the toxic air out, but it was only a matter of time before we all had to go back inside. We were assigned new tables as far away from ground zero as possible. Those who needed to rinse out their eyes were provided a bathroom. The tickle in the back of the throat never quite went away. At some point the head warden had shown up—one of only a few times I’d ever seen the man. He went around to each table asking if everyone was okay, obviously doing damage control, but seemingly sincere. In general our visitors were treated with utmost kindness and respect. We inmates received the same degree of kindness and respect, which was far more than we were accustomed to. The most attention was paid to an infant girl who had braved the spicy visit better than many of us. As far as I could tell she slept through the whole ordeal.

Graduation Day

I can’t seem to remember much about my high school graduation. I don’t believe I was all that impressed with the accomplishment. I should’ve been. What I do recall is that it was outside in the sun, right out on the football field. Nothing like graduation in prison.

Unique Setting

The largest classroom had been cleaned out and rearranged with an improvised dais for visiting dignitaries and rows of chairs facing them for the graduating class of nearly fifty. We were arranged in our caps and gowns, looking nervous and excited like every other group of soon to be graduates in history. The cramped, dimly-lit room and razor wire topped fences just outside the window were only a couple items that set us apart. The warden of the penitentiary provided opening remarks, followed by the prison’s college coordinator Ted Wilson. He was a tall, red-faced, gregarious guy with a big smile and wire-framed glasses. He actually cared about inmates and would bend over backwards to help if he could. Everybody liked him. After speaking he introduced the president of the college where we had earned our associate’s degrees or vocational course completion certificates. It was during this transition that I noticed the set of car keys with the remote unlock fob attached sitting on the table in front of the podium from where they were delivering their remarks.

Best Of Intentions

For the better part of an hour the president of the college spoke, much of it echoing what had already been said. He was proud of us for setting a goal, striving for and achieving that goal. He commended us on our accomplishment, encouraged a positive attitude, and told us we could achieve anything—that we were not failures. Not useless criminals as the world would like to pigeonhole us. It was obvious that he cared, was sincere, and nothing but the best of intentions. Looking around the room I saw guys who weren’t going home for decades and others who would live the rest of their days behind prison walls. I couldn’t help thinking that some of his sentiments rang hollow.

False Normalcy

With graduating inmates ready and inspirational words spoken, we were called up one at a time. Several teachers, counselors, the warden, and Ted Wilson stood shoulder to shoulder and we shook their hands until we got to the president of the college who smiled and shook our hands as he handed us our degree or certificate. Since “Hastings” is right there at the front of the alphabet I was the first to shake my way down the line, smile for the nonexistent photo-op, and say thank you. Everyone smiled back their congratulations and the heady musk of sincerity was in the air. I took my seat again, clapped at the appropriate times, and it all seemed so normal, ordinary. After the fifth man had exited the stage, Ted Wilson spotted the car keys and his eyes bugged out behind his spectacles.

Incredibly Subtle

Ted Wilson sprang into action, pushing in behind the other assembled hand-shakers and making his way to the president of the college. He whispered in his ear and the president tried (and failed) not to make it too apparent that he was directing his attention to the keys. After a moment of mental deliberation the president whispered back, projecting a mile-wide smile when he was done, and Ted Wilson seemed suitably chastened as he slinked back to his place in line.

Dilemma

Their dilemma was an obvious one. They couldn’t just take the keys off the table without interrupting the proceedings and bringing attention to them. It would’ve had the effect of destroying all the well-wishes and pleasant platitudes we had been getting fed up to that point. Reverting to fear and mistrust was probably not what they intended, but that was the reality. The rest of the ceremony consisted of both men smiling, shaking hands, attempting to appear like business as usual, but neither of them went very long without eyeballing the keys to make sure they were still there. The president fell into a rhythm. Smile, smile, look, handshake/pose with certificate, look, smile. Repeat. Once I recognized this it became impossible not to notice, and difficult not to laugh. Between the president and Ted Wilson the keys never went a second or two without eyes on them.

Not Nonchalant

Once everyone had received their handshake and written proof that they had completed something, we all stood and contributed to the ovation before filing out. The president wasted no time in swiping the keys into his pocket before anyone could pass by the podium. To his credit, he tried very hard (and failed very badly) to look nonchalant. The newly graduated shuffled into the classroom across the hall where we stripped out of our caps and gowns and returned them to their plastic bags. When all caps, gowns, and tassels were accounted for, we went back to find the room had been transformed. There was now a buffet table serving small cups of juice and Jell-O cake made special just for us by the culinary geniuses in the chow hall. Given the fuss everyone was making you would’ve thought it was a five-course gourmet feast.

Perspectives

I spoke with a few other guys who had also noticed the interplay between the president and Ted Wilson over the keys, and we all shared a chuckle. “What? Were we going to snag them and head out for a joyride?”

It didn’t ruin or mar the occasion for me, but it provided some perspective. I had to realize that the distrust they displayed was something I’d probably have to face the rest of my life when people find out I’ve been in prison. I found a cozy corner to enjoy my cake and ponder my predicament.

I saw myself at a crossroads of sorts. It had been exactly ten years almost to the day since I’d received my high school diploma. It had taken me a decade to earn a two-year associates degree, but I was proud of my accomplishment, and had done it for no one but myself. I had ten years remaining on my sentence, and I had no idea what came next. On that sunny football field I never could’ve imagined a future with love, professional success, marriage, drug addiction, prison, divorce. I figured it to be pointless at best, if not psychologically devastating, to contemplate the potential endless monotony, pointless banalities, and gritty realities of prison that could serve to turn me jaded or grind me to an unfeeling nub of a person. So I didn’t worry about all the tomorrows ahead. I ate my soggy, bland cherry Jell-O cake and did my best to appreciate the moment.