A Confluence of Unfortunate Occurrences


This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
Standing there with my bruises and torn boxer shorts, I felt the unwarranted shame of a victim, as if I had somehow done something to bring this entire situation upon myself. Sometimes bad things just happen.

To begin with, I wasn’t expecting a court writ. If I’d known it was coming, I would’ve been ready. But as is often the case, life caught me unprepared. As I stood in personal property with my meager belongings spewed from my property box, the C/O impatiently prodded me to choose the few items I was allowed to bring with me. One change of undergarments, a few hygiene items, a Bible, the legal documents needed for my hearing. That’s it, and don’t try to sneak anything past him. In prison, the C/O who controls property holds huge sway. He can make a guy’s bit extremely difficult; it’s a very bad idea to piss him off.
In my flustered, frantic haste to grab what I needed/what I was allowed to have, I was dumbfounded as to what to expect since this was my very first court writ. I didn’t know my property would be housed at my home joint, and I would be shipped to an institution closer to the courthouse for my hearing. Once the court was done with me, I’d be shipped back. At a minimum, the whole thing would be a two-week round trip. Without fully understanding the ramifications, I simply grabbed what was at the front of my box and moved along. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a new joint, with a new cellie, that I realized I was wearing state whites and that my only change of clothes was also produced by the state.

All the state-issued clothes given to inmates are made by inmates. This means that a sub-par work force is fashioning items using low-quality materials. I wish I could say something nicer about the skills of my fellow inmates, but I prefer to be honest. My gravest concern was the boxer shorts. The material was thin and would rip quite easily. What’s more, the seam on the back of the state-issued boxer shorts ran directly along the crack of one’s ass. Why is this important? Because the faulty design meant that any stretching, squatting, or simply sitting down would put stress on the seam. Perhaps it was just my ample posterior, but whenever I wore state boxers, it was only a matter of time before they betrayed me by splitting wide open right along that backside seam.


As my lousy luck would have it, the only two pairs of boxers I had with me on the writ had been in my possession for a while. They had suffered more than their fair share of strain. One afternoon before the end of the first week, I heard a distinctive tearing sound as I was climbing into the top bunk. I knew I’d torn myself an unnecessary ventilation hole in my boxers.
It was only a few days later that I suddenly awoke in a panic from a deep sleep, wearing my remaining pair of intact boxers, and suffering from a badly brimming bladder. I thrust myself into a sitting position and scrambled to the end of the bed, trying to get to the toilet before I wet myself. My desperate need to pee, the fact that I hadn’t spent any time on a top bunk in years, the new and unusual cell configuration, and my rapid maneuvering in the dark all culminated in my painful downfall.

Speedballing as I was, I flung my leg over the foot-rail and allowed momentum to carry me forward to land on the next rail down before stepping safely to the floor. That was the plan. What actually happened, though, was that my right foot missed the middle foot rail and the bottom half of my left leg slid under the top rail, while the rest of my torso kept on going. I was left dangling upside-down in mid-air with all of my two hundred plus pounds pulling at the crook of my knee. I felt an excruciating hot tearing and yelped out in pain, but a dozen other injustices also screamed out for attention and made my cry of anguish die in my throat. My head hit the sink. My shoulder, back, bicep, forearm, ribs, hip, and butt all collided against the metal bed with plenty of force. My boxer shorts tore nearly in half. Extricating myself from the rack was a noisy nightmare that sent flares of fresh hurt flashing out to various coordinates on my injured frame. It’s a minor miracle that I didn’t drench myself in urine.


I’ve never been particularly vain, but my parents did instill in me a sense of self-worth, and the notion that I should take pride in my appearance. It may just be that they didn’t want their kid being the slovenly, stinky kid on the playground. Whatever their intentions, the lesson stuck, and I try to be presentable even if it’s just other inmates and C/Os who will see me. Thanks to this mindset, as the morning came for me to board the transfer bus and head back to my home joint, I was feeling highly embarrassed. I was also quite frightened.

My nocturnal mishap had left bruises tattooed all over my body, and I knew I would be strip-searched. The back of my left leg was one huge multi-hued contusion that ran unbroken from mid-calf to mid-thigh and made it impossible for me to walk without a limp. My thighs, calves, shoulders, back, butt cheeks, and arms were all spotted with a scandalous number of scrapes and bruises. There was also a bulging goose egg just left of center on the back of my head. All of this was glaring evidence of some kind of struggle or confrontation, and I wasn’t confident that a nosy C/O would believe my struggle had been with my bed and not another inmate. The fear that I’d be accused of fighting and thrown into Seg indefinitely under investigation was a dim and secondary concern.


At this point, I’d been down long enough that I was more or less used to stripping naked, so that’s not what I was embarrassed about. My embarrassment, and primary concern, was that my appearance would give the C/O who was staring at my nude flesh and fondling my discarded clothes a low opinion of me. Not only of me, but also of my parents, for having raised a child who would so brazenly waltz around wearing boxers in such a sad state of disrepair. I would’ve preferred the anonymous officer to think I had been fighting, or even that I’d been assaulted, since all my injuries were on the back of my body and my boxers were practically shredded. But I didn’t want him to think I was a sloppy mess without enough self-respect or pride to wear appropriately dignified and proper undergarments.

When my time came, I stepped forward to the appointed spot. There were two men on my right and three on my left, each performing the same strip-tease for their respective C/Os. Over a hundred guys were lined up behind us, all waiting their turn. I handed over my shoes and socks, stripped off my banana suit and T-shirt and passed them to the C/O. Finally I removed my boxers and sheepishly pressed them into the officer’s latex-gloved palm. Following his prompts, I opened my mouth and pulled my lips back so he could see under them, ran my hands through my hair, raised my arms to reveal my armpits, and lifted my privates skyward so he could take a peek beneath them. Then came the dreaded spin. With my back finally fully revealed to him, I heard a sharp intake of air and a muffled, “Damn…” as a mumbled exclamation of shock. There was a pause that felt like a tiny eternity, then the piece de resistance: I had to bend at the waist, spread my butt cheeks and cough.


I was facing him again as he rifled through my clothing. My pathetic boxers were frisked first, and the C/O’s hand went right through the incriminating hole. A brief (no pun intended) shadow of perplexity crossed his face, and he met my eyes for a moment before snorting derisively and tossing the battered boxers at me. After covering my nakedness, I actually felt more shame, as my torn shorts allowed a brisk breeze to caress my undercarriage while I waited for the rest of my clothes to be cleared for wearing.

Once I was dressed and striding to the transfer bus, I didn’t have an ounce of confidence remaining. I worried which of my fellow prisoners had seen my shame—and by that I don’t mean my nudity, but my destroyed boxers. Distantly I wondered about the competence of a C/O who would let a guy as bruised and torn as me just walk on by. Mostly, though, I prayed that I might catch a break and get a decent C/O at my home joint who would let me shower after my long bus ride. I daydreamed about sliding my freshly cleaned legs into some pristine boxers, positioning them on my hips where they’d protect my package and project to the world a certain confidence and pride. I had a torturous bus ride ahead of me—upwards of seven hours, chained to a stranger. But a guy could dream.



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It was about nine months after my arrest date, and I was still sitting in county, fighting my case. I’d already spent a Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthday separated from the world – the first of many such separations – but to be honest, it wasn’t that bad. My mental anguish – in the form of regrets about the past, and fears and doubts about my future – wasn’t wonderful. But beyond that, living life locked up was manageable. I quickly got the hang of it. Man is nothing if not adaptable.


I’d made at least one good friend during that period. This is the story of when he strangled me into unconsciousness.
Timmy was a good guy under enormous stress. He’d been arrested for murdering his wife, but his assertions of innocence fell largely on deaf ears. Timmy theorized that several police officers, working in tandem to cover up their accidental shooting of his wife, systematically murdered her. After examining every crime-scene photograph, police report, witness statement, ballistics report, medical examiner’s report and other related documents, I was inclined to believe him. Timmy was trapped in a nightmare I couldn’t imagine facing. I quickly became his confidant and support system. It was a difficult role, because I had my own worries, but I believed in his innocence. I still do. Unfortunately, to the world at large he was just another violent black man who’d taken a domestic dispute too far. Nobody cared.

Timmy and I were sitting in his cell. Timmy was delivering a diatribe while I sat quietly and seethed. He was ranting about why young black men brag and exaggerate their sexual prowess. His premise was that because many of them were born into poverty and the inner-city ghetto life, the only thing they could assert with any pride was that they were great Lotharios. Timmy’s sweeping statements offended me because he passed them off as fact, but I knew it couldn’t be true of all young black guys. Maybe some of them who lead lives like that wind up in prison, but not all. Unfortunately, having grown up in a white middle-class household, I didn’t have a racial, cultural, or socioeconomical leg to stand on. So I sat in silence and became more incensed. There was actually a different and deeper cause of my inexhaustible ire.

One of my fellow prisoners, Jaymo, a young black man, had only moments before assured me that if he was out there he would have no problem convincing my wife to sleep with him. The term “sleep with” is mine, whereas Jaymo was much more explicit in his description of how and what he would do to her. Using terms and imagery as graphic you might imagine, he described precisely how he would violate her. According to Jaymo, it would be completely consensual and entirely possible because his “game” with the ladies was so potent and his sexual prowess undeniable.


Jaymo actually believed this. He also wasn’t saying it to offend me or get under my skin. In his mind, these were simply the facts. I was still married at the time, still hopeful that our marriage could survive all my lies and crimes. I was also naïve enough to think that the years of my inevitable prison sentence wouldn’t exceed single digits. The subject of my beloved wife was a sensitive one, and I was very protective of her. I wanted to beat Jaymo for what he said about her. I wanted to beat him bloody. I felt it was what he deserved.

Timmy had been listening and easily identified my escalating anger. He stepped in to literally pull me out of the situation. That’s how I ended up sitting on the steel toilet in Timmy’s cell while he reclined on his slab and opined about the inner-workings of the young African American mind. The problem was that, to me, it felt like Timmy was defending Jaymo’s offensive and lewd remarks. That’s not technically what he was doing, but I was angry and not thinking soundly, so that’s how it felt. This only made me more irate, and I lashed out.

“You want to let him talk about your wife like that, fine, she probably liked that kind of stuff. Your wife is gone, so it doesn’t matter anymore, but my wife is still alive. Don’t tell me how to defend her. You did a shit job of protecting yours.” My remarks were callous, illogical, unfair and untrue. Even as I stormed from his cell in a huff, I felt small and petty. I felt like the world’s most gargantuan asshole.

photo by aopsan www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by aopsan

I scurried next door to my cell with all the dignity of a fleeing rat or cockroach. Standing in the center of my cell, I chuffed out a loud sigh filled with frustration, regret, and shame. The sound of a shower shoe scuffing on the concrete made me turn around. Timmy stood at the threshold of my cell. I opened my mouth to speak, but he attacked before I could say anything.

Timmy’s face was blank. If anger was driving him, it was a deep and abiding emotion, not a momentary flourish. He covered the four feet between us in a flash. He was wearing a thermal underwear long-sleeve top, and as he moved toward me he pulled his right arm out of its sleeve and held the cuff in his left hand, with the rest of the material stretched free from his body. He wrapped this material around my neck twice and pulled it taut. The entire maneuver was one fluid motion and took a fraction of a second; Timmy was as swift, smooth, and silent as a ninja. I didn’t even feel fear, panic, or wonder. My world went black, and I was gone.

I awoke on the floor of my cell, alone. My skull felt two sizes too big and throbbed painfully. Blood pounded in my ears. There was no way for me to know how long I’d been unconscious, but I was sure it hadn’t been long – seconds, rather than minutes. A couple of guys from the deck stood outside the bars of my cell, watching me. Once they saw I wasn’t dead, they turned their attention back to the communal TV. Apparently, whatever was showing there was far more interesting.

My disorientation was dissolving in increments. I touched my neck, which felt raw and chafed. My esophagus was as dry as the Sahara. Moving my hand upward, I felt a lump on the side of my head, just above my right ear, which was extremely tender and painful to touch. Considering my position on the floor, I figured that I’d probably knocked my head on the toilet as I crumpled. My legs were as wobbly and unsure as Bambi’s on ice, but I managed to stand on them long enough to plop down onto my bunk. I sat there for a long time as equilibrium ebbed back into my life.

It was several hours before I approached some semblance of normalcy. During that time, everything seemed more intense – sounds were too loud, lights too bright, sense of touch overly sensitive. My thoughts were like a box of puzzle pieces, and I couldn’t find any edges to make them begin to resemble anything reasonable. My brain was trying to reject the notion that the incident had happened at all.

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photo by stockimages

The idea that my buddy had choked me into darkness seemed impossibly absurd, but the physical evidence was impossible to refute. Perhaps it was the lapse in oxygenated blood to my brain, but a loopy logic kept circling back to the conclusion that I had gotten what I’d deserved. Only moments before Timmy’s attack, I’d wanted to similarly assault Jaymo for disparaging my wife. How then could I blame Timmy for reacting as he did when I questioned his wife’s virtue and his love for her? The easiest answer that I found was: I couldn’t.

Eventually I walked back into Timmy’s cell and sat on his toilet once more. The four other guys who shared the pod with us were collectively holding their breath in anticipation of more violence. Instead, Timmy and I sat in silence for a long time. When our eyes finally met, the shame and regret I saw in his eyes mirrored my own sentiments.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Yeah,” was his pained response. An uncomfortable quiet stretched between us awhile. Finally, Timmy began to speak stilted words of prayer. I joined in, and we traded back and forth to seek forgiveness, comfort, mercy, and strength to persevere. And, as only the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit can achieve, our differences were reconciled.

Timmy and I never again spoke of the incident, but I never forgot how quickly violence could erupt within the crucible of confinement, even between friends. It was a lesson I would see reenacted countless times over the years. Despite his propensity for violence, I still believe Timmy is innocent of the murder of his wife. The jury disagreed with me, as he was sentenced to 85 years in prison. Without a positive response to his appeals, Timmy is scheduled to be released sometime around his 120th birthday. The son he had with his late wife has become another statistic in the foster care system.

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Search and Seizure


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Wade’s legs waggled and writhed while the heels of his boots bounced against the floor. His arms flailed and flopped, making slapping noises against the concrete. Moaning noises were punctuated by occasional grunts as his entire body shimmied and bucked. Seeing Wade afflicted like that, I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. My fist covered my mouth to conceal my grin.

White-shirt-and-blue-shirt-officersShakedown Artist
C/O Prader was a consummate shakedown artist, and he’d been terrorizing the cell house for weeks. As the afternoon shift change approached, the entire atmosphere of the building changed to one of high alert as every inmate waited to see if (please, oh please, oh please) Prader would be absent. Perhaps he would take a vacation or be assigned to a different building in the prison compound. Robocops like Prader don’t take vacations, and he always showed up just as regularly and regimented as a caffeine fiend’s first jolt of java in the morning. He arrived with his stoop-shouldered gambol on legs as limber as toothpicks and wearing a mustache that was the anemic twin to Tom Selleck’s signature facial flourish. Prader’s musty body odor was overpowering as he walked the hallways smelling of mothballs and burnt birthday candle wax.

For any convict who has been locked up for a while, shakedowns are par for the course. Many come to think of it as a kind of cat and mouse game. The authority figures are well aware that inmates are in possession of illegal items, but it’s their job to prove it by finding them. A convict’s duty is to stay one step ahead of them. In a max or medium-max, moving illicit materials around to duck a shakedown can be difficult if not impossible at times. Prader’s reign, however, was in a lower security facility where inmates could move through the hallways and dayroom more freely, so smuggling contraband came more easily. The question became: what do I hide?

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image by Ohmmy3d

What made Prader’s searches and seizures so despicable, feared, and insidious was the fact that he was unpredictable. One never knew what he might take. The obvious illegal items, of course, could be hidden or concealed on one’s person because when Prader came to shakedown, he didn’t pat down the inmates as they left the cell. But what about the rest? Prader was taking electronic items like TVs, beard trimmers, and hot pots with the justification that he thought they looked scratched or marked as if someone had buffed out another inmate’s ID number and carved their own in. Even when confronted with the contract and proof provided by the personal property office that the item in question was in fact legit, Prader took it anyway and made the inmate jump through hoops to get it back. Prader took clothes, bowls, cups, utensils, and food—all of which were obtained legally through commissary. Sometimes he would make up some bogus excuse, but for the most part his reasoning was simply “because I can.”

For his own safety it’s probably for the best that Prader wasn’t at a max joint because he would’ve been a likely candidate to be a victim of a staff assault. He got away with his bullying tactics because the privileges afforded inmates at a lower security facility served to keep the population pacified. Acting out violently is the best and quickest way to get transferred to a joint where you’re locked behind a door all day. With this as the dynamic, Prader seized property with impunity and convicts learned to adjust and avoid.

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photo by Keerati

Daily Ritual
Once it was confirmed that Prader was, in fact, working, convicts would collect their contraband and shuttle it around to a safer spot. Since it was impossible to know who would be shookdown, everything became a calculated risk. If a cell was searched the night before, it was considered safe. Generally speaking, unless the occupants of a cell gave Prader a reason to search them again—a reason such as pissing him off—a shakedown once per month was customary. The beginning of the month was rough because every cell was fair game. The end of the month could be dangerous because Prader was known to circle back on cells randomly after the 25th of the month. Prader performed his shakedowns when the bulk of the building’s occupants were at chow. Before that, while the house was full, he usually had other duties to perform. When Prader shuffled up to my neighbor’s door nearly ninety minutes earlier than was usual and announced that they had to get out so he could shakedown, he caught them completely off guard and with their proverbial pants around their metaphorical ankles.

The cell held three men, and one of them, Art, exited with a look on his face that was three parts fear and two parts guilt. Both of his cellies were gone on their work assignments, and Art looked around in a panic, frantically seeking someone to tell him what to do. Not only had Prader caught him unaware by coming early, but apparently since their cell had been shookdown only one week prior, they felt they were safe and so they had several other inmate’s belongings secured in their cell. If/when Prader found the large stash hidden haphazardly under the bed and behind a property box, it would be a fiasco. All three occupants of the cell would almost certainly be hauled to Seg, and anyone who could be even tenuously linked to any of the illegal property would face severe penalties. In this case, it would’ve been better (meaning a lesser punishment would have been applied) to have been caught with an unauthorized item rather than being caught trying to conceal that item.

Art was sick. He had lost some of the color in his face—a very noticeable thing for a Latino guy as dark-toned as he was. I was in the hallway being nosy. I sympathized with my neighbors, but that didn’t mean I’d forgo a front row seat to the drama about to unfold.

“What am I supposed to do?” Art sounded terribly desperate as he asked the assembly of fellow lookyloos like myself. He got only a gaggle of shrugged shoulders and a grunted chorus of “I don’t know, man.” Art let out a low, pained moan before spinning on his heels and rushing toward the dayroom. Perhaps he was going to seek assistance from others, or maybe he was just trying to distance himself from the impending debacle in his cell. The guy standing next to me broke off from our impromptu group and ran to intercept Art. After imparting some hushed wisdom, the two of them picked up the pace even more toward the dayroom. With my curiosity piqued, I hustled after them.


By the time I caught up to Art, he had already found his accomplice and was huddled in the corner with him. Wade was an annoying clown, an unabashed fool, and a loudmouthed idiot. He was a sad indictment of the inner-city ghetto environment, the gang lifestyle, the public education system, the prison system, and perhaps America as a whole. Wade was a sixtyish black man with a head full of gray hair who still spoke and behaved like he was a hot-headed, ignorant, and uneducated sixteen-year-old gangbanger with something to prove to the world and not a jot of sense in his head. However, history has shown that even a fool can serve his purpose.

Floundering Fool
The two of them were hunched over with Art’s arm around Wade’s shoulders and their foreheads nearly touching as they conferred. It looked like Art was spilling all the words into Wade’s ear while Wade merely nodded his head vigorously. With a final curt nod, Wade clapped Art on the chest reassuringly and made a beeline toward where I stood just inside the dayroom and next to the entry to the hallway down which Prader was plying his tyrannical trade.

For a brief instant, I thought that Art had somehow convinced or cajoled Wade into attacking Prader, but then Wade suddenly stumbled into a stutter-step, bent in half at the waist, clutched at his chest and upper arm, (something which is more closely associated with a heart attack, I believe, but what do I know?) before finally crashing in a mess on the floor right in front of the bubble and commencing his flopping and floundering routine. From across the dayroom, Art called out, “He’s having a seizure!”

C/O Gilbert was the bubble officer and he went from half asleep to instantly alert but decidedly discombobulated. He stood up quickly then sat down, stood up partway, then collapsed to his seat. Third time was the charm and Gilbert stayed on his feet, pointing at Wade wriggling on the ground. Gilbert’s mouth was opening and closing but only making confused and ineffectual chuffing noises as he looked around in all directions for some assistance of direction. “Are you alright?” Gilbert finally managed to ask—arguably the most dimwitted query he could’ve conjured. In response, Wade moaned and grunted louder as he flailed and seized more violently. I stifled my laughter so as not to wreck their ruse. “Call a Code!” Art hollered from his corner hiding place, throwing his voice with all the expertise of an abysmal ventriloquist. C/O Gilbert seized on the idea and finally sprang into action.

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photo by vectorolie

“Code three! Code three!” His voice was shaky with panic and lacking authority as he called it into his radio, but it produced the desired effect. Code three is the designation for a medical emergency. Gilbert added the cell house number and the location as the dayroom, and Prader burst from Art’s cell in six seconds flat, moving in his signature hunchbacked fashion on quick, stiff legs to the location of the crisis. Thanks to Wade’s diversion, Prader hadn’t spent more than three minutes inside the cell and hadn’t found anything. Prader leaned over Wade and asked if Wade could hear him, if he was okay. Wade’s noisemaking increased once more, and it sounded suspiciously like he was choking back chuckles.

C/Os and lieutenants arrived in droves followed shortly by a trio of nurses who gathered Wade’s quieted form and rolled him away on a stretcher. After spending a large chunk of the night writing an incident report detailing all of his actions during the medical emergency, C/O Prader merely wandered down the hall and provided my neighbors with their Photostat copy of a shakedown slip which reported that the C/O had searched their cell and found nothing.


In defense to his legitimate history of seizures, Wade was held in Healthcare for observation overnight before being released back to the building the next day. His triumphant return was met with lots of laughs and high-fives all around. When Prader showed up for the evening he was sure to check on Wade to ask about his health and well-being. Two hours later, Prader arrived at Wade’s door again, this time for a shakedown. There was nothing for Prader to find because Wade and his cellies had already stashed all their contraband in Art’s cell, and so the cat and mouse game continued.//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

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Hot Foot


Pinto beans are a special meal in prison, simply because not every cook is capable of preparing them. In a yet-to-be-explained paradox, bags of pinto beans are available for purchase in commissary, but there’s no way to cook them without using a hot pot that’s been illegally rigged to boil, or at least modified to get much hotter than the thermostat was originally regulated for.

Cooking beans fills the air with a pleasant, home-cooking aroma. Procuring spices like garlic powder or onion powder – or, even more exotic and elusive, an actual onion obtained from a sticky-fingered chow hall worker – to add to the pot transforms run-of-the-mill beans into truly scrumptious fare. You can fancy yourself a chef and feel the satisfaction of enjoying something made with your own hands that is surely tastier than anything served in the chow hall. Plus, at a cost of little more than a buck per bag, with each bag producing four generous heapings of beans, it’s a fairly cheap meal. For Pauley, unfortunately, his final batch of beans was much more costly.

photo by smokedsalmon www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by smokedsalmon

Pauley was a short, skinny, dark-skinned black guy with a peanut-shaped bald head and a smile forever creasing his face. We were both in a lower-security facility that afforded us more freedom of movement, which meant we could be out of our cells (rooms, really) and move around the interior of the building pretty much all day long. Pauley lived in a four-man room that had an adjoining bathroom with a sink and toilet. It was actually quite luxurious, and a marked step up from some of the places I’d called home before landing in the lower-security prison.

Pauley was wearing his usual grin as his hot pot bubbled in a rolling boil, spitting out scorching droplets of bean juice and adding more stains to the already befouled towel his boiler sat on. I stood at the threshold of his cell, batting the breeze with him and acting as a security lookout for his illicit endeavor. Then, as we were sharing a laugh over a rerun episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” I heard the telltale tinkle of keys. When I looked up, I saw a C/O heading in our direction—no more than fifteen feet from us—which put him within twenty feet of an illegally boiling hot pot that would be clearly visible when he passed the doorway.

The shelf Pauley had his pot setting on was the only space available to him. The reason it wasn’t otherwise used was because (thanks to top-notch prison craftsmanship) it was tilted at about a seventy-degree angle. This meant that something could be placed on the shelf, but at considerable risk of sliding off. On numerous occasions I had told Pauley how reckless and stupid I thought it was for him to place a boiling hot pot on an off-kilter shelf, but he never listened to me.


As the C/O approached, Pauley raced toward the burner as I surreptitiously pulled the door so that it was only a quarter of the way open. Then I stood in the breach to obstruct the oncoming officer’s view. I figured that shutting the door outright might seem more suspicious. My eyes were shuttling back and forth between Pauley and the C/O, so what I saw next came in time-lapsed snapshots: Pauley reached for the hot pot with one hand; his other hand went for the towel the pot was sitting on.

(Pauley would later tell me that his intention was to simply lift the hot pot, grab the towel, and throw the towel over the pot so the passing C/O wouldn’t see it. Anything more than a cursory glance from the C/O would’ve exposed the infraction of the rules, but Pauley figured his simple plan was all he had time for. (The Scottish poet Robert Burns had something to say about best laid plans…)

Pauley had bridged the gap from where he’d been standing when we heard the rattling keys to where the hot pot was located in one loping stride. But he hadn’t yet brought his back foot up to meet the front foot. This placed him in the position of a long, deep lunge, even as he was reaching for the hot pot and towel. I saw him reach, then I saw his back foot, clad in only a dusty shower shoe, slip on the concrete floor. Pauley groaned a hefty grunt of pain as he involuntarily slammed down into the splits, James Brown-style. His left hand missed the hot pot, but his right hand slapped the uneven shelf and tugged on the towel just enough to set in motion the ensuing debacle. The hot pot tipped towards Pauley – and I could swear it paused ever so slightly, for the slimmest of insidious seconds pregnant with disaster – before toppling over and splashing its scalding contents onto the exposed flesh of Pauley’s right shin and foot.

The cry from Pauley’s throat was high-pitched and immediate. It was thick, liquid, and undulating, like he was trying to gargle his own tongue. I closed the door the rest of the way, so the sound was squelched considerably. I peeked through the square of security glass in the door and saw Pauley pressing his forearm against his mouth in an effort to muffle his agonized yelps. When I turned back around, the C/O was right there.

Officer Scutt always sported about a week’s worth of stubble, never enough to qualify as a full beard, but just enough to always appear shabby, unkempt, and borderline scrofulous. He wore the perpetual hangdog and hungover look of the professional alcoholic. He’d been known to come to work noticeably inebriated and smelling the part. Scutt turned his head toward me as he passed. Our eyes met. I nodded at him; he nodded at me. He never even slowed as he made his way down the hall and back for his rounds. On the return trip, he appeared utterly oblivious of me. There was no earthly way he hadn’t heard Pauley’s girlish caterwauling. I couldn’t figure whether Scutt’s actions that day were attributable to his ineptitude or indifference. My belief is that he preferred to remain oblivious.

Once it was safe, I went inside Pauley’s room, but he’d retreated behind the bathroom door. Steam still rose furiously from the mess of liquid and beans on the floor. The hot pot lay there empty, but Pauley had at least had the presence of mind to unplug it before seeking shelter. “You all right in there?” I asked, knowing full well his answer couldn’t possibly be in the affirmative.

“No…shit, man…” his voice was a falsetto whine, thick with tears. I briefly pondered the strangeness of the situation and the oddness of asking another man in prison if it is okay to join him in the bathroom, but I made the request all the same. There was a pause as he sniffed and snorted his runny nose back to normal before, I assume, wiping the evidence of his crying away.

His voice didn’t have as much of the sniveling sound to it when he responded again. “Yeah. Shit. Yeah, c’mon.”

photo by David Castillo Dominici www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by David Castillo Dominici

He could’ve had Niagara streaming down his cheeks and I wouldn’t have noticed. When I opened the bathroom door, my eyes were riveted to his hot foot, and I let out an inarticulate yelp of surprise and revulsion. I was smacked with a swift but slight wave of nausea at the sight of it. Thankfully, it was fierce but fleeting, and it wasn’t long before I felt safe opening my mouth to say something supportive and comforting to my friend.

“Ugh…damn. Dude. That is…that is nasty. That is not good.” Somehow this failed to comfort him. The air was close around us, and the scent of beans and cooked meat filled the confined space. Unfortunately, I’m not referring to summer sausage. The skin of his ankle and foot was bubbled up, and looked more liquid than solid. The top layer of his dark complexion had been scalded away to reveal bright pink meat that had been designed to always remain concealed. Suddenly, and completely inappropriately in the face of such a grotesque tragedy, I had to cover my mouth as it morphed into a grin. I couldn’t manage to stifle the chuckle that crept its way up my esophagus.

“What the hell are you laughing for?” Pauley asked, but he sounded more exasperated than upset.
“Dude, you did the splits,” I said, matter-of-factly, then I allowed myself a full-throated chortle that made my diaphragm dance. The great comforter, I am not.
“You’re an ass.”
“What?” I queried, feigning offense. “I told you not to cook on that wonky shelf anymore.”
“Well, where were you for security?”
“It’s Scutt, man! He don’t care. Probably at least half drunk.”
“Well, what about this?” Pauley nodded his head toward his broiled limb. “What’s he gonna care about this?” We each stared at his grievous injury in silence. I don’t know what was going through his head, but I know what I was thinking: “Oh my God, he cooked his foot. He cooked his foot. He actually COOKED HIS FOOT!” Since I had clearly evidenced my proclivity for insensitivity, I felt no need to voice these thoughts. I was pulled my reverie by Pauley’s question.

“So, do you think I gotta show him?”
It took me a moment to process the query.
“Who? The C/O?”
“Yeah. Scutt.”
I just looked at Pauley, dumbfounded. Then I yelled at him.
“Yes! Dude! That’s like a tenth-degree burn, for Pete’s sake! Are you kidding me?”
(To all those medically inclined individuals out there, yes, I am aware that a “tenth-degree burn” isn’t an actual designation, but I attempted to use hyperbole to impress upon Pauley the severity of the situation. So relax. Also, don’t be so picky.)
“You gotta go to Healthcare, man.” He looked like I’d just destroyed all his hopes and dreams. He perked up briefly to ask a question.
“Will you take me up there?”

“No. No, no, nnnooooo. Uh-uh. I can’t…uh…be… um…yeah. No, I can’t be associated with all of this.” I made two sweeping arm gestures taking in his injury and the formerly boiling hot pot. He looked like he’d just watched me drop-kick his puppy.

“But, what I will do is clean all this up for you, and I’ll get you to the dayroom. I’ll do that, at least.” Pauley looked stricken. The constant grin I was so accustomed to seeing as a signal of his usual sunny disposition had been eradicated by a grimacing visage. He was clearly in pain, but also legitimately worried about the ultimate outcome of this ordeal.

“All right, all right. Thanks.” He was sitting on the bathroom floor. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. In that instant, he looked exhausted and defeated. I felt terrible for him, because I knew his predicament was only just beginning.
beansI gathered the beans and sopped up the muck with the towel, then carted the whole mess down the hall to the trash can. After rinsing out the hot pot, I put it on the ground beside Pauley’s bunk—not on the crooked shelf. I collected Pauley under his arms and winced sympathetically as he yelped in pain and began to whimper, “Man, this hurts, man.”

“I know,” I responded. “Let’s get you up and moving. Once Scutt sees your foot, he’ll get you to Healthcare quick. Just keep saying it’s a ‘medical emergency,’ and they’ve gotta get you over there.” I hoped that I sounded confident, sincere, comforting. Unfortunately, I knew that a C/O’s capacity for callous and uncaring behavior knew no bounds. While their generally mercurial nature made them about as reliable as a candle flame in a tornado, it was also possible that Scutt might rush Pauley to Healthcare. It was equally as likely that he might tell him to go back to his cell. Another possibility was that Scutt could have Pauley put in Segregation.
After the necessary medical care was administered, a trip to Seg wasn’t out of the question. I’m sure all of this weighed on Pauley while he readied himself for our excursion.

As I helped Pauley hop down the hall toward the dayroom, I got a good look at the slick wound in the harsh light of the fluorescents. From three inches above his ankle to the tips of his toes, the flesh on the top of Pauley’s foot and shin looked like it might all slough off with nothing but an assist from gravity. I escorted Pauley to just inside the dayroom, him leaning heavily on me. Then, with a silent prayer, I sent him hobbling and hopping across the final fifteen feet to the bubble where two C/Os sat, oblivious to the situation they would be forced to deal with.

“You’ll be all right, man,” I called quietly to his back, hoping it didn’t sound like the lie that it felt like. Then I turned towards my cell. I didn’t once look back. The last thing I heard was C/O Scutt letting loose a string of obscenities.


Pauley was hustled to Healthcare immediately—a van was sent to transport him. He was gone for several tense hours as his cellies waited to see what would happen. Pauley received treatment and was subjected to a lengthy inquisition by an Internal Affairs lieutenant before being returned with a gauze-wrapped appendage and a diagnosis of third-degree burns. The next day, Pauley’s hot pot was confiscated. Then just for good measure, the other three hot pots in his cell were taken. His cellies were livid, but they never had their property returned.

Along with the loss of the hot pots, Pauley’s punishment was severe. He couldn’t attend yard or gym, make any phone calls or go to commissary for two months. Penalties that severe meant he probably only narrowly avoided a trip to Seg.

For months, Pauley had to go to Healthcare every morning to have a fresh dressing put on the oozing wound. It constantly pained him, but there was never any talk of surgery or skin grafts from medical staff – only talk of nerve damage and how dumb Pauley was to do it to himself. Their bedside manner was almost as good as mine. When his foot finally healed, Pauley’s ebony skin tone was marred by a long, thick patch of vivid pink scar tissue. Other than the discipline and disfigurement, Pauley’s debacle also had the unfortunate consequence of earning him a slew of related nicknames—Pauley Hot Foot, Hot Foot Pauley, or just Hot Foot—all of which plagued him until the day he went home. Thankfully, despite all he’d been through, Pauley retained his grin.



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I was rushing to get to my work assignment. I wasn’t running late, but I preferred arriving early so that I could take a few moments to get organized and prepared for the day’s tasks. It was a gray day with big fluffy snowflakes fluttering to earth like butterflies on broken wings. Each flake added itself to the pristine scene of freshly fallen snow that covered the ground and made the world seem new, clean, and full of possibility. My sense of haste abated then evaporated as I witnessed my Creator’s hand at work.

photo by alex_ugalek www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by alex_ugalek

Stark Beauty
Just beyond the perimeter fence, trees reached to the bleak sky with skeletal limbs. Each appendage was dusted ever so delicately with a white covering as if some cosmic baker had been a bit overzealous with the flour. The serene scene was desolate but gorgeous—a post-apocalyptic postcard. Temperatures were chilly but not uncomfortable, and there wasn’t a whiff of wind. With snow floating all around, I was elated, lifted from the dire nature of my confines and the dreariness of my thoughts. I was compelled to praise and give thanks to the architect of all I saw before me.

“I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you…” The words of the old song came to me once more as they often did, words that I’ve carried from my youth. They sprang forth from my ebullient heart as it overflowed with humble gratitude for all of my abundant blessings. “Oh, my soul, rejoice. Take joy, my King, in what you hear. May it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.” The words carried my feet and my uplifted spirit to the door of the building where I worked. I entered with a smile on my face and joy of the Lord deep down in my heart.

Good morning, beautiful day today,” I said as soon as I got in the room. My supervisor hacked out a harsh scoffing laugh at my greeting.

photo by dan www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by dan

“Yeah, right,” was the uenthused and sarcastic rely. “All that snow. And it’s too cold. I can’t wait for spring to get her already.” Ms. Griss was a little old lady in her mid-sixties with glasses and a gray/blond perm curled atop her head. She had a slow, deliberate way of moving and speaking, and usually had a more upbeat demeanor. It was December, and this was only the second snowfall of the season—the first snow significant enough to actually stick around rather than immediately melting. I thought to bite my tongue, but my effulgent emotions couldn’t be contained.

“Oh, no, no. It’s beautiful out there. I can see the handiwork of our Creator on display.” Her face twisted and scrunched into a disbelieving scowl as she looked up from her early morning document collating. I smiled warmly, and she seemed to be examining me, her eyes searching for some chink in my sincerity. Finding none, her age-lined lips parted and turned upward in a reluctant smile. This time when she laughed it wasn’t so harsh.

“I suppose so. I can accept that.” It was a begrudging concession, and it made me wish I could endow her with the thrilling intensity of my exuberant joy. Instead Ms. Griss turned back to her paperwork and I went to my workstation.

I’ve long felt that, to some degree, one’s outlook determines one’s outcome. Recognizing the effortless beauty of God’s design and creation, in whatever meager way you can manage, or in whatever drab circumstances you find yourself in, can’t help but point toward a hope-filled outcome. And hope is a good thing.

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Brutally Efficient

My cellie and I had been together a week already and had long ago exhausted all the superficial topics of discussion available to us. With our only common ground being prison, all that was left for us was to share complaints over the food that was passed through our chuckhole and to exchange good-natured grunts of thanks when passing over a fresh styrofoam tray of something that promised to be sloptastic. There was no TV, no radio, or even reading material of any kind. This left us alone with only our thoughts as entertainment. It was into my muddled thoughts that the screams intruded. They were unintelligible but clearly not born of laughter or joy. They were the sounds of violence and anger.

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geocities k9joedawg

Something Promising
I leapt from my top bunk, and for a split second was as light on my feet as a sneaky feline, but then momentum carried me further and I slammed my shoulder into the wall rather painfully in my over-eagerness for some kind of excitement and distraction from the interminable boredom and involuntary napping. (I say “involuntary napping” because when I laid there long enough without stimulus of any kind, I would slip into unconsciousness against my will.) With my face pressed to the perforated metal portion of the door, I tried to decipher where the screams and distant but familiar noises of someone getting beaten were coming from. At the time, I was on three gallery, so I was three stories in the air, which made it difficult to pinpoint the source of the scuffle. My cellie’s face was next to mine, just as starved for something to focus on, but he couldn’t figure where the fight was happening either. Within a minute, though, and much quicker than I ever would’ve thought, tac team members showed up in their riot gear to put a stop to it.

Tactical Arrival
At that time, I was still being housed in a maximum-security facility, and hadn’t yet seen the tac team assemble, but I was about to witness firsthand how they operated. There were five of them, each resplendent in a bright orange jumpsuit, over which they wore various kinds of body armor—all of which was an intimidating shade of black—that protected their chest, arms, legs and hands. On their heads there were bulbous helmets with plexiglass visors. In their hands, they each held a two-foot wooden baton and a plexiglass shield that was about three feet wide by four feet tall—large enough to afford plenty of protection. Marching in formation—two by two with one in the lead—their boots slammed the concrete floor in practiced unison while they beat their shields with their batons and chanted a rhythmic grunt that reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West’s guards in The Wizard of Oz. It was a rehearsed and disciplined effort designed to unnerve and terrorize all onlookers. It was effective.

The Show Begins
The lead tac team member stopped at the door to the cell and I had a direct line of sight to it. In a booming voice that echoed through the cell house, he ordered the inmates inside to stand up, place their hands behind their backs, and face the back wall of their cell. A single voice hollered an obscenity that made it clear he wouldn’t comply with the order. The tac team member never took his eyes off the cell door. He raised his baton over his head and made a circular motion in the air, indicating he wanted the door to be rolled open, before bringing the baton back down to a readied position behind his shield. The door to the cell began to slide sideways, electronically controlled by the tower, and once it was open they flooded in.

While shouting aggressively for the inmates to submit, one, two, three, four of them rushed in while one remained at the door. For a quick moment, I turned my head around to survey the dimensions of my own cell and wondered how they could all even fit in there. Screams of pain brought my attention riveted back to the cell under siege. I couldn’t see into the cell, but there were muffled sounds of impact and grunts of exertion. The pained yelling continued for a few moments before being squelched. On the heels of that marked silence was the distinct clicking of handcuffs being tightened into place. Even from three stories below me, it came through loud and clear, and it sent a shiver of goosebumps across my neck and over my scalp.

blacktigertactical dot tvAftermath
A tac team officer backed out of the cell first, and he was holding his shield over the back and head of one of the assailants. The inmate was cuffed with his hands behind his back, wearing only his boxers, and there was blood visible on his head. A second tac team officer followed close behind with his shield covering and holding the inmate down so that the two shields formed a plexiglass pyramid under which the offender was made to walk while folded nearly in half at the waist. In this secure and helpless position he couldn’t raise his head to look where he was going, and was so off balance that if he tried to resist or fight back in any way, it wouldn’t take much of a nudge to put him on his face. The remaining two tac team members in the cell came out in identical configuration, but the second inmate had a t-shirt on. The front of it sagged heavily from his body and was more red than white. There was no way for me to know how much of the blood that I saw was spilt by inmates and how much by the tac team.

I was impressed by the smoothness of their movements, and it was clear that they had practiced a great deal in order to work together as a unit in such coordinated fashion. I was equal parts impressed and frightened by it. I was also glad that they weren’t coming for me.

The entire process didn’t take more than three minutes, and they were all shuffling carefully off the deck together. Efficient in their brutality. The inmates never came back, their property was packed and moved by a couple C/Os a couple hours later. My cellie and I passed the afternoon in lively discussion because the incident had finally given us something to talk about.

Uncommon Compassion


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“C’mon, quick; Tee needs you.”
I was mid-conversation with someone, but left him immediately without a word of explanation or apology. Tee was my cellie, my buddy. There was an urgency and seriousness in the messenger’s tone that begged no rebuttal or delay. Once I arrived at the cell that Tee and I shared with four other guys, I could immediately see that Tee was in agony.

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photo by stockimages

I’d known Tee for over a year to this point, and he had often made it known that he had a history of back pain that often precluded him from any type of strenuous exercise. There were times when I was less than sympathetic to Tee’s plight, and I even postulated that he was merely practicing his own brand of crying wolf as an excuse to be lazy. When I saw him poised in pain over his bunk, I knew I’d been wrong.

Tee’s butt was hovering half a foot off of his bunk, as both of his arms were ramrod straight like stilts holding him aloft. His arms were shaking from exertion and exhaustion. His features were pinched together as he gritted his teeth against the pain.
“What can I do? Can you sit down?” I asked him.
“No,” he grunted.
“Do you want me to help you sit down?”
“No!” he managed to holler with some conviction and more than a little panic.
“Well, what can I do?”
“Get the C/O.” I turned to leave the cell and do just that, but Officer Osmond was already making his way down the hall in no kind of hurry at all. A crowd had begun to gather.
“He needs help!” I called to C/O Osmond.
“I know,” he replied. Apparently, someone had run and told him about the burgeoning medical emergency. He didn’t pick up his pace. Once he did arrive at the cell, he shooed the gawkers out of his way. “What’s wrong?” he asked as Tee continued his best impression of a statue.
“I threw my back out,” Tee replied, his voice straining to maintain normalcy.
“Oh,” Osmond said, sounding befuddled. “What’s that mean?”
“I threw my back out,” Tee repeated the phrase as if it were self-explanatory. “I can’t move,” he added as further explanation, but was only met with more of the officer’s vacuous gaze. “I’m stuck!” Tee finally belted out followed by a scream of frustration and pain as the exertion from the initial yelling sent hurt hurtling along his already agonized nerve endings.

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photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

C/O Osmond called in a medical emergency over the radio, and medical staff were dispatched to the cell house immediately. Then he stood to the side, disinterested, and waited for assistance to arrive as if the entire situation were one big nuisance. Tee managed to slowly but surely lower himself until he was perched stiffly on the edge of his bunk, looking completely unnatural and uncomfortable. I stood there to support Tee, but was merely silent, useless, and helpless.

Guys outside the door laughed and made fun of Tee for basically hurting himself by standing up out of the bed. Our cellies all joined in the ridicule. C/O Osmond even added callous comments to the conversation and had a good chuckle about it all. I could tell that every breath Tee took caused him added discomfort. I wanted to yell at all of them to shut the hell up. When I heard the rattle of wheels in the hallway and saw C/O Arthur pulling a stretcher with two nurses and two other C/Os in tow, I figured things were only going to get worse for Tee.

C/O Arthur had a reputation for being a colossal prick. It was a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. I stepped out of the way, expecting Arthur to further debase and belittle Tee as that seemed to be the popular pastime for the moment.

Instead, he was extraordinarily gently and compassionate. He asked Tee to describe the pain and how exactly it had manifested. Arthur crouched down onto his knees so Tee wouldn’t have to move his head in order to look at C/O Arthur as he spoke. Arthur seemed to hang on every word. The two nurses stood in the hallway and looked indifferent. The two C/Os appeared to be bored.

photo by Ambro www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Ambro

Once Arthur had assessed the situation, he instructed the two C/Os to bring in the flatboard and put it on the floor. Then he provided them with a step-by-step tutorial on how they would assist him in moving Tee to the flatboard. It was clear from Arthur’s delivery and demeanor that he wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection from his helpers. With extreme care, the three C/Os gingerly lifted Tee bodily from the bunk and rotated his body to achieve the necessary repositioning. After Tee was seated awkwardly on the flatboard, C/O Arthur spoke in a comforting voice, as he assured Tee that it was necessary to move him again. With an uncanny tenderness, Arthur slowly straightened Tee’s legs and strapped them in place. Tee was lying on his back and Arthur manipulated Tee’s arms to cross them over his chest before securing them there. Once Tee was ready to be moved, Arthur and the other C/Os, including Osmond, cautiously carried him to the stretcher then fastened him to it before rolling it out of the building.

All the talk on the deck was about Tee. Some were poking fun at him, others claimed he had just been faking it—for what purpose, I have no idea. There were some individuals who were aggressively cruel in their maligning of Tee, concluding that he was a stupid and worthless portion of excrement. It shocked and baffled me that a known crank C/O showed more human kindness to Tee than his own fellow inmates did.

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Puddle of Blood


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When I first saw him lying there with his eyes open and emptied of all their light, I felt certain he was dead.

No Luck
I’d been in and out of the building all day—work, healthcare, work, chow, work. Every time I returned to my building, I’d nabbed a telephone and tried to get through to my friend but always without any luck. After I was in for the final time and done for the day, I began walking down the hall toward my cell, but only took three steps before reconsidering. I turned around quickly on my heel and immediately began moving back through the dayroom, making a beeline for the only phone cubicle that wasn’t occupied. Based on my track record for the day, I wasn’t very optimistic about my chances, but I had to try.


Precious Connection
I got through! My heart raced ahead of itself, as I was stupendously elated to speak to one of my precious few tethers to the world. The longer I’m incarcerated, the more I’ve come to understand just how important it is to have these connections. Unfortunately my friend’s voice on this occasion sounded like it was coming from a million miles away and filtered through a howling hurricane, so I only caught maybe every tenth or twelfth word. I smashed the receiver painfully into one ear while jamming my index finger up to the first knuckle into my other ear in an effort to block all the background noise whirling around me. Even with ambient noise squelched, it only served to make the garbled voice come in with more volume but still the same amount of insufficient clarity. I grunted out sporadic affirmative vocalizations—ahuh, yeah, yup—but wasn’t able to make much sense of the disjointed, one-sided discussion. My confusion over the conversation only lasted a few short minutes because I quickly had reason to be confused about something completely different.


The C/O doing the yelling was only a half dozen paces behind me, and I nearly leapt loose of my skin to skitter away in the wake of his screams. I’d never seen him before, had no type of relationship or rapport with him, and the withering, hateful look he shot my way made it clear that I had somehow unwittingly waltzed myself into a dangerous predicament. I froze and stared dumbly at him; I was caught in the harsh glare of his gaze. When I didn’t move fast enough, the C/O cussed me out thoroughly before questioning my mental acuity and competence. Then he yelled again for me to get off the phone and go to my cell, this time inserting certain choice curse words into his demand.


“I gotta go. Gotta go back to my cell. Something’s happening here. Gotta go, bye. I’ll talk to you…whenever. I don’t know. Bye.” I hated having to leave my friend hanging in uncertainty, not knowing what was going on or if I’d be okay, but didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Once I was off the phone and on my way through the dayroom in the direction of my cell, the C/O I didn’t know turned back toward the hallway opposite mine, presumably to go find someone else to swear at.

There wasn’t a single other inmate in sight. At that time of day, the dayroom and hallways are usually teeming with guys coming in from work and the gym. Most of them are trying to get in the shower. I didn’t know what, but clearly something serious had happened.

Silent Apology
C/O Cantos was my five-day officer, and I got along with him well enough. I also knew him to be capable of being strict, or even a crank at times, so I wasn’t sure in which direction his inclinations leaned, especially in the heightened circumstances that had suddenly arisen. As I approached Cantos, I raised my hands above my head and shrugged my shoulders up to my ears while plastering a confused but conciliatory look on my face. The whole act was meant to convey that I was both sorry and that I didn’t know. It worked.

“It’s okay, you didn’t know. Just get to your cell.” He didn’t have to tell me twice, and I actually jogged the final fifteen feet that got me out of the dayroom and into the hallway.

Serious Situation
My cell was at the end of the hallway, fifty feet away, and while I had quit my jogging, I kept a quick pace. I could see one C/O standing in front of my door. He was in profile to me and was looking down at the floor in front of him, but the way the hallway angled to the right made it impossible for me to see what he was looking at. Then he looked up at me and stabbed a stubby finger in my direction.

“What are you doing? Where’s your cell?” I pointed past him and was about to pick my speed up a bit more when a flutter of footsteps and jangle of keys from behind me caught my attention, and I had to investigate. With a glance over my shoulder, I saw four lieutenants, one sarge, and three C/Os bearing down on me with no-nonsense looks across each of their faces. “C’mon, straight to your cell. Hurry up.” I turned back forward to see the C/O who was blocking my door waving me in with frantic arm motions like he was some kind of spastic ground control operator guiding an airplane home. With all that authority hot on my heels, I was grateful for the excuse to haul ass. So I did. It wasn’t until I was practically on top of Tall Boy’s supine form that I saw him and reflexively slowed my speedwalk to a crawl to gawk in shock. I finally knew what all the fuss was about.


photo by by Simon Howden www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by by Simon Howden

Tall Boy was tall. Go figure. He was over seven feet but managed to seem even taller as he walked with his back ramrod straight so that his body always appeared to climb to the sky. Despite the latter half of his moniker, Tall Boy was actually quite elderly—closer to seventy than he was to 60—and he used a cane to help him walk. His right leg was the problem, and it was clear that he struggled with the effort to downplay his limp as much as he could, but it was impossible to erase altogether. I suspect his extremely erect posture was born from pride and was his way of overcompensating for the limp. I didn’t know him well, but he’d always come across as a nice old guy. I couldn’t imagine what crime or perceived slight that he may have committed, but he didn’t deserve what was done to him.


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Tall Boy’s oversized frame was stretched out on his back, legs splayed to the sides with the toes of his enormous booted feet pointed heavenward. He looked like a statue or monolith that had been toppled in some violent uprising. His eyes were vacated of all recognition and life—only blank, unseeing orbs gazing up at nothing. He wasn’t blinking. Two of the three florescent overhead lights had burnt out leaving the corner area cast mostly in the shadows. An ideal spot to ambush someone.

The blood pooling around Tall Boy’s head was the dark corona of some perverse fallen angel. A C/O had been concealed from my view by the curve of the wall, but I could see him as he stood over the body and held Tall Boy’s cane in his hand. He wore latex gloves and was carefully examining the tool to see if there was any evidence to suggest it could be the murder weapon. Or the attempted murder weapon. As I was hurried into my cell, I feared it would be the former.

Evacuation and Investigation
Nurses came with a flatboard and hauled Tall Boy away. His head was wrapped in a white bandage that had quickly turned red with blood. His feet hung limply off the end of the board. I couldn’t discern any signs that he was alive. C/Os thronged to the building and a shoddy assembly line of sorts was set up. Each inmate was pulled from his cell and stripped by two C/Os who then checked his body for blood, bruises, or any other markings that could be indicative of a struggle. Next came a ramshackle interview conducted by the Internal Affairs lieutenant and an IA C/O. My cellies claimed all they heard was a loud banging sound, and thought maybe someone had dropped their property box. Since I had only just come in from work and then jumped on the phone, I had nothing to contribute to the discussion. Nothing ever came of any of it. No one went to Seg or got in trouble. There were rumors that Tall Boy had died, that he went to a hospital outside prison, and that he had been transferred to another joint. I have no idea what actually happened to him.

Stir Crazy

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“I can’t take it anymore! Gotta get outta here!”

Winn’s voice screeched and cracked as he lost control. His face was twisted and distorted as he pressed it against the small rectangular pane of security glass in the door. He grabbed ahold of the handle and shook with all his might, grunting with exertion, but to no effect. With the edge of his eye, he caught me looking at him with shock, utter disbelief, and even a touch of horror, so he quit his caterwauling. He slapped the door with the flat of his palm and the loud smack echoed around the tiny confines of our cell. When he began to laugh uproariously, I was sure that I was in serious trouble.

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Better than Everyone
Winn had been locked up for just over twenty years when we became cellies, and his extensive prison experience had given him a perverse sense of entitlement, as if he were better than every guy who hadn’t spent the bulk of his life incarcerated. This kind of loopy logic is actually quite common amongst men like Winn who have spent so many years in prison. Winn was so full of pride that he came across as an ignorant, arrogant prick. The extreme degree of his holier-than-thou type attitude made me less inclined to be sympathetic when he began to bug up.

Lockdown Protocol
A lockdown generally means that inmates are completely confined to their cells with meals delivered and no showers allowed. I’d spent the first half dozen years of my prison term in a joint where lockdowns were more than merely commonplace, they were a routine and expected way of life. A lockdown, even a short one of two to three days, was practically guaranteed each month. At least twice a year there would be a month long lockdown. Since I had only fairly recently arrived at the lower-security facility, a lockdown was nothing to me but an opportunity to get some writing or reading done. Maybe watch some TV. The professional convict Winn, on the other hand, was fifteen years removed from the max security prisons where lockdowns are par for the course, and he wasn’t handling it well.

Losing It
At first his mental turmoil manifested as an uncontrollable restlessness. He couldn’t sit still. His legs jittered and shook without ceasing, and he would sporadically walk back and forth across the scant space of the cell a few times before sitting back down to shimmy in his seat for a while. It was only a matter of time until the urge gripped him to pace some more. Around two in the afternoon on only the second full day of lockdown,Winn began to yell and slap the door. He was unraveling. His ensuing laughter sounded insane ,and I’m neither too proud nor too ashamed to admit that hearing it scared the ever-loving hell out of me.
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Faking It
“What’s up, man!? How you doin’ buddy?” Winn brayed much more loudly than was necessary. I didn’t, in fact, know Winn very well or particularly like him all that much, so I didn’t count us as buddies. His affable smile was completely disingenuous. I had glimpsed Winn’s legitimate lunatic leanings and he was overcompensating with a forced attempt at jocularity and normalcy. While I wasn’t buying it, I also certainly wasn’t about to let him know that his façade was translucent. I had no desire whatsoever to witness Winn entirely unhinged.
“I’m good, man,” I replied to Winn’s queries. “Just getting some writing done. How about you? You good?” He chuckled and managed to sound somewhat less than maniacal.
“Yeah, I’m good, bro.”
“Shit, man, I was just playin’. I’m straight.” He was not just “playin’,” and I knew it. I suspect he also knew that I knew it, but we both silently agreed to continue faking it.

Following this incident, Winn paced a few more times, but eventually he withdrew himself from everything and ended up laying in bed with the blanket over his head for hours. As the days dragged on, he became more horrified and disheveled, less responsive, practically comatose for long stretches of time. After two weeks of lockdown, his temperament and personality had changed so dramatically that he was unrecognizable from the man I had first met only a few months before. He had lost enough weight for it to be easily noticed and constantly wore a dazed look which gave the appearance that he’d misplaced his tether to reality.

Once the lockdown finally ended, it took weeks for Winn to recapture the heights of bravado and bullshit machismo that he had previously attained, and I couldn’t help but be disgusted by it. I had witnessed a more honest vision of his true self and knew just how fake Winn was.

When it comes to surviving prison, I suppose there are all kinds of different methods that guys use to cope.

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Not Stockholm


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My cellie Kevin and I got along well enough. He worked out too much, in my opinion, but it could just be that his extreme dedication made me feel both shame and guilt over my decidedly more lackadaisical approach to exercise. Regardless, we each had our own ways of doing time, our personalized and unique perspectives, and one day he took me to task for mine.

“You think this is how it’s supposed to be? This place sucks, man! You’re messed up! You don’t even know how bad it is; they’ve got you fooled. You’ve been here so long that you’ve got Stockholm Syndrome. You’re just messed up!”

photo by imagerymajestic www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by imagerymajestic

This rant was railed against me as a reaction to my stubborn optimism and (according to Kevin) my annoying tendency to focus on the positive aspects of any given situation. Kevin, on the other hand, chose to embrace negativity and complain about EVERYTHING. Stockholm Syndrome, as I understand it, is a phenomenon which occurs when a person has been held captive and subjected to varying degrees of mental and emotional duress until they begin to sympathize with their captors, as a psychological defense mechanism,. In more extreme cases, these individuals actually take sides with their captors and fight to defend them. According to Kevin, I was the hostage, and the prison we were being held in was the entity to whom I showed sympathy.

Sour Outlook
Kevin was practically a professional complainer, and as such, his distorted outlook tended to determine his outcome. In my experience, I’ve found that a sour attitude is a self-perpetuation and self-fulfilling way to approach life. Sometimes I had to find that lesson out through painful experiences, but at least I did learn it. The same can’t be said for Kevin, which explains why he thought that I was suffering some cockeyed form of Stockholm Syndrome.

Differing Perspectives
The prison we were in at the time was a disciplinary joint without much movement outside our cell or many privileges of any kind. This gave Kevin license to take issue with just about everything. When he went to gym, he’d complain that there were too many people and not enough weight machines or not enough time allotted to really get a good workout in. When gym was cancelled for no apparent reason, Kevin complained about being denied his recreation period.

A two hour yard was inadequate to him, meals insubstantial, TV reception not clear enough, available television channels too few. For Kevin, going on lockdown was akin to an apocalyptic event. Seeing only the bad kept Kevin in an interminably lousy mood. He could smile and laugh and have fun, but the undercurrent of abrasive annoyance—like a despicable default setting—was never far from display.

photo by dusky www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by dusky

Making Lemonade
Where Kevin saw nuisances and aggravations, I identified blessings. Although gym periods were often crowded, that was good motivation to keep pushing through fatigue for the entire hour, because halfway through gym most guys fell off and there were plenty of weight machines available. Two hours of yard was plenty; free TV was lovely. I’d become accustomed to only three showers per week with other cleansings performed while standing over the sink and toilet, so that didn’t much bother me either. To me a lockdown wasn’t a curse, but rather an opportunity to focus on my writing with few interruptions. At times I’d even hope for/look forward to a lockdown because I craved that chance to give my work some undivided attention.

Despite Kevin’s opinion, none of my upbeat outlook was a result or example of me sympathizing with my so-called captor, but rather me making the most of a rough situation. Lemons into lemonade, as the adage goes. In the end I honestly didn’t think we had it all that bad.

Finding something to endlessly complain about is easy no matter where someone lives. From the bedsprings that make your back ache, to the chair that stubs your toe most mornings, to the latest horror show the news has waiting every day; there’s always something to find fault with. Consciously, continuously, and adamantly counting one’s blessings and thereby refusing to get dragged down by the hate and negativity that so insidiously permeate this world, especially enveloping the environment of prison, is an admirable way to live. I daresay—the right way to live.

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