Master Craftsman

// //
As a consummate entrepreneur, DJ managed to turn a profit making trinkets and baubles whose only real appeal was in their uniqueness. All of his toilet paper flowers and decorative pillows were quite beautiful, but beyond that they had no practical value whatsoever. While DJ recognized that he had a lucrative business in place, and he certainly enjoyed spending/eating the profits, he was also perfectly aware of how ephemeral and ultimately useless his products were. This knowledge eventually led to a degree of dissatisfaction on his part, which was only countered when he had the opportunity to call upon his master craftsman capabilities.

The Artistry
Both skill and talent were certainly required for creating DJ’s pretty presents, but he was capable of so much more. When he could get his hands on the proper materials, he excelled. His passion projects were tediously time-consuming, but he reveled in the real artistry and true craftsmanship of them.

A pair of old leather boots, which had been discarded as trash, were gold to DJ. He would take a razorblade that he had removed from its plastic disposable casing and use that to slice the leather into pieces and strips appropriate for the works he intended to create. To prepare the tough leather, he would rub Vaseline into it everyday for as many days as it took until it was soft and supple.

Once the leather was ready for his nimble fingers, DJ would commence to crimping and folding the edges, manipulating them and preparing them to receive his stitches. I have no earthly idea where he procured the nylon string that he used to sew his material, nor what he used to dye the white nylon black so that it matched the boot leather. He fashioned his pieces into bifold wallets that could be sent home as gifts by inmates or a more simple holder designed to carry an Inmate ID Card.

The latter was also seen as some kind of silly status symbol. Wristwatch bands were his other specialty and when he was finished, his products looked as professionally produced as anything on display for sale at a retail store. As a sewer myself, I marveled at the tiny stitches and how intricate yet uniform he managed to keep them.

Since wristwatches are prominently displayed on one’s wrist (go figure), they are also something of a status symbol in prison. The watches generally cost about ten to twelve dollars, so it doesn’t really make sense, but that’s how it is, and most guys like to trade up the factory watchband for a prison-made replacement. DJ’s leather bands sold well and lasted for many years, but leather can be hard to some by. Shoelaces, on the other hand, are routinely thrown away, or else are available for purchase in commissary. DJ would deftly slip the outer cloth covering from the rounded shoelace, leaving behind a braided rope. The liberated material he would flatten and, using those astonishingly subtle stitches, he’d sew the two strips into a band approximately three quarters of an inch wide. Using durable plastic pieces that he scrounged from somewhere and Velcro he’d sliced from shower curtains, DJ formed a clasp for these original works of prison art. For an additional fee, using brilliantly colored thread, he could stitch a person’s initials into the band to distinguish it from others of its ilk.

Witnessing DJ’s finished masterpieces, I couldn’t help but be supremely impressed by his enormous skill. There was, however, also a touch of wistful sadness to my impression, as I couldn’t help but wonder why his talent and clockwork intellect were being squandered, locked behind prison walls.// //

Big Baby

// //
Bryan was a big, goofy kid. Actually, at six-foot-six, two hundred eighty-five pounds, “big” doesn’t quite do him justice. At first glance, he gave the impression of an imposing slab of concrete with the ability to tear a guy’s arms out of their sockets, but upon closer inspection, his overall appearance was a study in contrasts.

flyA fine fuzz of fair hair spiked from the top of his head that was so blond as to belie belief. His eyes, too, though hidden behind the ridiculously thick lenses of his glasses, seemed an impossible shade of the clearest, cleanest, purest blue. They were pretty blue eyes, no doubt about it, and I say that in the most heterosexual way possible. He looked to be a prime example of Hitler’s Aryan ideal and so-called master race.

Unlike Adolf’s acolytes, however, Bryan did not appear capable of the same degree of evil and mindless murder with which the Nazi party became synonymous. To put it another way, Bryan wouldn’t (or couldn’t) hurt a fly. To put it yet another way, Bryan was a ginormous wuss. It turned out that he was also a snitch; although personally, I don’t believe the situation was quite that simple or clear—more gray than black and white.

Lopsided Melee
A loud, hollow, thunk was followed by plastic bouncing on concrete, then metallic rattling before the first words were spoken in anger. I recognized each sound immediately. The prison I was in at the time had two hard plastic stools in each cell which were about two feet tall, shaped roughly like a spool of thread, and could be easily moved around the cell. This is what I heard collide with the wall in the cell next to mine before it bounced across the floor and settled against the cell door, making the door shake in its frame.

“You stupid little bitch!”

3029whiteThe voice sounded out clearly through the vent that connected our two cells, and was obviously not the nasal, thin tone of Bryan, but rather the more baritone voice of his cellie who was only five-ten, one hundred eighty pounds—practically tiny compared to Bryan. There were various sounds of struggle—shower shoes scuffling, fists hitting soft flesh and unyielding bone, someone crashing into the wall before crumbling to the floor. By the way it shook my cell, I assumed it was the bigger of the two who had lost his legs and was quickly proven right when voices took the place of the violent noises.

“C’mon! Get up, you pussy!”

“Nnnooo.” Bryan had managed to turn the two-letter word into the elongated whining moan of a small child. “I’m nnnot gonna fffight you.” Between his stammering and sniffling, it was fairly obvious that Bryan was blubbering like a baby.

“Get up!” Bryan’s cellie sounded frightening in his furor and ferocity.

“No!” Bryan yelled back but only seemed petulant rather than defiant. As he whined and wailed, he just sounded hurt and scared, while his cellie beat him about the head and body. Bryan had curled into a ball in the corner of his cell, crying and calling out for his cellie to stop, but the assault continued. It was a sad thing to hear, something truly pathetic. A couple guys in other cells and I called for the cellie to stop, saying that Bryan had had enough. The commotion brought the “fight” to the C/Os’ attention, and they rushed to the cell. Finally, he stopped beating on Bryan.

Unusual Outcome
After the two men were hauled away, the general consensus was that Bryan’s cellie was bogus, and it was too bad for Bryan who would sit in Seg for a while, even though he clearly wasn’t the aggressor. On the heels of that conclusion was a second one, which was that Bryan, indeed, was a giant pussy. No one predicted that Bryan would return the very next day. When he did show up on the deck, no one really knew how to react. When Bryan freely confessed to telling IA everything about the fight—how he cowered and cried—most everyone was at a loss for words, incredulous over how wholeheartedly and freely Bryan confessed to his wimpy behavior and demeanor.


Opinions were pretty evenly split. Some felt Bryan was a snitching piece of crap, while others thought he merely did what he had to do in order to get out of Seg. It wasn’t as if he lied about what happened in the cell, and of the two men, Bryan was the innocent one. By so winningly embracing cowardice, Bryan had come out of the fray with only a few bruises to go along with his tattered reputation.

Ironically, if Bryan had fought back, he would’ve been held in higher esteem for standing up for himself, but then would’ve earned a minimum of thirty days in Seg. He paid the price for his choice as he was vilified and labeled as a snitch by some, and just outright ostracized by others. When a guy gets a reputation for talking to the authorities, it’s a hard one to shake. Choosing to err on the side of caution, I mostly kept my distance from Bryan. The entire incident also served to earn Bryan the title of Big Baby, which I never personally used, but could pretty well understand.
// //

The Wookie


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Living conditions being what they are in prison, it can be an amazing learning experience in multiple and unexpected ways. Being forced to cohabitate with individuals, often with zero time apart from one another, can reveal a person’s most unique or unusual characteristics as well as their most annoying traits. I don’t honestly believe that Benji was intentionally or overtly annoying, but rather that he was just born that way and was dealing with it as best he could. Unfortunately, my more enlightened mindset didn’t make living with him much easier.

Hella Hirsute
Benji already had a fairly dark complection for a black man; dark skinneded is the redundant expression commonly used. His coloring, however, was made even darker by the enormous amount of coarse black hair that seemed to cover every inch of exposed skin that wasn’t covered by his clothes. I myself am not particularly hirsute (I couldn’t grow a proper full beard until I was twenty-five years old) but I’ve seen hairy guys before in movies and locker rooms. Not that I was a great frequenter of locker rooms, but the point is that I had an awareness that some guys are hairier than others. Benji, though, seemed to be some kind of missing link or werewolf boy.

Oddly enough, his facial hair didn’t exactly grow in very robustly, just a few patchy splotches along his neck and jawline. Beyond that, however, he was absolutely covered in a coat of thick tangles. It stood tall from atop his shoulders, crept from his ears, formed one long brow below his forehead. Stepping out of the shower in just his boxers, he looked like he was wearing a damp, dark sweater on his top and leggings on the bottom. The matted hair covered by his boxers was evident through the thin cloth as well as the tufts of stiff scruff sprouting from below said boxers. It was on one of these trips from the shower back to his cell when Benji received his nickname.

Still dripping from his shower and witnessed in all his hairy glory, someone intoned a call onto the gallery that would sound only like strange nonsense to anyone who wasn’t a Star Wars fan, but which was instantly recognizable to me along with all those whom the force is strong with.

“Raaaowwrraaaoogghhr.” I may have misspelled it, but I knew a passable impersonation of Chewbacca when I heard one and was proven right when the impersonator hollered out, “Hey! Chewbacca! What’s up, man?”

Benji ignored his heckler and kept walking.

chewbacca-chewie-star-wars“Chewie!” The call came again, even louder this time, insistent. “Raaaowwrraaaoogghhr!!!” Benji smirked a bit but tried to hide his amusement. “C’mon, man!” was yelled at Benji as a form of encouragement, and he couldn’t help but let loose a laugh before showing off his true wookie.


Cheers and laughter erupted from all around the deck and Benji got in on the laughter as well. It wasn’t the best impersonation, more of an approximation, but he still got points for enthusiasm. Even so, we weren’t so much laughing at him as were all just laughing together. It wasn’t mean-spirited, and from that day forth Benji was known to most as Chewbacca.

False Advertising
While the wookie Chewbacca is Han Solo’s beloved co-pilot and companion in the Star Wars universe, as well as easily one of the coolest characters to populate said universe, I feel that there are some things which aren’t covered in the films. Certain information was left out that would be useful to know for anyone who is living with a walking carpet. Benji had a perpetually damp, musty odor which permeated him and his surroundings. It was not unlike that of a medium-sized dog. The smell wasn’t particularly strong or foul, just persistent, if not interminable.

Then there was the shedding. I was on the bottom bunk with Benji sleeping and living above me. I had to drastically revise my meal preparation and eating habits lest I chomp on a clump of fur. No amount of proactive or preventative cleansing measures on my part, however, could combat the curly castoffs from interloping all over the sheet that covered my mat as well as the floor of the cell. Every exposed surface, in fact, was susceptible to his encroaching hair. It was as if Benji’s fuzzy follicles had a mind of their own and were trying to take over, to cover the cell in its own coarse coat. I suspect that the corridors of the Millennium Falcon were probably a lot shaggier than originally depicted, and as far as I’m concerned that’s false advertising. Shame on George Lucas.

As for my own wookie experience, Benji was a good guy, but I didn’t much miss him when he moved on. Or, at least, I didn’t miss his furry remnants.

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The Shakedown Artist

C/O Sellefft was a particularly thorough and brutal shakedown artist who derived a giddy thrill out of depriving inmates of their belongings. He has been heard to comment that he doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel like he has done his job, unless he writes at least one ticket per night. To say that Sellefft was “by the book” would be an insult to the book. Not only did he go way above and beyond what his actual duties called for, but he also gloried in the suffering that he caused. In layman’s terms, he was an unrepentant asshole. What’s worse is that his position of authority and the administration protected him from retribution. Like the quintessential coward, C/O Sellefft lashed out and then hid behind his badge.

yes, that's a prison tv.
yes, that’s a prison tv.

The first time he was in the building, he spent two hours shaking down a cell. For a daily routine shakedown, ten to thirty minutes is a good general rule of thumb. That amount of time provides the officer plenty of opportunity to have an adequately thorough look through everything and be satisfied that there’s nothing extremely inappropriate or illegal secreted within the cell. The extreme degree to which Sellefft searched was generally reserved only for annual shakedowns instituted prison-wide and conducted by the tac team members. Sellefft, however, went even beyond that by taking inmates’ property items that he had no right or reason to confiscate. In taking these things, Sellefft provoked a confrontation with an inmate in an effort to goad the inmate into doing or saying something out of bounds and worthy of a ticket. The blatant and overt antagonism from Sellefft towards his wards came to a head when he walked out of a cell with a television cradled in his arms.

Sellefft wore a smug smile as he walked to the bubble with the 13-inch TV set, but he didn’t quite make it there before being confronted by Deeno, the rightful owner of the television. “Whoa, Whoa! What’s up? What are you doing? Why are you taking my TV?” Deeno sounded righteously enraged, but was keeping it under control.

“Stop right there!” Sellefft yelled, holding one arm out towards Deeno in a warding off gesture that was a somewhat comical approximation of the Heisman trophy pose with the bulky TV standing in for the football. Sellefft’s tone sounded much more urgent than was necessary, as if Deeno were rushing to tackle him and was almost upon him rather than ten feet away. Deeno slowed down, but continued taking several faltering steps as he spoke.

photo by Stuart Miles
photo by Stuart Miles

“Why are you taking my TV?” he queried once more.
“It’s cracked,” Sellefft replied with confident superiority.
“What?” Deeno asked indignantly. Sellefft ignored him and continued his retreat to the bubble where he secured the appliance before turning to find Deeno standing right there at the door to the bubble. “What do you mean it’s cracked?” he asked.
Sellefft looked suitably flustered, but managed to maintain his air of arrogant authority. “It’s got a crack on the back of it.”
Deeno appeared to be genuinely confused before it finally dawned on him what Sellefft was referring to. “That?”
“Yeah, that.”
“It’s been like that for, like, four years or something.”
The prickish look plastered across Sellefft’s face wavered slightly, and Deeno tried to seize on this as a weakness. “Nobody else has had a problem with it before, it’s just old.” Sellefft recognized what Deeno was trying to do, and the hard ass glare came back to his face.
“No,” he replied. “It’s altered.”
“Altered!?” Deeno exclaimed, his voice raising to a screechy decibel. “It’s old.”
“No, it’s altered.”
“I’ve had that TV for thirteen years!” Deeno was outright screaming by this point which only served to put a smile on Sellefft’s face and made him cross his arms over his puffed-out chest like he was some kind of tough guy who was not to be trifled with.
“I don’t care,” Sellefft said, sounding like it provided him with an enormous amount of satisfaction to give the pronouncement. Angry and frustrated, Deeno looked desperate, like he wanted to lash out at his oppressor.
“I want to see a lieutenant,” he said, his voice carrying a tremor as he tried to keep it under control.
“I don’t give a shit.” Sellefft positively sneered this last, and I thought for sure it would be the final straw for Deeno.

New Tactic
“Alright then,” Deeno responded, his tone much more modulated than it had just been. “I need a crisis team.”

By invoking the crisis team, Deeno was effectively claiming to be in a state of mental or emotional crisis and thinking of hurting himself. This is an extremely serious claim to be made by an inmate, and Sellefft wasn’t qualified to judge the validity or veracity of Deeno’s assertion. If Sellefft had followed proper protocol, he would’ve called the lieutenant followed by the shift commander and informed them that an inmate was in need of a crisis team and then waited in the lieutenant’s office with Deeno. He didn’t do any of that.
“Prove it,” Sellefft said. Deeno appeared to be about as shocked as he would’ve been if Sellefft would’ve just hauled off and smacked him right across the face.
“What?” he managed to inquire. It came out more as a gasp of air rather than a fully formed word.
“Go hang yourself,” Sellefft replied.
“What did you just say to me?” Deeno asked, leaning his considerable frame towards Sellefft, the implied threat obvious in his body language. Sellefft leaned in as well, meeting the challenge head on.
“Go. Hang. Yourself.” Sellefft enunciated each word with exaggerated emphasis, letting them hover in the air between them for a moment before continuing. “Now, back up.”
He slammed the door to the bubble so quickly that it would’ve cracked Deeno in the face if he hadn’t retreated swiftly enough. Deeno stalked off back to his cell, fuming.

It wasn’t long before Deeno came rushing back to the bubble where he waited for the lieutenant to make his scheduled rounds through the building. Deeno stood and glared at Sellefft while the offensive and unprofessional C/O blithely smirked his amusement.

As soon as Lieutenant Berg entered the building, Deeno filled his ears with all his woes, pointing an accusatory finger towards Sellefft throughout his tirade, and the loo listened attentively. Deeno reported his interactions with Sellefft as honestly as possible, capturing both his own frustrated anger and outrage as well as Sellefft’s arrogant stubbornness.

Being completely truthful turned out to be Deeno’s downfall, however, because he admitted to claiming that he needed a crisis team. Lieutenant Berg was professional and did his job by taking Deeno’s claims to be in crisis seriously. He was as kind as possible about it, and even let Deeno pack his own belongings, but in the end, Deeno was taken to the naked room to spend some time under observation on suicide watch until he could speak to the psych doctor and convince him that he wasn’t suicidal. C/O Sellefft had a good laugh about it once Deeno was gone.

Bad Luck
Deeno was back in GP in a different building in a week, but it took a month of him filing grievances and talking to every lieutenant, major, and warden he could come across to try to get his television back. Ultimately, he had to enlist his people to call from the world and take up the cause for him before his property was returned.

Sellefft’s reign of terror went on for another month for a total of seventy-eight days during which time every single person in the house was perpetually on edge. When he was replaced by a more reasonable officer, it was cause for celebration by all. Well, all but Deeno. Sellefft had been reassigned to the building where Deeno had been relocated to. Just bad luck I suppose. C/Os like Sellefft aren’t necessarily common, but whenever one does show up, he is a serious nuisance to every convict he encounters.


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Untimely Elimination


A thick, smooth consistency. Dark, chocolately brown in color. Rancid, and smeared across the back of my thighs. Not a good way to start the day.

Lifestyle Changes
I’d been doing so very well. Living the keto life in prison isn’t easy, but I had remained faithful to the carb-restricted diet in combination with vigorous exercise six days a week. In three months, I’d lost nearly 25 pounds. I was feeling better, looking slimmer, but hitting a wall of sorts.

It’s not like I had the option to run out to the supermarket as needed for the freshest produce or the meats, cheeses, and nuts that are the main staples of this revolutionary way of eating and thinking of fat consumption. I was allowed to eat plenty of bacon, but there’s not a strip in sight in prison. I miss bacon so much. You could say I fell off the proverbial wagon.

ramennoodlesA minor injury slowed me down in my exercise, then I fell into past bad habits. I ended up bingeing on an overabundance of carb-heavy garbage food. Noodles, rice, chips, cookies, honeybuns. Notice that I used the plural form for each of those items. My digestive system had grown unaccustomed to such trash, especially in such huge quantities, and I would pay for my indiscretion with more than just some simple indigestion.

Sleepy Crapping
At one in the morning, I was awakened from a lovely, deep, dreamless sleep by an enormous pressure and pain in my abdomen, groin, and anus. I threw off the blankets and was assaulted by the extreme chill in the cell. The news said we’d be getting the first frost of the season overnight, but DOC policy is to turn on the heat in the buildings at the latest possible date.

The cold shot through me like a dull projectile and made my guts tense up, which only intensified the calamity centered there. I stumbled, bleary-eyed, to the bathroom and embraced the toilet seat with my butt cheeks, fully expecting to barely make it there in time. A weak stream of urine piddled out, but nothing more, and I was left in a peculiar state of mixed-up agony.

Despite this pain, I vacillated between dozing into a thin sleep and bouts of grunting, groaning, and heavy breathing. After about twenty minutes or so, I had managed to expel a stubborn but hefty amount of compacted crap from my system and felt all the better for it. As I cleaned myself up, I actually entertained the notion that it was a good thing that I had gotten my morning waste elimination out of the way so early because I could still get a few more hours of sleep then have plenty of time to write without having to be interrupted by my poop time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Crappy Conditions
Several hours later, after my morning prayers and cup of coffee, I was sitting on my bunk, writing and minding my own business, when I suddenly had to handle an entirely different kind of business. A loose fart escaped me as a warning shot and portent of so much worse to come. I was on my feet with all the necessary toiletries in hand in an instant. Toilet paper, bar of soap, towel, baby powder, small bottle of bleach to disinfect the seat of the community toilet before I dropped trou.

miami beach 411Unfortunately, my progress stalled right there as I saw that one of my five cellies had already sequestered himself in our semi-private bathroom. A pinch of panic nipped at me, but I settled back onto my bunk and tried to sit comfortably and take my mind off the impending mass of mess slouching towards my sphincter with an insidious inevitability. Sitting quickly became an impossibility, and I regained my feet once more, instituting the shit shuffle as I danced back and forth from foot to foot while taking deep regular breaths in an effort to both control and distract from the crap coming my way.

I didn’t want to think about what I would or could do if my cellie didn’t come out soon. My options were limited and unappealing. I could’ve deposited my gift in a garbage can in the cell, or tried sneaking out to the showers and put my poop there. Each potentiality carried its own intrinsic, disgusting aspect with it, and consequences for being caught doing either would be a walk to Seg or a beatdown. Possibly both.

I glided gingerly across the concrete, careful not to jostle the load I was carrying, and tapped on the bathroom door a couple times to signal to my cellie that I was waiting on him. “Yeah, hold on,” was his response, and it gave me a glimmer of hope which I carried back to my bunk where I stood and shuffled some more while performing my improvised Lamaze exercises. No amount of hope or heavy breathing could stop what came next.

I felt it coming and panic kicked in hard, but it was a futile feeling, utterly useless in my predicament. With all my might and will, I attempted to squeeze my cheeks against the breach, but the slick sludge slid out unimpeded by my best efforts. I ceased all movements and felt hot, wet waste settle between my cheeks. With some pressure released, I tried to reason that it would be okay, that the offensive fecal matter would just sit quietly in the on deck circle, and I could still make it to the toilet in time, thereby averting disaster.

Unfortunately, once that turd train had begun to travel along the tracks, there was no stopping it. I stood in the middle of my dark cell, completely motionless, but mentally screaming and pleading for it to stop as a quite considerable amount of crap continued to evacuate my body. My boxers filled, and I felt the warm shit sliding against the back of my legs and squish along my inner thighs. It was undeniable official: I was a grown man—at nearly 35 the very definition of middle-aged—and I had just crapped in my pants.

Change of Plans
I had an entirely different problem on my hands, and in my pants, at this point. My knees were pinned together due to the foolish belief that it would somehow arrest any further progression of the poop oozing its way down the back of my legs. I turned awkwardly and carefully gathered supplies, bending at the waist and praying for no further fallout–also hoping for nothing to fall out the bottom of my shorts.

photo by "africa"
photo by “africa”

The pungent aroma of human waste began to permeate the air of the cell, undeniable in its potency, and I could only hope my remaining four cellies would remain sleeping. A change of clothes and bath towel were added to my overburdened arms. Just as soon as I had them all, I had to pile all my cleanup materials into the crook of my left arm and hug everything to my chest as my right hand reached behind me and grasped at the mass that was migrating lower and threatening to make its presence known on the floor of the cell.

All My Glory
When my cellie finally opened the door, he found me standing just outside the bathroom in all my glory. Supplies were piled high in one arm while my feet were pigeon-toed, and my knees were both pinched together and slightly bent so that I could reach the bulge in the back of my shorts. My hand was pressing the shorts against my body, holding the problematic poop in place by smearing it across my flesh.

Thankfully, my cellie just blinked bleary-eyed and got the hell out of my way. There was no way he couldn’t have smelled me, but I tried to remain nonchalant as I sidled past him and shuffle-stepped through the door with a load caught in my pants by a well-placed palm.

A Cleansing
Hovering above the toilet like an accomplished yogi, I had some heavy shit on my mind as well as on my body and clothes. The ever-present nagging issue on my mind was that I had several other guys who would soon be waking and wanting to use the bathroom, so I had to be as quick and economical with my cleansing as possible. For thirty minutes, I worked at dispensing with all the evidence of my accident and was left with a soggy, soapy—but poop-free—pile of clothes ready for the laundry.

At best I felt sort of clean, no longer befouled, which I couldn’t begrudge. I could, however, begrudge the fact that this incident wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have to share a single toilet with so many guys with no viable option in case of emergency. The experience conjured an all-consuming humiliation, helplessness, and shame that I thought I’d left behind me in my childhood years, but prison has a way of making grown men regress. Of course, I never thought I’d revert to my pre-potty trained days, but I suppose every day is an adventure of sorts, albeit, occasionally, a decidedly shitty adventure.


Culture Clash

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“What!? You want me to say ‘please’? I ain’t finna beg you for a damn milk!” Chuckie was a harmless but annoying loudmouth with a big gut and short stature. He was generally little more than an obnoxious nuisance, but in this instance he had managed to grow legitimately intimidating as the fiery ire in his eyes seemed sincere and significant. It wasn’t until this exact moment that I was confronted by the curious concept that the practice of saying “please” was a controversial one.

photo by SOMMAI
photo by SOMMAI

Properly Polite
I have never taken an etiquette class or been formally schooled in the proper manners and protocols for given situations. I have, however, been instilled with a certain amount of sense and courtesy. Unfortunately, neither of those traits is particularly common in prison. Having been raised to mine my P’s and Q’s, I found it bizarre to be taken to task for my upbringing wherein I was taught to say “please” along with all manner of general politeness. Apparently, this was very far removed from the vast majority of the men I was forced to cohabitate with.

Rudely Wakening
Wrenched from slumber only to crowd around the chow table for an early morning breakfast, all eyes were still cemented shut with sleep, and general surly crabbiness was at peak levels. I was staring dazedly at the small circles of dry pancakes that no amount of syrup could penetrate. The gears of my brain were grinding ponderously as I pondered over the puddle of cold grits, wondering what exactly grits were because they’d never been a staple of my childhood, so I had never really encountered them before my stint behind prison walls. Into my reverie, Chuckie butted his unwelcome presence.

“Gimme your milk.” I’d been locked up long enough at this point to know that that’s just how people ask for things, but on this particular occasion, I didn’t feel much like just letting the impolite nature of his words and tone go ignored. Truth be told, I had no intention whatsoever of drinking my milk as I believed it to be the main culprit behind my recent horribly explosive and odorous flatulence. However, Chuckie hadn’t so much asked for it as he had demanded I give it to him, and I didn’t much appreciate it. I uttered the two words that suddenly turned the dull and subdued morning into something far more volatile and exciting.

“Say ‘please.’”

Differing Values
“I ain’t finna beg you for a damn milk!” Chuckie looked like he wanted to throttle me. The fact that his build was similar to that of a Rubbermaid garbage can, or maybe a fire hydrant, made him somewhat less than terrifying, but there was a determined set to his jaw and legitimate rage shining in his eyes. Despite this reality, apparently it was too early for discretion on my part, and I didn’t like being yelled at.

“Beg?” I said, cramming as much incredulity and outrage into that one word as I could possibly manage. “Beg!?” I repeated, raising my volume a half dozen notches past normal, and somehow finding a way to sound even more outraged. “Who said you had to beg? How the hell am I asking you to beg?”

“My daddy told me that a real grown man don’t beg no man, and please is the same as begging.” I couldn’t help but be both surprised and impressed that Chuckie actually managed to sound like an adult human being while referring to his father as “daddy.” I also couldn’t help but wonder what kind of an idiot believes a simple “please” to be tantamount to begging, but I didn’t voice my feelings.


Instead I pressed the issue. “How is ‘please’ begging?”

“Because it is,” Chuckie declared definitively. With logic like that it was hard to argue with him, but I tried nonetheless.

“No, it’s not. I’m not saying for you to beg. I’m just saying that you can have some manners and ask me for my milk instead of demanding I give it to you.”

“I’m not gonna beg like some little bitch!” Chuckie yelled. He wasn’t more than an inch from me, chest puffed out and trying to intimidate.

“I’m just saying it’s rude.” I didn’t have anything more to say, but he stood there expectantly like I did. Eventually, it dawned on him that I wasn’t going to speak, so he did.

“So what’s up with that milk?” I looked up at him like he had a dozen heads sprouting from his neck. I snatched the small carton of milk from my tray, opened it, and drained it in two long gulps causing Chuckie to cuss and me and return to his seat.

Side Effects
I suppose I proved my point and learned an invaluable lesson about some of the differences between cultures, but only at a cost. Later that morning, I lay on my rack in the fetal position, farting violently, sporadically, and indiscriminately while caressing my bloated belly as cramps tore through my middle. That day, milk did not do my body good.

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Matinee of Madness

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It was a lazy Monday afternoon, the hectic frenzy of the first day of the workweek having ebbed to a lethargic pace. Fall was in full swing with a nip in the air bred from northern breezes. As is the popular course of action in these instances, meteorologists all across the dial saw fit to blame Canada.

A line of thirty guys walking two by two trudged quietly to chapel with C/O Snyder leading us like our own personal pied piper. There was no second escort officer bringing up the rear of our movement line as is proper protocol. A clear demonstration of why two C/Os are required was about to begin.

ID-10074945Just Talking
There were two pairs of men behind me, and the last couple in line were talking together in muted tones, so subdued, in fact, that I couldn’t distinguish one word from the next. Oftentimes, guys from different housing units use chapel as a meeting place to keep in touch with their buddies, trade merch, exchange sweet nothings. I attributed their confidential volume to them being friends (possibly with benefits) who sought some semblance of privacy for their conversation. Generally, guys have no sense of decorum, or any type of courtesy whatsoever, and a conversation between two people standing two feet away from each other can usually be heard by guys standing thirty feet away.

Whatever their relationship to one another was, or the topic of their talk, it seemed to change pretty quickly when the taller inmate finally said something I could understand. It was a vehement curse and insult. Then he smacked the shorter guy across the face with an open palm and pushed him into the grass where he stumbled and fell onto his back. The line of men continued to move, largely oblivious to the scuffle.

Falling Out
The initial aggressor collapsed onto his victim with fists flying in a valiant effort at a violent assault, but appeared to connect with nothing more than earth. After clumsily punching the ground half a dozen times, he changed tactics and tried a wrestling move on him. At least I believe that’s what it was meant to be—some type of ill-conceived chokehold that I imagine he saw employed at some time or another when Hulk Hogan was best known for his Wrestlemania showmanship rather than his racist rant.

It didn’t seem to be working, but he kept trying, and we kept walking. The fighters weren’t saying much of anything and most of the rest of the guys walking to church showed no signs that they even knew what was going on. The few of us near the back of the line who were aware of it all bore silent witness to the struggle, with necks kinked backwards and sideways as our feet continued their forward progress.

Momentarily Invisible
Somehow the two men rolling around on the ground were doing so unseen by any authority figures. C/O Snyder at the front of our line had a somewhat legitimate excuse because he had reached a junction in the sidewalk which meant that the front portion of the line was essentially forming the short stem of a capital “L,” and the rest of the line blocked C/O Snyder’s view of the fighters. However, this happened in full view of at least four gun towers. Despite this degree of exposure, there was no announcement or warning shot. They just continued on.

The taller one—who had been the main aggressor—abandoned his cockeyed and futile attempt to choke his victim out and seemed to suddenly remember how to fight. He slammed the shorter guy’s head against the ground. The shorter guy lay on his back, dazed, and the taller guy swung his leg over to straddle him, basically sitting on his victim’s chest and pinning him in place. Having grown up with older brothers who were adept in the fine art of torturing younger siblings, I knew full well how helpless the guy on the bottom was.

The taller guy began to swing his fists once again, but this time there was nothing pendulous or cumbersome about it. His target—his victim’s face—was right in front of him and he jabbed at the exposed visage like a slightly twisted and curious kid poking a dead dog with a stick. The man on the ground could do nothing but absorb the impact of each blow against his forehead and cheeks. Finally someone noticed.

“Hey. Hey! Stop that. Don’t do that.” Our movement line had progressed far enough to provide C/O Snyder a clear line of sight to the beating, and this was his response. He sounded like an overtired parent scolding a troublesome, petulant child. Snyder wasn’t a bad guy, but he was clearly out of his element. He was tall and lanky and he moved like he was just out for a leisurely stroll rather than rushing to break up a fight. Snyder wore the perpetually vacuous gaze one might associate with Steinbeck’s Lennie character from Of Mice and Men. (Tell me about the rabbits, George!)

As he walked, Snyder called for help over his radio then stood near the two men and continued to provide mild protests and admonishments to cease their battle. “C’mon guys. Cut it out.” He projected zero confidence or authority, and made no viable effort to separate the two inmates or to physically intervene in any way.

All the men in the movement line had stopped by this point and were turned back around in the direction from where we’d come, openly gawking at the bizarre scene. One inmate beating another senseless while a C/O stood by and griped about it. I took a moment to look around in every direction and there wasn’t a single other person in sight. Not one C/O, inmate, counselor, or any other staff member milling about. C/O Snyder was the sole voice of authority, but he was the epitome of ineffectual. Being practically all alone—unobserved—in the middle of the prison compound provided a strange, surreal sense of vertigo, but we weren’t alone long.

In an instant, the area was flooded by C/Os and white shirts. The administrative building was only twenty yards from where the beatdown was happening—and that’s precisely what it had devolved to. The unfortunate inmate who was pinned to the ground had ceased to put up any kind of defense or show that he was even conscious at all. From the administrative building, a dozen security staff members poured into the area with an even larger number coming from the chow hall opposite and rushing across the field to the scene of the crime.

Lieutenant Waters was the first to arrive, though first only by a fraction of a second. He hit the taller inmate—who was doing all the assaulting—at full speed, collapsing him to the ground like a football special teams player making a spectacular open field tackle. Then it wasn’t football that Lieutenant Waters was playing at, it was calf-roping, as he had the assailant prostrate on his face, cuffed, and subdued in the time it took me to blink.

The matinee of madness was over and the plethora of staff that had responded to it was corralling us toward the chapel with authoritative voices and threats to take us to Seg if we didn’t start moving. We all walked toward our Bible Study and left the bloody scene behind. There was nothing more we could do.

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Shoeshine Shorty

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Many prison inmates are both enormously vain and incredibly lazy. This is a pair of attributes that Bee was able to identify and take advantage of.

Air-Jordan-19-All-White-ShoesIdentifying an Opportunity
The only sneakers available for purchase in prison are entirely white, and therefore, it’s not long before they become scuffed, dirty, dingy. No matter what degree of care or babying one might take with them, getting them befouled is inevitable. Some guys didn’t much care and would just rub a wet rag across their shoes from time to time if they happen to get some mud or other gunk splashed on them, but that’s about the extent of their care for their footwear. The other, more particular and anal inmate was where Bee recognized his potential clientele.

Putting out a Shingle
“Shoes Cleaned and Returned Same Day” Bee’s sign declared in large stilted lettering written with a dying red marker against a lily white piece of printer paper. Two dollars per pair was the stated price, and that was the only advertising needed. Each afternoon after returning from his mandatory GED schooling, as well as bright and early on the weekends, Bee could be seen sitting in his chair in the hallway outside his room in the dorm-like setting of our cell house. There was a plastic garbage can filled with soap and water between his feet, and he would be diligently scrubbing away at someone’s shoes. It was only a matter of days before Bee had clients enough to keep him forever scouring and prune-fingered.

As far as a hustle goes, it wasn’t perhaps the most glamorous of vocations, nor was it astoundingly lucrative, but in terms of Bee’s expenses in relation to his income, it was a genius business model. Water came free of charge with a turn of the knob, and the laundry soap that Bee used was provided to each inmate once a month as part of DOC meeting one of it’s four responsibilities to its wards—keep them fed, clothes, housed, and cleaned. Anything beyond that is a lavish luxury. To augment the laundry soap, Bee would use a bar of state soap which he pilfered with his sticky fingers from the school building or else received legit from a sympathetic sarge.

Since Bee was a state baby, and as long as he scattered his shots, he could get a bar or two per week free of charge. The soft-bristled brush he used to clean his customers’ shoes had been left behind by someone going home and was seized by Bee. His biggest expense, and only one of note, was the bleach he sometimes employed to cleanse the more stubborn spots stuck on the fabric of the shoe. A four-ounce shampoo bottle re-purposed as a bleach receptacle went for fifty cents from most porters, but Bee had a deal to get it for a quarter. More often than not, however, he’d get it for free and just clean the porter’s shoes in return. A win-win situation.

shoeshineSupply and Demand
Bee accepted any business that walked up to his little workshop and had some regulars who got their shoes cleaned once a week or every few days. A couple of truly neurotic guys developed longstanding daily appointments with Bee and his bucket of suds. It wasn’t long before his new moniker circulated through the cell house, sometimes spoken in contempt or derision, but most often it was just a harmless qualifier.

With business booming, a new sign was in order, this one a better reflection of his success. The cost to Bee: zero. The artist who contributed it was happy for the challenge and the change of pace from an endless parade of making cards with flowers for sweethearts and certain cartoon characters for the kids. Bee’s new sign was painted on a 12×18 inch piece of Bristol board with the new name “Shoeshine Shorty’s.” A blue decorative curlicue bordered the edges of the sign, within which purple letters stated the same simple business model: “Shoes Cleaned and Returned Same Day,” however, the arranged price had been amended. In a non-threatening shade of green (the color of money) and simple no-nonsense lettering, the new sign advertised as follows: Cleaning outside only…….2.50
Inside and out cleaning……3.00

I never once heard anyone bemoan the price hike, and since he had the shoeshine market cornered, Bee kept busy and kept putting money in his pocket. A more industrious inmate I have rarely seen.

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Posted From Behind Prison Walls

My name is William D. Hastings. Except that’s not my name at all.

It’s not an alias, nickname, street name, fake name; no, it’s a pen name. Nom de plume, as the French say, though I promise to keep this mostly in English.

So, why a pen name?

Why not? Mark Twain had one; why can’t I? Though if I’d been saddled with the handle “Samuel Langhorne Clemens” I might opt for something a little snappier, too.

But I’m drifting from my point.

Why a pen name? Well, I’m writing from prison. Been here a while. Going to be here a while longer. Figured a bit of anonymity might be a good idea.

I’m locked up somewhere in the U.S. of A., but that’s about all you’re going to get. But I will do my best to share some of what it’s like to be a prisoner in one of the most powerful and affluent nations in the world.

Because of my situation, postings may be sporadic or infrequent, but I assure you that my benefactor and I will do our best.


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