This Year

Time is relative.

It’s malleable like taffy or cotton candy. Stretched out or squashed down, it has a different texture for each individual. Thank God it continues to pass regardless of perception. Prison is all about time.

The Count

Days are meted out in increments of movement. Whether that moving is for school, yard, gym, a shower, or a meal it marks a passage of time. In Segregation movement can be a shuffle to the chuckhole to receive a tray of food, or a CO moving past to perform a scheduled inmate count. Days become weeks, months and years, but even those are counted differently.

Methods

Some guys measure from events and distractions. Jumping from one holiday to another, or one sports season to the next. With preseason football all the way through the Super Bowl a solid six months is gone. More if you factor in the draft. Basketball seems endless; once the finals are over it’s practically preseason again, but guys live for it to make their time pass more seamlessly. Birthdays and anniversaries carry their own heartache, but must be faced. The movie cliché of a guy marking off each day with an X on the calendar is about as common as a Yeti in Times Square. Once he’s down to three or four month it does sometimes happen, but beyond that it is an act of sadomasochism in which guys don’t generally engage.

Myself, I was arrested on the 23rd of the month. It’s not a deliberate or conscious effort, but I end up counting 23s. Each month that day never manages to sneak past without me taking notice that another month has drained the sands of time from my allotted hourglass. For the in-between times I try to stay focused. I work.

Taming Time

I’m up early—4:00 or 4:30. On the rare occasions that I sleep much past that I lurch up in a tiny panic, keenly aware that time is lose forever. In those precious minutes I could’ve been writing, reading, praying, worshiping, or merely enjoying my existence in the dark and quiet of the morning before prison awakes to ruin the calm illusion. I plan and make to-do lists to ensure that letters are written in a timely manner, writing projects stay on schedule, and reading books isn’t neglected. Exercise, job, TV, shower; everything allotted its right time and place. I don’t fall to pieces when things happen to alter my schedule, but I hate the feeling of wasted time. Perhaps, in this context, the term “wasted” is relative too.

In The Dark

My mornings are my favorite time.

No matter how many people may be around me, I’m all alone in the dark. I pray, communing with the Creator of the universe. There’s much wondering, questioning, seeking, wrestling—all pressing on through faith, trust, and hope. Hope can hurt, but hope fixes us. One helluva a smart fella taught me that one.

In the darkness and solitude my thoughts range back and forth through time. They dwell on mistakes or regrets, but more so on triumphs and better times. I fantasize and wonder what life will look like when I’m released. No flying Jetson cars, not yet, but so much has changed in the world and with me since that first 23. Now that day which I wasn’t always sure would come is within sight.

Facing Reality

It’s incredibly surreal, and that will probably only increase as my release date comes closer. I don’t know precisely what is in store for me. I focus on the day and the goals set before me. Perhaps that’s the best measure of time; seeing what is right in front of us. Each morning I continue to sit in the dark and press forward, pondering the truth which seems unreal, too wondrous to be true: I go home this year.

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Orangutan Dance

I called him Luigi because his bushy moustache and swarthy complexion put me in mind of his namesake from Super Mario Brothers. Not precisely culturally sensitive, but political correctness tends to die at the prison gates. During this particular incident, Luigi looked exactly like an orangutan.

Animal Planet

Arms straight in the air over his head waving side to side with the movement of his body. He wandered a few feet to his left, turned and retraced his steps. I’d seen orangutans perform the same dance on Animal Planet. I couldn’t remember if the pose was a show of dominance or the beginnings of a mating ritual. Either way, I couldn’t figure why Luigi was doing it in the middle of the chow hall.

Bizarrely Hilarious

Not knowing what preceded his graceless ballet, I had no context in which to put it. To me it looked hilariously bizarre, and I wasn’t the only one. The assembled security staff were all silent, dumbfounded, but many people, including myself, were laughing in varying degrees of hysteria. That didn’t last long.

Nasty Reality

Luigi’s upper body suddenly vibrated with an immense shudder as frothy white vomit oozed onto his chin. It sat there in a moment of pause before gaining the required force of momentum to achieve projectile status. Liquid and solid expelled violently. It was no longer very funny.

No Help

The orangutan dance had been his attempt to breath. Luigi brought his arms down, holding his hands to his throat in a universally understood gesture indicating that he was choking. Sergeant Schroeder was closest to the distressed inmate. He backed away quickly. Luigi took a desperate step toward Lieutenant Jarvis who cussed voluminously before stepping back and saying he wouldn’t touch him. The two officers next to Lieutenant Jarvis also retreated as calls of “Help him!” came from a dozen directions. By all appearances those in authority intended to just let Luigi choke to death. None of them even had the presence of mind to key their radio and call out the code for a medical emergency.

Rescue

An inmate stood up near Luigi, looking supremely unsure of himself, but knowing that someone had to do something. He cocked his arm back and was about to start beating on the choking man’s back when Frank bellowed “Don’t touch him” from two tables away.

In another lifetime, over two decades previous, Frank had been a firefighter trained to access and treat those in respiratory distress. His response time was perhaps a bit delayed, but he walked up and unceremoniously pushed the would-be Good Samaritan out of his way. Frank assumed the easily recognized position to perform the Heimlich. He moved with a certainty and assurance that was comforting, calming. Lieutenant Jarvis let out a half-hearted “No, don’t.” Sergeant Schroeder mumbled “Hey, you can’t do that.” Neither of them called for professional medical assistance. Frank said something to Luigi before taking a breath and commencing his rescue maneuver.

Unrecognizable

The gentleman whose namesake is arguably the most recognizable lifesaving move ever devised may not have been able to identify what was happening to Luigi. Or rather, what Frank was doing to him. I’ve passed the appropriate course for CPR certification twice in my life, but still wasn’t entirely sure what I was seeing.

Not Funny

Luigi was bent at a forty-five angle that was creeping toward ninety degrees. This required Frank to lean forward as he tried to wrap his arms around Luigi. The ensuing application of sudden upward pressure on the abdomen administrated by Frank featured an alarming amount of pelvic thrusting. It gave the entire attempt to save Luigi the appearance of an act of sodomy. This similarity would often be recounted for extremely dark comic effect and rightly so. It looked uproariously absurd—it looked like Frank was trying rape Luigi back to life. However, in the severity of the moment, and to the eternal credit of all us hardcore convicts, no one laughed.

Unobstructed

After much bumping and grinding Frank managed to get Luigi into the more traditional upright position. With one last satisfying thrust a hunk of unchewed material expelled itself in a slimy mess at the feet of the ineffectual security staff. Luigi coughed, bent over, hands on his knees, and drooled out whatever remained of the obstruction. A general roar of surprise, approval and congratulations rose before falling just as swiftly. Large numbers of inmates organized for one cause is discouraged. It can be met with sever repercussions, and for that reason most guys have been conditioned not to engage in such displays. Where just seconds before we had all been united in rooting for Luigi and Frank’s unorthodox love affair, all onlookers had returned their attention to the table and tray right in front of them.

No Healthcare

Luigi should have gone to healthcare. This would have required Lieutenant Jarvis to call healthcare, explain in brief what happened, and tell them to expect him. A van could’ve been sent to pick Luigi up, or he could have walked. Sending him to healthcare would’ve meant writing an official Incident Report documenting what occurred. Luigi was told to sit down and drink some water.

Hero Treatment

Frank’s actions constituted such a rarified degree of selfless heroism that he was eligible for months to be subtracted from his sentence. In order for that to happen, an official Incident Report would be necessary. Frank would also need a recommendation from a staff member. Neither Lieutenant Jarvis, Sergeant Schroeder nor any other security staff member present was going to write an Incident Report documenting their inability to act, and then, recommend Frank for a special sentence reduction. Frank was circumspectly told to return to his seat.

Intervention

Isaac was a twitchy, annoying, scheming pain in the ass. This didn’t mean that he deserved to get a beat-down. Actually prison protocol dictated that his actions warranted that very thing. But that didn’t mean that I’d stand by and let it happen.

The Jew

“I need your help, man. Please. I need you.”

Isaac approached me with this preamble to a request without any further fanfare or explanation. His reputation as well as my own personnel history with him made me wary.

Isaac was no taller than five feet four inches, and that’s a generous estimation. He was a little guy, an easy target, and he was Jewish, which made him an instant outsider. Most people simply referred to him as “The Jew”, whether they knew his name or not. Sometimes, though not always, this was twisted into a derogatory slur. In the kind of casual bigotry that is commonplace in prison.

Dilemma

The pressing issue that had caused Isaac to rush up to me while I waited for the next game on the handball court was a predictable one. He had employed some less than scrupulous business practices—promising payment of outstanding debt to two individuals, but only having resources to pay one. His assumption was that he’d be able to lie or weasel his way out of paying his debt in a timely manner. Unfortunately he chose the wrong individual to stiff, so instead, Isaac faced the prospect of physical assault being perpetrated against him. No sooner had Isaac given me the bare bones of his dilemma when the instrument of his impending beating arrived.

Bad Intentions

Rockton was a dark-skinned black man with a shaved head and constant scowl on his face which gave the impression that he was perpetually mean or angry. I hadn’t enough interaction with him to know whether or not that was an accurate impression. The fact that he walked right up to where Isaac and I were talking, grabbed Isaac easily by his puny bicep, and began pulling him off toward the back of the yard didn’t bode well. The area where they were headed was more isolated and without great sightlines for the guard in the tower to see what was going on. Rockton’s intention was obvious to all. Isaac called my name, wrenching his head around to plead for my assistance. His eyes were bugged out and huge behind the thick lenses—he looked terrified.

Confrontation

“Whoa, whoa. Hold up. Hang on a second.” I had to quick-step in order to overtake them. “Wait up. Wait a minute, man.” I placed myself in front of Rockton and didn’t let him maneuver around. Rockton glared hate at me. I don’t know what I was thinking.

“Whatcha want?” His expression got even meaner.

“I was talking to him,” I replied, indicating Isaac with a nod.

“So?”

“Let me talk to him.”

“Naw, I’ma beat his ass.” He tried to push past me, but I stood my ground. He let go of Isaac and stepped toward me chest to chest. He was mere millimeters taller than me, but substantially broader across the shoulders and chest. Intimidatingly wider. “Whatcha wanna do?” His threat was implicit. I still don’t know what I was thinking. Truth be told I was mostly reacting. The notion of letting Isaac get beat up didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t an option.

Negotiation

“I just wanna talk. Let me holler at you for a second.” I waited for an answer, literally holding my breath. Rockton didn’t so much back up as he did unflex his muscles which had been coiled and ready to strike. I sensed more than saw the crowd gathering to gawk. I sidled up to Rockton, turning my back to the looky-loos and attempting to transition from confrontational to conspiratorial. I leaned in, lowered my voice, and was thrilled when Rockton mimicked me.

“Look, I know the dude is a little snake,” I said, “but you had to know that before you did any business with him.”

“Naw, man. I didn’t. That’s it. Nobody told me that’s how the dude got down.”

“Alright, well, look, I got too much going on with the dude. You beat his ass and I’m screwed.” I waited for some objection. When he continued silently glaring I pressed forward. “How much does he owe you?”

Rockton appeared wary but eventually spat an answer. “Twenty.”

“Twenty what?”

“Whatcha mean? Twenty bones, man! Twenty bucks!”

I cursed inside my skull and threw a grimace of annoyance and exasperation over a shoulder at Isaac. His buggy eyes bulged bigger, pleading. I bit my tongue against cusses and frustration, and turned my attention back to Rockton.

“Alright. I got it. I’ll take it. I got his debt. I’ll pay it, then you don’t have to mess with him anymore. Sound good?” Rockton stepped back as if I’d pushed him and he couldn’t believe what I said. “Sound good?” I asked again.

“Yeah, yeah. That’s cool.” He eyed me suspiciously. “You serious?”

“Yeah, yeah I gotcha. Just make a list. We go to commissary next week, I’ll take care of you, whatever you want. Alright? Just leave dude alone.”

“Bet,” he replied, as an acknowledgement of agreement, and then we shook hands to seal the deal. I told him my name and what cell so he could send me his shopping list, and our transaction was over.

Repercussions

Isaac was vociferously grateful. He couldn’t stop talking and making a big deal of what I had done for him. As payment he took it upon himself to give me the bagel and single serve packet of peanut butter from his kosher meals once or twice a day for a month. This began as a rare delicacy, but eventually it got so I couldn’t stand the sight of the bagel. Rockton received all he asked for and was never any kind of problem. I had problem with loosing twenty dollars because I’m not independently wealthy, but kindness can’t occur without sacrifice. My act of kindness had an unintended consequence of making Isaac follow me around like a lost puppy dog, constantly there and always annoying.

When faced with the prospect of watching Rockton trounce the smaller, weaker Isaac I just couldn’t look the other way. Funny thing is I never too much liked Isaac prior to my intervening, and I liked him even less afterwards.

Fitness Fanatic

Not long ago I was riding in a vehicle on the way to the hospital. The two officers in the front seat were bickering nonstop over a perceived slight based on a huge miscommunication that had happened a decade earlier. Each stated and restated their position again and again. To paraphrase the Bard, they were a tandem of idiots full of loud, obnoxious, angry words which signified little to nothing. I quickly lost interest and my mind drifted.

Changes

Watching out my window I realized that I’d be returning the world in about one year’s time. After over fifteen years in prison I watched the scenery breeze by in a blur of greenery and gas stations, restaurants and assorted businesses. Despite my absence from society nothing looked dramatically different. Electronic advertisings songs seemed to be markedly more abundant than I remember them being prior to my incarceration, but as I looked for the changes I couldn’t find much. My drive could’ve happened a decade and a half previous and looked just about the same. I drifted into daydreams about what my impending life outside of prison might look like; how exactly would the world at large greet and treat me.

Professional Driving

Either the driver was distracted, incompetent or the rules of the road had changed dramatically since I’d last been behind the wheel. Whatever the case was, he pulled the large prison van into the parking lot at the spot clearly marked with signs and arrows stating NO ENTRY and EXIT ONLY. He had to swerve to the right and brake hard to avoid an exiting vehicle. After inching forward a few feet he had to slam on the brakes again as a man ran in front of the van.

Jogger

All I could see from my backseat vantage point was his head and shoulders. Head up, shoulders back—good runner’s form. My split-second assessment was that he was an exercise enthusiast getting in a run, though I conceded that it seemed odd for his route to cut right through the middle of the hospital parking lot. Mere moments later I realized that my kneejerk reaction to him was profoundly inaccurate.

Reality

Once he was past the front of the van I recognized that this man had never been enthusiastic about exercise. His chest resembled a supple C-cup while his flabby belly and back fat stretched the elastic of his underwear, oozing over the top of it. For the briefest instant I tried to reconcile the disparity, reasoning that perhaps the obese man had only just begun his fitness regimen. I could not, however, ignore the reality before me. The runner was shirtless, his ample body fat on full display and rippling rhythmically with each stride which only served to enhance the strangely hypnotic, surrealistic nature of the scene. Dark purple underwear with black waistband, one black sock and one white sock was the entirety of his attire. No shoes. No stretch of my imagination could conjure that this was appropriate runner’s wear.

Weird Welcoming

He cut through the parking lot, dodged between two cars, crossed the street and followed the sidewalk in front of the hospital before disappearing from view. Every indication was that he was simply out for an afternoon jog.  He didn’t appear to be frazzled or hurried as if he was chasing or being chased. Both officers had lapsed into silence and seemed as bewildered as I was so I had to inquire: “Is that normal?” Noncommittal grunts were all I got from them.

This is what I saw when I ventured forth from prison for the first time in years. It’s still unclear to me whether this was an anomaly or indicative of the world to which I’ll soon be returning.

 

Mental Health Check

Every Wednesday in segregation is mental health check day. God help you if you lose your mind on one of the other six days of the week.

Due Diligence

“MENTAL HEALTH CHECK!”

The distinctly female voice sounded just outside my door. I rushed to see because it was new stimuli and because I’m a heterosexual male and she’s a woman. Even to my starved eyes she was rather plain looking, slim, petite. Nothing much distinctive about her. This seemed to be the mold from which many of the mental health staff and nurses are poured.

She moved along tapping on doors and saying in a too loud, too sunny voice, “Mental health check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?” I could never hear the other side of the conversation, but she always ended with “Okay, thanks, have a good day!” Much too cheerful. The whole thing was, essentially, a tasteless joke.

Many men languished in segregation while being investigated under the guise of it being essential to the “safety and security of the institution.” This is merely a pretext for the powers that be to do more or less whatever they want. I never got a sense that anyone too much cared for our mental health while back there, but by doing the once weekly visit DOC covered themselves from a liability standpoint in the event of any litigation or outside investigation.

Trite

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?”

It began to grate on me, the hypocrisy of it. I had heard guys scream endlessly only to be ignored or told by a CO to shut-up. I had heard officers threaten to deny the inmate his shower, his food. Never while the mental health check was going on of course. Then everyone was on their best behavior.

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there?”

This time there was an immediate and impassioned response from within the cell. From a distance it all came out in urgent consonants—hard k and t and s sounds, but nothing intelligible. Polite and seemingly obsequious “Mm—hmm . . . yes . . . alright” vocalizations was all I heard from her. Then: “Well, you know, the only constant in life is change.” This she said to the guy locked in a cell and going nowhere.

Outrage

Are you kidding me! I yelled within my skull. I couldn’t believe that’s what passed as keen psychological insight. I wanted to verbally excoriate her. I’d begin by asking if this was the type of worthless, pointless work she had planned doing when she was studying to earn her degree.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

Whether or not her great contribution to the betterment of society was to come in spouting naïve banalities to men she cannot help. Or whether she even gives a damn about them.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I wanted to know if she had ever cared at all or if this was just a paycheck to her—a cushy union gig. I wanted to scream: “No! No, I’m not okay! What kind of stupid, asinine question is that? I’m locked in Seg! I’ve had everything stripped from me! My parents visited and had to see me chained like a wild frigging animal! I have no idea what the outcome of my situation is going to be because, guess what? I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m only here because smallminded fascists wanted to shut me up. I didn’t break any rules, but they don’t like that I put my prison experiences on a website for the whole world to see. Why don’t they like it? Because some of the essays might make DOC look bad, and God forbid that the truth gets out! They’re abusing their authority holding me here, and trying to squelch my freedom of speech. So, no, you know what? No, I am not okay. Of course I’m not okay!”

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I was going to call “Bullshit!” on this little routine of checking each cell off her list just so she could rubberstamp us all “sane enough” for another week and cover the prison’s collective and considerable hindquarters.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I wanted to make her question, if not regret ever getting into the field of prison healthcare (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). I wanted to make her flee in tears and shame.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

She was almost at my door and I wanted to tell her all this. I was going to tell her all this and more. Know what I did tell her?

Reality

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?”

By the time she tapped my door I was sitting, facing away from her. I merely raised my arm in her direction and extended one single digit to convey to her how I was doing. My thumb.

“Okay, thanks, have a good day!”

An important lesson: Learn to pick your battles or you’ll get tired or hurt from beating your head against the proverbial wall. Yet I’ve never gotten used to swallowing my ire in the face of callousness and injustice.