Standard Procedure

I had already been awake for hours when the lieutenant with an ample bottom (not a compliment) and an overdeveloped Napoleon complex entered my cell with her customary swagger. Prior to her promotion she had been just another anonymous and largely forgettable CO. Since donning the mantle of authority that is the white shirt of a lieutenant’s uniform, she hadn’t merely perfected her officious prick attitude, but had taken it to a new and rarely seen heights. Lieutenant Jooty’s antagonistic attitude had the effect of terrorizing and bullying inmates and COs both so that her abuse of authority went largely unchecked. Having her in my cell so early, before inmate movement had even begun for the day, was neither pleasant nor a good sign. I wasn’t worried, however, as I knew I had done nothing wrong.

Rude Awakening

“Everybody up! Up, up, up. Get up! Put on your blues and step out. C’mon. Up!”

Standing just inside the cell door she shrieked, jolting my three cellies from their slumber and raising them into the fresh hell that is being in her presence. Lieutenant Jooty was blocking the hook on the wall where my standard issue prison uniform (my blues) were hanging. I indicated with my arm and meekly mumbled that I had to get by to get my blues. She moved an inch or two, forcing me to reach past her, trapped between her and the wall. Our bodies nearly pressed into one another. Mere millimeters, no more a hair’s breadth separated us. She would not back down. I was plastered against the wall as much as possible.

Thank You, No

After over fifteen years of incarceration at the time, perhaps the intimate touch of a woman, however counterfeit, would me most desirable. Not so much. Lieutenant Jooty’s foul, sour demeanor rendered her thoroughly unattractive to me. The real possibility that I’d be punished for unintentionally touching her made my predicament both unwanted and uncomfortable. On top of which, she looked a lot a Treasure Troll. Her bubble butt with pants that were too small stretched across it always reminded me of a soggy saggy diaper and added to overall troll-like shape. The short shock of obviously unnatural platinum bottled blond sitting in a poof on top of her head insured she very seriously resembled the little novelty dolls which were all the rage again for about five minutes in the early to mid-nineties.

Thankfully, I retrieved my blues without incident. Then I had to strip to my underwear in front of her. An unnecessary indignity, but LT Jooty loved to assert her dominance. Most officers I spoke to had nothing complimentary to say about her. Once everyone was dressed, we were ushered out one at a time to the shower room and promptly made to strip. Having confirmed that we had nothing concealed on our person we were handcuffed and deposited in the dayroom. The same procedure was performed on the four men in the cell next to ours with whom we share an adjoining bathroom. There were several officers assisting with the operation. Some were Internal Affairs, some weren’t. None would breathe a hint of what it was all about. Lieutenant Jooty sneered her disapproval over everyone. Once we were all secured in the dayroom, they began to whisk us away in minivans two at a time to Segregation.

Seg Explanation

Eight of us sat on plastic chairs in a half-circle, still handcuffed, facing Lieutenant Moreno—the head of Internal Affairs. He was a slim, lightly muscled Latino with an immaculate jet-black short haircut and Van Dyke, who was severe and all business.

“Alright guys, we’re going to administer urine tests. You’ll go one at a time, with CO Breier.” He nodded to a man to his left; white, stout, muscular, nothing but eyebrows and lashes so that gleaming pate greatly resembled a bowling ball. “You’ll fill the cup to the line, then come have a seat again. These tests just take a few minutes. Once we have results we’ll be putting you in cells and pulling you out to talk. As long as you come back clean you’ve got nothing to worry about. You can have a drink of water now, and then again every thirty minutes. If you can’t pee after two hours, well, let’s hope we don’t have to go there.”

Everyone assembled in cuffs had been in prison long enough to know that anyone who doesn’t pee within the two hours is presumed guilty and their visit to Seg would turn into a more permanent placement.

“So, guys, anyone want to try their luck with the cup?” Lieutenant Moreno grinned wide, and it was almost warm, but his eyes were hard, reptilian. I got the distinct impression that he would be much more pleased with a dirty drop than a clean one.

First Volunteer

My neighbor Taz jumped up. “C’mon man, ya’ll woke me and drag me out for this bullshit. I got ta piss.” He was shuffling, knees together, toward CO Breier as he spoke. They headed down the hallway to an unoccupied cell. The rest of us took turns being escorted by LT Moreno to the water fountain for as many gulps as we could manage before being returned to our seat. Then we waited.

It had only been about a month and a half since I’d been released from Segregation after spending nineteen days there for unfounded charges which were eventually expunged. I was intimately acquainted with the propensity for rampant injustice. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

Standard Procedure

“Lieutenant Moreno, can I ask you a question?” He just held my gaze and I took it for assent. “Why us? Why today?”

His answer was said with a straight face, neutral tone, still all business. “It’s standard procedure to administer piss tests. We received information that there was marijuana smoke from the area around your cells. What do you know about that? You know anybody smoking weed?”

I smiled and laughed a little at his brazen directness. “No, no,” I replied. “So what happens when we come back clean? I mean what happens to your CI?” LT Moreno raised his exquisite eyebrows and twisted his mouth at my use of the informal abbreviation for Confidential Informant—the most polite and official designation for a snitch. I pressed forward. “When your CI is proved to be a liar what are the consequences for him?” I was raising my voice just a touch, getting worked up. “I mean, we’re here in Seg, all for a lie.”

“It’s not a lie. Somebody’s dirty.” Lieutenant Moreno seemed to smile just slightly. “And the information wasn’t from a Confidential Informant. It came from another CO. So, I know someone’s dirty.”

I nearly burst with indignation.

Belligerent

“No, that’s even worse! Are you serious? Now what happens when it turns out that this CO is lying? What’s his accountability? What are the consequences for him? Or is a CO just allowed to make any bogus claims and you believe it?” That cut through his confidence and made a mark. I kept at it. “I was just in Seg because staff lied on me. I stayed for nineteen days because they continued to lie. Lieutenants didn’t do their job and lied too.”

“I can see what you’re doing. I know what your trying to do. You want me to admit that officers don’t always tell the truth, but . . .”

“No,” I cut him off. “I don’t care what you say or what you admit. I know that you’re liars.”

His professional neutrality vanished. “You want to stop talking now.” It was an order, not a request or suggestion—it also felt like a threat.

“Don’t worry, you can read about it,” I spat back.

“Read about it?”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“Read about it?” He sounded threatened.

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“You filing a lawsuit?”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

I was being deliberately belligerent. Getting louder and more insistent with each repetition. Two of my cellies I had known and lived with for close to three years. Lengthy cohabitation had made effective non-verbal communication second nature to us. Both of them were aggressively conveying to me that, for my own good, I needed to immediately shut up. I noticed them, but my temper was up, and I was a bull seeing red at this point, chasing blindly.

“Behind Prison Walls dot com. Behind Prison Walls dot com. Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“You want to stop now.”

“You can read about it at Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“I can see that this is going to turn into something else.”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“You can come back for a piss test . . .”

“You can read about it.”

“. . . but you keep it up . . .”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“. . . and you’re going to stay in Seg . . .”

“Behind Prison Walls.”

“. . . for insolence and disobeying a direct order.”

“Read about it.”

“Because that’s where we can take this if you want to keep going.”

“Thank you very much, sir.”

There was zero gratitude in my tone but I finally shut up.

I pissed in a cup and was escorted to a cell.

Breaches Of Protocol

CO Sedder told me to remove my blues and take the shoelaces out of my shoes and he’d be back to get them. The cell had a bunk bed, so it was designed to accommodate two, but I was alone. I had a belt and shoelaces. I could’ve hanged myself from the top bunk with either of them if I had been so inclined. It’s impossible to know a person’s mindset, and how they’ll react, when subjected to the deprivation and humiliation of Segregation. This is why protocols are in place to take away these things from inmates in Seg. I had everything for at least forty-five minutes before CO Sedder returned. A man had hanged himself barely two weeks previous and his body hadn’t been discovered for hours. It had been all anyone could talk about, and I had assumed the incident would’ve made them more diligent in enforcing policies to prevent suicide. I was wrong.

When CO Sedder took my clothes he informed me that there were no jumpsuits available. He left me standing in my underwear. Several hours later I was given a sleeping mat and bedding. I was never given any other clothes.  I was never given my basic hygiene items like a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste. I was denied access to my Bible, prayer mat and writing materials. That evening I was denied access to the shower even though it was one of the three weekly designated times for inmates in Seg to receive a shower. All that I was denied I was entitled to by rule or by law. I suffered my injustices in silence. There wasn’t much else to do.

Conclusion

Mid-morning of the next day a pair of sweatpants were stuffed through the chuckhole and I was told to put them on. I was handcuffed, taken to an interview room, and sat at a table across from Internal Affairs Lieutenant Moreno and Internal Affairs CO Breier. They seemed bored with this whole thing. LT Moreno stated in a straightforward manner that an officer had alleged to have smelled smoke in the vicinity of our two cells. He claimed the smoke smell appeared to be coming from my neighbors cell, but because the cells shared a bathroom everyone had to be taken for investigation. Lieutenant Moreno asked if I had smelled anyone or if I knew of any guys in the other cell smoking. I shook my head in the negative and imagined he ran the same script on my neighbors. I later found out that he had. CO Breier sat with his thick forearms folded across his wide chest and stared at me with dull eyes.

I was informed by the lieutenant that the two cells had been searched and all belongings were left in the cells locked. Provided that I give another clean urine sample I’d be released. He said that my cellies and I were casualties of the situation, but he was just following standard procedure. Then he asked if I had anything else I wanted to say.

I wanted to say plenty. I wanted to point out that apparently “standard procedure” was only followed when it suited him. I wanted to inform that I had been allowed to have potentially dangerous items in Seg, but then denied every last one of the very few things that I’m actually allowed to have. I wanted to point out that I was denied any suitable clothes for longer than twenty-four hours. I wanted to let him know that his polite tone didn’t fool me at all and that I knew he was a snake in a nice white shirt. However, I have learned that there is a time to keep my mouth shut. Lieutenant Moreno’s eyes clearly displayed that he didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. So I said nothing. I let my pee speak for me.

Several hours later my blues were returned through the chuckhole. Having clean urine, my cellies and I walked out of Seg vindicated. The two officers who escorted us out behaved like they were the ones responsible for our release and were being supremely magnanimous by letting us go. Like they were doing us a favor, and we had somehow gotten away with something.

 

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Concocted Crisis

CO Sellett terrorized inmates, antagonized officers, and disregarded superiors. He often abused his authority, and it was clear that he viewed inmates as a particularly vile kind of worthless excrement. I imagine that it was this warped view which made all his improper and inhumane behavior seem justified. This particular incident began with a routine shakedown and ended with a walk to the Boom Boom Room.

Not Routine

Routine shakedowns happen every single day in every cellhouse behind prison walls. They’re designed to let an officer get a quick look to ensure that inmates are in compliance with the rules and are free of contraband. These searches rarely took more than thirty minutes, and often were much shorter than that. Sellett was a one-man wrecking crew who spent hours in a cell tearing it to pieces. After nearly three hours this time, he walked out of the cell, smiling wide, with a bubble TV cradled under his arm and a large garbage in tow. The bubble TV had a thirteen-inch screen with a clear plastic casing approximating the shape of a sleek, round-edged cube to contain the tubes and guts of the device. This is what televisions looked like in the days before flat screens.

Confidence

“Hey! That’s my TV! Why’d you take my TV?” Inmate Orinn had burst out of the destroyed cell and hot on CO Sellett’s heels. The officer ignored him as he put the garbage bag of confiscated items in a storage room before heading to the control desk with the TV clamped in a one-armed hug against his body.

“Don’t break it. It’s old. Gimme my TV.” Orinn wasn’t frantic, he didn’t raise his voice, but spoke with confidence, authority. He was a six foot two inch bald-headed dark-skinned black man—stout and solid though not overly muscular. He certainly had the ability to intimidate. After over twenty consecutive years in prison he’d seen more than his fair share of over-zealous officers. He knew there was no legitimate reason for Sellett to take his TV.

Sellett wouldn’t address any objectives until he entered the relative safety of the control bubble. This enclosure was elevated by two steps, and with the door closed it consisted of four walls with the bottom half made of wood panels and the top half security glass. There was a desk, two chairs, and a control board for remotely unlocking doors. There was no roof. The reality that this offered an appearance of security, but if an inmate was highly motivated (or greatly antagonized) he would have little problem getting at the CO inside. After CO Sellett set the TV on the desk, even at his relatively slight five feet six inches, he was able to poke his chin over the top of the wall and look down on Orinn. He was smirking and ready for a fight.

Confrontation

“What?”

“Why’d you take my TV?”

“Is it yours?”

“Yeah,” Orinn said that as if it was so very abundantly obvious. “Why’d you take it?”

“Where’d you get it?”

“I bought it.”

“From who?”

“From commissary.” An edge of annoyance colored Orinn’s tone. “Tell me why you took my TV.”

“It’s broke.” Sellett’s satisfaction was palpable.

“Not unless you broke it.”

“There’s a crack in the side.”

“No there’s not.”

“Look.” Sellett motioned Orinn to the side of the control bubble and indicated the confiscated appliance.

“Where?”

“Right there.” Sellett placed his middle finger along a two-inch crack on the interior of the casing that was visible but didn’t come through to the exterior surface.

“That?”

“Yeah. That.”

“That’s nothing!”

“That’s altered. That’s contraband,” Sellett replied with total assuredness. The louder and more incredulous Orinn got, the calmer and more smug Sellett became.

“That’s nothing. My TV’s old.”

“It’s broke. You can’t have it.”

“What rule says that?”

“It’s altered. You can’t have it.”

“It’s not altered. It’s old.”

“Still can’t have it.”

“I’ve had that same TV fifteen years damn near. Way longer than you even been a CO.”

“You don’t have it anymore.”

“That’s bullshit!” Orinn’s response was a full roar. Sellett’s impenetrable smirk and prickish self-confidence had finally eroded the man’s cool demeanor. “BULLSHIT!!” His volume and ferocity trebled. I’d never seen Orinn as much of threat, but under these tense circumstances he seemed capable of anything. I was reevaluating my initial assessment.

Escalation

“Get me a lieutenant.” Orinn’s had managed to dial his tone down from threatening to demanding.

“No.”

“I want to talk to a lieutenant.”

“No.”

“You gotta get me a lieutenant.”

“I don’t GOTTA do anything.” CO Sellett seemed to derive a special thrill from his emphasis.

“I want to see a white shirt!” Orinn yelled, wanting the other officer in the control bubble to hear him.

“I don’t give a fuck!” Sellett matched Orinn’s volume, mocking him. “Step back.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

A crowd had begun to gather and gawk in the dayroom. Orinn slapped his heavy palm against the wood panel of the wall separating them. Sellett jumped like he’d actually been hit. Some people laughed at him. “Get me a fucking whiteshirt.” Orinn spoke with menance, hoping to bully his way to what he wanted.

“No.” Sellett was slightly cowed but still in control. They were at an impasse. Orinn glared and fumed. Then an idea occurred to him. If he’d been clear-headed, he may have dismissed it as terrible and dangerous. Instead he bullied right ahead with it.

“Fine. Then I want a Crisis Team.”

Crisis

By invoking the Crisis Team, Orinn had just changed the conversation and elevated the situation to something else entirely. Crisis Team members are only called in to access and manage inmates who may be suicidal. Orinn later said that his intentions were to use this nuclear type option solely to force the intervention of an outside mediator to whom he could plead his case. The thing about a nuclear option, however, is that once the button has been pushed it’s a done deal. Regardless of Orinn’s intentions these claims are meant to be taken seriously. Apparently CO Sellett never got that memo.

“What?” Sellett asked, confounded.

“I said I want a Crisis Team. You heard.” Now it was Orinn’s turn to smirk, foolishly thinking he had it all figured out.

“Why?”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“Why do you want a crisis team?”

“Because.”

“Because?” Sellett barked a laugh. “That’s not good enough.”

“Because I’m going to kill myself.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Prove it.”

Orinn didn’t expect that one—I don’t imagine anyone did. “What?”

“Prove it. Go hang yourself.”

Everyone milling about paused, silence reigned for an instant.

“What?!” Orinn was loud, sure that he hadn’t heard Sellett right. He had.

Sellett said it again, taking his time to over enunciate each word. “Go. Hang. Yourself.” A slightly longer quiet this time, but punctuated by hushed phrases of disbelief from onlookers. (Damn! No way.)

Orinn exploded. “Are you fucking kidding me?!” He had backed a few feet away from the control area wall and now he rushed at it. He beat his fat fist against the glass. Once. Twice. Thrice. As he pounded he asked this question: “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

CO Sellett made a phone call.

Following Protocol

When Lieutenant Harley arrived with his bushy moustache and ample belly, Orinn’s fate was already sealed. A CO who had been trained as a Crisis Team member came along with the lieutenant. Nothing else mattered—not Sellett’s shakedown practices or the fact that the TV wasn’t contraband. Sellett claimed that when Orinn struck the glass he was attempting to assault a Correctional Officer, but this was brushed aside. Orinn’s accusations of Sellett’s unprofessional behavior and his encouraging suicide were secondary at best. In speaking about Sellett’s conduct some of the man standing around attempted to be helpful by calling out, “I heard him” and “Yeah he said that,” but it was all inconsequential. Orinn had said he intended to kill himself. No matter how much he tried to backtrack or claim that it was all a ploy he’d been using, he couldn’t unsay those words. Protocol dictated that an inmate must be placed “on crisis” in a cell for observation and stripped of anything he could use to harm himself. This included clothes. Hence the term “Buck Naked Room.” However, more commonly this is known as the Boom Boom Room, and if I knew the origin of the term, I’d share it.

The crowd assembled in the dayroom began to get rowdy when it became clear that Sellett didn’t appear to be in trouble while Orinn was going straight to crisis. Lieutenant Harley sent Sellett out of the building, and a subdued cheer rose when he did. When the replacement officer arrived, LT Harley handcuffed Orinn—standard procedure—and took him to segregation where the crisis cell happens to be conveniently located.

No Justice

Multiple tickets were written by CO Sellett and Orinn had to defend against the accusations. He never got his TV back. Sellett was back in the same post the next night, grinning, waiting for his next victim.

Prison Trembler

At the time I was locked in a two-man cell with Eddie, for whom the concept of quiet was impossible to grasp. Breakfast trays had been delivered to the cell, eaten, and returned to the chuckhole empty all before four-thirty. Bladders emptied as well, this was usually when I could enjoy some blessed silence and solitude as Eddie went back to sleep for an hour or two. This particular day he laid on his top bunk humming, singing, swearing, mumbling, grunting, laughing. Annoying.

Playing

He carried on for awhile then lapsed into silence just long enough for me to get my hopes us that he was finished and had fallen asleep before beginning again.

“Hey, cellie?”

I could hear the grin in his voice. “Yeah.”

“Whatcha doing?”

“Resting. Thinking. Praying.”

“Oh yeah? You praying for me?”

This time it was ridicule I heard. In fact I was praying for patience in dealing with him. “Sure,” I said, hoping it would please or appease. He stayed quiet for a bit then went back to his routine of mostly nonsense sounds and phrases. Then nothing for a while.

“Hey, cellie?” This time he was chuckling, deliberately trying to antagonize.

“Yeah,” I huffed, exasperated.

“Now whatcha doing?”

“Why don’t you go to sleep, Eddie.” Not a question but a directive.

“Don’t you fuckin’ tell me what to do!” He was instantly irate, leaning over the edge of the bed, glaring and spitting down at me, his heavily muscled arm shaking toward my face to emphasize his point with jabs of his finger. “You hear me?!” he snarled, wild-eyed.

I gave him a little nod and held his gaze, playing it cool while my heart thrashed and sphincter clenched in the instinctual fight or flight response. A tense stare-down brimming with the potential for violence isn’t precisely how I wanted to begin my day. Thankfully he rolled back over on his bunk. Unfortunately he began anew his caterwauling with an increase in volume and gusto, this time including some drumbeats on the bed for punctuation.

Intercession

I pinched my eyes and prayed silently with a fervency and sincerity formed in the crucible of adversity. I pleaded for my safety and protection, for deliverance from this difficult and volatile man. My heart unexpectantly opened of its own volition, and I prayed for Eddie. Not just praying against his actions, but actually for him and his wellbeing. To quiet his rage and bring him peace. To bless him and provide love and joy in his life. It felt odd, unnatural, but also at the exact same time it somehow felt right. There was no immediate or swift response from Eddie. Eventually, however, he began to wind down and lose his zeal like a kid throwing a tantrum who has worn himself to the edge of exhaustion. When he finally quieted, I could feel the bunk move as he rolled around trying to get comfortable. He mumbled curse-words at me before finally falling still and quiet.

Triumph

I rejoiced, reeling with glee on the inside, but my exterior remained composed, eyes closed, a wide grin spreading my lips. I felt filled with joy and relief. This precious peace lasted for many endless minutes, each moment stretched to an eternity of warmth and contentment which I settled into like a lover’s embrace. Sadly this could not last.

Extreme?

The bed began to shake again, steady and minute, but unmistakable. All my inner peace and goodwill toward Eddie in an eruption of rage and disgust. I was tired of dealing with him and was done trying to bite my tongue and play peacemaker. We had talked about this and came to an understanding that he’d do it when I wasn’t in the cell. Apparently, he didn’t care about our prior agreement. I was livid and ready to call him out—damn the consequences. I could only take so much of him, and I’d come to the end of my patience. Why such an extreme reaction? I had interpreted the distinct shaking of the bed as being the result of Eddie lying in his top bunk, masturbating.

Contemporaneous

Several things seemed to happen all at once. I jumped to my feet, raised to my full height, and opened my mouth to initiate a confrontation. My knees felt shaky. A small but insistent voice in the back of my brain pointed out that this hadn’t been the same sensation as before when Eddie was gratifying himself. This felt like a constant thrumming through the steel bedframe. Eddie sat upright, bleary-eyed, confused, angry. He’d been asleep. He opened his mouth and a guttural sound came out that couldn’t be identified as a word. It caught in his throat as the world began to rumble.

Unnatural Sensations

Vibrations tingled through my feet, up my legs. I grabbed the bunk and felt the hum run along my arm to my chest. Then the tremor turned violent. Instinctively, I softened my knees to a slight bend for balance. My right hand gripped the bed for dear life while my left arm went parallel to the floor like I was trying to conquer a surfboard.

Eddie leapt from his bunk, bare feet slapping against concrete. His momentum propelled him into the wall with soldier crunching force and dropped him to his knees. Any pain he might have been experiencing (I’m sure it was plenty) didn’t show as he managed getting on his feet while the room twisted on its access. It was a singularly unnatural sensation to feel the floor move on its own. The ground beneath my feet had betrayed the implicit contract we had operated under my entire life. I was far too unnerved, surprised and terrified to have any reaction other than trying to remain upright. Eddie reacted enough for the both of us.

Stating The Obvious

“Earthquake! Earthquake! Holy . . . holy . . . holy shit!! It’s a . . . it’s . . . earthquake! Earthquake! Earthquake! Earthquake!”

In the frenzy of the moment it carried little humor, but hindsight rendered it hilarious. It was made even funnier and more bizarre because as he screamed at the top of his lungs he was bent over at the waist while his neck craned upward and his hands reached to the heavens in some strange semblance of supplication. When he managed to yell “TV!” I realized he was reaching up to stabilize his TV on the shelf while also attempting to stay low, cowering in the face of the shaking. Then the earth really began to quake.

Helpless

It began as a shiver, escalated to a shake, then became serious. The image of a can of paint being mercilessly rattled comes to mind. The room was no longer merely shaking; it was moving. The frame of the bed tore itself from my hand. The bed was firmly against the wall so there was no where for it to go, but somehow it went. I fell painfully to my knees, the floor seeming so much further down than the length of my legs. I fought the impulse to crumple into the fetal position. If there had been anything remaining in my bladder it would’ve spread across the front of my shorts. Eddie was just screaming, no more words. I don’t know what else he was doing because I was riding out the back and forth whiplash jerking of my world on my hands and knees with my head down and eyes closed.

Aftershocks

When the moving stopped my body still trembled with adrenaline and fright. The whole ordeal had lasted forty-five seconds. It felt like hours as my entire life and perception was altered by this sudden, unexpected violence. Eddie very quickly tried to laugh off the whole thing as one big cosmic joke, but he was more jittery than usual and wasn’t fooling me into believing that he was unaffected. I don’t think he even managed to fool himself into believing it. Any animosity between us, however, had disappeared (if only temporarily) as we became kindred survivors of the ground’s awful betrayal.

Clot

Thin blond hair fell in wisps around her face and across her brow. It framed a strained look of annoyance. She huffed an exasperated breath and readjusted the plastic caddy on her hip that held the numerous medications she had to distribute. Her demeanor made it clear that she didn’t have time for Trav’s histrionics. Trav was struggling to breathe. Between each wheeze he was able to convey that he felt like he was going to die.

Indifferent

“You’re not going to die,” the nurse said, dismissing Trav’s obvious agony and inability to catch a satisfying breath. He sounded like a broken machine. It was evident that something was wrong. Someone with no medical training whatsoever could’ve logically concluded that Trav was experiencing a medical problem, if not an outright emergency. This particular certified medical professional couldn’t be bothered.

Impasse

“Please . . .” Wheeze. “Help . . .” Wheeze . . . wheeze. “It hurts . . .” Wheeze. “Can’t breathe . . .” Wheeze . . . wheeze . . . wheeze.

“Yeah? Where? Where does it hurt?” The nurse’s tone was that of a teacher scolding a troublesome child. “Hmm? Where does it hurt? Tell me.”

Trav continued to struggle to breathe. He was locked in his cell trying to communicate to the nurse through a perforated metal grate. His palms were pressed against the door as he leaned his weight into it. With an abundant effort he removed one hand and managed a vague gesture to indicate his chest, and or, upper abdomen.

Dismissive

Trav’s color wasn’t right. Usually he was a very pale white guy, but his face was radish-red from the strain to breathe. He faltered without his second hand to prop himself up and slumped bodily into the door so that his face was pressed against the grate he was trying to plead through. The nurse saw it as just more dramatics.

“Oh, please,” she chuckled derisively. “Just stop already.”

Anger and frustration over the nurse’s unfeeling attitude fueled Trav to spit a response. “Listen, bitch!”

She recoiled as if he had slapped her across the face. He wheezed a couple tortured breaths before stating with chilling certainty, “I’m dying.”

It only took a moment to return with her own anger. “That’s enough. We’re done.” The last statement was directed at the CO who was accompanying her during her rounds. Throughout the entire exchange he’d been as impassive as the Sphynx. As they departed Trav slid to the floor in an awkward seated position.

Disbelief

Ryan was round and balding. He was Trav’s cellie and had witnessed everything. Trav had been extreme pain and not breathing right for hours before the nurse had arrived for the routine distributing of evening medications. Ryan couldn’t believe she had just walked away.

“Trav! Trav!” he yelled.

There was only faint wheezing in response. Ryan went to Trav and looked down on his unmoving form. Trav appeared to be dying.

“Hey! Hey!” Ryan was shouting for Trav or the nurse or anyone who might listen. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” He was utterly helpless, and every crushing ounce of that feeling sat heavy on his chest. Trav was his friend, and he was sure Trav was dying.

Training

Ryan fumbled through what little he could remember from the first aid class he’d completed years before in what felt like an entirely different lifetime. He mumbled instructions to himself until he had manhandled Trav into the proper recovery pose—what Ryan had always remembered as a modified fetal position. Trav gave no indications of consciousness or life beyond the same labored wheeze. Ryan had maneuvered his friend so he lay a few feet back from the cell door. He stepped over Trav’s body and began to make some noise.

Futile

He pounded on the door with his fists, smacked it with his palms, kicked it—all the while hollering for the CO. Cardiovascular exercise was a foreign concept to Ryan. Very quickly he ran out of breath and energy. No one came.

Ryan kept at it. He called for help and banged on the door until he could do so no more. He checked to make sure Trav was still breathing, then gasping rasps he caught his own breath enough to begin yelling anew. For more than an hour this cycle of banging, bellowing and breathing continued. Back and forth, back and forth. Occasionally other guys would join in screaming and pounding, but mostly Ryan was on his own.

His actions were becoming more frantic as despair and fatigue took a grip on him. He was sitting on his considerable haunches next to Trav heaving air in and out, when he noticed that the meager light cast through the holes in the door looked odd as it fell across Trav’s face. Blinking rapidly, Ryan tried to see if his eyes were playing tricks. He fell forward to his knees while simultaneously reaching up to flick his wrist at the light switch.

Everything became illuminated. Trav’s lips had an undeniably blue tinge to them. Ryan could no longer tell if Trav was breathing. Ryan began to scream.

Desperation

Beyond a few sporadic, distinct calls for help there was little that was intelligible. Ryan was hysterical, untethered from reason. He jabbered and howled like maniac, kicking and hitting the door with a ferocity that bordered on lunacy. This display was all the more unnerving to those who knew Ryan because in normal circumstances he was the quietest, most milquetoast man imaginable. Ryan raved and pounded, going on much longer than his endurance usually allowed. He was a man possessed, unhinged.

Deliverance

At long last the officer assigned to our cellblock came on the deck. He was unhappy to say the least. “What the hell are you doing? Stop!”

Ryan panted his response. “My cellie’s not breathing. He’s blue.” He immediately dropped to his knees, and the CO saw Trav curled on the floor. After the briefest of pauses the officer called a medical emergency code over the radio.

Blood was bashing in Ryan’s skull and his chest hurt. The thought occurred to him that if he had a heart attack, they would need to call another medical emergency. He started laughing. The CO tried ordering Ryan away from the door, but he was laughing too hard to comply. Eventually he gathered himself and assumed the recovery position on his bunk. Even while his heart calmed and breath returned Ryan continued to chuckle.

Resolution

Half a dozen nurses arrived with a flat-board and a stretcher. The nurse who had denied Trav the necessary medical attention was conveniently not amongst them. Trav was removed, blue-lipped and showing no obvious signs that he was breathing. Ryan was question by one of the nurses and a CO. It was a quick impromptu interrogation, and to his eternal surprise he was never again spoken to about the matter in any official capacity.

Diagnosis and Treatment

A blood clot had formed in Trav’s lung. He was rushed to emergency surgery at the nearest hospital. He stayed in that hospital for nearly a week. He had actually been dying.

The nurse who was so quick to dismiss Trav faced no consequences for her actions. Trav tried to find out her name so he could file a formal complaint against her specifically, but rather than insisting on accountability, the powers that be insulated her from being responsible. No one seemed to know who had been in the building passing out meds that night.

Trav had numerous follow-up visits to healthcare to monitor his recovery. He never saw the negligent nurse again. The rest of the medical professionals practically fell all over themselves to ensure that Trav would have no further complains about his medical treatment.

In The Dark

Screams of anger and pain echoed along the black throat of the hallway. There was laughter too. I didn’t know if it was a game or if some guys derived a terrible glee from hurting people.

Minimum Security

I’ve been privileged to spend several years of my incarceration in minimum security-type housing. This allows for nearly unrestricted movement outside my cell as long as I stay inside the cell-house. There are several specific times throughout the day and overnight when I am expected to be in my cell, and consequences would be severe if I wasn’t. However, the fact is that the doors have no externally controlled locking mechanism. The COs don’t control the locks—the inmates do. It’s a responsibility with which not all offenders can be trusted.

Layout

From a centralized dayroom with a control bubble for the CO to sit in there are two long hallways—one to the north, one to the south. There are two dozen rooms spread throughout both hallways. They vary in size with occupancies ranging from two inmates to twelve in a communal living arrangement. In optimal conditions it is impossible for an officer to see everything that is happening down one of these corridors, let alone both at the same time. I won’t be describing optimal conditions.

Antiquated

According to the plaque affixed to the brick exterior, the building was erected in 1936. I’d venture to guess that the electrical wiring for the entire prison complex was last updated sometime during the Nixon Administration. Short and isolated power outages were common during the summer heat when all inmate fans were pulling Max Power. This time in particular it was the depths of winter and the darkness was neither short or isolated.

Total Darkness

For purposes of security, there is always some light glowing in prison. This may be a small light within the cell, one in the common area outside the cell, or illuminating the prison compound from high above. Daylight had faded to night forty minutes previous when without warning all electricity evaporated. Fans whirled to silence, televisions blinked off, lights were extinguished. The darkness was complete, but only for a few seconds. There was a pulsing, winking as every appliance briefly sprang to life again before plunging back to black that felt surreal, eternal.

There was zero ambient light. No residual glow whatsoever. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It was suddenly and utterly terrifying. Disembodied voices rose from the five other men in my cell and began to clamor on the other side of the cell door. I waited for my eyes to adjust, but there was nothing from which to draw light. I sensed movement but couldn’t see it. I pointed myself in the direction of the window hoping to see some distant light from another building or the lights on the road just outside the prison. Nothing. Panic of being suddenly stricken blind began to settle in. My throat constricted with an irrational urge to holler and let it be known that I was still present in the land of the living. Before I could let loose my not very barbaric yawp there was a glimmer of illumination.

Not Salvation

“Everyone back in your rooms!” The rotund male CO lolled down the hallway, flashlight in his hand throwing arcs of light with each seesaw step. Calls for explanation and encouragements for him to fornicate with himself erupted from a dozen directions. He waddled further, undeterred, intending to impose his will by pure intimidation. It was an amazing display of either bravery or stupidity. I couldn’t discern which. If anyone had wanted to assault this officer in particular, or to strike out against an authority figure in general, the blackout would have provided perfect opportunity.

“In your cells or I start writing tickets!”

Some men retreated quickly, others took their time, but did comply. Three or four others stood their ground, testing the officer. My cell was at the end of the hall opposite the dayroom and from my doorway I could see the standoff between partial silhouettes. The CO stared hard for a moment at those who remained before retreating in a huff and a hurry. This left us in the dark once more. The CO didn’t return that night. It was maybe twenty minutes later when the assaults began.

Calm Before The Storm

I sat on my bunk, eyes straining to pick something out of the dark, wishing I had batteries for my Walkman so I could distract myself with music. The baseboard heater had gone cold and the frigid overnight temperatures were settling in. I wrapped myself in my blanket, wishing it wasn’t too early to go to sleep. My cellies had fallen silent in deference to the dark. As if it were some solemn occasion. There had been yelling back and forth between guys down the hall, but that had quieted as well. My cellie whose bunk was closest to the door had it propped open in case anything of interest or importance happened we’d be able to hear it. When something did happen it was abrupt and confusing.

Blind Battles

Sounds of shoes slapping and squeaking against the polished concrete. People were running in the hallway. Bodies collided, a muffled holler of surprise and pain. Curses and screams followed. And laughter. Punches landing against a mass of muscle and bone. A tackle of some kind brought multiple people crashing to the floor. The distinct hollow sound of at least one skull conking against unforgiving concrete. Curses and kicks, then feet fleeing. Robbed of depth perception, it sounded like it was happening mere inches away, practically right in my lap.

Afraid

I feared that at any moment I would be attacked and beaten. I had no enemies or reason to believe that anyone harbored desires to harm me. Unfortunately fear feeds on paranoia not logic. I folded my knees to my chest, scooted back on my bunk until I was against the wall and as compact as I could make my six-two frame. My entire body was enveloped in my blanket, as if it were some magic cloak or barrier to protect me. Only my head floated free. I wasn’t the only one feeling exposed. “Hey, close the door, man,” one cellie called out. A chorus of “Yeahs” followed, to which I added my voice. The sound of the door latching was a welcome one. The unmistakable click of the lock being engaged was sheer poetry.

Chilly Morning

I slept fitfully, fighting to stay warm. I didn’t have my fan blowing to block out background noise like usual, so the sounds of violence awoke me numerous times. Thankfully these remained sequestered on the other side of the cell door. The velvet morning was blessedly bright, but criminally cold. A long day of shivering was in store because the power wouldn’t be restored until mid-afternoon and temps never rose above zero. In the end this still didn’t feel as interminable as the night spent without sight, being jarred awake by the clatter of men beating one another.

 

 

Reactions

“Am I in it?”

This was by far the predominant response from correctional officers after they found out about my book and website containing tales of my prison experiences. I had been thrown in Segregation and accused of several things including making prison staff look bad. After I’d been released from Seg and all charges were expunged I still expected to be vilified and targeted at every turn for my writings. Instead it seemed that many COs were genuinely curious while others curiosity had ulterior motives.

Query

The first time I saw CO Medet after my visit to Seg, he sidled up to me in the chow hall and asked his question in a confidential tone. His specific concern was whether I had chronicled the yelling match that had very nearly turned physical between him and CO Ralyon. I assured him that I had ever written about it. Two COs only screaming back and forth but almost boxing may have made for a good story, however it was the psychology behind the confrontation which I found more interesting.

Vitriol

CO Ralyon displayed his prejudice and racism like badges of honor. He freely and often slurred an inmate’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation. On one such occasion CO Ralyon verbally abused two transgender inmates. His language went far past merely unprofessional. It was filled with obvious disgust and ugly hate. No human being should have to be subjected to such undiluted vitriol. The two aggrieved inmates reported Ralyon.

Justified

The disagreement between Ralyon and Medet arouse largely Medet told the truth about the incident. He refused to lie on an official report in order to protect CO Ralyon. Obviously, the image of two officers nearly throwing punches is not great optics. However, the fact that a Neanderthal racist bigot like Ralyon is an employee of the Department of Corrections should shame the powers-that-be to no end. CO Medet was not only justified in feeling outrage over Ralyon’s behavior, but should feel a sense of pride in doing what was right even if it meant bucking the system and going against a fellow officer.

I told CO Medet that I’d never written anything about this incident. I suppose I can’t say that anymore.

A Despicable Side Note

Numerous lawsuits have been brought against CO Ralyon for his discrimination and harassment. In other circumstances his actions would be characterized as hate crimes. In this case a representative of the Attorney General of the state negotiated agreements to resolve lawsuits by paying several thousands of dollars to the complainants. CO Ralyon was placed in a different job assignment before eventually being promoted to a position where he works one-on-one with inmates to assist them in extremely personal and sensitive matters. Specifically he will have to interact with some of the same inmates who are actively suing him.  Grievances have already been submitted. I predict further lawsuits to come.

Some Others

Several COs, after asking their questions, were upfront about having checked out my writing, and were largely complimentary about the content and my talent. Officer Sum is one of the most easygoing, funny, fair, and cool COs I’ve ever come across. He told me not to write anything about him until after he retires. I told him I’d never seen him do anything to be worried or of which to be ashamed. CO Sum he wasn’t concerned about that, but rather he didn’t want it getting out how smooth and relatable a person he is—there was comedy in his retort, but truth as well.

Different Perspectives

CO Westin asked if I had written about him, and when I answered in the negative he followed with this: “Well, what do you write about? Nothing happens around here.” I’ve battled a similar sentiment both from without and within myself. I grinned slimly, knowingly, and tried to explain what I’ve written about as well as my general endeavor to provide an unvarnished glimpse into everyday prison life. His response left me both insulted and flabbergasted. “How can you write about being in prison when you’re not really in prison?”

When I stared at him, mouth agape, utterly dumbfounded, he explained himself. Apparently, to his mind, since I reside in the minimum-security portion of the prison and am not constantly locked behind a steel door, I’m not really in prison. CO Westin went on to declare that his job is basically that of a glorified babysitter and nothing much ever happens to make my life difficult, so therefore, I’m not really in prison. His comment that “nothing much ever happens” was a reference to fights and outbursts of violence. This provided me valuable insights into the inner workings of a Correctional Officers mind.

As calmly as possible I explained to CO Westin that, while I was afforded a certain degree of movement outside my cell, I’m still in prison since I can’t leave the building at will, and certainly cannot walk off the prison grounds at any time. He reluctantly agreed that was true, as if I had somehow caught him in a technicality. CO Westin seemed to have romanticized the idea of violence and confinement as how prison is meant to be. I didn’t bother wasting my breath on CO Westin by telling him that I had served nearly a decade of that constant confinement and abrupt violence, and that I didn’t believe for a second that officers like Westin would’ve lasted very long before becoming victims of the violence. I’m not advocating this, but his attitude would’ve made it an inevitability.

Best For Last

When I informed CO Lodes that I hadn’t written about him, he told me that I had changed his life forever. In a good way. It caught me off guard. His explanation of this rather provocative statement came swiftly and unsolicited. I had seen Officer Lodes in probably a year or more, and it felt like he had been just waiting anxiously to see me so he could tell me.

At one time I’d been heavily involved in practicing a ketogenic diet. It’s next to impossible with prison food and takes an enormous amount of willpower to maintain this high protein, high fat, low carb regiment. However when I stuck to it, I felt better and was losing weight. I confess I became something of an annoying proselyte of this dietary lifestyle, and it was in this capacity that I talked to CO Lodes. I loaned him my book which described in short no-nonsense chapters the whole science and history behind the keto life. Not long after that CO Lodes was moved to a different post within the prison, and as usual every few months or so, and I moved on with life—didn’t give it any more thought.

What CO Lodes later confessed was that after I had been the one to open his eyes, he became obsessed with the ketogenic lifestyle. He availed himself of the numerous resources, recipes, and communities that he found online, and immersed himself in the keto way. It became a huge part of his life, and he became an avid advocate. When his mother began experiencing health issues, he counseled her in changing her diet to ketogenic.

One of the primary effects of the ketogenic diet is a more stabilized blood sugar level absent the unhealthy spikes. Thankfully this helped his mother, and CO Lodes attributed her improved health to me because I turned him on to the ketogenic diet. I was quite literally rendered speechless by his effusive gratitude to me.

Overall

In hindsight my fears of retribution were largely unfounded. Most officers who admitted to having visited and read some of the content of this website tell me that they didn’t see anything wrong with it. Many nodded in agreement and had a good laugh over what they were reading. They said I captured prison life pretty well.

It seems that Correctional Officers are surprisingly more well read than I imagined. I suppose I will continue giving them something to read.

The Coyote Whisperer

After the incident, my other two cellies and I compared our experiences and perceptions of what was happening to the fourth man in our cell. It sounded like an attack—like he was fighting for his life.

Old Man

When John and Paul penned “When I’m Sixty-Four” I doubt they were pondering the possibility of coming to prison for the first time at that advanced age. That is how Baldalmero (pronunciation: Ball-dull-meh-row) arrived in my cell; old and entirely ignorant of the ins and outs of prison. It was eye-opening for myself and for the other two men in the cell who, between the three of us, had over fifty years of prison time accumulated.

Learning Curve

All the quirks and inconveniences of prison and communal living that we three had taken for granted for years had to be taught and explained to the elderly Mexican whose English was functional, but only barely. It was occasionally frustrating because sometimes the answer to Baldalmero’s question “Why do we it like that?” was an unsatisfying “Because that’s how we do it.” It made me second guess myself as to why do we do it like that? I was often left unsettled too because speaking to him was akin to dealing with a child, and I was rigorously raised to respect my elders, so it didn’t feel right.

Odd Normal

Baldalmero had night-terrors. He had moaned and spoken in rapid, indecipherable Spanish more than a few times while he slumbered. A couple of those times there had been a bit of thrashing and rolling around, but it usually quickly passed. My other cellies had seen it all before over the years and accepted it with a collective shrug of our shoulders. The morning after one particularly boisterous nocturnal calamity I asked Baldalmero about his incidences.

He managed to relate that, yes, he knows he does it and these episodes have been happening for many years. He has accepted them as normal, just something that happens every so often. Baldalmero described it as having a nightmare that he was fighting to wake up from. When it happened, his wife of almost fifty years would calmly call out his name and he would quiet.

A Promise

We had been living together for a few months and he had been teaching me some Spanish to add to the smidgeon that I’d already picked up over the years. He took pains to correct my copious mispronunciations and I grew to appreciate the musical quality of the language. I believe he had grown to trust me. He asked me to please call out to him the next time he was having one of his episodes. I promised that I would. It was only a day later when that promise was tested.

Rude Awakening

“Emilio! Emilio!”

I was shocked from sleep, my heart pumping hard in my chest, quaking up to my throat. I coughed against the feeling, sure it was a physical obstruction choking me. The sensation passed, but words rushed from Baldalmero in panic. I couldn’t understand anything but the name “Emilio!” who he called out to several more times. Just as swiftly as it had begun, Baldalmero quieted with a couple huffing snores and it appeared to be over. I rolled to face away from him, glad that I didn’t have to jump into action, and dropped right back to the edge of consciousness. The whole thing hadn’t been longer than fifteen seconds.

Attack

It felt like I had fallen into a long, deep, restful sleep only to be jolted awake once more. The reality was that the second attack came within seconds of the first. Baldalmero was screaming. No words, just sounds of terror and agony. My eyes snapped open and I rolled toward him a jackhammer once more banging against my breastplate. I was disoriented, feet and fists fighting against twisted sheets, but I stopped a moment when I saw Baldalmero engaged in his own comical combat. His bed was four feet away from mine. He was ion the top bunk laying on his back with his arms flailing at his unseen for while his legs were kicking high like a horizontal Rockette. It would have hilarious if he hadn’t been screaming for his life, and if he wasn’t about to drop five and a half feet to the concrete floor.

Intercession

With a mighty effort I freed myself from my bunk and stumbled to him, still lethargic, confused, and drunk on slumber. Standing next to his bunk, my face level with his, I saw Baldalmero was in pain, deep in the throes of some life or death struggle. I reached out to help or comfort, but pulled my hand back as if too close to a flame, worried that I might cause some harm by shocking him awake. I finally remembered my promise.

Even in my muddled mental state, I knew a meekly whispered “Baldalmero” wouldn’t do anything to cut through whatever horrors had hold of his body and mind. I drew myself to my full height and puffed out my chest, tilted my chin up to him and gathered a lungful to fuel my words. I didn’t scream. I spoke loudly, clearly, with authority. For some reason I used the deepest baritone I could muster, and spoke with a thick Spanish accent. My other two cellies lay in their bunks in states of confusion and unease. They later poked fun at my altered voice and compared it to a soccer announcer. The whole scene was so surreal, and the voice happened without planning or premeditation.

“BALDALMERO. BALDALMERO.”

My voice reverberated through the small room and resonated against my eardrums inside and out. Baldalmero quieted and calmed instantly. There were a couple hushed whimpers as he rolled onto his side away from me and slipped quickly into deep breaths indicative of sleep. I collapsed on my bunk, exhausted but wide awake and wired. I spent the next forty minutes praising the Lord and praying against whatever darkness was oppressing us.

Light of Day

With sunlight shining cheery through the window it took some of the fright out of Baldalmero’s tale. In his dream he was camping at night in an open desert with his brother Emilio. They could hear a coyote snarling and growling in the distance just beyond the firelight’s reach. Emilio ran out to chase it away and never returned. When Baldalmero had really started to thrash, kick, and holler it was because the coyote was biting at his feet, trying to pull him into the night. My voice chased it away. Suddenly Baldalmero and Emilio were safe, walking together on a beautiful sunny day along the road to their boyhood home. Baldalmero said he had felt happy, at peace.

After an extended moment of pause he told me that Emilio had died in a car accident a long time ago. He said it had been good to see Emilio again. Baldalmero smiled wide and with a playfulness in his eyes that was tinged with melancholy he thanked me for chasing away the coyote so he could see his brother again.