Nobody Wins

“Oh yeah? That’s nothing, I’ve got you beat; check this out . . .”

I had just regaled Tee with a tale of the disgusting conditions of the officer’s bathroom that I had to clean every morning. Unfortunately he interpreted this as my throwing down the gauntlet for a competition to see who had the grossest feces cleaning story. I gleaned from the gleeful glint in his eyes that I was about to lose a contest I had never intended to enter.

Storytime

“Okay, so, I’d only been working in Seg as a porter for, like, maybe a week or so. So I didn’t know about this one dude yet. So, I come in one day and the CO tells me that this guy, the one I didn’t know about, was sent back to STC with the rest of the looney-tunes, and I had to clean out his cell. Turns out this guy was, like, a regular visitor in SEG. He was a psych dude who would bug up and freak out bad enough to get sent to SEG. You know, like, hit a CO or a psych doctor or an inmate. Something bad enough to get to SEG. He was basically famous. Everyone knew about him except me. So I had no idea what I was walking into. They just told me to put on some gloves, grab a rag and bottle of bleach.”

Surprise!

“As soon as I opened the door to the cell it was like I got punched right smack in the face by the smell. It was so nasty so strong. I caught a throat full of it and thought I was gonna puke for real. I had to walk away, but before I did I saw that there was clothes and bedding crumpled and piled up like a rat’s nest. And everything was covered in shit.

“My two coworkers were standing off to the side laughing their asses off, and even the CO wasn’t trying to hide his grin, but he told me that it still had to be cleaned out. He gave me some heavy duty rubber gloves instead of the cheap latex ones I had and a little paper surgical mask they had laying around and tried sending me back in there, but I was like ‘hell-no!’ I had to have more than that.”

Ingenuity

“So I went and got me some big, like, fifty gallon garbage bags. I put one on each foot and tied them on really tight so that they covered me good up to my knees. Then I poke holes in another one for my head and arms, and put it on like a poncho, but tied a bag around my waist like a belt so that stayed against my body instead of poofing out. I wrapped more bags around my arms and tied them tight before I put the gloves on. Over the paper mask I tied a clean T-shirt to better cover my face and mouth. It was like my own homemade hazmat suit. That was about as ready as I was gonna get, so I went back to the shitty cell.”

Hazardous Material

“Now, usually, when I clean a cell I toss all the clothes and blankets and stuff into the laundry bin to go into the washing machine, but this time it was all soaked through with piss and sweat and funk. There was so much poop smeared and smashed into it so I just had to gather it up and I threw it straight into the garbage. Turns out that the guy didn’t actually sleep on his bunk, but he laid in a pile of clothes, blankets and sheets. There was layer after layer that I had to peel free and toss.

“My little mask didn’t really do much of anything to block out the smell, but it was still better than nothing. I ended up retching and dry-heaving, like, twenty times. I came so close to puking, my eyes were watering. I took a break and shoved wads of toilet paper up my nose, and that actually made a difference, but I could only take small shallow breaths through my mouth because whenever I took a deep breath it would hit the back of my throat like a funky little fist and make me feel like barfing. It was rough, man. It was super rough.”

Finale

“It probably took me, like, an hour, hour-an-a-half to get it all out of there. I actually had my watch on, but I couldn’t check it without peeking back layers of plastic to get to it, so I just had to guess how long I had been at it. Once I had it all out, my job was really just starting because then I had to scrape and scrub every square inch in there.

“Shit was still everywhere. Wet and fresh, gummier than pudding, and old crusty dried streaks of it. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the bed, the sink, the door. It was unreal, man. I nearly puked, like, a hundred more times. It was so bad. I just kept gathering goop in my hands and flushing it, trying not to think about it. Flushing and swabbing and scrubbing. I was just finishing up when they told me it was my time to go back to the cell-house. My shift was over; I’d been cleaning in there for close to five hours.

“And you know what? They told me that was the fourth time the guy had done that. And they just let him. They don’t try to stop him or get the psych doctor to talk to him, they just let him build his crap nest and redecorate the place for days or even weeks. It sick, man.”

Victor

With his rebuttal tale finally told, I was left peering at Tee through a grimace of disgust and a sneer of revulsion. I had not wanted to hear that. I suppose I had only myself to blame by raising the topic of terrible turd centric narratives. I couldn’t think of anything much to say in response to the inhuman behavior and inhuman treatment he had just described. After listening to him I felt there wasn’t anyone involved who could be crowned a victor, but I merely conceded.

“Alright, Tee, yeah. You win, man.”

 

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Suckers

Personally, I never understood what the big deal was.

Labor of Love

As far as hustles go it wasn’t a particularly lucrative one since the cost for ingredients was rather considerable. Beyond that, the time and effort expended in gathering other essential materials, and then the actual mixing and manufacturing of the product, all made the entire endeavor more of a labor of love than a viable business model. And yet, everywhere I go, there is inevitably at least one enterprising individuals who is making homemade suckers.

Something Different

When I tried to explain these signature sweets to someone who had never spent any time in prison they just couldn’t understand what the appeal was. Since my sweet tooth has never been much for fruity flavored fare I’ve been a fan myself. However, the best I can explain, is that prison is a free market economy based on the law of supply and demand.

I have sold a bar of soap that cost me forty-five cents for two dollars. A buck-fifty bottle of shampoo went for a nickel (five dollars). When I bought the package of thirty hair-ties for a dollar sixty-five I was sporting a buzz cut and only intended to use them as rubber bands to hold sealed my partially eaten bag of chips or peanuts. Instead I sold the whole pack for fifteen dollars.

Why was any of this price gauging possible? Because I bought these items from another penitentiary, and they were all new and unavailable. The security of supply drove up demand and guys were throwing money at me. The quality or original price of the products didn’t matter one bit. They just wanted something different. So too when it came to these custom candies.

Confectionaries

Many of these candy makers derived a real pride from their work and take it extremely seriously. It’s not merely melting and mashing a couple candies together. First, one needs to find a mold to use. The most commonly by far is the butter cups given at most meals. They are perhaps a quarter inch deep and a little smaller than a silver dollar. They are collected, smuggled back to one’s cell, and cleaned. Some confectioners will melt all the flavors of candy into a massive mess of hot liquid sugar, while others take a more targeted and time consuming tactic by choosing two or three specific flavors to melt into what they perceive to be some kind of genius proprietary blend of taste sensations.

For many years I used to see a Q-tip, having been clipped of its fuzzy ends, stuck into the gooey concoction so that it hardened around the stick to create a proper sucker or lollipop. This has fallen out of fashion in recent years as consumers just want the sugar fix without the aesthetic affectation.

Constraints

The only things limiting any inventive sweet maker are the types of candy available for purchase on commissary, and the boundaries of their own imagination. Of course, with it being a business, and with one’s pride at stake, there can often be a healthy competitive aspect wherein the most unique or complex product is held in high esteem.

Varieties

Jolly Ranchers are sold at most every prison and are therefore usually the base for these bootleg bonbons. I have seen these melted and poured around a chewy chunk of now and later center. Spicy cinnamon fireballs have been used as a centerpiece atop the disc of reformed fruit candy. Powdered drink mix has been added to the recipe for color and flavor, and is often dusted across the surface of the finished product to make it less sticky and therefore easier to handle. Whatever the design, these treats are finally wrapped in squares of plastic garbage bag, tied off, and sold for fifty cents or a dollar depending on the size and complexity of the creation as well as market saturation. While these specialty items are completely harmless, they are, by any definition, most certainly contraband.

The Gunslinger

Any CO or other security staff member who has spent a year or more in corrections has most assuredly come across one of these manufactured morsels. Sergeant Shroder had close to thirty years on the job and seemed to gloat with a sickening satisfaction over his ability to flush out even the tiniest infraction of the rules. He moved with a stoop-shouldered, cock-hip shuffle with his hands at his sides like he was some kind of third-rate gunslinger in a B movie western. This cowboy impression was accentuated by the poor approximation of a bushy blond moustache. For some unknown but undoubtedly bizarre reason he managed to always smell like mustard. Shroder was universally disliked by the inmate population, and by all available accounts, he was viewed as a joke by many of his colleagues and had few fans amongst them.

Asinine

Each of the six men in the cell froze as Sergeant Shroder slowly ambled in with his congenial “Hello, gentlemen”, meant to disarm anyone who wasn’t already privy to his reputation. Slow in speech and manner, but his agile eyes missed little, and in this instance they fixed upon a couple colorful discs sitting on the shelf next to Flick, who was sitting on his bunk trying to project the perfect picture of innocence. Sergeant Shroder wasn’t buying it.

“What are these?” Shroder asked, cradling them in his palms and staring with a perplexed interest as if he had never before in his long DOC tenure encountered anything like them. Which, of course, he must surely had.

“Candy,” Flick replied with understandable unease and trepidation.

“They don’t sell these in commissary.”

“Ah, no. No. They’re . . . homemade.” Each word was distinct from the last, a verbal tiptoe through a minefield. Flick knew that the trap was set, but was helpless to do anything but play the scenario out.

“So you made it?” wily Shroder queried.

“Nope.”

“So then who made it?”

Flick was no snitch, so he replied not a word.

“Hmmm . . .” Sergeant Shroder examined the treats, making more inquisitive sounds and blowing exasperating breaths through the strands of his anemic stache before speaking again. “This looks like drugs to me.”

Flick’s face swiftly flipped through confusion and outrage before setting into acceptance that he was almost certainly screwed.

An Artisan

The name of the candy-maker in question began with the letter “S”, and he was one of Flick’s good buddies. Flick wasn’t about to rat him out, neither could he exactly dispute the fact that what Shroder held in his hand could be construed to somewhat resemble drugs. Fruit punch drink mix had been artfully swirled into the center of the colorful but largely translucent slab and could, theoretically, have been crushed up pills of some kind. Embedded into the surface of the candy was a single Skittle that had been painstakingly pressed into the confection as it began to harden so that the stamped “S” was clearly visible. It was the artisan’s signature. With a bit of stretch in logic and good sense it could also be perceived as a pill of some kind. The high quality craftsmanship of the candy was Flick’s undoing, but still he tried his best to dig himself out of a hole that Sergeant Shroder had thrown him in.

The Gunslinger Gets His Man 

“That’s not drugs, it’s just candy. Look, that’s a Skittle on top.”

“Well, I know you guys call pills Skittles sometimes. So, maybe it’s one of them kind. I’m no doctor.” Shroder was being deliberately dim, and it was working to get on Flick’s nerves.

“You don’t need to be a doctor,” Flick replied, not quite yelling, but almost. “It’s just candy, that’s all. Are you freaking kidding me!” Now he was yelling. “See look.” He snatched one of the sweets from Shroder, unwrapped it with a practiced twist and flip to deposit it on his tongue. “See? Candy,” he managed to mumble around the substantial chunk he had quickly shuttled into the hollow of his cheek.

Sergeant Shroder’s belligerent bullying ploy had worked, though in all likelihood once even the possibility of drugs was voiced, Flick was doomed to a seg-term, even if only for a brief time to investigate the “suspected illicit substance”.

Sergeant Shroder’s moustache twitched with delight as he smirked his satisfaction. “Destroying the evidence. That’s alright, I’ve got this other one.” Shroder’s fist closed around the second candy before dropping it into his shirt’s breast pocket. “We’ll see what this really is. Go ahead and turn around for me.” With that he reached for one of the four sets of handcuffs dangling from his belt, and in doing so, sealed Flick’s fate.

Fallout

This happened on a Friday, so Flick remained in segregation over a long holiday weekend. As soon as the details of the situation were heard by the adjustment committee and investigating officer on Tuesday, Flick was released and put right back into the same cell. Sergeant Shroder faced ridicule from all directions, but he received no type of censure for the egregious abuse of his authority.

The Psycho Whisperer

“No. Hell no! This is bullshit! You can’t do this. You have to let me go. You can’t just deny me. It’s my right! Hey. Hey! Are you listening to me? You’re denying me my right. You know that? Hey! Do you hear me? Hey! Get back here and let me out!”

Irate

I was livid. I couldn’t believe it. I smacked my palm against the security glass until the slapping began to hurt. I banged with my fist which produced a more dull and manageable pain. I continued to yell for the officer to come back, but it was all to no avail. He was, however, required to perform his routine count. Within thirty minutes the officer returned.

Round Two

There was more yelling on my part and pounding on the glass. I had a dim and distant understanding that I was behaving like a lunatic, but it was more like I was detached and watching some stranger lose his composure. There was nothing to be done, no solution that I could see. I was being denied my rights and no amount of rational discussion was going to change that truth. To be fair, at this point, I was well beyond the capacity for any reasoned or measured discourse. Further screaming and assaulting the large window that separated me from the officer had no effect other than causing him to let slip a little smirk as he exited. I therefore adopted a more aggressive tactic.

Not Calculation

I was frustrated and angry. I believed there was an idiotic logic to my actions. It was something that I had witnessed before: Behave politely and respectfully and you’re ignored—act like a wild animal and the powers that be have to pay attention. I’d like to say that I was being very calculating and precise, that it was all an act, but that’s simply not true. The truth is that I had completely lost it.

Unhinged

I gripped the bars of the cellblock door and shook them, making them clatter an enormous racket. I tried kicking the door, but it didn’t produce as sustained, loud or satisfying a sound. Also, it hurt my foot. Instead I resumed rattling the door on its track. I was vaguely aware that my fellow inmates were watching while withdrawing from me with looks of worry and bewilderment. I didn’t care. Rather than rein it in I began to scream.

Enraged guttural gusts of hot air exploded from my throat. They were wordless, primal sounds born from feelings of helplessness, hatred and rage. I hollered until it felt like I’d been swallowing mouthfuls of sand. I made the steel door sing its terrible lullaby until my shoulders burned from the exertion and my arms felt like twin twizzlers. In the frenzied insanity of the instant I would have sworn that my tantrum lasted a full ten minutes. My criminal compatriots later assured me that it wasn’t even half that—it was, however, long enough for the individuals in charge at the County Jail to send in the expert.

The Psycho Whisperer

I’d seen Officer Brett employ his unique skillset before, but never for an instant had I ever imagined that he would have cause to use it against me. Nevertheless, in this instance, I was the psycho. Officer Brett opened the door to the cellblock and stepped in leaving only steel bars between us, including the barred door that I’d been shaking. His mere appearance was enough for me to fall silent and still. The echo of the metal thrumming hummed in the sudden quiet. Officer Brett just looked at me as I gasped for air after having worked myself into an exhausted furor. He looked me in the eyes and nodded his head twice before speaking in a sober, confidential tone. “This isn’t you.”

Convicted

The calm assurance with which he spoke convicted me to my core. A breath hitched and caught in my chest as an abhorrent cesspool of pent up emotions fought to release themselves. When I spoke there was a whining keen in my voice that I despised but was helpless to hide or control.

“It’s not fair, Brett. You know it’s not fair. First they move me to separate me from Stape so I can’t help him with his case. Now I can’t even be in the same room with him? I can’t even go to church?” My outraged incredulity was tempered by my petulant tone so that it lost some of its potential efficiency and still just sounded like I was a child pitching a fit because I didn’t get my way. I had largely regained my breath, if not my composure, and I leaned in close to speak my piece. Officer Brett mimicked my body language so that I was speaking through the bars to him with only a couple of inches between us. My voice became an insistent whisper.

“You know, Brett, you know this is wrong. Not only illegal, this is just wrong. You know. Brett, you know that Stape is innocent. You know that the police killed his wife and now these state attorneys and public defenders are helping to cover it up. You know this. Now they figured out that we’ve been helping each other and they’ve made sure that we’re kept apart. This whole thing is wrong.”

It was Officer Brett’s turn to be convicted. He dropped his gaze, unable to look me in the eyes anymore. He executed an elaborate shrug and sighed out a lengthy exhalation. He shook his head back and forth, his mouth opening and closing in what I took to be soundless assent. Silence spun out between us for several long moments. There was nothing more to say on the subject.

Cold Calculation

When Officer Brett finally looked at me again he only had one question. “Are you done then?”

I coughed a humorless laugh. “Yeah, sure, I’m done.”

“Good. Good.” He nodded. “Once the church service is over you can speak to the pastor one on one.” Officer Brett turned to leave, but paused a bit before turning back. “And with Mr. Stape, I have to believe it will work itself out. I have to believe that.”

I blew wind through my lips in a scornful scoff. It was perhaps unfair of me, and Officer Brett was certainly in an untenable situation, but his equivocation rang hollow to me.

Afterthought

I never really got to see or interact with my friend Stape again even though we remained in the County Jail together for nearly another year. He was eventually convicted to eighty-five years in prison for a murder that I don’t believe he committed.

Psychotic Break

Aaron paced the cell endlessly, all through the night, mumbling incessantly in vicious whispers and angry vehement curses. He had taken a razor blade from its casing and kept it pinched between thumb and forefinger, slashing at the air as he went. He was off his meds and hadn’t slept in three days. He was unpredictable and utterly terrifying.

SMI

Aaron had been diagnosed with his particular psychological malady and classified as Severely Mentally Ill. In most circumstances, individuals such as him are housed in the psychiatric unit or special treatment center. However, in some instances if the behavior of the inmate in question can be regulated with medication then he is released into the prison’s general population.

As long as Aaron made his scheduled med line appearance every morning and evening he was fine. He slept for at least twelve hours straight, waking only to go to med line and work in the chow hall. When he was awake he was obviously in a dazed, drugged state. His eyelids were perpetually drooped, his speech was slowed but not quite slurred, and there was an overall impression that he was mentally through molasses as he reasoned, reacted and interacted. This isn’t the existence I would choose for myself or a loved one, but for Aaron it appeared to be what passed as closest to normalized or regulated. This was his version of being fine.

Oversight or Negligence

Aaron was scheduled to go home. He had served the time the judge had sentenced him to, but he had no family or friend who would take him in. This is far more common than most might realize. Rather than the Department of Corrections doing its job and finding a suitable place for the individual they just violate the inmate and essentially extend his prison term by two or three years.

The criminal justice system at its finest.

However, since the powers that be have to give the appearance of trying to place the inmate in a halfway house or homeless shelter, they also go through the entire charade of processing the inmate for release. Aaron had a new picture taken along with his fingerprints. He was made to sign several documents in anticipation of a release of custody which wasn’t actually coming. His meds were discontinued and a two week supply of them were prepared to be given to him as he walked out of the prison. Instead he never left, and his meds were never restarted.

Un-medicated

It was a precipitous in Aaron’s behavior. Within days he was sleeping less and more visibly irritable. He began quietly mumbling or chuckling to himself. He would get in the bed, roll around for a while, then get right back out again. By the end of the first week he was pacing and presumably arguing with whomever he was hearing or seeing. Besides Aaron and I there were four other men who shared the cell with us. When one of my cellies asked Aaron to please lay down or be quiet, Aaron raised up physically like a cornered raccoon and let loose with verbal threats of violence and promises to carry out these threats. Prior to this Aaron had been sedate (and sedated) and a complete milquetoast.

At ten days into the ordeal his rants and arguments with invisible or imagined individuals was a constant and he hadn’t slept in three days. It was also at this point that the razor blade became a component of his psychosis. While Aaron experienced a psychotic break from reality I lay beneath my blanket, wide awake and terrified that I’d have to somehow defend myself against this razor-wielding lunatic.

Little Help

I spoke to every security staff member that crossed my path. The COs referred to the sergeant, the sergeant referred me to the lieutenant. Everyone was quick to pass responsibility to the next person. Lieutenant Danish was potbellied and gave the impression of a clean-shaven, surly Santa Claus. He was skeptical of the veracity of my claims. He listened out of a sense of politeness or duty. It wasn’t until I confronted him for three consecutive mornings with tales of Aaron’s abnormal behavior that he finally said the most he could do was report Aaron to a mental health professional so he could be evaluated. It was better than nothing.

Decline

At this point I’d only been able to snatch snippets of sleep—an hour or two at a time. At night my exhaustion eventually overcame my terror and I would lapse into slim unconsciousness only to be bolted awake by Aaron’s increasingly loud ravings. I’d lay awake for long minutes and hours until I had to get up and go to work. Aaron was still working in the chow hall. They had discontinued his meds, not his job assignment. I could sleep some while he was gone. Aaron’s erratic behavior was showing at work and his coworkers reported him to their supervisor. The supervisor was apathetic and paid no attention, took no action.

The Way It Is

Aaron was called out for an impromptu call pass. He saw the psych doctor and apparently was able to mask his mania enough so that he was sent back to the building. Lieutenant Danish had set up the meeting just as he told me he would, and he reported to me that since the mental health professional hadn’t found cause to remove Aaron from the general population there was nothing he could do. Neither he nor the psych could force Aaron to take his meds, though they had finally been renewed. He also couldn’t just take an inmate to seg for no reason. I replied that I wasn’t saying that I wanted Aaron in seg, but that it was only a matter of time before he did something seg-worthy. That could mean attacking me and forcing me to defend myself, or antagonizing another individual to the point of violence. I told Lieutenant Danish that Aaron needed help. Lieutenant Danish said that the psychologist didn’t see it that way, so there was nothing he could do. He shrugged and simply stated: “That’s the way it is.”

An Inevitability

The next day at lunch Aaron’s instability was on full display. Lieutenant Danish had to order him to sit down and eat. A CO had to tell him to just be quiet and eat because he was ranting in a loud voice. Food flew from his mouth and across other men’s trays. When some of the men at the table with him took offense at his disgusting intrusion, Aaron threatened all of them. He called them all faggots, pussies and bitches. That’s the pretty much the prison trifecta of “fighting words”. By which I mean that, in most circles, to let such egregious insults stand would be tantamount to admitting that those statements were true. Aaron’s comprised state of mental health was a nonissue and didn’t make him exempt from reprisals.

Avoidable

I was performing my duties as a housing unit porter, taking the garbage out to the dumpster so I had an ironclad alibi with multiple COs as witnesses. It turned out that I would need it.

As I eventually made my way back to my cell, Aaron came rushing down the hall toward me. He was bleeding from a split lip and his left eye was already visibly swelling. Aaron walked straight into the officer’s control bubble and started raving and yelling. That is a completely unauthorized area for an inmate, and a place where no one in their right mind would ever dream of going. Aaron was handcuffed and Lieutenant Danish was called to hear Aaron’s grievance and deal with the situation.

Deaf & Dumb

The announcement came over the speakers for everyone to return to their cell. A few minutes later Lieutenant Danish sauntered up to my cell in a cocky strut. “Okay, guys, who did it?” My outrage over his indifference and incompetence up to this point got the better of me.

“Are you serious!? I’ve been telling you for days that this guy was losing his mind. You saw him in the chow hall. The COs on the walk back from chow heard him going nuts and yelling nonsense and they just laughed about it.”

“So it was you then, was it?” Lieutenant Danish brimmed with confidence and grinned like the cat that ate the canary.

“Nope. It wasn’t any of us. We would have done it days ago, that’s why we came to you in the first place, but you didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even in the building. I was taking out the garbage.” Then I named the four officers who could attest to that fact. My reveal and my tone smeared the smirk from his face. At this point I didn’t in fact yet now what happened, but I assumed my cellies were all innocent.

“Show me your hands,” Lieutenant Danish demanded. He was pissed and all business. He inspected my mitts for any signs that they had recently been used to assault Aaron. He repeated the ritual with my remaining four cellies, questioning them as to whether it was them who did it or they had seen who did it. Each of them shrugged and mumbled in the negative. “No one knows anything, huh? Big surprise.” He scoffed at our convict behavior and left in a huff, taking his entourage of three officers with him.

Outcome

Aaron was taken to seg for fighting and unauthorized movement. His description of his attacker—black guy with a bald head—wasn’t too helpful in narrowing the search. It did, however, exonerate me and my cellies since none of us fit that bill. According to my cellies, Aaron’s description was little more than a shot in the dark, and terribly inaccurate since Aaron hadn’t ever actually seen his attacker.

The attacker was one of the offended men who sat at the chow hall table with Aaron. He had followed Aaron back to the cell and put a choke hold on him from behind until Aaron ceased struggling and lapsed into unconsciousness. A couple of sharp cracks of Aaron’s face against the concrete floor accounted for the split lip and swollen eye. My cellies stopped the assault before it could get any worse and cleaned up the blood evidence before Lieutenant Danish showed up.

One of my cellies worked as a porter in seg, and for months he would bring back horror stories/reports of Aaron behaving more like a beast than a man, and being treated as less than human. This is what often happens to the disenfranchised mentally ill in this “enlightened” society.

Unexpected Caregiver

Misunderstood

Ms. Thurman seemed to rub most people the wrong way. She was brusque, no-nonsense, and completely professional. From inmate to CO alike they largely thought she was just mean and bitchy. In my capacity as her clerk in the library, I worked the longest and most closely with her, and am therefore more qualified than any to report that this was a terrible misrepresentation.

Overcompensating

Since it was the first time working in the Department of Corrections, Ms. Thurman erred on the side of caution and was careful to never be overly, or overtly, friendly in her interaction with inmates. Surely her head had been filled with notions of hustling, conniving, slick, duplicitous convicts who prey on even a hint of humanity and kindness. I’ll not deny that these individuals exist in abundance behind prison walls, however, not every inmate fits that description.

My Approach

Many guys were offended by her attitude, but I had a different approach to the situation. I was there to do a job, not make friends or flirt. Which is good, because I am not actually gifted at either of these later two. She gave me a task to perform, I did it, then onto the next one. Simple. The more I proved my abilities I gained a degree of confidence and trust from her. This merely meant that she felt able to give me my marching orders and leave me to it without any concern that it wouldn’t be accomplished in a timely manner, and to her high standards.

No Delusions

I was never delusional enough to think that our blossoming mutual understanding and quick shorthand communication style was indicative of anything deeper than what it was—a surface workplace relationship between boss and employee. Many guys in prison are just that, delusional, and place an overabundance of significance on a look or gesture from a female staff member. While it is certainly true that some women have been charmed or tricked into some kind of relationship with inmates, these instances are, if not rare, at least uncommon. There was no way I could confuse or misinterpret Ms. Thurman’s behavior.

She would even periodically remind me that if I ever asked her for a personal favor she would replace me. I did not doubt her. I didn’t know anything about her, though I believe she was perhaps only a few years older than me. We shared our book interests with one another, suggested titles for each other to read, and talked about what we were currently reading. That’s about as “personal” as we ever got. Her strict adherence to a clearly defined purely professional relationship made her fleeting foray into maternal territory all the more unusual.

Hazards of the Trade

Working in the library, my fingers and hands became gnarled by paper cuts and staple jabs along with other various slices, stabs, and injustices. It was just something that came with the territory. Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, Band Aids (or adhesive bandages if you prefer the non-name brand) in prison are about as common as a unicorn horn. Therefore I often had to walk about wounded and uncovered.

On this particular day I arrived at work with an ugly looking gash on my right middle finger where an unusually sharp-edged cardboard box the day before had caught me off-guard and left me with this particular war wound. It ran from the corner of the nail to the cuticle, leaving a fragile and sensitive flap of skin just waiting to get snagged on everything with which I came into contact. When I reported the cause of my laceration to Ms. Thurman in response to her asking about it, she just snorted out a sound that I interpreted as derisive. She herself often sported Band Aids to cover her frequent minor injuries, so I didn’t understand her scorn, but I merely shrugged and went about my responsibilities.

Fancy Disinfection

Within a couple minutes Ms. Thurman appeared in the doorway of the library with antibiotic soap in her hand. She gave it to me with instructions to take it to the bathroom and wash my hands thoroughly—especially the wound on my finger—and then meet her in her office. The bottle was shaped like an arrowhead with a pump dispenser and was the fanciest product I’d held in my hands in close to a decade and a half. It was rose-colored and smelled of raspberries. I could’ve sold it for five bucks back in my cell house. Five bucks, easy. Even with it barely more than half full. I washed as instructed and headed for the office.

First Aid

Ms. Thurman took the soap from me and pointed wordlessly to her desk where the blotter had been vacated of everything but a small crimped tube of antibiotic ointment and a single Band Aid. I looked back at her and thanked her with a greater depth of gratitude than I’d initially realized I’d felt. She merely nodded and stepped outside.

Small But Significant

Perhaps it seems like nothing much, but Ms. Thurman had crossed an invisible barrier with her actions. Not a major one in the grand scheme of things, but to me it was touching to know that she cared, that I’d had an influence on her perception of prison inmates. However small an influence. Putting the bandage on myself was so far removed from my notion of normalcy, and coupled with Ms. Thurman’s uncharacteristically “unprofessional” behavior, the entire encounter seemed strangely surreal to me.

Not A Seizure

I felt helpless, terrified.

My heart bashed in my chest and clambered into my throat, making it difficult to breathe and a terrible chore to think. Processing what I was seeing was an impossibility as my brain had leapt into panic mode and rendered me woefully ineffectual. The five other men standing over the supine body were all screaming obscenities and oaths of disbelief so they were each one just as useless as me. But at least they could speak and gesticulate in response. I could only stare in horror at Rigger as he lay on the floor, convulsing. His eyes had rolled back to the whites and a milky discharge frothed from between his lips. A slim red line trickled from his right nostril. I knew he had a history of seizures. I thought I was watching him die.

Rigger

Rigger liked to tell people that he was a biker or an Aryan. Sometimes both. He was neither. I’ve known both. He was simply a poser, a wannabe. I suppose he thought those particular fabrications gave him clout or a measure of fear/respect from guys who didn’t know any better. Whatever you may think of the specific ideas, values, or moral cores of the two groups that Rigger claimed to be a member of, at least they have certain standards and code of conduct. Rigger was just an idiot, a bigot, and a racist. That’s not to say that these character traits made him somehow deserving of his medical emergency. Although it did turn out that he brought it upon himself. Literally.

Normal

I wasn’t even supposed to be there—it wasn’t my cell. Being in someone else’s cell is a big no-no. Unauthorized movement is a major infraction of the rules. I was just in there talking to a buddy of mine. It was a six man cell. Three of the cellies were playing cards across a makeshift table formed by a property box on top of a garbage can. The fifth of Rigger’s cellies was lounging on his top bunk watching TV. Just another normal day in prison.

Mutiny

Rigger walked out of the small bathroom I the corner of the cell, clearly moving on unsteady legs. Three steps took him far too long, as if he were wading through hip deep oatmeal. His body was working in opposition to the ambulatory impulses his brain was sending out. A monumental mutiny appeared to occur in the briefest of moments as his musculature fought against the messages received. A last desperate act of clutching at the bunkbed frame was futile in keeping Rigger upright, and instead only succeeded in twirling him so that he collapsed flatly onto his back with a solid clunk of his head against the finished concrete floor. Everything in the cell stopped. He was out cold, eyes wide open, motionless for a slow three count. Then his body really began to rebel.

Seizure-ish

Rigger’s body seemed to have been electrified as it shivered and shook. A moaning grunt preceded the gurgle of foaming expectorant from his mouth at which point his pupils and irises disappeared from sight. I didn’t know what to do, and everyone else present seemed to be content to just cuss and yell. Finally, Crockett took control of the situation.

Cover-up

Crockett was a nice enough guy, but I’d always thought of him as little more than a loudmouth buffoon. He had often proved me right on that account, but on this occasion he turned out to be the only one of us who was both level-headed and pragmatic. Crockett began barking orders and pointing fingers at the person to whom he was directing them.

“Go to the bathroom, see if he left anything out in there; clean that shit up. Put the cards away. Push the box back under the bunk—anybody asks we were all in our bunks watching TV when he just fell out. Go get the CO, tell him your cellie is having a seizure, nothing more. You need to get the hell out of here—you were never here, you didn’t see anything.” This last directive was for my benefit, and I heeded its wisdom with extreme haste.

Reliable Ruse

Rigger was unconscious and nonresponsive when the medical professionals arrived on the scene. With his documented history of seizures they didn’t doubt the tale that Crockett told. The rest of the cellies nodded dutifully along. Rigger was strapped to a flat board and hauled away.

Experimentation

There are a nearly infinite number and type of prescription drugs handed out in prison. Synthetic opiate painkillers, psychotropic mood stabilizers to bring a person up or keep a person down, and muscle relaxants. If you need them, you need them. If you don’t, they get you high. It is a complete fallacy, the prevailing “wisdom” behind prison walls. I’ve known some addicts who knew the names, effects, and side-effects of so many pills I’d never even heard of that I’d wager they could give any pharmacist a run for their money. Rigger was one of these, and he loved to experiment with different pill combinations to see what kind of altered state he could manufacture. I knew nothing of Rigger’s proclivities until after this incident.

Overdose

My buddy who lived in the cell with Rigger filled me in on all the pharmaceutical shenanigans that Rigger had been indulging in. Rigger had even convinced and paid a maintenance man to put a small shelf in the bathroom under the auspice of needing a place to put toothbrush, tooth paste and other various accoutrements required for carrying out ones morning cleaning ritual. In truth Rigger wanted a surface where he could crush his pills more easily, and from where he could snort lines of those crushed pills.

Incorrigible   

Two days later Rigger returned from his stint being under observation in the infirmary. Same cell, same bunk, same activities. When I saw him I welcomed him back, told him I was glad he was recovered from his “seizure”. He appeared confused at first, but then he cracked a sloppy, silly grin and laughed a “thanks” at me before wandering off mumbling the word “seizure” again and again, chuckling to himself.

He was as high as a kite on some kind of concoction.

Stevie

“If he tries to do anything just holler and I’ll come running. Okay? Now, what you’ll have to do is get ahold of him from behind. Around the neck. Just get both arms around him like a bear-hug and squeeze that neck and hold onto him for dear life. I’ll run in and crack him in the face. It’ll probably take three or four good hits so you’ll have to hold him tight.”

This was the direction which I received from Will, my good friend and spiritual mentor. There had been no preamble or explanation on his part, he simply walked into my cell, squatted on my toilet, and began talking. My cellie Stevie, who was the subject of Will’s instructional speech, was sitting ten feet away in the dayroom giggling at the Saturday morning cartoons like he was a little kid. It was annoying and unnerving, but Will advising violence was even more disturbing to me. I wondered what Will was seeing that eluded me.

Oblivious

I had been locked up in the county jail for just over four months, which seems like nothing after all these years, but at the time it felt entirely interminable. I hadn’t yet witnessed or been subjected to much of the depravity and violence which would eventually become commonplace to me. Perhaps not so much innocent, but more oblivious. Naïve, even. My only initial impression of Stevie was that he was a very big guy.

Stevie

Stevie had come to the county jail directly from federal prison after having served seven years for bank robbery. Due to some idiotic legal and jurisdictional overlap he had to serve six months more in state prison. This meant he was only passing through the county jail. A transport van was usually sent out every Friday morning to shuttle offenders who had been sentenced to the department of corrections. That’s all Stevie was waiting on.

Stevie was ginormous. He was nearly four-feet across at the shoulders and literally had to turn sideways in order to walk through the narrow entrance to our cell. His chest and shoulders heaved outward from his frame, which tapered to a slim waist in the classic body builder’s V-shape. At five-foot-ten he was more than three inches shorter than me, but his incredible physical stature was such that he seemed to tower over me. I had never before in my life seen a person with such huge dimensions outside of an action movie star.

Boundaries

Since Stevie had just completed a seven year stint in prison, he brought with him his own peculiar sets of quirks. Due to the happenstance that we were cellies he felt that he was entitled to my food and assorted belongings. I am generally generous, so I did share with him, but he had expectations that were unreasonable. He also had no real sense of boundaries.

I’d often awakened to witness his phallus uncomfortably close as he urinated in the toilet, or I’d find him sitting on said toilet bare-chested with his pants around his ankles doing his business. The accepted protocol that had been established during my brief tenure in the county jail was that, since I was on the bottom bunk and the toilet was less than two feet away from my head, the person on the top bunk would drape a blanket to form a curtain barrier while defecating, and turn his back to me while peeing. Ideally an individual would wait to defecate once the cell doors were open so their cellie could leave the danger zone, but Stevie observed none of these small courtesies.

He wanted to chat my ear off long into the night and early in the morning. He mostly behaved as if we were longtime best buddies rather than two strangers who had been thrust together by whatever fate or circumstance. I merely figured that Stevie wasn’t in full possession of all his marbles. It wasn’t clear to me whether that was a condition which had developed during his incarceration or if that’s just how he’d always been. There was a certain childlike simplicity to him. A simplemindedness, like a big dumb kid. Harmless, I thought.

Unbeliever

Stevie had been my cellie for three days when Will laid out our plan of attack/defense. He assured me that I didn’t know how close to danger I was. He said he knew guys like Stevie and how their mind worked. Will and Stevie were both black—I am not. I thought perhaps it was a cultural thing, but that didn’t quite make sense to me either. Will referred to Stevie as an animal, a beast. He warned/assured me that, given enough time, Stevie would attack me. The results of this would be a physical beating, or possible a sexual assault. Probably both.

At this point I did begin to wonder if perhaps Stevie’s inabilities to practice proper toilet protocol were subtle ways in which he attempted to get me accustomed to his nudity so he could eventually introduce a more interactive element. However, as far as Stevie beating me, I didn’t believe Will. I couldn’t believe him. I hadn’t seen any sort of violent tendencies from Stevie. I’d seen him get miffed or frustrated when he couldn’t find any cartoons on TV to watch, but he hadn’t flown into a rage. Not yet.

I Believe

Friday morning came and Stevie was in his usual spot, sitting atop the one table in the dayroom, guffawing with abandon at the cartoons he had found to watch. There was an electronic buzz as the door to the cellblock opened, a guard stuck his head in and spoke.

“Jones, you going to the joint today. You ready?” Jones had taken a plea deal earlier in the week and had accepted his fate of a few years in DOC. He was up, showered, packed. His mat and bedding was rolled up and ready to carry out. No one looks forward to prison, but Jones was anxious to get the process underway.

“Yep, I’m ready. Let’s go.” The guard nodded and left. He reappeared in the walkway which separated our block from the one next to us. It was in this alley where all the controls for the door mechanisms were located. A security glass wall separated it from the block. There was a barred cage about four feet square that separated the cellblock from the entry door. For an inmate to leave the cellblock there is section of bars which slides to the side by electronic control, and protocol dictates that this must be closed before the outer door can be open. Jones stood with his possessions in front of the gate waiting for it to open for him.

It took Stevie a few minutes longer than it probably should’ve, but eventually he figured out that he wasn’t going to be moving on to the next stop in his journey. He wasn’t happy about this.

No Help

Stevie scooted off the table and stood face to face with the guard, mere inches and a layer of bulletproof glass between them. “Officer, what about me?” His query was ignored completely. The guard stared past him, looked through him. He appeared dazed, bored or sleepy. “I’m supposed to go too.” Still nothing. Jones was secured within the sally-port area, and the officer began to leave. Stevie matched his retreat on our side of the glass. “Hey, officer! Can I talk to you? Hey, officer.” The door to the cellblock opened and Jones scurried out. Stevie had exhausted his meager amount of patience.

Unhinged

“You fuckin’ bitch!! I’ll beat your ass!” Stevie pounded on the glass partition right next to the sally-port gate as he bellowed. The impact seemed to shudder the entire block and a fissure appeared in the glass, running from where his fist made contact up to the corner of the pane. The officer was suddenly wide awake and terrified. He slammed the door in a hasty retreat. “Fuck this, I ain’t staying here. I’m going to beat the shit out of somebody.” His eyes scanned quickly across the five other occupants of the cellblock.

I was sitting on my bunk in my cell. Will superstitiously stepped from his cell with a cup of coffee in his hand and stood just outside my cell. Not exactly blocking the door, but strategically place for whatever eventuality. Stevie gripped the bars of the sliding door, his forearms like puffed up bulldogs, and began to shake it so that it rattled loudly in its tracks. The pod vibrated and the sound clattered around the tiny space with deafening volume. Stevie continued to yank on the cage door while screaming and swearing in an irate rage. I have no doubt that Stevie could’ve dislodged the door from its moorings, but thankfully a sergeant showed up to quell his rabid behavior. The Sarge was wise and careful enough to keep his distance so Stevie couldn’t reach through the bars and grab him.

Negotiation

Stevie managed to tame his tone as he spoke. “Look, I’m just here from the federal joint. I’m supposed to be going to DOC. I’m not staying here. I already been here a week this past Wednesday.”

“I know you came here from the feds,” the Sarge replied, trying to placate his ward. “But we have other guys who are going to DOC and only room for six in our van.”

“I’m going today.” This was a directive from Stevie, not a request.

“Well, I don’t . . .”

“I’m fuckin’ going!!” Stevie screamed as he snatched at the gate and shook it. The Sarge’s eyes bulged with surprise, fright. He involuntarily retreated until he was backed into the doorframe. It took a quick moment for him to compose himself and stand taller as if to regain a sense of control or authority.

“Uh . . . let me just . . .” Then the sergeant was gone.

Replaced

Stevie paced back and forth in front of the cage, sporadically shaking the bars or smacking them with the flat of his hand. He was cursing and mumbling an insane incantation, appearing every bit the animal that Will had swiftly perceived him to be. It was a long and frightening five minutes before the Sarge entered the alleyway again and informed Stevie that he was going so he should grab his belongings. Stevie hustled in and wrapped his mat and bedding up, tucked it under one arm and was gone without a word of goodbye or good luck. A few minutes later Jones returned with all his belongings and a look of defeat. Stevie had taken his spot on the transfer van. Jones returned to his cell without a word and laid down. His prison timeline would be delayed for at least another week.

Survival

With Stevie gone I didn’t miss him. I did, however, learn from the experience and grew a bit more closed off and wary of new cellies. I learned to identify signs of potential psychotic and violent men. I learned to survive.