An Indelible Impression


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When I first met Mark, he wasn’t particularly impressive. He didn’t make a strong or indelible impression on me. He was like a lot of white guys in their late thirties and early forties who I’d come across: prematurely aged and showing signs that years of all different kinds of abuse—physical, mental, drug—had taken their toll. All this was evident in little more than a glance.

A few bits of thatch clung to the edge of his skull, but the top of his head held a sheen that spoke to years of baldness. His skin was pockmarked where sores had once taken root, and his general complexion was sallow, with red splotches. The yellow hue staining his few remaining teeth made his smile an unpleasant sight. At five foot five, 225 pounds, with thick thighs and a flabby, floppy gut, he appeared to be the epitome of the term “squat.” It was easy to dismiss him after one look as just another guy, not worth my time or energy.

He first registered on my radar because I kept catching him looking at me as I worked out on the yard. It wasn’t so obvious as to be creepy, but enough that I quickly picked up on it. I’d staked out a spot in a corner where I wouldn’t be disturbed, and it was there I performed a series of calisthenics and cardio exercises that my guy Burke and I had culled from memory, P90X infomercials, and Men’s Fitness magazines. Burke had been moved to another house, but I kept at it by myself.

After a week of surreptitious stalking, Mark finally worked up the nerve to speak to me. He waited until the tail end of yard, after I had finished my regimen. Even though I could tell he’d wanted to talk, I was curious but fairly clueless as to what the topic or purpose of it would be. After an exchange of names and prison pleasantries, he got right down to it.

“Do you think I could start working out with you?” His speech was hesitant, and he kind of stammered his way through it. He seemed extremely nervous, but I couldn’t figure out why. I also couldn’t fathom why he’d want to work out with me. While it’s true that, compared to Mark, I was practically an Adonis, I didn’t consider my physique anything to write home about. Mark went on to explain that he would be going home in six months, so he wanted to lose weight and get in shape. He saw I was out there every gym and yard getting money, and said he was in need of direction and motivation. He hoped I would provide both.

This was a situation I’d seen countless times and was another symptom of short-timer’s disease: Guys willfully neglect their health and bodies for months or years; but once they’re short, they expect to cram all the hard work and hit the streets looking like they’d been carved from granite. I despised the entire concept. On top of that, I wasn’t looking for and didn’t want a new workout partner. Burke and I had been buddies and ended up working out together as a natural extension of our friendship. I told Mark that I’d be out there every time, doing my thing, and if he wanted to show up, I’d put him through the paces. He grinned, nodded vigorously, and thanked me before walking off. I didn’t believe he’d ever actually show up for a workout.

The next time we had yard, he was there in my little workout corner, ready to go. And I was true to my word. Since I’d been doing my routine for a while, it came a little easier to me, but I didn’t let up one bit. I pushed and pushed until Mark couldn’t take it anymore—he had to stumble away and cling to the fence for dear life as he puked his paltry prison breakfast onto the concrete. When a person isn’t used to heavy workouts, this isn’t unheard of. I once scarfed an egg salad sandwich and barfed it up after doing dozens of squats and deadlifts (and FYI, egg salad has got to be one of the worst possible foods to taste as it comes up for an encore performance). Once Mark was done with his regurgitation, he wandered off on unsteady legs. I admit to taking a small, sick, twisted satisfaction in knowing that I’d made him vomit and quit. I was sure I’d never see him again for another session.

So when Mark returned at the next yard with a determined look on his face, I was impressed. Having once weighed 315 pounds, I knew how tough losing weight could be and how huge a toll on one’s self-esteem that struggle can take. Mark was clearly serious. I took pity on him, and brought him under my wing. That second time I slowed down, gave him more rests between exercises, and dragged him along with me to the end of the routine. He looked like he was about to fall out, but I congratulated him on getting through the whole thing and encouraged him to come back. Between huge gasping gulps of air, Mark managed to assure me that he would, in fact, be back next time.

True to his word, he returned the next day. Again and again, for weeks, it was the two of us in the corner of the yard, getting it in. What was initially impossible for him became gradually easier until he was able to get through our hour-long workout with minimal rest. Then Mark recruited another overweight individual who wanted to change his sedentary habits. I instructed him on proper technique and encouraged them both while getting in my own workout.

Shortly after that, a couple of short-timers approached me and asked how much I was charging to run my workout. I thought they were joking, but they were serious. Apparently they thought I was doing it as some kind of hustle. I told them that I didn’t charge anything, and if they wanted to show up next time they were more than welcome. Within a month and a half of my first workout with Mark, I had five or six guys every single yard standing before me with expectant and excited expressions on their faces, eager for another workout, all looking to me for direction. Without setting out to, I had become some kind of prison Billy Blanks.

It was a daunting task, having all these people depending on me to keep them going. But before long it was they who motivated me. On days when I didn’t feel like doing anything, it was the knowledge that they were counting on my guidance that made me get up and go.

From start to finish, Mark worked out with me for almost four months. He hung in there to the end every time and seemed to gradually become less round. Most of the other guys came and went, showing up only when they felt like it, but Mark never missed a yard. He would usually track me down in the chow line to double check that I would definitely be working out on yard. Our final time together was unremarkable from the rest. We pushed through the pain and were utterly exhausted at the end.

Our post-workout ritual was simple and had developed naturally. We bumped fists, exchanged comments of “good job” and “good money” before I clapped him on the back in an appropriately macho fashion and told him he was doing well and to keep at it. Then Mark walked away.
The next time I saw him he was mostly blue.

It was two days later. A little after seven in the morning, the C/O came around for the scheduled morning count. Suddenly there was a flurry of noise and activity: radios beeped and crackled, C/Os and white shirts rushed in from the front of the wing, past my cell door and off to my right, where I couldn’t see them. I had lost my eyeball in a recent shakedown and hadn’t yet fashioned another, so all I could do was stand with my body against the door and my face pressed to the perforated steel plate that acted as my window. In that awkward position, I looked and listened.

Photo by Arvind Balaraman /
Photo by Arvind Balaraman /

Two lieutenants hustled Mark’s cellie out with his hands cuffed and his head hanging low. He looked bleary-eyed, but suitably baffled and forlorn. A handful of other C/Os and loos milled about aimlessly, looking shaken and saying little. Within ten minutes, another commotion arose as a doctor and four nurses rushed past with a wheeled stretcher clattering in their midst. Less than two minutes ticked slowly by while muffled voices and muted grunts of exertion were the only stimuli I could discern.

The stretcher blazed noisily back past me with the nurses providing locomotion and the doctor performing perfunctory chest compressions that were obviously pointless. My eyes were wide and unblinking as I strained to pull in every fragment of information I could. Mark’s eyes were wide, unblinking, lifeless. I glimpsed them along with his pale, blue-tinged skin and stiff features. He was 42 years old with 63 days left on his sentence. Heart attack.

There was an investigation, and Mark’s cellie was cleared of any wrongdoing and let out of Seg. Questions were raised about whether there had been any significant changes in Mark’s eating or exercise habits in the previous few months. I was never pulled in by Internal Affairs or asked anything directly. A couple of my guys did have to go to IA, but they were convicts, soldiers, and they revealed nothing. I couldn’t help but think that I was responsible, that maybe his over-the-hill heart had been too stressed by our workouts. It was certainly not murder, but it was something. I stopped exercising for a while after that. Even now, years later, I still can’t quite shake the image of his vacant eyes staring up at nothing.

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The Dirtbag


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When I say that my cellie Ray was a shameless, filthy, unrepentant dirtbag, rest assured that I’m telling the truth.

When you live in a tiny cell, everything is compounded, made exponentially more aggravating or disgusting thanks to the simple fact that two grown men are essentially inhabiting a closet with a toilet. I don’t expect much from my cellies; as long as they’re respectful and clean (meaning both good hygiene and relatively tidy), I can get along easily. Ray was a good enough guy; we met on common ground with some movies and TV shows. At times we could carry on an intelligent conversation—a true rarity in prison. What made Ray so rough to live with, though, was his utter lack of awareness of his deplorable hygiene.

Being a fairly plump guy, Ray would sweat more than the average person. His natural odor was a heady musk that would probably attract a moose in search of a mate if Ray were to ever head into the wrong stretch of northern territory. He washed himself thrice a week as shower facilities were made available to us, but on the days in between, Ray wasn’t a big fan of the bird bath. He would come in, fresh from lumbering his way up and down the basketball court, and jump his sweat-slicked, naked-from-the-waist-up body onto his top bunk. The sheet that covered his mat quickly developed a yellow stain.

Besides not-so-slowly turning his sheets dingy with sweat, Ray also had an alarmingly abundant supply of sores, scabs, and burst pimples all over his body. Lying in his rack, topless, as was his wont, provided nasty red accents to the dirty yellow that was already coloring the canvas of his sheet. The longer he persisted in not putting his sheets in the laundry, the more varying hues of dried blood appeared with browns and maroons adding themselves to the tapestry of filth.

photo by "africa"
photo by “africa”

When Ray wasn’t lounging partially nude, he was dressed in long pants, a thermal long-sleeved top and a sweatshirt—going from one extreme to the other, as if he was afflicted by alternating flashes of hot and cold. He would live, sweat, bleed, and sleep in these clothes, which held in his incredibly aromatic funk. That B.O. seeped into the sheets and mat and, it seemed, into the very walls of the cell. The fact that Ray was spectacularly flatulent only added more noxious fumes to the mix. Remarkably, I became largely immune to it, except when I would walk back into the cell after being gone for a while and be assaulted by the odor anew. As a young adult, I’d once had a pair of dwarf hamsters whose cage I rarely ever cleaned to refill it with fresh bedding. That same damp, musty, pungent, fecal fragrance is what Ray created, and it’s what filled every cubic inch of the cell.

People came to the cell to check in or talk to me, and they were immediately chased away by the foulness emanating from within. I tried gentle nudging and encouraging in an effort to convince Ray to alter his habits of wearing the same clothes for days without changing and never washing his sheets, but nothing I tried ever yielded positive results. In the seven months we lived together, Ray only washed his bedding once, and that was only because the C/O made him do it.

On that occasion, the officer handing out mail had to key open our door to pass through a particularly thick envelope that wouldn’t slide under the door. As soon as he swung the door open, his nose scrunched up in revulsion. The resulting look on his face made him look like he’d just swallowed a mouthful of something truly grotty. He met my gaze, and I just shrugged and rolled my eyes upward to where Ray lay in his bunk above me. The C/O surveyed Ray in all his bare-chested, bloody, filthy glory and was struck momentarily dumb. His mouth worked up and down as if words were meant to be spilling out, but for a long time nothing came. Finally he looked back and forth between Ray and me a few times before motioning to Ray and saying, “Step out here for a minute and talk to me.”

I wasn’t privy to their conversation, but a grip of minutes later, Ray came back in, grumbling and cursing under his breath as he stripped his mat. The C/O closed our cell door with the parting words, “I’ll be back in a bit for them, and I’ll see if I can’t find some bleach.” Ray wasn’t happy, I was hopeful, and it was a nice thought by the C/O. It didn’t help.

The laundered bedding came back with spots and blotches of dried blood intermingling with the yellow-brown sweat streaks to culminate in what could pass for a lost Jackson Pollock work. Beyond that, the stench was too terrible in its amazing power to be dispelled by something as simple as laundry soap and bleach. It had seeped into the pores of the concrete. Nothing short of burning the place to the ground would ever be able to exorcise Ray’s odor from the premises. It was a lost cause, and despite some outside input from the C/O, Ray remained a filthy dirtbag until the day he went home. I was blessed with a reprieve from the wretched filth after seven months when I had a court writ and was temporarily shipped to another joint. Wherever Ray resides in the world right now, I imagine it greatly resembles a pigsty. After all, being a hardcore, unapologetic dirtbag is a tough habit to kick.


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Eating Fire


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I was on the floor with my stomach in my back, which means I was broke and starving. It also means there was no way I was going to miss chow, even though prison chili isn’t exactly a gourmet meal or even all that appetizing.

The familiar warm, sour smell of food going to rot assaulted my nostrils the moment I entered the chow hall, and saliva flooded my mouth in anticipation of the impending food I’d come to associate with that fetid aroma. The shuffle toward the slot in the wall where the trays were pushed out for inmates was unbearably slow. Once I finally got there, I was simultaneously uplifted and disappointed by the sight that greeted me.

The thick, pasty chili was served directly onto my tray—no separate bowl. Steam rose in a furious rush from the heaping wet pile of orange-red chili—which was a rare occurrence, since food was hardly ever served above room temperature. Both the large portion of chili and its piping-hot nature were blessings to be counted. Unfortunately, the accompanying piece of cornbread was little more than a sliver from the edge of the pan; the person cutting it had evidently been too quick with his knife and left a skinny, pathetic excuse for a full serving. Experience told me that it would do little good to stop the moving chow line to complain. The unwritten but strictly adhered-to policy when it comes to food service is that you get what you get, and you have what you have. It keeps the feed process moving along. Besides the cornbread, I was further disappointed by the wilted salad, paltry scoop of green beans, and cup of lime sherbet that was sure to be a sticky, melted mess by the time I got to it.

Once I was seated, I grasped my Spork with a hand that fumbled due to my overeager hunger, and I managed to deposit a single serving of searing chili into my maw. The shock of burnt tongue made my hand jump, my heart quaver, and my mouth open wide as I tried to drag cool air in past the fire I’d just fed myself. My eyes watered, and I swallowed convulsively to remove the flame from my mouth, only to feel it scorch my throat and innards all the way to the bottom of my belly. The gulp of lukewarm water did nothing at all to help, and by the time I recovered my composure, an unspeakable horror greeted me. My utensil had careened from my fist in all the commotion, and now it lay on the filthy, grimy ground directly between a few errant green beans and a sticky smear of milk left over from breakfast. I was eating dinner.

There was no way I would use that utensil to feed myself.

But there were few alternatives and precious little time to waste. Meals are timed in prison. Regulations state that inmates get ten minutes to eat. In reality, it’s usually closer to five. I stood from my seat and got the attention of the C/O monitoring the chow hall. Our exchange only brought more disappointment.

C/O: Sit down.

Me: Hey, C/O, I dropped my Spork on the floor; can I go get a clean one?

C/O: No. Go sit down.

Me: Well, how am I supposed to eat?

C/O: I don’t fucking care. Now go sit down or get a ticket.

I wouldn’t say that it’s a prerequisite that a person must be a complete jackstick to be hired as a C/O, but it is certainly a predominant personality trait amongst them.

I returned to my seat, disappointed and starving with a hellified dilemma to face. My stomach growled and howled for further feeding, my single burning bite having only teased its appetite for more sustenance. To my eyes, the chili suddenly resembled lava more than ever. The steam rising from it hadn’t abated much at all. I tried dipping into the mess to extract a chunk of the meat substitute that passes for cuisine and got burnt for my trouble.


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After a short pause to think it over, I crumbled the cornbread up and pushed it down into the brightly colored ooze. Then I added the green beans to the mix, scooping them out of their section of the tray and adding them to the communal mush I was creating. I ate the few pieces of lettuce by themselves, dipping them into the juice not yet soaked up by the cornbread. That didn’t take long, but I was running out of time. I couldn’t afford to baby my delicate fingers any longer, so I ignored the painful sensation and dug in.

Four awkward and messy fingerfulls later, with two digits and a thumb coated in magma, I was fighting against another heated mouthful and furtively glancing around my immediate area to see if anyone was pointing and laughing at me. Mostly I just got looks that conveyed a sentiment that can be summed up in the phrase, “What the hell…?” It wasn’t until I happened to see one of my fellow inmates remove the lid from his lime sherbet container that inspiration struck.

The circle of cardboard that covered the sherbet would be a perfect improvised tool to scoop some slop into my maw. No sooner had I realized this and reached for my dessert than the same C/O who had been compassionless to my Spork plight began to start shuffling guys out of the chow hall. I had almost an entire heaping serving of chili, cornbread, and green beans to be eaten by using a cardboard lid, and the C/O was only two tables away. I shoveled and swallowed; there was no time to chew. Chewing was for the weak. My makeshift spoon ferried food to my face with a speedy and metronomic pace that was uncanny. Kidney beans, green beans, tomato chunks, and faux meat were all forced down my gullet without thought. It was practically robotic.

I slurped my final bite off the sherbet lid just as the C/O was telling the occupants of my table to leave. He gave me a confused look while I licked the lid clean before tossing it on the tray. Once he recognized me as the guy who he’d denied a utensil, the edges of his lips tried to curl up into an amused grin, but he squelched it. He wouldn’t give me the satisfaction of seeing him as anything but a humorless crank.

I waited until I was the only one left at the table before picking up my mostly melted lime sherbet. I looked him directly in the eye, and then slammed the entire mucus-esque mess as if it were a shot of slimy, viscous liquor. Only then did I stand to leave. In so doing, I tried my best not to let the excruciating effects of my sudden brain-freeze show. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had rushed me, or that I had been deprived in any way of enjoying my state tray to the fullest.

True to his Word


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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on now.

Sometimes when a fuming, irate inmate is threatening to beat someone’s ass, he’s not just blowing off steam or spouting machismo. Sometimes, if given a sliver of opportunity, he will carry out each and every threat he utters.

Eight o’clock in the morning is too early for a lot of guys to make it to yard in prison. When one is locked behind a steel door with nowhere to go and nothing to do, time is relative, and Benjamin Franklin’s credo—“early to bed, early to rise”—becomes more or less moot. In fall’s bitter chill, and especially in winter, the warmth of one’s bunk beckons too tenderly to be ignored. Some inmates, however, will brave the metaphorical hell and/or high water to attend yard no matter the time of day or weather conditions. Dee was one of those dedicated few.

photo by Graeme Weatherston
photo by Graeme Weatherston

Generally, an announcement was made as a reminder on each day there was early yard. This usually consisted of: “Get ready for yard.” Sometimes there was an additional: “If you’re going to yard, get up and get ready.” The standard procedure was to have C/Os stand at the far end of the deck opposite the front door and, when the time was right, announce that it was time for yard and electronically unlock all the cell doors. It was incumbent upon the inmate to push his door open during the twenty seconds or so that the lock was disengaged. Missing this opportunity usually meant missing yard.

On this day, the two officers walked up the wing, corralling inmates to the front and ensuring that all doors were closed and secured so no one could slip out and have full reign of the deck. All was going fine until Dee began banging on his door.

Hey man, open my door!” C/O Nieman had just pushed it shut, so the latch clicked closed to lock the occupant within. He hadn’t walked three feet past it when Dee began yelling, so he backed up to Dee’s door.

Why didn’t you catch your door?” Officer Nieman inquired.

I was just a little slow. I just missed it. I was taking a piss, man.”

Why weren’t you ready?”

I am ready.”

The bubble officer told you to get ready ten minutes ago.”

I am ready.”

Why’d you miss your door then?”

I had to piss!” A brief silence passed between them as they glared at each other through the perforated steel rectangle that served as a window into the cell. “C’mon, Nieman,” Dee said, sounding as close to civil as I’d ever heard him. “Open my door so I can go to yard. Everybody hasn’t even left the deck yet. Let me go to yard.”


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Nieman wasn’t known for his civility or reasonableness. In fact, he had a reputation as a prick. He lived up to it in the next instant when he answered while wearing the snide, self-satisfied smirk of someone who’s been given authority over another and abuses that authority at every available opportunity. It’s a common facial expression seen on C/Os in prison.

I don’t give a damn about your yard.” Nieman turned to continue on his course to the front of the wing, still sporting his signature shit-eating smile. But Dee had more to say on the subject.

You little bitch!” Dee’s voice boomed throughout the deck like a sudden and unexpected cannon report. He followed this by banging his heavy foot against his cell door, rattling it on its hinges, and making a racket loud enough to awaken anyone who’d been trying to catch a few extra moments of slumber. “You’d better open my muthafuckin’ door!” Dee’s words echoed again, and there was unmistakable menace in his deep baritone voice.

Quit kicking your door!” Nieman ordered upon returning to Dee’s cell. He tried to imbue his tone with the full authority of the badge he wore, but instead ended up coming across as almost petulant. He didn’t sound like the one in charge.

“You missed it. It’s over. Sit your ass down and stop hollering.”

I want to go to yard,” Dee responded.


Well, then I want to talk to a lieutenant, cuz this is some bullshit.”

I don’t give a fuck what you want,” said Nieman, still grinning. I believe it was that big grin that helped push Dee over the edge.

What ensued was a verbal barrage from Dee wherein he likened Nieman to a small female dog, a single bit of feces, and intimated that Nieman engaged in sexual congress with his own mother. Interspersed amongst the insults were promises to inflict bodily harm upon the officer. These threats were filled with such vehemence and vitriol that what happened next was nearly beyond belief.

Following the incident, many speculated why Nieman did what he did. Most people figured that he was looking for a paid vacation, but I believe there are better ways to get a few days off that don’t include getting beaten to a bloody mess. Whatever his reasoning, Nieman weathered Dee’s irate cursing while wearing that same maddening grin, as if nothing but a warm spring breeze was wafting against his face. Then he opened Dee’s cell door.

Dee was known to most by a nickname of sorts: Big Dee. It wasn’t an ironic moniker, but an absolutely appropriate one. Dee had been locked up for over a decade, and all he did was work out. He didn’t read books to pass the time, or get a job, or go to school, or write letters. Dee pumped iron, hence his strict adherence to yard attendance. The results of his decade-long love affair with weightlifting were disgustingly impressive. He looked like a caricature of a monster or gorilla—everything was disproportionately huge. His muscles bulged everywhere, and his arms were bigger than the average man’s thigh. With eyes blazing rage, he appeared even more monstrous as he stepped from the cell and wasted no time in initiating his attack.

Dee punched Nieman twice in the face before grabbing him and throwing him to the ground like a rag doll. Nieman managed to push the panic button that sent out a call to all C/Os’ radios, but he couldn’t manage to get his hands up in any semblance of defense. Dee knelt over Nieman like the most dedicated penitent and commenced to worship at the altar of ultraviolence, hammering away at his helpless victim with enormous, vicious blows to the head and body.

Officers were on their way, but two porters arrived first. They each wrapped their arms around one of Dee’s gargantuan biceps in an effort to pull him off Nieman’s bleeding and motionless form. This slowed Dee down so that he could only hit Nieman a couple more times before four C/Os and a white shirt enveloped the attacker. After they all arrived, Dee didn’t resist much as they cuffed him up. They needed two pairs of interlocked handcuffs to accommodate his wide, mountainous shoulders. If Dee had resisted at all, I doubt they would have succeeded in subduing him.

Dee got a year across the board—one year added to his sentence, with that year to be spent in Seg. The two Samaritan inmates each had six months credited to their sentence for their exemplary actions. I didn’t see Nieman again for about six months, but when I did, he had mellowed only a little. He was still a prick, but perhaps not such an egregious one. This incident was the inciting act that was the cause of my first lockdown. It lasted for three weeks, and I believe the whole thing could have been avoided with just a little courtesy from either individual.

The Power of Taylor Swift


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Nah man, forget that. You on some bullshit.”

Whatchu say?”

You heard me.”

Man, I ain’t with all this woofing, so why don’t you do something?”

You don’t want none of this.”

Yeah, sounds good. Just step to me, and we’ll see who’s the vic.”

I ain’t no vic!”

The machismo was palpable in the room’s claustrophobic atmosphere. The potential for violence felt like a change in barometric pressure before a tornado touches down—the air becomes electric with dread and impending destruction. Devon and YoYo were both just twenty, scrawny, with the immature and uneducated mindsets of much younger men. This mentality was bred by the poverty and hardships of life in a big city. It was so common in the lives of the men around me that it was practically stamped on their features. To me it was a shame, all this ignorance and untapped potential, but many wore it like a badge of honor.

Membership in a street gang has great appeal for guys like these, most of whom were born into a broken home, had no father or father figure to speak of, were exposed to violence and drugs at a young age, and regularly partook in narcotics by age 13. A lot of men have told me that when they were shorties in their hood, their only choices were to join a gang or be killed. I’ve met hundreds of young men whose lives exactly mirrored this sad set of circumstances. With little or no formal education, their experiences are limited to their minuscule worldview—almost none of them have ever been outside the massive metropolitan area into which they were born. Many have barely stepped foot beyond the few city blocks of territory directly controlled by their gang.

Instead, one’s reputation for being hard becomes a premium, and anything that might threaten that perception must necessarily be met with severe opposition. The vast majority of these inner-city gangbangers are African Americans raised on rap music filled with lyrics endorsing drugs, violence, misogyny, and the objectification of women. Devon and YoYo were no exception—or so I thought. Based on my years of experience in the microcosm of prison, I was sure I was about to see yet another fight. Never in a million years could I have guessed what happened next.


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Their initial exchange had been a verbal barrage machine-gunned back and forth without a breath or pause between threats, all of it escalating in menace and volume until climaxing in “I ain’t no vic!” It was screamed and seemed to reverberate through the immediate area, sending out shockwaves of certainty that a flurry of fists was about to fly. Devon was the guy who screamed. YoYo bit his bottom lip and twisted his features into some kind of counterfeit approximation of a mean mug, to telegraph that he was serious about fighting. His next statement pushed itself out through that malicious sneer.

You know what? I knew you were trouble. Right when you walked in, I knew it.” It came out with a kind of finality, as if this would be the last word before the talking was done and the fighting would begin. Instead, Devon’s expression morphed from anger to one of utter befuddlement.

What did you just say?” Devon asked, the query sounding like an accusation.

I said I don’t like you, goofy ma,” YoYo quipped back.

No, no, that’s not what you said.”

What the hell are you talking about?”

You said you knew I was trouble.”

Yeah,” YoYo agreed. “So? What?” He was completely confused as to the significance of this exchange.

Devon’s seriously dour visage split into a smile, and a laugh escaped his throat. YoYo’s face pinched itself even tighter and his fingers curled into fists. Before he could respond to the slight he believed Devon’s laughter to be, Devon began to sing. “I knew you were trouble when you walked in…”

Now it was YoYo’s turn to be confused, but it didn’t last long. The look on his face transformed from angry to bewildered to one of recognition before a joyous grin erupted, followed by a yelp of excitement. All of this happened within seconds. Then YoYo joined in the chorus.

“‘So shame on me now. Flew me to places I’d never been’ Hell no! You know Taylor Swift?” YoYo asked with a certain degree of skepticism and restrained exuberance.

Man, I love her. She’s the shit!” Devon exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. Jana Zills
Jana Zills

I stood there, disbelief plastered on my face. These two hardcore gangbangers from the mean streets of the inner city, who just moments before were about to trade punches, were now exchanging laughter and lyrics with one another. It was an improvised a cappella showdown, with one of them singing out a lyric, only to have the other complete it before they both began giggling together followed by a quick discussion of the merits of the particular song before the next new lyric was thrown out.

Our song is a slammin’ screen door…” YoYo began.

“…sneakin’ out late, tappin’ on your window…” Devon continued. Devon sang out, “Marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone, I love you and that’s all I really know…”

“…I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress, it’s a love story, baby just say ‘yes,’” YoYo finished easily.

This shared love of all things Taylor Swift lasted through more than a dozen songs. Not a single lyric was fumbled or misspoken as far as I could tell. There was something not only surreal, but eerie about these two hardened criminals espousing not only the merits of her music, but discussing her as a vibrant young woman and wonderful role model rather than discoursing at length about her sex appeal. Not that objectifying her would be a good thing, but it would be closer to the usual discussions in prison.

It all ended amiably with hugs, laughs, and fist bumps as YoYo defended “Back to December” as his favorite Taylor song. Devon stood his ground, citing “You Belong with Me” as his favorite. I was left flabbergasted by the scene. I also felt guilty for having adhered to such an outdated and offensive stereotype—one that says a young black man who has known mostly violence and hardship in his life can’t be swayed by the sheer spunkiness, positivity, and power of Taylor Swift and her music. Shame on me.

Open Wide


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Going to the dentist can be intimidating enough, but having a wisdom tooth removed by a prison dentist is a whole other kind of scary.


“Go ahead and open wide for me.”

Never before had more terrifying words been spoken to me. They were made even more sinister by the tone of good-natured banality in the dentist’s voice. Truth be told, I’d just initialed and signed-off on a list of potential complications that could arise during this purportedly routine procedure, some of which included infection, loss of vision, impaired sense of smell, paralysis, and loss of jawbone. Apparently “migrating bone fragments” isn’t only a cool name for a punk rock band, but also a real danger, so I was already sufficiently freaked out before I was even laid flat in the reclining chair and told to show off my maw.

photo courtesy of John Kasawa
photo courtesy of John Kasawa

First came the snap of latex gloves being pulled into place—never a good sound to a guy in prison. Then the overhead light was turned on, and my pulse picked up its pace for no rational reason. His gloves were blue; I don’t know why, but it just seemed strange to me, unnatural. Poking, searching, feeling, manipulating—fingers and knuckles filled my mouth. I laid there, helpless and exposed, my mouth wide open. He was making noises, part inquisitive and part concerned, before pronouncing his final judgment.

“Well, it will be a bit awkward; it usually is with wisdom teeth. But this one is only partially out. I think I’ll be able to get it—with a little luck I’ll get it out of there without splintering or cracking it at all. We’ll just have to get in there and hope for the best.” I had several concerns about his statement.

All of a sudden his assurances of a routine procedure had all come down to:

  1. luck,

  2. hope, and

  3. the fact that he only thought he’d be able to get the tooth.

I wanted certainty, but before I could express any of my concerns, a needle entered my field of vision. I clamped my eyes shut and laid there and waited for it to be over. He stuck me five times. “Well, we’ll just let that get good and numb.”

When I opened my eyes, he was gone. I was all alone. The bright light and ceiling tile stared down at me. My face slowly became numb. I was suddenly hyper-aware of the spit pooling against the back of my throat. It seemed like an obscenely enormous amount, and it became necessary to consciously and diligently remind myself to swallow and to breathe only through my nose, since breathing through my mouth made me feel like I was drowning. My imagination wandered to places it ought not to have been going. My mind fabricated fear as I began to obsess over all those potential complications that began to seem less like potentialities and more like foregone conclusions while I sat under the examining lamp and felt numbness creep across my face. The onset of panic is what I was feeling, and I knew it was (mostly) irrational, but that knowledge didn’t do anything to mitigate my freaking out.

My hands kept clenching and unclenching, grabbing at the hat in my lap, fumbling nervously with my pant legs. My breathing quickened, my stomach clenched, my guts twisted, and I let out a loud fart that I hoped nobody heard or—even worse—would return to smell the foul evidence of my intestinal discomfort. My face felt flushed and hugely bloated, my lips thick and clumsy.

My toes began to tingle just before I lost all sensation. I couldn’t feel my feet. Whether it was all in my head or not didn’t matter in that moment, and I squirmed in my prone position like I was trying to wriggle my way to freedom. My hands worked ever more frantically. My legs moved, too—suspended in mid-air, they hung off the end of the dentist’s chair and looked suspiciously like they were trying to run away from me. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t be able to go through with it no matter how much the tooth bothered me.


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The two medical professionals returned. I didn’t say a word. My body quieted its frantic outward movements, but my insides still churned and squished as my heart sent adrenaline-fused blood splashing erratically through arteries and capillaries. The dentist’s face appeared in my limited view—too close and too big. He gave me a wide smile crammed with teeth, like it was some kind of bizarre advertisement for his profession. Despite my extreme nervousness, I imagined him being the envy of every one of his dentist friends—that they all got together at conventions and inevitably ended up complimenting him on his magnificent set of choppers.

Okay, that should be numbed enough, how about you open wide for me again, and we’ll get going?” He phrased it as a question, but I didn’t think I actually had any choice in the matter. The nurse sucked up some saliva with her stylus, I slammed my eyes shut, and then it began.

The dentist went to work with his pick: poking, digging, peeling, exposing more of the troublesome and unnecessary tooth. The two professionals providing me with quality healthcare were carrying on a banal conversation about office supplies and gossiping about things I didn’t care about and people I didn’t know. Their tones of voice sounded suspiciously like they were flirting with one another over my gaping mouth. All I felt was pressure, no pain. The entire left side of my face was numb from eyebrow to chin. The two of them fell silent as some kind of tool went into my mouth, then something else, followed by yet another instrument until it felt crowded in there.

photo by patrisyu
photo by patrisyu

Can’t quite get a grip on it,” he said.

Seems to be pretty slippery,” she said.

I couldn’t tell if this was for my benefit or not. If it was meant to be some kind of twisted play-by-play or color commentary designed to keep me informed and at ease, it didn’t work at all. My mouth felt like it was about to split in two—opened so wide, full of so much stainless steel and latexed digits.

“Oh, it’s a girl!” the nurse exclaimed with a playful lilt to her voice. I laid there, wondering what that could possibly even mean. One of the many devices chattered against my teeth with that peculiar metal sound. It felt like chewing on a fork.

Hold it, hold it.” (This, from the dentist.) Silence for a long, breathless moment. “Okay…” He began to pull.

The more he tugged persistently on my tooth, the more I strained to keep my head still and stable. This was no easy task. He had put his left hand on my chest for leverage and was really going at the tooth—trying to twist it, clamp it, get underneath it. I heard him start to breathe heavier, and every once in a while a frustrated sigh escaped his lips. Soon he was mumbling intermittent snippets of reflective dialogue that didn’t do anything to set me at ease. Once again something metallic in my cramped mouth slipped and knocked against a tooth, making my eyes fly open. “Dammit,” he said. It wasn’t quite a yell, but it was certainly filled with frustration.

Pulling his face back so I could see him more clearly, the dentist delivered an apology, but then admonished me to hold still. I had been holding still. He recommenced his tug of war with my tooth. I squeezed my eyes closed again and began to silently repeat a lousy litany, which amounted to a hastily phrased, fearful, malformed prayer:

Please let it be okay, don’t break, don’t break, don’t let it break…

The tedious tooth was on the left side of my mouth, but the dentist was yanking so hard that my whole head was moving, no matter how hard I tried to fight his efforts. My lower jaw felt like it was coming undone and about to separate—the right side hinge was being taken in a direction I was fairly certain it wasn’t designed to go.

I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay, please let it be okay…

A sudden pressure pushed on my chest, and I opened my eyes to reveal the dentist with his knee on my sternum. He was essentially crouching atop me as he desperately, valiantly, attempted to achieve an angle and advantage on his foe. Again, I shuttered my eyes and thought about how his new tactic couldn’t possibly bode well for me. Then everything changed for the worse.

First there was a loud crack, almost like a gunshot, and it reverberated through my skull. Following immediately on the heels of the first sound was a disturbing crunching, grinding noise. This was accompanied by a highly professional observation.


Yes, my dentist actually said “uh-oh.” Then he whispered a barely audible curse.

photo by Stuart Miles
photo by Stuart Miles

Oh, shit.”

Professionalism personified.

Apparently the tooth had shattered, though I couldn’t feel the pieces in my numbed state. Instinctively, I closed my throat off from swallowing any of the bits that might be pressing to gain access to my esophagus. “Clean it out please, nurse,” the dentist said, his voice straining to remain composed. I heard none of the signature sounds of suction.

Nurse!” The dentist was panicking and couldn’t hide the terror-filled tone of his words. Her stylus poked the inside of my mouth, kept attaching itself to my tongue in its endeavor to slurp up all the blood and jagged shards of my own tooth. I was moaning; I’m not sure how long I had been doing so, but I would guess that it began sometime around the time the gunshot of fractured tooth went off inside my head. The suction stopped, and I made the mistake of opening my eyes.

The dentist’s blue-gloved fingers were smeared with my blood. The instrument he wielded looked like some fancy needle-nosed pliers, and they, too, were generously coated in red. My moaning turned into a strange whimpering sound, like that of an injured animal caught in a trap.

Please calm down. Let me do my job.” The dentist was trying to be commanding, but his voice came out high-pitched with stress. I closed my eyes against the horrors being inflicted upon me and tried to relax. A moment later I heard the clink of something hard hitting a metallic surface. It wasn’t until I heard it a second time that I figured out that it was the sound of a hunk of tooth landing in the stainless steel tray. Even though the removal of my tooth was the entire objective of the procedure, for some irrational reason, hearing the tooth bits fall into the tray freaked me out. Once I recognized the sound, I started kicking my feet up frantically, and my hands gripped at the air in front of me as if I were trying to climb out of my predicament.

Stop it, now!” The dentist finally sounded like he’d regained some authority. This served to appease me and made me feel somewhat like the situation was under control.

I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay, please let it be okay…

I lost count of how many bits and pieces of tooth and possibly bone that I heard clatter into the metal receptacle. The dentist diligently gathered tooth shards while the nurse maneuvered the suction tube around his nimble fingers in a perfectly choreographed dental ballet. I declined the dentist’s offer to have a look at the tray filled with my oral castoffs; I didn’t have the stomach for that sight. Thankfully, nothing was left behind, and my recovery went fine—no complications. In spite of the eventual positive outcome, though, I still wasn’t in any hurry for another visit to the dentist.

Can you blame me?

Robbie the Cell Rat


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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on now.

When a guy in prison chooses to grow a large beard, he is generally perceived to be at least a bit of a bug. This embracing of one’s hirsuteness is usually interpreted as a descent into depression and a loss of one’s will to maintain his appearance. While these are stereotypes, and largely unfair, when I first met Robbie I was guilty of jumping to some of these same conclusions.

Hair was everywhere. Pulled back across his scalp in a tight ponytail, you could see where it was thinning to baldness at the crown, even as it fell past his shoulders. More hair enveloped his face like weeds overtaking a forgotten garden. One massive eyebrow, like a thick, bushy pipe cleaner, marked the upper border. Thin, liver-tinted lips peeked occasionally from between the follicles of his stache and his beard, the latter of which was a monstrous thing that surrounded his jawline like enemy fortifications. It obscured his neck entirely and covered much of his chest and was shaped like a stone arrowhead that had lost much of its point through the erosions of time and pressure. With all that crazy hair it would’ve been easy to write him off as a bug, but there was something about him that made me think twice about it.

His eyes were hidden behind his hairiness and further obscured by a pair of thick, black-framed glasses. Once I took the time to peer past all of that, however, I found a lively intelligence dancing in his mischievous pale blue eyes. When I could actually see his mouth through the camouflage, it was upturned into a smile. Despite these glimpses of normalcy, Robbie exhibited a perpetually nervous and cowed air about him. At times he reminded me of a dog that has been beaten so often that when its master raises his hand it becomes docile and cowers on the ground, with flattened ears and sad eyes. Whenever Robbie was around people—and he wasn’t often around people—there was a twitchiness about him that manifested in jittery eyeballs and a mouth that constantly cycled between smiling and a pinched-lip grimace that only occasionally showed through his facial fur. His hands, too, delicate things that they were, would join in the dance as they fluttered and flitted like spastic hummingbirds around his face and body. Smoothing over his beard, straightening his ponytail, swatting at wrinkles in his shirt—the hands never stopped.

As a porter, I was able to observe Robbie in his natural setting, or at least one where he clearly felt more comfortable: securely locked behind a steel door in the confines of his cell. Within that tiny world, as I spoke with him through the door and watched him through a skinny window of perforated steel, he became animated and loquacious. He discoursed on various philosophies and histories that were well beyond my ken, but I smiled and nodded politely; it was obvious how much he was enjoying our largely one-sided discussion. It was clear that he was well-read, highly intelligent, and that under the right circumstances he could talk a person’s ear off. Yet mostly he stayed ensconced in his cell.

Robbie used the phone once a week, took advantage of the three showers per week we were allotted, and never missed a call for commissary. But that was the extent of his movement outside the cell. It was an extremely rare thing to ever see him at chow—he perpetually ate out of his box—although I don’t believe he ate much.

Catching a glimpse of Robbie walking back to his cell from the shower in only his shorts was a somewhat sobering experience, and not a little harrowing. His hair was frizzed out around his head like a strange black wiry corona that gave a manic wildness to his appearance. His chest was sunken in on itself, the skin pulled taut across his ribs, his arms were little more than spindles, and his shinbones jutted out so prominently from his emaciated calves they looked sharp enough to cut a cord of firewood. Robbie was cadaverously pale. His ghastly whiteness was set off by the black scruffiness all around his skull. He appeared creepier under the fluorescent bulbs that illuminated the stark darkness of the blue veins that ran just below the surface of his skin.

Robbie’s confining himself to his cell to such a degree was extreme and unnecessary—a self-imposed limitation. It was a choice he made that I still don’t fully understand. I don’t purport to know the inner workings of the man’s mind, or to understand the entire scope of social anxiety. I do know that seeing the startling physical ramifications of Robbie’s life as a cell rat made me want to rein in my own proclivities for reclusiveness. I wanted to feel the strain of my muscles as I ran on the yard, and to experience the warmth of the sun on my face.


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