The Diagnosis

When my supervisor Ms. Thurman told me that I’d be getting a coworker I didn’t like it one bit.

Dream Realized

Working in the prison library was my dream job. Growing up, whenever I’d move to a new town or school, which was often, the library was always my place for solace. The new environment and all the strange kids was intimidating, frightening. Being surrounded by books made me feel comfortable, safe, happy. I think I always got along better with books and the people in them than those in the world around me. People in books are less demanding.

Behind prison walls I was inundated with new people and relationships to navigate. For a person whose most comfortable setting is to be alone, this was a nightmare of sorts. When I unexpectantly got the job in the library I was thrilled, and I quickly came to love my new position for several reasons.

Benefits

Being around books all day once more gave me a sense of belonging and contentment. I enjoyed helping the library visitors find their selections and even make a few humble recommendations of my own. My duties required me to be organized, meticulous, and detail oriented, which fit my natural tendencies perfectly. I also liked that there was always more to be done. Not only could I cross things off my to-do list, (yes, I mean that very literally) but when I finished there was an actual pile of books completed, which gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment. Working in this way I was provided a certain amount of autonomy and was often all by myself. This solitude allowed me to put my head down, focus on the task on hand, and get my work done. It also served as a beautiful respite from the crowded and loud cellhouse. I thought getting a coworker would ruin everything.

New Guy

Ramone was a few years older than me. He was a slightly built Mexican guy who was slim but obviously lifted weights regularly. He spoke Spanish fluently as well as English, albeit with a thick accent. Prior to his imprisonment Ramone had gone to college for accounting, mostly for the money. After interning at an accounting firm for a summer the idea of doing that for the rest of his life seemed a form of insanity. Ramone switched majors to kinesiology. He had been thinking about maybe physical therapy or sports medicine, but as is too often the case, his plans were derailed by a bad decision that snowballed and led inevitably to a series of even worse actions. I could sympathize.

Training

I took it as a sign of her confidence and trust in me when Ms. Thurman tasked me with training Ramone. Ms. Thurman saw my end results but wasn’t necessarily privy to all the steps of my particular process, which was probably for the best. Ramone was a quick learner, but I wasn’t the best teacher. I’d been doing it on my own for long enough that it became second nature, and so my instructions amounted to little more than to just do it. Given a little time I was able to adjust and not only show him step by step how to perform the tasks properly, but also explained why we do things certain ways so it didn’t seem arbitrary. My fears of losing all solitude and independence turned out to be unfounded.

Bonding

As long as we weren’t too busy Ramone liked going to the yard and gym, which was fine by me. During the course of our work we talked and got to know each other. I liked him. He was intelligent and inquisitive. Like myself Ramone was voracious reader, but he studied business texts, psychology case studies, and self-help books. Very little fiction. We had meaningful conversations about relevant issues, but also goofed around and had some laughs together. Our relationship grew so that it wasn’t all business. However, Ramone was also like me in that he was capable of quietly focusing on work and getting things accomplished. A rare thing in or out of prison.

My Diagnosis

For months Ramone had been complaining of back pain. There were times when he’d be working on labeling or repairing a stack of books and he’d have to stand up to do it, or he’d have to sit down to relieve the pressure. Often he’d just walk off, maybe stand in the corner and try to stretch. Nothing he did seemed to help much. More than a few times I told him he could leave, that I’d manage without him for the day. Since I had suffered with my own back pain issue in the past, I described for Ramone what I had gone through, the scans and treatments I’d had prior to my incarceration. I demonstrated a series of stretches and recommended some rest and recovery with walking being the most strenuous activity he was to engage in. One look at Ramone’s physique indicated that this diagnosis and course of treatment would be abhorrent to him. He loved working out. Lifting weights, playing soccer, running, these were how Ramone filled his days and did his time. He wouldn’t stop, no matter the pain. So naturally I made fun of him.

Ridicule

“What’s wrong?”

“My back is killing me today.”

“Did you play soccer yesterday?”

“Yes,” Ramone managed to squeak haltingly, lowering his head sheepishly.

“Well, that was dumb.” This is the kind of good-natured ribbing that I often needled him with.

Sometimes Ramone would claim that running actually made his back feel better, but I always disputed this as largely psychosomatic. I pointed out that these feelings didn’t last long and were in fact unsustainable because he couldn’t run all day every day. He was describing the aftereffects of a runner’s high, his body flushed with adrenaline and endorphins. Once that ebbed, he was right back to agony. I told him countless times that he needed to cut out all the exercise and let his body heal.

When he bragged about deadlifting 315 pounds—an exercise which is particularly stressful to the back—I called him an idiot.

One day he came in and immediately laid down on the floor. I told him that he should’ve just stayed in the cellhouse. He claimed he didn’t want to abandon me without any help. Then he spent most of the morning on the floor providing me zero assistance. This was a fact that I made sure to mention multiple times as I found reasons to walk over and around him despite the fact that he had chosen the most out of the way section of tile to quietly collapse on.

Deliberate Indifference

Ramone endured the kind of criminal negligence that I’ve come to understand as customary in prison healthcare. “Deliberate indifference” is a legal term used to characterize medical care that is obviously inadequate. One threshold that is used is whether a reasonable person, without any medical training, could look at the issue or complaint and deem it serious enough for further treatment.

For nearly a year Ramone sought appropriate medical attention. They gave him 200 mg ibuprofen for the pain. After months of return visits he received a prescription for muscle relaxants. Eventually weekly appointments with the physical therapists were added. This treatment was actually more extensive than most guys get. None of it did much to help the pain, and it did nothing at all to properly identify the cause of Ramone’s symptoms. He did finally have to dramatically cut back and then cease his exercise regimen. He kept asking for an x-ray or MRI scan. He was repeatedly refused. After receiving news from what he considered a reliable source, Ramone decided to try transferring to another prison. There was a degree of desperation in his decision, but after months of constantly worsening pain and being consistently denied the MIR he believed he needed, he was feeling fairly distressed. Ramone’s understanding was that the new prison was much quicker to approve guys for an MIR, and as much as he didn’t want to leave his good job and comfortable surroundings, he felt he had to take the chance. When he left I wished him well and hoped he would get the help he needed.

Ramone’s transfer was granted and executed with remarkable swiftness. That was a fact that I would revisit many times after I received the news. I would wonder if these people somehow knew and wanted to pass Ramone and his problems off to someone else.

The Diagnosis

I was working alone in the library. Ramone’s position hadn’t yet been filled. He’d been gone a little over two months. Ms. Thurman walked in with a purpose. She called my name. “Stop what you’re doing. Come over here. I have something to tell you.” I complied quickly, always eager to jump to any new task. Ms. Thurman was a very no-nonsense kind of person, professional and often all business. This tendency generally rubbed people the wrong way, but it was what I liked about her. I always knew where I stood with her. Until this moment. The look on Ms. Thurman’s face had me unbalanced. She was clearly disturbed.

“Do you want to sit down?” she asked, and I didn’t understand—it seemed out of context or apropos of nothing. “I have something I have to tell you.”

“Okay,” I replied mostly because I thought some response was expected. I didn’t sit down. Between us there was a short bookcase with three shelves. It was part of the reference section and contained an encyclopedia of anatomy that Ramone had studied endlessly for clues to his malady. Ms. Thurman was direct.

“I checked and saw that Ramone had a medical writ today. It wasn’t the first time that he’d been taken out to the hospital, so I called someone I know down where he is.” She paused an instant but pressed on. “He had his MRI and they did find something. A tumor. Ramone has spinal cancer. It’s very advanced they said.”

Later, I would contemplate how many confidentiality regulations Ms. Thurman violated to procure this diagnosis. In that moment though, I looked into her dark eyes, examined her face, analyzed her body language. I was searching for some slim sign that this was all a tasteless joke. Nothing in our relationship or time together should have led me to believe that this was a prank, yet my mind rejected it as wholly impossible. It had to be a ruse. I waited for Ms. Thurman’s mouth to turn upward into a grin. I waited for what felt like a very long time.

“He’s going back today for more tests. They’re going to see what their options are.”

“Options,” I said, not a question. “Okay. Alright. Options.” I was pretty sure his “options” were nil and none. “Spinal cancer. Alright. Okay.” My legs were gone. They weren’t numb. Or weak. There was nothing below my knees. I felt like I was bobbing unsteadily in a rushing torrent.

“Are you alright?” It was a stupid question and it unnerved me all the more because I knew Ms. Thurman was in no way a stupid person. “Do you want to go back? You don’t have to keep working. Just wait here.”

She was gone and I was sitting in a chair. I don’t remember either happening. I thought about all my jokes and jabs at Ramone about his back pain, and I felt like a world-class jerk. Guilt began to dig at me and take hold.

“Options,” I said to no one at all.

Unfeeling Assessment

Ms. Thurman had arranged for me to see a QMHP—quality mental health professional. She didn’t want me going back to my building until I’d talked to him. Apparently she saw something in my face or demeanor that she didn’t like. I agreed to it.

I was hurting, raw, confused, angry. A lot of that I let out to the mental health counselor who had thick glasses and looked like a hundred-and two-pound twerp. I spoke of my faith in God and his larger design, and how I couldn’t reconcile that with this new tragedy. The counselor ignored all else and seized on this. He recommended that I just trust God. His words sounded hollow, platitudes of the worse kind, and entirely insincere. They were a slap in my face to rouse me from my stupor of sudden grief. I silently chastised myself for opening up to this total stranger who clearly didn’t give a tinker’s damn about me. I shut everything down. Though he wasn’t particularly quality like his job title would suggest, he did notice this much. He resorted to the default query.

“Do you feel like you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else?”

I’d heard the question before and knew it was a trap. It was designed to cover the department of corrections from a liability standpoint rather than actually being concerned for my mental well-being. I snarled my response.

“No, I’m fine. I’m not going to do that.” I was dismissed a short time later.

Walking back to my cellhouse, I felt the burden of guilt for Ramone’s condition weighing on me. It wasn’t mine to bear, but I carried it all the same.

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Sunburn In Seg

It had been so long since I had felt it.

Excuses

My job in the law library kept me busy, sure, but it was also an easy excuse. I could’ve put forth more effort, arranged it with my coworkers who were all amenable, and made it to the yard at least once or twice during the work week. Then on my two days off for the week—what were my excuses then? I had none that held any semblance of legitimacy. I had essentially embraced apathy and made lethargy my closest companion.

This was due, at least in part, to the fact that I had a significant portion of my bowel bulging forth from a tear in my abdominal wall. A hernia, for which, per department of corrections policy, I was refused surgery. Even though surgical repair of the abdominal wall is the only viable treatment for a hernia. I was told by a medical professional that it would go away on its own. That was a lie. When the intense burning pain would flare up I couldn’t walk, could barely stand or sit. I had to lay down. Mine was an inguinal hernia, in the groin area, the most common kind in men. When it became aggravated it would feel like someone had my testicles clenched in their fist and were squeezing mercilessly. And yet . . . the pain hadn’t become completely debilitating at this point, I still had good days. My choice to abstain from all yards at all times was one I made of my own volition. I may have made it to two or three yards in six months.

Scenery Change

I was placed in segregation, at first under investigation, but eventually numerous erroneous and very serious charges were levied against me. Ultimately this was because the warden didn’t like that, to use his words, I had “cast certain officers and staff in a negative light” when writing essays about my personal prison experiences. I imagine what he liked even less was that these essays were posted online and eventually collected together and published as a book.

Segregation is a bleak kind of solitude, and one’s thoughts can stretch out to explore avenues where one ought not be going. Considering the seriousness of the accusations being made, and their potential penalties, it made for a long Memorial Day weekend. Come Monday it was the tiny concrete slab outside my window, no more than seventy feet square and enclosed by fences and razor wire, that was about to become my new best friend. Seg’s version of yard. Two hours a day, Monday through Friday. Other than the thrice weekly showers it was the only time I’d be leaving my cell. It would also be my only real chance to interact with other people.

Looking The Part

I was up and fully dressed in my ill-fitting jumpsuit thirty minutes before it was time for yard. Prison jumpsuits are notoriously hot and uncomfortable, so I had to improvise. I had torn a quarter inch wide strip off the edge of my bedsheet and it became by sash/belt, so I could let the upper portion of my jumpsuit hand down the back and sides to just be wearing them as pants—it’s prison chic, I assure you. I also rolled up the pant legs so that they were cuffed into shorts that fell just below the knee. Finishing the ensemble was a plain white T-shirt, plain white socks, and plain white tennis shoes with the laces removed, and more strips of bedsheet used to tie them together so they wouldn’t flop off my feet. I had captured the look of the hardened con, and was ready to strut my stuff on the yard.

Absence

Having been locked in the cell for close to sixty-five hours straight I was nearly thrumming with excitement to get out. Anticipatory adrenaline was squirting and it had my heart humming, my limbs tingling, my mouth grinning. I was giddy with the thought of getting outside. My forced absence had apparently made me grow quite fond of it. When my time came, I obediently relinquished my wrists through the chuckhole to be handcuffed behind the back—it’s how things are done in Seg. Once outside, and the cuffs were removed, my shirt came off so that my too, too pale skin could become sun-kissed.

Indifference

To all who ask, I took some delight in saying I was a political prisoner caught up in prison politics because the warden didn’t like what I wrote and he was trying to shut me up. It was a freedom of speech issue. I said my writing was counter to their small-minded fascist ideals, so I got locked up for it. I was honestly tickled by the whole idea. I was also worried, nauseous, anxious, paranoid, and terrified, but yeah, tickled pink. I wore it like a badge of honor. No one cared. In Seg, everyone has their own problems to handle. I walked, felt the penetrating heat of the sun on my flesh, and enjoyed my slim sense of freedom.

Pleasant Surprise

Back in the cell I left my shirt on and performed some light calisthenics while my hernia screamed that I was an idiotic moron for doing so. My hernia was right. With my shirt drenched in sweat I waited for the shower. It wasn’t until I was in the shower stall with its low ceiling and light right on top of me that I saw for the first time the Pepto Bismol pinkness of my shoulders, arms, and chest. I’d been burnt something awful and hadn’t even felt it.

Sitting alone in my cell once more, I couldn’t stop smoothing my fingers and palms over my skin, feeling the heat it held, and relishing my first sunburn in years. I was doing mental arithmetic to figure exactly how long it would be until I could go to yard again.

Spicy Visit

“What are you lookin’ at? Don’t look at me!! Don’t you know these people are tryin’ to kill me?!” It got much worse after this.

Unexpected

I didn’t think I’d ever see Kerri again. My public defender who had so casually treated me to harsh news walked into the prison visiting room. She hadn’t changed a bit in more than a dozen years. Same wispy haircut and dark beady eyes. I assumed she also still lacked professionalism and basic human decency. She and a colleague were escorted past our table to the area behind glass walls reserved for noncontact visits, usually with guys who are in segregation. My visitor knew well my history with Kerri, and we marveled at this unexpected bit of happenstance.

When Kerri’s visitor/client was brought in he was being directed by the use of a chain leash around his waist which was standard procedure for guys coming from segregation. He was guided by a sergeant and two officers instead of just one sergeant as usual. After the anonymous inmate was chained to the desk on the other side of the glass from Kerri,

Sergeant Tank left the area but the two COs stayed just a few feet away. This wasn’t merely odd but had to have been a violation of the client’s right to have confidential communication with his attorney.

Disgruntled

While I was paying attention to my own visitor, apparently this privileged attorney-client conversation became heated. I can attest that it isn’t easy to stand in ankle shackles, a waist chain, and handcuffed to a ring bolted to the table. This disgruntled client was managing to do just that as he yelled at Attorney Kerri. Whatever his concerns might have been were lost, unintelligible through two panes of security glass, but he was clearly displeased with the degree and manner of representation he was receiving from his court appointed attorney.

Shocking, I know.

Whatever he was saying I imagined it wasn’t anything I hadn’t thought to say to the calloused woman. She gathered her materials and colleague and hustled out of there while the assembled COs attempted to get the man calm and seated. Kerri passed within a foot and a half of me and I bit my tongue against a million things I had to say to her. Speaking to another person’s visitor is an infraction of the rules which could’ve resulted in my visit being immediately terminated. Beyond that, however, I felt certain that anything I said would be a waste of words because she probably had no idea who I was. Another anonymous name on a file that had been processed and put into storage over a decade before.

Unpredictable

To their credit, the two officers had managed to get him seated and settled. To their soon to be shame they had failed to take into account this man’s reputation for dramatics. At the time I wasn’t privy to it, but later learned that this particular offender had become something of a sensation when CCTV footage of him berating his judge in open court had gone somewhat viral. Perhaps these COs aren’t so much to be blamed since cussing at a judge doesn’t necessarily correlate to a violent temperament. I know I’ve wanted to cuss at a judge once or twice. And yet, I feel they still should’ve known better and taken more extensive precautions. Then again, everything is so much clearer in hindsight. While this man was clearly unpredictable and volatile, who could’ve known that four security staff members wouldn’t be enough to handle him?

Chokepoint

Sergeant Tank returned with another officer for assistance. At a stout, solid six-five, Sergeant Tank was aptly named. It would have been ideal for the officers to surround their prisoner and act as a barrier to the civilian visitors, but the entrance to the no contact visiting area was a chokepoint that made this impossible. The ill-conceived configuration of the visiting room tables acted as an extension of this chokepoint making the lane too narrow to corral him effectively because the officers who were there to act as security had to fall in behind Sergeant Tank with the irritated inmate leading the way. When he claimed that “these people” were trying to kill him and bucked back against Sergeant Tank there was no one in a position to assist.

Conditioned

“They’re trying to kill me! Don’t you see that!”

Sergeant Tank had yanked him by the waist leash so he was close, but he was squirming and screaming for all he was worth. This was maybe two feet from a table where an inmate in his sixties was visiting with his wife. Two tables over from where I sat, less than ten feet away. It looked like he was about to lash out at the table for no other reason than it was closest to him. The assault seemed imminent, and who could say what he would do next? Every instinct told me to remove myself from the area and to stand as a meagre barrier between the suddenly violent inmate and my visitor. I am sad, and more than a little ashamed, to report that years of conditioning in prison had ingrained in me that you do NOT get up in the visiting room unless it is to ask permission to use the toilet. I sat, watching with sidelong glances, cringing at all the potential calamities that could befall us. What did happen, I did not see coming.

Precipice of Disaster

The three officers tried to reposition so they could be of some use. They shoved an empty table with its attached stools out of the way and tried to maneuver around other tables filled with inmates and their visitors. These three scurried comically to figure what to do, but there was nothing to be done, and it really wasn’t terribly funny because it was clear that there was no easy or quick solution to this crisis. It was a point in time pregnant with dread since I couldn’t imagine it not ending badly. I admit that I didn’t anticipate it going as terribly as it did.

The irate inmate was no small specimen—over six feet and more that two hundred pounds. Sergeant Tank wrapped him up in a bear-hug from behind, pinning his elbows to his sides while his hands were still cuffed and chained at his waist. Then Sergeant Tank lifted him bodily from the floor. It was an impressive feat, but only momentarily neutralized the threat. Fingers flailed frantically; feet kicked skyward. COs stood around, agape and helpless. The embraced inmate looked a little like a bug caught on his back with his limbs twittering the air for purchase to get back on earth. There was a magic moment, little more than an instant, when the fulcrum action of Sergeant Tank’s movement seemed to pause at the precipice of disaster and suspend itself in time and space. Reality crashed in the form of momentum and gravity. When the captured inmate slammed his head backward Sergeant Tank sprawled onto his back atop a blessedly unoccupied table and his captive came down hard on top of him. Chaos erupted, and Sergeant Kay rushed in to try to exert some control over it all.

Controlled Chaos

Sergeant Kay was a serious woman with frizzy dirty blond hair, a full figure and severe demeanor. She plainly didn’t put up with any bullshit or shenanigans. She was also kind, extraordinarily helpful and quick to smile. Those who didn’t know any better thought she was just another bully who had been given some authority to throw around. While the three COs finally figured out something to do—get the irate inmate off of Sergeant Tank—Sergeant Kay barked orders. Somehow, she managed to bark them firmly but politely.

“Everybody move over there to the other side. Get up and go against the wall. Everyone come on.” We moved. Ten tables worth of inmates and visitors began migrating en masse to the opposite side of the room like refugees fleeing a despot. Then people started screaming.

Proper Protocol?

I honestly don’t know what the proper protocol is in which Correctional Officers are trained when it comes to the appropriate circumstances for use of pepper spray. I imagine there is some set procedure, though probably there is a certain degree of discretion expected to be exercised. Based on the three COs and their stooge-like performance to this point, I’ve very little faith that they apply the discretion required and followed protocol. A big indicator of this is that Sergeant Tank got a faceful of the caustic spray meant for the irrational inmate. His was one of the voices we heard screaming along with the three COs in the scrabble with the irascible inmate—the inmate himself was yelping and yelling along with a few stragglers who didn’t exodus with requisite swiftness. I was standing with my back to the wall, my visitor to my right, and Sergeant Kay to my left and just ahead of me when everything changed.

Reinforcements

Directly to my left was the anteroom that led to the strip search room through which I had to pass to get back into the prison. It was the only way to enter the visitor room from within the prison, and the doorway suddenly burst with an endless stream of officers—dozens of them. A sea of black shirts and pants, too many to accurately count. They were everywhere, corralling us who needed no corralling. All the bodies kicked up and spread around the pepper spray molecules so the air became filled hacking coughs as it tickled the backs of throats.

Sergeant Tank was tenderly attended by an officer on each arm to assist him out of the crime scene. His eyes were blinking blindly and his face was red—no small feat considering that he was a fairly dark-skinned black man. I heard the irritant covered inmate wailing and gagging but didn’t see the condition he was in because he was carried/dragged/handled from the premises by a crowd of security staff while the remaining inmates and visitors were directed to a door that had been opened to an outdoor patio which inmates had been barred from using about a decade previous.

Rare Respect

Standing outside in the sunlight with my friend was surreal. It was a whole new setting for us. Everyone stood around squinting in the brightness, blinking and coughing from the pepper spray. Sergeant Kay stood with us, trying to extend comfort and apologies to make the best of the situation. Large fans were brought in to move the toxic air out, but it was only a matter of time before we all had to go back inside. We were assigned new tables as far away from ground zero as possible. Those who needed to rinse out their eyes were provided a bathroom. The tickle in the back of the throat never quite went away. At some point the head warden had shown up—one of only a few times I’d ever seen the man. He went around to each table asking if everyone was okay, obviously doing damage control, but seemingly sincere. In general our visitors were treated with utmost kindness and respect. We inmates received the same degree of kindness and respect, which was far more than we were accustomed to. The most attention was paid to an infant girl who had braved the spicy visit better than many of us. As far as I could tell she slept through the whole ordeal.

Graduation Day

I can’t seem to remember much about my high school graduation. I don’t believe I was all that impressed with the accomplishment. I should’ve been. What I do recall is that it was outside in the sun, right out on the football field. Nothing like graduation in prison.

Unique Setting

The largest classroom had been cleaned out and rearranged with an improvised dais for visiting dignitaries and rows of chairs facing them for the graduating class of nearly fifty. We were arranged in our caps and gowns, looking nervous and excited like every other group of soon to be graduates in history. The cramped, dimly-lit room and razor wire topped fences just outside the window were only a couple items that set us apart. The warden of the penitentiary provided opening remarks, followed by the prison’s college coordinator Ted Wilson. He was a tall, red-faced, gregarious guy with a big smile and wire-framed glasses. He actually cared about inmates and would bend over backwards to help if he could. Everybody liked him. After speaking he introduced the president of the college where we had earned our associate’s degrees or vocational course completion certificates. It was during this transition that I noticed the set of car keys with the remote unlock fob attached sitting on the table in front of the podium from where they were delivering their remarks.

Best Of Intentions

For the better part of an hour the president of the college spoke, much of it echoing what had already been said. He was proud of us for setting a goal, striving for and achieving that goal. He commended us on our accomplishment, encouraged a positive attitude, and told us we could achieve anything—that we were not failures. Not useless criminals as the world would like to pigeonhole us. It was obvious that he cared, was sincere, and nothing but the best of intentions. Looking around the room I saw guys who weren’t going home for decades and others who would live the rest of their days behind prison walls. I couldn’t help thinking that some of his sentiments rang hollow.

False Normalcy

With graduating inmates ready and inspirational words spoken, we were called up one at a time. Several teachers, counselors, the warden, and Ted Wilson stood shoulder to shoulder and we shook their hands until we got to the president of the college who smiled and shook our hands as he handed us our degree or certificate. Since “Hastings” is right there at the front of the alphabet I was the first to shake my way down the line, smile for the nonexistent photo-op, and say thank you. Everyone smiled back their congratulations and the heady musk of sincerity was in the air. I took my seat again, clapped at the appropriate times, and it all seemed so normal, ordinary. After the fifth man had exited the stage, Ted Wilson spotted the car keys and his eyes bugged out behind his spectacles.

Incredibly Subtle

Ted Wilson sprang into action, pushing in behind the other assembled hand-shakers and making his way to the president of the college. He whispered in his ear and the president tried (and failed) not to make it too apparent that he was directing his attention to the keys. After a moment of mental deliberation the president whispered back, projecting a mile-wide smile when he was done, and Ted Wilson seemed suitably chastened as he slinked back to his place in line.

Dilemma

Their dilemma was an obvious one. They couldn’t just take the keys off the table without interrupting the proceedings and bringing attention to them. It would’ve had the effect of destroying all the well-wishes and pleasant platitudes we had been getting fed up to that point. Reverting to fear and mistrust was probably not what they intended, but that was the reality. The rest of the ceremony consisted of both men smiling, shaking hands, attempting to appear like business as usual, but neither of them went very long without eyeballing the keys to make sure they were still there. The president fell into a rhythm. Smile, smile, look, handshake/pose with certificate, look, smile. Repeat. Once I recognized this it became impossible not to notice, and difficult not to laugh. Between the president and Ted Wilson the keys never went a second or two without eyes on them.

Not Nonchalant

Once everyone had received their handshake and written proof that they had completed something, we all stood and contributed to the ovation before filing out. The president wasted no time in swiping the keys into his pocket before anyone could pass by the podium. To his credit, he tried very hard (and failed very badly) to look nonchalant. The newly graduated shuffled into the classroom across the hall where we stripped out of our caps and gowns and returned them to their plastic bags. When all caps, gowns, and tassels were accounted for, we went back to find the room had been transformed. There was now a buffet table serving small cups of juice and Jell-O cake made special just for us by the culinary geniuses in the chow hall. Given the fuss everyone was making you would’ve thought it was a five-course gourmet feast.

Perspectives

I spoke with a few other guys who had also noticed the interplay between the president and Ted Wilson over the keys, and we all shared a chuckle. “What? Were we going to snag them and head out for a joyride?”

It didn’t ruin or mar the occasion for me, but it provided some perspective. I had to realize that the distrust they displayed was something I’d probably have to face the rest of my life when people find out I’ve been in prison. I found a cozy corner to enjoy my cake and ponder my predicament.

I saw myself at a crossroads of sorts. It had been exactly ten years almost to the day since I’d received my high school diploma. It had taken me a decade to earn a two-year associates degree, but I was proud of my accomplishment, and had done it for no one but myself. I had ten years remaining on my sentence, and I had no idea what came next. On that sunny football field I never could’ve imagined a future with love, professional success, marriage, drug addiction, prison, divorce. I figured it to be pointless at best, if not psychologically devastating, to contemplate the potential endless monotony, pointless banalities, and gritty realities of prison that could serve to turn me jaded or grind me to an unfeeling nub of a person. So I didn’t worry about all the tomorrows ahead. I ate my soggy, bland cherry Jell-O cake and did my best to appreciate the moment.

Suicide Watch

“Yeah. Yeah. You know what? Yeah, I’m going to kill myself.”

It wasn’t true. I promise. I was desperate. I felt like it was the only way I could get what I wanted. All I wanted was to be left alone.

Evaluation

The psychologist was a tall, slim woman with a straight, severe nose and unfriendly face. The first time I saw her I’d been locked up in the county jail for a few days and had spent my entire time in the Fish Tank. This was a cell situated in direct view of the intake counter where newly arrested individuals began their processing into County Jail. One wall had a large window, perhaps four feet wide and three feet tall, so I was constantly on display or in view. Even on the toilet. The total tonnage of the severity and far-reaching ramifications of my violent crime hadn’t fully settled in.

The Fish Tank was prime real estate, and the powers that be wanted to move me to a different cell. The psychologist’s inspection of me was largely perfunctory, designed to simple ascertain whether or not I was a danger to myself or to others. I wasn’t. I was moved further down the hallway to an observation cell where I was still alone, and frequently checked on, but not always on display. Alone was what I wanted, and while there I thrived.

Thriving

I used my time to read books, study my Bible, pray, write. In ten days I read six books and wrote the first thirty pages of a novel. I rememorized once familiar Bible verses, receiving solace, encouragement and further conviction about my need for spiritual renewal.

I was still married at the time, and my arrest had completely blindsided my wife. Our first phone call from lockup was a quick one, shortly after my arrest and filled with anger, disbelief. Tears from us both. She said she didn’t know what she would do.

When I received a letter from her in my observation cell I was scared to open it, utterly terrified by the possibilities of what it could contain. It began with a poem, one that has grown in personal significance for me as the years have passed. She went on to say many things, the most important of which to me was that she still loved me and wasn’t going to divorce me. It would be several years before, in order to protect and preserve her own sanity and happiness, she would have to walk away forever. And I would have to let her go. However, in that moment, in that tiny cell, I was overcome with such a joyous relief and absolute elation. Her letter, my reconnecting to my faith in the Creator of the universe, and my productivity in reading and writing had all conspired to create a cocoon of comfort, hope, and a sense of self-worth. I loved my solitude and sanctuary too much and for that reason I didn’t want to hear what the psychologist had to say.

Reevaluation

I was ushered to an alcove near the mugshot wall and fingerprinting machine where the resident psychologist was awaiting me. Our seats were the same height, and I was a little taller than her, but it felt like somehow she was looking down on me. She didn’t bother with any niceties or try to put me at ease.

“They want to put you in a cellblock. How does that sound? How do you feel about that?”

I thought I was coming for a nice chat, but she was checking up on me. I felt like I’d been ambushed. “No. No! I don’t want to do that.”

Two officers were blocking the entry to the alcove—they both tensed at my response. I wasn’t handcuffed and could’ve caused problems. I imagined they were readying for the worst.

The psychologist pressed forward, unfazed. “Well you can’t just stay in the cell you’re in now.”

“Why not?”

“They need it. It’s only supposed to be temporary. You’ll have to go to a cellblock.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s how it works.”

“But I don’t want that. I don’t want to be around people.” I was beginning to panic. “I just want to be alone. Why can’t you leave me where I am? I’m being good. I’ve been writing, getting stuff done.”

“It doesn’t work that way. You’ll have to go in a cellblock. Do you know anyone that you’d want to go in with?”

I felt like she wasn’t understanding what I was saying. Or maybe just didn’t care. “No, I don’t know anyone. I don’t want to be around people.”

“Why don’t you want to be around people?”

“Because I want to be left alone.”

“Are you saying that you are going to hurt or attack someone if you go on a cellblock?”

“What? No!”

“Because the cell you’re in is only for people in crisis. So if you are telling me that you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else, then we’d have to leave you in that cell. Is that what you’re telling me? Are you going to hurt yourself or someone else?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

“You’re sure you don’t want to harm yourself in any way? You’re not thinking of killing yourself or hurting yourself?”

“No, no. I just . . . I just want to be left alone.”

“Well if you’re not going to hurt yourself you have to go to a cellblock.”

It sounded to me like she was laying out options. So I threatened to kill myself: “Yeah. Yeah. You know what? Yeah, I’m going to kill myself.”

Triumph

I was taken back to the same cell and when the door clattered shut I felt triumphant. I believed that the psychologist had been on my side and had provided me a way to stay in my preferred holding cell. My utter foolishness and lack of understanding is almost comical after sixteen years of hindsight. I reveled in my triumph for less than sixty seconds.

Stripped

The electronic buzz and pop of the door being opened startled me, but the three officers standing there wearing latex gloves and serious looks froze me to the spot. It effectively disconnected my mind from the reality of my body. Two of them pulled me out. I was incapable of resisting. We stood outside the cell, an officer on either side of me, each with a firm grip on my arm ready to hold me back if necessary. It wasn’t. I was too stunned by the sudden reversal, numb. The other officer cleared out my cell. Books, Bible, pen, paper, clothes, bedding, soap, toothbrush. My mail, including the letter from my wife that I had poured over a dozen times or more. He wasn’t orderly or respectful about it as he pitched everything into the hallway until it was piled in a haphazard array around my feet. I looked down the hall to see the psychologist watching dispassionately. I opened my mouth to say something in protest, maybe a plea for intervention, but remained silent. My brain wasn’t processing anything correctly. I was unable to react or respond.

All that remained in the cell was a bare plastic covered mat. I was ordered inside and told to strip. They took my clothes. I stood naked, shivering, and not merely from the chill. My pulse felt like a nauseating hum in my chest and belly. I was handed a blanket and suicide gown made from thick quilted material that made it impossible to tie or fashion them into anything approximating a noose. The gown was secured with Velcro straps over the shoulder and was far from fashionable.

“It’s for your own good,” an officer said as the door slammed into place.

My Faith

I haven’t often spoken of my faith in this venue. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior at a young age; perhaps too young to fully know what that meant. Over the years my fervor for that conversion had waned. Terrible decisions and drug addiction eventually led to my unthinkable crime and violent assault. Though I hadn’t remained faithful to my commitment, the presence of Jesus in my life had always been faithful. The concept of a jailhouse conversion or spiritual awakening is dubious only to those who have never felt the despair and debasement of being entirely stripped of everything. Once the cell door closed, I was alone in my suicide gown and staring down that sinister despair.

Desolation

My thoughts were racing, a thousand at once and I couldn’t seize on any of them. Words were a whirl of nonsense and noise that buzzed and became an expanding crescendo in my brain. I was sobbing openly, loudly, choking in huge breathes until I was hyperventilating. I was breaking down. Through the swirling, burgeoning madness came a clear thought from deep within me: This is what it feels like to lose your mind. It was a detached, clinical assessment—just collecting data. Then everything seemed to escalate and the slim semblance of control I had a grip on slipped free leaving me untethered from anything recognizable. An abyss of desolation yawed before me and I had no way of preventing my collapsing into it.

Surrender

Amidst the maelstrom came a thought. It was so direct and simple that it sounded like a hushed voice inside my head. Yet at the same time I intuitively grasped that this perfectly clear, unadulterated message came from something beyond myself. “Sing praises to him.” I was confused. It came again. “Sing praises to him.”

I grabbed ahold of the idea like a lifeline. My mind reeled, refusing to provide anything coherent. Then came a name. My voice faltered, and for an instant, I feared it wouldn’t work, but then it quavered from my jittering throat. “Jesus . . . Jesus . . . Jesus . . . there’s just something about that name . . .” My breathing calmed enough for me to pull in a large breath and continue, my voice, frail. “Master, savior, Jesus. Like the fragrance after the rain . . . Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Let all heaven and earth proclaim . . .” I felt something break inside me. Something snap loose and fall away. My stubborn desire to do things my way, to trust only in myself, was exposed and I relinquished it. That act of surrender brought release.

I was on my knees in the empty cell, though I have no concrete memory of kneeling. The cloud of mixed up confusion and insanity that had engulfed me lifted, and it felt like a physical burden had been removed from my stooped shoulders and back. Undiluted and unquestionable joy filled me, permeating every fiber of my being. It felt like my windowless cell had been inundated with the most glorious sunlight that surrounded me and penetrated to my core. I finished the hymn with a joyful smile and laughter on my lips. “Kings and kingdoms will all pass away, but there’s just something about that name.”

Transformed

The next several hours and days were spent in concerted communion with my Creator. Hymns, choruses, and songs of worship that had been instilled in me as a child, but long forsaken, came back to me. Each one was a cherished gift that I sang out in a sincere and joyful noise. At my request they eventually gave me back my Bible, and I combed it for further comfort and direction.

On the fifth day of my suicide watch I was pulled out to see the psychologist, and I greeted her with an ecstatic grin. I probably appeared manic to her. I apologized for my earlier lie born of panic and fear. I told her I wasn’t suicidal and was ready to go to a cellblock. I still didn’t want to go, but I’d come to understand that the strength of Christ within me could be relied upon to see me through whatever what come my way.

The intervening years have brought me heartaches, death, divorce, laughter, upheaval, depression, joy, disappointment, setbacks, doubt, and incarceration that seemed to have no end in sight. Throughout it all, the truths I learned and the supernatural touch of grace that I experienced while on suicide watch remain as constants, pointing me back to God’s love and mercy.

Standard Procedure

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

Rude Awakening

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

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

Thank You, No

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

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

Seg Explanation

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

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

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

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

First Volunteer

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

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

Standard Procedure

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

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

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

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

I nearly burst with indignation.

Belligerent

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

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

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

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

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

“Read about it?”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“Read about it?” He sounded threatened.

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“You filing a lawsuit?”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

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

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

“You want to stop now.”

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

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

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

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

“You can read about it.”

“. . . but you keep it up . . .”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

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

“Behind Prison Walls.”

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

“Read about it.”

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

“Thank you very much, sir.”

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

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

Breaches Of Protocol

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

Concocted Crisis

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

Not Routine

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

Confidence

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

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

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

Confrontation

“What?”

“Why’d you take my TV?”

“Is it yours?”

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

“Where’d you get it?”

“I bought it.”

“From who?”

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

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

“Not unless you broke it.”

“There’s a crack in the side.”

“No there’s not.”

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

“Where?”

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

“That?”

“Yeah. That.”

“That’s nothing!”

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

“That’s nothing. My TV’s old.”

“It’s broke. You can’t have it.”

“What rule says that?”

“It’s altered. You can’t have it.”

“It’s not altered. It’s old.”

“Still can’t have it.”

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

“You don’t have it anymore.”

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

Escalation

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

“No.”

“I want to talk to a lieutenant.”

“No.”

“You gotta get me a lieutenant.”

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

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

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

“Are you kidding me?!”

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

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

“Fine. Then I want a Crisis Team.”

Crisis

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

“What?” Sellett asked, confounded.

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

“Why?”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“Why do you want a crisis team?”

“Because.”

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

“Because I’m going to kill myself.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Prove it.”

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

“Prove it. Go hang yourself.”

Everyone milling about paused, silence reigned for an instant.

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

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

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

CO Sellett made a phone call.

Following Protocol

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

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

No Justice

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