Prison Trembler

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

Playing

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

“Hey, cellie?”

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

“Whatcha doing?”

“Resting. Thinking. Praying.”

“Oh yeah? You praying for me?”

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

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

“Yeah,” I huffed, exasperated.

“Now whatcha doing?”

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

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

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

Intercession

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

Triumph

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

Extreme?

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

Contemporaneous

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

Unnatural Sensations

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

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

Stating The Obvious

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

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

Helpless

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

Aftershocks

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

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Clot

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

Indifferent

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

Impasse

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

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

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

Dismissive

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

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

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

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

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

Disbelief

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

“Trav! Trav!” he yelled.

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

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

Training

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

Futile

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

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

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

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

Desperation

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

Deliverance

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

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

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

Resolution

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

Diagnosis and Treatment

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

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

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

In The Dark

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

Minimum Security

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

Layout

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

Antiquated

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

Total Darkness

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

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

Not Salvation

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

“In your cells or I start writing tickets!”

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

Calm Before The Storm

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

Blind Battles

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

Afraid

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

Chilly Morning

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

 

 

Reactions

“Am I in it?”

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

Query

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

Vitriol

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

Justified

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

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

A Despicable Side Note

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

Some Others

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

Different Perspectives

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

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

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

Best For Last

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

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

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

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

Overall

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

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

The Coyote Whisperer

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

Old Man

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

Learning Curve

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

Odd Normal

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

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

A Promise

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

Rude Awakening

“Emilio! Emilio!”

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

Attack

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

Intercession

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

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

“BALDALMERO. BALDALMERO.”

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

Light of Day

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

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

This Year

Time is relative.

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

The Count

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

Methods

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

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

Taming Time

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

In The Dark

My mornings are my favorite time.

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

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

Facing Reality

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

Christmas Groping

Sacred

There are few, if any, things behind prison walls that are absolutely sacrosanct. I submit that Christmas is one of those things. This has nothing to do with religious fervor or sincerity. Lacking adequate qualifier I’ll say that there seems to be an indefinable something special that makes people behave a little differently, perhaps a little better. Maybe even a little nicer.

Across The Spectrum

These aren’t only inmates of which I’m speaking. Officers too tend to take on a slightly less adversarial quality. At times they even exhibit the ability to look the other way and let little things slide. The willingness to slack in their duties in the spirit of the season.

Free Pass

Bringing food back from the chow hall is a big no-no, but on Christmas Day when trays are piled high (or at least higher than usual) with turkey and all the trimmings, most guys try to squirrel some away for later. I’ve had the most hard-ass lieutenant I’ve ever known merely nod in acknowledgement after catching me smuggling. It’s the one day a year when, as inmates, we need not fear repercussion because within reason, we can do no wrong. It is still prison, and bad things always have the potential to kickoff, but it feels less likely on Christmas.

Super Cop

CO Sollide was often a bit of a prick. In the years since this incident he has seemed to mellow and come to terms with the fact that he is not the righteous hero in the story with all the convicts around him being despicable villains. This particular Christmas, however, he had his delusions of grandeur turned up to eleven.

Loaded

Leading up to Christmas I’d been doing plenty of wheeling and dealing. I traded, bartered, and bought so that when I left the chow hall my belly full of food was the least of what I was smuggling. I had two eight ounce bags crammed with turkey, another one full of stuffing (or dressing, if you prefer), double handfuls of carrots and celery sticks, and four prepackaged slices of pumpkin pie. I wasn’t playing around. I had some serious eating planned. I was loaded when I came in sight of the door to my cell house, and what I saw made my gorged stomach lurch an agonized threat to let loose its pressurized contents. CO Sollide was standing in the cold on the snow-dusted wide front porch with his blue latex gloves on. He was shaking down everyone coming back from chow.

Sacrilege

I shuffled forward numbly, unable to process the blasphemous behavior I was beholding. There were only about a dozen guys in front of me so I didn’t have an abundance of time to prepare myself. I didn’t once entertain the possibility of ditching my goodies. It wasn’t even an option. As a wise man once told me: The catching comes before the hanging. If Sollide was going to take my food from me he was going to have to find it first, and if that’s what it came to he was going to have to hear an earful from me. I had worked for CO Sollide for several months and felt I had a good enough rapport with him to speak my mind.

Merry Groping

By the time it was my turn to be groped by another man as an unwanted Christmas present I had already watched CO Sollide relieve several guys of the stashes they had hidden on their person. I was fairly miffed and not in the mood to hide it. I assumed the position in front of CO Sollide, with my arms and legs spread, facing away from him so I had to call back over my shoulder. “This is bullshit. It’s friggin’ Christmas. Why the hell are you doing this, Sollide?”

“It’s not me, man. Lieutenant Jarvis called from the chow hall. He’s making me do this.” His tone was an odd mix of pleading to be believed while hanging onto a tough air of authority. It rang loudly of insincerity, and I didn’t believe for an instant that anyone but Sollide was to blame. He grabbed one turkey bag in my coat pocket. “What’s this?”

“Turkey.”

He gripped the other. “And this?”

“More turkey.”

He ran his hands over me. Gripping my hips, squeezing my butt, lingering across my groin and belly. The level of intensity in his shakedown was way over the top. I felt I’d been victimized when it came to him not so gently cupping my tender bits. I’ve experienced thousands of pat down searches over the years but this one came right up to the edge of a sensual massage or sexual assault. Since my consent was not precisely voluntary, I’d have to lean toward it being more the latter. Finally his fingers fondled the plastic wrappings of the pie slices tucked in my shirt. “This?”

“Dessert.”

CO Sollide sighed deeply and loudly. “Alright, step over there and drop all of it.”

Not Caught Yet

I stepped to where he told me and turned back to him. He was already grabbing the private parts of the next man in line, three feet away from me. Another officer was to my right and a little ahead of me. He looked sheepish and put upon at having been drafted into this distasteful work on Christmas Day. His shakedown lacked the enthusiasm of CO Sollide’s.

A substantial pile of castoffs had already accumulated, and I was standing amongst them. CO Sollide had the expectation that I drop my food, but neither he nor the unwilling recruit were paying me any attention. To use a common idiom around here: CO Sollide must’ve been out of his rabbit-ass mind if he thought I was going to give it all up so easily. I stooped and snatched three unopened prepackaged pumpkin pie slices from the cold red brick porch and scurried inside.

Season’s Greetings

Over the next several days I enjoyed every single bite of my contraband cuisine. If you fear for my health, fear not; the window made a wonderful refrigerator. As you enjoy your Christmas feast of roast beast please remember family, friends, faith; whatever makes it special for you.

And to all those authority figures in positions of power; remember to keep your hands to yourself. No one wants that kind of Christmas groping.

My final MERRY CHRISTMAS from behind prison walls.