Shower Deprivation


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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood. Available for purchase on Amazon now.


You don’t even know me!” Even as I spoke, I could hear the wild, angry hysteria in my voice—but I couldn’t stop. “What are you talking about ‘we?’ There’s no ‘we.’ I’ve been in this building with you for two years now, and you have never said a single word to me, but now that you need me, it’s ‘we?’ And ‘we’re all in this together?’ I don’t think so!” My muscles were tense and my heart thrashed its way up into my throat, giving my voice an unnatural tremor that I fought to control. I wasn’t myself. Shower deprivation can be a dangerous thing.


It had been almost two weeks since the lockdown had started, and a week without a proper shower—nothing but early morning bird baths that barely sufficed to keep me from getting too musty, but never left me feeling completely clean. Sitting in my bunk on lockdown all day, I had to combat that not-so-fresh feeling. By 3:00 p.m. on Friday, the whole deck was sure we’d be getting showers that shift. The previous Friday we’d gotten to shower, and on a lockdown inmates were entitled/legally mandated to be provided a shower once a week. So the odds were good for a repeat.

shampooI could hear through my door when other guys asked the C/O as he passed if he would be doing showers. His lackadaisical response was, “Not yet.” That reply was ambiguous, so when he passed my cell, I put the shower question to him as well. I got some clarity for my persistence. “Yup, just not yet.” That “yup” was the most beautiful syllable in the world to me. The “just not yet” was a little disconcerting, but within ten minutes I heard something that put me at ease.

The wheels on the bottom of the carts that carried our food to us began to rumble their signature sound. Similar to Pavlov’s poor pooches, my stomach involuntarily growled for whatever sloptastic dish was heading my way. (It was tater tot casserole—not nearly as tasty as it sounds.) In the past, the C/O had preferred to keep traffic on the deck to a minimum so he could monitor inmates as they went to the showers. Thus, it stood to reason that once chow had been passed out and a little time afforded for eating, he would start letting guys out for their shower. I was confident that I’d finally get a proper shower and go to sleep feeling fully fresh and clean.

Unfortunately, reason doesn’t always have a place in prison.

It was nearly seven before the first shower was started, and the C/O, who was known to be a bit of a Robocop, didn’t seem to be in a hurry to make sure everyone got a shower before he went home. In the past, he had put strict limits on the length of one’s shower and personally shuttled inmates from cell to shower and back again to ensure there was no stopping to check in with a buddy in another cell. Today, however, he was letting guys take their own sweet time in the shower and lollygag on the deck afterwards. I held out hope for a shower long after common sense, reason, and experience had conspired to let me know that showers were done for the day. I laid down for sleep feeling dingy, scummy, and grungier than ever.

My habit as an early riser paid off the next day. I was one of the few guys awake when the C/O came and let people out for showers. This move on the officer’s part was completely unexpected, but a wonderfully welcome morning blessing. My cell just missed the cutoff for the first round of showers, but we were next in line, and I still had all my shower paraphernalia set out from the night before.

I waited with bated breath, fantasizing over all the cleanliness I was about to enjoy. My hair felt dry and stiff as straw. I couldn’t wait to lather, rinse, and repeat. Oh! I was going to repeat so much! The thought of soap suds caressing my skin was practically erotic. It had been a while for me. (Since I’d showered, I mean.) The eager anticipation I’d harbored the night before, only to be disappointed, had made my yearning for a cleansing all that much stronger and more difficult to deny. I planned to scrub every inch of myself, shed spent skin cells like corn husks, and let the hot spray work its rejuvenating magic. It was going to be an epic shower.

By the time the C/O came for me, I was practically shaking with enthusiasm, like a dog that has been cooped up in the house alone all day when his master finally arrives to let him out for a walk. The only thing that kept me from running to the shower was that it might have gotten me in trouble and caused the C/O to refuse me a shower as punishment. So I walked, but quickly—I couldn’t get there fast enough

All I did was hurry up and wait because every shower was in use. Anticlimactic, I know. I was next, though, while my cellie and neighbors filed into the small communal shower room after me with a strange mix of sleep and excitement in their eyes. They may have been slumbering when the C/O opened their door, but everyone desperately wanted a shower. As we all crowded into the enclosed space, the accumulated aromatic funk of our combined BO made it clear that everyone also desperately needed a shower. I was so jittery with anticipation that I couldn’t even sit on one of the wooden benches worn smooth from the friction of innumerable inmate asses. Instead I bounced back and forth from foot to foot, ears pricked up, and tried to hear when one of the showers was turned off. This would indicate that my wait would be just that much shorter.

Hey man, let me get ahead of you real quick.”

I was so lost in my daydreams of a luxurious shower that it took a moment for me to realize the voice’s owner was addressing me. Once I looked at who it was, it took another long moment for me to figure out who it was. He wasn’t my neighbor; in fact, he lived on the other end of the deck, and if the C/O continued on the same course he’d begun, the inmate who was currently addressing me most likely wouldn’t get his shower until after lunch. I don’t even know how he got out of his cell. After a stretch of silence, I realized that he expected me to respond to whatever it was he was saying.

What?” I asked, ever the eloquent one.

Man, I said I’m out here bogus; I’m gonna just jump in the shower real quick, like five minutes, and then I’m up. Cool?” The longer he talked, the more I recognized who he was, and the angrier I got. His was one of the faces that passed by my window each morning of the lockdown because he was a cook in the chow hall and, therefore, deemed essential enough to be pulled out despite the restricted movement. This also meant that he’d washed a load of laundry and showered every single day for the past week while I was feebly splashing around in the sink, scrubbing my clothes out with a bar of state soap and hanging them on a shoelace strung across the window. I didn’t hold this against him or begrudge him the special treatment he got because he had a job. I just found the very idea of him showering again before me to be offensive and profoundly unfair.

No,” I said succinctly and definitively.

What do you mean? Why not?”

You’ll get your shower; he’ll come around to your cell.” I tried to remain logical and calm.

You don’t know that. What, are you the police now?”

What the hell did you just say?” I reflexively squared off on him as I asked the question, and my voice rose to a threatening tone. He had asked a stupid question, almost akin to accusing me of being a snitch or a collaborator with the authorities. It was a jab meant to get a rise out of me. And it did.

photo by John Kasawa
photo by John Kasawa

You don’t know if he’s gonna give me a shower later. You don’t know that.” The cook was adamant, and I had no response, so he continued. “How could you know what he’s gonna do? I just want a quick shower. I’m out here bogus so I’m gonna get in, get out, and quick get back to the cell before the C/O can see me.” This was a declarative statement, not an interrogatory one. He was stating his specific intentions, not asking permission to jump ahead of me.

No, you’re not,” I said, my voice calm and serious, angry but in control. “You’ve been going to work all week, right?”

Yeah, so?” he replied, on the defensive.

So, you had a shower yesterday at about two o’clock, right?”


You’ve been waiting overnight for a shower, and I’ve been waiting over a week for mine.”

So what? Who cares?” His face was all scrunched and twisted in on itself as if he had gotten a strong whiff of something extraordinarily foul. “What’s your problem, bro? This is how we do it.”

What’s my problem?” My voice was rising again.

Yeah.” His voice rose to meet mine, and his tone became more aggressive.

Whoa, whoa, come on, guys! We’re all gonna get a shower. You’re out here bogus, so you go ahead before me.” It was my neighbor, Jordy, telling the cook to go before him. Jordy wasn’t exactly my road dog, but I thought I was cool with him until he stepped in to cut me out like that. He turned to me and continued to present what I felt was an ill-conceived solution to our argument. “It’s not that big a deal, man, so just chill.” I felt I was being ganged up on, and I pretty much did the opposite of “chill.”

What are you talking about? I’m next!” I said. “I don’t care if he goes before you, Jordy, that’s on you, but I’m next!” I couldn’t control my voice. “In fact, this ain’t got shit to do with you, Jordy, so stay out of it.”

Hey man, he just knows how it is.” This, from the cook. “We’ve been doing this for some years, and he knows how we do it. We gotta look out for each other, you know, we’re all in this together.” That’s what finally pushed me over the edge.

You don’t even know me!” I screamed. “What are you talking about ‘we?’ There’s no ‘we.’ I’ve been in this building with you for two years now, and you have never said a single word to me, but now that you need me, it’s ‘we?’ And ‘we’re all in this together?’ I don’t think so!”

After my outburst, I walked out of the shower room, livid, and checked to see where the C/O was, and whether or not our raised voices (mine mostly) had attracted his unwanted attention. They hadn’t; in fact, he was nowhere in sight. I was muttering under my breath; a few choice curses even made their way into my quiet tirade, and my fists were clenching and unclenching painfully, as if to release my rage through my palms. Instead, that rage was feeding on itself, growing stronger, until I felt I was going to really, finally, fully, and completely lose it with the cook. It seemed inevitable. Into that mental maelstrom a still, small voice from within informed me that I was being irrationally irate and allowing myself to get all bent out of shape over something that was essentially senseless. Or, something that wasn’t worth going to Seg over. Of course, knowing that I’m being unreasonable and actually putting a stop to my borderline idiotic behavior are two separate things.

I took a few deep breaths before walking back into the shower room. I felt mostly calmed, but an undercurrent of ire and indignation lay just below the surface that was again threatening to bubble up and overtake my better judgment. I took a seat on the bench. I was no longer jittery with excitement. When the next shower came open, I nodded at the cook. “Go ahead, man.” He tossed his clothes on the bench beside me and nodded back to me before going to the shower. I only had to wait a couple minutes more for the next one to become available. Once ensconced in the stall, I took a luxuriant twenty minutes to soak and wash and let the steaming stream loosen my tensed muscles. The experience was partially marred by the turmoil in my mind over behaving like such a complete idiot. While I felt I was still correct about the cook having to wait his turn, I knew I’d been way out of pocket for losing my temper that egregiously.

When I was finished showering and about to leave, I noticed that the interloping cook had left behind his sweatshirt in his haste to retreat back to his cell before the C/O could detect his unauthorized movement. I could have stolen it, thrown it in a shower, or even just left it there. I had several shades of petty to choose from. But I went ahead and swung by his cell and made sure he got his sweatshirt back. This act didn’t make me the bigger man, or even a better man. It doesn’t mean that I’m not petty either. I’m just not that petty. It may be that shower deprivation brings out a person’s true colors. If this is true, not all my colors are very pretty.


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Rocco and The Hamster


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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood. Available for purchase on Amazon now.


For all his woofing, I honestly don’t think The Hamster actually expected Rocco to answer his challenge. His surprise slipped through his bravado just before the chink in the armor was cinched closed, but I spied it all the same. A touch of fear accompanied his surprise, and as the six-foot-five-inch, 280-pound behemoth crashed down from the top bunk like Jack’s infamous giant, I didn’t blame the five-foot-five Hamster for being afraid. That’s not to say I felt sorry for him—after all, he had brought it all upon himself.


At the time, I was living in a dorm-type setting with six men in the cell. It made for some tense times, as different personalities tended to clash, and neither conflict resolution nor intelligent conversation was likely to occur. In this particular instance, The Hamster took umbrage at the smell emanating from the ass of the inmate on the bunk below Rocco, so he tried to remedy the situation by pointing his fan at the stench. The offensive smell didn’t bother Rocco; what did bug him was the fact that the cold air of the fan was hitting him, and we were smack dab in the middle of the coldest January in one hundred years. That isn’t hyperbole.

Rocco told The Hamster to turn the fan away from him. The Hamster tried to explain about the noxious fart fumes, but Rocco was adamant about getting the fan turned so the air wasn’t hitting him. The Hamster put his shoes on—an implicit threat that he was readying for a fight—then he flat-out challenged Rocco to climb out of the bunk and make him turn the fan. Rocco wasted no time doing so, and the ground nearly shook as he alighted heavily upon it.

As I sat on the six-foot high top bunk over The Hamster’s bunk, Rocco could nearly look me straight in the eye without tilting his eyes up at all. The Hamster’s tiny head barely reached the level of the top bunk. He was nearly the height of Rocco’s monstrous barrel chest. Initially, it seemed certain to be a massacre, with Rocco dismantling the little guy with embarrassing ease, but there was no backing down now. Without further preamble, it began—and then stopped almost as quickly.

The Hamster was 54 years old at the time; Rocco was 57. Neither was in any semblance of physical fitness or in their prime. The Hamster swung first, quickly, trying to catch Rocco off guard. The punch connected with Rocco’s fleshy cheek but did not faze him. Rocco brought down a sledgehammer fist that glanced the side of The Hamster’s face. The Hamster lowered his head and wrapped his arms around Rocco as far as he could, then pumped his legs to propel his opponent backward. Rocco was forced to retreat a couple of steps, but he rained down haymakers on The Hamster’s exposed back as he did, making solidly hollow thumping sounds. The Hamster began to stand, and Rocco pushed him away as if he had no heft whatsoever. There was a ragged and painful sound coming from The Hamster as he struggled to breathe. Rocco, too, was doubled over and fighting to suck oxygen into his lungs.

Wait! Wait!” The Hamster hollered, his hands held up in front of him to ward off an attack that wasn’t coming.

Go ahead,” Rocco replied, “catch your breath.” This he uttered between gasps of his own. Neither was much prepared to go on; it seemed like the altercation was done before it’d really begun. But it turned out The Hamster had no honor or sense of protocol. This wasn’t terribly surprising to me.

The Hamster had sunk to his bunk while Rocco slumped into a chair, both of them gathering their breath after their brief burst of violence. Suddenly and without any forewarning, The Hamster flung himself across the three feet of floor and cracked Rocco in the face, connecting cleanly with his orbital socket bone, which would eventually bruise and swell into a black eye as evidence of the fact that The Hamster stole on him. I assume that The Hamster was hoping for a knockout punch; instead, his breaking of the agreed-upon truce only enraged the beast.

metal_bunk_bedRocco roared (literally, it sounded more like a roar than a yell) and burst from his seated position with a barrage of fists that The Hamster managed to mostly dodge or deflect so that they landed on his shoulders and arms rather than his pea-sized head. The Hamster had leaned forward, and Rocco clocked him with a vicious uppercut square in the center of his wee forehead, and I could tell that the punch had made The Hamster weak in the knees as he sagged forward. He managed to wrap his arms around Rocco’s ample middle (though he didn’t have a prayer of actually making those arms reach all the way around Rocco’s considerable circumference) and held on for dear life.

Rocco squirmed against the little leach that had latched onto him and managed to wrap his fleshy arm around The Hamster’s scrawny neck. Their struggles had taken them all around the available open area of the small cell, but as Rocco yanked on The Hamster’s head and neck like it was the cap on a bottle of pop he was trying to twist off, they were positioned right next to my bunk, just below me. With each successive attempt at decapitation, Rocco rose up, and his broad shoulders hit the edge of the bed upon which I sat and sent the whole thing up onto two corners. With each repeated yank, the bunk bucked and leapt like a rodeo bronc. All I could do was hold on for dear life as it came crashing down and tilted in the opposite direction before Rocco knocked it back again.

The Hamster was making some truly tortured choking sounds but still managed to squeak out: “Stop, stop!” Rocco relented. “Not my neck, bro,” The Hamster explained. “I got shot in my neck.” Apparently there were now rules to this particular throwdown.

From then on it was a laughably “civilized” conflict. They wrestled and swung at each other for a minute or so, then sat down to recover a while before heading into the lazy fray once more. After four rounds of this slow descent to peace, The Hamster finally conceded victory to Rocco. In truth, the fact that The Hamster had managed not to get his head ripped off probably made him more of a victor, but that’s not how the win was calculated. They both had a few abrasions and a bit of bruising, which they washed and nursed.

It was necessary to avoid the eyes of C/Os and snitches for a few days while they healed. For weeks, there was only a polite quiet that passed between them, but then the barrier began to melt and eventually the men were best of buddies as they talked, laughed, cooked, and ate together. I freely admit to being flabbergasted by the outcome.


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Animal Tendencies


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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood. Available for purchase on Amazon now.


I have spent time in a foreign country that in some areas literally had Third World toilet facilities. Those far-off “lavatories” often consisted of little more than a hole in the ground. For the more sophisticated and fanciful ones, a slab of concrete had been poured and a hole punched through it, or, more accurately, a crack had been made and then widened enough to allow various human waste products to pass into the tiny trench. There were no sinks or running water of any kind to speak of. Despite these appallingly archaic crappers, they were generally immaculate—not a smear or drop of anything to mark the presence of the previous user. The same could not be said for what awaited me one morning in the officers’ bathroom.

toilet paperAt the time, I was a sanitation specialist, a designation used in some prisons for a glorified janitor. Cleaning the filthiest areas, like showers and communal toilets, is the biggest part of the job. In this instance, the prison had just come off of lockdown, and I was running around like a maniac trying to do a dozen things to get the cell house back into some semblance of reasonable and organized shape. Bags of dirty laundry were piled up, garbage was strewn through the dayroom and hallways, and scum had accumulated in the showers. Trash that had been collected by the C/Os on the lockdown, mostly consisting of the Styrofoam trays that our meals had been served on, was piled just outside the front door of the house—fifteen ginormous sour-smelling bags, all waiting to be carried one hundred yards to the dumpster. We had been on lockdown for two days. Two days!

Several hours sped by as I leapt from one duty to the next until I felt I had things under control. Once I could take a breath, I gathered supplies to clean the private bathroom for correctional officers. In general, this commode only accommodates the needs of the floor officer and bubble officer, but any other members of security staff who may feel nature’s call are welcome to use it. This room is always locked, so Officer Brody approached with his keys and a pair of latex gloves. I knew something was off immediately; Brody usually had a laid-back demeanor and was quick with a smile and joke. Now, he wouldn’t even look me in the eyes.

C/O Brody spoke to my chest as he handed me the gloves. “I’m gonna warn you: it’s bad,” he sheepishly reported. “I don’t know how long it’s been, but…”

Well,” I interrupted, “a couple days. I cleaned it before the lockdown.”

Yeah, well…” That’s all Brody had to say on the subject. He keyed open the door and retreated with more haste than was usual or necessary. What did he know that I didn’t?

Oh, dear Lord!”

While it may seem comical or even contrived, that was my actual response upon witnessing the horror of the toilet and surrounding area. It was my singular and solemn job to cleanse and sanitize the region in question. I briefly entertained the notion that wild animals had found their way into the private bathroom and had their nefarious and feculent ways with it, but that was pure fantasy. Human beings, of a sort, had done this. The thought (and sight) baffled me to no end.

It looked like someone had taken a balloon, but rather than filling it with water, had instead opted for liquid feces and then popped it, splattering the contents against the inside of the toilet bowl, the outside of the toilet bowl, the toilet seat, as well as the wall and floor. It was atrociously disgusting. If I had made that mess, I would’ve been too ashamed and too well mannered to simply leave it behind. Apparently, not everyone was raised with sensibilities such as mine.

The bathroom was warmed by a dry heat that usually provided it with a certain pleasant coziness, but with two days of accumulated fecal funk wafting through the air it had become, essentially, a shite sauna. Squelching my gag reflex that was ignited by the superbly awful aroma, I set to the tedious task before me.

As I began, I was further disheartened to find that much of the fecal matter had hardened and crustified, while some was still fresh enough to wipe away like gummy brown Jell-O. From this, I could only conclude that the toilet had been abused at multiple and various times over the course of the two-day lockdown. (Two days!) My mind reeled at, and rebelled against, the notion that a grown adult human being would just drop trou and defecate in an already abysmally filthy toilet. Unfortunately, the proof was in the poop.

Perhaps I am overreacting, but it felt like there was something bestial and abhorrent about the entire predicament. Civilized individuals do NOT behave this way, and I shudder to think what the bathroom would’ve looked like if the lockdown had lasted a week. Or, God forbid, a month. Jackson Pollock couldn’t conjure worse. I tried to take some slim, twisted comfort in the fact that it wasn’t only prison inmates who had the capacity to be nasty in their hygiene habits; C/Os could behave in equally deplorable fashion. But this didn’t change the fact that I still had to swab up another man’s shit.


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Just Bitting


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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood. Available for purchase on Amazon now.


My world was turned upside down, and I wasn’t really sure how to navigate the strange new terrain in which I found myself.

My buddy Kevin, a guy who I’d known for two years and who had been my cellie for nine months, was moved into the same cell house as me. The rumor was that he was suspected of homosexual activity in his previous house, so he was separated from his…special friend. Believing that I knew Kevin better than that, I dismissed the gossip as ridiculous. Then Kevin admitted freely and openly that the rumors were, in fact, entirely true.

bpw-logoMy first thought? I gotta say, I was a bit insulted—apparently I wasn’t his type. (A strange thought for a heterosexual man to have, but that’s where my brain went first.) I was having difficulty processing this bombshell. A big part of me didn’t even believe him, like perhaps this was some elaborate prank being pulled on me. It wasn’t.

I don’t purport to understand the mechanics of the gay man’s mind, but I do understand that homosexuality isn’t widely welcomed in prison. Therefore, I would expect a man to choose to hide his sexual orientation. However, that’s not what Kevin was doing. To hear him tell it, he’s not gay; he’s just bitting, merely passing time. This seems like little more than an easy excuse for a person to hide behind. Or perhaps it’s just my own puritanical sexual proclivities shining through. I mean, you’re either gay or you’re not, right?

When Kevin asked me point blank if I thought of him any differently now that I knew his story, I felt like I was being put on the spot. All I could manage was to numbly shrug my shoulders and give a noncommittal grunt. I couldn’t believe what Kevin was telling me—and that he was suddenly open about it.

Although Kevin was admitting to passing time, he continued to deny he was gay. I found myself thinking back to our time as cellies. As much as I scoured my remembrances, there were no hints or missed signals that should have betrayed his tendencies. Kevin is a big, swole guy who works out constantly, but this describes over half the guys in prison. The point is, I saw nothing soft or effeminate about him, like most geechies in prison. I assume he was keeping it on the sly. Even as he claimed he was just bitting, Kevin began to talk about his boyfriend (Yes, Kevin used the term “boyfriend” while still denying being gay). As he described missing him, Kevin displayed an obvious tenderness and affection for this other man. He went on and on about wanting to go back to the other house with his boyfriend, and I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly Kevin received as a present for his recent birthday. I decided I didn’t want to know.

Part of me was genuinely offended, but not because I wasn’t Kevin’s type (in hindsight, it’s probably a good thing I wasn’t). What bugged me is that I had lived with him and had no idea. It made me wonder who else I had no idea about. After Kevin became more open about his sexuality, I also couldn’t help but think how it reflected on me. I’d gotten suspicious looks from people who knew I’d spent nine months in the cell with the guy—it was assumed that I, too, had resorted to passing time. The thought was abhorrent to me.

Kevin was my friend, but his revelation changed everything, and I didn’t know how to react. My options, as I saw them, weren’t many. Should I subtly distance myself from him? Shun him entirely for the sake of my own reputation? Just ignore the newest elephant in the room and act like nothing had changed? It was knowledge that couldn’t easily be forgotten, and Kevin didn’t make it easy on me.

Within an hour of looking me in the eye and admitting to engaging in homosexual acts with his boyfriend, Kevin told me he hadn’t had a letter or visit from his girlfriend in a while and that he was worried she may be back on the nod. (Oh, did I not mention that Kevin also has a girlfriend in the world?) I could almost hear my mental gears grind as I tried to shift to the new topic of discussion. Before I could get there, Kevin was back to talking about his other paramour. He cursed and angrily lamented that he would have to start missing the early-morning yards and gyms so he could leave with the early line and go to the prayer room to visit his boyfriend. This, more than any of his other declarations, was the most disturbing statement for me to hear. Let me explain.

In all the time I lived with Kevin, he never missed a Rec. I used to talk shit to him that he was a dope fiend for working out—meaning he was compulsively addicted to it. That was our little friendly joke. He pretty much never voluntarily took a day off. Even when he was injured I usually saw him just work through it. Kevin’s decision to skip Rec let me know how serious he was about his boyfriend. The fact that he was willing to go to the prayer room told me he wasn’t going to try to hide it anymore.

The prayer room has a communal bathroom with toilet stalls in it that, whether intentional or not, the C/O on duty is lax in patrolling. It’s common knowledge that only those who are most flagrant with their homosexuality go to the prayer room. I imagine that some go there merely to socialize with others who share their own sexual preferences, but that’s not the case for everyone who attends the prayer room. Suffice it to say, there may be men on their knees, but there’s not a whole lot of praying going on. Scheduled chapel services are also common meeting places for homosexuals in prison. It has gotten so bad that to openly confess Christianity is to expose oneself to suspicions of homosexuality. To hear Kevin’s sudden new plans for attending chapel and prayer room religiously—by which I mean faithfully, which is to say regularly, and not full of faith—is tantamount to a confession that he is gay. Of course, according to him, he’s just bitting.


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The Dirtbag


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

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

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

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

photo by "africa"
photo by “africa”

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

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

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

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

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


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