Pure Professionalism

Disclaimer and Warning: Some of the language used in this post would be offensive to most reasonable human beings. I know I was shocked and offended when the authority figure employed by the Department of Corrections said them to me. As always, I’ve endeavored to be as accurate as possible in my transcription of dialogue.

 

 

“Most of these guys are nothing but a buncha pansies and fags. That or child molesters. I swear damned near every white guy in prison is here for touching kids and it makes me sick of my race. Don’t worry, I know you ain’t one of them. I looked you up.”

I had no idea how to react to that. Gratitude? Indifference? A swift kick to his gonads? If only that were an option. He was definitely deserving of that and so much more. Correctional Officer Jarvis had a lot of strong opinions and ideas about prison inmates. And he didn’t stop there.

Ranting

“If it was up to me they wouldn’t even be in here. Just kill ’em. That or castrate all of the sick bastards. That would stop them, right? It would make me happy to know they’re walking around with nothing down there!”

Here he paused to laugh uproariously at his own witty phrasing before continuing his rant.

“I know which ones they are too. They have a look about them you know? I can usually just tell. Then when I look them up I’m almost always right. You, I didn’t really think so, but I had to check to make sure. You know that, right? If I was gonna have you working for me I had to make sure you weren’t some kinda baby raper. You get that, right?.”

I nodded numbly. Felt like that was what was expected of me.

“Good. Good. Yeah, you’re here for something way different than that aren’t you?” He wore a knowing grin, like there was some joke that only he and I were privy to.

I nodded again, raised my eyebrows in acknowledgement. Wasn’t sure what to say, or what would come out if I tried to say something.

“Yeah you are!” Another inappropriate laugh.

“Just glad you’re not one of them sickos. You know what though, as much as I hate them, it’s the rest of the inmates who get on my nerves too. They all complain about everything. And they’re so pampered. You guys get better food than a lot of people out in the world. You get free healthcare and cable TV. A roof and a bed. Doing better than a lot of people out there. And all I hear you guys do is bitch about everything around here. Like it’s hard to live in here. You guys all have it so easy. If I were in charge you wouldn’t be getting any of this stuff.”

Racist Ranting

“No TV, no lifting weights in the gym, no hanging out on the yard, no commissary shopping, none of that. Two meals a day is plenty. And you wouldn’t be sitting around just doing nothing. Everybody would be out doing something, working, not just sucking up time.

“Oh! And no fucking school either!! You know how stupid it is that all these dumb blacks and beaners who can barely spell their own fucking names get to take college classes? Pisses me off! They didn’t give a shit about school when they were out there selling dope and shooting at each other, did they? Now they want free college? Fuck them! They’re all just gonna get out and go right back to doing the same shit. Why the hell should they get college? Some of them have more college than I do! Just using the system. They’re not learning anything, just trying to make it look good so maybe they can get out early with some good time. Should have to do all their time.

“Probably just want to get out so they can go bang that white girl they write and tell her how much he loves her. Dumb bitch doesn’t know he’s just using her. And why’s it always gotta be a white girl with these guys? Why can’t they stick to their own race instead of ruining mine?”

C/O Jarvis paused briefly to reflect and catch his breathe.

Delusional Ranting

“You know, all these guys complain, but if I were in here I’d be fine. I mean, it’s not like you guys have it hard. If I had to do, like, a year in prison, I could do it no problem. I wouldn’t even buy a TV. Be a waste of money. I’d go to the library and learn something. Shit, I’d get in school. How you like that?

“But really, if I was in here, you know, doing my time? I could do it no problem. A year? Easy. And I’d make sure I’d beat some fags and niggers too. I could get away with it. Mostly I’d focus on the molesters. That’s easy to get away with. Most of us C/Os don’t give a shit about them. A  lot of us would just look the other way. A lot. Shit, we would love to join in if we could. I might have to do a little time in SEG, but I’m not a pussy, I could handle it. All you guys bitch about how hard you’ve got it, but I could do some prison time, no problem at all.

“Shit, we could be cellies, right?”

He had asked me a direct question this time, and I knew I was expected to respond to him. He wanted an answer. He certainly didn’t want the truth.

Desire

What I really think . . .

The truth was that I wanted to call him a racist, sexist, despicable, ignorant piece of shit. I wanted to let him know that he has no idea whatsoever what life is like living inside. He thought that because he came and spent a few hours that he could handle the mental anguish of being locked away from everything he has ever known and loved. That he could navigate the politics of gangs and races without offending the wrong person and being beaten for some seemingly insignificant slight. The privileges he mentioned taking away are by and large mandated by law to promote rehabilitation-although those are in such short supply as to be insignificant-or else they are put in place to keep a potentially volatile populace pacified.

Not all correctional officers, in my experience, are so completely oblivious. There are plenty of this ilk, but not all. But it was this officer who was waiting on my answer. It crawled from my lips in a muffled cowardly chuckle.

“Yeah.” I felt like I had defiled myself.

Poor Justification

C/O Jarvis had a justified reputation for being a colossal prick. I was on his good side because I worked as a porter (janitor) for him and wasn’t lazy about keeping things clean. Nothing would be accomplished, and nothing good would come, from me telling him even a fraction of how I felt about him. All it would do is put a target on my back and be an invitation for him to make my existence a living hell. I have seen C/O Jarvis lie in order to ensure inmates he didn’t like were hauled away for punishment. He was the worst kind of bully-one who has been imbued with authority. Rather than face the potential and far-reaching ramifications I said nothing.

Call it cowardice if you will. But walk in my shoes a while. Sometimes cowardice and self-preservation have some remarkable similarities.

                       Coda

C/O Jarvis was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant. It was a move that baffled a lot of people, both inmate and staff alike.

Once I was released from prison I sent reports of my claims of professional misconduct like this to the director of the Department of Corrections, and to the governor of the state. After two and a half months I got a response. Their stance is that, since I am no longer currently incarcerated, the issues I raised are moot. And so abuse continues.

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.

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.

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.

Sauce

“Sauce.”

He said it all the time. Sometimes it would be an exclamation of victory or a declaration of intent. Other times he’d mumble it introspectively. Still others it seemed like some kind of involuntary tic.

“Sauce.”

Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Obsessive

Brayden was skinny and muscular—a result of him working out constantly. He showered three or four times a day. He shared a cell with five other guys and had to have all his possessions arrange just so on the shelf by his bunk. Not long after moving into the cell he became convinced that one or more of his cellies was spying on him. According to Brayden, he had caught one of the five in particular watching him in the middle of the night while he slept. I tried to point out the flaw in his logic—if he was sleeping, then how did he know what this other guy was doing? However, no amount of my rational thought would dissuade him from his certainty, so Brayden managed to rig a partition to his bunk so that no one could see him. To my never-ending surprise no Correctional Officer never said anything about this highly illegal visual obstruction. This seemed to embolden Brayden, and he began to become slack in his attempts to conceal some of his other illegal activities.

Overmedicated

Brayden had been diagnosed with some psychological malady. He was always vague with the details when I would ask, and it’s possible that he was merely saying the right things in order to scam a prescription for something, anything to alter his perception and get him “high” for any length of time. I believe it was a combination of a legitimate mental health issue and drug seeking behavior. Comorbidity, I believe is the term. Whatever the case may be, Brayden never missed morning or evening med-line. At the these med-lines it was required that the inmate put the medicine in his mouth, swallow water, and then open his mouth for inspection by a nurse or CO to insure that the meds were actually ingested. Being caught trying to cheat or otherwise hide pills means an immediate trip to Seg. I have no idea what Brayden’s technique consisted of, but he never got caught and always brought meds back.

The Ritual

“Sauce.” Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, pause. Taptaptaptaptaptaptap. “Sauce.” This last was the sound of satisfaction, recognition of a job well done. The next sound was the telltale sniff, sharp inhalation of powder up one’s nose. All this Brayden did while seated on his bunk, hunkered behind his makeshift walls which consisted of a bedsheet and large section of cardboard scrounged from the box of toilet paper that was brought to the cell-house every Saturday to be dispersed one roll per inmate.

There was a series of grunting groans, more sniffs to insure everything got to where it was supposed to go, a few coughs, finally a satisfied growl. “Yeah. Sauce.” This had been Brayden’s routine for months, and I’d grown largely immune to it as little more than background noise. I sat on my bunk and continued writing. This time turned out to be different because Brayden and I were alone in the cell—the rarest of occurrences—and because Brayden offered me some of what he had.

The Offer

“Sauce. Sauce. Sauce. Sauce.” If I hadn’t looked up when I did in response to his incessant saucing of me I have zero doubt that he would’ve continued on in his metronomic fashion for all of eternity. Perhaps some slight hyperbole, but I knew that he wasn’t stopping until I acknowledged him. I cut my eyes up to Brayden and saw that he was poking his head out from his enclosure with the bedsheet around it, which gave it the appearance of floating freely. His face was twisted into a wide-eyed grotesque grin. He stared at me like that for a while before a low playful chuckle began deep in his throat and built to the crescendo of a high-pitched giggle. I patiently waited for him to run out of breath before speaking. “What’s up, man?” He tittered a little more, then restarted his mantra.

“Sauce. Sauce. Sauce.” After the first couple times he began poking his hand through the opening in the sheet about a foot below his disembodied head. He would poke it out then retreat in rhythm with his signature catchphrase so that each “sauce” was punctuated with its own peekaboo. There was a blue packet of generic sugar substitute pinched tight between his forefinger and thumb. I knew that Brayden emptied these into his mouth then used them as the receptacle in which he crushed his pills. Any resident would be harmless if inhaled, and would also provide a slight sweetness to counterbalance the bitterness of the crushed prescription medication. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what he was trying to convey. Perhaps I was being intentionally dim as an unconscious defense mechanism. In any event, I had to ask.

“What?”

“You want some?” was Brayden’s response, so immediate that it practically tripped on the heels of my query. His answer came with his ongoing (and unsettling) grin accompanied by his eyebrows rising and falling in a demented approximation of a Groucho Marx impersonation.

Whatever It Takes

I am no stranger to addiction. I smoked, snorted and swallowed chemicals in ill-advised attempts to alter my consciousness. I used to live in that haze of constantly chasing the high. Only sobriety allowed me to see the depths of depravity to which I had sank. And yet, my voice sounded far too curious and disturbingly interested when I asked my question.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know,” he said with a deranged chuckle. “Sauce.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I mean I don’t know. Sauce. I traded it with a guy. Sometimes I get painkillers, or muscle relaxers, tranqs, whatever it takes, man. I don’t care. This guy had some kind of psych meds I never heard of. I don’t know. But,” he started cracking up laughing again, “it’s already got me fucked up.”

Errant Thoughts

This was a seal of approval from Brayden. He devolved into hysterical laughter. His face turned red, his eyes watered, he drooled. Eventually he started coughing, trying to catch his breath. I watched him. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t think about his offer. I actually gave it some serious consideration.

This so thoroughly frightened and disturbed me because I knew all too well that by entertaining thoughts they often turn into intentions which in turn give way to actions. Once those initial thoughts are acted upon, the deed is done, and the consequences must be faced. I confess that I pondered Brayden’s offer for far too long.

Hesitation

After he calmed down enough to speak he tried again. “Come on, sauce. Are you sure? Sauce, sauce, sauce. Sauce?”

“No,” I finally said after an uncomfortable long hesitation. “I’m good, man. Not this time.”

“You sure? Sauce?” He held the sweetener pack out to me. I looked hard enough to clearly read the label from five feet away. It said “sweet sprinkles,” and for some reason that made it all the more enticing.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure.” I didn’t sound or feel sure.

“Sauce. Okay. Sauce.”

Unsettling

He disappeared back behind his blind and all I heard was him muttering his favorite word and snorting what remained of his sweet sprinkles. I had to put my headphones on and turn my music loud to drown him out, but I couldn’t dampen my own nagging questions.

Why had I told Brayden “not this time”? Why didn’t say a more definite “not ever”?

The Psycho Whisperer

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

Irate

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

Round Two

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

Not Calculation

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

Unhinged

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

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

The Psycho Whisperer

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

Convicted

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

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

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

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

Cold Calculation

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

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

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

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

Afterthought

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

Next Year

Junior had been locked up for twenty-three years. He began serving his time at age sixteen. Prison was what he knew, much more than the real world beyond these gates and walls.

Good Guy

Junior was a hospice volunteer, which meant that he sat with and cared for terminal patients in the healthcare unit. I had been in the cell with him for six months, during which time I witnessed him deal with the death of several of his patients. Some of them he was afforded special permission to sit beside through the night and provide comfort in their final moments. Within these six months Junior’s father also died. Through it all he exhibited more grit and grace than I imagine I could’ve managed were our rolls reversed. Whatever crimes led to his incarceration, I observed him to be a good guy.

Party!

New Year’s Eve was fast approaching and Junior was declaring, insisting, that the six of us who shared the large cell would all stay up and ring in the New Year with a raucous party fueled by food, caffeine and sugar. Lots of the latter two especially. Junior had a radio so we could blast music and really turn it into a wild all-nighter never to be forgotten.

Unenthused

I’d been incarcerated for nearly a decade at this point and had never once stayed up to ring in the New Year with any kind of celebration. Didn’t much see the point? In the grand scheme of things it was just another day in prison. I valued my sleep. I’m an early riser, usually up between four and four-thirty every morning with rare exceptions or deviations. Making it to midnight and beyond seemed an impossibility, and it wasn’t a plan or prospect I was too enthused about. However, this would be my first New Year in a communal living arrangement—six man cell instead of a two man—so, as much as I didn’t like it, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d have to alter my habits to accommodate my cohabitants.

Stubborn

Since this was something I wasn’t happy about, and I’m stubborn, I kept telling my cellies there was no way I was staying up that late. I also told them they better be quiet when I got to sleep. It was a jocular back and forth between them and myself, but deep down I was fully, completely serious. Junior was the driving force behind everyone’s sudden desire to stay up. He met each of my protests with his big grin and easygoing assuredness. I couldn’t fathom why exactly Junior wanted to be awake for midnight because he was usually waking up the same time as me. It was a puzzle which would eventually reveal itself.

All Is Quiet

New Year’s Eve.

Our big plans for cooking a large meal for all of us to share together was stymied by commissary shopping being so delayed that we didn’t get to go before the holidays. We were all animated enough until around nine o’clock when the conversation grew more muted and restrained. Without the aid of caffeine we were all fading fast.

By the time the ball dropped in New York City we languished in the middle of the country waiting for our time zone to catch up. A sleepy silence settled over the cell which was only punctuated by an occasional comment about one of the interchangeable pop-singers performing in Time Square. Yawns were seen and heard all around the room. I was battling sleep with the vigor of a barbarian. Junior was laying on his side, watching TV, his heavy lids drooping on numerous occasions. He was the ringleader of this ill-conceived, silly slumber party, and if I was awake he had to be too.

Exhausted

“Junior!” I yelled. “Junior!!” His eyes flew open and he shot up sideways onto his elbow, making some garbled inarticulate noises posing as words.

“Wake up, man. This is your party, no going to sleep now.”

Junior grinned sleepily, sheepishly, and sat up on the edge of his bunk. We all had a laugh at his expense, but good-natured, not mean-spirited. He was clearly just as exhausted and ready for sleep as the rest of us, so I asked him pointblank just what the big deal was, and why he wanted to stay up and ring in the New Year.

The Reason

Junior smiled once again, looking around the cell at the four other expectant faces all wondering the same thing that I was, and wanting an answer. He shrugged before indulging in a full-bodied yawn and stretch. He looked a bit embarrassed as he searched for a way to explain himself. Finally with another shrug, he told us.

“As soon as this year clicks over to the next I can finally, officially say that I go home next year.” Junior’s shoulders raised lazily to his ears as if in apology for a lame excuse. I don’t believe any of us felt his reason was a bad one. On some level we each understood. The remaining twenty minutes of the year were spent in an amiable silence with everyone staring at their respective televisions.

Next Year

At the appropriate time subdued cheers and Happy New Years were passed all around. Within three minutes the idiot boxes were all dark and everyone was tucked in for sleep. From where I lay on my bunk I could see Junior was on his back, head propped atop his pillow, blanket pulled up to his chin, eyes closed.

“Hey, Junior,” I called. In the orange glow of the security light shining in the window I saw one eyelid peel back to acknowledge that he heard me.

“When you go home?” The second eye shuttered open and his face split into a grin filled with the greatest degree of satisfaction I’d seen in my middle-aged life. When he answered me his voice was warm and joyful, excited and content.

“Next year.”

Coda

This past New Year’s Eve I reenacted this same scene. I didn’t make a big fuss or deal out of it, didn’t involve my cellies. I did, however, break from my established routine so that I could stand at the threshold and mark the turning of 2017 into 2018. I did this because now it is my turn. I can finally voice Junior’s same sentiments.

I go home next year.