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.

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Orangutan Dance

I called him Luigi because his bushy moustache and swarthy complexion put me in mind of his namesake from Super Mario Brothers. Not precisely culturally sensitive, but political correctness tends to die at the prison gates. During this particular incident, Luigi looked exactly like an orangutan.

Animal Planet

Arms straight in the air over his head waving side to side with the movement of his body. He wandered a few feet to his left, turned and retraced his steps. I’d seen orangutans perform the same dance on Animal Planet. I couldn’t remember if the pose was a show of dominance or the beginnings of a mating ritual. Either way, I couldn’t figure why Luigi was doing it in the middle of the chow hall.

Bizarrely Hilarious

Not knowing what preceded his graceless ballet, I had no context in which to put it. To me it looked hilariously bizarre, and I wasn’t the only one. The assembled security staff were all silent, dumbfounded, but many people, including myself, were laughing in varying degrees of hysteria. That didn’t last long.

Nasty Reality

Luigi’s upper body suddenly vibrated with an immense shudder as frothy white vomit oozed onto his chin. It sat there in a moment of pause before gaining the required force of momentum to achieve projectile status. Liquid and solid expelled violently. It was no longer very funny.

No Help

The orangutan dance had been his attempt to breath. Luigi brought his arms down, holding his hands to his throat in a universally understood gesture indicating that he was choking. Sergeant Schroeder was closest to the distressed inmate. He backed away quickly. Luigi took a desperate step toward Lieutenant Jarvis who cussed voluminously before stepping back and saying he wouldn’t touch him. The two officers next to Lieutenant Jarvis also retreated as calls of “Help him!” came from a dozen directions. By all appearances those in authority intended to just let Luigi choke to death. None of them even had the presence of mind to key their radio and call out the code for a medical emergency.

Rescue

An inmate stood up near Luigi, looking supremely unsure of himself, but knowing that someone had to do something. He cocked his arm back and was about to start beating on the choking man’s back when Frank bellowed “Don’t touch him” from two tables away.

In another lifetime, over two decades previous, Frank had been a firefighter trained to access and treat those in respiratory distress. His response time was perhaps a bit delayed, but he walked up and unceremoniously pushed the would-be Good Samaritan out of his way. Frank assumed the easily recognized position to perform the Heimlich. He moved with a certainty and assurance that was comforting, calming. Lieutenant Jarvis let out a half-hearted “No, don’t.” Sergeant Schroeder mumbled “Hey, you can’t do that.” Neither of them called for professional medical assistance. Frank said something to Luigi before taking a breath and commencing his rescue maneuver.

Unrecognizable

The gentleman whose namesake is arguably the most recognizable lifesaving move ever devised may not have been able to identify what was happening to Luigi. Or rather, what Frank was doing to him. I’ve passed the appropriate course for CPR certification twice in my life, but still wasn’t entirely sure what I was seeing.

Not Funny

Luigi was bent at a forty-five angle that was creeping toward ninety degrees. This required Frank to lean forward as he tried to wrap his arms around Luigi. The ensuing application of sudden upward pressure on the abdomen administrated by Frank featured an alarming amount of pelvic thrusting. It gave the entire attempt to save Luigi the appearance of an act of sodomy. This similarity would often be recounted for extremely dark comic effect and rightly so. It looked uproariously absurd—it looked like Frank was trying rape Luigi back to life. However, in the severity of the moment, and to the eternal credit of all us hardcore convicts, no one laughed.

Unobstructed

After much bumping and grinding Frank managed to get Luigi into the more traditional upright position. With one last satisfying thrust a hunk of unchewed material expelled itself in a slimy mess at the feet of the ineffectual security staff. Luigi coughed, bent over, hands on his knees, and drooled out whatever remained of the obstruction. A general roar of surprise, approval and congratulations rose before falling just as swiftly. Large numbers of inmates organized for one cause is discouraged. It can be met with sever repercussions, and for that reason most guys have been conditioned not to engage in such displays. Where just seconds before we had all been united in rooting for Luigi and Frank’s unorthodox love affair, all onlookers had returned their attention to the table and tray right in front of them.

No Healthcare

Luigi should have gone to healthcare. This would have required Lieutenant Jarvis to call healthcare, explain in brief what happened, and tell them to expect him. A van could’ve been sent to pick Luigi up, or he could have walked. Sending him to healthcare would’ve meant writing an official Incident Report documenting what occurred. Luigi was told to sit down and drink some water.

Hero Treatment

Frank’s actions constituted such a rarified degree of selfless heroism that he was eligible for months to be subtracted from his sentence. In order for that to happen, an official Incident Report would be necessary. Frank would also need a recommendation from a staff member. Neither Lieutenant Jarvis, Sergeant Schroeder nor any other security staff member present was going to write an Incident Report documenting their inability to act, and then, recommend Frank for a special sentence reduction. Frank was circumspectly told to return to his seat.

The Conundrum

Jake was wary as he eased his way hesitantly toward the door from which the voice was coming. There was only darkness from within the cell, which gave the disembodied voice the eerie effect of calling to him from an endless malevolent void. Jake knew from experience that it was ill advised, and potentially dangerous, to get too close to the cell doors. He worked in a psych joint, specifically the section that served to keep confined the most violent and/or unpredictable inmates who suffer from various and often severe mental health issues. Even with only a perforated steel grate through which the inmate could get to him, Jake had witnessed spit, shit, and piss pass through the small holes on multiple occasions. When the chuckhole was open, a deluge of waste and refuse could pour out. Yet even armed with this knowledge, Jake continued to advance upon the door from behind which someone was calling his name.

Fair Warning
“Hey, man. Hey, Jake. Howyadoin’, man? Look, you’ve always been cool with me, never had any problem with you. You’re good with me, ya know? So I just wanted to give you a heads up. As soon as that C/O opens this chuckhole, I’ve got a whole cup of shit I’ve saved up for him, and it’s going in his face. Just so you know. You might want to stay back. Okay, Jake. Thanks.” The man’s tone was matter-of-fact, friendly, calm, casual. He could have been discussing a movie he saw recently, or the outcome of some sporting event rather than a planned fecal barrage. Once he fell silent, the man receded into his cell, leaving Jake to wrestle with what to do.

Dilemma
Jake worked amongst this collection of mentally unstable men five days a week and had managed to cultivate a decent rapport with many of them. It made for a slightly less stressful work environment and worked to keep him from becoming a target for an attack. All of that goodwill that he had built up, however, would evaporate if it were to be discovered that he had warned the C/O of the impending shit storm headed his way.

The warning would be perceived as snitching and make Jake ripe for revenge. On the other hand, if Jake didn’t tell the officer about the planned poop-throwing, blame would almost certainly land in his lap which would result in him probably being fired or worse. While this particular officer had always been cool with Jake, a C/O with a face full of feces is an unpredictable but volatile individual. Jake waffled over the decision briefly, but he knew what had to be done.

Betrayal?
Each chuckhole door slammed open on its hinge with metronomic regularity. With every turn of his key and resounding metallic bang that resulted, the C/O edged ever closer to the cell where a calamity of crap awaited him. Upon arriving at the door in question, the C/O inserted his key as usual, but paused before turning it. “Back away from the door, “ he instructed the unseen inmate within. After a lengthy silence, there finally came a hesitant response.

“What? Um…no. Open my chuckhole; I want my food. Give it to me.”

“I said back up. Get away from the door.” The C/O had adopted his full-throated authoritative voice—similar to the tone a trainer would use to command dogs. “Back away or you can go hungry.” The C/O awaited a cogent response, and Jake stood to the side with a tray at the ready as it was his duty to pass it in through the chuckhole once it was opened–provided, of course, that poop wasn’t on its way out through said chuckhole.

Without warning, a bestial and unnerving noise erupted from the cell, a sound of equal parts frustration and rage. These were also the sentiments that colored what was said next.

“Jake! You told! You told, Jake! You’re a snitch!”

The C/O had enough presence of mind to backpedal with haste, and the splattering of excrement that managed to force its way through the small holes of the perforated steel window was minimal and ineffectual. The unstable inmate had mostly managed to merely splash his own waste back in his own face and coat the inside of his cell door with it. As Jake and the C/O bypassed the befouled cell and continued passing out trays, the disgruntled inmate carried on with his hollering of accusations concerning Jake.

Conflicted
It was a long two months of taking extra precautions and keeping his head on a swivel to avoid any payback before Jake was able to get a different job and get away from the house of the severely mentally ill. He didn’t exactly feel guilty for informing the C/O, but it also didn’t quite sit right with him that he had broken the trust of the feces-flinging inmate. It wasn’t snitching in Jake’s estimation, but rather something more like a gray area, and he never did come to accept what he had done.

 

Misfits

Weirdo Factor

Feeding time in prison is always accompanied by the dividing up into factions as the line begins to wind its way to the chow hall. The most obvious criteria is the racial barrier, and to a large degree the blacks, whites, and Latinos all do tend to gravitate to their own kind.

However, there is also plenty of racial mixing together, and it is almost entirely accepted. The less obvious but far more important factor to consider is where the weirdos are. There is a lengthy list of less-than-desirables who you don’t want to get stuck beside while trying to eat the already barely stomach-able cuisine. Some guys stink, others talk and spit food, some chew loudly. Aggravations abound to create an atrocious dining experience. It all starts on the walk to chow where you must maneuver as best you can so that you’re surrounded by a decent group of guys.

Miscalculation

On this particular occasion I was distracted by a conversation with my buddy Brady who was in line next to me and consequently I miscalculated our proximity to the group of weirdos who all tended to flock toward the front of the line. I preferred leaving a buffer of five to ten people just to be safe, but there was no space at all between myself and them. Once we reached the chow hall the order was set because several lieutenants and sergeants bark at inmates to prohibit them from changing their position in line. There are eight seats to a table, and upon performing a quick count I discerned that I was right on the cusp of disaster. I was side by side with Brady, so I slowed imperceptibly, but just enough to put him in the lead and place him in the last seat with those ahead of us while I would breeze by to a new table. All if fair in love and war. And prison chow time.

Trickery

We grabbed our trays and headed toward the table, but Brady never slowed as instead he breezed right past the empty seat and headed toward the next table. I was a half-dozen paces behind him, and while his deception had gone unnoticed, the sergeant on duty was paying attention as I tried to sneak by, and I was instructed to fill in the empty seat. As I took my place at the table of misfit toys I shot a withering look at Brady who was grinning wide and guffawing over the misfortune he had fostered upon me.

A Motley Crew

A quick glance at my de facto companions let me know that I was in for a decidedly unique dining experience. Starting at my left and moving clockwise there was Bankie, a bona-fide crack-baby all grown up. He wore a perpetually dazed grin on his face with vacant eyes. He mumbled to himself incessantly, that is, when he wasn’t laughing at whatever he was mumbling about. Bankie put no premium on personal hygiene, so he smelled incredibly ripe. He also had no sense of personal space so he crowded my tray as I tried to eat.

Angie and Hyena were next, the former about six and a half feet tall and stout; the later barely five feet and pushing seventy years old. Where one went the other followed. Angie was big and dumb ala Steinbeck’s Lenny, and Hyena spoke little to no English and talked with a high-pitched amused chortle when he wasn’t whistling an unending, unidentifiable, tuneless tune.

Then came Paprika, and he was the epitome of a dirty white boy. Broke, scheming, two-faced, grimy, thirsty. Beside him was Rosy, and compared to Paprika, Rosy looked downright normal and well-adjusted, although he exhibited many of the same aforementioned dirty white boy attributes. Rosy also talked constantly, usually about cartoons, mostly Japanese anime. Life of the party he was not.

Scraggles looked exactly, and I do mean exactly, like the character Shaggy from the old Scooby Doo cartoon. In fact “Shaggy” would’ve been a much better nickname, but that’s not how it went. Scraggles was a young, dumb, know-it-all who wasn’t even yet old enough to drink legally. He also talked constantly, often complaining, mostly about inconsequential nonsense and trivialities. Lots of macho posturing from a guy slim as a popsicle stick and just as brittle.

Old Man Chevy (pronounced like the car) was the final of the not-to-magnificent seven. He was sitting to my right and creeping up on eighty or death—whatever came first. He wore several layers of clothes, including two hats, nearly year round and carried a musty smell with him wherever he went. Characterizing it as “old man smell” would be an affront to elderly males everywhere. Chevy had concocted and festered an odor all his own. An amalgam of dried sweat, urine, and feces with a hint of soap and a sprinkle of talcum. Then there was me, wishing I could scarf my food and get out immediately.

An Assortment of Annoyances

Angie asked if I was going to eat my Sloppy Joe before my butt had even grazed the seat. After my “yes’, Angie then had to translate Hyena’s broken English and wild gesticulating to ask if I was planning to eat my mixed vegetables. Paprika asked after my Sloppy Joe, then my bread, then my mashed potatoes, and finally my two pats of butter. Rosy wanted my bread. Chevy wanted to know if he could have my orange, he didn’t even bother inquiring if I planned on eating it. I hadn’t yet picked up m utensil to begin eating. Scraggles complained about the mashed potatoes, then the Sloppy Joe, then the bread, then the water, then the plastic spork, then the cracked tray. Bankie chuckled at what I’m assuming was some hilarious observation from one of the voices inside his head. I took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh, and set to the task before me.

Weirdos Galore

I nibbled at my food unenthusiastically and kept a keen eye on the odd eaters all around me. Bankie stared straight ahead, shoveling food into his mouth, chewing mechanically, oblivious to what he left sitting on his bottom lip or dribbling down his chin. Angie stared straight ahead, shoveling food into his mouth, chewing mechanically, not a morsel of food was missed or wasted even between bouts of yammering to Hyena in Spanish. Paprika and Rosy blabbered about cartoon bare-breasted babes between bites while bits of spittle and food flew back and forth between them.

Chevy packaged his food into different little containers and baggies, disappearing each one into his multiple layers of clothes as they become filled. Scraggles only stopped complaining long enough to toss in a comment to Paprika and Rosy’s twisted conversation. I just wanted to eat my terrible food in peace, but with the dual pungent foul fragrances of Bankie on my left and Chevy on my right that was clearly too much to ask. Then Hyena suddenly began screaming in fast-paced Spanish to someone behind me, sending half a mouthful of food splattering across the table right in front of my tray.

Everyone erupted into uproarious laughter except me. I found it to be more revolting than hilarious. Throughout all of this I had maintained a passive, noncommittal look on my face, not wanting to engage with any of the weirdos. However, once the laughs subsided, Scraggles turned to Old Man Chevy and said something that, after all that I had seen, heard and endured was the final straw of stupidity for me.

Momma’s Boy   

“You want my orange?” Scraggles asked Chevy, holding it aloft for him. “What, you don’t like them?” Paprika asked, sticking his nose in business that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Chevy snatched the fruit and wordlessly stuffed it in his coat pocket before the offer could be rescinded. “No, I like oranges,” Scraggles said. “I just can’t peel them. I don’t know how to peel them. My Mom peels my oranges for me.”

My hand stopped halfway to my mouth with a spoonful of food suspended in mid-air. I was entirely dumbstruck. I did a double, then a triple take at him before finally being unable to control my outburst.

Flabbergasted

“What? What!? Are you freaking kidding me!?” I waited for a response. “Are you?” Everyone at the table was looking at me as if I were the loony one. The fact is, at the weirdo table, I was the misfit.

I snorted out a sound of derision and disgust before turning my back on the lot of them and leaving my tray picked over but largely uneaten. After about a minute Angie spoke up. “Are you going to eat that?” Paprika tried to lay claim to the bread or Sloppy Joe or both. I stayed out of it and waited impatiently for rescue.

Wanton Waste

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This past Christmas season was filled with gifts of kindness and generosity from various businesses in the surrounding community. I’d never seen anything quite like it before in nearly fourteen years of incarceration. Perhaps those years had given rise to the cynic in me, but I was instantly suspicious of all this free stuff. However, since the usual prison cuisine is terrible—a criminal offense in and of itself—I wasn’t about to turn down the new, exciting, and scrumptious substitutes.

Smorgasbord

www.nh.gov
http://www.nh.gov

The bread was the best item that graced my chow hall tray. All those empty carbs were too tasty to turn down as every meal became a special surprise treat. Rye, pumpernickel, cracked wheat, cinnamon raisin, and half a dozen others showed up soft, moist, and fresh. After a steady, depressing diet of tasteless “enriched white bread,” these new varieties were exotic and delicious.

Oscar Mayer and Jimmy Dean brands were also served, and after so much low-grade “meat” fortified with high percentages of soy filler, I had somehow forgotten how heavenly a bologna sandwich could be, or the simply salty pleasure of a pork breakfast sausage patty.

The gargantuan bags of dill pickle-flavored popcorn were a bit more of an acquired taste. When some fancy name-brand yogurt cups and yogurt energy/protein drinks were handed out, guys couldn’t get enough of them. I have no earthly idea what a probiotic is, but I can attest from firsthand experience that Activia certainly gets digestion moving right along like a well-oiled machine. With all these freebies, there was a perpetually festive mood in the cell house.

Holding Back
Different donated items began showing up for sale on the black market. These products had been smuggled out of the warehouse by intrepid businessmen looking to turn a profit, or taken from the officers’ kitchen in the chow hall where the prison staff had been enjoying the gifts that had been donated for the inmate population.

Gummy worms, peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, egg nog, banana walnut bread, honey ham lunchmeat slices, 100% beef hot dogs. Rather than serving these treats to the inmates, they were consumed by officers or else left to sit in the warehouse and get freezer burn. There were also approximately 20,000 bottles of the aforementioned yogurt drink that simply stopped being served and were left to sit in cold storage.

As January dragged on, the special bread became a less frequent addition to meals, and everything else had dwindled to perhaps once or twice a week if we were lucky. Even more products, however, continued to show up for sale by the many hustlers who populate prison. This means the donations didn’t stop, they just stopped being handed out to the inmates.

www.columbian.com
http://www.columbian.com

Wanton Waste
With the onset of February, the warehouse workers began backing up their fifteen foot box truck to all the different dumpsters peppered around the prison compound and unloading their cargo directly into the trash. At first I was willing to, I wanted to, believe this to be nothing more than another stupid rumor. It wasn’t until I watched this wasteful act with my own eyes—multiple cases of merchandise discarded—that it was confirmed to me that those in authority would literally rather throw food in the garbage than let inmates have something special. Such a petty and small action for those who control all the power over us, but with zero oversight, they can essentially do whatever they want.

I wish I knew just who and where the donations were coming from so I could alert them to the wanton waste of the prison administration, but I’m not the one with the knowledge or power. I’m merely one ID number among thousands, caught in the unfeeling system, wishing for a tasty beef hot dog or a single slice of honey ham.

Apparently, that is too much to ask.
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Shorty and the Milk Man

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

Since he always went by his street name, Shorty, I can’t for the life of me recall his actual name, even though he was my cellie for nearly half a year. This isn’t uncommon, especially since I only heard his government name a handful of times when the C/O called it out before passing mail under the steel door of our cell. My cellie didn’t get much mail.

Shorty and I got along just fine and talked easily, if only occasionally. He had recently learned how to make prison pizza, so he wanted to practice his new skill all the time. He gave me a prison slideshow of his many pictures, proudly showing off his aunts, uncles, mother, nieces, nephews, and his many cousins. Shorty was a Latino and a gangbanger—but please erase all the negative stereotypes coursing through the wrinkles of your brain. I always knew him to be a relatively quiet, respectful, calm, and pleasant guy. My personal experience with him made it even more of a shock when I saw him punch a C/O in the face.

It all happened so fast, as is often the case with fights in prison. Some seemingly insignificant incident or perceived slight can be all it takes to push a person over the edge. The problem is that, as a rule, guys keep their emotional life buried as deep as they can manage, so it’s often impossible to tell that someone is on the edge until he goes careening over his psychological precipice by lashing out violently. In Shorty’s case, whatever underlying, complex issues he was wrestling with, the inciting act came when he didn’t get his full glass of milk.

photo by SOMMAI www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by SOMMAI
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

When the inmate pouring milk emptied the two pitchers he was carrying, Shorty only got a splash, barely enough to cover the bottom of the plastic cup. The Milk Man assured my cellie he’d be back, but after refilling the pitchers from the milk reservoir, he took his fresh supplies to a different table and began filling cups there. My cellie stood up in the chow hall (which is something you just don’t do) and walked over to The Milk Man and grabbed his shoulder from behind (another thing you just don’t do, unless you’re looking for a fight). He got his cup filled with milk and returned to his table, but had barely sat down before The Milk Man was standing over him

I was a few feet away, facing my cellie with a clear view of it all. Shorty got his nickname not only from his young age, but because at five and a half feet, he wasn’t exactly tall. When he stood to face The Milk Man, he was face to chest with him and dwarfed by The Milk Man’s swole chest and arms. A few words were exchanged that I couldn’t hear, and then my cellie stole on him—punched him right in the face. The milk pitchers splashed into the air, but The Milk Man seemed practically unfazed by the cheap shot and started pummeling his huge fists against Shorty’s face and head. He was so focused on hitting my cellie, and I was so focused on their fighting, that neither one of us saw the tray coming.

As Shorty and The Milk Man exchanged blows, Shorty’s buddy, The Tall Guy, who was skinny and muscular, took it upon himself to step in with his assistance. My tunnel vision didn’t let me see it coming, but I saw it happen—like seeing an actor suddenly stepping into the frame of a film to unexpectedly alter the movie forever. Shorty and The Milk Man were in profile to me when the tray smacked against the side of The Milk Man’s head. The tray shattered into three or four plastic chunks. Splashes of sauce and bits of spaghetti noodles flew in my direction, but this didn’t slow down any of the assailants.

My cellie and The Milk Man kept whaling on each other, while The Tall Guy who had come to Shorty’s aid joined in the assault. The Milk Man managed to retreat until he had maneuvered around a table which forced both his opponents to be squarely in front of him. He stood toe to toe with them—taking brutal blows, but delivering just as many.

This was not some well-rehearsed and choreographed fight in some karate movie, and none of these guys had any kind of training. From the moment the milk pitchers fell to the ground, it was a relentless onslaught of violence with whirlwind punches, so fast they were little more than a blur. Faces changed color and spouted blood as if by some sick kind of magic. Seeing this level of violence up close and personal—not even five feet away—is so unnerving that it makes the stomach squirm. It’s a strange mix of fear and excitement, fueled by a sudden torrent of adrenaline raging through the bloodstream. There’s an immediacy and undeniable reality to it that no 3D technology could ever hope to duplicate—and even if it could be captured and replicated, only the most amoral, sadistic, and twisted people could endure the show, let alone want to see it. There’s no way to dress it up or romanticize it. These were three animals trying to inflict as much damage as possible.

C/Os descended on the scene, coming from behind on my cellie and his confederate, who reacted instinctually given the heightened circumstances—they assaulted the officers and sent them to the ground with arms flailing uselessly. The Tall Guy collapsed his lanky frame on the C/Os and beat them as they tried to stand up again, while Shorty returned to face The Milk Man solo. They exchanged only a few more blows because the chow hall was being flooded by C/Os and white shirts all running in response to the alarm that had gone out over the radios after some officer had pushed his panic button. When Shorty turned in response to all the yells from the oncoming officers, it provided The Milk Man the opportunity he needed.

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Exhibiting liquid speed, his arm shot out and wrapped around Shorty’s neck so that his python bicep covered Shorty’s windpipe and pulled him into a choke-hold. As soon as he had his hold firmly in place, The Milk Man collapsed onto his ass, as if his legs no longer had the strength to hold him up, and I suspect that was precisely the case. Shorty feebly tried hammering his fists against The Milk Man’s tree-trunk thighs, but each pathetic punch was weaker than the last, and the usual tanned complexion of his face was taking on an undeniably red shade as he was denied oxygen. I was only dimly aware that The Tall Guy had been subdued and cuffed up, since my attention was consumed by The Milk Man. He was looking right at me.

I was seated at my table, and just three feet away, my cellie was being choked. I did not know The Milk Man, had only ever mumbled a polite, “Thank you,” as he had filled my glass over the previous month or so. Now he was undeniably looking me in the eyes, as he not so gently walked my cellie along the path to unconsciousness. For a frightening moment, everything else in existence fell away, and it was just The Milk Man and I locked in unexpected wordless communication.

The Milk Man’s chest was heaving as he tried to catch his breath after all that exertion. His eyes bulged wildly at me, and I could see the rage burning within him. When his forearm flexed into what I was sure would be the final move to send Shorty into blackness, I shook my head without intending to. It was a simple, sad maneuver—left to right once—but my eyes begged him to let Shorty go.

A profound exhaustion and resignation seemed to droop his features, then The Milk Man relaxed his grip and pushed Shorty to the ground. Half a dozen C/Os and three loos came running in—all of them screaming for him to lie down, that it was over. After a final glance at me, he lay prostrate and allowed himself to be cuffed easily and led away.

My cellie, having recaptured his breath, somehow still had some fight in him. It took four C/Os to wrestle his limbs into submission and a white shirt positioning a can of pepper spray an inch from his eye with the threat, “Stop or I’ll do it,” before Shorty was cuffed up and hauled onto his feet. His face had a thin film of blood from various wounds and abrasions, and his left eye was already swelling and quickly on its way to being swollen shut. Like a madman, he let out a few wild whoops and cries of joyful exuberance, like he had just enjoyed a thrilling roller coaster ride rather than having had his face rearranged.

This, Shorty’s final act as he was dragged away, was nearly as unsettling as all the violence I’d just seen. It made something abundantly clear: this deranged person had been lurking in the cell with me the entire time, and I’d had no idea.

Shorty and The Tall Guy both received a year across the board for hitting a C/O and were shipped to a Seg joint. The Milk Man wasn’t shipped and only got thirty days in Seg because he only hit another inmate. I had to pack Shorty’s possessions, and a C/O came and removed them from my cell. I never saw Shorty again. A dozen hours later, when the cell was empty except for me and my belongings, I was still shaken by the incident.
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Eating Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

C/O: Sit down.

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

C/O: No. Go sit down.

Me: Well, how am I supposed to eat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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