Spicy Visit

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

Unexpected

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

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

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

Disgruntled

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

Shocking, I know.

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

Unpredictable

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

Chokepoint

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

Conditioned

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

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

Precipice of Disaster

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

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

Controlled Chaos

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

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

Proper Protocol?

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

Reinforcements

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

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

Rare Respect

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

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Graduation Day

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

Unique Setting

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

Best Of Intentions

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

False Normalcy

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

Incredibly Subtle

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

Dilemma

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

Not Nonchalant

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

Perspectives

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

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

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

Suicide Watch

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

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

Evaluation

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

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

Thriving

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

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

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

Reevaluation

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

“Why?”

“Because that’s how it works.”

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

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

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

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

“Because I want to be left alone.”

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

“What? No!”

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

“No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

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

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

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

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

Triumph

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

Stripped

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

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

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

My Faith

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

Desolation

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

Surrender

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

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

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

Transformed

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

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

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

Concocted Crisis

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

Not Routine

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

Confidence

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

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

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

Confrontation

“What?”

“Why’d you take my TV?”

“Is it yours?”

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

“Where’d you get it?”

“I bought it.”

“From who?”

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

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

“Not unless you broke it.”

“There’s a crack in the side.”

“No there’s not.”

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

“Where?”

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

“That?”

“Yeah. That.”

“That’s nothing!”

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

“That’s nothing. My TV’s old.”

“It’s broke. You can’t have it.”

“What rule says that?”

“It’s altered. You can’t have it.”

“It’s not altered. It’s old.”

“Still can’t have it.”

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

“You don’t have it anymore.”

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

Escalation

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

“No.”

“I want to talk to a lieutenant.”

“No.”

“You gotta get me a lieutenant.”

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

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

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

“Are you kidding me?!”

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

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

“Fine. Then I want a Crisis Team.”

Crisis

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

“What?” Sellett asked, confounded.

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

“Why?”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“Why do you want a crisis team?”

“Because.”

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

“Because I’m going to kill myself.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Prove it.”

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

“Prove it. Go hang yourself.”

Everyone milling about paused, silence reigned for an instant.

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

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

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

CO Sellett made a phone call.

Following Protocol

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

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

No Justice

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

Intervention

Isaac was a twitchy, annoying, scheming pain in the ass. This didn’t mean that he deserved to get a beat-down. Actually prison protocol dictated that his actions warranted that very thing. But that didn’t mean that I’d stand by and let it happen.

The Jew

“I need your help, man. Please. I need you.”

Isaac approached me with this preamble to a request without any further fanfare or explanation. His reputation as well as my own personnel history with him made me wary.

Isaac was no taller than five feet four inches, and that’s a generous estimation. He was a little guy, an easy target, and he was Jewish, which made him an instant outsider. Most people simply referred to him as “The Jew”, whether they knew his name or not. Sometimes, though not always, this was twisted into a derogatory slur. In the kind of casual bigotry that is commonplace in prison.

Dilemma

The pressing issue that had caused Isaac to rush up to me while I waited for the next game on the handball court was a predictable one. He had employed some less than scrupulous business practices—promising payment of outstanding debt to two individuals, but only having resources to pay one. His assumption was that he’d be able to lie or weasel his way out of paying his debt in a timely manner. Unfortunately he chose the wrong individual to stiff, so instead, Isaac faced the prospect of physical assault being perpetrated against him. No sooner had Isaac given me the bare bones of his dilemma when the instrument of his impending beating arrived.

Bad Intentions

Rockton was a dark-skinned black man with a shaved head and constant scowl on his face which gave the impression that he was perpetually mean or angry. I hadn’t enough interaction with him to know whether or not that was an accurate impression. The fact that he walked right up to where Isaac and I were talking, grabbed Isaac easily by his puny bicep, and began pulling him off toward the back of the yard didn’t bode well. The area where they were headed was more isolated and without great sightlines for the guard in the tower to see what was going on. Rockton’s intention was obvious to all. Isaac called my name, wrenching his head around to plead for my assistance. His eyes were bugged out and huge behind the thick lenses—he looked terrified.

Confrontation

“Whoa, whoa. Hold up. Hang on a second.” I had to quick-step in order to overtake them. “Wait up. Wait a minute, man.” I placed myself in front of Rockton and didn’t let him maneuver around. Rockton glared hate at me. I don’t know what I was thinking.

“Whatcha want?” His expression got even meaner.

“I was talking to him,” I replied, indicating Isaac with a nod.

“So?”

“Let me talk to him.”

“Naw, I’ma beat his ass.” He tried to push past me, but I stood my ground. He let go of Isaac and stepped toward me chest to chest. He was mere millimeters taller than me, but substantially broader across the shoulders and chest. Intimidatingly wider. “Whatcha wanna do?” His threat was implicit. I still don’t know what I was thinking. Truth be told I was mostly reacting. The notion of letting Isaac get beat up didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t an option.

Negotiation

“I just wanna talk. Let me holler at you for a second.” I waited for an answer, literally holding my breath. Rockton didn’t so much back up as he did unflex his muscles which had been coiled and ready to strike. I sensed more than saw the crowd gathering to gawk. I sidled up to Rockton, turning my back to the looky-loos and attempting to transition from confrontational to conspiratorial. I leaned in, lowered my voice, and was thrilled when Rockton mimicked me.

“Look, I know the dude is a little snake,” I said, “but you had to know that before you did any business with him.”

“Naw, man. I didn’t. That’s it. Nobody told me that’s how the dude got down.”

“Alright, well, look, I got too much going on with the dude. You beat his ass and I’m screwed.” I waited for some objection. When he continued silently glaring I pressed forward. “How much does he owe you?”

Rockton appeared wary but eventually spat an answer. “Twenty.”

“Twenty what?”

“Whatcha mean? Twenty bones, man! Twenty bucks!”

I cursed inside my skull and threw a grimace of annoyance and exasperation over a shoulder at Isaac. His buggy eyes bulged bigger, pleading. I bit my tongue against cusses and frustration, and turned my attention back to Rockton.

“Alright. I got it. I’ll take it. I got his debt. I’ll pay it, then you don’t have to mess with him anymore. Sound good?” Rockton stepped back as if I’d pushed him and he couldn’t believe what I said. “Sound good?” I asked again.

“Yeah, yeah. That’s cool.” He eyed me suspiciously. “You serious?”

“Yeah, yeah I gotcha. Just make a list. We go to commissary next week, I’ll take care of you, whatever you want. Alright? Just leave dude alone.”

“Bet,” he replied, as an acknowledgement of agreement, and then we shook hands to seal the deal. I told him my name and what cell so he could send me his shopping list, and our transaction was over.

Repercussions

Isaac was vociferously grateful. He couldn’t stop talking and making a big deal of what I had done for him. As payment he took it upon himself to give me the bagel and single serve packet of peanut butter from his kosher meals once or twice a day for a month. This began as a rare delicacy, but eventually it got so I couldn’t stand the sight of the bagel. Rockton received all he asked for and was never any kind of problem. I had problem with loosing twenty dollars because I’m not independently wealthy, but kindness can’t occur without sacrifice. My act of kindness had an unintended consequence of making Isaac follow me around like a lost puppy dog, constantly there and always annoying.

When faced with the prospect of watching Rockton trounce the smaller, weaker Isaac I just couldn’t look the other way. Funny thing is I never too much liked Isaac prior to my intervening, and I liked him even less afterwards.

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”?

Empathetic

The sensory deprivation of Segregation is such that any noise or voice in the corridor will more often than not make a guy rush to look out the door and see what’s going on. When I heard a loud metal on concrete slam outside my door, that’s exactly what I did. Stripped The cell across from me was offset from mine so I couldn’t see directly into it, but the door was laying all the way open, flat against the wall, and I could see four officers in a loose circle around the door. Obvious sounds of struggle were coming from within the cell. Something came flying out of the cell and one of the officers caught it deftly and tossed it aside to the floor. I craned my neck and pressed in closer to the four-inch wide seven-inch tall rectangle window of plexiglass to spy that it was a red shoe. There are no red shoes in prison. Curious. I also saw two more officers standing at the ready off to the side.
The other shoe, a colorful shirt, blue jeans, a leather belt. All these were sent rocketing out of the cell. It dawned on me that the man being stripped must be right from the street, a parole violator. Around this time I began hearing sounds more animal than man—like a dog grunting and growling. One CO came out of the cell flushed and winded, followed by another in the same condition. A third exited, muttering curses, and he had a torn piece of cloth that he threw down in disgust. It appeared to be a hunk of underwear. Yet another CO left the cell in a huff and I had to begin wondering just how many were in there. Tricky Maneuver My answer came almost immediately as one Sarge and one more CO backed out towing the unruly inmate along. His arms were stretched behind him handcuffed, and another pair of handcuffs were fastened to the chain as an improvised leash they were using to direct him. One of the officers who had been standing around began closing the door, and the Sarge adopted sole tugging duty; he had to pull with his right hand, reach through the chuckhole of the partially closed door, and pass the controlling cuff to his left hand while the other officer corralled the inmate to keep him from trying to back all the way out of the cell. There was surprising little noise. No hollering or screaming from either party, no barked orders. Just grunts and sounds of exertion, boots scraping against the door, heavy breathing, and chain rattling. Once the final maneuver had been accomplished, the door closed, inmate uncuffed, and chuckhole successfully secured, then the screaming began. Lunacy For five full minutes he beat and kicked the door, letting loose a torrent of threats and curses. They brought a jumpsuit, opened the chuckhole, pushed the clothing through, and slammed the trapdoor swiftly. More curses and threats. In my mind I labeled him “lunatic”. I paused to emphasize with the corrections officers who have to deal with individuals like this. It surprised me, but I genuinely felt empathy for the COs. The guy beat on the door awhile, and called for a CO a few dozen times. Then he changed tactics and started hollering that he was going to kill himself. I didn’t believe him for an instant, and his claims only served to confirm my assessment of “lunatic”. There was more banging and calling out with claims of self-harm. He yelled, “CO!” ad nauseum. I wanted him to be quiet. I was fully confident that everyone within earshot wanted him to just shut up. A couple disembodied voices bellowed for him to do just that. Another one encouraged him to “off himself” and be done with it. Eventually a couple COs brought him a blanket and sheet, told him they’d bring him a mat as soon as they could, which they did. He didn’t make a peep the entire rest of the afternoon and night. In His Shoes . . . A while later an officer came by and put a piece of paper in the slot by the man’s door, which had his name and prison ID# on it along with “PV” in bold black letters. Parole violator. I began to ponder how he began his day, what that day might have looked like, and how it could’ve ended here for him. I thought of the terrible reality and shock to his system that being dragged back to prison must have been—how utterly devastating and discombobulating. I had to question my diagnosis of him as being far too simplistic and dismissive. I also had to admit that, if I was trapped in his horrendous shoes, I don’t know that I would’ve stopped kicking and beating the door so quickly or easily.