Prioritizing

Life behind prison walls and life on the outside have some remarkable similarities. In many ways prison is a microcosm of society with a lot of the same moving parts. I have endeavored to highlight much of this sameness, to demystify to some degree the incarceration experience.

In a lot of other ways the two experiences have nothing at all in common. I felt like my life was on hold on the inside. I educated myself, learned and strove to be productive. And to a large degree I was successful. This didn’t change the fact that the world moved on without me, leaving me behind no matter how hard I tried to keep up. It was an existence more than actually living. I know that may sound like a distinction without a difference, but I suppose if you’ve never spent any length of time locked away then you might not have any idea what I’m talking about.

Compartmentalization

There is a kind of emotional death that takes place out of necessity. Pondering the reality of prison and the years lost would be too much to handle, so mental compartmentalization occurs. Coming out of prison has included a resurrection of sorts. At the very least it has necessitated me learning how to live again in a thousand little ways that I never could have anticipated.

I’m still learning.

Revelation

A woman in her fifties at my place of employment was making conversation to punctuate the dullness of the job. I wasn’t much paying attention, was instead lost in my own thoughts. Then she made a statement that jarred me from my reverie.

“I’ve never seen a fight in real life. Maybe a little pushing or shoving, but never ever seen a fight in person.”

It was a jolt to me because I had seen fights. During my lengthy period of incarceration I had witnessed too many physical assaults to accurately number. I didn’t have to wonder whose life was more the aberration, but this did lead me to some serious self-reflection as I am on the cusp of transition.

New Chapter

Some big life changes are coming, as if I haven’t had an enormous amount of change already in the past months beginning with my release from prison. I’m about to get married, become part of a family. A whole new start for me with challenges and potential pitfalls that I can’t even yet imagine. With new chapters come new priorities.

Moratorium

This will be my final post for a while.

This may be a disappointment to some of my loyal readers. To those who know me, I’m sure you understand. I need to go live my life, to put my past behind me and learn how to live again. This isn’t me turning my back on those friends I left inside or trying to forget their struggle. After sixteen years one month and three days spent behind prison walls I can never forget. I do have plans to expand and revamp this platform, to make it available for other voices than my own. But right now I need some distance. I need to live without the looming deadline of having to psychologically revisit the hell that was my life for so long.

I need to find my way beyond prison walls.

 

 

Sunburn In Seg

It had been so long since I had felt it.

Excuses

My job in the law library kept me busy, sure, but it was also an easy excuse. I could’ve put forth more effort, arranged it with my coworkers who were all amenable, and made it to the yard at least once or twice during the work week. Then on my two days off for the week—what were my excuses then? I had none that held any semblance of legitimacy. I had essentially embraced apathy and made lethargy my closest companion.

This was due, at least in part, to the fact that I had a significant portion of my bowel bulging forth from a tear in my abdominal wall. A hernia, for which, per department of corrections policy, I was refused surgery. Even though surgical repair of the abdominal wall is the only viable treatment for a hernia. I was told by a medical professional that it would go away on its own. That was a lie. When the intense burning pain would flare up I couldn’t walk, could barely stand or sit. I had to lay down. Mine was an inguinal hernia, in the groin area, the most common kind in men. When it became aggravated it would feel like someone had my testicles clenched in their fist and were squeezing mercilessly. And yet . . . the pain hadn’t become completely debilitating at this point, I still had good days. My choice to abstain from all yards at all times was one I made of my own volition. I may have made it to two or three yards in six months.

Scenery Change

I was placed in segregation, at first under investigation, but eventually numerous erroneous and very serious charges were levied against me. Ultimately this was because the warden didn’t like that, to use his words, I had “cast certain officers and staff in a negative light” when writing essays about my personal prison experiences. I imagine what he liked even less was that these essays were posted online and eventually collected together and published as a book.

Segregation is a bleak kind of solitude, and one’s thoughts can stretch out to explore avenues where one ought not be going. Considering the seriousness of the accusations being made, and their potential penalties, it made for a long Memorial Day weekend. Come Monday it was the tiny concrete slab outside my window, no more than seventy feet square and enclosed by fences and razor wire, that was about to become my new best friend. Seg’s version of yard. Two hours a day, Monday through Friday. Other than the thrice weekly showers it was the only time I’d be leaving my cell. It would also be my only real chance to interact with other people.

Looking The Part

I was up and fully dressed in my ill-fitting jumpsuit thirty minutes before it was time for yard. Prison jumpsuits are notoriously hot and uncomfortable, so I had to improvise. I had torn a quarter inch wide strip off the edge of my bedsheet and it became by sash/belt, so I could let the upper portion of my jumpsuit hand down the back and sides to just be wearing them as pants—it’s prison chic, I assure you. I also rolled up the pant legs so that they were cuffed into shorts that fell just below the knee. Finishing the ensemble was a plain white T-shirt, plain white socks, and plain white tennis shoes with the laces removed, and more strips of bedsheet used to tie them together so they wouldn’t flop off my feet. I had captured the look of the hardened con, and was ready to strut my stuff on the yard.

Absence

Having been locked in the cell for close to sixty-five hours straight I was nearly thrumming with excitement to get out. Anticipatory adrenaline was squirting and it had my heart humming, my limbs tingling, my mouth grinning. I was giddy with the thought of getting outside. My forced absence had apparently made me grow quite fond of it. When my time came, I obediently relinquished my wrists through the chuckhole to be handcuffed behind the back—it’s how things are done in Seg. Once outside, and the cuffs were removed, my shirt came off so that my too, too pale skin could become sun-kissed.

Indifference

To all who ask, I took some delight in saying I was a political prisoner caught up in prison politics because the warden didn’t like what I wrote and he was trying to shut me up. It was a freedom of speech issue. I said my writing was counter to their small-minded fascist ideals, so I got locked up for it. I was honestly tickled by the whole idea. I was also worried, nauseous, anxious, paranoid, and terrified, but yeah, tickled pink. I wore it like a badge of honor. No one cared. In Seg, everyone has their own problems to handle. I walked, felt the penetrating heat of the sun on my flesh, and enjoyed my slim sense of freedom.

Pleasant Surprise

Back in the cell I left my shirt on and performed some light calisthenics while my hernia screamed that I was an idiotic moron for doing so. My hernia was right. With my shirt drenched in sweat I waited for the shower. It wasn’t until I was in the shower stall with its low ceiling and light right on top of me that I saw for the first time the Pepto Bismol pinkness of my shoulders, arms, and chest. I’d been burnt something awful and hadn’t even felt it.

Sitting alone in my cell once more, I couldn’t stop smoothing my fingers and palms over my skin, feeling the heat it held, and relishing my first sunburn in years. I was doing mental arithmetic to figure exactly how long it would be until I could go to yard again.

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.

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.