The Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Advertisements

The Real Russ

ASA

There are a lot of white guys in prison who are sex offenders, or more specifically, child molesters. “Aggravated sexual assault” is one legal term to identify them. The aggravated portion references the fact that their victim was under age twelve or fourteen. Laws and terms differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in my experience the number of these offenders has become epidemic, especially amongst the white population in prison. I have often remarked facitiously that if I didn’t talk to sex offenders, then I’d never speak to another white guy in prison. As with a great many jokes, there’s more than a kernel of truth embedded in that statement.

Vilified

For a long time these particular individuals were the most vilified of the prison population. They often faced ridicule, bullying and outright physical abuse from their fellow inmates and also from those wearing badges and tasked with insuring their safety. These inmates would often lie and say that they were locked up for some other more innocuous crime rather than admit their sex offence. This practice became so prevalent in fact that an inmate who was suspected of being a sex offender but who claimed to be incarcerated for dealing drugs, otherwise known as “having a drug case”, may have his assertion rebutted with the type of colorful quip which exemplifies the somewhat darker undertone of what qualifies as prison humor. An example would be; “Yeah, right, you’ve got a drug case. More like you drug that little girl off into the bushes.” Distasteful to be sure, but not an uncommon way of laying an entirely unsubtle accusation of pedophilia against someone.

Out of the Shadows

As the sex offender population grew it became common for them to band together and they’ve become emboldened to admit what they are locked up for, talking openly about their status as a sex offender, though often not often providing any details of their particular crime. Now they are such a large percentage of the prison population that they have infiltrated many social groups often unbeknownst to their fellow inmates. For the most part they are treated like just another inmate. Nothing more or less terrible than that.

Penitence

The comfort of Christianity has long served as a respite for these oft put upon prisoners. Being a Christian man myself, I would never deign to say that God’s gift of grace is insufficient to bring about forgiveness, salvation and transformation in the life of any sinner, no matter what their sin. I do however confess with a certain degree of shame that I struggle with this concept of forgiveness for such a despicable crime and iniquity. Perhaps it is more that I tend to question the sincerity of many of these men I have known. In my experience it seems that the claim of a religious conversion, especially amongst child molesters, tends to be viewed as a dubious bit of trickery. A professed change for the sake of convenience rather than an authentic repentance. As best I can I try not to stand in judgement of a guy, but in some cases it’s not so much a matter of judging as it is recognizing something that is just plain wrong.

Recruiting

Russ was the charismatic country fried leader of an ever growing group of sex offenders. They would be gathered in the yard or seated together at church on Sunday, each of them deferring to Russ in all things. Russ knew his Scripture, could quote it chapter and verse, and seemed sincere as far as my fallible eyes could see, but there was something about him that set off an alarm in the intuitive wrinkles of my brain.

Upon closer inspection it became clear that he was proselytizing not for the cause of Christ, but was building his number of followers by behaving like the pied piper of pedophilia. Russ recruited them with a twisted type of pseudo-religiosity that was far too heavy on acceptance and much too light on repentance and change.

Fallacy

Since I’m a white man in prison who was attending church regularly, Russ assumed I was a sex offender and therefore a likely candidate for his brand of fallacy. It wasn’t long before he approached me with his amiable charm and understanding nature all wrapped up in the honeyed tones of a soft southern accent. His voice made you feel welcome, made you want to believe everything he was saying. I listened as he began with Bible verses that were accurate and sound, then noted as he proceed to bend them to his own improper purposes. We disagreed and debated. When I informed him that I was in fact not a sex offender he was unfazed, proudly admitted that he was one, and then continued his recruitment script. I steered the conversation toward repentance and shared my own shame and regret over my crime—a violent assault. I expressed how I hoped my victim could somehow forgive me, but wasn’t sure that it would ever be possible. When I pressed Russ for similar sentiments about his own victim his evangelistic façade finally fell and I believe I got to see the real Russ.

True Colors

“Are you kidding? No! No way! I don’t feel bad. Why should I? Huh? Why?” He paused here, actually waiting for me to give him an answer as to why he should feel remorse for sexually molesting a ten year old girl. I noticed that his accent had lost its lilting dulcet quality and devolved into harsh guttural sounds which were befitting his ugly topic of conversation.

“I did it, nothing I can do about that now. Right?” I sensed that perhaps he might be heading in a less horrible direction. I was wrong.

“I did it. I like little girls. I like them and they like me. I did it and I’d do it again. I don’t feel ashamed. I won’t feel ashamed. I don’t have to. There’s nothing wrong with what I did. Nothing wrong with me. That is how God made me.”

Unchristian

Each short confessional sentence carried the weight of a small sledge to my gut. It literally knocked the breath from my body and I struggled to recall how to perform the automatic response of respiration. Even if my lips could have formed words and my lungs could’ve pressed out the air to deliver them, my braining was sending anything coherent to say. All that I possessed was a visceral hatred for this counterfeit Christian. Although I freely confess that the visions of me violently assaulting him which I began to entertain were extremely tantalizing, inviting, even comforting, they were also entirely unchristian. My rigid fingers curled into fists and adrenaline dumped into my system as my heart screamed its increase. Breath returned to my body, and in that instant my more primitive mind was bent on using every bit of newly restored oxygen at his disposal to destroy Russ. All logic and restraint had been usurped by outrage and undiluted fury.

Salvation

“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get to your cells. Now!” The belligerent CO bellowed and headed straight toward us. He was a young guy, new to DOC and eager to earn a reputation as a tough-guy. He had just returned to the cellblock and saw Russ and I loitering and talking in the day-room after our designated phone call time. Completely unintentionally he became our salvation. Russ was rescued from my violent assault and I was saved from a stint in Seg. Russ fled to his cell while I remained riveted to the spot a moment longer, entertaining the possibility of carrying out my attack regardless of the CO and the consequences. I heard Russ delivering an obsequious apology dripping in saccharine southern charm. It was all fake. I had seen his true self and knew that his worldview was nothing but delusional heresy.

Nobody Wins

“Oh yeah? That’s nothing, I’ve got you beat; check this out . . .”

I had just regaled Tee with a tale of the disgusting conditions of the officer’s bathroom that I had to clean every morning. Unfortunately he interpreted this as my throwing down the gauntlet for a competition to see who had the grossest feces cleaning story. I gleaned from the gleeful glint in his eyes that I was about to lose a contest I had never intended to enter.

Storytime

“Okay, so, I’d only been working in Seg as a porter for, like, maybe a week or so. So I didn’t know about this one dude yet. So, I come in one day and the CO tells me that this guy, the one I didn’t know about, was sent back to STC with the rest of the looney-tunes, and I had to clean out his cell. Turns out this guy was, like, a regular visitor in SEG. He was a psych dude who would bug up and freak out bad enough to get sent to SEG. You know, like, hit a CO or a psych doctor or an inmate. Something bad enough to get to SEG. He was basically famous. Everyone knew about him except me. So I had no idea what I was walking into. They just told me to put on some gloves, grab a rag and bottle of bleach.”

Surprise!

“As soon as I opened the door to the cell it was like I got punched right smack in the face by the smell. It was so nasty so strong. I caught a throat full of it and thought I was gonna puke for real. I had to walk away, but before I did I saw that there was clothes and bedding crumpled and piled up like a rat’s nest. And everything was covered in shit.

“My two coworkers were standing off to the side laughing their asses off, and even the CO wasn’t trying to hide his grin, but he told me that it still had to be cleaned out. He gave me some heavy duty rubber gloves instead of the cheap latex ones I had and a little paper surgical mask they had laying around and tried sending me back in there, but I was like ‘hell-no!’ I had to have more than that.”

Ingenuity

“So I went and got me some big, like, fifty gallon garbage bags. I put one on each foot and tied them on really tight so that they covered me good up to my knees. Then I poke holes in another one for my head and arms, and put it on like a poncho, but tied a bag around my waist like a belt so that stayed against my body instead of poofing out. I wrapped more bags around my arms and tied them tight before I put the gloves on. Over the paper mask I tied a clean T-shirt to better cover my face and mouth. It was like my own homemade hazmat suit. That was about as ready as I was gonna get, so I went back to the shitty cell.”

Hazardous Material

“Now, usually, when I clean a cell I toss all the clothes and blankets and stuff into the laundry bin to go into the washing machine, but this time it was all soaked through with piss and sweat and funk. There was so much poop smeared and smashed into it so I just had to gather it up and I threw it straight into the garbage. Turns out that the guy didn’t actually sleep on his bunk, but he laid in a pile of clothes, blankets and sheets. There was layer after layer that I had to peel free and toss.

“My little mask didn’t really do much of anything to block out the smell, but it was still better than nothing. I ended up retching and dry-heaving, like, twenty times. I came so close to puking, my eyes were watering. I took a break and shoved wads of toilet paper up my nose, and that actually made a difference, but I could only take small shallow breaths through my mouth because whenever I took a deep breath it would hit the back of my throat like a funky little fist and make me feel like barfing. It was rough, man. It was super rough.”

Finale

“It probably took me, like, an hour, hour-an-a-half to get it all out of there. I actually had my watch on, but I couldn’t check it without peeking back layers of plastic to get to it, so I just had to guess how long I had been at it. Once I had it all out, my job was really just starting because then I had to scrape and scrub every square inch in there.

“Shit was still everywhere. Wet and fresh, gummier than pudding, and old crusty dried streaks of it. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the bed, the sink, the door. It was unreal, man. I nearly puked, like, a hundred more times. It was so bad. I just kept gathering goop in my hands and flushing it, trying not to think about it. Flushing and swabbing and scrubbing. I was just finishing up when they told me it was my time to go back to the cell-house. My shift was over; I’d been cleaning in there for close to five hours.

“And you know what? They told me that was the fourth time the guy had done that. And they just let him. They don’t try to stop him or get the psych doctor to talk to him, they just let him build his crap nest and redecorate the place for days or even weeks. It sick, man.”

Victor

With his rebuttal tale finally told, I was left peering at Tee through a grimace of disgust and a sneer of revulsion. I had not wanted to hear that. I suppose I had only myself to blame by raising the topic of terrible turd centric narratives. I couldn’t think of anything much to say in response to the inhuman behavior and inhuman treatment he had just described. After listening to him I felt there wasn’t anyone involved who could be crowned a victor, but I merely conceded.

“Alright, Tee, yeah. You win, man.”

 

Psychotic Break

Aaron paced the cell endlessly, all through the night, mumbling incessantly in vicious whispers and angry vehement curses. He had taken a razor blade from its casing and kept it pinched between thumb and forefinger, slashing at the air as he went. He was off his meds and hadn’t slept in three days. He was unpredictable and utterly terrifying.

SMI

Aaron had been diagnosed with his particular psychological malady and classified as Severely Mentally Ill. In most circumstances, individuals such as him are housed in the psychiatric unit or special treatment center. However, in some instances if the behavior of the inmate in question can be regulated with medication then he is released into the prison’s general population.

As long as Aaron made his scheduled med line appearance every morning and evening he was fine. He slept for at least twelve hours straight, waking only to go to med line and work in the chow hall. When he was awake he was obviously in a dazed, drugged state. His eyelids were perpetually drooped, his speech was slowed but not quite slurred, and there was an overall impression that he was mentally through molasses as he reasoned, reacted and interacted. This isn’t the existence I would choose for myself or a loved one, but for Aaron it appeared to be what passed as closest to normalized or regulated. This was his version of being fine.

Oversight or Negligence

Aaron was scheduled to go home. He had served the time the judge had sentenced him to, but he had no family or friend who would take him in. This is far more common than most might realize. Rather than the Department of Corrections doing its job and finding a suitable place for the individual they just violate the inmate and essentially extend his prison term by two or three years.

The criminal justice system at its finest.

However, since the powers that be have to give the appearance of trying to place the inmate in a halfway house or homeless shelter, they also go through the entire charade of processing the inmate for release. Aaron had a new picture taken along with his fingerprints. He was made to sign several documents in anticipation of a release of custody which wasn’t actually coming. His meds were discontinued and a two week supply of them were prepared to be given to him as he walked out of the prison. Instead he never left, and his meds were never restarted.

Un-medicated

It was a precipitous in Aaron’s behavior. Within days he was sleeping less and more visibly irritable. He began quietly mumbling or chuckling to himself. He would get in the bed, roll around for a while, then get right back out again. By the end of the first week he was pacing and presumably arguing with whomever he was hearing or seeing. Besides Aaron and I there were four other men who shared the cell with us. When one of my cellies asked Aaron to please lay down or be quiet, Aaron raised up physically like a cornered raccoon and let loose with verbal threats of violence and promises to carry out these threats. Prior to this Aaron had been sedate (and sedated) and a complete milquetoast.

At ten days into the ordeal his rants and arguments with invisible or imagined individuals was a constant and he hadn’t slept in three days. It was also at this point that the razor blade became a component of his psychosis. While Aaron experienced a psychotic break from reality I lay beneath my blanket, wide awake and terrified that I’d have to somehow defend myself against this razor-wielding lunatic.

Little Help

I spoke to every security staff member that crossed my path. The COs referred to the sergeant, the sergeant referred me to the lieutenant. Everyone was quick to pass responsibility to the next person. Lieutenant Danish was potbellied and gave the impression of a clean-shaven, surly Santa Claus. He was skeptical of the veracity of my claims. He listened out of a sense of politeness or duty. It wasn’t until I confronted him for three consecutive mornings with tales of Aaron’s abnormal behavior that he finally said the most he could do was report Aaron to a mental health professional so he could be evaluated. It was better than nothing.

Decline

At this point I’d only been able to snatch snippets of sleep—an hour or two at a time. At night my exhaustion eventually overcame my terror and I would lapse into slim unconsciousness only to be bolted awake by Aaron’s increasingly loud ravings. I’d lay awake for long minutes and hours until I had to get up and go to work. Aaron was still working in the chow hall. They had discontinued his meds, not his job assignment. I could sleep some while he was gone. Aaron’s erratic behavior was showing at work and his coworkers reported him to their supervisor. The supervisor was apathetic and paid no attention, took no action.

The Way It Is

Aaron was called out for an impromptu call pass. He saw the psych doctor and apparently was able to mask his mania enough so that he was sent back to the building. Lieutenant Danish had set up the meeting just as he told me he would, and he reported to me that since the mental health professional hadn’t found cause to remove Aaron from the general population there was nothing he could do. Neither he nor the psych could force Aaron to take his meds, though they had finally been renewed. He also couldn’t just take an inmate to seg for no reason. I replied that I wasn’t saying that I wanted Aaron in seg, but that it was only a matter of time before he did something seg-worthy. That could mean attacking me and forcing me to defend myself, or antagonizing another individual to the point of violence. I told Lieutenant Danish that Aaron needed help. Lieutenant Danish said that the psychologist didn’t see it that way, so there was nothing he could do. He shrugged and simply stated: “That’s the way it is.”

An Inevitability

The next day at lunch Aaron’s instability was on full display. Lieutenant Danish had to order him to sit down and eat. A CO had to tell him to just be quiet and eat because he was ranting in a loud voice. Food flew from his mouth and across other men’s trays. When some of the men at the table with him took offense at his disgusting intrusion, Aaron threatened all of them. He called them all faggots, pussies and bitches. That’s the pretty much the prison trifecta of “fighting words”. By which I mean that, in most circles, to let such egregious insults stand would be tantamount to admitting that those statements were true. Aaron’s comprised state of mental health was a nonissue and didn’t make him exempt from reprisals.

Avoidable

I was performing my duties as a housing unit porter, taking the garbage out to the dumpster so I had an ironclad alibi with multiple COs as witnesses. It turned out that I would need it.

As I eventually made my way back to my cell, Aaron came rushing down the hall toward me. He was bleeding from a split lip and his left eye was already visibly swelling. Aaron walked straight into the officer’s control bubble and started raving and yelling. That is a completely unauthorized area for an inmate, and a place where no one in their right mind would ever dream of going. Aaron was handcuffed and Lieutenant Danish was called to hear Aaron’s grievance and deal with the situation.

Deaf & Dumb

The announcement came over the speakers for everyone to return to their cell. A few minutes later Lieutenant Danish sauntered up to my cell in a cocky strut. “Okay, guys, who did it?” My outrage over his indifference and incompetence up to this point got the better of me.

“Are you serious!? I’ve been telling you for days that this guy was losing his mind. You saw him in the chow hall. The COs on the walk back from chow heard him going nuts and yelling nonsense and they just laughed about it.”

“So it was you then, was it?” Lieutenant Danish brimmed with confidence and grinned like the cat that ate the canary.

“Nope. It wasn’t any of us. We would have done it days ago, that’s why we came to you in the first place, but you didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even in the building. I was taking out the garbage.” Then I named the four officers who could attest to that fact. My reveal and my tone smeared the smirk from his face. At this point I didn’t in fact yet now what happened, but I assumed my cellies were all innocent.

“Show me your hands,” Lieutenant Danish demanded. He was pissed and all business. He inspected my mitts for any signs that they had recently been used to assault Aaron. He repeated the ritual with my remaining four cellies, questioning them as to whether it was them who did it or they had seen who did it. Each of them shrugged and mumbled in the negative. “No one knows anything, huh? Big surprise.” He scoffed at our convict behavior and left in a huff, taking his entourage of three officers with him.

Outcome

Aaron was taken to seg for fighting and unauthorized movement. His description of his attacker—black guy with a bald head—wasn’t too helpful in narrowing the search. It did, however, exonerate me and my cellies since none of us fit that bill. According to my cellies, Aaron’s description was little more than a shot in the dark, and terribly inaccurate since Aaron hadn’t ever actually seen his attacker.

The attacker was one of the offended men who sat at the chow hall table with Aaron. He had followed Aaron back to the cell and put a choke hold on him from behind until Aaron ceased struggling and lapsed into unconsciousness. A couple of sharp cracks of Aaron’s face against the concrete floor accounted for the split lip and swollen eye. My cellies stopped the assault before it could get any worse and cleaned up the blood evidence before Lieutenant Danish showed up.

One of my cellies worked as a porter in seg, and for months he would bring back horror stories/reports of Aaron behaving more like a beast than a man, and being treated as less than human. This is what often happens to the disenfranchised mentally ill in this “enlightened” society.

Misfits

Weirdo Factor

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

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

Miscalculation

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

Trickery

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

A Motley Crew

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

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

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

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

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

An Assortment of Annoyances

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

Weirdos Galore

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

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

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

Momma’s Boy   

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

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

Flabbergasted

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

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

King Pong

Tipping the scales past three hundred pounds, with much of it settling in an unsightly mass around my midsection, I was far from the picture of athletic prowess. With a dome that was kept gleaming by a razor’s removal of any stubble once a week, and my skin unnaturally pale from nearly a year without the sun’s warm kiss, I resembled a bloated and deranged Casper the Friendly Ghost more than anything else. My appearance made all challengers think they could defeat me with ease. They were mistaken.

pingpong2Sole Recreation
The county jail that was my defacto home for over three years had what they termed MP. Multi Purpose room. It was approximately twenty feet by forty feet, although that may be a bit generous. Its multiple purposes included library, law library, TV room, recreation area, holding pen for prisoners directly before or after a court appearance, chapel, school classroom, attorney visiting room, clergy visiting room, and temporary holding area for particularly violent or troublesome inmates. Each cell block of the jail was afforded one hour per day in MP as our sole recreation.

Oasis
In the center of the room, looking entirely out of place because of the sense of normalcy and joy that it engendered in everyone who saw it, was the device which would be responsible for my only exercise for the better part of a year. The green top was marred by scratches and scars, and parts of it were cobbled together with strips of cloth torn from a bedsheet, but amidst the harsh stresses of imprisonment it was a glorious vision of escapism and fun. The ping pong table became an oasis of sorts, and one hour with it was never enough.

Reality Check
Of course I had played ping pong on numerous occasions prior to my incarceration, and I thought that I was pretty good. Better than average. When I first stepped to the table, paddle in hand, I was a cocky loudmouth bragging about my abilities. I had both overestimated my talents and underestimated my opponent, Pates.

Grizzled, gray-haired, mid-40’s, he seemed ancient to my naive 22-year old eyes. Pates trounced me handily, without mercy, and called the next victim to the table. I felt demoralized, emasculated, but my own private pity party only lasted as long as two pong matches before it was my turn again. I craved vindication. It turned out that Pates had in fact been taking it easy on me after all. The second match I didn’t score a single point. He skunked me.

pingpongLearning Curve
Pates and I battled every day with few exceptions, and while I did get better, he still defeated me without much difficulty. It was a steep learning curve, but I was learning, improving. After several months of me challenging the King of the Table, and getting multiple victories under my belt, I was finally worthy for him and our matches became epic in scope. It wasn’t enough just to win anymore, but we were working out trick shots and putting spins on the ball to make it drop or swerve in mid-air both to impress and confound one another. As a byproduct of our competitive encounters, or perhaps as a natural extension of such, Pates and I became good friends.

New King in Town
Once Pates left the county jail (he was convicted of a crime that I believe he was genuinely innocent of and sentenced to around 85 years in prison) I was crowned the reigning King of Ping Pong. My new title made me a target for all inmates who thought they were pretty good. I repelled each opponent, some more easily than others, and my crown was never in jeopardy. Due to a lack of worthy challengers, I eventually adopted a semi-retired status and was only coaxed into defending my title and proving my prodigious pong skills every once in a great while.

Blast From the Past
It was a decade removed from my time spent in county, and my period as pong royalty was but a distant memory, when my name was called out by a stranger as I walked on the yard. I turned to face him, and he acted as if he knew me. Turns out he did know me—as King of the Table.

kingHe described my appearance at the time (in the intervening years, I had lost over one hundred pounds, grown my hair a little longish, and actually spent some days in the sun) and spoke of my amazing ping pong abilities. He talked about different guys who we’d been locked up with and some of the officers who had been in the county jail. He even knew some details of my case because mine was a particularly brutal crime that the smallish county was unaccustomed to and this made me somewhat notorious. Despite all of this information, which served as proof that this stranger had, in fact, served time in county jail with me, I had no idea who he was. It was a surreal sensation, but when I sent a query into the database of my brain, the search engine came back with “No results found.” Due to the sheer volume of his fairly intimate knowledge, I had to conclude that my memories of him had merely been lost to time. I’d known hundreds of men while in county, some maybe only for a day or two, and surely I couldn’t be expected to remember every one.

Lasting Legacy
My new/old friend told me that he only played ping pong against me twice, and both times I defeated him easily. He said he wasn’t very good, but enjoyed watching me battle others because the matches were always so thrilling. He also informed me that my name and tales of my astounding talents were spoken of long after I’d left, and always told with the requisite awe.

Gone, but not forgotten.

King Pong—long may I reign.

Cribbage Madness

Seeing my buddy raving like a lunatic and watching him get handcuffed and hauled away was a shocking and brusque introduction to the hard realities of prison.

Common Ground
Phil was tall and skinny as a sapling. He grew up on the harsh streets of the inner city and had been a gangbanger most of his still-young life. He’d worked his way up and out of the worst of the squalor and made a name and place for himself selling drugs, so he could relocate himself and his family to a better environment. Our backgrounds gave us little in common, but we each were facing significant prison terms as we sat in the county jail and fought our respective cases. This provided a kinship between us since the vast majority of guys were looking at maybe a few years in the Department of Corrections, if not merely some county time or even probation. Phil and I were both staring down the same barrel of inevitable and lengthy prison time, just waiting for the trigger to be pulled.

gamesDistractions
The county jail that housed us provided zero time outside for recreation. There was a large room with a TV, law library, library, and ping pong table which we took advantage of for the one hour a day we were allowed, but other than that we were confined to our small cell block, which held nine men in total. Very small. Not much to occupy one’s time. Sergeant Patty was very kind and accommodating so for a brief period she allowed guys to have their family send in board games, provided they were still sealed in the original packaging. Risk, Monopoly, Clue, Stratego, Life, Trivial Pursuit; we suddenly had an abundance of ways in which to spend our time.

In a shockingly short amount of time, the games broke, pieces were lost, or the games simply became stale and boring. Many of them were also confiscated on shakedowns as it turned out that Sergeant Patty had severely overstepped her authority in letting the games into the facility. All of my reminiscing and memories of childhood that the games stirred within me also put me in mind of a card game, which I had spent countless hours playing in my pre-felon days. There was a scoreboard, but I could make that myself so I wouldn’t have to have it sent in only to have it confiscated. The notion of playing some cribbage thrilled me.

Cribbage
I took a flat cardboard box, which once held generic Ritz crackers, and drew up a board with sections that had twenty dots in each. Five dots were to move the players’ pegs forward, and I made enough for four players at a time. I made three hundred dots apiece—one thousand, two-hundred total. I didn’t find out until much later that a standard cribbage board is either 61 or 121 peg moves. For pegs to keep the score, I cut Q-tips in half with nail clippers, colored two pieces black with a marker, then wrapped the fluffy heads in bits of Scotch tape I’d scrounged from pieces of mail. (All inmate mail is opened before being delivered to the prisoner, but is often resealed with Scotch tape or a staple to ensure nothing is lost in transit.) Once I meticulously poked holes at each of the 1200 dots with a sharpened pencil, I had a workable Cribbage board and a deck of cards I’d bought from commissary. All I needed was an opponent or two.

cribbage 2False Starts
No one knew hot to play Cribbage. No one had even heard of the game before. While I found that to be both impossible and exasperating, it was the simple sad truth. I was able to get a few guys to at least give it a try—always only one at a time—but none of them seemed to care for it very much. To be fair and honest, my explanation of the rules was often convoluted and confusing. I couldn’t really remember how to play at first, and relayed what little I could recall, but as we played I was endlessly amending the rules as they came back to me more and more. I’m sure it was an incredible inconvenience at the least, and probably more likely characterized as an enormous pain in the ass. It wasn’t until Phil came along that I found someone who could appreciate the game.

Perfect Pastime
By the time Phil was placed on the cell block, I had worked out all the kinks, and had all the rules properly figured. He took to it with enthusiasm and would often come asking and harassing me to play, which was a nice change from me having to beg someone just to give it a try. There were even numerous times when I was tired of playing, but Phil was relentless in his desire to continue. It made the days pass by in a blink. We played innumerable games, from early morning to late in the evening, which served to take our minds off of our respective cases, and in so doing alleviated much of the anxiety that accompanies waiting for our unknown dire futures to unfold. Unfortunately, those futures had to arrive at some point, and we ended up taking the ride from county jail to a Department of Corrections processing facility together. At least I would know somebody.

Processing
I had always known Phil to be level-headed to the point where he appeared to be the epitome of cool—nothing got him riled. He seemed to take everything in stride. He had already been to the joint once before, and had given me the basics of what to expect when we first got to prison. Processing is an agonizingly slow and seemingly endless ordeal that begins with a strip search and shower. From there, an inmate’s picture is taken, as well as fingerprints and blood. Teeth are x-rayed, questions of all kinds are asked by half a dozen different people. There is a line of men stretching to infinity waiting to move forward to the next station before we can be put in a holding area to eat something. It’s tedious and aggravating to say the least.

I was glad Phil was right there with me, and remained so for much of the day. When we had gotten separated, it was only for brief periods before reuniting at the next point in the long processing journey. It had made things somewhat bearable, having a confederate of sorts, a touchstone to sanity in a place that I quickly discerned was incredibly insane. He seemed to accept it all with patience. At least at first.

Losing It
As the day progressed, I’d noticed that Phil had become a bit more nervous and manic. He’d begun talking incessantly about Cribbage and how I was his Cribbage buddy. At first it was sort of funny, but before long Phil stopped talking to the others around us and he stopped talking directly to me as well. It became painfully clear that he was rambling aloud to himself about Cribbage and hoping he and I could be cellmates. He would rant on in a tangent complaining about all the waiting and cramped conditions, then loudly let it be known that no one had better try to attack him.

After we were fed, he complained about the food. I didn’t know what to make of Phil devolving into an unpredictable mess. I tried calming him, getting him to sit next to me when I could and talk about Cribbage or anything else that would keep him focused. I concocted a daydream of us being placed together in a cell and making another Cribbage board so we could once more spend hours playing. This tactic would work for brief periods, but then Phil would be on his feet again, pacing and raving.

cribbageFreak Out
Once processing was complete, there were four huge caged holding pens with maybe a couple hundred people in each. We were given a bologna sandwich, a small bag of potato chips, a packet of two sugar cookies, and an eight-ounce carton of skim milk. It had been nearly eight hours since we’d arrived, and Phil had only gotten worse as the day progressed. When all the food had been eaten and the garbage collected, a lieutenant instructed that when we heard our name called, we were to come forward and stand along a wall that he indicated.

Names began to be called until the entire length of the one-hundred foot wall was filled. They were then all escorted to a cell block located somewhere in the labyrinthine interior of the massive complex. Halfway through the third group, Phil’s name was called. He hesitated a few moments, jittering in his seat, before bounding up and striding toward his fate without a glance back or a goodbye of any kind. He was mumbling as he left, and I could hear it grow louder as he got closer to the line of men. When Phil was placed against the wall, my vantage point was about forty yards away, so I couldn’t precisely hear everything that was being said, but “Cribbage” was a recurring motif.

All the names were called for that group and I remained in my bullpen. Phil began to get louder and was gesticulating wildly, leaning aggressively towards the person in line behind him. He had attracted the attention of the nearest lieutenant who calmly strolled over with two C/Os flanking him on either side for a total of five security staff members. Phil spun toward them when the lieutenant called out to him. As soon as Phil took a step out of line and moved toward the group of men, he was spun right back around, handcuffed, and hauled away in such a quick and proficient manner that my mind struggled to process the notion that my buddy was gone.

In Retrospect
I still have trouble reconciling the loud, raving, nonsense-spewing person I last saw with the Phil I had known and spent so many hours playing Cribbage and bonding with. A few guys that I’ve shared this incident with have even postulated that perhaps it was all an act or ploy in order to be adjudged mentally ill and thereby reap whatever benefits there might be had from that. I don’t particularly believe that theory, but have no other way to explain Phil’s behavior other than to say that prison can be more difficult for some people than others.

It was surely hard watching my buddy behave in that erratic manner and then be taken away, but it set the tone for more hard times to come.