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.

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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.

Injustice for All

 

Sonny was an older black man, in his mid-sixties, and walked with a slow, loping limp. He didn’t move very swiftly. This particular stint in Segregation for Sonny was because he had mouthed off to the wrong C/O. Other officers might have just talked some shit right back to him and that would’ve been the end of it. Instead, the C/O took it personally, and Sonny was said to be insolent. “Insolence” can be a serious infraction of the rules, but not enough to take a guy to Seg. However, when Sonny refused to turn around to be handcuffed, it was “disobeying a direct order,” which was grounds to be marched to Seg. During Sonny’s first week he hadn’t made any kind of fuss. Not yet.

sbrookscareers.blogspot.com
sbrookscareers.blogspot.com

Aggressor
Officer Selleff was a real sonofabitch. That’s actually the nicest thing I can say about him. He was young, white, muscular, fit. He’d been in the military and had a real gung-ho, go-get-’em attitude. He had applied to be a police officer, but they didn’t want him, so he became a glorified babysitter to convicted felons. In his warped mind, he was the hero and we, his wards, were the enemy.

Selleff abused his authority at every turn by confiscating property that was perfectly allowed, and denying inmates that which was legally mandated to them. He verbally abused inmates constantly, harassing and insulting them with slurs against their race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Numerous complaints and grievances had already been lodged against Officer Selleff. He had been reprimanded by superiors and moved around to several different buildings, but nothing seemed to curb his overzealous and caustic behavior. He’d been a correctional officer for about nine months and hadn’t physically assaulted an inmate. Not yet.

Extraction
With his black tactical gloves on and another officer in tow, it was clear that C/O Selleff meant business as he strode towards Sonny’s door. An officious and absurdly aggressive bellow rattled from his chest ordering Sonny to turn around and walk backwards to the door to be handcuffed for a shakedown. Sonny was in no hurry and took his time obeying Selleff’s commands. Selleff positively buzzed with anxious impatience, hopping back and forth from foot to foot like a giddy child on Christmas morning.

“C’mon! Hurry up, you old fuck!” he blurted like the empowered bully that he was.

Selleff let the trapdoor of the chuckhole slam open and Sonny complied by sticking his hands out through the opening to be cuffed together behind his back. Selleff derived a twisted pleasure and sick glee from clicking the steel together over Sonny’s slack flesh. With Sonny secured, Selleff opened the door and pulled Sonny out of the cell by grabbing the cuffs and lifting Sonny’s arms up high behind his back before yanking with enough force to make Sonny holler in pain. Sonny cussed at Selleff, which only seemed to encourage his tyrant instinct, and he raised Sonny’s cuffs even higher so Sonny had to bend at the waist in an effort to alleviate some of the pressure on his shoulders and upper back. It was in this vulnerable position that Selleff then propelled Sonny forward face first into the wall next to the open door of the cell.

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Initial Assault
There was a loud, hollow conking sound and a grunt from Sonny. “Keep your face to the wall,” Selleff ordered before pressing Sonny’s face against the cinder block wall for emphasis. The other C/O entered Sonny’s cell and Selleff followed. Sounds of things being roughly searched and tossed around echoed throughout the cell block. Sonny was leaning heavily against the wall and seemed to be dazed. Eventually he steadied himself on his feet and ventured to peek around the edge of the doorframe. He watched for a few moments before he couldn’t hold back his remarks any longer.

“C’mon man, you don’t gotta do all that.” In Seg, an inmate’s property is limited to a couple changes of clothes, hygiene items, and sometimes books, magazines, personal letters, and letter-writing materials. I say “sometimes” for these latter items because an inmate is entitled to them, but isn’t always given them out of their correspondence box. If a C/O assigned to Seg doesn’t feel like doing it, and inmate will have only the nothingness of pure thought to occupy his mind. There wasn’t much for Selleff and his cohort to search, but they were going through it as thoroughly as humanly possible, scattering what little there was around the cell in a callous and haphazard fashion. Despite that fact, Sonny would’ve been better off keeping his grip to himself.

“What did I say?!!!” Selleff brayed as he came barreling out of the cell. “Face to the wall!” He grabbed Sonny by the back of the neck with his left hand and lifted up on the handcuffs with his right hand. Sonny voiced some feeble, inarticulate protests that were largely muffled by his face being pressed forcibly to the wall.

Sonny’s body was perhaps two feet from the wall but he was being leaned forward so his face was against the cold cinder blocks. Selleff lifted Sonny’s cuffed hands even higher which forced his face even harder into the wall and caused excruciating pain to his shoulder sockets. Sonny raised his leg and swung it backwards. This was either done in an effort to maintain his balance, or as a feeble attempt to kick Selleff. The result of his actions was that his foot brushed Selleff’s leg with all the force of a feather duster being wielded by an infant. Selleff erupted.

Second Assault
“He kicked me! He kicked me!” Selleff screamed, which brought the other C/O rushing out to assist his fellow correctional officer. Selleff’s accomplice grabbed Sonny in a side hug, clamping his arms down and standing him upright. Selleff had backed away a few feet, but once Sonny was secured, he charged forward and shoved Sonny into the wall before beginning to punch him in the back, side, and ribs repeatedly. The second officer had a look of shock plastered stupidly across his face, but he held tightly to Sonny—the human punching bag—and said nothing in the way of protest.

punchingbag_leatherAfter a dozen or more blows, Selleff ceased his topside assault and began kicking at Sonny’s legs until Sonny fell against the officer holding him. The C/O let go and backed away so Sonny careened sideways and crashed onto his shoulder and side, his cuffed arms unable to break his fall. A loud scrunching sound accompanied this collapse. Selleff pounced upon Sonny, kicking and stomping his unprotected body while raving obscenities and racial slurs in an unceasing litany of hate. The other officer retreated, wearing a mask of bewilderment and fear, but he didn’t possess the integrity to step in and stop what was obviously wrong.

With a final barrage of boots to Sonny’s back and side, Selleff crowed, “That’s what you get for kicking me, you little bitch.” He stood over his motionless victim for a moment, panting like a wild animal, as he tried to catch his breath. Eventually he motioned for his partner in crime to assist him in dragging Sonny’s awake but inert body into the cell before slamming the door with a resounding finality. Sonny was left in the cell for several hours, still handcuffed, before finally being taken to Healthcare in a wheelchair.

Travesty
There was an investigation. This inquiry was initiated and carried out by the Internal Affairs division, whose role is to police both staff and inmates in order to ensure the safety and security of everyone, as well as to prevent or punish any infractions of the rules or codes of conduct. Officer Selleff was given a one-week leave of absence, with pay, while IA carried out their audit. In the end, Sonny was given a year across the board. This means he had to spend a year in Seg, and a year was added to his sentence. There is no evidence that Selleff was held accountable or punished by any official means. He remained at his post in Seg for a while before being moved around to different areas as he continued to antagonize inmates, other staff members, and superiors alike. Eventually Selleff was transferred to work at another prison, but I don’t know whether or not this was at his own request. To my knowledge, he is still a correctional officer.

Oversharing

An Attack
“I’ve got it figured out. You know what I’ve been doing? I’ve still got a roll and a half of toilet paper left. You know how? It’s Friday already, and so we get a new roll for the week tomorrow, but I STILL have a roll and a half left; you know how I do it?

“What I’ve been doing is, once I’m done pooping, is, I bring a wash rag and some soap, right? So, once I’m all done, I hang my butt over the sink and let the water hit it, you know, to take care of whatever’s left. Any cling-ons. Then I soap up and swab out my crack real good. I mean real good, make sure that I get it all nice and clean. I bring my little mirror so I can check to see that I got everything. All shiny, pink, and pretty. Beautiful, man. I don’t hardly use any shit paper anymore, except mostly to, like, blow my nose, you know?

“You should totally try it, man. Change your life. I’m just sayin’.”

toilet paperMy Chagrin
I was accosted by the above information dump one morning by a buddy of mine. There was no preamble to it or context which he set it in. I didn’t ask, it wasn’t a topic we had previously discussed, and after unloading on me, he walked away and never once spoke of it again. Unfortunately, it isn’t an image that is so easily dispatched from memory. Though, I wish that it were.

The forced close quarters living of prison makes it impossible at times to have any kind of privacy, and it therefore becomes inevitable to know things about the guys around me. However, this wasn’t some knowledge that I’d happened upon accidentally. Instead, I was made to endure a detailed divulging of one man’s bathroom habits. There are simply some things that I never wanted to know and didn’t need to hear described as “shiny, pink, and pretty.”

Medical Emergency

The Kill
With a sonorous smack, Whitey smashed the spider and squished it between his palm and the white brick wall. This act was preceded by a yelp of surprise and disgust at the presence of the offending arachnid, and with the intruder successfully dispatched, a shout of victory clamored from his throat. He unceremoniously swiped his hand across his pant leg so as to be rid of the evidence of his kill before folding his arms over his chest and settling back to continue watching his television program.

brown_widow_spider_largeThe Question
A few minutes later, my name was hollered thrice in quick succession followed by a frantic, imperative instruction to “come here.” I climbed down from my perch on the top bunk and crossed the floor of the six-man cell I shared with Whitey and four other men. Whitey was on the top bunk across from me with his back to me. Standing next to his bunk, I inquired, “What’s up?” but before he could answer or I could add any follow-up queries, I looked up at his face and cussed involuntarily and vociferously.

“Is there something wrong with my eye?” Whitey asked, a tremor of fearful uncertainty in his voice. It would’ve been a comically absurd question if his appearance hadn’t been so truly horrifying.

The Crisis
After having smeared the spider’s innards against the wall, apparently some of those remains stayed on Whitey’s hand even after he wiped it on his pants. When he innocently and nonchalantly rubbed his eye, he also inadvertently transferred spider residue directly onto the sensitive tissue of his right eye resulting in a nearly immediate reaction and an alarmingly ample amount of swelling. Of course all of this was surmised by me in hindsight. In the immediacy of the moment, I had no idea what was happening or why, but it looked like Whitey’s eyeball was about to burst out of its socket. My definitive response resounded throughout the cell.

The Reaction
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed.

Perhaps not my most eloquent phrasing, but it was effective in gaining the attention of the other guys in the room who all suddenly wanted to peek and gawk at the prodigious protuberance which had until recently been as plain as any other eyeball. I watched it swell larger, pushing itself outward against the suddenly claustrophobic confines of the orbital bones. I couldn’t believe it was still clinging to its place inside Whitey’s skull and hadn’t already plunked out of its home and onto Whitey’s cheek. Despite having taken a First Aid and First Responders course on two separate occasions, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t recall any chapter or lecture that covered bulging eyeballs. My CPR training and certification was both lapsed and entirely useless. For a long moment all I could do was stare transfixed and helpless at the gross distortion of my friend Whitey’s face.

photo by Stuart Miles www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net
photo by Stuart Miles
http://www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Assistance
Eventually I managed to take some initiative and send someone scurrying down the hallway to get a C/O. When the C/O arrived, he looked and sounded supremely annoyed as he inquired about the “so-called ‘Medical Emergency.’” One look at Whitey’s deformed features froze him in his spot for an instant before he retreated wordlessly and with extreme haste back to where he’d come from. Stunned silence filled the room. Within two minutes, the C/O came charging back to the cell, keys jangling a racket as they rattled on his belt. He ordered Whitey to follow him, said that he’d be going to Healthcare immediately, and a van was coming to carry him there. To the officer’s credit, he told Whitey not to bother putting his prison blues on—the uniform an inmate must wear when venturing outside his building—and instead hustled Whitey up the hall simultaneously leading, dragging, and pushing him until he was out the door and on his way towards treatment.

The Outcome
In Healthcare, they determined that the spider guts were indeed the culprit, and pumped Whitey full of antihistamine to combat his adverse reaction. He was kept several hours for observation, but was back on his bunk before night’s end with the swelling having mostly diminished.

I often use this as a cautionary tale, and whenever I kill a bug—even when I smack it with a shoe and use toilet paper to dispose of the corpse—I was my hands vigorously with soap and hot water afterwards. The memory of Whitey’s wonky eyeball is enough to always make me scrub just a little bit harder.