Perpectives

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I was rushing to get to my work assignment. I wasn’t running late, but I preferred arriving early so that I could take a few moments to get organized and prepared for the day’s tasks. It was a gray day with big fluffy snowflakes fluttering to earth like butterflies on broken wings. Each flake added itself to the pristine scene of freshly fallen snow that covered the ground and made the world seem new, clean, and full of possibility. My sense of haste abated then evaporated as I witnessed my Creator’s hand at work.

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

Stark Beauty
Just beyond the perimeter fence, trees reached to the bleak sky with skeletal limbs. Each appendage was dusted ever so delicately with a white covering as if some cosmic baker had been a bit overzealous with the flour. The serene scene was desolate but gorgeous—a post-apocalyptic postcard. Temperatures were chilly but not uncomfortable, and there wasn’t a whiff of wind. With snow floating all around, I was elated, lifted from the dire nature of my confines and the dreariness of my thoughts. I was compelled to praise and give thanks to the architect of all I saw before me.

“I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you…” The words of the old song came to me once more as they often did, words that I’ve carried from my youth. They sprang forth from my ebullient heart as it overflowed with humble gratitude for all of my abundant blessings. “Oh, my soul, rejoice. Take joy, my King, in what you hear. May it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.” The words carried my feet and my uplifted spirit to the door of the building where I worked. I entered with a smile on my face and joy of the Lord deep down in my heart.

Counterpoint
Good morning, beautiful day today,” I said as soon as I got in the room. My supervisor hacked out a harsh scoffing laugh at my greeting.

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photo by dan
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“Yeah, right,” was the uenthused and sarcastic rely. “All that snow. And it’s too cold. I can’t wait for spring to get her already.” Ms. Griss was a little old lady in her mid-sixties with glasses and a gray/blond perm curled atop her head. She had a slow, deliberate way of moving and speaking, and usually had a more upbeat demeanor. It was December, and this was only the second snowfall of the season—the first snow significant enough to actually stick around rather than immediately melting. I thought to bite my tongue, but my effulgent emotions couldn’t be contained.

“Oh, no, no. It’s beautiful out there. I can see the handiwork of our Creator on display.” Her face twisted and scrunched into a disbelieving scowl as she looked up from her early morning document collating. I smiled warmly, and she seemed to be examining me, her eyes searching for some chink in my sincerity. Finding none, her age-lined lips parted and turned upward in a reluctant smile. This time when she laughed it wasn’t so harsh.

“I suppose so. I can accept that.” It was a begrudging concession, and it made me wish I could endow her with the thrilling intensity of my exuberant joy. Instead Ms. Griss turned back to her paperwork and I went to my workstation.

I’ve long felt that, to some degree, one’s outlook determines one’s outcome. Recognizing the effortless beauty of God’s design and creation, in whatever meager way you can manage, or in whatever drab circumstances you find yourself in, can’t help but point toward a hope-filled outcome. And hope is a good thing.
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Brutally Efficient

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My cellie and I had been together a week already and had long ago exhausted all the superficial topics of discussion available to us. With our only common ground being prison, all that was left for us was to share complaints over the food that was passed through our chuckhole and to exchange good-natured grunts of thanks when passing over a fresh styrofoam tray of something that promised to be sloptastic. There was no TV, no radio, or even reading material of any kind. This left us alone with only our thoughts as entertainment. It was into my muddled thoughts that the screams intruded. They were unintelligible but clearly not born of laughter or joy. They were the sounds of violence and anger.

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Something Promising
I leapt from my top bunk, and for a split second was as light on my feet as a sneaky feline, but then momentum carried me further and I slammed my shoulder into the wall rather painfully in my over-eagerness for some kind of excitement and distraction from the interminable boredom and involuntary napping. (I say “involuntary napping” because when I laid there long enough without stimulus of any kind, I would slip into unconsciousness against my will.) With my face pressed to the perforated metal portion of the door, I tried to decipher where the screams and distant but familiar noises of someone getting beaten were coming from. At the time, I was on three gallery, so I was three stories in the air, which made it difficult to pinpoint the source of the scuffle. My cellie’s face was next to mine, just as starved for something to focus on, but he couldn’t figure where the fight was happening either. Within a minute, though, and much quicker than I ever would’ve thought, tac team members showed up in their riot gear to put a stop to it.

Tactical Arrival
At that time, I was still being housed in a maximum-security facility, and hadn’t yet seen the tac team assemble, but I was about to witness firsthand how they operated. There were five of them, each resplendent in a bright orange jumpsuit, over which they wore various kinds of body armor—all of which was an intimidating shade of black—that protected their chest, arms, legs and hands. On their heads there were bulbous helmets with plexiglass visors. In their hands, they each held a two-foot wooden baton and a plexiglass shield that was about three feet wide by four feet tall—large enough to afford plenty of protection. Marching in formation—two by two with one in the lead—their boots slammed the concrete floor in practiced unison while they beat their shields with their batons and chanted a rhythmic grunt that reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West’s guards in The Wizard of Oz. It was a rehearsed and disciplined effort designed to unnerve and terrorize all onlookers. It was effective.

The Show Begins
The lead tac team member stopped at the door to the cell and I had a direct line of sight to it. In a booming voice that echoed through the cell house, he ordered the inmates inside to stand up, place their hands behind their backs, and face the back wall of their cell. A single voice hollered an obscenity that made it clear he wouldn’t comply with the order. The tac team member never took his eyes off the cell door. He raised his baton over his head and made a circular motion in the air, indicating he wanted the door to be rolled open, before bringing the baton back down to a readied position behind his shield. The door to the cell began to slide sideways, electronically controlled by the tower, and once it was open they flooded in.

While shouting aggressively for the inmates to submit, one, two, three, four of them rushed in while one remained at the door. For a quick moment, I turned my head around to survey the dimensions of my own cell and wondered how they could all even fit in there. Screams of pain brought my attention riveted back to the cell under siege. I couldn’t see into the cell, but there were muffled sounds of impact and grunts of exertion. The pained yelling continued for a few moments before being squelched. On the heels of that marked silence was the distinct clicking of handcuffs being tightened into place. Even from three stories below me, it came through loud and clear, and it sent a shiver of goosebumps across my neck and over my scalp.

blacktigertactical dot tvAftermath
A tac team officer backed out of the cell first, and he was holding his shield over the back and head of one of the assailants. The inmate was cuffed with his hands behind his back, wearing only his boxers, and there was blood visible on his head. A second tac team officer followed close behind with his shield covering and holding the inmate down so that the two shields formed a plexiglass pyramid under which the offender was made to walk while folded nearly in half at the waist. In this secure and helpless position he couldn’t raise his head to look where he was going, and was so off balance that if he tried to resist or fight back in any way, it wouldn’t take much of a nudge to put him on his face. The remaining two tac team members in the cell came out in identical configuration, but the second inmate had a t-shirt on. The front of it sagged heavily from his body and was more red than white. There was no way for me to know how much of the blood that I saw was spilt by inmates and how much by the tac team.

I was impressed by the smoothness of their movements, and it was clear that they had practiced a great deal in order to work together as a unit in such coordinated fashion. I was equal parts impressed and frightened by it. I was also glad that they weren’t coming for me.

The entire process didn’t take more than three minutes, and they were all shuffling carefully off the deck together. Efficient in their brutality. The inmates never came back, their property was packed and moved by a couple C/Os a couple hours later. My cellie and I passed the afternoon in lively discussion because the incident had finally given us something to talk about.
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Uncommon Compassion

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“C’mon, quick; Tee needs you.”
I was mid-conversation with someone, but left him immediately without a word of explanation or apology. Tee was my cellie, my buddy. There was an urgency and seriousness in the messenger’s tone that begged no rebuttal or delay. Once I arrived at the cell that Tee and I shared with four other guys, I could immediately see that Tee was in agony.

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photo by stockimages
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Proof
I’d known Tee for over a year to this point, and he had often made it known that he had a history of back pain that often precluded him from any type of strenuous exercise. There were times when I was less than sympathetic to Tee’s plight, and I even postulated that he was merely practicing his own brand of crying wolf as an excuse to be lazy. When I saw him poised in pain over his bunk, I knew I’d been wrong.

Stuck
Tee’s butt was hovering half a foot off of his bunk, as both of his arms were ramrod straight like stilts holding him aloft. His arms were shaking from exertion and exhaustion. His features were pinched together as he gritted his teeth against the pain.
“What can I do? Can you sit down?” I asked him.
“No,” he grunted.
“Do you want me to help you sit down?”
“No!” he managed to holler with some conviction and more than a little panic.
“Well, what can I do?”
“Get the C/O.” I turned to leave the cell and do just that, but Officer Osmond was already making his way down the hall in no kind of hurry at all. A crowd had begun to gather.
“He needs help!” I called to C/O Osmond.
“I know,” he replied. Apparently, someone had run and told him about the burgeoning medical emergency. He didn’t pick up his pace. Once he did arrive at the cell, he shooed the gawkers out of his way. “What’s wrong?” he asked as Tee continued his best impression of a statue.
“I threw my back out,” Tee replied, his voice straining to maintain normalcy.
“Oh,” Osmond said, sounding befuddled. “What’s that mean?”
“I threw my back out,” Tee repeated the phrase as if it were self-explanatory. “I can’t move,” he added as further explanation, but was only met with more of the officer’s vacuous gaze. “I’m stuck!” Tee finally belted out followed by a scream of frustration and pain as the exertion from the initial yelling sent hurt hurtling along his already agonized nerve endings.

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photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Callous
C/O Osmond called in a medical emergency over the radio, and medical staff were dispatched to the cell house immediately. Then he stood to the side, disinterested, and waited for assistance to arrive as if the entire situation were one big nuisance. Tee managed to slowly but surely lower himself until he was perched stiffly on the edge of his bunk, looking completely unnatural and uncomfortable. I stood there to support Tee, but was merely silent, useless, and helpless.

Guys outside the door laughed and made fun of Tee for basically hurting himself by standing up out of the bed. Our cellies all joined in the ridicule. C/O Osmond even added callous comments to the conversation and had a good chuckle about it all. I could tell that every breath Tee took caused him added discomfort. I wanted to yell at all of them to shut the hell up. When I heard the rattle of wheels in the hallway and saw C/O Arthur pulling a stretcher with two nurses and two other C/Os in tow, I figured things were only going to get worse for Tee.

Compassion
C/O Arthur had a reputation for being a colossal prick. It was a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. I stepped out of the way, expecting Arthur to further debase and belittle Tee as that seemed to be the popular pastime for the moment.

Instead, he was extraordinarily gently and compassionate. He asked Tee to describe the pain and how exactly it had manifested. Arthur crouched down onto his knees so Tee wouldn’t have to move his head in order to look at C/O Arthur as he spoke. Arthur seemed to hang on every word. The two nurses stood in the hallway and looked indifferent. The two C/Os appeared to be bored.

photo by Ambro www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Ambro
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Once Arthur had assessed the situation, he instructed the two C/Os to bring in the flatboard and put it on the floor. Then he provided them with a step-by-step tutorial on how they would assist him in moving Tee to the flatboard. It was clear from Arthur’s delivery and demeanor that he wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection from his helpers. With extreme care, the three C/Os gingerly lifted Tee bodily from the bunk and rotated his body to achieve the necessary repositioning. After Tee was seated awkwardly on the flatboard, C/O Arthur spoke in a comforting voice, as he assured Tee that it was necessary to move him again. With an uncanny tenderness, Arthur slowly straightened Tee’s legs and strapped them in place. Tee was lying on his back and Arthur manipulated Tee’s arms to cross them over his chest before securing them there. Once Tee was ready to be moved, Arthur and the other C/Os, including Osmond, cautiously carried him to the stretcher then fastened him to it before rolling it out of the building.

Afterward
All the talk on the deck was about Tee. Some were poking fun at him, others claimed he had just been faking it—for what purpose, I have no idea. There were some individuals who were aggressively cruel in their maligning of Tee, concluding that he was a stupid and worthless portion of excrement. It shocked and baffled me that a known crank C/O showed more human kindness to Tee than his own fellow inmates did.
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Puddle of Blood

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When I first saw him lying there with his eyes open and emptied of all their light, I felt certain he was dead.

No Luck
I’d been in and out of the building all day—work, healthcare, work, chow, work. Every time I returned to my building, I’d nabbed a telephone and tried to get through to my friend but always without any luck. After I was in for the final time and done for the day, I began walking down the hall toward my cell, but only took three steps before reconsidering. I turned around quickly on my heel and immediately began moving back through the dayroom, making a beeline for the only phone cubicle that wasn’t occupied. Based on my track record for the day, I wasn’t very optimistic about my chances, but I had to try.

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Precious Connection
I got through! My heart raced ahead of itself, as I was stupendously elated to speak to one of my precious few tethers to the world. The longer I’m incarcerated, the more I’ve come to understand just how important it is to have these connections. Unfortunately my friend’s voice on this occasion sounded like it was coming from a million miles away and filtered through a howling hurricane, so I only caught maybe every tenth or twelfth word. I smashed the receiver painfully into one ear while jamming my index finger up to the first knuckle into my other ear in an effort to block all the background noise whirling around me. Even with ambient noise squelched, it only served to make the garbled voice come in with more volume but still the same amount of insufficient clarity. I grunted out sporadic affirmative vocalizations—ahuh, yeah, yup—but wasn’t able to make much sense of the disjointed, one-sided discussion. My confusion over the conversation only lasted a few short minutes because I quickly had reason to be confused about something completely different.

Terminated
“GET OFF THE PHONE! NOW!!”

The C/O doing the yelling was only a half dozen paces behind me, and I nearly leapt loose of my skin to skitter away in the wake of his screams. I’d never seen him before, had no type of relationship or rapport with him, and the withering, hateful look he shot my way made it clear that I had somehow unwittingly waltzed myself into a dangerous predicament. I froze and stared dumbly at him; I was caught in the harsh glare of his gaze. When I didn’t move fast enough, the C/O cussed me out thoroughly before questioning my mental acuity and competence. Then he yelled again for me to get off the phone and go to my cell, this time inserting certain choice curse words into his demand.

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sbrookscareers.blogspot.com

“I gotta go. Gotta go back to my cell. Something’s happening here. Gotta go, bye. I’ll talk to you…whenever. I don’t know. Bye.” I hated having to leave my friend hanging in uncertainty, not knowing what was going on or if I’d be okay, but didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Once I was off the phone and on my way through the dayroom in the direction of my cell, the C/O I didn’t know turned back toward the hallway opposite mine, presumably to go find someone else to swear at.

There wasn’t a single other inmate in sight. At that time of day, the dayroom and hallways are usually teeming with guys coming in from work and the gym. Most of them are trying to get in the shower. I didn’t know what, but clearly something serious had happened.

Silent Apology
C/O Cantos was my five-day officer, and I got along with him well enough. I also knew him to be capable of being strict, or even a crank at times, so I wasn’t sure in which direction his inclinations leaned, especially in the heightened circumstances that had suddenly arisen. As I approached Cantos, I raised my hands above my head and shrugged my shoulders up to my ears while plastering a confused but conciliatory look on my face. The whole act was meant to convey that I was both sorry and that I didn’t know. It worked.

“It’s okay, you didn’t know. Just get to your cell.” He didn’t have to tell me twice, and I actually jogged the final fifteen feet that got me out of the dayroom and into the hallway.

Serious Situation
My cell was at the end of the hallway, fifty feet away, and while I had quit my jogging, I kept a quick pace. I could see one C/O standing in front of my door. He was in profile to me and was looking down at the floor in front of him, but the way the hallway angled to the right made it impossible for me to see what he was looking at. Then he looked up at me and stabbed a stubby finger in my direction.

“What are you doing? Where’s your cell?” I pointed past him and was about to pick my speed up a bit more when a flutter of footsteps and jangle of keys from behind me caught my attention, and I had to investigate. With a glance over my shoulder, I saw four lieutenants, one sarge, and three C/Os bearing down on me with no-nonsense looks across each of their faces. “C’mon, straight to your cell. Hurry up.” I turned back forward to see the C/O who was blocking my door waving me in with frantic arm motions like he was some kind of spastic ground control operator guiding an airplane home. With all that authority hot on my heels, I was grateful for the excuse to haul ass. So I did. It wasn’t until I was practically on top of Tall Boy’s supine form that I saw him and reflexively slowed my speedwalk to a crawl to gawk in shock. I finally knew what all the fuss was about.

Lifeless

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photo by by Simon Howden
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Tall Boy was tall. Go figure. He was over seven feet but managed to seem even taller as he walked with his back ramrod straight so that his body always appeared to climb to the sky. Despite the latter half of his moniker, Tall Boy was actually quite elderly—closer to seventy than he was to 60—and he used a cane to help him walk. His right leg was the problem, and it was clear that he struggled with the effort to downplay his limp as much as he could, but it was impossible to erase altogether. I suspect his extremely erect posture was born from pride and was his way of overcompensating for the limp. I didn’t know him well, but he’d always come across as a nice old guy. I couldn’t imagine what crime or perceived slight that he may have committed, but he didn’t deserve what was done to him.

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Tall Boy’s oversized frame was stretched out on his back, legs splayed to the sides with the toes of his enormous booted feet pointed heavenward. He looked like a statue or monolith that had been toppled in some violent uprising. His eyes were vacated of all recognition and life—only blank, unseeing orbs gazing up at nothing. He wasn’t blinking. Two of the three florescent overhead lights had burnt out leaving the corner area cast mostly in the shadows. An ideal spot to ambush someone.

The blood pooling around Tall Boy’s head was the dark corona of some perverse fallen angel. A C/O had been concealed from my view by the curve of the wall, but I could see him as he stood over the body and held Tall Boy’s cane in his hand. He wore latex gloves and was carefully examining the tool to see if there was any evidence to suggest it could be the murder weapon. Or the attempted murder weapon. As I was hurried into my cell, I feared it would be the former.

Evacuation and Investigation
Nurses came with a flatboard and hauled Tall Boy away. His head was wrapped in a white bandage that had quickly turned red with blood. His feet hung limply off the end of the board. I couldn’t discern any signs that he was alive. C/Os thronged to the building and a shoddy assembly line of sorts was set up. Each inmate was pulled from his cell and stripped by two C/Os who then checked his body for blood, bruises, or any other markings that could be indicative of a struggle. Next came a ramshackle interview conducted by the Internal Affairs lieutenant and an IA C/O. My cellies claimed all they heard was a loud banging sound, and thought maybe someone had dropped their property box. Since I had only just come in from work and then jumped on the phone, I had nothing to contribute to the discussion. Nothing ever came of any of it. No one went to Seg or got in trouble. There were rumors that Tall Boy had died, that he went to a hospital outside prison, and that he had been transferred to another joint. I have no idea what actually happened to him.

Stir Crazy

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“I can’t take it anymore! Gotta get outta here!”

Winn’s voice screeched and cracked as he lost control. His face was twisted and distorted as he pressed it against the small rectangular pane of security glass in the door. He grabbed ahold of the handle and shook with all his might, grunting with exertion, but to no effect. With the edge of his eye, he caught me looking at him with shock, utter disbelief, and even a touch of horror, so he quit his caterwauling. He slapped the door with the flat of his palm and the loud smack echoed around the tiny confines of our cell. When he began to laugh uproariously, I was sure that I was in serious trouble.

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photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Better than Everyone
Winn had been locked up for just over twenty years when we became cellies, and his extensive prison experience had given him a perverse sense of entitlement, as if he were better than every guy who hadn’t spent the bulk of his life incarcerated. This kind of loopy logic is actually quite common amongst men like Winn who have spent so many years in prison. Winn was so full of pride that he came across as an ignorant, arrogant prick. The extreme degree of his holier-than-thou type attitude made me less inclined to be sympathetic when he began to bug up.

Lockdown Protocol
A lockdown generally means that inmates are completely confined to their cells with meals delivered and no showers allowed. I’d spent the first half dozen years of my prison term in a joint where lockdowns were more than merely commonplace, they were a routine and expected way of life. A lockdown, even a short one of two to three days, was practically guaranteed each month. At least twice a year there would be a month long lockdown. Since I had only fairly recently arrived at the lower-security facility, a lockdown was nothing to me but an opportunity to get some writing or reading done. Maybe watch some TV. The professional convict Winn, on the other hand, was fifteen years removed from the max security prisons where lockdowns are par for the course, and he wasn’t handling it well.

Losing It
At first his mental turmoil manifested as an uncontrollable restlessness. He couldn’t sit still. His legs jittered and shook without ceasing, and he would sporadically walk back and forth across the scant space of the cell a few times before sitting back down to shimmy in his seat for a while. It was only a matter of time until the urge gripped him to pace some more. Around two in the afternoon on only the second full day of lockdown,Winn began to yell and slap the door. He was unraveling. His ensuing laughter sounded insane ,and I’m neither too proud nor too ashamed to admit that hearing it scared the ever-loving hell out of me.
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Faking It
“What’s up, man!? How you doin’ buddy?” Winn brayed much more loudly than was necessary. I didn’t, in fact, know Winn very well or particularly like him all that much, so I didn’t count us as buddies. His affable smile was completely disingenuous. I had glimpsed Winn’s legitimate lunatic leanings and he was overcompensating with a forced attempt at jocularity and normalcy. While I wasn’t buying it, I also certainly wasn’t about to let him know that his façade was translucent. I had no desire whatsoever to witness Winn entirely unhinged.
“I’m good, man,” I replied to Winn’s queries. “Just getting some writing done. How about you? You good?” He chuckled and managed to sound somewhat less than maniacal.
“Yeah, I’m good, bro.”
“Yeah?”
“Shit, man, I was just playin’. I’m straight.” He was not just “playin’,” and I knew it. I suspect he also knew that I knew it, but we both silently agreed to continue faking it.

Coping
Following this incident, Winn paced a few more times, but eventually he withdrew himself from everything and ended up laying in bed with the blanket over his head for hours. As the days dragged on, he became more horrified and disheveled, less responsive, practically comatose for long stretches of time. After two weeks of lockdown, his temperament and personality had changed so dramatically that he was unrecognizable from the man I had first met only a few months before. He had lost enough weight for it to be easily noticed and constantly wore a dazed look which gave the appearance that he’d misplaced his tether to reality.

Once the lockdown finally ended, it took weeks for Winn to recapture the heights of bravado and bullshit machismo that he had previously attained, and I couldn’t help but be disgusted by it. I had witnessed a more honest vision of his true self and knew just how fake Winn was.

When it comes to surviving prison, I suppose there are all kinds of different methods that guys use to cope.
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Not Stockholm

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My cellie Kevin and I got along well enough. He worked out too much, in my opinion, but it could just be that his extreme dedication made me feel both shame and guilt over my decidedly more lackadaisical approach to exercise. Regardless, we each had our own ways of doing time, our personalized and unique perspectives, and one day he took me to task for mine.

Syndrome
“You think this is how it’s supposed to be? This place sucks, man! You’re messed up! You don’t even know how bad it is; they’ve got you fooled. You’ve been here so long that you’ve got Stockholm Syndrome. You’re just messed up!”

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photo by imagerymajestic
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This rant was railed against me as a reaction to my stubborn optimism and (according to Kevin) my annoying tendency to focus on the positive aspects of any given situation. Kevin, on the other hand, chose to embrace negativity and complain about EVERYTHING. Stockholm Syndrome, as I understand it, is a phenomenon which occurs when a person has been held captive and subjected to varying degrees of mental and emotional duress until they begin to sympathize with their captors, as a psychological defense mechanism,. In more extreme cases, these individuals actually take sides with their captors and fight to defend them. According to Kevin, I was the hostage, and the prison we were being held in was the entity to whom I showed sympathy.

Sour Outlook
Kevin was practically a professional complainer, and as such, his distorted outlook tended to determine his outcome. In my experience, I’ve found that a sour attitude is a self-perpetuation and self-fulfilling way to approach life. Sometimes I had to find that lesson out through painful experiences, but at least I did learn it. The same can’t be said for Kevin, which explains why he thought that I was suffering some cockeyed form of Stockholm Syndrome.

Differing Perspectives
The prison we were in at the time was a disciplinary joint without much movement outside our cell or many privileges of any kind. This gave Kevin license to take issue with just about everything. When he went to gym, he’d complain that there were too many people and not enough weight machines or not enough time allotted to really get a good workout in. When gym was cancelled for no apparent reason, Kevin complained about being denied his recreation period.

A two hour yard was inadequate to him, meals insubstantial, TV reception not clear enough, available television channels too few. For Kevin, going on lockdown was akin to an apocalyptic event. Seeing only the bad kept Kevin in an interminably lousy mood. He could smile and laugh and have fun, but the undercurrent of abrasive annoyance—like a despicable default setting—was never far from display.

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photo by dusky
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Making Lemonade
Where Kevin saw nuisances and aggravations, I identified blessings. Although gym periods were often crowded, that was good motivation to keep pushing through fatigue for the entire hour, because halfway through gym most guys fell off and there were plenty of weight machines available. Two hours of yard was plenty; free TV was lovely. I’d become accustomed to only three showers per week with other cleansings performed while standing over the sink and toilet, so that didn’t much bother me either. To me a lockdown wasn’t a curse, but rather an opportunity to focus on my writing with few interruptions. At times I’d even hope for/look forward to a lockdown because I craved that chance to give my work some undivided attention.

Despite Kevin’s opinion, none of my upbeat outlook was a result or example of me sympathizing with my so-called captor, but rather me making the most of a rough situation. Lemons into lemonade, as the adage goes. In the end I honestly didn’t think we had it all that bad.

Finding something to endlessly complain about is easy no matter where someone lives. From the bedsprings that make your back ache, to the chair that stubs your toe most mornings, to the latest horror show the news has waiting every day; there’s always something to find fault with. Consciously, continuously, and adamantly counting one’s blessings and thereby refusing to get dragged down by the hate and negativity that so insidiously permeate this world, especially enveloping the environment of prison, is an admirable way to live. I daresay—the right way to live.
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Master Craftsman

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As a consummate entrepreneur, DJ managed to turn a profit making trinkets and baubles whose only real appeal was in their uniqueness. All of his toilet paper flowers and decorative pillows were quite beautiful, but beyond that they had no practical value whatsoever. While DJ recognized that he had a lucrative business in place, and he certainly enjoyed spending/eating the profits, he was also perfectly aware of how ephemeral and ultimately useless his products were. This knowledge eventually led to a degree of dissatisfaction on his part, which was only countered when he had the opportunity to call upon his master craftsman capabilities.

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The Artistry
Both skill and talent were certainly required for creating DJ’s pretty presents, but he was capable of so much more. When he could get his hands on the proper materials, he excelled. His passion projects were tediously time-consuming, but he reveled in the real artistry and true craftsmanship of them.

Repurposed
A pair of old leather boots, which had been discarded as trash, were gold to DJ. He would take a razorblade that he had removed from its plastic disposable casing and use that to slice the leather into pieces and strips appropriate for the works he intended to create. To prepare the tough leather, he would rub Vaseline into it everyday for as many days as it took until it was soft and supple.

Meticulous
Once the leather was ready for his nimble fingers, DJ would commence to crimping and folding the edges, manipulating them and preparing them to receive his stitches. I have no earthly idea where he procured the nylon string that he used to sew his material, nor what he used to dye the white nylon black so that it matched the boot leather. He fashioned his pieces into bifold wallets that could be sent home as gifts by inmates or a more simple holder designed to carry an Inmate ID Card.

The latter was also seen as some kind of silly status symbol. Wristwatch bands were his other specialty and when he was finished, his products looked as professionally produced as anything on display for sale at a retail store. As a sewer myself, I marveled at the tiny stitches and how intricate yet uniform he managed to keep them.

ab3a017ea97ea90959d180b2a9e699d7Ingenuity
Since wristwatches are prominently displayed on one’s wrist (go figure), they are also something of a status symbol in prison. The watches generally cost about ten to twelve dollars, so it doesn’t really make sense, but that’s how it is, and most guys like to trade up the factory watchband for a prison-made replacement. DJ’s leather bands sold well and lasted for many years, but leather can be hard to some by. Shoelaces, on the other hand, are routinely thrown away, or else are available for purchase in commissary. DJ would deftly slip the outer cloth covering from the rounded shoelace, leaving behind a braided rope. The liberated material he would flatten and, using those astonishingly subtle stitches, he’d sew the two strips into a band approximately three quarters of an inch wide. Using durable plastic pieces that he scrounged from somewhere and Velcro he’d sliced from shower curtains, DJ formed a clasp for these original works of prison art. For an additional fee, using brilliantly colored thread, he could stitch a person’s initials into the band to distinguish it from others of its ilk.

Witnessing DJ’s finished masterpieces, I couldn’t help but be supremely impressed by his enormous skill. There was, however, also a touch of wistful sadness to my impression, as I couldn’t help but wonder why his talent and clockwork intellect were being squandered, locked behind prison walls.//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js //