Billy and Sid only worked together one day a week. I don’t think the prison could’ve coped with them longer than that. It has to be illegal to have that much fun at work.
Sid usually arrived first while Billy dragged himself in a few minutes later, often looking half asleep or wholly hungover. I have no doubt that Sid was frequently in the same state, he just concealed it better. Occasionally they came in jovial, laughing and joking like work was merely an extension of the drunken festivities of the night before. Most days they were subdued and required multiple cups of strong coffee apiece to nurse themselves back to equilibrium. Once they had settled in, their hijinks ensued.
Fun and Games
Theirs was an easy camaraderie. They spent their time talking, laughing, and commenting on the programs on the TV in the dayroom. When that got old they played tricks on people. They would announce for someone to come to the bubble to get his pass for his prostrate exam. They would claim that a certain individual had “that package” (AIDS), and to be careful around him. They would publically announce that it was someone’s birthday, and then encourage everyone to wish them a happy birthday. This meant punching him the same number of times as his age. One inmate seemed to have a birthday every week.
Signs were posted with goofy sayings or crude sexual drawings on them. A list of inmates was posted that ranked the top five weirdos/creeps I the building. Sometimes this was characterized as a Most Wanted list. As in, these are the guys the officers want to get rid of the most. Billy and Sid always seemed to crack themselves up more than anyone else.
Business As Usual
This juvenile frat-boy mentality and casual bullying was par for the course. In the wider world it would be denounced; in prison it’s just another Sunday. Most guys tended to ignore them and tried to keep moving as long as the abuse wasn’t directly targeting them. CO Billy and CO Sid knew who the easy targets were. In spite of their behavior and how I’ve characterized them, they’re actually fairly well-liked by all—both COs and inmates.
Correctional Officers are not police officers or superheroes swooping in to save the day. Nothing so glamorous or exciting as that. Depending on the security level of the penitentiary where they work, and the area within the facility where they are stationed, it’s true that they can be called upon and must be ready in an instant to deal with violent or mentally unstable inmates. However, by and large, the most difficult aspect of their job is to stay awake as the dull, monotonous hours drag by. Little more than glorified babysitters.
I imagine this is why Billy and Sid enjoyed working together so much. While they were far from paragons of professionalism, with these jokers in the building there was rarely a dull moment.
The sensory deprivation of Segregation is such that any noise or voice in the corridor will more often than not make a guy rush to look out the door and see what’s going on. When I heard a loud metal on concrete slam outside my door, that’s exactly what I did.
The cell across from me was offset from mine so I couldn’t see directly into it, but the door was laying all the way open, flat against the wall, and I could see four officers in a loose circle around the door. Obvious sounds of struggle were coming from within the cell. Something came flying out of the cell and one of the officers caught it deftly and tossed it aside to the floor. I craned my neck and pressed in closer to the four-inch wide seven-inch tall rectangle window of plexiglass to spy that it was a red shoe. There are no red shoes in prison. Curious. I also saw two more officers standing at the ready off to the side.
The other shoe, a colorful shirt, blue jeans, a leather belt. All these were sent rocketing out of the cell. It dawned on me that the man being stripped must be right from the street, a parole violator. Around this time I began hearing sounds more animal than man—like a dog grunting and growling. One CO came out of the cell flushed and winded, followed by another in the same condition. A third exited, muttering curses, and he had a torn piece of cloth that he threw down in disgust. It appeared to be a hunk of underwear. Yet another CO left the cell in a huff and I had to begin wondering just how many were in there.
My answer came almost immediately as one Sarge and one more CO backed out towing the unruly inmate along. His arms were stretched behind him handcuffed, and another pair of handcuffs were fastened to the chain as an improvised leash they were using to direct him. One of the officers who had been standing around began closing the door, and the Sarge adopted sole tugging duty; he had to pull with his right hand, reach through the chuckhole of the partially closed door, and pass the controlling cuff to his left hand while the other officer corralled the inmate to keep him from trying to back all the way out of the cell.
There was surprising little noise. No hollering or screaming from either party, no barked orders. Just grunts and sounds of exertion, boots scraping against the door, heavy breathing, and chain rattling. Once the final maneuver had been accomplished, the door closed, inmate uncuffed, and chuckhole successfully secured, then the screaming began.
For five full minutes he beat and kicked the door, letting loose a torrent of threats and curses. They brought a jumpsuit, opened the chuckhole, pushed the clothing through, and slammed the trapdoor swiftly. More curses and threats. In my mind I labeled him “lunatic”. I paused to emphasize with the corrections officers who have to deal with individuals like this. It surprised me, but I genuinely felt empathy for the COs.
The guy beat on the door awhile, and called for a CO a few dozen times. Then he changed tactics and started hollering that he was going to kill himself. I didn’t believe him for an instant, and his claims only served to confirm my assessment of “lunatic”. There was more banging and calling out with claims of self-harm. He yelled, “CO!” ad nauseum. I wanted him to be quiet. I was fully confident that everyone within earshot wanted him to just shut up. A couple disembodied voices bellowed for him to do just that. Another one encouraged him to “off himself” and be done with it. Eventually a couple COs brought him a blanket and sheet, told him they’d bring him a mat as soon as they could, which they did. He didn’t make a peep the entire rest of the afternoon and night.
In His Shoes . . .
A while later an officer came by and put a piece of paper in the slot by the man’s door, which had his name and prison ID# on it along with “PV” in bold black letters. Parole violator. I began to ponder how he began his day, what that day might have looked like, and how it could’ve ended here for him. I thought of the terrible reality and shock to his system that being dragged back to prison must have been—how utterly devastating and discombobulating. I had to question my diagnosis of him as being far too simplistic and dismissive. I also had to admit that, if I was trapped in his horrendous shoes, I don’t know that I would’ve stopped kicking and beating the door so quickly or easily.
The heavy steel door slammed shut behind me with a dull finality. It was a sound I hadn’t heard in the nearly six years since I’d graduated to minimum security housing status where doors only lock from the inside and closing them is more an option than a requirement. Twenty minutes earlier I’d been standing in the law library, talking strategy with coworkers. It was from there that I was unceremoniously gathered, handcuffed and escorted to segregation. Officially at that point I still didn’t know for what reason I’d been taken to Seg. Unofficially I’d been given a heads up in hushed tones by a sympathetic party.
“It’s about your book.”
I stood alone in the center of the cell, all cold straight lines of concrete and metal, trying to make sense of the fact that I’d been locked up for my words.
I have always taken great pains, to the best of my ability, to maintain a certain degree of objectivity and anonymity with my essays. I have never revealed the state in which I am imprisoned; neither have I ever divulged the name of the city or penitentiary where I am incarcerated. I have changed the names of all the individuals who I have described. With these depictions of prison staff and inmate alike I have always strived for accuracy. This warts and all approach can’t help but feel unflattering to some, but people’s behavior isn’t always flattering.
When I began chronicling my prison experiences I did have an objective and purpose in mind beyond merely marking up good clean paper with my scribblings. I wanted to provide a glimpse into my world and demystify the prison experience to some degree by showing that prison is in many ways, a reflection of the world at large. Sometimes it is funny and absurd. Other times it can be violent, terrible, frightening, sad and lonely. Every so often it is beautiful, full of grace.
I knew that this type of honesty would mean writing accounts that detailed malfeasance, dereliction of duty, deliberate indifference, and even outright criminal acts by prison staff. My decision to use a penname was made in large part to protect myself. I feared that, should my true identity be discovered, there would be retaliation. These fears were realized, and so I found myself in Seg.
Charges were brought against me which were without merit. They were based on lies and assumptions as those in power tried to characterize my actions as being in violation of a set of rules written before the rise of the Internet. With all humility and zero bravado, I can say that they simply haven’t invented the rule to govern what I have been able to do through the posts on this website. Unfortunately both innocence and lack of evidence means absolutely nothing when caught in a system where the accusations are mere formality and a finding of guilt is guaranteed. No need to investigate when the end has already been decided.
I hadn’t broken any rules. However, someone didn’t like what I was writing. I had apparently offended and/or upset the powers that be. I was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to write a book without permission, and that they didn’t want me posting on this website anymore because the consensus was that I had “cast certain officers and staff in a negative light.” With no proper investigation, and ulterior motives galore, I was found guilty. My punishment was to be the loss of my job and six months’ worth of various restrictions put on my phone calls and commissary. The nineteen days I spent in Seg would be considered sufficient, but I was to be transferred to a different prison. These decisions were made, the paperwork signed, my fate sealed.
Early on in my ordeal I was able to impress upon my parents how serious the claims against me were, and how specious. This was nothing more than an attempt at censorship and a matter of my freedom of speech being squelched by individuals who didn’t like what I had to say. Through many phone calls, emails and lots of prayer the situation was remedied. I’m not entirely sure exactly which phone calls or emails did the trick, but I know my father is tenacious. As for prayer, I’ll borrow a phrase from someone wiser than I, and say that I don’t know how it works, but I simply know it works.
The day after the final judgment against me was signed and official, a higher authority intervened in deus ex machina fashion and everything was EXPUNGED. All charges and accusations. The entire negative report which characterized this website, my use of a penname, and the book Candy and Blood: Essays From Behind Prison Walls as being illegal, a violation of the rules, was EXPUNGED. Look that word up in the dictionary when you get a chance. Expunged; it’s a glorious word.
Today, August 12, 2018, marks two months since being released from Seg. The lies continue, and they choose to follow their own rules only when it suits them, so I haven’t gotten my job back. I’ve filed so many formal complaints (grievances) concerning this entire situation that I’ve begun to awaken from a night’s sleep with my hand hurting and stiff from constantly clutching my pen. I’ve had several interesting encounters with COs on the subject of my writing, some of which may appear in the coming months of posts. I’ve been able to examine and refocus on my faith and my priorities especially as I come closer to becoming a member of free society rather than a prisoner. Perhaps there’s no better catalyst for self-examination than long stretches of forced solitude.
My Bottom Line
In being reminded of how utterly helpless I am I was being forced to articulate to myself just what exactly it is that I stand for; what is important to me and why do I do what I’m doing. Many of my personal constructs and convictions were challenged, but it has come to this: In the face of all injustice and adversity stand strong and speak your truth—never let anyone shut you up.
She fussed and fidgeted over the few items she had on the table just waiting for her visitor to arrive. I had seen her before, on numerous previous visits in fact. Her hair had once been brown but was streaked mercilessly with gray as it fell past her shoulders in straight greasy strands. A pair of overly large glasses with thick lenses dominated her face. Her clothes were shabby, plain at best. She was tall, slim, willowy, and put me in mind of Olive Oil’s older, frailer sister. On the few occasions when I had heard her speak it sounded like the frail, muted mewing of a newly arrived kitten. Listening to some COs talk let me know that she visited every week, sometimes more than once, and that she always walked all the way out to the prison for these visits. The officers ridiculed her for her obvious poverty and lack of transportation.
His clothes were covered in grime and filth, his shirt untucked. He looked disheveled and disgusting. His hair was a loose mop of gray and nearly white kept mercifully short atop his head, leaving him one less thing for which to care. The scruff on his face wasn’t a beard, but a thatch of stubbled scrub that was a few days past the razor’s appointment. He had the hollow-eyed confusion and hesitant shuffle of the extremely medicated. When he spoke it was a gruff baritone that sounded empty of some essential element, as if he was speaking from a long way off.
When she saw him she rose from her seat, and anxious excitement thrumming through her thin frame, and she met him halfway as he walked towards the table they had been assigned for their visit. She embraced him fiercely, laying her head against his chest and holding tightly as if doing so soothed some desperate aching need. He reciprocated with unsure slow motion movements. There was an unashamed openness about the scene that made me feel uncomfortable, as if I were spying on an intimate and private moment. Which, of course, I was. Intimate, that is, though there’s no real privacy in prison.
During the course of their visit she doted on her husband. He mostly struggled to remain present in the moment. Whatever mood stabilizers or tranquilizers he was being prescribed had him slogging through molasses both physically and mentally. Nothing came simple. She was patient, involved, almost animated, or at least as much as her mousey persona would allow. It had to be a chore at times, but she never flagged in her unconditional devotion to him. When it was time for them to part she clutched him once more with a desperation and unabashedness that was miraculous to behold. My chest ached at the tender beauty of her naked display of affection as she planted several quick kisses on his lips and face—he received each with drugged befuddlement. After he had turned to trudge away she continued speaking words of hope and encouragement to his receding figure. Once he was gone she looked utterly hopeless, lost, on the verge of tears.
I have no idea what crime landed this man in prison, nor am I award of the exact nature of his obvious mental health issue. After witnessing what I did, I do know that he is loved, and that rather deeply.
My visit ended only moments after his did and I was invited to enter the other shakedown room for my strip search. I complied with the officer’s wishes but asked why we couldn’t just use the one he had been exiting as I walked into the sally port that separated the visiting room from the shakedown room. I had always known this CO to be respectful, polite, and professional. It was me who was going to take my clothes off, but I was about to see an entirely different side of him.
“I just got done shaking down that stinky sonofabitch in there, you don’t want to go in there. It’s friggin’ disgusting. I’m so sick of it. Makes me want to puke. It smells like pure shit. He won’t take a damn shower. Should just turn a hose on his stupid ass and sandblast that shit off him.” There was a venomous and viciousness unlike his usual lackadaisical tone as he groused through gritted teeth. He was just getting started.
“And that wife of his isn’t too pleasant herself. Smells almost as bad, practically homeless. She’s always here way too early and we have to chase her out of the parking lot. After the tenth time you’d think she’d figure it out, she’d learn something. Dumb bitch. She should wander into traffic on one of her trips out here and save us all the headache.” After a few long and painfully silent awkward moments on my part he finished his thought while handing my pants back to me. “Yeah, Stinky and the Idiot. They’re perfect for each other.”
Though I had always had a high opinion of this officer, I believe that I was getting a glimpse at the unvarnished feelings shared by the majority of Correctional Officers. While it’s not true of them all, many COs have dealt with prisoners for so long, or with such indifference, that ofttimes they barely even see their wards as human anymore. And therefore certainly not deserving of human compassion.
“Hey! Stop that! Cut it out. You better leave it alone before it falls off.” CO Bogey grinned to himself at his consummately clever witticism. He believed he had caught an inmate masturbating. He was wrong.
Not Just Another Day
Bogey was doing his rounds and checking the cells which housed inmates with especially serious mental health issues. These individuals were the most disturbed, which inevitable led to aberrant behavior that necessitated disciplinary action taken against them. This combination mental health and segregation housing unit was the most high risk assignment for an officer, and one that many dreaded.
Bogey had spent two tours in Afghanistan fighting for the US Army so he had a different perspective on the assignment. He felt it was rarely boring, always kept him on his toes. He liked that.
This particular day as he walked past cell 19 he saw the inmate inside with his back to the door, his shoulders hunched and head down with no hands in sight. Catching inmates in the act of masturbating was so common that it had become routine. It’s not exactly illegal, but it is discouraged, especially amongst the mentally ill populace who can be prone to turning an act of self-pleasure into an act of self-harming. In his initial assessment CO Bogey believed he had walked up on the former, but soon learned it was the later.
Huddled near the back of his cell, the inmate’s head, neck, shoulders and upper back all shivered with exertion. His head was bent forward at an extreme angle which Bogey didn’t understand, but neither did he spend any time pondering it.
“Hey! I said quit stroking it. You hear me? Cut it out.” There was no response or change in his behavior to indicate that he had in fact heard the officer. Bogey sidled the few steps to the cell door and banged on it with the flat of his hand. “Hey!” The offender spun and bared his bloody teeth with a feral growl. Bogey instinctively recoiled half a step while cursing voluminously and involuntarily. Despite his numerous and brutal experiences during his time in the army as well as his years as a correctional officer, Bogey was momentarily dumbstruck. Then it got worse.
The inmate raised his arm to his mouth, this time remaining erect so he could maintain eye contact with Bogey as he gnawed at the soft flesh of his inner forearm. He managed to tear a chunk free from his body and gulped noisily until he had succeeded in swallowing it. This was a new one for Bogey. He had witnessed self-mutilation too many times to count, it being an even more prevalent pastime than masturbation amongst those inmates with severe mental illness. He had never before, however, seen another man eating himself.
At A Loss
It took a few moments of watching the surreal scene before Bogey finally snapped back to some semblance of his senses. “Hey, stop it,” he voiced weakly with zero of the booming authority of which I knew him to be capable. The inmate continued to chew unabated. Bogey took a breath and regained a bit of his backbone. “I said stop!” The inmate merely slowed, his efforts at self-mastication losing some of the previous gusto. Bogey keyed the button on his radio to transmit. There was a burst of static and Bogey opened his mouth to send out a call for help, but said nothing. There was no code or protocol for what he was seeing. Finally after several eternal moments of dead air, he spoke.
“Ah, Lieutenant . . . I’ve got a guy, he’s . . . ah, eating himself?” His voice went up at the end to form it into a question. In truth Bogey was still having trouble putting a label on exactly what was happening. The real trouble though was that Bogey had a well-deserved reputation for being a joker and smartass. This meant that his call for help went unanswered.
Assistance At Last
After yelling at the biter again Bogey finally got him to stop chomping, but only after he had swallowed another piece of himself. Anger and frustration put a razor’s edge to his voice when next he keyed the radio. “I need a lieutenant and assistance. This is a medical emergency. I have an inmate, he’s, he’s bleeding a lot. He’s hurting himself.” There was a pause pregnant with silence and dread before a crackling static response came along with a voice which was purely professional, nearly to the point of seeming bored. To Bogey it was the sound of salvation.
Inside of a minute two lieutenants and five COs arrived to assist. The inmate was swiftly cuffed and subdued so he could no longer harm himself, and medical staff was on their way. With the situation under control, the officers stood around cracking jokes about Bogey’s initial call for help when he said the guy was eating himself. Apparently they had all heard it and thought it was a hilarious hoax.
The bloody and bizarre incident became just another story they could add to their repertoire of crazy tales in the life of a Correctional Officer.