Graduation Day

I can’t seem to remember much about my high school graduation. I don’t believe I was all that impressed with the accomplishment. I should’ve been. What I do recall is that it was outside in the sun, right out on the football field. Nothing like graduation in prison.

Unique Setting

The largest classroom had been cleaned out and rearranged with an improvised dais for visiting dignitaries and rows of chairs facing them for the graduating class of nearly fifty. We were arranged in our caps and gowns, looking nervous and excited like every other group of soon to be graduates in history. The cramped, dimly-lit room and razor wire topped fences just outside the window were only a couple items that set us apart. The warden of the penitentiary provided opening remarks, followed by the prison’s college coordinator Ted Wilson. He was a tall, red-faced, gregarious guy with a big smile and wire-framed glasses. He actually cared about inmates and would bend over backwards to help if he could. Everybody liked him. After speaking he introduced the president of the college where we had earned our associate’s degrees or vocational course completion certificates. It was during this transition that I noticed the set of car keys with the remote unlock fob attached sitting on the table in front of the podium from where they were delivering their remarks.

Best Of Intentions

For the better part of an hour the president of the college spoke, much of it echoing what had already been said. He was proud of us for setting a goal, striving for and achieving that goal. He commended us on our accomplishment, encouraged a positive attitude, and told us we could achieve anything—that we were not failures. Not useless criminals as the world would like to pigeonhole us. It was obvious that he cared, was sincere, and nothing but the best of intentions. Looking around the room I saw guys who weren’t going home for decades and others who would live the rest of their days behind prison walls. I couldn’t help thinking that some of his sentiments rang hollow.

False Normalcy

With graduating inmates ready and inspirational words spoken, we were called up one at a time. Several teachers, counselors, the warden, and Ted Wilson stood shoulder to shoulder and we shook their hands until we got to the president of the college who smiled and shook our hands as he handed us our degree or certificate. Since “Hastings” is right there at the front of the alphabet I was the first to shake my way down the line, smile for the nonexistent photo-op, and say thank you. Everyone smiled back their congratulations and the heady musk of sincerity was in the air. I took my seat again, clapped at the appropriate times, and it all seemed so normal, ordinary. After the fifth man had exited the stage, Ted Wilson spotted the car keys and his eyes bugged out behind his spectacles.

Incredibly Subtle

Ted Wilson sprang into action, pushing in behind the other assembled hand-shakers and making his way to the president of the college. He whispered in his ear and the president tried (and failed) not to make it too apparent that he was directing his attention to the keys. After a moment of mental deliberation the president whispered back, projecting a mile-wide smile when he was done, and Ted Wilson seemed suitably chastened as he slinked back to his place in line.

Dilemma

Their dilemma was an obvious one. They couldn’t just take the keys off the table without interrupting the proceedings and bringing attention to them. It would’ve had the effect of destroying all the well-wishes and pleasant platitudes we had been getting fed up to that point. Reverting to fear and mistrust was probably not what they intended, but that was the reality. The rest of the ceremony consisted of both men smiling, shaking hands, attempting to appear like business as usual, but neither of them went very long without eyeballing the keys to make sure they were still there. The president fell into a rhythm. Smile, smile, look, handshake/pose with certificate, look, smile. Repeat. Once I recognized this it became impossible not to notice, and difficult not to laugh. Between the president and Ted Wilson the keys never went a second or two without eyes on them.

Not Nonchalant

Once everyone had received their handshake and written proof that they had completed something, we all stood and contributed to the ovation before filing out. The president wasted no time in swiping the keys into his pocket before anyone could pass by the podium. To his credit, he tried very hard (and failed very badly) to look nonchalant. The newly graduated shuffled into the classroom across the hall where we stripped out of our caps and gowns and returned them to their plastic bags. When all caps, gowns, and tassels were accounted for, we went back to find the room had been transformed. There was now a buffet table serving small cups of juice and Jell-O cake made special just for us by the culinary geniuses in the chow hall. Given the fuss everyone was making you would’ve thought it was a five-course gourmet feast.

Perspectives

I spoke with a few other guys who had also noticed the interplay between the president and Ted Wilson over the keys, and we all shared a chuckle. “What? Were we going to snag them and head out for a joyride?”

It didn’t ruin or mar the occasion for me, but it provided some perspective. I had to realize that the distrust they displayed was something I’d probably have to face the rest of my life when people find out I’ve been in prison. I found a cozy corner to enjoy my cake and ponder my predicament.

I saw myself at a crossroads of sorts. It had been exactly ten years almost to the day since I’d received my high school diploma. It had taken me a decade to earn a two-year associates degree, but I was proud of my accomplishment, and had done it for no one but myself. I had ten years remaining on my sentence, and I had no idea what came next. On that sunny football field I never could’ve imagined a future with love, professional success, marriage, drug addiction, prison, divorce. I figured it to be pointless at best, if not psychologically devastating, to contemplate the potential endless monotony, pointless banalities, and gritty realities of prison that could serve to turn me jaded or grind me to an unfeeling nub of a person. So I didn’t worry about all the tomorrows ahead. I ate my soggy, bland cherry Jell-O cake and did my best to appreciate the moment.

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Fitness Fanatic

Not long ago I was riding in a vehicle on the way to the hospital. The two officers in the front seat were bickering nonstop over a perceived slight based on a huge miscommunication that had happened a decade earlier. Each stated and restated their position again and again. To paraphrase the Bard, they were a tandem of idiots full of loud, obnoxious, angry words which signified little to nothing. I quickly lost interest and my mind drifted.

Changes

Watching out my window I realized that I’d be returning the world in about one year’s time. After over fifteen years in prison I watched the scenery breeze by in a blur of greenery and gas stations, restaurants and assorted businesses. Despite my absence from society nothing looked dramatically different. Electronic advertisings songs seemed to be markedly more abundant than I remember them being prior to my incarceration, but as I looked for the changes I couldn’t find much. My drive could’ve happened a decade and a half previous and looked just about the same. I drifted into daydreams about what my impending life outside of prison might look like; how exactly would the world at large greet and treat me.

Professional Driving

Either the driver was distracted, incompetent or the rules of the road had changed dramatically since I’d last been behind the wheel. Whatever the case was, he pulled the large prison van into the parking lot at the spot clearly marked with signs and arrows stating NO ENTRY and EXIT ONLY. He had to swerve to the right and brake hard to avoid an exiting vehicle. After inching forward a few feet he had to slam on the brakes again as a man ran in front of the van.

Jogger

All I could see from my backseat vantage point was his head and shoulders. Head up, shoulders back—good runner’s form. My split-second assessment was that he was an exercise enthusiast getting in a run, though I conceded that it seemed odd for his route to cut right through the middle of the hospital parking lot. Mere moments later I realized that my kneejerk reaction to him was profoundly inaccurate.

Reality

Once he was past the front of the van I recognized that this man had never been enthusiastic about exercise. His chest resembled a supple C-cup while his flabby belly and back fat stretched the elastic of his underwear, oozing over the top of it. For the briefest instant I tried to reconcile the disparity, reasoning that perhaps the obese man had only just begun his fitness regimen. I could not, however, ignore the reality before me. The runner was shirtless, his ample body fat on full display and rippling rhythmically with each stride which only served to enhance the strangely hypnotic, surrealistic nature of the scene. Dark purple underwear with black waistband, one black sock and one white sock was the entirety of his attire. No shoes. No stretch of my imagination could conjure that this was appropriate runner’s wear.

Weird Welcoming

He cut through the parking lot, dodged between two cars, crossed the street and followed the sidewalk in front of the hospital before disappearing from view. Every indication was that he was simply out for an afternoon jog.  He didn’t appear to be frazzled or hurried as if he was chasing or being chased. Both officers had lapsed into silence and seemed as bewildered as I was so I had to inquire: “Is that normal?” Noncommittal grunts were all I got from them.

This is what I saw when I ventured forth from prison for the first time in years. It’s still unclear to me whether this was an anomaly or indicative of the world to which I’ll soon be returning.

 

Mental Health Check

Every Wednesday in segregation is mental health check day. God help you if you lose your mind on one of the other six days of the week.

Due Diligence

“MENTAL HEALTH CHECK!”

The distinctly female voice sounded just outside my door. I rushed to see because it was new stimuli and because I’m a heterosexual male and she’s a woman. Even to my starved eyes she was rather plain looking, slim, petite. Nothing much distinctive about her. This seemed to be the mold from which many of the mental health staff and nurses are poured.

She moved along tapping on doors and saying in a too loud, too sunny voice, “Mental health check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?” I could never hear the other side of the conversation, but she always ended with “Okay, thanks, have a good day!” Much too cheerful. The whole thing was, essentially, a tasteless joke.

Many men languished in segregation while being investigated under the guise of it being essential to the “safety and security of the institution.” This is merely a pretext for the powers that be to do more or less whatever they want. I never got a sense that anyone too much cared for our mental health while back there, but by doing the once weekly visit DOC covered themselves from a liability standpoint in the event of any litigation or outside investigation.

Trite

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?”

It began to grate on me, the hypocrisy of it. I had heard guys scream endlessly only to be ignored or told by a CO to shut-up. I had heard officers threaten to deny the inmate his shower, his food. Never while the mental health check was going on of course. Then everyone was on their best behavior.

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there?”

This time there was an immediate and impassioned response from within the cell. From a distance it all came out in urgent consonants—hard k and t and s sounds, but nothing intelligible. Polite and seemingly obsequious “Mm—hmm . . . yes . . . alright” vocalizations was all I heard from her. Then: “Well, you know, the only constant in life is change.” This she said to the guy locked in a cell and going nowhere.

Outrage

Are you kidding me! I yelled within my skull. I couldn’t believe that’s what passed as keen psychological insight. I wanted to verbally excoriate her. I’d begin by asking if this was the type of worthless, pointless work she had planned doing when she was studying to earn her degree.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

Whether or not her great contribution to the betterment of society was to come in spouting naïve banalities to men she cannot help. Or whether she even gives a damn about them.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I wanted to know if she had ever cared at all or if this was just a paycheck to her—a cushy union gig. I wanted to scream: “No! No, I’m not okay! What kind of stupid, asinine question is that? I’m locked in Seg! I’ve had everything stripped from me! My parents visited and had to see me chained like a wild frigging animal! I have no idea what the outcome of my situation is going to be because, guess what? I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m only here because smallminded fascists wanted to shut me up. I didn’t break any rules, but they don’t like that I put my prison experiences on a website for the whole world to see. Why don’t they like it? Because some of the essays might make DOC look bad, and God forbid that the truth gets out! They’re abusing their authority holding me here, and trying to squelch my freedom of speech. So, no, you know what? No, I am not okay. Of course I’m not okay!”

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I was going to call “Bullshit!” on this little routine of checking each cell off her list just so she could rubberstamp us all “sane enough” for another week and cover the prison’s collective and considerable hindquarters.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I wanted to make her question, if not regret ever getting into the field of prison healthcare (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). I wanted to make her flee in tears and shame.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

She was almost at my door and I wanted to tell her all this. I was going to tell her all this and more. Know what I did tell her?

Reality

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?”

By the time she tapped my door I was sitting, facing away from her. I merely raised my arm in her direction and extended one single digit to convey to her how I was doing. My thumb.

“Okay, thanks, have a good day!”

An important lesson: Learn to pick your battles or you’ll get tired or hurt from beating your head against the proverbial wall. Yet I’ve never gotten used to swallowing my ire in the face of callousness and injustice.

Dynamic Duo

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. Arrivals

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. Reality 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 Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hiatus

Just in case there’s any confusion; I have zero access to a computer.

Some prisons in some states as well as certain federal facilities do provide limited computer usage to their inmates. I do not get that luxury. This means that I write everything out long hand and send it by snail mail to family or friend to type it and post it period. I have been far more fortunate and blessed than most of my fellow inmates to have reliable people who care enough to do this for me. However, in the end, I am working on their schedule.

During these summer months there will be a brief hiatus from new original content. To any of my regular readers I thank you for your faithful visits and ask for your patience and understanding. To anyone just passing by, there’s plenty of content to check out.

New posts begin July 22nd.

Nobody Wins

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

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

Storytime

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

Surprise!

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

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

Ingenuity

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

Hazardous Material

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

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

Finale

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

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

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

Victor

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

“Alright, Tee, yeah. You win, man.”