Unexpected Caregiver

Misunderstood

Ms. Thurman seemed to rub most people the wrong way. She was brusque, no-nonsense, and completely professional. From inmate to CO alike they largely thought she was just mean and bitchy. In my capacity as her clerk in the library, I worked the longest and most closely with her, and am therefore more qualified than any to report that this was a terrible misrepresentation.

Overcompensating

Since it was the first time working in the Department of Corrections, Ms. Thurman erred on the side of caution and was careful to never be overly, or overtly, friendly in her interaction with inmates. Surely her head had been filled with notions of hustling, conniving, slick, duplicitous convicts who prey on even a hint of humanity and kindness. I’ll not deny that these individuals exist in abundance behind prison walls, however, not every inmate fits that description.

My Approach

Many guys were offended by her attitude, but I had a different approach to the situation. I was there to do a job, not make friends or flirt. Which is good, because I am not actually gifted at either of these later two. She gave me a task to perform, I did it, then onto the next one. Simple. The more I proved my abilities I gained a degree of confidence and trust from her. This merely meant that she felt able to give me my marching orders and leave me to it without any concern that it wouldn’t be accomplished in a timely manner, and to her high standards.

No Delusions

I was never delusional enough to think that our blossoming mutual understanding and quick shorthand communication style was indicative of anything deeper than what it was—a surface workplace relationship between boss and employee. Many guys in prison are just that, delusional, and place an overabundance of significance on a look or gesture from a female staff member. While it is certainly true that some women have been charmed or tricked into some kind of relationship with inmates, these instances are, if not rare, at least uncommon. There was no way I could confuse or misinterpret Ms. Thurman’s behavior.

She would even periodically remind me that if I ever asked her for a personal favor she would replace me. I did not doubt her. I didn’t know anything about her, though I believe she was perhaps only a few years older than me. We shared our book interests with one another, suggested titles for each other to read, and talked about what we were currently reading. That’s about as “personal” as we ever got. Her strict adherence to a clearly defined purely professional relationship made her fleeting foray into maternal territory all the more unusual.

Hazards of the Trade

Working in the library, my fingers and hands became gnarled by paper cuts and staple jabs along with other various slices, stabs, and injustices. It was just something that came with the territory. Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, Band Aids (or adhesive bandages if you prefer the non-name brand) in prison are about as common as a unicorn horn. Therefore I often had to walk about wounded and uncovered.

On this particular day I arrived at work with an ugly looking gash on my right middle finger where an unusually sharp-edged cardboard box the day before had caught me off-guard and left me with this particular war wound. It ran from the corner of the nail to the cuticle, leaving a fragile and sensitive flap of skin just waiting to get snagged on everything with which I came into contact. When I reported the cause of my laceration to Ms. Thurman in response to her asking about it, she just snorted out a sound that I interpreted as derisive. She herself often sported Band Aids to cover her frequent minor injuries, so I didn’t understand her scorn, but I merely shrugged and went about my responsibilities.

Fancy Disinfection

Within a couple minutes Ms. Thurman appeared in the doorway of the library with antibiotic soap in her hand. She gave it to me with instructions to take it to the bathroom and wash my hands thoroughly—especially the wound on my finger—and then meet her in her office. The bottle was shaped like an arrowhead with a pump dispenser and was the fanciest product I’d held in my hands in close to a decade and a half. It was rose-colored and smelled of raspberries. I could’ve sold it for five bucks back in my cell house. Five bucks, easy. Even with it barely more than half full. I washed as instructed and headed for the office.

First Aid

Ms. Thurman took the soap from me and pointed wordlessly to her desk where the blotter had been vacated of everything but a small crimped tube of antibiotic ointment and a single Band Aid. I looked back at her and thanked her with a greater depth of gratitude than I’d initially realized I’d felt. She merely nodded and stepped outside.

Small But Significant

Perhaps it seems like nothing much, but Ms. Thurman had crossed an invisible barrier with her actions. Not a major one in the grand scheme of things, but to me it was touching to know that she cared, that I’d had an influence on her perception of prison inmates. However small an influence. Putting the bandage on myself was so far removed from my notion of normalcy, and coupled with Ms. Thurman’s uncharacteristically “unprofessional” behavior, the entire encounter seemed strangely surreal to me.

Abnormal Appetite

“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.

Not Stroking

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.

Macabre Meal

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.

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.

A Misguided Love

 

Empty bottles stood at attention in tidy lines like toy soldiers at the ready. Eight, ten, a dozen—the number continued to grow by increments of two each time his mother returned to the table. My bladder developed a sympathetic ache in having to witness all that Mountain Dew being consumed. Soon it was every fifteen to twenty minutes that the Dew drinker had to be shuttled back and forth from his table in the visiting room to the bathroom. The two officers in charge of the visiting room exchanged exasperated sighs and glances as the inmate waved for their attention once more so one of them could unlock the bathroom for him. While he walked towards the toilet, his mother stood and headed back to the vending machines to replenish supplies.

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

Medicated
My experienced eye easily recognized the inmate’s twitchy, disheveled appearance as that of an individual on some serious psychiatric medication. Those inmates with severe mental health issues are housed in their own specific section of the prison, so when I later saw him being escorted back to that area, the conclusion I’d drawn was proven true.

Side Effects
Caffeine and sugar, especially in large amounts, can have adverse effects on those using prescription psych meds. Often they work in direct opposition with those meds, and for this reason both items have been extremely restricted or outright banned amongst the segment of the prison population under special psychiatric treatment. This goes to explain why Mr. Mountain Dew gorges himself on the caffeine and sugar-infused elixir during each visit where dietary restrictions aren’t enforced. However, it’s his mother who keeps feeding the vending machine and fueling his addiction.

Hard Truths
The mother had been told of the side effects. On numerous occasions, she’d been admonished by different officers. She knew better. Since she persisted on providing her son with the banned items on visit after visit, one of her son’s doctors finally intercepted her before she could go into the visiting room on this particular day. She was told in unadorned language that she was hurting her son. It was further explained that the copious quantities of stimulants were directly contributing to his manic thoughts and behavior. Then the doctor informed her that her son was having bladder control issues, he had wet himself more than once, and all that Mountain Dew as only exacerbating the issue. The stains on her son’s clothes made me believe that the doctor’s statements were void of hyperbole and embellishment.

Screen_shot_2013-08-18_at_9.10.06_PMMisguided
Watching this interminably thirsty inmate guzzle yet another 20 ounce bottle of Dew, I felt a certain degree of ire and disgust towards his mother. All I could think about was her willful disregard of medical expertise and the resulting damages to her already compromised child. However, after a closer look, I saw in their smiles and gestures an abiding affection and love. There was no malice in her actions.

I can’t fully fathom the myriad conflicting emotions that a loving parent must experience when visiting their child in prison. I can imagine that sadness, anger, shame, and regret are probably merely a few sensations that rear their ugly heads. I do know that having to deny a loved one something, even a simple Mountain Dew, is a terrible feeling. The general deprivation that prison foists upon its inhabitants makes such refusals even more unbearable for both parties and leaves each feeling especially helpless.

I would never doubt that this mother loves her son, but, taking his mental health into consideration, it may be that her love would be better used in protecting her son from himself. I’d even venture to say that this type of love without borders or limits is imbalanced, unhealthy, and misguided.

Wanton Waste

//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

This past Christmas season was filled with gifts of kindness and generosity from various businesses in the surrounding community. I’d never seen anything quite like it before in nearly fourteen years of incarceration. Perhaps those years had given rise to the cynic in me, but I was instantly suspicious of all this free stuff. However, since the usual prison cuisine is terrible—a criminal offense in and of itself—I wasn’t about to turn down the new, exciting, and scrumptious substitutes.

Smorgasbord

www.nh.gov
http://www.nh.gov

The bread was the best item that graced my chow hall tray. All those empty carbs were too tasty to turn down as every meal became a special surprise treat. Rye, pumpernickel, cracked wheat, cinnamon raisin, and half a dozen others showed up soft, moist, and fresh. After a steady, depressing diet of tasteless “enriched white bread,” these new varieties were exotic and delicious.

Oscar Mayer and Jimmy Dean brands were also served, and after so much low-grade “meat” fortified with high percentages of soy filler, I had somehow forgotten how heavenly a bologna sandwich could be, or the simply salty pleasure of a pork breakfast sausage patty.

The gargantuan bags of dill pickle-flavored popcorn were a bit more of an acquired taste. When some fancy name-brand yogurt cups and yogurt energy/protein drinks were handed out, guys couldn’t get enough of them. I have no earthly idea what a probiotic is, but I can attest from firsthand experience that Activia certainly gets digestion moving right along like a well-oiled machine. With all these freebies, there was a perpetually festive mood in the cell house.

Holding Back
Different donated items began showing up for sale on the black market. These products had been smuggled out of the warehouse by intrepid businessmen looking to turn a profit, or taken from the officers’ kitchen in the chow hall where the prison staff had been enjoying the gifts that had been donated for the inmate population.

Gummy worms, peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, egg nog, banana walnut bread, honey ham lunchmeat slices, 100% beef hot dogs. Rather than serving these treats to the inmates, they were consumed by officers or else left to sit in the warehouse and get freezer burn. There were also approximately 20,000 bottles of the aforementioned yogurt drink that simply stopped being served and were left to sit in cold storage.

As January dragged on, the special bread became a less frequent addition to meals, and everything else had dwindled to perhaps once or twice a week if we were lucky. Even more products, however, continued to show up for sale by the many hustlers who populate prison. This means the donations didn’t stop, they just stopped being handed out to the inmates.

www.columbian.com
http://www.columbian.com

Wanton Waste
With the onset of February, the warehouse workers began backing up their fifteen foot box truck to all the different dumpsters peppered around the prison compound and unloading their cargo directly into the trash. At first I was willing to, I wanted to, believe this to be nothing more than another stupid rumor. It wasn’t until I watched this wasteful act with my own eyes—multiple cases of merchandise discarded—that it was confirmed to me that those in authority would literally rather throw food in the garbage than let inmates have something special. Such a petty and small action for those who control all the power over us, but with zero oversight, they can essentially do whatever they want.

I wish I knew just who and where the donations were coming from so I could alert them to the wanton waste of the prison administration, but I’m not the one with the knowledge or power. I’m merely one ID number among thousands, caught in the unfeeling system, wishing for a tasty beef hot dog or a single slice of honey ham.

Apparently, that is too much to ask.
//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

Neglect

//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

I wish I could say this type of thing is anomalous, but instead it borders on commonplace.

Okay, I gotta get outta here, but the fresh sheets for Bryson in five are in his room on the desk. You just gotta make his bed.” Allen was addressing the nurse assigned to the infirmary.

Infirmary
Inmates stay in the infirmary temporarily as they recover from surgery or a severe illness. The infirmary is also where terminal inmates spend their final days. Allen was merely a porter whose sole duties were to sweep, mop, clean, and launder bedsheets for the more feeble patients. Though it wasn’t his responsibility, Allen had a big heart, so he often went above and beyond by entering the realm of patient care. He stripped and made beds, changed bedpans, helped men into and out of the shower, assisted those with adult diapers who needed to dispose of a soiled pair in exchange for a fresh one. Allen sat with the dying to show them some basic human kindness in their remaining days.

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

Emergency Count
An emergency count had been called for the prison, so Allen had to leave his job assignment and go back to his cell house immediately. Before leaving, however, he wanted to ensure that his adopted duties would be completed in his absence. At first, the nurse didn’t appear to have heard him. Allen opened his mouth to repeat himself, but the trained healthcare professional finally looked up from his magazine of Hollywood gossip and grimaced a sour smile in Allen’s direction accompanied by a curt nod of acknowledgment. With that, Allen was gone.

As is most often the case, the emergency count turned out to be merely a drill enacted by the warden to test the efficiency of his staff in case they were ever faced with an actual emergency. Due to staff shortages and his scheduled off days, Allen didn’t make it back to the infirmary for four days.

Four Days Later
The first thing that Allen noticed upon returned to work was that the usual antiseptic smell of the infirmary had a much more feculent and urinal aroma to it. He went about his duties cleaning and sanitizing, all the while seething about his lackadaisical coworkers and the inept nurses. When Allen arrived at room five, he found the fresh bedsheets exactly where he’d left them before the emergency count. Inmate Bryson was slouching on his plastic-encased mattress in a puddle of his own mess because his adult diaper was well past the point of needing changed. Perhaps as much as four days beyond that point. Bryson’s body and mind had been compromised by age, dementia, and the golf ball-sized brain tumor which would soon take his life.

True Compassion
Allen escorted Bryson to the shower where he helped remove all that was soiled and sat Bryson on the stool in the shower. After disposing of the refuse, Allen was back in a flash with shower accoutrements and clean clothes. Under Allen’s supervision and persistent directions, Bryson managed to cleanse himself thoroughly and Allen assisted with the drying and dressing. Once Bryson was seated in a wheelchair and secured in the corner of his room, Allen sopped up the puddle of urine from Bryson’s mattress and disinfected it with bleach before wiping it dry and affixing the clean linens to it. Bryson’s sporadic, muted, and incoherent mumblings were all the thanks Allen received.

Stretcher-Trolley_1Pointless
The same nurse was at the front desk to the ward, reading a different publication of celebrity obsession. Allen did his best to temper his anger and frustration as he spoke.

Hey man, you didn’t put Bryson’s sheets on his bed like I said.” The nurse nodded slightly without turning his attention from the magazine. “And he’s just been sitting there in his own piss and shit.” Allen’s voice was rising in volume, partly for emphasis and partly because he was having trouble controlling it. The nurse finally pulled his eyes from his all-important study material, sighing heavily, and looked at Allen with a vapid gaze.

Yeah? And?” Even though the nurse’s response was technically in the form of a question, it was evident that he had no interest whatsoever in hearing more on the subject. His unmitigated lack of concern was unnerving to Allen.

Restraint
Allen wanted to smack the nurse right in his entitle, uncaring face. Allen wanted to scream at the nurse and cuss him out with extreme vitriol. Allen wanted to beat the nurse until he was as helpless as some of the patients that he ignored. Doing any of those things would’ve landed Allen in Seg for sure, possibly worse. Instead, he swallowed it all and went back to help people. The nurse returned to his magazine.

//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});