Suckers

Personally, I never understood what the big deal was.

Labor of Love

As far as hustles go it wasn’t a particularly lucrative one since the cost for ingredients was rather considerable. Beyond that, the time and effort expended in gathering other essential materials, and then the actual mixing and manufacturing of the product, all made the entire endeavor more of a labor of love than a viable business model. And yet, everywhere I go, there is inevitably at least one enterprising individuals who is making homemade suckers.

Something Different

When I tried to explain these signature sweets to someone who had never spent any time in prison they just couldn’t understand what the appeal was. Since my sweet tooth has never been much for fruity flavored fare I’ve been a fan myself. However, the best I can explain, is that prison is a free market economy based on the law of supply and demand.

I have sold a bar of soap that cost me forty-five cents for two dollars. A buck-fifty bottle of shampoo went for a nickel (five dollars). When I bought the package of thirty hair-ties for a dollar sixty-five I was sporting a buzz cut and only intended to use them as rubber bands to hold sealed my partially eaten bag of chips or peanuts. Instead I sold the whole pack for fifteen dollars.

Why was any of this price gauging possible? Because I bought these items from another penitentiary, and they were all new and unavailable. The security of supply drove up demand and guys were throwing money at me. The quality or original price of the products didn’t matter one bit. They just wanted something different. So too when it came to these custom candies.

Confectionaries

Many of these candy makers derived a real pride from their work and take it extremely seriously. It’s not merely melting and mashing a couple candies together. First, one needs to find a mold to use. The most commonly by far is the butter cups given at most meals. They are perhaps a quarter inch deep and a little smaller than a silver dollar. They are collected, smuggled back to one’s cell, and cleaned. Some confectioners will melt all the flavors of candy into a massive mess of hot liquid sugar, while others take a more targeted and time consuming tactic by choosing two or three specific flavors to melt into what they perceive to be some kind of genius proprietary blend of taste sensations.

For many years I used to see a Q-tip, having been clipped of its fuzzy ends, stuck into the gooey concoction so that it hardened around the stick to create a proper sucker or lollipop. This has fallen out of fashion in recent years as consumers just want the sugar fix without the aesthetic affectation.

Constraints

The only things limiting any inventive sweet maker are the types of candy available for purchase on commissary, and the boundaries of their own imagination. Of course, with it being a business, and with one’s pride at stake, there can often be a healthy competitive aspect wherein the most unique or complex product is held in high esteem.

Varieties

Jolly Ranchers are sold at most every prison and are therefore usually the base for these bootleg bonbons. I have seen these melted and poured around a chewy chunk of now and later center. Spicy cinnamon fireballs have been used as a centerpiece atop the disc of reformed fruit candy. Powdered drink mix has been added to the recipe for color and flavor, and is often dusted across the surface of the finished product to make it less sticky and therefore easier to handle. Whatever the design, these treats are finally wrapped in squares of plastic garbage bag, tied off, and sold for fifty cents or a dollar depending on the size and complexity of the creation as well as market saturation. While these specialty items are completely harmless, they are, by any definition, most certainly contraband.

The Gunslinger

Any CO or other security staff member who has spent a year or more in corrections has most assuredly come across one of these manufactured morsels. Sergeant Shroder had close to thirty years on the job and seemed to gloat with a sickening satisfaction over his ability to flush out even the tiniest infraction of the rules. He moved with a stoop-shouldered, cock-hip shuffle with his hands at his sides like he was some kind of third-rate gunslinger in a B movie western. This cowboy impression was accentuated by the poor approximation of a bushy blond moustache. For some unknown but undoubtedly bizarre reason he managed to always smell like mustard. Shroder was universally disliked by the inmate population, and by all available accounts, he was viewed as a joke by many of his colleagues and had few fans amongst them.

Asinine

Each of the six men in the cell froze as Sergeant Shroder slowly ambled in with his congenial “Hello, gentlemen”, meant to disarm anyone who wasn’t already privy to his reputation. Slow in speech and manner, but his agile eyes missed little, and in this instance they fixed upon a couple colorful discs sitting on the shelf next to Flick, who was sitting on his bunk trying to project the perfect picture of innocence. Sergeant Shroder wasn’t buying it.

“What are these?” Shroder asked, cradling them in his palms and staring with a perplexed interest as if he had never before in his long DOC tenure encountered anything like them. Which, of course, he must surely had.

“Candy,” Flick replied with understandable unease and trepidation.

“They don’t sell these in commissary.”

“Ah, no. No. They’re . . . homemade.” Each word was distinct from the last, a verbal tiptoe through a minefield. Flick knew that the trap was set, but was helpless to do anything but play the scenario out.

“So you made it?” wily Shroder queried.

“Nope.”

“So then who made it?”

Flick was no snitch, so he replied not a word.

“Hmmm . . .” Sergeant Shroder examined the treats, making more inquisitive sounds and blowing exasperating breaths through the strands of his anemic stache before speaking again. “This looks like drugs to me.”

Flick’s face swiftly flipped through confusion and outrage before setting into acceptance that he was almost certainly screwed.

An Artisan

The name of the candy-maker in question began with the letter “S”, and he was one of Flick’s good buddies. Flick wasn’t about to rat him out, neither could he exactly dispute the fact that what Shroder held in his hand could be construed to somewhat resemble drugs. Fruit punch drink mix had been artfully swirled into the center of the colorful but largely translucent slab and could, theoretically, have been crushed up pills of some kind. Embedded into the surface of the candy was a single Skittle that had been painstakingly pressed into the confection as it began to harden so that the stamped “S” was clearly visible. It was the artisan’s signature. With a bit of stretch in logic and good sense it could also be perceived as a pill of some kind. The high quality craftsmanship of the candy was Flick’s undoing, but still he tried his best to dig himself out of a hole that Sergeant Shroder had thrown him in.

The Gunslinger Gets His Man 

“That’s not drugs, it’s just candy. Look, that’s a Skittle on top.”

“Well, I know you guys call pills Skittles sometimes. So, maybe it’s one of them kind. I’m no doctor.” Shroder was being deliberately dim, and it was working to get on Flick’s nerves.

“You don’t need to be a doctor,” Flick replied, not quite yelling, but almost. “It’s just candy, that’s all. Are you freaking kidding me!” Now he was yelling. “See look.” He snatched one of the sweets from Shroder, unwrapped it with a practiced twist and flip to deposit it on his tongue. “See? Candy,” he managed to mumble around the substantial chunk he had quickly shuttled into the hollow of his cheek.

Sergeant Shroder’s belligerent bullying ploy had worked, though in all likelihood once even the possibility of drugs was voiced, Flick was doomed to a seg-term, even if only for a brief time to investigate the “suspected illicit substance”.

Sergeant Shroder’s moustache twitched with delight as he smirked his satisfaction. “Destroying the evidence. That’s alright, I’ve got this other one.” Shroder’s fist closed around the second candy before dropping it into his shirt’s breast pocket. “We’ll see what this really is. Go ahead and turn around for me.” With that he reached for one of the four sets of handcuffs dangling from his belt, and in doing so, sealed Flick’s fate.

Fallout

This happened on a Friday, so Flick remained in segregation over a long holiday weekend. As soon as the details of the situation were heard by the adjustment committee and investigating officer on Tuesday, Flick was released and put right back into the same cell. Sergeant Shroder faced ridicule from all directions, but he received no type of censure for the egregious abuse of his authority.

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Psychotic Break

Aaron paced the cell endlessly, all through the night, mumbling incessantly in vicious whispers and angry vehement curses. He had taken a razor blade from its casing and kept it pinched between thumb and forefinger, slashing at the air as he went. He was off his meds and hadn’t slept in three days. He was unpredictable and utterly terrifying.

SMI

Aaron had been diagnosed with his particular psychological malady and classified as Severely Mentally Ill. In most circumstances, individuals such as him are housed in the psychiatric unit or special treatment center. However, in some instances if the behavior of the inmate in question can be regulated with medication then he is released into the prison’s general population.

As long as Aaron made his scheduled med line appearance every morning and evening he was fine. He slept for at least twelve hours straight, waking only to go to med line and work in the chow hall. When he was awake he was obviously in a dazed, drugged state. His eyelids were perpetually drooped, his speech was slowed but not quite slurred, and there was an overall impression that he was mentally through molasses as he reasoned, reacted and interacted. This isn’t the existence I would choose for myself or a loved one, but for Aaron it appeared to be what passed as closest to normalized or regulated. This was his version of being fine.

Oversight or Negligence

Aaron was scheduled to go home. He had served the time the judge had sentenced him to, but he had no family or friend who would take him in. This is far more common than most might realize. Rather than the Department of Corrections doing its job and finding a suitable place for the individual they just violate the inmate and essentially extend his prison term by two or three years.

The criminal justice system at its finest.

However, since the powers that be have to give the appearance of trying to place the inmate in a halfway house or homeless shelter, they also go through the entire charade of processing the inmate for release. Aaron had a new picture taken along with his fingerprints. He was made to sign several documents in anticipation of a release of custody which wasn’t actually coming. His meds were discontinued and a two week supply of them were prepared to be given to him as he walked out of the prison. Instead he never left, and his meds were never restarted.

Un-medicated

It was a precipitous in Aaron’s behavior. Within days he was sleeping less and more visibly irritable. He began quietly mumbling or chuckling to himself. He would get in the bed, roll around for a while, then get right back out again. By the end of the first week he was pacing and presumably arguing with whomever he was hearing or seeing. Besides Aaron and I there were four other men who shared the cell with us. When one of my cellies asked Aaron to please lay down or be quiet, Aaron raised up physically like a cornered raccoon and let loose with verbal threats of violence and promises to carry out these threats. Prior to this Aaron had been sedate (and sedated) and a complete milquetoast.

At ten days into the ordeal his rants and arguments with invisible or imagined individuals was a constant and he hadn’t slept in three days. It was also at this point that the razor blade became a component of his psychosis. While Aaron experienced a psychotic break from reality I lay beneath my blanket, wide awake and terrified that I’d have to somehow defend myself against this razor-wielding lunatic.

Little Help

I spoke to every security staff member that crossed my path. The COs referred to the sergeant, the sergeant referred me to the lieutenant. Everyone was quick to pass responsibility to the next person. Lieutenant Danish was potbellied and gave the impression of a clean-shaven, surly Santa Claus. He was skeptical of the veracity of my claims. He listened out of a sense of politeness or duty. It wasn’t until I confronted him for three consecutive mornings with tales of Aaron’s abnormal behavior that he finally said the most he could do was report Aaron to a mental health professional so he could be evaluated. It was better than nothing.

Decline

At this point I’d only been able to snatch snippets of sleep—an hour or two at a time. At night my exhaustion eventually overcame my terror and I would lapse into slim unconsciousness only to be bolted awake by Aaron’s increasingly loud ravings. I’d lay awake for long minutes and hours until I had to get up and go to work. Aaron was still working in the chow hall. They had discontinued his meds, not his job assignment. I could sleep some while he was gone. Aaron’s erratic behavior was showing at work and his coworkers reported him to their supervisor. The supervisor was apathetic and paid no attention, took no action.

The Way It Is

Aaron was called out for an impromptu call pass. He saw the psych doctor and apparently was able to mask his mania enough so that he was sent back to the building. Lieutenant Danish had set up the meeting just as he told me he would, and he reported to me that since the mental health professional hadn’t found cause to remove Aaron from the general population there was nothing he could do. Neither he nor the psych could force Aaron to take his meds, though they had finally been renewed. He also couldn’t just take an inmate to seg for no reason. I replied that I wasn’t saying that I wanted Aaron in seg, but that it was only a matter of time before he did something seg-worthy. That could mean attacking me and forcing me to defend myself, or antagonizing another individual to the point of violence. I told Lieutenant Danish that Aaron needed help. Lieutenant Danish said that the psychologist didn’t see it that way, so there was nothing he could do. He shrugged and simply stated: “That’s the way it is.”

An Inevitability

The next day at lunch Aaron’s instability was on full display. Lieutenant Danish had to order him to sit down and eat. A CO had to tell him to just be quiet and eat because he was ranting in a loud voice. Food flew from his mouth and across other men’s trays. When some of the men at the table with him took offense at his disgusting intrusion, Aaron threatened all of them. He called them all faggots, pussies and bitches. That’s the pretty much the prison trifecta of “fighting words”. By which I mean that, in most circles, to let such egregious insults stand would be tantamount to admitting that those statements were true. Aaron’s comprised state of mental health was a nonissue and didn’t make him exempt from reprisals.

Avoidable

I was performing my duties as a housing unit porter, taking the garbage out to the dumpster so I had an ironclad alibi with multiple COs as witnesses. It turned out that I would need it.

As I eventually made my way back to my cell, Aaron came rushing down the hall toward me. He was bleeding from a split lip and his left eye was already visibly swelling. Aaron walked straight into the officer’s control bubble and started raving and yelling. That is a completely unauthorized area for an inmate, and a place where no one in their right mind would ever dream of going. Aaron was handcuffed and Lieutenant Danish was called to hear Aaron’s grievance and deal with the situation.

Deaf & Dumb

The announcement came over the speakers for everyone to return to their cell. A few minutes later Lieutenant Danish sauntered up to my cell in a cocky strut. “Okay, guys, who did it?” My outrage over his indifference and incompetence up to this point got the better of me.

“Are you serious!? I’ve been telling you for days that this guy was losing his mind. You saw him in the chow hall. The COs on the walk back from chow heard him going nuts and yelling nonsense and they just laughed about it.”

“So it was you then, was it?” Lieutenant Danish brimmed with confidence and grinned like the cat that ate the canary.

“Nope. It wasn’t any of us. We would have done it days ago, that’s why we came to you in the first place, but you didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even in the building. I was taking out the garbage.” Then I named the four officers who could attest to that fact. My reveal and my tone smeared the smirk from his face. At this point I didn’t in fact yet now what happened, but I assumed my cellies were all innocent.

“Show me your hands,” Lieutenant Danish demanded. He was pissed and all business. He inspected my mitts for any signs that they had recently been used to assault Aaron. He repeated the ritual with my remaining four cellies, questioning them as to whether it was them who did it or they had seen who did it. Each of them shrugged and mumbled in the negative. “No one knows anything, huh? Big surprise.” He scoffed at our convict behavior and left in a huff, taking his entourage of three officers with him.

Outcome

Aaron was taken to seg for fighting and unauthorized movement. His description of his attacker—black guy with a bald head—wasn’t too helpful in narrowing the search. It did, however, exonerate me and my cellies since none of us fit that bill. According to my cellies, Aaron’s description was little more than a shot in the dark, and terribly inaccurate since Aaron hadn’t ever actually seen his attacker.

The attacker was one of the offended men who sat at the chow hall table with Aaron. He had followed Aaron back to the cell and put a choke hold on him from behind until Aaron ceased struggling and lapsed into unconsciousness. A couple of sharp cracks of Aaron’s face against the concrete floor accounted for the split lip and swollen eye. My cellies stopped the assault before it could get any worse and cleaned up the blood evidence before Lieutenant Danish showed up.

One of my cellies worked as a porter in seg, and for months he would bring back horror stories/reports of Aaron behaving more like a beast than a man, and being treated as less than human. This is what often happens to the disenfranchised mentally ill in this “enlightened” society.

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.