“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’.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pointless 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.
My starving eyes saucered as they attempted to watch it all at once. They’d been deprived of simple beauty and had grown lazy on a steady diet of televised facsimiles. Freedom breezed past me at 55 miles per hour in the form of green fields, trees, farm-houses, and tiny communities littered sparsely across the land.
Traveling on the prison transfer bus is an especially hellish ordeal. The discomfort and disorientation that the ride places on a convict is exacerbated by the fact that most of the buses, except a few older models still in service, have a barrier of sheet metal where the windows should be. This allows only a thin trickle of light and air to come through a three-inch wide perforated portion of the metal that runs along the top of the side walls of the bus. Due to the restraints that weigh down an inmate in transit, it is difficult and painful to stand and look through this slim window on the world—not to mention illegal—and a C/O managing a transfer bus is quick to write a ticket. This barrier serves to keep the degenerate criminals within from glimpsing all that they’re missing, and the public from having to put actual human faces on the idea of incarceration.
There is, however, a coveted seat that affords the weary convict a view during his travels.
In nearly all my transfers and writs, I was always seated somewhere close to the middle of the bus. It’s not like the C/O had asked for my opinion or let me choose a seat to my liking. Only once in twenty trips was I ever blessed to be placed in the one seat—at the front of the bus in the row of seats opposite the driver—that had bars across the window instead of the metal barrier. The bars did little to mar my view. The world I was so far removed from felt somehow foreign. I felt like a stranger moving through a strange land. In opposition to this vaguely unsettling notion rising within me, there was a welcome familiarity to my road trip.
In my youth, I’d traveled endless highways on family outings to visit distant relatives and to lay down roots in new towns. The idea of exodus and ease of movement is part of the bedrock and backbone of America. There is something especially inviting about an open road stretching out before us; it speaks to infinite possibilities and the freedom to come and go as we please. That freedom was taken from me by my own bad decisions. However, for a brief moment on the transfer bus, the highway spread out before me, and I got to watch from my window seat as the beautiful summer sun blazed down on the world. The view consumed me, the carriage that carried me was of no consequence, and I was just another sojourner in this life. For a few fleeting hours as I perched on my window seat, I transcended my tragically drab surroundings and found a sense of freedom, if not freedom itself.
It was strange and surreal to have a selfless act of kindness return to try to stab me in the face.
As Horace swiped the razorblade toward my face, time seemed to slow momentarily, and I froze. It was obscenely surreal, this scene I’d suddenly found myself in the middle of, but even as the slim weapon swung ever closer to slicing me wide open, I couldn’t help thinking of the irony that I had actually provided Horace with the object he was attacking me with.
It was a big misunderstanding and miscommunication, really. Once tempers flare, though, none of that matters—especially when a blade becomes involved. Horace, besides being saddled with such an unusual and unfortunate name, looked like a caramelized Truman Capote. His voice even bore a similar, strangely effeminate lilt as the late Mr. Capote. These facts tended to make him appear less than formidable. That is, until he started swinging a razorblade at me.
Before the excitement, I hadn’t been paying attention. My mind was a million miles away mulling over something or other as I was racing to the shower to beat the rush of post-yard would-be bathers. There was no sound of water running and no towel or other paraphernalia to indicate that anyone was in the shower. I counted this as a stroke of luck, so I pulled back the curtain on the nearest shower stall.
Horace was standing there, fully clothed, with a towel around his neck and a mesh bag of necessary shower accoutrements dangling on a string from his limp wrist. “Damn,” I exclaimed reflexively as my heart leapt into my neck and my pulse chased after. “That’s my bad. Sorry, man.”
I had only a passing but cordial acquaintance with Horace, mostly because he had been my neighbor briefly before he moved to another cell. With his demeanor, appearance, and voice, Horace was suspect by default. On top of that, I knew he had spent time in a part of the joint reserved only for those with serious mental health issues and that he was on the medline twice a day to get his skittles.
Armed with this knowledge, I didn’t believe his loitering in a shower stall to be in any way overtly egregious or malicious. Standing behind a shower curtain while fully clothed, as if lying in wait, is certainly considered odd, especially since homosexuals often use the showers for illicit carnal liaisons. However, since there hadn’t been any exposing of intimate bits involved in our brief interaction, I dismissed the whole thing as no big deal and moved on to the next shower stall.
It was my fault, and I took full responsibility for it. Unfortunately, Horace didn’t feel the same way. The situation quickly escalated.
“What the hell is wrong with people?” he muttered, as if talking to himself, but plenty loud enough for me to hear. “I’m sick of all this fag stuff. People trying to catch a peek and pretend like they’re not. Nuthin’ but a bunch of fags here.” I was immediately offended and angry, and like a reflex I checked him.
“Whoa, whoa, hold on; it was my fault, I said I was sorry. It’s my bad. But you can keep all of that homosexual stuff. I ain’t got nothing to do with it, and I don’t want to hear any more of your fag…”
His scream of rage was so loud and unexpected that it startled my flesh into goose bumps. My heart began banging angrily against the confines of my chest. Horace had left the shower and begun to walk away before I’d spoken up to defend myself, but after his outburst, he immediately dropped the bag then dropped to his knees like a penitent of some sort. Instead of reverent prayers, though, he let loose a torrential litany of anti-gay curses while rummaging through the meager belongings he’d brought to the shower. When he rose to his feet again, he was brandishing the razorblade.
I caught a glimpse of his weapon as he brought it to bear on me. He had secured one end into a piece of cardboard to act as a handle so he wouldn’t slice himself. It was a tiny thing and looked almost comically absurd pinched between his surprisingly meaty index finger, middle finger, and thumb. Small as it was, I knew how easily it could move through skin and the tissue beneath. But when Horace advanced on me, I just stared back, stuck to the floor.
Horace’s outburst had brought a few guys rushing to the area, one of whom was Horace’s cellie. He recognized the situation at a glance and stepped between me and the blade. In an authoritative but soothing tone, he talked Horace down from his intended act of violence, repeating Horace’s name several times to try and snap him back to a semblance of sanity. He had his hands up in a calming gesture that reminded me of a lion tamer, and I had the distinct sense that he had more than a little experience dealing with Horace’s unpredictable and disproportionate temper.
One of the other nosy lookie-loos grabbed my arm and gave me a tug. My feet followed along. It had all happened so fast that I was left flabbergasted. My dumbfounded state had been so complete that I suspect my face would’ve been ravaged into ribbons of flesh and rivulets of blood if Horace’s cellie hadn’t shown up.
I couldn’t shake the strange sensation that I had nearly been the architect of my own disfigurement.
When Horace had been my neighbor, he’d heard that my hustle was sewing and had inquired about how I cut my fabric. He fancied himself a bit of a sewer as well. Being a good neighbor, as an act of kindness, I provided him with a razorblade, since I had one I wasn’t using. If I’d known I’d be staring it down as it was waved menacingly by a man with a history of violence and mental illness, I might not have been so kind.
I steered clear of Horace after that, but only had to duck him for nine days because he was hauled to Seg for getting into a fight in the chow hall. In that instance, Horace proved to be far more formidable than his appearance belied—it took two whiteshirts and two sarges to pull him off his victim and subdue him. What was the fight about? What exactly set him off the second time? Someone compared the spilled milk on Horace’s shirt to ejaculate, insinuating that he had recently performed fellatio. The smart-mouthed idiot who said it needed stitches—and that was from damage inflicted only with fists. I shudder to think what Horace could have accomplished with his razorblade.