Prioritizing

Life behind prison walls and life on the outside have some remarkable similarities. In many ways prison is a microcosm of society with a lot of the same moving parts. I have endeavored to highlight much of this sameness, to demystify to some degree the incarceration experience.

In a lot of other ways the two experiences have nothing at all in common. I felt like my life was on hold on the inside. I educated myself, learned and strove to be productive. And to a large degree I was successful. This didn’t change the fact that the world moved on without me, leaving me behind no matter how hard I tried to keep up. It was an existence more than actually living. I know that may sound like a distinction without a difference, but I suppose if you’ve never spent any length of time locked away then you might not have any idea what I’m talking about.

Compartmentalization

There is a kind of emotional death that takes place out of necessity. Pondering the reality of prison and the years lost would be too much to handle, so mental compartmentalization occurs. Coming out of prison has included a resurrection of sorts. At the very least it has necessitated me learning how to live again in a thousand little ways that I never could have anticipated.

I’m still learning.

Revelation

A woman in her fifties at my place of employment was making conversation to punctuate the dullness of the job. I wasn’t much paying attention, was instead lost in my own thoughts. Then she made a statement that jarred me from my reverie.

“I’ve never seen a fight in real life. Maybe a little pushing or shoving, but never ever seen a fight in person.”

It was a jolt to me because I had seen fights. During my lengthy period of incarceration I had witnessed too many physical assaults to accurately number. I didn’t have to wonder whose life was more the aberration, but this did lead me to some serious self-reflection as I am on the cusp of transition.

New Chapter

Some big life changes are coming, as if I haven’t had an enormous amount of change already in the past months beginning with my release from prison. I’m about to get married, become part of a family. A whole new start for me with challenges and potential pitfalls that I can’t even yet imagine. With new chapters come new priorities.

Moratorium

This will be my final post for a while.

This may be a disappointment to some of my loyal readers. To those who know me, I’m sure you understand. I need to go live my life, to put my past behind me and learn how to live again. This isn’t me turning my back on those friends I left inside or trying to forget their struggle. After sixteen years one month and three days spent behind prison walls I can never forget. I do have plans to expand and revamp this platform, to make it available for other voices than my own. But right now I need some distance. I need to live without the looming deadline of having to psychologically revisit the hell that was my life for so long.

I need to find my way beyond prison walls.

 

 

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Losing Tee

Tee was jittery, squirrelly, and excelled at getting on people’s nerves. Mine included.

A Bit Bizarre

There was an entire cornucopia of eccentricities that were tied to Tee’s personality. He talked too much, and discussed topics that no one wanted to hear about. Like the color and composition of his daily bowel movements. His laugh was a loud, grating guffaw that aggravated the most patient of individuals.  The arrangement of his living space was something that he was very anal about–he had to have everything positioned just right.  He always wore two shirts, no matter how hot it got. He was very protective of his feet and would freak out if someone got close to them.

Love To Hate

His head was bulbous and bald. Or, balding to hear him tell it. He had the classic horseshoe around the sides, but the top was merely a few sad stray hairs and nothing more. His eyes were blue and huge. Nose pronounced.  Tee had a very expressive face. With his personality and demeanor it was a face that people just seemed to want to punch.

Racial Divide

I lived in the cell with Tee for a little over a year. For most of that time we were the only two white guys in a six man cell, and so by unspoken prison logic and rules we were best friends. Just kinda how it goes. I’m not saying that friendships don’t or can’t occur across racial lines, but guys are quick to fall in with their own. Especially when things get serious or dangerous. Due to Tee’s annoying ways, severe situations arose suddenly and often.

The Smell

Tee had some of the most potent smelling farts I’ve ever had the misfortune of having invade my nostrils. When guys would complain and yell at him about it, his features danced into expressions of giddy whimsy, and it really did look like he was laughing at them and at the expense of their olfactory glands. It looked that way because he was laughing at them. He was kind of a prick like that. In Tee’s defense, it’s better to let it out than to hold it in, and he couldn’t just walk out of the cell when we had to remain inside for certain times. Though it did seem odd that his flatulence seemed to get exponentially worse at night when we were all trapped in the cell together.

Unwilling Barrier

Whenever one of Tee’s behaviors would send someone over the edge I would be called upon to act as mediator, referee, peacekeeper. Sometimes literally having my name yelled by Tee, or by someone else to inform me that Tee was in trouble. I can’t possibly calculate how many skirmishes I had to deescalate in order to keep a fight from erupting. Tee was the worst kind of confederate to have when it came to these confrontations. He was a loudmouthed coward. He loved riling people up, but flinched and shrank when the appearance of real violence reared its head. He could not back up any of his tough talk. So I had to step in the middle. Usually literally. I hated always having to do it, being on call as the calming factor when Tee’s safety was on the line. In the aftermath he usually thought the whole thing was funny. I always answered the call because I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had stood by and let him get assaulted.

Unwitting Barrier

When Tee’s release date arrived a lot of people celebrated. They were rejoicing that he was leaving, not that he was going home. Once he had walked out the gates and taken his irritating traits and noxious gas with him there were a dozen guys or more who eventually confided in me that the only reason they hadn’t beaten Tee’s ass was because he was my friend. And he was my friend.

Me and Tee

Tee wasn’t always an extremely difficult person to deal with. We had several common interests that we could bond over, and he was one of the rare people I met behind prison walls who was capable of carrying on an intelligent adult conversation. At least some of the time. He was also batty and vexatious, and at times I wanted to throttle him. I yelled at him more than a few times, but it was no deterrent.

He was high strung and squirrelly and all kinds of aggravating. But when he was gone I missed him. Because he was my squirrelly. And he was my friend.

In The Dark

Screams of anger and pain echoed along the black throat of the hallway. There was laughter too. I didn’t know if it was a game or if some guys derived a terrible glee from hurting people.

Minimum Security

I’ve been privileged to spend several years of my incarceration in minimum security-type housing. This allows for nearly unrestricted movement outside my cell as long as I stay inside the cell-house. There are several specific times throughout the day and overnight when I am expected to be in my cell, and consequences would be severe if I wasn’t. However, the fact is that the doors have no externally controlled locking mechanism. The COs don’t control the locks—the inmates do. It’s a responsibility with which not all offenders can be trusted.

Layout

From a centralized dayroom with a control bubble for the CO to sit in there are two long hallways—one to the north, one to the south. There are two dozen rooms spread throughout both hallways. They vary in size with occupancies ranging from two inmates to twelve in a communal living arrangement. In optimal conditions it is impossible for an officer to see everything that is happening down one of these corridors, let alone both at the same time. I won’t be describing optimal conditions.

Antiquated

According to the plaque affixed to the brick exterior, the building was erected in 1936. I’d venture to guess that the electrical wiring for the entire prison complex was last updated sometime during the Nixon Administration. Short and isolated power outages were common during the summer heat when all inmate fans were pulling Max Power. This time in particular it was the depths of winter and the darkness was neither short or isolated.

Total Darkness

For purposes of security, there is always some light glowing in prison. This may be a small light within the cell, one in the common area outside the cell, or illuminating the prison compound from high above. Daylight had faded to night forty minutes previous when without warning all electricity evaporated. Fans whirled to silence, televisions blinked off, lights were extinguished. The darkness was complete, but only for a few seconds. There was a pulsing, winking as every appliance briefly sprang to life again before plunging back to black that felt surreal, eternal.

There was zero ambient light. No residual glow whatsoever. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It was suddenly and utterly terrifying. Disembodied voices rose from the five other men in my cell and began to clamor on the other side of the cell door. I waited for my eyes to adjust, but there was nothing from which to draw light. I sensed movement but couldn’t see it. I pointed myself in the direction of the window hoping to see some distant light from another building or the lights on the road just outside the prison. Nothing. Panic of being suddenly stricken blind began to settle in. My throat constricted with an irrational urge to holler and let it be known that I was still present in the land of the living. Before I could let loose my not very barbaric yawp there was a glimmer of illumination.

Not Salvation

“Everyone back in your rooms!” The rotund male CO lolled down the hallway, flashlight in his hand throwing arcs of light with each seesaw step. Calls for explanation and encouragements for him to fornicate with himself erupted from a dozen directions. He waddled further, undeterred, intending to impose his will by pure intimidation. It was an amazing display of either bravery or stupidity. I couldn’t discern which. If anyone had wanted to assault this officer in particular, or to strike out against an authority figure in general, the blackout would have provided perfect opportunity.

“In your cells or I start writing tickets!”

Some men retreated quickly, others took their time, but did comply. Three or four others stood their ground, testing the officer. My cell was at the end of the hall opposite the dayroom and from my doorway I could see the standoff between partial silhouettes. The CO stared hard for a moment at those who remained before retreating in a huff and a hurry. This left us in the dark once more. The CO didn’t return that night. It was maybe twenty minutes later when the assaults began.

Calm Before The Storm

I sat on my bunk, eyes straining to pick something out of the dark, wishing I had batteries for my Walkman so I could distract myself with music. The baseboard heater had gone cold and the frigid overnight temperatures were settling in. I wrapped myself in my blanket, wishing it wasn’t too early to go to sleep. My cellies had fallen silent in deference to the dark. As if it were some solemn occasion. There had been yelling back and forth between guys down the hall, but that had quieted as well. My cellie whose bunk was closest to the door had it propped open in case anything of interest or importance happened we’d be able to hear it. When something did happen it was abrupt and confusing.

Blind Battles

Sounds of shoes slapping and squeaking against the polished concrete. People were running in the hallway. Bodies collided, a muffled holler of surprise and pain. Curses and screams followed. And laughter. Punches landing against a mass of muscle and bone. A tackle of some kind brought multiple people crashing to the floor. The distinct hollow sound of at least one skull conking against unforgiving concrete. Curses and kicks, then feet fleeing. Robbed of depth perception, it sounded like it was happening mere inches away, practically right in my lap.

Afraid

I feared that at any moment I would be attacked and beaten. I had no enemies or reason to believe that anyone harbored desires to harm me. Unfortunately fear feeds on paranoia not logic. I folded my knees to my chest, scooted back on my bunk until I was against the wall and as compact as I could make my six-two frame. My entire body was enveloped in my blanket, as if it were some magic cloak or barrier to protect me. Only my head floated free. I wasn’t the only one feeling exposed. “Hey, close the door, man,” one cellie called out. A chorus of “Yeahs” followed, to which I added my voice. The sound of the door latching was a welcome one. The unmistakable click of the lock being engaged was sheer poetry.

Chilly Morning

I slept fitfully, fighting to stay warm. I didn’t have my fan blowing to block out background noise like usual, so the sounds of violence awoke me numerous times. Thankfully these remained sequestered on the other side of the cell door. The velvet morning was blessedly bright, but criminally cold. A long day of shivering was in store because the power wouldn’t be restored until mid-afternoon and temps never rose above zero. In the end this still didn’t feel as interminable as the night spent without sight, being jarred awake by the clatter of men beating one another.