The Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Dehumanized

Her

She fussed and fidgeted over the few items she had on the table just waiting for her visitor to arrive. I had seen her before, on numerous previous visits in fact. Her hair had once been brown but was streaked mercilessly with gray as it fell past her shoulders in straight greasy strands. A pair of overly large glasses with thick lenses dominated her face. Her clothes were shabby, plain at best. She was tall, slim, willowy, and put me in mind of Olive Oil’s older, frailer sister. On the few occasions when I had heard her speak it sounded like the frail, muted mewing of a newly arrived kitten. Listening to some COs talk let me know that she visited every week, sometimes more than once, and that she always walked all the way out to the prison for these visits. The officers ridiculed her for her obvious poverty and lack of transportation.

Him

His clothes were covered in grime and filth, his shirt untucked. He looked disheveled and disgusting. His hair was a loose mop of gray and nearly white kept mercifully short atop his head, leaving him one less thing for which to care. The scruff on his face wasn’t a beard, but a thatch of stubbled scrub that was a few days past the razor’s appointment. He had the hollow-eyed confusion and hesitant shuffle of the extremely medicated. When he spoke it was a gruff baritone that sounded empty of some essential element, as if he was speaking from a long way off.

Together

When she saw him she rose from her seat, and anxious excitement thrumming through her thin frame, and she met him halfway as he walked towards the table they had been assigned for their visit. She embraced him fiercely, laying her head against his chest and holding tightly as if doing so soothed some desperate aching need. He reciprocated with unsure slow motion movements. There was an unashamed openness about the scene that made me feel uncomfortable, as if I were spying on an intimate and private moment. Which, of course, I was. Intimate, that is, though there’s no real privacy in prison.

Unconditional

During the course of their visit she doted on her husband. He mostly struggled to remain present in the moment. Whatever mood stabilizers or tranquilizers he was being prescribed had him slogging through molasses both physically and mentally. Nothing came simple. She was patient, involved, almost animated, or at least as much as her mousey persona would allow. It had to be a chore at times, but she never flagged in her unconditional devotion to him. When it was time for them to part she clutched him once more with a desperation and unabashedness that was miraculous to behold. My chest ached at the tender beauty of her naked display of affection as she planted several quick kisses on his lips and face—he received each with drugged befuddlement. After he had turned to trudge away she continued speaking words of hope and encouragement to his receding figure. Once he was gone she looked utterly hopeless, lost, on the verge of tears.

I have no idea what crime landed this man in prison, nor am I award of the exact nature of his obvious mental health issue. After witnessing what I did, I do know that he is loved, and that rather deeply.

Stinky

My visit ended only moments after his did and I was invited to enter the other shakedown room for my strip search. I complied with the officer’s wishes but asked why we couldn’t just use the one he had been exiting as I walked into the sally port that separated the visiting room from the shakedown room. I had always known this CO to be respectful, polite, and professional. It was me who was going to take my clothes off, but I was about to see an entirely different side of him.

“I just got done shaking down that stinky sonofabitch in there, you don’t want to go in there. It’s friggin’ disgusting. I’m so sick of it. Makes me want to puke. It smells like pure shit. He won’t take a damn shower. Should just turn a hose on his stupid ass and sandblast that shit off him.” There was a venomous and viciousness unlike his usual lackadaisical tone as he groused through gritted teeth. He was just getting started.

“And that wife of his isn’t too pleasant herself. Smells almost as bad, practically homeless. She’s always here way too early and we have to chase her out of the parking lot. After the tenth time you’d think she’d figure it out, she’d learn something. Dumb bitch. She should wander into traffic on one of her trips out here and save us all the headache.” After a few long and painfully silent awkward moments on my part he finished his thought while handing my pants back to me. “Yeah, Stinky and the Idiot. They’re perfect for each other.”

True Feelings

Though I had always had a high opinion of this officer, I believe that I was getting a glimpse at the unvarnished feelings shared by the majority of Correctional Officers. While it’s not true of them all, many COs have dealt with prisoners for so long, or with such indifference, that ofttimes they barely even see their wards as human anymore. And therefore certainly not deserving of human compassion.

The Real Russ

ASA

There are a lot of white guys in prison who are sex offenders, or more specifically, child molesters. “Aggravated sexual assault” is one legal term to identify them. The aggravated portion references the fact that their victim was under age twelve or fourteen. Laws and terms differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in my experience the number of these offenders has become epidemic, especially amongst the white population in prison. I have often remarked facitiously that if I didn’t talk to sex offenders, then I’d never speak to another white guy in prison. As with a great many jokes, there’s more than a kernel of truth embedded in that statement.

Vilified

For a long time these particular individuals were the most vilified of the prison population. They often faced ridicule, bullying and outright physical abuse from their fellow inmates and also from those wearing badges and tasked with insuring their safety. These inmates would often lie and say that they were locked up for some other more innocuous crime rather than admit their sex offence. This practice became so prevalent in fact that an inmate who was suspected of being a sex offender but who claimed to be incarcerated for dealing drugs, otherwise known as “having a drug case”, may have his assertion rebutted with the type of colorful quip which exemplifies the somewhat darker undertone of what qualifies as prison humor. An example would be; “Yeah, right, you’ve got a drug case. More like you drug that little girl off into the bushes.” Distasteful to be sure, but not an uncommon way of laying an entirely unsubtle accusation of pedophilia against someone.

Out of the Shadows

As the sex offender population grew it became common for them to band together and they’ve become emboldened to admit what they are locked up for, talking openly about their status as a sex offender, though often not often providing any details of their particular crime. Now they are such a large percentage of the prison population that they have infiltrated many social groups often unbeknownst to their fellow inmates. For the most part they are treated like just another inmate. Nothing more or less terrible than that.

Penitence

The comfort of Christianity has long served as a respite for these oft put upon prisoners. Being a Christian man myself, I would never deign to say that God’s gift of grace is insufficient to bring about forgiveness, salvation and transformation in the life of any sinner, no matter what their sin. I do however confess with a certain degree of shame that I struggle with this concept of forgiveness for such a despicable crime and iniquity. Perhaps it is more that I tend to question the sincerity of many of these men I have known. In my experience it seems that the claim of a religious conversion, especially amongst child molesters, tends to be viewed as a dubious bit of trickery. A professed change for the sake of convenience rather than an authentic repentance. As best I can I try not to stand in judgement of a guy, but in some cases it’s not so much a matter of judging as it is recognizing something that is just plain wrong.

Recruiting

Russ was the charismatic country fried leader of an ever growing group of sex offenders. They would be gathered in the yard or seated together at church on Sunday, each of them deferring to Russ in all things. Russ knew his Scripture, could quote it chapter and verse, and seemed sincere as far as my fallible eyes could see, but there was something about him that set off an alarm in the intuitive wrinkles of my brain.

Upon closer inspection it became clear that he was proselytizing not for the cause of Christ, but was building his number of followers by behaving like the pied piper of pedophilia. Russ recruited them with a twisted type of pseudo-religiosity that was far too heavy on acceptance and much too light on repentance and change.

Fallacy

Since I’m a white man in prison who was attending church regularly, Russ assumed I was a sex offender and therefore a likely candidate for his brand of fallacy. It wasn’t long before he approached me with his amiable charm and understanding nature all wrapped up in the honeyed tones of a soft southern accent. His voice made you feel welcome, made you want to believe everything he was saying. I listened as he began with Bible verses that were accurate and sound, then noted as he proceed to bend them to his own improper purposes. We disagreed and debated. When I informed him that I was in fact not a sex offender he was unfazed, proudly admitted that he was one, and then continued his recruitment script. I steered the conversation toward repentance and shared my own shame and regret over my crime—a violent assault. I expressed how I hoped my victim could somehow forgive me, but wasn’t sure that it would ever be possible. When I pressed Russ for similar sentiments about his own victim his evangelistic façade finally fell and I believe I got to see the real Russ.

True Colors

“Are you kidding? No! No way! I don’t feel bad. Why should I? Huh? Why?” He paused here, actually waiting for me to give him an answer as to why he should feel remorse for sexually molesting a ten year old girl. I noticed that his accent had lost its lilting dulcet quality and devolved into harsh guttural sounds which were befitting his ugly topic of conversation.

“I did it, nothing I can do about that now. Right?” I sensed that perhaps he might be heading in a less horrible direction. I was wrong.

“I did it. I like little girls. I like them and they like me. I did it and I’d do it again. I don’t feel ashamed. I won’t feel ashamed. I don’t have to. There’s nothing wrong with what I did. Nothing wrong with me. That is how God made me.”

Unchristian

Each short confessional sentence carried the weight of a small sledge to my gut. It literally knocked the breath from my body and I struggled to recall how to perform the automatic response of respiration. Even if my lips could have formed words and my lungs could’ve pressed out the air to deliver them, my braining was sending anything coherent to say. All that I possessed was a visceral hatred for this counterfeit Christian. Although I freely confess that the visions of me violently assaulting him which I began to entertain were extremely tantalizing, inviting, even comforting, they were also entirely unchristian. My rigid fingers curled into fists and adrenaline dumped into my system as my heart screamed its increase. Breath returned to my body, and in that instant my more primitive mind was bent on using every bit of newly restored oxygen at his disposal to destroy Russ. All logic and restraint had been usurped by outrage and undiluted fury.

Salvation

“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get to your cells. Now!” The belligerent CO bellowed and headed straight toward us. He was a young guy, new to DOC and eager to earn a reputation as a tough-guy. He had just returned to the cellblock and saw Russ and I loitering and talking in the day-room after our designated phone call time. Completely unintentionally he became our salvation. Russ was rescued from my violent assault and I was saved from a stint in Seg. Russ fled to his cell while I remained riveted to the spot a moment longer, entertaining the possibility of carrying out my attack regardless of the CO and the consequences. I heard Russ delivering an obsequious apology dripping in saccharine southern charm. It was all fake. I had seen his true self and knew that his worldview was nothing but delusional heresy.

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.

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.

Losses

In five days I will lose my best friend. Or, at least, my current best friend. I’ve been through more than a few.

The Early Ones

My first best friend I met on day one of kindergarten when I helped him stop crying. He missed his Mommy. That lasted through third grade. A Greek kid came next. His Mom let me eat pizza from their family restaurant/bar for free. After a couple of years a Little League baseball buddy of mine took the top spot followed in about nine months by an adopted Korean guy adrift in a Midwest sea of cornfields.

High school witnessed me becoming more of an extrovert and I had many acquaintances and good friends, but only one was deemed best. He would later go on to date and nearly marry the woman who was my first real love. For a long time this felt like a betrayal, but time tends to dull teenage ire and I harbor no ill will.

Burgeoning Adulthood

Onto college with the inevitable cusp of being considered an “adult”, and I had two buddies who were holdovers from high school. I grew closer to one than the other and on the day of my arrest, after knowing him for close to six years, he held the distinction of being my longest continuing friend relationship. A few days after my arrest I talked to him on the phone and he seemed full of concern, support and caring. He said he would visit on the weekend and drop off some books for me. It has been fourteen plus years, and I’ve yet to get those books or see his face. I’ve reached out to him, and some of my other friends, but to no avail. My best friend track record is disastrous at best.

Heightened Circumstances

Friendships found in prison are somewhat different. The elevated stress levels behind prison walls create a kind of permanent foxhole situation where bonds are formed swiftly and are deeply felt. There is common ground, namely the pain and shame of being excommunicated from family, friends, and civilized society. It can also be said that we all feel like we were abused in some way by the criminal justice system.

Having been entrenched in the system for going on a decade and a half I can attest that it is a broken system. Whether an individual is completely guilty, wholly innocent, or caught somewhere in the gray area spectrum, which includes varying degrees of culpability, it is true more often than not that abuse on the part of authority has most certainly occurred. This reality tends to breed an attitude that it is us against them. Inmates versus all authority. However, for my friend BD and me, it was a mutual love of the music of a certain Mr. Robert Zimmerman that both instantaneously began and cemented our friendship.

Dylan Fans Unite

I haven’t come across many Bob Dylan fans during my incarcerated years, and certainly like BD, who could converse with wit and intelligence on the life, times and genius of Bob Dylan. This topic turned out to be merely a foundation for a deepening relationship. Brick by brick we added to it with a shared passion for an abundant and diverse amount of musical tastes as well as common levels of both reading and creative writing.

Our personalities meshed rather wonderfully, and we each became the person the other could go to if any baggage or psychological garbage needed to be unloaded. We grew to depend on each other. What began as a tentative talk around Bob Dylan designed entirely to gauge one another’s degree of devotion to the enigmatic troubadour eventually blossomed into a full-fledged and fully invested friendship. BD could always be counted on for a thoughtful and intelligent dialogue on a wide array of subjects. This is a rare and precious quality in the environment of a prison. I have seen and spoken to BD nearly every single day for the past four years. Now he’s leaving me.

My Back Pages Revisited

I’ve had several good buddies while locked up. They all leave me. Most go home. It’s bittersweet to say the least. I can’t be sure if it’s due to the depth of our connection, or an accumulation of each and every loss I’ve endured, but this time it’s more keenly felt.

When someone goes home I have no contact with him. Can’t call. Can’t write. To do so would be a violation of his parole agreement which could land him right back in prison. Sometimes rumors work their way around that are of dubious veracity at best. There’s a strange dichotomy which occurs because I’m happy to see him get out, and wish my friend all the best, but I’d like to see him again. Unfortunately the only way to see him is if he gets in trouble and comes back.

I must therefore languish in the land of incommunicado and move on with prison life, trying all the while not to let these losses create a callous over my heart which prohibits me from caring about the next person who comes along. Whether he’s a Bob Dylan fan or not. Although that could be a deal-breaker.

After all: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.