The Diagnosis

When my supervisor Ms. Thurman told me that I’d be getting a coworker I didn’t like it one bit.

Dream Realized

Working in the prison library was my dream job. Growing up, whenever I’d move to a new town or school, which was often, the library was always my place for solace. The new environment and all the strange kids was intimidating, frightening. Being surrounded by books made me feel comfortable, safe, happy. I think I always got along better with books and the people in them than those in the world around me. People in books are less demanding.

Behind prison walls I was inundated with new people and relationships to navigate. For a person whose most comfortable setting is to be alone, this was a nightmare of sorts. When I unexpectantly got the job in the library I was thrilled, and I quickly came to love my new position for several reasons.

Benefits

Being around books all day once more gave me a sense of belonging and contentment. I enjoyed helping the library visitors find their selections and even make a few humble recommendations of my own. My duties required me to be organized, meticulous, and detail oriented, which fit my natural tendencies perfectly. I also liked that there was always more to be done. Not only could I cross things off my to-do list, (yes, I mean that very literally) but when I finished there was an actual pile of books completed, which gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment. Working in this way I was provided a certain amount of autonomy and was often all by myself. This solitude allowed me to put my head down, focus on the task on hand, and get my work done. It also served as a beautiful respite from the crowded and loud cellhouse. I thought getting a coworker would ruin everything.

New Guy

Ramone was a few years older than me. He was a slightly built Mexican guy who was slim but obviously lifted weights regularly. He spoke Spanish fluently as well as English, albeit with a thick accent. Prior to his imprisonment Ramone had gone to college for accounting, mostly for the money. After interning at an accounting firm for a summer the idea of doing that for the rest of his life seemed a form of insanity. Ramone switched majors to kinesiology. He had been thinking about maybe physical therapy or sports medicine, but as is too often the case, his plans were derailed by a bad decision that snowballed and led inevitably to a series of even worse actions. I could sympathize.

Training

I took it as a sign of her confidence and trust in me when Ms. Thurman tasked me with training Ramone. Ms. Thurman saw my end results but wasn’t necessarily privy to all the steps of my particular process, which was probably for the best. Ramone was a quick learner, but I wasn’t the best teacher. I’d been doing it on my own for long enough that it became second nature, and so my instructions amounted to little more than to just do it. Given a little time I was able to adjust and not only show him step by step how to perform the tasks properly, but also explained why we do things certain ways so it didn’t seem arbitrary. My fears of losing all solitude and independence turned out to be unfounded.

Bonding

As long as we weren’t too busy Ramone liked going to the yard and gym, which was fine by me. During the course of our work we talked and got to know each other. I liked him. He was intelligent and inquisitive. Like myself Ramone was voracious reader, but he studied business texts, psychology case studies, and self-help books. Very little fiction. We had meaningful conversations about relevant issues, but also goofed around and had some laughs together. Our relationship grew so that it wasn’t all business. However, Ramone was also like me in that he was capable of quietly focusing on work and getting things accomplished. A rare thing in or out of prison.

My Diagnosis

For months Ramone had been complaining of back pain. There were times when he’d be working on labeling or repairing a stack of books and he’d have to stand up to do it, or he’d have to sit down to relieve the pressure. Often he’d just walk off, maybe stand in the corner and try to stretch. Nothing he did seemed to help much. More than a few times I told him he could leave, that I’d manage without him for the day. Since I had suffered with my own back pain issue in the past, I described for Ramone what I had gone through, the scans and treatments I’d had prior to my incarceration. I demonstrated a series of stretches and recommended some rest and recovery with walking being the most strenuous activity he was to engage in. One look at Ramone’s physique indicated that this diagnosis and course of treatment would be abhorrent to him. He loved working out. Lifting weights, playing soccer, running, these were how Ramone filled his days and did his time. He wouldn’t stop, no matter the pain. So naturally I made fun of him.

Ridicule

“What’s wrong?”

“My back is killing me today.”

“Did you play soccer yesterday?”

“Yes,” Ramone managed to squeak haltingly, lowering his head sheepishly.

“Well, that was dumb.” This is the kind of good-natured ribbing that I often needled him with.

Sometimes Ramone would claim that running actually made his back feel better, but I always disputed this as largely psychosomatic. I pointed out that these feelings didn’t last long and were in fact unsustainable because he couldn’t run all day every day. He was describing the aftereffects of a runner’s high, his body flushed with adrenaline and endorphins. Once that ebbed, he was right back to agony. I told him countless times that he needed to cut out all the exercise and let his body heal.

When he bragged about deadlifting 315 pounds—an exercise which is particularly stressful to the back—I called him an idiot.

One day he came in and immediately laid down on the floor. I told him that he should’ve just stayed in the cellhouse. He claimed he didn’t want to abandon me without any help. Then he spent most of the morning on the floor providing me zero assistance. This was a fact that I made sure to mention multiple times as I found reasons to walk over and around him despite the fact that he had chosen the most out of the way section of tile to quietly collapse on.

Deliberate Indifference

Ramone endured the kind of criminal negligence that I’ve come to understand as customary in prison healthcare. “Deliberate indifference” is a legal term used to characterize medical care that is obviously inadequate. One threshold that is used is whether a reasonable person, without any medical training, could look at the issue or complaint and deem it serious enough for further treatment.

For nearly a year Ramone sought appropriate medical attention. They gave him 200 mg ibuprofen for the pain. After months of return visits he received a prescription for muscle relaxants. Eventually weekly appointments with the physical therapists were added. This treatment was actually more extensive than most guys get. None of it did much to help the pain, and it did nothing at all to properly identify the cause of Ramone’s symptoms. He did finally have to dramatically cut back and then cease his exercise regimen. He kept asking for an x-ray or MRI scan. He was repeatedly refused. After receiving news from what he considered a reliable source, Ramone decided to try transferring to another prison. There was a degree of desperation in his decision, but after months of constantly worsening pain and being consistently denied the MIR he believed he needed, he was feeling fairly distressed. Ramone’s understanding was that the new prison was much quicker to approve guys for an MIR, and as much as he didn’t want to leave his good job and comfortable surroundings, he felt he had to take the chance. When he left I wished him well and hoped he would get the help he needed.

Ramone’s transfer was granted and executed with remarkable swiftness. That was a fact that I would revisit many times after I received the news. I would wonder if these people somehow knew and wanted to pass Ramone and his problems off to someone else.

The Diagnosis

I was working alone in the library. Ramone’s position hadn’t yet been filled. He’d been gone a little over two months. Ms. Thurman walked in with a purpose. She called my name. “Stop what you’re doing. Come over here. I have something to tell you.” I complied quickly, always eager to jump to any new task. Ms. Thurman was a very no-nonsense kind of person, professional and often all business. This tendency generally rubbed people the wrong way, but it was what I liked about her. I always knew where I stood with her. Until this moment. The look on Ms. Thurman’s face had me unbalanced. She was clearly disturbed.

“Do you want to sit down?” she asked, and I didn’t understand—it seemed out of context or apropos of nothing. “I have something I have to tell you.”

“Okay,” I replied mostly because I thought some response was expected. I didn’t sit down. Between us there was a short bookcase with three shelves. It was part of the reference section and contained an encyclopedia of anatomy that Ramone had studied endlessly for clues to his malady. Ms. Thurman was direct.

“I checked and saw that Ramone had a medical writ today. It wasn’t the first time that he’d been taken out to the hospital, so I called someone I know down where he is.” She paused an instant but pressed on. “He had his MRI and they did find something. A tumor. Ramone has spinal cancer. It’s very advanced they said.”

Later, I would contemplate how many confidentiality regulations Ms. Thurman violated to procure this diagnosis. In that moment though, I looked into her dark eyes, examined her face, analyzed her body language. I was searching for some slim sign that this was all a tasteless joke. Nothing in our relationship or time together should have led me to believe that this was a prank, yet my mind rejected it as wholly impossible. It had to be a ruse. I waited for Ms. Thurman’s mouth to turn upward into a grin. I waited for what felt like a very long time.

“He’s going back today for more tests. They’re going to see what their options are.”

“Options,” I said, not a question. “Okay. Alright. Options.” I was pretty sure his “options” were nil and none. “Spinal cancer. Alright. Okay.” My legs were gone. They weren’t numb. Or weak. There was nothing below my knees. I felt like I was bobbing unsteadily in a rushing torrent.

“Are you alright?” It was a stupid question and it unnerved me all the more because I knew Ms. Thurman was in no way a stupid person. “Do you want to go back? You don’t have to keep working. Just wait here.”

She was gone and I was sitting in a chair. I don’t remember either happening. I thought about all my jokes and jabs at Ramone about his back pain, and I felt like a world-class jerk. Guilt began to dig at me and take hold.

“Options,” I said to no one at all.

Unfeeling Assessment

Ms. Thurman had arranged for me to see a QMHP—quality mental health professional. She didn’t want me going back to my building until I’d talked to him. Apparently she saw something in my face or demeanor that she didn’t like. I agreed to it.

I was hurting, raw, confused, angry. A lot of that I let out to the mental health counselor who had thick glasses and looked like a hundred-and two-pound twerp. I spoke of my faith in God and his larger design, and how I couldn’t reconcile that with this new tragedy. The counselor ignored all else and seized on this. He recommended that I just trust God. His words sounded hollow, platitudes of the worse kind, and entirely insincere. They were a slap in my face to rouse me from my stupor of sudden grief. I silently chastised myself for opening up to this total stranger who clearly didn’t give a tinker’s damn about me. I shut everything down. Though he wasn’t particularly quality like his job title would suggest, he did notice this much. He resorted to the default query.

“Do you feel like you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else?”

I’d heard the question before and knew it was a trap. It was designed to cover the department of corrections from a liability standpoint rather than actually being concerned for my mental well-being. I snarled my response.

“No, I’m fine. I’m not going to do that.” I was dismissed a short time later.

Walking back to my cellhouse, I felt the burden of guilt for Ramone’s condition weighing on me. It wasn’t mine to bear, but I carried it all the same.

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Standard Procedure

I had already been awake for hours when the lieutenant with an ample bottom (not a compliment) and an overdeveloped Napoleon complex entered my cell with her customary swagger. Prior to her promotion she had been just another anonymous and largely forgettable CO. Since donning the mantle of authority that is the white shirt of a lieutenant’s uniform, she hadn’t merely perfected her officious prick attitude, but had taken it to a new and rarely seen heights. Lieutenant Jooty’s antagonistic attitude had the effect of terrorizing and bullying inmates and COs both so that her abuse of authority went largely unchecked. Having her in my cell so early, before inmate movement had even begun for the day, was neither pleasant nor a good sign. I wasn’t worried, however, as I knew I had done nothing wrong.

Rude Awakening

“Everybody up! Up, up, up. Get up! Put on your blues and step out. C’mon. Up!”

Standing just inside the cell door she shrieked, jolting my three cellies from their slumber and raising them into the fresh hell that is being in her presence. Lieutenant Jooty was blocking the hook on the wall where my standard issue prison uniform (my blues) were hanging. I indicated with my arm and meekly mumbled that I had to get by to get my blues. She moved an inch or two, forcing me to reach past her, trapped between her and the wall. Our bodies nearly pressed into one another. Mere millimeters, no more a hair’s breadth separated us. She would not back down. I was plastered against the wall as much as possible.

Thank You, No

After over fifteen years of incarceration at the time, perhaps the intimate touch of a woman, however counterfeit, would me most desirable. Not so much. Lieutenant Jooty’s foul, sour demeanor rendered her thoroughly unattractive to me. The real possibility that I’d be punished for unintentionally touching her made my predicament both unwanted and uncomfortable. On top of which, she looked a lot a Treasure Troll. Her bubble butt with pants that were too small stretched across it always reminded me of a soggy saggy diaper and added to overall troll-like shape. The short shock of obviously unnatural platinum bottled blond sitting in a poof on top of her head insured she very seriously resembled the little novelty dolls which were all the rage again for about five minutes in the early to mid-nineties.

Thankfully, I retrieved my blues without incident. Then I had to strip to my underwear in front of her. An unnecessary indignity, but LT Jooty loved to assert her dominance. Most officers I spoke to had nothing complimentary to say about her. Once everyone was dressed, we were ushered out one at a time to the shower room and promptly made to strip. Having confirmed that we had nothing concealed on our person we were handcuffed and deposited in the dayroom. The same procedure was performed on the four men in the cell next to ours with whom we share an adjoining bathroom. There were several officers assisting with the operation. Some were Internal Affairs, some weren’t. None would breathe a hint of what it was all about. Lieutenant Jooty sneered her disapproval over everyone. Once we were all secured in the dayroom, they began to whisk us away in minivans two at a time to Segregation.

Seg Explanation

Eight of us sat on plastic chairs in a half-circle, still handcuffed, facing Lieutenant Moreno—the head of Internal Affairs. He was a slim, lightly muscled Latino with an immaculate jet-black short haircut and Van Dyke, who was severe and all business.

“Alright guys, we’re going to administer urine tests. You’ll go one at a time, with CO Breier.” He nodded to a man to his left; white, stout, muscular, nothing but eyebrows and lashes so that gleaming pate greatly resembled a bowling ball. “You’ll fill the cup to the line, then come have a seat again. These tests just take a few minutes. Once we have results we’ll be putting you in cells and pulling you out to talk. As long as you come back clean you’ve got nothing to worry about. You can have a drink of water now, and then again every thirty minutes. If you can’t pee after two hours, well, let’s hope we don’t have to go there.”

Everyone assembled in cuffs had been in prison long enough to know that anyone who doesn’t pee within the two hours is presumed guilty and their visit to Seg would turn into a more permanent placement.

“So, guys, anyone want to try their luck with the cup?” Lieutenant Moreno grinned wide, and it was almost warm, but his eyes were hard, reptilian. I got the distinct impression that he would be much more pleased with a dirty drop than a clean one.

First Volunteer

My neighbor Taz jumped up. “C’mon man, ya’ll woke me and drag me out for this bullshit. I got ta piss.” He was shuffling, knees together, toward CO Breier as he spoke. They headed down the hallway to an unoccupied cell. The rest of us took turns being escorted by LT Moreno to the water fountain for as many gulps as we could manage before being returned to our seat. Then we waited.

It had only been about a month and a half since I’d been released from Segregation after spending nineteen days there for unfounded charges which were eventually expunged. I was intimately acquainted with the propensity for rampant injustice. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

Standard Procedure

“Lieutenant Moreno, can I ask you a question?” He just held my gaze and I took it for assent. “Why us? Why today?”

His answer was said with a straight face, neutral tone, still all business. “It’s standard procedure to administer piss tests. We received information that there was marijuana smoke from the area around your cells. What do you know about that? You know anybody smoking weed?”

I smiled and laughed a little at his brazen directness. “No, no,” I replied. “So what happens when we come back clean? I mean what happens to your CI?” LT Moreno raised his exquisite eyebrows and twisted his mouth at my use of the informal abbreviation for Confidential Informant—the most polite and official designation for a snitch. I pressed forward. “When your CI is proved to be a liar what are the consequences for him?” I was raising my voice just a touch, getting worked up. “I mean, we’re here in Seg, all for a lie.”

“It’s not a lie. Somebody’s dirty.” Lieutenant Moreno seemed to smile just slightly. “And the information wasn’t from a Confidential Informant. It came from another CO. So, I know someone’s dirty.”

I nearly burst with indignation.

Belligerent

“No, that’s even worse! Are you serious? Now what happens when it turns out that this CO is lying? What’s his accountability? What are the consequences for him? Or is a CO just allowed to make any bogus claims and you believe it?” That cut through his confidence and made a mark. I kept at it. “I was just in Seg because staff lied on me. I stayed for nineteen days because they continued to lie. Lieutenants didn’t do their job and lied too.”

“I can see what you’re doing. I know what your trying to do. You want me to admit that officers don’t always tell the truth, but . . .”

“No,” I cut him off. “I don’t care what you say or what you admit. I know that you’re liars.”

His professional neutrality vanished. “You want to stop talking now.” It was an order, not a request or suggestion—it also felt like a threat.

“Don’t worry, you can read about it,” I spat back.

“Read about it?”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“Read about it?” He sounded threatened.

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“You filing a lawsuit?”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

I was being deliberately belligerent. Getting louder and more insistent with each repetition. Two of my cellies I had known and lived with for close to three years. Lengthy cohabitation had made effective non-verbal communication second nature to us. Both of them were aggressively conveying to me that, for my own good, I needed to immediately shut up. I noticed them, but my temper was up, and I was a bull seeing red at this point, chasing blindly.

“Behind Prison Walls dot com. Behind Prison Walls dot com. Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“You want to stop now.”

“You can read about it at Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“I can see that this is going to turn into something else.”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“You can come back for a piss test . . .”

“You can read about it.”

“. . . but you keep it up . . .”

“Behind Prison Walls dot com.”

“. . . and you’re going to stay in Seg . . .”

“Behind Prison Walls.”

“. . . for insolence and disobeying a direct order.”

“Read about it.”

“Because that’s where we can take this if you want to keep going.”

“Thank you very much, sir.”

There was zero gratitude in my tone but I finally shut up.

I pissed in a cup and was escorted to a cell.

Breaches Of Protocol

CO Sedder told me to remove my blues and take the shoelaces out of my shoes and he’d be back to get them. The cell had a bunk bed, so it was designed to accommodate two, but I was alone. I had a belt and shoelaces. I could’ve hanged myself from the top bunk with either of them if I had been so inclined. It’s impossible to know a person’s mindset, and how they’ll react, when subjected to the deprivation and humiliation of Segregation. This is why protocols are in place to take away these things from inmates in Seg. I had everything for at least forty-five minutes before CO Sedder returned. A man had hanged himself barely two weeks previous and his body hadn’t been discovered for hours. It had been all anyone could talk about, and I had assumed the incident would’ve made them more diligent in enforcing policies to prevent suicide. I was wrong.

When CO Sedder took my clothes he informed me that there were no jumpsuits available. He left me standing in my underwear. Several hours later I was given a sleeping mat and bedding. I was never given any other clothes.  I was never given my basic hygiene items like a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste. I was denied access to my Bible, prayer mat and writing materials. That evening I was denied access to the shower even though it was one of the three weekly designated times for inmates in Seg to receive a shower. All that I was denied I was entitled to by rule or by law. I suffered my injustices in silence. There wasn’t much else to do.

Conclusion

Mid-morning of the next day a pair of sweatpants were stuffed through the chuckhole and I was told to put them on. I was handcuffed, taken to an interview room, and sat at a table across from Internal Affairs Lieutenant Moreno and Internal Affairs CO Breier. They seemed bored with this whole thing. LT Moreno stated in a straightforward manner that an officer had alleged to have smelled smoke in the vicinity of our two cells. He claimed the smoke smell appeared to be coming from my neighbors cell, but because the cells shared a bathroom everyone had to be taken for investigation. Lieutenant Moreno asked if I had smelled anyone or if I knew of any guys in the other cell smoking. I shook my head in the negative and imagined he ran the same script on my neighbors. I later found out that he had. CO Breier sat with his thick forearms folded across his wide chest and stared at me with dull eyes.

I was informed by the lieutenant that the two cells had been searched and all belongings were left in the cells locked. Provided that I give another clean urine sample I’d be released. He said that my cellies and I were casualties of the situation, but he was just following standard procedure. Then he asked if I had anything else I wanted to say.

I wanted to say plenty. I wanted to point out that apparently “standard procedure” was only followed when it suited him. I wanted to inform that I had been allowed to have potentially dangerous items in Seg, but then denied every last one of the very few things that I’m actually allowed to have. I wanted to point out that I was denied any suitable clothes for longer than twenty-four hours. I wanted to let him know that his polite tone didn’t fool me at all and that I knew he was a snake in a nice white shirt. However, I have learned that there is a time to keep my mouth shut. Lieutenant Moreno’s eyes clearly displayed that he didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. So I said nothing. I let my pee speak for me.

Several hours later my blues were returned through the chuckhole. Having clean urine, my cellies and I walked out of Seg vindicated. The two officers who escorted us out behaved like they were the ones responsible for our release and were being supremely magnanimous by letting us go. Like they were doing us a favor, and we had somehow gotten away with something.

 

The Coyote Whisperer

After the incident, my other two cellies and I compared our experiences and perceptions of what was happening to the fourth man in our cell. It sounded like an attack—like he was fighting for his life.

Old Man

When John and Paul penned “When I’m Sixty-Four” I doubt they were pondering the possibility of coming to prison for the first time at that advanced age. That is how Baldalmero (pronunciation: Ball-dull-meh-row) arrived in my cell; old and entirely ignorant of the ins and outs of prison. It was eye-opening for myself and for the other two men in the cell who, between the three of us, had over fifty years of prison time accumulated.

Learning Curve

All the quirks and inconveniences of prison and communal living that we three had taken for granted for years had to be taught and explained to the elderly Mexican whose English was functional, but only barely. It was occasionally frustrating because sometimes the answer to Baldalmero’s question “Why do we it like that?” was an unsatisfying “Because that’s how we do it.” It made me second guess myself as to why do we do it like that? I was often left unsettled too because speaking to him was akin to dealing with a child, and I was rigorously raised to respect my elders, so it didn’t feel right.

Odd Normal

Baldalmero had night-terrors. He had moaned and spoken in rapid, indecipherable Spanish more than a few times while he slumbered. A couple of those times there had been a bit of thrashing and rolling around, but it usually quickly passed. My other cellies had seen it all before over the years and accepted it with a collective shrug of our shoulders. The morning after one particularly boisterous nocturnal calamity I asked Baldalmero about his incidences.

He managed to relate that, yes, he knows he does it and these episodes have been happening for many years. He has accepted them as normal, just something that happens every so often. Baldalmero described it as having a nightmare that he was fighting to wake up from. When it happened, his wife of almost fifty years would calmly call out his name and he would quiet.

A Promise

We had been living together for a few months and he had been teaching me some Spanish to add to the smidgeon that I’d already picked up over the years. He took pains to correct my copious mispronunciations and I grew to appreciate the musical quality of the language. I believe he had grown to trust me. He asked me to please call out to him the next time he was having one of his episodes. I promised that I would. It was only a day later when that promise was tested.

Rude Awakening

“Emilio! Emilio!”

I was shocked from sleep, my heart pumping hard in my chest, quaking up to my throat. I coughed against the feeling, sure it was a physical obstruction choking me. The sensation passed, but words rushed from Baldalmero in panic. I couldn’t understand anything but the name “Emilio!” who he called out to several more times. Just as swiftly as it had begun, Baldalmero quieted with a couple huffing snores and it appeared to be over. I rolled to face away from him, glad that I didn’t have to jump into action, and dropped right back to the edge of consciousness. The whole thing hadn’t been longer than fifteen seconds.

Attack

It felt like I had fallen into a long, deep, restful sleep only to be jolted awake once more. The reality was that the second attack came within seconds of the first. Baldalmero was screaming. No words, just sounds of terror and agony. My eyes snapped open and I rolled toward him a jackhammer once more banging against my breastplate. I was disoriented, feet and fists fighting against twisted sheets, but I stopped a moment when I saw Baldalmero engaged in his own comical combat. His bed was four feet away from mine. He was ion the top bunk laying on his back with his arms flailing at his unseen for while his legs were kicking high like a horizontal Rockette. It would have hilarious if he hadn’t been screaming for his life, and if he wasn’t about to drop five and a half feet to the concrete floor.

Intercession

With a mighty effort I freed myself from my bunk and stumbled to him, still lethargic, confused, and drunk on slumber. Standing next to his bunk, my face level with his, I saw Baldalmero was in pain, deep in the throes of some life or death struggle. I reached out to help or comfort, but pulled my hand back as if too close to a flame, worried that I might cause some harm by shocking him awake. I finally remembered my promise.

Even in my muddled mental state, I knew a meekly whispered “Baldalmero” wouldn’t do anything to cut through whatever horrors had hold of his body and mind. I drew myself to my full height and puffed out my chest, tilted my chin up to him and gathered a lungful to fuel my words. I didn’t scream. I spoke loudly, clearly, with authority. For some reason I used the deepest baritone I could muster, and spoke with a thick Spanish accent. My other two cellies lay in their bunks in states of confusion and unease. They later poked fun at my altered voice and compared it to a soccer announcer. The whole scene was so surreal, and the voice happened without planning or premeditation.

“BALDALMERO. BALDALMERO.”

My voice reverberated through the small room and resonated against my eardrums inside and out. Baldalmero quieted and calmed instantly. There were a couple hushed whimpers as he rolled onto his side away from me and slipped quickly into deep breaths indicative of sleep. I collapsed on my bunk, exhausted but wide awake and wired. I spent the next forty minutes praising the Lord and praying against whatever darkness was oppressing us.

Light of Day

With sunlight shining cheery through the window it took some of the fright out of Baldalmero’s tale. In his dream he was camping at night in an open desert with his brother Emilio. They could hear a coyote snarling and growling in the distance just beyond the firelight’s reach. Emilio ran out to chase it away and never returned. When Baldalmero had really started to thrash, kick, and holler it was because the coyote was biting at his feet, trying to pull him into the night. My voice chased it away. Suddenly Baldalmero and Emilio were safe, walking together on a beautiful sunny day along the road to their boyhood home. Baldalmero said he had felt happy, at peace.

After an extended moment of pause he told me that Emilio had died in a car accident a long time ago. He said it had been good to see Emilio again. Baldalmero smiled wide and with a playfulness in his eyes that was tinged with melancholy he thanked me for chasing away the coyote so he could see his brother again.

This Year

Time is relative.

It’s malleable like taffy or cotton candy. Stretched out or squashed down, it has a different texture for each individual. Thank God it continues to pass regardless of perception. Prison is all about time.

The Count

Days are meted out in increments of movement. Whether that moving is for school, yard, gym, a shower, or a meal it marks a passage of time. In Segregation movement can be a shuffle to the chuckhole to receive a tray of food, or a CO moving past to perform a scheduled inmate count. Days become weeks, months and years, but even those are counted differently.

Methods

Some guys measure from events and distractions. Jumping from one holiday to another, or one sports season to the next. With preseason football all the way through the Super Bowl a solid six months is gone. More if you factor in the draft. Basketball seems endless; once the finals are over it’s practically preseason again, but guys live for it to make their time pass more seamlessly. Birthdays and anniversaries carry their own heartache, but must be faced. The movie cliché of a guy marking off each day with an X on the calendar is about as common as a Yeti in Times Square. Once he’s down to three or four month it does sometimes happen, but beyond that it is an act of sadomasochism in which guys don’t generally engage.

Myself, I was arrested on the 23rd of the month. It’s not a deliberate or conscious effort, but I end up counting 23s. Each month that day never manages to sneak past without me taking notice that another month has drained the sands of time from my allotted hourglass. For the in-between times I try to stay focused. I work.

Taming Time

I’m up early—4:00 or 4:30. On the rare occasions that I sleep much past that I lurch up in a tiny panic, keenly aware that time is lose forever. In those precious minutes I could’ve been writing, reading, praying, worshiping, or merely enjoying my existence in the dark and quiet of the morning before prison awakes to ruin the calm illusion. I plan and make to-do lists to ensure that letters are written in a timely manner, writing projects stay on schedule, and reading books isn’t neglected. Exercise, job, TV, shower; everything allotted its right time and place. I don’t fall to pieces when things happen to alter my schedule, but I hate the feeling of wasted time. Perhaps, in this context, the term “wasted” is relative too.

In The Dark

My mornings are my favorite time.

No matter how many people may be around me, I’m all alone in the dark. I pray, communing with the Creator of the universe. There’s much wondering, questioning, seeking, wrestling—all pressing on through faith, trust, and hope. Hope can hurt, but hope fixes us. One helluva a smart fella taught me that one.

In the darkness and solitude my thoughts range back and forth through time. They dwell on mistakes or regrets, but more so on triumphs and better times. I fantasize and wonder what life will look like when I’m released. No flying Jetson cars, not yet, but so much has changed in the world and with me since that first 23. Now that day which I wasn’t always sure would come is within sight.

Facing Reality

It’s incredibly surreal, and that will probably only increase as my release date comes closer. I don’t know precisely what is in store for me. I focus on the day and the goals set before me. Perhaps that’s the best measure of time; seeing what is right in front of us. Each morning I continue to sit in the dark and press forward, pondering the truth which seems unreal, too wondrous to be true: I go home this year.

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.

 

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.