The Voice Next Door

She threatened to kill him again.

It was a little past five on a Saturday morning this time. I used to turn my music down a notch or two to see if I could determine the grievous offense that had driven her to murder. Now her furor terrifies me.  I turn the music up. I still hear their vitriolic hatred for one another in the silences between tracks. Sometimes those silences feel far too long. Rage has been a constant in my life for years, and the embodiment of domestic dysfunction that resides in the apartment next to mine is simply the latest specimen.

Upheavaltvnd 1

I was on the cusp of marrying when last I wrote, talking about learning how to live again beyond prison walls. I didn’t get married. Lessons were learned. Not how I’d envisioned it.

Emotionally/financially devastated. Thanksgiving. Hit a deer with my car. Christmas. New year. Put my car in a ditch. Moved 90 miles away in a snowstorm for a new job I wasn’t remotely qualified for to an unfamiliar city larger than any in which I’d ever lived. A new beginning. Another one. Again.

Ups and Downs

The apartment was filthy and tiny. Now that it’s clean and settled into as my own space it’s all I really need. Medical diagnosis confirmed the worsening nerve pain I’ve been dealing with for nearly two years will require surgery. Glad to have a cause and course of action going forward. Unfortunately surgery is a prospect which is nine months on the horizon at best, so I cringe and limp on. Although I’m too proud (or just plain stupid) to limp, so I walk with my back straight and my head held high while inside I scream in agony. Better medical care than behind prison walls, but red tape abounds in every bureaucracy.

tvnd 2A big part of learning to live has been learning to fend for myself. My family and friends have all been immeasurably helpful, and I couldn’t have succeeded without their love and support. Now the tasks of living as a free citizen were solely my own. Budgeting, paying bills, grocery shopping, setting up an internet service. Once more pretty much everything was new and unfamiliar to me. My bed is the first I’ve ever had that wasn’t handed down or scrounged from somewhere. I love it, and have many times sprawled across it, stretching my fingers and toes out to the edges like a cliché kitten basking in a puddle of sun. Living alone for the first time in nearly eighteen years was the primary adjustment. Although, I wasn’t really alone for long.

Threats and Curses

“I will choke you until you stop talking.”

Her voice was taut and cold making it sound less a threat and more a promise.

“Go ahead bitch. Do it. Do it!”

His voice was high, thin, reedy. It matched his slim physique and jittery demeanor.tvnd 3

“I will. I’ll do it. I’ll fuc . . .”

My music swelled, sparing me her stupendous use of expletives and penchant for threatening serious bodily harm.

My neighbors moved in a few weeks after I did. They just showed up fully formed and completely moved in one day while I was at work. I’ve passed him twice on the stairs and we each mumbled an obligatory “Hey”. There are two children. And a dog at least some of the time. Like their mother, however, I have never seen any of them. I hear them laughing, watching TV, living. It’s the arguing, the threats and curses, that have become the constant in my life. Ever reliable.

Topsy Turvy

My job was going well. In the beginning I’d felt like a complete fraud. I was essentially telling guys how to do their job when they have been doing that same job for years whereas I started three days ago. It wasn’t long before I found out that the Quality Control guy is generally not well-liked. I also wasn’t only the new kid on the block, but I’d been hired from the outside rather than the job first being offered to union members. That gave me two strikes before I even started. Maybe two and a half strikes. I recognized their angry suspicion and disdain, I’d seen it every time I was moved to a new cell house in prison. It was something familiar that I could navigate, and I did so by tvnd 4putting my head down and working my butt off.

The more I learned the less I felt like a counterfeit. It was daunting but exhilarating as I was moved around to receive training in both departments of the manufacturing company on all three shifts. I changed between shifts and departments over fifteen times in fifty days. It was disorienting, I never knew if I was coming or going, and in an unfamiliar city all I did was go from work to home with weekly stops for gas and groceries. Whatever hours I was working had no influence on the neighbors.

Constant

“You can’t be that stupid. You can’t, because I wouldn’t be with someone that stupid.”tvnd 5

This time her voice was a caterwaul with maximum volume and intensity.

“I’m not stupid, I just did what you said.”

He had no backbone this time. He must’ve really screwed up.

I’d leave for work at 11pm, they’d be at it. Awake at 5am with no music playing as a buffer I heard her call him a terrible father, a bad fuck, a worthless piece of shit. I hoped the kids were sleeping and swiftly scoured my music collection to find something loud and rocking enough to drown her out. Late nights, early mornings, middle of the day, it didn’t matter when I found myself at home. Her fury was no respecter of sleep schedules. Despite the anger and inconvenience, their endless arguments and threats were a kind of comfort to me. Most everything else in my life was new again, often confusing. Two people yelling and threatening each other? That’s just another day in prison, and I’d had plenty of experience with it.

tvnd 6Once my training was complete I was awarded the prestigious position of third shift. This honor was bestowed upon me because the other guy quit. So I would be a night dweller for the foreseeable future, snatching scraps of sleep while the sun shines, mocking me. I was resigned to this fate. Then Covid-19 hit the scene and everything changed again. Again.tvnd 014Bitting

Of all the changes and challenges in my life over my first ten months of freedom, adapting to comply with shelter in place laws has been the simplest transition I’ve made. In prison parlance, the term “bitting” has numerous and sometimes salacious definitions. The one which best applies here is used in reference to an individual who has not only learned to live his/her life with as little friction as possible with those around them, but also navigates the constant stress and uncertainty by staying busy and focused on their goals.tvnd 7

Being legally mandated to remain at home except for my job as an essential infrastructure worker hasn’t changed my routine much. I work, I go home. Gas and groceries. I follow the news a lot more closely. People refuse to obey these laws, claiming their civil liberties are being trampled. Even as the death toll continues and most medical experts predict worse on the way. I see instances of people going stir crazy, succumbing to the fear of the unknown and the burden of being trapped in a mire endlessly navigating the unfamiliar. Enduring isolation and anticipating the next crisis in order to best adapt are skills I honed for over sixteen years behind prison walls.

An Embarrassment of Riches

The phrase “the world at your fingertips” has perhaps never before in history been more true. I’m still constantly marveled by the technological advances that the average person doesn’t look at twice, and an entire generation has come of age never knowing a time without them. So how is staying inside so terrible?

tvnd 8Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and about a thousand other streaming platforms provide anything in the world to watch. Google and You Tube let us research, watch, learn, laugh. Listen to music, watch concerts, visit museums and foreign countries. Explore exotic locales and animals. Want to know how to crochet or do origami? Build a boat? Not a problem. Yoga, weightlifting, cards, candle making, animal husbandry, whatever can be imagined there are lessons and sessions available. I’m fully aware that it has been like this for a while, but to hear about it and then to experience it for myself is something else entirely. I haven’t even begun to be able to wrap my mind around it.

Incomprehensible

It is for this reason that I find it so mind-boggling and aggravating when these orders put in place for public health are referred to as lockdowns. I’ve been in a cell for weeks at a time with only the nothingness of pure thought to entertain and pass the time. Sometimes there were books or paper. Not always a pen. I can’t understand people feeling they have nothing available to do.tvnd 9

That being said, the remarkable similarities between my current living arrangements and my prison ones are hard to deny. I don’t go out much besides work. Only socialize with a few people. My only real piece of furniture, my beloved Queen size bed, is where I spend the bulk of my time. It’s where I sleep, eat, watch TV, read, write, pray, figure finances, use my computer. There’s a nice little shelf for my cup of coffee or water or whatever. It is far more nicely appointed, and somewhat larger, but for all intents and purposes it’s little more than another prison cell. This is why transitioning to quarantining has been effortless for me. I know how to live in prison, especially one with a better bed, food, TV, tvnd 010music, internet, and the ability to message, email, text, call or video chat with those whom I care for most deeply. Even the voice next door and the violence she promises doesn’t really bother me. Although I’m in no hurry to meet her.

 

Actual Prison

I have been wondering about the friends I left behind prison walls. Thinking about a particularly nasty flu bug that tore through the prison population one year. A cell house was vacated of the healthy and a quarantine set up for all those afflicted. They didn’t treat them mind you, just checked their temperature once a day, and as long as they had no fever and were exhibiting no other symptoms they were let go. The space quickly tvnd 011became inadequate, but men continued to be sent every day. Guys were sleeping and puking on the floor. There weren’t adequate shower or toilet facilities, but since it was only to be temporary, rule of law was ignored. The place became a petri dish. That time there were only a few hospitalizations. I can’t imagine what havoc Covid is wreaking inside. What decisions are being made and actions implemented that put inmates in even greater risk because they’re viewed as less deserving. Less than human. All these things are beyond my control.

Out Of My Hands

tvnd 012I have no idea what calamity will befall us next. I do know we need not stumble when calamity comes to call, as it inevitably does. Perhaps not always in the form of a worldwide pandemic. What sustained me through the fear and uncertainty for years was my faith in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Every day I drive through a traffic circle on the way to work. I see the confusion and thinly-concealed terror in the eyes of the drivers trying to negotiate through the busy and pointless traffic affectation, desperate to discern if fellow travelers will obey rules or zip through and hope for the best. Always yield to traffic from the left should be fairly self-explanatory.

I see that same look in faces of co-workers as they talk about the latest developments and projections. How long will this last? How many dead in the end? Will there be an end to it? Are we talking months or years? Now that masks are mandatory, it has become more difficult to pick up non-verbal cues, but the eyes don’t lie. People are terrified of this new unknown. Understandably so. Ten months ago when I stepped out of prison, who knew that the best advice anyone probably could’ve given me was to invest all the money I could in face masks? Unfortunately I didn’t do that. So much has changed, and continues to change with each news briefing. Lately not much for the better.

I still have the voice next door, and I count it a bizarre comfort. More comforting however is trusting that my Heavenly Father is still in control of the situation. That truth is a certainty no matter on which side of the prison walls one resides.

 

tvnd 013

 

Uncensored

The heavy steel door slammed shut behind me with a dull finality. It was a sound I hadn’t heard in the nearly six years since I’d graduated to minimum security housing status where doors only lock from the inside and closing them is more an option than a requirement. Twenty minutes earlier I’d been standing in the law library, talking strategy with coworkers. It was from there that I was unceremoniously gathered, handcuffed and escorted to segregation. Officially at that point I still didn’t know for what reason I’d been taken to Seg. Unofficially I’d been given a heads up in hushed tones by a sympathetic party.

“It’s about your book.”

I stood alone in the center of the cell, all cold straight lines of concrete and metal, trying to make sense of the fact that I’d been locked up for my words. Careful I have always taken great pains, to the best of my ability, to maintain a certain degree of objectivity and anonymity with my essays. I have never revealed the state in which I am imprisoned; neither have I ever divulged the name of the city or penitentiary where I am incarcerated. I have changed the names of all the individuals who I have described. With these depictions of prison staff and inmate alike I have always strived for accuracy. This warts and all approach can’t help but feel unflattering to some, but people’s behavior isn’t always flattering. Purposeful When I began chronicling my prison experiences I did have an objective and purpose in mind beyond merely marking up good clean paper with my scribblings. I wanted to provide a glimpse into my world and demystify the prison experience to some degree by showing that prison is in many ways, a reflection of the world at large. Sometimes it is funny and absurd. Other times it can be violent, terrible, frightening, sad and lonely. Every so often it is beautiful, full of grace. Precaution I knew that this type of honesty would mean writing accounts that detailed malfeasance, dereliction of duty, deliberate indifference, and even outright criminal acts by prison staff. My decision to use a penname was made in large part to protect myself. I feared that, should my true identity be discovered, there would be retaliation. These fears were realized, and so I found myself in Seg. False Accusations
Charges were brought against me which were without merit. They were based on lies and assumptions as those in power tried to characterize my actions as being in violation of a set of rules written before the rise of the Internet. With all humility and zero bravado, I can say that they simply haven’t invented the rule to govern what I have been able to do through the posts on this website. Unfortunately both innocence and lack of evidence means absolutely nothing when caught in a system where the accusations are mere formality and a finding of guilt is guaranteed. No need to investigate when the end has already been decided. Bottom Line I hadn’t broken any rules. However, someone didn’t like what I was writing. I had apparently offended and/or upset the powers that be. I was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to write a book without permission, and that they didn’t want me posting on this website anymore because the consensus was that I had “cast certain officers and staff in a negative light.” With no proper investigation, and ulterior motives galore, I was found guilty. My punishment was to be the loss of my job and six months’ worth of various restrictions put on my phone calls and commissary. The nineteen days I spent in Seg would be considered sufficient, but I was to be transferred to a different prison. These decisions were made, the paperwork signed, my fate sealed. Intervention Early on in my ordeal I was able to impress upon my parents how serious the claims against me were, and how specious. This was nothing more than an attempt at censorship and a matter of my freedom of speech being squelched by individuals who didn’t like what I had to say. Through many phone calls, emails and lots of prayer the situation was remedied. I’m not entirely sure exactly which phone calls or emails did the trick, but I know my father is tenacious. As for prayer, I’ll borrow a phrase from someone wiser than I, and say that I don’t know how it works, but I simply know it works. The day after the final judgment against me was signed and official, a higher authority intervened in deus ex machina fashion and everything was EXPUNGED. All charges and accusations. The entire negative report which characterized this website, my use of a penname, and the book Candy and Blood: Essays From Behind Prison Walls as being illegal, a violation of the rules, was EXPUNGED. Look that word up in the dictionary when you get a chance. Expunged; it’s a glorious word.
Aftermath Today, August 12, 2018, marks two months since being released from Seg. The lies continue, and they choose to follow their own rules only when it suits them, so I haven’t gotten my job back. I’ve filed so many formal complaints (grievances) concerning this entire situation that I’ve begun to awaken from a night’s sleep with my hand hurting and stiff from constantly clutching my pen. I’ve had several interesting encounters with COs on the subject of my writing, some of which may appear in the coming months of posts. I’ve been able to examine and refocus on my faith and my priorities especially as I come closer to becoming a member of free society rather than a prisoner. Perhaps there’s no better catalyst for self-examination than long stretches of forced solitude. My Bottom Line
In being reminded of how utterly helpless I am I was being forced to articulate to myself just what exactly it is that I stand for; what is important to me and why do I do what I’m doing. Many of my personal constructs and convictions were challenged, but it has come to this: In the face of all injustice and adversity stand strong and speak your truth—never let anyone shut you up. I plan on taking my own advice.

Stir Crazy

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“I can’t take it anymore! Gotta get outta here!”

Winn’s voice screeched and cracked as he lost control. His face was twisted and distorted as he pressed it against the small rectangular pane of security glass in the door. He grabbed ahold of the handle and shook with all his might, grunting with exertion, but to no effect. With the edge of his eye, he caught me looking at him with shock, utter disbelief, and even a touch of horror, so he quit his caterwauling. He slapped the door with the flat of his palm and the loud smack echoed around the tiny confines of our cell. When he began to laugh uproariously, I was sure that I was in serious trouble.

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Better than Everyone
Winn had been locked up for just over twenty years when we became cellies, and his extensive prison experience had given him a perverse sense of entitlement, as if he were better than every guy who hadn’t spent the bulk of his life incarcerated. This kind of loopy logic is actually quite common amongst men like Winn who have spent so many years in prison. Winn was so full of pride that he came across as an ignorant, arrogant prick. The extreme degree of his holier-than-thou type attitude made me less inclined to be sympathetic when he began to bug up.

Lockdown Protocol
A lockdown generally means that inmates are completely confined to their cells with meals delivered and no showers allowed. I’d spent the first half dozen years of my prison term in a joint where lockdowns were more than merely commonplace, they were a routine and expected way of life. A lockdown, even a short one of two to three days, was practically guaranteed each month. At least twice a year there would be a month long lockdown. Since I had only fairly recently arrived at the lower-security facility, a lockdown was nothing to me but an opportunity to get some writing or reading done. Maybe watch some TV. The professional convict Winn, on the other hand, was fifteen years removed from the max security prisons where lockdowns are par for the course, and he wasn’t handling it well.

Losing It
At first his mental turmoil manifested as an uncontrollable restlessness. He couldn’t sit still. His legs jittered and shook without ceasing, and he would sporadically walk back and forth across the scant space of the cell a few times before sitting back down to shimmy in his seat for a while. It was only a matter of time until the urge gripped him to pace some more. Around two in the afternoon on only the second full day of lockdown,Winn began to yell and slap the door. He was unraveling. His ensuing laughter sounded insane ,and I’m neither too proud nor too ashamed to admit that hearing it scared the ever-loving hell out of me.
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www.freedigitalphotos.net
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Faking It
“What’s up, man!? How you doin’ buddy?” Winn brayed much more loudly than was necessary. I didn’t, in fact, know Winn very well or particularly like him all that much, so I didn’t count us as buddies. His affable smile was completely disingenuous. I had glimpsed Winn’s legitimate lunatic leanings and he was overcompensating with a forced attempt at jocularity and normalcy. While I wasn’t buying it, I also certainly wasn’t about to let him know that his façade was translucent. I had no desire whatsoever to witness Winn entirely unhinged.
“I’m good, man,” I replied to Winn’s queries. “Just getting some writing done. How about you? You good?” He chuckled and managed to sound somewhat less than maniacal.
“Yeah, I’m good, bro.”
“Yeah?”
“Shit, man, I was just playin’. I’m straight.” He was not just “playin’,” and I knew it. I suspect he also knew that I knew it, but we both silently agreed to continue faking it.

Coping
Following this incident, Winn paced a few more times, but eventually he withdrew himself from everything and ended up laying in bed with the blanket over his head for hours. As the days dragged on, he became more horrified and disheveled, less responsive, practically comatose for long stretches of time. After two weeks of lockdown, his temperament and personality had changed so dramatically that he was unrecognizable from the man I had first met only a few months before. He had lost enough weight for it to be easily noticed and constantly wore a dazed look which gave the appearance that he’d misplaced his tether to reality.

Once the lockdown finally ended, it took weeks for Winn to recapture the heights of bravado and bullshit machismo that he had previously attained, and I couldn’t help but be disgusted by it. I had witnessed a more honest vision of his true self and knew just how fake Winn was.

When it comes to surviving prison, I suppose there are all kinds of different methods that guys use to cope.
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