Life behind prison walls and life on the outside have some remarkable similarities. In many ways prison is a microcosm of society with a lot of the same moving parts. I have endeavored to highlight much of this sameness, to demystify to some degree the incarceration experience.
In a lot of other ways the two experiences have nothing at all in common. I felt like my life was on hold on the inside. I educated myself, learned and strove to be productive. And to a large degree I was successful. This didn’t change the fact that the world moved on without me, leaving me behind no matter how hard I tried to keep up. It was an existence more than actually living. I know that may sound like a distinction without a difference, but I suppose if you’ve never spent any length of time locked away then you might not have any idea what I’m talking about.
There is a kind of emotional death that takes place out of necessity. Pondering the reality of prison and the years lost would be too much to handle, so mental compartmentalization occurs. Coming out of prison has included a resurrection of sorts. At the very least it has necessitated me learning how to live again in a thousand little ways that I never could have anticipated.
I’m still learning.
A woman in her fifties at my place of employment was making conversation to punctuate the dullness of the job. I wasn’t much paying attention, was instead lost in my own thoughts. Then she made a statement that jarred me from my reverie.
“I’ve never seen a fight in real life. Maybe a little pushing or shoving, but never ever seen a fight in person.”
It was a jolt to me because I had seen fights. During my lengthy period of incarceration I had witnessed too many physical assaults to accurately number. I didn’t have to wonder whose life was more the aberration, but this did lead me to some serious self-reflection as I am on the cusp of transition.
Some big life changes are coming, as if I haven’t had an enormous amount of change already in the past months beginning with my release from prison. I’m about to get married, become part of a family. A whole new start for me with challenges and potential pitfalls that I can’t even yet imagine. With new chapters come new priorities.
This will be my final post for a while.
This may be a disappointment to some of my loyal readers. To those who know me, I’m sure you understand. I need to go live my life, to put my past behind me and learn how to live again. This isn’t me turning my back on those friends I left inside or trying to forget their struggle. After sixteen years one month and three days spent behind prison walls I can never forget. I do have plans to expand and revamp this platform, to make it available for other voices than my own. But right now I need some distance. I need to live without the looming deadline of having to psychologically revisit the hell that was my life for so long.
Disclaimer and Warning: Some of the language used in this post would be offensive to most reasonable human beings. I know I was shocked and offended when the authority figure employed by the Department of Corrections said them to me. As always, I’ve endeavored to be as accurate as possible in my transcription of dialogue.
“Most of these guys are nothing but a buncha pansies and fags. That or child molesters. I swear damned near every white guy in prison is here for touching kids and it makes me sick of my race. Don’t worry, I know you ain’t one of them. I looked you up.”
I had no idea how to react to that. Gratitude? Indifference? A swift kick to his gonads? If only that were an option. He was definitely deserving of that and so much more. Correctional Officer Jarvis had a lot of strong opinions and ideas about prison inmates. And he didn’t stop there.
“If it was up to me they wouldn’t even be in here. Just kill ’em. That or castrate all of the sick bastards. That would stop them, right? It would make me happy to know they’re walking around with nothing down there!”
Here he paused to laugh uproariously at his own witty phrasing before continuing his rant.
“I know which ones they are too. They have a look about them you know? I can usually just tell. Then when I look them up I’m almost always right. You, I didn’t really think so, but I had to check to make sure. You know that, right? If I was gonna have you working for me I had to make sure you weren’t some kinda baby raper. You get that, right?.”
I nodded numbly. Felt like that was what was expected of me.
“Good. Good. Yeah, you’re here for something way different than that aren’t you?” He wore a knowing grin, like there was some joke that only he and I were privy to.
I nodded again, raised my eyebrows in acknowledgement. Wasn’t sure what to say, or what would come out if I tried to say something.
“Yeah you are!” Another inappropriate laugh.
“Just glad you’re not one of them sickos. You know what though, as much as I hate them, it’s the rest of the inmates who get on my nerves too. They all complain about everything. And they’re so pampered. You guys get better food than a lot of people out in the world. You get free healthcare and cable TV. A roof and a bed. Doing better than a lot of people out there. And all I hear you guys do is bitch about everything around here. Like it’s hard to live in here. You guys all have it so easy. If I were in charge you wouldn’t be getting any of this stuff.”
“No TV, no lifting weights in the gym, no hanging out on the yard, no commissary shopping, none of that. Two meals a day is plenty. And you wouldn’t be sitting around just doing nothing. Everybody would be out doing something, working, not just sucking up time.
“Oh! And no fucking school either!! You know how stupid it is that all these dumb blacks and beaners who can barely spell their own fucking names get to take college classes? Pisses me off! They didn’t give a shit about school when they were out there selling dope and shooting at each other, did they? Now they want free college? Fuck them! They’re all just gonna get out and go right back to doing the same shit. Why the hell should they get college? Some of them have more college than I do! Just using the system. They’re not learning anything, just trying to make it look good so maybe they can get out early with some good time. Should have to do all their time.
“Probably just want to get out so they can go bang that white girl they write and tell her how much he loves her. Dumb bitch doesn’t know he’s just using her. And why’s it always gotta be a white girl with these guys? Why can’t they stick to their own race instead of ruining mine?”
C/O Jarvis paused briefly to reflect and catch his breathe.
“You know, all these guys complain, but if I were in here I’d be fine. I mean, it’s not like you guys have it hard. If I had to do, like, a year in prison, I could do it no problem. I wouldn’t even buy a TV. Be a waste of money. I’d go to the library and learn something. Shit, I’d get in school. How you like that?
“But really, if I was in here, you know, doing my time? I could do it no problem. A year? Easy. And I’d make sure I’d beat some fags and niggers too. I could get away with it. Mostly I’d focus on the molesters. That’s easy to get away with. Most of us C/Os don’t give a shit about them. A lot of us would just look the other way. A lot. Shit, we would love to join in if we could. I might have to do a little time in SEG, but I’m not a pussy, I could handle it. All you guys bitch about how hard you’ve got it, but I could do some prison time, no problem at all.
“Shit, we could be cellies, right?”
He had asked me a direct question this time, and I knew I was expected to respond to him. He wanted an answer. He certainly didn’t want the truth.
The truth was that I wanted to call him a racist, sexist, despicable, ignorant piece of shit. I wanted to let him know that he has no idea whatsoever what life is like living inside. He thought that because he came and spent a few hours that he could handle the mental anguish of being locked away from everything he has ever known and loved. That he could navigate the politics of gangs and races without offending the wrong person and being beaten for some seemingly insignificant slight. The privileges he mentioned taking away are by and large mandated by law to promote rehabilitation-although those are in such short supply as to be insignificant-or else they are put in place to keep a potentially volatile populace pacified.
Not all correctional officers, in my experience, are so completely oblivious. There are plenty of this ilk, but not all. But it was this officer who was waiting on my answer. It crawled from my lips in a muffled cowardly chuckle.
“Yeah.” I felt like I had defiled myself.
C/O Jarvis had a justified reputation for being a colossal prick. I was on his good side because I worked as a porter (janitor) for him and wasn’t lazy about keeping things clean. Nothing would be accomplished, and nothing good would come, from me telling him even a fraction of how I felt about him. All it would do is put a target on my back and be an invitation for him to make my existence a living hell. I have seen C/O Jarvis lie in order to ensure inmates he didn’t like were hauled away for punishment. He was the worst kind of bully-one who has been imbued with authority. Rather than face the potential and far-reaching ramifications I said nothing.
Call it cowardice if you will. But walk in my shoes a while. Sometimes cowardice and self-preservation have some remarkable similarities.
C/O Jarvis was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant. It was a move that baffled a lot of people, both inmate and staff alike.
Once I was released from prison I sent reports of my claims of professional misconduct like this to the director of the Department of Corrections, and to the governor of the state. After two and a half months I got a response. Their stance is that, since I am no longer currently incarcerated, the issues I raised are moot. And so abuse continues.
Tee was jittery, squirrelly, and excelled at getting on people’s nerves. Mine included.
A Bit Bizarre
There was an entire cornucopia of eccentricities that were tied to Tee’s personality. He talked too much, and discussed topics that no one wanted to hear about. Like the color and composition of his daily bowel movements. His laugh was a loud, grating guffaw that aggravated the most patient of individuals. The arrangement of his living space was something that he was very anal about–he had to have everything positioned just right. He always wore two shirts, no matter how hot it got. He was very protective of his feet and would freak out if someone got close to them.
Love To Hate
His head was bulbous and bald. Or, balding to hear him tell it. He had the classic horseshoe around the sides, but the top was merely a few sad stray hairs and nothing more. His eyes were blue and huge. Nose pronounced. Tee had a very expressive face. With his personality and demeanor it was a face that people just seemed to want to punch.
I lived in the cell with Tee for a little over a year. For most of that time we were the only two white guys in a six man cell, and so by unspoken prison logic and rules we were best friends. Just kinda how it goes. I’m not saying that friendships don’t or can’t occur across racial lines, but guys are quick to fall in with their own. Especially when things get serious or dangerous. Due to Tee’s annoying ways, severe situations arose suddenly and often.
Tee had some of the most potent smelling farts I’ve ever had the misfortune of having invade my nostrils. When guys would complain and yell at him about it, his features danced into expressions of giddy whimsy, and it really did look like he was laughing at them and at the expense of their olfactory glands. It looked that way because he was laughing at them. He was kind of a prick like that. In Tee’s defense, it’s better to let it out than to hold it in, and he couldn’t just walk out of the cell when we had to remain inside for certain times. Though it did seem odd that his flatulence seemed to get exponentially worse at night when we were all trapped in the cell together.
Whenever one of Tee’s behaviors would send someone over the edge I would be called upon to act as mediator, referee, peacekeeper. Sometimes literally having my name yelled by Tee, or by someone else to inform me that Tee was in trouble. I can’t possibly calculate how many skirmishes I had to deescalate in order to keep a fight from erupting. Tee was the worst kind of confederate to have when it came to these confrontations. He was a loudmouthed coward. He loved riling people up, but flinched and shrank when the appearance of real violence reared its head. He could not back up any of his tough talk. So I had to step in the middle. Usually literally. I hated always having to do it, being on call as the calming factor when Tee’s safety was on the line. In the aftermath he usually thought the whole thing was funny. I always answered the call because I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had stood by and let him get assaulted.
When Tee’s release date arrived a lot of people celebrated. They were rejoicing that he was leaving, not that he was going home. Once he had walked out the gates and taken his irritating traits and noxious gas with him there were a dozen guys or more who eventually confided in me that the only reason they hadn’t beaten Tee’s ass was because he was my friend. And he was my friend.
Me and Tee
Tee wasn’t always an extremely difficult person to deal with. We had several common interests that we could bond over, and he was one of the rare people I met behind prison walls who was capable of carrying on an intelligent adult conversation. At least some of the time. He was also batty and vexatious, and at times I wanted to throttle him. I yelled at him more than a few times, but it was no deterrent.
He was high strung and squirrelly and all kinds of aggravating. But when he was gone I missed him. Because he was my squirrelly. And he was my friend.
“C’mon man! Come over here. I’ll beat your ass!! Come step in this shower room and we can handle this right now.”
Rigger’s face and bald head was red with rage. His eyes seemed suitably wild, and his words certainly carried plenty of threat. To the uninitiated it appeared that he was ready to rumble, that violence was forthcoming. To me he was terrified and desperate.
Behind the Curtain
Reality was much different than the facade that Rigger would have everyone believe. The man he was threatening, a guy named Whitey, was actually a good friend of his. They’d known each other for years both in and out of prison as they were both repeat offenders several times over. They’d had an argument and falling out less than an hour previous.
Rigger had been crushing pills. Whatever random painkiller, mood stabilizer, muscle relaxer, or anything at all that he could get his hands on. He’d take his surreptitiously procured medications and hide in the bathroom. There would be a lot of tapping and banging as the drugs were crushed down into a suitably fine powder. Then it was all piled together and snorted as an ill-advised cocktail of miscellaneous prescription medications that Rigger didn’t have any prescriptions for. Even if he had, I don’t believe “nasally” is how a medical professional would recommend the pills being taken.
Rigger had only been back from the hospital a day or two. He had overdosed on the cockamamie concoction that he’d been snorting. Whitey and I had both witnessed him seizing, shaking, and foaming at the mouth. Rigger was able to lie and convince everyone, even the treating nurses and physicians, that it was a seizure. Whitey knew better, and when he saw that Rigger was back to his old lunatic tricks, he told him in unvarnished language just how much of an absolute idiotic moron he was.
There was yelling and cursing in abundance as Whitey performed his one man impromptu intervention. Rigger sat silent like a chastened child through much of it. There wasn’t anything he could say to defend his actions. Whitey’s tactics may have been deserving of criticism, but his anger and frustration was coming from a place of concern and affection for his friend. Unfortunately, most inmates feel the need to maintain the facade of machismo lest they be perceived as somehow weak, or less than, so Rigger could only take so much before he had to balk at Whitey’s words.
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about! I had a seizure. This stuff doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
“Really?” Whitey responded with a tone which conveyed that he couldn’t believe Rigger would lie so effortlessly to his face. “Do you think I’m that stupid? Do you? Huh? How long we know each other bro? Hmm? You know I know what the hell you’re doing. That shit’s gotta stop.”
“Who the hell do you think you are anyway? I do what I want.”
“I thought I was your Road Dog.”
“Oh that’s just bullshit you tell people. You don’t give a damn about me. We met over a state tray bro. It don’t mean shit.”
“What!? I had you over to my place last time we were out there together. You’re the one who’s on bullshit, and you know it.”
“Well what’s it to you? What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m trying to get you to get your head out of your ass!”
“No you’re acting like a bitch, telling me what to do.”
The B Word
One of the most confounding things I experienced during my years of incarceration was the evolution of the usage of that particular B word. When I started doing my time it was the ultimate of insults. Calling a guy that derogatory designation was akin to a literal slap in the face, an affront which could not be allowed to go unanswered. I can’t even begin to put a number to the amount of times I saw minor disagreements or disputes escalate into violence due to the arrival of that particular word on the scene. It used to have a malevolent kind of magic to it.
The last couple years of my incarceration, as a newer, younger generation of convicts were beginning to predominate the prison population, I was appalled when I first heard the word slip so effortlessly from their young lips. The first time it happened I tensed and started looking for the quickest avenue of retreat to ensure that I was a safe distance removed while the melee ensued. Instead the two kids (that’s how I saw them, and that proves I’m old) just laughed and exchanged the most egregious of insults a dozen times between one another. The B word now, to them, is like saying “dude” or “bro”.
Whitey and Rigger are not of this new generation. Rigger didn’t technically call Whitey a bitch, he just said he was behaving in the manner of one. It’s a fine line that Whitey didn’t respect or recognize as significant. In his mind he’d just received a metaphorical slap to the face and would have to respond accordingly.
“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU SAY!!!?”
Whitey exploded like a mini neutron bomb. He was maybe 5’ 5” and that’s probably being generous. To look at him he didn’t appear physically imposing, but he had a terrible temper. I’d seen the results of this before when he and his cellie had once started swinging on each other because Whitey felt the other guy was spending too much time on the toilet.
Well-adjusted, Whitey isn’t.
When he got wound up he was similar to a raccoon that has been backed against a wall. A small but driven whirlwind of violence, not to be underestimated. Whitey lunged toward Rigger, coming within a quarter inch of physical contact. Even though he had to crane his neck upwards to look Rigger in the face, Whitey still managed to be intimidating. The genuine, undiluted rage helped a lot.
Rigger looked instantly cowed, realizing he had crossed a line and was in a scenario that almost certainly had to end with violence. Whitey snarled and yelled too fast to keep up with his profanity and insults. Rigger backed down physically and psychologically. It had the appearance of a literal shrinking. Myself and another inmate got between the two of them. I had to restrain Whitey and it was like trying to contain a sac of ferrets squirming with lithe muscles. Whitey challenged/invited Rigger to meet him in the shower room where there were fewer prying eyes and they could fight to settle their disagreement. He made sure to drop the B word about a dozen times so that Rigger would know that he’d been insulted to the fullest. The inference being that if Rigger were to not show up for the fight, then his status as a bitch would be cemented.
Juvenile schoolyard games abound behind prison walls.
I got Whitey extricated from the situation for his own good. Even managed to calm him down. Close to an hour had passed. We were sitting in the dayroom, just being nonviolent, passively watching a table of guys play cards, when Rigger walked to the middle of the dayroom. He took his shirt off, mustered his imitation ire, and issued the ultimatum for Whitey to meet him for a fight in the shower room.
This entire maneuver was a calculated one. Rigger had used the intervening time to go and pack all his belongings so that when he went to Segregation his possessions would follow him as opposed to being ransacked by all the greedy, sticky-fingered inmates who could get close to them. And a few officers with especially loose scruples. By stepping into the dayroom and removing his shirt there was a good chance he’d be taken away to SEG. Issuing a threat of violence to another inmate in full view of the C/O made his trip there an inevitability. The whole thing was a ploy, an attempt to save face and look tough, when in reality, if he had really wanted to fight the time would’ve been when Whitey was in his face.
Rigger didn’t want to fight. I can’t blame him.
I grabbed Whitey by the arm and he about bit my head off, but I held him in check. The usually taciturn C/O became suddenly indignant and animated. Rigger was carted off as he hollered threats and curses that were completely hollow. The unenlightened inmates thought Whitey had avoided a fight. Those like myself who were more experienced knew just how cowardly and laughable Rigger’s display had been.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.