In five days I will lose my best friend. Or, at least, my current best friend. I’ve been through more than a few.
The Early Ones
My first best friend I met on day one of kindergarten when I helped him stop crying. He missed his Mommy. That lasted through third grade. A Greek kid came next. His Mom let me eat pizza from their family restaurant/bar for free. After a couple of years a Little League baseball buddy of mine took the top spot followed in about nine months by an adopted Korean guy adrift in a Midwest sea of cornfields.
High school witnessed me becoming more of an extrovert and I had many acquaintances and good friends, but only one was deemed best. He would later go on to date and nearly marry the woman who was my first real love. For a long time this felt like a betrayal, but time tends to dull teenage ire and I harbor no ill will.
Onto college with the inevitable cusp of being considered an “adult”, and I had two buddies who were holdovers from high school. I grew closer to one than the other and on the day of my arrest, after knowing him for close to six years, he held the distinction of being my longest continuing friend relationship. A few days after my arrest I talked to him on the phone and he seemed full of concern, support and caring. He said he would visit on the weekend and drop off some books for me. It has been fourteen plus years, and I’ve yet to get those books or see his face. I’ve reached out to him, and some of my other friends, but to no avail. My best friend track record is disastrous at best.
Friendships found in prison are somewhat different. The elevated stress levels behind prison walls create a kind of permanent foxhole situation where bonds are formed swiftly and are deeply felt. There is common ground, namely the pain and shame of being excommunicated from family, friends, and civilized society. It can also be said that we all feel like we were abused in some way by the criminal justice system.
Having been entrenched in the system for going on a decade and a half I can attest that it is a broken system. Whether an individual is completely guilty, wholly innocent, or caught somewhere in the gray area spectrum, which includes varying degrees of culpability, it is true more often than not that abuse on the part of authority has most certainly occurred. This reality tends to breed an attitude that it is us against them. Inmates versus all authority. However, for my friend BD and me, it was a mutual love of the music of a certain Mr. Robert Zimmerman that both instantaneously began and cemented our friendship.
Dylan Fans Unite
I haven’t come across many Bob Dylan fans during my incarcerated years, and certainly like BD, who could converse with wit and intelligence on the life, times and genius of Bob Dylan. This topic turned out to be merely a foundation for a deepening relationship. Brick by brick we added to it with a shared passion for an abundant and diverse amount of musical tastes as well as common levels of both reading and creative writing.
Our personalities meshed rather wonderfully, and we each became the person the other could go to if any baggage or psychological garbage needed to be unloaded. We grew to depend on each other. What began as a tentative talk around Bob Dylan designed entirely to gauge one another’s degree of devotion to the enigmatic troubadour eventually blossomed into a full-fledged and fully invested friendship. BD could always be counted on for a thoughtful and intelligent dialogue on a wide array of subjects. This is a rare and precious quality in the environment of a prison. I have seen and spoken to BD nearly every single day for the past four years. Now he’s leaving me.
My Back Pages Revisited
I’ve had several good buddies while locked up. They all leave me. Most go home. It’s bittersweet to say the least. I can’t be sure if it’s due to the depth of our connection, or an accumulation of each and every loss I’ve endured, but this time it’s more keenly felt.
When someone goes home I have no contact with him. Can’t call. Can’t write. To do so would be a violation of his parole agreement which could land him right back in prison. Sometimes rumors work their way around that are of dubious veracity at best. There’s a strange dichotomy which occurs because I’m happy to see him get out, and wish my friend all the best, but I’d like to see him again. Unfortunately the only way to see him is if he gets in trouble and comes back.
I must therefore languish in the land of incommunicado and move on with prison life, trying all the while not to let these losses create a callous over my heart which prohibits me from caring about the next person who comes along. Whether he’s a Bob Dylan fan or not. Although that could be a deal-breaker.
After all: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
Sonny was an older black man, in his mid-sixties, and walked with a slow, loping limp. He didn’t move very swiftly. This particular stint in Segregation for Sonny was because he had mouthed off to the wrong C/O. Other officers might have just talked some shit right back to him and that would’ve been the end of it. Instead, the C/O took it personally, and Sonny was said to be insolent. “Insolence” can be a serious infraction of the rules, but not enough to take a guy to Seg. However, when Sonny refused to turn around to be handcuffed, it was “disobeying a direct order,” which was grounds to be marched to Seg. During Sonny’s first week he hadn’t made any kind of fuss. Not yet.
Officer Selleff was a real sonofabitch. That’s actually the nicest thing I can say about him. He was young, white, muscular, fit. He’d been in the military and had a real gung-ho, go-get-’em attitude. He had applied to be a police officer, but they didn’t want him, so he became a glorified babysitter to convicted felons. In his warped mind, he was the hero and we, his wards, were the enemy.
Selleff abused his authority at every turn by confiscating property that was perfectly allowed, and denying inmates that which was legally mandated to them. He verbally abused inmates constantly, harassing and insulting them with slurs against their race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
Numerous complaints and grievances had already been lodged against Officer Selleff. He had been reprimanded by superiors and moved around to several different buildings, but nothing seemed to curb his overzealous and caustic behavior. He’d been a correctional officer for about nine months and hadn’t physically assaulted an inmate. Not yet.
With his black tactical gloves on and another officer in tow, it was clear that C/O Selleff meant business as he strode towards Sonny’s door. An officious and absurdly aggressive bellow rattled from his chest ordering Sonny to turn around and walk backwards to the door to be handcuffed for a shakedown. Sonny was in no hurry and took his time obeying Selleff’s commands. Selleff positively buzzed with anxious impatience, hopping back and forth from foot to foot like a giddy child on Christmas morning.
“C’mon! Hurry up, you old fuck!” he blurted like the empowered bully that he was.
Selleff let the trapdoor of the chuckhole slam open and Sonny complied by sticking his hands out through the opening to be cuffed together behind his back. Selleff derived a twisted pleasure and sick glee from clicking the steel together over Sonny’s slack flesh. With Sonny secured, Selleff opened the door and pulled Sonny out of the cell by grabbing the cuffs and lifting Sonny’s arms up high behind his back before yanking with enough force to make Sonny holler in pain. Sonny cussed at Selleff, which only seemed to encourage his tyrant instinct, and he raised Sonny’s cuffs even higher so Sonny had to bend at the waist in an effort to alleviate some of the pressure on his shoulders and upper back. It was in this vulnerable position that Selleff then propelled Sonny forward face first into the wall next to the open door of the cell.
Initial Assault There was a loud, hollow conking sound and a grunt from Sonny. “Keep your face to the wall,” Selleff ordered before pressing Sonny’s face against the cinder block wall for emphasis. The other C/O entered Sonny’s cell and Selleff followed. Sounds of things being roughly searched and tossed around echoed throughout the cell block. Sonny was leaning heavily against the wall and seemed to be dazed. Eventually he steadied himself on his feet and ventured to peek around the edge of the doorframe. He watched for a few moments before he couldn’t hold back his remarks any longer.
“C’mon man, you don’t gotta do all that.” In Seg, an inmate’s property is limited to a couple changes of clothes, hygiene items, and sometimes books, magazines, personal letters, and letter-writing materials. I say “sometimes” for these latter items because an inmate is entitled to them, but isn’t always given them out of their correspondence box. If a C/O assigned to Seg doesn’t feel like doing it, and inmate will have only the nothingness of pure thought to occupy his mind. There wasn’t much for Selleff and his cohort to search, but they were going through it as thoroughly as humanly possible, scattering what little there was around the cell in a callous and haphazard fashion. Despite that fact, Sonny would’ve been better off keeping his grip to himself.
“What did I say?!!!” Selleff brayed as he came barreling out of the cell. “Face to the wall!” He grabbed Sonny by the back of the neck with his left hand and lifted up on the handcuffs with his right hand. Sonny voiced some feeble, inarticulate protests that were largely muffled by his face being pressed forcibly to the wall.
Sonny’s body was perhaps two feet from the wall but he was being leaned forward so his face was against the cold cinder blocks. Selleff lifted Sonny’s cuffed hands even higher which forced his face even harder into the wall and caused excruciating pain to his shoulder sockets. Sonny raised his leg and swung it backwards. This was either done in an effort to maintain his balance, or as a feeble attempt to kick Selleff. The result of his actions was that his foot brushed Selleff’s leg with all the force of a feather duster being wielded by an infant. Selleff erupted.
“He kicked me! He kicked me!” Selleff screamed, which brought the other C/O rushing out to assist his fellow correctional officer. Selleff’s accomplice grabbed Sonny in a side hug, clamping his arms down and standing him upright. Selleff had backed away a few feet, but once Sonny was secured, he charged forward and shoved Sonny into the wall before beginning to punch him in the back, side, and ribs repeatedly. The second officer had a look of shock plastered stupidly across his face, but he held tightly to Sonny—the human punching bag—and said nothing in the way of protest.
After a dozen or more blows, Selleff ceased his topside assault and began kicking at Sonny’s legs until Sonny fell against the officer holding him. The C/O let go and backed away so Sonny careened sideways and crashed onto his shoulder and side, his cuffed arms unable to break his fall. A loud scrunching sound accompanied this collapse. Selleff pounced upon Sonny, kicking and stomping his unprotected body while raving obscenities and racial slurs in an unceasing litany of hate. The other officer retreated, wearing a mask of bewilderment and fear, but he didn’t possess the integrity to step in and stop what was obviously wrong.
With a final barrage of boots to Sonny’s back and side, Selleff crowed, “That’s what you get for kicking me, you little bitch.” He stood over his motionless victim for a moment, panting like a wild animal, as he tried to catch his breath. Eventually he motioned for his partner in crime to assist him in dragging Sonny’s awake but inert body into the cell before slamming the door with a resounding finality. Sonny was left in the cell for several hours, still handcuffed, before finally being taken to Healthcare in a wheelchair.
There was an investigation. This inquiry was initiated and carried out by the Internal Affairs division, whose role is to police both staff and inmates in order to ensure the safety and security of everyone, as well as to prevent or punish any infractions of the rules or codes of conduct. Officer Selleff was given a one-week leave of absence, with pay, while IA carried out their audit. In the end, Sonny was given a year across the board. This means he had to spend a year in Seg, and a year was added to his sentence. There is no evidence that Selleff was held accountable or punished by any official means. He remained at his post in Seg for a while before being moved around to different areas as he continued to antagonize inmates, other staff members, and superiors alike. Eventually Selleff was transferred to work at another prison, but I don’t know whether or not this was at his own request. To my knowledge, he is still a correctional officer.
Crockett had a relatively legitimate complaint, but he went about seeking relief for his issue in the entirely wrong way. First, he began by cussing out the two C/Os who refused to let him out of his cell to use the phone—never a good opening tactic.
It was Crockett’s scheduled day for a phone call—one of three allotted per week—but his appointed time had been on first shift. He had requested that the first-shift officer leave a notation for his second-shift replacement to allow Crockett to use the phone on second shift, since he had been unable to get through to anyone. While this practice is perfectly acceptable, it is also understood that the final decision is the second shift officer’s to make. In this instance, the C/O flatly refused Crockett’s request. Specifically, he laughed at Crockett and informed him that he was “fucked out of luck.” The C/O’s coworker joined in the laughter. Not precisely professional of them, or respectful for that matter. C/Os sometimes revel in their tiny piece of power and abuse their authority. It’s not uncommon. Crockett didn’t handle this well.
After returning the officer’s curse words, Crockett upped the ante from his side of the cell door by verbally threatening both of the C/Os with a violent assault. The two C/Os continued to laugh at him as if he were some sort of ineffectual caged beast, which in essence he was. However, he would not be in his cell forever. Crockett was not a tiny guy. He had been locked up almost fifteen years and had a body built by the weight pile. He was also no stranger to violence; he had been transferred from his previous facility for fighting. The two C/Os didn’t seem to think, or care, about any of that.
Having gotten no rhythm with his threats, Crockett engaged in an ill-conceived and hasty act of desperation by demanding to see a white shirt. By doing this, he escalated the situation. As it stood, before getting a lieutenant involved, his cussing and threats could just be chalked up to angry frustration—merely blowing off steam—and ignored. But the presence of a lieutenant would almost certainly end in Crockett getting walked to Seg. The two officers’ unprofessional conduct and goading of Crockett wouldn’t matter. In fact, it probably wouldn’t even be mentioned. Crockett had threatened a correctional officer; whether provoked or not, it’s not an infraction taken lightly by the powers that be. Foolishly, Crockett thought he could reason with the loo and make him see his side of the story. Seg was populated with similarly foolish individuals.
Lieutenant Kardinsky carried himself with the bearing of a fighter entering the fray. This may be why it was rumored that he competed in mixed martial arts competitions, and while none of us inmates had any way to know whether there was any truth to those rumors, most of us believed it. Nothing about him left the impression that he had any patience for people’s bullshit.
“What’s your problem?” he said as he walked straight up to Crockett’s door, after conferring confidentially with the two C/Os who had so offended the offender.
Crockett did his little song and dance, explaining the phone issue and how the C/Os had laughed and cussed at him, which had only provoked him.
Lieutenant Kardinsky waited for him to stop talking, though I’m not convinced he actually listened to a word Crockett said. “So you threatened my officers?” he asked Crockett, who had just admitted to having yelled and cussed at them.
Crockett began his explanation over again, beginning with the fact that he couldn’t reach anyone at his scheduled phone call time.
The loo cut him off.
“I don’t give a shit,” he declared derisively. “You threatened my officers,” he repeated, this time as a statement of fact, as he unlocked the chuck hole door and let it slam open on its hinges, like a tiny drawbridge. “Turn around and cuff up, you’re going to Seg.”
Crockett’s cellie was at work in the chowhall, so at least they wouldn’t have to deal with the logistics of removing the cellie first, as per protocol. But that was a dim and distant blessing. As for Lieutenant Kardinsky’s order for him to submit to being handcuffed, Crockett didn’t handle that very well either.
“What the fuck!!?” he boomed in the lieutenant’s face, forcing him to take a couple half steps back from the cell door. “This is some bullshit!”
“What did you think was going to happen?” Lieutenant Kardinsky asked incredulously, which also happened to be the most reasonable and logical thing I’d heard him say.
“But they laughed at me! I want my phone call!” Crockett whined like a petulant, cranky child fighting against the inevitability of naptime. In an instant, he turned livid. “You bitch!” he bellowed through the door’s perforated steel grate. “All of you!” he continued, “You’re all a bunch of pussy little bitches! Hiding behind this door, behind your badges. If I ever caught you in the world, and you didn’t have that shirt on to protect you, I’d beat your little bitch ass!”
Crockett was unraveling; he had become unhinged. Either that, or he had pretty much resigned himself to the fact that Seg was a foregone conclusion and had decided to take the scorched earth approach and sizzle any diplomatic-type bridge he might have been able to cross. Lieutenant Kardinsky slammed the chuck hole closed and walked off to confer with the two C/Os who were standing witness to it all.
After a brief exchange, the lieutenant removed his radio from his belt and handed it to one of the C/Os, followed by his belt, which carried his handcuffs, keys, and canister of pepper spray. Then he took off his white shirt. Beneath it, he wore a tight black T-shirt that was so form-fitting it appeared to have been spray-painted on him. It accentuated his muscular, ropy physique impressively and served to intimidate. At least, I know I felt intimidated—not to mention bewildered by what was unfolding. I felt fearful for Crockett’s immediate well-being.
Having divested himself of all mantles of authority, Kardinsky returned to Crockett’s cell. “I don’t have my shirt on anymore. What do you want to do?”
Crockett was initially dumbstruck, but quickly regained his bravado. “Bullshit! You ain’t gonna do nothing. Your buddies will help you if you open this door.”
“No,” Kardinsky countered quickly, “They’re not going to do anything. I come in and we see what happens. If you beat me, you beat me. If I beat you, it ends there: no Seg time, no grievances. Deal?”
Crockett let out a harsh, hollow laugh of disbelief.
“Bullshit,” he pronounced once more.
“Roll the door,” was all Kardinsky said. One of the C/Os gestured to the bubble officer, and the electronic lock buzzed open. Kardinsky slipped inside the cell and closed the door behind him, locking them both inside.
There was a short, muted conversation that was unintelligible, then nothing but the sounds of violence for several minutes. After a brief lull, Kardinsky appeared at the door and banged his fist against it three times. “Open the door!” he yelled to his officers, who duly came running. Kardinsky didn’t sound frantic, or even particularly winded.
He dragged Crockett out by his armpits and dropped him in a heap in the middle of the gallery. Crockett wasn’t unconscious, but was clearly dazed and bloodied; Kardinsky didn’t seem to have a scratch on him. Kardinsky snatched his handcuffs from his belt, which was slung over one of the C/Os shoulders. With his heavy black boot, he connected viciously with Crockett’s defenseless ribs, which sent his supine body rolling onto its side. Using his boot, Kardinsky rolled him over the rest of the way onto his stomach. Once Crockett was positioned to Kardinsky’s satisfaction, he pulled Crockett’s arms behind his back one at a time and clicked the handcuffs tightly to his wrists. Crockett slurred some curse that sounded something like “sunufabisch” and Kardinsky stomped his spine as if he were dispatching a spider; Crockett howled in understandable agony.
Kardinsky took his time putting himself back together. He put on his white shirt, buttoned it, tucked it in, then returned his belt to his waist before checking to ensure everything was where it should be. Lastly he replaced his radio, which he retrieved from the C/O he had entrusted it to. Throughout all this, Crockett lay mostly still and quiet, except for the odd, errant moan or grunt of discomfort. Lieutenant Kardinsky mumbled something to his subordinates before heading toward the door of the deck, where he stood watch and waited.
The two C/Os had a silent conference of head nods and gesticulation before circling Crockett’s body. One of them grabbed the handcuffs and pulled so that Crockett was yanked back and his head and torso forced off of the floor. It was as if he were being folded in half backwards. He grimaced and yelled in pain. When the other C/O took his canister of pepper spray and unloaded a blast right into Crockett’s defenseless face from a foot away, Crockett really began to holler. The two C/Os scurried off, coughing, and exited the deck along with Lieutenant Kardinsky. Crockett was left to scream and writhe in burning agony for nearly half an hour before finally being hauled away to Seg. He only managed to stumble blindly and uselessly around the deck, seeking some type of aid, care, or comfort, but he found none. His whimpering screams of pain and helpless pleadings for assistance are something I’ll never be able to forget.
This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
Standing just two and a half feet away, my new cellie began badmouthing me through the chuck hole in the door.
“Yeah bro, they all lamers. Ain’t none of ‘em a convict. I’m sick of cellies who don’t know how to bit. His fat ass don’t workout; no job. Why do I gotta get stuck with him? Pisses me off! You know, all I gotta do is pull out my juice card with that loo and dude’s dumb ass is gone. I’m trying to be easy though, and I don’t wanna have to go there. You feel me? I’ll tell you what, though, he’d best just walk himself like my last cellies before I swing on him and end up thumping him til the white meat show.”
Although he was talking to a porter on the other side of the cell door, it was mostly for my benefit, since it would’ve been impossible for me not to hear every word he said. His thinly-veiled threats and their attendant sentiments weren’t much in the spirit of the season, and they certainly weren’t the Christmas present I had hoped for.
I’d known Tory for only nine days, and we hadn’t exactly hit it off. He didn’t like that I woke up so early in the morning. But I wasn’t a fan of his three-hour-long workout routines that got the cell hot and musty and basically trapped me on my top bunk, out of his way. He didn’t like that I had no job and wasn’t in school, which gave him no time to himself in the cell. He didn’t understand that I had just completed the college course I’d been enrolled in, and that I’d had a job as a porter before being relocated against my wishes to his cell in a new house. I tried to be patient and explain our differences with the logic that we had both beendown a while and were used to having things our own way.
His conversation at the cell door changed everything.
It’s not like we’d been a couple of chatterboxes up to that point, but after Tory let his true feelings be known, we were on no talk. His passive-aggressive tactics were accompanied by periodic glances in my direction as he mean mugged me with scowls of disdain and hatred. After two days of angry glares and utter silence between the two of us, and just as our souring relationship reached its most tenuous point, the joint was put on lockdown.
For twelve days, the only moment we had apart from one another was the one time we were cuffed and marched to separate showers. Not a single syllable was uttered between us, and there was nothing even remotely comfortable about our silence. In prison, certain small courtesies are taken as granted between cellies subsisting on meals on wheels and dealing with a toilet on a timer. A simple “thanks” or “gratitude” as one cellie passes a tray to another is customary. Early in the morning, when bladders are full after a night’s sleep, the proper protocol is to ask one’s cellie if they need to use the toilet before you flush it. These common kindnesses were nonexistent between us.
Our cell’s atmosphere was rife with violence just waiting to erupt. I greeted Tory’s every look and movement with suspicion and tightened muscles. I was ready to spring into action if the need to defend myself arose. My guts were in a constant state of turmoil, twisting and churning with a steady drip of anxious adrenaline and the dread of anticipation. It felt like I was caged with an animal, a predator ready to turn me into its prey. Tory was taller than me and much more muscular. To say that my chances in a fight with him, especially a fair one, were not good would be an enormous and egregious understatement.
He started talking out loud to his TV. Then he began directing mumbled curses and threats at me, and I found myself strategizing about the inevitable confrontation.
Being on the top bunk, I figured I had the higher ground and, therefore, the upper hand. At the very least, it was a position I could use to my advantage. I played scenarios in my head, trying to come up with one that didn’t end with me completely beaten and contused. By my estimation, after a kick to his face, my best strategy would be to recruit gravity and simply crush him with my ample bodyweight with as little dignity and decorum as possible. Having completed that complex maneuver, the plan would be similarly simple: avoid his fists and if the opportunity presented itself, punch his unprotected face. As a last resort, I’d do my best to impersonate Mike Tyson in his infamous bout with Evander Holyfield. With all my infinite powers of imagination, that was my master plan, the best I could come up with. Thankfully, it never came to that.
The constant tension and terror, the endless looking over my shoulder, and the fear he would jump me at any moment finally found some release when the lockdown was lifted. Inside the cell, we still spoke not a word, but at least we had a few minutes or as much as an hour when we didn’t have to be in each other’s face. This didn’t solve the problem, and I hated daydreaming about my fantasy of violence that I dreaded having to put into action. Even if I defied the odds and emerged victorious from an altercation between the two of us, our tiny cell was comprised solely of concrete and steel. We both would’ve incurred injuries and earned a stint in Seg—not to mention the inevitable loss of property that comes with a trip there, as one’s box passes from one set of stickyfingers to another.
After nineteen long days of uncomfortable quiet, Tory was suddenly told to pack his belongings. His appeal had been granted; he was going home the next day. The morning of our twentieth day on no talk was my birthday, and with 45 minutes left on his prison sentence, Tory suddenly became the talkative, good-natured guy I had never known him to be.
He started talking directly to me, and he went on and on effusively about how I’m doing my time well. He encouraged me to just keep behaving the way I had been. According to him, my final decade of prison would just fly right by if I stuck to my same routine—the same behaviors that, an hour before, he had regarded with antipathy. He acted magnanimously, as if he was speaking from a place of great wisdom and understanding, even though he’d only been down a couple years longer than I had.
When Tory finally left, he wished me luck. I thanked him, told him to be good. All the insane and illogical animosity evacuated the cell with him. I could breathe easily; at last, I could take a deep breath unhindered. It was as if I’d been holding my breath for the better part of a month. Tory’s departure still stands as the best birthday present I’ve ever had in prison. Then, as was the institutional practice at the time, my commissary order was delivered right to my cell. Due to the lockdown and the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, it had been well over a month since the last commissary, so it was perfect timing. I was able to re-up on the essentials of coffee and hygiene items, as well as get some extra food. I spent the rest of my special day in relaxation, watching a couple of my favorite TV shows, and making a celebratory meal for myself. It was a beautiful, uplifting, and joyful day—especially after so many filled with worry and strain.
This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
Since he always went by his street name, Shorty, I can’t for the life of me recall his actual name, even though he was my cellie for nearly half a year. This isn’t uncommon, especially since I only heard his government name a handful of times when the C/O called it out before passing mail under the steel door of our cell. My cellie didn’t get much mail.
Shorty and I got along just fine and talked easily, if only occasionally. He had recently learned how to make prison pizza, so he wanted to practice his new skill all the time. He gave me a prison slideshow of his many pictures, proudly showing off his aunts, uncles, mother, nieces, nephews, and his many cousins. Shorty was a Latino and a gangbanger—but please erase all the negative stereotypes coursing through the wrinkles of your brain. I always knew him to be a relatively quiet, respectful, calm, and pleasant guy. My personal experience with him made it even more of a shock when I saw him punch a C/O in the face.
It all happened so fast, as is often the case with fights in prison. Some seemingly insignificant incident or perceived slight can be all it takes to push a person over the edge. The problem is that, as a rule, guys keep their emotional life buried as deep as they can manage, so it’s often impossible to tell that someone is on the edge until he goes careening over his psychological precipice by lashing out violently. In Shorty’s case, whatever underlying, complex issues he was wrestling with, the inciting act came when he didn’t get his full glass of milk.
When the inmate pouring milk emptied the two pitchers he was carrying, Shorty only got a splash, barely enough to cover the bottom of the plastic cup. The Milk Man assured my cellie he’d be back, but after refilling the pitchers from the milk reservoir, he took his fresh supplies to a different table and began filling cups there. My cellie stood up in the chow hall (which is something you just don’t do) and walked over to The Milk Man and grabbed his shoulder from behind (another thing you just don’t do, unless you’re looking for a fight). He got his cup filled with milk and returned to his table, but had barely sat down before The Milk Man was standing over him
I was a few feet away, facing my cellie with a clear view of it all. Shorty got his nickname not only from his young age, but because at five and a half feet, he wasn’t exactly tall. When he stood to face The Milk Man, he was face to chest with him and dwarfed by The Milk Man’s swole chest and arms. A few words were exchanged that I couldn’t hear, and then my cellie stole on him—punched him right in the face. The milk pitchers splashed into the air, but The Milk Man seemed practically unfazed by the cheap shot and started pummeling his huge fists against Shorty’s face and head. He was so focused on hitting my cellie, and I was so focused on their fighting, that neither one of us saw the tray coming.
As Shorty and The Milk Man exchanged blows, Shorty’s buddy, The Tall Guy, who was skinny and muscular, took it upon himself to step in with his assistance. My tunnel vision didn’t let me see it coming, but I saw it happen—like seeing an actor suddenly stepping into the frame of a film to unexpectedly alter the movie forever. Shorty and The Milk Man were in profile to me when the tray smacked against the side of The Milk Man’s head. The tray shattered into three or four plastic chunks. Splashes of sauce and bits of spaghetti noodles flew in my direction, but this didn’t slow down any of the assailants.
My cellie and The Milk Man kept whaling on each other, while The Tall Guy who had come to Shorty’s aid joined in the assault. The Milk Man managed to retreat until he had maneuvered around a table which forced both his opponents to be squarely in front of him. He stood toe to toe with them—taking brutal blows, but delivering just as many.
This was not some well-rehearsed and choreographed fight in some karate movie, and none of these guys had any kind of training. From the moment the milk pitchers fell to the ground, it was a relentless onslaught of violence with whirlwind punches, so fast they were little more than a blur. Faces changed color and spouted blood as if by some sick kind of magic. Seeing this level of violence up close and personal—not even five feet away—is so unnerving that it makes the stomach squirm. It’s a strange mix of fear and excitement, fueled by a sudden torrent of adrenaline raging through the bloodstream. There’s an immediacy and undeniable reality to it that no 3D technology could ever hope to duplicate—and even if it could be captured and replicated, only the most amoral, sadistic, and twisted people could endure the show, let alone want to see it. There’s no way to dress it up or romanticize it. These were three animals trying to inflict as much damage as possible.
C/Os descended on the scene, coming from behind on my cellie and his confederate, who reacted instinctually given the heightened circumstances—they assaulted the officers and sent them to the ground with arms flailing uselessly. The Tall Guy collapsed his lanky frame on the C/Os and beat them as they tried to stand up again, while Shorty returned to face The Milk Man solo. They exchanged only a few more blows because the chow hall was being flooded by C/Os and white shirts all running in response to the alarm that had gone out over the radios after some officer had pushed his panic button. When Shorty turned in response to all the yells from the oncoming officers, it provided The Milk Man the opportunity he needed.
Exhibiting liquid speed, his arm shot out and wrapped around Shorty’s neck so that his python bicep covered Shorty’s windpipe and pulled him into a choke-hold. As soon as he had his hold firmly in place, The Milk Man collapsed onto his ass, as if his legs no longer had the strength to hold him up, and I suspect that was precisely the case. Shorty feebly tried hammering his fists against The Milk Man’s tree-trunk thighs, but each pathetic punch was weaker than the last, and the usual tanned complexion of his face was taking on an undeniably red shade as he was denied oxygen. I was only dimly aware that The Tall Guy had been subdued and cuffed up, since my attention was consumed by The Milk Man. He was looking right at me.
I was seated at my table, and just three feet away, my cellie was being choked. I did not know The Milk Man, had only ever mumbled a polite, “Thank you,” as he had filled my glass over the previous month or so. Now he was undeniably looking me in the eyes, as he not so gently walked my cellie along the path to unconsciousness. For a frightening moment, everything else in existence fell away, and it was just The Milk Man and I locked in unexpected wordless communication.
The Milk Man’s chest was heaving as he tried to catch his breath after all that exertion. His eyes bulged wildly at me, and I could see the rage burning within him. When his forearm flexed into what I was sure would be the final move to send Shorty into blackness, I shook my head without intending to. It was a simple, sad maneuver—left to right once—but my eyes begged him to let Shorty go.
A profound exhaustion and resignation seemed to droop his features, then The Milk Man relaxed his grip and pushed Shorty to the ground. Half a dozen C/Os and three loos came running in—all of them screaming for him to lie down, that it was over. After a final glance at me, he lay prostrate and allowed himself to be cuffed easily and led away.
My cellie, having recaptured his breath, somehow still had some fight in him. It took four C/Os to wrestle his limbs into submission and a white shirt positioning a can of pepper spray an inch from his eye with the threat, “Stop or I’ll do it,” before Shorty was cuffed up and hauled onto his feet. His face had a thin film of blood from various wounds and abrasions, and his left eye was already swelling and quickly on its way to being swollen shut. Like a madman, he let out a few wild whoops and cries of joyful exuberance, like he had just enjoyed a thrilling roller coaster ride rather than having had his face rearranged.
This, Shorty’s final act as he was dragged away, was nearly as unsettling as all the violence I’d just seen. It made something abundantly clear: this deranged person had been lurking in the cell with me the entire time, and I’d had no idea.
Shorty and The Tall Guy both received a year across the board for hitting a C/O and were shipped to a Seg joint. The Milk Man wasn’t shipped and only got thirty days in Seg because he only hit another inmate. I had to pack Shorty’s possessions, and a C/O came and removed them from my cell. I never saw Shorty again. A dozen hours later, when the cell was empty except for me and my belongings, I was still shaken by the incident. //pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js
This was an itch I could scratch, but there were consequences to the scratching. I tore at my inflamed flesh, but the intense burning only increased and spread. Despite this, I still didn’t stop. The scratching didn’t provide much relief at all. Truth be told, I was making my predicament worse, but it’s the only course of action I had control over. So I hollered for help, kicked my door, and scraped my skin incessantly until it bled.
Sometimes ignorance isn’t so much bliss as it is a recipe for disaster.
I was new to the joint at the time and was still learning the ropes, feeling my way blindly through dark and unfamiliar circumstances and surroundings. Up until that point in my existence, I had never in my life had any problems with allergies of any kind.
That was about to change.
As I am considered to be state property, the Department of Corrections has certain responsibilities and requirements they have to meet when caring for me. Being clothed, fed, and washed are the big three—though more often than not they’ll provide even these as stingily as they can get away with. Hand in hand with the clothed and washed aspects of those obligations are laundry services.
Standard operating protocol when I first arrived to the joint allowed that, three times a week on my designated days, I could put a laundrybag with my cell number on it down by the laundry room. The laundryporter would then wash it and return it to me. The state provided the necessary laundry detergent as part of their job to keep us convicts clothed and washed. What I didn’t know, and what no one bothered to give me a heads-up about, was that the powdered detergent the state provides is a coarse, industrial-strength concoction that the laundry porter generally applied to clothes as liberally as Rachael Ray splashes her EVOO. This was information that would have benefited me.
I made it a little past a week before symptoms started to manifest, and when they did, it wasn’t anything more drastic than a slight itch here or there that I could chalk up to dry skin. By my second weekend in prison, though, the allergic reaction had reached critical mass. It had been a slow burn all day Saturday, with me scratching my itches from time to time, but mostly trying to ignore them and pretend that I wasn’t itchy at all. But I was. So very, very itchy.
Though I hadn’t yet made the logical mental connection that my own clothes were the enemy, an angry red rash presented itself wherever fabric stretched or brushed over the sensitive surface of my flesh the most. The collar of my neck, my shoulders, chest, and armpits. My feet and ankles. My waistband and hip bones. Arse cheeks and inner thighs. The entire crotch area in general, actually. My body had become a grotesque relief map, with the rash serving as quarter-inch mountains. My urge to itch was becoming unbearable. I laid in bed and writhed against my sheets to create some kind of respite. But the bed-clothes had been laundered with the same evil detergent, and what I thought was a good idea was only making matters much worse. I had no fan to cool me down, so I tried applying cold wash-cloths, but they made my skin feel like it was on fire. Eventually, I simply couldn’t take it any more.
It was just past midnight, and sleep eluded me. My body wouldn’t relax or cease its burn, and my brain screeched in a panicked insistence that if the itching didn’t stop, I would die. My cellie, thankfully, was sympathetic. I sprang off my bunk and rushed to the door, where I began to scream for help.
“C/O! C/O! Upper eleven! C/O!”
I was in the cell farthest from the bubble, and no C/O likes having to do anything extra on the midnight shift. There was a button in the cell to press in case of emergency, commonly called the panic button, and pressing it was supposed to send C/Os running to the cell. But if an inmate did push it, someone had better be dead or dying; if not, somebody would be going to Seg. I pounded on that button for all my worth. I flicked on the light and stripped off my shirt so I could show off the extremity of my irritation if a C/O would show up. There was a continuous mountain range of dark red running from my neck to my knees and a separate formation in the exact shape of my ankle socks.
I kicked and yelled some more, then heard some confederates join my cause and call for the C/O to go to upper eleven. It was unexpected and strangely touching that my fellow inmates would come to my aid. My cellie jumped down from his top bunk and took over pushing the panicbutton, kicking the door, and hollering out for help. This assistance afforded me the opportunity to take my Inmate ID Card—don’t leave the cell without it, or risk a ticket—and drag the hard plastic over the tortured terrain of my body. The technique brought forth more blood and didn’t soothe me at all, but I couldn’t stop myself. Some part of me knew I was just making things worse, but I rubbed and scoured with vehemence and determination regardless. I wanted to cry. I wanted it to stop. No C/O ever came in response to my kicking, screaming, and button-pushing.
At the scheduled 2:00 a.m. count, when the C/O passed by, I begged him to open the door to see my condition. I claimed it was a “medical emergency,” which is a specific phrase that officers are trained to respect and take seriously lest lawsuits ensue. He called another C/O on his radio to come and assist, and once they popped my door, they shared looks of disdain and disgust over my appearance, what I had done to myself. I stood before them in just my boxers. From my neckline to my waist I was cherry red with inflamed irritation; only my forearms were spared from contamination. There was another shade of red sprouting in a couple dozen spots where I’d brought blood to the surface with my efforts, and my practically new white boxers showed evidence of rosy stains in a handful of spots. My fingernails were caked with the dried remnants of my own flesh and blood. They were looking at me like I was some kind of wild animal, but they didn’t understand. They weren’t encased in my skin and could not appreciate the extremity of my affliction.
Both C/Os, non-medical professionals, concurred that my situation didn’t rise to the level of an emergency, but they did assure me that when the nurse arrived to deliver daily meds around four in the morning they would pull me out so I could see her and maybe get some help. They left. I lay on my bunk in the dark, tried to breathe calmly and not itch. My entire body felt aflame, but that eventually worked in my favor because I couldn’t isolate a single body part to scratch. Instead, I remained impotently inert as my nerve endings shrieked and every part of me burned. I did not sleep a wink.
When the nurse saw me she was slightly more compassionate, but obviously annoyed at seeing a patient at such an early hour instead of just administering meds. I was given a glorious ointment of some sort, and I slathered my body in it morning, noon, and night for a week to gain some blessed relief. The nurse, kind heart that she was, also left word for the day-shift C/O that I was to be afforded the special privilege of having all my clothes and bedding washed in cold water to rinse out any of the stubborn detergent residue that had caused my allergic reaction.
This was my first encounter with this new prison’s bureaucracy and healthcare system; it wasn’t ideal, but not totally horrible. I did get to see a nurse, after all. It was a good lesson to learn and an introduction for me to a system that sees me less as a human being and more as a numbered object. I’ll never forget that it was my fellow inmates, strangers, who rallied to my aid and hollered for someone to help me, and that it was C/Os who were content to let me itch and burn. More than anything though, I won’t forget lying there, helpless, as the interminable fiery consequences of my allergy consumed me.
When I first met Mark, he wasn’t particularly impressive. He didn’t make a strong or indelible impression on me. He was like a lot of white guys in their late thirties and early forties who I’d come across: prematurely aged and showing signs that years of all different kinds of abuse—physical, mental, drug—had taken their toll. All this was evident in little more than a glance.
A few bits of thatch clung to the edge of his skull, but the top of his head held a sheen that spoke to years of baldness. His skin was pockmarked where sores had once taken root, and his general complexion was sallow, with red splotches. The yellow hue staining his few remaining teeth made his smile an unpleasant sight. At five foot five, 225 pounds, with thick thighs and a flabby, floppy gut, he appeared to be the epitome of the term “squat.” It was easy to dismiss him after one look as just another guy, not worth my time or energy.
He first registered on my radar because I kept catching him looking at me as I worked out on the yard. It wasn’t so obvious as to be creepy, but enough that I quickly picked up on it. I’d staked out a spot in a corner where I wouldn’t be disturbed, and it was there I performed a series of calisthenics and cardio exercises that my guy Burke and I had culled from memory, P90X infomercials, and Men’s Fitness magazines. Burke had been moved to another house, but I kept at it by myself.
After a week of surreptitious stalking, Mark finally worked up the nerve to speak to me. He waited until the tail end of yard, after I had finished my regimen. Even though I could tell he’d wanted to talk, I was curious but fairly clueless as to what the topic or purpose of it would be. After an exchange of names and prison pleasantries, he got right down to it.
“Do you think I could start working out with you?” His speech was hesitant, and he kind of stammered his way through it. He seemed extremely nervous, but I couldn’t figure out why. I also couldn’t fathom why he’d want to work out with me. While it’s true that, compared to Mark, I was practically an Adonis, I didn’t consider my physique anything to write home about. Mark went on to explain that he would be going home in six months, so he wanted to lose weight and get in shape. He saw I was out there every gym and yard getting money, and said he was in need of direction and motivation. He hoped I would provide both.
This was a situation I’d seen countless times and was another symptom of short-timer’s disease: Guys willfully neglect their health and bodies for months or years; but once they’re short, they expect to cram all the hard work and hit the streets looking like they’d been carved from granite. I despised the entire concept. On top of that, I wasn’t looking for and didn’t want a new workout partner. Burke and I had been buddies and ended up working out together as a natural extension of our friendship. I told Mark that I’d be out there every time, doing my thing, and if he wanted to show up, I’d put him through the paces. He grinned, nodded vigorously, and thanked me before walking off. I didn’t believe he’d ever actually show up for a workout.
The next time we had yard, he was there in my little workout corner, ready to go. And I was true to my word. Since I’d been doing my routine for a while, it came a little easier to me, but I didn’t let up one bit. I pushed and pushed until Mark couldn’t take it anymore—he had to stumble away and cling to the fence for dear life as he puked his paltry prison breakfast onto the concrete. When a person isn’t used to heavy workouts, this isn’t unheard of. I once scarfed an egg salad sandwich and barfed it up after doing dozens of squats and deadlifts (and FYI, egg salad has got to be one of the worst possible foods to taste as it comes up for an encore performance). Once Mark was done with his regurgitation, he wandered off on unsteady legs. I admit to taking a small, sick, twisted satisfaction in knowing that I’d made him vomit and quit. I was sure I’d never see him again for another session.
So when Mark returned at the next yard with a determined look on his face, I was impressed. Having once weighed 315 pounds, I knew how tough losing weight could be and how huge a toll on one’s self-esteem that struggle can take. Mark was clearly serious. I took pity on him, and brought him under my wing. That second time I slowed down, gave him more rests between exercises, and dragged him along with me to the end of the routine. He looked like he was about to fall out, but I congratulated him on getting through the whole thing and encouraged him to come back. Between huge gasping gulps of air, Mark managed to assure me that he would, in fact, be back next time.
True to his word, he returned the next day. Again and again, for weeks, it was the two of us in the corner of the yard, getting it in. What was initially impossible for him became gradually easier until he was able to get through our hour-long workout with minimal rest. Then Mark recruited another overweight individual who wanted to change his sedentary habits. I instructed him on proper technique and encouraged them both while getting in my own workout.
Shortly after that, a couple of short-timers approached me and asked how much I was charging to run my workout. I thought they were joking, but they were serious. Apparently they thought I was doing it as some kind of hustle. I told them that I didn’t charge anything, and if they wanted to show up next time they were more than welcome. Within a month and a half of my first workout with Mark, I had five or six guys every single yard standing before me with expectant and excited expressions on their faces, eager for another workout, all looking to me for direction. Without setting out to, I had become some kind of prison Billy Blanks.
It was a daunting task, having all these people depending on me to keep them going. But before long it was they who motivated me. On days when I didn’t feel like doing anything, it was the knowledge that they were counting on my guidance that made me get up and go.
From start to finish, Mark worked out with me for almost four months. He hung in there to the end every time and seemed to gradually become less round. Most of the other guys came and went, showing up only when they felt like it, but Mark never missed a yard. He would usually track me down in the chow line to double check that I would definitely be working out on yard. Our final time together was unremarkable from the rest. We pushed through the pain and were utterly exhausted at the end.
Our post-workout ritual was simple and had developed naturally. We bumped fists, exchanged comments of “good job” and “good money” before I clapped him on the back in an appropriately macho fashion and told him he was doing well and to keep at it. Then Mark walked away.
The next time I saw him he was mostly blue.
It was two days later. A little after seven in the morning, the C/O came around for the scheduled morning count. Suddenly there was a flurry of noise and activity: radios beeped and crackled, C/Os and white shirts rushed in from the front of the wing, past my cell door and off to my right, where I couldn’t see them. I had lost my eyeball in a recent shakedown and hadn’t yet fashioned another, so all I could do was stand with my body against the door and my face pressed to the perforated steel plate that acted as my window. In that awkward position, I looked and listened.
Two lieutenants hustled Mark’s cellie out with his hands cuffed and his head hanging low. He looked bleary-eyed, but suitably baffled and forlorn. A handful of other C/Os and loos milled about aimlessly, looking shaken and saying little. Within ten minutes, another commotion arose as a doctor and four nurses rushed past with a wheeled stretcher clattering in their midst. Less than two minutes ticked slowly by while muffled voices and muted grunts of exertion were the only stimuli I could discern.
The stretcher blazed noisily back past me with the nurses providing locomotion and the doctor performing perfunctory chest compressions that were obviously pointless. My eyes were wide and unblinking as I strained to pull in every fragment of information I could. Mark’s eyes were wide, unblinking, lifeless. I glimpsed them along with his pale, blue-tinged skin and stiff features. He was 42 years old with 63 days left on his sentence. Heart attack.
There was an investigation, and Mark’s cellie was cleared of any wrongdoing and let out of Seg. Questions were raised about whether there had been any significant changes in Mark’s eating or exercise habits in the previous few months. I was never pulled in by Internal Affairs or asked anything directly. A couple of my guys did have to go to IA, but they were convicts, soldiers, and they revealed nothing. I couldn’t help but think that I was responsible, that maybe his over-the-hill heart had been too stressed by our workouts. It was certainly not murder, but it was something. I stopped exercising for a while after that. Even now, years later, I still can’t quite shake the image of his vacant eyes staring up at nothing. //pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js
I did not know this man; I had never laid eyes on him before he entered the visiting room. He walked past the table where I sat with my visitor and gave me a harsh glare full of meanness—that hard prison stare that many guys develop shortly after their arrival. At first, this look is designed to intimidate and to ensure that people take you seriously, not try to take advantage of you. It’s a practiced facade put on just like any other accessory, but it becomes habit, until eventually it simply becomes who you are. We made eye contact for an instant, and I was pretty sure his mean look was not an act at all.
He seemed to be tailor-made for the cruelty his gaze denoted. His jaw was squared and hard-set, eyes dark and sunk into his skull, hiding under the shelf of his too-prominent Neanderthal brow. Tattoos blackened his neck with many more crawling up his arms. Scar tissue from past violent encounters smudged his cheeks, and his left ear had a sizable chunk missing, probably lost in a brawl of some kind. With a glance, I was fairly certain that I didn’t want to get on this guy’s bad side or run across him in a dark alley.
There was a woman visiting him, probably about his age—mid 30’s—and a girl in a wheelchair; not a regular wheelchair, but one with the seat much higher and a tall inclined back and straps to securely hold its occupant.
The man had to undo the straps before he could hold his daughter. Her arms and legs were spindles, but she wrapped them around him with a loving reflex and made a soft moaning sound that seemed happy to me. With her out of the chair, I could see she had the height of a healthy twelve-year-old girl, but there didn’t appear to be anything else healthy about her. She had a developmental disorder of some kind; her arms had never hefted even the lightest of burdens, and her legs had never bore her weight. Her head rolled around on her neck at times as if independent from the rest of her body, and her eyes had trouble focusing, lolling in their sockets like errant, mischievous marbles. It was clear that her developmental setback was not only a physical one, but mental as well.
This man who I did not know and had pegged as a killer of some kind, or at least a killer-in-waiting, lowered himself into the squat chair, wedging himself into the scant space between the seat and the table, and cradled his daughter in his lap with love and care. Her head snapped back unexpectedly and with frightening force, but he gently repositioned her so she could rest her cheek against his chest, just over his heart. He gathered the lifeless arms hanging at her sides and stowed them in her lap; her legs he pulled close to his body where they wouldn’t dangle haphazardly.
Thin blond hair held mostly atop her head by a lime green scrunchie had fallen over her forehead and eyes. With a hand I’d assumed was made for inflicting pain, he carefully brushed her bangs back in place and smiled down on his daughter, then spoke to her. Though it was clearly a struggle, her eyes fought to focus on her father and eventually achieved the feat. The smile he reserved for his daughter was full of warmth and unequivocal love—the opposite of the stony, uninviting gaze he’d shot my way just moments before. Leaning down, he kissed her forehead, then caressed her cheek while saying something I couldn’t hear from where I was spying. The smile that erupted across her face broke my heart with its open, honest, and unconditional love.
I had to look away, as I felt the burning sting of impending tears at the edges of my eyes and had to shut down the rising well of emotions threatening to flood my system. Shame, hot and angry, rushed over my cheeks and across my neck—shame for judging and pigeon-holing the man so quickly and easily, like a despicable reflex, and shame for interloping on their precious moment of intimacy.
This week’s post is an excerpt from Candy and Blood. Available on Amazon.com now.
Blood and feces mixed in a sticky mess across the floor and against the thinly padded walls. The pungent aroma was beyond awful, and I couldn’t imagine bleach or disinfectant ever dispatching it entirely. I also couldn’t imagine why anyone would do this to himself.
Mental illness is an insidious and despicable thing. Often these issues are compounded by incarceration, as there is little premium placed on an inmate’s emotional or mental well-being. For the most part, we are housed and fed, but the state’s care for prisoners doesn’t extend much beyond that. What’s more is that many men with mental health issues are incarcerated because they committed crimes while not in a normal state of mind. In the past, these individuals may have found their way into a legitimate mental health facility, but now, more often than not, they’re put in prison. Then they’re largely expected to behave and are punished when they don’t, without much consideration for the fact of their mental illness. I believe that Renny’s actions would never be repeated, except perhaps by an individual who is suffering from a chemical imbalance in his brain.
Renny was in an isolation cell in Healthcare. He had already proven to be erratic and a major danger to himself. The stitches holding the ragged incisions together began at his wrists and ran the length of his forearms. They were obvious evidence of his unstable nature. It was also the reason for his being in the isolation cell. These particular accommodations weren’t the typical isolation cell, however, but instead were outfitted to deal with the most extreme of circumstances. The walls were padded. It wasn’t plush enough to be luxurious but rather designed to make it at least very difficult, if not impossible, for an inmate to hurt himself by running into the walls or banging his head against them. The floor was concrete and slanted toward the center of the cell where a large drain gaped like an ominous, watchful eye.
Only one piece of furniture was in the cell, positioned right over the drain, and it looked more like a medieval torture device than it did a chair. There was a small square, thinly padded seat with a vinyl cover over it, and a similarly upholstered board ran vertically from the seat to serve as a backrest. Four slim boards all shot out from this central structure, and each had thick leather restraints attached to them. Renny was stripped naked and placed on the seat. His arm and legs were then strapped to each limb of the chair so that he was stretched into an X-shape. This was done for his own safety.
Renny looked like a psychotic. Perhaps he was. He bellowed, a sound filled with rage and frustration, his features twisted in a scowling sneer of defiance and hate. It is said that where there’s a will, there’s a way, and more often than not there’s truth in that aphorism.
Renny found a way to pull one arm free from its restraint, peeling his skin back in the process. This got his blood flowing, but he seemed to be unfazed by his wound, which must have been excruciating. That would only be the beginning of his self-inflicted bloodletting.
Once he’d unfastened the rest of his limbs, Renny had full reign of his tiny six-foot square cell. He ranted and roared like a caricature of a madman, a stereotype brought to life, except that to see such insanity firsthand is unnerving on several levels. It makes the heart race with an initial tremor of fear that is in no way irrational. More than anything else, Renny looked like a dangerous caged animal bent on destroying anyone he could get his hands on. An unending litany of threats, curses, and various nonsensical ravings expelled themselves from his mouth.
Despite his uninviting appearance, one’s fear couldn’t help but give way to a sad empathy for Renny’s lowly state. Unasked queries inevitably shape themselves: How did he get like this? Why is he like this? These remain unanswered.
Then Renny commenced with actions that would seem impossible to most, or at least unbelievable. He squatted in one corner of his cell and began to strain as he pushed excrement out into his own eagerly waiting hand. He had much to donate. It had the general consistency of a swirl of chocolate soft-serve ice cream. Once the generous deposit was made, Renny began to throw it around his dwelling, taking the initiative to smear it on the walls, floor, and ceiling. He rubbed the feces against his own body as well before finally trying to cover the small glass window in the door through which the medical staff were monitoring him rather dispassionately. Being accustomed to his behavior by this point, they had no intention of intervening. It wasn’t until Renny got his blood flowing again that he really got their attention.
After he had spread his own shit around the cell and covered his body in it to his own satisfaction, Renny stood in front of his chair/restraining equipment, facing the observation window as if he was about to put on a show. Then he gave the medical staff something to look at. With an uncanny, unnatural, single-minded determination, Renny began to bite at the stitches in his right arm. He held his arm in front of his face, teeth gnawing and gnashing to get a good hold before tearing at the stitches and ripping the flesh anew. His eyes were wide and wild, and his blood-smeared teeth exposed in a gleefully grinning grimace as blood dripped freely from his chin and arm. Renny looked like he was having the time of his life. Then he went to work on the stitches in his left arm.
One nurse stood at the door and yelled at Renny to stop. Others began to don rubber gowns, gloves, masks, and goggles as protection against possible communicable infections in the crazed inmate’s blood and feces. None of the staff seemed to be in much of a hurry. Renny managed without much difficulty to rip his other stitches out, and he was splashing his blood around his cell in a frenetic frenzy, rubbing the wounds over his body to add to the coating of crap he already wore. He was running and sliding around his small cell, whipping his arms out around him to send fresh gobs of blood splatting against the walls.
The team of doctors and nurses, six in all, was dressed and assembled with various supplies clutched in their hands. They were ready to go, but instead they just waited, crowded around the small square window to watch as Renny gradually began to slow down due to blood loss. After a few minutes, he lost his footing in a particularly slick pool of poop and blood and landed flat on his ass. He made no move to get back up. This was their cue to go to the rescue, and they strolled in casually. Two medical professionals tried to hold his shoulders down, but Renny conjured the strength to thrash back at them, and they all stepped away for a few moments longer until he finally lay still, too weak to fight. His wounds were covered, the bleeding stanched as best as the doctors and nurses could manage, then Renny was carted through the door by all six of them—four carrying the bulk of his weight, while the other two held his arms, which were encased in gauze that was already soggy with blood. He was put on a flat board and strapped into place, his limbs and head immobilized, before being placed on a bed where he waited, bleeding, until the ambulance from an outside hospital arrived to take him for more extensive medical attention.
Whether he died or was shipped to another joint, I don’t know. Renny never returned to the prison after leaving in the ambulance. What Renny left behind was an abysmally disgusting and nauseating mess and some severely frayed nerves and frazzled minds. Amongst his victims was my cellie at the time: the duty of hosing down and sanitizing Renny’s cell fell to him. The entire experience, from witnessing Renny’s actions to cleaning up his mess, haunted my cellie for years.
It was about nine months after my arrest date, and I was still sitting in county, fighting my case. I’d already spent a Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthday separated from the world – the first of many such separations – but to be honest, it wasn’t that bad. My mental anguish – in the form of regrets about the past, and fears and doubts about my future – wasn’t wonderful. But beyond that, living life locked up was manageable. I quickly got the hang of it. Man is nothing if not adaptable.
I’d made at least one good friend during that period. This is the story of when he strangled me into unconsciousness.
Timmy was a good guy under enormous stress. He’d been arrested for murdering his wife, but his assertions of innocence fell largely on deaf ears. Timmy theorized that several police officers, working in tandem to cover up their accidental shooting of his wife, systematically murdered her. After examining every crime-scene photograph, police report, witness statement, ballistics report, medical examiner’s report and other related documents, I was inclined to believe him. Timmy was trapped in a nightmare I couldn’t imagine facing. I quickly became his confidant and support system. It was a difficult role, because I had my own worries, but I believed in his innocence. I still do. Unfortunately, to the world at large he was just another violent black man who’d taken a domestic dispute too far. Nobody cared.
Timmy and I were sitting in his cell. Timmy was delivering a diatribe while I sat quietly and seethed. He was ranting about why young black men brag and exaggerate their sexual prowess. His premise was that because many of them were born into poverty and the inner-city ghetto life, the only thing they could assert with any pride was that they were great Lotharios. Timmy’s sweeping statements offended me because he passed them off as fact, but I knew it couldn’t be true of all young black guys. Maybe some of them who lead lives like that wind up in prison, but not all. Unfortunately, having grown up in a white middle-class household, I didn’t have a racial, cultural, or socioeconomical leg to stand on. So I sat in silence and became more incensed. There was actually a different and deeper cause of my inexhaustible ire.
One of my fellow prisoners, Jaymo, a young black man, had only moments before assured me that if he was out there he would have no problem convincing my wife to sleep with him. The term “sleep with” is mine, whereas Jaymo was much more explicit in his description of how and what he would do to her. Using terms and imagery as graphic you might imagine, he described precisely how he would violate her. According to Jaymo, it would be completely consensual and entirely possible because his “game” with the ladies was so potent and his sexual prowess undeniable.
Jaymo actually believed this. He also wasn’t saying it to offend me or get under my skin. In his mind, these were simply the facts. I was still married at the time, still hopeful that our marriage could survive all my lies and crimes. I was also naïve enough to think that the years of my inevitable prison sentence wouldn’t exceed single digits. The subject of my beloved wife was a sensitive one, and I was very protective of her. I wanted to beat Jaymo for what he said about her. I wanted to beat him bloody. I felt it was what he deserved.
Timmy had been listening and easily identified my escalating anger. He stepped in to literally pull me out of the situation. That’s how I ended up sitting on the steel toilet in Timmy’s cell while he reclined on his slab and opined about the inner-workings of the young African American mind. The problem was that, to me, it felt like Timmy was defending Jaymo’s offensive and lewd remarks. That’s not technically what he was doing, but I was angry and not thinking soundly, so that’s how it felt. This only made me more irate, and I lashed out.
“You want to let him talk about your wife like that, fine, she probably liked that kind of stuff. Your wife is gone, so it doesn’t matter anymore, but my wife is still alive. Don’t tell me how to defend her. You did a shit job of protecting yours.” My remarks were callous, illogical, unfair and untrue. Even as I stormed from his cell in a huff, I felt small and petty. I felt like the world’s most gargantuan asshole.
I scurried next door to my cell with all the dignity of a fleeing rat or cockroach. Standing in the center of my cell, I chuffed out a loud sigh filled with frustration, regret, and shame. The sound of a shower shoe scuffing on the concrete made me turn around. Timmy stood at the threshold of my cell. I opened my mouth to speak, but he attacked before I could say anything.
Timmy’s face was blank. If anger was driving him, it was a deep and abiding emotion, not a momentary flourish. He covered the four feet between us in a flash. He was wearing a thermal underwear long-sleeve top, and as he moved toward me he pulled his right arm out of its sleeve and held the cuff in his left hand, with the rest of the material stretched free from his body. He wrapped this material around my neck twice and pulled it taut. The entire maneuver was one fluid motion and took a fraction of a second; Timmy was as swift, smooth, and silent as a ninja. I didn’t even feel fear, panic, or wonder. My world went black, and I was gone.
I awoke on the floor of my cell, alone. My skull felt two sizes too big and throbbed painfully. Blood pounded in my ears. There was no way for me to know how long I’d been unconscious, but I was sure it hadn’t been long – seconds, rather than minutes. A couple of guys from the deck stood outside the bars of my cell, watching me. Once they saw I wasn’t dead, they turned their attention back to the communal TV. Apparently, whatever was showing there was far more interesting.
My disorientation was dissolving in increments. I touched my neck, which felt raw and chafed. My esophagus was as dry as the Sahara. Moving my hand upward, I felt a lump on the side of my head, just above my right ear, which was extremely tender and painful to touch. Considering my position on the floor, I figured that I’d probably knocked my head on the toilet as I crumpled. My legs were as wobbly and unsure as Bambi’s on ice, but I managed to stand on them long enough to plop down onto my bunk. I sat there for a long time as equilibrium ebbed back into my life.
It was several hours before I approached some semblance of normalcy. During that time, everything seemed more intense – sounds were too loud, lights too bright, sense of touch overly sensitive. My thoughts were like a box of puzzle pieces, and I couldn’t find any edges to make them begin to resemble anything reasonable. My brain was trying to reject the notion that the incident had happened at all.
The idea that my buddy had choked me into darkness seemed impossibly absurd, but the physical evidence was impossible to refute. Perhaps it was the lapse in oxygenated blood to my brain, but a loopy logic kept circling back to the conclusion that I had gotten what I’d deserved. Only moments before Timmy’s attack, I’d wanted to similarly assault Jaymo for disparaging my wife. How then could I blame Timmy for reacting as he did when I questioned his wife’s virtue and his love for her? The easiest answer that I found was: I couldn’t.
Eventually I walked back into Timmy’s cell and sat on his toilet once more. The four other guys who shared the pod with us were collectively holding their breath in anticipation of more violence. Instead, Timmy and I sat in silence for a long time. When our eyes finally met, the shame and regret I saw in his eyes mirrored my own sentiments.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yeah,” was his pained response. An uncomfortable quiet stretched between us awhile. Finally, Timmy began to speak stilted words of prayer. I joined in, and we traded back and forth to seek forgiveness, comfort, mercy, and strength to persevere. And, as only the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit can achieve, our differences were reconciled.
Timmy and I never again spoke of the incident, but I never forgot how quickly violence could erupt within the crucible of confinement, even between friends. It was a lesson I would see reenacted countless times over the years. Despite his propensity for violence, I still believe Timmy is innocent of the murder of his wife. The jury disagreed with me, as he was sentenced to 85 years in prison. Without a positive response to his appeals, Timmy is scheduled to be released sometime around his 120th birthday. The son he had with his late wife has become another statistic in the foster care system. //pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js