The Psycho Whisperer

“No. Hell no! This is bullshit! You can’t do this. You have to let me go. You can’t just deny me. It’s my right! Hey. Hey! Are you listening to me? You’re denying me my right. You know that? Hey! Do you hear me? Hey! Get back here and let me out!”

Irate

I was livid. I couldn’t believe it. I smacked my palm against the security glass until the slapping began to hurt. I banged with my fist which produced a more dull and manageable pain. I continued to yell for the officer to come back, but it was all to no avail. He was, however, required to perform his routine count. Within thirty minutes the officer returned.

Round Two

There was more yelling on my part and pounding on the glass. I had a dim and distant understanding that I was behaving like a lunatic, but it was more like I was detached and watching some stranger lose his composure. There was nothing to be done, no solution that I could see. I was being denied my rights and no amount of rational discussion was going to change that truth. To be fair, at this point, I was well beyond the capacity for any reasoned or measured discourse. Further screaming and assaulting the large window that separated me from the officer had no effect other than causing him to let slip a little smirk as he exited. I therefore adopted a more aggressive tactic.

Not Calculation

I was frustrated and angry. I believed there was an idiotic logic to my actions. It was something that I had witnessed before: Behave politely and respectfully and you’re ignored—act like a wild animal and the powers that be have to pay attention. I’d like to say that I was being very calculating and precise, that it was all an act, but that’s simply not true. The truth is that I had completely lost it.

Unhinged

I gripped the bars of the cellblock door and shook them, making them clatter an enormous racket. I tried kicking the door, but it didn’t produce as sustained, loud or satisfying a sound. Also, it hurt my foot. Instead I resumed rattling the door on its track. I was vaguely aware that my fellow inmates were watching while withdrawing from me with looks of worry and bewilderment. I didn’t care. Rather than rein it in I began to scream.

Enraged guttural gusts of hot air exploded from my throat. They were wordless, primal sounds born from feelings of helplessness, hatred and rage. I hollered until it felt like I’d been swallowing mouthfuls of sand. I made the steel door sing its terrible lullaby until my shoulders burned from the exertion and my arms felt like twin twizzlers. In the frenzied insanity of the instant I would have sworn that my tantrum lasted a full ten minutes. My criminal compatriots later assured me that it wasn’t even half that—it was, however, long enough for the individuals in charge at the County Jail to send in the expert.

The Psycho Whisperer

I’d seen Officer Brett employ his unique skillset before, but never for an instant had I ever imagined that he would have cause to use it against me. Nevertheless, in this instance, I was the psycho. Officer Brett opened the door to the cellblock and stepped in leaving only steel bars between us, including the barred door that I’d been shaking. His mere appearance was enough for me to fall silent and still. The echo of the metal thrumming hummed in the sudden quiet. Officer Brett just looked at me as I gasped for air after having worked myself into an exhausted furor. He looked me in the eyes and nodded his head twice before speaking in a sober, confidential tone. “This isn’t you.”

Convicted

The calm assurance with which he spoke convicted me to my core. A breath hitched and caught in my chest as an abhorrent cesspool of pent up emotions fought to release themselves. When I spoke there was a whining keen in my voice that I despised but was helpless to hide or control.

“It’s not fair, Brett. You know it’s not fair. First they move me to separate me from Stape so I can’t help him with his case. Now I can’t even be in the same room with him? I can’t even go to church?” My outraged incredulity was tempered by my petulant tone so that it lost some of its potential efficiency and still just sounded like I was a child pitching a fit because I didn’t get my way. I had largely regained my breath, if not my composure, and I leaned in close to speak my piece. Officer Brett mimicked my body language so that I was speaking through the bars to him with only a couple of inches between us. My voice became an insistent whisper.

“You know, Brett, you know this is wrong. Not only illegal, this is just wrong. You know. Brett, you know that Stape is innocent. You know that the police killed his wife and now these state attorneys and public defenders are helping to cover it up. You know this. Now they figured out that we’ve been helping each other and they’ve made sure that we’re kept apart. This whole thing is wrong.”

It was Officer Brett’s turn to be convicted. He dropped his gaze, unable to look me in the eyes anymore. He executed an elaborate shrug and sighed out a lengthy exhalation. He shook his head back and forth, his mouth opening and closing in what I took to be soundless assent. Silence spun out between us for several long moments. There was nothing more to say on the subject.

Cold Calculation

When Officer Brett finally looked at me again he only had one question. “Are you done then?”

I coughed a humorless laugh. “Yeah, sure, I’m done.”

“Good. Good.” He nodded. “Once the church service is over you can speak to the pastor one on one.” Officer Brett turned to leave, but paused a bit before turning back. “And with Mr. Stape, I have to believe it will work itself out. I have to believe that.”

I blew wind through my lips in a scornful scoff. It was perhaps unfair of me, and Officer Brett was certainly in an untenable situation, but his equivocation rang hollow to me.

Afterthought

I never really got to see or interact with my friend Stape again even though we remained in the County Jail together for nearly another year. He was eventually convicted to eighty-five years in prison for a murder that I don’t believe he committed.

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Next Year

Junior had been locked up for twenty-three years. He began serving his time at age sixteen. Prison was what he knew, much more than the real world beyond these gates and walls.

Good Guy

Junior was a hospice volunteer, which meant that he sat with and cared for terminal patients in the healthcare unit. I had been in the cell with him for six months, during which time I witnessed him deal with the death of several of his patients. Some of them he was afforded special permission to sit beside through the night and provide comfort in their final moments. Within these six months Junior’s father also died. Through it all he exhibited more grit and grace than I imagine I could’ve managed were our rolls reversed. Whatever crimes led to his incarceration, I observed him to be a good guy.

Party!

New Year’s Eve was fast approaching and Junior was declaring, insisting, that the six of us who shared the large cell would all stay up and ring in the New Year with a raucous party fueled by food, caffeine and sugar. Lots of the latter two especially. Junior had a radio so we could blast music and really turn it into a wild all-nighter never to be forgotten.

Unenthused

I’d been incarcerated for nearly a decade at this point and had never once stayed up to ring in the New Year with any kind of celebration. Didn’t much see the point? In the grand scheme of things it was just another day in prison. I valued my sleep. I’m an early riser, usually up between four and four-thirty every morning with rare exceptions or deviations. Making it to midnight and beyond seemed an impossibility, and it wasn’t a plan or prospect I was too enthused about. However, this would be my first New Year in a communal living arrangement—six man cell instead of a two man—so, as much as I didn’t like it, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d have to alter my habits to accommodate my cohabitants.

Stubborn

Since this was something I wasn’t happy about, and I’m stubborn, I kept telling my cellies there was no way I was staying up that late. I also told them they better be quiet when I got to sleep. It was a jocular back and forth between them and myself, but deep down I was fully, completely serious. Junior was the driving force behind everyone’s sudden desire to stay up. He met each of my protests with his big grin and easygoing assuredness. I couldn’t fathom why exactly Junior wanted to be awake for midnight because he was usually waking up the same time as me. It was a puzzle which would eventually reveal itself.

All Is Quiet

New Year’s Eve.

Our big plans for cooking a large meal for all of us to share together was stymied by commissary shopping being so delayed that we didn’t get to go before the holidays. We were all animated enough until around nine o’clock when the conversation grew more muted and restrained. Without the aid of caffeine we were all fading fast.

By the time the ball dropped in New York City we languished in the middle of the country waiting for our time zone to catch up. A sleepy silence settled over the cell which was only punctuated by an occasional comment about one of the interchangeable pop-singers performing in Time Square. Yawns were seen and heard all around the room. I was battling sleep with the vigor of a barbarian. Junior was laying on his side, watching TV, his heavy lids drooping on numerous occasions. He was the ringleader of this ill-conceived, silly slumber party, and if I was awake he had to be too.

Exhausted

“Junior!” I yelled. “Junior!!” His eyes flew open and he shot up sideways onto his elbow, making some garbled inarticulate noises posing as words.

“Wake up, man. This is your party, no going to sleep now.”

Junior grinned sleepily, sheepishly, and sat up on the edge of his bunk. We all had a laugh at his expense, but good-natured, not mean-spirited. He was clearly just as exhausted and ready for sleep as the rest of us, so I asked him pointblank just what the big deal was, and why he wanted to stay up and ring in the New Year.

The Reason

Junior smiled once again, looking around the cell at the four other expectant faces all wondering the same thing that I was, and wanting an answer. He shrugged before indulging in a full-bodied yawn and stretch. He looked a bit embarrassed as he searched for a way to explain himself. Finally with another shrug, he told us.

“As soon as this year clicks over to the next I can finally, officially say that I go home next year.” Junior’s shoulders raised lazily to his ears as if in apology for a lame excuse. I don’t believe any of us felt his reason was a bad one. On some level we each understood. The remaining twenty minutes of the year were spent in an amiable silence with everyone staring at their respective televisions.

Next Year

At the appropriate time subdued cheers and Happy New Years were passed all around. Within three minutes the idiot boxes were all dark and everyone was tucked in for sleep. From where I lay on my bunk I could see Junior was on his back, head propped atop his pillow, blanket pulled up to his chin, eyes closed.

“Hey, Junior,” I called. In the orange glow of the security light shining in the window I saw one eyelid peel back to acknowledge that he heard me.

“When you go home?” The second eye shuttered open and his face split into a grin filled with the greatest degree of satisfaction I’d seen in my middle-aged life. When he answered me his voice was warm and joyful, excited and content.

“Next year.”

Coda

This past New Year’s Eve I reenacted this same scene. I didn’t make a big fuss or deal out of it, didn’t involve my cellies. I did, however, break from my established routine so that I could stand at the threshold and mark the turning of 2017 into 2018. I did this because now it is my turn. I can finally voice Junior’s same sentiments.

I go home next year.

Abnormal Appetite

“Hey! Stop that! Cut it out. You better leave it alone before it falls off.” CO Bogey grinned to himself at his consummately clever witticism. He believed he had caught an inmate masturbating. He was wrong.

Not Just Another Day

Bogey was doing his rounds and checking the cells which housed inmates with especially serious mental health issues. These individuals were the most disturbed, which inevitable led to aberrant behavior that necessitated disciplinary action taken against them. This combination mental health and segregation housing unit was the most high risk assignment for an officer, and one that many dreaded.

Bogey had spent two tours in Afghanistan fighting for the US Army so he had a different perspective on the assignment. He felt it was rarely boring, always kept him on his toes. He liked that.

This particular day as he walked past cell 19 he saw the inmate inside with his back to the door, his shoulders hunched and head down with no hands in sight. Catching inmates in the act of masturbating was so common that it had become routine. It’s not exactly illegal, but it is discouraged, especially amongst the mentally ill populace who can be prone to turning an act of self-pleasure into an act of self-harming. In his initial assessment CO Bogey believed he had walked up on the former, but soon learned it was the later.

Not Stroking

Huddled near the back of his cell, the inmate’s head, neck, shoulders and upper back all shivered with exertion. His head was bent forward at an extreme angle which Bogey didn’t understand, but neither did he spend any time pondering it.

“Hey! I said quit stroking it. You hear me? Cut it out.” There was no response or change in his behavior to indicate that he had in fact heard the officer. Bogey sidled the few steps to the cell door and banged on it with the flat of his hand. “Hey!” The offender spun and bared his bloody teeth with a feral growl. Bogey instinctively recoiled half a step while cursing voluminously and involuntarily. Despite his numerous and brutal experiences during his time in the army as well as his years as a correctional officer, Bogey was momentarily dumbstruck. Then it got worse.

Macabre Meal

The inmate raised his arm to his mouth, this time remaining erect so he could maintain eye contact with Bogey as he gnawed at the soft flesh of his inner forearm. He managed to tear a chunk free from his body and gulped noisily until he had succeeded in swallowing it. This was a new one for Bogey. He had witnessed self-mutilation too many times to count, it being an even more prevalent pastime than masturbation amongst those inmates with severe mental illness. He had never before, however, seen another man eating himself.

At A Loss

It took a few moments of watching the surreal scene before Bogey finally snapped back to some semblance of his senses. “Hey, stop it,” he voiced weakly with zero of the booming authority of which I knew him to be capable. The inmate continued to chew unabated. Bogey took a breath and regained a bit of his backbone. “I said stop!” The inmate merely slowed, his efforts at self-mastication losing some of the previous gusto. Bogey keyed the button on his radio to transmit. There was a burst of static and Bogey opened his mouth to send out a call for help, but said nothing. There was no code or protocol for what he was seeing. Finally after several eternal moments of dead air, he spoke.

“Ah, Lieutenant . . . I’ve got a guy, he’s . . . ah, eating himself?” His voice went up at the end to form it into a question. In truth Bogey was still having trouble putting a label on exactly what was happening. The real trouble though was that Bogey had a well-deserved reputation for being a joker and smartass. This meant that his call for help went unanswered.

Assistance At Last

After yelling at the biter again Bogey finally got him to stop chomping, but only after he had swallowed another piece of himself. Anger and frustration put a razor’s edge to his voice when next he keyed the radio. “I need a lieutenant and assistance. This is a medical emergency. I have an inmate, he’s, he’s bleeding a lot. He’s hurting himself.” There was a pause pregnant with silence and dread before a crackling static response came along with a voice which was purely professional, nearly to the point of seeming bored. To Bogey it was the sound of salvation.

Inside of a minute two lieutenants and five COs arrived to assist. The inmate was swiftly cuffed and subdued so he could no longer harm himself, and medical staff was on their way. With the situation under control, the officers stood around cracking jokes about Bogey’s initial call for help when he said the guy was eating himself. Apparently they had all heard it and thought it was a hilarious hoax.

The bloody and bizarre incident became just another story they could add to their repertoire of crazy tales in the life of a Correctional Officer.

A Despicable Reflex

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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.

men-neck-tattoos2He 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.

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