Christmas Groping

Sacred

There are few, if any, things behind prison walls that are absolutely sacrosanct. I submit that Christmas is one of those things. This has nothing to do with religious fervor or sincerity. Lacking adequate qualifier I’ll say that there seems to be an indefinable something special that makes people behave a little differently, perhaps a little better. Maybe even a little nicer.

Across The Spectrum

These aren’t only inmates of which I’m speaking. Officers too tend to take on a slightly less adversarial quality. At times they even exhibit the ability to look the other way and let little things slide. The willingness to slack in their duties in the spirit of the season.

Free Pass

Bringing food back from the chow hall is a big no-no, but on Christmas Day when trays are piled high (or at least higher than usual) with turkey and all the trimmings, most guys try to squirrel some away for later. I’ve had the most hard-ass lieutenant I’ve ever known merely nod in acknowledgement after catching me smuggling. It’s the one day a year when, as inmates, we need not fear repercussion because within reason, we can do no wrong. It is still prison, and bad things always have the potential to kickoff, but it feels less likely on Christmas.

Super Cop

CO Sollide was often a bit of a prick. In the years since this incident he has seemed to mellow and come to terms with the fact that he is not the righteous hero in the story with all the convicts around him being despicable villains. This particular Christmas, however, he had his delusions of grandeur turned up to eleven.

Loaded

Leading up to Christmas I’d been doing plenty of wheeling and dealing. I traded, bartered, and bought so that when I left the chow hall my belly full of food was the least of what I was smuggling. I had two eight ounce bags crammed with turkey, another one full of stuffing (or dressing, if you prefer), double handfuls of carrots and celery sticks, and four prepackaged slices of pumpkin pie. I wasn’t playing around. I had some serious eating planned. I was loaded when I came in sight of the door to my cell house, and what I saw made my gorged stomach lurch an agonized threat to let loose its pressurized contents. CO Sollide was standing in the cold on the snow-dusted wide front porch with his blue latex gloves on. He was shaking down everyone coming back from chow.

Sacrilege

I shuffled forward numbly, unable to process the blasphemous behavior I was beholding. There were only about a dozen guys in front of me so I didn’t have an abundance of time to prepare myself. I didn’t once entertain the possibility of ditching my goodies. It wasn’t even an option. As a wise man once told me: The catching comes before the hanging. If Sollide was going to take my food from me he was going to have to find it first, and if that’s what it came to he was going to have to hear an earful from me. I had worked for CO Sollide for several months and felt I had a good enough rapport with him to speak my mind.

Merry Groping

By the time it was my turn to be groped by another man as an unwanted Christmas present I had already watched CO Sollide relieve several guys of the stashes they had hidden on their person. I was fairly miffed and not in the mood to hide it. I assumed the position in front of CO Sollide, with my arms and legs spread, facing away from him so I had to call back over my shoulder. “This is bullshit. It’s friggin’ Christmas. Why the hell are you doing this, Sollide?”

“It’s not me, man. Lieutenant Jarvis called from the chow hall. He’s making me do this.” His tone was an odd mix of pleading to be believed while hanging onto a tough air of authority. It rang loudly of insincerity, and I didn’t believe for an instant that anyone but Sollide was to blame. He grabbed one turkey bag in my coat pocket. “What’s this?”

“Turkey.”

He gripped the other. “And this?”

“More turkey.”

He ran his hands over me. Gripping my hips, squeezing my butt, lingering across my groin and belly. The level of intensity in his shakedown was way over the top. I felt I’d been victimized when it came to him not so gently cupping my tender bits. I’ve experienced thousands of pat down searches over the years but this one came right up to the edge of a sensual massage or sexual assault. Since my consent was not precisely voluntary, I’d have to lean toward it being more the latter. Finally his fingers fondled the plastic wrappings of the pie slices tucked in my shirt. “This?”

“Dessert.”

CO Sollide sighed deeply and loudly. “Alright, step over there and drop all of it.”

Not Caught Yet

I stepped to where he told me and turned back to him. He was already grabbing the private parts of the next man in line, three feet away from me. Another officer was to my right and a little ahead of me. He looked sheepish and put upon at having been drafted into this distasteful work on Christmas Day. His shakedown lacked the enthusiasm of CO Sollide’s.

A substantial pile of castoffs had already accumulated, and I was standing amongst them. CO Sollide had the expectation that I drop my food, but neither he nor the unwilling recruit were paying me any attention. To use a common idiom around here: CO Sollide must’ve been out of his rabbit-ass mind if he thought I was going to give it all up so easily. I stooped and snatched three unopened prepackaged pumpkin pie slices from the cold red brick porch and scurried inside.

Season’s Greetings

Over the next several days I enjoyed every single bite of my contraband cuisine. If you fear for my health, fear not; the window made a wonderful refrigerator. As you enjoy your Christmas feast of roast beast please remember family, friends, faith; whatever makes it special for you.

And to all those authority figures in positions of power; remember to keep your hands to yourself. No one wants that kind of Christmas groping.

My final MERRY CHRISTMAS from behind prison walls.

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Dehumanized

Her

She fussed and fidgeted over the few items she had on the table just waiting for her visitor to arrive. I had seen her before, on numerous previous visits in fact. Her hair had once been brown but was streaked mercilessly with gray as it fell past her shoulders in straight greasy strands. A pair of overly large glasses with thick lenses dominated her face. Her clothes were shabby, plain at best. She was tall, slim, willowy, and put me in mind of Olive Oil’s older, frailer sister. On the few occasions when I had heard her speak it sounded like the frail, muted mewing of a newly arrived kitten. Listening to some COs talk let me know that she visited every week, sometimes more than once, and that she always walked all the way out to the prison for these visits. The officers ridiculed her for her obvious poverty and lack of transportation.

Him

His clothes were covered in grime and filth, his shirt untucked. He looked disheveled and disgusting. His hair was a loose mop of gray and nearly white kept mercifully short atop his head, leaving him one less thing for which to care. The scruff on his face wasn’t a beard, but a thatch of stubbled scrub that was a few days past the razor’s appointment. He had the hollow-eyed confusion and hesitant shuffle of the extremely medicated. When he spoke it was a gruff baritone that sounded empty of some essential element, as if he was speaking from a long way off.

Together

When she saw him she rose from her seat, and anxious excitement thrumming through her thin frame, and she met him halfway as he walked towards the table they had been assigned for their visit. She embraced him fiercely, laying her head against his chest and holding tightly as if doing so soothed some desperate aching need. He reciprocated with unsure slow motion movements. There was an unashamed openness about the scene that made me feel uncomfortable, as if I were spying on an intimate and private moment. Which, of course, I was. Intimate, that is, though there’s no real privacy in prison.

Unconditional

During the course of their visit she doted on her husband. He mostly struggled to remain present in the moment. Whatever mood stabilizers or tranquilizers he was being prescribed had him slogging through molasses both physically and mentally. Nothing came simple. She was patient, involved, almost animated, or at least as much as her mousey persona would allow. It had to be a chore at times, but she never flagged in her unconditional devotion to him. When it was time for them to part she clutched him once more with a desperation and unabashedness that was miraculous to behold. My chest ached at the tender beauty of her naked display of affection as she planted several quick kisses on his lips and face—he received each with drugged befuddlement. After he had turned to trudge away she continued speaking words of hope and encouragement to his receding figure. Once he was gone she looked utterly hopeless, lost, on the verge of tears.

I have no idea what crime landed this man in prison, nor am I award of the exact nature of his obvious mental health issue. After witnessing what I did, I do know that he is loved, and that rather deeply.

Stinky

My visit ended only moments after his did and I was invited to enter the other shakedown room for my strip search. I complied with the officer’s wishes but asked why we couldn’t just use the one he had been exiting as I walked into the sally port that separated the visiting room from the shakedown room. I had always known this CO to be respectful, polite, and professional. It was me who was going to take my clothes off, but I was about to see an entirely different side of him.

“I just got done shaking down that stinky sonofabitch in there, you don’t want to go in there. It’s friggin’ disgusting. I’m so sick of it. Makes me want to puke. It smells like pure shit. He won’t take a damn shower. Should just turn a hose on his stupid ass and sandblast that shit off him.” There was a venomous and viciousness unlike his usual lackadaisical tone as he groused through gritted teeth. He was just getting started.

“And that wife of his isn’t too pleasant herself. Smells almost as bad, practically homeless. She’s always here way too early and we have to chase her out of the parking lot. After the tenth time you’d think she’d figure it out, she’d learn something. Dumb bitch. She should wander into traffic on one of her trips out here and save us all the headache.” After a few long and painfully silent awkward moments on my part he finished his thought while handing my pants back to me. “Yeah, Stinky and the Idiot. They’re perfect for each other.”

True Feelings

Though I had always had a high opinion of this officer, I believe that I was getting a glimpse at the unvarnished feelings shared by the majority of Correctional Officers. While it’s not true of them all, many COs have dealt with prisoners for so long, or with such indifference, that ofttimes they barely even see their wards as human anymore. And therefore certainly not deserving of human compassion.

Suckers

Personally, I never understood what the big deal was.

Labor of Love

As far as hustles go it wasn’t a particularly lucrative one since the cost for ingredients was rather considerable. Beyond that, the time and effort expended in gathering other essential materials, and then the actual mixing and manufacturing of the product, all made the entire endeavor more of a labor of love than a viable business model. And yet, everywhere I go, there is inevitably at least one enterprising individuals who is making homemade suckers.

Something Different

When I tried to explain these signature sweets to someone who had never spent any time in prison they just couldn’t understand what the appeal was. Since my sweet tooth has never been much for fruity flavored fare I’ve been a fan myself. However, the best I can explain, is that prison is a free market economy based on the law of supply and demand.

I have sold a bar of soap that cost me forty-five cents for two dollars. A buck-fifty bottle of shampoo went for a nickel (five dollars). When I bought the package of thirty hair-ties for a dollar sixty-five I was sporting a buzz cut and only intended to use them as rubber bands to hold sealed my partially eaten bag of chips or peanuts. Instead I sold the whole pack for fifteen dollars.

Why was any of this price gauging possible? Because I bought these items from another penitentiary, and they were all new and unavailable. The security of supply drove up demand and guys were throwing money at me. The quality or original price of the products didn’t matter one bit. They just wanted something different. So too when it came to these custom candies.

Confectionaries

Many of these candy makers derived a real pride from their work and take it extremely seriously. It’s not merely melting and mashing a couple candies together. First, one needs to find a mold to use. The most commonly by far is the butter cups given at most meals. They are perhaps a quarter inch deep and a little smaller than a silver dollar. They are collected, smuggled back to one’s cell, and cleaned. Some confectioners will melt all the flavors of candy into a massive mess of hot liquid sugar, while others take a more targeted and time consuming tactic by choosing two or three specific flavors to melt into what they perceive to be some kind of genius proprietary blend of taste sensations.

For many years I used to see a Q-tip, having been clipped of its fuzzy ends, stuck into the gooey concoction so that it hardened around the stick to create a proper sucker or lollipop. This has fallen out of fashion in recent years as consumers just want the sugar fix without the aesthetic affectation.

Constraints

The only things limiting any inventive sweet maker are the types of candy available for purchase on commissary, and the boundaries of their own imagination. Of course, with it being a business, and with one’s pride at stake, there can often be a healthy competitive aspect wherein the most unique or complex product is held in high esteem.

Varieties

Jolly Ranchers are sold at most every prison and are therefore usually the base for these bootleg bonbons. I have seen these melted and poured around a chewy chunk of now and later center. Spicy cinnamon fireballs have been used as a centerpiece atop the disc of reformed fruit candy. Powdered drink mix has been added to the recipe for color and flavor, and is often dusted across the surface of the finished product to make it less sticky and therefore easier to handle. Whatever the design, these treats are finally wrapped in squares of plastic garbage bag, tied off, and sold for fifty cents or a dollar depending on the size and complexity of the creation as well as market saturation. While these specialty items are completely harmless, they are, by any definition, most certainly contraband.

The Gunslinger

Any CO or other security staff member who has spent a year or more in corrections has most assuredly come across one of these manufactured morsels. Sergeant Shroder had close to thirty years on the job and seemed to gloat with a sickening satisfaction over his ability to flush out even the tiniest infraction of the rules. He moved with a stoop-shouldered, cock-hip shuffle with his hands at his sides like he was some kind of third-rate gunslinger in a B movie western. This cowboy impression was accentuated by the poor approximation of a bushy blond moustache. For some unknown but undoubtedly bizarre reason he managed to always smell like mustard. Shroder was universally disliked by the inmate population, and by all available accounts, he was viewed as a joke by many of his colleagues and had few fans amongst them.

Asinine

Each of the six men in the cell froze as Sergeant Shroder slowly ambled in with his congenial “Hello, gentlemen”, meant to disarm anyone who wasn’t already privy to his reputation. Slow in speech and manner, but his agile eyes missed little, and in this instance they fixed upon a couple colorful discs sitting on the shelf next to Flick, who was sitting on his bunk trying to project the perfect picture of innocence. Sergeant Shroder wasn’t buying it.

“What are these?” Shroder asked, cradling them in his palms and staring with a perplexed interest as if he had never before in his long DOC tenure encountered anything like them. Which, of course, he must surely had.

“Candy,” Flick replied with understandable unease and trepidation.

“They don’t sell these in commissary.”

“Ah, no. No. They’re . . . homemade.” Each word was distinct from the last, a verbal tiptoe through a minefield. Flick knew that the trap was set, but was helpless to do anything but play the scenario out.

“So you made it?” wily Shroder queried.

“Nope.”

“So then who made it?”

Flick was no snitch, so he replied not a word.

“Hmmm . . .” Sergeant Shroder examined the treats, making more inquisitive sounds and blowing exasperating breaths through the strands of his anemic stache before speaking again. “This looks like drugs to me.”

Flick’s face swiftly flipped through confusion and outrage before setting into acceptance that he was almost certainly screwed.

An Artisan

The name of the candy-maker in question began with the letter “S”, and he was one of Flick’s good buddies. Flick wasn’t about to rat him out, neither could he exactly dispute the fact that what Shroder held in his hand could be construed to somewhat resemble drugs. Fruit punch drink mix had been artfully swirled into the center of the colorful but largely translucent slab and could, theoretically, have been crushed up pills of some kind. Embedded into the surface of the candy was a single Skittle that had been painstakingly pressed into the confection as it began to harden so that the stamped “S” was clearly visible. It was the artisan’s signature. With a bit of stretch in logic and good sense it could also be perceived as a pill of some kind. The high quality craftsmanship of the candy was Flick’s undoing, but still he tried his best to dig himself out of a hole that Sergeant Shroder had thrown him in.

The Gunslinger Gets His Man 

“That’s not drugs, it’s just candy. Look, that’s a Skittle on top.”

“Well, I know you guys call pills Skittles sometimes. So, maybe it’s one of them kind. I’m no doctor.” Shroder was being deliberately dim, and it was working to get on Flick’s nerves.

“You don’t need to be a doctor,” Flick replied, not quite yelling, but almost. “It’s just candy, that’s all. Are you freaking kidding me!” Now he was yelling. “See look.” He snatched one of the sweets from Shroder, unwrapped it with a practiced twist and flip to deposit it on his tongue. “See? Candy,” he managed to mumble around the substantial chunk he had quickly shuttled into the hollow of his cheek.

Sergeant Shroder’s belligerent bullying ploy had worked, though in all likelihood once even the possibility of drugs was voiced, Flick was doomed to a seg-term, even if only for a brief time to investigate the “suspected illicit substance”.

Sergeant Shroder’s moustache twitched with delight as he smirked his satisfaction. “Destroying the evidence. That’s alright, I’ve got this other one.” Shroder’s fist closed around the second candy before dropping it into his shirt’s breast pocket. “We’ll see what this really is. Go ahead and turn around for me.” With that he reached for one of the four sets of handcuffs dangling from his belt, and in doing so, sealed Flick’s fate.

Fallout

This happened on a Friday, so Flick remained in segregation over a long holiday weekend. As soon as the details of the situation were heard by the adjustment committee and investigating officer on Tuesday, Flick was released and put right back into the same cell. Sergeant Shroder faced ridicule from all directions, but he received no type of censure for the egregious abuse of his authority.

Search and Seizure

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Wade’s legs waggled and writhed while the heels of his boots bounced against the floor. His arms flailed and flopped, making slapping noises against the concrete. Moaning noises were punctuated by occasional grunts as his entire body shimmied and bucked. Seeing Wade afflicted like that, I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. My fist covered my mouth to conceal my grin.

White-shirt-and-blue-shirt-officersShakedown Artist
C/O Prader was a consummate shakedown artist, and he’d been terrorizing the cell house for weeks. As the afternoon shift change approached, the entire atmosphere of the building changed to one of high alert as every inmate waited to see if (please, oh please, oh please) Prader would be absent. Perhaps he would take a vacation or be assigned to a different building in the prison compound. Robocops like Prader don’t take vacations, and he always showed up just as regularly and regimented as a caffeine fiend’s first jolt of java in the morning. He arrived with his stoop-shouldered gambol on legs as limber as toothpicks and wearing a mustache that was the anemic twin to Tom Selleck’s signature facial flourish. Prader’s musty body odor was overpowering as he walked the hallways smelling of mothballs and burnt birthday candle wax.

For any convict who has been locked up for a while, shakedowns are par for the course. Many come to think of it as a kind of cat and mouse game. The authority figures are well aware that inmates are in possession of illegal items, but it’s their job to prove it by finding them. A convict’s duty is to stay one step ahead of them. In a max or medium-max, moving illicit materials around to duck a shakedown can be difficult if not impossible at times. Prader’s reign, however, was in a lower security facility where inmates could move through the hallways and dayroom more freely, so smuggling contraband came more easily. The question became: what do I hide?

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Unpredictable
What made Prader’s searches and seizures so despicable, feared, and insidious was the fact that he was unpredictable. One never knew what he might take. The obvious illegal items, of course, could be hidden or concealed on one’s person because when Prader came to shakedown, he didn’t pat down the inmates as they left the cell. But what about the rest? Prader was taking electronic items like TVs, beard trimmers, and hot pots with the justification that he thought they looked scratched or marked as if someone had buffed out another inmate’s ID number and carved their own in. Even when confronted with the contract and proof provided by the personal property office that the item in question was in fact legit, Prader took it anyway and made the inmate jump through hoops to get it back. Prader took clothes, bowls, cups, utensils, and food—all of which were obtained legally through commissary. Sometimes he would make up some bogus excuse, but for the most part his reasoning was simply “because I can.”

For his own safety it’s probably for the best that Prader wasn’t at a max joint because he would’ve been a likely candidate to be a victim of a staff assault. He got away with his bullying tactics because the privileges afforded inmates at a lower security facility served to keep the population pacified. Acting out violently is the best and quickest way to get transferred to a joint where you’re locked behind a door all day. With this as the dynamic, Prader seized property with impunity and convicts learned to adjust and avoid.

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Daily Ritual
Once it was confirmed that Prader was, in fact, working, convicts would collect their contraband and shuttle it around to a safer spot. Since it was impossible to know who would be shookdown, everything became a calculated risk. If a cell was searched the night before, it was considered safe. Generally speaking, unless the occupants of a cell gave Prader a reason to search them again—a reason such as pissing him off—a shakedown once per month was customary. The beginning of the month was rough because every cell was fair game. The end of the month could be dangerous because Prader was known to circle back on cells randomly after the 25th of the month. Prader performed his shakedowns when the bulk of the building’s occupants were at chow. Before that, while the house was full, he usually had other duties to perform. When Prader shuffled up to my neighbor’s door nearly ninety minutes earlier than was usual and announced that they had to get out so he could shakedown, he caught them completely off guard and with their proverbial pants around their metaphorical ankles.

Panic
The cell held three men, and one of them, Art, exited with a look on his face that was three parts fear and two parts guilt. Both of his cellies were gone on their work assignments, and Art looked around in a panic, frantically seeking someone to tell him what to do. Not only had Prader caught him unaware by coming early, but apparently since their cell had been shookdown only one week prior, they felt they were safe and so they had several other inmate’s belongings secured in their cell. If/when Prader found the large stash hidden haphazardly under the bed and behind a property box, it would be a fiasco. All three occupants of the cell would almost certainly be hauled to Seg, and anyone who could be even tenuously linked to any of the illegal property would face severe penalties. In this case, it would’ve been better (meaning a lesser punishment would have been applied) to have been caught with an unauthorized item rather than being caught trying to conceal that item.

Art was sick. He had lost some of the color in his face—a very noticeable thing for a Latino guy as dark-toned as he was. I was in the hallway being nosy. I sympathized with my neighbors, but that didn’t mean I’d forgo a front row seat to the drama about to unfold.

“What am I supposed to do?” Art sounded terribly desperate as he asked the assembly of fellow lookyloos like myself. He got only a gaggle of shrugged shoulders and a grunted chorus of “I don’t know, man.” Art let out a low, pained moan before spinning on his heels and rushing toward the dayroom. Perhaps he was going to seek assistance from others, or maybe he was just trying to distance himself from the impending debacle in his cell. The guy standing next to me broke off from our impromptu group and ran to intercept Art. After imparting some hushed wisdom, the two of them picked up the pace even more toward the dayroom. With my curiosity piqued, I hustled after them.

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Confederate
By the time I caught up to Art, he had already found his accomplice and was huddled in the corner with him. Wade was an annoying clown, an unabashed fool, and a loudmouthed idiot. He was a sad indictment of the inner-city ghetto environment, the gang lifestyle, the public education system, the prison system, and perhaps America as a whole. Wade was a sixtyish black man with a head full of gray hair who still spoke and behaved like he was a hot-headed, ignorant, and uneducated sixteen-year-old gangbanger with something to prove to the world and not a jot of sense in his head. However, history has shown that even a fool can serve his purpose.

Floundering Fool
The two of them were hunched over with Art’s arm around Wade’s shoulders and their foreheads nearly touching as they conferred. It looked like Art was spilling all the words into Wade’s ear while Wade merely nodded his head vigorously. With a final curt nod, Wade clapped Art on the chest reassuringly and made a beeline toward where I stood just inside the dayroom and next to the entry to the hallway down which Prader was plying his tyrannical trade.

For a brief instant, I thought that Art had somehow convinced or cajoled Wade into attacking Prader, but then Wade suddenly stumbled into a stutter-step, bent in half at the waist, clutched at his chest and upper arm, (something which is more closely associated with a heart attack, I believe, but what do I know?) before finally crashing in a mess on the floor right in front of the bubble and commencing his flopping and floundering routine. From across the dayroom, Art called out, “He’s having a seizure!”

Success
C/O Gilbert was the bubble officer and he went from half asleep to instantly alert but decidedly discombobulated. He stood up quickly then sat down, stood up partway, then collapsed to his seat. Third time was the charm and Gilbert stayed on his feet, pointing at Wade wriggling on the ground. Gilbert’s mouth was opening and closing but only making confused and ineffectual chuffing noises as he looked around in all directions for some assistance of direction. “Are you alright?” Gilbert finally managed to ask—arguably the most dimwitted query he could’ve conjured. In response, Wade moaned and grunted louder as he flailed and seized more violently. I stifled my laughter so as not to wreck their ruse. “Call a Code!” Art hollered from his corner hiding place, throwing his voice with all the expertise of an abysmal ventriloquist. C/O Gilbert seized on the idea and finally sprang into action.

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“Code three! Code three!” His voice was shaky with panic and lacking authority as he called it into his radio, but it produced the desired effect. Code three is the designation for a medical emergency. Gilbert added the cell house number and the location as the dayroom, and Prader burst from Art’s cell in six seconds flat, moving in his signature hunchbacked fashion on quick, stiff legs to the location of the crisis. Thanks to Wade’s diversion, Prader hadn’t spent more than three minutes inside the cell and hadn’t found anything. Prader leaned over Wade and asked if Wade could hear him, if he was okay. Wade’s noisemaking increased once more, and it sounded suspiciously like he was choking back chuckles.

Conclusion
C/Os and lieutenants arrived in droves followed shortly by a trio of nurses who gathered Wade’s quieted form and rolled him away on a stretcher. After spending a large chunk of the night writing an incident report detailing all of his actions during the medical emergency, C/O Prader merely wandered down the hall and provided my neighbors with their Photostat copy of a shakedown slip which reported that the C/O had searched their cell and found nothing.

 

In defense to his legitimate history of seizures, Wade was held in Healthcare for observation overnight before being released back to the building the next day. His triumphant return was met with lots of laughs and high-fives all around. When Prader showed up for the evening he was sure to check on Wade to ask about his health and well-being. Two hours later, Prader arrived at Wade’s door again, this time for a shakedown. There was nothing for Prader to find because Wade and his cellies had already stashed all their contraband in Art’s cell, and so the cat and mouse game continued.//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

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