The Voice Next Door

She threatened to kill him again.

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

Upheavaltvnd 1

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

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

Ups and Downs

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

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

Threats and Curses

“I will choke you until you stop talking.”

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

“Go ahead bitch. Do it. Do it!”

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

“I will. I’ll do it. I’ll fuc . . .”

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

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

Topsy Turvy

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

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

Constant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Embarrassment of Riches

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

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

Incomprehensible

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

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

 

Actual Prison

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

Out Of My Hands

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

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

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

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

 

tvnd 013

 

Concocted Crisis

CO Sellett terrorized inmates, antagonized officers, and disregarded superiors. He often abused his authority, and it was clear that he viewed inmates as a particularly vile kind of worthless excrement. I imagine that it was this warped view which made all his improper and inhumane behavior seem justified. This particular incident began with a routine shakedown and ended with a walk to the Boom Boom Room.

Not Routine

Routine shakedowns happen every single day in every cellhouse behind prison walls. They’re designed to let an officer get a quick look to ensure that inmates are in compliance with the rules and are free of contraband. These searches rarely took more than thirty minutes, and often were much shorter than that. Sellett was a one-man wrecking crew who spent hours in a cell tearing it to pieces. After nearly three hours this time, he walked out of the cell, smiling wide, with a bubble TV cradled under his arm and a large garbage in tow. The bubble TV had a thirteen-inch screen with a clear plastic casing approximating the shape of a sleek, round-edged cube to contain the tubes and guts of the device. This is what televisions looked like in the days before flat screens.

Confidence

“Hey! That’s my TV! Why’d you take my TV?” Inmate Orinn had burst out of the destroyed cell and hot on CO Sellett’s heels. The officer ignored him as he put the garbage bag of confiscated items in a storage room before heading to the control desk with the TV clamped in a one-armed hug against his body.

“Don’t break it. It’s old. Gimme my TV.” Orinn wasn’t frantic, he didn’t raise his voice, but spoke with confidence, authority. He was a six foot two inch bald-headed dark-skinned black man—stout and solid though not overly muscular. He certainly had the ability to intimidate. After over twenty consecutive years in prison he’d seen more than his fair share of over-zealous officers. He knew there was no legitimate reason for Sellett to take his TV.

Sellett wouldn’t address any objectives until he entered the relative safety of the control bubble. This enclosure was elevated by two steps, and with the door closed it consisted of four walls with the bottom half made of wood panels and the top half security glass. There was a desk, two chairs, and a control board for remotely unlocking doors. There was no roof. The reality that this offered an appearance of security, but if an inmate was highly motivated (or greatly antagonized) he would have little problem getting at the CO inside. After CO Sellett set the TV on the desk, even at his relatively slight five feet six inches, he was able to poke his chin over the top of the wall and look down on Orinn. He was smirking and ready for a fight.

Confrontation

“What?”

“Why’d you take my TV?”

“Is it yours?”

“Yeah,” Orinn said that as if it was so very abundantly obvious. “Why’d you take it?”

“Where’d you get it?”

“I bought it.”

“From who?”

“From commissary.” An edge of annoyance colored Orinn’s tone. “Tell me why you took my TV.”

“It’s broke.” Sellett’s satisfaction was palpable.

“Not unless you broke it.”

“There’s a crack in the side.”

“No there’s not.”

“Look.” Sellett motioned Orinn to the side of the control bubble and indicated the confiscated appliance.

“Where?”

“Right there.” Sellett placed his middle finger along a two-inch crack on the interior of the casing that was visible but didn’t come through to the exterior surface.

“That?”

“Yeah. That.”

“That’s nothing!”

“That’s altered. That’s contraband,” Sellett replied with total assuredness. The louder and more incredulous Orinn got, the calmer and more smug Sellett became.

“That’s nothing. My TV’s old.”

“It’s broke. You can’t have it.”

“What rule says that?”

“It’s altered. You can’t have it.”

“It’s not altered. It’s old.”

“Still can’t have it.”

“I’ve had that same TV fifteen years damn near. Way longer than you even been a CO.”

“You don’t have it anymore.”

“That’s bullshit!” Orinn’s response was a full roar. Sellett’s impenetrable smirk and prickish self-confidence had finally eroded the man’s cool demeanor. “BULLSHIT!!” His volume and ferocity trebled. I’d never seen Orinn as much of threat, but under these tense circumstances he seemed capable of anything. I was reevaluating my initial assessment.

Escalation

“Get me a lieutenant.” Orinn’s had managed to dial his tone down from threatening to demanding.

“No.”

“I want to talk to a lieutenant.”

“No.”

“You gotta get me a lieutenant.”

“I don’t GOTTA do anything.” CO Sellett seemed to derive a special thrill from his emphasis.

“I want to see a white shirt!” Orinn yelled, wanting the other officer in the control bubble to hear him.

“I don’t give a fuck!” Sellett matched Orinn’s volume, mocking him. “Step back.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

A crowd had begun to gather and gawk in the dayroom. Orinn slapped his heavy palm against the wood panel of the wall separating them. Sellett jumped like he’d actually been hit. Some people laughed at him. “Get me a fucking whiteshirt.” Orinn spoke with menance, hoping to bully his way to what he wanted.

“No.” Sellett was slightly cowed but still in control. They were at an impasse. Orinn glared and fumed. Then an idea occurred to him. If he’d been clear-headed, he may have dismissed it as terrible and dangerous. Instead he bullied right ahead with it.

“Fine. Then I want a Crisis Team.”

Crisis

By invoking the Crisis Team, Orinn had just changed the conversation and elevated the situation to something else entirely. Crisis Team members are only called in to access and manage inmates who may be suicidal. Orinn later said that his intentions were to use this nuclear type option solely to force the intervention of an outside mediator to whom he could plead his case. The thing about a nuclear option, however, is that once the button has been pushed it’s a done deal. Regardless of Orinn’s intentions these claims are meant to be taken seriously. Apparently CO Sellett never got that memo.

“What?” Sellett asked, confounded.

“I said I want a Crisis Team. You heard.” Now it was Orinn’s turn to smirk, foolishly thinking he had it all figured out.

“Why?”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“Why do you want a crisis team?”

“Because.”

“Because?” Sellett barked a laugh. “That’s not good enough.”

“Because I’m going to kill myself.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Prove it.”

Orinn didn’t expect that one—I don’t imagine anyone did. “What?”

“Prove it. Go hang yourself.”

Everyone milling about paused, silence reigned for an instant.

“What?!” Orinn was loud, sure that he hadn’t heard Sellett right. He had.

Sellett said it again, taking his time to over enunciate each word. “Go. Hang. Yourself.” A slightly longer quiet this time, but punctuated by hushed phrases of disbelief from onlookers. (Damn! No way.)

Orinn exploded. “Are you fucking kidding me?!” He had backed a few feet away from the control area wall and now he rushed at it. He beat his fat fist against the glass. Once. Twice. Thrice. As he pounded he asked this question: “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

CO Sellett made a phone call.

Following Protocol

When Lieutenant Harley arrived with his bushy moustache and ample belly, Orinn’s fate was already sealed. A CO who had been trained as a Crisis Team member came along with the lieutenant. Nothing else mattered—not Sellett’s shakedown practices or the fact that the TV wasn’t contraband. Sellett claimed that when Orinn struck the glass he was attempting to assault a Correctional Officer, but this was brushed aside. Orinn’s accusations of Sellett’s unprofessional behavior and his encouraging suicide were secondary at best. In speaking about Sellett’s conduct some of the man standing around attempted to be helpful by calling out, “I heard him” and “Yeah he said that,” but it was all inconsequential. Orinn had said he intended to kill himself. No matter how much he tried to backtrack or claim that it was all a ploy he’d been using, he couldn’t unsay those words. Protocol dictated that an inmate must be placed “on crisis” in a cell for observation and stripped of anything he could use to harm himself. This included clothes. Hence the term “Buck Naked Room.” However, more commonly this is known as the Boom Boom Room, and if I knew the origin of the term, I’d share it.

The crowd assembled in the dayroom began to get rowdy when it became clear that Sellett didn’t appear to be in trouble while Orinn was going straight to crisis. Lieutenant Harley sent Sellett out of the building, and a subdued cheer rose when he did. When the replacement officer arrived, LT Harley handcuffed Orinn—standard procedure—and took him to segregation where the crisis cell happens to be conveniently located.

No Justice

Multiple tickets were written by CO Sellett and Orinn had to defend against the accusations. He never got his TV back. Sellett was back in the same post the next night, grinning, waiting for his next victim.