Zenless

Oh ugly day. If you’ve ever packed up everything you own in the world into laundry bags on a blistering hot day, lugged it all 332 steps to a dingy gym and, watched helplessly as chronically unemployable, petty-minded bullies used misguided authority to pick through every personal effect while disposing of whatever they saw fit – then you know exactly what I mean.

 

The worst part of today’s “major shakedown” was my inability to master my attitude.  I let the bullies shit in my head.  My only consolation was that I never let them see how much they got to me, hopefully spoiling a bit of their relish.  But in my mind and heart, I allowed their venom to circulate; years of carefully cultivated peace and self-control discarded in an instant.

 

I should probably give myself a break.  I haven’t done too badly buffering my mind over the years.  Authority makes tyrants out of so many people who may have once been courteous or shy, or normal and likable, but give them unquestioned authority and suddenly the demon is born.  I learned a long time ago to swallow my pride and indignation in this nest of ubiquitous Hitler’s.  I have absolutely no control over anything done to me.  Lock me in a cage with not water, cuss me and abuse me without reason, castigate me whenever the urge strikes, I am helpless.  Helpless.  My natural inclination is to lash out the way so many prisoners do. Or nurse such a chronic and cancerous resentment that civilized thought becomes an anomaly.  But that’s a loser’s irony.  The only control you have, the only part of you that these tyrants cannot dominate, is your attitude, unless you let them.  There are moments of peace and contentment even here, but only if you relinquish your ego and notions of justice.

 

It’s not easy.  People’s perceptions are powerful and it blisters the soul to be stigmatized, to be considered disposable.  The way you’re treated by others has such an impact on the way you see yourself and the world.  It requires Herculean effort to keep your sense of self, to be a conscientious person – but it’s possible.  I’ve found it so very hard to erect protective barriers around my essential being; faced with the vileness, I attempt to withdraw into my mind’s inner bedroom and close the door, hiding until the latest tyrant finds another victim.  Of course, this compartmentalization of the mind is what many severely mentally ill people do as well, and there’s a danger I might someday be unable to find my way back, but it will be a madness of my choice rather than theirs.  Unfortunately, I’m not always fast enough to close the door of my bedroom and the bad guys win.

 

The bad guys…. Is that a joke?  These upstanding officers of justice with the American flag patch sewn on their Confederate gray uniforms?  Everyone knows it’s the inmate who’s the villain, the criminal, the scum.  Yet, think of life for a prison guard in Texas, an under paid, under-appreciate4d witness and participant in society’s largest scale of legitimized persecution.  Thousands of hours spent in such an environment isn’t going to beget gentle morality in some ways, the guards are more corrupt than the inmates.  Not all of them, not even most of them.  There are good people in every situation, but even good guards face a great deal of peer pressure to never exhibit kindness or compassion in any form to a prisoner, and frankly, guards aren’t paid to be the good guys.

 

Actually, the door to my soul’s sanctuary gets left open more than I care to admit, especially during “major shakedowns”.  Despite all of my meditation and discipline, a major shakedown leaves me vulnerable to the anger and humiliation I keep trying to forbid myself.  What’s crazy is, when I compared myself to the prisoners around me, I always thought I had an advantage in avoiding the impotent outrage.  I sort of took pride in my stoicism, but on shakedown days, I seem to be the only one who becomes truly angry.

 

Not only is the average inmate seemingly unperturbed after a shakedown, it’s like this place takes on a holiday atmosphere.  When our masses come back from being violated in the old gym, guys are louder and laugh easier, just intoxicated with relief that the nightmare is over.  Up and down the cellblock you hear friends shouting at each other, some of them gleefully exclaiming that the didn’t lose anything during the shakedown, not a damn thing! So full of joy you’d swear they were given gifts rather than merely being allowed to keep what they already owned.  Other men will lament the loss of their radio or cherished magazines, but the bitching is insincere, unintended to change the celebratory climate.  Me?  Call me Scrooge.

 

True, I was once among the majority.  I remember the dread, the “lets just get this over with” set of mind, and I remember the blessed alleviation when it was done.   Well, time tempered all of that.  I no longer kill myself with stress in the beginning and I’m far from ecstatic when it’s over.  I pretty much view it as a root canal all the way through.

 

We average three major shakedowns a year.  They lock everyone in their cages for a few weeks and then search the prison.  During this time, inmates only come out for a shower three times a week and all meals are sack lunches:  two sandwiches per meal.  In Texas prisons there are major shakedowns and there are random shakedowns.  Random shakedowns are the real thing, they’re about security.  Major shakedowns are about the exercise of authority and spring cleaning.  “Random” isn’t meant literally, this type of search happens because they suspect an inmate has serious contraband like drugs, weapons or cellphones.  Or because they pissed off the wrong guard.  Major shakedowns aren’t intended to find any real contraband and they rarely do.  We are locked down and have plenty of notice to dispose of or hide any serious contraband before the search.  The whole lockdown and major shakedown are not taken very seriously by guards or inmates; it’s really just about going through the motions.  I won’t go deeply into the psychological reasons behind major shakedowns but they have the same elements as military boot camp rituals, designed to make individuals more submissive and pliable to authority.  I’m unsure if that’s the primary goal or the secondary goal behind schedules major shakedowns, but the other part of the goal is to rid the prison of excess inmate property and nuisance contraband.  Nuisance contraband is defined as excess magazines, newspapers, clothing and plastic containers (an empty chip bag has many uses for an inmate:  a cooking container, a storage place for pencils, pens, etc., protecting envelopes from the humidity, organizing paperwork and much more), water bottles and too many groceries from the commissary.  The more property I have as an inmate, the more difficult it is to find real contraband in my cell in a genuine shakedown.  Just by making me carry everything I own such a long distance, they know I’m more likely to dispose of excess property.  But even if I’m strong and stubborn enough to lug the load all the way to the gyms, my property is still measured and pared by the guards.

 

Most inmates end up saving more than they can legally store.  I’m not sure why; perhaps we are overcompensating for having so little.  Whatever the reason, most of us are sort of pack rats, not wanting to throw anything away.

 

It’s always stressful to cull your property before a shakedown and we spend painful hours doing inventory of our meager possessions.  Which is more useful, the bag of colored pencils or the dictionary?  Which means more to your heart; the bundle of your daughter’s letters or the photo album with pictures of her?  You don’t want to choose, but choose you must.  It’s even harder for lifers like me who have no family or home.  Short-timers usually have family then can send their excess property to and retrieve it when they’re released.  Permanent loss is the lifer’s only alternative.

 

I may possibly have more personal property than a Buddhist monk, but I can still fit everything I own into a small box.  For most of my life I have idealized the notion assuming that the less material I owned the simpler, peaceful and spiritual my life would be.  I still believe that but frankly, more material definitely doesn’t equal more comfort.  It’s amazing how attached one can grow to the most primitive of material items, and being forced to relinquish them really hurts.  Material sentiment seems exclusive to the human animal.  A favorite shirt, chair, cup… don’t we all value something?  We extend friendship to the inanimate and it must be hard wired into us: witness the child’s bond to a teddy bear, doll, or blanket.  I bet the commissary could sell pet rocks and we’d buy them, certainly we’re lonely enough.  A photo, birthday card, a bundle of letters from a loved one…how do you forsake these items like the worthless wood pulp they really are?

 

After two decades I sill have the memorial service announcement from my mom’s death.  It’s not heavy, doesn’t take up much room, but given my storage limitations, every little thing adds up.  I should’ve rid myself of this thing years ago.  I certainly didn’t get to go to the services, and it’s printed on cheap, yellowing paper.  It has a theme song I know my mom found completely lame.  I never even look at the damned thing, who wants to be reminded that the last person in the world who truly loved you is dead?  Yet I cannot bring myself to throw it away.  Someday a vindictive guard will trash it for me and I’ll thank them.  And hate them.

 

I’ve had a love affair with my artwork for a long time.  I’m no artist born, I usually correct a thousand mistakes to obtain the realistic detail I so admire in visual arts.  Even the smallest drawing can cost me many hours of intense labor.  So much effort I cannot help but feel that each piece of artwork contains a piece of my spirit.  But in this brick world, I’m not allowed to beautify my cage in any way, not with artwork or photos.  I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but I cannot think of any form of beauty that’s allowed in a Texas prison, I tried to store my artwork just so I could pull it out and explore it sometimes, but it’s impossible to keep something delicate from being damaged when guards are not exactly gentle with your property.  So I’ve made an effort to kill my bond to my creations, knowing I cannot keep a single one.

Is it loneliness that makes people cling to material items?  Loneliness is a simple fact for prisoners.  Even people you call friends are kept at a distance if you’re wise, because the first rule of prison is that you must never trust anyone – and for good reason, you are already helpless, to trust is to empower, and a friend can quickly become an enemy.  I certainly haven’t escaped the loneliness.  I find myself befriending the most unlikely suspects.  Most of the cages I’ve lived in have had a resident t Daddy Long Leg spider.  If not, I quickly find one and bring it home.  I name them, feed them and think about their well being.  Call my crazy, but I’ve been known to even talk to them.  Not philosophical conversations…they are after all only spiders, not dogs.  Instead I settle for apathetic uglies that scurry away every time I attempt to pet them.

 

When it comes to possessions it’s almost embarrassing to admit which one I value the most:  a plastic jug.  Oh, it’s undoubtedly useful and convenient, but worthy of affection?  Its’ pathetic how much I dread losing this plastic bottle.  True, they only sell small cups in the commissary and containers of any volume like mine are hard to come by in prison.  My bottle is made of sturdy plastic that won’t melt even when full of boiling water, has a large mouth for convenient cleaning and merely possessing it encourages me to drink far more water than most inmates, which is important in a prison system that suffers heat fatalities every year.  My jug is irreplaceable because they don’t make them anymore.  It used to contain spices, which is how it entered prison.  A kitchen that cooks for 5,000 men requires large everything and the spices used to come in these coveted containers.  Yes, my jug is invaluable and convenience extraordinaire, yet my ten-year attachment to it is ridiculous, especially since its loss is inevitable.  No one should ever waste energy working about the loss of a disposable container, but I do.  If’s contraband.  Any guard who sees it has the right to confiscate it and punish me.  Inmates always ask me how I’ve managed to keep it so long, especially through so many shakedowns and, would I consider selling it?  The answer is that I’ve jumped a thousand hurdles, undertaken superlative measures and it it the way some prisoners hide true valuables like money or jewelry and, my baby isn’t for sale at any price!

 

A major shakedown is designed to find minor contraband like my drinking jug.  Tape, rubber bands, paperclips, and other inconsequential but useful items.  Meaningless to the average person, but immensely handy to us dregs are what they’re after.  A red ink pen is contraband only because it’s not sold in commissary like black pens, but for someone who does art it’s a wonderful tool, hard to obtain and painful to lose.  There are hundreds of harmless items an inmate treasures that are considered contraband and these are what the guards are searching for.  Obviously the term “major shakedown” is an oxymoron.

 

The there’s addiction; every person alive has one.  Drugs, cigarettes, and booze are the higher profile and judged ones, but religion, masturbation, television and sugar are just as powerful.  Even tiny habits can become problems, I had a cellmate who stressed out when he ha fewer than a hundred cotton swabs.  I found that amusing, but his distress was real.  Additions, no matter how innocent or “positive”, are marbled with pain.

 

As a free person I was addicted to snow skiing, movies, fast food and bad relationships; those dependencies died cold turkey when I became a prisoner.  But addictions don’t disappear into a vacuum, psychologically, something must take their place and mine were replaced by books.  Books? That’s positive right?  Everyone should read and learn; few pursuits are more virtuous….not.  like I said, even addictions labeled positive are toxic by nature.  Books weren’t a tool or learning or entertainment for me, they were an escape.  Just as a junkie eagerly taps her vein to obliterate the pain, I buried myself in inked paper.  There were days I spent 16 or more hours in a novel.  Whole days lost forever in someone else’s imagination.  There was really no difference between me and a druggie or religious zealot and the withdrawal symptoms were full of suffering.  Several times I have been locked in a cage with nothing, not a single piece of paper much less a book.  I could only escape with memories, which bring tears, daydreams that grow stale and Zen meditation, which becomes laborious after a few hours.  There was simply no escaping the agony of reality

 

It’s foolish to pigeonhole anything though, including addiction.  I’m quite convinced I would’ve suffered from true insanity if books hadn’t provided relief.  My dependency on escape reading has been tempered significantly over the years, but books remain a drug of sorts.  When I’m living in the pages, this vile prison reality recedes and I become part of the human story again, finding love, adventure, sentiment and beauty.  Tempered or nor, it’s still an addiction and I nurture a terror of being without books.  So of course I overcompensate.  Despite the severe restrictions on what I’m allowed to own, my cage overflows with books.  During a major shakedown, this becomes a form of distress. I pay other inmates who have less property to carry some of my books through, but I still los some to the bad guys and it hurts every time.

 

Today, four beloved volumes were confiscated from me.  I thought I had sufficiently pared my possessions down over the last few days.  I was wrong.  They have a new system involving a red plastic milk crate.  With the exceptions of shoes and appliances, everything you own must fit inside the crate, or else this new crate system is very unsportsmanlike because while we have sparse storage in our cages, the space we do have in our lockers and shelves is twice that of the milk crate.   As if this weren’t disappointing enough, thy put an insolent child in charge of the shakedown in the gym.  A gung-ho sergeant who wears his fragile ego on his sleeve, a man who throws his authority around like a pubescent big sister put in charge for the first time.  This inane antagonist insisted that no property peek over the rim of thee crate – god help you if a jar of peanut butter edged a millimeter over the rim!

 

Many an inmate got away with stacking property above the brim when Sargent Big Sister wasn’t looking because out of the thirty or so guards shaking down, only the sergeant considered a level relevant.  Unfortunately for our protagonist, I had no such luck.  I remained the object of his tyranny the whole time.  I wonder why he picked me?  Perhaps my eyes didn’t show enough submission, or maybe I resembled an enemy, or perhaps he saw in me the greed god of a man he could never be.  Just kidding.  For whatever reason, he picked me.  Ordinarily I would’ve been up for the test, after all, it’s not like I don’t encounter hyper alpha males every day.  I usually laugh, greeting such adolescent antics with apathy.  But Sergeant Sadist caught me when my emotional immune system was already under siege.  As I sat on the polished concrete, packing my property into the crate, trying to use every available inch he stood over me flinging obscenities and spittle into my hair.  I attempted to keep my expression Zen, but my hands betrayed me with trembling as I hastily stuffed the crate, sweat literally forming a puddle beneath me.  I wore only a pair of boxers and I kept slipping as I scrambled around the crate gathering my belongings spread all about the floor and the Singing Sergeant Obstacle Course. Then I cut my finger on a stray razorblade, and every book I touched became stained with sweat and blood.  I got so flustered and full of anger I felt my eyes well up.  Meanwhile Sergeant Scourge was joined by a sycophant female guard whose profanity was far more eloquent than his. They finally told me I had less than ten seconds to finish packing the crate or they’d take everything.  I was so close to standing up and speaking my mind. So. Close.  But my intelligence stepped up and pulled me from the brink.  Ten years ago I wouldn’t have given a damn, I would’ve told the sergeant exactly how I felt and maybe even given him a fat lip.  Not only would this have cost me all of my material comfort, but an unwitnessed and handcuffed beating in an empty cage smelling of stale piss.  Today, I managed to react like a wise Buddhist monk…or like a sheep.

 

I stood up and carried the still-not-full milk crate to search table without a backward glance at my abandoned books.  It’s funny how something so important a few minutes ago can become meaningless in an instant.  All the careful planning and agonizing over what to keep or sacrifice – all that idiotic self-inflicted pain.  For nothing.

Hopeless

There’s a friend in the next cell I’ll call Michael.  Michael is a fish, he’s done less than three months of a 60-year sentence, and everything is still new and appalling.  Like all fish in a Southern penitentiary, he alternates from horror to indignation because he still thinks like a human being.  I like Michael, he has a generous heart and a smile that flashes often and unselfconsciously.  It’s hard not to stare at Michael’s eyes sometimes, and I’ve noticed the other veteran prisoners do it too. His eyes still have some light, which makes them conspicuous in the dark existence.

Michael has countless photographs of his wife, Emily, and his five-year-old daughter, Lisa, whom he worships.  Completely blind to the boredom of others, Michael loves to show off his family pictures, each of which comes with a litany I’ve heard repeatedly, but with patience as I know it comforts Michael to relive moments of love.

I cannot help but to feel protective of Michael, he’s really just a kid, gullible and vulnerable.  I try to teach him how to carry himself, and how to avoid being raped or taken advantage of by inmates or victimized by vindictive guards.  To his credit he listens but he cannot seem to let go of his childish belief in fairness, or acquire the art of numbness.  Some lessons can only be learned through experience.

Like everyone else who comes to prison with a hopelessly long sentence, Michael seems convinced that it isn’t over.  He ingenuously believes he will win a court appeal, that his sentence will be reduced to some sane number, and that he will be reunited with Emily and Lisa, who’ve promised to wait for him no matter what. If it’s pointed out to Michael that the good ole boys in charge of the Texas Court of Appeals reverse their fellow judge’s rulings in less than one percent of all cases, he waves this fact away with the swipe of his hand hastily explaining why HIS appeal is different and how the merits of HIS appeal are superior.  Which is pretty much what all nascent lifers say.

I refuse to discuss Michael’s foolish faith in the court system anymore because it irritates me, saddens me.  I see Michael’s future as clearly as if it has already happened.  I’ve witnessed his story unfold a hundred times.  Michael is nothing but a statistic; he just doesn’t realize it yet.

Lifers are usually housed together and most of them share a propensity to fabricate hope where there is none.  They all know or have heard of someone who has overcome the appeals process and found their way back home.  They revisit these tales over and over, emphatically nodding their heads in agreement with unspoken amens, blithely ignoring reality and the astronomical odds against winning the judicial lottery.

It discombobulates me how differently I think compared to my fellow lifers.  It’s true that I too once harbored some unrealistic fantasies about the appeals process, and I knew, I just KNEW I had more right to hope than most, including Michael, because unlike him, I was innocent of any crime.  That delusion was murdered of course but even when my hope was at its apex I had sense enough to temper it.  Well, perhaps I’m being generous in saying that, but years later I’ve lived through enough to stifle hope altogether.  That makes me an extreme minority.  Somehow even after their appeals fantasies are destroyed, many lifers find some new optimistic fallacy to invest their faith in, and it strikes me as nuts.  Why do they insist on banging their heads against castles in the sky?

The incorrigible argue that anything, absolutely anything can happen.  Laws change, tough on crime political fads are fickle and every once in awhile, even the Texas parole board gives birth to new policies. There seems to be no end to the illusions these lost men create to avoid what’s painfully apparent: most of us will die here.  As a last ditch effort, some lifers find religion.  They commit to their new beliefs fervently, praying to Allah or Jesus for another chance to go home, ready to attack anyone who would question or doubt their new hope.

One particularly obscene hope that makes its way through the penitentiary every few years, especially when more U.S. troops are sent to the Middle East, is that the military will soon offer to suspend prison sentences in exchange for enlistment.  There’s absolutely zero chance of that ever happening, as anyone with a lick of sense would know, but such is the nature of hope.  Suddenly you see large groups of inmates doing extra calisthenics on the recreation yard to get in shape for the armed forces fitness test that’s sure to come.  A man I tremendously admired and loved once fell hard for this absurdity.  He was by no means stupid, yet his innate optimism was boundless.  I argued with him daily, citing my own military background and knowledge; I used analogies and logic, angry assertion, and finally soulful pleading, but my wonderful friend remained obstinately enamored.  So emotionally invested was I it felt like it was me who faced the crushing disillusionment sure to follow, rather than him.  Years later as I think back about that special man and the indelible optimist he was, I believe it may have been his relentless pursuit of hope, however foolish, that made me admire him the most.

And maybe it’s Michael’s misguided enthusiasm that attracts me to him; like a moth to a flame.  Not that I envy his incandescence, not even a little.  The brighter the light, the colder the darkness that follows.

I don’t know why it drives me crazy when people I care about in prison embrace such unrealistic aspirations or why I’m unable to generate such comforting delusions for myself.  Nor do I understand why I argue pointlessly, trying to convince them it’s far safer to practice acceptance instead of hope.  And that it’s more conducive to mental health to live in the moment, one breath at a time

I tell myself that they are unwise, that they are wrong and I am right.  I tell myself that my frustration stems from my concern for them.  If I’m to be frank, I sometimes tell myself that I’m better than them, that they are criminals and I am innocent.  And I tell myself I am stronger than they are because I face the agonizing truth without fairy tale buffers.  I tell myself a lot of things I guess, but how can I be sure I’m not the one suffering a delusion?  Perhaps I’m really just a coward.  Doesn’t it take more courage to hope than to despair?  Might they be empowering themselves and living a more quality existence than I?  maybe, but I’ve been burned by hope before and I cannot bring myself to go near that flame again.

By the time the letter came informing me that I had lost my appeal and that I would likely spend the rest of my life in the hell that is prison, I had saved up enough Thorazine to kill a horse, because if sure didn’t kill me.  I thought I had executed the overdose perfectly:  I took two of the pills an hour before the rest so that I would fall instantly unconscious once I took the remaining two handfuls and therefore preventing myself from nausea and vomiting out the drug before my system could absorb it.  I was successful in that I did manage to digest all of the Thorazine before they discovered me and pumped my stomach, but a week later I regained consciousness and my escape attempt failed.  My failure took all of the initiative from me and I couldn’t find the energy to try again.  But I didn’t exactly regain the will to live either.  I stopped eating and cleaning myself, I stared at walls for days without feeling anything.  After a few weeks of this existence prison officials caught on.  They strapped me down and force fed me through my nose, and then they locked me in a cage naked, with nothing but thin flesh and protruding bones to cushion me from the cold steel and unforgiving concrete.  I couldn’t lay down for more than a couple of hours as it was too painful.  I suppose that misery trumps despair because I began eating “voluntarily” again just so I could have some clothes and a thin mattress.  As time passed I never really made a conscious decision to live, but somehow it happened anyway, one breath at a time.

Suicide is far from uncommon in prison.  I cannot quote numbers or statistics, but I personally know seven men here who’ve successfully killed themselves, and have heard tell of at least another twenty that I’ve never met on this prison farm.  I’ll be conservative and say that at least 22 men have committed suicide in the past six years here.  There are more than a hundred prisons in Texas so you do the math.  I cannot tell you individually why so many prisoners kill themselves, but I can speculate with one quote from Benjamin Franklin: “He that lives on hope will die fasting.”

Had I refused to hope even a little as I do presently, I never would’ve fallen so low   I hate to think of others experiencing the same demoralization, especially Michael.  Yet Michael faces a trial that I never had:  it’s not his quixotic aspirations of going home or even the malignant existence of prison that threatens Michael’s spirit the most – it’s the people who love him.

Like most lifers, Michaels’s friends and family will eventually desert him.  This is so common I can practically give a time-line and order of abandonment.  The lover always leaves first, be it girlfriend or wife (assuming she hasn’t been preceded by the friends, who rarely endure the arrest and trial.  The initial separation kills all but the most determined friendships and few friendships are described by the word “determined”).  I’m not sure why the lover is usually the first; romantic love may be the most intense lover there is, yet it also appears to be the most brittle, and dependent upon companionship.  Even in the military, which is viewed in a much more positive light than prison, I saw many a love die.  Separation is merely one component of prison’s poison to relationships.  The stigmatization, the financial burden and the very antithesis of the lovers’ separate lives all aggravate the severance and a life sentence butchers all hope of reunification.

The lover is usually gone before the first year of prison is over.  Secondary family like aunts and cousins are next, depending on how close the relationship was to begin with.  It’s true that an aunt or grandmother may send a card or money on Christmas well into a lifer’s sentence, but does a letter once a year signify love, or merely emphasize abandonment?

The siblings and father are usually gone by the fifth year, again depending on how close they once were.  That’s not to say they might not drop a letter once every few months out of some fading sense of duty, but as the years of separation grow obese, their hearts are no longer in it.  Much of the time it’s the mother who is last to abandon here son, sometimes until death.  But generally by the time a man serves his twentieth year, he is completely alone and disposable.

Michael will experience all of this, but presently he’s on the honeymoon of his incarceration.  He receives mail almost everyday, he goes to commissary each time it’s allowed, he gets two hour visit most weekends, and he spends a lot of time on the phone.  The veteran inmates know all of this is temporary, but the kids are always the last to see the end coming.  Michael would never believe me if I told him his family will forsake him, nobody wants to think of that.  Yet, I suspect the abandonment has begun.  Michael is already doing the phone drama with Emily.  One minute he’s shouting at her and the next he’s crying.  I don’t know the specifics of the conflict and it doesn’t really matter; they all shout and cry as they’re being left behind.  Emily and Lisa used to come visit two or three times a month, but its’ been eight weeks since they last came.  The last visit Michael will ever receive from his wife and daughter is coming very soon, it if hasn’t already happened.  The rest of his family haven’t shown any signs yet, but their last visit will come as sure as dusk. The letters will dry up with the phone calls and eventually Michael will be washing other inmate’s underwear for commissary.

There are some exceptions to this pattern of abandonment of course.  Some glorious exceptions actually.  I’ve seen guys do almost fifteen years and still get occasional visits from family including even the father and siblings.  And more amazing, there have even been some wives who’ve kept the faith.  I know one guy whose wife had come every weekend for e11 years, though this anomaly seems endangered because of his jealousy.  His wife recently confessed to a couple of affairs and he is not taking it well.  I told him he’s a fool; if someone loved me like that I wouldn’t waste a heartbeat begrudging here a tryst.  People have needs, they get lonely; does it truly matter what she does in her separate existence as long as she loves you and makes you a priority?  She endures the hopeless wait and you fault her for being human?  I want to shake some sense into him, but it’s his love to throw away.

I’ve heard tell of another guy whose wife stayed the course for twenty-eight years.  Twenty-eight years!  It’s unfathomable. A one-time romantic in my former life, it brings tears to my eyes just to imagine it.  But so rare are these cases they’re unworthy of wistful aspiration.

If you’re a wise lifer, you understand when someone you love finds somebody new, it’s not their fault you’re in prison.  But these kids are neither wise or understanding.  To them it’s betrayal plain and simple, and the ensuing bitterness hardens their heart.  I dread that for Michael because of how bright his light shines.  Despite the disdain I sometimes feel for his naïve hope, I find myself craving his presence.  I guess that subconsciously it makes me feel more alive.  When his torch is finally extinguished, I suspect my own vitality will darken some

This inevitable abandonment of lifer inmates may strike some as cruel or unfair.  Perhaps there are people who will read this and reflexively deny that they’d never abandon someone they love, even if that loved one were a prisoner.  Maybe you’re right and you’d be an exception, but consider this:  people change, and you’re not the same person you were ten years ago, you have new wisdom, beliefs and perspective.  Can you honestly predict who you’ll be twenty years from now?

There might even be some people who read this that have kept the faith with a loved on in prison if so, I commend your loyalty and admire your tenacity.  But for those of you who’ve parted ways with someone you loved, I tell you there is no dishonor in following a natural course.  Change is inescapable and it defines life.

Imagine if you will, two people that love each other deeply, they have shared laughter, joy, tears, profound experiences and their bond is strong.  Now imagine circumstances separating them for twenty years.  Consider the awkwardness of a possible reunion; it would be a meeting between two strangers.  Neither person is anything like they once were.  Change is constant for everyone but when we’re together, familiarity and companionship make the changes barely noticeable.  Apart however, we’re living an existence completely foreign to the other.  We cannot imagine the events, new relationships, and unique suffering that’s changing the other person’s whole personality.  Years pass and the person we once knew has a new life and relationships with people who understand and care about the person they are now rather than who they once were.

We place such an ideal on love in our culture than even I want to argue that separation cannot kill what’s in my heart if I truly love someone, even should twenty years pass.  I want to argue, but can I do it without being a hypocrite?  My son was born more than twenty years ago.  From the moment I first held him, freshly warm from his mother’s womb, I felt a love so sublime it overwhelmed me I still want to shout from the mountain tops that nothing could destroy that love.  But I haven’t seen my son since he was a baby; can I possibly still love him?  I don’t even know who he is.  If I’m to be brutally honest with myself, my son is a stranger and whatever love I feel is for nothing but a memory.  Love is personal and I would argue that love for a stranger is superficial at best.

Love isn’t static or permanent, it’s alive and dynamic, it has a birth and a death as all living entities must.  Starve it with separation and it dies.  Life requires nurture and love requires communion.  Prison, especially prisons in the south, deter the nurture of love.  Not just with enforced separation; two resolute people could fight the system, keeping a relationship alive with regular letters and occasional visits, but no matter how determined they are, they’re still living two different existences and it will grow more and more difficult to understand each other as time passes.  The constant castigation of a prisoner alters the very fabric of his thought process.  He must learn to roll with the blows or risk his mental health.  The only real way to minimize his personal damage is to leave the outside world behind and focus on surviving this one.  People who’ve never been brought so low as prison cannot begin to fathom what it does to someone’s psyche.  How many, no matter how strong the love, are willing to sacrifice the energy and frustration to even try to understand what changes prison is inflicting upon their loved one?  Not many, but again, life is full of lovely exceptions.

The best friend I ever had in prison was Pete.  Pete had a mother that surpassed the ordinary and it made all the difference in the quality of Pete’s existence within these malovent walls.  She made Pete a priority and gave superlative efforts to let Pete know she was invested in his fate, no matter what.  Such was her determination that even Pete’s sibling and secondary family were forced to stay involved or face his mother’s wrath.  Pete received regular visits, money, letters and made phone calls when Texas finally started allowing them.  He never hurt for books, magazines, pictures of home, or any other of the little things a prisoner comes to cherish.  Even Pete’s friends in prison, like me, were included in his mom’s benevolence, as she often sent me books and greeting cards on my birthday and Christmas.  Imagine!  To have someone care about your birthday after years and years of barely acknowledging it yourself!  Pete’s mother made it her mission to understand prison and the policies that governed her son’s life, establishing communication with reluctant prison officials and calling regularly when there was a question or problem.  A lot of guards in our huge prison would hear Pete’s last name and say: “Oh you’re Pete! Your mom is so cool!”  So involved was Pete’s mother it had to influence the way some employees treated him.  Pete didn’t much need to worry about some of the abuses other inmates suffered, because prison officials knew they’d be held accountable by the force of nature that was his mom.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Of course, Pete wasn’t a lifer and that makes a major difference, as it’s surely easier for a family to stay involved when reunification is possible, but involved on that level?  It was amazing.  And something tells me that even had Pete been a lifer, his mom would’ve went about it the same way.  Case in point: me, whom she has no reason to care about much less value as she would her son, even I still get occasional messages and gifts from her and Pete has been gone for years.

The commitment of Pete’s amazing smother was vital not only during Pete’s prison life, but even more so upon his release.  Pete has been a free man for several years now and I’d bet my soul he’ll never return to prison, barring Texas injustice.  That’s saying something in a system where recidivism is rampant.  Having that family support was crucial to him getting back on his feet.  Quoting The Atlantic magazine: “Incarceration pushes you out of the job market.  Incarceration disqualifies you from feeding your family with food stamps.  Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on a criminal background check.  Incarceration increases your chances of being incarcerated again.”   The last sentence is an understatement.  Here in the south, where incarceration and recidivism rates remain the highest in the country…actually The Atlantic said we lead the whole world in incarceration rates, and recidivism is a given.  The whole system is set up for failure in a man released from prison.  There are hundreds of jobs a convicted felon cannot hold by law and thousands more that wouldn’t consider employing one regardless of the law.

Pete’s post-release success story is so uncommon I tend to view even short-timers as lifers of a sort.  The only difference between them and me is that they’re doing a life sentence in increments instead of consecutively.  Most of them keep coming back, their sentences growing each time.  Soon enough they come to the realization that they’re disposable, institutionalized and that they have no place outside of a prison.

I often think of Pete’s mom when I consider these kids, these statistics around me.  She hurdled all of the obstacles a Texas penitentiary placed before her and they were considerable.  Southern prisons don’t promote family interaction.  Quite the opposite.

European prisons emphasize policies that prevent inmates from being isolated from their families and surprisingly, from society.  Their prison systems focus on rehabilitation, perhaps because they don’t want the recidivism rates that plague their American Counterparts.  They institute programs to keep prisoners mentally and socially adapted to the world they must be returned to.  Many Americans are conditioned to believe such programs are too liberal and soft on crime.  Yet Europe must be doing something right because their crime and incarceration rates per capita are much, much lower than ours.

While few American state prison systems even give lip service to rehabilitation anymore, there are still a few that make an effort to keep families connected.  Unlike Texas and her Confederate sisters who often place hundreds of miles between a prisoner and his family, some states do transfers within the state as a matter of course to make it easier for families, many mired in poverty, to come visit.  Their visitation hours are far more generous, the phone time unlimited and reasonably priced and letters are actually encouraged, again without limit on indigent postage.  Some prison systems even have counselors who will call the family when the inmate is struggling.  There are even a precious number of state prisons that still allow conjugal visits, though I can promise you it’s not because they are kind people or soft on crime.  Perhaps they use it as a behavioral tool, knowing men will make sacrifices for loved ones that they never would for themselves.  Or maybe they believe companionship and intimacy are vital to cement bonds that will surely die with enforced separation.  Maybe they do it out of common sense:  if you intentionally destroy a man’s contact with the world and poison his relationships, leave him without the humanizing traits of love and empathy, abuse him like an ugly insect everyday, year after year: what kind of person are you developing?  Or maybe those states do it because of the bottom line, it’s expensive to keep the revolving door of the justice system going.

But I personally have never had to worry about family.  Texas is where I am and more importantly, it’s where Michael is, and his family.  Texas brags politically about the punitive austerity of its prison system and that’s not likely to change no matter how high their recidivism rate becomes.  In the south, execution and warehousing are the only politically correct ways to deal with crime.  If you have family in this system the policies are clearly insinuating that you should abandon them or be persecuted with them.

I could hope for a different outcome, but I don’t believe Michael stands a chance.  In twenty years it’s almost certain that Michael will be as alone and hopeless as I am.  The world will have abandoned him and he in turn will have abandoned the world.

 

The Black Box

 

I recently wrote about the one-hundred-dollar medical co-payment that the Teas justice system extorts from the families of its inmates and how criminal it is for a government to double tax its most poverty-stricken citizens simply for caring about a prisoner.  I also talked about how the co-payment policy costs lives because inmates can be so reluctant to pay that fee, they will often allow a minor, easily treated malady to fester until it becomes a life threatening emergency.  I even admitted that despite my own cognizance of such unreasonable behavior, I too have foregone medical treatment to avoid paying that hundred dollars.  What I didn’t mention was that even as I wrote that information, I’d been having an untreated heart problem for months.

And now, in a case of tangible irony, I can relate that on the very day I finished sharing that information, I found myself in an ambulance with a life threatening problem.  For the previous 6 months I’ve been having episodes where I suffer a deep weakness, shortage of breath and an erratic heartbeat.  It rarely lasts more than a few minutes, usually when I’m on the cusp of sleep.  I’ve basically suffered few symptoms during the day and even exercise quite vigorously without issue, so I hoped the problem was minor and would heal of its own accord.  Weeks went by and I still kept having heart episodes but I continued to avoid the prison infirmary because of that hundred-dollar bill.  Then one day my heart went crazy, making me weak as a kitten, so I decided to seek help, a hundred dollars be damned.  When I got to the infirmary I waited 3 hours on the hardest bench in Texas before they’d even hear my complaint, and by then my symptoms were gone again and my vital signs were normal.  I waited another 3 hours to see a physician’s assistant and when I finally got to talk to her I told her about the problem and how long I’d been having it.  To her credit, she ordered an EKG test on my heart which came back normal.  She told me nothing was wrong with me and that I was probably drinking too much coffee.

I paid a hundred dollars I didn’t have to suffer 6 hours on the bench from hell just to receive an ignorant opinion a dozen inmates would’ve given me for free?  I hated myself.  Not one time in 20 years have I ever received help from a prison infirmary, even when I suffered a herniated disk in my neck and spent 4 agonizing months in bed with a pinched nerve.  I felt so stupid for subjecting myself to that useless infirmary exercise again and paying for the privilege.

The heart episodes continued, but wild horses couldn’t have dragged my back to that infirmary just to be snubbed by some apathetic prison healthcare worker, so I hoped my problem would heal of its own accord.  Then one night, my body betrayed me.  It could’ve easily been the end for our protagonist, but as it happens, there have been an unusually high number of deaths at this prison unit recently and that fact likely saved my life.

I woke up with my body screaming for oxygen.  My extremities were numb, my hands whiter than my bed-sheets.  When I attempted to get up I fell to the floor too weak to stand.  I’m not sure how long I stayed like that, but I refused to call out for help.  Eventually a boss man came by counting and saw me on the floor.  He called on the radio for assistance and they took me to the infirmary.  Once again my vital signs were normal.  They told me I was faking.

I should mention that inmates faking illness is far from uncommon.  I’m not sure why, but I suppose it’s often an effort to get attention however callous and malignant, especially for some of the men in higher custody security levels who are forced to spend the majority of their existence in a stimulus deprivation age.  There is a fair share of hypochondriacs I’m sure and there have always been hustlers, even before the hundred-dollar medical fee. And after the fee the number of hustlers only multiplied, those friendless souls that never receive any monetary help from the outside. The hundred-dollar fee doesn’t touch them because Texas is forced to provide medical care (such as it is) even to indigent inmates.  They go get whatever medicine from the infirmary that might sell on “the streets”, like antibiotics, cold medicines, Ibuprofen, athlete’s foot cream and anything else.  So, it’s true that many inmates fake their symptoms and the medical staff, much like the security staff, is trained to be skeptical about anything a prisoner says.  Unless an inmate has symptoms plainly visible to even the most ignorant layman, he is unlikely to receive emergency care.

They kept telling me I was faking, but I couldn’t stand up or argue with them.  I found out later from one of the boss men present that the only reason they called 911 was because of the heat they’d received over all the recent deaths.  I’m not ungrateful, but it still confuses me.  Where would this “heat” come from?  Who would care if an inmate dies and what difference would it make?  The general public is indifferent and inmates’ families are mostly poor and without political clout.  Who’s left to hold a prison accountable for unnecessary deaths?  It makes no sense, but I’m unlikely to ever figure out the answer.

When I arrived at the emergency room, my vital signs remained normal and in truth I was feeling much stronger.  Fortunately, non-prison hospitals aren’t so quick to accuse people of faking.  They did a blood test and discovered I had a critically low potassium level.  That surprised me; who thinks about potassium?  Who knew you could die from such a thing?  I was hooked up to a bag of potassium and admitted into the hospital.  The guards seemed a bit disappointed that they’d guessed wrong about my imposture.

My stay in the hospital was both sublime and horrible.  Sublime because of the way the medical staff treated me after 20 years of being treated like an ugly insect by anyone with a smidgen of authority.  After dealing with medical staff that openly hate men because of the prison uniform they wear I had no idea how to react to authority figures that treated me like I had the value of some human.  I kept welling up with tears every time someone said something nice to me.  I guess I’ve gotten so used to rudeness, I’ve forgotten how powerful simple kindness can be.

I have often compared the blandness of prison food with that of a hospital.  My bad.  I apologize to hospitals everywhere.  Another reason my stay was so great was because of the delectable fare.  I suppose the greatest blessing of prison is that it teaches you a deeper, tangible appreciation for things you never truly understood the value of.

Lastly, my hospital stay was lovely because of the adjustable bed and the real pillow.  A real pillow!  Oh how I fell for that hospital cushion, and the soft blanket that didn’t cause itching.  Then there was thee TV!  They told me I was allowed to watch TV 24 hour a day and that’s exactly what I did, sleep be damned.  I have loved movies since I was a little boy and I miss them so much; I wasn’t about to lose such an opportunity to sleep.  Yes, all of these novelties were quite wonderful, but I didn’t get to sincerely enjoy them because I was miserably uncomfortable the whole time.

My ankles were shackled close together and a cold steel chain was attached to the shackles, running up between my legs, stripping every hair it touched and it touched many as I wore no clothing barring a paper rear-less hospital gown.  But the shackles and chain were nothing compared to the handcuffs.  Ordinary cuffs would’ve been wretched in themselves.  But the “black box” turned it into torture.  The “black box” is a piece of hard plastic fastened over handcuffs with a padlock that prevents any movement of the wrists.  No matter how hard you try to keep your arms close together to prevent the bite of the metal it’s impossible because it’s too unnatural to hold your hands in that position.  So, your wrists automatically pull apart and lean against the steel.  It’s highly uncomfortable and after a couple of hours it becomes an extreme torment.  I stayed that way almost 5 days.  My hands swelled grotesquely and ulcers developed on my wrists.  The guards refused my pleas to loosen the restraints.  They’re terrified an inmate will try to escape being outside a prison, so they’re very strict and security conscious.  Little did they dream I wouldn’t have tried to escape even unrestrained and unsupervised.  Twenty years in prison has left me with no place else to go.

The restraints were hell.  I talked about not sleeping because of the TV opportunity, but only exhaustion would allow a person to sleep with that much bodily misery.  I spoke of the delicious food, but meal times were the most painful as I fought the “black box” to try and maneuver food into my mouth.  I dropped more than a few bites of that precious food on my bed where I couldn’t reach it.  You wouldn’t believe how challenging it is to use a spoon when you cannot move your wrists.

The term “bed-sores” has never made much sense to me; how could a soft bed possibly cause sores?  Now I know.  I wasn’t able to turn over or adjust my body much because of the restraints.  As a result, my butt grew raw, and I’m sure the urine didn’t help.   A bed can indeed cause skin ulcers.

The smell was bad.  I reeked.  I kept having to urinate because of the I.V. fluids and I couldn’t master the art of peeing in a jug while lying down handcuffed.  I spilled urine on myself over and over; it went sour as time passed by.  The nurses weren’t allowed to give me a sponge bath because I was a low-life prisoner who might get off on it.  The nurses kept asking me if I wanted a laxative to stimulate a bowel movement.  I didn’t need stimulation.  I’d had the urge from day one, but no way in hell was I going to have a bowel movement while chained like a dog and all of those kind women around.  I was prepared to hold it for weeks if necessary.  Five days was nothing.

Like I said, the hospital stay was both lovely and miserable.

The medical staff performed some tests, but they never did figure out how I lost so much potassium.  Even after they restored my potassium level back to normal, it didn’t solve the symptoms I’d been having for months.  But they seemed pretty sure there wasn’t anything wrong with my heart.  I can only hope they were right.

Now that I’m out of the hospital and back in the apathetic environment of prison, I have 2 problems to worry about:  I don’t know how I’m going to retain my potassium levels or how I’ll know if I don’t have enough of it.  The doctor said she would prescribe potassium supplements but she forgot.  Either that or she figured the prison would ignore her prescription as many of the drugs prescribed to inmates from free world doctors often are because they’re either too expensive or there’s a possibility of abuse.  I have no idea if potassium supplements are allowed for inmates.

Despite these worries, I was relieved to come back to prison and escape the “black box”.  My wrists are still a mess even as I write this.  The return trip was another lesson in misery as well.  I wore only a paper gown in 40-degree weather and it was an ugly challenge to shuffle and edge my way into the dog kennel in the back of the van.  That’s what it’s called: “dog kennel” and for good reason, there’s about the same amount of space.  I barely fit, my knees crammed against a metal cage.  Many prisoners are too large to fit in the dog kennels and need special transport.  Unfortunately, I just fit.  Being chained up made getting up and into the dog kennel no small task and once inside, I was too far towards the back of the vehicle.  The thing is, if they wreck the van, a prisoner has no chance.  Surrounded by metal and no seatbelt, and chains preventing any limb movement, even a minor vehicle accident could mean death to a man stuck in the dog kennel.  My guards were both African nationals from Nigeria, as a growing percentage of Texas prison employees are.  Fewer Americans are willing to accept such a low paying, degrading job.  My guards barely spoke English and call me paranoid, but I was a bit worried about their driving skills.  So, even though it was very painful to slide my body along the steel bench to the barrier at the front of the van because the metal was ice cold and my ulcer covered ass kept getting stuck to it (one must attempt to slide because the space is too small to raise up), I figured the front barrier offered me the best protection in the event of a sudden brake.  If I stayed in the back of the van as my ass begged me to do, a sudden brake would’ve sent me flying to crush my skill against the steel barrier, because I couldn’t raise my arms to protect it.

The ride back was long and very cold, but somehow I felt proud because the cold didn’t seem to bother me as I remained focused on breathing and keeping my wrists positioned to prevent resistance.  I remained proud until we got back to the prison.  It was raining a bit and once I managed to wriggle my way out of the dog kennel, I was forced to shuffle in my shackles more than a hundred yards on the coldest, wettest sidewalk in the history of mankind, barefoot.  I was trembling so badly by the time I got into the building that one guard had to hold my arms still while the other one unlocked my restraints.  But I was finally free of the “black box”.

The night I went to the hospital, I’d been wearing my watch, t-shirt, tennis shoes and state clothes.  I was forced to remove everything and get on the ambulance naked.  When I returned, my property had been stolen.  I’m still pretty upset about that.  I don’t know if the guards or the inmates stole my stuff, but there’s nothing I can do about it.  I suspect inmates.  The guards steal a lot, but usually only commissary or jewelry.  It doesn’t seem likely that one of them stole my low quality tennis shoes.  I don’t know which loss hurts worse, the watch or the tennis shoes.  It was a good watch, one I assumed I’d have the rest of my prison life.  The tennis shoes were fairly new, purchased with the money sent to me by a friend who could ill afford it.  It will be a slice of hell trying to replace those shoes.

I know; I should just be grateful I’m alive, right?  I’m not.  I want to be alive AND wear my shoes.

I’m back under the prison healthcare system now…sort of.  Trust me when I tell you it’s not a very safe place to be.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you the medical staff hates inmates.  Maybe it’s different in other states, but why would it be?  Who in this world, after undergoing so much education and training in the medical field, would want to get stuck in a prison giving medical care to worthless scum?

The infirmary is required to see you after you return from a hospital.  Once again I spent most of a day sitting on a bench with a sore ass, waiting to see the same P.A. who stole a hundred dollars from me to tell me nothing was wrong.  I sat in front of her as she reviewed the hospital report on the computer.  She looked at me accusingly and said: “you’d be dead if your potassium level had been that low”.  She acted like I was the one who put that lab result in the computer.  She ordered more lab tests and and EKG, which I know will be normal after the dozens they performed at the hospital and once again I’ll be likely labeled a faker.

But I’m not going to let that happen.  No more entire days wasted on the bench for me.  No more antipathy and being chained like a dog.  I’m finished.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, I am a human being and not a green piece of shit.  I plan to refuse all future prison infirmary appointments, and if it turns out my heart issues are fatal, so be it.  There are worse things than death.

Get Over It

The following piece of writing (I cannot bring myself to call it an essay), called “Get Over it”, is quite graphic and loaded with offensive language. However, unlike “Commissary Day’1, a previous essay, I cannot bring myself to edit or tame it because its coarseness is actually the whole point. Every kid who comes to prison needs this schooling, yet few enough ot them get it through verbal instruction.

Prisoners who read “Get Over It, invariably find it hilarious, though I seriously doubt anyone who’s never been to prison will. I guess inmates think it’s funny because it’s a penitentiary rite of passage they recognize all too well. Or maybe sometimes the only way to deal with a misery you cannot escape is to laugh at it.

“Get Over It” is a crude and sometimes exaggerated dialogue, but then, so is life in prison.

To all of you who read Prison Vitality and spread the word, I thank you very much. I also encourage you to take advantage of the feature on this blog that allows you to be automatically notified when a new entry is logged. I’m not sure if this leaves an electronic footprint that will get Prison Vitality more visibility on search engines, but it can‘t hurt.

Be well, one breath at a time.

GET OVER IT

“There is a point beyond which even justice becomes unjust.” ~ Sophocles

So it’s your first time down, eh kid? Have a seat right here on my bunk. Sit, I ain’t gonna bite ya. What kinda time dey give ya? Five years! For nabbin a purse outta car… Geezus, dey slammed ya kid. That’s a rough first bid, even for Texas. What are ya, bout eighteen? And ya threw away a whole life for a freakin’ purse? You’re pullin my leg, right kid? HA! Tell me da bag was loaded with diamonds! Tell me there was thousand dollar bills burstin from da seams! Twenty-three bucks and change!? . . . Nobody’s that stupid! What’n hells’ da matta with ya kid? Never stole nuttin in ya life . . . Did it on a dare, cuz ya wanted to be one a da guys. It was dumb but you’ll never fall for that again . . . Geeezus, shut the fuck up! Save that shit for da parole board! Ain’t a swingin dick in dis whole joint gonna wanna hear bout ya freakin Disney values. There ain’t nuttin with value in dis cess-pit kid, don’t ya know that? You . . . Whatever you think about. . . ain’t worth a shit. HA! You could be Mother freakin’ Teresa and no one would give a rats ass. You ain’t nuttin but a numbered turd to da world kid. And in here? HA! You ain’t nuttin but a warm hole!

Aw, stop da bawlin kid, cryin bout da worst thing you can do in da joint. Never show weakness. Not that you can help it… HA! Ya gotta do somethin’ for that angelic face, kid! You look 13 freakin’ years old! Tell ya what. . . picture in that pea-sized brain a yours, a whore. Go ahead. Picture her! She weighs just dis side of 500 pounds and she’s butt-naked. See those rolls of fat a jigglin, see her? Now see her squattin on da carpet takin a dump. Can ya see her? Whoooya! Da look ya got on ya face right now? Make it stick! Always look ugly as ya can kid. Otherwise they’ll have ya wearin Kool-Aid lipstick and panties in no time!

Ya ain’t no homosexual. . . HA Kid! I done told ya—ya ain’t even a homosapien no more! You’re nuttin but fresh meat. Ya give it, or they take it. It’s all da same. Da rules for a little white boy like you are real simple: Pay, fight or fuck. HA! All three if yous short of luck!

Ya don’t know how to fight. . . You’re shittin me! Hunnerd pound white boy from da ‘burbs, spent his whole life in front of a T.V. or that internet bullshit. . . Jelly for muscle, heart of a sparrow, and you’re tellin me ya ain’t some killer commando in disguise? Never woulda guessed kid. HA! Never in a million years! Purty as you are, wouldn’t matter much. These street thugs ain’t too bright, but dey can bring ya down faster than a pack a hyenas.

Rather kill yourself. . . HA! They all say that! And bout half of ’em mean it too. Seem like a dozen try to off dem selves every month . .. That’s some coward-assed-shit! But… tween me an you kid? I kinda envy their escape. Death just gotta be better than rottin’ in a Texas warehouse. So, I ain’t gonna try to talk ya out a nuthin, but geezus kid, don’t fuck it up. These bastards will make ya pay if ya do. Lotsa kids cut their wrists, but da bossmen know when ya mean it, so they’ll mostly ignore it, but if ya make a mess and make em sew ya up . . . HA! Lemme tell ya kid, you really don’t wanna piss em off. They’ll shackle yer ass and take ya to a psych unit, stick ya in a refrigerator room till you’re nuts turn blue; till ya beg and swear on yer momma’s head you’ll never try to off ya self in their prison again. HA! Not that begging will help! I think ya gotta do at least 48 hours in da icebox, no matta what. An after they finish with ya, they’ll bring ya back here and feed yer ass to da hyenas . . . and man . . . these thugs love defrosted meat straight from da psych unit. Cuz then . . . Well, ya done took away any doubt bout ya bein weak. If ya use a razor blade kid, get it right. Open an artery. Ta hell with your wrist. Go for da throat. Right. . . there. Feel that pulsing?

Forget overdosing on all them psych drugs they give out kid. Screw up and it’s da stomach pump . . . Trust me, swallowin a garden hose really sucks. HA! And da refrigerator treatment is guaranteed! I tell ya, da best ticket outta this shit hole gotta be hangin ya self… damned if I can figure out why. It can’t be no easy chore to hang ya self in one a deez tiny-assed cages, but you kids do it all da time. Me, my theory is da poor bastards end up stranglin to death before their fingers can loosen da knot. . . Either that or them bastards is crazy enough to sit there slowly chokin to death! Geezus kid, but make goddamned sure ya get it done . . . They bring ya back from da chokehold and you’ll likely be a brain dead freakin zombie! Your brain’ll be in La La land, but your asshole will be right here in da warehouse keepin’ some hyena warm.

Guards . . . HA! These boss men ain’t here to protect your ass! They’re here to collect a paycheck and not a big one. Some of em worse than da cons. They like young tight assholes too! You’re lucky though cuz da bosses is mostly rednecks on this unit. They love hurtin ya, but it’s their ego dat swells up rather dan their dick. Just be glad you’re 18. A little younger and ya’d be rottin in a Texas kid penitentiary. Da bosses there pass little white boys like you around like a whore.

Why is prison so hard on white folks . . . cuz whites is outnumbered like hell in da joint! Maybe racial integration is fashionable out there in “civilization,” but ya ain’t out there no more. HA! You’re in a freakin jungle! Same primal shit from a thousand years ago. It’s that tribal instinct—us versus them. Skin color da easiest way to know what team ya’s on. It’s older than history, kid. They’re different from us, so lets kill da bastards and take their shit! Men always gonna love war. It’s only da women that keep’em from ripping each other apart. Well, there ain’t no women in here . . . HA! And besides, there’s nuthin better else to do! Whoever got da numbers and weapons, got da license for tyranny. Tough luck kid, but you’re a minority now.

Me?  Yup, I’m white too, but I’m a convict. Mind my business and nobody fucks with me. Why? Cuz I fight like a Wildman and these thugs is lazy bastards . . . They want it easy. Show’em ya got a little heart to ya kid. Convince ’em ya got da balls to slide some steel between their ribs and they’ll respect ya, no matter how little you is. Yeah, I know you’re scared to death right now kid, but da feeling is just like some bitch breakin yer freakin heart. Ya get over it after a while. HA! You survive 20 years in dis place and even da meanest ghetto rat’ll think twice before take a bite.

You won’t be here in 20 years . .. HA! Well ain’t you just sooo special! I wish ya da best kid. I really do, but you’re a statistic now. Ever hear da words Recidivism rate?  No? Well, I know you’ve heard da slogan: Lets Recycle HA! It’s just some fancy words dey use to name all da losers spawned by da system. Mostly dumb ass punks like you. For some reason you youngsters adjust da fastest to this shit. Maybe cuz ya guys is fresh and impress ’em….but da system conditions you kids real easy. I’m telling ya this place gets so deep in yer head it never comes back out! HA! Texas penitentiaries generate more losers than Vegas! If ya did stupid shit for acceptance in da free-world, yous damn sure gonna do it in here. Children like you ain’t got da strength nor da sense to swim against da current. Sorry kid, but if I was bettin I’d lay odds that if ya ain’t dead in 20 years, dis warehouse is exactly where you’ll be. Me? I ain’t no kid. I’m strong and determined . . . They ever give me a sniff of freedom, I’ll stand on my head in a bucket a shit to keep it.

Whacha gonna do? HA! Time, kid, and lots of it! Everybody got their own way of doin time. There’s a million ways to numbness. Some guys spend decades seekin nuttin but entertainment. Watchin TV everyday, gambling on sports, playin dominoes and chess, tradin stories . . . anything to escape. Some guys fall in love with workin for da man. Only freakin prison system in da country dat won’t pay us sub-humans a few pennies for our labor. But these guys bust dey ass for da state anyways cuz it’s da only way they know how to keep from goin nuts. You can learn how to draw or educate yourself like I’m tryin’ to do. You can do a lotta of things with ya time kid. It’s up to you. But there’s hard time and there’s easy time . . . Your dumb ass can make yer life a burnin hell if ya ain’t careful. Keep ya mouth shut and mind ya own business. Don’t snitch. Stay outta debt and go easy on da drugs. And be real careful who you’re nice to. Kindness in da joint is taken for weakness. Got any money kid? Is mommy gonna take care of ya? Glad to hear it, but don’t ever answer dat question again, stupid ass. Money’ll make ya time a lot easier . . . HA! But it can make it throbbin hard too! Some a these guys ain’t gotta postage stamp to their name and they’ll play a thousand games to get your money, so don’t flash it around. Never trust anybody.

Me? HA! Don’t trust me neither kid! But yer luck ain’t all bad. I ain’t no piece a shit thug or hyena and I damned sure ain’t queer. See this palm? I call her Goldie Hawn. If I can’t get no lovin touch from a woman. . . I’m a gonna be faithful to Goldie till da day I die, see? Your money and your ass gonna be in big demand, but not by me. Keep da cage clean and wash your ass … we got no problems. And above all keep da shitter clean. That’s where we wash our bodies and our clothes . … DON’T MAKE ME SMACK YA! Ya damn sure will wash ya’self with toilet water! Ten times a day if ya needs it! This cage too small, kid. I ain’t gonna share it with stink. Dey shower us like animals. By the time you dry off, da press of all them bodies in the shower room will have ya filthy sweatin again.   Ain’t no air conditioning in dis warehouse kid. Ya gonna sweat 24-7, 8 months outta da year! Only way to keep clean is to use dat shitter water.

Aw geezus. Don’t start dat shit again kid … I ain’t gonna hurt ya. But you’re a fish and I gotta lace ya up on da rules. This place is real ugly at first, but you’ll get used to it. HA! Like a fish takes to water. Remember what I said about adjustin? All brain washin ain’t bad. Sometimes it heals a bastard. In just a few weeks you won’t think twice about bathing in da shitter. Won’t bother ya to take a dump in a room full a people. HA! Might not even bug ya when they force ya to spread your ass cheeks in that busy hallway! Trust me, you’ll get over all this shit. Ya gonna eat nasty food everyday, filled with pubic hairs, dead skin, cockroaches and Hepatitis C. Ya gonna share underwear and bedsheets with 4,000 nasty swingin dicks. Ya gonna be shoved into small, hot pits smellin like stale piss and stuffed with shouting beasts. Ya gonna get shit on every single day you’re here kid . . . But there will come a time when all of it will feel normal to ya. HA! That’s why ya kids can’t function outside da razor-wire . .. Ya done forgot you’re human bein’s!

Yeah, this is a small space … It’s makin ya nervous? Claustrophobia? HA! Lemme tell ya a secret kid. Ain’t no such thing! It’s just a ten dollar label for imagination. Ain’t a single case of claustrophobia in da penitentiary and look how small the cages are. Ya may think ya fear somethin—ya may think you’re scared shitless of it! Ain’t nuttin but imagination though and there’s an easy cure for that… Reality! HA! Or insanity! Believe me, you’ll get used to small space in no time. Get some shut-eye kid. You’re gonna need all your strength tomorrow.

Too much noise to sleep . .. Yeah, I guess prison music is da one torture ya never get used to. Stick some shit paper in your ears and be glad it ain’t you whose doin da screamin . .. Hell, then again, maybe I’m the only one who can’t get used to da prison music.  Maybe you’ll be happy makin your own savage noise in a few months….Didn’t I tell ya that kids adjust da’ fastest to this nightmare?

HA, Ya really ain’t gotta choice.

Naked Destiny

I feel instead of hear a squeaky groan come from my chest in reaction to the sharp pain penetrating my eardrums. They fixed the loudspeaker last night. The same loudspeaker I paid Dennis 4 Ramen noodle soups to disable a couple of weeks ago. I was hoping for a longer reprieve, but over all the money was well spent. My cage is located in such a manner as to perfectly convey the demon speaker’s screams from hell. One can avoid the resulting pain with a pair of earplugs, but I got caught sleeping, this morning, in more ways than one.

In general it’s the male guards that turn the loudspeaker volume unreasonably high intentionally, just as it’s usually the males who cannot resist playing on the microphone, reveling in their sudden God-like power. The women guards, again in general, tend to conduct themselves with, maturity when assigned the microphone. And these general behavior traits carry over to inmate-guard interactions. Women act more professional than the men, and the males are more likely to play with their authority, antagonize and harass. 1 wonder what, a Sociologist would make of that.

Noisy awakening followed by the  disappointing discovery of no electricity in the cell. No power means instant coffee made with cold tap water. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried mixing instant coffee with cold water, but it’s like impossible to dissolve the granules, and they come floating to the top in little blobs of yuck. We the disposable, call this rugged concoction a .”John Wayne.” Which makes no sense to me; didn’t John Wayne have campfire to warm his coffee?

I try not to believe in bad days. I like to think that people author their own realities with their attitude. But it does seem like some days stubbornly insist on their own course.

A John Wayne cultivating rancid fumes on my breath, I drag my feet in a line of subdued inmates making our way down a long and long hallway of endless red brick. We pass through occasional crash-gates made of steel bars, guarded by bored souls dressed in Confederate-grey uniforms who ignore us this early in the morning, but will later become formidable obstacles; their obstinacy mirroring their growing listlessness with the passing of the day.

There are narrow bright yellow lines painted, on the gray concrete floor, one on each side for prisoners to walk. The much larger middle lane, is reserved for the slightly more human prison employees. Much of the inmate traffic is “job” related and, I too am part of this unfortunate quest. I look over the shoulder of the man I’m following and up ahead, standing dead center of the hallway, is a tall Bossman with his pudgy hands resting on his prosperous belly. (Using my amazing capacity for creativity, I’ll call him Bossman Smith. And yes, the guards are actually addressed as “Bossman”. I couldn’t believe it at first, but here in the South, this term for authority, rooted in slavery and Jim Crow tradition, survives. Ironically, so does picking cotton with slave labor.) Bossman Smith: He sports a tobacco-stained walrus mustache, speaks with an exaggerated Southern drawl, and wears a perpetual sneer in the presence of inmates If I had to guess his first name, I’d say it had 2 parts: Billy Bob seems likely, an exquisite stereotype of a redneck. He’s rough, he’s dirty and he’s damn proud of it. Billy Bob will never be mistaken for a genius and his family tree might resemble a telephone pole, but he’s crafty-mean, like a farm cat playing with a mouse. A position of authority has got to be a wet-dream come true for a man like Billy Bob.

I find myself meeting the eyes of Bossman Smith and I quickly look away, but it’s too late. He crooks his finger at me, the equivalent of flashing lights atop a police-car. I feel so stupid. Any veteran knows better than to make eye contact when an asshole works the hallway.

“Get out of ’em boy,” he tells me. Billy Bob loves strip-searching. Treats it like rape. I’ve been strip-searched a thousand times and while these personal invasions aren’t pleasant, one can get used to anything. Bossman Smith however, takes it to another level; the guy gets off on humiliation.

My newly awakened body was already semi-shaking from the cold air in the hallway, even before this traffic stop. And as I remove my clothes, gooseflesh ravages the exposed flesh. I’m involuntarily trembling in front of this evil man and that carries its own brand of humiliation. Billy Bob gropes my clothes slowly and methodically while I stand naked, defiantly staring at all of the dressed people walking by, as if I m damn proud of my trembling body and shriveled penis. Most of the passing people look away, especially the female employees, while others study my body at leisure, ignoring my glare.

“Run your fingers through your hair,” demands Bossman Smith.

“Ya gotta nice head a hair, boy, now open your mouth and lift that tongue.”

“Now take them cold fingers of yours and lift up that nut sack.”

“Now the best part, turn around, bend over and… spread those cheeks nice and wide… cough!”

Billy Bob sneers, drops my clothes on the floor and the search is officially over. I bend to retrieve my clothes. I keep my head held high and wear my own sneer, but Billy Bob has victimized me and we both know it.

The prison laundry is my next stop this lovely morning, it’s my designated “job”. Forty-eight hours a week, no vacations, no pay, no choice. But it beats picking cotton. The huge laundry is filled with gigantic industrial machines and I walk up to my clothes-dryer and give it a hug. This truck-sized machine puts out impetuous heat that will fill you with dread in the summer, but following my chilly degration, I’m feeling rather fond of it. This particular dryer I mash my body against is called Bronson Burner. A few years back some gang-bangers forced a kid named Bronson into this machine and turned it on. An ugly event, but years later the laundry workers rarely miss an opportunity to say “Bronson Burner”, with macabre satisfaction.

Bronson Burner and I are close associates. I load and unload tons of fabric from his bowels every day. You could call it a give and take relationship.

My morning ages away in the monotony of embraced cloth, broken with the occasional yoga poses the workers around me mock. The hours of labor and focused breaths have almost helped me gain my emotional equilibrium from Billy Bob’s Birthday Suit Bash when word comes down that one of the big washers has broke down. This is frustrating for laundry workers because the loss of that washer will clog  the whole system. We don’t get to leave until all of the laundry is washed and folded. You can imagine how welcome overtime is to a slave.

See what I mean about bad days? Am I imagining this?

The afternoon finds me sitting on the cement, waiting for a load to dry, wishing I were allowed to bring a book to work. A school-bell rings and it’s time to be counted. Dozens of inmates pair up in a line, playing, bickering, bitching, while the guards try to settle us down. Similar scenes are taking place all across this huge penitentiary. Ever since an escape embarrassed the state prison system some years ago, they’ve counted 8 times a day. Counts are the most predictable yet chaotic routines of prison life. A count can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours, depending on how many mistakes are made. Isn’t that a wonder? Counts are amusing and frustrating. Amusing to watch guards make fools of themselves and get verbally crucified by their supervisors in front of everyone. Frustrating because you’re stuck wherever you are during count-time including the damn laundry. I’ve never been quite sure how the count gets confused so often. Granted, Bossman jobs pay far too little to attract college graduates, but even children can count. I’m sure there’s a reason I cannot fathom for the convoluted miscounts.

I’ve finished drying the last load, but this day stays true to course; they cannot clear count. I’ve been at work for 10 hours and 20 minutes and it turns out the final tally will be 12 hours and 20 minutes before my shift ends.

As I walk back down the hallway, on the lookout for Billy Bob, I feel an intense longing for my cage. I know there’s nothing nice about a prison cell, but it’s the one place I can relax. As long as I’m surrounded by the volatile mix of guards and inmates, I have to remain vigilant. Prison is no place to walk around with your head up your ass. But as long as you trust your cellmate not to attack you while you’re sleeping, you can assume a sense of security in you cage. Give me a good book and a hot cup of Java and I can almost forget about prison all together.

Unfortunately, I cannot go directly to my cage when I return to the cell block, I must wait in the day room. The day room: a large cave of hyenas fighting over bones. At least, that’s how I think of it. I’m not a big fan of the day room. This day room is used as a holding tank for inmates coming and going to various areas of the prison. It’s also considered a recreation area with its 2 snow screened TVs and 3 game tables, but I think it’s hell in disguise.

Technically speaking, the guards are supposed to let prisoners cycle in or out of the day room to their cells once an hour, but no one takes rules very seriously in the penitentiary. The day remains true to form as I get stuck in the day room for close to 2 hours.

Finally, the lovely loudspeaker announces a in or out and I can return to my gated home. I no longer try to fool myself that a good attitude will change a bad day. But there’s always
tomorrow.

 

 

Update

I’ve been working on an essay I feel strongly about, but it may take awhile. Even with my vast ignorance about blogs and the internet, I understand it’s important to have a steady schedule in order to keep your readers loyal. I have no idea how many readers Prison Vitality has, but even if it’s just a couple, I value you. I’ll try to produce regularly, but ask your forgiveness if I fail sometimes. Even in a dungeon, people and events sometimes make demands on your time. So, while you patiently await my next essay, I thought I’d share some news.
Recently a Federal court ruled that inmates in the U.S. have the right to grow beards for religious purposes. In many states this was not a big deal because they’ve always allowed inmates to manage their own hair, religious or not. But in Texas and other southern states this decision was greeted with resentment and criticism. In this prison the warden stages a passive-aggressive retaliation against those who dare to grow a beard. If you wish to grow a beard here for religious purposes, you must go through the red tape of written requests and the approval seems a bit arbitrary: I have a friend who is an orthodox  Jew and he was denied permission to grow his beard while another friend who’s a Baptist was approved. Even upon approval, if you go against the warden’s unsubtle wishes and grow a beard, you’re not going to look neat or be comfortable. No shaping or trimming of Federal beards allowed. Yet, you must shave your beard completely once a year for a photograph. They argue it’s for security, but other state prisons who’ve never had a problem with hair freedom have no issue with it. What’s strange is if the beard is religious, how can you make someone shave it? That’s like forcing a Muslim to eat pork once a year.
I think the state’s resentment about beards comes from a psychological page lifted from the military. When I joined the military and arrived with a bus load of other civilian recruits, the first thing they did was shave our heads and issued us uniforms. I didn’t recognize a single person from the bus, because our individual appearances had been taken; we all looked the same. The military does this to deemphasize the individual. You’ll hear the word “teamwork” over and over during basic training. They want you to think collectively, not individually. The military has no place for the rebel, be it in behavior or appearance. You cannot control a group of independent minded people, so they stamp out what they can in boot camp.
There’s little difference from a first day in the military and a first day in prison. The day is full of rituals designed to humiliate and demoralize, to destroy individuality and exert control. Not that all of that abuse and head shaving can completely eliminate the independent spirit of a prisoner or soldier, but there’s definitely a subtle influence. Against your will, you find yourself being more docile and easy to control.
Who knew a beard could be such a symbol of individual rights?
In other news, the FCC recently announced that it would regulate the fees that phone companies and prisons charge families with incarcerated loved ones.

To understand how monumental this is, you’d have to know the history and long struggle of activists nationwide to end this perfect scam. The FCC called the fees charged by phone companies and prisons for the past few decades “unconscionable”. I like that word, “unconscionable”, even if it’s really just a euphemism for evil.
The fees and kick-backs to the jails and prisons varied, but none of them were remotely reasonable or “unconscionable”, the prices vary from state to state, county to county, but the FCC noted that in some places the fees were $17.00 a minute. If the families themselves had committed a crime or were rich, one could almost understand those evil fees, but instead, we’re talking about the poorest families in the nation, the bottom one percent. They pay their taxes and poverty isn’t a crime, yet every justice system in the country decided it was justifiable to prey upon them because they dared to love someone incarcerated.
Naturally, prison officials and politicians have vowed to fight the new FCC regulations, stating that the FCC doesn’t have the authority. The FCC ruling will not just lose these sheriffs and wardens millions in revenue, but billions.
Texas in particular loves to prey upon its poorest families. Not just the phone rates for prisoners to talk to their children, but in numerous diabolical ways. The hundred dollar medical fee for instance: If a prisoner gets sick and needs medical intervention, that prisoner is charged a hundred dollars. Who really pays that fee? Inmates are forced to work but receive not a penny in income and rely almost exclusively on friends and family for commissary and other needs. The prison still provides medical care if the inmate has no money, but they’ll never forgive the debt. If sometime in the future a family member or friend sends money for stamps, toothpaste, food, etc, the state garnishes the funds until they get their hundred dollars.
Perhaps the most “unconscionable” part of the hundred dollar medical fee isn’t the financial burden for families, but the cost in lives. Because inmates usually receive so little commissary money, they avoid that medical fee like the plague, no matter how ill they become. As a result, a perfectly treatable and minor malady lingers until it requires emergency treatment which is then often too late. I know of one guy who died unnecessarily from an untreated staph infection. I know another guy who died last month from cancer of all things. Guys refuse medical care all the time for a lousy hundred bucks. This may sound crazy to you, but remember that life is relative, until you’ve been a prisoner, it’s not easy to understand. I’m neither stupid or crazy and yet I too am guilty of endangering my health for want of a hundred bucks.
What confuses me about the larceny Texas commits against its poorest families is how it can be legal. These families already pay taxes to fund prison health care; how is it legal to tax them twice?
There are dozens of these little scams the system uses to double tax the poorest families in Texas. Writing paper for instance. The writing paper sold in prison commissaries is made using inmate slave labor and funded by tax dollars. After it’s made it is then sold back to the inmate from the commissary at up to 4 times what that paper would sell for retail, say, at Wal-Mart. Maybe prison officials justify these “unconscionable” acts to themselves by thinking it’s only inmates they’re victimizing, but it’s not, it’s the families. Their taxes paid for that writing paper and yet they have to pay for it again.
Writing paper is only a sample of the products the prison system makes using tax dollars and then resells at exorbitant prices. Other items include everything from T-shirts and underwear, to shower shoes and picante sauce.
Too bad the FCC cannot regulate “unconscionable” double taxing of the bottom one percent.

Fried Chicken Day (Third and final part)

The one time of year we’re allowed to eat fresh fruit is on Christmas Day. My theory about this rare, generous gift is that it takes place because our prison system is located along the bible-belt and that there must be some sort of scripture that says it’s okay to be kind, even to prisoners, on the Christ’s birthday. We are allotted one apple and orange apiece, providing we get up at 2:00 in the morning to go get them. The fruit is out of season, unusually small and not real sweet, but it is ecstasy nevertheless.
I always save my two pieces of fruit until late at night when it sort of quiets down and I can eat in the dark. But I don’t merely eat the fruit as other inmates do, I savor each and every bite very slowly before I swallow. Then I pause until the taste is completely dissolved from my palate before I renew it with another bite. I chew methodically, reverently, as if it’s the last morsel of fresh fruit I’ll ever be allowed again, knowing it may well be. I visualize the vitamins and nutrients as a golden mist, slowly spreading through my bloodstream to battle the hidden: toxins and revitalize my organs. I waste not a single atom of the fruit, chewing the seeds, the core, the stems. It usually takes more than an hour to complete this yearly ritual and I always feel transformed. I invest my consciousness so deeply into the experience, it is more an act of prayer than an act of eating.
Prison food is usually not only cheap and monotonous, but more bland than any hospital cafeteria could hope to emulate. Yet I find the lack of flavor nowhere near as distasteful as the absence of texture. I want to chew my food rather than let it ooze down my gullet like gelatin. But chewable food is rare, and not out of deference for the men without teeth. It’s partly due to the indifference and inexperience of the indentured kitchen workers forced to cook gigantic meals, yet also because the meals are cooked many hours in advance of serving them, and then stored in “hot-boxes” that continue cooking the food into slime. Adding insult to injury, water is often added before serving to prevent the fare from sticking to the serving ladle.
One could reason that with the ugly and tasteless diet a southern prison feeds its captives, along with the rarity of fried food and sweets, that inmates would suffer lower rates of obesity and heart disease than the real people in America, especially in solitary confinement, where .1 recently spent 4 years. Food in segregation is of even worse quality than food in prison general population because there’s less of it and it comes cold and congealed.
In sol±tarry-, food, or the lack of it is used for behavior modification, both officially and unofficially. Any number of rule infractions can result in an inmate being placed on food loaf. A food loaf basically consists of the slop left over from meals, mixed together and baked into a loaf. Only a starving person would willingly eat one (though the breakfast food loaf isn’t too bad), which is why it’s used as punishment. Unofficially, many inmates are denied meals by the guards they anger. It’s not allowed by rule, but guards have total authority and no one really cares if an unruly or mentally ill inmate goes hungry.

Despite the fact that I rarely attract trouble with my quiet and :respectful attitude, I’ve been denied meals because I wouldn’t give up my right to shower everyday. Segregation bosses often hate to shower inmates, mostly out of laziness I think, but perhaps it’s considered undesirable labor in their sub-culture.
Even with the dietary deprivation in solitary, many inmates, especially the older ones, manage to become overweight, and I wasn’t an exception. That might be partly due to the junk food we buy from the commissary as even segregated prisoners are allowed commissary if their behavior merits it, but I think it has more to do with the chronic inactivity of being trapped in a 5′ x 9′ cage. Technically, segregated inmates are supposed to get an hour of recreation everyday, even if only in a room somewhat larger than their cell. But weeks, and in some cases, months can roll by with recreation being cancelled everyday. Many men, myself included, had daily exercise regimens, but a couple of hours of even the most intense exercise isn’t enough to stave off an extended belly if the rest of your existence is completely sedentary. As a result, many men in solitary confinement have noticeably developed muscles, yet a stubborn spare tire around their middle.
In General Population, the problem is reversed. Because of forced labor and more recreation, inmates are far more active, but they’re also fed more, have greater access to stolen food, and have better opportunities to hustle commissary. I speculate as well, that obesity occurs in the penitentiary for the same reason it does for real people, especially those living in poverty. Starchy carbohydrates have become the cheapest source of energy in the world and the body is much more likely to store these low quality calories as fat than it does protein and complex carbohydrates. It’s so ironic that throughout history, poor people have been skinny and always on the brink of starvation, while the rich considered fat a sign of prosperity, yet now it’s opposite because healthy food is expensive.
I also believe that overeating and unnecessary eating are ingrained within the prison culture. Eating is one of the few pleasures still allowed, and it seems logical that many overindulge as a substitute for stimulation denied. For many inmates, eating isn’t about nourishment, it’s about relieving boredom, depression and sensory deprivation. Eating is also a way to bond with our peers. In a tradition as old as mankind, we break bread with each other to form alliances. In the penitentiary, we call theses extra-curricular meals, “spreads . If another inmate asks you if you want to put in on a spread tonight, he’s asking if you want to contribute to a communal meal and socialize. Spreads are made with commissary items, packaged meat, chili, chicken, tuna and Ramen noodles. No prison spread is complete without Ramen noodles, which are cheap and filling, while packaged meats and meals are expensive and in need of supplement. Some spreads are surprisingly creative and delicious. More importantly, there is no quicker way to make friends than to have a spread with them.
I often wonder what inmates would do if there were no commissary. Would there be a single case of obesity? Given the low quality of state fare, the lack of unhealthy trans-fats and saturated fats, it would be easy to assume not. Yet, among so much boredom and despair, it’s possible that even bad tasting food could be abused for comfort. That’s not to say obesity is prevalent in prison, and likely still not as common as it is for real people, but I remember thinking after using a plastic spoon to push my very first prison meal around a tray: how does one keep from starving to death in prison? To see a fat inmate couldn’t have been more surprising and mystifying to my uninitiated mind than a warm hug suddenly bestowed by a prison guard.
Twenty years later I have a better understanding of how deprivation, depression and prison culture can affect the way one perceives food.
My prediction of mass frenzy on fried chicken day proves true.
They started feeding early at 8:30, but at 1:30 my cell block
still hasn’t eaten. By the time we get to the chow hall, the
fried chicken is long gone. Instead we receive baked and tasteless chicken patties made with you know what (replace lips with beaks). You can imagine how we felt about that. Then they had to lock-down the whole farm to catch up on count, delaying and cancelling all scheduled programs, which made for a lot of angry authority figures.
I’ve got a feeling we won’t be entertaining fired chicken again for a long, long time.