30 April, 2010

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

What I'm about to describe to you is disgusting. As with many of the world's stomach-turning stories — the one about the boy and the sherbet container of frozen chicken fat, the one about the woman's devastating encounter with an airplane lavatory, the one about Orson Welles and the scandalized buffet-counter employee — the information I am about to share with you is also 100% true.

You have heard about the value of tobacco products in prison. You may know, for example, that a pack of cigarettes is considered a fair trade for a book of twenty stamps or a shot of trashbag hooch. You may also know that greater numbers of packs will buy even more impressive things: a cell with a better view, maybe someone named Peaches with whom to share that cell.

What might come as a surprise to you is that there are areas in prison where tobacco is prohibited. These are segregation units, where inmates are confined with even fewer privileges than normal, as a result of a conduct violation. It's prison for the already imprisoned; residents call it the Hole. The prohibitive policies of the institutions do little to curb the tobacco trade in these places, frequent cell raids and strip-searches be damned.

How? Well, this is where it gets unpleasant. I'm talking here about butt tobacco.

Packed tightly into numerous little balls, wrapped snug in the fingers of contraband plastic or latex gloves, then swallowed or, uh, otherwise introduced into one's innermost nooks, thousands of pounds of tobacco is muled, like so much marijuana through US border crossings, into segregation units of prisons across the country. [Source: Arbitrary Fake Statistic Generation Department.]

The idea of passing a bit of smokeable material through a stretch of one's digestive tract might offend some individuals' senses of what's fundamentally right or wrong. Smokers on the outside, particularly, will surely be revolted by the thought of this. Not that it makes it less offensive, but those little balloons are packaged with care, double- and triple-wrapped. It's in the best interests of those at both ends of the supply chain (so to speak). Not even the most addicted smoker wants to fire up a cigarette that reeks of untended nursing home.

Just the same, I know this happens all the time. In the Hole, desperate individuals will pay five dollars for just enough tobacco to fill up a standard-sized sugar packet, which is the going rate, and make it last a couple of days. Either they don't care, or simply don't give consideration to the way it reached them. They just roll a pinch of it up in a page torn from their Bible's book of Revelation, light it with a double-A battery and some wire, and breathe deeply. And if, by some chance, there wafts up a whiff of campground outhouse as they take that first puff, there might be a moment's grumbling, but nobody asks for their money back. Refunds are probably a real pain in the ass.

10 April, 2010

The War on Ephemera and Cardboard Furnishings

On one side you find the prison guards. Their job is to ensure the safety and security of the institution by enforcing policy. On the opposite side are the inmates, whose efforts at living in relative comfort while serving their sentences are frequently at odds with those policies. The struggle is endless; the battles are a never-ending back-and-forth.

The guards perform routine random cell searches, with every inmate here at Crossroads guaranteed a minimum of two chances per month to have their footlockers and loose property rifled through — once by the day shift, once by the evening. Depending on the guards' moods, the search experience can be measured on a scale that runs from relief, as when it's brief and nothing's left horribly out of place, and a nightmare, as when the guards leave the place looking as though they turned it upside-down and shook it. Certain guards are notorious for preferring the invert-and-agitate method. They are not exactly liked.

It's the "nuisance contraband" that is most often found and confiscated in these random searches: empty cracker boxes, excess newspapers, improvised ashtrays. Last week, a huge poster of a basketball player was pulled down from a neighbor's wall; the week before, someone was forced to part with an empty five-gallon sealing compound bucket. From some cells come more impressive items, often handmade.

One man in my wing is a crafts master. He makes hardcover address books, rocking-chair picture frames, and dreamcatchers, among other things. The dreamcatchers are his most popular creation, which he makes from the thread of clothing scraps and what I suspect are melted plastic coathangers. His methods are proprietary. The results look like something you'd be able to buy from a catalog. Naturally the guards know what he's up to and visit him frequently, big plastic trash bags in hand. No matter how many times they take his supplies and half-finished projects, he does not abandon his hobby. It's hard not to admire that dedication a little.

Across from me there used to reside a waifish slip of a man who welcomed the occasional, ahem, gentleman caller into his cell. "Melissa," he called himself. Asked to step out for a search of his cell one afternoon, he waited patiently while two guards picked through his things. No more than a few minutes later, one of the two came out with a wad of something fuschia in his gloved hand, which he tossed into the trash bag. Melissa lost it. Whatever they'd taken was obviously a prized possession, something he cared enough about to face off with the guards over. "Nuh-uh," he shouted again and again. "That's mine." Heads turned; the commotion was impossible to ignore. He stood arguing with them for over twenty minutes, apparently never able to finagle the return of the confiscated item. It was several hours later when I overheard what the fuss had been about: the guards had taken his last pair of thong underwear.

Being no angel, I've certainly had my share of things confiscated; though, nothing so precious as a handcrafted object nor salacious as a pair of exotic smallclothes. For awhile, cardboard, wood glue, and paint were easily gotten, and I availed myself of that fact. With enough of these three components I could build small shelving units and miniature cabinets — some with cutout designs in the doors — that looked like they might've been part of the actual design of the place, to the untrained eye. Space being at a premium here, a cubby in which to store cassette tapes or toiletries came in handy. Best of all, the guards didn't seem to care these constructs were contraband made out of illicitly obtained supplies; they left them alone. Some were able to keep their shelves for a couple of years. Then, all at once, they disappeared, a sudden adherence to the letter of policy enacted. The sources for the supplies vanished at around the same time. No one I know has dared dabble in cardboard carpentry since.

A few other things I've lost in searches, some of which I was sorry to lose:

  • One three-dimensional paper Mini Cooper (yellow)

  • One decorative wax -paper votive shade (German street carnival scene)

  • Seven wire twist-ties (black)

  • Two highlighter markers (one yellow, one blue)

  • Two packages ramen soup (beef flavor) that were later returned with an apology

  • Five decorative pencils cups (made from oatmeal canisters)

  • My expectations of personal privacy