28 March, 2014


“Code sixteen! Code sixteen!” squawk the radios. All around me, their keys jangling, guards scramble to B-yard. Although I'm not much for spectating, I stay my counter-wiping to watch through windows at the far end of the staff dining hall. The guards hurriedly order the yard’s scattered prisoners against the fences, limbs akimbo for frisk-searching, then its off with their shoes. I get a sinking feeling.

Staff clear the yard of prisoners in minutes. Heads bowed, they begin their search for the weapon, poking and kicking at little piles of unmelted snow while I eat my early dinner at a table by the window. They meander two-by-two, with no pattern that my overanalytical mind can discern. I wonder if they’re specially trained for this, or if the guards’ slump-shouldered poses connote a sheepish desire to be lectured in the fine points of finding a needle in a haystack. If it were me in charge, I’d implement a rigorous sweep, with multiple guards walking side by side in a line, combing from the most likely scene of the incident (their scattershot approach tells me they don’t know where it happened). From there, if no weapon were found, I would have them advance outward, radially, in ever-widening circles. I’m not running diddly squat, of course, so when a lieutenant shows up and points to distant grassy patches, all business, it’s for the best. I keep all these operational strategies to myself.

The lockdown procedure begins at 4:15-ish. Pans clatter and voices rise to a volume of urgency as kitchen workers drop everything they’re doing and make for the exits. Stock-still new guys look around confusedly — you can always spot the ones who haven’t been imprisoned long, the blind men groping the air in a fire drill. I was like that, a long time ago. They’ll find their way eventually, too.

Everyone gets patted down twice — once inside the kitchen, again by yard dogs on the walk outside. We return to our housing units, to our cells, and shut ourselves in. I have a rough idea of what we’re all in for, so I slide a poetry journal off the shelf and reread a couple of poems I read with my coffee this morning. I kick off my shoes and return then to the novel I left on the bunk. Doors slam irregularly as stragglers come in. I lay back, wishing my unforgiving pillow were ample enough to come up over my ears and damp the noise.

There’s a head count. I fly through sixty-odd pages of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before it’s announced over the intercom — like the man’s shouting through a trombone — that all kitchen workers can return to our duties. I’m in for a long night.

Windows of one-way glass in the staff dining room let me watch prisoners file in to B-dining. As a security measure, the administration’s obviously chosen to keep each wing separated, because the dinner crowd is just half its usual size — one wing, rather than two. The staff dining room is empty. All I’ve done since coming back to work tonight is clear a few dirty trays and wipe tables. All the guards served themselves and ate during my absence, which is fine. I just wish I’d brought a pen and some paper. To occupy myself, instead of writing, I gawk, I eat a surprisingly satisfying Red Delicious apple, I sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” After about an hour and a half, a guard comes to unlock the door and escort me out. I’m sent back to my cell again.

The wing is silent, mostly. Toilets flush. Footlocker lids slam. Someone thumping around in a wrestling match with his cellmate cackles, “No, Paulie, not in my ass!” My cellmate plugs away at his TV’s channel buttons — click, click, click, click, click — rhythmlessly but without more desperation than usual to avoid being alone with his thoughts. As for me, I have my writing, some music, books and magazines to read, and, as a last resort, a television to watch. I generally keep myself occupied, no sweat.

Tonight, though, sweat is precisely the problem, the reason I’m ill at ease. A shower is always a matter of priority when I come in from work. Not that mine is a dirty job; I just overheat quickly. An hour in the kitchen is enough to make me feel grungy, whether I actually am or not. Tonight I had well more than an hour there, but there will be no bathing beyond the birdbath I take at the sink, a process that leaves me feeling almost dirtier than before — and not only in the way that being half naked and scrubbing my armpits within spitting distance of a near-stranger should. Nor will there be any bathing after work tomorrow, a day I spend on edge because of this pervasive sense of not-so-freshness.

Just five minutes under a stream of warm water. The thought comes to me numerous, odd times. When every door click and jingle of keys sparks furious curiosity about whether a door-to-door shower rotation is imminent, concentrating on anything else is tricky business. Sleep is hard to come by, too, when you feel this dirty. I don’t know how some prisoners hibernate through lockdowns, sleeping days away like they’re nothing. I lack that knack.

The next afternoon, administrative staff take a few prisoners, dressed only in their boxers, out of the wing. I deduce this to be a search for bruises, cuts, or scrapes related to yesterday’s incident. “They’re takin’ pictures of our tattoos,” chortles one of the prisoners on his way back in, scratching his beer belly with evident satisfaction. Only in a place like this could being roused from bed and photographed in underwear provide amusement. The tactic tells me that the powers that be think the incident was gang-related. I see my friend Zach taken out, and I smile because Zach doesn’t even have any tattoos. “That’d be desecrating the temple,” he says. Staff’s list of names is poorly conceived if they’re calling him. He’s never been in a gang (nor wanted to be) in his life.

Back at work (because even people under lockdown need to eat), I gather from overheard tidbits that the prison’s administration is hot on the trail of… someone. Someones, actually. This is good. As soon as their roundup is finished they’ll sound the all-clear, I can soap up and rinse properly, and life will proceed in its usual, somewhat less awful fashion. However much I prefer being alone in an institutional food-service setting to being locked in my cell, stinking up the joint while my cellmate’s borderline obsessive-compulsive tics assume greater amplitude in my headspace than is healthy, all good things must end. My shift passes too quickly.

While I was away, my cellmate took a birdbath that seems to have involved an entire bar of Irish Spring, chunks of which he must have jammed down the sink drain, because the basin fills halfway to brimming as I wash just my hands. A birdbath on day two is out of the question.

“I put in a work order on that when I got back from chow,” he tells me by way of apology. “Dude said we’re supposed to be out tomorrow morning.”

I’m silently appalled at his use of the word out, which to me (because I am irrepressibly free-minded} means out of prison, as well as at the unpleasant fact that I’ll go to sleep tonight smelling terrible. That latter point might just be my imagination. Either way, I really, really hope he heard correctly.

21 March, 2014

The Liability of Being Liked: A Kinda-Sorta Retraction

Having whined in a post last month about the unfair way I felt I was treated because of the number of visits I receive, I’m now compelled to take back some of that smack I talked.

What irked me wasn’t merely that my visits were used as cause to deny me a four-day-a-week position in the relative poshness of the staff dining room. I was aggrieved mainly because this supposed ineligibility didn’t keep me from getting pulled from my assigned duties, every single Friday for a month and a half, to fill in for the server who did get the job. (Fridays, I hasten to point out, are visiting days here at Crossroads.) So: barred from the job I wanted, thanks to visits I wasn’t getting, I was still the substitute of choice.

The prisoner for whose absence I played Band-Aid worked one day before leaving the facility — and the state — for a court appearance. The clock on his Missouri sentence, meanwhile, continued ticking as his time slot and his assigned bunk sat empty (and his cellmate no doubt enjoying some privacy), awaiting his presumptive return. Like Motel 6, the Missouri Department of Corrections is a gracious host; it’ll leave the light on for you.

Last week, the sergeant in charge of hiring, firing, and schedule changes for kitchen workers took me aside. “Tell me about your visits,” he said, which prompted an immediate misunderstanding on my part, since I thought ne was just hungry for some gossip. Then he clarified, asking, “What days do you get them, usually?”

It seemed the schedule gap couldn’t go unfilled any longer. Feeling suddenly optimistic about my prospects, I ran down the specifics of my average week’s visits.

And just like that, Sarge told me, “I’m giving you Sunday, Monday, Tuesday off.”

The staff dining room is a long, open-ceilinged space equipped with ten four-top tables. Brightening the gray walls a little are framed motivational posters of the kind you’ve seen in at least one generic office setting (one of which is a stock photo of the Blue Angels flying in formation, reading, “ABOVE & BEYOND — When A Team Of Dedicated Individuals Makes A Commitment To Act As One…The Sky’s The Limit”). As I write this, I’m the only person here. For more than half of my shift I am all by myself, every day. The day’s menu items steam in their warmers beside me, creating swirly patterns of quickly disappearing condensation on the sneeze guard. A beverage dispenser gurgles next to the coffee maker and ice machine, and there’s an occasional whir from the vending machines by the entrance. Otherwise, it’s quiet.

Windows look out to B-yard’s empty basketball courts and softball field through a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, but I’m not here for the view. There’s almost nowhere else in the prison with consistent isolation and tranquility like I get here. I wanted it badly, hence all my earlier complaining. A poor excuse, I know.

In another hour or so, a few guards will come in for dinner. Until then I’ve got this time to write, much needed, much appreciated.