06 April, 2014

How Everything Went Sideways

The way it happened was so abrupt. A small-statured guard opened my cell door as I was spreading peanut butter over a cracker, and said, without inflection, “Hey, Case, come with me.”

“What?” I groaned, holding up the flaky little golden disk. “I’m snacking!”

She didn’t seem amused. As I sighed and spun the lid back on the jar, I just assumed it was a symptom of her having an unusually hectic day that this ordinarily quippy guard was having none of my sass. “Grab your coat,” was her response.

The coat comment gave me the teeniest inkling, I think, that I should worry, except nothing out of the ordinary had recently happened to be concerned about — that I was aware of.

She led me out of the wing, to the offices at the rear of the housing unit, where she directed me to have a seat in a gray molded-plastic chair someone had placed in the center of the space. It didn’t typically sit there, and I felt a bit conspicuous. Caseworkers bustled around me. A couple I watched through their office windows. One chatted on the phone, another munched better crackers than I’d had in a while while he typed at his computer. Which was I there to see? Maybe one of those whose offices were farther back. Whatever I was there to encounter, I hoped it was positive, but the picture my mind worked to identify couldn’t resolve from what few, small pieces of the puzzle I had so far.

Minutes later, in walked one of the yard dogs, an imposingly big man zipped into a black Department of Corrections hoodie like some white-trash Grim Reaper, who leveled a finger at me. “This him?”

The discrepancy between the guards’ sizes — she minuscule, he mountainous — seemed proportional to the degree of badness I suddenly believed was in store.

She nodded. He looked down at me impassively and asked for my ID, which I produced from my pocket. “Okay,” he said then, “stand up and turn around.”

Anytime prison staff, particularly guards, start speaking in terse declaratives, reducing instructions to their most remedial, most specific, least threatening steps — “Open your hands. Turn your wrist a little. Give me your right arm. Okay, let’s go.” — something unpleasant is unfolding, which this simple, innocuous language is supposed to mitigate, psychologically. Had the yard dog told me to turn around and cuff up, thereby giving a directive that went a step further by describing the act about to take place — a willing supplication — before clicking the hard, cold steel bands around my wrists, an element of aggression on his part would be inferred and, with someone more apt than I am to take things personally, responded to in kind. The method is meant to seem unthreatening, but when I encounter it my throat always constricts.

Teeth hummin, testicles drawn up, limbic system screaming into overdrive, I nevertheless went quietly. The occupants of my wing piled up against the front windows to watch my perp walk. My cellmate and my friend Zach each mouthed, What’s up?, to which I could only respond with a shrug and a shake of my head.

En route to the segregation unit, I gave inquiry a shot, even though I was fairly sure the yard dog didn’t know any more than I did about this. “Man,” he snorted, “all they tell me is ‘Go get him’ and where to go. They treat us like we’re one step above dog shit. Unfortunately, you know what that makes you.”

I was locked in a grimy caged shower stall and — more step-by-step language — strip-searched. My shoes and prison grays were dropped in a garbage bag and stowed in a storage box somewhere, and I was given a pair of bright orange pants with almost-matching slip-on shoes. The succession of guards who took turns handling my ID, paperwork, and property was dizzying. Most of them I’d not seen once in my nearly twelve years at Crossroads, which intensified the not-in-Kansas-anymore feeling. One of them, after perhaps twenty minutes, put me back in handcuffs, took my arm, and walked me to a cell in the Hole.

I can’t describe for you the pungent, vaguely sweet smell of seventy-two men locked in such closed quarters with extremely limited access to cleaning supplies or showers. However, there is palpable filth I can tell you about. Obscene and obscure graffiti; chipped paint; stains, swirling and branching in dendrite forms on the concrete floors; spatters and globs of unidentifiable substances climbing the walls, nesting in corners; little drifts of amalgamated bio-matter — shed hair and skin — that tumble under doors and bunks, as though, yearning to coalesce back to selfhood, they’re trying to get close enough to a human form to be reabsorbed; detritus on the walks, from soap slivers to knots of string, torn-up paper to whole magazines, Styrofoam cups to crumples of discarded clothing; and all of it marinating in the buzzing, piss-yellow light of old fluorescent tubes, like some enormous, dimly lit interstate gas-station restroom.

I tried to settle in. There’s only so much a man can do. Sleep was an elusive refuge. The screams and shouts and thunder of kicked doors lasted until dawn. Blanket drawn up over my face, my teeth chattered as much from the chill of the cell as from anxiety. When meals arrived through a slot in the cell door, I was too sick to my stomach to eat more than a few bites. I had to crawl out of the bunk several times to dry-heave over the steel toilet, shivering.

About twenty-nine hours in, a form was slipped to me, listing the reasons for my confinement in the Hole: (1) There is an immediate security risk involved, (2) There is an urgent need to separate the offender from others for his/her own safety or that of others, and (3) For security and good order of the institution. In the field titled Statement of Facts in Support of TASC (the acronym being short for Temporary Administrative Segregation Confinement), it said only TASC INVESTIGATION PER ADMINISTRATION. My name was misspelled Bryon.

Sometime later came a sergeant with a Conduct Violation Report and the answers I was desperate for:
On 3/19/14 I, CCM Pettigrew, reviewed information provided by Administrative Clerical staff indicating Inmate Case, Byron #328416 may be involved in unauthorized activity on www.facebook.com. Upon reviewing this information I noted that one of the facebook posts from November 18, 2013 indicated that Inmate Case was going to be conducting a live “podcast” (internet radio) on November 20, 2013. Additional research led to Inmate Case’s “blog” site, whereas a posting indicated another live “podcast” was going to be conducted on December 12, 2013. A review of SECURUS records verify that inmate Case placed phone calls from Housing Unit #4, C-Wing, on the above mentioned dates to two different callers, who then connected inmate Case into the “podcast” with the purpose of conducting an interview promoting inmate Case’s book, “Pariah’s Syntax.” As inmate Case utilized the telephone system in an unauthorized manner, he is in violation of #38.4 Abuse of Telephone. Additionally, as inmate Case conducted an unauthorized phone interview with media personnel, he violated Departmental Policy D1-3.1 External Communications, placing him in violation of #41.1 Procedures and Rules.
So that was it. Amazing the amount of force brought to bear over a couple of minor interviews. And from months ago!

I of course pleaded guilty to the violation. The fact that I did those interviews with Samuel House and John Darlington knowingly but with a clear conscience born of ignorance is irrelevant. The investigation for which I was thrown in the Hole was never inititiated; although, I was kept in segregation pending the following week’s mandatory disciplinary hearing. It was a week like forever. Then came my sanctions. My punishment for what were called “unusual circumstances” at the hearing was ten days of disciplinary segregation and three months with no contact visits. My cushy job has most likely been filled in my absence — an unofficial consequence. Also, I’ve lost my privileged spot in the prison’s good-conduct wing, where I spent the last five years, and I bemoan this more than any other repercussion from my thoughtless actions of four months ago.

I’ll be released into general population sometime between 7 and 18 April. It’s an insane policy that governs segregation release dates. Even once my ten-day assignment ends, I still must wait for a review by committee before I’m cleared. That meeting is set thirty days after my segregation began. It may be moved up, on staff’s discretion, but my hope for that is small.

To last the duration of my stay in this purgatory I have plenty of stationery and a few magazines. Friends and supporters have helped me keep my spirits up with lovely cards, encouraging letters, good and tricky crossword puzzles, funny Internet memes, and photos to smile at. I’ve got some time to spend in the Hole yet, but it’s doable. Plus, knowledge of why I am here and roughly how much longer that’ll last grants me peace of mind enough to nap some of the endless afternoons away.