18 May, 2015

Life in the Fish Tank

Since I got out of the Hole last year, my assigned cell has been in the wing where the prison's new arrivals are placed when they get here from one of Missouri's two DOC diagnostic centers. Those fresh off the bus are installed in one of about thirteen cells (the number fluctuates, depending on space requirements) on the ground floor of the thirty-six-cell sub-unit. This is where I came through, thirteen years ago, and now I see an average of eight total strangers arriving each week, a continual rotation. New prisoners come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, just as those who've been temporarily quartered for two weeks or so are cycled out to (theoretically) permanent assignments in the prison's four general population housing units.

They don't generally have much in the way of possessions. Diagnostic centers don't sell the appliances that make prison live more livable — clock radios, CD players, TVs, typewriters — meaning, if you'll forgive the metaphor and vernacular, that the fish get bored, trapped for twenty to twenty-two hours a day in their spartan bowls. I remember how it was for me. My cellmate had only been here a week himself, but that was enough time to have a little money sent and make a trip to the canteen. He had a deck of playing cards and some snacks. I don't even like card games, and I liked him even less, so it speaks to my mental state that I played countless hands of rummy with him before he was moved. 

Boredom being the best excuse to smoke, the crisscrossed strings of Cadillacs stretch across the floor at various times throughout the day, evidencing quests for tobacco, rolling papers, lighters. Sometimes someone unwilling to part with his lighter for even a few minutes will send a wick, or west side — a flaming twist of toilet paper tied to a buddy's string and shot back. That noxious burning smell fills the wing, sometimes (but not always) setting off the fire alarm. The fire alarm means nothing. Guards running the housing unit are so desensitized to its frequent squeal that they often won't bother turning it off for several minutes. This is particularly annoying when I'm on the phone or trying to scrub down in the shower, out of my cell for the allotted thirty minutes, and compelled to plug my fingertips into my ears at the same time.

Not everyone's circadian rhythms adjust quickly to the more regimented schedule here, so it isn't rare to hear two men yelling at each other late into the night, coordinating an exchange by Cadillac.

"It's right by your door. No, the other way. Yeah. Now pull." 

"I can't see it."

"You're right on top of it. Just pull."

"I don't have it."

"Ah, shit, man. You lost it, bro. Shoot out again. Now left. No, other left! You stupid...."

And so on. 

With regard to noise, the past month hasn't brought me the best luck with downstairs neighbors. First, a diminutive twenty-something with dreadlocks and what I discovered later, in passing, was a serious body-odor issue, moved in, into the cell that shares the same ventilation duct with mine. Li'l Greasy fancied himself a rap star. Every day, from early-afternoon to late at night, my cellmate and I heard him spouting whatever off-key rhythmic nonsense was in his head. Twice he managed to wake us both in the night, spitting rhymes and laughing at his own wordsmithery. We couldn't understand why he wasn't getting a cellmate, someone to entertain or at least distract him, maybe quiet the little bastard down. We decided to be inconsiderate pricks right back, launching a three-day counterattack of nuisance sounds to keep him awake through the morning, when he was trying to recuperate from an exhausting midnight rap battle against himself. I periodically threw my stool against the floor, or swung it into the metal vent hood to produce a resounding CLANG! that he could not possibly sleep through. My cellmate, a member of the housing unit's laundry crew, knocked on Li'l Greasy's door three times in three days, pretending to be confused about whether a pair of pants belonged to the kid, just for the excuse of interrupting his rest. He didn't turn quiet, but the hours he kept became more reasonable.

The cellmate Li'l Greasy got the following Monday did not have the hoped-for muting effect, but he wasn't there soon enough. Li'l Greasy was moved just days later. He was replaced by someone who drives his Cadillac around as a purely recreational pastime, like a man with a new, real car, who looks for any excuse to take it for a spin, even if just down the driveway, to his mailbox. I was ready to turn in at my usual 10:30 bedtime last night; he was not. Instead, he was laboring to coordinate a three-man operation to get his "car" into a hard-to-reach cell. I let the back-and-forth shouting go on until after 11 PM, then, too irritated to hold my tongue any longer, rolled over and mustered my most stentorian "SHUT UP!" from where I lay, startling the hell out of my cellmate, up watching his typical late-night TV, but getting the point across nevertheless. A moment later, our downstairs insomniac announced an end to his errand-running for the night. To his comrades he said, "Ay, I can't be doin' this all night, y'all. This is the last try, a'ight?" And not another peep thereafter. 

For all this, I actually don't mind the new-arrivals wing. It sometimes feels like living in a wing that's half the usual size. People naturally gravitate to the familiar, so the new guys tend to associate with whoever they rode in with, while we upstairs perms hardly bother looking down. I certainly don't take the time to learn their names. I scarcely recognize their faces. My thinking is, if they're going to be around awhile I might eventually have cause to get to know them. For now, though, I'm not interested. My circle is remarkably small. I'm good with that. 

03 May, 2015

Getting Properly Wired and Hooked Up in Prison

There’s a popular misconception that prison life, especially in a maximum-security facility, is barely contained chaos — riots, brutality, and rampant criminal scheming. Other prisons probably do deal with such problems on a daily basis, but Crossroads is another species of penitentiary. Here, things are rigidly controlled and minor infractions are treated with relative severity. (Witness my trip to the Hole last year, which lasted thirty days, for making a three-way call during a podcast interview.) And every so often comes another tightening of the thumbscrews.

Last week the tightening took the form of a visit from the new housing unit manager — our equivalent of an overbearing landlord — who came on a tour of everyone’s cell, to ensure that all of us were in compliance with the posted regulations. His special peeves: paper bags used as trash receptacles, extension cords draped across cells, and sticky-backed plastic wall hooks adhered to any but three particular areas of one’s living quarters.

A few of us got advance notice of the walk-through. In my cell were a few unauthorized hooks still hanging where a previous cellmate left them, so I temporarily disassembled my fingernail clippers and used the handle as a prying tool to take the hooks off the wall. (Note the irony of making contraband to remove contraband.) My current cellmate had an extension for his headphones, so he could silently watch TV from the bunk. The cord was hidden behind his footlocker and resurfaced at the head of the bed but was nevertheless immediately seen and remarked upon: “Find something else to do with that, or it’s a safety violation.”

Now his headphone cord drapes across the cell, precisely in the way of my moving from this typewriter. This is somehow safer. I’m having a hard time adjusting to the new placement of my drying clothes, since the spot I used for hanging damp apparel this past year is no longer acceptable. What would the inmates at Pelican Bay do in this situation? Probably burn something. Being no pyro, I’ll just sit here and take it. There are worse obstacles and unpleasantries that prison can impose on a guy.