It sounded like a huge ice chunk clanging against metal. He said nothing but you could hear his blood pressure rise.
It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and one of the Food Prep Supervisors, Green Bay Packers, had prepared a pre-emptory holiday meal for the workers. Sausage stuffing made with cornbread that Green Bay had carefully culled from breakfast leftovers and frozen throughout the past year, broccoli and cheese casserole, buttered corn, pumpkin pie. It may sound like holiday de rigueur but, to us, this was like a spread on a ship-board cruise.
And not only was Green Bay treating his workers in Food Prep, he included laundry workers, workers from the prison school, from commissary, the property office, DataCon (the data entry site turned sweatshop), a total of about 100 people. If you’ve ever prepared Thanksgiving dinner for 25, then you know it’s a ton of work and an assload of food. For these one hundred women, Green Bay did four tons of work and had four assloads of food. He was ready to load a four-tier cart and roll the assloads out to the mini-dining hall where he would serve the assloads to us assholes.
But when Green Bay grabbed the cart to pull it in from the hallway, the ice chunk that fell was a broccoli brick, stashed by an inmate after she stole it from the freezer. The usual way a C/O busts a thief is by catching her with the booty on her body so inmates who steal from Food Prep think they employ super stealth when they swipe something and hide it in the hallway for future retrieval.
This asshole thief snatched one of the broccoli bricks from the case opened for the holiday meal and opted for a really shitty spot to hide it: between two carts that Green Bay or another supervisor could and would pull apart at any moment sending the broccoli brick to the floor, making it a crime scene.
If lieutenants just rewound the surveillance cameras with lenses directed at the hallway, we could spot the swindler, she’d be fired and Green Bay and his broccoli and cheese would cool down, but that is entirely too easy. Instead inmates like me have to get all CSI in the hallway, particularly with perishable food: If it’s still cold, no condensation? The heist went down less than twenty minutes before. Cool with condensation? During the current shift. Room temp and bone dry? At least one day, maybe more. Because I have worked there the longest, lead investigator status usually falls to me.
“Chandra, we found cubed chicken/cheese/margarine/roast beef out in one of the recycling bins!”
“Hold on. Don’t touch anything,” I say as I glove up and quickly examine the scene. Bending down I assess the evidence, holding my index and middle finger on it like I’m taking its pulse.
“OK. I’m gonna call it. Time of Theft within the last hour,” I strip off my gloves and announce to grim faces because that means the perp is probably still on the scene and the supervisors are about to disallow coffee, juice and the occasional muffin to us as punishment. No one is that concerned that the bandit remains among us. We’re in prison; the perp is always among us.
But I didn’t have to call the Time of Theft on the broccoli brick. The frost on it looked like matte fuzz and Green Bay knew the robber and the brick walked right past him as he put the finishing flair on the meal. Green Bay was understandably cheesed off.
“The only reason you’re getting to eat this is that I’ve already invited so many people,” he announced.
My parents were once extravagant entertainers during the holiday season and my mother eschewed caterers; she insisted on cooking everything herself. When pre-party anxiety crept up my parents spines and they squabbled, my mother would say the same thing. “I’m only finishing these crab cakes because we have people coming!” The holidays really are the same wherever you go.
“After tomorrow, nobody’s gettin’ nothin’!” Green Bay continued as he rolled his four assloads of food to us. We ate with the commissary and the laundry workers but the food in my mouth tasted metallic and faint. The perp among us had slammed our bosses’ generosity backward and sucked any heartfelt holiday spirit out of the dining hall and into the hallway.
Our supervisors Food Prep are real chefs, artists whom the state supplies with only the lowest quality components (us) and the food ingredients aren’t much better. But year after year they combine us low quality components with special holiday meals. They could be – and have been – executive chefs in upscale establishments but instead they choose to supervise pre-menstrual yet premenopausal, hysterical yet morose, angry yet frightened, unworldly yet manipulative women. They get punched, ripped off, insulted, cried upon, hit up for tampons every hour. It makes them look like gluttons for their own punishment when all they really try to do is relieve ours.
We stayed on punishment until mid-December. No extra coffee. No cheese with our eggs. Until the perp was identified. The lady assigned to the pot sink it was, but the supervisors couldn’t can her because they “lacked objective proof,” a phrase, when translated from correction, that means “no one with a badge saw her but almost every inmate told on her.” They couldn’t prove she took the broccoli brick but they spied her tasting a corner of the roast beef we were slicing for Christmas dinner and pounced on her for stealing that. To me, snacking on one of the meat ends was not a ticketable offense; I had done it many times, even that morning.
“Wait! In the interest of full disclosure, I think I need to tell you that I ate a piece of roast beef, too,” I confessed, hands up like I was caught in a searchlight, to the butchers’ supervisor, Bengals, as he completed Pot Sink’s disciplinary report.
“Yeah, so?” Bengals asked as he signed the ticket. They were looking for anything, a flinch of a fuck-up, barely a breath of transgression to excise Pot Sink from the culinary workforce. The ticket was handed off to lieutenants who would start the process of serving the paper to Pot Sink in her cell.
Right then I learned the single-most important lesson in corrections: even if you got away with something, you’ll never get away with it entirely; your sin will always find you. Even if they never connect your face with the perp on the news who knocked over a liquor store, you’ll get hanged for accidentally bouncing a check. Even if police never connect you with a homicide they’ll bust you for the drugs in your house when children’s services comes to investigate your upstairs neighbor. They busted Pot Sink for broccoli but the charges read “beef.” When successfully fleeing from felonies you will trip over multiple misdemeanors. The only way anyone gets away with anything is not to do it. On Thanksgiving, we should give thanks for our ability to think twice.
“OK. Everything’s back to normal!” Green Bay boomed as the ticket wound its way to the Lieutenants’ office. Coffee pots and sugar packets appeared on cue, like the Thanksgiving thievery never happened.
“I’m cooking for our girls only this year. That’s it.”
“And DataCon,” added Giants.
“No, I’m not. Only our girls.”
“And laundry,” Giants went on.
“How many is that, total?” Green Bay wondered.
“You look like you got a tan or a sunburn,” a woman commented. I had seen her long before, remembered her hangdog cheeks, extra weight from overindulging gone past, 1980’s counterfeit Gloria Vanderbilt glasses frames and a bad perm that had been leaving her roots for a long time. These were no fashion choices; I could tell she was stuck in the 80’s financially and could not afford any updates. She hadn’t been in the facility since my last sighting of her because her uniform jeans were too unfaded and her shoes – Keds distributed to all incoming human cargo whose shoes didn’t meet property criteria: white or black sneakers – were dazzling white, totally unmarred. To remain that clean, a C/O must have thrown them at her a few days ago in the Admissions and Discharges building. The time between her discharge and readmission had faded my jeans and bent the black Reeboks I purchased through the prison commissary because they don’t replace the Keds for long-termers. I had been down almost two years at that point.
“Don’t do THAT! That’s SELF-MUTILATION!” she yelled. Then calmly announced: “I have a visit,” and walked to the door to leave the housing unit.
“Wow,” I commented to another woman. “She has a real thing about sun damage. What’d she have, cancer or something?”
“No. She right. Self-mutilation a class A ticket. You know. Sunburns, piercings, tattoos, cutting, that type of shit. You can go to seg for it.”
“Why for a sunburn?” I asked.
“Who gives a fuck why. You just can.”
I checked my Inmate Handbook and surely Section 12-Y of the Code of Penal Discipline officially kiboshed the tats and the studs. I knew this from watching women get hauled away in cuffs for piercing themselves with the ends of paper clips and using a tooth of a comb to keep the hole open. The sunburn seemed to be a law of the past, proving that Hangdog knew old rules and not new tricks because she had been in and out of prison for a long time, the time in between a bit wider than for other women who cycle through for years.
Especially since society encourages the same coloring and decoration that the Department of Correction prohibits, calling it self-mutilation seemed overkill to me. It is almost as if the state expects all the women with dark pasts to enter this facility lily white like their new shoes and stay that way, no dashes of pink or dots or rows or boyfriend’s names demarking their bodies added while in custody.
“They takin’ away our in-div-ig-ee-ality with that shit! If I wanna do shit to myself and make me look different, ain’t none of the gov-ment in that,” an inmate janitor’s voice exploded from the shower area where she sprayed tiles with weak bleach solution.
DOC must not want these women sick, I figured, thinking that the self-mutilation prohibition might be thoughtful in a Weirdville way, a kind of in loco parentis gone loco.
“I’m sure they do it to reduce disease. This place is a microbial marsh,” I advised, always the voice of reason whom no one understood. But I misunderstood; a couple of reasons kill the chance to dot up or hole down. The prison needs everyone looking like their ID photos/mug shots for accountability purposes and artistic expression usually involves gang symbols. The warden doesn’t give a shit if the scabs on your skin are cattle calls for bacteria.
Hangdog came back from her visit quickly. Flash visits usually meant a face to face with the Bail Commissioner, not friends or family, who comes in periodically to see what can be done to cut loose the new admissions with $50 bonds. Do you know anyone who will put up the fifty? Hangdog had no one who would.
“This is too much. Too stressful. I’d do anything for a cigarette,” she cried and tried to feign tears, whipping her cheeks around to make sure everyone heard her. I knew she couldn’t really be crying because when someone starts to cry in prison, his/her face either goes down or inverts upward toward the sky. If perchance it doesn’t go up or down, it stays stone still.
“You smoke?” I asked. I was surprised that someone I had pegged as financially strapped would dare such an expensive habit.
“Everyone smokes,” she said and rotated her head ninety degrees in each direction, possibly for agreement but probably to see if anyone would lead her to a bogey, even though they are contraband.
“I don’t smoke. Never had a cigarette in my life,” I offered.
“That’s impossible,” Hangdog derided me.
“It’s extremely possible.”
“Well, aren’t you a Goody-Two-Pie. I heard about you,” she snorted at me.
“I think it’s ‘Goody Two-Shoes.'”
If DOC really did care about saving ourselves from ourselves, then they would do more than just busting some chick stupid enough to tattoo herself, meaning stupid enough to attach a bent staple to the engine of her electric razor to make a tattoo gun and use as her ink shampoo mixed with colored pencil shavings to mark “Pinky ♥s Mario” between her forefinger and her thumb.
The term “break” in prisons shouldn’t be an escape, but how to break the habit of smoking. No one here at York believed me that I never smoked a cigarette in my life. It would be bad enough if they viewed smoking as an essential rite of passage but these women actually see it as an essential right. None of the inmates can imagine a smoke-free life.
The denial is easy for them. Even on the outside, scarce few of them work in offices, fly in airplanes, eat in Manhattan restaurants, join pick-up leagues, go to the gym, the usual mainstays of smoke-free living. But the public health campaign against tobacco is so refined, so extensive, I don’t understand how it missed prisoners, but it has.
Including York CI, sixty-five percent of prisons do not offer smoking cessation courses despite the fact that smoking is a habit much harder to break than drug use, more conclusive of causing fetal damage than heroin or cocaine ingestion in female smokers and almost 24 times more likely to cost inmates their lives than illicit substance abuse. If you need help with a habit, you are better off as a heroin addict than a smoker. Smoking causes 435,000 to drug use’s 17,000 annual deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smoking is self-mutilation if I ever saw it.
“You know, they say that people can have heart attacks and strokes if they don’t get their cigarettes,” Hangdog continued to everyone around her.
Normally, I stayed out of inanity but this was too much, especially since I had no way to recede back into my cell, into relative silence, because I used my chance to ask the guard to unlock my door early when I pulled the Inmate Handbook out to see if my slight sunburn would box me up.
“No one ever died from lack of cigarettes, OK? I mean, except maybe a preeclamptic woman but that’s not you,” I interjected. Again, none of them understood. I had already tried losing the fifty-cent words in conversation but they still didn’t comprehend. Vocab might be a barrier to inmates’ understanding what I said, but the bigger hurdle is the truth.
I knew smoking was bad since kindergarten when I came home and reported to my father, then a smoker himself, what I had learned at school. I have no recollection of it but I explained the effects of his smoking on my own health; a targeted anti-tobacco crusade imparted this knowledge to my five-year old self. Many times public health campaigns achieve results.
Inmates with children click their tongues over and over, saying “only thing matter to me is my kids” but their habits can make their kids sick — mutilate them — through passive smoke. I would expect them to be grateful for a prison smoking ban if their children matter that much to them because it would force them to quit a habit that harms society and their own. But they resent another chance to learn to protect their children.
To anyone who will listen, they fantasize about lighting up right after they cross the sallyport on their way home. Not getting a job, not eating porterhouse steak, not walking on a beach, not driving a car. Not seeing their children. Smoking is the priority for the average inmate who leaves York. The tobacco ban in Connecticut prisons is just a break in smokers’ habits, not a break of them. And as long as prisoners refrain from smoking while they are incarcerated and kiss their jailers goodbye with promises never to use illegal drugs again, wardens are more than willing to release addicts to resume smoking, to re-enter a legal but deadly habit that they cannot afford. They call this recovery and reentry.
The reason for the disparity in how prisons treat drugs and tobacco seems obvious; we think tobacco use ignites remarkably less crime than illegal drugs but that’s not necessarily true.
Public health researchers have discovered that an addict is 59% more likely to relapse into illegal drug use once she has resumed smoking after stopping for a time. Those 1.84 million smokers who may quit smoking temporarily as a result of an incarceration-forced break in habit are likely to resume the habit once they are released because they have not received formal intervention. Without nationwide, mandatory tobacco control education in place in prisons and jails, any released inmate who starts smoking again has a 59% increased chance of relapse into illegal drug use and the crimes that accompany it.
No one knows what causes the substance abuse relapse, whether it is that resuming smoking initiates a chemical process that sets off a cascade of bad decisions or it is a gateway drug, a threshold once crossed that justifies more severe, more damaging crossings. All I know is that any program with a strong chance of causing offenders to quit one habit that will help them quit another should be mandatory in prisons. Instead, it’s nowhere in here.
Lack of funding is what usually stubs out prison health programs and treatment. People who work for DOC conduct their careers in financial famine. “We can’t afford that” is the answer to every inmate suggestion about her health. Well, can you X-ray my arm? We can’t afford that. I think I need a nebulizer. We can’t afford that. Can I just have a cup of ice to put on this burn I got taking fish patties out of the oven in the kitchen? We can’t afford that. Low coffers might explain the absence of such anti-smoking programs in prisons. That is, if a lack of money actually existed.
Brochures and pamphlets designed to light a fire under smokers to quit appear everywhere now, even on packs of cigarettes. But there are none in prison, a smokers’ convention. When the medical unit couldn’t provide me with any anti-tobacco literature that I could produce the next time I had to hash out the cigarette topic, my sister sent me a few of the first pages from Googling “prisoners smoking.” It was worse than I thought.
Here I blow: In 2010, the states collected $25.1 billion from the 1998 tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes. Less than 15% of that revenue would fund tobacco prevention and smoking cessation programs at CDC-recommended levels throughout each state, including prisons, leaving more than 85% of that revenue for other purposes. Yet the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates that only 2.3% of that 2010 revenue, $58 million, is spent on tobacco prevention and cessation programs. Only one state, North Dakota, finances its tobacco prevention programs at the CDC-recommended level of funding. Thirty-one states provide less than a quarter of the CDC-recommended level of tobacco control programming despite the fact that they have the money. So I’m not blowing smoke when I say to the state about smoking cessation and education: You can afford this.
Money unspent is a governmental wet dream. Oddly, Connecticut legislators seem unable to use the tobacco settlement money in their possession for prison anti-smoking plans that might, through their effects, reduce death, drug use and crime for everyone.
“Here, I’ll help you,” Hangdog approached me at the dryer. “I need to do something if I can’t smoke.”
“There’s no ‘if.’ You can’t, ” I told her and shoved a bundle of warm sheets at her to fold.
As I doubled a sheet over, I lifted the crease and looked down to assure that the corners were aligned. I saw this Goody’s two shoes; dusty, cruddy. Next to them was unmutilated white on the woman whose lungs are black and repeats her offenses. I wondered what would happen if people realized that smoking correlates not just with cancer but with crime. Maybe they already know.
“Just let them mourn,” Bengals, our supervisor in the Food Preparation Unit told one of us when she promised to go and ask one of the guards what was happening. We watched through the windows of the dining hall as captains and guards filed out of the medical building, the site of the emergency just announced. A lieutenant went down, the radio said, and was unresponsive. The captains’ and guards’ faces flushed red only to be cooled by unrelenting courses of tears. One of their own had fallen.
The warden froze walking traffic on the grounds. None of us could leave and four guards came into the dining hall and blocked the large windows that served as our vantage point. Most of what I learned about the prison was gleaned through dirty windows and I had never witnessed staff block the windows like that (they usually just herd us somewhere else if something is that bad) so, as the elder statesman of the kitchen workers, I informed the others:
“This is really serious. Don’t do anything dumb.”
We continued to work, not in total silence (impossible in the company of several women) but quietly. After all, someone had just died.
Ms. Badlee, another supervisor working at a different location, walked in and noticed the pall over the normally obstreperous and obnoxious women.
“What the fuck’s wrong?”
“Thrower ain’t fucking dead, ” Badlee pronounced. Everyone stared. “Nah, he tried to mace somebody and ran into his own spray. Got knocked out. That motherfucker ain’t dead. Just knocked his own ass out.”
“They said he was unresponsive,” my supervisor protested.
“Yeah, unresponsive like he wasn’t talkin’. He ain’t dead.”
Lieutenant Thrower lived and breathed, unresurrected. His heart and lungs continued to pump and expand like they belonged to Dr. Oz. The people who helped him had followed him headlong into his mace cloud; that was what made them screw their kunckles into their eyesockets, not tears of grief.
I swear sometimes the staff here make the Keystone Cops look like Navy SEAL’s. Even organized endeavors usually proves one of them incompetent beyond a reasonable doubt.
Every time I sit on my cell’s countertop, looking out its lone window, I decide that few of the guards would survive more than four minutes in the private sector.
Once I watched two guards run into a housing unit’s south end in apparent response to an emergency. Just as quickly, they exited the building’s south end and rushed to the north end only to circle back out to the south end again. They backtracked two paces to the north end, then stopped, legs shoulder-width apart, waiting for the next instruction. Their running reduced itself to merely shitting their weight toward the north, toward the south, at the conflicting commands on their radios. Then they left for the correct location of the crisis. Apparently no one knew where the emergency was, proving that, if these people worked for an organization motivated by accountability, they would exit in black body bags, truly unresponsive because they would be fired.
Another time I donated several minutes of my attention to the window as a lieutenant ran to a fight in the dining hall, entering through the kitchen’s back door, the door where inmates sometimes break the rules and shove an unmanned meal cart through instead of leading it outside themselves. He crashed so hard into this cart that he fell flat backwards. He sprung up quickly but before racing in, he whipped his head around to catch anyone who might have seen. He forgot about the cell windows that the warden had ordered covered with reflective coating so that all the Bob-the-Builder construction workers reforming the buildings couldn’t become peeping toms. He couldn’t see us but we saw him. He still thinks he performed without an audience.
From yet another cell window, my second-to-last, I watched a “chronic sweep”- a troop of guards decked out in azure-colored latex gloves who gather inmates with the worst discipline records and drop them in the Chronic Discipline housing unit- one officer cried and pointed:
“There she is. There’s Lombardo” and the troops pounced on her because the officer was right; she was Lombardo. But she was one of two in the facility. They hunted Melissa but caught Stacy and took her off to pay for Melissa’s misdeeds. Eventually, a little effort cleared the confusion and the squad picked up the proper sinner. It must have been easy enough since each inmate wears a unique number on her ID. The original sweep squad never checked Stacy’s number against their list before busting her.
Traded on the New York Stock Exchange, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company rakes in $1.7 billion every year. Unshielded by the sovereign immunity doctrine that protects and enables government employees’ incompetence, a private prison cannot avoid civil liability when their employees screw up. I wonder if CCA would hire these idiots in the first place, much less keep them on the duty roster after they made so many dumb mistakes. Because it is almost impossible to sue a public prison or the state government that does its cover-up, public prisons become bunkers for these bumblers. How else would these mistake-makers maintain employment if they were held responsible for their screw-ups?
As broad, macroeconomic policy, prison privatization is generally bad. Almost all of new prison construction between 2000 and 2005 erected private correctional facilities, according to the ACLU. Private prisons are the engines of mass incarceration and one of the primary causes of the 700 percent increase in the prison population in 35 years. You would want to lock people up, too, if you could own vacation homes in Aspen because of it.
If the prison industrial complex likes incarceration, then they must like crime, too, since no one can have one without the other. Corrections Corporation of America calls high recidivism rates “positive investment trends” and the fact that this country incarcerates one of 100 adults a “predictable revenue stream.” As long as Wall Street funnels investors in the company, they could not care less that an ex-con might whoop your ass when he carjacks your Nissan Maxima. He’ll get caught, their thinking is, and then he’ll come home to us.
In microscopic view, through my cell window, privatization would improve and protect the lives of inmates. Looking through my last cell’s glass rectangle, I watched guards inundate another housing unit; an ambulance flashing cherry light backed up to its door to extract a woman who had slipped into a diabetic coma. After she failed to report for her blood-sugar testing that morning, no one followed up to find out why. Sprawled motionless on her bunk, she avoided any concern from guards who passed her cell, counting inmates for almost twelve hours.
“She should sue!” inmates chanted and she can try. But unless she can prove that the staff exceeded their statutory authority – not flubbed it or fell short of it – her claim is barred because private citizens can’t sue the government without its permission. I can’t imagine giving anyone permission to sue me and the government thinks likewise.
Because of this immunity, few inmates ever expose what happens in prisons in legal briefs. Governmental immunity blocks and clouds the windows into a correctional institution and prison administrators convince themselves that anything that is not seen never happened. If this were a private prison, she could retain a lawyer who would work overnight to draft the summons and complaint against the people who ignored her health problem so he could snag some of the private prison’s profits. That same lawyer would never even return the call of an inmate who has a claim against a public institution. No one ever pays for prison guards’ negligence and incompetence in a government run facility which is why – at least for the inmate in the coma – the rest of the prisoners almost ended up mourning one of their own.
Election Day sizzles with kinetic energy for me. More so than on other days, people are purposely moving about, going to or coming from voting, rerouting their lives to accommodate the detours that democracy brings to the day: closed schools, traffic tie-ups, the myopic coverage of election results that have yet to exist.
And yet amongst these kinetics is a mysterious sense of potential. This is, after all, the day when each one of us has the chance to pull a lever, punch a button, or hang a chad to reallocate power. Cynical, old Lord Acton may have been correct when he predicted that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Only for so long, my good Lord. On Election Day, absolute power can shift completely.
I missed the election buzz in jail — an electoral void — because everyone here is foreclosed the opportunity to vote either by a felony conviction or just bad geography — they’re locked up and cannot get to the polls and absentee ballots are not provided to inmates in Connecticut. They may not have known it, but 2010’s election was important to inmates. Running for Governor was Dannell Malloy, a candidate who had sworn to enact a system of Risk Reduction Earned Credits, the new law that allows prisoners who behave and demonstrate a commitment to self-improvement to earn time off their sentences. With the right person as governor of the state, almost every single inmate could be released earlier. Every woman at York Correctional Institution had something very real vested in the 2010 gubernatorial election results, even if we could not feel the energy directly.
In the absence of representative frenzy, I had other problems to face on Election Day. At lunch the day before, my former roommate, DJ, informed me that a correction officer, Real Frisky, had kicked his habit into high gear again, questioning DJ about me. I used to like Frisky. To me, he seemed like a paragon of reasonableness. When two other guards tried to break up a prayer circle in which women held hands, he split the difference, never granting explicit permission but not denying it either, instead announcing “Thirty seconds” and staring at the wall clock, a non-verbal warning that the women needed to disband completely very quickly, but he allowed the entreaties to God to go on. To an outsider, this isn’t courageous. But on the inside, two inmates’ holding hands is bodily contact and, therefore, discipline worthy; if it’s not an assault, then it’s sexual misconduct. Allowing this was like permitting a very tame orgy to go on but busting it up would have had First Amendment ramifications. But Frisky’s controlled circle? It averted constitutional crisis and kept everyone safe and pious. Brilliant, especially when I saw how the other guards handled dilemmas: they screamed to everyone: “LOCK UP!”
Acne rutted the face of one of my roommates when she arrived at York; her ID photo confirmed it. But in my housing cube, her countenance, though oily, was clear of the livid infections that had scarred it. The acne and the way it made her feel need not have been spoken; anyone could see its effects. “You got some cream?” Frisky asked her once when he toured and swirled his hand around his own face. “It looks a lot better. Looks good.” He was sincere and the look on her face was neither thrill nor mortification. It was relief. Relief is rare in these parts; guards don’t just hand it out.
Frisky even saved someone’s life when she attempted suicide by hanging. Death inched up on her as she hung from a sheet, but Frisky lifted her up until another guard came to cut her down. Stories of survival abound in prison but, when inmates make concerted, serious suicide attempts, people die. I don’t know if this is because the guards can’t save the women or they won’t. What I do know is that Frisky can and did save at least one life before he affected mine.
Three days before the election, Mr. Frisky had awakened DJ, who suffers from Lupus, to pose to her such serious inquiries about me as “What does she think of me?”; “What does she say about me?” He tried to confirm facts like where my brother-in-law went to college, or whether I had a boyfriend before cell doors slammed on me. “She’s a wacko. Don’t believe anything she says about me…” he warned DJ until a weary and cold stare caused him to pause. She had grown even more tired by Mr. Frisky’s antics, which she had witnessed firsthand herself. He continued: “And don’t listen to her when she says that I’m bothering her because I’m not. I want nothing to do with her.”
“You’re not bothering her and you want nothing to do with her and yet you’re standing in my room, questioning me about her ….” DJ paused and posed the situation to him for his own analysis.
“Oh, it’s like that DJ? You’re gonna tell her I said this?” he challenged her.
“Fuck yeah,” notified DJ. DJ told me what happened the day before the election “What’s his problem with you, Bunkie?”
“He’s just pathologically committed to torturing me. Why are you saying that – what did he do now?”
She described the interrogation and read my face.
“I’m scared for you, too.”
Little questions like Frisky’s are so innocuous on the outside that they wouldn’t frighten anyone. But prisons, ideally, run themselves on the guards’ total objectivity. To that end, the correction officer academy trains them to avoid “undue familiarity” with inmates. Everyone on the prison compound bats the phrase around when we suspect that an inmate and a staff member are engaging in inappropriate contact. But sex is just the top of the undue familiarity heap. Guards are forbidden to know an inmate’s charges, anything about her background, family or medical history (outside what is necessary to respond to medical emergencies). Especially in a maximum security women’s facility where many prisoners have been both accused and convicted of killing children, stealing from charitable organizations, holding down little girls while the inmate’s boyfriend sexually molested the children, it would be easy for a guard who knows these charges to side with another inmate, perhaps one who was sent here for something benign like criminal trespass or counterfeiting casino poker chips, when a dispute arises between the two inmates. Undue familiarity is designed to maintain objectivity, order. Accordingly, any activity related to unduly familiarizing oneself with an inmate is misconduct for staff.
To provide some idea of how seriously prisons are supposed to take undue familiarity, consider this example. As I made my way through Silja Talji’s book, Women in Prison, I could not believe the text before me. A Michigan prison guard harassed, stalked, sexually assaulted a young inmate, then ordered her transfer so she could be close to him and no one disciplined him. But when he asked questions about her family in front of other prison guards? That’s when he “overstepped his bounds.” That’s what the book says; I promise. Check it out for yourself on page 74. So asking about my brother-in-law’s alma mater was a super no-no; Frisky wasn’t even supposed to know I had a brother-in-law.
But undue familiarity is not the protection that the brass expects it to be. The rule often thwarts compassion. For instance, Frisky’s referencing my roommate’s improved skin was technically speaking, undue familiarity, but it was also uncommon gallantry, a shade of grey in this black and white world.
The warden had imposed an in house restraining order between me and Mr. Frisky for the past two and a half years because of this type of undue familiarity. Then, about a month before Election Day, the warden suddenly removed the separation as if the problem had evacuated the air like compassion at a prison guards’ roll call meeting. Poof. Although I was living on the maximum-security side of the prison compound with DJ while Mr. Frisky was limited to the minimum side, now the warden wanted to plop us in reverse, or so I thought.
I headed to a minimum-security housing unit that resembled a sorority house with an anemic endowment, much different than the hermetically sealed pods we called cells on the maximum security side. Much different also because Mr. Frisky would be working there on the east side also. There was no switch.
“Everyone out of the halls,” he shrieked and whistled at us like we were dogs when I arrived. He turned, saw me, stared, walked up the stairs. Silent and non-violent, it was my first face-to-face meeting with Mr. Frisky in over two years. I unpacked and went to dinner, where Frisky was working, roving. When I sat down, he hovered and then left to bond with the other officers over their undeserved dominion. He stood next to a lanky automaton who started his comedy set.
“Prostitutes exit through the front door,” the automaton repeated and they laughed riotously. The joke? There is only one door to the dining hall through which all of us came and went.
After dinner, as we sat on our bunks to be counted, I heard the discernable dangle of multiple key rings, not on one person but on several officers. A posse, it sounded like.
“I think this is for me,” I told my new roommates as I jumped off my bunk. “Pack my stuff for me. Most of it’s still packed in these bags.”
“What’re you crazy? Why would you go to seg? You didn’t do anything,” one roommate asked.
“Because I don’t even get away with things I don’t do,” I deadpanned back. She had lived at York for two years so she sort of understood. The clangle and the camera progressed down the hall. Progressed some more. Progressed further and further, passing my room.
Another inmate was escorted out of the building to seg, flanked on her right side by a gleeful Mr. Frisky, smiling at his luck to participate in this takedown. Part of that smile, I am sure, was the terror he knew I felt realizing that someone on my hallway was being packed in to seg, possibly me.
My friends said he was stalking me but he wasn’t; any unwanted interaction is not stalking. In my experience, many people who describe themselves as being stalked overestimate their importance in other people’s lives. Besides, aren’t all of the guards stalking us through their surveillance? It has also been my experience that the stalker usually pre-empts accusation by saying that the victim is stalking him. I know that story well.
It was definitely harassment; some called it sexual but I never agreed. Cruel treatment of someone with less power was what it was, the entire situation just classic bullying, the playground now a prison. He was gaslighting me; he knew DJ was going to tell me about his questions which would unnerve me. If I reported his inquiries, he would deny ever asking DJ anything and tell everyone not to trust me; I was crazy. The effect of being lit by his behavior was having every staff member shit on my head at his behest while my only option was to thank them for the hat.
Besides his crazy accusations, Frisky needled the other guards to play dumb tricks on me: taking my name off the wake-up list for kitchen workers in the hopes I would be fired for not showing up on time at 4 AM (never worked); searching my cell and spreading my cellmate’s squeeze cheese on the wall near my bed; rummaging through my legal papers for something about him, generally making fun of me wherever I went and threatening me with time in seg for nothing. Frisky’s antics got so extreme and so relentless that he became boring. I get it, I wanted to tell him, you’re in charge.
I avoided confronting Frisky because my supervisors did it for me, acts of kindness and protection that I enjoyed a little too much given my personal philosophy that two adults can always work out a problem. My giving Frisky wide berth, unauthorizedly bypassing any area of the compound where he might have slithered, spoke worse of me than of him. What was I so afraid to discover? That my original impression of him was correct and he was a good guy after all and I must have soured him? That he was incorrigibly evil? Or that he and I were more alike than either of us wanted to admit? I responded, not directly, to his singling me out by complaining and calling him names behind his back. My dignity should have buoyed me, floated me above his mud, but I bitched about him. I called him names that would make me embarrassed if I had to utter them especially in his presence. Essentially, I bullied him back, just not to his face.
Just like he laughed at me, I cackled the time a senior prison administrator was told that he had to contact Frisky for some endeavor.
“Oh, Jesus. Jesus. Not him. Oh, please not him, anyone but him” the senior guy muttered after he hung up his phone upon learning that he had to interact with Frisky. My guffaws didn’t drown out my better angel’s voice reminding me that people, including Frisky, have said the same about me. The people who made those types of comments about me never really knew me; that fact rubbed salve on my wounds. Maybe Frisky had the same problem. After all, I don’t corner the market on reasonable doubt or misunderstanding. I wasn’t familiar with him at all, justifiably or not, because I had experienced only long distance insults for two years.
My conscience’s pull on my thoughts was weak, though. Eventually, I receded to insulting him behind his back just as he to me. Both sides engaged in bad behavior. Just as any guard’s latent potential to affect my life did, Copper’s kinetics — his pranks, his language – reminded me how powerless I was. Still we continued, two candidates campaigning negatively against the other, riding the same platform. On the morning of Election Day, I voted to confront my bully and ask him to stop bothering me. I rehearsed several different speeches.
Apologetic liberal: “I know that hurt people hurt people, so I am sorry you are in pain. . .But do you think you could possibly consider refraining from asking those really personal questions about me that can get you fired? It’s OK if you can’t. I understand. If you could just try… you know… to take into account my feelings in this situation, not that they’re the most important consideration here …It’s just that I sometimes feel like you might be trying to, perhaps,…. and I’m not saying I’m right…”
Overly-rational, clipped Independent: “This behavior ends today. There will be no negotiation about it. Thank you.”
The Sanctimonious Conservative: “Listen, you derelict: take responsibility for yourself and cut the shit or you’ll be in a bread line and fall down a few more rungs of the 99%. Get it?”
When he entered the kitchen where I work that election morning, something he was actually forbidden to do because the in-house restraining order was still in effect in spirit, he stopped to talk to one of my supervisors, a forced display of nonchalance because he was so clearly out of bounds. Guards are not allowed to roam a prison compound idly; prison administrators assign “posts” to guards, tiny fiefdoms on the compound where they are the sovereigns of safety and security. To enter my workplace, Frisky needed to leave his post. Further, he risked entry into my — his alleged aggressor’s — territory just for a chat; his brazenness undercut his claims that I posed any danger or problems for him. Even with that, I still lost all political steam, knowing that, without my doing anything, this officer could simply state the words “Code Orange” (meaning an inmate has assaulted a guard) and I would be carted off and charged with another crime.
I abandoned my speeches and calmly stated: “I need to speak with you when you’re done here,” I swirled my hand around the area where he chatted with a supervisor. He looked at me, non-plussed, semi-nodded his head yes. Then turned and took off out of the building, the only sight of his leaving was a sharp slice of light and an icy blast of air as he pushed through the door. Poof. He was gone.
“Was there a code?” another worker asked one of my supervisors. Rapid flight by a guard usually meant there was an emergency on the compound.
“Yo! This bitch ain’t bigger than a minute and she just scared away that CO!” she said, pointing to me, laughing at him. I did scare him away. It was not the penultimate confrontation that the Little Guy wants with The Man, but it was progress. I doubted that I could force him around the compound with my mere presence, but I stood up to him. The source of my power was the fact that no one deserves to be bullied; I believe Frisky knows this. In an ethical world, power imbalances never justify mistreatment of the weak; they obligate the stronger party to take special care not to exploit a vulnerable person just like Frisky used to do to the women of the prison before he encountered me.
Because I was housed on the east side of the compound that election day, news stations found no reception on inmates TV’s; we watched only repeats of “Ghost Whisperer” and “Criminal Minds,” of all programs on the minimum security side of the facility. I had to call my father on the phone to get the election results.
“Bridgeport’s the new Florida, Chan. Sorry, no results yet. Constitutional crisis. And you won’t believe this: they turned people away from voting, OK? Like they have no say.”
“It’s OK, Dad,” I told him. Power shifted anyway.