26 January 2015

Be Not Provoked

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“Did you hear?  Linda Stone got fucking deported.  Immigration picked her up yesterday,” my friend Ivy whispered, leaning in as she passed me.  Surprise overtook me so much that I almost dropped my tray of Salisbury steak.image

“Deported as in ‘out of the country’ and ‘can never come back’” I asked.  Ivy nodded.

“Stone,” as the guards called her, worked with me as a janitor in the Assessments building when the warden dumped me there because I had to go to trial every day for weeks.  I disliked Stone immensely because I witnessed her dispatch inmates who received more attention than she did from the guards by falsely reporting them for threatening to attack one of them. She did it to my friend Denise. She told a guard Denise threatened her behind her back. It wasn’t true.  So when a correction officer assigned me to work with Stone, queasiness crept into my stomach.  I had no choice but to obey the guard’s order.

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Stone landed in her home country of St. Lucia, which is not a bad deportation if you ask me.

One day, Stone chatted me up in an unusually friendly way as we completed chores, sharing her girly secrets like the supply closet was our sorority.  One secret she told me – a bold and malicious lie – was that a certain guard had propositioned her.  I doubted her story but it took my focus anyway because the guard’s wife worked at the prison in an office approximately five feet away from us.  I pointed to the wife’s closed office door as a warning to Stone to shut up.

“Stone. Come on.” And I nodded my head toward the wife’s office.

“That door’s locked.  No one’s in there,” she said with counterfeit confidence.  Pause.  “There can’t be anyone in there, can there be?  I thought it was locked.  She’s not in there.  Is she in there?”   panic flooded out of Stone’s mouth, alarm that the guard’s wife could and would confront her.  Knowing that she had screwed up, Stone abruptly ended our cleaning session and I retired to my cell, relieved to end my stoning for a while.

I wasn’t in my cell two minutes when the housing unit manager Captain Demers called me to his office.  Once I was inside, behind his closed door, the Demers told me that Stone had provided him with a written statement containing details of my alleged confession to her that a certain guard whose wife worked in the building had suggested an inappropriate liaison to me.  Stone pre-empted her own trouble by blaming me for what she said.

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You have to control your anger in prison: no yelling, outbursts, punching walls unless you want to go to seg. Some inmates do explode when they’re angry, some don’t. All of us, however, fail at hiding the anger on our faces.

Demers continued to tell me that he had informed the wife of what I had supposedly said about her husband and she insisted – understandably – that he boot me from the building.  Demers exiled me for Stone’s sins.

Being banished in this way made me so rageful that I turned red.  After I moved my belongings to another housing unit, I went to the dining hall for lunch.  At the serving line’s end waited Mr. Packer.  I didn’t work for him so recognizing each other and exchanging pleasantries was the extent of our relationship.  As I extended my tray to one of Mr. Packer’s workers for her to fill it with a chicken patty and a baked potato, Mr. Packer noticed my fiery demeanor.

“Are you OK?  You look angry,” Mr. Packer asked.

“I’m OK.  It’s just… I just…” I stammered as silvery crescents of tears appeared on my lower eyelids.  In his usual gentle manner, Mr. Packer took me out of the line and I told him what happened.  A man of complete faith in God, Mr. Packer never let anything ruffle him and I was embarrassed that I let cattiness and gossipy betrayal undo me so completely.

image“I just don’t know what I should do, if I should write to the warden or ask my parents to call up here.  I guess I could resort to the courts…” I went on.

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“Sure,” I sniffled.

“Do nothing.  Do absolutely nothing at all.  Let it work itself out,” he offered.  Even though Mr. Packer did not know me well at that point, he read my body language and my speech closely enough to know that I was a woman of action.  He could tell that I was the type that responded to crises, the type of lady to take the lead.  Everyone knew that I got things done.  What I once considered a strength in my personality was beginning to look like a liability if Mr. Packer’s advice was sound.image

“OK, Mr. Packer.  I’ll do nothing.  But only because you’re such a nice guy.” I meant what I said; I would never have heeded the advice had it not originated in such a kind and gentle man.

“Thank you.  And read Psalm 37,” he added.

I nodded and pointed at him, telling him again “Only because you’re such a nice guy.”

After lunch, I went back to my new cell and extracted my Bible from my property, belongings that my move had upset as much as it had discombobulated my spirit.  I found Psalm 37 which read, in part:

“Do not be provoked by evildoers;… Those who do evil… will be cut off from the land.”

That’s nice, I thought.  Mr. Packer is such a nice guy.  And then, as if nothing had happened, I did nothing about Stone.  Instead, I ignored her lies for the following months until the day I encountered Ivy and her news that Stone had been deported, had been cut off from the land just as Psalm 37 and Mr. Packer promised. It is possible to surrender and win.

imageAll of my life before that day I had been a doer; I prized my fighting spirit.  “Scrappy” is what people called me and I smiled.  “A firecracker,” others chuckled.  If I saw a problem anywhere, I dove into its midst to solve it.  My intentions were always good, but my results?  Not so much, since this revelation was happening  smack dab in the middle of a prison sentence.  I know firsthand that ‘doing’ may fail you.

The compulsion to take action, particularly to help another person, is laudable but it can also land someone in trouble.  Particularly for modern women who juggle children, spouses, careers, hobbies and community involvement, the need to do, do, do and to go, go, go overextends them and often they neglect themselves, eventually wearing thin, losing stamina.

I am unmarried and childless, but I still recognize how doing can undo a woman.  I was the caregiver to my father after he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke.  I remain grateful for the chance to help my father and thankful that he survived his illness, but I refused to allow anyone else to help me shoulder the load.  “I will drive him to the neurologist,” I told my mother.  “I will close his law firm now that he is retired,” I said to my sisters.  “I will buy the broccoli, whip the cream, scrub the toilet bowl.”  Everything that needs to be done will be done by me only, I thought.

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Elsa has it right.

It never occurred to me that not doing something – either by permitting another helper to fill in for me or choosing to do nothing – was an option.  For too long, my self-esteem depended on another person’s depending on me – and only me – for everything.  Psychologists call this need co-dependence, but at the end of the day, it’s just chaos-causing busy-ness.

Sitting in the dining hall, toying with my Salisbury mystery meat the day Ivy told me about Stone, the revelation that doing, saying nothing was acceptable, might even work out in my favor, forced me to examine what a fuck-up I was with friends.  I always reserved the last word for me.  Small slights that were probably unintentional always invited and deserved response, at least in my opinion; I rarely let anything go and some of my relationships suffered as a result.

imageMy relationships that suffered less were not much healthier.  Even if I held my tongue with certain people, I contracted to do more than my fair share of the work in the friendship, thinking that I needed to exert extra effort to keep the other person in my circle.  Like I said, I was a doer.

I kidded myself to think that a woman can never be a responsible citizen, a good friend, a dutiful daughter if she picked her battles.  But the news of Stone’s deportation taught me that a woman will become undone if she enters every fight. No woman is nothing if she cannot do everything. She just might be blessed with everything when she doesn’t do anything.

When I went to work for Mr. Packer in the kitchen a few months later, I told him how Stone was cut off from the land.  Mr. Packer is as true and thorough a believer as you can find, but his eyes still wide with wonder at my story of Stone, Packer and Psalm 37.

“Amazing,” he said.  “Look what can happen when you just let go.”

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19 January 2015

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19 January 2015

Letter from a Niantic Prison

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“So… where’d you get the envelope? No stamp on it.” Captain Soprano questioned me.image

Except for the one on Soprano’s desk, all prison envelopes bear the same stamp on the back: “This correspondence originated from an inmate at a Connecticut Correctional Facility,” a warning that the mailroom staff could easily shorten to: “IGNORE.” If Alabama’s Department of Correction imprinted this type of advisory on its inmate envelopes over fifty years ago when Martin Luther King, Jr. mailed his esteemed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” no one would have ever opened the fucking thing.

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A Letter from a Birmingham Jail: the most famous and important letter from an inmate. They let Martin Luther King, Jr. type his, but not me.

You would pass over prisoner mail too, if you received it, just like everyone else does. We understand our confinement neutralizes us. We cannot call you or even alight your doorstep to pitch a bitch fit or, even worse, go totally postal on you with an illegal firearm. What hurts more than being ignored by people on the outside is what the guards do to your letters inside the facility. Mail tampering is as central to the penal experience as a lock or a lousy mattress. I still wonder how King got his letter out to the clergymen at all.

Addressed to my father, the envelope that Soprano and his investigator plopped in front of me lacked the mark of the prison’s mailroom. The commissary makes mistakes sometimes and misses one envelope they sell. The mailroom would have mindlessly stamped the missive’s wrapper and freed it to the United States Postal Service if any other inmate’s name and inmate number appeared in the upper left corner, but mine? Mine beckoned a formal investigation.

“Commissary. I got it from commissary,” I confessed. In any prison, the commissary is the lone legit game in town. It was the only place I knew to buy an envelope. It was the only place any prisoner could buy an envelope.

“Well, we called them and they said they don’t sell stamped envelopes.” Soprano lowered his gaze at me as if he had trapped me.

“Aren’t you calling me in because this one doesn’t have a stamp on it?” I asked. Soprano and Co. said nothing. “Uh… stamped envelopes are the only kind of envelopes they sell… Aren’t you in charge of the mailroom?” I couldn’t believe I was explaining the innards of the mailroom to the corrections captain charged with running it.

“Well, if that’s the case, do you have receipts for them?” he challenged me.

“Yeah, actually, I do, back in my cell.”

imageSoprano looked surprised and sent me off to fetch.  As I pushed through the double-glass doors of the administration building I weighed which was worse: the reality that people slight inmates by not slitting open their letters or the fact that every piece of mail a prisoner either sends or receives will be tampered with. Inside, Big Brother does more than watch, listen and read; he also rips, steals, chucks, defaces, alters, meddles with and corrupts a prisoner’s correspondence which – in lieu of expensive collect calls or cattle-call personal visits – is often the only gate a prisoner can use legally, the only portal to the outside world.

Correctional mail tampering is so pervasive and so old that even the United States Supreme Court acknowledged it over twenty-five years ago in its decision in a case called Houston vs. Lack. Way back then, the highest court in the country found that prisoner mail was so unfailingly fooled with that they established what we call “the prisoner imagemailbox rule,” law that states that legal mail sent by an inmate to a court is deemed filed the day that the inmate drops the letter in the prisoner mail receptacle, rather than on the day the court receives it, because inmates correspondence was so rampantly and severely delayed by prison staff.

As I walked back to my unit, I counted the molestations that my personal or “social” mail had withstood: a guard opened another letter to my father and inserted two pornographic pics, my People magazine arrives with a crossword completed in pencil even though is easy enough to use ink, another guard labeled my mail “Not in this unit” and tossed it in the trash, I received one issue of a 26-week subscription to Sports Illustrated. There were so many that I couldn’t even sort the mail problems in my memory.

One wonders why someone would bother to note that I was not in that housing unit (Thompson Hall as noted by the TH inside a circle) when the guard was going to throw this out. I saw it in the trash when I went into the guards' office for a roll of toliet paper.
One wonders why someone would bother to note that I was not in that housing unit (Thompson Hall as noted by the TH inside a circle) when the guard was going to throw this out. I saw it in the trash when I went into the guards’ office for a roll of toilet paper.

The problems with my legal mail were much more serious. Like me, many inmates represent themselves either because they can’t afford a lawyer and do not want to burden their families financially or they have already experienced attorney assistance and it’s the reason they’re in the can. Sometimes courts appoint attorneys in habeas corpus petitions – proceedings to secure someone’s release from custody – but the inmate must timely file the initial petition herself before an lawyer takes the case. The reliability of the prison Pony Express is vital to the self-represented inmate; the mail is sometimes the only way to send yourself home.

When I experienced severe delays with my legal mail in 2009, early on in my sentence when I still believed that upper-level management positions in government were occupied by people who gave a shit, I filed a grievance and hoped that official channels would route my envelopes more accurately because a prison grievance is supposed to be like someone on the outside saying: “I want to speak with your supervisor”; it should be the death knell for bureaucratic bullshit. But, per usual, things work differently for prisoners; it’s not a death knell for bullshit but its baptism. The grievance coordinator rejected my complaint outright, replying that the prison had the right to review my mail.

I never disputed their licensed invasions of the mail; my beef was that the delay incurred by the review was unreasonable and unlawful. I wrote this on a request form and sent it to the grievance coordinator but never heard back even though the request form didn’t have the “This correspondence orginated…” stamp to tell her to trash it.

The next time I experienced a severe delay with my mail was when the clerk of Connecticut’s Appellate Court didn’t receive certain documents I mailed for over six months. So I filed another grievance.image

Within two days the grievance coordinator, Officer No Brains, appeared in my housing unit with her muscle, Officer Brawn from the prison’s alleged “Intelligence Unit,” three or four thugs wearing fabric badges and penchants for gossip, which they call ‘intelligence.”

“Bozelko, this is your official warning that if you file another complaint about the mail we’ll ban you permanently from the grievance system… for abuse.”

“How am I abusing the system?” I challenged them.

“Read your handbook. Repeat complaints about the same problem are abuse.” Officer Brawn informed me.

“But I grieved two separate incidents. It’s the same problem but different instances of it,” I explained to blank stares.

“They’re both about mail,” the No Brains told me, her eyes slitted with condescension.

Instructing people who have power over you is a dicey situation. You never want them to think that you think you know more than they do but, in prison, underlings usually know more than the brass.  So I tread with both persistence and caution to break this Brawn-and-No Brains stalemate.

“So one grievance about mail prevents another grievance about mail, even if one alleges that the mail policy is wrong and the other complains about mail tampering? They’re not the same thing,” I said.

Officer Brawn explained the entire situation, simply, in three words.

“We’ll ban you.”

“OK. Just ban me then.”

The Department of Correction Administrative Remedy system: government fraud at its finest.
The Department of Correction Administrative Remedy system: government fraud at its finest.

No Brains and Brawn looked at me incredulously. They weren’t  of their minds for doing so: I admit that my response was unusual. But Brawn et al.  failed to understand that it was also strategic. Unlike many inmates who do not take the time to familiarize themselves with the facility’s own rules and procedures, I actually read the Inmate Handbook distributed at admission. And from reading it I knew that any ban entailed an affirmative showing of abuse to the warden; they would have to show him my complaints. I figured that any foray into the alleged abuse for the big, bad ban would reveal the content of my complaint, thereby apprising the warden of my mail problem which he would then solve.

No Brains never sought to ban me but I still stopped grieving my continuing mail problems anyway. Now instead I just swear out affidavits attesting to the date I mailed the envelope and lean back on the Supreme Court and their mailbox rule, the only guideline that really protects all those envelopes stamped in block black capitals that they originate in a prison.

When I reached the unit, I grabbed a stack of commissary receipts – counteracting mail tampering is expensive in the joint – brought them back to the administrative building and handed them to Soprano in the hallway outside his office so he could examine them.

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A commissary receipt reflecting a “STAMPED ENVELOPES” purchase. York Correctional Institution has sold stamped envelopes for longer than Soprano has worked for the Department of Correction but he still hasn’t caught up to that fact.

“Huh… stamped envelopes,” Soprano read off the laser-printed page. He seemed legit stumped.

“That’s the only kind of envelope they sell. I told you.” I pointed to the proper lines on the receipt. This ‘investigation’ was one of two things: either it was proof that Captain Soprano was the most incompetent civil servant I had ever encountered – a tough contest to win, especially among Department of Correction personnel – or this was pure harassment because there was no way that Soprano didn’t know what kind of envelopes the prison used and that I got mine from commissary; those were the only two choices given the titanic idiocy of the whole scene.

“Can I take a copy of this and then close out the investigation?” Soprano asked me as if he needed prisoner permission to do anything. Soprano’s soldiers had tampered with and confiscated my paperwork for years, now the boss was asking me if he could take a copy of a document that was already in the prison’s database of what I had purchased from the commissary. The whole situation was simple-minded yet complex in its confusion: I had to prove that I bought a stamped envelope when mine wasn’t stamped. It seemed like a logical impossibility except I had just done it. I shook my head and shrugged.

“Sure, go ahead. Seal it up.”

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12 January 2015

The Grass Is Always Meaner

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Sperry the supervisor was chatting as he spread the Sun Butter – the new peanut butter perfidy that the prison foisted upon us- on his wheat bread. Instead of peanuts, Sun Butter manufacturers use sunflower seeds into a baby-diarrhea consistency spread. The supervisor bit the sandwich and almost choked.

“What the hell is this?” he shouted.

“Sun Butter,” Bengals told him.

“It’s made with sunflower seeds,” Green Bay informed him.

“It replaced the peanut butter,” NY Giants said.

This is Sun Butter.
This is Sun Butter.

“What… some flower child out in California thought this would be better than peanut butter? Well… fuck you asshole!” Sperry shouted to the theoretical flower child on the opposite coast and chucked his sandwich into a trash can. It’s always interesting to see a jailer get jailed himself, even if he’s only bound by the taste of Sun Butter in his mouth.

Not that the taste of Sun Butter is the worst confinement that the corrections staff can face. The administration has tossed more than a few (but still not enough) male guards to the lions of criminal prosecution for sexual contact with inmates, creating another one of those situations like when God became man or Zeus made himself mortal. People in power find out how much the powerless world sucks.

The supervisor had yet to lose the taint of sunflower seeds in his mouth when word spread like butter that a local police department arrested one of the guards, one who had worked here for several years, for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend very severely. The judge set high bond.

imageI do not know for sure but I think the guard eventually bonded out of custody. Until that point, his own employer penned him in. This guard knew what the people watching him thought of him – as a corrections employee he was probably a higher profile inmate than his cohorts – because he thinks those same thoughts about us. Being new in confinement, he wore his uniform, a different one still issued by DOC,  24/7; anyone admitted to a Connecticut prison  has no pajamas at first. No one can sleep in their underwear because they might flash a guard. He ate question-mark cutlets that pass for protein just like we do. To post his bond, he wrote a request form to a correctional counselor who probably worked for the department for far fewer years than he to schedule a call to a bondsman. Then he sporked over a retainer to a lawyer who met him at court, a place twenty-five miles away that takes eighteen hours to go to and fro. He likely saw guards he already knew from working with them before they transferred out of York, apparitions from posts gone past whose awkward greeting (if he was greeted at all) shrinky-dinked his self-esteem.

I’m not feeling 50 shades of shadenfreude. I am not happy that Sperry disgorged his Sun Butter or that the C/O took a collar. I like Sperry and the C/O never gave me a problem. But still, in my penal processing, staff have tampered with my food and my mail, vandalized my property, taunted me with names, invaded my privacy and even assaulted me. They played “jokes” on me, providing false information/orders that I would follow. Every revenge fantasy entailed some scenario where they were rendered just as powerless as I am. I dreamed of nothing violent, just instances where I controlled all toilet paper in the state, duly authorized not to spare a square to any of them. Or that DOC would hire me as a staffing consultant and I would decide who among the guards stays and who blows. You’re fired!images (10)

In abusive or oppressive situations, role reversal is the ultimate reprisal because the payback is rarely out of proportion with the original offense. Role reversal is like LASIK surgery performed on an eye for an eye. Everyone’s vision improves as their eyes well with tears in their new, bad, circumstances.

It’s no secret that my parents would forcibly hospitalize me in psych wards early on in my tenure as public enemy number 330445. I mass-produced angry tears during each of these events in 2001 and 2005. For those who have never experienced it, involuntary hospitalization feels like a kidnapping and the place that holds you for ransom is the Bizzaro World in Superman. Someone – for me it was my parents – calls the police who shanghai you in an ambulance even though no one is hurt. EMT’s physically force you onto the rig (if you resist you can be charged criminally with assaulting a law enforcement officer) that transports you on a stretcher, even though you can walk or sit upright, to an emergency department where a physician determines whether you are a danger to yourself or others. Then the good doctor decided whether you can meet your basic needs – food, clothing and shelter. If you’re homicidal or suicidal, you stay. If you are neither homicidal or suicidal but are so addled that you cannot scale even the first step of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, you stay, too.

Every single time they called, I stayed.

images (6)No physician ever actually interviewed me as I shivered in a paper gown in an exam room. Instead, the medical establishment collected clinical data on a patient in their midst from people who weren’t even there, my parents. Despite calling 911 and referring their daughter for emergency treatment and intervention, my parents never came to the ER. As I stayed, they stayed. At home. Grilling steaks or watching Masterchef. Once they ventured out after calling 911 – to a restaurant. Another time they were to a charity auction as I sat emergent, dangerous, half-naked at the hospital.

Each time I stayed, some ER doc shunted me to the psych ward where an RN with a frying pan face would greet me.

“Hi Chandra. I’m June, your primary nurse. Do you remember me?”

Of course I do, you bitch.

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A picture of the kind of Luella bag that shockingly went missing during my stay. I think June is a thief and a liar.

No one else ever had a primary nurse and I do not know why June insisted on being mine. I suspect that it was because she loved itemizing my property and clothing as I stood by, now clad in scrubs.

“I’m such a clothes horse. I like these shoes. Cheap and Chic by Moschino. Did you get these at the outlets?”

“No.”

“And this bag! I love this green. Do you remember the pink Prada one you had last time?”

“Well, I own it so, yes, I do remember it.”

“I’ve never heard of this designer Luella,” June gushed.

“And yet, somehow, she still exists.”

“And Blugirl. Blugirl. What’s Blugirl?”

“It’s Blumarine, their younger, more affordable line.”

“They have it at Forever 21?” she inquired.

“Never.”

“Boy, Chandra, you sure can dress,” she conceded as she sealed everything that came in with me in a plastic bag like the ones cops use for evidence.

“So I guess I can’t feed or house myself then, if I can clearly dress, right?” I asked June, referring to the standard for involuntary admission: inability to feed, clothe or shelter oneself.

Nervous laugh.

imageThese hospitalizations never lasted very long, mostly because I always filed for a hearing with the local probate court. Eventually the probate judge would amble in with a tape recorder – the record – and ask doctors if I should have been held against my will. I was naïve and inexperienced enough at first to expect that employees of the hospital would testify that a colleague, also employed by the hospital, had no grounds to hold me. But because the truth would have exposed the hospital to litigation and complaints – as well as lent me some sway – it never showed up. June, my primary nurse, was handmaiden to the fraud, raising a manicured hand up near her botched highlights to swear her oath. Then she lied.

“Ms. Bozelko has multiple scars on her forearms from past suicide attempts. It’s highly likely that-”

“No I don’t!” I interrupted. “Look,” I offered the inside and outside of my arms to the probate judge. At the time, I could barely believe that the hospital attorney would allow perjury like that. Now I’m shocked when they don’t do it.

images (8)Any probate court hearing held within a psychiatric setting is such a kangaroo court that I don’t understand why veterinarians don’t sit in on them alongside the shrinks, the lawyer and June, my primary nurse. The judge always ruled that it was within the doctor’s discretion to hold me involuntarily. Somehow I was always released hours after these sham hearings. I suspected that the judge knew I was right but was too much of a power player to ratify my rightness officially. After all, just like the criminal defendant, the psychiatric patient can never be right. Never. Once you get a Dx (diagnosis)  that requires Tx (treatment) with an Rx (prescription), you will be hallucinating, mistaken, lying or just plain wrong for the rest of your life. I had no idea that after that first hospitalization, I would never be right again.

Now, years later, I borrowed another prisoner’s copy of the Connecticut Law Tribune and read an article about Attorney Ira Grudberg and how he had obtained a relatively large settlement for a client who was hit by a bus. His client sued the bus company because her injuries prevented her from working. His client was June, my primary nurse.

According to the article, poor June, my primary nurse, could no longer subdue psychiatric patients because her injuries were so severe. Not working, June, my primary nurse, became clinically depressed, got a Dx that needed Tx with an Rx. When I get out, I might go to the courtroom look up June, my primary nurse’s case and find the name of the driver who hit her so I can send him or her an Edible Arrangement in congratulations and gratitude.

imageHow a person handles a reversal of fortune tells almost everything anyone needs to know about him. A real jerk will still shit on the little people, not realizing that he’s one of them. A good guy will realize that, when you have a little bit of power, the grass is really meaner on the other side and he will stop being mean himself. Sun Butter has yet to dawn again on any of our trays since the Sperry ordered the Sun Butter thrown out to make way for real peanut butter again. The guard has yet to report back to work – at least not with inmate contact – since his arrest so no one can tell how he landscapes the grass on this other side. Like the guard, June, my primary nurse, has not returned to work. She probably does not realize that she’s on the other side now because she put way some green from that settlement. It has not been forced on her yet that the grass is always meaner where she is now. Roll up your sleeves, June. Let me check your arms.

I don’t want to rub anyone’s face in his/her misfortune; I know what it’s like to lose. But I do want to ask Sperry, the guard and June, my primary nurse, without any trace of ridicule, revenge or rancor:

   How did it feel?

 

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5 January 2015

I Keep My Ideals

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“I want my picturrre! I want my picture now!!” Then came sobbing.

imageWithout even seeing her, I knew that the woman in the cell next to mine was probably cognitively disabled as well as mentally ill. She had not come down where it’s wrong to be- with me in the maximum security section of the solitary confinement unit, a postmodern dungeon- solely because she was disabled. Solitary is for the allegedly problematic inmates. Her problems differed from mine: she fought other inmates, threw tantrums, assaulted judicial marshals, all while pregnant. Before her solitary cell, the prison doctor had allowed her to recuperate in the medical unit when she bore a daughter a few weeks earlier. In the labor and delivery room, a social worker informed her that she would never see the child again; a probate court terminated her parental rights before they ever kicked in. All that remained of her newborn was a photo someone had snapped before her baby was snatched. Now it, too, was elsewhere, lost in her transfer back to solitary. Sometimes imageshe warbled, weakening during her vocal endurance test. In those dots and dashes of lowered volume, I heard the guards twittering.

“Is Demers back? Let him handle this because… I don’t know. Maybe she needs to go back to medical or wherever,” a female guard told another. Then what I heard reduced itself to indistinct conversation, which meant that they were leaving. They couldn’t tolerate the crying either.

Demers was the captain assigned as unit manager for the solitary confinement building. The unit manager is every prison housing division’s buck stopper. Demers stopped bucks and hearts, not from good looks but from bad management. Inmates told stories of physical abuse he had heaped on women in the facility; throwing one against a table, thumping another’s head against a cinderblock wall as guards pressed her against it. Supposedly he and one prisoner boxed each other blow for blow in the prison dorms. Everything about his manner- speech, intonation, pitch- said not only was Captain Demers ready for a fight, he was looking for one. I remembered a kerfuffle in the dining hall a year earlier. After guards announced the emergency, Demers sprinted from the solitary building – about 40 yards – with his arm outstretched, his finger already atop his mace’s spray button. He intended to blind every member of the scrum and sort out the jumble after.

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Demers never assaulted me but our interactions made me feel like the kid whose see-saw partner jumps off to let the other end plunge and bounce; he emphasized the power imbalance so much it felt like a smack on my ass. His favorite line remains “I get paid a lot of money to make your life miserable.” When he wasn’t justifying his salary, he laced his conversation with a sick, possessive paternalism. Guards were “my men” (even the women). Solitary was “my building.” The entire facility was “my house.” Its cliché to say he thinks he owns the place but I’m convinced that he really believes that.

This is not to say that he was kind to his personal belongings. He chastened the guards pitilessly to the point that they hated him, too. With this popularity, Demers gave me little hope he could quiet the woman next door.images (4)

Women who sit in restricted housing’s entrail fret and fume about why they sit there and when they’ll be pushed out. We welcome some noise to breach the sameness of each hour. Relentless howling, though, overloaded my nerves.

In life, powerlessness sometimes comes and goes with its victim unaware. In maximum solitary confinement, powerlessness announces itself like a repeated cheer for the opposing team. I could do nothing to quiet the screams next door so I prayed:

Please God, make it stop. I can’t take this anymore.

“AND…I…IS…MY…PICTURE!”Quotation-Anne-Frank-live-Meetville-Quotes-191457

I’m praying wrong. OK, God, please bring peace to the woman next door, comfort her and let her know that everything will be all right, with or without the photo. Lessen her load.

I heard Demers and a guard descend to our floor. The guard, a Wolverine knock-off, never earned the Boy Scout’s compassion badge, as I could tell. Actually, he is an outright dick. Saggy, feminine flab ringed his midsection, an undergut that cried ‘distended uterus,’ almost as if he had been very heavy at one point and his skin no longer fit. Bullied? Parents who overbore? A victim himself once, teaching prison’s most prominent lesson, that abuse begets abuse? I always wondered. As I saw it, the Demers-Wolverine Duo would give even Anne Frank goosebumps and an eraser  to rub out her conclusion that goodness resided in every person.

I don’t know if other inmates think of Anne Frank as often as I do – primageobably every day. Many other prisoners have never read her captivity diary, a staple of eighth-grade English, mostly because many dropped out in the seventh. But Anne Frank’s preternatural optimism and faith is almost inconceivable for the modern prisoner. Her situation differed entirely from that of 21st century prisoners; Anne faced death at the hands of social and political caprice and wondered each day whether it would be that morning, that evening, when she would witness  execution by Gestapo soldiers.

The worst we face is being demeaned or escorted to solitary – where I was – without prison comforts like pillows, washcloths or emery boards. The prospect of our own physical destruction is much less explicit than Anne Frank’s. In prison, shades of grey nuance death and destruction; each woman watches other inmates’ slowly passing, but few actually die. Besides, Anne never deserved her underground exile; each woman here earned hers, at least according to the state.image

Given her nadir of existence, Anne’s unflagging faith in essential human goodness baffles me. I once could find an excuse, a justification, for any inmate’s crime. But after watching those same perps I absolved, I concluded that evil exists, even flourishes and is often absolute. Inmates who have murdered people laugh about their victims. Some try to murder, premeditatively, other inmates while they’re here. They assassinate each other’s characters (or what’s left of them) unmethodically and without qualm. Then, of course, we have authorities like Demers and Wolverine. Evil does not reside in everyone but it isn’t homeless, either.

When Demers and Wolverine approached the cell next door, screams doused every attempt at communication. I caught a few words, mostly’ calm,’  ‘down,’ ‘quiet.’ Finally in an authoritative yet compassionate tone, Demers said:Quotation-Anne-Frank-life-courage-hope-Meetville-Quotes-98721

“I can’t talk to you if you can’t hear me. You need to be quiet for me to help you.”

“It’s… they have… I can’t find…my baby is…my picture, my picturrre.”

“OK. I want to help you. I will speak to the medical unit. That’s where you were, right? They probably still have it. But you need to stay calm and stop crying. Can you do that for me?”

I had pressed my ear to the doorjamb to hear this unexpected kindness from Demers and I scolded myself.

images (5)You give up too easily on people. See? This captain you thought was so cruel is actually an okay guy and good manager to boot. Maybe that goodness you can’t see can’t be shown because you’re in prison. Maybe tending to Connecticut’s most wayward burns these employees out and they can’t always be that Clara Barton-Martin Luther King-King Solomon hybrid you expect everyone to be. Anne was right, people are good.

My failure of faith and defection to doubt about human goodness disappointed me so much in myself that I resolved to write to the warden when I left solitary to report the kindess I saw Demers display to the pictureless post-partum among us. I had nothing to retract as I never complained volubly about him. But Demers’ performance so revised my thinking it gave me goosebumps and an eraser; I needed to confess my misperception, I had to delete cynicism’s smirch on me.images (3)

“So we’re okay now? You’re going to stop crying and screaming and bothering my staff?” Demers asked.

“Yeah,” she conceded.

“And if I can help you, you’ll control your behavior?”

“Yeah…Yeah. I promise. When you gonna get my picture?”

“You aren’t getting your picture. Sike!” Demers yelled to her as I heard him pulling her cell door closed to block the lunge of revenge at him, a deflection of violence very uncharacteristic of him. Laughing, he and Wolverine ascended the stairs leaving my neighbor wailing.

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