“I can’t find my sneakers…Did you ask someone to clean up all the shoes again?”
Every couple of months, one supervisor would order one of the workers in the food prep unit to round up all the black rubber workboots that members of the food proletariat hid so no one else could wear them on another shift. The gathering always included a few unintended inclusions, namely the Reebok “Classic Black Running Shoes” that circumstance forced me to buy from the prison commissary.
“No. Look again.”
“I already looked again.”
“I can’t find them. They’re not there.” Walking back to my cell in my rubber work boots was not allowed. Either I found the Reeboks or I would be sentenced to wearing a pair of used white canvas Keds with zero arch support – “skippies” the inmates call them – and the ultimate sign of inmate indigence as skippies were the sole footwear option for inmates who couldn’t afford the $30.00 sneakers I was searching for at the moment.
“What do they look like?”
“They’re black Reebok running shoes,” I said as I looked down, a little ashamed that I had to admit owning such footwear. When I bought my first pair in 2008 to relieve my feet from walking on cardboard-thick, texturized rubber that qualified the soles of skippies, I was practically giddy about the Reeboks. My elation apparently transmitted itself through the phone as I told my sister I got new kicks.
“Oh. What kind are they?” my sister asked with relatively genuine interest since she had worked in the fashion office of Saks Fifth Avenue and for New Balance. I described the suede and nylon upper, the foam platform, white as chalk.
“Oh. Eww. I’m so sorry,” she said, the condolence in her voice so complete. She knew that, even if my feet felt better, drier, I was still sloshing through fashion’s underworld. I heard more sympathy in her voice at my sneakers revelation than when I told her I lost my appeal.
“Oh, them Reeboks? You didn’t give them to the blond butcher?” inserted Skinny Marie, a nosy one who always offered to wash the floor because she could stand nearby with a mop when others were talking a pretend to work when she was really ear-hustling. I know the Gospel of Matthew’s instruction is to give your tunic as well as your cloak when pressed but neither Matthew nor Jesus ever walked a mile in my skippies. If they had, they would have kept their tunics, cloaks and sandals and told the blond butcher to fend for herself which is what I was thinking at that moment. I wanted my Reeboks back.
“No, I didn’t give them to anyone.”
“Well, she put them on and walked out. I seen her,” Skinny Marie said, pointing to an area with wet streaks on the floor, proving she had been in there surveying.
Before Skinny Marie had the words out of her mouth, I noticed Green Bay’s pressing the phone receiver to his ear, calling the blond butcher’s housing unit.
“Yeah, hi, it’s Food Prep. Can you send Plinsky back to work and tell her to bring the sneakers that everyone watched her steal? Thanks.”
Within minutes, Plinsky the blond butcher appeared, clad in Reeboks, and underwent a brief interchange with the supervisor. She walked to me, blushing.
“I am so sorry. Someone who left yesterday – you know Glossy? She works second shift here?” Plinsky asked me.
“No, I don’t know who that is.”
“Well anyway, Glossy left yesterday and someone told me she left me her sneakers so I thought these were them. I’m really sorry. I had no idea they were yours.”
“OK. No problem. Mistakes happen.” She slipped them off and I put them on as she scavenged for the pair of skippies she had abandoned behind a stainless steel sink. Giants snuck up on her as she foraged.
“Did you get your sneakers?” Giants asked me.
“Yeah. I got ‘em. Everything is back to normal,” I assured him as he squinted at Plinsky shoehorning her skippies on with her forefinger.
“You mistook black running shoes for white skippies?” he asked her incredulously.
“I thought someone left them for…” she started but he cut her off.
“Either way, you’re outta here. Come to my desk to sign the paper before you leave.”
The “paper” is the rock that prisons use to scissor apart an inmate and her job. Supervisors never formally fire anyone anymore with a ticket. Instead, the bosses ding an inmate with a poor work evaluation that lacks the traditional sanctions of discipline – loss of commissary, loss of recreation, loss of phone privileges – but would cost Plinsky her job and the chance to earn time off her sentence for months. Her unofficial sanctions would be loss of freedom and loss of feeling worthwhile.
“Nope. Sorry. You’re done,” Giants told her and with a head heavy with “What did I just do?” she followed him to sign the paper that would punish her for what appeared to be an honest mistake. I felt that acidic plunge of regret in my stomach and, to relieve it, I did what every typical inmate would do, I sought to play one person with power against another.
“Green Bay, Giants is firing her for the sneakers. I never wanted that. I don’t think she knew they were mine.”
“She did seem sincere about it…” Green Bay agreed.
“So… does she really need to be fired? I mean, she wasn’t stealing-stealing. She just thought they were left for her.”
“That’s Giants’ territory. She’s his worker. It’s up to him.”
But Giants wouldn’t budge and he was right. Plinsky knew the shoes didn’t belong to her. She thought they might belong to her as a gift but she didn’t know for sure. So she guessed and got it wrong. And thus the blond butcher got axed for this mistake.
Mistakes carve a wide swathe in criminal justice as if the description as error covers all offenses. Stabbing a child to death? I made a mistake. Persistently stealing from CVS for fifteen years? I’ve made some mistakes in my life. Setting a house ablaze with someone inside? I don’t deny it was a mistake. “Mistake” is probably the most frequently used word before the parole board. We act like crimes are just like forgetting to carry the seven on a math test or spelling the word robbery with only one ‘b’.
Everything anyone does wrong is a mistake; the difference is whether it’s a capital ‘M’ MISTAKE like murder or a lowercase ‘m’ like misspelling. But for the most mistaken among society – convicts – no one tolerates innocent mistakes. It’s as if the people least likely to be perfect must be flawless in all that they do. I think some of the people whom I’ve pegged as lazy must just be frozen, fearful that a false move will always be considered a fraudulent move. Rather than suffer misinterpretation of their actions, they do nothing. And we wonder why ex-offenders fail. They’re not allowed to make mistakes so they end up making MISTAKES.
When we use the word ‘mistake’ when we talk about crime, usually we mean that it was an abberation in the person’s life, something they can correct or have corrected in them. But we end up taking the intentionality out of crime with this language. Sure, crimes are mistakes in judgment, but they are also very often completely planned. As in not accidental, not mistakes. In fact, for something to be a crime for sure, it can’t be a mistake at all. I didn’t realize that I understood this – despite all the language around me – I heard another inmate talking about how her and her husband murdered an elderly woman who let them stay in her house and then murdered her son when he came by the house to check on his mother after he had not heard from her.
“We made so many mistakes,” she confided in someone as I stood seven inches away. “I would have done everything differently.”
I hope she meant she would have done everything differently, as in not ever stayed in the woman’s house, not hurt anyone, maybe would have gone to school, married someone different, but I have the feeling she regretted mistakes within her MISTAKE, not the MISTAKE itself. I hope I am mistaken.
I think I made a mistake even saying anything to the supervisors. I never intended to turn Plinsky’s mistake into something it was not; I just wanted my shoes. Knots formed in my stomach when I looked at the Reeboks. If I had a spare pair, I wouldn’t have cared or asked where they were when I couldn’t find them. Because so few women here can afford even these crappy shoes, I always gave my old ones away when I bought new ones. I wonder if I should stop doing that so that the next time someone makes a mistake and takes my shoes, I could just forget about it and wear my spares. This must be what they are talking about when they use the phrase “generous to a fault.” I gave my shoes away and now all of this was my fault, my mistake.
When I put the Reeboks on, I noticed the treads had worn flat, incapable of those trails of sand pebbles that lodge in the crevices that trace the instep. I came back to my cell and checked off a new pair on the commissary form, this time the instead of the Reebok I chose the New Balance, a grey, black and white running shoe, so I wouldn’t remember how made the MISTAKE of killing someone’s job with her mistake. Sneaker-buying takes a while but when my waiting period reached four weeks, I asked the guard at the commissary window about my order.
“Have they come in yet?”
She licked her thumb and paged through the orders and located mine, without an accompanying box of shoes which meant that no one filled the order.
“No. No one ordered them yet,” she told me as she pointed to the line that should have contained “330445” – my inmate number – in my handwriting but was blank. “You made a mistake on the form.”
From kicksonfire.com: Remaining Defendants Plead Guilty for Stolen Nikes Worth Over $680,000
One of the plea bargain agreements requires a defendant to turn over all the names of people who bought the sneakers and how much each buyer paid.