You can’t handle the truth. So here’s some fiction.
To start from the beginning and read the “X” all the way through to this installment, click here. To read last week’s section, Part Four, click here.
“Stamp. I did,” now came the voice through the crack in the door from Cecelia Negron.
“What’s your prob?” he asked her.
“I’m hungry,” she whimpered, echoing a chronic complaint in the SHU where none of the inmates could bring their personal property, including ramen noodles and peanut butter, oatmeal crème pies and mackerel filets to supplement the high-calorie, low satiety prison menu. SHU prisoners often tried to cajole an extra apple from a guard or even ask for a piece or two of the Orville Redenbacher’s microwave popcorn they watched him toss into the countertop model in the kitchen area of the unit. In critical times, they requested another tray of the chow hall’s food, deigning to drag a spork through either the liquid lumps of the chicken stir fry that was neither stirred nor fried or the matte patina of the mucous-resembling gravy that accompanied the country fried steak, mashed potatoes and green beans. Only pregnant inmates and ones wasting with AIDS or end stage renal failure were approved for extra portions, so even the most desperate inmate was usually shit outta luck if she were hungry.
Years before, another SHU inmate, Mariangela Locobella, figured that she would empty her tray and then complain that she received an empty tray to new guard recruits who would worry that they would be grieved for not providing a meal to someone in close custody. Unlike other inmates, women who lived in the SHU could not just find a lieutenant or a captain on the compound to complain that one of the guards had given her just one chunk of her chicken salad and the like. Usually the new jacks ran to the chow hall and scurried back to the SHU with a new tray to stave off any problems until the reporting of empty trays grew into a phenomenon whereby these green officers needed to return with numbers of replacement trays that exceeded the SHU’s overall body count. Locabella had turned the inmate population on to a full-on scam that prompted captains to march around, bellowing to any officer in the SHU that they needed to inspect the contents of every tray before sliding the Styrofoam through the trap door. This new millisecond requirement invited a salivary backlash – guards’ spitting into the food once they had gone to the trouble of opening the tray’s lid. Even though several guards had been caught red-tongued doing this, no discipline ever came their way because, as one captain challenged to the air: “So what’s the complaint? They got extra.” Still, presumption favored the distribution of full trays and guards summarily dismissed complaints of empty or incomplete ones.
“Come on, Negron, it’s like the oldest one in the book,” he exhaled and threw his head back.
“ I can take a tray and a little more…” she retorted and pushed her tongue into the inside of her cheek, the universal sign language proffering oral sex, but Stamper wasn’t even interested, even flattered anymore. His emotions, his libido, were so flat he had practically become smooth.
“No fuckin’ way,” and he turned to leave the housing floor when he wished that Larkin had been the one to ask. It would be misconduct – Providing False Information – for any prisoner to say she received an empty tray when she received a full one, especially in such a bald manipulation to get more food, something to which she was not entitled. A warm flush, the one that rises after a half of a beer has sailed down your gullet, appeared in his neck and chin. It was the heat of new strategy, the antidote for stale thinking, a thaw for people frozen in ineffective patterns. e chucke
He chuckled at the prospect of gaslighting Alana Larkin with truly empty trays; no one would ever assume she was telling the truth. He laughed even harder and did not even care as the other guards looked at him askance, thinking he might be disturbed, especially at how he laughed so uncontrollably when the lunch cart arrived for his distribution.
“What’s for lunch today? I might have to partake myself,” Stamper announced out loud, opened the cart and popped open a tray. “Oh, these McRib things. NOT bad.” He pulled out the tray, placed the meat molded into the shape of ribs on some wheat bread and ate it with one hand as he emptied the rest of the trays onto a smaller cart he could wheel around the tiers of the SHU. “But baked beans and kraut are not my thing,” he said and dumped the remainder of the meal out of its white Styrofoam housing. This will be Larkin’s tray, he thought.
He watched it bounce with emptiness when he landed it on her open trap door. When she had only touched it, didn’t even pick it up yet, she knew it was empty already.
“Fucker! You threw out my food!” she screamed as Stamper closed the trap door.
“No, I didn’t. I ate it, you bitch,” he called back to her as he rounded the rest of the cells with his meal deliveries.
When he finished and returned to his control desk, Bruno D’Auria knocked on the doorjamb.
“Stamper? Uhh… we got a problem.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Well, Barando, in Room Three of F level? Well, um, she yelled down to Larkin that she saw you eat out of a tray and then give that one to her. I guess Barando heard Larkin screaming and then she got under the door and told her.”
“How could Barando even see that? That area is as tight a blind spot as they come.”
“Well, it’s not a blind spot to cell three down there,” D’Auria told him. “So… now…Larkin wants an LT to tell him that she didn’t get a meal.”
“So go get her another tray. I can’t. I’m in here.”
“Yeah, Stamp, I would if there wasn’t this new thing about the missing food and all the stealing.”
“You think they’ll bust you for one tray? Tell ‘em it spilled.”
“Alright, Brun. I’ll go. Cover me,” Stamper told his partner as he grabbed his DOC jacket from the back of his chair and headed for the door for the fifteen second walk to the prison kitchen.
When he arrived at the kitchen, Nicky Salvano, a cook whom one of the local casinos fired for sexually harassing the cocktail waitresses, was working. Stamper recalled another inmate downloading him on Salvano when he came to work at Hampshire. Stamper remembered overhearing one of the mental health counselors crowing about him on the prison walkway: “Any guy who actually gets canned these days for sexual harassment with all the receding shades of “hostile environments” really knows how to cross a line.” Nicky Salvano fit in immediately.
“Salvano, I spilled a tray. Need another one.”
“Take whatever you want,” Salvano said, nodding toward a stack of extra trays.
“With all these extras, what the fuck is the big deal about counting meals and all that bullshit?”
“Just another way to bust our balls. You already knew that, Stamp.”
“Tell me about it. I’ll take three if you don’t mind, save me a trip in case of a new admit to SHU.”
“Like I said, take what you wish.”
“Thanks,” Stamper said but turned to Salvano’s desk before he left. “You have a marker here?” he asked.
Salvano pulled out a fat black Sharpie from his breast pocket. With his hands full, Stamper stuck it in his mouth, the cap end between his teeth so he could pull the ink base away to draw an “X” on the top of one of the trays.
“Thanks Sal,” Stamper nodded toward him as the older man chuckled.
“I know what game you’re playing, Stamper.”
“What game?” Stamper laughed hard.
Stamper returned to the SHU and placed all three trays on the delivery cart designated for Larkin’s floor.
“You need a cart for three trays?” D’Auria asked and rolled his head Stevie Wonder style, body language for You’re ridiculous, so ridiculous that I’m turning away from you.
“I thought that you became a CO because you knew that state employment was the last place a lazy person could hide,” Stamper taunted him in return. He rolled the cart to Larkin’s door, opened the trap and lowered his head to its opening.
“The maitre’d tells me you were dissatisfied with your meal. Is there something more I can get you?”
“Leave me alone!” she screamed. “You’re fucking with me! Why do you keep fucking with me? You dumped my fuckin’ tray…”
“Listen. Chill out. Minor fuck up. Nobody dumped your food. You have a tray right here. You won’t starve, OK?”
With these words he picked up one of the trays and placed it on the trap door’s opening. Alana grabbed it and flipped open the tray’s lid.
“Wait! Larkin, I am so sorry. That’s actually not yours …” Stamper said reaching into the door’s opening.
“What’s not mine?”
“That tray. This one’s yours,” he said and held out the tray marked with the “X” through the door for her to take it.
“Why is that my tray?”
“Don’t know. It just is.”
“Why am I not getting the same as everyone else?”
“Uhhh… I think that…you are,” Stamper suggested tentatively even though he knew full well that the trays were identical. He reached his other hand down to open the tray’s lid, displaying the contents “Price Is Right” style.
Larkin opened her tray and examined it, looked back at the marked tray.
“What’s the difference?” she asked.
“The difference is…see, now you’re pissing me off…that there is no difference. They’re the same, OK? You just want to complain. First, the food’s not there. Now it’s not right. You want another tray, another tray. I mean, what the fuck?”
“I just don’t understand why there’s an “X” on it.”
“Who gives a fuck why it’s an “X”? You want a “Q”? A triple “X”? How about a bar code? Will that make you feel better? Either take it or don’t.”
“Alright,” she said and traded her unmarked tray for the Styrofoam decorated with its inky “X.”
As Stamper closed the trap door, he watched her raise the tray to her nose and crinkle her nostrils in a smell assessment. Before he left the door, she placed the tray on the counter at the back of the room and inspected it closely, bending her knees to level her eyes with the tray. Stamper could read her mind: Something must be wrong with this. What did they do?
And Stamper smiled to himself and sauntered back to his desk to wait for collection time, the occasion to beg Halloween-style for inmates’ trash. When the time arrived, he walked past the desk where D’Auria and Molski sat and grabbed a clear plastic trash bag.
“Time to make the ho-nuts” he told them to riotous laughter. He smirked back at them as he entered Alana Larkin’s floor.
“On the door with your trays!” he bellowed as he sashayed to each cell door to use his skeleton key to open the traps.
“Larkin, get up. You don’t want to keep a dirty tray in that room. They smell, even if you don’t have a bunkie,” he called to her.
Lying in her bed, she got up, grabbed the tray from the counter and made a heavy drop of it into Stamper’s garbage bag. Burnt sienna sauce of institutional baked beans swelled into the bag’s bottom seam.
“You didn’t even fucking eat? You made me get you another tray that you knew you weren’t going to touch?
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well, un-hungry people don’t make other people run all over hell and gone to get them more food. You might not be hungry but you’re a piece of shit. Don’t think I’m gonna be your fuckin’ maid,” he said and immediately harkened back to his deal with Caples – mutual maids. I may not be Larkin’s maid but I am someone’s…full time with shitty benefits.
“Stamper, LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!”
“You’re on your own then,” he promised her as he threw up the little trap door and even surprised himself at how well – and how quickly – his plan had eased into routine.
When the cart with all the dinners arrived, Stamper sprang from his desk.
“All right, let’s pass these things out,” he announced as he withdrew a pen from his pants pocket and criss-crossed a ballpoint “X” on the top of one tray and raised his pen like Moses’ staff. “Let my people eat!” he boomed.
“I thought it was ‘Let my people go’ no?” asked Molski.
“It is. But we can’t do that here because it’s a prison. I gotta jet so I’m gonna get these out ASAP,” he shot over his shoulder, headed again for Alana Larkin’s tier where he beelined for her cell.
“Larkin. Dinner.” He dropped the minor entry to the cell and held out an unmarked tray. “Shit. Jesus. I gotta remember. These are for you,” he informed her as he switched the unmarked for the “X” tray.
“I don’t get this. What is the “X” for? I’m not diabetic,” she repeated as she looked down at the tray, arms crossed behind her back.
“I think they’re regular trays.”
“If they’re regular trays, then why do they have “X”s on them?”
“I have no idea. I’m custody staff, not food service.”
“Yeah, I know that. But the “X” has to mean something. I mean if they’re putting them on there. Is the kitchen putting them on there? Why don’t they just put my name on it?”
“I’m not on a special diet.”
“I never said you were.”
“So it doesn’t make sense that I get a certain kind of tray…does anyone else get a tray with an “X”?”
“Don’t know. Don’t think so.”
“It just…it doesn’t make sense,” she marveled to a closing trap door after the gingerly lifting the white foam geometry containing her meal. Again Stamper watched as she opened her tray and raised it on the palm of her hand to eye level to squint at her food, to scrutinize the Cajun sausage, mustard, mashed potatoes and cabbage’s surfaces. She slid in her sock-clad feet to the door and spoke to the window.
“What’s wrong with this cabbage? It’s kind of blue. Bluish.”
“Ahh. It does not look blue to me,” Stamper said, peering through the window at the tray. “Maybe the green of the cabbage mixed with the yellow of your mustard to make it look blue.”
“Yellow and green don’t make blue. Blue and yellow make green,” she sneered at him condescendingly.
“And why does this Cajun sausage have little black specks all in it?”
“Probably those little black specks are Cajun.”
“Yeah, but it looks like too much, you know? Like something is wrong with it.” She was searching for some agreement from him, confirmation that her suspicions were spot-on. As Stamper walked away, her face said she made no conclusions about food safety at all, and moreover, the “X” remained a big question mark.
For days, permutations of the same exchange played out at every meal. Larkin, this one’s yours/ Why do they keep putting an “”X on mine? / I’m not sure; I think they’re all the same/ Does this look weird to you? / Not at all / This whole thing with the “X”’s just seems weird. Because it was.
But David Stamper could see with each day her cheeks grew more diagonal, bones protruded a little more, collar bones rose higher and jaw’s contours more pronounced. Weight fell off her because of her paranoia-induced anorexia. After ten days, slate blue crescents ringed her eyes.
“Larkin, your tray.”
“Just keep the fucking thing. I know what you guys are doing to it.”
“Larkin,” he said to her, raising his right hand into the small window’s area. “Hand to God. No one’s doing anything to your tray.” It was the truth.
“Oh, like you would tell me?” Larkin’s delivered her last two words choppily while she downed an eight-ounce cup of water from her tap and filled another. “I know what you’re doing and it’s not working.”
“What are we doing that’s not working?” he asked, thinking Oh, but it is working. I don’t have to starve you. You’ll do it to yourself. “Look, I can’t really make you eat.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Is this some type of hunger strike, Larkin? ‘Cuz there’s a form I need to fill out for that if it is.”
“No, this is me not eating your saliva, your piss, your pus, your boogers, your shit, your cum. Whatever you’re putting on my food.”
“Look. I have no idea what you’re talking…” his continued avowal of pure food was interrupted by flashes of blue and gold in the SHU’s lobby. More gold than usual meant another lieutenant or a captain in the unit, their uniforms gold emblazoned navy. It was Rick Ralston in the SHU for a purpose other than Larkin.
Click here for the ending.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM FEBRUARY 6 – 12, 2017
Donald J. Trump signed three executive orders this week on criminal justice. He wants to resurrect mandatory minimum sentences for people who harm law enforcement officers.
Recommended Buy: In his new book, “Locked In,” Fordham law professor John Pfaff tells us the real cause of mass incarceration: prosecutors.
This Bloomberg-Businessweek story is a great look at how police departments fail to take advantage of the information available on unsolved cases and to see potential connections across jurisdictional lines. For me, this problem is not just about leaving crimes unsolved. It’s about a refusal to accept that these myopic investigations put innocent people behind bars.