“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.
Because poverty is less a bottom line than it is a culture I can look at my inmate account balances – all under $100.00 – and still consider myself non-poor. I search daily for the real lines that separate rich and poor and whether there is a gap between them, a space pushing the lines apart, an area filled with fate, education or fraud.
There is a reason for the rich-poor gap and this is it: people in a culture of wealth save; even if they save a tiny bit from the small amount they may have at the time. A culture of poverty mints people who might be able to save but just don’t because they see money and possessions as ephemera; no matter what, nothing will last. This is no case of Easy Come, Easy Go. Rather it’s Rarely Come, Easy Go. This mindset makes disadvantaged persons greedy at times in order to keep what will loose itself from their grip momentarily. Other times, they so disconnect themselves from possessions that you would think all of them undertook a life of Buddhist asceticism. It’s like a material world doesn’t exist around them. Their grip on physical reality is so slack that they drop stuff and break it all the time. My stuff.
Of all my cellmates, those whose lives have been muscled by extreme need – the poorest – dropped and broke the most of my property. The only breakable items an inmate can own are “electronics”- TV’s, hairdryers, radios, CD players, booklights, fans – all higher end purchases on the commissary scale. Which means that people who have no money in their inmate accounts have no electronic equipment. So they use mine and break it. TV? Smash! Radio? Clatter clatter clatter! Headphones? Snap! Fan? Thung! Hairdryer? Crash! Other inmates who can afford electronics might need to borrow something from time to time but they take care of my bailments. I know that none of the breaking was intentional because my cellmates were as much beneficiaries of working equipment as I was. They’re careless because they conclude that nothing remains.
They also know that no one can force them to replace the broken parts because no inmate can purchase electronic equipment for another inmate.The prison prohibits anyone from buying two of anything electronic; anyone who saved sufficient funds to buy a Noah’s Ark of electronic equipment might be a target of others, the less fortunate inmates who will threaten, assault, annoy or pluck the heartstrings of women who can afford to buy two of something. Administrators would never know if multiple purchases were the product of prisoner persuasion or even payment for hired hits on another inmate. To remove all question, the rule remains one hairdryer, radio, etc., per customer, so anyone whose inmate account balance is in the black need not wear a black hat in declining to buy electronics for someone else. “You know I can’t do that,” we say and shrug.
It was probably one hundred degrees in our cell. Neither of us could sleep with my fan splitting the difference between us. Groggy, Taffy dropped my five dollar alarm clock from a six-foot-high shelf- crack!– while I was half asleep.
“Just put the parts on the counter. If it’s broken, I’ll get another one,” I said, half my mouth still frozen from the pillow’s pull on it. When I came down from my bunk to examine my fiver timer, the black and yellow hands both fell down to the “6” like the arms of a fatigued weightlifter no matter where I set them. 9:15? 6:30. Noon? 6:30. As the inmates say, that shit was broke.
To replace the clock, I needed to send the correction treatment officer or CTO a request form, await her summoning me to her office where she would complete the form to indicate I what I was unloading.
“One. I thought we couldn’t have two.”
The CTO looked at me.
“They sell only one kind,” I replied.
From the CTO, the form would travel to the property office and collide with my order of a new alarm clock. Seeing that I had properly surrendered my first alarm clock, the property officer could approve the purchase of a another alarm clock but not a second one.
Taffy cracked my clock on August 1. Because of the CTO’s unplanned absences, lockdowns and miscommunications, I filled out the form and surrendered the clock on October 22. Etched on the side of my new alarm clock – along with Bozelko, C# 330445 – is November 14, the date of sale. It took almost four months for me to spend $4.88 plus tax. That’s as frugal as it gets.
Between the clock’s breaking and its replacement were 106 days that I count among the worst of my 2275-day sentence. Many correctional realities conspired to make those 106 as bad as they were: depression, new housing in a racial menagerie with no air conditioning, my injured calf, a bed with a dent in it that went “whap!” whenever I moved. But it was really the lack of the alarm clock that was killing me.
Even though my daily 3:30 AM wake-up had warped my circadian rhythms enough that I could wake myself for work without an alarm, I woke up at all hours thinking it was 3:30 AM because I didn’t have the clock. Once, so convinced that it was my regular hour, I rose, donned my work uniform and waited for the guard to open my cell door remotely – typically a four minute wait. I sat in the dark, awake, like an asshole, but ready to go. If I had Little Larmie (I named my clock at its wake) on my TV stand, I would have known I was climbing down from my bunk at 1:30 AM and waiting in the dark for two and a half hours, convinced it was only minutes.
Besides that, without Little Larmie, my sleep became even more fitful. I became increasingly despondent and anxious because time matters when you’re doing it. There’s a phenomenon unique to prisoner’s mind that holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel wrote about in his book Man’s Search for Meaning: months and weeks strobe through while hours and days seem practically interminable. To remain minimally sane, an incarcerated person needs to know the time just to reassure herself that it is passing.
In a life confined, certain things happen at certain hours to denote an ordinary day. Doors unlock for rec at 8:30AM, then 1PM, then 6:30PM. When we don’t hear the clank of an unlocked door at our entryways as the clock hands slide into place, we know that something is afoot, maybe a fight, a lockdown or an impending search. When I look at the clock and it reads 9:01AM, 1:27PM, or 6:55PM, I know something’s up if my cell door has not opened up and I need to stay alert.
Not knowing what time it was left me assailable, unprepared, bad statuses in a maximum security prison. Without Little Larmie, I was really lost and my confusion ticked its way into everything I did. I misplaced papers, broke an irreplaceable comb (no longer in the commissary’s offerings), kept forgetting to order a new toothbrush so I had to brush with bristles that went every way except toward my teeth. I asked other inmates and staff what time it was but everyone here stays a miser with their up-to-date information; they refuse to divest themselves of even the pittance of what’s on their watches. They’re so impoverished and cheap in here they won’t give you the time, even if they broke your booklight. Time was the one thing I watched them take care of.
I longed for Little Larmie. When he was around, I would listen to the Patriots play on the radio (TV broken by another cellmate – the Smash!) and watch Larmie’s red second hand pulse around and around. I watched the consistent jerkiness of Larmie’s minute hand as it pushed or tugged the hour hand along with it while I edited briefs. Larmie was my most reliable companion in here.
Supposedly we perceive time as moving more slowly through traumatic stretches in our lives. I believe it; I did a year in seg between May 2 and May 30. To that extent, every prison sentence should feel like it takes forever but sometimes time goes too fast and we need clocks to keep us grounded. To do time means you twist it in your mind until you totally deform it, puzzling yourself to the point that you can’t live without an imposed daily regimen.
“Bozelko, you got electronics here. You want ‘em?”
So excited about my impending reunion with Larmie (well, at least his sequel), I said breathlessly: “Yes!” I waited as the inmate behind the commissary counter ground my name and the date with the etcher into Larmie the Sequel’s side like I was about to be handed Powerball winnings.
Since Larmie the Sequel began sitting on my shelf, things are better. I’m writing more, I’m in a better mood, less anxious as his hands circle his face at various speeds. It’s almost as if I can’t feel better in here unless I count up all the time I couldn’t save.
“Course not. He had a nurse in the room with him. They’re complicit. They cover up for each other in here,” Charity answered.
“Do you think they’re attracted to places like this?” I returned. She nodded glumly. I was a bit sickened, too. I usually like it when I see something I’ve studied in school turn up in reality but now that I saw the Euthyphro Dilemma from one of my philosophy classes in a real-life application, I practically needed a doctor.
The Euthyphro Dilemma is a philosophy lesson from the classical philosopher Socrates who asked a prosecutor in Greece 2500 years ago this question: Are people pious because God loves them or does God love people because they are pious? It’s the ancient world’s version of “Who’s zoomin’ who?” The dilemma pops up daily in modern criminal justice – and not because Euthyphro was a prosecutor – because a new form of his dilemma has developed: Do guards/correctional personnel abuse offenders because they’re lawbreakers or do offenders break the laws because their keepers abuse them? Or, in larger focus, do perps make victims or do victims make perps?
Best positioned to answer me was Dr. Staley, the prison’s head physician, but he was out of paging range since the facility had canned him for sexually inappropriate contact with inmates disguised as physical examinations. The good doctor required my neighbor, whose chronic shoulder injury needed checking, to remove completely her bra and uniform T-shirt so he could see her upper arm.
Then he zinged my cellmate with a rectal exam when she complained of heart palpitations. Not only did the good doctor violate his patient, he also committed an act of malpractice because digital rectal examinations engage the vagus nerve which innervates the lower abdomen as well as the thoracic area, meaning where her palpitating heart was. The doctor’s sexy rectal exam could have triggered hypertensive effects that might have complicated or worsened the symptoms that slid the inmate into his medical melee in the first place. Remember doc: what happens to the vagus nerve does not stay on the vagus nerve.
Days after learning of the medical professional’s departure, I heard that one of the prison chaplains had a near-rectal exam when the warden booted his ass for throwing a book at an inmate, misconduct I personally found redundant given the fact that the Book of Law chases every prisoner inside these walls.
The Euthyphro dilemma weighed on me heavily post-Sandy Hook. Because rampage killers are obviously nuts in ways we either won’t understand or can’t predict, Adam Lanza put everyone on an unfair and misplaced high alert about people with both diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illnesses; we think anyone with psychiatric problems is about to victimize someone. The stigma that follows from these unreasonable precautions does nothing to stop crime, to stop victimization. Actually, it reverses the perp and the victim. By that I mean that people diagnosed with mental illness are statistically predispositioned to be victims of crime, not purveyors of it. The truth is that a person burdened with sub-par mental health is much more likely found at the short end of crime’s stick than carrying a big one and mumbling softly. When one considers that an untold percentage of prisoners suffer from mental illness, a prison becomes a rich reservoir of potential victims. So plentiful is a prison’s confines with easy marks that I think word circulates in creep coteries and they log on to the Department of Correction’s website, find the Employment page and click “Apply.”
The reason for this phenomenon is obvious: the victim’s diminished credibility (at least in society’s estimation), bad judgment and lack of social supports suture themselves together to create the 21st century’s version of Frankenstein’s miscreation: the person to whom you can do anything and get away with it. For instance, the prison’s own Trapper John would not have done to a patient in the free world what he did in here to a woman complaining of kidney pain, namely a pelvic examination of her while standing and leaning against a wall, legs spread and undies undone. He never ordered a blood draw or palpated her back, he only did this stripper move with her as clinical inquiry. Doc, you are so Vegas!
It’s possible that working with herds of manipulative women turns people who work behind bars into predators. Exhaustion and depletion arrive after long exposure to incarcerated chicks and would cause a halfway normal guard to quit, transfer, or change his post so as not to turn into an animal. If it’s true that victims make perps, i.e. exposure to certain disenfranchised populations drives their keepers so mad that they end up harming the people they are supposed to protect, then the process of rehabilitation is not one of improvement but of institutionalization for anyone with any affiliation with the institution. In short, if prisons can ruin guards in this way, imagine what it does to the prisoners.
The warden terminated Dr. Feelgood and the Pitching Pastor but neither has been charged with a crime. That malady we call an arrest should fit into the doctor’s occupational prognosis but he has the antidote: power. Even though the physician is obviously mental, his medical license and education mask (sort of) his insanity. At the very least, they mitigate his lunacy. And the chaplain who works with prisoners? Everyone sees him as unblemished because he wades into the muck of mental illness and criminality for forty hours each week.
I was impressed that the warden fired the doctor and the chaplain; usually misconduct by staff never takes a collar because the inmates who report witnessing misconduct are discredited by the fact that they are inmates who witnessed the misconduct. Then I discovered that the warden had “objective evidence” of their misdeeds: a report from a nurse in the examining room with the doctor and a video of the chaplain’s pitching practice. Apparently, no one had covered up for the doc when his check-ups no longer had any checks on them. Maybe the book the chaplain threw was the Bible and he pissed off a God-fearing guard who reported him. But the saddest part of Dr. Staley’s service was the fact that no inmates, fearing investigators would not believe them, reported either the doctor or the chaplain because they did not know that what they were experiencing was against the law.
“My mother never took me to a doctor! How was I supposed to know?” one woman in the kitchen confided in her friend, a bit too loudly, when she described how Dr. Staley asked her to take off her shirt to examine her thyroid, an assessment that takes place above the collar.
I wondered how many other stripper-style exams and deflected shots happened that only the inmate witnessed. Those will remain unreported. Did only reported incidents ever happen or did incidents that are not reported never happen? Another correctional daily dilemma.
Hopefully with us non-credible women out of the way as witnesses, the warden has a clean line of sight to throw the book back at both men and lock them up, making them ready to be pounced upon by other predators. Letting them roam free with stethoscope and crucifix would only prove that I’m right; they will never pull this crap with women outside the prison, women who are not inmates.
“You’re right, Charity. Perps make only certain people their victims.”
I could tell she was trying to ear-hustle my phone call and knew I was about to hang up. S.T. had been eyeing me for the second half of the call.
“I’m broke and I’m hungry,” she announced as she slapped down her last card and got up from the four-man table. Her Three-Five-Nine game was over. Her opponents remained seated, reading the backs of their cards.
Everyone played cards at York. The Department of Correction had printed and distributed decks of cards to all inmates at no cost; the back of each card displayed the picture of a murder victim in an unsolved case along with the phone number of a toll-free tip line that inmates could use to drop a dime even if we didn’t have a penny.
Prison does more than just punish crime; it can solve it. I would advise anyone who wants to crack a case to stop going to cops and hitting ‘em where they ain’t; interview inmates instead. Prisons contain a bevy of witnesses. Most people who engage in serious criminal activity rarely run with a mainstream, law-abiding crowd; they hang with others doing the same dirt. That’s why RICO was born.
Inmates were always wondering if someone was tipping off the “poe-lice” when she used the phones, puncturing the balloon of criminal intelligence and letting out all the solutions inside. S.T. spied me finally hang up the phone and head to my cell door. I knew something was about to go down so I hurried. But it still went down.
“Do you have a soup?” – a 25¢ Ramen noodle and powder broth combination that costs sedentary inmates 400 calories of their daily energy expenditure. I avoided the soups because the expanding sizes of other inmates’ behinds showed them clearly in the red and owing these soups for their ample asses. I also avoided the inmates who wanted them. My prison patience with inmate eating patterns had already grown slim.
“Sure,” I said and handed it to her with no other conversation. I did not know her name, didn’t want to.
“I’m S.T.,” she offered.
“Yeah, nice to meet you. I’m Chandra.” I muttered without even turning to her as I closed my cell door behind me.
I shot at the door’s handle to keep it from locking. She must have seen the newspaper coverage, I thought until I remembered that the Webster Bank arrest never made the papers. Then panic flashed down my intestines as I thought I might have left my file in the inmates’ TV area until relief reminded me that a lesbian-looking lieutenant fed my incoming file on Webster Bank to a shredder in the lieutenants’ office (those jokers put on the shredder a label that read “Fax Machine to Wethersfield” – the location of Department of Correction headquarters – so unsuspecting new hires would shred what they meant to send). She ground all the paperwork into wavy ribbons of justice denied; the file contained photos of the woman who ripped me off and somehow left me charged.
“We can’t let you have this because it’s photos associated with criminal behavior,” the lieutenant told me. She said it didn’t matter than it was legal materials. I didn’t know that this rule never existed until captains handed me the deck of cards with victims’ photos on them.
S.T. never found my file and read it on the low because I never had the file with me inside the prison. She knew about my case because she conspired in it. She was the wheel, she drove the perp woman in the photo to the bank to pick up bank customers’ account information from one of the bank’s employees who was selling it and setting her up for the eventual transactions. He, as the bank, made it easy for S.T. and her accomplice to steal.
“Her name’s D.M. She did you…” S.T. told me, meaning that D.M. had perpetrated the fraud for which I had been arrested. The details that rolled off S.T.’s tongue showed up any suspicion that she might be a bullshitter. S.T. was real. I needed her and she knew it.
“Need anything else? How about some iced tea?” I inquired of S.T., trying to hide my smile. My patience had returned because I didn’t have to shuffle vindication fantasies anymore. I has just been dealt a straight flush: the name of the bitch who did me.
The way D.M. did me went like this. Flashback to a Christmas season, when I attempted to use my Webster Bank debit card to buy a Gatorade, Twizzlers and candy canes at CVS Pharmacy. The card-slider thing on the customer’s side of the cashier’s counter kept reading “DECLINED” in its little green-blue dot matrix letters even though the purchase totaled slightly over six dollars.
I threw cash on the counter and ran outside to call Webster Bank’s toll-free customer service line to hear an automated woman announce that my checking account was overdrawn, holding a balance of “negative seventeen thousand, two hundred fifty one dollars and forty-seven cents. To speak with a customer service representative, please press Zero now.” I pressed “Zero” so hard and so often, I thought I would push the button straight through the phone.
The Zero Lady serviced this customer by informing me that, within eleven days in November, someone had deposited $20,000.00 of fraudulent checks into my account and spent it, even conning someone in the Zero Lady’s office to increase the single purchase limit from $2K to $3,500 on the cloned debit card the thief was using; she needed the limit raised to drain the account fast. It was Christmas and all legitimate funds in the account were gone. I felt like Donner and Blitzen ran over my lungs with what this vixen had done.
I sped over to my hometown bank branch and completed fraud paperwork with the manager who told me that the bank would contact me soon. When I heard nothing from these moneychangers, I called the Zero Lady and she referred me to New Haven Police who casually mentioned a warrant for my arrest, charging me with two counts of forgery and one count of larceny in the first degree.
“Who the hell is she?” I asked each attorney when the prosecutor provided two photos of the alleged me – a black woman – negotiating the stolen checks on my account. None of them knew who she was or cared to find out. Right after my attorney and I got the the perp’s photos in discovery, Webster Bank mailed my welcome package: my new account number and starter checks. “Thank you for your patience with us during the time you were the victim of identity theft,” the letter read.
“What the hell is wrong with these people?” I asked my each attorney. None of them knew or cared to find out. The case had been pending for five years when I met S.T. Flashback over.
“Mouth, listen. I know who the black woman in the picture is,” I reported to my attorney over the phone in an elevated whisper. She moved to dismiss the charges, not because the photo wasn’t me but on the grounds that the case was too old and violated my rights to a speedy trial because it had collected dust in the prosecutor’s office for five years. Identifying the woman in the picture should have held off a trial for me on the charges. Instead, it cheered the trial on. At the hearing on dismissing the case, Judge Jon C. Blue announced: “You want a trial quickly; you will get it. We start picking a jury tomorrow. Adjourned,” he said, banging his gavel. A new, higher-stakes game had begun.
Scrambling in preparation for a trial she thought would never happen, Attorney Mouth collected D.M.’s probation photo – she had been convicted of criminal impersonation and larceny – and it matched Webster Bank’s photos of the African-American woman. The bank still swore she was me, a theory seconded by the prosecutor – Webster Bank’s dildo, because he was bald, long and the bank was using him to screw me. The dildo actually had the balls to suggest that the photos were me, just wearing “black-face makeup and a prosthetic nose.”
The trial ended with a hung jury but not after Webster Bank’s attorney flung himself around the courthouse doing whatever he could, saying whatever he thought would work to keep S.T., D.M. and Webster Bank’s manager off the witness stand. The jury should have acquitted me but neither the African-American woman’s identity nor S.T.’s testimony was ever presented to them. None of them knew or cared to find out. Even though inmates had essentially solved this crime in prison, the solution was never leaked, no one ever connected the truth from the inside to the outside world through toll-free call or testimony.
The statute of limitations left S.T. and D.M. and the bank employee beyond its reach; none of them were ever arrested for, much less convicted of, many of these identity-theft doings. Still, solving crime in prison appears to be in the cards for us because the Department of Correction printed another deck for distribution with the word “solved” stamped across several murder victims’ faces. Someone’s story escaped to the proper ears even if my Webster Bank case was never completely solved. My story is so American-justice, though: I never could have attempted to solve one case if I hadn’t been jailed for another.
When I watch inmates’ hands playing cards, slapping down those state-issued, cold-case cards with their questions that remain, I know that mine were at least answered even if they were never avenged. That’s the hand I was dealt.