25 May 2015

A Sit-Down with Soprano

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I’m not being manipulative when I say this: I don’t really know what it means to be manipulative. I’m still pawing through all my experience to define it.

imageAt its base, manipulation is lying to get what you want, so I believe everyone would have to cop a guilty plea to manipulation at some point in their lives. But, at least in a prison, nuance crawls all over the word and the behavior becomes wily, feminine, astute, persuasive. It amazes me that we use the word so often to describe female inmates and criminal defendants, populations that are obtuse, transparent and totally unconvincing.

Flattery is manipulation’s main set of wheels. Fawning compliments preface requests for favors all the time. “You know you’re my best friend” or “You’re the only one I trust here” reached my ears so many times during my stretch that, if I had a dollar for each of them, I would be writing this from my private jet on my way to the Caymans to check on my offshore accounts. You know, manipulating the tax code.

imageIf flattery is manipulation’s vehicle, then circumvention is its map. Presumably, everyone in a prison would be manipulative, at least in theory, since circumvention is the kinder, gentler word for breaking the law. Manipulation as circumvention can be registering your car in another state, listing property in a business name to save it from garnishment, using a runner or a straw man to complete your drug deals and face the headlights when a bust pulls in. But lawmakers, not breakers, build exemptions and exceptions into every law to enable circumvention so that they can avail themselves of the loophole later. That’s real manipulation.

While they never need to make empty campaign promises to keep their jobs, some guards and lieutenants are as dishonest as dirty politicians. Inmates can report the worst misconduct and before the ink of a captain’s felt-tip blue pen can dry on an incident report that libels that inmate a liar, they will have whitewashed their colleagues’ darkest sins. At least politicians build in legitimate loopholes to their rules. Prison staffers just carve the loophole around the misconduct.image

“Lieutenant, that guard just stabbed me in the stomach with a rusty butterknife because of what she read about my case online. Is that allowed?”

“I’m sure that officer was acting in her discretion…”

“Captain, the C/O in my housing unit just told me to fingerpaint his cock. Do I have to do that?”

“You do exactly what your unit officer orders. If he tells me you didn’t, I’ll fuck you with a flagrant [disobedience ticket].”

Of course, these exaggerations don’t recount specific real-life examples (well, not my real life). We don’t have butterknives here, only Sharpie markers in the kitchen. Similarly, we have no paint, especially for fingerpainting genitals; the paint might allow her to leave prints on him, objective evidence of his impropriety.

imageWhen Officer Harrey confiscated my legal papers again, documents related to the checks written in my name in Best Buy stores across America while I sat here in prison, I knew that reporting her would only invite justification. “Officer Harrey has been authorized to break the rules forbidding undue familiarity!” I found on the walkway a lieutenant I had always pegged as a creep; he has that I-have-a-teenaged-boy-chained-to-a-radiator-in-my-basement vibe but he was also the only person around with a gold lieutenant’s badge. With all the poised politeness I still have left in me, I approached.

“Lieutenant. Good afternoon. May I ask you a question?”

“G’ahead.”

“Thank you. I’m experiencing a problem with identity theft. I’m the victim and it’s been extensively documented. Can I ask you or one of the officers to sit down and explain some financial terms that I don’t understand?”

“Absolutely not. That’s your fuckin’ problem. We can’t know and don’t wanna know about your problems because we don’t care if someone stole your identity, all right? The C/O’s here – their only job is to make sure you don’t die in here.”image

“OK. So… then… why did Ms. Harrey just run off with a folder of my I.D. theft documents?” I asked, pointing down the walkway to the scene of confiscation. He said nothing as he realized how expert my skullduggery was. Then he lifted one leg to start the sprint of a cartoon character, those instances when Wile E. Coyote takes off well before his torso. He came to my housing unit to return my papers within an hour, bent over and breathing heavily from the sprint to collect my stuff.

“Thank you, Lieutenant, for all your help,” I deadpanned, unsmiling but satisfied. I had expertly maneuvered him. He was daft but I was deft.

I didn’t remain satisfied for long. My legal papers are always lost, ripped, delayed, opened and, amazingly, sometimes even delivered to me. Because mail and investigations fall into his bailiwick, Soprano, the Administrative Captain and I share a lot of face time. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Soprano must have pissed off some higher-up to be appointed the official Bozelko-liaison. I could see our showdowns stretch the distance between the double captains bars on his lapels.

image“Bozelko, why do I always need a dictionary whenever you write me a request form?”

“How would I know, Bozelko? You know the directives better than I do.”

“Bozelko, I don’t even know what that word means.”

Because I document and record misconduct with my legal papers to a fare-thee-well, I write requests and meet with Soprano a lot. After the most recent incident of document tampering, he said:

“You’re probably going to haul me into court for this. Probably going to haul me into court for all of these things,” referring to the facility’s five-year history of postal hijinks.

“I’m not hauling you into court for any of this. Do you think I’ll have nothing better to do when I get out than to growl at you over a witness stand?” I asked. I was a little insulted that he thought he was that important to me.image

He looked a little surprised and I realized right then just how prison had misunderstood me. My frantic attempts to document my diligence were, to Soprano and his mob, a giant scheme, a manipulation to squeeze a civil suit out of the Department of Correction at the ass-end of my sentence. I can’t say I don’t feel wronged by York; I do. But litigation against DOC and its various employees is a battle I choose not to pick. I think if I had been more upfront about what my exact strategy and end game were – to assure that I lost no opportunity to appeal my convictions – the prison might have treated me better. I was never trying to fool them. I just assumed that no one cared enough about me or my plight to care why I needed my mail. Assuming that I was insiginifcant to them made them think I believed I was more important, more potent than they are. The prison might not have manipulated me if the entire staff understood that I was not manipulating them.

I think I was subconsciously aware of Soprano’s and others’ fear and probably chose words that suggested that Armageddon-type proceedings might come after I left. I never had any intention of suing them and certainly did not try to cause them personal consternation but I’m sure I did. The truth is that I don’t entirely regret anything that caused me to be misunderstood. That’s probably manipulative in itself, but I never understood it that way until that November meeting where Soprano (perhaps) no longer felt so vulnerable. And in the paradoxical reality of a prison, a culture of constant defense, people expose their vulnerabilities only when they realize they are no longer vulnerable.

image“Look, Bozelko, it’s a big system with a lot of different people. Some of them do their jobs right and some don’t. I know…I know you got screwed a lot. I’ve told the staff, you know, to behave but, at the end of the day, I can’t force them to follow the rules. If I saw any of them do any of this [referring to the five-year history of postal hijinks], I’d ding ‘em [Soprano’s word for discipline] but there are limits to what I can accomplish, even as a captain,” he told me.

“Good enough,” I assented, realizing that somewhere, someday, I might have to concede that Soprano is a fair and honorable man who just happens to occupy the unenviable position of leading investigations into what really happens in a women’s prison, an impossible task given the problems the inmates and the staff both have; he has to call a winner when both the staff and the prisoners are losers. Usually, Soprano protected his own, making this quasi-acknowledgment of responsibility to me very unusual, so unusual that I’m not certain that he wasn’t manipulating me. I still can’t tell what manipulation really is.

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Posted May 25, 2015 by chandra in category "Squaring Off with Staff

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