My time in an American Jail-Cell
Reluctant to wake from a deep sleep I stumble out to disgusting juevos rancheros. I drink the milk, eat the tiny piece of coffee cake, giving away the res. My stomach is a clenched fist.
I only have a few things to pack up so I lay back on my rack to wait for 6am. That’s when they roll out the home-bodies. Even though the sheriff’s website says that this is my release date I have not had official word from the deputies.There is a kernel of doubt that prevents me from starting my preparation. Protection against disappointment and embarrassment.
6:01 comes without my name on the speaker and all my fears become real. I dig around for my girlfriend’s email that said my early release date. Feb 23rd. Today. Patience.
6:15 Patience evaporating. Dread coagulating. I close my eyes in defiance and acceptance. If I am staying at least I can get some sleep.
At 8:00am the usual list of names for sick-call are rattled off on the box. My mis-pronounced name is the last of them. Shit! That is a very bad sign. I go up to the box and give them my name.
“Do you want to go to sick call?”
“Are you sure I am on the sick call list?” I ask with quivering desperation. “I think I’m supposed to be released this morning.
“Do you want to see the nurse or not?”
“No thank you,” maybe politeness will get me out of here.
“Come down to the gate and sign a refusal,” he replies like a recording. No mention of my release.
Standing in line at the gate I hear my name called again over the box/
“This is Heureux.”
“Roll up your stuff. You’re going home.” The ‘left-hand’ announces in contradiction to the ‘right hand’ nearby asking for my signature.
I ignore the refusal form and rush back to the quad as casually as I can. Most everyone is asleep so I trade a few quiet non-hugs and handshakes as the vultures circle my small pile of shampoo bottles, comfy soaps, and extra toilet paper rolls.
The walk out is much like the walk in, only in reverse. “Throw your linens in the bin.” Put your mattress here.” I am escorted to a never before-seen part of the jail and placed in an all-too-familiar holding cell. My fear, however, is just as strong as when I arrived.
I am placed in a cell piss and B.O. scented with cell with 3 other yellow-banders. The deputy tosses in a clear plastic bag of clothes after me. My clothes. They smell musty and old and like the me I used to be.
We wait as taxi-cabs come to pick up the 20 or so others that are leaving today. I pass my arm under the thick glass window to have my band cut off. In return I receive a plastic baggy containing my wallet and cell phone. More old friends. The gate clangs unceremoniously open and I walk out, feet snuggled in real shoes, into the bright, ambivalent sunshine.
4 of us cram into a backseat , barely made for 3. The driver has to get out and shut the door from the outside. Back in the front he smiles back at us. “Vamanos” he says brightly and turns up the radio, Bee Gees singing “you should be dancing, Yeah,” as the jail fades away behind us.
This concludes the Prisoner’s Dilemma Blog.
My last full day started much like the first. French toast and sausage at 4:00 a.m. I’ve been awake all night playing Texas Hold-em. A two-envelope buy-in gets you 100 chips. I stayed up on purpose so that I would be able to sleep tonight.
Snoozed until lunchtime. The closest I come to comfort food is adding a few Romen noodles, some powder from the flavor pack, and my last bit of O’brian’s spicy sausage to the vegetable soup. The cup warms my hands. I stare blankly around at the day-room, my mind refusing to focus.
Back to my rack I defeat two crossword puzzles from the newspaper. The clock’s battery must be running out of electrons; The hands are moving so sluggishly. I long to close my eyes like I did as a child on long car trips, letting sleep act as time transporter. If I do that I know I will have a long night ahead of me.
The % beef/95% soy burger at dinner was palatable. IF I scrape out most of the hard bun, add Thousand Island and jalapenos. No-one seems to notice that this is my last supper. I’m sick of talking about it anyway. Mostly.
As I settle in at 5:00 p.m. to read the last bit of my last book the universe makes a sub-sonic “clunk” that I feel in my soul. I look around and it is frighteningly obvious that the tank has passed me by. Everyone is having the same conversations they always have after dinner, but suddenly they have no connection to me. Shunted to an alternate siding our paths are noticeably diverging. I’m being left behind. The feeling of abandonment bring back too many memories. I start giving away my less valuable valuables, trying to reconnect, further driving in the wedge.
The tank preacher, ‘grandpa’ prays-me-out during the prayer circle. His words are intimate and personal, summing up my time here at George Bailey. Indistinguishable from a eulogy, he releases my soul and sends it on to the world outside, an afterlife, part heaven, part hell, longed for by all. For the first, and last time, I let people touch me, many hands on my shoulders and arms. Lucky with his hand sarcastically on my head. Sleep comes late, but quietly.
Until my release date was looming I did not fully understand why so many don’t make the final date known. It seemed obvious that you might not want to dwell on it, and having people remind you would make that much harder, I did not know just How much of a problem it would be. Being a short-timer is apparently and invitation for everyone to engage in an intimate conversation about your date, case, house, family, car, and plans when you get out. Worse still, the more pathetic they are the longer they want to talk. I can remember my first weeks here, and feeling a compelling attraction to talk to Anthony, who was leaving soon. Living vicariously through him gave me a sense of hope when my date seemed so far away. Now I see that my questions had an unpleasant air of desperation to them.
My normal desire to help other with the difficult emotion reality of jail is being quickly overwhelmed. Every time I get my mind off the clock-stopping loop of ‘when I get out…”I am forced back on the ride by “How many days left ‘home-boy’, ‘bro’, ‘dude’, ‘O-G’, ‘Paul?” (my name is actually Pete!)
On top of these un-asked for intrusions are the vultures, sharks, and pan-handlers.
“Gimme your cards when you leave.”
“Are you taking your toothpaste with you?”
“Where do you stay on the streets? Can you get something from my ex-girlfriend for me?”
“How much coffee do you have left?”
“Is that an extra blanket?”
It’s my own fault, really. When I got my early kick I swore to myself that I was not going to tell anyone until the last-minute.
My vow lasted one minute.
Like a pot boiling over, I can’t contain my excitement. With a heroic force of will I restrict comments like, “That’s the last time I have to eat those Sloppy Joes,” to a mere 50 times per day.
Even my closest friends are ready to punch me.
Really. I’m not being dramatic.
They told me.
I don’t care.
I want to sing, laugh, dance, rattle the bars, hug a deputy.
None of which help to break me out of the mental loop that I don’t share with anyone.
I am scared to leave. Scared to be out there.
I’ve tried very hard to describe my emotional reaction to this experience. In the past month or so it feels like I have not had any. In some ways I wish I did not have this one to share.
Yesterday a guy name ‘Cinnamon’ came into our module (not our quad,though). By now you all know what it means if you have a nickname like this in jail. My friend, Lucky, knows him from prison so he was warning the guys in our tank about him.
“Dude’s obviously a fag, but don’t give him any shit. He’s a fucking professional kickboxer.”
Today, during lunch Lucky called him over to our table to say hello. Latino, medium height, jail tats from neck to wrists, smooth, clear dark skin.
“Sup, Lucky,” he said with an easy smile.
The usual recidivist-reunion conversation followed for a few minutes.
“So where’s the gays at?” Cinnamon asked, looking around like was inquiring about directions to the cereal aisle.
They joked around and pointed out prospects; casual laughter unnerving me.
“Actually they only need to be gay for half an hour, til I’m done with ’em,” he stated with a friendly-confident predatory smile full of white teeth.
I felt a split-second flicker…
Can I go home now.
Aside from crushing boredom and an inability to concentrate these last couple of weeks seem to be filled with reflections.
When I first got here I would go to bed wearing socks, pants, underwear, t-shirt, and blue shirt. The feeling of vulnerability here is palpable for any first-timer. Some even refuse to take a shower naked. Really. I never felt that defenseless, but I understand them intimately. After an incremental increase in confidence I set side the blue shirt as I crawled into bed. Over the next 4 months of subconscious fears continued to lose out in the nightly game of bed-time strip-poker. Finally, after 6 months I was comfortable sleeping in only my underwear, as long as no one saw me undress. And the covers were pulled up to my neck. And my neighbors were sleep. Now, in my final weeks, I can lay in bed, naked shoulders exposed, and fist-bump members of the prayer circle as they do their post-prayer blessings. But I FEEL naked, and I squirm inside a little bit.
I also see ways in which I have changed in here. My body feels great due to the daily yoga routine. Today, staring at the concrete as I listen to my breathing while in child pose, I remembered back to all the times I didn’t do yoga when I knew I wanted to. The number one reason being that I did not have a yoga mat. And the carpet was not soft enough. Right now, I could feel more comfortable. The #2 reason? Shyness. I was afraid someone at the beach might make fun of me. What a wimp I was.
Regrets…I have a few. But then again….
Unlike Frank I will mention them. I am disappointed I did not get in a fight. I did not want to live everyday in fear, but I was all prepared to do so. Fighting would have led to another dream; a trip to the hole. Since first seeing Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’ as a kid I’ve wanted to go to the hole. I’m also sorry I can’t share with you the ins and outs of getting a ‘special diet’. There are a dozen different individually tailored meals out there. This one guy at my table would regularly get real hamburger patties and chicken breasts. He told me that all I had to do was tell the nurse that I was allergic to soy or had bad gas, but I was afraid. One guy I know went to medical with a made-up story ended up with a box that had no cake (bad but tolerable) and no milk (absolutely unacceptable). So, word to the wise; be careful what you tell the nurse at intake about your ‘special needs’. they don’t let you go back.
I will add one more reflection in a few days when I finally see my reflection. As you might recall I decided to try avoiding mirrors while I was here. Well, I succeeded. 7 months without looking at my own face.
I bet all my pores are clogged.
Strange fight today. A 20-year-old, happy-go-lucky Samoan kid, nickname ‘Oose’, who the hell knows why, has been itching to fight for three weeks now. No reason really, just pent-up stress and energy I guess. Thing is, he is really nice so opportunities don’t come up for him.
This past week he, I, and a few others have been practice fighting, doing martial arts, and hitting a mattress rolled up into a heavy punching bag. No one so diligently as Oose.
This evening was laundry exchange. The way this works is that the trustees (inmates like us, only with jobs and privileges and superior attitudes, or so we pretend) bring bins of clothes. They lay a rolled up sheet on the floor and we are not supposed to cross over it. Standing on the other side of it they feel sage. Hah! In addition there are always 3 deputies close by as we file along to get our scratchy towels and stretched out underwear.
Some times there is some shit-talking across the feeble barrier.
Tonight that is all Oose needed.
In a blink of an eye he was over the line, pummeling the mouthy trustee. No anger, just targeted practice. I had already gotten my clothes, so I stood on the other side of the room and watched the show (does this sound as stupid to you as id does to me?). The highly trained crack-troop of deputies reacted like frightened little girls. Backing away, hands fluttering. After 20 seconds or so (a long time in a fight) Oose had pounded the guy into the 6 foot tall, stainless steel rack of t-shirts. At this point one of the deps got the brilliant idea to tip the rack over on the top of them, trapping them underneath like hamsters in a crowded cage. This squashed the festivities, so to speak.
By now we had 6 more deputies rushing in, yelling, “Lock it down. Back in your quad! NOW!!” We moseyed slowly back inside, calling support to Oose and laughing at the trustees, members of the other quads pounding on their glass with muffled hooting and arm waving. Just like in the movies.
As I strolled back, the gang of guards were pulling Oose to his feet. He stood calmly and put his hands behind his back for the inevitable cuffs. They forced him onto one of the stools and shoved his hard down onto the table. His face was turned to me.
He was grinning from ear to ear. Happier and more satisfied than I have ever seen him. Even with three days in the hole looming moments away.
What a ridiculous place! I gotta get outa here.
All the whites got covered in blood so all those who had already thrown their old ones in the dirty bin were out of luck. That’s why I’m always first in line.