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Thursday, August 21, 2014

When a Weeble Wobbles

By Michael Lambrix

Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down... oh so innocently ignorant of what this thing called life could still bring, I can recall a particular child’s toy called a “Weeble,” and that television commercial that always ran during Saturday morning cartoons and it still makes me smile.  It’s not so much the toy itself that brings back these memories, but that catchy little jingle they used to promote these Weebles… “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” It’s one of those tunes that has a way of getting caught in your head that can’t seem to shake.

I’m probably only one of a very few who would even still remember Weebles, as in this age of techno-toys designed to shock and awe each new generation of kids, such a simple and unsophisticated toy would hold no interest.  So, for those who haven’t a clue of what I’m referring to, allow me to enlighten you.  Weebles were small, plastic toys with a rounded bottom and an upper body formed in the image of a family.  There was the mother and father and all the children, and an entire assortment of colorful accessories such as plastic cars they could ride in, if you were willing to push.

With a little imagination and the innocence of a child, they could be fun to play with in a time when toys didn’t require batteries.  But it wasn’t really the toys that remain a memory – it was and is the incessant jingle and the way it rattles around in what’s left of my arguably still functional brain cells.  That simple sentence has become a metaphor for my life, and I can’t get it out of my head.

Sometimes when the walls close in around me, I retreat into that world of my own and compel myself to conjure up a chant.  Like the Muppets’ rendition of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a chorus of comical voices will join in a monotonic chant “Weebles wooble, but they don’t fall down… Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down…” On and on, and still, I smile.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing; instead it’s become almost a source of inspiration.  I’ve come to accept – and even embrace – the truth that I am a Weeble, and like a Weeble, I wobble, but I don’t fall down.

Funny how easy it is to tell ourselves those little lies that help us make it through the day.  Again, that song that every death row prisoner knows the words of only so well comes to mind (Bohemian Rhapsody) “is this the real life, is this just fantasy, caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.”  And reality really does suck so thank God for Weebles; and more importantly, that magical power within our own imagination that allows us to escape reality and retreat into a world in which we can, even if only for a moment, believe those little lies we like to tell ourselves and wobble through the hell that is reality and still believe that we’re strong enough not to fall down.

I look around me and what I see is a world of steel and stone deliberately designed to break the strongest of men so that through this methodical degradation of not merely the body, but the mind itself, each of us will abandon any desire to resist, and instead surrender to that fate that has stalked us through the years.

As each of us is cast down into this metaphoric abyss of lost humanity each day that passes is like that proverbial drop of water eroding even the strongest of stones.  I know like so many other around me, I like to tell myself that I am stronger than those drops of water and remain intact and year after year, decade after decade, I struggle to see that stone I thought I once was. I wonder what will become of me as each of those persistent drops of water keep coming and coming.

Whether we want to call it erosion or evolution, the result remains the same.   Recently, circumstances brought about my transfer from the main death row unit at Union Correctional, (where the majority of Florida´s death-sentenced inmates are warehoused while awaiting the uncertainty of their fate), to the nearby Florida State Prison, which once housed all of death row before they built and opened that “new” unit at Union Correctional.  Very few come back to this cesspool and of those that do, it is almost always only under a newly signed “death warrant” to await their then scheduled imminent execution on the infamous adjacent “Q-Wing.” (Admin note:  since this essay was written, Mike has been transferred back to UCI)

Although I am not under a death warrant – at least, not quite yet, [please read “The List” ], being thrown back into this beast brought back many memories.  I'm certainly not a stranger to this place that many of us have come to call the Alcatraz of the South  - and for a good reason.  Over 30 years ago I entered this soul-stealing succubus for the first time when I was once still a young man [please read “Alcatraz of the South, Part I" and "Part II"] never thought for even a moment that I would grow old within these walls as I awaited my own still uncertain fate.

When I first came to death row now well over 30 years ago, my only fear was of the unknown. I never felt any fear of death itself.  I never expected that day would come when I would be walked those final few steps and be put to death.

I certainly was no stranger to death. From even those earliest of days all around me men were dying.  The reality that being condemned to death really did mean that they would put you to death hit home even in those first few months when my first cell-neighbor was put to death.  Although a few others were executed shortly after I joined the ranks of the Row, J.D. Raulerson was the first one I knew personally.  But by no means was he the last and as I think back on this today I find myself unable to even remember many of the faces of those men I once knew, and I now wonder how many will remember me once I am gone.

I too have danced with death.  Many years ago I found myself under a death warrant and on Death Watch with only hours before my own scheduled date with death.  As my thoughts dare to go back to that time, the memories remain as strong today as they were a quarter of a century ago. It’s not the kind of experience anyone would ever forget.  Few of us ever look into the face of death and still live to tell about it, but I did, and although I was forced to confront my own mortality and even accept that I would die, in that moment in which the fear of death would have itself overwhelmed me, instead by seemingly divine intervention I found myself at peace [Please read of my death-watch experience: “The Day God Died.”

In the years that followed my near-death experience I found myself almost euphorically searching for that ever-evasive meaning of life, intoxicated by that belief that it wasn’t about heaven or hell, but that no matter what the end might encompass, it would be “alright”.  Somewhere deep within my own spiritual consciousness I transcended beyond the darkness of this mortal life and embraced that light within and it gave me the strength to wobble no matter what would come along trying to knock me down.

Perhaps somewhere along that path I became arrogant, subconsciously coming to believe that I was somehow immune from these laws of nature that mandated that every man, no matter who he might be, had that breaking point within, and once reached, those drops of water would undoubtedly erode that stone and the substance upon which he once stood would crumble beneath him.  How dare that I believe that I might had been immune when men much stronger than I could ever hope to be have long crumbled and fallen into that abyss of hopelessness that patiently awaits us all.

For a condemned man, what is hope but the sweet and seductive siren call of an illusory mistress that exists only to lure you onto the rocky shores of your own destruction?  

I laugh when I recall that as a much younger man I once was when I survived that death-watch experience, I dared to believe that I had defeated death.  But nobody defeats death and in the end, no matter whether you’re on this side of the bars or the other side out there, nobody comes out alive.

But now know that this evolution of who I am continues just as methodically as those drops of water that erode the stone.  And for that reason alone, I should not be that surprised when I awake each day questioning the “why” of it all just as I did so long ago when I first dared to think that I had defeated death.

The truth of the matter is that through that near-death experience so long ago, I did die.  I suppose some will never understand that, as most will never see that as each day passes, we all continue to evolve into the person we will yet become.  Who I was way back when I first came here is not who I am today.  Although with each drop of water peeling away the softer layers of that shell of a man I once was, the stronger attributes of the substance of who I am continued to resist that erosion until it could resist no more and gave way to that evolution of that spiritual consciousness within With that event the man that I am was born, but even he continued to erode until yet another new man would crawl out of the embryonic slime

How dare I think I had defeated death when death had become so much a part of who I am? I found myself struggling with the wish that I had died that day so long ago. If I have learned nothing else through these past decades as a condemned man, it is that there truly are far worse than merely succumbing to a mortal death.

But that doesn’t mean that I am ready to die, and I certainly am not the suicidal type.  Rather, knowing that at any time the governor can sign a death warrant on me and again schedule my state-sanctioned execution, I can’t help but wonder whether I should fight it this time, or embrace the opportunity to end this perpetual nightmare.

There will be those that will say that by even entertaining these thoughts I am expressing weakness or perhaps pathetically screaming for attention – people truly do love to throw stones.  But given my familiarity with the world I am condemned within, I know only too well that at some point all of us here find ourselves having the same thoughts.  It’s a product of the erosion and an inherent part of that undeniable evolutionary process.  Just as with each appeal our hopes of defeating death are elevated, with each denial of judicial relief those hopes are crushed. We wobble our way through these cycles of despair, but at some point we just want to fall.  

Disillusioned with the hypocrisy of organized religion, and yet paradoxically affixed to an unshakable belief in the importance of nurturing my spiritual self within, my life has become a journey in search of greater truth that might give meaning to it all, a truth that continues to evade me.

I am reminded of what I once read in Victor Fankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”.  After spending years in a concentration camp during the dark days of World War Two, trained psychiatrist Victor Frankl tried to make sense of the incomprehensible atrocities deliberately inflicted upon his fellow man by others who embraced the belief that what they were doing was not simply justified, but necessary in the interest of bringing about a better society, not at all unlike the contemporary justifications our society today continues to make in defense of the pursuit of the death penalty. One profound truth he spoke of stands out amongst all others – (to respectfully paraphrase) when a man can still find the will and the reason to live, he can find the strength to survive and the means to do so.

The will to live…think about that for a moment.  How many of us have ever taken even a moment to ask ourselves why it is that we want to live?  There are many prisons in life and as tangible as the steel and stone might be around me, it is by no means the worst prison of all. I am certain that there are many out there in the real world that go through their everyday lives in a form of prison far worse than that I am in, whether it might be a bad relationship, or a broken heart, or enslaved by alcoholism or drugs, or any other form that strips us of our hope and that will to live.  Each day becomes its own struggle to survive and all the while we ask ourselves, why?

In the end, we are all condemned to die, and nobody is going to get out alive.  And when I dare think about it, as a condemned man cast down into this abyss of solitary confinement, deprived of all that which ultimately defines the very essence of this thing we dare call life, at the end of the day I believe all share more common ground than we dare to admit.

When it comes down to it, we search for meaning that defines our will to live.  And most are blessed with whatever it is that makes their life worth getting up for each day. Yet from time to time some will be struck by that unexpected blow that tries to knock them to the ground, but because they have that reason to live, they merely wobble until the wobbling stops and their lives go on, and even when they think they’ve fallen, they never really hit the ground.

But when blow after relentless blow descends upon any man, at what point will even the strongest of men pray for the wobbling to stop and just be allowed to fall?  Where once I was able to identify that reason that kept me pushing forward, I now look out on the landscape of what my so-called life has become, and am no longer able to see that proverbial rainbow on the distant horizon. Instead all around me I see only those darkening clouds gathering with the promise of that many more storms yet to come.

Without reason, where does one find that will?  At this point in my journey that inevitable fate that I found the strength to deny through the many years now hangs over me like a dark cloud descending down. I’ve fought the good fight, standing my ground as the battle raged on around me. As so many others grew weak and gave up, I remained standing.  And for that my only reward was to prolong my misery and suffering. In the end it seems that justice will never prevail and it remains my fate to die, and that death inflicted each day.

Where I once dreamed of the day freedom would come, but like the faded photographs of a life that once was, those dreams have themselves eroded away.  Not so long ago I had even dared to believe that at long last I would be joined in communion with a hundred souls with whom I would share the rest of my days, but that too was not meant to be and again I find myself alone.  And it’s loneliness that hurts the most of all.

I also struggle with my own conflicting thoughts. Relatively speaking, there are many around me far worse off than I.  For a condemned man, some would even argue that I am blessed, as I have that small circle of friends who catch me when I fall.  When my own strength fails, they are there to support me until I can once again stand on my own feet, and few around me that have that.  And yet I still find myself feeling so alone and even abandoned by that world beyond.

In recent months, through several court rulings (denial of appeals arguing evidence of my consistently pled claim of innocence. See: www.southerninjustice.net) and other issues that have negatively impacted the fragility of my existence here. I have endured blow after blow and like a Weeble, I have wobbled my way through each blow. But in the past few months I found myself increasingly obsessed with that one simple question, “why?”  Without hope or reason, there can be no will, and without the will to live, life itself becomes a fate worse than death.

No matter how deliberately monotonous as life or death might be with the same routine playing itself out each day with little variation to that routine for an infinite number of days, each of us await the uncertainty of our own fate. I’m sure some might argue that it is that unyielding monotony itself is enough to drive any man insane. The truth of the matter is that monotonous routine becomes a sort of security blanket in which we find a perverse measure of comfort within.  And as someone who is only too familiar with the dynamics of Death Row can attest, what only too often breaks the psyche of the condemned man is that unexpected event, or series of events, that disrupts what has become an only too predictable routine.

Each of us can only see the world in our own unique way and when we do find ourselves unexpectedly overwhelmed by the circumstances, we each deal with it in our own way.  Those very few who do know me are already aware that the past months have been difficult for me at many levels .I dealt with the anxiety of not knowing whether my death warrant might be signed scheduling my execution and various courts denying review of my appeals arguing my innocence. I was suddenly blindsided by loss of my former fiancée.  Every element of my life that extended and sustained my hope and faith was suddenly gone and although I remain blessed to have the few friends who stand by me, I still felt overwhelmed and alone.  And as I struggled to find that strength to wobble my way through it, I found myself increasingly all but obsessed with but one wish – to simply fall and not have to get back up.

When my spiritual strength fails me and I must confess that more and more, it does and it becomes difficult to believe in a God of love, mercy, and compassion when all I ever see is hate, misery and suffering.  Then I find myself searching for answers in the philosophical foundations of men far greater than I could ever hope to be. For as long as humanity has struggled along this journey we dare call life, each of us in our own way has been haunted by the same fundamental questions that once again confront in my desperate attempt to make sense of it.  And I know that just as I do now battle this demon that has bruised and broken men far stronger than me, my struggle to find that strength within is a battle that I share with all those imprisoned no matter what form their particular prison might take.

What I find is the unshakable truth that even under the most tragic circumstances, what makes a Weeble wobble without falling down is a Weeble’s willingness to confront the question of “why” and try to make some sense out of the chaos. The simple truth is that as long as we ask why and search for those answers, we will continue to wobble.  Only when we no longer possess that measure of strength within ourselves and resign ourselves to that overwhelming hopelessness does the wobbling fail us and we then fall.

As I wobble my way through these darkest of days I suddenly find myself smiling at the unexpected truth I yet again discovered…being a Weeble really isn’t such a bad thing. As just as long as I still have the strength to wobble, I won’t fall down.


Michael Lambrix 482053
Union Correctional Institution (P2102)
7819 NW 228th Street
Raiford, FL 32026-4400

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Chain

By Arthur Longworth

For this essay, Arthur Longworth was awarded second place in Memoir in the 2013 PEN Prison Writing Contest. 

The physical reality of a prison chain bus is simple really. It matches its definition. 

Chain bus: an armed and fortified bus that transports prisoners to or between prisons.

But it is the subjective experience of riding on a chain bus that better defines what it is, even though it’s more difficult to pin down and differs for each individual—depending on who they are, where they are going, and for how long. Even for those on the same chain bus: it’s a different experience for someone heading to prison for only a couple of years compared to another who has been condemned to spend the rest of his life there; different for a person returning to prison for the second or third time, versus someone young and coming in for the first time. And it is certainly different for those bound for The Island or The Reformatory—prisons they can be fairly certain they will be okay in—compared to their luckless brethren being shipped out to Walla Walla. 

In Washington State, the arrival and departure hub for chain buses is Shelton, a prison on the west side of the state, not far from Seattle. It’s where prisoners are received from the counties, classified, then assigned to a more permanent prison. At any time, there are some two thousand prisoners crowded into the prison awaiting word of their fate, where they will be sent. 

Chain buses depart Shelton five days a week bound for prisons throughout the state, the prisoners on them having received final word of which one they have been assigned to only the night before when a guard slipped a brown paper bag through their cell bars with their DOC number marked on it and the coded initials of their destination. The bag is for them to pack the few legal papers and hygiene items they are permitted to have. 

At Shelton, you quickly become eager to get your institutional assignment and leave because of the conditions. A third of the reception center’s prisoners sleep on the dirty concrete floors of cells they are packed into and kept locked inside of all but a short amount of time each day. You are not fed well and allowed only brief access to a crowded communal shower three times a week. The less time you spend at Shelton, the better off you are. 

So, every evening at the reception center, you hope for a bag. Every evening except Wednesday evening, which is when they hand out the Walla Walla bags. Even if you have never been there before, you know you don’t want to go because what it is like is not kept a secret by those who have. When you make the list for the Walla Walla chain, chances are that someone somewhere has taken it upon himself not to like you, may even be trying to do you in.

Some prisoners flip when they get a bag for Walla Walla. They pull out all stops in an attempt not to go. Some threaten suicide. Others refuse to leave the cell they are in, resolved to fight it out, come what may. They humiliate themselves to no avail though. The bag is the final word on where you will be sent. Guards at Shelton are experienced in dealing with resisting prisoners and are adept at getting all transferees onto the chain bus when their time comes. If you’re on the list, you’re going to go, one way or another. 

It’s early when a guard comes to wake you, banging a flashlight against the steel bars beside your head and reading your last name off his list as though it were a question. Waiting for a response. Then telling you what you already know. 

“You’re on the chain. Get up.”

When he leaves, you sit up and pull on a ragged pair of blue coveralls. The same ones you’ve been wearing for a week. They smell, but you don’t notice because there are too many other things turning over in your mind—the turning having kept you from sleeping the few hours that were available to you. 

Suddenly, the heavy steel cell door clacks loudly, groans and grinds its way open along gritty runners, the electric motor in the security housing above it droning thickly with the effort. You hear a number of other cell doors opening as well inside the otherwise silent cellblock. Quickly, you strip your bedding from the thin mattress pad and bundle it together, grabbing also the brown paper bag you put your personal items in the night before. Pausing a moment, you look around in the semi-darkness, scanning the tiny cell one last time to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything, even though you already know you haven’t. Your eyes come to a stop on the bulky lump of a prisoner asleep on the upper bunk and suddenly you realize that you’re not going to miss this place. No matter what happens in the future, you won’t miss it. Turning, you step over the prisoner asleep on the floor (unless, of course, that was where you slept) and out of the cell. 

You gather downstairs at the front door of the cell house with other prisoners who will be on the chain bus with you. The guard who knocked on your bars not long before is there with his list, checking names off, making certain all those who are supposed to be there are present. (If they’re not, he’ll use the radio clipped to his side.) When everyone has been accounted for, he goes to the door and unlocks it, utilizing one of the large brass keys on his belt. 

Outside, it’s cold and still dark. Daylight is not even close. You follow the wide concrete walkway with the others in your group. No guard is with you, but you do it anyway because you are being watched from the gun towers. Besides, there isn’t anywhere else you can go. The walkway is enclosed on all sides by heavy gauge chain link. After a short distance, you come to the entrance of a tunnel veering off to the right, its yawning mouth giving access to a long, steep ramp leading down into the earth. Taking your cue from others, you drop your bedding there on the walkway. Retaining only your small bag of property, you go down into the tunnel. 

That’s one of the things about this prison. Each prison having its own unique characteristics—Shelton’s is its underground tunnel system. Deteriorating tunnels, cracked and leaking, they seem on the verge of collapse. If you’re inexperienced with them, it’s easy to wander off course when you’re alone; after turning several corners you might become disoriented, unsure of which direction to go. But there is no worry that you will be lost. Not for long, anyway. A crackling, disembodied voice will bark out of the overhead speaker system soon enough, admonishing you, ordering you in the right direction.

On this particular morning, though, there is no chance you will wander off course because you’re following others, more experienced prisoners who are leading the way, the sound of your collective footsteps reverberating off the damp concrete walls. Talking among the others is scattered and nervous, its murmurous trace echoing away in the same manner as the footsteps. You don’t speak. You’re too busy thinking—if that is what you want to call it—your mind flooded with uncertainty and anxiety.

Prisoners at the front of your group turn left off the main tunnel, taking another tunnel running upwards, and the rest of you follow without question. At the top of the ramp you gather in front of a large steel door and wait. It is the only thing there. That, and the camera above it looking down on you. 

After a long minute, there is a sharp clacking sound and a loud buzz. The door swings inward, held open by a guard who counts you as you step through. You are now inside a large single story building—the arrival and departure station for all chain buses—and are greeted by a line of chain-link holding pens. 

Guards are there, in the open area in front of the pens, one of them holding a gate open, ushering you inside. When you are in, he closes it behind you, threading a large padlock through the hasp and securing it. Other prisoners are already in there—a dozen of them. And more arrive in groups from other cell houses as you wait. 

Many prisoners in the crowded enclosure know or recognize each other. From other prisons or jails. Or, from the free world, perhaps. Some greet each other loudly, enthusiastically, making a show of it. Others are more discreet, talking quietly, not feeling the same need as the first type. Still others remain quiet about who they have recognized, careful to appear as though they haven’t, knowing there will be a better time for it later. 

The heavy thump of a cardboard box being dropped to the concrete floor in front of the holding pen gets your attention, as well as everyone else’s around you. Unlocking the gate and pulling it open, a guard pushes the box in with his boot and it’s rushed immediately. Small brown paper packages are being pulled from it. 

“One apiece!” The guard bellows, closing the gate again and locking it. 

You press in, asserting yourself, grabbing one of the packages for yourself before they have all been taken. Retreating, you look inside your bag and find a dirty, beat up apple and sandwich. Opening the sandwich, you see that it is dry, uncondimented, only a single thin slice of green-tinged bologna, a type of meat that has never been seen in the free world. Indeed, it would not be legal. But you eat it anyway, because you know it is all that you will have until that evening. 

The wait after that is interminable. You wonder why they brought you out so early if it was just going to be for this. The talking around you dies down and people retreat into their own thoughts. 

Finally, more guards arrive. Three of them enter the building with a clattering of chains. Lots of chains. They are weighed down with them draped over their shoulders. Marching to the front of the holding pen, they drop them in a pile. The activity stirs the people around you, get them talking again, a few asking questions of the guards who brought in the chains. The guards ignore the questions. 

These are the Walla Walla guards, the ones who run the chain bus. The Shelton guards are content to stand back and watch them, letting them conduct their business as they see fit. The difference between the reception center penitentiary guards is marked. Tolerant, even cordial with each other, yet distinct—as if from two different gangs. 

One of the Walla Walla guards is a sergeant, the stripes pinned to his collar delineating his rank, which is also clear from the way he carries himself in relation to the other two guards. He is counting the prisoners in the cage. Thirty-six, including you. You know because, having nothing else to do, you’ve already long since counted, more times than you can remember. Apparently the number tallies because the sergeant unlocks the gate. 

“First two!”

The two prisoners closest to the gate (who have positioned themselves there for just this reason—so they can be first) step out of the cage. Others move forward, taking their place quickly, so they can be next.

Most prisoners have paired up, choosing who they will chain up with. If you haven’t already picked someone, you begin to look around for someone who’s looking around the same as you. You have to be careful though, not to pick the wrong person. You don’t want someone who is too big because you both have to fit on a small bench-like seat and there won’t be enough room. You also don’t want someone with inadequate hygiene habits. Pick someone of your own race, because everything is divided into race in prison, especially where you are going. If you’re tall, don’t pick someone short, because you have to walk with one of your legs chained to his and it makes for an awkward situation. 

Then again, sometimes you can’t afford to be picky. The most important thing is that you don’t pick someone who in any way looks odd. Or worse, as though he has something to hide. If they don’t match up to that minimum qualification, pick someone else. The reason for this will be apparent soon enough. 

With the person you have chosen, you move forward into the press, positioning yourselves so that you will not be last. There is a reason for this also, which the prisoners who are last will soon discover. 
When it’s your turn at the gate, you step out and hand your prison ID card and small bag of property to the sergeant who marks it on a list and drops it with others into a large plastic garbage bag. You begin to strip without having to be told. You’ve already seen more than a dozen others do it before you, so you know what’s expected of you. 

Dropping the blue coveralls and pulling off the threadbare state briefs and t-shirt you were issued, you toss them into a plastic bin. Then you go through “the procedure” there in front of everyone, performing it as quickly as you are able to get away with doing it without being ordered to repeat it. You hate it, and hate yourself for doing it. It’s the last little bit of human dignity you have left that is giving you the problem, the small reserve you’ve stashed away and try to keep hidden so that it too is not taken from you. It’s what always makes it difficult in situations like this. What you’re feeling is eased somewhat by the fact that you know what you are doing is required of all prisoners, what you all must endure. It shouldn’t make it any easier. After all, it is what it is. But, thankfully, it does. A little. 

After checking your shoes, the guard in front of you drops them to the floor. Another tosses you a pair of orange coveralls that smell worse than the ones you just took off. No socks. No underwear. The shoes are all you are allowed to retain. 

When you have the coverall on and the Velcro front pressed closed, you turn around, standing next to the prisoner you have chosen to do this with, your back to the guard. You lift your arms so that your waist can be encircled and cinched with a chain. The guard tells you to pull in your belly, but you push it out instead, expanding it as much as possible, knowing it’s difficult for him to discern what you are doing beneath the oversized coveralls. You know that anyone stupid or inexperienced enough to let them cinch the chain around his waist while his belly is drawn in will more than regret it. What they will experience during the trip will graduate from mere misery to full-fledged torture. The guard pulls the chain tightly around your distended midsection and fastens it in place with a padlock behind you. 

You lower your arms and allow your wrists to be placed into the steel cuffs attached to the belly chain. If they’re ratcheted too tightly, you may have to throw a fit. You can ask nicely first, for them to be loosened, but be insistent. If they’re unresponsive, act agitated, as though you’re ready to escalate the situation. They’re on a schedule, so make them think you’re prepared to make their job difficult. Don’t worry about consequences either, because it’s worth going to the Hole over. The effects of what happens to you there are not as immediate as the agony you will be in soon if you let them clamp down the cuffs. You feel as though you can tolerate it at first, but then your wrists quickly swell. The steel bracelets bite into them and you begin to writhe in pain, wanting to bellow. It gets worse from there. 

“Kneel.”

You follow the order, sinking down where you stand, along with the prisoner beside you, so that you can be chained together at the leg. A cuff around one of your ankles, and one around his, with a short length of chain between.

You get back to your feet, but not easily. You realize how awkward it is being chained to another person. No matter how many times you’ve been through it, it’s something you realize anew each time. 

It’s time for you to walk, to make your way with the person you’re chained to, as best you can. Together you hobble, however ineptly, down the run lined with holding pens to the back door of the building which is open, awaiting your exit, a guard posted beside it, leaning against the wall, watching you. You can see the chain bus parked thirty yards outside the door. 

The cool air hits you when you step out, piercing the thin coveralls as though they weren’t there. Your muscles tense in an attempt to ward off the cold. It’s still dark outside, no hint of rising light. 

At the door of the bus you pause, pushing close to the prisoner you’re chained to and synchronizing your movements with his in order to make it through the narrow doorway and up three tall steps. Inside, you sidle past the stinking steel toilet whose dark, stomach-wrenching liquid is constantly slopping out onto the floor when the bus is moving. The smell is overpowering. This is why you did not want to be the last pair chained. 

You move up the narrow aisle, one of you in front of the other, between the rows of small, bench-like seats. Finding the most distant available seat from the sloshing, rolling sewer, you and your chain-partner slide onto its hard surface. 

There are lights on in the bus. Dim ones that bathe everything in an odd yellow cast. At first it’s difficult to make out any detail of the wheeled fortress around you. But after a minute, your eyes become used to it. You can see that the windows are barred and slatted with wide steel shutters that leave only a narrow gap to see through. The front and rear of the compartment you are in is sealed off with steel and panes of clear, bulletproof Lexan that separate you from where the guards are. 

When all prisoners are on the bus, a guard slides closed the heavy steel door at the back of the compartment and padlocks it from the outside. Then the outer door slams shut—the one at the bottom of the steps. 

Moments later, the big engine at the back of the bus rumbles as it’s fed diesel. All three guards are on board now. The brake releases and you begin to move, the steel and Lexan shuddering, making a racket you’ll long become deaf to before you get where you’re going. 

Moving slowly down the wide center road of the prison, the bus approaches the perimeter gate, which opens before it. Pulling through this inner gate, it eases up to the outer one and stops. The gate you just passed through now closes, sliding quietly on well-maintained runners, sealing the bus inside a sally port.

A guard from the gatehouse steps up into the bus. You see him when he brings his face close to the pane of Lexan that looks back into the compartment you’re in and you realize he’s counting, which seems absurd. As if they don’t already know how many prisoners are on the bus. A moment later he is gone. 

The outer perimeter gate rolls open and the engine rumbles again. The bus pulls out of the sally port, out of the prison, and stops. One of the guards exits the bus and crosses to a small, bunkered building that he enters. A minute later he reappears carrying a nylon gun case in one hand and a metal briefcase in the other. Inside the bus he opens the briefcase, which contains three handguns, and distributes them, including one to himself. Each guard slips his firearm into the holster he is wearing. Every prisoner watches them do it. From the nylon case are taken two AR-15 rifles, which are places in a rack next to the driver’s seat. Then a shotgun is placed beside the rifles. 

When the guard takes his seat, the bus begins its journey, pulling out onto a road that will quickly take it to the main highway. The internal lights go out, bringing darkness to the compartment you are in. It’s the moment when those who don’t know better relax. But the experienced remain alert, ready. This is the time for anyone recognized earlier by an enemy. 

Sometimes the attacks are personal, instigated by bad blood between individuals. These are usually the least serious. They’re not meant to be, but there is only so much two prisoners chained in such a way can do to each other, even if one is caught unaware by the attack. 

More common, though, is the kind of attack carried out against anyone who has been identified as a “rat” or a “rapo” (a rat being anyone who has informed on someone else, and a rapo anyone in prison for a sex-related offense). These attacks are open for all prisoners to join in on. The offending party is dragged down and stomped, his cries smothered. I don’t believe anyone has actually ever been killed like this, yet it is merciless. Serious injuries and other humiliations are inflicted on and suffered by the restrained victim. For anyone who has never witnessed this type of attack, it carries with it an inertia of its own, impossible to stop once it has begun, gathering momentum as it proceeds. To his attackers, the victim becomes much more than what he, in fact, is: the prosecutor that put him away, the public defender who sold him out, the self-righteous judge who condemned him to his sentence, and the state which now holds him and takes all his money. The attacker metes out to his victim, in his own way, what he feels has been done to him. He taps into a force that is wholly destructive—harmful and disturbing in its application—yet a prison ritual, twisted empowerment. (How can I be powerless if this is what I can do to another human being?) Manifestation of wrath. Indeed, the wrath of the powerless. 

Outside the scratched and dusty window, I see that the landscape has changed drastically from the beginning of the bus ride. No more of the green-forested expanses and mountains of the west side of the state. They have long since fallen behind, replaced by sagebrush, low scrub, and rolling, bare hills. 

How long have I been on this bus? It feels like forever, although if I were able to see a clock, I would know it was just under nine hours. Slumped on the cramped and narrow seat, I am exhausted, despite the fact that I haven’t done anything, have moved as little as possible. 

It’s hot, the air not moving. Stinking coveralls that stick to me all over and itch. For the hundredth time, I reach up to wipe at the sweat running down the side of my face, but am stopped short by the steel cuff that bites painfully into my sore and swollen wrist. Wincing, I give up the effort. 

Everywhere around me people are talking. The kind of meaningless babble people spew when they’re nervous and don’t have anything else to do. Bullshit and false bravado. Recounting stories of terrible things that have happened to prisoners at The Walls, of how difficult it is to make it there. Difficult for everyone, of course, except for them. Hearing them tell it, they don’t have anything to worry about, they’re already hooked in.  Two seats in front of me, the informant lay crumpled and broken on the floor, no longer even trying to get up, his head swollen, misshapen, and bloody. An ear torn nearly in two, flesh splayed open. Spit all over him, clots of thick, discolored phlegm. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for him. He did not even try to fight back, which, because of where I come from, I don’t understand. And his submissiveness had only intensified the assault. 

I think about the conversation exchanged earlier with the prisoner across the aisle from me, a conversation started when he asked how old I was. An experienced con giving me advice, all the while, his eyes betraying what it is he really believes—that I am too young, that I won’t make it. His advice is bullshit. 

I feel resolve stirring inside me. Determination. It’s funny because I know I wasn’t supposed to have made it this far. My plan was to kill myself after sentencing, after being given the life sentence. Nothing elaborate. A simple slicing of the wrist veins, bleeding out unnoticed on a steel bunk beneath a ragged blanket. The razor blade already waiting, cached in a crevice between floor and toilet in the county jail cell. Then, the plan frustrated when I was whisked directly from sentencing onto a county transport vehicle and taken to Shelton. Yet, not worrying because the plan I had for my future was one I knew I could pick up again as soon as I got to wherever it was they were sending me. 

But now, the prickling of anger in my heart. “Not going to make it? Why? Who’s going to do what to me? Motherfucker, I got a life sentence. Motherfucker, I’m already dead.”

My eyes wandering again to the unmoving form of the savaged informant. 

“Ain’t nobody going to do nothing to me.”

The words mouthed under my breath. “Ain’t nobody going to do nothing.” Trying to make myself believe it. 

I remind myself that I’ve been in bad places before, many times. “Just another boys’ home… just another boys’ home…” My mantra. 

Windmills off to the right. I see them through the dirty window, sprouting up out of the side of a barren, gray hill. Towering and white, unmoving. Like the moment, frozen in time. 

Suddenly, the talking falls silent, only the deafening rattle of the steel and Lexan fortress remaining, the drone of the engine beneath it. 

On the left, it has appeared in the distance. Giant granite wall, casting a cursed shadow.

Arthur Longworth 299180 C238
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

This article about Art appeared on the front page of the Seattle Times in 2012.  
Concurrently, NPR did a related story on The Liz Jones Show.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Eating Crow

By Timothy Pauley

The glass door swung open and a small group of men began shuffling down the sidewalk. They emerged from a massive corrugated steel structure that could have been a warehouse or an airplane hanger. It stood over three stories, one of seven such buildings that made up the prison living units.

With the sun barely peeking out from behind the trees surrounding the institution, the men of H-unit were on their way to the chow hall for breakfast. Most were barely awake, their heads hanging and eyes squinting in the morning light. The only sounds were footsteps on the concrete periodically interspersed with coughing and grumbling.

After a few moments, a figure emerged from the door walking purposefully down the sidewalk. Tom was a morning person and was already wide-awake. No shuffling for him, he was hungry and ready for breakfast.

He’d made it about ten steps down the sidewalk when the call went out. Caw Caw Caw! Tom looked up just in time to see about a dozen crows circling in from the forest that surrounded the facility. Half a dozen lighted on a low fence between the living units with the remainder coming to rest at a safe distance on the wide grass expanse adjacent to the sidewalk.

Most of the crows kept a safe distance from people, but one brave bird landed within inches of the sidewalk, about three feet in front of Tom. As he drew near, the little bird began running along next to him, periodically looking up at Tom as his little claws propelled him along as fast as they could move.

Tom reached in his pocket as he glanced down at his little friend. Percy was his pet crow and this was a morning ritual. A few more steps and Percy became impatient. He launched into the air, circled around behind, then flew across the sidewalk at about eye level, no more than three feet in front of Tom. Percy landed on a dead nm, keeping pace with Tom and looking for attention.

Tom couldn’t help but smile as he pulled a small ball of bread out of his pocket and flipped it in Percy’s path. Before tl1e ball even hit the ground, the rest of the crows were in the air. They cawed loudly as they raced for the scrap of food, but to no avail. As usual, Percy’s courage was rewarded. He snatched it up and took off before the rest could even change course.

In an instant, the flock of crows was chasing Percy in something that resembled a World War II airplane movie. Percy dipped and dodged performing several intricate aerial maneuvers with several birds right on his tail. This continued for a few minutes before he was finally able to gain some ground on the pursuit.

Soon Percy was able to land on the nearby roof, dropping his prize at his feet and hastily pecking at it. In seconds, it was broken up and he’d managed to swallow all but a few stray crumbs before the first of the other crows arrived. By then, Percy was ready to leave them the crumbs and make another pass.

When Percy caught up, Tom was just entering the chow hall. Percy took a perch on a forty-foot light tower outside the front door and waited. People continued to file in and out of the building. All the while Percy waited patiently. Twenty minutes later Tom emerged.

The door didn’t even close behind him before Percy was in the air. There were scores of people in the area near the chow hall. Even a bird as brave as Percy didn’t dare land next to that sidewalk. If something went wrong, he would be boxed in with nowhere to escape. So Percy landed on the roof of a small one story guard shack about thirty feet down the sidewalk.

As Tom approached, Percy cawed several times then swooped down, flying right in front of Tom’s face and landing on a fence twenty feet away. This routine continued as Tom proceeded down the sidewalk. Two blocks later, when the sidewalk branched off toward H-unit, the crowd had thinned out and Percy came in for his final run.

As Tom turned the comer and headed toward H-unit, Percy was already waiting. This time Tom didn’t keep his friend in suspense. He reached in his waistband and pulled out an entire slice of French toast, flinging it like a Frisbee onto the grass directly in front of Percy.

Percy reached the spot the exact moment the slice of French toast did, snatching his prize out of the air and taking flight all in one motion. Once again, the other crows gave chase. This time the package was a little bigger and more cumbersome. Hard as Percy tried, he couldn’t shake the pursuit.

Little more than a minute later Percy landed in the middle of the grass expanse, quickly dropping the prize at his feet and pecking away at it. This time, the rest of the crows were right behind him. In seconds, a tight circle formed around the slice of French toast with five birds furiously pecking and tearing at it, while several others waited nearby for any leftovers.

In no time, the treat was tom to bits. Percy picked up three of the largest pieces and took flight as the rest of his flock continued to peck at what was left. When Percy launched himself into the air, another crow quickly took his place in the circle and several others gave chase.

Again, aerial maneuvers played out as Tom watched from below. Percy would fly as fast as he possibly could toward the building, then veer off sharply at the last instant and circle around, only to launch himself at some other object and repeat the process. In less than a minute, the pursuit gave way and Percy was able to land on a nearby roof and enjoy his French toast breakfast.

Each time Tom left his living unit for any reason, this scene repeated. He made a habit of hiding extra food somewhere in his clothing every time he left the chow hall. Sometimes the cops would see a bulge and make him throw it away but, more often than not, he’d manage to leave with something. His jacket pockets stayed full of anything he could scrounge up for Percy.

It began gradually. First Tom was just throwing a handful of oyster crackers on the lawn on his way back from lunch. The air show caught his attention and soon he was walking out of every meal with a ball of bread clenched in his fist. Before long, he was filling his pockets, waistband, or sometimes even his socks.

Somewhere along the way, Percy took charge of the situation. While the other crows waited at a safe distance, he tempted fate by coming in dangerously close. But with the increased risk came a greater reward. Whenever Tom threw a scrap of something, Percy was right there while those at a safe distance had to fight for the leftovers.

That was about the time it occurred to Tom that they all knew him on sight. Just to make sure, he would stand at the door and watch for the birds from behind the glass. There wouldn’t be a crow in sight, even when the sidewalk was full of prisoners dressed exactly as Tom was. When he finally stepped out the door, Tom wouldn’t make it more than five steps before the call went out. In no time, the flock of crows was perched on the fence or on the grass. Amid a raucous chorus of Caws from the other birds, Percy would come in for a perfect two point landing within a few feet of Tom’s position.

Prison can be a lonely place. In spite of the fact most facilities are severely overcrowded, nobody is ever truly glad to see a person. Each new face merely represents more competition for limited space and resources. Even those one considers friends are unlikely to display a great deal of emotion and a warm welcome is all but unheard of.

Perhaps that’s why Percy captivated Tom`s attention so completely. Every time he walked out the door, Tom felt like there was someone there who was truly glad to see him. Rain, snow, or sweltering heat, it didn’t matter, Percy was always there. It became the talk of the yard. Nobody ever had a pet crow before.

With notoriety came a whole pack of other sentiments better left unexpressed. Some resented the display because they were afraid of catching an errant turd. Others were just jealous that another prisoner was actually able to make a connection with the birds. Whatever the reason, it seemed nobody appreciated the bond Tom had with the crows.

Then there were the guards. It was against the rules to take food out of the chow hall. It was against the rules to feed the birds. It was against the rules to litter. Hell, it was against the rules to do anything that might be considered fun and they didn’t like it one bit when some sorry convict thought he could blatantly break the rules.

Tom first noticed the cop’s new attitude at the chow hall. Upon leaving, predictably a guard would want to search him. Most assumed the intimidation factor would bring a swift end to this whole bird thing. The majority of guards just checked Tom’s pockets. Most were spoiled by scores of boot lickers who would surrender everything they had,just for the asking. To them, offering Tom an opportunity to disclose the contents of his pockets was supposed to trigger in an immediate confession.

For a week, the guards were satisfied to verbally accost Tom. “Do you have anything in your pockets?" They would ask. Tom would shake his head from side to side without even breaking stride. After a while, however, word got back to them that there was still a flock of birds having a party on the lawn in front of H unit after every meal.

The next step was a pat search. The first day they got two pieces of bread, a cupcake, and some crackers from Tom. After that, he merely adjusted his hiding spots to where they hadn’t been checking. It didn’t take long for him to notice that bending down to pat his socks was too much work for a guy sporting a massive belly.

Whatever the guards tried, Tom would adjust his tactics immediately. Percy was never the wiser because there was always something for him. Even when an unusually vigilant guard found his stash, Tom would have a piece of bread balled up in his fist or perhaps in his hat. No matter what, there would always be something for his friend.

The cop problems really mounted when it was time for work. During the week, everyone was headed down the sidewalk when work call was announced. On weekends, however, Tom was often the only prisoner on a long empty sidewalk. Being the only thing the guard at the checkpoint had for entertainment, was not conducive to feeding the birds.

Saturday morning Tom walked out the door and the usual flock of crows took up their positions. Their caws created quite a racket and the guard at the checkpoint was not amused. He situated himself outside the guard shack, standing with his hands on his hips and a disgusted look on his face. How dare those damn birds have the audacity to wake him up.

As nonchalantly as possible, Tom reached in his pocket and grabbed a fist full of dried tortilla pieces. He knew if he started throwing food, it would be an instant bust, so he bided his time. As soon as the guard glanced away for a moment, Tom began dropping them as he walked. Of course, this resulted in quite a melee on the sidewalk behind him. The guard hadn’t seen the move, but he knew.

When Tom passed the checkpoint, Officer Reynolds ordered him to stand for a search. As Tom raised his hands in the air, assuming the position, Reynolds asked if he had anything in his pockets. Tom grunted and shook his head from side to side. The aggravated cop gave him a cursory pat down and sent Tom on his way. He’d made his point. That stupid convict would know better next time.

On Sunday, Tom was relieved to see another officer occupying the checkpoint. This guy was busy on the phone so it was business as usual. Tom got to enjoy the air show once again and the cop didn’t so much as glance up as he walked past the checkpoint.

All week things appeared back to normal. They’d even backed off the chow hall shakedown routine, so Tom was able to stock up on bread and tortillas. By Friday his jacket pockets were full and he had still managed to keep Percy well fed all the while.

Then came Saturday. On his way back from breakfast, Tom glanced at the checkpoint and noticed Reynolds peering back at him. With all the people moving to and from the chow hall, Tom was able to discretely throw a couple pancakes to his friend but the ensuing commotion caught Reynolds attention. He scowled as he watched the crows surround a pancake and peck at it. That insolent bastard had done it again!

Officer Reynolds was an angry man. Life had dealt him a bad hand and the only time he felt good was on that rare occasion he could make someone else more miserable than he was. Prison was a perfect place for this and, in spite of his claims to the contrary, Reynolds loved his job. Where else could a guy pick on people all day long with impunity?

His favorite routine was to catch prisoners with their shirts untucked. Even though many prisoners and staff alike ignored this rule, it was a ripe opportunity to assert some authority. Reynolds knew fat people didn’t like to tuck their shirts in and he lived for the moment one had the audacity to pass his station in such a state. The humiliated look on their faces as he forced them to pull the fabric tight over a massive belly was the highlight of Reynolds’s day.

“Stand for a shakedown” he’d taunt. Once they submitted to a physical groping, Reynolds would demand they produce their identification card. This was guaranteed to intimidate, as it was how a written rule infraction always began. After he scrutinized the identification long and slow, Reynolds would pause to enjoy the discomfort of his mark. After they were noticeably distressed, he’d order them to tuck in their shirt. Handing back the identification Reynolds favorite parting shot was, “don’t let it happen again,” then scoff as they shuffled away.

Most prisoners, particularly fat ones, absolutely hated the guy. He was always condescending and loved it when someone would have the nerve to argue or question his authority. When that happened Reynolds would become threatening. He’d bark orders and hold his finger over the alarm button on his radio. One push of that button and it was a trip to the hole. Nobody wanted that and he knew it. As soon as he’d sufficiently humbled and/or humiliated his mark, Reynolds would post up and begin the search for his next victim.

When Tom heard work call over the loudspeaker system, he grabbed his coat and headed for the door. As he hit the sidewalk, Tom was relieved to see a few other prisoners ahead of him. Hopefully they'd distract Reynolds long enough.

About the time that thought occurred to Tom, his crows began making a racket. This morning there were twenty of them and they must have been hungry. The flock of birds circled Tom like a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie raising such a fuss it would have been impossible not to notice. Even the other prisoners turned to see what the commotion was.

Tom already had both hands full of tortilla pieces. As the crumbs slipped from between his fingers, birds began landing on the sidewalk behind him and fighting over them. Tom did his best to remain nonchalant but he knew trouble was straight ahead. Reynolds was standing outside the checkpoint with his arms folded across his chest and an authoritative smirk on his face.

There would be no distraction or looking away this morning. Tom was the center of attention. As he tamed the corner onto the main sidewalk Tom opened his hands to let the tortilla pieces fall to the ground. This incited a near riot among the crows as they descended on the morsels with a vengeance. Of course Percy was the first in line, but there was so much food the sidewalk was full of cawing thrashing crows struggling to get their piece of the action.

Reynolds could hardly contain himself. This insolence had to be stopped and he was just the man for the job. As Tom approached the checkpoint, Reynolds stepped out and planted himself directly in Tom’s path. “Stand for a shakedown,” Reynolds demanded, his hands on his hips and his jaw tightened into almost a grimace.

Tom turned his back on Reynolds and raised his arms out to his sides to accommodate a pat search. “Do you have anything in your pockets?” Reynolds barked. Tom pulled out a few papers from his pants and held them up in his hand. “Is that all?” Reynolds prodded. Tom shook his head up and down twice with a look of disgust on his face.

In reality, Tom had another couple handfuls of tortilla pieces in his jacket pockets. The fact he was busted was bad enough, but telling on himself was completely out of the question. If this creep wanted Percy’s food, he’d have to find it. Tom still had to walk this sidewalk twice more before he could get any more food. Percy would be expecting something to eat and Tom wasn‘t going to just handover the last of his stash for the asking.

Since Tom’s back was turned, he didn’t see the look of disappointment cross Reynolds’ countenance when he indicated there was nothing in his pockets. The angry guard assumed he’d already given it all to the crows. Now he would find nothing. As he thought about this, his shoulders slumped a little. If he didn’t find anything, there would be little Reynolds could do to torment this insolent scumbag standing in front of him.

Sensing his bust had slipped away, Reynolds determined to make this shakedown extra personal. He would grope and feel every inch of this guy in hopes he could elicit some kind of protest. “Just let this punk say anything stupid,” he thought, “and he’ll be on his way to the hole so fast his head will spin." Maybe he’d lost the bust but at least he could still dish out a little humiliation.

Tom had pulled this move many times before. Even if he had something, there was an even chance the lazy cops around this place wouldn’t find it. Just that morning he’d been shook down with two pancakes in his waistband and the guy hadn’t found them. But the way Reynolds was grabbing and squeezing everywhere, Tom knew his chances of that happening on this occasion were slim to none.

When Reynolds got to Tom’s jacket pockets, his whole posture changed. His disappointed scowl tightened into a beaming grimace, his shoulders squared, and his chest poked out slightly. It was Reynolds’ version of utter delight. He felt a lump, then another lump. He`d caught this stinking perp red handed!

“What’s this?" Reynolds barked. “I thought you didn’t have anything else in your pockets?” he demanded. “ I ought to throw your ass in the hole right now!” Tom knew the abusive guard was looking for any sign of discomfort. If Reynolds thought for a minute Tom was afraid to go to the hole, the belligerent guard would push the alarm button immediately. Later he’d concoct some story about how Tom had done something threatening.

Feeding the animals was a minor offense. The worst that would normally happen was a verbal reprimand or, at worst, a few days of cell confinement. But Reynolds was a different animal entirely. He had a reputation for making up whatever it took to get the result he desired. In the end, it would be his word against that of a prisoner. The prison administration would always side with their guard in such circumstances.

So Tom remained motionless, doing his very best to maintain a blank expression. Reynolds finished the pat search in a manner that could easily have qualified as sexual harassment. When he was done, Reynolds stepped around in front of Tom, who still had his arms raised out to the side and his eyes staring straight ahead. Reynolds eyed the prisoner up and down trying his best to be intimidating.

“I don’t know why I shouldn’t just throw you in the hole right now.” Reynolds barked, his face so close Tom could see the fillings in the guard’s teeth as he spoke. “You lied to me!" “That’s very serious mister.” Tom remained frozen in the shakedown position and kept his same blank expression all the while. Tom’s eyes stared blankly straight ahead as if focusing on some unseen object miles in the distance. Even though this guy clearly needed a beating, Tom was determined to give him as little satisfaction as possible.

Reynolds gave it one more try. He reached out and snatched the laminated identification card clipped to Tom’s collar and stared first at the photo, then at Tom. “So why shouldn’t I throw you in the hole right now, Mr. Parker?” he demanded. Keeping the same expression, Tom shrugged his shoulders as if to indicate he could offer no reason.

This wasn’t going well at all, Reynolds thought. The guy was one of those hard cases. He hated those guys. No matter what you did to them, they’d shut up and take it. Until they snapped that is. Then who knows what would happen. The last time he’d pushed a guy over the edge Reynolds ended up getting a few weeks off with pay, but that was little consolation for the indignity of having to eat through a straw for six weeks.

While doubts were swirling in Reynolds’ head, Tom was becoming impatient. He knew the sadistic guard was trying to trap him into saying or doing something stupid. That wasn’t going to happen, if for no other reason than that is what his adversary wanted him to do. Tom maintained his composure. No matter what, Reynolds wasn’t going to get what he wanted.

Reynolds finally extended his arm, thrusting the identification card in Tom’s direction. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here Mr. Parker, but I’m going to be here every morning from now on.” He paused looking for a reaction. When none came, he continued. “If I see another spectacle like the one this morning, I’ll see to it you spend the rest of your sentence on cell confinement, or worse.”

The lack of reaction was really becoming unsettling. Usually Reynolds would have a guy groveling early on in the encounter. This guy was still standing there with his blank stare. In a last attempt for a response, Reynolds tried demanding a verbal response. “Do we understand each other, Mr. Parker?” He spat. Without averting his glance in the slightest,
Tom shook his head up and down twice.

Empty your pockets in that trash can right now!” Reynolds watched closely as Tom turned his pockets inside out and let the tortilla pieces and crumbs fall into the large metal drum. As Tom pushed the pockets back into his jacket, Reynolds reached out and slapped them with the back of his hand to make sure they were empty.

“That will be all.” Reynolds growled. Without so much as a glance in Reynolds’ direction, Tom began slowly walking away. He knew Reynolds was mad. He also knew the best way to get through the whole ordeal was to shut up and stay cool. Even though his heart was racing, Tom forced himself to take slow even steps as Reynolds stared holes in his back.

When Tom returned from work a few hours later, he half expected Reynolds to be waiting for round two. Much to his relief; the guard had found some other poor soul to torment and Tom moved past without even glancing in that direction. As he turned down the sidewalk to H unit, there was Percy waiting for him.

Tom looked at his friend as he walked past. What could he do? He continued down the sidewalk with Percy racing beside him. Right before he reached the door, Tom pulled his pockets inside out and tried to shake some crumbs out for Percy. If anything fell to the sidewalk, it wasn’t much. When lunch rolled around the same scene unfolded. Five steps down the sidewalk, the call went out. Five steps later Percy was racing beside Tom, waiting for his snack. Before Tom reached the end of the sidewalk, Percy made two flybys. The second one he passed a mere two feet in front of Tom’s face before landing just beyond the edge of the sidewalk.

The one creature on this earth that was actually happy to see Tom coming and all he could do was watch as the little bird tried again and again to get his attention. At lunch, Tom was determined to remedy the situation. After he’d eaten, Tom stuffed a couple pieces of bread into his waistband and headed back to H-unit.

As Tom walked out the door there were half a dozen cops posted up there. In seconds, he could hear their radios crackle with the call. “There’s an offender coming out of the chow hall in a gray sweatshirt.” Squawked the radio, “Better check him close.” Another step and a cop was surrounding Tom for a shakedown.

After the cop confiscated his bread, Tom headed back to his unit. He could see Reynolds standing outside the checkpoint with his radio in one hand and his binoculars in the other. The vindictive guard was wearing an expression that looked to Torn as if the guy just had sex. As Tom passed, Reynolds was beaming, almost giddy.

Once again, Tom had to make the long trek down the H-unit sidewalk with nothing for his little friend. It broke his heart that he had nothing for Percy. The only thing left was to make sure Reynolds didn’t see his disappointment. Tom channeled his anger to that end and his expression never changed until he was back in his cell.

Sunday was a new day. Reynolds would be off today, Tom thought as he tied his shoes. It sucked he wouldn’t have anything for Percy on his way to chow, but he’d hustle up some leftovers and make sure his little friend was well fed the rest of the day. Yesterday had been a nightmare and he looked forward to the new day.

As Tom hit the sidewalk on the way to breakfast, the usual call went out and in moments Percy was racing beside him. The fearless little bird did three flybys before Tom reached the end of the sidewalk. As he turned toward the chow hall, Tom looked up and saw Reynolds standing at the checkpoint, his binoculars in one hand and his radio in the other. He was sporting a toothy grin that sickened Tom.

On the way out of the chow hall, the radio crackled and Tom was subjected to an intense search once again. This time they found a slice of French toast in each sock and four in Tom’s waistband. As Tom walked back to his unit, he felt violated. And as he passed the checkpoint, of course, Reynolds was still wearing that smug grin, almost taunting Tom.

The same scene unfolded the next day, and the next, and the next. Each day Percy would be waiting for Tom, and each day Tom would have nothing for him. He entertained thoughts of just walking up to Reynolds and pummeling him, but that would do little to solve the problem. In the end Percy would not be fed, Reynolds would still be the same, and Tom would be in the hole for the next five years.

In the three weeks it took Percy to finally give up his routine, Tom was thoroughly depressed. Normally he had little difficulty brushing off just about anything they could throw at him, but this was somehow more dehumanizing than anything they’d done to him in the past twenty years. The only part of his day he’d truly looked forward to had been stolen from him for no good reason. Reynolds had done it just to show that he could.

Tom soon found himself in the hole anyway. A guy can’t walk around prison with an attitude problem for very long without ending up in such a place. After a couple months in the hole, they decided Tom ought to be transferred. There was just something unsettling about him and his attitude problem. The administration thought it best to just be rid of him.


As Tom watched the trees rush past the bus window on his way to the next prison, he contemplated the events leading to his transfer. Crows were smart birds, he thought. But then again, if they really were that smart, then Reynolds wouldn’t be able to walk outside without being showered with bird turds. The thought of that scene unfolding brought a smile to Tom’s face for the first time in a month.

Timothy Pauley #273053 A316
Washington State Reformatory Unit
PO Box 777 
Monroe, WA. 98272-0777