Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Tale of Five Jails - Grimes County

February 1st, 2009

(Note the events detailed below take place May 2006)

The thing that I remember the most was the smell.

No matter what the actual stomach contents might have been, vomit always smells the same. Competing for olfactory dominance were the lightweight contending stenches of sweat, fear, and shame. They were losing badly, hanging despondently upon the ropes, almost to the point of tapping out. The radio blared, the front speakers of the van turned up to their maximum in an attempt to make up for the fact that there were none in the rear. Reba's twangy voice could not cover up the sound of the man three rows up as he wretched his breakfast up all over his lap and the floor. There were eighteen of us in the back of the Ford Econoline, channeling sardines, all of us bedecked in canvas blue jumpsuits, our hands, feet, waists, and souls shackled together. There was no air-conditioner, but the sun had not come up yet, so the temperature was still in the low 80's. Manageable.

This was the first time I had ever hit a "back-door ATW," the jailhouse term for being moved from an overcrowded correctional facility to another. "Front-door ATW": going home. I would never be front-doored. I was home.

None of the men knew our destination. The whisper-stream inside the walls had informed us all that Fort Bend was using at least four different facilities to deal with the overcrowding. All of them were considered a step up from the puritanically conservative hellhole of FB, so getting "back-door ATW'ed" was actually a treat, the stream claimed. Fool me once.

The sky was heavily cloaked in clouds, and I wished desperately for a view of a star. Just a single star, God, and I will be fine. The clouds shrugged off my mental attempts to move them via telekinesis. I vowed my revenge, smiling at the thought of attempting vengeance on air. If only a heart could heal as quickly. In Seg you learn to laugh at the smallest of things. Some of them are even real. Some of them.

The men up in front of me were yelling at the sick man, who was trying to apologize and clean himself off. The guards rolled down the windows, glaring daggers. Around me, men talked shit, talked their "game". Everyone in jail is a millionaire, a player, a lesser god of the streets, a "G". They have phat stacks of cash, record deals, and ho's. Yet, somehow, despite owning a fleet of Mercedes or Range Rovers ("Ah, shit, man, when my girl sends me them pics, you will see. Just wait!"), they cannot post a lousy 5K dollar bail. I don't call people on their bullshit stories. I don't talk to people at all, if I can help it. I have no bail. I am on remand. Bail-talk is as worthless as a politicians promise to me.

I knew a few of the guys in the van. I'd been in jail for nine months, so some of them had been in my tanks, at some point. Some of them had been in my tanks, then went home, then came back. Everyone knew who I was. The newspapers, so fixated on buzz words, all labeled me as a "master-mind", so that is what people had started to call me behind my back. I refused to answer to this, but that did not stop people from using the label.

We were using back roads, so it was difficult for me to tell which direction we were headed. All backcountry roads in Texas look basically the same. I had a map of Texas open in my mind, with the hypothesized destination facilities and their geographical locations blinking in various colors. Eventually, we came out onto 290, and I crossed Lufkin off of the list, the little green light going dead inside my head. Too far west along the abscissa, so to speak. Grimes county became the immediate frontrunner, and when we pulled off the freeway near Navasota I spoke for the first time, quietly informing everyone of our destination. There were groans, and claims of all manner of intimate knowledge of the place. That is nearly as common in jail as claims of houses in the Caribbean: first-person accounts of nearly every unit in the state. "I was there back in '04..." became the chorus very quickly, as if convincing yourself that imagined survival of a certain hell would somehow minimize its present effects. Uneasiness: fears midwife. In men who have been trained not to show fear or weakness, unease has a peculiar smell. Or maybe it was just the BO. God forbid anyone else uses some bloody deodorant around here.

We wound our way through a few service roads, until we pulled into the parking lot of a low, small building. I was not impressed. There couldn't be more than one hundred beds in the place; the razor wire was strung haphazardly along the tops of a chain link fence. The sky was finally graying as we pulled into a connected garage, and I timed the gate as it descended from the ceiling above. It made a clink-clink-clinking sound as it moved, and it made me think of the castles I had seen in England, for some reason. The van coughed as it was shut down, and the two guards stepped out of the cab, stretching. They wore black military-style pants with lots of pockets, and gray shirts emblazoned with the logo of the CiviGenics Corporation, a privately run collection of detention centers and prisons. These corporate facilities have become all the rage in Texas, because nobody likes passing the buck better than rednecks. Look up Sophism in the dictionary; see a nice photo of Rick Perry and his Hair. Don't want to pay for the programs in prisons that Uncle Sam requires? No problem, just let cousin Earl open a small jail, issue some temporary waivers on education programs and drug treatment, and the problem is solved. Just so long as you don't keep anyone there longer than two years, it doesn't matter. And, of course, nobody is really keeping track of the fact that men spend their lives being moved every 23-months from one place to another. Who really cares about a bunch of losers?

The cop wannabes wore old six-shot revolvers on heavy web belts, which also contained a plethora of other instruments, all designed to somehow assuage the miser over being too fat or stupid to make it through the Academy. 10 to 1, they all had those fake pig badges you see advertised in the back of Soldier of Fortune. Set into the concrete wall was a large lockbox, which quickly received the pistols and the tear gas sprayers. The 12-gauge was left sitting on the dashboard, and omission which might or might not have been intentional. The two proceeded up a small set of stairs and whacked on an oversized metal door, which was quickly opened. They disappeared inside. We would not see them again for over an hour.

I went to sleep, eventually. Not much else presented itself in the way of distraction, and I had grown bored of all of the talk. Like all matter, bullshit has a maximum density, which we were nearing with reckless abandon. Eighteen men, one van, a penal mixture for the perfect confluence of stupidity. I really couldn't think of anything which would have added to the cultural zeitgeist anyways. Not to imply that I do not have a pretty wide dumbass streak inside of me, because I most certainly do. I buy my stupid in industrial sized containers at Sam's Club, needing a forklift to make my purchases. But my version of idiocy is a lot less callow and only truly appreciated by fellow sommeliers of the craft. The shotgun, and what might be done with it, was pretty much a major theme of the conversational black hole, as you can probably imagine.

When the guards returned, the sunlight was arching through some hidden gap in the metal ceiling above, creating an almost laser-like effect as it lanced through the dust floating in the air. That's on the tricks to this place: see beauty where it can be found, because you won't get a lot of it. The moment was quickly broken by the orders shouted as us to disembark. The CiviGenics lot were accompanied by several jailers, also cop-analogs, dressed in all of the livery of the proud county of Grimes, Texas. One by one, we were removed from the van, which is considerably more difficult than you can imagine when your legs are attached to each others. Two of our number fell, hitting the concrete hard. I would see this same broken act many times over the years, and it would eventually come to symbolize in my mind the apotheosis of the cancer which grows in prisons all over this country: some sort of deep and deeply sinister rejection of humanities dignity. We were processed in two's, each pair being led through the huge metal door every few minutes; a reverse Noah's Ark. All in all, I wanted very much to do what Noah should have done, and miss the ark all together.

There were two of us on the van with murder charges, and we were grouped together. The other man's handle was G-man or G-Unit, or some such silly thing; I cannot even remember now. It doesn't really matter, because all of these street names have become so ridiculously diluted, so derivative, that they ceased to have even a semblance of meaning many years ago. I will stick with G-Man, because a rose by any other name etc, etc...

After about a half an hour of standing around, we were finally ordered through the door, which was slammed shut behind us. We were led, shuffling and hopping, up a narrow hallway which had not seen any real upkeep since the 80's. Everything looked old and decayed and horribly...pastel. Cheap halogen lights burned a sickly yellow overhead. Up the hall and to the left was a small office area, though I could only see a long counter from where I stood. We were ordered to halt-actually, I believe the exact phrasing went something like: "Hold er' up chaw." I'm not exactly sure what the devil a "chaw" might be, but I rather hope to end my days in blissful ignorance on the subject. After a moment, a stringy, cowboy hat adorned sergeant came charging out of the office area, and for a moment I thought he was going to plaster us in his way out the door, but he slammed on his brakes about twelve inches from G-Man and I. He looked us over in what I suppose was meant to be a threatening manner, though the effect was somewhat marred by his too close piggy eyes, and the tobacco stains on his chin. His gums were constantly moving up and down, up and down, as if he were a cow chewing on his cud. I suppressed a smile. So perfect, so fitting.

"You boys got any weapons on 'cha?" His voice was just...awesome. Seriously soprano, almost to the point that I bet his dogs-and you just know he had like twenty of them-absolutely hated it when he spoke. I had never been called a "boy" before, and the tiny, secret smile which had recently slunk back down my throat in rejection, redoubled its forces and pressed the attack. A brief puff of air escaped my lips, which were starting to arch ever so slightly upward. I bit down hard, trying to relax my facial muscles, but it was too late. Sergeant Jim-Bob turned his gaze on me, and stepped even closer.

"I say 'sumptin funny to you, boy?"

I swallowed the remains of my traitorous smile, and did my best to approximate what a fellow denizen of the "Rural Realms" might sound like.

"No, sir, boss. I reckon you didn't. Gots me a bit of a cough is all."

His eyes twitched, trying to determine if I was mocking him. He eventually nodded, and ordered us down the hallway into a small holding cell. Our chains were removed, and I set myself to rubbing out the creases and lines in my skin from the constant contact the metal. There was only one such holding tank, further strengthening my conviction that this was a tiny facility. We were the only two inmates inside, which I found odd. Everyone else had been moved immediately to their tanks, and G-Man and I speculated as to the meaning behind our special treatment. I could see several of the tanks from where I sat, via some very thick and very stained glass windows. I recognized many of these men and boys from FB. Over the years, convicts have developed a sort of penal sign language, which is somewhat based on the common ASL that deaf individuals use, though more basic. I exchanged information with some of the guys, confirming that the place basically sucked. It seemed that they had a problem with our clothing, and had confiscated all of it, allowing only sandals and the Grimes County jumpers. This is actually a pretty common tactic, as turning on the AC full-blast becomes a pretty effective weapon against unruly prisoners. Several of the lighting fixtures had been ripped off the ceiling, so as to make some homemade tattoo guns, and many new tattoos were displayed with varying levels of pride and shame.

I sighed, but the information did no concern me as much as it should have. There is a point of acceptance of life which finds you in the depths of depression, and I had been living there for a long while. It is the same look of resignation I saw in the eyes of goats just prior to having their throats slit in Mexico. I had not learned of my true strength yet, in those days.

All told, G-man and I spent over three hours in the holding tank. It became obvious that we were not wanted here, and the powers that be were trying to decide what to do with us. At some point in the late morning hours, a very fat, very gay, black man brought us two sack lunches. I will admit, the last thing I expected to see in this hillbilly paradise was a 300-pound African American, wearing black jeans, a black button down shirt, and white leather boots with a matching rhinestone-bedecked belt. G-Man and I just looked at each other, both of us attempting to compute this singular and abrupt violation of context. Sometimes all you can do is reboot the system and eat your sandwich.

I napped again, my back to the concrete wall. At some point, the CiviGenics Boys metastasized their way back to the holding cell, and informed G-Man that he would be staying. The CO then turned to me and told me, with no small degree of joy, that I was headed for Limestone. I nodded to G-man, our brief connection severed, and allowed myself to be re-chained. The van was far more enjoyable now that I was its sole passenger.

Limestone, unlike Grimes, was known to me. CiviGenics facility, holding federal, state, and county inmates, and uneasy Heinz 57 mix of some very nasty men. I knew it to be located somewhere just south of Waco, so I figured it would be a rather long drive. The farm had a rep for being a hard one, what was referred to as a "rock and roll" unit. How do you prepare for events which you have zero experience in? You can't. The only way to reduce how "green" you are, is through the crucible of experience. I didn't know exactly what was ahead of me, but I suspected that when I was done with Limestone, my "green-factor" would be seriously diminished. "Make game of that which makes as much as these"...Or something. Et-fucking-cetera.

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

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