Wednesday, September 12, 2007


September 12, 2007 - 5:30 a.m.

How does the old saying go? "Idle hands are the devil's playthings"? I can definitely testify to the accuracy of this statement. Here, we call it "convicting" (pronounced 'KON-victing'). Used in a sentence: "What's Whitaker want with all of those empty pen cartridges?" "Dunno, freakin McGuyver over there is 'convicting' something up." There's another old saying that goes something like "Give a man an inch, and he will try to take a mile." While I would simply cherish taking TDC for a mile, I will be content with taking an extra foot every blue moon. This entry is an ode to that extra foot. Three cheers for the foot!

Convict Tool #1 - The fishing line. The "fishing line", or simply "line" is perhaps the most important convict tool in my arsenal. Allow me to explain why the line is so important. Back here in seg, we do not have actual bars over our doors, despite what Hollywood would have you believe. Our doors are solid metal plates, with two small metal mesh "windows" running vertically from about waist level up to near the top of the door. These doors slide on two sets of metal runners, one about six inches off the ground, the other at the top of the door. Thus, to open the door, guards must have the picket unlock the door, which then slides parallel to the wall. A lot like your patio door, if it were to be made by the Inquisition. At the bottom of the door, underneath the bottom runner there is a small hole, roughly 4 inches by 4 inches. This hole is large enough to slip your arm out, though small enough to where it is not viewed as a security risk. Since we are not allowed any contact with anyone, this hole facilitates all of the commerce on the Row. (Note: The currency of prisons everywhere is the "flag", the stamp. Common prices for various items: One contraband needle for stitching clothes = 10 flags. A spool of angel hair wire for the radio network = 30 flags. I will probably one day write an in-depth overview of the prison micro-economy, but for now it is very similar to the one you are familiar with, save that debt collection is a little more medieval.)

These fishing lines are typically around 100 feet in length. On one end you attach something heavy, in my case a 5 oz salsa bottle filled with water. You can then lean your arm out of the hole and wing the bottle down the run, trailing the line. The recipient simply has to send his line out, armed with a hook to snag your line and drag it under his door. Whala, commerce. You get to be an artist with the fishing line real quick. I can bounce my bottle down the stairs, pulling it tight at the correct spot, sending the bottle careening off a metal pole to bounce back to the cell directly underneath my own.

The lines are generally made from our sheets, the destruction of which can get you a few months of Level 2 detention. Making one is horribly time consuming, as you have to pull apart your sheets one thread at a time. Which, of course, I would never do because to make one would be wrong and I never would...OK, it took me about a week to braid mine, which is pretty strong, consisting of over 20 threads in thickness. (When you look at the picture of the line, note all the individual threads that go into larger strands - each thread was pulled one at a time from the edge of a sheet. 100' of line takes a lot of effort.) None of the guards really care about the line, so long as you aren't tossing it out on the run as they walk by.

Most (roughly 75 percent) of the guards here on the Row are what we call "convict bosses". They have that label because they realize where they are, and with whom they deal on a daily basis. As long as you aren't hurting anyone, a convict boss will not "see" the infraction, unless a sergeant is also around. "Inmate bosses", on the other hand, stick their noses into everything, and eventually they get beat up or promoted - which is why you don't do anything around a sergeant or lieutenant. Sometimes, in less secure facilities, they get killed, though this is pretty rare.

Convict Jewelry - I made these crosses while I was still in the County Jail. They are made entirely out of trash bags. I would still be making them now except I can't seem to get any of the trustees to smuggle me back the bags. I could get a half-kilo of cocaine in about twenty minutes, but when it comes to trash bags they are like the Gestapo.

Here is how they are made: I would take one large, white trash bag (the 20 gallon variety) and lay it flat on the table. I leave the bag in the form it was when you first take it off the roll. I then cut strips, generally measuring about 2 inches in width, using a dismantled razor blade. You can get a whole bunch of these strips out of one bag, which are also useful for making clotheslines. Take one of these strips, and attach one end to something stable (the post of a bed, in my case). The other end I wound around a dictionary, which I then proceeded to spin in a clock-wise direction, allowing the whole line to spin. The 2 inch strips quickly spin into a string measuring about one mm in width. I then begin to pull the line, stretching it out, making sure that no unstretched areas are left. A single foot long strip can be stretched out to about 15 feet, and what is left is immensely strong. It looks like the type of line you would use to reel in a marlin or something. I repeated this process with all of the strips. I then got one of the trustees to smuggle me in some black Glad bags from the kitchen, which I also spun in the same manner. These would be used for the letters.

I would then make a form, also out of trash bags, but unspun, in the shape of the cross, and simply braided the spun lines around the form. The last step to be completed was the bottom angle of the cross, into which I threaded the black lines, making letters. This was accomplished by laying the black lines above the white in areas I wanted the letter to show, and under the white to create the negative space. I made about 20 of these crosses, for family members, friends, my attorneys and a few inmates. The most letters I was able to fit on the bottom apex of the cross was seven.

Some of you will no doubt have noticed that a large portion of this entry is now missing. I'm generally cool with the heat I take from doing this site, from the extra shakedowns to the hate mail. That said, sometimes the battle just isn't worth it to me, and I choose to tap out gracefully. So, apologies for the missing content, but I live in Hell and sometimes I simply have to play by Hell's rules.

© Copyright 2007 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I honestly would have never thought about crosses from trash bags. That's ingenious! -Ken