Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Tale of Five Jails – Polk County IAH (Part IV)

November 21st 2009

“…and I hear you mumble
low, keening,
as if singing a dirge:
“It can’t get any worse,”
you say.
“We’re at rock bottom,”
you say.
“Nowhere to go but up!”
you say.

And I laugh at you
And I cry with you
inside, simultaneously, aware of the contradiction .
Disappointments are born of expectations.
You are about to fall,
Arms flailing for balance
into the cold-forged real world
than you could possibly imagine

Matthew Kharios “You say”

It’s a delusion, out strength. We so often think our positions in the world are secure. And why not? It’s easy to assume that tomorrow will more or less behave itself as today did, which in turn comported pretty much the same as yesterday. You get up. You take a shower, have a cup of quadiche. Listen to your neighbors bitch and moan, while you try to pay attention to the news. But every day is not the same. Some days make you a king. Some break you in half. Some days you get Hamlet. Some you get a pasquinade. It isn’t the rise or the fall, I like to tell myself, that defines you. It is the graceful releasing of temporary glory, or the act of picking yourself back up which does this.

Anyways, that is what I like to tell myself.

The reality: none of us are as noble as we like to pretend to ourselves, and the true nature of the world often escapes us. Surely, we are all willing accomplices to its flight, but we ignore this, because we are weak. Or lazy. Or selfish. Some days, it doesn’t pay to get out of bed. Well, when you are in jail, no day pays to get out of bed, but you get my meaning. That day, a Wednesday, started out pretty normally for me: I returned from the kitchen around 2.00pm, took a shower, and went to sleep. Goldilocks Man woke me at 8.00pm, per our arrangement. I even bitched and moaned, like the rest of them, to be awake. I recall eating my dinner – it was pilfered hot dog wieners and Ramen noodles on the menu for the evening. I somewhat remember hearing the sound of the man-trap at the end of A-Hall popping open, though I deemed this to be unimportant. Just one of a thousand repeated noises that quickly fade into the ambient and go half-noticed. Probably just an officer doing a count, I thought to myself, more interested in my dinner that the world outside of my cage. (One of the first major steps towards becoming institutionalized, I now know.) Funny little noise, a gate popping. Funny little noise, that was about to change the life of a friend so completely that it might as well have been a gunshot. It was, in a way, echoing from thousands of miles away.

I casually strolled to the window, my bowl in hand. Instead of the expected officer strolling lazily down the hall, I saw a pack of guards, all walking with determined faces. In the center of the group walked a man in free-world clothes: the warden.

“Shit, shakedown, shakedown, mother f-ers” Shouted Boxcar Slim upon seeing them. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they passed by us, heading instead for the tank directly across from our own. Everyone over there “caught their bunks” as ordered, and the mass of Civigenics gray and black quickly entered. I will admit, there is a certain amount of schadenfreude involved when you sew that someone else is about to get the hammer, instead of yourself. This ended pretty quickly when they called Ray forward to speak with the warden. It took only a few sentences from this man to obliterate Ray’s world. A million-year second passed, and Ray’s face suddenly twisted up into a rictus of pain, and he began screaming and crying, lashing out at the warden. The other guards quickly fell upon him, holding him back, but, also, I noticed, supporting him from falling. This struck me as very odd, as standard penal extraction team tactics always involve taking the offender down to the ground with the maximum speed possible. My mind started connecting the dots, but I did not want to go down the path they were leading me. We were all frozen, watching this happen, this train-wreck, this inescapable drama. Ray was always a little flakey, and prone to emotional outbursts which were hardly rational, but this was something else. Something bad. Big C looked at me and I knew that we were both thinking the same thing.

The warden quickly departed, looking sullen. Several guards stayed behind to watch Ray pack his meager possessions, before escorting him down the hall. He didn’t even notice the eight of us staring at him from the windows, our hands held over our hearts. He was completely lost in whatever hell had crawled up out of the ground to envelope him. As soon as they were gone, Big C started trying to get the attention of a friend of his in that tank. They looked gray and downcast, as if they had all just been notified that Ray had been infected with the plague. His friend eventually noticed C waving his arms, and picked up a sheet of scrap paper and quickly scrawled, in large block letters: Son killed in Iraq. IED.

We all fell silent. Most of us just sat there for a while, trying to imagine the pain he must be in,.I knew what he was feeling a little better than most, and I locked up a bit inside. We eventually decided to pray for Ray, our hands curled up into fists and placed one on top of the other. forming a large circle. It was all we could think to do.

I never saw Ray again. I did eventually run into people who had been locked up with him upon his return to Fort Bend. He was a completely broken man, barely eating. They wouldn’t release him for the funeral, due to the fact that since this was his third DWI, he was now classed as a “dangerous felon.” He eventually pled out to the drunken driving charges, and for good measure, he accepted the bullshit charge of resisting arrest, which he had always intended to fight. I think that he just stopped caring, and the ADA saw this and got all the extra charges he could attach to him. Someone told me he got 15 years, another 20. It didn’t really matter. It could have been 1000 years, for the way it ended up working out: Ray hung himself in his cell in the latter part of 2007, while serving his sentence in a transit unit on the outskirts of Huntsville. Just goes to show you that life is mostly a house of cards, and that all of us are really only a few short sentences away from catastrophe.

Even memory is arrested here. I cannot recall much of what happened for the rest of that day. All of the kitchen crew were downcast. (Supposedly) hardened thugs, all of us, and yet there was not a man there who didn’t know we had just seen the end of a fellow human being, and hurt for him. His kid was everything to Ray. I kept looking up at Ray’s station, half-expecting to see him goofing off with one of the other cooks, setting fire to the fries again. But he was gone from our lives, and in his place was an obese Mexican man called El Sordo, who knew enough about the ways of food to never set fire to anything. Death has a way of sandblasting your life. All the little nonsenses that you deem to be important are quickly eroded away. My three best friends growing up all died, two of them on the same day, hundreds of miles apart. The floor drops out from underneath you, and after you hit what you think to be the bottom, the climb never takes you back to the elevation which you used to call home. Sure, you heap some other stuff into that hole shaped like a person that you used to care about, but it’s never really filled up. For some of us, the hole itself begins to fill you up, instead.

In retrospect we were all a little on edge. That is a dangerous place to live, and I've always thought it disingenuous, too. Either step back and quit pretending, or go ahead and toss yourself over the lip. (A fact that was, quite literally, attested to by a commenter from my past life at the end of this entry.) The group of us that played handball at rec barely spoke for a few days, just blasting the ball at each other as if the act could cathartically dispel all we had seen.

It was during a break in one of these games that I learned just how much of a coward I could still be, and more about the fickle and relative nature of morality than I ever wanted to know.

This rec yard, like all the others I have ever witnessed, was divided into cliques. It never takes long to get this way, the pieces seeming to fall into place almost immediately. The handball court was mainly occupied but the kitchen workers and was the only real zone where the races mingled. The area next to the north wall windows was the hangout of six or seven sex offenders (all white). Once they had claimed this location, no one else wanted to be anywhere near them, even if this was the only spot from which you could see the other rec yard, which usually held the US Marshal-incarcerated females. (This is why these slimeballs picked that spot in the first place.) A group of white supremacists maintained court along the south wall, near the bathrooms. The majority of the Mexicans sat by the east wall, talking. As if performing some obedience to the empire of cliché, the African Americans claimed the basketball courts. There was some co-mingling, of course, but these divisions held up fairly strong.

My foursome was taking a break from handball while several of the less coordinated among us goofed around. I should have seen it coming, but I wasn’t paying attention. Space City was practicing some of his serves, talking shit to an imaginary opponent, when he really whacked one of them. The ball careened off the wall, and rolled all the way across the yard into the middle of a very fiercely contested game of street-style basketball. This is nothing like what you see in the NBA. There are no fouls. One of the players stepped on the ball and tripped, falling to the ground, hard. Someone dunked over him as he was down. The fallen man, a behemoth named Razo (who liked to call himself a “silverback” and make gorilla noises), hopped up, contesting the play. A fierce argument ensued, complete with a lot of pushing and shoving. If things had just stayed as they were, then it is likely that the two of them would have fought, and the handball would have been completely forgotten as the true casus belli. But Space, being Space, didn’t perceive the danger of the situation, and ran straight into the fray, grabbing the ball off the floor. This was like dropping a pig into a shark tank. Everyone immediately swiveled their eyes away from the two combatants, and pierced Space with their gaze.

Even then, Space might have come out of it all unscathed, it he had simply apologized. The rest of us had stood up by this point, and had started walking towards the basketball area. Only a few seconds had passed since the offending ball had caused Razo to eat the pavement, but already everyone knew something was about to kick off. Even the guards knew it, because several of them approached the bullet-proof windows to watch. I don’t know what was said to Space – I was still a little too far way – but I did catch his response: "I got as much right to be here as you do, mother f-er.” As soon as these words were out of his mouth, it was a fait accompli. I surged forward, thinking (irrationally) that if I came at them from the side, they might not see me coming. I didn’t make it half a step, before Big C’s arms were wrapped tightly around me. I tried to shrug them off, but he easily outweighed me by at least 75 pounds. I reach my arm around him and jammed down on the nerve just on the inside of his left wrist, and he cursed and let go with that arm, but held me tighter with his right. From within this embrace, I could see the first punch land on Space’s left cheek, and he stumbled back. He tried to stay upright, but Razo landed several quick jabs to his kidneys and gut, and Space went down.

“Stop struggling, foo!” C hissed in my ear. He was waving his left Arm, trying to regain some feeling in it after I had activated all the pressure points. “F- that hurt! This is prison. Space f-ed up, and he gots to pay. They doin him right, one on one, the way it ought to be done. You goin in there to rescue him aint gonna help him none. He gots to learn that this shit aint no f-ing game. And it aint gonna help you none to get beat raw. You cant save no one but yo-self.”

I wasn’t able to do anything but watch as Razo jumped on top of Space, dropping onto his chest, legs astride his body. He sat on him there, throwing wicked punches at his face, as Space tried to protect his head and neck, his efforts getting weaker with each successful blow. I turned to look towards the windows, and saw that at least ten guards had congregated there to watch the fight. My anger multiplied as I saw them laughing. Bastards! They could have stopped this at any time, but there they stood, taking bets, as another spray of crimson painted the concrete.

They finally got on the loudspeaker and released a high-pitched squelching sound which anyone with ears would know meant: hit the ground. C released me and we all got down on our stomachs, faces pressed against the concrete, with our hands covering our heads. The team rolled in strong, protecting a single nurse, who ordered Space to be loaded on to a waiting stretcher. In less than four minutes, the basketball game was back in full swing, minus Razo, who went to seg. It took me just a little bit longer to absorb what I had seen. They didn’t wash the blood off the concrete. As far as I know, it is still there.

I completely and utterly hated myself for just standing there, for not fighting C any harder that I had. He knew it too, and left me to my thoughts, muttering about beating me up himself for screwing up his wrist. I used to believe that right was right and wrong was wrong, that there was some sort of platonic ideal for Rightness and Wrongness. Or, to be more accurate, this is what I wanted to believe. My world is not your world, though. In your world, if you saw a man being beaten unmercilessly, you would have some options: call the police, rescue him, run like a coward. The rules are different for you. Prettier. Softer. I know now that what C told me was true: in prison, getting to fight someone one on one is a luxury, and a sign of respect. They could just as easily have fallen on him like a tide, but they didn’t. Space screwed up by saying that he had a right to the court that they were playing on. That’s like an invasion. Prison is not a game, and Space having minor facial reconstructive surgery might have saved him a lot of pain and misery in the future, by teaching him his proper place in the food chain. You would rarely see such an event occur in your world: letting someone get beaten raw would hardly be considered a learning experience. And while you can call the cops, for us, the cops are usually a part of the problem. You can’t run: where would we go? All you can do is sit there and watch, and hate yourself for not being stronger, for having made the decisions that put you in this spot to begin with. In your world, the moral decision would be to do something. In mine, the moral decision was to do nothing. You don’t really have to like this fact, but we all learn that we had better accept it, or else prison will drive us insane. Or you will quickly find yourself as the one protecting your face from a rain of blows. You come to prison alone, and in the end, you are the only one who will ever have your back for long.

I went a little numb after that. I still worked hard, but I was just going through the motions. Andy eventually upgraded me to being his full-time clerk, a position he invented for me. In the afternoons, I cleaned the main offices at the front of the building, an area inmates are never allowed. It felt odd to be the only one around as I did this. Didn’t they know what I was charged with? It felt good to be trusted in this way, and I always made sure to do my job well. I would empty the trash cans, vacuum the office carpet, mop the linoleum floors, clean the coffee pot (and no, I still don’t know what happened to all those bags of Maxwell Coffee in the storage room…), and dust all of the file cabinets and wall displays. IAH had a hideously tasteless decorating job, typical of such places. On one wall they had a large American flag encased in glass, which had the words for the Star Spangled Banner printed on top of the white stripes. The last lines of that song go: “O! say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” I always thought it an odd selection for a prison wall decoration. Even odder, I had never noticed before that this final question in the song is never answered. At this point in time we were still in the midst of GW’s Jesus-flavored Neofascist empire, and I suspected that Francis Scott Key would be disappointed to find out that the answer was trending towards the negative.

One afternoon, I was washing the windows which looked out towards the employee parking lot. I was lost in my own thoughts, which is what typically happens when you have to wash yards and yards of glass. I kept staring off into the distance, where a much larger unit bordered the land upon which IAH sat. This complex was immense and lined with tall guard towers and miles upon miles of razor wire. As one of the guards passed by on the way to the employee restrooms, I asked, “Excuse me, boss. What unit is that?” He paused for a moment, and replied, “Used to be called the Terrell Unit, until a few years back. Then they renamed it Polunsky.”

“Why did they change the name?”

“Oh, that’s cause they put Death Row over there, and the Terrell family didn’t want their name attached to that. Allen Polunsky was a real hard-case on the prison board, and said he’d be honored if they named it after him. I work over there half the time. Real shithole. You don’t wanna end up there."

I went back to washing the windows, looking at what I suspected to be my future home. Years later when leaving on my many trips to the hospital in Galveston, I often looked out on the IAH facility, into the exact windows that I used to wash. I wonder if whoever is cleaning them now works as hard as I did. What a difference a few hundred yards can make.

A few short weeks later, all of us from A-24 were ordered back to Limestone. We all mourned the fact that our working days were over and that we were all headed back to such a cesspool. It is sort of customary for convicts to leave their names and a message on the wall, to show that they once existed. I had not done this in my cell at Fort Bend, but I had taken up the practice on my first trip to Limestone. I didn’t know what to write this time. I felt as is I had fallen into a pit the last few weeks, and couldn’t even rouse enough concern within me to care about something so trivial. In the end, I went with a quote by Carl Gustav Jung (writing as Basilides) that summed up what I was feeling at that exact moment:

“In the night the dead stood
along the wall and cried:
We would have knowledge of god.
Where is god?
Is god dead?”

I still haven’t answered that question yet, either.

A few scattered odds and ends:

Welcome to the 21st Century, TDC

Some good news, for a change: the company JPAY has instituted a system where individuals from the freeworld can directly email inmates in TDC. These emails are to be delivered within 48 hours. This is a one-way street, unfortunately, so don’t be expecting any emails coming back to you, but it does help cut down on the amount of time it takes to get a message to us. This is particularly advantageous, because due to new policies instituted during the last few months, even more of our mail is getting lost. (If you are having this problem with any of your pen-pals in TDC, I encourage you to lobby a complaint with the TDJC Ombudsman, who can be reached at this address: ) If you haven’t heard from me in a while, try using the email.

Also, I understand that there is currently some sort of mail strike going on in Merry Olde England. I assume that this is why I haven’t gotten any mail from any of you Brits in a while (DM, DW, R&D, etc, etc). This might be something worth trying out for you, also. I have used JPAY on many occasions to transfer funds into my commissary account, so I have a great deal of confidence in the business practices. You can learn more about the email system at

Grievance Writing 101

I know that some of you readers are representatives of other men here on DR. In the interests of getting all of us to up our game a little bit, this is how to properly write a Step 1. Sit, Ubu, sit, Now f-ing roll over! (Pay special attention to the dates on the second page: notice when I filed the Step 1, and when they moved me. Owned!)

Check the Map
by Steve Kowit

Lets all take a deep breath and repeat after me: Give war a chance. This is Afghanistan we’re talking about. Check the map. It’s far away. – Thomas Friedman

But what if tomorrow turning the corner, it’s not that street
with those elegant two-story homes & luxurious lawns,
but a gutted-out havoc of empty door frames & ruins
of what once had been walls. Overhead, the shrieks
of B-52s diving back through the clouds. A smothering haze
through which you see women in burkas down on their knees
digging their dead from under the rubble. Two blocks
from home & its suddenly Kandahar, The Kapisa Valley,
Mazar-I-Sharif. That streaking of vengeance
you were so pleased to watch on TV.
But it’s you who cannot stop coughing, whose mouth
has dropped open in terror, whose eyes smart
in that acrid smoke: you who are scurrying, shuddering,
hugging the shadows. Till you manage, somehow, at last,
to find your way home: that snug little duplex
with its nifty flag decal stuck on the window over the door.
Still shaking, you manage to get the key in the lock
& stumble into your favorite chair, though it’s hours before
your heart stops pounding inside your chest
& you’re able to breathe, till you no longer retch over
the toilet, till you’ve got yourself calm & all but convinced
it must have been some sort of vertigo, seizure, delirious
dream. But now – thank the Good Lord – you’ve come
to your senses at last & are more or less clear who
you are, where you live, what it is you’re supposed to believe.

Memorial Day
by Steve Kowit

Because our sons adore their plastic missile launchers,
electronic space bazookas, neutron death-ray guns,
a decade down the pike it won't prove difficult
to trick them out in combat boots
& camouflage fatigues,
rouse them with a frenzy of parades, the heady
rhetoric of country, camaraderie & God,
the drum & bugle & the sudden
thunder of the cannon as they march
into Hell singing.
Which is the order of things.
Obedient to a fault, the people will do as they are told.
However dispirited by grief at the graves
of their fallen, the mother returns at last to her loom,
the father to his lathe,
& the inconsolable widow home to raise sons
ardent for the next imperial bloodbath;
Ilium. Thermopylae. Verdun. Pork Chop Hill.

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

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