By Jeff C.
I have lived on this prison tier for 15 years. I did the math, that's 37.5% of my life. Any week now I will be given a few cardboard boxes and told to pack up this life, such as it is, and unpack at another institution. But that stay at some minimum-security level facility will be brief because I will be let go before the end of the year after 18.5 years in prison. That'll be 44.5% of my life.
To say that getting out after so long is intimidating doesn't suffice. Only twice before have I even had time to contemplate such a monumental transition. After enlisting, waiting through high school for nine months with the news revving up for the first Gulf War and the foggy idea of war coming at me disconcerted me. After being arrested, sitting in county jail for four months with all this amorphous time and the blurry concept of prison hanging over me was unnerving. Now, after enduring, preparing for release in eight months with this mark of prison shrouding my future and the strange thought of freedom hurling at me frightens me.
But there is only so much one can mentally do to prepare oneself for war, prison, or freedom. The war was over before I graduated. But I faced that potential idea of war by alternately consuming nearly nothing but that new Cable News Network and desperately desiring a girlfriend. I was never victimized physically or financially in prison. But I prepared for those fuzzy concepts by both working out and growing facial hair in order to not look "cute." Now, I have one degree and nearly have another, I have a place to stay with my sister, I have a strong network of caring friends and family that I can and will call upon if I need help, and yet I am still afraid. This freedom thing, after so long being banished from it, feels beyond foreign.
I'll continue writing about this strangeness as I process out of prison and adjust to life beyond bars. My next piece for MB6 will explore the jitters as they draw nearer. But first, after some archly disarming feints at humor, I shall foray into the serious, dear reader, of what I'm going to miss about prison.
1.) All this noise to drown out the quiet.
I'm going to miss the comforting noise of 160 coughers, whiners, hyena-laughers, and zombie-feet shufflers. Not to mention the snorers, the sports clappers of all ilk, and the industrial symphony of tornado-like flushing. And who wouldn't miss the PA system that follows you everywhere? Why, it's a reliable source for unimportant news, like when the guy in 4-29 has to cell in because he is loitering again. When I had my first trailer visit with my Mom and step-Dad, I noticed my latent need for the din (of singing and rapping and barking and clanking) made by eight score humans within fart-sensing distance of each other. Once I was teennoyed to no end by my step-Dad's breathing which I could hear from anywhere in our home. But now--years of prison later, it occurred to me while lying awake in the thunderous silence of the single-wide mobile home we share for a weekend that his breathing was not nearly enough to keep me from hearing my own breathing and my disturbingly loud (and frustratingly incessant) heartbeat filling my suddenly too-empty ear holes. But that was nothing compared to the thoughts. Oy vey, the thoughts--they were so loud in all that quiet. Lying there, trying to sleep in actual, complete silence just wasn't possible anymore. I tiptoed into the living room (yes, walk for over a decade on concrete and your every step will feel, or at least sound, elephantine on the creaking wood floor) and I retrieved a radio. It was needed background noise to drown out my internal racket. Besides, the classical music station played nice 20 to 40 minute blocks of soundtracks for the unconscious, and their dulcet pleas for funding beautifully disturbed my sleep like I was back in the cellblock's comforting disquiet.
2.) What you have is shit; what I have is stuff.
I will miss the simplicity set forth by the elegant set of laws determining precisely how much stuff I can have. I remember being a pre-teen and covering my mouth to stifle the giggles spewing out uncontrollably at a George Carlin stand-up cassette tape that I had "borrowed" from my older sister. He was talking about the 12 words that he (mostly wrongly, it turns out) predicted would never be allowed to be said on TV. Though I couldn't appreciate it at the time, having barely a roomful of things, his bit on "Stuff" stuck with me. (For those deprived of the comedic mastery of this Carlin piece, it was essentially this: we buy more stuff until we don't have room for it, then we move to a big enough house to house all our accumulated stuff, and then do it again--but Carlin said it humorously.)
But here in the bathroom where I live, which is middle fingertip to middle fingertip wide, and not much longer, stuff is dangerous. Oh, like most First World dangers it can be (somewhat) ignored. My top bunk is like an anthropologist's succubal dream, the well-preserved strata of epochs. But instead of fossilized seashells and proto-human "tools," my dig site is a rich find of half-abandoned art projects, columns of "good for me" articles and books I intend to one day read, and the pack-rat stalagmites that have accreted in the last 15 years that I've had this bathroom all to myself.
But the DOC, in its adoptive role as my unwanted parent, has kindly kept my stuff from reaching functional proportions. You see, to the astute DOC, my having more than one 12" by 18" by 10" boxful of books, magazines, letters, and pictures (basically everything we're allowed to have that isn't hygiene items or electronics) is, in my concrete bathroom, a "fire hazard." Others, not as trusting as me, ascribe less noble reasons for such arbitrarily authored rules. They say my safety might not actually be at the forefront of prison rule-smithing and cite my neighbor overhearing guards open my cell door for a random cell search only to immediately leave whilst saying, "Let's find a room with less stuff in it--we'll be in here all day."
One time I could do nothing but acquiesce against the machinations of the DOC when it claimed my stuff was excess refuse. I had two fistfuls of pencils I'd purchased taken from me during a cell search. At the Minor Infraction hearing the pleading went thusly:
"You have excess pencils."
"But I use them all--"
"This is too many."
"But it's not always easy to get to the pencil sharpener and I'm an artist and writ--"
"You have excess pencils."
"How many am I allowed?"
"This is too many."
"Yes, but how many am I allowed? Fifty? Twenty-five?"
"I don't know. But you have excess pencils."
I gave up--the pencils and the fight. For it is hard to argue with such sound logic.
Once, years ago, a guard confiscated all my boxes of stuff and forced me to decide in an hour what to throw away, what to mail to my family, and what I could keep in order to be "in compliance." Thankfully, as I was sorting through my stuff--a task made more difficult by the tears streaking down my face--something happened and he returned telling me it was my lucky day and to take it all back to my room. I did without question, but that near-stuff-death incident scared me into (somewhat) downsizing. I'm only about six or eight times over the allowable limit now.
But by this time next year, I'll be living in my sister's home. And her guest bathroo--er, guest room might, in theory, restrict my stuff, like certain fish from "growing beyond the size of its environment." But I'm afraid that without the heartfelt we-know-what's-best-for-you enforcement of the DOC (and my sister is no DOC) I'll amass stuff simply because I want it. And what kind of life is that?
3.) Fashion forward.
I'm going to miss not having to put a single bit of thought, worry, or ridiculous expense into my sense of fashion. Some years ago the Washington State DOC disallowed personal clothing and now, instead, kindly makes our clothes for us--socks and all. It's really rather generous of them. At first, in their inestimable judiciousness, they decreed that T-shirts and work shirts were more than enough to keep us warm, and who was I to disagree? But someone, in fact, did, and grieved or litigated until we all got sweatshirts and shorts. Personally I miss the comradery of the group griping about being too hot or too cold--it was quite comforting.
While it's true that some prisoners iron their work shirts (and T-shirts and jeans and yes, their sweat pants) with intricately angled, patterned creases so much so that it looks like they spend multiple hours on each outfit (when, in reality, it only takes one hour per outfit), I, however, do not iron my white T-shirts or brown shirts or anything else. I watch enough nature shows to know why males preen and prettify themselves. Oh, I'm not saying I'm above fashion like some half-mad genius that has to be reminded to shower. I am saying, though, that after having detoxed, fully, from the stranglehold of fashion, of being judged by What One Is Wearing, of displaying an appropriate percentage of my annual worth, I am not looking forward to having to decide who people think I am by what I wear. I'm going to miss having as my only clothing-wise concern be not whether it's socially appropriate but whether it's clean--and a quick sniff accomplishes that. There's a reason most futuristic films have everybody wearing a unisex, tighter-fitting version of a prison jumpsuit--it's just more convenient.
4.) It's too hot to think.
I'm going to miss having no control of the temperature, whether that is in my room or in the shower. My mind is never cluttered with what I imagine most have to endure: the ongoing adjustment of the thermostat and those confusing cold and hot options in the shower. I don't waste my time with such little things. I turn one knob in the shower to adjust whether it's full-blast or slow dripping with no pressure. It's more adventurous this way: on hot days the water might be deliciously cold or burning hot. I also don't waste my precious brain patter on trivialities like whether I should turn up the heat since that decision is made by those who know best what is a reasonable temperature for me to live in.
Again, these trailer visits have shown me how much better I have it in the cellblocks. In the trailer once I was hand washing dishes in what I thought was hot water, when my Mom came by and turned it up until steam fogged up my glasses and my hands did their best miming of red lobsters screaming underwater for the sweet, buttery release of death. To which my loving Mother tapped the temp down to a barely warm 190 degrees Fahrenheit and called me a baby. She emphatically does not complain, though, when I leave it up to her to adjust the thermostat (especially when her husband isn't there to complain about the heat or the cost) because only then can her hollow bird bones finally defrost. But to see the way she walks by the thermostat and has to decide whether to turn it up (a little or a lot) is just, for me, wasted thought slots. I don't have that problem inside the prison because there are only a few options of clothing I can wear or take off and therefore my mind is freed up to think about bigger things like....
5.) Self-control but twice a month.
I'm going to miss needing to have food budgetary self-control only once every two and a half weeks. You see, right now I only need self-control in regards to food when I've just received my commissary/store order and I'm filling out the next one. Graciously the DOC has the shrewdness to both minimize my pay (about $1.50 a day, at best) and jack up the only store's prices (which they get a cut of) so that even without a caffeine addiction and frivolous buys like hygiene and postage, I don't have to fret about which food items I might want.
But I know that this will end. Soon I'll have to face the burden of variety, the tyranny of 24-hour convenience, and the horrors of abundance. That's not even mentioning the truly debilitating proposal of choosing amongst competing companies. I imagine it's a lot like religion and politics: it's better not to think about it and instead just drink whatever your parents drink. No sense in disappointing them by becoming a Pepsi drinker when the whole family does Coke (oh, sure, a teenage Mountain Dew or Jolt phase might be begrudgingly tolerated but that's not the cola you marry).
6.) Press 1 for awkward silence.
I'm going to miss having some uninterested sounding recorded lady decide for me when to end a phone call. As it is now it's only $3.61 for a local call (that's the going rate, right?) and then it cuts off after 20 minutes. But the small fee includes polite 60 and 30 second warnings. There's never any trailing-off in my phone calls, no trying to hint that you've "got to get going" or any of those easily misread or ignored social cues. It's 20 minutes, then we're done; no trying to gauge whether the other person is actually interested in the call--they accepted the call, they know it's over in 20 minutes, their life can restart then. No need for protracted attempts to end a call politely. I don't even know how to do that or accept it if were done to me anymore. A skill I've lost along with riding in a vehicle, chewing gum, and knowing what to do in the face of hairless cleavage.
7.) Into the not-here ether.
I'm going to miss the unplanned and complete severance of friendships. Because prisoners aren't allowed to write other prisoners in this state anymore, whenever someone gets chosen to explore the various other prisons scattered around the state (or sometimes out of state, and private prisons can be so much cheaper), they just go. Gone. Poof.
In the classic book "Watership Down," by Richard Adams, there's a scene where the newly homeless rabbits are staying at a rabbit warren that's different from what they've known: a man feeds them but doesn't fence them in and, they soon notice, the other rabbits always get anxious and change the subject whenever asked where someone is. The homeless rabbits all flee when they eventually figure out why this is. Around here, whenever someone gets to talking about the crazy pranks or shit-talking talents or hot-headedness of whomever, the conversation is all well and good (like regaling the merits of fallen soldiers) until someone asks where he is. Then: silence, interrupted only by awkward topic changes or sometimes muddled, soft-spoken guesses.
But isn't that preferable to being forced to maintain semblances of relationships with people who often aren't writers and will, when I get out, what, "poke" me on the Facebook? After almost 18 years of trying to force extended family members and friends to be themselves with me, only on paper, I have come to the realization that most people aren't willing to put in the effort of having a relationship, a friendship, or anything but an acquaintanceship, once it becomes too much of a bother. And the DOC has, yet again, shown that it sagaciously knows best and has graciously eliminated even the possibility of any such forced friendships. No, it's either friendship at the same location or they're yesterday's rabbit stew--best not to be distastefully brought back up again.
8.) Not quite the floccinaucinihilipilification effect.
I'm going to miss the "soft bigotry of low expectations" leveled at me just for being a prisoner. There's nothing quite like being praised for...showing up. As a 40-year-old it's an astonishing thing to be celebrated like a toddler finally able to say "the spaghetti's in the refrigerator" merely for completing, in a week, six whole pages of reading. It's amazing to be commended for patiently waiting a respectful distance from a conversation until invited with raised eyebrows to interrupt. It's remarkable to see the shock of disbelief from a guard after turning in a lost watch left on some exercise equipment. It's extraordinary to note the visible astonishment on someone's face simply for knowing some arbitrary factoid as if it's remarkable that I, a prisoner, actually read. I can always recognize their giddy surprise, and not just from their gleeful all-but clapping at me or the pat on my head or knee. No, it's in their faces--a wide-eyed gabberflastedness that first year sociology students, in prison (in prison, I say!), have actually heard of, and understand, Plato's Allegory of the Troglodytes.
I'm not talking about the shiny new glory that comes with acquiring new knowledge like when many of us first discovered the intense wonder of weighty words when we acted like a four-year-old who will regale you incessantly with the intricacies of, say, everything from allosaurus to psittacosaurus to velociraptor. Because while it is exhilarating to exasperate people with the proper (or mostly proper) usage of a so-called "expensive" word like floccinaucinihilipilification and befuddle their faces into creases of confusion, that is not what I'm talking about. No, I'm going to miss people being startled at the fact that I, a mere prisoner, am a functioning adult.
It's going to be difficult to get back out into the free world where people will expect me to be a reasoned, behaved, and socialized human being instead of an instinctual animal rooting around for the next pleasure to be satisfied right now, dammit, regardless of the cost or consequences. I worry that it's going to be exceedingly anti-climactic to become a person who isn't applauded for getting out of bed, for turning in assignments on time, and for keeping a job. I will miss being infantilized.
9.) Time enough for self-delusion.
I'm going to miss the feeling of having all the time of a vast sentence to get whatever done. My friends and family (with, perhaps, the exception of my retired Mom) all talk about how stressful and hectic life is, and that one never has enough time to do all the things one wants to do. Home ownership is apparently a time-suck that devours your life, your interests and ability to have outside passions, each and every weekend of your life. Add to that kids (if you, I hear, really want no life of your own) and access to actual entertainment and one has nothing left but shuffling to and fro at work, scarfing semblances of meals, and scraping a few hours a night for a veneer of sleep.
Whereas I, here in prison, have so many unbetrothed hours that I don't know what to do with them all, at times. Oh, sure, I make do with a nap or two a day. And maybe some silly sitcoms. And I compose more emails/letters than (most) people can keep up with. But overall I do enjoy the delicious feeling of having time for this big art project, for rewriting that novel I wrote (which I've been scared to look at since I squeezed it out of me in a single month some eight years ago), for completing my BA degree, for deciding what I want to be for a career, and for doing that one thing--whatever it may well be--that will allow me to walk out of prison having felt like I have genuinely accomplished something of merit, of substance, of worth. Something to once and for all smother that oppressing feeling that these 18.5 years have been nothing but a monumental waste. But now, as I measure my time left in prison in mere months, as I begin to eye my stuff in the light of who might best give it a loving home when I leave this next week or two for a minimum-security camp, and as I realize there's no real time left to do even one of the "big projects" I've been procrastinating on for so long that it's become my default position, I can't deny the waste anymore. I have atrophied my life away. And when I get out at the end of this year having nothing but a few boxes of stuff, no career and no home of my own and no kids and nothing else bit a squandered life thus far, I will justifiably miss this feeling of having all the time in the world to make it all seem like it was worth it.
10.) My felonious friends.
I expect that I can, somehow, get used to silence. I presume that I can amass stuff without too much fear. It's feasible that, with the help of someone in the know, I can attempt to dress myself and try on this fashion thing again. It's likely that I'll adjust to being required to think about what temperature I might actually prefer. It's probable that I might not collapse under the intimidating pressure of the supermarket aisles of options. I may survive learning how to end a phone conversation if forced to. Somehow I suppose that I can figure out how to become an acquaintance with friends if they move away. With much effort I might even learn how to do worthwhile things to earn people's honest praise. And, really, don't we all succumb to bouts of self-delusion that there's time enough for everything?
But to be serious, though, there is something that I shall truly miss when I leave prison: some of the best people in the world. I trust my close friends in here without question or hesitation. This isn't a untested trust: through my vulnerable confessions I have given them chances to do that typical guy thing of mocking me or disowning me and they never have. Not my real friends, anyway. I have been supported by them, encouraged by them, and inspired by them. And because I must wait two years after I'm out from under the DOC's thumb before I can legally visit them or contact them, it might be as long as 5 years from now before I get to see the one I have to choose to apply to visit. There will never again be time to laugh and hang out in a group or walk the yard together or take a fun class together. A few of them will get out, but there's no guarantee that they'll live anywhere near me. No, sadly, after all this time, I expect many of them will be no more than fond memories. My friendships aren't the only thing I'll truly miss when I gladly leave prison, but they eclipse everything else. I can't even find a way to make a joke about this as a way to disarm the pain I feel is coming. I will miss my felonious friends, deeply.