Thursday, January 8, 2015

Welcome to the Big House

By Timothy Pauley

1980 was a bad year. When it began, I found myself living in a van, which I parked in the lot of the factory where l worked. This provided me with a bathroom and shower at least. My bed was a sleeping bag perched atop the inch of foam padding under the carpet on the floor of my van.

I was young and resilient. This was not a circumstance I expected to continue, and it didn't. A few weeks into the new year, I was able to rent a room on a house nearby and it appeared life was looking better. On February 22 my optimism proved to be premature.

That evening, I was cleaning a raw materials conveyer belt that ran from a four-story silo to the root of a building that housed a huge furnace where glass bottles were made. The end of the conveyer was about twenty feet above the roof and the forty-foot length of the conveyer mechanism was encased in metal, with small inspection portals every few feet. There was a catwalk on one side of the structure, which permitted one to walk the entire length of the belt.

My job was to open each inspection portal, scrape the material that had fallen off the belt into a bucket, then dump it back onto the moving conveyer. This was done with a two-foot metal rod that had another piece of metal welded to the end to form an I shape. At the opposite end was a loop to provide better grip.

It was 7:00 PM when I climbed the ladder to begin this task. Methodically I went from one inspection cover to the next, scraping the excess material into my bucket. This was a task I'd performed many times before and five minutes later I was at the end of the conveyer. I opened the last inspection door and began scraping. As I thrust my tool in for one last pass, one of the staples that spliced the belt together caught the end of my tool. In an instant, the belt jerked my hand into the space between the belt and the huge drive roller. Try as I might, the mechanism was relentless.

In seconds it had pulled my entire arm into the space, with the belt tearing at one side of my arm and the drive roller at the other. My left hand slammed into the place under the housing where the safety kill button was supposed to be. Nothing but metal. It seems the catwalk had been built on the wrong side and the actual button was on the opposite side, some twenty feet in the air. Apparently nobody had noticed until that moment.

I let out a scream that came from the very depths of my being and pulled with all my might in an effort to resist this powerful force. It was no use. The belt continued to run for another two and a half minutes. When the belt began slipping on all the blood and torn flesh, the automatic safety kill stopped the belt. Although, safety kill is not an accurate term as this particular device was not designed to protect people, but to stop the machine when it became plugged and was slipping on excess material falling from the belt. 

When the belt finally stopped, it was dead quiet. I'd been expecting to see help on the way, but instead there was nothing. As I looked around, there were only two places on the ground that had a view of my position. One was in the middle of a busy highway and the other was an empty expanse where raw materials were stored. I was screwed.

It didn’t take long to realize that I was the only one authorized to be in this area. I was also the only one likely to have any business in the raw materials yard I was looking down on. It was 7:05 and the soonest I could expect anyone to venture to this part of the plant was at least twelve hours later, and more likely sixteen. I had to think fast.

My first strategy was to grab any object I could reach and throw it over the edge of the roof. My hope was that metal objects raining down would attract someone's attention enough to motivate him to come look. I was able to reach two metal inspection covers and two large bolts that secured them. One at a time I pitched them over the side, then waited.

By 7:15 it became apparent nobody was coming. My clothes were soaked in blood and it seemed at this rate I would be running out of that pretty soon. I didn't realize that the way I was pulled into the housing had forced me to keep my wounds above my heart and that, coupled with the pressure of the machine and the friction burns, had mostly stopped the bleeding. These facts would have been meaningless to me even had I known them. If I didn't get out of that machine; I was going to die.

So I started pulling. Hard. At first there was no give at all. I soon found myself contorting my position to put my foot up on the housing for leverage. Once that was secure, I pulled for all I was worth. Slowly I could feel my body moving away from the machine. The pain was constant, whether I just sat there or whether I pulled, so I continued to pull as hard as I possibly could. I was able to get nearly all the way clear. But my hand would not come free.

It was 7:25 now and I could actually stand up. My arm bone was completely exposed now but my hand would not pull free frown the machine, no matter how hard I jerked. I looked around once more and noticed activity in the raw materials yard. A driver was delivering a load of sand. He had a huge dump truck, with a dump truck style trailer attached. His routine was to dump the trailer first, disconnect it, then dump the main load, after which he would reattach his trailer and be on his way.

On this occasion, he'd brought his fifteen-year-old son along for the ride. As Scotty, the driver, maneuvered to hook his trailer back up, the boy stood in the yard getting some fresh air. In desperation, I pulled off my white and blue baseball cap and began waving it frantically. It seemed like a long time but right before he turned to head back for the truck, the boy saw me and pointed. Soon Scotty was standing next to him and they were both looking my direction. It was 7:30.

A few minutes later, maintenance workers were hurrying up the catwalk, tools in hand. The wave of relief that swept over me was short lived. Instead of immediately cutting the belt and freeing me, they began to disassemble the machine. I was livid. Expecting to pass out at any moment, I had no comprehension for their methodical approach and began hollering at them. Finally they decided to go ahead and cut the belt and moments later I was freed. It was 7:35. I'd been caught in the machine for a full thirty minutes.

As I pulled free from the belt, l could see my entire forearm bones. The flesh that had covered them was hanging off my wrist like a glove. Even though I could see this, it still felt like my hand was in its normal spot. My mind had yet to adjust to my new reality.

The maintenance workers encouraged me to lie down and wait for help to arrive. I was so wired on adrenalin, there was no way that was going to happen. I hurried down the catwalk and began climbing down the ladder. Moments later I was in the parking lot as the fire engine arrived. They encouraged me to sit down on the back of the truck to await the ambulance. The same adrenalin that had kept me alive prevented me from that and I paced erratically until the medic van arrived a few minutes later.

As I laid down on the gurney in the back of the ambulance, I asked to be made unconscious. I knew they were going to saw off my arm and I would be a cripple forever after. I just wanted this day to be over. But that's not how these things work. First you answer questions.

In spite of several pain injections, I was fully conscious until the moment I was lying on the operating table and they put the mask on me. The last thing I remember was a catheter that seemed like it was a hundred yards long being inserted. That actually hurt worse than my arm. My adrenalin had completely counteracted the pain medications. 

I woke up in intensive care with all manner of hoses, tubes and wires sticking out of me. Much to my surprise, my arm was still attached. In fact it was sewn to my chest. For the next two days I faded in and out of consciousness as my body recovered from the near death experience. Eventually I was moved to the burn ward. This was necessary because I had second and third degree friction burns all over my elbow area.

Each morning, a doctor would come in and peel away a new layer of charred flesh, then apply a new burn dressing. The pain this caused was easily equal to that of the conveyer belt. The only difference was that, while the conveyer belt was a surprise, I knew the peeling was coming each day. 

In 1980, pain management was a developing science. Due to the prevalence of heroin and opiate addiction, doctors were reluctant to prescribe adequate amounts of painkillers. This meant that each morning, as I sat on the edge of my hospital bed, I would fade in and out of consciousness as I became overwhelmed by the pain of having scraps of flesh pulled free from my arm. After several days I asked a visiting friend to bring me a bag of weed to help me cope with these traumatic events.

My new routine became centered around preparation for the daily peeling. At seven I'd have breakfast. At 7:30, as soon as they retrieved the trays, I'd begin smoking pipeloads of weed. At 8:30 the doctor would arrive to administer my daily peeling. I'd continue to fade in and out of consciousness during these events, but the weed helped considerably. On one occasion, as I struggled to maintain consciousness, the doctor told me that if I didn't smoke so much weed this wouldn't be happening. Had I not been in so much pain, this might have elicited laughter. In my mind, without smoking so much weed, I'd have been unable to endure these events.

Two months and five surgeries later, I was released from the hospital. My arm was semi-functional but was still swollen to about the size of one of my thighs. I had to return to the hospital every day for physical therapy and dressing changes. I also had to wear elaborate contraptions on my arm to stretch the torn muscles. I was missing about three inches of flesh from my elbow area, and what was left had to be stretched to make due. 

The day I was released from the hospital, my downward spiral ensued. First I went to have a few beers with some friends. Afterwards, they dropped me off at the place I was living and the gravity of my situation started to overwhelm me. I was a cripple.

From that moment, I spent every minute of every day, trying to drink and smoke my pain and despair away. I spent most days sitting around feeling sorry for myself and had frequent nightmares that threatened to rob me of my sanity. Eventually I became paranoid. Four weeks out of the hospital I went out and bought a pistol. 

Less than eight weeks after I was released from the hospital I found myself sitting in county jail for shooting two men. It was a senseless crime and the moment I sobered up, that fact became obvious. I was horrified at the realization of what I'd done but it mattered not; once you jump off that cliff, there's no going back. Now I was in the staging lanes for one of the most violent prisons in the country. At least the nightmares stopped. They were promptly replaced by insomnia ....


Nine months after my arrest, I boarded the bus headed for prison. My right arm was still badly incapacitated. I could move the three fingers opposite my thumb and I could bend my elbow almost to a 90° angle. The skin grafts hadn't finished healing, however, so I required daily dressing changes and my arm was still swollen almost twice the size of a normal arm.

I was entering an environment where many of those around me were looking for any sign of weakness to exploit. In fact, weakness was nearly the only character defect that was not tolerated. Drug addiction was celebrated. Dishonesty was encouraged. But weakness was exploited. Bad things happened to people who were perceived as weak.

The thing I had going for me was the exact same thing that was dragging me down. Murder charges. When I went to court this meant everything was all bad. As it related to adapting to the predatory environment of jail and prison, however, it helped me avoid much of the victimization I might otherwise have experienced.

I didn't realize it at the time but the conventional wisdom held that even though I was soft and ignorant to the ways of the streets, I would be in prison for a long, long time. People considered that making an enemy of me early on might not go so well for them once I'd been in prison for a while and adapted. Of course I was oblivious to this, but it was probably the reason I wasn't raped or robbed. With all the mistakes I made, I undoubtedly would have been, if not for this.

The mistakes came early and often. In jail I learned a little about how prison works and how to be a good convict. This education kept me from doing anything likely to get me murdered, like telling on someone or running up debts I couldn’t pay. Had l done these things, it would not have mattered how much time I was serving, there would have been severe and immediate consequences. This was especially true for someone like me, who had no support amongst the regulars. 

But there were also many who gave me bogus advice. Often the people most willing to share their wisdom are the ones who you never want to listen to. Over the years I've seen a lot of people who like to do this. I suspect their motivation is strictly the entertainment value of watching the ensuing wreck when someone actually follows their advice.

The first major mistake I made was not buying into the racial segregation dynamic that ruled prison at that time. I was told to keep to my own kind from the moment I hit county jail. But I'd been raised to disregard racial differences and to view everyone the same. In my parent's world that was good advice. In prison in 1980, it was a recipe for disaster.

A couple of black guys latched onto me early on. They tried to pretend to be my friend, all the while trying to play me out of money. I later learned this was called “game.” They offered me deals to sell me weed. After I bought some they sent their friends to try and buy some from me. When I sold them some, they didn't pay up like they were supposed to. It was all some kind of test to see if I could be made into a sex slave.

Typically when a young white guy gets to prison and starts hanging out with blacks, the other white guys will have nothing to do with them. Eventually this lack of support is likely to turn out badly. Often they get raped, then converted into someone's bitch, to be passed around or sold at the will of whoever lays claim to them. Since they voluntarily chose to side with the blacks, nobody will help them, even if they do put up a fight. A lot of that has changed over the years. Much of it no longer applies once a person is established, but this is exactly how it was when I arrived at prison.

The way this worked for me was that Walla Walla was a very violent place. The conflict resolution mechanism of choice was widely acknowledged to be stabbing or bludgeoning your adversary. This wasn't merely an option. It was expected. Letting things go or refusing to stand up for oneself could, and likely would, have disastrous consequences.

When the first guy didn't pay for the weed I sold him, I asked the black guy who'd been pretending to mentor me, if I was required to stab this guy and, if so, how would I get a shank. I was a stupid kid with no idea how things worked. I was probably lucky I asked him because I didn't exactly know how to do this anyway. This principle had been impressed upon me by many people already. Since he'd been behind the whole deal, he advised me just to let it go, which was just what I wanted to hear.

I tried to get him to explain to me the conflicting information I'd been getting. Why was everyone telling me violence was called for and he wasn't? He ran some line on me that convinced me it was okay to not do anything. This was fine with me. Had I actually been required to stab this guy, it’s just as likely he'd have ended up killing me anyway.

That evening, he and one of our other cellmates followed up on this. Later I realized I was very close to the getting raped part of their plan. They asked me what I would do if I was jumped in the shower and raped. I told them I'd have to stab the guy. Then they wanted to know what if there was more than one. So I'd have to stab all of them. Then they told me what if they were bigger than me and tougher than me. What if they would kill me. So I told them that if my choices were to be someone's bitch or dying, I'd take my chances with dying. 

They gave this some thoughtful consideration. After a short while, they told me I had to move to another cell the next day. At the time I didn't put all this together, but looking back, that is exactly what was happening. Had I been a short-timer, it wouldn't have mattered what I answered, but being a lifer the principle mentioned earlier literally saved my ass. 

So, I bounced around from cell to cell. I took several beatings for minor transgressions over the course of my adjustment but I never told and I never ran from them. Unbeknownst to me, these two things counted heavily in my favor amongst the people who were running things (not the guards) and were the beginnings of a favorable reputation. But that wouldn't help me until much later.

I was eventually shuffled off into a cell with three Chicanos. The guys I had been sharing a four-man cell with wanted to move in their friend so they talked these guys into letting me move in. During my first months in prison, I’d been getting all kinds of advice that later turned out to be bogus. Everyone had to have a shank. You never talk to the cops. I'm sure there were many others, but these are the two that tripped me up. So I found a piece of metal and scratched it on the cement until it had a point on it. The finished product was an eight-inch ice pick like thing. I pushed it into my pillow. Three days after I moved in with the three Chicanos, the cops searched the cell and found it, What I hadn't been told was that, while nearly everyone had access to a shank, NOBODY kept it in their cell. 

When the cops find a shank, they take all the occupants of the cell to the hole immediately. Unless one of them admits it was his and the other occupants didn’t know about it. But I'd been told you never talk to the cops. So we all went to the hole, the other three having no idea why.

Once I got to the hole, I found out about this but by then it was too late. I tried copping to it but the guards wouldn't let me. When I went to my hearing the hearing officer thought the other guys had put me up to riding their beef. He would not believe this shank was actually mine no matter what I said. He suggested I just check into protective custody.

Nearly everyone who'd given me advice on how to do time had impressed upon me that going to PC was considered one of the worst things a convict could possibly do. I declined his offer. So three of us had to do thirty days in the hole and one poor guy had to do sixty.

The two guys who got out the same day as me (we were all returned to the same cell) got back before me and stole all my stuff. When I finally arrived, my clothes and other belongings were gone and they claimed it was like that when they get there. None of their stuff was missing.

Now I was the idiot that got his whole cell sent to the hole. Nobody wanted me to move in with them. The guys who were in the cell warned me that I should not be living there when their friend got out of the hole. With no place to go, I did not heed their warning.

When he got out, he waited until after lock up that nigh; then beat me down. First he gave me a choice to become his bitch. I refused so he issued me a beating for the trouble I'd caused him. On this occasion I didn't really fight back, I just covered up and took my whipping. I had it coming.

I was told I had to move. Even though it conflicted with the whole not talking to the cops thing, I went to my counselor the next day and told her I had to move to another unit. She wanted to know why and I finally just told her I was having problems that were likely to turn ugly if I didn't get moved out of the unit. Instead of throwing me back to the wolves, she put in an order to move me to another unit.

With all this constant drama and the threat of being raped, beaten, or killed looming over me every minute of every day, the whole concept of how much time I had to serve was not something I had the luxury of contemplating. I was more concerned with how to live to the end of my day or the end of the week.

In my new unit I lucked into a series of good cellmates (the new unit had two man cells instead of four) who actually helped me understand how things really worked.

So far all my transgressions had been stupidity, not treachery, so as soon as I learned how things really were, life got better immediately. I fell in with folks of my own kind and many of my brother lifers began getting to know me on a personal level. After a few years I was accepted as one of them and was no longer in danger of being victimized.

The other thing that helped me in this regard was that I began lifting weights when I first got there. Back then weight training wasn't nearly as popular as it has become, but I had an arm that didn't work right. I was in a place where any sign of weakness was likely to be exploited so I wanted to fix that as quickly as possible. So along with my social transformation came a physical one. As I learned how to act right, I also became a physical specimen that was better suited to both take a beating and give one. I'm sure this helped with my adjustment as well.

Ironically it was the building muscle armor project that got me started on the road to rehabilitation. After a couple years of lifting, I began entering and winning powerlifting contests. This was the first time in my life I'd ever been good at anything. But it was just a part of learning to cope with my new reality.

When I‘d arrived I had no idea whom to trust and ended up trusting all the wrong people. While I had to suffer some consequences for that, it wasn't nearly as had as it could have been, and was for many others I saw over the years. After a while I learned how to spot a creep. Just like after a while I learned how to cope with the reality of what my life had become. I made a bunch of mistakes and learned from the ensuing consequences. My first three or four years in prison were consumed by this recurring pattern.

Wrapping my mind around the concept that this would be my life for the foreseeable future and perhaps even forever, didn't kick in until I'd crawled out from under the learning prison process. It was then that I began discovering what tremendous potential I had. First I found I was good at powerlifting, then it was sports, then school. One thing led to another as l worked at building a life for myself that was reasonably fulfilling.

The major strategy tor this process was built on the concept of ignoring nearly everything that was in the world from which I'd come and instead focusing on the things available to me where I was now. Instead of concerning myself with all the things prison was depriving me of, I did what I could to fill my days with meaningful activities.

Once I'd built some self-esteem, my life was better in prison than it ever had been outside. Recognizing myself as a worthy person helped seriously mitigate the hardship of knowing I was stuck in prison. And this self-realization permanently changed for the better all the ways I interacted with the world. But it was a long process and I still managed to make a jackass of myself many times before it was over.

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