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By Steve Bartholomew
I glanced into my cell through the narrow window in the door before unlocking it. Minimum security may bestow upon you such lavish privileges as a key to your cell and a microwave in the dayroom, but that doesn’t mean you should stop paying attention altogether. On the other side of the glass a stranger was making himself at home in what I thought of as my house. I turned the key and pulled open the door.
How a person introduces himself matters more in prison than it does in the free world. Because the stakes are higher, we scrutinize the other person closer. In a given week out there, you may encounter so many new people in passing that introductions typically mean little. You probably don't expect to see the vast majority of those people again. In here, we meet comparably few new people, and the likelihood that any fellow prisoner will have some impact on one's life for years to come is much greater. So, we tend to notice every nuance of a handshake, where it fits on the firmness spectrum, if eye contact is made and for how long. We build opinions quickly and tear them down very slowly, if ever.
My new celly did not rise from the bunk; he did not offer his name first. He didn't ask what I go by (we don't assume the other person's actual name is any of our business). He offered neither a hand in greeting nor a succinct explanation for moving into my cell uninvited. McNeil Island moves were rare feats not easily accomplished, and were usually arranged purposely—unless, that is, you're the sort of person no one wants to live with.
He remained where he was, propped up in the corner, unperturbed. His hand rose to his forehead in a shoddy salute.
"Aloha," he said, as if we were seated next to each other on the bus. I was, apparently, the only uneasy one in the cell.
I offered my name and extended my hand. He outweighed me by 70 pounds easy, something to consider when setting the tone of business to be conducted in close quarters. Built like a retired quarterback, he had the barberless fustiness of someone emerging from the hole. I decided to cut him some slack. After being segregated for long periods, some prisoners lose whatever grasp of social graces they may have had before.
"Wendell,” he said.
We made the new-celly small talk; how long each has been down (30 years for him, 8 for me), where each'd spent most of his time (Monroe for him, Walla Walla for me). I casually dug out my Judgment and Sentence paperwork and set it in front of him. He picked it up, examining it front and back, although there is nothing on the back. If we care what the other person is in prison for, the common courtesy is to offer one's own paperwork first. That way the other person isn't obligated to produce his own – he just declines to read what’s being offered. Eventually, he handed me a letter from the parole board. It mentioned first degree murder in a paragraph of bureaucratic language indicating his release would be denied. Not the same as a J & S, but I wasn't willing to push the issue just yet.
We got around to discussing activities and interests, a crucial aspect of cellyhood. A small space and one television to be shared, the goal being not always at the same time. I told him that I stay busy, and many of my pastimes are outside of the cell. The drift I intended him to catch was that when I am in the cell, he is not. An agreement usually honored by both cellies, partly by spoken arrangement, partly by active courtesy. There is typically a short convo about cell time, the precious few hours each celly can be alone.
But instead, he said, "I’m a strategist."
Could mean Dungeons and Dragons, I thought. He does look a little wizardly, or orkish.
"Yep," he continued, his voice lowered conspiratorially. "I work with Don Rumsfeld."
"Oh, is he in this unit?” Maybe he'd be out of the cell, spending time in the day room strategizing with this Don character on a regular basis.
"The Secretary of Defence? You don't know who he is?" he asked, his expression one of exasperation, either at my ignorance or lack of patriotic fervor.
"Oh. That Don Rumsfeld." Before reacting, I searched his face for a waiting punchline, the trace of a childish prank. He might be awkward enough to try breaking the ice with a gaff. But he had none of the usual tells. I decided to play along. Maybe my level of boredom had lowered my standards of entertainment that far, or maybe I was just curious to see where this would go. "How does that work?"
"I’m only part time. You know, work from home, so to speak. I’m a strategic subcontractor. They say I have a mind for it."
"What kind of strategies?" I asked, struggling not to smile. "That is, if you're allowed to tell me.
"Anti-terrorist stuff is my area of expertise, but I generate some piracy task force tactics, too."
"Piracy task force. I didn’t know they were making a comeback."
"Big time. Somalians, mostly. Major threat on the high seas, Somalian pirates. See, problem is, they're impossible to track once they get to shore. Just blend right in with the crowds of villagers. Ever try to pick a Somalian out of a line-up?"
By this point, I'd gotten the feeling he genuinely believed himself, at least. I near the door, leaning against the wall and trying to form an answer that reflected the gravity of the moment. "Well, sure, l—wait, No, that was something else. Guess I haven’t.”
"Well, I came up with a solution. Whammo! U.S. warships are being retrofitted as we speak."
"Let me guess. Shoot 'em when they row up unannounced? "
"Hell no, man. International incident, big time. You gotta stay non-lethal. See, I came up with a surefire tracking and detection system."
I thought about the odds of being ceIled up with a mentally ill prisoner, and how those odds had increased drastically over the years. Twenty years ago, the percentage of prisoners with mental health issues was small enough that someone like me might only be celled up with one of them in the receiving units, where the state sorts everyone out. I had to let this go a little further, find out how deep the crazy ran before falling asleep in a cell with him.
"What's your solution? Am I cleared to know?"
He turned toward the narrow window setting out on to the unit breezeway. Peered upward at the sky, then down. "Any of your family or friends terrorists? I gotta ask."
“None that I know of. Scouts' honor."
"Well, okay then. I invented the max-itch mortar round." He told me in excruciating detail how the military could now fire artillery over the pirates' heads that would cover them in itching powder. That way, when they rowed back to shore they'd be easy to pick out. The soldiers could just shoot the ones who can't stop scratching.”
"And they're using this? The Army?"
"Oh yeah. Delta force. Look, here is the next one." He handed over a sheet of lined paper, creased and unfolded. Across the top were a dozen rows of tiny pencil marks, as if a family of graphite-footed geckos had traversed the paper.
Wendell went on to explain that although he was able to send his encrypted eyes-only communiques to a secret drop box from in here, Mr. Rumsfeld was not willing to risk national security by sending his reply through the prison mail room. I would come to learn that in fact, Donald Rumsfeld owns and operates the Fox News Channel for the primary purpose of purveying sensitive information to his league of strategists by way of the news ticker. In the coming days, WendelI would spend several hours a day standing three feet from the television, examining the neverending text parading across the bottom of the screen. Evidently it was ciphered in such a way that plebeians like me would be unable to defect it.
Mental illness in prison is at least as common in prison as halitosis. In the 90s, Washington State began defunding mental institutions, sending all but the catatonic or non-functional out to wander the streets. Many ended up in prison, which became the new mental health (mal)treatment centers. Most of these people had been self-medicating, exacerbating whatever condition they already had. The majority of prisoners in this state are diagnosable, often with comorbid disorders, meaning more than one.
Prison guards receive no psychological training. Their job is to watch for craziness to act out and then respond to it, not to understand or accommodate it. There are staff whose title is "counsellor,” a holdover from a time when they would help prisoners prepare for parole. Now counsellors are guards who took a promotion so they wouldn’t have to wear a uniform to work anymore. There are mental health professionals, but the extent of their therapeutic commitment is playing pharmaceutical rock-paper-scissors. Too many prisoners shuffle around here with chronic facial tics, the residue from years of taking misprescribed psychotropics.
As a rule, I feel compassion for mentally ill prisoners. I know they are not choosing to be crazy any more than I am choosing not to be. Most are harmless. Recently, a man whose mental state I’ve watched deteriorate over the eleven years I’ve known him told me, “I hate my medication. It makes my muscles loose and shivery. Sometimes I can’t remember anything. But I take it so I don’t annoy people so bad. I hate getting beat up worse than the pills.” The muscles around his mouth twitch and tug, making partial grins and frowns every few seconds, an irreversible side-effect of Seroquel, the catch-all pill they handed out like Pez for a decade or more, until someone sued the manufacturer.
When I first came to prison in 1994, I had a celIy named Doug who didn't understand that he was in prison. We were in the receiving units in Shelton, the processing hub for the entire state. Every day or two, I had to re-explain to Doug that he was no longer waiting to go to court, that he had in fact been convicted of vehicular homicide. And that he had to spend five years here. He would insist yet again that he hadn't been driving his brother-in-law’s truck. I can't even drive a stickshift, he would say, his eyes pleading. He and his brother-in-law were both thrown from the truck in the accident and the brother died on impact. Because two children passengers in the other vehicle had been killed, someone had to go to prison. Doug was probably easy to convict.
I don't know if it was the brain trauma he’d suffered during the accident that made him delusional and confused. I had to read his mail to him, letters from his wife that I would also answer for him. But Doug had a problem with boundaries. He would get disrespectful with me, loudly at times. I was 24, brand new to prison, and I’d been socialized to believe that if you accept any disrespect in here, you will accept anything else. We got into an argument one morning because Doug refused to courtesy flush. It was before breakfast, in an open-bars facility. The entire cell block could hear how this was playing out. And they were all listening to the only drama in their tiny world Doug said the wrong thing and I punched him hard in the mouth. Not my most inspirational moment, but I could not do my time as the guy who let his celly talk back to him.
Doug fell to the floor and crawled under the bunk, screaming. The door racked open and I composed myself, stepped out and merged with the tier traffic commuting to the chowhall. A few minutes later Doug came running toward the chowline, his hands wrapped with towels like boxing gloves. He was shadow boxing and shouting, “You want a piece of me?” The guards tackled him. They hauled him out strapped to a board with a spit sock over his head. I imagine Doug did the rest of his time in difficult places, cells where there wasn't anyone who would explain where he was and why.
A few years later, when I was again in the receiving units, I had another celly named Wayno. When he walked into the cell I was on the top bunk. I noticed immediately that he had a circular wound in the back of his neck, may be a half inch deep, the circumference of a cigar. Open, oozing. He said it was where the poison came out when he rubbed battery acid on his gums with a sponge. Wayno would sit in the cell for hours on end writing the words "skin diver” over and over, a thousand different styles of handwriting and sizes of print covering dozens of sheets of paper. He wrote down every number on the phones in the gym, the prison phones that only make outgoing collect calls. He said there was a pattern that would tell him where he was going.
While I was at yard one day he tore up the few National Geographics I had accumulated, precious commodities in a literary wasteland. They were fakes, he said, idols made by the prison to infect his blood. I drew the line when I returned to the cell to find all my toothpaste was gone. He had used it in an experiment. He was making a chemical to block the satellite waves.
I told Wayno he had to go. He went.
There is a prisoner who they keep on the hospital floor here, when he is not next door at the Special Offender Center, or SOC. He has been strapped into a four-point bed for over four years. Every two hours he gets a “limb out,” which means exactly as it sounds. Once a day, six guards walk him down the hallway and back, his only recreation.
He has shoved carrots, toothbrushes, and an entire apple up his rectum (not at the same time, I'm pretty sure). After they surgically removed the apple, he tore out the stitches and worked another apple in there. A few months ago he swallowed an entire Dorito's bag. A guard who had to keep watch while they went after it said that when the camera snake entered his stomach cavity, the monitor screen looked like the grossest Dorito's commercial ever. The logo was perfectly centred between the sides of his stomach lining. He is most famous for digging out a chunk of meat from his own knee and throwing it in a guard's face. He has hit his head against the wall until he could place little skull shards on the window of the cell door
There is another one at SOC who tries to eat himself. They have to keep him in a Hannibal Lecter mask.
Most prisoners in this state have heard of Big Bird, a seven foot SOC veteran who somehow manages to save his own excrement until he has amassed enough to fashion a suit of armor, poop helmet and all. And then he goes to war with the guards. They have to bring in porters from my unit sometimes to clean up afterward, for which they used to get an extra $2.00. Now it's just expected.
Every so often the administration sends one of the SOC guys here, just to see if they can make it. Sometimes they are heavily enough medicated to blend in, becoming just another prisoner who stays on his bunk a day. A startling percentage of prisoners in this unit have not gone outside in the five and a half years I’ve been here. One young prisoner who lives down the tier only leaves his cell to go to chow. The rest of the time he stands staring at the wall, or lies on his back staring at the upper bunk. I’ve never seen the mental health people check on him or anyone else in this unit.
Sometimes collisions occur between the mentally ill and the rest of us. The social forces in here are tremendous, and can be complicated. And many of us who are not quite crazy still lack the skill to navigate around those who are. When I’d asked Wendell to expound on his murder charge, he gave me a rambling, vague monologue. He claimed to have killed a woman in self-defence. A woman, he said, who was bullying him and denied him entrance to a house. Whose house it was he never made clear.
A few days later, a friend in another unit asked me to come to yard. He introduced me to an older prisoner who I’d seen around but never spoken to, named Phil. Phil told me another version of Wendell's story, as he remembered it. They were from the same small town, and Phil had known Wendell's family, as well as the family of the victim. Phil told me that Wendell had forced his way into a house where a 13 year-old girl was babysitting. After he'd raped her he stabbed her more than twenty times and threw her body into a river.
“Look it up if you want to,” Phil said. “It’s in the law library. I’m only telling you this because Frank here speaks highly of you. Thought you should know. I don't care if you throw my name at him."
I walked back to the cell, my head pressurized with anger and anxiety. I felt locked into a course of action I hadn't chosen. I cursed my luck and the administration for making sure it was delivered. I felt disgusted at being forced to live with a monster. Whether or not I am such a paragon of morality that I should be in the position to make judgments about the status of another person is beside the point. Prison has its own set of societal norms, its own caste system, and WendelI was an Untouchable. Now that Phil had told me of this, and in front of Frank, my reputation hinged on how I would address the fact that a child-murdering rapist was living with me, crazy or not. In here, your name can be affected more by what you fail to do than by what you actually do. You could fight a hundred fights, but if you let one person punk you out, you are a weak-ass bitch. Your social circle will change forever, and you may become a mark for others in the future. In a minimum facility like McNeil, the shaming is the worst part.
There are two ways to save face in a situation like the one I was in. You can either fight and roll the dice as to where you will land, which may be in another joint—or, you can bring the issue to light and give the celly 30 days to find a new home. I chose the latter. Wendell may have had me outsized, but he wasn’t in formidable physical shape. I was. I simply prefer not to fight, when I get to choose.
I entered the cell, stood with my back to the door and said, “We need to talk. Phil just pulled me up."
He sat up, placed both feet on the floor. Squared himself toward me.
I repeated what Phil had told me, and asked Wendell if it was true,
"He wasn't there," he said. "She tried to push me, she—"
I held my hand up in a halt gesture. “I don’t care. Look, this isn’t going to work out.”
“Call this number,” he said, scribbling on a piece of scratch paper. “I can change your life. The NSA will—”
“Wendell. I’m not calling anyone. This is what’s going to happen. You’re going to go tell the sergeant you need a courtesy move. You can tell them I don’t like your praying out loud.” (If asked, I could honestly say I didn’t particularly enjoy it.)
"Are you threatening me? I’ll have your jihadi ass taped down at Gitmo, you Taliban fuck. I know you're a mole, after my strategies. Fucking terrorist agent piece of shit, you talibanfuckhole.”
He stood up, his fists clenched, his face redly telegraphing his intention.
“Wendell. Sit back down. Calm down. You’re about to make a mistake.”
“Speak not to me, motherfucker!” he screamed at me, his body flexed and shaking. “Only God speaks to me, you devilfuckhole. Power of fucking Christ, I’m his angel!”
He charged at me, still bellowing about swords, vengeance, and damnation. I’ll spare you the minutiae of an unremarkable cell fight. It only lasted as long as it took the guards to track down the source of the shouting during the sacred quietude of count times.
We both went to the hole, where I stayed for a month or so. He was transferred to a different joint and I stayed at McNeil another year before being transferred to Monroe, where I remain to this day.
About two years ago I was called to the Custody Unit Supervisor’s office. A small matronly woman who dresses like a Walmart mystery shopper, she equals a lieutenant in rank but seems much less intimidating. Hers is the final say as to what happens or doesn't happen in this half of the prison. A guard opened the door and the CUS asked me to take a seat.
"Do you know Wendell ____?" she asked.
It took a few seconds to recreate first a vague face, then recall the story attached to it. “Yes.”
“You were both infracted for fighting—it says here January, twenty-ten.”
“Wanna tell me what happened? Weren’t you cellies?”
I barely got to the Fox News ticker when she opened her eyes wide.
“Oh, holy shit. I remember that guy. He’s nuttier’n Auntie Em’s fruitcake.” She pulled up his picture on the computer screen. “He was here years ago. I remember when I was still a c/o, he told me he could change my life, if I’d call some phone number he tried to give me. Thought he was illuminati, if I remember right. She made the handcrank motion next to her head.
“He moved into the government sector, I guess.”
“Well, anyway. He wants to lift the separatee between you two. Trying to transfer back here. So I gotta ask. You okay with that? You two got issues?”
“No, ma’am. I got no issues, long as you don’t put him in my cell.”
Wendell lives on the tier above me now. Every so often I overhear him in the chowhall, explaining with great gusto and gesticulation to whoever is lucky enough to sit down at his table how he taught the Navy Seals to track down Isis with pink hairspray mortar-rounds.
|Steve Bartholomew 978300|
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
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