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By Steve Bartholomew
In the past I have been reluctant to write much about a day in the life, such as it is. You see, I am a storyteller at heart. I assumed that tales of the doldrums might read of like printed Nyquil, because that's how it feels, mostly. But upon coaxing a few of you out of your contemplative shells, I discovered that in fact daily prison life is of interest to many of you, and how we cope with the loss of autonomy is of interest to at least one of you.
The reasons for your interest in prison routines are varied. Some of you are compelled by social justice issues, and I applaud you. Some have an insatiable curiosity about what we endure and how we survive it, mostly intact. Some wonder how capable we erstwhile villains are of change, and whether outwardly change is genuine. Valid questions, all.
Others among you have loved ones in prison who are less than forthcoming about their environment. As a rule, I don't burden my loved ones with the facts of this world either, which leads me to believe that maybe this is a type of sharing best done by strangers. Thomas, Santonio and I asked you for feedback, and you responded with a greater outpouring of kindness and thoughtful attention than we could have imagined. Some of you made requests of us in turn, so now I will respond to those as best I can. I believe that's how this is supposed to work.
Every prison movie or TV show you have ever seen has gotten it wrong. To compare actual prison life with "American History X," "Prison Break," "Orange is the New Black," "Con Air," or even "Blood in Blood Out" is to call "Armageddon" an asteroid documentary shot on location. We have drama, more of it than I would prefer, but it follows no plot line. There are no coherent narratives, no heroes here.
The detail in Hollywood prisons that sticks out as the most consistently erroneous is the noise level. It’s always quiet in the movies. "The Butterfly Effect" was filmed inside this prison, and they even got it wrong in that one. (The scenes filmed in the cell, where Ashton Kutcher gets truly punk'd, were filmed in an unused segregation cellblock. The cell I live in is too small for a camera man and boom mike. It measures 5'6" by 9".)
There is no silence here. The closest it gets is before 5 AM, give or take, when all I can hear is the hum of forced air. For that reason, I wake around 4. The small hours are the only time I can meditate or formulate uninterrupted thoughts. It is the only time I can write without wearing headphones on top of earplugs. The remainder of the day, my mental bandwidth is taxed with blocking out layers of noise pollution. Cell doors racking, people yelling from cell to cell, unintelligible announcements over the PA, the screech of a guard telling someone to take their hat off or yard in for loitering.
As I write it is shortly after 5, and the 21 toilet salute has begun, a smattering of hydro-mechanical outbursts reverberating throughout the length of the unit. In this century-old man hive made of stone, we are stacked four tiers high, forty cells to a tier, each of them fronted with open bars. When anyone within 10 cells finds a completed pass ovation-worthy, I know about it.
Most of what little autonomy I enjoy is inwardly. My list of choices include what to write about, what type of song to write, what image to paint and for whom, or which book to reach for. It does not include what to wear, eat, or when.
A decade and a half ago the courts ruled that these cells contain too few cubic feet of space for two prisoners, so I live alone. I can fully appreciate what it means not to be subjected to a cellie's mental quirks, hygienic deficits, mood pendulums, perilous habits, TV addiction, etc. If I wake at 1:30 and decide to turn the light on and read or play guitar quietly, I am free to do that without disturbing anyone. Such liberties are unheard of in most mainline prisons.
Although I am isolated, I am not free to choose solitude. I am constantly surrounded by human traffic. Even when alone in my cell, they shuffle unsteadily past. Never being alone, it turns out, has no bearing on how lonely you can be. There is no such thing as going outside alone, no way to commune with any part of nature in silence. I regularly exercise my freedom to disassociate, so in the big yard I remain apart from everyone else as much as possible, but I am never alone. Walking or running, I weave a constant path between the groups and around individuals.
There is no horizon, only a 30 foot wall of brick painted white that surrounds the entire prison. The yard is situated along the length of the wall, in case you haven't seen the movie. The living units are at one end, a cluster of squatty industrial buildings at the other, where prisoners hold futureless jobs making license tabs or printing state forms. Beyond those buildings I can glimpse the top of a hill upon which sits a water tower, the extent of my view of the outside world.
Insulating us visually from all traces of society reinforces our sense of disengagement. It becomes too easy to circumscribe our sphere of meaning, disregarding televised atrocities as non-events happening in another dimension. I have to force my awareness to expand outward, to include the world beyond. I care about the recent attacks in Paris because I make myself care, but I have heard no one else mention it. Your world is a plane of existence irretrievably out of sight, and for most of us, out of mind.
I have suffered in the past from such a profound lack of connectedness that I feared I would never be able to remake myself into a citizen. After a long period of not interacting with anyone outside of prison, I came to wonder if I even could anymore. Along with utter alienation comes a species of apathy bordering on hostility--I found myself taking my isolation personally, vaguely wishing generalized hardship upon the outer world. I watched the news for the wash of schadenfreude that would come over me.
That was many years ago. For me, now, a critical part of each day is spent communicating with loved ones, reminding me that their world--your world--is worth caring about. Empathy cultivation requires relationships. There would be no way for me to properly remodel my sense of self without having them as a looking glass. Prison would have you believe you are the same as you ever were. Retributive justice cannot abide the human capacity for reinvention.
Our days are broken up into three programming blocks. 7:30 to 10:30 AM, 12:30 to 5:30 PM and 5:50 to 8:30 PM. In the hours between we are counted and fed. This prison is unusual in that one could conceivably spend nearly nine hours a day in the yard. Many do, since the unemployment rate here is at a constant 83 percent. One hundred twenty five jobs for seven hundred sixty prisoners.
But I've gotten ahead of myself. My first destination every day is the chowhall, the same one Ashton Kutcher ate in. I should probably feel more honored than I do. The chowhall has its own unique set of stressors. In the movies they usually show prisoners choosing their own tables, leading one to believe we lay claim to tables and sections. It used to be that way: the entire chowhalI was segregated with invisible partitions: blacks sit here, Latinos here, whites here, Natives there. "Others," meaning sex-offenders and rats, would have a few tables in a corner.
The ranks of Others eventually grew to the point where their chowhall complaints gained enough traction to cost us one more precious choice. Now the guards tell you what row to sit in, and sometimes which table. So if you're smart, you strategize. You get in line with table-mates, and hope you can find an empty table. Otherwise you may find someone at your table with whom you would not want to share a neighborhood, let alone a meal. Many of us will opt to tray-up instead, going hungry for the sake of pride. But the assigned seating paradigm can backfire on prison staff sometimes. Yesterday a guard was assaulted and injured because he tried to force a prisoner to sit where he did not want to.
In the movies prisoners eat leisurely, at their own pace. Here, you arrive at the chowhall in a continuous line, but you can leave anytime you want, so long as it is within 20 minutes of when the first prisoner on your tier leaves his cell. I will not describe the food because I would either have to lie or complain.
On weekday mornings, I hit the weight pile for an hour or two, at 8:30. I'm no body builder, I don't powerlift. I lift for overall fitness and the sense of integration between body and mind. Cultivating sensation and bodily awareness helps me strengthen my own ability to focus intentional effort. Remaking myself into a citizen means continually reshaping the way I think, making new pathways. Neuroplasticity, they say, is enhanced by novelty (which I have to invent), emotional arousal (which a certain someone generates for me), and rigorous exercise. We learn better when we are physically active, so I run the track three times a week, a half hour each time.
Prison is said to be the most polite subset of society. If we pass within a foot or so of another prisoner, we say “excuse me" or we are perceived as rude, a trait that can be detrimental to one's health. Exaggerated manners are how we mitigate the stressors of overcrowding.
I've seen a black prisoner get stabbed repeatedly in the neck during breakfast for walking through the Mexican section of the chowhall: one too many times (this obviously took place prior to assigned seating). I've seen a white prisoner get stabbed repeatedly in the face, also during breakfast, because he snored uproariously and disregarded requests to roll over. I've seen a Mexican prisoner get stabbed an alarming number of times all over his entire body because he moved into another Mexican's cell without first asking. (The movies also get prison violence wrong. In real life, fights are typically more a display of ego than superior skill, and sometimes fear gets in the way of commitment. Assaults may be slightly more effectual, but even the ones involving weapons rarely turn out to be permanently life-changing. Almost everyone survives. Most shanks resemble a pen more than a sword. It turns out the pen is not actually mightier.)
The weight pile sits inside a cage--about 15' by 30'--outside the gym. No more than 14 prisoners are allowed in the cage at one time, which can seem crowded. In a given hour I probably say "excuse me" at least ten times, just fetching weights and changing stations.
Walking between any two points during period movement requires engaging in the neverending greeting ritual. If I see someone I know in passing and do not acknowledge them to some degree, it may be perceived as a snub. Even toward a person with whom I have had only one conversation, I am obligated to nod, say their name or another appropriately cordial word, else they come to believe we are no longer on speaking terms. Sometimes I care, but most of the time I opt to engage them just to minimize the drama.
The spectrum of greetings in the ritual goes thus: if we've had one or two conversations, even a year ago, the norm includes eye contact and acknowledgement in passing, or a handshake if we end up in the same place at the same time. If we are daily acquaintances, a fist bump or handshake is expected nearly every time we pass by one another or part ways. My few friends expect no contact or acknowledgement other than a raised eyebrow or shrug. Anything more is unnecessary.
In walking from the living unit to the activities building, I may hear my name 10 or 15 times in passing. I have found myself annoyed by the excess of the tradition, but then I consider the alternative: the majority of prisoners never hear their first name unless they say it themselves.
Other prison subcultures have different standards for greeting rituals. Most gangs have complicated handshakes, some of which take both hands and about 15 seconds to complete, a series of gang-signs hastily pressed into one another's palms, like a reunion between two thuggish Helen Kellers. Latino gang members include a hug, as a rule, which can become tedious for everyone else when trying simply to traverse a doorway or staircase. Guards have asked me about the overmuch nature of the ritual because it stands out to them as unique to prison and at times bizarre. I've told them it serves a similar purpose for us as Facebook does for them. A connection placebo, the means of self-affirmation through quantifiable surface interactions. I got twelve "likes" on the way to the library. Guess I don't need to update my status.
Upon entering the yard, our self-imposed segregation becomes apparent, but not easily parsed out by simply observing. Individuals of differing racial background may feel more free to intermix at this particular prison than at others in this state, but groups sharing a common racial makeup do not mix with other groups, as a rule. There are racial lines and there are gang lines, and these intersect brightly.
The Mexicans are split into three groups, the Nortenos, the Surenos, and the Paisas. Paisano simply connotes a non-affiliated Mexican citizen. Their numbers are large but they generate little drama, so I will focus on the other two groups.
Until the late 60s, all affiliated Latinos fell under the umbrella of the Mexican Mafia, especially in the California prison system. They controlled most of the action on the yard. As the story goes, a pair of state-issue boots was stolen from a Mexican Mafia shotcaller around 1968 or 69. He accused another ranking member of either having knowledge or participating in the theft. The lower ranking members were forced to choose sides. Battle lines were drawn based on hometurf, one’s barrio original.
The Latino Mason–Dixon line runs through central Los Angeles. Originally, if you claimed a barrio north of that line, you were a Norteno, or Northsider. Hail from the south and you were a Sureno, or Southsider. The indignant barefoot shotcaller was from the south, so he claimed the letter "M" for the Surenos, signifying their ties to the Mexican Mafia. M is the 13th letter of the alphabet, spawning a gazillion “13” tattoos. And a few "31s”. The Nortenos, rather less creatively, selected the letter "N." It is the 14th letter, giving them a literal sense of one-upmanship by virtue of their crappy tattoos, if nothing else.
When Surenos work out in cadence, they do not call out the number 4 or 14, instead saying 3 or 13 twice, and barring their arms like an X. The street address of the oldest and most infamous prison in this state, Walla Walla, happens to be 1313 South 13th Street. For many years the Southsiders have interpreted this geographic fact as evidence that their ownership of the Walla Walla yard is ordained by postal decree.
When there are race fights, the Surenos side with the whites, the Nortenos with the blacks. No one seems to know why, but it's always been that way. I don't know many Nortenos, for that reason. Although both groups are sworn to try to kill one another on sight, at this prison they are a under contract upon arrival. Because we are so near Seattle, and therefore most prisoners' families, there is a strong incentive to remain here. Both sides remain on their best, if not sullen, behavior—most of the time. They break contract once in a while, typically the most interesting fights on this yard.
Surenos and Nortenos both tend to have nicknames that evoke cartoon characters. I know Lazy, Tweety, Dopey, Goofy, Grumpy, Stomper, Smiley, and Crazy. I've never met a Bashful, but I know a Stymie who consistently lives up to his name. A couple months ago, the top Norteno on this yard–I call him Sneezy—decided he wanted to step away from the gang life. He's been in prison since he was 14, and he's in his late 30s now. When Sneezy went to yard, a couple low ranking Nortenos attacked him for dropping out. But Sneezy can fight. He beat the living retaliation out of both of them, quickly. The guards ran out and cuffed all three, walked them off the yard. Sneezy had been the one enforcing the truce here, against the will of some of his underlings. Once the Suranos saw that Sneezy was gone, they knew what to expect, so they decided to strike pre-emptively. The guards had barely cleared the yard and given the signal for everyone to get up off the ground, when about 50 Surenos went after every last Norteno on the yard. Shots were fired, surprisingly no one. More guards came running, dressed in riot gear and carrying bright orange bean-bag shotguns. While they were zip-tying those involved, the remaining Surenos got up and started in on whomever didn't seem sufficiently beaten.
We were on lockdown for a week afterward. Just one minor example of the drama between these two groups. Just to restore the peace, I've repeatedly offered to give my state issue boots to any Sureno, but have gotten no takers. Completely unreasonable, especially given that my boots are size 13.
The blacks are nearly all either Crips, Bloods, or Black Gangster Disciples. There are a few Muslims, a smaller subset of them are Nation of Islam, a back nationalist quasi-region. As the story goes, the Bloods formed first, in South Central LA. Then the Crips formed, presumably because not everyone wanted to be Bloods. Unless you grew up in a cave you've heard of the rift between these two gangs. But evidently their beefing is only done with guns and on rap songs because I have never seen a Crips versus Bloods fight in prison. According to hood math, one driveby shooting minus a car and a gun equals one walk-by mean-mugging.
I had a cellie once who was a Crip. He told me that when Crips come to prison with a sex charge or a rat jacket, they are made to do one high-risk task for the gang, and then become a Muslim.
The Black Gangster Disciples are easy to pick out by their Star of David tattoos, which they swear are not Jewish. A few of them are white, which means they can only ever be regular old Gangster Disciples. Like vanilla ice cream, they have to work twice as hard for half the appreciation.
Most of the Native Americans are Bloods, if they are gang members. On the impoverished reservations, the appeal of easily-acquired wealth and glory is strong, no matter how counterfeit it may turn out to be.
Race, they say, does not travel. Someone considered black in the U.S., for example, might be considered white in Brazil. In Ireland, anyone non-white is considered black. African Americans are considered white by actual Africans. In prison, being considered white involves more than phenotypical traits. In order to qualify as bona fide white by other white prisoners, you must adhere to a vague and unwritten code of conduct.
If you listen to rap, have too many black or Mexican friends or sag your pants--if you speak with a blackcent or belong to a non-white gang, you are considered not quite white. You are simply deemed Caucasian, an inside insult among those who call themselves actually white. Being considered white in prison doesn't mean you have to espouse racist views, but it does mean that if you have anti-racist views you can’t be too vocal about them. The existence of white privilege is difficult to appreciate in an environment designed to oppress with uniformity. It's frightening to suddenly be no better than anyone else. Enforced equality in the face of dispossession gives rise, I believe, to the construction of a unique hierarchy that only matters to its adherents.
There is a kid in another unit who could be a poster boy for the Hitler Youth. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed with an aquiline nose. I doubt he knows or cares that he is considered simply Caucasian because he has a black girlfriend.
The Mexicans have a similar racial worthiness rating. Chicanos who don't act sufficiently Mexican are called potatoes. Brown on the outside, white on the Inside. The blacks still have their Uncle Toms.
Affiliations for whites come in two flavors. The Aryan Family and the various Skinhead organizations. In other states, Nazi Lowriders and Dirty White Boys compete for control, but not here. Not yet, anyway. The Aryan Family is a spinoff of the Aryan Brotherhood, which started in California and branched out to Texas. They began recruiting in this state in the early 90s. Their brand is the number 16, for A and F, the first and sixth letter. They have no discernible moral philosophy or creed, taking no issue with predatory homosexuality or drug addiction. The two most notorious rats in the history of this state are high ranking AF guys.
The AF by-laws are mostly self-referential rules such as: don't strong-arm another AF guy, recruit actively, and if you're a prospect you have to attack on command. Despite the implications of the word Aryan, there is no strict racial component: one of their top guys is Japanese, another is Hawaiian. I cannot say here what their areas of interest are without being a rat myself, but it is a matter of public record that many AF members are currently under indictment for RICO violations involving organizing hits, and manufacturing, transporting and selling drugs. Allegedly.
The Aryan Family "prospects” new members the way biker clubs do, conditioning the recruit to obey authority unquestioningly, and usually requiring him to commit violence for the sake of the group. Skinheads, on the other hand, "probate" new recruits, a year-long process involving studying a great deal of racial awareness literature and maintaining a strict regimen of physical exercise. Because the AF is philosophically at odds with the Skinheads, there is an icy wavelength of tolerance thinly held between the two groups. Recently at Walla Walla a large group of Nortenos jumped a small group of AF guys, beating them almost to death while a group of Skinheads stood by watching, likely because the conflict was over something contrary to Skinhead beliefs in the first place. No love lost there.
The Skinhead movement arose in this state in the mid 90s, partially as a response to the cultural legacy of the biker clubs: rampant drug use and trafficking, homosexual predation, exploitation of younger and weaker prisoners. The modern Skinhead bears little resemblance to the caricatures seen in "American History X" or "Sons of Anarchy." Skinheads follow a strict code of conduct based on their version of honor and virtue, both mentally and physically. They are straight-edge: meaning intoxicants are not tolerated, period. Nor is homosexuality. They adhere to 88 precepts outlining an ideology based on reverence for nature and natural laws, denial of supernatural religions, disregard for the ills of democracy and governmental interference, Nietzschean morals and advocacy for racial separation.
Although commonly called "white supremacists," the Skinhead movement does not condone racial subjugation or colonialism, the hallmarks of actual white supremacy. They are, rather, white nationalists.
Skinheads often present as intellectuals, but upon engaging them in discourse you find a narrow worldview informed by a selective read of history. Their numerical signifier is 1488, for the 14 words and 88 precepts. When first hit the Walla Walla big yard, I thought 1488 must have been a year some extraordinary event happened, for so many guys to have it tattooed on their backs.
The infamous 14 Words are: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for our white children.” If one were to substitute the word “Latino” for "white," the resulting creed could belong to La Raza. Substitute “black” and it could stand for the Nation of Islam. Substitute "Native American" and it applies to AIM. Skinheads are considered a Security Threat Group, but Nation of Islam meets in the activity building once a week. There is also a Black Prisoner's Caucus, but a "white pride” tattoo will get an STG tag put in a prisoner's central file. It’s in the best interest of the administration to perpetuate racial tension. Overstaffing has to be justified somehow.
The majority of Skinheads are from rural areas. Socialized in homogeneous schools and communities, they often react negatively to the overexposure to diverse cultures that prison offers. The white racial movement is seen as a form of resistance, born in the space between ignorant hatred and the desperation to regain communal dominance. By inscribing the signifiers of the movement on themselves, they are decreeing their value in a symbolic hierarchy, a brand of infamy bridging the private domain of ideology with public spectacle.
Although seldom talked about, it’s worth noting that of all the prison gangs, the only ones who actively recruit in here are the Skinheads and Aryan Family. The Sureno organization may have originated in prison, but every one I have known came in as a gang member. The reason, I believe, has to with the fact that in the free world, being white presupposes a membership in the charter group of American culture. We have no need for gestures of dominance because we already live in a Eurocentric nation. America seems entirely democratic if you’re white, thus we have no need for bloc voting or other displays of ethnic solidarity, a role filled by gangs for minorities marginalized by poverty. Whiteness promises a public and psychological wage that cannot be taken away–until one comes to prison. A rude awakening for some prisoners, to see race in relation to their own identity for the first time. They may have neither noticed nor acknowledged white privelige, but having it suddenly confiscated feels not unlike a threat they cannnot name.
In the free world, motivations for joining an extreme right wing organization centre around zealotry, conspiratorial viewpoints concerning Jewish hegemony, racial determinism, and nationalism presupposing the biological fact of a white race. The process goes: indoctrination, socialization, affirmation, inclusion. But in here the steps are almost completely reversed. Idealogy is not the primary reason intelligent, otherwise normal prisoners become Skinheads. They join in the hope of curing a deep feeling of purposelessness, a flawed sense of self. Most have little if any knowledge of European history (let alone the invention of the white race as a capiltalist tool to prevent indentured servants from joining in slave revolts). And learning a heroic version of where they come from provides a psychological anchor, a compass of sorts. They are approached with an alternative to being alone and aimless in a hostile environment, an attractive option that comes with a ready-made ideology complete with justification for the fear-based hatred they feel, a name and taxonomical classification for the threat: Non-white other.
The sad irony is that by seeking an identity based on the only thing they belive they have left, their race, they relinquish what little automony remains. Amongst both the Skinheads and AF, groupthink decides most issues. Codes of social display and conduct are strict, and intergroup conflict is diffused and shared by individual members. What may appear to an observer as genuine comraderie on the weightpile is actually mandated, part of the regimen. After having taken the oath, there is no freedom to dissent or disassociate from either group. Skinheads will require a dropout to cover or remove his tattoos, face a physical sanction (usually a beating), grow his hair out and become socially exiled. The strongest oath one can make is on one’s own skin. At Walla Walla about 15 years ago, a Skinhead named Ernie renegged on a “skinned” oath. A few days later he caught a mugful of boiling baby oil while standing at the cell bars, deep frying the flesh on his face, scalp and chest. The lesson to be learned was that if you put something on your white skin, you better follow through. He’s known as Bernie now.
The Aryan Family can also be less than tolerant of dissent. I have a friend who dropped out of the AF over ten years ago. Every time he transfers he has to fight them, usually two or three at a time. He hasn’t lost yet, but he may one day.
The sole dynamic interface between my inner freedom and my environment is the music I create with my bandmates in Versus Inertia. But I have written at length about that already.
Most days my last stop is the classroom. Within this prison it is one of the most impactful programs in the country. The University Beyond Bars is a volunteer-based, non-profit, post-secondary education program existing in a sort of sybiotic relationship with the prison. The administration let us use a few rooms for classses and one as an office. That’s the extent of the DOC support, really. Some administrators tolerate UBB better than others–the fact that they have little say over how we run the program is a thorn in their authoritarian spines, I suppose.
Although I am a cohort at school, I am entirely responsible for my own studies, the same way I would be in the free world.
There is freedom in education. This is something we tell new students, a maxim I came to believe only after experiencing it for myself. After all, it is called “liberal education” for a reason. By learning about the world, I have become liberated from the caustic thinking that once kept me from being a part of it. But the manifest function of higher education in prison is only part of the story.
In class, I am not a prisoner. I am a student. The free people who volunteer to come in here and teach converse with me as one human to another, not as if they’re addressing a prisoner. They do not flinch and position themselves strategically, as if I might attack at any moment. It has taken me a little over five years to get halfway to my Bachelor’s degree because, for a while, credits were sporadic. But whether or not I was earning credit hours for all the classes I’ve taken, I was being resocialized all the while, as a student. As a person. As a citizen.
Some of you asked in your comments whether we think about the people we’ve harmed, and whether we’re aware of our debt to society. I do, and I am. I can do nothing to make personal amends for the suffering I’ve caused in the past. My focus has to be on the future, on what I owe the community I will rejoin in five years. The only way I can reasonably expect to be considered one of you, and not just among you, is to do the work of becoming an asset, instead of a liability. Then maybe, just maybe, my debt can be considered paid
|Steve Bartholomew 978300|
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
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