Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sunshine on a Cloudy Day

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By Michael “Yasir” Belt

My daughter cried for three straight nights. At least, these are the nights that I know about. 

Let´s start as close to the beginning as need be. 

I´m down. Incarcerated. Knocked off. Booked solid. And it´s been that way for six years now. Who´s fault is that? It’s all on me. I could blame it on the victim/witness who got on the stand and lied and heavily exaggerated, or on the Judge who was literally the only one in the courtroom who either couldn´t see blatant falsities or just didn´t care, or I could blame it on the inefficient lawyer who refused to fight for me. But in all honesty, it’s my fault for putting myself in harm’s way.

That´s not the point, though. The point is, I had a great chance of coming home, coming from under this sentence of mine. An enormous chance at a victory for myself and the people over the system. I had been granted an Evidentiary Hearing for my Post Conviction Relief Act. (Very briefly, a P.C.R.A. is a petition you put into court basically screaming “Biggie, Biggie, give me one more chance.”) It´s not easy to be granted a hearing. But I got one and went down to another prison on W.R.I.T. (will return in time) to attend my hearing. My time had come.

My twins, a boy and a girl, both 11 years old and identical to their Daddy, though not from the same uterus, continued to ask me when I was coming home. For about three years now I’ve been telling them that I’m waiting to go to court. And I was… until last week when I actually went to court.

I returned to the prison from court that day a defeated man. My head was still high, or at least I’d like to think that it was. But inside, I was dying. I was forced to face the fact that I would be doing at least four more years until I’m able to go home. Four more years until I’m able to go on a date with my daughter, or fulfill a long-standing basketball rivalry with my son. That´s ten years altogether, locked down in the penitentiary, with my oldest and my youngest sons turning their heads at any mention of me.

Now I know that to some people, four more years or even ten years altogether is nothing and especially so to my dudes doing life or life in numbers. Hold ya´ll heads! Ya´ll are some of the best dudes I´ve ever encountered. There´s a whole bunch of crazy and lameness going on out there in them streets and that´s because all of the good dudes, the real, are in jail. So maybe they weren´t so good when they were on the streets before they fell, but time changes a person. And this isn´t about everyone else anyhow. This is about me. This is part of my story.

And so, as soon as I got back onto the block after court, I made my play for the phone. There was only one person that I needed to call in my moment of darkness. I needed to speak to my sunshine. When she´s around, the world is always brighter. So, I called my eleven year old daughter.

The conversation was good. She was happy to hear from her dad, as she is every time I call. I asked her how she would feel if I didn´t call her as much anymore. Sunshine said that she would be sad, thinking I was calling someone else and that they were getting her Daddy time. I had to clarify that that wouldn´t ever be the case. And my baby´s smart. Eleven years old aren´t eleven year olds anymore, and mine is past that in intellectual maturity, as well as other areas. So, she caught on and basically asked me what was going on.

I didn´t tell her that I felt as if I´d let her down. I didn´t tell her that it hurts to only be allowed to call my child; and only when I have the dime to do so. I didn´t tell her that I was about to go into a cocoon and didn´t want to bother with anyone or any stress. I was going to do my bid the hard way, by myself (like I mostly do anyhow). Or, perhaps the most important part, I didn´t tell her that I felt worthless as a father and like I didn’t deserve a child as loving and caring and understanding as her.

What I did tell her was…I explained to her that I could no longer tell her that I´m waiting to go to court. I told her that I went to court and that it hadn´t turned out well. We got to the four more years part. She did the math. “I´ll be sixteen!” she said.

“No, fifteen” I told her

“Wait…Are you sure?”

“I hope so,” I told her, seriously hoping and praying that it isn´t any longer than that.

The conversation went on for a few more minutes, Sunshine being the voice of positivity. I thanked her for cheering me up as always. We said our I love you’s and the automated system disconnected the call. She seemed relatively fine at that point. The next day, though, I see a friend who´s girl is friends with my daughter´s mother. Sunshine had been crying all night.

“I´m not going to see my Daddy for four more years,” she cried. And I, her Daddy, was crushed.

As soon as I was able to, I got to the phone. Sunshine was acting very nonchalant when I asked her if she had had a bad night. My baby is so strong. I know that she was just putting up a front for my sake. Eventually though, I got it out of her. She had been crying because she missed her dad.

“I´m okay now though, Dad,” she tried to reassure me. 

I went on to commend her on her strength and to tell her that it was okay to have moments of weakness. I told her that she didn´t have to put up a front for me. And, of course, she said that she was fine. And that´s when I began to tell her how it felt to me to be her Dad and have to be away from her. How the only thing I miss in this world truly, is my Sunshine and her brothers. I told her how much it hurt me to have another man raising her in my absence. I´m highly appreciative and have a lot of love for dude for that, but he´s not her father. (And now, the question in my head is, what kind of father am I?) She just kept saying that she was fine, that she was okay, repeating it as if she were a robot, trying to convince herself that she was telling the truth. But her voice was breaking more and more as she spoke.

Now, my baby was crying while on the phone with me. And I was on the other end dying. Damn! What did I do to my own daughter? How could I ever bring myself to make her suffer as she´s suffering now? How does she even still call me Dad?

My oldest son, thirteen in a couple weeks, hates me. And I can understand why. Not that I really did anything to him, other than abandon him twice already in his young life, this being my second state bid. He goes so far as to say that I´m his little brother´s father, but not his. Could I halfway blame the mother? Halfway. But she didn´t put me here. In fact, if I would´ve stayed my ass by her side where I belonged, then maybe I wouldn´t find myself in this travesty. But that´s another story, a precious story, for another time.

Digressing…Sunshine was sniffling and sobbing and I was freaking out. This was a first for me as a father, my baby girl so vulnerable and in need of me. I wanted so bad to grab her and hold her, lay her head on my chest like I used to when she was a baby and tell her that it would be okay. But I couldn´t. I physically felt myself instinctively trying to, but I couldn´t. Instead, I tried to throw the very few things that I can afford at her.

“Do you want me to write you more?” I more pleaded than asked. “Do you want me to call you more? I can call you more often.”

“No, Dad.”

I asked something else that I can´t recall and then, “What do you want baby? Tell me what to do.”

Through the tears, she said, “Nothing. You´re doing fine, Dad.”

And I´m still screaming to this day, “No, I´m not!”

The next day, I get called for a visit. I had no clue who it was but I kind of figured that it was Sunshine. A visit had been in the talks with her mother. So, I get to the visiting room and wait. Everyone else´s visits come in, I wait. About a half hour later, I ask the Sargent, “What´s up?” He said they had to go to the store; which is understood to be a wardrobe issue. I wait.

I waited for over an hour. Long story into a midget, Sunshine wasn´t on my visiting list. (Hear me out!) I raised a fuss. No way that she wasn´t on my list. The Sargent explained to me that there probably was a mix up between names on my list and one of them didn´t get processed since the names sounded the same. My two daughters, he had said. And I was lost. Had no idea what he was talking about. I only have one daughter. One Sunshine.

Vexed and heated, I returned back to my block without receiving my visit. All because some dimwitted individual somewhere screwed up somehow. If this had been my jail, I´d have gotten my visit. Either they would´ve pulled out the actual paper form that says that Sunshine is actually on my visiting list instead of relying on the now-proven inferior computer, or fixed my list. Man…we complain about how “them white folks in them mountains” treat us…and then we get down here amongst us black folk and want to run for the hills, literally, back into the mountains. More on that in a second though.

Right now…I called Sunshine as soon as I got back on the block. My daughter didn´t answer the phone. At least I didn´t recognize her. The sweet little girl was gone, replaced by glimpses of the soon to be grown woman. Her voice dripped with wry satirical sarcasm as she asked me if I´d heard what had happened. I told her year, for the most part, and asked her if she was okay. “No Dad, but I really don´t have a choice, do I?” She spit with the venom of a dragon. Once one of them bite you, you can run for miles on miles, but the venom will stop you eventually and the dragon is guaranteed to hunt you down and devour you.

How far could I run and what could I actually say to that? This was truly a matter in which we had no control over whatsoever. My daughter had no choice in the matter but to simply deal with it. Me, I did that. I had taken all of the control and decision making out of my hands and given all of the power to The System and its affiliates. And now Daddy´s little girl has to pay the price.

“Flip a coin, Dad,” Sunshine went on with conviction. “That´s what the lady said! Flip a coin. Heads, you get in, tails, you don´t.”

Her mother (Hey Chanel!) took the phone from her and began yelling something incomprehensible. Obviously, she was upset, with all good reasoning. The guards wouldn´t let Sunshine in with whatever she had on for whatever reason, which prompted the shopping trip. Then they sent her mom back and forth to the car. No heels, no underwire bras. The norm, but she doesn´t know because she´s never visited; no blame thrown. Then, after all of the hassle, to top it off, they still won´t let them in. Baby girl´s not on the list, which is something they could´ve said almost two hours ago.

It almost happened. The white lady let them in. They were halfway to me for the first time in six years. Then the black lady saw the names didn´t match up, hit the heads or tails thing, and spun them on their heels. On their way out, the white lady told them that she had known that the two names didn´t match up and that she let them go through hoping they´d make it in.

Seriously, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you, white lady. Thank you for your kindness and attempted compromise. As for you, black lady. You abused your power just because you have it. But, if it weren´t one of our own keeping us down, how would The System function? (That´s too deep to even begin to address at this juncture.)

It then hit me what the sergeant was referring to. My baby sister´s and my daughter´s names both start with the same letter. I had received both minor forms (forms needed to be sent in by a minor´s parent or guardian in order to have said minor put on one´s visiting list) back at the same time. To someone’s eye or brain, even though the names are spelled totally different, they look like they could sound the same (which really doesn´t matter, especially since the birthdates are way different). But this was the only logical explanation to why some idiot processed one form and not the other.

I explained it all to my daughter and her mother. Sunshine was saying how it wasn´t my fault and that it was okay. I told her that it wasn´t and voiced my opinion of those who screwed up my chances of seeing her. Then I went on to iterate the fact that, even though someone else screwed up, it was still my fault. I was the one who gave them the opportunity to put me in this place, which allowed for me to be away from her for so long, which in turn made her cry her way into a visit (girl trick), and then all the rest happened.

We talked for a brief minute afterward about nails, weaves and why I hate them, and my opinion on women who believe they have to falsely beautify themselves to look good in the eyes of others when they should be satisfied with their natural self and no one else´s opinion should matter. Yeah, had that conversation, again, with my eleven year old daughter. Told you, kids aren´t their age anymore. But anyhow, then she started to say how bad her day would really be if her phone died. I got the point and let her go on that note.

The next day I heard that Sunshine cried the entire two and half hour ride home.

Man, I wasn´t prepared for this. Not the time, not what comes along with having to do it, none of it. I was mentally prepared to go home. I was mentally prepared to finally try and be a good father. And, I at least, had thoughts on how to be a productive, positive member of society. If for nothing else, so that I could be there for my kids. It was all planned out. I was mentally checked out of prison, talking heavy to those on the outside and all like I had a guaranteed release day. And I did, until someone decided to throw a freaking pass, instead of running with the ball! And, now, I have no choice but to run the audible. I have to get back to my bid. Better yet, with four more years left, it´s time to change the bid. Change my job, change my studies, change my body, my mind, my jail. About the only thing that I can´t change is the fact that my children have to go four more years without me being able to father them to the extent that I should be.


Society, my society, not high society, rather do-or-die society, remove the pillow marks and slobber from your faces. I´m far from racist, but, black and brown, we are the endangered races. Blacks and browns make up the majority of the incarcerated faces. True story. Numbers don´t lie. Check the almanac. It´s astounding.

Wake up! Can we not see that there really isn´t any “do or die”? There is only die! The old adage is true: dead or in jail. We believe that we are so smart, smarter than those who preceded us, smarter than our uncles, brothers, and fathers, even sometimes mothers. We believe that we can be the one to make it out of the game with the millions in the end. We believe the hood novels, which have a reputations for illogical nonsense. We come back and forth to jail and prison believing that we can change the game on our next run. “One more run,” we always say. The true definition of insanity. We witness the results of other´s misfortunes and simply say that they´ve caught a bad break, believing that it can´t happen to us. Well, guess what, it already has. We´ve already lost. We´ve already killed.

Our children bear our burdens. Some of them see what Daddy was doing and grow up wanting to be just like him or even better than, tougher than him. Others, as well as the former, simply grow up broken, wanting, and will try to fill a void the best way they know how. They act out in school, get into the streets, maybe join a gang, get into drugs, sleep around – be it your son or daughter – because they´re missing that love, or your baby girl is trying to find her father figure within a hundred dicks. Whatever the case, we left or made our children susceptible to it. They are left to bear the burdens of their father´s mistakes.

Have you even questioned why the streets are so crazy, or in a more correct terminology, why our society is so skewed toward wrong? My opinion for you to consider is because there aren´t enough fathers fathering their children. Generation by generation, it gets worse. More and more men and children are killed as a result of The Game (it is NOT a game) and more men come to jail. That leaves our children in the world alone, not knowing or being taught how to be a man or a father, or seeing how a man is supposed to treat a woman or how a woman is to respect and honor herself. Our children are affected by our absences. 

People, please, I beg of you, wake up. We didn´t start the woes of society, but we sure as hell don´t seem to be trying to stop them either.

Please, stop the selfishness. Stop idolizing what you hear in a song or see in a movie or T.V. The life isn´t as grand as it´s made out to be. Especially with all of the innocent victims.

Our children bear our burdens. There are impossibly too many ways and examples to even attempt to illuminate. They´re obvious and plain to see to the open eye. And my eyes have been forcefully snatched open.

My precious daughter cried for three days, bearing my burden. Enough is enough.

Michael Belt KU8088
SCI Houtzdale
P.O. Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA 16698

Michael Belt is a simple man, a lover, a fighter and a full time dreamer – with a realistic sense.  He is truthful and loyal to a fault.  To quote Henry Thoreau’s Walden, “In an unjust society, the only place for a just man is in prison." And in his own words, “Never let hope die!”

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hell's Kitchen Cooking School

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By Chris Dankovich

Okay, so maybe it's more like "Purgatory’s Kitchen." This used to be, after all, the prison that everyone wanted to get transferred to. It's not that the place is any less secure than other prisons in the state or that the conditions provided are any nicer. It's more of a cultural thing. Though far from the concept of a country club, Thumb Correctional Facility (or "The Thumb", as in the thumb region of the mitten state) is a place where you can go to the yard without a shank, go to the bathroom without needing a friend to watch your back, where you can have the confidence to leave your cell door cracked open with commissary on your desk even if you don't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and aren't some top gang leader. The town it's in isn't a “prison town"…there's lots of other jobs, and the staff doesn't generally have that generations-long lack-of-other-options malevolence that others often have. Staff do their jobs, but don't put their thumbs down and squish unless given a reason to, and the prisoners (as a whole) avoid giving them reason.

So here in Purgatory, there are two trade classes available to prisoners after they have completed their GED's (especially important since this is the prison that houses Michigan's "Youthful Adult Offenders", ages 13 to 18, most of whom have never had a real job and lack even the basic knowledge necessary to live on their own). The Building Trades Class teaches basic carpentry skills. The Food Technology and Hospitality Trades Class teach the basic skills necessary to work in the hotel/hospitality industry, kitchen maintenance, and the more advanced skills of food preparation and cooking necessary to get a job in the food service industry.

This is the story of one class that made it through Hell's Kitchen Cooking School.

August 1

We begin a new class today. A class in the morning for the adults, and one in the afternoon for the "kids." The class for the adults begins at 7 AM, and everyone looks tired. It's one hell of a crew. Many are scruffy-looking, like they haven't shaved or been to the barber in a long time. Most of their clothes are wrinkled, worn, their shoes full of holes. Some of them smell, one of them pretty badly.

Orientation: I give a brief overview of the class, letting them know that it's an awesome class to take, where they can learn--and eat--a lot. I took the class three years earlier, and it was the best decision of my entire decade I've spent locked up. I mention the tests they need to take to advance to each tier of the class, the Right-to-Know info for our basic kitchen chemicals (OSHA applies even in prison), and the hygiene issue. Nobody who smells gets to cook, and everybody washes their hands when entering the kitchen, or when they get something on their hands, or after scratching an itch. Even if my boss isn't around to see, that's one thing you'll have a problem with me for, as you'll be cooking my food too.

A student raises his hand. "Will we be cooking, like, steak?"

I see the cheek muscles contract in each student as they quietly salivate. The answer is "No." My boss teaches cooking and preparation techniques for a wide variety of foods. He always says that, while steak is great, any idiot can marinate a slab of meat and throw it on the grill until it's medium-rare. We teach how to prepare full meals, improve lower-quality and harder-to-cook cuts and make them delicious, how to make sauces, sides, how to bake. The glorious thing about the class, though, is that the students get to at least try some of whatever they make. Employed as a tutor/assistant chef, I get to (actually, I have to) try what they make as well. Having grown up on microwave pizzas and chimichongas, I actually eat better now than I ever have before in my life.

August 25

The students have finished the hotel/hospitality aspect of the class. Honestly, no one signs up for the class for that, but the course gives them a real-world certificate. It's something they can actually show a prospective employer when they get out, which is something they desperately need. Imagine a 14 year old doing 10 years hard time, never having had a real job outside of prison, only a GED, and trying to get a job without some sort of certification.

They also just took a nationally-recognized food safety certification course. We actually read the entire textbook out loud, and I mentioned each vitally important note they need to write down and study (Food Temperature Danger Zone, minimum cooking times for meats…). Most of the class passes. One of the two who doesn't has a learning disability. The other says (seriously), ''Man, I didn't know we actually had to pass the test to move on to the kitchen. I would've actually tried if I knew that."

September 12

Today was our students’ first day in the actual kitchen section/tier of the class! We have a full-service kitchen: stove, two ovens, griddle, fryer, steamer, proof box, a three-quarter horsepower mixer, two smaller Kitchenaide mixers, a food processor, and a fridge and freezer (the students aren't allowed in those: staff or tutors get what's needed out of them).

One of our students, a scruffy-looking redhead with a swastika tattoo who's been bragging about how much of a master-chef he is, set a new record for shortest amount of time in the kitchen before getting an injury. Burns are inevitable when working around an oven/stove, and accidental cuts from the knives tethered to the tables periodically happen. Never before have we had a student cut himself within the first 4-1/2 minutes of his first time in the kitchen, particularly from using a tool we told him not to use. He was assigned to separate some frozen hamburger patties with a metal spatula so they would thaw quicker. But despite being told not to use the knife, he snuck over, tried to use it to separate them, and the knife slipped and cut him. My boss took the knife and metal spatula away, and after he got bandaged and cleaned up, gave Red one of those little white plastic serrated knives and told him to finish.

September 20

We did a sautéing demonstration for the class--some of the young guys said they never even heard the word sauté before--then taught them how to make omelettes. We showed them, and then let them practice, including the flipping technique. Oh, the humanity! Eggs went flying and landed everywhere. It looked like a poultry version of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

By the end of the class, everyone had successfully flipped an omelette. This is what the class is for--to teach students, and to give them the chance to make mistakes, learning and mastering the techniques they'd probably never risk trying otherwise.

September 28

We had some whipped cream left over from making some pumpkin pies (using pumpkins grown in the prison garden). My fellow tutor/assistant chef (and friend) B filled up a large soup bowl with whipped cream, ate it with a spoon, then filled up the bowl again, ate it, then filled up his bowl a third time with whipped cream and this time used two chocolate-chip cookies to scoop it out and eat. He's already way too overweight, and how the hell he doesn't have diabetes, I don't know.

I'd be concerned about him, but he's a big boy, an old tough guy who's softened only around the belly. He used to rob banks to get money to party and do drugs. He's replaced that addictive personality with food now. I think it's better for him. Well, maybe.

October 2

We take pride in making everything from scratch, and in teaching the students how to do the same. We make our own breads, hamburger buns, dinner rolls, pizza dough, pie dough, cookies, cakes…every baked good you can think of. Students made hamburger buns today, and learned the basic bakery principals (like proofing, punching, kneading, rounding). The technique of rounding and stretching was new to them, so we ended up with some very "uniquely" shaped buns. My boss said that they have character. The students then learned how to use the oven fan to brown the tops of the buns.

We also tested out a tortilla recipe for an upcoming Staff Meal. Staff meals are a class learning experience where we set up like a restaurant, with tablecloths and nicer plates, and any staff who works in the prison can pay a small price to have inmate waiters serve them a select appetizer, one of four gourmet entrees, and one of three delectable desserts. We have one planned for later this month, though I'm concerned about whether the students will be ready. It's an important event to keep the class running, and to justify our cooking and my job as a tutor. We take pride in being the best restaurant in the city for a day.

B kept calling the tortillas "Authentic Mexican tortillas" for some reason, even though the only Hispanic guy in our class didn't show up today. When I think of authentic tortillas, I think of an old Latina woman stretching dough by hand and baking it on a not stone. Ours turned out pretty good though.

October 8

Our youngest student, Ouncey, is 16 years old. Ouncey is a normal adolescent who happened to break into a bunch of houses with his older brother, sending him to adult prison. Equal parts shy, immature, ready-to-learn, and eager to prove himself. His favorite statement to make when someone underestimates him or tells him to do something is, “I'm a grown-ass man" (followed by a lip snack in disdain).

We got some incredibly hot "'Ornamental" peppers grown here in the garden by accident. Damon, an older "tough" with a giant face tattoo, grabbed one and popped it in his mouth, much to his regret. He ran to get some water, and sweat beaded on the tattoo that ran up his forehead as he began panting like a dog.

Ouncey, having seen him eat the pepper (but not his reaction to it) wanted to prove himself and grabbed one of the tiny peppers too. I put my hand on his arm to stop him, and advised him not to eat it, telling him that Damon is an idiot. Damon, to his credit, came over (still panting) and admitted as much, adding that he had to hold back tears because it was so hot.

Ouncey, however, could not hold back from the challenge of the crucible. With an "I'm a grown-ass man," he pulled his arm away and popped the pepper in his mouth. I'm pretty sure I actually saw steam come out of his ears like in the cartoons as his eyes opened wide and fists clenched. "Oh shit, that's hot," he whined in a deep voice, trying to make it sound manlier. "Water…” he said as he ran to the sink, though it didn't help. He ran his hands back and forth along his pants as I walked over and mixed him of the powdered milk we use to bake with. Tears were coming out of his eyes, and drinking the milk was all that stopped the cursing.

The class was beginning to look at the commotion. Already young and vulnerable, I though fast of a way to save Ouncey's reputation. I walked him over to the eyewash station, and loudly said, "This’ll help if you got some in your eyes" before forcing his face into the water. His reputation saved, the class's curiosity satisfied, I returned to making our incredible, original recipe homemade BBQ sauce.

[I told my boss about the incident later, and he got a good laugh. I wonder if Ouncey would be honored to know that from now on, we've redubbed the Ornamental peppers as "Ouncey Peppers".]

October 16

Crunch time. The staff meal is less than a week away, and I honestly have no idea how the guys will perform. Some days, some of them really seem to want to learn, and other days they seem to not be able to care less. Had to talk to some of them about their issue with being here on time. From this point on, if they're late on a day we're prepping or cooking, they're getting left out of the boat. We have former students who will jump at the chance of coming back for a day if needed.

Our menu is set, and has been posted around the facility for the officers. The appetizer of the day will be their choice of a Michigan salad (a creamy dressing with walnuts and dried Michigan cherries), or potato-leek soup. Our entrees include chicken
piccatta, The Pig Mac (a cooked-to-order burger topped with succulent pulled-pork tossed in our homemade BBQ sauce, caramelized onions, and Swiss on a homemade bun), Stuffed Tilapia (stuffed with a mixture of crab, shrimp, and scallops in a creamy, rich sauce), and sautéed sirloin tips. The featured desserts are homemade pumpkin cheesecake, our original peanut-butter crunch cake, and apple pie with apples picked in the prison's garden (after everything else was harvested for charity).

The BBQ sauce was made last week. We prepped and made the buns, which the students have gotten better at, caramelized the onions, and made the pie dough. We'll finish the pies and do the rest of the prepping over the week.

October 21

Day before the meal. Everyone's been showing up. They realize now they'll be left out if they don't. We finished most of everything that won't be cooked to order tomorrow. Desserts are all made. Tilapia's been stuffed and is waiting to be cooked. The ingredients for the Pig Mac and the sirloin tips have been portioned out.

We do a test run of the each item so everyone can see how they're made and served…and how they taste. Everything meets everyone's stamp of approval. We're not going to serve anything we wouldn't eat ourselves.

October 22

The meal went smoothly, as always. We served over 120 staff, from the officers and administration to nurses and maintenance. Comment cards were placed in the hallway for them to use. Every one of them praised us, except for one. That criticism was that we didn't do the meals more often. We will, now that this class is up and running and we know they can work.

Everyone did a great job. My boss stayed in the kitchen to supervise and maintain "operational security" on the food, while my co-workers B and D (who helped teach me when I was a student and who continues to now) made sure everyone was stocked up on what was needed, performing their jobs properly, and relieved them when they needed it. They also made sure everyone washed their hands regularly, though no one needed to be told to.

I worked as the head waiter/maître d’. I oversaw three waiters, who took their customers’ orders and delivered them their meals without a hitch. Any one of them could easily do this for a living.

The fun for the students came at the end of their 12 hour shift, when, as a reward for their hard work, they got to try each item. This is what I lived for when I was a student in their position working meals. It was better food than some had eaten in decades. One older guy, locked up for almost 30 years, almost cried at the taste of the sirloin tips. I thought that might've made a good advertisement, "So good it'll make you cry."

October 23

Today just happens to be my birthday, and I couldn't ask for a better gift in here than getting to eat leftover chicken piccatta, a Pig Mac, sirloin tips, and cheesecake! It's by far the best meal I've ever eaten for my birthday in my life.

B did the most awesome creation ever. He took some cheesecake, put it on the peanut-butter crunch cake, put ice cream on top, then sandwiched it (or at least tried to) between two chocolate chip cookies we baked today. As he's eating it, he's telling me that he's actually lost 10 pounds over the past couple weeks. Then he turned around to grab something, and I said that I think I found all that weight he lost.

March 6

Today, after six months, four staff meals and numerous other events for the warden, administration, and others, our students graduate. They've learned to clean, to bake, to cook different meats and seafood, to prepare vegetables and sides. They could go into any restaurant and know what to do.

Many former students have done so, getting out and working at successful restaurants around the state. Three that I know of now own their own restaurants, and are doing well. Two former students started their own food trucks.

I hope to do the same someday. I would feel confident going into any kitchen in any of even the most high-end restaurants and doing, or running, whatever needs to be done. I know what I would need to do to start my own restaurant. And I started as a student who had never used an oven before in my life, never having had a real job outside of prison. Without this opportunity, I would have lacked the skills to change my life around. I would have gotten out someday, after having been locked up at fifteen, without a single employable skill.

Now, there's nothing I, nor my students, can't do. And we learned it all in Hell's (okay, okay…in Purgatory's) Kitchen Cooking School.

(Some names have been changed for the privacy of the students, and some dates have been estimated. All stories, however, are told exactly as they occurred.)

And now, a secret recipe from the annals of the Hell's Kitchen Cooking School's famous collection. I've had the opportunity to try numerous recipes for the same thing, and this is by far, in this kitchen or out in the real world, the best English style toffee I've ever eaten in my life.

Homemade Toffee

1 cup butter (real butter gives greatly superior result)
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup finely chopped almonds

In large saucepan, combine butter, sugar, and salt. Cook, constantly scraping bottom and sides of pan with rubber spatula, until mixture becomes dark amber color and reaches 285 °F on thermometer.

Pour mixture over parchment or foil-lined half-sheet pan. Sprinkle almonds, and semi-sweet chocolate chips (to preference) on top, carefully pressing them in. Place in refrigerator to set up. Break into pieces. Serve, or use in other recipes.

To read Part II click here

Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Fostered Neglect, Part Two

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By Jedidiah Murphy

To read Part One, click here

I will not say anything negative about my time there because I was a basket case. I cannot say what would have happened had things been different so I will only talk about me and what I myself dealt with. Their was a bar in the first floor of the house and it had things in it that I thought I would try. I started drinking at tweleve and it opened the doors that I was so locked behind. I could socialize and interact with people as if nothing at all is wrong with me. I wanted so much to fit in, but stayed so within myself it was impossible until I started drinking. It provided me with a warmth that went far beyond the effect of the alcohol itself. I relaxed and for a kid who had seen the side of life I had, it was something amazing to just let your guard down some. I covered the smell with chocolate and drank anytime I could get it. By the time the parents found out, I had consumed a good portion of their booze and filled the bottles with water and tea. I downplayed the whole thing because I was scared that they would send me back and this time I would be without Donnie. They had no idea how hopelessly I was hooked before I was even sixteen years old. My father and his father and five of my direct family members all died from alcoholism. I never knew that what I was doing was going to damage the chances I would have later in life. I simply was hooked on the freedom of releasing the weights attached to my soul so that I could float about life without jumping anytime someone got too close to me or touched me without my explicit permission. Funny how people interact with others with touch and casual contact on a daily basis. I would crawl out of my skin if someone touched me. I hated with a passion being hugged or kissed. I would panic and react violently from people just playing around and it started a lot of trouble for me.

The first time I was given licks from the principal (which is what they called it when you were administered corporal punishment), I went absolutely crazy. I told him not to hit me and he grabbed me and I freaked out. I went places in my head that were irrational and it scared me so bad that I fought that man as if he was killing me. By the end of it he knew that something was not right and called my dad. That was the last time I was ever taken for licks. I did not get along so good with the mom but I loved my dad. I still do though we don’t talk at all anymore. He knew that there was more to the story but he did not want to ask me about it for fear of making me uncomfortable. I was a wreck. When people would laugh I was apt to cry, when they could cry I would laugh. I was fine when they were scared and scared when they were fine, and as much as I tried to sync my emotions with theirs it did me no good. I simply was not like anyone I knew. I was suicidal without realizing what that meant. At times I could not sleep for days on end, and started taking sleeping pills that I would steal from gas stations just to black out the world and its demons. I did not dream anything anymore anyway. There were times of humor though, so don’t think that it was all morose, though the truth is that most of it was.

An example of the crazy things that I would do is that I would sneak to the kitchen at night real late. I would tippy toe down there and stand in front of this massive double door refrigerator and open that thing and it was like stepping into the Taj Mahal, or what I would assume it must be like. The light and the cool air and all the things that I could do in there! I ate things that I had never seen. Radishes and raw cabbage, mini-carrots and mustard, because I had no idea what went with them but mustard was great. I ate green icing just by squeezing the entire tube in my mouth without realizing that it stained my whole mouth that very color. Entire packs of ham and bologna and hotdogs with onions and whatever else I could get my hands on. I did this night after night because I was not ever allowed to ever open a fridge and get what I wanted anywhere before. It was liberating to make choices about what I wanted to eat and when. I remember the night I was busted because my dad slipped up on me and stood watching me and as I turned--because I sensed someone was there--I saw him standing there in the light of the freedom that fridge represented to me. I was scared to death because I had a lime green stained mouth full of something illegal but he was not saying anything at all. I told myself, "well, at least you got to swim and eat for a while" because I was sure this was the “thing" that would get me sent back. What people don’t understand is that I woke up every day wondering if that day would be the day I would be sent back. I was never comfortable enough to relax. He told me that night that I could have anything that I wanted in that fridge and that I could get it anytime I wanted and he walked away. I was shocked. I, of course, ate nothing else but I knew that he loved me then. He got me past the fear by asking me tomake us sandwiches, and man did I. I built them and they had any number of things that did not go on any sandwich on this planet. They would be a foot tall and crazy but we ate them and I got over my fear of being unadopted and tried to settle in somewhat. 

Sadly that was all to end by the time I was sixteen, because they would get a divorce and he would leave. At this point in my life I had not had a single set of parents for more than four and a half years. I have no concept of what it means to have people that will love you your entire life. I don't have a concept of what it is to have someone that will be there for you through thick and thin or any set of circumstances. In his defense I will say that I don’t blame him at all for leaving when he did. I think just about anyone would have. At the time I was miserable with things as well, so I devised a way to get out of the situation myself. 

My parents hated one another at this point, and as tragic as that would be for some, it was so normal for me to be in some bitter storm of perpetual movement and change that I just ignored the fighting and looked for my move. I had not been happy in a long time at this point. I was drinking all the time and I was not sleeping all that much, and though I was not a drug user in the illegal sense, I was beyond the rim of fates and was so slaved to a nervous preoccupation for constantly changing inner states of being and was so hoping for a grip and a return to the forgotten sources of a normal life. The divorce was a ripple in the hurricane I had been tossed in for more than a decade by this point. It was not that I could not be affected by the change because I certainly was, it was that the change did not trump my more immediate issue. 

My dad was accused of preferring me more than his own son and it became a focal point during the divorce. I stayed with the mother and was licensed as a water safety instructor and taught swimming lessons at the house and then worked as a lifeguard in Terrel, TX. I then taught swimming lessons for the Red Cross after work at that same pool. I lost myself in just doing things and working with kids help me do that. To see the way that they just abandoned their parents and ran to me in the water was special to me then and still is today. People don’t even know that I worked as a lifeguard for a long time and in probably five different cities as a teenager. I have always wanted to help people and though I could not help myself I got lost in trying to make a difference. The money I made working I gave to the mother to save for me, and the defining moment that broke what little I had left for her was that she stole every dime of that money to get her son a new car. I went to my fathers' office and cut a deal, as two men entering a business contract would, to stay at his RV on the lake. I knew what he paid in child support and was fluent in how the system worked in broken homes. I knew that if each parent has a child the child support was canceled out. So in leaving I killed what would have been a windfall for her and saved my father a load in the process. He agreed with my negotiation and I moved into the RV.

You can imagine what it was like for me to pretty much live alone on a lake at sixteen. My father bought me a new truck when he found out what his ex-wife had done with my money and I ran that thing up and down the road sixty thousand miles that first year. I went to school like I should, and after I drank pretty much every day at this point. My dad had a girlfriend that he stayed with in another city and I had the place to myself most of the time. I slowly self-destructed even further with my addiction to drinking as a means of escaping myself. I was known as a class clown and funny guy but I was nothing but a dancing monkey. I was so used to being fake that I did not know who I was anymore. There are so many pictures of me from that time, and there I would be caught in that moment without the ability to mask the me that I kept hidden, and in all the joy and general cheer there I would be without a smile at all. I never really knew this until it was pointed out to me years later. I would say that fully 90% of pictures from then I never cracked a smile at all. It was not that I intended to be aloof, I simply forgot to smile. Most people don’t have to remind themselves to smile but I did. To be so misplaced and lost within yourself and try so hard all the time to fit in with people around you and blend in is a daily balancing act that began to drag me so low emotionally that I would simply forget there were times when smiles were expected. I was unhappy at birthday parties and Christmas, at graduation and events that everyone would be happy to be a part of. My life would flash out of control like a car hitting black ice on a bridge, and I would fight to regain control before someone saw the me that I was so intent on hiding. People asked me later in life why I did not tell anyone what was going on and it shocked me because what was I to say? Oh hey...I am a wreck and have been since I was about five. Do you think that you could fix that for me? Sheesh. I constantly worried that I would upset the balance of things and once again be dispersed. What if? That question made up of two words echoed a thousand times a day within my head.

I graduated and did well enough in school because people don’t worry about a kid so much when he does well in school. I learned that well. I was drinking and running with the wrong crowd at this point because people who drank the way that I did were not peers from school. I was arrested for theft and took full credit for it though I was only the driver during the crime. I made a full confession for my role and took my lumps and anytime in my life that I was arrested I admitted fully my role. After I got out of jail (and this time with a prison number attached) I was alone for real. I left that small town and never went back. I found my biological mother at this stage and ironically she lived across the road from Bucker Homes where we went when she abandoned us. I asked her why she did what she did and she said that she thought it was best because she could not take care of all of us anymore. I forgave her and I guess she had her reasons because my father was brutal but I resented the life her other kids had over our lives. I love them as well though we don’t talk at all anymore. Funny the gap between the half sibling and the full when you’re where I am. My mother died four months after I went to prison again. During all this change I had a little girl in 1997. I cannot possibly describe what it was like for me to have seen that little girl for the first time. So perfect and so much everything I could have ever imagined. People use moments like those to change their lives and make promises to the gods they keep. Well I did all that as well, though I had no idea how to keep a promise to myself much less anyone else. I will detail my love for my beautiful daughter in a later chapter of this story but she is still very much that beautiful baby girl. I was with her mother for years and we eventually split up. I was reckless and a drunk of monumental proportions. I drank eighteen or so beers a day and drank hard whiskey as well and at this point was down to 118 pounds. I was a slave and determined to end it all. I ended up overdosing and being taken to a nearby hospital and put on life support. I want to say this about trying to kill yourself...that was one of the hardest decisions that I had ever made and what some call a cowards’ move is anything but. The people who say that have never been there and done that. It is the scariest thing you could imagine, to be incapacitated and aware that you cannot breathe and die by suffocating while trying to call for help. It was devastating and when I came to in that hospital I was shocked and mentally rattled. I was so disoriented that I did not know who the president was and kept yelling, “I gotta go and bail hay" for some reason that I still don’t know.

I slowly came back to myself and what my family did while I was out was to get me court ordered to a treatment facility because I was a danger to myself. I stayed sober upon leaving there for 271 days. It was the best time of my adult life. I don’t recall what caused me to slip but I never again stayed sober for any measurable amount of time. I was a slave and alone in the world. I had things that people would covet and I had a job that provided for me and my daughter, but I hated life. The life I could have had was long past and the cycle I found myself in was one of old and the webs I struggled in were spun long before. The other details of my demise are for another time, but the end result is worth mentioning within the content of this article. My daughter was taken by CPS three years after I landed here because her mother was party to a murder of an ex-boyfriend by a current one. My daughter witnessed that crime and was taken when the police realized the state of the house she was living in. Her mother was hooked on drugs and she was left to fend for herself. When I found out about this I started to correspond with CPS, trying to find a solution to this problem because as you can imagine this would have been my worst nightmare imaginable. To have my daughter going in at the same age and to be locked up without the ability to get to her was crippling. In the end I cut a deal to have her placed with some friends of my adoptive family based on what my sister told me about them. Well, in order to do this I was to give up my parental rights to expedite the process, and I did exactly that, only to see her mistreated and removed. I lost my only thread to her when that fell apart. Without parental rights anymore they refused to talk to me at all. So I was locked out and away from the one person I loved most in the world. I learned that though my adoptive family claimed that they loved her that she was not blood and that was painfully obvious when the chips were down. This is a reality that a lot of adoptive kids face. Most are never really family and cannot hope to be unless you're successful. Then for sure they would be proud to make room for you at the table. By being a dysfunctional, disposable prisoner I was something far less than human, and much less than family. I don’t talk to them anymore because if my daughter who spent her summers at their house swimming and playing with their kids was not good enough then I am not either. I don’t foresee ever talking to them again and that hurts as well. I can deal with anyone and anything tossed my way but my little girl? Not good enough? Who loved Barney and Blues Clues was not worth someone stepping up when they knew what the system did to me? They had the money and they had the room but they said that they had done all that they could do. Much the same as my being on a deserted beach while they are drowning and my yelling up and down that empty beach knowing that no help would be coming is doing all that I can for them. Being a perfect swimmer but not willing to get wet for someone that I claimed to love is hardly doing all that you can do. I said much the same to them and as a result we don't talk. I would rather be alone than with people who think that love is a Christmas card every now and again.

My daughter's story is much more than anything that most people could imagine, and would end up going to Federal Court with a lawsuit filed on her behalf by Children’s Ruins Inc. They do those types of cases all the time and had never seen one likes her in all their lives. Someone close to me tried to adopt my daughter seven years ago and it was all good to go until they said that she was unfit because of her contact with me. Instead they went on to war with us for the last seven years to the tune of FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS for ONE GIRL. The lady that was trying to get her that was "unfit" is the owner of a company and was the national speaker at a conference for abused women in Washington. Had done that several times, in fact, at different places. Has been the producer of television shows and the owner of her own studio. Who has never had a criminal charge in her life. Has the nickname of "Angel" because of the things that she does for people less fortunate than herself and who has raised kids that people have abandoned her whole life. She did not come from money and she worked for many years sewing upholstery and started her own business by breaking her back as a single parent. She still took kids in. She was licensed as a therapeutic foster parent to the highest order so that she could get the most troubled kids that people forgot all about. She grew up in a mill house on the river and is self-made and someone that anyone who meets her is drawn to because of her down to earth qualities. This woman, who I love, on her own after finding out about my daughter and her plight, jumped feet first in to save her all on her own. I had nothing at all to do with it and she did not tell me till later on. Because I have a death sentence, anyone that has any contact with me makes them unfit. So for seven years we waged a war against them and they matched us dollar for dollar the whole time and most likely employed more lawyers than we did. So imagine, if we spent 400k for a girl that had a home to go to the whole time, what they have wasted keeping her away from us. The gross abuse of money and power entrusted to them by the taxpayers of this state who fund CPS and the politicians that I assure you don’t know what they spent fighting for no reason whatsoever. They cry about their budget and what they need and it is no wonder that they do with one child costing them almost a half million dollars in addition to what it cost them to house her in that system for another seven years. I am surprised that they can keep the lights on at all. 

As unbelievable as all that is, I have it all on paper. When children are forgotten and abused and get caught in a cycle that repeats itself it is detrimental to the public as a whole. My story is actually two separate but connected stories. My story and my daughter’s. Much the same but much, much worse for her. To have been wanted enough to have a war fought for you and be neglected by the people tasked with your care is an intentional injustice that is easy to see on the wording they used to describe her as "unadoptable.” How is anyone unwanted when someone is begging for that very child? Someone with the means to get her what she needs treatment-wise and who loves her as her own to this day. My daughters’ life spiraled out of control because instead of getting her when she was twelve they aged her out at eighteen and the abuse she suffered as a result left her much the same way that I was. She has a great heart and is a beautiful girl but is so lost in a world so big that she cannot see what she is doing and the consequences involved. Not because she is stupid because she is brilliant, but because she has had to fight her whole life for everything she has. We will never give up on her though, because unlike adopted love, this is something much more real because having been thrown away and given up on myself, and her benefactor having been done much the same by her mother, we will always love her and be there for her through any struggle and mistake she ever makes. We don’t have to agree with what she does or support it, but we will always have a home for her and a love that will never cease. I ended up going to four different mental institutions and lost my mind completely at one point and was lucid enough to understand that I had lost my war with myself. To be aware that things cannot be real that you’re seeing and interacting with is unique and scary at the same time. People see me today and they think I am playing when I tell them all this because I seem so adjusted at times. Well, all I can say is that this prison cell is not the worst place I have been in my life but it is for a lot of them. My story is much the same as many guys here with me. I am not the only product of the states’ failure to address the real problems that arise in foster homes and the child protective system as a whole.

Regardless of the details of this case, the systemic failure of CPS and TYC is what is what leads those same castaway children to make horrible decisions as adults. I made mistakes that I wake up to all the time. I would love to erase my presence and the problems it caused so many people. We few who have these stories change in time, but prison is what it takes sometimes for the ones that are not already dead by their own hand. I understand what I could have done differently and have regrets for wrong turns made with good intentions. I don't see life through rose colored glasses and I see the scars that I have and the ones I inflicted as well. Every event in life is boxed in by a set of facts, the truth as it were. There's the "what" and the "when" of a deed; there's the when it happened and the how it was done. It's at the "why" that we miss so much these days. Who's to say what a child like me could have been with more time and understanding, instead of bouncing around in a careless, violent, detached system? To react with blind impulse on some primal autopilot and expect to come out of that without ruining your life is fantasy.

I find myself at times replaying the struggles that led to this point in my life. I don’t care what anyone says and how often the winners say it: no one will be able to convince me that life is in itself rewarding. Life has been something far more challenging and in truth a catastrophe. To try and find some meaning out of all this is futile, because at the end of the day the arrow of time flies in one direction. I cannot more change my past than I can board a ship that left port twenty years ago. That’s reality. In my opinion we cannot escape destiny or some force set into motion long ago that resonated through time and set my life on a path so dark that I repeatedly bounced from one consequence to another. I learned that life and whatever reason there was for it was short and as fragile as a robin’s egg. At times we are not all that glad to be a part of it, as it was for most of my life. Yet through it all and the pain of broken promises, I am loved by a beautiful woman and my children. Even at my worst I am still loved. A part of me doesn't understand that but the man I used to be would not recognize the man I am today, and though I ruined so much of my life, I never set out to harm anyone. Still, today when I look out my window from Death Row to the world I am no longer allowed to be a part of, I am still very much that same five year old little boy looking for someone to pick me up and save me from the world and ultimately from myself.

To read Part Three click here

Jedidiah Murphy 999392
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

When the One–Eyed Man is King

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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.

"A strategist."

"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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