Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Riving

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By Chris Dankovich

A note from the writer: Not everyone who chooses to interact with prisoners treats us honestly . I originally wrote this piece a couple years ago, and it is a part of a story that is very close, personal, and difficult for me. Months ago, I was invited to write by editors at a criminal justice news organization, and submitted this piece after much internal deliberation. I had hoped that it would shed light on the issue of what a child going through the adult criminal justice system, and in particular one housed in solitary confinement, goes through (all the while expected to behave and defend themselves as a fully-educated, cognizant, responsible adult, despite no other circumstance where they would even be allowed to be treated as an adult).

The piece that was ultimately published was completely different from anything I had written. The headline, portrayed deliberately as if I had written it myself, screamed for the worst sort of attention. My story and voice were changed against my will, without permission. For reasons I will never understand, multiple sections were altered or removed entirely, making the story into something other than fact. And I wasn't even told by the publication. I found out when good friends of mine contacted me about it (as I do not have access to view the writing myself). I was humiliated and ashamed for having been so trusting. I complained directly, but ultimately, nothing was done.

I have chosen to publish my original story here because I still wish the same message about juveniles going through the adult world against their wills to be spread, and Minutes Before Six has earned my trust on a regular basis a place for me, or anyone incarcerated for any reason, to speak. I hope that you feel this piece, which is very personal to me, and that it allows you for a moment to see through the eyes of the thousands of children every year who have to go through exactly what I did.

The room was white, the walls were white, and the ceiling was white. The only object in the room, apart from the mattress on the floor (gray) was a stainless-steel toilet, which in the light reflected white. It was as if the humanity had been bleached from the room. Apart from the delivery of meals (spaced equal distances apart) when I could ask the time, only shadows could keep me company. There, to the right, a message written on a window: "100% Jamaican," written in toothpaste and feces. But remnants of a human being's thoughts are not the same as having the actual person around. Though there, and sometimes I could see someone move, I was alone.

I was in the "Hole." Someone said it was the "psychological Hole." As I sat there, sometimes thinking, sometimes staring at the wall, sometimes napping (because without knowledge of time passing there can be no true sleep), I wondered whether it was called that because this was where they put people who were crazy, or where they put people to make them so. Was there a distinction? Did those charged with caring for our safety and the safety of others care themselves? 

What happens when you protect a man, or a boy, physically, but deprive him of everything that makes him who he is? I had shed my tears for the past year, since my arrest, but here, having been sentenced -- to what to a 15 year old is life -- I could only feel anticipation for what was to come. For, from what I had heard about prison, with other people and the ability to walk around hanging out with friends if you make them and the razor inside your shaving razor if you don’t my life would be better than it was here, or than it had ever been before.

Because here I was, just sentenced to prison for longer than I had already lived, despite having been diagnosed as mentally ill by multiple psychologists and as insane by one of the world's leading forensic psychologists. But if the court would have listened to him, I refused to. (Remember being 15 and being told that you were wrong when you didn't believe so? Imagine being told that you, your brain, and your conception of reality and everything you know are wrong). So here I was, so crazy that I wouldn't plead crazy even though it meant I would have been a free person sooner.

When you are alone, truly alone, with no other distractions, the only things you can hear are the whispers of demons. Not real voices (well, sometimes you can almost actually hear them), but thoughts, ones that infect your mind, your sense of self, your sense of what is real. What you feel is determined by whether you listen (eventually, with no angel standing on your other shoulder, you will) and both your loyalty to and confidence in your previous interpretation of reality (and what you feel is what matters, for who we are and what we do, while they may be influenced by objective factors, are ultimately determined by emotion and belief). A moment of doubt, of hesitation, an impression of betrayal and you will travel down a road that forks into oblivion or infamy, melancholia or violence. For there is only so much a mind can bear, particularly when what it has to bear is unlimited nothingness. The fear of falling is generally the fear of landing at the end of a great fall, but the one thing more frightening is the abyss that may never end.

Is it possible to make someone crazy? In such a short time, no, at least not permanently. I could feel it welling up, though. Hypersensitivity occurred first -- I noticed the most subtle, alternating flickering of the white light, on a scale of one to ten, the difference between a 9.9 and 10-- as I struggled for input, lest my mind become solely occupied with what was inside. Patterns, faces, images appeared in the texture of the painted walls, next to minute stains that I hadn't noticed before, the origin of which I didn't want to consider. Then came broken thoughts, followed by boredom, followed by sleep. Then came delirium, the kind you feel with a fever, or in the middle of the night upon waking from a dream that didn't fully end, and you lie there trying to recapture it but instead your thoughts race and your heart races and you sweat and stay in that limbo of exhaustion and insomnia for hours. But this didn't end at daybreak.

As I lay there, blanket over my head, the pinpricks of light shining through the spaces between the threads (which, for a moment, I may have thought to be stars), or sat up staring at the wall, my hands, counting the bricks (how fast could I count them?), I imagined scenarios in my mind. There, outside my door's window, was the girl I used to talk to back in school, asking how I'm doing, coming to check on me. I blink, close my eyes, and I see my judge again and this time I can say what I want to him: some strange, soulful combination of "fuck you" and "please help me." There, at my friend's house, back in time (for fantasy exists outside its continuum), I pull him to the side and tell him to get rid of what he has that he shouldn't. Then, me, outside of myself, goes and tells my past me to avoid what is about to happen that already has.

What if I could change things? What if I could go back to this moment or that, a month, a year, or five in the past? Every scenario played in my head. I thought of the fight when I was seven, at the private swim club where some kid I had never met before asked if I wanted to fight and then held my head under water while I choked and flailed until a lifeguard pulled me up and kicked him out of the pool for an hour. I thought of when I went to the hospital on my eleventh birthday, after my mother had sucker punched me and threw me head-first into our living room's glass and wood coffee table. I thought of how the last year, spent in the high-security building of the county's juvenile detention facility, had been the best, and ironically, the freest year of my life, having spent the previous 15 years in a house with someone who had tried to molest me and who had kept my bedroom window nailed shut and barred me from going outside. I had the knowledge now of how everything could have been different, too long after it became impossible to change a thing. Despite all the thoughts and prayers it is possible to make, the forces of nature and the tides of time would not make an exception and change their direction just for me.

Despite differences in how it happens, reality still does affect the mentally riven. The impotence of my mind to produce any physical results in my position in space or time (not that I would have expected it to, if you would have asked. . . I'm not crazy like that...) changed the direction and purpose of these waking dreams. Soon I merely imagined a companion, someone to anesthetize my loneliness, my insecurities: a beautiful girl, with a name that I could whisper as if she were actually there (like Wilson the volleyball in the movie Castaway). A woman (for masculine energy, even if it is pathological, needs its compliment), imagined to be there with me to talk to, to hold, to hold me. Never actually seen (not for real), she was felt, my blanket piled next to me, my arm around it, or pulled tight around me and against my back.

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

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Biggest Loser

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A story by Timothy Pauley

Pony Morrow was a big lump of goo.  In fact, he´d picked up his nickname way back in juvenile detention because even as a teenager, his belly stuck out like a pony keg.  Now, pushing forty, it no longer resembled a pony keg, but rather, a full sized one.  Pony had given up trying to shake the name years ago when he realized he would never have the self-discipline to do anything about it.

Pony had two major skills. One of them was a remarkably ability to convert the dog food they fed prisoners into huge stores of body fat.  His work could be seen spilling over his belt, protruding off of his backside, and in rolls that had formed three extra chins below the one he was born with.  Even food that most prisoners considered inedible was fine with Pony.  In fact, he liked that the best because guys gave it away.

Pony´s other skill was annoying people.  He only liked to talk about two things.  The first was Pony Morrow.  He didn´t actually like to talk about the real Pony Morrow, but the fabricated version he had created in his mind.  He was a pimp.  He was a player, He was a high level drug dealer, an entrepreneur, gang leader.  You name it, Pony Morrow had done it.  He was a legend in his own mind.

The other thing he liked to talk about was what you could do for him.  Typically this would come on the heels of a monologue of his grandeur.  After telling you about his stable of prostitutes, he´d ask you for some food.  “Can I get a couple soups? My money´s a little slow this month.”  Something like that.  Failure to comply with his wishes would usually be met with, “sucka” or “trick” which he´d mutter as he shuffled away, toward his next target.

Usually, Pony´s routine went off without a hitch.  He was great at figuring out who might be receptive to his game and had a remarkable degree of success augmenting his diet in this way.  As long as the guards were even slightly lax, Pony would end the evening three or four ramen soup packets for his evening feast.  The problem was, Pony often was either unwilling or unable to discern when a particularly vigilant guard happened to be working.  On those occasions, the very act of someone handling Pony a soup was considered a crime.  This was trouble.

One evening Pony had just procured four soups.  He was feeling particularly proud of himself as he shuffled back to his cell to begin preparing his snack.  “You,” the guard shouted, pointing his extended arm and index finger directly at Pony.  “Stop right there,” Jensen shouted as he aggressively hurried toward Pony.  “I saw that,” Jensen said as he reached Pony.  “Give me that contraband and give me your ID card.”  Pony´s shoulders slumped momentarily as he realized this guard was trying to jack him for his food.  Just as quickly, though, he puffed out his chest and indignantly replied, “What for? I ain´t done nothing.”

Jensen was having none of that.  “I said give me that contraband and give me your ID card, right now!”  The angry guard extended his open palm towards Pony and waited.  Pony quickly considered his options.  No matter how this played out, he was going to bed hungry that night.  Dinner had sucked.  His stomach was rumbling already.  Now this sorry turnkey wanted his food.  Anger began welling up inside of him.

“This my food.” Pony shouted as he tucked his soups up against his ribs like a football and stuck his chin out toward the guard. “Give me that contraband right now or you´re going to segregation.” Jensen responded.  “Why you fuckin with me? This is my shit.” Pony replied, tucking his soups even tighter to his body.

The alarm sounded as Jensen keyed the mic on his radio. “We got one refusing in B upper.”  Pony knew this mean the good squad was now on the way to take him to segregation.  Not only was he going to lose his food, but he was going to be stuck in the hole where they really fed bad.  Pony reared back and began swinging his pudgy arms in kind of a windmill fashion as he stepped forward toward Jensen.  Before the soups hit the floor, Pony´s fists were bouncing off the sides of Jensen´s head, making a thwack sound each time he landed another blow.  Jensen was so shocked he had already absorbed several punches before he had the sense to step back and try to deflect the blows.

Moments later the goon squad came pouring into the unit.  They quickly pepper-sprayed Pony in the face, then tackled him to the floor and two more pulled his arms behind his back and tightened a set of handcuffs onto his wrists.  Even though Pony had quit struggling, they continued to press his face hard into the floor and jam their knees and elbows into any area that might cause him pain.

A few minutes later, they dragged Pony to the hole.  With a guard on each arm, they drug him face down across the floor and out of the unit.  His head banged against the door frame on the way out.  Once outside, they stood him up and twisted his arms high behind him, nearly dislocating his shoulders and causing him to bend forward as far as he could, as they began marching him to segregation.  Once in segregation, they pushed him into an empty cell and slammed the door behind him as Pony stumbled and fell face fist onto the concrete floor.

Once he was in the segregation cell, the guards were supposed to open the small cuff port on the door and permit Pony to put his hands in front of it so they could remove the cuffs.  But not when you assault a guard.  No, when that happens, you get to keep the cuffs for a while.  It wasn´t until the next morning when they finally removed Pony´s handcuffs.  He got this instead of breakfast. Instead of lunch they finally brought him his blankets and sheets.  By dinner Pony was in total meltdown.

Robbed of his evening snack, pepper sprayed, beat up, handcuffed for hours, left in a cell with no bedding, and denied breakfast and lunch was enough to turn a lump of goo like Pony into a quivering mass of incoherent rage.  Pony´s tenuous grasp on sanity was all but lost.

By the time the guards came by to push Pony´s dinner tray through the cuff port in his door, they found him drawing disturbing pictures all over the walls of his cell.  Only thing is, Pony wasn´t given anything to write with.  Upon closer inspection, they noticed a three inch long turd in his hand.  This was the actual drawing implement and Pony was wielding it like a crayon.  If there was any question, that was cleared up the moment they opened the slot in his door and the stench hit them.  The guard quickly thrust Pony´s dinner tray through the opening and slammed the door shut.

Pony continued to draw a giant pig with one hand while he reached into his tray and thrusting mashed potatoes into his mouth with the other.  Between bites Pony kept mumbling to himself.  The words were forming sentences that could only be deciphered by a thoroughly twisted mind, if that.

For the next six months this routine continued.  It was so bad the guards were becoming afraid of Pony.  Jensen hadn´t actually sustained any injuries, beyond a few bruises, so it was not Pony´s fighting ability.  It was the fact that he had completely lost it.  Who lives in a room where the walls are crude cave paintings made of feces?  Who reaches into his food with a hand encrusted with his own feces, then puts the mixture of food and feces in his mouth? How could anyone not find this unsettling?

Were it up to the guards, Pony would have remained locked in that room forever.  But it was not up to them.  Every few days they would be required to hand cuff him, place him in the shower, then hose out his cell.  Once he was cleaned up, Pony resumed his fecal festivities nearly the moment he was returned to his cell.

Then came the order.  It came from headquarters.  Mental patients were no longer kept in indefinite isolation.  It was decreed they would be returned to general population.  That meant Pony was getting out of the hole.


Ski came to prison shortly after his eighteenth birthday.  He was convicted of murder and sentenced to twenty five years.  Upon his arrival, Ski fell in with a group of young men like himself, who had very little hope.  They amused themselves doing what many young men do in prison, acting like dumbasses.  That´s just what young guys do while they´re trying to wrap their minds around a hopeless situation.

Prison administrators like to put thing into neat cubbyholes.  They have a category or classification for everything, especially people.  When several guys hang out together and do things that draw attention, the default is to consider them a gang.  It didn´t take long for Ski and his friends to fall into that category.  Within a year they´d been declared STG or a “Security Threat Group”.

Ski was a smart kid.  He adjusted to his new reality more quickly than most.  As soon as he´d completed his five years of mandatory close custody, he was eligible to transfer to a medium custody prison.  This is somewhat unusual because it often takes a young long term prisoner longer to accumulate the necessary period of good behavior to qualify for such a transfer.  But Ski had done this and was soon on his way to a better place.

Ski ended up at a facility where he could enjoy a much higher quality of life.  The only problem came when he tried to get a job.  An STG designation is difficult to shake.  Once this is in a prisoner´s file, there is virtually nothing they can do to get it removed.  That meant that Ski was only eligible for a handful of jobs and, even then, could only hold a particular job for two years.  For his first job, Ski was on a paint crew with several other STGs.  It was a decent job and permitted him to have enough money to purchase the necessities like soap, toothpaste, and perhaps a little coffee.  But two years passed and Ski soon found himself unemployed once again.

The facility had four areas of STG jobs.  One was for blacks, one was for Hispanics, one was for whites, and one was mixed.  Being white, this meant Ski was only eligible for two of these areas.  Ski had friends on the mixed crew who kept trying to get him hired.  The only problem was that they were white too.  If Ski were hired, it would no longer be a mixed crew.  That left Ski with only one area.  Out of a couple hundred jobs, he was eligible for five.

T-dog had one of the five jobs.  When he was told he was transferring to camp soon, he put in a word for Ski.  Ski talked to the boss as well and was assured he would be able to have the job when T-dog left.  Ski was stoked about the prospect of finally having a job again.

The day T-dog left, Ski got the bad news.  Not only was he not getting the job, they were giving it to a black.  That meant they were violating their own rule.  Ski took this remarkable well.  He was a quiet well-spoken young man and he kept his disappointment to himself.  To those who knew him, however, it was obvious Ski was beginning to wonder when the cops would quite screwing him over.

The first day Pony Morrow took over, everyone was outraged.  Not only was Ski being screwed out of a job they´d promised him, but they´d given the job to a turd-eating lump of goo!


Paul was sitting in the infirmary waiting room.  It was time for his yearly check-up.  He perused the collection of reading material and noticed a brochure about a new diet.  Paul was a bit of a health nut so he grabbed the brochure with great interest.  Within thirty seconds he was doubled over with laughter.

An hour later Paul was walking the prison yard with his good friend Marty.  Between the two of them they had logged about seventy years in prison.  This meant that, when it came to prison stuff, it was like they had ESP.  Paul pulled out the brochure and handed it to Marty.  He then looked at his watch.  Twenty-three seconds later Marty was doubled over with laughter.  The prison had a fancy name for it, but Marty immediately dubbed it “the goo diet,” and Marty knew just what to do with this.

The brochure described the goo diet as the exact same food currently being served, only less of it.  Instead of 3,000 calories each day, the goo diet was for 2,000.  No cookies or cupcakes for the goo diet.  It also described how those who were on the goo diet would not be permitted to purchase high calorie foods from the prison commissary either.  High calorie foods like soups, for example.  Then, on the back page was an application.

“So, who´re we putting on a diet?” Paul asked.  “I think we should help Ski,” Marty replied. “Pony Morrow is a big lump of goo.  This is perfect for him.”  The pair spent the next hour laughing about the new plan.  Ski didn´t know it, but help was on the way.


Pony Morrow shuffled into the chow hall for breakfast.  He´d managed to regain all the weight he´d lost eating turds in segregation.  He´d accomplished this feat by eating everything in sight.  In fact, he liked to sit next to the dish pit so he could get the uneaten food people were going to throw away.

When they pushed his tray out the window, Pony just grabbed it and started walking away.  He got halfway to his seat when he noticed there was no muffin and only a half scoop of potatoes.  He went back to the window and accosted the guard.  “Where the rest of my shit?” he asked. “Move along. You know the rules. Once you leave the window it´s too late.  You´ve got to check your tray before you walk away.” The guard replied.

Pony knew that was how things worked.  He called the guard a punk then shuffled off to his table.  When he was done with his tray Pony began hawking the trays people were taking to the dish pit.  “Hey, lemme get those potatoes.” He said.  As the prisoner stopped and began extending his tray in Pony´s direction, another guard approached and ordered him to move along.  Pony was pissed.  “Yo, you killin my hustle you sorry assed bitch.” Pony spat.  “You´re done here, return to your cell.” The guard ordered.

A similar situation played out at lunch.  Then again at dinner.  Each time things were missing from Pony´s tray.  When he complained, the kitchen staff told him that was what he was supposed to get then the guard would shoo him away.  When he tried to get extras off other people´s trays, guards stopped him.  Even guards who had previously allowed him to do this.

Pony still managed to hustle up a few soups each night.  And this prison was great because they left the cell doors open for five minutes at a time.  Pony would wait until his neighbors left, then sneak into their cells and help himself to whatever they had.  But still, the chow hall situation was really bothering him.  They were cheating him.

The one thing Pony knew was that in a couple days commissary would be delivered.  When they told him they were giving him a job it was explained that all he had to do was show up and he´d get a full paycheck.  Some brilliant administrator had surmised they could negotiate the insanity out of him.  So Pony had ordered fifty dollars worth of junk food.  On Friday he´d have a feast.  That kept him from reacting too strongly to the chow hall harassment.  He wouldn´t get his commissary if he was sent to the hole.

Friday they began opening doors for the prisoners to pick up their commissary.  By the time Pony got out, there was already a line about forty long.  He didn´t care about that.  He just shuffled up to the front of the line and began talking to the first guy.  “Yo, you getting any soups? How bout candy bars? Can I get some?”  As the guy was telling him he couldn’t help him, the guy at the window stepped away with a big bag of groceries.  Pony broke off the conversation abruptly and stepped in front of the man he´d been talking to.  Amid a chorus of cursing and grumbling, Pony presented his ID card to the commissary lady and waited for his sack.

Pony was expecting a rather large sack of groceries.  Fifty bucks didn´t go as far as it used to, but still.  When the commissary lady returned to the window with a small paper bag, Pony immediately began protesting.  “That ain´t mines.  I gots a big sack.  Better go check.”  The commissary lady looked at the receipt on the bag, then at Pony´s ID card.  “No, this is it.” She replied.  “You want to check it?”

Pony tore open the bag.  Inside was a jar of hair grease and a note.  Pony grabbed the note and began to read.  The note was actually a form letter informing Pony that people on the medical diet were not permitted to order certain food items, so that part of his order was not going to be filled.  Anger welled up inside him, but even a guy as egocentric as Pony knew that there was nothing this woman could do for him.  He stomped away from the window to another chorus of jeers from the guys he´d cut in front of.  “Fuck ya all.” Pony shouted as he headed back to his cell.


Doctor Topin hated prisoners.  Were it not for his only legal trouble, he´d never have taken a job at this prison.  When he´d finished rehab for his opiate addiction, however, nobody else would hire him.

Each time someone miscreant sat opposite his desk and asked for something, Topin wondered to himself why they ever stopped using stocks, whippings, and hangings in the public square.  He needed the money though, so he at least had to pretend to care.  But he didn´t pretend very well.

When Topin looked up to see Morrow walking in the door to his office, he was sure this guy would have some laundry list of goods and services he wanted.  “Not today, and not from me.” Topin thought as Morrow took a seat across from him.

“What are you here for tod…” Topin started to say, but was cut off abruptly by Morrow. “Yo, ya all gots me on this fucked up diet and I don´t play that shit.  I eats what I wants.” Pony said.  This was certainly not what Topin expected to hear.  He wouldn´t be able to just shoo this one away.  He´d actually have to look in his file.  What a pain in the ass he thought.

Topin picked up the notebook containing Pony Morrow´s medical records.  He opened it to the tab where dietary information should be and immediately noticed the order for a medical diet.  Topin glanced up and it was obvious to him that the man in front of him was at least a hundred pounds overweight.  That meant he didn´t need to look any further.  Obviously this man needed to be on a diet.  Instead of turning the page to see the application for this diet that had purportedly come from Pony, Topin assumed another doctor had ordered the diet.

“Your diet is appropriate for your condition.” Topin said.  “If you want to be taken off this diet, you´re going to need to lose some weight.  A lot of it.”  Topin sat back in his chair with a blank expression on his face waiting for Pony to get up and leave.

Pony´s eyes narrowed as the message sunk in.  “You punk assed bitch!” Pony shouted as he grabbed the edge of Topin´s desk and tipped it over.  Topin tried to jump back but the edge of his desk landed squarely on his left foot, smashing it to the floor.  Once he realized what he´d done, Pony ran out of the office.  He made it to the front door just as the goon squad arrived to take him down.


 Two broken toes was the diagnosis at the emergency room.  Topin hobbled out with cane, a fresh prescription of Vicodin, and an excuse to stay away from the prison for a little while.  He headed home and within an hour had settled into a pleasant drug induced euphoria.

In fact, Topin burned through his Vicodin in record time.  It was the best four days in recent memory.  But the day his script ran out, Topin fell into a panic.  By evening he felt so bad Topin resolved to return to work the next day, just to get his hands on a prescription pad.

The next morning everyone was surprised to see Topin hobble in.  Having endured what he did, most people would take at least a couple weeks. But Topin didn´t last long.  He put a prescription pad in his pocket and promptly declared he had to go home.  His foot was still too bad to work.  Everyone understood and he collected many sympathetic assurances as he hobbled out.

An hour later Topin was back on his couch.  He had three fresh bottles of Vicodin and a listless smile plastered to his semi-conscious face.


Ski was aware of the Pony Morrow meltdown.  No telling where he was, but after such a high profile incident, it was unlikely he´d be back.  That didn´t mean Ski would get the job, though.  They´d already apparently changed the race designation on that position, so it seemed like a long shot at best.

Later that day his door rolled open.  When Ski stuck his head out, the guard ordered him to report to the tower.  When he arrived, Ski was told he´d been hired and the tower guard describes his new duties to him.  As Ski turned away to begin his new job the guard said, “Hey, you don´t play with turds or anything, do you?”  Ski´s blank look was all he needed to see.  “Just checking.”

Timothy Pauley 273053
Washington State Reformatory Unit C315
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Still Life, with Contraband

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By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Look here, kid.  Check the scene: you´ve got guards at your door, and boy, are they ever impatient.  Under normal conditions, your average screw never has enough hours in the day in which to do nothing.  These two are full of piss and vinegar, though, and that means they´ve got very specific orders about having to deal with your ass. It´s a latent thing, but once their institutional something-must-be-donery gene activates, there´s no point in talking, dig? You obey, you fight or you deceive. That´s it.  Shakedown, they´ll say.  Strip out. Right now. They´ve got gas and batons and shields with electric current running through them.  You´ve got no time to prepare, but see, that doesn´t really matter because you´ve been trained to always stay prepared.  You cower appropriately – no, no, like this: see me cowering, pig? Aren´t I affect-appropriate? – and begin removing your clothes.  You do something, something small and innocuous; you see this? You hand them your clothes, do your little dignity-obliterating fingers-to-tongue-to-balls-to-ass dance, then do something else.  You say something, and they laugh.  You say something else, just one of several options you´ve stored away for moments like this, and now they´re really rolling.  The bruiser on the left can´t resist – just like you knew he wouldn´t be able to – and turns to add his own insult to the heavy on the right.  You are laughing, but your eyes are really laser focused on the timing, and as soon as left goon´s face reaches a certain critical angle, you do a third thing, something that is only important because it´s all a part of a sequence.  You get your clothes back, the cuffs go on behind you, and then you are led to the showers.  Your house is being torn apart by Typhoon Thug but it doesn´t matter because you´ve got your ark on you, and they, they´ve got fuck all.  They can shake you down again in the shower, but it´s even easier to beat them there.  Same process, see?  Only now you´ve got solid metal blocking the view from here to your waist, and you can

take it as axiomatic that inside-time can only be understood from within its boundaries.  Somewhere between booking and the long descent into a barred eternity, it stops being chronological, choppy, and begins its presencing as flat, perfectly and impassively immobile.  Weeks pass – months? Years? By Zeus, how they blur so softly casual into one another! – and nothing happens.  Then more nothing happens.  You begin to doubt that you will happen.  You swear you would sell your soul for something kairotic to come to pass, then weeks-months later, you´d trade it happily for something merely pedestrian – so long as it was a kinetic pedestrian.  Your attention snaps towards anything that so much as twitches.  You´ve become a kitten, willing to chase after any ball of yarn that gets tossed your direction.  Others know this, and learn to use it for their benefit.  You try to tamp down on your instincts, but you can´t really help it.  All day you exist in a tense bundle of expectation: desperate, angry, ashamed, yearning for some transcendental guarantee of meaning or value, for some contact with a responsive Super Thou not wearing a uniform.  But God is dead here, replaced by the pack.  Everything is permitted, but everyone is watching, waiting, ready to pounce.

Which is why everyone hears the chirps as if they had been pumped out of a set of massive speakers.  Twenty-four brains instantly calculate their way across the hire-wire chasm of the “did I hear that?/ do I want to acknowledge that I heard that?” paradox.  On some level, you have to hear everything, because you never know when the accidental fall of a pair of handcuffs echoing from down the hall might give you the thirty seconds you need to prepare for a shakedown, or how a sudden cessation of chatter on the rec yard could signal a coming riot.  Of course, the other side of the equation is that you´d really rather not hear any of it: the mindless posturing of mindless hoodlums, the inevitable liturgy of banalities that comes oozing out every time heavy rank bothers to open their collectively poxy mouths, the preaching of incarcerated prophets who manage to find God each and every time they get locked up: the lies, superseded by bigger, stupider lies, immediately eclipsed by even bigger, far stupider ones. You´d carve out your eardrums if it weren´t for the fact that the pack would turn on you instantly.  And because of the birds.  One mustn´t forget the birds.

Those were Bones´s actual words: Mustn´t forget the birds, son.  Considering what was at stake, those of us who had a call didn´t.

All day long, Bones pushed the same sediment-laden puddle of sludge from one end of the hall to the other, all the while crooning old blues tunes that I initially thought were meant to be ironic.  Shows you what I knew, then.  Even if you´ve never been down before, you´ve seen Bones in every prison movie or book ever made.  He´s Red from Shawshank Redemption, Danil from Conquered City, Shukov from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: he´s the guy that pours fuel into the engine of the black market.  In the real world, more often than not, Bones is usually a tired-looking old black guy, apparently slow in the head, worthless for any job but pushing his old mop around.  The very job that, coincidentally, happens to give him access to nearly every square inch of the building.  The very job that always – always – seems to allow the apex predator of the 6th floor to fly beneath the heavy redneck-band radar that covers the rest of us. I have no idea how this shtick words for some people. Maybe there is still enough casual racism left in the system to allow Bones space to fit into everyone else´s misconceptions. Or maybe the cops see everything clearly and realize that the micro-physics of disciplinary power they beam out on the rest of us is just a macro-politics of spectacle to Bones, that he´d just as soon cut their throats as talk to them.  Whatever the root of his power, Bones had the sort of induced invisibility that most of us covet beyond all else.

Three short trills followed by a warbling sort of croak managed to slip out between the verses of Bones´s latest dirge, and my neighbor Chuco sat up in his bed.

Es nuestra señal, no?”

I nodded placing my bookmark in its place.  “You´re up.”

“I went the last time,” he complained.

“If by ´last time´ you mean the time before the time before, you´re right.”

“Damnit,” he grumbled, slipping on his shoes.  He stretched in a way that was very obviously feigned, and then moved as if at random towards the front of the tank.  There he rested his arms on the bars and gazed longingly down the drab expanse of the east hallway.  I nearly snorted at the obviousness of it all, but instead contented myself by pulling my crate out from under my bed.  I began to remove my bowls and utensils, and started prepping for our nightly ritual.  Hearing this, Cantú ducked his head over the lip of the bunk above me and then quickly dropped down to the floor.  “May I?” he asked, pointing to my bunk.  “Bring your container,” I answered.

Setting our two crates up as a makeshift table, he sat down next to me and helped me divide up all the ingredients we would need.  Most of them were his.  I never asked where he got his money, but he had gatillero stamped all over him.  Once he´d found out my connection to Monterrey, he started treating me like a lost little brother.

“Unless my memory is failing me at my advanced age, today was your turn,” he remarked, nodding towards where Chuco was still posted up.


He laughed.  “You´re learning. Still green as Michoacán, but it´s a duller shade.”  He´d spent the majority of his 54 years incarcerated in one prison system or another, so I took this as a compliment.  An acid-coated, Pyrrhic victory sort of compliment, to be sure, but in this place you take whatever genuine praise as what comes your way.

“Here comes el maestro,” he muttered, sotto voce.

This wasn´t news, as I could clearly hear the volume of Bones´s monody increasing.  I didn´t look towards the gate because I didn´t need to:  this was an old play, something we´d done using a myriad of variations on a nearly daily basis for several months.  As the weary old trustee made the turn in the hallway, his bucket tipped over and splashed a nearly black pool of muck all over the area next to the guard picket.  Everyone glanced his way as Bones kicked the melodrama quotient up a few notches, bemoaning his fate, his clumsy old hands, and his thrice-damned cataracts.  The screw stared at him hard for a long moment, his annoyance clear all the way through the inch-thick security glass.  He then turned and walked towards 6C, not wanting to deal with the old con and his even older con.  He was just beginning his first step when it happened.  If you blinked, you missed it.  Bones was just that fast.  In one fluid movement, he brought the bag out from the compartment he´d had built into the underside of his bucket and lobbed it to Chuco.  Almost instantly, our comrade tossed him a small packet wrapped in paper.

“Oh easy rider, what make you so mean,” Bones wailed as he righted his bucket.  “You sho not the meanest man in the world, but the meanest I done seen.”

Chuco slipped in next to us, plopping the loot down on our makeshift table. “Lessee,” he muttered, combing through the contents.  “We got us

to understand that the biggest part of all of that is classifying the cop in question, see?  You´ve got to learn what motivates each CO, because if he is just trying to work a job and get home to the kiddies, he´s got a totally different level of situational awareness than those fucks on the Extraction Team.  With them, you´ve pretty much got to go to condition black from jump street, but you can work that to your favor, too.  So make a typological system for these people.  Be scientific about it.  Watch them as they work, what they look for specifically when they paw through your clothes, how their vision moves when they come through the crash-gate into the section, how long it takes them to locate a specific inmate on the shower sheet, how they hand you the trays.  All of those are clues about

a dozen fresh jalapeños, two white onions, three limes, two tomatoes…all that other jale.  Here,” he said, passing things around.  I palmed the tomatoes; they were so red that they made my eyes hurt a little.  I then searched through several small packages wrapped in wax paper.  The spices I kept.  The tobacco, weed, and yeast I tossed to Cantú.  Those alone would cover the cost of the produce for a week.  In jail, it´s about as sure a bet as you will ever find that one of your neighbors will be willing to pay ridiculous prices for a smoke and a few bottles of old habits.  Cantú excused himself to go market the dope, as one of his maxims was never to hold onto anything “hot” longer than you needed to.  I always thought this was the sort of sound advice he should have paid attention to while he was still free, but kept such sentiments to myself.

“Say, oh, easy rider, what make you so mean?  I yells for water, padnah, you gives me gasoline,” moaned Bones from the hallway.  Chuco looked at him, annoyed, but I always thought his spiel was amusing.  Dinner and Grand Guignol: what more could a convict ask for?

Cantú soon returned, having procured from our hiding spot my most treasured possession: a homemade stinger.  I had fabbed it out of an old radio cord and some razor blades the night I was first released from 5.5 months in the dungeon.  It´s always kept frigid down in the hole, and I had been fantasizing about hot food to a degree that bordered on the psychotic.  Immersion heaters are simple things, but sort of a big deal in our county jail because of something the guards called “plug justice.”  In each of the several dozen tanks in the building, the wall socket that powered both the television and the microwave was controlled by a switch inside the picket.  Anytime one of the 24 men in the dorm did something that angered an officer – and this could include an infraction as minor as looking at a CO for a second too long – the electricity could be cut almost instantly.  It took me a while to understand the motive behind this serial cluster-bombing punishment strategy; the practical results, on the other hand, were just a wee bit more visible.  With no television, it only took a few hours before the continental shelf supporting various alliances of convenience cracked open, and, depending on a multitude of variables, a victim would be selected for assault.  Sometimes this would be the actual inmate that precipitated the situation in the first place, but more often this explosion took people against whom animosity had been building for weeks.  Bottom line:  someone was going to be converted into a pulsing, sobbing puddle of fractured bones and blood in a matter of seconds, a sacrifice to the uniformed minor gods of the building.  Several things happened after this, without fail.  First off, the victim was dragged – literally, on occasion – down to seg for his “protection”.  Second, Lt. H – got to write up an official incident report.  I saw several of these during my trial.  On every last one of these forms, those of us in the tank were listed under  “victim” or  “participant” in the assault.  There wasn´t even a space for listing “witnesses” because in jail, there are no innocent bystanders.  As soon as the incident report was complete, the electricity to the television and microwave was turned back on.  At first, I was aghast at this.  Couldn´t they see that they were creating this violence?  That they were the catalysts in this reaction? One of the COs explained it to me later:  federal funding is proportional to a facility´s classification as low-, medium-, or high-risk; the rate of violence is the primary metric within this calculus.  The more violence, in other words, the more money from Uncle Sam.  You will come to understand how this makes a certain sense eventually.  It´s inevitable, but once you start to see the world like this, you effectively become unparolable.  Even in their failures, the system finds a way to win.

The stinger gave us a sort of end run around the plug control as I had built it to run via the electricity powering the desk lamps.  People were always begging us to use the thing, and it gave our little association a great deal of leverage in the tank.

“Oh, I hates to see the rider, when he comes so near.  He so cruel and cold-hearted, boy, lo these twenty year.”

It wasn´t long before the roaches showed up.  They´re always there, circling, their sad, hungry eyes following every morsel of food and breaking my heart in ways I thought I had outgrown long ago.  There´s never enough food in prison, so unless you have someone taking care of you with commissary money, you have three options:  hustle, steal, or starve.  Cantú surveyed the group, watching as each one of them tried to edge out the others, all without looking like they were doing anything tactical – they knew Cantú´s ways as well as anyone, after all.  He finally nodded to a skinny dude in his 40’s named Harrison that had been picked up with sixty pounds of weed three weeks before.  The word on the block was that he hadn´t talked – our kind of people.  As soon as he saw the man acknowledge him, he bounded over and sat down on Chuco´s bunk, our fourth for the meal.  At first, I thought this tendency towards generosity spoke highly of Cantú´s character.  Later, I realized it was all calculated.  Loyalty can be expensive in the free-world, but some version of it can be had in jail for the cost of a good meal.  I didn´t feel it was my place to speak on this as I, too, was indigent, surviving off of my little hustles and inventions.  Most of the food I was eating daily came from Cantú in one form or another.

“Tell me another one, Cantú,” begged Chuco as he marinated the chorizo.

“Can´t you see I am busy, fool? Ask Tomas.”

“I don´t know any jokes.  Sorry,” I responded truthfully.  He was a big fan of jokes, was Chuco.

“How about you, güero?” he asked, nodding at Harrison.

“Um, sorry. I guess I know some riddles, though.”

“I fuck up yo riddles, homes,” Chuco laughed.

“I was just reading about this one. It´s not so much a riddle as something just to make you think,” he paused, trying to remember how the story went.

“So, you are on this overpass.  Down below you there´s like two train tracks.  Looking one way, you see six workers.  One dude´s over to the left, working on one track by himself.  The five others are all working on the other.  They´ve got the radio up real loud, some kind of mariachi stuff.”

“It wasn´t mariachi,” Chuco laughed.  “Norteño, maybe.  How come they got to be Mexicanos, homes?”

“Let the man tell his story, pendejo,” Cantú swatted him.  “And of course they were Mexicanos.  He said they were working, recuerdas?”

Harrison followed this exchange, a small, worried smile plastered on his face as he gauged whether he might be losing his chance at a meal.  Seeing that Cantú had cleared his way for him, he continued. “So, there´s these workers.  When you look the other way, you see a trolley coming right at them.  It´s on the track with the five guys, and since they got the mar…uh…that norteño music on, they can´t hear it.  Right in front of you is a switch that diverts the trolley.  So, like, the question is, what do you do?”

“How come there´s a switch right there on the bridge?”  Chuco asked.  “Shit don´t work like that, does it?”

Cantú sighed and looked up towards the ceiling.  Ayúdame, Jesús,” he muttered.  “It´s an ethics thing.  Like, do you get involved, no?”

Harrison nodded.  “Yeah, if you do nothing, five people get killed.  If you do something, only one does, but you are responsible for it.”

“Gotta flip the switch,” I said.  “Simple math.  One is better than five.”

“Maybe the five are all putos,” Chuco said.  “Maybe the one is a cool mothafucker.  Maybe he´s got a hot sister that would be like really appreciative for saving him.”

I laughed. “Touché.”

“I´d shoot the radio,” Chuco continued.  “Wake they stupid ass up.”

“No, that´s not a part of the rid-“ Harrison tried to interject.

“Fuck you mean, homes? I´m always strapped.  And killing a radio is better than letting some raza die from a damn choo-choo.”

The two argued for a few minutes, while Cantú and I continued to make dinner.  When they had finally settled down, I found Cantú´s eyes.  “What would you do?”

He considered the question, nodding as he came to a conclusion.  “Get some popcorn.”

Chuco laughed, a sort of nervous response thing.  I just stared at Cantú for a moment, processing this, trying to figure out if this was posturing or the true gauge of the man.  He was cutting up the tomatoes with his shank, this evil nine inch piece of steel, just as calm as could be.  I decided he was serious about the time his eyes flicked up to scan the front of the dayroom.  I followed his gaze and saw Bones and an older black man from our tank in a huddled conversation.  I turned back around and continued to work on the enchiladas, then raised an eyebrow at Cantú.

He leaned in close and switched to Spanish.  “Old School there bought what he thought was a bag of Bugler from Highside Jones. Turned out to be a bag of pencil shavings.

Pendejo,” chortled Chuco.  “Le impuso una multa de estúpidos.”  Highside Jones was one of the other trustees on the 6th floor, trading mostly in narcotics.  He was universally known to be dirty, only dealing square with men from his set.  The old guy at the bars clearly wasn´t a part of that family, so a big bag of useless is what he got.  He looked calm when he walked back to his bunk, so I figured he´d come to better terms with Bones.  Boy, was I wrong.

We had just finished heating up our dinner when Old School knocked politely on the frame of my bunk.  “Look here, youngster.  May I borrow yonder contrivance for a spell?”

“Uh, sure. You know how to hook it up?” I asked, rolling the cord up before handing it to him.

“Yessir, I´s peeped how it done.”

I returned to my meal as he retired to his mattress.  Bones had finally cleaned up his mess and was slowly moving down the hall.

“I asks him for mercy, he don´t give me none.  He asks me my trouble, and I saids I ain´t got none” he rasped, before whistling seven high chitters, two low as he neared 6E.  I shook my head, laughing inside.  Walking cliché though he may have been, I´ve still never met anyone quite like old Bones.

We had just completed our supper when Cantú placed his hand over my forearm.  I followed his gaze to see the old man carefully mixing some sort of cream into a large cup.  He had my stinger laying inside of his bowl and the water inside was boiling at a fast clip.  I watched as he opened a Milky Way candy bar and then scooped the caramel out with his spoon.  He dumped this into his cup with the cream.

“Lotion?” I asked.  Cantú shook his head.

“Magic Shave. They put that on their face and the hair just falls off.  No razor required.”

“Oh,” I said, before things slid into place. “Oh.”

“ ´Oh´ is right, Cantú said, standing up.  “Hay que estar sobre aviso, mis jóvenes.  Ya ha llegado la hora de mostrarse a la altura de las circunstancias.”

We all quickly cleaned up our mess and then began hiding our contraband.  I didn´t see it, but Chuco later told us that the last thing the old man added to his concoction were the pulverized shards of a small light bulb.  He spent a few minutes bringing the brew to a boil and then returned to us, stinger in hand.  The cup in his other hand was bubbling and smoking angrily.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, handing the heater back to me.

“Sure…uh…what´ve you got there, School?”

“This? Oh, this here is a cup of get-right, son.”  He turned towards the gate before pausing.  “You might want to hides that real good now,” he said, nodding to the stinger.

“You sure you know what you´re doing, homes?” Chuco asked him.

The old man turned narrowing his eyes.  “Don´t get it twisted, young man. I know what I´s about.”

Cantú surveyed his small kingdom before calling

on how analytical they are, how afraid of inmates they are beneath all of the bluster.  You can use that, you have to use that if you want to protect your ark.  You see what they give us?  Humans can´t live on this, so we´ve got two choices:  act like mangy dogs and beg for bones underneath the Master´s table or become something other than human.  Me, I´m too old to learn to do tricks for Snausages, you feel me?  And so we keep these.  See how I did that?  I had it with me the whole time and you never knew it.  They could take me to the dungeon right now, and I´d still have it with me.  These are my tools, all the things that I used to live a life.  None of it is dangerous, none of it designed to wound, but they won´t see it that way.  They understand – okay, maybe not on a philosophical level, but they get it instinctively – that the things inside my ark give me freedom of a sort, and these totalitarian fucks detest that, want to see

a young white kid named Ben over.  More than anyone else, Ben was constantly begging us for our stinger, our magazines, or pretty much anything else we had that would simultaneously occupy his extroverted mind and confer upon him some desperately needed status.  He looked like he was about fourteen.

“Ben, today is your lucky day,” Cantú told him with a stern voice.  “My associates and I have consulted on the issue, and we think you can be trusted to hang on to this stinger for the night.  This is a test, a probation of sorts.  Try to do better for us than you did when the county put you on probation.”

The poor kid giggled and smiled nervously.  “Oh, cool.  Um, thanks.  You guys are all right.  You want to hang out? I got a new book from my mom and –“

“No Ben, I do not wish to hang out.  Run along, now,” Cantú ordered.

“Okay, sure.  I won´t let you guys down, I promise.”

“Ben,” Cantú added, ratcheting up the ominous factor by an order of magnitude.  “You know that will cost you fifty flags if you lose it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know the game.  I got you, man.  I got you!” he responded, starting to plan out how he was going to manage his newfound prestige as the keeper of the Holy Stinger.

I frowned at Cantú after Ben had departed.  “That´s…pretty messed up.  He won´t even have the thing for an hour, unless I´ve badly misjudged his capabilities.”

His face went expressionless and I felt the temperature in the room drop through the basement.  I´ve seen defcon 1 stares before, and I had to admit his was pretty first rate.  “I take it back,” he said finally.  “You´re still green as fuck.  You better get this, considering where you´re going, hombre.  You still have one foot in a world of suburban white people acting all civilized like their mommies and daddies taught them, a world of morals and codes and church and the PTO.  A world of utilitarian  ´one is better than five´ mierda.  Haven´t you figured it out yet?  This is the jungle.  You got tigers, and you got meat.  That´s all.  That stinger, it´s gone.  It was toast the minute aquel abuelito decided to get his respect back.  ´He won´t have it for an hour?´ He won´t have it for fifteen fucking minutes.  So what?  Now I got you the fifty flags you will need to get another cord.  So shut the fuck up with all of that feeling bad, ´pretty messed up´ shit.  Those are human concerns.”

Throughout this entire onslaught he never raised his voice above a whisper.  Still, I felt scoured by the time he had finished, contrite and confused and contrarian and immensely sad all at once, though I had at least learned enough from my time in Mexico to keep all of this from rising to the level of facial features.  I wanted to tell Cantú he was wrong, that life wasn´t a jungle, not even along the frontera, that the waters went deeper than that but my words failed me.  He dismissed me with a glance and swiftly climbed into his bunk and picked up a book.  I did the same, my face turned toward the gate, where I saw Old School pretend to sip from his scalding cup of revenge lava.

It didn´t take long.  Bones had apparently told Highside that someone had some business for him in 6D, because I saw him moving furtively down the hall, pretending to push his broom.  When he saw who had summoned him, he scowled and puffed out his chest.  He didn´t even try to mask either his disdain or his words.

“Fool, I done told you – “ he started.

“Peace, playa, peace.  I´ma old hustlah my own self.  I just wanted to tell you we´s okay, and that there ain´t no hard feelings.  Ya feel me?”

I could see Highside´s face clearly, the very last time that anyone could say such a thing, ever.  As he listened to the old man, he transitioned from “I´m going to have to check this fool” to “listen to this sucker, trying to curry favor from me even after I fleeced him.”  His pride got the better of him, made him see weakness where he should have detected artifice, and he took one more step towards the bars.  That´s when the old man splashed him with the solution in his cup.  It wasn´t a perfect hit.  Highside was a physical monstrosity, six-months deep into an almost insane workout regimen.  He was huge and mean and as fast as blazes.  That speed is the only thing that saved his right eye, or, for that matter, the whole right side of his face.  The left side didn´t fare as well.  I can only theorize about what that concoction did, in practical terms.  The combination of the temperature and the highly acidic pH of the magic shave instantly tenderized his epidermis, while simultaneously obliterating the soft protein of his left eye.  Highside instinctively reached up to paw at the pain, and the caramel ensured that the molten mass was at least partially transferred to the skin of his hand.  The thousands of tiny shards from the light bulb gouged into both the skin of his face and his hand, so when he ripped his now pain-infused hand away, nearly half of the skin on his face simply tore away with it.  That part isn´t theoretical:  I saw it happen, and while I´m pretty sure that the wet slapping sound that my memory keeps insistently inserting into scene is a fabrication, I´m only pretty sure of this.

All of these events took place in a flash, and then Highside screamed.  This wasn´t the howl of the warrior, not the scream of someone enraged.  No, this was closer to what Anselm thought he would enjoy about contemplating Hell in the afterlife, like something out of nightmares or horror movies.  He tore off down the hall, wailing all the way, bumping into the wall and stumbling from the pain.  Only an expanding pool of blood was left of him in a matter of seconds.

Everyone was instantly talking, arguing, high-fiving.  A couple of Crips eyed Old School with evil intent, but made no moves.  I turned and lay back on my pillow, numb.  I should have felt sick, wanted to feel anything other than that all of this was perfectly normal, everything exactly as one could expect.  Mexico had done this to me, partially trained me for this life I was going to have to face.  I just wished that it had left me enough of my humanity to have felt sick.  I would have felt salvageable if I had felt that.  I suspected that once such things left you, they were gone forever, and the years would confirm this.  I finally forced my eyes open once I began to hear the stomping boots of the goon squad approaching.  I looked over to see Cantú´s head peering over the edge of the bed, his eyes locked on mine.  He must have seen something in my topography that indicated the course of my thoughts, because he shook his head.  “Kill those, and you´ll be invincible.”

“Kill what?” I asked, my voice sounding hollow to my ears.

“Human concerns,” he muttered, returning to his book.  I closed my eyes and thought that I

shouldn´t get it twisted, youngster: just because the things I´ve shown you so far have all had material substance, that doesn´t mean they must.  Ideas and techniques go in the ark, too, and are usually your most valuable possessions.  Maybe it will be a new stash spot, a really prime one that nobody else has figured out yet – and kid, trust me when I tell you that I am not talking about inside the binding of a book or underneath the cushions of your trainers.  I hear such insanity all of the time and just shake my head.  You think they don´t know about that shit, don´t teach them all about it at the Academy?  You´ve got to engage in k-step logic here.  Putting contraband inside of something is only thinking one step ahead of them – and there are a few of these screws that can´t figure out how to take a single step, no matter how lazy or indifferent they may be.  Any spot that is so easily rousted by fat piggy fingers is not a true ark and a disgrace to the convicts that came before you that knew this

ain´t gone explode on me, is it?” Jamal asked, eyeing the somewhat dubious looking contraption in his hands.

“No, no, no,” I laughed, inserting a pregnant pause before continuing.  “I´m virtually certain of it.  Like ninety-nine point ninenineninennine percent.”

“Virtually certain, he says,” he grumbled, still turning the thing over in his hands.  “Fuck it.  I never much liked my face no kind of way.” Shielding his eyes, he turned to look through the security glass towards the guard picket.  Once he had finally located the rover team on the other side of the pod, he produced an anemic looking joint from inside his shorts.  “You wanna hit this?”

“That thing looks too pathetic to share,” I responded, not wanting to have to explain why I´d vowed never to ingest intoxicants again in this life.  “Just put the tip between those wires and press them together.”  He eyed the pair of linked double-A batteries skeptically for a moment before placing the joint between his lips.  Bending over the lighter – my newest death row invention, heretofore untested – he muttered something that sounded an awful lot like “virtually certain” before connecting the leads.  I could see the wires begin to glow even through the steel mesh and bars that separated our recreation cages.  A few seconds later I heard him inhale deeply.  “I´ll be damned,” he remarked as he exhaled.  “You have outdone yourself, sir.  I shall have you knighted for this, anon.”

“Okay,” I grinned.  “Sure, so long as it´s ´anon´ and all.”

I turned to walk small circles in my cage while Jamal blazed away.  Once he had reduced his spliff down to a scattering pile of ash, he slumped over to the small triangle of sunlight that penetrated the grating above and laid his long body down.  He sighed contentedly.  “I´m yo niggah, right?”

“…sure…” I responded, never exactly certain how a Caucasian person is supposed to respond in the presence of that most loaded of words.

“I was listening to NPR the other night, on some ´Science Friday´ shit.  They said all humans come out of Africa.  That true?”

I laughed again.  “That´s what the evidence seems to indicate, yes, in successive waves.  So, you are one of those.”

“One of what?”

“One of those people that gets all into science and talking like the 17th Earl of Grantham when they are faded. I´ve never seen you in the dayroom suddenly wanting to discuss the Pleistocene or grouse shooting at Balmoral before.”

“Sheeit.  I got an image to maintain, is all.  I´m already gonna have to eat some shit for coming out here to use the white man´s lighter.”

“Get out of here.”

“Nah, I´m kidding.  Stay with me though on this Africa thing.  I´ve got a point to make.  So we all come up out of there somewhen like seventy thousand years ago.  Sometimes after that, you people made the terrible decision to give up yo melanin and yo rhythm.  Still, for all that, don´t that kind of mean that you my niggah, too?”

“I guess so” I admitted.  “Low blow on the rhythm thing, though.”

“Yeah…” he trailed off, editing out whatever comeback I expected to follow.  I glanced at him and was surprised to see him staring straight up towards the sky, deep sadness writ in the lines of his face.  I leaned back against the wall, not wanting to intrude on whatever process he was

Working through here.  See how I did that?  It works for objects as large as, say, a deck of cards.  Remember to practice this over and over until you can do it without looking at your hands;  you are going to need your eyes elsewhere.  It´s a lie that people “rise to the challenge.”  The reality is that you sink to the level of your training, so practice up.  You´ve got to be able to make shit wink out of existence while you are naked, while half a football team of yokels is poking through your stuff.  I once beat the assistant warden and an entire OJT class in a visitation booth with this trick.  See this?  Now you don´t.  Don´t give me that goofy-ass grin.  Jesus, how old are you?  Look, it´s all angles and occlusions, dig?  That and distraction.  Stop looking at the hand that is moving all over the place.  And stop being so damned loud.  They keep saying you are supposed to be intelligent; I wish you´d prove it to me sometime.  Information is some of the most difficult of things to

work through.

“If they killed you tomorrow, would you miss any of this?” he asked finally.

That wasn´t what I was expecting, but these are old themes for the condemned and I didn´t really need to think about it much.  “Not, really, no.  No disrespect intended.  These moments are nice, but they don´t make up a meaningful life.”

He nodded.  “I won´t miss a bit´ve it,” he said, feigning certainty.

“You should get your stamps back.  That joint was clearly defective.”

“Yeah. Fool sold me some depressing ass shit.” He stood up and slouched his way around the yard for a few laps before suddenly yelping and dropping to his knees.  I watched as he tried to grab something off the ground.  Missing it, he scurried across a few feet of concrete and tried again, finally snatching something with his left hand.  He stared hard at it for a few minutes before turning to walk towards the lattice that separated us.  I tried to focus on what he was holding, but for some reason it wouldn´t resolve until it was nearly held right up to the grate.  A brief flash of panic-envy seized me, and I forced my face to go flat, lest I reveal the depths of my instantaneous despair.  In all of my years of haunting the outside rec yards, in thousands upon thousands of hours spent scouring this tiny patch of crumbling concrete for whatever uber-rare castoffs the wind and fortune might have deposited for my finding, I had never once encountered what Jamal was presenting to me.  For a brief tortured second, I didn´t think he was going to let me hold it, but then I realized how crazy my thoughts had become and I tried to re-center myself.

Until that moment, I would have sworn that the seven oak leaves I had collected over the years were the contraband equivalent of a rare earth metal.  I mean, the things had to float on the wind at least 500 yards at a minimum, drop down right through this tiny fissure into our yard, right at the exact moment that I was out there to seize them before someone else did.  Each one felt like a gift from the universe, some proof of life for life outside of a world entirely composed of steel, rust, and concrete.  I used to keep them pressed between sheets of plastic that I kept hidden deep within my legal work.  Every once in a while, when I felt the weight of all of this hate and shame weigh heavier than usual upon me, I would take one of them out and run the tips of my fingers over a material that I was never supposed to be able to feel again.  I´m not even going to try to explain what that was like for me, because I´m not that good and even if I managed to find the appropriate idiom, you still wouldn´t understand.  Experience is a language and you don´t have mine, don’t understand that I´m not at all kidding when I say that the color green very nearly kills me whenever I am in its presence.  Those leaves were precious to me, so much so that when the officer who eventually took them during a shakedown got arrested for beating an inmate, all I could do was laugh and laugh, this cold, empty thing that should have worried or disgusted me but didn´t.  Now, staring at the light gray, one-inch bird feather that Jamal was holding, those leaves suddenly seemed silly and cheap.  One side of me realized that I was acting like a (psychotic) child, but that didn´t really alter the overwhelming possession – lust that was consuming the other half.  I had to walk away in order to regain my composure.  I´d never really felt envy before I came to this place, never realized that

the fewer the number of people that know the same tricks, the longer they will be useful - but don´t ever hang onto something for years.  None of these things has a shelf life like that.  You´ve got to constantly evolve, because they´re constantly chasing you, you know?  Everything you have access to, kid, every last bloody thing, has been approved by a committee of Ivory Tower pigs and then submitted to the drones to evaluate.  Only then is it passed onto you, assuming you have the cash to pay for any of it.  That means you are going to have to be smarter than the collective intelligence of about fifty security professionals in Huntsville.  And you know what? We pull it off.  We are the masters of conquering necessity.  Drop a dude in the middle of the savannah and he´ll get eaten by a lion or a crocodile in a day or two.  Drop a convict in the same place, he´ll eat both of them and ride a wildebeest to safety.  Yeah, I´m kidding, but only by a little.  Those fools can´t imagine half of what some of us can do back here.  They couldn´t believe you could make a hacksaw blade out of a razor capable of cutting through bars.  Nah, that´s old game, shit they figured out in the 70s.  They´ve got examples of them in the Prison Museum, for god´s sake.  No, I´m talking about stuff that is twenty generations down the path, something

seized by these sorts of emotions.

“You ever seen that before?” he asked quietly, still rubbing the accursed thing across his palm.

“Not in a long time,” I answered, still walking in circles around my section of the yard.  “It´s just a feather, man,” I added cruelly, instantly regretting it.

“Yeah,” he said sadly, before looking up towards the sky. “What´s it come from, you think?”

“I have no idea.  Mockingbird, maybe?”

“I think it came from above,” he said at last.  “Yes, a dove from God.”

“He could have sent the whole bird,” I quipped.  He turned to give me a mournful glare, before studying the feather again.

“I know what you believe.  What you don´t believe, I mean.  But tell me this don´t have power in it.  Tell me it ain´t driving you fucking nuts how bad you want to feel this.”

“That´s got nothing to do with God or anything supernatural,” I answered.  We´re deprived of everything is all, crazy from decades of living in a world with almost no decency or kindness.  Not to mention how we´re evolutionarily programmed for apophenia, for not automatically rejecting null hypothesis in spite of obvious falsehoods.  The cost of believing a false pattern might be real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, so we see meaning everywhere, even though what we´re really seeing is mere wish-fulfillment run amok.”

“That sounds real pretty and all, but don´t tell me you don´t want to feel this.”

“I couldn´t care less,” I lied.

“Sucka, stop being stupid and come get you some of this.  Sheeit.”

I laughed and just barely made sure I didn´t hop on my way to the bars.  As soon as I accepted the feather into the palm of my hand I was filled with the overwhelming certainty that I was going to destroy it somehow, that I had to let it go in order to preserve it.  I´ve been having these thoughts for years, ever since I came to this place, that nothing good can come from my touch, my presence.  It was a pretty little thing, though, this impossibly ephemeral wisp of a world beyond rust and scum and self-righteous redneckery.

“I think I shall see the whole bird before long. Anon, even,” Jamal continued.  I looked up, struck by the resolve I heard in his voice.  He was looking upward again, a small smile on his lips.  In all the years I had known him, I had apparently never seen him in a truly relaxed state before, because everything about the muscles in his face was different now, softer, not so angular.  It was obvious he was looking for more than a bird.

“You think you could be released?” I asked.  “I mean…not, what are the logistics of that, but could any of us make it out there after all this?  Look what a damned feather did to us.  A smoothie might make my heart explode.  A hug… forget about it.”

“I´m about to find out,” he answered quickly, and for a brief second I began to hope that he had received some good news from his attorney.  But then I connected his words to the sadness that had been hovering about him all day and I knew.


“Fools was nice this time.  It´s my second date so´s all they had to give me was 30 days.  I got 60.  Real gents, them boys in the AG´s office.”

I leaned my head forward until it made contact with the steel.  I remember it was warm from the sun.

“I figure this was my last joint before they put me under the cameras.  Now I see God had something else planned.”

I kept my mouth shut, all desire to retrace steps over old debate terrain totally absent.

“A dove to guide me home.  To peace.  Finally,” he chuckled a little.  “You know, I was gonna fight them today.  Right here on the yard, make them suit up and bring it.  I already took a dozen Cold Busters, got my nose so dry right now they gas´d be irrelevant.  I guess He wants me to let them honkies make it.  Dove is peace, right?”

“I´m sorry, Jamal,”  I finally managed.  “If it makes you feel any better, I don´t have that many years left myself.  Here, take this back,” I muttered holding the feather out for him.  Whatever meaning I might have imbued it with was gone now.

“No, it´s time for me to lighten my load, not add to it.  Take this device back.  First, I want to show you something, some CIA type shit that Soldier done showed me years ago.  Watch.”  I looked up to see Jamal lightly gripping the batteries in his left hand.  He slowly moved his right across it, and when the two parted, the lighter was gone.  I blinked.

“That´s crazy good.  Much better than my game,” I admitted.

“Watch again.” He did the maneuver a second time, only now I was watching his right hand, not the left.  I saw enough to know how it must work.  I laid the feather softly on the grate and started the process of having him pass me the lighter.  This was another thing that the pigs in Huntsville wouldn´t have believed was possible, considering the rec cages were separated by enough metal to construct a small office building.  I practiced the move a few times while he watched.

“Left thumb up just a little – no, no, not the tip, the meaty part.  If you can, do some talking, make the pig look around or up at your face. You ever flash them real good?  No? Look, most of these fools is real conservative, they don´t wanna see no man´s junk.  Watch they eyes when you strip in front of them.  They always be looking around at that moment, and that is something you can use.  Just thrust yourself all out there like you proud of what God done gave you, and you will see most of them blanch.  Do that part again with you right hand…good.  You see how you can do it in reverse, too?”

“Yeah, you have to flip the hand over, with this thumb on the bottom.”


I thanked him, placing both the lighter and the legerdemain into my ark. 

“Listen, you mind if I go back to the house?” he asked.  “All of a sudden, I feel like there´s a few things I need to do before they move me to A-pod.”

“Sure.  If there´s anything I can…fuck, you know.”

“I know, homie, I know.  We´s from the same place dig?”  I laughed again as he walked over to the windows and began to pound on them.  A short time later the rovers showed up to see what all of the noise was about, and Jamal explained what he wanted.  They initially didn´t want to bother with the extra work, but most of us learn how to make it look like doing what we want is the easier of the options, and they moved him once reality had been properly explained.  Two days later they shipped him off to Death Watch.  Less than two months after that, he was dead, off chasing his placebo gods.

I remained on the yard, walking in circles.  Every time I reached the 3 o´clock point on my little circuit, my eyes were drawn to the feather, still caught in the cage where I left it.  A precious thing reduced to the merely sacred in the span of a few words.  A salve to allow death to slide over territory that should be fought over.  A grasping at God in a place He had so clearly forgotten about.  A thing I could no longer understand.

Lost in these thoughts, I allowed the rover team to walk right up to the bars before I saw them.

“Offender, recreation time is over.  Submit to restraints and a strip search or chemical agents will be utilized.”  I shot them my best drop-dead stare and instead walked over the feather.  I still hadn´t gotten to really experience it, but now that it was infused with so much nonsense it couldn´t just be what it was.  Taking it between my fingers I approached the officers.  “What´s this?” I asked, letting all of the cold I knew how to summon seep into my words.  They must have noticed, because they shot alarmed looks at each other before turning back to face me.

“It´s…a feather,” one finally said.

“You see nothing odd about it? Nothing beyond the ordinary?”  They shared a look again.

“No, it´s just a feather.”

“Thought so,” I acknowledged, then tore it to pieces.

“Offender…are you…feeling well?”

“Oh, yes,” I lied, stripping naked.  “We´re all going to be fine.”  None of us will ever be fine, you fools, I wanted to yell to him.  We are all damned, because it´s just a feather and it needed to be so much more than that in order to make any of this something other than absurd.  Because we continue to destroy the people and the things we do not understand, because we are even able to convince ourselves that we know what we are doing as we are doing the destroying.  Because we have the audacity to actually

act like we´re the deviants, like anyone pays attention to that old Foucauldian shit anymore.  They read three sentences of Pierre Bourdieu about how to use terror and symbolic violence to mold the individual into the structural and formal demands of the prescribed order, and they think, hey, I like that,  but they´ve never noticed that such works borrow their terminology from a deeper and more powerful situation.  That´s the problem with these so-called conservative “intellectuals”, kid, their knowledge sounds deep until you jam a stick in it and see that water only goes down about six inches.  They´ve never bothered with Arendt or Merleau-Ponty, so they have no idea why their methods have failed them.  The best they can do is to fall back on old favorites, to terrify the public with tales of the rise of the “sociopath” or the “superpredator” as if they wouldn´t act in exactly the same way if they were locked in a box the size of a small closet and given practically nothing to sustain their sanity.  It´s human nature to want to improve your lot a little, to have the tiniest taste of real life from time to time.  I´m not giving you license to act like a damned idiot, though.  If I catch you masturbating on some guard we´re done here.  I´m just saying that you can´t expect to remain completely static behind these walls.  You can´t expect to pick up on

the first thing I noticed when I stepped back into my cage.  That strikes me as odd, now that I think about it, considering what a disaster area my cell was at the time.  It had been roughly two months since a certain jackass inmate had called a certain influential state Senator on his smuggled cell phone, and we were still stumbling about in the dark days of the shakedown fallout.  I had made the mistake of going to rec that morning, and the newly invented and forcefully energized shakedown team had blitzkrieged the pod just as soon as we were safely locked into the dayroom cages.  Thus the disarray upon my return.  Someone had opened up my only bag of coffee and dumped the contents out on my desk in a nice imitation of an ant hill.  My paperwork was everywhere but inside the folders where it belonged.  Even my typewriter was out of place, on its back in the center of my cell, as if it were a gigantic beetle that had gone belly-up and died right there on top of my copy of Philippe Aries´s L´Homme Devant la Mort.

Despite all of the mess, it was the black walkie-talkie on the floor next to my bunk that seized my eyes, even as I was bending down to have the handcuffs removed from my wrists.  I stood there staring at it for a moment, thinking that if I did so, maybe it would vanish like a mirage.  No such luck, I though, as I reached down to pick it up.  I had been seeing these for several years on the belts of the screws.  Their indiscernible squawking had woken me up countless times during the middle of the night, especially when it was a newbie who bore them, as if they were some sort of status symbol where power was proportional to the volume setting.  I flipped the device on and listened for a time.  I could only make out roughly half of each conversation, same as always.  I think maybe they teach these people a new language when they attend the Academy, some sort of grunting, indignant Hickenese that my citified, Volvo-and-vino-set-raised ears just cannot penetrate.  Still, for all that, I was pretty sure they would understand me if I decided to say something over the air.  Oh yes, they would no doubt all hear what I had to say now.

The smile on my face was so wide that I actually noticed it, actually thought about how goofy I must have looked in that moment.  I very clearly remember sitting down on the metal of my bunk and thinking about how long it had been since I had smiled like that.  I honestly couldn´t recall. It had almost certainly been many years, maybe as much as a decade.  Something about that realization made me feel very weird inside, my hands absent-mindedly turning the radio over and over again.  Since when had mischief become my primary source of joy?  I didn´t start out my life feeling like this.  Up until halfway through my high school years, I was the good kid, the one always trying to get people around me to get along, to behave, to be kinder to each other.  When Matt C. had built his first Roman Candle bazooka and started shooting it at the police cruiser that patrolled our neighborhood, I was the one trying to get him to stop, and, once I´d failed at that mission, to get him to run, for God´s sake.  When David threw Matt´s new Air Jordans into the traffic on Highway 59, I was the only one of the group who wasn´t laughing as he dodged traffic to get them back, the only one to have been so distressed that I vomited.  Even later on, after things had started slipping down the spiral at a faster rate, I was the guy that collected the car keys at parties and handled the needles, so none of them mistook dirty for clean or overdosed because they had lost perspective on how much they had already rammed into their veins.  Somewhere in the middle of all of that, something had shifted.  I got tired of looking for acceptance for the real me, exhausted with always being on the outside looking in.  People had gone from something to be protected to something worthy of scorn, of contempt.  What dark alchemy was this?

It wasn’t that simple, though, was it?  I recall thinking.  It was always a gradual process, a slow peeling back of layer after layer of the things I wanted to believe about the world, of seeing only this bog of bullshit that lay underneath everything else.  Of how we are a people that claim to believe in divinely granted free will and the personal responsibility inherent to that concept, yet who simultaneously worship a God that punishes all humans for the sins of Adam and Eve, who committed genocide and ecocide in Noah´s day and again in that of Moses, who killed the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great great-grandchildren of those who worshipped other gods, who murdered twenty-four thousand Jews in Numbers because a few of them had sex with the Baal-worshiping Medianites, who dumped a three year famine on David´s people because of something done by Saul, and who then killed seventy thousand of His own chosen people because David had the temerity to complete a census that God commanded him to undertake in the first place, who killed 42 children because they made fun of Elisha´s bald head, and who condemned future generations of Samarians to having their children dashed to the ground and their pregnant women ripped open for something done by the current one.  These things were always there, waiting for me to notice.  One day, I just couldn´t ignore them anymore.  I couldn´t ignore that we are a people who will always stand foursquare and permanently against any sort of perceived foreign tyranny and yet never even begin to consider that in most of the hundred-plus countries where we have military bases, nearly all of the people there feel we are the tyrants, or how on our own shores we regularly allow a majority to tyrannize a minority in deep, systematic ways, of how the only difference between an ochlocracy and a democracy is spin based on how much of one´s personal identity and economic well-being is wrapped up in the latter, or how we take pride in our rule of law, yet will seldom, if ever, think about how these laws are devised and passed by elected representatives and not by a direct vote of the people, or how we are a people only mildly annoyed by the fact that those same representatives are skillfully cultivated for years by well-funded lobbyists who have not the interests of the people at heart but rather wealthy special interest groups, of how we are a people whose civic ignorance can be guaranteed to mystify the reality that before our vaunted laws can even be voted on in the first place, they have to be reported out of specially arranged committees composed of small numbers of powerful party leaders re-elected over and over again by small numbers of voters in artfully gerrymandered districts where the candidate seldom faces any significant political opposition, or the fact that we live in a land where the cost of campaigning for high national office has ballooned to the point where only wealthy individuals or the whores of wealthy individuals can afford to run or that there’s

one thing you shouldn´t ever try to put in your ark and one thing you simply can´t, no matter how hard you try.  The first is other people.  I know, I know, but you can´t seal up your connections like that, and there are many who seem to be on your side that you will come to see are anything but, and you wouldn´t want them infecting your ark in any case.  You will be tempted to want to secure away certain relationships, to keep them safe from the atmosphere here, but it won´t work and, eventually, it won´t really matter anyway.  The only thing more guaranteed than your death is that nearly all the people you currently love will disappear on you.  You don´t believe me, I can see it.  Unfortunately this is one of those things that have ontological existence whether you believe in them or not, kiddo.  Ask any of these old cats around here, and they´ll tell you the same thing.  People just aren´t wired to handle the pressures of this place, all the distance they carve out between you and the people in the free-world that care about you.  Love really doesn´t conquer all, not even close.  Letters will vanish

in the first place, of how ours is a country where people are constitutionally deemed to be too stupid or untrustworthy to directly vote on the Presidency so electors are substituted, even if this means that a candidate can seize the office after losing the popular vote, a vote wherein not even a majority of eligible voters actually participated, and where, given the laziness of the general public, the primary process will have been hijacked by the most radical, ensuring that the candidates in the general election are likely not to represent the median interests of the country but rather only the extremes, of how we are a people who are actually proud enough of all of this and a million other stupidities to have convinced ourselves of our own exceptionalism to the point that we completely ignore the existence of better practices emerging abroad, of how we have created the impression globally that there is nothing more American than standing firm and resolute in the face of rational thought.

This is what I am supposed to respect, cherish value?  Wouldn´t that be to enable these evils, to put my stamp of approval upon them?  It was so easy for me to feel that we deserve every bit of whatever awful consequences these actions brought upon us.  I couldn´t see a way to fix anything, to help anyone that would rescue them from the real poison coursing through their veins, so instead I abandoned them to this theater of the absurd, to ridicule and disdain.  And these guards, I thought, these witnesses, participants, and instigators of daily cruelties that would shock virtually anyone randomly selected off the street: do they not also deserve every iota of the fear I would engender when my voice began screeching over the wavelengths about an officer down, F-pod, oh god, officer in distress, oh, the blood!  They would come spilling out of the woodworks, falling all over themselves in terror, and, oh, how we would have our cells torn to pieces once they realized what had happened.  And we, too, we in the white jumpsuits, we would deserve all of this reaction, every bit of it, every last one of us but none more than myself, because my existence is just as idiotic as anyone else´s, my absurd life powered by the same absurd lies as that of the officer who would undoubtedly lose his job for leaving the radio in my house in the first place.  Oh, how I would laugh and laugh, and laugh, even as they kicked my teeth down the back of my throat, because it´s the funniest event in all of theater when the Fool doesn´t realize he´s the Fool and actually thinks he´s the star of the show.

All of this and more passed through my mind as I contemplated my move.  It was so easy, I reflected, to hate, so easy to give them a little of the same treatment they gave me every day.  And yet… wouldn´t that make me the same as them?  Wouldn´t that prove that positive change was impossible?  I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew what I ought to do.  There was a time when just knowing these things – just seeing the gap between the two – would have shown me the path, but they had done their work a little too well for all that.  I felt all of us here

lost, others stolen others still intentionally destroyed.  As this place poisons you, they won´t understand what is happening and will come to feel that you are no longer the person they once knew.  They will actually feel that you betrayed them somehow.  Once this happens, it becomes very easy for them to let go.  And you, you will actually twist yourself into ten-dimensional knots figuring out how to see their departure as a good thing.  Fuck ´em, you will think: I´m better off without all of that baggage. For a while yet you will feel the lie there, then even that will fade.  If I have to live with it, you will think, couldn´t they at the very least have had the strength to have heard about it?  Wrong on both counts, kid.  You aren´t “living” this, you are dying within it.  And nobody is strong to experience this place even at one remove without taking some damage.  Eventually you will simply come to accept that you are now a dispensable creature, and had better enjoy whatever contact you have with those in the free-world, no matter how ephemeral.  That all lasts until you feel your

emotions drain through the floor as I recognized the damage done, and that´s when I heard the section gate pop open.  I set the walkie-talkie next to the toilet and moved to the door. Sgt. A- quickly entered  and proceeded to move upstairs.  I watched as he then came down to one-row and moved from cell to cell, peering inside each intently for a few seconds.  I let him look in mine and move on to my neighbor´s before I spoke.

“What´s going on, Sarge?”  He ignored me completely, so I figured I´d play with him a little before I gave him the radio back.  “You have the look of a man who has lost something important.  The sort of thing that, I don´t know, might catalyze a rapid employment transfer to the local Walmart unless located.”  This stopped him, and I smiled at him in a friendly way as he stepped up to my cell.

“Offender, give it to me now,” he ordered, his voice cracking a little.  “Or I swear to God I´m going to fuck you over so bad.”

The muscle under my right eye suddenly started jumping, a sure sign of an impending headache.  I took a slight step back and hung my head.  I had never disrespected this man, had always had civil discussions with him.  Never once had I given him a problem, and this thought slipped into words without my noticing.

“Never. Not once. And that´s how you come at me?”  Bad move, I thought, real bad move.  I might have caved to pity, to a good joke, but he pulled the bully card and I detest a bully.  Taking a deep breath I stepped back to the door.

“Why, whatever are you talking about Sarge?” He blanched, taking a deep breath before he continued.

“Please give it to me.  I´ll…I´ll owe you one.”

Too late, bastard, I thought.  “Man, I´d sure like to help you, Sarge, you know that.” I lied, not even trying to make it sound good.  “This is a real cold world, though, full of people searching in vain for their deepest desires.  I, for instance, would like to live to see my fortieth birthday, but there´s zero chance of that happening.  I really would have liked to have been able to drink that coffee, too,” I said, waving towards my table.  “For that matter,” I added raising an eyebrow, “I´d also really like to have a cup of ice from the kitchen.  Yesiree, with a nice, big cup of ice, I´d feel very…open…to the needs of others.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but then thought better of it.  I could see the battle raging behind the red-rimmed windshields of his eyes.  Finally, he turned on his heels and marched off.  Well, I thought, either he´s back in fifteen with a cup of ice, or back in thirty with the goon squad. Given the likelihood of the latter, I didn´t see any point in cleaning up the mess in my cell, as they would just trash it a second time anyways.  I tried not to notice when the clock passed fifteen minutes, or when it reached thirty.  It was nearing the 45 minute mark when I heard the section gate pop open again. I decided not to put my book down, come what may. A few seconds later Sgt. A- appeared at my door.  He was by himself. He quickly opened my tray slot and slammed down a huge Styrofoam cup.  I stood up slowly and walked to the door, his radio clipped onto the front of my shorts.  I reached down to pull the cup in, and then popped the plastic cup.  Inside, I beheld a small mountain of glistening white shaved ice, the first time I had seen such a thing since my arrest.  I slowly drew the cup to my nostrils, searching for the odor of urine or feces or the gods knew what else.  Detecting nothing, I let a wave of cold air flow over my face.  The pig at the door banged in impatience but I held a finger up to him.  “I would have given this to you for nothing less than a kind word.  You chose to be an asshole.  So do not mess this up for me.”  I slowly tipped the rim of the cup up, and let a few pieces fall onto my tongue.  Cold, so cold.  Something that had once been so commonplace to me, so unnoticed, now somehow morphed into one of a million other items that I could spend 90 days on level 3 for.  I felt like I might start tearing up, so I distracted myself by looking towards the door.  The sergeant was trying to glare, but his body language radiated more anxiety than anger.  We stared at each other for a longer moment.

“You know I could fuck you up right now,” he finally whispered.  “I could gas your ass for failing to obey a direct order, drop a team on you so fast that you wouldn´t heal before Christmas.”

I nodded, finding a point about fifteen feet behind the center of his head to stare at, the secret of my best deadeye stare. I walked right up to the door, summoning up the words of a ghost. I shrugged at him before setting the radio down on the slot.  “Those are human concerns.”

He nearly ran off the section.  He thought I had won that day, and hated me until they fired him 18 months later for providing a dirty urine analysis.  I knew better, though.  There are no winners here, just like the Holocaust had no survivors.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is a mere voyeur, nothing more than

those who think they understand your context, your “plight” might even be worse, though you may come to respect them for their attempts to bridge the unbridgeable.  You will have to weed out the rubbernecks, though, the ones that are in it for a cheap thrill and who think they can understand your existence on an intellectual level because they´ve read Thoreau or Solzhenitsyn.  They´ll quote Mandel to you, kid, trying to justify the pain of Genet and Wilde as being necessary to the development of their craft, that there would have been no Vita of Benvenuto Cellini, no drama or poetry of Torquata Tasso, without the crucible of the gaol.  I always want to dump a truckload of Jack Henry Abbott or Chester Himes on them, watch them struggle to crawl out from under all of that weight, all of that void.  You smarmy fucks, I´d love to shout.  You think because you´ve read some words on a page you

know if you send me back, they are going to kill me,” I told the AFI agent sitting behind his huge desk.

“I have assurances that the death penalty is not to be considered in your case,” he replied, his Spanish crisp and clear, evidence of a first rate education.  He picked up a fax from his desk and waved it to me. I couldn´t read it, but could see some sort of seal with a star affixed to the top-center of the page.  Below this was a small paragraph of text.

“I still invoke my human right to appeal for amnesty and demand that I be allowed to speak with my consular off-“

His laughter interrupted me.

“You really learned nothing about my country during your time down here,” he said, standing.  “In Mexico, only the powerful have rights. Do you not think that they

have any right to talk to me about justice?  What about the law?  Do you know what it´s like to have to concentrate on deflecting blows away from your face and onto your body, just because your family is coming to visit you this week and you´d rather be covered in bruises underneath your clothes and lose than to actually win the fight but have them fretting over a black eye?  Do you know what it is like to be hungry and cold and hated for years at a stretch?  To remake yourself completely and to have all of this effort noticed by no one?  So fucking what if you´ve come to the conclusion that Wilde guessed and Coleridge knew that most murderers either kill the objects of their affection or, by killing, displace the only home they know?  Does any of that intellectual bullshit matter to those of us being gassed daily?  To those of us who can´t get a fair interview to save our necks?  But I

I saw the fax,” I protested.

“They keep telling me that you´re supposed to be intelligent.  I wish you´d prove it to me some time,” my attorney snapped at me.  “The state never took the death penalty off the table.  Period.  I´m not here to listen to your fantasies about-“

“There´s a treaty, man!  Mexico won´t send anyone back to the States unless they have a guarantee that-“

“I guess we´re done here,” he said, standing up to leave.  I tried to think that

the weirdest part is that none of those people even try to justify your confinement as somehow serving the regulatory capacity of modern society a la Adorno and Horkheimer.  There was something to that back in the day when Philadelphia elites were terrified that the revolutionary fires might blaze towards anarchy if left unstructured, but those days are dead, dead, dead.  No more republican machines, no more pedagogic regimes, just millions of broken and broken-hearted fools who failed to understand their place in all of this mess and who now get to pay for all of the social evils we regularly ignore.  You´d think this reality would demand they question whether

They get Little D?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “They got him.”
“Fourth this month.”
“Yeah, this was my 42nd execution and I wonder if this

would foster some real solidarity between all of us, some sort of cross-cultural identification or compassion, but this seldom happens.  War breaks and scatters us, transforms us into something we can´t even recognize, kid, something we wouldn´t want to be able to recognize in the mirror even if we had the option.  They sentenced us to civil and then bodily death, but they kill us all a dozen times over again in a much more complete way before it´s all over.  I mean, look around you, son, don’t you think about how

many is this for you?”
“This was number 97 for me.” I responded
“Damn, you keep that kind of track?”
“I remember every one, bro.  Every single one. And try

as hard as you might, you can´t fit yourself into your ark. It doesn´t work like that; it only preserves that which can be saved, not that which is destined for annihilation.  You think I haven´t tried to fit a part of me in there?  I used to…god, how much I used to feel things.  I was so stupid, so young, that I actually thought that all of that pain was the worst thing there was, that I would do anything to make it stop, even the worst thing that I could think of.  Now I know that this pain connected me to the rest of humanity, that so long as I felt it I could understand and reach out to others, that we could meet on an even field backgrounded by that pain and work to change things for the better.  Once that´s gone, once these people burn it out to you, you are likely to

say something on the news?” I asked hopefully
“They killed him. Sometime after 9 p.m.,” he answered.  “Don´t know what the three hour delay was for.”
I closed my eyes.  “He was my163rd.”
“Newbie.  I´ve been here for more than 400.”
“Jesus. How do you…deal with all of that?”
“What difference does it make? he answered angrily.  “Another day, another body.  You get used to it. If you can’t, you are

gone, done for.  You think I´m telling you all of this because I´m “nice”?  Because I “love” you?  Open your fucking eyes, kiddo.  I was nice once.  You wouldn´t believe this, but I used to be funny, used to laugh my eyes closed.  I used to love so deeply sometimes it scared me, used to quote Shakespeare and Hume and get carried away by Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi, used to say things in foreign languages just to see the strange looks on the faces of the Other.  Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l´autre, vous êtez foutu. It doesn´t do anything for me anymore.  Those days are gone, and I´m not taking you through the anti-Academy because I like you.  I want you to know these things because every time someone uses one of my tricks, I remain alive.  Every fool pig you beat is a testament to my resistance, to my will, to the idea that though they may have killed me a thousand times before they killed me, they never beat me.  I´m not telling you all of this because I care about you.  I´m doing it so that I will haunt you.  In this world, the only thing that is eternal is revenge.  That´s the biggest lesson they teach you in this place, and by god, I am nothing if not a diligent pupil.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

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