By Steve Bartholomew
It's mid-June, and while you've been sheltering in place for the past couple of months, I've been placed in shelter. I've been on ad-seg in IMU (Intensive Management Unit) ever since a riot, or disturbance, broke out at the prison camp where I was housed while we were under quarantine lockdown. Initially, I was under investigation for being an actual rioter, or more likely just a disturber; flattering to be on the shortlist of nominees, sure, but worrisome given that I never so much as protested, peacefully or otherwise. Between you and me, I wouldn't roll a raisin to a food fight, so close to the gate I am.
But, as sometimes happens in prison, my dog got wagged by their tale. I've since been accused, and found guilty, of engaging in a group demonstration and refusing to disperse while being out of bounds – all for evacuating during (what turned out to be) a bogus fire drill a half hour prior to the riot, and engaging a sergeant in a short conversation. I was later astounded by the prescience of the hearings officer, who had his findings of guilt written before I had even argued my case. For saving the State tens of tax dollars by slashing that pork belly of disciplinary budgets, due process, he stands to earn a plaque engraved with the words "Frontline Hero."
I'm currently resting assured that there was nothing personal in their giving me the business. The pressure originated clear up in the Governor's tower, to hammer smash anyone with whom there was any staff interaction during, or even before, the riot – a reflexive sweep meant, I suppose, to save some face after letting all the rioters evacuate with the crowd of uninvolved. Well, Gov, you must be proud, because your minions nailed me like a stranded cheerleader on Pornhub. And I'm one of about a dozen subjected to such an outpouring of unrequited affection. Justice may be blind, but retribution is deaf and dumb.
Staying mentally fit in solitary confinement requires some creative strategizing – not unlike, I imagine, some of what you had never hoped to discover personally about quarantining. Waking hours stripped of novel stimuli or (desirable) human interactions are easier to digest when broken up into spoon-size chunks. In prison, you're accustomed to gauging the passage of time against the duration of happenings – activities you've initiated, or things that happen to you: your job, a visit. Bereft of texturizing events, you routinize whatever is left and cling to that schedule as if your very sanity depends on it. Because it just might.
Out there, you might end up binging an entire season of Stranger Things one drizzly lockdown Tuesday, but television seasons are portioned into episodes because not too many folks would commit upfront to spending twelve continuous hours as a couch emblem, mentally divorced from trifling downers like exercise and pants. And so the day erodes into Cheetos crumbs, one perfectly paced cliffhanger at a time. My day in IMU is a season of reruns, recurring episodes of mental conflict and nimble physicality. Think Jon Snow in a pumpkin jumpsuit. Although slightly less epic, some might say, than the actual Game of Thrones, the nail-biting suspense between endeavors functions to break an otherwise interminable day into manageable segments. What happens next? Another thousand pushups? A hundred pages? Find out in next hour's episode.
Out there, you might punctuate an afternoon squandered on Zoom – teleconferencing about what should have warranted two emails – or by ordering some Panda Express. Here, DoorDash keys the cuffport in my front door at around 5:30 AM, banging it open so they can contactlessly deliver my sack breakfast onto the floor. They're forever innovating ways to place my safety front and center, just like my sack breakfast, which must be why they don't just drop it off the night before. I have to wake up early anyway if I want enough time to count all my blessings, and the first clink-clank-kababang they make at the cuffport on the far end of the tier is my Pavlovian cue to jump into action. I toss aside my lightweight racing blanket and take the three steps to the door. Catching this savory sackful of wholesome carb-dust packets, rather than watching it skid across the concrete floor, gives me exactly one middle finger of control over one event. And so begins another day, indistinguishable from any of the past seventy.
Don't think I'm about to bore you to snot bubbles by dragging you alongside me through a typical day in the Hole, hour by feckless, minuteful hour. Besides, from what I hear, after the past few months, I might be able to learn a thing or two from you about managing the doldrums.
Just as books reclaimed their lost status and potential to many newly reacquainted readers out there in Pandemerica, so too is the written word particularly revered by prisoners in segregation. It's not uncommon to hear drop-forged convicts offering each other critical reviews of novels recently read, snap-cases with tattoos tougher than you ever were discussing through steel doors the nuances of literary works with a gusto usually befitting gang hits or a hundred-paper of meth. Books are the sole reprieve from an environment uniquely ribbed for your displeasure, one whose lone nod toward comfort is the A/C howling from the wall vent like Madonna at a Trump family picnic. I'm touched, truly, at how thoughtful they are toward us, ensuring the temperature hovers just north of a meat locker – even on days such as this one, when the summer sun glares brightly (and with dangerous warmth, no doubt) through my four-inch window. Reading is the mind's only refuge from a sequestered pocket of our reality perversely engineered to make regular prison feel comparable to being released.
I see no need to converse much, if at all, with the intelligentsia housed on this tier. But just because I practice antisocial distancing doesn’t mean I don’t hear more than I would like to most of the time. Nowhere else is it more evident that any intelligent designer would have thought of earlids. Yesterday I listened to two prisoners spend well over an hour trying to “fish” a David Baldacci novel from one to the other – they are two cells apart, a distance of about 20 feet – using lines made from elastic string harvested from the waistbands of their boxers. In the land of 70s pulp westerns and romance novels, a Baldacci is a windfall indeed. The meaty bestseller got hung up on the cell door between them, which caused the line to snap. Their spirits sagged like, I imagine, their elastic-deprived boxer shorts. At stake: two solid days of page-churning legal thrills, undoubtedly even more “Adrenaline-fueled…” for a prisoner whose triggers include judges, courtrooms, attorneys, and the law in general.
But they rallied against defeat and, like a couple of noisy Baldacci protagonists, persevered in the face of great adversity. One of them bravely subtracted several yards of string from his already threadbare blanket for another line, which he then attached to a Harlequin romance that finally gained critical acclaim as a grappling book. By the time they finally wrangled the stranded Baldacci free, a guard came by on rounds and gleefully kicked it across the dayroom. There it languishes, mocking them from 25 feet away until, most likely, a night porter sweeps it out of the pod. The intended recipient, a self-avowed meth-head, spent the hour following their failure, tearing his hairs and gnashing his tooth. I am thankful that my loved ones regularly send me books, which are delivered to my cell by guards.
This morning I’ve gone to yard, a Benchmark Event foundational to the tone of my entire day. The “yard” is a small concrete room with a screened opening in the outer wall and which contains a pull-up bar, dip bars and a phone. I get one hour of yard (alone) per day, usually from 7-8 AM, five days a week. I spend most of this time on the phone – my only meaningful human interaction for the day. On three of those days, I get a 20-minute shower afterward. Today isn’t one of them. From scarcity springs veneration. Despite being locked into a mildewy stainless steel box, it’s dribbly showerhead activated for 16 seconds at a time by a button on the wall, tomorrow I will revel in the sheer act of showering more than you likely ever could. Anytime I leave the cell I am cuffed, leashed by said cuffs, and accompanied by two guards, both of whom keep at least one hand wrapped around my upper arm at all times, presumably to monitor my biceps for proper atrophy. My well-being is their passion. After yard today, as my entourage and I stand before my cell waiting for the booth guard to open it, I notice sitting on the ledge beside the door a small package neatly wrapped in brown paper, my name and DOC number adorning it. A book.
While being escorted in IMU you are prohibited from turning your head to the side – a rule whose provenance can more likely be traced to some sergeant of yesteryear catching a loogie with his ear than to any inherent self-consciousness of IMU guards. That would be ridiculous of me to suppose, especially given the streams of adulation consistently leveled at such paragons of human refinement. Facing the cell door, I say, as if to the numbers stenciled there, “Looks like I have a book waiting for me.”
Now, everyone knows that personal books are to be handed out by swing shift staff, usually an hour or so after regular mail, around 9 PM. Because they also have extrinsic, quantifiable value and are shipped by vendors who can track and prove their existence, books have to be signed for upon receipt, both by mailroom staff and the prisoner. Like any protocol worth the paper it wastes, this one was intended to protect the prison from liability, I’m sure. But it also usually serves to discourage guards from misdelivering books, liberating them, or undelivering them to the small ledge atop the lock mechanism that signals the activation of an IMU cell door. A bulwark of accountability typically lorded about by way of the mail-receipt log, which is pushed toward you as a condition for receiving your book. But the system is broken. Or at least badly sprained.
Evidently, such flagrant departures from procedure are easier for some to process than others. Both guards – one male, one female – make muffled sounds of disbelief. I can sense their masked lips pursing in consternation, at once nonplussed at the prospect of a task and suspicious of the unauthorized presence of a personal book about who-knows-what outside the cell, where the stuff of training videos might happen.
“Why is it there?” asks the guard gripping my left arm. He looks like a young Dolph Lundgren stunt double in a prison guard costume that shouldn’t have been machine dried but was. Because my head is not allowed to turn, I can’t tell whom he is talking to. Maybe the lady guard has personal knowledge germane to the mystery at hand, I think, so I remain silent for the excruciating sixty seconds the three of us spend collectively staring down at my book, at the door, then back at my book. I’ve already framed a working hypothesis involving swing shift guards, a predictable flair for distractibility, and unswerving apathy. But I know what makes Dolph tick. He has the soul of a smug meter maid, the type to masturbate to DOC field directive manuals and have a tattoo of filigreed handcuffs for a tramp stamp. Beneath the uniform he wears even to the grocery store on his day off is a bedazzled T-shirt that reads: Make Prison Great Again. I’m better off letting Dolph feel like he has deductified his own way to a conclusion.
The door finally slides open and Dolph, ever assistive, directs me to step forward because, given my questionable choices of late, who knows what direction I might step if left to my own devices. Once through the door, I stand facing forward until the door slams shut behind me. Then I back up to the cuffport, executing a passable working man's curtsy while extending my cuffed hands through the port. Dolph twists my wrists inward, a brightly nerve-wrenching hold that thoroughly prevents me from doing heart-hands at all. He is working his key into each cuff lock absently, stiffly, as if preoccupied. If I had to guess, he is either calculating how best to lay the blame for this out-of-bounds book on me or wondering how much Microsoft will pay him for his genius idea, which is to combine the two greatest things ever into one: a video game about strip searches. Withdrawing my hands, I stand and turn around to face him. He slams shut the cuffport.
"Do you suppose I could get my book?"
He untapes the brown paper bag wrapping the novel and lets it slide out into his hands. He turns it over slowly to methodically inspect each plane and corner, using his firm grasp of correctional methodology to literally judge a book by its cover. He looks up from his detecting and makes interrogatory eye contact, which, he was told in training, was the second most penetrative out of his entire graduating class. "Why wouldn't the floor officer issue this to you last night?"
"Great question. I have no idea. Maybe I was out."
He seems to ponder the likelihood of my being anywhere but in this cell at nine the previous, or any, evening. The muscles surrounding his eyes cinch up, a pair of crime-repellant sphincters. He is searching my countenance for one twitch of deception or mockery. But I have been playing truth-poker with his ilk since he was getting kept in at recess for conducting pat-searches as hall monitor. Unrewarded, he rewraps the book, sets it back on the ledge, and says, "Before I give you this, I need to do some further checking."
"Look, CO," I say, holding up my hands, palms outward, a universal gesture of compliance. We're in this together, Dolph. I nod toward the stack of 19 personal books on the floor beside the small concrete desk, "My people order me books all the time. I promise you it's legit."
"Oh, I'm sure it's fine..." he lies, eyeing the book mistrustfully.
"Then why not just let me have it?"
"I could, I suppose," he says, his tone so closely mimicking sympathetic that for one second I start to think we can file this misunderstanding under Past Bonding Experiences. Stupid me, forgetting how fine is the line between Dolph and Adolph. He straightens to full parade-height and gives me his angular profile; once again resolute in his choice to pursue wholeheartedly his dream of criminal justice wherever it may lead, danger be damned. Only one dish fit to serve an undisputed criminal like me, and that's a side-order of justice. "But I'm going to do a little digging first," he says as he marches off the unit.
We now return to our regularly scheduled program in progress. In this hour's episode, our hero confronts, against lunch-defying odds, a sinister number of pushups, etcetera.
In IMU, guards walk the tier every 30 minutes and sometimes once in between, zealously safeguarding against threats to security such as Baldacci fishing, or, even more unsufferable, someone taking the law into their own hands. I let one tier walk elapse without saying anything. In your world the squeaky wheel might get the grease, but in here it gets the lug wrench. When I hear Dolph walking an hour later, I try to make myself subtly noticeable by standing where I feel most apparent: three feet from the cell door, the sack-breakfast drop zone. His face fills the window with tanning bed correctitude.
"I haven't forgotten. I'm just waiting to hear back right now."
By now, some might be wondering whether I actually know better than to ask him from whom. I do, just barely.
"Okay. Uh, keep me posted?"
"Ten-four," he says over his epaulette as he walks away.
For some, the isolation of solitary confinement can be mind-shattering. I've known a prisoner who deteriorated into psychosis after 30 days. But not everyone is wired to be so socially dependent. My dear friend Johnny Martin was kept in IMU for seven years and twenty eight days, and you'd never have known it save for the pure and perfect hatred he quietly harbored for all correctional staff, right up until one shot and killed him while trying to escape from the hospital. Speaking strictly for myself, the isolation, alongside the constant cold, lack of desirable stimuli and gnawing hunger – these things simply are what they are. The punitive muscle of IMU most underestimated is felt inwardly, squeezing your very identity. We've invented a machine that trivializes you, anonymizes you, then works to convince you that any notions you had regarding status were, sadly, illusory. You are no one here. Right away you figure out that if you do succumb to the abyss and disintegrate, you will disappear into utter obscurity on your own. In IMU, like in the zombie apocalypse, No Lives Matter.
An imprisoned life, though circumscribed, is nevertheless shaped by actions and interactions, tiny course-corrections that determine (much of the time) how you're treated – by your peers for sure, and likely by staff. My life may not yet have any of the trappings associated with your definition of living, but I do have social capital, a reputation I have jealously guarded my entire adult life – out there and in here. Generally, I live a better than average prison life (how quickly I'm hired for what job, who I live with, where I'm allowed to go, what information I can access, and so forth) because I know how to create the least undesirable outcome in most given situations. But IMU is like a woke valet, which, of course, checks your privilege for you.
(Obviously, the present at-bat skews my overall average, but my decision to evacuate for the fire drill was based on incomplete information. Had I known a think tank of gang members was about to riot, I would have risked the fire.)
Here is where Effect runs over Cause, and keeps going. A construct of pure unyielding consequence, IMU inflicts itself upon you, period. That’s the point, some might say. To be clear, my present circumstance is not totally beyond my influencing. If I really wanted to, I could make it a little worse. I could nudge my own misery index upward by, say, covering the window in the cell door. I would then be pepper-sprayed, beat up, extracted and left naked in a strip cell for a week – where the only thing allowed in the cell is the ten squares of toilet paper issued per day. But otherwise, there’s no way to affect this ongoing outcome. It simply is. In here, I am considered no different than the guy two cells away who spent all of yesterday kicking his door and sobbing like Roseanne’s agent about how fucking unfair this shit life is. (Right now he is regaling us all with his slam poetry, performed at top volume. If I close my eyes I can pretend I’m locked in Kanye’s bathroom.)
I hear the pod slider open, another tier walk. It is the lady guard from my yard excursion, the one intimately familiar with my right biceps. She has the magnetism of Nancy Grace and the voice of gonorrhea. I feel the extra mile is her lifeblood, so I elect to solicit her help. Upon her approach I note she is gunning for sergeant by coloring her hair with Brass No.1.
“CO,” I say, as she peeks in my window, “any chance I could get my book, since it’s right there and you’re right here?”
“Have to ask your lead floor staff. I’m just a floater.” I realize now that Nancy Grace’s charm is surpassed only by her uncanny adherence to policy. She is a barnacle on a ship of rules, impervious to the elements and reason. I turn away as if there was never anyone there.
Another episode ensues, this one focused on character development. We find our hero perched on the short concrete post that serves as a stool, hunkered over the small concrete desk, his spaghetti pen (a three-inch long, ball-point al dente rubber tube) in hand. He is writing and deeply pondering his own arc, etcetera. Two more tier walks occur, another hour elapses.
Prison has instilled in me the patience of the senile. In managing my expectations toward the time scale of receiving ordered items, I am more liberal than Bernie Sanders’ hairdresser. But this book was ordered twenty-two days ago, each one a season of hours. King Bezos and his info hoovers may snarf up every cookie crumb of data this side of The Seven Kingdoms, but evidently, it takes a small folk in a carrot athleisure jumper to inform His Grace as to just how goddamn “essential” books are in IMU.
Finally, Dolph reappears. By now, 84% of my thoughts are mentally shouted in Samuel Jackson’s TV-edit voice and involve getting that melon-farming book in this melon-farming cell.
“Have you heard back yet?”
“Not yet,” he says, picking up the book. “No one ever got back to me.” He turns to narrow-eye the front of the pod, scouring the barren dayroom for any challenge to his authority while slapping the book against his hand. “What I’ll do is leave it with swing shift. They usually handle books anyway. It’s not really in my…”
“Job description, for this shift,” he says and walks off, tapping my book on the hand railing to signify the executive nature of his decision-making. I am replaying the end of Rocky IV, fantasizing for the first time ever about being Sylvester Stallone’s stunt double.
Confiscation is an expected, if not predictable, part of prison life. You learn the art of letting go because it’s taught to you so well, so many times. Any guard has the power to deprive you of your property, and the onus is on you to prove it isn’t contraband. Outrage is a free world luxury. I’ve let go of so much, so many times. But not today.
A swing shift guard makes his first tier walk. I ask him if he’s seen my book. Surely Dolph left it somewhere awesome, I tell him; some well-thought out place where swing shift couldn’t help but find it.
“Do you know where he put it?” he asks.
I look about pointedly, demonstrating the limitations of my direct knowledge about anything more than four feet from me in any direction. “Yeah, I really wouldn’t know.”
“Let me do some digging. I’ll make a call and…”
My faith in his willingness to sustain so much effort is crushed beneath the weight of decades spent marveling at the spirit of indolence central to the prison guard culture. Assuming prison is the closest actual thing we have to Hell, idle hands truly do the Devil’s work.
In this hour’s episode, our hero is reading. On a typical day he will forage through 300 pages, but he’s been rationing himself lately. There are 156 unread pages left in the entire cell. The question of running out is at least as suspenseful as the novel he is finishing.
Four tier walks elapse. As the guard nears my cell I brace myself for what’s sure to be an enlightening exchange.
“Any sign of my book?”
“Nothing yet. Keep the faith, man.” Even easier done than said, since I’m certain we believe in exactly opposite things. Maybe my book can be tracked by the Amazonians, even here. Maybe I’d rather not bother my people with such things. I finish my last page and consider which book to re-read.
A few tier walks later, at around 9 PM, a guard appears at my window. He keys the cuffport and waves the receipt form, then slides it through. I quickly sign it. He unwraps the book in his hand and, upon seeing the cover, does a double-take.
“Hmmm. Didn’t I drop off this same book to you last night?”
“It’s so good, I ordered two copies.”
He accepts this as a reasonable testament. Book finally in hand, I back away.
Stay tuned for today’s finale, where we find our hero victoriously reading, etcetera.