On the floor called “the hole” reserved for disciplinary segregation, I can visit and the corrections officers put me in a room where lawyers and psychologists and others who have occasional time with the inmates meet. It’s a small room, open to where the corrections officers sit so they can see me at all times. Sometimes they ask me to sit in the doorway, sometimes they ask the inmate to sit in the doorway. It’s an open door room and there is an official looking computer and a screen and a corner of table between myself and the person I am speaking with so we can lay out some papers or a book.
I asked for the fellow I have been visiting for about six months now and the corrections officer said, sure but he’ll have to be cuffed. He came out with handcuffs on; there had been some disciplinary business with him though I can’t imagine what, he is so well behaved with me. Polite. I didn’t ask.
While we were sitting and talking another fellow was brought out of the same lock-down (the hole) also cuffed but not nearly as compliant. There were ten corrections officers assisting with his transfer from one section of the floor to another and he was hollering. First he went limp on the floor so it was difficult to pick him up. He’s a big man. A few more officers came up from other floors and he became more agitated and let out a soliloquy of intelligible complaints about his treatment and his life behind bars; loud but in complete sentences and well reasoned.
By this time he scurried and was dragged just outside the open door where we were sitting. We continued talking about the material we were discussing from the book between us even though he was making a major fuss less than ten feet away. You get used to this here, said the fellow I was speaking with, then he described in more detail that guy making all the fuss.
He’s mentally ill, he said, and he filled in for me some of the things he did back on the floor. He’s in the hole, which means he is alone in a cell, but he makes a lot of noise. He’s been incarcerated off and on since he was a teen-ager and he looked to be in his late thirties. He had many tattoos, some of which ran up his neck almost onto his face.
A lot of the guys in here are mentally ill, said the fellow I was speaking with, the book of Torah spread on the table between us, the guy hollering on the floor just outside the door, still we continued our conversation. I would say about a third of the guys here are mentally ill, a third are criminals, and a third like me. What do mean like you? I asked him. I could be helped if anyone would really take the time. He laughed.
There’s no help here, he said, if I’m not careful I’ll become a criminal. Or crazy. Like that guy.
I looked at the guy who was now even closer to me. They had picked him up finally and strapped him into some kind of mobile restraining chair. Let me talk to the psychologist he hollered. He assumed I was a psychologist, sitting in that room, and he started to laugh and then he began to holler a mad explosion of sound. I could see him close enough now to read one of his tattoos, the one on his neck.
It read: Hard to kill.