In Prison


Prison Journal
August 2, 2015

I have been visiting weekly at the jailhouse in the County which I believe was intended to be a temporary holding facility, adjacent to the courthouse, etc., but it holds inmates for longer lengths of time. Everyone is in transition in the system, all the time, and that seems to include the County jailhouse.

One of the fellows I am visiting now has been there almost a year. The last guy who was waiting for a federal link was there over a year; sometimes they are here a while and often when they leave I find out only on the next week’s visit. I arrive and make it up to the floor and they’ve gone. It’s strange for me that way I admit. I can get to know someone in a year’s time and though there is not an abundance of sentimentality associated with being in prison, there’s still that thing of closure and when someone is gone without notice, transferred and sometimes without foreknowledge, well it’s hard to get used to. For me. I don’t like to admit that – I’m not the one in prison.

Not everyone in the system hangs on the passing of time, so to speak. How long you been in? Not everyone can rattle off the numbers as if counting is a primary preoccupation. Most of the people I visit walk through it without an excessive attention given over to time, time spent, time left. Doing time.

Doing time is a good phrase, I don’t hear it that much excluding movies but it’s a good description of the attitude to time I pick up talking with inmates. Doing time, in the sense of not counting time, not that sense of waiting, sitting, held by an inexorable passing of time, the image from the movies and cartoons of a guy sitting in a cell marking off days and years scratching on a wall. Not that.

Doing time in the sense of putting one foot in front of the other and doing what’s in front of you today. Then tomorrow, the next day, etc. It seems more like that. Otherwise you would go nuts.

It happened with the fellow from Federal who was one of my most serious students and it happened with a guy recently for whom I had secured a few books and some other materials. I got up to the floor and – gone. Transferred.

Last week I had a nice book I had found on the internet for him. He had been transferred, so I held onto the book and asked for the next guy. I was on the segregated custody floor, the hole, where guys are there either for disciplinary infractions or for their own safety. There were two guys I had been visiting in the hole for some months now.

On that floor I can visit with them, but it has to be one on one. In other institutions I can hold a kind of class; with these guys it’s individual instruction. They put me in the room where lawyers and psychologists and others who have occasional time with the inmates generally meet. It’s a small room, open to where the corrections officers sit so they can see me at all times. They ask me to sit in the doorway. It’s a better location to meet, the door isn’t locked, all the locking of doors and enclosed spaces is still a little difficult for me and this space has an open door where I sit. Again — big deal. 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 unit (the hole) also cuffed but not nearly as compliant. There were twenty 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 pretty 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. He covered a lot of subjects.

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 noise.

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’s 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 to 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. He has a pretty accurate and un-rosy view of himself. What do mean like you? I asked him. I could be helped if they would 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 holler a kind of 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.