The EconoLodge

Jamie and I had been out this way once before back when we were in college. It was Memorial Day weekend. We loaded up his mom’s dusty Grand AM with sleeping bags, tent, and ice chest of Cokes, cold cuts, and franks and headed west down Interstate 20. Soon the city petered out into suburb, and suburb gave way to country, a land of oil rigs and Dairy Queens. We passed all manner of farms with their corresponding farmy smells—cattle farms, hog farms, cotton farms, the latter of which smelled not dissimilar from the first two.

And then things got strange. The flat unadorned plains I’d grown accustomed to in my seventeen years of living in North Texas and the panhandle unfurled into rolling hills, and farther west these hills dipped and catapulted into valleys and ranges whose peaks and broad slopes were stippled with awesome and terrifying alien turbines—wind farms.

Stranger still we passed through Midland, that petroleum-rich outpost from which our former president George W. Bush suckled as a child, its gleaming towers of black gold arising from nothing, like the great Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.

And then we reached the desert. Not arid, sandy soils but true desert–dunes as tall as forty feet on all four sides of the car. I recall a grade school teacher boasting that Texas is the only state in the nation to exhibit all of the major geological forms—plains, coastlines, canyons, mountains, plateaus, and yes, even desert.

We parked the Grand AM, unpacked the ice chest, and pitched our tent in the sand. We spent the next afternoon sledding down the dunes on platters whose bottoms we’d rubbed with blocks of wax.

Eight years later I found myself again traveling through West Texas, though this time not in a Grand AM but in a Greyhound, shackled at the hands and feet along with thirty-eight other inmates. Luckily there was no layover in Lubbock, but we did drop off some illegals in Garza County at what looked like a POW camp. The Hispanic sitting next to me turned away from the window.

“Glad I’m not getting off at this shit hole,” he said.
Our shit hole, it turned out, was about two hours further west, some twenty-five miles before Midland. The prison sits on a hill overlooking the weedy parking lots of Big Spring, population 28,000. Founded in 1881 with the coming of the rail, the city enjoyed a modest boom after oil was discovered in 1928. Today Big Spring’s industrial bread and butter includes oil refinement, meat packing, and the manufacturing of cottonseed, clay goods, and mattresses.

The prison was once an Army base, built in 1942, and still retains much of its former military bearings. The barracks are still in the business of housing. The chapel with its secular stained glass is still in the business of worshiping. The recreation center with its communal fireplace, whose flue has undoubtedly been sealed shut for security purposes, is still home to many a pool and foosball tournament. The gym remains a gym, the chow hall a chow hall. Perhaps even the striped red, white, and blue barber’s pole outside the barber shop is an original fixture. And were this a maximum-security penitentiary instead of a low-security facility, the now derelict air control tower would likely succeed as a gun turret. Army bases, it seems, are ideal for prison-making.

The transition from military base to corrections facility, however, isn’t perfect, and the building charged with processing incoming prisoners proved cramped and underequipped for the task. When it came time to be strip searched, I was made to undress inside a storage closet stacked with boxes of inmate property.

I’ve stripped and bared the underside of my balls for many officers in my inmate career. One eventually becomes immune to any bashfulness. Most officers don’t look too closely anyway. Some outright avert their eyes, choosing instead to stare at the ceiling, lest they have you believe they are faggots who enjoy looking up other men’s asses, though they don’t really look up your ass, unless you’re fat, in which case they might ask you to spread your cheeks. Turn. Squat. Cough. I’ve never understood that. Or rather I can’t see how squatting and coughing to be an effective means of dislodging contraband from one’s anus. I imagine even the most violent hacking wouldn’t much coax a sufficiently resolute sphincter.

After redressing I had my picture taken for a new identification card. Then I met with a nurse whose office was a mop closet retrofitted with a computer terminal.

She said, “Are you currently taking any medication?”


“Have you any know allergies? Are you allergic to any drugs?”


“Have you ever test positive for HIV or contracted an STD?”


“And have you”—she peered at me from behind her computer screen—“have you had sex with women prior to incarceration?” She added, “I know you’ve had sex with plenty of men . . .”

Plenty of men? Her computer says I’ve had sex with plenty of men? I don’t recall ever divulging this statistic, though I must have because, while not empirical, it was within relative reason. A guy I knew in college kept a very sophisticated spreadsheet on his computer of every man he’d ever slept with, and whether they’d had oral or anal sex, and whether they’d used a condom. (The idea for keeping such a document arose after a rather nasty brush with crabs.) Later in prison I compiled my own list. My total then was twenty-five. I also included each partner’s age and was pleased to know that none was younger than nineteen and the average fell in the upper thirties.

See, I thought. Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re not a pedophile. You’re perfectly normal.

After the nurse came a counselor who assigned me a dormitory and bunk number. Then I spoke with the chief psychologist, a straight-backed and pointed woman who, upon telling her my charge, warned me that there are images circulating the compound of young girls’ faces superimposed on nude bodies, and if caught with such contraband in my possession it would mean very bad things for me.

The interviews and screenings and paperwork lasted five hours. We filed out of R&D at six o’clock with bed rolls tucked beneath our arms. The sun and breeze felt astonishing after spending nearly three weeks confined indoors at the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center. But my sense of well-being didn’t last long. Our procession of new and shiny faces had attracted an audience. As we passed the rec yard, joggers circling the track field slowed to a walk. Men on the weight piles lowered their dumbbells and dismounted the pull-up bars. Hand ball games were abandoned and the orphaned balls bounced and rolled toward the recreation yard’s fence where inmates lined up to survey us newcomers.

We shuffled past recreation down a pitted road that descended a hill. At the bottom of the hill the road was imposed on either side by a stretch of brown brick buildings which might have been mistaken for dated apartment complexes if not for the barred windows. As we neared the dormitories, more inmates appeared. They lined the road, sizing us up, taking us in. A man, a Mexican, I don’t know who or from where, squeezed by bicep. “Hey. What’s up?” he said. Horrified, I gripped by bed roll tighter and entered the building to the east, Sunrise.

Unlike the relatively spacious, semi-private two-man cells of Mississippi, the dormitories of Big Spring are chaotic hives of twenty-four-hour shared living space, a competing mess of twisting and thrashing, scratching and pecking, feeding and shitting—another West Texas farm of sorts. Unlike Mississippi there is no dayroom in which to stretch and spread, no tables or desks to sit and write a letter. There simply isn’t room. Every square inch of wall and floor space is spoken for by locker, bunk, or body. I had left the Ritz and checked into the EconoLodge.

The stairwell that serviced Sunrise was clearly designed for a smaller crowd of young, svelte military recruits. I had to keep my shoulders tucked in to avoid the down swell of 800 khakied bodies and 1,600 clomping boots. The steps bowed down the middle from the wear of so many boots, then boots of the uniformed and decorated, now boots of the uniformed and incarcerated.

On the top third floor I reached a foyer crammed with bodies. There was a mailbox and bulletin boards, and carved down one wall were pigeon holes in which men roosted, warming the telephone lines. I stepped around three Mexicans spilling from a darkened alcove. Inside: some thirty disembodied faces painted blue, impassive, raceless. Across from the TV room a pocket of men stood spooning instant coffee into mugs and crumbling ramen into yellow-stained Tupperware, awaiting a go at the hot water dispensers. I’d heard the place was overcapacity—most prisons in the U.S. are—but surely these conditions posed a safety hazard. God forbid a fire break out. We’d die trying to get down those stairs.

Though a door, hook a left, two steps down and to the right, I tapped a white man on the shoulder. “Fifty-seven upper?” He turned and looked at me, then pointed toward the end of the room. “All the way back,” he said.

I followed the man’s finger through a maze whose walls were built of stacked lockers and beds and of laundry strung out to dry: socks, towels, underwear—all of life’s pollution exposed. I picked my way through the debris. Lay spread on one bunk, four men played spades. On another six Mexicans rolled burritos. Hovering over the top of a locker, seemingly undistracted, two black men played chess. Elsewhere in their bunks men read, gossiped, and argued. They listened to loud music and ate and hustled. They gambled and bullshitted, belched and farted. And a few, amidst all the commotion, unfathomably, slept.

In reaching the end of the room, I still hadn’t found my bunk. The numbers scribbled on the lockers were out of order. I pressed on through a door marked exit. Another room. More bunks, more lockers, more bodies stacked on top of the other.

“Fifty-seven upper?” I said, and a young Mexican with bruised eyes and severe nose pointed to the bunk above and beside his own. He could have touched it, so close were the beds.

I shook hands with the man and the other young Mexican sitting beside him who was to be my bunkmate. They considered me with reserve as I gave them the spill I’d practiced beforehand, in the voice I’d practiced beforehand, one of nonchalant boredom which in my mind I associate with the voice of the unexceptional heterosexual male: Came from Mississippi. Originally from Dallas. Been down three and a half years. Got six more to go. (I believe incomplete sentences are another masculine trait.)

I wasted no time settling into my new home. I began by making the bed, which required me to get in the bed for lack of room. I used my locker as a stepladder and swiftly smacked my head against the ceiling. This amused the Mexicans. Then I attacked my mattress with a sheet as though I were trying to smother a fire. The bunk swayed, springs popped. Some brown paint from the bunk’s frame flaked off in my hand on the climb down. As I was placing the standard-issue toothbrush, comb, and bar soap in my broken and rusted out locker, I heard a familiar voice from around the corner.

I saw the back of him first—his coarse black hair matted with sweat, thick neck and wide girth, short legs void of ankles.

“Joe!” I cried. It was my old coworker from Mississippi. We had worked in the library together for years. He turned around, his beady black eyes shining, jowls dimpled. So beautiful in his familiarity. He grabbed my hand and clapped me on the back.

“Joe! You’re here! Isn’t this place just awful?”

“Ain’t it some shit?” he said. “They tricked us, man. They tricked us!”

“Joe, if the bus pulled up this very second—“

But he finished my thought: “I’d jump on it. I’d tell ‘em take me back. Please! Take my ass back to Mississippi!”

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The Chain Gang

They came for me at one in the morning. I dressed in the dark, so as not to wake Tom, and stripped the sheets and blanket from my bed. I left my pillow to Tom, for we had decided the night before that mine was the nicer of the two.

“Good luck,” he muttered in his sleep.

I dragged my mattress and linens downstairs passing Cisco’s door on the way. Hours earlier we had been playing gin and eating Pop Tarts. And he and the other Christians had gathered in a circle to pray over me, our hands all entwined.

And then we broke bread. Cisco, for whatever reason, had squirreled away a package of sliced wheat bread from the boxed lunches we’d received six months ago during a lockdown. It became a running gag to see how long the bread would last. Every month he’d pull it from the back of his locker and remark on its surprising softness. Not a sign of mold. Is it even real bread? To celebrate my last night in Mississippi we decided to open the package and share a slice.

“A little dry,” I said, “but not bad.”

Now Cisco’s light was off, his window dark. For him I left behind my book lamp and a copy of Thoreau’s Walden.

Right this way, this way here. Name and number, please. Very good. Step on over there by that door. No, the other door. Finally getting outta here, huh? Name and number, name and number. Step inside. Have a seat.

There were seven of us in the holding cell. One was the man on his way to Fort Worth for a court appearance. He was lying on a bench with a roll of toilet paper tucked beneath his head. We didn’t speak to each other. No one in the room spoke much. Tired. Nervous. My legs wouldn’t stop fidgeting. I recognized the man sitting on the bench across from me as Elijah’s old cellmate, Josh. I wondered if he knew about the extortion. Elijah and I had had a fight. Afterwards, out of revenge, he revealed my true charge to a Texas Aryan Brother. The threats and payments went on for a month until the AB was transferred. Elijah himself disappeared not long after. Josh would later tell me he had transferred to Virginia.

After an hour’s wait in the holding cell, we heard chains dragging across the floor. One Mexican peered through the bars and grinned. “Here comes the jewelery.”

Three at a time, gentlemen. Three at a time. Step on out. Clothes off. Everything off. Toss it here. Keep your socks and underwear. Open your mouths, lift your balls. Turn, squat, cough. Put these on. Shirts tucked in. Step this way. Arms out, hands together. Turn around, feet together. Shirts tucked in, gentlemen. Shirts tucked in. Right this way. Step on in. Have a seat.

The seven of us were placed in an even smaller cell, this one already occupied by eight more men already dressed and adorned with “jewelery.” The jewelery included chains around our ankles and cuffs around our wrists, our hands then secured to chains cinched around our waists preventing us from moving our hands any higher than our navels.

I heard my name as soon as I sat down and turned to see Marzola, the former library clerk, tipping his head to me. Two months ago he had been tossed in the SHU for getting into it with some Mexicans. I nodded back. Apparently they had decided to ship him out of Mississippi for his safety.

Listen for your names, gentlemen. Listen up. Bailey, Barringer, Erickson . . . End of the hall, end of the hall. Lomus, Markus, Marzola . . . Line up, make room, nice and tight. Straight line, gentlemen. I want it straight.

Led and trailed by rifled officers, we shuffled through the prison lobby past grinning portraits of past wardens and the President and Vice President of the United States. The foot-long length of chain allowed for only half strides. Outside the air was warm, the moon shown full. A bus idled in the parking lot, its interior lights glowing romantically, door open. Although technically incorrect, for we were not bound to each other, someone, an inmate, mentioned a “chain gang.” Us others laughed nervously.

All the way back, gentlemen, all the way back. Leave those front seats empty.

It was a Greyhound built around a cage with an open toilet at the rear. I sat near the front, behind Marzola.

“Where are they sending you?” I asked. I made no mention of the fight with the Mexicans.

“They didn’t tell me,” he said. “You?”

“West Texas.”

“Is that where you wanted to go?”

“No. But it’s a little closer to home.”

It had been over three years since I last saw the outside world. Cisco and I had talked nostalgically of all the sights I’d see on the the bus ride to the Oklahoma City Transfer Center, and I looked forward to my reintroduction to the old familiar. The trip took about ten hours. Through the Greyhound’s barred, tinted windows I saw fast food chains and strip malls, gas stations, and car washes. I saw pharmacies and motor inns, adult video stores, and Indian casinos. From four feet looking down I spied civilians driving to work, pumping gas, and hauling kids to school. I watched them sip their morning coffees and nibble their breakfast burritos and text their husbands and wives and bosses. It was all so disappointing. Freedom is underwhelming when observed from the highway.

Marzola turned to me, his chains rustling in his lap. “Hey, look it,” he said. “Our driver’s checking his Facebook.”

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I’ve been told it’s a good time to be leaving Mississippi. “This place is going to shit,” one man said. “Take me with you,” said another. It’s the same with every new warden. They come in, hitch up their drawers, and declare, starting now, things are gonna be a lil different ’round here. Yes, sir. And then they set about painting the shutters red while overlooking the cracks in the foundation.

The newest warden, the third in my three and a half years here, has stirred a considerable ruckus. Her most rousing changes have been to the hourly movements and traffic flow, minor inconveniences really, but to inmates, for whom routine is everything, the changes are perceived as a threat to what little liberty and control they have. There have been murmurs of protest, of “laying down”–refusing food, refusing to work–but no car has claimed leadership.

Yes, they say it’s a good time to get out, but I have many reservations about Wednesday’s transfer. I too am frightened of change. The move feels more lateral than vertical; I’ve heard things about West Texas–race riots, inmate politics, despite the facility being a step lower in security.

And then there’s the transfer process itself–a thirteen-hour bus ride, shackled at the hands, feet, and waist; a two- to four-week layover at a transfer facility in Oklahoma; and then another arduous bus journey out West, with a possible one-night stay in a Lubbock county jail.

And there’s the people I’ll be leaving behind, the Christian brothers, who’ve shown me more kindness and camaraderie than any white man sharing the same last three digits as me. Last night at church service, Brother Jones invited me up to the pulpit where he laid a hand on my shoulder and prayed over me, that I should follow wherever the Lord leads me, that I should be protected by the hands of angels on my journey.

And then there’s Cisco.

“I never thought,” he told me one night after walking the track, “that I’d ever meet a friend like you so late in my life.”

This afternoon I packed out. Cisco helped me carry my belongings to Receiving and Discharge. Watching the CO tally my books and clothes reminded me of the day I packed my apartment before surrendering, and I was surprised again by how few possessions I owned, my whole life packed into a single cardboard box–two t-shirts, two thermals, sweatpants, MP3 player, shower shoes. . . .

Another man was packing out to go to Fort Worth for a court appearance. He patted my shoulder and wished me luck. It’s funny how kind people are when they hear you’re leaving. It’s the one thing we all share in common, regardless of our race or where we’re from: we all want to get closer to home.

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Mail Call

People only write when they have good news, so it seems. A friend has received a promotion at work. A college boyfriend, now living overseas, is marrying a Frenchman and has found an investor for a new business venture. And Lyle, who after an experimental cross-dressing phase changed his name to Lily and began transitioning to female, has decided to go back to school to study accounting. Also she is moving in with a computer engineer graduate from Rice University. And they’ve adopted a puppy. His name is Zac–the puppy’s, not the boyfriend’s.

Every letter brings news of a milestone: career advancement, home ownership, marriage, relocation, procreation. They send me postcards from California and letters from France. They send me photos of weddings, baby showers, and cruise ship vacations. The ones who still write. I put the envelopes to my nose and imagine I can smell the San Francisco Bay, the French country side. But all I smell are the leaky magazine cologne samples of other people’s mail. California smells like Calvin Klein, Bordeaux like Dior.

It should have been me. It should have been me.

My new cellmate Tom receives a letter from his old lady once a week. She too is in prison, housed at a women’s facility in another state. Last Wednesday she sent Tom a pencil drawing of Lady and the tramp: “Tom & Diana, True Love is Hard to Find.” The resemblance between Tom and the stray is touching. Both are older than their years, tread-worn, and graying at the scruff. The lines on the back of Tom’s neck are deep and geological. Though only in his late forties, some men in the unit call him Pops and Grandpa. But Tom take no offense. He’s a gentle rogue, adorably mangy. When he’s not reading his paperback westerns or writing his wife pages and pages–what do they discuss?–he sleeps, the old soul. “Must be from all the meth he’s smoked,” I told Cisco this at ten on a weekday morning and Tom still not having left his bed. “He’s still catching up on sleep from 1984.”

Tom keeps the amorous canines tacked to his half of the bulletin board, next to the Cell Sanitation Standard and photographs of his two teenage stepdaughters. The youngest poses in a cheerleading uniform, school colors red and white, the Bronchos, blonde hair in shiny wet curls. She saves half her lunch money and sends it to Tom at the end of every month.

“They’ve always treated me like a real father,” he told me one night after lockdown. “God, I miss those girls. They’d feel bad, me having to drive them to school. They didn’t realize how much I loved doing it, how much I looked forward to taking them each morning. That was our time together. Just me and the girls.”

We gather for mail call every weekday before supper. Simmons, 078. Robinson, 177. Prince, 043. The black CO looks to the nearest brown-skinned inmate to help him with the names of the illegals, of which there are many. Villegas, 379. Cantaerro, 042. Turubiates, 284. We push to the front to collect our mail. Bertram receives two letters and a book; yesterday he got three letters and a postcard.

We pretend not to notice.

Mail is lightest on Mondays and Fridays, days when the mailroom staff are slow getting in and quick to leave, for every item that comes in must be opened, read, sniffed, scrutinized, and stapled shut before it can be delivered. Mail is heaviest on Christmas and Father’s Day, and on Valentine’s the cards spill from the mail sack in uniform crimson envelopes. Some get one or two. Many get nothing.

We pretend not to notice.

Today I received a letter from a friend I haven’t heard from in over three years. He tells me he’s opened a private medical practice. It should have been me. I don’t know if I’ll write him back. Bo once told me he stopped writing people a few years into his bid. “They have their lives, and I have mine. It’s hard to keep them separate. It’s easier that way.” Bo doesn’t go to mail call.

Another letter comes to me in a familiar typewritten envelope. My father prints them in bulk, so frequent are his letters, so permanent is my address. As official spokesperson of the family, he reports on the familiar household business: the fertility of the garden, the cats’ latest antics, and Mom’s newest interior decorating project. This month she’s sewing drapes for the dining room, though Dad writes he had to rehang them in the bedroom after it was decided the fabric didn’t go with the dining room wall color after all. It’s a long-standing family joke that the burden of Mom’s design indecisions fall on my father, who must paint every wall at least twice if he paints it once, as was the case with the dining room. “You know your mother,” he writes. “She can’t visualize anything.”

It’s impossible to read my father’s letters without hearing his voice, which in the years since I’ve been locked up sounds increasingly like a cassette deck losing juice. He turned seventy this past May and has been working since he was eleven, his first job delivering papers, and cooking since he was fourteen, flipping burgers for Browning Heights Drug and Hardware. It was there under the instruction of the store’s Jewish proprietor that he learned the proper way to slice a tomato–thin enough to read through to yesterday’s sports scores. The flesh would dissolve as soon as it hit the warm beef, leaving only a ring of skin and some seeds. Sixty-one years of work, most spent in overheated kitchens chopping and sweating onions, the astringent smell of garlic collecting on his burned and calloused fingers like something you could almost see, something yellow, and certainly smell. As a young boy I often pulled away from that smell whenever my father reached out to touch my shoulder or ruffle my hair.

Sixty-one years. God, he’s tired. So tired. How he’d love to find himself a little storefront, open up a little hot dog stand or burger joint, wouldn’t need to make much money, just enough to get by on, keep it simple, cheeseburgers and fries, onion rings maybe, nothing fancy . . . “But you know how your mother is.”

My father is dying. Work is killing him. My mother is killing him. I am killing him.

“I just pray,” he writes, “that I’ll still be here to see you get out, so I can help you get back on your feet.”

I put my father’s letter to my nose and smell nothing.

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One Team, One Mission

They’ve built another prison, a high security penitentiary, next door to our own. From outside the chow hall we can see the blank 360-degree stare of the guard tower peeking above the yard’s reinforced walls and fencing. The addition of a penitentiary to our medium and nearby minimum and low security facilities makes us officially a “complex;” inmates can be shipped across the security spectrum and remain local while officers can be shared within the complex and allocated wherever manpower is needed, saving the government money on inmate transfers and staff retention.

In wake of the pen’s opening, the complex produced a series of T-shirts intended to boost staff morale. I saw a nurse wearing one of the new shirts at main line. It was Kelly green and imprinted with an imposing guard tower, like something out of Alcatraz, that looks nothing like what we see from the chow hall which more closely resembles the control tower of a small municipal airport. The shirt read, We Tower Above the Rest. Another officer wore a baby blue design that read, One Team, One Mission. I asked Cisco what their mission was exactly.

“To keep us oppressed,” he said.

This last shirt featured the state of Mississippi silhouetted against concertina wire. I imagined that wire stretching across the state, literally, across country and city, over freeway and farm road, dividing neighborhoods and playgrounds, schools and homes. But the irony in such imagery was apparently lost on those who conceived the atrocious idea.

Last month some suits from another prison came through to tour our Education Department. In anticipation of their visit, the library received an extensive makeover: shelves were padded with books, furniture was rearranged, walls were painted a fresh coat of institutional gray, and the floors were waxed and buffed to a gelatinous gleam. The highlight of the tour was to be the job kiosk, an expensive, hulking machine with touch display that allows inmates to find employment ahead of their release. Once while browsing the openings I found my old position, listed by my former employer. I recalled the morning my boss came to my desk and touched me lightly on the shoulder. Soon thereafter I was escorted from the building carrying a box of my belongings–a wireless mouse, a coffee mug with the company logo engraved on the side, a bag of half-eaten goldfish crackers–which they were nice enough to have packed for me while I signed my resignation.

Now, as an inmate working inside a prison library, it was my job to demonstrate the job hunting kiosk to our visitors. But the kiosk, which I heard cost ten-thousand dollars, was broken; the printer wasn’t grabbing paper and inmates hadn’t been able to print job leads for the past three months. Not a problem, said the administrator over Education, a young Eddie Murphy look-alike. We’ll open the machine, feed a slip of paper into the printer by hand, and close her back up. “But we’ll only have one shot at printing,” he said, “so make sure the inmates don’t use the kiosk until after the demonstration.” He taped an Out of Order sign to the machine’s display and instructed me not to remove it until the visitors arrived.

While performing my dog and pony show for the suits–Eddie Murphy stood by wringing his hands, either because he was afraid the kiosk might blow up or because he thought I might try to fuck over his demonstration–I was reminded of a hokey little company I worked for in college that sold websites to small businesses. We’d laugh whenever our customers purchased search engine optimization; none of us knew what it was. We were like the used car salesmen of the tech world.

Prison itself is a hokey business: a bumbling enterprise funded by taxpayers, manned by apathetic saps whose job it is to sell you a vague service–justice, rehabilitation, public welfare–that no one understands or can afford, but are told they can’t live without.

Recently I was granted access into the belly of the enterprise, the administration building, to help with a project. An Assistant Warden was retiring and as a parting gift the staff had framed an enlarged snapshot of the AW dancing awkwardly at a past Christmas party. Eddie Murphy wanted me to sign the surrounding matte with various improvised hands, as if signed by the staff, but a staff with better penmanship.

In a conference room at the end of a long hall, past offices and a kitchenette, I toiled away for almost an hour, experimenting with different lettering and embellishments–Roman and script, uppercase and title case, exclamation marks and underscores–before applying a steady hand to the matte. Crazily I thought they might throw me in the hole if I messed up. But the senior secretary was pleased with my work, and she wrapped the framed gift in scrap paper she’d brought in from home. I picked out the ribbon and helped her tie it with the aid of my finger.

It was this disconnect, I realized later, between prison and the business of prison that had allowed for the creation of those tacky T-shirts. Back there amongst the offices and conference rooms and the kitchenette with communal coffee pot and three kinds of sweetener, buffeted against the desperation and rattling of inmate life, the shirts had seemed like a good idea.

It’s strange to think of my confinement as someone else’s job, one that includes the trappings of any other business–interoffice gifts, Christmas parties, dog and pony shows, concern for employee morale. I stare out the coinslot window of my cell and watch the cars pull in and out of the parking lot, the officers putting in their eight hours, clocking out for lunch, changing shifts. Timesheets. Paid vacations. Retirement. One Team, One Mission.

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We were in the chow hall eating lunch, chili dogs with packets of brown ketchup, when we looked up to see the Paisas abandoning their tables mid-meal, as though all at once they had received a covert transmission ordering them to mobilize.

“Something’s up,” said the man beside me.

An inmate once compared the tension preceding a prison brawl to static, an invisible stirring in the air. That afternoon we felt its pull; we saw its effects in the sidelong stares, vigilant postures, and aimless milling. The blacks congregated in front of the units, speaking in monosyllables. The Paisas meanwhile lingered along the sidewalks, quietly attuned to a frequency all their own, awaiting another transmission.

First timer Francisco picked up on the static, too. He noticed the blacks looking skittish at dinner. “Maybe we’ll see another show with our meal,” I said, referring to Cisco’s first week on the yard when he and I witnessed a man get slammed over the head with a tray of food. Spectators were pelted with lettuce and soured ketchup packets. French fries bounced off the warden’s fine trench coat and landed at his feet. Dinner and a show.

On the evening of the Paisas’ walkout, as we were preparing for Bible study, the PA system clicked on and ordered us back to our units. We gathered our Bibles and started to leave but stopped just short of the chapel door, for outside beneath a leaden sky, upwards of 600 men had assembled into two opposing armies, neither budging, PA system be damned. The blacks and Mexicans stared at each other across a distance of some twenty yards, as if divided by a steep cleft. No one spoke; no one moved. Static. The quiet seemed a blight against nature, for how could such a great force exist without an equally great thunder? Respectfully abiding, even the wind held its breath. And on the outskirts, looking grossly inadequate, stood the warden in his trench coat and a handful of officers. One CO held a rifle.

I’ve never witnessed a riot, though I’ve heard gruesome accounts from those who have. Steve told me of one man whose head was skewered through the eye socket with a splintered broom handle. Rod said that whenever things kicked off in the State they’d string magazines around their torso to deflect knives. So that evening when the two armies converged–a single trill sounded from the Mexican side like a battle cry–I was convinced I would see death, murder, for the first time in my life. This will change me, I thought. But the armies stopped within spitting distance of each other. The men stood down, the shot callers stepped forward, and, incredibly, the two sides began to negotiate.

Back inside the chapel we speculated on the outcome of the arbitrations and regaled one another with terrifically violent stories of past riots. Some of us, black and brown, joined hands and prayed for peace on the compound. Watching the negotiations from the window, I recalled the Paisas’ earlier exodus from the chow hall and was struck for the second time that day by the organization of that seemingly unruly mass of men, their diplomacy and self-governance, how quickly and efficiently they were able to communicate, assemble, and act as one homogeneous body. And compare that to the officers with their protocols and hierarchy and sophisticated radios, the authority of an entire government behind them, standing at the sidelines overwhelmed and underpowered with only a rifle and handful of rubber bullets.

We’d be locked down for the next seven days, pending the investigation. We’d be confined to our cells, then later handcuffed and escorted into back offices and made to give statements and answer questions: “Do you have any reason to feel unsafe at this facility?” Having self-surrendered, it would be my first time placed in handcuffs.

At the end of the investigation, after operations have resumed, a memo would be sent to the director of the Bureau of Prisons summing up the disturbance, the near riot, and the staff’s quick and efficient response: Issues were identified, protocols observed, roles assigned, procedures executed, culprits detained, and order restored, all within the span of a week, with no injury to staff or inmate.

Absent from that report would be any mention of the men’s self-mediated negotiation and subsequent disbanding, for not more than ten minutes after the two sides converged did they arrive at a peaceable resolution and quietly–and wholly of their own volition–dissolve back into their units. Ironically, those who led the negotiations would be charged with inciting a riot and thrown into the hole.

Nevertheless, despite whatever assurances such a report might claim, what everyone knows, and what I’m only now beginning to realize, is that it isn’t the wardens and lieutenants and officers but the inmates themselves who run the prisons.

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As a nonbeliever, it’s more unsettling than I care to admit the many sermons I’ve sat through in which I’ve felt the preacher was speaking directly to me. It happened again last night at Bible study when Chaplain Barlow, reading from the book of Matthew, posed the question: is meekness the same as weakness? To demonstrate the difference, he motioned for an inmate near the front of the class to stand.

“Suppose Chuck here is a bully who’s just taken my lunch money.” Barlow extended an open palm to the man. More than illustrate a point, I believe Barlow’s demonstrations are intended to prove to us how comfortable he is around inmates. As if sensing a trick, Chuck hesitated before accepting the imaginary lunch money, and even then he was careful not to graze the chaplain’s starched cuff and gold cufflink; Brother in Christ though he may be, Barlow is still to many of us, first and foremost, a cop.

To walk away from a fight, Barlow continued, is to exercise meekness–power under restraint. “But suppose Chuck takes my lunch money every day, and every day I willingly hand him my two dollars.” The chaplain removed another imaginary bill from his pocket, then another. “Am I still being meek?”

Barlow paused while the class considered this; the silence seemed to me like a condemnation. I stared down at my Bible. Sometimes while sitting in church I flip to the back where the prescriptive verses are arranged by trial. For loneliness, Hebrews 13:5 says to “. . . be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” In moments of fear, Psalm 31:24 reminds me to “Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen [my] heart . . . .” When depressed, Psalm 42:11 encourages me to put my hope in the lord, “. . . for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.”

If Barlow were able to relate to us, if he were the everyman he so often presents himself as, I should think he’d have more practical advice, a more relevant protagonist than his tired Goliath-figure, to offer us.

Say this lunch room bully is a Texas Aryan Brother, and he demands you pay him commissary to keep quiet about your charge. If you refuse to pay him, he and his posse run you off the yard. If you fight him, reckoning you win, the gang retaliates. If you report the threat to a staff member, you’re labeled a snitch, and snitches end up in ditches. And if you check in to the SHU, the truth comes out regardless. In any case you spend the remaining seven years of your sentence running from yard to yard, rumor and reputation chomping at your heels.

So, you pay the guy. He hands you a neatly penned list for forty dollars worth of summer sausages, diet sodas, and oatmeal cream pies. Next week it’s a list for seventy dollars. You keep paying him week after week, hoping the sonofabitch will be satisfied, or that one of you will be transferred, and the demands will end.

What advice would Barlow offer a person in such a situation? What then would the chaplain have to say about meekness and weakness? What scriptures would he quote? What parables would he refer me to? I looked up extortion in the back of my Bible, but it wasn’t there.

That evening I made out yet another commissary list: two apple danishes, two honey buns, three six-packs of diet soda–Mountain Dew, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper–eight summer sausages, two bags of salted peanuts, two packs of batteries, and a bag of refried beans with chorizo. A total of $29.95.

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