Strike

Mr. Kitchen, not even twelve hours into the hunger strike, was the first to cave and accept the proffered brown bag. Almost immediately officers whisked him away, bologna sandwich in hand, to the SHU, where he’d be safe from retribution at the hands of his peers. Solidarity is critical in a strike. Each inmate regardless of his race or affiliation must fall in line, or else fall. In this respect we are captives as much to each other as we are to our captors.

The strike erupted after staff imposed a series of unpopular measures aimed at curbing the prison’s growing contraband problem. Drug and tobacco use have surged in recent years. The availability of cell phones has become especially widespread. In 2016 officers at Big Spring FCI confiscated a single phone; this year they’ve seized over 200. More often the contraband is entering the prison in packages tossed over the fence by outside conspirators. The problem had gone mostly unchecked until this past spring, when the arrival of a new warden prodded staff into taking action. They revoked television privileges, suspended hobby craft programs such as painting and leather working, and when these punishments failed to dissuade the perpetrators, when still the packages came hurtling over the fence as many as five per day, staff upped the ante and moved to cut recreation for much of the compound to a single hour in the evenings.

The newest sanction enraged the already chasten-weary inmates. Shot callers called on their constituents to abandon their work posts until full recreation privileges had been restored. Some inmates, emboldened by a cause, decided to forgo food as well as work, and their peers, fearful of appearing the less spirited, followed suit. Staff didn’t know what to make of the eerily empty chow hall. A lockdown was declared. Inmates were corralled back to their dorms at the barrel ends of pellet rifles. Doors were bolted and operations were grounded, until complicity and order could be restored.

It was all rather thrilling in the beginning. The dorm’s cinderblock walls reverberated with a nervous energy, as from an impending storm. Outside, black clouds of Kevlar and flashing gun metal coalesced, while inside, behind shuttered doors, we counted provisions, hid possessions, and breathlessly speculated as to the ultimate nature of the storm: its strength, duration, path, and possible casualties. We shared stories of past revolts, each more fantastic and conceited than the last. The immensity of our foe and the implication of danger enthralled us. Like children we craved destruction.

Throughout the strike we tracked the storm’s course from the dorm’s windows. The windows, which run the building’s eastern and western walls, are squat and high; to see the world one must live in a top bunk, or else stand in a chair or pull himself up by the window’s steel bars. In the evening, here on the second floor, the western windows afford us a view of the sun setting over the Permian Basin, its lip casting cornflower blue shadows over the basin’s reddening floor. Less majestic but more immediate is our view from the dorm’s eastern windows. Here sunrise is obstructed by our sibling dorm, a mirror image of our own, a three-story brick monolith the precise color khaki as the surrounding desert, as though the building were raised from the very sand on which it sits. Between the dorms runs a road that once accommodated military vehicles back when the prison was an army base. Today the road is trafficked by inmates and correctional officers, and serves as the prison’s main artery by which all its functions are connected. During lockdowns, severed as we are from televisions and telephones and from each other, our view of this road and its traffic serves as our only source of intelligence. Standing on chairs, noses pressed between bars, we spied from these small portals the enemy’s advances. We saw the campers, inmates from the neighboring minimum-security prison, being marched to the chow hall to prepare our bagged meals. We saw these meals carted to our sibling dorm three times a day, and three times a day saw them carted back to the chow hall, unconsumed. We witnessed from these windows the traitorous Kitchen being escorted to the hole, having traded his loyalty for a bologna sandwich.

I should clarify that the hunger strike did not forbade us from eating necessarily. Rather the strike demanded we reject the prison’s three daily meals for as long as it took to grab the attention of region bureaucrats who would, the shot callers reasoned, push for a resolution more favorable to the prisoners. To the extent that any inmate went hungry depended on how much commissary food he’d squirreled away in his locker. A quick inventory of my own provisions revealed one summer sausage, a package of shredded beef, a block of cheese, one pouch each of tuna and mackerel, two bags of chips, four tortillas, some mayo, three scoops of instant coffee, and, when stirred together into a paste, four tablespoons of peanut butter and instant oats. The latter served as my breakfast, one tablespoon per morning.

Others were more or less fortunate. Some men had laundry bags filled with Top Ramen and mackerel. My neighbor, from what I gleaned of his open locker, had a single jar of peanut butter to his name, while the cook’s bunkie, a Native who goes by Chief, had nothing.

It was the cook’s idea on the second night of the strike to pool together our resources and share a small dinner each evening. Chief and Old Man Cribb from a few bunks down joined us. From my small hoard of food I contributed to that first meal my tortillas and sausage. Cribb threw in rice and half of a fresh onion. The cook provided dehydrated beans and a block of cheese, and Chief, having nothing, volunteered to chop the onion and to grate the cheese, which he did with a perforated Comet lid.

At the cook’s bunk we took slow pleasure in chopping and grating, mixing and stirring, as if prolonging our meal’s preparation would make us more full. To heat our food we accepted hot water from a man who owned a stinger and who throughout the strike kept a trash pale simmering beside his bunk. Indeed there was a good deal of sharing among the men. The speaker for the sex offenders, a quiet man named Tommy with a ruddy face and one sagging eye, checked up often on his constituents. Last year a softball accident—his colliding face-first with another sex offender from the opposing team—shattered his lower orbit. With his drooping eye he shuffled around the dorm in socks and shower shoes asking me and other sex offenders if we needed soups or soap or deodorant. Even across races and affiliation I witnessed acts of goodwill. I saw a Mexican man give a sleeve of crackers to an SO, an SO offer a scoop of instant coffee to a white man, a white man share half his meal with a black man. The Hispanic with the stinger told me I could have hot water whenever I needed, just ask. He had never talked to me before the strike.

By the strike’s third day we were becoming accustomed to perpetual hunger and boredom, or were at least developing ways of coping. I slept late, sipped tepid coffee to curb my appetite, and read for hours until my head ached. I organized my locker, twice. I wrote letters, mended every hole in every garment I owned, and for forty minutes I cleaned my coffee cup, over seven years’ accumulation of bean sediment, scrubbed clean with washcloth and toothpaste. Meanwhile in the bunk beside me the cook indulged in his new hobby, drawing, recreating in charcoal photos from old issues of National Geographic—stark plains, grainy barn doors, sailboats on lakes—his fingertips growing more and more sooty. We tried to play a few hands of rummy, but I kept mistaking clubs for spades, and the cook kept discarding melds. Neither of us could concentrate. For all the coffee I’d drank my mind felt mushy, my stomach watery.

I’d fasted once before, at the medium-security prison in Mississippi. There the inmates rejected sex offenders. When a white man, in his sixties, was discovered to be an SO, his white peers beat him with locks. His blood, thinner and more vivid than I’d expected, trailed across the yard from the dorms to Medical like dribbled punch. To avoid his fate and the fate of others I kept close to the Christian car and spent my bid in the Delta praising a God I don’t believe in. I sang hymns, studied the Bible, and, for three days subsisted on only water. The brothers, as they called themselves, never asked about my charge. They preached forgiveness and claimed besides that as men of God they had no interest in such earthly matters as criminal pasts. In retrospect I realize most of the those men likely had their own secrets to protect.

The fast proved difficult for sure. But the hunger strike was somehow worse. By the end of day three, food was becoming scarce and still no resolution had been reached. In my overheated sleep I dreamt of cupboards, cavernous and bare. More than once I rummaged in my locker for an overlooked morsel and found nothing. Concentration was impossible; I read and reread book passages without any comprehension. I sensed my faculties crumbling and the only thing left standing, like a chimney stack after a house fire, was my hunger.

Tommy made more rounds, asking if we needed anything. After the softball accident shattered his cheek, Lieutenant Basset had refused to admit him to a hospital. “You’re still breathing,” he said.

“Are you sure you don’t need any soups or mackerels?” Tommy asked.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I said. “Have you heard any news?”

Tommy turned his crumpled face toward the windows. “Not a thing.”

The next day, day four of the strike, the windows divulged a tip. Across the road at our sibling dorm we observed our peers there, some 500 inmates, being led single file to the administrative offices at the building’s far end. The interview process had begun.

Interviews are standard practice in a major clash. Staff must question each inmate to determine the scope of the disturbance, its causes, ramifications, and, more importantly, its perpetrators. Officer Clare conducted my interview.

“Do you know what caused the disturbance?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know who is responsible for the disturbance?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know if any staff or inmates are in danger?”

“No, sir.”

Officer Clare looked up from his script for the first time since I’d sat down. In the Officers’ Mess he observes a strictly meat-and-potatoes diet, eschews anything green, and never pays for his meals.

“Tell me,” he said leaning over his desk, “who around here do we need to get rid of?”

I smiled thinly. “I honestly couldn’t say, sir.”

Each interview lasted exactly three minutes, so that whether anyone cooperated or not his peers wouldn’t know and therefore no one could accuse anyone of snitching. For the remaining minute and twenty seconds of my interview, Officer Clare and I sat quietly, he marking checkboxes and I staring out the window over his shoulder. Even here in the administrative realm the windows are squat and barred, a patch of alternating steel gray and sky blue stripes, the flag of our prison nation. Around the small office was a depressing hodgepodge of electronic equipment—mismatched molded plastics, blinking LEDs, vine-like tangles of CAT-5 and USB—the grinding cogs of my captivity. I was truthful when I told Clare I knew nothing; I had only the vaguest ideas then of our grievances and of which parties were pulling the strings. Though had I known the answers, I’d have conducted myself no differently.

As soon as the interviews were over a bus pulled into the yard. Its prominent placement between the dorms seemed a deliberate threat. Moments later officers stormed the buildings armed with mace and zip ties. They swept each room, taking with them suspected instigators, agitators, and general delinquents. On our floor they detained two whites and two Mexicans. Their lockers were cleaned out on the spot, their belongings dumped into green canvas bags and carried out behind them. Through the organized commotion, nobody said a word, nobody resisted.

When the first bus had been filled, a second took its place. By evening’s end some forty of our comrades had been hauled away. Still the strike did not end. If anything the shakeup reinvigorated us, if only because we’d survived. Good fortune emboldened us and made us indignant. When the cart arrived with our evening meals we hurled insults and threats at the cops: “Fuck the poe-leece!” we cried. “Choke on your bologna, bitches!” Tommy came by and asked if I could spare him a soup. I told him I didn’t have any. Later I tossed my last bag of chips on the cook’s bunk. Old Man Cribb parted with a bag of rice and half of a bottle of squeeze cheese. The cook threw in some beans and ramen, and Chief fetched hot water from the man with the stinger. We ate our meal slowly, drinking large gulps of water between bites. Before bed I shit for the first time in three days.

On day five of the strike, at seven A.M., Mr. Shaw of bunk 47 laced up his Reeboks, pulled himself up by the frame of his bed, and took off down the dorm’s main corridor due north. For a man in his sixties, Mr. Shaw is in decent shape; had he not been locked indoors he’d have been outside walking the track, as he does every day, sometimes tacking on as many as five miles by lunchtime. In the dorm he established a moderate pace. With his chin upturned and arms swinging, he strode with the determination of a mall walker. In one hand he held a rosary. The dorm around him was quiet with the exception of some occasional light snoring. The bunks, stacked in rows like shipping containers, descended in number. Past bunk 30, Mr. Shaw yielded to a doorway and steps. He treaded carefully. A leak in the ceiling, unfixed for months, has created a perpetual puddle on the middle step and turned the dry wall above brown and soggy as a bruised apple. In the next room, Mr. Shaw resumed speed passing bunks 28, 24, 20. To his right slept the Dope Man who sells a paper of synthetic marijuana for one book of stamps, or $7. To his left slept the Cigarette Man who sells cigarettes for two books a piece. Ahead, bunk 17 laid empty. The Phone Man, who charged by the hour, two books for a flip phone and five for a smart phone, got shipped out on yesterday’s bus. Mr. Shaw pressed on, crossing the middle of the floor, which shakes slightly under the weight of so many bunks and bodies. Just before reaching the bathroom, near the dorm’s entrance, he passed a Mexican man unconscious in a chair, legs splayed, head fallen to one shoulder. Minutes ago the man had been hugging the room’s central support column as though afraid the shaky floor might finally give way. Mr. Shaw smelled the K2 smoke still lingering in the bathroom, along with the smell of raw sewage coming up from the leaky sinks. He made a U-turn at bunk 1. He retraced his steps, passing again the dope addict, treading once more over the trembling floor, the slippery steps. He picked up the pace, his heart rate elevating with the now ascending bunk numbers. He came to another room and upon entering he heard a tiny purring. The point man at the locked fire exit, whose adhesive sign has been vandalized, its “E” removed to read “XIT,” ignored him. In here, the smallest of the dorm’s three rooms, Mr. Shaw arrived quickly at the source of the noise. At bunk 70, the last in the range, a white man hovered over a prostrate and shirtless Mexican, his exposed back enflamed. The tattoo was of a young boy, dimpled, Gerber-esque, with a slick black helmet of hair. So flush was the man’s skin, so joyous was the toddler’s laughter it appeared the boy was struggling to breathe. The artist never looked up. Shaw pressed his thumb into the crook of Jesus’ arm, turned, and headed back the way he came. And in this manner he paced the dorm from one far end to the other for over an hour.

The next day the inmates decided that the bathroom ought to be cleaned. A couple of orderlies went around the dorm asking for soap donations. Each man spared what he could, a squirt of shampoo, conditioner, or body wash, or a bar of soap. I emptied the last of my Palmolive in the community mop bucket. The orderly thanked me in Spanish and moved on to solicit the next bunk.

Even with the bathrooms freshly scrubbed we looked in dire shape. Our bodies were stiff from idleness, our minds cottony from boredom. Food was scarce. Dope was scarce. Forced into sobriety, the addicts were becoming increasingly loud and obnoxious. We knew of course that the strike would eventually have to end, eventually we would have to eat. But segregated as we were from our sibling dorm, we had no way of organizing a formal surrender. The strike had become a game of chicken between the inmates. Each dorm stared at the other from across the road, neither side wanting to be the first to give in.

The next morning, day seven, we were awaken early by jangling keys. An officer from R&D had come to collect Mr. Patterson. But not because he was in any trouble. On the contrary, he was going home. We’d known he was getting short and due to leave soon. Just the night before he’d cleaned out his locker and given away what few possessions he had. To the cook he gave his headphones. To Cribb, a crossword aficionado, he gifted his good dictionary. All Mr. Peterson took with him when he left us were the clothes he wore and a laundry bag filled with letters from home, nine years worth. It seemed incredible to us, unfathomable, that he could, amidst such crises and strife, simply leave. There was a world greater than our own beyond the fence, it seemed.

But we didn’t dwell for too long on the free world or on Mr. Peterson’s leaving us. At the windows someone noticed that of the six breakfast carts delivered across the road, two had come back empty. Then at noon all six lunch carts returned empty. When moments later the noon meals arrived at our own door, an officer, the chaplain’s assistant, breezed through the rooms calling, “Chow time! Chow time! Come get your food, fellows! Everyone else is eating! Chow time! Chow time!”

Was it a trick? we wondered. Were we really the last holdouts? Can a chaplain’s assistant lie?

Old Man Cribb was the first to line up. Others followed grudgingly at first, then with only mildly suppressed veracity. The fidgeting line of men awaiting their bologna trailed the length of the dorm, from the reeking bathroom, past the Phone Man’s empty bunk, up the slippery steps, past Mr. Shaw’s bunk to the locked emergency exit marked “XIT.”

Back at my bunk I built my sandwich in my lap, squeezing every bit of mustard from its packet. The cold whole wheat and bologna stuck deliciously to the roof of my mouth. Three days later the strike officially ended when, after being assured the reinstatement of all recreation privileges, and after being threatened with the dismantling of the weight pile if we didn’t comply, the inmates went back to work.

The strike made national news, even as it was still underway. Though we had no access to televisions or telephones at the time, we heard the exaggerated and false reports on our radios and read them later in articles sent in from the outside. We laughed at some of the outrageous claims, that inmates had set fires to the dorms, that officers had to be hospitalized for secondhand exposure to drugs and sent for psychological counseling for having suffered stress and mental anguish. One report alleged the warden was assaulted. Prison officials and local union representatives used the press coverage as an opportunity to highlight Bureau-wide understaffing and underfunding, problems jeopardizing the safety of correctional officers and the public at large. Missing from these reports was any mention of inflating incarceration numbers, prison overcrowding, or stalled justice reform.

Four months since the strike, the compound has returned much to the way it was before. The televisions are back on, painting and leather working have resumed, and the rec yard has fully reopened. Despite modest improvements to perimeter security, packages, though not as frequently, can still be seen sailing over the fence, and drugs and cell phones remain pervasive. Even those forty inmates who were bussed out—the instigators and delinquents—returned to the yard, their exiles invalidated by a paperwork flub. So unchanged is the prison today, one wonders what the strike was about, or whether it even happened at all.

It took a full day to get the Officers’ Mess back in order when the cook and I returned from our ten-day hiatus. The vegetables in the cooler had wilted, the butter had soured, and the roasts and poultry had turned a stinking gray. We cooked a batch of barbecue sauce and marinated some fresh chicken, and when we reopened the following day we greeted the officers, and they us, with wide grins. No hard feelings. There was even some light ribbing on both sides.

“Did you men enjoy your vacations?” they asked.

We laughed graciously. “Sir, it looks like you’ve lost almost as much weight as we have.”

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