In a four-by-four steel cage I stood naked. The CO pushed some grays through the cage bars. It took a moment to recognize the clothes as my own; the T-shirt’s fabric felt thick and clumsy between my fingers, the sweatpants starchy stiff. Outside in the mid-afternoon heat my skin, parched from having been locked in a dim cell for thirty-one days, seemed to gulp the sun. My legs wobbled.
In the lobby of the dorm the men seemed as foreign to me as my clothes, though I’ve lived with many of them and have known their faces for five years. They regarded me keenly, I thought, as dogs sniffing a newcomer. That’s when Sam passed through. I saw his familiar dark face and relaxed. He slung an arm around my shoulder, his coarse Native hair bristling my cheek. When he pulled away I saw something in his expression.
“What’s wrong?” I figured I must have looked like shit. It had been a month since I last shaved, and I felt like a loosed house-cat gone feral. On closer inspection I recognized the look on Sam’s face was not one of dismay at my lack of grooming but was of a numbness I’ve come to associate with some of my friend’s deepest depressions.
“Nothing’s wrong.” He said. “I’m just so glad you’re back.” To avoid further probing Sam grabbed one of the crates containing my belongings, books mostly, and turned toward the stairwell. “I’ll help you take your stuff up. Where did they put you?
Where they put me was on the dorm’s third floor in a raucous neighborhood notorious for gambling, tattooing, drug use, and other mischief. Furthermore I was assigned to bunk with a verified gang member whose politics wouldn’t allow him to board with a sex offender, and I was told by his peers that I would need to find some other accommodations. I lived uneasily for five days never bothering to settle my locker or to even unlace my boots. Finally after pleading with various counselors, case managers, and lieutenants I was reassigned to the second floor, to my old bunk, which had all along been vacant.
Which led me to wonder if placing me on the third floor hadn’t been an accident. Presumably my narratives on prison life—accounts of medical neglect, sexual assault, unsanitary living conditions—had embarrassed the staff. Was dropping me into an inhospitable and potentially dangerous environment mere oversight, or was it punitive?
Certainly retaliation is nothing new or even particularly brow-raising in the prison industry. It’s not uncommon for uncooperative inmates to find themselves in the hole indefinitely or on a bus headed to a prison some hundred miles away where they can be someone else’s problems. The more insubordinate inmates may find themselves on a bus headed nowhere at all. Like undeliverable parcels with no known addresses they are bounced across the country from one holdover facility to another, spending sometimes months on a bus, shackled at the hands and feet. They call this, officially, “diesel therapy.”
I fully expected my fate to fall with this vein. After all, I was told explicitly at the onset of my detention that maintaining a website was against policy and a potential security threat punishable by transfer. (Exactly how my writings constitute a threat wasn’t clarified.) I was therefore flabbergasted when after sitting for a month in the hole I was released, unceremoniously, without an incident report, without a reprimand or talking-to, without any confrontation at all.
That’s not to say I was let off the hook entirely. Hostile living arrangements not withstanding, I lost my job in the Officers’ Mess. My supervisor offered me no explanation why I wouldn’t be allowed to return to work, nor did I push too hard for one; the thought of continuing to feed and serve my captors repulsed me. Later I would try finding work in the recreation department as a fitness instructor only to be stymied here as well. After weeks of building curriculums and assembling a roster I was told by my newest supervisor that the department had inadvertently hired too many instructors and he would have to let me go. This I later learned was a lie. The supervisor revealed to an inmate orderly that he’d been pressure by another staff member to fire me because of a “run-in” I’d had with administration.
Additionally I was booted from the Suicide Watch Cadre, on which I’d served for eight years, for breaching confidentiality and for “publishing prison procedures.” Amusingly, due to a gross oversight by the Psychology Department, I was scheduled to look after an inmate even after my termination from the program. I made no effort to point out this error to staff and tended my shift happily.
The man I watched that evening had hanged himself fewer than twenty-four hours earlier. He’d just gotten back from the local hospital, had yet to receive a shower, and still had a bit of dried blood beneath his fingernails from having also cut himself.
We talked for two hours between steel grate and Plexiglas about his grandfather who’d recently died and about his grandmother who more recently had suffered a stroke and whose recovery was sketchy. I’ve noticed, not surprisingly, that when later on the yard I come across the men I’ve watched we will often exchange mutual looks of grim embarrassment before passing one another, as though we’d once been lovers and shared an intimacy neither of us wishes to remember.
Meanwhile, a week after I’d returned to the yard, I saw little change in Sam’s depression. To look at him was to look at a man through smudged glass. He was no longer the gregarious, engaging person we knew him to be, who spoke four languages including his tribe’s native tongue, whose charisma endowed him with the unique ability to transcend much of the rigid prison social and political structure. He was well-liked by many, and we formed our own unofficial suicide watch. We checked on him regularly to make sure he was accounted for. If he disappeared for a stretch, one might pop into the bathroom, look for his feet beneath the stall door, call his name. Otherwise he rarely left the dorm, rarely left his bunk. It was here I found him in the middle of the afternoon with a blanket used to his chin rereading a worn copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The novel concerns a man who from adolescence to adulthood endures merciless physical and sexual abuses. I suggested to Sam that he might try reading something a little less depressing. “You ought to try Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul.” A joke—Chicken Soup would have offended Sam’s literary sensibility.
Sam took the book back from me and laid it across his stomach, pressing his hands firmly to its cover as though for warmth. “It’s not depressing.” He said. “I like to reread the parts when he’s happy, because it reminds me there’s still some good to be found amongst the bad.”
Sam was still refusing to tell me or anyone what exactly had triggered his depression, though from past spells I wondered if it wasn’t something of a romantic nature. The last occurred after Ramsey went to the hole for getting caught having sex with another inmate in the TV room. Covertly, Sam and Ramsey had been an item themselves, and the infidelity crushed Sam and left him catatonic for days. Afterward, when he’d recovered a bit, he made me promise never to mention Ramsey’s name again. In keeping my word I never told Sam that I’d spoken to Ramsey in the hole, and that Ramsey had asked after him.
Sam had a history of misplacing his intimacies. Before Ramsey there’d been Alex and before him Clayton, all of whom had meant well but were ultimately too young and self-absorbed to sustain any kind of relationship. Sam acknowledged having a fatal attraction to men less mature, less educated, less experienced, and less financially secure than himself. In particular he sought people who like hime had come from broken homes. He was drawn, in other words, to vulnerable young men, and particularly young boys, for whom he could be a provider and caretaker. Which is how he came to be in prison. In his logical mind, Sam understood and guarded himself against these weaknesses. But in his manic moments he became reckless and flung himself into tremulous relationships which when they soured set his mind to skidding.
I hadn’t known Sam to be seeing anyone which might have accounted for his recent behavior. Then again it seemed much had changed in the month I’d been away. After years of staff shortages the prisons administration had begun an aggressive and apparently successful hiring campaign. The compound was filled with fresh, unfamiliar faces. Among the hew hires was an Assisted warden, two lieutenants, and a slew of underling recruits, many of whom were new to corrections. One recruit was an addled veteran who’d blown up in Iraq and often muttered to himself, and who come census time counted heads with a hand held over one eye. Additionally the former Captain was demoted for reasons unknown (though one assumes incompetence), and in his place as Acting Captain, postponing retirement, was the gaunt chain-smoking former lieutenant known among the inmates as Skeletor.
Adding to the shuffle, the yard was knee-deep in a medical quarantine. Scabies has been a problem for years, always spot-treated but never eradicated. Days after I was detained, a major outbreak forced medical staff to initiate a more comprehensive assault on the bug. Normal operations would be suspended for nearly two months while the prison underwent delousing. Part of the procedure involved washing all clothing, towels, and bed linens. One evening some laundry in a dryer began to smolder and caught fire. The fire department was called, and in the end some thousands of dollars worth of computer equipment, washers, and dryers were destroyed by water damage, crippling the laundry system. For a time all laundry had to be transported and washed offsite at a neighboring prison.
It was amidst the chaos of fire and fumigate, of personnel changes and job loss, of a hostile living environment and a friend in mysterious crisis that I emerged from the hole, and I found myself overwhelmed by so much change. Due to the scabies quarantine, recreation was sporadic and limited to half the population for one to two hours at a time. I took these small opportunities to wander the half-deserted yard alone to collect my bearings. I’d take a few laps around the track, meander the eroding dirt slope, leading from the gym. Walking down the paved hill that abuts the Laundry Department I passed clumps of ash like crows’ feathers caught in the fence line, remnants from the fire. My legs, weakened from a month’s inactivity, ached after these walks.
At the bottom of the hill I might settle beneath the pecan tree outside the chapel, its leaves blazing chartreuse in the late afternoon light, the unripened velveteen pods smelling of eucalyptus and cinnamon. Come October the Mexicans will be shaking the branches bare. High up a bow I saw doves had made a home there, and I wondered if they’d survive the brutal harvest. After living in an eight-by-ten cell, the world then, even within those fences, seemed so large. I hoped that when I finally leave this place I never lose the ability to be still and feel small.
I saw Sam out there one afternoon. Two weeks after he’d helped haul my belongings to the third floor he’d begun venturing outside the dorm and eating in the chow hall again. That day he was lying across a picnic table sunning himself in an undershirt. Sam never took his shirt off on account of the burn marks.
The next morning, a Saturday, Sam accompanied me to breakfast as was our usual routine. He was talkative, which was a good sign, though he grappled occasionally for words as though his mind were running in French and his tongue couldn’t grasp the English equivalents. Walking back to the dorm he was pulled aside by one of the new lieutenants. Lieutenant Stucky had made a competitive sport of seeing which of she and the new recruits could find and confiscate the most contraband. At the officer’s feet were piles of bananas and milk pouches pinched from the breakfast crowd. Stucky seemed in her element with a glow rising in her cheeks and a shark’s grin pulled all the more wider by her graying bun.The inmates call her Trenchbull after the abominable school principle in Matilda. “Is that the best you can do! She cried to the recruits. “Go! Pull ‘em over! There’s over a thousand of them! Plenty to go around!” Sam turned his back to Trenchbull and spread his limbs like Da Vinci’s Vitreuvian Man. She ran her hands down the arms of his coat, down his back, along the inside of his waistband, and down his legs to his ankles. Finally she waved him away, seeming disappointed to be denied her point.
Back in the lobby of the dorm, Sam turned to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind reading something he’d written. I followed him to his bunk through a narrow maze of snoring racks. It was dark in the range, the morning young, the lights not yet turned on, and Sam had to rifle through his locker aided by the glow of a book lamp. He pulled out a notebook. I’d rather you read it, if that’s okay, because I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it.”
I didn’t know what my friend was talking about but took the notebook from him. The lamp cast blue light on a journal entry dated a few days before I was released from the hole. Sam stood beside me as I read, the two of us at the foot of his bunk, and when I got to the awful part, I reached out blindly for his arm with my free hand and found him shaking.
In the journal entry Sam described being stopped by a male officer, one of the new recruits, on his way back from dinner. In the pocket of his shots he’d carried with him that evening a shaker f bacon bits he’d bought at the commissary. The officer pointed to the bulge in Sam’s shorts and asked him to empty his pockets. Sam held out the shaker for inspection. He explained that the evening meal had been a chef salad and that he liked bacon bits on his salad, though he knew of course that taking food into or out of the chow hall was prohibited. The officer took the shaker without looking at it and asked Sam what else he had on him. Nothing, he answered honestly. The officer said he didn’t believe him and ordered him into a bathroom to be strip searched.
In the bathroom Sam pulled his shorts down. He wrote in his journal that he’d been confused and frightened. He felt he was nine years old again. He couldn’t understand what he’d done wrong or why this was happening to him now, a man of forty, no longer a small boy.
The cop stared at the crotch of Sam’s briefs. What is that? he asked.
It’s my fly, he said stupidly, but I never use it, I always must pull my waistband down, so I guess it’s only there for decoration.
The officer ordered Sam to pull his underwear down, and Sam complied, as he’d learned to do. The officer strode behind him. He ran his hand up my friend’s bare thigh, slipped a finger in his anus.
Standing beside me in the dark Sam said, “I’ve been wondering if there is something people see in me that lets them know I am weak and can be hurt.”
I imagined a wooden board painted with a bulls eye and hung around my friend’s neck. If the world should produce people who seek to cause pain, why shouldn’t the world offer up people to be destroyed? I pulled Sam closer.
“Do you suppose,” he went on, “that we deserve it? Do you think this is what we get for the things we did, for the people we hurt?”
His voice contained no self-pity but was detached and clinical, the voice of genuine inquiry. He was utterly dry-eyed, while I’d begun to cry.