It wasn’t the softly shuddering rain that woke me but the scraping of steel legs on concrete. A leak, cold and black in the dark, had sprung over someone’s bed. Throughout the dorm men pushed their bunks clear of the drips, stripped their mattresses, and set mop buckets in aisles and atop lockers. As we settled back into our dry beds, bars of mute lighting flickered over the room.

As predicted, renovations on the dorms have stalled. For the past month the neighboring unit has sat vacant with ductwork stacked on the floor. It seems the only progress made has been to pull the bunks away from the walls to allow for painting. Not everyone is thrilled with the new color scheme. One man said that the pale blue stripes remind him of a day-care center or nursery. Another man countered that both are apt metaphors for a men’s prison. Elsewhere on the compound, signs of abandonment and neglect catch the eye. Torrential rains have washed out the road to the library. A cracked window pane in the chow hall, struck by an errant pigeon, remains boarded. A trench dug for the purpose of erecting a fence between the upper and lower yards lies enshrined in yellow caution tape, and the road cones have toppled in the wind.

Perhaps it was this raggedness, in collusion with the cooling seasons and shorter days, that made me decide I needed a change of routine. Routine is the bedrock of every inmate’s bid, the pendulum that drives the clock, and lately mine had seemed to have grown stale. A flier in the rec center advertised a fitness class that promised to whip me into the best shape of my life. Jay’s been going since March and suggested I join.

Class meets three nights a week in the gym, a faceless brick box only slightly larger than the basketball court it accommodates. Evening regimens were well underway when I arrived. The sidelines were thick with synthetically-clad men squatting and lunging, pushing and sitting up. All ellipticals were occupied and cranked to maximum tension, and judging by the Rorschach sweatblots on the fronts of their shirts, some of the men were already into their second wind.

Meanwhile on one end of the court a crew of mostly Hispanics warmed up by shooting baskets. Those not playing did push-ups or handstands, and some did push-ups and handstands at the same time. I asked Jay who these titans of Olympia were.

“That’s the other fitness class,” he said. “They’re mostly West Texans and Tango Blasters. We share the same timeslot.”

Across the gym the Hispanics had taken up medicine balls and were hurling them at the floor. The thundering impact made my scrotum tighten. I turned my attention to our side of the court where Jay and I sat stretching alongside eighteen or so other men. Of our own crew, three were over the age of fifty, five were overweight, at least one morbidly so, and four, not including myself, were clearly homosexuals.

“Jay, if those other men are West Texans, who are we?”

Jay lowered his water bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He smiled. “Why, we’re the sex offenders, of course.”

Of course I knew Jay was a sex offender. After a career in the army, where he served as a sniper, Jay entered law enforcement and eventually computer forensics. He was working as an investigator for an online child pornography taskforce when he got busted for hoarding the very contraband he was responsible for policing. When I told Jay that his circumstances were ironic, he laughed. He said that having access to the “goods” aroused an interest, and that even cops can be perverts. I was referring however to the other irony: as an assassin, killing once made Jay a hero; porn turned him into a criminal.

Incidentally our fitness instructor Gabe was a sniper in the marines. He arrived to class donning a shapely King Tut beard and yellowing tank that suggested an unassumingly yet undoubtedly fit body. Gabe too is a sex offender.

“Time to warm up, dickheads!”

“He means comrades,” Jay said.

Across the gym the West Texans were already in the throes of their workout, performing mountain climbers in tidy military formation, legs synchronized and kicking like angry pistons. Their instructor was a compact Mexican with tortoiseshell abs and a hard, menacing ass like a Brahman bull’s. Gabe had us gather around him and start with jumping jacks.

Earlier I had jokingly asked Jay who the weakest link in the class was, so that I might stand beside the poor slob to make myself look better. But after a modest five-minute warm up of jumping jacks, leg kicks, and hammer throws, I realized that poor slob was me. Light-headed and nauseous, I wondered if anyone would notice if I were to grapple along the wall toward the door and slip from the building. My indolence was shameful.

“Line up, assholes!” Gabe cried. “Get ready for bear crawls!”

I say I was the weakest link in the class, but this isn’t entirely true. As the workout progressed, I saw that in a group of geriatrics, overweights, and queers, I was only the fourth least fit. The oldest man trembled on emaciated arms with each push-up. The morbidly obese man they called Gene looked one squat away from death. And young, scrawny gay Allen was clearly doing only half the reps. Gabe left the senior alone and concentrated on terrorizing the others. “Allen, get your dick out of the dirt!” “Move it, Gene, you fat fuck!” Being the new student, Gabe spared me his heckling. Instead he encouraged me, which was far worst. I would rather have had expletives hurled at me and been called a lazy sonofabitch and worthless sack of shit than be cheered for my pathetic efforts. Dragging my limp body across the gym floor, slipping in puddles of sweat and blood blood! my god! who’s bleeding? I could see in my burning peripheral Gabe’s tennis shoes tracking my progress, could hear him shouting at the others: “This is what I want to see! This is the kind of effort I expect from you pussies!” At the halfcourt I collapsed onto my side. Across the gym the West Texans were swooping into dive bombers, bay doors gaping, engines gunning. I mopped the sweat from my eyes and looked up to see Gene standing above me, one hand outstretched, the other pulling his shorts out of his ass. I shooed him away.

“I’ll fine,” I said.

Bear crawls were preceded by gators, followed by dirty dogs, frog hops, scorpions, and inchworms. Then, having exhausted the animal kingdom, Gabe wheeled out a cart of medicine balls and instructed us dickheads to shoot them up against the gym wall. I had a bad experience with a medicine ball once. In Mississippi I got socked in the face with one during an abdominals class. It was my first ever bloodied lip. It was also the first and only time physical harm has ever come to me in prison, and, strangely, it came not at the hands of a yard brute as I had long expected and feared but from six pounds of airborne sand.

Sand, it turns out, is quite heavy. Moreover it is a dead and unsympathetic weight, one as old and unyielding as the earth itself. Through numerous reps we shouldered this ancient burden, heaving it against the wall and catching it in a squat, running in place with it pressed to our chests and raised above our heads, with Gabe all the while hollering insults, demanding we gallop faster, lift our arms higher “Higher, assholes!” I fixed my gaze on the flaming orb suspended above me. The gym’s fluorescents had turned my medicine ball into a solar eclipse, a most perfect black void ringed in fire. Its twilight cooled my face and stilled my breathing. The pain in my arms and in my thighs ebbed momentarily under the influence of its gravity. For a few hushed seconds all raggedness the moldering roads, broken panes, toppled cones, leaky roof everything broken and unloved diminished to a speck no brighter than a terrestrial satellite. It’s no wonder so many men spend their bids in the gym.

The last few minutes of class were reserved for abdominals. What pleasure, after all that flailing, to lie across the grit and filth of the hardwood floor. But leisurely situps and crunches wouldn’t suffice for Gabe. He preferred instead bicycles and sprints and jacks, moves that are challenging enough in a vertical position and made nearly impossible when lying flat. He saved planks for last.

“I swear to God,” Gabe said, “if I see any one of you fuckers touch his knees to the ground, you’ll all be doing push-ups.”

The West Texans meanwhile had wrapped up their workout and were beginning to file out of the gym, stepping over our rigid bodies with looks on their faces that, had I looked up, might surely have registered disgust.

“Allen, get your ass out of the air!”

Allen stiffened beside me. His arms quivered and the cords in his neck bulged.

“Ten seconds! Don’t you quit!”

Across from me Jay stared straight down, jaw clenched, nose inches from the ground. Gene’s belly barely cleared the floor.

“Five seconds!”

Allen crumpled. Gabe, spitting and snarling, leapt to his feet. We would pay, he cried, the whole sorry lot of us would pay, with push-ups, one for each position of every letter in Allen’s name. Allen was too exhausted to show remorse or shame, and we his comrades, his fellow dickheads, sympathized too much to begrudge him. Without complaint we assumed position and paid our penance. And when Allen was the last man left struggling on the floor, we returned to the court, dropped beside him, and finished the last of his forty-four push-ups together.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Seasonal Doldrums

Fall has arrived. Mornings have cooled. In the prison parking lot the wind turbine, which had languished all the hot summer long, is spinning once again, slowly, idly, its white metallic petals dipping and fluttering in sympathy with the new season. In the gym tattered bulletins warning of heat exhaustion have been replaced with fliers advertising upcoming fall fitness classes. There’s a class on nutrition and a class on reading and understanding food labels. Yoga is held in the mornings and calisthenics in the evenings: “Sign up today. Leave prison better than when you came in.”

Seasonal provisions were issued this past week. The line to pick up jackets and winter blankets dribbled out the Laundry Department’s doors and wound around the building. The jackets smelled musty after spending seven months in storage. Some had missing buttons or jammed zippers. Others had slits in their linings, secret pockets put there by last year’s owners for smuggling onions out of the chow hall. We were told to take whatever we were given; exchanges and repairs could be made the following week. I recall in Mississippi years ago a Mexican man had tried to exchange his jacket there on the spot. He held out the diminutive garment for the officer’s consideration, but the CO shook his head. “You can pick up a new one next week.” The man, who clearly spoke no English, again extended the coat to the officer. “Next week!” the CO shouted, as though the man’s problem wasn’t a language barrier but deafness. “Can’t you see you’re holding up my line?” Those of us in line felt embarrassed for the Mexican, but mostly we were annoyed for having to wait. Dumb wetback. When the man had still not ceased holding out the ridiculous jacket, the CO tore it from his hand and flung it back into the bin. “Go on! Leave! Get the hell out of here!” The Mexican walked away with no coat at all. This year my jacket is stained at the cuffs and a bit long in the arms, but otherwise it’s in fine condition.

They say despite longer days the fall and winter months go by quickest, our attentions sated by football and gambling and long bouts of hibernatory sleep. Jack predicts this coming winter will have in store considerable carnage, as he believes, contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t summer’s heat but winter’s claustrophobia that ignites men’s passions. Sleet storms and freak fog cause frequent lockdowns during the cooler months. Cooped up against the elements, inmates tend to get a little itchy around the collar. Disagreements arise; fights break out. Jack points to this past summer’s relative calm as proof that we’re due for upset.

Looking back it’s true the outgoing summer was a quiet one. Perhaps the relentless heat knocked the fight out of us, as it did the wind turbine. We had only one upper-body check all season. Having spotted a black eye or bit of blood, the officers had every inmate line up and remove his shirt to check for cuts or bruises that might implicate others in a scuffle. Another minor incident involved a deaf man, whose inquisitive mole-like face pleads to be hit. The chow hall was packed that afternoon, and for want of a seat the deaf man, a sex offender, sat down at a table designated for affiliated whites. Affiliated whites do not take kindly to sex offenders, especially one who so flagrantly violates the established order: dope slingers do not sit with perverts; fraudsters do not mix with pedophiles; murderers do not associate with child molesters. One of the whites said something to this effect, though it’s doubtful the deaf man heard him. When he refused to budge from his seat the white man set down his fork, reared back his hand, and slapped the mute open-handed across his soft, searching face. The tiny coiled wire of his implant trembled above his left ear. In another incident, whether because of a personal beef or simply because he is an eager target, a black inmate tossed the deaf man’s food in the trash while he was away refilling his drink.

But it was a quiet summer. Few men were placed on suicide watch, and only one actually attempted to end his life. He tore a strip of fabric from his bed sheet and strung himself up in the showers. By the time the CO cut him down his face was purple. I was called to observe him when he returned from the outside hospital. He spent half my shift complaining doggedly that his breakfast didn’t come with coffee. “Yesterday morning you gave me cereal and coffee. What happened to the cereal and coffee?” The nurse explained she had no control over what the kitchen sent him for his meals; he could either eat his breakfast or refuse it. “But that’s not breakfast! That’s a bologna sandwich!” he cried. “Unbelievable! No cereal or coffee!”

Two days after his dismissal, I saw the man in the chow hall at dinner. He set down his tray across from me. In training we’re taught to be discreet and to never seek out former watch participants unless invited, and so the man and I ate our meatloaf in silence, neither of us acknowledging the other.

I expect I’ll be called to duty more often in the coming months, as depression seems prevalent around the holidays. Bailey has twice been called to Psychology for having made worrisome remarks over the phone to his wife, or soon-to-be ex-wife; she has filed for divorce. She says she can’t take it—the mortgage, the car payment, his absence, raising their youngest daughter alone. And yet at the same time she is leaving him, she says she cannot be without him. “She pulls me in different directions,” Bailey said. “She loves me but wants to divorce me. She says we can still be friends.” He admitted that in his frustration he might have said some things to raise the concerns of the administration, who regularly monitor phone calls, statements such as “I can’t take this anymore” and “something has to give.” I told Bailey not to worry. Should the psychologists ever take his fatalistic outbursts to heart, suicide watch isn’t so bad. The holding cell is quiet, peaceful. He might enjoy it. And I could use the $6.60 compensation.

“I’d even consider splitting it with you,” I said. “You could buy yourself a box of cupcakes from the commissary. You’re looking too thin these days.”

Bailey laughed. A few months ago he joined a boot camp fitness class for the overweight and medically unsound. He’s reenrolled for the fall session, committing himself to another two months of high-intensity cardio and weight training, five days a week. Exercise might be just the ticket for beating these seasonal doldrums. But while Bailey has lost considerable weight and his diabetes is under control, rather than appearing fresh and svelte he looks old and shrunken, like a dark, shriveled balloon on New Year’s morning. I asked him a second time if he was okay.

“I’ll make it,” he said. “What choice do we have?”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,


The national food menu is scheduled to change next month, as it does every fall. The men who’ve been down for a dime still remember the days before a national menu was instituted when it was left to each federal prison to decide what food it served its inmates. To think of all those bologna sandwiches! Now all federal inmates are more or less guaranteed a 2000-calorie diet with fresh fruit and even heart-healthy and no-flesh options. Despite a uniform menu, food quality still varies from prison to prison. The food here in West Texas is generally much tastier than that in Mississippi. There the rice was often undercooked and the only seasonings in the beans were rocks and grit. I’m lucky to have escaped with my teeth intact. I once found an arrowhead in my black beans.

Jack got his hands on a copy of the new menu. Many of yesteryear’s beef dishes such as the enchilada casserole and meatball sub have been replaced with leaner, cheaper poultry. To appease the black Muslim population, pork has been eradicated from the menu entirely. New entrées include chicken tacos, fish tacos, and baked ziti. The baked ziti, Jack says, will be as equally bastardized as the chicken parmesan, which for years has never once come with cheese of any kind or even tomato sauce. Also new to the menu is a turkey burger served twice a month in addition to the beef burger which has long been the anchor of every Wednesday lunch. For those inmates who facetiously count the remainder of their bids in hamburgers, their sentences come October will increase by half.

Mrs. Eller had us devise menus of our own in Food Service Management. She said that everyone, not just those entering the food service industry, should know how to plan and budget their meals. She gave each student a sheet of paper with fourteen blank boxes and told us to work out two weeks’ worth of meals for a family of four on a $400 budget.

It isn’t difficult for a classroom of incarcerated men to fill fourteen boxes with foods they wish to eat. We could have filled a hundred boxes, entire calendars, with the dishes we miss most. Fried chicken and biscuits. Shrimp jambalaya. Carne asada. Broccoli-cheese casserole. Red beans and rice with corn pone. Mrs. Eller tried reining us in by gently recommending we take nutrition into consideration. The hypocrite! She with her notorious sweet tooth! This past week, at her beckoning, we churned homemade ice cream, baked chocolate chip cookies, and prepared three kinds of cream pies—chocolate, coconut, and Key lime. One poor diabetic complaining of lightheadedness had to be escorted to Medical. Surely Mrs. Eller could forgive us our gastronomic enthusiasm. We continued filling in boxes unfazed. Pork tamales for breakfast. Barbacoa served two nights a week. Cobbler served after every meal. We gave no thought to whether dishes paired well with one another. We gave not a damn for repurposing leftovers (there would be none). We said to hell with the perils of red meat. The national menu may prescribe turkey burgers, but our hearts cry for mother’s beef tips and gravy.

Determining the cost of groceries proved more challenging. It’s been years since any of us have stepped foot inside a grocery store. Mrs. Eller had a solution. She brought in a stack of old newspapers and had us scour the supermarket inserts for prices. What strange and colorful artifacts these fliers were, like something unearthed from the rubble of a long forgotten civilization. I recalled reading somewhere that if our society were to collapse and its remains discovered by a future people, they might infer upon excavating our landfills that we ate an inordinate amount of hot dogs. Beneath every rock, behold, a mummified frankfurter. Laced with so many preservatives they’d be about the only remaining evidence of our diet. Thumbing through the SuperSavers, I wondered, if all foods were as enduring as the hot dog, what our forbearers might make of a society that offers its citizens six varieties of milk in three different flavors. What might they say of a nation where the Greek yogurt comes pre-measured in 100-calorie-count cups; where an entire day’s allotment of protein can be satisfied with one indulgent chocolate shake; where the turkey bacon comes pre-cooked and ready-to-heat; where the chicken comes sliced, deboned, and marinated and, for those especially pressed for time, fully-cooked, seasoned, and shredded; where the ketchup is organic; where the cheese comes condensed and canned; where the broccoli comes chopped, packaged, and frozen, the stalks removed and leaves stripped leaving perfectly uniform florets that look as if they were cast from identical molds; where the green beans are extra fine and the snap peas premium; where the red and white quinoa comes in its own microwavable pouch and steams in only two minutes, and the rice with poblano strips and corn nibs in just three minutes more; where the snow crab is wild-caught for freshness and the Atlantic salmon farm-raised for quality (can it still be called Atlantic if it was raised on a farm?); where the immortal hot dog comes bun-length; and where the best thing since sliced bread is crustless bread.

These people must have really had their shit together, they might say. What an industrious and bustling society! So busy and time-strapped, they could afford to pay more for less bread at the convenience of having those impertinent crusts removed.

With ink-stained fingers we combed the food pantries of that capable civilization to which we once belonged. “Does anybody see chorizo?” “Where are the sweet potatoes?” “Has anyone found skirt steak?” The leaflets were less useful than presumed, their offerings outstripped by our vast food fantasies. What items could be found had their prices either obscured by savings or confounded by packaged deals, so that the price of kielbasa could not be extracted from that of baked beans. Mrs. Eller told us to do the best we could, to go by what we remember. But even if we could remember what we paid for a loaf of bread ten years ago, have our families not remarked in letters and in phone conversations on the rising cost of living? We might have paid their complaints more attention, but prices of fuel and food mean little to inmates who are neither mobile or self-sustaining.

“How much are tomatoes?” “What does a gallon of milk cost?” “Is four dollars too much for a pound of shrimp?”

Lugo sat back in his chair, arms folded across his belly, rattling off prices down to the penny. One student asked him the cost of ground beef. Assuming a 20-80 fat-to-lean ratio, Lugo answered $3.99 per pound. Another man asked him how much for a dozen eggs.

“Large, extra large, or jumbo?”

The man specified large.

“Make that free-range,” I added, throwing him a curve.

Lugo whistled. “That’s gonna cost you extra—$4.10.”

Others in the class piped up calling for the price of fresh asparagus, pork tenderloin, Yukon Golds. Lugo named every price with utter conviction. I asked him how long he’s been down. He said seven years.

“Don’t you think these prices might have changed since the last time you were on the street?”

Lugo tilted his head. “Maybe not so much.”

A man who had planned tacos for a Sunday barbecue asked Lugo for the price of lingua. Lugo didn’t hesitate, didn’t even bat an eye, before coming out with fifteen dollars.

“But you can save money,” he added, “by buying the whole head for twenty.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged ,


The letter came on a Tuesday. Joe didn’t even wait for the rest of the mail to be passed out before retreating from the room with the envelope in his hand. It was thinner than I had expected. Like with a college admission response, I took brevity as a bad sign. Joe sat down on Willy’s bed and without ceremony tore the staple from the envelope and removed two sheets of typed correspondence. After a moment’s regard he flung himself sideways and head-butted Willy in the ribs.

“One fifty-one!” he cried. “One hundred fifty-one months, down from 216!” His commutation had been granted.

Joe wallowed on Willy’s bed, waving the letter like a winning lottery ticket and mussing up the sheets. He flashed the papers to the small crowd that had gathered, so we could see the numbers for ourselves. None of the men explicitly offered their congratulations, but they grinned hard and bobbed their heads a lot, which suited Joe fine; he was too delirious with joy to either notice or care. Someone asked by how many years exactly had Joe’s sentence been reduced. Joe himself didn’t know. Contrary to Hollywood’s depictions of the justice system, prison terms are handed down not in years but, rather anticlimactically, in months. Someone (not Joe) did the math and arrived at a conclusive figure. The court had knocked five years and five months off Joe’s sentence. Joe was even more ecstatic.

“When are we going to celebrate?” he asked once the crowd had gone. I turned from where I’d been probing my ears with tweezers in the mirror stuck to my locker. The circumstances of my own bondage unchanged, I’d resumed my quiet battle with ear hair.

“We can celebrate later,” I said. My eyes shifted to Willy still with his hands in his lap. “We’ll celebrate when Willy’s relief comes.”

In his excitement Joe had forgotten it was only two months ago that his friend had received his own letter from the court, the second of two such letters, stating in characteristically unfeeling legalese that Willy did not qualify for commutation. Joe sobered and smoothed the rumpled sheets. He turned to his friend and offered that he too would surely be granted relief soon.

“Very soon,” I lied. “We’ll all be celebrating real soon.”

The next day Joe awoke early and hit the track. He walked for two hours and returned sweaty, pink-faced, and chipper; his enthusiasm for physical renewal lasted almost a week. Willy meanwhile grew despondent, even more so than when he’d received his last rejection. He began sleeping through lunch, napping during the day, snacking late into the night. His commissary purchases became increasingly junky. One haul turned up fig bars, vanilla wafers, barbecue chips, pork rinds, ten Snickers (the limit), and two royal-blue bottles of milk of magnesia.

Joe sympathetically tempered his joy. He allowed himself to become Willy’s sounding board and listened for hours as his friend, swigging milk of magnesia from the bottle, unloaded every gaudy injustice of his criminal case—the bad plea deal, the inflated quantity of dope, the rat-friends who sold him out. Joe listened patiently, tutting in the appropriate places. He suggested to Willy that he apply for commutation again but under the newest reform law, the amendment to which Joe himself applied. Willy demurred; the amendment pertains only to nonviolent drug offenses and his case, while not explicitly violent, involved gun possession. Still Joe urged his friend to give it a shot, file the paperwork. He also suggested he include with the forms a heartfelt plea to the judge for mercy. This is where I came in.

Months ago when Joe applied for relief he submitted with his application a similar letter, which I had helped write. He seemed to believe it had an impact on the judge. I’m not so sure. Likely the judge, who undoubtedly receives many such letters, followed his own reasoning and complex arithmetic, totaling assets from one column, deducting deficits from the other, adjusting for the phase of the moon. Joe’s commutation response offered no hint as to what these formulas might be or how the decision to grant reprieve was reached. My own judge gave no explanation for why he settled on 144 months. Why not 168 months—14 years? Or 192 months—16 years? Or the guidelines‘ recommended 228 months—19 years? Nobody knows how these things really work. Even those of us who have mired in the system’s cogs are no more wiser to its inner workings. Justice is a black art practiced by black-robed men; the mysteries of their alchemy terrify us.

Nevertheless I agreed to write Willy’s letter. He and Joe conferred and together they penned a rough draft of what they thought such a letter ought to say. I tried not to grimace at their effort: Now, Your Honor, I’m not saying I didn’t commit a crime, but I can’t help but feel I was a scapegoat for the simple fact that I’m serving a 30-year sentence for my codefendants’ going home free.

“I’m not sure this is what the judge wants to hear,” I said looking up from the crinkled sheet.

“Change it up however you need to,” Joe said. “Just, you know, use big words; make it sound good.”

I recall my lawyer giving me similar advice when he told me I’d be asked to make a statement at sentencing. There were two other cases on the docket that afternoon, a probation violation and a petty fraud crime. One by one we the defendants were called before the court, and the judge asked us what we had to say for ourselves. With hands clasped and heads lowered, the two men before me elucidated at length on matters of responsibility and righting wrongs and second chances. The judge saved my case for last. The speech I’d prepared and rehearsed the night before was identical to the other men’s. Regardless, my fanciful apology went unrecited. As soon as I opened my mouth I collapsed into racking sobs. My shoulders heaved, my nose ran. The judge shifted uncomfortably, perhaps impatiently, in his chair. So unintelligible was my blubbering I wondered what if anything the court reporter had been able to transcribe.

The prosecutor was unmoved. “He’s only sorry because he got caught!” she had hissed, and rightfully so. Our indiscretions and dirty misdeeds don’t much bother us until they’re exposed to the light of public scrutiny. We learn what is acceptable not by peering inward but by looking outward, and only then, after consequence, does remorse follow.

Among my regrets: I regret (selfishly) all that I lost—my career, my relationship, my financial security and animal comforts. I regret (selfishly still) all the time I wasted—years burned away in prison, 144 months of ash heaped atop the ash of hundreds of hours more spent collecting pictures and wiping my seed from the floor—that might have been put toward a more industrious cause. I regret hurting my family. I regret that my mother cannot bear to visit me.

And what of the victims, that dimly-lit and fathomless crowd? I am cowardly grateful for the miles of ethernet that distanced us. I will never understand precisely what role I played in their suffering, and I don’t want to. I’ve found reasons enough to change.

I dreaded giving Willy the revised letter. After cutting the bit about being a scapegoat, and after nixing the mention of his parents’ deaths and the references to God, there was hardly anything left of his original appeal. I began from scratch, and in doing so put words in Willy’s mouth he might not have believed, might not have fully considered, or might not want to consider: I contributed nothing. I disappointed my parents. I abandoned my children and family.

Reading my projections, Willy looked like he’d lost sensation in his face. He sat on the edge of his bed holding the letter with only his fingertips.

“I think he just wants to hear you say you fucked up,” I said.

Willy nodded. He read the letter again. “It’s good,” he said quietly. “This’ll work.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

The Meeting

The speakers called a meeting in the dorm. All inmates of every race and affiliation—blacks, whites, Hispanics, sex offenders, Native Americans, the one Asian—was encouraged to attend. Over a hundred men crowded into the largest of the living quarters, squeezing between bunks and lockers, spilling over into the bathroom, pressing together so tightly that not one of us could turn around without bumping elbows with his neighbor. Behind me a man risked this very maneuver and knocked an alarm clock off a locker and onto the floor. The commotion attracted the gaze of the meeting’s emcee, the Speaker for the Blacks, whose massive head protruded from the dense canopy of bunk beds at the center of the room like an herbivorous dinosaur’s. I’m convinced size is a prerequisite to being elected speaker. They are all giants, Gullivers among Lilliputians. The one exception is the Mexican Speaker. Victims of cold immutable genetics, the Mexicans were forced to waive the height requirement. They might have chosen Peña as their representative, who is, at six-foot-three, the outlier among his race. But Peña is serving an eight-year bid for child pornography, thus the sex offenders claimed him for themselves.

The alarm clock righted, the room settled, the Black Speaker opened the meeting with a recap of events past. Two weeks ago renovations began on the ailing dormitories, displacing inmates and causing massive reshuffling and overcrowding. Our own dorm almost doubled in load. Space is tight, tensions are high (particularly among the blacks and Mexicans). And so in formalizing the facts of our weary existence, the Speaker arrived at the basis for the meeting, which was to reiterate old house rules and establish new ones in an aim to ease friction.

“The first thing—”

The Speaker paused. Beyond the locked door the keys of the law jangled. The room stiffened. Organizing is illegal. The Speaker waited for the officer to pass before continuing.

“The first thing we need to address,” he said, “is the noise. I’m speaking especially about the late-night talking and card playing at the ironing board.”

Imperceptibly, all eyes shifted to the Mexicans. I leaned into Jack’s ear. “I hope someone’s translating this.”

“Now, nobody likes to be woken up while they’re trying to sleep. We’ve got guys complaining about the noise as far away as the back of the room.” The back of the room nodded. “If we have to live with one another, we have to learn to respect one another. When the lights go out, we go out.”

Jack stood in front of me with his arms crossed. He hates these meetings, hates prison politics—the alliances, the frivolousness, the self-importance. He resents speakers and reps and shot callers who speak on behalf of others. He sees gangs and affiliations as bullies slinging around their collective weight while playing refuge to the weak and stupid who would, on their own, amount to nothing for all their lack of sense and respect.

Respect: the only law among the lawless.

“Now, about the shitters,” the Speaker said. “Historically the first two stalls have been pissers and the other four shitters. But with all the newcomers and overcrowding and such, the line to take a shit has been out the door. We’ve decided to change this. From now on the first stall will be for pissing and the rest for shitting. We’ve added one more shitter, you see.”

The crowd murmured approvingly.

“Speaking of the bathroom,” the Speaker continued, “this pissing on the floor needs to stop. If your dick can’t reach the urinal, sit on the toilet. Now, I hear some of you laughing in the back. I’m not trying to be funny. There’s no excuse for that stuff. It’s disgusting, and it isn’t right that these orderlies—your fellow men—have to mop up your mess.”

Jack, whose job it is to clean the bathroom, nodded vigorously.

“This next problem isn’t directed toward the newcomers necessarily; we’ve been having this issue since before you all got here. But to be fair, I think now would be a good time to remind everyone that toilet paper does not belong in the urinals. That shit don’t flush.”

Jack has complained of men throwing toilet paper, sweetener packets, and other trash in the urinals. He suspects the Mexicans.

“Toilet paper goes in the toilet; not in the urinals, not on the floors, not in the sinks. This is our home. We need to treat our home and each other with respect.” The Speaker took a breath. “Now,” he said. “About the showers.”

The crowd shifted from one foot to the other. The showers have long been a contentious issue. Only four serviceable stalls exist in a dorm of over a hundred men. It was a disagreement over the showers that kicked off the riot years ago between the blacks and Mexicans. Someone was accused of jumping the line. A fight erupted and spread across the compound like a flame set to dry brush. Shitters and pissers aside, the showers were the crux of the meeting.

“From now on,” the Speaker said, “there’ll be no more saving places in line. You’re only in line when you’re standing in line.”

The Speaker swiveled his great head between all four corners of the room. The men said nothing.

“And I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me no forty minutes to shower. I understand some of you like to shave and wash your clothes in there and whatnot. But we’ve got too many men and not enough stalls to be doing that. Let’s try to limit ourselves to ten minutes. I think ten minutes is long enough to get cleaned up, don’t you?”

A Mexican man near the ironing board raised his hand to object. Still sore from having been pinned the source of late-night noisemaking and seeing the shower stipulations as yet another subtle accusation, the man said to the Speaker, by way of a translator, that he didn’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to wash his clothes, or do anything else in the shower for that matter, so long as he finished within the allotted ten minutes.

The Speaker nodded sympathetically. Yes, he agreed. A perfectly valid point. What a man does in the shower is his own business. And then, sensitive to the frustrated histories between his and his dissenter’s respective races and aware also of an inmate’s natural prickliness towards authority, the Speaker softened his tone and added diplomatically that the rules, argued and agreed upon by all the speakers, were not meant to “come down” on anybody but to ensure a smooth and peaceable coexistence under these less-than-desirable circumstances.

The Mexican, buoyant from having his voice heard, pressed on. And another thing, he added. He didn’t appreciate the guys outside the showers playing clock and chiming out the minutes. He didn’t like to be rushed and he was perfectly capable, thank you, of telling time.

“Yes, of course,” said the Speaker. “That’s all in fun, I’m sure. At any rate, remember, men—respect gets respect.”

In the days following the meeting, relations in the dorm improved. People said “excuse me” and “thank you” and held doors for one another. The bathrooms were kept reasonably clean, and the line to the showers shortened. The Mexicans put away their card games at lights out. Jack said it wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. When the sting of the switch fades, old habits return. It wasn’t but a week before the litter piled back up on the bathroom floor and in the urinals. Nighttime merrymaking resumed. Peña, the Speaker for the Sex Offenders, was called on to confront one of his constituents for having spent an hour in the shower, a scandal that led to hours of gleeful speculation into what obscenely terrible things the man might have been doing to himself. And Jack, who’s now considering a job change, pledged bodily harm to whomever has been leaving behind Ramen and other bits of food in the bathroom sinks.

He suspects, of course, the Mexicans.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged ,


Summers in West Texas: The gym bulletin boards are plastered with diagrams of the human form, the head turned, palms forward, feet splayed, filled as a vessel with water, sixty-five percent full, to just below the shoulders. There are reminders to wear sunscreen, UV heat indexes gradating from blue to mauve, sophisticated charts specifying how much water to consume per hour according to body weight, outside temperature, and workout intensity. One flier shows a spindly character, face tomato-red, with a curlicue of smoke rising from his head and steam shooting from his ears. Dizziness, nausea, the inability to produce tears—Do you know the signs of heat exhaustion?

The dorms offer little respite from the heat. The buildings are old and poorly insulated, and the heavily taxed AC system blows only tepid air. Fans dispersed throughout the living quarters, including one sitting on the bathroom floor, an obvious hazard, are ineffective, though their whining does help drown out bodily noises. By six o’clock every evening the forty-gallon-capacity ice machine on our floor is empty. Nights are especially uncomfortable. We lie awake in our underwear, slick with sweat, the sheets pulled down to our feet. I’m still awake sometimes when the officers walk through for the midnight count. They count us throughout the early morning, at twelve, three, and five o’clock. I like to think that the reason they count us so often is because we are something valuable and precious to them, an obsessive curator’s collection of fine Fabergé eggs or stuffed rare birds.

Renovations are set to begin this month on the aging dormitories. The AC will likely be one focus of the project. Construction will occur piecemeal, floor-by-floor, and, in Jack’s words, be like one prolonged tooth extraction.

“It’ll be expensive, drawn out, and half-assed. Remember when they renovated the bathroom? It took them three months to paint the walls and floor and within a week they were peeling again.”

Already the administration has begun the thorny process of relocating inmates ahead of the construction. It’s like figuring out seating arrangements for a wedding reception in which none of the guests get along; there’s no pleasing anybody. Everyone is afraid of who they might get stuck with for a neighbor or bunkmate. And there is also the fear, a very real fear, that moving at once so many inmates, nearly 150 men, will chafe the already delicate racial and political balances.

On that first day of reshuffling I hadn’t yet been back to the dorm to know if I’d received a bunkmate, though Jack was eager to break the news. Setting his tray opposite of me in the chow hall, Jack gleefully suggested I start brushing up on my Spanish.

“Pedro doesn’t speak a lick of English. Not a lick. No hablá Inglés.”

“He’s enjoying this,” I said to Jay sitting beside me.

“And you, Jay, are now living in a ghetto.”

Jay dropped his hot dog in his tray. “You’re pulling my leg.”

“No, sir. I wouldn’t pull your leg about this. They stuck all the blacks in your corner. Old School now sleeps to your left, Gangster lives beside the window to your right, and they put that white guy who thinks he’s black in the bunk above you.” Jack smeared a tater tot through a puddle of ketchup and popped it in his mouth. “Let’s just put it this way: you’ll be the first to know who wins the Essence Award.”

Pedro wasn’t around when I returned to the dorm, but evidence of his existence was strung like tinsel from the frame of what had once been solely my bunk. Towels and washrags hung at one end and at the other three pressed uniforms and a toiletries kit. A sack filled with Tupperware and seasoning bottles dangled idly in the space between our beds like a mobile. Pedro appeared just as I was squeezing past his laundry bag to get to my locker. We shook hands.

“It’s okay?” he asked. His somber brown eyes shifted to the hanging accoutrements. Our bunk looked like an overburdened pack animal.

“It’ll be fine,” I said.

“How you need . . . ?” Pedro pawed at the air; he was asking if I had enough room to climb.

“Oh, yes. There’s room.” I placed one foot on a brace at the end of the bunk and pushed myself up to put the other foot on top of my locker. “See? It’ll be fine.” My legs have grown strong from four years of sleeping in top bunks. As I was demonstrating my technique I noticed my neighbor Willy making his bed with excessive force. I asked him if he was all right.

“This always happens to me,” he said. “It’s like they put these people near me on purpose.”

“What’s that?”

“My new bunkie.” Willy pointed to the freshly made bed above his own. “He likes boys.”

Throughout the dorms the atmosphere was rife with grousing. Nobody was happy about the new arrangements. I heard one sex offender say to another he felt unsafe bunking with an affiliated white. A Mexican told someone he was just relieved not to have been placed near the Puerto Ricans. Nobody wants to be near the Puerto Ricans. The affiliated whites don’t want to be near the sex offenders, the Mexicans don’t want to be near the blacks, and the blacks don’t want to be near each other.

“They hate being black,” Jack said.

That night after lights out I scaled our bunk in the same manner I had demonstrated to Pedro. I leapt into a crouch atop my locker and crawled into bed on my hands and knees keeping low so as not to bump my head on the ceiling. The bunk swayed. Pedro’s Tupperware mobile spun churning up the smell of onion flakes and Sazon.

Somewhere between wakefulness and sleep I felt a tap near my elbow. I opened my eyes. It was Jack.

“Put your shirt on,” he said.


“The blacks and Mexicans are butting heads in the next room. Put your shirt back on. Be ready, in case things kick off.”

Indeed the energy in the room had changed. Even in the dark I could sense it, like the mosquito-whine of a muted TV. Or like the West Texas summer heat: a still buzzing between the temples. I saw the cartoon with the tomato-red face, kettle steam shooting from his ears. I pulled on my T-shirt. Should I lace up my sneakers? Pull on my boots? Across the room I saw Jack’s muddy silhouette posted beside his bunk. The others in the room, the blacks and Mexicans in particular, had taken similar stances. They stood with their heads turned in the direction of the next room, listening for the call to arms.

Curious thoughts go through one’s mind when he’s in danger. There are thoughts of bravery: I’ll loop my combination lock through my belt and start swinging should anyone get close. Thoughts of heroism: I’ll protect Jack; I’ll jump on his assailant’s back, sink my teeth in his neck. Morbid thoughts, strangely pleasurable: they’ll knock me to the ground; they’ll kick my teeth into my brain pan.

Minutes passed. I wondered what kind of fighter I’d make, if I’d fight at all. Fight or flight, as they say. Then Jack, returning to bed, having just came from the next room, passed my bunk and gave me a single nod:

Not tonight.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Average Joe

The suits from Region came down this month for inspection prompting a slew of renovations and maintenance. The dorms were repainted, the flower beds weeded, the lawns trimmed. That hole in the wall in the rec center was finally patched. In the chow hall the suits milled about the perimeter of the room like museum patrons, hands clasped, their dark expensive shoes reflecting in the freshly waxed floor. I’ve noticed government employees have a particular smell, that of soap and drugstore cologne. I wonder if inmates have a smell.

“Isn’t the food supposed to be better when Region is here?” Jack sniffed at his tomato-and-rice soup and set his spoon down. “I feel sorry for those guys at El Reno. As much hassle as we go through when Region comes to town, imagine what hell those poor bastards went through preparing for the president’s visit. The law must have torn that place apart, not a nail file or shoestring they didn’t confiscate. And even then they kept that prison locked down. I guarantee you not one inmate got within twenty feet of Obama, except the ones they handpicked.”

In an article published the next day detailing the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to a federal prison, the accompanying photo captured Obama speaking with a corrections officer in a remarkably tidy and utterly empty cell block.

“The whole thing’s a publicity stunt,” Jack said. “He’s just groping for some legacy he can leave behind before his term is up.”

Joe is more optimistic. He’s been waiting to hear from the courts whether he qualifies for a sentence reduction under last year’s drug reform legislation. He sees President Obama’s visit to El Reno as a sign that luck is on his side and that even more relief is in the pipeline. He talks about the possibility of increased “good conduct time” and of the federal government bringing back parole, rumors which have been circulating for years. The stress of waiting is killing him. All he can do is worry. He’s abandoned efforts to get into shape and instead spends his days sprawled across the empty bunk below mine eating Little Debbie snack cakes and reading crime fiction and Rolling Stone. Last night he tossed me a cupcake (he hates to eat alone) and asked me more questions about hacking.

“Have you ever heard of an onion router?”

Joe thinks I’m in prison for computer fraud. He thinks I’m some superstar hacker responsible for toppling major corporations. I never encouraged quite so fantastic a lie, but neither did I dispel it. One only needs to throw around a few technical terms like “IP masking” and “blowfish encryption” to convince the layperson he’s an expert. A moderate knowledge of computers is necessary however to satisfy the curiosities of my fellow felons. Men have asked me how to erase their Internet history, how to conceal their identities online, and how to make sure a deleted file really is deleted. Like Joe, these men are already plotting their next scheme.

Often when he grills me about cryptology and the “dark web,” I try to steer Joe toward the possibility of going straight. I asked him why is he so eager for prison reform and winning an early release if he only plans to entangle himself in some other criminal venture—running a brothel, growing hydroponic weed, exporting dope overseas. Now he’s turned his attention to computer fraud. He said I didn’t understand. He said I’d never had a taste of the money, the cars, the houses, the women.

“I can’t go back to being just some average motherfucker,” he said. “I can’t be just an average joe.”

That same week as his visit to El Reno, Obama granted clemency to forty-six nonviolent drug offenders, bringing the total number of commutations under his presidency to eighty-nine. Joe saw this as more evidence that further relief is on the way. He walked into the dorm waving a list of the forty-six men and women, saying, “It’s for real. Something’s gonna happen. Obama’s gonna do something.” Jack pointed out that those released had already served the majority of their lengthy sentences. “Big deal,” he said. “What’s getting out three years early when you’ve already served seventeen? A publicity stunt! All of these people he released were charged with crack cocaine. And they’re black. How does this help me?”

I’m inclined to agree with Jack’s skepticism. He and I have made amends with our time. We’ve spent years adjusting our expectations, honing our routines. That release date which once seemed immeasurable has solidified itself as a permanent fixture in our minds, like a moon, shining and certain. We’ve come too far for false hopes. Look at Joe: sleeping till ten, drinking warm sodas all afternoon, waving around that commutation list as if it were a Polaroid on which his own name might resolve. Jack said even if more reform were passed such relief would likely not affect us, as recent reforms have focused on reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Justice is cyclical, like fashion. The war on drugs has grown tiresome and expensive, and locking up blacks is no longer politically in vogue.

“The big thing now is porn,” Jack said.

I looked away.

“That stuff can be real addictive you know.”

The sex offender population here is indeed growing. Their numbers have swelled so much in recent months that the inmates called a meeting to redraw the boundaries in the chow hall. The whites gave up eight of their tables to accommodate the influx of sex offenders. If more sentencing reform were to pass, Jack said he’d be surprised if it helps any of these men. No congressperson would ever support a bill that gets pedophiles and murderers out of prison quicker. Ironically it is these loathsome men who have the lowest recidivism rates and would, if released, stand the better chance of staying out of prison.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,