Solano County (Cont-3)

To my delight Shariff was returned that afternoon. It turned out that the surgery had not been as extensive as the doctor had first thought. He was, however, placed in a splint that extended from the mid-upper arm to his wrist, and it was that cast that served as his ticket back to the medical ward.

I was delighted because just as quickly as Spencer was gone, Shariff had returned. Breaking in new cellmates was a pain because you never knew what you were going to get, and let’s face it; most of these guys were crazy and a whole lot scary.

Shariff and I spent the next three days alone and he educated me as to the intricacies of jail life: your cellmate wasn’t your cellmate; he was your “bunky” or “celly”. The air vent wasn’t an air vent, it was the wire. At night the inmates would use the ducts as a two-way radio to converse with other inmates in remote parts of the same module. The clarity was astounding, and I found it funny to hear other people’s conversations. They were mostly about exchanging goods in a barter system to secure the things you needed: soap, combs, and toothpaste. Occasionally you would hear a beef about one of the guards and their insensitivity to the stress of prison life.

I loved Shariff’s stories about life on the floors, and the humor that came with them. They probably weren’t intended that way, to be funny, but the irony in them was hilarious. Perhaps that was just his take on them. He always stressed that it was dangerous down there in the modules, but his logic behind stressing that and always remaining conscious of it was flawless. His thinking always was two to three moves down-board. Take for instance the guards: “The one thing you don’t want”, he would say, “is for one of the guards to be nice to you. If the guard was nice that meant you were giving him information about the other inmates, and that would get you killed.” So Shariff’s posture was not to talk with any of them. I learned quickly to say as little to any of them as I could, no conversation, only what was absolutely necessary.

That evening I received a letter from my mother. The stamp had been torn away from the envelope. “What’d they do that for?” I asked.

“Do what?” Shariff returned.

“Take the stamp.”

“Oh, because some guys will take the stamp, wash the ink marks off, and reuse it by sticking it on an envelope with toothpaste.”

“Wow,” I said, “that’s pretty amazing.”

“That’s nothing,” Shariff said. “Have you noticed the paper never has no(sic) ads in it? We get the front section and the sports section, but no Sunday advertisements. There are guys downstairs who will take the ink from the newspaper and use it to make tattoos. If you noticed, there are no electrical sockets in these rooms either. They are all covered up. You give one of those guys a socket and a paper clip and he’ll make a cigarette lighter. It’s amazing.”

I shook my head in agreement. I said nothing, but my mind was imagining the things some of these people could accomplish if they applied themselves. “What a waste?” I thought.

Tuesday night was laundry night. That is a simple declaration but it encompasses a great deal of the psychological warfare that the system, rightly or wrongly, imposes on the inmates. One could argue that the State is under no obligation to provide clean bedding and clothing to inmates; they are after all convicted criminals. One could also argue that the threat of disease creeping over the walls to the surrounding communities is more than the State could bear, and cleanliness within the institution is a small price to pay. Regardless of your take on it though, no one can deny that it is a bit absurd for the process to take place at 0100. That’s right, one in the morning. Why? There is no reason for it except to further punish inmates. No one is going anywhere. Your days are filled with nothing. So why does changing your bed linen have to take place two to three hours after lights out? Why does it have to take place at 0100?

Here’s how it works: The module workers are in charge of exchanging the linen. They roll in a long cart – actually two – with prison garb, underwear, sheets, and towels. You exchange one for one. Two tee-shirts get you two tee-shirts; a pair of socks gets you a pair of socks. And being slow gets you a whole lot of nastiness from the guard. You strip your bed of its dirty linens, and remake it with the clean. That is, of course, after you have been awakened to get out of bed in the first place.

The guard then comes in and strips the newly made bed, searching the cell to make certain you don’t have any extra clothes, linens, or other “contraband”, and, more importantly to make certain you understand you are not in control. In a flash it’s over, but the feeling of having been raped lingers on, and you are now left to lie awake until breakfast arrives. Getting back to sleep is not an option.

Wednesday is canteen day, and it’s more comical than even laundry day. A few years ago I volunteered at the West L.A. Animal Shelter. When a person walked through the corridors, the dogs would run to the door of their cages, barking and frolicking “pick me, pick me”. The rise in the noise level due to the barking was amazing, and deafening. This experience was exactly the same: the inmates crowed at their cell doors barking and frolicking yelling “pick me, pick me”.

The canteen service is run by the Aramark, Inc. They provide, for a fee of course, the necessities of everyday life; things like toothpaste, deodorant, soap, and assorted snacks. This service is a big part of prison life, and for the more discriminating tastes-that is those who simply cannot tolerate the prison food- the items that Aramark supplies serve as a source of nourishment and survival. From the start you know something’s not quite right. There is this “air” of arrogance that permeates the transaction. They are there, as a vendor, to take your money, but clearly there is no effort on the part of the Aramark employees to burden themselves with the notion of customer satisfaction. You’re part of a “captive audience”.  They compete with no one for the privilege of your business, and because of that, you, as a prisoner, have absolutely no rights to question what you are getting for your money. Take it or leave it; it is of no concern to the person completing the sale. For they will be leaving the facility following the transaction, you are the one stuck behind the bars. And make no mistake that that is the message, for a guard accompanies them on their rounds to enforce that idea. Needless to say, the notion of customer service is nonexistent.

The process actually begins on Sunday night when a guard slides a computer form under your cell door. The form is exactly one of those answer sheets you get when you take standardized tests. At the top of a column are six boxes to be filled in with handwritten numbers delineating your choice of items? You write in the number at the top of a column that corresponds to the article you would like to purchase; then you blacken the corresponding circle underneath which corresponds to the number you wrote. (A menu is past around from cell to cell with the list of available items and their corresponding item number.) This is to authenticate your order.

Comically, however, it doesn’t matter. The orders are never correct. The Aramark employee that delivers the goods takes no responsibility for it if your order is wrong. I say that because if they are wrong filling your order, the little old man – who has been doing this for 28 years – takes no blame for it. “The inmates packed it” (take it or leave it). And, he really does mean leave it; one discrepancy in your order means it all goes back. If you refuse the Snickers bar that you did not order, your deodorant, soap, and everything else goes back with it. “Take it or leave it” (all).

I ordered one deodorant roll-on at $2.25 with $0.17 tax; one lotion skin care at $1.25 with $0.09 tax; one toothbrush at $1.05 with $0.08 tax, one toothpaste, Colgate, at $2.20 with $0.16 tax; one container of 100 vitamins at $6.42 with $0.47 tax; one soap, Dove, at $2.29 with $0.17 tax; one legal tablet 8-1/2 x 14 at $1.60 with $0.12 tax; and one washcloth at $0.60 with $0.04 tax. The subtotal was $17.66 with a sales tax of $1.30 for a total of $18.96. Receipt of the items required my signature. If any item in that set was wrong, the entire package had to go back, and once you took an item into your cell, you bought it.

Most of the inmates bought chips, cookies, candy bars, dehydrated soups, and coffee. As I really didn’t use any of those items, I didn’t see the need for them. That was my first mistake. I consider those items unhealthy and frivolous, but the fact is, in here, they are currency and are used to buy favors, or whatever else one might need.

After our stashes had been secured, Shariff and I could hear Gilligan and his keys approaching our door, but there were also the sound chains clinking, which also signaled the arrival of a new bunky. The fact is with the monotony that quickly settles in, and because of the shear dangerousness of the place, you become hyper-vigilant as to changes in routine, and noises and voices.  When the door swung open, there stood, in all his glory, a well manicured black man in his sixties, probably athletic in his youth, but now sporting a large gut. His hair was noticeable because it was short on the top and sides, and long in the back. He was breathing with a good deal of effort and actually grunted or hummed with every inspiration and expiration. Gilligan removed his chains at the doorway and as he stepped into the cell, he placed his bedroll on the cot vacated by Castro and plopped down with a thud. “Whew,” he said loudly to no one in particular.

Shariff and I didn’t say a word. We just watched him breathe, occasionally taking the opportunity to make eye contact with each other, really saying in silence, “What do we have here now?”

Our new celly continued to grunt and hum with every breath; it seemed too much work and I was convinced he couldn’t keep this up for long. However, the longer he sat there, the louder they got. Oddly enough there is not a lot of dialogue amongst inmates. A great deal of your time is spent in silence lost in your own head. “Whew,” he said again to break the silence, but neither of us bit. We just continued to watch him in silence. “Man,” he said again to no one in particular, “How you guys doing?”

Shariff said, “Fine”.

I continued to watch him struggle to breathe. “This guy’s not going to make it,” I thought. “Either he dies from lack of air or we kill him for keeping us awake with his grunting and humming.”

That display – I soon learned – was nothing. After sharing the niceties of an awkward hello, we all settled in to the solitude of our own bunks, with our new “celly” sitting at the side of his bed deep in thought.  I guess he dozed off, because he began talking to himself. “Take it baby, that’s right,” followed by more grunting and humming and gasping for air. His conversation with himself was both crazy and disturbing. Shariff and I again made eye contact but said nothing. We both knew what the other was thinking: “tonight is going to be a nightmare”.

His torso rolled backward and then his head snapped forward, he was awake again. He tried to lie down but after a few minutes, he was just too air hungry and miserable to tolerate it. He got up from the bed and paced for a few minutes, and then went back to the side of the bed and sat. This went on for the remainder of the night: trips to the toilet followed by explosions of gas, intermittent bouts of dozing off followed by unintelligible conversation with some imaginary guest, paroxysms of swearing, followed by grunting and humming, and then the entire process would start again: a trip to the toilet, explosive bouts of gas, dozing with talking in his sleep, grunting and humming with each breath, swearing at some imaginary companion, a failed attempt to lie down, gasping for air, and then snoring some more. By the time breakfast arrived, I was exhausted. Even the guard looked tired when the mod workers delivered the food.

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