I Come to Know my Enviornment (And the People)

Smitty “sneaked” back in to E mod the following evening, no fanfare, no announcement; just there he was in the back of the day room, sitting quietly looking teary-eyed like a spanked puppy. A lot of his bravado was gone. His normal space at the “head table” close to the TV remote was inhabited by three young white guys. They were watching some mindless show with wizards throwing fire and awesome looking girls with tank tops and breast augmentations.

I sat at my normal table just outside my suite door. Smitty quietly rolled his wheelchair up behind me, and when I turned nodded quietly, “How ya doing?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” I said. “How you (and I put emphasis on the you) doing? Welcome back!”

That was the wrong thing to do. Smitty went straight for the opening and began to relay his side of the confrontation. “Didn’t I tell you that that was going to happen?” he asked. “Didn’t I tell you that the activity around that remote was going to create a problem between me and one of them?”

I nodded knowingly but didn’t say anything – which was perfectly fine with Smitty anyway. He wasn’t done, and I got the impression that even if I did say something, it was going to be ignored. He wanted to get his side of the story out. “The real culprit” hecontinued “was the fat one.” He pointed to one of the younger white guys in a black watch cap. “He came to me yesterday…  he had seen me get the remote from the guard… After we all had decided on a show, he picks up the remote and says, ‘I want this, I need to have it. I’m getting 75 years and since I can’t control anything else in life, I’m going to control the TV.’”

I nodded again to let Smitty know I was listening – but I really wasn’t. It seemed all so ridiculous to me. My mind was all over the place. It was as if I was outside of my body and really operating as a spectator to all this. “What the hell are you doing here?” I thought.

I made eye contact once again to assure him it was okay to continue, even though it wasn’t. In here you just don’t want to hear other people’s shit. It’s just too much. “I was just in my cell down on my knees praying” Smitty said, “when Officer Parbiko, the classification officer, came to see me. He said he saw me praying so he waited for me to finish. Anyway, he told me he was a Christian too, and we talked over a bit of scripture, but he did something interesting….”

There was a long awkward silence, so I bit, “What was that?”

“He asked me what had happened. He said he had heard everybody else’s story and so he wanted to hear mine. He said that as a Christian he has to be careful what he says around the guards. He can’t have them hearing him say something un-Christian, you know…but he was cool, so I told him what happened and I told him I didn’t tell that guy I was going to kill him, I did not say that.”

Apparently the threat of murder is something the guards take very seriously around here, particularly because a number of my colleagues are in here for just such an offense.

“A lot of the guys in here,” Smitty continued, “have told the guards I’m always starting mess over the remote.”(The truth is Smitty started mess over everything: The remote, the TV, the newspaper, bible study meetings, interactions with the guards, the showers, everything. There’s no wonder someone had complained, that being the only recourse open to them. The guards encouraged it. That way they had information, but more importantly, it gave them leverage. The last thing you want in here is for the rest of the guys to know – no suspect – that you are a “snitch.” It’s lights out. And if the guards have you doing it once, they’ll squeeze you with it. That is why I talked with none of them. If a guard asked me why my bunky sleeps so much, I would scream out loud, across the day room so everybody could hear, “Hey, Mike, Officer So and So wants to know why you sleep so much. What do you want me to tell them?” That stopped that kind of shit immediately. I owed Sharif, my original bunky, for that insight.)

“Don’t look at me,” I said, “I can’t help you.”

“Oh no… no, no, no,” Smitty interrupted, “Not you, I know it wasn’t you. I’m just saying some of the guys in here were going to the guards with that mess… Anyway I made it clear that I did not threaten to kill him, and so, now…like…everything is cool. I can’t believe I let myself get into that over something as stupid as that…the TV. That’ll never happen again.”

“Let’s hope not,” I said. “It makes no sense. First of all you know that kid ain’t right. He’s on about twenty psych meds alone. It’s not for me to say, but you need to keep the dialogue to a minimum. Just stop engaging all these cats. It’s just like that one more beer your best friend has at the bar, nothing good can come from it.”

Smitty looked off as if he was thinking real hard. I know he got what I said and I also knew it would make no difference. In a few days he would be back to being the “house mother,” the “shit caller”, in everybody else’s business, trying to control everybody’s free time.

As for me, I was sticking to my own game plan. I was going to continue to keep every interaction to a minimum, with the guards and my colleagues. My goal remained the same: to do more time than I had to do, so that on discharge the system, the government, was out of my life. There is one thing I am sure of: exactly like that “one more beer”: nothing good can come from probation or parole and having the authorities immersed firmly in your life. The incentive for them is to “find” something wrong. I didn’t need that.

The following morning at lunch time – that’s 9:30 a.m. at Solano County – Joe, an inmate and colleague from Guam, was discharged. I say he was from Guam because although his crimes had been committed in Vallejo, California, that is where his family resides and there is where his heart is. I also say that because even though he had officially been released at his court hearing two weeks earlier, the condition of his discharge was that he demonstrates that he had a ticket home and that he goes directly to the airport from Solano County.

Ah, but the best laid plans of mice and men…Joe was also required to stop in Oakland, at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to demonstrate that he was in fact in Guam at the time his crime – the details of which I do not have because we do not discuss – was committed by another Guamese. His argument from the start was that “he was innocent and that someone, with the same name, had committed the crime. But all of us in here are innocent or a victim. That is the way it is. At any rate, the authorities can’t seem to find that Joe, but they do have this Joe. And this Joe is going to feel the entire weight of the system.

There wasn’t much ceremony. Officer Penrose entered the day room, informed him through his door that “they” – whoever they might be – were waiting on him – like somehow locked in here  he was supposed to know that. Two to three minutes later Joe and his bedroll were gone.

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