Chapter 4: Prison Reality — It’s Not What You Think
This is part of a series. For more please go to the Table of Contents.
“Pack your shit — you’re being transferred.” 4:00 am. This time not moving around the NSRC but joining a group and shipped off to some other state institution — our “permanent camp.” By dawn a large group of us were fed breakfast and herded back to the same place where we had been brought when we arrived from the NSRC Main Unit — a concrete block open-air pavilion known as the “Visitor Park.” After waiting around a suitably long period of time, we joined cartloads of our personal records and several dirty old state corrections buses. The officers called off our names in groups, each group shackled (but not handcuffed) and loaded onto a bus — only then told where we were going. My bus was headed to the Swift Correctional Institution, located about 1–1/2 hours drive to the west. It was a cold morning and I was damned glad I had that nasty jacket.
On the drive most of the discussion among the inmates focused on what a “fucked up camp” the Swift CI was, all the gang activity there and whether it would be better to be at the Main Unit or the Annex. Most of the guys thought the Annex was ‘better’ so I began hoping for that. We arrived and were all herded into a large intake room and another humiliating strip-search. By that time it seemed like most of the guys thought the Main Unit was ‘better’ and I didn’t know what to think.
Intake procedures took most of the day — we all had to go through a fast-track version of all the things they had already done to us at NSRC including health exam, property search and inventory, haircut and photos. Meanwhile they passed out a ‘bag lunch’ very similar to those at the County — except with a peanut butter sandwich instead of bologna. I wondered — why couldn’t they just use all the records they had collected just a week or so ago? Stop making sense!
By late afternoon it was clear that I was going to the Annex. I must say as I walked into my new dorm — “N1” — with my property bag and laundry bag slung over my shoulder I was quite relieved to find that this dorm layout was exactly like the one at the North Unit at NSRC. One less thing for me to freak out about. I suppose there must’ve been a big prison construction program in my state at some time….
What prison is really like vs. what you see on TV
No surprise — the reality of prison is much different from what you see on TV or in movies.
Let’s start with the TV/movie version, where prison always consists of long rows of cell blocks with two or for men in each cell. The cells doors have bars, the inmates are locked in all the time and it is always dark. On those rare occasions when inmates are let out to go to the rec yard, the ground is naked dirt and most of the inmates are lifting weights except those that are getting into brawls and stabbing each other.
In contrasting this description of prison as seen on TV with reality I’m not saying there are no prisons consisting of cell blocks with two-man cells. In fact, I just got finished telling you (see Chapter 3) that at NSRC “The Block” was exactly like this. But that was only one building in a much larger prison, the building where “new gains” spend their first week while being evaluated. The fact is that in my state (and I suspect in all others) only “high-security” inmates are permanently assigned to two-man or four-man cells in cell blocks, and even they aren’t “locked down” in those cells most of the time. Much of the days the cell doors are open and even those high-security inmates can go to the TV room where in addition to watching mindless TV they can play cards, dominoes, chess or just hang out and talk. They are also free to go to “call-outs” like medical, library, chapel, rec yard or canteen, and as I will describe in more detail later most inmates have “job assignments” like working in the kitchen or cleaning up the prison grounds.
The majority of inmates are not high-security prisoners and do not live in cell blocks. Instead, medium and low-security inmates (like me) live in “open-bay dormitories,” a kind of prison I, for one, have never seen in any movie or TV show that I can remember. And what is this like? Take a look at the diagram of my dorm room at the Swift CI Annex (which BTW was exactly the same as my dorm at the NSRC North Unit and later at Hayes CI).
First, you are sharing a room with 60–70 other guys, many of whom at least at Swift CI were loud and rowdy young jits. You’d better figure out how to get along with those in the bunks closest to you no matter who they are. Second, so OK there is a TV room but don’t think you’re going to have any say about what’s on TV! The jits or lifers control that, so its only the worst that TV has to offer — daytime it’s “Cheaters”, “Maury Povitch”, “Lie Detector”, and “Jerry Springer”or almost worse yet it turns out prison inmates like to watch crime reality shows. Why?! Evenings it’s usually one post-apocalyptic zombie show after another. Furthermore, the TV room also has game tables, so in addition to the blare of the TV you suffer the constant din of guys slamming down dominos and arguing about card games and trying to out-shout the TV, so you can never watch whatever’s on anyway.
Each dorm also had just one locker room style bathroom, which usually featuring a row of urinals, a row of toilets with separator walls between, a row of sinks and a row of shower heads — again, see the diagram. These are all separated from each other by half-walls and the whole bathroom can be monitored from the officers station, a.k.a “The Bubble”.
As I continued through my incarceration I was usually in one kind of open-bay dorm or another — but not all the time, as you will eventually learn. As I met and became friends with high-security guys who’d done most of their time in 2-man cells, such as Trayvon and Star Extreme — watch this site for their stories! — I found that they hated dorms and wished they could go back to a 2-man cell. “Too much fuckin’ DRAMA around here! Get get a good bunkie in a 2-man cell, you be all right!”
Prison in fact consists of a gradation of levels of confinement which are used as rewards and punishments based on your behavior. A single prison may have both open-bay dorms and 2-man cells for inmates of different security levels. If you fuck up by talking back to an officer, getting into a fight or stealing, you’ll get cuffed up, handed a “Disciplinary Summons” and hauled off to the Box, a.k.a. “the Jail” or “the Hole.” There you really will be locked up 24/7 in a 2-man cell for whatever sentence the Disciplinary Court hands you. If you continue to fuck up you might end up as a “close custody” inmate in which case you’re in lock-down 20–23 hours per day (in my state there are three levels of “CC”) and any time you are allowed out in the TV room you’ll be cuffed and shackled. I met inmates who’d spent years in this kind of confinement and I’ll tell you more about them later in this story — and as you’ll see, they had the mental scars to show for their time being caged like this.
At Swift CI Annex, Dorm N1, my new bunk location was at what I described to others as ‘the 2nd shittiest location in the dorm.’ As you walked into the dorm you walked across the short dimension of the room. Turning left there were two isles with cots on either side running length-wise across the room [see diagram]. The shittiest bunk was the 1st one on that 1st aisle, directly across from the dorm officer’s station. Every single inmate must walk past coming and going, whether going to the bathroom, which was on the other side of the dorm entrance, or whether entering or leaving the dorm. That bunk totally sucked.
My bunk was the 1st corner bunk on the 2nd aisle, which meant that ‘only half’ of all the traffic coming and going every day passed by me. I know you will say, “wait a minute! How is this corner bunk any different than all the other bunks right near it?” Think about it: If you have a row of bunks lined up, each one has a little aisle between it and the next bunk. This aisle becomes the jealously-guarded personal space of the guy in the bunk next to it on one side. Each bunk in the row gets this personal space — except the last bunk on the corner — me.
I started trying to settle into my new digs. They didn’t issue me or any other of the “new gains” lockers or pillows at first. Within about twoweeks I had obtained these necessities by hook or by crook. I had my first chance to go to the “canteen” and get the bare necessities there — a lock for my locker, deodorant, decent soap, cup, bowl, pens, paper, envelopes, stamps, etc., etc. I was sort of OK.
Prison Life: What Inmates Are Like
I will now attempt to describe my impressions of what the prisoners I met at Swift CI Annex were like and who some of the most memorable characters were.
I will begin by referring back to the description I in Chapter 3 of inmates at the NSRC in the block constantly yelling back and forth and rapping. I am pleased to report that the minute I was transferred from a cell block to a dorm that all stopped — 60–70 guys living together in a dormitory situation just won’t put up with that shit. Still, a prison dorm is pretty noisy place most of the day and evening. Next time you find yourself at some kind of event with an audience of 60–70 people many of whom know each other pay attention to the noise level in the crowd before the event starts. It’s going to be pretty noisy with that many conversations all trying to compete with one another for attention. Now imagine that amount of noise all day every day — with a TV blaring in the next room and some guys playing dominoes, chess and cards — laughing, cursing at each other’s moves — in a friendly way — and yelling at the TV especially if there is some sports event on. Noise is inevitable.
Most of the guys come across as regular as you might meet on any street in America. As I got to know them I found myself looking at somebody I was having a casual conversation with and asking “What is this guy doing here? What kind of major crime could he possibly have committed when he seems like such an OK guy?” Most guys would rather not discuss why they are there — nor do they want to know why you are there — unless and until you become close friends (unless, of course, they suspect you might be a sex offender or “chomo” in which case they want to screw you over).
For about 75–80% of the inmate population the reason they’re there boils down to one thing — drugs. Some of them are there for drug trafficking. Most are there for other crimes like armed robbery, car-jacking, kidnapping, domestic violence, burglary, fencing stolen goods etc. etc. The list is limited only by your imagination, but no matter what it is, it almost always comes down to drugs. While standing around outside during one of my transfers one guy was telling the story of how as a junkie he liked to prey on “fat bitches” he’d meet on line — he “liked fat bitches because they were so anxious to gain a man’s attention.” Then he’d live with them and steal their identity, clean out their bank accounts, run up their credit cards and rob them of everything they owned — all to get money to buy junk. “I’m a horrible junkie,” he said, “Horrible! There should be a sign on me that says ‘Hi my name is Mark and in about 2 weeks I’m gonna destroy your life!’”
The only thing unusual about his story is that this guy was so willing to tell it in front of a bunch of strangers. As I looked around my prison dorm and got to know these guys, I couldn’t help but ask myself — is this any way to deal with America’s drug problem? These guys were receiving absolutely no help with their underlying drug problems — they were only be housed there at taxpayer expense for whatever period of time, after which they go back to the streets and are the same drug addicts they were before. In fact many of them admit or even brag that that’s what they’ll do. While they’re in prison they discuss all the best ways to cook meth, divide ribs of junk for maximum profit, etc. — and how to not get caught next time.
Beyond drug addiction, others end up in prison because of mental problems. Of course many are drug addicts with mental problems. Surprisingly, there is some treatment available for these guys in the form of medications. I and other inmates got all of our ‘old guy’ meds and other common medications from the pharmacy where they issued 1-month supplies and refills just like at home. These one-month supplies are called “keep on person” aka, K.O.P. meds. But twice each day the guards called out “Single dose!! Single dose!!” which was the call for guys to get their mood-altering psych meds. Obviously the prison pharmacy is not going to trust you with a 30-day supply of those! Besides, you wouldn’t want to have them in your locker because they’d be a target for theft. The guys receiving these meds were mostly the inmates with mental problems that could be helped by psych meds. The question remains, would these guys stay on their meds whenever they got back on the street? Probably not.
A prison dorm is almost like a small town, with all the necessary functions provided. Some of the inmates take on these functions as part of their hustle using skills they had on the outside. In my dorm at Swift there were two barbers, one specialized in beard trimming and the other in haircuts. There was a tailor! Suppose you got a rip in your pants like happened to me. Take them to the tailor and get that repaired for 1 honeybun. He also sold me a hat for 2 honeybuns. There was no radio repair man in our dorm until my friend Harry arrived on the same day as me. For the first couple of weeks he kept telling me that was his hustle the other times he was inside. Yes, you need a radio repairman because prisoners are allowed to buy cheap crappy radios through the “inmate package” program. They broke down a lot so being a “radio man” can be a good hustle. In addition, some guys want to get their radio hot-rodded or made more powerful in some way — another good hustle. Harry kept talking himself up and pretty soon — tadahh! — somebody produced an improvised soldering iron they no longer wanted. Price — 1 “soup” (package of ramen noodles). Where do you get the solder or the wire to make antennas or do repairs etc? Salvaged from old broke and discarded radios, of course!
Other hustles come from prison job assignments. All inmates have jobs — we were required to “work” at something or enroll in some program or lose our “gain time” for early release. Suppose you are the dorm’s laundry man, responsible for collecting and distributing clothes and taking them to the main laundry and back. The opportunities for side hustles, including “special washes” are endless. How about working “food service” in the chow hall kitchen? It’s a thankless job with long hours and possible arguments or even fights with the other kitchen guys — however! — you have access to better food, more food, and the chance to hustle prized items like burgers and roast chicken legs if you can sneak them back to the dorm.
There are more gay men in prison than you might think. I met quite a few out-of-the-closet gays in prison. I will tell you some surprising stories about them later on. They live in the same dorms and use the same bathrooms and showers as the rest of the guys. Although it seemed to me as an outsider that nobody was bothering them, as I later made gay friends I would hear them complain about ill treatment both from fellow inmates and prison staff — as I will describe in upcoming chapters of this story.
There are homophobes in every crowd and a prison dorm is no exception. These homophobes usually (but not always as you will see) confine themselves to making occasional disgusting comments and wanting to have nothing to do with gays. So much better for the gays, right? Well…
Then there are the sex offenders. Again, there are more than you might think. They range from ‘traditional’ sex offenses like rape or lewd acts to people like myself convicted of child porn, all the way to those charged with child molestation. Of the last two groups many are older white guys with no previous criminal record and few if any tattoos. In fact, if you are part of my target audience for this story you should know that most inmates will automatically assume that any older white man with no tattoos and no past criminal record must be a pedophile. This category of inmate is commonly called a chomo. Most inmates make no distinction between guys with simple child porn charges and those with long sentences for child molestation — they’re all chomos to them. This is especially true of the most moronic asshole homophobes in every dorm.
The worst of the homophobes in my dorm at the Swift Annex was Deno — my next door neighbor of course! — and he called out two known pedophiles for particular attention. If he and his buddy “Worldwide” were to be believed both of the known pedophiles in my dorm were in fact child molesters — I have no way of verifying or refuting that because as you can imagine these old guys were not speaking up for themselves.
The only good news for these known pedophiles was that the majority of the inmates were not bothering them. In fact, one of the two pedophiles in my dorm was a fairly beloved old guy called “Papa Smurf.” He was short, old (77 years), wore glasses, and often had a scruffy beard. Furthermore, we all wear blue prison suits. Doesn’t that all sound like papa Smurf to you? Apparently, he was there with a very long sentence that equated to life in prison at his age, so his crime must’ve been very serious. He was a rather friendly and outgoing person who had become one of the ‘characters’ around the dorm. This status had the beneficial side affect of muting attacks from the the moronic asshole homophobes.
No such luck for the other known pedophile, a 73-year-old guy with health problems, an introverted personality and a pathetic sounding laugh, all of which made him the target of the venom of the moronic asshole homophobes. It was truly sad to watch — especially since his relatively short sentence (3 or 4 years I think) told me his crime was less serious than Papa Smurf’s — more like mine! I could only look on with dread as Deno & Worldwide made fun of him and made derogatory comments in loud voices right to his face.
House Rules — TMI alert!
Then I began to learn about a whole series of housekeeping and bathroom “rules of decorum” that the inmates in my dorm — and every dorm in every prison — lived by and which I had absolutely no clue about but had to learn the hard way.
As shown in the diagram, along one wall was a row of 7 toilet stalls with half walls. Directly across from them was a 3/4 wall which had, as you entered, first several sinks and then several urinals until you reached the back wall. Here’s what I did not know — Toilet #7 in the back, directly across from these urinals was reserved and designated as the jerking-off spot!! How does this work? If there is any piece of clothing draped over the half-wall between stalls 6 and 7 that is a do not disturb sign! This signal can also just mean that a guy wants to take a civilized private shit — or use his cell phone.
Upon first reading this you may well find this whole arrangement ‘disturbing.’ Think again and you will realize that 70 guys all living in close quarters with no sexual outlet — unless one is gay — must come up with some kind of arrangement or they will go crazy.
Now imagine me walking into the bathroom and pulling up to a urinal, blissfully unaware that the ‘do not disturb’ sign was up and there was a guy jerking off right behind me! Naturally he was pretty pissed off about my being there! I survived that breach of etiquette intact and was quickly informed of all the other bathroom rules: Toilet stalls 1–4 were reserved for pissing only — this is so you have someplace to piss when the jerk-off stall is in use. Urinals could only be used when stalls 5–7 are completely empty.
There were other rules as well. There were 8 shower heads. Never use a shower head right next to another guy — you don’t want to get in his personal space. Also, don’t use #1 or 8 because if you use #2 or 7 you will preserve your own personal space on either side of you. These rules were not complex but as a practical matter they meant that even with 8 shower heads only 3 guys could take a shower at any given time. I later learned that almost every dorm has its own ‘house rules’ for the bathroom, all different and some more relaxed than others.
Before coming to prison I had never heard of the term ‘gunning’. Maybe it’s a ‘new’ slang term or maybe I just haven’t been paying enough attention, but in prison this term is widespread and almost always refers to an inmate jerking off in front of or while surreptitiously looking at an officer, usually female. An inmate might do this:
· Because he finds a particular officer attractive and can’t resist the temptation to ‘gun her.’ These guys, like most prison inmates, are totally lacking in impulse conrol, and constantly discuss the relative physical attributes of the female officers.
· It provides one more way of harassing a particular officer or officers he does not like or
· It provides one more way of establishing himself as a bad-ass, since only a real bad-ass would gun an officer.
One night, two officers suddenly marched into my dorm, put a guy in handcuffs, and took him to The Box. A few minutes later my neighbor Deno, as he made himself a cup of coffee, turned to me and said, “So, Z, have you learned anything from that?” I replied, “What should I have learned?” He replied, “Don’t gun Ms. Johnson.” To which I said simply, “Okay … I wasn’t planning to do that anyway…”
That was the first time I’d heard about a gunning incident and saw somebody hauled off to The Box for gunning an officer — but it wouldn’t be the last.
I’m sure you will ask — is this really going on all the time in prisons across America? The answer is, no, not all the time. However, as you read this story, you’ll see that I heard of gunning incidents and saw guys sent to The Box for gunning. I even spent time in The Box with a roommate serving time there for gunning. As you can imagine, a prison dorm is just the kind of place where there would be an awful lot of “locker room talk”. The officers — especially the female officers — frequently warn of swift punishment against anyone caught gunning them. They also impose restrictions on the use of the bathroom — such as, no one can use showers 1–3, which can be fully or partially seen from the ‘bubble’ despite the half-wall. This is not just to prevent gunning — it’s also aimed at preventing ‘indecent exposure’ by guys coming around the end of the half-wall on their way to and from the shower.
To which I say, lady, if you are offended by the sight of 60 men going to and from a locker room shower every day — did you make the wrong career choice?
Shakedowns aka Getting Flipped
Shakedowns are bound to happen in any prison. There you are, minding your own business, when suddenly several officers barge into the dorm and order everybody to get on their bunks and strip down to their boxers. Then everybody lines up to be checked for metal (sometimes with a wand and sometimes with a portable metal detector) and sent to the TV room while these officers search through everybody’s bunks and lockers. Sometimes they are looking for something specific like drugs, weapons or cell phones. Sometimes it’s just for pure harassment or punishment for some real or imagined misbehavior at the dorm. Often the officers deliberately toss crap from the lockers onto the floor, or, I am told, may even take whole lockers and dump their contents on the floor — hence the term “getting flipped”. I never personally experienced this. A shakedown can take up to an hour or more, during which time all the inmates stand around — or for a few guys, sit on the benches in the TV room. No TV of course! If there’s talking going on, the officers may deliberately extend or intensify the search just to teach us a lesson. If they are looking for contraband and find something they may call out a bunk number. If your number is called you’re fucked.
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