Essay: Making Friends in Prison
This is part of a series. For more please go to the Table of Contents.
Throughout my life I’ve not been a person who makes friends easily. I’ve usually had what I call my “one good friend” and for the past 30+ years that friend had been my wife … well, now she was my ex-wife and only time would tell how our friendship would stand up after I left prison.
So even before I went to prison I realized I’d better make some effort to be sociable and get along with people or else I was (a) going to go crazy and (b) be seen by others as a crazy recluse. As things turned out, making prison friends was easier than I thought.
In Chapter 3 I pointed out that my bunkie in The Block was one of the two quiet guys I’d been sitting next to back in the County holding cell and how relieved I was to be with him. His name was Simon. He was very helpful in those first days “showing me the ropes” of prison life. He had been in prison several times so he was a good teacher.
Simon was from the same county as me but as soon as he said something about looking each other up after we got out I told him, “Our friendship is just for here, I have no intention of seeing you again after I’m out — and besides, do you really think my ex-wife will want me bringing around some prison homeboy?! Then she’ll really throw me out for good!” And guess what? He totally agreed with that sentiment.
We remained friends while I was in The Block and he even introduced me to a couple of his prison buddies he knew from his previous trips “inside” — but when we got transferred out of The Block we went to different dorm buildings, and since every dorm was herded around to its daily activities (meals, rec yard, canteen) on separate schedules I rarely saw him after that — and once I got transfered to the Nort Unit I never saw him again.
Upon arriving at the Swift CI Annex I quickly made another friend. In this case I got to know him because we arrived on the same bus and ended up assigned to the same dorm. Harry was about 50 years old, and he was 50% Apache (mom’s side) and 50% Cuban (dad). Religion — traditional Apache pagan, which meant we shared an antipathy toward Christianity — not in its ideal form of course, but as practiced in contemporary America. On the outside he’d been a computer programmer and a successful fiber optic cable installation contractor, but apparently his fondness for cocaine & meth lead him to several prison terms including his current 3-year term at my state’s finest.
Harry had no money this time, but soon set up his radio repair hustle. He also had very few teeth and his denture had gotten broken while he was at his county jail. This meant he needed to trade food with me at the chow hall — his hard stuff for my soft stuff — I was laying off the breads & cakes anyway.
Deno — Adversary or Friend?
Swift Annex was the first place I made a true adversary. “Deno,” the guy who “lived next door” to me (i.e. in the next bunk) was, among the moronic asshole homophobes in my dorm, the very worst one. He was an opinionated, loudmouthed know-it-all and narcissist, and by that I mean I believe he could be clinically diagnosed as a narcissist. On the “outside” he was an organized crime drug trafficker who claimed to have done every drug imaginable including lots of acid — so, no surprise it left him mentally unbalanced, right?
On his opposite side from me was his good friend “Worldwide”and together they were merciless towards blacks, gays (despite the fact that I later learned from my friend Jerry that Worldwide was actually gay!) and especially pedophiles. They also gave me a hard time about my housekeeping and personal hygiene — Deno was, among other things, a total neat freak and completely neurotic about his own hygiene. Worldwide was the dorm’s laundry guy. They both were in prison on long terms and had plenty of outside contacts who would look up anybody’s charges & record for them, so at first I lived in terror that that I could be outed at any minute and then my misery would really start.
Worldwide was scheduled for release about 3 weeks after I arrived. As his day approached I wondered how Deno would be after his sidekick left? Better? Even worse? Well it turned out that the answer was … better, at least as far as our own interpersonal relationship was concerned. This may have been partly due to the fact that Worldwide was immediately replaced by a black guy, which made me Deno’s only white neighbor. Oh, I felt so sorry for him! I even stood up to his bullshit on a couple of occasions, mainly through sarcastically obsequious responses to his more outrageous remarks.
I must say that I eventually built a tolerable relationship with Deno. He was even helpful in my hours of fear — you’ll read more about this in Chapters 5 & 6 of my story.
About 2 months after I arrived at Swift CI Annex the bunk “across the street” from me came open. One of the two gay Buddhists in my dorm [see Essay “How I ‘got religion’ in prison”], a tall, skinny white guy named Jerry, was injured playing basketball in the rec yard. He’d been living in a top bunk at the other end of my dorm, but due to his injury he was moved to this lower bunk across from me.
I’d been acquainted with Jerry from the time I became “interested” in Buddhism, and always thought of him favorably. Now he was my next door neighbor, while his gay friend Mark got moved to the kitchen workers dorm at right around the same time. By this time I was going to Buddhist Discussion Group call-outs, so we had that much in common. Soon we were talking philosophy, which expanded into more wide-ranging topics, and we were friends. Not boyfriends of course, but that’s not what either of us was looking for. And since by this time I knew that others in my dorm knew my secret, I soon “came out” to him. He hadn’t known because he wasn’t a nosy asshole.
Yes, there are some inmates who despite everything have completely turned their lives around in prison. Jerry was certainly one of them. With no help from my state’s “correctional system” he’d corrected his own behavior — any objective observer could see he was ready to return return to society and be a productive citizen. Yet there he was, only just over half way through his 20-year sentence and the correctional system did not care.
It so happens that Jerry was also the first person, when he found out I was keeping a journal of my imprisonment, to urge me to write this story and figure out some way to get it out to the wider world. This was even before my brother started encouraging me to write. Jerry thought I had something unique to say, and that my story could be a lesson to others who might be getting themselves caught up in on-line child porn addiction.
Just a few days after making a new fiend in Jerry I lost my “old friend” Harry.One day right after “morning count” the dorm officer called his bunk number and said “Pack your shit!”
Just like that, but they also had him roll up & carry his mattress, which meant he wasn’t going farther than walking distance. That turned out to be the Swift CI Main Unit (next door but operated as a completely separate prison) which was the closest place where they “offered” the drug counseling & recovery program that was required for all drug offenders. I had never even asked Harry what his charges were — figuring it was none of my business — but this suddenly made a lot of sense considering how freely he admitted his love of coke & meth.
So after a brief goodbye, off he went carrying his bedroll rolled up into a backpack and holding all his shit in his laundry bag & canteen bag — as I had seen before and would see many more times.
PS — I could take this opportunity to launch into another tirade about how this drug counseling & recovery program should be required of almost all inmates in all prisons, not just those whose charges are actually drugs; and how every prisoner should be required to “prove the negative” that drugs were not the root cause of whatever charges they really are in prison for in order to be exempted from the drug counseling & recovery program and how drug counseling & recovery should be the main business of every prison in America and …
But no — I won’t do that.
With friends like these … ?
I made a few “friends” while at Hayes CI — some of whom I either soon began to have second thoughts about or where the relationship kept shifting & changing.
I met Wilbur on my second or third day at Hayes, while walking back from the chow hall. The first (and almost only) thing he wanted to talk about was the troubles he was having as a sex offender inmate [see Inmate Profiles, “Wilbur — Thank heaven for little girls”]. He was due to go home in about nine months and couldn’t find an affordable place to live that would meet all of my state’s very harsh but not unusual distance and separation rules for sex offenders. He wanted to know if I knew of any possibilities, but then was jealous when I told him and do at least part of my probation living with my ex-wife (Ha-ha!! If I’d known what was really gonna happen to me once I got dumped on the street, Wilbur would’ve had no need for jealousy — but that is a story for another time … ). Beyond that he felt victimized by other (younger, blacker) inmates as an (older, whiter) sex offender, and talked about that often.
I soon came to feel that Wilbur’s biggest personality flaw was that he wasn’t the least bit discreet! I wanted to live quietly and not draw attention to myself (even though as an older white man first time in prison and with no tattoos, I was not exactly fooling anybody and had given up on my “cover story”). But he wanted to sit around my bunk and wallow in his self-pity. I did not like that! At all!
It was true he possessed some interesting documents related to sex offender probation and state registration. The most interesting was a spreadsheet summarizing the sex offender registration requirements of all 50 U.S. states. It showed residence distance and presence requirements, duration of registration, visitor rules, etc. I will have much more to say about this spreadsheet and its implications for any sex offender’s life after prison, but not until Book 2 of this story [see Book 2, Chapter 2, “Probation & Beyond”].
Yes it was a very interesting spreadsheet and it set in motion a chain of thoughts about my future, but it didn’t overcome the fact that I didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to myself by having the dorm’s best known and most indiscreet pedophile hanging around my bunk. I told Wilbur to stay away. I “unfriended” Wilbur, demoting him to “acquaintance.”
Trayvon was the first, best friend I made at Hayes CI and he very quickly became much, much more than a friend. I have so much to say about him that he rates his own chapter in this story [see Chapter 9, “Trayvon”]. You can read all about him there.
Not long after I arrived at Hayes CI a large black man named “Red” (because of his skin color), whom a few white guys had cautioned me about as being “hard to get along with,” moved into the bunk next door to me. I decided to do my best to get along, and at first I was assisted in this when Trayvon & Red became friends — primarily I suppose because they both worked the PM shift in kitchen and had the same days off.
It turned out the Red thought of himself as an intellectual (and in fairness he was no dummy), so as time went on we started having philosophical discussions / debates. Predictions that he’d be an unreliable debt payer (“Can I have two soups, man? I’ll pay you back tomorrow … “), however, were true.
Then, only about a week or so after they became friends, Trayvon & Red had a big argument and never got along after that. In fact Trayvon was even jealous whenever I would talk philosophy or religion with Red. I told him, “Get over it, man — you’ve got nothing to worry about. There’s exactly NO chance I’m ever gonna dump you in favor of Red!”
My relations with Red continued to be okay but tended to be rocky at times. He was proud, conceited, opinionated & sarcastic, so sometimes when we talked or debated things went well and sometimes they didn’t. He also chafed at the short financial leash I kept him on — so between all that sometimes we weren’t on speaking terms for days at a time.
But it so happened that when all the food service guys got moved to F Dorm [see Chapter 10, “I am a stupid idiot!”] it was on a day when Red & I were in pretty good shape, and I even made a deal to buy his really nice mattress for the low low price of 3 bags of chips! Goodbye Red — it’s been interesting!
I got to know Tiger after having been at Hayes CI a few weeks. He was a black man in his 50’s. The way I got to know him was he lived next door to Trayvon — therefore I could go hang out over there with both of them at the same time. Tiger liked to “live off the canteen” [see Prison food really sucks!], making his own meals in the dorm and only rarely going to the chow hall. He also like to “cook” goulashes & wraps and even pizzas (!) for his friends. A group of us would each contribute something, like chili & beans or soups or cheese squeezes etc. etc. and he’d prepare it and we’d all share it. It was actually Red who pointed out to me that Tiger was the dorm’s “buck man” [See Chapter 8, “Passing Go,”]. Once I realized what a special position Tiger held in my dorm I thought his friendship — and his wisdom in the ways of prison dorm life — would be as valuable to me as Trayvon (of course, without the “extra benefits”), and now there they were, my two best friends, right next door to each other.
However, things with Tiger later took an unexpected turn. I will have more to say about that when I tell you about the events that followed after all the food service guys moved to F Dorm — including of course Trayvon & Red [see Chapter 10, “I am a stupid idiot!”].
I first met “Stark” thru Trayvon, who for reasons I’ve never understood decided to tell him about us almost as soon as he met him when Stark arrived in our dorm out of the Box. Then only a few days later Trayvon decided Stark was a useless mooch and never wanted much to do with him again. Meanwhile Stark continued to hang around with me at least partly because he found out I was a Buddhist and had become interested in it. I loaned him the few Buddhist books I had and we talked about it and soon enough he was waving an Inmate Request form at me asking how to change his religious affiliation and sign up for Buddhist call-outs.
Pretty soon we were talking about all kinds of stuff in addition to Buddhism. If I had seen a roster ahead of time of everybody I’d meet at Hayes G Dorm I never would’ve guessed that he’d be the one I’d sit around talking philosophy, psychology & science with. He had a strange way about him that made him never seem like he was being serious when we talked, and he often made sarcastic comments that would throw any discussion off course. This all took a bit of getting used to but once I did I realized that, well, he was a pretty interesting guy.
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