There were a few things that weren’t quite working out for me. Every morning we would go stand in line for clothes change. I am not a big man. I’m pretty average, 5’9”, 150 lbs., but I had put on some weight in jail from eating nothing but starch and candy all the time. I could not seem to get the clothes-house man on our block to give me the right sized clothes. Clothes exchange would only take place for about half an hour to forty-five minutes after breakfast every day. I would go to the window and he’d say, “What size?” I’d tell him that I wore a 32 out on the street, but that I wasn’t sure in prison if those sizes translated. He’d give me a pair of pants, a giant t-shirt, and yell, “Next. What size?” and I would be finished like it or not. This seemed to go on for weeks. No matter what size pants I requested, I kept getting ones that were two sizes too small. They were skin tight, and the only thing I could do to try to maintain any kind of modesty was to wear this oversized, giant t-shirt that somehow looked like a dress. The pants were too tight to try to tuck the shirt into. It was pushing summer, and so too hot to wear the shirt jacket over all of this. Slowly but surely I was being dressed the way that somebody wanted me to be dressed; Also, because of my friendship with Kenny I was getting hoots and offers for sex just about everywhere that I went in the prison. I remember one morning at breakfast one of the line cooks called me over from my table. I didn’t know him and couldn’t imagine what he could want. I went over and said, “Yeah?” He told me that I could do much better than Kenny; that I could have anybody I wanted in this WHOLE prison. He knew that I was new there, but he could show me the ropes. I told him, “I’m straight,” which I meant as “I am not homosexual”, but which he seemed to interpret as, “I’m not interested in anyone but Kenny.” I couldn’t seem to get my message across. I’ve always felt like I had a pretty good handle on human sexuality. I know that there are an infinite number of varying types of sexuality. I’ve had a pretty good understanding of that since I was a kid. I never really cared. I’ve spent plenty of time going dancing with friends at both gay clubs and straight clubs, drank at a number of “lesbian bars” and gay bars and straight bars. It was never a problem for me or even awkward for that matter. When someone would misidentify me as gay, I’d simply explain that I wasn’t. If someone who was gay hit on me, I never considered it a big deal; I’d simply explain that I was flattered, but not interested because I am heterosexual. For some reason, I expected this same reality in prison. I thought that if I simply explained who I was to the men who made passes at me then that would be the end of it, but I didn’t know about competing for status in prison. I didn’t know about power and control. I didn’t know that people and relationships could be bought and sold.
They started to ship men out of the prison at astounding rates. Busloads of men were leaving every night. A new prison had just been built down the road. It was larger. It was better for facilitating close custody inmates. Kenny was concerned that they might move him there. He had been at Eastern for nearly four years, and had grown quite comfortable. This new camp, it was rumored, was twenty-four hour lock down. Eastern had some tight rules. You had to write a request twenty-four hours in advance to be able to make a phone call, and then the guard would have to come and unlock the phone, dial the number, and stand nearby while you talked, for example- if you could find a guard that had ten minutes to kill who was willing to honor the request. They would lock you out on the yard or in the dorms during shift changes, which could take anywhere from half an hour to an hour. Not a big deal, unless you have to pee. Eastern, however, would be nowhere near the structured living that this new camp promised to become. There were rumors that no one was allowed to play cards there. A lot of guys were getting truly nervous about this. It was a constant topic of conversation out on the yard, in the dining hall, walking the halls. Kenny had requested to see his caseworker looking for some reassurance. He came back satisfied. He was sure that they wouldn’t be moving him, because he was such an excellent janitor.
I had started attending the prison’s AA meetings. They weren’t really anonymous at all. On different nights either a guard would sit in the circle with us, or one of the caseworkers would work late and he or she would sit in the discussion with us, so it was like an AA meeting in that we all sat in a big circle, and we read some of the readings that formally start the AA meetings, and we would say, “Hi my name is ________________ and I am an alcoholic, “ before talking; but because there was an authoritative presence actually in the room with us nobody was really going to say much. Also, the people sitting in the room with us that weren’t inmates had some say in determining our futures. They would be making recommendations for custody levels, and job assignments, and evaluations, so anything that WAS said was done in an attempt to get into these people’s good graces. The other thing was that while many of us did struggle with addictions on the outside, most of the people that were attending the 12-step meetings were there because they were required to be- they could not give a damn about what was said during a meeting. They were only there to sign a sheet of paper saying that they had attended, so that they could get promoted eventually to minimum custody, or so that they could report it to a potential parole board somewhere. Anonymity? Anonymity was out the window at this point. There was not much use in talking about feelings, or fears, or remorse, or much of anything at this type of meeting. It was useless.
I was sent to Eastern specifically because they had counselors that worked at the prison. Eastern housed about 500 inmates and about a quarter of them were there for mental health services. They had an entire block dedicated to men with severe mental illnesses, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, men who needed pretty heavy drugs to control their behaviors, or to quiet the voices in their heads. They lived on this one block, but mostly interacted with the rest of the prison population at will. We shared the same yard, the same basketball court, the same weight pile. I had one friend who was locked up because when he was un-medicated he had believed he was God, and stabbed someone to death in the middle of a busy highway. I had another friend who regularly saw men in black, believed we were being watched over by invisible men in helicopters. Other men just shuffled down the hallways, a sad mimic of Night of the Living Dead, no arm swing, tiredly dragging their feet, blinking lethargically, asking over and over and over, “Do you have any tobacco?” pathetically.
Eastern had some degree of mental health counseling because of this. Most prisons don’t. They had one psychiatrist, and a few psychologists, I think. The judge, my judge, in a defying move of compassion, had made access to counseling a required part of my sentence, and so I was sent here because this prison had it to offer. I was allowed to speak with a counselor once a month for about a half-an-hour to forty-five minutes.
One morning there was a bunch of hollering in the chow hall kitchen. I had just been through the line, had gotten my breakfast, and had gone to sit down with Kenny. One of the servers, the guy who had hit on me, had accidentally dropped a strip of bacon into an entire vat of grits, making it inedible to the Muslim or Jewish population. The guy who had made the grits was madder than hell about it, and the verbal sparring ensued. Eventually, this server was removed from his position. He would not be allowed to continue living on the other side of the prison where all of the kitchen workers lived. He’d have to move immediately. I did not realize until much later that this had all been done intentionally.
Kenny ended up shipping out that night. We were sitting downstairs, drinking our coffees, when an officer brought Kenny three shipping bags and told him to pack up; he was heading down the road. Kenny protested, went and begged the officer on duty to call his caseworker, talked to everybody that he could. It didn’t matter. It was decided. Somewhere between midnight and two in the morning I woke up to the sound of someone banging repeatedly against my door. I pulled myself up tiredly, looked up to see who it was, and there was Kenny with his gentle grin waving. “Bye-by, “ he said smiling. “Bye-by.” I said, “See ya, Kenny.” Rolled over and went back to sleep.
To be continued…