Christmas Reflection (2005-Incarceration)


It’s Christmas. December 25th, 2005. There’s something about Christmas in prison that tends to make me appreciate the holiday even more.I couldn’t sleep a wink last night. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I tossed and turned for hours before I finally admitted defeat and got up, in the earliest morning hours, to face the day.


It rained all night – a slow, steady drizzle with occasional gusts of wind, which blew soft sheets of water against my Lexan windows. It definitely added atmosphere to my mood…


I sit in my cell thinking of Christmases past, all the people: friends, families, strangers – some Christmases have been very happy, filled with warmth and love and cheer. Others – well, tragedy is no respecter of holidays.

This morning, everyone in my cellblock wakes up slowly. “Yo-yo” is the first person I see. He is sitting in a chair, in the dayroom, waiting for the television to be turned on. I am going to get hot water from the fountain, for my coffee (instant). Neither of us wants to disturb the tranquility of the moment. As I walk past, I lift a hand in silent greeting.“Merry Christmas”, he says softly, smiling toothlessly through his walrus moustache.

“Merry Christmas, Yo-yo,” I quietly return. Then I fix my coffee and head back to my cell. Nothing more is said. Nothing more needs to be said.


At 7 A.M. breakfast is called: scrambled eggs, grits, toast. I am enjoying my solitude and want to be left alone with my musings. I dine by myself.

My friend, “Bahama”, sits at the table next to me. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness and is adamantly opposed to any holidays. He knows that I love them, so it’s become kind of a running joke between us. I’ll wish him a “very merry Christmas” and he’ll grumble and complain loudly about the devil having my soul. This always makes me laugh. This morning he asks if I am going to eat my toast. I tell him no and offer it to him. As he reaches over and takes it off of my tray, I grin and say “Merry Christmas, Bahama!” (Gotcha!)

He, of course, in his heavy island accent, begins a lengthy discourse on “the evils of San-ta Clos.” I’m too tired to argue or even discuss my thoughts. I laugh and go back upstairs.


At 7:30 AM I go to the chapel to set up the music equipment for this morning’s service. One of my closest friends, Al, is setting up the chairs. Neither of us talks. It’s not necessary. While he lays out the hymnals, I run my fingers across the piano keys to warm up. I play a slow rendition of “Silent Night”, while inmates file in, greeting each other. The chapel is packed.


The chaplain asks for prayer requests. Hands shoot up: “Families”, “soldiers”, “victims”, “the body of Christ as a whole.”

I raise my hand. I almost never do this. It’s too personal….I say, “Let’s remember to give thanks for everything we’ve been given.”

We pray, sing, pray some more. The chaplain is in rare form. He gives a passionate, historical perspective on the meaning of Christmas.

After the service is over, we all stand around shaking hands and hugging, talking a little. We file out.

I go back up to my room and read for a little while. Finally, thankfully, sleep overtakes me.

Boy, do I sleep. I sleep right through lunch. When I finally do wake up, it is 1:30 P.M. I lie in my bed staring at the textured concrete ceiling, allowing my thoughts to freely drift. I think about my victims’ families. What are they doing right now? Are they able to laugh? I think of old friends who never write anymore. I hope they’re okay. I wonder where I’ll be this time next year. Probably right here.

I get out of bed, shower, and decide to try and call my family. They had asked me to call on Christmas day the last time we spoke. I told them I would try. No guarantees – but I’d try.

I am the seventh person in line for the phone. This will be, at least, a one-hour wait. “Mascot” is in front of me, as well as “Easy-baby”, “Two”, “Rev” and some guys I don’t really know. Every once in a while a call is cut short because no one answers. This leaves me with an odd feeling of sadness and elation. I feel bad because they’re my friends and I know that they just want to talk to their kids. I’m happy, though, to be that much closer to using the phone.

As we stand there, our conversations revolve around new bicycles and family feasts. It is a conversation held in whispers, out of respect for the person on the phone, and because of the grim knowledge that none of us will be seeing the smiling faces of our loved ones any time soon.

Click. Thunk. “Blink, you’re up.” It is my turn to use the phone. My hands are shaking. My heart thuds with apprehension as I dial the number and enter my code. “God, please let them be there,” I pray silently.

One ring.

Two rings.

Three rings.

“Oh, man, they’re not there. They’re probably at church with my sister and her kids,” I think to myself.

Another ring.

“Oh, well….”

An answer! But it may be an answering machine. It’ll take a moment to be sure, one way or the other. Finally, I hear “Hello?”, and a simultaneous, “Hi, Robert”, my mother and father – smiling voices. I can feel myself grinning as they relate the latest adventures of my niece, Anna, and my three nephews, Tim, Brian, and Austin, who are all growing up too fast. We talk about my dog, Gracie, who Mom and Dad adopted when I came to prison. There is never a moment of silence between us. This is a ten-minute phone call and we can’t waste a second of it. What’s discussed never matters. It’s just the warmth of their voices, the sounds of unconditional love. The call is over too soon. It always is. They tell me they’re proud of me, and I tell them I love them. Our conversation ends.

I call the next guy in line as I walk past, almost strutting, a little taller, and a little stronger.

I go outside for a walk. The ground is saturated. There’s no rain, but the wind is whipping. The clouds are dark and ominous. It’s cold, but not unbearably so.

I note the reflections of the clouds in the puddles as I try, unsuccessfully, to step around and over them. In some ways, the reflections are prettier than the clouds.

The yard is mostly empty. The wind carries a few muffled conversations. The quiet is welcome, since those of us who are outside came here to be alone – for reflections.

I go to the weight pile, sit on a bench, and talk to my friend, Ron, for a short time. He tells me his mother is upset because she’s too sick to come see him today. His wife is in New York. His daughter has just been accepted to college, but he doesn’t know which one. Ron is deeply religious, maybe a little crazy, like mild schizophrenia or something. He starts talking about God and the bible and seems to have an entire argument with himself. Not knowing exactly what to say, I simply nod in agreement whenever he seems to make a point or come to some conclusion. Finally, he suspects it’s about to rain, and beats a path inside. The last thing he says is, “Merry Christmas, Blink.” I smile. “Merry Christmas, Ron.”

I’m left alone, meditating on the movement of air pushing down from Canada, across the frigid great lakes, and into the southeast, where I am now. I’m thinking about the rotation of the earth. Eighteen miles per second. I hear a crow.

“Kaaaw. Kaaaw!”

He swoops down out of a pine tree and sets a straight, determined course across the field next to the prison. Just a month ago, that field was white with cotton. Now it’s brown. The grass has gone dormant. The trees, all except the pines, are skeletons.

“Kaaaw. Kaaaw!”

I go back inside, sit in my cell, read for a while, and then dinner is called. At dinner, most of the discussion is about families. There are stories of what we heard on the phone. We talk about cards and letters we’ve received. The meal: beans, rice, an apple, and two slices of bread. Many people will go hungry today. I’m grateful for this meal.

It’s evening. The prison is locked down for the night. Guys are playing scrabble, cards, chess, or watching football. Some are sleeping. “Nam” is sitting at a table, listening to a radio, rolling cigarettes for tomorrow. I read for a while and go to sleep.









The Day Big Baby Got Free

IMG_0995We had all gathered into the gym to say our final farewells. I somehow felt obligated to go. I didn’t know “Little Baby” well; just saw his big smiling face around the hallways, or when I would go through the line during chow. He would always whisper his offer of “Fried rice?” That was his hustle, had been for years. Fried rice. But I liked his smile, big, white, barn door front teeth that contrasted nicely to his blue-black skin. He was as dark as a crow at midnight. I couldn’t begin to guess his age, except for the fact that he had grown up with so many of the guys that I spent time with out on the yard, so that would make him close to my age give or take a decade, in this case probably give.

I always thought that it was odd the way everyone seemed to age so well in prison. I really couldn’t account for it, at least not until my first winter. That was the first year the heat exchange had been broken, missing some part or another, and it would take a while to get here. I ended up gathering everything that I could before I lay on my bunk at night: clothing, books, trash bags, rolls of toilet paper…everything and using those to cover myself in, trying to do whatever I could to maintain whatever heat was generated by my own body. That’s when I had a realization; We weren’t aging any better than anyone else on the outside. We were being cryogenically preserved…slowly…over time. The heater broke every single year that I was down. Every. Single. Year.

Big Baby had fallen dead walking down the hallway one day on his way back to the block, I suppose. Nobody really knew why. A couple of guys that had known him from the streets and had been close with his family had told me that his body hadn’t been released for autopsy yet. The family was furious, but the state owned his body, and they would do everything within their own power and need to cross their I’s and T’s before he was released to the family. It had been a damn week, and we were all righteously angry about this, because whatever happened to Big Baby happened to US!

When they did finally release his body, I heard about it out on the yard. I think it was Tounk who told me. I loved Tounk, like a brother. Tounk had quite literally taught me how to be in prison. He had been my guide, explained to me what hustles to look out for, showed me who was safe and who wasn’t. He had been down for more of his life than not; good looking guy, and charming (Tounk had been both married and divorced four times on state!) So we were close and he was safe, but I didn’t learn until a couple of years after I had been transferred to a lower custody level what Tounk was really in for…and that’s about as real as it gets. He had told me that he had shot a man in the leg who later died and had been charged with murder two, even though it had been self defense. Out of respect for a friend, I won’t say what Tounk was really in for, but even now it disappoints me that the level of trust I had extended to him wasn’t ever reciprocated. I don’t blame him, don’t blame him at all, but it is sad.

Tounk, Y.O., Wisdom, all of us had been huddled up on the yard talking about how they had taken Big Baby’s body out in shackles. For all of us it was the ultimate form of disrespect, and if you’ve never worn shackles, I hope you never understand.

In the gym the prison choir sang some old hymns. My friend Al led everyone. Al was in his sixties. He had a speech impediment that made him tough to understand when he talked, but he loved to sing, and he would proudly tell you that he had only ever read one book in his life, The Bible. What I learned later was that he had taught himself to read using that book. Al had also been in and out of prison his whole life. Al’s brother was on death row in another state, and his sister had been locked up for murder, his parents had been violent towards each other, but Al didn’t consider it abuse, because sometimes his mom would beat his dad nearly as badly as he had beat her.

I had played piano for the prison choir. I didn’t know how to play piano, and this is truly where I learned, banging out chords to old southern black spirituals. I had hired on as a harmonica player when they first put the band together, but they needed someone to play piano and I needed to play music. I played about five nights a week and twice on Sundays, but honestly, I was in the midst of my own existential crisis and didn’t think much about going to anymore church services at this time; so I sat this one out.

Some distant relatives of Big Baby that he was locked up with, cousins and such; Others whom had grown up with him said a few words.

We all had a good laugh about his hustle of selling dirty rice out on the yard and in the hallways. I would occasionally buy peanut butter from kitchen workers out on the yard. Big Baby knew that I was vegetarian and had offered to make mine special, with no chicken or meat, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Behind me a couple of inmates whispered quiet angry complaints that we should be discussing Big Baby’s hustle so openly while prison staff was present. They weren’t frightened for Big Baby, not anymore. They were angry that we had collectively exposed a future hustle.

That was the only time during this service that I had whispered, “Jesus.”

Part of me had been jealous; I guess part of all of us had been a little Jealous. Big Baby was free.

The rest of us would just have to endure.

The rest of us would have to look for laughter in the hidden spaces.

On the Fourteenth Anniversary of My Sobriety



The truth is that I can remember almost the exact moment when I finally gave up the sadness that had consumed my life. It would be hard to say that I was “suicidal”, but more accurate to say that I thought about suicide all the time. Every single day. I am pretty sure that any true human that had gone through what I had gone through, who had committed my offenses, would naturally feel the same way.  Had I not had the support of so many good, loving, and forgiving people I am absolutely certain that I would not have survived this.  I woke up every day wishing that I hadn’t, wishing that death would consume me in my sleep one night, wishing to be freed.  I remember weeping to a friend just in utter despair, “I cannot be this person.  There is not enough of me. I just don’t think I can be this person,” tears streaming down my face.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around the terrible loss. Six people were no longer alive and I could try as hard as I might, but in the end it would still always be my fault.  How could I wake up to this every day? For the rest of my life? And this was like a mantra to me, a wheel in my mind that kept turning incessantly.

Somehow or another I did keep waking up.  Books became my Refuge, well, books, and writing.  I did both of those things, wrote and read like a man on fire. I don’t know what I was trying to get out of them.  The books gave me a place to go, hours and hours of lying on a hard prison bunk just devouring entire novels. I read everything.


I think the writing was a different thing.  I was trying to make sense out of things.  Writing gave me a place where no matter what happened in prison I could be safe. Cut me and I will write about it.  Be cruel and I will write more.  Rape me, stab me, beat me…I will write it down.

The rest of my life outside of those two things though were just an inescapable sadness.  I would walk the prison hallways with a book in my hand, no reason to look up.  There’s nothing in prison to look up for, the only thing to run into are walls.

The mail stopped coming after about a year.  That was a lonely time.  I wasn’t dead. Worse. I was forgotten.  Based on a friend’s recommendation I started sending off for junk-mail from magazines. Travel catalogs mostly.  That way I could hear my name called out during mail call, and I could lie on my bunk, smoke cigarettes and peruse the pictures of places that existed out there…somewhere…somewhere that forest, that ocean, that castle, was real. And I felt hope in their beauty.  I would pace my cell endlessly and think of the crashing of waves still going on…somewhere.

I cried so much and for so long that my eyes hurt.  My eyes always seemed to hurt from crying.

One day though it just stopped.  I had this beautiful realization that my sorrow was self-consuming.  It was something that I had indulged in long enough and it was time to stop.

It really did seem that easy, like I had just had enough.  And just like that I stopped.  Not altogether, but for the most part it went away.  I realized that somehow I had made this accident, this tragedy, all about me, and in doing so I was dishonoring the lives, the loves, that had been lost.  I reasoned that I did not have much to offer back for the hurt that was caused.  I could stay sober.  That was one vow I could keep, but more importantly, I could be happy.  I WOULD be happy!  I owed this much. Had the accident happened in a different way and my life had been the one that was lost this is what I would want for the person who was responsible.  I would want them to live their life in a way that was authentic and engaged, to revel in its beauty.

I would want them to SHINE!

And shine on I do! My life is magic.

It has to be nothing less than magic, a glimmering gem on an ocean of stars.

It can’t be anything less because at the end of the day THAT’S what I owe.  That is my greatest amend, to live my life in a beautiful blaze of Star Shine!

Tonight at the end of my day I’ll do the most menial task.  I’ll drag the trashcans down to the end of the driveway, and when I do, as I often do, I’ll look up at the night sky, which was something that had been lost to me during my incarceration, and I’ll listen to the wind blowing across the surrounding fields.  I’ll take a giant breath of the cleanest air and I will whisper a quiet thank-you.

I’m sorry for what happened.  I will always think that this, my sobriety, my splendid, exquisite life has cost too much. I can never be worthy enough. But I can be grateful, eternally grateful.

I am sorry.

Thank you.

  1. Robert Veeder

Waking Up Sober

My sobriety date is tomorrow. I’ll always dread it and revere it. I never thought it was even possible. But I got and stayed sober because other people lost their lives as a direct result of my use. I announce it because I’m truly proud. And because I owe it to others to do so. I don’t count down to it. But it’s an inevitable date for me. It’s something that I simply cannot avoid. It’s a day of sadness, deep reflection and even some celebration. There is no other date in my life like this one, like November 1st. I’m sharing this with you so that you can hold it in your hearts with me. A lot of innocent people payed for my sobriety that night. Thank you for being part of my life, my liveliness, my tragedy and my recovery. Thank you for continuing to hold me up and for celebrating my small victories with me.
And please, please, please…always drive sober; there are some things that you can never give back. Some nights you never want to have to wake up from.

On Incarceration and Classical Music

Ben and Mozart’s 21st


I was locked up with this guy named Ben. I’d loosely call him a friend. Ben was a hard person to like. He was arrogant, disrespectful, and altogether superior to the rest of us. He had been locked up for around twenty years, and didn’t like any of us. But prison friendships are different. They’re formed often out of necessity. Outside of that world, that insane micro-verse, I would never have associated with Ben, and I’m sure that I can safely say that he held the same sentiment for me. In fact, after I was released Ben and I corresponded twice. My second letter made him so angry that he has refused to write me since- that’s Ben.

Ben and I spent endless hours walking the yard together, day after day. We frequently sat together at the chow hall, mostly arguing about, well, with Ben you could argue about damn near anything. That was most of the reason that we hung out together. Ben was insanely intelligent. In his prior life he had been a radio announcer for a classical music station. Ben had one of those rich, clear, beautiful British accents, and he loved classical music; so, mostly that’s what we would talk about. Ben taught me all about the lives of the composers. He told me what to listen for. He taught me the difference between a symphony, a sonata, and a concerto. It wasn’t unusual at all for Ben to excitedly rap on the door to my cell late at night to tell me that I needed to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto exclaiming, “Itzhak Perlman sure can play that little box can’t he?!?”

It was so rare to talk to someone so educated in prison, where the literacy rates are…well, it was just hard to witness. So, while I openly despised Ben, and he me, we clung to each other like old barnacles, soaking up the salt.

One long, hot afternoon Ben and I were tearing apart arguments revolving around the existentialists, Camus, Sartre, which inevitably spun into theology, and a heated debate about what we were here for, why does the universe exist at all.

“So, you tell me, Ben. Why DOES the Universe exist?” I demanded.

“Oh, that,” Ben said, “that’s easy.”

Now I was curious.

“It is?”

Ben said, “Oh sure. The Universe was created so that Mozart could write his 21st symphony. A brilliant piece of music.” He sighed wistfully.

Frustrated, I said, “Well, that’s been done. What the hell are we doing now?”

Ben shrugged with indifference, “Oh now? Well, now we’re just cruising.”

I’ve been laughing about that one ever since.


And tonight I put on Mozart’s 21st while Kara puts Story to bed. I sigh happily that that world is so far away. And as much as I despise him still; I just wish they’d let poor Ben go. He was a jerk, but there’s a place in the world for them too.


“Now we’re cruising.”

Thanks, Ben.

Protective Custody, My Ass – Part V. (Conclusion)

The next day, the kitchen worker moved into our block, into Kenny’s old cell. He introduced himself, said he was looking forward to getting to know me better. I reiterated that I am heterosexual. He said he knew, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t be friends. He’d be happy to help me out. Had I been on the weight pile at all? Because he could really help me out on the weight pile. He was huge. He was just a big guy, who had obviously spent a lot of time on the weight pile; and I had never lifted any weights at all, not at all in my whole life, but I had all of this time to do and what the hell, right? But I was sure that he wasn’t the guy to show me how. I didn’t trust him at all, not at all. When he looked at me, my skin crawled. He didn’t see me at all. I wasn’t sure what it was he did see, but it sure wasn’t me. So I said, “You want to help me?”

“Yeah, you name it,” he smiled broadly with too many teeth.

“Help me convince the clothes house man that these pants don’t fit. They’re too tight. They hurt my back. They pinch my waist. I need some clothes that fit.”

He decided that he could do that, that we’d be great friends because of it, and he started following me everydamnwhere. Where I went, he went. Most of the time he would spend pressuring me, telling me how great I’d have it if I did have sex with men.

“You could have everything, baby. And look at this, you got a lot of time to do. How much time you say you have?”

“About eight years, little more.”

“Eight years, well that’s a long time to go with no one to hold. You know, I ain’t queer either.”

“You aren’t?”

“Naaaw. I had me a pretty little wife when I was out there. Pretty little brown-skinned Indian girl. She was Lumbee. You know what Lumbee is?”

I did. It was a North Carolina tribe that was in the newspapers pretty frequently, due to fighting the government over tribal recognition.

He said, “Yeahhh. I just do this in here. It’s just what I gotta do. I been doing this bid a long damn time, ya know? You don’t know it yet, but it get lonely in here. You gonna need someone eventually.”

He would go on and on like this. Secure in who I was sexually, I was unfazed, but I have no doubt that he had honed these skills on a lot of younger men, and that they had worked. This went on for a couple of days, and when it wasn’t him it was another inmate, or another one, who had just learned that Kenny had left and thought that I was suddenly available. I was getting really frustrated at all of the attention. I was getting really tired of having to say no all the time, of having to explain myself. I would lock myself in my cell for most of the day, content to read, or write letters, but even there, guys would knock on my door wanting to talk. Or when that didn’t work they would want to know if I could write a letter home to their aunt for them since they couldn’t read or write. Of course I would write a letter. They would drag their chair to my door and start dictating, and within minutes I’d be given yet another proposition. It was relentless, exhausting.



I had just come back from the AA meeting one evening. The yard outside was closed. I walked past the sergeant’s office, went upstairs to my cell, closed the door, and was in the process of rolling myself a cigarette, when there was a knock on my door. I opened it, and two guards were standing there. I thought it was a routine search. They asked to step in for a moment. I took a few steps back to make space for them. They told me that they needed to talk to me, but they needed me to act like they were just searching my cell. Sure, what was going on? They told me that an inmate had informed them that my new friend, the kitchen worker, had spoken of plans to rape me. It was the former kitchen worker. Of course it was.

I was dizzy with I don’t know what. Confusion? Rage? Terror? What should I do?

They asked me if I wanted protective custody. Protective custody? Checking off? It’s a huge no-no in prison culture. Huge. Like being a snitch kind of huge. It can get you beaten, stabbed, or worse.

“No, sorry, I can’t do it. I can’t check off. I got, like, over eight years to do here. I can’t check off.”

One cop said, “Well, it’s your choice. The last guy this happened to ended up in the hospital. Your friend almost killed him.”

The second cop verified this by saying, “Yeah, he’d tied him up with bed sheets, and had spent the morning taking turns going outside and playing basketball, and coming inside and raping him.”

The first cop, “Maybe nothing’ll happen, but if it’s late at night and we don’t see him pull you into a cell, or he stands there waving and we’re too tired to notice and unlock the wrong door, well, there’s not much we can do after that.”

Oh my God! I cannot believe this is actually happening to me. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!

“Fine, okay, what do I need to do?” I ask desperately.

So they explain the plan. They are going to bring me some shipping bags. I need to put all of my belongings in them, and then they will escort me downstairs and out of the block to the sergeant’s office where I will need to fill out a form.

Down in their office, I fill out a sheet of paper explaining that I felt threatened and that this inmate persistently “kept coming at me” even after repeated requests that he leave me alone, and I sign it at the bottom. After that, the officers go through my belongings and decide on what I can keep and what I cannot keep. They throw away my matches, my tobacco; tell me I have too many letters. They make me take off my shoes. I have to take off my belt too and give it to them.

Then they ask me to turn around, and they place me in handcuffs. That was the last time I ever wore handcuffs.

They escort me to a unit in the center of the prison, upstairs to a new cell, a cell that is only dimly lit, and the windows have been boarded over.

I am in “the Hole.”

Protective custody, my ass.



Protective Custody, My Ass- part IV.


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…

Protective Custody, My Ass part 3

Kenny was the first person that I met at Eastern. I still have good memories of Kenny. Everyone called him “Slim”. He was tall, close to seven feet, dark skin that just soaked up the whole sun. He had a giant smile, and eyes that seemed a little too far apart. He came and introduced himself to me. He was childlike in his innocence. Kenny had just been moved up to this block. He had been down for about 22 years. I can’t remember if he was ever getting out or not, I don’t think so. He had broken both of his ankles and had been in a block downstairs on a medical unit because of this. He had been in a wheel chair for months and months he’d said. I asked how it happened and he’s said it had been a basketball accident, but I’m still not clear as to what happened. He never could seem to explain it in a way that made sense. Kenny was pretty slow. He reminded me of Steinbeck’s Lennie from Of Mice and Men, “Tell me about the rabbits, George.” But honestly, that was kind of what I needed at the time. I didn’t feel like talking too much, and I certainly didn’t feel like talking about anything too heavy. Kenny was the janitor in the block. He was terribly proud of this. Every night after lights out, he would get to stay out in the block and mop the whole place. And every night before he would go to bed he would stop by my door, tap on my window and with a giant smile say, “Night night.”

We would sit downstairs and drink coffee and watch TV together, and in the morning we would go have breakfast together in the chow hall. You could buy individual packets of instant coffee from the canteen for twenty cents a pack, one pack made one Styrofoam cup full of coffee. I hadn’t had coffee in what seemed like forever. You couldn’t get it in jail, or in processing, and suddenly at Eastern, I could. Kenny was impressed because I insisted on drinking my coffee black. He called it, “cowboy style”, with deep satisfaction. After breakfast I would usually retire to my room to read until lunch, and then after lunch Kenny and I would go out on the yard for a while where we would play a game of “guess which hand I am holding this pebble in.” Kenny LOVED that game, and honestly probably could have played it for hours if I hadn’t insisted that we stop so I could go read for a while.

I was a little confused; I still didn’t understand how the custody thing worked. During processing I was told by the caseworker that I would be placed in medium custody. I had too much time to do to be eligible for minimum custody, but I wasn’t dangerous enough or didn’t have enough points or something to necessitate close custody; so, she’d said I would be sent to medium custody, but everyone at this prison was in close custody. Kenny was too. What was I doing here?

I asked Kenny what he was in for, and he’d said that he’d shot and killed a police officer that was trying to attack him. I asked about this a few times, and never could put it all together. The best I could surmise was that Kenny had been driving down the road with a gun under his seat, and a police officer had tried to pull him over for something, who knows what? Routine traffic stop maybe. Kenny didn’t pull over, and the officer had started chasing him. At some point Kenny stopped, and terrified that this officer was trying to kill Kenny, Kenny reached under his seat and pulled out a gun and shot the poor guy in the chest. Jesus. Kenny never did seem to understand why he was in prison. He knew they were going to let him go any day, as soon as they realized that Kenny was innocent, that he had just been defending himself. Poor kid. I bet he’s still in there, and still thinks he’s innocent. I bet he still doesn’t understand what he did.

Kenny may or may not have been gay. Prison sexuality is a whole different thing. I met lots of guys who insisted that they were not gay that had romantic partners in prison. When pressed on this they would typically explain, “Hey, I just do this while I’m in here.” And in close custody it was even kind of the social norm. You were expected to have a partner. I had one friend “Tounk” who ran the card tables for a while. Well, Tounk loved women, but he was expected to have a partner, that was just one of the expectations that people had for him as the person who was running the card tables. Remember, there is a lot of money to be made at the tables, and that can actually become pretty important when you’re locked up. It buys you prestige, name and power. So, Tounk bought a partner so that he could keep running the tables. He purchased one of the most coveted “women” in the prison. He paid her to be his partner, and he paid her to tell everyone that they were sleeping together. This worked well for a while, but eventually Tounk’s partner developed real feelings for someone, and told Tounk that she wanted out of the contract. Tounk told her that he couldn’t just let her go like that; he’d lose face. So, she had to buy him out of the contract. Also, the person that wanted Tounk’s woman would have to fight Tounk over it. It was really the only reasonable solution. She acquiesced, paid off Tounk. They staged a fight, and Tounk’s woman left him happily for another man. Prison sexuality is about a lot of things. Some guys are genuinely homosexual or transsexual, or bisexual, but honestly, a lot of those guys are really not very open about it at all, being so could prove to be dangerous, if not entirely fatal. Other guys are completely out. There are almost always transgender inmates walking the halls, with socks stuffed down the sides of their legs to emulate women’s hips, and even some with real breast implants. The scarier sexuality in prison though, has almost nothing to do with sex. Like Tounk and his partner, it is about power, control, ownership, dignity, and sometimes just an all out sickness.

I think Kenny used sex as a way to be friends with people. He had made offers to me on a few occasions, but it sounded more like a child asking if I was interested in sharing his toys with him. Kenny would say things like, “I know you ain’t like this or nuthin’, but if you wanted to we could sneak into my room and I could give you a massage.” And I’d say, “No Kenny, you’re right. That’s not really who I am, but thanks for the offer. I’d just rather stay here and watch television. What comes on next?” And just that easily the subject would be changed and forgotten. Sometimes sitting next to Kenny watching television, drinking our coffees, he’d put his hand on my shoulder and start kneading it. This sounds naïve, but I honestly never thought anything about it, mostly because I knew Kenny, and I just saw him as this child, who was nice, and kind, and really pretty innocent, and unfortunately for him, trapped in this giant basketball player’s frame. The other thing was, that it had been so long since I had experienced any kind of human touch at all, a hug, hell, a handshake, that it was kind of nice to have someone rub my shoulder, and I knew we were out in the open, and I was safe, so I just didn’t think much of it.

So, was Kenny gay? Given all of the varying and complex factors relating to prison sexuality, I really don’t know. I didn’t think it really mattered. He was a nice guy. He meant well enough, even if his reality had been a bit sadly twisted, and he was always kind to me. I would end up paying for my indifference, not to Kenny though.

To be continued….P1030257

Don’t Miss the Woods!

A couple of years before I was released I became eligible for “CV’ passes. These were 6 hour passes out into “the world” with a community volunteer, usually twice a week if the volunteers weren’t busy. Typically, I went to a friend’s house where we would eat fresh fruits and salads on one of my passes, and the other pass I would almost always go to the Chapel Hill Zen Center, a Buddhist Temple that was a couple of miles from the prison. The emphasis on silence, the soft incense, and the glow of candles were always a huge relief from my prison life.

Surrounding the Zen Center was a small patch of woods and sometimes I would go walking through this strip with a friend of mine who was also incarcerated.

One afternoon as we were walking through the woods in between periods of Zazen, having tea, my friend turned to me and said with a sigh, “I miss the woods…”

Stunned by the irony of being at a Buddhist Temple, which stresses so much emphasis on being wholly present, and talking to a friend standing in the middle of a patch of trees who missed the woods, I didn’t say anything. What could I say? I knew what he meant. He missed being able to go to the woods. So did I. It is the place where I am most comfortable.

His phrase has even become part of Kara’s and my relationship. When one of us is being obviously distracted by the future or the past, the other will give a gentle reminder of, “I miss the woods.”

My friend is out now, and occasionally while out running trails I’ll take a picture and send it to him as a reminder not to take our freedoms for granted.

I usually write next to the picture: “Not missing the woods NOW!!!”

Enjoy your day today wherever you are.

Don’t miss the woods.


Running with my Grandfather’s Legs

Sometimes when I talk to my grandfather on the telephone about running he will listen patiently, and at the end I can hear him say a quiet, “I miss it.” He doesn’t run anymore, but he is still an exemplary person, a gentle, loving man who drives himself to church on Sundays (though between us, they should paint his car a bright plaid and put a fire alarm on top so people will see him coming.) He likes to sing. A few years ago he started teaching himself to cook, and was making a pretty great vegetable soup. My grandfather is 95 years old.

Once, when coming off of a running injury when I was at a minimum custody prison, my grandfather dug out his old knee braces and passed them off to my wife Kara with the instructions that I should always wear them when I ran. Some guys were trying to get drugs, and cell-phones across the fence. I was smuggling in running gear. I had the only pair of Balega socks on the camp; I’ll guarantee it. A friend of mine snuck in a plain white, sweat wicking t-shirt for me to run in. I came up with a plan and managed to smuggle my grandpa’s old knee braces into the prison. These were something out of the 1970’s I think, and seemed to be not much more than the knees cut out of an old wetsuit. They were uncomfortable. They burned. They shredded the back of my legs. But it didn’t matter. They were a link to my grandfather. They were a time capsule of running adventures that he shared with me. For a while when I would wear them under my prison garb, while out running my thousands of laps around the yard, I got to run with my grandfather’s legs.

My grandfather’s legs.

Before I started running I watched friends of mine spend endless hours out on the yard’s weight pile. They were always complaining about injuries. There were pulled muscles, and disjointed backs, torn ligaments and tendons that were overstretched. I not only could never figure out why they did it, but also it was always a good justification of why I shouldn’t. Weight lifting was dangerous. People got hurt.

Runners are like this. A few weeks ago when out running some early morning trails with friends, on the very first mile I stumbled, landed horribly wrong, slammed my knee into a rock, tore the skin on one hand and managed to scrape a pretty good chunk out of my shoulder. We paused. My friends politely took a few minutes while I walked in circles cursing. I spit a couple of times and we were off again. I did 17 more miles that day. Luckily, THIS time the injury wasn’t too bad.

If you use your body like this you will get injured. It is inevitable. Talking to other runners about injuries is like walking back out onto the weight pile. There are stories of plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, runner’s knee, and countless other injuries that seem to happen regularly on the go.

So, why do it at all? Why would I do something that I am absolutely certain is going to hurt me?

Because the only other option is for me not to do it at all.

And I don’t want to live like that. Not anymore.

I have this one life, and I really want to use it until it’s all used up.

And then, like my grandpa, I want to wring it out when I’m done.




I love you grandpa. Thanks for the use of your legs.