Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bad Fiction (Double Celling Part 1)

I've got nothing to complain about. I'm being fed. I don't have to support myself. And I have all the time I need for writing. Granted, the Charm City Correctional Facility is not the ideal writing environment with the constant shouting and cursing and clanging of metal grills but that can't truly touch you if you've got zen. It's all about keeping your zen.

Correctional Officer Second Grade Gregory Puckett does not have zen. He does have a large yellow lab, a nameless young dog with big paws. A slobbery, prancing, happy and totally clueless animal with the nose of a genius. The dog thrives on his sense of smell and here in Charm City Correctional Facility there is plenty for him to thrive upon: piss, vomit, pruno cooking pungently in the toilet three cells down, an occasional whiff of Columbia red. He lives for the smells and he has zen. I don't know his name so I call him Young Dog. Puckett knows Young Dog's real name but this is an institutional mystery, one of many, that he's not giving up: "I'd tell ya," he says, "but then I'd have to kill ya."

He just might do that. I'm placing no bets. I heard stories about various correctional officers going all the way back to my time in maximum, stories about "falls" down stairs and officers hosting midnight gladiator schools. I don't know Puckett from a hole in the wall. I've tried to make small talk whenever he stopped by my cell but usually I get nothing more than a grunt in return. I know better than to ask for Young Dog's real name.

The shakedown today was routine. Puckett and Young Dog rolled into my home. Puckett started tearing the place apart while Young Dog took an interest in the latest prose now strewn across the floor. "Forget what they taught you," I said to Young Dog. "Don't even think of peeing on the papers."

Puckett snorted, leaving behind a whiff of contraband tobacco. "You should be glad somebody takes an interest in that crap. Ain't nobody else going to be reading it." I stifled an urge to tell Puckett to leave the reading to Young Dog. I remembered what my last cellie used to say: "If you gotta be dumb, be tough." I wasn't tough enough to say something that dumb.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Get A Job (Sha-Na-Na)

It was the end of morning feedup and I was going back to my tier when one of the case managers stepped in front of me as I was headed out the door. He motioned me over to a corner and pulled out my base file which he had tucked under his left arm. He stood there reading my base file as he talked. No eye contact at all, he seemed just fascinated by my paperwork.

"Chaplain needs a working man. You can type?"

"I can type. Eighty words a minute," I said.

"You can read?"

He knows I can read. He's got my base file. He's got my presentence investigation report and he knows I'm an English major. He's talking out of habit because these are the questions he asks every inmate. An institutional robot worker.

"I can read," I said.

"Good. Report to the chaplain's office 0700 tomorrow."

Getting a job was the best news I've had the whole time I've been locked up. Getting a job means extra privileges like housing on the working man's tier or in your own private cell. It means extra time off your sentence and a little money (two dollars a day---a fortune!) in your pocket. It means coming out every day, all day, with something to do other than sitting on your thumbs. A job in the chaplain's office is about as good as it gets too because there's hardly any direct contact with other inmates. Working feedup or cleanup or maintenance or ID means constant inmate contact with all the chances for getting into a fight. In the chaplain's office the worst thing that could happen is getting sent directly to hell if he hears you cuss. I can handle that. Especially knowing that our chaplain cusses a little himself. We call him the Anti-Chaplain.

By the time I got back to the tier I was in a good mood. I knew Puckett was around because I could hear the hoppers cursing as he tore their cells apart:"Yo, you can't touch that, man! That's legal papers!" I saw a kid with a wierd bloody cross tattooed on his forearm take a swing, either at his papers or at Puckett, I couldn't be sure which. Instantly, Puckett put him in a pressure point take-down hold and set him down on the bunk. Puckett hovered over that kid like Godzilla over Bambi. The kid couldn't have been more than sixteen. He looked up at Godzilla and locked eyes with a mixture of defiance and pure cobra evil. Suddenly the size difference didn't seem to matter so much; I just knew I didn't want that kid looking at me like that. Puckett lowered his voice, calm and chilled: "Because you're a kid I give you one chance. One chance. I ain't writin' you up this time. Next time, your ass is mine." He let go and left the cell. As he walked past me Young Dog looked up at me and smiled. I couldn't help myself.

"How ya doing dawg? You working with Puckett here? You got him reading Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner? You got him reading Shakespeare? Dickens? I bet you're a great teacher."

Young Dog dropped down on his butt and started licking his genitals.

"Yeah, that's what I figured," I said. "That's probably what I'd have to do to him to get him to read."

Puckett exploded---laughing. It was a disturbing sight, like seeing Jesse Ventura dressed in a kimono. It just didn't fit.

"Man, you a trip. You always a trip. Come on, Bo." He tugged on the dog's leash and the animal lumbered to his feet. They moved on down the tier.

Bo. Young Dog's name was Bo. Puckett told me the dog's name and he didn't kill me afterward.

Life was good.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Antonio Fennell was counting. He knew the classification people would count his days for him but who knew how long that would take and he was writing home. He wanted to tell his mom about his release date and his security level and where he was going next and what he was going to do or work on to keep from ever coming back here. She wrote him about Tiesha who was seven months old. When he was on the pretrial side they came every week, his mom towing along Tiesha who was braided up with pink bows. There had been no word from anybody since he got moved to DOC. Of course, Tiesha's mother didn't visit. Before he got locked up he had just enough time to get her name tattooed on his right forearm over a picture of a heart and a bloodstained cross. The picture was good enough, but just to be sure he had them add "R.I.P." in an italic circular script over the top. He would never forget her. Never, ever, for as long as he was locked up.

He pictured himself on outside work detail. In his mind's eye he was there with the rest of the crew dressed in a bright orange jumper with CCCF stenciled on it. It was Spring, it was sunny and he was there in the beautiful weather cutting extra days off his time.

He kicked the bottom of the upper bunk to get his cellie's attention.

"Sup?" from the sound of his voice Antonio could tell his cellie had been asleep. He had been down a long time and had no trouble sleeping in chaos. Antonio was jealous. "Hey, check this out. See if I did this right." Cellie dropped down an arm to take the papers, flashing the bits of blue color that marked him as a cuzz. Cellie barely glanced at the papers before dropping them back down on Antonio's chest. "Man, watcha doing that for? It ain't real. It ain't going to be real for a long time."

"Gotta plan for the future, right? You gonna stay in the game forever? Ya feel me?"

Cellie grunted and rolled over. "You ain't got no future."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Medication Time

It was just past six o'clock feedup when LPN Egote Ybango came to the tier pushing her medication cart. The tall gates marking the end of the tier rolled back with a clash. The officer on post 2 Charlie bellowed in his deep foghorn bass: "Med line! Med line! To your doors for pills!" The echo had barely died away before the inmates started their own announcements:

"Pussy on the tier!"

"Nut call!"

"Hey, ya got anything on there for me?"

"Gimme the Xanax!"

Ybango was not new at this. She rolled along predictably as the tide, checking each inmate's ID against the medication administration record which she kept in a three ring binder on top of the cart. When everything checked out she picked up the small plastic cup of pills and handed it to the inmate through the feedup slot in the door. Eventually she worked her way down the tier to my cell, not a fast task even for someone who didn't weigh 250 pounds. Without even seeing her I could mark her progress by the soft mooing noises made by every inmate as she passed. She was experienced enough to remain numb and expressionless. When she got to my cell her face rolled into a smile for the first time.

"Eh, my writer. You need anything? Benadryl for sleep?"

"I don't have a doctor's order for anything, but thanks anyway. How's Yvette?"

Yvette was Ybango's seventeen year old daughter. She wanted to be a journalist so when Ybango heard I was transferring in to CCCF she came right to my door the week after I got here to ask about the best journalism schools. I tried to explain that I was a writer not a reporter but somehow the language barrier got in the way and I wasn't sure she quite caught the difference. I struggled for a while before deciding it would be faster for me to just learn Ethiopian than to wait for her to understand English. Nevertheless from that point on she seemed to favor me. I felt bad for her when the inmates mooed.

"Eh...she single." She said the word as though it were a curse. "But she in school. What you do?" She shrugged and all the futility of life was reflected in that movement. "At least she not with bad boys." She nodded down the tier to the hoppers' cell. "They kill, those boys."

Trust the medical staff to pick up on the obvious.

"Hopefully not anymore," I said.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Anti-Chaplain

My first day on the job began with a twenty minute orientation. Actually, a twenty minute speech in a single breath. It was pretty impressive. Father Joseph H. Priestley met me at the door of his office and dove right in:

"OK, first things first. First, about the name: Yes my name is really Priestley and I'm really a priest. I have a dentist named Dr. Payne and a proctologist named Dr. Ashe. I've heard them all and they're not funny. Priestley is my name. Get over it. Second thing: You will not bring drugs, tobacco, alcohol, weapons or mechanical tools or any means of escape into this office at any time, ever. Third thing: No you may not use my fax machine, my xerox machine, my phone or my desk for anything related to personal business. You will use them only on my instruction for tasks that I've assigned to you. If I catch you doing any business---personal or physical---in my office you will no longer be my cadre worker. You will not have sexual contact with yourself or anyone else in my office at any time, ever. Finally: would you autograph my book?" He thrust a copy of my own novel at me. It looked brand new like he had bought it just for the occasion. I signed it and gave it back, stifling an urge to whimper. I was sorry I ever started that thing and I never wanted to see it again.

"I think you're a terrific writer. Now here, take this," he shoved a stack of about fifty or sixty inmate request forms into my hands. "These are all the inmate requests for emergency phone calls. They all have relatives who are sick or are dying or are dead, or both sick and dead, or maybe dying or maybe not dying they don't know because they can't get a phone call home."

I shuffled through the stack and my confusion must have been obvious. The priest opened his mouth first---I eventually learned he was very good at this---and said, "You're thinking, 'what the hell am I supposed to do with all this?' Welcome to my world." The skinny man with the bulbous nose broke into a big grin. "That's exactly what I ask myself every day. What the HELL do these people want from me?"

The chaplain's office was not a quiet, contemplative space. I spent the entire day shift in a constant flow of chaplain verbiage. I stayed zen, like a rock in the middle of the rapids. I eventually figured out that what I was supposed to do was call each hospital to confirm the inmate's dead or dying relative report with the hospital chaplain's office and give each confirmed report back to the chaplain. Each unverified report got returned to the inmate with a rubber stamp "unconfirmed emergency" denial stamped on it. At first I felt a little uncomfortable with what he wanted me to do.

"Will the hospital chaplain talk to me? Don't you have to be, like, somebody official? Are you telling me to impersonate a priest?"

"Son, I can't possibly make all those phone calls. I'm only human. Impersonation is only when you steal someone's identity to do something nefarious. You're doing this to help someone."

"So you just want me to lie about being a priest."

The Anti-Chaplain sighed---the longest space of silence since I walked into the room. He put his left hand on my shoulder and made the sign of the cross over me with his right hand. "Son, I absolve you. Make the calls."

I made the first call. The voice at the other end of the line sounded official but bored. "Uhn, this is Father Priestly from the Charm City Correctional Facility. I'm calling to confirm a report of an inmate's relative who died at your hospital."

"Sure, no problem," said the man. "You sound a lot younger than the last Father Priestley."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Classified Information

Antonio sat in front of the case manager as she talked to him about his future. She was a pretty young black woman with immaculate hair curled in symmetrical ringlets. She wore a wedding band with a large stone and her fingernails were long with intricately painted designs. They made clacking noises when she tapped them on the table as she talked to him. She smelled faintly of lavender.

"Now, even though you're sixteen and have never been in prison before you're still going to have a high security status because of your sentence. You won't be eligible for parole until you've served half your time because your offense is considered a violent offense. And in order to be approved for parole it's important that you do your time with no infractions. Each infraction will be considered at your parole hearing, and it may also affect your security status at your next reclassification."

"The judge recommended a program," Antonio insisted. This lady was saying a lot of stuff, but it was stuff he wasn't trying to hear. She was talking like he was going to be sent to a regular prison and he wasn't trying to do that. He was supposed to go to work detail. He was supposed to be getting a job. She was saying maximum security.

"I understand Mr. Fennell, but unfortunately the judge did not recommend this. Apparently your juvenile history was concerning to the court, according to your PSI report. You have a long history of assaultive behavior. You set fires. You killed cats."

"I got lead! It wasn't my fault. I got lead poisoning, you can read it in my chart. They shouldn't be sending me to prison because of that. Prison ain't going to help me. I'm a juvenile." This lady wasn't getting it. It was very very important that she get it. Getting back to Tiesha depended on this lady giving him a program.

"Mr. Fennell, your sentence is natural life. I understand that by age you're a juvenile, but legally you're in the adult system now. You don't get placed in outside programs or juvenile facilities now that you're an adult."

Now her tone of voice had changed. She was getting sterner, talking to him like he was stupid, talking to him like the reading teacher in his special classes, talking like she didn't care if he got it or not. He got lead and they didn't understand. They didn't care.

Antonio jumped up and caught the table with both arms, flipping it as hard and as far as he could. The case manager gasped in shock and tried to jump clear. He caught her once in the face and she dropped to the floor hard but still conscious. He was on top of her hitting again and again because it felt good.

The noise brought custody to the door immediately. "Ten-ten at 3 Delta! Ten-ten at 3 Delta!," a female c.o. hollered into a radio as she ran to the case manager's side.

"Whoa! Whoa!" And there was Puckett. He grabbed Fennell by the scruff of the neck and the back of his pants and did a standing clean jerk to lift him off the case manager. He carried the boy out of the room screaming, swearing, kicking, trying to bite. His fingers and toes hovered six inches off the floor as Puckett carried him down the hallway to segregation.

"I'm gonna kill all you! I'm getting out! I'm gonna come back here and blow your muthafukkin heads off!"


I was working in the Anti-Chaplain's office when the ruckus broke out. Father Joseph (as he was known by the new intakes) immediately went to the door to check out the problem. I stayed put, working on the latest daily stack of 75 inmate emergency phone call requests. A lot of them were duplicates, including one inmate who put in repeated requests to call home about a dead grandmother who was confirmed as alive and working at a local Walmart. Nevertheless, by prison policy we are required to investigate and respond to each request. This time instead of calling the local hospital I called Walmart. The store manager promised to get in touch with grannie and tell her to call me back.

As I was waiting for the call back Eddie came in to pick up the trash. Technically this violated the "no friends in the office, ever" rule but since Eddie was assigned to work cleanup the rule didn't really apply to him.

"You hear the hopper go off?"

"Yeah," I said, reaching into my pocket to pull out three one dollar bills. "That's all I've got on me. If you want stamps I can give you stamps."

Eddie grinned, "I'll take stamps. Told you he wouldn't make 36 hours. He came in 28 hours ago."

"Like you should talk," I said. Eddie had perfected the art of defensive camouflage, like the moths with the big eye spots who avoid being eaten by birds because they look like predators. He was tall with long wild hair and a lot of bad prison tattooes. Everybody thought he was White Supremacy because he was from Texas. In fact he was more Southern Baptist than White Supremacist. Once when we were both in maximum I saw him jump from the top of an eight foot painting ladder to get in the face of some guy who had walked by and made a comment about his hair. Eddie was in this guy's face instantly, screaming: "You trying to start something? You want it? You got it! Do it! Here! Now! Do it!" I knew that Eddie wasn't going to fight and Eddie knew that Eddie wasn't going to fight, but the other inmate didn't. His eyes got big and he backed away. Eddie went back to painting. He could turn it off and on at will, and that impressed the heck out of me. When he came to me for help with his sentence modification I filled out all the paperwork for him and made sure it got filed. In return he kept the gangs off me. When you're a naive young white boy doing your first bit in a maximum security facility it helps to have a mean-looking friend. We transferred in to CCCF together.

Eddie picked up the waste basket and started to dump it into his bin. "Whoa!" he said, and reached into the trash. He pulled out a small grey field mouse with tiny oil-drop black eyes. The mouse was quivering as he dangled it by the tail.

"Not here, Eddie. Please don't stomp it here. The chaplain didn't specifically mention a 'do not stomp mice in the office, ever' rule but I'm sure there is one," I said.

"Not to worry, buddy. This one's getting duct-taped to the back of the AW's chair," he said.

"Oh Eddie, please," I said. "Please, you really really gotta think about that." I knew very well that the average time span for Eddie between an idea and an action was the space of about ten seconds. For him, 'thinking about it' meant maybe a twenty second delay. Any prank involving an assistant warden required at least that much thought. Much of my friendship with Eddie over the years has involved me pleading with him not to act on his irresistible impulses. He routinely ignores me. I have to admit though it's kind of fun to have a friend who actually does all the stuff I don't have the guts to do.

"Naw," he said. "It's gotta happen. I was working back there yesterday and I heard the AW tell Warden Price that ZZ Top was crap. ZZ Top is the best band in the world." He dangled the mouse over the chaplain's desk until just the front paws touched. The mouse walked handstands across the Holy Scripture.

Just then the Anti-Chaplain came back. The mouse vanished instantly. I swear I was watching Eddie constantly but I still have no clue how he palmed the mouse. I had seen him palm things before, usually small bits of sharpened metal that he produced magically in front of the new intakes, but I had never seen him do wildlife.

"Can you believe it?" the Anti-Chaplain groused, "I swear there must not be any juveniles walking the streets of Charm City at all anymore. I think we collected them all. You know that saying 'What Would Jesus Do'? Well I'll tell you what Jesus would do. He'd drop them all in a well and leave them there until they turn thirty, then he'd let them out only on the condition that they leave the country until they turn forty. That's what Jesus would do. If He could change water into wine he's gotta be able to make something out of the piss that comes dribbling into this place."

Eddie and I made eye contact and shared an identical thought: "This man is responsible for our souls."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Making Adjustments

Puckett made special arrangements to be available for Fennell's adjustment hearing. He was supposed to be off at the academy for inservice training but he swapped out for a later session. It wasn't that he took a particular interest in Antonio personally, but he had been a correctional officer long enough to know that inmates like him needed to be handled immediately at the beginning of their time or they got worse. Juveniles needed to learn up front that the games that got them out of the foster home or the group home or the juvenile correctional facility no longer worked. More often than not, Puckett was the one who had to teach them that. Juveniles who didn't learn this ended up running across people without his patience. They ended up with new charges or new broken bones or dead. It wasn't that he particularly cared what happened to Antonio, it was just that dead inmates were too much damn paperwork.

Puckett escorted Antonio into the conference room. Before they left the tier he had a brief talk with the boy, made sure he was cool and would stay cool, then he put on the leg irons, waist chain and handcuffs all segregated inmates were required to wear. As they entered the room Antonio jangled like the Ghost of Christmas Past. He was holding up his too-big jeans with one hand so they wouldn't slip down over his buttocks.

The hearing officer was a tired-looking middle-aged man in a rumpled suit. His suitcoat was thrown over the back of his chair in a haphazard fashion and he leaned against it, indifferent to any new wrinkles. The room was hot. The hearing officer sat behind the same table that Antonio had flipped over barely a week before. To the right of the hearing officer was an old cassette tape recorder, which he punched on after Antonio sat down.

He spoke clearly for the recording: "This is James C. Overlea, hearing officer for the Charm City Correctional Facility, and this is May 22nd, 2007. I'm hearing the case of Antonio Fennell who is charged with a Level 4 infraction as noted in the Notice of Infraction dated May 16th. Mr. Fennell, have you had an opportunity to read the allegations against you?"

Antonio said, "Yeah, I know what they said but that ain't what happened. I'm supposed to be going to a program. I'm supposed to be on medicine. Nobody's listening to me."

The hearing officer held up a hand to interrupt. "Are you saying you suffer from a mental illness?"

"Yeah!" Antonio said, leaning forward. "That's what I been trying to tell them. I got lead. I seen a psych doc. I'm supposed to be on medicine. I been telling them and telling them, know what I'm saying?" The way he said it, the phrase came out 'gnome I'm sayin'?'

The hearing officer pulled over the base file that Puckett had brought with him. He paged through the thin file and turned back to Antonio. "I don't see any documentation of a mental health referral. Your PSI does say that you suffer from lead poisoning and have had mental health care in the past."

"See? See? That's what I'm saying. I was taking medication out on the street." Antonio was getting excited. Maybe he would get that program after all.

"Mr. Fennell, the case manager was seriously injured in your assault. She suffered a facial fracture and her jaws are wired shut. It is likely she will be out of work for several weeks."

Antonio knew when to keep his mouth shut. He was on the verge of getting his program and he wasn't about to blow it by pointing out that lady wasn't doing her job right.

The hearing officer turned to Puckett and asked routine questions about his observations and actions during the incident. Puckett told him that he saw Antonio beating the case manager and described how the inmate behaved while he was being subdued. When he was done, Mr. Overlea turned back to Antonio:

"Mr. Fennell, based on the information in your base file and your testimony today, I will find you guilty of the infraction. However, based upon the fact that you obviously haven't been offered the treatment that you require I will limit your punishment to a period of thirty days' cell restriction contingent upon your cooperation with any psychiatric care that is recommended. Do you understand this?"

"Man, that's all I've been asking for!"

"Very well. Officer Puckett, you can take him back. Next case."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rec Time

We come out for recreation at 7:00 pm every day for two hours at a time. By the time I came out Eddie was already set up in a corner of the common area playing chess. I had seen him do this before, but still the sight surprised me. When I was helping him with his sentence modification paperwork it became clear he had a seriously severe learning problem. His handwriting was terrible, he reversed his letters, he could barely read and his spelling was crap. Apparently he faked his way through school the same way he faked his way through prison. Yet here he was playing chess. His partner was another white guy, somewhere in his twenties. His gray jumpsuit marked him as a new intake who hadn't finished his medical intake processing yet. Almost everybody else out for rec was wearing regular street clothes accessorized by dew rags, t-shirts and tennis shoes tagged with their particular gang colors. Colors made the correctional world a little easier to live in since it told you where you did or didn't belong. Eddie was set up in the default neutral zone and I joined him there.

The game was in progress and the new intake was getting the worst of it. He had lost a rook, both bishops and half of his pawns. In an amazing feat of concentration, Eddie was actually staying focussed long enough to slowly manuever the intake's king to the corner of the board. The new intake wasn't helping his game by talking about his problems as he played. I could tell Eddie was annoyed.

"Focus man, focus," Eddie said, which I thought was one of the most ironic things ever to come out of his mouth. Eddie had the attention span of a neurotic flea.

"Well, what am I supposed to think? The last time I heard from her was when I was up the road in local, now here it is three weeks later and I don't know whether they got kicked out or if she gave up on me or what," the new intake said anxiously.

"That sounds like an emergency," I said.

"Yeah," said Eddie, with a quick glance in my direction. "Maybe Father Joseph can help you. I hear he gives emergency phone calls." His eyebrows were raised in apparently sincere concern, and the corners of his mouth didn't even twitch. He was good. I knew I could never hold it together so I buried my head in my papers and stayed quiet.

"Just go to the 2C officer and tell him you just found out about a family emergency. He'll write you a pass to go to the chaplain's office on the third floor. It's on 3D post."

"Thanks!" the new intake said as he laid his king down in surrender. He got up and headed for the 2C officer's desk.

"You're going to hell for that Eddie," I said.

Eddie grinned. "I know. At this point I'm just hoping for a better seat."

Before we could set the board up for another game the tier gates ground open and a line of more grey-suited inmates trudged in carrying their cardboard boxes of property. At the end of the line came Puckett escorting Antonio Fennell. He was back from his seg time.

"Crap," said Eddie. "I was hoping to get some sleep tonight. Now we're back to 'wassup' and 'ya feel me?' and 'yo check it out' and 'nome I sayin'?' and the banging and the hollering all night. Somebody needs to medicate that kid."

"Wait a minute," I said. Puckett was walking Fennell past his old cell, past the Crips row, too far down the tier for my comfort. "What the hell? Oh shit, Eddie, they're putting him in with you."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Endangered Species

I missed Eddie for the next few days because of a string of guys who needed help with their paperwork. One guy needed help filing for disability: "They say I got bipolar disorder but I don't. I'm just letting them compile a record on me so that when I leave this place I get everything I'm entitled to. Everything."

"OK, let me see your ID." He presented his card and I checked his name: Bob Stanciewycki. "Did they spell your name right?"

The inmate glanced down at his ID. "Yeah, it's right. Bob. B-o-b." He was serious.

"Unh, no. I mean your last name," I said.

He took a second look at the ID, and I could see him silently spelling out the letters as he read. "Yeah, that's right." I decided not to mention the bipolar diagnosis and filed for disability based on a reading disorder instead. I filled his paperwork out, told him where to sign and gave it back to him for mailing. He left happy.

Eddie sat down as soon as Stanciewycki left. He was morose. He sat at the table with his head down, chin on fist, playing with the chess pieces. He had a rook in his left hand and was hopping it over the pawns like he was playing checkers. "Little cuss is stealing my stuff. I go out and work all day and he's home on cell restriction and he's got all day to steal my cosmetics. I could beat the crap out of him but then I gotta deal with his friends." He slid a king off the board. "Then I gotta lie still all night and pretend like I don't hear him hiding his stash all over the place. He puts it in all the obvious places then acts like he's some kind of freakin' James Bond. I gotta get him outta there. There's gotta be a way."

"It was the mouse, Eddie. I warned you about the mouse. This is the AW getting revenge. You have to find a way to make it good with the AW again," I said.

"There's all kinds of people back by the AW's office. They didn't know it was me. I was careful."

In spite of his street smarts there were times when I wondered whether all the drugs had left him with two neurons still on speaking terms. "Eddie, you're the only inmate worker back there."

Meanwhile, on the other end of the tier, Antonio slowly shredded his styrofoam cup into tiny eighth-inch pieces. His former cellie, Donte, sat across from him with another brother he didn't know. Donte was at least twenty years older than Antonio, with a long healed knife scar that twisted down his left bicep. Donte wore a blue muscle shirt with frayed sleeveholes. He had a white and blue knit kufi on his head.

"You about done, Pug?" he asked Antonio.

"My name is Antonio," he answered. Pug was his street name. Street names were for kids and he wasn't a kid anymore. The case manager said so. He finished ripping up the cup and divided the pieces into three even piles. He slid two piles across the table to Donte and his friend. He took his own pile and slid it off the table into his cupped hand. He put the pieces into his pocket and his companions did the same.

"So that's it. The dawg's down. He ain't a player and he's putting the hurt on for real. He got to go." Donte glanced at his friend, who nodded. Donte turned back to Antonio. "You know what to do?"

"I know," said Antonio.

Antonio didn't mind killing animals. When he was out on the streets working as Donte's runner he spent his spare time trapping stray cats when business was slow. He'd take them home to train his pit bulls, or tie their tails together and watch them fight. One day Donte was making a trade and Antonio was slow getting the product back to him. Donte came looking for him and found him in the alley just as he was pouring gasoline on a stray. On the spot Donte promoted him from runner to enforcer. Now, for the first time since coming to DOC, things were going his way. He was off of segregation, he was getting his medication and now he was getting revenge. Life was good. He was zen. That dog had it coming.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Hit

Nurse Ybango rolled down the tier. She stopped at Antonio's cell and he got up off the bunk and came to the door. She handed him a cup and he dumped the contents into his mouth. She rolled on, and as soon as she was past he spit the mouthful of pills out into his hand. Four of the pills were big red gel capsules that burned his stomach when he took them---acid-something he thought they were called. These pills he dumped into the toilet. The last pill was the only one he really wanted. It was orange and had the number one hundred printed in block lettering on the side. This pill he could get money for, at least a dollar a pill, from the junkies who were withdrawing from heroin. It would put them to sleep until it was over and help with the runs. He took the Thorazine and slid it into a crack in his mattress with the rest of his stash.

He stretched out on his bunk, put his hands behind his head and thought about the plan. He couldn't wait to see Puckett's face. First the dog, then that wildass cracker cellbuddy of his. He had already jammed his lock open with pieces of styrofoam while Eddie was out working and everyone was out on rec. He tested the door when he was up getting his pills, and it slid easily open just a fraction when he had his arms through the feedup slot. The next time Puckett came by he would be prepared.

Eddie came back from working cleanup and Antonio knew he didn't have much longer to wait. Lockdown came after rec time and Puckett came soon after that. Antonio saw Bo first as he came on the tier, poking his muzzle at the 2C officer and sniffing at the gate. Puckett tugged him along forward just as he was lifting his leg near the 2C officer's desk. Bo sighed, looked back wistfully at the desk and followed his handler onto the tier. They were coming closer. He could hear the cell doors screetching open and closed, one by one, as Bo plodded in and out, closer and closer.

Bo was outside Antonio's cell. Puckett opened the door and they came in. Bo was within arm's reach but Antonio waited. Bo stiffened briefly then sat down, a well-trained drug dog's alert signal. Bo had found the stash that had been left for him to find. Antonio glanced quickly underneath his bunk, saw Eddie lying quietly with his arm over his eyes. It was time.

As Puckett looked away to radio for backup for a cell search, Antonio jumped off the bunk. He landed flat on the dog and Bo gave a yelp. Instinctively Puckett backed out of the cell onto the tier and pushed the cell door closed, leaving Antonio and Bo behind. Antonio grabbed the dog with one arm around his chest and a fist around his muzzle. Bo struggled and whined but Antonio held him fast. Antonio dragged Bo to the cell door and hit the door open with his shoulder. Now they were all out in the open, on the tier, and Antonio's part was done. He looked for his brothers who were coming with their knives. He did the holding, Donte did the stabbing. That was the plan.

Donte and the other man were there as soon as they heard the cell door crash open. Donte grabbed Puckett around the head with his left arm and pulled a shank from the back of his waistband with his right. In a single motion Puckett's throat was cut. Donte's companion pulled his knife and soon they were both stabbing the officer as Fennell watched. Puckett slid to the floor, silent.

"Hold up! Hold up!" Antonio yelled. Something had gone seriously wrong. Pucket wasn't the hit. They weren't following the plan. It was the dog---the dog---not the police. Police were big shit. Killing police was death penalty stuff. This was a whole 'nother world and he was no longer a juvenile. He let go of Bo and the dog jumped to his handler's side, barking.

Just then the tier gates crashed open and the backup arrived with more dogs. Real dogs. Attack dogs. Antonio ran back to his cell, not bothering to think about his bros or the stash or the dog. He was in deep shit, too deep, and there was nothing he could do.


The Charm City Correctional Facility was on lockdown for the next three weeks. I spent every day of that time worrying about Eddie. As soon as the killing happened both Eddie and Fennell were dragged from their cell and taken off the tier to segregation. Investigators from the internal Criminal Investigation Division and the state police had all of us 2C inmates down to the third floor conference room for questioning, one by one, while they searched each cell for evidence. When my turn came I was escorted down to the conference room and I saw Eddie in passing. He was chained up for segregation and he looked scared. It scared me to see Eddie looking scared.

I knew who had killed Puckett. Everyone on the tier within earshot knew who killed Puckett. Eddie certainly knew. By knowing, we were all in danger. I also knew that the person in the most danger would be the person who flipped and talked first. It was just a matter of time.

When the lockdown ended I talked the chaplain into letting me go up to the tiers to collect the inmate request slips. It didn't require much convincing. When I got to the segregation tier I nodded to the post officer, who nodded back and went back to eating Dorritos. I popped open the plywood sick call box and scooped out the slips, then glanced back over at the c.o. to make sure he was still oblivious. I made my way back to Eddie's cell and gave a short low whistle to get his attention. He looked like he hadn't been eating well and I doubted he had come out to shower. He came to the door and squeezed the bars tight enough to drive the blood from his fingers. His blurry blue-inked line tattoos stood out against his pale white hands. He was losing his zen bigtime.

"They took him away. Fennell. The police," he said, too scared and shakey to put words together into a coherent sentence. I took it for granted he was talking about the state police. "I been hearing the brothers talking at night. Fennell flipped. He gave them up. They're after him and his kid."

I let the words hang in the air between us. They're after his kid. People who go after kids are bad, bad men.

"Sit tight, Eddie. Just sit tight and shut up. I'm trying to get you moved back with me." I didn't relish the idea of celling with Eddie, but it was the only way I could think of to keep him safe. Once I got him back with me I could sit on him or duct tape his mouth shut or do whatever I had to do to keep him from talking and keep him alive. If only he would listen to me.

"They say they can get me out of here, get me to the Feds," he said.

"That's bullshit Eddie and you know it. They had their crack at you and they turned it down. They don't want you. Besides, they're gangs everywhere. You think they can't find you? Just shut up. Please please just shut up and let me help you." Eddie's last offense was a robbery of a convience store off of the Baltimore-Washington International Parkway. What he didn't know was that the Parkway was Federal property. Initially charged in Federal district court, he was tossed back to the state once the Federal prosecutors read his charging document. They were after drug kingpins, white collar criminals and terrorists. He'd have to rob a few banks across jurisdictional lines before they'd care about him.

The best I could get Eddie to do was to promise not to contact investigators until I got back to him. The c.o., done with the Dorritos, hollered at me to back off from the cell and get off his tier. I left.

I got him moved three days later but three days was too long for Eddie---too much time to think, too much time to be scared. By the time he was moved into my cell he had already flipped.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Spring Time

The United States marshals were two clean-cut muscular young white boys dressed in khaki pants and dark polo shirts with badges clipped to their belts. They carried lots of chains. When they came on to the tier to get Eddie all the inmates came to their doors to watch and holler. It reminded me of hyenas at the zoo, all lined up in a row against the bars with muzzles drawn back showing sharp teeth, yipping and howling.

When they came for Eddie he moved like a doomed man. He walked out of the cell then turned and grabbed onto the bars, pulling himself up close to me. I reached through the bars and put my hand over his and didn't say anything. Where could they possibly hide somebody like Eddie? Somebody who looks like him, acts like him, talks like him? Somebody who couldn't make it for long on the outside even when people weren't trying to kill him? He looked at me and stayed quiet too, and when his eyes started to well up he turned away abruptly. "Let's get out of here," he said to the marshals. They put on the leg irons, waist chain and cuffs, then led him away with a hand on each bicep. They walked him off the tier and out of my life forever, and that was the last time I ever saw my friend.