Monday, July 9, 2007

Bo's New Friend

Lieutenant Terry inhaled slowly, raised the barrell of the .45 pistol to aim at a point just below the lowest branch of the oak tree fifty yards away, then stopped breathing and squeezed the trigger. There was a brief popping noise and a small body dropped from the tree. Lieutenant Terry lowered the weapon, satisfied. The Desert Storm veteran had a steady hand for killing and a sharpshooter's medal to prove it. That and the bodies of at least fifty dead squirrels who would never molest another bird feeder. At the lieutenant's side was a large yellow lab, a restless young dog with big paws. As soon as the body dropped the dog loped to the tree and scooped up the squirrel in his mouth. Trotting back, he dropped it at the lieutenant's feet and looked up expectantly. The lieutenant pulled a pig ear out of a bag lying on the ground and fed it to the dog. Bo snarfed it down and looked up again, grinning. This was fun.

"Sorry fella," said the lieutenant. "I think we scared the rest of them away. Besides, it's time to get to work."

At the prison entrance Lieutenant Terry ran into Father Priestley.

"Good morning, lieutenant!" the Anti-Chaplain bellowed, a surprisingly loud sound to come out of such a small man. "TGIF, eh? Why do we say 'thank God it's Friday', anyway? Does that mean on all other days we should say, 'curse God it's not a weekend'?"

"I don't know Father, you're the theologian."

"Well, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. As if God gives a shit." They entered the prison together and a new day began at the Charm City Correctional Facility.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Three Stages of Bureaucracy

The prison was an ancient lady. Her joints creaked, she had hardening of the arteries and sometimes things just broke. On this particular day she was dealing with broken pipes. Outside the writer's cell, on the walkway overlooking the common area, a wastebasket collected a growing pool of dingy tepid water. The leak dripped slowly and continuously, making a soft plishing sound when the basket was full and a loud dull thunking noise whenever the maintenance crew thought to empty it, which was quite rarely. The ceiling over the wastebasket was torn open like a bad Ceasarian section. The exposed pipes were wrapped in water-soaked insulation, some of which hung down over the walkway. There was a faint swampy smell in the air.

The writer maintained a careful neutral oblivion. He stood in his cell with his feet splayed wide apart, leaning forward on his right foot with both arms outstretched. One arm pointed toward the ceiling and the other was directed down toward his forward foot. He inhaled gently and carefully, timing the breath to the sounds of the water---five drops per breath in, a pause, five drops per breath out. He concentrated on the faint sound of the water and held his mind clear. He held the Triangle pose for the space of ten breath cycles, then moved both arms forward to hold a Warrior pose. Five drops in, five drops out. He was zen. The noise of the tier flowed around him, enveloped but did not touch him:

"If you a real man, you be in general pop an' shit. That dude that killed the little kid---the little girl's grandfather works in pretrial, and here he is spending the rest of his life in PC an' shit. And isn't that some kind of fukkin' shit way to spend the rest of your life?" The officer walking toward his cell was a short fine-boned nineteen year old girl in a black officer uniform that was too big for her. She chattered on to the maintenance man on her left. They stopped beneath the leak.

"Yup. Ain't slowing down any," the maintenance man said. He pulled a flashlight from his utility belt and sent a beam of light up through the ceiling to spotlight cobwebs and rodent parts and the accumulated detritus of one hundred fifty years of incarceration. The writer eased out of Warrior to a Mountain pose. The maintenance man reached up and pulled a new small section of fiberboard tile from the ceiling, releasing a cloud of grey dust that settled over his blue uniform. "Thing is, it's high up. You can't just replace a section or a joint. You'd have to shut down the whole facility. I think we can jury-rig something but I gotta order a part from state supply." He looked down into the wastebasket. "Not full yet. Gotta bit of room left," he said. The maintenance man and the officer left the tier.

This was a cycle that had been repeated several times since the pipe first broke, the officer and the maintenance man and the ceiling. It was a cycle of institutional life.

The writer laid back on his bunk with both arms stretched at forty-five degree angles from his body, hands palm-up. His legs were parallel, flat, relaxed. He kept his breath controlled and timed to the water, but allowed his mind to float to thoughts of mortality, death, endings, renewals. He held himself still in his final pose: The Corpse.

The dripping stopped. The writer opened one eye. He saw his friend Dana Janssen leaning against the bars with one hand cupped beneath the pipe.

"You're breaking my feng shui," said the writer.

"You're full of it," said Dana. "Feng shui isn't Buddhist."

Dana wore a white knit kufi and had a long, full yellow-blond beard. He had the build of a mountain man, someone who looked like he'd be more comfortable on snowshoes than in sneakers. He had blues eyes and talked with the full rounded O's of a native Minnesotan. He reminded the writer of some giant out of an Icelandic saga. "Assalamu alaikum," he said.

"What do you know from Buddhism? You're Lutheran."

"Formerly Lutheran, now Muslim. And in Surah an-Nur it says, 'When a greeting is offered you, answer it with an even better greeting, or at least with its like. God keeps count of all things'. You're supposed to say something back," Dana reminded him, not for the first time. He had transferred to CCCF on interstate compact. Unlike many inmates at CCCF, Dana was literate. He could read and write and spell and at one time had even worked in accounting. He had rich relatives who paid his transfer fee to send him out of state to a better facility. Apparently the rich relatives had never seen Charm City.

"Can it," said the writer. "I don't need the Qu'ran. I've got my own philosophy of this place. It's the Three Stages of Bureaucracy." He moved his legs to one side to let Dana sit on the end of the bunk which didn't leave much room. "Just watch the new intakes. They all think the same way and do the same things. First they come in fighting and bitching. They get thrown in seg or get the crap beat out of them until they learn that you can't fight the bureacracy and the bureacracy doesn't work. Next they start to bargain. They get a job or go to school or just start behaving and think that once they hold up their end of the deal the bureacracy will work."

"OK, so the first stage is anger and the second stage is bargaining. What's the third stage?"

Just then the 2C gate ground open and the tier came to life. Lieutenant Terry had arrived.

"Punishment," said the writer.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Downward Facing Dog

The 2C officer stuffed his Dorritos inside the desk and jumped to attention. The inmates, normally stirred by any off-tier visitor, stayed quiet. The only sound was the sound of Bo snuffling and the soft pad-pad-pad of retriever paws. Lieutenant Terry stopped in front of the cell next to the writer and eyed the new intake.

The new intake was an older man with nicotine-stained fingers. He leaned into the bars, offered a friendly smile and chirped, "'Sup, girl?"

Lieutenant Terry met him with an icy glare.

"Unh," sputtered the intake, "I mean 'woman'...I mean 'lieutenant'."

"You got any females at home? You say that to them? You say that to any females in your home they gonna rip the fur offa your ass. They're gonna put the hurt on you."

"Yes, ma'am. I mean lieutenant."

"Take the pictures off the grill, take the pruno out of the toilet and don't even think of dropping a dime bag on your neighbor here," she nodded to the writer. "My dog's got a nose that can pull drugs from three states away."

"Yes, ma...lieutenant."

Bo was nonchalant about his handler's praise. He yawned, stretched his paws forward and bowed, haunches raised. A perfect Downward Facing Dog. He sniffed the intake, licked his hand, then plopped on the floor for a good scratch.

"What's your name?"

"William Blume. Billy," said the intake, who decided not to offer to shake hands.

"Mr. Blume, we're going to get along just fine. Neither one of us are kids and we don't play games here. Any questions, ask your neighbor the writer here." And with that, Lieutenant Terry took herself and her dog on to the next cell.

Later, at rec time, Billy joined the writer and Dana at a table in the common area. He was too old to wear colors and too tired to go to the yard, so he retreated to the safety of the neutral zone. The writer had a chess board set up and was trying to get a game going.

"Sorry," said Dana. "Can't do chess. No dice, no gambling, no chess. Can't drink either in case your new buddy here was about to offer me something." He nodded toward Billy, tacit permission that the old man was allowed to sit with them.

"Chess is a game of skill. It's a game of mental ability, not gambling," said the writer.

"Not the way I play."

The writer sighed and slid the board aside. He missed his friend Eddie. Eddie would have been at the table and halfway through a game before anyone else had come out of their cells. He had been whisked off to witness protection by the Feds after giving evidence in the killing of a correctional officer. He hoped Eddie was still alive.

"How fast are they moving people out these days?" asked Billy. "I don't expect I'll be here that long. I'm just a parole violator."

"Any new charges?" asked the writer.

"Hmphh. That's the crazy-ass thing. All I did was bring a lady into an empty house. That's all I did, and they're trying to say it's burglary. I wasn't trying to steal nuthin', I just needed a place to be with my lady. If being with a woman is a crime, then I'm guilty. What're you supposed to do? It's like they want you to be some kind of Munich or something."

Dana and the writer felt too sorry for him to laugh. He was homeless, he was old and he'd probably be dead on the streets from alcohol or drugs or some medical problem if he hadn't been picked up. The police did him a favor.

"Did you talk to the police?" asked Dana.

"Hell, no," said Billy. "The police always lie to you. The first thing they say to you is a lie. They walk you into an interrogation room and they say to you 'good morning', and that's a lie. What's good about having your ass in an interrogation room?"

"You should be OK then," said the writer. In all likelihood, the officer wouldn't even show up for court. It was a mercy arrest.

Friday, July 6, 2007

What The Case Manager Did

Case manager Vanessa Streeter hurried to find a parking space. She was thirty minutes early for work but she was still afraid of being late. Fortunately there was an open spot on the third level of the parking ramp. She pulled in, set her car alarm and scurried to the case management department.

She was too late. All of her co-workers were already in their cubicles and were conspicuously buried in their paperwork. None of them looked up as she came in. Her chair was gone.

Lips pursed, she scanned the office for the culprit. Of course, no one would volunteer that they had stolen her chair. She could choose someone to confront or she could go find a chair from some other department. She dropped her purse on her desk and left for the public defenders' office.

Vanessa had been viciously attacked by an inmate and had been out on medical leave for six weeks. The week that she went out, a pipe broke in the case managers' office, soaking one chair with water from the inmate showers. Because she was gone her colleagues appropriated her chair and ordered a new one immediately from state supply. Her fractured jaw was now fully healed and the wires removed, she was back to work, but the chair still had not arrived. Every morning she and her colleagues raced to be the first one in to claim a chair for the day. Today, she had lost.

The public defenders weren't in yet. She grabbed a chair from the nearest desk and rolled it down the hall to her cubicle. She picked up a stack of papers and a rubber stamp to begin work, only to discover her inkpad was gone. Damn public defenders, she thought.

The form at the top of the stack was the classification instrument for inmate #8929302, 66-year-old William Blume. His parole had been revoked but he was given credit for all the time he was out in free society. Once all his days were calculated he had fewer than six months left to serve. A non-violent offender, he was eligible for pre-release. His only black mark: he had schizophrenia. He was on medication. He would need clearance from mental health before his final classification could be approved.

Vanessa slid open the lower right hand drawer of her desk to pull out the folder of pre-release clearance forms. Not surprisingly, it was empty. Like people who put empty milk cartons back in the refrigerator, none of her colleagues wanted to be responsible for replacing anything. Another item for the state supply requisition list, along with inkpads and a wastebasket. Maintenance had commandeered her wastebasket and she hadn't seen it since.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

What Billy Did

Nurse Ybango rolled down the tier pushing her medication cart. She stopped at the cells one by one, handing out pills and chatting briefly with the inmates. She knew them all by name even without her medication records. She came to Billy Blume's cell and passed a cup of pills through the feedup slot.

Billy came to the door, greeted her with a nod and a smile and said, "None for me today, thanks."

"Eh, Mr. Billy. You no get sick for me. I care for nice men and you stay well. Here you pills."

"Ah no, that's OK. I won't be here long. They're getting me out to pre-release in a few days and I don't want anything to hold that up. I'll be alright, it's only a few days." He patted her hand gently and winked. "You save those pills for the guys who have problems for real."

She sighed, made a note in her medication record about his refusal and moved on down the tier.

A few days became a week, then two weeks, then three. Eventually Billy quit coming out of his cell for rec or for feedup. He took the trays that were brought to him and pushed them back out through the feedup slot. He stopped showering. Late at night the writer could hear him pacing in his cell, chanting and muttering.

"What's he saying?" Dana asked. His face was pressed close to the wall that divided his cell from the writer's. He was talking through the bars.

The writer shrugged. "Heck if I can tell. He could be talking Amharic for all I know."

"Naw," said Dana. "Amharic is mainly spoken in Ethiopia, Egypt, Israel and Sweden. Also a bit in Eritrea by educated people of the preindependence generation."

"Huh??? How the heck do you know that stuff?"

"I watch Jeopardy."

They looked back at Billy's cell. They saw him reach out between the bars to cup his hand under the leaking pipe. He caught a palmful of water then drew it back. He dipped a finger in the water and traced a design across his forehead and another design on the wall of his cell. He continued to mumble. At recreation time Dana stopped by his cell to try to figure out the design. The writer followed him in.

"Kinda looks like a dog," Dana said.

"The dog! The dog! Woe, woe the dog beneath the skin. The wolves in wolf's clothing, ravenous death." Billy was getting increasingly upset.

"Is he talking about Bo?," asked the writer. "Must be. He doesn't look like a W.H. Auden kind of guy."

"Some day I'm going to understand you and that concerns me," said Dana.

"What about Bo? What's wrong with Bo?" the writer asked Billy. He felt like he was trying to get Lassie to tell him what happened to Timmy.

"There is death in the dog, the dog under the skin, the skin under Satan, some sunny slack in sorted splender..." and with that the writer gave up any hope of communication. Billy was gone.

They were locked down after rec time and the writer made up his mind that he was going to have to talk to the lieutenant about Billy. As it turned out, the lieutenant found out for herself. During her shakedown Bo went into Billy's cell and he started screaming in a particularly horrible, heartrending fashion as if the Hound of Hell was after him. Which, of course, was exactly what he thought was happening.

"How long has he been like this?" Lieutenant Terry asked the writer.

"A few weeks. I guess he quit taking his medicine because he thought he was about to get out. He said they were sending him to pre-release but they were just waiting for medical clearance."

"You mean he was waiting on the case managers?" she said, in a tone of voice that said volumes----she might as well have said 'waiting on Godot'. "Alright, that is so not OK. We can't have this. This guy's gotta get out of here."

"Lieutenant, if you can get this guy transferred to a hospital I'll bathe Bo every day for a month."

"You're on, man. I can work this. I know how to short-circuit the system," said the lieutenant.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Vile Sins Of The Bureaucracy

"Have you seen my pen?" asked the Anti-Chaplain. "It was right here last night." He patted the right side of his desk, next to a stack of inmate request forms that teetered perilously close to the edge. This was a very special pen, a limited-edition Martini fountain pen with finely drawn Siamese cats lacquered down the body. It was a gift from his parents for graduating from seminary, a task they believed he might never accomplish. Damn public defenders, he thought.

"Sorry, no. And we're out of inkpads," the writer said to the Anti-Chaplain. "Do you want me to order some from state supply?"

The priest spun around in his chair, put his hands on his knees and leaned into the writer's face. "You're a college boy, right? You got a master's degree. How long have you been working with me? Don't you know the lay of the land yet? Nothing ever gets sent from state supply." The writer had a passing thought to tell the Anti-Chaplain about the Three Stages of Bureaucracy to prove that he knew exactly how the land lay, but he never got the chance. The priest kept up his monologue:

"Go ahead and fill out the requisition and send it in. That way, if anybody asks we can say we did what we were supposed to do. Meanwhile I'll come in early tomorrow morning before the start of AM shift and steal one from the case managers."

"Isn't stealing a crime and a sin?"

"No. Stealing is not the crime. The only crime we are guilty of is attempted efficiency. It's the most vile, mortal sin ever to be committed in a bureaucracy."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

What The New Warden Did

Warden Drew Price sat at the head of the conference table and looked over his staff. The new warden was a political appointee, a transfer from the juvenile justice system where he had worked as a defense attorney for several years. He had attracted the attention of the governor with his work on the landmark decision regarding the rights of juveniles, Fennell v. State. The young man in question, Antonio Fennell, had been improperly questioned by police when he was detained as part of a murder investigation. Price's legal challenge led to new due process protections for all juveniles charged with violent offenses. The charge against Fennell was dismissed and the juvenile was released back to his family. Warden Price wondered briefly what had become of the promising young man. That case and his work on the latest gubernatorial campaign had earned him this promotion.

They were gathered around a small table in the conference room. The table was bolted to the floor so that it could not be flipped over by inmates. It was small enough that each person at the table sat uncomfortably close and were forced to acknowledge one another.

Vanessa felt a small twinge of satisfaction when she realized that the public defender sitting across from her recognized the chair she was sitting on. He looked at her with a hostile, predatory gaze. He twirled a pen slowly back and forth between the fingers of his right hand. It was a limited-edition Martini fountain pen with cats lacquered down the body.

For once the Anti-Chaplain was silent. He sat at the end of the conference table opposite Warden Price. He kept his head down and focussed on the inmate request forms he was stamping viciously with the case manager's inkpad. He was very aware of the fountain pen and was planning revenge.

"I'm so proud of each and every one of you," the warden said. "When I found out I was assigned here I thought to myself 'we've got work to do'. But then I saw my staff---dedicated, enthusiastic, professional staff---coming in well before their scheduled shifts just to get the work done and stay on top of things. I am seeing morale here like I've never seen in any other state facility." A soft communal groan swept around the table, the quiet last breath of a dying man, a Gregorian chant of despair, the sound of whithering hope. The new warden was channelling Dale Carnegie.

"Lieutenant Terry has been kind enough to bring me up to speed on some infrastructure issues that need to be addressed." Lieutenant Terry was conveniently not in attendance. "She has put together a corrective action plan that I think we should all take a look at." He glanced around the table.

"Has anyone seen my clipboard?" asked the warden. Vanessa and the Anti-Chaplain both looked at the public defender, who raised his shoulders in an innocent 'who, me?' gesture.

"Oh well, never mind. I think I can do this from memory. The main problem we seem to be dealing with right now is our electrical system."

Vanessa wondered briefly if Warden Price had noticed the broken pipes or knew what her missing wastebasket was being used for.

"We really need to improve our information management system, but the rate-limiting step right now is electricity. Apparently adding even just one more computer could bring our grid down. This is serious. I've already begun work on this issue and we've got outside contractors rewiring the building even as we speak. This may cause some temporary disturbance in your departments but I can assure you it really is temporary."

Monday, July 2, 2007

What The Squirrel Did

When the maintenance man and the young female c.o. came to the tier this time they could no longer ignore the wastebasket. The water was up to the brim and spilling over, blurring the words "case management" that were stencilled on the side in big block letters. The maintenance man picked up the wastebasket and slopped down the hallway, splashing pools of water along the tier. He returned the empty basket to its position.

"I'll sure be glad when we find those cutoff valves," he said to the female c.o. as they walked away.

When Bo and Lieutenant Terry arrived later that evening the writer thanked her for getting Billy moved. Less than two days after his screaming fit the transportation unit came and took him off the tier. As they were draping him in a waist chain and cuffs, one of the officers let it slip they were moving him to a forensic hospital. The writer was impressed.

"Maybe you can do something about our pipe," he said, although by now he was a bit reluctant to give up his meditation aid. He was bent over in a Bridge pose, but straightened up to point out the dripping ceiling.

Lieutenant Terry looked down at the pools of water on floor then up into the ceiling. "Oh for crying out loud," she said. Looking back at her, perched within a soft fluffy nest of duct insulation, was a squirrel. A comfy, fat, chipper animal with a smuggly content expression on its face. Bo went nuts.

"SHUT UP!" she hollered at the barking dog. "This is not happening. This is SO not happening in my facility." She tied Bo to the railing of the tier, turned the wastebasket over and stepped on top of it. Reaching up into the ceiling she drew herself up until only her calves were showing. Dana and the writer could hear her thrashing in the ceiling, cursing, the sounds interspersed with wild small animal noises---skittering and scratching and the fluttering of loose debris.

Suddenly there was a loud pop and a body fell from the ceiling. It was not a small animal body. It was followed by the distinct ozone-like smell of electricity.

"Oh my," said Dana.

Dana and the writer looked sideways at each other through the bars, then down at the walkway. The writer said, "Tell me she's not dead."

They looked down at the lieutenant. She was lying supine on the floor with both arms stretched at forty-five degree angles from her body, hands palm-up. Her legs were parallel, flat, relaxed. The Corpse.

"I don't think the lieutenant does yoga," said Dana. "But my god, you were right about the Three Stages. When you short-circuit the system, you get punished."

Across the tier the overhead lights wavered, flickered, went dark. In the case manager's department Vanessa glanced up briefly as the lights went out. She smiled discretely to herself, knowing that this was the perfect moment to raid the social work office.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Epilogue Or What Happened To Eddie

When Eddie got off the bus at the Federal Correctional Institution--Worthington the first thing he noticed was the silence. Except for a few young guys playing basketball, there was almost no noise except the wind sweeping across the flat barren prairie lands. FCIW was a small minimum security facility designed to be so isolated and remote that no one could get there by accident.

The U.S. marshals walked him in through the transport bay and turned him over to the Federal correctional staff. After checking his I.D. and signing the body receipt, they swapped out their transportation chains while the Feds put on their own. Eddie stood patiently through the process and took the opportunity to check out the place.

It was clean. It remained quiet, even indoors. The few correctional officers who walked past him seemed relaxed, experienced, professional. When they walked him to his cell they were careful to respect his body space and not touch him, something state c.o.'s never cared about.

Then he saw his cell. He had an honest-to-God desk. A real, four-legged, working surface desk. Granted the legs were bolted into the floor and there were no drawers, but it was still a far cry from the eight inch metal square that he was used to writing on, a square that was bolted into a wall just a little too high to write on comfortably.

Not that he was much of a writer. Or a reader, for that matter.

Which was why the books puzzled him. On the small shelf---he had a shelf!---was a neatly filed row of books: Selected Poems of W. H. Auden, Runaway by Alice Munro, a novel by some Polish-sounding guy he had never heard of. Eddie wondered if all the inmates had them.

Just then Eddie heard someone coming up behind him. He spun, flicked out his shank and ducked into a crouching attack position.

"Whoa! Unh...unh...sorry, I...I mean I'll just..." the speaker was a clean-cut young white guy with small wire-rimmed glasses. His hands were raised in a ward-off position and he was backing up out of the room into the hallway. He was trying not to shake too much.

Eddie roared. "Shit man, don't you fukkin' know how to walk into a cell? Shit, I could have gutted you, man. Hey, c'mon in. It's cool. My name's Eddie. I'm your new cellie."