My Daily Journal in Federal Prison

Day 38

Close your eyes.  Imagine you work in the typical American office complex within which is the typical American workplace made up of endless, repeating cubicles of same size and shape…ad infinitum.  Perhaps you don’t have to imagine and you just open your eyes and look around at your surroundings.  Now pretend that instead of the thinly carpeted walls framing your cube, your “cage” is made up entirely of white-painted cinderblocks, on all sides, and the floor is concrete.  Insert two other individuals of varying age, color, and mental stability and you now have a good idea of my prison quarters.  There is no cube ceiling and no cube door;  again, the space is very similar in concept to an office cubicle and not much larger.

For those inmates who have never had corporate office exposure, at any level…then this could be the best unintentional training for the real world, better than any of the nonsense that is preached in the Release Preparation Program (RPP).  My comrades in here are probably just as lazy and take as many coffee breaks as the cube jockeys surrounding you.

And yes, you are understanding me correctly.  In a low-security Federal institution (at least in mine), there are no cells, no bars, and no doors to lock you in your room.  Of course, the Unit itself is secured with bars on the windows, and the entire compound is surrounded by a razor-wired, double-fenced enclosure, but the living/sleeping quarters are much like what I would expect in the way of a homeless shelter.

There are two-man cubes and three-man cubes.  All new arrivals are automatically assigned the upper bunks (typically in a three-man), unless they have a medical condition (morbid obesity, old age, issues with their lower extremities) excusing them from that designation.  In time, as inmates are released or transferred, the newbies can then migrate to the highly-coveted lower bunks while NEWER newbies then assume the recently vacated top bunks.

Some two-man cubes come complete with a steel desk and attached metal stool, but never do the three-man cubes.  A two-man cube is outfitted with two beds (bunked) and a three-man cube is furnished with two bunked beds and one flanked single, forming an L-shaped nest for sleeping cons.  All cubes come with one locker per inmate and a pair of hooks, for each man, fastened to the walls for the hanging of laundry bags, coats, towels, etc.

Roommates are never called roommates, unless you are a die-hard fan of anal rape.  In cells, your roomie is called your “celly” and in cubes they are your “bunkies”…which, I agree, kind of sounds like baby talk.  Ga-ga.  Goo-goo.

I got fairly lucky with my bunkies, as well as with the physical location of my cube within the Unit.  Location, location, location.  While the close proximity to the highway of foot traffic can be sometimes loud and unnerving, the convenient quick access to the exit, the T.V. rooms, the e-mail workstations, and the bathroom/showers is unbeatable.

My bunkies are both hispanic (one, younger, fromArizonaand the other, older, fromTexas) and we are each separated in age by 10 years, with me in the middle.  From my first day on the compound, they have made me feel extremely welcome, offering me everything from coffee to candy to inventive home-cooked meals.  In more dangerous institutions, one must be wary about receiving “favors” from other inmates as they typically come with strings attached, e.g. anal rape.  But, in here, I can say that most everyone is genuine and agreeable when they offer to help you — ESPECIALLY the other dudes who are also from your hometown (this can be determined by the last 3 digits of your prison number, identified clearly on the piece of plastic worn around your neck at all times).  These are your “boys” and they will immediately take care of you, regardless of race, age, or socioeconomic background.  It’s the kind of thing that you would never see on the streets.

Example:  There is a guy in here who is serving a 4 month sentence for a DUI on Federal property who has a graduate degree and is a Pharmacist on the outside.  He is from Alexandria,Virginia (outside of WashingtonD.C.) and couldn’t have come from a more white-collar background.  He was IMMEDIATELY taken care of and provided for by a fellow Virginian, from the opposite end of the state, and if you were to judge THIS book entirely by its cover: this guy would be shelved in Horror…for Mature Readers.  Stocky, muscular, bald, bearded white dude with a voice like gargling glass and prison tats running the length of his body, always bedecked in a wife beater and oversized mesh gym shorts.  Aside from being in here because of a little misunderstanding regarding an AK-47, this guy is a total sweetheart, but these two make up one of the unlikeliest “couples.”  It’s very bizarre.  Their only common bond? Virginia.

Personally, I have spent most of my entire adult life trying to make it on my own without emotional or financial assistance from anyone and while that strategy may have ultimately led me toward some self-destructive behaviors, it has also prepared me well for this environment.

My older bunkie, Durango (not his real name), is 45 years old and moonlights as an electronics Mr. Fix-It (repairing inmate radios/headphones) and he also runs a bodega out of his locker (selling everything from Ramen soups — referred to, in the singular, as ‘a noodle’ — to honeybuns…and priced at a slight premium in exchange for the convenience of immediacy and instant gratification of said products.  Inmates can only shop at the commissary once a week, on an assigned day, so they must rely on these secret “stores” to tide them over if they run out of their own stash.)  The inmates purchase the goods with $1 stamps (valued at $0.75), the prison currency, or with purchases of equal or greater value from the commissary on the buyer’s next shopping day.

My younger bunkie, Polo (also not his real name), is 25 years old, well-liked on the compound, and enjoys playing soccer on the prison’s “A team.”  He will be going home in about 5 months, at which time I will have “earned” his lower bunk.

The only annoying aspect of my bunkie’s side business(es) is the steady stream of customers that we typically have lining up outside of our front door…at all hours.  And no exaggeration…at one point today, there were as many as 7 inmates standing around in our cube today, shortly before dinner.  Now, imagine 7 randoms just standing around in your workspace, in your work cube of the same size.

Honestly, though, if many of these guys displayed the same sense of ingenuity, industriousness, business acumen, and overall entrepreneurship on the streets (instead of engaging in their previous criminal activity) there probably wouldn’t be a need for as many prisons as we have now.

Another great example:  I may have mentioned previously how I had walked in on a tattooing in progress within another inmate’s cube.  Not only did I originally not believe that something like that existed in a place like this…but, if it DID, I was expecting something a little more primitive, crude, and medieval.  It the tattoo gun that I saw was just lying on a countertop somewhere, I would have most definitely mistaken it for the real thing, from a reputable shop.  Keep in mind that this apparatus was made entirely from the INSIDE and by using only the materials that are readily available — ink from Uniball pens, needles made from paperclips, and the motor taken from the battery-operated and commissary-issued shaver, which is also shockingly quiet.  (Consequently, as prison officials have caught on over the years, the shaver is no longer available in the prison store, making them a pretty hot item on the black market.)

The tattoo artists themselves can make quite a living in here, exchanging large amounts of commissary purchases for their work…and some of these guys are just as talented as people that I’ve seen on the street.  This one inmate got here a year ago with ZERO tattoos…and now he is covered almost entirely with work that I just assumed was done by a seasoned pro.  His entire backpiece, done inside this joint, is an intricate mock-up of a meth lab…symbolizing the “monkey on his back” that he is “leaving all behind.”

On another note, there is nothing that makes me giggle more than over-the-top, exaggerated, male posturing.  In the Chow Hall today, I noticed this white dude with ink on the knuckles of each finger on both hands.  As I strained my eyes to make out what it said, it suddently became clear to me in shocking hilarity:  GAME OVER.  Probably not the reaction that he was hoping for…


1 Comment»

  DH wrote @

Stick with the vatos, they are good people.

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