I'VE BEEN SERVED

My Daily Journal in Federal Prison

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Day 248 – Part II

Last week, I heard what could have been the most puzzling sound to ever come out of a prison toilet stall. Some guy in there was clearly taking a dump…and out of the same stall came the sound of him cracking open a soda…and pouring it into a plastic container. How refreshing.

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On the last day of Christmas, the prison gave to me:

1 Milky Way

1 Snickers Bar

1 M&Ms

Three Musketeers

2CocoaPacks

1 Bag of Pretzels

Roasted, Salted Peanuts

1 Chocolate Brownie

1 Pack of Cookies

Tiny Bag of Cheez-Its

Honey BBQ Chips

Small Bag of Cheese Curls

2 Soft-Baked Cookies

Plain Potato Chips

1 Coffee Cake

1 Marble Pound Cake

Peanut Butter & Cheese Crackers

Bag of Party Mix

White Cheddar Popcorn

Chocolate & Yogurt-Covered Pretzel

1 Plain White Bagel

1 Big Bag ofHolidayCookies

And…

1 Honey Buuunnnnnnnn.

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The holiday meals here are something to behold. Let’s begin this recap with the first in a string of big-meal blowouts — Thanksgiving.

My first Thanksgiving here was probably the most melancholic experience that I have had thus far, especially considering that it was my favorite holiday on the outside. I’ve always enjoyed this holiday because of its lack of religious significance, the 4.5 day weekend, the precursor to the rest of the holiday season, and the opportunity to flex my culinary muscle in the kitchen. This is also the one holiday that my wife and I typically do not have to travel out of town for and instead entertain her amazing family at our home in the city. I would also be missing the annual tradition of the long walk that my wife and I usually take through the quiet, cold, and deserted city streets (“a kind of hush”) on the morning of Thanksgiving.

In a rather pathetic attempt at recreating that walk, I took a few laps around the rec yard track before the big holiday meal, listening to tired pop renditions of holiday classics and admiring the double razor-wired fence. After jumpstarting my metabolism, I was ready to get stuffed. On the menu: one large, generous portion of succulent turkey breast, homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, instant stuffing, palatable cranberries, salad, and pumpkin pie. Whoo-wee.

Afterward, I was ready to be carted out of the Chow Hall in a wheelbarrow. Being a Federal holiday and all, most of the compound would be shut down in the evening, so we were handed a bologna sandwich brown bag (for dinner) on the way out.

With my belly full of holiday tidings and my shit sandwich under my arm, I started the long trek back to the housing unit (“o’er the compound, among the hoods, my cinderblock house I go…”). Along the way, I began my mental countdown. 10…9…8…7…6…

Inmate: “MAN! That meal was trash. I remember when they used to give each inmate their OWN whole turkey…TWO kinds of pie…(etc., etc., etc.).”

Repeat, ad infinitum.

It never fails. And it normally doesn’t even take that long. Somewhere along the way, the inmates forgot where they were (prison) and who they were (prisoners). This isn’t some 5-star resort where they could lodge a complaint with the management. I suppose the ultimate “message” of Thanksgiving — being grateful for what we have — gets lost in an inverse correlation to the number of years that each guy serves.

Honestly, I was surprised that we had received anything special at all. A meal of this size and quality couldn’t have been cheap. Hooray for your tax dollars.

The Christmas holiday meal was even better. Aside from the very generous holiday gift bag that each inmate received (see above), the meal that preceded the gift distribution was nothing short of spectacular: a thick, Flintstone-sized slab of well-roasted beef, a small mound of baked ham (the first of which I had since my incarceration), mashed potatoes & gravy, pecan praline desert, mixed veggies, and salad. Considering the large Muslim population here (they don’t eat pork), there was plenty of extra swine to go around.

Surprisingly, I heard fewer complaints at this meal than the last. Not much praise, but fewer complaints.

The grand finale of this holiday meal trifecta was the bountiful feast served on New Year’s Day. My anticipation and excitement was, however, tempered with a mild disappointment. I’ve previously described my love affair with the infrequent Sunday pancake brunch…well, it just so happened that flapjack day landed on the same brunch slot as our holiday meal — and we obviously wouldn’t be receiving both. Beggars (or inmates) can’t be choosers, but the eventual meal more than made up for the bait & switch.

Perhaps “management” had listened to the “customer” complaints, as this time were all treated to our VERY OWN expertly roasted Cornish game hen, complete with the usual sides, and for desert — an extra-large slice of coconut creme pie, of which I ate the shit out of.

‘Tis the season to be hustlin’…and many inmates are chronically “thirsty” (that is, poor and looking to make some money.) The first thing that came out of their pocket when they sat down to eat was a clear, plastic sanitary glove in which they stuffed their tasty fowl and carted it back to the unit, ready for sale to the highest bidders.

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Remember when Snoop Dogg went from the “Church to da Palace”? Well, I made the same trip…when I got a new bunky a few weeks ago. You may recall my last celly was a guy named “Bless” — an older brother from theIslandswith a strong commitment to his Christian faith. While I was at work one day, the cops came through our unit for their weekly inspection and discovered some contraband among my celly’s belongings.

They found his spray bottle full of Pine-Sol which we used to keep our cube extra-sparkly prison clean. While I can certainly understand WHY inmates are not allowed to have a spray bottle in their possession (who wants a blast in the face with some caustic chemicals, anyway?), it’s unfortunate that something that is ultimately used for good would lead to my man being kicked out. You see, within two-man cubes, the bottom bunk is a privilege that is designated based on seniority and it can sometimes take up to 2-3 years to even get one. Nearly any infraction or sanction taken against you would be cause for having your bottom-bunk pass revoked for 90 days.

So, when I came home from work that day, I not only learned of my bunky’s fate, but I met my new celly who, oddly enough, was just released from the Hole where he spent 35 days “under investigation” — an all-encompassing umbrella category allowing the prison to hold any inmate in the Hole, at any time, for any reason, without actually imposing any further disciplinary actions. My new cell — I’ll call him “Knight” — was released without getting a “SHOT” (incident report) which thereby allowed him to regain his previously-held, bottom-bunk pass.

Apparently, my new roommate may hold the Unit’s record for the most write-ups and has racked up many trips to the Hole. The Bucket. The Corner Pocket.

But you know what? “Knight” and I have been having a great time. He’s actually a very kind, charismatic, young black man and he has been nothing but respectful of my space. I was a little nervous the first night of his stay when there were no less than 5 or 6 of his homies in our cube at any given time…complete with some impromptu rap battles…but those activities have quickly dissipated.

Actually, it will never cease to amaze me how many friends you automatically inherit in here, just by associating with someone. Now that Knight is my cell…I’m his “dude.” And all of HIS “dudes” are MY “dudes.” And vice versa. And I’m talking about the same guys that wouldn’t give me the time of day previously…but would now take a punch on the mouth for me.  My dude and I are the new “Felix & Oscar” of Unit B.

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What I Read In Prison – 2011

The following is a list of books I read last year, beginning with my incarceration on 5/10/11.  While they all have their own merits, an asterisk precedes those titles that made an especially strong impact.  As always, I’m interested in your recommendations — in particular, literary dramatic fiction, imagistic and minimalistic poetry, and compelling memoirs.

FICTION

Benioff, David — THE 25TH HOUR

Carlotto, Massimo & Videtta, Marco — POISONVILLE

*Chabon, Michael — THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY

Connelly, Michael — THE NARROWS

*Coupland, Douglas — ELEANOR RIGBY

Coupland, Douglas — GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA

*Coupland, Douglas — THE GUM THIEF

Coupland, Douglas — MISS WYOMING

*Delillo, Don — FALLING MAN

Del Toro, Guillermo & Hoga, Chuck — THE STRAIN

De Saint-Exupery, Antoine — THE LITTLE PRINCE

*Egan, Jennifer — A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD

*Eugenides, Jeffrey — MIDDLESEX

*Foer, Jonathan Safran — EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

Franzen, Jonathan — THE CORRECTIONS

Hogan, Chuck — PRINCE OF THIEVES (Re-published as THE TOWN)

Johnston, Terry C. — ONE-EYED DREAM

Johnstone, William W. — THE LAST GUNFIGHTER: IMPOSTOR

*Kirn, Walter –MISSION TO AMERICA

Kirn, Walter — THUMB SUCKER

Kirn, Walter — UP IN THE AIR

*Kundera,Milan– THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING

Lehane, Dennis — MOONLIGHT MILE

Lehane, Dennis –MYSTIC RIVER

London, Jack — WHITE FANG

McCarthy, Cormac — NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

*McInerney, Jay — THE GOOD LIFE

Moore, Christopher — YOU SUCK: A LOVE STORY

Nesbo, Jo — THE REDEEMER

Palahniuk, Chuck — HAUNTED

Paretsky, Sara — TOTAL RECALL

*Salinger, J.D. — THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

Stein, Garth — THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

*Toole, John Kennedy — A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES

Vonnegut, Kurt — CAT’S CRADLE

*Vonnegut, Kurt — SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE

*Wolfe, Tom — A MAN IN FULL

*Yates, Richard –REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

NON-FICTION

Abercrombie, Barbara — COURAGE & CRAFT

Braithwaite, E.R. — TO SIR, WITH LOVE

Bramwell, David — THE BOOK OF HARD WORDS

*Buford, Bill — AMONG THE THUGS

Burroughs, Augusten — DRY

Cullen, Dave — COLUMBINE

*Didion, Joan — BLUE NIGHTS

Didion, Joan — SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM

Didion, Joan — THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

Frey, James — A MILLION LITTLE PIECES

Gardner, Chris — THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

Halpern, Justin — SHIT MY DAD SAYS

*Hamilton, Gabrielle — BLOOD, BONES & BUTTER

*Hoff, Benjamin — THE TAO OF POOH

*Hornbacher, Marya — MADNESS: A BI-POLAR LIFE

*Karr, Mary — THE LIAR’S CLUB

King, Stephen — ON WRITING

Kushner, Sam & Schoenberger, Nancy — HOLLYWOOD KRYPTONITE

Latza Nadeau, Barbie — ANGEL FACE: THE TRUE STORY OF STUDENT KILLER AMANDA KNOX

Levine, Nancy & Wilson the Pug — THE TAO OF PUG

Levitt, Steven D. & Dubner, Stephen J. — FREAKONOMICS

Levitt, Steven D. & Dubner, Stephen J. — SUPERFREAKONOMICS

*Malone, Calvin — RAZOR-WIRE DHARMA: A BUDDHIST LIFE IN PRISON

Maull, Fleet — DHARMA IN HELL: THE PRISON WRITINGS OF FLEET MAULL

Mazrich, Ben — BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE

Mazrich, Ben — RIGGED

Montiel, Dito — A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS

Norling, Ernest R. — PERSPECTIVE MADE EASY

*Sedaris, David — WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES

Simpson, O.J. — IF I DID IT

Steele, Ronnie — MY OWN WORST ENEMY: A MEMOIR OF ADDICTION

Strunk, William Jr. & White, E.B. — THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

Sudo, Philip Toshio — ZEN GUITAR

*Walls, Jeannette — THE GLASS CASTLE

Wurtzel, Elizabeth — PROZAC NATION

SELF-HELP

*Fiore, Neil, PH.D. — THE NOW HABIT

POETRY

*Collins, Billy — THE TROUBLE WITH POETRY: AND OTHER POEMS

*Simic, Charles — THAT LITTLE SOMETHING

GRAPHIC NOVELS

Miller, Frank & Mazzucchelli, David — BATMAN: YEAR ONE

Day 137

It was like a game of CLUE (“Peaches…in the Shower Room…with a Mop Handle.”)  Except, in this case, there was a theft, not a murder.  It all started, however, with the cliched trappings of a true murder mystery.  Around 9:00 p.m., the cop walked into the Unit and announces in his most authoritative voice…”Listen up!  We have a thief among us.”  Verbatim.  “There have been several pairs of shoes missing.  We are going to run the tapes in the control room.  In the meantime, if you were the one who took them, you have the option of setting them back out somewhere in the open.”

This directive was slightly ambiguous because it was without a “NO QUESTIONS ASKED” clause.  It was unclear whether or not the culprit would be let off if he returned the merchandise.

Theft, in general, has always been a problem in the Units — after all, there is no honor among thieves — but this issue becomes particularly exacerbated come football season (more on that at a later time) when gambling debts spiral out of control and inmates need to come up with a way to repay the bookies.

As the search for the missing sneakers intensified, the tension in the air was so thick, you could cut it with a knife (albeit an improvised cutter, fashioned from the lid of a tin can).  Turns out that the victim was a nice, mild-mannered Hispanic guy (from my hometown) who was well-liked and minded his own business.  The rest of the Hispanic guys in the Unit began to gather like darkening storm clouds and fingers of accusation were pointed in every which direction, like errant lightning bolts.  The thunderous rumbling of their angry Spanish sparked even more kinetic electricity.

The first and most likely suspect, and ultimately a red herring, was a gentleman recently released from the Hole for theft…who ran a hustle cleaning and selling sneakers acquired from indeterminate sources.  Hmm.  But things are not always as they seem.  Acting only on a hunch and some whispered blame, the cop tossed that guy’s cube and rummaged through his locker, turning up nothing ill-begotten.  Of course, the suspicion of this particular individual didn’t just end there, but the inmates just assumed that he had a clever hiding space for the stolen goods.

About twenty more minutes had passed, the cop’s time spent wandering the halls, casing the joint for clues.  And then came the tell-tale sign of the end of most prison mysteries.  The cop starts coming up the lane running past my cube with a red two-wheeled hand truck (momentarily reminding me of the iconic wheelbarrow of William Carlos Williams) — which is often the first omen that someone is going to the SHU…the Hole…the Bucket…the Corner Pocket.  This is the first indication because that cart means that an inmate’s locker and personal possessions are going into storage…as the inmate in question would no longer be needing his things for the foreseeable future.

And wouldn’t you know, the cop stops directly across from my own cube, to apprehend a suspect out of a neighboring cube, which consequently also neighbored the cube of the apparent theft.

You know when a serial killer is apprehended and there is always one neighbor on the evening news who purports to have had the individual in his sights?  “He always seemed kind of strange and quiet.”  That’s how I felt about the guilty party.  Dude was a young, white guy with a really poor attitude and a permanent scowl on his face.  He was a recent arrival on this compound as he was kicked out of the camp down the hill (I’m assuming for the same reason).

He didn’t have very many known associates, other than a couple of rednecks of ill-repute, and he was notorious for snorting pills purchased from other inmates who had obtained them for their own use at the controlled pill line.  Perhaps that was his motive — to score some more pills.

It’s funny — while he wasn’t the most obvious suspect, he was certainly the one that made the most sense after he was fingered.  Which should be a lesson to everyone to refrain judgment from those who stand accused of a crime with no real evidence other than a “hunch.”

(The guilty party here was seen taking the brand-new Nike running shoes from his neighbor’s cube on the security footage and stashing them behind a washing machine in the laundry room.)

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CurrentlyReading:  “The Good Life” by Jay McInerney

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Institution Movie:   “Something Borrowed” with Kate Hudson.  Barf.

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Lunch:  Fish FiletSandwich, Mac & Cheese, Spinach, Salad with French Dressing

Dinner:  (Wrap-Your-Own) Beef & Bean Burrito

Day 135

In my Unit, there are inmates that go by the following names:  “Six-Eight,” “Six-Nine,” and the least impressive “Six-Four.”  Creative, huh?  Something tells me that it wouldn’t have the same gravitas if I went by “Six-Oh.”  Before you know it, we may have to start doubling up on these names (just like our many “Flaccos” in the Unit) unless there is a sudden influx of dwarves and giants.  Or perhaps the inmates will have to start assigning monikers based on weight.  “Pleased to meet you, I’m One-Eighty.”

*

Some people have a lot of nerve.  There’s a guy here serving time for a child pornography charge, which is repulsive enough, yet word has it that in preparation for his sentencing he had the audacity to furnish a character reference letter purported to be from a parent of one of the victims.  The problem?  The perp had fabricated the letter himself.  At the actual sentencing, the judge gave him ten years…that is until his little stunt was revealed and the Judge tacked on another ten.

Guess what his hustle is here in the joint?  Prison lawyer.

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Lunch:  Cheeseburger, Fries, Salad with Italian Dressing

Dinner:  Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Spinach, Garlic Bread

Day 134

You’d be amazed at how many dudes are here because of violations to their probation.  Mark my words — once I’m out of here, the system will never see me again.  I’ve made my mistakes, I’m doing my time, and I’m leveraging this experience as an opportunity to improve myself as much as possible.

What’s even more puzzling about these violators is that I’ve recently learned that many of their infractions have been intentional.  Meaning, they had committed these violations for the sole purpose of returning to prison.  Why would they do this?  In the majority of probation violations, the convicts typically exchange their freedom for any additional “paper,” or time under probation. In the minds of some of these guys, they would rather spend their time under the less watchful eye of a prison guard, than on the street having to check in with their probation officer, hold down a job, and keep their piss clean.  Usually, when they are sent back to prison on a violation, they don’t have any additional probation when they are released again, but that can also vary from case to case.

And while some of these guys might be on the streets for a year or two before coming back, I’ve seen guys return with a sheepish grin on their face in less than a week or two.  Look at the rapper T.I. — he was sent back to prison ONE DAY after his release…and this was after he was ALREADY back on a violation after his first bit.

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Lunch:  Chicken Patty Sandwich

Dinner:  Sub Sandwich

Day 133

I always knew there was something up with that strange, fat black man.  First off, he was incredibly nosey.  Shortly after my arrival on the compound, he was always getting up in my business.

One of my biggest pet peeves here is how everyone makes it a point to tell you how you should do your time.  I would be a fool not to make the most of my time here — for me, that means spending most of my time reading and writing.  Not only is it what I enjoy doing, but I know that those are activities that will further my goals once I get out of here.  Some people take exception to that…and tell you to come down off of your bed, or come out of your room.  I guess I should take that as a compliment since the guys here want to get to know me…but after awhile, I find myself not doing the things that I really want to do, only so I could avoid hearing their goddamn opinions.  But the last thing I want to do is waste my time here watching t.v., gambling, or engaging in illegal activities.

This dude — I’ll call him D — was one of the worst offenders.  Stopping by announced, always asking me what I was reading…what I was writing, etc.  One day, when I was on e-mail, he was at the computer terminal sitting next to me.  Out of nowhere, he says:  “You don’t talk much, do you?”

So, I say to him:  “Someone once told me that you shouldn’t speak unless it is an improvement upon silence.”

And he says, “Well, alright.  Just want to make sure that you are okay.  Now, if you ever need someone to talk to…if you need a friend…”

Fast forward about 2-3 months.  Every couple of weeks a bus will show up and drop off a brand new bunch of riff raff.  One of these dudes had to have been one of the most unfortunate looking human beings that I had ever seen in my life.  I don’t know what was more repulsive — the excessive amount of fat on the back of his bald head…or the expansive veneer of zits covering it.  He kind of looked like Sloth, from “The Goonies,” only a little less pretty.  Of course, I could only assume that he was a chomo since he fit the profile — all around creepy.

One day I was walking to the Chow Hall with a buddy of mine and we were talking about a very specific area in Michigan.  This dude, I’ll call him Rocky Road, happened to be eavesdropping behind me and says, “Gosh, I don’t mean to interrupt, but one of my favorite wines is a Riesling from that area.”  Barf.  Just picturing this turd lounging around with a nice, crisp Riesling was enough for me to shudder into eternity.

Fast forward another week or two, and someone from my Unit opened the Storage Closet where we keep all of the cleaning supplies and walked right into Rocky Road, on his knees, performing fellatio on D.

Ebony.  Ivory.  Living in perfect harmony.

While that would have been a sight for any pair of sore eyes, it just happened that the most outspoken homophobe in our Unit just happened to be the one who caught them.

If this place is any indication, I can only imagine how quickly gossip travels in a WOMEN’S prison.  This event made the morning news across the entire compound.

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Breakfast:  Oatmeal, Cake with White Frosting, Banana, 2 Cartons of 2% Milk

Lunch:  Chicken Fajitas, Spanish Rice, Black Beans, Salsa, Green Apple

Dinner:  Meat Loaf, Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, Green Peas

Day 130

Best Lunch Ever.  Best Meal Ever.  (Relative to all other prison meals, I should clarify.)  God bless the Mexicans and their national holidays.  Due to the ever present misinformation rife in the Joint, I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of the purpose of the actual celebration — I’ve heard everything from Cinco De Mayo (huh??…isn’t that in May?), the Mexican New Year (what???), the Mexican Revolution (plausible), and Mexican Independence Day (a possibility).  Unfortunately, I can’t just hop on the Internet and quickly determine the answer.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, our meal was Mexican in flavor, and contained ingredients that I never thought I’d taste again while behind bars.  On the menu: a quarter baked Mexican-spiced chicken (cooked perfectly so that all of the meat fell immediately clear of the bone), a wonderful pork soup with traces of hominy, a small scoop of pico de gallo (tomato, onion, green pepper, and CILANTRO), steamed rice, a large flour tortilla, homemade salsa roja with fresh jalapenos, and for desert?  A massive cluster of fresh, fried cinnamon-sprinkled churros.

Yum.  Even the Debby Downers that must describe each and every meal, whether warranted or not, as “cold garbage” and “some bullshit” lauded this meal with heaps of praise.

The only event that would ultimately send my post-meal spirits crashing was the news that the prison’s surprisingly delectable pancakes have been STRICKEN from the Fall Brunch Menu.  Boo.

*Institution Movie:  “Tyler Perry‘s Madea’s Big Happy Family”

*Lunch: Mexican Baked Chicken, Pork & Hominy Soup, Pico de Gallo, Flour Tortilla, and Churros.

*Dinner:  2 Grilled Ham & Cheese Sandwiches, Potato Salad, Mixed Veggies, and Lentil Soup.