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Doing Time25 Years of Prison Writing
By Bell Gale Chevigny
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2000 Bell Gale Chevigny
All right reserved.
The ritual dehumanization of entry is a powerful theme for prison writers. In the excerpt from "Fair Hill Prison" above, 1987 prizewinner Nolan Gelman resisted the process by naming it. Fundamental disorientation may strip one of words as well as of civilized garb. M. A. Jones's "Prison Letter" here captures the problem of wordlessness -- another name for fear -- at the most private level.
To become a prisoner is to enter an alien universe. One's most trusted resources fail to help interpret the new setting, and the simplest social interaction may be fraught with peril. Sometimes seasoned inmates help newcomers begin to do time. In William Aberg's "Siempre," set in an unusual Arizona jail that housed both men and women, a veteran talks a novice through fear of the penitentiary (the pinta, in Mexican argot) to which she is being sent.
More often it is a "cellie" who helps a "fish" to learn the ropes. In Clay Downing's 1974 story "The Jailin' Man," the title figure teaches the narrator how to heat water for coffee in the glass part of a lightbulb and in the process to feel less sorry for himself. Ingenious ways to prepare food are also shared with newcomers. Jarvis Masters describes learning how to make powerful wine in "Recipe for Prison Pruno" (Death Row). Advice on how to avoid danger abounds: "Drink plenty of water and walk real slow" is a typical admonition.
"Symbiosis" between inmates is possible, according to the avuncular mentor in David Wood's story by that name (1996), if you learn how to carry yourself like a true convict: "Look every man square in the eye and let him know you'll fight back. You don't have to win a fight, just hurt the other guy bad enough so he won't want to scrap with you again." This swift cultivation of attitude, a particularly male response, is not restricted to men. Thus in Denise Hicks's 1996 entry "Where's My Mother?" the neophyte reports: "I was learning the none-of-your-business stare; the no-you-don't-know-me stance; and the why-I'm-here-could-not-possibly-be-of-any-concern-to-you pivot."
Old hands school new prisoners in the cons' rules, as crucial to survival as institutional regulations. Each prison has its underground economy and its informal government, with leadership ranging from fluid to stable. Prison mentors elucidate the "code" of the "stand-up" convict, a signal feature of prison subculture for generations, particularly among men. Akin to "honor among thieves," it has tenets like "Be loyal to cons," "Don't let anyone disrespect you," and "Never snitch." This ideal is still nurtured by old-timers who nostalgically lament the bygone days when convicts, they say, ran penitentiaries. In "Ring on a Wire" (1996), a story by George Hughes, the narrator's "cellie" celebrates a mythicized golden age when they could "take your freedom, take your property and everything else away from you, but not your word." For such as he, only a "convict" was a "real man."
But beginning in the 1980s, new throngs of rash and fearless teenagers doing time made a much more menacing experience. The "code" began to degenerate into little more than vengeance against snitches or, as Victor Hassine puts it, "Darwin's code: survival of the fittest." In his poem "Convict Code" (1988), Alex Friedman describes "walking on by" scenes of weapon-making and gang rape, and then being stabbed twenty-eight times by a stranger -- "and everybody walked on by."
In "How I Became a Convict" (extracted from his book Life Without Parole), Victor Hassine describes his adaptation to Pennsylvania's prison for the most violent criminals. His first impulse was to retreat and build himself a cocoon. His ultimate decision to engage the life around him typifies that of most effective prison writers.
For many, survival begins with mastery of prison lingo. (See "I See Your Work" in Players, Games). Some novices feel compelled to create lexicons of their new argot. Often harsh and minimal, this patois is sometimes rich in nuance. For the transferred prisoners facing reorientation on a new turf in William Orlando's "Dog Star Desperado" (the first chapter of a novel-in-progress), battles of rhetoric are all they can afford. Like the "dozens" played on ghetto streets and the rough banter of the armed services, this patois allows its performers to position themselves against one another while strutting their stuff. It also offers them a kind of collective armor as they size up their new surroundings and their new keepers, who are also pulled into the force field of prison language.
On another level, Orlando's story enacts the galvanizing of the spirit to meet the shock of dehumanization. In their own way, women, too, cultivate such resources. In "Arrival" here, for example, Judee Norton calls up the inviolable inner liberty of the Stoics and converts her shackles into jewelry. Her summoning of her innermost self marks her starting point as she begins to do time.
M. A. Jones
You ask what it's like here
but there are no words for it.
I answer difficult, painful, that men
die hearing their own voices. That answer
isn't right though and I tell you now
that prison is a room
where a man waits with his nerves
drawn tight as barbed wire, an afternoon
that continues for months, that rises
around his legs like water
until the man is insane
and thinks the afternoon is a lake:
blue water, whitecaps, an island
where he lies under pale sunlight, one
red gardenia growing from his hand --
But that's not right either. There are no
flowers in these cells, no water
and I hold nothing in my hands
but fear, what lives
in the absence of light, emptying
from my body to fill the large darkness
rising like water up my legs:
It rises and there are no words for it
though I look for them, and turn
on light and watch it
fall like an open yellow shirt
over black water, the light holding
against the dark for just
an instant: against what trembles
in my throat, a particular fear
a word I have no words for.
1982, Arizona State Prison-Perryville
She tells me through the vent
from the cell below
that they're taking her
on the morning train to the pinta,
that the guards have already packed
everything but her sheets, blue jumpsuit, and towel.
Through the floor,
with my heart as with an eye,
I can see her as she sits
on the bunk, face
cupped in her hands,
elbows propped on her thighs,
cheeks smudged by fingermarks
and tears, her dark
hair eclipsing her knees.
I try to reassure her
with wisdom I do not have,
and hope I try to fake,
that the hammer
and anvil of coming days
will forge us into
By the time they unlock
my cell at breakfast,
she has already gone. But later
as I walk back in my boxers
from the shower, an older guard,
the kind one, slips a note
into my hand, whispers,
She sent her love. Back in my cell
I unfold a note that says,
Te amo, siempre in crude letters
formed by a finger and menstrual blood.
1994, Pima County Jail
Dog Star Desperado
It had been a journey.
We were bussed from USP Leavenworth during one of those polar Novembers in Kansas. It was a day cold and white and hushed, a solitary morning of the snows.
Our prison transport showed its age. It looked as knackered as some of the convicts it had aboard -- men in bad flesh who'd let themselves go, turning gray with the years and bitter for it. The bus smelled funny. The odor of cigarette butts and rusted apple cores, the odor of stale, brooding sweat. A prisoner smell. We sat in our chains and stared holes through the bus windows. We had little rap for one another, anyway. Most of us were just faces -- a surly face that grunted at you over a morning bowl of grits. We were content to look hard and forbidding. Desperadoes all.
Those that did talk, talked shop. Who was hot and snitchin'. Who got stabbed and good for the motherfucker. Who bugged out. Who busted loose one fine morning in Kool-Aid lipstick, cue-chalk blue eye shadow, and bikini briefs over buns of steel. Gossip and lore. Amazing, I thought, that so little could be so absorbing. Still, absent any stone tablets, this was how they passed on the tribal Decalogue -- defining value and boundary. This was how they staked out their claims as regulars, as men, as convicts. Real ones. Very few of us left, they would have you know. Rats and queers taking over.
"Yo, baby!" a six-plus-footer dubbed Wonder Woman called out to me from the back of the bus. "Yeah -- you, cutie. You can break me down like a shotgun, and ride! Just two hundred cash."
All heads turned. I grinned, embarrassed.
"Two hundred?" I replied at last. "You bump your head, bitch? For that much you can fuck me." The bus rocked. Laughing just to laugh. Prisoner laughter, and afterward gravity.
It grew, the distance between us and the prison and the distance between each other. Who could acknowledge the thoughts, let alone share them? We rode quietly out of Kansas and through Oklahoma, passing here a frosted wood and there a stubbled field, a ragged scarecrow under leaden skies; rode across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, across miles and memory and heartbreak in a country song; rode, finally, the last leg westward to California and the sea, so by the time the bus reached Lompoc's gate we could've lifted our heads and howled -- Lompoc looking, to transfixed eyes, as welcome as hoofprints in the snow to winter wolves.
It had been a journey.
The guard riding shotgun stood up and unlimbered his weapon from its overhead mount. Then he stepped heavily off the bus, plucking free the imbedded seat of his pants. This correctional officer wore the dark blue blazer, dress shirt with tie, and gray slacks -- new image, new name.
The driver, likewise uniformed, followed after his lumbering partner, but returned in minutes to key open the bus security grill -- a steel mesh partition between their inviolate space and ours.
"Let's move it out, happy campers."
"But, officer!" fretted someone. "There's criminals in there!"
The driver shifted a wad of chaw in his mouth. "Hot grub, too."
Our response was Pavlovian. Hands cuffed, feet shackled, and chained at the waist in twelve-man coffles, we rattled off and away from the bus -- shuffling like coolies. The bright Lompoc afternoon was typical for this part of the central California coast. The sun batted our eyes into a squint, and the aggressive breeze nipped at our prison khakis.
"The more the merrier," needled one of the escort guards. "I like seeing all these inmates!"
"Job security," quipped another behind his M-16.
These guards all matched: boots, mirrored sunglasses, guns. They were many, and they deployed themselves around us. Such overkill made you feel at once hopeless and proud at being considered so fierce a beast. For the nonce you weren't some tame and humble inmate. Hell, no. You were a barbarian being whipped to the imperial gates, straining at your bonds and snarling defiance at your captors.
By now we'd passed through the main entrance sally port. Ahead loomed the administration building; straight to the door, the long strip of pavement ran a flowered gauntlet between annuals gay and nimble in the breeze. A ribbon on a pig.
"Hey, you! Take a right." I turned left -- busily straining at my bonds, absently leading the coffle. I'd been daydreaming since my youth and was getting better at it.
"Your other right, Twinkle Toes."
I stopped in my tracks to make up for my blunder, and caused a bigger one. The chain reaction was literal. The coffle bunched into folds, like a caterpillar at the end of a leaf.
"What kind of a Polish fire drill ... C'mon, shake the fuckin' lead!" came the same loud and abrasive voice.
"Aww -- shake these hairy nuts, cop!" This voice belonged to the Georgia boy right behind me. They called him June Bug. Nicknames came in two ways: The con dug deep and flattered himself with one, or the world slapped a handle on him. June Bug. It stuck. It rubbed salt. He had griped the loudest about the joys of being in transit with no property -- "nary a toothbrush or a stamp." He had stayed in the Man's face, selling death from behind the safety of the security screen. The transport guards just rolled their eyes. Who took seriously a balding, short little fat guy? He got too mouthy you raised your hand at him and that was enough.
"Chill out, June Bug," advised the third man on the chain, a black convict. "Dude's a fool. I knows that Hoosier from Terre Haute."
"Yessir. Him and the gooners rushed my cell -- I was in the hole -- and jive tossed me up."
"Is that right? Well, he don't move me none." June Bug bunched his pudgy fists. "Just let me get my hands on him. Two minutes!"
"Easy, killer," I pitched in, thinking he was out of place in the catchall of prison.
The black threw back his smooth-shaven head and laughed. "Hey, y'all seen his wife? Big ol' tits. She's got some kind of secretary job -- warden's office or some shit, and they say she's fuckin'."
"Now I likes me a gal with round heels," said June Bug.
"Ain't no question!" agreed the shiny-pared one. "I'd like to dick her down and him watching -- the dirty Klansman."
"I wouldn't fuck a pig's wife," I said, playing to the gallery. "Might squeal."
June Bug added his chortle to Cranium's and then said, "Right about now I'd fuck a snake? Just hold the head."
"I hear ya," said Cranium. "Ain't no shame in your game."
"None in the fed's, either," I told them both. "We need a law like the one passed in California."
"What law?" asked June Bug.
"He means SP42. It's one of them ... uh ... radioactive laws. They lettin' all kinds of motherfuckers go."
June Bug hissed through chipped teeth. "We ain't going nowhere for a while. Fuck with Uncle and get retired."
"Yeah. And stuck with fools like that one over there," complained Cranium. "He's some shit."
The correctional officer in question sported a lieutenant's gold badge. He posted himself just ahead of us, on the wide expanse of lawn edging the walkway.
"How you be, Lieutenant Griggs?" I heard an escort C.O. ask him in passing. "Where's your jacket?"
"Don't need one in California." The C.O. did a double take. Lieutenant Griggs was not kidding. The El-Tee stood with arms akimbo above the trestle of his legs, raking humorless eyes over the length of the prisoner chain. A big, unlit cigar jutted from his mouth.
"Why, Rufus!" came the loud voice as we shuffled before him. "Last time I seen you we was dancing." The black con surrendered a tepid smile.
"Ain't gonna have no trouble out of you here -- are we?"
"Nossir. Got my mind right, boss." Rufus had introduced himself on the bus. "Money is my game, Well-to-Do is my name."
"Well-to-Do?" challenged his homeboy from Miami. "My nigga ... every since I done knowed you, you been doin' dirtball bad. Well-to-do!" he snorted. "Nigga, y'name needs to be Food Stamp." Merciless, the guffaws.
"My name ain't Rufus, it's Well-to-Do," he huffed as we descended the basement ramp into Receiving and Discharge.
Once inside, we were unchained, strip-searched yet again, handed towel rolls, and, the first twelve of us, sent naked to the next holding cage to dress. There we opened our rolls, and got a surprise.
"What the fuck?"
"Kiss my black ass!"
"!Que la chingada!"
The problem was comic; the problem was grave. Each of us stared at the drawers we'd been issued. These were not the loose-fitting boxers of custom. These were jockey shorts. Dainty shorts -- shrunken and the brown all faded. They were, in effect, pink panties.
"Ain't no fun when the rabbit's got the gun," mused one convict aloud.
We wrapped towels around our waists and started wailing for the Man.
"Hey, you deaf? C.O.!"
Footsteps approached, and a gravelly voice grew louder. "Hold on, hold on. Damn! I ain't got but two hands and two feet ... and half a dick." The officer, reaching the screen-fronted cage, grinned. "But I got a split tongue!"
"Dig this," started Rufus, "These here --"
"Do I know you?" The C.O. had scanned our faces, pointing to the ugliest one. June Bug. "Hey, you think I'm good-looking?" His own round and homely face creased into another grin. "It ain't easy being fat and greasy -- huh?"
It had sounded suspicious to me when my mother first said: "You can be ugly and your personality can make you charming." She sat in her slip before the dresser mirror, painting her face. "Just be nice to her."
"But I don't want to be nice. She smells, too."
"You love me?
"Then do it for your mama, Handsome."
She always used that on me. It was just me and her, and so I went up to the front house where the landlady lived. We were behind on the rent.
Moms was right, of course. Take this grizzled C.O. He exuded a crude charm -- just the thing for inmates. You could tell he knew people, liked people. His job was a paycheck, not a calling. This was obvious in the shit he talked. But for timing, we would have laughed at his next remark.
"All right, little darlings, you got me down here. Who tore their panties now?"
We howled. Our clamor brought another officer on the run, keys jangling. "What's wrong?" the second asked the first.
"This hee-uh is what's wrong!" June Bug held up the offending briefs between thumb and index finger.
The blond and burr-headed second officer shrugged. "So?"
"So look at these -- how can I -- I can't -- just get me some more, Mister Police."
"That's a negative. Laundry only gave us a set amount."
"Well, you gots to do somethin'." June Bug gestured at his rotundity. "How you figure me getting these on?"
"Try one leg at a time."
"Try these nuts, you --"
"Calm down," cut in the wearied veteran, waving a placatory hand. "Main thing's don't fuckin' panic. Come laundry tomorrow, you prima donnas will get squared away."
A big white con -- all muscles and inky tattoos -- got up from one of the backless benches bolted to the wall. The dragons, the demons, the damsels of heroic fantasy muraled his upper body. "Fuck that," he said. "Call the laundry now."
"Laundry's closed," informed Blond Burr.
"Well, send somebody ..."
"That's right," broke in Rufus. "Earn some of them taxpayer dollars."
"... somebody over there and get us some decent drawers. Some bonaroos. Come on, pops. Do the right thing!"
"Anything else?" came the veteran's arch reply. "How 'bout a reach-around, too? Now I've got to get you guys processed and --"
"Fuck you then, you old fart."
"Fuck me and you'll never go back to a woman." I pondered the exchange. C.O.'s sounded like convicts -- even unto sex-talking each other, and they had women. Environment rubbed off.
Rubbing a sleek head -- one kept shaven in fear and concealment of balding age -- Rufus stalked over to the cage door. "Man, we got our rights. Constitutionally amendated. I'll call my lawyer, and take y'all to court on one of them there, uh ... a writ of hocus pocus! You can't be doggin' us like this. I ain't going for it."
"Me neither," chimed in June Bug. "I'm tired of suckin' hind tit. Don't make me come out and whip somebody now!"
The younger C.O. ran a hand over his fair, burr-cut head. He could bite it back no longer. "Uh, gentlemen -- this is not the Holiday Inn. You don't like the treatment, you shouldn't have come to prison. Your fault for breaking the law."
He spoke from on high. His prissy manner riled the natives all over again.
June Bug grabbed his crotch and sallied forth with his all-purpose response: "Break -- these -- nuts!"
Blond Burr smiled thinly. "You write your own material?"
June Bug was stumped, but not the others. They counted coup.
"Bring us a fuckin' lieutenant!"
"Guard, guard! My dick is hard!"
"Get the nurse; it's gettin' worse!"
"Get the president!"
Leave it to a group. Who was impressing who?
"Fellas," warned the old-timer, "don't make it harder on yourselves. You know where you are. Use your heads for a change."
June Bug was consistent in his trademark reply.
Shaking their heads, the two guards trudged away from the impasse. A cocky June Bug took a parting shot at their backs. "For heaven sakes, look at those cakes! Hey, blondie! Let's do a sixty-nine, and I'll owe you one."
The two C.O.'s let us stew a while. Then they came back to order us over to the next processing station. We refused. "You can't win," they said matter-of-factly.
Fuck winning, fuck prison, fuck you. Men eat bear. We got our chance. A lieutenant showed up soon afterward. He did not come alone. Clomping in formation behind him was the goon squad -- the special operations response team. Goofy menace.
They were eight strong, and not a corn-fed one of them was under six feet or two hundred pounds. They were military -- real paratroopers in jumpsuits and jump boots. They were riot-garbed and ax-handle armed. They were dressed to dance.
1998, United States Penitentiary Marion
Excerpted from Doing Time by Bell Gale Chevigny Copyright © 2000 by Bell Gale Chevigny. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is an anthology of prison writing submitted to a writing competition for inmates over the course of 25 years. All sorts of stuff: poetry, short stories, short memoirs. There were a few stories that were worth reading and thought provoking, but not all of it was.