by John Langenfeld
First time in prison? Me too. I’ve been on this unit for a handful of months and am starting to get the hang of it. Lots to learn, let me tell you. It’s a whole ‘nother world. Like a fifth dimension where decency is as common as a three-headed rhino and all that greases the gears of a functional society yanks your ankles from under you. I can lace you up on what it’s like, at least what I’ve gathered so far. Save you the hassle of learning the hard way. Welcome to the Beto Unit. Talk about insane. You’re probably wondering what the hell is going on, and you couldn’t imagine a place like this before you pulled up belly-chained on that Blue Bird bus. First, be suspicious of everybody. Best to keep to yourself and give the impression you’re not here to socialize. Don’t know what kind of time you brought, but I have a dime more to serve before I come up for parole. I wonder how not having a friend will transform me into Ward Cleaver when I’m sprung. I wasn’t exactly humanitarian-of-the-year material before that iron gate smacked my ass when I arrived. Don’t claim to have helped old ladies cross the street in the free-world, and can’t see how a decade’s worth of paranoia will change me for the better. But I’ll worry about that later. This unit is the real deal and I’m in survival mode. I wear a straight face and mind my own business and figure if I need anybody to talk to, I’ll talk to myself. Can’t say it’s the right way to do time, but it’s the best way I can see for now. Who knows what the right way is anyway. I mean, who do you ask? Not the guards. They’re here for forty hours a week, but they don’t know what it’s like to be an inmate. They only know what it’s like to guard inmates. They haven’t had to fight naked in the showers or try to fall asleep while grunts erupted from three cells down because dude bought his weaker cellie in the convict economy and screws him for an hour every night. They don’t know what it’s like to have your name reduced to a number and to stand at the back of a closet-sized cell and stare at your own garbled reflection in a warped plastic mirror on the concrete wall and loathe who you see in it because you’re not numbed on dope or alcohol anymore and God has cleaved your heart like the shuck of a seed and now you feel again because being numb destroyed you and God is quickening a pulpy blossom within you because He or She or whatever God is has told you in a hushed voice that if you want to live again you have to feel again and you realize that feeling is both a gift and a curse because life is raw and juicy and that’s heaven but it’s hell when you look in that buckled mirror and see all the ugly shit you’ve done to others and how most of the world has given up on you except your sister and brothers and mom and dad and the aunt and uncle you cooked messy French toast for when you were eleven years old and they were passing through town and haven’t forgotten you did that for them and you realize while you peer at your misshapen reflection that you’re in a colossal cage with armed guards who’ll shoot to kill if you skip out because the people in society don’t want you near them, don’t want you scarfing buttermilk pancakes at IHOP or buying sodas at the corner convenience store because they don’t feel safe around you and don’t like you and you have this sense deep in your marrow that they’re right, that you don’t deserve to be out there, that somewhere along the trajectory of your bungled life you became somebody even you detest. The guards can’t tell you the right way to do your time because they don’t know, and they don’t want diddly to do with us anyway, because they don’t like us anymore than the people out there do, because they are those people out there. They leave this unit when their shifts are over and change out of their gray uniforms into their blue jeans and drive their four-doors to daycare to get their kids and push grocery carts with one wheel that always wobbles through supermarkets that smell like cardboard boxes and fresh vegetables while their youngsters tug on their shirttails and beg for chocolate candy bars. Then they go home and flick on the news and see the picture of some guy who’s wanted for burglarizing a home where a single mother of three lives or they see live coverage of the ash heaps of four houses that burned to the ground because a methamphetamine lab blew up in a garage or they see updates of the murder trial of a jewelry store owner who’s survived by a middle-aged widow and their only daughter. Then next day they prowl these hallways in their gray uniforms with their jangly bronze keys and holler at us to walk single file and be quiet. Know what I mean? There are no clear answers. But believe me, you’ll do good to trust no one. Of course there are some OK inmates who went through a bad phase is all, but most of them don’t want to get to know you as a human. We’re all here together, waiting out the days as they slog by, each of us trying to survive the best we can and not feel too much of the other guy’s crud if feel for him at all, because we’re too busy dealing with our own shit or we’re too busy not dealing with our own shit. I don’t mean you any harm. Simply figured I could steer your feet from the tripwire. There’s plenty of it. This is a whole ‘nother world. When somebody asks how long you’ve been here or if this is your first time, you ought to assume they’re sizing you up and you’ll have problems with them if you follow their lead. Don’t follow their lead. I can’t tell you how to respond. That’s your call. A lot of things you won’t have a choice about. A few you will. You’ll have to decide how to deal with the guys who bring the game, because they’re definitely going to try you. That’s the law of this land. No way around it. Tell you what, when I was housed on I-Wing this white guy rolls up. New to the wing, but not to the System. Been in juvie for hot-wiring cars in high school and turns out this is his second stint in prison even though he’s a mere twenty-three. His name’s Ronnie. Anyway, his first day on I-Wing he’s hunkered on a bench in the dayroom and this black guy sits down next to him all casual-like. Black guy’s in violation for being in the white section, but the whites let it slide because they know what’s up and want to see how the new guy handles himself. Black guy looks at Ronnie and smiles and says, “Hi.” Ronnie doesn’t look at him. Just nods. Remember now, Ronnie’s new to Beto but not to prison. So a couple minutes pass with the both of them staring at the television and the black guy looks at Ronnie with a car-salesman smile and asks where he’s from. Ronnie doesn’t say a word. Bolts up and tears into him. First one was a right he hauled from the floor. Caught the guy square between the eyes. Dude’s head flung like it was loose on his shoulders. TKO’d. Then Ronnie went at him windmill-style with fists as hard as bricks. Sounded like some maniac clobbering a slab of beef with the flat head of a shovel. Ronnie’s face was holly berry red and he had blood spattered up to his elbows. A few days later I asked Ronnie why he went off on the black guy. Ronnie said, “This ain’t my first time down. I knew what that piece of shit wanted, so I handled up right then instead of waiting. Fuck him.” Isn’t that crazy? But what you’ll see the longer you’re here is that it’s not crazy. It makes perfect sense. I can’t tell you what’s the right or wrong way to take care of yourself. That’s your business. But I can lace you up so you won’t be as lost as guys who don’t know the difference between gunslingers and Boss. Do you know the difference? Didn’t think so. Most people wouldn’t, not if they haven’t served a stint in the clinker. A gunslinger is a guy who jacks off in public. That’s why they call them gunslingers, because they’re pulling out their pieces and firing off shots like gunslingers from back in the day, except these guys aren’t pulling out Colts or Smith and Wessons, and a lot of them got it bad. They get a big ole soapy fist and beat it in the showers while everyone else is trying to get clean. Some tug it in the gym or on the outside recreation yard when a woman guard is in sight. Doesn’t matter that she’s dressed from jaw-line to toe in a gray uniform. She could be clad in a knee-length parka and they’d still molest themselves. Some pull on it in the dayrooms while a hundred other guys are watching television. Others jerk it in the infirmary and the chow hall and at the bars at the front of their cells. Anywhere there’s a woman, they’re on the draw. Then there’s Boss. Everybody in here calls the guards Boss. The guards don’t make us do it. We do it on our own. Guess it’s because we have to follow their orders. I was totally opposed to it when I first got here. Sounded plantation to me. Called them Mister or Ma’am or Officer. But this place grows on you, especially when you’re stuck with a long stretch of time. I call them Boss now, too. Doesn’t bother me anymore. Also, guys in here drink tons of coffee. You can buy the freeze-dried stuff at commissary. Some dudes dump three spoonfulls in their cup so they’ll catch a buzz when they knock it back. They get so geeked from Maxwell House their hands shake like they’re playing the tambourine. Best to stash extra bags in your cell. Coffee is like money. Keep plenty on hand for the convict economy. But don’t let the guards see. They’ll write a disciplinary case if they do. Everybody in here who has anything trades. If you want your uniforms washed on the wing instead of in the laundry, there are guys who’ll do it for a bag. They’ll wash it in their toilet or in a five-gallon bucket they swiped. It’s their hustle. They don’t have any money so they do people’s laundry, then trade the coffee for deodorant or cookies. Or if you want to wash your own clothes and you don’t want to use the bar soap they sell in commissary you can swap for detergent or bleach with somebody who works in the laundry. That’s why our uniforms are dingy when we get them, because the laundry workers steal the detergent and bleach and sell it to the guys who want to clean their own uniforms on the wings because the clothes that are issued are grody. Makes a lot of sense, huh? It’s up to you how you want to do it. Nobody can decide for you. I’m just putting it out there so you know what to expect. Another tidbit I can let you in on, don’t look into cells when you’re on the wing. It’s natural to wonder, but don’t be the cat whose nose gets snipped under the rocker. Curiosity can cost you. Saw two guys get into it awhile back because one let his eyes roam. Dude hunched on his toilet yelled to the other that he must be on the make for a boyfriend. So eyeballer barked back, and in no time they’re slugging it out in the dayroom, all because the one guy had roving eyes. Keep your gaze to the ground two feet in front of you. Definitely don’t look into cells. You never know what you might see. Left my pass to the clinic on the foot of my bunk one day, but the guard let me fetch it. Was scuttling along the second tier and mindlessly glanced into a cell. One guy was bent over with his boxer shorts down around his legs. Another was behind him, buck naked and ramrodding all hell out of him. There were a half-dozen hardcore magazines spread out with nude women in every position, and there was an open jar of petroleum jelly propped on the bunk. The bent over guy had gotten turned out when he was new. Got his ass kicked morning and night so he hooked up with his perv cellie to keep the predators at bay. Guess he figured it beat the stitches and staples. And that’s why you don’t peek into cells. You don’t want to battle it out in the dayroom or see two buck-naked guys with porn mags and lube and wads of gooey tissue scattered across the bunk. Oh, while on the subject, guard your toilet paper like it’s a diamond. They give you one roll a week. After that you have to tear a pillowcase or use a sock to wipe with. Sucks bad when you have the runs and go through your roll in two days. But there are guys with connections and you can buy some if you need to. Remember, keep commissary coffee in your cell. It’ll come in handy in the convict economy. Maybe right now you don’t want to get too involved – don’t want to become a part of this place – so you figure you won’t need to keep anything to trade with. Well, if that’s the case I wish you the best of luck. I felt the same way when I was new. After a brutal stint in the fields for my first job, I was re-assigned to the chow hall. Field work is as bad as it gets. Hundreds of us beating on the ground all day with heavy grub hoes. We whacked weeds and bludgeoned mud and rustled up swarms of hornets while guards with dark sunglasses and holstered forty-fives hollered at us to work faster and yelled that this wasn’t the Holiday Inn and if we didn’t like the hospitality here to stay our asses out of those good folks’ homes and quit selling dope to high schoolers and stop shooting innocent people in drive-bys but for now we’d better have our asses up before daybreak and set our minds to chop weeds and dig ditches and pick potatoes. Did that for a couple of months. Seemed like a year. Then they assigned me to the chow hall, which was a promotion from the fields. They both suck, but at least the chow hall has fringe benefits. Pork chops, for example. The ones in here aren’t brag-worthy, but they’re better than the pork noodle casserole and pork spaghetti and pork tetrazzini and pork hot links. If you work in the chow hall you can hustle extras from the cooks. Don’t let the guards see you do it. They’ll write you a case for stealing State’s property. You have to be covert. At first I didn’t think I’d sneak any. Saw guys wolfing them down in corners. Figured if I had to do that, I’d do without. Wasn’t long before I was holed up behind a tea urn with a mouthful of greasy pig flank. Some inmates who work in the chow hall snack while on the line. They steal it from the steam table pans and cover it with a rag and take a big chomp while they ladle pinto beans or mushy carrots. This one guy, you have to hear this, he was doling out squares of cake from sheet pans. Yellow cake with pink frosting. His black plastic State-issueds with lenses thick as beer mugs were planked across his face, and he had a bulbous nose streaked with purple capillaries. Under a rag to his right was a hunk of cake, and when all was clear he’d sneak a bite and cover it back with the rag. So this pudgy guard in a blue ball cap moseyed up and asked if he was eating. Well, if the inmate answered Yes he was in trouble, so of course he swore he wasn’t. The guard all serious-like asked if he was sure. The inmate gave his best Boy-Scout’s-honor expression and nodded his head. So the guard swiped his own nose with his hand and told the inmate to do the same. The inmate did, then looked at his palm. It was gobbed with pink frosting that had been on his schnozz the whole time. He turned red as a bell pepper and looked like he wanted to cuss and cry and kick the brick wall, like he was humiliated he got caught and furious he had to camouflage a measly piece of cake like a kid who’d pilfered a nickle. The guard chuckled a good one, then walked away. No disciplinary case. Didn’t even chunk the cake. It was hilarious and pitiful at the same time. And if I wasn’t telling you about it now, I wouldn’t have thought about it again. Maybe ever. In here, when you finish a day you move on. Why would you want to think about this place if you didn’t have to? What you can expect is to lay on your steel bunk at night and muse about the good times you had with your family and friends before you got locked up. You’ll replay them in your head over and over and over, all of them, every single one of them, from when you lugged your Snoopy lunch pail onto the orange school bus in the second grade until the cops notched those cold handcuffs around your bony wrists. You’ll kiss the pretty girls and smell their flowery hair and laugh at the funny things you did with your buddies and you’ll retreat to every syllable of every word of every meaningful conversation you’ve ever had. They’ll roll through your mind like favorite songs until you’ve heard them so many times they fade into the background unnoticed. Then you’ll summon them again, and you’ll rewrite them a thousand times with a thousand different outcomes instead of the worn out ones as they actually happened, because you’ll crave new good memories so you’ll invent some, because that’s all you can do, but when you’re flat on your bunk at night in the drabness of the security light you’ll crumple up the day you served and lob it into an abysmal pit inside yourself, and you’ll carry all those days with you wherever you go, although you won’t think about them, regardless of whether they were horrible or merely bad or so-so because even when you laugh, every single moment in here sucks and each time you’re done with a day, you don’t think about it again. You close your eyes and when you wake up and see the awful bars at the foot of your bunk, you think to yourself, I’m in prison…, I’m in prison…, then you do that day and crumple it up and toss it too. You’ll see. You’ll schlepp them around like thousand-pound weights in your chest, but you won’t replay them once they’re done. You’ll block them out and skim over them to old times that are new because you’ll rearrange and rewrite the good times before you got locked up, before you had to know to wash your face and hair in the sink of your cell instead of the showers because when you have your head under a spigot you’re lame as a sleeping dog. I learned that the hard way. Had my canvas high tops off to the side while I lathered. Put my head under the jet to rinse and when I looked up my tennis shoes were gone. Scouted the shower area but whoever filched them had them out the door before I had noticed they were gone. Tell you what, the concrete is especially hard and cold when you’re trudging that long stretch of hallway to your wing and the guards and other inmates know somebody out-slicked you because you’re in your socks and you just want to go to your cell and lock yourself in and close your eyes and summon up the good old times before you got locked up and relive them but make them different, but you can’t, because when you get to your wing the guard with the jangly bronze keys orders you into the dayroom in your dirty socks. I had my eyes closed for ten seconds. That’s it. In here, you have to remember you’re always being sized up, even if it seems you’re not. And you also need to know, never sit on the end of the bench in the dayroom. I know the rules say we have to be seated when in there, but try to catch a spot in the middle. It’s always the guys on the ends that get it worst when the first top blows. I’d been on this unit for three weeks and was in the dayroom on O-Wing after chow, waiting for the guard to let us go to our cells. Some new guy who’d been on the unit for only two days scooched next to me. A burly guy with hairy ears was on my left and the new guy was on my right. He was mid-twenties at most, had shorn brown hair, and jittered his left leg like he was amped on a five-spoon shot of java. Been sitting there ten minutes when I heard a clonk like a wooden bat connecting with a fastball. His head slung in front of me with shoulders trailing behind while two Hispanics pummeled all hell out of him. Leaned across my waist, braced himself with his hand squeezed between me and the burly guy to my left. He was dazed and sputtered blood onto my lap. I couldn’t move because the force of the punches pinned me down, plus the burly guy with hairy ears gripped my shoulder and pulled me toward him. Nobody in the dayroom budged. Everybody watched impassively as one of the Hispanics stomped him after he slid in front of the bench where we sat. The Hispanic jumped up and down on the guy’s head with his steel-toed brogans. Then a month later I got re-assigned from I-Wing to J-Wing. Had been there a week when I had no choice but to sit on the end of a bench after work. Sure as hicks love grits I heard a size twelve clomp to my right so I ducked. Felt knuckles as hard as marbles graze behind my ear. We fought until the guards rushed in and broke us up. Hadn’t had cross words with the guy or even made eye contact with him. I was new to the wing was all, so had to fight to keep from paying protection and forking over my high tops, and then wouldn’t you know it, the damn tennis shoes get stolen in the damn showers when I let the damn water run over my head for ten whole seconds. And when this happens to you, and you’ve allowed God to guide your heart and lead you to feel again because you’re not numb on alcohol or drugs anymore and you’re too broken by your life to hide from your fears, you’ll wonder how inmates can be so cruel to one another and you’ll realize it’s because when you do the shitty things to people that land you in prison you’re relegated to subhuman in others’ eyes, even in the eyes of those like yourself, and that it’s hard to care about somebody who cares about nobody, and if you want to survive you’ll have to come to terms with the skewed reflection in the buckled mirror and allow your desperation for change to be stronger than your fear of the joy and wonder and pain of being alive and you’ll have to accept that the reflection in the mirror is not the person who aches to feel clean inside, and you’ll have to not feel like you’re crap even though you’ve done cruddy stuff, and you’ll have to have the courage to allow a God you don’t understand to grow you into somebody He or She or It wants you to be and the way you’ll find the mettle to follow that voice you cannot hear is to admit you’ve lived your life as a coward, afraid to open your heart to the pulse of the world that throbs through your veins, and you’ll have to live inside your skin – I mean truly live – instead of ducking and dodging and hiding. Promise me you’ll do this. I know you’re new and there’s a lot to learn, but only you can decide how you’ll do your time. I hope it all works out for you. Maybe we’ll talk again some time, okay? Goodbye.