Life Inside

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The following article arrived as an unsolicited manuscript from the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where the author is incarcerated. Because I was unable to interact with him in preparing the piece for publication, I decided to run it almost verbatim, making only a few minor corrections. However, the piece was quite long and included a few digressions that I thought detracted from the narrative, so I have taken the liberty of cutting these passages (totaling some 1200 words). These three cuts are marked by an ellipsis in brackets.
— The Editor

 

I SAT IN THE BACK of a dingy prison classroom listening to a community college professor conjugate Spanish verbs. My tuition in the pilot college program had been generously paid by Doris Buffet, Warren’s sister. Why she had such compassion for inmates in a prison infamous for violence, I had no idea. Most of society despises us. At times, I’m inclined to agree.

In Spanish, I joked with the guy next to me. A Native American, his Spanish was better than that of most of the guys in the class. “Juan es guapo. Juan es maricón. Le encata chorizo.” Contrary to Hollywood’s depiction, rabid homophobia reigns in prison. Homosexual behavior is rare. Partly to fit in, and partly out of self-loathing despite being a gay man, I conform.

The two-hour Spanish class usually ended at 8:45 pm. It was 9:15. The officers, most of whom deeply resent inmates getting an education, rarely let a class run late. Even the professor, who had spent six years in a military Special Ops unit stationed in Iraq, was anxious. I was certain a fight had broken out somewhere. Prison security is the only thing that would delay the end of night school.

Finally, at 9:30 pm, a bell whose clang reminded me of high school, sounded. Time for the “go-back.” Three classrooms emptied into the corridor, followed by the Spanish professor who made a beeline for the exit. About forty men began screaming and gesticulating—normal conversation in prison. Most inmates believe the volume of one’s voice is directly proportional to one’s IQ. I find the inverse to be true.

A guy standing next to me held open a jailhouse magazine—a mail order catalogue hawking items only seen in prisons: plastic hotpots, tape players, and typewriters in clear plastic housings, and an abundance of cheap clothing in numerous tacky shades of green.

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He shouted questions at me while pointing to a photo in the catalogue of a beige polyester blanket that I wouldn’t let my dog sleep on. Voices of bellowing men caromed off the green tile walls and terrazzo floor. He wanted to know if the prison package room would let the blanket in.

I tried to explain to him that it had to have a label with “fire-retardant” printed in big letters. It is typical of prison-mentality rules. All blankets currently manufactured are fire-retardant. But the screaming laughter and shouts around us prevented any effective communication. He kept saying, “So, I can get it, right? I can get it?” Finally, bitter and beaten by the raucous din, I relented. “Yeah, yeah. You can get it. No problem.” Full of resentment toward the throng of shouting inmates that filled the corridor, I headed back to my prison block, leaving behind the man with the catalogue who continued to page through it like it was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

I was disappointed at my lack of empathy, but I was worried and nervous. The previous night a fight had broken out in the recreation yard outside my window. An inmate was stomped and stabbed by gang members. Officers fired tear gas to break it up. I had an uneasy feeling that gang revenge had taken place while the Spanish professor was explaining the use of the vosotros verb form in our college class. Coméis. Dormáis. Peleáis.

As we walked silently in pairs through the corridors, like Franciscan monks back to our cells, I sensed tension. Sergeants, “white-shirts” as we call them, were shouting into telephone receivers. Normally at that hour of the night, white-shirts are in their offices, leaning back in comfy ergonomic chairs with boots propped up on their desks, watching TV and eating pizza. As we filed past officers in blue uniforms on our way back to the galleries, the officers glared at us without the usual ridicule and taunting.

In the stairway, we joked a little to relieve our anxiety. “Hasta la vista, cabrón.” “Besa mi culo, puto.” The gallery that houses my cell looks out at a one-acre prison yard that provides recreation for A-block, affectionately known as “Afghanistan.” It is one of the four yards comprising a five-acre quad, divided by raised concrete catwalks, which serve as recreation for the entire prison. Three-story structures, 500 feet long and clad in red brick, form a massive enclosure housing over 2,000 men.

As I neared my cell, through the barred gallery windows that rise from floor to ceiling, I could see the A-block yard: deserted, except for the perimeter where a couple hundred prisoners stood shoulder to shoulder, facing the brick walls. Their hands were raised high over their heads, pressed flat against the walls. Sergeants scurried across the catwalks, intensely focused on the yard below them. Over the loudspeakers, I heard a scratchy voice: “Stop fighting. This is your last warning.” An eerie silence hung in the air, followed by two flat pops of a gun. Canisters of teargas had been fired into the yard. Guys on my gallery, already locked in their cells, shouted at me as I walked by. “Shut the windows, shut the windows!” As I complied, my cell gate finally opened electrically with a grinding whirr. I stepped in and it slammed shut.

I sat at my bench, a narrow metal shelf, clutching my Spanish books to my stomach. I felt sick, scared. Tear gas is rarely used for fights in the yard. When it is, there are repercussions for the whole jail. Normally a loud raucous corridor of men shouting, cooking meals, and slamming dominoes, the gallery waited in silence as events in the yard unfolded. Outside my window, the A-block handball court had been abandoned, a single blue rubber ball its only occupant. Muffled shouts of officers on the catwalks penetrated the wire-glass windows. “Slide down the wall. Get on the ground, face down.”

I thought of Danny, who sits next to me in Spanish class. He has very little command of Spanish grammar. In hushed tones, I often help him as best as I can—translating, correcting his spelling, letting him peek at my notes and exam answers. He has such beautiful hands—large, sinewy, chiseled like Michelangelo’s David. He combs his hair forward, like an ancient Roman. His large, dark-lidded eyes plead for my help when the class conjugates verbs. An aquiline nose and full pouty lips anchor his face. I want to lie in bed with him, just lie there, one arm draped across his bare chest, and drift off to sleep, hypnotized by his rhythmic breathing.

IN THE MORNING, when I woke, the prison seemed normal—the usual sounds and banter of the 7:00 AM shift change. Once the morning count cleared, the gates opened. I grabbed a pint of milk from the fridge on the gallery, plugged in my plastic hot pot, and made a huge mug of instant coffee spiked with cocoa to kill the bitterness. I never went to the mess hall for breakfast. Prison food—mushy, bland, and cold—depressed me. Men braver than I headed to the dayroom and waited for the chow bell.

Waiting for the hot pot to heat up, I looked out at the A-block yard, strewn with detritus from the previous night’s melee. Lifeless sweatshirts littered the grass. Balled-up latex gloves, used to strip-search inmates, dotted the pavement. A clear plastic garbage bag, propelled by the wind, danced in circles around the blue handball on the empty court.

An unintelligible message blared on the squawk box near the dayroom. The company officer shouted down the gallery. “Lock in. Everybody. Lock in now.” Guys who had been waiting for chow quickly abandoned the dayroom. “Ah, shit. Here we go. They musta killed that nigga last night, ya heard.”

I dread the lockdowns. The uncertainty, the helplessness, are torture. One has no idea when they will end, when the somewhat normal routine will return, freeing us from purgatory. However, lockdowns are also sometimes a calming respite from the shouting and chaos that swirl outside my cell. Every night, as it approaches 10:00 PM, the cacophonous din builds to a crescendo until the slamming gates resound like the clash of cymbals. The hollering slowly abates, transformed to a mindless chatter, until ultimately forming a melodic Chopin nocturne as men become entranced by ancient black and white TV’s, drifting off into fitful sleep.

“Hey yo, check out TMZ. That bitch is thick, son, ya heard.”
“Put on ‘Breaking Bad.’ They’s killin’ that nigga. Word is my motha, son.”
“Hey yo, this shit is crazy, son. Na mean?”

Donning headphones, I sometimes watch CNN to keep abreast of the news. The Arab Spring, a momentous turn in history, transfixed me. I was riveted by Anderson Cooper’s reporting, mesmerized by his handsome features. I tacitly cheered the Libyan rebels as Cooper fielded their poignant reports, transmitted by cell phones. Anderson had an aura enhanced by the charmed life he has led—whisked into Studio 54 at eleven years old with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, dancing with Michael Jackson as Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger looked on, insouciant, yet covertly amused.

Many nights, as an escape from the prison rancor and hostility that fester like an infection, I choose a good read—20th-century literature, anthologies of powerful essays, collections of creative nonfiction. I aspire to some day see one of my essays in print. Nurturing a prison dream takes stamina, but I thrive on the challenge. It gives me focus in a feckless environment.

To take my mind off the lockdown and forget the ugly drama of the previous night’s fight, I picked up Cien Años de Soledad, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterful, career-defining novel. Reading in Spanish helps me to block out the banal babble that intensifies whenever bored men are locked in their cells.

“Hey yo, you think these niggas gonna burn us for commissary? I ain’t got nothin’ but crackhead soups in ma house, na mean?”
“Hey yo, young god, send me a rolly, son. This shit is stressin’ me out. Ya  heard?”
“Nigga, fall back and smack ya head. You done smoke up all my shit.”
“Hey yo, kiss ma black ass, nigga.”

Visually, I find that phrase so erotic. Black men have beautiful asses. Their muscular butt cheeks sit high on long, powerful legs. At times, walking in formation through the prison’s brick corridors, I can’t help but lustfully stare at the undulating butt in front of me. Do black prisoners have any idea how they arouse gay men by strutting with their pants pulled halfway down their asses like rappers, their shirts draped in the deep cracks of their butts? How can men be so homophobic, yet walk around like butt billboards?

I returned to Márquez’s village of Macondo. Its sassy matriarchs, sage and potent, animate the pages. I love Pilar’s irreverent humor. “Santa madre de Dios. Estoy ocupada destripando conejos para tu guiso. Por el amor de Dios, suélteme.” I skipped to the scene detailing José Arcadio’s huge cock. I debated what Márquez, a Nobel laureate, was thinking when he conjured that passage. Was it autobiographical, or wishful fancy? Do straight men, just like most gays, have a big dick fantasy—a barely subconscious desire for a powerful weapon of sexual dominance? I admire Márquez’s courage in broaching a subject considered taboo by most heterosexual men.

In prison, an inane code governs all references to a man’s body parts. Innocuous statements such as “Take it out” or “Stick it in,” when talking about the microwave, for example, have to be immediately followed by the requisite statement, “No homo.” Even common mess hall words like “meat,” “sausage,” or “buns” require an emphatic “no homo.” I refuse to participate in the insanity. Instead, I retort with statements such as, “You’re not seriously afraid of homosexuals, are you? Come on, they can’t hurt you.” I noticed most white guys are more comfortable joking about their sexuality. Black men never cross that line. Their culture precludes any inference of homosexuality, in jest or otherwise. An extreme machismo, most likely instilled growing up in the ’hood, forbids any gay reference. Black men wear their manhood like breastplates.

Yet, I have no right to criticize another man’s armor. I get nervous simply awaiting a call-out to the prison library. I’m apprehensive of having to negotiate my way past the four different officers that sit between my cell and the library. When I used to “lock” in another block and tried to go to the library, the officers who ran the call-outs would tell me, “Library? You ain’t got no call-out for the library.” Then they would slam the metal lobby door. As I stood there, defeated, I could hear them snickering as their bootsteps faded. “Library, what’s he a fuckin’ queer?” […]

I rarely get involved in physical confrontations because I’m afraid to fight. I don’t know how. I nearly always get my ass kicked. My prison fight record is 0 for 3. But the issue is deeper than simply the fear of losing. The problem is an innate terror.

The ineffaceable memory of being beaten as a child by my father causes flashbacks whenever I see violence, or sense it. The recollection of helplessness, the complete inability to defend myself from a parental ogre three times my size, causes me terrifying flashbacks. The mere sight of men going at it leaves me shaking, overwhelmed by a deafening white noise.

At the risk of promulgating a stereotype, I must admit that most gay men aren’t exactly known for being pugilists. Yet we are tough in our own way. Emotionally steeled, we’ve cultivated a flinty skin to protect us from ridicule, harassment, and scorn. We rarely go mano a mano. Snatching a wig off a drag queen is about as confrontational as we get. Yet when it comes to a battle of sarcasm and wit, we are fearless warriors.

“Oh really, honey? Tell me, did your mother have any normal kids, or were they all just as retarded and ugly as you?”
“You nelly handbag, you make Richard Simmons look butch.”

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