When I arrived at Florence West Prison on the morning of April 5, 2007, my agenda was a modest one: Remain as inconspicuous as humanly possible until I could determine the relative safety of my environment.
Loyal readers (by "loyal,'' I mean those folks who are bright, curious and refined enough to follow these posts regularly) will remember that while in county jail I was coerced into becoming part of the inmate power structure, a process that ultimately ended in my being the "head'' of the white inmates of Durango Jail Building 4, A Pod for a span of three weeks. My administration will pass into history little noted. That is not a complaint, by the way.
So when I got to Florence I was perfectly content to let the other inmates run the asylum, so to speak. Oh, after I grew comfortable with surroundings and knew which inmates could be reasoned with, I did offer my opinions on things from time to time. But for the most part, I avoided any "causes.'' My goal was to do my 88 days in relative obscurity.
Except when it came to one matter.
Say that word aloud. Now, operating on assumption that your are not an idiot, I am confident that you pronounced it as a one-syllable word. "Keef.'' As in "Leaf.'' As in "Brief.'' Am I correct?
Of course. How else could you reasonably pronounce it, right?
Well, when I arrived at Florence West, there were approximately 487 inmates on the yard. About 480 of them pronounced the word as "Key-fee.''
There are certain things that inmates simply cannot be forced to do. You cannot make them stand single file. You cannot make them eat green jello. And you cannot make them embrace the fact that certain letters are "silent'' in certain words.
By now, you are probably wondering why something so trivial would set my teeth to grinding. Well, I am hard-pressed to articulate why it would be so. It just did.
And it did not help matters that the word "Key-fee'' was regularly on the lips of every inmate on the yard, including the non-English speaking segment of the population.
Keefe (or key-fee, if you are an ex-con reading this) was the name of the company that provided the commissary for the inmates. To further insure that the company name was forever mangled by "Joe Convict,'' the company had its own line of products. For example, you could order say, Folger's Instant Coffee or Keefe Instant Coffee. Keefe had an extensive line of generic products.
So every time you turned around, some inmate was invoking the company name. It was "Key-fee messed up my order!'' or "I'll give you two Key-fee brownies for a the rest of your Key-fee tortillas,'' or "Key-fee just raised the price on sodas.''
I was a good sport about this for quite some time. In fact, I thought it sort of funny at first. I would gently correct the inmate: "It's pronounced, "Keef.'' The last "e'' is silent, see?''
But as the weeks passed, it began to gnaw at me. Ultimately, I was convinced that the other inmates were bringing the word into conversations needlessly, just for spite.
I felt most certain of this one June evening during our "Prayer Circle'' when the inmate who was leading the prayer - a bright well-educated man who I will not identify beyond stating that his name is Brian Cox and he's from Phoenix and attends church at Calvary Chapel Tri-Cities - opened the prayer thusly: "Father, thank you for your many blessings. Thank you that our Key-Fee orders came in on time. Thank you for all the many fine Key-Fee products we have at our disposal. We pray that your spirit will be with those in charge at Key-Fee so that they will not raise their prices again.''
Incidentally, I am 0-for-1 in the "calling down lightning from heaven'' department.
I kept fighting the good fight, though. Well, until the last two weeks of my sentence.
I remember sitting next to man named "Sarge'' as he was filling out weekly commissary order. "Dang,'' he - being a salty old convict - said in so many words, "those Key-fee donuts are as expensive as the dog-gone regular ones!''
"It's pronounced Keefe,'' I said.
He looked at me. He looked at his order form. "No,'' he said. "It's Key-fee. See? There's an "e'' on the end.''
I gave up.
"Fine-ee,'' I said.
As I walked away shaking my head, I heard him call after me: 'Hey, Slim. Chill, OK? You shouldn't be embarrassed about it.''
Now, I am not saying that being surrounded by people who - defiantly and deliberately -pronounce silent letters in words is the worst thing about beitng in prison. But it's on the short list, as far as I'm concerned.
No, there is nothing pleasant about prison life-ee.