Thursday, February 4, 2010

Breakfast in prison

At 5 a.m., a crackling sound emanates from the wall-mounted speakers in A Pod of Building 4 at Florence West prison and a voice that resembles that of any adult on a Charlie Brown special makes the first of the day’s many announcements. Much like everything else at Florence West (aside from the locks, of course) the speaker is broken, so only a careful listener can make out the message:
“The chow hall is now open.’’
And with that a few dozen traffic cones come to life like a rejected screenplay for a Disney movie: “Fantasia II: Mickey Goes To Prison.’’
In Arizona, all state prisoners are dressed head to toe in orange, most likely for the same reason that hunters wear orange: It is the most conspicuous of colors, which is important to the authorities should an inmate manage to escape the grounds and make a break for freedom across the interminable desert.
So Charlie Brown’s teacher mumbles incoherently into the intercom and a few dozen traffic cones shuffle off across the dirt-and-pea-gravel exercise yard to the chow hall.
Breakfast is optional and most of the inmates choose to sleep through the meal. I was always one of those who roused from their fitful slumber for breakfast, not because I was hungry, but because I had built it into my routine.
As one makes the transition from human being to convict, there are some lessons you learn pretty fast. One of those lessons is that the days are an eternity without some sort of regimen.
In county jail, where the only rules that are enforced diligently are those designed to ensure the inmate’s misery, the routine is as important as it is difficult to create. And if is true at most county jails, it is even more pronounced in the Maricopa County Jail system, the personal gulag of the populist narcissist known Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The sheriff defends the degrading, dehumanizing conditions of his jails by saying they serve as a deterrent, but the man who makes that argument is either ignorant or a liar. The sheriff is not ignorant.
All I know is that virtually every inmate I encountered at the county’s Durango Jail had been in county custody before, some many times.
I spent the first 34 days of my 122-day incarceration for DUI at Durango while awaiting sentencing. There, confined in a pod that was designed to hold 36 inmates but occupied by 70, the long, dark days dragged on in endless tedium. By federal law, inmates were supposed to be allowed an hour of time in the exercise yard six days a week. In my 34 days at Durango, we were given exercise-yard privileges eight times, three of those times before dawn, when the guards knew that few would wake to take advantage of it. So mainly, we spent the days crowded together in that grim little pod.
The small day room was furnished only with four long tables and a battered 19-inch TV, which hung from a high ceiling. Inmates were allowed to watch only two channels – ESPN and Animal Planet, alternating days.
A few inmates had decks of playing cards and some of the men had fashioned crude dominos out of small soaps – the kind you find in cheap hotels.
But you can only play cards or dominos for so long. And when you’ve watched the same pro bowling tournament or the same lion eat the same wildebeest on TV every damn day, the monotony of life starts to weigh on your psyche and your temper. And you find that before too long you begin to despise the other men for no other reason than the fact that they are always there.
Some inmates, I suspect men for whom county jail had become simply another part of life, had perfected the art of sleeping away the long days. In some ways, sleeping was like escaping to freedom, almost like cheating the authorities.
“Wake up and do your time!’’ an inmate would chide a friend who was attempting to sleep off his sentence.
Me? I slept as much as I could, but I was not an expert. So I tried to find other ways to occupy the time. I read whatever printed material managed to get into the pod. I wrote letters, tons and tons of letters, all of them dripping with anger and fear, despair and bitterness and shame. I helped some of the illiterate inmates write letters, too.
But the main diversion, the one thing that I was able to build a daily routine around, was walking. I walked miles, dozens of miles, hundreds of miles.
Estimating that each step was about two feet, I calculated that walking the circumference of the day room 35 times (it took about 76 steps to complete the circuit) would be the rough equivalent of a mile. Using the stub of pencil, I made a mark on the peeling plaster of the wall by my cell each time I made a lap in order to keep track. I tried to walk four to five miles between each “count’’ – when inmates were required to be on their bunks while the Detention Officers accounted for each prison.
At first, the other inmates wondered what I was doing. They would laugh and call me “walking man.’’ But I took it in stride and often I would joke that I was just trying what worked for Joshua.
“You know the story of Joshua, right?’’ I would say, a question mostly met with blank stares. “Well, he ordered the Israelites to walk around Jericho seven times. And when they finished, they blew the trumpets and the walls fell down.’’
“You think it will work?’’ one na├»ve young inmate asked skeptically.
“Probably not,’’ I said, laughing, “unless you have a trumpet in your bunk.’’
Before long, though, some of the other inmates began to join me, just to pass the time. At 47 years old, I somehow became a father figure to many of the young inmates and on those walks I would listen as they told me their stories. They were just kids, I realized, as they began to open up to me. They missed their mamas. They were afraid. They were confused. They were angry.
I walked anywhere from 16 to 20 miles per day, for more than 30 days, until that wonderful day when I was “rolled up’’ and left Durango for good.
Not long after I left prison, while on a visit to the Phoenix Zoo, I happened past the big cat exhibit and saw noticed that the tigers constantly walked back and forth through their enclosure. I think I have a pretty good idea why they do that now. Prison has ruined the zoo for me. Too many cages. Too many animals pacing in senseless boredom around their enclosures.
During my last court appearance before going into custody, I stood in court, officially pleaded guilty and was told by the judge to move to the other side of the courtroom where I would sign various papers and be taken into custody by a pot-bellied county detention officer (a redundant description). The officer extended a pair of handcuffs.
“Can I sign the papers first?’’ I asked.
“No,’’ he said, slapping the handcuffs on my wrist.
That was the only time during my entire prison experience that jail personnel were in a hurry to do anything.
And that explains why it took my five days to get from Durango Jail in Phoenix to Florence West, a distance of about 60 miles. I could walked there is less than half the time.
Instead, I spent five days at Alhambra Jail in Phoenix for “processing,’’ which entailed changing out of those laughable black-and-white striped clothing that county prisoners wear into to the orange pants that identifies you as the property of the Arizona Department of Corrections, being photographed, fingerprinted and assigned to one of the various institutions located throughout the state. They also give you a Department of Corrections number. It becomes your official identity. My number is 215980. No one else will ever have that number. It will be my number, my identity forever. The Arizona Department of Correction, sort of like elephants, never forgets.
For all of that, it took five days.
Anytime I hear about how the jails and prison are understaffed, I have to laugh. There’s not a damn one of them that doesn’t spend the majority of his time on his fat, lazy butts. I paint with a broad brush on this point, I realize, but I’ll stand by the description and extend apologies to the three or four employees for whom it is not an accurate portrayal.
But I had finally made it to Florence and soon started a new routine, which still included walking. It also included getting up at 5 a.m. and stumbling off toward the chow hall.
Just outside Building 4, a half-dozen of the old-timers, men in their 60s and 70s, sat at one of the metal picnic tables, smoking cigarettes and drinking the instant coffee they had heated up in their pods.
They sat there every morning, smoking and drinking their coffee, scowling silently at the start of a new day.
The first time I saw them, they reminded me of the two cranky old men who sit in the balcony on The Muppet Show and rain insults on the actors below.
“Cheer up, boys,’’ I sang cheerily as I passed them on the way to the chow hall, “it’s only prison.’’
Their groans and mild curses followed me as I moved on toward the chow hall and I had to laugh.
“Here goes another day,’’ I told myself.

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