CHAPTER THREE, LETTER FROM JAIL #1, BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE
Part 1 of 2:
Dear Baby Sister,
This will be a quick cover letter for the enclosed, a letter I wrote on 12/25, but haven’t mailed yet because I don’t have your address. I mean . . . I have your address. That is, your address and I are in the same building, but I am tucked away in an area they refer to (for reasons that escape me) as ‘The Towers,’ while your address exists in the plastic bag that currently houses my cell phone, car keys, miscellaneous pocket change, signet ring, yada yada. It lives with all of the other plastic bags in which are stored whatever was on me when I got here, and which I will claim when I am allowed to leave. I would have had your address, taken from the envelope that housed your first letter but for the simple but absolutely stupid, inane and thoroughly typical reason that, here at Camp Jailbird, all inmate mail is pre-opened (and probably pre-screened, so, if you sent a file or a map with a clearly marked escape route in that first letter of yours, thanks anyway). My point (and I do have one) is that the idiots who open our mail (sorry, idiots, if you are reading this, no offense meant, of course; I’m just venting) seem not to notice or not to care if, in the opening, they destroy a return address, which they did.
I loved receiving your first letter, but unfortunately, in the place on the envelope where your address should have been, there was, instead, a hole. Since this is the age of the digital contact list and the cell phones that house them, skills of memorization everywhere are kaput. Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for you. My memorization skills, in any case, are. That’s not a problem, ordinarily, unless something happens to my phone or (oops) if I happen to find myself in jail. I had been waiting in the hope that another letter from you would arrive with the return address left intact. Fortunately, your sweet Christmas card came today; great note, great pic of you all with the dogs and, bonus, great luck that, in the screening process, the jail staff (accidentally, no doubt, thanks, guys!) left your return address right where it belongs. Happy New Year to me!
If you are reading this, btw (and I certainly hope you are), I am wrong in my assumption that mail from here never reaches its destination.
As you will see, letter number one follows.
Much love and Happy New Year to you all,
PART 2 OF 2:
Dear Baby Sister,
I am so sorry that it has taken me so long to be in touch, but I don’t imagine that, in spite of any excuse I might offer, you will be anything but understanding; it’s just who you are.
Nevertheless, herewith are my excuses: for starters, jail communication of any kind is neither simple nor reliable. This place, with rare exceptions, is run by the halt and the lame, the grossly underpaid and, therefore, the understandably unmotivated. But mostly, I’m embarrassed to say, I had hoped that I would be out of here before my situation (and in case you are wondering, this is a first) was generally known. I had so hoped to spare you the worry and confusion and God knows whatever other troubling emotions must have been churned up by the knowledge that your big brother is in the clink. This hope was fueled by my attorney’s assertion that I would be out by Christmas, but . . . would you just look at the date! I’m still here.
In any case, I’m so sorry for any worry this has caused you. I understand that my neighbors have been in touch with you at this point, so I know that you know that:
· I am fine, I mean, relative to what I’m sure you must have imagined.
· I don’t want you to worry (I know, I know, but try not to).
· I’ll be out of here in no time (oh please, oh please).
· Please, please keep quiet about all of this. That request has nothing to do with how stupid I feel (and I feel really, really stupid). Yes, my case, is drug related, but the complicated bad stuff, which law enforcement thought, at first, involved me, doesn’t (involve me), a conclusion we think the prosecuting side has (finally) come to accept in spite of its steadfast determination two months ago to hold me accountable for every piece of the ugliness. Beyond expressing how glad I am for this major change of heart, I am compelled (along with everyone else involved) to be silent on the subject. A lack of discretion, I am told, could have a very negative effect, generally, on the outcome of the case, specifically as it applies to my immediate future.
Since you are, no doubt, wondering about its nuts and bolts, let us turn instead to my current day-to-day existence. Yes, life in jail is absolutely hellish, but, oddly, not for the reasons you probably imagine it to be. The first several days were, hopefully, as bad as it gets. In such unchartered waters as the ones into which I had plunged, the fear factor regarding the Unknown was huge. When I considered, in those first days, that my life consisted entirely of unknown factors, the fear became more or less overwhelming, and that really sucked.
Now, however, the dreadful part about being here has more to do with the things about jail from which there is no relief. The list starts with the obvious fact that in jail, you are . . . well, in jail. There is no getting out. You are, in every sense, locked in. I am not mistreated, and that’s good. This winter appears to be headed for the record books as one of the coldest, snowiest ever, so . . . there’s all of that snow I won’t have to push around. I imagine that, to you, it’s good to read that I am in no real, physical danger. It’s certainly a relief for me to be able to write it. It’s just (turning back to the minus column) . . . jail is forever and relentlessly what it is. And, as we are reminded many times daily by the still-startling click-CLACK! of the electronic locks that control our cell doors, what jail is, is jail.
I am the sole occupant of an eight by twelve-foot cell with a single, overhead light that operates at two levels: bright and not quite as bright. It cannot be turned off, and, as it is directly over my immovable bed space, the only way possible to keep it out of my line of sight is to sleep face down with my nose pressed into my joke of an ancient foam mattress.
I have a lidless toilet attached to a cold running sink, a tiny shelf for underwear and toiletries, four hooks for my towel and to hang my alternate orange jump suit, you know, the one that I am not wearing today. There is a three by one and a half foot metal desk built into a far corner, and a metal stool bracketed to the cinderblock wall beside it.
My three-foot by six-inch window looks across the roof to a building that is the twin to this one. If I press my left cheek against the glass at the far end and look to my extreme right, I can see the interstate. I can’t be more specific because I don’t know which interstate I’m looking at. I didn’t know where the Monroe County Jail was located before I was arrested, and I was driven here in the dark after my arrest. The trip wasn’t that long, and from what the view tells me, I know I’m in an urban setting. But even though I know I am near downtown Rochester, I couldn’t tell you which of the three local interstates is the one I can see out my window. Not that it would change anything if I could ID it, but I might have a better idea where I am. It’s a small point, I realize, but if one must be in jail, a situation that is by nature fraught with the Unknown, it would be nice if something as basic as one’s location could be a cold, hard fact.
My cell, number twenty-seven of fifty-two, is on the upper tier of a large, open, two-story area. It is called ‘the pit.’ Because the upper level is exposed to the space below, I suppose that places me on the level that, in a swankier ambiance, would be referred to as ‘the mezzanine,’ but here, to refer to it as ‘walk of shame’ is probably more appropriate. The downstairs area on the uncarpeted side of the pit is where I dine on ridiculously bad but extravagantly fattening food three times a day with my fifty-one mostly pleasant if unbelievably loud inmate colleagues. It is a small thing to point out, I suppose, but, given the hew and cry that, no doubt would be wrung from our late mother over my deplorable situation, do you think she might take some solace in the fact that 21 times a week, we sit down, my new family and I, and take a meal together?
My cell door has a four-foot by six-inch vertical window which allows a view of the aforementioned pit area below. I am not allowed to cover the window in my door. I do not control access to my cell. The deputy on duty, from his perch below, controls our 52 individual locks (click-CLACK!) and the doors that access (with the same startling click-CLACK!) the halls that lead to other levels of other towers. There is little to no privacy. When a deputy wants to barge in to search for ‘contraband’ (which they are known to do on the odd night, after-hours), there is no stopping them.
For being such a rough and tumble bunch, inmates, at least my fellow inmates, are oddly, if not daintily respectful of the potty privacy of others. If anything, I’ve always considered myself to be overly modest in a locker room setting, so any kind of respectful distance is fine with me. But a jail is the last place I expected shyness of any kind, and it is very odd (and, oddly, kinda sweet) that in matters of personal privacy (only), these guys remind me of you, age nine.
Speaking of privacy, we are watched 24/7 by one or more of a staff of generally (but not always) dim, mostly (but not entirely) innocuous deputies whose job, it seems to me, consists mostly of the inconsistent enforcement of the simple, if mostly inane rules and policies by which we live. I cannot say that I blame them for hating their careers as prison guards, but as tired as I know they must be of having to deal with the likes of us, I can guarantee you that living under the supervision of what might as well be a crowd of eighth-grade boys armed with truncheons and cans of mace (and who, if vascularity in bulging biceps is any indication, have had prolonged access to the steroid cabinet at the black market supplement store) is considerably worse.
In addition to being our minders, these paragons of civic duty have important responsibilities to execute. First of all, they keep us on schedule. That means trotting us out of our cells for meals, meds and rec time several times a day, and marching us back in when the schedule dictates. (Whew, exhausting.)
‘Rec time’ means recreation time. There are three of them, daily: the couple of hours before lunch, mid-afternoon through dinner, and the several hours before we’re locked in our cells for the night at 9:30. Your cell is to be locked 24/7 whether you are in it or not, and the only time it is to be in an unlocked state is when you are moving, in or out, through the door. It is possible to close your cell door just to the point before the lock catches, a helpful fact to know in case you have something to run in or out quickly to retrieve. But the deputies are responsible for monitoring the cell doors around the clock, and to leave your door closed but unlocked for any period of time is to risk deep deputy irritation. Do so while you’re in your cell, and expect to be yelled at from the pit, ‘McConnell, close your fuckin’ door!’ Leave your door unlocked while you are out on rec time, and you can expect to look up from your card game to see a smirking duty deputy exit your cell having spent the previous five minutes moving everything in it from wherever you had it neatly organized onto the floor.
Inmates live in an austere world. Our lack of worldly possessions, cash and valuables, outside access, drugs and alcohol pretty much limits the rec time activities available to us. Playing cards, chess and checker pieces are available for purchase through commissary. The various sections from a day-old, local newspaper can usually be found in random circulation. We watch TV (but not cable TV). It’s interesting to note a distinction possibly unique to jail. The whole world ‘watches’ TV, by which I mean that populations world-wide catch the full sight and sound, sensory experience available via the television. But here in jail, to ‘watch’ TV means, literally, that we watch TV. We watch TV (only) because it is an activity for which volume control, a phrase reduced in jail to the level of an oxymoron, is a complete waste of a feature. In the following digression I’m going to do my best to lay out the thinking behind custom and attitude that make the act of watching TV in jail a literal experience: you see, here in jail, we believe that a man’s home is his castle. Call it an attitude thing. I live with 51 guys. That’s makes a total of 52 castles, each with its own living room, TV and king. Further, in my castle (where I am king), there’s my living room, my TV and my prerogative to talk. You can talk, too, of course, but in my castle, should anyone else care to talk, the right to hold the floor in the living room of my castle, TV or not, is mine.
Rec time, regardless of whatever cards or games or newspapers are sitting around, is a time for socializing; as a term, it is practically synonymous with the act of social intercourse, and is, therefore, the perfect forum for self-expression. The broader society we all have the right to express ourselves, but here in jail, with so many of our rights stripped from us, we, as kings of our castles, after all, must vigorously exercise the rights that remain available to us. It is said of those who have lost a sense, say sight, that the loss of one increases the strength of the others. So, I believe, it must be with us as regards our rights in jail. With so many having been greatly curtailed or stripped from us completely, the need to super-engage the remaining few, like self-expression, runs strong within us.
To be incarcerated means not only the loss of rights, but also loss, in general, of a great deal of control. At its mildest, in any setting, loss of control can cause worry. In jail, worry means big worry, life worry, worry that, against the backdrop of incarceration, can easily become obsessive. By its very nature, obsession is something that comes only in large, economy sizes, and, as such, it is something the human brain can only usually accommodate in smaller numbers, two or three at the most. But obsessions in any number are insidious. An obsession creates the impression that it can be controlled by virtue of any consideration we give it. In reality, an obsession needs our attention or it cannot achieve its main objective, which it to grow.
Therefore I, king of my own castle with a living room and a TV, obsessed by worries about my trial, my sentence, my family, money, health, job and myriad other possibilities am, in a way, compelled during rec time, when so many of my normal rights have been denied me, to take up the flag of self-expression, and TALK. I burn to talk. I live for it. I think nothing of bantering endlessly on, energetically and loudly holding forth on an amazingly narrow range of topics that comprise the scope of my worries. Kings of their castles, standing in front of the TV in their own living rooms are capable of bantering on in self-expression mode for way longer than you could even think possible. They are dazzling in their banter. Like so many trampoline virtuosi at the Cirque du Soleil, they will bounce from the topic of their innocence to the size of the paycheck waiting with the jobs they are guaranteed on the outside to the enormity of the world of sex and drugs that will be at their disposal the instant they leave this place, and then they will bounce back again to my topic of their innocence, and again and again and on and on. When they are done (which will happen only when rec time is declared over by the bored duty deputy) you, the unwitting recipient of whatever banter turned upon you by one of the kings of his castle, will be exhausted. You will flee if you can, hoping never again to see any king of any castle. You will live in terror of the next encounter you might have with one. And then you will take a deep breath. You will take a deep breath, and you will do that thing where you try to stand for a minute or two in the shoes of a king. In so standing, you will come to an understanding of their burning need to talk, however loudly and for however long. You will be glad that in your brief time here, those needs and those obsessions have yet to overtake you, but you know that it could be just a matter of time before they do.
Yes, I worry about my future, and I spend long hours haunted by the world outside this place. In trying to picture the months ahead, all I can see on the screen is a lot of fog. That’s a scary image because in wanting to see through the fog, I have discovered from the experience of being here, you give it the power to suck you into it. The more you look and the less you see in the fog, the more you want to see. You keep trying, but you can’t see anything because it’s . . . all fog.
I’m not sure. I think that’s where the obsessions come from, and, hence, the endless, bantering monologues that surround me every day at every rec time. So, the king in his castle thing . . . that doesn’t describe me. Yet. So far, it’s still just my theory explaining why, here in jail, we only ‘watch’ TV.
Between meals and rec time, we’re back in our cells for sleeping, reading, writing and/or the contemplation of whatever stupidity it was that launched us into the relentless, mind-numbing life that we live here. Or we think about the future and, you know, try to stay out of the fog.
Contemplation of the strange lapses in logic that seem to abound in general around the daily goings-on in jail is one activity that can keep you out of the fog during large chunks of the time spent locked in your cell. I’ll close with a case in point that has to do with the afore-mentioned, single overhead light in my cell. As I said, it never goes out completely, but is installed directly over my bed, so, duh, it can be a major impediment to sleep. To this annoying situation there is, thankfully, a simple solution. It is found among the incredibly overpriced snack and toiletry items listed weekly on our commissary order form: an inexpensive (imagine) sleep mask of the general style worn fifty years ago by the What’s My Line? panel as it tried each week to guess the identity of its “Mystery Guest.” Perfect. What a good idea. Who knows? Perhaps the glamorous eyewear, while blocking the light and making for easier sleep will also inspire dreamscapes comprised not of total strangers in orange jumpsuits spouting circular monologues of false arrests and undeserved convictions. Instead, maybe I’d be allowed in the hours between evening lock-in and the next inevitable bowl of ruined, morning oatmeal to hobnob, if only in my dreams, with old school sophisticates, decked out in evening wear and sharing witticisms with Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf. And for only a dollar fifty? Of course, I would order a sleep mask.
In my first week, I DID order one, but when commissary stuff arrived the next afternoon, there was no sleep mask. Odd. I inquired of the commissary delivery guy, and he showed me that it had been back-ordered. No problem. It would only be for a week until I could try again. In the meanwhile I discovered that with an end result that caused only slight discomfort, I could arrange my single pillow in such a way as to accommodate my eyes in a nearly face down, almost light-eliminating position that yet allowed my nose to be in the clear to the extent that I could pretty much breathe for upwards of a roughly 20-minute sleep window; 30-minutes on nights when my sinuses and other airways were particularly clear. Woo-hoo!
The next week, only a little sleep-deprived, I re-ordered the mask, and on the next afternoon, commissary orders arrived again without one. It was still on back order, but that was okay. I’m made of tough enough stuff to endure another week sleeping face down in an ancient pillow. But another three weeks and three more reports of a back-ordered mask, and I didn’t feel like taking it any more. I asked my neighbors on the outside to order a comparable, generic sleep mask for me from Amazon. I figured, we’re allowed books as long as they come in directly from Amazon; why not something as innocuous as a sleep mask, especially since it is an item that is supposed to be available to us through commissary. It was the perfect solution to a very annoying problem; or so you would think.
A week or so later I get a note from jail admin informing me that I had received a sleep mask from Amazon, and that it was with my property where it would stay until my release. There must be some mistake. Stuck in my property, obviously, the sleep mask would be useless both as a sleep aid and a talisman for conjuring sleep-time visits with Steve Allen and Kitty Carlisle. I bring the matter up with the duty deputy who gives me an inter-departmental form to fill out for submission to jail admin. I fill out the form, request my sleep mask, turn the form in to jail admin. A couple of days later I get the confusing, unsatisfactory response: my Amazon sleep mask is in my property where it will stay until my release. I speak to the duty deputy, he gives me another of the same form with instructions for the same action on my part, and I get the same answer from jail admin.
You, as a fellow Capricorn, will completely understand that, if for no other reason than the fact that it made no fucking sense, I simply could not let the matter go. So, hoping that the third time would be the charm, I submitted yet another of the same form to jail admin. Two nights later, after finally falling asleep, I am jolted awake around 2 a.m. by loud knocking on my cell door. I stagger over, and peer out at a female deputy holding my third inter-jail communications form up against the glass.
ME (seeing a female deputy think, great, at least with a woman, there is a chance that I’m going to get a reasonable response): Hey. Thanks for stopping by.
DEPUTY (yelling through the door): I’m here about your request.
ME (wondering why we are yelling through bulletproof glass and cast-steel): I see that. What’s the story?
DEPUTY (still on the other side of the door, perhaps because, knowing what she knows about my sleep mask, she fears that I will attempt to strangle her): The item has to remain with your property. You can have it when you are released.
ME: I don’t understand.
DEPUTY: It is not from commissary.
ME: I am aware of that.
DEPUTY: You can order this item through commissary.
ME: I understand.
DEPUTY: OK, then.
ME: I have ordered it through commissary for the past five weeks. It has been back-ordered for five weeks.
DEPUTY: Yes, but you can get this item through commissary.
ME: Apparently not.
DEPUTY: (now very deliberate, syllable by syllable, like she doubts my sensory acuity): Sir, this is an item that you can order through commissary.
ME: Then why don’t I have one?
DEPUTY: You have to be patient.
ME: Five weeks isn’t patient enough?
DEPUTY: Patience, sir.
ME (not quite ready to let it go): I’m not getting the sleep mask, am I?
DEPUTY: (her interest in the matter long-evaporated): Sir . . .
ME: OK, OK, I understand. I really appreciate you coming all the way up here to sort of tell me that.
(Thinking I may be dishing attitude, she cocks her head and gives me a warning glare, then turns to leave.)
Wait, wait. Let me just ask you . . .
ME: OK, so you cannot give me the sleep mask. But, do me a favor and set aside, just for a second, the fact that you are a deputy and I am your prisoner, and let me just ask you, human to human: does this make any sense, you know, to you . . . as a human.
ME: You know, like, if you, as a human, had to explain the logic behind this situation to, say, another human . . . how would you do that?
DEPUTY (smiling in spite of herself, then, looking directly at me): Sir . . .
DEPUTY: Sleep well, sir.
ME (as she walks off into the shadows): Thank you, deputy. I will certainly try.
Honestly, except for the fact that it is such a depressing pain in the ass, being in jail is downright hilarious.
Song and Dance