21 May, 2018
The 200 best inmates lived on E Block—said the 200 inmates living on E Block. They called it the honor block. The going-home block. The free-to-roam block. And only the jail-good inmates came out to free-roam.
E Block’s counselor left their files behind the desk so I saw what I worked with: third-degree murderers, five-D.U.I. owners, aggravated assaulters, and one guy, an infanticider. He beat his girlfriend’s three-year-old son to death, came to jail, and earned an undisputed spot on the volleyball team. Outside hitter.
How another one of the jail-good inmates made it to the honor block was what he did to a sixty-eight-year-old woman: he bludgeoned her with a baseball bat.
Then came to jail with a life sentence, got a job in the chapel, stayed out of trouble for a few years, and it was official: he was good, inside-those-razor-wire-fences-good. He’s probably still on that block. I hope he’s proud. I hope he likes the marigolds outside the door. He could step on one and it’ll bounce back. They’re tough, like him. When he’s holding a baseball bat.
The jail built E Block only a few years before I walked through the gates. So there it was: a nice, new, red-façaded building full of white walls, bay windows, air conditioning, TV lounges, and inmate-lockable rooms. It sat on what looked like the edge of a bombed-out war zone. The rest of the jail was a century old.
Jail-good meant a guy had been ticket-free for one year and knew how to talk nice with staff. Counselors helped assign custody levels: one to five. Level ones got halfway houses. Level twos got the honor block. Level fives got the bucket (jail speak for solitary). And all the in-betweens, the threes and fours, ninety percent of the jail’s 2,000, needed to be nicer (jail-nicer) if they wanted to move out and smell E Block’s flowers.
The guy who took care of the marigolds came to E Block because of what he did to a nine-year-old girl while babysitting: fingered her through her underwear.
His file was graphic.
And he was the top candidate for E-Block’s head block worker, a coveted job because he got all the guard-brought-in real coffee he could drink.
He asked me, “You know what a mule is?”
I guessed, “Drug smuggler?” That was our context.
He said, “No. The animal I’m talking about. It’s half donkey. Half horse. Its own species. Big enough to carry weight. But small enough to be controlled.”
“Well, that’s interesting.”
He said, “Smart enough to listen to humans. But dumb enough to listen to humans.”
I asked why he was telling me this.
He said, “But they can’t reproduce. They’re all sterile.”
He said, “Nature’s eunuchs. The result of forced crossbreeding. And that’s how I feel in here.”
Then he said, “Any word on that top block-worker job?”
I told him, “Looks like it’s yours. Congrats.”
Outside of jail, that kind of talk would probably get someone committed. But where people were already committed, that was small talk.
Four lifers lived on E Block. Plus another two guys who were doing so much time that they would likely die in jail. And with those six guys who did something so terrible that they needed to be separated from free society for the rest of their lives, the worst of the worst on the outside, I appreciated their personable, friendly, and intelligent ways.
Kill someone with a kitchen knife while on a drug-fueled rampage?
Have a room to yourself. Take two mattresses. Take them because, here it is: jail is a different animal.
There was inside jail.
There was outside jail.
And I became their offspring.
I drove to jail, put on a uniform, flexed a little while walking in: right peck, left peck. But only in the costume. Right before shift, I was too shy to raise my hand in history class—my second attempt at higher learning. I blushed when the teacher called me anyway. Then I asked a man down for aggravated assault, “On a scale from one to dumb, how dumb is you?” But avoided eye contact with the professor teaching criminal justice—even though there were 400 students in the lecture room. I learned that looking away meant, yes, that fingersmith-inmate did, in fact, steal the two t-shirts from the laundry-room table. I cold-sweat when a woman in a bar grabbed my arm and said, “I like them strong, tall, and silent.” I mumbled something to her about being married. Then asked a murderer in a loud, clear voice, “What are you going to do? Murder me because I won’t write you a pass to yard?” And I didn’t blink. And grit on him until he broke eye contact. Then had zero clues on what to talk about with my mother-in-law. I sort of smiled at her joke about a dog. Then spent forty-five minutes discussing whether or not the Philadelphia Eagles had a realistic chance for a wild-card berth with a serial child-rapist and agreed with everything he said. I worried how a pimple looked while pumping gas before shift. But spilled coffee on my shirt on purpose just to see how many inmates would comment—and took bets on how many (thirty-eight, I guessed fifty). I laughed when a muscly, angry, habitual staff-assaulter called me an asshole. But raged when a middle-aged woman drove five-miles-per-hour below the speed limit on the way home. Then felt intelligent when an inmate said, “For real? This is the 21st century?” Then felt idiotic when my wife’s friend said, “I made focaccia and fougasse. Which would you like?” And I blinked. Just blinked and blinked. But understood what a five-foot-tall Mexican who spoke no English wanted from a head nod 100 feet away (his door unlocked because he forgot his key). But was lost despite listening to my wife as close as I could for thirty-five minutes and couldn’t decide if she wanted me to get a vasectomy or open a savings account or replace the felt pads on the kitchen chairs because she kept saying, “protection” and “returns” and “I’m not saying this is important, but this is important.” I told one of my wife’s advisors, “Ever notice how killers look like everyone, so everyone looks like a killer?” Then heard him say back, “Ahhh.” But I said the same thing to a guard and he said, “Bro, ain’t that some truth.” And my wife’s friends said, “You’re quiet and sensitive.” And the inmates and guards said, “You have the gift-of-the-gab with a temper.” And when I heard a story about an inmate busted for giving blowjobs back at the rear door of the dining hall, how he squatted down in a trashcan, popping up to blow guys, and ducking down if the guard made a round, that was jail-normal. And when I chased the escaped cows from the jail-farm it was just another day. And if I went home mad about an argument with a skinhead about the amount of shredded cheese on his tray on taco day my wife looked at me like, um. Just um. But maybe she didn’t see the inside-out collision taking place on what felt like a genetic level. But probably she did. Years later, she claimed that she did. But, for me, seeing a man scrubbing his heavy winter jacket while taking a shower made it a normal jail-Monday. And watching a guard punch the wall for being sent home because he wore black pants without the stripe, the pipping, on the side, that was a normal jail-Tuesday. And having a guard show me his crushed middle fingernail—slammed by an eighty-pound cell door—jail-Wednesday. Been there. Done that. Followed by jail-Thursday, jail-Friday, and jail-Saturday when I fantasized about punching six different guys in the back of the head. But on jail-Sunday, I worked a double shift and only fantasized about a jail-job where I could sit down. Which I didn’t get. Of course. Welcome to the Rear Door, fucker, where you stand and stand and stand and turn keys. Then I heard a woman outside jail tell a story about how she grew up in Texas and scorpions lived in the walls of her house. She said that they would fall from the vent above her bed at night. So she didn’t sleep. Like ever. And I responded with absolutely no surprise. Normal jail stuff there. Scorpions everywhere. Sorry to hear it. But when I told her the trashcan blowjob story and she said, “Now, that’s fucked up.” I earned a B in history. And an A in criminal justice—imagine that. My first ever college A. Then an outside-somebody told me, “You remind me of Clint Eastwood. Always angry.” Then an inside-somebody said, “You remind me of my brother.” Then my sister-in-law handed me a walking taco—a little Dorito bag loaded with meat and cheese and salsa and a fork—and I said, “Jail food! Word, homey!” And she said, “It’s a walking taco.” And I said, “No, it’s a handheld chichi. Inmates make casseroles in chip bags. Good ones.” And she said, “What?” And I said, “Yep.” And she said, “What?” And I said, “Yep.” Then I transitioned without a transition to an Army story about a soldier who had heat stroke during a fake war somewhere in Louisiana. The medics stripped him naked and tossed him onto a helicopter. But just as I got into the story, describing the red Louisiana clay matting down his hair, I had to censor the best detail: that the heat casualty, some eighteen-year-old-low-I.Q.-owning nobody from Alabama, sported a huge erection while he lay there on his back unconscious, waving it like a retreat flag. And everyone laughed, the medics, the pilots, the eighteen-year-old me. That story worked on inmates. Hilarity. But I transitioned to something a little more civil, like how a smart phone could fit in a man’s anus. No problem. For real. They are elastic. Anuses. It’s the removing you have to worry about. And while that story, might be, well, worse, or not, it was all I had. The change was sudden. It was the authority inside. It was the lack outside. One day I a professor made fun of me for confusing “who” and “whom.” The next I cuffed a serial rapist for trying to look tough at me. Anymore I was only suitable on the inside. Anymore, sometimes I still am. It altered my genes. One big mass of outside and inside life got mashed together and the dominant strand won.
The drug-fueled-kitchen-knife killer walked up. He was one of the jail-popular guys—good manners, talked about Penn State football. He said, “May I please have an inmate request form?” I handed it to him. He said, “Thank you mightily.”
And the day before, in the bucket on overtime, I fed one of the jail-bad guys. He received weekly visits from the goon squad and daily tickets from the bucket guards, and the schizo inmate next door to him told me, “Man, I don’t mess with that nut.” That jail-bad guy was in there with his water turned off to keep him from flooding the cell while working off his tiny, one-year sentence for an intent-to-sell charge. A victimless crime.
When I got to his window he said, “Don’t think I won’t fuck you up because I don’t know you.”
Maybe because the kitchen-knife killer had a body, he didn’t need to prove himself anymore. He was bad. We understood. So that let him be good (in jail). But I don’t know. Maybe it was just because he was older. Age seems to slow men down. And jail ages men fast. He composed a polite letter to the unit manager wishing to address the shower situation on C Side. The guys on A side kept trashing them at night.
A nineteen-year-old thief from Dorm 1 yelled, “Aye, how ‘bout a request form?!”
I used the P.A. system to say, “Aye, how ‘bout no.”
The man who once held a knife and stuck it into another human being said, “Lieutenant on the walk.” Outside, a neck-bearded lieutenant stomped right through the marigolds. He stopped to give two inmates cigarettes. He patted them on the back and laughed hard about something.
He walked inside and avoided eye contact with me.
“Hey, L.T., what’s good?”
He didn’t respond. Just signed the logbook and left.
I don’t think I was jail-normal enough for him yet.
Next, an older guard with a gut walked in to use the bathroom. I had told him the week before that I didn’t know the first thing about fishing. When he came out he said, “Hey, buddy, tell you what, come out to the house, we’ll drink some beer and I’ll show you how to clean some bass.”
The nineteen-year-old thief walked up and said, “Hey, C.O., my bad for yelling. How ‘bout that request form now?”
The older guard said, “Beat it. We’re out.” Despite a stack of sixty of them sitting right there for the thief to see.
The thief said, “You guys be trippin’.”
A fat sergeant with no criminal history walked in, filled a cup of coffee, and walked right back out. Not even a thank you.
I told him he could keep the cup.
He said, “You’re fucking right I can, dick-lick.”
After the door shut, the older guard said, “He’s not like that on the street. He’s actually a cool guy.”
And I agreed. A real jail-cool guy.
A murderer named Lefty walked up. He had only one arm, his right. He poked me in the ribs with his stump. It felt like a fist. He said, “I’m feeling generous. Today I’m making you honorary inmate.”
He put his hat on my head.
It smelled like cigarettes and sweat.
And the thing of it was, that was just fine with me.
All I had to do was be the boss of 200 good, bad men.
And smart enough to show up every day.
And dumb enough to show up every day.