Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Me and Ike

[Sorry for the long delay in posting new articles about my prison experiences. I still have 10 or so more to go. This was written in late April, 3 weeks after I entered prison so read it in that context. I have delayed repeatedly posting it because it is more personal than other posts but it illustrates the types of personality issues that arise in prison and how I tried, or didn't try (!), to deal with them. As always, comments in brackets are current edits, everything else is as I wrote it at the time.]

This morning, Wed April 18, Ike and I almost had a fight. It wouldn't have been much of a fight. Ike is a 5'10" 235lb 38 yr old black guy with about 12 years in prison and a life on the streets. Me? I'm about... well, it doesn't matter what I am, I would have been killed. [This occurred several weeks before I actually was assaulted.]

Ike is one of my new roommates that arrived on the transfer bus last Wednesday. There are 10 guys in my room now (5 black, 2 hispanic, and 5 white). In an ironic twist, I actually have "seniority" in the room based on most time at this prison. [They opened a new room after my first week and moved me and 2 other guys into the room, filling the room with transfers over the next couple weeks.] That doesn't mean much, except I like to occasionally joke about it, given that all the black guys have been in other prisons for quite a while. For the most part, they laugh along and make jokes at my expense about my prison naivete.

Ike is loud, opinionated, funny and profane. He finds me something of a curiosity and is constantly mocking me about almost everything. I usually enjoy the repartee as do the other black guys in the room although at times it wears on me.

I have always tried to view prison as an opportunity to meet and try to understand people I usually don't get to spend much time with. Black drug dealers from the "street" fall into that category so Ike and I have had some pretty "real" conversations and I thought some degree of mutual respect had been established. Unfortunately it was a fragile respect.

Each room is responsible for maintaining its cleanliness. [Each room on each unit is inspected weekly and the highest rated unit gets preference for chow and commissary lines.] This includes daily sweeping, mopping, and dusting the lockers and window sills. There is a variety of ways to manage this but most rooms simply rotate the job to a different person each week. I volunteered the first week, knowing by the time it came back around to me, I would already be out.

For reasons I don't entirely understand, Ike insists on helping me to the point of taking over the whole job and then accusing me of not knowing what I am doing (which is partly true) and generally just being lazy (which is not true). This morning, I had to be a the bus staging area for work at 6:30a. Ike, still concerned that I might not do my job, asked me when I was going to do it. I said I would get up at 5:30a and do it right before I leave for work.

I awoke at 5:30a only to see Ike already sweeping with the mop bucket ready nearby. All the shoes under the beds (which is where we keep them) had been placed on a spare bed. I was confused and annoyed at his insistent efforts to belittle and embarrass me in front of the other guys in the room.

Exasperated, I finally said, "Ike, the only other person in my life who insists on doing my work for me is my momma!"


What I thought was merely a cute joke to make my point was instead perceived (apparently) as a full frontal nuclear attack on this man's masculinity. Ike had been dissing me for days and with one little remark, I had ignited a firestorm. It was clear that it took every ounce of self-control for him to keep from decking me. After telling me to quit talking "slick" and "disrespecting" him, he left to cool off, but it was clear this man was steamed and I wanted nothing to do with him anymore.

I finished cleaning the room and left for me new work detail. I saw my friend Sherman on the way out and he already knew about it [seems like Sherman always knew what was going on... he would always tell me he worried about me based on the "word on the street"]. He and Ike go way back and Ike was shocked to find out the previous day that Sherman and I were friends, though a very unlikely pair. (The other new guys in the room were surprised at how many people I already knew. They joke that I will know everyone before I leave in 3 months. My friends back home are nodding knowingly! They would not be surprised.)

Sherman confirmed that my "joke" had enraged Ike (he claims that I had essentially called him a "bitch" which I guess is a fighting word in prison) and he reaffirmed his earlier advice (that he now believes I will continue to ignore) to leave guys like Ike alone and don't get caught up in the little details of "this place." If I was anywhere other than a prison camp, I would already have problems. He also confirmed what I alread suspected - that I was transferred out of the other room because the other guys didn't like me. It's not that I'm not "nice." It's that my conversational inquisitiveness doesn't translate well to prison, at least with a lot of guys who have learned on the street to be suspicious of inquisitive strangers. I also don't act like I'm in prison which I am sure is a point of irritation for some.

Unfortunately, out of fear for my safety and sanity I really have to reevaluate my natural manner of socializing while in prison. When I returned to my room later that day for the 4p count, Ike and I ignored each other. He was his typical boisterous self whereas I kept silent in my bunk, biting my tongue when tempted to interject something into the group conversation. I left poor Ken, who is a Russian Jew, to fend for himself as they "discussed" such topics as "Which was worse, slavery or the holocaust?" (Uh, see ya. I don't want any piece of that discussion!)

This development is actually quite sad for me. I knew I was going to be around many types of people I do not naturally nor normally associate with. I have always found other people's stories interesting, especially if they are from a different culture. I am the furthest thing from a xenophobe. I am usually pretty effective at establishing some level of rapport with almost anyone. Unfortunately in this case, it seemed to have blown up in my face.

PS May 9 update. Ike and another inmate moved out of my room today and two new transfers moved in. Ike and I have barely talked in the last 3 weeks. I have done a lot better at keeping to myself. (Sherman says he hasn't heard my name come up lately, which I guess is a good thing!)

He didn't move because of me but, according to his comments last night, because his "bunkie" insists on keeping the light in the room on until 11:30p when "lights out" is soon after the 10p count. I'm already asleep by then and the lights don't bother me anyway so I wasn't aware of this but it further illustrates the kind of issues that can arise in a room with 12 guys.

I have also since learned details that may have explained partially some of our earlier misunderstanding. It is not uncommon for some inmates to "work" for money (see post on Mackerel) because they have no one on the outside to put money in their commissary account and we only get about $17/mo for our prison work.

Thus some inmates will provide services for other inmates in exchange for a few cans of mackerel, which they can barter for other needed items. [In other prisons, since cigarettes are now banned from federal prisons, stamps usually function as the new currency. At FPC Pensacola, it was cans of mackerel. Go figure.] These services can include housekeeping duties such as sweeping, mopping, dusting, bed making, and laundry. Technically, these arrangements are against BOP rules (primarily, I assume, to protect vulnerable inmates from being coerced into providing payments to other inmates). It is however extremely common and, in any case, Ike has been doing the cleaning ever since my "shift" ended so maybe that is what is going on.

In other words, Ike may very well have been insisting on doing the cleaning and on showing me and everyone else that he can do a better job than me so we would all agree to just pay him to do it instead of simply rotating the job among each inmate. Ike is a proud man and it may have been difficult for him to say that so he did it the only way he knew and I just didn't get the hint and ended up insulting him. He wasn't showing me up so much as he was trying to "get the job".... a good example of two guys from two different backgrounds, insecure about two different things (he is poor and I'm new to prison), completely misunderstood each other.

[UPDATE: Over the remaining 7 weeks of my stay, Ike and I continued to ignore each other which was a little easier since we were not roommates but he continued for several weeks to continue cleaning the room which required me to actively ignore him when he was cleaning around my bed. When we were otherwise near each other, we simply averted our eyes, which actually is the normal way to mind your own business in prison... just focus on the ground 10 feet in front of you and don't pay attention to anything else... not even a nod or a smile unless it is a friend.... actually, I think it works this way in New York City also :)

During my last couple weeks, however, we ran into each other in the library a couple times and the ice began to melt a little. We would have simple conversations but neither of us treaded on any ground that could turn sensitive.

Finally, with only a few days remaining, the subject of our "incident" came up. He actually broached it by acknowledging that we had had a little falling out but that was in the past. I acknowledged that I have noticed a tendency to irritate a few people while in prison. He asked why I thought that was. I didn't know. He said it was because I was sarcastic, which I thought was odd. Given the "aggressive" language that I had to put up with everyday, anything I say had to be relatively benign. My guess is that while my language is not "rough," I am still more verbally sophisticated than most of the guys in prison so I can "defend" myself with fewer, incisive words. Of course, in a different prison, I would just get beat up so my words would not have done me a whole lot of good!

Another guy, actually a friend, told me soon before I left that I was a "smart ass who didn't care what anyone else thought," an observation I thought totally untrue yet, strangely, I think he meant it as a compliment. I was determined, in my brief stay, to be true to myself, to not allow myself to be overwhelmed by the culture of prison. With a 3 month sentence, I had that luxury. I was definitely a misfit in so many ways that were repeatedly pointed out to me by guys who didn't appreciate my "misfitting." Yet, I stood my ground I think for the most part and sometimes that involved some verbal sparring that some could construe as being a "smart ass." Usually, some friend would later tell me that I really shouldn't be getting in these kinds of "conversations."

On the day I left, Ike made a point to wish me good luck and I am pleased to say I think he was sincere. I will never forget his stories. I so wish I could have had a microphone to record his monologues about life on the street... girls, clubs, drugs, the "PO-lease"... some of the funniest stuff I have ever heard. He always "kept it real." ]


Anonymous said...

AMAZING, but very real, nice job in transcribing this event and culture and association in such an environment

Anonymous said...

Black Culture


As you probably witnessed the prison system is full of poor blacks and hispanics caught up in the system, mostly due to not having adequate access to GOOD LEGAL help. The public defender really cant and wont even remember your file, it's more like NEXT....
an assembly

So a lot of minorities are bitter about such an experience, they end up thinking thats its them against the world, its nothing personal, I am sure that IKE is not mad or bitter at you, he probably has 12 years of frustration built in and who can he take it out onto...His issue like all others in that room is not personal its against the system.