Prison may be the last chance hotel for big ideas. Last night the guy in the cell below mine had a big idea. I don’t know how long it took him to save up the oranges, sugar packs and bread slices needed to cook up a batch of liquid thunder. Regardless, last night was taste test time for his labor of love.
“All inmates return to your cells for lockdown count.” Whenever you hear that all-points bulletin blared over the P.A. system, you know that the rest of your day is pretty well in the crapper.
“What’s going on,” I asked the Undertaker. The Undertaker is a six-foot-four, two-hundred-sixty-pound drag queen that lives on my block. After thirty-four years in prison, he always knows what’s happening. It’s like he has evolved a whole new organ for these sorts of things.
“Some stupid asshole downstairs got into the brew. He’s barricaded himself into his cell, and blocked the windows.”
Great. The Undertaker isn’t the only one here with extra senses. After a couple of decades, I’ve sprouted some of my own — including one that tells me it will be too many days until my next shower. As the Undertaker babbled his play-by play for the events one floor below, I stripped down and looked for a bar of soap. I wonder how Lorne Greene would have explained convict behavior on Last of the Wild.
“When alarmed, the long-tooth jailbird immediately sheds its clothing — in the hallway, in the kitchen, in the gym, or wherever — and plunges into the closest body of soapy water. Biologists believe that this self-defense mechanism is prehistoric, from a time when filthy fowl was the preference of the bird’s natural predators.”
“Enter your cells IMMEDIATELY for lockdown count,” the speaker outside the shower room screamed. The doors of some of the newer cons clang shut with an urgency. In the shower room, my neighbor Barney vacates a stall and leaves the water on for me. We smile knowingly at each other as we pass. When it comes to the lingua franca of the pen, lifers know something that the new fish don’t. “Immediately” means at least five minutes. What are they going to do — throw us in jail?
After a leisurely three minute shower, I sloshed back to my cell — past the four-deep lineup of lifers cooking up some toast and tea — immediately. That’s when I heard the high theater being played out one cell below.
“Don’t try it, you F….in’ pig. You open that door and I’ll slice my F…in’ throat.”
Now this is something that has always elicited a deep wonderment in me. For instance, why — in the United States of Hang ‘em High — is there CPR training for the staff who work on death row? I mean, these folks are trained to use medical heroics to save the same guy they’ll be walking to Ol’ Sparky next week. Even in Canadian prisons — where we just bore criminals to death — staff are trained in a very specific “use of force protocol” when dealing with the risk of prisoner self-harm.
1. Ask offender if he or she would like to talk over their concerns with a prison psychologist. If they say yes, duck out of site and talk to the offender through the door, like you are Dr. Phil. Ask lots of questions about feelings. Check your pepper-spray canister for operational capacity.
2. Ask offender if they would like to go for a walk, to get some fresh air. Do not mention that the walk will end at the segregation block.
3. Ask offender if they would be willing to trade their razor blade / ligature / heroin-filled syringe for something nicer. Offer pizza. Or Pepsi. Do not mention handcuffs and shackles.
4. Encourage offender to try yoga stress relief positions. Offer the following:
Position 1: Lie flat on the ground face down.
Position 2: Spread legs wide.
Position 3: Place hands behind head and interlock fingers.
Important: Encourage offender to breathe deeply and close eyes. Tell them the pizza is on the way.
5. If offender complies with protocol 4, or fails to comply with protocols 1-3, insert percussion grenade under cell door. Follow with tear gas canisters (maximum of 10). Wait 3 minutes. Mask up with personal breathing apparatus. Enter cell and pepper spray offender repeatedly. Apply physical restraints firmly, and place offender in observation cell. Ensure that offender in no way self harms.
Three hours after the guards finally got us corralled into our cells, I saw six of them in riot gear rolling a trussed up convict through the courtyard in a wheelchair. I’m not sure if he was screaming or singing. Today the Warden put out a communiqué saying that, until further notice, oranges will no longer be served on the menu, and sugar rations are reduced by half. So much for our big Super Bowl plan.