Report From Inmate # 00712398 by Steve Clemens. June 26-July 2, 2012
(Note: this is written stream-of-consciousness style each day from my cell)
Day 1, Tuesday (June 26, 2012) Cell number 165 on the first level of A Unit at the Hennepin County “Workhouse” (technically the Adult Corrections Facility but I’m not sure how much “correcting” they plan for me) is smaller than what I remember from my sojourn here 10 years ago. This cell is only 6’ wide and just less than 8’ long with a stainless steel toilet (sans a seat) and a porcelain sink mounted to the wall that diminishes some of the precious floor space. The wall-mounted “table” and “seat” are really just 12” wide shelves that also jut into the space not taken up by the metal bunk.
Each cell has a 3’ fluorescent light mounted against the wall and ceiling opposite the bars and sliding door and there are two settings: bright for reading and a dimmer setting on all through the night which is also the default setting when the bright function isn’t activated. Two sheets, 2 blankets, and a pillow case were issued by the dressing officer along with a “hygiene bag” of small bottles of shampoo, deodorant, a plastic razor, comb, cheap flimsy toothbrush and toothpaste. Someone has a sense of humor: the brand of shampoo and deodorant is “Maximum Security”. My cell overlooks an 8’ wide walkway with a view of 2 blocked up window openings. (When I’m able to get out of the cell the next day, I discover that the windows on the second and third tier above me are obscured glass so you can at least see if it is daylight or not if you are on those levels.)
The dressing officer would not let me keep my Bible since it is hard-cover “and could be thrown from the 3rd tier and injure someone” – even though my cell assignment clearly shows my cell to be on the first tier/floor. I was able to convince him to allow me to keep two pencils and some sheets of paper – provided I rip them out of the tablet. My stick pens, toothbrush, and my sneaker-type shoes are not allowed despite the sign which says “ask if your shoes can be worn inside” on the wall of the holding area outside the dressing room. (I later discover many inmates have their own shoes – not significantly different than mine. The officer didn’t even look at mine before saying “no”.
The dressing room officer was in a hurry since he told us a “big group” was arriving soon so I assume that is why David and I didn’t have to take a shower and undergo a strip search like everyone else does. David had to undress in front of the officer; he didn’t even look at me while trying to rush through the process. After telling me I couldn’t keep my own shoes, I am issued sneakers with absolutely no arch or support whatsoever. I now have a one-piece jump suit with metal snaps and AFC stenciled on the back and stretched out underwear briefs and socks.
Although I have a letter from my primary care physician documenting my need for ibuprofen for back pain, the tablets I brought were placed in my property bag with my street clothes and Bible and I was told that the doctor’s papers would be sent to the medical office – but they had not arrived down the 60’ hallway during the hour I sat outside that office awaiting my “physical”. It consists of height, weight, blood pressure, pulse and oxygen level, and a TB skin test since I will be there for 7 days or longer. Questions to be sure I’m not suicidal are asked – better asking me now rather than after a few mostly sleepless nights!
Since my Bible has been deemed verboten, I write down all the names of my Iraqi and Afghan friends that I could remember for my prayer list for the week. (I had written them in my Bible so I wouldn’t inadvertently leave someone out.)
It was wonderful to have a group of 30 friends in a circle together to bless David and me before we walked to the front of the jail to report in by 11 AM. We had first gathered at a remaining ATK site in Plymouth for a half hour before driving to the Workhouse. We had our community circle for singing and sharing at both locations. Roger brought his fiddle and Sr. Jane played “the only song she knows” on the harmonica as we sing along. Susu lit some sage and each person had an opportunity to say something before David and I stepped into the center of the circle for our traditional singing of “Rainbow Person” followed by a song Tom and Pepperwolf learned in Columbia where peace and justice advocates sing, “Courage brothers, you do not walk alone; We will walk with you and sing your Spirit home.” If only all prisoners were so blessed with a group of friends and supporters before walking into jail or prison!
I’m so grateful that Christine and Zaq were able to be part of this send-off. (I feel greedy in that I already had a blessing/send-off from my faith community, The Community of St. Martin, at the end of worship on Sunday evening.) Another long-time peace activist I lived with in Georgia more than 35 years ago called me from a speaking trip in California last night hoping to catch me before jail and wish me well.
We were given a bag lunch of an apple and two white bread sandwiches with meat and cheese while awaiting the dressing officer. Supper is delivered to my cell: canned green beans, 3 small biscuits, 2 scoops of mashed potatoes with tiny pieces of chicken in a gravy, a half of a canned pear and two cups of Kool Aide-type fruit “juice”.
The jail has a for-profit medical service named Corizon. One of their staff – likely a nurse but I hadn’t seen her before – goes by about 10 PM to ask if we are “alright” and to deliver meds to those on this tier. I should ask for earplugs (although I know the request would be useless) because the talking between cells is incessant. It makes it a real challenge to think, read, meditate or pray. The talking is loud because all cells face the outside brick wall and the sounds just reverberate from them.
I’ve felt chilled ever since David and I checked in at 11 – so cold I had put on my long-sleeved shirt before I had to surrender it to the dressing officer. The air conditioning must be set for the comfort of the guards and staff who obviously have clothing better suited than us. I thought when I was issued 2 “blankets” that at least one could help bulk up the pathetic excuse for a “pillow” or could be used to brace the small of my back while sleeping but I think I’d need at least one to rap around me even while sitting in my cell to keep from getting really cold. The “blankets” are more the consistency of flannel sheets than a real blanket that I had been issued in other jails and prisons.
Here is another new wrinkle: at the booking desk after my photo and electronic scan of my fingertips, I’m told there is a $30 “booking charge that comes out first of any inmate funds on the books.” I had brought in $40 so I might be able to buy some candy bars at commissary to give to other guys as a thank you for a kindness or other courtesies. (I learn the next day that all “canteen” requests must be made on Sundays for a Tuesday or Wednesday delivery so I couldn’t buy anything anyway.) Seems our society finds ways to “nickel and dime” inmates wherever possible. I’m told that any medications are charged to the inmate as well as anytime one requests to see the doctor. Next time I’ll have to consider getting locked up in a nation which has universal health care coverage!
Since I have nothing to read I called out to some inmates (aka “residents”) who walked by my cell with some books on top of a vacuum-like device, asking them if I could get me a book or two. One of them handed me a James Patterson novel from the Women’s Murder Club series so I spent most of the evening alternating between reading and napping. (I have no idea what time it is since I can’t see a clock but I discover if I look out my bars on an angle, I can see an opaque window down the cellblock to see if it is dark yet.
I continued reading in the middle of the night when my sore back wouldn’t let me sleep until a guard came by at what I guessed to be 2:30 AM with an armful of books and said, “These were dropped off for you last week [by the librarian] and I’m glad to get these off my desk.” What a treasure trove: A Testament of Hope and A Call To Conscience by Martin Luther King, Jr., Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch, and Master of the Senate by Robert Caro. All together, a stack of books nearly a foot high!
Day 2, Wednesday. Breakfast in my cell consists of 3 slices of white bread toast, about 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, golden graham cereal and 8 ounces of 2% milk. I pass two of the pieces of bread to cell 164 after asking him if he wanted it. [I later learned his name and he told me he’d gladly take any extra food since he wanted to put on some weight.]
The CO (Corrections Officer or guard) tells me I must be here on this tier for a minimum of 36 hours and “clear medical” before being moved “upstairs” into general population. We are told we will also be able to get a towel and take a shower by 1:30 PM. Orientation upstairs is conducted for 6 of us who came in yesterday and on our tier. (David and the other guy we were booked with aren’t in our group). Different staff go over some rules and regulations, give us a reading comprehension test; we meet a Chaplain, Chemical Dependency person, etc. Most of the programs they offer won’t apply to me because it takes over a week to get put on the list to participate. I would have tried to attend one of the Bible study groups just to see what it is like but apparently you can’t do that if you are here only 7 days. (How will I ever be “corrected” if I’m not here long enough to be part of their “programs”?) The automatic “good time” for 10 days limits my stay to 7 days unless I’m “written up” by a staff member for rule infractions like more than 5 books or magazines, more than the allotted clothes, sheets, towels, excessive cursing (never enforced while I’m around!), food in your room from the dinning area, …
Lunch in my cell (room service!) consists of cup of vegetable soup (with only 2-3 small pieces of actual vegetables, 2 packs of saltines, some cucumber slices in a dressing, a 5” pizza, and ½ pt. of milk. We are let out of our cells for 45 minutes to get a shower at the end of the tier (right in front of the guard station), a change of clothes, walk in the hallway, and/or make collect phone calls from the 3 phones on the wall. I am able to get a T-shirt and that really helps keep me warmer.
Supper is 2 hot dogs in rolls, baked beans, ½ of canned peach, and 2 cups of Kool Aide. I finish A Call to Conscience, a collection of MLK’s speeches and continue with my other books about and by King. The story behind “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” is fascinating. It was almost totally ignored in the mainstream media until a month or two later when the school children starting filling up the jails in that Alabama city. When Sheriff Bull Connor released attack dogs and water cannon on grade school and high school children, finally some press started to pay some attention. I sleep only intermittently my second night.
Day 3, Thursday. Breakfast is a reprise of golden graham cereal with ½ pt. of milk, a bagel (not NY style!) with jelly (not fruit preserves) and a canned plum. I’m hoping there is a little more nutrition once we hit general population today. Last night was another rough night. When I begin to drift off to sleep, the inmate from a cell or two down from me (it’s hard to tell) starts singing – first a Bee Gees song, followed by several others by Paul Simon, and other artists I don’t know. Not too bad in quality but I really hadn’t decided to attend a concert that evening. Another inmate several cells in the other direction screams “Shut the fuck up!” several times during each number. After the concert petered out, someone started yelling for a hammer. (Was he off his meds?) It took about an hour or more for the yelling back and forth to subside.
The nurse handing out meds said she’d be back before she got to my cell but then didn’t return. The nurse this AM told me he knew I had an order for ibuprofen but only gave me 400 mg and said I could keep it for tonight. I doubt that ½ my normal dose will help very much. The 1 ½” plastic mattress and the pathetic pillow (1” x 8” x14”?) don’t cushion the steel bunk very much so I double the mattress by my head and use one of the blankets to wedge against the small of my back to ease the pain. As it is, I get no more than 15 minutes before I need to turn to another position. Every couple of hours I sit up or get up and pace the cell (3 steps, turn, 3 steps) to loosen my back and leg muscles. At least about 7 AM I’m able to have my first, partial bowel movement on the cold stainless-steel toilet – first in 47 hours. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. (Jail expectations aren’t very high.)
I wish I had tried to bring in my Muslim prayer beads that I bought in Baghdad in December 2002. I used them after the war started 3 months later when I went to pray for an hour every weekday in Senator Coleman’s office as I fasted for the first 35 days of the war. Somehow the tangible beads gives me a better connection with the Iraqis (and Afghans) I pray for. I doubt the guards would allow me to bring them in but I should have at least tried.
I’m waiting for our cellblock officer to tell us we will be moving to general population this morning. If I get to the second or third tier I might be able to see if it is daylight outside or maybe see the clock which is visible from about 4 of the 16 cells on the two upper tiers.
Reading Pillar of Fire, I’m reminded how easy I’ve had it with all my arrests. Other than handcuffs too tight, pepper spray in the air, or trying to get in and out of the narrow space (for me) of a cop car or paddy wagon while handcuffed from behind, I at least have not yet been clubbed, bitten by K-9 dogs, or had my life threatened by angry mobs. Well, I was concerned when “trained” security guards pointed their automatic weapons at me and screamed to stop in Texas 31 years ago. It gives me all the more respect for the courage of Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Bevel and the thousands who joined them in the deep South, Chicago, LA, and other battlegrounds for civil rights.
I wouldn’t call being in here “suffering” per se. The feeling is more discomfort and definitely being out of “control” of one’s own schedule, meals, dress, and even movement. It is the sense of uncertainty, the unknown, being at the mercy of others – be it orders from the guards or the inability to remove oneself from the idiosyncrasies of other inmates. Clearly some here have mental health issues and regulating medications becomes more complex here with new charges to see a doctor or nurse practitioner as well as charges for medication. Certainly mental health concerns are exacerbated in here. The Native American a couple of cells west of me was grunting and screaming about 6 AM giving orders to someone else (maybe there was a medical person with him or he was just hallucinating) yelling for a sledgehammer. I think the calls last for a hammer (non-sledge?) last night were from a cell in the other direction. But who knows? Maybe my own ability to discern directions (or reality?) is hampered in here.
The concert from the next cell continues. Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone; followed by Slip Slidin’ Away, Ventura Highway. The singer is cell 164, an African-American I finally met when we got out for a shower; the guy who asked for my extra toast yesterday. Lunch is ¼ baked chicken, white rice with gravy, cooked broccoli, 3 slices of white bread and ½ pt. of milk. I was hoping this meal would be in the dining hall but I haven’t been moved yet.
The wait continues. We are able to sweep and mop our cell during our 1-hour shower/rec time. We are able to get a change of clothes as well. Supper is chicken salad with 5 slices of white bread (as usual I pass virtually all my bread to my musical friend), a tiny salad with a piece of lettuce and 3 cuke slices, cherry Kool Aide and ½ of a canned peach. We also got a new batch of inmates for this “holding” area which one of the officers describes as a “48 hour hold”. Since it is now 6 PM, it is going on 55 hours for me. The CO did confirm that my “out date” is July 2. The new guys always seem to be excessively loud – and the loudest group is now next-door in cells 166,7, and 8, I think. I wish medical handed out earplugs but I did score two more ibuprofen which I save for tonight.
People whose personalities are annoying on the outside are downright obnoxious and aggravating in here. I’ve heard enough talk of “bitches” and my Baby Mama” to last me a lifetime and they’ve only been in this cellblock for an hour or so. The noise level is painful – several decibels louder than the first two nights in this slammer. I’m hoping for a visit so I can get a respite. It is difficult to read because of the continuous rapping and yelling.
Day 4, Friday. A relatively decent sleep last night – must have been the ibuprofen I got yesterday. After the shouted trivia game ended (about 11 PM?), things quieted down considerably and except for the guards walking up and down the hallway on a regular basis and going in and out of the door to this unit, it was calm enough to try to sleep. It is quite disorienting to never know what time it is but looking out the bars on a severe angle I can see it is finally daylight outside. It could be 5:30 or 7AM. I haven’t had breakfast delivered yet and I think that happens about 7:30 or 8. Hope (again) to get moved today but I’ll just have to wait and see. Part of the jail experience is to remind you who is in control – and it’s not me.
A guard threatened the 3-4 new guys who were rapping at such an awful loud rate that they needed to shut up or they would be shipped to segregation because the guys on tiers 2 and 3 were workers and needed their sleep. So I had about ½ hour of relative calm before that trivia questions started – and, of course, the only way to be heard was to shout out one’s answer or question. Since none of us can see each other and we’re spread over a cellblock about 100’ long, shouting seems to be the preferred form of communication when not face-to-face.
A paper was put on the bars of my cell overnight which informs me that I won’t be classified (for approved work inside or out) because my sentence is too short. You need to be classified Level I to work outside the jail or Levels II or III to get a job inside here or on the immediate grounds. Most guys who work outside are kept in Unit A because it is supposed to be quieter. I’m hoping if I’m moved that I’ll stay in this unit but, again, I’ll have to wait and see.
Typical prison bureaucracy: nurse told me today I had no “order” for ibuprofen and refused to give me any despite that fact that 3 others had already done so. Breakfast is 3 slices of white toast, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, ¾ cup of rice krispies, ½ pt. of milk, and 3 halves of canned apricots. Hopefully those who work get more sustenance than we get.
Moving day! Finally! I moved across the big central hallway to cell 464 on the B Unit. I’m still on the first tier and still on the south side of the building. My mattress looks relatively new (a full 2”?) and my seat-less toilet is a Kohler porcelain model. My cell is the same size with a mirrored image of my first one with the steel bunk on the west side and the shelf-like seat and table on the east. There are opaque windows outside my cell so I’ll be able to tell daylight from night without getting out of my bunk. The noise level is definitely louder during the day since most of the workers are in the other unit. There is an older African-American in the next cell who is already counseling one of the younger inmates next to him. It is 11 AM and I’m more than half way through my stay here.
The announcements over the loudspeaker are loud and too garbled for me to understand. Someone said something about “personal time” but if it is already 11, I doubt if we’ll get out before lunch. I’m hoping to find a pencil sharpener. Well, something new (for me). I thought getting into general population would mean getting (better) meals in the dining hall but carts just rolled by with what looks to be our lunch. They are pushed by the same inmates who gave us meals in our holding cells. Now, 5 minutes later, they go by in the other direction and out into the main hallway. I don’t have any idea of what to expect. [Later I learn there are a few guys with disabilities on our unit who must get meals delivered to them.]
Don’t judge your mattress by its cover. It looks newer and better but actually has less cushioning than my previous one in 165. And the guy next door snores when he sleeps. It reminds me of the night I spent in the Columbus, GA jail after my School of the Americas bust in 2005. Sam Foster had the loudest snore I’d ever heard. We didn’t get to our big cell area until after 11 PM and by midnight he had everyone awake and complaining about the noise he made in his sleep. Only tonight will tell if #463 can compete with Sam. So far, it seems the noisiest guys are at the west end of the cellblock and I’m the 5th cell from the east end. Time will tell. (Although I won’t know what “time” it is with no clock in sight.)
12:15 PM (according to the clock in the dining room) – a hot lunch! Eaten out of the cell. On a tray rather than with a paper plate and with a red spork rather than the flimsy white one. We have chow mien with noodles, white rice, cottage cheese, canned pears, 3 slices of white bread, and milk. Looking at other trays when I sit down at the tables in the dining area, I notice I didn’t get any of the cooked veggies – carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower. I missed the guy who was slopping it on the trays so I’ll pay better attention next time. You just hold your tray under a glass which serves as a type of sneeze-guard and a kitchen inmate worker slops it on your tray. Once you leave the serving line, you can’t go back for something you missed and there is at least one guard supervising the servers to make sure they don’t sneak extra to their buddies. I sat by myself, waiting to get the lay of the land – see if there is some kind of territorial or pecking order established. Looking around the room, I’d estimate that B unit appears to be roughly 70% black, 15% Native American, Asian, or Latino, and 15% white. The noise level really starts to build as most inmates finish eating. We have 30-40 minutes to get our food and eat it so you don’t want to delay getting out of your cell and walking down the main hallway to the dining area.
I’m spoiled already. It is 3 PM and I’ve been out of my cell twice already: lunch and now, “personal time” where I can shower, use the payphones, or hang out in the mess hall where some of the guys play a very animated game of cards. Others just sit and talk. I ask a guard if the library is open but I am told it is not “at this time”.
Supper was beef and macaroni casserole, coleslaw, grape Kool Aide, canned yellow beans, and 3 pieces of white bread. I was surprised to see St. Clair, a guy David and I met in the dressing room when we were processed on Tuesday, who thought he was to get out on work release but the paperwork was wrong and he got locked up in the same holding area as me. He tells me he did get out later on Tuesday to correct the mistake and by Wednesday he was able to work outside at his existing job. Unlike me, he told me he has slept well here – luckily he remains in Unit A where it is definitely quieter. I was in Unit A for my whole week 10 years ago but it is hard to remember how I felt then.
We get out for “recreation” tonight but someone told me that inmates can’t go outside to the rec yard on Friday nights so we are released to the dining area where the round stools fastened to the tables like in grade schools are not very comfortable. I’m told the library will open “soon” but 15 minutes later I’m told it won’t be open tonight. I watch a re-run movie on TV that has closed-captioning and do some walking between commercials. By 9:50 PM we are ordered back to our cells for the 10 PM “count” and remain there for the rest of the night.
Day 5, Saturday. Last night was a so-so night. I had 2 ibuprofen left that I took at 10 and they helped for the first half of the night. I got up as soon as daylight appears and it is still nice and quiet. I’m pleasantly surprised to see two envelopes with their stamps torn off placed on my cell bars. I can tell by the writing without even looking at the return addresses that they are from Christine and my friends June and Carolyn. What a wonderful gift! Christine’s writing is on a card that our Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project sells to support the work of Sami Rasouli and the Muslim Peacemaker Team in Iraq. It is so appropriate since I’ve taken time each day to pray for my friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. She tells me she arrived to visit me on Wednesday only to be told that I couldn’t have visits “for the first 7 days”. It just figures – during the time when a visit is probably the most important, one’s first days of adjustment, - these bureaucratic bastards need to flex their muscles all the more to make sure we are “punished for our crimes.”
June has typed her letter on her old typewriter. She and Carolyn are the thriftiest people I know – she’s typed it on some recycled paper that is dated January 2004 on the backside. She describes (among other things) that they went to a gathering sponsored by The Center For Victims of Torture (CVT) on June 26th to stand in solidarity with their clients on the International Day to recognize those who have been tortured. Thank God for their healing work; now can we have political leaders push for holding those who ordered and allowed it to be held accountable?
It is really striking to notice the differences between the guards with even such short exposure so far. Some are helpful and considerate (even if firm) while others display open contempt or hostility. I’m not here long enough to get to know any of them but it is clear that there is little consistency on which rules will be enforced and which ones can be openly ignored. A number of inmates are wearing their own sneakers yet my dressing officer said it was out of the question. You can buy stick pens in the canteen/commissary yet my officer told me “no pens are allowed”. My hard-cover Bible was forbidden yet in the chapel area was a large print Bible you could take to your cell – it was hard-covered and 4 of the 5 books I got from the librarian are hard-cover and all but one are bigger than my Bible.
I just saw my 4th female guard in here – at least I wasn’t sitting on the toilet like I was when the first woman guard came by for “count” yesterday. A clock or watch would be helpful for those important decisions of when to go to the bathroom with at least a little privacy. As it is, I just turn my cell light to the dim setting when on the can. From my many other jail experiences, it is the inconsistencies between staff members that is the most difficult. For example: when one nurse says, “I’ll give you a couple of ibuprofen even though it isn’t on your chart” but the next one is cold and legalistic, you project ill-will on the second even though she is just following protocol.
Reading Pillar of Fire has been a great choice in here because I am so inspired by the civil rights pioneers who blazed a path for many of us. Even though I am only reading about the period of 1963-65 in this book, it gives me all the more admiration for the gift that my friend Marv Davidov was for us in the Twin Cities. “Blessed solidarity” was the phrase he’d say to me about his experience in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary Farm in Mississippi where he landed because of the 1961 Freedom Rides. If only this book had been written before my own experiences in Mississippi during the summer of 1974, I would have certainly had a better clue about some of the people I met/encountered (from both sides of the freedom struggle). I was fortunate to be a late and very small part of that important history. When I traveled to Philadelphia, MS to help rebuild a 3-time fire-bombed Mennonite church building, I was surprised to learn that members surmised that this time it was over their advocacy and partnerships with local Indians rather than blacks that made them a target.
This will be my last breakfast here. On Sunday there is only a brunch and supper. Today we had a warm bagel with strawberry jam, a package of cereal (we had a pick of 3 different kinds!) with a ½ pt. of milk, an orange, and coffee. Coffee is only available at breakfast here and it is interesting to see how much sugar some of the guys dump into theirs. The dramatic rise of the noise level after the guys are finished eating continues to amaze me. One of many things I’m curious about: each cell has an electrical outlet but there are no items for sale from the canteen that has a power cord. It is possible that the outlet might be needed for maintenance if they have to plug in a power drain opener to unclog a sink or toilet. I guess I’d have to stay longer to find out; I’m content not to know under those circumstances.
We got to file out of our cells to exchange our sheets and pillowcase although I discover one of my “clean” sheets is pretty threadbare making me wonder how it will hold up for two more nights of tossing and turning. When I see the knots in the ends of one of the sheets, I remember the old prison trick of creating a “fitted” sheet to be used on the bottom. I use a technique I first learned in 1981 in the Potter County Jail in Amarillo, TX: fold the top edge of your pitiful mattress back on itself to double as a pillow; your feet don’t need the cushioning as much as your upper body. I alternate reading and napping until lunch. For lunch we are served a hamburger patty with cooked onions, mashed potatoes with gravy, cooked carrots, milk, and 3 slices of bread. This is the first time I can choose between white and wheat bread although it is NOT whole wheat.
Saturday afternoon is visiting time again and I can only sit and hope someone is allowed to visit me even though I now have only 41 hours until release time.
Hallelujah! It is a great afternoon. At lunch they posted the cell numbers for the 10 or so who had visits that began at 12:30 and number 464 was not on that list. After returning to my cell, an officer came by and told me to report to medical- no explanation given. When I got there, the nurse told me I needed to get a physical. After checking my blood pressure, height, weight, and pulse/ox, the doctor told me to come into his exam room. I told him I had just had my annual physical last month and I would be released by 6 AM Monday morning. He still checked my eyes, listened to my heart and lungs, and asked me some health history questions. I told the doc about my back pain at night and that I had submitted a letter from Kevin Kelly, my primary care physician about my need for ibuprofen. He scoffed at the mention of the letter and told me “You can buy it from the canteen.” I explained that I couldn’t since canteen orders had to be placed on Sunday for pick-up on Tuesday and I was leaving on Monday. Graciously he ordered the nurse to give me 12 tablets to last me until release – great!
As I returned to the cellblock, the CO told me it was rec time for B block and I could just turn around and go outside. I asked but told I couldn’t go back to my cell first to get my book. My toes have been rubbing in my flimsy sneakers so I didn’t want to walk too much so I just sit at one of the 10 picnic tables which overlook the 12 payphones, 3 horseshoe pits, a volleyball court, and a basketball court where immediately two half-court games start up. This area, roughly 80’ x 140’ is enclosed on two sides by the prison building and a 12’ high chain-link fence topped with concertina/razor wire on the other two sides. The sun is out with a vengeance and I risk sunburn since there is no shade at this hour and no hats – but the heat and light of the sun feels terrific. I’m only out 15 minutes or so before the loudspeaker announces a visit for 464 and several other cells.
After waiting about 5-10 minutes for a visiting space to open, I’m assigned phone #15 and Christine comes and sits opposite me, divided by panes of plexiglas. We are supposed to have 30 minutes but due to the number of visitors we only got about 20 before the CO announces our time is up after a 2-minute warning. I’m so glad she is able to visit and had the gumption to call yesterday to verify that her previous message was true that I couldn’t have visitors for 7 days and was told I could now have visits. Zaq would have come with her but scored free Twins tickets just before leaving so Christine dropped him off at the ballpark en route to the Workhouse. She told me briefly that David Harris had sent out an email account of his two days’ experience so we’ll have to get together to compare notes when I get out. The visit is brief and I have less (none) physical contact than I had with a 6-month sentence back in 1981 – but at least I wasn’t strip-searched after this visit. In 2006 in the Federal prison in Duluth, I only got an aggressive “pat-down” after a visit. Here, because there is no contact, one just walks back to the cellblock, or in my case, back to the rec yard. I only have another 15 minutes or so outside before the time is up but I feel blessed. Now, after being locked up again for maybe ½ hour, the bars open again and we’re told we can take a shower. It is likely there was a “count” between the two activities – it would be nice to have a printed schedule but I guess you learn it after a few weeks. We were supposed to be issue a “blue book” at orientation but are told they are out of them “for now”.
The old-timer in the next cell tells me we’ll be locked in for the night after our supper. Hopefully my supper of 2 small beef burritos, Spanish rice with some type of “gravy”, coleslaw, jello with pieces of canned fruit, and a cup of some fruit juice (or juice-like drink) will last me until “brunch” tomorrow. He tells me we’ll eat about noon and (hopefully) get out for rec and a shower in the afternoon. (Rec time is always alternated with Unit A so we’re never out at the same time.) I’ll have to make the most of my last full day. This evening I finish Pillar of Fire and commence On Canaan’s Edge about America in the King Years, 1965-1968. Even though I know how the story ends on that late afternoon in April in Memphis, the stories are riveting and inspiring, although many are depressing as well. It reminds me how little my political awareness was in my early teenage years.
It’s Saturday night and the natives are restless. For the past hour or so there is loud shouting, arguing back and forth emanating from the west end of the cellblock. I have no idea what the argument is about – just that the yelling is so vociferous that either the CO has earplugs, a turned-off hearing aid, or is in a different part of the building. So now guys on my end of the block are screaming, “Shut the fuck up!!!!” and liberally using the n-word to describe the guys who appear to be leading the verbal barrage. Since we don’t eat until late tomorrow, I wonder how long the noisy ones will be up tonight. I’m trying to read about the Selma to Montgomery march but it is hard to focus with all the commotion.
Day 6, Sunday. Another fitful night. My back, neck, shoulders, and leg hurt lying in the steel bunk so I might as well get up since it is light outside. I have no idea of the time but a guard just walks by and tells me it is 10 before 7 when I ask him. They won’t talk to you if it is during “count”. I had gotten up in the middle of the night to take some more ibuprofen and then write a short essay for my blog while it is quiet and I could think. Actually the middle of the night is the best time in jail because it is quiet. I wonder if Dr. King had to wait until the wee hours to scribble in the margins of the smuggled-in newspaper on which he composed his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail”? I know he polished up the essay a little after he was released but I wish I could write so lucidly even when I’m not locked up.
In the quiet of the middle of the nights here I often sing to myself some of the Bread For the Journey songs my friends Brett, Ray, Linda, Tom and Mary have taught me over the years. In Sunday night’s worship a week ago, Mary led us with one of Brett’s songs which goes “Listen, listen, be open oh my heart” and repeats several times. It becomes a mantra to help focus on why I am here and helps me to remember to bring my Afghan and Iraqi friends to the front of my thoughts and prayers. But I also pray in gratitude for the many friends and mentors who have blessed me on this somewhat unusual journey.
I’m moved by the stories of courage and tenacity shown by the many unnamed hundreds and thousands who marched in Selma, AL in March 1965. I was only 14 at the time and have no recollection whatsoever of the titanic struggle going on for the hearts and minds of America over the plight of “negroes” and voting rights. However I do remember one of the other battles that Dr. King was opposing: the escalating involvement militarily in Vietnam and I’m ashamed that I found myself on the wrong side of history back then when I remember debating Dave Bicking in junior high school on why we should be fighting in Vietnam. I had gotten all my “facts” from US News and World Report and other conservative sources in my parents’ home that led me to believe we had to protect Christian missionaries from being overrun and killed by godless communists.
Reading Taylor Branch’s trilogy gives me a much clearer understanding of the agony President Johnson went through in wrestling with Vietnam, civil rights, and poverty issues and his tragic choices. I’m so glad I’ve had these books delivered to me, as the library has not been open whenever I’ve been let out for recreation or personal time yet.
The bars just rolled open for “church services only”. The announcement over the loudspeaker was so garbled that I had to ask the guy next door what they said. I didn’t have enough time to seriously consider it before the bars closed again. So I guess I’ll just meditate with St. Martin again. (The Community of St. Martin was named after several Martins, Dr. King being one of the 5.) Besides, I’m at the part of At Canaan’s Edge where King is marching arm-in-arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel over the Pettus Bridge in Selma and I’m with them in Spirit.
At orientation on Wednesday I was told they were out of “the blue booklet” which I think contains a list of schedules and programs run in this prison. We were told that chapel, meaning Christian, specifically Protestant, worship was the only “program” you didn’t need to be on a call-out sheet to attend. And it takes a week after you put in a request to get on the list for other “programs”. Tough luck at least for the first week if you are Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or practice Native spirituality – all of which are scheduled on other days.
It is now 10:15 and I’m back from brunch with my pencils sharpened. A slice of ham, 4 baked chicken wings, a cereal-bowl-sized salad with dressing and imitation bacon bits, a semi-ripe banana, ½ grapefruit, milk, and 3 slices of bread. There is a lot of bartering going on – primarily to get chicken wings. A guy wants 2 wings for a salad but my new friend from the holding cell days holds out for only 1 wing and is successful in getting a second salad. He trades another wing for 2 bananas. Since the bananas are somewhat green, he is going to hide them in his cell until they are riper. He offers me his grapefruit since he doesn’t like them as much as bananas and can’t transport a juicy grapefruit cut in half as easily as a banana or bread. So I give him my banana even though he hasn’t demanded it in trade. I always give him my extra bread since he told me he wants to try to bulk up since he has a fast metabolism. Turns out he was the guy with the good singing voice from my first two nights in the holding area!
I recommend that you read the Branch trilogy alongside a copy of Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of MLK. Branch lays out the context and tenor of the speech with a few highlights but you’ll also want to read the entire speeches as well. At least I do.
I passed on my unused razor, shampoo, deodorant, paper cups, and unlined paper to the guy in the next cell since I’ll be leaving early tomorrow. He’s been around for a while so he can pass these items on to others who may need them more than he does. I’m only holding on to my pencils, toothbrush, and toothpaste and I’ll try to leave the latter on my way out tomorrow. Because the time is so short, I’m skipping over Parts II and III of At Canaan’s Edge to make sure I have enough time to read Part IV which features the “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church and the Memphis campaign in support of the sanitation workers. This book has given me a lot of insight not only into King but also LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover, Stokley Carmichael, James Bevel and many others.
At 5:45 we go to supper. 2 sloppy joes, a bowl of chicken noodle soup, 2 saltine crackers, carrot and celery sticks, a square if ice cream, and milk. At 6:30 we are allowed to go outside for what turns out to be 1 hour of recreation. At 7:30 we are locked back up but hopefully we’ll get out again for showers since the guys who played basketball are pretty sweaty. At 8:50 we are let out for showers and a clothes exchange and then we can go into the mess hall. After my shower I discover the library is open for the first time in 6 days and even though we are told we must leave after 30 minutes, I enjoy every minute of it. The most comfortable chairs that I’ve seen in the jail are there as well as tables to write at; lots of books and magazines are there although the magazines are dated for the most part. I tell my friend that he should request 2 books from the librarian next Tuesday: Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Marv Davidov and Carol Masters’ You Can’t Do That. Hopefully he can get both before he is released in mid-July.
At 10 PM I note that I have only 8 hours remaining in what my friend Tom refers to as “a real shithole”. I can’t say I’ll miss the noise in here! I suspect they will remain boisterous for the next hour or two so maybe I’ll have my book finished by the time they are quiet enough for me to try to sleep.
Day 7, Monday. At 4:30 AM a CO comes by my cell and tells me to get up and put my sheets and blankets in a pillowcase and dump them in the blue bin down the hall by the guard station. I return my last book to the book drop outside the library and then go to the dressing room to reclaim my street clothes, Bible, pens and other items I wasn’t allowed to bring inside. There are 15 other guys waiting to be called one-by-one to hand in our photo IDs from the prison in exchange for my drivers license, watch, and the $10 that remains from my commissary money after the $30 booking fee was seized. I’m out the door before 5:30 and get the “Huber bus”, a yellow school bus which will take me downtown to the Government Center which arrives at 5:45. After a stop by the Women’s prison next door, I arrive downtown and catch the light rail to Franklin Ave. and the #9 bus to a block from my house.
As Dr. King said so well, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!” If anyone asks, I don’t think paying $30 for that “bed-n-breakfast” is a great bargain. But maybe if more of us are willing to go to the “iron bars motel”, change might come quicker than just voting for candidates who promise “hope and change”.
[Thanks to Tom Bottolene for the photos]