Writing from Prison
by Todd Newmiller
Originally published in Newspeak, December 2006
Today just before the time we usually get locked down after lunch, there was some kind of altercation (I didn’t see any of it), Well, as is standard procedure in such cases, they locked us down immediately, but apparently that wasn’t immediately enough for whoever was making that call, so we’ve been placed on a continuous 24 hour lockdown. I should say that being locked down hasn’t really bothered me. It’s been a time of relative (and I stress relative) quiet, during which I’ve read quite a lot and will presumably get some writing done, as well. But I suspect the reason most people didn’t lock down fast enough was out of confusion. The call for lockdown coming just minutes before we would regularly lock down, and in the same language, it just failed to communicate any sense of urgency. Moreover, I’m not convinced that 24 hour lockdown serves as an effective punishment. Aside from being unable to use the phone, I’ve actually enjoyed the time of relative peace. And for the people too simple to handle being locked down for 24 hours, what will they be left with aside from anger and disrespect for a system that makes no sense.
As is usually the case, the desire of the authorities to control is driven by their fear, which is the thing that completely undermines their ability to reason, which in turn undermines their control. Quaint concept that it is, moral authority is derived from reason and logic, and on the basis of moral authority the vast mass of humanity is willing to submit to large degree. Like I said, it’s a quaint concept these days.
"And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces."
-Melville, Moby Dick
Interesting thing about this place: inmates are unable to plan out their needs for an entire week, so everyone starts running out of food and coffee by Sunday or Monday (commissary is on Wednesdays). Which is why someone ends up becoming "the store" and running 2-for-3 and 3-for-5 pricing on commissary items. Also, there are a couple different ways fights go down. Either in the open, in which case both parties end up in the hole and the ward usually gets locked down, or in a cell, in which case one dude usually gets beat down and then cleaned up, which has the advantage of avoiding the inconvenience of a lockdown. They do occasional "hand and face" checks, but they must not pay very close attention because this one dude obviously caught some punches with his face and nothing ever came of it.
[X] has some interesting stories about making hooch and acid in jail and about the first prison riot he experienced, and about his various scams. It’s an interesting world in which he’s made an existence for himself.
Before I started writing this letter, I had torn apart one of me old disposable razors, used one of the blades to cut some loose threads, used the spacer between the blades as a kind of crude nail file. It’s amazing what boredom will do to you. It’s also amazing and ridiculous to consider that there are people sitting in county jail merely charged with whatever crime, who aren’t trusted with a razor, and now that I’m in DOC, I can buy them by the packet.
[X] is [x]’s buddy that he told to look out for me. We’re both headed to a medium facility, so I suppose that might be helpful. It always feels strange to have these guys that I tower over saying they’re going to look out for me. Also, I’m not comfortable with the whole race politics in prison. Whenever I hear one these guys refer to blacks as "toads," I feel like it crushes my soul a little bit. Moreover, I haven’t yet felt really endangered by anyone. I suppose that could change, but I fear I could put myself in a more difficult position by allowing the expectation that I buy into that bullshit. For example, I anticipate that I’ll want to play basketball wherever I am. There aren’t too many white guys [in DOC] that play ball like I do. Who does that leave me to play with? I don’t know. The other part of it is that I just haven’t felt anything uneasy among most of the brotha’s I’ve talked to or sat with. After that shit went down with the Mexican guy inviting me to trade blows with him in the cell, the only person who asked me about it was one of the brotha’s I’ve played ball with. I told him, "He said I was looking at him crazy," and his response was, "oh," coupled with that look that’s reserved for when something is ridiculous. The other brotha at the table started asking me about is, but I just told him it was bullshit. The first brotha went, "Mm-hmm."
"Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending."
– Melville, Moby Dick
After the past couple of nights, I’m kind of sleepy. On consecutive nights, I’ve had a celly get a transport bag. Understandably, whenever someone gets a transport bag, they have a tendency not to sleep well with the attendant anxiety. Additionally, they get called out around midnight to have their bag inventoried and turn it in, and [x] got the call early in the morning to leave. And so, I got to share in the lack of sleep. I suppose that I could’ve slept during the day today, but I didn’t.
Apparently someone has smuggled some weed into this place. My celly was telling me about it and then, during day hall the other day, while I was on the phone, you could smell it wafting around the pod. At one point one of the guards came in, and you could tell that he smelled it, too. Hell, there was no missing it. He looked around a bit, took his time leaving, but he must’ve figured it would be too much work or something, because he didn’t do anything. Interesting.
I’m sitting here at the desk now, since I’ve got the place to myself. It’s about a quarter to 11 at night. It’s dark and quiet in the pod, but my light is on, and I sit here drinking some Tropical Fruit Punch and eating some chocolate chip cookies. Before, I ate a beef stick and some cheese. In relative terms, which are the only terms that mean anything, this is good living.
I find I spend an inordinate amount of time here daydreaming. I suppose I should be trying to meditate. In the kind of pervasive boredom, but largely not peaceful, and certainly not emotionally peaceful environment here, daydreaming is just the closest thing to escape and distraction. It’s also a lot easier than meditating.
Bored and apathetic towards everything. Today they stole our rec. time from us because of understaffing. It’s been a long, slow day, and I have had a hard time caring about reading or writing or anything else. I don’t feel creative. All I’m inclined to do is daydream about better times. Don’t give a damn politics or the struggle or the injustices in the world. I just want my injustice to go away, to be hanging out on a patio somewhere in the world having a drink with the people I care about. The coolness of the glass transferring to my fingertips and giving me a bit of a shiver as the nights air moves in, my fingertips also moist from condensation. Looking up to see the stars come out, or partially obscured by clouds, The warmth of the liquor on my tongue and rolling back along my throat. To be content and relaxed and well rested, and to sleep fantastically late on a bed that cocoons me in comfort, the soft aroma of vanilla hanging delicately in the air.
There are certainly greater injustices in the world than my wrongful incarceration, though none of them make my situation any less unjust.
People in our country are in far too great a hurry to support institutions and concepts of the deeply flawed variety that systematically rob people of their humanity, that perpetuate shared myths at the cost of individuality, and reason, and freedom, and the lives of far too many innocents.
In my current mood, I’d get really upset, except I’m far too apathetic to muster that kind of energy. I should be furiously composing some kind of story right now, as my hours of having a single cell wind down, but that just aint gonna happen. And trying to write my way through it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much, either.
I guess I’m going to try reading for a while. In case I don’t get around to writing more, I’m enclosing a letter for [x] in hopes that you can get it to him. I don’t know. For the time being, positivity eludes me.