Writing from Prison
by Todd Newmiller
Originally published in Newspeak, March 2007
"December, approaching the years darkest night, and the only way out of the dream is down and through it."
– John Gardner, Grendel
Nothing makes any sense here, which makes this place exactly like every other place in America, and probably like every other place in the world. The cells at AVCF are dry cells, meaning that individual cells don’t contain a toilet or sink, those facilities being located down the hall and shared, dorm-style. On each of the three tiers, a pair of hand sinks, a slop sink, two porcelain toilettes, and a pair of shower heads accommodate the roughly 20 men that reside on each tier.
Both toilets are identical, though a placard designates one as "URINAL" and the other as "TOILET." It’s bad juju to use these toilets as functional equivalents just because they are mechanical replicas of the same forbear, clonish brothers descended from an archetype wrought by the hands of a now distant and disinterested creator.
Two showerheads protrude into the space of the shower, though the single shower curtain is large enough to cover only half the shower area at any given time. At any rate, no one would consider using one head at the same time someone else is using the other, so I suppose the length of the shower curtain doesn’t much matter. A single press in button provides water, but must be held in place with some kind of shower key, which isn’t provided by the state, in order to provide a continuous stream of water. There is no temperature control, meaning the shower is alternately scalding hot or significantly cold, only rarely finding its way into a truly comfortable temperature range.
When someone is using the shower, it is unacceptable to use the "TOILET." Using the "URINAL" is acceptable, but you must give some indication (usually "water," "hot water", or "shower") before flushing the toilet. This in spite of the fact that the flushing the toilet has no discernable effect on either water temperature or pressure. On the other hand, using the slop sink is perfectly okay, with no warning necessary, despite the fact that this sink has an immediate and profound impact on water temperature in the shower.
One day, while I took a shower, I had an epiphany. Someone used the urinal while I was in the shower, and flushed it without giving me any warning. This had absolutely no effect on the water temperature, but for a moment I was irritated by this lack of respect; before realizing the absurdity of my impulse. It’s the perfect analogy for not only the prison experience, but for life in this country generally. We come to accept the shared conventions of society, even when they run opposite to logic and fact, tradition and convention too often override observable reality.
"I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t welcome any change, my friend."