Monday, September 04, 2006

More News From Prison

By Robert Creamer

Well, global warming is having its impact here at the Terre Haute Prison Camp. It's very hot --96 degrees here today -- and the forecast calls for hotter temps tomorrow.

I'm down to 15 weeks and 5 days. Passed the 25% mark last week...will probably be at the 33% mark by the time you get this.

Thought you might be interested in some of the tricks you learn in prison. They are probably only useful in prison, but they are tricks nonetheless.

Cutting chicken or ham or whatever with a spoon. They don't give you knives in the chow hall, it being a prison and all. So you have to learn to cut things with your spoon. You can get quite good at it with a little practise.

Spraying the toilet. When I first got here and went to use the toilet without first using the spray bottle of nice pink disinfectant, an older, wiser sort said, "Say buddy, you haven't been locked up before, have you? You don't want to sit on the toilet without spraying and wiping off the toilet first -- lots of staph infection, you know."

Actually, you spray everything here. The toilet (but not the toilet seat because there are no seats), the sink, the shower floor. You get good at aiming from a distance so you don't have to walk back over and hang up the bottle up where you found it.

Never letting your feet touch the floor of the shower. Someone early on explained to me that the floor of a prison shower was rather like a science fair experiment: lots of stuff growing there. So everyone wears shower shoes, rubber sandals. This is easy enough, but I should also add that, even though all of the inmates are men, there is no nakedness in your sleeping or the wash rooms. The norm (not rule) is to change your pants in the privacy of a shower stall. So you get really good at changing your pants in a wet shower stall, while keeping your feet from touching the shower floor and placing them directly into a shower shoe after you've put a leg into you trousers. It's a skill, of sorts...

I was thinking today about the comparative cultures of the Minimum Security Federal Prison Camp I'm in and the penitentiary next door. Now I've never spent time in the Penitentiary—thank God—so what I'm about to say is only based on what I'm told by inmates who have, or who have spent time in medium security facilities.

In the camp, avoiding social conflict is heavily incentivized. If you're in a fight—doesn't matter who started it—you head to a higher security facility. There is a lot of "faux fighting"—or verbal jousting—"You _______, you don't know______ from Shinola." But all of that is done with a smile on the face and actually serves to lubricate social tension and head off conflict.

There is a lot of kidding behavior: "Jones, you couldn't hit that ball if it was the size of a watermelon."

There is no real structure of authority among the inmates….just friendship groups and cliques.

The way to succeed in the Camp is to do your time without causing any trouble and get out.

In the penitentiary the incentives are completely different. A lot of the inmates are in for longer terms or life. There isn't any higher security level to go to (except Super Max for a select few). To succeed in a Maximum Security Penitentiary, you either have to be the toughest, baddest guy around, or you emotionally shut down, i.e., disappear. Of course neither of these are adaptive behaviors when inmates are ultimately released into the World (as it's known here).

And there is a definite internal power structure in the Maximum Security facilities. The biggest, baddest guys become the decision makers (deciders, as President Bush would say) for various groups. If one group has a problem with a guy in another group and wants him "stuck," the protocol would be to see the guy making decisions for the other group and ask him to settle the problem for you or to give you permission to do it. If that doesn't work, you might have a conflict between the two groups. Kind of sounds like George Bush's view of the brave new world, where biggest and baddest is the only basis for resolving conflict.

One other interesting parameter for comparison: Even though those of us in the camp have more freedom of movement, the inmates in the penitentiary have more power vis a vis the prison administration. Let me give you an example. The other day the dining halls in both facilities served up a load of chicken that must have been freezer burned, or out of date, or whatever. In any case it was like trying to eat rubber.

"We in the camp complained, but made do. The inmates in the prison refused to eat it and demanded different food...which was provided two hours later.

In the camp if you cause serious problems for the administration you have a lot to lose. You can be sent to a higher security facility, sent to the hole or whatever. In Maximum Security you have a lot less to lose, so you're a whole lot more willing to make demands and cause trouble to get what you want. A friend here who has been in a higher security facility said one day, "you know those guys in the Penitentiary get better food than we do."

Why do you think?" I asked.

"Because they riot if they don't," he replied.

All of this proves again that Janis Joplin was onto something when she sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Robert Creamer is serving a five-month sentence in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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