Saturday, September 28, 2013

Anthrax, Ghosts, and Dominoes in Prison
By Suza Lambert Bowser

Revenge is an airborne disease in prison, one that seeps beneath the skin and pervades the atmosphere like a deadly fog.  An inmate’s honor, once impugned, seems to require action, and the most common method for redeeming one’s “face” is an act of revenge.  This response can involve mild name-calling, bullying, a few dirty tricks or more intense actions like “narking” on an enemy to the IA or even worse, committing an act of violence.

One such act of violence occurred the other day when two women attacked each other during “gym”. (Only half a dozen of the fifty or sixty women who attend gym actually exercise or play volleyball; most congregate to exchange information or gossip.  The rest come to meet their “boo’s”.)  No visceral sex act under the watchful scrutiny of the guards, but jealous passions often ignite quickly as they did with Medea and Juno. 

These two clashed with Titanic fury.  Although the odds seemed to favor Juno at 6’1” and 230 lbs., the shorter, wiry Medea was equally fierce and she flattened Juno with a full-on body slam.  Juno was prepared, however, and struck back with a shank made from a pen, which she used to slice Medea’s head open, all the while screeching with ear-piercing glee at the satisfying gusts of blood.  They were of course, immediately handcuffed and carted off to segregation-one to health care segregation and the other to the regular segregation unit.

Being stuck in a jail inside a prison proved too much for Juno.  She threatened to kill herself with two sharpened screws from a light fixture.  When the CO offered to enter her room and restrain her, she refused his aid and countered by smearing herself with her own excrement, shouting, “Come and get me now,
m-th-r –f---k-r!”

(Ah, prison life!  In some ways it’s rather similar to life on the Arcata Plaza as witnessed by Kevin Hoover’s Police Log stories, except the inmates can’t wander off into the Redwoods to smoke a fatty!)

Poor Juno probably would have been happier in the days when this prison was a mental hospital.  Back then, Thorazine flowed like the River Lethe. (Hell, they’re still prescribing that ole zombie med today!)  But now, all that remains of the original loony bin are the unhappy ghosts that roam the wings looking for lost lovers and revenge.

“Alice”  a young sprite that inhabits our unit, slips along the corridors at night only to appear suddenly beside our bunks gunning for the deadbeat dad of her orphaned children, a man she says she will murder in a variety of innovative ways.

“Sandra” is not so maternal; she’s after the son-of-a-bitch who threw her 290 lb. ass down the stairs, breaking both of her sizeable arms.  Later, when her heart finally exploded from all the chocolate pudding she consumed, her spirit was consigned to our wing.  At night, she whispers her eternal question: “Where the fuck is Ralph?”

Revenge takes many forms in a prison, where snubs or perceived offenses can kick off a rampage of vengeance.  Take the case of the missing dominoes.

Decatur Prison is acoustically challenged:  the white walls, the white linoleum flooring, and the occasional floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows are highly reflective.  Thus, dominoes, dumped on a stainless steel tabletop can sound like a truckload of ice crashing onto a city pavement.

This incessant clacking must have pushed one inmate over the edge, because the game pieces suddenly disappeared without a trace, leaving a strange quiet on the unit and angering the die-hard domino players.  The relative stillness was eerie except for the normal sounds of the ice maker that operates with a Las Vegas slot machine clatter, along with the maniacal shrieks and howls of the other inmates, vocalizations reminiscent of this place’s earlier incarnation of a mental ward.

The disappearing dominoes threw C-Wing into a tizzy, including Officer Pagan, who vowed shakedowns and worse, segregation if they were not returned immediately.

Every prisoner possesses contraband, whether it’s an orange from the chow hall or nail polish cleverly concocted from floor wax,  secret love letters (“kites”) or “straps” –sexy paraphernalia made from shampoo bottles. (Don’t ask.)  No one wants a shakedown, so everyone was incredibly relieved when the missing dominoes turned up beside the utility sink.

Our collective sighs of relief quickly turned into sharp inhales of fear, however, when the entire prison went into emergency lockdown status.  Scurrying to our respective wings faster than the festering plagues of Olde London, we all whispered one fearful word:  “Anthrax!”  “Anthrax!” we said, recalling the recent news reports of threats against Obama.  “Anthrax!” we muttered, mulling over the image of revengeful envelopes stuffed with toxic white powder spilling in the mailroom,

Strangely, the threat of this lethally infectious pox leveled the playing field in our prison.  No one, including
 staff, was allowed to leave, except for the lucky visitors in the Visiting Center who threaded their way out through news vans and reporters, the FBI, the ATF, HAZMAT vehicles,  Decatur Fire Department, Illinois State Troopers, and the NSA.  Safely at home, those visitors watched the drama unfold from their living rooms with bags of chips and bottles of beer.

Inside the prison, we also watched the TV news with our own bags of chips (sans beer, however) while we mentally said
gnoodbye to our children and grandbabies.  “Anthrax!”  I thought bitterly, picturing my body laid out on a slab, being
dissected by strange men in space suits.  Was this my penance for driving marijuana through Illinois?  Was
 Anthrax-induced agony the final price for my crime amid the soybean and cornfields of Macon County?

I’m happy to report that I did not die-at least not as of this writing, and the Anthrax turned out to be nothing but
harmless powder, a fact that was disappointing to some inmates who were hoping for something more titillating and
practical – like cocaine. To date, no one knows why someone would send the white powder to Decatur Prison, but I’m
putting my money on revenge, an emotion that seems to follow a predictable path in this neck of the woods.

As I lay me down to sleep on my unforgiving metal bunk bed, my roommates regale me with stories of “Carla”, the
vengeful vamp of “C-Wing” who died of heartache when her crank head boyfriend killed himself and, far worse,
totaled her beloved vintage GTO.

I drift off into an uneasy sleep, but not before I sense “Carla’s” ectoplasm leaking through the air vent to “tickle
our noses as we lay asleep.”  If you peek out the cell window at 2:00 am, you will see her gliding down the corridor as
pale and white as Anthrax, wearing only a long black veil and looking for revenge.

Wet Dog, Blood, and Fertilizer in Prison
                                                                        by Suza Lambert Bowser

            In the bad ole days, when this place was a mental institution, the 15' by 15' outdoor space on each wing was the “Smoke Pit.”  Today, the official sobriquet is the “Fresh Air Pit.”  No matter what PC name the administration gives it, we inmates still refer to it as the “Smoke Pit,” and while I rehabilitate myself here at the Decatur Prison for Women, I can't help but feel that “pit” is the operative word. 

            I arrived at this facility on February 19, 2013 – four days and a year after my brilliant arrest in Illinois on I-80.  During the months that followed, I've seen the Smoke Pit on a daily basis, watching blizzards and thunderstorms and the snow and rain that fall like chaff through the chain link above the graveled interior.  The sides are lined with ten-foot-tall plate glass stretching from floor to ceiling, except where they've been replaced with plywood , a testament to past breakages and pre-safety glass construction.

            Recently, one of my roommates and another woman fell against a window, breaking it into giant decapitating shards that fell like guillotine blades, one of which sliced into Tessa's forearm.  Blood spewed, and chaos ensued, turning the white linoleum hallway into a scene from Carrie.

            Tessa was all right, and the slab of skin was slapped back onto her arm, stitched down with all the Frankensteinian delicacy of a Boris Karloff character.  Antibiotics were most likely not around when Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece, but the prison has a full stock in the Health Care Unit along with enough psych meds to make zombies of the most bipolar inmates.  But for this highly addicted prison population, the only available medication for everything from tooth-pulling (of which there is plenty) to Tessa's wound is Ibuprofen, baby!

            Regardless of the danger to life and limb, we offenders continue to seek the fresh air that is sometimes offered in the eponymous pit.  But, I was quickly disabused about the notion of drawing a clean breath, one morning at 8:00 on my way to work.  (Yes, I have a job in prison:  I'm a Teaching Assistant from 8:20 to 3:20, Monday through Friday in Career Technologies at $1.43 per day.)

            Eager for a breath of non-forced air before diving into my windowless classroom, I slipped into the “Fresh Air Pit” only to retreat quickly when I inhaled a hot, humid lungful of what tasted like wet dog and fertilizer. 

            (There was a time, during my early writing years, when I would have described this rancid smell by saying that it was as if a filthy whore had squatted over this prison.  However, some of my Bfs are Sex Workers and they're universally some of the most obsessively clean people I've ever met!)

            I found out later that the mangy fur scent – eau de wet dog- emanates from a giant food processing plant the size of a small city.  This industrial complex straddles the interstate with tubes, chutes and conveyor belts, moving tons of soy and corn, through the factory where the crops transform into cat food kibble and other assorted food stuff.

            I know what must go into this food, not only because I'm aware of the monolithic corn and soybean industry, but also because I'm aware of the monolithic corn and soybean industry, but also because I listen to the local “Brown Field” Report on my clear plastic AM/FM radio/cassette player, (Clear  plastic radios and televisions are required so that prisoners can't conceal contraband inside them.)

            Besides describing “Butcher Hog and Live Cattle” prices, the Dupont-sponsored show offers advice on how to combat “Frog-Eye Leaf Spot” and what sounds like “Sardonic White Mold” with phosphate soluble inoculant.  This “fusion technology” enhances root and nutrient uptake allowing “micro essentials” to yield greater “ R.O.I.”  (Tofu, anyone?) 

            This morning, I turn off my radio, disconnecting me from one of the only three receivable Decatur stations, and stow it in the box beneath my bunk.  The CO unlocks C Wing for the 8;20 line and I head to work, having  forgone the pleasure of inhaling Illinois oxygen in the “Fresh Air Pit.”

            As I walk down the plate-glass lined corridors under the watchful eyes of the guards, I wonder if  there is some sort of fungicide available for ear worms. The last song I heard on my radio was a bubble gum pop tune by Taylor Swift, and my ears seem to be infected with her looping lyrics:  “Trouble...trouble...trouble...”