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...”