What I Learned Me in Prison



I learned me two things at Fairfield. One was how to make the best shivs you ever saw. I made ’em out of Reach toothbrushes. I’d sharpen up the plastic handle so it would cut like a stiletto, diamond-shaped to make a wound that won’t close. I didn’t use shivs myself. The Brotherhood made sure I was protected.

I also learned welding. That’s how I mostly spend my time now. See that out in the yard? Would you believe it’s made out of scraps I found? Didn’t pay a dime for ’em, and some chump gonna come along and buy it.

Time on the Ouside

Inside The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility As California Readies $793 Million Prison Expansion Bond

In prison, it’s a common saying that you only do two days–the day you go in and the day you get out. The rest of it is a kind of murky present, a series of unfolding days, each exactly alike. There are daily scuffles and small scams, petty rivalries and occasional serious danger for those unwise or unlucky enough to wander into the situations. But mostly there’s just now, hanging from your wrists like the bracelets that brought you here.

The thing that got me when I was inside had nothing to do with the prison. It was the sense that time moved on outside without me. I reminded me of death. People on the outside don’t talk or even think about you once you’ve been here for a while. For your kids, it might be easier for them to say you’re dead than to fess up to where you’re really at.

The thing that got me when I was inside was birds. I never noticed birds when I was in the world. Maybe that’s because they’re everywhere, like telephone poles. You see them everywhere, but you tune them out.

Phone booth

How long did it take you to realize that there aren’t any phone booths anywhere? One guy I knew was doing ten years for armed robbery and when he got out he noticed that right away. It was all timing–when he was sentenced, only lawyers and real estate brokers had mobile phones, and then only in their cars. When he got out, cell phones were everywhere and payphones had gone the way of the livery stable.

Of course, he’d been a fuck up and they’d slapped on eighteen more months for being an asshole to the COs, but still. Time had moved on.

Back in prison, birds reminded me of time. They flit and fly. I never noticed them until I was there and then they were all I could see. Birds on the wire, birds in the yard, birds on the towers. They also can do whatever the hell they want. Plus, my apartment is on the third floor and there’s a giant sycamore tree out front that’s like a goddamn bird stadium. Those fuckers wake up a half hour before dawn.

I guess they bother me now more than when I was in the joint.

You Asked About Jail?

Putnam County Jail. Never been there, but I been there if you know what I mean.

Jail is a subject that you can only talk about with people who have been there. The rest of society has no idea of what it’s like. Maybe they watched Oz or The Wire or Americas Most Sod-Tastic Jail Rapes, but those shows only give you a glimpse of it.

That said, everybody who hasn’t been in jail already knows the same thing as everybody who spent time behind bars: Jail is not a place you want to be. Not ever.

By “Jail,” I mean any serious correctional facility from the local county establishment to the larger, State-run varieties all the way up to Heavy Medium (my worst experience, since that’s where they bounce the cons from Maximum when they run out of room). I have never caught a Federal charge, so I can’t speak to those places, but you hear stories.

Yeah, I know you’re probably thinking about how if a contract killer is after you and all that, how you can hide in jail. I’ll tell you right now that that is bullshit. Jail is a dangerous place at the best of times. Most people who haven’t been behind bars all think the same thing. You know what I mean. Sodomy and being a “Jane” and all that tired old stuff. Sure, it happens, as do beatings, getting stabbed. and all kinds of other heaped-up indignity. And sometimes those TV shows can do a good job of at least implying the sense of constant menace.

But there are a few things they can’t show. The first is the immense, continual boredom of Jail. The same faces, the same walls, the same stories, the same extremely restricted activity. No cellphones, no e-books, no games, no coffee shops or strolls through town. If you’re in lockdown it’s even worse, and that’s saying something.

The other thing is the total lack of privacy.

You want to take a crap by yourself? Not happening.

You can’t sleep when somebody’s watching you? Hello insomnia.

Look up in the corner. You see a camera there? Yes, you do.

Who is that walking by your cell door? Why it’s that rat bastard of a CO (Always call them COs, by the way–they are never called “guards” You might get a beat down if you call a CO a guard) who started working a few months ago. You know, the one who likes to come in and root through your meager belongings looking for contraband.

And what, you ask, is contraband?

Any goddamn thing he says is contraband. He can say “It’s not on your list” and take your portable radio, your copy of Walden, your spiral notebook.

Shit, just writing about this is making me glad I’m not there now. I have a few funny jail stories, but they don’t seem all that funny just now.