Ezekiel Caligiuri was awarded First Place in Memoir in the 2015 Prison Writing Contest.
They locked us down the same day somebody planted the bombs that went off at the Boston Marathon. We all knew it was coming. We usually did. We got our two lockdowns a year no matter what, and that was without the ones we got as a result of the chaos that kicked off when it did. Routine lock-ups were anticipated for months sometimes, with the gossipmongers anticipating them at every count. Most people liked them. I used to love them. They were breaks for guys from their prison jobs as welders or machinists, with faces and clothes full of soot, or janitors wiping snot and shit from walls. They were breaks from all of the tension of maintaining aloof and indifferent personas, hoping for some rest.
There is a certain spiritual strength it takes to get by through long stretches in the joint; that, or a certain ignorance that at times can seem like the same thing. I often used my days locked in my cell as a time of spiritual restoration. It gave guys a break from having to talk to each other about all the same stuff we talked about every day. I used to need a break from my time and the trade-off came from the modest stress of getting your cell turned upside down. Now, it seemed like we were constantly going on and coming off of lockdowns every few weeks. And if we weren’t, we were constantly preparing for the next one. We just had one a few months before; I think I just lost patience somewhere in between them. I didn’t need the break, I needed the time.
This time we just hoped we’d get our canteen before they dropped the notice of the shakedown. The house was so dry, people were paying four times the cost of Ramen noodles and beef summer sausages. I didn’t have food in my canteen bag except for a single noodle, a third of a roll of crackers and a sealed pack of chicken. We were just a day from getting our commissary when they slipped the memo on our bars at nine thirty the night before. It was the usual memo with the presumption printed on it: Thank you for your cooperation. The news ignited the usual groans and guttural sounds in response to our never-ending string of disappointments. One guy screamed frustrations until his voice went hoarse: “You are an evil person, Sgt. !” But it was mostly caught by the wind and carried away. Then there were those that used it to congratulate themselves: “I told you. Didn’t I tell you they were going to do this?” I was surrounded on both sides by guys that didn’t speak during lockdowns. The first night, I got a “They’re bogus for this” from my friend CF on my right. I didn’t hear his voice much after that.
CF and I became close because we shared depression. He was more manic, I was more depressive. Sometimes it made us hate each other. Sometimes we used our illnesses as our swords to fight with each other, a tit for tat at our varying levels of strength and weakness. Sometimes it would be the other way around and it would be my mania challenging his depression. When we were in sync we shared a vision of an artist collective, a revival of all the things that seemed to emancipate the people that lived in these same cells a couple of generations before, that had now been ignored and forgotten from the history of this place. We also shared a sense of time and sanity, and how they inevitably run out.
On my left was the old man China, who is really not an old man but a Laotian man only a couple of years older than I am who ran around South Minneapolis at the same time I did. He’s 20 years of the way through his life sentence. He wears an extra-scratchy personality on the outside, probably just to protect his sanity.
There was a whole cluster of us cloaked in our own cells with mountains on our backs, connected amidst the catacombs. On the other side of CF was J, who was 14 when he got his life sentence, 26 when they gave it to him again. Next to J, there was Preach, who was 17 when he got his life sentence. Next to China was F, he was 17; next to him another, 17 as well. Below us was the 20-year-old kid who was one of the first to get life without the possibility of parole; next to him, Johnny, also 20 years into his life stint.
The sting of time had left marks on all of us. They all still liked lockdowns, called them vacations. It was easier when I was younger and didn’t think I deserved very much. I was 22 once, and these bricks didn’t know me yet. With only 10 years left, these guys considered me halfway out the door now.
I kind of panicked. The timing was just bad and I wasn’t prepared. I had hardly any food in my bag and what they fed us was the lowest and most vile form of food they could find, frozen and stashed somewhere for weeks or months. All of my water bottles were empty, so I was consigned to the noxious chemical taste of unfiltered tap water from the old well, flowing through the hundred-year-old pipes. I had a bag of dirty laundry, hardly enough underwear to get me through the next few days. I was frustrated because I would lose typing days just weeks from a deadline. And I would miss poetry class on Wednesday night, one of the only nights in my week where I felt an ease from the strictures that held me in place.
I figured though, if they shook us down right away in the morning, I could spend those days writing and maybe finish the book I was reading. I was reading A Right to Be Hostile, about the public-schools-to-prison pipeline. It had taken me unusually long to read because I would get angry after a few pages and put it down. I might have the time now. It might keep me from obsessing over the food and the water and the treatment. I was better than this place, and I had proved it to myself over and over. I had told my family this so often, they were tired of hearing about it.
I had been through so many of these during my prison bid, or bit, or stretch, or piece, or whatever we call it. They were something that was ingrained in us. We used to cook meals in our hot pots and hand booze back and forth in the middle of the night. I had been through the 14-day lockdown when the old bruiser stomped that kid into a puddle. I had withstood a couple during the hottest weeks of summer. I’d had them where some wicked woman crouched down and counted our socks and dirty drawers and read letters from home, and when they brought dogs through, leaving paw prints on my blankets. I’d been in them during holidays and during prison softball championships. I was locked down on my 32nd birthday and had a card signed by all of my friends, sent down the tier one cell at a time. I’d had visitors turned away without explanation because of them. Guys even used to talk about the month-long routines going back to the nineties. The guys in B-West broke dozens of windows with cartons of milk during their lockdown in ’04. Then winter came. In 1983 they broke 900 of them. They could be tough but we created stories from them, part of the communal endurance that made us know we could still be human. Hopefully, this one would be over in a few days and none of this would matter then.
But then there was always the Something I knew I shouldn’t have, but thought I needed anyway, something that, if they found, I would have to reschedule the next year of my life for. Most everyone has a Something that could possibly compromise them during these times. So I scrambled, just like I always did during the first night of all of the lockdowns I’d ever been in, to hide things. I was never sure what some brand-new young cop would try to book me with.
I have made a bid of staying reserved and cautious about the explosive elements of myself—a bomb of unexpressed knowledge and feeling about all I have seen, about the way people are treated. I just didn’t know how long before it exploded from me. I wanted to vent and yell something ignorant out my bars, but that would just make me sound like so many other guys shouting like they were children reacting to punishment from their parents. I am not a child, and they certainly aren’t my parents. I couldn’t waste the spiritual energy, I needed it all. It made me feel soft though, or scared because I couldn’t react the way my heart told me I should. I convinced myself I got past that scared shit a long time ago.
I sat and watched TV. The same footage of the bombing continued to play in a loop. It reminded me a little of 9/11; I was in a cell for that too. We waited in a limbo as all the networks brought their experts aboard to shill their version of fear. We were supposed to be scared all over again. We were supposed to pull out our lists of usual suspects and choose one or two to be angry at; my list was different from theirs. I tried to stay as detached from the footage as I usually was, as though from a world of fiction where these things didn’t happen, where people didn’t blow other people up. But I couldn’t help but feel the drop; the tapping of footsteps on the other side of the future, the rattling vibration of another inert shifting of how we see our world. The fear might have even come from the knowledge that these shifts happened so often now.
But I watched anyway. I stayed up late, flipped between the NBA and continued shots of the bombings. There were scenarios everywhere: reports of a third bombing at the JFK library that was later declared unrelated, possibilities of copycat bombings, and a fertilizer plant in West Texas that blew up in the night. During commercials I dug through my footlockers to make sure everything was hidden where I needed it to be. To make sure I had an accounting of all my extra t-shirts and drawers, and all the extra hygiene products I used for currency. I had way too many books; I was used to being told this, but most of the space was taken up by my notebooks, a collection that was mostly filled, growing larger with really no consolidation in sight.
I already had a headache when I woke up from the guard stuffing a brown paper bag with cereal and two smashed boiled eggs between my bars. It was one of the feverish and debilitating headaches that had plagued me since I was a child and that I still got regularly. I took the two milks and flung them over the tier like bombs with no intended targets, but to get the possibility of rotten milk stench as far from my cell as possible. I heard them smack against the floor, but I couldn’t see where they landed. I had to drink my coffee with tepid water I got from the hot water button on my sink because I had melted my hot pot a few weeks before. I tried to sleep, but I felt an urgency to get back up to re-hide the things I’d already hidden. My first thoughts were about the Something I had hidden that I knew would cause me the most consequence. Without getting it out of my mind I would never be able to concentrate enough to read, let alone write. I went back and forth between throwing it off the tier and manning up and dealing with it. I used the reflection of my toenail clipper to look back and forth on the galley for the police, hoping they would hurry up and shake us down.
I’m used to a cell. It has become natural to me. There is an inexplicable link between prisoner and cell. There are secrets it keeps without emotion attached to them. Being stuck in a cell can be like holding your breath. I never expected 15 years would feel like this—the constant flux of open and close, the clicking and crash of locking myself into a box over and over, inhale, exhale until I’m complicit and even comfortable with it.
It is my space. The cell, the cage, my kennel, my box—six by eight by nine to the very back, with crisscrossing steel bars like at Alcatraz or San Quentin that design checked shadows in the rooms, connected by a break that opens at certain times of the day by a human being pulling an old steel lever. I essentially live in a bathroom stall. My head rests a foot and a half from my sink, two and a half feet from a stainless steel toilet. The doctor here told me once I had to piss all the time because I had to look at that toilet all day, every day. It is during these breaks that the cell and I get to know each other, become a part of the same history, connected to a whole block of cells anchored in a rectangular row of concrete that runs from hallway to showers in perfect rows four tiers high, its distance making it arc from one end to the other.
I like it dark when I am by myself. So, I hung a sheet from wall to wall to completely block out my cell bars. When guards came by, they asked me: “What are you doing back there?” I was really just reading or watching TV. I tried to meditate, but it always came back to hunger, then to hostility. In some ways the cell is the perfect enclosure for the single human being, alone with God. I often think maybe one day I might die in one of these.
CNN was still showing the bomb sequences. Day two brought all of the human-interest stories, the deaths, the paralysis. The experts were still pinning it on the likelihood that Al Qaeda or some other international group was lurking insidiously behind it all. While I drank my instant coffee, they were trying to draw connections between the bombings and the latest failed gun-control bill in the House. ESPN streamed live tweets of reactions from professional athletes. Catchphrases started coming out like they always do: “Boston Strong;” the hashtags: “#Bombings,” “#GoSox!”
I still had the headache when they brought lunch. It wouldn’t go away; they never did, until they shook me down and the doors opened and my blood pressure dropped. Just hearing and smelling the food carts roll in made me a sick kind of anxious. A very tall African guard with a goofy smile on his face, who is always trying to carry on the silliest of dialogues with inmates, tried to hand me a cardboard tray with some kind of rectangular patty, four tater-tots, and about fifteen gray peas. I ate the bread and politely told him to keep the tray. My guy down the tier got mad at me for not giving it to him. Clueless, the guard asked me if I was alright. “Yeah I’m fine.”
Most moments during a bid are forgotten. It would be impossible to keep together all the scattered moments of hurt or disappointment, of boredom, or indifference. Until they get so congested together at one time that they become the Sickness. I was already sick. I had been for so long. It is a different kind of sickness though, a sickness that kills in slow motion. Rot. I spent most of the afternoon eating Ibuprofen and listening to my stomach grumble. I read two pages of A Right to Be Hostile, but it was still hard to concentrate. I ate the food I did have and felt temporarily satiated. CNN cut in with news that an envelope with Ricin, sent to some congressman, was intercepted. Then they broke in that another envelope had been snatched on its way to the President. I wanted to write, but my head hurt and I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the experts on TV spending hours explaining how the poison was made. I got a letter from my aunt: something abstract and separate from this place. Dinner came around again, meatballs. “Hey Preach, take this garbage.” I ate some more bread. By late afternoon they had somebody in custody for the Ricin envelopes. It came with the news that congress had struck down the new gun control bill. Lines attached to laundry bags with toilet paper and noodles in them zipped by my cell to someone down the tier.
That night, the Ken Burns documentary about the Central Park Five came on PBS. It was the last thing I needed to see on this night, another dark example of how the justice system fucks and manipulates people, let alone poor young people. I watched an unrelenting public execute those boys through the media. Maybe it came from everything that was happening, but I cried for all of the years those boys got stolen from them. Maybe I was really crying about the years I’d lost. I was exhausted all over again. I was tired of being a slave. I tried to write a poem about it, but I could only get through one stanza:
I can feel my own doom in those / dark distorting hours—just children /
bars on newfound hearts.
Nothing else came.
The nurse came by with my headache medication. When did I start taking medication anyway? I used to be so much stronger. Another documentary came on afterwards, The War Next Door, about the lost war on drugs. I gritted my teeth and let myself get dizzy. My hands got numb from clenching. I was tired of being sick.
I guess I was angry. I felt small under the forces I felt so suppressed by: the police, prosecutors, judges, the Department of Corrections, right on down to the people that made our food and the guards that dropped it off to us. It extended right on to a general public that has absorbed all of this as being just, so blind to understanding it could happen to them and their families as well. I’d always believed in a narrative of transformation and metamorphosis. In the beginning when I was still young to this, I read books written by men in prison that got out and went back to lives as artists and activists, or started organizations. I saw myself as someone like that, stronger and incapable of being hurt by these years, instead fortified by the experience.
Lately, I’d started to see things differently. Lately, and especially on that night I felt like maybe transforming and reemerging were really just terms meant for an earlier set of prisoners, before mass-sentencing and before it became such a powerful industrial complex that stepped on those it captured. I thought maybe they should have just given us our OID numbers in the eighth grade so we wouldn’t waste any more of that time dreaming.
I really needed them to shake us down in the morning so the pressure in my shoulders and the thump in my head might go away.
But they didn’t shake us down. I was awakened by the nurse bringing me my pills. My headache woke up with me. I was up again checking my spots, contemplating to move that Something around again. I decided not to—what will be, will be. The coffee still tasted like fertilizer, a knot throbbed over my right eye, my mouth was dry, and I was still starving. I had decided I was done accepting this treatment. I would commit my life to the abolishment of prisons. The food carts came again: Salisbury steak patty. Are you fucking serious? The Ricin envelope bomber had been released and they were looking for his ex-wife now. They were already setting up vigils for the marathon victims.
I needed to write to fill those nervous days. When I’m working, I’m human. When I am not, I’m just a monkey that jumps up when a bell rings. Lockdowns used to be a time when I could work, when I could catch up on what I was reading or do homework. But I was sick; I was a monkey from eating next to nothing, and from carrying around the illness that grows up inside of us over all these years. Is this what 15 years felt like? I took the tray and hung it through my bars out onto the tier. But most of it just hit the bars and left a mess on the floor and the inside of the room. I was too tired to clean it up. “Hey Preach, you ain’t getting this one.” I laid down with a towel soaked in cold water wrapped around my head instead. I dreamt of sickness.
I woke up mid-afternoon in sweats, extra sensitive to the smell of trash and shit. Hefty bags tied to the outside of our cells were full of sitting milk cartons and festering trays. It is crazy how so many men get to shitting at the same time, toilets flushing in rhythm. I knew I smelled too. I caught myself with detergent and a scrub brush, washing socks and drawers in my sink. I couldn’t help but look at myself in the mirror bolted to the wall. I splashed water over a face that got no cleaner.
When chow came again I could feel my stomach sucking in. I knew I could eat it, but I also knew as soon as I bit into it I would be sicker, angrier. Maybe I wasn’t really angry, maybe it was just fear that all that transcending shit about becoming something greater than this place I was spouting was fake. Maybe all of these extra years were really all a trick to make me docile and weak. Maybe it didn’t matter what a person did in that cell, maybe the force of everything you grow and do loses its power after so long. Maybe, I really had lost my spirit, my humanity. I was a caged animal, meant to eat like a beast.
I wanted to ask myself if I really had such a right to be so hostile. This is prison; it has been since I’ve known it, since it ever was. So why did it hurt so much now? The lockdown, the food? Was it because I was getting older? Or because I was afraid I had wasted it; maybe I didn’t have time to write the book I’d been trying to finish, or I would never have children. Or because I had finally grown up, but it all came in here—living from lockdown to lockdown, scared they would take the last thing I really needed. Maybe it was because the clock never stops ticking, the future still comes in whatever form it chooses. Or was it because I was tired? Tired of being that passive slave in jailhouse oranges sleepwalking through years.
It is when I get to feeling like this that there is an inmate or a teacher, or a guard that always feels he needs to tell me how much worse it is for prisoners in other places around the world. I tell them: “I know. Those are my people.” We are all inextricably linked to each other through these cells, or maybe more so through time. The cell keeps us still, the time takes us to all the different places that change us, hopefully in ways beautiful, but most often in all the ugly ways. Prison has always been this way, I guess. I asked CF once: What if we had been born somewhere else—how do you think our lives would be different? “We’d probably just be in a cell somewhere else,” he said, as though this were our natural state. “Some people are meant to be free. Most people aren’t.” It didn’t make me any less tired, or scared, or crazy though.
I turned the TV on again and there was surveillance footage of the two alleged marathon bombers. They didn’t look like terrorists though. In the footage they had on cargo pants and bangs spilling out from under baseball caps and backpacks slung over their shoulders. They looked like high school or college students. They still walked like kids. We saw their blurry faces over and over—the same few shots and whoever they were, they had to be somewhere watching, knowing it was almost over. It was their one chess move in life, and they had blown up kids and parents, blown the legs off marathon runners. Of all the monsters and colliding monstrous forces in the world, and this was whom they had chosen to expel their anger at? These were the people we had to be afraid of? But I wasn’t afraid of them. I was more afraid of going crazy in a cell after so many years. I just got the familiar nervous feeling I get whenever I see young people on the verge of inheriting a million years in a place like this. I felt a sorrow, not for these foolish youngsters who left irreparable damage behind them, but for all of the foolish youngsters I’ve known. Soon, we’ll be linked to them too, whether we want to be or not.
While I watched the National Guard with tanks, and an ocean of police assembled on every Boston street corner, guys were on the tier heatedly debating the existence of mermaids. They were watching something on a channel I didn’t even know we had. “That shit is real.” Another section of kids was rapping a Rick Ross song almost deliriously in unison. There was a guy on a tier below me practicing with his guitar, strumming the same chord, over and over again. As much as I tried to separate myself from them, I couldn’t; they were my people.
That night I watched the Central Park Jogger documentary again, just for something to rage about. Yeah, I was tired of being a slave. But I was also tired of fighting. Nobody listened. By that evening they had two brothers identified as the marathon bombers. There was already a slew of family and friends in front of cameras for their own few minutes of fame. It was the way it has always been. Ask the Central Park kids about it.
When I woke up again, cops were at my door, there to finally dig through my life. If what I had wasn’t hidden well enough—well, then it was too late, I was fucked. The TV was on fire with the news that the older brother had died overnight. He’d been hit by the car the younger brother was driving to flee a gas-station robbery. This was whom they shut down an entire city for?
They strip-searched me and then brought me down the tier and handcuffed me to a railing next to CF and China and a couple of other guys I had done years and years alongside. All of us with ID’s clipped to our t-shirts with our OID numbers as testaments to how long we’d been in our cocoons. One of us considered that between the five of us gathered there, “We’ve probably been through two hundred lockdowns just between us.” Yet, there were rookies shaking our rooms down who had never participated in lockdowns before. It was crazy how after so many, I was still nervous. I was supposed to be tougher than this. Why am I being so soft? I probably could have asked China what 20 years felt like—or what he anticipated the next 20 might be like. He told me he needed a few more days of this. Yeah, okay.
One by one, guys were un-cuffed and brought back to their cells, but I was still there as other prisoners came and were handcuffed next to me. There really wasn’t time to be scared now. Several more prisoners were sent back to their cells before a skinny guard with a ridiculous blonde mustache pulled up on me, they must have found it. I knew I had messed up, I knew I had overthought it. Instead the guy had the nerve to tell me I had too many notebooks. I just shook my head and slammed the cell door behind me. I saw two seat marks side by side on my mattress. The TV channel had been changed to wrestling. The Something was secure and safe where I had put it, at least until the next time.
With my headache still lingering, I watched an army hunt down the baby-faced little brother. They started to let the tiers out to take showers. The lockdown was almost over. I could wash the filth from my body, and try to speak in sentences for the first time in a while. By the time I got back they had the young bomber hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard, full of bullet holes. They said he tried to blow himself up, but couldn’t. I wanted them to just let the kid die, so they could give us all some finality. By this point I wanted it all to be over. I needed my bid to be over too.
But of course they didn’t let the kid die; they pulled him in, saved him. There would be a trial now. I didn’t want to have to choose between two sides, like watching two basketball teams I hate. There would be more news coverage and all sorts of opportunities for others to jump forward and be heroes, but they wouldn’t bring anybody back to life or undo any of what was broken. There would be more bombs hidden somewhere or falling from the sky.
It was over—but it wasn’t really. There was still that deadline, for the story I was supposed to write, and the deadline that couldn’t be pushed back. Our OID’s don’t come with deadlines though; they stay with us whether we get out, go crazy, or die. It doesn’t matter when they give us our number, because we keep it the rest of our lives.
I would spend another night in my cell and it would tell me a secret. It would tell me: there would be a transformation. We would get transformed into something else, and that these moments would be written and remembered as an everlasting part of the metamorphosis. There would be no forgetting them. Everything would be obvious then. It would reaffirm my relationship to its fixed dimensions, and to CF and China and J and these other men pushed through the same pipeline, hoping to come out the other side transformed in any of the ways that didn’t make us crazy. And tomorrow they would open these breaks, the cell door would open, I would have to exhale, I would have to talk to people again, but I would still be angry, and I would still be sick, and I would still be hungry.