We all seem to want something for nothing. Yet the convicts’ code decrees that we do not steal from each other. It’s an “honor amongst thieves” theme that almost everyone in prison adheres to.

However, the code has a double meaning. Though it states the obvious by openly ruling out ourselves from preying on each other, it implies that anyone and everyone else is considered fair game. Who else can inmates steal from but the institution itself? The institution is perceived not so much as any particular person in the administration, but more so an elusive system on which war should be waged. For the most part, the war manifests itself in smaller and ever petty acts of defiance that range from stealing an extra dinner tray to swiping extra clothing from the laundry room.

The administration is aware of these acts of defiance and does its part to counter with searches and micromanaging inmates’ movements. Though I’ve stolen my fair share of dinner trays and clothes, I never really felt the eyes of Big Brother lurking upon me until the napkin scandal of 2009.

In what many believe to be one of the most sinister and conniving manipulations in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) history, administration coerced a cost-cutting deal with a local toilet paper distributor for toilet paper that was two-ply, but the perforators did not line up with each other. Toilet-borne inmates were burdened with spending most of their time sifting through unsynchronized, single-ply stripes and then hand-folding them into what were supposed to be double-layered strips. The integrity and strength of the toilet paper was compromised so significantly that the inmates had to use twice as much. The consumption rate spiked.

Since inmates are issued only one roll of toilet paper per week, a state-wide shortage manifested. Inmates’ reserved stock of T.P. seemed to evaporate and rolls of the “old stuff” were fetching $10 to $15 on the black market. Inmates began to feel backed into a stinky corner and things were getting edgy. The pinch affected me profoundly and I found myself only waiting with the others for a solution. Tension mounted as there seemed to be little we could do to weather the shortfall. Morale fell to an all-time low and a riot seemed imminent.

Contemplating the matter over lunch one afternoon, I had dribbled some soup on my chin. As I reached for my napkin to wipe my chin, I was taken by the napkin’s ability to both absorb the soup and maintain its inherent structure. Furthermore, I noticed that many of the other inmates were not even using their napkins, but merely discarding them on the table for the porter to clean up. Of course, it then struck me that I could possibly collect enough of these napkins to supplement my one-roll issue of toilet paper. So I lagged behind the crowd to reap the benefits of their refuse.

Thou shalt not steal. Exodus: 20:15

For the next few days, I attended our three meals per day with dual intentions. I used the meals as a cover to carry out a methodical surveillance of the eating habits of my brothers-in-captivity. I was able to detect rudimentary patterns of eating, as well as napkin usage. I carried a pencil and a paper around with me for this occasion and I stealthily made specific notes regarding condiment usage, rate of consumption and, of course, napkin intent.

Often times, I had to wait for the chow hall to clear before I could surreptitiously harvest my crop, but it was well worth the patience. My supplemental supply of napkins began to overlap my “toilet paper,” yielding a net gain of a crucial sort, as weeks of the practice unfolded. My practice soon turned to regiment, as I spent all of my walking hours compiling all my data and devising elaborate charts and probability theories. My expedient chow-hall notes became the lifeblood of a system of records that could be cross-referenced by inmate name and number, meal type and even weather patterns. The accuracy of some of my formulae was precise to within a three napkin margin. I could comfortably wipe my mouth many times over and still walk away overloaded with napkins.

My method became so bountiful I began bundling and selling napkins. Word spread and, in what seemed like an instant, what had started off as a reaction to survive turned into a thriving business. My popularity grew as I single-handedly quelled the fear of toilet paper scarcity. I was held in high regard by the inmate population and was often asked to dine with men of influence to share my wisdom and cunning.

Before long, I too became a man of great influence. When I walked into the chow hall, heads would turn and the volume would quiet to a murmuring. When I sat down to eat, I would sometimes offer a show of my talents as a napkinsman. On one such occasion, I exhibited for everyone a technique by which one could eat a hamburger, wipe his mouth, wipe his hands and still keep the napkin intact enough to serve its owner on the toilet.

My life had become quiet extravagant. I became the first and only Napkin-Don to rule the system. Life was good and I was nearly untouchable.

The months rolled into winter. We began wearing our jackets and sweaters again, which made for nice cover when you’re in the business I’m in. Napkins were as plenty as ever and my napkin collecting turned from regimental to routine. At some point in recent weeks, administration posted a female guard at the chow hall exit door. It threw me for a loop, as I hadn’t noticed her before and I began to wonder how long she had been there. Why would they have her there? Why now?

For a few days, I kept my eyes on her to find out what she was watching. I still went about my routine, but with reservation and tentative caution. After all, this was still prison and taking napkins was considered stealing.

Eating dinner one night, I became preoccupied with the interests of our female guard. She didn’t seem vigilant, nor did she seem beyond approach on a friendly level. Still, my awareness of her also drew my attention to the two opposing surveillance cameras that were mounted on either end of the chow hall. I’m sure that they were capable of panning in all directions, but they were hidden behind a glass dome. It was difficult to tell in what direction they lie. I found it strange that I would worry about these things now. The cameras weren’t new additions. I’m sure “I’m just over-reacting” I told myself.

Fish was served for dinner and typically, fish night yields a substantial amount of napkins. This night was no different. The meal was quick and easy. For some reason, fish is not an entrée that is conducive to table-talk. It’s a filler-meal. The result is that inmates eat and run leaving their napkins behind. It’s textbook. Having eaten quickly myself, I spent the bulk of my chow time hopping from table to table. With only a few scattered inmates left eating, my movements became more noticeable, so just a few more and I would call it a night. As I leaned into a table to strip it, a woman’s voice pierced the air. “I know what you’re doing! I see what you’re up to,” she said without a hint of misjudgment in her voice. Of course I knew exactly who it was and what she meant. I was busted.

In my seasoned criminal state, I flinched not a whit. Flinching implies guilt on some level. Not acknowledging her address, I made time to reach for a pencil and paper I always kept with me, a habit of the business that I had not broken. I hastily scribbled a few clever words onto a small piece of paper, diverting myself to a tactic of charm and humor to assuage my imminent confrontation. As I finished writing, a tone of impatience was inflected in her voices as she insistently queried. Hello? May I speak to you, please? Pretending to not have heard the first call, I turned to face her with an inquisitive and surprising look, completing the façade with, “Who, me?”

“Yes, you,” she proclaimed not at all taken by my over-dramatized innocence. “Step over here, please,” was my next command and I resisted not. I further softened my demeanor as I approached her with very cooperative intent. I had not even reached her before she admonished me. You do know you can’t take napkins from the chow hall, right? Her tone was very inoffensive and I knew she felt she was just doing her job.

In an instant, I was certain that she’d be receptive to my charm, even if it was only superficially. Smiling, I gently removed the note from my pocket and handed it to her. It read, “Note to self. Do not steal napkins from the chow hall.” The playful candor and transparency resonated well with her and her smile was a warm sign that foretold respite. She handed the note back to me passively reiterating the admonishment as final words of caution. Keeping my gentlemanly bearing, I folded the note into my pocket and then reached for one of my best napkins. Without a word, I offered her a polite token of my appreciation for her kindness. She returned my gesture with a “Thank you” and went on her way. It truly was a close call.

Chicken day at the chow hall was a day of compromise for me because the usual allotment of napkins was hardly enough to meet the demand. The barbaric eating habits of inmates on chicken day can be daunting and to assume any napkin could survive unscathed is preposterous at best. Being no exception to this pattern of barbarism on chicken day, I relent on my need to collect napkins for this one day only, and I enjoy my feast on the delicious fowl.

Clad in my typical winter garb, a jacket and sweater, I eagerly made my way to the open doors of the chow hall. As I crossed the threshold, my brow furrowed from disbelief at what I saw. The chow hall tables had conservatively apportioned stacks of napkins to accommodate the night’s chicken feast. I noticed that these were not just regular napkins. These were reminiscent of industrial-strength napkins. This type of napkin usually only makes it way into the hands of staff members, but for whatever reason, the tables were set with them and I wasn’t asking questions.

My mind raced as I collected my dinner tray and found a comfortable, now strategic place to sit. My mouth became dry and the famished pains abated into a wild-eyed anxiety for a treasure trove. I forced myself to eat, if for nothing else but to kill time and conceal my duplicity. The industrial napkins were resilient. I noticed that the inmates clung to one through the entire meal. I scanned the entire meal for a table count. I reached into my pockets to consolidate the contents to make room for the windfall of napkins. As the tables began to clear, I methodically maneuvered myself into proximity to make my kill. I got one stack, two stacks, a five banger and then two singles. My pockets grew fat in a hurry and I even ripped the lining of my jacket to create a new cargo space. My motions were flawless and rivaled that of a magician’s. One second, the table had napkins and then, one swift second later, it was bare. I had never been this honed at my craft. I dared not even guess how many napkins I had packed in my pockets. There would be time for counting later.

The harvest peaked and steadily tapered off. I was rich. I had enough napkins to declare a fortune. I was sedated with achievement as I made my way toward the exit. I hadn’t even reached the doorway before I looked beyond to a chilling sight. Just beyond the exit stood a guard of great stature. At first glance, I placed him to be at least nine feet, eight inches. As my heart sank, my skin became pale. Two more guards were on either side of him. All of them had latex search gloves on and they all seemed especially pleased to see me.

As I took the final few steps exiting the doorway, I surrendered my mind to being exposed and completely busted. I struggled to understand how this could’ve happened. Then, I suddenly realized that I had been set up. It was a napkin-sting operation! Of course! How could I have been so foolish? They used the chicken and the bundles of napkins. I took the bait; hook, line and sinker.

The guard motioned me to turn around so as to present my back to him and I put my hands up to be searched. As I raised my arms, my mind flashed back to the origin of my empire. None of my theories could have portended this end, for they were methods of creation, not destruction. I had achieved a new echelon in the order of the system. It was quite ironic that the very system in which my empire thrived would be the one to bring it crashing to its knees, as layers upon layers of my livelihood were being removed from within my pockets.

As the guard systematically emptied out my pockets, he became profoundly impressed at the number of napkins that I had stowed away. He would pull out two, five, six, or nine at a time and drop them on the ground. He was duly fascinated with the amount in my front pockets, back pockets and lining. Every possible space was utilized. I glanced down to see my treasure strewn about. A three-foot radius of napkins surrounded my feet as a gentle breeze un-layered them.

It took minutes for my world to become dismantled, but eventually, the guard got most of everything from my compartments. In an act of conscientiousness, he made one last cursory pass at each pocket again. Completing the sequence, he came to one final pocket of which was empty except for what felt like a piece of paper. Curious that it wasn’t a napkin, he dug for it to see what it was. He pulled out a folded piece of paper with a few words scribbled onto it. It read, “Note to self. Do not steal napkins from the chow hall!”