“Principles have no real force except when one is well fed.” Mark Twain.
It’s 4:30 in the morning and I swear my head must weigh fifty pounds as I part it from the fireproof pillow. It’s not just fatigue. They say that the expectation of torture is far worse than the torture itself: Blindfold a victim, hit him randomly and it’s not the actual blows that break his spirit, it is the time spent waiting, dreading…
There’s a large dish of anguish I must taste before I’ll have another chance to glue my cheek to the plastic cushion again and the anticipation of it makes my every movement a struggle of will. Granted, no awakening in prison is something to joyously look forward to, but today’s coming torment has a hotter fever; today is Commissary Day.
I’m betting the stress of this day will take its toil on the expected lifespan of many men. The predators will be out in force, gorging themselves on plentiful prey and the vultures will be there to detour the leftovers, but if that average inmate perseveres, he may have something sweet to soothe his burning misery at the end of the day.
This penitentiary wing is a jungle at the best of times but on Commissary Day, it becomes a study in human nature. It’s when you realize that civilization is only a pretty act. Medicine, technology, and altruism look good, they look great, but strip away all the comfortable privileges and man shows exactly what he is. An animal.
I’d love to avoid the mayhem today, just go to work, live and breathe as calmly as possible, but like most prisoners, I have bills to pay.
It’s true that the state generally provides for your needs, they feed three meals a day and if you’re extremely hungry, you may even find them enjoyable. There are free clothes, water and electricity…Well, sometimes. And what prison doesn’t offer shelter? Yes, prison is a little slice of Utopia but to be human is to be infinitely unsatisfied. Now, no one is saying that prisoners are legitimate human beings, but we are similar. Like real people we’re slaves to the cravings of our five senses and we still seek what comforts we can find. Only, our longings are probably a bit more intense. We live in an environment designed to deprive the senses. Our world is almost completely devoid of colors, pleasant scents, or tender physical contact. Our senses are starving to death. In such a bland artificial existence, even a simple sugar treat can be mistaken for an exotic ecstasy.
You can’t ignore commissary in prison any more than someone in today’s society can ignore money. Commissary is money, it is the inmate’s currency and purchasing power, it’s one of the few means to get those extras that make life a little more bearable. Even guys with no family, no one to give them support of any kind, even they depend on the commissary they cannot buy. Everyone wants some tasty food or at least a tube of toothpaste. Fans, hot pots to warm your water, radios. You can survive without them but I’ve yet to meet a person who’d want to. Inmates see commissary as a necessity and some of them will go to any lengths to get it. The penitentiary has a separate economy and the commissary is its national bank.
Need some antenna wire? How about some bleach to clean with? Legal work, tattoo work, artwork and radio repair. Tape, cigarettes, dope, pornography and a fresh set of bed sheets, the list is practically endless. Most of these forbidden luxuries and services can be obtained with commissary goods.
There are rules against trading of any kind within these walls, of course. But rules in prison are meant to be ignored, even by most guards. It’s hard to imagine that there’s a jail anywhere without some system of trade. Not even a society of disposable humans can shun an economy.
This past week I bought a set of bed sheets, some tape to fix my headphones, and some contraband vegetables. Altogether I owe about twelve dollars out and, generally speaking, convict bill collectors aren’t very civil. Even if I was willing to tough it without commissary for myself, debts must be paid because I simply love keeping my blood in the convenient container it comes in, so I stay diligent about paying my arrears.
Every morning around 5:00 the cage gates roll and workers are expected to go into the dayroom where they’ll be called out in small groups for various slave duties. Technically, first shift workers are the only ones allowed in the hyena den (ironically considered a privilege by the state) at that time of day. Actual dayroom time doesn’t officially start until seven a.m., but only an idiot would wait till then. Today is Commissary Day and order will be blasted to the side by desperation.
It is a colossal feat to exercise your commissary “privileges” here but it’s not intentionally designed that way. While it’s true they label commissary a “privilege” for propaganda reasons, you could justifiably mistake it for a night. It is a business after all, an easy, easy profit, like owning a monopoly on water in the desert. Semantics aside, no slavery institution has ever turned down free money, so the “privilege” is perpetual. Naturally, they are going to have policies and procedures in place to help you spend your family’s hard earned money; they just don’t have enough quality employees to enforce the plan.
The guards are every bit as apathetic about regulations as the prisoners, the difference being that most inmates craw the structure guards ignore. Predictability can become very desirable for people who control so little of their lives.
Order happens sometimes. If outsiders come to inspect our little hellhole or there’s a special visitor, suddenly everything is run by the book. On those rare days, commissary runs as smooth as ice. The lady working the store window doesn’t close up every twenty minutes for a cigarette break, the cell block sergeant keeps the line full and come the end of the day, everyone has the opportunity to exercise their “privilege,” even if they were the very last person in line.
To my knowledge there will be no special visitors today.
As I prepare to go out and face my trial, I consider taking a book for the all day wait. It’s a debate I have with myself every time I go to the hyena den. It’s a compulsive act for me and silly. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to read a whole two pages. If the word library had an antonym, it would have to be prison-dayroom. No two environments could be more opposite. Even if I were stone deaf, could be impervious to the explosive level of noise, there’s too much distraction. A small overcrowded room with combustible levels of testosterone and fear. Only a fool would allow himself to get absorbed in a book. Still, it’s a long, dry wait, especially for someone who avoids prison socializing.
The loudspeaker spits its first venom of the day and I stand at the gate. All twenty-one gates on the run are released simultaneously and I spring out like a greyhound, reaching at the last second to snatch the book on the end of my bed. I’m not the only disposable person in a rush; you’re either running or being trampled. Arriving in Hyena Hell, I’m greeted by chaos. Men arguing and shouting with murderous looks on their faces, will blood be spilt so early in the day? Violence is compulsory on Commissary Day, it’s like those bank panics back in the twenties; people killing each other to be first in line to withdraw money. That’s no metaphor, that’s exactly how it is in this dayroom every Commissary Day for the same motives.
I try to ask a few people what “line” system they are using today but everyone is preoccupied. Line system: As if there could be any kind of orderly line system in a room full of hyenas and sheep. The guards let us police ourselves in the dayroom. I think it gives them entertainment value. Pretty soon a guard will open the hatch to this cesspit and shout for ten inmates to come out and line up for commissary. There are at least 120 men jammed in here and every one of them covets a place among those first ten prisoners. Almost invariably those first ten guys will be big, black and gang affiliated. If one of them is white, it’s because he owes all of his money to a high ranking gang member.
On some wings the Mexicans are prolific enough that a sort of truce exists. Rather than have a bloody war over commissary rights, the black and Mexican gangs more or less share the desirable spots in line. But there are not enough Mexicans on this prison wing to make waves, so the first ten to twenty inmates out of the hyena den are usually black homeboys (Gang members).
I discover they’re going to use the newest “line” system today. Nine inmates give a tenth one their ID card (Your ID is like a credit card and there’s no purchase without it). In theory, the guy holding the ID cards represents 10 prisoners in line and its his job to make sure no other card holders cut in front of him. Not a terrible system, but let’s say a homeboy arrives into the cesspit late. If he were an honorable man he would find out who’s holding the last stack of cards and give him his own ID to get in line. However, if he were an honorable man, he wouldn’t be a homeboy to begin with, so naturally he goes to the front stack holders and slides one of them his card. It will likely be a weaker inmate whose card gets dumped in the shuffle. The law of the jungle is also the law of the penitentiary.
Which is why there’s so much hostility at 5:30 in the morning, every one of the homeboys want their ID card in the first stack. Ordinarily this isn’t a big problem; the toughest, most aggressive and highest ranking hyenas go first. But this morning there are more tough guy IDs than there are places in the top ten, so a storm is brewing. Technically, all gang members aren’t supposed to spill each others blood without permission and presently there’s only noisy posturing, but fragile young egos are at stake and violence doesn’t follow too many rules. Even one in this small room is as tensed as a sniffing prairie dog posed at the edge of his burrow.
Fortunately, the ranking predators huddle up and sanity triumphs for the moment. Money is, after all, the ultimate motivator and an early morning riot could cancel commissary in this mausoleum for weeks. Off we’d be in an economic depression. Gang leaders are master extortionists and would suffer greatly if there was nothing to extort. Making peace is merely a good business decision. Normal operations resume.
A crowd of at least 100 men are trying to make order by throwing ID cards and insulting salutations. I manage to shove my way into the eighth stack, which isn’t bad considering there are already twelve stacks. For the rest of the day I’ll need to keep track of the guy holding my ID, checking in with him periodically to make sure it hasn’t accidently fallen from his grasp.
Amazingly, I find a seat on one of the steel benches. A true piece of luck because the multitude of sweating bodies far exceeds bench space and then, many seats are held in constant reserve by the homeboys.
Yet another reminder of man’s beastly kinship: An innate need to define and defend a territory.
Not that my opportune seat is an untainted blessing; true, a lot of poor bastards will spend the next twelve hours balancing on their dogs, but sitting on steel for a dozen isn’t exactly comfortable.
Especially when we are so packed on the bench that no one is without a Siamese twin. What stinks even worse is that one of my twins obviously doesn’t splurge his commissary money on deodorant.
That’s common. Many guys come from poverty and their family can’t afford to help them much. If a prisoner has twenty bucks to work with, it won’t be pleasant sacrificing ten percent of it for inedible hygiene. And if the inmate has an addiction like tobacco, forget about it. Hell, he may buy a deodorant or toothpaste with good intention, but when the nicotine god howls and that hygiene item is the only thing of worth in his possession, he’ll surrender it in a heartbeat. If he’s lucky, very lucky, he may get half the price for his deodorant. Hygiene, postage stamps, and other inedible items have relatively little value compared to food and are named “junk money.”
So my left twin isn’t the only ripe individual in the room and its only going to get worse. Don’t know why I bothered to wear deodorant to the dayroom myself. It melts very fast in this east Texas steam.
It is almost 7:00 when the loudspeaker fails a legitimate “dayroom time” announcement. The pile of human flesh ripples as latecomers shove their way through. Again, ugly words and rooster postures are exchanged as more reprobates try to muscle into the front of the “line.” There isn’t a single space in the room where a man can stand untouched. Dozens, dozens, and dozens of shouted conversations competing with each other. My ears can only translate an insane roar. I take a deep breath, willing, begging my blood pressure to come down.
A bossman appears in front of the bars and magically has everyone’s attention. He smirks a hello and points a remote control at the televisions mounted up high, turns them on maximum volume. He asks what stations we want to watch. Jeers and shouted profanity are his only answer. Historically; thousands of prisoners have spilled blood over what snowy reception TV station to watch, but no one cares right now. Today is Commissary Day.
At 7:23 the same bossman appears with the same attitude. “Gimme ten for store,” he shouts in exaggerated southern drawl. The mood of the packed room heightens considerably as a head hyena leads nine swaggering reprobates out the door. It’s an early start and that gives most of us a chance to be cautiously optimistic.
Ten minutes later the first homeboy comes back toting two laundry bags full of commissary. Every eye in the room watches those bags. It’s an involuntary inmate reflex. No matter who it is holding it, boss man or convict, eyes just automatically follow those store-bought items. I believe it goes back to sensory deprivation. There are no bright colors native to prison. Inmates wear white, guards wear gray and the building is concrete, brick, and razor wire. Stare at those lifeless colors for a few thousand hours and our eyes will be strained for some color. Then there’s the sense of taste, prison genes strictly bland food. Eat penitentiary cardboard long enough and you become desperate for a new flavor. Combine all those shiny foils and tantalizing colors with the rich tasting goodies you know they contain, it just becomes irresistible for a prisoner.
The hyena stops at the bars and passes out a few ice cream treats to his minions. Later today when the temperature exceeds a hundred degrees, ice cream will seem like life-giving medicine. It’s standard etiquette to drop off a few ice cream novelties to your friends suffering in the hyena den and hope they return the favor sometime.
After dropping off ice cream, the gangster goes up the stairs to his cage. This is the only time a guy can come back to the cellblock and go directly to his cage. It’s a rule invented for security. Sending someone with commissary into the dayroom would be like dipping a bloody carcass into an alligator pit. Before they made that rule, prisoners would come into the dayroom with a sack full of food and a hyena with a razorblade would be waiting. Coming from behind, the reprobate would use the blade to slit open the sack. The contents would fall to the floor and dozens of scavengers would dive to grab something, anything.
Naturally people were hurt—and in a couple cases, killed. I think the administration must have tired of paying medical bills, so they made the uncharacteristically humane rule.
A few minutes later a second guy comes through with his commissary. If the lady running the store windows feels like it she can move the line fast. It’s not like you can stand at the window and leisurely choose. Your list must be turned in beforehand and if something you wanted is out of stock (a very common occurrence), tough luck. The line really moves if the window lady doesn’t take a lot of breaks and there’s not a bunch of prison employees cutting the line, but even when the lady is diligent, things often come to a standstill because the cellblock sergeant isn’t paying attention. It’s his job to provide the line with people hell, it’s his job to do a lot of things but sergeants are notoriously the most apathetic prison employee there is.
I’m hoping they’ll run another ten before count time, but it doesn’t happen. There are sergeants who will continue to run commissary during count and us dayroom dregs are praying we have one of those sergeants on dub. If not, the window will stay open for possibly hours without a customer, killing the chances of us non-gangsters to get in line.
Count time comes and we pair up to be counted. My head has already begun to hurt, I’m sweating profusely, and my deodorant has melted. The Siamese twin on my right is talking to me but I can’t hear a word he is saying. I nod and smile when the time seems right, but I’m really wondering how any one can carry such a long stream of uninterrupted dialogue with a complete stranger who hasn’t uttered a word.
The line stagnates for count. The temperature continues to rise in the dayroom sauna, the mass of bodies adding its putrid heat. I’m miserable. They finally run a third shot after count clears around 10:30. Ten minutes later they call chow and it is decision time. I’m hungry, very hungry. But to leave the dayroom is to risk getting shuffled back, not to mention the trouble you invite if you’re caught in the hallway without your ID card. I watch the guy holding my ID in what is now the fifth stack. He passes the stack to someone else so that he can go eat. That makes up my mind to stay and watch the new stack holder. My stomach actually growls a protest with the thought and the pounding of my head takes on a new velocity.
At 12:15 it’s count time again and we’re still waiting to see the fourth shot leave out. The temperature is over a hundred degrees outside, add at least another 20 degrees for this flesh-gorged, unventilated brick oven. I’m hurting. The noise and stress have translated themselves into physical pain, not just in my head, but my whole body. I’m starving and most of all I’m desperate to make commissary without a due as to whether it is even possible. It’s the anticipation that kills, I’m telling you. My only relief is the coolness of my sweat-soaked clothes and the beautiful air provided by fanning my book in front of my face.
At 12:40 the first fight breaks out. Surprisingly, it’s white versus black. Evidently they tried to shuffle the white guy’s IDs out of place and he squared off. For the first few seconds everyone allows the two to go at it, but then James, the white man, lands a blow that stuns the black guy, at which point James is enveloped. Eight to twelve black men kick and stomp him as he huddles against the wall. James is a gang member and I know two of his homeboys are present in the room. The whole point of being in a gang is protection, to keep a situation like this from happening, but James’ two homeboys stay well back from the beating and really, who can blame them? There are a total of seven white faces in a room with more than a hundred black.
James is rescued only by economics, as once again the head hyenas step in to restore order. Killing this white boy would cost them big money. The commissary will be quite elusive if a dead body is found in the dayroom.
James fares remarkably well. He never once loses consciousness, and though his nose is obviously broken and the rest of his face is a mess of cuts and lumps, he manages to stand up, walk to the sink and minimize evidence.
Shortly after 1:00 the fourth shot still hasn’t left the room but there’s optimism. It’s time for shift change in the store and there’s a new employee we’re all hoping gets assigned to our window. She’s been here almost three weeks and she has inmates using the word “wonderful.” She hasn’t developed the sneer or prison staff apathy yet. In fact, she’s been polite and works very hard. We’re not sure how long her gung-ho attitude will last, but at present she’s a heroine. Not only does she run the line with few breaks, but when it is empty she’s been known to call the cell block sergeant and remind him that the store is open, could he please provide some customers. She’s even known to stay her whole shift until nine p.m., whereas the other employees close before eight. I call her the Asian Angel and if she works our window we all have a shot.
Shortly after 1:30 they finally call the fourth shot out and the dayroom becomes cooler both in temperature and temperament. What room wouldn’t be more pleasant minus 40 sweating reprobates?
I decide to give up my seat and stand against the wall, untouched and away from the heat excreting bodies. I am still hurting, still sweating but not as profusely now that I’ve severed my Siamese twins. I still feel the underlying stress about making commissary but boredom has taken away the edge. I’ve been in this pus cavity for close to eight hours with few things but worry to occupy my mind. I look up at the televisions; one is tuned to a soap opera, which to my amusement has a religious following among the prisoners. It’s a wonder how they can be meted by a plot they cannot hear, yet they seem to think they know what’s going on and every weekday the same soap opera crowd gather to watch the silly melodramas aimed at bored housewives. These big, tough bruisers covered in hellish tattoos and killer auras, fighting tears back when a soap opera heroine dies dramatically in the hospital.
The other TV is tuned to Jerry Springer, which also has a zealous fan club. I think a lot of the guys believe the Jerry Springer drama is real. They holler at the TV, jump up and down become furious and laugh uproariously.
My idea of hell is being forced to watch daytime TV endlessly.
It takes less than an hour to call out the fifth shot. It must be her, the Asian Angel. I can picture her politely but firmly getting the job done. That leaves less than 30 people ahead of me. Though there are plenty of scenarios that can prevent me from salvation, I can’t help but let my hopes, and therefore my spirits, rise.
The three o’clock count begins and I actually lose consciousness for a couple of seconds, stagger. I’m feeling terrible. My stomach is queasy from hunger and though I’ve been drinking ample water, I haven’t urinated all day. I’m sweating it out before it can reach my bladder. My muscles are cramping from being tensed so long. It’s necessary for my mind to remain vigilant in this hostile slice of hell, but I wish my muscles didn’t insist on coming along for the ride. I tell myself for the seventy-seventh time I’ll never take on another prison debt, never be obligated to stay in this thunder dome all day again…
People seem to lie to themselves the most when they’re miserable.
The cell block sergeant takes mercy on us disposable men and continues to run commissary through count. I suspect the Asian Angel is somewhere in his decision. I should be excited, elated, whistling Disney tunes; its not even 4:00 and my odds are looking pretty good. But really, my physical misery has me cynical as sin. The only positive thought I can generate in this overcrowded room is that there are sixty less people than there were this morning.
They call last chow at about 4:50 and I want to go eat so badly but it’s crunch time. I’m ready to kill in order to maintain the place I’ve suffered for I feel a species of lunacy trampling through my head; the evidence comes from an unbidden smile at the thought of being mad.
The stack-holder tells me everyone in our stack is going to chow; do I want to hold the cards? Hell no I don’t want to wear sheets in a walk through the ghetto! With a picture of James’ swollen face in my mind, I reluctantly accept the role of line guardian. Not much worry about conflict, though; they’re serving chicken for last chow and that’s a special meal for prisoners. There are only a handful of us left in the dayroom missing out on that chicken.
The unthinkable happens: They call for another shot. There are not even ten people in the hyena den to fill a shot. All of us are either stack-holders or have already been to the commissary. The stack-holder in front of me tries to hand me his IDs… no way. I don’t even know what to do with all the cards I’m holding myself. All I know is this boss wants people for the line. So, I give him my ID card and walk out of the gate. Technically, I’m cutting the line and stepping on a lot of toes, but what else am I supposed to do, refuse commissary because everyone else is enjoying a good meal I reluctantly relinquished? I keep the other nine IDs and walk down the hallway with a shot of only three people.
I’m in line now. The real line. I’m nervous as hell being this close. It would destroy me if something happens to shut down the commissary at this point. It’s happened before. Once, I’d gotten so close there was only one person ahead of me…the computer system went down. After more than twelve hours of tortured wait and my objective right there! It hurt so much I almost cried. Another time wasn’t so bad. I had bribed the cell block sergeant with a bag of chips and a soda pop to put me in line, thus bypassing the hyena den tyranny. Things were going smoothly and only a couple of people stood between me and victory lane: until an inmate and another sergeant got into a fight in the middle of the hallway. To aggravate the situation, a guard in the picket accidently shot that sergeant right in the forehead with a tear gas canister, knocked him silly. Not that there’s ever been a more deserving target; the sergeant was and is a sadist.
When the gas started blossoming, I reluctantly abandoned my spot and sprinted the other way. They locked this pit down for a month and it was twice that long before I saw commissary again. It sucked, but the entertainment value kind of made up for things.
I lean against the brick wall, which, having absorbed the day’s heat, burns me. I place all of my weight on one foot and then the other, I squat to relieve the pain in my back. I cannot keep still. I try to quiet the visions of catastrophe, try to calm my mind. Please, I beg the gods, please don’t let anything bad happen. Guys are passing by, coming back from chow. I silently hand them their ID cards. They’ll have to sort the interrupted dayroom line from scratch. I almost feel sorry for them. Almost. My inner imp keeps tempting me to ask if that chicken tasted good.
Steadily balancing on the balls of my feet. Getting closer. Closer. One person away and I’m feeling like those hands over the mouth of quivery-body game show contestants you see on TV. The adrenaline is flowing and inhaling oxygen requires concentrated effort. The guy in front of me strings his laundry bag closed and at last I give the Asian Angel my list and she slides the credit card again, again. No answering beep. I feel my heart sinking. The magnetic strip has long been a network of scratches and today is the day it has decided to die. Starting from the top, my body gives in to gravity. My head sinks. My shoulders, my knees.
But I have named her well; the Asian Angel smiles at me and uses the newest addition to the commissary computer system, a red light laser scanner that reads bar codes. Like the one on the front of my ID! Hallelujah!
The whole process of bagging my groceries is harried and anti-climatic. It lasts less than two minutes. Twelve hours of agony for a two minute ride. I didn’t have much money to spend and I don’t exactly feel like doing cartwheels down the hall, but my bills will be paid and with the day’s trial ended, I can feel the medicinal value of relief washing through. My muscles spasm, but not unpleasantly and my headache and stomach pain are quiet.
I made it.
I made it through Commissary Day.