A Funny Story
Nick Browning was awarded honorable mention in Fiction in the 2020 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.
This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.
A FUNNY STORY
I was sitting in a hard, plastic chair, handcuffed behind my back. Next to me was an acquaintance similarly situated. Across from us were a desk and two correctional officers, one a captain who had been summoned by the other. The latter had accused us of being mid-debauch in a dark room when he walked in, and we were now trying to spew half-truths, distortions, and outright lies to save ourselves. Our performance lacked a certain rhetorical flair.
“So, you’re telling me you were just adjusting your belt?” asked the captain.
“Yes, exactly,” I responded.
“I guess you’ll tell me next your hard-on was just a part of my officer’s imagination, right? And that your pal’s head just happened to be in the vicinity? Checking for crabs, perhaps? Or was it lice?”
“. . .”
To avoid any undue melodrama in my story, for now, I admit the officer did see me getting a blowjob, though a rather uninspired one. And, lest you think I’m the kind of macho, self-loathing gay who strictly pitches, allow me to mention that I had just finished servicing the other guy. However, as luck would have it, the overly-curious officer decided to walk in the room while my acquaintance was returning the favor.
Oddly, I was the only one eventually sent to lock-up, our institutional shorthand for disciplinary segregation. Prison is as full of absurdities as any milieu, but it took me a little while before I could chuckle about that one.
My acquaintance and I had been in the school that night, a part of the prison with a lot of empty classrooms and no security cameras. We both helped set up the Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. (Ironically, these were the preferred places to acquire drugs – the dealers knew they’d always have an interested customer base there.) Our assumption had been that the officer was too fat and lazy to make his rounds, which, any other night, would have been absolutely correct.
Alas, the officer bestirred himself enough to see what shenanigans his charges were getting up to at the most inopportune of moments. Five more minutes and I’d have avoided this entire embarrassing vignette. But, where would that leave us? I’d have nothing to share. I’d have to give you something more cliché, like a stabbing story involving a toothbrush shiv or a foiled escape attempt.
Although the officer was adamant he had seen my dick, he couldn’t say for sure where the other guy’s mouth had been. Of course, there would seem to be only one explanation when happening upon such a scene, our limp attempts at crafting plausible excuses notwithstanding. The captain, in his Solomonic wisdom, decided that the suckee was guilty of indecent exposure, while the presumed but unproven sucker was free to return to his tier unticketed.
The process of going to lock-up was a novel one for me at that time. Some inmates made it their summer home, a little pied-a-terre for when the daily grind of general population became dull. I was not a devotee of that philosophy. I had been in the system for almost two years since I was fifteen, and had yet to make the trek.
For those unacquainted with the finer points of institutional living, one might be tempted to ask if going from one cell to another is much of a difference. After all, you’re ultimately still in prison, right? I’d respectfully disagree, as would anyone else who has spent time being an honored guest of the state.
In a population cell, you came out for rec hall morning, afternoon, and night, for a total of around nine or ten hours. You could shower, get on the phone, watch TV, and socialize with your fellow delinquents. You also walked to all three meals, and had time outside every day. In the cell, you had a TV, CD player, radio, fan, commissary food and whatever illegal amenities you chose to buy (a cell phone would run you hundreds of dollars and was quite a risk; a little weed was much cheaper and easier to get). My own vice, so to speak, was reading. I was a glutton when it came to books; it was the outlet for all of my otherwise unsatiated intellectual appetites.
On lock-up, every single one of those privileges was taken. They left you in a cell with a mattress and dirty sheets that weren’t your own. That’s assuming, of course, that the previous occupant hadn’t stolen them when leaving. After you were there for a couple of days, you’d get a change of underclothes from your property.
Beyond that, you could order necessities such as toiletries from a limited commissary, but no food purchases were allowed. Showers weren’t daily, at best three times a week – when they weren’t cancelled from lack of staff to transport inmates to and from the showers in cuffs. If you weren’t suicidal upon being sent there, wait a week.
After I eventually stammered out a few “buts” and “uhs” to the captain’s last query, he found himself tired of the one-sided verbal jousting and called for officers to take me to lock-up. Had I thought it’d make a difference, I’d have fallen to my knees and begged. I’d long ago lost any self-respect.
“Now, look, my officer says he saw your pants down. That’s all there is to it. I have to believe him and sign off on the ticket,” said the captain.
“Yeah, but as a Muslim, that kind of thing is prohibited, So, I mean, I wouldn’t even be allowed to do it if I wanted to,” my acquaintance replied less-than-convincingly, though entirely for my sake at this point. It was rather chivalrous of him. But, no matter how screwed I was, bringing in the imagined deities of any faith didn’t seem wise. The captain remained unmoved.
I was escorted to lock-up by two guards, a scrawny white guy who seemed embarrassed by the whole thing and one of the more attractive female guards in the prison. She was rather bemused by it all. In time, I’d come around to her view; but I lacked such a perspective in the midst of what I presumed would be a fatal blow to my prison career.
We didn’t talk during the walk to the lock-up tier; I couldn’t muster the inspiration for any charming witticisms. The prison itself was over half a century old, with additions being built throughout the decades. Lock-up was in the oldest part of the prison, an ill-maintained, moldy, and pungent wing. Its state wasn’t helped by the lock-up inmates’ affinity for throwing feces and other bodily fluids for lack of more constructive recreation.
When we reached the tier, they had to strip search me before I was tossed in a cell. At seventeen, more people had seen me naked than had I acted the lothario for decades in the real world. Stripping in front of strangers a couple times a week certainly helped to cure any excessive tendencies towards introversion.
I was now completely naked, standing on a collapsed cardboard box that kept you from touching the floor but served no real purpose, being as dirty as the concrete. It was a welcome mat for the tier, one could say.
“You know you can’t keep that watch, right?” said the scrawny officer.
“What? Why?” I mumbled, unfamiliar with this particular provision of lock-up policy.
“Look, I don’t make the rules, don’t ask me.”
“But you’re sure about it?”
“Just gimme the fucking thing,” the pretty one chimed in.
Were I more inclined to the fairer sex, I’d find her feistiness alluring, I found myself thinking despite the circumstances.
Losing the watch was a surprisingly painful indignity. I guess the full gravity of the mess I’d created was starting to sink in. Until then, I had a delusional hope that I’d talk my way out of it. I’d always over-estimated my abilities in that regard, despite years of evidence to the contrary.
Not knowing the time is a particularly insidious aspect of institutional life. It’s taken for granted by any normal person, as for them it’s inconceivable not to have half a dozen ways of knowing the time in any given place. Those Rousseauian types who would advocate a return to an era without a slavish devotion to the clock have obviously never spent time in a cell with circadian-disrupting lights that never turn off.
Sans watch but otherwise again clothed, I was handcuffed and marched to my new home. I belatedly realized that I might not be placed in a cell by myself. With the ticket I had, a cell buddy might present complications. Of course, maybe I’d luck out and he’d be cute and down to party, but, given the demographics here, he was more likely to be middle-aged with a pot belly and bad teeth. Not exactly erection-inducing.
Thankfully, my last-minute realization didn’t come to pass. I’d have the cell to myself. It was about as filthy as any other on seg. The big difference between it and a population cell was having bars for a door instead of solid metal. As someone who was stubbornly attached to as much peace and quiet as I could find in such a place, that presented a problem. Every little noise from anyone on the tier would be audible, I realized.
Once I was locked in the cell, the female officer told me to turn around so she could remove the handcuffs.
“Stay out of trouble,” she said with a glimmer in her eye. I liked her.
“Uh, can I have some sheets for the bunk?” I asked, eyeing the torn, flattened object that only slightly resembled the mattress I had in my old cell.
“Sure, I’ll tell the tier officer,” said the scrawny one. He wasn’t much older than me, and, bless him, he might have thought telling the tier officer would be just as effective as getting them himself. If nothing else, sticking it out for twenty years to get his pension would impart a more knowing cynicism.
The next hour was spent pacing the cell, trying to figure out what the hell I’d do next. Of course, strictly speaking there was little I could actually do. Maybe strip naked and hang off the bars screaming, but something less strenuous seemed advisable. Lying still wasn’t yet an option, and so my current amusement won by default.
I lacked the wisdom to accurately view the night’s events. Not that I have much in the way of it even now, but I have tried to cultivate a healthy dose of detachment: it makes the slings and arrows of entirely deserved fortune easier to bear. Reading a little Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus would have proved instructive that night.
But, the stoic outlook being untenable, I had to focus on the mundane. Specifically, I realized I had a horrible case of blue balls. The officer had been rude enough to interrupt my fun, and I’d now have to, quite literally, take care of the problem manually. Nothing adds to the aesthetic of a run-down, dirty prison tier like an inmate standing over a toilet bowl jerking off into it.
Feeling slightly more at ease, I finally lay down in the bunk. I still didn’t have sheets, and the mattress no doubt had a lovely variety of contaminants on it, but it was either that or the floor. The last two years of my life had been accompanied by something of a constant internal monologue, even more than humans are normally prone to. Faced with tedious conversational partners, I instead bounced around my head arguing with different facets of my personality. I had delusions of grandeur, imagining my thoughts were singular. In reality, they were little more than the pretentious musings of an ill-stocked mind. Still, that distinct sense of identity, as being set apart from most of the other inmates, was one of the things that had kept me going. I’d work out its more problematic implications when I wasn’t facing my so distant catastrophe.
“What’s up, Brandon? I’m surprised to see you. This place ain’t your style,” a voice from the cell next to mine called out after I had stared at the top bunk for what seemed like hours, but was probably less than ten minutes.
“Who’s that?” I asked, perplexed that anyone would know my name on the tier. I wondered if he also knew why I was there. The concrete and steel were inexplicably permeable to rumors; prison was high school with knives.
“It’s Rico. Remember we were on C-1 together?”
“Oh yeah, what are you doing up here?” I replied, before realizing what the logical response question would be. Before tonight, I had managed to keep my little happenings discreet, and I wasn’t eager to face inquiries about it.
“Man, they ran down on me when I was charging my phone and I didn’t have time to break it up and flush it down the toilet. I just bought the motherfucker, too. For four-hundred.”
“Is that what they’re going for now?”
“Yeah, the officers are getting greedy. I used to be able to sweettalk the girl I knew from my neighborhood growing up to do it for two.”
“Capitalism, baby,” I replied, it sounding less forced in my head.
“. . . Yeah, uh, I guess.”
Someone hearing Rico’s voice called to him then, asking if he “still got some of that stuff,” putting blindingly obvious emphasis on the last word, referring to drugs or something else illegal. And, as the tier officer could hear all our conversations, it struck me as an injudicious code. However, none of us was in there for making good decisions.
Temporarily distracted by his new customer, I had avoided any questions into why I was there. What the hell was I going to say? The truth? If only. It wasn’t as bad as decades ago perhaps, but I imagined a series of unfortunate events once word got out. I’d be robbed of my commissary, TV, and anything else valuable I owned. Would a gang beat me up for shits and giggles, and then pass me around? Would I have to “check-in,” meaning request a transfer to protective custody? I had to stop imagining hypotheticals; it was taking me to progressively darker places.
It was fortunate that Rico was my immediate neighbor, and that the cell on the other side of me was empty. As his name indicated, he was Hispanic, and definitely a pretty boy, vain and obsessed with his appearance – which was, in fairness, striking. He was about a year or two older than me, and he had a life sentence like I did. I harbored a suspicion he indulged in deviant tastes, but had never been able to verify it. And, given how much trouble my libidinous urges had gotten me in that night, it seemed prudent to leave that question unexplored for as long as we were on lock-up.
The tier was starting to come alive. It had been around seven in the evening when my little hedonistic bacchanal was interrupted, and by then it was perhaps around ten. I knew that it at least wasn’t midnight because we would have seen the new officer come on the tier for count and shift change, but, without my aforementioned watch, I was only guessing.
I soon learned that all of us on seg were like cooped-up farm animals: when one made a noise, all the rest felt the irresistible urge to join in. Questions that had gone unasked for hours all had to be posed simultaneously, and their content was about as vapid as one would expect.
As I’ve continued my meanderings across the prison system, I’ve learned to shut out some of the cacophony, reading even with morons screaming inanities across the tier. However, at that point it was still a skill I very much lacked. And, even if I had been able to ignore them, I had nothing to do but sample a little of each ongoing conversation.
Lock-up was its own ecosystem, filled with mores as strange to a general population inmate as prison would be to someone first coming in. Well, I exaggerate, but I do want to stress how foreign seg was. Some guys spent most of their sentences there. They’d come with a manageable period, perhaps ninety days, but, through continuing to get in trouble, would quickly turn that into several hundred. Even being locked in a cell almost twenty four hours a day presented varied opportunities for mischief, as I’d learn in my time there.
There was the eloquently named “shitting down” of cell neighbors or officers, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. I leave the details to your imagination, a forbearance of which you’re no doubt appreciative. Or an inmate could play the pyro and start a little fire in his cell with smuggled-in batteries and a staple (putting the former against a metal surface and pressing the staple to the other sides would make enough sparks to light a piece of paper). Or you could just do the usual infractions, which were wholly lacking in imagination: fight your cell buddy, call the officers mean names, maybe even try to kick the latter while they were escorting you handcuffed. It was like creating your own personal Jerry Springer episode.
Thankfully, Rico was suitably engaged for the rest of the night and didn’t pester me with any more questions. As I said, procrastination seemed like the best course for answering questions about my ticket. I feared anyone listening in would feel compelled to serenade me with homophobic slurs as I tried to sleep.
Shift change came and went, and yet the tier was still going strong. I realized that they might not have the same ideas I did about the importance of a good night’s sleep. Had I a book to read, I’d have been much more relaxed. Instead, all I could do was worry about the ramifications of being outed. No doubt the story of my debauchery made the rounds of the prison before the night was over. My property had probably been thoroughly robbed by my cell buddy, Tommy, when he packed my stuff up. I had just moved in with him, and, egged on by the tier and perhaps the officers, I figured he’d feel no compunction in helping himself to an assortment of my meager possessions. When I returned, what was I going to face? Ostracism, I imagined, and that might prove to be the least of my problems.
The tier stayed up talking until breakfast. That was going to be the new normal, talk all night and sleep the morning and afternoon away. It didn’t bother me per se, but my body clock would have to adjust.
Rico and I chatted a little in the the ensuing days. He, mercifully, never asked why I was there. The fact that he didn’t should have made it obvious that he knew, but I still wasn’t thinking too clearly. And, had we decided to broach the topic, a nuanced, private conversation would have been impossible. Even speaking quietly, half the tier would be privy to the details.
So, we instead talked about a little of everything else, whatever flitted through our teenage brains. Once you got past the bravado, he was surprisingly sharp and funny.
“You’re telling me you’ve never heard of `the stranger?’” asked Rico.
“No, what the hell is that?” I responded.
“It’s when you sit on your hand until it falls asleep and then you jerk off.”
Coming from a relatively bourgeois background, I often had trouble relating to my compatriots, especially in the early years. I liked playing the game of imagining someone I’d met in there had been born in my zip code. So much about them would be different. Given the same opportunities I had had, would they have pissed it all away and ended up in prison?
For many, I thought it was rather unlikely; they’d probably have gone on to be doctors and lawyers, chasing the same consumerist nirvanas as all the friends in my old life. Once I got that through my obstinate skull, I became more of a social animal. It would be hackneyed and ridiculous to claim Rico was the spark of inspiration for all of my later (slight) maturation, but he made for an instructive example.
Bereft of my beloved books, there was little I could do but talk to him and some others, and luxuriate in the dispiriting ambience of the tier. I adapted remarkably quickly to the rhythm of it, much as I did upon my initial entry to prison. For anyone who has thought, “NO, I couldn’t serve a life sentence; I’d kill myself or find some other way out,” I think you’d be surprised.
Some indeed don’t make it, but our species’ blind, mulish desire to keep existing has propelled humans through more dire circumstances than twenty-first century American prisons.
The only thing on my calendar in the near future was my ticket hearing. Aping the justice system that placed us in prison, I’d have my day in court, in front of an officer who would decide my fate. I could even appeal the verdict, if I felt so inclined. Of course, getting it overturned was unlikely; that process was chimerical. But, the appearance of due process kept the ACLU happy. And, in my case, where I was certainly guilty of prohibited conduct, even though it’d be legal in the real world, I didn’t have a chance. Not that I knew that at the time.
In the interim, I was picking Rico’s brain about the intricacies of the hearing process, as he was a frequent habitué of the dingy conference room they used for it.
“How long will I sit here before the hearing?” I asked.
“Well, it depends. Lock-up’s not real crowded right now, and so I think you’ll go before the end of the week.”
“Okay. And how do I prove the officer lied about what happened?”
“I mean, what if I didn’t do what he said I did?” I quickly added, trying to fill the awkward pause. I was getting perilously close to the topic Rico had so far diplomatically avoided. However, I had to figure out what strategy to take.
“Look, unless you have some evidence, they don’t give a fuck. This is your first one, right?”
“All right, you’re considered ‘infraction-free’ and that means they can’t give you more than thirty days.”
“Yeah, I wasted mine on a pissy little disrespect ticket a couple years ago; had I known, I’d have stabbed a motherfucker instead.”
“Now there’s a thought. You do have a charming way of turning a phrase,” I replied, in a way I hoped he’d take well.
“Fuck you, too, Brandon. We can’t all be douchebags with sticks up our asses,” he said with a laugh.
I had been there for four days, since Friday night. I was hoping Rico was right that I’d see the hearing officer by the end of the week. In the interim, Rico had given me a pen and paper, and I was madly scribbling away. It was ridiculous we weren’t allowed to get any books out of our property while on lock-up. The library was supposed to send a cart up every other week, but the librarian was rather lazy, doing nothing to shatter stereotypes about state employees. I wrote down the minutiae of my day, sprinkled with florid, pompous musings, prefiguring the autofiction vogue by a couple of years. Or so I later thought when recalling my efforts (never actually re-reading them helping in the delusion). I may not have been a precocious Knausgaard or Cusk in anyone’s mind except my own, but it did help to fill in the endless hours.
My mood was starting to improve. As I focused more on the day-to-day of getting through, fears of whatever awaited me upon returning to population faded. My ability to step outside of myself returned a little, and I could laugh at how asinine I’d been. My acquaintance and I had fooled around before, and had gotten more reckless each time we got away with it. In hindsight, we really should have postponed our rendezvous for a more auspicious set of circumstances. Society had stripped us of every luxury except time, and yet we were rushing into it like we didn’t think we’d still be there next week – or next year or decade. But, when you’re young, dumb and full of each other’s come, what can one expect?
The madness of the tier provided fleeting entertainment. It wasn’t particularly edifying, but I was happy to indulge in my taste for the lowbrow and leave the high for another day. There’s always be time to read, say, Ulysses, that overrated tome by a syphilitic, self-important Irishman.
The verbal dexterity of those on lock-up was amusing. I might even be tempted to call it Joycean, if I hadn’t just shat on that author. They had ingenious ways of attacking or dressing down the officers. The goal, of course, was to provoke the latter into saying something back. As soon as an officer took the bait, the entire tier would erupt with voices, borrowing and combining every imaginable slur. Had my stay been an extended one, I think the novelty would have quickly worn off. As it was, I could revel in the exuberance of it or count the ants on my floor.
After exactly a week on the tier, two officers came to my cell early in the morning.
“Wake up faggot, you gotta cuff up.”
I’ll admit, it wasn’t the most soothing alarm clock I’d heard in my life. More importantly, most of the tier was sure to have overheard the epithet.
“Come on, hurry up, cupcake,” the other one chimed in. Both were burly, and, judging by their all-black uniforms, were part of what was called the goon squad, a mostly sadistic group of officers who were tasked with the particularly challenging tasks – cell extractions, breaking up fights, and dealing with lock-up inmates. I missed the smartass female officer, and even the scrawny white kid was looking appealing now. Lamentably, much like your family, you can’t pick the officers who guard you.
Being early morning, we didn’t encounter too many people in the short walk from the tier to the hearing room. And the few we did didn’t pay me any attention.
I thought for sure I’d be pointed and laughed at by all and sundry. Had my imagination gotten the better of me in picturing what awaited in population?
The hearing room was furnished prison chic: cheap wood laminate conference table, low-grade swivel chairs for the staff, and plastic chairs for the inmates. On the concrete walls there were the terrible motivational posters the prison had a fondness for plastering everywhere, often the same ones seen in grade school. We’d all obviously ignored them then, and our second viewing seemed likely to prove as effective.
The officer conducting the hearing didn’t look promising. He had a military-style buzz cut, and it seemed to silently radiate the hardness of his ass.
“You know why you’re here, right?” he asked, starting before I had even fully sat down.
“Well, yes, an officer overreacted when I was adjusting my belt,” I replied.
One of the escorting officers snorted behind me, and I saw the hearing officer glance at him and give a nod of agreement. I quickly realized that my cover story had the stench of bullshit all over it.
“That’s not what the ticket says. Do you want me to read it to you?”
“No, I saw what he wrote already.”
“I thought so. Do you have any evidence you want to present to me in your defense?”
I had imagined the hearing going much differently. I was going to convince him that I was being unfairly maligned, that this was a clear miscarriage of justice. But, when it came time, I folded rather pitifully, realizing that Rico was right about my chances.
“Um, how can you be sure he’s not lying?” I asked. It was the best I could attempt, surrendering even the pretense of the moral high ground.
“I’ve been doing these hearings for over two decades, son, and I can just tell when one of my officers isn’t being truthful.”
“Oh. But how – “
“Listen. I spoke to the officer who wrote it, and, frankly, I believe him. Therefore, I’m going to find you guilty.”
“Let’s see, you’ve never had a ticket before, and so the most you’re facing is thirty days on seg. How does fifteen days and another fifteen on cell restriction sound to you?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s fine,” I stammered.
“How nice of you to agree. Look, young man, I don’t know why you’re in prison, but you can’t be doing this stuff here. You need to let Jesus in and be saved by him; you’ll see how he spoke against this kind of thing. It’s not the way he wants us to act.”
“Okay thank you sir, I will,” I answered, cravenly declining to debate biblical exegesis with him. If I had told him I was an atheist he might have ordered me drawn and quartered.
“Take it seriously. I’m saying it for your own good. You don’t want to go to hell for this, do you? Officers, he’s finished. Take him out and bring in the next one.”
When I got back to the tier, I was bracing for a reaction to what the guards said. Much to my surprise, there wasn’t much of one.
The tier was loud as always, full of people screaming about this and that to amuse themselves. I was shocked, disappointed almost, that I wasn’t the focus of a barrage. Hadn’t they heard?
Rico called over asking how it went.
“He didn’t even give me the full thirty days. The last fifteen I’ll do on cell restriction,” I responded. Cell restriction meant that you went back to a population cell with all of your stuff, but you could only leave for meals and showers. Compared to my current accommodations, it’d be luxurious.
“Man, shit, that ain’t bad. You’ll be outta here in another week. They gave me a-hundred-eighty days for the phone, and I’ve still got two more months to go.”
“Damn, I feel for you.”
“No, I don’t mind it here. You get used to it,” he said.
I passed the rest of the day killing time as best I could. Now that I knew how long I’d be there, I started to calm down even more. Instead of a terrifying void of lock-up time looming before me, I could now count on two hands how many more days it would be. And my little trip had only reinforced my earlier idea to not make a habit of visiting. I realized I’d have to show a little discretion in choosing my assignation spots in the future.
The next week unfolded much like the first. I wrote feverishly, borrowing more paper from Rico. I told him I’d repay him, and he told me not to worry about it. However, I knew I’d send him some stuff once I got off lock-up. Inmate workers who did their best to clean up the tier were general population, and they could usually smuggle small food items or postage stamps (the currency of prison after cigarettes were taken out) with them when they came to work.
I had thankfully found a little routine. It was dreadfully dull, but there were worse things in the world. I wrote letters to everyone I knew, even though I wouldn’t be on lock-up long enough to buy stamps. I figured I’d just send a bunch when I got all my property back.
I heard a few guys somewhere on the tier talking about me, using fairly straightforward gay slurs. How would they treat me if we came face-to-face? All in all, though, I thought it’d be worse. One called over a couple days after my hearing.
“Hey, Brandon, look, what the fuck you here for? I been hearing bad things.”
“No, it’s not like that, the officer was lying on me,” I replied with as much conviction as I could muster.
” . . . For real? That’s fucked-up.”
“Yeah, you’re telling me.”
“You’re gonna have to deal with the ones talking shit.”
“Uh, I know,” I said, rather meekly. The idea of going to look for trouble over completely true rumors was laughable. Looking back, he knew that as well as I did; he was saying it to try to start something.
But, more importantly, were my obfuscations going to work? Was there going to be enough ambiguity in the situation that I’d emerge relatively unscathed?
The rest of the week went by quickly, and I was delighted to wake up the last day of my lock-up time. I had dozed off after breakfast, getting up a few hours later.
I said my goodbyes to Rico, and again told him I’d send him some snacks when I could.
“You don’t got to do that. You know I’m always hustling something.”
“No, I want to. You kept me sane these last two weeks.”
“I don’t know, I think you were already crazy.”
“Yeah, definitely, but at least I didn’t start smearing shit on the walls. That wouldn’t have been a good look.”
“Nah,” was his laconic reply, and what more was there to say?
When the tier officer got around to hitting my cell door, it felt surreal to walk out without being cuffed. After only a little over two weeks I had become accustomed to being restrained before walking anywhere. Like I said, humans adapt quickly
I walked to the property room to pick up my stuff before going back to population. When I got there, I had the unhoped-for good fortune of seeing that almost all of my possessions did indeed get packed up two weeks ago by Tommy, my then-cell buddy. I had expected too little of him, apparently.
It was convenient we were on good terms, because they hadn’t filled his cell yet, and I was going right back there. It didn’t always work out that way, but my trip had been brief compared to most lock-up sojourns.
Coming back on the tier was surprisingly comforting. I had lived on it for a little under a year, after having spent the first eleven months of my sentence in a county jail. I didn’t think it would feel something like a homecoming, but it did. Most of the inmates were out in the rec hall, and so the tier was quiet. My once and future roommate was in the cell, though. He was about forty, and had been in and out of prison for years on mostly petty charges. This time he had gotten drunk and smashed a storefront window, getting charged with attempted robbery and given a ten-year sentence for his trouble. Considering the state of my property along with everything else, I was happy to see him.
“Oh shit, what’s up Brandon? Back already?” he asked when the door opened.
“Yeah. Thanks for taking care of my stuff.”
“No problem. I forgot a few things, but I put them in an extra pillowcase and they’re sitting there on your bunk.”
“Cool. cool.” “So, uh, how was it?”
“That fucking officer lied on me; I don’t why he had it in for me,” I sputtered, neglecting to realize that I hadn’t answered his actual question at all.
“Yeah? Fuck ’em, all they did was give you a little vacation.”
By the time I finished unpacking, the rec hall time was almost over. No one but Tommy knew I was back yet, and I wasn’t feeling eager to advertise the fact. I’d walk to dinner, though, and face whatever came. I wasn’t much of a fighter (which is to say, I had never been in a proper fistfight in my life, and somehow still haven’t). But, I’d try not embarrass myself even more by hiding. I needn’t add coward to the ample ammunition I’d given everybody.
The doors opened for dinner, and people started streaming out of their cells. I walked out, trying my best to adopt a firm but not belligerent walk. Given my tendency to switch effeminately, I was probably a dismal failure. Regardless, no one said anything to me. There were whispers and snickers – most real and unimagined. When I got to the chow hall, I saw someone mime a blowjob and point. But that was it. Where was the confrontation, the entire chow hall yelling and jeering at me? Where was the gangbanger walking up to me, calling me a fag and spitting in my face?
Then it dawned on me: people didn’t care. I was, contrary to my firmly-held belief, not the center of the universe – my little Bildungsroman epiphany. I was a momentarily funny story, somebody to laugh at until next week’s idiot (no relation to Dostoevsky’s) had made his appearance. Apathy had won out over bigotry.
Returning to the cell, Tommy started talking to me again. I took it as a further good sign.
“Are you goin’ to the rec hall tonight?” he asked. “No, I still have to do fifteen days of cell restriction.” I responded.
“Huh, sucks to be me, eh? I guess I won’t be getting any privacy for a little while.”
“Yeah, I’m really sorry about that. I actually really need to get on the phone and let everyone know I’m okay after that officer put me on lock-up for no reason,” I said, still thinking naively that I could make my version of the story stick by dogged repetition.
“Look, Brandon, can I give you some advice?”
“Shut the fuck up with that ridiculous story. Everyone knows what happened. You know how many guys have gotten caught over the years fooling around? I could tell you stories about half the people in the chow hall. So you sucked a little dick. Who hasn’t in here?”
- From the Prison Writing archives: “Solitary Confinement” by Brandon Noojin
- Learn more about advocacy for incarcerated LGBTQIA+ people
- GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, “LGBTQ Youth and Adults in the Prison System: Mitigating Harms and Advocating for Alternatives”
- Learn about solitary confinement reform
- ACLU, “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States”
- New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, #HALTsolitary Campaign