- Prison and Justice Writing
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- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
Rahsaan “New York” Thomas was awarded 2nd Place in Fiction in the 2022 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.
I sit in a dayroom with my back against the wall watching the movements of other people detained in a California county jail. Four Black guys of various ages at a small square metal table with a stool on each side play cards. In the corner, six Mexican men with bald heads and tattoos do burpees dressed only in white boxers, socks, and black slip-ons. A pool of sweat soaks the concrete floor under them as they prone out three at a time. Twenty feet away, an Asian guy with a man-bun and the sides of his head shaved, stands alone under a flat screen TV on the wall. He’s watching what appears to be a Korean soap opera. Sometimes I watch with him, reading the English subtitles.
Two White guys play chess sitting at a metal table on the opposite side of the room from the Blacks. They have long beards and hair, like biker types.
I have no place among any group here because no one speaks my language, nor can I understand theirs. Observation keeps me up with what’s going on and right now I see something unusual.
The Blacks are putting the cards back into boxes. The Ese stop working out. The TV cuts off. The Whites are packing up the chess pieces mid-game. Then they rise and head for the hallway where our cells are located, just to the left of the dayroom. I peek at the clock on the wall and see we still have an hour before count time. I’ve been in this county jail two weeks and have never seen this pattern before. Whatever it is, obviously I have to go back to my cell too.
I get up and follow the crowd. Without a chance to shower, the Hispanic guys go into their open cells, as does everyone else. I reach cell 14, where I am housed, and see the door is closed. I look around. The other cells are still open. I stand in front of the sliding metal door to cell 14 and observe everyone else being locked in. I shrug my shoulders and wait for a deputy to open my gate.
A tall deputy, middle aged, red hair and beard, with a slim build hosting a pot belly bulging against a tight uniform shirt, approaches. He’s saying something. I shake my head because I don’t understand him.
I sign, (I’m deaf), using American sign language. His mouth opens wide and closes fast while he points at me aggressively. This motherfucker is yelling at me.
I yell back with my hands, hitting the signs slower but harder, like maybe he’ll understand me.
The deputy points his flashlight at my face and turns the beam on.
I see black spots, shadows, and glimpses of the sheriff coming closer. Between blinking, he looks red.
I point to my ear and, using my lips, yell I’m deaf as best I can. I must sound inaudible because he’s still tripping on me. He just won’t listen to what I’m trying to tell him—that I can’t hear, that I couldn’t lock in because my cell wasn’t open, that I don’t want any problems.
I want to write him a note but my writing pad and pencil are locked inside the cell. I’m breathing heavy, bouncing on my calves. The deputy stands right in front of me with his light right up against my eyes. I can’t freaking see. I don’t know why he’s doing this. My blood boils. He grabs my left arm. I punch him.
I feel my fist thud against his cheek.
His arms wrap around my midsection. My feet lift up a moment before my back slams against the ground. I grit my teeth as pain radiates up my spine.
He’s trying to flip me over onto my stomach. I push him away.
Something hard crashes into the middle of my head. Between stars, I make out more deputies huddling over me. A steel toe boot kicks at my noggin.
I awake lying on a thin vinyl mattress covered by a white sheet, wondering who tucked me in. Blood stains my blue jail uniform, including the white t-shirt underneath. I scan the space and see, it’s not cell 14. I am in the hole.
I feel pain coming from all over my body and lift my shirts to reveal a footprint bruised into my left side. My head hurts and the world appears as if I’m seeing through the big end of a funnel, like my peripheral vision is gone and I can only look straight down the middle of life.
I touch the top of my head and feel a speed knot the size of a golf ball. It’s sore to the touch but I keep rubbing it. I need to clean myself but it hurts to breathe. I just lie there.
I doze off and awake to the bushy mustache of a Hispanic deputy staring through a square glass portal in the metal door the size of a CD case. He’s saying something I can’t understand. A slot in the middle of the door opens and I see a food tray slide through. I ease up, walk the three painful steps across the cold concrete floor to the gate in my socks and accept the gray meat in a congealing gravy, mashed potatoes and string beans. I want to ask the sheriff a million questions but I don’t have a pencil or paper.
After the deputy leaves, something slides into the cell from under the door. It’s part of a milk carton folded flat and tied to the end of a string. There’s a piece of paper wrapped inside a plastic attached. I walk to mini-window and look outward. In the cell straight across the aisle, a Hispanic looking man with the face of a clown tattooed under his eye looks back at me. He points to the string on the floor between our cells. I put my hand up with the palm towards him and squat down to retrieve the kite.
In tiny handwriting, it says, “This is Joker. I send mines. I heard about what the deputies did to you. Do you need anything?”
I stand too quickly and it feels like daggers stabbing me everywhere. I grimace, close my eyes and gather myself.
Joker’s still waiting at his window. I wiggle my hand in front of the portal, as if writing on air with an invisible pencil.
He pulls his line back. The flattened milk carton sticks under my door for a second then wiggles through. Minutes later, the line returns with a pinky-length pencil attached. I pick up the “wooden sword” and smile.
I spend the next few days resting, healing, sleeping off hours that feel like days, only getting up to use the bathroom, grab food trays and plot with Joker—each kite building into a plan.
On the fourth day in the hole, a deputy gives me an incident report. I read its claims and start signing frantically to no one. The report says I refused to lock up and attacked a sheriff. I’m being charged with battery and refusing a direct order. I’m pissed.
I lose track of time, date, space. I count all the lines on the ceiling again and again. I read the graffiti—Little Cuz was here, 13 forever—over and over. I pace and sign to myself.
One day, I see the red beard sheriff I punched at the gate. He’s staring at me through the portal. I jump up and put my back against the wall, fist balled. I’m shaking. He holds a pair of handcuffs up to the window. The tray slot opens.
I tense myself, trying to hide the quavering. He appears to want to cuff me up, but for what, I don’t know. Court? Another beat down? My big bro that did time told me about the “treatment” given to anyone who fights the deputies—weekly stomp outs.
I sign, (What for?), but he doesn’t understand. He waves the cuffs in the window again. A cell extraction, where you make them come in and get you, is a definite beat down. I put on my uniform, slip-ons and go to the tray slot, turn around and place my forearms through the opening. He puts the hard, cold cuffs on tight.
I stand upright as the door opens. I spin to face the deputy. He points and I go in the direction of his finger, which leads down the hall. He’s gripping my biceps, guiding me roughly. Anger braces me for the second whipping that may be coming when we arrive at where I imagine he’s taking me. I know he feels my fear but I can’t stop quaking.
We turn a corner and I see the room from where you board buses for court or prison. I sigh as he takes off the handcuffs and leaves. A little while later, another deputy puts different cuffs on and guides me to a bus. I sit caged in the back as the bus fills. Finally we pull off and stop at a checkpoint between two gigantic metal gates. A deputy uses a large mirror on the end of a stick to look under the bus. Then the front gate lifts and the bus drives onto city streets.
I watch people going about normal tasks in society through tinted windows from a hard plastic bench. My footprint wound still complains in shouts of agony with each jolt along the bumps in the road. I hold my eyes shut as the pain passes and open them to the sight of a young shapely lady wearing yoga pants, walking her poodle. A FEDEX truck pulls along the side of the transport, blocking the view. The driver gives the bus the middle finger as he passes on the left. I smile.
In the court building, a sheriff deputy guides me to a room where my lawyer sits behind a wooden table. Ms. Rosen has her long black hair in a ponytail. She wears a gray skirt suit and white collared shirt with red pinstripes. She greets me with a smile and signs, (Good morning).
I smile and sign back, (No morning good in lockup, but seeing you, morning looking up). ASL doesn’t use a lot of conjunctions or to be verbs. We don’t say: “Do you want to ride our bikes to the store to get some candy?” We say, (bike, store, candy). I continue my conversation with Ms. Rosen in this ASL manner.
(How you been?) she signs.
(Fight deputy because we not understand each other. Deputies bet me down. Charging me with assault.) My hand fly through the signs in excited, frantic movements.
Ms. Rose’s eyes soften as she signs, (Got Joker messages. Deputies drop charges. I tell them circumstances. They violate American Disabilities Act. no interpreters county jail violation).
(Why no interpreters county jail?)
(Money. You only deaf county jail. Hire interpreter cost lot for one deaf person. Deaf people half one percent of prison system. You leave county, interpret no work unless another deaf comes. Sheriff rather face lawsuit that do right follow ADA law.)
(No phones for deaf either), I sign, my anger visible.
(Must have phones. Will try injunction. Appeal could take years. Prison better. We won lawsuit and injunctions. Video phones and interpreters.)
(Get me out county jail. No communication. No interpreter, not safe.)
(Only way out win trial or go to prison.)
(Take prison now. Get deal.)
(Deal today 30 to life. Too much.)
(I take deal.)
(No. Too much.)
(I guilty. Must take deal. No deserve county jail death.)
(Not let you take bad deal.)
(Not safe for deaf. My choice. Take deal.)
Tears well up in Ms. Rosen’s eyes.
Purchase Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.