empty chair on a stage

William Myrl Smitherman was awarded First Place in Memoir in the 2019 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. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.

Where the Wild Things Are

The psychiatrist comports himself as a genial mantis, his long limbs snapping out to snare fresh friends for our secret and secretive community. He teaches at a university, has consulted with the FBI, and is nothing if not overqualified to be meddling in a correctional institution. His shoes are well maintained.

Our group meets in an abandoned classroom in J-building. The tables are pulled into an ugly diamond where 10 offenders gather, sometimes more or less, along with the head nurse and the doctor. Established as a “medication clinic” under the aegis of the drug company that supplies the prison, it is the first and only such group in Virginia. Its existence rests solely on the workaholism of our psychiatrist, who willed it into being.

“You may have noticed we have someone new with us today. Mr. Tamil, you have a background that is unlike any I have seen, and I’ve been doing this a long time. In here, there are some unwritten rules: What is said here stays in the group, there is no disrespect, and you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. Would you like to share with the group some of your story?”

Tamil was sitting at the opposing corner of the diamond. Dark-skinned and attenuated, his head was drastically torqued to one side. He could look forward but only momentarily, all the while appearing to struggle with an invisible and pitiless angel wrestling his head to the left.

“My name is Michael,” he said, speaking in an accent I associate with black people being interviewed on world news. “I came from Sudan, when I was young, to this country. I have been here many years. I was arrested 10 years ago for making a bad mistake. It was legal in my country.”

“You are welcome to share about your offense, but you don’t have to. Most people choose not to.”

“Okay, okay.”

“Is that a drug side effect?” Sex Offender asked. Pudgy and middle-aged, with a thin mustache and state-issued tortoise shell glasses, his voice whined. “Did that cause the problem you have with your neck?”

“It was the wrong medication,” Michael said. “They gave it to me at another institution. Treatment is helping now.”

Breaking and Entering had slid low in his chair next to me with his arms crossed, but this exchange brought him forward.

“The medication is called Trilafon,” he said. “I was on it, too. The same thing happened to me. It locked up my side. It’s got serious side effects. Luckily,” he gestured to the psychiatrist, “he was able to put me on something else and fix me.”

“Now, there are side effects,” the psychiatrist offered, “and there are adverse effects. A side effect; we don’t like to have them, but maybe someone can live with them if the medicine is doing them good. Adverse effects are different, and we will always discontinue a treatment if it has adverse effects. In the case of Trilafon, it has an acute adverse effect, where you are paralyzed. It can feel like you’re dying. In that case, we do an intervention, and there is recovery. On the other hand, there is a chronic condition which requires a longer term treatment.”

“Is that permanent then?” Sex Offender asked.

“It is much better than it was,” Michael said. “They gave me Trilafon for six years. It was very bad.”

“Trilafon can cause permanent damage in some cases,” the psychiatrist said. “It has also helped a lot of people.”

“So they made a mistake giving it to him,” Sex Offender said.

“It wasn’t the right treatment in his case. You never know for sure how someone is going to react to a drug, but there has been improvement. Mr. Tamil, would you like to tell everyone about how you came here? I think they could benefit from hearing about it.”

“Okay,” Michael said, then paused. “My village was gone.” “Your village was attacked,” the psychiatrist supplied.

“Yes,” he said. “Men came and they shot everyone. All gone.” His head turned forward as he spoke, then snapped back to the left. His hand was like a spider cradling his face.

“How old were you?”

“I was six and walked away, and I met others and we walked. It was very hard. We walked to Nigeria.”

“It was very dangerous?”

“Yes. We were hungry, and there was no water.” Hands fluttered, miming someone falling by the wayside. “There were lions. My friend, we walked together, and the lion took him.”

“How did you get away?” “I ran.”

“You don’t have to be faster than the lion,” Sex Offender said. “You just have to be faster than the next guy.”

“How old was your friend,” the psychiatrist asked.

“Seven or eight.”

“I bet the hyenas were even worse than the lions,” Sex Offender said. “They’re pack hunters.”

“No. The lion was worst.”

“Lions are pack hunters, too,” Grave Digger said. He sat beside Michael, dwarfing him. “It’s the females that go out and hunt. The males lie back.”

“That’s right,” Sex Offender said. “They defend their territory.” “Got it good,” Grave Digger said, nodding his huge head. “They got it real good.” “We walked for three months,” Michael said.

“Would you say that lions were the most dangerous kind of predator you encountered during your travel?” the psychiatrist asked Michael.

“Yes,” Michael said, looking at his shoulder.

“There are other kinds of predators,” the psychiatrist said. “Does anyone have an experience they could share about difficult situations they’ve been in?”

“Well, I was never chased by lions,” Sex Offender said, “but I was in the military for 20 years. There have been bullets flying everywhere, and yeah, it’s scary. I knew a lot of people that died on 9/11, a lot of good men.”

Diabetes was seated next to Sex Offender. He was tall, ruddy, and dilapidated. “Guy had a knife to me one time, in Atlanta. There are streets down there you don’t go down if you’re white, not unless you got 10 of your friends with you.”

Across from him, Grave Digger dandled his enormous head over the table. “Atlanta?”


“Didn’t know it was like that down there. I been to Atlanta plenty of times.”

“This was in the nineties. Anyway, a guy pulled out this switchblade on me in my window. He says, gimme what you got or I’m gonna kill you. I say, hold on buddy, I got my wallet for ya. It’s in my pocket here, can I get it? He says, you keep your hand on the window, get your wallet with your other hand. So I reach over like this”—Diabetes mimes extending his arm with cautious sloth—”moving real slow. I’ve got my .357 in the seat pocket. My wallet’s in the glove compartment. I reach down and get the gun and point it at him. Guy starts shaking like a leaf.” He shows us with his hands. “I gave him the same choice he gave me. He can get gone or die. I give him to the count of five, and he drops the switchblade and runs.”

“In Atlanta?” Grave Digger asked.

“Yeah,” Diabetes said. “So I count to five and shoot into the air. Man, if he didn’t drop to the ground before he was halfway across the parking lot. I never went round there again after that.”

“You felt in danger of your life,” the psychiatrist said.

“Yeah!” Diabetes said. “I’m six three. I’m a big guy, and this fella made me look small. Another time, me and my wife moved down to Winston-Salem cuz her dad was there. There was this arcade where the Mexicans came. They were all done up, gang members. I gave my wife a roll of quarters and told her to keep playing the game. Don’t look at them. These were guys that would kill you if you looked at them the wrong way.”

“In Winston-Salem?” Grave Digger said, his massive head like the bole of a twisted tree.


“I never knew it.”

“Yeah, they went through stuff on the counter and took whatever they wanted. They had food, bags of candy, and stuff from the shelves. The clerk held her hands up and didn’t say anything. Then they left. I asked her what that was about and she said they came in sometimes. She said, ‘It’s not my store. As long as I don’t say anything they leave me alone.’ I didn’t know it was like that. My father-in-law didn’t say anything about that before we moved there.

“So in the house I had a dog, our guard dog. We’d brought him with us. He started barking in the middle of the night, and I go to the window and see a bunch of cars pulled up in the driveway. It was the Mexicans. I thought they were coming to get us. So I put my wife in the closet and pile up the mattresses against it, and I’ve got the dog in my hand trying to shut him up. These Mexicans, they’ve got machetes and machine guns, AKs, rifles, you name it, and they’re all walking around the perimeter. I thought they was gonna break in, but they all got in their cars and drove away.”

“What in the world were they doing?” Grave Digger asked.

“I don’t know. God love it if a bunch of skinheads don’t show up an hour later. They got guns, cars pulled onto our yard, and a whole mess of them walking around, looking for something, and drove off. Then the Bloods show up. It was the longest night of my life.”

“In Winston-Salem?” Grave Digger said. “Wow! I never thought of that.”

“Yeah. Thing was, next week there was a policeman’s ball at the Denny’s. I go through the whole story about the Mexicans at the store and gangs outside of my house, and I said, ‘What are you doing about this stuff?’

“So the cop asked me, ‘Buddy, what kind of weaponry you say these guys have?’ And I told him again about the machine guns and machetes and whatnot. He pulls his sidearm out and puts it on the table and says, ‘That’s what I’ve got. That and the shotgun in my car. We could all drive down there now and start a fight, and by morning we’d be dead, and they’d still be there.’”

“If I had known what it was going to be like when we moved down there, we never woulda gone.”

Two men in their thirties sat across from me, Drugs and Probably Drugs. They leaned into one another and made small comments. Drugs rocked slightly in his seat. He had tattoos on his hands and face, arcane signs like a scattering of graffiti. His eyes watered. Probably Drugs was missing a tooth.

“I’ve walked into places like that,” Drugs said. “I’d go into the projects looking for drugs. I went in one time and a girl came up to me and asked what I was doing there and I told her I was lookin’ to get high, and we spent the next two days in a motel room on three hundred dollars. You can go anywhere if you act like you belong.’

“That’s true,” Grave Digger said. “Or if you know someone. You gotta be known.”

The psychiatrist’s glossy leather shoes crossed under the table. “Would you say there are a lot of predators inside the prison system as well?”

“Oh lord, yes!” Grave Digger said. “This place is full of them.” Others agreed.

“What about a place like the Wall?” The psychiatrist was referring to a now-defunct correctional center that had been constructed during the Civil War.

Tucked into a corner of our imperfect circle was Murderer. Incarcerated longer than any other member of the group, he looked like a wax figure that had been left in an unconditioned warehouse during the heat of summer. He was called upon, or volunteered, whenever there were questions of antiquity. He had lived in the Wall. No one else had.

“People behaved different back then, before cameras were watching everybody. You saw things happening.”

“When I got locked up,” Drugs said, “in the first two weeks I heard somebody getting raped. I saw someone hang himself, and someone get jumped by three guys and beaten with a broomstick, but the worst was hearing someone being raped. That sound . . . I will never forget it. A man screaming like that. I was new to the system and thinking, where am I? I got locked up over half a gram of powder, and I got 10 years, and I’m in a cell with a guy who killed somebody. I called home to my dad and was ready to cry, but I knew better. I told him I didn’t belong with these people, murderers and rapists and child molesters, and me with half a gram of dope.” His voice faltered. “I’ll never forget what that sounds like. And I was lying in the cell listening to it happen.”

“At Wallen’s Ridge,” Diabetes said, “there was a guy named Bolo who raped a bunch of people. The COs would bring ’em to him, knowing what would happen. They would laugh about it after. Certain ones, it was like a punishment. He would tell people who got in the cell with him, we can fuck or we can fight, and then I’m gonna fuck you afterwards.”

“Nobody did anything to him?” Murderer said.

“This was a big dude,” Diabetes said. “I’m six three, and he made me look small. He was,” Diabetes squared his shoulders, “you know, a big dude. You couldn’t fight him if you wanted to.”

“He better not go to sleep with his door open,” Murderer said. “Somebody would put an end to him.”

“Nobody did,” Drugs said. “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to live,” Murderer said.

“That was while I was there,” Diabetes said. “The warden and everybody knew about it. They were giving them to him. You knew what was happening.”

“What was his name?” Grave Digger asked. “Bolo, it was something like Bolo.”

“When I was at Keen Mountain,” Probably Drugs said, “there was a guy like that. His name wasn’t Bolo, but it could have been something like that. I heard it happening.”

“It does something to you,” Drugs said to him, “to hear something like that.” “Could a person have behaved like that at the Wall?” the psychiatrist asked. “No,” Murderer said. “It wouldn’t have been allowed.” “He was a big guy,” Diabetes said. “It doesn’t matter how big he is.” “Who’s going to stop it?” Probably Drugs asked.

“When I first came here I tried to break up a fight,” Sex Offender said. “I was walking on the rec yard and three guys jumped on one. I rushed over and tried to pull them off, and the next thing I know there are two guys pulling me back saying it’s none of my business. I came from 20 years in the military to this, and it’s a totally different way of looking at things. Nobody looks out for anybody. You have to watch out for yourself and keep your head down. The only people who stick together are the gangs. You can’t even count on your Christian brothers to look out for you.”

“A man like that Bolo is scum,” Murderer said. “He shouldn’t be walking around.”

“It sounds like he’s been in the system for years,” Probably Drugs said. “So how is it the younger generation is the problem? Why hasn’t anybody stopped him yet.”

“That’s a good question,” Murderer said. “I’m saying he should be dealt with.” “Who’s gonna do it?” “Somebody!”

Breaking and Entering swiveled in his seat to face Murderer. I was in between them. “I appreciate the sentiment,” he said, “cuz I was one of the ones who knew better than to scream. Nobody helped me. But I appreciate the sentiment. I can’t believe I’ve been listening to this for 20 minutes.” He rose. “I’ve got to go.”

The door closed quietly behind him. “Damn.”

“Okay,” the psychiatrist said, “this is probably the most emotional subject we’ve touched on in here. Trauma affects everyone in different ways, and I’m glad that the group was able to share so openly. I want to thank Mr. Tamil for his story, and the rest of you who shared your experiences. I’m sorry to say our time is limited, and we’re going to have to wrap it up.”

The group splintered into minor voices as we entered the hall that led to daylight. I overheard Probably Drugs telling Drugs that he “hated dudes like that, all talk, who wouldn’t bust a grape.”

I have never been a victim of sexual assault. A few penises have been whipped in my direction, but I never caught any. The thing about a man screaming remained on my mind, because I had heard it, too, several times. It was in Sussex 1, where we were locked in our cells for all but a few hours of the day. My celly made a joke about the sound, a man yelling over and over, and I took it as a joke. It occurred to me that what I was hearing could be the sound of a man being raped, but I didn’t believe it was, then or after. The group had caused that memory to surface, and me to wonder.

Twenty-three hours is a long time to be locked in a cell with a predator, and every day after. You don’t know what they look like, how they speak. Lions are preferable, for their honesty. Inconsistent, the predators among men may go months or years between hunts, or they may feed every night when there is opportunity. Unwritten signs and similes decipher predator from prey, and one transforms into the other when the setting suits. When I heard the man shouting in the silence of the dorm, I thought it was nothing important. Random noise is a staple of prison life. Was I hearing someone being eaten?

I believe we are defined more by what we have done than by what has been done to us. In that sense, we are more robust than those that prey upon us.

And what have I done?

My name is Robbery. It could have been something else, but that’s what it is.