More in the continuing saga of my misspent youth.
This is more 1st draft material from my memoir in progress, The Secret History of My Foolish Heart. As with most any 1st draft material there are bound to be errors and missteps. If you spot anything particularly boneheaded, please let me know. Corrections and critiques are welcome. I have tried to address sensitive topics such as race delicately and respectfully. If I cause any unintended offense, please bring it to my attention so that I might fix it.
Previous posts in this series:
This piece is offered in the spirit of prison reform, compassion, humanitarian justice and the acknowledgment of hard truths. It is personal, not necessarily political, unless you just must take lessons from it. I know how you hippies are. Anyway, here it is, hope you like it and thanks for reading.
As a study aid (heh), imo this piece is about how we choose to treat people. Put another way, how we choose to treat ourselves.
For context, I once did time in Alabama as a guest of the State circa 1971-'78. It left me with a life-long passion for prison reform and a thirst for justice and fairness. My first thought when first I laid eyes on Draper Prison, was that I couldn't believe that we put people in places like that. And I hope that's how this is taken. That is my message to you: can you believe we treat people this way? It's not like we don't have options. It's not like we couldn't do it differently. It's not like there is any excuse for it.
Though the son of a soldier and descended from a long line of Appalachian redneck farmers, I was nonetheless, in terms of my disposition and sensibility, a poet, artist, hippie and flower child (much to my father's mystified chagrin). This was not a secret to be shared openly in the prison environment, but rather a fact to be concealed to the fullest extent possible. Or so it seemed to my just-turned-twenty-year-old self right there at first. The sacred lore was that the only thing respected in prison is a badass. Brute force rules. If you can't be a major badass, you need to at least pass for badass-lite. All others were subject to ruthless exploitation and casual mistreatment which could range from the moderate to the severe. Draper Prison was no place for hippies.
But, as with every rule, there are exceptions. And of course reality is never so simple as the pablum we boil it down to so that we might grasp it. The truth of things is nearly always many-layered, convoluted, complex and contradictory, often to the point of being unfathomable. So we boil it down. There were some hippies at Draper but most of us were deep undercover, at least until we'd been there a while and started to loosen up some. Some few folks made no bones about being hippies and got along just fine in many cases. I had too much time to take such matters lightly. I'd seen too many hippies rudely mistreated. I didn't deny being a hippie but I didn't go around proclaiming it either. There were no peace signs around my neck. It seems a violation of my personal values as I look back, and I suppose it was. I still held to all of my pre-convict flower child idealism as best I could, but was generally too afraid, considering the environment, to show it too overtly. A peace sign would feel too much like a target. I lacked the bravery for it. I acted hard.
As a new inmate, I was assigned to five-cell, the least desirable address at Draper according to most of the experienced cons. It housed the highest percentage of youngsters, who were also most likely to be farm squad workers, so the place tended to be dusty, dirty, sweaty, loud and rowdy most of the time. It was also something over 90% black, which philosophically did not bother me at all, I was a freedom rider baby (spiritually speaking), which was also something I had to be careful about how I expressed. But as a practical matter, in such a racially charged atmosphere, a five-cell assignment raised the level of difficulty somewhat for pale faces such as mine. Of course I wasn't one of those uncool (and seemingly ubiquitous) racist white dudes, but that's not immediately apparent to just everyone. My cell mates figured it out quickly enough though. They wasted no time in fact. I got along alright, considering. Race was a funny tightrope for me at Draper, but I became much closer to the Black Muslim Imam at Draper than you'd think possible. Reality bends if you lean on it hard enough. Race is only a barrier to the extent that we allow it.
Most, but not all, of the white dudes I met in prison were racist, ranging from mildly so to racist as hell. The exceptions were the hippies, mostly. The institution of prison itself reeks of racism. It's a racist culture. That makes it tough on everyone. Everyone suffers for that. I believe prison reinforces racism in society.
The cell-blocks were two-story affairs, all steel and concrete with stairs at the front and the back, and rows of bunks down either side. At the far end on the ground floor were the shower stalls, sinks and toilets, a necessary place but one of dread as well. Bad things happened there sometimes. It was furthest removed from observation and a place where people could be caught vulnerable and cornered like rats. I never felt easy in there and quickly learned to never shower without someone strapped and watching my back. There were times I violated that rule of course, but never with ease. And Draper was considered safe compared to those two fine institutions at “the bottom,” the thought of which was never far from mind. One or the other of those vacation spots was port of call for all ships leaving Draper for major rules violations...which honestly could happen to anyone at any moment.
The citizens of the nearby town of Atmore would some years later demand that the name of the prison be changed as they no longer wanted to be associated with its dark and sinister reputation. I only wonder why it took them so long. Holman, a scant two miles away, and the home of Alabama's death row was considered the end of the road for Alabama convicts. If you screwed up at Atmore, the next to the last place on earth, they sent you up the road to Holman and that was it. Both prisons were referred to collectively by prisoners as “the bottom.” In the State of Alabama you couldn't get any lower.The entire prison system was bristling with home made knives called shanks. This seemed to be, to some degree, tolerated by the prison administration – though many would consider that a shocking claim. Violence between inmates was too often viewed as something of a sport. Who got who? What were the odds? The only time they got very serious about curbing violence was when it was directed at a guard, an employee, or God forbid, a free-world visitor. They would burn your ass for that. Still, people sometimes did it. Some people have a really hard time following the rules.
The older of the two, Atmore, was an ancient, filthy, rat-infested, run down hard labor prison farm run by a staff that was famously cruel and harsh. Holman was just lockup, and a cleaner and more modern prison – but even meaner in some ways. Prisoners at Atmore were trotted out to the fields that rolled on for mile after hopeless mile at dawn of every weekday. There they were worked aggressively until dusk (can see to can't see) under the watchful gaze of COs recruited from the local rednecks. Gangs of thirty or so mostly black men were ordered around and watched over by white redneck farm boys on horses armed with shotguns and rifles like some sort of crazy-assed vision of the pre-Civil War south.
This field labor went on year round. The farm grew all the food the inmates consumed but their money-maker was sugar cane (and yes, prisons are more about making money than you'd think - slave labor is an amazing competitive advantage). I bet I've heard upwards of a thousand convicts curse those cane fields. The work varied by season but was never easy and ended up breaking many a strong man. Some people on the farm squads at Atmore screwed up on purpose to earn a transfer to Holman where all they had to worry about was getting stabbed to death, stabbing being the chief pastime and most popular sport at Holman which was known as “the slaughter-house of the South.” Alternatively, Atmore prisoners would sometimes do crazy things like sever an Achilles tendon to avoid working in the fields. Better to be laid up in the infirmary for months and limp for the rest of your life than to hit those hellish fields one more day.
And some people probably belong in prison, but not as many as you might think. And for those for whom there are no better solutions, there should be a place, but it should be a nice one. One geared to a good outcome for all parties. We should be just, kind, merciful and humane. For everyone's sake.
* * *
Survival, for me, as for so many of the imprisoned, was the acting role of a lifetime. To suddenly be thrust into a dog-eat-dog environment where strangers of a distinctly predatory nature studied you for signs of weakness was quite a fall from grace for a peace-and-love pacifist hippie. From Woodstock, where the universal love was palpable, to a land of steel and stone that was universally hostile and threatening. All in less than two years time, I went from hippie heaven through the halls of heroin to this misbegotten circle of Hell, Alabama.
Convict culture is cold in a way I would hope most people never experience. Many people do though, experience some form of it, touched directly or indirectly by it in the troubled homes or broken institutions where they grow up, which is part of what feeds this culture of poverty, crime and desperation. We don't do enough to meet the needs of ordinary people, especially the poor. Everyone abuses the poor, even the poor. Why do we mistreat each other so?
Parents with broken dreams take it out on their children. They drink to excess or use self-destructive drugs and neglect one another. Society makes an elaborate game of discriminating against the impoverished, punishing them for the effrontery of their poverty, while lowlife capitalist bottom feeders prey on their misery. Husbands beat their wives for no reason but frustration and ignorance. Trapped, bewildered and wrenched with pain, they reach out for someone to blame. Children join gangs for protection and belonging.
Margaret Mead was right, our society is not getting the TLC it requires in order to flourish. Not by a long shot. But the rich ones are so jealous of any flourishing at the bottom, and so stingy with the TLC. In their paranoid and penurious minds, any and all such must be earned! They quite like the people desperate and panicked...and poppa needs a brand new yacht. And so whole swathes of humanity are relegated to the ranks of the unwanted, unassisted, uncared for, and barely tolerated. Cause poppa needs a brand new fucking yacht. Everybody knows the deal is rotten.
But I digress. Prison society, purely as a matter of self-preservation, demands a certain macho toughness. Not everyone strutted around like badass bullies, but many did. Some of them were pretty badass too. Others were dumb and dangerous kids. All of these guys were to be avoided in my book. Of course that wasn't always possible. One had to deal with some serious boneheads on a pretty regular basis. This is where some good acting chops came in handy. If you could pull off 'bad enough to be problematic' you could make the best of some dicey situations. Otherwise, you fight - or lose all your convict cred, a devastating thing for anybody but especially for someone with a long sentence such as yours truly (20 years). A loss of convict cred made it hard to exist in prison society. So I acted and I bluffed and I fought only when I absolutely had to...though I did pour some serious energy into learning how. I feel quite fortunate that I wasn't killed. That distinct possibility was something I lived with on a daily basis. I slept with it. Showered with it.
Against some fairly crazy odds, and not to put such fine a point on it, I lived to become known as a 'heavy', an influential inmate. In my case, not so much for my macho persona or dangerous reputation, but more for my ability to get things done and make various sorts of connections. I could and did talk to anyone, eventually even learning to speak to the psychos and socios with some success – without getting killed anyway. I knew everyone and I managed to speak to 'the man' without surrendering my convict cred. When people snitch, people know. When they don't, people know that too. I was known not to be a snitch. That made me trusted and useful to both sides in different ways. I was able to get some favors done for people sometimes, and occasionally keep the odd bad thing from happening – like a sudden transfer for some poor sap headed for the killing floor. No one snitched on but a life saved. I carried with me the guilt of the one life I didn't save. I guess I was always trying to make up for it. I was always looking to save somebody's life.
From a comment in Floja Roja's wonderful F-Bomb:
A non-comedic response. (11+ / 0-)Only after I had made this uncharacteristically serious and quite possibly inappropriate response, given the general light-heartedness of Floja's series. And only after it was hanging out there all undelete-able and all did it occur to me that that event way back when was, in a way, me trying to make up for my past. Trying to make up for the time I did not step between an angry man with a knife and his victim. Something I may never live down. I keep trying to save lives though. I guess that's not such a bad thing. I'm not claiming that much success.
The question about my scariest moment brought on some reminiscences. This is about one of the scariest times in my life.
Please don't take this as me trying to make myself seem a badass. I am not and never was. Though I did have occasion to become well-acquainted with some of those guys, and I did play one in prison from time to time as became necessary for survival under hellish conditions.
There was this time when I talked an angry convict, armed with a big-ass knife, out of killing a mutual friend after having stepped between them unarmed and feeling altogether naked. He was a Vietnam vet with anger issues and a very strong man. Much stronger than I. Dude was a serious badass – and that's within the context of, you know – prison. His name was Mike. He'd taken his false front teeth out. That's when you knew he was really mad. I pleaded with him. I made excuses for the other guy. I begged.
It took an agonizingly long time (under the circumstances) but I talked him down.
It wasn't long after that, that the dude whose ass I'd saved showed his utter lack of appreciation by seriously dissing me in front of an entire cell block of convicts – 200 souls or better...most of whom were paying careful attention. I verbally dominated him and backed him down in front of the world. I punked him. I felt terrible about it because he was my friend, because it wasn't the way I preferred to relate to others and because I realized the implications of it for him. But he left me no choice. That's what I had to do to survive. That's what I had to do to avoid his fate.
Posted reluctantly, against my better judgment and after having droonk way too much ween, cheers mateys.
P.S. Mike was later killed by an even bigger badass at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama.
Moderate intelligence can seem like pure genius in certain circumstances. I was in for probably a year to 18 months or so before I had attained some status in convict society. I learned to master, so to speak, that environment, as well as one can anyway. However unfortunate, on however many levels, it was in many ways simpler than the free world. Things got a little easier for me as I went along. I was learning to do good time, which amounts to letting it do the least harm. The likelihood of my being attacked became somewhat less, but only somewhat. Every convict deals everyday with the stupid and crazy, and the natural fact that any one of us was likely to crack at any moment. Nothing is ever assured in a place like that. It's a lot of pressure being a convict.
At first I was like a minnow dropped into a tank of piranhas. I was an unknown nothing with no armor other than my wits and sparkling personality. And believe me, that left me feeling pretty naked. Naked as a poet in prison. There was nothing for me to do but hope to bluff my way through. And that's what I did. Though I was also just pretty damned lucky. Especially considering what a natural born wise-ass I am. Being a wise-ass in prison can get you killed.
* * *
One day I was laying on my bunk reading when a noticed a smallish older white dude with '50s hair, walk into the front of five-cell. He was an obvious convict, dressed all in denim. He seemed perfectly at home but I'd not noticed him before. He turned and scooted up the front stairs and unlocked and opened a padlocked steel doorway at the top of the stairs that looked like a hatch on a submarine and disappeared inside. He'd had a stretched canvas under his arm. This definitely peaked my interest. I debated for a moment whether or not I should indulge my curiosity, one never knew what one might be getting oneself into, curiosity kills convicts too, but in the end I skipped up the stairs and knocked on the hatch. '50s hair opened the door, “Can I help you?”
“I couldn't help but notice you had a stretched canvas.”
“Are you interested in painting?”
“Yes, absolutely, very much!”
“Well come in then,” he moved aside as I entered. He closed the door and latched it. There was an office to the right and a small class room to the left. They seemed like caves or chambers in a submarine. It could have been designed by an old submarine engineer. It had all the ambiance.
“I never even knew this room was here.”
“Yeah, if you don't notice the door, which blends in pretty well, you'd never know. But anyway, welcome to the Draper Art Guild.”
“No muchacho, not at all. You have found the cocoon from which all great art at Draper springs. I'm Leslie P___, Art Guild President.”
I had instant mad respect for a guy who went by Leslie in that fucking joint. He was either insane or one bad little fucker. The truth of course is always more complicated than it might seem at first pass. Yet, there you have the broad strokes. Leslie was a sensitive artistic soul to be sure, but also a bit of a serious badass – which always helped when Draper was any part of your current address. And possibly half crazy like most of the rest of us. So I had found a role model for becoming a badass artist. Heh. I learned much at the feet of that old convict. I was a bit of a failure as a badass though, the local standards being so high. I tried to make up for my shortcomings with good acting – and was successful to some extent. Lived through it any way.
So I got my easel, a place to paint, some basic supplies and I painted for the first time in years. I'd always been fascinated by drawing and painting, and fooled around with it from childhood. I remained untutored and tried to ignore the fact that I wasn't very good and to simply enjoy the process and draw from it some of those things I knew were so abundantly available there, if hard to find. The meditative aspect of it freed me momentarily from my chains. It became a form of escape that did no one any harm, and did me a lot of good. Once I fell into the canvas, I was anywhere but where I was.
This newly found outlet was salvation for me in many ways. The quiet time allowed me to gather my scattered self a bit, even as I avoided the raucous testosterone fest raging just outside the door, and to heal or soothe in some small ways some of the more recent trauma in my life. It was a pleasant and engrossing way to lick my psychic wounds from all those crazy slings and arrows, and I was glad to have found it. It carried me, however briefly, away.
* * *
In addition to me and Leslie there were three other members of the art guild: a skinny dude with coke-bottle glasses, an archetypal country boy and a guy named Carlos, who did not appear in any way to be Hispanic. So who knows where he came by the name. Carlos was a large, strapping backwoods redneck, as ignorant and as strong as a mule, and with pronounced undiagnosed and untreated anger management issues. But you know, the artistic type. One day this walking wall of muscle tried to kill me with a ball-peen hammer.
It turns out that I allowed myself to become a little too comfortable there in the art guild. It felt like a safe haven, an oasis of semi-intellectual, semi-artistic endeavor, with no one to bother or threaten me other than a small handful of somewhat like-minded individuals pursuing a similar path to quasi-monastic enlightenment and self-improvement through the pursuit of art and the higher mind. However, it seems that not everyone saw everything just exactly the way that I did. Take Carlos, for example.
As I began to relax around the art guild cave, I started speaking more and more freely. I wouldn't think of doing this in general population where I was careful to stay in character and maintain my role as convict, junior grade, 1st degree stone criminal, baddass-lite. But I got too comfortable in the art guild, apparently, and started inadvertently revealing bits and pieces of myself best left unmentioned and unacknowledged. I let my poetic sensibility show, exercised my vocabulary a bit, and it looked a lot like showing off to Carlos, to whom the use of anything more than two-syllable words was highfalutin. I didn't fully appreciate Carlos's low threshold of tolerance for frustration, or irritation, or much of anything else. Turns out he was a bit of a walking time-bomb.
One day I was in the art cave painting on a canvas and resting my arm on an old state issue pillow to steady it, when Carlos came in. We exchanged a few words, friendly words to the best of my recollection. I don't really recall what was said, but something ticked him off. Or so I assume, for he grabbed a ball-peen hammer that we used to build stretcher frames for our canvases, screamed that he was going to kill me and came in no uncertain terms for my hide. I didn't know, was it something I said?
I grabbed the pillow I'd been steadying my hand with and used it to block the blows that were now raining down upon me like a biblical curse. I scrambled, and dodged, ducked and dove, twisted and bobbed and ran for my life covering every stinking inch of the art guild cave numerous times until Carlos eventually exhausted himself beating on my pillow with his hammer. All that muscle and all that rage burns a lot of energy fast. Everyone else had, wisely, bailed out of harm's way.
I looked at Carlos who was all red-faced and bent over a stool gasping for breath, still glaring at me. “What the fuck Carlos? What did I ever do to you?”
With trouble, he said, “You think you're better than everybody else.”
It hit me like a ball-peen hammer, instant karma, pure Zen. I realized several things at once, the first of which was that he was right. I did harbor a sense of superiority as both a defense mechanism and as a totem of another and better life to which I felt, on some level and for some damned reason, entitled. My well-meaning family and friends often observed that I did not belong in there with all those criminals. Yet there I was. I was struck for the first time with how ludicrous it was for me to maintain that conceit. Here I was after all, a convict like all the rest, just another law-breaking schmuck caught in the gears of the machine. Not to mention how irritating it must be to be around someone with such an attitude. Another realization was that one should be careful of appearing to shine too brightly for it can disturb the darkness in others – jealousy and envy can be very dangerous things. Not to say that was Carlos' problem. It's true nonetheless.
For these reasons and others it's sometimes best to be thought dull. You don't necessarily want to impress just everyone with your intelligence. It's sometimes best to just shut the fuck up. Though I confess, I've always had a bit of trouble with that. Another realization was that enlightenment can come at you from unexpected directions, and may be delivered by the most unlikely teachers. I had just been enlightened by a profoundly ignorant and overly aggressive ersatz Bodhisattva with a ball-peen hammer and a lack of self-control. The final realization was that, if one is fast enough, strong enough and sufficiently well-motivated, pillow trumps ball-peen hammer. It's like paper covers rock.
I managed to smooth things over with Carlos. Leslie helped with his general disapproval of violence in art, or in the art guild anyway, and Carlos and I maintained something of a shaky peace between us – though I kept my eye on that fucker from that day forward.
* * *
A lot of what I had to do to survive in that savage environment was ugly in my eyes. It is ugly to me as I tell it now. But I can't escape the knowledge, the very troubling knowledge, that this and much worse than this is a daily reality for a lot of people around the world, mostly innocent people, mostly victims of circumstance or evil regimes, mostly no different from you. And certainly no different from me. Not to say that some aren't guilty because that is also certainly true. That is true both in the realm of the caught and that of the uncaught. In a kinder society, perhaps one based on sharing and mutual concern, it would be different. We don't have to do this to ourselves. It's only been done this way out of the selfishness of the few. We should take better care of each other.
But I did what I had to do. I was a tender-hearted hippie acting hard. It's the same for everyone in prison. You won't make it if you aren't hard – or can't at least fake it...and that's a large population of people who can't hope to make it there. And yet we continue to feed them into the meat grinder. We ought not to do this to people. We debase ourselves when we do, and set ourselves up for further failure.
I hope when I tell these stories of what it was like for me as a convict in the state of Alabama circa 1971-'78, that it doesn't come off as some kind of twisted braggadocio, for it is the opposite. It is a confession. But also an indictment of a people who would subject their fellow human beings to such brutal conditions for any reason. Society would be unimaginably improved if we would just stop it. Stop letting the few drive and do what's best for everyone. Do what's best for all of us.