The box: Life in prison, according to Inmate #565862

Editorial note: Given the state of the aptly named “criminal justice” system today, we think Inmate #565862’s harrowing story should give anyone pause. Is this really what we want to be doing to millions of men, sometimes based on allegations alone?Eds.

I’m the man in the box,
Buried in my shit,
Won’t you come and save me,
Save me.
—Alice in Chains, “Man in the Box,” 1991

I’ve had some long nights in stir. Alone in the dark with nothing but your thoughts, time can draw out like a blade.
—Ellis “Red” Boyd, The Shawshank Redemption, 1994

Recently, while bouncing around this, my favorite website, I happened upon the phrase “carceral feminism,” a term with which I was not familiar. After a cursory investigation, in which I found almost as many definitions for the concept as there were sites referencing it, I concluded that it essentially concerns the push by feminists and other sympathizers to “criminalize” male behaviors and involve the state in policing them. Nearly all of the discussion focuses on what gets criminalized. As an innocent man accused of domestic violence who took his case to trial and yet was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to a year in jail by a jury of “peers” for a first offense, my interest is to draw your attention to the other half of Dostoyevsky’s famous coupling: the punishment.

This is my nightmare:

It is late and I am lying on the floor in my “boat,” slang for the plastic half-coffin “beds” that are used, after all the bunks are filled, by those of us left over standing around holding our dicks.

I took to calling them “canoes,” but it never caught on.

On both sides of me are two other “boat” riders. One guy’s White, mid-40s, balding, and goes by the nickname “Gator” because—so he says—an alligator bit off half his foot when the two had a falling out years ago in Florida. Up until his arrest—he’d been in the “box” going on a year and a half when we’d become cellies—he was spending most of his time huddled under an overpass with other homeless. Now he sleeps upwards of 20 hours a day, rising almost exclusively to eat, shave, and choke down one of the thrice-daily antipsychotics that keep him in a state of near hibernation. When he’s up, though, he’s a lively, glad-handing, tall-tale-spinning lunatic savant who is forever thrusting his half-foot into your face to prove that he had, in fact, once been partially consumed by a large reptile. The rough edges where his first two toes and the ball of his foot used to be do resemble teeth marks, truth be told.

On the other side is a Black guy, also mid-40s, completely bald, slightly overweight, and about as soft-spoken as a cat burglar at a funeral. He’s friendly, generous, almost retiring, and, like my other bunkie, seems about as dangerous as a cotton ball on a pillow. “Mark,” a transplant from the deeper South to the African-American community of Poisonville’s West End—he’d either emigrated too far north or not far enough—is my frequent spades partner in the endless games we play for hours at a stretch every day, a distraction from the bigger “game” we’re all individually playing collectively: “Killing Time.”

Both men are awaiting trial for murder.

In my canoe, I am dressed in long johns and cocooned from head to almost toe (a foot sticks out) in the single, reedy, olive-drab-green blanket provided to me courtesy of the state. It’s freezing. Outside the cell, the guards sit dozing in winter parkas at banks of monitors. But don’t call them “guards”—the correct term is CO, for “corrections officer”—or they’ll front you with some dumb-shit schoolyard taunt like, “What the fuck d’you just call me?!” Which then presents you with the near-impossible-to-resist temptation to tell said “guard” what word you thought was most appropriate to capturing the above-average dickishness of your below-average, knuckle-dragging human zookeeper.

And that ain’t ever gonna be good for you.

My cell—the official term is “dorm” or “pod,” though a “box” by any other name is still a six-sided enclosed space—is my fourth and final home during my trip through the Poisonville criminal justice system. Fifth, if you count the two days I spent in solitary during one of my many moves. The dorm, J4 4B, is one of two that are mirror images (the other being 4A), which together make up one of the eight or so “dorm couples” on the fourth floor of our Hall of “Just Us,” which is only one of several interconnecting buildings forming the criminal justice leviathan that is located right smack in the center of the beating heart of our downtown. It is a three-city-block, above- and below-ground labyrinth of such disorienting complexity that Daedalus would envy its design.

This may sound like I know where I am, but I have no idea. It isn’t until much, much later, after I’m free, that I get a sense of where I was when I was in my various cages in our human zoo. Originally I had walked through the front door of a seventh-floor circuit (felony) courtroom, but after my jury found it amusing to give me a little rest among the mad—and far from the madding crowd—I was quickly ushered out a heavily guarded side door and elevatored down to a sub-basement of the Grim Factory where me and the other bullheaded Sons of Minos were processed, sorted, and placed into a cubicle in a Seventh Circle corner office.

Our job was simple and our schedule fixed: belabor our penance every minute of every day.

4B, like 4A, like all the other A-and-B couples on all the other floors, is a rectangle of 55-and-a-half size-10 Florsheims in depth by 26 across, and I should know. I counted it once a day, if not 50, and it troubled me in the way that a fly bothered Mother Norman that the dimensions were not symmetrical. The front half of the dorm—the “common area”—has two long metal dining tables, each seating eight uncomfortably, and two matching circular tables, which together seat an additional eight. In the back are the three rows of connected bunk beds with metal dividers, enough to sleep two dozen men. Next to the bunks are a row of three stainless-steel sinks followed by a chest-high concrete divider followed by three matching toilets, two for No. 1 and one for No. 2 (and woe be it to the man who gets those confused!), and in the very back are two individual, semi-enclosed showers, one for hygiene and one for less-than-hygienic purposes. From floor to second-story ceiling, the walls are made of interlacing concrete blocks painted eggshell, and the floor is poured concrete. I sleep on a boat in the common area because the cameras can only view so far back among the bunks, and that is where bad things happen.

On any given day we are an unhappy “family” of more than 30, counting those of us riding “boats” up in the front.

The showers are push-button, and in any other pod, the button-pushing gives you about 30 seconds of ice-cold water sprayed at torrential pressures, a half-minute swim against a dam-burst of pine needles wrapped in icicles. The guards—excuse me, COs—will tell you that the water gets hot, but I’ve never seen a guard taking a shower … and yes, that is something many, including myself, would very much like to see. In our pod, though, the water is hotter than a Tahitian atoll at bomb-testing time because one of the guys has busted it so that it runs constantly, allowing the water the time it initially needed to warm up. But its strength is also its weakness: the noise fills the room 24/7 with an industrial “hiss” that sounds like a fireman’s heavy hose turned directly on your ear. Now, late at night, as I curl into a tighter fetal fist in my canoe, the “hiss” is a monotonously steady (and angry) background tune—one scratchy note of Muzak in an elevator going nowhere—to the cacophonous mumble of noise made by the men back in the bunks talking, shooting dice shaved out of the “balls” from the jail-issue roll-on antiperspirant, or working out with weights made from mop handles and garbage bags filled with water and wrapped and tied in sheets.

Sometimes men scream out for no apparent reason, or moan, while the rest of us turn inward and silently wish we were somewhere, anywhere, else.

It’s well past midnight now, long past when the harsh halogen light of day gives way to the softer mood lighting of night, though it is not dark. No, never dark in the box. Then the walls might fall away and a man might get the idea that he’s no longer inside the funhouse of our nightmares, a place where every day is literally worse than the day before. Most of the men are awake, time in the box having some effect on a person’s circadian rhythms; that, or maybe the shadows, and the guards’ retreat away from them, afford a man the chance to feel himself freer … but certainly not “free.”

The din the men are making has a particularly needling undercurrent of anxiety tonight, as the guards had tossed the pod earlier in the evening after a few of the men smoked a contraband cigarette back in the showers, one that had been brought in by a freckled-faced White kid barely in his 20s who worked in the kitchen and was fighting a charge that had made the local news, though I can’t recall now what it was. I don’t think it was murder—though folks awaiting trial for capital offenses are allowed to work in the kitchen while those of us serving for “gender” crimes are not. Somehow the guards got wind of the smoke, and when the men refused to name names, the bulls ushered us across the hall into a large “recreation” room with a small bank of monitors on one wall—and little else—that are used for visiting day. No, it’s not like on TV where we all sit around in a big room—cons, family, and guards—and have ourselves a festive time or you and a loved one talk on phones on either side of a Plexiglas divider. In the Poisonville jail, you video chat.

In addition to a plastic, “pillowed” mat, bed linen, and a canoe if bunks aren’t available, inmates are given a plastic collapsible bag about big enough to hold one of those standard-sized boxy TVs that you only see now in old shows on your new flat-screen TV. In the bag are stored all of your worldly possessions. The guards had tossed the mats and linens and dumped the contents of all the inmates’ bags on the floor, creating a kind of post-tornado-through-an-office-building swirl of legal papers, letters, books, drawings, and all the other detritus collected by us, society’s dregs.

And, of course, as everyone picked through everyone else’s stuff, disagreements ensued and tempers flared. Two men in their late 20s or early 30s—that still-full-of-piss-and-vinegar age—who in the past had been friendly for all outward appearances, raged at each other—one on each side of the center row of bunks—over a “missing” mat. Apparently one felt the other had stolen his mat during the ensuing cleanup, and the case of mistaken mat identity was only contributed to by the fact that the guards had returned us to the pod in small groups, thus allowing the first to pillage the last, if that were indeed the case.

As I lie squirming in my canoe, the oppressive noise of the room pressing down on me bubble-wrapped in my blanket, the vision of the man who lost his mat pushes away sleep. I see him, utterly defeated but unwilling to concede defeat, straining against being held back by a bigger, older, and well-respected inmate, nearly in tears as his voiced cracked when he finished each exclamation about reclaiming his mat with “my nigga!” As in “You know that’s my mat, my nigga! I put that mark on the pillow, my nigga! Give me back my fucking mat, MY NIGGA!”

He didn’t get it back. You get called out stealing and admit it, you might as well “get on the door,” an expression that roughly translates to calling the guards to request a transfer to another pod for reasons of safety, derived from the location of the intercom button to summon our keepers; also, the button next to the door is surrounded by Plexiglas, allowing for visual contact.

So the man who stole the mat would not give way and the other man would not resort to violence to retrieve it. An equilibrium was later reached when one of our trustees—those fortunate inmates who work around the jail—brought a “Cadillac of mats” to the guy who’d lost out, one of the jail’s newer models with large, attached pillows.

And it’s those kinds of things that become so important: your mat, which bunk you get (lower is better, but as in all real estate, it’s location, location, location), whether you’ve got money on your books so that you can get commissary. An inmate can make a lot of friends if he can afford a weekly ration of coffee, foodstuffs being the primary currency of exchange between the incarcerated, although there are other “things” that are bartered. Like all places where small groups gather—the classroom, the boardroom, the box—the “atmosphere” is dictated by the participants. There was only one pod I was in where the homoeroticism of pent-up men with impulse control issues was palpable, and that might’ve had something to do with having an openly gay man in the cell. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that blow jobs were available in the showers for a bag of Snyder’s of Hanover Jalapeno Pretzel Pieces that was agitating the men and charging the atmosphere, as only here were the jokes about guy sex constant, with men regularly putting their arms around other men, saying, “Hey, girl!” in that singsongy way that indicates a come-on. I never saw the sex, or much evidence of it, but I wasn’t particularly interested. Like most of the men, I found solace jacking it in the showers, an activity much discussed among all the men, with constant references to going to “flush some babies down the drain.”

Violence and the threat of it, however, were a constant of jail life. Yes, some of us certainly were men of violence, but you crowd anyone into a box for long enough and opportunities are going to find that person to express himself through aggression. The boredom, the oppressive nature of the environment, the monotony, the ever-closing-in walls … but especially the boredom. The worst I saw of it, an older, bigger kid threw a cup of urine on a younger, weaker one (both were kids to me), and when the little guy got up to walk tall, the bigger kid beat him unconscious before somebody got on the door and both kids were taken away. When almost any disagreement occurs, everybody involved gets tossed from the pod, regardless of who’s right or wrong. One strike and you’re out, off to another box where you might better fit in.

Twice I came close to fighting with the same man, both times related to disagreements over ownership, with me trying and failing to enforce the general rule of my possession of my stuff being nine-tenths. But Eric, or “E,” didn’t see it my way, didn’t like the percentages. Now, I’m an admitted coward. Had I been a braver man, I would have killed myself when I was in the box, but my great desire was thwarted by my much, much greater fear. Still, I very much wanted to fight with this man but not to avenge a wrong he’d done against me. In fact, though I was reasonably sure I could take him, the compulsion to fight was motivated as much, if not more, by my desire to be hit and to feel pain. When all the rage in your mind seeks to rend you apart, there is a calming power to physical pain. But please, for God’s sake, don’t vent your rage on a wall in front of your significant other! One of my bunkies got a two-month vacation in the box for shadowboxing in front of his soon-to-be ex-wife!

Still, I don’t know what to tell you. I turned all that rage inward and now I’m a walking, talking vegetable, a ghost. A person who looks like me but, like one of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, just doesn’t seem quite “right” anymore. A man who dogs bark at, someone with a soullessness in the eyes.

That “E” was Black—and still is, I would assume, if he is “still is”—and I am White had nothing whatsoever to do with our scuffles. In the box, as in the world outside, race does matter, but it’s far from the racial gang wars of life in your average prison. I’ve thought about this a bit and concluded that there are reasons this divvying up in racial gangs is less prominent in jail. You see, there is nowhere to retreat to in the box, so there’s more pressure to “get along.” Prison is a “world,” a city unto itself where cons move from and through a maze of boxes. In such a maze, you need someone to watch your back, but in the box, your back is always against the wall and therefore not in so much need of watching.

In prison, a man works, goes outside to “The Yard,” takes his meals at the cafeteria. In the box, there is only the box.

Because Poisonville’s rotating 2,000-plus daily collection of society’s underclass skews African-American, the jail makes it a matter of policy to divide pods up about 50–50 along racial lines, with a few Hispanics and maybe the odd-man-out Asian thrown in for good measure. Now the great revelation I had about race relations while I was in the box was somewhat unexpected: age trumps race. When you controlled for the fact that Whites and Blacks lived in different areas, went to different schools, were familiar with different landmarks and memorable events in the community, it was age more than anything that determined who was playing cards, working out, or just hanging out with whom. I shared much more in common with older Black inmates than I did with younger White ones, and if the old Black guys I hung out with were any indication, they felt pretty much the same way. The young’uns still had something to prove and this, coupled with the general fidgetiness of youth, made them volatile, erratic. The older men could be just as loose-screwy, but by a certain age, the need to prove oneself becomes a ridiculously pointless exercise in futility, and it is then, perhaps, that the boy becomes the man. All of the older men, Black or White, repeatedly expressed the same sense of remorse for the lives they’d misspent and, shockingly, how when they got out they wanted to make it right, especially for their kids. Over and over again I heard the same refrain from the older inmates, and even from many of the younger ones: “I got to get back to my kids!”

I could spend the same amount of time trying to write out an explanation of what it’s like to be locked up as I actually spent locked up, but even then I wouldn’t quite get it right. The closest you could probably come to replicating it in the “real” world is to invite four of five strangers over to spend a long weekend with you in a closet. If the lot of you don’t come out mad or dead, then you’re on your way to understanding the carefree life of the caged.

Honestly, I’ll never visit a zoo again … and I loved the fucking zoo.

And now, back in my boat, the evening is stretching into that zone of twilight, the sounds of the pod permeating me so thoroughly that I have become both another vessel and transmitter as I sink deeper into that Black Pool of Unconsciousness that has no bottom …

And suddenly, I am lying on a paved street in the middle of nowhere, a black ribbon of asphalt surrounded by the hovering waves of heat coming off of an indistinct horizon. I’m on my back staring straight up into nothing, a giant tire on the most monstrous of monster trucks—a muscled-up dump truck or cement mixer—slowly crawling up my stomach to come to rest on my chest. The gears whistle and squeak as they’re shifted into park, permanently. The weight is unbearable, and each time I exhale, the tire digs a little deeper into my chest, and when I try to inhale, resistance, as they say, is futile. Each exhale, the truck crushes down upon me a little more until I begin to hear my ribs cracking and my flesh ripping like thick typing paper, and just as the tire slams through me to the ground, I wake up in my boat back in the box.

But I still can’t breathe! It’s as though the four walls are right on top of me, the Orwellian boot of Big Brother stepping down hard on my throat, forever!

And then, like some character in that movie about dreams within dreams, I wake up … again. And even though now, when I wake up, I’m on the outside, I’m always on the inside.

Yes, I’m still the man in the box, up to my eyebrows in shit, and nobody … nobody can save me.

Postscript: How I got in the box is another story for another time.


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