When my roommate, Oatmeal wakes up and climbs down from the top bunk, I am shaken into a squeaking morning alacrity. The lights have been turned on in the common area, and I reach under my pillow for my watch and make squinty eyes at it. Seven. I am meeting Sara at Indoor Rec for yoga in half an hour.
Morning unit activity is a discord of its own relentless style. The restroom now echoes running showers, hairdryers, and “How you gonna leave water all over the sink like that? Your momma ain’t here. You in prison!”
What? We are where? In prison? For a minute there I forgot that I didn’t actually forget where I am. For a minute there, I forgot that it was not at all possible to forget where I am. No, I didn’t. I didn’t forget. How could I? God, I am so fucking sick of hearing inmates telling other inmates You in prison! I mean really. I know. Everyone knows.
More room lights flicker on and lockers clank open and slam shut, combination locks, twist tictictic open then ticlunk shut and spin to hit the steel. Slam. Beds are being made, grey blankets tight and tucked. Over not under the pillow or else. Even if you don’t have to go to work you have to get dressed, full uniform, bed made. A few khaki bodies are already curled on top of tip top tight bunks
“Attention in the unit. Morning pill line is now open.” The loudspeaker cuts through the clatter like the operatic solo in a torturous underworld tragedy. Several hurry toward the door and out to Medical for their meds in a cup with a sip of water and then tongue out and up and ahhhhh and yes I swallowed it, even though there will still be contraband Seroquel for sale later on. The speaker continues its calls for Inmate So and So to report here and another to report to another place and lots of action ASAP. Always ASAP. Not, A.S.A.P. Never the acronym. Always the word. ASAP. In all caps because it is always shouted, and just a little louder than the rest of the shouted announcement. “Report to the Lieutenant’s Office! ASAP!”
Microwaves heat margarine-smeared honeybuns and instant oatmeal packets. The robot sigh of the hot water dispenser is steam out, shift gears, water in, steam out, sigh. A motley crew of attitudes line up to add water to plastic mugs ready with Folgers Instant, chocolate or tea. I am in that line with my own red and white mug, a cheap plastic abomination that looks like something I would get for an extra dollar at the gas station to save in the long run on Big Gulps. My disdain is painful, but thirty-two ounces of caffeine is the perennial start to my day and porcelain with a powdery matte finish is not an option.
I brew my Bigelow Tea variety pack, like I like to eat Skittles, in a very specific order. Earl Grey first, English Breakfast next, Constant Comment third. I trade the Peppermint with the woman across the catwalk who cuts my hair. She loves the peppermint and hates Earl Gray. We do these deals. We go room to room to do these deals. “Hey, know anyone who wants to make a trade?” Nothing goes to waste here. There is always someone who has nothing. I am down to my third to last Constant Comment this morning and make a mental note to make a list when I get back upstairs to my room, with my hot tea, which is exactly two teabags and two heaping spoonfuls of nonfat dry milk with one packet of Splenda. Stirred eleven times to the right, and eleven times to the left, and an estimated fifteen calories, which I will also write down in my little notebook that I carry around for keeping track of eating. And to make lists. Like what I need to add to my commissary sheet, new vocabulary words, workouts, Things To Do while I am here as well as Things To Do when I get out. Movies to rent, books to read, music to acquire, parenting ideas…things I read about in magazines, stuff. I have a lot of lists. My notebook is one of my lifelines.
I repeat “teabags” in my mind as I stir right and then left and walk back up the stairs that lead to the catwalk that leads to my room, trying very hard to not make eye contact. And I don’t. It’s a little game I play with myself to see if I can get there and back with no interaction. Friendliness invites invasion and I am cautious about these things. I make it to my room where Oatmeal is now gone, Boobs is probably in the shower and Peaches has made her bed and gone back to sleep in full uniform on top of it.
Weekdays here are called Programming Hours. Programming Hours, of course, refer to the time that the “programs” that have been instituted to “rehabilitate” are active. And by “rehabilitate” I mean, project a façade that such things as rehabilitation happen here, contrary to recidivism statistics. However innocuous the aphorism may sound, it still sits very Orwellian with me. If you met anyone who has been here for ten or more years, you would totally understand what I mean. It is little challenge to spot-on tell if someone has been down a long time by their obsessions with, most predominately but not limited to, floor wax and ironing.
The phenomenon of prison style dictates ironing deep creases in shirts, pants, pajamas, sometimes even sheets and towels. One of many ritual attempts to bring a sense of order to this bizarre world. Survival Tactics. Creasing becomes art. Becomes couture. Becomes culture. Love is boiled down to the ability to muscle polyester into a stiff, knife-edge pleat. Women risk The Hole by stealing sugar for homemade fabric starch. Irons and ironing boards turn dark and sticky with years of caramelized starching. Iron clothes. Iron will. Iron shackles, fetters, chains and handcuffs.
The Long Timers, the repeat offenders and the mindless followers who actually aspire to a mastery of prison culture, approach a tidy floor shine with equal compulsion, often buying floor wax off the contraband market, hiding it in Downy Fabric Softener bottles and seeing to it with a kind of reverence for the sacred, that a coat or two goes on each week. On the floor, and sometimes, for good measure, on the window sills, chair and wooden desk. Waxing. Ironing. Programming.
As much as I loathe this new language, and am righteous in my suspicion of its ineffectual nature, I use it whenever I can, in facetious fashion. For example, “Should I write this letter during or after programming hours?” and “This weekend has felt far too long. Sure will be nice to get back to programming hours.” Semantics aside, it does keep everyone busy. Like a workday. These “programs” make the time seem structured and keep everyone moving. We even get paid for our “jobs”. Starting salary is twelve cents per hour.
I have to insist that words like “jobs” and “programs” and “rehabilitation” really do require all of these quotation marks. When I use these words in this context, they are a weak facsimile of their intended meaning and no confusion is intended between them and the scads of signs around the compound that use these poor little marks, not to emaciate the meaning of words, but to “emphasize!” them.
Officer Maestas: “Unit Manager.”
Phone calls “15 minutes.”
Be “Quiet” in “Study” Areas.
I really “hate” it here.
I work for the education/recreation department grading tests for college level classes, teaching yoga, and occasionally before “Regional” comes to visit, I clean someone’s office. Filing, hole punching, and inserting things into three ring binders so that when said “officials” arrive, they can easily see whether or not the facades of the “programs” are still in place. The three-ring binders are the proof. Programs are determined successful by the proper alphabetizing of documentation in a three-ring binder. A three ring binder in a three ring… circus.
Mostly, my job consists of sitting in the library, writing letters, reading magazines, and making lists. And since the yoga classes that I teach are in the evening, I am not required to be “on duty” until after lunch, which means I have the morning hours free to go to Indoor Rec with Sara and practice yoga. It took me seven months to work into this job. I paid my dues mowing grass, shoveling dirt, and washing garbage cans. After two raises, I make forty nine cents per hour and am one pay grade away from maxed out. One grade from the equivalent of being in the highest tax bracket on compound. The coveted Grade One pay grade is seventy nine cents per hour. My paycheck almost, but not quite, pays for my phone time each month. I rely heavily on the generosity of friends and family for shampoo, notebooks and tea. Asking for money is not easy. I am fortunate to have enough.
Because of yoga, getting dressed in the morning, like many simple acts here, is more complicated than it should be. I read recently that rehabilitation is achieved despite of, not because of our prison system. I couldn’t agree more.
See, in order to get the door unlocked so we can get into Indoor Rec where we will have access to yoga videos, we have to actually go inside the Education building, find the officer, and let him know we are ready. The problematic factor is that to enter the Education building during programming hours you have to be in uniform. Khaki button-up shirt, khaki elastic-waisted pants, black shoes. But to practice yoga, obviously, we want to wear sweats. We are not allowed to change clothes in public spaces and the only bathroom is in the Education building (where we are not to be out of uniform). Restrooms in the indoor rec building are forbidden. Too much privacy.
The fact that we go through this every morning would make anyone with a sense of efficacy think of radical ideas like: How about someone meet us out there with a key, or how about just have the building unlocked every morning at 7:30? But there are rules, systems, and a variety of people who interpret them.
You get the picture.
Or you are completely lost, in which case, you are really getting the feel of this place.
So I pull on my thinnest pair of commissary gray shorts and thinnest tee shirt, and over that, my baggiest khaki shirt and pants. Once I get into the room I can peel off my top layer and voila I’m in my grays with no real breaking of laws. Sara and I have decided to take turns doing the honors. Today is me.
I pass Ms. Maestas: “Unit Manager’s” office and push open the heavy glass door to the fall morning, still warm, still humid. The enormous Texas sky is cream and silver and silk and, for me, an infusion of life. It’s omnipresent and continually reminds me that there is still beauty, that my little boy and I are connected somehow by the ephemeral brushstrokes of this wide Texas sky. I want to inhale it. I want to fit this whole sky inside my lungs.
I want to go home.