Smoke Screens


Smoke billowed from the smokestacks that faced traffic on the side of the jail adjacent to the street. There was a forest behind the parking lot, which seemed like a bad idea for a plethora of reasons not the least of which was the relatively easy cover it would make for an escaping prisoner. I had to report to the prison by 7:30 at night. It was dark and there was a trace amount of snow on the ground. Nothing about this place seemed like a jail. Not the waiting area that was used for processing in the lobby (how many jails have a lobby anyways?) Not the glass that we had for windows nor the doors that lined that perimeter of the building. These doors didn’t seem designed to keep people out rather they seemed to be designed to keep people from coming in. Who would want to get into a jail? At any point any one of the prisoners at this facility could have simply walked out one of the unlocked doors and maneuvered through the woods back to civilization. Simple as that.

It almost didn’t seem fair. We were all convicted felons. Granted most of us had been deemed of little risk to the community, but if people are going to discriminate in their hiring practices against us the least the prison system could do would be to treat us like we needed to be confined. I remember I walked downstairs to the office of the lady that handled my supervised release from the jail because she had asked to see some paperwork from my school and I got yelled at for being on the wrong floor. Someone in my block had suggested I just walk on down and hand the administrators my paperwork like it was no big thing. I was told to go back to my block which I did and I was told that I shouldn’t do that the next day. Obviously someone was playing with my naiveté when it came to the jail system in suggesting I go down to another floor, but what stuck with me was how relatively lax the security was. I was allowed to just walk down to another floor and possibly right out the front door back into the community.

Every night we had to clean our cell block before we could go get candy and watch TV. There are a number of things wrong with this scenario, but I’m only going to address the most obvious: we had to clean our cell block. What’s worse is that we were using a vacuum cleaner that likely did more harm than good. When you turned it on dust flew everywhere to the point where you would cough and the vacuum never seemed to actually suck anything up off the ground, which in my view defeated the purpose of actually running the vacuum cleaner. Everyone assumed odd jobs during the cleaning. For reasons passing understanding people would sweep the carpet before it was vacuumed. I always thought that this was the guards indirectly acknowledging that the cleaning system was at best flawed and at worst counter-productive. We were likely spreading more germs by turning the vacuum cleaner on than we could possibly hope to clean up.

I always did some of the sweeping because it was the easiest way to waste time. No one took the cleaning seriously because we all knew how ridiculous it was. It just happened to be one of those things that you had to do because someone else said so. No one knew why we were cleaning. Ostensibly we should have been cleaning to make the place less dirty, but since that was clearly not the goal of this exercise we all sort of flailed about doing odd jobs that would never pass inspection if anyone had ever expressed the desire to give a damn about it. We were treated like children. When we were done with our cleaning we got to go down get soda and snacks so we could sit down, relax and watch “Cops.” It seems a little surreal even looking back on it now. If you had proposed this system to a sane person they would surely demand a change in the system, but no one really seemed to care. Not the inmates, not the guards, and certainly not the administration.

What mattered to me when I was inside was getting my reading done. I read five books in three weeks while I was inside. I usually tossed my books up to Preacher Man when I was done with them because he shared a similar interest in history that I did. I was glad that I had someone I could talk books with as opposed to talking about wrestling or worse: the gossip from around the jail. Some people worked very hard to keep up with the goings on of the building, but I saw little point in networking with people who would in all likelihood be spending the majority of their lives in a correctional institution of some kind. It’s all about priorities and mine certainly weren’t geared towards hanging out with that crowd. Even in jail there’s a “bad crowd.” Those would be the folks who were wearing orange. If you did something bad like punch someone in the face your punishment was to wear orange so that everyone knew you did something bad. Again, it’s like we were children or something.

I didn’t have to wear orange for tossing a guy down a flight of stairs, but since the only person besides me who saw it got out the day that the other guy came forward there was basically no evidence that I had been the one to cause the damage, but even when the guards asked I never denied it. It’s not a bad thing when you’re inside to mess somebody up, but I didn’t do this without reason as some people did, I threw him down a flight of stairs because he stole all our poker decks and then slashed my hand open when I confronted him about it. It was after that whole episode that I realized I wasn’t a bad person. A bad person wouldn’t have felt bad for the damage that had been done to the other guy, but I felt bad even though he kind of deserved it and the fact that I felt bad gave me hope.

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