Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.: the first ministry in the United States created to provide confidential support and counseling to individuals, families and organizations with white-collar and other nonviolent incarceration issues. Greenwich CT & Nationwide.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

"Fog Day", An Excerpt from "Last Stop Babylon: The Art of Surviving Prison," by Jeff Grant

Progressive Prison Project 
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Greenwich, Connecticut


“Fog Day”

An Excerpt from 

"Last Stop Babylon:

The Art of Surviving Prison."

by, Jeff Grant 

 

________________ 

Excerpts from "Last Stop Babylon"

we've posted on our blogsite:

October 13th - "Suburbia"

December 28th - "What It Was Really Like Growing Up On Long Island"

March 10th - "Momento"

April 17th - "Respect"

May 1st - "Fog Day"


________________ 

 

"Fog Day"


      

When I was an undergrad in the '70s, I took a course in Viniculture & Viticulture; that is, the art and science of growing grapes and making wine.  It was probably my favorite course in all of college. Brockport was located about twenty miles west of Rochester, New York, towards Buffalo, and in this class we visited the wineries in the southern tier of New York State.  We stayed at the Bully Hill Vineyard in Hammondsport, New York, picked grapes, pressed them - and, as I recall -  drank a lot of their wine.  It’s been over thirty years but I still remember the way the fog settled over bucolic Keuka Lake - putting the grapes to bed each night.  What a beautiful way to wake up in the morning and watch the sun try to pierce the majesty of that fog’s thickness.

       At Allenwood when the fog rolled in, it also created this beautiful ethereal sense of timelessness.  It was haunting.  When thickest in the valley, the windows were painted white - sometimes for days at a time.  It meant that the 360 inmates who lived in each unit were stuck indoors until the fog lifted. 
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            The fog usurped everything. It was not like when there was a storm. In the worst thunderstorm, or snowstorm, if the guards could still see the fences, work detail would still be called and we all had to cross the compound to get to our work assignments. My shift at Rec was from 7:30 until 11:30 every morning, and for the most part I had very little to do. My trash can detail was from the football field to basketball court. So, I basically walked the track, worked out and read every morning until about 11 a.m. when I got busy -  I got new trash bags from the supply closet, and changed the bags in all three of the trashcans that were my responsibility.  I took the full bags of garbage over to a “full-trash zone”, where another inmate retrieved them and brought them to a compactor in a “secured zone”.  That’s about it. For this I got paid $5.15 per month.  Nonetheless, I started to take huge amount of pride in my work - for reasons I can’t really explain this trash job became a center of my rehabilitation.  I guess, so long as I was the trash guy, I wanted to be the “best trash guy.”   I wanted to show the guards that I was a person who could be trusted with more responsibility. After about four months on outdoor trash detail, they must have seen some potential in me... they promoted me to indoor gymnasium mop closet.



            But the outdoor season at Rec had lasted a long six months, and we had to be outside no matter what the weather conditions were.  You can’t imagine the severity of storms that shot through that Allegheny Valley where Allenwood was located.  In early May or late October, it could be almost unbearable.  There was a wooden pavilion located in the middle of the barren Rec yard - it had no sides and nothing to stop the rain or wind.  We all huddled beneath it in the cold.  Our army surplus issue jackets weren’t waterproof, and we were usually soaked to the bone. We would just sit there shivering, listening to our radios, and trying to take our mind off the pelting.  It seemed especially cruel to make us sit outdoors in the rain or snow on a day when absolutely no other inmate would show up to Rec.  It seemed even more cruel considering that the indoor gymnasium complex was right next door from where we were huddled, and was idle, dry and warm. We knew -  we had just washed the floors.



             The loudspeaker came on in the morning and announced that it was a "fog day", and that the compound was closed.  On a fog day, all inmates were restricted to the lower walkway, closest to the units.  One unit at a time the units were called to breakfast and we were instructed to walk in an orderly fashion. There were guards posted at every intersection to keep us on the most direct path to the dining hall.  Our usual noisy banter was not acceptable on a fog day  morning, and the guards who usually gave us a lot of leeway would not stand for any of it in the fog.



We entered the dining hall in two single lines. I always stayed on the right because that was where the kosher meals were doled out.  On this particular morning the main line had pancakes, bacon, biscuits, potatoes, and a piece of fruit.  Inmates who worked on kitchen detail, dressed in white coats and hairnets, doled out the meal. They put slabs, scoops or pieces on trays that had formed spaces just big enough to accommodate each piece of food. Friends of the servers got much larger portions; strangers got smaller ones. It was  the law of the jungle.  At the kosher line, I got a prepackaged omelet tray, and a piece of fruit.  Once I sat down it was easy to get as many pancakes or as much bacon as I wanted, since everything was available on the black market from the guys who worked in the kitchen. These guys were walking around with extra portions stuffed into plastic kitchen gloves that were tied off at the wrists. I just paid for it in macks back in the unit. 



If I was in the mood to give up my kosher meal, it was a bonanza since kosher meals went for a huge trade premium. For example, at breakfast I usually got a cheese omelet that I could trade for anything I wanted most days.  But I had to be careful because a Jew getting caught with non-kosher food could be thrown off the kosher meal plan (the same was true with a Muslim on the Halal plan).  Kosher food was much more expensive for the Bureau of Prisons than regular food and they would have loved to have thrown us off the plan.



            Back at the unit, things were very different on a fog day - we couldn’t rely on our regular routine.  We had to stay on our toes. On a normal day, we either went straight to work after breakfast or we had just enough time to make it back to the unit, brush our teeth, make our beds and straighten our cubicles for inspection.  Inspection was held each morning at about nine a.m., pretty much like in a kids’ summer camp.  An inspector walked around with a clipboard after we had all left for work, checking to see if our bunks were made up the right way, there were any towels strewn over the rails of our beds (a horrendous offense), or whether there was any food lying around from the night before. The entire unit was then graded and compared with the other units on the compound. This was a very important aspect of survival in prison living, because the unit that won that month’s inspection got called first for the meals the following month - mostly because in the dining halls in prison they ran out of food.  It’s not as if the people in charge of the kitchen hadn’t calculated the need and purchased correctly; it’s just that the kitchen workers stole so much food for resale that the food ran out.  The last unit to chow was almost always out of luck.



            Once we made it back to the unit on fog days, we had an hour or so to settle in before fog count. On a normal day, we were counted three times during the day and several times at night. Four p.m. was the big count, when everyone had to be back by his bunk; a bed-by-bed head count was done with two guards going up and down the lines of the unit. This was the only count of the day we needed to put our feet-on-the-floor. Sometimes the guards did a census, in which they asked us for our name and register number; this head count was to make sure the entire prison population is where we were supposed to be.  Counts were also done at nine a.m. when most people were at work, unless they were sleeping second or third shift workers, and at last count at nine p.m.  Around ten p.m., the overhead lights went out in the unit and it was possible to fall asleep, at least theoretically.  Of course, I had already gone to med call and sleeping was much easier.



            There were four or five medication calls a day over at the hospital on the other side of the compound, next to the SHU.  There were different med calls for the varying types of patients who needed help to get through their prison stays, all handled with amazing dignity and anonymity: Aids & HIV patients, diabetics, personality disorders, mood disorders, anxiety issues, high blood pressure. Everything was handled on the med line, for free.  I had my regimen of bipolar and high blood pressure pills waiting for me every night at evening med call. I stood in line outside in no matter the weather, along with about fifty of my med line brethren, craving for our fixes. It was our saving grace. I couldn’t imagine what the place would have been like if the craziest of the crazy stopped getting their pills. Besides, we had another incentive. Med line was not optional.  If any of us missed med line, we’d be run into the SHU.  After I got the hang of it, the med line-back to the unit-evening count routine became kind of comforting.



            On fog count days, everything was closed and every inmate had to return to the units, so the unit was packed full.  The guards counted us every two hours to make sure that nobody was missing.  Of course, we were in locked units, with bars on the doors and windows, so I never really understood the need for increased count frequency. But, the more I started to practice acceptance about this and everything else, the easier things became.  A little vignette about acceptance on fog day:



Survival strategy abounds in prison.  At night, the television room was a madhouse - it was not a safe place to be in.  But during the day, it was a kinder, gentler place.  On a fog day - when the prison was in lock-down because of the fog - I would just camp out in front of a television, put headphones on and use the time to tune out the world.  I would also use it as time to read, write, meditate, pray or just zone out.  Even more likely, I would watch my favorite four-hour run of shows on the T.N.T. cable network - two episodes of Angel followed by two episodes of Charmed



On this particular fog day, in the middle of the 8 - 9 a.m. Charmed episode, the guards called a fog count.  But I was sitting in the absolute perfect seat in front of the Charmed television - all set up with a book, writing pad and water bottle - in the midst of my full morning of Angel/Charmed episodes.  I knew that my stuff on my chair should protect my rights to keep that particular television tuned to T.N.T. for the balance of the morning. The burning question was: should I take my stuff with me to my cube for fog count?  Or should I trust that no one would touch it while I was gone?  A quick decision had to be made.



It was an unwritten rule in prison that you never touched someone else’s stuff - or his chair- in the television room.  It was a sign of disrespect.  But it happened nonetheless.  I decided to leave my stuff - the lure of my Angel/Charmed position more important than the safety of my stuff.  And with that, I trusted God - and the cosmos - to whatever happened next.

  

I raced back to my cube for fog count.  With that, the guards walked by our bunks, counted us one-by-one, and called "clear."   I hustled back to the television room to see if I made the right call.  I was relieved to see my stuff still on my chair, and settled in for the rest of morning of Charmed.  Perhaps the fog would not lift by 10 am when ER came on next on TNT - a real treat.

  

Almost everything in prison looked sort of like things on the outside, but was strangely - and warily - different.  Watching football in the television room was like that.  Mostly, I stayed away when I realized that many of these so-called “fans” were betting money - big money - that they could not afford to lose.   



There was a whole system of betting going on inside the prison, and the bookies were often the shot callers.  They employed some of the largest inmates as muscle to collect the debts from those games.  And unfortunately, the debts mounted up sometimes to thousands of dollars.  It was not easy to exchange this kind of money inside a prison - perhaps impossible.  So instead, it had to be done on the outside in transactions between inmates’ families.   



Sometimes the debts got so out of hand that the debtor had to take evasive action in order not to be hurt or killed.  He would go to the Head Lieutenant’s office and ask to be put into protective custody.  If granted, he would be thrown in the SHU until orders came in for him to be moved to another prison.   



But sometimes the request would be denied and he had to go back out to the compound.  The walls had eyes in the prison, and there was no doubt that he would have been seen going into the Head Lieutenant’s office.  That would not be a safe night for him.  The debtor might have had to start a fight on his own that night with the hopes that - if he survived - he would be thrown into the SHU.



A muffled voice came on over the loudspeaker without advance notice,



“The compound is open.  The compound is open. All inmates report to your work assignments.”



I set the timer on my Timex sportswatch for ten minutes and the race was on. It was ten thirty, and the fog had barely lifted. I could just make out the fences in the distance; they seemed to be still shrouded in white haze. My perceptions were off, as cloudy as the day.   My mind was numb from the stream of Angel, Charmed and now E.R. reruns. My lap was loaded with the three letters I’d written to friends back home.  I’d learned to neatly fold and insert each letter into its respective upon envelope upon completion in case I had to move fast - this was one such moment.  I had remained dressed in my uniform all morning long, just in case the fog lifted.  On a fog day, they usually gave us a few extra minutes to get our stuff together before closing the compound. But if they wanted to hit a few guys to clear out the SHU, what better time than while crossing the compound on a fog day?  It would be a quick trip to the Head Lieutenant’s office, and then maybe thirty days in the SHU.  Then it would mean starting over with loss of bunk, loss of privileges, a new cube, and new cellies.  Not for me.



            On this particular day, I was moving fast so I hustled back to my cube walking as fast as I could. Running was not permitted anywhere on the compound, or in the units. If we got caught running it was into the SHU. Walking fast was okay, and all the walking I’d been doing around the track had made me into a very fast walker. I grabbed my jacket, glanced at my watch, saw that I had seven minutes to go, and speed-walked across the compound.  I got up to Rec and started to sign in for my very important trash can job.  But as I was signing in, the guard told all of us that we could return to our units - if - we could make it back before they closed the compound. He was smirking - waiting to see would take the bait.  I looked at my Timex sportswatch - it was still counting down.  I had three minutes left.  I knew I could speed-walk across the compound in under three minutes.  I decided to go for it.



            Halfway across the compound was the main intersection where most of the paths cross, in kind of a star pattern.  Not coincidentally, it’s where a guard was most likely to be hanging out to flag down inmates to search for contraband. They used to have a metal detector stationed at this location, and everyone going to or returning from Rec had to pass through it.  Inmates were not allowed to have metal of any kind, yet sometimes they had it anyway.  The only times I ever saw metal detectors used on the compound were when gangs had threatened retaliation for an overnight ambush on one of their members. 

            The easiest way for gang members to "execute an order" on someone was in the middle of the night.  One of them would climb over the top of a cube and beat an opposing gang member with a sock loaded with batteries.  Rec was the most obvious place for retaliation, where there was the largest volume of inmates, the fewest amount of guards, and where it was easiest to sneak in weapons.  So after every gang hit, the guards automatically locked down the entire compound, searched it, and then searched everyone going in and out of Rec.



At the main compound intersection on this particular day stood no one other than the Head Lieutenant. I was motoring across, chugging desperately trying to get back to my unit in less than three minutes. I was one of the few inmates left in the compound, and certainly the only one making this kind of a spectacle of myself.  This was clearly an opportunity for him to have some fun. He called me over and asked how my day was going?  How was my day going? I’d already learned the hard way that there was only one answer you give to a guard when he asks you a question like that.  You answer that your day is going “just fine.”  I’ll explain.



When I first got to prison, I was tired all the time - yet I couldn’t sleep.  I was scared out of my wits, and I couldn’t go to the bathroom.  Literally.  I mean no matter what I did, I just couldn’t go. From what I understand this is not an uncommon experience for many guys.  There were two bathrooms in our unit, each consisting of five sinks, five urinals and five toilets.  There was no privacy (unless you hit the bathroom at strange hours like three o’clock in the morning, and weird stuff happened in those stalls and showers at that time of the morning).  More importantly, you didn’t make friends with the guys whose cubicles are next to the bathroom if you use them repeatedly at that time of the morning.  And the rule was that you absolutely had to courtesy flush.  That’s the deal - one flush for every groan, fart and bowel movement.  So all day and all evening long, it was five guys lined up - stall to stall - in a symphony of courtesy flushes. Each morning, the inmates constructed walls out of wet toilet paper in the cracks and spaces between the stalls. After a few hours, the toilet paper walls dried out, fell to the floor and turned into a sticky, dirty mess all around our feet.  It didn’t take too long to become desensitized to the incessant courtesy flushing, smells, toilet paper all over the floor and inmates screaming while I tried to go to the bathroom. The day came when it just didn’t matter anymore. 



On one morning early in my bid it mattered big time. I was practically doubled over in pain from lack of sleep and stomach cramps.  I was walking across the compound when a guard saw me grimacing.  When the guard asked me if I was okay, and I made the huge mistake of telling him the truth.  He seemed kind, concerned for my well being, and gently walked me over to a bench not far from the Head Lieutenant’s office.  He told me to sit there and that he would soon come back for me. Now, in prison when a guard tells you to sit somewhere, that’s what you do.  I sat on that bench for four hours and almost up to four o’clock count.  He never came back for me. Lesson learned.



So as I was motoring across the compound, the Head Lieutenant was now asking me how my day was doing.  But I now had a little experience under my belt.  I simply yelled over my shoulder to him that I was “doing great” and kept on walking.  But over my shoulder I could see him laughing out loud.  And then I saw him going for his walkie-talkie and I knew - I just knew - that he was calling to close the compound.  It was a race.  I started walking faster, the sweat started pouring out of me.  As the door to my unit was fifty feet in front of me, I thought about running.  There was no whistle.  I had only thirty feet left, and there was still no whistle.  With only ten feet left before the unit door the whistle went off closing the compound, I lunged for the door.  Standing in front of me, blocking the door was my unit guard. Coughing, gasping, out of breath, I looked up at him and pleaded, “Am I hit?”   

He just shook his head, laughed and walked away.
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About Last Stop Babylon:  The Art of Surviving Prison



Last Stop Babylon: The Art of Surviving Prison is my first book – some chapters have been serialized on this blog.  Portions of it were written from 2009 to 2012 while I was a Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York it was then was submitted and accepted in 2012 as my senior thesis. Much of the thesis structure remains the fall, exile and diaspora - albeit reorganized and expanded into a recovery memoir that takes place over the course of my life.  While it is certainly a recovery memoir, it is also a bible of rare and necessary information for people who are - or might be - going to prison.  I have tried to use a crisp, honest narrative style that does not sensationalize or sugarcoat my crimes, my punishment, or my recovery.  It is my own riches - to rags - to redemption story blended with specific and graphic details about daily living conditions, survival skills and spirituality inside a modern day prison. It is my attempt to offer hope and inspiration to anyone in need of a second chance in life.  - Jeff 
_

________________ 

Excerpts from "Last Stop Babylon"

we've posted on our blogsite:

October 13th - "Suburbia"

December 28th - "What It Was Really Like Growing Up On Long Island"

March 10th - "Momento"

April 17th - "Respect"

May 1st - "Fog Day"


_____________________




Progressive Prison Project/
Innocent Spouse & Children Project


at Christ Church Greenwich
254 East Putnam Avenue
Greenwich, Conecticut 06830

Mailing Address:
P.O. Box 1232, Weston, Connecticut 06883

Central Ministry & Office:
The Retreat, Weston, Connecticut  


Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Minister/Director
(o) +1203.769.1096

(m) +1203.339.5887
jgrant@prisonist.org
jg3074@columbia.edu

Lynn Springer, Advocate, Innocent Spouses & Children
lspringer@prisonist.org
(m) +1203.536.5508

George Bresnan, Advocate
gbresnan@prisonist.org


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