By Richard Wallace
Prisons are lonely places and penitentiaries are worse. These places are filled with guards and convicts and the only difference between them is that one group is on one side and one group is on the other. They are wired the same way. They think the same way and if this wasn’t so they could not coexist; it wouldn’t work.
Cell blocks are like caves. They are worse than caves. For the most part you can get out of a cave but there isn’t any way to get out of a cell block. That is where you are and that is where you will stay. When you are on Death Road it is for sure there isn’t any way out.
Cell blocks are represented by rows of doors. They are metal doors with one small opening barely big enough to slide a dinner tray through to the waiting prisoner. That would be a Styrofoam tray that doesn’t need to be very big because there’s never much on it. Cell blocks are also represented by people who are hungry almost all of the time.
This dinner tray opening is a small Plexiglas window encased in a metal frame and when it is yanked open the metal frame screeches in protest. That is the intent. The intent is to intimidate the prisoners and even at meal time there is never any peace. This is to remind them of their station in life and that they are fed at the mercy of the warden. Peace is a concept that doesn’t have any place in a cell block; none. Prisoner 98 was well aware of this and there wasn’t any peace on Death Road.
This night when the metal encased window of the cell door was slid back to open the cell to the outside world it wasn’t slid with the usual forceful pull that announced supper. Usually it was yanked open with such force that it was as though the guard was announcing supper time to the whole world. It was an announcement of the same old stuff from the same old kitchen made by the same old kitchen staff. That would be a staff made up of fellow prisoners, convicts and psychopaths and it made Prisoner 98 cringe to think of what might be thrown into the pot when nobody was looking; or even when they were. He had a prisoner friend who used to work in the kitchen so he did have a little inside information. The metal encased window of the cell door wasn’t yanked open in that fashion today
Instead of a guard with a mocking voice telling Prisoner 98 to grab his supper or go without it was the same guard with the same voice telling him to come get his plate and pointing out that tonight there was something of a desert. Prisoner 98 wondered why the guard was being so nice but only for a moment. The guard also pointed out that there was a menu to be filled out and a place for anything that wasn’t listed. The menu hit him hard, front and centre.
For most of the day and actually for most of the past week Prisoner 98 had managed to put this moment at the back of his mind. He was good at that sort of thing. That was a skill he had learned well, his own private defence mechanism. Over the years he found that he could put just about anything at the back of his mind and never think about it again. Disappointments went to the back of his mind and along with them expectations. There was a special place for hurt. It was a place that seemed to get bigger as the years went by but he didn’t think a lot about it.
Prisoner 98 thanked the guard and thanking the guard was also a bit unusual. It was not only unusual, it had never happened before. He asked what he was to do with the little piece of charcoal that came with the menu and the guard explained that he wasn’t allowed to have a pencil or a pen for fear of injuring himself or somebody else; regulations of course.
With something of a normal voice Prisoner 98 thanked the guard and wondered about such an idiotic rule. No pencil or pen. This was ludicrous. He knew that in an instant he could snap off one of the arms of his eye glasses and jam it up a guard’s nose, through his ear or just up against an eyeball and presto, an instant hostage. He wondered about these regulations from the people who ran the prisons. It seemed that it was the most hopeless who gravitate to the top.
The guard told Prisoner 98 that since it would be his last supper he could order pretty much anything he wanted and that he would be back in an hour or so to pick up the list. The window was slid shut.
For Prisoner 98 his last supper would include a few things that he had gone without over the past few years. A few years would be an understatement. He had exhausted any hopes of avoiding his last meal in prison so he was resigned to his fate.
It didn’t take him long to make up his list. For starters he would have French fried potatoes boiled in virgin olive oil, onion rings, T- bone steak and on top of the steak two fried eggs, easy over. He didn’t bother with desert; he wasn’t much on deserts anyway.
Oh yes, if possible a beer. Why not?
Sometime later the guard came back to pick up the list and asked Prisoner 98 if he’d like a Jungle Visit. 98 shot back a ‘NO!’ so fast that the guard wondered if he had heard the question but he guessed that he had. It wasn’t often that a prisoner said ‘No’.
Jungle Visits were not uncommon during a prisoner’s last twenty-four hours on earth. Such visits were not really called Jungle Visits but that’s what the prisoners called them. They took place in a small room at the end of the cell block, a room with two doors, one that was entered from the cell block and one from the back of the room, from somewhere else.
It was in this room that prisoners could spend some time with a wife, a girlfriend, a hooker and it was rumoured that some women provided the service for free; one last act of kindness for a total stranger. 98 didn’t know how the Jungle name came about but one of the convicts wrote the word Con-Jungle on the door so it sort of caught on. That was close enough. Somebody had a sense of humour.
Everybody knew what was going to happen when a prisoner was escorted down the corridor to the Jungle room and 98 didn’t want any part of it. One last act of futility wasn’t in his plan. He did plan to stay awake all night. He wanted to use up as many hours as he could, all that he had left.
He thought about the futility of that one last act and figured all of his relationships were futile; all of them except for one. There was one woman who was more special than the others and he thought of her as his Best Hurt. She was the one that he couldn’t quite get to the back of his mind. She was kind and caring but he didn’t know how to respond to such a person and eventually he drove her away. Responding to kindness was not a part of who he was. She was still his Best Hurt. He missed her.
He didn’t figure he’d miss much else. He might miss the rain. When he was out in the exercise yard, his one hour of almost freedom, he loved it when it rained. It took away the smell of the concrete walls of his cell, the painted metal door smell and especially the smell of men in cages. They might have been called cells but cages were what they were.
The rain was a gift.
Prisoner 98 was determined to stay awake all night but of course that was a little much to expect. Tomorrow would bring a new day and not one he looked forward to. He put his head down on his pillow and thought of his Best Hurt; she was still special. That was a long time ago. He thought of his supper tomorrow night and his order of French fried potatoes boiled in virgin olive oil, onion rings, T- bone steak and on top of the steak two fried eggs, easy over.
Then he fell asleep.
My Lord, Richard – there’s something in you. Something which may be in everyone, but most don’t/won’t access it – it can seem to make life easier, not to. But you, do.
This is masterly, Richard – that’s the word for it – masterly.
I left reading this, when it appeared in TON, as I had something to do, which I knew would tax my resources, and I had a feeling, from seeing the beginning, that your piece of writing would be something which would go deep. I was right, on both counts. Best to have left it, dealt with what I had to deal with, then read it, today.
All life though, all life, isn’t it?
Bernie, you are far too kind but thank you. There are moments of ‘good’ in everybody, even people like Prisoner 98. I am appalled at how many prisoners find themselves in death road as well as serving sentences who were falsely convicted by juries but not necessarily juries of their peers. So often trials are dog and pony shows and the lawyer who wins is the one who can tap dance the best. (my opinion only)….thank you again, Richard
Not ‘kind’ at all – I keep saying this to people – my idea of being kind, is when I don’t say something, so’s not to hurt someone’s feelings. Otherwise I speak as I think, and I think this is a very, very, good piece of writing. Starting with the compassion and humanity of the idea, then well crafted, well woven together. And raising questions, including the question of…is his ‘Best Hurt’, the reason he is there? Is that how she was his ‘Best Hurt’?
People – he was hurt, damaged, so he doesn’t know how to respond to kindness , so…did he respond to her, in the only way he knew how to respond? I realise that this is all my way of reading it – which adds to why it’s so good – different folk, will read it differently. Read different things, in it. Really very good, Richard. More than very good – and that’s not me being kind!
As to Lawyers. I’ll try to keep this short….years ago, I worked in a Solicitors office. I learnt a number of things. I learnt the value of ‘Proof’. Without proof – folk get away with all sorts, but, what is ‘proof’? Sometimes, there was plenty of ‘proof’, but…they still got away with things, due to Lawyer’s tricks. Another thing I learnt was that, to many of the lawyers, it’s like a game – it’s a challenge to get them off, or get them found guilty, not so much according to whether they truly believe them to be so, or not, but according to….the game. Being clever, winning, showing that you can twist and turn better than your opponent.
I worked there for some months, then left, as I couldn’t stomach how it worked. Weird thing is, there were four Solicitors working there, and each of them, in their own way, was a pleasant sort of person. Yet – that’s how they made their living. I know – someone has to do that job, so that Justice can have some chance of being done – but…..all too often, it seemed to me to be more a case of clever, clever, twists and turns. I had discussions with the people there about this, as I did realise that what they did was very necessary, it was the way it was carried out, that got to me.
I know you were a policeman, but, I have said it before, so there’s no point in my hiding it – there are three sorts of people I instinctively distrust… Politicians, Lawyers, and the Police! Nothing personal, obviously. I do think Society needs to have, and it is good to have, honest, sound, kind/good hearted, even sensitive folk in these professions (if they can handle it ) or we’d be in a very bad state, but……..as I saw it, many were playing games to do with ego and power.
Also…..around that time, my friend worked as a film editor for a news distribution agency, in London. If he was going for a poo, he say “I’m going to give birth to a journalist!” When working in that Solicitors office, I adopted that phrase, and would say “I’m going to give birth to a Barrister.” Say no more.
My friend had the sense to leave that job, too – he went freelance as a film editor, which meant he still dealt with some horrendous things – he phoned me to wish me happy birthday from an American army base near Kabul one time – but – it was his choice, who he chose to deal with.
Enough of this – as Jane Austen said “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”
Bernie, with respect to not trusting politicians, lawyers and policemen you just didn’t hit one nail on the head, you hit all of them. In addition to the above …I could go on. Some years ago a British Columbia Judge, in court, said that in his opinion any policeman with 15 or 20 years of service was a pathological liar…I can believe that too. Love your comments and input…Richard.