For the past couple weeks Jamie and I have been able to talk by phone, which is a new thing for us. It’s been great. I waited nine years to do that. I think the newness hasn’t worn off so he’s been calling me fairly often. How much we take for granted when we’re able to pick up the phone and talk to someone whenever we want. He’s been alone for so long, craving the sound of another voice.
(update 1/7/16 – these privileges only lasted a few weeks. Long enough to get a visit from his mother on his 32 birthday that wasn’t behind glass. He had never had a visit where he could touch his family. It breaks my heart. When guards have a vendetta and you are a target they will make sure they cut you down to size. They have control. They don’t like people who stand their ground our report those who treat others badly. Most people are not aware of the prison guard brutality inflicted on inmates. An inmate can’t win. They are set up to lose every time. If he could keep his mouth shut it would be better – but how do you tell someone to allow abuse? How do you stay quiet when you witness crimes that are only legal because they are inside a prison. He is in ad seg – again – and probably will be for a long time. But as awful as that is it is safer. Lonely and depressing – but safer.)
Getting out of Ad Seg was great.(administrative segregation) It sounded better than the words, solitary confinement. There is a link on the right under the heading “solitary confinement and mass incarceration” It’s an animated video, 5 minutes long and explains the effect of that kind of intense deprivation. You can also find it in the actual post I wrote in the category heading on the right for ‘solitary confinement.’ Now Jamie is level G2 which is ‘gen pop’ or general population. Inmates have to learn to live together or stay out of each others way.
I was worried when he got out of Ad Seg and needing to adjust to being around people again after so long. Even though he had been alone, he was safe from other inmates who have nothing to lose and can easily be violent just by looking at them wrong. In Ad seg he was mostly safe from the guards, too, who get off on pushing your buttons to make you react so they have more reason to kick you around and show off that they have power over you, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. I know there are two sides to every story and there have been many guards who have been seriously hurt by inmates, too. Many guards, have a hard time dealing with the emotional stress of working in a prison. Some inmates are not strong mentally and some guards aren’t either.
I recently began what will be a series about the relationship between guards and inmates. You can read the first installment, located at the top of the website, “Looking from the Other Side of the Prison Cell Door”.
But today, since all the newest things from Jamie didn’t come in a letter, I thought I’d write about our conversation instead .
“You have a collect called from an inmate at the Wynne Unit at Huntsville Prison.” I then heard Jamie’s voice saying, “James Cummings”. To accept this call, please press #1. If you don’t want to accept this call press #2,” from the automated, mechanical voice at the other end of the line. I have his name programmed into that number so I know it’s him before I pick up the phone.
“I just got off work and boy am I tired.” Hearing him even say the words, ‘just got off work’ shows how much has changed in this short amount of time. He’s had no time to be depressed. He’s working and sleeping. If he
does all seventeen years of his sentence, he isn’t too far past the half way point. Imagine this. You’ve never had a job. You have no life experiences on the outside to use when determining what to do. Think of yourself as a sixteen year old who just got his first job at a fast food joint. He’s excited. He no longer feels he has no value, because he has responsibilities. A place to go where he is counted on. Something to do at a certain time. It would be great if he could even earn 20 cents an hour, or even a dollar a day that could accumulate so he could by some of the simple things he needs, but Texas doesn’t pay anything.
Reread what I just wrote. Wishing he could make 20 cents an hour. Slave wages at a slave institution, no more than what people make in third world countries.
He’s working the night shift, beginning at midnight. He started out in the laundry. He was excited. “I love it, mom!” It was warm there, too. No heat in the cell blocks didn’t make for a very easy time sleeping. But a couple nights ago he was so tired from lack of sleep, and having no alarm clock, he didn’t wake up in time.
“They could write me up a case for that.” He was worried because he was trying so hard to show he was being responsible.
“I need an alarm clock” They have them in the commissary but he can’t go again for almost two weeks. besides, it’s $8 that he doesn’t have.
He has a cellie now, too. I asked him what he was like. “Nasty,” he said.”Tell me about him,” curious about who he has to share space with. “He’s twenty-seven. He’s in for murder and has twenty years to go. He’s already done three. He has a bad attitude. Twenty years feels is a lifetime even though he’d only be 47 when he gets out. But because of his attitude, and the fact that this is his second time in, chances are that he wouldn’t be getting out to a life any different than the one he came from. Fortunately, he isn’t indigent so he probably has family putting money on his books.
“I also had to use some of the money you sent to get some cleaning products.” He said. “I can’t live the way he does. I cleaned the whole place today. Top to bottom. I scrubbed the bars and the floor and everything else. He doesn’t care so it’s up to me.” he added.
“There’s lots of dudes here who wouldn’t think twice about startin’ something, so I try to steer clear of them. He’s also stealing from my locker when I’m working because I don’t have a lock.” He continued, “The locks are $12. Sometimes dudes reach in through the bars and steal stuff from people. You have to be careful.”
The other cells he was in before this were small. You could reach your arms out and touch the walls on either side. This part of the prison is an annex and much newer and the cells are bigger.
“Since I missed a day of work they gave me another job. I don’t like this one so much. I’m going to try to get my old one back. I have to clean the showers now.” he said.
He went from a place where he could fold and press clothing, to cleaning up the showers of probably some pretty smelly bodies. I had just a story someone else wrote about an inmate who had to clean the showers and someone was crapping all over it. The story didn’t end well for him.
“It’s okay, though”, he explained. “I just have to mind my own business and stay away from some people. Stay out of trouble.” That’s not as easy as it seems. The inmates fight over everything.
“TV watching can turn bad real fast. It’s can turn into a major fight. There are two TVs in the rec room. One is always tuned to sports and the other one is up for grabs. If something is being watched when you get there you have no right to change the channel – unless you’re friends with the guard. Monday through Friday he insists it has to be tuned into “The Young and The Restless” soap opera.” Jamie was irate. “I just had to call you. I was so pissed off. Some of us were watching something and this guy comes in went over and changed it. “Pissed us off ’cause we were in the middle of watching something. The guard lets him turn the channel to what ever wants to watch! It’s not fair. I left the room before I got myself in trouble”. He needed someone to tell.
“Jamie”, I said. “You did the right thing. You kept your cool. Controlled your temper.”
“It’s just a soap opera!” Jamie said. “What’s the big deal? You could miss it for a month and not miss anything you can’t catch up on in two days!”
I had to laugh. Picturing these guys getting sucked into a soap opera and wanting to fight about it is pretty funny, even if it isn’t funny to them.
“Jamie, pick your battles.” I told him. “The Young and the Restless isn’t worth it.” I had watched All my Children from the time Erica Kane and I were both in high school. I told him, “Soap opera stories become family members. You know the same character for decades and grow up with them, have kids together, divorces and even grand children at the same time. What better way to escape the day to day of life in prison?” He laughed, too. “You’re right,” he said.
These phone calls are worth more than you could ever know when you are used to picking up the phone and calling anyone you want any time of the day. To be able to talk about every day things and to be able to hear the emotion in his voice is a gift we take for granted. It makes things seem normal for twenty minutes. We could joke about things. It brings the outside in and makes it easier for him to get through the rest of the day. So often people will callously say things like, “They deserve what they get.” or “if they do the crime they gotta do the time.” that is fine if they deserve the years they get but more often than not that is not the case. What exactly does it do to give someone 17 years or 35 years or the rest of their life for something that doesn’t warrant that sentence. To be able to talk to someone for fifteen minutes just to be able to remember they are human and that there is someone who loves them and remembers they are there keeps them sane. To only have that privilege for three weeks out of ten years – and counting – is barbaric and inhumane.
We don’t get to choose who comes into our life. There is always a reason even if we don’t know what it is. We don’t know why or what the relationship turns into. Me, a sixty year old white woman and him, a thirty two year old black man. Yes, it started out because we are related by blood because he got my daughter pregnant with my grandson, but it was because of his heart that prompted me to dig to get to know him. When you take the time out of your day and give it to someone else with no strings attached and do what you can to be a positive influence in his life, it affects him and makes his life better. Then he, in turn, will take what he he has learned to help someone else. I think there was a movie made about that called, “Pay it Forward.” Some say, “What goes around comes around.” I believe that wholeheartedly.
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