Keeper of My Thoughts
The harder Jamie tried to stay out of trouble the more it came looking for him. The guards went out of their way to get in his face and push him to make him react. Why? Were they bored? Did they want to mess up his day or they we trained to be that way?
If the inmates were locked up the guards had more control over them and there was less they had to do. It was stressful for Jamie. He always felt like he was on the edge, waiting for them to file a case against him whether he did anything or not.
One of the hardest things for him to overcome was the instant anger that came over him before he had a chance to think. He expected people to do the right thing and that didn’t happen in here.
On the outside it was supposedly right and wrong that got you locked up, but once inside right and wrong had different meanings. When he spoke up for himself or tried to explain anything, it always got him in trouble. So right or wrong didn’t matter. Only who had the power mattered, and it was clear he didn’t have any. Guards didn’t like it if you called them out on anything. Getting bumped down in his line class was almost always because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
Jamie didn’t want to lose the last of the privileges he had. The simple actions of being of being able to walk to chow or sit in the day room were hung over his head to keep him in control. If he lost these last privileges he would be confined to his cell.
He could learn to control his own actions but he couldn’t control what a guard did, so to lose these privileges he didn’t have to do anything. A guard in a bad mood could make up a charge and it would be his word against the guard and he would lose every time.
What a lousy night. Forget trying to sleep. It was too friggin’ hot and no way to cool down. Summer heat in a Texas prison was hard to get through but there was no choice. It was at least 90° and it was still the middle of the night.
Jamie’s little fan, pointed at his face barely moved the air it was so heavy with moisture. His skin stuck to the mattress so he took it off the bunk and tried to sleep on the metal slats beneath.
He ran the risk of a guard seeing his mattress off the bed. If he noticed it when he came around for his thirty minute check he might get yelled at to put it back on the bed. It was worth the risk but it didn’t work, anyway. It was a little cooler than the plastic but the metal didn’t make for good sleeping. Now he was tired and cranky with a bad headache.
In the morning a guard finally came and took him to the showers. It had been three days since his last one and he knew he didn’t smell very good. He craved the feeling of cold water streaming down his body. There was so little pleasure in this place and a shower ranked on the top of the short list of things that caused pleasure.
In the middle of his allotted five minutes, with soap on his body, the guard shut off the water.
“What the fu..” he started to say while turning around to face the guard.
“What did you do that for?” Jamie asked with a sharp tone in his voice. He could feel himself getting angry so he closed his eyes, took a deep breath and thought, “Not today. Don’t lose it today. Get a grip”
They stood there for a long second and stared at each other. All Jamie wanted to do was finish his shower and wash the soap off his skin. If he couldn’t do that the soap would dry on his skin. It would irritate it and make him itch. Add humidity to it and he’d be miserable.
The guard who took him to the showers wasn’t having a happy day, either. He didn’t enjoying babysitting this sorry bunch of men. He wanted to hurry Jamie so he could get on to the next smartass he had to bring here. The faster he got done, the faster he could get back to the air conditioned staff office and whatever porn magazine happened to be lying around.
This was a crappy job. He’d been here five years now and sometimes he felt like he was the one being sentenced. There weren’t any other good jobs in town that had benefits. He had a family to feed so beggars couldn’t be choosers. He had jumped at the chance to work here, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed it. They didn’t pay him well enough to have to watch these poor suckers get naked and whack off in the shower. He’d seen enough naked men to last a lifetime.
They could do whatever they wanted in their cells, even though he could write them up for that, too, but the poor bastards had to get off somehow. He wouldn’t turn a blind eye, though, if he caught them doing each other. That was a mortal sin. The bible was adamant about that. He knew what went on in the cells so he no tolerance for any of them and what they might do.
He had no tolerance for this one, either. He was going to hurry him up by turning off the water. He didn’t care if he didn’t get to rinse off the soap. He could plainly see it was all over his body. Serves him right for being here. That was his problem. He was the one in charge and he was calling the shots.
Jamie was angry enough to let loose and tell him what he was and wasn’t going to do and demand he turn the water back on. He hesitated. If he did that he might lose everything he had been working toward, over a stupid, lousy shower.
He told himself every day to stay in control of his mouth. He didn’t want to do something that would mess up his chances of going home. This would get him in trouble, probably get written up and lose his line class. That would put him in 24 hour lock up.
Was it worth it over a shower? No. He was angry because he couldn’t do anything about it. Right and wrong didn’t matter. He’d screw the last months he was trying to get through so he could get moved back up to population. He wanted to go to school so he could take care of his family when he got out. He had to remember that.
Jamie stopped and shut his mouth. He clamped his lips together and tried to think fast. He had two ways to go. Each one had a different result. Up till now he followed his instinct and let his anger speak for him. It never worked. Not once. He could do it different this time.
He reached for his towel and covered himself. He didn’t look at the guard in a confrontational way. He lowered his head and looked down. What did he really want here? He only wanted to finish his shower and he didn’t want no trouble. He didn’t need to let his pride stand in the way. He sure didn’t want a stand off with a guard that would only end one way – with him in lock up.
“Sir?” he said respectfully. “Could I have another minute . . . please . . . to rinse off?” Jamie waited. He said nothing else. It was the guards turn to talk. There was nothing he should find fault with.
“About time,” the guard thought to himself. He was being shown the respect he thought he deserved. Why he thought he deserved respect without earning it, because he was a guard, was at the root of the problem between inmates and guards. But Jamie appearing subservient felt good so thought he’d bestow a little kindness on him, like a man in authority should do.
“Okay, one minute,” he said as he flipped his fingers at him like he was brushing a fly away from his face.
“Make it snappy,” he added.
The guard turned the water back on and stood there and watched. You couldn’t be too careful with these morons. You never knew what they might do.
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I have to close my eyes and think
To remember how life feels
Spread ’em and squat.” the guard told him through the open food slot. ” Lift ’em and cough.”
They said the same thing every time they came to take him out of his cell. Shower, rec or commissary were the only choices it could be. Humiliation was part of the game they played, enjoying the chance to abuse him and make sure he knew they were in control. Oh, he knew it. He learned that a long time ago.
“Yeah, we need to make sure you don’t have something shoved up your kiester.” The second guard laughed, thinking he was some kind of comedian.
He said the same stupid crack every time, thinking it was funnier each time he said it. No one ever accused these guards of being smart. If they were, they wouldn’t be working as prison guards for minimum wage. They probably flunked out of Car Wash Training and this was the only place they could get a job. To get stuck in a job with no air conditioning, in a broiling Texas prison, walking inmates back and forth from the shower all day was not exactly anyone’s dream job. It made them angry and it made them want to kick a dog. Inmates were dogs.
Sometimes men did have something to hide – contraband they weren’t supposed to have. A lot of it was brought in by guards the inmates were able to bribe. Those with money and connections. He wasn’t that stupid.
“Turn around and put your hands back out the slot.” The cuffs were tightened a little more than they needed to be.
He could feel his circulation stopping. It wasn’t bad enough to say anything. They’d just laugh. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Not with needing to be cuffed every time he was taken anywhere.
He heard the cell door open. He stepped through and stopped. He knew to go no farther if he didn’t want to get clubbed behind his knees. One guard grunted as he bent over to attach the leg chains that allowed him about a foot between steps. It would’ve be easier on the guard if his gut didn’t hang so far over his belt.
Today was shower day. He could already feel the water streaming down his body, washing a couple days sweat and grime down the drain. It was one of the only pleasures he had. He had clean clothes on for the day. Prison whites. Not really white, though. He didn’t think the prison used soap in the washers. Cut costs a little. They didn’t smell too good, neither.
Jamie preferred to wash his own clothes in the sink if he had enough soap. That was a big if. If he had money in his account for commissary purchases. Each month the prison gave them three of the tiniest bars of prison made lye soap and that had to cover all his cleaning needs. If it didn’t, tough .He could buy more if he had the money when they took him to the comm.
“Get a move on it, Cummings. You think you’re the only one we gotta babysit today?”
They got that right. Glorified babysitters is all they were. His shower boots and soap were rolled up in his towel, shoved under his arm as they started walking down the hall doing the prison shuffle.
Dang these showers were grimy. Moldy. So many dudes had to use them between cleanings. As he got ready to step under the water he noticed the guards were talking to other men. If he was lucky they’d forget the time and let him have a longer shower.
Good thing he wasn’t a puny ass. Nobody would try to get over on him for sex. The smaller dudes always had trouble. It wasn’t because they were gay. Spend enough time in here and some didn’t care what sex you were if they wanted to get off. They weren’t past doing a gang rape or retaliation, either, if the guards intentionally looked the other way.
As the water passed over his body it felt like heaven. They were supposed to get three showers a week but it didn’t always happen. Guards were lazy. The heat got to them, too. He closed his eyes and started day dreaming, thinking about the past. . .
Jamie didn’t know what he was going to do, now that he was free. It was all he’d thought about for four years. Now that it was here he realized he never thought past it. Freedom was his goal and sometimes he never thought he would have it again. After a few days his family went back to doin’ what they were doin’. The novelty of having him home had worn off. He didn’t really know his family anymore, or rather they didn’t know him. He wasn’t the same person he was when he went in.. Nobody was fixin’ to help him. Not in any real way.
Everyone grew up while he was in juvy. His older brother got married. His sister had her baby and another one. She had her own problems. His little brother didn’t have much to say at all. He didn’t hardly hear from anyone while he was gone. Mama was busy with everyone who always needed her for some reason or another. He thinks he only got four letters from her in four years. He’d been on his own to survive. No one knew what he’d been through and no one wanted to talk about it. What was done was done. No one wanted to talk about why he was there in the first place. It seemed to him like he gradually became guilty for what happened. It seemed easier to let sleeping dogs lay where they were. Wouldn’t do no good to try and make anyone understand.
He took to walking down the hill from his mama’s house to the convenience store at the corner. Behind it was a shabby little apartment complex for people down on their luck. Barely furnished apartments ironically nicknamed “Little New York” because it was similar to a one rough block in a not so nice part of NYC. Some people were okay but it mostly drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps.
He met a white girl named Morgan living with her soon to be ex-boyfriend and her two kids. She had moved here from California and her old boyfriend followed her here soon after, without asking her if she wanted him to come. She couldn’t kick him out because he had no money to get back. It didn’t last for long, though, and he was gone. He thinks she bought him a bus ticket and took him to the station until she saw him get on the bus and leave.
He liked her. She had quite away with herself. Sassy and confident. They hooked up. She had the most beautiful smile and he was horny. They got along – more than got along.
Right about then Hurricane Katrina crashed into Galveston and made is way up through East Texas, knocking out the electricity for weeks, tore off roofs and destroyed billboards like paper. Morgan and the kids went to stay at her grandmother’s house up the street from the apartments.
He tried to go see her but her dad, a dead beat dad who ignored her during all her growing up years, now thought he could tell her what to do today. He’d coming running out the house yelling and waving his Bible, “Get the hell off our property or I’ll call the police.” That’s the last thing he needed – and this man was a long time druggie and alcoholic. It wasn’t like he had a problem with him being black. Morgan’s cousin married a black man – two of them – and had a set of mixed twin boys, and her brother had a daughter who was mixed. No, it was because they weren’t married and that was against the Bible. Born agains were the worst.
Morgan got pregnant. He was going to be a father. He wanted to dance he was so happy. But she wasn’t divorced. They filled out a common law marriage form but never filed it. It was still mixed up in his stuff from the jail before he was sent to the first prison. He stuff was mailed to her mom in the Keys. She told him years later she still had it.
Now her mom was flying here with her husband to visit with her daughter and grandkids. She didn’t know about him. She definitely didn’t know Morgan was pregnant. She said she didn’t want her mom to know yet. She couldn’t tell her face to face because she’d be upset.
“What were you thinking? Getting pregnant when you’re struggling to raise the two you already have,” she could hear her mom saying. Morgan decided to wait until a better time to tell her. Problem was, that time never came.
The town was torn apart by the storm. Flooding. No electricity for a couple weeks. Roofs torn off. Billboards ripped apart like pieces of paper. Motels had opened their doors for free to refugees fleeing the damage down south. They trashed their free lodging. Stole everything that wasn’t nailed down all over town. They even broke into the vending machines to steal all the snacks. They also took every available job in town which made it harder for him or any other local people looking for work.
Morgan nearly had to drag him to the hotel where her mom got a room. He didn’t believe her when she said her mom would like him. Why should she like him? He knocked up her daughter who was still married to someone else. We stood outside the motel room door. The kids were jumping up and down, banging on the door yelling, “Nana. Nana.”
When the door opened, the kids rushed in attaching themselves to a taller, thinner woman who didn’t look like Morgan in any way. The first thing she did was whip out a camera to take a picture of the first second of the visit. As the kids grabbed onto Morgan, she is laughing, I’m looking nervously at the floor, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. I wasn’t ready for this – a family photo.
“Look up at the camera, Jamie,” she asked, but I shook my head and stared at my feet.
“Come on, Jamie, look up and smile,” she teased. Not a chance, but at least I was smiling as I looked at my feet.
That was the picture Sonni kept. She told me she used it in blog posts when she wrote about me later. This was the exact moment our lives collided. Was it fate? I didn’t know – and I’m sure she didn’t know, either, how much it was going to matter. If by chance Sonni and I had never met, both our lives would be different today. It’s the little things, maybe even unimportant things we have to pay attention to that set our lives in different directions.
“Cummings. You think we got all day? Get dressed. We need to bring others down,” the guard said, breaking his thoughts in half.
It was okay. He’d been able to leave the prison for a little while and took a trip in his head. All was okay right now. They cuffed him and started the prison shuffle back to his cell. Even though everything didn’t work out okay, there were parts of things that brought a little smile to his face once in a while. He needed to remember that when he started to get down.
The phone started ringing. I answered it to hear, “Mom! Jamie was arrested,” Morgan cried into the phone, calling me in Key West. “I don’t know what do.” Stunned, I stood there, knowing things were going from bad to worse very fast.
“He went out with friends to party at an illegal gambling club. One of them had a gun in his backpack and tried to rob the place. Jamie ran but they caught him. He was driving my car and the police impounded it. I couldn’t get it out. I lost it.”
I never knew if I was getting the whole story from her. I thought it was probably common to not tell your parents everything going on your life. I know I didn’t, but this sounded like a story with another shoe to drop. Over the next few years I got different stories from three people about what happened that night and tried to piece it together as best I could. But if this news wasn’t bad enough, here was the other shoe.
That comment sat me down on the edge of the bed with a shocked look on my face.
“Almost five months.” Okay, an abortion was out of the question.
“Is he going to get out?”
“I don’t think so, mom. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I don’t think so. He’s at Bartlet County jail waiting to find out. He’s been told it could take months to find out what’s next. But I don’t have months to wait. I can’t get to my doctor appointments. “She paused for a few seconds to let that sink in..
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t know how. I kept telling myself I was going to tell you tomorrow. The more time went by the harder it got. I knew you’d really be upset.” I stayed quiet and let her talk.
“It’s a boy, mom. I’m having a little boy. The doctor’s been watching my blood pressure because it’s been up and keeping an eye out to see if I’m having symptoms with eclampsia again, so I can’t not go to the doctor.”
Morgan had a grand mal seizure 24 hours after her last birth, as well as falling in the hospital and fracturing her back in three places. She didn’t find out about the fractures until long after they healed wrong. The hospital never took x-rays when she complained of pain. I had a right to be worried about a third pregnancy.
I had helped her get an apartment while I was visiting the past Thanksgiving. This was only a few months later. I didn’t know Jamie was living with her but she didn’t need my okay. She lost her waitress job at a local Mexican restaurant. The economics in town were bad after the hurricane and no one was going out to eat. The whole town was trying to help the families who were hurt by the storm. A lot of people were destitute, so the people who could afford to go out to eat, didn’t. They didn’t want to be seen spending money they could be using to help. Being pregnant and not feeling well, the restaurant let her go. She was going to find it hard to get another job for just a little while. No one was going to hire her. She was up against a wall.
“Was Jamie working?” I didn’t see how they were managing.
“No, but he gets a disability check for epilepsy.” I didn’t know enough to question that.
“He’d been helping me take care of the kids while I work and that helped me a lot to not have to pay someone to watch the kids.” It seemed logical. I knew how hard it was to find good childcare you could afford. It didn’t send up any red flags.
She went to her stay with her grandmother. She had a big house already full of other family members down on their luck. She would have helped if she could but she didn’t have room for her to stay. If she could stay with me it would be better. Only thing, it would take her away from Jamie. She wouldn’t be able to see him for the rest of the pregnancy, or after. It wasn’t an easy decision.
“That’s when I got the courage to call you, mom.” As she talked, Megan was playing with a bright red pair of infant sneakers with a white Nike swoosh on the side. Jamie brought them home one day. “He was so happy he was having a baby. Now he won’t be there.” I could hear the sadness in her voice. What a hard place to be.
I knew nothing about our justice system. No experience to compare it to. It was a world apart from anything I ever had to live through. I did have to raise her and her brother alone the first half of their lives. I kicked their father out when I was pregnant with Morgan. He couldn’t take care of himself let alone kids. My mother came to visit for a couple weeks when Morgan was born and was in the delivery room with me just like I was in the delivery room when their son was born.
My mother instincts kicked in. The only important thing was making sure they were okay. I had a little dollhouse apartment attached to the back of my house. A small livingroom/bedroom, semi kitchen with a full fridge, microwave and single burner, and a full bath with a tub. There was a second floor loft with a wooden railing that looked out over the livingroom. The older kids could sleep up there. There was a wood boat ladder to climb up top.
It could work. As long as she was able she could work with me at my store, located where the cruise ships docked, she’d have money to live on.. Afterward, she could bring the baby to the store. I bought them bus tickets. Her grandmother packed enough sandwiches to feed the entire bus so she wouldn’t have to buy food along the way.
I never thought my daughter and I would live and work together or that I would be able to spend time with my grandchildren everyday.. We never see things coming that can direct our lives to go one way or another. Sometimes, inside a tragedy good things can still happen.
I’m glad I had a chance to meet Jamie before all this happened, when all he had to worry about was whether or not I would like him when we met, in seemingly simple times when he was too shy to look at the camera. But even simple times had worry underneath I didn’t know about. At Thanksgiving I didn’t know Morgan was pregnant. A long time later I found out he had no disability check to help support the family. That was a twisting of the truth Morgan thought I didn’t need to know. All choices have effects and all causes have an effect of some kind. All of this was the law of cause and effect at work.
Jamie called fairly often. He needed to talk to Morgan. He was scared and the thought of prison was horrible. Jail calls were expressive. Twenty-five dollars for fifteen minutes gouged the families who needed to talk to their loved one. I’d spend only a few seconds saying hi before getting Morgan to the phone. Fifteen minutes went by fast. After I got the first phone bill I had to ask him not to call quite so often.
Today I’d give anything to be able to talk to him. Over the years he became a special person in my life. Knowing him has changed my life. I hope I changed his. I didn’t know when I received that first letter from him, apologizing for calling so much what it was going to mean in the future. But right now . . . we had come full circle.
Stay current on prison issues and inmate writings. As I build followers for Jamie with the book I’m writing about Jamie Cummings life, Inside The Forbidden Outside, keeping people informed along the way is important. It gives him a purpose when he gets out that he can help other lives. Much of the information is not on this blog and it’s important we reach people everywhere. We have a government now even more gung-ho on locking up as many people as they can for even longer years – making crimes out of things that were never crimes before to placate the prison corporations. It is going to affect even more people who will get knocked sideways when they find themselves behind a steel door. Staying informed helps you protect yourself, because, yes, it can happen to you, too.
( If you realize there has been a name change from Megan to Morgan from other chapters, my daughter didn’t want her real named used. I was going to name her Morgan so we settled on using that)
If you know an inmate who writes poetry or is an artist or has a story you’d like to tell you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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