I stood at attention outside my cell door this morning at 9:15 for inspection. The pod was nearly full of inmates with nowhere else to go. Fe men have jobs or are enrolled in classes anymore, especially in this unit where administration is quietly and unofficially concentrating gang members and those with class A and B write-ups. The unemployment rate is around 85%, so almost 100 men stood outside their cells on the lower and upper tiers as the unit manager and the CCO entered the pod and began the ceremony by addressing the men.
"Good morning," the unit manager said. Nobody answered.
"Good morning!" he repeated, and somebody said something unintelligible off to my right, which sufficed to let us move on. Unit manager B____ is a levelheaded veteran of the Department. He has the correct mixture of firmness combined with enough confidence to let things go that don't matter, which is required to handle this type of unit effectively, a set of traits now too rare among staff. Anyone who stands too firmly on ceremony and cannot take a few jibes without getting ruffled in this high-pressure environment quickly and inevitable escalates tensions and loses control.
"We're okay. Not good, just okay," he says. "I haven't been over here in a couple of days."
These daily cell inspections have been intensified this week since the prison itself is being inspected by outside personnel, a yearly event that makes appearances even more critical to the staff. The appearance of order, cleanliness, and security will be presented this week at any cost. To ensure our cells appear especially uniform and correct is one of many visual priorities, the only kind of priorities that appear to matter.
We know and they know and they know that we know it's all a temporary show, and it's the same now as it is every year. The language they use is, "Y'all know we have to do this, so let's get some cooperation and try to make it as painless as possible." And with the inmates' cooperation, several hundred spit-shine jobs take place the week before the inspection. Then the inspectors show up, walk around, and check things off a list. Afterward everyone relaxes a few days, and then operations return to the daily cell inspections mandated by Haslam's campaign promise in 2010, to make it hard on us.
At the first opportunity I got when the staff wasn't looking, I ducked into my cell and removed some cleaning rags hanging beneath my sink - not allowed. The unit manager was being strict today. Otherwise I felt confident we would pass, so I stepped back outside after peeking first and stood at attention by the door again. I had been up since 7:00 a.m. and had spent half and hour cleaning and prepping the cell after m cellmate had gone to work. Daily routine. And as soon as the inspection was complete, I would reassemble our cell the way we actually lived. Daily routine.
While waiting for my turn to be inspected, I overheard with some interest a debate over how to get away with the whiskey-cooking operation in a cell. Simply burning incense wouldn't cover the smell of a batch prepping, one guy argued, sending the message flying across the pod while everyone remained standing at attention. Some cleaning fluids were sprayed and finally the offending door was closed in the hope it would be skipped. We all waited to see if it was passed by . . . and it was. Shalom.
I stood waiting a while. People were restless and bored and started to murmur. "Now if we're talking, we're not in compliance!" the unit manager said. "Nuh nuh nuh nuh-nuh, nuh nuh nuh nuh-nuh," some inmate mocked. The unit manager cocked his eye and continued to the next cell. It was quieter.
"Good morning," he said to me in front of my cell when he went in. "Good morning," I replied while I suppressed the basic human instinct to resist having one's only personal space casually violated, judged, and raked over, after just the promise of it happening in the future had been enough that morning to cause me to rearrange every single possession I own in a way not intuitive or convenient. Then I also suppressed the question which naturally arose in my mind as a man who has served sixteen years already and faces the need to live permanently somewhere on this earth, whether my basic human dignity will endure the Chinese water torture effect of such daily assaults for the rest of my long life, or whether I and everyone else will simply go mad long before then.
Two minutes later the unit manager emerged with a rolled piece of maroon upholstery fabric in his hand, about six inches wife and twenty-four long, which my cellmate uses to cover the cell window when he uses the toilet.
"See this?" He holds it out to me, and I nod." "Not good. It's not good to have colored pieces of cloth like this in your cell!"
At that moment, an elaborate response played out in my head, and I suppose I may be the worst kind of coward for writing about it now instead of just saying it out loud. This is how it went in my head:
"But Mr. B____, how can a piece of upholstery cloth be good or bad? Is God looking down upon us right now and declaring 'BAD!' The human race struggled for millennia to produce the technology to manufacture such embroidered cloth, but now there are a trillion shreds of such material in our landfills. Nobody cares. And you've been around longer than me, so you remember just as I do only fifteen years ago all over the state men in our prisons had bits of carpet on their floors, cushions on their toilets, bed clothing from Wal-Mart, and even wall hangings to warm the walls. Nobody cared. Why would they? They were still the poorest, most pathetic people you knew, barely scratching out an existence on the planet, merely trying to take some pride in their hovels. And the thought of holding up a bit of cloth and calling it 'bad' would have seemed ridiculous to men such as you and me. What has happened to us? Why this obsession with the way things look instead of the way they really are? Why not inspect the inmates themselves instead of their uniforms? How about that guy with the cuts all over his face? What happened to him while the inspectors weren't watching?"
Instead, I said nothing and looked at him and looked at the piece of cloth and nodded. I know it does not good to protest to the person who has a job to do. After all, he is also following orders. "Look, I hear what you're saying," he would say, "but you know I'm just doing my job. I've got people watching me and they expect me to get it done or they'll find somebody else who will. I got mouths to feed. So let's make this as painless as possible, okay?"
As painless as possible. But for whom?
In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there's a scene in which a German soldier kills one of the American heroes by driving a knife slowly into his chest. "Shhh," the German urges as the American's strength fades and the blade slowly sinks deeper. "Shhh. Shhh."