Welcome Home, Inmate #Whogivesashit
The arresting officer was delicate when placing and tightening the cuffs around my wrists. This gesture was almost immediately ruined when he smashed my face into the top of the police car while ushering me into the back.
“Watch your head.” The words muffled as the door slammed shut.
Behind the barred, bulletproof glass window the neighborhood was coming alive. They emerged from their houses, drawn by the flashing red and blue lights in the street, wearing bathrobes and undershirts, coffee mugs and morning cigarettes in hand, come to gawk at the scene and get a look at who they’d gotten this time, as if I were a rabid dog netted and captured by animal control. I looked down and tried breathing in concert with my rapid heartbeat to take focus away from the claustrophobia created by having your arms pinned by metal shackles behind your back.
The arresting officer then returned behind the wheel and drove us off. His partner in the passenger seat twisted around to face me. “Gang affiliation?” he said.
I looked up briefly to return eye contact. “What?”
“Are you affiliated with any gangs?” he repeated.
“No.” My eyes fell back to the floor, where I preferred them to be. There would be nothing worth looking at that would bring me any comfort for the foreseeable future.
He looked me up and down then turned back to write something down on some form he had attached to a clipboard. “Tattoos?”
Instinctually, I attempted to move my left arm up to my face as if I had forgotten whether there was ink there or not, and grunted and bit down on my lip to hold back the yelp that almost escaped as my knuckles scraped against the seat leather. It was broken. I already knew it had to be broken, but the intense, dizzying pain this small contact created just confirmed it.
He ignored the stifled outburst, shrugging and turning back to face the windshield. “Forget it, they’ll get all that in intake.”
The car continued on. I knew exactly where we were going. I knew exactly all the places we’d be passing on the way. I never looked up—it would be pointless to. That didn’t matter anymore.
We stopped at a red light. Spurred on by lack of motion, the silence must have been getting to the guy driving. “Not a big talker, are ya? Can’t say I don’t mind it. Most guys can’t shut up back there, banging their head and screaming ‘bout their rights. Don’t mind this at all.”
I watched a small pebble roll back and forth between my feet as the car began moving again. We slowed down and made a left, and the lurching metallic whir of a gate opening swallowed up the noises of the city outside. The last ray of light glided over my legs and across the backseat before disappearing into darkness. The car stopped, and the engine went silent. His partner exited and closed the door, and before joining to escort me inside, the guy behind the wheel turned to face me. “Hey.” I looked up. I couldn’t make out anything in the dark but the sharp, angular outline of his face. “You’re eighteen?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Alright, just keep your head down. Don’t talk to anyone. Mind your business. You’ll be fine.”
I felt the pebble underneath my foot. I pressed down as hard as I could until it was like a tiny knife driving into my skin.
Both cops grabbed me on either side by each arm and walked me through a heavy steel door with a small window in the center. It opened up into the county intake, a large, white-walled room with the sickening phosphorescent lighting reminiscent of an old hospital. I approached the fat, uniformed woman behind the desk, and the officers unlocked my cuffs. A sudden rush of blood flooded into my hands and began pulsing like the heartbeats of two separate living things at the ends of my arms. I could feel the extent of the swelling in my left hand without looking at it. I wasn’t going to look.
Without making eye contact the woman told me to empty my pockets onto the counter and hand over my shoelaces. I relinquished a cell phone, a lighter and keys. Kneeling, I massaged my wrists and slid the shoelaces from off the pair of slippers. Of all the things to be wearing at a time like this.
“And I’m gonna have to remove that,” she added, pointing to the unfortunate decision hanging off my lip. At the time I though it was a good idea to pierce it. The woman ducked beneath the counter and reappeared with a pair of pliers, then came around to face me, squeezing the metal hoop between each blade. A sour miasma of sweat and cheap perfume wafted off of her body. “Now hold…very…still.” With a quick thrust and an audible crack the piece of jewelry was pulled from out my skin and through the grip of the pliers, flying onto the pissed-on, puked-on, bled-on, died-on intake room floor. The woman bent over, picked it up, and dropped it into the plastic bag with the rest of my confiscated property. “Just keep it,” I mumbled under my breath.
This event would turn out to be the single positive outcome of the entire experience. By the time I would get out, the hole had sealed and my face would forever remain unadorned thereafter. Some things are for the better.
I was directed towards the area on the right, a large and open space decorated with sparsely occupied plastic chairs set up in seven rows that faced a small television bolted to the corner ceiling, with a single decades-old pay phone attached to the wall below. This was the male section. The female section was on the other side of a flimsy, canvas partition separating the entire floor, situated behind the fat woman and her counter and pliers. This was the forbidden zone.
Once a part of the system, you cease to be an individual. You are now organized—whether it be by the system or by the inmates themselves—according to the basic facts about you that cannot be changed: Women stay among the women. Men among the men. Whites among the whites. Blacks among the blacks. Hispanics among the Hispanics. Snitches among the snitches. Rapists among the rapists. So on. To breach this unspoken contract is to invite the threat of violence upon you.
I walked up to a spot with empty chairs on either side and sat down. It was still early morning, and any men arrested late last night who hadn’t made bail would have already been transferred to a larger detention facility, so occupied seats were few and far between. Two of the men wore orange prison jumpsuits. Everyone sat slumped and quiet, in a daze, still drunk or high or simply despondent, staring up and ahead at the buzzing television.
The Discovery Channel was playing. Two overweight, bearded men wearing camouflage overalls sped through a Louisiana swamp on a rusted motorboat, with bolt-action rifles in their hands. I could smell the stink through the screen, and wished to be on the boat, drenched in swamp water, slick with sweat and humid air. I wished to be anywhere. One of the men on the boat shouted something in a thick Cajun accent and pointed at the water up ahead. They stopped the boat and the camera whipped to where the man had pointed, and through the green film of the swamp emerged a bumpy log, greenish brown like mud-soaked moss. The log then grew a yellow eye, the pupil thin and vertical. The other man came to the bow of the boat, aimed his rifle at the one-eyed log, and fired. Someone in a chair three rows in front of me shouted, “OOOH WEE! HE GOT THAT FUCKER!” and looked around grinning to catch the eye of anyone else who shared his enthusiasm. No one reciprocated.
I leaned forward into my knees and thought of whom I could call to post bail. It was a Sunday and so my arraignment wouldn’t be until the next day, but I needed some kind of immediate relieving news in the meantime. The man transfixed by the alligator hunters yelled, “Ay, down in front!” as I passed by to reach the payphone, and I keyed in the first number I knew by heart. With each ring left unanswered my spirits sank further into a hopeless black pit. “This is Adrienne,” my girlfriend’s voice chirped into my ear,
“leave a message and I’ll get back to you.” I hung up. There was no rush to the phone by anyone else so I keyed in the next number I preferred not to call, but I had already arrived at the end of my list. Before the phone could ring a second time she answered. “Hello, Henry,” said my mother. I paused. “How did you—”
“How did I know? Everyone knows, Henry.”
I looked over my shoulder and tucked the phone closer into my chin. “Okay. So can you get me outta here?”
My heart skipped like I’d almost fallen out a chair. “What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I mean no. You got yourself into this. You’re an adult. You need to deal with the consequences of your actions.”
“Okay, what if I fucking die in here?” I hissed, careful to keep my voice low enough that the people behind me couldn’t pick up on the trajectory of the conversation. “You want me to get fucked in the ass? Is that what you want to happen? I’m five fucking eight, what do you think is gonna happen to me? Make some fucking friends? This isn’t fucking summer camp, Mom, get me the fuck outta here.”
A long, breathy exhale floated into my ear. “No, Henry, it’s not summer camp. It’s jail. And you put yourself there. I need to go now.”
The phone clicked and I stood there for a moment holding it to my ear before accepting what had just occurred, and returned it to the receiver. I walked back to the empty chair, ignoring the man screaming, “DOWN IN FUCKING FRONT,” and sat down.
What could have been twenty minutes or three hours later, the woman behind the counter called my name: “Henry Gallagher? Come up here.”
Everyone turned around in their seats and watched me walk across the room. Had she changed her mind? Or had someone gotten in contact with Adrienne? Someone had to have posted my bail. I was unable to hold back the spring in my gait as I approached. Someone was looking out for me.
“Yes?” I said to the woman. “I’m Henry Gallagher.”
“Alright,” she said, appraising my sunny demeanor with a furrowed brow, and pulled out an inkpad and paper form with several empty boxes printed over it. “Hold out your right hand.” I did as I was told, and one by one she took each finger, rolled my fingerprints into the ink and pressed each inked finger into the corresponding box. “Now the left,” she said. “It’s broken,” I told her. “I’m sure it is,” she answered, and repeated: “Now the left.” Having exhausted my list of excuses, I held out my shattered hand and bit down on my tongue. She then replicated the process, and with each finger I squeezed my eyes tighter and bit down harder until I could taste copper. When it was done, she asked, “You alright?”
“I’m great,” I answered. The bitter liquid drained down my throat like when tilting your head back during a bloody nose.
“Good.” She pointed to a white tarp hanging from the wall next to the opposite side of the counter. Down a few feet was a large, black camera sitting atop a tripod, its lens aimed towards the tarp at chest level. “Then go ahead and stand in front of that, facing forward.”
I walked in front of the white tarp and faced the camera, an empty, soulless Cyclops eye. Judging me. I wished to destroy it with my broken fist. It had set in that I had not, in fact, made bail. I was to be officially part of the system, and returned to a cage. And that would be it. I was inmate #whogivesashit. The woman took her place behind the camera and with a click, solidified my inability to be gainfully employed. I turned twice for the next two clicks to immortalize my profile, and was instructed to return to my seat with the rest of the breathing ID numbers.
Once about seven hours had passed, I’d given up on watching the clock, as by now I’d gotten it in my head that time would no longer progress if I stared at the only thing bringing me awareness of it. A guard came around with a little trolley and began making his way down the isles—which by now had filled up considerably—handing out brown paper bags. It was dinnertime. I opened up the bag and looked inside: Two pieces of bread with a slice of ham and cheese between them, an orange, and a small carton of milk like the ones you’d get at lunch in junior high. I was reminded of an anecdote I’d once heard that the company that supplies the prisons with their meals also supplies the public school system with the very same food.
Then, coming from somewhere within the chorus of mastication came a voice: “Psst. Hey.” I looked around, and my eyes met the only other pair looking in my direction. It was one of the two men wearing the orange prison jumpsuits, sitting in the row ahead. “Hey,” he said again, and nodded at me.
“Hey.” I watched him cautiously. “What’s up?”
He pointed to the paper bag in my lap. “You gonna eat that?” He was a young man, not much older than me, with light brown skin like the trunk of a redwood, and long, straight, black hair that reached his waist. His eyes bore into me, sharp and dark and serious. Animal-like.
“No,” I said. “I’m not hungry.”
The eyes then lit up, suddenly human, and showed his youthfulness. “Can I—”
“Yeah, you can have it,” I said.
He reached over between two men and took the bag out of my hands. “Shit, thanks, man. I haven’t eaten in days. They’ve been starving me. I know they’re doing it on purpose too—so I’m not sharp in the mind when I take the stand.” He tapped a finger against his left temple as he said this, his mouth already full and busy chewing down the sandwich. He’d placed mine atop his to create a makeshift double-decker.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, and leaned back, finding anything else to look at to keep the conversation from continuing. This plan immediately fell through.
“So,” he carried on, “what you in here for?” He had already finished our sandwiches and had moved on to the milk cartons, drinking from both in intervals.
His gluttony distracted me, and before I could find a polite way to say, “Fuck off,” he spoke again: “Murder—that’s why I’m wearing this, anyway.”—He pulled on his collar—“Now they transferred me back here to show up for this other bullshit trial so they can add more years on to my sentence for some goddamned reason. I already got life, why the fuck’re they even bothering? I don’t know.” Answering his own question, he rambled further: “Motherfuckers woke me up at four a.m. to drive my ass down here from State just so I can sit in this fuckin’ room for fuck knows how long, so that I can finally show up for some fuckin’ trial that won’t make a fuckin’ difference anyway! Where’s the goddamn sense in that?”
I’d begun to space out but came to when I realized he’d finished speaking and was expecting an answer. “Uh, no sense,” I said. “No sense in that.”
He slapped the back of his chair. “Exactly! See—shit. Good to see someone in here’s got a lick a’ goddamn brains. Shoulda gotten you as my lawyer, ‘stead of this shit-for-brains public defender bitch they gave me.” He leaned in closer to me over his seat: “I swear, sometimes I think she don’t even wanna help me. Like she’s in on it with ‘em.” His eyebrows raised and he tapped his nose like I’d just been let in on a conspiracy that went all the way to the top.
At that moment I heard the abrupt crash of a chair hitting the floor, and before I could find the source of the noise, the room erupted into chaos. Men’s voices raised high over each other, screaming, “Hey, he needs help!” “Someone get a guard over here!” “I think he’s dyin’, man!”
Following the direction of the panic, I looked to the front row and stood up. It was the man who had still until this moment been transfixed by the Discovery Channel. He was now splayed out on the floor, convulsing with his eyes rolled back and white foam bubbling up from his mouth like an overflowing pot of boiling water. As the other detainees continued their cries for help, the fat woman behind the counter leaned over to see what was occurring, and stood there watching as the grand mal seizure intensified, eyeing with the same indifference as a fisherman gazing upon a freshly caught trout gasping for breath on the inside of the boat. By now every man had stood up, waving their arms and shouting at the woman, “Ay, are you gonna fucking do something? Call a medic!”
Finally, the guard seemed to come out of her state of apathetic voyeurism and walked slowly to a door on the other side of the room, cracked it open and leaned halfway in, speaking to someone who no doubt had also already been alerted to the situation via the security cameras, and too had failed to act until his colleague had just now given him the okay to save a life. A pair of guards emerged from behind the door carrying a stretcher, waving Tasers like torches against a pack of wolves to clear out the crowd surrounding their target, and loaded him before strolling back to from whence they came, and the sound of his wet chokes and gasps disappeared behind the closed door. “Alright that’s enough! That’s enough!” the fat woman shouted. “Show’s over, sit down!” And with that, the chaos had passed.
Being that there were no windows, and that I had now given up on watching the clock, the best clue that night had fallen outside the detention center was that the intake room had now become flooded with intoxicated, unruly men headed to the drunk tank in a steady flow through the door that I’d first entered. Around this time a new guard approached and addressed the room of men who’d failed to escape their seat for the duration of the day. We were directed to line up in rows, and would be formally processed and cavity searched before being transferred to another facility. For some it would be the final stop before being released back into the world as if nothing had ever happened, and for others merely a purgatory where they would wait days or months or years for the court date that would find them guilty and send them to the State Penitentiary, and deeper into the cyclical nature of the American penal system.
My turn came, and along with five other men, we were directed into separate stalls lined up against a wall. The guard stood before us, his eyes scanning back and forth as he spoke, and as we only saw him and his uniform, and the metal walls to our left and right. “Alright then, strip,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”
I removed every article of clothing, careful to avoid using my left hand as much as I could, and then stood there feeling more naked than I had ever felt, acutely aware of the freezing temperature in the room. The guard snorted and zeroed in on one of the stalls to my left. “Strip down,” he repeated. “Everything.” I didn’t need to think about it to understand that someone had hoped they could spare themselves the humiliation by keeping on their boxer shorts. A moment passed, and the guard said, “Alright,” squeezed on a pair of medical gloves, clicked on a small flashlight and approached the stall on the far right—mine. “Open your mouth and lift your tongue,” he said, and shone the light as if I were at the doctor’s office. “Turn around, bend over, spread your cheeks,” he told me, and I felt the vague warmth of the light against my open asshole. “Lift your sack.” I pulled my balls up against my cock like I was attempting a reverse tuck-job. Without a word, he was finished with the inspection and continued down the line of men. Upon reaching the third stall, I could hear someone softly crying as he barked the orders.
When it was all over, another guard came up to each stall one by one, handing out stacks of jail uniforms. I put on the clothes: One pink short sleeved shirt, one pair of pink pants similar in texture to something you’d wear to bed, one pair of pink boxers, one pair of knee high, pink socks, and a pair of pink slides. The correctional system chooses the color pink for their inmates’ uniforms because at some point some asshole decided that the color pink has a psychological effect on the human brain that deters the urge towards violence compared to other colors. Whether this decision was based off data obtained from experiments, I can’t say as I haven’t read those particular scientific papers, but what I can tell you from my own experience wearing the uniform is that upon donning the clothing I wanted nothing more than to punch myself in the fucking face. So maybe more research should be done on the subject.
Once outfitted, the six of us were brought into another small, white room where we sat down on two benches facing each other, and we waited. No one spoke for the hours we spent there waiting to be transferred. The only sounds that perforated the uncomfortable silence were the quiet sobs of a young man, skinny and short in stature, who sat with his knees up against his body, trembling. The eyes of the others immediately zeroed in on this kid, sizing him up and, maybe, pitying him. But he had made himself a target with his weakness. I felt no pity, nor relief—I felt nothing at all. Which was exactly how I preferred it. I wished to melt into the wall and disappear, and with the other inmates’ focus on anyone but myself, this experience of nothingness was the closest I would get to the illusion of safety.
It was now late into the night when we were finally led out from the room, chained together by handcuffs, and corralled into an open parking lot beneath the moonlight, where we were met by four other groups of six men, all chained together as well. A repurposed school bus sat idling, its headlights cutting through the thin fog floating just above the asphalt. A guard for each group brought us all together into two lines, where our group shackles were undone, and we were then handcuffed to the man standing beside us in the opposite line. We entered the bus as pairs and filled up each seat available until everyone was onboard. The door closed and we began to drive.
The inmate chained to me was a bald, middle-aged man with purple and black track marks dotting the inside of his left arm like constellations. He had the window seat, as instead of a right arm, he had a scabbed stump ending where the elbow would have been. I wondered for a brief moment how one would handcuff a man with no arms, before coming to the obvious conclusion that it would probably be unnecessary to have to restrain a double amputee in the first place. I can’t imagine you’d be able to get far.
“I fucked up, man.”
I turned to look at my new friend. “I know,” I said.
“Look at this fucking thing.” He lifted up his stump. “I shot so much fucking meth. I shot so much fucking meth they had to hack off my good arm. Isn’t that punishment enough? That’s a life sentence. No arm. Forever. And still they’re loading me up here.”
The handcuff sliced into my wrist as I tried to slide farther away. There was no way to escape this conversation. “Yeah. That sucks, man.”
His head fell against his chest and he spoke into his lap: “They took my fucking kid. I lost my house. Isn’t that enough? I’m a fucking addict, man, not a criminal. I didn’t wanna touch the shit again until they dragged me back here, and now all I wanna do is jam a fucking needle into what’s left of me. They don’t get it. They don’t fucking get it. I need help, not this. Anything but this.” He slammed his shackled fist into his thigh and the chains jangled like wind chimes.
After a couple minutes of silence it became apparent that he wasn’t interested in a dialogue, only a person to hear what he had to say. The rest of the ride went by, hushed words shared here or there between inmates, a sea of bowed heads like a solemn congregation during prayer at mass, until we arrived.
A couple COs met us outside for the hand-off and ushered us into the massive new building. They lined us up and told us things that I no longer had the energy or wherewithal to pay attention to. A guard went down the line of inmates, pointing as a prompt for us to sound off with our number in order of left to right. One inmate decided he wasn’t above puerile jokes, and began counting out of order as each of us played along with the chronological role call: “twenty-three…thirty-seven…hehe…twelve…forty-two…heh…sixty-nine—AGH.”
That final word you just read was the man’s reaction to a guard putting that shit to rest with a swift swing of his baton, which connected with his stomach and knocked the wind out of him, dropping him to his knees. The guard stepped away and nodded to his colleague, who reared back and kicked the inmate in the face. He emitted a shrill yelp as a streak of blood expelled from his mouth and splatted against the floor, and he crumpled into a ball, twitching. His attacker then wrapped an arm around the inmate’s neck in a chokehold, yanked him to his feet, and dragged him backwards on his heels down the wide corridor and out of sight. The sounds of his moans retreated while the blood remained, a red puddle so dark it appeared purple against the contrast of the gray concrete.
What a wonderful job being a correctional officer must be for a sadist.
We were now introduced to where many of us would be sleeping, shitting, fighting and furtively masturbating for the foreseeable future. It was much like a large gymnasium, with rows and rows of beds lined up together that took up most of the back half of the area, a small bathroom with showers that I would not be utilizing tucked into the front right corner, an entertainment area in the front left corner that was comprised of a single television bolted to the wall with a half-circle of plastic chairs arranged around it, the kitchen and guards’ box on the other side of a glass partition farther up along the right wall, and the unavoidable monolith in the center of it all: a massive, cement cylinder rising up all the way to the high ceiling, which seemed to attract the inmates like moths to a light bulb, all of whom were circling around its mysterious allure in slow, trance-like laps like the scene from Midnight Express. This must have been what constituted exercise.
Those not distracted by their strange dance with the cylinder all turned their heads to get a look at the new guys. It was a menacing and uncomfortable feeling, as if a foreign tribe of chimpanzees had encroached upon another’s territory and was now being assessed on whether or not they would prove a threat. There was nothing but the sense of spiking adrenaline and pure fight-or-flight instinct filling up the gymnasium like weaponized anthrax. The anxiety made me sick to my stomach and weak, and I wanted nothing more than to collapse upon the floor. My body and mind were not built for this amount of constant stress, and I couldn’t fathom the idea that someone could survive living through this feeling for years at a time without their heart giving out. Or especially, the idea that I may have to.
Before letting us loose, the CO escorting us told everyone to report to the guards’ box to be assigned a bed number. As I approached, the jail door behind me closed shut with a loud, painful, terrifying metal clang. I was trapped. It was official. Welcome home, Inmate #Whogivesashit.
I reached the front of the line and stood before the guard. “Bunk sixty-three,” he said without looking up from his desk, and pushed a button that slid open a latch in the glass wall. He handed over a thin, rolled up mattress, a pillow, and a plastic bag that contained a notepad, a de-weaponized blue pen, and a bar of soap. “You lose any of that, it’s on you. Don’t ask for any replacements.” The latch closed.
I knocked on the window. “Hey. Hey, excuse me. Sir?”
The guard reopened the latch. “Next.”
“No, wait.” I held my arm out to keep him from shutting it closed again. “I’m epileptic. I take pills for that. Do I talk to you about getting my medication? Or who do I talk to?”
He made eye contact for the briefest moment, only to let me know that I had done something wrong. “Pull your hand away. Now.”
“Sir,” I persisted. “I have epilepsy. Aren’t you required to give me my medication? I can die. Sir.” As a show of submission I let my hand fall back to my side. The moment I did this, the latch swung shut, and his response muffled behind the glass: “Next.”
I looked around the room, not knowing what to do. An inmate shoulder checked me as he pushed his way past. “He said, ‘Next’, dumb motherfucker.”
It was now apparent how much say I had in my own survival. I stepped to the side, looked down at the bare minimum supplies I’d been provided, waited for the rage to shrink away back into anxiety, and made my way towards my assigned bed.
Bunk sixty-three was situated directly across from who appeared to be an old homeless man, the blanket tucked up around his ears, his face buried in his pillow. The odor of urine and sweat and human shit was powerful. He appeared to be very ill, erupting with hacking, wet coughs every few seconds like a dying plague victim.
I laid out my mattress and pillow, tossed the plastic bag on the bed and lay there beside it, arms behind my head, and stared up at the ceiling, counting the cracks and holes as if they were stars.
“Gallagher.” I opened my eyes and sat up. Two guards stood over me. “Come with us,” one said. Without a word I stood and followed the man who spoke, while the other fell back and walked behind me. It was quiet in the dark. Most inmates had returned to their beds since I’d closed my eyes to rest, the only sounds being the snores of those asleep, and the pneumonic, violent coughs of my neighbor. The guard unlocked the jail door and wordlessly instructed me into the hallway. The guard trailing behind walked through and closed the door. There was silence as I stood watching these men, waiting for something to be explained. I knew better than to talk out of turn again, especially as the nature of this sudden, late-night wakeup call made me uneasy. Everything about these people—this place—made me uneasy. As it was intended, I’m sure.
When you’re struck and not expecting it, it can take your brain a few moments to register what just occurred, and then to instruct you on how to react. So when the guard hit me in the stomach with an uppercut, I kind of just doubled over and looked up at him without any response, only understanding that the wind had been knocked out of me and something had happened that caused me pain. It wasn’t until the second guard stepped forward and acted in kind, hitting me in the liver and knocking me to the floor, that my mind lit up and I understood: I’m being attacked. These people are attacking me.
It’s an unpleasant feeling knowing that you are getting the shit beaten out of you, and wanting desperately to fight back, whether by self-preservation or anger, but still having the overriding survival instinct screaming throughout your being that fighting back is not an option. You are not allowed to hit these people. These people can kill you. These people will kill you. Stay on the floor. Cover up vital organs. Make as little noise as possible. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Go to your happy place. Go to your happy place. Go to your happy place. Go to your happy place. It. Will. Be. Over. Soon. One way or another.
The moment they stopped, it was as if my wounds were finally allowed to exhale. All the pain multiplied, my body taking stock of, and now becoming fully aware of, the damage it had taken. The guards stood me up, each grasping the back of my shirt with one hand, opened the jail door, and walked me back to bunk sixty-three. They let go, letting me collapse onto the hard mattress, turned around, walked back across the room, the boots used to bludgeon me clicking and clacking upon the cold floor, and left.
The entire barrage lasted no more than three minutes, every shot aimed at my stomach. They did this, I understood, because it wouldn’t leave bruises. I didn’t know whether this had happened because of my earlier interaction with the CO on duty, or because they had caught wind of the nature of my crime and felt like returning the favor. It hardly mattered now. The most unsettling part of the beating was that at no point after the guard had told me to come with them, did either man speak a single word. To me, or each other. It was the silence of the brutality that terrified me the most.
The next morning I got up and joined the other inmates for breakfast. The only recognizable item of food was a stale piece of corn bread, which I turned down along with the pile of mystery slop that resembled corn chowder. My stomach was a mess of twisting aches, and I was convinced I suffered internal bleeding and that nothing ingested would stay down anyway. I sat at the table for a while, twirling my utensil around in the meal as a child would who refused their dinner and needed to make it look like food had been consumed.
When enough time had passed I got up, threw out the tray’s contents, and followed some of the others to the cylinder for mindless laps. There was nothing to do but wait for something to happen. A kid around my age, bone-thin and short and pale, latched on to me with the nervous energy of an eager student on the first day of school. “Hi,” he chirped, slowing down beside me to match my sluggish pace. “I tried to stab a cop and run away but got stuck on a fence and they tazed me until I fell back down. They say I have schizophrenia so I bet I’ll get outta here soon and it’ll be all back to normal as long as I take some pills and see a psychiatrist twice a week. That’s what the doctors said, I think. It was a little fuzzy, though, but I think that’s what they said. I’ve never seen a psychiatrist but I’ve seen them in movies and the couches always look so comfy so I think I’m looking forward to it. Do you take pills too? Do you see a psychiatrist? Do they really have you sit on those comfy couches while you talk to them? I hope mine is nice. The doctors seemed nice. Everyone here seems nice, now that I mention it. Except for the guards, they’re not the nicest, but that’s the gig I guess, right? I’m William, what’s your name?”
The sheer weight and volume of the word vomit spewed upon me was too much to keep up with this early in the morning. I decided to respond to the least personal and easiest to answer portion of his monologue: “Some have couches. Sometimes chairs. They’re comfy.”
William beamed at me. “Yeah, I figured. That’s a hell of a gig, I bet—being a psychiatrist. Just sitting around all day listening to people. Hell, I do that all the time already and I don’t even get paid for it! Maybe I should become a psychiatrist when I get outta here.” His eyes glazed over and focused on the tiles in front of his feet as he fantasized about his upcoming new life. “Yeah. I think that’s for me. Don’t you think?”
From this interaction alone, I understood definitively that psychiatry would never be a line of work that would be of any interest to me. I pitied whoever would wind up across a coffee table and box of tissues from this person. “Yes,” I said. “I’m gonna go sit down on my bed. It was nice to meet you, William. Good luck with that.”
William’s voice faded away into the widening space between us: “Hey, thanks man! Nice to meet you, I’ll come say hi in a little while! Don’t be a stranger! I mean it, man, I’m serious. Don’t.”
The minute I sat down, it became clear my body wanted me to vomit. I returned to my feet, and slowly but deliberately made my way to the toilets. If there’s black in your puke, I told myself, that’s dried blood and it means you’re bleeding inside. If there isn’t, you’re fine. I’m sure you’re fine, Henry. I’m sure you’re fine.
With my goal just feet away, a loud, gravely voice barked out my name. “Gallagher!” I turned around and saw the CO pointing from behind his glass barrier to the phone connected to the nearby wall. “You’ve got a call. Make it quick.”
I took in a deep breath, swallowed hard to keep any bile making its way up to settle back at the top of my stomach, reached the phone and put the outdated piece of technology to my ear. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to the man I would come to rely on multiple times over the coming years. “Henry, how you doing, man? My name is Walter Brimming. Your mom gave me a call to help you out with your arraignment. I’ll be your lawyer during the proceeding.” He spoke with a throaty, Brooklyn-Italian accent.
“Okay,” I said. “Hi.”
“So I’m just gonna give you the rundown. I’m in the process of pulling some strings, given your history and the events that led up to the incident. You’ll be fine, son, you’ve got no record, you’re a head case—I mean no offense by that, I promise. That’ll only help us going forward with all this. You’re not gonna be taken to the courthouse, okay? You’re gonna appear remotely via video call. I’ll be there to talk for you. You don’t need to say a word—”
“No, see, Henry,” he interrupted, “you’re fucking up already. You don’t talk. I can’t stress that enough. The judge will ask you to enter a plea and you say ‘not guilty.’ That’s all you gotta do. Now say it with me.”
“Not guilty,” we answered together.
“Good. That’s great. You’re already a fine criminal in the making.”
I didn’t know how to respond. The silence allowed for the vomit to begin rising again.
Walter emitted a grating, theatrical laugh. “That was a joke, son. I’m joking. You’re gonna be fine. I’m doing everything I can on my end. You just focus on staying quiet and alive. Can you do that for me?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. You have any questions for me? How’s the food?”
“I haven’t eaten,” I said. “No, I don’t have any questions.”
“Yeah, I don’t blame you. Making friends?”
“Tons. I’ve joined a knitting circle with some of the Aryan Brotherhood.”
Walter snorted. “You got jokes. That’s good. You hold on to that.”
There was a tap on the glass barrier and I turned to see the CO pointing to the watch on his wrist. “Okay, well thank you, Mr. Brimming. I have to go now.”
“Alright, you do that. You’ll see me at the arraignment. If everything goes well you won’t need to see me at all. Or ever again. Keep your head up.”
I hung up the phone, allowed the bile to restart its climb up my esophagus, walked rigidly to the toilets, dropped to a knee, and vomited.
What expelled from my stomach was only a watery, viscous yellow mix of whatever acid and bile my body could muster. No blood, so I decided I wasn’t going to die and was going to have to go through with this. It was difficult to ascertain which outcome I was really hoping for.
The remainder of the time I had left was spent sitting on the edge of bunk number sixty-three, listening to the death rattles of the homeless man curled into the fetal position across the gap. Since I’d gotten here he hadn’t risen once. Not to piss nor shit nor eat, which left me with the unfortunate realization of what that implied, and why the man smelled the way he did. No one bothered to check on him, but quite the opposite. The inmates and COs alike all avoided him as if he’d come down with leprosy. People like this man provide you with a sense of perspective. There are always worse things.
There were subjects I wished I had the mental clarity to convey to Walter over the phone—the withholding of my epilepsy medication namely, as I had no more than another twenty-four hours before my last dose would leave my system and I’d be at serious risk of a grand mal seizure, but I struggled with whether I should have brought up the beating. That the entire experience of incarceration felt dreamlike gave my starved and stressed mind hesitancy on whether or not last night’s event had even occurred. I could never really trust my mind, I had no real evidence, and in honesty, I was afraid of what further repercussions could befall me should I choose to publically recall the physical abuse I’d suffered at the hands of those still holding control over my wellbeing.
My left hand had now swollen up to twice its normal size. I knew I needed medical attention eventually, but the idea of voicing any further complaint to a guard felt like the worse of the two possible outcomes. My only hope for salvation lay with the voice inside that telephone.
The jail door opened. Out walked two familiar faces. In the darkness it had been difficult to get a great look at them, but in the light of the room in the daytime every piece of their complexion and facial structure and eyes and stature flooded through into the fuzzy image to create the full picture of my assailants. They stopped and stood at the door, and began calling out names. There were three of us.
I stood and began the slow walk across the floor. We lined up before the COs and waited to be spoken to. I fell to the back, trying to create as much space as possible between the guards and me.
The man I recognized as the first to throw a punch stepped forward and spoke. “Ya’ll are gonna be heading to your arraignments. Goody for you.” He glanced at me and smirked. “Alright then, let’s go. The law don’t wait for ya.”
We passed through the door, and his partner circled behind us as he had before under the cloak of darkness. “Move forward. Stay in line,” he said.
The hallway was cold and quiet. Our issued slides made no noise against the floor, so all that filled the wide, long, empty space was the clack clack clack of the guards’ polished shoes. My pace was slow, as I waited for the sound of the jail door slamming shut—waited for the finality of that sound to force me to prepare for the next, unknown step.
But in its place, came a shout. “Hold up there.”
We all turned around in synchronicity, now facing a third guard, one of the men stationed in the guards’ box.
“What is it?” asked the CO leading us.
“Gallagher stays,” the man replied. “I’m supposed to bring him back.”
The man who threw the first punch looked at me and frowned. “Alright. Just take him. You’re holdin’ us up.”
Without a second thought I sprung from the line and stood behind my new savior like a duckling hiding underneath its mother’s wing. I didn’t care the reason; all that mattered was to be farther away from those guards.
The now shortened lined turned back and continued on wordlessly until disappearing around a corner. It was the first moment since I’d arrived that I felt a moment of peace.
“The mother duck looked at me and nodded his head to move towards the open door. “It’s your lucky day. DA dropped your charges.”
My throat went dry and I became dizzy. I didn’t understand.
“Must pay to be a crazy sonofabitch,” was the only explanation he would provide. “Play psycho and the whole system just drops to a knee and sucks your cock.” This last sentence was mumbled under his breath with his eyes forward as we stepped back into the jailhouse. “Bring your pillow and mattress back up to the box, and then we’ll get you processed.”
My youth and naivety shined through with the only question I could think to ask. “And out?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “And out.”
The experience of getting processed and released from jail is a monotonous labyrinth of locked, white room after locked, white room—with hours of nothing to do but stare at the other poor, thankful souls sitting across from you.
The lucky trio was comprised of: 1. Me. 2. A man who had caught his wife in bed with another man, and who then chased the man out the open window of their 2nd-story apartment with a six-inch kitchen knife in hand before falling just shy of murder when he was apprehended by the police in the middle of a 7-11 parking lot, and 3. The puerile fellow I’d arrived with who had decided to immediately seal his fate by ruining the countdown lineup and promptly receive a state-sanctioned beating. After having been rewarded with a cracked jaw and a broken tooth, he’d been thrown into a single-bed cell with no heat in the middle of winter. More than anything else that had occurred, he was beside himself with anger that he had not been provided a blanket. This was the only thing he felt like talking about during the seven hours it took to finally be led to the bus that would drop us off at the front steps of the county courthouse—as free men.
Under moonlight and a clear sky, the three of us shared a knowing and subtle nod, as nothing needed to be said, and we would never see each other again, only having those hours together in a series of locked, white rooms.
One man went one way. The second man, another. And I remained, looking back at the courthouse, knowing not yet what else to do.
I had never wanted more in my life than in that moment, to commit a fucking crime.