Arthur Longworth was awarded First Place in memoir in the 2010 Prison Writing Contest.
The bread is moving. A small piece broken off of what was pushed through the narrow cuffport to me earlier that morning. A horde of tiny red ants have surrounded it, are beneath it, hefting it up on little ant shoulders as they struggle to carry it back to where they live, a crack in the concrete floor a short distance away. Their task appears impossible. But the bread, I know, will soon make it to the crack. It always does.
Why do I do this? My mind searches for an answer as I continue watching the ants, looking down at them from where I sit cross-legged on the cell floor in stinking orange coveralls. Because they’re living beings? In some way like me?
Another question rises in my mind, piqued by the ones before it. “I am still alive, aren’t I?” And as ridiculous as the question seems, it holds my attention because it’s hard for me to be certain of anything in this place anymore. I haven’t spoken in months. What do I actually have to verify that I am still alive? A heartbeat? It strikes me that someone dead may still perceive his heart as beating. Breath? Dead people probably think they’re breathing too.
I look at the heavy steel cell door beside me. That is something—what keeps me sealed inside this concrete box, this IMU cell. If I am no longer alive, would it still do this to me? God, I hope not. I motherfucking hope not. The thought scares me. Deepens despair. Hell, in my mind, not the fiery nether world of Christianity. How can I adopt an abstract when I know something worse, a thousand times more concrete?
Focus. I redirect my mind, aware that it is necessary to keep it on a short leash here, to rein it in when I feel it slipping, or run the risk of it leaving altogether. Strange things happen to minds in this place—things, I suspect, people in the free world know nothing about. Weak minds break quickly. Strong ones, later on.
I return my attention to the ants and I realize that I know why it is I do this for them. Because they provide for me a sense that I matter. Yes … that I am in fact, still alive.
It’s funny. They are prison ants.… No. IMU ants. Surely different than ants living in the free world. I suspect that they are unable to tell the difference between night and day. Perhaps, don’t even know there is such a thing. Having lived their entire lives under the glaring, artificial light that pervades this place, they have never known the natural light of day. Neither have they felt the warmth of the sun. Yet, it’s a difference that doesn’t seem to affect them. They continue on with their ant business, as if that is all that there is to do, completely absorbed in it, not missing a beat, able to survive regardless of circumstance. Tough little bastards. Brothers. Yes, I know this is why I take care of them.
I find myself suddenly unable to suppress the smile that comes unbidden to my face. They have made it to the crack with their bounty. They’ll begin to pull it apart now, I know. Soon, it will be inside.
* * *
Padding barefoot back and forth on the cold concrete floor, I stop for a moment to itch. My legs are on fire—my arms, chest, and scalp. Because of the bugs, I know. Ones that I can barely see—am only able to make out when examining myself closely—lots of them, running everywhere. If not for the itch betraying their presence, they might even have remained unnoticed (that, and the small red bumps that accompany the itch). But I know there isn’t anything I can do about the situation, so I don’t dwell on it. Itch and move on.
Hearing the electronic clack of the heavy steel gate outside my cell, the one leading into the cell block, I go immediately to the cell door to look out through its narrow slat of unbreakable glass. It’s what I do anytime I hear this sound that my ears have become tuned for, because it precedes anything that happens here. In this cellblock, anyway.
I see “the squad” out there in force, in front of the control center, which is all that is visible to me from the cell, all that is visible from any cell in IMU. That and the small room behind it that they sometimes use for hearings.
They are bringing someone in. I can’t yet see who it is, but I am excited by the prospect because they are going to put him in the cell next to mine—I know because it is the only one open in the block. He might even be someone I know … someone I will be able to talk to.
A minute later he appears, surrounded by guards as he shuffles around the corner of the control center. Two guards have hold of him directly, gripping him tightly by the shoulder and elbow—apparently feeling it is necessary despite the network of chains restraining him, the leash he is connected to, the white cloth sack pulled over his head. They are watching him closely. All of them.
As he is pushed forward through the gate and into the block, it takes me only a second to recognize him. Even with the bag over his head, it would be impossible to mistake Donald Stook for anyone other than who he is. Angry red slashes cover his forearms. Dozens of them. Maybe more than a hundred. Vestiges of the times that he’s tried to kill himself. And beneath the orange coveralls, I know there are more scars. Burn scars. His legs are covered with them from the times he hasn’t had anything to cut himself with, when he’s wrapped his legs in toilet paper instead and lit it on fire.
And Stook is crazy. No question about it. One hundred percent stark raving mad. If anyone unfamiliar with prison think they don’t send the completely insane here, I would like to introduce them to Stook, and many others as well.
He came in young (for the seemingly petty crime of stealing a truck), then was transferred here to Walla Walla when administrators at the receiving prison realized they couldn’t handle him. Not long after his arrival, he killed another prisoner. Strangled him. An offense for which he received a death sentence and lived for a number of years on Death Row, until that sentence was somehow vacated and he was given the sentence of life instead.
I don’t know if there ever was a time when Stook was sane. If so, it was long ago. He certainly has never been for the more than 20 years that I have known him.
Shuffling past the cell I am in, Stook moves out of my line of sight. The labored drone and vibration of an electric motor pulling a heavy steel door along its runners comes to me. And the resounding clang as it slams home on the other side of the brick and concrete wall.
I remain at the door watching as the guards leave, one of them carrying the orange coveralls that Stook had been wearing. The bag that was over his head is carried by another, who also has the chains and the leash.
Now that they are gone, I listen. Stook is ranting. An angry, nonsensical tirade that I can hear through the otherwise impenetrable wall. There is no way for me to talk to him when he is like this. I already know. Besides, I’m not sure my voice would work, even if I were to try. Maybe later.
I start scratching again.
* * *
An abbreviated series of dull thuds pounded out on the heavy steel door of the cell next to the one I am in tugs at my attention, trying to impose itself on me. I concentrate on not allowing it to do so, re-applying my attention to the pushups I am doing. “30, 31 …”
“Uncover that window!”
Hearing the words used so close and so loud, I give up and push myself up from the floor. Going to the cell door, I look out.
“C’mon, you crazy bastard …”
It’s a guard in front of Stook’s cell. I watch as he raises the heavy rubber mallet he has brought with him, bringing it down on the cell door and banging out another series of loud raps.
“Uncover the window!”
No response. At least none that I hear. Silence.
It’s been nearly 24 hours since Stook was brought in and they’ve been giving him the treatment ever since. Coming to his cell door every half hour and banging on it with rubber mallets. Trying to rile him verbally, ridiculing him. Making certain that he isn’t able to sleep.
And Stook, the last few times, begging them for water. They haven’t turned it on for him since he’s been here. Each time he asks, they only laugh at him.
It’s clear what they are doing. Baiting him into losing it. I’ve seen it too many times here not to know what it is, or to be surprised by it.
I am reminded of the first time I saw it done. To Clark. He wasn’t right in the head either, although his was more a case of mental incapacity, I believe, than outright insanity like Stook. He was a juvenile sentenced to death. It was why they kept him out here in IMU—it is where they house Death Row prisoners.
I’m not even sure exactly what he was in for. Something bad, certainly. It would have to be, I would think, in order for a 16-year-old to get the death penalty. Especially since he was retarded. But, as I said, I don’t know about that. I know only about what I saw—and that was that guards drove him to kill himself.
In Clark’s case, I’m not even sure that it matters. They were going to do it to him anyway—cinch a noose around his neck and hang him—no more than he did to himself. He merely beat them to it. Cheated those who planned to witness it out of their show.
Still, having seen what they did to him, I can’t help but feel that it was wrong. Certainly no less wrong than whatever crime it was that delivered him into their hands in the first place.
Right now, it isn’t Clark, though, I remind myself. He’s dead. Now it’s Stook.
The guard in front of the cell glances at his watch and begins to write in a small notepad he has pulled from his pocket.
Stook, I know, is doing exactly what it is they want him to do. You cannot cover the glass slat in your door here. Doing so is interpreted as a direct expression of defiance and is not tolerated. You will be beaten for it.
“Crazy fuck …” the guard says, flipping closed the notepad and returning it to his pocket. “You’re going to get what you’re asking for, I promise you that.”
Watching him closely, I note that his eyes have changed. They seem venomous. Hate-filled. Reflecting now what I believe is a glimpse of his psychosis—guards being as susceptible in their own way to the effects of this environment as prisoners. Long-term exposure being what creates the real monsters … both guard and prisoner.
“You hear what I’m telling you?!!” He screams it suddenly, unexpectedly, as loud as he can, lashing out simultaneously at the cell door with his heavy-booted foot. The rage he is manifesting is inexplicable—does not make sense.
And silence still answers him. No response.
A thought comes to me as I watch him leave the block—Stook is in a strip cell with nothing. What can he have possibly covered his window with?
* * *
Between violent, gagging coughs, I press a wet t-shirt over my mouth and nose trying to fend off the invisible, burning gas. My eyes feel as though they’ve been doused in acid. Face down on the floor, I do what I can to try to get away from it, but it’s useless. It’s everywhere. In the confined space of the cell, there is no escaping it. Feeling it reach for the back of my throat, I again begin to cough.
The grinding sound of the cell door coming open breaks into my consciousness. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. Pushing up off the floor, I go to the door, still pressing the t-shirt against my face, and look out at the narrow window slat.
A mass of guards are assembled there in front of the cell. More than a dozen, all wearing helmets and gas masks. Six completely “suited up”. [In full riot gear—suits lined with protected plates and pads].
The suited up guards are in front of the others, having formed themselves up closely behind a single, forward-curved riot shield. The largest guard holds it, wearing a helmet conspicuously different from the other. His is a football helmet with a full barred mask.
When the cell door clangs fully open, the riot-suited guard rush forward blue-hued bolts of crackling electricity arching out across the front of the shield held out in front of them. Once they are inside the cell, I am no longer able to see them. But my eyes now burn too much to open them anyway. Pushing the wet t-shirt further up on my face, I find momentary relief in pressing the cool cloth into my sockets. Then I fall into another fit of gagging coughs.
The sound of what is happening next door comes to me clearly, even through the coughing, the struggle for breath. Riot batons smacking naked flesh. The dull thudding of gloved fists. Boots.
Stook begins to scream, a sound that seems not human. That of an animal being savagely beaten, entirely at the mercy of his tormenters. And it continues for some minutes, the screaming and the beating.
Now, begging. Desperate, fervid pleas. Unintelligible.
The guards drag Stook out of the cell and into view face down, wrists and ankles chained behind the small of this back. Less than a dozen feet from me, they drop him, four of them returning immediately to the cell, two remaining with him, on either side.
Lifting his head, Stook opens his mouth. Perhaps trying to say something, but nothing I am able to make out. One of the guards responds by kicking him. Eight or nine times in quick succession. Twice contacting solidly with his head. The guards seem unconcerned with what he is doing.
After his kicks, Stook isn’t able to scream anymore, or beg. Face flat on the concrete and unmoving, he no longer appears conscious.
I notice that he is covered in shit. Literally. Smeared over every part of him. Real shit. Caked into his hair. It is this, I realize, that he must have covered the window of the cell door with.
Emerging from the cell again, the guards take hold of Stook’s chains and begin to pull him across the floor. It is in this way that they drag his limp and soiled form out of the cellblock.
And I know where they are taking him—to one of the large rooms in another part of the IMU that have no ceiling, are open to the elements, and have drains in their centers. They will lay him out there on the concrete near one of the drains, still in chains, and spray him down with a hose. I know, because, like countless others, I’ve been through it myself.
And they’ll make him lie there for a while. Hours, no doubt. The fact that it is winter will quickly become part of the punishment.
* * *
I am waiting at the cell door watching when Stook is finally brought back into the block. All prisoners out here are there—at their doors watching—the same as I. I’m sure of it. Although what happens inside this building may be kept out of view of anyone living in the free world, it isn’t from those of us who are here. What is happening to Stook is meant as much for us as it is for him. That is something I am sure of too.
As Stook gets closer, I see that he is shivery, his naked body quakes as he shuffles forward blindly, cloth bag pulled over his head. The guards with him (only three this time) seem subdued. At least not outwardly hostile or aggressive. They are allowing him to dictate his own pace—the pace he is able to go with his ankles cuffed, a restrictive length of chain running between them.
They direct him into the shower (a small brick stall at the end of the line of cells with a door on the front of it made up of vertical steel bars and crossbars) and go to work on him there without a word between them. Cuffing his wrists into shackles they have woven through the bars on the shower door at head height, they secure him in a standing position. There is now no way for him to sit down, nor even lower himself enough to kneel.
[Although I had no way of knowing it at the time—as I watched those three guards leave the block, one of them carrying the leash over his shoulder—two of them would later be shipped to Iraq. Contracted with a private company, they were sent there to oversee and train prison guards.]
Stook spent 16 hours in the shower … that time. I estimated the time in one of the few ways a prisoner is able to in IMU—by relating it to their official “count” times (the four times each 24 hour period that guards come through in a formal procedure and count bodies). Stook was taken to the shower approximately an hour before the 4:00 p.m. count and not removed until 7:00 the next morning, approximately an hour after the 6:00 a.m. count.
The time Stook spent chained to the bars spanned three different shifts—making it obvious that what was done to him was not the action of guards alone, but was ordered by a high ranking administrator. He was given neither anything to eat or drink during this time. And having no respite from the shackles, he was forced to relieve himself where he stood. When guards finally did come to get him, he was no longer conscious—his ranting, crying, whimpering all having long ceased—he hung from the bars by his cuffed wrists.
I watched the guards as they once again dragged him out of the block. Not speaking. Their faces angry, intent.
After they left, I remember being struck by something I was already well aware of, but which here is always able to come to me anew, reinforced. It is the fact that what they dragged out of the cellblock that day they in no way regarded as human. And it wasn’t only because it was Stook either. If it were me, it would be the same. Has been. If it were you … (don’t fucking kid yourself) there would be no difference either.
* * *
Standing at the cell door looking out, I can see that they are preparing to bring someone in. Stook returning, I suspect. But as the guards round the control center, I see that it isn’t Stook. It’s another prisoner—one who makes the four guards accompany him look small.
Coming to a stop in front of the door leading to the cellblock, they wait. Despite the fact that he is in chains, thee of the guards hold directly onto him. Another manages the leash.
Although I have not yet seen his face, I realize I know him—the prisoner on the leash. Reno Malava, a young Samoan who in the regular prison is known as “Problem Child”. And I know why he is in IMU too—what he has already been here more than a year for—the assault of a guard named Pearson. Not the kind of action that under normal circumstances could be ascribed to this simple (no doubt, developmentally disabled) prisoner. But this is a place where no circumstances are normal, and could only be described as such by those of us who have been here so long we know of no other way they could be.
The assault happened on the big yard, arising out of an incident in which black prisoners attacked a group of Asians. Outnumbered and physically smaller than the Blacks, the Asians rallied around Problem who single-handedly kept them from being done-in. Lifting Blacks into the air, he began throwing them—his method of fighting. Some of them into others. Others, straight down into the hard-packed earth. The more of them that entered the fight, the angrier he became, the harder he fought. Around him, more than two dozen prisoners scuffled in a rising cloud of dust, hemmed in on two sides by the prison’s gray stone wall, a gun tower looking directly down on them.
It is in situations like this when you don’t know if the next moment will be your last. Believe me. Whether you will be stabbed by another prisoner or shot by a guard. You aren’t able to look everywhere at once. You can see only what is in front of you, and that is what you must concentrate on. It is into this kind of situation that guard Pearson made the decision to interject himself.
Maybe it was because he saw Problem as the linchpin of the fight—the one who most stood out, who all activity seemed to be centered around—that he decided to charge him, attempt to tackle him from behind. And he harbored not a shadow of doubt that his fellow guards would follow him.
Absorbing the hit by Pearson, Problem turned his attention on him immediately and away from the two prisoners in front of him with whom he had been simultaneously engaged. Lifting the guard off the ground, he flung him down hard, slamming him onto his side and breaking his ankle. Taking hold of him again, Problem then began punching him.
Seeing that this was a guard, the Blacks fell back quickly, abandoning the fight and fading off into the crowded yard. The Asians, seeming unsure of what to do, remained, unwilling to leave Problem.
Pearson, as it turned out, had miscalculated, misjudged his fellow co-workers. None of the half dozen guards with him had followed him into the fray. To their credit, they genuinely looked as though they wanted to come to his assistance. Yet, staying some yards away, they didn’t. Inching forward as close as they dared, they yelled at Problem, asking him to stop. Waiting for more guards to arrive.
The guard in the gun tower was going crazy. Yelling the loudest. He wanted to shoot—no doubt, kill. But Pearson was there …
Suddenly, the heavy steel door leading into the cellblock pops loudly as the electronic locking mechanism inside it is unlatched, the sound causing my mind to return in that moment to where it is that I physically am, at the narrow viewing slot of a cell door in IMU.
The guards enter the block with Problem and I notice for the first time that one of them is Pearson. The one holding the leash. Marching the Samoan forward, they direct him into where I already knew they would and close the door behind him. It is the cell next to the one I am in. The shit-painted cell.
I feel as though my breath is being squeezed from me. A tangible weight pressing down on my shoulders, chest—pressing down heavily on that which is already there. Despair.
Those motherfuckers. Those rotten motherfuckers.
They are laughing as they leave the block.
* * *
Taking aim at the half inch gap beneath the cell door with the folded and flattened end of an empty toothpaste tube I’ve fashioned specifically for this purpose, I flick it through the opening, sending it skittering across the stained concrete flood outside the cell. Although I am no longer able to see it, I know it has come to rest in front of the cell next door, a thin line (of threads that I have pulled from my orange coveralls and painstakingly braided together for strength) trails out behind it, leading back to me. Seated on the floor beside the door, I wait.
After a moment, I feel movement through the line and I know that it is being retrieved. A moment after that, a dull, thudding sound comes to me through the wall. Quickly, I tie a discolored towel onto the line. Then, pressing it down against the floor, I push it out beneath the door, the threadbareness of the material enabling it to pass through the gap easily.
When it is fully out, I rap my knuckles against the cell wall and feel the line again begin to move, being taken in at the other end as I play out slack on mine. I’ll be without a towel now for two days. Until they run showers again. It is the same for the bar of soap I have already sent over as well. I won’t get another until next week. But I give these things unhesitantly, without reserve. Would, indeed, five more if I could. Because I know what it’s like to be where he is. It isn’t like I haven’t been there before myself. In situations like this you have to find a way to deal with it the best you can, and continue on—because you’re not going to be rescued. It’s one of those things about this place that you know for certain, that you are able to count on more than almost anything else—that no one is going to show up suddenly and order guards to open the doors of the cell you are in, that you aren’t going to get out of there, and that no one is going to apologize to you for the things that they do to you here … ever. You have to make the best of the hand you’re dealt—because there is no other sensible way to deal with it—and this is exactly what I see that Problem is doing. Not once since he was moved have I heard him complain or bemoan his fate. This is one of the reasons I like and respect him as much as I do, and would be willing to make whatever sacrifice I am able to do in order to help him.
When I have retrieved my line, I flatten myself out on the floor with my face close to the gap beneath the door and begin to speak. I ask Problem why they moved him and am surprised to discover that he has come directly from a sentencing hearing held at the local courthouse. I ask him if Pearson was there, in the courtroom, and he confirms it. He says that Pearson took the stand and described for the judge how horrible the assault was, how traumatizing, how certain he is that his life will never again be the same.
“Jesus,” I think, picturing it. Pearson on the stand saying all that.
I ask what the judge sentenced him to and am startled to hear that it is only eight months. I know that the prosecutor had been asking for eight years. Officials at the prison, even more. And because I also know that the Samoan is as destitute as any of the rest of us here—in no way able to afford a real attorney, one that would actually help him—and knows nothing of the law himself, nor is good with words, I can’t help but wonder what had persuaded the judge to take it easy on him.
I ask him if he got a chance to speak in court and he tells me that he did. He says that although he was unsure of what to say at first, he decided to tell the judge about what already happened to him at the prison. The fact that he has been in IMU for more than a year and that the prison administrator overseeing his case has told him he will spend at least two more years here, that the prison has extended his sentenced by several years by taking all of this Good Conduct Time (all that he as earned in the past and can possibly earn in the future as well), that they have seized the little money he had in his prison account and levied a debt against him that is more than he can ever hope to repay, that any money his family or anyone else sends him is now taken from him.
“Yes,” I think as I listen to him. “That’s right.” This prisoner who is not good with words, relaying the simple truth, found (what seems to me to be) the perfect words. [And I note, he didn’t even tell the judge about his beating, the one guard applied to him in the Shift Office holding cell when they brought him in after the assault with his wrists cuffed together and his legs shackled together.]
I ask him what the judge said and he tells me that at first it wasn’t anything, that he looked for some time at the guards gathered in the courtroom, around the prosecutor’s table and in the audience behind it. But then, finally, he did speak. Asking a question. Still looking out at them, he asked if it was true, what the prisoner in front of him had said. But he didn’t receive an answer. The lack of one, I suppose.
“What’d he say then?” I ask, impatient to know. And for the first time since he was moved into the cell next to me, I hear him laugh. Not a loud laugh and not a lot, but enough for me to hear that it is infused with a genuine gladness. Perhaps, relief as well. Then he repeats for me what it was that the judge said.
“It sounds to me like this man has already been punished.”
I feel it inside of me then too, stirred up from somewhere deep down. And suddenly, it spills out. My laughter joins his.
* * *
Opening of their own accord, my eyelids retreat, baring my eyes to the same all-invasive light I was able to see while they were closed. I’m awake, yet numb, paralyzed.
Not that I couldn’t move if I wanted to. But that’s precisely it, isn’t it? There is no motivation to move. To get up and do what?
A dullness clouds my mind. Confusion. I posses not the slightest idea of what time it is, or what day. An experience not out of the ordinary in relation to where I am.
A thudding sound reverberates through the wall. Entirely disembodied. Until my tired mind grasps what it is, where it is coming from.
Bleary-eyed and a bit resentful, I push myself up off the concrete slab that is the place where I sleep and go to the cell door, seeing immediately why it is that Problem has summoned me here. Suddenly I am alert, fully awake. Guards in riot gear are entering the block. Lots of them. A seeming unending line. And for whatever reason it is they are here, I know it isn’t good because Lt. Todd is with them (an old school lieutenant who makes an appearance in this part of the prison only when something major is happening).
At his direction, the guards start up the stairs on the south side of the block, several of them packing canisters large enough to be mistaken for fire extinguishers by anyone unfamiliar with what they really are.
I realize they have come for Sterling Juergens. It has to be him because they wouldn’t use this many for anyone else. So many that it would seem ridiculous to anyone who didn’t know any better. Enough to quell a city riot in the free world.
There are this many guards whenever they deal with S.J. because he is one of those rare individuals who can find within himself no capacity to accept prison, or his place in it. And remains strong. Strong, despite the fact that he has spent more than the last ten years in IMU, a place from which I do not believe they will ever release him.
It would be hard, I think, impossible, for anyone in the free world to imagine someone like S.J. Because you have no example of this kind of person out there. Nothing to compare him with.
Handcuffs can’t hold him. Not when he doesn’t want them to. And it isn’t because he slips out of them either. He breaks them. A feat that is more amazing when you take into account that the cuffs used here aren’t the standard stock used by police in the free world. They are sturdier, reinforced—like breaking two pair at once.
The prison had a pair specially constructed for him—ones they were certain no one would be able to break, or in any other way get out of. But S.J. broke those too. No kidding.
In the Clallam Bay IMU, he managed to scale a sheer 20 foot wall inside a concrete holding pen and unravel enough of the heavy gauge chain link covering it to squeeze out. Dropping form the roof of the building, he dashed across the open ground between two manned gun towers to the prison’s double perimeter fence and began to climb as fast as he could. He almost made it too. Shot off the second fence, he fell back into the prison—into the mountain of dense, coiled razor wire stacked high between the fences. Hopelessly entangled. Wounded. Yet still struggling, trying to pull himself free and get away. If not for the fact that I saw the bullet stop him with my own eyes, I might still not believe that he is merely human.
Fighting off fully manned and equipped goon squads doesn’t seem to be anything for him either. He’s done it many times. Bare flesh, skin, and will against their weapons, armor, and state-sanctioned sense of righteousness. No six guards in any prison are able to subdue him. And they no longer try. That is why there is an army here for him now.
In the Shelton IMU, he broke out of a barred shower stall, getting loose inside of a block and creating a panic among guards who retreated quickly into the secure confines of their riot-proof control center. Only after enough reinforcements had been called in, suited up, and assembled did they come for him. They shot him with a gun that looks like a sawed-off shotgun. It fires a projectile that can knock a prisoner unconscious nearly anywhere it strikes his body. All prisoners, that is, except S.J. They hit him in his lower back and he didn’t miss a beat. Turning on them, he made them retreat again.
The truth is, S.J. scares them. Because something in him still burns bright, despite everything they have done to try and extinguish it. In fact, that may be what scares them the most—that they cannot understand what it is, cannot get it to go out.
Upstairs the yelling has begun. Shouted commands. The steady whoosh and hiss of gas being shot from canisters. Shedding my t-shirt, I soak it quickly and get it into place over my face before returning to the cell door to wait and listen.
After what seems like an eternity, I hear it. The crash of a cell door being slammed open. The stampeded of a hundred boots through the concrete over my head. Heavy thumps. More yelling.
When the thumping subsides, there is the sound of chains. Manacles ratcheted into place. Terse orders barked. Then, guards appear on the stairs. The ones leading the way down are carrying empty gas canisters and electric shock shields. Those behind them drag S.J. he is naked and looks only semi-conscious, his body jarred by the impact of each stair as he thuds down onto it. Large, discolored lumps have already begun to rise up all over his shaven head which lolls back and forth loosely, a long string of bloody mucus trailing down from his mouth and nose. He is groaning. Bleeding, although it isn’t clear from exactly where because the blood is smeared on him. Over his shoulder and down his chest.
On the ground floor, they drag him toward the cellblock door, as many guards as can possibly hold him. Lt. Todd following. And because I am expecting them to continue around the control center and out of sight, I am surprised when they stop in front of the hearing room instead, still in view of our cells. One of them, I notice for the first time, is holding up a small camera in front of his gas mask. Recording.
At the lieutenant’s direction, guards drag S.J. into the hearing room and lift him onto a table. Hold him on it face down.
Now it hits me—hard, like a hammer blow—the realization of what it is they are about to do. Not enough what they have already done. Now they are going to rape him, here in front of everyone. Take fingers and put them inside of him.
Suddenly, I feel despair again weighing down on me. Helplessness. Futility. A thousand tons of it. Crushing. Breaking. Yet only for a moment, because this time I throw it off. Forcibly eject it. At least exchange it for the indescribable rage I feel rushing to take its place.
I hear Problem kick if off by slamming himself against the door of his cell. The sound of it loud, even through the brick and steel. I can see that it has gotten the guards’ attention. They are looking back at our block.
Others now begin to follow his example. The entire cellblock going off. Then, their noise drowned by the sound of my own door in the confined space of the cell as I ram myself against it again and again.
* * *
The small piece of bread sits alone on the concrete floor where it was laid some time before. Unmolested. Eliciting no correspondent activity from the crack only inches away.
I am worried. Because the cellblock was flooded the night before as part of the protest and the crack spent nearly the entire night submerged. The water having receded only several hours earlier.
The bread is closer to the crack than I’ve ever placed it before. And still they haven’t come for it. The discerning part of me already knows there is no way they could have survived. Yet I continue to sit here waiting, holding on to the ridiculous hope. What else is there to do?
I feel myself wanting to cry. To break down and weep.
No. That’s not it. It’s more than that, I realize. I want to die. Truly. Why stay here for any more of this? For what purpose? There is no hope that it will ever end.
An ant appears then—unexpectedly—squeezing his way out of the jagged seam and taking off at a run. My spirit soars. And quickly he is followed by others.