Nonfiction by Michael Fischer
Among Unfamiliar Flags
I’m the first generation in my family to go to prison. That’s why I don’t know that you never ask someone where they live; the correct question is, “Where do you lock?” It doesn’t make any sense, but I’m not going to be the one to point that out. It’s something passed down from maximums, where guys are locked into individual cells. I hate to split hairs but there aren’t even any doors in the dorms here, let alone locks, but everyone asks the question anyway. I’ve “locked” in D1-45T, F1-5B, BN1-N1B, and a handful of others I can’t remember. The left side of the hyphen identifies the dorm and the right side is the cube number; “T” stands for top bunk and “B” for bottom bunk. Anyone in a top bunk arrived just recently, either from another dorm on the compound or from another prison altogether. Guys who have been in the dorm for more than a few months build up enough seniority to be moved down to a bottom bunk once one opens up, usually as a result of the previous occupant’s poor decision making.
It’s summer and I’m on a top bunk in a medium security prison dorm, the heat and smell of sixty other men reminiscent of an unrefrigerated meat locker. I’ve just arrived in this dorm and I’m looking out over what appears to be an airplane hangar filled with a honeycomb of sloppily painted partitions that make up cubes, narrow aisles carving out rows. It’s the kind of moment when it’s hard not to wish ill on the inmates down below, since I can’t move down to a relatively cool bottom bunk until at least a few of them move—or are frogmarched—out of here. I’d like to say that, in the spirit of more heroic breeds of captives like POWs or political prisoners, state prison inmates stick together and pull for each other. Unfortunately that would be bullshit, at least for me personally. I find myself hoping someone gets into a fight, fails a drug test, gets caught with a weapon, borrows the iron and forgets to return it to the officer’s desk in a timely fashion, does something to get sent to the box and bring me a little closer to moving down off this sticky perch. To wish the Special Housing Unit—the SHU, the box, the hole—on fellow inmates is a tad blasphemous, but I’ll repent once I can wake up in the morning without thinking I must have peed myself to have underwear this soaked.
Top or bottom bunk, I admit I've never really gotten the hang of sharing a cube with a bunkmate. I never make noise or ask to borrow anything, but the relationship always hits the same snag: I refuse to clean. When I first came to prison I was surprised by how spotless everything was. In retrospect this shouldn’t have been a surprise; it’s the product of debilitating boredom and the fact that prisons employ an army of inmate porters in an attempt to keep everyone busy. Some guys get in on the act simply because they find it therapeutic, or at least appreciate the sense of routine it gives them. One way or another, just about everyone participates in general upkeep—at least of their own area. It doesn’t take long for any bunkmate of mine to start wondering aloud if I ever plan on sweeping, or mopping, or dusting, or doing anything to keep things tidy. During the ensuing conversation said bunkmate invariably points out that we ought to be taking care of the cube for one simple reason above all others: “This is our space,” they say. “We live here.”
Like fuck we do; I couldn’t disagree more. In fact my whole reason for not cleaning hinges on my belief that this is patently false. In real life I take great pride in the things that belong to me and in my space. Once upon a time my OCD fueled lengthy, panting sessions full of not only cleaning but nudging pieces of paper to make sure they lined up properly with the edges of desks and positioning lamps equidistant from everything around them so as to keep my eye from twitching all week. Normally I don't resemble someone who appreciates cleanliness so much as a person who will be shot if one of the forks in the silverware tray is upside down. When I was young my sister used to play a game in which she would go into my room and tilt something ever so slightly, then hide and wait for me to return to see if I would notice. I would always make a beeline for the offending object, correct it, and then glare at her with a mixture of annoyance and triumph.
In prison all of that has stopped cold. I’m nothing if not stubborn, and I’m determined to use my cube to help me deny reality. My thinking goes like this: if I don’t waste any energy on my surroundings and don’t take care or ownership of this space, it proves to the almighty cosmos and everyone in it that this is a mistake—that I am innocent, don’t belong here, and won’t be staying long. I sure as shit don’t live here, not in this stupid little cubicle out of some office park nightmare, complete with glaring industrial lighting and nosy neighbors whose taste in music makes me want to jam Little Debbie snack cakes in my ears. I’m only here while I wait for the documentary film crews to come flocking to my cause, which will undoubtedly happen any day now. I hate my cube and everything it represents—my loss of freedom, choice, dignity, privacy—and I neglect it accordingly.
Besides, I reason, in an environment like this it’s more important to always be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Already I have been moved more times than I can count, for reasons ranging from the linoleum in my part of the dorm getting replaced to the momentary whim of a correctional officer. When this happens I sometimes have only a matter of minutes to throw all of my stuff into canvas bags and then drag them to my next destination, hoping the bottle of baby oil I bought at commissary to keep the blades of my hair trimmer running won’t burst during the commute and ruin my only three T-shirts. I’ve seen guys spend hours buffing floors to a blinding shine and taping pictures of family members over scuff marks on partitions only to be moved the next day, their sandcastles wiped out by the capricious tide so particular to prison life. It’s quite enough, I decide in a fit of self-righteousness, to experience having everything I worked my whole life for destroyed once. No need to relive a microcosm of that moment every time an officer slams his hand on my locker and tells me to pack, just as I finally finish stacking my canned soups in alphabetical order.
Living as I do inside my own impermeable mental bubble, I have also convinced myself that my cube is a political statement. In prison the order and cleanliness of the dorms is taken as the definitive sign that things are running smoothly, right up to the administrative level. Whenever the prison is being inspected by bigwig officials from out of town or up for some form of accreditation, only one thing is done to improve its chances: the officers walk the aisles of every dorm shrieking at the porters to buff the linoleum floors into oblivion, and for days the smell of singed floor wax hands out pounding headaches to inmates across the compound (the amount of money the state spends on floor wax for this place could, incidentally, pay for a Ph.D for every man, woman, and child in the county). Never you mind that someone was stabbed in the yard during the B Dorm vs. C Dorm basketball game or that all of the commissary employees just got fired for stealing honey buns from the inventory; after all, just look at these floors! Given how poorly this place is, in reality, run—almost no vocational programming, rampant officer abuse, etc.—I find this dog and pony show ridiculous. I have no doubt that my dirty cube stands as a testament to the fact that, despite its glossy exterior, the criminal justice system is rotting from the inside out.
Somehow all of this overdramatic rambling doesn't impress any of my respective bunkmates, or convince them that I am anything but lazy. One—a 48-year-old man named Max who has been doing time for double murder since the eighties and spends his free time reading back issues of Cat Fancy—tells me ominously that if I’m not going to at least dust my metal bed frame then I should move, before he “has to hurt somebody.” It says a lot about my unrivaled stupidity on this issue that in response to this blatant death threat I become even more defiant. I cultivate the habit of noisily eating saltine crackers out of the box while sitting on my bunk, the crumbs falling all around me in an outright plea to this man to strangle me in my sleep. The situation isn't resolved until the more mentally sound, reasonable party (Max) goes to the officers and has me moved elsewhere, to avoid the trouble of having to kill me and kissing any chance at parole goodbye.
Luckily for me, only some of the cubes in this particular prison have bunkbeds in them; the majority are singles and the same size as the bunk cubes—the holy grail of prison accommodations. Once I’ve been in my new dorm long enough to be moved into a cube of my own, things sink to new depths. Within a month the guy in the adjacent cube has assembled a barricade out of old ratty bath towels and shoved it deep under his bed, in order to keep the constellations of hair and Pop-Tart sprinkles on my side from migrating under the partition in a desperate search for someone willing to sweep them up. The dust coating the surface of my two prison-issue lockers will be thick enough to use as a blanket by the time the snow starts to fall, and I’m constantly short on time now that the majority of my day is spent sneezing. Without a bunkmate to keep conditions reasonable I do just enough to keep the dorm officers from clubbing me unconscious, which amounts to furtively pushing some of my refuse into the aisle with my foot whenever I spot one of the porters going by with a broom. Everyone around me is repulsed and has taken to making fun of me within easy earshot of my sulking form, but I’m too depressed to care.
It goes without saying that I also refuse to decorate in any way. Most other inmates create elaborate collages on the insides of their lockers that would put middle school girls to shame. One guy in the dorm has developed a genuinely unhealthy obsession with Flo—the spokeswoman from the Progressive commercials—and has taped together a collection of magazine ads featuring her that resembles some kind of perverse religious triptych. Meanwhile my cube remains bare, the monotony broken only by chipped paint and previous tenants’ fossilized stickers pushing products that went extinct long before I was born. When people question my decorating—or lack thereof—I argue that it’s depressing to spend all day staring at pictures of women you will never meet, cars you can’t afford, places you can’t go, even shoes that the package room won’t let in here because the lace holes are rimmed with metal. Teasing myself with images of a life that none of us losers will ever have isn’t my idea of home.
I would never say this to anyone here because the entire culture of prison is allergic to any kind of genuine human emotion, but I’m still mourning my real home—the place where I belonged, felt comfortable, wasted afternoons anxiously folding and refolding the towels. Any minute. I swear to God someone is coming any minute, in fact I had a dream about it last night. The judge felt so bad he came in person; he had a ring of old keys dangling from a rope that was tied around his judge’s robes at the waist, like some kind of sheepish Friar Tuck lookalike. With that stupid, doleful look I remember so well draped across his face, he told me I’d won my appeal and that he was obligated to tell me himself. I just stared at him in disgust and started packing. The cans of beans, the stained writing paper, the threadbare polo shirt for family visits—I didn’t give a shit if it was all next to worthless in real life, it was coming with, there wasn’t going to be one single trace of me left behind in this place. I hadn’t quite finished packing when the morning count woke me up, but I’m not worried. This is America; somebody is going to do something about this. I’m pretty sure he’s coming—the judge. Maybe not him, but someone is. Soon.
Michael Fischer was released from state prison in early 2015. He is currently earning his MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College, as he tries to digest his prison experience through his writing.