Apparently, I am my Brother’s Keeper and Other Prison Oddities

 By Steve Marshall

      When one first sets foot inside the stark confines of a prison or jail, the first lesson to be learned is that this is an entirely different world. Everything one has learned up to that point about to live life is placed on ho and a whole new set of instructions comes into play.

      For example, here at Oakdale, we take our meals in a dining hall comprised of about 50 four-man tables. When you finish your meal and prepare to leave, you knock on the table. The others seated with you respond by each providing an answering knock.

      During my first week here, I asked someone the meaning behind this odd custom. I learned that it was a throwback to a time when inmates were not allowed to speak during meals. (This situation still endures at some higher level facilities.) When someone prepares to get up from the table, his knock is meant to convey the following message: “Excuse me. I am getting up now. This only means that I am leaving. I have no intention to attack you.” The answering knock implies: “We understand. Thank you for not attacking us. We appreciate it. Good bye.” This custom is one that I have not adopted. Instead, as I rise, I usually say “Have a good day” (or evening.) This seems to work just as well in conveying the message that I do not intend to beat up anyone.

      Another timeless custom is the “cool” prison nickname. This is often employed s a defensive measure. For example, if one is named Marvin or Ronald, this does not serve to keep others at bay nearly as effectively as “Killer” or “Bruiser.” However, in practice, I have noted that some of the nicknames tend to defeat their purpose by turning out to be . . . well I’ll just say it, kinda silly.

      In my unit alone, we have a “Boo-Boo”, (shades of Yogi Bear) a “Ya-Ya” and silliest of all in my opinion, a “Hot Sauce.” I have thus far resisted the temptation to address him as “Mr. Sauce.”  You see, “Hot Sauce” sports the tear-drop tattoo. A single teardrop under one eye is meant to convey that the wearer has killed someone. “Hot Sauce” has a whole splash of them so I have opted to avoid him altogether and remain off his radar.

      These customs and many others like them are generated among the inmates themselves. But occasionally, I come across one that has originated with the prison staff.

      Last year, our unit counselor came upon an entire trash bag full of hooch. (“Hooch” is a prohibition-era term for illegal alcohol.) One inmate in my unit had created the forbidden elixir from pilfered oranges and the yeast from bread. You should know that most people in the prison population turn into McGiver complete with the ability to turn a paperclip into a Gatlin gun.

      While I have never imbibed, I am told this “hooch” ferments for only a week or so in a trash bag, so I am surmising that it does not have the woodsy tang  of Jack Daniel’s that has steeped for twelve years in a specially treated oaken barrel. But I’m guessing that it gets the job done nevertheless.

      Anyway, the unit manager assembled us all and announced that our beloved microwave ovens were being removed until further notice. I looked around to see who was going to raise his hand and object to the idea of punishing over two hundred men for the actions of a single individual but no one did. The microwaves were not returned for another six months.

      About a month ago, another bag of “hooch” was found, another meeting hastily assembled and once again, the microwaves were gone. This time, I raised my hand to ask the obvious question and the unit manager replied, “You are all responsible for policing your own unit.” This was news to me. Foolishly, I had assumed that my job was to follow the rules but now I was being told that I was expected to enforce them as well. The inmates refer to the Corrections Officers t here as “the police”, so it was a fairly natural assumption that they would be the ones doing the policing.

      I have not been successful in obtaining any information as regards what specific steps I need to be taking should I encounter anyone manufacturing “hooch.” Do I beat him senseless? Do I merely threaten to do so? In either case, I would be in violation of the rules and sent to the SHU (Special Housing Unit or as it is lovingly referred to by one and all here, THE HOLE.) Do I snitch on him? Well, if I do that, then I am the one who will be beaten senseless. Do I shake my finger at him and say, “Bad inmate”?

      Yeah, that’ll work.

      So I am left to ponder the imponderable. The only answer that I am left with is that the staff is saying with a wink and a nod: “Take care of this dude however you want. Just don’t let us know about it.” From my point of view, the easier course is to just do without the frickin microwaves.

      I cannot, in the course of a single article, begin to cover all the ways in which prison life differs from that of the free world. That would take an entire book and a very fat one at that.

      Perhaps one day I’ll write it.

      But for now, I am content to observe at a distance as prisoners bump fists rather than shake hands, hold extended conversations at the top of their lungs with others on the opposite side of the compound, or smuggle ten-pound rump roasts out of the kitchen concealed in their underwear.

      What do I know? It’s their world. I just live in it.

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