I met Craig the day I moved into UA unit in Beaumount Low FCI.
A brief primer of the Federal Prison System:
Super Max – where terrorists and people who kill guards end up. All human contact is reduced to separations of space. Lots of shatterproof plastic and steel doors. No bars. No recreation with other inmates, no library, no email. Pretty much just a whole lot of “no.” Although you can receive mail. Also known as 23/1 – 23 hours a day on permanent lockdown and 1 hour in a rec yard alone. The rec yard consists of a 30 x 10 foot concrete area with 30 foot high walls and a chain link fence covering the overhead portion.
High/Penitentiary (the “Pen”) – infamous for its stabbings which frequently result in 23/1 lockdowns, if not permanent ones. Obviously a dangerous place, run by gangs but with far more freedom than a Super-Max. Available library, email, UNICOR and other prison work, but limited movement and very high staff to inmate ratio.
Medium – surrounded by a wall, a fence and armed guards, but freer in movement than a Pen and with a lower staff to inmate ratio. Still quite dangerous and still run by gangs. Access to a library, email, mp3 servers and recreation yards by unit (usually). Frequent fights do result in lockdowns, but no as often as a Pen.
Low – surrounded by a fence but no wall, no armed guards in general and much smaller staff to inmate ratio. Movement is unrestricted for the most part during “10 minute moves” which take place on the half hour every hour between 730am and 830pm. Access to libraries, email, mp3 servers and one single recreation yard for the entire compound. Often access to rec classes: leather shops, wood shops, painting shops, etc. Guards tend to “trip” on things like cardboard in your locker and stealing food from the chow hall, as opposed to stabbing fellow inmates (as in the Pen and Medium.) Still, run by gangs unless you’re at a compound where the population of sex offenders (“chomos”) are dominant – at which places gangs of sex offenders run the compound. Guards are complicit in this, as it is easier to take such a path of least resistance rather.
Camp/Minimum – no fences, no walls, most doors unlocked. Total freedom of movement on the compound between 5am and 9pm. Staff to inmate ratio very low (sometimes as low as ONE guard for the entire camp!). Less recreation activities than a low but a few places still have weight piles (which are not allowed in higher level security facilities). Libraries, movies, open visitation and far more televisions. NO gangs! Woot! Gang members may make it to a Camp sometimes but they have nothing like the power they do at high levels. Lots more contraband at Camps – more cell phones, outside electronics, clothing, shoes, toiletries and personal care products and food than the above places. (I had an illegal mp3 player, a nose trimmer, a body hair shaver, illegal boxer briefs, tank tops and a memory foam mattress topper)
Now that you have a brief understanding…back to me and Craig.
Craig is not his first name, but his last. He was taller than me, pushing 6’4” and thicker in the body though not particularly in good shape. His body was worn from hard heroin addiction and poor living, his teeth rotten and his breath reeked of coffee and sewer gas. Along with his dumpy frame he wore a long beard tapered along the chin so it resembled a column of curly hair descending half way down his neck. Tacky, I know. Especially as he was bald on top – though thankfully he did not try a desperate comb over or some such ridiculousness. I never got the specifics on Craig’s crime, though it definitely involved computers, a steep fine and an investigation by the FBI. Somehow we became fast friends.
It took only days before Craig admitted to me that he had once been “gay for pay” – had had a “sugar daddy.” I felt such revulsion for whomever had once paid to kiss him. His mouth was like a pit of brown barnacles growing out of a redden tire. Yet if I squinted just hard enough, I could imagine – that maybe, just maybe he had once been attactice. Or perhaps his benefactor had simply been plussed by Craig’s nominal “straight” status and was so ugly himself that Craig a viable option for quid pro fuckment. Craig even had a tattoo under his right leg: a long fishing pole with a dick on the hook and the words “QUEER BAIT” across it. When I came out to Craig, of course, I had no idea of these things.
Craig was a sad man. He had no real family left save for an Aunt and Uncle who kept him at a distance and wrote infrequently. THey sent no money and only vaguely empty promises of a possible visit, during which time Craig might be lucky enough to sample the vending machine food that was a such a lure when held against the fare of the chow hall. Other Federal inmates with access to funds could shop at the Commissary once a week and produce delicious meals, but Craig was broke and his prison job scarcely afforded him money sufficient to feed his coffee addiction and buy toiletries. He was poor in a terrible place to be poor, Federal prison. But still, he had coffee. A radio. Batteries. Access to the “white” TV room, books to read, a mat to sleep upon and ample, if terrible food in the chow hall. Especially when inmates who COULD afford Commissary fare would accompany him to the chow hall and give him the majority of what they did not want or would not eat. All in all his life was not terrible, merely uncomfortable.
This being said, Craig very much wanted his life to be better and a visit from his Aunt and Uncle was what he held on to.
“Frank, man, I THINK they’re coming this weekend!” Craig told me excitedly. His noxious breath wafting the smell of burned instant coffee towards me.
Thank Tori cigarettes are expensive, I thought or he’d reek of those too!
“I know it doesn’t mean much to you, bro, you get visits all the time.”
True and not. So far I’d had four visits in twelve weeks. By no means a high amount for the prison, but compared against Craig’s situation it must have seemed magnanimous. I talked often of my sister Jane and my parents and my sister Michelle – all of whom visited me; I commented on the banality of the food from the vending machines, without really thinking much on just how good it must have sounded to Craig, who would have none of it. Ever.
“I got a letter and she said they’re coming!” Craig said, waving a scrawled handwritten rule sheet of paper at me. It looked as if a fussy woman with Parkinson’s had penned it.
The weekend came. So did Jane. Sadly, Craig’s Aunt did not. I bounded back into the cube I now shared with Craig – we had been bunkies for six weeks by then, in a “white controlled” cube – full of plastic wrapped hamburgers, Hershey’s Cookies n Cream bars and microwave French bread pizza. Surely these things came off my breath, when I noticed Craig in his bunk, not reading or drinking coffee or listening to the radio, his flaccid arms behind his head and a sullen expression on his broken face. He did not look at me as I entered. Very unusual for Craig, who always wanted to know what I’d eaten, how my sisters were or what I might have seen in the Visitation room. It was also a Saturday night and here Craig was – alone and unrelieved.
“What’s wrong, Craig?” I asked as I removed the khaki day uniform required for visitation in favor of cheap cotton shorts and a white t-shirt.
Craig continued to stare sullen at the ceiling. FInally after a very pregnant pause he turned his head and looked at me. Then he sighed. “I waited all day and she didn’t come.”
A new detail occurred to me: Craig wore his full khaki uniform, much like the one i had just removed. On a Saturday no one wore such unless to attend Visitation. Glumness rode into my Visitation high. THis would have happened regardless – it was even given a name by the other inmates “P.V.D.” or “post-Visitation depression.” Usually it meant taking off the uniform, crawling into bed and falling into a fitful sleep until Count Time at 4pm. But Craig’s pain trumped my own. I edged myself against him on his bunk, invading his space and said:
“I’m so sorry man. Is there anything I can do?”
Would that I had never said such. Would that I could erase that moment. I’d never have known the shame of his slap. But that was months in the future.
“Nah. It’s not your fault they didn’t come. I shouldn’t have got so excited…” Craig said forlornly.
“Well. How about this?” I beamed at him. “My shopping day is Tuesday. Give me a list for $40 worth of stuff and I’ll buy it for you. You can pay me back whenever, but it’ll be a nice treat, you can make something good, nachos or something and you’ll feel better.”
Craig looked skeptical – with good reason. NOTHING in prison is free. NO ONE gives from the heart. That is what we’re taught and what is often, painfully, reinforced by experience. Aside from my faggotry – Craig may have assumed I was trying to buy his sex, much as his former “sugar daddy” once had – Craig could have thought any number of things or reasons to refuse. But he did not. He perked up instantly after his moment of skepticism.
“Well…really? You’d do that?”
I had just left a visit during which I’d pressured Jane for more money, I had plenty. And in my thought it seemed clear that Craig needed it more than I, even if it were not really and should not really, be mine to give. I gave it anyway. WIth one and a half hands.
Craig lit up. He soon began making his list. It didn’t take long – $40 could be spent in surprising quickness at the Beaumont Commissary. Craig knew this – his job as a prison plumber paid only $25 a month and he could not hope for an upgrade for at least several months from a Grade Four to a Grade Three – at which point he’d make about $40 per month.
I lit up myself, pleased that I could help someone in need. Craig had been nice to me a place where people were inherently NOT nice, had been welcoming and accepting (if secretly) of my sexuality in ways that allowed me to feel like I could, actually, DO this whole prison thing. So it did not seem too much of a stretch to offer him what I could, after all, it was just other people’s money.
I bought everything on Craig’s list (snicker, I know you want to…) and got such pleasure dumping it on his bed. Coffee, candy bars, cheese and chips, tortillas and one lone bag of meat. Some batteries and bags of creamer. A box of Swiss rolls. Surely this small haul would allow him to have a moment of unrestricted pleasure in the grim, taupe-walled box of displeasure. When Craig returned from work for lunch and saw the haul he grinned, a horrid sight, and quickly put his gifts away.
“I swear, I’ll pay you pay as soon as my Aunt sends me money or I make Grade Three!”
“Don’t worry about it, whenever you can!” I said, because that is what you do. You offer time to pay a debt even when you don’t expect the person to take such a length of time. Of course, that is OUTSIDE prison.
Weeks would pass and Craig would not hear from his Aunt or Uncle again. But he did begin to grow close to someone else in the prison. A gang member. Not just ANY gang member, of course, but THE gang member in our unit: Dee.
Dee was the “shot caller” for the Aryan Brotherhood on the entire compound. That means that he was the highest ranking member of the gang in the prison. He “called the shots.” Amusing to note that the term “shot caller” is derived from basketballers and primarily a term used and originated by black men. For white gang members who detest black people to co-op the term without irony always struck me as hilarious. (The AB’s called black people in the prison “toads” and “niggers” – the former in their very presence, the latter only in the “white” TV rooms or in private.) Though gangs are often tough and formidable as both allies and foes, and though they may seem courageous and fearless – they are in fact the opposite. Gang members are often the weakest at heart and most frightened of people – the very terror they feel is what motivates them to require a gang the first place. They cannot “make it” on their own and desire succor and safety and foolishly think this, along with associated cachet, comes from being part of a gang. Being SOMEONE. Part of SOMETHING. It’s pathetic and all too human.
An apt description of Dee.
Dee had gotten close to Craig because Craig wanted these things. Lacking family and money and anything like what he saw the AB’s in possession of, it must have been a powerful lure for Craig.
To BE someone.
Dee took full advantage. He soon had Craig following him around rather like an idiotic puppy and avid child combined, only one disposed towards violence and cruelty. Not at all the ugly, smelly and sad Craig i had known. He was still all of these things, but he had subsumed such into his new identity as a recruit into the AB. Also – he had not paid me back at all. Not a single thing.
More weeks would pass, I would move out of the cube with Craig and into the cube with Dee. Dee had the single best cube in the unit – a two man instead of a three man, in a corner, with a window in the back of the unit – far from the noise of the TV rooms and the guard’s station. It was too difficult for me to resist when he offered it to me. I should have known better, but that is another chapter. Craig would also move from our former three-man into another white controlled two-man with a fat man named (*sigh* yes) “Tiny.” Tiny and Craig were both slobs, though Tiny had a hustle selling baked goods and so he at least had money. This benefitted Craig in that he got to eat samples for free. Craig also made his Grade Three and astonishingly enough made Grade Two when the Grade Two plumber was shipped elsewhere. Right around this time things between Dee and unravelled and I was given very explicit instructions to move out or be stabbed.
More weeks after this I learned good news: I would no longer be at Beaumont Low! I had been granted a transfer to the Prison Camp at Pensacola, the facility I SHOULD have been at all along! Excitement! Fireworks! Joy! I immediately began to get my affairs in order: prime on my list – settling Craig’s debt.
Then I did something really stupid.
I went to the “store man” (an inmate who purchases commissary items in large numbers and then resells them at a significant markup to people who either have no money for commissary and must use prison currency [stamps at this facility] or have already shopped for the week and cannot shop again but MUST have some item [usually a sweet or cooking item for some dish]) who happened to be a close friend of mine. Arnie was more than happy to apply what Craig owed me to the small debt I had accrued to Arnie. I owed Arnie $28 and I sold the $40 debt from Craig to Arnie. Arnie would make $12 on the deal. Finance titans eat your heart out! Well, needless to say Craig was not pleased.
“You did what?”
“I sold the debt to Arnie…so you’ll just pay him whenever you can, he said it’s cool!”
“Listen faggot you can’t just do that shit! If people find out they’ll think I answer to you and if Dee hears about it…”
I brushed aside his use of the word “faggot.” Since becoming an AB recruit his language had certainly become more antagonistic. But i was leaving the hellhole of Beaumont! On to greener pastures at a CAMP! Where reputedly gangs did not exist and I would never again be beholden to the assholic whims of men like Dee. Being called a faggot by someone I counted a friend was small time.
“But…I mean…” I stuttered.
Craig waved me off. I considered the matter done. A day later, at my job sewing army trousers in UNICOR, Dee (a UNICOR mechanic) approached me.
“Say, Frank, does Craig owe you money?”
“No, I …” then I corrected myself. “Yeah, he owes me $40.”
“And you didn’t sell the debt to Arnie or anything?”
Shit. Caught in a lie. I swallowed and shook my head no.
Dee smiled and left.
Later that afternoon I approached Craig, and confronted him. I had told no one else aside from Craig and Arnie of the debt transfer and Arnie was savvy enough to keep it to himself. The ONLY way Dee could have learned of it was to be told by Craig.
“Yeah I told him. He’s my shot caller.” Craig said. “And he said I don’t owe it anymore.”
“THat’s bullshit!” I said in a friendly tone. We had been friends, I expected him to remember that sad moment on his bunk when I swooped in with Jane’s money and to honor it. He did not. “You OWE me Craig!”
Craig stood up. He loomed. “I don’t owe you SHIT faggot. Get out of my face.”
So I left.
I approached Arnie later after work and asked his advice. Arnie said to forget the debt and forget Craig. Move on and let it go. Very good advice. I should have followed it. But what I did not know was that confronting Craig earlier had constituted a violation of gang rules. I had “checked” one of the ABs. THe only appropriate response was for that AB to slap me like the bitch I was. And Craig did not do this which meant the ABs would come down on HIM. I did not know this. So I left Arnie’s cube burning with anger at having been played. I passed by Craig and Tiny’s two man and saw Craig lounging in his bed, arms behind his head, doing nothing. So reminiscent of that day when his Aunt did not show that I clicked out. I turned into his cube, thankfully Tiny was NOT there. My anger must have shown on my face because Craig rose up and loomed again.
“Listen,” I started. “I don’t know what you told Dee or what is going on but you KNOW you owe me! I thought we were friends Craig! I KNOW stuff about you…and…”
I should have seen it coming. His open hand collided with the side of my face with tremendous force, sending my head careening into the taupe painted concrete wall that separated cubes. The pain was not instant. THe humiliation was. I panted. MY hand bent in angry claws. I was poised to attack when I saw what CRaig now had in HIS hand.
A piece of metal turned into a weapon. I backed away. Only when I returned to my cube did I feel the trickle of blood sliding down my cheek and face from where the wall had split my head open. Mere minutes would pass before Dee would show up – commanding me to go to the guard and claim to have fallen. Count time was coming soon and injuries if not reported would cause trouble for everyone. Thankfully my hair was quite long and it was sufficient to hide the wound. I refused. Dee put his finger in my face.
“Don’t make me teach you another lesson faggot and DON’T check any of my boys EVER again!” He left. Down the hall someone shouted, “Count Time!”
I tried to maintain a stoic expression during count, though my body wanted to shake and my pulse raced. CRAIG had HIT me! In front of LOTS of people! How EMBARRASSING! And i had done NOTHING but flee! Of course i had performed the mental calculus: I could not win in a knife fight with only my hands and even if I did it meant going to lockdown AND having my camp status revoked. Even REPORTING the slap as it happened would mean lockdown for both Craig and myself and loss of my camp status. Nerves took over. If someone else ratted us out then I was SCREWED and HUMILIATED!
But it didn’t happen that way. The evening progressed and I held ice to the wound, the throbbing came and went, the shame stuck with me. Finally around two in the morning the next night I could bear it no longer. I had recently learned that cookie flour (ground up processed cookies, like Oreos), artificial sweetener (real sugar was verboten in the prison as it could be used to make wine), milk, margarine and chocolate bars could be combined in the microwave and boiled to make FUDGE! My experiments thus far had all been failures, the consistency had always been wrong. In the process of these tests I learned from an old school con that boiling sugar would peel the skin off a man’s bones. This con had been a prison baker and even showed me the patch on his forearm where he had accidentally spilled molten fudge on himself. It look like someone with a grudge and very sharp spoon had scooped a chunk of the man’s fat flesh. I shuddered when he told me. But two nights after Craig slapped me – as I lay in my dank humiliation, unable to sleep – I recalled that man’s scarred forearm simultaneously with the contents of my locker.
I had no need of the cookie flour, I assumed. Nor the time at 2 AM to crush any without waking half the dorm. In a nervous frenzy I set to work. Combined all the ingredients in my large tupperware bowl and snuck to the microwave area (which was closed for the night after 12 midnight). I quietly put the bowl into the microwave and set it for twelve minutes, the time suggested by the old con with the scarred arm and left back to my bunk. THose twelve minutes were as agonizing as if I waited for a confirmation of an unwanted pregnancy or a possibly failed drug test. Finally the clocked ticked off two-thirty. It was nearly done. I ran back to the microwave area to catch the appliance before it beeped.
Bingo! Fifteen seconds left!
I popped the door and held the steaming and ludicrously hot dark brown mixture using two socks as pot holders. The liquid bubbled menacingly. I padded softly towards Craig’s cube, my mind nearly in a fugue state from tiredness and humiliation. One thought on repeat cycling through my tired brain…
SLAP ME? SLAP ME? SLAP ME?
My hands wanted to shake, but I was all too cognizant of what i carried and I held them in tight control. FInally I reached the opening the wall of Craig’s cube. I hovered. My brain began to spin doubts.
If you do this they will catch you. He might die. You certainly won’t be going to a camp. You could be on lockdown for years. Even if you get away with it the other ABs will retaliate…
But this warred with:
SLAP ME? SLAP ME? SLAP ME?
I must have stood there, shaking everywhere but my arms for five full undetected minutes. Then I heard the whisper of keys. OH SHIT.
Now or never, Frank!
I managed to make it to my cube and set the fudge mixture atop my locker. I sat on the cube’s lone metal stool to await being counted and smiled. I could see the fudge mixture on the locker. ANd it was beginning to set. FInally.
I had learned how to make prison fudge.
I met Craig the day I moved into UA unit in Beaumount Low FCI.