My Life in Jail

There are plenty of wonderful places to spend the holiday season in South Florida. As the author explains, the Stockade isn't one of them.

As ordered, I braved the elements, and actually found the water to be refreshing. After two days at the wretched DCJ I'd have welcomed a mud bath.

Relatively cleansed I then had questions: When do we eat? When is lights out? What's up with the telephones? The TVs? I knew that every cell had its own rules and regulations, and I also knew that even divine intervention wouldn't be of much help to the man who broke them. (Ironic that habitual rule-breakers become strict disciplinarians when they get behind bars.)

The houseman, the cell's dominant alpha male, was snoring loudly back in his bunk under a mound of blankets and amid a haze that clearly signaled "do not disturb." With nothing posted anywhere, and not a helpful information booth in sight, I unrolled my "roll" (a towel, two sheets, and a rotting, synthetic blanket), made up my bunk, hoisted myself up (fresh fish never get bottom bunks), and I sat. And stirred. And I began to realize what the term "stir" really meant. Then I wondered just how long it would take for me to go stir crazy.

As it happened, not long. Between the constant not-so-quiet roar of my cellmates, the flanking blare of the arc-welded televisions (one English, one Spanish, both rigged in perpetuity to "on" and "full blast"), and the ricochet of disbelief in my skull, I realized I was on the nearside of losing it, paradoxically thought-drunk and sense-pummeled among the thoughtless and senseless. And I realized too that succumbing to worry over an increasingly volatile sense of doom would've been not only futile (like banging my head against a wall to get some answers) but dangerous. Any evident slip would have been immediately perceived as a sure sign of weakness, a perception I would go to great lengths to avoid.

Jail is no place for the sensitive man. Visible signs of worry, concern, despair, or compassion are viewed as unbecoming, frailties worthy of ridicule or attack. Displays of emotion, I quickly concluded, could get me killed. So I tried to distract myself by concentrating my attention on my surroundings.

Another big mistake.
If ever there was a mental exercise designed to drive a mind mad, taking stock of jailhouse surroundings was it. Compared with my previous quarters at DCJ, this cell was a veritable mansion. Though it did house nearly twice as many souls, here it appeared merely overcrowded, 34 in a space intended for, say, 20, rather than 20 in a standing-room-only space for 6 to 8. And rather than a mass of benches and bodies, here there were actual bunks, too close together, yes, but bunks nonetheless. No one was made to sleep on the floor. And a dining area as well, an actual place other than my lap to put my food tray. That the bunks were made of steel and bolted to the floor, and the dining set consisted of an immobile cement table and bench was of little consequence. This was almost livable, I shrieked (to myself).

Then I thought: Who the hell wants jail to be livable?
DCJ's saving grace (if you could call it that) was that it felt decidedly temporary. Awful? Yes. But it was just a stopover of fixed, endurable duration. The discomfort wouldn't, couldn't possibly last. On the other hand the Stockade, with its bunks and its bedding and its dining set, gave off a queasy air of near-permanence. Not of comfort, really, but still a settled-in-ness. Whatever it was, it was too close to comfort for me. What kind of man makes himself at home in Hell? In my eyes that would be tantamount to surrender, an invertebrate's acceptance of his unacceptable lot in life. To some it may have been simply a matter of going with the flow, but to me it was cowardice.

Of course this wasn't the case at all. I was in denial. But that was a lesson yet to be learned. Right then all I could think of was getting out of this hellhole with as much speed and as little damage to myself as possible. And until that time, in order to maintain a semblance of sanity, I'd intentionally drive myself to distraction.

I made note of the steel mesh over the steel bars that hid the already darkened windows, but that only made me wonder how much daylight I was being denied. I marveled at the craftiness behind the ripped-sheet string used to hang makeshift curtains between bunks; but that only made me wish for my own venetian-blinded room. I scanned the surfaces of the floors and the walls and thought how, despite their deplorable condition, they remained relatively free of pestilence; but that only made me long for the polished terrazzo and tiles of the Beach. Each attempted deflection ignited further reflection; everything bad I saw reminded me of something good. I knew I'd never find peace of mind in the nuances of a cell's interior.

So I switched my attention to my cellmates. And there, among behavior patterns of ghastly do's and grizzly don'ts, I began developing a morbid interest in the wickedness of man.

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