Currently incarcerated at Antioch prison in California, A. Whitfield brings us inside the bars of his hungry cell.
It’s morning again. I stand barefoot and stiff-legged behind the gated entrance to my cell, palms pressed against cold bars, supporting arthritic knees not yet willing to answer the demands of a body that has aged into a grotesque tribute to television viewing and the high-starch diet of prison. My mind swims between dream and reality. I have just been dragged from the salty spray of roiling surf by the impatient, alarm-like clanging of the count bell.
I struggle to hold a rapidly fading figment: my feet being swallowed by the warm white sand, my fingers pressing deeply into the pliant flesh above the rolling hips of a cinnamon-colored nymphet clad only in an orange bikini. A series of small heart-shapes of missing material climb the rising slope of rounded suppleness filling the bikini bottom. I steal glances at teasing wisps of undarkened flesh. Slender fingers press coolly upon my hands, drawing them around her undulating midriff. We laugh. She is light and small in my arms; her back is firm and hot. Damp tresses of auburn hair flow over the nape of her neck, smelling faintly of apple and sea. The sand clings jealously to her oiled limbs. Through eyes dark and wet as river stones, she gazes back at me. Her chin rests demurely on a freckled shoulder. I want to touch he parted lips.
“Lights on . . . . count time.”
The horse call from a yet faceless guard rolls down the gray cell-house cavern, burdening the still air. Like a pair of torpid clams, my eyes open, filtering the sun’s diffuse light. In white shorts and a tee, pale knurled toes grinding restless on the cold terrazzo floor, I stand waiting to be counted and make my request for the morning chow run.
This is a routine I’ve repeated daily for more than twenty-five years. I once tried to calculate how many times I have stood for count—the frustration of the exercise more overwhelming than the boredom that led to it. Standing, sitting, awake or sleeping—after so many years, doing time is doing time. Sometimes I feel my life is part of a hidden mechanism in some great clock; it goes round and round in an effortless monotony.
I draw the thick lids of my eyes into taut, wrinkled slits. A vain attempt to fight-off the static-y fluorescent hum that’s forcing its way into my waking mind.
Gnarled and tattooed knuckles of one hand rub the night-sand from my eyes, as the half-chewed nails of the other claw inside my shorts. All men, imprisoned or free, do about the same things when they wake up in the morning. However, for the guilty, dreams—nightmares—take different forms than those of the no-so-guilty.
The staccato rhythm of prisoners’ voices, calling out cell locations and morning requests, beats its way down the company: “One cell: chow; Two cell: chow; Three cell: chow” . . . and on it climbs. The air stirs as two shadowy blue forms breeze past with pen and clipboard in hand.
Sixteen cell: “chow.”
“Not this morning, asshole,” one guard spits, as he passes my cell and anxiously returns to his crossword puzzle and cooling cup of coffee. My eyes trail behind them.
I take a breath and open my mouth, preparing to implore or curse, both equally ineffective. I turn and limp across the cold stones past my unmade bunk. It invites me to crawl back under its covers and search the dunes for the tanned nymph. I hesitate, eyeing the shape of my body pressed into the mattress.
There are many games played between guards and prisoners, but none played on a level playing field. Even on our home field, the guards have all the advantages.
This is my morning to play victim of “The Burn,” a mind-numbing anger-inducing game for which I have never learned the rules. It begins at morning count. The guards who manage this lottery rush down the companies, making their count and searching the cells for unwilling participants. Everyone is eligible. Being too black, too Hispanic, requesting too loudly, too softy… speaking at all, makes us candidates. If chosen, you are penalized with a missed meal, loss of recreation, or no commissary. Questioning the rules, as I almost did, will automatically earn you a post-game penalty. Losing your electricity and water for the rest of the day.
This is a game that’s played in every New York prison that I have inhabited, but never with the frequency and fervor that it’s played at Antioch. Mention “The Burn” to any inmate (or guard) and he’ll know what you mean. This isn’t my first, and it won’t be my last. Little consolation to a hungry man.
“They burned ya, huh.” A statement, not a question, from the fresh-faced kid in 15 cell “I gotcha OT.” (Old Timer).
“Thanks, but I’m OK.”
“No, you look out for me. I gotcha Pops.”
I want to say, “Fuck you and your OT and your Pops,” but to say anything would encourage him. He’s looking for a friend—that’s not me. I don’t dislike the kid; I just don’t want to like him. And in spite of what the kid’s seen on TV and in the movies, prison isn’t the place to make friends.
One man’s loneliness is another’s solace. Over the years I’ve developed a very real need for emotional separation. When I began my bid, I sought friendship and, in a couple of instances, may have discovered it. Both friends paroled long ago; one I never heard form again after giving him my motorcycle, and the other kept in contact until an overdose of heroin ended his life just 90 days after walking out the gate. In time past, you made friends in the joint, you had an unspoken contract—your life was his life, his yours, and everything was put on the line for a friend. Friends could be trusted. The rules have changed. I’m a relic from a fading generation. In the new cut of prison fabric, intimacy and betrayal are two strands of the same thread.
It’s difficult to find solitude when surrounded by hundreds or thousands. I’m forced to live side by side with these men, but I refuse to live face to face with them. I’m here—you’re here—do your time and I’ll do mine. I’m not your friend. I’m not your enemy. Just leave me alone.
In front of the white porcelain toilet, I pause, sigh heavily; the early minutes of the morning begin to uncover my emotions. I place one hand against the wall behind the bowl, where the paint is thin and soiled from habitual bracing, and carelessly relive myself. I mine my memory for any past encounter I might have had with that guard. I can think of none, so I file his face under “idiots to be avoided,” a very large category in the cabinet of my mind. After a couple of careless shakes that speckle bowl and floor, I palm the chrome nipple marked “press,” releasing a whooshing torrent.
I drag leaded feet to the sink. My callused soles scratch a dusty trail over the gritty black surface. For a moment, I ponder the idea of cleaning the floor, wondering why the thought only seems to occur when I’m locked in the cell without access to brooms or mops. I’ve always been amazed by those cons whose cells are washed and waxed, as if by some miracle of cleanliness they can wash away the fact that they are viewed as scum. I hold the greatest contempt for them. I tell myself that prisons are supposed to be dirty places. And apathy is standard equipment for a lifetime in prison.
Griping the sink firmly with both hands, I try to shuffle away the dirt that clings to my feet. The sh-sh-sh conjures a pleasant memory from my childhood—the smell of half and half from my grandfather’s pipe circle’s the living room in ribbons of blue smoke, while Lawrence Welk claps his hands and points his baton at a suited black man in a straw hat. The man is sprinkling a handful of something onto the stage. He gracefully extends his arms out to his sides, palms down, looking like a great comical blackbird, and begins to drag a foot in a slow arc across the sandy floor, as if balanced in the air. “Yeah, soft shoe,” I whisper, grinning and feeling lithe and unencumbered in that suspended moment of time. I perform a couple more steps before taking a bow for the ghostly inhabitants of my cell.
All prisons have ghosts. Antioch certainly has its share. They’re a welcome audience in my cell. It’s not the specters, the spirits of those killed in the riot, or the many that have been stabbed to death in the cell houses that roam incorporeal through the corridors and cell blocks that trouble me. I’m haunted by the shape that life takes here today: the hopeless and helpless, the shape of yesterday and tomorrow, and my own dying spirit.
Sweeping an open hand across the back edge of the sink, I catch a black plastic stopper that I fashioned from a pen cap, and try to twist it into the drain. Drain plugs and toilet seats are two things I’ve never seen in a prison cell. The stopper threatens to bruise my fingers before it squeaks and squeezes into the hold. A rumbling in my stomach reminds me of a hunger that will have to wait for the noon meal. The words of the guard are busy gnawing away at a foolish hope that his day will be better than any other day. These thoughts don’t linger long, they but leave a germ of anger that climbs atop a cartload of unresolved emotions. A twisted thumb angrily mashes the tap button, releasing an icy trickle into the mineral-stained basin. I plunge my bands into frigid water; it bites into the pale, wrinkled digits, making them ache.
As I draw the liquid to my face, the rivulets stream through my reddening finger, onto my heaving chest. These ablutions send a quickening current through my body. I hear my heart’s pounding pulse . . . but it’s only the beating of time. I f only I could wash away the past twenty-five years, the frustrations, the anger, the helplessness, and hopelessness. The guilt.
Check back next week for part two.