A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (5 page)

The door to Seg buzzed open and a spitting, yelling, kicking skinny little kid was dragged into our solitude. They wrestled him into a cell: a one-man riot, he pounded his door with his fists, screamed abuse, continually flushed his toilet, and pushed his cell alarm.

Shift change came at eleven, but the kid didn't give up. Unless a prisoner is in danger of harming himself, most guards will ignore the abuse, write him up, and let fatigue take its course. The early shift guard was one of those, but the kid wasn't jailwise enough to spot his replacement.

I opened my book and tried to return to the story of a white missionary, his wife, and four daughters trapped in a jungle of their own. But then the door to Seg buzzed open and the Cell Extraction team swept in. I couldn't see them, but I didn't need to — the army of the dark empire, in black padded uniforms, visored helmets, high boots and Plexiglas shields — like the casting call to a
Star
Wars
flic.

“Throw out your weapons! Lay down on the floor and you won't be hurt!”

What weapons? Spit out his tongue? The kid had a roll of toilet paper and a blanket in there.

The team charged in holding up shields and spraying mace. In the end the subdued youngster was carted out hog-tied, to an Observation cell. The hall became very quiet. The outside world would soon be celebrating midnight 2000.

I heard a tap on the wall, dropped to my belly and peered out under the door. My friend next door was using a tightly-rolled newspaper to manoeuvre a fresh-lit cigarette over to me — it was just out of reach. I tore off enough toilet paper to twist into a foot-long string, and tried to fish the cigarette into my cell. First flick, missed. Again, just about; third flick lucky. The string had looped a neat circle around the smouldering cigarette: I was the roping champion of Tobacco Rodeo!

As I began tugging gently, a pair of black boots planted themselves on both sides of that smoke. Pinched! A frozen moment, then one boot lifted and kicked the cigarette in under my door. The sound of footsteps fell away down the hall.

I sat on my little bed, hugging my knees, and took a long hard pull off that cigarette. Some backyard fireworks boomed in the distance and the light reflected in my cell. It was the best cigarette I've ever smoked, but, like solitude, there's never enough. I flicked the butt into my toilet, tapped a three and one on the wall, and escaped to the Africa of Kingsolver's imagination, where all human commerce is both cruel and tender.

And knowing that each day, even one spent in solitary confinement on the dawning of a new millennium, is not an unfortunate gift.

T
HE
L
AST
J
ESUS
I K
NOW
O
F

I'
M RIDING THE BENCH OPPOSITE A GUY
who tells me he has a spider up his ass. In the other cage, by himself, is a delicately built native with Lola Falana bangs and 34 B-cup breasts poking out of a grey standard issue T-shirt. He/she has fresh gauze dressing wrapped around both wrists and has been talking non-stop dingbat since we scooped her from the infirmary. I hear motors engaging and a long meshed gate sliding open. The Corrections Services transfer van lurches forward and we enter the sally port of the Regional Psychiatric Centre.

Prison is about waiting. The guy with the spider up his ass does his quietly, chin resting in cupped hands, long hair falling like bad string over his face. But Raven — she insists on being referred to as a woman — waits for no man, dives right into her story. They just don't get me. I'm no drag queen, I'm a transgender. A work-in-progress. Do you know how much money nip and tuck operations, botox treatment, silicon, and collagen injections cost? I do. And after all that they refuse to give me the surgical procedure. Then they go, “Oh Raven, why are you slashing up?” Like get a brain, dude!

Raven's vagina monologues are starting to make my teeth hurt. I'm more interested in the guy opposite me. But before I can begin to coax it out of him — the story not the spider — the van pulls forward and parks in front of Admissions and Discharge.

Raven is taken out first. She minces and gingers to the amusement of her escorts. The rear doors open and I start to slide along the bench, my leg chains scraping the dimpled steel floor panels, but the waiting officer holds up one palm and motions the Spider Man forward. The doors slam shut again. I am left in the semi-darkness with no other story than my own.

At the age of fifty, I'm facing the front end of a fresh eighteenyear sentence.

In the dictionary escape is at best “a temporary relief from circumstances.” In trying to figure out how to pass the next eighteen years, I discovered the Intensive Therapy Violent Offender Program, a gruelling horror show in which sixteen of the most dangerous offenders are culled from seven regional prisons and forced to endure a year of masochistic and humiliating psychodynamic therapy. I volunteered.

I'm carrying a new bedroll and a whole lot of apprehension towards a two-storey cellblock, which from the air would look a lot like the Pentagon, only smaller, with one wing missing. This is the world of VHF radios, handcuffs, and fear, not the safest of therapeutic environments. I have pictures in my head of dungeons filled with men screaming or sobbing on their knees — somewhere between Jerry Springer and the Inquisition.

The door to the main dome area opens and the pitch of madness hits my ears. Once considered dangerous and unstable, the men here, who walk as if their arms have been stapled to their sides, have been chemically shackled. Everything that was violent, and all that was human, seems now absent in them. My escort urges me up the stairs where I'm to be housed separately, on the second floor, the Programs Wing.

Upstairs appears eerily quiet; the cell doors have been left hanging open as if there had been some sort of hurried evacuation. The door to the cleaner's closet bangs wide and out pops a kid who looks more like he should be mowing his parents' lawn than mopping a prison floor.

The youngster abandons his mop and morphs into an overeager one-man welcome wagon. His name is D, short for what I don't ask, but when I offer my hand, his face turns crimson. His hand goes reluctantly into my grip, boney, and deformed in the shape of a lobster claw. He quickly tucks it back behind him in a habit as practised as it is tender.

D gives me the lowdown — the other guys that make up our group, I'm the last to arrive, my cell second from the end, anything I need just ask, and oh by the way, could I score him some tobacco from the commissary?

My cell is the same as the countless others I have inhabited over the years — bunk, desk, toilet, and a razor wire view. By the time I have the corners of my blanket tucked in I learn that D is doing a life minimum seven sentence behind a manslaughter conviction while he was still a juvenile. Hence his request — he's asked me to boot for him because he isn't old enough to buy cigarettes.

I know I will eventually have to acclimatize myself to this new-wave-new-age-crack criminal-television-talk-show mentality that encourages the outpouring of explicit and personal details at such breakneck speed. But who wants to hear about a wrecked childhood, a girlfriend's fetishes, or a homicidal act from a person five minutes after you've learned he even exists on the same planet?

In D's case it's forgivable: he's young, nervous, scared, and even though he hasn't said it yet I know he's seen me on the six o'clock news. I'm his idea of a major criminal; for him making Number One on a Most Wanted list is analogous to winning on
American
Ido
l. The fact that I feel more busted than brazen won't faze D much; like most young people he is more interested in his idea of a person than the human reality. I leave the tier to get his cigarettes.

Coming out of the commissary I catch sight of D going into the laundry room and give him the sign for the come-and-get-it. I don't make it another fifty paces down the strip before I am confronted by a correctional officer wearing black leather gloves. His jaw juts out dramatically; I want to tell him that he shaves really, really well but instead I answer his question about what was in the bag I just handed off to the kid. Jack Foote — it's on his tag — reminds me we are in a maximum security psychiatric facility and he'll brook no bullcrap on his watch. He knows exactly who I am and says I won't be getting any special treatment around here. Which really means I will be getting special treatment. His belt radio erupts into static, then a few bursts of a language only people in uniforms can understand. It's for me — I'm wanted up in psych assessment for intake testing.

Upstairs in the program area, a middle-aged woman in a track suit ushers me through a doorway marked Assessment Clinic. I feel I have entered a scene in
A Clockwork Orange
. Christina, who is the programs clerk, places a blue file folder and three golf pencils on the table in front of me. She explains these tests will determine my risk factors, measure anger quotients, and help identify my crime cycles.

Most of the tests are short and I begin to rack them up. On a scale of one to five, one being Does Not Apply and five being That's Me To The Nines, circle your choice to each of the following statements. (A) When I become angry I throw things. (B) I like to watch fires. Etcetera etcetera. Essentially they are asking you to admit you are a lunatic.

I am the first to arrive at our group's introductory psycho-dynamic therapy session. The same
Clockwork Orange
room, but no table, nor trace of Christina. The group begins to drift in, filling the thinly padded chairs arranged along the walls. Although I've had glimpses, this is my first opportunity to scope my fellow thugs en masse. No real surprises. A few mullet cuts, three shaved heads, a ponytail, another braided, an oiled pompadour — lots of macho body language.

Most everyone in the room is either quiet or having bus stop conversations with the person(s) closest to them. It's all filler while we wait for a staff member to arrive.
No way am I doing any of that
psycho drama shit. I hear the blonde facilitator is a bitch. I don't give a
rat's ass. If you give the croaker here a story, it's easy to get sleepers. I
ain't never getting out anyway. Maybe it's white to show up the blood
when I coldcock one of these cocksuckers. I'm up for parole almost right
after we finish.
The trick is not to talk too much, but not to be too quiet either.

Our two facilitators appear and everything goes still. The young woman points first to one corner where the walls and the ceiling meet, and then to the other. Her partner, an earthy looking guy with a bald pate, has his hands in both pockets while he rocks on his heels. By now every thug in the room is trying to recall what he said to the person sitting next to him in the last twenty minutes. There's a tiny camera lens peeking out from each corner.

Alyssa, blonde and white, introduces herself. The affable looking Teal speaks with an authority that belies his appearance. “On paper you guys stink. I have read every one of your files and I wouldn't want you living in my neighborhood. You have all made a lot of bad choices in your lives. We're here to change that. And we hope you are too.”

Alyssa, in perfect tag team fashion says, “This program is based in REBT, rational emotive behaviour therapy. It is about identifying the relationship between your thoughts, your feelings, and your behaviour. Can anyone tell me how they are feeling right now? How about you? Yes, you.”

I must have been smirking out of the side of my face because I realize too late it is me she has transfixed in those fierce blue eyes. All I can come up with is, “Those cameras make me feel like I've been ambushed.”

“Wrong! Firstly no one can make you feel anything. Secondly, being ambushed is not a feeling, you probably feel angry or resentful. We will get into identifying our feelings later, for now I want all you men to remember this — you choose to feel the way you do.”

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