Incarcerated: 43 yrs
In 43 years of continuous imprisonment my most frightening moment occurred not in the riots, tear gas and bullets I have lived through. The most dominating feature in my 12’ by 5’ concrete demented domicile is an industrial stainless steel toilet and sink. I enjoy this area, 24 hours a day with another human being. This concrete box introduces an intimacy completely abnormal, only at gunpoint would a human being choose to endure year after year. Yet, crippling amounts of guilt and self-loathing for actions of the past force one to endure the burden of living life in prison. That I have a cellmate I call a friend, which makes me one of the lucky ones. Many men are forced to live in their concrete box with terrible, terrible, examples of human beings. My cellie of 16 years, is 83 and extremely hearing impaired. He is the quintessential “grumpy old man,” and set in his ways. He may actually be the author of the phrase “My way or the highway.” Every day his activities are the same, there is no deviation from the routine, at least voluntarily. It is fortunate that prison life accommodates this precept, each day echoes the past, ad nauseam. It is with great surprise when I wake up at three in the morning, to the sounds and smells of my cellie making coffee, in 12’ by 5’, you can do nothing without the other person becoming aware of exactly what you’re doing. Figuring my cellie just woke early – though unusual for him – I went back to sleep. When I wake for breakfast, he is still asleep, he always wakes me up for breakfast. I wake him, he was extremely subdued, which was not normal. I ask him if he is ok, he has a perplexed look, like he doesn’t understand what I am saying. Are you going to chow I ask, he nods his head up and down, yet with a bewildering glance at me he finally begins to get dressed.
When he came back to our cell after breakfast he asked me “why did they hand out a bag lunch with dinner,” I said “because it was breakfast,” and I can see there is no comprehension. It’s at this time I start to become worried, at 83, maybe he is having a stroke or something. I wait for him to do his regular routine after breakfast – coffee, toilet, turn on reading lamp, yet he is aimless, distracted. Now I know something is wrong and I look him in the eye and say “are you all right, do you know what time it is” with a puzzled look at me he says. “Yes, 6 pm.” I say no it’s morning, do you feel ok, should I call the nurse? He grumply tells he is ok, yet I am disheartened because I now know something is really wrong. I can not go to the cops or nurse even though I know something is not right. It’s the code and even my friend of 16 years would be highly upset. He would even move to a different cell if I went to the cops and said my cellie looks like he is having a stroke. The only way it would be right – according to the convict code – was if he was unconscious. When I see a confused look on his face, I ask a third time, and I get the stoic attitude I expect from his normal behavior. My instinct is to go to the cops anyway, but I hesitate even though his actions are making me nervous. My uneasy feelings are not helped when he goes to sleep during the daytime. He sleeps all day long. I jump down from the top bunk twenty times to check if he is breathing. I was alarmed for his well being, anxiety and instinct said act. When he gets up that night my inquiry of how are you is rebuffed with a rambling yet resentful retort just this side of delirium. The grump in the grumpy old man is not there, I see that as a bad sign. My concern is intensified on the second day of nothing but sleep.
My unease is on par with my agitation when I am unable to contact my Mom and Dad after more than two weeks. If a month goes by with no phone or mail contact, I begin to be seized with worry. Every day after – panic and palpitations set in, as I anxiously wonder if something has gone wrong or did something happen. I feel helpless because I don’t have the ability to do anything.
On the second day of no sleep for me, from fear and the constant need to check and see if my cellie is still breathing. I am caught between a fearful and frightening conundrum, call for help – find out everything fine – or wait until the situation is beyond help, either way I lose a friend. The worst three days of my 43 yrs of imprisonment.
It has been six months since my cellie’s episode, though we still share the 12’ by 5’ concrete box, the relationship has changed. I am more his care-giver than his cellie. Thankfully, he does know what time it is and best of all the grump is back in the grumpy old man.
Note: Since you asked, I have been bugging my cellie about going down to the yard to get a photo. He dug through his property and found an old head shot and with a pretty bad attitude tossed it up on my bunk and said with a grumpy rasp: “Here! Now stop bothering me about photos and interviews.” I enclosed a prison-style photoshop on my photo – his head floating in my picture. In real life, this is how I see him anyway. This tiny 12’ by 5’ cell only allows one person at a time to stand up and walk. So when he stands up to walk to the back of the cell-toilet-sink are the last 4’ of the spacious 12’ lot, his head just kind of floats on by. So, for true authenticity, he should just be a floating head (grumpy head).