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Over Easy: The Jailhouse Bullying of Harry

4:52 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Spartanburg County Jail Portrait Series

Spartanburg County Jail Portrait Series by David Blackwell under creative commons on flickr.

There is a healthcare crisis in the US prison system.

For the past month, I have been looking at the legal file from my own case, and researching how it was possible to be convicted of, among other things, a DUI, when the blood test results showed no alcohol or drugs. I have read hundreds of Court of Appeals cases, and looked up information on all topics relating to my case. The entire floor of one room is covered with stacks and boxes of papers. Sometimes, several days pass when I have not gone outside, or even looked at the news. What I have learned is shocking, even for me, and I thought I had ‘seen it all.’ When the time is right, I will write a series of essays, because I am not just talking about my case. The vast majority of people plead guilty, never dreaming, because their lawyer failed to tell them, that they would do their time in the hell of a county jail, or that the evidence was exculpatory, or that the science was junk science, or that they would have to serve a longer sentence than they were led to believe.

Our country locks up more people than Stalin’s Gulag. Kentucky is one of the nation’s leaders for jailing children for status offenses, which are non-crimes like missing school. In Oklahoma, a pregnant woman went to a hospital because she was in severre pain. The staff called the police, the police searched her purse and found two pills for which she did not have a prescription; she was removed from the hospital, where she died.

One of the practices I find most appalling and offensive is locking up the mentally ill, including the elderly. ‘Harry’ was a mentally ill man who was in the jail at the same time I was. He was in a tiny isolation cell, without a book to read, a pencil and paper, or anyone to talk to. During the entire time I was there, he was denied recreation time outside his cell. We never knew who he was or why he was there, and we suspected he knew no more than we did, regarding his situation. I have shared this before, but since I believe that ‘Harry’ is so common and so heartbreaking, it is important for people to be aware of how the mentally ill are treated. I apologize in advance, because I cannot stay for very long today, as I need to get some sleep, before going downtown for an appointment.

The Jailhouse Bullying of Harry

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Inmate names are changed.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

McCracken County Jail, February 2008
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The Jailhouse Bullying Of Harry: Frog Gravy 86

9:59 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Spartanburg County Jail Portrait Series

Spartanburg County Jail Portrait Series by David Blackwell under creative commons on flickr.

In the hallway, the homeless man in isolation screams, between obscenities, to the pepper spray SWAT team, “You’re racist!”

“I’m not precious,” says the guard, and I assume he meant to say, ‘I’m not prejudiced,’ because he says, “I don’t like nobody.”

The Hole, The Chair, And The Holding Cell: Frog Gravy 17

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Inmate names are changed.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

McCracken County Jail, February 2008

It is three o’clock in the morning, and a couple of female inmates next door, as well as Meg, in this cell, are on the floor, on their bellies, taunting and tormenting Harry, who is mentally ill and housed at the end of the hallway in an isolation cell. They shout, at maximum volume, “HAAAAAAARRRRREEEEEEE!!! Want some puuuuussssyy, Harrreee?!”

Harry shouts, “HELP! Somebody! Please! HELP ME! Let me out, please Helpmehelpmehelpmehelp.”

Harry’s repeated requests for help reveal, on its face, Harry’s profound lack of understanding of his own surroundings.

I am on my bunk, listening. I cannot help Harry. If I try to intervene, the bully inmates bullying will turn their rage onto me. If I do not try to intervene, they will continue to prey on Harry.

I do not intervene, and I am ashamed of myself. I do not intervene, because I am afraid that I might hurt someone.

I have never seen, nor will I ever see, during my stay in McCracken County Jail, the pathetic man we call Harry. None of us knows why he is locked up.

If the guards were to take Harry out of his cement tomb for recreation in the outside cage, we would have witnessed it, because we watch the hallway that leads directly from his cell at the end to the outside cage at the other end. We never see Harry go to rec. Christie, who had been here for seven months on my arrival had never seen him during that time either.

On my bunk, I try to think things through, although the noise is distracting. There must be thousands and thousands of Harrys locked up everywhere. Harry the person is no longer Harry the person. Harry is a bait ball in a cement cell at the end of the hallway. He is as defenseless as a child. The apex predators are hungry to hate, and they feed on Harry constantly, kicking the steel door, shouting insults every time they pass by, picking what’s left of Harry and then picking some more.

I often wonder if Harry is somebody’s father. Or son. Was he ever loved? Did Harry ever matter, to anyone? Was Harry a veteran, psychologically crippled by tours of duty? I do not know.

Why are the Harrys out there picked up, locked up, and then alternately ignored and picked on? The bullies use Harry almost exactly as they would a bar. They wander by and use him when they need him, and when they’ve had their fill, they belch, toss the glass, and move on.

There are rumors that Harry has spread feces onto the walls on the cement tomb. Perhaps this is the only thing left for Harry to do, to tell himself that he still exists.

I wonder also about Harry’s mental and physical treatment care plans. This jail has a social worker who oversees the medical needs of the mentally ill inmates. While there may be a nurse practitioner or an off-site physician signing off on the care plan and the medications, all initial requests for such must go through the social worker gatekeeper first. The sad thing is that Harrys own profound disability at the moment prevents him from filling out the initial request form on his own behalf.

This jail is not at all unique. Jails are the new ground zero for Eighth Amendment violations of the mentally ill, as I see it. Harrys are warehoused, untreated and abused everywhere. Guards have pepper sprayed Harry at close range in his cement tomb, and they have never let him out for recreation, in the time I have been here, and in the many months that Christie was here, before me. He has never passed our cell in the only hallway leading to the outside cage, for recreation.

There should be a zero-tolerance policy for inmates tormenting their fellow mentally ill inmates, and for guards abusing the mentally ill. But, it is not meant to be. Rather, Harry is shelved jailhouse prey and nothing more.

What will eventually happen to Harrys everywhere? On my bunk, I wonder these things.

Frog Gravy: The Incarceration Experience 4

5:17 pm in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky during 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes. Because a single essay would be too lengthy, I am telling the story in serial form. This is the fourth entry. Frog Gravy contains graphic language. Names have been changed.

Jail cell 107, March, 2008.

There is a lot of turnover in the cell. Aside from Christie, Tina and I, who will remain friends in the coming years, the passing parade usually includes women that have had prior incarceration experience. Sometimes, inmates that cannot get along in any other cell in the jail end up here.

Sirkka is a new arrival, and her mental challenges are grossly apparent. She is tiny- about five feet tall and ninety pounds on a good day. She talks non-stop, in manic, run-on sentences, her speech a slurred and urgent volley, such that I cannot understand much of anything she is saying. Her arrival feels like someone has thrown a grenade into the cell and I want to yell, “Fire in the hole!”

Ruthie, another new arrival, is a young mother of two. She has a difficult time of it, being an inmate, because she is mentally slow and painfully aware of it, yet people make fun of her in ways that remind me of bullies at recess when I was a kid. I want to protect her somehow. Ruthie has the affect of someone that may have suffered fetal alcohol syndrome in infancy. She is loving and trusting and sweet, yet carries a sadness identical to an abused animal that presents a defensive posture. She has asked us what she should do in her legal case, and we do not know what to tell her, so one day, unbeknownst to us, she signed a guilty plea for a six-year sentence. She does this because she is assured probation, but she does not fully understand that she cannot return home and smoke a little pot once in a while.

Years later, I will notice that Ruthie will be locked up again.

One day, the chaplain comes and removes Ruthie for a brief moment. Her mother has died. Ruthie is inconsolable. We take turns holding her, combing her hair, saying prayers.

Sally is serial-calling her mother again, demanding bond money. She slams the phone again and says, “Yeah, she’s lazy. A lazy whore bitch, don’t do nuthin’ but lay on her back, we just wasted a phone call talkin’ about what a lazy whore she is.”

Sally slams, redials, slams, redials, and says, “Oh, my gawd. She hung up on me.”

Sirkka says, “You’re not actin’ very Christian.”

Sirkka is naked, on her belly on the floor, yelling under the steel door into the hallway, things about her tight pussy. She is directing this obscene soliloquy in the general direction of the men in the isolation cells: Curtis, who stuffed a DVD player in his pants at WalMart, ran from the cops, fell and broke his leg and is now in a cast; Austen, who is HIV positive and was attacked and beaten in a bloody fight in population; Henry, who yells “HELP! Helpmehelpmehelpme HELP ME! all hours of the day and night.

An irate guard approaches and slams the cell door open and yells at Sirkka, “You yell under that door one more time and you lose everything you got.”

Sirkka skitters backward across the floor like a cockroach, trying to keep the towel around her waist intact, looking sheepish. She is fortunate she did not go straight to the hole.

I try to keep writing but the distraction is overwhelming. Sirkka asks me if I want to trick write. I politely decline.

Trick writing is pretty much how it sounds. There are a great many men who specifically seek out and correspond with incarcerated women. These men send money, large amounts over long periods of time in some cases, in exchange for dirty letters from locked up women. Some men go onto jail and prison web sites and write women they see there. There are other web sites specifically designed for uh “pen pal” relationships. Some women in prison, I will find out later on, never want for anything because they have hundreds of dollars on their books from trick writing. Some men expect sex at some point, but many do not. Sometimes, true and lasting friendships develop. Nonetheless, these men are known as “sugar daddys” in the biz.

In retrospect I am glad I declined trick writing. Aside from the fact that it felt like cheating (although many do not feel that it is) I found out much later that if I had too much money on my books I would have been denied in forma pauperis, and I would not have been able to proceed with an appeal. We had no money at all and I was assigned an attorney on appeal based on my indigent status. Money on my books, no matter where it came from, could have been viewed as me being able to afford private counsel, and I would have been committed to trick writing for a good long time. Here is an example of how that works, from a random case, names deleted:





Above person will have to hire a private attorney because he or she is making too much money to be considered indigent.

Trick writing aside, since Sirkka is a bona fide prostitute her tricks are real, and since she cannot stop talking non-stop, she tells us about them: Max, a fat car lot owner who likes butt toys, Jack and Geoff, old men who like freaky letters, and C.W., aka Santa Claus, who likes his dick sucked and works at Pine Ridge apartment complex.

I go to my drug class and learn that I have very nearly been voted off the island because I have steadfastly refused to plead guilty to my charges, and because I have been to college. I rehabilitate myself by assuring the group that I have had plenty of drug issues, so just because I am maintaining my innocence in these particular charges does not mean that I cannot contribute and participate in this group. They take a vote and allow me to stay, and I am tripping on the fact that I nearly got kicked out of drug school in a jail.

When I return to the cell, the conversation focuses on animal cruelty, but to my amazement and horror, no one sees it that way. The talk is joking, jovial, punctuated with giggles and laughs. The talk is about hanging hogs from trees up side down and slitting throats and slicing abdomens and watching guts splash to the ground, throwing puppies into the fire, and killing pitbulls that lose dog fights, killing birds and baby mice, breaking legs, mangling eyes, torturing racoons and possums and kittens. Slicing the testicles from boars.

Just when I think I am going to get up and start screaming, Ruthie breaks the levity of the sickening conversation and says, “That’s how they found my Momma dead, just like that.”

We look and Ruthie has her mother’s picture. She strokes the edges of the picture, as if stroking it provides comfort somehow.

“See. She was settin’ right here, next to the air conditioner, and she had her inhaler in her hand. But no one found her and…”

Tears stream down Ruthie’s face.

“You know no one found her right away…”

Tears stream down my face. For Ruthie’s mother, who died alone by the air conditioner with her inhaler in her hand and no one noticed.

And for the animals. Tears stream down my face for the animals.