Phone Call

As is true with any government-run operation, Federal prison is a mess of inefficiencies where even the most mundane task is overly complicated.

For example, when mailing a letter, rather than simply writing the recipient's address directly on the envelope, you must create a mailing label. This involves logging into one of the unit's three computers, creating a new contact, and adding a label for that contact to your print queue. Then you must wait at least one hour for the next controlled move so that you can walk to the library, log into another computer, print the label, walk back to the unit, adhere the label to the envelope, and finally—an hour later— deposit the unsealed envelope into the unit outbox.

Everything takes longer in prison. Receiving medical attention takes three or more days; borrowing a book from the library's inter-loan program takes three weeks. It's hard to accomplish anything. Part of the problem is the staff. Some are lazy and incompetent. Ask a question and you're greeted with either indifference or given the wrong information.

"What time does Commissary close?" "I don't know. Why are you askin' me?"

Most inefficiencies, however, can be blamed directly on the inmates themselves.

Each unit, for example, use to have unrestricted access to ice. That was before the staff discovered that inmates were using the ice machine room to stash contraband such as weapons, drugs, and hooch. Now the room stays locked and the only time you can get ice is during the hourly "ice call."

In a gang-related incident, someone once emptied a bottle of baby oil into a bucket, filled it with water, and heated the bucket to a boil inside a microwave. He then poured the scolding, oily water on a rival gang member. That marked the end of microwave ovens. Inmates now heat their food in empty potato chip bags which they submerge in hot tap water. The bright side is this: Two things prison teaches you are patience and resourcefulness.

Finally, after a week's worth of attempts, patience paid off and I was finally able to call my family for the first time since arriving.

When my father answered the phone, my heart ached at the sound of his voice. Just then, a prerecorded message announced, "This call is from an inmate at a Federal prison … to accept this call, press five …. " The recording ended mid-sentence, and I smiled knowing my father had not hesitated for one second before accepting the call.

Having only 15 minutes to talk (inmates are allotted 20 15-minute calls per month at 23 cents per minute), we quickly ran through the usual "how are yous" and "I love yous" before he handed the phone off to my mother who assured me my cat, Polpette, was doing just just fine, and we laughed at her skittishness and fascination with water. When she handed the phone back to my father, the phone beeped to warn of one remaining minute.

In the midst of a final and reluctant goodbye, the phone died.