Out of the Frying Pan

Saturday nights are Nacho Night: Heat one twelve-ounce packet of Bushy Creek Chili under hot tap water—the 190 as they say in prison. To that, add a drop of soy sauce, a packet of Ramen seasoning (chicken flavor), a handful of Uncle Ben's Instant Rice, a small scoop of Fresh Start dehydrated beans with chorizo (soy, actually), a dash of Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning, a dab of garlic chili sauce (the kind with the rooster on the label), and half a summer sausage, diced. Cover with more hot water from the 190 and let sit, covered, until the beans and rice reconstitute. The get out your bag of Cactus Annie tortilla chips, a sudoku puzzle, and party hearty.

On Fish Fridays, the chow hall serves either fish patties—what the inmates call "square" fish—or breaded fish fillets—what the call "long" fish. It occurred to me yesterday while waiting in line for chow (this week it was "long" fish) and again this afternoon while waiting for the 190 to heat up, that what prison is really about, what it all boils down to, is waiting: waiting for the next move, waiting for count, waiting for a shower stall, waiting for your cellmate to finish taking a shit, waiting for mail, waiting for a visit, waiting for work call, waiting for an officer to unlock a door, waiting for your name to be called at commissary, waiting for staff to resolve an issue or answer a question …. If a hospital is God's waiting room, then prison must be hell's. Hundreds and thousands of accumulated hours spent waiting that could be spent tending to family, building a career, being a productive citizen. Waiting and waiting—when I could be living.

But then I think of all the hours I squandered looking at porn—my won self-imposed prison. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say. Square fish or long fish? I wonder.

But inmates seem to agree that this facility isn't so bad. They say it's the least political, least violent, and most laid back of all the places they've been—the training wheels of prisons. I've only personally witnessed one fight here and have heard of only a few serious assaults (one of which involved a fight over someone using up all the 190). And there was that one suicide. But otherwise, the facility is relatively sedate. And I wonder if perhaps, given my circumstances, that's why I was placed here. Then again, I doubt some government employee at the Grand Prairie designation office had my best interest in mind when he assigned me to this particular institution. I doubt it very much.

And yet there are some guys here (usually the ones who've spent time in a penitentiary) who hate this facility. A neighbor of mine who does tattoo work is putting in a request to be transferred to a new facility opening in California. He says this place isn't violent enough for him; there's no respect. "You got the fuckin' Puerto Ricans screamin' their fuckin' heads off and the dip shits in chow shakin' spoons—this shit wouldn't be happening in no pen. They wouldn't tolerate it." And by "they" he mans the other inmates. I'm told that in penitentiaries, it's the inmates who run the prison.

No thank you, I say. Keep my soft ass here or send me to a low. I've never understood the preoccupation with "respect" in prison. I guess when you have nothing—no education, no professional career, no stable family life—fear is the only thing to cling to, which is all "respect" really is.