Death By Plunging

15 snapshots from the Washington state prisons.

For eight years, Seattle author Robert Ellis Gordon taught intensive two- to 12-week story-writing workshops in prisons throughout Washington. These workshops were funded jointly by the Washington State Arts Commission, the prisons, and the prisoners themselves.

Gordon's prison teaching career came to an abrupt end in 1996 with the passage of House Bill 2010, which eliminated all secondary and high school programs in the prisons—destroying an outstanding education system that had become a national model.

Gordon is now completing a book about his prison teaching experiences, from which these "snapshots" are excerpted.

1. Denial

"I stole a lot of cars," one of my students admitted one day. "But at least I didn't steal them from people."

"Then who'd you steal them from?"

"From parking lots."

2. Vandalism

One day in class, the subject of masturbation was broached. "Do you know why masturbation's an infraction in here?" one student asked.

"I didn't even know it was an infraction," I replied.

"Well, it is," he said.

"Why is it?"

"Because," he said, "the state owns our bodies. The state legally owns our bodies."

"So?"

"So," he said, "whenever you jerk off, it's destruction of state property."

3. Charity

It was time for midmorning count. A guard came into the classroom where the creative writing workshop was being held. It was a female guard. This was not unusual. There were many female guards in the institution.

Still, there was something different about this female guard. She lacked the hard, masculine mannerisms adopted by many of her female colleagues. She wore lots of perfume and made no attempt to hide her curves, which, it so happens, were pronounced. As she read off their names on the roster, she seemed to make eye contact with the men in an unmistakably flirtatious manner.

After count was cleared and the guard left the room, everyone was silent for a bit. The scent of her perfume lingered in the air. Finally, a student looked at me and spoke: "That lady's a stripper, you know. She dances at some strip joint in Seattle."

Another student spoke up. "She works on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In case you want to go see her."

Then a third student chimed in. He told an incredible story. He said a year or so ago a convict had escaped from the nearby Washington State Reformatory. He said the man was understandably horny; he hadn't had sex or even seen a naked woman for years. So he went to see some strippers. And wouldn't you know, that particular guard was dancing at that particular strip joint on that particular night. She recognized the escapee and tipped off a bunch of the customers. "And they pounced on the guy," said the raconteur. "They beat the living shit out of him."

I stared at the student who'd told the story.

"No lie," he said.

"No lie?"

The student paused, and then smiled. "Her name is Charity."

"Charity?" I asked.

"Charity."

I mulled this one over for a while.

At lunch I told my supervisor the story of Charity, and asked if it was true.

"Yes," said my supervisor. "It's true."

"Even the part about fingering the guy? About the guy getting beat up at the strip joint?"

"Yes," said my supervisor. "It's true."

"It appeared to me that she was flirting with the guys."

"She's got a reputation for flirting," said my supervisor.

"But why?" I asked. "Why flirt with these guys? They're romantically unavailable, to put it mildly."

My supervisor was usually a patient man, but on this day he got exasperated. "Can't you recognize a power trip when you see one? This place is twisted," he said. "Fucking twisted!"

4. Beckwith

Deborah Walker, a former student, wrote to tell me about an encounter that occurred a couple of years after her release:

There was this one guard who sticks out in my mind. His name was Beckwith. He was a young, good-looking man who appeared to be normal (for a cop).

Anyway, when I was back on the streets again, I went out to dinner with a girlfriend of mine. Afterwards, we decided to go to a strip bar for some drinks and entertainment.

The first stripper came out dressed like a sailor. He stripped out of his blues into a string. Next came Zorro, who could do magic with his cape. And then there was the Lone Ranger. I was struck by him, by the way he moved his hips and licked his lips. All the women were going crazy, but all I could do was stare at him. There was something familiar about him. He took off his holster and then he took off his mask. I couldn't believe who it was!

After the show, I went to the manager and asked to see the Lone Ranger. I said I was an old friend. The manager went to the dressing room, returned a short time later, and told me to go on back.

I walked into the dressing room, and there was Beckwith. Beckwith himself, wearing a pink robe, pink Lee press-on nails, and mascara!

He said "hi" before looking up. Then, realizing who I was, he started crying.

5. Jon Fleming's Story

"I've never written a story," Jon Fleming said.

"Then I guess it's time to try one," I said.

The next day he came to class with this:

And I Laughed

Amy was the best dog a boy could own, and she was mine. She came to me as a puppy, a gift for my fifth birthday, a white German shepherd.

We had just moved to Ferndale, on Harksell Road. There were fields and woods, joy to a boy and his dog. For three years our friendship grew, as did Amy. I would be late for dinner, and Mom would tell her, "Go find Jon," and she would. We would go camping and she would run all over, coming back to camp wet and muddy, a grin on her face.

A happy dog. A happy boy.

One day I let Amy outside. I was eight years old. She ran all over the yard, then across the street to the dairy farm. Rocky, the dairy farmer's son, had gotten a gun for Christmas.

I heard a pop, pop, pop, and saw Amy dancing, jumping into the air. And I laughed. Oh, what a funny dog!

Mom sent me to my room, but I looked out my window.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

Mom was screaming, "No! Stop!"

Amy was crawling into our yard. Her legs were red.

Mom called Grandpa. He came over fast. Amy had crawled to the porch. I could hear her yelping.

Grandpa lifted his shotgun out of his truck and walked over to Amy. Boom!

We called the sheriff, but when they came they did nothing. They said Amy had been chasing cows. The farmers said this, they did. I ran out of my room and told them, "They lie!" But Mother send me back to my room.

We buried Amy in the backyard, under the plastic pool. I never owned another dog again, and we moved out of the country into Bellingham.

I prayed sometimes that Amy hadn't heard me laugh. What an evil little boy am I.

6. The Happy Rogue

I have a soft spot for charming rogues. One I remember with particular fondness was a robber. He robbed banks, 7-Elevens, and other establishments throughout the West. The robber was a handsome son of a gun with twinkling eyes and a mischievous grin. You could tell he was a real ladykiller.

When the robber took my creative writing workshop, he wrote a highly amusing step-by-step primer on how to establish an alias. His MO was quite ingenious. He'd land in a new town, visit a local graveyard, and find the tombstone of a man who was born at about the same time he was. Then, through a series of clever maneuvers, he would adopt the dead man's identity. He would obtain a Social Security card and even a driver's license bearing the dead man's name.

Once his new alias was established, the robber would ply his trade secure in the knowledge that if he were ever pulled over for a traffic violation, no outstanding arrest warrants would appear on the police computer. After committing a string of daring holdups—but before the cops closed in—he would steal a car, drive to a new town, visit a local graveyard, establish a brand-new identity, and ply his trade again.

It took several years and some thorough police work, but the law finally caught up with the robber. When he was arrested, he had more than 20 aliases. He was found guilty of committing many holdups under a wide assortment of names. When it came time for sentencing, the judge couldn't figure out who the robber really was, and ordered him to serve a long prison term under one of his assumed names.

The robber claimed that having so many identities was a real boon in prison. He pointed out that when some convict yells a friendly greeting to another convict in the Big Yard, the name hollered is often one of his many aliases. The robber always stops and returns the greeting, on the off chance it comes from an old acquaintance from the streets. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, of course, the convict is hollering at someone else. But the robber is the easygoing sort to whom most people take a shine. In this way, he claims, he makes lots of friends, and never suffers from loneliness in prison.

As I said, I have a soft spot for charming rogues. And so, after reading his amusing how-to primer, I felt saddened because this self-possessed, witty, and utterly charming fellow would have to fritter away years in prison. But sympathy wasn't all I felt. I was also a bit envious of the man.

Such envy may seem odd. After all, I got to leave the prison every day. I had my freedom. Still, like many writers, I tend to be morose, introspective, and anxious. My freedom notwithstanding, I knew that I could never, no matter how hard I tried, extract an iota of the fun and joy that this dashing and charming, if incarcerated, robber somehow managed to milk out of life.

7. Ambiance

Prisons vary. Even a small child returning from a visit to the penitentiary could tell you if the place where Daddy lives has big tall walls or no walls at all, or if the guards there pack unholstered rifles, holstered pistols, or merely walkie-talkies.

Here in the state of Washington, there are prisons designed with a frontier sense of abundant land; institutions where the low-slung one- and two-story buildings are spread out so as to reveal big skies and horizons without walls, genuine horizons where the sun really rises and the sun really sets at the visible edges of the earth. In open-range prisons such as these, the smell of industrial kitchens mixed with the fumes of a thousand hand-rolled cigarettes smoked down to the nubbin every hour, along with the many varieties of sweat generated by chronic fear, chronic hate, bloody memories, rotten childhoods, furious workouts, festering grudges, dread of rape, desire to rape, boredom, insanity, rage, despair, and too many unwashed socks—those familiar prison odors are washed clean, now and then, by a purgative breeze that carries the crisp, sweet scent of a nearby cedar forest or even of the far-off sea. In open-range prisons such as these, one can see inmates and staff members alike pause on a quiet morning to watch the mist rise from a tree-studded hillside or, on an especially felicitous day, to see a deer graze, unconcerned with crime and punishment, on the grass just beyond the fenced perimeter.

And then there are the prisons that never let you forget, that are designed with an urban sense of scarce and encroaching space. That such prisons are invariably located in no one's backyard, far out in the countryside where the voters are too few to block their construction, is irrelevant. Once you step inside one of these citified institutions, you have entered a rough, hemmed-in tenement block where the natural world either becomes oddly contorted or simply ceases to exist. Walls, like tall buildings, bend the hours of the day, delaying sunrise until the morning is well under way and hastening the onset of sunset. Blazing quartz lights block out the night sky. Moon and stars, trees and fields and hills—they quickly become abstract and ungraspable, reference points belonging to others, just stuff convicts see on TV. Even the big exercise yards in prisons such as these tend more towards spit-pocked expanses of mud than green and fragrant grass.

There are maximum-, medium-, and minimum-security prisons. There are prisons for women and prisons for men. There are prisons for boys and for girls. At some prisons, the convicts march in file to work and chow; at others, they amble from all directions. At some prisons the convicts all wear the same clothes: blue denim pants and drab olive work shirts. At others they get to dress up like bikers or rock stars or bearded, kerchief-crowned pirates, albeit the swordless kind.

But pronounced and obvious as these surface differences are, it's only after you've spent time inside a few prisons that you begin to appreciate their distinctive varieties of pathology and pain. Granted, some are so squalid there's nothing subtle or elusive about their subsurface essence. At the old McNeil Island prison, for example, eight men and one toilet shared a barred, open-tiered cell considerably smaller than the average living room. The cells were stacked four high, four deep, and four across in a filthy, drafty, 19th-century monster of a building that my students insisted was haunted by many ghosts. One day, after a guard had given me a quick tour of the cell house on my way to class, I asked a student how he managed to survive in such a place.

"Always carry violence in your back pocket," he said, meaning, I presumed, that that was the best and maybe the only way to avoid shankings and rapes.

"But how do you keep from going crazy?"

The student shrugged and said nothing, though perhaps his tight, scrunched-up body, his ever-darting eyes, and his tendency to get up and pace five or six times an hour had been giving me the answer all along.

8. Letter from T.J. Granock, August 1991

I want to tell you about a guy in here who lives in the cell next to mine. Elliott is in his early thirties, though it's hard to tell. He's been down a while, about nine years. Same as me. The word is he shot his wife. Or maybe it was his girlfriend. Anyway, after he killed her he turned the weapon on himself. A botched suicide. I can verify his intent because in all my life, I have never seen a more fucked-up face and neck. A real Picasso nightmare.

There's an ugly puncture the size of a quarter at the base of his throat. The hole is surrounded by ribbons of brown scar tissue. His jaw is hinged all wrong, exaggerated and twisted half a turn too far. His mouth only opens on one side, and then, only an inch. Five or six teeth are all he's got left; the rest were blasted out.

His left cheek is swollen so large it obscures most of that eye, which, I guess, still works. Speaking of eyes, his never stop watering. The sprinkler system just won't shut down. The same is true of his nose: it never stops running. You can hear him blowing out a continuous flow of mucus at all hours of the day or night. It sounds like an amplified moose call. I can wake up at 3 in the morning to take a leak and within minutes hear that incredible honking sound.

I don't know if he ever really sleeps.

It's common knowledge that Elliott has never once set foot in the prison visiting room. I've never seen him use a telephone or receive anything other than magazines or junk mail. If he has any family or outside friends, they're not around.

Still, he doesn't seem to be bitter. The fact is he's one of the kindest, most well-liked men I've ever met. He holds a job of great responsibility in the prison print shop. He is self-sufficient. He never borrows from anyone and, though he's nobody's fool, he's enormously generous to his friends. He doesn't smoke, yet he likes to keep a pack of Camels in the breast pocket of his shirt in case a buddy needs a fix.

Elliott is not a visitor here. This is his home and as permanent as the scars on his face. This is where he will die.

I'm not telling you this to condone what he did. It must have been pretty horrible, given what's left of him from the neck up. But because I am where I am, I'm privileged to see the hidden side of many public tragedies. I live with hundreds of men pronounced dead on arrival; men who aren't sure if the struggle back to life is possible or even worthwhile.

I think about why I'm here a thousand times a day (don't even ask about the nights). All the places and events involved in my crime. Every word, every glance, every color. They all jumble together and run through my mind like some demented video version of This Is Your Life on auto repeat. I can be jogging along the wall in the big yard, peeling a stolen orange in my cell, or just see some ad for a product I used to use, like Turtle Wax or Kodak color film. Even the seasons, the subtle changes in the air can cause my mind to wander back to the events that led up to my imprisonment. They're a part of me I accept, like a missing limb, or growing older. I couldn't forget them if I tried (which I have no intention of doing). Nothing is stronger. Not even you.

And then I look at Elliott. His face, that grotesque pink and purple lump of stitched-together flesh. Every time he combs his hair, runs soapy hands over the deformed contours of his jaw, brushes what's left of his teeth, drinks his dinner from a styrofoam cup, or painfully blows his nose, he's reminded of what he did to himself and to someone he thought he couldn't live without. It must all seem so unnecessary now.

I know it sounds trite, and it's certainly too late to say it, but victims have rights. They should be protected, compensated, and cared for in every way possible. That should never be an issue.

And then I think of Elliott. Someone who did everything in his power to die, forced to wake up in a penitentiary for the rest of his life with a face that never gives him a moment's peace.

Now that's punishment, buddy. It makes me feel lucky knowing someday I'll be able to leave prison, walk down any street, and no one will be the wiser. That the worst thing I've ever done in my life won't be permanently and hideously written all over my face.

So I go on. A daily routine of hard physical exercise (I run till I see visions), simple food, lots of water, and writing give my life a modicum of purpose. My best to Anita and I hope you two enjoyed your trip to the ocean. You needed the break, I know.

I look forward to your next letter. And remember, if it weren't for us villains, there'd be a lot fewer heroes out there.

All my love,

T.J.

9. A Well-Aimed Stream

This happened a few years after I started teaching, at one of the four state prisons situated at Monroe. It seems a certain instructor was in the habit of leaving his classroom to use the men's room. An administrator concluded that these absences represented a breach of security, and issued a memo stating that the instructor was not, under any circumstances, to leave his room while class was in session.

The instructor, a veteran of perhaps too many years in the system, responded to the directive in an unconventional, one might even say inventive, fashion. One day during class, he urinated in his room. He took care, I was told, to aim his stream at empty desks and unoccupied floor space. Indeed, although minor details varied from teller to teller, all accounts agreed on that point: The instructor did not piss on any students.

Nevertheless, the event caused a bit of a stir, and word of the incident quickly spread throughout the institution. Soon it came to the attention of the prison's education director, a kind, articulate, and bureaucratically savvy woman known for her steady composure and ability to put out fires. But something happened that day. When she heard the news, or so the story went, she abruptly stood up and left her office. She drove away from the prison and did not come back after lunch. She did not return to work the next day, or the day after that, or on any day ever again. She had, people said, suffered an instant nervous collapse. She had, people said, gone insane.

There are a couple of lessons to be gleaned from this story. The first and more obvious is that people often go over the edge in prison, and it's not only the convicts who snap. The second, less obvious lesson is that once the story escaped the confines of the prison where it happened, once it made its way to Jeno's Restaurant, Dan's Main Street Grill, and the Ixtapa Restaurant in downtown Monroe; once it spread from staff member to staff member throughout the North Command—well, it really wasn't all that remarkable. To be sure, it was a bit on the kinky side, kinky enough, as prison war stories go, to make the rounds for a week, not just a day. But in the context of the toxic greenhouse, the funhouse mirror, or whatever prison metaphor suits your taste, it was curious and regrettable but hardly unimaginable.

This happened, as I say, several years ago. My guess is that the instructor who urinated in his classroom received a written reprimand. But that's only conjecture, and conjecture aside, the last time I inquired about his employment status, I was told he was still on the job.

10. Death by Plunging

After finishing his sentence in Washington, my former student Michael Collins was shipped to Oregon to serve out a sentence there. He was sent to the Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.

In his letters, Collins described Pendleton as a bleak and unhappy place. He said that living conditions were horrendous and that this was reflected in the suicide rate: seven attempts between January and July of 1994. Four succeeded, and three inflicted serious damage on the participants. All were carried out by the same method: jumping off the fourth-floor stairwells that served as exits from the living units.

Collins reported that one jumper appeared to have changed his mind in midflight and tried to glide onto the grass. Unable to alter his trajectory, he landed on concrete and died.

Another convict who jumped and died smashed his head flat in the process. But the guards weren't taking any chances; they handcuffed the corpse and left the cuffs on until a coroner pronounced it dead.

This situation was clearly bad for morale, and it did not reflect favorably on the institution. So after the seventh plunge, the prison administration addressed the situation. They caged off the open parts off the stairwells with an impenetrable wrapping of razor wire. This made it physically impossible to jump, and in this way death by plunging was eradicated.

11. The New Cellie

One morning a student came to class and told the rest of us a story about his new cellie. The student said he'd woken up in the middle of the night to a foul odor and the sound of splashing water. The student said his new cellie had his head in the toilet. "The crazy fucker was eating his own shit!"

12. All the Way In

One day during smoke break, a student told a story about a friend of his. He said his friend had gotten a new cellie, and that the cellie was a known "baby raper"—a child molester.

"Well anyway," said the student, "my friend walks into the cell. This is a couple of months ago. And what do you think my friend sees? He sees the baby raper jerking off. And he's staring at some pictures while he's doing it."

The student paused and shook his head with disgust. "The pictures belonged to my friend," he continued. "They were photos of his own fucking kids! So my friend went a little crazy. He grabbed hold of a pencil—it must've been sharp—and stuck it into the baby raper's ear. He stuck it all the way inside the asshole's ear."

13. Utility Infielders

One wet December evening in 1991, I was leaving prison after class. This particular prison was a specialty joint; it catered to sex offenders. Its population consisted almost exclusively of rapists, child molesters, perpetrators of incest, and the lot.

I was walking out that night with a gentle, usually circumspect member of the prison recreation staff. On this occasion, however, he nodded toward the many inmates who were marching from their living units to the chow hall and let me in on his thoughts: "Most of those guys are just assholes."

I appreciated that observation, I really did. It was precisely the sort of statement we don't get enough of these days, the sort that cuts through layer upon arcane layer of academic/bureaucratic/psychobabble bullshit and gets to the heart of the matter. They are predators, first and foremost, my friend seemed to be saying. And so what if they're not in Ted Bundy's league? They're dependable fellows, the utility infielders of sex crime, who can be counted on, whenever given the chance, to go out and get the job done.

My friend, a career corrections man, spoke with the authority of one who knows. Granted, there are exceptions; granted, there are one-time perpetrators. But sex offenders are notorious recidivists. So how do we judge these fathers, brothers, and sons who have committed unspeakable crimes? Do we hate them because of the evi1 they've done, and are statistically liable to do again? Or do we love the sinner and hate the sin, as Jesus recommended?

It would be nice to have an answer to these questions.

14. Multiculturalism

The last class I taught at the Twin Rivers Corrections Center included, among others, a black nationalist, a white supremacist, a traditional Eskimo, some born-again Christians, an assortment of nihilists, and one Jew—myself. Outside of class, my supervisor informed me, most of these guys couldn't talk to each other. But to make the workshop function, the students had to hang their swaggers at the door and treat each other and each other's work with respect.

The makeup was not atypical for a prison workshop. Nor, as I thought the matter over, was the makeup of the class dissimilar to that of many work crews I'd been a part of on myriad blue-collar jobs.

This leads me to conclude that when my university counterparts sit around and pat each other on the back for bringing "diversity" to their departments, they aren't talking about genuine diversity. They're talking about contrived diversity, imposed by upper-class professionals who have the luxury of not living with "those people" they are so proud of sharing office space with.

Real diversity isn't contrived. It isn't a matter of choice. Authentic multicultural interaction, in my experience, takes place when convicted felons or the working poor are thrown together by people in authority who don't give a shit about them.

15. The Rape Police

One morning at the Washington State Reformatory, before a creative-writing workshop had officially begun, some old-timers were reminiscing about the State Penitentiary at Walla Walla back in its "Concrete Mama" days. This was during the 1970s, when prison reform was supposed to be at its height. In practice this meant that the administration had loosened controls to such an extent that the guards were cowed by the convicts—at least by the toughest, most predatory convicts, who pretty much had the run of the place.

As you might expect, this led to an increase in sexual violence. Every night, bands of predators would roam the tiers, seeking out the young, the weak, and the unprotected. They would drag these victims from their cells and rape them.

The guards, being outnumbered, frightened, and demoralized, made no effort to stop the practice. In order to fill the void, therefore, a number of the non-predatory convicts banded together to form the Rape Police. The Rape Police also roamed the cell tiers at night, armed with homemade weapons such as sharpened screwdrivers stolen from the wood shop. They tried, with limited success, to intercede and prevent rapes from happening.

Being a rape policeman was a noble and dangerous undertaking. Some policemen were singled out and murdered. The murders were usually carried out in a dark sliver of the prison known as Blood Alley. Blood Alley was a blind spot, completely hidden from the towers. Guards and other staff rarely ventured there.

Besides death in Blood Alley, rape policemen had to fear those guards who, out of fear, corruption, or sadism, were in cahoots with the predators. These guards liked to "arrest" a rape policeman and throw him into the hole for 30, 60, or 90 days. If a rape policeman was carrying a shank at the time of his arrest, formal charges were sometimes filed. A few rape policemen who were charged and found guilty of carrying weapons and/or of assault had time added to their sentences. One to three years was standard, the old-timers recounted. Five to 10 years was not unheard of.

I glanced at the clock, noticed that it was past 8:20, and called the class to order.

 
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