Happy Holiday Season from Behind the Wall
Here in is my recording of a day’s events within the day-room as inmates incorporate their normal, everyday routine activities with their preparations of the upcoming Christmas celebration. In walking you through these events, it is my desire to paint a word picture that permits you to experience the range of emotions; joy, fear, love, sorrow, and even despair and anger which mingle with the usual comaradery generally shared among inmates throughout our daily existence in the Twilight Zone.
My task in painting this word picture is complicated by the emotions brought quickly to surface by these most trying of times of life in prison, holiday seasons; and the emotions just at the surface of each individual’s conscious; like pooled water behind a dam, seeking an outlet to relieve pressure, but in this case, the pressure is from suppressed memories of happy holidays in long past yesterdays. I, Twi-light, spent the day observing the sights and sounds unfolding in our day room, knowing similiar events are occuring on these days leading up to the season’s celebrations all over the Federal Bureau of Prisons System and on this particular day within our prison camp:
The day room is filled beyond capacity, the sole place on the compound that has as its purpose and function the relieving of the inmate’s stress, a place of relaxation and entertainment: chess, dominoes, card games, scrabble, and other tabletop board games are played here. Debates over sports games, politics, or whatever else that may come to mind are being waged throughout the area.
The noise level within this day room would register impossibly high on any decible meter. However, for those who live in the Twilight Zone, the noise level is normal. We learn early to choose which noises to let in and which to ignore and mind our own business; the business of others is to always be respected, that which we have no part is to be respectfully ignored.
OG, one of the guys who has been locked down for more than a few decades, is sitting at a corner table listening to Christmas carols on his mp3 player; he told me just the other day that the mp3 player was a Godsend for him, being able to listen to what he wanted, when he wants to is a joy for him! OG lifts his head and looks at me as if he can feel my thoughts on him. I bow my head to him, a sign of respect because I know I’ve had my eyes on him too long.
Dee, Jack, and a few other guys are playing in a spades card game tournament at a table just inside the entrance door, all the way across the room from OG who is in the very back corner of the room, back against the wall. My focus goes to Dee who has a gigantic smile on his face because he is killing opponents in the spades tournament. Dee yells across the room to OG, “Old man, you jammin’ ? What’s that you listenin’ to?” OG answers in that quiet voice that always has the ability to knife through noise no matter how loud it gets: ” ‘Silent Night’ by the group Temptations.” Dee yelled back, “Turn it up, feelin’ you, pop!”
OG turned the volumn up full blast; the surrounding noise level within the day room seemed to go down a few decible levels as the music from the mp3 player seemingly had a calming effect on mostly everyone. Players at other card games and Dominoes were still a bit loud with DC thinking and acting through his speech as though he were the best since the game of Dominoes was invented!
Jackson and Paul are playing chess, a true match of minds. Five or six people are looking on, mentally picking up a move or two. Then my attention is drawn back to Dee’s table and the spades tournament; I cannot hear a sound coming from the group gathered there. To be in the same room with Dee and not hear him usually means something is very wrong. Dee is always the life of any party. In the small Virginia town where he is from, Dee is affectionately known as “The Mouth,” and rightfully so!
I’m looking Dee’s way, I’m looking directly into his eyes and it’s though I’m drawn into his emotions; our backgrounds are very similar and I have no doubts where his mind has traveled. The gigantic smile has disappeared from his face, the loud laughter has dissolved into a quiet, far-off stare. There is no evidence of the joy that just moments ago radiated from his face. Just a few seconds ago, the shared camaradery had taken him out of the Twilight Zone, away from the walls of the prison.
Dee has gone to a different place. His head is moving to the beat of “Silent Night.” In his eyes I recognized a place I myself have traveled to many times over the years. In his eyes I could see dancing memories of Big Mama’s Kitchen. the tables and counters covered with dishes of chicken and dressing, candied yams, potatoes, turnip greens, pumpkin pies, three-layered red velvet and chocolate cakes; I can almost smell most of those goodies!! My mind floods with memories of GI Joes, train sets, and Nintendo Games, memories of good times when family was close, and smiles were easy.
Some guys come to the day room simply to escape chaos; across the table from me sits such a guy, Mike! Mike is the guy who takes every class offered, knows rules and regulations by heart, he has a one track mind – learning and knowledge: he has a bow but only one arrow, that arrow always pointed toward freedom. There is something special about Mike that conveys to anyone who he meets that he will hit bullseye! I watch him for a few minutes, with the rest of the day room moving at light speed, there is a calmness, a stillness surrounding Mike saying he will never be caught “speeding again.” I ask what he is currently studying and he says, “to become a Master Electrician.” I shake my head but also acknowledge that I see mastery within him. I reply, “way to go little brother!” Many believe only bad or evil exist within the Twilight Zone, nothing is farther from the truth; Mike, and many other like him are the living proof.
Turning my attention from Mike back to the entrance door just in time to see Ayo walk in. Everyone has been awaiting the arrival of Ayo, he is in charge of assembling a Christmas meal for the unit. For the first time today, with the exception of the music from OG’s mp3 player, the day room falls completely quiet, awaiting news of the Christmas meal. Everyone knows Ayo has the skill to combine, prepare and cook dishes in the only appliance available within the unit for inmate cooks, a microwave oven, that all things being equal, will put a gourmet chef to shame, so he is not only respected, but highly trusted to not only prepare delicious meals, but safe, healthy, and wholesome, as well!
Ayo starts by saying he has the list together of all he will need to prepare dishes for the celebration meal: from turkey logs to Mrs. Dash Seasoning. Ayo said he noticed some drop their heads when he said, “list.” Then he said, with a smile, “it’s cool, if your funds are low, it’s Christmas! and we are feeding everybody who comes through the day room door. For this one day, we are all going to be cool, all beef left outside the door!” I could hear a number of “amens” spoken around the room. Ayo then continued, “you ballers BG, Dee, Chop, Twilight, BigO, and the rest, I’m counting on y’all to make this happen. ‘Get Right,’ we ain’t forgot you! Tee has passed out these lists, they are kind of long, but, you are ballers, right?”
I’m feeling good about observing and recording the events of today right now, the kindness being shared in this room among one another is not often heard about and never seen by the outside world, even though it happens almost every holiday; if not within entire units, then within states, groups, or close friends.
At this moment, I’m in a good place within myself. However, there is an ingrained awareness within me that prevents me ever letting my guard down completely, i can feel that awareness pulling at me now. I let my eyes play over the room again, and once again, it’s Dee’s table that draws my focus. Not on Dee this time, but on his playing partner, Jack. Two people could not be more different. Dee comes from a middle class African-American family in Virginia and Jack is a descendant of a Mississippi Plantation Owner. Everyone knows Dee and Jack are friends to the bone, but for some reason veins in Jack’s forehead were pulsating. Knowing Jack the way I do, I knew something was battleground wrong! I stood and started to the door, tapping Mike’s table with my knuckles to let him know to follow me. The last place I wanted to be was trapped in the back of a room full of young gladiators when they went to war. I had no idea at that moment that it was OG who Jack’s anger was directed or I would have never moved. Asking OG not to stand his ground if required would have been out of the question!
Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ pouring from OG’s mp3 player was having a different effect on Jack than anyone else listening. He screamed suddenly at OG, “Man, can’t you find something different to play? I’m just getting over Thanksgiving and I’m not wanting to hear none of that Christmas shit today!” Due to the tone of Jack’s voice, it got so quiet in the day room you could have heard a rat piss on a tissue. Protocol did not permit anyone to speak to OG in that manner. If it had been two OG’s, at the very least, a verbal altercation would have erupted. Almost always in instances such as this, it was going to get physical and get physical fast. I moved back toward OG’s spot, Mike being true to who he was stayed at my side. Dee was first to try to defuse the situation. Everyone then started to make room around the table. Jack was a big boy; 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighing around 280 pounds, all muscle!
Dee kept talking, his eyes darting left to right, “Bro, leave the old man alone, he’s got the Christmas spirit.” Jack looks at Dee and said, “He needs to take his Christmas spirit to his room!” OG slowly stands up, a nod of his head would have left Jack in a bad way. OG has been known to put in his own work yet now everyone was waiting on his call. Jack was still talking, “OG ain’t no fish (new to prison life), he knows Christmas ain’t good for everybody.” There is not a person in the room that does not know OG cannot simply walk out of the day room. Prison etiqette won’t allow this challenge to go unanswered.
Jack keeps talking, whether to give OG a way out or to justify his anger, no one can say, “OG, man, you was behind the wall with me a week before Christmas in 2014 when my mother died and they would not let me go to her funeral.” Jack’s statement about his mother was enough to allow everyone to save face. I could see a light come home to OG’s eyes, he eased back into his chair saying, “son, I feel your pain, I lost my old lady around Christmas too. I’ll put my headphones on, we’re cool!” All could feel the day room take a collective breath. The noise level slowly returned to a normal high decible level.
Ayo takes the floor again, “Sherrod, our own personal Kelvin Hart, yell out ‘we gonna have chillin’ ?” The room roared with laughter, much more than the joke deserved, but it took all the rest of the undercurrent with it! Then Ayo said, “Let’s get our eat on! I’ve got the menus. If everyone can do their part we’re gonna ball out! I’m about to put my foot in it; when I call your name, speak your claim to fame, “Chris!” Chris says, “I got smoked oysters!” Ayo says, “y’all heard him, he ready!”
Ayo continues, “B?” Then “B” answers, “I got the clams ready when you call for them!” Big O says, “three cases of mackerels in my locker, dog and two cases of beef sausages if you need them!” Ayo responds, “That’s what I’m talking about, a true baller. My man ‘Get Right,’ This ain’t happening without you, speak ‘Get’!” Get Right says, “I’ve already locked down the chicken breast, and don’t worry about cheese, got that, too!” Ayo says, “you spoke that like a true poet, my brother.” The laughter could be heard outside the room but everyone knew that get right’s word was bond. The party was on!
It had now been an hour since Jack had his bout with the blues, he asked Ayo what he could bring? Then said, Sorry about earlier, OG.” OG spoke up, “Man, go ahead with that soft stuff, I know you’re a soldier, you don’t need nothing, you’re with me!” That was OG’s way of saying, “No one is to touch Jack!”
Someone said, “OG, tell Ayo to get on with it, it’s almost count time and we ain’t heard what he’s going to cook!” You know OGs got to save the best for last”. Says Ayo, “I’m making my seafood Lo’mein, fried pasta; I’m going to do some fried rice with vegetables, turkey log, and beef bits; a couple different mac and cheese casseroles. We’ll have fruit salad on ice, four different types of cheese cakes with vanilla wafer and graham cracker crusts.”
“Ok, Twilight,” says Ayo, “That’s about all we got to do, now do that thing you do, and we can get out of here!” Twilight responds, “What thing are you talkin’ about, Ayo? Praying!? You afraid someone is going to read this and know you have been prayin’?”
I know that you’ll agree, that Ayo has done his job well. He has chosen his team. The best of the best. To be selected to prepare a meal for the unit is a honor. Chris , ATL Shorty Lil B, Big O, both DC’s, Get Right, Currie with this hello mac & cheese. A dream team squad in the kichen. These men are respected for their cooking skills, the quality of their hyigene,and the pride they take in what they do. Our father which are in Heaven…………………………………………………………….Amen.
The events you have just read about, have been, and are at this very moment, playing out throughout America’s prisons system’s from sea shore to seas shore with many different outcomes. Somewhere, the altercation between OG and Jack did evolve into physical violence. The security of the institution fell into jeopardy and the complex was placed on lock down. Family members, loved ones, and friends who have traveled from the far reaches of America on Christmas Eve are being told that all visits have been cancelled until further notice. Children crying. Husbands and wives broken-hearted. Mothers and fathers speechless and inmates ready to go to war over a pebble that fell into a pond and is now affecting an ocean of lives.
The Christmas meal on that complex won’t take place because of the lockdown. The store is closed. No one is going to work at the warehouse. No microwave ovens, no phone calls, no emails. The spirit of Christmas is rapidly drained from that institution for inmates and staff alike. The news trucks are pulling up!
Our love and prayers go out to our sisters and brothers who are living out this alternative reality.
Disclaimer: This does not take place in the day room. It’s a tribute to James and all the other James’ throughout the prison system. I’ve known a James at every institution I’ve been housed; from the highest level (USP) to the camp where I’m presently housed. In most places, James is referred to as “The Gule”.
It’s James I must now see before I can pass this on to you. He is the guy who checks behind me to be sure I’ve dotted my I’s and crossed my T’s. He is the person who isn’t afraid to say, “Twilight, this don’t make sense.” James has a college education, an alumnus of NC State. He will be seventy in a few months. James lived a relatively successful life prior to entering the Twilight Zone. James ran a textile business in 39 counties. However, he feels no need to put on Aires. He can be found at any time of the day teaching. The number of tutorials he conducts in a week speaks volumes about the person he is. I often wonder what he is thinking when he sees me coming. You can get almost anything done in the Twilight Zone for a few stamps (money).
James won’t take a single stamp for what he does. However every now and then he will throw a few words from that black book of his at you. His face will light up, this man of God. During those times its me, and the people he is helping who feel as if we have been paid.
written By: ” Twilight”