This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 4, "Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons." Find more from that issue here.
The kids are playing in a nearby grove of trees. There’s still a nip in the air, but the sun is warm on my love and I in this grassy meadow. I’m full and content with my woman in my arms and as I gently run my fingers through her hair, I think that times like these make life worth living.
What’s that blinding flash!!!???
I open my eyes and I’m back in the dormitory. Damn it! It’s five a.m. and the lights have just come on. The free man starts blowing his whistle like he’s directing traffic and I bury my head under the pillow, trying to recapture the tranquility of my dream. Too late, it’s gone. I get up, grab my towel and toothbrush, and head for the bathroom, hoping to reach one of the six washbowls before the other one hundred plus men I live with. I’m in luck. Finished with my morning ablution, I walk back to make my bed and the stupid talk is starting already.
“Get up an’ brush yer teet’, ya scumbag, you ain’t sittin’ at the table wit’ me, yer breat’ smellin’ like a bear’s behind.”
“Who you foolin’? You ain’t took a shower since Thursday, Funky Butt. Don’t worry ‘bout my teeth.”
Barry White is moaning his desire from a tapedeck somewhere. Sometimes, I think the worst thing about this place is the incessant noise. If the inmates aren’t making it, the free people are.
Nobody bothers to go. The pimply faced young nurse, who thinks she’s the Queen of Sheba, only gives out aspirin and we can get those from the security desk. The oriental doctor, if one is sick enough to see him, only knows nine words of English: “I can see no pain — you go to work.” He may have been a doctor in Korea but here, he’s just a joke.
I get dressed and start to make my bed. Hospital corners, eight-inch-wide collar; plenty of rules about bed-making but none about flushing toilets or taking a shower. Can’t figure it. I lie back down and try to get a few more winks before we eat at six o’clock.
“Dorm six, chow!”
We straggle out through the recreation room to the chow hall, wondering what gastronomic delights await us.
“Get in line. Single file, there. Button that jumpsuit. Roll those pant legs down.” The lieutenant is on his job early.
Biscuits, creamed beef (?), jelly, and milk. I’m starving. My hungry mouth receives a big spoonful of creamed beef and, after two chews, rejects it. Tastes more like creamed pencil erasers. Have to make do with biscuits and milk. Could be worse, but it’s not much to go to work on and I know I’ll be hungry before I get to the sallyport.
The food supervisor is standing by the table where we dump our trays. “Too much food is going to waste here,” he says, his breath smelling like cheap wine. “Damn particular hoboes, probably ate under a bridge when you were free. My food is the best in the state, best in the whole damn country.” Much snickering to these remarks. The man is obviously a mental case with delusions of grandeur. Such are the vast majority of our fearless leaders in this God-forsaken circus.
Back to the dorm. It’s six-thirty and there’s a half-hour to kill before work. Plenty of stupid talk. “Think it’s gonna rain?”
“Naw, weatherman said thirty percent.”
“Looks cloudy to me.”
“That’s fog, you dummy.”
“You a punk, Boy.”
“Yo’ bald headed mammy’s a punk.”
“Got somethin’ on yo’ mind?”
“I’m gonna bust yo’ head when we get in the field.”
“Bust it now, Punk.”
“Shut up, the free man is coming.”
Barry White is still groaning, “I’ve got so much to give,” but now he’s challenged by Natalie Cole on the radio: “Our love will be as tall as the trees.” All these love songs but no love, just negativism, hatred and bitterness. Maybe I belonged here, once, but no more. Getting old I guess.
“Everything off the floor. Go to work — NOW!” bellows the free man.
I grab a couple of sticks of gum and a fresh pack of cigarettes, and head for the door. It’s chilly, but if I wear a jacket I’ll be sorry later when I have to carry it. Better to be cold for awhile. I walk out into the brisk morning air, hands in pockets, shivering slightly but knowing that OP Hard Hearted Hannah, the sun, will be roasting me soon enough.
There are about one hundred men lounging around the sallyport, waiting, grumbling about going to work. It’s Monday and there’s no rain in sight.
“Crews twelve, fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, twenty, A. R. D. C.” They’re playing our song. We file, one by one, through the sallyport as our names are called. Plenty of stupid talk going on. “Ohh, get your filthy hands off of me or I’ll tell my man on you.”
“Yo’ man’s a gal-boy, too. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
“When I was out there, I had more money than I could spend. Got a cigarette? Gimme a light, too.” “Want me to punch you in the chest to get it started?”
“Man, I was pimping whores and slamming Cadillac doors.”
“Next time I get out there, I’m gonna rob me a bank so’s I can get some federal time. Them feds don’t work you like this.”
“That DA in New Orleans is a mutha. I’m going to the coast when I get out — hear armed robbery only carries six years out there.”
Here comes the field foreman. “Alright, pair it up.” Everybody crowds the head of the line.
“Don’t cut in front of me.” “You ain’t got no badge, you can’t tell me nothin’.”
If there was a line for the electric chair, I truly believe some of these idiots would try to cut it.
We march out in a column of twos and fall in behind the one hundred or so men from the other unit. No trucks this morning, so we’re going to walk somewhere. The horseboys bring the horses up for the line foremen and gun-guards. Fatso, one of the gun-guards who weighs over three hundred pounds, mounts up. The horse lays his ears back and turns to look at the heavy burden on his back. He starts bucking. The gun flies one way, Fatso’s hat the other, and Fatso himself goes over the horse’s head. Undaunted, Fatso dusts himself off amid much laughter and jeering and climbs back on. Much to our glee, the horse repeats his performance but, this time, receives a severe beating with a rifle butt. The third time Fatso mounts, the recalcitrant nag behaves and off we go. The men at the head of the line act like they’re chasing the field foreman’s horse and those at the rear of the line have to run to keep up.
We look like a grotesque Mardi Gras parade marching down the side of the highway with our armed, mounted escort. These free folks strive to take away our individuality and we strive to maintain it. We all wear similar jumpsuits, yet each man looks different. Some have brightly colored bandanas on their heads, some have knit caps, others have straw hats. Some wear rubber boots, others wear brogans (Lil’ Abner shoes), and a few have their pant legs rolled up to show off loud knee socks. I can pick out the punks and gal-boys by the bright scarves around their necks. Passing motorists slow their cars and crane their necks, staring in in disbelief. I can’t blame them.
“I can’t run anymore, Boss,” cries a man who had open heart surgery two years ago.
“You better catch the line up, old thing.”
The man collapses. A field foreman dismounts and rolls him over with the toe of his boot. “You two, carry him to the truck,” he orders. The two men pick up the unconscious man and furtively pick his pockets and slip his watch off while carrying him to the pickup truck. “What the hell you all staring at? Catch the goddamn line up.” And we’re off to the races again.
Finally, after about two miles, we are issued hoes and ushered into a field overgrown with weeds. Here comes the good Samaritan. “I want my field to look like a golf course. Now get to work.”
This is what I’ve been waiting for. With the rhythmic rise and fall of the hoes, I can put myself into a semi-trance and escape, mentally, for a while.
“What you waitin’ on?”
I look up, but the man on the horse isn’t talking to me. I glance at my watch. Nine-thirty already, good, good, the time is passing quickly. Only an hour and a half to go.
“I’m doing the best I can, Boss,” the man answers.
“Got to do better, can’t get these weeds cut leaning on that hoe. You got a write-up coming.”
The man throws his hoe down. “Lock me up, I ain’t working no more.”
The free man calls for transportation and I move off, chop, chop, chop, drifting into my own world again.
My reverie is broken and I head over to the line which is forming near the fence, looking for my line-up partner. The stupid talk never stops.
“This work is senseless, they got bush-hogs to cut these weeds.”
“Takes gas to run a bush-hog, don’t take nothin’ but water to run us.”
“It’s still stupid.”
“Yo’ mammy’s stupid.”
We file past a truck and hand our hoes to the tool boys, who stack them on the truck, then start the long march back to the compound. As we walk-run, slipping and sliding in the mud, I dream of a cold cup of Tang. Funny, how I appreciate all the little things I took for granted when I was free. Never again. I’m thirty-six and if I come back again, it’ll be as a four-time loser and it will be for good. I don’t think I could take this, day after day, with no end in sight. I’m going to make it this time — I have to.
Back at the sallyport. “Everything out of your pockets, hats off, boots and brogans off for shakedown.” They do this to us twice a day, everyday. I don’t know what they’re looking for and they don’t either. This is just to keep the free men busy. I sometimes think the low ranking free men are treated worse by the brass than the inmates are. I’m patted down and head for the dormitory in my stocking feet, wishing I could make a free man wash my muddy socks. Idiots! Stupid, this whole system is stupid, there’s no rehabilitation here, just work and useless expenditure of energy and harassment. God, I want out of here. I’m rehabilitated by fear of spending the rest of my life in this futile environment.
At last, my long awaited cup of cold Tang. It’s count time, and then chow. As usual, I’m starving — sure hope there’s something good for lunch.
Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, and greens. PTUI!! The meatloaf tastes like they washed the cream sauce off of the pencil erasers we had for breakfast and compressed them to form this dish. If the inmate store didn’t sell canned tuna, I think I would starve.
I go back to the dorm and lie down for a few minutes, then it’s one o’clock and back to the sallyport for the same routine. It never changes except for the excitement of a brief scuffle, now and then, when tempers flare in the heat. They are quickly broken up before any damage is done and all the participants get for their trouble is ten days’ loss of good time and five days in the hole. The horses are brought up and everyone watches expectantly as Fatso prepares to mount. We are rewarded. The horse groans and lies down. This is too much and even the free people are laughing and slapping their knees. We finally march off down the highway with smiles on our faces.
It’s another field, but the work is the same: hard, boring and senseless. The free men are passing out write-ups like crazy and I work at a steady pace, trying to avoid them. The field foremen write people up, hoping that most will get extra duty on the weekends, and they can make some overtime. What a way to make a living.
It’s four-thirty, the work day is over and I’ve survived another without a write-up. Mail call, the high point of my day. There’s always a letter from my love and I think her letters, more than anything else, keep me from giving up. Yes, there’s one for me. I lie back and read it five times. Things are relatively calm at the women’s prison, where she is doing ten years. I worry about her and she worries about me. Guess that’s what love is all about.
“Dorm six, chow!”
Cornbread, red beans and rice, greens, and jello. Not much, but at least palatable and will get me through the night.
Now, for a shower, then I’ll answer my mail and hope for a decent movie on TV. Anything to escape this boredom.
Ten-thirty and the lights are going out. The free man starts his patrol up and down the aisles, looking for a radio to confiscate or someone to write up for talking. Things quiet down and I look back on my day. It’s been a waste, I haven’t accomplished anything, and I know tomorrow will be a carbon copy of it. I relax and the darkness closes in on me.
The sun is warm on my love and I as we lie in this grassy meadow. She leans over and her soft, full lips brush mine....
William O. Causse is serving time at Dixon Correctional Institute, Jackson, Louisiana. (1978)