On Writing: Living in a concrete box

Editor’s note: This week’s On Writing column was written by guest columnist Byron Benedict, an inmate at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, and is the second of a three-part series on writing classes offered at the facility. To read part one, written by LCCC writing instructor Jim Hale, visit http://www.capitalcityweekly.com/


It has been 1 ½ years since I’ve tasted freedom. I remember it like it was yesterday, though, and one of the things I remember most is the rush. No, not the “rush” we get from drugs or adrenalin, but the constant rush of a normal day, as we rush around everywhere we go, always hurrying to complete the task at hand, whether it be shopping, going to the Post Office, or just driving to get somewhere fast. And along with the rush comes a concomitant impatience — like two kids skipping down the sidewalk together hand-in-hand. The rush and the impatience are best friends, just not your best friends. They’re always your adversaries, always against you.

Things are different for me now that I’m an inmate at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. The only rush around here is trying to get to your destination in the allotted five-minute “movement.” That is what they call it when they allow inmates to move from one part of the jail to another: a movement. Sounds more like something bowels do. And that’s what you feel like when you have five minutes to get somewhere, but the guard is two minutes late getting the door open in the first place.

I live in a concrete box about 20 x 35 feet. There are 25 other guys of various ages, backgrounds, and degrees of criminal “stature” living in it with me. There are two phones, one TV, one microwave, one shower, two tables, three sinks, and three toilets without doors for everyone to share. Of course, everyone has his own idea of what “share” means. It’s like an efficiency apartment straight from hell. As you can imagine, a plethora of dubious amenities accompanies this arrangement.

My day in particular begins at 6 a.m. when a loud school bell rings and the much brighter than usual fluorescent lights turn on. I am the “mod-worker,” otherwise affectionately known as the “house-mouse,” and my job is to get up before everyone else and clean and disinfect the “house.” MRSA (pronounced mersa) is an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that can run rampant in an environment such as this, so germ/infection control and cleanliness are an elemental part of everyone’s day, especially mine.

Since my sojourn here began I have discerned other peculiarities about living in this concrete box.

Have you ever noticed the echo in a parking garage? Enhance that by a factor of 10 due to the “closed” nature of a prison in juxtaposition to a parking garage, which tends to be more open. Every little sound seems amplified. My ear-plugs are my most treasured possession.

Next is smell. Have you ever noticed that in the ER even small aromas seem more elaborate and pronounced in the semi-sterile environment? Like the sounds, here the smells too seem amplified: the pungency of your sudoriferous roommate or of that guy with the paint-peeling halitosis. Then there is jail food flatulence — always a crowd pleaser. In here, the smells stick to the olfactory like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth.

For my psychological delectation, I am very careful every minute of the day about every word I utter and every action I perform, so that I don’t accidentally allude to any potential weakness or any “button” of any kind that others can push. I know that if I do, once I open that faucet, the response from my roommates will be like a drip that never stops; everyone, jail-wide, will be tap, tap, tapping on that button to get me to crack. In a sadistic environment, frustration is the gift that keeps on giving. What you say really can and will be used against you.

Since this is a multi-purpose facility, it commingles everyone from your local drunk to the high level drug dealer to the sex offender and even some serving life for murder. And inevitably, there is a high potential for personality clashes. So the daily problem is collision-avoidance. Since you can’t just walk away when you’re locked in a cell with a belligerent roommate, there are really only two available options: either get froggy with him or suck it up and back down. It all depends on where your convictions lie — and what you want your future convictions to be.

These are the amenities of prison life. Gone is the rush of a free existence, but gone also are all the rights that go with it, rights we take for granted when we’re free. In here, little things like shopping, getting a razor, watching TV, using a microwave, going outside, and using a phone are no longer rights. They are all privileges, revocable at any time.

Savor the “rush” of your day, and when you’re waiting in line or being stuck in traffic, temper any impatience with gratitude even for your inconveniences. I’d gladly exchange my present amenities for your greatest inconvenience.


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