A year ago, the heat became stuck wide open in another unit. Sweat stained grievances choked the collection box. In particular, one prisoner filed emergency grievances, saying that the heat was making his chest hurt. He was in distress. They answered by telling him to drink more water, that they had checked the temperature with one of those digital guns (at 3AM on the lowest of four tiers, which they didn’t factor in), and it was “as per policy within reasonable wahwahwah wah wah.”
After a week or so of the extreme heat, Jerry Jamison died on his bunk. He was 49 years old. The TV news said he lay there for approximately 37 hours before someone noticed the growing pile of mail on top of him—where it lands when they toss it through the bars. He was in prison for a drug offense and was due to be released soon to his children and new wife.
Rather than acknowledge wrongdoing in the mismanagement of our living conditions—which would be the first step in preventing a recurrence—the prison chose to generate yet another new policy. What change in operations was implemented to address the tragedy surrounding Jerry’s death? Why, to turn on the cell lights at 3 AM, of course.
I’m taking a class on symbolic logic, but there’s no chapter in the book describing how to derive that conclusion from the premise given here. I’ve even tried holding my breath when they go by at 3, to see if they’re checking for signs of life. I should be grateful for the lackadaisicalness which I predicted; mouth to mouth can be awkward when you’re faking it.
When guards misbehave or break their own policy, you have two choices: accept it, or do something. By accepting it, you relinquish your right to comment on it, even to another prisoner – in essence, you have no standing. I certainly do not want to hear someone complain who is unwilling to act. If you choose to do something, you have two new choices. If you respond directly, in the moment – either physically or verbally – the episode is likely to play out in only so many ways, none of which you will like. And a physical altercation only leads to years in solitary for you, and six months paid leave for the guard, who now has an entertaining story he can embellish at the tavern.
The other option is to utilize the prison’s own process against them and file a grievance. A valid question to ask when deciding whether to file is: Would this guard five me an infraction for a minor offense, say giving my food to another hungry prisoner?
As a prisoner, your expectation is that if you make a spectacle, your life (such as it is) will capsize. You will be tucked away in solitary for an indeterminate span of time, and transferred—usually to a prison as far from your family as possible.
Since we incur real consequences for our misconduct, especially personally offensive behavior, we foolishly believe that the inverse would be true, or at least possible. Over time we come to realize this is another of those intuitive fallacies.
I try to lessen the disappointment and frustration in my life as much as possible by not fostering unrealistic expectations, so I do not file prison grievances as a rule. Attempts to constrain the beast from within its belly usually end up being as quixotic as competing with a windmill in a face-slapping contest.
In Washington State, everything you need to know about what is considered non-grievable is printed on the backs of the grievance forms. If that formidable list is not enough to discourage you, there is a grievance coordinator at every prison, whose job is either to dissuade you by convincing you that your grievance is a dud, or tell you how to rewrite it, in which case it usually becomes “accepted.” This nominal approval of your complaint is not unlike believing your prayer heard, or believing that Santa received your request for a puppy. Your wishfulness in all three processes will vastly outweigh any effect that would have happened anyway. The exceptions are few and, like wishes in fairy tales, prone to backfire.
In the 16 years or so that I’ve spent in prison, my experience with the grievance system has been less than empowering, although the consistent quality of results has instilled in me a dour sort of faith in the process. As a well-worn example, once upon a time the prison menu included pork chops, breakfast on certain days would see real-ish sausages on the tray, and ham existed. There was a non-pork line in the chow hall for those not so inclined. But the meats were not segregated enough for the Muslims. Evidently, the very existence of pork offends the sensibilities of the deity supposed to have created it. They grieved until food became a substance so prohibited as to become unknowable, like dark matter or two-ply. This won the Muslims fewer popularity points in here than the Taliban and Al Qaeda combined. (Our worldview is shamefully circumscribed.)
I remember when we were served ice cream once a month, a landmark dessert with predictably rotating flavors, a way to gauge the passing of months that was more gratifying than the calendar page ritual. To lament such a loss may sound trifling to some, but in a world where all your experiences are grayed and “change” only means “worsen,” any minor event worth looking forward to becomes exalted. If you tasted rocky road, your mind could smile along with your taste buds, satisfied that another half-year had passed. But someone grieved the size of their scoop as compared to someone else’s, and so the boss subtracted ice cream from our reality. Similar scenarios unfolded with the cookies made in the prison bakery, hand-chalk on the weight pile, etc.
So you can see how grieving by the pen can lead to grieving of the heart. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but it’s also more dangerous to wave around in a tight space. If you are persuasive, or at least tenacious in your grieving, they may teach you what real grief is all about.
Retaliation is the silent weapon in what amounts to a cold war fought at the level of daily routines. Oftentimes, your things are ruined by “incidental” damage incurred in the mystery-place they call Chain of Evidence. Your lotion seemed furtive, you may find out later, a possible security threat lurking within it. Therefore, it needed to be poured out, the opened bottle stored in the same-labeled Ziploc as your family photos.
You will be told to pack your stuff, but however much you have is deemed excessive. They go through it yet again, while you watch helplessly. Difficult decisions must be made at this point about which of your things will accompany you to your next stop. Not to worry—the deciding will be done for you, not by you, a display of departmental thoughtfulness that may make you water up. You are taken aback that someone would be so concerned with saving you the hassle of carting all those things around, cluttering up the space beneath your prison bunk.
The one choice left to you is whether you would prefer to send your former property out at your expense, or perhaps donate it to an unnamed charity. You can expect to be on the next chain, the transport bus on which everyone wears the eponymous shackles, waist to wrist to ankle, just like in the movies. All these actions fit neatly beneath the umbrella of “institutional need,” which makes them immune from those meddling judges and their pesky injunctions. There is always somewhere worse than where you are, and that’s where you’re going.
Steve Bartholomew is serving time in Washington state for 2nd degree kidnapping and 2nd degree attempted murder.
If you’d like to contact this author directly, write to:
Steven Bartholomew #978300
PO Box 777
Monroe WA 98272