Early on in my bid — prison talk for prison sentence — I wandered into the recreation room. The rec room is a building that contains exercise bikes, treadmills, a classroom for hobby crafts, and two worn, old pool tables. As I strolled through the door, I heard a gregarious “New York” accented voice explaining the finer points of the game of pool. He talked about the “objective bawl, the cue bawl” and something about “a schtannnnnce.” He stood 6’2” 380lbs. He was a big dude, with short pants on that went all the way down to an area just above his loose and slightly bunched white crew socks. As the unmistakable New Yorker Roared, someone told me they called him Walrus. In looking at him waddle around the table, it was immediately apparent how he’d earned his nickname. He saw me staring and asked me if I wanted to sign up for his billiards class.
Walrus explained he would be starting a new class on the following Saturday morning. Initially, I rebuffed his offer because I didn’t want anything to interfere with my prison goals. Additionally, many of you know how competitive I am. Furthermore, I had vowed not to get engaged in any prison sports — for a variety of reasons prison sports can be hazardous to one’s health. Surprisingly, the primary reason is that medical care in prison is “minimally adequate” — that is to say, if medical staff does not believe a prisoner is going to die from their injury based on a “nurses” 10 second visual inspection (without laying a finger on the prisoner other than to take the prisoners temperature), she might allow you to see a doctor in 6 months to a year — LITERALLY. Pain level or inability to perform activities of daily living does not appear to be a motivating factor in their decision making process. In fact, prison is the only place I have experienced where one can go to the prison hospital, known as the FMC or Federal Medical Center, but never actually see a doctor. Anyway, the second reason is that one has to keep in mind with whom one is dealing. Prisoners are generally under a great deal of stress, some are dealing with untreated or undiagnosed mental health conditions, and therefore unmedicated, and some are going through personal family events, and some are just crazy as hell. Many guys live in constant fear they will be forgotten or abandoned by their families or that they have become too much of a burden. Nonetheless, Walrus persisted.
He had a gigantic smile on his face while promising the class would be fun, and “very informative.” It was quite apparent he loved pool. I learned Walrus had been a professional pool player on the outside, and he use to own several pool halls. After seeing him around the compound several other times after that day, and having cordial conversations about his family, his love of pool, and his desire to teach the fundamentals of the game, I felt compelled to sign up for his unique class. His aura and enthusiasm for learning was contagious. It turned out to be a really good class. It was held early on Saturday mornings, and I found it to be a good way to start the day. The class was eight weeks long, and it has drastically improved my understanding of the game.
A few weeks after the class, I showed up in the pool room to meet Walrus for an early lesson, but Walrus was a no show. It was strange because he was somewhere around the pool table every single day at the same times. I checked back every day for the next three consecutive days and Walrus had disappeared. He was nowhere to be found on the compound. At 6’2” 380lbs he is generally hard to miss. After asking around, I was told Walrus had been taken to the SHU (AKA the hole). SHU stands for solitary housing unit and it is a form of discipline. It turned out that an elderly man that I will call “Casino Man” had accused Walrus of sexually harassing him. Walrus remained in the hole for a month or so. Perhaps it was unbeknownst to the Correctional Officers or anyone lacking knowledge of degenerative cognitive conditions but “Casino Man” appeared to be suffering from dementia. He was in his eighties and utilized a walker to get around. I had spoken to Casino Man several times, and often times he didn’t seem to even know he was in prison or why he was there. In fact, his ICP — Inmate Care Provider — who is a prison friend of mine told me that Casino Man frequently gets lost or just wanders about. One day, on a trip to the FMC, I ended up looking out for Casino Man because he thought he was going to a breakfast. He needed a lot of help getting in the van, and I had to also guide him to his medical appointment. Correctional Officers have very little patience for elderly inmates. On more than one occasion, I have witnessed Correctional Officers yelling at wheelchair confined and/or confused old guys. They appear to get the most frustrated with people suffering with the affects of aging. There is little dignity in growing old in prison. (Imagine having to request diapers in prison. Now imagine another inmate having to help his elderly cellie pull his pants up…) I remember trying to load Casino Man’s walker on to the already packed van, and hearing one of the other prisoners exclaim, “He don’t supposed to be here” —meaning the prison environment is very, very inhospitable to the elderly, and it is frequently left up to other inmates to care for them, though other inmates are ill equipped to do so.
Casino Man was a particularly difficult case, but not really unusual. He falls down in his cube, has “accidents” where he urinates or defecates on himself, but he also had a habit of making outrageous allegations or saying things that didn’t actually happen. His mental state was rapidly declining, and this time Walrus was the unlucky recipient of Casino Man’s dementia. Several weeks before Casino Man had reported a hand to hand drug deal, and weeks before that, he thought “the black guys” were out to get him. His ICP, who was with him most of the time, reported no such activities. Nevertheless, when Casino Man made the allegation against Walrus, Walrus was immediately taken to the SHU. I am not sure how that all shook out or what transpired resulting in Walrus being put in the hole, but when Walrus returned from the SHU, he was a completely different person.
I had expected to see him back in the rec room, but he didn’t come around for several weeks. I saw him a few times around the compound and he looked… broken. His gregarious personality was muted, no longer did he wave or roar his New York style greeting across the yard. Because I was really worried about him, I tracked him down to find out if he was ok. It’s prison so I didn’t want to get in the guy’s business so I asked him casually if he wanted to play a game of pool, but he declined. I reapproached him later, and he opened up about the things he had to endure while in the SHU. Apparently, his health and his spirit had significantly declined while in isolation. In speaking with Walrus and others about their experience in the SHU specifically how the SHU is used, and how prisoners are treated there reminded me of S.E.R.E* training I received while in the military. Unfortunately for the prisoners who have had to endure the SHU, they have not received any training prior to the experience, nor did they receive any mental health counseling prior to being released back into the general population.
From my perspective, the old Walrus was a lot better than the one they created while he was enduring the SHU.
*S.E.R.E. = Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training was devised to train soldiers to survive and resist in the event of capture (resistance training is largely based on the experiences of past U.S. prisoners of war).