Friday, July 11, 2008


Dateline: Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Location: Deep inside a prison cell in Florida


Life in prison is like living in "The Twilight Zone," only without the spooky music, "Da da DAH da, da da DAH da, - da Doom!" The normal rules don't apply. Trapped in the Twilight Zone - the only thing missing is Rod Serling's mellifluous voice. Weird things happen. The hero is an anti-hero. There is an invisible dome, like a giant soap bubble that shimmers occasionally when the sunlight hits it at a certain angle, extending beyond the razorwire fences, that "normal" people can't see as they pop through, in and out. For those of us who are trapped in the Twilight Zone the dome is an impenetrable exit, and we are doomed to spend our lives inside it.

Right now it is "count time," when everyone is locked behind steel doors waiting for the count to "clear," meaning all the chicks are in their roosts, not one is missing, and if they can add up the numbers correctly, the guards will soon let us loose to go to "chow," lunch consisting of a slice of turkey ham, one cup of boiled, bland black-eyed peas, four ounces of canned greens, a smidgen of coleslaw, and two slices of white bread. Umm, Umm good.

We are supposed to be quiet right now, but a heated conversation is going on down the hall with Bean, Heather, Halle Barry, and Slim Jim. Two of those are female names, but I assure you that the bearers are not female, except in the twisted world of the Twilight Zone.

Pity the real Halle Barry were she to cast her eyes on her prison namesake. She would either start screaming or laughing, at what the horrid grotesqueness has spawned, or at the sheer lunacy that anyone could ever attribute the beauty, talent, and grace of the real Halle Berry to such a caricature.

Imagine a nightmare filled with monsters, each monster with a stick-on name tag on its chest, "Hello - I'm _____ " Clark Gable, Brad Pitt, Sophia Loren, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Heather Locklear, or any other handsome or beautiful sex symbol you can think of. Visualize, these misnamed monsters strutting around their cages, noses in the air, pretending they are the real owners of the identities they have stolen. It's like everyone's insane, and they're each living in the other's fantasy world.

Many years ago I saw a movie - was it "King of Hearts?" Something like that. World War II, a deserter wandered into a French town where all the citizens had fled, and the inmates at the insane asylum had gotten loose, come down to the town, moved in, took over, and were leading the lives of the townspeople. It was pretty confusing for the deserter, trying to figure out what was going on. That's how it is in prison. Confusing. Like the Twilight Zone.

Bean is a huge, fat, shaved-headed white guy who grew up in the black inner city projects of Miami. That has a particularly warping effect on some people, and they tend to suffer from an identity crisis. He looks white, like a red-neck, but he sounds and acts like an inner city project kid. So who is he?

He's arguing with Heather - you figure it out - about slinging his/her pack of "Rip" under the door and across the hall to Bean's cell, so he can roll a couple of RIP's for them to smoke. "RIP" is tobacco, the small boxes of loose tobacco called "Top," and stands for "rolled in prison." RIP. Rest in peace. Smoke RIP's for so long, and you will rest in peace, on Boot Hill or Gopher Ridge, the interchangeable names for the prison cemetery in Union County.

Many years ago the Florida Department of Corrections packaged their own brand of cigarettes to issue to prisoners. The county sheriffs bought them, too, and passed them out in the jails. You were given so many packs of RIP's a week, and the nonsmokers either sold their allotments to the heavily-addicted or gave them away.

When I was in the county jail in the 1970's, they were still passing them out. White packaging with an orange state of Florida logo and "DC" (Department of Corrections) overlay. They looked like Camels. I never smoked, so I don't know what they tasted like, but the secondary smoke was rank.

The prison had five tobacco barns next to Florida State Prison at Starke where they made the RIP's. As the prison population boomed in the late 1970's, they closed the cigarette operations and converted the five tobacco barns into crude prison housing, high-ceiling warehouses filled with bunks, called "BTU," Butler Transit Unit. You could still smell the tobacco.

I spent a week there on my way to Raiford, and we called it "Wild Kingdom," for all the huge moths, weird flying insects, bats, and birds that wandered through the cracks, roof, and ventilation gaps at night. It was already scary, fresh in prison, in a huge room in the dark, filled with weird people, trying to sleep, and have a giant, buzzing, flying cockroach land on your face. The nights were punctuated by screams as bugs and other vermin freaked out the prisoners.

The tobacco barns have been gone for thirty years, but men who weren't even born then are still arguing about RIP's, which became the generic name for any tobacco in prison. What's stupid is that ten minutes before the argument, the cell doors were open, men walked up and down the hall, and Bean could have taken three steps and been in Heather's cell, to burn the tobacco directly rather than get angry because he/she didn't want to slide it across the hall on the floor.

Yesterday morning, an older white prisoner named Paul went to the canteen, bought a laundry bag full of food, tobacco, and toiletries, and was attacked, knocked down, and robbed of his purchases by two young black prisoners. Paul had been waiting for weeks to receive the $65 he could spend at one time, but he didn't even get a cold soda out of the deal. Word is that the two robbers were also from the Miami projects, and Bean put them up to it to help pay off his huge debts.

Right now he is arguing with another prisoner down the hall, known as "Diamond Head," who is not Hawaiian. I won't even go there. So much for life in the Twilight Zone.

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