Thursday, December 17, 2009


Dateline: December 5, 2009



I love Oprah. No apologies, no excuses. Perhaps that seems incongruous, since I am a sixty-year old white guy serving life in prison, but I am not alone. I am in good company. Millions of other people love Oprah, too. It hasn’t always been that way. We’ve had to fight for the right to see Oprah, or should I say, the privilege.

When fifty desperate men must share one television, there is a process called, “channel check.” In theory, it is a democratic process where the men vote on which channel the TV is set, majority rule. If you don’t like it, go to your cell and read a book. There are many disturbed men in prison, however, who never played well with others, would not share their toys, and think that what they want is the only thing counts, to hell with anyone else, cartoons rule.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Maury Povich. I’m sure he’s a fine gentleman. He married Connie Chung, didn’t he? And he has brought DNA testing to the common people. But for God’s sake, how many times can anyone bear hearing his pronouncement, “You are NOT the father?” Bring out the next batch of bar patrons, please, and let’s see how many of them are NOT the fathers.

The same goes for Jerry Springer. So he can dance. I have nothing against him, either, or his former bodyguard, Steve. Jerry Springer has brought serious sociological issues to the forefront of television, mining trailer parks across America to the point where “trailer trash” is no longer a scorned moniker, but a potential media star. But come on, people! How many times must we reveal poverty-stricken Americans deprived of dental care being told that their mother is having sex with her daughter’s husband, who’s having gay sex with his brother-in-law? Enough is enough.

Don’t get me started on the Spanish channel! Is it a requirement that those Spanish talk show queens have massive breast implants, wear skimpy dresses several sizes too small, and jump up and down, squealing, trying to see how close they can come to flopping out the top? Then, they have the old 1960’s and ‘70’s American movies shown over and over again on the same station. I never realized Clint Eastwood was such a fluent Spanish speaker, or Jean-Claude Van Damm, for that matter.

Things were going well there for awhile. Four p.m., afternoon count clear, an hour before evening chow, about twenty of us sit down like gentlemen and watch Oprah. I’ve learned so much from her, our window on the world, a look at what is right and decent, on the one hand, and examination of what is wrong, or evil, or must be fixed on the other. Oprah is equally at ease talking to a child dying of cancer, or a psychotic serial killer sitting on death row. And the entertainment! Isolated as we are from society, I had no idea who WILL.I.AM was, how to spell his name, what a genius he is, or what a remarkable man in so many ways. Thanks, Oprah!

Like most men in prison, my family has fairly-well given up on visiting me after over thirty-one years’ imprisonment, so in many ways we have adopted Oprah and her family and friends as our own. We can count on Oprah. Monday through Friday, Channel 9, Orlando, four p.m., she comes to see us. Her best friend, Gayle King, is our best friend, too. We loved going on that road trip across America, and rejoice at all the gifts she shares with her friends. Seeing her wonderful school for girls in South Africa softened our hearts, and that’s saying a lot. Her endorsement of Barack, then her refusal to give McCain’s veep candidate a forum was cheered. Go girl! Oprah’s probably done more to rehabilitate a core of prisoners in my building than all the phony paper programs the prison system pushes to pretend they actually care about improving society, recidivism, and crime rates.

Let’s get back to the fight. Things were going well. Every day before chow we got to visit with Oprah and friends. I had a spot on the third bench staked out, and my Texas homeboy, Jerome Dickey, a very large, heavily-muscled, young black man who played in the prison tennis league with me, sat nearby on the second bench. In prison, the men like consistency in an inconsistent world, and claiming the same seat every day is an important part of it. Then one day, a wild card was inserted in the deck.

Let’s face another fact. There are a lot of nutty, dangerous people in prison, as they should be. That doesn’t make it any easier on the rest of us. We have to live with them and deal with their bad behavior.

An intellectually- and psychologically- challenged prisoner got transferred in from some psych-crisis ward one day. When we were released from our cells and drifted to the TV room to watch Oprah, that new individual—I will refer to him as “the nut”—snatched the remote control from another prisoner’s hand, proclaiming, “We ain’t watchin that shit.” He began scrolling through the available channels. Maury’s trying to find out who’s the daddy. Jerry has a scag hunching on a pole showing off her new Clairol dye treatment—coyote brown with trailer trash red streaks. Squealing silicone Spanish girls, Japanese cartoons, PBS. No, no, no.

Most prisoners don’t want trouble. That’s the essence of institutionalization, to go along with the program, obey all orders, keep your mouth shut, don’t express any opinions, don’t get involved. For the first few minutes of “the nut’s” channel surfing, no one said anything, sitting passively, waiting to see what someone else would do, what might happen. Some glanced at me, as one of the oldest, others glanced at Dickey, as one of the strongest, to see how we reacted.

Dickey and I looked at each other, no words necessary, the implications clear. Prison is fraught with racial implications, the cauldron simmering, one little incident having the potential to ignite a racial situation. Had “the nut” been a white man, I would have stood up and said something, but since he was not, it became “a black thing.” Anything Dickey did to “the nut” would be acceptable, whereas if a white prisoner attacked him, things could devolve into a riot. It was better this way.

Dickey sighed, remaining seated. “Hey, bro,’ we watch Oprah down here,” he said. “I’d appreciate it if you’d switch it back to Channel Nine.”

Very polite.

“The nut” didn’t give Dickey a glance, just kept mindlessly pushing the “up” arrow, flitting from station to station. “Fuck Oprah. I hate that bitch. We ain’t watchin’ that shit,” he declared.

Uh oh. Now it had gotten personal. “The nut” had dissed Oprah! That could not be allowed to stand. If drastic action weren’t taken immediately, we might never see Oprah again.

Dickey stood. If “the nut” ignored Dickey while he was sitting down, it was much harder to ignore him standing. Dickey stood several inches taller and easily forty pounds heavier, not counting his obviously superior musculature and athletic appearance. In prison terms, “the nut” was “a dumbass masquerading as a badass.”

With one hand, Dickey grasped “the nut’s” neck. Another prisoner took the remote from “the nut” so it wouldn’t fall and possibly break, clicking it to Oprah immediately.
The audience was torn—watch the crucial opening minutes of “Oprah,” or watch Dickey manhandle “the nut” with an attitude adjustment. Dickey won, this time. It only took a minute.

Dickey’s strong right hand stood up for Oprah, squeezing “the nut’s” throat tighter and tighter cutting off his air and the blood flow to the brain (not that he needed much), face swelling, darkening, eyes bulging. As he tried to kick and struggle, Dickey’s grip tightened. “The nut” weakened, realizing resistance was futile.

Dickey put his nose almost touching “the nut’s” nose. “We watching Oprah, or I’m beating your ass. You understand that?”

Almost unconscious, “the nut” couldn’t nod or turn his head.

“Blink your eyes for yes,’ Dickey said.

“The nut” blinked. Dickey loosened his grip slightly, allowing “the nut” to breathe. “Now apologize,” Dickey said.

“The nut” appeared confused. A strangled, gargling sound came from his throat. “I’se sorry,” he whispered, bug eyes looking at Dickey.

“Not me, asshole,” Dickey said. He turned “the nut’s” head toward the TV. “Apologize to Oprah.”

“I’se sorry,’ “the nut” gurgled. “I’se sorry, Oprah.”

“And you’ll never disrespect her again.”

“That’s right,” “the nut” agreed.

Dickey dropped him. “The nut’s” knees buckled upon landing, and he had to catch himself not to crash face first onto the steel bench. He coughed a few times, then sat down quietly on the end of the first bench and watched Oprah with the rest of us.

Things happened. New people came and went. The top prison officials got replaced with new, harsher “experts” who deigned to put their imprint on the institutional rules. A haughty, arrogant head guard took over, one who walked around with his nose in the air, always wearing his Smokey Bear hat high on his head, like he was a state trooper. Inevitably, he was given the prison nickname, “The Cat in the Hat.’ Even the guards and the family visitors referred to him as “The Cat in the Hat.”

“The Cat in the Hat” had all the trees inside the prison chopped down, all the hedges pulled up, the flowers destroyed. That was bad enough. But when he decreed that the TV’s wouldn’t be turned on until five p.m. daily, precluding us from watching Oprah, that was when he earned our everlasting contempt and enmity. What “the nut” couldn’t accomplish, “The Cat in the Hat” did in an instant. If we were lucky, a benevolent guard would cut the power on five or ten minutes early, allowing us to get a small Oprah fix, but it wasn’t enough.

That lasted a year. A female guard got murdered. “The Cat in the Hat” and all his cronies had to fall on their swords, got demoted and transferred to other prisons. New people took over. Nothing changed at first, leaving the last rules in place. Finally, a few months ago, new guards were assigned, and the new sergeant began turning on the power to the TV at four o’clock. “I like Oprah, too,” he said. “She’s cool.”

That she is.

Now the earth has trembled again, the seismographic needles jerking. Oprah is going off the air. One season left. What “the nut” and “The Cat in the Hat” couldn’t do, Oprah did herself.

Many of us have gone into shock. We are already suffering Oprah withdrawals. What are we going to do?
I suppose we’ll just have to settle for Jerry and Maury and discover who’s NOT the father. It will not be the same.