June 29, 2014
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #337: Dinner Theater
Mealtimes around here can be so dull. We are all let out into our pod’s dayroom after the 10:15 a.m. count “clears”—usually by 11:30 a.m.—to sit and wait our turn to walk to the “chow hall.” This process can take upwards of an hour, which means sitting or standing for an indefinite period.
I ALWAYS bring something to do, my Day Planner full of things I’m working on, verses I’m memorizing, and notepaper for, well, notes. Eventually, we walk in a single-file line to pick up a tray and sit at six-man picnic tables. It is no picnic.
Gratefully, this prison has opted to serve us meals in our cells two out of every three days. This is far superior to the kill-an-hour-waiting-to-wait-in-line thingy, but it isn’t as exciting, either. Walking to pick up a meal lets me imagine I’m standing in line at a popular restaurant, just waiting my turn to be seated, while in reality, it reminds me of doing ministry at Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, surrounded by a bunch of homeless guys.
I don’t always end up walking with someone who wants to talk to me, but on a particular day this past week, I was in the company of a few of our Christian church’s leaders. We entered the chow hall, making our way in line slowly along the right wall of the room. We’d only made it a few steps inside, when lunch got a whole lot more exciting. A commotion on the opposite side of the chow hall from us caught my attention.
Two guys were furiously beating up another guy as he tried to fight back. Instantly, another two-on-one fight broke out alongside the first one. I was beginning to feel left out, but I was fairly certain my church companions weren’t interested in staging our own lunch show, like a live response video. I wondered if a hockey game would break out, but I kept all these thoughts to myself, because no one here would get it.
Staff was yelling, trying to no avail to get the participants to cease fighting. Nobody seemed interested in listening to security guards with purse-sized cans of pepper spray, and everyone who was already seated with their lunch was trying to shovel in their burger before the spraying started.
I’d only seen one live fist-fight (of course in a 7-11 parking lot) in my entire life prior to prison. Now I’ve seen dozens, so I’m a bit picky on my fight critiques. This one, for example, was a bit sloppy. I mean, if you’re gonna smack someone in the face with a hard-plastic lunch tray, you could at least remove the hamburger first, to minimize the possibilities of collateral damage and food waste. I wasn’t “lovin’ it,” and this wasn’t your local McDonald’s.
Well, it didn’t take long for the three staff members to turn into thirteen, and pepper spray engulfed the combatants and everyone in the audience. Unlike the real world where I was taught to run toward a problem to get involved and help, in prison you must stay as far away as possible, which can be incredibly frustrating.
But this little ruckus didn’t last long. Just the two guys were beat up, and one of them had also been stabbed. Turns out, they are both part of a prison gang—the “two-fivers”—that runs exclusively in protective custody (PC) yards. With a large part of our population being gang dropouts, these two-fivers aren’t well-liked here. No one who used to be in a gang wants to be pressured into being in one again.
The spanking in the chow hall was a short message to the two-fiver gang that their bullying won’t be tolerated. I soon wished they’d simply sent the two-fivers a handwritten note saying just that, because this fight’s pepper spray was just the beginning of the fun.
We sat on the floor in that chow hall for an hour and a half, choking, before being strip-searched, one at a time, then escorted back to our pod. While I do get strip-searched before and after every visit, this one was new, really putting the “buff” in lunch buffet and helping make the mealtime just a bit more exciting than usual, with more buns than I wanted to see.