387 | Prison Talk

June 14, 2015
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #387: Prison Talk


Dear Family,

If you’ve traveled much, spent time around preschoolers, or have a friend who tends to exaggerate, you know that words and phrases can radically shift meaning from person to person or from place to place. Prison is a world of its own, with grownup preschoolers who exaggerate living in a place far from normal civilization. It only stands to reason, therefore, that prison must have its own vernacular, and today, my dear homies, I’m gonna put you up on game.

For starters, we have no internet in prison, for all the reasons that you can imagine, plus eleven more. The only time I can be online is when I walk to the chow hall. There is a painted stripe on each side of our twelve-foot-wide sidewalks, like bike lanes, except we have no bikes. We’re supposed to walk to the right of the stripe, but I walk directly on it, so I can say I spent some time on line, that I have an on line presence, and a large on line footprint. And, since we have to walk to the chow hall every third day, I can say that some days, I get all my food on line, while talking to my friends on line who are walking directly in front or in back of me.

In prison, we tend to not do the whole “poke someone you like” thing you guys do on Facebook. You have to be really careful who you poke, in fact. Way too many guys I know have killed someone for far less than just a poke. And FaceTime isn’t synonymous with video chatting, either. The way we get facetime with anyone outside our own pod of 120 guys is to meet up with them in the library or see them in the chapel services.

In the real world, you guys say you’re “doing it old school” whenever you, say, chop something with a knife instead of chopping it in a food processor, or when you use paper and pen instead of sending a text. Welcome to my world, except that we don’t have knives (or even scissors). Everything I need to cut, from Music Student passes to bell peppers and onions, gets done with a razor blade liberated from a safety razor.

And when I think “old school,” it’s the dozens of guys who are in first and second grade, courtesy of the prison’s education system. I’ve watched multiple guys in their late sixties graduate high school for the first time, who should have graduated IN the late sixties. Now, that’s old school! Each one says how proud their family is of their accomplishment, too, making them complete liars or WAY different from my family, who wouldn’t be too proud of something I accomplished fifty years late.

Popular now in the land of the free are artisan beer and wines made at home or at a specialty place with expert craftsmen using the finest curated ingredients grown local or from remote locales. Technically, anything homemade can be described as “artisan,” so we could say that many of my friends are crafters of artisan alcoholic beverages, albeit with not-so-finely-curated ingredients as most of today’s distilleries.

Known by the slang term “pruno” for the sweet fermented prunes it was made with years ago, today’s version is made with oranges and bread that is left to rot before adding flat Mountain Dew soda. Sometimes, crushed sugar-free candies are added to the mix just to take the taste from Gag Reflex to What is This. Not being one to imbibe myself, I cannot speak from personal experience here, but everyone says the taste would drive anyone to drink.

You guys say, “Brian’s so crazy!” but here, people are actually certified crazy and psychologically unstable. And even stupid people can’t hide behind Wikipedia, Google, or Siri for their information, making it fairly obvious who falls a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (I’m sorry … I meant a few apple slices short.)

We have no hashtags, and when I tag someone in a photo it means I wrote their name on the back, so it’s as if I’m living in a perpetual #ThrowbackThursday. I use a payphone, we have typewriters in the library, we still listen to CDs, and some guys still have cassettes. I wash my own clothes in a bucket before hanging them over a string I wrapped around two dominoes I glued to my wall. Throw that back, yo.
And when you say, “My kid is such a riot,” you aren’t referring to mayhem and violence but fun energy. Here, three or more guys involved in an altercation (the police term for beating each other up) is known as a riot, like the twelve-man riot that kicked off the other night just after I’d returned to my pod and let the door close behind me.

Out in the rotunda, an intersection of sorts for our unit’s three pods, all kinds of bedlam broke out as guys from the adjoining two pods clashed. With a locked door and a wall of windows between me and the melee, I felt a bit like a spectator at a zoo exhibit gone horribly wrong. One guy was swinging around a sock with batteries in it, removing teeth faster than a dental technician. Everyone in the riot got extra felony charges, and I’m sure they gave that Energizer Bunny extra time too. You could say those are true re-chargeable batteries. That’s how we do Assault and Battery.

We’re not all cavemen here, though, and I’d welcome a visit anytime from anyone of you who would like a little facetime with me in my crazy little corner of this world I’m grateful to be in by God’s grace. We can even share an old-timey photograph and indulge in some artisan vending machine food before I hug you goodbye. Or a poke, if you prefer.