Living Conflicted

Get along with others.

We’re taught that from the time we’re able to interact with others beyond needing to be fed and have our diaper changed. We’re taught to share, say nice things, smile a lot and dozens of other rules about coexisting in a peaceful, productive, cooperative way.

One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced while incarcerated is reading and then dealing with people who represent the part of mankind with the most extreme of personalities and mental make up. If you get your readings wrong you could end up in situations that don’t end well. And these issues become most evident when you are placed into close proximity such as being cellmates.

In low security institutions, most inmates either have relatively short sentences or have worked their way down from higher security prisons and are getting close to their release dates. Additionally, many are inside because they have violated their supervised release requirements and are sentenced to three to twelve months or so. Due to the short sentences, turn over of cellmates is frequent. Three weeks ago, one cellmate that was in for 40 days left. Just after that, another new cellmate moved in.

When I first moved into the cell I’m in now, nearly three years ago, there were two others already assigned to it (the majority of cells here are three man arrangements). One had a charge similar to mine. He was learning disabled and as such very introverted and displayed flawed cognitive abilities. However, he was very friendly and kind but kept a distance because he was afraid of being verbally bullied; something many of the other inmates subjected him to. The other guy was an active drug user who was also highly manipulative of the first cellmate. He tried to manipulate me but I wouldn’t let him.

Eventually, both left. As each left, I campaigned others in my housing unit that were most stable and were not active in drug use to move in. My objective being cell stability over time and to stay off the guards’ radar. When you have an active drug user in your cell it becomes “hot” which translates into frequent shake downs. Shake downs typically leave all your belongings in a mess and if you’re unfortunate enough to have a truly unkind guard going through your things, your belongings can be left lying all over your cell mixed in with the belongings of your other cellmates. In essence, it looks like a tornado went through. During my first year in the cell I lived with it being hot and endured many tornadoes; this due to the active drug user. Since his departure nearly two years ago I’ve had good luck finding cellmates who were not into drugs or other activities causing the cell to be hot thus allowing the cell to cool down and fall off the guards’ radar.

But things change.

About two and a half weeks ago one of my cellmates left thus leaving an empty bunk. I found a guy who was not into the drug scene and he moved in. Less than an hour later he was told he had to move back to where he’d come from because the empty bunk had already been assigned to someone coming out of the SHU (Special Housing Unit). The SHU is where inmates that have broken a rule are placed as punishment and where they wait to find out what sanctions will be applied to them. The most common reason for someone to be in the SHU is drug use, to which the inmate returns almost immediately once back in general population. Yes, I was going to have an active drug user for a cellmate again.

There’s one other aspect of the situation that is more sensitive and has an impact on living conditions.  Although we shouldn’t, we use our previous experiences and observations to make assumptions about what the situation will be like.  This facility self-segregates and cultural and behavioral difference among the different races and generations prevail.  White and African-American inmates appear culturally and behaviorally very different even when comparing people with the same criminal charge. Additionally, there are very different behaviors displayed across generations.

So what’s the make up of my cell now?

Well, there are two white, fifty-six year old men (neither use drugs) and one African-American in his early thirties. One of the white men is a sex offender while the remaining white mand and the African American are drug cases. So there are crime, cultural, racial, age and behavioral differences all of which can be significant and volatile.

Only…it’s not that way.

So far, none of the factors I listed have had a negative impact. Only the greatest of consideration, politeness and respect has been shown. I truly expected more friction but I have to admit I am pleasantly surprised. The new guy keeps the drugs out of the cell for the most part (though the cell is now hot again). He’s kind and outgoing and he exchanges pleasantries like, “good morning,” and, “how are you today,” and he’ll ask about how you’re going to fill your day – things NONE of my previous cellmates had ever done. He and I have had discussions about interesting books to read and what it was like growing up in very different circumstances; I do not envy the pressures he experienced growing up. What I’m getting at is he seems to be a very decent guy.

Yet, even with all of this positive stuff going on I am still left conflicted.

My conflicts are not rooted in race, culture, age, behavior or crime. My conflicts consist of:

1) My preconceptions and prejudices concerning drug users and the reality of this individual (as I write this he lies incapacitated in his bunk after just having come back from getting high).

2) What to do, if anything, about living with a drug user and the negatives that come with that: drugs in the cell, being in a hot cell, questionable characters coming to/in the cell, having to deal with a cell mate when he’s high as well as other issues.

3) What is required of me as a Christian in this environment and can I behave in that way?

I’ll pick up here in my next posting. In the meantime, if you have questions, observations or insight to share I’d love to hear from you.

Be well and may God bless you.


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