This excerpt is from my new book, Prison Time:
“Standby for chow, Yard 1. You’re getting breakfast first.”
On a cold crisp Christmas morning, below a pink and blue sky, I join the prisoners drifting towards the chow hall, mostly depressed as if suffering a winter virus. A few swap gang handshakes.
“Merry Christmas, homey!”
“Happy Hanukkah, you sarcastic motherfucker.”
“Happy Kwanzaa, dawg!”
“Felice Navidad, ese.”
Breakfast is pancakes, scrambled eggs, cinnamon rolls, cereal and an apple. A guard with a clipboard checks off names and boasts how hung-over he is, antagonising the prisoners. The din is lower than usual, our expressions rueful. The rising sun floods the room with light, illuminating dust motes dancing over our food. After fifteen minutes, the guards order everyone out. The prisoners rise from tables strewn with spilt milk, cornflakes and apples stabbed to prevent hooch brewing.
We retire to our cells. While I reflect on being absent from my loved ones, a sad silence spreads across the yard. No basketball. No pull-ups or dips at the workout stations. No squabbling. No “motherfucker” this and “dawg” that. No announcements.
At least it’s my last Christmas here. I read to take my mind off the mistakes I made that cost almost six years of my life.
At Building B, a guard starts a security walk. “Put away your hypodermic needles! Don’t let me catch anyone drinking hooch!”
By the time the swing shift arrives, the sun is shining through a sky mottled with clouds like the hide of a cow.
In a slow sarcastic voice an announcement comes: “We would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and to thank you for providing us with such a wonderful 2006!”
The yard animates:
“Merry fucking Christmas to you, too!”
“Shank you very much, motherfucker!”
“Come and say that to our faces, bastards!”
The guard continues: “And you’ll all be pleased to know that we fully intend to keep up the time-honoured Christmas tradition of shaking your houses down.”
Two guards – a female and a Mexican we call the “Fruit Nazi” for overzealously confiscating apples and oranges from inmates exiting the chow hall – raid cells, scattering property, confiscating food, thwarting hooch operations and doling out disciplinary tickets.
Late afternoon, we emerge for a surprise. The Gatekeepers – a young and high-spirited choir – sing carols from the other side of the fence. Briefly, I’m not a prisoner anymore. I’m someone’s son, brother. I’m human again.
At dinnertime, skimpy portions of roast beef, broccoli and watery mashed potato that reeks of bleach provoke outbursts that unsettle the guards. Tension remains high.
After eating, I join a queue for phones that barely work. Written on the faces of the prisoners are the usual concerns. Will our loved ones be home? Will they accept the expensive call charges? Unable to get through, some prisoners hang up, cursing life.
Nearby, a demolition team of pigeons is pecking the clingfilm off chow trays abandoned by the guards. From a gust that deposits sand in my mouth, Chihuahuan ravens descend – a vortex of big black birds with a purple and blue iridescence – scattering the pigeons and ravaging the spoils.
A final announcement at 7:55pm: “Yard 1, rec is over. Take it in and lock down.”
The atmosphere is so heavy, I’m thankful that Christmas Day is nearly over.