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Things I Learned in Prison (Rape-Related and Otherwise)

I'll tell you-and I know, I know, it's trite-but really, it is hell on the inside.

If you've seen Hollywood classics like The Shawshank Redemption or the John Travolta vehicle Face/Off, I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know. As for me, I hadn't seen these films until recently (ironically while incarcerated, during Movie Night), and both their authenticity and moral lessons caught me by surprise. Like Tim Robbins' character, the wrongly jailed accountant Andy Dufresne, I was called "fish" a lot when I first got here and treated fairly rudely. Unlike Dufresne I am no good at math, and the results of my doing the prison guards' taxes in exchange for special treatment has so far resulted in 15 audits and counting, none of which have helped my efforts to make new friends. As for the movie Face/Off, its depiction of prison as a floating prison barge where prisoners wear magnetic boots that can be sealed to the floor at the first sign of trouble was also eerily prescient; though to date our prison lacks magnetic-boot technology, it is all the warden ever talks about.

Prison is, put bluntly, not a nice place at all. The guards are far less empathetic than you'd expect, and occasionally downright mean. As for the prisoners: wow. I'd known doing time was going to be so unpleasant I most likely never would have committed all those crimes. My cellmate G-Murder taught me a clever rhyme that incorporates the lines doing time and doing crime and has a helpful moral to it about one always following the other. It's ridiculously easy to remember, so fingers crossed for next time.

The prisoners on my cellblock are relatively quiet men who are quick to anger and quicker to engage in homosexual sex, which is often; or at least more frequently than Tim Robbins or John Travolta would have led me to believe. I don't think its a consequence of violent sexual frustration. I suspect they're just bored.

In a desperate effort to stave off boredom, I have developed several new hobbies to pass the time: Counting the bricks in my cell, for instance, or endlessly questioning my cellmate G-Murder about his lady friend on the outside. "Oh, come on," I'll chide. "You honestly think she's not sleeping with someone else yet? Now who's the loudmouthed cracker about to get stabbed?" It's all just ribbing in good fun, and I'm confident G-Murder takes my jibes with the gentle innocence with which they're intended.

I also pass the time by actively plotting my escape from prison. So far it isn't going as smoothly as I'd have liked. I've asked six guards now for a length of rope and some manner of crude grappling hook. So far no takers. Efforts to burrow a hole out of my cell with a spoon, discarding the concrete in the main yard via my pantlegs, have also met with disaster. A poor communication bridge between G-Murder and I had him securing ample handfuls of sod from the main yard and secreting them back to our cell in his pants. While this yielded little in aid of our escape plans, we do now have a small but well-tended vegetable garden beside the toilet, so I shouldn't complain.

A further kink in my escape has arisen recently: According to G-Murder, we're "not speaking" right now. He's still angry over what I said about his nickname the night before, while harvesting the last of the beefsteak tomatoes. I'd asked about the origin of it, as I'd been genuinely curious, but the explanation ended up being fairly rote and uninteresting. He's committed "1,000 murders," it turns out. G-Murder seemed inexplicably proud of it, but I could barely stifle my yawn. I suggested that a "K" might be a more apt signifier for 1,000 than "G". An etymological debate erupted soon after; things were said that couldn't be taken back; and G-Murder spent the night crying softly into his prison-issue pillow, not even touching the salad I'd made. I feel like a bit of a heel over the whole thing, and when not plotting my escape, I've been making him a little macaroni sculpture of his murders to cheer him up. He'll come around.

Let me clear up any misconceptions about prison life those of you on the "outside" might have: doing time is no picnic. Specifically, no picnics from Monday to Saturday. If you even suggest the idea to a guard of moving Sunday Picnic Day to a different day-even if it better accommodates upcoming events-you'd better be ready to present some darn convincing arguments.

It's the monotony of prison that gets to you more than anything. 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., rain or shine, it's tennis-always the darn tennis-which gets tired fast. After that, its off to the pool for a few laps; then Quiet Hour, where prisoners are encouraged to enjoy Me Time and "just be alone with your thoughts for a bit."

Lunch is followed by an afternoon movie-usually something that left theaters years ago-then a big dinner and an evening of whatever the guards cooked up for us during the day. Often it's a small play one of the guards wrote, or a game of charades; but every so often they surprise us with something new. (Last night was skeet shooting, for instance; though after the spat with G-Murder my heart wasn't in it.) After our evening games, everybody breaks up for violent homosexual sex, or discussion groups if the afternoon movie was particularly thought-provoking.

The guards-"screws" to us on the inside-are tough customers, and will let you know who's boss pretty quick. "I'm the boss here," one will sometimes say, apropos of nothing, even talking over a conversation you'd been having. If that strikes you as impossibly rude, welcome to the Big House. If a guard wants your opinion, he'll ask for it. And believe me, they never stop. "Does my uniform look slimming?" "Look at the calluses this Billy club is giving me, do you think I should complain to the warden?" "Am I going crazy or was the pasta undercooked again today?" All day with this. Guards present a constant intrusion, with only two goals in mind: to break you down, and to find out what you really think. If you're less than honest with them, they'll know, and it'll cost you.

Another misconception those of you on the outside have is with solitary confinement, which many think is some kind of picnic. It isn't. For the record, that's Sunday. You won't find any books or board games here, friend. Just a small room, a big-screen TV and a little something called the Honor System, which you abuse at your risk.

One thing you learn pretty darn quickly here on the inside: Once you're behind these walls, you aren't a man anymore. You give up those privileges when you come here. Once you're here, you'd do well to remember that you are a guest, because you will be treated like one. Walk around like you own the place and the warden will get a look, as if to say: "How dare you?" Believe me, it makes you feel about two inches tall.

Prison wants to break you, and you can't let it. It was G-Murder who taught me that when we were still talking, whispering into my ear during a lively game of charades the screws were putting on.

"Prison wants to break you," he hissed.

Get o'ut of town," I said, genuinely surprised.

"Don't let it," he added, silently tattooing a wizard on my bicep. I still have the tattoo. The wizard holds a look of quiet wisdom-wisdom that has come at a price. I often stare at it and wonder what that price might have been, and why the dragon he's sitting on wouldn't just buck him off. I also look at the wizard's staff, which is encrusted with rubies and, given the soft glow G-Murder endowed it with, implies a powerful magical aura. Some day I will ask G-Murder what spells the staff might possess, knowing full well his reply, that the answer is up to me and the power of my imagination. So long as I keep a sense of wonder, prison hasn't broken me at all.

I'll most likely have finished the macaroni sculpture tonight, and will present it to G-Murder as a peace offering. After that, another night spent contemplating my escape. My latest brainstorm, not asking the screws for rope, which is obvious, but a hacksaw. I've neatly stacked some cordwood outside our cell that I gathered from the forest in the prison yard. With G-Murder's recent do-it-yourself addition of a country fireplace beside the breakfast nook, I can't see anyone thinking twice about my request.

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