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JULY 2014

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8th July 2014

I think it is human nature to look at people and size them up, and then place them into slots inside of our heads. Good and bad, smart and stupid, gorgeous and ugly slots. Slots we don't necessarily articulate to others. Whether you refer to it as "reading people" or "Judging a book by its cover", everybody does it. I know that I do. And although I don't talk about it, sometimes I discard the whole book based on what I perceive the cover to be. Sometimes I don't take into consideration the individual pages in that book, and when I take the time to read them, I learn that I was dead wrong in my judgment. Let me tell you about a recent time this has happened to me... let me tell you about my cellmate; let me tell you a horror story.

Throughout the years at various times I've been called a sociopath. The people who have hung this label on me include women, friends, and more than one prosecutor. But I'm not. A sociopath is generally considered to be an individual who lacks a conscience, or the ability to feel sympathy or empathy; an individual with an inherent character disorder. Although I've certainly met this definition at sporadic points throughout my life, I'll share something with you that I believe to be true. All people who've had serious addiction issues (whether it be alcohol, drugs, porn, etc.) have exhibited sociopathic behavior at some point during active addiction; but not all clinical sociopaths experience problems with addiction.

Although you'd never know it by my rap sheet, I do have a conscience. A conscience is something that measures one set of beliefs against another. When it finds some dissonance between the two, or some action at fault, the conscience starts complaining. Whispering. Nagging. Substances and/or desires can mute this to some degree but an average person in their normal sober state has the capacity to feel empathy for others. I know that I certainly do. I still feel shame for things I did, while under the influence years ago, that hurt people. Seemingly mundane things such as stealing a purse, and making my mother cry. Things that my conscience still whispers to me about.

I recently had the opportunity to look at myself in reference to a person I'd judged and placed into the "brain dead" slot, and examine whether the person was worthy of my continual scorn, or whether he is worthy of some kindness.

As I write this blog, I am still in the middle of my California lockup experience. At this point, I've been in solitary for eight weeks. Most of this time has been with a cellmate I've openly made fun of and that I refer to as a highly medicated stoic. I've blogged about him and referred to him as everything from Banquo, to Rainman, to a douche bag. I call him these things and ridicule him because: 1) It's prison, 2) Because he damn sure cannot whip me, 3) Because he constantly stares at things and has the personality of mashed potatoes and the affect of a dialtone. I never took the time to inquire as to why he is the way he is because...well, because this is the Federal pen and I've got my own problems. But I recently found out his story, and when I did, I stopped making fun of him.

As I've often said, the experience of being in prison is a subjective one. Two people can be doing the same amount of time behind the same wall, yet have very different experiences. Especially a maximum security because it's filled with violent people who don't think straight, and who try to impose their will on others. In general, prison is not a place which is kind to the weak. The meek may very well inherit the world one day but in the penitentiary, only the strong survive. You can teach a man to fight and give him skills and a weapon but the one thing you can't give a man is heart. Some people are just weak spirited and can't or won't stick up for themselves. My cellmate is one of these people.

He started out with a three year sentence for Alien Smuggling (bringing Mexicans across the border) and was designated to a camp. A "camp" in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is the lowest custody they have and commonly referred to as Club Fed. Most of these places don't even have fences around them. While there, he got into an argument with a nurse over his meds and was locked up, then bumped up to a FCI (medium custody). After a short time in the FCI, he was caught holding somebody's knife and locked up again. This time they reclassified his security level to "high" and sent him to the big leagues - a United States Penitentiary. In my world, this kind of degeneration of custody level is unheard of. It's akin to going from a penthouse on 5th Avenue to public housing in the south Bronx. And so his nightmare began.

A short time after hitting a compound, somebody talked him into holding a batch of wire. He was promptly caught and sent to the hole. They put him in a cell with a random psychopath who was doing life. After getting angry because of my cellmate's snoring, he beat him bloody and broke his orbital and swelled his eye shut. When my cellmate went to pound on the door so the cops would come take him out of the cell, the psycho broke his arm and then beat him for an hour 'til a C.O. walked by and saw all the blood and hit the deuces.

After eventually being released from the hospital he was brought back to lockup and put in a cell with a guy who'd walked into a Federal Building in Detroit, Michigan, and killed one of the court security people (10 days after 911) and received a life sentence for it. He was in lockup after a psychotic episode on the compound and my cellmate told me that the guy told him he heard voices that told him to do "Bad Things". The same voices he heard before walking into the Federal building and killing someone. Can you imagine being locked in an 8x10 concrete cell with that? He didn't have to worry about it for long, though, because after he'd been in the cell with him for a week, the voices won out. My cellmate said he'd taken a nap and when he got up to use the bathroom, the guy was hanging from the vent by a sheet. He told me he just stood and looked at the guy's dead body and stared at him because he didn't know what to do. Understandably he was freaked out. An officer happened to walk by and it was at that point that things went from bad to worse.

When you're in a Federal lockup, or a "SHU" as they're referred to, it's their protocol that convicts are never to be out of their cell or have contact with the officers without being handcuffed behind their back. When the officer looked in and saw the guy hanging, and my cellmate staring at the body, he yelled for help. Then he broke protocol and four CO's rushed in and beat the living Hell out of my cellmate, then tackled him and cuffed him. They thought he'd killed the guy. This was his second cellmate in lockup. His next cellmate was me.

I learned all of this yesterday as we stood in a rec cage outside and soaked up the warm afternoon sun as the Santa Ana winds gusted over the wall and raced through the cage. As we stood there leaning against the wall, he absently said to me, "I hope that we get to be cellies until I go home." I stared at him for a moment with what had to be an incredulous look, and I said, "Why on earth would you want me as a cellmate? All I do is talk shit to you and make fun of you." He said, "I know but you're not really mean about it. And I am a retard sometimes." Then he said something to me that didn't whisper or nag at my conscience, it cut right to its core. He said, "You're the first nice person I've met in almost three years." It humbled and angered me, simultaneously, and I didn't understand why he said it. Then he told me his story and showed me the scars on his face from where he was beaten. As he talked, I stared at the ground and felt complete and total empathy for him. He's obviously mentally ill and I'm not sure if he came to prison like this, or if what he experienced back here made him this way. In the end, it doesn't really matter which came first, the chicken or the egg, especially when the egg is cracked.

We're still cellmates and he still stares at things for long periods, and exhibits traits of PTSD but I don't say anything about it anymore. He's just another stop on this ride. Another cover that I learned I misjudged when I read some of the pages of the book. Maybe someday I'll learn to stop judging other people that I know nothing about. The longer I spend behind these walls though, the harder it seems to be able to do. My cellmate is not worthy of mine or anybody's scorn or ridicule simply for having a mental handicap. But he is worthy of kindness. What a shame that it took me so long to come to this conclusion.

Jeffrey P. Frye
Bank Robber's Blog