I don’t know what to tell you first. Should I begin with the suffocating fear that was heavier than the humidity fueled by the muddy waters of the nearby Arkansas River? I don’t think my clothes ever dried. The fear drenched me in cold sweat, and the dank air was like a moldy quilt I couldn’t peel off me. It smothered me in the summer and froze me in the winter.
But then there was the hunger. How do you describe hunger to someone who has never experienced it? I don’t mean the temporary pangs that remind you you’re late for lunch. I’m talking about the needle-pointed claws that rake your stomach every second of the day. You go to bed hungry, and you wake up hungry. It makes people angry and ignites the barbarism that lies dormant in all men until the pressures of narcissism launch it to the surface like magma.
Still, it had to be the loneliness that was the worst. It was the loneliness that almost got me killed, and even though I was surrounded by a few hundred men all day and night, I had never felt so deserted. I could battle the fear. I could teach myself to ignore the hunger, but the loneliness gnawed at my soul. It ravaged my spirit.
In early summer of 1981, a deputy sheriff from Pope County, Arkansas, dropped me off at the Diagnostic Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction. I was 23 years old. The court had sentenced me to five years for writing hot checks, behavior that stemmed from bipolar disorder that wasn’t diagnosed yet and had been laying siege to my life since my senior year in high school. It would be another six years before I knew the enemy had a name. Six more years of destructive behavior that destroyed my name and my mind. Six more years of other prison sentences for the same crime.
Within a few minutes of arriving at the Diagnostic Unit, an a prison guard reduced my identity to a series of numbers — 76873. For the next year, I would identify myself by those numbers when a staff member asked me who I was. It was even stenciled in black ink on my white prison uniform. Thirty-four years later, I still haven’t forgotten that number.
I wasn’t prepared for prison. I had known loneliness since childhood, but not the forlornness the prison doled out, the isolation from any kind of love and kindness. Desperate for friendship, I listened to men who turned out to be predators of one sort of another. Altruism was as alien in that environment as water on the moon. Kindness was viewed as weakness, and the wolves could smell it 100 yards away. They hunted in packs, always looking for the one they would isolate from the herd and then attack. I was lonely, but I wasn’t going to be anyone’s bitch. Of that I was certain. I was circled many times, but I fought with the determination that when I would look at myself in the mirror, I would see a man owned by no one. My eyes might have been blackened, and my brows cut, but I wouldn’t surrender.
For the first two months, I was assigned to the Diagnostic Unit, which was the Beverly Hills of the prison system. Life was easier there. The violence was limited to words because no one wanted to be shipped out to the insanity of the larger Tucker and Cummins prison farms. Brutality was part of life at those prisons, so no one assigned to Diagnostic risked a transfer. But then some of us were transferred. About 20 of us from Diagnostic were moved to Cummins for two weeks to make room for inmates coming in from Little Rock. The Pulaski County sheriff’s impatience with the prison wore out after he was told for months the prison couldn’t take his inmates. There wasn’t any room for them. The prisons were full. Well, so was the Pulaski County Jail.
The sheriff responded by taking his inmates to Diagnostic and handcuffing them to the gate. He left their court and commitment papers in boxes alongside them and waved goodbye to the armed guards in the towers whose jaws were on the ground. Hasta la vista, baby.
The inmates thought it was hilarious that one law enforcement agency would give another agency the finger, but we stopped laughing when some of us were told to pack up. We were going to Cummins to make room for the men handcuffed to the gate. Cummins was a dreaded place. It was like going from the Warsaw Ghetto to Auschwitz. People died at Cummins, a reality supported by the discovery in 1968 of about 200 bodies buried at the prison. Court-ordered prison reforms had stopped a good deal of the abuse, but not all of it. There was enough of it remaining that Cummins, among Arkansas’ inmates, was synonymous to hell.
In my book, I Can See Clearly Now, I go into more detail about the two weeks we were at Cummins. Two weeks of insanity. Two weeks of fighting. But I want to get back to the loneliness and how it influenced me to do something that could have put me in one of those graves. The only thing that saved me was that I paroled before the prison officials found out what I did.
Shortly after I returned to Diagnostic from Cummins, I was permanently transferred to Tucker. The reasons for that move are a story in themselves, and you can read about it in the book. But for now, let’s forward the narrative to Tucker, which had its claim to infamy, too. Cummins wasn’t the only Arkansas prison with a storied past. The “Tucker Telephone” was a well-known and much-feared device in use at the prison.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture describes the Tucker Telephone as “a torture device invented in Arkansas and regularly used at the Tucker State Prison Farm. … The Tucker Telephone consisted of an old-fashioned crank telephone wired in sequence with two batteries. Electrodes coming from it were attached to a prisoner’s big toe and genitals. The electrical components of the phone were modified so that cranking the telephone sent an electric shock through the prisoner’s body. … In prison parlance, a “long-distance call” was a series of electric shocks in a row.”
Welcome to Tucker. For the first week, I was assigned to one of the hoe squads. It was August. It was hot, and the humidity sent the heat index well into the 100s. Men fainted. The hoe squad system was a carry-over from how slaves worked on plantations before the Civil War. Every Southern state’s prison system used it, and every inmate dreaded it. You were given a heavy hoe, positioned in a line and then worked furiously to strip a field of everything in it. It doesn’t sound so bad until you do it. After an hour, the hoe weighs 100 pounds. The hoe squad riders, guards on horseback, insult you and order the lead rows, the inmates in charge of the hoe squads, to beat any inmate who can’t keep up with the pace. When we went back to the unit for lunch on the first day, my legs and arms shook so much from exhaustion that I just laid down on the ramshackle gym’s dirty floor. I knew I wouldn’t be able to maneuver a spoonful of the disgusting food to my mouth.
At other times, the inmates performed other field work, such as picking cotton, still at that frenetic pace that could cause men to drop in their tracks. Inmates were basically used as slave labor, and those who didn’t pick 300 pounds of cotton were beaten at the end of the day. I saw it.
I knew I had been transferred to Tucker to be a clerk, but the ungreased wheels turned slowly, so I worked in the fields before moving to an office job. And it wasn’t just any office job. It turned out that I was to be the major’s clerk, the most coveted and the most powerful position an inmate could have. My appearance made me a target for the inmates, but I also drew the attention of the staff. I didn’t look like the typical inmate. I was clean cut and quiet. I had something of an education, and when someone asked me if I could type, I said, “At about 100 words a minute.” It saved my life. Thank you, ninth-grade typing class.
No one dared touch the major’s clerk. No one dared get on his bad side. The prison system was going through court-ordered reforms, but some of the old ways of doing business still existed. Inmates were still in security positions. At Tucker, and I assume at Cummins, two of the guard towers were manned by inmates. At all times. There were still inmate guards, called turnkeys. Arkansas wasn’t relying as heavily on inmates to run its prisons as Texas was, but inmates still had a lot of power. And at Tucker, I had the majority of it, thanks to my job.
My primary job as the major’s clerk was to be in charge of the disciplinaries. When a guard or a staff member wrote an inmate up for a rule infraction, the disciplinary form went to me. I decided who went to disciplinary court and who didn’t. Going to disciplinary court was serious because if found guilty, which they always were, the inmates lost good time, their jobs or good housing. I was the inmate everyone wanted to be friends with because I could tear up a disciplinary if I wanted. It would go no further.
Many perks came with the job, but it heightened my loneliness. Because I had all the disciplinaries in my office, I worked alone. No inmate could come to my office, and I had a workload that required me to work about 16 hours a day. The office was a small, windowless room in the newer part of the prison. The walls were concrete, with one narrow strip of drywall. That drywall later became famous.
A lot of work went into one disciplinary. The guards would submit their hand-written disciplinary form, and I would have to type it up on a new form. Then I’d have to formally notify the inmate he had been written up, and I had to do this within so many days of the write-up. Otherwise, it wasn’t valid. Just notifying an inmate of his disciplinary was daunting. The majority of the inmates who were written up were the constant troublemakers. And they were mean. They didn’t take kindly to me showing up with an orange form and telling them they would be going to disciplinary court. They’d try to buy their way out of it. They tried to intimidate me into tearing it up. When they didn’t work, they’d threaten me. Sometimes we fought. But fighting with the major’s clerk only made an inmate’s bad situation worse.
After I notified the inmate, I’d ask him if he had any witnesses. If he did, I’d have to find those witnesses and get their statements. Those had to be typed as well. I gathered all the information for disciplinary court and then scheduled which inmates would appear. There was a staff member whose job was to head the disciplinary court, and he would drag other staff members or guards in to comply with the court-ordered prison reforms.
After they finished, they returned everything to me. I would have to type everything that was said in court, including the findings and punishment. One disciplinary would end up being about three inches of paperwork. Then I was supposed to take them to the front office where the records secretary would put the information in the computer, detailing an inmate’s loss of good time, job or whatever punishment the court imparted. It was a lot of work.
Larry May was the building major. There also was a field major, but Major May had the power. He was a Napoleon, short and taciturn. He didn’t think inmates were worth speaking to, and when he did deign to speak to a convict, he showed his distaste by either screaming or grunting at them. I was his clerk, and he barely spoke to me.
Major May was from the Texas prison system where violence toward the inmates was still rampant. He was young, in his 30s, and thought inmates were nothing more than inventory to be moved from one place to another. No inmate was a person to him. No inmate was human in his eyes. I go into more detail about Major May in the book, but here I just want to point out that my job deepened the loneliness. I was depressed to the point where I thought about suicide every day. I just didn’t know how to go about it. I had already tried to do it by cutting the veins in my arms while in the county jail, but it didn’t work. I actually sawed at my arms with a razor blade, creating deep, wide cuts. But they clotted. I have the ugly scars to remind me of that night.
So after a couple of months of typing 12-16 hours a day, the depression and loneliness started to take its toll. I still typed up the disciplinaries, but little by little I stopped typing the reams of documents needed after disciplinary court. They started to pile up on my desk. Big piles. Several of them. That went on for a couple of months.
One day, Major May called me — I had a phone in my office — and told me he wanted to see me in his office. He said the records secretary had just told me that I hadn’t turned in any of the disciplinaries in a while. I had to think fast. If I told him there were about 500 of them piled up on my desk, I would have been shipped to Cummins but not before he and his goons beat my ass. He wouldn’t have cared that I was so depressed I was trying to think of ways to kill myself. So I lied. I told him I had been taking the disciplinaries to the front office, and if they weren’t there, I didn’t know what the front-office secretaries had done with them. He spat tobacco juice into the trashcan and told me to get out of his office.
I walked down the hall to my office. Quickly. What was I going to do with all of those disciplinaries? The rumblings of an investigation were already beginning, and I had to get rid of them. I couldn’t throw them in the trash. I couldn’t take them out of my office. I couldn’t tell another inmate I had the disciplinaries because he’d use the information against me, snitch on me to win favors with the major. So I stood in my office, staring at a three-foot high pile of paperwork that Major May was now screaming down the hall had better show up. I could hear him coming toward my office.
As I said, the walls in my office were concrete, but there was that narrow strip of drywall. I acted quickly. I kicked a hole in the bottom of that wall and began to stuff the disciplinaries inside it. When I had finished, I had nothing to cover the hole up with, so I taped paper over it and moved my typing stand in front of it. About two minutes after I did that, Major May opened the door.
He screamed. He threatened. If I didn’t come up with those disciplinaries, whatever was left of my body after he kicked the shit out of me would be taken to the river bottoms to rot. I’d better turn over those disciplinaries — fast. But he underestimated me. He thought I was just a weak inmate who would cave in the face of a tantrum. Please, I had an idiotic assistant high school principal who threw more impressive fits than he did. I wasn’t about to surrender.
I told Major May in a steady voice he could do whatever he wanted with me. In fact, I told him to lock me up in the hole while he ran his investigation. I told him to transfer me to Cummins, but I wasn’t going to take the blame for the loss of the disciplinaries. And then prison office politics came into play and saved me. Captain Wagoner walked in, and I knew he had a beef against some of the secretaries. Now was his chance to serve them up.
Captain Wagoner told the major he had seen the front office porters take boxes of orange-colored paper to the incinerator, and he was now certain those were the missing disciplinaries. He said the secretaries were just lazy and didn’t want to process them. The major didn’t say a word. He just spit more tobacco juice on my office floor and walked out.
The ensuing investigation almost did me in mentally and emotionally. They turned Tucker upside down looking for the documents. Every inch of the prison was searched, except the one place where they should have started. They didn’t look in my office. I lived in fear they would, but they didn’t. The worst scare occurred when the guards announced a lockdown early one morning because they were going to search the prison again. This time I was caught in the barracks and couldn’t get to my office. This time the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction was there to help with the shakedown. I knew I was breathing my last. They would find the disciplinaries and beat me to death.
After almost a full day of searching, the lockdown was lifted. No one had summoned me to the major’s office as I had expected. I just knew they were going to find the disciplinaries in my office, but, again, they didn’t go in there to look. The next day, Major May told me I was going to have to listen to the disciplinary court’s taped recordings of the hearings and retype all of their findings. My response showed either my stupidity, or it mirrored Major May’s arrogance. I had had it with him treating us like we were something to be wiped from the bottom of his boots. I told him I wasn’t going to retype anything. I didn’t lose the disciplinaries, and I wasn’t going to do it. Have the front-office secretaries do it. Incredibly, he didn’t kill me. He just told me to get out of his office. I was happy to leave.
I wasn’t fired. I wasn’t shipped to Cummins. The warden came to my office and questioned me, but after a couple of minutes, he left. By this time, I had given performances worthy of several Oscars. You might be asking if I felt bad for lying to Major May, that my dodging responsibility was a sign of social dysfunction. No, it wasn’t. Let me tell you why.
I clearly remember a young white boy named Steve (not me). He was tall, had red hair and was clean cut. He was a target. A group of black inmates raped him, and when he fought back, the guards wrote him up. For defending himself. He was charged with fighting. That meant he would stay on hoe squad, and he would continue to be housed in a violent barracks where he would be assaulted again and again. The staff didn’t care he was violently raped by six inmates. The inmates victimized him, and staff did nothing to help him. Instead they wrote him up for fighting. I tried to help him all I could.
Many of the disciplinaries were for infractions that should have been handled differently. Yes, as I said, a majority of the write-ups were because of inmates who always screwed up, but the system created the environment that nurtured the screwing up. Inmates were supposed to play by free-world rules, but we lived in a violent, dog-eat-dog world where playing by free-world rules would get you killed. Be kind to someone, and see what would happen to you. You were pegged as weak, and that evening you could bet a group of men would appear at your bunk, demanding your property or, worse, your body.
As an inmate, I was treated as less than human by the staff. I was called names, ridiculed and humiliated. When I asked for help to try to figure out why I had written the hot checks, I was insulted and told I was scum. Seriously. The disciplinaries became my revenge. Right or wrong, it was how I fought back for the staff’s abuse. I had about six months left before I was eligible for parole, and I lived in fear every day they would find the disciplinaries in my office, but they never looked. Then two days after I paroled, they did look in the one place they should have focused on from the beginning.
I received a letter from one of the inmates, telling me what happened. They had assigned another inmate to take my place as the major’s clerk, and they decided to move his office. Of course, when they moved the typing stand, they saw the hole. When they looked in the hole, they found the disciplinaries. The inmate who wrote to me was a clerk in education, and he said the major and warden were trying to find a way to get my parole revoked and have me sent back. They couldn’t. If they had succeeded, they might not have killed me, but they would have made sure that every day I wished for death. Without those disciplinaries, they had to restore most of the inmates’ good time because they didn’t have the documentation to substantiate the offense.
It’s not quite “The Shawshank Redemption”, but I’m sure 34 years later, Major May and Warden Campbell are still smoldering over how a “stupid, piece of crap inmate” got one over on them.