Today is my fifth day in the Mountainview Corrections Center. I woke up this morning to discover that my friend Eddie had been taken to “seg” (segregation or solitary confinement). Everyone still refers to it as “the hole,” but from what I hear, the accommodations in the hole are pretty nice nowadays. It’s just that they don’t let you out into the general population in the prison. I met Eddie a little over a year ago in the county jail. We were both in our early 20s, both heroin addicts charged with murder. I took a deal for 15 years; Eddie went to trial and got 40 years. We did seven months in the county together. We got drunk together a number of times on contraband alcohol (he made it, but I always got busted for it). We had a couple of near-violent gambling disputes, but we finally became partners.
Eddie had already been here at Mountainview for a couple of months when I came in on the chain from the state penitentiary where I had been for a short time. It is called the chain because the prisoners in transit are chained together. Eddie had long since earned a reputation for being an upstanding convict, so when he sent word around the yard that I was all right, I was accepted by the other convicts based on Eddie’s reputation. To be “upstanding” is to be known as a person who does what he says, who doesn’t snitch, who stands up for himself and looks out for his friends, a person who follows the convict code. When I first arrived at the penitentiary, because it was my first time in prison, I didn’t know anybody and nobody knew me, so they all sat back and observed me while a few guys came up and tested me, trying to figure out what kind of guy I was: a snitch, a punk (a guy who lets people walk over them and use them), or a bitch. Was I willing to fight, was I loyal to my race? The most important thing about a convict is his crime. The guys wanted to know right off if I had a “solid beef,” what’s called an honest crime. Robbery, burglary, assault, delivery, firearms possession are all “honest” crimes. Murder is considered as honest as they come. Rape, child molestation, indecent liberties, stalking, etc., are “funny.” Guys with such sexual charges are called rapos and are ostracized or sometimes even brutalized.
Thanks to Eddie, my first few days here at Mountainview have been very smooth. He found a place for me to sit in the chow hall, he gave me some soap, shampoo, and a pen, he showed me where to get free paper and envelopes. The first week in a new place is spent learning how things work and reassembling all the necessities of daily life. Most supplies are not handed out but have to be bought using money that somebody on the outside puts on your books. Supplies can then be ordered from the commissary, and they are received the following week. Since it is difficult for somebody to get money on your books immediately, you can spend several weeks with nothing more than a toothbrush.
Eddie also gave me the rundown on prison politics: It’s important not to hang around black guys too much or accept anything from them; associating with Hispanics is more acceptable, as well as with Asians, but it is important to stick to your own race. (I am Caucasian.) Of course, you can hang around with whomever you want, but you need to keep in mind that it might look bad. At this point, I just want to avoid drawing attention to myself in any way.
Needless to say, I was very sorry to hear that Eddie was in the hole. I talked with Stan, another partner of mine from county and Eddie’s current cellie (cellmate). Stan informed me that Eddie was with a group of guys who beat up some other guy who then snitched on them. I sat at a different table than I usually sit at for breakfast, and a guy sat down and told me that the table was full. I didn’t bother to argue with him, but I didn’t vacate either. I lingered after my last few bites of oatmeal, so he’d know I wasn’t leaving because he told me to. Of course, if I sat there again, I should probably prepare for a fight, as guys take their cafeteria seat seriously. There’s a fine line between standing up for yourself and being disrespectful.
After breakfast I went to softball practice. During yard time, we can play basketball or softball, run on the track, or play pool or cards. Eddie found a softball team for me. Our first game was yesterday and we got crushed. After practice I went back to my cell block, showered, and locked up to read The Witching Hour, by Anne Rice. I am still impressed by how nice this prison is compared to the state pen. I never got hold of a book at the pen—there weren’t even any books floating around like there usually are. The only things I got to read were magazine articles people would mail in to me. Here, there is a library with about 5,000 volumes, mostly popular fiction. Here, I can shower alone during any movement period; in the pen 30 men showered together using about 10 showerheads. I would jump in and get wet, then move aside so another guy could get wet while I would soap up, then jump in again, etc. A private shower seems like a luxury now. Here, I have nine hours of movement (time out of my cell) as opposed to three at the pen. Here I have a (very small) private cell, there I had three cellies in a cell so small that all four of us could not move around on the floor at the same time. The toilet was against the wall in the cell. When you wanted to use the toilet, you would tell your cellies, and they would usually go to the other side of the curtain separating the two bunks. You would flush the toilet several times to mask sounds and odors—those are called courtesy flushes. This was embarrassing at first, but I got used to it. Even the food is excellent here—it’s better than what I used to get served in college. It’s remarkable that two maximum-security prisons in the same state could differ so drastically.
For lunch, I had a roast beef sandwich with potatoes, soup, salad, crackers, and juice. Afterward I went out to the yard and joined a Hacky Sack circle for an hour. Then I went to the gym and played three-on-three basketball with Stan and some of his buddies before getting called out for a visit. I ran and got changed into some decent clothes and went to see my mom, dad, and brother. One of the good things about being here is that it is closer to my family, so they can visit more often. They stayed for about an hour, sitting at a table with me chatting. The bought me pop and ice cream from the vending machines in the visiting room. Visitors have to be approved before they can visit, which takes three or four weeks. The visit is in person, which is much more enjoyable, not through glass like at the county jail. The visitors have to pass through a metal detector and can’t bring anything into the visiting room except their identification and their vending machine money. They have to follow very strict rules about their clothing. At the pen, my mom was not allowed in because she was wearing a skirt that buttoned down the front. She had to drive into town to buy another skirt, then come back and go through inspection again. At some places, we had to talk through phones, so only one person could talk to you at a time.
After my visit, I went to dinner, sitting at Stan’s table this time in an attempt to avoid problems. A guy sat down next to me, and when Stan arrived, he told the guy that he couldn’t sit there. The guy promptly moved elsewhere. I asked if the guy was a rapo. Stan said no, but that he seemed kind of funny. He recently celled up with some predator, so it looked like he might be a punk. The dinner was good, but there wasn’t enough of it: pizza, soup, salad, bread, and Jell-O. After dinner, I went to the yard and watched a softball game and then locked up early. I will now read a little before going to sleep.
(Note: All names in this entry have been changed. Also, “Diary” entries are usually posted right after they’re written, but since Joey doesn’t have Internet access, Slate allowed him to write these ahead of time.)