The tin cup pictured above is an actual drinking vessel that was originally part of the fabulous dining experience for prisoners housed inside a small county jail. The lockup itself was every bit as peachy as the cup, and both the building and the stainless steel mug were well past their expiration dates when the county finally gave in and demolished the old place.

As they say, “if those walls could’ve talked” we’d have heard tales of jailhouse coffee potent enough to dissolve steel beams. A cook who somehow transformed liver and onions into a dish that even the pickiest of inmate diners enjoyed. We’d have heard about the two graveyard shift jailers who discovered two whole baked turkeys in the refrigerator and consumed most of the pair of browned birds during the course of their December 24th overnight shift. The turkeys were designated for the prisoners’ Christmas dinner.

The prisoners were still there, locked up when New Years Day rolled around. The jailers were not, courtesy of a very angry sheriff who, at the last minute, had to hire a caterer to prepare additional turkeys for the prisoners.

The old red-brick jail building, if it were able to speak before its demise, might’ve told us about the prisoner who managed to smuggle a gun inside and then dared officers to “come and get it.” Certainly we’d have heard about the roaches and mice and the general funky stench of a place with little ventilation (no air movement at all in some corners of the facility).

The jailhouse could’ve gone into detail about how prisoners were allowed a couple hours of recreation once or twice each month, and that was limited to stepping outside onto a square of concrete for a game of basketball, if the ball was inflated and that was a rarity. The others who didn’t play ball simply sat down or paced back and forth on a small patch of grass next to the court.

It might’ve spoken of the dangers facing deputies (they were called jailers at this department). Blind corners and stairwells. Hallways so narrow that the jailers were forced to walk next to the bars.

No cameras “in the back” Therefore, when jailers opened the door to enter the lockup area they had no idea what waited for them on the other side. Had inmates escaped their cells, which had happened a couple of times, deputies were sitting ducks for an ambush.

So buckle up and join me for the only peek available inside this small facility. Believe it or not, this place was located in a county within the U.S., not in a third world country. And, it was in use not so long ago.

Follow me, but don’t touch anything, including those top two strands of wire. They’re electrified. A bug zapper for humans!

As we pass through the front gate, after being “buzzed” inside, please look to your right and you’ll see the recreation yard in its entirety, a simple square of concrete with an adjoining and similarly sized patch of grass. Inmates were allowed outside once or twice per month. Since there are no day rooms inside, it was a rare treat to see and do anything that wasn’t inside a dark, damp, and smelly 6×9 concrete cell.

During recreation time two patrol deputies were called in off the road to stand guard outside the fence. They were required to watch over the activities, armed with Remington 870 Wingmaster shotguns. The 870 Wingmaster is often a go-to weapons when in the business of law enforcement.

This, the sheriff’s order to have patrol deputies oversee recreation time, left the county less safe due to having two less deputies available to respond to calls. If an emergency arose the inmates were immediately herded back to their cells. Once they were safely tucked away the two patrol deputies left the jail with sirens yelping, lights flashing, and tires squealing.

Recreation yard

Upon entering this county jail, we first set foot inside a tiny lobby. This was where citizens stood at counter to sign documents, speak with deputies and/or dispatchers, hand over money orders for inmate commissary accounts, file criminal complaints, and report crimes, etc.

The lobby  also served as the visiting room. It was where family and friends stood facing one of two small windows that were equipped with sound holes so that inmates and visitors could hear the other speak. No phones and no contact. FYI – should officers arrest and deliver a suspect to the jail they brought them through this lobby area. Therefore, visitors would be made to move behind the business counter, or other nearby area, until the prisoner and officer passed through. Super safe, right?

Visitation and lobby area. This photo was taken from behind the counter where citizens filed reports, etc. The space was quite small.

On visitation day (Sunday afternoon only), inmates were brought two at a time to a small cell where they were locked inside. The cell was on the opposite side of the wall, directly behind the two green chairs in the above image.

Inmate visitation cell.

The two small windows in the visitation cell are the reverse sides of the ones in the previous photo. Until visitations, a piece of cardboard was positioned over the windows to prevent prisoners, the trustees who cleaned the jail and were allowed to roam about freely, from seeing out into the office area/lobby.

Stepping through the doorway leading to the cellblock area (to the right of the green lobby chairs in the photo) we first pass the trustee cells. The door to these cells remained unlocked during daylight hours to allow those prisoners to complete their chores—cleaning, mopping, delivering meals, etc. Trustees were required to be inside their cells by 9 p.m. each evening, where they’d remain locked inside until 5:30 a.m. in preparation for breakfast service.

Looking out from inside the trustee cells.

Hallways and corridors were extremely narrow, which was dangerous for the jailers who worked there. The facility was heated by old and clunky boilers that needed constant service and repairs. Radiators were there, inside the corridors, but were scarce. There was no heat inside the cells. And, there was no air conditioning whatsoever.

The only airflow came through small widows. In the next image you can see one of those windows (top left corner), open and tilted in toward the cells. A portable TV sat on a wonky, wall-mounted shelf next to the window.

Narrow corridors are dangerous!

Inmates were not allowed access to the TV controls, and reception was quite poor and was achieved with “rabbits ear” and Loop” antennas. Jailers changed channels when requested, during their rounds. But prisoners will be prisoners, so they manufactured makeshift antenna controls fashioned from string or wires, using the “remote controls” to swivel the antenna to dial in stations. Not allowed but, as I said, prisoners will be prisoners.

Of course, jailers often confiscated the strings and wires, and tightly rolled up newspapers used for reaching across the hallway to change a channel. Those items are considered as contraband in lockup facilities because they can be used to strangle, commit suicide, or attack officers. Newspapers and magazine pages can be rolled and formed in ways that make them nearly as hard as wood and are often found with sharpened objects inserted into the pointed ends. Doing so makes them as lethal as any spear or other stabbing type of weapon. Very deadly.

Wires to rotate rabbit-ear antennas from side to side to help receive a better picture. No cable!

To show just how dangerous this place was for deputies, notice how close the jailer below was to the bars. He had no choice due to the swing direction of the door.

Notice the pieces of white paper poking through the bars. They’re actually envelops placed there by prisoners. This was their version of postal letter boxes. Each morning a jailer collected the envelopes and carried them back to the office where he’d place stamps on each one, if the prisoners had enough money in their account to cover the costs. Afterward, a USPS letter carrier stopped by the jail to pick up outgoing mail and drop off incoming mail.

Jailer enters corridor. Danger!

There were no light fixtures inside the cells. Instead, floodlights mounted to the corridor ceilings illuminated each block of four cells. The fixture below hangs above one of the few windows in the block. Lighting was poor to say the least.

Floodlights gave the impression of peering in at zoo animals on display.

Prisoners received their meals through horizontal slotted openings in the bars. Trustees delivered the trays.

Tray slot

Meals were prepared in the jail kitchen. Trustees received meal trays from the cooks through a pass-through window leading from the kitchen to the jail corridor. Coffee was always available for deputies, 24 hours a day. Inmates were given coffee with their breakfast. One of the perks of being a trustee was to have coffee whenever they wanted, during daylight hours. Deputies and prisoners drank coffee from the same pot, the one pictured on the countertop below.

Jail kitchen

There were no showers inside the cell blocks. Instead, deputies escorted prisoners to showers located in another area … once each week, if they were lucky.

Showers had no floor drains, therefore water spilled out in the same corridors used by the jailers when making rounds.

Showers drained into the corridors.

To open cell doors deputies/jailers used a Folger-Adams key to release a lock on a cabinet attached to the wall outside each block of four cells. The compartment was made of thick steels and contained the door controls. The same key also locked and unlocked all interior jail doors, such as the cell doors, supply closets, access to plumbing and electrical systems, and the main “in/out” door to the jail that connected to the lobby/visiting area.

Folger-Adams key

With the cabinet door unlocked, the jailer opened and closed cell doors using levers and a large wheel. Each lever controlled the lock to one cell door. The jailer pulled the desired lever down to lock a door(s) and then turned the wheel to “roll” the barred doors either open or closed. This was all performed manually. No electronic controls. Should a door not close completely, its corresponding light (below the levers) illuminated with a bright red glow.

The door to the jailer’s right (below) was the entrance to a block of four cells and a very small small, narrow day room. When the jailer opened the cell doors, it released each of those four prisoners into the day room. He’d then roll the doors shut until night. Prisoners were not permitted to remain in their cells during daytime hours.

If a prisoner refused to come out of his cell when required, the others were returned to their cells (for safety) and deputies would then go inside to “gently” coax remove the misbehaving inmate, who would then serve a few days in “the hole” for not following instructions and jail rules. The unruly inmate would also lose commissary and visiting privileges.

Wheel of Misfortune

And that, my friends, was your look inside a place not many have seen. Those who have wish they hadn’t, I’m sure.

Cheers …


My career in law enforcement started in the prison system working as a corrections officer in a maximum security facility. The aged institution was a series of old, weathered and worn brick buildings that were probably ten years past the demolition stage. Ironically, that description fit many of the prison’s residents—old, weathered, and long past their prime.

As a new employee, and someone who didn’t know what to expect, once I was permitted inside the endless fencing and razor wire, well, I was a bit apprehensive to say the least.

During our orientation period (the prison system is a revolving door of both inmates and employees—neither seem to want to stay for very long), we were told the prison housed many hard-core inmates, even brutal murderers who’d never again set foot in society.

It didn’t take long to discover how many of the prison inmates survive in such a harsh environment. To do so, many of them “obtain” things from the outside. However, getting their hands on contraband is not the easiest of tasks. Therefore, using tactics similar to those used by feral animals, they stalk their prey, focusing on weak-minded, soft-touch officers. Then, when the moment is right, they cull the timid from the herd before moving in for the kill.

The difference between this type of prisoner and a lion is that the lion hunts for food, while the desperate inmate hunts for favors, liquor, drugs, cellphones, women, and possibly freedom. His prey—new, unsuspecting prison guards who could be manipulated and conned into granting those wishes.

Thankfully, I’m not weak or meek, nor am I an easy mark, so I never once fell for any of their clever con games. However, there’s another type of prisoner that did seem to get to me at times—old-timers with sad stories who seemed to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They could have been anybody’s grandfather, even mine. And such was the case of …

The Wheel: Page Two of My Spiral Notebooks

Tired eyes.

Skin, wrinkled like grooves etched in wet sand.

Working man’s hands.

Nails bitten to the quick.

“They tore down the mill,” I said.

Anxious eyes.

“The one near my place?” he said.

I nodded.

“I used to gig frogs at the base of that old wheel.”

“Caught some nice ones there.”

I offered another nod.

“What’re they gonna do there?”

“Convenience store’s what I heard.”

A gaze into the distance.

Staring into his past.

A deep breath.

A sigh.

A tired voice,

Nearly a whisper.

“The wheel was turnin’ that night, you know.”

I’d heard the story a hundred times before.

“I heard the water running over it when I crossed the road.”

Trembling hand through white hair.

The other, clutching fence wire.

Knuckles, white and taut.

“She screamed, but I still heard the water pouring off the wheel.

And the metal squeakin’ and creakin’.

It was loud. So loud.”

His eyes meet mine.

“Still hear it, you know. Every night, in my head.”

“I know you do.”

I know this because I hear his screams.

The ones that wake him late at night.

“I went over to her trailer to see about all the racket.”

Hand gripping hand.

Wringing and twisting.

Beads of sweat spattered across his forehead.

“She was my little girl, you know.”

Deep breath.

“I opened the door.”

Eyes growing wide.

He was there, again.

In his mind.

“He … He was sittin’ on top of her …”

Voice quivering.

“She was naked. Lips bleeding. Down there, too …”

Old eyes filled with water.

Spilling down his sun-leathered cheeks.

“I tried to pull him off.”

Voice cracks.

“Too big. Too strong.”

Anger crept in.

Teeth clenched tightly.

“I went back across the road to my house.”

Looking at, but through me.

Seeing it all again.

“To get my shotgun.

I didn’t want her to marry him. Never did like the guy.

A drunk and a bum.

Never worked a day in his life.

Beat her all the time.

Bruises and black eyes.

I seen ‘em.”

More hand-wringing.

“Loaded three rounds of double-aught buckshot, I did.

Get off my little girl!

Mind your own business, old man, he says to me.”


“Well, that bastard’’ll never touch my precious angel again.

No, sir.

Never again.”






Went home to get gun.


Life sentence.

No parole.

A beat of silence passed.

“So they tore it down, huh?”


A sigh.

“A convenience store, huh?”

I nodded.

“I’ll always hear that water runnin’.

And the metal screechin’ and squealin’.”

Wiped away a final tear.

“I know you will.”

“I’d do it again tomorrow, you know.”

I nodded.

Another beat.

Announcement from speaker.

“Count time in five minutes.”

“All inmates report to their cells.”

Voices approach.

Chatter of dozens.

Feet shuffling on concrete.

“I wish she’d found somebody like you.

Maybe we could’ve gone frog-giggin’ together, you and me.

Before they tore it down.

Or fishin’.

Crappie there are as big as your two hands held side-by-side.

They’s some good eat’n.”

Gnarled fingers through the wire.

Reaching for me,

For a simple touch.

Human to human.

Liver spotted hand.

“I’da liked that. I really would have.”

“Me, too …

Me, too.”

* The Old Man and the Wheel is a true story that crosses my mind from time to time. Today is one of those times.

Inmate J.L. Bird had never heard of the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS), let alone be a part of their mobile inventory. And, after experiencing it first-hand, well, he didn’t care if he never heard of it again … not ever.

He’d been traveling with JPATS for three days and already he was sick of it. Awakened each day before the sun even thought about rising. The sound of chains rattling and clank and handcuff ratchets clicking and snapping. Jailers barking the same old tiresome orders over and over again. “Let’s go! Get your sorry asses up and moving! No, no showers today. No, there are no toothbrushes. No deodorant. No washcloths. You’ll get your breakfasts in the van. Yes, cold boiled eggs and fake Kool Aid … Let’s GO!”

He was also pretty darn sick of the U.S. Marshals who watched his every move, including during bathroom breaks. He was weary of flying a zig-zagged pattern across the U.S., landing to either drop off or pick up inmates at what seemed like every remote airfield in the country.

Then came the never-ending end of the day van rides to county jails, the holdover facilities located in hick towns that were surely too small and too backward to be considered for the filming of Deliverance. In fact, Bird was quite sure that most of their holdover locations were in towns with names recognized only by loyal viewers of Hee Haw—places like Bumpass and Doodlum, Va., and Talking Rock, Ga., the little honey hole in Pickens County nestled between Ellijay and Jasper. Yeah, those fine metropolises.

Bird did learn that in exchange for housing federal prisoners, the U.S. government pays county sheriffs $50 plus or minus, per day, per federal inmate held. That’s a pretty sweet deal for merely furnishing a blanket on the floor, a couple of cold pre-packaged boiled eggs—the kind of eggs linked to multi-state infections of Listeria monocytogenes—, and maybe a dry sandwich made from cheap stale bread and greenish-tan mystery-meat-bologna.

Sometimes, like the jail in Northern Va. where he spent the night, he and other federal prisoners were treated to a single serving of slightly warm canned kidney beans and a slice of bread for juice-sopping. They enjoyed their “tasty” meal inside a two man cell where 8 prisoners sat shoulder to shoulder, some on the floor and some on two solid concrete sleeping platforms, each designed to hold one person. Yes, that’s two concrete sleeping decks for 8 prisoners. There was only one toilet, which meant that two prisoners found themselves eating and sleeping on the concrete floor next to the spot where other men urinated and, well, you know. One word … splashes.

Bird also learned that deputy sheriff’s didn’t give a rat’s patootie about federal prisoners, and that they pretty-much ignored him and the others. In fact, many of the star-wearing deputies mistreated the federal prisoners. Those who weren’t bullies simply ignored the prisoners by shutting the heavy metal doors to their cells and forgetting about them until the next day when the Marshals returned to retrieve their human cargo.

Bird and his crew were the last to be fed, receiving leftovers, and they were the last to see soap and water. The aforementioned lone toilet sat only two or three feet away from where cellmates septs and ate.  Unless Marshals retrieved them the next morning, they often went several days without bathing, deodorant, or brushing their teeth. Imagine an all day  “sweet-smelling” ride in the back of hot vans and airplanes that recycle cabin air.

But, after several unpleasant layovers in county jails, day trips in passenger vans while enclosed in a cage in the rear compartment, and finally a plane ride while fully shackled and no means to control air vents or to use the restroom and yet another cold boiled egg meal, the JPATS jet finally touched down at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. A real airport with real people scurrying about, tending to whatever duties are assigned to airport workers.

Bird was ecstatic. He was overjoyed at the thought of seeing honest-to-goodness people other than the unclean pack he’d been traveling with for the past several days, along with at least two-hundred more of the same. The plane was a full-on funk fest of foul odors.

The JPATS jet taxied to the far west corner of the airport, though, bypassing the regular terminals, and pulled alongside a private jetway leading to a brick building that stood alone on the airport property. This was the Federal Transport Center.

FTC Oklahoma. The jetway is pictured at the top of the image.

The FTC Oklahoma City is the hub for JPATS air transport. It’s the facility where many federal inmates are housed until they’re assigned to a permanent prison. It’s also where prisoners are housed while in transit to other prisons, and courts around the country, etc. Prisoners are often transferred from one prison to another for reasons such as to be housed at federal medical facilities, when custody status changes (either up or down), etc.

Bird finally learned he was on his way to a hearing at the federal court in Richmond, Va.

“Absolutely no talking!” shouted the marshal who’d stepped the inside the plane from the jetway. He rubbed his stubby fingers across his buzz-cut. “Not a sound unless one of us asks you a question. You’ll stand perfectly still until a marshal or other officer gives you a command. Do not, and I repeat, do not let your ankle chains touch or mar the floors in the hallway. Okay, let’s go. Single file. In the jetway, now! And watch those ankle chains!”

Unfortunately for Bird, he’d see not a single civilian as he’d hoped, since the jetway led directly into the prison facility. However, he was pleasantly surprised at how clean and fresh it was inside. The floors were highly polished and there wasn’t a single blemish on the stark white walls. Overheard fluorescent fixtures lit the long hallway like a night game in Fenway Park. It was a pleasant change from the grunge and grime he’d experienced during the trip to Oklahoma.

Bird and his fellow travelers made their way along the wall (following a red line painted on the floor) until they reached three BOP (Bureau of Prisons) officers stationed on a raised wooden platform where they were busy removing handcuffs, waist chains, and leg irons. Bird was elated when it was his turn to climb the three steps to have the hardware removed, especially from his ankles. Wearing the steel cuffs daily for a week had rubbed the thin skin there until it was raw and extremely sore down to the bone.

To him it was all overkill, especially since his arrest and conviction was for possessing a small amount of cocaine—$100 worth. A first offense. No violence. No weapons. And no resisting arrest. He’d even confessed and claimed ownership of the drug and admitted his guilt. He was certain, as was his attorney, that he’d receive no more than probation and fines. However, the federal judge saw fit to sentence Bird to just over three years in federal prison…for a first offense of possessing an amount of cocaine that would barely fill a tablespoon.

After the chain removal prisoners were herded into”the bullpen,” a large holding cell where 100 plus men stood waiting to be processed. A large, thick plate glass window stretched from one end of the room to the other. The inmates could clearly see people walking past, but the room must’ve been soundproof because they couldn’t hear any outside noises. No footsteps. No talking. Nothing but the incessant chattering of 100 or more convicts blabbing about mostly nonsense or one lie after another. And, as usual, there was only one toilet, and it was out of order.

One by one the inmates were taken out for a chat with a psychologist, a quick consult with a counselor for classification, and then to a large room where several BOP officers stood to hand out well-used but clean prison clothes. They were ordered to strip for a visual exam for contraband. It was embarrassing enough to do the “squat and cough and bend over and spread your cheeks” in front of male officers, but a few female officers were also on hand for the procedure.

Then, after a few hours of processing, the inmates were sent to their assigned housing units within the transportation center. Bird met his unit officer who assigned him to a cell. Again, Bird was pleased. His cell was a spotlessly clean room complete with a soft mattress, soft pillow, a large window, and a real door. No bars!

Bird was also ecstatic when he heard he could shower whenever he liked and as many times as he liked. The facility even provided the inmates with soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and more. And, within minutes of his arrival, kitchen workers delivered a hot meal to the unit for those who’d been traveling all day. The food was absolutely delicious. Real bone-in chicken. The fare was quite unlike the unidentifiable ground goopy glop he’d been used to eating back at the prison. Not to mention the maggot-gagging cuisine served at some of the county jails he’d visited along the trip.

The unit was quiet. The inmates seemed pleasant (he’d discovered that he’d been assigned to a low security unit). And the guard was a guy who addressed the inmates either by their last names or by calling them “sir.” As in, “Thank you, Sir.” “Sir, when you get a minute would you please stop by my desk.” The prisoners did the same in return. There was no shortage of respect in either direction.

It had been late in the day when the JPATS jet touched down in Oklahoma, so it wasn’t long before the sun set. Bird noticed that as soon as it was dark outside, all of the cells/rooms on his side of the unit also went dark. Not a single light on in either of them. The cells across the day-room, opposite his, were all brightly lit. He also noticed that most of the inmates had suddenly disappeared into the darkened cells. Strange because it was not yet time for lockdown. Curious, he asked one of the few remaining prisoners, a slack-jawed, flamboyantly gay guy who’d somehow managed to paint his fingernails fire engine red, about the strange occurrence.

“It’s showtime,” he said. “Not my cup of tea, though … if you know what I mean.” He winked at Bird, but Bird didn’t have a clue what he meant, and his confused expression prompted the prison sweetie to say, “Go have a look. You’ll see.”

So Bird opened the door to his cell and found a gaggle of prisoners gathered at the narrow window, looking across to an adjacent wing. Bird quickly saw the attraction. The next unit over, with windows perfectly aligned with those in Bird’s unit, was the unit that housed female prisoners. Bird also noticed that while the lights were off on his side of the unit, the rooms across the way were brightly lit.

Bird’s fellow inmates pushed and shoved and practically fought for the best view possible, because standing, sitting, dancing, jiggling, wiggling, and/or gyrating (among other things) in each window, was a totally nude female prisoner who was hard at work entertaining the male population of the transfer center. And she left not a single thing to the imagination. Not. A. Single. Thing.

It was indeed showtime in Oklahoma, a long-standing tradition, and each cell had its own private, live peep show that lasted until lights out at 10 p.m.

Bird slept better that night than he had in a long, long time. And he went to sleep feeling a little dirty, even though he’d showered three times in as many hours.

*Inmate J.L. Bird is an imaginary prisoner, however, his journey is one of thousands that take place each and every work day of every week. JPATS is indeed a very busy operation. Oh, the Oklahoma City peep shows are also very real …

It was three-thirty in the morning when the taller of the two guards woke him by using a metal flashlight to deliver a few sharp pokes to the thigh.

“Roll ’em up, Bird. You’re going on a little trip,” said the short one with the acne scarred face and slightly hunched back. “You’ve got fifteen minutes to get dressed and have your stuff at the door.”

The inmate, J.L. Bird, knew better than to protest. To argue would serve to do nothing less than to earn him a couple of weeks in “the hole.”

So Bird reluctantly pulled on a pair of khaki prison pants—the ones with the elastic waistband—, a clean white t-shirt, threadbare white socks, and blue slip-on deck-style shoes (prison issue). Next, he opened his locker and emptied the contents—instant coffee, toiletries, an apple, the remainder of his prison clothing, two paperback books, a bible, a pencil, a calendar marked with a large X over previous days served, pieces of mail,  and a few assorted odds and end—onto the middle of his twin-size mattress.

Bird took a last look around to be sure he hadn’t missed anything before rolling the mattress and its contents into a ball (“rolled up”), otherwise known as “inmate luggage.”

“Hey, Ralph, I heard they rolled up Little Pauly last night. Heard he punched a guard so they put him on ice for a few weeks. Hit him with an assault too. A street charge. There goes his good time.”

Bird, tasting his own nighttime grungy breath, held the knot of belongings under one arm and carried it to the front door where the night shift dorm officer stood yucking it up with the two transportation officers that had interrupted his dream time.

“Where am I going?” Bird said, addressing no one in particular.”

Ignoring his question, Scarface said, “That everything?”

Bird nodded. “That’s it.”

“Let’s go, then,” Scarface said while pushing open the heavy steel door.

“Can I at least brush my teeth before—”

“I said, let’s go.”

Bird knew better than to push his luck by asking Scarface more questions. He was not a friendly man.

When the trio reached the main office area, the taller guard told Bird to place the rolled-up mattress beside the property room door and then have a seat in one of the two plastic chairs near the control booth window. Bird heard a buzz followed by a click, the sound of an electronic lock responding to the button pushed by the officer behind the tinted glass.

The outer door swung open and two U.S. Marshals stepped into the room—the first was hefty muscular man who obviously knew his way around a gym. He wore his hair short but not so short that it hid the gray at his temples. The second Marshal was an attractive  female with hair the color of Poe’s raven and the whitest teeth Bird had ever seen. The woman wore her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, leaving her neck exposed. A small mole on her right cheek was the only blemish on her pale skin. She doesn’t spend much time outdoors, Bird muttered to himself.

The two Marshals didn’t waste any time. They walked over to Bird and instantly set about the task of preparing him for a trip to who-knew-where. “Face the wall. Put your hands on the wall. Spread your feet. Anything in your pockets? No needles? No drugs?” He felt the mans hands dig into his armpits. Thumbs tracing his spine. Fingers inside his waistband, workng all the way around his middle. A hand went far up into his crotch, then down his left leg. Then another hand in his crotch before sliding down his right leg. “Open your mouth. Lift your tongue. Move it from side to side, slowly.”

A chain around the waist. “Hold out your hands.” First one cuff through the waist chain and then both wrists clamped tightly. The same for the ankles. Snap. Click. Metal clanging against the tile floor.

The woman said, “We have a long day ahead. Now would be a good time to use the restroom. You won’t have another opportunity to do so until tonight.”

Bird shuffled his way into the restroom while a male prison guard held the door open, watching to be sure Bird didn’t pull a Houdini and escape through the drain. When Bird finished washing his hands the guard handed him a small paper sack that contained a sandwich, two ice cold boiled eggs, a semi-soft orange, and a cardboard container of artificial juice. “Here’s your breakfast and lunch. You’ll get dinner on the other end.”

Minutes later the female Marshal unlocked a heavy padlock hanging from the sliding doors of an unmarked gray passenger van. She motioned for Bird to climb in, a somewhat difficult task to accomplish with his feet tethered to the short chain attached to the leg irons that circled his ankles. Bird took his time and made it easily. It wasn’t his first rodeo. He slid into the seat beside another inmate. The van reeked of body odor and unwashed clothing.

The female closed the door and Bird heard her snap the lock closed. She climbed onto the driver’s seat and switched on the ignition while her partner signed the last of the transfer papers.

Bird pressed his face against the thick wire grating that separated the prisoners from the front compartment. “Where’m I going?” he asked the woman.

“You’ll see when we get there,” she replied.

He’d not expected an answer to his question, but it never hurt to try.

Bird felt the van rock from side to side as the other Marshal opened the passenger door and climbed onto the seat. He tossed a clipboard brimming with papers onto the dash and snapped his seatbelt in place. “Let’s roll, ” he said. “According to the officer we’ve got about two hours to make a three-hour drive.”

“You have the directions?” female Marshal asked.

“Yes. He said to turn left on the main road and drive until we get there. Supposed to be nothing but desert between here and there. Says we won’t miss it because it’s the only thing we’ll see on the way, besides tumbleweeds, lots of sand, and maybe a roadrunner or two.”

And so it began, the first leg of a cross-country trip to court. A trip that would take Inmate Bird, #12345-456, a very long three months to go and come back. All for a ten minute appearance before a federal judge.


A recent news story about the abuse of inmates in some U.S. jails and prisons reminded me of a conversation I once had with a former federal prisoner, a person we refer to as Mr. X.

Mr. X is a former business professional who committed a nonviolent crime that landed him in federal prison for just over three years, as a first time offender. He’s out now and has shared a few of his prison experiences with the readers of The Graveyard Shift. I contacted Mr. X to see if he’d seen or experienced abuse of any kind at the hand of corrections officers. Here’s what he had to say.

Mr X: I have heard many horror stories of COs (corrections officers) beating and torturing inmates, but I’ve never seen it. Of course I was locked up in low security facilities my entire time in the system. Things march to a different tune at the higher levels, at least that’s what I’ve been told by the men who’d served time there.

But abuse and abusers come in many forms. What devastates one person may be like water on a duck’s back to another. I say this because I’m about to describe some things that happened to me and I’m sure they’ll seem trivial to you, but to me the events were humiliating. Yes, I considered this as abuse. Not the physical kind, but abuse nonetheless, and with no way to stop it.

My abuser was a female CO. She had coal black hair, a face full of acne scars, and a torso like a fire hydrant. Her uniform fit like a sausage casing stretched tightly over legs and arms and legs as thick as tree limbs. She wore shiny black combat boots and the sleeves of her gray uniform shirt rolled up to mid muscular forearm. A crude tattoo of a giant scorpion sat halfway between the elbow and wrist of her right arm.

Living quarters in the camp was set up dormitory style. My dorm housed just over 200 men, all in one big room with six-foot-high cinder block walls dividing our two-man cubicles. We all used a common restroom and showers. Both the shower and toilet stalls had individual doors. This was odd because most prisons and jails don’t install doors in restrooms to help prevent hidden activity. In fact, in some of the jails I’d been in while awaiting trial and during transport to federal prison, had stainless steel toilets sitting out in the open where everyone roamed around you, or hung out nearby while you did your business. Imagine eating your meals while the person “seated” next to you was using the restroom. Now that was an eye-opening adjustment to make.

I mentioned the restroom because that’s one place this particular officer made it a point to be in the there at the end of the work day when most of the guys were showering. She watched as we removed our clothing or towels. She watched when we walked to the shower stalls. Then she’d walk to each shower door and just stand there gawking. When we turned our backs to the doors she’d order us to face her. She threatened to send us to the hole for not obeying her direct orders. She’d even rest her forearms on the top of the half-shower door and settle in for a good look.

It wasn’t long before she seemed to zero in on me, and that included when I was in a toilet stall. She’d order me to unlatch the door and then she’d hold it open, move as close as possible to me without actually touching me, and then stand there staring until I was done. She was not one bit shy. I am.

I vividly recall staring down at her boots. They were only two or three feet away from my feet. The toes were incredibly shiny, and slick. I remember thinking about how much time and energy she must have put into getting them that shiny. I thought she must have a military background.

I complained about her to sergeants and her other superiors but they said she was doing her job, watching inmate activity at all times. Funny thing about this was that not one male officer ever, not ever, did either of the things she did. They’d make their rounds, of course. And they’d look to see that all was well and as it should be. But they wouldn’t walk up to your stall and stand there staring at your privates. This woman was downright creepy. I once saw her enter a seldom used hallway and seconds later another female guard entered the same space. Curiosity got the the best of me so I walked over and took a peek. The pair were involved in long, deep, toe-curling kiss. Their hands were as active as hyper children on a playground.

One day, an older prisoner who everyone knew had heart trouble, collapsed on his way to the dining hall. Several inmates ran over to help (there were a couple of medical doctors incarcerated in the camp) but Officer Creepy walked up and ordered the inmates to move away. The she poked the old guy a couple of times with the toe of one of those spit-shined boots. She announced, “He’s faking so he can get out of work. He can lay there all day for all I care.” And she left him there after one last hard jab to the poor guy’s ribs.

An inmate finally ran to the medical department to see if a nurse would help. She did not. A sergeant walked up and Officer Creepy repeated the “faking it” story. He walked on. Eventually an ambulance crew showed up (well over an hour later) and took the man away. He never returned. We later heard that he was DOA when the ambulance crew arrived at the camp to pick him up.

One night I woke up with an excruciating toothache. I spoke to the CO working our building, but he said I’d have to fill out a sick slip to request an appointment to see the dentist, who only visited the camp one day per week. When my appointment finally rolled around, I was sitting in the chair with my mouth wide open, overhead light shining inside, and with the dentist preparing to dig in, when in walks Officer Creepy. She was assigned to guard the medical offices that day. So she comes chair-side and begins to talk to the dentist about how degrading it must be to work on the teeth of a piece-of-s*** prisoner.

The dentist, a retiree and an extremely nice man who treated everyone as people, not animals, told her that he loved his job and he enjoyed helping others who really aren’t in a position to help themselves. For some reason that really set her off. She told him I was faking. He contradicted her saying his exam proved otherwise. She then ordered me to open my mouth really wide. And then, and I couldn’t believe it, she jammed her bare, who-knows-where-it’s-been index finger into my mouth and started forcefully jabbing at my teeth, saying, “Does that hurt? Does it? Well, does it?”

The doctor protested meekly, but she continued her tirade. Clearly she intimidated the elderly and frail dentist, and he did nothing to stop her.

When she finished poking around she placed her hand on the side of my face and pushed my head to the side. She ordered me back to the dorm. The dentist pleaded my case to her and she finally consented to let him finish the filling.

Sometimes she’d come to our dorm and go into our “cubes” where she’d toss our belongings into a messy pile in the center of the floor. I mean she threw it all, including mattresses, sheets, pillows, food items, books, papers, pencils, cups, and shoes. Then she’d tell us we had five minutes to clean it all up. Sometimes, after we got it all squared away she’d returned and do it all over again.

One night the officer working our dorm, a really nice man who said he came to the U.S. from Africa, told me to mop and buff the hallway floors in the administrative section of the building. It’s the part of the building where the counselors and ranking CO’s office’s are located. There’s no one back there at night. I grabbed the tools and supplies and the CO let me inside. He told me to knock when I was ready to come out. Each of the office areas were securely locked and there was nowhere else to go so it was not unusual for them to lock us inside the hallway to work. I really didn’t mind the extra duty because it was quiet back there, with no shouting, smelly inmates to deal with while you’re trying to read or write letters.

As I was getting ready to begin, an office door opened around the corner. I turned just in time to see Officer Creepy and another female guard—not the same one mentioned earlier—come out. Both were adjusting their uniforms and securing buttons. Creepy kissed the other officer on the cheek and turned to head back to the dorm. That’s when she saw me and I prepared myself for a trip to “the hole.” I was certain that she would come up with something that would land me in solitary for a long, long time, just to save her own skin.

However, she surprised me by walking past without saying a word. Nothing. Not even eye contact.

The night passed and still nothing happened. Then a week passed.

I never saw her at the camp again. I don’t know if she quit, or what. All I know is that it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. No more “visits” from her.

Like I said, to some these incidents probably seem minor. As far as I’m concerned, though, Officer Creepy was a bully and a sex offender. Sadly, the system supports her type of behavior.


Serving time in a jail or prison can certainly be a stressful experience, even for the toughest of prisoners. After all, they must be on constant high alert for potential violence against them, such as a stabbing because they failed to show fellow chow hall diners respect by knocking on the table before standing to leave. Or, by cutting in line on “chicken day.” (See below for chicken day definition).

Actually, line-cutting on any day is an a**-kicking/shank-sticking infraction of unwritten inmate rules. Although, members of various groups allow other members of those same groups to cut line. Just no “outsiders.” New prisoners must quickly learn that going to the rear of the line is always the safest bet.

To even the odds in the event of an attack, or to gain the upper hand against other inmates, prisoners often manufacture weapons from a variety of items, such as sharpened sticks, pieces of glass, razorblades, and molded, honed hard-plastic taped to toothbrush handles. Stabbing instruments made of melted and molded chess and checker game pieces are sometimes used as deadly weapons. Dominoes can also be used as effective and deadly bludgeoning instruments.

The list of prisoner weapons is a very long list

Even newspapers can be formed into an extremely hard and effective striking instrument similar to a police baton. Spears from tightly wrapped magazines. Coffee creamer flamethrowers (creamer ignites quickly and easily). Paper-mache daggers made of toilet tissue, with their tips dipped into human feces for that extra something special. And we mustn’t forget melted chocolate bars. Yes, those tasty treats become a boiling liquid that sticks to the flesh, causing extremely nasty and severe burns.

So what can corrections officials do to prevent everyday items from being transformed into deadly weapons?

Well, Bob Barker, America’s Leading Detention Supplier has a few solutions, such as domino, chess, and checker game pieces and boards made of silicone.

Bob Barker also sells pre-pasted, flexible toothbrushes, tiny, soft toothbrushes that fit over the end of a finger, flexible pens and pencils, flexible (orange or clear) coffee mugs, cups, and 6-compartment dinner trays, bowls, shoes, sandals, and more.

And, of course, there are the molded plastic chairs, tables, bunks, and wall shelves.

Molded plastic seems to be the safe choice for prisons and jails all across the country

Isn’t it sort of ironic that cities such as Santa Barbara, Ca. made it illegal to distribute plastic drinking straw, with an initial threat of imprisonment for repeat plastic straw-distributing offenders.

According to the California city’s website, “On October 9th, 2018, Santa Barbara City Council voted 6-1 to adopt an ordinance prohibiting the distribution and sale of plastic straws and stirrers as well as limitations to the distribution of plastic cutlery which can only be provided “upon request”.

Sensibly, Santa Barbara eventually backed away from making “distribution and sale of plastic straws” a jail-able offense.

Wasn’t it odd, though, that prior to the revision of the ordinance one could’ve been incarcerated for using a plastic draw to sip a Big Gulp (which in itself was nearly illegal in NYC), where the “plastic straw offender/prisoner” would sit on plastic chairs, sleep on plastic, bunks, and store reading material on plastic shelving.

The “Straw Law”

Now, the current penalties for violation of Santa Barbara’s Straw Ban are as follows (from their website):

A. For the first violation, a written warning notice will be issued to the beverage provider or food provider in order to confirm their understanding of the ordinance and the potential penalties in the event of future violations.

B. The second and each successive violation shall be punishable by civil administrative fines pursuant to Chapter 1.25 of this Code (civil penalties referenced in Chapter 1.28 are not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars ($250) for each day or part thereof that said violation occurs). This Chapter shall not be criminally enforceable.

C. Violations of this Chapter shall be deemed to create a public nuisance. The City Attorney may seek legal, injunctive, or other equitable relief to enforce this Chapter. Each and every piece of plastic cutlery, plastic beverage straws, or plastic stirrers provided in violation of this Chapter shall constitute a separate violation of this Chapter and a continuing nuisance.”

Chicken Day

Some Friday lunchtimes in prison, especially in federal facilities, are special for inmates because they’re served real bone-in baked chicken quarters instead of the typical “mystery meat” fare.

Prisoners line up early outside the dining hall on chicken day. Rarely does anyone skip this special meal.

Jail Cell

Writers are a curious bunch of folks who should never let walls, doors, locks, or the word NO stop them from producing the best stories possible.

The tellers of both tall and short tales, in fact, go to great lengths to find detail—the perfect setting, great, believable characters, and those wonderfully juicy tidbits of information that stimulate a reader’s senses.

With pen in hand and minds wide open, a writer will do whatever it takes to reach the last page of their work-in-progress, including hopping on a plane, train, car, or truck to travel to wherever information can be found. They walk, they talk, they telephone, they email, they read blogs and books, they ride with cops, attend court proceedings, and they attend awesome events such as the Writers’ Police Academy. Again, they do what it takes and they do it all in the name of pleasing readers.

Many stories include prison and/or jail settings, as well as the residents and/or employees of each. So what do writers do? They meet with jail officials and arrange to tour their facility. Sure, it can sometimes be a very steep uphill battle to get a foot in the door to some places of incarceration. But, as it’s been said, where there’s a will …

Suppose, though, that you, a writer, find yourself incarcerated for a long, long time … perhaps even for the remainder of your life. What would you do? After all, your passion is the written word. You have so many stories to tell, especially the one that landed you behind bars. You’ve gotta write!

So how on earth would you obtain the information you need for your book(s)? The internet is often not available. No modern library (in many lockups you’d be fortunate if there’s anything more than a few tattered paperbacks stacked in what used to be a mop closet). You’d have very little, if any, contact with people on the outside. And, if your story involves law enforcement, forensics, etc., you can pretty much rule out the assistance of cops and CSI experts.

What would you do?

Well, one such writer, a prisoner, once reached out to me back a while back, via my publisher. He sent a three page handwritten letter, complete with a very nice, well-written one-page introduction that explained the reason for his incarceration—murder. He went on to say that he’d been sentenced to life for killing a woman (a close associate of a well-known outlaw motorcycle club) during a heated argument. He also said he feels no ill will toward police. In short, he did what he did and accepted full responsibility for the act, but the circumstances hadn’t stopped his desire to write.

Interestingly, this fellow, the convicted murderer, subscribes to Writer’s Digest Magazine, which is where he read an article I wrote (published in the September 2014 issue). Yes, WD is delivered to prisons.

My article is what prompted the lifer to write me with an unusual research request. A request that I strongly considered. It was a consideration that went against the very grain of my being. However, I was inclined to help because his story could’ve very well been a good one … a life-changer for someone on the outside.

There was a small problem, however, with delivering my information to this prisoner. You see, he had no idea where I lived at the time and I didn’t want him to know (return addresses are required on all inmate mail at this and other facilities). In fact, the bio in my book about police procedure states that we reside in Boston. This is a book the inmate has in his possession and he mentions it his introductory letter to Writer’s Digest.


Non prisoners may also my purchase!

Therefore, when the inmate wrote my publisher he was under the impression that I lived somewhere in New England.


As many of you know, we’re frequent re-locators (and that’s putting it mildly), so imagine my surprise to see a return address that just happened to be that of a state prison located very near where we lived at the time I received the letter. Very. Very. Near.

I finally came up with with a means to give him the information he needed, via an online source. I used the internet instead of snail mail to prevent him from learning our home address. After all, he had family and friends and “business associates” on the outside.

Anyway, the point of this long-winded story with no real end is that writers should never settle for an “okay” book when overcoming small obstacles is all that stands in the way of producing a really great story.

What are some of those barriers?

  • Too chicken to make contact with cops and/or other experts. Believe me, cops love to talk about their work and, if you let them, they’ll talk about it until the cows come home. So please don’t hesitate to approach a police officer. Of course, you may have to extend an offer of a cup of coffee to start the ball rolling, but after that, hold on because your mind will soon be filled with real-life tales of car chases, shootouts, drug raids, puking drunks, and struggles with the biggest and baddest bad guys who ever walked a dark alleyway. Of course, you should probably avoid weird and scary opening lines, such as, “Hi, my name Wendy Writer and I’m wondering if you would please tell me how to kill someone and get away with it?” Or, “Hi, my name Karla Killer and I’d really like to hold your gun so I can see how heavy it is.”
  • Procrastination (I was too busy to attend the Writers’ Police Academy. Maybe next year. In some instances, “next year” may never arrive. After all, we can’t do this forever!)
  • Fear of rejection by agents and editors. Settle for nothing less than a big fat YES, and don’t stop working and writing and bettering your craft until you reach your goals.
  • Television (Please STOP using TV as a source of information!! Easy isn’t always best).
  • Allowing life to run you instead of you running your life.

I guess what I’m getting at is that if a murderer who’s serving a life sentence in a pretty harsh prison setting is willing to go the extra mile for a scrap of important information needed for his book, then why shouldn’t all writers at least make some sort of effort to “get it right?”

How about you? Do you go the extra mile for the details in your tales?

Speaking of details …

It’s almost time to announce the name of the 2020 MurderCon/Writers’ Police Academy guest of honor. In the meantime, here are a few hints …

Over 3 dozen bestselling novels.
Rarely appears at writers conferences.
Numerous books adapted for film and TV and each feature big name actors.

Oh, and don’t forget, in addition to naming the 2020 guest of honor, the The Writers’ Police Academy/MurderCon will also soon announce an exciting, unbelievably thrilling, and closely guarded secret. Yes, you’ll lose your mind over this one! Hint … Reacher.

AND, we also have a couple of fabulous extra-special guest speakers in the lineup!

We’ve added some pretty cool hands-on classes, all related to murder investigations. Practical exercise workshops are extremely realistic where you’ll learn to use the equipment and the techniques and tactics utilized by investigators at actual crime scenes. In fact, MurderCon attendees will have the opportunity to properly collect and process evidence, all in a realistic residential setting which, by the way, happens to be a crime scene. Yes, you will be the police investigator and it’s up to you to solve the case. This is realism at its best!

Again, MurderCon/Writers’ Police Academy and Sirchie provide the same training that’s taught to law enforcement investigators from around the world. The classes offered at this one of a kind event include sessions taught in Sirchie’s elite Evidence Collection and Processing Training Program that, according to Sirchie …

“Our Evidence Collection and Processing Training Program provides law enforcement professionals and crime scene investigators with hands-on training using forensic tools that will help to execute the best crime scene investigation mission possible.”

Thinking back to the days prior to working in law enforcement I recall the intense desire to become a police officer.

I especially wanted to work in a sheriff’s office. However, openings in the local sheriff’s office were as scarce as hen’s teeth. It was a job that deputies loved and there they remained. Sure, I’d applied and I’d spoken to the sheriff to express my eagerness to become a deputy. But his reply was the typical “I’ll keep you in mind if an opening becomes available.”

So, while impatiently waiting, I decided to apply for a job as a corrections officer within Virginia’s state prison system. And, soon after applying I received a call directing me to come in for an interview.

The day for the initial meeting finally arrived and I was escorted inside to a small conference room. To set the stage, a three person interview panel were seated behind a long table. The chair where my escort indicated that I was to sit, was positioned approximately eight feet in front of the trio of white-shirted ranking officers—one captain, a lieutenant, and a sergeant. No one had passed out smiles that morning.

The captain spoke first, introducing himself and the others. He then asked me to tell them a bit about myself and my background and why on earth did I want to work in a place that could be described as hell’s stinky armpit.

Could you, would you?

When I finished my opening spiel, the real questioning began. “Have you ever belonged to a gang?” “Do you personally know anyone who’s in prison?” “Have you ever been struck, punched, or physically injured by anyone?” What are your views on the death penalty?” Could you shoot another person, if necessary?” Could you bring yourself to shoot a coworker if they’d been taken hostage by an inmate and that shooting through the fellow officer was the only means of preventing the escape?” “Could you?” Would you? And why?”

A few weeks later I received another call instructing me to report to the prison for a physical and a drug test. Two weeks after the exam and drug testing I was officially hired and was scheduled to report for orientation and assignment of uniforms and other equipment, including the first badge I’d ever pinned to a uniform shirt.

Then I received my duty assignment, a prison in the middle of nowhere that consisted of four separate sections, with each building surrounded by a tall, razor-wire topped fence. The four individual areas were contained by a double set of larger fencing that encompassed the entire place. Towers were strategically positioned around the perimeter and an asphalt drive circled the prison, just outside the fence.

Armed officers drove around the compound on a never ending loop. I found out during my orientation that this particular prison was where the state housed many of the inmates that other prisons couldn’t handle.

The prisoners were divided into four categories—those with medical and mental problems, bad-to-the bone dangerous, younger inmates, and finally a mixture of “not super rowdy but were there anyway.” Inmates classified as either of the four groups were housed appropriately—medical and mental were assigned to C Unit, younger inmates to D Unit, the mean and nasty to B Unit, and “the rest” to A.

The Guard Shack

An officer’s station, a small building, sat in the middle of the main compound yard. Inmates were allowed inside this area only when moving from place to place and under controlled circumstances—medical department, visiting room, etc. Each individual section had it’s own recreation yard. The inmates were not permitted to mix (No As with Bs, etc.). The only exception would be during visitations and medical visits.

Nurses delivered medication to each unit. It was at this time when prisoners were permitted to address their medical needs. They would then schedule an appointment to see the prison doctor who, by the way, only visited the prison only once or twice per month unless there was an emergency.

Okay, so I’m at work on my first day and they’ve assigned me to the main compound. My job was to check the passes of inmates before manually unlocking the gates to allow them outside of their designated unit yards. Yes, each gate was locked with a large padlock and I carried a huge ring of keys, many of which I never learned their purpose.

When I arrived at the main gate that morning, an officer used a key to open the lock and let me inside. We walked to the “guard shack” where he gave me a quick briefing about the goings-on during his shift (nothing at all) and then handed me the keys. We walked back to the gate where I opened the lock to let him out. On the way we passed by large man wearing jeans, work boots, a green long-sleeved shirt, and a bright yellow hardhat. The officer spoke as did Mr. Hardhat. Then I snapped the lock closed and returned to the guard shack.

Belly of the Beast!

I was in the process of entering a bit of information in the logbook when “Hardhat” poked his head inside the door. He said good morning and offered his name and mentioned he’d be around if I needed anything. Of course, I appreciated his presence since I felt as if I’d been shoved into a caged arena as the star of a Roman execution ad bestias, “to the beasts.”

Assuming Hardhat was a prison maintenance worker I gladly took him up on his offer and he joined me out on the yard to advise me as to where and when inmate movements should take place. He also kindly provided whispered information regarding which prisoners could be trusted and which could not.

An hour or so later Hardhat suddenly made himself scarce when he spied a sergeant on his way to check on me. Everything was in order—inmate movements were flowing smoothly, logbooks were in excellent shape, keys and other equipment were present, etc. He was pleased.

As my supervisor started to walk away he stopped and turned around to say, “By the way, if you see an inmate walking around wearing a hardhat, send him to C Unit. He didn’t show up for an appointment. Not unusual for him, though, so not to worry. He often hangs out in this area. But he’s as wacky as a box of Fruit Loops. Sometimes he thinks he works here.”

Believe me, the call from the sheriff’s office didn’t come soon enough.

Depending upon which source is believed to be correct—Social Security or the census—Johnson Vandyke “Van” Grigsby was born in either February of 1888 or February of 1886, respectively. Grigsby, the son of freed slaves, however, said March of 1885 was the month and year of his birth.

In 1900, Grigsby and his family moved from their home in Shelby County, Kentucky to Kokomo, Indiana, the county seat of Howard County. Seven years later, Grigsby, an African-American, killed a white man named James Brown. The pair had been playing a game of five card stud poker in a saloon in Anderson, IL. when the two men engaged in a fight.

During the altercation, the men, as men often do, cursed at one another. Then racial slurs were uttered. As the fracas became intensely heated, Brown pulled a knife on Van. So Van left the bar to retrieve a knife of his own. When Van returned Brown picked up a chair and threw it at him. In response, Van lunged at Brown, with his knife, and subsequently stabbed Brown to death.

Grigsby, as the story goes, plead guilty to second degree murder in order to escape the electric chair.

Convicted of second degree murder in 1908, Grigsby began a new and extremely long chapter in life when he was delivered in a horse-drawn cart to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City. The trip lasted several days.

When he arrived at the prison on August 8, 1908, the same year the four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower Model T was first offered and sold for $825, Grigsby left behind his life as a free man and became “prisoner #4045.”

Upon his release in December 1974, inmate Grigsby had served 66 long years in the penitentiary, with 50 or so of those years spent in a ward for the insane. A doctor, though, finally examined him and declared that he was “not crazy.”

In spite of being a model prisoner who passed the time by reading (and re-reading) the Bible, a dictionary, and a complete set of encyclopedias from A_Z, he’d applied for parole 33 times before finally being released.

As a free man once again, Grigsby had to adjust to life on “the outside” as someone who’d been secluded from the world for nearly seven decades. While Grigsby’s former daily life had consisted of staring at concrete and steel and barbed wire, life beyond the prison walls passed him by, and when he finally stepped outside the front gate an entirely new world was there to greet him. The stark differences were surely like the moment in the Wizard of Oz film when things instantly transformed from black and white to vivid color. There were no subtle changes.

*The Wizard of Oz premiered on the big screen in 1939, eventually making its way to television in 1956. Grigsby was behind bars for both. Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in the film, was born in 1922 and died in 1969. Her entire life and career took place during Grigsby’s period of incarceration.

In fact, during Grigsby’s time inside, he’d missed such “firsts” as …

  • The first candy apple.
  • The introduction of Skee ball (my favorite beach boardwalk arcade game).
  • The invention of gin rummy.
  • Erector sets.
  • The painting of marker lines on roadways.
  • Electric blankets.
  • The first traffic lights.
  • Fortune cookies.
  • Hamburger buns.
  • Lincoln logs.
  • Supermarkets.
  • Tow trucks.
  • Light switches.
  • Grocery bags.
  • Toasters
  • Eskimo pies.
  • Band-Aids.
  • Water skiing.
  • Bulldozers.
  • Cotton swabs.
  • Cheeseburgers.
  • Gas chamber executions.
  • Masking tape.
  • Tilt-a-Whirl.
  • Corn dogs.
  • Recliners.
  • Bubble gum.
  • Ice cube trays.
  • Reuben sandwiches.
  • Sunglasses.
  • The first frozen food.
  • Car radios.
  • Chocolate chip cookies.
  • Electric guitars.
  • Golf carts.
  • Trampolines.
  • Parking meters.
  • Stock car racing.
  • Shopping carts.
  • Beach balls.
  • Soft-serve ice cream.
  • Yield signs.
  • Twist ties.
  • Deodorant.
  • Slinkies.
  • Tupperware
  • Credit cards.
  • Cat litter
  • Hairspray.
  • Cable television
  • Frisbees.
  • Coolers.
  • Wetsuits.
  • Barcodes.
  • WD-40
  • Ziplock bags.
  • Radar guns
  • The first man on the moon.
  • The FBI was established only one month prior to Grigsby’s incarceration.
  • 13 U.S. presidents had come and gone.
  • National Anthem was adopted.
  • U.S. engagement in Korean and Vietnam Wars began and ended.
  • Alaska and Hawaii became U.S. states.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • President Kennedy was assassinated.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.
  • Grigsby’s entire life passed by in dreary stagnation while the world continued to rapidly spin and twirl and advance in gigantic leaps and bounds. Is it any wonder that when his feet did finally hit the pavement outside he’d stepped into a world that was unrecognizable to him. By the way, the first ready-mix load of concrete was delivered in Baltimore, Md. in 1913. The Hoover Dam, made of concrete, was constructed in 1936.

    It must’ve been like finding oneself on a distant planet … a new world filled with magic and awe. He most likely saw a traffic light for the first time in his life. Music and art and speech, and cars, and trains, and stores and, well, everything—all brand new and shiny and spinning and flashing and whirling and whirring.

    He was a 90 year old man who was launched directly from 1908 nearly 70 years into the future, a world where he was instantly expected to adapt. But, as should have been expected, Grigsby found himself unable to cope with such drastic change and voluntarily returned to prison, where he remained for 17 additional months before he was again released. This time, though, at the age of 91, he was out for good. He ended up in the Marion County Health Care Center, though, where he found much comfort at being told when to get up, when to eat, when to bathe, and when to go to bed. This being the only way he knew to live and to survive.

    Grigsby’s situation is all too familiar to many men and women who serve long periods of time behind bars. Time, people, and life pass swiftly by, leaving long-serving ex-prisoners confused and lonely and, upon their release, they find it difficult to obtain employment in a world that’s unlike the one they knew prior to incarceration.

    The stigma of being a convicted felon is already a huge hurdle to overcome when job searching, but add to it the lack of modern day skills and sudden forced adjustment to the unknowns makes the effort almost insurmountable without a hand up from friends and family. Unfortunately, it’s commonplace that friends and family have long since turned their backs on the folks serving extensive prison terms. That, and decent housing and educational opportunities are often unattainable for felons.

    Therefore, the exasperated former inmates often see no way to survive without returning to what they know … criminal activity.

    For these people to survive as productive citizens, somewhere, somehow, sometime, someone has to offer a true second chance. They need the opportunity to hold their heads high and not hang them down in shame for the balance of their time on earth. A means to earn back their rights and to remove the “scarlet letters” from their chests.

    Of course, we all realize that some of these folks will never change and prison is, without a doubt, the best place for them. But others do regret the bad choices they’ve made, and they do indeed want and welcome change.

    But to forever brand former prisoners, and to not provide a support system that keeps them current with the times and technology is, well, it’s not good for them nor is it good for society.

    Johnny Cash told Grigsby’s story in a song called Michigan City Howdy Do..

As most of you know by now, Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. She was later sentenced to serve time in federal prison, a penalty also shared by the likes of  dangerous criminals such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Martha Stewart (I’m sure staff kept a close eye on Stewart, thinking that she had plans to bake a cake containing a tasty filling made of files or hacksaw blades).

Huffman will soon face a huge challenge, setting foot in prison where she could become an even more hardcore criminal.

First, she, through her attorneys, has requested that she serve her time at FCI Dublin, a women’s correctional facility in California. Typically, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) allows inmates to serve their sentences at a facility within 500 miles of their home. This is to help maintain close family ties during long stretches behind concrete walls and steel bars.

What many of you may not know is that judges do not have the final say in where a federal prisoner serves their time. That decision is that of the BOP. Judges may recommend, but it is the BOP who has the final authority.

For now, let’s say Huffman gets her wish and the BOP assigns her to FCI Dublin, a “low security” correctional institution. Here’s what she can expect while serving her brutal 14 day sentence.

  • Huffman is assigned an inmate an eight digit inmate register number. She must memorize this number because at any time during her time in “the system” she may be called up to recite it. This number is important because it tells staff vital information about the inmate. The first five numbers are unique to the inmate. It’s their specific ID. The last three digits signify the district wherein the offender was arrested and/or processed into the system.

If the feds use Boston, where she was sentenced, as a basis for the assigning district, the last three digits of her register number would be 038, the code for the District of Massachusetts (D/MA).

If her arrest location is used (I’m not sure of the exact location or district) one of the following would be the identifying numbers—097- Eastern District of California (E/CA), or 098 for the Southern District of California (S/CA)

Therefore, her official register number would be something like 12345-038 (Boston), or 12345-098 (Southern district of California.

  • Huffman has been granted the option of self-surrendering to prison, meaning that her family will deliver her to the entrance of the prison where they’ll say their goodbyes with hugs and kisses all around.
  • Next, Huffman will be escorted to Receiving and Discharge (R&D). It is at R&D where she’ll be processed—fingerprinted, etc.—and she will receive initial clearance by the Medical and Unit Staff. Afterward, she’ll be sent to the Admission and Orientation (A&O) sections of the Housing Unit where she’ll remain until she is classified (determination of her custody status—low, medium, high).

Should the medical staff find that Huffman has medical needs she will be placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), otherwise known as solitary confinement. Inmates with medical needs may not be released into general population until cleared by a physician.

  • Assuming all goes well, a counselor and a case manager will be assigned to Huffman. They will direct and follow her progress during the entirety of her confinement.
  • New inmates such as Huffman will be expected to work within their assigned housing units when asked to do so by the Unit Officer.
  • Huffman will be required to make her bed by 6:30 a.m. The bed-making deadline on weekends and holidays is no later than 10 a.m.
  • As a new arrival, Huffman will be required to attend Unit Orientation within seven days of her arrival at the prison. This session details rules of the housing unit.
  • Within thirty days of an inmate’s arrival to the institution, it’s mandatory that they receive an in-depth institutional orientation from each of the prison’s  Department Heads and Executive Staff. This session lays out ALL prison rules.

Some of the rules Huffman is required to obey during her stay are:

  • Khaki clothing furnished by the BOP will be marked with the inmate’s name and number (F. Huffman 12345-098). She must wear the khaki clothing while at work and during weekday breakfast and lunch meals.
  • Baggy pants and excessively large shirts are not permitted.
  • Khaki shorts may be worn after 2:30 p.m. and on weekends, except to Visiting, Education, and the Chapel. Shorts must be no shorter than above the knee. No sleeveless tops are authorized as outerwear at any time.
  • Huffman may not hold hands with other inmates, and she may not, not ever, engage in sexual activities with other inmates or staff members.
  • Inmates are permitted to watch television in the common area until 8:45 p.m. during the week, or until 11:45 p.m. on the weekends. She will be  allowed to spend up to $320 per months at the commissary. If she has money “on the books” she’ll be required to purchase her own toiletries. Otherwise, those items—basic needs—are furnished by the prison.
  • She may sunbathe on the weekends but she’ll have to wear a shirt and shorts. No topless or nude sunbathing allowed. Sunbathing is permitted only on the sundecks.
  • Huffman, like other inmates in the system, may not possess cash or coins.
  • Felicity must be completely dressed in full khaki attire by 6:30 a.m.
  • She may not take away any food item from the dining room, with the exception of one piece of fruit. However, the fruit must be eaten before it spoils. It goes without saying that the fruit may not be used to make homemade alcoholic beverages.
  • Huffman may not at any time feed birds or other wildlife.
  • Sitting on stairs is prohibited.

Head counts are held at 12:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 4:30 a.m., 4:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. An extra count is held at 10:00 a.m.on weekends and holidays. These counts are considered as Official Counts.Unofficial Counts may be held at any time and for any reason.

When staff announces a count, Huffman and her fellow inmates must  be in their own rooms (unless they’re authorized to be elsewhere). Each and every day, at 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., inmates are required to stand for these official counts. An extra standing count takes place at 10:00 a.m. on weekends and all Federal holidays.

Okay, I could go on and on about the dos and don’ts of prison life, but there’s simply not enough time or space here to do so. Believe me, the list of rules, regulations, and procedures is long. Very long.

However, Huffman will only be in “the joint” for a couple of weeks. Not even long enough to make it to the main orientation. Not long enough to visit the commissary for the first time. In fact, I doubt she’ll be able to have her visiting list approved in time to receive a single visit from a family member.

Actually, Huffman will probably be in and out before she has a chance to get a gang or teardrop tattoo, make her first batch of pruno, or to join the prison softball team. Her sheets won’t have had time to wrinkle before she walks out of the front gate to leave prison life behind. Her sentence is so short that she couldn’t binge watch all episodes of Desperate Housewives before she’s released.

So many things to do and such a short time to do them…