By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
Not long ago, I walked into a clinic to find two inmates under guard by two officers. The guards were 30ish, buff, with chiseled chins.
The older guard sat in a chair. He was leaned forward, bowed most to his waist, speaking in a low, measured but urgent tone. He seemed a coiled spring.
His urgency underscored his message, directed at a pudgy blondish kid with a scraggly Scooby-Doo beard. The kid, maybe a shade past 20, was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, the height of jailbird fashion.
He wore his bling. too, around ankles and wrists and he wore a vacuous, hunted newboy smile that almost said out loud, “What happened? What am I doing here? What the hell?” Hell is an appropriate word.
The guard’s steel gaze didn’t waver. He said to the kid, and his voice grew calm, “Listen to me. You are about to walk through the gates of hell. You are walking into hell. You’re about to be made aware of things you never knew existed. You better get used to it fast.
“When you get inside, if there’s a honeybun on your bunk, don’t touch it. It’s a signal. If you eat it, you owe somebody something and you don’t know who and you don’t know what until it’s time to pay.”
I watched closely. The kid’s smile remained fixed but tightened some at the corners, like he’d sniffed a bad smell. You don’t get processed the way he did for stealing small potatoes. He wasn’t going away for an overnight stay.
Only the really bad ones seem to be able to do that.
“Listen,” the guard said, leaning in ever closer, “I’ve been doing this a long time. When I walk onto that floor sometimes my hair stands on end. I’ve seen people swallow razor blades to get away from the bad ones for a while. Chew ’em up and swallow ‘em.”
I eased into the conversation with, “What’s the main reason people go to jail?” It’s a no-brainer and would be a hands-down homerun for the first responder on Family Feud.
Counting me, there were seven people in the waiting room. In chorus, “Drugs!” Directly or indirectly. All agreed. From theft to murder, drugs are the constant.
I said, “I guess some addicts are worse than others. “
The officer laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. “Let me tell you how bad it is, he said. “Some of them look forward to the day the place is sprayed for bugs. They hide cigarettes in nooks and crannies to get sprayed. They smoke that stuff. That’s how bad they want to get high.”
The next question asked itself. “I can’t say outright that some die from it. They get sick but won’t report sick because they’re afraid they’ll get stopped from doing it.”
Next to me, standing at the reception counter, was the older prisoner. He was not a newboy. The hard look in his eyes is something embedded only by certain kinds of school. He’d been listening to the conversation.
I said, “How long have you been in?”
“About four years,” he said. The officer behind him was watching me. I saw him shake his head. I said, “How many times you been in.”
“Off and on,” he said.
“When was the first time you went behind bars?”
“I was 12.”
“How long were you in?”
“Six months for fighting? That must’ve been a heckuva fight. What do you think needs to be done to help keep you out of jail?”
“I’m not a bad guy,” he said. The guard behind him shook his head. “I don’t have a car, I don’t have family or friends, I don’t have a job. Nobody’s going to help me.”
“Have you got any skills?”
“Yeah. I can do roofing, I did trade training in lockup, I can make cabinets. But I got no money, no car, no people. I don’t got much chance.”
The older guard said, “There’s halfway houses with transportation for you to and from work.”
“What kind of life is that,” the guy said.
“Why did you go in last time?” I said.
“Drugs. I done some drugs. You got to sell drugs to get money to buy drugs. Can’t get away from it.”
“How old are you?”
I asked him if he was up for parole. He is.
“It seems like you’re at a crossroads,” I said. “It seems like maybe if you go back in you’ll be going in to stay.”
“I’m not going back in.”
The guard behind him shook his head. Later, I told him that I was seeing more and more about problems in Alabama prisons and easy parole for hardened criminals. He nodded. I asked him what was wrong and how it could be fixed.
“Right now, it’s hopeless,” he said. “The bad ones go in, they walk right back out. It’s a revolving door.” He looked grim. “I got my own ideas on what to do, but I ain’t saying.”
The blond kid held on to his puzzled, vacuous, troubled smile. It’ll disappear sooner than later. The vacuous look will be replaced by one cunning and sly. I pointed to him with my eyes, as if to say, “What about him?”
The guard shook his head, his posture said, “He’s probably going to make someone a fine wife.”
(Next time: Murder Most Foul.)