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Anthrax, Ghosts & Dominoes In Prison

Revenge is an airborne disease in prison, one that seeps beneath the skin and pervades the atmosphere like a deadly fog. An inmate’s honor, once impugned, seems to require action, and the most common method for redeeming one’s “face” is an act of revenge. This response can involve mild name-calling, bullying, a few dirty tricks, or more intense actions like “narking” on an enemy to Internal Affairs or, even worse, committing an act of violence.

One such act of violence occurred the other day when two women attacked each other during “gym.” Only half a dozen of the fifty or sixty women who attend gym actually exercise or play volleyball. Most congregate to exchange information or gossip; the rest come to meet their “boos.” No visceral sex acts can occur under the watchful scrutiny of the guards, but jealous passions often ignite quickly as they did with Medea and Juno, who clashed with Titanic fury.

Although the odds seemed to favor Juno at 6’1’’ and 230 pounds, the shorter, wiry Medea was equally fierce. She flattened Juno with a full-on body slam. Juno was prepared, however, and struck back with a shank made from a pen, which she used to slice Medea’s head open, all the while screeching with ear-piercing glee at the satisfying gouts of blood. They were, of course, immediately handcuffed and carted off, one to Health Care Segregation and the other to the regular segregation unit.

Being stuck in jail inside a prison proved too much for Juno. She threatened to kill herself with two sharpened screws from a light fixture. When the CO offered to enter her room and restrain her, she refused his aid and countered by smearing herself with her own excrement, shouting, “Come and get me now, motherfucker!”

Poor Juno probably would have been happier in the days when this prison was a mental hospital. Back then, Thorazine flowed like the River Lethe. (Hell, they’re still prescribing that ole zombie med today!) But now, all that remains of the original loony bin are the unhappy ghosts that roam the wings looking for lost lovers and revenge.

“Alice,” a young sprite that inhabits our unit, slips along the corridors at night only to appear suddenly beside our bunks gunning for the deadbeat dad of her orphaned children, a man she says she will murder in a variety of innovative ways.

“Sandra” is not as maternal; she’s after the son-of-a-bitch who threw her 290 lb. ass down the stairs breaking both of her sizable arms. Later, when her heart finally exploded from all the chocolate pudding she consumed, her spirit was consigned to our wing. At night, she whispers her eternal question: “Where the fuck is Ralph?”

Revenge takes many forms in a prison, where snubs or perceived offenses can kick off a rampage of vengeance. Take the case of the missing dominoes.

Decatur Prison is acoustically challenged. The white walls, the linoleum flooring, and the occasional floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows are highly reflective. Thus, dominoes, dumped on a stainless steel tabletop, can sound like a truckload of ice crashing onto a city pavement.

This incessant clacking must have pushed one inmate over the edge, because the game pieces mysteriously disappeared without a trace, leaving a strange, incomplete quiet on the unit and angering the die-hard domino players. The relative stillness was eerie except for the normal sounds of the icemaker that resembles a Las Vegas slot machine without any hope of a jackpot. And then there are the normal maniacal shrieks and howls of the other inmates, vocalizations reminiscent of this place’s earlier incarnation as a mental ward. The disappearing dominoes threw C-Wing into a tizzy, including Officer Pagan, who vowed shakedowns and worse, segregation, if they were not returned immediately.

Every prisoner possesses contraband, whether it’s an orange from the chow hall, nail polish cleverly concocted from floor wax, secret love letters (“kites”), or “straps” — sexy paraphernalia made from shampoo bottles. (Don’t ask.) No one wants a shakedown, so everyone was incredibly relieved when the missing dominoes turned up suddenly and mysteriously beside the utility sink.

Our collective sighs of relief quickly turned into sharp inhales of fear, however, when the entire prison went into emergency lockdown status. Scurrying to respective wings faster than the festering plagues of Olde London, we all whispered one fearful word: “Anthrax!”

“Anthrax!” we said, recalling the recent news reports of threats against Obama. “Anthrax!” we muttered, mulling over the image of revengeful envelopes stuffed with toxic white powder spilling in the mailroom.

Strangely, the threat of this lethally infectious pox leveled the playing field in our prison. No one, including staff, was allowed to leave, except for the lucky visitors in the Visiting Center, who threaded their way home through news vans and reporters, the FBI, the ATF, HAZMAT vehicles, the Decatur Fire Department, Illinois State Troopers, and the NSA. Safely at home, those visitors sat down to watch the drama unfold on TV with bags of chips and bottles of beer.

Inside the prison, we also watched the TV news with our own bags of chips (sans beer, however) while we mentally said goodbye to our children and grandbabies. “Anthrax!” I thought bitterly, picturing my body laid out on a slab, being dissected by strange men in space suits. Was this my penance for driving marijuana through Illinois? Was an Anthrax-induced agony the final price for my crime amid the soybeans and cornfields of Macon County?

I’m happy to report that I did not die — at least not as of this writing, and the Anthrax turned out to be nothing but harmless powder, a fact that was disappointing to some inmates who were hoping for something more titillating and practical — like cocaine. To date, no one knows why someone would send the white powder to Decatur Prison, but I’m putting my money on revenge, an emotion that seems to follow a predictable path in this neck of the woods.

As I lay me down to sleep on my unforgiving metal bunk bed, my roommates regale me with stories of “Carla,” the vengeful vamp of “C-Wing,” who died of heartache when her crankhead boyfriend killed himself and, far worse, totaled her beloved vintage GTO.

I drift off into an uneasy sleep, but not before I sense “Carla’s” ectoplasm leaking through the air vent to “tickle our noses as we lay asleep.” If you peek out the cell window at 2:00 am, you can see her gliding down the corridor as pale and white as Anthrax, wearing only a long black veil and looking for revenge.

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