The Little Things
Updated: Aug 6
Entering the state prison system was an unsettling experience, even more so than my arrest and subsequent detention at the Brooklyn House of Detention, and then at Riker's Island. Being shackled hand and foot, chained to another person and shuttled into a packed bus was not the worst of it, although this too was unnerving. For me, the worst of it was the people I encountered and the environment they created.
At Downstate, after being stripped, shaved clean, hosed down, photographed and fingerprinted a dozen of us were shuttled into a small room and told to empty our pockets and face the walls. One young man, who looked like he was barely 13, turned to look back while he was being pat frisked, or more accurately being manhandled, and the over-sized guard found it necessary to slam his tiny head into the wall. Aside from being sentenced, the echo of the sound of his head bouncing off the wall in that room bred more desolation and anger than anything I had experienced prior as an incarcerated person. While the wearing of shackles was temporary, the weight of being subject to the constant surveillance, control and potential violence of such ignorant people lingered. To my frustration, that knowledge weighed on me and made the prospect of incarceration exceedingly bleak and more intolerable than I would have imagined.
Instead of cowering, there was resistance.
That weight grew as I interacted with those guards who seemed to believe it was the role of incarcerated men to bow in the face of oppression. It wasn't enough for them that we lived in cages, ate garbage and were serving lengthy sentences far away from our families. Beyond respect, even as they embodied disrespect, these people (some of whom brandished tattoos of swastikas or of Black babies hung by nooses) wanted to see our fear. Indeed, they only seemed pleased when men cowered. But not everyone accepted that. Instead of cowering, there was resistance. That there was resistance to the additional nightmares they intended to foist upon us meant there was also constant tension. And of course, this tension-producing resistance yielded consequences. The simple human act of demanding respect put you under added surveillance and scrutiny. It required constant vigilance and self-awareness so that this tension did not erupt into violent conflict.
I could cite many examples, but there was this one officer who seemed obsessed with catching me in some criminal act. He only worked the block that I was housed in twice a week, but by some miracle, and by "miracle" I mean "fraud", he was assigned through "random" selection to search the cell, one of some 60 cells, that I occupied. The odds of this man working the few days per month that the cell number where I lived was randomly selected to be searched were incrediblly small. The odds were greater that the DNA of a Tyrannosaurus Rex extracted from the digestive tract of a prehistoric mosquito found encased in amber could be sequenced and lead to the cloning of said T. Rex, which then escaped from the secret genetics laboratory in California where it was cloned and settled with a family in Wisconsin that kept him as a pet they would call Nibbles. Perhaps I exaggerate, but you get the point.
Anyway, one night this simpleton pulled me out of the line of prisoners returning to the cell block from the yard. He pat frisked me roughly and instructed me to stand by because the area sergeant wanted to see me. For some reason, he was smiling. When the sergeant arrived, he explained that the officer had conducted a random cell search in "my" cell and found a hard white substance wrapped in tissue and tape, hidden among some clothing wrapped in plastic. The officer then notified the area sergeant who then took the unidentified substance to medical unit to be identified, an attempt that proved unsuccessful. The sergeant then opened his hand to produce the officer's find and asked me directly, "What is this?"
It immediately occurred to me that I had no burden to answer the question. I had absolutely no obligation to identify something that they presumed to be contraband. "Gee sarge, it's a new hallucinogen that gets you high when you touch it. You're probably high right now. I know I'm not supposed to have it. Sorry." However, as usual, telling the truth proved to be far more enjoyable. I looked at the officer who was still smiling. "It's soap," I said matter-of-factly. The smile on the officer's face slowly devolved into a confused frown.
The sergeant's eyes narrowed. "Soap? What do you mean soap?"
"What do you mean, what do I mean soap?" I was having fun now. "It's soap. The tissue is dipped in scented oil, wrapped around the center of the soap which I then put in the plastic with the sweaters to keep them smelling nice. I like nice smelling sweaters. Forgive me."
I could barely repress a smile of my own as the sergeant turned to the officer and threw the soap to the ground. "Why the @#?! are you wasting my time with this bull$#%@?" There followed much more cursing, then, "Stephens, go back to your cell."
Over the ensuing months, I thoroughly enjoyed teasing the officer when he worked the block. I would do things like leave bars of soap on the gate. When he walked by he would stare at them and I would ask him if he wanted to call the sergeant. I would chop up blocks of soap and leave them on the table in plain sight. Once in a while, I would leave a small mound of Tide next to it to be extra. It delighted me to no end to see the look of frustration on his face. In his zeal to criminalize me he had made a fool of himself and was reluctant to do so again. Even if I was really chopping crack and sifting coke, what was he going to do? Call the sergeant? I could only be so fortunate.
Although I enjoyed small victories like these, it annoyed me that this man actually thought I was a drug dealer or user. There was nothing in my daily routine that would suggest such a thing. I was the President of the CAU, the head clerk and caregiver for the Osborne Association and a PACE senior facilitator, so I spent most of the day and part of the evening in an office or classroom. When I was in the housing block, I spent most of my time reading, exercising or playing chess. I did all of this while under the watchful eyes of staff, while working with the Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent of Programs. When I was supposed to be dealing drugs was beyond me. Meanwhile, he paid little attention to the people who were actually struggling with their addiction and who did sell drugs. Perhaps the blueness of their eyes made their activities difficult to detect.
It also occurred to me that this was somewhat reflective of how policing functioned in America. Segregated neighborhoods bore the burden of excessive targeting and surveillance based upon the erroneous presumption of criminality, regardless of where crime was committed. It was under the presupposition of Black innate dysfunction that the actual crimes of whites were relatively overlooked. This realization tainted the pleasure I felt while taunting racist guards. The pressure they brought to bear was nothing compared to the widespread effect of a criminalizing apparatus that served to present minoritized groups as the face of crime.
Fortunately, there were the seemingly little things, those moments, that helped to signify my humanity in the face of ongoing hatred and ignorance. They helped to keep me whole in a place meant to break your sense of self worth. I'm thinking here of extended visits with my family where my mother cooked and I could play basketball or video games with my son; the phone calls where my sister played nocturns for me on her piano, or my son's mother whispered the sweetest little lies; the appreciation I received from the men I mentored or facilitated classes for, or from the families I met as a caregiver in the Osborne Children's Room.
With respect to the Children's Room, I have to share my surprise at developing so many special relationships there. Despite the fact that the young people I met for the first time were not my own family, they didn't treat me like a convicted felon to be wary of. Instead, they embraced me warmly. They treated me with respect and admiration, like I was a long lost uncle. It made the work of facilitating positive engagement between those children and their sometimes estranged incarcerated relatives all the more enjoyable. Like my friend Kaia, who was only in the first grade when we met. A bright and creative little girl, she would blanch then roll her eyes when I made up goofy limericks with words rhyming with her name like "papaya" or "jambalaya." But she never stopped me from trying to make them up. One of her favorite things to do was pretend to be a restaurant owner/cook. She would come up with a name for her establishment and a menu along with prices, and I would write it all on a blackboard in whatever colors she wanted. Then I would play the role of difficult, but generous, patron – a patron with a huge appetite, who ate breakfast, pre-lunch, lunch, pre-dinner and dinner all in one sitting.
I felt bigger than the great surrounding walls or the cell bars that enclosed me at night.
Then there was Brenda, a second grader, who was so thrilled to learn how to make paper flowers that she wanted to make flowers for everyone in the visiting room. She started by taking the one I had in my hand and giving it to her mother who was visiting with her younger brother. Then, full of enthusiasm, she ran around to everyone else to find out their favorite colors while I sat at a table folding petals and twisting stems. She would come back with the information and we would put the pieces together, then off she ran with at least one flower in each hand to make her deliveries. Everyone was going home with flowers if she had anything to say about it. I think she even gave one to the guard at the desk. When visiting hours were over she looked at me and gave me a hug. "You're such a nice person. God bless you. And I hope you come home soon." I must admit to being a bit startled. Other than "Thank you," I didn't know what to say. I just waved good-bye until I couldn't see her anymore. A seemingly small gesture of appreciation, or rather affection, her words made me feel big inside. Indeed, I felt bigger than the great surrounding walls or the cell bars that enclosed me at night. I was bigger than the constant gaze of judgmental and scrutinizing eyes. In her eyes, I was perfect. I was as I was meant to be in my becoming. For certain, this was no small thing at all.