Saturday, February 7, 2009


It was the same thing every Wednesday or Thursday. The lights would come on an hour early and you could hear the squeaky wheels of the mop buckets as they were pushed up the narrow aisles of the unit. If you slept in a little bit late, you would find yourself locked out of the showers and only one sink available for the 168 men who shared this space. Even all of the toilets and urinals would be roped off except the handicapped stall. What was the cause for all of this mayhem and disruption of our daily schedule? The weekly inspection!
There was a reason that inspections were important to the inmates. The weekly "chow" rotation was based on how our unit rated against the other units each week. The unit with the highest score (the cleanest unit) was released first for each meal all week. With almost 1800 hungry inmates, sometimes the difference between being the first unit released and the last unit released might be an hour and a extra hour and a half locked in the unit.

When I first arrived in prison, the head orderly in the unit was a Hispanic man who spoke very little English. There were about forty orderlies in all, other inmates whose job assignment was cleaning the unit each day. Some were assigned to clean and dust the TV rooms and laundry while others were responsible for the showers and bathrooms. As a general rule, they kept the place pretty clean. The individual cubes were the responsibility of the inmates that were living in them, and more often than not, they were not kept as clean as the common areas. As a result, each Wednesday or Thursday morning, the unit was a frenzy of sweeping, mopping and dusting getting ready for the inspection to be done.

As the inspectors would enter our unit, the head orderly would yell out, "Inspeccion! Inspeccion!", letting all the inmates know they had arrived. A couple of the orderlies would make one final pass through the unit, wiping down any dust that might still be visible. We would never know which cube the inspectors would check out each week or which of the TV rooms or which shower stalls. We just never knew.

The two inspectors were as different as night and day. Both wore black slacks and Hawaiian shirts, but the similarities stopped there. Mr. Romine was tall and slender, while Mr. White was as round as he was tall. "Romine", as the inmates called him, actually did most of the actual inspection. And he was not well liked. It seemed like he could find dust where it just didn't exist. And he appeared to relish every particle of the fine particles that he found.

I didn't spend a lot of mornings in the unit during inspection because I was usually at work, but there were a few occasions that I was there and it was interesting to simply watch the process. The inmates would follow Mr. Romine down the hallways and stand outside the cubes as he went inside. He would run his finger along the edge of a bed frame or on top of a locker and then rub his hand on the edge of his pant leg. If he could see anything on black cloth of his pants when he pulled his hand away, it would cost a point.
One day when I was there watching, I noticed something unusual about Mr. Romine when he rubbed his fingers along his pant leg. Sometimes, he would rub his fingers forward along his pant leg and other times he would rub them toward the back. It soon became apparent to me his fingers would leave a "mark" in the fabric simple because he was rubbing against the grain of the thread. That "mark" would always cost a point!

I can't say that Mr. Romine would intentionally rubbed his fingers in one direction as opposed to the other, but it did appear that way. And it seemed that it would happen for often after we had some kind of problem in the unit. Whether it was a fight, or the confiscation of some Pruno...or some other violation, it seemed that his hand would move more against the grain that with it. And we would end up on the bottom of the chow rotation.

Prison taught me a lot of things, and unfortunately not many of them gave me great faith in the justice system. The fallacy of the weekly inspection was just one example in a long list.

1 comment:

Deb Shucka said...

This is just one more example of how mean-spirited the whole system is. For one person to have that power and to use it in that way without anyone above him thinking it was wrong - is just wrong.

I wonder what would happen in a prison if those in charge were committed to kindness and compassion and healing, rather than punishment.

I've missed your prisons stories. Thanks for feeding my hunger today.

I love you.