Wednesday, March 4, 2009


He's not a man I would have chosen for a "cellie" at first glance. He arrived in prison about a year after I did. He was short and a bit on the round side. He seemed to have his pants hitched up a bit too high, he spoke with a stammer and he was legally deaf. His first night there, he came over and stood by me and a couple of other men while we were waiting to get released for dinner.

I'm not sure why he approached us. It may have been because we were white (which was a bit of a minority in here) or because we spoke English (another minority). I'd like to think it was because we were decent, safe-looking guys...I never did bother to ask him. He introduced himself as Ray and told us that he had voluntarily surrendered himself earlier that day. He and his wife had flown down from Portland, Oregon the day before and she drove him out to the prison to turn himself in.

I could tell he was a little on the nervous side, so I asked him where he lived in the Portland area. He was from Canby and had worked as an accountant for over twenty years. I've never been to Canby, but I've seen the signs from the freeway. We visited a little bit more as we waited for the C.O. to release us and I told him that I was from Washington state and had been here for a year. I asked if had any decent hygiene stuff, and he told me that he just had the stuff they gave him when they checked him in.

1 - dull orange razor
1 - tiny bar of soap that you might find in a Motel 6
1 - half sized toothbrush
1 - tube of something that said "toothpaste" on it but had to have been mislabeled judging by its taste

I told him that I had some "real" stuff in my locker that I bought to give to new guys when they arrived and offered it to him. He was apprehensive at first (which I clearly understood), but finally said yes. We went back to my cube and I got the stuff out of my locker for him. I have to admit that while I was in prison, I broke very few rules, but this was one that I violated on a regular basis. The rules said that inmates were not to give any items to any other inmate, but since the prison had taken away our ability to donate items to the chapel to give "goodie bags" to new arrivals, I ( and many of the other men who attended the church) gave out of our lockers instead.

The C.O. finally bellowed out "Chow Time!" and we all began to leave the unit and head to the chow hall. After dinner, I offered to show Ray around the place. I took him to the Chapel first and told him that I worked there. I introduced him to some of the clerks and a few of the other regulars that were hanging out there. Then the tour of the library and then down to the yard.

As we left the Chapel, Ray said that before he came into prison, he had visited with his pastor. He had never been much of a church guy, but his wife encouraged him to begin attending before coming to this place. His pastor had given him some good advice..."get to know some of the other Christian men that you will meet in there" he had told him. It was amazing that God led him to John and me on his first day.

Ray was assigned to a three man cube like all the new arrivals are. It became apparent quickly that Ray was an extremely generous man. But not in a way that he was trying to buy favors or friends. He would simply try to help any one that he saw in need. There was a Native American man who lived in the cube next to Ray. He was a real loner and suffered from Tuberculosis. It wasn't uncommon for him to be coughing up blood on a regular basis and was often time held overnight at the infirmary. Ray noticed that he liked to play chess, so I would find Ray often sitting in the man's cube playing the game. When I asked Ray about the games, he said it just seemed that the man was always alone and he thought he needed a friend.

After he had been there about a year, my "cellie" was released so I had an open bed in my cube. I was living in a two-man cube by now and the bed that opened was a lower bunk. These were premium property and were coveted by most of the inmates. Everyone expected that I would request to be transferred to the lower bunk and that the upper bunk would become vacant. Instead, I asked Ray if he wanted to put in a request for the lower bunk. I told him I would submit a request that he be placed with me. Because of his health issues, Ray couldn't sleep in an upper bed. The prison honored our request and Ray was soon moving up the hall and into cube #1 with me.

Ray had a great sense of humor and would tell stories from his youth that make me laugh so hard my sides would hurt. He had always had a fascination with guns and things that exploded as he was growing up and he and his brother decided to build a home-made "cannon" one summer. They lived out in the country and after they manufactured this thing, they decided to see how well it worked. There was a small lake next to their property and some old row boats that were tied up along the edge. Ray never said if it was his idea or his brother's, but they decided to aim the cannon at one of the boats. They loaded their cannon with a large ball bearing and lit the fuse. Ray said even he could hear the explosion as the cannon ignited and the cannon ball shot from the barrel of their invention. They couldn't believe their eyes when the ball hit one of the boats...and sunk it! He knowingly rubbed his butt as he told us his dad's reaction as we rolled on the floor laughing.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "perfect" room mate in prison...or anywhere for that matter. (I had one in college...Scott...but that's a different story) But I have to admit, Ray was a very good room mate. He didn't feel we always had to be in conversation (maybe his being deaf played a part in that) and he was clean. He was also honest and I didn't have to worry about him getting into any of my stuff.

When Ray first arrived in prison, one of the things that he did was write down the number of every day that he was going to be in prison. It was about 700. Each day before dinner, he would take out the paper and ceremonially draw a line through the number that represented the day. I got so I enjoyed watching him do it and tell me how many days he had left since he got out ten days before I did. That way I didn't have to count. I knew I would be able to keep track of the my final ten days.

Like many inmates that shared this little piece of Hell with me, Ray was treated unfairly by the prison. Shortly after he moved into my cube, his hearing aids began to act up. He made an appointment to go to the infirmary to have them checked. When he went over, they gave him new batteries and said everything would be fine. They worked about a week and then went dead again. It was back to the infirmary. This time they cleaned them and sent him back. In a few days, they stopped working again. So Ray went back for a third time.

I know from experience and watching and listened to the inmates in prison that there are a lot of them who try to use the system. Ray wasn't one of those men. When he went back the third time, the officials said there was nothing wrong with the hearing aids. They said they sent them into an audiologist in Bakersfield and they were fine. But when Ray put them in his ears, they didn't work and he was deaf. Ray asked permission to send them home to Oregon to get them replaced or repaired. He offered to pay for the shipping and any expenses that might be incurred. The prison refused. He appealed all the way to the warden's office. The answer was still no.

The last six months that Ray was in prison with me, he was virtually completely deaf. He was able to read lips, and if you stood on the correct side, he could kind of hear you. But his life was made even more miserable in a miserable place. Ray had lived a hard life. Hearing impaired since birth. Physically abused by his dad. Rejected by his classmates as being different. Single until just before he entered his mid-fifties. A workaholic who had few friends.

There is an adage that you can't judge a book by its cover. That was Ray. On the outside, just an ordinary man...almost invisible. But inside, a man with a heart of gold. God blessed me with bringing Ray into my life...and into my cube. And into my heart.

Photo from Flickr


Thankful Paul said...

Peace be with you

Deb Shucka said...

I'm so glad you had each other, for love and for laughter and for kindness.

I continue to wonder what we as a culture believe is to be served by being mean to people who have known very little but meanness in their lives.

What would happen if kindness and service became the way we ran prisons?

Great story as always. I love you.