It was 2:00 a.m.
The kicking stopped before the guards made it on the block and found out who was responsible. In the wake of the noise squeaky boots and keys punctuated queries of “who’s kicking their door?” When no one answered they left.
After a few minutes a new sound ricocheted off the walls. Higher in pitch and frequency, it was easy to distinguish a bar of soap being slammed into the side of a commode like some demented alarm clock. BANG! BANG! BANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG! It went on for a merciless minute. Then three. Guys started yelling. “Quit, man. Come on, stop!” Finally, the guards came. The banging stopped.
They walked around to each cell looking in and promising a reward. “Come on, fellas, tell us who it is. We’ll give you an extra breakfast tray. Tell us who it is and we’ll stick him in the drunk tank, naked.” Nobody spoke up, though we salivated over the temptation of an extra breakfast tray. Two eggs rather than one. An extra shot of orange juice. A few more spoonfuls of grits. And sleep. Silence between annoyed keys and squeaky boots. After a while they left.
“Hey. J-Will. What’s up man? Why you dragging us?” It was as much a plea to stop as any I’ve heard. Everyone was awake now, and very angry.
In prison, night’s hour glass has extra holes in it. When sleep comes, gone are the plodding daylight hours, confining walls, and thoughts of letters. Sleep is relief for most of us, the only end to suffering we’re ever likely to come back from. With this blessed comfort come dreams of love, companionship, peace and life in all of its complexity. Desires so vivid and deep reality is a disheartening comparison. Sleep cannot be degraded, beaten or chained. In sleep lies our freedom.
When sleep eludes us the pain and isolation of imprisonment oppresses other thoughts. Then, the beast within takes over and you act out and do funny things. Crazy, irrational, maddening things such as imposing your suffering on others. Why should they have peace? Why should they get to escape when you’re in hell with those unrelenting demons fear and regret?
About ten minutes went by before J-Will kicked his door again. It seemed to have gotten louder somehow. As if the echo travelled farther, and that’s when I realized the emergency exit was open and three guards managed to sneak on the block without anyone taking notice. They carried a fire extinguisher that wasn’t anything of the sort. It was mace. Industrial strength, riot-sized, choke-you-to-death mace. They keyed open the food slot on J-Will’s door, thrust the long nozzle through, and sprayed him like some troublesome cockroach.
Two of the guards laughed and walked off as the other watched his victim writhe on the floor, choking, coughing, and crying. The two guards returned with a black device known simply as “The Chair”. Black and boxy, The Chair is a restraint device used to punish problematic inmates. The guards sat it in the middle of the dayroom over a drain in the floor, dragged J-Will from his cell and cut off his jumpsuit with a pair of scissors.
He was a kid. Sixteen, maybe seventeen at the most. No hair on his face or chest. So skinny I could count each rib from twenty feet away. Cheeks sunken and pocked with acne, skin stretched taut around small bones. Just a kid a few years younger than me.
One of the guards handcuffed J-Will behind the back and jerked him upright by the wrists, eliciting a cry of pain. They forced him into the chair and strapped in his ankles, hips and chest. “Please,” he begged. The guards ignored him as a rubber mouth piece was shoved between his teeth and what looked like a football helmet with a visor and earmuffs strapped to his head. Then they left.
The Chair is designed to recline its occupant at such an angle that one’s weight is entirely on the cuffed wrists. The legs are up high so unless you’re really tall your feet don’t touch the ground. It’s agony in the way a pillory was intended to be embarrassing and the iron maiden final and gruesome. The helmet immersed you in your suffering, shutting off sight and sound. J-Will would have to stay that way for four hours.
“Damn,” said an old man. “They got that young boy hemmed up.” It was quiet except for J-Will’s muffled moans. Laying on my bunk, wide awake in this nightmare, I wondered if sleep would ever come. The walls glowed with reflected fluorescent light, ridiculing notions of freedom in the night. I knew then that dreams are delusions, the only defense we have against anguish. As I began to drift images of The Chair skittered through my skull and when sleep arrived it was dreamless.
“I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow and reap;
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.”
--Algernon Charles Swinburne, “The Garden of Proserpine”