:: FALL 2018 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Guard towers, frozen ground, mock job interviews, sensors, scuffed linoleum, the Shakers, floodlights, epileptic colonies, the voice in the walls, iron radiators & Watervliet.
I ’m just a magnet for crazy old guys who never shut up, reads my journal entry from September 25, 2014. Fucking Wright comes around bothering me every day.
I’d learned Wright’s name a month earlier, when he was enrolled in a rotation of Phase Three, the re-entry course all inmates are required to take before going home. It’s supposed to prepare us for a smooth return to society—considered a joke by staff and inmates alike.
I’m toward the end of my two-year sentence and will soon be forced to take the class myself, but until I go home in January, I’m assigned to help teach it. I’m what the state calls an IPA, or Inmate Program Associate, eligible for the position because I graduated high school. I get grade-four pay, the highest inmate pay grade in a medium-security prison: twenty-four cents an hour. A can of commissary tuna costs $1.01.
Dealing with guys like Wright comes with the job: standing at the front of a dingy classroom for hours every day, trying to hold the attention of the blank faces staring back. By the end of the first week, all the most disturbed and lonely guys are convinced I’m their friend. They’re wrong, but I feel bad, try to humor them. I smile and nod as they ramble and stutter about society and wiretaps, then walk back to my dorm when the officers call for movement. With Wright, this strategy doesn’t work. He walks back right behind me; we live in the same dorm.
Prison is a pool in which no one knows how to swim. I can’t save a drowning man. I can barely save myself.
The dorm houses sixty inmates below a high, long ceiling, each of us assigned a cubicle hardly larger than a phone booth. My cube is against a wall—the small mercy of off-white cinder block at my back, separating me from the men on either side by waist-high partitions.
In class Wright is mostly silent, staring into space as I slog through the six-week lesson plan: money management, family reintegration, mock job interviews. Back in the dorm, he talks until he’s out of breath. He comes by my cube multiple times a day, wanting to discuss the tainted air they pump into the prison, the voices in the walls, Obama. Eventually, he totters away—upside-down coffee cup gripped in his hand and winter coat draped over his shoulders, even in summer—still mumbling nonsense.
One morning, weeks after his rotation through Phase Three, Wright walks up to my cube and hands me a letter. The writing is shaky, almost illegible, the paper covered in stickers and random horoscopes torn out of magazines.
“It’s something I want you to have,” he says, sounding like a proud father. “Since we’re such good friends. You one of the only people I can trust, Mike.”
“Okay,” I say, nodding and smiling as usual, a spoonful of cereal halfway to my mouth. Wright beams, shakes my hand, then walks away.
T he land this prison sits on was once owned by the United Society of Christian Believers, a religious sect more commonly known as Shakers. The Shakers moved to this part of New York in 1836, alarmed that a canal was being built near their former town. They hoped to escape all secular influence and signs of so-called progress. They purchased 1,700 acres dotted with fruit trees from a local physician and set to farming the rolling hills.
Even back then, neither luck nor God smiled on this place. Less than sixty years after establishing itself, the community found itself in decline, battling fires, floods, mounting debt, and theft. The population dwindled as the Shakers, who were celibate, struggled to find new converts and maintain their crops.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the remaining Shakers decided to move once again—this time to Watervliet, a small town a few miles outside of Albany, where other members of their sect had established a thriving village. The Shakers knew they could make a small fortune by parceling off the land for sale, but they were, above all, a deeply pious group. They didn’t want their land put to wicked use.
Instead, all 1,700 acres were sold to the state of New York for $115,000. The price, negotiated in 1894, was far below market value in an area sometimes referred to at the time as the garden of the state. But New York officials provided the Shakers with something they valued more than money: assurance that the acreage would be used only for “charitable purposes.” The Shakers, satisfied that the land was passing into benevolent hands, packed their things and headed east.
I can only guess what years of confinement have done to him, his mind wilting like a flower in the dark.
At first, New York State kept its word. Officials announced plans to open a state-of-the-art epileptic colony on the site, boasting that it would represent a shift in the American treatment paradigm. For most of the century, those suffering from epilepsy had been confined in jails and asylums, their misery exacerbated by misdiagnosis and cruel treatment. Any form of therapy was considered a waste of time. Only punitive measures were thought to provide some control.
This new colony would change that. It would pioneer humane, therapeutic treatment of epileptics, who were—as American society was beginning to understand—merely “afflicted,” not criminal. Residents would enjoy a self-contained town, a community centered on education, recreation, employment and the best medical care. The state was proud of its new colony and spared no expense. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who laid out Central Park, was enlisted to design a section of the grounds. It would be a place of harmony and of God, of healing and of laughter, just as the Shakers would have wanted.
T here’s no privacy in a prison cube, no sense of personal space. The dorm layout is designed so that an officer can see what any of us is doing at a given moment, and this means we can always see each other too. We are always watching and we are always being watched.
I can see Wright sitting on his bunk on the other side of the room, staring at me as I open his letter.
I can barely read it; most of it is incoherent. From what I can make out, it asks for two things. The first is $857, an amount he’s apparently become fixated upon. Boy I Reely need that $$$ Mike. We such GOOD FRENDS and we both no FRENDS ALWAZE HELP eech other out.
The second thing he asks for is a chance to have sex with me. He has seen my harry little ass in the showers; he really hopes we can make this happen before he’s released in a few weeks.
You be a reel pal to LET ME do that Mike A REEL PAL Pleese Mike.
Iron radiators lining the dorm walls creak to life, but they don’t help.
There are two locked metal doors between me and the outside, countless others between me and the free world. Floodlights, sensors, AR-15s trained down from the towers. My hands are shaking by the time I finish reading.
Never let anyone mistake your kindness for weakness. If someone does, you have to make them pay or be labeled a punk. It’s the first piece of advice I ever received in prison, almost two years ago, as a scared twenty-three-year-old locked up for the first time. This letter is the kind of thing over which inmates spill blood—his or mine, one or the other. Doing nothing isn’t an option.
In this moment, I’m aware that I have no experience with being sexually objectified. This is what it feels like to be targeted—to be treated like prey. Wright thinks I’m timid, compliant, that even if I take offense, my anger is nothing to worry about. He either thinks I’m gay or doesn’t care that I’m not. Just a skinny white boy, ripe for the picking.
I can feel my heartbeat in my throat. Wright is cruising me, eye-fucking me in the showers. I tried to be nice, to be human, and he’s taking advantage. I ought to kill the old fuck, teach him a lesson about what pritty boys can do.
After all, to most people, Shakers looked insane—like a hive of epileptics, their bodies flailing, their minds on fire.
But when I show the letter to a few guys I trust in the dorm, they laugh. Wright is just a crazy old man, they remind me—late fifties going on ninety, his black body bowed and hollowed out, the whites of his eyes the color of rancid milk. He’s harmless. No point getting violent with him and messing up my own release date. Be stern about shutting him down, they say, then drop it. And stop showering so sexily.
My cube neighbor agrees; this provocation, apparently, I’m allowed to ignore. José is serving twenty-five to life for murder, his every muscle hardened to stone in the prison yard.
“Look,” he says, pointing to the letter I’ve just handed him. “He wrote his full name and DIN number like four times on this shit. He’s got the address of the men’s shelter they sending him to on here. If he’s really trying to threaten you, why he gonna put that shit right there in writing?”
José’s smirk pulls his goatee up at one corner. I stare down at the letter, searching for the menace I could’ve sworn was there.
“He’s not threatening you; he’s pleading with you. The dude crazy. How you supposed to get him $857? You got your checkbook on you?”
José folds the letter and puts it in his back pocket. “Look, I’ve seen this kind of thing before. I’ll take care of it.”
T he epileptic colony opened its doors in 1896. By most accounts, it delivered on its promises. People came from all over the world to study it—to marvel at the bakery and grocery store, the nursing school and laundry, the post office and two churches. New York State could finally lay claim to a quality of institutional care rivaling any European country.
The colony might have continued to thrive had advances in medicine not rendered it obsolete. By the mid-twentieth century, improved seizure medications limited the number and severity of seizures to an extent that most epileptics no longer required residential treatment. The colony made a short-lived attempt to adapt, shifting its focus to the care of the mentally ill. But when the state decided to phase out institutional care in favor of community-centered programs, the colony’s life as a charitable endeavor reached its end.
By the 1980s, many state-owned institutions were serving a new, common purpose. Talk of therapeutic approaches had ended; voices calling for better treatment of outcasts had fallen silent. The fading colony followed suit, its fate an irony rich enough to choke on. It became a thread in the web of one of the largest mental healthcare providers in the country—an organization ravenous for more space at the time, scouring the state for beds on which to lay newly acquired bodies, deaf to the promise once made to the Shakers. The site was “repurposed” by the Department of Corrections.
The DOC takeover came in stages, the prison perimeter spreading out like a stain. The southern section of the colony was enclosed first, in 1982, the buildings renovated to house inmates and support administrative staff. Two years later, the northern section was enclosed, increasing capacity by five hundred beds. In 1989—the year I was born—a third and final stage swallowed most of the buildings that remained.
I ought to kill the old fuck, teach him a lesson about what pritty boys can do.
Throughout the process, the parts of the colony not yet under DOC control remained operational. They continued to house a dwindling number of epileptics and the mentally ill until December 1988, when the last patients were relocated, making way for the prison’s final phase of expansion. During the six years between 1982 and 1988, a colony resident could look through a fence at prison inmates walking the paths on the other side.
The prison still uses three of the original Shaker structures. Almost all of the other buildings date to the halcyon years of the epileptic colony. The colony’s nursing school is a training building for prison staff. One of the cottages for male epileptics is now the Special Housing Unit—the box, the hole, where men are locked in cells for twenty-three hours a day.
Only the brick exteriors of these buildings are original, maintained in accordance with their historic-registry status. They stand in the valley, bearing witness as they have for more than a century: gutted, quiet, surrounded by guard towers and razor wire, mothers who no longer remember the names of their children.
A few days after I first show him Wright’s letter, José knocks on the partition separating our cubes—pretending it’s a door, in deference to a privacy none of us actually has.
“I talked to him,” he says. “He’s not gonna be coming over here no more. I told him I know about all the shit he’s been up to, the crazy fuck.”
According to José, Wright’s letter is part of a larger pattern. I’m not the only one Wright has been interested in lately. José tells me Wright did the same thing to a guy in his last dorm: groomed him with pleasantries, then asked for money and sex. When it caught wind of death threats aimed at Wright, the prison—instead of addressing the situation or getting him help—moved him in here.
Wright and I speak once more before I never see him again.
“Hey, how ya doin’, Mike?” he calls out cheerfully one day as I walk out of the bathroom.
I stop and turn around. “Didn’t José talk to you?”
Wright’s rotting smile falls from his face; gray eyebrows creep up.
“Well…yes,” he says, clearly lost. He’s forgotten about the letter and José’s choice words. He doesn’t understand why we no longer talk.
“Okay. Then let’s leave it at that,” I say over my shoulder as I walk away, leaving Wright rooted to the scuffed linoleum, looking as if he might cry.
By the end of the first week, all the most disturbed and lonely guys are convinced I’m their friend. They’re wrong, but I feel bad, try to humor them.
As Wright’s release date approaches—as I realize he’s going to leave me alone, that I’ve avoided having to hurt him or being branded a punk—my anger cools to unease. Wright is dead broke, with no support network or family. He mentioned this more than once during Phase Three, complaining that the system is setting him up to fail. Upon release, he’ll be handed a one-way bus ticket and $40. An officer will have Wright sign a few papers he won’t understand. He’ll be told to report to a homeless shelter later that day, then pointed out the front door and into the staff parking lot.
For once, I agree with Wright: he’s being set up. I don’t know how he’ll survive in the real world. I can only guess what years of confinement have done to him, his mind wilting like a flower in the dark. Who will he fixate on next? What if, next time, it isn’t solved so easily?
I ask this of the dorm correctional officer, a huge man we call Tiny. Prison news travels fast. Even a few COs have heard the story of Wright’s letter.
“Aw fuck, who knows?” Tiny says, waving his hand as if to swat a fly. “Too many insane sons of bitches in prison to worry about ’em all. He’s not nearly the worst.”
“They need to get that dude some help,” I say, trying to sound casual.
Tiny sighs. “Yeah, probably. What can you do, you know? But hey, if you’re so worried, I hear you’ve got his address!”
“You be a reel pal to LET ME do that Mike A REEL PAL Pleese Mike.”
Tiny’s laugh fills the dorm as I walk away, my cheeks burning. He’s right. Forget Wright. Prison is a pool in which no one knows how to swim. I can’t save a drowning man. I can barely save myself.
The weather turns cold in November. Iron radiators lining the dorm walls creak to life, but they don’t help. At night, I pile my state-issued green coat and all my clothing on my bunk for warmth, then burrow beneath the sheets. I listen to the wind sweep across frozen ground. It doesn’t rustle the trees because there aren’t any. The prison cut them all down so there would be nowhere to hide.
They put crazy Wright on a bus down to NYC yesterday, reads one of my journal entries from the end of that month. Good fucking riddance.
Before the prison—before the epileptics, before the Shakers—there was a Native American village on this land. Every once in a while, another inmate will claim that the prison is about to close. He’ll say the Native Americans are suing to recover their right to the land, that the state has given up on fighting and is finally giving in. He’ll say we’re all going to be transferred to other prisons, scattered across the state like seeds that will never take. Any day now, he’ll say.
This is what it feels like to be targeted—to be treated like prey.
The town just up the road—the town our loved ones drive through on their way here to visit us—still carries the name of that village. It’s a Seneca word. Roughly translated, it means “the open spot where the sun shines in.”
More than two thousand former residents of the epileptic colony lie beneath a field a short walk from the prison. The Shaker burial ground is nearby also, the headstones eaten away by ice and wind.
Believers rarely referred to themselves as Shakers. The term was an epithet, coined in the wider world to mock their religious fervor. When they felt especially moved by the Holy Spirit, Shakers would jerk and twitch, jump and spasm, their limbs animated by their faith.
They came here to escape that label, hoping to build a community of love. They felt that others would never understand them, that society would only ever treat them with confusion, fear and disgust. After all, to most people, Shakers looked insane—like a hive of epileptics, their bodies flailing, their minds on fire.
I ’m out on parole, living in an apartment in central New York, when I get curious and look Wright up online. He’s back in prison for the first-degree rape of a woman he’d never met. He has a long criminal record—numerous convictions for burglary and robbery—but nothing like this. He’ll die in a maximum-security prison. His earliest release date is 2057.
Sometimes I think a part of Wright knew, deep down, how disturbed he’d become. Maybe that’s where the pleading in his letter really came from. Maybe he knew it was already too late, reaching up in desperation as he sank to the bottom—me treading water at the surface, watching the bubbles rise.
Pleese, Mike, Wright had begged. Pleese.
People have a cruel habit of asking ex-cons if we were ever “propositioned.” Everyone has seen the movies—don’t drop the soap, etc. Out of spite, I make it a point to humor those who ask. I start to tell them about Wright: hamming it up, drawing them into the insanity of the letter, the nervous stutter in his voice.
I tell them how angry and embarrassed I was, how I felt Wright had betrayed my goodwill, how much easier it is to hate than to try and understand. I tell them how I asked a murderer for advice, interested only in protecting myself, my pride, my prison-poisoned sense of what it means to act like a man.
At first, people laugh. “Oh, how funny!” they say. “You should write a book.” Then I finish the story and everyone is silent.
Michael Fischer was released from prison in 2015. He’s a Moth Chicago StorySlam winner, a Luminarts Foundation Creative Writing Fellow and a mentor for incarcerated authors through the Pen-City Writers program. His work appears in the New York Times, Salon, The Sun, Guernica, The Rumpus and elsewhere, and his audio essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio’s “Love Me” podcast and WBUR’s “Modern Love: The Podcast.” This story was first published in Guernica in March 2018 under the title “How Much Easier to Hate.”
Lead image: Dan Winters