When I was a child, my parents took me to a local race track with a communal urinal full of yellowed ice and the fetid bugs that had fallen from the fluorescent frivolity above. The rank filth of the place penetrated my childhood oblivion deeply enough that I could choke on memories decades later. Yet the unpleasant sights and smells of that place were nothing compared to the unyielding assault on the senses found in prison.
I don’t know if a women’s prison is any better, but I can definitely say that men’s prison is one of the most disgusting places I’ve ever been. It haunts your every God-given sense, and you can’t escape. Well, let me rephrase that. You can’t escape the filth without escaping the prison. Which is frowned upon.
There is so much filth in the world that is invisible to the naked eye. From sticky surfaces to microbial pathogens, the world is full of things that can hide from sight but still permeate everything. Yet when things even look gross, you know they’re gross.
From the grime in the kitchen to the mildew encroaching on walls fifty feet from the nearest bathroom, I frequently encountered filth that had accumulated enough to become visible. Bleach was a hot item when it came to contraband because it was about the only thing that could do something about it. But there was only so much bleach to go around, and most of us used it on our own things. Being contraband, it didn’t get used on common areas, so much of the grime I saw on my walk in could still be seen on my walk out two years later.
It’s the worst of what gross men do. Let’s take an innocuous example: you know that annoying habit of some men to shave with an electric razor and leave their stubble all over the sink? Imagine what happens when the same bathroom is used by 150 such men.
Prison is one of the most disgusting places I’ve ever been.
And then I entered the housing units and found what prison bathrooms smell like. I’ll spare you the details, but the smells reached me from about 150 feet away. And the absence of air conditioning in the housing units didn’t help much in the summer.
The filth didn’t stop with sights and smells. The sounds… Oh, dear Lord the sounds.
Let me first say that I’m not a prudish Christian with virgin ears. I’ve written before about my position on cussing and the like. But the pure vulgarity that dominated this place were a shock to my senses. It didn’t stop with the language itself, but the words dripped with hate, bitterness, revenge, anger, depression, and arrogance.
Of course there were exceptions. Some people were kind, and many others strove to be. Yet the general clamor was one of hostility and sickness, a strong representation of cancerous aspect of humanity’s sin. The music that blasted, the attitudes that shouted, and the venom that whispered each held enough hate to last a lifetime.
I’ve already addressed the food in prison. Some of it was shockingly good. Most of it was on the lower end of mediocre. But sometimes… dear Lord it was awful.
You’ll recall we had a somewhat repetitive menu. One aspect of that menu was that each week, we’d have fish. What kind of fish would vary, but we inmates referred to them by the following labels:
- round fish – a sandwich-ready, round breaded patty of fish-textured product
- square fish – a square version of round fish with a mildly better taste
- rectangle fish – a rectangular version of round fish with no discernible difference in taste but a somehow different texture
- sewer trout – a barely-baked filet of some small fish-shaped creature sliced so thin that a hot breath should have been able to cook it all the way through, though somehow the oven often failed to
The undercooked sewer trout was understandably unpopular. Now, when you exercise in prison, you need protein, and for the sake of my health, I capitalized on the general distaste of the mysterious sewer trout. I learned to swallow it mostly whole so as to minimize the filthy taste. But when you eat yours and three other guys’ sewer trout, that taste will stick with you for hours, even after brushing your teeth in the disgusting bathrooms.
If I were to come up with a top ten rules of surviving prison, “Don’t touch anything you don’t have to” would be in the top five. If you told me that some prankster in there wandered around with a bottle of Elmer’s Glue, smearing it on everything from walls to counter tops, I might have slept better at night knowing the sticky residue on everything had been so innocuous.
To be fair, not everything was sticky. Much of it was too dusty/dirty to be sticky. And considering that dust was an accumulation of dead skin cells from decades of sweaty men… Bleh.
The worst feeling of touch, though, came from humanity’s six-legged counterparts. I only touched a roach a handful of times, but I saw them often enough to feel frequent chills.
But the ants were everywhere. For about a year, I had a bunk next to a window that apparently served as an ingress point for the little workers. And the shortest route between the window and wherever they were going apparently included my mattress. Thankfully, they didn’t bite much, but I constantly felt them crawling on me at night, even when they probably weren’t. Coming to grips with that and sleeping anyway was a big turning point.
The worst of prison’s filth didn’t attack my five senses. The worst attacked my spirit.
I’ve already addressed the inmates and the staff, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the spiritual ambiance of prison qualified as downright filthy. The willful neglect of the staff and the passive aggressive rebellion of the inmates merged to produce a general atmosphere of perpetual hopelessness. And this was in a facility with a bunch of “short timers” like me who would be released in the coming years, so you’d expect hope to be more present.
Divorce was commonplace. I know because a friend kept a bunch of divorce form copies on hand to give to those in need. I saw an inmate ask for a form 2-3 times per month. Resentment was the closest thing to solace available for the men who couldn’t stop that particular train. Hopeless.
Add lost career paths to the broken homes. Most couldn’t go back to the jobs they had before. Many couldn’t even return to the same industry. Often they knew they shouldn’t because the “industry” they were in was what put them in prison. In all of the above, these men did not know if they could provide for themselves or pay child support without returning to ill-gotten gains. Hopeless.
And as much as they’re treated by staff as demi-humans, they’re operating in an inmate-run system they don’t control. And awaiting them in the free world is more judgment and lack of control, and this time they’ll be felons. Hopeless.
Most men wouldn’t let it show, admittedly. Most kept the bravado going. But these men weren’t immune to imposter syndrome any more than men in the free world. So behind all that bluster tended to be either (1) an insecure man in an uncertain world, or (2) an ignorant man ready to repeat his mistakes because they’re familiar. Hopeless.
I don’t know if it was the pheromones, but I could almost sense the hopelessness. It felt tangible, like an oppressive smog. And it permeated the environment as much as any urine odor. Except it was even more filthy.
A few weeks ago, a friend commented on a local gym’s locker room being disgusting. I went. It wasn’t that bad. It was gross, but I’ve lived in worse. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Paul writes in Philippians 4:11b (NIV):
…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
I am so much more laid back now than I was before prison. At some point you just have to let go, and prison taught me that. I lived in a hopeless, disgusting environment, and God provided the only stability and health I could cling to. Today I trust in God, and I remain content. And living in the filth of prison helped me to do just that.