A Cry from Behind Prison Walls

Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee
Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee.

Dear Readers,

I teach creative writing two days a month at a local state prison:  Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee. I wrote a column here about The Lifer's Club, and how they serve the community.

A letter recently arrived from one of my students, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. It's been sent to every major newspaper in Tennessee, and several in Virginia and Georgia.  One reporter asked for my phone number in an email, then never called. No one else responded except a reporter in Memphis who said he was "too far away" to do anything about the situation.

If you have any connection to power, possess a conscience, and wish to alleviate the misery these fellow human beings are experiencing, please help.

At this point, I cannot reach anyone who cares.

To: Tennessee Newspapers and Fellow Christians
From: Anonymous Inmate, TN Prison System, NECX
Date: 3 March 2022

Dear Media Representatives and Fellow Christians,

This is my first time writing a letter imploring help due to institutional issues.  The Tennessee Department of Corrections is in a state of crisis. Staffing has been in decline for roughly the past ten years due to the depredation of our previous commissioner, Derrick Schofield.  His successor, Tony Parker, made no changes to Schofield’s policies, and thus nothing improved. Parker has announced his retirement effective November of this year.

The staffing issue came to a head in 2021 with COVID’s fallout, and most Tennessee prisons are in a perpetual state of pseudo-lockdown. Our facility had faired the best in the state until recently, and actually maintained a state of semi-normalcy until October 1st.

Our staff began leaving in droves this summer due to issues with our current warden, Bert C. Boyd, who has been in charge of this facility since mid-2019. Simply put, he treats his staff like garbage but Nashville won’t can him. At the “town hall” meeting outside the prison on September 30th, community members and ex-staff aimed their grievances at Boyd. Whatever was said, about seventy more staff, each with a year’s paid leave built up, didn’t show up for work the next day.

We’ve been in lockdown since October 1st. Boyd calls it “restricted movement” because “essential” inmate workers still get to work (i.e., kitchen, laundry, suicide watch, and of course, the TRICOR industrial plant). For purposes of this letter, I’ll refer to it as a lockdown.  I am an inmate who leaves his cell less than eight hours a week and has to defecate three feet from another man with a sheet in between.

Since October 1st there have been no religious programming, no educational programming, no parole-mandated pre-release programming, no incentives, no leisure time or law library access, and we are fed three cold meals a day on Styrofoam trays.

Some weeks we are allowed out of the cell on weekdays for a few hours. Other weeks, we are allowed thirty minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a shower and a phone call. On weekends and holidays, nobody comes out of their cell unless they have a visitor.

The few remaining officers are often made to work sixteen-hour shifts, and there is only one officer to watch two units. The emergency call buttons have been disabled since Schofield came into power, so if you have a serious medical emergency while the officer is in the other unit, you die. One man had a stroke and wasn’t able to get attention for thirty minutes. Then, medical refused to send a wheelchair so it took another thirty minutes for him to reach the infirmary with assistance. Apparently, medical has been told:   “not to respond unless the inmate is non-responsive”. Thankfully, this particular individual survived.

As staff continues to resign, gangs have gone wild. It turns out the locking mechanisms on the doors are extremely easy to defeat, so gangs move about at will.

Holes were found pried in the complex’s fences, allowing gangs to rob the “incentive” units. The administration responded by adding padlocks to the cells (in violation of fire codes), which the “problem” units promptly jammed or broke.

The inmates’ legal aides were considered “essential” workers for a few weeks, to absolve the administration of denying us access to the courts (four legal aides can’t serve the function of access for over 1,500 inmates). However, on November 4th, the gangs broke into the library and stole surge protectors and other equipment, and since then, even legal aides have been denied library access.

Before legal aides were given the boot, one created a flyer supplying information about civil rights complaints filed against Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi for analogous circumstances, as well as contact information for the U.S. attorney’s office.

Our assistant warden saw the flyer and said: “I’ll nip this in the bud,” and made a beeline for the mailroom. The mail has been noticeably delayed since then.

On November 22nd, a gang staged an uprising in Unit 11 and took control of the unit for the day and part of the night. The local sheriff’s department and the Community Emergency Response Team from Nashville had to be mobilized to regain control of one unit.

If the gangs had coordinated, they could have easily taken the prison and staged a mass escape. The incident was reported on the news as: “Fight at Northeast Correctional Complex” leaves one inmate hospitalized”. A friend of mine was on the cleanup crew and spoke of bloodstained shirts, pepper-spray-soaked blankets, and hundreds of rubber bullets strewn about the unit.

I intended to file a grievance over denial of access to the courts, but it turns out the grievance sergeant is among those who have abandoned ship. When the associate warden was asked how grievances will be resolved, he responded: “We’ll do the best we can.” Our facility now has no system for resolving internal paperwork.

The mental health of the inmate population has declined severely with this ongoing situation. I serve from time to time as an inmate observer (suicide watch), but I resigned due to a shift-hour change and the horrific conditions to which observees are subjected.

They are often kept in cells with feces-smeared walls, dressed in nothing but a paper or cloth gown, and sleep on a bare concrete slab. Guards neglect and sometimes even mock the detainees. One man was so mentally out of touch that he would lie on the slab in his own waste, and when a guard told him to get in the shower, he stood in the shower for an hour without turning on the water. I personally heard a mental health administrator cuss out a man for being on his third trip to the program for cutting his wrists.

Those still serving as observers say the caseload has doubled, and the smell is so bad from the mentally ill flinging waste through the door cracks that the observers have to be stationed in a break room outside the corridor.

Now our warden is planning to restrict our phone accounts to only allow one ten-minute call per day because he can’t stop inmates from breaking out of their cells to make calls. This will further restrict our ability to contact lawyers, as well as our families during the holidays.

The situation is being covered up to keep the public blind to its severity, but if this continues unabated, something bad is coming. We see no light at the end of this dark tunnel. The feds or the National Guard should have been called in long ago.

Thank you for your time and attention.

In struggles,

(Name withheld in fear of retaliation)

The following letter was sent to Tennessee State Representative Scotty Campbell after the inmate's letter arrived:

Dear Senator Campbell,

My name is Michael “Gene” Scott, and I volunteer two days a month to teach composition at NECX.  The enclosed letter was written by one of my students, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

This letter will be published openly on my website (genescottbooks.com) for the world to see.

Prison officials at TDOC were also contacted, and we expect them to ignore the issue until something really bad happens.  We want to be on record that we contacted everyone with influence before that occurs. 

Copies of this letter have been or will be sent to every major newspaper in the state.

Should you doubt the veracity of the enclosed letter, please investigate. We’d love to learn of any more truths that need to be exposed about NECX, its warden, and elected officials sitting on their hands while gangs run free inside. We stand by this account and welcome an investigation into the truth of the matter.

Thanks for showing a little interest last month, but the situation has deteriorated markedly while the public waits for positive action. Each new day equals new horrors pressed onto human beings inside NECX – both inmates and staff – humans you swore an oath to protect.

Please let me know what you are doing to keep the people of Johnson County safe when it’s only a matter of time before the bloodshed spills over the walls.

In Christian service, and wonderingly yours,

Michael “Gene” Scott

 

Opioids and Obituaries

The motivation behind Jellybeaners — to shine light upon the opioid epidemic taking Americans at the rate of fifty per day — remains front and center in the news, and burns painfully in our collective hearts.

 Logically, one should abstain from indulging in news the first thing in the morning.

Soaking up death, stabbings, arson, child neglect, fracking, meth-lab explosions, sex slavery, environmental disasters, racist cops, neglected infrastructure, enduring slave wages, endless CEO profit raking, idiotic politicians blubbering pie-in-the-sky promises with no intention of following through … mixing all those nauseous facts with prodigious amounts of caffeine … well.

That can’t be good for the psyche.

But the routine never varies.

Out of bed, slurp coffee, devour news, cautiously turn to the obituaries, brace for the blow.

This week?

A recent law-school grad with a long history of academic success, a loving family, and a promising future. Twenty-seven-years-old.  Here’s a brief paraphrase from the obit:

God protected him many times when his parents were unable.  His earthly life ended unexpectedly but his everlasting life has begun.

We’ve watched the font-size of our local print paper decrescendo for thirty years to the point where it’s barely readable.

After all, they have our subscription money, and we’ve read the news on our iPhones and  internet feeds, old print news takes up valuable paper and ink, so we’ll minimalize it, shrink it with a pissant font, and look for other revenue streams.

To balance the loss of readership and revenue to online outlets, our local newspaper doubled the size of its obituary text,  colorized large head shots of the recently-deceased, and unknowing created a daily parade of local folk now leaving eternal digitized images. 

If you plan ahead, love to scribble, and can afford to throw even more cash at a local newspaper publisher, up goes your twin column half page manifesto, a.k.a. bird-cage lining.

Follow the money.

We’ve known for decades that newspapers and other media leverage sex and death to sell products.

Obituaries sell local papers. Furthermore, the family of the deceased wanting to run an obituary is billed up to $600 — approximately five times an annual subscription price — to purchase the publication of their loved one’s death notice.

And newsprint corporations will continue to milk grieving readers until obituaries naturally migrate whole herd onto the “everlasting” cloud — which is subject to evaporation any second of any day.

***

So we slurp coffee, wipe crust from our eyes, and suffer the dark parade of endless young-people obituaries — two or three “mysterious passings” per week — digitized head shots projecting health, vitality, and promise … while the shocking dissconnect of truth and image confounds the thoughtful reader.

Cancer victims either declare outright the nature of their earthly battle, or direct donations toward eradicating the scourge, which indicates the cause of their passing.

But prescription or illegal opioid drug deaths — cloaked in self-painted societal shame — lie hidden between the lines of the family-or-funeral-home-produced death notice.

We’re talking perhaps 2-3 opioid-connected deaths per-week in a region supporting a newspaper circulation of 43,000.

National statistics suggest nearly fifty-two Americans perish every day from prescription opioid overdoses — eighty per day if you figure in heroin — so two-or-three deaths a week in such a tiny demographic seems outrageous.

Heroin deaths are linked to the pill trade because recently skyrocketing street-prices of prescription opioids allow cheap heroin to flourish across the land, hitting rural states and Appalachia especially hard due to decades of high unemployment and a culture slow to raise education standards, though the epidemic appears to cross all lines, racial, religious, geographic, and socio-economic.

Many of our locals succumb to fentanyl, fifty times more potent than typical street heroin. They go to a party, try a little, forget how much they’ve taken, dab a little more, and before the dawn appears …. the sun sets on their precious lives.

The alarming potency of fentanyl — and even more horrendous Chinese exports washing ashore — steals our best and brightest, the folks we’re staking our future upon.

Opioid availability first soared (in recent history) after 26 states and D.C. legalized weed in some form and jerked market out from under Mexico, who made up the loss by dumping cheap heroin and opioid-laden chemicals on an already addicted North America poised to dull the pain with ever increasing amounts of opioids, a class of drugs that has debilitated us since the Civil War.

***

One family, six months ago, actually came clean in the second paragraph of their boy’s obituary, saying that the deceased fell victim to prescription drugs after losing his father two years prior. The son couldn’t bear the loss.

That’s the only self-admission I’d seen in thirty years of obituary reading, though I must confess that for twenty-eight years I only skimmed obits for astounding stories of WWII vets who’d conquered the world and returned home to build new lives.

***

The truth remains:  we all wear a mask.

mask
The Coalition for Positive Energy

This concept came home to me thirty years ago when I taught Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil to a class of honors English students in a suburban Chicago high school.

A small village church must deal with their minister, Mr. Hooper, who takes a notion to don a black veil covering his upper face — much like a widow would wear at an old-fashioned funeral. Everything goes south when he chooses to leave it on.

Permanently.

He becomes a better minister after this decision, ironically, and though his fiancé breaks off their engagement, she watches his entire life and comes to be with him on his death bed, where he admits all of us wear a mask.  Upon his death, Mr. Hooper is buried with the veil in place.

Let’s look into the mirror.

 When we’re at Sunday school, we wear the Sunday school face. Job interviews conjure a competent strong obedient flexible yes-sir face. Thursday night dollar-draft-beer Raccoon Club meetings at the local sports bar requires a special façade.

And since random acts of unprovoked violence occur in this crazy world  — say the unexpected death of a child through accident or SIDs — well, that means perhaps even God wears a mask.

No one is immune from the natural instinct to project a happy face while masking reality through omission.

Facebook is simply a party-line on steroids, a party line with enough bandwidth so a billion users may share photos, text, videos, music, and fake news.

For whatever psychological reason, the vast majority of us prefer to keep the laundry in the closet and to project the shiniest image of ourselves and our loved ones, clean photo-shopped textually-tweaked  images of success and prosperity.

Under this unspoken societal code lies a message

Vitality, good luck, success, look-what-I’ve-done, look-where-I’ve-been, see-where-I’m-going … that’s what’s important.

Let’s face it, we’re all the billboard producers of our archived lives, turned digital and pulsing across the electronic social universe — Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, et al. — social media entwined through massive servers grown muscular through carrying an ever-increasing crescendo of porn to the sex-starved masses.  Thirst begets thirst.

Irony. Cleanliness afforded by dirt.

As a result, we can now Photoshop and video-edit our pimples and purple lives while projecting sanitized, filtered, smiling, I’m so happy, self-assured-selfies, eternal masks frozen in digital clouds of memories, gigabytes juggled in “perpetuity” for dollars a month.

Even when people freak out, breech social barriers, and reveal their dark sides on social media, it’s often ignored until the post mortems roll in.

dylan roof
Dylan Roof

When an individual’s mask slips down,  the tribe doesn’t WANT to look, or doesn’t want to acknowledge some of us actually DID look and failed to respond.

Which brings us back to the Double-O-Demons.

opioid deaths 2015
opioid deaths 2015

Jellybeaners is a topical novel about opiates and obituaries, and the fact that shame drives many of our decisions.

And until we supplant shame with grace and help people recover from addiction through counseling, financial incentives, and work opportunities, well.

Jellybeaners will remain topical in perpetuity.

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