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Cellies

In prison parlance, cellmates are known affectionately as "cellies." In the initial stages of my incarceration, I had nine cellies in four months.

When you walk into a new cell for the first time and meet face to face the man who you are forced to trust your life with, it's always an uncertain moment. You never know if he's going to be the classic huge, hardened convict, or a mentally unstable creature who goes to the bathroom on the floor. But rarely do cellies prey on one another. This is because once someone falls asleep, no matter how tough or big he is, he is vulnerable to attack. To avoid instilling hostility in their living mates, cellies usually try to be as courteous as possible.

For many of the criminal mind-set, courtesy was a foreign concept in the outside world -- but in prison, it's a survival skill. Many inmates have temper-control problems that are compounded by the generally stressful atmosphere of prison life. They're "snap cases." And nobody wants their cellie to snap, especially late at night when there are no guards around and the cell door is locked. Being locked in a concrete box with a man in a rage is something to be avoided whenever and however possible. For many of the men in prison with me, their relationship with their cellie is the first healthy relationship they've had in life. They are forced -- out of necessity -- to be compassionate and build mutual trust.

In prison, the cell is the only place of sanctuary, and when you talk to your cellie, you might as well be talking to God. Most cellies listen, or at least look at you while you talk, patiently waiting for you to finish your cathartic monologue so that they can begin theirs.

On my first day of a seven-year sentence, I spent hours talking to my first cellie about my most personal feelings. This was in the Denver City Jail -- after I was sentenced, before I was transferred to prison. My first cellie looked just like any balding businessman country-club golfer. He had a son my age. He had just served eight months in federal prison for fraud, and like me was awaiting transfer. He was someone I could easily relate to, because we came from the same strata of society. He told me a little about what to expect in prison. I was grateful to have him for those first few hours of my incarceration, when the judge's voice was still ringing in my ears. But he was soon gone.

Once I had the cell to myself, there in the urine-smelling city jail where the light is always dull and yellow, I claimed the single bed as my own and wrapped up with the blue blanket and went to sleep fully clothed. But as soon as I fell asleep, it seemed, the door opened -- grrrr...clank.

My second cellie was a tall black guy with dreadlocks. He walked in, said "What's up?" with a friendly smile, and lay down on the mattress on the floor. He seemed like an old pro. When I asked him if he had ever been to jail before, he laughed. "Hundreds of times." Now I began to realize that I really was in the world of the criminal.

They serve dinner at the Denver City Jail at 3:30 in the afternoon so the nights are unbroken. Breakfast is served at 4 a.m. I sat down on a steel bench to a meal that looked like vomit on a slice of bread -- "biscuits and gravy" or, as the inmates call it, "SOS" for shit on a shingle. It was light brown and chunky and smelled like the body odor it would later produce. But I ate it anyway.

After breakfast, I was moved to Building 8, which is notorious among prisoners. It's three levels of twenty cells, just like in the movies. When I first entered cell house 8, where the radio blares and echoes off the steel and concrete, I understood immediately why inmates call it the "Thunderdome." The cells are simply cubbyholes with bars. There you are, literally in a steel cage that any zookeeper would consider inhumane for a single animal half my size. And yet, two grown men shared this six-foot-by-nine-foot space. The two are supposed to live harmoniously in this absurdly small box, locked in together 22 hours a day.

Existing in this environment was psychologically damaging enough, but being with my third cellie was torture. "R" had a classic case of obsessive compulsive disorder when it came to keeping our cell clean. When I first met him, he slapped the floor with his sock for half an hour and then started to give me all his rules on cleanliness. He'd spent a hundred days in this cramped space. An Hispanic man, he wore his hair like Ricky Ricardo and wore prescription sunglasses. He kept telling me that I was going to "get into a wreck" if I didn't do everything he said. He was extremely hyper, always yelling and pacing the cell in boxer shorts. After dinner our first night together, he sat me down and told me how ashamed I should be for coming to prison. "Shame on you," he said over and over. He took out a Bible and started telling me how belief in Jesus was my only salvation. Funny, with his bossy, judgmental nature, he didn't seem like much of a Christian to me.

That night I fell asleep to the fake laughter and applause of sitcoms. In the morning, "R" was cleaning out the toilet, flushing it repeatedly, at least thirty times, when I received the good news that I was being moved to another cell house. When I was packing up, "R" scowled with disapproval, as though leaving the protection of his company would lead to great peril. I didn't shake his hand, and I didn't say goodbye. I saved the courtesy for my next cellie.

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Justin Green

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