Stephen Newman

The Unauthorized Coloring Book by Stephen Newman

(Originally written 5/21/16)

My cell got searched last night. It had been searched just one day prior, which was annoying, because I spent an hour reorganizing my locker post-search, only to have the C.O. disshevel it in less than 24 hours.

The search was done by a twenty-something female correctional officer (c.o.) who loves watching those prison shows on TV where guards search inmates in some of the most dangerous prisons in the country. She hasn’t quite grasped that we are in San Orofino, not San Quentin.

What did I lose in the search? Some maybelline makeup I found in a Latina magazine. I’d used it since 2011 to cover up zits when women visited me, a stack of envelopes (we are only allowed 20 stamped envelopes at any given time, but she took my unstamped manila envelopes, of which there isn’t supposed to be a limit) and the adult coloring book Anja bought me. For those of you not in the cognescenti, adult coloring books are quite trendy in 2016. And when I say “adult,” I don’t mean X-Rated. Instead of a Disney princess, you might color a homeless man passed out in a pool of urine on a subway car, for example.

“I don’t know if it’s authorized” was her explanation. I may get it back, I may not. Either way, I’ll survive. I always try to remind myself that I have much bigger problems to worry about.

For illustrative purposes, let us assume that the book is, in fact, unauthorized. I mean, sure, it was delivered to me by the property officer, whose job it is to process books and determine what is allowed. But suppose that she missed this one. Here’s how the process works: I will receive a typed up list of my confiscated contraband, like a receipt, which I must sign. Then I have to fill out what’s referred to as a property disposition form. This tells the property officer — yes, the same one who authorized my book — what I’d like done with my newly unauthorized book. The three options are: 1) Mail it out, 2) Donate it, or 3) Destroy it. They hope we will always choose the destroy option — that makes life easy. If we select “mail it out,” there’s a whole new mountain of paperwork to be filled out. Withdrawal forms, which get sent to accounting, an officer’s initials on the envelope (to verify that he has inspected the contents) and so on. Hours of needless paperwork all designed to keep unauthorized coloring books out of our hands.

Did you know…that we are only allowed five pairs of underwear? If an incorrigible inmate was caught with a sixth pair, the entire paperwork process must be repeated. The officers never find it amusing when you opt to donate your used boxers. Mailing them out isn’t much better, even though people used to do that all the time on eBay in 1999 (or so I’ve been told…i actually heard that ziploc baggie sales increased 28% that year). All kidding aside, I always choose to destroy my used boxers and socks. Gotta keep the peace in the institution, ya know?

Consider yet another possible scenario. Let’s assume they deem my coloring book to be unauthorized due to one picture — a man drinking beer — which they claim promotes alcohol use. I might suggest, “OK, no problem, I’ll rip that page out and throw it away, and keep the rest of the book.” But any seasoned inmate will know why that would never fly: my book would then be altered, and any altered property is contraband. I’ve seen, countless times, a situation where an inmate’s headphones break. The speakers still work, but the cheap and brittle plastic frame cracks. (This happens most often with Koss CL-20 headphones. They sound great, but if your head is even half as big as mine, they’ll break within three months). Inmates will tape them up, or wrap the cracked frame in saran wrap from our sack lunch. They’ll find a way to hold the frame together, because they can’t afford, at 10 cents an hour, to spend $32 plus tax on a new pair. (Adjusted for a $10 an hour job, thats the equivalent of a $3200.00 pair of headphones — even Dr. Dre would be drooling all over his Beats). Nevertheless, guards will confiscate them because they’re altered.

“You didnt ALTER it, did you?!?!” Altered is a bad word in prison. The “A” word. (So let’s not mention the velcro strip I removed from my expandable file folder and affixed to our curtain, so it would stop falling off the wall. Or the fact I cut open a soda bottle last week and used it as a funnel to get my homemade salsa back into the Cactus Annie’s commissary salsa bottle).

2018 UPDATE: The Lieutenant returned my coloring book 11 days later, but my envelopes and makeup were never seen again. Also, my headphones broke recently and I bought some $30 Skullcandy earbuds, instead. My huge head can’t break those!!

Stephen Newman
DOC #90843

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