In August of last year, I began working on the RazorWire, our Orofino prison newspaper. It was a cool gig. Staff writers were granted access to an exclusive backroom at the school. (Think first-class airport lounge.). This private room was coined, by the instructor, “The Newsroom.” And in this newsroom, there were much larger computer monitors, comfortable chairs, windows with views of the mountains, a fan, a large wooden desk, and a whiteboard where we could brainstorm ideas for future articles. And it was quiet. So very quiet. After all, there were only three of us on the RazorWire staff.
All the other inmates used any of the four other computer labs available to them — each with anywhere from 8 to 20 computer workstations, and each with a lot more talking and distractions. But, you see, we RazorWire staff…we are creative writers. And everyone knows creative writers need a nice quiet place to write, to think. (Don’t just take my word for it — read Stephen King’s “On Writing” and you’ll understand.)
True to my Pathological Altruistic nature, as diagnosed by Dr. Margalis Fjelstad’s book titled “Stop Caretaking the Borderline,” I was kind enough to let my cellmate in on a little secret back in August of last year. “Hey, Pool,” I said to him, “there’s usually nobody back in the RazorWire office. If you turn right into that long hallway, it’s at the very end of the hallway, on the left. If anyone asks you why you’re there, just tell them Newman said it was ok.” I was half-joking about that last part, but I actually figured if he did use my name in his answer, that nobody would ask him to leave. After all, I wasn’t just an inmate, I was a member of the RazorWire, a cutting-edge, avant garde, professional journalistic venture at the Idaho Correctional Institution, Orofino. I had some pull. I was the man.
My cellmate began using the newsroom to do his non-RazorWire related school work — like his Administrative Services program, or his Microsoft Word lessons. He, too, loved the peace and quiet.
Months passed, and things began to change. More and more inmates were catching onto our little secret office. And the instructors weren’t asking them to leave. In essence, the newsroom had become a computer lab for any misfit who had the balls to walk to the end of the hallway. After all, fortune favors the bold, right?
I had a harder and harder time writing and focusing. The best chairs were taken, the best desks were taken, and the noise and distractions increased exponentially. Last month, when I arrived to work, half of the computers had been removed. An inmate teacher’s assistant had set up a desk in the middle of the room. Our once spacious newsroom now felt like a pathetic, cramped cubicle. A once quiet mecca for meditative writing and thinking now had a guy at a desk playing techno music on the world’s worst quality computer speakers. The existing computers were rearranged so that some of the mouses were unusuable (unless you were left-handed). It was sad. The death of the newsroom. But I said nothing. I’m out of here in November….no sense causing a scene.
Days later, I showed up at 8 AM (the crack of dawn by my standards) and every single seat was filled. “Holy…snykees,” (I was about to say “shit” but corrected myself as I quickly remembered our culture of honor) “I guess there’s no room for Journalism today!” I announced loudly. The instructor, Mr. Manley, overheard me.
“Hi Mr. Newman. What are you working on today?”
“Apparently Nothing!” I scoffed, and told him I’d find another room to work in — one that was “more conducive to writing.”
As a peace offering and an attempt at compromise, Mr. Manley taped little red paper stop signs onto my favorite two computers in the newsroom.
“STOP! These Computers are reserved for RazorWire Staff Only!”
OK. This wasn’t ideal, by any means, but it seemed like a reasonable compromise. At least I could be guaranteed a place to work whenever I showed up to the office…my office.
My cellmate disagreed. Apparently they were his favorite two computers, too. So when he saw the stop signs, he complained to Mr. Manley, then threw a fit in our cell later that afternoon. “Because you threw a temper tantrum, now I can’t use the computer I like to use! I spent four hours there today and you NEVER even showed up, yet nobody could use that computer because it’s RESERVED! I’m so hot right now! So irritated at you.”
“Are you fucking serious, Pool?! It’s because of ME that you even got to use that room in the first place. I invited you to that room just to be nice.”
“Oh, don’t even try to pull that. I was using that room WAY before the RazorWire even started.” That simply wasn’t true. He didnt even sign up at the school until after I had begun working there. Either he knew what he just said wasn’t true, and he said it anyway, or his memory truly is that bad. (And I doubt it’s the latter, since he is able to remember and recount every little detail of every porn movie he has watched since the 1990s, including names and ages of the “stars.”
At this point, I let him know that he is, in my words, “a selfish prick.” He told me that he’s not a selfish prick, so to clarify, I reassured him that he is. This happened on Wednesday. It is now Sunday night. We haven’t spoken a word to each other since. I filled out a move request form on Wednesday. I knew some moves were scheduled for Saturday, and I begged the officer to let me move. I suggested a bed in a 12-man dorm. I’m currently in a 2-man room. Nobody would ask to leave a 2-man room and move to a big room with 11 other guys unless he had a good reason. I pleaded my case. But the officer didn’t understand the urgency. “Pool’s just a little guy. He’s not gonna do anything to you.”
The bed moves were posted. My name wasn’t on the list, which was disheartening. I have been in this room for 14 months, and in my previous room for another 14 months straight. Other inmates request to move every three months. They love to cause drama, they can never settle down in any one place. They want to move into a room with their “boyfriend” or a room with a guy who will let them watch his TV. They prefer the northeast corner of the room instead of the southwest corner. There are guys who move 10 times in a year. Sometimes even more. I’m here with a legitimate request. I live with a selfish prick, a serious sociopath and narcissist, a guy that nobody likes, a guy that I gave the benefit of the doubt to, and put up with for over a year, as he tested my patience time and time again. And finally, when I finally am able to stick up for myself and say “enough is enough,” I am rejected, while a guy who has moved 6 separate times since I’ve been in this room got moved for a 7th time.
I’m forced to stay here “until next week,” the officer said. I know from experience that “next week” probably means another month. Or two.
The tension in this room is so thick you could cut it with a knife (or, in our case, a mirror or an ID card). I must admit, it IS nice and quiet. He doesn’t talk to me, which also means he isn’t narrating all of his TV shows to me as he watches them, he isn’t reporting the news to me as he reads it in his People magazines, he isn’t explaining to me the subtle differences between child pornography and child erotica, he isn’t recounting his neverending Air Force stories of when he was deployed in Saudi Arabia, he isn’t complaining about how PBS recently started blurring out nudity, he doesn’t say “gazuntheit (sp?)” when I sneeze, he doesn’t tell me that it’s almost dinner time and that I should get dressed soon.” He doesn’t rub the floor with his fingertips after I clean the room, and show me all the dust I missed, and ask if I properly swept before mopping. I don’t have to experience any of that shit that used to drive me crazy.
the silent treatment is stressful in and of itself. I keep expecting him to try to apologize, or to say something, and in my head I keep preparing my response. “I’d prefer if you don’t talk to me,” or “I have nothing to say to you,” or, “I will be moving out next week, until then let’s just not talk.” Honestly, it makes me sick to look at him. He makes me sick. For anyone who has been in a bad live-in relationship with a girlfriend or boyfriend, where you break up but have to temporarily live together in separate bedrooms, then you cross paths in the kitchen at midnight, both prowling for a late-night snack, and you refuse to speak to each other, then you might understand the awkward tension I’m faced with on a daily basis now. This is a guy I have lived with and talked to every day for the past 14 months. To ignore him completely now while trapped in a 15×10 foot room with him…it is not pleasant.
I can’t wait for the next move list to be posted. Surely the officer will honor my request this time. If not, I’m considering talking to a mental health clinician. They can get an inmate moved within minutes (not weeks or months). They’d be able to see my anxiety, my frustration. They can see my history, see that I’ve been stable for 10 years in here, that I don’t cause drama, that I almost never ask to be moved. They can vouch for me. “Yes, Newman really does need to move,” they might say, “because living with that selfish prick is making him physically and mentally ill.”
Or perhaps I should forego my meeting with the clinician, and instead follow the advice of my Slovenian girlfriend, Anja. “Just relax and ignore that asshole. He is not worth the words to speak with,” she wrote.
I’ll try to follow Anja’s advice. She is wise beyond her 29 years. But the newspaper must go on. Tomorrow I’ll be spending several hours in the newsroom, on one of my reserved computers, writing a feature article on the “Fair Chance Pledge.” Let’s hope I don’t have any company in my private prison lounge. I prefer to work alone. Must be that “only-child syndrome.”
Stephen (pronounced like Steven) Newman prefers to go by “Steve” because in elementary school half of the teachers pronounced his name “Stefan” and two teachers actually called him “Stephanie” during roll call. His ex-wife, Jennifer, insisted on calling him Stephen. She said that “Steve” sounded dumb. His current girlfriend, Anja, also insists on calling him Stephen. Steve, she says, reminds her of the Steve Wilkos show, which she can’t stand. Stephen, on the other hand, reminds her of a greek God. In prison, most people just call him Newman, Inmate Newman, Newman 90843, or Offender Newman. It’s less confusing that way.
ps – if you sign up to email him at JPay.com, you can call him any name you prefer…just don’t call him a selfish prick!
Categories: Stephen Newman