Letters From Jail
Time is one thing prisoners have plenty of. What to do with all that time?
When they're not conjuring diabolical plots to steal county-issued underwear, some of them write to us.
What follows is a mere sampling of the prose, poems, diatribes, sketches (there's even a "restaurant review") sent to New Times by inmates of the Maricopa County jail system in the past six months. Some are funny and inventive. Some are disturbing. Some are poignant. The poetry is dreadful.
All this correspondence was unsolicited. The letters have been edited for clarity in some cases, and for spelling in most cases. Names of jail employees have been deleted.
It's Just Not Fare
. . . For five months now I've been given certain foods with my meals that have printed expiration dates on them as late as August '95--foods such as marshmallow munchies, weight watcher ranch snacks and beefsticks.
It is my belief along with most other inmates that nearly all the food we are given is donated. Most meals (I use the term meals loosely) we are served are quite ridiculous. The dinner before last was a soft pretzel with barbecue sauce poured over it. Last night was the same as most nights . . . rice and beans. We've been getting these tiny paper cups with about a spoonful of Jell-O or gelatin with all three meals for about a month now. Before that it was whole cucumbers (without any way to cut them or slice them).
At least three times a week here at Towers there is a most foul odor pumped in through the swamp-cooler vents. The putrid stench is enough to make us sometimes gag and even throw up. Each instance will last 45 minutes to an hour (and) . . . will have all us inmates breathing through our socks or towels. Another inmate told me a few months ago that there is (a facility) very close by that cremates animals a few times a week. I don't know if there is any truth to that but I will attest that the smell is much like the burning of flesh and/or the singeing of hair.
I am sure you've heard Arpaio's pitch about how he is going to save the county so much money by replacing the disposable cups and spoons with "issued" plastic cups and sporks. What he has failed to mention is that we have no way of sterilizing them. We have no access to hot water and hand soap is the only detergent we are allowed to possess. Inmates like myself do our best to keep these and ourselves clean but many others coming in off the street do not because they've grown used to neglect. I predict a rise in illness among all the Maricopa County jails.
Last night after lock-down, an elderly man "rolled" into our pod. Two . . . inmates started shouting through their cell doors, "Motherfucking snitch, I'm going to beat your ass." The old man (about 65-70 years old) ignored them. This morning when our cell doors opened for chow (breakfast), an inmate again started calling him a "snitch" while we were all standing in the chow line. When the old guy got up to the detention officer, he told him he thought he was in danger and to please be moved. The guard just told him to "move on," then the guard looked up at his partner in the tower and chuckled as if it were funny. About 20 minutes after chow was served I saw the two inmates coming out of the elderly man's cell after I heard him yell, "I didn't do anything." When he came out of his cell he looked like a bloody Boise potato carrying his broken teeth. He is now in the infirmary at Madison . . .
Tonight's dinner was the same barbecue sauce poured over a single slice of bread. No joke.
A guy in my cell went home today. The guards pulled the typical bullshit on him. When they told him to "roll-up," they wouldn't tell him where or when he was going. Two guards told him that he was being "page-two'ed," which means being taken back to Madison Street Jail on new charges. Another officer got on the speaker and told him that the computers were down so he wasn't going anywhere for at least 12 hours.
He actually left a half hour later.
Cruel how the detention officers fuck with you even up to your last minutes when you are anticipating freedom.
After six requests, I was finally granted an interview with a psychiatric worker at the Madison Street Jail. I was allowed fifteen minutes of his valuable time only after filing a grievance wherein I suggested his early retirement might be the only solution to the current logjam of inmate requests.
I cleverly stretched the fifteen minutes into thirty by pretending to be insane.
John Thomas Munsey
A Savage Review
There's one valley eatery no one has given a review of yet. Let me be the first to review Skimpy Joe's in the Durango Jail Complex. First of all, the location sucks. The atmosphere and furnishings remind me of a bad Cagney prison movie, as it should. It's jail. Cold, dirty tables and seats made from re-recycled steel with a bad tan and brown paint job that has not seen a good cleaning in who knows how many years. The service is even worse. Dished out by other inmates and sadistic guards who love any diversion to stop serving halfway through the meal only to resume after it's cold, usually hours later.
The cuisine appears to be a hodgepodge of army surplus, food bank and dumpster diving. And the portions, if you can call them that, would make a cockroach lose weight.
Dinner: The salad appears to have come from a dumpster behind the Salvation Army as does the overcooked rice. I think it's rice, it didn't wiggle. Equally vile is the stove-bottom stuffing. It must have come from the bottom of a stove, dust balls and all. It's evident the chefs never learned of the discovery of salt and pepper and a whole list of other spices. The beans are more soup than beans. The mashed potatoes lack that certain everything. And the desserts are appalling. The ice-cream melted, the yogurt weeks out of date, and as for the canned chocolate pudding, the can must taste far better.
Lunch: Forget it. All you get is a Ladmo bag that's more junk than food. The sandwiches are made from cold cuts that are every color but what they should be, and the cheese slices reek and leak yellow grease. The only thing worth mentioning are the Skimpy Joe's doughnut O's.
Breakfast: The plastic pouches of skim milk emblazoned with the laughing cow appear to have been hijacked on the way to some school. (Thank God for that, save the children.) The textured vegetable protein burgers sprinkled with sage faintly remind you of sausage patties and strongly remind you of cork drink coasters. As far as the quiche, I can only say sheesh! Army surplus eggs, cheese, potato bits and either tiny sausages or large rat droppings (I can't tell which), molded into a cold, hard block. The bread slices could double as roofing shingles. The pancakes are probably left over from McDonald's.
To summarize this dining dilemma, I'd rather dine in the dumpster behind Denny's. So pass out the barfing bags Joe. On a scale of one to five stars, Joe owes the scale five points. My next review will be the Road Kill Cafe in Tent City, home of the chain gang hunters and harvesters.
225 W. Madison
If hell had an address
It would be 225
Joe would be the ruler
You're all guilty, claimed the noble guy
Get into cells,
It's time to say goodbye
Bologna sandwiches every day at noon
No coffee or salt and pepper
Very hot in your room
Terrible food, anger and hate
I wish I could leave
Joe said it's too late
After being in here
I'll take my plea
Prison will feel
Like I was set free
Joe Arpaio is nothing nice
The people voted for him
Now they're thinking twice
Dark Ages Redux
June 30, 1996
First let me inform you that I am presently incarcerated at our wonderful Estrella resort and country club (a.k.a. Maricopa County Estrella Jail) maintained by our wonderful Sheriff Joe Arpaio (a.k.a. Uncle Joe). And according to my constitutional rights I am innocent until proven guilty (yeah, right). But that's a whole other article . . .
Something's up. The food! It's good! There's lots of it! What's wrong with this picture? It's usually watered down and not enough! And once in a while we can even identify that it has meat in it, and what kind of meat it is! But this week we even had chicken on the bone (twice), giant deep-fried burritos (hollow, but they looked good). Wake me. I must be dreaming. You mean it's not just barbecue sauce? Real food. We must be under federal investigation or something (but the feds obviously don't work weekends since our portions were cut in half this weekend).
But with faith, patience and an undying sense of humor and the greatest of imaginations, we find life, rather than mere existence. Prison systems throughout the world are generally ugly, barbaric, counterproductive and insane. And then we have Joe Arpaio's system. Someday our descendants will look back at "Uncle Joe's System" with shock--that such otherwise sophisticated people could have treated prisoners the way we do (sentenced and unsentenced prisoners; guilty and not guilty). The mentality of "Uncle Joe's System" is way before the Dark Ages. You know it has to be when someone from the streets (who eats once a day or once every other day) comes to jail, eats all their food and still loses weight!
. . . The feds should investigate without the system knowing--and see what really goes on, like people not getting medication for days, when they're to take it every day . . .
Your cellblock A inside reporter,
The Heat Is On
July 3, 1996
. . . I was wondering if there might be some overseer or big brother agency investigating the goings on here at the Madison Street Jail. I thought it possibly could be a federal nutritional or feeding inquiry, as for the past three to four days meals within this jail have dramatically improved. Though I'm sure this is merely a temporary thing for the duration of whatever prompted it.
. . . It's 6 p.m. and it must be over 100 degrees on all floors throughout this jail where inmates are housed and congregated. The blistering heat within the jail is only an offshoot of that on the streets, but this condition exists in inmate housing and dayroom areas. The pod watch towers and the halls as well as any common areas in which jail staff assembles or spends time are all air-conditioned to a cool 68 degrees or so, while any locale in which you find inmates is burning up constantly.
The inmates are shackled with a mostly nonfunctioning swamp cooler. A few days ago the staff here even turned off the water that circulates on the pads of it. We find on any floor location, that once you get to leave your pod we all dread the thought of coming back as all other areas within this jail except our housing areas are air-conditioned. This double-standard is yet another blatant way Sheriff Joe and his staff violate any resemblance we might have of human rights, civil rights or dignity . . .
The jail staff is one poorly trained, subpar group and it's not only the detained inmates who suffer on a daily basis, and not all of us are guilty or even convicted . . .
A Rough Start
My name is Anthony and I am sitting here thinking about why I keep on hurting myself and the people I love the most. I think the reason why is because I hung around people that didn't care about nothing but drugs. I remember when I was in high school you chose to do it because it was the thing to do if you liked to hang around cool people and get attention from the girls. But as time went by it was harder to stop. When I started to notice it was messing up my life it was too late, I was behind bars, feeling sorry for myself. If I only knew what I know now, I could have changed . . .
. . . My mom was in prison when she had me. My father and mother were drug users and alcoholics. When I was born I was four months early because my mom was using drugs when she was pregnant. So I was born with a learning disability. When I was in first grade it was hard for me to understand things. I couldn't read or write that well, so as time went by it got harder for me every day. I was told that I was a dunce and retarded, and that made me think that I was. As I got older I started to hang with people that didn't think so, at least they didn't tell me. When I was 18, I went to prison for the first time. Well, guess what; I made it . . .
I decided to live on the street, which I knew nothing about. It was hard at first. But I got the hang of it. It wasn't that bad. I started meeting people like me, so I guess after all I wasn't the only one that had this problem. . . . All the people knew was how to steal and do drugs. Don't get me wrong. Street people have feelings and their heart can be breaking as well. It was fun at first but now it is all about survival and to worry about nobody but yourself . . .
I know you might think I should get a job. Well, for me, it's hard because I have a learning disability. I know at 29 years old I should know how to read and write. I do know how to write somewhat, and as for reading the same thing. Most jobs require a high school diploma. . . . When I was a kid I would always get hit and screamed at, just because I didn't understand what I was supposed to do. If I read something I couldn't remember what I'd read and didn't understand. And at 29 years old it is the same way. But I taught myself how to read and write, and as you can see I am doing just fine . . .
The Maricopa County jail system, on this we reflect/
The total lack of justice and our loss of respect
At one time concerned about upholding the law/
Now in total denial, from the things that we saw
From the traffic violator, to the fraudulent schemes/
To the serial killer with Death Row in his dreams
One who commits murder is let out on bail/
While the traffic offender is locked up in jail
The rapist gets out on his second offense/
While the drunk gets a year and is sent to the tents
Unrecognizable food and the uniform blues/
The guaranteed daily raisins and the flip flop-style shoes
The half-spoiled lunches, with the Ladmo bag jacket/
Available daily, for those that can hack it
Full grown men, locked in a box/
Egos shot down with pink boxers and socks
Windowless buildings, high ceilings, cold floors/
Stainless steel toilets, dividers, no doors
Concrete, steel and barbed wire fences/
For those with thoughts of escape are soon brought to their senses
Some stay up all nite, keeping others awake/
Caused by insomnia, fear, or high sugar intake
Handcuffs, locks and chains all things that shall bind/
Our constant reminders what happens with crime
While dominoes, chess and cards remain consumers of time/
We're still humans despite our mistakes/
No reason for treatments that dogs wouldn't take
We're all in it together, to this there is no doubt/
We have one thing in common, we all want to get out!
Jesse Molinar, Patrick McKellips, Jose Reyes
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