Several weeks ago, the other nurse working the night shift at the prison clinic and I were called to one of the cell blocks to check on an inmate. It is unusual that we go out at night, for the inmates -unless they are in the segregated unit- come to us, accompanied by several officers, and we see them in our house, the clinic.
I will not go into all the reasons we were called, but by the time we arrived the officers were tossing the mattresses and sheets, looking for anything that a man could hurt himself with. I had to wait to check the prisoner's BP while this went on, and I had to wait outside the cell.
If our visits to the cell blocks are infrequent, our visits inside the cell are rare, and usually we step only a foot inside, when the officers have finished handcuffing the man who has just committed the heinous crime of disturbing prison peace and routine and inflicting paperwork on others.
Prison is a foreign country. It has its tribes, it wars, its alliances, its allegiances. The officers, in the hourly company of felons, know this well. The nurses hear of it in rumors, or if a fight breaks out, see it first hand as we travel in to certify that everyone in the rumble has been checked out for damage.
When the officers cleared me, I stepped inside to take an unremarkable blood pressure. How curious I was then to see , in the cell of someone suspected of hiding razor blades to hurt himself, a long, ragged, roped up sheet tied to the air vent high up on the wall. This smelled of harm to me, though how anyone could hang himself this way was a mystery. I pointed this out to an officer, but he was unimpressed.
As the other nurse and I walked back to the clinic, I mentioned the sheet.
"He's not going to hang himself with it", she said, It's just a fishing line".
Of prison folkways it is best not to know too much. But there are times when insight shines in on 600 bored men left to their own devices. Ingenuity springs forth like a fairy circle of mushrooms appearing overnight on wet ground .
What a precious inch of space it must be, the gap between cell door and cell floor . Out into the 0100 world goes the fishing line,unseen by the officers(or ignored), as they sit in their office between their two hourly prisoner head counts.
And what are we fishing for? The Moby Dick of prison contraband, a cell phone? Unlikely, unless it is thin enough. Perhaps a cigarette or a pill never swallowed, then spit out onto toilet paper and sold two doors down, passed on by other sportsmen out for the night on the Prison Pier.
Maybe just a note to some one in Protective Custody, who can communicate in no other way.
A strange night world. Adventure in the light under the door, in the sheet reeled back in-
And perhaps this anecdote- Different prison, different sex.
I went out one evening to Death Row at the women's prison. I went with the tiny LPN who was passing the ladies their evening medicine. Outside the doors- normal noise. Within- Babel.
Screaming. Shouting. Hooting. Hissing. A baboon pack in a jungle of bars.
"What are they doing?", I asked the LPN.
"They're talking to each other", she said.