About a week later I found a gift richer than Field Day, a cookout, and a concert combined. I learned of the Inmate Creative Writing Contest. Sweet! What do I win? I figured this challenge would be like fighting a UFC match against former Olympic ice skater Johnny Weir.
Alas, the only “prize” was a certificate: “Winner, Bureau of Prisons Writing Contest.” But forget Pulitzers and other self-important awards − my name on this document would serve as an unsurpassed credit. I’d proudly display it right next to my Associate’s Degree diploma from Georgia State University, which shows I may associate with people who have real degrees. (Joke credit to my late friend Brian See.)
The contest included three categories: essay, short story, and poetry. Offenders could submit one entry in each. Flush with writing topics from my past couple of years, I entered all categories. Three Winner’s Certificates would bring triple the validation. God knows I needed it.
I browsed the guidelines for the contest. My work wouldn’t pressure COs or cause tension, nor would it be defamatory, obscene, or injurious to anyone. And I certainly would avoid writing about sex. That’s too easy. I could write about prison-ish topics like bodily functions, drug rehab, and downscale exploits that carried street cred. No way I’d lose.
So I cranked out stellar content over the next week with a knock-off Bic pen purchased at the canteen. The words still flowed like runny gravy from the chow hall despite numerous interruptions from neighbors asking for assistance with writing letters. The stories basically wrote themselves.
My essay entry, My Greatest Achievement, detailed a then-recent episode in the wake of my hernia surgery. The piece came straight from my heart. The short story submission borrowed heavily from a bizarre rehab stay in my teen years and included a prison-like twist certainly worthy of a winner certificate.
A thoughtful meditation on my broken life served as my poetry entry, the weak link of my trifecta. I don’t “get” poetry, as this work surely indicated. To me, iambic pentameter might as well be an obscure Olympic event. No subtle wordplay exists in my poems. I rhyme lines like a seventh-grader. Nevertheless, given my competition, I expected a sweep.
Once finished writing, I located the aforementioned Olive Oyl, the dowdy programs director, and handed her an envelope containing my labors of love.
“Oh . . . great!” she said, beautiful blue eyes blazing. Based on her surprise I must’ve been the camp’s lone contest entry. This seemed odd, and later I wondered if everyone else knew something I didn’t.
“Thanks for dealing with this,” I brown-nosed. “Feel free to critique my work if you’d like!”
She chuckled awkwardly and ambled away. Besides free editing, my friendliness might set me apart for special treatment in the future.
I swaggered through the next couple days, buoyed by a sense of accomplishment and feeling less like a loser. I began thinking about frame styles for my Winner’s Certificates. One lazy afternoon as I lounged on my bunk the intercom blared: “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.”
My heart entered my throat. If you’ve been called to see a school principal, you know the dread of going to a sergeant’s office. In prison this call is often harmless, usually to receive legal mail or a box of books someone sent. Sometimes, however, unwanted bunk switches are revealed, or disciplinary action described. The worst case is notice of death in the family. I trudged across the camp to learn my fate.
Rutherford’s sergeant office featured a walk-up window, occupied by Olive. I exhaled, assuming she intended to congratulate me on my fantastic writing. Behind her, a sergeant sat at one desk and a CO at another, both studying me with eyebrows raised. Olive abruptly shoved my writing contest pages through the window, into my face. She spoke with a southern accent common among stilted witches.
“You cain’t be serious with these, and you should be ashaymed of yerself!” she spat. My jaw dropped.
“There’s profanity in awl of them. And you cain’t write about bowel movements!”
The guys behind her laughed, so I wondered if Olive was joking. I began a reply. “You know, the contest guidelines don’t ban writing about bodily −”
“No one wonts to read about your duuump bein’ a slot machine jackpot!” she huffed.
Far from joking, she’d somehow taken my contest entries personally. She apparently held a black belt in Southern Baptist.
Confused, I asked if the problem lied with the slot machine or the dump. Alas, Olive closed the window on the episode − both literally and figuratively. She slammed it shut. Rattled but undeterred, I buzzed back to my bunk and began the necessary revisions to my masterpieces.
As I changed words like hell to heck and shit to stuff, I heard “Yo, Biff” shouted from around the corner. I waded through dramatic murmurs from my fellow felons to the CO desk by the door. There stood Olive, still red-faced. She’d made a house call instead of calling me on the intercom. Her baby-blues sliced me with a glare. You’d think I sold her dog for parts or something.
“Give me those entries back,” she commanded, through clenched teeth.
I zipped back to my bunk and grabbed the pages, thinking someone had talked sense into her. As I placed my writings into her trembling hand I said: “By the way, the contest guidelines don’t ban profanity, you know.”
“I doubt that’s going to help yew!” she spat and stormed out the door.
I took this to mean my entries would be entered in the contest, despite her disapproval. Or Olive’s co-workers insisted she retrieve them so they could read an entertaining story about some inmate’s creative dump.
I absorbed good-natured shoves and elbows from the assembled barracks crowd. “Whoooo! Damn, Biff! Bitch was pissed!” So much for me staying low-key at this camp.
Word of my dilemma quickly spread and repeating the story felt like holding a dozen separate press conferences. Guys were dying to read it too, but I had already mailed the first drafts back home for safekeeping. Even COs needed to see. I learned most of them considered Olive especially uptight, and enjoyed watching her freak out.
As I sat signing autographs the following day I again heard “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.” Olive again stood at the window, only slightly more composed than last time. She explained that not only were my contest entries rejected, but I would be written up for obscenity and use of profanity.
“Obscenity?” I sputtered. “With all due respect, my essay lacked taste, but it wasn’t obscene at all.”
This sent another surge into Olive, one she had probably prayed to avoid. She grabbed the offending pages and applied her reading glasses. She quoted.
“‘My body − or more specifically, my sphincter − screamed ‘No! This is too tall a mountain to climb!’ Uhh, that’s clearly obscene!”
“Probably not to inmates,” I countered. “And it’s our writing contest, right?”
Olive ignored me and continued quoting aloud, much to the delight of two COs seated behind her, laughing.
“And your short story has a murder in it! How . . . how can you think a stabbing with a sharpened book cover would be okay?!” She yanked her glasses off.
“This is a writing contest for prison, not a garden club.”
This cracked up the peanut gallery, which somehow made Olive redder. To her, no discussion or negotiation was needed. She had a godless sinner right where she wanted him.
She told me to expect a formal write-up and slammed the window closed with authority. No “Good day, heathen,” and no compliments on my paragraph structure or for coining snappy phrases.
The farce continued two days later at my arraignment in the mailroom/disciplinary office. An affable young CO named Hastings had this paperwork duty dumped on him. At least he enjoyed comic relief as he recited and typed up my charges.
The official indictment referred to a “dangerous weapon (hunting knife),” and contained the phrase: “comparing his bowel movement to inanimate objects.” Nonsense. I had compared a human being − or at least Rush Limbaugh − to the result of my bowel movement, not the physical act. A strong semantics defense seemed probable.
Denial of a Winner’s Certificate worried me far more than official punishment. Almost everyone figured I’d draw a suspended sentence, to be struck from my record if I behaved for a few months. I assumed that someone during the appeal process would stop laughing long enough to dismiss the charges.
My persecution progressed at a meeting with the Warden, a portly gentleman equal parts pompous and humorless. His doughy index fingers pecked out my Incident Report on a keyboard while I told my side of the story. I might as well have been addressing a church pew. One that could roll its eyes.
Warden barely paid attention, and clearly found facts and logic unimportant. He had no plans to side with a smart-ass like me over his Programs Director. Warden pronounced me guilty, so I took the next step: an appeal to a Disciplinary Hearing Officer, employed by the same state agency as Olive and Warden.
Two days later I sat in the same room, talking to the same guy only with a different name. I wondered if they attended the same church. Any hope he would stop this debacle quickly vanished. He read aloud: “a turd frozen and fashioned into a hunting knife” through a smirk. His beady eyes narrowed as they drew me into focus.
“I can offer you a suspended sentence for a profanity charge. If you decide to appeal further, I will add charges for insubordination and obscenity.”
I had planned to appeal all the way to the top. Perhaps even alert the media as a last resort. I envisioned my story becoming a cause célèbre among creative minds. The Man not only took my freedom via the War on Drugs but now artist creativity came under the pressure. The tasteless topic or otherwise, this oppression could not stand. Someone had to go to the wall for shit jokes. Otherwise, where would the tyranny end?
Instead, my resolve crumbled in the face of escalating penalties. If my appeals failed I’d go to The Hole, followed by medium security instead of honor grade. And some honor I showed. The Man broke me. Fyodor Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian penal camp for publishing anti-government pamphlets, yet I wussed out over this. This shame shall sully the rest of my days, even though my prison ride rolled much smoother for it.
The next day I accepted a suspended sentence for the flimsiest inmate violation imaginable: profanity. Turns out official prison regulations forbid “profanity of any kind,” so its absence in the contest guidelines was irrelevant. At least I obtained the official document that includes numerous quotes from my disqualified works. I display it with pride – my poor man’s Writing Contest Winner’s Certificate.