Prison Writing Contest

I submitted my labors of love to Olive Oyl, the awkward programs director, with great pride. She seemed surprised to receive contest entries at all, presumably because prison isn’t exactly full of writers. Or perhaps my inmate brethren shied away from entering for reasons I’d yet to learn. Whatever the case, I’d cleared the first hurdle since the statewide contest had a per-camp entry limit. Let the games begin.

Feeling bold, I thanked Olive and invited her to critique my work before submitting them for the contest. Besides free editing, this friendliness might set me apart for future special treatment that might come in handy. I swaggered through the next few days, buoyed by a sense of accomplishment and feeling less like a loser. Having produced high quality material, I was already considering frame styles for my Winner’s Certificates.

Two days after my contest submissions, the intercom blared: “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.” My heart entered my throat. I embarked on the cross camp walk.

If you’ve been called to see a school principal, you know the dread of going to a sergeant’s office. In prison the reason is often harmless, like to receive legal mail or a box of books someone sent. However, sometimes disciplinary action looms, or instructions for an unwanted bunk switch. Worst case is notice of a death in the family.

Rutherford’s sergeant office featured a walk-up window, and I noticed Olive in it before I got there. I exhaled, assuming she intended to congratulate me on my fantastic writing.

She was flanked in the background by a sergeant seated at one desk and a CO at another, both seemingly interested in my arrival. Olive abruptly shoved my writing contest pages through the window and into my face. She spoke with a southern accent common among stilted wenches.

“You cain’t be serious with these, and you should be ashaymed of yerself!” she spat. “There’s profanity in awl of them, and you cain’t write about bowel mooovements!”

Given the laughter from the COs behind her, I briefly wondered if Olive was joking. Apparently she was a black belt in Southern Baptist, however, because she clearly took my prison writing contest entry personally; hardly with humor.

“You know, the contest guidelines don’t . . .” I offered, only to be cut off.

“No one wonts to read about your duuump! Or yew comparin’ a bowel moovement to a slot machine jackpot!” she huffed.

Whether she was offended by the deuce-dropping or the gambling machine was unclear. I would’ve asked, but Olive had 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 my name shouted from around the corner. I walked to the CO desk by the barracks door as dramatic murmurs from my fellow felons filled the air. And there stood Olive, still so red-faced that she’d come in person instead of summoning me via the intercom. She greeted me with a glare. You’d think I sold her dog for parts or something.

“Give me those entries back,” she commanded.

I returned to my bunk and grabbed the pages, thinking someone talked some sense into her and I’d be in the contest after all. As I placed writings into Olive’s trembling hand I said: “By the way, the contest guidelines don’t ban profanity, you know.”

“I doubt that’s going to help yew!” Olive 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 dump.

The assembled barracks crowd jeered and whooped it up. “Damn, Homie! Bitch was pissed!” So much for me staying low-key at this camp.

Word of my debacle quickly spread, and repeating the story felt like holding dozens of press conferences. Guys were dying to read it too, but I had already mailed the first drafts back home for safe keeping. Even COs asked about it. Evidently most of them considered Olive to be especially uptight, and enjoyed watching her freak out.

The following day as I sat signing autographs, another announcement came. “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.”

Olive was again at the window, only slightly more composed than last time. She explained that not only were my contest entries rejected, but I was to be written up for obscenity for me 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. “I quote: ‘my body − or more specifically, my sphincter − screamed: No! This is too tall a mountain to climb!’ That’s clearly obscene!”

“Probably not to inmates,” I countered. “And it’s our writing contest, right?”

Alas, this was not a discussion or negotiation − I was a heathen being chastised. Olive ignored me and continued, to the delight of two COs seated behind her who failed to stifle laughter. “And  your short story has a murder in it! How . . . how can you think describing a stabbing with a sharpened AA book cover would be okay?”

“This is a writing contest for prison, not a garden club.”

This cracked up the peanut gallery, but Olive’s demeanor resembled that of a church pew. She told me to expect a formal write up and then slammed the window closed with authority. No “Good day, sir,” and no compliments on my paragraph structure or for the snappy phrases I coined in my writing.

The farce continued two days later when I was called to the mail room/disciplinary office for an arraignment. An affable young CO named Hastings had been dumped this paperwork duty, but at least he was entertained. He laughed often 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.” This was erroneous, however, as I had compared a human being − or at least Rush Limbaugh − to the result of my bowel movement. Not the physical act. If word semantics were a defense, perhaps I had a chance.

I was far more worried about denial of a Winner’s Certificate than official punishment. Almost everyone figured I’d draw a suspended sentence, to be struck from my record if I behaved myself for a few months. I assumed even better: that someone in the appeal process would stop laughing long enough to dismiss all charges.

The next step in my persecution involved meeting with the warden, a portly gentleman who was as pompous and humorless as out of shape. His doughy index fingers pecked out my Incident Report on a keyboard, followed by me presenting my side of the story to him. Clearly the facts and logic were unimportant in this case. The warden barely paid attention, and rolled his eyes when he did. He was not going to side with a smart-ass like me over his director of programs, regardless. The warden pronounced me guilty, so I appealed.

I returned to the same room a couple days later to face a theoretically impartial Disciplinary Hearing Officer, employed by the state. Surely he would halt this debacle. Instead, the guy might as well have been Olive’s brother. He read aloud: “a turd frozen and fashioned into a hunting knife” through a smirk, with eyes narrowed.

“You are hereby offered 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 as far as possible, and perhaps alert the media as a last resort. I envisioned my story becoming a cause célèbre among creative minds, at least on a slow news day. The Man not only took my freedom thanks the indefensible War on Drugs, but now artist creativity was under the pressure. I figured my oppression could not stand, tasteless topic or otherwise. Poop humor is art too, after all. 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 like a stay in the Hole if continued appeals failed. In other words, The Man broke me. I wussed out and protected my ultimate goals: a transfer to the state’s best prison camp, in Asheville, and a good work-release job there. Also, better to not have the current authorities pissed at me, to avoid retributions such as a shitty bunk assignment.

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 lack of mention in the contest guidelines was irrelevant. My only consolation was a poor man’s Writing Contest Winner’s Certificate: the official document that includes numerous quotes from my disqualified works. I will display it with pride.

The final ruling was as disgraceful as a smoking ban on all government property in North Carolina. Tobacco built the state, and Sir Walter Raleigh would surely choke on his chaw if he were alive to witness the outrage. Odds are the next penitential regulation will prevent inmates from expressing lust towards their wives or girlfriends, both verbally and in letters. This would probably suit Olive and her ilk just fine.

Just a Little Light . . .

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