Locked Up And Can’t Get Out

By Dr. Elyk Ley 03/16/17

In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, a doctor battling addiction recounts his time in prison and the massive impact it had on his life. 

An inmate standing inside a jail cell with his arms crossed.

I had been to the county jail as an inmate a few times for brief stays over the years for minor offenses. It was a huge complex of four jails on a large stretch of land by a large river. It had a troubling history of overcrowdedness and poor living conditions. The majority of inmates were African-American and Hispanic as is the case in most urban jails across the country.

This time I knew that I would be in for a while. This was the real deal, my worst nightmare.

I reflected upon my experiences as a prison physician in the county and state correctional facilities in the past where I learned much from conversing with inmates and correctional officers and from my observations of the inner workings of prison systems. Prisons were a world of reality of their own unlike any other.

The rules of “street life" are modified to conform to the prison environment but the players are essentially the same. It’s all about survival of the fittest mind and body. Survival is predicated upon one’s ability to adapt - you have to be adept at adaptation, especially if you are new to the system.

Avoiding confrontations is essential but equally important is knowing to only be concerned with those matters that directly affect your safety or your freedom. Don’t gamble and don’t express untoward affection to the homosexual sub-population. Any display of weakness was inviting trouble from the seasoned criminals - those for whom imprisonment was an expected and accepted part of life.

I was assigned to a four-man cell that had been converted from a supply closet due to the overcrowded conditions. One of my cellmates was someone whom I knew from several years ago when I was freebasing cocaine at my cousin Chickie’s house. He was a fairly decent guy, in jail for operating an illegal taxicab. I sensed that he was as glad to see me as I was to see him because neither of us were experienced jailers. The other two cellmates were state prison inmates that were sent to the county court system for additional adjudicative matters. They sensed that I was unaccustomed to prison life so I had to be on guard at all times.

I didn’t want to be incarcerated but, honestly, I was getting a sense of order and structure back to my life. I was sleeping, eating and exercising regularly and with regularity. Most importantly, I was away from cocaine and the drug lifestyle.

When I was arrested my clothing consisted of short pants, a t-shirt and sandals. I hadn’t put on underwear because it was a hot night and I was in bed when Tee awakened me. It never occurred to me that I would not be returning to my room that night.

In jail, I was given the classic orange jumpsuit but I needed underwear. Any unusual body exposure in jail could be misinterpreted as a gesture of desiring a sexual relationship. Fortunately, I was a given a pair of undershorts by a former drug counselor of mine who had relapsed badly and was now an inmate.

One of the state inmates in my converted cell was completing a 13-year sentence for attempted murder of a police officer. He was extremely loquacious and would always refer to himself as the “gipper man.” It was a term that was beyond my jailhouse vocabulary. He and I shared the same bunkbeds and at night he would frequently talk about sexual topics stating that because of his lengthy incarceration he had forgotten what sex felt like. I just dismissed his conversation as just his way of dealing with confinement.

A few weeks later, when I was assigned to a two-man cell, he and I became cellmates (cellies). During our first day together, we argued over what I thought was an extremely minor issue: the water beads in the sink that he insisted I wipe after each use. I stated that I would try to be conscious of his request but that I could not assure him that I would not forget.

He insisted that I always do it and, in my defiance, I deliberately refused to do it to observe his reaction. Well, he performed melodramatically, threatening to kick my ass when the door was locked and the lights went out. It was my first confrontation as an inmate. He broadcasted his threat loudly so that other inmates could hear him. This meant that my jailhouse reputation was on the line. If it was unfavorable – by prison standards – it would follow me wherever I went within the prison system. The same was true for a favorable reputation.

That night I lay on my top bunk with my fist wrapped tightly around a ballpoint pen. It was the only weapon that I could find. I was ready to defend myself against my younger, bigger, stronger and more experienced cellmate.

My plan was puncture his carotid artery or jugular vein with the intent of severely injuring him, should he attack me. I couldn’t waste my energy trying to fight a guy in a locked cell who had probably been lifting weights everyday for the past 13 years.

Fortunately, he did nothing that night except talk and shake the bed occasionally whenever he thought that I was falling asleep. The next morning his verbal assault upon me was so vociferous that the guards moved him to a different cell.

During his first night with his new cellmate he tried to rape him! The two fought loudly until the correctional officers intervened in the early morning hours. A retrospective analysis of our brief time together led me to conclude that he was testing my courage and manliness with the sink demand he placed upon me. Had I acceded, I likely would have been perceived as weak and a potential candidate for sexual aggression. I really would have tried my best to kill him and just suffered the consequences if he had attacked me with that intent.

As I thought further about the transpired events, I realized that inmates who have served long prison sentences develop specific routines and habits that are crucial to coping with their imprisonment. The loss of freedom in a potentially hostile prison environment for many years is an extremely traumatic event that can spawn and augment idiosyncratic and a range of abnormal behaviors. Each inmate develops his/her own method of dealing with this psychosocial (and sometimes physical) trauma. The cell is the closest thing to a private domain that an inmate has, the only area that he/she has some control over.

Peculiar habits and routines are sometimes important to maintain psychological homeostasis. It is how one “bids.” Bid is a jailhouse term that refers to what an inmate does to get through each day, each week, each month and each year. A bid can be the act of cleaning, writing, eating, sleeping, card- or game-playing, weightlifting or even fighting. Having a bid is critical to survival but they can also change at any time during confinement. Once a prisoner becomes familiar with other prisoners in his/her cell block or dormitory, bids are acknowledged and respected as long as they don’t cause another inmate harm or extreme difficulty.

My new cellmate was a young Laotian (from Laos) guy who was a very interesting character study. He was a handsome, short, heavily accented drug dealer. I had never encountered an Asian cocaine dealer up to that point in my drug experiences (Caucasian, Hispanic, and African-American, yes, but never Asian). More surprisingly, he was a gangster rapper who was familiar with all the lyrics of the popular rap songs of that time. He was an experienced jailer despite only being in his mid-twenties. He taught me the nuances of jail existence from our many late night conversations.

It was ironic that an Asian guy was teaching a Black guy about jail life. I felt comfortable around him and I actually trusted him. He taught me a lot about Asian-American culture especially in regards to its criminal elements: the gangs that rob, steal, extort and even murder. He was a chronic gambler, that was how he bidded as he waited to be deported to Laos because of his persistent and repetitive criminal behavior.


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