About this post: These pieces will appear in Concertina, Joseph Bathanti‘s forthcoming book of prison-related poems, from Mercer University Press. Bathanti is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate and a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, where he is Director of Writing in the Field and Writer-in-Residence in the University’s Watauga Global Community. He has taught writing workshops in prisons for 35 years and is former chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project.
From the Latin: recidīvus “recurring” and recidō “I fall back” and re “back” and cadō “I fall.”
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Before working in a prison, I had never heard the term. A guard, Albert Overcash, took me out on escape with him – a violation that would’ve meant his job. Albert knew the guy on the run – Clarence Vessel (alias Weasel) – and didn’t think it mattered one way or another if Clarence were caught or stayed gone. “I’m sure not hauling him back to the camp,” Albert vowed.
Clarence, a revolving-door drunk, had never hurt anybody. They’d pick him up, drunker than ten men, for loitering or pissing against a dumpster, stealing potted meat at Kroger. Give him eighteen months. He’d serve six active, bump out, then back in for Mogen David, Wild Irish Rose, MD 20-20. DTs, black-outs, his gray matter eaten up with rotgut.
Albert laid this all out to me. Before I knew anything. Before I had a notion of time and captivity. He didn’t want to be a prison guard; but, my age, he had a wife and new baby girl. In high school, he had had a tryout with the Cubs, then got his girl pregnant and dropped out before graduation to work, copped a GED, and finally picked up the job at Huntersville Prison: simple enough if you could navigate the application and clear the PIN check. A shitty job with shitty wages, but stability and benefits. He was chipping away on a degree in Criminal Justice at Central Piedmont. He smoked reefer and drank malt liquor. Thin hair fell over his ears; he wore gold bracelets and necklaces with his uniform. The old guards didn’t like him. He thought every last bit of it was a farce.
We just rode around the day Clarence Vessel ran, relieved we didn’t run up on him. As dictated by procedure, Albert communicated over the CB to the other vehicles involved in the chase: 10-4 and What’s your 20? On his chest, he wore the silver Department of Correction nameplate: M.A (for Maynard Albert) Overcash. We crossed into Cabarrus County, stopped at a roadhouse for beer and corndogs, listened to Led Zeppelin, threw darts and drove back to the Unit.
I don’t know if Clarence was ever found. 60 to 70 percent of the men and women sent up go back to prison at least once during their lives – not even taking into account the ones who never get out. Those numbers seemed so absurdly impossible that I dismissed them – Albert’s kind of joke, a stab at irony. He worked third shift, all night – the dead man’s shift – when the prison unleashed its haints and diabolical. He’d hole up in the sergeant’s office, between the two wings of the cellblock, packed each with ninety convicts, bunked three-tiers high, some very dangerous men, and read Stephen King. Albert and I went to the Capri on opening night and watched The Shining. He insisted we sit in the first row. Those bloody, desiccated monsters hurtling through the screen into our faces. We were both twenty-three. He knew I was trying to be a writer. He had a drawer full of stories he promised to show me.
But for all that, he invested in the wrong person, forgot the first principle of his profession: Never trust a convict. Contraband (another term): a buzz, some tiny shimmer to elevate Albert above the yard into the book he was dying to write – maybe about a young white prison guard with a new family who gets roiled up with a black convict cook, perhaps the two are secretly in love, and sells his soul for a weedy lid of dirt-clotted home-grown.
Albert got popped. Ended up trailing time himself at a minimum camp in Anson County: 6 months active – like Clarence Vessel. Often that’s how it starts: a fellow catches piddling time behind an innocent high, wrong place, wrong time (same way Albert explained Clarence). Could happen to anybody: one lousy misfire and you find yourself a convict, sporting prison greens, in constant peril. Perhaps that life even becomes you.
After that first jolt, Albert flopped back and forth to the penitentiary, mainly possession and public drunks, dibbing and dabbing, and finally he ran. He’s out there somewhere, right now, his name on a fugitive warrant.
At Camp Greene, I picked up two inmates rigged out in street clothes for work-release interviews at Jack’s Steak House on Freedom Drive. A petite convict named Short Dog,
all mouth, never stopped, the almighty dozens – what the inmates termed jooging –
a nervous conspiratorial laugh, toothpick, black leather jacket, and black toboggan.
Like a warhead. And a husky woman I had never seen before: Debbie, from the Halfway House on Park Road. Garish make-up, close afro, decked in hot pants, platforms, skimpy red tube cinching her considerable breasts, yet practiced in her dainty airs.
She and Short Dog lounged in the back seat of the state car: a blue ‘74 Valiant that bore the North Carolina Department of Correction decal on its front doors: a downward arrow that suddenly U-turned Heavenward, symbolic of the restoration engendered by a stretch in prison – the DOC at its most allegorical. The car had a bright yellow commonwealth tag and a CB that was to remain engaged whenever the vehicle was in operation. Along the drive shaft was a bracket to rack and lock a shotgun. I had switched off the CB. We listened to the radio. Autumn of ’76, Dylan’s Desire: “Hurricane” and “Joey.” The inmates liked those songs – the blood and danger.
We plopped in a booth at Jack’s. Debbie, red lipsticked mouth, batting eyes, blush caked on her high brown cheeks, propped her big breasts on the Formica – a carnal chaingang icon – Short Dog grinning gaudily, balancing the shaker in a drift of salt, worrying that toothpick around his mouth like a compass needle. The manager asked them a few questions, and hired them on the spot. Inmate labor was cheap and dependable.
On the way back to the camp, they smoked cigarettes, and held hands. We dropped by the Dairy Queen and together slowly ate the white pristine cones. Short Dog, later on the yard, finally clued me that Debbie was no girl, but Dwight, a transsexual, not the same as a he-she, but an inmate who had crossed over prior to going down; therefore the State was obliged by law to keep the hormones coming and everything else, including, if and when, the irrevocable surgery.
Debbie – everyone called her the girl – wore Honor Grade fatigues on the yard, but come lock-down shed to teddies and camisoles, a straight-up female – you couldn’t tell the difference – with a vicious body and lingerie living in the penitentiary dorm with 180 men who hadn’t had a woman in years. And she fought like a gladiator.
Convicts arriving on the transfer bus figured they’d caught the best time on the State.
A nightmare for custody, the Department didn’t know how to classify her, what pronoun was appropriate. Technically she was not a woman, so they couldn’t transfer her to Women’s in Raleigh. She was clearly not a man.
I didn’t know a damn thing, and that was never more apparent than that afternoon on Freedom Drive when I could not distinguish a man from a woman. I was just driving the car, digging Dylan, and a 50-cent cone from the DQ. In fact, I had been thinking: Mother of God. But not a desperate or even imploring Mother of God. Rather, a prayer of thanksgiving, near euphoria, that my life was just starting and the world was so utterly strange.