We stand talking, cell doors and iron bars between us.
He speaks through a small opening. I see only his face and upper body.
I want to stand closer, it’s noisy on the Pod and his voice is soft,
but I can’t take the risk of having bodily fluids thrown on me.
Inmates contact me to talk, or when they have a ‘psychological emergency.’
I see them, believing that in some way I can help.
“I not doing so well, Doc,” they tell me.
I want to listen, but I’ve been fooled before.
I watch each inmate’s face, but I also watch his hands.
If they disappear from view, and he starts breathing heavy, I know he’s gunning me.
“Thanks, Doc. I’m much better now.”
He smiles, turns his back to me and lies down on his bunk.
I want to get angry. I want to yell, “You have no right!”
But inmates know that there are seldom repercussions.
Back in my office, I write, “Inmate is safe, no evidence of suicidal ideation.”
What I want to write is, “Another wham-bam, thank-you-ma’am at my expense.”
I can cope with the feces and urine on the walls,
the bloody arms with gang names carved into penetrated skin,
the shanks kept in orifices, used as safe places,
until they are needed for self-defense or self-harm.
But the masturbation, the gunning, disturbs me.
“What if someone did this to your sister or your mother?” I say.
They look at me like I don’t know anything.
“Hell, Doc, it ain’t like they’ve never seen a dick before.”
They are in lockdown 23 hours a day, no air conditioning, in the Deep South.
“Don’t you want to work to change your level, get to open population?” I ask.
“Damn, Doc, those motherfuckers that roam free will kill me or I’ll kill them.
I’m fine here. Just fine.”
They wait in their cells for their trays. Prison food mixes well with body-fluids.
I think about this and realize that everything else has been taken away.
All that is left within their control is on and inside their bodies,
waiting to be used in any way possible.
In time I learn to say, “Hands on the wall where I can see them.
If you start gunning, I’m out of here. You got that?”
Those that seek only self-pleasure ignore me.
“Bitch,” some say as they turn and walk away.
But once in a while, an inmate nods and keeps his hands on the wall.
We make eye contact.
I say, “Okay, now let’s talk, for real.”
And sometimes, just sometimes, that is what we do.
Patricia Black-Gould’s work as a forensic psychologist at a state prison for men inspired this poem. Previously, she worked as theater director, producer, and playwright. She recently started writing poetry and fiction and is a member of National League of American Pen Women. Her first poem “The Fireman” will appear in the Fall 2018 PEN Women Literary Magazine.