It was five a.m. Although I was officially off I had to wake up and stand in line in the cold hallway if I wanted to exchange the dirty clothes I’d worn the past two days for some that were not necessarily clean, but at least somewhat less dirty. Mine is usually the last section to be called out for “necessities,” but in the spirit of the holiday season, gods of whimsy changed the routine and now my section was called out first. Tousled and half-asleep, I grabbed the pile of damp, reeking clothes and hit the stairs almost dead last behind all the other half-awake slobs squinting blearily at the pre-dawn New Year’s Eve.

While standing in the slow-moving line, an old hack with a well-deserved reputation for difficulty demanded the I.D. card of a prisoner a few spaces behind me. He wordlessly snatched it from the poor man’s grasp and jotted down a few lines of information. The old guard walked past other prisoners, looking each of them up and down as if trying to decide on a choice cut of meat. They were spared. I was not. I was chosen for his next pre-dawn power play. He stopped, glared at me, and demanded my I.D. card. I handed it over without comment or question and watched him jot down my name and number in a palsied hand sprinkled with liver spots.

After my clothes were passed through the “necessity room” window, I paused by the guard’s desk and asked him why he wanted my I.D. The question seemed to electrify him. I immediately regretted making the query.

“I’m going to write you a case for disobeying an order, that’s why!” he snarled. His rheumy, bloodshot eyes peered at me with such intensity that I had a brief flashback. His was the same expression I had seen on a vicious Rhode Island Red laying hen just before she pecked my face one morning at Mamaw Brasfield’s place nearly 50 years ago. I had run howling for consolation, my hand dramatically clenched over my cheek, only to be told to “keep your ass out of the chicken coop, like I’ve told you a hundred times.” What I can’t recall, is who I despised more that moment: Mamaw Brasfield or the killer hen.

It would have been wiser to let it go, but I just couldn’t. I told him that the only direct order he’d given me was to hand over my ID, which I’d done. “So, what are you talking about?” I goaded.

“I’m talking about you needing a haircut and not getting one, inmate!” he crowed. “I’ve had the barbershop open the last two nights and the picket bosses have announced it over the PA system,” he continued, sucking in a breath, “and that’s a direct order to anybody who needs a haircut!”

Before I could bite my tongue I responded, “Oh, bullshit…”

If you’ve done any time at all, then you know how badly the keepers feel when anyone–especially the kept–questions their authority. To express an opinion like I’d just done seems to jeopardize their self-image. He didn’t disappoint me. He was so incensed he emanated heat. His fury was such that he snatched off his wire-framed glasses from the tip of his nose and brayed, “Have you lost your goddamn mind!? You can’t talk to me like that!”

It was too late. I told him I wasn’t the one whose presence of mind was in question, but he didn’t know what I was talking about. “An announcement over the PA system in the dayroom is not a ‘direct order’ to any one person in particular,” I told him, “especially not to me, since I had been in my cell, with earplugs inserted against the excessive noise being made by the football fans maddened at the thought of the season soon ending.” His face twisted into a mask of incredulity. He asked me how long I’ve been doing time and I told him almost 25 years.

“How often do we have to tell you to get a haircut?” he asked. I told him that no one ever tells me that sort of thing unless they’re just looking for a reason to pull my chain.

I thought for a minute that I’d smart-mouthed myself into being sprayed by the little canister of pepper-gas all the guards carry on holsters. Wild west side-arms to protect them from convicted evildoers in dire need of pre-emptive grooming. Instead, he bleated, “Get to your house!” and stalked down the hallway toward the hapless prisoners, who waited like obedient children shadowed beneath a heavy hand of mindless discipline. His shift was ending in less than an hour. My day had just begun.

I now work in the unit library. Without requesting or wanting a job change from the garment factory, I was interviewed by the unit classification committee and deemed an appropriate choice for library clerk. I resisted the change for as long as I could and pulled as many political stops as possible, attempting to get back to the garment factory where the repetitive actions of operating a sewing machine stitched days to weeks and months with very little effort and even less thought. Nothing worked. I was trapped. In the library I’d be required to render personal service to other prisoners: To not only provide them with books, magazines, newspapers, and information (which isn’t that bad), but to repeatedly be asked for favors and special treatment over and over again by scores of those I only know in passing, but who now, due to my new job, would consider themselves to be my best friends, road-dogs, home-boys, and “padnahs,” for God’s sake, and therefore entitled to special treatment. If I did my job responsibly, it wouldn’t be long before my reputation changed from being thought of as “good people” to being denigrated as just the opposite.

After a brief, explicit conversation with the warden, I understood I would work where assigned, not where I wanted to work. I settled into the role and its routine. I saw the light. I’d worked in the same capacity on another unit years ago, and could function without much training, so it was a good match, as much as I hate to admit it.

During the holidays the library was transformed by remodeling, reconstruction, and reconfiguration of shelves that had been chopped in half by maintenance workers a week before. It was the first time the librarian had seen how her domain had been wrecked, and although she appeared stunned, she was in better humor than I’d have been, considering the chaos of construction amid 18,000 volumes of books stacked everywhere. Before long, the lieutenant who’d been in charge of the maintenance workers came in, then a couple more maintenance supervisors with their crew. The prison school principal arrived,then the major and all three wardens. Opinions and ideas were batted back and forth like dead birds while my co-workers and I lingered in the background, swiping at sawdust and picking up trash. None of them said a word about me needing a haircut. I wished my boss-lady a Happy New Year. She responded with a little wave and a wan smile.

The guard came back to work that evening at 6 p.m. and immediately called me and several other men to the desk. A stack of disciplinary cases were before him and I wondered if he had spent his off-duty hours making sure that the untonsured and ill-groomed would regret their slovenly ways.

Then the lieutenant, known as the “Pink Panther” because of his gin blossom complexion, arrived. The Pink Panther is as infamous for his ill humor and bad temper as the barber-patrol guard. The disciplinary cases were still under investigation, so when the lieutenant asked if I’d gotten a haircut that day, I told him no… all I’d done was comb my hair, which I hadn’t had time to do before my encounter with the guard.

“The Pink” allowed that my hairstyle was OK, except that it was a little long in the back. Could I get it trimmed a bit? Sure. No problem. The guard looked as if he could have stabbed us both.

After the barber clipped a miniscule amount of hair to dust my collar, I went back and passed the lieutenant’s muster. I was then told that “the case” would be marked as “informally resolved,” but sent to the major’s desk. And as a warning against future encounters with the groom squad, the guard told me, “Don’t let us have to tell you to get it cut again, or the major’s not gonna be pleased!”

I wanted to respond as I had 12 hours earlier, but this time I kept my mouth shut and simply walked away, like a model peckerwood really ought to do.

I’m still not sure if the guard was obsessed with prisoner hygiene and grooming, or what. Maybe he’s simply bored. I’d hate to think the worst–that he spends his working hours and the taxpayer dollars that pay his salary just to play head games (no pun intended). I’ve been locked up since both John Travolta and I were thin, but I still look for a bargain where I can find one and would rather see prison guards spending their time making sure shower drains were unplugged, toilets unstopped, and electricity working, or that enough food was prepared in the kitchen so everyone was fed a full meal. I’d rather they walked their appointed rounds at their appointed times to ensure safety and security for everyone instead of ganging up at the desk in the main hallway of every building and acting insulted when a prisoner interrupted their quality time together. Maybe there’s a place for people to strut around in costumes, expecting instant, abject obedience to their every demand, but that place isn’t prison, and with things on the fritz with Osama, the Taliban isn’t hiring anymore.

Philip Brasfield is a contributing editor to The Other Side and a frequent contributor to The Touchstone. This is his 25th year in prison. He writes from the Hughes Unit near Gatesville, Texas, where his hair is perfect.

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Published at 12:00 am CST