This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
There are these little square vents above the toilet to help circulate the air. Sometimes you can hear your neighbors through them, as if they're right there in the room. Sometimes you can hear night terrors — there’s plenty of PTSD in America’s prisons. Sometimes, you can hear bathroom noises; mostly gas with the occasional burst of explosive diarrhea. And inevitably, you hear conversations — sometimes whispered, more often ludicrously loud.
You can cover the vents with cardboard, but sound still bleeds through. And if a particularly dickish corrections officer does a walk-through, you might catch a write-up for cell alteration.
I used to hear this one young self-styled gangsta named Drifter chattering all the time. He was a tall, skinny guy with multiple tattoo teardrops and a nasal voice. All night, he’d prattle on with stories of armed robberies or drug deals gone bad. He never came up for air, just gabbed and gabbed: “So I say ‘Get in the fuckin’ car you stupid bitch!’ I fuckin’ take off and BAM! Fuckin’ I was all like, ‘What the fuck?’ The fuckin’ bitch threw a rock at my ride, dog. I backed up, ey.”
The man proceeded to make car noises. I never even heard his cellie — the poor bastard forced to listen up close.
“Shut the fuck up, ey, we’re trying to sleep!” is what any normal convict might have shouted at him. Or simply, “Respect, ey!” But I wasn't capable of backing it up with my (total lack of) physical prowess.
In a different cell, different pod, my neighbor was a rabid right wing, Fox News lovin’ Glenn Beck devotee. Every afternoon, I’d hear him lecturing his cellie about everything that’s wrong with our country today. How the job creators’ mustn’t be taxed, how regulation is evil. This guy hated President Obama, would rant about how “he’s the worst president since Jimmy Carter and Carter was the worst president we’ve ever had!” Whenever I hear something like that, I wonder, what does guy really know about Rutherford B. Hayes? Or Calvin Coolidge? Or Martin Van Buren? I just can't help but question his validity as a presidential scholar.
At another cell, another facility, sometime after breakfast, my cellie and I heard this through our vent: “Get in here and shut the fuckin door! Don't smile, I ain't fuckin’ kidding.” This was our neighbor Dave shouting at his nephew, Tweak. (Dave wasn’t really Tweak’s uncle, not by blood. If anything, it was some convoluted in-law relation.) “Did you disrespect me in front of the whole fuckin pod? Did you not call me a fool in front of everyone? Say you didn't! Say you didn't! I will break your fuckin jaw! I don't care if you are my nephew, I will break your fuckin jaw!”
Apparently Tweak had tried to wake up his uncle for breakfast, then went down to chow call. Someone in line asked him, “Is Dave getting up?” and Tweak said, “I don't know. I tried to wake that fool up like 20 minutes ago.” That's all Tweak did. He had referred to him as a fool. Jesus, I thought, I call these assholes so much worse things that all the time. But I do it in my journal or to my trustworthy cellie, not to the whole pod. For the next several days, my cellie and I delighted in shouting at each other, “I will break your fuckin jaw!” over the slightest transgressions. “I don't care if you're my sister's boyfriend's brother-in-law's cousin, so help me I will break your fucking jaw.”
I once had a neighbor who was equal parts cantankerous and senile. He used to keep a running commentary on the minutiae of his daily existence — no one was spared. It was maddening, but comical. “I guess I'll get a cup of water,” he’d say. “Maybe later I'll make some soup. Guess I'll see what's on TV.”
Does that need to be uttered out loud?
When he’d finally settle on a channel, rather than watch the show, he used it as an excuse to stroll down memory lane. “I used to have a car like that. Who is that actress? She was in that thing, what was it called?”
It's nice to have neighbors who are rarely home, who are frequently out and about. Neighbors who sleep a lot are fine, too. The ideal scenario is when your neighbors don't like each other, they don’t really converse — they won't even bother with common courtesies. If they really dislike each other, they won't speak at all, which is a dream.
When your vent is silent, you can read, you can nap, you just sit and think in peace.
By far the neighbor I hated the most was a dude named Lorenzo. We were living in an Honor Pod in our facility, which among other things meant we were allowed to keep acoustic guitars in our cells. Apparently Lorenzo was still learning how to play his: In two years, he had only learned one chord. One single chord. And he would play that one chord for hours. And hours. Hours and hours on end. One chord. One. Chord. Sometimes he would strum it. Sometimes he would pick out the individual notes one note at a time. Hours. It was like some sort of Dadaist performance art. Andy Kaufman would have been jealous.
It was actually sort of hilarious for the first few days. And then it wasn't anymore. Then it was just CIA-sanctioned enhanced interrogation — and I was ready to talk, I’d tell them whatever they wanted to please make it stop.
Lorenzo finally did learn a second chord, but sadly he could never play the two in any back-to-back progression. He could only play that second chord by itself, repeatedly, endlessly. The day he went home was the happiest of my incarcerated life.
Dylan Jeffrey is incarcerated at the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, New Mexico, where he is serving 54 years for criminal sexual penetration he committed in 2002.