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Life Inside

When a Shower Counts as a Privilege, You Have to Get Creative

Doing time during a pandemic can mean fighting for your turn to wash your body or call your family. Inside one man’s battle with an inaudible loudspeaker, weary guards and a dysfunctional process.

Things have changed at Baraga Correctional Facility since the pandemic started. Our activities are limited to showers, supervised shaving with razors, using JPay for emails, making phone calls and receiving mail. We can’t do our jobs, go to school or use the law library. Sometimes we don’t even have our daily hour of yard time.

As basic as they are, our activities don’t take place at the same time every day. And we can’t do them all at once. The corrections officers—we call them “COs” for short—decide when it’s time for the men in each unit to use their privileges.

This process is supposed to work like this: A CO says over the PA system, “Hit your button if you want a shower...JPay...phone...razors!” When you hear the privilege you want to use, you press the emergency call button in your cell that lights up the control panel at the base. When your cell number lights up, a CO checks off your name on a list. When it’s your turn to, say, take your shower, your door pops open.

Technically, the call button is for medical emergencies. You’re supposed to use it if you’re having a heart attack or a seizure. If a good friend catches you collapsing in your room, he will hit the button for you. But since COVID, COs have been working what seem to be 12-hour shifts. They’re tired, and it’s easier for them to make the list from the base than it is for them to walk by each cell and ask the men inside what privileges they plan to use that day.

This system sucks for us though. For one, we have to strain to hear the announcements over a loud industrial fan. Sometimes the COs speak quietly over the PA system to cut down on the number of prisoners they have to manage outside of their cells. COs are also calling our privileges at random times, like at 4 in the morning. Other times they don’t make the call at all and just use an old list.

No matter the reason, if you don’t hear a call, you can’t press your button at the right time. If you don’t press your button at the right time, you don’t make the list. If you don’t make the list, you don’t get your chance to do your bare-minimum activities. You can be locked in a cell for 22 hours a day and you still won’t have a chance to take a shower.

Don’t get me wrong. I stay ready for the calls. I’m quick like a thief in the night, all coffee'd up. If I do crash, I can hear in my sleep. I obtained that skill sleeping in cars and stash spots.

But some days, no matter how ready I am, there is no announcement. Eight o’clock rolls around and my door hasn’t budged. I’m standing there in my shower shoes, holding my towel and soap dish for nothing.

If I catch a CO making rounds, I’ll say something like, “Y’all didn’t break my door for shower!”

The CO’s mask will be on so tight that all I can hear of his response is, “Mff, mff, mff...list.” And suddenly, he’ll be four cells away.

On days like this I have to take a bird bath like a hooker on John R Street. I hate washing up in the sink, but I get tired of smelling like Coney Island.

Early one morning I camped out by the door, my pillow and green mat laying at the threshold of noise. I dozed off but woke to a hard tapping on the door.

“Hey, you can’t do that! Put that mat back where it belongs or read about it in a ticket!" a CO commanded.

I groggily asked, “Did you guys call for the showers and stuff?” as I moved the mat.

"You just missed it," the CO lied. Before I could ask him to put me on the list, he was gone.

Ten minutes later, out of nowhere, a CO in the bubble started calling people one by one over the intercom. I wondered how I could have missed the general announcement but was able to hear a voice booming, "One minute left on the phone! Times up in the shower!”

Yet again, I had to bird-bathe. I even did a bird call. Then I put on my headphones to jam while I dried off. In between songs I heard “...razors!” I ran to the door and pushed and pushed and pushed on the call button. After 30 minutes, I took the hint. I had missed my chance again.

The next day, only one or two guys in the whole unit got their shower, JPay and phone time. The CO who worked in the morning made the announcement at such a low volume that it went undetected by most of us. That gave the COs running the activities a relatively free day.

Everyone in the unit was upset. We ranted at a passing guard and beat on our doors. But he just walked on by. It was a victory lap, walking over our humanity.

That night, I heard the static of a speaker. I jumped up, but my bedsheet was wrapped around me so tightly that I slipped. The door caught me by the head and a small knot formed. Blinking from the blur and burn of pain, I hit my call button like I was born to do one thing. It was 3 in the morning. At around 4, an officer and nurse came to my door.

"Buckley, why did you hit your call light?" the CO asked.

"I thought y'all called showers and stuff. My bad."

"Don't touch your medical call button unless it’s an emergency!" he commanded.

Washing my ass after missing so many showers could become an emergency, I thought but didn’t say.

Later that morning, everyone in our unit heard more unrecognizable sounds over the PA system. Without conversation, we all hit our call buttons back to back, nonstop.

When the CO made rounds he had an annoyed expression on his face. But I had a smile on mine as I imagined the complaints he must have gotten from his superior about all of the distress calls coming out of his unit. That day we won the game.

Demetrius A. Buckley is a poet and fiction writer. His work has been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, RHINO, The Periphery and Storyteller. He's currently working on a novel, “HalfBreed.” He is serving a 20-year sentence for second degree murder at Baraga Correctional Facility in Michigan.

Due to a production error, the wrong version of this essay was published and has been replaced, and a statement from a Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson has been updated.

In an email, Chris Gautz, the spokesperson, denied that corrections officers tell prisoners to use call buttons to access privileges. He also wrote that “PA announcements are made three times and are loud and clear,” that announcements are not made in the middle of the night “unless it is for an emergency,” and that “officers keep only current lists.”

In a previous email exchange, regarding limits on activities due to COVID-19, he wrote, “Prisoners are allowed access to the privileges required by policy.” Gautz denied that corrections officers are working 12-hour shifts but acknowledged that some staffing vacancies “need to be filled with staff overtime.”