The Long, Warm Shower

By Mike Powers

When I first got to my “I.D.” unit (a prisoner’s unit of assignment), I tried to explain to my friends and family how it took three hours to take a shower. They couldn’t believe it. I’m not trying to say that every shower I try to take in here will cost me three hours of my day, but the circumstances I’m about to describe occur often enough that I can say it is no exaggeration.

First, I need to explain about “in and outs”. An in and out is the access you are given to your cell through the mechanical or automated opening of the door. On the old “red brick” units like Darrington, this means the officer has to physically operate a wheel that opens one, several, or all of the doors at the same time. On more modern units, like the Stevenson Unit where I live, an officer in the picket presses a button and your door rolls open. That means that opening doors on my unit is amazingly effortless. One would think that, for that reason, it wouldn’t be a problem obtaining access to your cell, if not on demand, than at least frequently, “but that’s just not the way things work in here.

For some things that happen in here that don’t seem to make much sense to anyone that hasn’t had experience in the “high-security” life-style, there actually is a pretty good reason you can’t just come and go as you please. It is because there is supposed to be an officer near the door when it rolls in case someone is trying to “run in” on the occupant and do them bodily harm. It really is, in a slight way, a matter of genuine security. However, there is some irony here. Let’s go back to the Darrington, for example. My unit is supposed to be a minimum security facility. (Although I wonder if the TDCJ has such a concept.) The Darrington houses inmates with a higher security risk, generally speaking. But, it is much harder to open and close the cell doors on that unit because of the physical effort involved. For this reason, these cell doors are left open all day long, and the inmates can come and go as they please to the dayroom areas.

Not so on the Stevenson. Even though the inmates are a lower security risk, and thus have a less likely chance of running in and assaulting another inmate just because their cell door is open, the doors are easier to operate, so they are left closed all the time, and (at least according to policy) an hourly ingress/egress is permitted. About twice a year, when there are auditors on the farm, these in and outs are done by the book, and you are given a chance to enter the cell (the ”in”), the doors are closed behind you while the officer does the rest of the cells, and about five minutes later, you are given a chance to exit the cell (the “out”). The OTHER 363 days of the year, all of the doors pop open at the same time, on the hour if you have a good crew working your building. Right after they open, the officers come through the front doors of the wing and start closing them. Too bad, so sad if you are in the first, second or third cells. You’ve got a little more than an instant to get your butt in the cell, grab whatever you’re going to grab, have your “house” neat as a pin, and get out before the door is closing. You’re in much better shape if you’re one of the last cells on the run, because you have more time to take care of business.

Now, if you don’t have a good crew, then you can just forget about hourly in and outs. Our “B-card” is notorious for screwing us out of chances to get in and out of the cell. That means that you need to become a great planner, remembering down to the last detail exactly what you need to have in the dayroom with you to accomplish whatever you’re going to do out there, whether it is “throw a spread” with your friends, take a shower, do a Bible study, or whatever. If you don’t have all your materials, then you better pray you have a good cellie who doesn’t mind getting in your locker to get something for you. If your cellie is gone or asleep, then you, my friend, are S.O.L. Usually, on B-card, the officers will do an out about thirty minutes after the dayroom opens at around 7:30AM. So, you’ve lost thirty minutes of your free time right there. But, this saves them the effort of having to do a 7AM, 8AM, and 9AM in and out. Instead, they can roll all these in and outs into one 7:30AM effort and leave you stuck in the dayroom until 10:00AM when they do an in and out for chow that won’t even start until 11:30. Then, after lunch, you’ll get another in and out for rec, which starts at 1PM. If you’re counting, we’ve had three in and outs over a six hour period. Rec gets back in at three, and dinner chow rolls at 4:30, so we get another in and out about 3:30. Finally, when we get back from dinner, we get another one, and that’s it for the day. There should have been 11 in and outs, but you’ve had 5. Great work, guys. Ya’ll have a good night, hear?

But, how does this translate into a three hour shower? Well, it’s like this. I’m a morning shower kind of guy. (Of course, in the summer around here, you better be a all day kind of shower guy!) I like to get in there and wakeup under the shower head. So, when I lived on the buildings, I’d hit the dayroom at the first in and out. Now, the dayroom is SUPPOSED to open at 7AM, like I said, so you better be ready to get your butt out that door, especially if you live in the first cell! You need time to prepare, and you just never know, the door might roll at 6:45AM, so you get everything together at least fifteen minutes early, and you start the waiting game. Of course, they DON’T come early, they come LATE as usual, so after 45 minutes of sitting around like a racehorse in the start gate, they finally roll the door, and you shoot out to the dayroom. The race is on because there may be six shower stalls, but at least two of the showers don’t work, AND, you’re competing against morning shower-takers who would normally not come out of their cells until later in the morning. Now, though, being in one of the first cells is an advantage, because you’re closer to the shower. Whoopee! Finally, I’m actually in the water, getting spic and span.

The shower itself is quite the adventure. The water temperature is like Forrest’s box of chocolates- you never know what you’re going to get. Unlike Forrest’s chocolates, however, what you get is subject to change in an instant. Usually, the shower starts out scalding hot, tapering off to luxurious perfection about five minutes into the shower. This period is supernaturally brief, however, and the temp declines into artic frigidity. Despair not, however, because for reasons unknown to science and plumbing, all of a sudden, the temp jumps back up to levels that would make the devil sweat. Here is a toss-up. If you’re lucky, the gradual decline begins again, and you can look forward to a few seconds of rain-forest bliss on the way down, OR, and more likely, the wild swings from hot to cold, cold to hot, persist, and all enjoyment of the shower is hopelessly lost. I’m personally convinced that the TDCJ has somehow done this on purpose, although the mechanism for this evil scheme is beyond my knowledge. As a matter of fact, it seems to be beyond the inmate plumbers’ knowledge as well.

Finally, when you’re finished, or on particularly bad temperature days, when you’re done like a Thanksgiving turkey or frozen like a popcicle, you dry off, dress, and proceed to the dayroom. Most likely, the shower itself took no more than twenty minutes. Now the real waiting game begins. I hope you brought a book or a puzzle or something else useful to do, because this could take awhile.

Being a morning person, and also being a person who likes to be considerate of my cellie, I take myself and all my noise-making abilities to the dayroom. Believe me when I say that not everyone is so thoughtful, but I’ve been pretty fortunate. Pretty much my whole incarcerated life, I’ve worked in the laundry, and since this involves morning work hours starting at 3:30AM, I’m up early, but also in bed early. This usually results in a trade-off. My cellie gets the cell to himself throughout the morning, and I usually end up puttering around in there in the evenings. This works out well. The thing you don’t want is a cellie that has the exact same hours (or even worse, the same job) as you, because then you are both competing for the same, limited number of cell hours in the day, but back to my story.

Let’s say, in such a hurry to get to the shower, I forget to bring my busy-work to the dayroom. Sorry, Charley! My cellie’s asleep, so getting him to fetch it is no good. And like I said, that door won’t open for love or money with the B-card crew in there. That means I’m stuck twiddling my thumbs or watching the idiot box until the next in and out.

Watching TV in prison is a whole other tormenting experience that I’ll probably describe in a different essay. Suffice it to say here that, for some reason, my tastes in toob entertainment don’t usually mesh well with that of most of my fellow prisoners. For instance, I will not watch “The Young and the Restless”, period. I don’t care if it’s the only show left on TV after Kim Jong-Un shoots all his missles at the U.S., I won’t watch it. I’m more of a Law and Order reruns type of guy, and you can imagine that’s not a very popular theme in here. (Although, to my surprise, “COPS” was very popular. However, the prison crowd always cheers for the “wrong” team.) The other option is Sports Center on ESPN, over and over and over again. That usually piques my interest until I can make it a whole time through the bottom line, then I’m ready to switch. Now that I’ve exhausted my TV-viewing options, I’m left to reading discarded periodicals and the labels on my hygiene products in the shower bag. Boredom is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, I assure you.

But what’s this? I sense movement in the picket. It seems the officers are roused from their morning naps, and are stirring about. Could it be? Could it possibly be? YES! They are coming out of the picket! I see the third, one madly pressing buttons. They are doing an in and out in the next wing over. I look back over at the TV where “The Price is Right” is just beginning. I made it! I survived the three-hour shower, yet again. Smiling, I remind myself that God will redeem the time the locust has eaten. Also, I have grown in patience through another thourough exercise thereof.

Not so fortunate are the guys who live on the old red bricks. They don’t have showers in their dorms. Back in the day, the prisons were built with one, central shower area, and each wing has a specific time they’re allowed to shower. In practice, this means that even the hardest working inmates, and the dirtiest, won’t have a chance to wash the grime away until the officers get around to it, and as you probably know by now, that’s a haphazard proposition. Also, since those showers are open, and communal, the likelihood of nefarious behavior is increased. One great thing about this unit has always been the pony-doors on the shower stalls. It’s not great privacy, but at least it covers your privates.

One final gripe about TDCJ showers. Unlike any freeworld shower, you can’t control the temperature on the timing of the water. The showers are either mechanically or electronically timed, and the water is pre-set. All you have is a button and a shower head. Hopefully, providence will favor you, and you’ll get a nice, lengthy timer and warm water. May all of your showers be long and warm!

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez