I am the first and still only Canadian to receive a Federal sentence of imprisonment for insider trading, having participated in over a hundred separate deals in Canada and the United States involving hundreds of millions of dollars of trades and many millions of dollars of profits.
On occasion, I am retained to speak to publicly-traded corporations and professional bodies (law and accounting firms with a focus on student-hires and junior staff) about the importance of protecting confidential information, the professional and personal consequences of failing to do so (“scared straight”), and how to avoid the most common mistakes that I and my co-accused exploited for over 15 years and that I am CERTAIN are still being made today.
In addition to my speaking engagements, I participated in the creation of a documentary case-study set to premier in September and am currently contributing to the design of a training seminar for one of Canada’s preeminent Law Schools covering the topic of insider trading, information as an asset, and the legal and ethical duties of professionals and executives regarding the protection of confidential information entrusted to and created by them.
If you would like to contact me for a presentation to your corporation, firm, class or group around my hard-earned area of expertise and experiences, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a note through the Contact Page.
S. Joseph Grmovsek, LL.B
I am also working on a novel rooted in the juxtaposition of the world of finance with life in prison and the lessons I took from the experience. See below for a sample chapter and some more information about my background. Thank you for your interest.
AN INSIDE TRADER’S GUIDE TO GETTING RICH …and then surviving prison
Insider trading cost me everything. It cost me the life of my best friend and co-accused. It cost me my money and my possessions. It cost me my marriage, my children, my reputation, and my freedom. Everything.
Well … maybe not everything.
I still have memories of the millions of dollars of profits and the tens of millions of dollars of trades as well as the opportunities and lifestyle provided by nearly fifteen years of turning improperly obtained information into enormous amounts of money. More importantly, my “run” (as gamblers would call it) also gave me a unique insight into how the Market and other areas of financial exchange really work and how I could apply that knowledge — legally — to make as much or more money than I ever made illegally. Unfortunately, I had to become the first Canadian to receive a Federal sentence of imprisonment for the crime of insider trading and an inmate in a maximum security prison to finally appreciate that my ability to find and obtain an “edge” already gave me the capacity to acquire the financial benefits and riches associated with insider trading — but without any of the risks.
The lessons you will find in this book helped me to survive prison and should, if applied with diligence and discipline, allow you to become rich. It is a novel of my relationship with my cellmate and the record of the deal I made with him and other inmates to ensure my safety and well-being. In short, I traded information on how to legally make money in the Market and elsewhere on the outside for knowledge on how to exist and survive in the predatory environment of hopelessness and violence on the inside. The advice found within allows you to take from it what you will as my counsel moves along a spectrum of safe and certain to more aggressive and equally certain, but always with an eye toward finding and using an edge to ensure a profit. Of course, that’s not to say that if you happen to acquire inside information you won’t also learn about what to do and not to do from my experiences (I certainly know what I would have done differently to avoid ever getting caught — let alone convicted — and will share that for you to do with as you wish). It’s simply that you don’t need to have inside information or do anything improper to make the kind of money made by those, like myself, that did things that were not only improper but highly illegal. The advice that you will find in this book is tried, tested, and true. Not only would I bet my life on it — I already did.
I hope that the following will surprise, entertain and inform as it teaches you how to profit and benefit from information like a convicted inside trader — without actually becoming one.
CHAPTER 1: “INSIDE” TRADING
“Arms high. Grab the wall. Open your legs.”
As I stood stripped of clothes and spread plain from floor to hands, I wondered why my introduction to prison had not yet produced a metamorphosis of spirit or a thought more profound in me than a concern for my now exposed member.
“Bottoms of your feet. Show left foot. Down. Same thing right foot. Down.”
If I was expected to give up everything — money, family, friends, reputation and freedom — I wanted it to be in exchange for one of those life-changing moments you see in movies or hear about in interviews with Oprah: a moment that so overwhelms you that you can’t help but pledge to God, yourself or whomever that things would now be different – that I would become a new and better person.
“One step back. Bend at the middle. Touch your toes. Hold. Ok, up.”
But it never came.
Any moment I had was dominated by the embarrassment of my condition and any self-awareness never extended beyond the flesh between my legs. Not one of my better trades, I had to admit. Before I could mark the result against a mental ledger, my thoughts were broken by the thump of clothes, balled-up and dropped hard against the back of my heels in time with the delivery of another set of instructions.
“Turn around. Put those on. Wait.”
That sounded about right, I told myself sarcastically. I wasn’t prepared to have my first act of defiance within the Federal Penitentiary system be a refusal to stop being naked in a room filled tight with a dozen correctional officers and a near equal number of men sharing my condition. Eager to get to the waiting part of the directions as soon as possible, I shot an arm deep into the pile of clothes at my feet, grabbed some paper-thin blue boxer shorts and hurriedly dressed before pulling on a pair of lint-covered white socks — all the while balancing on alternating legs to facilitate the process.
The next item to hand was an unusually large orange T-shirt, faded and stretched loose through what I suspect were multiple wearing and washing. Before giving too much consideration to the implications of the shirt’s less than “gently used” state on the underwear now on my skin, I drew it over my head and, after feeling its edge drop past my thighs to just above the knees, hoped for a better fit from what remained. Other than what looked like nondescript blue deck-shoes traced at their toe and sides with white rubber casing, the final piece of my ensemble was another version of the heavy denim orange jumpsuit I had worn in Provincial jail prior to my transfer to the Federal system — this time as clean an outfit of that type and color as I could imagine save for the “4X” stained into the cuff of each leg and the collection of loose threads caught in the tired strip of Velcro running from its neck to inseam. As I wrestled the stiff garment around my shoes and up and over my frame, the large brown-skinned officer charged with my processing looked away from the screen that had held his attention since my arrival and asked, “This your first Penitentiary bit?”
Was it that obvious, I wondered? “Yes sir, it is. My first time ever in prison. I mean, first time other than the jail I just came from after sentencing to here sir. Yes, first time.”
“I figured as much,” he said, directing a glance at the kit of rolled-up towels, linens and fabric still on the floor in front of me. “Cuz you’re trying to seal up your jumper without first putting on a second pair of underpants.”
Second pair? The confusion on my face must alone have requested an explanation because he continued as if in response. “Yeah, I know it’s kinda queer, but these ranges are obsessed with not showing or seeing a guy’s junk. So: two sets of underwear on all the time outside your House, including showers. Go to it.”
Including showers? What? Are you serious? “Yes sir. Thank you, sir” I said instead before I tore open my uniform’s seam in time with a move lower for a pair of boxers that looked to have also surrendered their original colour and form long ago. If this was a practical joke at my expense, I could think of worse; and, if it wasn’t, my research in preparation for prison had obviously not been as complete as I assumed. Worrying about wearing an extra set of underwear bunched below my midriff or how many men had already worn them did not make much sense considering with what else I had to concern myself. I slipped into the second pair and, after a quick glance to see if any guards were looking and laughing in my direction — they were not — re-entered the legs of my jumper before draping the outfit over my arms and shoulders and running an open hand along my chest to twin-up its front.
With my prison attire now seemingly as it should be, I stooped over to collect what of mine remained on the floor, straightened, and then stood quietly in anticipation of the next order, instruction, or word of advice.
“Good, good, that’s a better start,” the guard said, leaning against the desk between us, his fingers clicking at a computer’s keyboard. “But before I get to what I’ve gotta do to move you over, can you answer something?”
“Yes sir,” I said faintly as I suddenly felt my chest constrict with the realization of where I was and where I was going to be for the next few months of my life. I took a deep breath to compensate.
“It says here you’re receiving a sentence of three and three for fraud over. What kind of fraud gets a first-timer a Federal sentence that requires you to spend the ninety-day assessment part of your stretch in a maximum-security institution?” He questioned, before adding an authoritative “Hmm?” to make certain I would answer on cue.
“Insider trading, sir. Its stock market related.” I said before waving a hand in the direction of his computer and continuing. “As your files probably show somewhere, I made a great deal of money from more than a hundred separate illegal insider trading deals over a fifteen-or-so year period in Canada and the United States tha …” My voice thinned and then trailed quiet before breaking off entirely.
The officer, appreciating my hesitation to speak further and perhaps seeing the same uninvited glances that I felt at my back, directed me closer with an upturned finger held bent at its tip like a hook calling for a worm and coolly asked, “I know why you might not, believe me I do, but I need you to tell how much money was involved? It might be useful for your processing and where you end up here and afterward.”
I turned my head to look over one shoulder and then the other before responding in what I hoped was a more circumspect half-whisper, “Sure. Umm, no-one is really certain because of how long my partner and I did it and the lack of records and what documents we destroyed after we found out the government was on to us, but for the sake of negotiating a deal between my lawyers and prosecutors and regulators on both sides of the border, everyone agreed to use the figure of more than twenty million dollars … American.”
“How much more than twenty million?” he asked without hesitation.
“Like I said no-one knows for certain — not even me … honestly. Since prosecutors couldn’t pin it down to an exact number they just arbitrarily picked a level that was high enough for them to meet certain sentencing guidelines, but not so high that those guidelines would make the plea deal they wanted impossible. It could have been much higher and much worse really, so I was happy with what they picked … relatively speaking I mean about the happy part.”
“I understand,” he said in a way that I was fairly certain he did not. As the sound of one guard and then another and then another cursing at someone behind to stop resisting pushed into my ear, I decided that placating the person charged with my processing was not too high a price to pay to keep him from that chorus.
“So I guess this things been in the news recently?” He speculated.
“Yes sir, you’re right, a lot I’m sure,” I said. “Probably on television the morning I was sentenced and entered jail about a week ago and certainly on the front page of every business section in North America later that day or the next.”
After a moment of contemplation, the officer straightened his body with a push from his desk and said, “Yah, now I see why you came here from Protective Custody. Stay put and don’t move ‘cuz I need to talk to my supervisor for few secs’. If you were on the News and it involved that kind of money, guys that transported up with you from the Bucket are sure to have enough to pass around. Good chance that kind of beef will get you pieced-off pretty quick in Gen Pop. Alright?”
Alright? No, definitely not alright. I didn’t need a complete understanding of prison slang to know that “Gen Pop” meant General Population and that “pieced off” in any context, especially one involving prison, didn’t sound very appealing. If he was worried about me being extorted or threatened by inmates that knew about my conviction or “beef,” I’m sure their efforts wouldn’t be any less if it was also reported that the entirety of my assets had been confiscated under a worldwide seizure order executed by two governments and an assortment of self-interested bureaucracies.
“Thank you sir,” I replied respectfully before seeing him turn and walk along the wall behind his desk to the first open door on his left. Accepting the judgment of this officer while hoping for the best seemed like the only course of action for me to take. I decided to mark time from his departure not in his offered secs or seconds but in how many voices I could identify in the room without turning around. I believe I counted thirteen before he returned carrying a cellophane bag filled with what looked like toiletries and in the company of an older, officious-looking man with grey hair capping a tight, angry Irish face.
“This is Mr. Donnelly. He’s in charge of placements here at Millhaven Assessment Unit,” the guard said as he handed me the plastic bag without comment while turning in deference toward a bespectacled man wearing a military-dress white shirt stepping aggressively forward in front of the desk to within what I and most would consider an uncomfortable distance from my face.
“You probably think your shit don’t stink being a lawyer and all, but there’s no Protective Custody here in Millhaven proper or anywhere else in the Federal Penitentiary system,” snapped Mr. Donnelly. “We don’t have P.C. for any white-collars regardless of what you may have been told above. What we do offer at M.A.U. is the Special Needs and it normally houses Max inmates from outside the Assessment Unit on usually a short-term basis plus newcomers like you shipped down from the Bucket for processing and assignment,” he barked before drawing his lips back against his teeth high at the gum-line like a steel trap that had just been sprung by the move of his hands akimbo to his hips.
I remembered someone from jail mentioning Special Needs as the place that I wanted to be in the Pen (Or was it not be?) because of the increased access to a payphone that it provided (Daily for twenty minutes rather than every second day for ten?), so I looked at him in a way that indicated that I was resigned to my fate and whatever he wanted to do with me.
“There’s one space left in Range 2B, but don’t take it as any guarantee that what might happen in Gen Pop won’t also reach you in Special Needs. Last I looked, 2B’s got a collection of max-time guys with “incompatibles” in other parts of the Institution, a few “skinners” and “diddlers,” some “deadbeats” laying low, a handful of others and – if you sign-off — you for the next three months before you get shipped to probably a Min-Mother Institution to serve the rest of your sentence,” he offered.
“Yes sir, I’ll accept it sir,” I said eagerly while not completely clear about the terms being applied to my future “rangemates?” or why my consent was even required. I was so exhausted from my transfer and the stress associated with the day’s now five-hour-and-counting ordeal of moving from jail to prison that any box with a bed would be a blessing and if it was one that also allowed me daily access to the phone or that satisfied any other “special needs” I might have the more the better.
“Very well then. Officer, get this offender signed-up and lined-up for Special Needs,” ordered Mr. Donnelly before he surprised me by stepping out of character, leaning into my ear, and saying “And good luck to you sir” and then marching back to and through the doorway from whence he came.
After holding his eyes on Mr. Donnelly until he had turned the corner and completely receded from view, the guard paused for a long moment before looking back to me and continuing. “Ok then, I guess that’s the way it’s going to be. Just sign right there if you want to consent to the Special Needs Unit,” he advised while offering me his pen for use over the signature line of a sheet of paper that was distinctive for being the only one of legal-size on his desk, “and I can get you set up.”
I pulled the pen from his hand, conscious of not allowing our fingers to touch during the exchange, and used it to place my mark where instructed without actually focusing my eyes on the page so as not to inadvertently read or even acknowledge a single word typed upon it. Being completely trusting and removing any pretense of having control over my fate gave me a sense of contentment. It was the same attitude I adopted in the past to avoid feeling stress when stuck in traffic or in a line at a store’s check-out. If the situation was beyond my control it was simply beyond my control and it wouldn’t be any less so by my worrying about what would happen next, what I could do about it, or when things would change.
After answering a few perfunctory questions that included whether I had used explosives in the commission of my offence (I knew he didn’t understand my charges!) and if I had any gang affiliations or criminal associations, he instructed me to look at the small camera affixed to the back of his computer’s monitor and not blink. I heard a click. “Ok, that’s done. Stay right here,” he again ordered before stepping toward and into the same room from which he had pulled Mr. Donnelly earlier. After a moment brief enough that I hadn’t had time to remember to distract myself by counting the number of unique voices around me, he returned carrying two plastic cards — one in each hand as if trying to honour the separate sources that had delivered them to his care.
“This one is your Photo-ID card,” he said as he leaned slightly over his desk to describe the clear plastic square in his left hand laminating a card that held a stamp-sized picture of me along with my name in big, blue block letters, the Canadian flag, and details on the back about my height, weight, complexion, and date of birth. The plastic coating on one end of the card was extended and teased into a loop that loosely encircled a small, silver-coloured metal shirt-clip. “It has your picture as you see and your FPS or Finger Print System number below it. You need to show this card to pick up mail marked as privileged if you’re called down to Security for that or to attend at Medical or for movement really anywhere outside of this room or your range. Ok?”
“Ok,” I quickly affirmed.
“This other white one,” he continued after dropping my Photo-ID to his desk and bringing forward an all-white plastic card that had the look and shape of a credit card, save for a fingernail’s-width wide rectangular hole at its base, “is for your inmate phone privileges. If you don’t already know which you probably don’t, you can’t make a call on the payphones in prison without first inserting this card and then typing the FPS number I just told you about. The clip hanging from the ID is what guy’s use to keep both cards together to help out if they forget their phone card since there’s nothing visible on it to identify it as yours. It’s also good for reserving a call when you’re next-in-line by putting the ID card of the pair on top of the phone near the receptacle. You’ll see how it works soon enough upstairs or in yard so don’t worry.”
“Thank you,” I said — full of worry — as I took the white card from his hand and adjusted it to allow me to pinch and push the clip from the Photo-ID through its opening before slipping the combination into a front pocket. “Oh, sorry, I forgot, is that ok putting it away?” I asked as I turned my body to push forward the hip pocket that now held both cards.
“Yah, sure, keep it in there if you want,” he said with a mix of indifference and irritation. “Like I said, you just have to have your ID with you when you’re walking around. No need to clip it on your chest or anything like that for obvious reasons.”
“You know, obvious reasons for someone like yourself like not wanting to walk around and advertise a name that anyone in a phone call to the outside world could ask to have Googled,” he answered.
“Yes, thank you, that makes sense,” I said, letting go of the cards in my pocket and pulling out an empty hand to place back at my side.
“Now that we’re good, bring your linens and that bag I gave you and come with me to holding where you were dropped-off when you came in,” he said as he directed me with a point and turn of his hand to step to my right and walk around the privacy wall at my back and ahead a dozen paces to a caged-in area that held me when I first arrived, then in shackles from the transport van and jail before. I moved as instructed, but on reaching the holding cell I stopped short of its door and stepped to the side — ostensibly to allow the guard following behind to open it. Instead, and likely in deference to protocol and position, he stayed at my back scolding, “Don’t just stand there! Slide that rod handle over and take an empty spot on the benches with the others.”
“Sure thing … BOSS,” I said sarcastically, now more concerned with the opinion of “the others” in front of me than his from behind.
“You guys gonna get food in a minute. No movement until we’re done serving the ranges upstairs,” the guard yelled through me to the men inside.
I grabbed the metal bar that kept the door closed rather than locked and forced it over before drawing open the cage. The enclosure was what you would imagine a chicken coop would look like if increased in size to limit the movement of men rather than chickens to no more than a step or two and if its wire was replaced with thick metal fencing traced up a dozen feet around the perimeter and then above and over to cover those within. Aluminum benches were secured to the floor along two of its sides and backed to an open area containing a lidless bowl and a stainless steel sink assembly similar to what would be found in the lavatory of an airplane (granted, a menacing-looking airplane) but without a mirror or the pretense of cleanliness. The floor was lacquered concrete and distinctive only for how moist and slick with grime its surface looked without actually being wet and for a drain recessed into the room’s centre that appeared to be covered in a melange of mold, hair and scraps of multi-coloured paper.
Three inmates were already inside. The two seated to my right looked up for a moment as if to try and place my face, but without success. The closest of the pair was a short muscular black man of about twenty, his hair worked into cornrows and tailing-off to just past the collar of his jumper and a raised scar under his chin. The other, a decade or so older, was of Native descent and in possession of an almost comically-large barrel chest and abdomen, his girth made all the more impressive by how thin his arms, legs, and head looked extending from that massive core. The last of the three, nearly larger than the other two combined, was sprawled alone over the opposite bench with his eyes closed and head resting on a roll of toilet paper like some tiny make-shift pillow. Of the three, he was the only one that I had seen before and knew for certain would be a danger.
My path crossed that of the large sleeping man a week ago at the Don Jail with his arrival — as opposed to mine — being met with a genuine sense of excitement and ebullience from the inmates on my range. Upon entering the Don, Bear, as he was called, made it known that he had “packed” for his arrest and, as a result, was bringing in more heroin to sell and share than he had ever done before. By packed, of course, I mean shoved drugs encased in containers euphemistically called “eggs” deep into his rectum and beyond the inspection or reach of guards. Bear’s smuggling efforts were not so much motivated by his addiction (which was apparently the stuff of legend and in some way tied with his size to his nickname) as self-preservation: He had been marked for death on the street and needed the drugs that he carried inside — literally deep inside — to buy the protections and favour of those in prison that could provide it. Needless to say, I was not among that number.
From what I knew of him, Bear was an addict and life-time violent criminal that fell into the habit of robbing drug dealers for their supplies. The robbery that got him into trouble, or more trouble than he expected, involved breaking into a drug den with two accomplices, beating everyone inside to near death with baseball bats, and then running the den as his own for the day by selling the drugs that he could not use or carry to the dealer’s regular customers coming to the door. The aforementioned near-beaten-to-death dealer did not take the theft and assault on her person terribly well as evidenced by the murder of Bear’s accomplices by way of “hot shots” of pure heroin stabbed into their necks shortly thereafter. Knowing that he was likely to be killed by overdose or something worse, Bear decided that prudence dictated that he get arrested and incarcerated and off the streets until something was either worked out or done with or to the dealer.
To get to the relative “safety” of jail, Bear proceeded to pack his backside with what remained of the stolen heroin before robbing a nearby pharmacy — all with the intention of getting caught. The story I heard involves him sitting outside the pharmacy’s doors waiting to be arrested while casually popping and swallowing the pills he had just purloined. Unfortunately for Bear, the police arrived sooner than expected — or at least before he had finished consuming what he wanted to consume — forcing him to get up and run into the street between cars shoving pill after pill into his mouth as he fled. The chase continued until either all the pills were gone or Bear got tired of running or more likely just tired of cutting his mouth on the aluminum foil covering the blister packs he was biting open as he ran.
I apologize for not being able to do a retelling justice. I remember laughing quite hard (albeit to myself) when over-hearing the story because I pictured this tattooed, thick-bodied Frankenstein-like monster slow-running from the police in a way that would buy him some time; but, not so much of it as to result in either actual escape or the involuntary escape of a heroin-filled bag from his anus. Even seeing him lying in front of me with his lips still all cut up from chewing into aluminum, I didn’t feel much like laughing considering the intake officer’s caution against inmates following me from jail and my eventually getting “pieced-off” in the penitentiary because of it.
An analogy to hibernation probably sounds forced, but my chances would be better if this Bear slept through dinner and then kept sleeping until I moved to Special Needs and beyond.
Oscar Wilde, the author of “An Ideal Husband” (a play that contained one of the first literary references to insider trading), in commenting on his own imprisonment in a letter to the Daily Chronicle in 1897, wrote, “Prisoners are, as a class, extremely sympathetic to each other. Suffering and the community of suffering makes people kind.” Here’s hoping.
In tune with the closing of a metal gate behind, the whir of unseen pullies within the walls worked to slide aside an identical black barrier to my front. Greeting me at the entrance to Range 2B of the Special Needs Unit was a man near my age and dressed in similar orange garb to my own; but, in possession of physical attributes that could only come from years of exercising in environments limited by space — but not time. Holding out his hand I could see that he carried squared raised shoulders that likely grew from endless push-ups on a cell floor, a wide stern the consequence of tens of thousands of back dips against a bed; and, hard red raised knuckles that I assume grew calloused from repeatedly punching the walls of his cell and not new inmates delivered into his charge on the range. He was what back in jail would be called “prison strong.”
“I go by Cowboy. I’m the Cleaner,” he said shaking my hand firmly.
“Name’s Stan. Hey,” I responded directly and in a tone matched to his.
“Being Cleaner means my box is open all day except when it ain’t. If you need toilet paper or the mop or something when you’re out for showers ya come to me,” he explained matter-of-factly as if he had said the same hundreds of times to hundreds of others before. “Word to the wise: Don’t let me catch you cracking to the guards back in the Bubble or when they’re doing walkthroughs — you speak to me with what ya got and I’ll relay it to whoever needs to hear it. Comprende?”
“I understand Cowboy,” I said before looking back over my shoulder almost longingly to the “Bubble,” a Plexiglas enclosed guard station behind two gates and at the centre of the stairwell outside the range.
“Best be,” he snapped, making a fist for what I hoped was only affect. “I’m doing my Pen bit here — ain’t just passing through for assessment like you and almost everybody else. Even with it being Special Needs I got a solid range going on, so if anyone sees you cracking to a C.O. they’re going to think the worst of it because they know I tell that same shit to everybody. You feelin me on this newfish?”
“I do. I understand. If I need anything from the guards I should go to you first,” I summarized while nodding my head dramatically for anyone else watching to see.
“Not just first — only. Ya got boxed into 217. Let’s go,” he said before he gave me a look to follow, turned and started ahead.
Range 2B was marked by a row of cells on each side of a long, wide hallway with no evidence of guards beyond those that I knew existed outside the gates at my back. Unlike jail where the cells were barred, here the doors were solid slabs of metal akin to bank vaults but painted in alternating colours of red, blue, and green, with an envelope-size window near their top at eye level and a rectangular slot at their centre, big enough to pass a food-tray through when unlocked. At the head of the hallway were a pair of payphones, each affixed to the wall and adjacent to one of two doorless cells that appeared to have been refurbished on-the-cheap to allow for their use as showers. Ahead at the centre of the range was a small table about the size of a school-desk on which a toaster and a commercial-grade hot water pot sat along with a pile of sliced white bread on a brown paper towel and a yellow-stained tube that looked like the barrel of a large syringe that had been split at its seam. Probably because my senses were heightened by fear, everything seemed bright and alive to me, but still somewhat unreal — almost like I was watching a 3-D movie from within. As I trailed Cowboy I thought about pulling my back straight and flexing the muscles of my chest to look tough for my new audience, but that idea grew weak as soon as I was able to make out the jackal-like shouts coming from the cells at my sides.
“That’s him. That’s the guy! That’s the guy!” I heard howled from face after face pushing against the reinforced-glass of each window that I passed. With every step deeper into the range and every shout that I heard, panic grew in my gut like a meal I couldn’t digest. How do these inmates know me and why are they so angry? Why do they even care about my arrival? I can’t believe my crime of insider trading is notorious enough to merit this kind of outrage and attention, particularly on a form of protective custody range that probably has and certainly has seen more than a few rapists and child murderers. It doesn’t make any sense,” I felt my lips mouth.
“No need to be shaking it rough,” Cowboy shouted back at me dismissively as if he’d heard my thoughts. “We yell that shit at everybody as they come in. Sort of our thing on this range so that guys deservin’ of it don’t stand out from everyone else. Doesn’t mean anything. Just jokes.”
“Just jokes. Very funny,” I commented flatly at Cowboy’s back as I continued to follow him through the comedic din that now surrounded us and toward a cell ahead and to our left that I could see opening in time with my arrival.
“Welcome home,” Cowboy sneered as he stopped and turned to funnel me with his body to its entrance. “Your cellie’s Murd–”
“George! Tell ’em to call me George.” I heard a voice inside cut him off sharply.
“George? Ok, whatever, Geooorge,” Cowboy said as he drew out the name, punctuating it with a laugh. “Get in there with I guess Geooorge so the Bubble can lock all your asses up.”
I stepped forward cautiously, passing through the opening just before the red-painted steel cell-door slid shut and clanked behind. Staring at me was my new cell-mate, a stocky and pale biker-type with longish unkempt black hair and a thistle-bush of a beard, heavy-set and shirtless and sitting on the bottom bunk, wearing nothing but shower sandals and boxer shorts and ink-blue tattoos on his bare chest, arms, and neck and a disdainful look on his face like a man watching a bus he missed pull away. I stared back wordlessly for a long moment to allow him to speak before finally breaking the awkward quiet by dropping my bag and belongings on the top bunk and introducing myself as Stan.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing putting that shit up there?” He roared back after my name, head forward and nostrils flaring, black eyes fixed on me with loathing, his lips set in a tight line.
“Sorry, I just thought my bunk was on top since it was empty and you didn’t say anything.” I explained apologetically, hurriedly pulling down my belongings from the bed and dropping them to my sides.
“Then you shoulda fuckin’ asked! I can be wherever the fuck I want in my house. Put your shit on and under the bottom bunk. Top and everything else is mine,” he bellowed loudly as if wanting to be heard by both me and everyone outside our cell.
“Again, look, I’m sorry, no disrespect intended,” I explained plaintively, raising my hands up along my sides to just above my shoulders with palms open like the victim of a stick-up. “I assumed that since you were on the bottom that was your spot. My mistake. Sorry. No need for us to get off to a bad start.”
Out of an equal measure of deference and confusion I glimpsed down and away from the wild-eyed stare he held on me. What I saw before bringing my attention back in the most non-threatening manner I could muster was a closet-sized room with beige-painted walls, dirty and cracked or cracking white plastic tiles, a set of bunks, a metal desk and metal sink assembly and nothing much else but a portable TV resting on a short ledge at right angle to the toilet.
George greeted the return of my eyes by cocking his head like a cobra and slowly drawing his tongue out, draping it between his teeth and lower lip, and then quickly pulling it back to create a smacking sound with his mouth, almost like a bizarre duck call — Swack!.
Is this normal in prison? Am I supposed to know what that means? I rummaged through my mind and my limited experiences from jail for an explanation, but couldn’t find one to bring sense to what he was doing.
Swack! The sound echoed wet inside his mouth and then once more against the metal walls of the cell like a rumble. Before I could attempt to give meaning to the release of a third “swack,” George bolted up straight and lunged towards me fast with a muscled and painted fore-arm at the lead. I felt my knees buckle and my eyes grow wide, ready to be struck by a punch yet undelivered. But with a sort of self-satisfied grin, George abruptly stopped his advance — inertia and all — threw his head back and laughed like someone that found everything amusing before he lowered his arms and offered a hand for me to shake. As we did — his grip suffocating in strength and unnaturally moist — he sniggered while embracing my shoulder like a long-lost friend, “Us? Yah, no need for US to get off to a bad start. We can be buddies, huh new guy?”
What his pronouncement appeared to be lacking in sincerity and context, it more than made up for in being what I wanted to hear. Maybe everyone in 2B was just a bad comedian waiting to get out, I imagined, and not a cruel sociopath. Maybe.
“Great. That would be great,” I replied weakly, still expecting bad news to break at any moment.
Shuffling around him haltingly with my bag and linens now in hand and toward the window at the back wall and our bunks to its right, I tossed my belongings on and under the bed as he had directed and took a longer look at my new home. A big metal desk (but no chair) crowded near my bed and, when lying down, I speculated that my toes would be over its end and no more than a half-leg again away from the door. The room was about eight by ten feet in size and offered maybe ten square feet in total floor space outside the beds, desk, sink and toilet to move around — less so if George was occupying the middle of it as he was now.
“In that bag the coppers gave ya coming in there’s a plastic pill bottle with a red sticker on it. It’ll have bleach to clean your works if you’re a shooter.” George said confidently, pointing at the jumble of contents that I had just dropped on the bed.
“I won’t need that. I don’t do any drugs,” I responded quickly.
“Yah, about that: I don’t care. I’m telling ya cuz yer gonna use the bleach to clean this cell,” he explained curtly. “New guys gotta do it coming in. Range-rule.”
At that moment I was not inclined to argue the fairness of a rule that required me to clean something that I had no involvement in making dirty, even with someone who was apparently my “Buddy.” “Sounds fair,” I rationalized instead. “I was going to do it anyway,” I continued, “but I’m glad you told me about the Range-rule. I was a bit worried that my cleaning might cause offense by looking like a judgment on your cleanliness or how the room smells (dry, acidic, and sickly sweet, I didn’t add).”
“If you think cleaning a cell could offend someone, you’re fucked,” George spat out in a way that the word “fucked” sounded like it was comprised of three syllables. “With brain-work like that this has gotta be your first time down below,” he snorted.
“In prison? Yes, yes it is. I’ve been getting that a lot today as you can imagine. Must be something about my face or how my brain works,” I laughed nervously, repeating his phrase back to him as I pulled a wash-cloth out of the plastic bag on my bed. “I’ll get to cleaning now,” I said briskly hoping that he would approve of my efforts and not object to my turning away from him and further questions about my history that I didn’t want to answer.
The sink seemed as good a place to start as any. It was cleaner than I expected and sat atop an enclosed solid stainless steel column extending to the floor and connected to the toilet by piping at its rear. Protruding from a flap above its crest and against the wall were three identical unlabeled metal buttons the size and shape of toothpaste caps. Through experimentation, I learned that pushing the first provided hot water for exactly three seconds before shutting off until pushed again, the second cold for near double that time, and that a firm push of the third caused the toilet to flush very loudly and for a lot longer than anyone would expect. In the basin’s bottom, George, or whomever, had jammed a travel-size stick of deodorant to infuse the room when water drained over it.
Pasted above the sink with dried toothpaste was a shiny sheet of foil that served as a mirror, albeit one that was hazy and, with the distortions it reflected, more fitting for a funhouse than a jailhouse. To its left, and nearer to the toilet than the sink, was another button, this about the size of a silver dollar and raised only slightly so that it was near flush with the wall. Written above the button in black, block letters were the words, “WARNING: PUSH ONLY IN EMERGENCY.”
George must have followed the path of my eyes because as soon as I had finished reading the word EMERGENCY he reached across my chest and pushed the button into the wall with a thumb. With mouth agape, I turned to him wondering what just happened.
“Did that … uhh set off an alarm or something?” I questioned timidly while the inner me fought back the urge to scream “Why the hell did you do that you idiot!?”
“No alarm we can hear when its pushed, but something goes off in the Bubble,” George explained calmly. “Guards are supposed to respond like it’s an Emergency because you could be having a heart attack from the stress of moving in or something or I could be killing you in here for all they know. Whether they come and when they come … Aah,” he Kanye-shrugged, indifferent to my anxiety.
What kind of bi-polar maniac was I put in a cell with? There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to his actions. Unpredictability, as I was counseled by the older inmates with whom I played cards in the Bucket, can be an effective defensive strategy to adopt in both prison and poker; but, George just came across as crazy and dangerous. Or maybe that was the point: If I didn’t have to share a cell with him, I’d certainly avoid George as much as I could. But I did … and I couldn’t.
“Just keep cleaning and don’t think about the button other than what time it was when you pushed it,” George instructed curiously. “Something else needs doing,” he continued as he reached into his pocket like it was the drive-thru window of a fast-food restaurant and pulled out three plastic packs of ketchup. Arranging them in his right hand between his thumb and fore-finger, he brought the packs together at one end and tore them open with a single bite of his teeth. Without explanation, he squeezed their viscous contents into the palm of his left hand and then flicked the clump of empty ketchup-covered shells past my face and into the toilet. I didn’t know what to say in response, but before that became obvious to both of us George moved to the desk, raised his right knee like a Olympic hurdler, stepped up and upon its top, and straightened his lead leg above with a grunt and the help of a forceful jump-hop from his other below. In the face of such a bizarre spectacle, his attribution about who had pushed the button did not seem worth challenging.
Standing on the desk and balancing on his toes to stretch out his frame above it, George brought a crimson covered hand up to the light fixture at the ceiling and carefully massaged ketchup over and around the single dark bulb at its centre. “This middle bulb is called a guard-light and it goes off red every hour when the pigs come by for their walk-throughs,” he explained. “No big deal during the day, but at night the light is so fuckin’ bright it’ll cut you awake. Since we can’t break it out or cover it with toilet paper, all we got left is to slime it with ketchup,” he said, continuing to paint the bulb thick with delicate brushes of an open palm. “Being red the ketchup doesn’t look so noticeable when the light is off, but when it’s on it blocks a lot of the fuckin’ glare,” he said, finishing the job through breaths heavy with his weight and the extension of an arm high above his head.
After transferring as much ketchup from his hand to the bulb as looked possible, George bent his knees to squat low before jumping from the desk with a bounce off the floor, only steadying himself with a single touch of a clean palm against the bunks. Holding his ketchup-covered hand by his ear, he moved to wedge me out from in front of the sink before running the water to wash himself clean of the scarlet goo. After shaking the wet from his fingers, he wiped them dry on his backside and returned to the desk to sit with a plop on the corner closest to the window and farthest from the door. “You can go back to cleaning the sink now,” he said. “Looks like it needs it and I want you around the shitter when they come in.”
They? Oh, yes, the Emergency Button. With that, I heard the clank of the gate opening at the entrance to the range and the fizz of electricity before the condiment covered bulb above flickered on, blanketing the room in an eerie red glow. George lifted his chin, now illuminated in red like everything else, and leaned back on his hands to better see the result of his efforts. Not having experienced the ruby brightness of the light before his handy-work, I was more impressed by how quickly the smell of heated ketchup filled our surroundings than how less or more red the light now looked. After hearing footsteps assemble outside the cell, our door slid open with the clangor and shake of metal against metal to reveal three correctional officers dressed in standard blue prison fatigues in the middle of the hall-way. The guard closest to the entrance was the same correctional officer that had frisked me earlier in the Bubble before delivering me to Cowboy on the range.
“What’s the emergency?” he asked sternly, adjusting the fingers on his leather gloves as he spoke.
“New guy was cleaning around the toilet and hit the E-button by accident,” George lied leaning to his side to look out the door while jerking an incriminating thumb in my direction.
“Is that right Gurmoosky?” the guard asked, studying me warily as I stood in front of our bunks with a cloth bunched in one hand and pill container filled with bleach in the other. I ignored the mispronunciation of my name and replied with a quick affirmative nod before looking away and stepping to the sink. A prudent decision, I concluded, with Cowboy’s warning against speaking to the guards still in my head and George this night set to be sleeping just outside and above it.
“Tower! 2B! Looock it up!” the officer shouted without pause down the range and with an unnecessary flourish. With that, the red guard-light that announced their arrival went dark and the door began to close. As soon as the latch clanked shut, I moved forward to look out the window and saw that all three guards had already walked past its limits and out of view. Emergency over. I was alone again.
“He … looked … pissed!” George laughed as the ripples of fat on his stomach, pale as milk, twisted and folded on each other, mocking me like grins. “Sure to take a lot longer for the next emergency now that you’re considered accident prone,” he advised with a dark smile, making clear the point of the entire exercise.
“Come on George, please, it’s too much. I don’t wanna play these games. I’ve had a long day and I just want to do my time in Assessment and move on,” I said with a tone of frustration that coming from someone else might have bordered on the confrontational.
“And what would that be? What would you be doing time for in Assessment?” George questioned aggressively as if I had somehow breached prison protocol leaving the subject open for him to investigate.
“It doesn’t matter what I did,” I replied dismissively. “All I want is to do my time as uneventfully as possible and that means I’m not going to bother you if you don’t bother me.”
“I guarantee that you’re not goin’ to fuckin’ bother me. Not in my fuckin’ house,” George said forcefully, arching his arms back and leaning forward. “And it does fuckin’ matter! I’m not sharing a cell with some diddler or skinner and have that beef come back on my reputation for not doing anything about it.” He moved a step closer.
“Listen George, I’m not a diddler or a rape-hound or a rat or a bug or a bird or a box-thief or a hammerhawk or a goof or a poof or whatever the hell other prison word you are worried about applying to me,” I exclaimed with growing vigor as the anger that had coiled inside me since my sentencing sprung loose with defiance (and maybe recklessness?). And now, I thought to myself, for the ultimate prison-sanctioned “coup de grace” to end the dispute in my favour: “Just do your own fuckin’ time, George! Just do your own fuckin’ time!” I yelled.
In jail I was taught that “just do your own time” was what you said when you wanted to remind others that their behaviour or choices in prison shouldn’t impact upon you. For example, if I wanted to watch television I should only watch it while wearing headphones so that no one else would have to share in my experience or “do my time with me.” Similarly, if I needed to use the toilet I should wait until either my cellmate was at yard or given sufficient notice to grab some air from the window or the crack at the door. And, even with that, flushing constantly was expected and certainly “whenever a turd started to turtle.” In short, “just do your own time” was a demand to adhere to a code that dictated that how you choose to serve your sentence shouldn’t impact on how I choose to serve mine. Or at least that’s what I was told I should say if I wanted to garner the respect of inmates in prison.
“Firstly, it’s ‘do your own time,’ not ‘just do your own fuckin’ time,'” George corrected quietly through a graveled whisper. “Secondly or lastly …” If he said another word after that I didn’t hear it as he rushed toward me like a storm, barreling me with a shoulder into the narrow corner at the centre of the cell, my lower-back broken over a short shelf jutting from the wall. As my legs gave way to the shock, my body slid lower until it was caught by an elbow that George pressed up and under my chin, wedging my head hard against the ledge behind.
“Help,” I cried to rescuers unseen, hoping that I had thrown out a hand toward the Emergency Button on my fall backwards and not just imagined the effort. Blood, trapped and growing heavy in my head, filled my ears with white-noise. His forearm, corded with muscle and intent, held my neck and head still with a sinewy crackle. “What’s your beef? What the fuck you in for?” he yelled down to me, rabid spittle raining into my eyes.
“Ima .. Ima inside trader,” I forced out breathlessly in surrender. “Look at my papers …. my A4 … D … My papers … Ima … inside trader. Don’t!” I begged through gasps, tears offered by my eyes like ransom.
“Hmm … maybe we can work something out,” I thought I heard George say before my world went dark and I reached out to pull the smell of caramelized ketchup back to me as if it were a blanket.
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