The Count (a Sidebar in A Day in the Life)

At this point in my incarceration, the count amounts to no more than a single sentence. The count happened, as usual, at 4 p.m. But I feel such brevity doesn’t give the count its due. So in this second installment of “A Day in the Life,” I’m going to break down a very small, but vital part of my day. The count.

Maybe you’re not interested, but let’s face it: I’ve got plenty of time to explain this. And honestly, the count gets under my skin some days.

The count happens every day at the same time. Every prisoner must be accounted for by two guards (separately) to ensure that the inmate’s still alive, in the right cell, and hasn’t had his face bashed in.

It starts with a little crackle over the guard’s radio in the control booth. He usually keeps the volume up loud enough for us to hear this initial warning. Less than a minute later, usually right around 4:03 p.m., the official announcement blares over the facility-wide PA system. It is followed quickly by a more localized notice from the sergeant in the control booth:

“Stand by for count!”

(In medium custody the Sgt. says, “Lock down for count.” Minimum custody inmates are allowed to leave their cell door cracked during count but medium custody folks have to “lock down.”)

The count procedure is always a little entertaining – or at least it’s what passes for entertainment in here. Despite its mind numbing predictability, at least a few guards and inmates are always unprepared.

The guards account for every inmate by marking their presence on a laminated sheet of paper. It’s pretty low-tech. Invariably, there’s a guard ransacking the control booth in search of a grease pen or looking around for an absent counting partner.

Without fail, at least one inmate refuses to hasten his toilette regimen or a game of pinochle is deemed too important to pause. So we wait. I suppose it’s a small way of asserting themselves – of making it seem like they’ve got something more important to do than be imprisoned. But that’s a damn small reward to balance against risk getting “charged” for interfering with the count.

While we wait, a chorus of heckling slowly builds. On the rare occasion when a female guard is doing the count, you’ll hear a few, “Let me get that’s.” It’s embarrassing. Often it results in an even slower count.

At some point, everyone gets to the right place. Inmates stand in their cells displaying their ID badges and guards make their rounds.

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In my minimum custody pod, people are occasionally reprimanded for pushing the boundaries of the SOP (standard operating procedure) by talking to other inmates around their cell doors. It’s sort of counterintuitive, but the inmates who push hardest against the count procedure are typically the ones who’ve only recently made it into minimum custody. It’s the mouse and the cookie, I suppose. Put an inmate in min. custody where he doesn’t have to be locked in his cell during count, and he’ll want to talk to his buddies as well.

The counting of inmates, once started, only takes a few minutes. But it’s always a little more stressful than it really should be. Not because of the depressing groundhog-day nature of it all or the annoying assertions of personhood, but because the inmates are never quite sure which standards we’re going to go by today. The count, more so than any other event, is the daily ritual with the most pendulous standards. Yesterday it was fine to just be sleeping in your bunk with your ID badge affixed to your cell door during count. Today, you must be standing at attention with your ID badge held at shoulder height in front of you. Tomorrow…who knows?

The inconsistency makes the whole procedure a little nervey. Like I’ve mentioned, small things – miniscule things – can get blown way out of proportion here. Inmates cling desperately to whatever tiny freedoms they have (like being able to take peanut butter packets out of the dining facility – when they stopped allowing us to do that, there was much grinding and gnashing of teeth). So when a guard tells an inmate who’s sitting on his bed, “Get up, you have to get up and touch your badge for count.” More often than not, the inmate will start arguing. And what is never a good idea when you’re in prison? Arguing with your guards, that’s what. I’ve seen inmates sent to the SHU (max custody) because they used “provoking words or gestures” towards guards who told them to get up and touch their ID badge during count. That said, I’ve also seen inmates give guards lip and have nothing happen. I’ve seen inmates sleep through count with no negative repercussions. I’ve also seen them lose custody and get sent to medium security because they were asleep for count, and rather just than wake them up, a guard submitted paperwork.

Me – I’m not playing these games. I’ve read the SOP and I do what it says. There’s no way I’m risking parole on this count B.S. So when I was standing at my door with my ID badge attached to my left breast pocket, as per SOP, and the guard doing the count told me he needed to see me touch my badge, at first I laughed – because obviously he was messing with me. Then he stared me down and that peach fuzz mustache he was trying to grow was pretty intimidating. So I touched my damn badge. That was attached to me.

Give a private a cookie…and he’ll want to lord it over every one.

Min. custody folks can return to the common room and get back to whatever time-passing activity they were doing before count started. Med. custody inmates, however, have to remain in their cells with the doors locked until the facility-wide count is complete. If it takes more than an hour to “clear the count,” then everyone gets locked in their cells and another count is conducted. Big sigh. And then everyone starts rotating through the dining facility for dinner. Another count complete.

2 thoughts on “The Count (a Sidebar in A Day in the Life)

  1. Hi Russ – I just found your blog and read the whole thing straight through. Have you ever heard of the book A Woman Doing Life by Erin George? Other then the pretentious, condescending co-author its a really interesting read that in some ways parallels your experiences. As I read your blog I find a lot of questions coming to mind regarding stuff you werent able to write in the blog pages. For instance – How did the Master’s Degree work out? What are you hoping to do after your release? Who are your favorite authors? Where do you find joy?

    All the best to you, and peace


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