“Organizing For A Cup Of Joe”
By Alexander Phillips
“Hey Steve keep a peak for me will you? I need to hop in the shower and I don’t know when the cop last did a round.” This conversation happens countless times a day in the facility that I reside in. One must sneak around and break rules just to shower. We are on water restrictions ; one shower a day for a set two-hour period, with five showers for a seventy person unit. Not a serious problem, that is until you take into consideration that on a daily basis and at random times of day, our water turns so black and filled with sediment that you cannot see through lt. This is the same water we drink and bathe with. The black water has a name here as a sad joke in an attempt to lighten the mood of our predicament ; It’s called Norfolk Coffee. If the water is black during our specified shower time, tough luck. Either you shower or you don’t! Hence, we must break institutional rules just to clean ourselves. A friend of mine joked the other day that when he washed his face, he got a chunk of water stuck in his eye. We joke, but men have come back from having tumors removed that were laced with heavy metals, and random headaches come a dime a dozen.
During the Holocaust of WWII “camp regulations were designed to make life impossible. Survival therefore depended on an ‘underworld’ of activities, all of them illegal, all of them risky, but essential to life. There was a special word for this, current in all the camps to carry out any illegal action was to organize” (Des Pres, 120).
Today the wording of the D. O. C. rules are as follows 103 CMR 430 inmate disciplinary offense number 3-13: “organizing or participating in a group activity or meeting Inside the correctional institution… 3-30, attempting to commit any of the above offenses…”
I must make it absolutely clear, in no manner am I trying to compare the horrible suffering, tragedy, and genocide of the Holocaust to the experiences of this correctional institution. In no way am I attempting to compare the overall circumstances between the the two either; where one suffered because of their ethnicity and religion, the other because they chose to commit an actual “crime.”
It is just my intent to draw the ironic parallels between this idea of ‘organizing,’ It’s up to the reader to draw any conclusions from it. An Auschwitz survivor explains that “[In] the language of a political prisoner the word ‘organize’ means to acquire a thing you need without wronging another prisoner” (Des pres, 120).1 For the concentration camp prisoners this usually meant food and water, for my 1,500 fellow inmates it means acquiring relatively clean water. When Norfolk Coffee is served via the faucets and shower-heads at random times of day, and the water restrictions are strictly enforced despite these circumstances, one has to find ingenious ways to ‘organize to meet your essential needs. Whether this is drinking, cooking, eating, showering, brushing your teeth cleaning your cell, or laundry, one must ‘organize.’ There is no leniency of the water-use rules since the administration denies the health hazards of our Norfolk Coffee.
Terrence Des Pres describes how the Nazis dehumanized the people in the camps by restricting their “bathroom” privileges to the point where everyone had no choice but to soil themselves. They were then punished for breaking the bathroom rules; this he calls excremental assault. Fast forward to a few summers ago when our water problem here at Norfolk became so drastic that portable toilets had to be shipped in, and eventually after days, we were given bottled water. For the first few days with barely any water to even drink, men
walked around in the 90 plus degree heat with no means of even sub-par hygiene amidst a sea of over full portable toilets. The sight, smell, and overall conditions could only be described as excremental assault; truly a loss of our humanity. Eventually more water did arrive, but our humanity wasn’t on those shipments. We now had a choice: drink or bathe. But bathing would still be to ‘organize’ since it was forbidden. I saw men fight over contaminated water from rain collectors like dogs over a bone. What they and I would have given for some Norfolk Coffee back in those days…
These conditions have been continuing for countless years now and we are experiencing the political side of ‘organizing’ now. Men are fed up with our conditions and are using any available avenue to affect change essential to our livelihood. But now we are prosecuted on both ends breaking rules in order to get water and breaking rules to change our circumstances with the water. We may not be executed for our infractions of ‘organizing,’ but racking up infractions for ‘organizing’ effects our chances for successfully returning back to society. The parole board does not want to hear the “rationalization” that I was just trying to better me and my fellow inhumane living conditions. Why? Because as it was in the past, we must organize to survive!
- Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life In the Death
Camps. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.