Wednesday, June 15, 2016
June 1 - Can't Keep A Good Man Down
Wednesday, June 1
On June 1, 2016, Clayton Allison celebrated his second birthday within the Goose Creek Correctional Center; turning 33 years old. This birthday would be a new challenge. In addition to being confined to the facility, Clayton had been struggling with illness for the last few days. He had requested to be seen by medical, but at last report it was taking the nurses more than five days to see someone after they filed an official request. However, Clayton was determined not to let his spirits be brought down by circumstances.
“I didn’t want to let DOC steal my birthday from me,” he said. “I wanted to make it special.”
Clayton’s family wanted to help him, but struggled to find options available to do so. Clayton still currently resides within the Special Management Unit (SMU) in the Goose Creek Correctional Center, and has been confined there since September 16, 2016. Confinement of this nature is recognized as unhealthy and inhuman when forced upon individuals for extended periods of time; but no progress has been made in getting the protective custody inmates at GCCC housed in more appropriate long-term quarters. They have been confined there for nine months.
Conditions have improved marginally over the last months, while Clayton served in a temporary “Advocate” position with prison staff; where he worked with other inmates to communicate improvements that could be made by the facility for quality of life. Some of the ground gained included access to previously restricted items like radios and MP4 players, colored pencils, warm clothing, personal shoes, and vitamins. They also managed to propose a schedule change that now allows the inmates to be out of their cells for 1.5 hours in the morning, 45 minutes in the afternoon, and 1.5 hours in the evening. They otherwise remain confined for the other 20 hours each day.
The Day Before
Two of the changes achieved were critical to Clayton’s birthday plans: increased access to the phone through time out, and colored pencils. With these two elements, and basic access to the mail system in advance, Clayton’s family managed to find a way to play one of their favorite board games by phone - Settlers of Catan. The game is a board-based resource strategy game which normally takes 3-4 hours to play with a group of 5-6 people, so every minute of phone access counted.
The family chose to play the game with Clayton the day before his actual birthday, because the rotating schedule would allow him the ability to call out for the full available 3.75 hours. Family members rolled the dice for Clayton and helped manage his hand of cards from their side, and left the game to wait between periods of the day when he could call. He kept track of the board, his hand, and other relevant details by paper using the colored pencils and a map the family had created and mailed in advance.
Clayton was occasionally interrupted by the curious individual wandering up and asking him what on Earth he was doing. Family members would laugh when they could hear him politely shooing away the onlookers, so he could focus on the game. Game play was a struggle, because his head cold was making it nearly impossible for him to breathe without taking a shower; waiting for access to a decongestant that would never come. However, the same time he had access to the shower was the same time he had access to the phones, and the phones were the priority for him today.
In the end, the family managed to play a hurried game, and the champion (Clayton’s wife) shouted victory with less than 2 minutes of phone time to spare. Clayton was very excited to have pulled off something so complex and entertaining, while being included in the family he was divided from, in such an important week.
The Big Day
Clayton’s family knew they wouldn’t hear from him much by phone on the day of his birthday. His plans were elaborate, and he would be busy coordinating while still battling the effects of his cold. Clayton’s number one enjoyment in life is making people smile, so he wanted to find a way to include as many people in his birthday plans as possible. Therefore, he decided to host a “spread” for his birthday dinner.
“Spread” is prison lingo for a meal that inmates plan together, and each contribute ingredients from commissary and meals to, in order to make something which does not appear on the prison’s standard menu. Clayton had collected many ingredients in advance; having taken advantage of a ‘special commissary’ ordering option which had come around a couple of months before. The spread for his birthday would be the largest he’d attempted, and the most complex due to his inability to cook anything himself because of his cold. When the day came, he was entirely dependent upon the other inmates to cook everything.
At the end of the day, he did get a call out to his wife to confirm that he wanted to go ahead and use his contact visit for the week that night. (Inmates in the SMU are still being forced to choose a single day each week that they are allowed to have physical contact with their loved ones; resulting in less than 10 seconds a week to actually hug their families.) When she arrived, his wife was amazed at how high his spirits were despite his terrible cold.
When he walked into the visitation room he was extremely excited, and grinning from ear to ear. He couldn’t wait to report what his day had been like.
He’d spent the entire morning rec (time out of his cell) and afternoon rec giving instructions to numerous inmates that were helping prepare the meal. Their first order of business had been the preparation of their experimental dessert. Weeks earlier, Clayton’s wife had noted that she believed they had access to most of the basic ingredients of no-bake cookies. With Clayton’s love of all things peanut butter and chocolate, he was sold on the idea immediately.
To make the cookies, the inmates melted: 3 Hershey’s chocolate bars, 3 Reese’s peanut butter cup 2-packs, milk, and a small bag of Riesen dark chocolate caramels into a large bowl. They then added 4 finely-crushed Oat & Honey granola bars, an entire jar of creamy peanut butter, and an entire box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal packets.
They spread plastic out over the table tops, and then used gloves to scoop the blended mixture out into palm-sized balls to harden. Clayton was shocked to realize that after everything was complete, they had enough to make 38 chocolate cookie-balls! Without access to a freezer or fridge, getting them ready early was essential to give them time to firm up.
For the main meal, they tried a variety of mixtures. In one large bowl they made a sort of bean dip, including: white rice, chili, refried beans, and chopped up summer sausage. A couple of folks had donated bags of Doritos to use for dipping. In a second large bowl, they combined white rice, jerk pork, and packets of squeeze cheese. In a third large bowl, they blended a combination of: mashed potatoes, powdered milk, Funyuns, mustard and mayo packets. For any of the available combinations, they used several packages of tortillas to make wraps.
Clayton explained that even after the morning and afternoon rec, they still did not have all of the steps completed for the meal to be ready. He was beginning to stress about being pressed for time when he realized he would not be able to make it through the rest of the day without taking a shower so he could breathe. Therefore, he prepped a “To Do” list with all the remaining steps, and passed it off to his roommate with instruction to grab specific people to help. On his way to the showers, numerous people gave him ‘What the hell are you doing?’ looks, and he just kept walking while shouting to them to go help his roommate finish everything.
In the end, an incredible number of people were helping out, even if they could not contribute ingredients, to get the job done. Clayton was relieved to find everything ready after exiting the shower and getting a brief call out to his wife about the visit. He was excited, because he’d already wanted to include as many people as possible and there had been a lot more cookie-balls for dessert than he’d imagined. Altogether, they were able to have 37 people join in with Clay for his epic birthday meal, and he still noted that he felt a little guilty that there wasn’t enough for everyone.
Some of the men seemed moved nearly to tears for being included. Many of them do not have funds for commissary, and are considered indigent; so they never have access to things like chocolate. Some others, like one of Clayton’s former elderly roommates, have just enough to ration a small portion for themselves each day or each week. To have an entire palm-sized no-bake cookie-ball was unbelievable!
“I love seeing people’s faces light up, and knowing I made their day!” Clayton explained. “That’s what makes me happy.”
Then, much to Clayton’s surprise, his fellow inmates took matters a step further. One man insisted that they sing Clayton Happy Birthday. Clayton teared up as he explained that the 37 men participated began to sing, and were then joined by numerous other inmates from around the mod who weren’t even participating. Then he was surprised again and again during clean-up, as inmates began bringing him improvised birthday presents. One man brought him ½ a package of cookies, while another one followed with an unopened box. One man gifted him an elaborate hand-drawn picture of a female anime character in full armor, while another offered a hand-made picture frame. One man offered a package of top ramen; which Clayton was very excited about because he’d run out a couple of days before and was still sick. And yet another handed over one of his most prized possessions; his last remaining bag of microwave popcorn (which they can no longer order).
Earlier in the week, it had warmed Clayton’s wife’s heart to hear that some of the inmates had been attempting to do what they could to help him while he’d been so sick. He’d been running an extremely high fever, and despite having been placed on the ‘sick call list’ to be seen by a nurse, he was denied access morning after morning. He’d been too weak to bother retrieving meal trays a couple of times, and had been surprised by one of the men sending him a special meal tray with more soup and food appropriate for illness to his cell. A few of the other men had offered up tissues or tea as they saw him struggling.
It is important to note that this type of behavior is not typical in any prison housing unit. In general, anything an inmate has access to through commissary is prized and traded as money if offered up at all. But Clayton being himself, and taking care of those around him through sheer natural habit, seems to be reaping back some of what he has sown over the last several months; and his family is happy to see that other people around him truly care about his well being.