From Issue 18: The Count

Christine Holmstrom
My first masturbator was a young inmate—standing at the front of his cell, jeans crumpled around his ankles, boxers sagging below his knees. His hand moved up and down the shaft of his penis. Looking directly at me, he pulled harder, his racing breath audible through the cell bars inches from me. 
I backed away, unable to speak.
What was I expecting anyway? The men here were rapists, robbers, and murderers. This was San Quentin, a men’s maximum-security prison, and I was a new female correctional officer—a prison guard—conducting my first institutional count. But here in West Block, the semi-honor unit in the main prison, inmates were generally respectful of staff, rarely caused trouble. They had too much to lose—coveted goodies like curtains over the cell fronts, small shelves and bookcases made from scavenged cardboard or purloined materials from the furniture factory. On lifer’s row, the first tier, some old-timers even had pets—caged birds, goldfish confined to large glass bowls, and the occasional cat. No one wanted to get written up or kicked out, so they behaved, at least while staff were around. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked, unable to immediately reprimand the masturbator. 
My job was to accurately count the men in each cell (none, one, or two), add up the total number for the tier, and turn in the count to the unit sergeant. I’d been assigned to the third tier. 
Should be easy—all I had to do was click my round metal tally counter as I looked into each cell. What I really wanted was a senior cop at my side, a seasoned officer to help out, give me confidence. But I was on my own.
Get it right, don’t mess up. Climbing the stairs, I clutched the tally counter, took a deep breath, and made my way down the tier. Somewhere up on four, the burrito man was at work—the scent of fresh salsa and frying onions drifting down. West Block was home to multiple entrepreneurs—cooks, tattoo artists, pruno (prison hooch) brewers, and guys who could iron a crease in your state-issue blues as sharp as a newly honed shank.
The cops pretty much ignored most of this—not the pruno or drugs of course. But the count was serious business—it had to clear before inmates could be released from their units to go to the chow hall. Any delays would throw off the entire evening schedule—night education classes, clinic appointments, self-help group meetings, mail pickup and distribution.
Peering into the cells I felt like a Peeping Tom. Most men were sitting on their bunks, or at the sink brushing their teeth or combing their hair. Still, it felt as if I was invading their privacy.
Would I give away my “fish”—new officer—status by staring too long? What if I missed an inmate curled beneath his blankets or squatting in a corner of the cell? The rule book said that inmates were supposed to stand at the bars for the count. Most didn’t. As green as I was, I knew no cop was going to write up half the inmates on the tier for “failure to stand.”
Halfway down the tier, the sole inmate in cell 3-52 stood at the bars. Slender, clean-faced, he could’ve been a high school student. A second passed before I recognized that he was jacking off, his erect penis glistening under the overhead light. My throat tightened. I felt soiled. 
This was worse than the crap I’d put up with as a cocktail waitress—the ass-grabbers, the men who’d drop their hotel room key on my tray like I might want to saunter upstairs at 2 a.m. for a little nooky with some salesman from Des Moines.
My concentration on the count evaporated—my brain heated and empty as midsummer desert. I wanted to yell or curse, but nothing came out. Shit, what was I supposed to do? All I could think was that the young inmate had messed up my count. And disrespected me. Little fucker.
Stepping back, I wondered—did I press the clicker, count him? Forcing myself to inhale slowly, I pressed the tally counter and moved to the next cell, finished the count, and headed downstairs.
R.J. “Raw Jaw” Campbell, the West Block sergeant, looked up from a stack of memorandums and forms piled on the coffee-stained surface of his battered Prison Industry Authority desk. His slightly dissipated face and puffy body reminded me of someone who liked his whiskey a lot more than he enjoyed exercise. 
Handing him the count slip, I felt a wave of anger tug at me like a riptide. 
“Sarge, the inmate in cell 3-52 was masturbating when I walked by to do the count.” I looked at Raw Jaw, waiting for an expression of outrage or, perhaps, sympathy. 
Feeling like a little child who’d run to Daddy for help and was about to be rebuffed, my spine sagged. I imagined Campbell’s thoughts. Get over it. He won’t be the only weenie-whacker you run into here. This is a frickin’ prison, not Sunday School. 
In the lengthening silence, my thoughts cleared. I’d been hired as a correctional officer and had to do the same job as a man. Still, I’d hoped my supervisor would reprimand the inmate, stand up for me.
Raw Jaw took a slow swig of coffee from a chipped mug, his expression unreadable. Finally, he asked, “Did you get the inmate’s name and prison number?” 
“No.” I felt heat rise up my face, my eyes starting to water.
“Well then, go back up on the tier and get his name and ID. You can verbally counsel him or you can write him up.” 
Trudging up the stairs, I struggled to rehearse what to say, how to confront the inmate. My gut was as jittery as if I were pinned against the side of the spinning Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair.
Why was I so nervous? The masturbator reminded me of something long ago, a memory I couldn’t retrieve. Think about that later. I had to deal with this prisoner. Now. Otherwise the word would get out, and every closeted flasher and wannabe weenie-wagger would be waving his dick at me next time I was on the tier. 
The inmate was fully dressed, standing in the back of his cell, washing his hands before chow release. I planted my feet, stood straight, hands on hips. “Give me your ID. I’m writing you up for sexual behavior.”
“Miss Lady, I didn’t know you were there.” 
“Bullshit,” I sputtered. “You knew I was on the tier. It was the four o’clock count. Now give me your ID.”
The inmate’s mouth twisted into an attack dog snarl. “I didn’t do nuttin.”
We’d argued for a moment. He claimed he’d lost his ID, said he’d misplaced it, insisted I had no reason to write him up.
Finally he reached into his prison denim jacket and fished out his ID.
I examined it, comparing the picture on the small plastic-coated ID to the young man’s glaring face, then noted his name and prison number in my pocket-sized notebook. Downstairs, I’d write up a beef—a disciplinary—and give it to an inmate clerk for typing.
A few days later, on my day off, I told a girlfriend about the masturbator. My friend was an airline reservation agent and had never worked in a prison. She clicked her tongue and gave me one of those “What kind of heartless bitch are you anyway?” looks. “Men need to relieve themselves. After all, their sex drive doesn’t disappear just ’cause they’re in prison.”
Astounded, I’d scowled at her. “They have plenty of time to curl up on their bunks with a copy of Maxim or Hustler and ‘relieve’ themselves when I’m not standing in front of them.”
Back at Quentin, word was out that Officer Kim Haylock had coldcocked an inmate who’d grabbed her breasts. “Right in the middle of the upper yard,” a cop had said, “the dude walked up and put his hands on her tits. She decked him, laid him flat.”
Wow. I envied Kim and her roundhouse punch. But I was no warrior woman. My weapons would have to be verbal. 
Words had failed me at times, refusing to emerge. Like when I was a teen and my dad began leering at me as I bounced past in a bikini, when he put his hands where they didn’t belong, subtly exposed himself when I came to say “good night”—his flaccid penis reminding me of a large ugly worm.
I hadn’t been able to confront my dad. But no way was I going to let some inmate jerk-off artist intimidate me now. I’d signed up for this prison guard job and I was either going to deal with the bullshit or quit. 
Quit? I had no intention of going back to waitress work. My dream was to hold on long enough to become a parole agent—get out of prison and hit the streets. Picturing myself decked out in a shantung silk suit from the San Francisco garment district, driving around town in a state car, checking on my caseload of parolees—that would be my salvation from the daily crap I endured at the prison. 
To combat the masturbators, I needed to embrace my inner smart-ass self.
As a kid, I’d be punished for my “smart mouth”—my parents threatened to wash away my insolent words with soap and water. That smart mouth turned out to be the ideal weapon at Quentin. When a ham-slammer went into action for my benefit, I’d stop and holler, “Hey, you, if you’re going to put on a show, get me a magnifying glass so I can see it.” Hoots and curses would rise from neighboring cells. “Stop messing with yourself, asshole.”
 Put-downs generally worked. But there were a few dedicated masturbators, like the guy in East Block who whacked off every time I passed his cell, which was often, when I was assigned to the elevated gunrail in the housing unit. Writing up the inmate and public shaming had both failed. I called the unit sergeant, asking his advice. We all loved Sergeant Sam—he stood up for his officers. 
“No problem, I’ll send up the tier cop to standardize the guy’s cell.” Sergeant Sam’s voice boomed over the phone, rising above the background of clanking steam heaters, PA announcements, and the cacophony of competing television and radio stations blasting from the cells.
Within minutes, the masturbator was cuffed to the tier railing, and two cops were throwing out contraband—cardboard furniture, excess toilet paper and soap bars, purloined state clothing, and other goodies, heaving it all over the rail to the cement floor two tiers below. The inmate yelled and begged for them to stop, to no avail.
That guy didn’t give me any more trouble. Still, every time I worked a different housing unit or shift, I had to establish my prison creds. Success was often elusive.
Prison work is a cat and mouse game. I didn’t always win. Before he’d stepped in front of me for a pat-down search, one prisoner had concealed his exposed penis beneath his denim jacket. As I ran my hand up his inner leg, I felt cool, flaccid flesh. Jumping back, I’d yelped, “He’s got his dick out.” 
Other officers turned and stared. “You should’ve rung his bell,” one of the male cops said, shaking his head.
Darn—it was too late. But I knew I wouldn’t have yanked on the man’s genitals. My hand had recoiled at the feel of naked flesh. Once I’d washed up, the grossness of the incident evaporated. Yet the cop’s words echoed in my brain for weeks. I’d been gamed. Still, I felt sorry for the inmate, for his pathetic desperation for a woman’s touch, however fleeting. Who was I mad at? Myself? Or for the cop for judging me? Sometimes all I’d really wanted was reassurance, to be told I’d done the best I could in the moment. 
Another time, an inmate kitchen worker “accidentally” sloshed water on me, then started dabbing at my body with a towel. “Don’t touch me,” I’d said, hurrying away. The same shit had happened years before when I was a cocktail waitress, men brushing my legs “by accident.” Once a group of college guys started throwing ice cubes at my cleavage as I passed their table. Without thinking, I’d snatched a glass of draft beer from my tray, flinging the contents in a urine-yellow arc toward my tormenters. They left, remarking, “Hey, you oughta pitch for the Oakland A’s.” But prison was different—you couldn’t retaliate by picking up a pail of water and dumping it on an inmate worker. You’d get in trouble, be written up.
At times, I just ignored the bullshit, like when all the guys in the North Block housing unit group shower turned to watch as I walked past, wagging their soapy dicks at me. 
Jeez, a regular penis party, a chorus line of dancing dicks. I rolled my eyes and headed upstairs. There was work to do—escorting inmates to the visiting room. 
And I couldn’t always think of a good wisecrack.
Maybe you get used to the kind of crap you get as a woman. Or learn to laugh at the bullshit. Sometimes you simply suck it up. Like when I opened the gate to the fourth tier in East Block one night, and the inmate in the first cell hollered, “Pussy on the tier.” Jagged bits of mirror, affixed to broken pencils or old toothbrushes, protruded from each cell as I passed. All I could see were a series of squinting eyes reflected in sharp glass. “Pussy on the tier” reverberated from the cellblock’s concrete walls as each prisoner took up the cry. But no one was masturbating. So I kept going, my heart thumping. 
Another time, in the Adjustment Center, the lockup unit for the baddest of the bad, all the white boys on the second floor squatted near the front of their cells when I walked by after the 1:00 a.m. count. Their faces were at the level of my crotch, and each prisoner inhaled deeply as I passed, as if he could detect whether I had used strawberry- or cherry-flavored douche that morning. What would these guys think of next? At least they weren’t trying to stab me or throw urine-fermented excrement at me.
No doubt about it. San Quentin was a pit. But I wasn’t leaving.
Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in various literary journals. After surviving riots, an armed escape and a death threat while working at San Quentin prison, she finally had the good sense to retire. Christine is now working on a memoir about her prison years.