Guest Commentary: New Year’s Rung in with Gas Grenades

Photo by Hasenonkel on

Rowdy behavior on the eve of a new year brings a messy, sticky surprise.

By Calen J. Whidden

The end of the year in Florida is phenomenal as it ushers in the fall with its crisp, mild nights, still days, tri-weekly lawn mowing, and of course, the holidays, which start with my most favorite, Halloween.

Thanksgiving is a day in which I generally eat my weight in Honey Baked Ham. Throughout December, I enjoy entire meals consisting of items that one would find on a document that my doctor provided to me after she diagnosed me with high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Every year I basically unhinge my jaw like a boa constrictor and ingest as much as I am able while spending little time with the frivolous things like chewing. On New Year’s Day, I stay at home, get soused and reflect on the last 365 days. I enjoy the holidays — when I’m not in prison.

The first year that I spent inside during my first bid of a four-year sentence was very stressful and emotionally painful.

As most people can imagine, eating my turkey roll with a collective of murderers and rapists — as opposed to friends, loved ones and people like my angel of a mom — was as much a kick in the crotch as it was on my heart.

It was in 2011 during my second year in prison that I was much more emotionally prepared. I mentally numbed myself for those last four months. I had finally made it to my permanent institution, Columbia Correctional Institution.

After surviving an entire year of monotonous incarcerated life, I figured I shouldn’t expect any surprises. Each year was the same as the last, right? Wrong.

It was that year that I spent the ass-end of November, all of December and almost three weeks of January in confinement, housed in N dorm for 58 days straight, through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s for possession of a cell phone that wasn’t even mine.

I spent two days shy of two months without being able to talk or write to anyone I cared about. During that period, little could I have known that there would be a raining fire from a commercial-grade, industrial-size can of caustic gas as 2012 was introducing itself to the world.

The day itself went by without incident. I did as I had done for the past month — I slept as much as possible during the day. If you’re going to be awake in the box, the night time is more preferable because they seem to go by quicker than daylight hours, though the corrections officers (COs) that ran the box never turned off the fluorescent lights in our rooms.

I’d wake up and take three minutes to eat the tray that would come through the flap, and while I wasn’t sleeping, I would shoot the shit with my bunky for a couple of sentences, maybe take a birdbath in the sink to stay fresh, but mostly I faced the four-inch wide by 32-inch long slit of a “window” and waited for the night to turn to day and vice versa.

I was in the middle of doing just that, when my bunk “Future” told me that it was New Year’s Eve.

I must have been doing my time in Slam proper, because I had actually let this escape me. I responded with the standard reply, “Yeah? Well, that sucks.” This was probably around 9 or 9:30 p.m.

Nothing more was said until around 11 p.m., when we both noticed a lot more screaming than usual. The natives, it seemed, were getting restless. It was around 11:50 p.m. that the noise really started to crank up, the din becoming more and more aggressive.

Five minutes before midnight, everyone besides myself and Future went totally ape shit. They were mule-kicking their cell doors hard, and the sound echoed and bellowed at three-digit decibels. Nobody was able to hear the corrections officers (COs) give verbal commands to refrain from kicking and screaming because it violated Chapter 33’s code of conduct in the inmates’ handbook. Three minutes later, I heard the first screams of pain in the front of our wing.

Three seconds later, there was more screaming, more urgent and closer this time. Another few seconds later, there were more guys coughing and screaming.

Future put his phone down and got up to look for himself.

“They’re gassin’ us,” he yelled.

I jumped up to try to get my sheet in the toilet so that I could attempt to cover my exposed limbs and filter out the gas known as “Black Jesus.” But it was too late.

Just as I reached the toilet, a can was leveled at the three-inch gap at the bottom of our cell door, and the trigger was pulled, admitting a massive amount of orange, sticky, expanding gas that burned me on the outside of my skin and my eyes, and on the inside, up my nose, torching my lungs.

The COs went down the line, on the top and bottom tiers, sticking their cans under our doors and letting doses of gas off.

In a matter of moments the cries of, “Happy New Year,” “Another year gone,” “One more closer to the end” and “Almost home! Almost home!” turned to screams of pain, guys throwing up, blowing snot out of their noses and spitting uncontrollably.

As the COs wrapped up their business, one of them stood in the middle of the wing to say, “See, gentlemen? Doesn’t this sound better than all that hollerin’ and kickin’ on shit? It sure as shit does to me. Y’all have a happy New Year, assholes!”

He and the rest of them all turned around and retired to their bubble for the rest of the night, leaving us to sit with the film and residue of this toxic substance.

What most people don’t know about this gas is that it’s very permeable and sticks to whatever. Water makes it worse.

So there I was, gassed for laying on my concrete slab, in the box for a phone that wasn’t mine.

But considering my stature as a true-blue-certified dog turd of a human being, perhaps I did deserve to eat a gas sandwich for my first meal of 2012?

Originally published by the Prison Journalism Project.  Prison Journalism Project trains incarcerated writers to become journalists and publishes their stories.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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