This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
It never fails: Whenever those of us on death row are granted even the smallest blessing, favor or minor look-out, one of our fellow prisoners comes along and screws it up for everyone.
Sometimes it’s a matter of greed. Other times it’s pure nastiness. Then there is stupidity, for which there is little excuse. As if being condemned to die isn’t enough, some seem to believe we should continue to heap punishment upon ourselves.
Take what happened with our gym equipment: Years ago, we could workout with weights, but this privilege was taken away after an altercation during which one malcontent bashed another in the head with a dumbbell, nearly killing him. When I first arrived on the Row nearly 18 years back, this kind of thing was a never-ending source of frustration and anger for me. With the passage of time, I have come to accept that it’s just the way things are. Still, there are moments when I can only shake my head with disgust.
This morning was one of those times.
The newly-constructed Central Prison chow hall isn’t too unlike a school or hospital cafeteria, except for the rows of steel tables bolted to the floor, and the small waist-high window from which trays are served. We don’t see the regular-population prisoners who work in the kitchen unless we bend down to look through the serving window, and this is frowned upon by the gray and black-uniformed correctional officers, or C.O.s, who usually lurk somewhere nearby. The tables are dirty, the floor sticky and strewn with crumbs, used plastic sporks, and other detritus.
As we stood in the breakfast line, my buddy Greg, up front as usual, turned to announce: “Man behind the serving line says he’s gonna look-out for everyone with a boiled egg and piece of cheese. It ain’t on the menu, so don’t bitch ‘cause you only get one egg.”
Enough said. It felt like the universe was smiling upon us. A boiled egg and slice of cheese would go well with the S.O.S.—that’s ”shit on a shingle,” or the chipped beef and biscuits that were on the menu—and would make an otherwise bland, pitiful breakfast much better. I waited my turn, grateful that the server would risk trouble by providing us with extra food. When a tray appeared in the window, I grabbed it and made my way to the table where Greg was already seated.
Watching the line as I began to eat, I saw Jazzy Jimmy approach the window.
“I bet ol’ Jazzy’ll try to sell his egg,” I predicted. “One boiled egg—with shell—for a stamped envelope.”
“Oh, he’ll try to get more than that,” Greg said with a chuckle.
Jazzy Jimmy is a sixty-something man who acts as if his 12th birthday is still a few years off. He fancies himself a singer, a rapper, a musician, and an all-around entertainer, but is, in reality, a minor annoyance. If not for his blatant narcissism and penchant for telling dubious stories about having once performed with James Brown, his behavior might be endearing.
After a short wait, Jazzy took his tray and began to walk away before halting mid-stride. “Wait a minute, I only got one egg,” he said, looking down at his tray. He then turned back to the serving window and bent down to speak to the prisoner behind the line. “You only gave me one egg. Ain’t we s’posed to get two?”
“You idiot!” yelled Little Chuck from across the cafeteria. “Everybody got one egg. Don’t you listen?”
“But … but … ,” Jazzy looked crestfallen. There went his opportunity to make an extra stamped envelope.
By this time, a C.O.—alerted by the scene Jazzy had caused—made her way to the window and called for the kitchen steward. The stewards are uniformed correctional officers tasked with overseeing the prisoners who prepare and serve our meals. “What’s going on here?” the C.O. demanded. “Are they supposed to get one egg or two?”
“They aren’t supposed to get any eggs. Eggs aren’t even on the menu!”
The kitchen steward was on the verge of a full-blown rage, his round face glowing bright red. “I’ll see to it that somebody goes to lockup for this.” He stomped away from the window to apprehend the server responsible for this terrible misdeed.
“Way to go asshole.” An inmate called Mean Joe’s voice broke the silence left in the wake of the steward’s departure. “You’d fuck up a wet dream.”
The abuse continued from every corner of the cafeteria. As Jazzy Jimmy ate his breakfast in silence, not seeming to care, I wondered: Is it possible to dislike someone and feel sorry for him at the same time?
Lunch was a turkey-ham and cheese sandwich with vegetable soup, and, predictably, the steward loomed at the serving window handing out trays. Under his close watch, nary an extra piece of turkey-ham or spoonful of soup got past him. In fact, we were lucky to receive what little the menu allotted.
Thanks a lot, Jazzy Jimmy.
Timothy White, 40, is on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is awaiting execution for first-degree murder; he pleaded guilty in 2000.