Bad Company

Have you ever been speeding downward on a roller coaster and had that uneasy feeling in your stomach as your internal organs take time to catch up with the rest of your body? To me that’s enjoyable excitement, but it’s different when that feeling comes from worry. Sometimes my worry was almost that bad in prison after one of my cellmates left and I didn’t know who was about to move in with me. A couple of my cellies had both the education and the mentality of a child. Others were just plain disrespectful. Every prison I’ve been in allowed inmates a cell move every so often, so there were times I requested to move when I wasn’t getting along with my celly. Some of those times I just asked to be moved to wherever a bed was available. I didn’t have that option in one particular prison where only body-for-body moves were allowed, meaning two people had to switch cells with each other. If you and your celly didn’t get along and there was no one who would agree to switch places with either of you, you were stuck in that bad situation (unless one of you went to the hole). This prison had a really stupid policy.

Fortunately it was easy to get a cell move in the maximum-security prison where I spent about half my time. One of my cellies I had to get away from was someone I had been helping with G.E.D. homework because he had a first-grade reading level. I’d told him to ask me whatever questions he had early in the day, saying I would be busy later. When he started asking me questions that night, I told him I wasn’t trying to be mean, but I was busy and had told him earlier that I would be. He then threw a hissy fit and yelled, “Fine! Then I don’t need your help you stupid bastard!” Then he hit my bed from below (he was on the bottom bunk). I told him he needed to calm down, but he kept running his mouth and at one point said, “There aren’t any cameras in here. We can fight right now!” Trying to stay calm, I told him he would get hurt if he swung on me. He kept trying to provoke me, and after he threw my Bible against the wall, I threw some punches on him. He settled down after that, but then told me my swollen hand meant he was tough. I guess he thought he’d “beat up” my hand with his head, but it was swollen from hitting my bed with a punch that missed him. Next he suggested I write his girlfriend to ask her if he was indeed tough. There was no way to reason with this guy, so I just kept my mouth shut and took comfort in knowing I would soon be in a different cell. Two days later one of his friends took my place, and he also beat him up. Then my former celly was the one to move and became someone else’s problem before moving yet again to avoid another fight.

Another bad celly of mine I wrote a letter to years after I transferred to a different prison, getting it off my chest that I was one of several people who felt he had a serious anger problem. I brought to his attention that I had heard about one of his temper tantrums involving others who concluded there was something wrong with him. (As I expected, he never wrote back. My letter wasn’t exactly nice, and I now wish I could take back my words.) There was only one occasion when he actually apologized to me for one of his tantrums. Had he not moved out of the cell for a medical issue, I may have requested to move myself, which was easy to do in this prison.

The next prison I was in was the one that made cell moves difficult. Eight months was the longest I had a celly I didn’t get along with. The first problem came the day he was watching a basketball game and kept saying, “Nice shot,” or would yell, “Don’t do that!” I was trying to read at the time and asked him if it was really necessary to talk to his TV. He accused me of being disrespectful for my polite attempt to request some quietness, and when he couldn’t find someone to trade spots with one of us after that, he said we should just let our disagreement go (the one he’d created). But more problems came, because he was an ignorant person. When I mentioned I sometimes got depressed, he responded by pointing out he’d been locked up much longer than me and said, “I get depressed.” Someone who had been locked up even longer could have made that same ignorant statement to him. Then there was one day I mentioned my frustration at having missed the time period I had to go outside for recreation. I was just making conversation, but he told me I didn’t have to explain myself. And another day when he came into the cell he asked me if I was up to something because I had the light on to read. He was suspicious because I normally read without the light on. Well, the light coming through our cell’s window happened to be dimmer this day. I later learned that this deeply disturbed individual had been telling people he thought I was weird.

When I finally got a new celly, one I got along with, he unexpectedly transferred to another housing unit five days later to await a transfer. My next celly was also decent, but the same happened with him two weeks later. Then I got the worst celly I’d ever had. He was like a brat kid, always wanting to argue over things he knew nothing about, and he knew very little. He once asked me if Mexico was part of America. I couldn’t believe this question was coming from another American. I was equally surprised when he asked me what language people speak in London. Uneducated as he was, he pretended to know so much and regularly implied it was me who was uneducated. I didn’t want to argue with him, nor was I the type of person to point out someone’s flaws unless it was to help that someone. But finally I’d had enough and pointed out he was the one who thought the South Pole was warm, because “the further south you go, the warmer it gets.” Becoming angry and defensive, he said, “I don’t even know where the South Pole is!” I had to get away from this guy. My best option to get out of that cell was to get a job in food service, because I would be moved to another housing unit that allowed for special movements to work at times most inmates were locked down. So I moved after celling with this guy for just two months.

I never again had a bad celly after getting hired in food service. In fact, the entire housing unit seemed to have decent people. An exception was the assistant lead man on the serving line where I was working. He talked down to people, and he was lazy too. Several guys on the line quit because of him, so I was baffled when he gave me a speech about how I should follow his example, saying he was the glue that held the line together. The next day I walked onto the line and loudly asked the lead man, who’d heard the assistant lead man’s speech, “Where’s the glue that holds the line together?” After the assistant lead man shot me a dirty look, I exclaimed, “There he is!” I eventually got out of there by volunteering to be a dishwasher. It couldn’t have come at a better time. The environment of my previous position was making it hard for me to keep a Christian attitude. I was starting to purposely irritate the coworker I didn’t like. The cellmates, on the other hand, showed me mostly disrespect when I had always respected them. It would have been easier to let go of the hard feelings had I not been forced to live with these guys. Being so close to them day after day left me with lasting bitterness, so although I had forgiven most people I’d had resentment for, there were still people I needed to forgive. That was a struggle for me until just recently.

What I went through in prison was a result of my bad behavior, and it may have been God’s way of punishing me for turning on Him. He often punished the Israelites’ disobedience by allowing their enemies to defeat them in battle and persecute them, but Israel’s persecutors were still punished for what they did (Jer. 32:28-30; 50:17, 18; 51:6, 49). And while I went through nothing near as bad as the Israelites did, I know the people who treated me with contempt will be punished as well. Most I easily forgave once I got away from them. Just two of my cellies left me with resentment that stayed with me up until recently. They were the ones I had trouble getting away from, and I didn’t give all the details to paint a picture of just how bad they were. The one I had before getting the food service job was a major burden to society, and I knew that no matter where he was, he was going to cause people problems. I had real empathy for others he caused problems for, so as happy as I was to get away from him when I moved to another cell, I also felt bad about it, knowing someone else would be in my former position. As I figured, his next celly was miserable as well. Whether or not I’m the victim of someone’s bad behavior, I really hate victimization. To illustrate, if I avoided having my car broken into by changing parking spots the day before it happened to someone else’s car in the same spot, the empathy I felt for the victim would interfere with the relief that it hadn’t happened to me.

I met some very bad people in prison who went out of their way to give others a hard time, and I really wish those kinds of people didn’t exist. As a Christian, I’m supposed to pray for them and hope the solution to the problem they are is resolved by them changing. Then those “kinds” of people would not exist. It’s not easy to hope for them to be saved. There have been times I hoped they would remain as they were so that they would face God’s wrath in the end. That was the attitude of the prophet Jonah, who at first refused to preach to the Ninevites (Jonah 1:1-3), thinking they didn’t deserve mercy for their wickedness. That’s why God made a “great fish” swallow him (Jonah 1:17). He was vomited out only when deciding he would preach to the Ninevites, who then repented of their ways (Jonah 2:9-3:5). And after that Jonah was angry that God had mercy on them (Jonah 4:1, 2). That’s not the attitude Christians should have.

When people truly repent, their old selves no longer exist. It would be wrong for a righteous person to go to Hell, and if I ever find out one of these wicked people I was in prison with has been saved, I know I must accept that. So I pray that people I’ve wronged myself will not harbor the kind of resentment I used to have. Many times when I get angry about another person victimizing someone, I’m forced to think about my own victims. King David was also put in that uncomfortable situation. He impregnated another man’s wife (II Sam. 11:1-5), attempted and failed to get her husband to have sex with her so that he’d think the child was his (II Sam. 11:8-11), and then put her husband in the worst possible military battle to ensure he would die (II Sam. 11:14-17). Afterwards David became outraged when he was told a parable about a man with “many flocks and herds” taking a lamb from another man who had just the one (II Sam. 12:1-6). Then David was told that this parable, about a lesser evil than his own, was about him (II Sam. 12:7-12). That resulted in David having great remorse for his actions (II Sam. 12:13). It’s a story I can definitely relate to.

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