FROM THE INSIDE

★ ★ ★ ★

BISCUITS AND GRITS

By Emilio C. Fernandez

I miss the blaring sound of my smart phone’s alarm. Anything is actually better than 50 watts of fluorescent lights penetrating my eyelids at 4:30 each morning. Not to mention the depressing mechanical sound of a heavy steel door sliding open signaling both permission for me to leave my 8×10 duplex and that breakfast is just around the corner. I never thought I’d be eating predawn breakfast before the age of 60. But here I am at 35 basing one of the most important decisions of my day on whether they’re serving grits or oatmeal at the chow hall.

I never ate grits when I was free. I guess I didn’t have to with the option of eggs, bacon, and a Cuban toast at my fingertips. Now I have them 3-4 times a week with thinly sliced Lyonnaise potatoes served with soy textured vegetable protein, sausage or meat gravy. I opt for 6 slices of American cheese which pairs well with my white bread, jelly, and butter. Sometimes we get really good biscuits, but only when they feel like it. I never thought it would be so exciting to see biscuits.

I don’t go to breakfast on oatmeal days. It’s not Quaker’s instant kind we know and love. It’s more like Tapioca pudding with absolutely no sweetness to it. And it’s served with coffee cakes or pancakes and maybe a fruit if I’m lucky, but I don’t believe in luck. Anyways. I pass and get some extra sleep, choosing to eat a $0.47 peanut butter squeeze with 8 Cuban crackers when I wake. Breakfast of Champions.

That’s when I take down the plastic bag attached to the window working as our A/C unit. It works by redirecting the airflow towards our bunks, a necessity during these 80-degree South Florida summer mornings. I also make my bed at this time. I thought that only shirts and dogs have collars, but apparently beds can have them too. Well, we’re required to have one on outs, but I make mine with a fake collar, an art that has prepared me to work as a Motel 6 housekeeper. All that’s missing is the chocolate mint on the pillow, but trust me, you don’t want to find anything sweet on your bed in prison.

What’s sweet is that I just realized that I live in a really weird studio apartment. If I stand in just the right spot, I’m in my bedroom, living room, and yes, my bathroom, all at the same time. It’s not that difficult to imagine when there is a toilet at the foot of my bunk bed. But it does lead to some interesting situations when we’re locked in for counts and bowels start moving. Let’s just say that I’ve learned to flush frequently with no regard for the water bill. My Mom would be so disappointed.

By 8 o’clock they announce “open-movement” over the PA and we enter sally port. The Sally I used to know wouldn’t have liked this loading station bearing her name. Gathering over 40 perspiring men into an unventilated hallway with the area of a two-car garage is not conducive to movement. Yet, it has helped me empathize with sardines that long for a hungry hand to open their air depriving lid. The only thing that’s open in regards to this movement is when they let is out, a sudden surge of blue clad cattle released from their depressing confinement, one less barrier between us and freedom.

Although I venture out in the open air, my movement is still controlled by officers and lines which keep us bound to the path of their choosing. Five years ago I lost the privilege to walk where I desire, destined to be guided by yellow paint on concrete walkways for another 11 years, at times stepping over the lines in rebelliousness. These are contrasted by the white lines of our outer pant legs, the only sign of purity on us, even if they too at times get stained by the filth of this place.

As I’m led to my work destination under the hot Miami sun by manic shouts of “Get inside the lines,” I envision myself when I’m free, fulfilling my calling as a pastor, leading my own congregation of sinners. But unlike the apathetic officers and emotionless yellow lines, I will guide my brothers and sisters with a love and care for their souls and eternal destination. I will dedicate my life to them and not to a pay-check. I’m already being trained to work for free, even though they’ll tell you I get 10 days off my sentence every month. What they won’t tell you is that has a cap.

So after hours of enjoying the air-conditioned classroom where I teach Hispanic men how to read, write and speak English, the 7pm call beckons me back to F dorm. I always look up at the clouds, hoping for rain to cool off the earth, granting us a sweat-less sleep. The temptation of a cold melon iced tea from the canteen is thwarted by the merciless sarge who commands us to go where we live. I want to tell him that I don’t live here, that I’m a sojourner and a pilgrim in a land of slavery that I’m not destined for.

A 15-minute phone call home and a hot shower later, I still miss my mom, and yes, I’m still swearing. A game of scrabble with my best friend Joe eases my worry about life and a lack of rain with seldom used words like zineb, zek, and zax. Building up these words on the board reminds me of my quest to continue edifying my character. This is in hopes that one day I’ll be recognized as a valuable and responsible member of society instead of the worthless criminal some see me as today. At least I can go to sleep tonight hopeful for tomorrow’s biscuits and grits.

Emilio C. Fernandez is a first generation Cuban-Peruvian-American born and raised in Miami, Florida. He holds a BA from MINTS in Theological Studies, is working towards an MA in the same field, and is seeking ordination within the PCA. He also has BAs in both Electrical and Computer Engineering as well as a Corporate MBA, all from Florida International University.

This column was made possible with the help of Exchange for Change, a non-profit based in Florida that teaches writing in prisons and runs letter exchanges between incarcerated students and writers studying on the outside.

Exchange for Change believes in the value of every voice, and gives their students an opportunity to express themselves without the fear of being stigmatized. Their work is based on the belief that when everyone has the ability to listen and be heard, strong and safe communities are formed, and that with a pen and paper, students can become agents of change across different communities in ways they may otherwise have never encountered.

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