THROW AWAY THE KEY

May 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

Lindsay Lohan’s going to jail.

Or ‘gaol’, depending on which country you’re in. I guess someone changed the spelling to simplify things. I think I’m going to start spelling everything in olde (I’ve started) English. Example: I gotte in my carr the otther dday and… wait a sec, that’s not olde English, I’m just randomly adding consonants. Screweth it.

But back to gaol. The whole phenomenon of prisons/forced confinement has always fascinated me. My father has a saying: “there’s no such thing as a bad prison movie.” He also uses it for Westerns. Has there ever been a Western set in a prison? He’d be in heaven.

We’ve come up with a lot of funky expressions for the Big House (there’s one right there). The Clink. The Stoney Lonesome. Con College. Joint. Mainline Joint. Skinner Joint (new Joints opening all the time- I’ll keep you posted). Hoosegow. The Brig. The Gladiator Academy.

You get the picture. What’s more, there’s a whole lexicon in use behind those grey walls. The most obvious one that comes to mind is a ‘shiv’. Why does a handmade knife mystically turn into a shiv once you get inside? You hear ex-cons give themselves away all the time in regular conversation on the outside:

“She was sleeping with another man. When I found out it was like a shiv in my back.”

“Excuse me, waiter, my shiv is dirty. May I have another?”
“I can’t wait for karaoke tonight. My favorite song to sing is Mac The Shiv.”
“She’s pretty but not the sharpest shiv in the drawer.”

And so on. There are also an incredible amount of unspoken rules to follow. We all know of a couple: number one, never ask a “greenass”* (term for a new inmate) what they did to land them inside. Big mistake. It’s the outside equivalent of asking a woman her age. The result will be the same: a slap in the face. The only difference is what extremity you get slapped with. Number two, another wellknown edict: never drop the soap. Do they still use those mouldy, festering bars of soap in prison showers? Probably not- I’m sure they go for the mass-produced dispensaries that you find in gym showers now. How would soap possibly drop if that were the case? This could be a problem for all those who like to drop the soap intentionally. Kind of ruins the romance and flirtatiousness of the gesture if you have to spend five minutes ripping the thing off the wall. I’m sure they’ve figured out some other way to send signals of romantic interest.

I just realized this post today is very male-centric. Of course there are women’s prisons too. My first contact with prison life was through a women’s prison. It was the Australian soap opera Prisoner. The show ran for eight years and was a cult hit in Britain, where it was called the more seductive Cell Block H. I learned my first bit of big house parlance back then: Top Dog. Usually played by an actress who stood around six feet and who had what may euphemestically be called a ‘charactery’ face- or as my mother used to say about certain people when I was growing up, an ‘unfortunate’ face. Prisoner was the best; looking back now it appears horribly dated of course- back then the worst word they could use was ‘bitch’, so of course it was flung about like rice at a wedding. The laundry room was the most favoured location because the show’s producers couldn’t afford to shoot outdoors. But that only increased the claustrophobia for the viewers. I positively felt transported when I watched that show. The actresses were almost lifelike. The cardboard brick walls would just close in on you.

But back to my area of expertise: men’s prisons. I’ve educated myself by watching countless prison films. All of these movies are, I’m certain, completely accurate; I mean, after all, they hire consultants, right? So here’s a few more survival tips if you ever find yourself in ‘general population’ in maximum security:

  • If you find yourself threatened by a large man wanting to give you flowers, always seek out the older actor who has made a career playing nice supporting roles. He’ll be doing life and revelling in playing his first tough guy.
  • Never bench press. You’ll be pushing on the bar and suddenly there’ll be three guys standing above you asking you to “take a walk”.
  • Never take a walk. I love walks- usually a chance to take in the scenery, clear your head, maybe see a bird or two, pluck a wild flower. Not so much in this context. It’s going to end badly. I never understand why the guy always does agree to take the walk. First thing I tell everyone when I first arrive in prison is how much I hate walking. Despise the walk. Detest the walk. Don’t even bother asking me.
  • Always take sunglasses to The Hole. Don’t these guys ever learn? Ever notice how pitiful these guys are when that door swings open to let them out and the sun streams in? They cover their eyes and shrink back like little girls. Let’s get one thing straight: if I’m winning brownie points (another menacing prison term) by sitting in The Hole for two months, I’m cruising out of there like Arthur Fonzerelli when it’s over, not stumbling around like a blind idiot for an hour. You gotta be organized.
  • If you’re going to try to escape, never invite the skinny Jewish actor on his first film set. Too jittery. Always complaining about the food. Usually has a mouse. The guy’s annoying in the trailer and hopeless going over the wall. 
  • Get sick. A lot. They’ve got this model working in the infirmary. Why are the infirmaries always so luxurious? They look better than most US hospitals. And the woman there is usually very obliging- she’s trying to forge a career as an actress after years of travelling Europe as a model. While you’re recovering from the forced sodomy with the ex-NFL star moonlighting as an action hero wannabe, just tell her you’re exec producing a big movie next summer and she’ll give you sponge baths till the cows come home.
  • Always work in the library. You get to go around and meet all the day players- they’re very entertaining and make you feel a little more confident that you’ll make it. In Hollywood. You’ll also get to meet the scary but quiet older black gentleman that the white guys fear. He’ll look frightening but have a turn of the century aristocratic name: Marvin, maybe, or Howard, maybe Thurston. He’ll end up helping you out in manifold ways, all the while complaining about that asshole Poitier who took all of his work.

So there you are. A few tips to assist you in a bind. But the best advice I can give you is to not go to the slammer in the first place: stay clean, play by the rules, pay your taxes and you won’t have a problem. Unless you’re in Arizona. As for Lindsay, I hope she’s reading this today. There are plenty of mediocre, washed up actors in prison movies. Now some actual prison out there is getting a real live one all for itself.


*Actually, Victoria made up ‘greenass’ but it sounded authentic.


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