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Literary Slander
Monday, May 15, 2006   |    Fiction

The Sheldon Prison Experiment

by Tyler Smith

When you reach the age of 30, you should really be on your way toward doing something productive with your life. On my 30th birthday, I found myself out-of-work, without a girlfriend, unmarried, and living at my parents’. I was drinking at least three bottles of peppermint schnapps every day and sitting in bubble baths, trying to imagine myself happily ensconced in a hot tub in a remote ski cabin outside of Zermat. During one particularly debauched episode, I was awakened by my father at 6:00 a.m. after having collapsed on the kitchen floor. Before the fall, I doused myself in leftover BBQ chicken and the old paterfamilias compelled my sorry ass to don a Harvard thong he received at some reunion and mow the lawn with a stinging hangover and a large sombrero to “keep the morning sun out of your face.” My little brother laughed so hard he got a nosebleed. This kind of thing doesn’t do much for the self-esteem of a 30-year-old live-at-home single guy with some post-graduate study. So, I decided to do something valuable with my life; something that might benefit humanity in a Carl Sagan/Mister Rogers/Nelson Mandela kind of way.

We’ve all heard of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and are more or less familiar with the vicissitudes of prison culture. I looked into this a bit more watching Law & Order reruns and Escape from Alcatraz, and was ultimately turned by the infamous Stanford prison experiment. The experiment explored, over a period of six days (at which point the ersatz prison had to be shut down after people started crying), the relationship between prison guards, officials, wardens and the prisoners themselves. It’s a fairly interesting study, but I felt, a little wanting in its research methodology. I was then determined to make a really first-rate, up-to-date and comprehensive study of prison dynamics using various members of my community to “role-play” in a prison system.

Along with some help from an old colleague from grad school we’ll call Rudy P., I went hard to work constructing our scientific penal colony. We enlisted the expertise of Downtown Red, a hardened, leathery-faced old man who sells dime bags of oregano downtown and who claims to have been incarcerated for a number of crimes to help us create a believable prison environment. While Downtown Red’s suggestions were at times helpful, we ultimately had to send him packing when he became stuck in our family’s dryer looking for spare change. Rudy and I spent nearly all day boarding up the hallways in my house to create a prison yard where our inmates could, for one hour each day, be allowed to lift weights, walk around and think about what they’d done and occasionally eat. We made a total of four “cells” with numbers drawn over the doors using my brother’s crayons and sealed off the rooms with steel bars Rudy nicked from a construction site. And as all prisons must, mine contained a “hole,” where ornery and/or uncoöperative inmates could be placed in solitary confinement.

As my little brother and sister returned from school and my parents from work, Rudy used a homemade taser I made out of aluminum foil and an iPod to subdue and render our prisoners inert. However, the taser misfired, sending out only a faint beam but simultaneously playing Meatloaf at full volume. The guards (Rudy) were then forced to subdue our new prisoners with shoelaces and duct tape and place them in the kitchen, or “holding cell” as I, acting as warden, articulated to each member of this batch of no-goodnicks the nature of their crimes.

“What in the shit are you doing, Sheldon?” yelled my father, who would, from here until the end of his prison term, be referred to as inmate #4813.

“Yeah, what the fuck, Sheldon,” barked inmate #3901 (Elias, my brother).

“Don’t use the F word, Elias,” cried Mom, or inmate #7729.

“I have to pee!” shrieked my sister Marjorie, #6120. Since all of the prisoners were blindfolded, I waited patiently as they fumbled around their holding cell, running into walls and household appliances. I could tell this was going to be a tough group of convicts to rehabilitate, for at one point inmate #4813 lunged toward the cell wall, hitting his head on a cupboard, upsetting a large tin of Vermont syrup that oozed over his weary visage.

“Now listen up, convicts,” I said, as Rudy stood guard behind me, fumbling with the iPod, “This is where you will be searched, deloused and processed. I want no talking. If you want to test me on this one, just try and you’ll find yourself in solitary for a week. Rudy, hose ’em down.” I stepped aside, powdered the criminals with lye, gave a nod to Rudy, who discharged a steady stream of water from a Super Soaker.

I found that during degradation procedures, the inmates became more docile, as if the humiliation rendered them sub-human, and incapable of corresponding with me, Rudy, or the “outside world.” Of course, the degradation rituals would involve more than spraying the inmates, so I shaved their heads and my father’s genitals. We shackled the inmates with a bicycle chain attached to the end of a bowling ball—a kind of chain gang in which they would be forced to mow the lawn and make breakfast tacos.

Initially, I felt ID numbers would make the prisoners feel anonymous—even more sub-human—but I was never quite able to refer to #7729 as anything other than “Mom.” This may be because she continued to perform a variety of motherly duties such as laundry, cooking meals, watering plants and making my bed while #4813 would loaf around, mumbling “cocksucker” and “I’m going to fucking kill you.” As for inmates #3901 and 6120, I had them ball-gagged and separated early in the experiment, as they took to divulging my personal secrets to the older inmates. Also because I hate them. But as warden, one has to put one’s personal agenda on hold for the greater good of the prison community at large.

While the abrogation of privacy and civil rights, along with harassment, are the hallmarks of a prison guard, Rudy turned in an unusually inspired performance. Incessant cell checks, delousing, interrogation and lockdown were all daily occurrences on our one (and only) cell block. Initially, I had Rudy wear reflective sunglasses to promote a sense of menacing anonymity, but found that all the prisoners were already familiar with Rudy, as he has been my friend for 20 years and often spends the night when his wife kicks him out of their apartment. Indeed, cries of “Rudy, I’m going to chop your dick off” from prisoner #4813, along with shrieks of recognition from the rest of the cons eventually led me to permit Rudy to wear any kind of eyewear he pleased.

I also eventually did away with the 3:00 a.m. “counts,” which consisted of Rudy blasting an air horn on the cell block and counting the groggy prisoners. Initially, the “inmates” did not take these wake-up counts seriously and attempted to assert their independence. After I sent prisoner #7729 to solitary confinement (the coat closet by the hall) for 36 hours, the rest of the criminals knew we meant business. But, with only four prisoners, I discontinued the counts because Rudy was getting tired and insisted he could “keep an eye” on everybody most all the time. There must be room for some latitude in the carrying out of justice—otherwise all you have is chaos.

I hired on another staff member to help me with my research—a call girl named Dr. Bunz, who dresses like a medical doctor—one in a short skirt and stethoscope.

After Dr. Bunz came aboard, something unexpected occurred: The prisoners began to revolt in earnest. Taunts and threats from the two adult prisoners and muffled shouts from the two younger ones accompanied a frenetic throwing of cots and books toward me and my staff.

One facet of all prisons is the use of psychological warfare. Hesitant to use excessive force on the prisoners (of whom most of the staff had known for most of their lives), we then instituted a fascinating psychological weapon: we set up a “privileged” cell in which prisoners who behaved were allowed to play with a yo-yo—although when prisoner #7729 was allowed in the privileged cell for informing the guards that prisoner #4813 was planning a prison break, prisoner #4813 threatened to make #7729 his “bitch.” The two eventually had to be separated permanently.

My research with Dr. Bunz was coming along nicely. While a pricey assistant, she was a vigilant note-taker and had an acute sense of socio-psychological factors represented in our experiment. As we fell into our “roles,” Dr. Bunz and I spent a good amount of time horizontally, but when she asked me, “What is the control variable in this experiment?” I had her sent back to Moonlight Escorts.

With funds running low, and only a week into the experiment, I was forced to let go of my staff, or, Rudy. And while I had hoped that the individuality of my prisoners had been disintegrated, their spirits crushed and their resolve crumbled into canine obedience, with the cutbacks came an invigorated prison population. I found that prisoner #7729 had escaped and was Googling “lite recipes for the Christmas season” in the administration wing (den). When I, now serving as warden, guard, and chief administrator tased the prisoner, all that came out of the makeshift “constopper” was a burbling of inferior voltage and a bootleg version of Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.”

“Oh, cut it out Sheldon,” said #7729. “Your father is going to kill you.”

“You will refer to me as Warden Shumsky!” I bellowed.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, I’ve raised a hell-spawn.”

“That’s 30 days in the hole!” As I began to subdue #7729, I was set upon by the rest of the prisoners who had managed to rhino charge the cell door, knocking the bars off their rubber hinges. As prisoner #4813 clasped his hairy paws around my neck, inmates #3901 and #6120 administered kicks to my groin and dorsal region. I proposed a number of “encounter” sessions in which the synthesis of the experiment might be carried out. In other words, to get everyone’s feeling’s about the experiment into a forum in which we could share our feelings, experiences and prepare for the moral reeducation that comes with such a groundbreaking study—but the prisoners had none of it and I was eventually overcome, restrained and ushered into the solitary confinement cell.

I spent a week in solitary with only a bucket and the Harvard thong. On an academic level, I understand the value of my being placed with the metaphorical shoe on the proverbial other foot, but I suspect that my former inmates were not conducting a scientific study at all—a philistine and dangerous situation to say the least.

Tyler Smith has worked as an AP journalist in Madrid, Spain in addition to stints as an editor and freelance writer in New York City. His works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been featured in Square One, The Bullfight Review, Box Car Poetry Review, Identity Theory, Modern Drunkard Magazine and Monkeybicycle. He just recently discovered that cat urine glows in the dark.