Yesterday, I got as close to the evil empire that is the Massachusetts criminal justice system as I ever want to go. The saga of our old nemesis, the O.V., returned, burst in the noonday sun like a putrid bubble rising from a bureaucratic fever swamp. Prisonspeak for ‘Official Version, the O.V. is the Rosetta Stone of your immediate destiny, the transcribed litany of crime and punishment you must have in order to be reclassified, downgraded to a lower security tier, and sent across the street to begin a better, easier, and freer life. Reclassification is done every six months. A year ago, you told me, when you first came to Framingham, the Berkshire County court that sentenced you had a statutory obligation, and that included performing the simple task of sending along your case file, or O.V., to the prison. This is as routine, and vital as mailing out college transcripts to a transfer student, and in the age of the fax machine, doesn’t take a helluva long time. But, since the court failed to send along your O.V., ‘in a timely manner’, six months ago your reclassification window opened and shut with barely a whimper, and there you stayed. This is where the woulda-shoulda-coulda monsters come out of hiding. Imagine if you’d gone across the street six months ago? But never mind, the past is past. Your next hearing is scheduled for the end of August and still no O.V. Still never mind, but this time it’s the DOC, that brainless Medusa that devours all logic and compassion in a toxic backwash of nonsensical regulatory bile. Your missing paperwork raised no eyebrows or red flags among the craven, that legion of utterly disinterested public servants who routinely hold the power that defines the verge between an inmate’s improved life and slow death by a thousand cuts of administrative entropy.

Ever since you explained the significance of the O.V. to me, it has become more and more a hectoring burr under my saddle. Because my Virgo brain cannot easily accept things that others decide to be true, I have made some phone calls to the prison to find the answers, most notably to the Director of Classification, (how Kafkaesque is that?), Ellie Claudius. Months ago, (it seems like years), when I first talked to Ellie about your O.V., she cautiously reported that she’d sent out two requests, once when you first arrived, and again in February. I say cautiously because of the veil of silence that separates inmate information and the general public’s need to know-all in the name of privacy, of course, but the net result is simple: The DOC has a simple, guiding tenet-nothing gets in, and nothing gets out, without their say-so. Enter the dragon. For some reason, Ellie had drawn a personal squiggle in the sand and steadfastly refused to send out request number three for the missing O.V., despite, 1., It’s her job, 2., your impending classification hearing in a matter of weeks, 3., the time-honored nature of things, and 4, it’s her fucking job!

With a straight face, she informs me that you’re on your own tracking it down. Here’s where the life and death stuff comes in. As the Classification Director, Ellie is the primary decider of your immediate fate. Every six months she makes the call-stay or go, up or down, in or out. If you’re a good little mass murderer, (and actual murderers routinely get less time than you got for what shook out to be filing the right paper in the wrong mail slot) theoretically by the end of August, you are eligible to relocate across the street, to Lower Securityland, to fewer head counts, nicer Gargs (they have to be!), to a job outside, to outside walks and handholding with me beneath a sunny sky. Needless to say, I am, baby, so mucho motivated to track down your college transcripts, get you the hell out of the newbie monkeyhouse and into graduate school where, if rights are right, and they are, you so belong. This week, on the trail of the elusive O.V., everything changed. After asking three lawyers to help find them, with zippo success, on a mad whim I decided to go full-tilt, mad dog O.V. retriever and, almost by accident, (but then again, there are no coincidences, are there?), I found myself on the phone with a nice young man, the assistant, and very gay, trial clerk of the Berkshire County Superior Court. Yes, he said, after giving him your name, we have these records, and yes, I can send them over to…here he paused, I could hear him shuffling paper…yes, Framingham. Yes, I dared whisper. The Grail, so close. Yes, Framingham. Do send them, right over, send them right over today. Funny, he said, nobody has requested them before now. Whatya mean, I asked, alert as a Georgia coon dog with a fresh whiff of escapee. The prison sent over two requests, I explained, as if to a truculent child. Once a year ago, and once in February. Didn’t you get them? No, the clerk said. There are no requests here in my computer. You’re positive? I asked. Absolutely, he said. My giddy hope for quick resolution was sliding, sliding toward the brink. So….my voice dropped a notch, you can send them over today? So close. The O.V., O, baby, your ticket to ride, was so close, imprisoned in a fucking file cabinet where this whole nightmare began so many months ago. Yes, I can do that, he said, then added, and here his voice morphed back into Clericalman, but I need to have a formal request from the prison.They can fax it, but it has to be on prison letterhead. Shit, I thought. Okay, great, amazing, I told the kid. I am getting it now. You have no idea how great this is. I’ll call the prison today. You’ll get the fax. You have no idea…I heard myself gush. This is going to change somebody’s life, I told him, knowing I was getting close to the fissure in our society that cleaves the clerks from the unwashed rabble at the gate. Just to have a simple piece of paper, I sang out, you have no…idea. The clerk politely waited a beat, to make sure I was done, then said, in a low, wooden, monotone- Yes, I’m sure it will.

After I hung up I immediately called Ellie, deep in her Classification Fortress of Attitude. Or rather, I should say, tried calling her. What I actually did was dial the prison twenty one times before I was able to get her extension. I should explain. You are an inmate, inside, safely locked away, and that’s where they want you. We are the outsiders, those of us who need to know, to inquire on your well-being, to ask the big questions, to be somehow reassured-let’s call us family, or friends, or lovers, or perhaps it’s your attorney, someone with a legitimate reason to get in touch…and then what? Here’s the fun part. You cannot call Framingham MCI on the telephone. Say this real slow three times. You cannot call the prison, period. This is a demo of what you will get when you dial the number, sometimes on the weekend, sometimes always-it depends on things, or on whatever-who knows?, but this is what you get: “This is the Mass Correctional blah blah at Framingham blah blah-if you know your party’s three digit extension, please dial it now. All others dial zero or stay on the line and an operator will assist you.” Theoretically speaking, one might assume by the following steps one might actually stumble across an actual human voice at the other end of the line. Theoretically. Eventually. Big, fucking ‘as if’. And ya know what else? Wanna know the secret? Framingham’s public welcome mat policy is a joke: flat-line, pure-dee, DOA, dead. Tax dollars? Fuck your tax dollars, pard. It’s a sovereign nation within a nation, like an Indian rez without the casino, the Great Spirit, tax-free cigarettes or one scintilla of a sense of humor. Can you hear me now? Click. Every day the phone rings and rings and rings, and nobody ever, ever picks up. Now, perhaps the rookie governor has a hotline to the inner sanctum, like Commissioner Gordon’s private wire to Wayne Manor, but for the rest of us? The rabble with a sister or a mother or a wife locked way, way inside? Tough, fucking titties, amigo. In the paranoid demi-universe of the DOC, you are judged by your associations; a friend of a convicted criminal is merely an accomplice, nothing more and nothing less. But this is what I did, because I am the crow, and crows peck, looking for the soft belly flesh: After listening to the answering machine, retarded little brother to Shotclock Man, cycle over and over, I finally said ya basta, enough!’, and began to randomly punch in three digit combos. And every time I hit a number, and it came up empty, with either some department or individual ‘s voice mail, (I even got the prison’s chaplain, who, of course, only works two times a week), I had to hang up and dial the whole cycle all the way through again. After twenty one times, coincidentally lucky number 121, I finally got a human-sounding voice. Do you know your entire phone system is dead to the outside world, I asked a pleasant-sounding young lady who finally picked up. Yeah, she laughed, a bright tinkle of youthful cluelessness in her voice. That happens a lot, she told me. Yeah, I thought, how’d you like to pay my funny little phone bill this month? Hardy fucking har har. But, I must be charitable; she did give me Ellie’s extension, which I wrote down, 387, indelibly, on the dashboard of my truck, like a bad memory scrawl of Dante’s weirdest level of purgatory: Like Steven King’s story made to movie, Maximum Overdrive, about machines who plot to take over the world, so goes Framingham’s schizophrenic and vaguely malevolent phone system. Of course, when I dialed her number, I got the voicemail, like everybody else on Planet MCI. Shit! How better to round out a perfect morning. But it was a start.

***

The next day I called Ellie back. It was a few minutes after nine and I could imagine her first steaming cup of decaf perched on her gunmetal DOC desk in her gunmetal DOC cubicle as she shuffled gunmetal classification requests in and out of gunmetal file cabinets. I visualized two neat little piles: Good To Go, and No Fucking Way. I wondered where yours, if it ever got that far, would land. Ellie’s coffee cup would have a cute photo of a terrified cat suspended from a tree branch, with the hilariously bad schmaltz caption-“Hang in there, baby.” I imagined Ellie’s stubby fingers drumming, drumming the gunmetal faux Formica on her desk, waiting for time to unfold onto itself, wishing all these prison women, these loud, obnoxious, skinny little crack whores she spends as little time with as she possibly can, would just go away and leave her to the lucrative God business. I imagined Ellie driving home from work, weaving through Framingham’s drab, malnourished, Brazilian barrios in her gunmetal Toyota Corolla, doors locked, windows rolled up tight as her mouth when she answers her gunmetal phone. I imagined her three tabby cats, yee-ohhing at the window for her nightly return, and how much she loves each and every one of them. Hang in there, baby, she’d whisper in their sharp little tiger’s ears. Her voice to me, however, that morning, was chilly and flat as a Kansas turnpike. Did you get my voicemail, I asked. Yes, I got it, she intoned, with all the enthusiasm of a woman who has just learned, from her voice mail, she has something fatal and unpleasant and lingering. And? And, shit, I waited for the punchline. I’d left her a quick shorthand of the O.V.mix-up on her phone: Here’s the O.V. Court clerk, Pittsfield, in Berkshire County. He has it. He’ll send it. Here’s his fax number. Let’s get it done. Let’s do our good deed for Pippin. Then a big thank you at the end, just to let her know what a great job she was doing…doing… what? He job? Whatever the fuck she did her in her secret, gunmetal universe, and to grease the politeness ways, just in case she responded to civility, I added, have a great day! Funny how some state employees have some sort of allergic reaction to good manners. Hardy fucking Har.

***

Here’s the down-low with Ellie. Tuesday, early August. Time curls like an insane parabola over the smoking battlefield of your life, which sucks deeply on purpose, due to the shenanigans of the malevolent gobspittle who run this place. She will not send the fax to the clerk to get the O.V. that she needs to process your reclassification request. Sounds like a Dr.Seuss limerick, doesn’t it? What she will do is send another request for the documents, through the proper state channels, (same as it ever was…same as it ever was….) which may take a couple of weeks, or maybe never, since it’s debatable if Ellie ever sent the first two. Why would the Berkshire County clerk lie? Why would Ellie not do her job? David Bae, the Boston attorney who may be representing you in a civil action against the DOC, was very interested in the exact reason why, but he gave me one possible reason: they’re lazy. State employees are the most overpaid, underworked people in the, well…state. Documents don’t get lost as much as they never get born in the first place, placing thousands of people, perhaps millions, if you count things like tax refunds and unpaid parking tickets, in a kind of fuzzy, bureaucratic nebulosity. If you’ve ever spent a day in the DMV, just listening to the cat and mouse dialogue between the clerical harpies and their helpless victims, you and me, the chronic liner-uppers of the world, even on a good day, it has a bizarre resemblance to what every American school child is programmed to fear and loath: Socialism-the malignant ineptitude of the welfare state. I see it all the time in the vapid, harried faces of the ferryboat workers who ply the waters between Nantucket and Cape Cod. State workers. There are few exceptions. Sullen, hostile, judgmental and supremely entitled to the rank and privilege their drone-like obedience to the Motherland affords. This may explain why Ellie refuses to send the fax directly to the clerk, or later, a different refusal, when I call that same clerk back, and sensing even his frustration, he offers to get it done if she simply picks up the phone and asks him, pretty please, for the precious docs. Apparently this happens all the time. But even that is coloring too far outside the lines for her, or perhaps there’s another, darker reason for her negativity. So, in the end, all she will offer is a cursory ‘I’ll put in the request.’ Even when I ask again if she will make the call, the clerk is waiting, he’ll do it, no fooling, even then, she dully repeats her mantra, “I’ll put in the request”. Not that the effort is a big fat zero; there is movement to the goal line, a slight flutter towards something, and there’s a slim chance the O.V. may come in time to help, but still, Ellie’s institutionally gunmetal resistance to getting it done, her slack-mouth obstreperousness, if even for the sake of helping a fellow human being, infers the creepiest kind of enigma to the riddle of your imprisonment. It is by far the most extreme display of bureaucratic cruelty I have ever seen, an overt non-act of custom-made sabotage meant only to harm and deter your chances for a better existence, even if moving across the street isn’t really the freedom you dream of but simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but jeez, pardon my French, O God, here goes: what a fucking asshole!

There is an upside to the Ellie saga. Her mean-hearted noncompliance with a statutory obligation, that of getting your O.V. in a timely manner, if in fact she did send the first two requests to Berkshire County, (and there’s ample evidence somebody or she or both, fucked up that little dog and pony parade), and even if it’s not Ellie, but merely the pervasive stain of malignant ineptitude, whatever, all this has served to do is draw the DOC beast, tooth and fang, out of the shadows and into the litigation crosshairs where even the greenest attorney could get something great and terrifying and redemptive started. Perhaps this is all the karmic leverage you need. When your civil rights got jettisoned, in great and horrible multiples, you understood that there is always a day of reckoning. So you watched and listened, took notes, laid your plans, waiting for the moment of divine clarity to punch a hole in their grotesque rendition of justice, the 1812 Overture played on a one string banjo. And right now, today, with Ellie’s big fat lie stuck to the heavens like blue plate eggs in a diner, right now it’s as if the big, fat sword of Damocles is hanging low over Framingham. Hanging and waiting. For judgment day.

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