Mark Olmstead


Untitled by William Zuback

It’s an early March evening in the Los Angeles Men’s County Jail, Section K-11, Dorm 5100. I can’t be sure of the exact time because, as in a casino, there are no clocks or windows here by which to measure the progress of the day. It’s extremely disorienting at first, but then you get used to it. Perhaps it’s even a good thing. Maybe time goes by a little faster when you’re not quite sure of its pace.

“K-11” is where they put all the gay inmates – at least those savvy enough to check the right box during intake. Since the mid-90s, when crystal meth exploded in the gay community, a lot of guys no one ever thought would end up in jail did just that. These were men with private attorneys hired by horrified families, lawyers who could make a serious dent in a Corrections budget with just one wrongful death lawsuit. It was a no-brainer for the Sheriff’s Department to institute the gay dorms.

And you’ve never seen so many grateful converts to the virtues of segregation on the basis of sexual orientation than the inmates themselves. Jail is bad enough without having to go back in the closet just to survive it.

I’m lying on my bunk while reading a trashy, dog-eared bestseller. Suddenly, “on your bunks!” is barked over the intercom.

We’re used to this order on a daily basis, but it’s always followed by “Count Time!” But it’s a good hour before Count. Something’s not right.

Instinctively, I locate my one piece of contraband, a black ink PaperMate pen purchased at the steep price of three Ramen soups and two candy bars from the occupant of the bunk to my right, Jack Hammer. That’s not the name on his birth certificate, of course, but most everyone here has a nickname, and Jack’s got one of the best.

I slip the pen into a Colgate carton and stretch out on my stomach as the door to the dorm swings open. “Radio!” is called out, followed by “Walking!” (“Radio” is prison slang for “Quiet,” and “Walking” means guards have entered the room.)

The deputies converge somewhat alarmingly in my direction, but they head straight for Jack’s bunk. My neighbor is not just a purveyor of contraband pens, but the dorm dealer of Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant that is ground-up and snorted here for the cheapest of highs. Compared with heroin or crystal meth, the buzz is a bit of a joke, but the ritual of copping and using together remains a powerful draw for addicts (which means virtually everyone here). Jack is also the tattoo-artist-in-residence, and practicing his craft requires a battery-powered device that is strictly prohibited. Or

maybe not so strictly, considering somebody had to smuggle in the batteries, maybe even one of the very deputies tossing his bunk.

Too bad they’re not searching for irony. It’s everywhere here.

Heavily inked himself, Jack has a tattoo of an eagle with wings spread across the back of his head, a swastika serving as its beating heart. You’d think the insignia of the Aryan Brotherhood would be a problem with the black inmates, but Jack gets along with them just fine.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the gay dorms have evolved into a refuge for an entire subset of straight men who find the politics of gangbanging in gen-pop exhausting. Once a few of them discovered it was a safer place to await trial, enough of them did it so that time here is now not necessarily considered proof of a sexual orientation that could be lethal to one’s reputation back on the street.

Besides, the gay dorms are the best place for a heterosexual man in prison to get laid.

This is where the girls are, after all; specifically, the “trannies” — a catch-all term running the gamut from drag queen to pre-op transgender. Some couldn’t pass for female on the outside, nor would even try. In here, they’re employing a survival strategy. Others — street prostitutes who specialize in a certain clientele — have already had their top half done and sport a rather impressive rack. Unexpectedly, they seem the least interested in having a prison boyfriend, perhaps because sex has been a transaction to them for far too long. Who knows? No one’s story is simple in here.

Let’s just say that a “he” who goes by “she” will do a pretty good job of exuding feminine energy. For the straight inmate who spends more time in jail than out, K-11 is where he’ll get his most realistic shot at romance.

Jack’s “girlfriend” in here is Kay. Considering his square-jawed skinhead swagger, Kay is a surprising choice for a partner. It’s clear that she’s not had any hormone therapy, and the Mary-Ann-on-Gilligan’s-Island knotting of her t-shirt beneath her diaphragm does little to bolster the illusion of breasts. And neither her wetted-pencil eyeliner nor small rubber-banded bun compensate for her distinct Adam’s apple and Eileen Heckart rasp.

Simply put, Kay is a plain Jane. But she seems to understand that in cases like hers, the best defense is a good offense. She fawns over Jack like a well-trained geisha and Jack returns the affection quite unabashedly. Kay is probably pretty good in the sack as well, or at least skilled at distracting from the obvious. In the shower, I hear Jack tell a friend: “Hell, I’ve been hooked up with Kay for a year and a half now, and I still haven’t seen her dick!”

If true love is blind, then prison love is at least glaucoma.

Unfortunately for the happy couple, Kay does not sleep here. She is assigned to one of the other two gay dorms on the floor, 5200. Where Jack and I are, 5100, is to 5200 as a gated community is to a trailer park. As for the third dorm, 5300, it’s where you get sent for fighting, for talking back to a guard, for stealing. I’ve seen the denizens of 5300 in line for chow, and it is eminently clear why their dorm is known as “Thunderdome.”

After meals, sometimes the residents of 5100 and 5200, whose entryways are opposite each other, engage in “roaming,” i.e., visiting friends in the other dorm. This is allowed by some, but not all, of the guards who work in the booth overlooking both dorms. It’s during these tolerated intermezzos that Kay slips in for a quick tête-à-tête with Jack.

Or used to. Three days ago, Kay was sent to the Hole, for what offense I do not know. Somehow I think she knew she was going, though. Her last roaming visit to Jack was noticeably tender, even intimate, one of those private moments you accidentally witness and only realize in retrospect was a farewell.

The next afternoon, I watched Jack receive a note smuggled out from Kay. I tried to make out what it said, reading upside down, but quickly averted my eyes when Jack looked up. That’s the kind of nosiness that gets you in trouble in prison, and the only thing worse than being transferred to Thunderdome would definitely be getting a beat-down from Jack Hammer.

Now, three days after Kay’s disappearance, as Jack’s bunk is tossed, the deputies snarl and puff like a pride of lions during a kill. They immediately find his stash of Papermates and Wellbies, which they empty, along with his considerable store of canteen food, into a large Hefty trash bag. In an empty bunk next to Jack’s, they find his tattooing device — or perhaps pretend to, as they might just be putting on a show to maintain the illusion that an informant hadn’t already told them exactly where it was.

I lie quietly, like a baby impala quivering in the savanna, thinking only of my precious pen. As I watch Jack being handcuffed and led away to the Hole, I feel bad for him. But even more, I feel relief for myself.

In my defense: I am a writer, and writing is what is getting me through this experience. The nubby, eraserless golf pencils they give us might as well be gray crayons. My pen is like gold to me.

Like Jack … I ink; therefore I am.

After the guards have departed with their prey, the vultures — me included — swoop down to

scavenge what’s left. Our stated intention is to hold onto everything that’s been unconfiscated in order to return it to Jack when he emerges from solitary.

(In my case, this is actually true. Thirty days later, I will hand him back, with genuine gratitude, his copy of Larry McMurtry’s The Evening Star, a book I enjoy immensely during his absence.)

When things calm down, the buzz after Jack’s abrupt departure is about whether someone (or who?) dropped a dime on him. Whispers circulate like bees in a meadow, but no one is stung with an accusation.

They do not know what I know. I saw the look on Jack’s face when he read Kay’s note. I saw him hold back tears — not something an Aryan Brother should be seen shedding over a chick-with-a-dick. He’s supposed to be thinking of the “real” girl waiting for him on the outside, the one who will smuggle things to him on visiting day in her real vagina. But Jack doesn’t love that girl, genuine (and useful) genitalia notwithstanding. Jack loves Kay.

My instinctive conclusion, the one I share with no one, is that Jack informed on himself.

It was the only means he could devise to get close to Kay. He might have even been able to arrange to get the cell next to her, or perhaps the same schedule for the shower. At the very least, he will be able to send her “kites” far more easily — you only need promise a corridor-cleaning porter a few packets of instant soup to make that happen.

I do hope, though, that someone manages to smuggle Jack a pen. Kay will want to read his notes over and over, and if the words are written in pencil, they may fade.


About the writer:
A graduate of NYU film school, Mark Olmsted has been a screenwriter, essayist and poet for over 30 years. He was managing editor of Genre Magazine, has been a long-term blogger for Huffpo and Medium, and is currently a regular contributor to Arts & Understanding Magazine. In the 80s and 90s, AIDS decimated Mark’s circle of friends, including his own brother. HIV+ himself, Mark medicated his way through the fear, spinning into meth addiction and dealing drugs. He was arrested in 2004 and spent nine months behind bars. In 2013, Mark received a Master’s Degree in the Humanities from Mount St. Mary’s University. He recently published Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir (Nuance Titles) about how he used creativity as the ultimate survival tool while incarcerated. His website can be found at:

Image: Untitled by William Zuback. Fine art photograph. No technical information specified. By 2017. By permission.