Lockdown: Rainbow Sneakers

[Ed. Note — Joseph Urbiniak is an inmate at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, N.C., and is the plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Corrections to secure the right of LGBT prisoners to possess non-sexual, LGBT-themed books, newspapers and magazines. Q-Notes is publishing a collection of Urbiniak’s writings in this exclusive, short-run column about life as a gay man in prison. Names of individuals in the story have been changed; in some stories, Urbiniak refers to himself as Sebastian McShane.]

“Okay, strip down!”

Officer Knodic is standing in front of me, arms folded across his chest in a Marine-like stance, blocking the doorway to my room. He’s tall and lanky with a flat-top haricut. He tries to look and act like a Marine, but the closest he’s probably ever been to the Marine Corps was once when he drove by Camp Lejeune on his way to the coast for a vacation. That and reruns of “Gomer Pyle, USMC.” I take off my shirt, then my T-shirt, kick off my sneakers, pull off my socks, my pants and finally my boxers. All of them are fondled by Knodic and dropped on the floor at his feet.

“Raise your arms, open your mouth.” He speaks in monotone.

I’ve done this dance hundreds of times over the past nine years during my stay with the North Carolina Department of Prisons and can do it without being told, but I like making Knodic tell me.
“Okay, put your arms down. Turn around, lift your feet. Bend over — spread your cheeks.”

I feel the urge to say “See anything you like?” but don’t, since Knodic has no sense of humor.

“Okay, you can get dressed.”

I hesitate for a second, bent over and spread, only because I know it irritates him. Then I walk over to my clothes and get dressed, while he goes through my locker.

He won’t find anything. Not that I’m trying to hide any contraband; I’m not. This is just a routine shakedown. Everyone gets hit at least once a month. I finish getting dressed, but instead of putting my sneakers back on, I place them by the door and slide my shower shoes on.

Knodic flips through my books and folders, looks inside my bottles of lotion and powder, sniffs my scented oils, counts out my packets of Taster’s Choice.

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“You’ve got 23 coffees. Policy says you can have only 20. What do you want to do with these?” He holds out three packets.

“Can I make a cup of coffee with them?”

“With three packs?”

“I’ve got a big cup.” I point to the 14-ounce plastic mug sitting on my locker.

“Whatever,” he says, dropping the packets into the cup.

He’s nearly finished with my locker, so I tell him, “You can leave everything on the floor. I’ll put it back.”

“Thanks,” he says, thinking I’m doing him a favor. Policy says he has to put everything back the way he found it, but I know he’ll only toss it in a heap inside my locker.

Next he goes to my bunk, pulls of my blanket, then my sheets, dropping them on the floor. I’m glad I swept and mopped this morning. Satisfied, he does a quick survey of the rest of the room, then goes to leave. At the door he looks down at my Converse High Top sneakers, with inch-wide rainbows painted on the sides near the toes.

“You need to get rid of these.”

“Why?”

“Because you altered them. You painted rainbows on them. Policy says you can’t alter shoes.”

“Policy says I can’t alter state-issued shoes. Those are mine. I bought them from the canteen.”

Knodic pulls a black felt-tip marker from his pants pocket. “Okay, then you’ll have to cover up those rainbows.” He holds out the marker.

“Huh”?

“You can’t have rainbows on your shoes.”

“Why not?” I feel my heart pounding in my chest.

“What the hell do they mean anyway?” His face getting red.

“They’re a symbol of gay pride.” I know he knows this.

Knodic’s face gets redder at the word “gay.” “You can’t be walking around here with no faggot shit on your shoes.”

“Why not? I am one!” My heart is pounding faster.

“Because if someone sees them and wants to jump on you because of it, I’m not gonna be the one who has to come rescue you!”

“Well, I’ve been openly gay for the past nine years and it hasn’t been a problem until now.”

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“Look, you’ve got a choice: cover ’em or toss ’em. Which is it gonna be?”

“You can call the sergeant in here, because I don’t have to do either.”

Knodic snatches his radio off his belt. “Sarge, I need you in D pod, when you have a chance.”

“Ten-four,” the radio squawks. A few minutes later Sergeant Gordo comes waddling into the dorm. By the time he gets to my room, he’s out of breath and sweating from having to heave himself up two flights of stairs.

“What’s the problem?”

Before Knodic can change the story around, I jump in and explain the situation. Knodic stands there clenching his jaw.

Sergeant Gordo shakes his head, annoyed at being dragged out of his office and up two flights of stairs for this. “I ain’t gonna tell him he can’t have ’em. Send ’em to the unit manager and let her decide.”

Before anyone can say anything that will keep him here any longer, Sergeant Gordo turns and carries himself back down to his office.

Knodic picks up the sneakers as if they might turn and bite him. “We’ll let the unit manager decide,” he says authoritatively, as if he’d just made the decision on his own. He heads down the stairs, holding the sneakers out to his side.

Two days later, I’m called down to the unit manager’s office. Ms. Masters is sitting behind her desk looking at her computer screen, while fondling her short brown hair with one hand. My shoes are sitting on a corner of her desk.

“Take your shoes.” She barely looks up at me, but hands me a folded property form. “And, keep this in your locker.”

“Thank you,” I tell her as I leave.

Back in my room I unfold the property form: “1 pair Converse High Tops — used. Altered. Inmate says the rainbows stand for gay pride.”

Knodic’s signature is under this statement. Further down the page is written: “These shoes are personal property and he can do with them what he wishes” — following is Ms. Masters’ official signature.

I smile to myself as I kick off my heavy state-issue work boots and pull my sneakers on. I lace them up, do a quick dance — it’s rare for an inmate to win and it feels good — then go out to the yard, being sure to skip past Knodic on the way.

— Joe Urbaniak was sentenced in 1995 to 20 years imprisonment for indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature.

He hopes to be released in 2010. He was awarded Second Place for Memoir in the 2003 PEN Prison Writing Awards and has recently earned his B.A. in Business Administration.
He has requested that
Q-Notes publish his contact information in hopes of finding penpals. Write him at P.O. Box 1569, Lillington, NC 27546. All correspondence should include his inmate number: 0415899.

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