The Ministry of Silly Walks

Silly Walks The British comedy troupe Monty Python made fun of government bureaucrats in a sketch called ‘The Ministry of Silly Walks.’  In it they portrayed a number of characters with striding characteristics each more outrageous than the next.  If you spend any amount of time in prison you will quickly come to understand that life is stranger than fiction.

The Chain-Gang is the standard method of transporting prisoners outside of the facility. It involves not only the use of handcuffs but also belly chains and leg irons.  The intention is to make it impossible for a person to escape by making it impossible to run. Your hands are cuffed at your sides so that you can’t even scratch your nose.  Your ankles are cuffed together with about 16 inches of chain.  The result is that you cannot take a full stride but must shuffle your feet along.  To see a line of men walking this way is like viewing the March of the Penguins.  Arms hanging limp at their sides, straight legged they shuffle single file at the direction of the officers.  After only a couple of steps the bruises will begin to form as the front leg jerks the cuff of the back leg.  The cuff rests on the ankle bone making it very uncomfortable, especially for those with cankles.

In level IV you are locked down 20+ hours a day.  When you have the opportunity to get out of your cell to go someplace like the chow hall you tend to take your time in order to savor the fresh air and every possible minute outside of your cell.  The Level IV Shuffle looks a lot like the Chain-Gang except that there are no restraints involved.  Hands shoved into pants, legs straight, feet dragging as you slowly move in the intended direction. Progress needs to be sufficient so as to not incur the wrath of the guards who are impatiently escorting you in a scene that looks a bit like herding cats.  Men who have been locked down separately from their associates group up to carry on conversations from their last promenade at the slowest possible pace.

With the closing of state mental hospitals, the prison system has become the dumping ground for the mentally disturbed.  Without adequate mental health care, they end up in trouble with the law for trying to self-medicate or anti-social behavior.  Psychiatric care in prison frequently devolves in sedation.  When they are not sleeping the day away on their bunks you can spot them by their slow, zombie like walk known as the Thorazine Shuffle. At some facilities there are whole units dedicated to housing those participating in outpatient therapy.  At chow time it looks like a scene out of “The Night of The Living Dead” as they stagger to the chow hall.

In prison, how you walk can be part of your fashion statement or possibly a result of it. There is a fashion trend known as “Sagging” in which young men wear the waist of their pants on their upper legs thus exposing the tops of their boxers.  The pants tend to be extra-large and as a result the crotch sags down to their knees.  This fashion statement is meant to defy authority since it is against the rules and could result in a ticket.  The practice of Sagging occurs both inside and outside of prison and is an anti-authority statement.  To keep the pants from falling down one hand must be occupied holding the pants in the designated position.  Activities that require both hands place the individual at the risk of dropping their pants.  One time I had an older gentleman tell me that he had warned his son that if he didn’t keep his pants pulled up properly that one day it would be his downfall. Sure enough, the son tried running from the police with his pants sagging and they fell down and he was captured.  In prison the fashion statement is taken to the extreme with pant waists below the butt exposing two pairs of prison shorts plus boxers in a multi-layer effect.  This fashion faux pas knows no bounds because I have seen guys wearing extremely over-sized sweat suits jogging on the track with one had desperately trying to hold their pants up.  You’d think they’d learned their lesson the first time when they originally got caught.

The average age of prisoners is increasing in Michigan and is now over 40 years of age. This is the result of both the increased length of sentences keeping in prison longer and the number of seniors now coming to prison, many for the first time.  As a result, there is an increasing number of prisoners with physical infirmities that either need a cane or a wheel chair to get around.  We refer to these as Sticks and Wheels.  Now just about everyone in prison is looking for an edge and having a medical disability is a frequent way guys attempt to get that edge.  Having a wheel chair or cane may qualify a person for a special early chow detail and use of an assistant to carry their meal tray.  And not two hours later the same guy may be spotted in the weight pit doing squats or running on the track. I’m not saying that everyone in a wheel chair or using a cane is faking it, but I’ve seen more than my share of miracles.

At the other extreme I’ve seen guys in such poor health that moving from a bunk or toilet to a wheel chair is almost borderline impossible.  Broken bodies that cannot run the gauntlet of double doors, narrow halls and over-crowded living situations.  Men in such poor health that they need to be in assisted living watched over by a nurse and not a guard.  Those who can no longer care for themselves let alone hurt another person.

Putting an air of confidence is important but it can be taken a bit too far on occasion resulting in a walk straight off a Paris fashion runway or a 1970s Superfly movie.  Long leg stride with loose hips and wide slung shoulders, one arm thrusting sharply down. Head erect, eyes forward checking to make sure that all eyes are on him.  All that’s missing is the purple pimp suit with the felt hat and feather.  Someone who knows they’ve got it all going on and are “too cool for school.”  This walk is usually associated with a person who sees them self as a gangster living the hip hop lifestyle.  It is a walk meant to impress, but in prison we’re still not sure who.

As mentioned before there are a lot of seniors in prison and early mornings on the big yard look a bit like early mornings at the mall.  Mall Walkers are health conscious seniors who walk as a primary means of exercise.  Since there are no malls or indoor tracks they have to go out to the big yard and walk the track in the early morning, which allows them to beat the crowds of younger people later in the day.  Since the seniors tend to be early risers and the younger people sleep in it is just part of their natural cycles to separate themselves.  To be a true Mall Walker in prison takes dedication since you’ll be outdoors in all kinds of weather undeterred by only the most brutal winter weather or monsoonal rains.  Mall Walkers tend to walk alone with their thoughts.  They are not the fastest people on the track and probably don’t work up a heavy sweat, but have heeded their doctor’s warnings and will get a couple of miles in before retiring to a park bench for the rest of the day.

The middle age counterpart to the Mall Walker is the Power Walker.  More than likely many Mall Walkers are retired Power Walkers.  Power Walkers are people who can no longer run due to health conditions like bad knees. They follow their doctor’s advice to get their heart rate elevated for at least 30 minutes 3 to 5 times per week.  Many Power Walkers remember their youth from 5-10 years ago when playing softball on the weekend didn’t take all week to recover from it.  Brisk walking with swinging arm motion really gets the blood pumping, burns calories, and reduces stress.  It is also a good way to get out of the house.  Out in the world many of these people would probably have a large dog to walk.  In prison they walk singly or in pairs and are forced to weave in and out of traffic as they move at a higher rate of speed than the average track walker.

The most dedicated athletes on the track is the Weekend Warrior.  They run laps, do calisthenics and play sports, but this is a fair-weather crowd.  If it is rainy or too cold and snowy they prefer to stay indoors and play cards.  They have a well-rounded exercise program easily distinguished from the Weight Lifters and Body Builders who are in the weight pit or doing calisthenics religiously, but rarely if ever run.  This group is least likely to continue their regiment once they get out of prison.

The Body Builders are distinguished from the Weight Lifters by their goals. Weight Lifters brag about the massive amount of weight they can lift while Body Builders are regularly seen in front of the bathroom mirror flexing. The Weight Lifters and Body Builders are the most prone to sports injury and suffer long term disability because of their “no pain, no gain” philosophy.

The Average Joe out walking the track however isn’t there for any health benefit.  They are there because there is nothing else to do.  They walk in groups of two to six people wandering aimlessly around the track.  They gossip, joke, tell tall tales, and brag about what brought them to prison. They promenade around the track making it difficult for all the other groups by turning it into an obstacle course.  At times the track looks more like rush hour on a Detroit freeway than a NASCAR race because of them.

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