When Gideon realized he would struggle to pay his most recent drug bill a week ago, he thought he understood the potential consequences. In the past, unpaid debts led to prison drug dealers threatening to stab or beat him, but the dealers took a different approach this time. Instead of threatening violence, they took away his lifeline to the outside world and sole source of entertainment: They confiscated his TV and refused to return it until he paid them.
No other option
To Gideon, the thought of losing his TV was gut-wrenching. TVs provide one of the only sources of entertainment available to inmates, but a TV means more to Gideon than it does to most prisoners. A crippling leg condition prevents him from exercising, depriving him of one of the few means of recreation available to him.
Only certain TVs are allowed in prison. The devices are made specifically for correctional facilities and have clear backing that makes it difficult to hide contraband. In Gideon’s prison, TVs run about $170, a prohibitive amount for inmates who earn $20 per month working part-time jobs. If the dealers kept or broke Gideon’s TV, he wouldn’t be able to afford another one. He had to convince his family to pay his drug debt. He had no choice.
Failure after failure
On March 17, Gideon asked one of his daughters to pay his $25 drug debt. Rebecca agreed to give him the money, but not until she picked up a PayPal card the next day. Only a few hours passed before Gideon called back to ask for more money. Rebecca refused and made sure he knew he wasn’t getting more money from her.
The warning didn’t stop Gideon’s incessant phone calls. Although he was short on money to pay his drug bill, he wasn’t short on free time to harass his family for the cash. Rebecca soon stopped answering his calls, and she began to dread hearing her ringtone. When her sister, Naomi, called the next day, Rebecca cried, “Oh, God! The phone’s beeping!”
When Gideon called Naomi Saturday morning, it was easy to tell he had taken some type of drug. His slurred speech made it sound like he had been to the dentist, but Naomi knew what he had done and refused to help him. “I don’t know what to tell you. I can’t help you,” she told him.
Naomi’s house was quiet for most of Saturday, but the calls resumed early Sunday morning. Gideon’s speech was still slurred as he told her the prison drug dealers had taken his TV and were holding it ransom. “Don’t make me do this. Don’t make me lose my TV. My TV is my lifeline,” he pleaded. His begging set Naomi off. “Don’t you put that on me! I didn’t put those drugs down your throat. No, no—I didn’t make you do anything,” she replied.
“He kept ragging on how much that TV cost and how he couldn’t believe I was going to let that much money go to waste,” Naomi said. “You can tell me how much it is all damn day, but I still ain’t gonna buy you a new [TV] when I know what you did with the last one.”
By 12:30 p.m., Gideon had called Naomi’s cell phone eight times, desperate for her to redeem his TV. “Oh, Jesus!” she exclaimed every time the phone rang. The constant calls eventually grew tiresome, so Naomi put a stop to them. “Don’t you ring this phone again,” she shrieked. “You ain’t ruining another day at my house.”
Gideon’s mother, Ruth, turned off her phone, claiming she didn’t have another $25 to spend on him. Earlier in the week, she paid a $100 bribe to keep him in a favorable spot on the reclassification list, which helps determine which inmates are “shipped” to other prisons. Gideon’s prison is one of the best in the system, and many inmates spend years working to get into the facility. The prison is especially good for Gideon since it’s close to his family. According to Naomi, all an inmate has to do to get shipped is “stir up trouble or piss off the wrong person. They don’t care where your family is located.”
Even though she resisted at first, Ruth eventually ponied up the money for her son two days after the episode began. That evening, she texted Naomi that the “devil makes me feel like a bad mother. Stupid, I know.”
Gideon’s family didn’t receive confirmation that his TV had been returned for several days. After a drug binge, he typically calls to say he is OK and the threat has passed. But he didn’t call this time, leaving his family to wonder what had become of his prized property. He finally called his mother Wednesday to say his TV had been returned and he was unharmed.
Although Gideon’s drug debt was eventually paid and his TV returned, he has no assurances that further transgressions will go unpunished. It’s becoming crystal clear that he is running out of people willing to pay for his drug habits. His brother hasn’t talked to him in years, and one of his daughters is considering cutting him off. “I ain’t doing it again. I ain’t doing it again,” Rebecca announced. “I probably ain’t answering the phone for him [ever] again.”