Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2020
Almost everyone in prison uses a jailhouse nickname rather than their real name. I’ve known two men called Mouse and one called Groundhog. The first Mouse was a thin little man who claimed he’d been a bouncer at a local strip club. I didn’t see how, but didn’t question the story. Groundhog was a short, stocky man who did look just like a groundhog. Right now I know a Squirrel, a Bird and a Flea. Then there was Horse Man. He didn’t look like a horse but sounded like one. He’d get outside and let out a neigh and snort that you could hear from one end of the camp to the other. One of my friends is called Chicken Man, or just Chicken for short. He’s called that because he knows all there is to know about raising chickens, which he did on the outside. Then there’s Coal Bucket, who used to be a coal miner. We have a Batman, no idea why he’s called that, also a Spiderman, so called because the entire top of his shaved head is covered by a spider web tattoo, with a big spider in the middle on the crown of his head. I’ve also known a Sleet, and a Smoke, but have no idea how they came by those names, and a Moon. My best friend at Pocahontas was Buzz. He couldn’t remember how he got that name when I asked him, just that people in prison just started calling him that. He’s out now, released early this year. Probably the smartest person I’ve known, inside or out. He told me he’d never been inside a public school, completely home schooled, which says something about public education in western Virginia.
Some take their names from where they’re from, like Bama from Alabama, and some called me Roanoke, or just Noke, because that’s where I’m originally from. At Pocahontas someone started calling me The Notorious B – O – B, and it stuck. Pretty soon all most everyone called me that. After a while it got shortened to just B – O – B, and I was known by that name throughout the camp. I didn’t mind.
Some here call me Albert, after Einstein, because when I come out of the shower and towel dry my hair, it goes crazy like his until I comb it into submission. A few at Pocahontas called me Colonel, because since my hair turned white I look somewhat like the old Kentucky chicken plucker. Somewhere there’s a photo showing me standing by a life sized statue of Colonel Sanders in front of a Tokyo KFC, two peas in a pod. (When I worked in TV in the early 70s I met the real Colonel Sanders when he came to our station to shoot some local commercials. But my hair was still brown in those days, so we didn’t look so much alike.,)
Here at River North the younger guys have started calling me “Uncle Bob,” which is a sign of respect, and appreciated. I like it better than the other names I’ve been called.
There was a fellow at Pocahontas called Fishbone. I asked him why and he said it was what his sister called him as a kid. There are also those who take their names from cars. I’ve known a Cadillac and a Maserati. I assume those names are for vehicles they dream of owning. If I took my name from a vehicle, I’d be Land Rover! Always wanted one. In the 70s I owned a couple of Toyota FJ-40 Land Cruisers, but never a Rover.
I’ve had some strange/interesting cellmates in my ten plus years in prison. One was a Spanish-speaking Muslim from Guatemala named Vladimir! I’ve had several Islamic cellmates, one Rastafarian, and a smattering of other faiths. My current cellmate follows the Asatru religion, the old Norse faith.
Back to names; double names are also used. At Pocahontas I knew a man called Bam Bam, and later a Woo Woo and a Don Don. Of course, here in the South double names using the person’s first and middle names are common. The mechanic who used to work on my cars was Willy Wayne, and one of my cousins was Randy Ray. If my parents had followed that tradition, I’d have been called Bobby Ed! There was a songwriter some years back called Billy Ed Wheeler, perhaps best known for his song “The Interstate is comin’ through my outhouse.”
On another topic, I’m one of the few men here not heavily tattooed. Most are prison tattoos, frequently very amateurish in execution and always in black ink (made by burning plastic articles and collecting the carbon black). A few have professional multicolored tattoos done prior to prison, some quite striking. Back before my legal troubles I was going to work on a project to photograph tattooed women. A very fine tattoo artist was going to arrange for the women he’d worked on to come in for shoots. The project never happened because of my arrest. This whole ridiculous legal mess brought many proposed projects to a halt. Maybe one day I will be able to pick up where I left off. I’ve still got lots of picture ideas, and more come to me all the time. It’s very frustrating to be stuck here without access to my photography.
I write these posts on a little mini-tablet sold to us by JPay. It has a 3 1/4 inch screen, so the keyboard is tiny, which accounts for the typos that sometimes appear in my posts. Also, this email app tries to think for me. Whenever I try to write my website URL it changes bobshell to bombshell if I don’t go back and override it. Oh, to have a real computer!!
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here: https://tonyward.com/bob-shell-the-60s/
Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.