Fish Out of Water
Following the guard's directions out of intake, I make my way outside and towards the large, brick building across the yard. My cheeks still burn from the humiliation of my recent strip search and the impersonal and accusatory questioning I encountered. I feel judged all over again, though I'm not sure if it's because I don’t belong to a gang, or because I have no tattoos or substance abuse history to report. I guess I'm not the "typical" prisoner. I suppose that should make me feel good about myself, but instead I feel like an anomaly.
As I cross the yard, I see other men jogging, doing pull-ups and push-ups, and congregating in clearly divided racial groups. I've already been warned by prison staff to avoid certain areas of the yard, and I can't help but sneak glances in those directions. I also notice the line of men gathered by the antiquated telephones, waiting for their turn to call home. I've been told the phone rates are high, and I soon find out that everything costs more in prison.
It will later shock me that a total institution run by a supposedly democratic government should support monopolies in prison industries. After all, the same government regulates and penalizes monopolies on Wall Street. For now, I begin to worry about the financial cost of my incarceration on my family, beyond my inability to provide for their needs. Now, I'm in a system that will cause me to be a drain on their limited resources.
Finally, I enter my assigned housing unit. I carry my bag of linens (sheets, pillow cases, and blankets) to the desk to check in with the unit officer. I stand at the desk for several minutes before the clearly bored guard looks up and gives me his attention.
"Who are you?" he asks accusingly, as if I haven't been sent to his unit.
I tell him my name, and after consulting a paper on the desk he points to the right.
"Third gallery, cell 52, top bunk. Up those stairs. Don't hang out in front of other cells. No passing anything to other cells. Yard times and chow times are posted on the bulletin board over there. Be ready when your door breaks. If you miss your door you miss your chance. If you have questions, consult the bulletin board. Don't ask me any question that can be answered there. I hate answering questions I don't have to."
He glares at me as if I ought to be gone already. I have a list of questions in my mind, but his glare makes me hesitate.
"Thank you," I mumble, wanting to say more but thinking better of it.
I trudge upstairs with my linens, wondering when I'll get the rest of my clothing assignments, when I'll be able to take a shower, how soon I can order hygiene necessities, what the commissary prices are, how to even order commissary, how I make phone calls, and a host of other questions. I decide to scope out my situation before asking questions, and I figure I'll find other prisoners to answer most of my unknowns.
Careful to avoid looking in other cells as I pass, I use my peripheral vision to locate the numbers on the cell doors. I'm overwhelmed by the cacophony of prison noise permeating the housing unit and distracted by the activity of prisoners bustling about the unit. I hear a few cat calls and whistles, complete with "Fresh meat!" hollered out by a few, but I avoid looking around to see if I'm the object of their lecherous shouts.
When I finally locate my cell, I look through the window and see someone lying on the bottom bunk watching TV. I stand by the door until the guard at the end of the gallery breaks the door so I can enter it. I step tentatively into the cell as my new bunkie looks up with an indifferent glance. He looks back at his TV without a word. Oh, this will be fun, I think. Shutting the door behind me, I'm surprised by the instant muffling of prison noise.
"What's up?" I venture carefully. "I guess I'm your new bunkie. Is this my locker?" I gesture towards the clearly empty locker, knowing I just asked a stupid question but not wanting to step on toes.
My bunkie swings his feet over the edge of the bed, resigning himself to introducing the new guy to his cell.
"Yes, that's your locker. When you have stuff you want to lock up, you can buy a lock from commissary. I'm not a thief though, and I don't tolerate thieves, so don't touch my shit. I don't lock up my own shit in the cell." He glares at me like I've already been scoping out his coffee and ramen noodles.
"If you have to shit, do it when I'm not in the cell. You can do it at yard times, or chow times, or when I'm at work. When you use the sink, clean up after yourself. I'm not your mother and won't clean up after you. We clean the room every other day, including sweeping and mopping. Keep your shit organized so it doesn't draw the attention of the police."
He continues, "Is this your first time down?"
I nod in the affirmative. "Yep, first and last, I hope."
My new bunkie snuffs his nose like he knows better. "Look, I'm not going to babysit you, but don't bring any heat to the room. If you have beefs, handle them out there. This feels like a dumb question, but are you affiliated?"
I groan inwardly, feeling like I'm being interrogated all over again. "No," I reply. "I'm solo."
He looks down and shakes his head. "Me too, but I've been doing this for a while. Just stay away from gang shit, and don't get conned into anything stupid. If it feels questionable to you, don't do it. Ask me if you have questions about something. I can advise you, but you'll do whatever you decide to do. I'm not going to bail you out. If you've got money on the outside, don't tell people. Don't buy too much too soon or people will notice."
I can tell there's going to be a lot to learn about prison life, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed. I have so many questions about basic things like phone usage and commissary orders, but I don't want to bug my new bunkie.
He stands up from his bunk and moves towards the door. "Go ahead and make your bed. I'll wait for you. I don't wanna have your shit in my face. And by the way, don't hang your feet over the bunk. I don't want your feet in my face either."
There seems to be a lot to remember, dos and don'ts, but I just focus on the task at hand and start making my bed.
I quickly finish, thank him, and climb into my rack after kicking off my shoes. I had noticed my bunkie's shoes neatly arranged under his bunk, so I slide mine in neatly under the opposite side under his bunk. My new roommate climbs back into his bunk, presumably to resume watching the television show that had his attention before I diverted it.
I lay back on my pillow staring up at the ceiling, my stomach growling quietly because I'd only eaten a sack lunch on the ride to the prison. I notice the graffiti on the walls and ceiling, some barely muted by a thin layer of cheap paint. I see a lot of what I assume are gang symbols, penises, and the word "bitch" scratched in various handwriting. What a legacy to leave behind, I think. Signs of ignorance and destruction.
Our solid window, barely eight inches wide, looks out behind the housing unit. I notice there are two parallel rows of concertina wire topped fences surrounding the prison. The space between is packed with huge bundles of the razor wire, doubly ensuring there is no escape. I wonder if anyone has tried what looks like an impossible feat. For a moment, I imagine the gruesome results.
After a while, I hear a loudspeaker announce "Five minutes to count. Catch your doors." I wonder if he means us, but my bunkie doesn't move. A minute or two later, the clanging of shutting doors is punctuated by an eerie silence that follows. The overhead light turns on, even though it's still bright outside, and the loudspeaker crackles to life again. "Count time. On your bunks. Be visible to staff."
I sigh quietly, turn on my side, close my eyes and try to shut out my new reality for a few minutes. What the fuck have I gotten myself into? I think with despair. Is this really my life for the next few years? I start feeling sorry for myself, and as I think about all that I've lost and all the people I've disappointed, I feel tears begin to push their way to the corner of my eyes.
Toughen up! I tell myself. Don't show weakness! Crying is weak. You've got to survive this hell hole. I pep-talk myself silently, sucking back the tears and pushing down all the emotion that longs for escape. It's crazy, I think. I have to imprison my emotions because I'm in prison. I'll have to process my grief, my shame, my losses some other time. Right now, my job is to make it to tomorrow alive.
The emotional exhaustion catches up to me, overcoming my worry that my bunkie could murder me in my sleep. He doesn't seem like a killer, but you never know. I drift off to sleep, the raw pain of loneliness enveloping me like a blanket. I don't know how long I sleep, but I am soon awakened to the sound of the doors popping open and my bunkie calling out to me.
"It's chow time. If you're going, you better get moving. Pull the door shut behind you."
I watch him walk out the door as I scramble down from the bunk and quickly put on my shoes. I still want to shower and call home, but for now I know I better go eat or I'll be hungry all night. I slip through the door and shut it behind me, merging into the herd of men making their way towards the stairs.
Keeping my eyes down, I can feel all the other guys staring at me as I walk with the crowd. For now, I know, I'm an unknown quantity to them, but soon enough, I'll know some of them, and some of them will know me. Soon enough, I'll be one of them, watching the new guys walk through the door with their own looks of bewilderment and fear. Soon enough, I'll feel like a veteran instead of a fish.
After dinner, I finally get to shower. I don’t yet have slides so I have to bathe in my dirty socks. I’m going to have nightmares about the foot fungus growing in this place. I brush my teeth with a cheap indigent toothbrush and barely effective toothpaste before climbing back into my bunk for an early bedtime. I can't wait to purchase some necessities and settle into a routine. It’ll make me feel more human than I do right now.
Over the next couple of years, I'll need to figure out how to make a life in prison without making prison my life. When I walk out of these walls, I am never coming back. This is just the first day of my long journey home.