This is my first day in prison, and I’m not sure if I’ll make it. I really don’t. I can see now why so many prisoners find God while serving their time. I imagine they do so to find a purpose in life–a reason to keep waking up each morning in the same cold, gray cell. I’ve written in the past about the ugly suicidal thoughts I had after my interview with the FBI, but my depression today became so severe that I briefly considered downing the entire bottle of 100 Asprin tablets I purchased from Commissary this morning. At the time, it seemed like the best alternative to this hell.
Two days before I was scheduled to self-surrender, my probation officer called to inform me I had been assigned to a medium security Federal Correctional Facility more than 400 miles away from my family. I was devastated.
On the morning of my self-surrender, I rode with my brother and father for the seven hour drive to the correctional institution to which I was assigned. I sat mostly quiet in the back seat while my brother and father exchanged stories about life, their careers, and the long gone days of bachelorhood. During a lull in the conversation, my brother sent me a text message from the front seat assuring me that this prison stint would only be but a chapter in my life. I replied back that a 12-year sentence was more like an entirely separate volume. Nevertheless, I appreciated his optimism.
After arriving at the facility, we exchanged final hugs in the parking lot. My father told me to wipe my tears and not let anyone see me cry. I did and marched ahead to the complex entrance. Once inside, I was instructed to take a seat in the waiting room. The last thing I saw before the door closed and locked shut was my father’s solemn face.
I sat alone in the waiting room for nearly an hour. It occurred to me then that there was no turning back. This wasn’t some summer camp my parents had sent me to. There was no calling up mom and dad and begging for them to pick me up.
I did briefly consider trying to escape. The room had a drop ceiling, and I concocted a fantastic scheme in the hour I sat there: I’d climb up into the ceiling, crawl towards the main entrance of the building, drop down into the vestibule, and make a run for it out the main doors. Then I’d use the $100 in cash I brought with me for my initial commissary deposit to travel back home where I’d reunite with my family.
Finally, a guard unlocked the waiting room door, and I followed him out into the lobby where I took off my shoes and stepped through a metal detector and into the main facility.
Next, I followed the guard into the Inmate Processing Unit where I was asked to strip down naked for inspection. Jokingly, I said to the guard, “I don’t envy your job.” He didn’t seem amused and ordered me to turn around, squat down, and cough.
After I was given a change of clothes consisting of slip on shoes, boxers, pants, and a shirt–all of which were four times too large–I was moved to a holding cell where I was given paperwork to fill out. Meanwhile, the clothes I was previously wearing were packed into a small box long with my drivers’ license and social security card to be shipped back to my parents.
Next, I was examined by one of the nurses on staff, a heavyset southern woman with a drawl so thick I could hardly distinguish a word she was saying. She went over the medical form I had filled out earlier and then administered a TB test.
After I was fingerprinted and photographed, I met privately with the Case Manager and Counselor for the unit I had been assigned. The Case Manager was a small, no nonsense woman whose first word of advice was to create and memorize another charge for myself. Furthermore, she told me to never carry my papers on me or tell anyone what my real charge is. She also warned that I would undoubtedly be solicited for sex and to never accept any such solicitation or tell anyone I’m gay.
The Case Manager then turned to the Counselor, a black woman with a slightly lesser drawl than the nurse, and asked who she suggested be my cell mate.
“He shouldn’t have a problem with Juan,” she said.
The Case Manager asked if I had a problem bunking with a Mexican, and I shook my head. “He speaks very little English,” she offered, “and he’s involved in UNICOR, so should be out working most of the day.”
Once again, I was put back into the holding cell and told to wait. The holding cell was roughly 10 by 12 feet in size and contained a concrete bench which wrapped around the perimeter of the room. Everything was gray on gray, and the floor was concrete. In one corner of the room was a small, metal toilet with no lid, a metal sink, and a wall-mounted mirror above it made from a single piece of polished, highly reflective metal. On the floor, lying beside the toilet, was small clump of shit.
After sitting in the holding cell for half an hour, I was released into the yard and told to sit and wait on a nearby bench. Again, I waited for nearly an hour. As I sat in the warmth of the afternoon sun, I studied my surroundings.
The complex is built around a large yard nearly the size of a football field. Surrounding the yard are the units in which the inmates are housed and the other various departments such as the Dining Hall, Commissary, Educational Services, Religious Services, Health Services, Laundry, and Recreation Yard.
There are three boomerang-shaped units on the complex: D, E, and F. Each unit is four stories tall and split into quadrants that are two stories each and numbered one through four.
The entire complex–departments and units–are all constructed of bare, unpainted concrete. Who knew there were so many shades of gray. Color is not allowed at this facility. Even the inmates’ uniforms are brown and khaki. The somber grays and khakis are interrupted only by the yard’s vast, blue sky and well-manicured lawn. But unfortunately, even the grass falls victim to the gray. Running zigzag through the green are the wide concrete paths which sprout outward from the middle of the yard and lead to the different units and departments around the complex. Inmates are prohibited from walking on the grass and must stay on the paths at all times.
Finally, a staff member poked his head out from a nearby door and told me to go to my unit.
“Follow the paths,” he said, and I did.
The yard, which had been completely empty for the past hour, now began to fill with inmates being released from their units. As I walked past them towards my own unit, I could feel their eyes following me. It was like high school all over again, and I was the new kid.
As I made my way up the steps toward the quadrant, several inmates asked where I was from and how many others had been on the bus.
I said. “I self-surrendered.”
When I walked into the unit, an inmate who had noticed my confusion pointed to an office at the other end of the room where a guard sat eating. Obediently, I walked towards the office.
Each Unit has a low and top tier. Along the perimeter of both tiers are the inmates’ cells, all numbered. To either side of the room are game table and chairs which are bolted to the concrete floor. Mounted to two supporting beams are 10 television sets, each one muted and broadcasting a different station. In the center of the unit floor is a large, U-shaped desk for use solely by the duty officer. Painted on the floor around the desk is a red rectangle with the phrase “OUT OF BOUNDS” printed on all four sides. On the wall nearest the office are the shower, six stalls on both the lower and top tiers.
When I approached the office where the guard sat eating, he motioned through the barred glass window for me to come in. He asked what cell I had been assigned, and I shrugged. He smiled as though he wasn’t surprised. He disappeared for a moment, came back, and asked that I follow him. He walked over to a small storage room in one corner of the ground floor and pulled out a mattress wrapped in plastic.
“You’ll have to wait to get a pillow from Laundry tomorrow, but this mattress has one built in.” I grasped the block of foam with both hands, and as the guard locked the storage room door, he pointed and said, “That’s where you’ll be staying.”
The unit was quiet now; the inmates had all gone to dinner. I walked to my cell with the mattress under on arm and knocked on the door. No answer. The lights were off in the room, but a small window carved into the wall opposite of the door let in just enough light to illuminate more of the same grayness. In front of the window was a bunk bed and I assumed the bottom bunk belonged to Juan. On the left wall were two metal lockers. On the right, a metal desk and chair bolted to the wall. Beside the cell door was the same familiar sink and toilet I had seen in the holding cell. The entire space was approximately 12 by 6 feet.
As I stood in the middle of the cell, my new home for the next 10 years, it dawned on me that my sentence, which before now had been nothing more than a number with little attached meaning, now seemed like a life sentence. I unloaded my mattress onto the top bunk, sat down at the desk, and cried.