• In The Daily Beast, Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd explores the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s recently proposed “obscenity regulations” – the rules that govern what mail can go into and of the state’s prisons and jails. As one interviewee comments, ““These prisoners are essentially being punished for trying to alert the media to conditions of extreme solitary confinement inside California’s prison.”
• Bonnie Kerness, director of the Prison Watch program of the American Friends Service Committee, writes about solitary confinement and Torture Awareness Month for Truth-Out.
• ABC News “Nightline” followed Gregg Marcantel – the Secretary of Corrections for New Mexico – as he went undercover to spend 48 hours in solitary confinement. The outlet also published “prison diaries” from other individuals in isolation.
• In light of the recently released second season of Orange is the New Black, the ACLU published a blog post on the “scariest villain” in the prison – solitary confinement.
• A family in DeKalb County, Missouri has filed a lawsuit in the death of Timothy Harris, a 36-year-old who was being held at the Deaviess-Dekalb County Regional Jail pending trial when he passed away. Lawyers for Harris’ family allege that he was kept in solitary confinement for twelve days without a toilet, sink or running water.
• Motherboard featured an interview with Raphael Sperry, president of the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR). The organization recently launched a crowd-sourcing campaign to get the American Institute of Architects to “prohibit the design of spaces that inherently violate human rights in their code of ethics,” particularly solitary confinement cells and supermax prisons.
• A South Carolina paper, The Post and Courier, published a feature piece on Randy Poindexter, who spent 16 years in solitary confinement in a state facility. “His story illustrates the challenges in providing therapeutic care in an underfunded, understaffed correctional system built more for punishment than redemption. It also shows the resiliency of the human spirit and its ability to bounce back from a time when painting the cell walls red with his own blood was the only thing that brought Poindexter peace.”
• An individual serving a life sentence in connection to the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Tanzania has won a federal appeal, after the FBI limited his contact to 32 people. He is incarcerated in the supermax facility in Florence, Colorado and also subject to Special Administrative Measures, which further constrain his communication with the outside world.
• A news outlet has obtained video that follows the last few hours of Christopher Lee Lopez’s life, while he is strapped into restraints at the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, Colorado. Lopez had recently been removed from solitary confinement after spending nine and a half months in “the box”; the video shows him having a grand mal seizure in the restraint chair, and prison guards only coming to his assistance over thirty minutes later. A lawsuit has been filed in federal court.
“Trays up!” the CO yells. It’s about 5 am, and breakfast trays are here. I’ve been up since midnight, studying the workbooks that a friend sent to me. When everyone is asleep, and the TV is off, it’s the quietest time, and I can really focus.
As I get my tray every morning, I ask myself, “How much longer?” It’s been about 7-1/2 months on 23/1, and I continually thank God for my strength through this. While I am finishing my tray and putting it back on the port, I sit there and imagine a sunrise.
Where I’m located in the jail, there are no windows, no sunlight, and no fresh air. It’s like my cell is a box inside of a bigger box. Since I’ve been here, I’ve only seen sunlight seven times, and those were my court dates.
I try not to dwell on what I don’t have, because that will make the day extremely long.
–“Luke,” age 17, held at Harford County Detention Center in Maryland since August 2013
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder recorded a video message condemning the “excessive” use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. He made no mention, however, of the children held in isolation in adult jails and state prisons.
These young people, thought to number in the thousands across the country, are trapped in a kind of purgatory–facing charges in adult court and held in adult facilities, but kept in involuntary lockdown for “their own protection” from the adult prisoners who surround them.
This has been the experience of five teenagers held in a county jail in Bel Air, Maryland, a suburban community northeast of Baltimore that is perhaps best known as the birthplace of John Wilkes Booth. Over the last few weeks, Solitary Watch has interviewed these young men, the townspeople who have been trying to help them, and the sheriff who disputes their accounts.
Eileen Siple, 51, used to be a special education teacher but now stays at home to care for her disabled son. She told Solitary Watch that she has always lived a comfortable life. “If you had said to me three years ago that I’d be talking to all these kids in prison, I’d say you were crazy.”
Then one day, about two and a half years ago, her daughter came home from school upset. A classmate at C. Milton Wright – the local high school in Bel Air – had been arrested in connection with his father’s death, and she wanted to help support him.
Siple quickly grew close to the teenager, Robert Richardson. Siple understood that the boy had been charged with a serious crime, but she was shocked at the conditions in which he was being held at the Harford County Detention Center (HCDC).
In a recent letter to Solitary Watch, Richardson describes what he experienced for his first ten months at HCDC, when he was 16 years old. He is now in state prison at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, serving an eighteen-year sentence, the result of a plea bargain on manslaughter and firearm offenses.
“From day to day, it’s always the same,” he wrote. “Isolation, 24 hours a day. The light stays on, the door stays closed, no human interaction. I felt like an animal. I was always in the same cage, naked save for a paper hospital gown.”
During this period, Richardson says he was locked up alongside adults. “I could hear the others in the isolation ward, but I couldn’t see them. The others were all mentally ill. They would scream all night long. I couldn’t sleep, with the screams and the banging… And the smells…smells of urine and feces from the others. They wouldn’t bathe. They would lie in bed and defecate on themselves or sling their waste
Eventually, Richardson was transferred from the isolation tier to a unit called T-Block. The unit is used primarily to hold recent adult arrestees while they are processed into general population, and through the small window on his door Richardson saw the many adults circulating on and off the block. But soon he realized that in addition to himself there were other teenage boys being held on the tier for weeks and months at a time, and he started to talk to them through his door and the pipes that ran through his small cell.
Before long, Eileen Siple was supporting these other boys, too. She provided Solitary Watch with the names of fifteen different young men allegedly held on T-Block, as well as written statements from five of them.
Boys Spend Months in Solitary Confinement
During the 1990s, amidst a national rise in the juvenile crime rate and an emerging paranoia about child “superpredators,” states across the county made it easier to kids to be charged as adults. In Maryland, children 14 years or older automatically enter the adult system if they commit the most serious crimes, including first-degree murder or rape, as do sixteen and seventeen-year-olds charged with one of 33 crimes ranging from firearm offenses, to robbery, to manslaughter.
The Maryland law means that many teenagers, even those who are eventually found innocent or waived down into juvenile court, spend weeks or months in adult facilities awaiting transfer hearings or trials. In nine of Maryland’s 23 counties, including Harford County – where HDRC is located – established guidelines call for kids facing charges in the adult system to be held in pre-trial solitary confinement.
Solitary is supposed to protect young people, and general population is admittedly known to be a patently unsafe place for minors. But the emotional and detailed accounts written by Richardson and the four other young men previously held on T-Block raise serious questions about whether juveniles are facing abuse in the name of their own safety.
The young men were charged with various offenses. Solitary Watch has changed several of their names for their protection. “Luke” was arrested a month after his 17th birthday on sex abuse charges related to a minor; he is still under 18 and currently in segregation. “Ryan,” who is facing rape, incest, and sex abuse charges, was also arrested at 17, but has since turned 18 and is now being held in general population at HCDC pending trial. “Adam” was arrested at 16 on armed robbery and theft charges; he has since pled guilty and was sentenced to just over four years in prison. Will Downs was arrested at 17 on assault charges and eventually pled guilty, although he and his family maintain his innocence. He was released in April on time served, and was interviewed over the phone from his home.
In their accounts, the boys describe being held in 23-hour lockdown in small cells, for periods ranging from a few weeks to many months. In an account dated in late April 2014, Downs wrote: “T-Block was the worst month and a half of my life! On T-Block you are locked down 23 hours a day. You are in a 7 by 11 cell and I can almost touch the wall with my wingspan and if you are by yourself is even worse. I had no body to talk to relieve stress.”
Some of the boys were forced to wear a smock, which they referred to as the “turtle,” when they first arrived. One young man said he felt so cold during this time that he wrapped toilet paper around his feet. Ryan, then age 17, writes: “I was escorted to T Block, and they put me in a cell that was maybe 12’ x 7’, had a light that stayed on all of the time, a desk, a stool, a double bunk, a toilet, and a sink. They told me to strip down to my blue shorts (like boxers) and gave me a smock. The smock was like a sleeveless robe that fastened with Velcro and very heavy fabric.”
As is standard policy for kids held in adult facilities, the boys were not able to mix freely with the adult population, so could not access any programming in the jail – including counseling, education or church. Even the boys’ one-hour of recreation time was conducted indoors, so they would only see sunlight when they were taken to and from court hearings.
In a recent phone interview, Downs described what it was like to be on lockdown. “All the worst things go through your head when you’re in there, because you feel like nothing’s happening. Every day moves so slow, every day was like a week.” He said that although some of the boys were bunked in pairs for periods of time, he was primarily held alone.
Ryan felt jealous of the many men passing through T-Block for processing. “We watched people come in and leave, all the time. It hurt so bad to watch these people leave, knowing that I couldn’t even see the sun or feel a breeze or have anything to do with the outside.”
The boys’ accounts also describe being at the complete mercy of corrections officers. Downs recalls having “to beg [guards] for ice so you can have fresh water to drink”, adding “if they have a bad day you are going have an even worse day.”
According to Eileen Siple, the time in isolation took a significant psychological and physical toll on all of the boys. Of the four she communicates with regularly, one started hearing voices during his time in solitary, and was placed on a series of psychiatric medications; the other three were also prescribed either anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants.
According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, young people are particularly vulnerable to the stressors of “the box,” in part because they haven’t acquired the same coping mechanisms as adults. Moreover, the author notes, “because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on [kids'] chance to rehabilitate and grow.” In 2007, the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for children to be kept in the juvenile justice system, found that kids held in adult prisons and jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than young people held in juvenile facilities.
The young men’s accounts also detail the poor medical care they received while on T-Block. One of them describes not receiving needed heart medication for about two and half months, despite asking for it.
Local Sheriff Denies Accounts
Sheriff Jesse Bane has run the Harford County Detention Center since his election in 2006. In a series of phone calls, the Sheriff provided Solitary Watch with a different account of what happens to juveniles when held at the facility on adult charges. He said that young people are sent to the Behavioral Health Unit, which was originally built for prisoners with mental illness but now houses both populations.
“There is a recreation yard, a general dining area, a television, and they are free to roam the area where they’re incarcerated.” In a later conversation, he clarified that that adults and minors held at the BHU are strictly separated, and rotate the time they spend out of cell.
When specifically asked why there would be accounts from as recently as 2013 and 2014 of juveniles being held in long-term isolation at HCDC, Sheriff Bane reiterated that “you can’t hold people in those conditions,” adding that in an election year, you “get things like this that come up.” (His post is up for re-election this fall.)
Sheriff Bane also said that kids are given psychological evaluations upon their arrival, and can be placed in isolation on the unit for days or weeks if medical personnel believe they pose a threat to themselves. Queried about the “turtle,” Bane stated that young people who express suicidal ideation are asked to wear the garment since it cannot be torn, tied, or made into a noose.
When asked about accounts that young people held been held on a processing tier for adults, he told Solitary Watch, “I’m not sure that I know what you’re talking about,” stressing several times that the law requires “sight and sound” separation between children and adults.
In fact, although the decades-old federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) requires “sight and sound” separation between children and adults, these protections do not currently apply to young people charged as adults.
The 2003 Regulations on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) mandates separation, but there are no accountability mechanisms to enforce the standards in county facilities. In 2012, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office was awarded $163,648 to better enable compliance with PREA, although it is unknown if the grant had any relation to how minors are held in the facility. (Bane’s office declined to provide copies of the application; Solitary Watch has since filed a FOIA request to obtain additional information.)
When asked about T-Block, the Sheriff commented although some individuals are held on T-Block for no more than 24 hours pending classification, “that does not include juveniles.” He also said, “You cannot keep a person indefinitely in a lockdown status in isolation because it adversely impacts their mental health and we are not going to do that.”
Diane Tobin, the Deputy State’s Attorney, declined to comment on any specifics but stated that young people at HCDC are held in accordance with federal law. Solitary Watch contacted the lawyers for all five boys who submitted statements; none returned calls or emails for comment.
In a phone interview, Solitary Watch asked Downs to respond to Sheriff Bane’s assurances that there was “sight and sound separation” between juveniles and adults. “We could talk to the adults on T block, we would tell them to come to the door, and they would talk to us,” he said.
Asked to reply to Sheriff Bane’s assertion that juveniles are not held on T-Block, Downs said, “What? I was on T-Block the whole fucking time.”
According to Eileen Siple, the move from T-Block to the BSU happened about six weeks ago. She told Solitary Watch that last month she was invited by the Sheriff to tour HCDC; at the BSU she saw two minors being held alone on the top tier, with adults with mental illness held below. Siple, who is in touch with one of the two boys, said that they only spend a few hours out of their cells each day.
Kara Aanenson is the Campaign Strategist for Just Kids, a Maryland advocacy organization that works with kids automatically charged as adults. When interviewed by Solitary Watch, Kara Aanenson also disputed the Sheriff’s account that the kids have long been held at the BSU. She said that when she toured HCDC about a year ago, she personally saw young people being held on T-Block.
Use of Isolation Widespread
According to Aanenson, what happened to Richardson and the other boys at HCDC – however horrific – is far from an isolated instance of abuse. “It was shocking to me, but it’s also a process that doesn’t just happen in Harford County,” she told Solitary Watch. “It happens to lots of kids in the state of Maryland.”
An infographic recently published by Just Kids identifies the nine counties across Maryland, including Harford, which holds kids facing charges as adults in pre-trial solitary confinement. Eleven counties house these young people with the rest of the adult jail population, and the remaining three counties have dedicated juvenile units within adult facilities. Just Kids’ research is based on established guidelines for handling minors as outlined in jail handbooks.
Nor are the numbers of youth admitted to adult facilities small. In 2011, 771 Maryland youth were admitted to adult facilities, according to a report produced by the state’s Department of Juvenile Services. Sixty-eight of these children entered jails in one of the nine counties that hold young people charged as adults in solitary confinement.
Advocacy groups have endeavored to change the law. During the now-closed 2014 legislative session in Maryland, a coalition of groups pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 757 / House Bill 1294, which would have required youth facing adult charges to be held in juvenile detention centers pre-trial. The bill failed to even pass onto the state House or Senate floor, although there is hope it may make progress next term.
Colorado passed similar legislation in 2012. Across the county, over ten states have laws on the books either requiring or permitting that young people facing charges in the adult system be held in juvenile facilities.
For Will, Luke, and the other teenage boys held at HCDC, there were only two sure ways to escape solitary confinement. The first was turning 18.
“After 7 months in T Block, I finally turned 18,” Ryan wrote. “They moved me to general population. It was like Heaven! Yes, it’s still jail, but it’s so much better than being locked down all day. I can walk around. I can talk to my family on the phone. I can see the sun through a window. It might sound like very little to some people, but to us, it’s HUGE!”
Aside from aging out, the only other way the boys could get off the tier was pleading guilty to their offenses, since convicted minors can be held in general population. Eileen Siple told Solitary Watch that at least two of the teenagers entered a plea to escape the conditions on T-Block, although this could not be independently verified.
The combination of existing state law – which mandates charging certain kids as adults – plus county-specific policies and national legislation about how to house these youth, mean that many minors across Maryland endure conditions that are significantly worse than those faced by adults. “Just because of your age and your offense, you’re getting punished for something you’re just accused of doing, for lengthy periods of time,” Aanenson said.
For many advocates, where kids are held pending trial is just one small part of the problem. The recently proposed legislation is a “first step in the right direction,” Aanenson added. “But what we ultimately need to be doing is stopping youth from being tried as adults.”
Aanenson’s sentiment was echoed by Amy Fettig, the Senior Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “We think the best thing to do is send these kids back to the juvenile justice system. Sometimes that requires changing the state law.” In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly created a task force to examine the issue of automatic transfer.
In the meantime, however, General Eric Holder’s recent comments may simply be too little too late for the many young people across the county held in solitary confinement in adult facilities – trapped by a patchwork of local, state and federal laws that recognize their vulnerability as children while simultaneously prosecuting them as adults.
“They take your personality when they put you in segregation,” Ryan said. “They have everything, mentally, physically, and emotionally. They say it helps us, but it makes everything even worse. I wish that upon nobody. This is what really happens behind closed doors.”
The post In a Maryland Jail, Teens Charged As Adults Face Isolation and Neglect appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• A federal Court of Appeals has ruled that the Indiana Department of Corrections erred in sending a man to solitary confinement for using a computer after prison officials asked him to pull documents from the internet. The court wrote, “It is more than a little surprising to encounter an argument by a prison system that an inmate may be penalized for obeying an order by the prison’s staff.”
• The New York Times published an editorial in support of a recent settlement which will eventually end the use of solitary confinement in Ohio’s juvenile facilities. The editorial staff also called for implementation of the policy nationwide.
• According to the NY Daily News, nearly 20 incarcerated individuals were attacked on Rikers Island in May – making it the bloodiest month at the jail in more than a decade. Union leaders blame the rise in violence on the reduced use of solitary confinement at the jail.
• In light of recent legislation passed in the state, The Durago Herald profiled a young man whose mental illness was exacerbated by his time in maximum security protective custody.
• The ACLU published a report on privately run immigrant detention centers in Texas. Researchers found that SHU quotas at these facilities are sometimes set as high as “10% of the total contracted prison beds,” which is “nearly double the percentage of prisoners kept in isolated confinement in BOP-managed facilities.” Kevin Gosztola wrote about the report and its findings with regards to solitary confinement here.
• Corrections officers in Bernalillo County, New Mexico are concerned about recent proposals to eliminate disciplinary segregation at the local jail, the Metro Detention Center. CO Union President Stephen Perkins said, “You would sentence our officers to injury by eliminating segregation because basically you become a referee in daily fights.” County Commissioner Art De la Cruz responded, “What’s disappointing to me is that the vast majority are mentally ill. So instead of getting treatment they’re put into segregation where it only exacerbates the problem.”
• A new report by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency documents the impact of prosecuting certain kids in the state as adults, often automatically. The report also addresses the impact of holding young people in solitary confinement in adult jails and prisons.
• Against the Grain aired an episode about Bobby Sands and other prison hunger strikes, including more recent ones in California and Ohio.
• A federal judge has canceled a hearing about whether to issue an injunction against Connecticut officials, who have been detaining a teenage transgender girl in solitary confinement for about the past two months. The young woman was transferred into prison custody after child welfare officials said she was too violent; a private treatment center in Massachusetts has offered to admit her for treatment, but it is unclear when or if she has been transferred.
The author of the following piece of memoir, Shaka Senghor, served nearly two decades in Michigan state prisons for a murder committed when he was 19-years old. On his website, he states: “Writing about my wrongs was the first of many steps that I took to atone for taking a man’s life. Through the transformative power of writing, I accepted responsibility for my decisions and have used my experience to help others avoid the path that I took in my youth.” Now back in the free world, he is a “speaker, mentor, and author” who has published several books and given TED Talks at several venues.
The following narrative, which describes the author’s first day in solitary confinement, is excerpted from a longer piece that appears in a new volume writing, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America. The collection is edited by Doran Larson, a professor of English at Hamilton College and founder of the American Prison Writing Archive. Currently a work in progress, it will be the first archive dedicated to prison writing, and “will be a place where incarcerated people can bear witness to the conditions in which they live, to what is working and what is not inside American prisons, and where they can contribute to public debate about the American prison crisis.” –Jean Casella
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In my first year in prison, I found myself serving a one-year stint in solitary confinement for “assault on an inmate,” “assault on staff” and “dangerous contraband.” I split that year in the hole between the Michigan Reformatory and Standish Maximum Security Prison. It was my first foray into the abysmal subculture that was the subject of whispered conversations on prison yards and behind the closed doors of the administration’s office. It was a place where a twisted game of tug of war played itself out between the humane and inhumane. It was in this cold, dark, heartless place that I came face to face with a gruesome reality: the isolation and inhumane conditions of solitary confinement were responsible for distorting the psyche of countless men and women.
My first stint in the hole was the first time I had witnessed the tearing asunder of the human soul. At nineteen years old, I was thrown head first into a subculture of despair, loneliness and deep-seeded anger. I remember when the officer placed the burning cold handcuffs on my wrists and told me I was being taken to the hole. I literally thought they were going to throw me in a dirt-covered hole in the ground until they were convinced I had changed my behavior. I twisted and jerked around in the handcuffs as everything inside me told me to fight to get free; it was a deeply entrenched defense mechanism encoded in my DNA. I was a descendant of a slave people, and I was sure that my ancestors had rebelled against their captors. It felt natural for me to resist as much as I could, even though I knew deep inside that I couldn’t burst out of the handcuffs. But resist I did.
After being subdued by several officers, I was carted off to the hole and thrown into the shower where I was strip-searched. The officer conducting the strip search nearly broke my arm as he pulled it out of the slot in the cage to remove the cuffs. I had assaulted one of his co-workers and he was letting me know that he didn’t appreciate it. Once the cuffs were off, I was forced to strip out of my clothes. As I stood in the middle of the shower room naked, I felt like a slave on an auction block. When the officer returned, he threw an oversized brown jumpsuit through the slot. I dressed hastily and was then escorted to a segregation cell. When I realized the “hole” was nothing more than another cell block, I calmed down a little. At the time, I was at a new regional facility called Carson City so the cell was modern and clean. A smirk crossed my face as I looked around. I thought to myself, if this was all they had to control me, they would be in for a surprise when I was released. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized I was the one in for a shock.
One evening after chow, I was told to pack up all of my property; I was getting transferred in the morning back to the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia where I would be placed on long-term segregation status. In prison vernacular, we called it “lay down.” When I first came to the hole, I asked one of the inmates who had been in prison for a while why they had given it that name. He responded with a laugh before saying, “Because down here, all you can do is lay your ass down and read, lay your ass down and write, or lay your ass down and talk shit all day. So it’s up to you young blood how you do it, but all I can tell you is, don’t take this shit laying down.” The administration, on the other hand, chose to use the much more lofty euphemism “administrative segregation.” It sounded politically correct, and oh so professional, but when they weren’t on record, they called it the “hole” like the rest of us.
During the forty-minute ride back to Ionia, thoughts of what the “hole” would be like tumbled through my head like a gymnast. Horror stories of how inmates in the hole had been found hung in their cells, or mysteriously suffocated with their own socks, or how the officers would come into your cell with the goon squad and beat you two breaths short of death, all ran tirelessly through my mind. What about all of the resistance I had put up? What if the officers at the other prison had called their buddies to give me a nice work over? After being processed, I was escorted to the hole in a cellblock known as the “Graves.” It had earned the moniker from the captives there because once you were thrown in the “Graves,” it was like being entombed in a place where you lost sight of time. It was as though you were dead to everyone in general population, and the cells were so small that you felt like you had been squeezed into a coffin.
Being sentenced to “lay down” was to be sentenced to an indeterminate amount of time in hell. The first thing I noticed when I entered the cellblock was the gloomy ambiance. The windows were painted a gray and the only natural light present was the few streams that snuck through when the officers were nice enough to leave one of the windows cracked, which was very rare. Being stripped of all personal belongings, with the exception of the bare necessities, made it impossible to tell if it was morning or night unless you asked the officers or the windows were open. Other than that, I had to guess the time based on when my meals were passed out.
As I was escorted down to my cell, I had to navigate my way around spoiled food, empty milk cartons, fecal-stained towels, and piles of shredded and soiled paper. I kept my head straight forward as I walked toward my cell, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see several captives standing at their bars looking out curiously. I had learned from day one inside of the Reformatory not to look into another captive’s cell. It was an old code of respect. Since we were already being deprived of so much by the system, we didn’t want to deny each other the last semblance of privacy, so we didn’t look into each other’s cell. Not everyone stayed true to this code, and it was often the cause of conflict, leading the Peeping Tom to be stabbed on the yard, or flashed with genitalia. I had no desire to see another man shaking his private parts in anger, nor did I have a desire to stab anyone or get stabbed for looking in someone’s cell, so I always kept my head forward.
When I reached my cell, the bars squeaked open and the officer ordered me to step inside. Once the bars closed shut, he removed the handcuffs and left. I looked around at the dingy cell in disgust. The bed was six inches off the floor and the toilet was stuffed behind a small footlocker. In order to sit down and take a dump, I had to remove my whole jumpsuit so that I could fold my legs behind the locker. After my initial observations, I stood at my cell bars for the next hour waiting on the officer to make his round so that I could get some cleaning supplies to sanitize my cell. To my surprise, it was relatively quiet, but as I would soon learn, this was the calm before the storm. Most of the captives in the hole slept the bulk of their days away only waking up to get their food trays. Once the final meal of the day was passed out, the cellblock would come alive with activity.
When the officer returned, I asked him for some cleaning supplies and was informed that the porters would pass them out after lunch, so I continued to stand at the bars until lunch. There was no way I was going to sit or lay down on a mattress that someone else had sweated and farted on without it being sanitized. When the porters arrived with our food trays, I took mine and stood at the bars eating the hastily thrown together meal. The portions were nearly a half-size smaller than what I was used to receiving in general population. I devoured the small meal in all of five minutes like a ravenous wolf and placed my tray on the bars. I didn’t really like drinking milk all that much, so I left the carton sitting on the locker. When they came around to pick up trays, one of the porters whispered that I had better hide the milk in my locker unless I wanted to be placed on food loaf. I placed the milk back on the tray as I looked at him curiously. I had never heard of food loaf, but from the way he conveyed the message, I could tell it was something very bad. I also realized his “Man, you crazy” look was letting me know that it in the hole, no food was to be wasted. That milk I threw back on the tray could have bought me a bag of cereal, a juice, or an extra piece of toast. In the hole, everything pertaining to eating and smoking was to be bartered and nothing was to be wasted. Once they banned smoking, a cigarette smuggled in could net you three dollars in store items. It was in the hole that I learned to start eating Brussels’ sprouts and dressing and a few other things I would have never eaten if I were in general population. Every time I ate green beans or Brussels’ sprouts, I thought about all of the times my parents had tried to get me to eat them when I was a child, and I felt some shame.
After the trays were picked up, a porter came back and handed me some cleaning supplies. I swept beneath the small bunk and was surprised at how much dirt and dust came from under the bed. I washed the mattress, toilet and sink down before making my bed. After I cleaned up and laid back on the bunk, I drifted off into a fitful sleep. My mind was full of thoughts that I had stuffed deep down inside where they were safe. All of the things I had hidden from while in general population by watching television or playing basketball to exhaustion now came rushing back to the forefront of my mind. I dreamt of how soft my son’s mother’s lips used to feel against mine. I dreamt of how good it used to feel to guzzle down an ice cold forty ounce on a hot summer day. I dreamt of the late night laughter that echoed through the ‘hood as we sat on the porch at two in the morning playing the dozens. My dreams were a kaleidoscope of all that my life had been, and all that it could have been.
I was awakened by the sound of the chow cart squeaking down the tier. I retrieved my tray and sucked down the bland slop that they called dinner, and this time I drank the milk. Despite my aversion to plain milk, it sure beat the brownish water that drizzled out of the old porcelain sink in my cell. I set the tray on the bars, laid back on my bunk and forced myself back to sleep in an attempt to retrieve those lost and stolen dreams, but to no avail. After the officers picked up the food trays, they passed out mail and the cellblock was pretty quiet for the next few hours. The hum of a few conversations could be heard as inmates discussed religion, politics, and stories of their lives on the streets. Stories shared between inmates were our way of staying connected to the neighborhoods we came from. It was one of the few means we had of touching, tasting and smelling our former lives, if only for a few minutes. It didn’t matter if you were part of the conversation or not, you could relate, because when it was all said and done, most Black communities were pretty much the same. So when I sat back on my bunk listening to a guy from Flint, Saginaw or Lansing talking about their neighborhoods and what they had been through, it was like reliving my own memories of life before prison.
One of the things about prison is that you have some very amusing storytellers with expansive imaginations, capable of creating the kind of vivid imagery that would put Hollywood screenwriters to shame. I have always marveled at how a person could remember the exact color of their socks, how much money they had in their pocket to the nearest dime, and all the ingredients that were used to make the meal on the day they got shot, had sex for the first time, or made their first thousand. When retelling a story, everyone has a tendency to embellish things a little, but in the hole, there were a few captives who were infamous for their ability to tell a lie-filled story that was so entertaining that each night everyone would grow quiet as they recounted their neighborhood exploits.
As the voices hummed about from cell to cell, I found myself thinking about how I had arrived at this point in my life. Growing up, I never imagined that I would be living my life out caged in a cell like a wild animal. I was too smart for this shit, I thought angrily as I stared up at the paint-chipped ceiling. But no matter how many times I closed and opened my eyes, my nightmarish existence was still there. After speaking with several captives at length, I realized that most of us go through this extreme feeling of disbelief. At some point, we all think this is a nightmare, and that at any moment we will awaken and be back home in the warm comfort of our own bed. But we all learn after years of incarceration that prison is all too real. And for me, things were about to get more real than I could have ever imagined.
After getting bored listening to the conversations going on around me, I decided to get up and write a few letters. The first, I wrote to my son’s mother, and then to my ex-girlfriend in Ohio. Before I knew it, I was writing to everyone I knew. The hours spun past quickly as I scratched out letter after letter with a dull two-inch pencil. When the third shift came on at ten o’clock, I was still immersed in writing letters. It was through writing letters home that I realized writing was my escape. With a pen and piece of paper, I could get away whenever I wanted to. I could go stand on the corner in my neighborhood and no one could stop me. I could drive down the freeway and go see my ex-girlfriend in Ohio if that was what I wanted to do, and the bars and wired fences couldn’t hold me back. Writing was freedom! So I wrote until midnight when they cut the power off and my fingers became sore to the bone.
When the lights went out, the cellblock had an eerie feel to it. I was on the bottom tier toward the end, and there were no lights in the hall near my cell so I couldn’t stand at the bars and read or write like guys who had lights in front of their cells. I climbed into my bunk and prayed that I could drift off into a deep sleep before the dreams of my life before prison came back to haunt me. I had to get away from them; otherwise I knew I would go insane. There was nothing I could do to change my reality, and I didn’t need to be constantly reminded by the dreams. As I lay there trying to capture sleep, the world around me exploded into chaos.
“Get y’all bitch ass up. Ain’t no sleep around here,” a loud voice called, followed by a sound as loud and startling as a shotgun blast in a small church. Boom! Boom! Boom! The sound came relentlessly as the voice banged the lid down on his footlocker over and over, which set into motion a chain of events that was unlike anything I had ever imagined. For the next four hours, the hole became an anarchist stronghold as inmates banged lockers and hurled racial epithets and disparaging homosexual remarks through the air like hand grenades. Some stuffed their toilets with sheets and flushed until water cascaded over the tier like Victoria Falls. I stared out of my cell in disbelief as the floor quickly became a small wading pool. Trash and sheets that had been set on fire flew out of countless cells. After their initial attempts to restore order by turning off the water supply to all of the cells, the officers gave up. As dawn slowly crept upon us, everyone settled down and the cellblock grew quiet again.
The only thing that seemed to be stirring was a giant rat the size of a possum, who the captives had named “Food Loaf,” after the loaf of bread-sized brick of mashed up food that was fed to recalcitrant captives. I watched as “Food Loaf” sludged through the murky water to retrieve the soggy bread and rotted apple cores that had been thrown out onto the cellblock floors. He moved with a quiet confidence about him that came as a result of being around hundreds of people every day. The rest of the vermin that darted in and out of the cells were more cautious. I often wondered why no one had killed “Food Loaf,” but then it dawned on me. In a lot of ways, he was a lot like us. He was an outcast, and for the most part, he was despised by everyone and we could all identify with that. Though the term “rat” had been used over the years to describe someone who told on others to protect their own asses, “Food Loaf” had won over our respect and was therefore allowed to coexist with us.