Try spending a typical morning in the shoes of a prison inmate.
During my incarceration, corresponding with people from all over the world, I’ve heard it all: bored, midlife, menopausal, neurotic, desperate housewives tell me how their husbands can’t get it up any more. College students complain about their sky-high debt from student loans and credit cards. Gay men complain that they are still not treated equally. A best friend of mine even told me one day he wishes he could trade places with me and get used to taking a dump on a stainless steel toilet versus being free and living each day just to pay the bills. Let me tell you, prison sucks!
A letter from me seems to brighten up people’s day because the only letters that they receive daily in that freakin’ mailbox is junk mail and more bills!
People seem to think I got it all: No bills, no responsibilities, three hots and a cot. Let me tell you, I’d rather live in a cardboard box, homeless, under a freeway overpass, as a free man than live inside the “belly of the beast!” When you feel like life sucks, pull this article out and realize just how lucky you really are!
At 6:30 a.m., I am awakened by the sound of a school bell ringing, a warning to inform everyone that we have 10 minutes until breakfast. I live in a 6-by-9 cell, about the size of a small Shell gas station bathroom, which I share with another inmate. He occupies the top bunk. I take the bottom bunk. The first thing either of us does when getting up is to take a leak. There is no escape from the sound. The liquid hitting the water in the toilet etches into the mind like the Chinese torture technique of a drop of water constantly dripping on a surface. Either one of us can only hope that one does not have to sit on the throne to pay tribute to the sharks residing in the sewer system. No matter how many flushes, the cell turns into a gas chamber.
With only about five minutes apiece to wash up, brush the grill, and put clothes on, the cell doors rack open. Two hundred inmates from three tiers step out at once. We work our way to the cellblock grill gate like a herd of cattle. We walk down a long corridor that resembles an airport, finally turning left into the chow hall. It isn’t an easy walk. Correctional officers stand up and down the corridor, scattered, ready to pull you over for a body search, mandatory procedure.
There are two lines, divided racially, from which you can get your food tray. On the left is the line for only Whites, pachuco swaying Chicanos, Mexican National ‘paisas,’ and Asians. The other line is for Blacks. There are about 30 tables on each side of the chow hall. Each table sits four people, sectioned off by race. You don’t sit at a Black table if you are White. A tray of food slides out from a rectangular hole while kitchen hands, fellow inmates hidden behind a stainless steel barricade, work on a conveyor line to shove the trays out, as seen in the 1973 movie “Papillon” with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Officers designed it this way so inmates can’t see whom they are serving. In the old days, before the visual barrier, a convict could give his homeboy a larger issue of food. Not anymore.
As I sit down at a table to eat my bland breakfast (pancakes with butter/syrup, hot cream of wheat and a milk), I notice the guy next to me stinks. He’s on psych meds and doesn’t shower regularly. His hair isn’t combed, his clothes are wrinkled, and he eats his pancakes with his hands, dipping them into the syrup. The toothless wonder smiles at me, talking with a full mouth of food. “Hey Holmes,” he asks, “can I get that butter?”
My appetite is ruined. I get up to leave the table and, before I can dump my tray contents into the trash, two inmates snatch the remaining items on my tray like a couple of scavenging seagulls. They each place the food they’ve snatched into a plastic bag like squirrels hoarding nuts.
As I walk down the long corridor on my way to the morning yard, I observe a rookie correctional officer arguing with an inmate. Apparently the inmate was pulled aside for a search, and was found with three extra milk cartons in his pocket.
“The sign in the chow hall says you must consume all items before exiting,” the young rookie Anglo officer says.
“You petty mutha fucka! You are a racist,” shouted the inmate, speaking with his hands in a passionate manner.
The rookie officer, in fear that he was about to be assaulted, pushed his alarm button as guards ran from all directions, down the corridor, to restrain the inmate. He was handcuffed and escorted to a holding cage, which is the place one goes before going to the hole.
I finally made it to the yard, and went to use the phone. I had to call a friend, but was not able to get through. There was an MCI collect call block on the phone. MCI places blocks on phones for those who do not have exclusive billing through MCI. So I called to make a “three-way” conference call to reach my friend. Just as she connected me to him, the tower officer stated, “Inmate, I’m booking you for making a third-party call. What’s your CDC number and housing?” Three way calls are prohibited by CDC regulations, so I was getting a write up.
I decided to run a few laps around the track, to ease my mind of living in a world so regulated, when an announcement came on the loudspeaker, “Mandatory yard recall. Emergency count. Lock ‘em up. Lock ‘em up.” Like cattle, we inmates all rounded up quickly, and were led inside back to the cellblocks. As the officer racked the cell doors open, I caught sight of my cell partner sitting on the toilet. Prison life is unpredictable. There is no privacy. It’s a world full of rules that don’t make sense.
I find serenity in writing. I’ve become sort of a therapist to free society people who dump their problems on me. So when you think life is bad, just remember that someone else, me, has it worse. How would you like to be the guy sitting on the lower bunk while barely an arm’s length away his cell partner fouls the air relieving himself of yesterday’s prison food?
Written by anonymous while doing time in California.