It was a long bus ride, but there wasn’t really anything else to do but try to take it all in. I was so impressed with just how cool some of the other guys were about it. They boarded the bus with indifference, most of them laying their heads back trying to sleep. This was the first chance I had really had to spend any time outdoors in many months, and this was my last glimpse at civilization for, well, I didn’t know how long. I clung to the metal grates welded across the windows, staring out at the cars and the drivers down below, wondering where they were going, wondering about the problems that they would face today. I was jealous. I wanted to be pissed off about something that just didn’t matter much, my dirty house. I wanted to be annoyed at a co-worker. I wanted to be in a rush to get somewhere and stuck in a traffic jam, frustrated. I wanted to be anywhere but here.
Eastern Correctional Institution is in the middle of a bunch of farmland. There’s not much to see there. I think the closest town might have a stoplight. I’m not sure; I never saw the closest town there. The only reason that I know that there was one was that that was who worked at the prison, the people that lived in the town. As the tobacco industry in North Carolina began to crumble for the smaller farmers, the state started building remote prisons on the now vacant farmlands, typically in the poorer counties it seems. This helped to create jobs for people with lower level educations, people who would have been farmers, but they no longer had farms to tend. You could never get rich working as a prison guard, but there are decent benefits, a retirement plan, and it doesn’t require a lot of skill. Most people can figure out how to open and close a door, and turn a big key to lock it.
After I arrived at Eastern they put me in a holding area. I sat there for hours. They brought me another sandwich to eat for dinner, and a small apple that wasn’t ripe yet, a container of milk. I had unfortunately arrived between shifts. I know this now; I didn’t know what was going on then. They just admitted me, brought me into a holding cell with a toilet and left me there, sitting on a bench to wait.
This happens pretty regularly in prison. I was the next shift’s problem. They would get to me once they got around to it. There wouldn’t be any rush, after all, what was there to rush for? I wasn’t going anywhere. So, I sat there for what I guess was a few hours wondering when they would come and get me. Eventually someone did. He didn’t handcuff me or anything. In fact, thinking back on it, I don’t think I was ever handcuffed again the entire time that I was in prison. Well, that’s not true. There was one other time that I can distinctly remember handcuffs being put on me. But most of the time that you are in prison you don’t wear handcuffs, shackles, anything like that. Once you’re in, you are in.
The guard came and got me. He was nice enough. He took me to “the clothes house” so that I could get a change of clothes, and some sheets, and a pillow. As we walked down the long hallway he said, “Guess I get to give you the official tour, huh? Well, this should be easy enough. Right here is the chow hall. Programs’ll be comin’ up on our right. That’s the library just across from programs. Right there’s the barbershop. That’s Custody over there. And upstairs is the unit you’ll be sleeping on.” We made a right and kept walking down the hall, up a couple of flights of stairs. The place was madhouse busy. Conversations were yelled across hallways. Men running past us on the stairs. Doors slamming as guys came in and went out onto the yard. And of course, the ubiquitous sound of dominoes and cards crashing down on steel tables. Too much noise. Always too much noise. Whenever I think of prison that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Ever. The goddamn noise. It never stops. It rarely takes a break. Jarring your nerves, it’s always random, so it never achieves the soothing rhythm of an old train, or the crashing of ocean waves. It is clanks, and screams, and swearing, and someone trying to get a guards attention in a sound proof booth by yelling, “A Block!” over and over, and then when that doesn’t work yelling, “Ay! Three down! A block! You stupid motherfucker!” Trying to let the guard know to open a cell, the third cell over on the bottom floor in A block. But of course there are three blocks that this guard is trying to keep track of all at once, all at three different angles, and about thirty men per block, so there’s not just one guy screaming for the guard to unlock his cell, there are lots of guys, competing for his attention, all the time. Lots of noise. And there are other men competing for the guard’s attention, to be let out of their cells. When your cell is locked you can get out by pressing a button that looks like a doorbell, and this will light a button in the guard booth, which the guard will then press to unlock your door. Unfortunately, the guard doesn’t always think to look down, or he or she gets busy on the telephone, or becomes distracted trying to keep up with the guys who are trying to get into their cells, or if it’s late at night the guard will go to sleep, and so the traditional way to get the guard’s attention when this happens is by beating the hell out of the metal door with the heel of a prison boot. It doesn’t work at all, but it sure adds to the noise.
The cells at Eastern didn’t have any toilets in them, instead there were four bathrooms at the end of the block. Each bathroom contained a shower, a few toilets and a few urinals, and a couple of sinks. The walls of the bathroom were made entirely out of glass so if you had to use the bathroom, then everyone else watched you. Well, what you learn pretty quickly is that no one really wants to see you on the toilet. Eastern’s bathrooms were pretty private really. If you went in and sat on the toilet, no one would dare think of coming and sitting on a toilet next to you. There were other bathrooms to use. This isn’t true for a lot of prisons. A lot of prisons there isn’t much choice, if you sit on a toilet, then you can be sure to have someone to talk to on the toilet right next to you. I always hated that, never did get used to it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to for a few years.
One confusion with Eastern’s bathrooms though was that to get to any of them you had to go directly past a corner cell. When we were processing we watched a well thought out, low budget “training” video of the do’s and don’t of prison life. It was about ten minutes long, and seemed to have been put together many years ago, apparently shot, produced, and acted in by the prison program’s staff. It included tips like what to do if you unexpectedly find a candy bar on your pillow, advice on not taking “gifts” from other inmates, and wisdoms imparted like “stay away from the corner cells, because the correction officers often cannot see them very well.” There didn’t seem to be a way to stay away from corner cells, and use the bathroom, take a shower, or brush your teeth. They didn’t think to include this in the video.
The guard took me to my cell. It was on the fourth story, the top floor, of the prison. There were two windows, about four or five inches wide and a few feet tall, with plastic window panes that at one time were probably see through, but the edges had been smeared with paint, and they were scratched all to hell. A corner had been broken out of one and there were nicotine stains at the bottom there where someone, or many someones over the years, used to lay his cigarette. I could kind of make out one of the basketball courts outside, not in any detail, but I could recognize what it was. Once it got a little darker I could make out the giant security lights outside surrounding the perimeter of the prison. There was a bed mounted to the wall, a little higher than a standard bed frame, and a small locker underneath that. There was a small, two foot by two foot stainless steel table mounted to the other wall, and a plastic armchair with a the tie from a shipping bag tied into a loop around one of the arms.
The officer left and I started to unpack my bags, make my bed. I had been collecting photographs of friends from the letters I had received over the months. I had paper bags full of mail, which I held onto as a comfort, a reminder that there were people outside that still cared what about what happened to me; I was loved. I had hygiene products- toothpaste, a toothbrush. I had some rolling tobacco, and papers. It all seemed so pathetic. I remembered times that I had moved having to rent giant box trucks, making multiple trips, chairs, tables, paintings, dishware, and now, here I was, a few yellowing papers: a hand written version of the periodic table of the elements that I had copied during lunch one day while still in jail in one of the classrooms, and then smuggled back into the block after class so that I could practice memorizing it. That would give me something to do to kill time when I was awake. I folded the periodic table in half and placed it into the locker. I leaned the photos up against the foot of the wall all the way around the room so that my friends, the people who loved me somewhere, could surround me. There was a smiling Regina, and a picture of my folks. There was a picture of my grandmother and grandfather, friends of mine dancing in the bars that we frequented. Somewhere behind all of these pictures there was a person. I missed him.
Lonely, I finished unpacking my few, useless belongings. The yard had closed because a spring storm was rolling in. I could barely hear the rumblings of the thunder on the other side of the wall. The excitement in the block was mounting. Guys now back inside from the yard were hyper-charged from basketball, the weight pile, volleyball. One guy was rapping at the top of his lungs; the block was an electric buzz of noise.
I closed my door.
I walked over to the far wall, to the windows. Such a perfect sound, thunder. It was impossible to see the sky through these windows. I could see that there was lightening, but couldn’t see the lightening itself. I could hear the rain splatter the slim windowpanes, could fit my finger through the hole and feel the rain with the tip of my finger on the tiny ledge.
I placed my forehead to the cool, concrete wall for a long moment. Then I rolled my head placing my ear up against the concrete wall to try to hear, to try to feel, the thunder.
I was missing spring.
And nighttime. I was missing the night.
I was missing my family. My friends.
I cried long, deep, hurting sobs leaning up against that wall.
I felt so scared, so lonely, so alone.
I just cried.
To be continued…