*This is part of a longer piece that describes my first days in prison. More coming soon. 🙂
We are sitting at a stainless steel table. The walls are industrial grey, but the paint is peeling and you can see that there are many layers of paint under this. The room smells. It’s a mixture of human body odor, gas, mildew, sour mop water, and cleaning chemicals. There is a guard booth directly attached to this room, and a guard sits there a few feet away watching us all day, but unable to take part in the conversations. We are slowly dissecting a dandelion flower, feeling the tiny, soft, slippery petals in between our fingers; holding the tiniest pieces up to our noses attempting to smell spring, summer, the sun, whatever is left in that outside world that used to be so familiar, but now feels alien and unfamiliar, a thousand or so miles away.
Processing started out with the cop dropping me off into a large room, turning me over to various other authorities. I was directed to go to a series of rooms where they gave me my new clothes- prison “browns”, the brown color indicated that I would be in either medium or close custody. Both of these custody levels are colloquially referred to as “under the gun.” Minimum custody camps don’t have guard towers with armed personnel. They wear green clothes; Of course, every state is different when it comes to prisons. This was how it was done in the state that I was locked up in. One thing that was interesting over the years that I was locked up was, that because so many guys had been in and out of prisons for so many years in so many places, I got to hear different reviews of the various states’ penitentiary systems. Some places were much better to be locked up in than others. North Carolina was considered one of the better prison systems. Alabama, where most of my family lives, is considered one of the worst. I had considered putting in a request to transfer there so that I could be closer to my family, but after my mother looked into it she said, “Don’t bother. We’ll drive.” A friend of mine told me that in Alabama they don’t even have napkins to eat with. I was told that in Georgia they shaved everyone’s heads when they processed, though I have heard that those rules have changed. Then there was Texas, which I was told was extremely violent. Kentucky didn’t sound so bad. One friend of mine told me that in Kentucky you could buy your own personal television set, which they would take away as punishment for when you got caught violating the rules. And don’t even get me started on the Federal prison systems. Those places were considered to be the lap of luxury- swimming pools…movie stars… I was told that some had video games, and salad bars. I heard this so frequently that I had a patent response for when guys would start extolling the virtues of federal prisons, “That does it. You’ve made up my mind. Next time I get arrested I’m gonna make sure it’s a federal offense… No more state institutions for me! I’m robbing a bank.”
I was given a pair of tennis shoes in processing, the same ones that I had had to buy in jail. They were free here, and I was given a pair of “shower shoes”, which I also had in jail. They are little more than rubber sandals to wear while you take a shower. I didn’t really understand what shower shoes were for when I was given my first pair, and went to take my first shower in the jails general population. I started to walk into the shower barefoot, but someone stopped me and said,” You don’t want to go in there without your shower shoes on.” I said that I probably didn’t need them. I like being barefoot. He gave me a concerned, think about it for a second look, and repeated himself. “You don’t want to go in there without your shower shoes on,” followed by, “You don’t know WHAT’S on that floor.” It took a second, but finally it all clicked. I went back to my mat, slipped on my shower shoes. I learned how to wash my feet by balancing on one leg in the shower. That was a skill well worth developing. I don’t think I have ever touched a prison shower floor. Thank god.
Eventually I was escorted through a series of freight elevators and dark tunnels downstairs to the blocks that had used to house the old death row. There were still signs up in the hallways and even in the blocks stating that matches should not be used for vigils during executions. The block I was in only had about 16 cells in it, eight upstairs and eight down. The cells weren’t full, so I had my choice of cells. I took one that was downstairs and center. The set-up was identical to the cells in jail. There was a stainless steel toilet/sink combo, with push buttons for the water, which would only let out a trickle of luke-warm water, polished stainless steel mirror above that. A sheet metal bed frame mounted to the wall, but what I was most excited about was the mattress. It was a few inches thick, rolled up into a tight wad at the end of the bed. I unfurled it. It felt like it was stuffed with cotton, rather than foam. It was lumpy, but considering what I had been sleeping on, this was damn near heaven. One of the guys yelled into me that if I needed a hand fluffing the mattress, he’d be willing to help. We dragged the mattress outside, he grabbed two corners and so did I. We would lift the mattress high into the air and then sling it to the ground as hard as we could. We did this a few times. I thanked him and then carried it back into my cell, threw it on my bunk and stretched out on it. I hadn’t been given sheets yet, and I knew that this mattress was probably covered in forty years of funk, but at this point, I just was beyond caring. It felt so nice to be on something relatively soft.