Outside the large solid metal door of my cell the distinct call of the morning announcement penetrates the peace of my sleep. I turn to lie on my back. Blinking my eyes open I see the familiar glow of sunlight as it pours in an orange shade. The announcement was for breakfast. I know I have to hurry or miss out. I pull myself out of bed and slip on my jogging pants and a t-shirt before brushing my teeth, using the toilet, and washing my hands.
The cell is roomy enough: 6 bricks wide and 8 bricks long. I guess each brick to be fifteen inches but I?ve never actually measured them at this place. The walls are painted a pink pastel and the door a green pastel. I imagine that pastel colors were chosen because of their calmness ? their soothing effect. The bed is hardly more than a flat piece of painted steel bolted to the wall. A thick hard foam mattress sits on top. We are given two bed sheets and three cotton-knit blankets that I have to fold in half and pile one on top of the other just to stay warm in the cold fall nights. I wonder just how cold the cells get in the winter.
Across from the bed is a ?desk and shelves unit.? This is a collection of three metal drawers sitting in a metal frame along with a few more metal shelves above these. Beside this is a square countertop with a thin long drawer below it for your pens and pencils and stuff. My shelves are filled with clothes ? mostly ones given to me by the prison but some I have ordered in from a department store from the street. I only make $6.90 each day, but after a few moths of saving, you can buy some nice things, like my 14? television sitting atop the shelf above the desk. The television is crowded by a container of coffee, a bottle of aspirin, and other necessities that I have purchased.
My small stereo sits on a metal box where I store all my books ? I have a lot of books ? all of them of a spiritual nature. I also have a small fan that sits on a shelf above the television. Not far from there is the highlight of my cell: a small potted plant.
A high pitch squeal pierces my cell. I hate that noise but I have grown resentfully tolerant of it ? it is my neighbor?s sink, so what can I do? Mine makes the same terrible sound in his cell.
I grab my cup and plastic cutlery and plastic bowl. I press a small button beside my door and a moment later, the lock slips out and I pull my door open. The sound of one hundred inmates getting ready for breakfast impacts like a wall as I walk down the hallway we call the living range towards the common area where there are metal tables with a piece of square tabletop above. Each table has four solidly fixed stool-like chairs. Before I go to breakfast, I bang on the door of a friend of mine and call him through the thin slit between the door and doorframe of his cell – the only way to wake him in the morning.
It?s pancakes for breakfast, I note as I walk past table after table of men sleepily eating. To my left is a large desk behind which sit several guards. The living unit is designed in such a way that these can see all areas from their vantage point.
At breakfast, there is no line up at the food counter so I walk directly up to the window. The lady behind the counter asks me if I would like two pancakes or three. Three, I reply. My pancakes don?t look well cooked, but I don?t care; what else am I going to eat?
After breakfast, I make coffee. This particular institution does not allow coffee machines so making coffee is a process: boil the water in a kettle used by all 12 guys on my range, put a piece of paper towel into a Styrofoam container with holes punched out of the bottom, and add two good scoops of coffee grounds. A ?click? sound from the hallway tells me the kettle is finished boiling. I fill up an equal-sized cup of water as the one in which I am making coffee; this way I don?t add too much water. I slowly pour the water into the Styrofoam container and slowly my coffee is made.
While I wait for my coffee to cool to just the right temperature, I make my bed, strip off my clothes, put on my housecoat and head for the shower. Every second day is ?shave day? for me. When it?s not a shaving day it?s a laundry day. This is my own routine. Today is a shave day, so I put a lid on my coffee so that it doesn?t cool too much. I bring my shaving stuff to the shower with me. Glass mirrors aren?t allowed here but some guys still have them. I borrow one, as I dislike shaving without one. I can do it and do it well, but it?s tedious.
I love showering. I do it twice a day. I like the feel of the hot water pouring over my skin. It?s like as the water rinses over my face – my eyes closed – I am transported to a place of peace. The sounds of prison disappear in the white noise of thousands of water drops splashing noisily over me and over the tiles of the shower. I feel refreshed, made new, and ready for a new day. I dry off and return to my house ? well, my cell, that is, but we call it our ?houses.? I stand on my towel and carefully dry between my toes. I sprinkle powder here and there on my skin and rub it in. I put under arm deodorant on and slip into some clothes. Today I feel like a nice thick warm pair of jogging pants and a t-shirt. I pull two pairs of socks on: white cotton for one pair and wool socks for the other. I like the cushiony comfort of two socks.
I sit at my desk after putting my wet towel into my laundry bag hidden away in a corner of my house behind the door. I take my first sip of coffee ? it?s the right temperature. It always is. In my mouth, the coffee is strong and bitter and I swallow it like it was melted chocolate. Every morning I read a scripture. I always read it after my first swallow of coffee and so I do this now.
The next half-hour is spent carefully studying the bible. (Studying the bible and drinking my coffee.) Soon the coffee is finished and so is my studying. I look at the little clock on the shelf beside my television. It reads ten minutes to nine ? it always says a time very near to this by the time my coffee and studying is finished. That?s because at nine our program starts.
Our violent offender program has different types of sessions. In dynamic group, there is no topic. We sit around and speak our minds on whatever comes up. Sometimes the guys talk about the very terrible things in their lives. We sympathize, we offer our own experiences, but most importantly, we listen. We listen and we also learn something about ourselves.
In other sessions, we learn. We learn errors in thinking; how we might perceive things in different ways; what things set us off or get us angry. We learn so we can change. Today was one of those kinds of sessions and I bring my large binder to class with a pen.
Looking at the other eleven guys in the group, I see tired faces. Yes, they are tired because it?s the morning, but they are also tired because they have been in the same prison routine day after day ? some for five years some for ten, some for as much as fifteen years. The prisoner?s eyes are unfocused. They look inward where stuff happens ? dreams and life ? not outward to the same walls and cold emptiness around them.
Our two facilitators hand out today?s lesson. I open my binder and place it in to the rungs of the binder. Today?s topic is relationships. One of the guys starts reading. This lesson, however, is mostly discussions. The question to discuss first is what types of relationships there is with family, friends, acquaintances, authority figures? and victims. Lots of input from everybody and the group is on a positive note. But as we near the question of victims, my mind wanders. Then my mouth opens and speaks: ?My victim has passed away, but there are other victims.? My tone is of sorrow. The room goes silent. I imagine everybody is reflecting on their own victims.
I continue, ?I mean, the victim?s cousin attacked me when I was in court. And his wife was there, too. These are victims as well.?
?But the biggest ? most tangible ? one to me is my mom. I remember just after I was arrested and I called her on the phone. She spoke like I was dead. She said things like: ?My son was a good boy and now he?s gone.? I was hurt to the core. I tried to comfort. I even remember saying, ?Ma. It?s me! I?m still alive! I?m right here!? It was the hardest conversation in my life.?
The guys are staring at the floor. Some thank me for sharing this deeply emotional thing. Others share some stuff about their own victims. The tone has changed, but I?m happy that it did. This is how people heal.
An hour and a half later, the group ends and we go back to the hallway where we live. Soon it will be lunch. We stand around and talk. Some guys go to their houses to watch television or read a book. Some do laundry.
The announcement calls one range at a time for lunch and soon the common area of tables begin to fill with people. Noisy people. Sometimes I am sick of them and just want to find a place away from people. Sometimes, like today, I am happy to be around others.
Our range is called last and I make two stops before getting in line for the food counter. I stop to fill my cup with milk and I stop to fill my bowl with a salad. I prefer bean salads, but those are rare ? today its just green-leaf lettuce.
I pick up my food from the food counter. It doesn?t matter what the food is. I eat it without tasting much. It fills my stomach to contentment but not full. I eat my salad and drink my milk.
We will be locked down again soon so I bring my dishes over to the sink on my range and wash it out. I fill my cup with cold water that I keep in the tiny refrigerator. I am a little tired from group and I go back to my cell and lock the door behind me. I can still push the little button to get back out but I don?t. Ten minutes later lock down is called and now I am unable to leave my cell.
I sit on the edge of the bed and watch the television program listings to see if a good movie might be on. There?s not. Today ? Friday ? we are locked down for three hours. I?ll sleep for the first hour, but I want to be up by two o?clock as there is a good show on.
I hear the jingle of keys outside in the living range. We all have to stand up and be counted. I stand and watch as the two guards go past the tall narrow window of my door. I return to my bed and close my eyes. If I dream I don?t remember it. Most of my dreams are of in prison so it is usually the ones of the real world ? the outside ? I especially remember. Not today though; they are rare.
When I do awake, I lie on my back and stare at the white ceiling. ?Five more minutes before the show starts.? It?s called ?While you were out.? A person wants to surprise their spouse by sending them away for two days and renovating one of the rooms in their house while they are gone. The carpenter Andrew Jumbo is always given too much work to do and I always wonder if he?s going to finish in time. His helper Leslie Segretto and him always seem to get into some kind of argument. I think those two have a relationship outside the show. Its fun to watch but the best part is when the spouse comes home and sees the room. I like watching their reaction ? especially if that reaction includes tears of joy because that kind of joy is such a real emotion ? pure. It makes me cry, too.
The last commercial break before the show ends I quickly get changed into my track pants. I will only have one hour after our doors open to go and ride the stationary bike and exercise my abdomens.
?While you were out? ends and I begin to pace my cell waiting for the door to open. It?s usually late on Fridays and soon it is 3:15pm. I check the little button beside the door from time to time but without response. I press it again and the whirring of the lock opens the door.
Out I go down the hallway, past the tables of the common area in front of the desk with the guards and out the double door into a brisk fresh sunny Friday afternoon. Sure, there are fences everywhere with its sharp spiky razor wire coiled around its top but there is also the lush green grass, the smell of clean air, a deep blue sky, small flowers and small trees. There is the music filling my ears through the Discman. I smile as I walk towards the gym.
I ride the stationary bike for a mere 15 minutes ? not quite as long as usual but I?m a little distracted today. So distracted I bypass my abdomen work out altogether and go back to my home. ?Well, soon my show is going to start: ?Daily Planet.? So I might as well sit down and get ready to watch it.? Another stand up lock down occurs and then I lie on my back on my bed and watch ?Daily Planet? ? it is basically science news and I always learn fascinating new things about the world and life about me.
Half an hour later, the announcement is made for our unit to go eat supper. Now the little button beside my door is active again and I press it with bowl and cutlery in the other hand. Even how I get my food has become somewhat of a routine. I reach the drink machine first and fill my 10-ounce cup with milk. Next comes the table where I sit. There I put my cup of milk down, place a napkin down that I might be able to place my cutlery on and then I head toward the small salad bar. I put two scoops of salad in the bowl with a couple of small heads of broccoli and a spoonful of salad dressing. It is a creamy ranch dressing ? probably home made, I guess, as the flavor often changes.
Supper is a stuffed green pepper and a small piece of cake. I eat all of it. It?s actually not too bad for flavor (or I no longer know what good food tastes like anymore).
I want to hurry up and eat, though, because at 5:15 is the time we are allowed to move again and its nearly that time already. I give my plate to the dishwasher and head over to the sink where I wash my cutlery, bowl, and cup in the sink. I then fill my cup with more water from the refrigerator and go back to my cell to brush my teeth and change into clothes appropriate for exercise.
I slip on my blue track pants that I bought only about a month ago. I?m pretty happy with these ones; they?re comfortable and light and keep me warm. Already, my workout buddy is at my door knocking and teasing me so I?d better get going.
We head down to the gym and tease each other the entire way. He has a pretty strange sense of humor. Mine is pretty strange at times but at least I keep my jokes clean ? something he doesn?t always do. For my sake I know he tries to clean up the jokes. He knows about my spirituality and the fact that I don?t swear or tell obscene jokes.
The gym is quiet at this time- not always, but for the most part. We push each other in a hard workout focusing on the chest. I?ve only been working out for six months now but its really beginning to show. I?ve gained weight and the tone is really becoming defined. Most important, however, is that it helps me get through emotionally difficult days like it had been today. I feel good about myself.
We finish just before six o?clock and we watch a couple guys from our group play a little badminton. They?re terrible at the game and it?s entertaining to watch. We heckle them a little and they laugh.
It?s nearly six o?clock so we decide to return home ? we only have ten minutes to do so or we are stuck in the gym. Did I say home? Well, there is no other place that I can think of as home ? so I guess that?s what that hallway where my cell is: my home.
I prepare for the shower right away. There are female guards usually working every day so I have gotten into the necessary habit of getting undressed without ever being openly naked. My housecoat provides well at this time.
After my shower, I slip into a different set of jogging pants. They?re so old and I basically use them as pajamas. Relaxing, I lie on my bed and read a few pages of a book called ?Forms of Devotion.? If anyone were to ask me what the genre of this book was I wouldn?t know how to answer. The author has placed several short stories with no endings together into a collage of thought. Reading the book is like eating a pizza.
Slowly nine o?clock approaches: Another stand up lock down. Another half an hour spent in my cell. Nearly another day spent of my life. Another hour before we are locked back down. I decide to reach out and touch someone. By letter that is? and I hope you have enjoyed my day.