How We Live in a Prison Cell
You might be surprised to learn that prisoners like watching shows about prison. It’s surprising to me, seeing peers glued to the screen, watching prurient reality shows about prison life. As if living in prison isn’t enough. Full disclosure: when I see cellblocks on television, I watch, too. Though, just to compare living quarters. Shot from outside the bars, the cells are more bare than mine and often unoccupied (or decommissioned — an insider can tell the difference). The scene makes me depressed for those who have to live there. My loved ones have told me they feel sad when seeing shots like that, imagining me in my cell.
My cell. The possessive pronoun causes many prisoners to beef about semantics. It’s not MY cell, they say, it’s the state’s. My dorm room in college wasn’t mine either if one wants to get technical, but I lived there. Just like I live here now, and for 25 years to life this is my home. Now, calling it home really pisses off my fellow prisoners. They feel that thinking of this place as home is bad juju or a sign of one’s unwillingness to fight for his freedom through the courts. But I’m guilty of murder and don’t plan to appeal. I hope against hope to someday walk through the front gate a free man, which is the engine of every prison story. But until then, prison is where I reside, and I want to be as comfy as possible. So, let’s stipulate for the nitpickers; I don’t think of my cell as being home in the same sense I use it to describe the home I grew up in or the home I hope to one day make with my wife.
My cell is where I sleep, take some meals, toilet, read, write, relax, draw. It’s where I get away from neighbors. Their noise easily infiltrates, but I have earplugs and head phones to limit their intrusion. The cell is 6’ wide, 9’ long, and about 7’ high. Three walls are ¼” steel, the front wall is just bars. Attached to the back wall is a sink and a toilet. A low, metal shelf is welded to one of the long walls, and my mattress lays on top of it. There is a foot locker (on which now rests my typewriter), a child-size metal desk, and a fluorescent light on the ceiling that I almost never use (though I am using it now because I need to see the tiny LCD screen on the 1980s-era typewriter).
Here’s a quick, categorical inventory of all my worldly possessions. Clothes, blanket, letters, stationery, my writing, books, typewriter, beard trimmer, toiletries, provisions like canned food and ramen and instant coffee, art supplies, a container of over-the-counter medical supplies (alcohol prep, Band-Aid, Tylenol, tweezers, sterile sewing needle, floss), Walkman and cassette tapes, pictures of loved ones and their canine companions. All of this fits in four duffels — well, it doesn’t fit in there, but that’s all I’m allowed to travel with from prison to prison. So, when transfer time comes, I downsize and leave food to friends. Some of my property, as it’s called, has traveled with me for 16 years (pictures), much of it is over 10 years old (Walkman, blanket, army jacket), and some recently acquired (Tommy boxers from Lily).
Within the prisons, how many times have I had to pack up and schlep my belongings from one cell to another over these 16 years of incarceration? I’ve never done a tally. Going back to county jail, let me see: there was the administrative segregation cell where I stayed for a couple of months…Prison E…Prison A…Prison F…Prison C…27 or 28 cells in total. All roughly the same dimension-wise. Prison E has concrete trapezoidal cells. Some cells in Prison A have sliding metal doors, and a window: très posh. For a time in Prison F, I lived in a cell that was over a hundred years old; it was less than 5’ across, but the vaulted ceiling was close to 9’, like a Mediterranean dwelling. The paint jobs change, though it’s always either robin’s egg blue, mint chocolate chip green (both of which I’m not crazy about, feeling that they belong on mental institutions or Caribbean houses), white, or tan. Currently, mine is a warm tan, and I like that the best.
Like any real estate, what matters is location, location, location. I’ve been in some cells that have wonderful views of verdant hills over long, gray walls. Good neighbors, bad neighbors, broken plumbing, and everything in between. The cell I now inhabit has no view, just tan bricks.
I have done a lot of living in these cells over the years. Hours spent talking to good neighbors. Cooked elaborate meals that I’d assemble and prep on top of a plastic bag laid on my bed. I’ve broken countless nights, under the spell of different potions. Got sober, quit smoking. Did 30 days locked in my cell as punishment for not being able to pee in a cup when I was told to. At least once a year, I’m in here for a facility lockdown, 7 or 8 days of vacation. I got my first tattoo in my cell on 22 Company 36 Cell, Prison A, 2002. Spent hours staring at the ceiling, thinking dark thoughts. Developed a yoga practice in 2007. Sweated it out, achy like all get out through several bouts of flu (I take the vaccine when it’s offered). Completed a bachelor’s degree through the mail from my cell in Prison A. Wrote “Concrete Carnival,” my prison memoir that will be published in September. It was in a cell where I received a letter from a stranger who would one day become my loving wife, Lily.
I clean weekly, disinfecting the floor and bars and walls, using a purloined toilet brush on the bowl. Much of the look of my cell, the personal accouterments, have been carried with me from cell to cell. They are my home more than the cell is. The makeshift mobile of origami forms and a dream catcher. On a designated and prescribed rectangle of wall I tape pictures and cutouts: furry yellow puppies; beach scenes of sparkling azure; my brother and his kids; Lily and me; a Mark Rothko, Dali, and Modigliani; trees my brother photographed, that I use during mediation; sunsets from the world over; a birthday cake with my name on it, along with those of my brother, cousin, aunt, and sister-in-law — a most touching gesture, sent to me by my uncle. My clothes hang on shoestrings tied together, which stretch from the bars to the back of my cell half-hitched around a mini shelf. Books on the shelf. Food under the bed in a large plastic bin. Dirty laundry also under my bed, a small, clip-on fan that makes the heat a little less unbearable.
It’s my desk lamp that really sets the atmosphere, as absurd as that sounds. When it is dark, and my lamp is angled down from the shelf, I can imagine my cell as a cabin on a sailboat. I curl up and read, taking breaks to rest my eyes, running them over the lovely pictures on my wall. This is my fortress of solitude.
It’s not uncommon to hear fellow prisoners lament waking up and seeing the bars. But truth be told, I don’t notice them that much after all these years. And maybe that is why the cells on TV disturb me: they are shot through the bars. I don’t live there, and they haven’t come to feel familiar. Perhaps an enterprising producer will take a GoPro 3D rig, leave it inside a cell that’s decorated and lived in, and lit with a desk lamp. A viewer could visit the cell every day for a month and see what they see. They would likely learn that on a long enough timeline, even austere environments can take on the familiar feeling of home. Life, I’ve come to realize, is a matter of perspective. One man’s cage is another’s fortress of solitude. Still, I hope to one day leave my fortress a stronger man and sail on a small boat with my wife.