Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Place Called "Home"

I watch crime shows today through a different lens than I did in 2004. The mind games that the media portrays between the police and the accused are closer to being a reality than they are to fiction. I sat in the waiting room of the prison for about 20 minutes. A pleasant lady walked through and saw me sitting there and asked if I was going home today. I could only wish. I politely said no, that I was beginning my sentence today. She gave me a slight nod, one that you can't really read and walked out the door.

A few moments later, two men in uniform came into the waiting room from the back office area. I'm not a small man, but these two looked like they probably, or at least could have, played college football. There wasn't a smile or a hint of a smile between them. They asked me for my ID and I politely, yet nervously, removed my driver's license from my wallet and showed them my paper directing me to surrender myself today. After scanning my license, they asked in a not too friendly voice if I had any property with me. I picked up my nearly empty backpack and handed it to them. They put on their latex gloves and began to search the pack, carefully removing each item. Once they were convinced that I didn't have anything illegal ( I guess) they handed it back to me and told me to follow them.

We walked through the office area where women with pleasant faces were answering the phones. "Good morning, GEO Group Taft, does this call pertain to an inmate?" I must have heard those words fifteen times as I sat in the waiting room. As I walked past the women now, I could put a face with the voices. I was led to the rear door and directed to face the window and put my hand behind my back. For the first time in my life, I was about to feel the cold, hard metal of handcuffs on my wrists. I had been fortunate during my arrest and subsequent court hearings to have never had to be "cuffed" or wear the leg shackles that you see so many times on the TV screen and in the movies. I could hear the "click" of the cuffs as they locked into place behind me.

I was walked across a short, barren yard to another building that was called "R&D", or ""Receiving and Discharge". Once there, the cuffs were removed and I was told to stand next to the wall. The guard point to a spot to his left and then I was briefly blinded by the flash as the camera took the picture for my ID card. I was asked again if I had any personal property and I explained that I had been told on the phone that I could bring my Bible in with me, as well as wear a white T-shirt and shorts, sweatpants, white socks and white tennis shoes. One of the guards took my Bible and looked through it and handed it back to me. They checked out my clothes and nodded their approval. Then, they looked at my shoes.

I was wearing a pair of fairly new Nike basketball shoes. They had a little bit of blue around the heel, but they were predominantly white. One of the guards nodded to the other, a silent message perhaps, and then told me the shoes would have to shipped home. No explanation...just a directive. I quietly slipped the shoes off my feet and they handed me a pair of blue slippers to put on my feet. The rest of my belongings...a windbreaker, my khaki shorts, my wallet and the shoes where then haphazardly tossed into a box and Paula's name hastily written on the cover. They asked me to check the address to make sure it was correct and then sealed it with tape. A paper was shoved toward me to sign, acknowledging that the items had been sent home.

Phase one was over and I was led back to a holding cell and told to wait until I could be further processed. I was again about to experience a first...the sound of a heavy steel door clanging shut behind me and the click as the lock was turned. I sat quietly in the cell, alone with my thoughts. I seemed like I was hovering over this man I didn't really know, but thought maybe I recognized sitting in the cell. "Certainly, this can't really be happening to me" I thought.

Another 20 minute wait and I was directed to an office where a short, bald headed man sat. He told me his name and then pulled out several sheets of paper and started asking me questions. I don't remember all of the questions, but one still stays with me.

"Do you feel that you will be in any danger if you are placed in the 'yard'?"

"No", answered quickly, without really thinking about the question. Several more questions went by, and then it dawned on me..."should I be afraid of being in danger?" I started to interupt the counselor asking the questions but the look he gave me quickly told me the question could wait. After he was done, he asked me to sign the paper. Before I put the pen to the signature line, I asked him if I should be afraid. He responded merely with the statement that a psychologist would see me in a few moments and he would answer any questions that I had.

Back to the holding cell for another wait. The duration was shorter this time and I was returned to the same room only this time a funny looking little man with a scraggly beard sat at the desk. He introduced himself and said that he was a psychologist and that I would be seeing him at times during my stay at TCI. We talked about my crime and my sentence and he told me that it was dangerous for any kind of "sex crime" inmate to be on the yard. But he told me that I appeared to be "OK" and not under too much emotional duress. He also warned me not to tell anyone, and he repeated "anyone" why I was in prison. Because I was white, and "professional looking" with a good hair cut and no tattoos, he said most inmates would assume I was in for some kind of "white collar" crime like tax evasion.

He sent me out of his make-shift office and on to the nurses for a quick physical. The height and weight were take, a quick eye exam and then the blood pressure cuff was placed around my arm. The nurse put the stethoscope to my elbow and listened for the pressure. It was a little high she said...you think...but said it was not out of the normal range. Back to the officers that brought me in and I was pointed to a stack of thin mattresses laying on the floor.

"Pick one up", the officer said. Silently, I bend down and grabbed a thin, green, plastic mattress. With the mattress slung over my arm, the door was opened. The brightness of the sun blinded me momentarily as the blast of heat entered the room. The officer pointed out the "unit" that I had been assigned to and he gave me my ID card. "10935-085" was my new identification. It didn't take me long to plant those eight numbers in my memory bank. I was told to go to the laundry first to get my bedding and assigned clothing and then report to my living unit.

And then it happened. I stepped out into the "yard". It was lunch time and the compound was filled with men dressed in khaki pants, work boots and white t-shirts. I could hear unfamiliar voices calling out to me, "Hey, did you just surrender?" "Where you from, white boy?" I ignored the voices and walked toward the building I had been pointed to. No map. Poor signage. No escort. Just me, my Bible and an ugly green mattress that may have been 6" thick.

In a matter of moments, I found myself in front of a counter and a man in white t-shirt and khaki pants filling out a paper with my name on it. He took my ID and completed the form. Then the three sets of clothing and two blankets and sheets, along with a thin pillow and pillow case were passed through his window to me. Then the worn pair of black work boots and a laundry bag. The paper was slipped through the window for my signature and I picked up my laundry items and started for the door. The inmate who had just assigned them to me could see that I was struggling and kindly offered me a large garbage bag to carry them in. I took it with a word of thanks and stuff the items in the bag.

Once again, with the mattress over my arm, my Bible tucked up under my armpit and the garbage bag filled with my new belongings in hand, I headed for my new home. The sun felt hot...100 degrees hot as I made the short walk. The officer sat at his desk as I entered through one of the double doors. I handed him my ID and he looked on his chart of available beds.

"28 up" he said, and then yelled down the expanse of the large open room that was to be my living space for the next 36 months. Soon, an over-weight man in his late 30's came up the hallway and introduced himself and walked me back toward my "cube" He pointed to a locker and said that it would be mine. There were still some items in it and he said our other "cellie" would be back from lunch soon to clean it out. He was storing some of his extra stuff in it while it was vacant.

I looked around the small 10'x10 cube. Two standing lockers and a bunk-bed with another bed on the opposite wall. A small desk with a round swivel seat attached. Barely four feet of space separated the bunk beds from the single bed opposite it. The cube had six foot high cinder block walls while the room itself had 20' high ceilings. Eighty-four cubes and nearly 175 men called A1B their home. Over the next 36 months, so would I.

1 comment:

Deb said...

Now I wish this were a book already so I don't have to wait for more. I would be staying up way past my bedtime to finish.

You mentioned being blinded by light twice. This might be something to explore and expand.

When you said the inmate noticed you were struggling, I didn't know that from you. I want more of how you were feeling.

Also, when you do write the book, you can't leave out any part of your intake and you'll have to give us more of how you were feeling. You're going to have to go back into your body at those precise moments.

This is such amazing writing. Such an incredible story. Such a courageous and inspiring man.

I love you.