Dispatches | January 16, 2015

litOnLockdown (2)Today’s Literature on Lockdown essay is by Rahsaan Thomas

My initial experience in a level 4 maximum-security prison was horrifying. I was a first time felon who just arrived at Calipatria State Prison, a world I knew about only by reputation. It is known for high rates of assaults on staff, including when several gang members ran up in the program office aiming high and stabbed up a captain, sergeant, and some other ranking COs. They assigned me to a cell occupied by another inmate. Insider were some bunk beds and him. AS the blue cell door firmly slammed close, it felt like would never open again. I was trapped in there with a man I had never seen before. Meeting him was the scariest experience of my life.

It wasn’t that he had an intimidating presence. He was only about 5-foot-4 inches tall, and 160 pounds. Although he was from a notorious gang, he was over fifty-years-old and retired. Plus we were alone and I had a good size advantage. On that note, I was lucky–most of the time the size advantage belongs to the prisoner who has been down for years working out religiously.

It wasn’t that he was a convicted murderer. I am convicted of second degree murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter and can handle violent people. I also understood them. Usually, don’t start none and be a man, and there won’t be none. I had that covered.

It wasn’t that I was 3200 miles from Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, my place of birth and sphere of influence. In California, anyone who carries himself like a man will be okay.

It was when he told me that he had been incarcerated for over thirty years on a fifteen-to-life sentence. That scared me to death. His words hit me with the realization that I may never ever go home again.

The judge handed me over a sentence of 55 years to life, but it didn’t feel for real. My mind dealt with it by telling itself, we will get out on appeal–that everything would be okay. However, my cellie was living proof that they don’t ever have to let you go. Forever-ever was a reality that I became sober to.

Imagine being trapped in the middle of a war zone indefinitely. Racial tension fills the air. Inmates are only housed with those of the same race. Those of multiple races have to pick a side. When a person of one race gets into a physical combat with another, it causes an instant chain reaction–a riot happens between those racial groups. Shanks come out. Correctional Officers fire live ammunition from a min-14 rifle, as well as tear gas, wooden blocks and beanbags at those , supposedly armed, with warning. In the mist of chaos and fast moving hands, they aim to stop the violence and protect unarmed victims. However, often hit are those defending themselves. I’d rather take my odds against a shank than a gun, but that choice isn’t up to me.

Everyone is punished for the conduct, even if they were in their cells when the violence happened. The prison is locked down. All visits are cancelled. The family member or girlfriend you need to see to keep you sane and human is told “No visiting today.” Their time, money and efforts on making the trip to some small town near nowhere are wasted.

During the lockdown, no packages, or canteen are allowed for up to 90 days.

Once you run out of food, you will be dependent on the state to feed you. They don’t always do a good job. The food is often cold on lockdowns because Correction Officers have to do the serving and it takes them a long time to deliver each tray to each individual cell. Dinner is served at 5:30 pm. The next meal isn’t until 6:00 am … eleven and a half hours later. A growling stomach hampers positive thoughts.

The state doesn’t provide deodorant, lotion, or decent toothpaste. (Sometimes they have tooth powder.) Running out of those items means your cellie has to smell your breath and underarm odor in addition to smelling each other take a crap. This makes living with another human being in the small bathroom space rough on the nose and mind.

Other important mental needs aren’t met. They have a counselor, but they don’t do any counseling. The traumatic experiences you’ve been through aren’t addressed, as groups often aren’t available due to lockdowns, lack of funding, and being to far from a major city for volunteers to regularly make it. More traumatic experiences happen and go untreated. Instead of rehabilitation, you are more likely to become worse.

You are cut off from calling your family. Lockdowns mean no phone calls. Even when there is no lockdown, phone usage is restricted to once a month for new inmates until they are assigned a job. Lifers are the last on the waiting list to get hired, so it may take years. Meanwhile, you get one chance at a fifteen minute call that your family has to accept the collect charges for per month.

You try to maintain a certain level of dignity, but it’s hard with all the searches. Everywhere you go, you have to clear a metal detector and be frisked. Often there are cell searches where they degradingly strip-search you.

You become uselsss to your family. You are helpless to provide for the children you love with all your heart. You become useless to help your mother as she ages and needs you. Inside of being the breadwinner, you have become the burden.

My life in prison is a physical, mental, and emotional torture that may never end and that scares the hell out of me.

Rahsaan Thomas is the sports editor for San Quentin News. He is also the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He was freatued on the Missouri Review’s “Literature on Lockdown” series for his essay “I Write from a Cell.” The 44-year-old native New Yorker is a member of San Quentin’s Journalism Guild, and the William James Arts in Corrections creative writing class under teacher Zoe Mullery. His story “One Bad Apple” was published in the class anthology Brothers in Pen: Storiees From The Annual Public Reading at San Quentin in 2014.