The bus ride from the reception center was six hours long. I had been at the Lorain Correctional Institution for 30 days. It’s one of two corrections receptions in Ohio. Each inprisons more than 2,000 men who will be put through a series of evaluation tests to determine where you will serve out your time. Corrections is big business in OH. Over the course of a year, each reception center processes thousands and thousands of new prisoners.
We had finally left the interstate and were now traveling down a rural state road. Fields of corn rolled past, and the landscape started to look the same, flicking past like pages in a picture book. At first we passed houses on either side of the road, but now they were far and few between.
The bus hitched and began to slow. Some of the old school convicts stirred from their slumber, and someone said we were close. Close, I thought. Man, this is really happening.
The vehicle rolled up to a feeder road and onto prison grounds. I saw double sets of chainlink fencing with razor wire–rows and rows of razor wire–glinting beneath the sun. Behind the fencing were large brick buildings with white barred windows. They gave the facade a sinister look and reminded me of teeth. I saw people in identical clothing walking about.
“Hey,” said the guy sitting beside me. He hadn’t said a word the whole trip, but had come alive all of a sudden. Both of us were shackled at the ankles and handcuffed and wore the same bright orange zip up one piece emblazoned on the back with the words ‘DRC INMATE.’ “This your first time?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He grunted to himself. “I’m David, but everyone calls me Spider. What’re you locked up for?”
“I shot a cop.”
Spider’s eyes widened, then squinted. They looked me up and down as he took the time to determine my truthfulness. Whatever skepticism had washed over him dried up just as quickly, and his demeanor brightened.
“No shit,” he said.
The bus slowed with a loud pshhht! of the air brakes. I watched as we pulled up to the giant electric gate. Whatever conversations that were found were suddenly lost as everyone moved for a window. I squinted between the metal mesh and bars to see what was happening.
The gate slid slowly open and the bus trundled forward before it creaked to a stop again. The gate slid shut behind us. The driver killed the motor and silence filled the compartment. I heard and felt beneath the floor board the banging of the underside storage compartments being opened, inspected, and then slammed shut again. A big guard roamed about around the bus with a long metal pole in his hand. It had a flat round mirror at the end, and he thrust it beneath the undercarriage as he walked. Someone opened the hood and inspected the engine compartment before slamming it shut.
I heard the radios crackling as the guards communicated and the bus came alive again. Another giant gate in front of us slid open now, and the bus lurched forward and onto the compound. The bus drove up to a back door of a row of buildings that reminded me of what the back of a strip mall might look like.
A guard stepped onto the bus and said: “Listen up, girls. When you hear your name called, step forward. Get off of the bus and follow the stairs up to the door. There is no talking; if I hear you talking, I’ll put your ass in the hole.”
He then began calling names from a list, and the bus started to empty. My name was one of the last ones called, and I was thankful. I didn’t want to be the first person off the bus. I suppose it was my last attempt and desire to not have to recognize that this was really happening. I was apprehensive of what I’d see and experience, and my stomach was in knots.
When I stepped through the door of the building I found myself in a hallway. There were several guards, and they escorted all 30 of us down the hallway to the receiving department and into a large holding room with concrete benches.
One by one we were strip searched and given new clothing, state issued prison uniforms which guys call “blues,” because the pants are blue and the shirt is blue. My uniform had my name and number on the pants and shirt as did everyone else’s. Everyone was issued one laundry bag, two additional sets of state blues, three washcloths, two small white towels, three pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear (“tighty-whitey’s” as guy’s call them), three white T-shirts, a dark blue toboggan, and a cloth belt with a side clasp. All of the clothing was and is made by inmates throughout Ohio at other institutions. I was then given a small booklet outlining all the rules you’re expected to follow.
“When I call your name, come over here to get your picture taken,” said a different guard now. He seemed nicer than the first one. He was motioning toward a corner of the receiving department where stood a camera on a tri-pod. There an inmate was taking the pictures. He had tattoos up and down his arms, and he didn’t seem the least bit worried or concerned about anything. It was a stark contrast to how I felt.
“Hey, man,” said the convict behind the camera. “What’s your name?”
“Christopher,” I said.
“Great to meet ya, Christopher. I’m J.D. and I’m gonna your picture for your ID card. I’ll take three photos. Two looking that way”–his hand motioned left, then motioned right–“and then one looking at the camera.”
“Okay,” I said. The guy seemed pretty cool, and for the first time in a month I started to relax a little. I wondered if everyone else here was like him.
After I had my ID made, I clipped it onto my uniform. One by one we were escorted to another door, this one leading onto the yard. The guard opened the door, and I stepped back into the sunshine.
“Your housing unit is over that way,” he said, and pointed. “Follow the walkway all the way around, and it’s the building on the left.” He then closed the door and left me standing there. I suddenly felt vulnerable and alone.
I followed the walkway across the yard, and I had the absurd thought, Follow the yellow brick road, kid. Just follow the yellow brick road. I had my laundry bag slung over my shoulder. There were guys everywhere, some standing or walking about, and others sitting on bleachers or playing basketball in front of the cell blocks. Everyone seemed to be watching me as I passed. Where, I wondered, were all the other guys that I rode in with? I looked about the yard but saw none of them. It was just me.
I came upon the front door of the cell block, a solid steel door with a slit window and a giant metal handle. What am I supposed to do now? I wondered. Do I just wait here? Do I knock? I peered through the window. I saw steel tables with seats that were bolted to the floor, metal benches bolted to the walls, a guard’s booth with two guards, and 50 to 60 convicts milling about. Some played cards at the tables, other were in groups standing around. Someone in the crowd noticed me at the door and told one of the guards who then let me in.
The cell block had two tiers, essentially an upstairs and a downstairs. A metal railing ran the length of the second tier, and all the cells had steel doors with vertical slit windows. Cell doors had numbers identifying the cell (I was headed for 265). You could only enter a cell by having the guard electronically unlock the door. I couldn’t help but notice how loud it was in the cell block.
I arrived at 265, and the guard downstairs punched buttons on a control panel to open the cell door. There was a loud angry buzz, followed by a heavy lock turning over, and I stepped into my new home. The first thing I noticed was how hot the cell was. The air hung thick, and it felt like a sauna. There’s no air conditioning in the cells. It’s something you eventually get used to.
My new accommodations measured 8’x6′, basically the size of a standard bathroom. There was a steel bunk bed and a stainless steel toilet and sink combo. I had the bottom bunk, which I later learned was a fortuitous event as no one ever gets a bottom bunk coming straight off the bus.
My cell mate was an old school convict that was pulling his 12th year in a 15-life sentence for murder. A big, burly bald headed white guy who was relieved I wasn’t black. I’d learn in short order that he was a racist of the highest order and was affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood. He was also a bit unhinged upstairs, as he clung to damn near every conspiracy theory that he ever heard. Within my first 24 hours as his cell mate he had tried recruiting me toward his stilted, racist worldview. He also introduced me to his distorted religious beliefs, that the Bible says that white people are the children of God. I hadn’t even unpacked what little possessions I owned and he was already cramming this crap down my throat. Little did I know that within the coming weeks my first fight would be with one of his friends over the issue of race.
Later that evening I made my way onto the yard for the first time. I went down to recreation (or “rec” as guys call it) to check out the facilities and the weight room. There was a simple asphalt paved quarter mile track, and around the track were pull up bars, dip bars and push up bars, all permanent and cemented into the ground.
The track was full of cons working out doing push ups or others exercises. Some guys walked and talked, others hung in groups smoking cigarettes or weed. I was surprised at how much drugs there was and how unconcerned guys were about blazing up right there on the yard. There were no guards in sight, save for the occasional passing of the armed perimeter truck. On the yard you were on your own.
That night I lay in my bunk wide awake. You could hear the conversations other guys were having as they either talked through their windows or through the air vents. Eventually the din and the noise of the day slowly faded as guys one by one clocked out.
At some point I found sleep, but it was fitful and filled with nightmares. What did I dream about? Oh, I don’t know. Dreams are fleeting, you know? I’m sure they centered around scenarios of me screaming and running for family, as this was a dream I had for many years. Sometimes I’d wake, heart pounding with a scream in my throat. If I really did scream in my sleep, my cell mates never told me. Sometimes I’d jerk awake late at night, having failed to save a family member or outrun some tragedy, and I’d cry myself to sleep.
For most guys, the first day is more than just a ‘first day.’ It is the beginning of a long journey of discovery, trials, and tribulations. Some men never complete this journey and are consumed by time. Others survive but are for the worse. As for me? The first day marked the beginning of the end of an old life. And like the caterpillar, I have left that life behind me and now fly toward a future that I didn’t believe existed all those years ago.
Time has a way of putting things in perspective.
For better or for worse.
*If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with your friends. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for you! Also, if you know of other blogs written by inmates, please let me know because I enjoy reading what other guys write. Frankly, it helps keep me sane.