The First Cellmate

Your cellmate is the most important person you’ll interact with while you are incarcerated. You are forced to live with this individual 24-7, and you will spend many hours locked in the cell with each other. It’s important that you afford respect to your cellmate (or “celly” as we say around here), for you must close your eyes at night with this person only a few feet away from you. No matter how big and tough you may think you are, sleep is the great equalizer.

Your celly will learn your daily habits, he will have access to your personal belongings, and he may see your personal mail and photos. Your cellmate is the one person you should go out of your way to get along with, if nothing but for the fact that your celly has the ability to make your time difficult. The courtesy you show him, in your hygiene habits, use of the light at night, your music listening habits, your eating habits, your television habits, and a dozen other personal habits will determine how your cellmate responds to you.

Living in a cell involves living by a number of unwritten rules that revolve around living harmoniously together. For example, the sink is more than just a place where you wash your hands, face or brush your teeth. The sink is where you will sometimes prepare your food, wash your dishes, clean a wound from playing sports, wash your clothes and many other things you would never think of using a bathroom sink for in the home. So when guys brush their teeth rather than spit into the sink, they spit into the toilet. It’s courtesy and it’s expected of you. Whenever you use the sink, for anything, you are expected to clean it or at the very least wipe it dry. Another unwritten courtesy of life in a cell.

Your basic cell is little more than the size of a standard bathroom. A good way of looking at this, would be to imagine yourself living in your bathroom with a total stranger. You both will share a bunk bed made of steel and metal springs, and the toilet will never be more than 4 feet from your head. When you need to use the bathroom you will do so with this stranger near you. When you are sick, you will be expected to tend to yourself and be mindful of your celly. When you are having a bad day you are expected to keep it to yourself, and when you have an opinion about something like religion, politics or sports you are wise to seriously consider the outcome before you shoot off from the hip.
For most men, their first cellmate is the one they have when they get to their ‘parent institution’ (the prison where you will actually do your time), but technically speaking you first cellmate is the one you have when you are at one of the reception centers. Here you are evaluated and processed through the system to determine which institution you will go to and serve out your time. This process usually takes 3 months from beginning to transfer. In the mean time, you are engaged in a crash course with a stranger who most likely is in the same shoes as yourself, of learning how to live in your bathroom together 23 hours out of every day. The other hour is the amount of time you will be able to leave your cell for exercise and recreation.

At reception, my first cellmate was an old school convict guys called Dog (Why? He had a tattoo of his pit bull on his forearm), who was on his second trip back to This World. Like most cons, when they are faced with a New Fish (someone uninitiated in the ways of the Joint), they go out of their way to educate. This serves a few purposes. It helps to assure that the new guy doesn’t get on your nerves, cause unnecessary problems or otherwise disrupt your day to day routine. It also helps the new guy adjust to the ways of prison life.

So, Dog did just that. The first thing I remember Dog bringing to my attention that seemed odd was when I brushed my teeth the first morning after I arrived. I finished and spat into the sink and Dog damn near jumped off his bunk trying to stop me! He then explained that as a courtesy you spit in the toilet. When I asked him why this was such an importance he basically explained to me what I’ve already explained to you.

The next thing that seemed different were those times when you need to use the bathroom, but can’t leave the cell (like count times or overnight). When you have to go you have to go. So the general, respectful way to handle this is to turn away from your cellmate until he has finished. This seems like a no brainer right? Sure. But the next one is a common New Fish annoyance: not flushing after every drop. Prisons aren’t exactly known for their great air flow properties. Cells are poorly ventilated and there is nothing worse than having to smell your cellmate’s crap because he doesn’t know any better to flush as he goes. Like every New Jack (another word for the new guy), I learned this unwritten rule in my first couple of days of incarceration.

Then there are the more serious understandings, like you should never touch your cellmates personal possessions without permission. This is the quickest way to find yourself in a confrontation. I’ve witnessed ugly outcomes from violation of this rule. You shouldn’t ever let someone into the cell that you don’t know, even if they say they are a friend of your cellmate. Thieves abound, and a number of old school cons target the unsuspecting new guy, robbing you and your cellmate of your possessions. These were some of the things I learned from my cellmate in the first 24 hours of meeting him.

A few weeks in, I had purchased a small radio and headphones from commissary. I then spent my days listening to music while sitting in the cell. This, I quickly learned, can be an annoyance to a cellmate. First, the sound from headphones in the silent, confined space of a cell magnifies. Second, the fact that you are always around becomes a source of stress for cellys. So an unwritten rule of courtesy is to keep the volume on your headphones at a respectable level. Another is to leave the cell from time to time. By giving your cellmate time to himself, you are allowing him the opportunity to decompress from whatever may be on his mind.

My first cellmate was a learning experience. Overall, it wasn’t negative, though sometimes this isn’t the case for others. Dog was tolerant of the new guy, and eventually I found myself in the same shoes as Dog had. Over the years, whenever I’ve had to contend with a new cellmate, I’ve approached it with respect, consideration, and tolerance. For most guys, this works well, and giving respect to others takes you far in This World.

In the end, all of us here are simply serving our sentences and getting our lives in order. Most guys understand this on some level, and when it comes to new cellmates, tolerance usually reigns.

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