“He wondered why people thought they had to die in order to go to hell” – James Lee Burke “Feast Day of Fools”
“Don’t pick a fight without reason when no one has done you harm” – Proverbs 3:30 NLT
The air crackled with tension as my foot hit the bottom stair.
I observed tight unsmiling looks on the faces I could see and noticed several people avert their gazes as I glanced in their direction. The person who had come to get me was waiting near the bottom of the stairs and I looked at him and asked, “Where is he?”
“Over by the wall,” he responded, using his head as a pointer to indicate the direction in which I should go.
As I turned and started walking in the direction indicated, I could see the person I was looking for sitting in a chair by the wall about twenty feet away. As I moved toward him, I could see that he was a rather rotund middle aged white male. He had somewhat long thinning salt and pepper hair, a very thick and well-established beard and moustache, which was also salt and pepper, but both the hair on his head and face leaned more toward salt than pepper. He also wore wire-rimmed glasses.
In the midst of all that had transpired before my presence was requested, someone had at least had the decency to get the poor man one of the plastic chairs that come with the cells we are issued and he was frozen in that chair up against the wall between two cells.
He leaned forward slightly, his ankles crossed and tucked beneath him and his hands clasped in front of him, his elbows resting on the arms of the chair. His gaze was straight ahead and down, as if he had seen all he wanted to see. Even from the side, I could see a look on his face and in his eyes that sent my thoughts and emotions hurtling back to April 6th of 2010.
As clearly as if it had happened the day before, I remembered the full range of my emotions as I made my way up the walk toward my “new home” here in Oakdale.
At that moment, looking at the frightened man before me, all that I had felt on that day long ago flooded over me as if it had happened just ten minutes earlier. Yet somehow, at the same time, it also seemed as if it had happened so long ago as to have not happened at all.
But it did happen, of course, and I knew this. The part of me that remembered it with such crystal clarity allowed me to feel the anticipation as I approached the building that day all over again.
Flashing through my mind as well was the sense of foreboding that built as the faces lining the walk in front of the building loomed larger with each step I took. I could only hope that I didn’t look as frightened as I most definitely was.
I recalled the inquisitiveness of their eyes turning to a visceral loathing in some as their assessment of me, my crime and my worth as a human being transformed from simple curiosity to a virtual certainty, if only in their minds.
My perception of the conclusions that were being arrived at was confirmed as I passed by the one I have referred to before who stood like a sentinel near the doorway with his large, tattooed arms crossed over his equally large chest.
He sniffed the air and spoke three words as I passed: “Smells like one.” Those three words contained all I needed to know about what awaited me inside, a taste of what hell must be like. “Smells like one” … words that, when pulled from the place in my mind where unpleasantness is stored, still had the same chilling effect that they did when they first spilled from the mouth of the man whose self-appointed task it was to be among the first to let me know I was not welcome.
All of this coursed through my mind and body as I took the few final steps to the person who seemed frozen in fear in front of me.
I knew that, regardless of how unnerving my own experience had been, it would prove to be sedate compared to what this man was living through.
After introducing myself and assuring him that he was not alone and everything was going to be alright, he told me his name was Alan.
The look in his eyes showed a slight sense of relief as I’m sure mine did so many months before when Aaron tapped me on the shoulder and said pretty much the same thing.
I was anxious to hear what I had missed since I had chosen not to be part of the visual gauntlet newcomers had to walk through.
Much of the time this had proven to be wise since most of the new arrivals seemed to be entering without incident or unnecessary drama.
Not so with Alan, as I discovered later after we got him temporarily bunked with another older white male, also a new arrival, although quite vocally not a sex offender like me and, apparently, Alan. Things had gotten a little too heated and expressive this time though and a cooling down period was required. More permanent sleeping arrangements could be made later and he could tell me what had happened to create such a tense atmosphere.
“I’ll tell you . . . we don’t want you people. Don’t you understand that?”
That statement is from “Black Like Me” and the words were spoken by a white plant foreman in Mobile, Alabama in 1959 to a “black” John Howard Griffin. They could just as easily have come from the mouth of the man in the first cell Alan was assigned to that day.
Upon his arrival, Alan took the bedroll he had been given into the cell he had been told he was to live in. As he began to put his sheet and blanket on the top bunk, the other occupant of the cell entered.
As bad luck would have it, Alan had been placed in a cell with a man whose tattooed body proclaimed a love of God on the same pasty white flesh on which his hatred of others was evidenced by other artwork that proclaimed his white supremacy.
He is what is commonly referred to here as a “hater,” and less desirable as roommates than non-whites to him are those with sex related charges.
When he walked through the door, he instructed Alan to stop what he was doing for a minute. I can only guess at the emotional churning taking place within Alan as he took in the physical appearance of the man who was now challenging Alan to assure him that his charge was “straight.”
The man’s eyes were pale and displayed not one tiny measure of friendliness or welcome. His shaved head and goatee, combined with the ink on his skin that crept out of the collar and sleeves of his t-shirt, served to flash a warning that this was not a person full of warmth and benevolence.
To the question asked, about his charge being “straight,” Alan groped with the intended meaning and settled for responding, “I’m not a homosexual, if that’s what you mean.”
That reply would have been humorous were it not for the fact that simply not knowing what was implied by the question told the one asking it what he needed to know. He was actually looking for verification that Alan’s charge was a “good” charge – drugs or bank robbery or any other such glamorous event. Not knowing what “straight” meant could only mean that he was a “chomo,” a sex offender like me.
The man instructed Alan to stop what he was doing and just wait, at which time he walked out of the cell door. Alan was no doubt left wondering how the long stressful day was going to end.
Alan had begun the day almost eighteen hours earlier in Oklahoma City where he was awakened at 2 a.m. to be processed for travel.
Oklahoma City is the site of a large Bureau of Prisons facility; a large hub or distribution center. Federal inmates headed to all different parts of the country pass through OKC, usually staying there only a week or two. Some may stay a little longer but usually not much.
Alan had spent about a week in OKC, arriving there from a CCA facility in Mason, Tennessee. He had spent about three weeks there after being sent there from court following his sentencing. That day’s wake-up call would send him to Oakdale FC!, where he had been “designated” by the BOP to serve at least the beginning of the time given him by the federal judge back in Pulaski County, Arkansas.
After being awakened, he and the forty others chosen for the trip were moved to a holding area where they were processed out and prepared to board a bus for the journey to Oakdale.
With wrists in handcuffs, ankles in leg chains and both of these secured to another chain that circled each prisoner’s waist, they were finally loaded onto a prison bus at around 4:30 a.m., each man carrying a bagged meal for the trip which consisted of four slices of bread, two slices of meat, two slices of cheese, a small bag of chips and a drink. This would be their only sustenance until their arrival in Oakdale at around 3:30 p.m.
When they finally arrived, I imagine that Alan saw pretty much the same thing that I had as the prison came into view, although the glass in the bus windows had wire running through it and there were metal bars bolted to the outside. I, on the other hand, had the unobstructed view of the window of my brother’s car.
Still, the day he arrived was gloriously sunny and the razor wire along the top of the high chain link fences glittered in a way that was somehow appealing to the eye yet incredibly frightening at the same time.
All of the hours spent sitting on the hard plastic seats of the bus, still wearing all of those chains, probably made even that sight perversely welcome as the senses perked up with the knowledge that the tedious discomfort of the bus ride was almost at an end.
Once the bus was securely inside the enclosure built to receive it, the inmates were led off and into the facility where they were unchained and placed in the holding cell.
Undoubtedly the sensation of movement stayed with Alan and the others and they remained numb and dazed as they were all processed into their strange new community.
After four more hours of waiting, having been given another bagged meal similar to that given in OKe, having been given a bedroll and a bag of toiletries, Alan and the others were led off toward the housing units. Our unit was first, so Alan and a few others were dropped off here. It was late for new arrivals, the time being around 7: 30 p.m. or so.
Alan entered the place he was assigned to live tired, dazed and apprehensive. He had not had a stellar day to this point, to say the least, but it was going to have to get considerably worse before it would get better.
. . . . To be continued