8344-Lesson 1 

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Prison! My 8,344th Day

It’s still dark in the housing unit when my eyes open. I press the button on my Timex Ironman watch and see that I’ve overslept. It’s 1:34 in the morning on Monday, June 14, 2010, my 8,344th Day in prison.

I prefer to wake in time to begin my work as soon as the two guards pass by for the 1:00 a.m. census count. I’m 30 minutes late. But I’m well-rested, and I sit up.

My neck hurts. This prison bunk bed consists of a thin mattress over two steel slabs that four steel posts support. I sleep on the top rack. At 46, it’s no surprise that I have some skeletal quirks like neck and shoulder aches—I’ve been sleeping on steel racks like this for 8,344 nights. I pull my earplugs out while twisting my torso and bending my neck from side to side to loosen up. 

David, my cellmate, breathes deeply on the rack beneath me, and I hear much louder snoring from the 125 other men who share this dorm-style housing unit. One advantage of beginning my day at this early hour is the illusion of privacy it creates.

I have two institution-issue knit blankets, but they’re lightweight and offer little warmth. I sleep in gray sweats, a gray thermal shirt, socks, and a wool beanie that I pull over my eyes to block the light from exit signs and floor lights that burn non-stop. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to sleep in total darkness.

After folding my two white blankets, I place them at the head of the rack and drop my pillow on top. Then I slide my legs over the edge and climb down. The plastic chair beside the bed each afternoon, before I sleep, breaks my drop to the bare concrete floor. I slide into foam shower shoes and place the chair in front of my metal locker.

The locker holds all the personal belongings that I’m allowed to possess. It stands about five feet tall and, with yellowish enamel paint, it resembles every other prison locker I’ve used. I keep it organized, intending to maximize the space. The top left compartment holds toiletries, and the area below contains food items from my weekly commissary purchase. Bags of dried beans and rice stacked ten packages high line the back wall. In front of those packages are 10 to 15 vacuum-sealed packs of tuna, and a bag of sliced wheat bread sits beside the tuna. The compartment below holds plastic bottles of hot sauce, seasonings, fiber, almonds, coffee, and vitamins that I frequently forget to take. I keep my sweats, running gear, khaki pants, and underwear in the area to the right. And the long compartment at the bottom holds my stacks of paper, books, and sneakers.

While sitting in front of my locker with both doors open, I grab my plastic cup and brace it between my knees as I pull a plastic jar of Taster’s Choice instant coffee from the second compartment on the left, unscrew the red lid, and drop a two-spoon dosage of adrenaline into my cup.

After quietly replacing the jar in the locker, I grab my writing gear: a black vinyl notebook, white typing paper, an assortment of mail that I’ve received (but not yet answered), a dictionary, and my Day-Timer planner. I take another cup that holds my toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, and several blue Bic ballpoint pens. 

With the writing gear under my arm, the cup of coffee, and the cup of hygiene supplies gripped in my hand, I stand and grasp the knit mesh bag that holds my laundry. I leave my cubicle and walk quietly toward the laundry room.

I drop my load of clothes into the washer, turn on the cycle, then walk out toward the quiet room where I spend hours writing every day.

The guard on the graveyard shift nods at me, but we don’t speak. I pass him every morning at roughly the same time. He sits at his station, a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and a shadow of whiskers darkening his face. From what I can see, he’s flipping through a tabloid.

I enter the quiet room, close the wooden door behind me, and then set my books on the round Formica-topped table. Except for the sound of forced air blowing through the HVAC system in the ceiling, the room is silent. With a stated occupancy limit of 14, it’s about the size of a small bedroom in a moderate house.

I sit in a plastic chair (one of the two assigned to the cubicle that I leave here) at the table; each leg has a yellow tennis ball positioned on the bottom, so it slides quietly over the concrete floor. One of the white, concrete-block walls has two large, narrow windows that overlook the central compound of Taft Camp.

Each window is about eight feet tall by four feet wide, beginning at knee level and extending to the ceiling. Although it’s dark outside, I can see the glow of institutional lights in the distance. This early morning hour is my favorite time of the day, and I cherish every minute of solitude.

My ritual is the same every morning: I open my day-timer planner to record the hour and minute my eyes opened, then I spread out my papers. On the inside of my black notebook, I keep a picture of Carole, my wife. I look forward to the time when we can live together. We married in a prison visiting room, back in 2003. 

The guard picks up mail at 3:00 a.m., so I use the early morning to write something that I’ll mail or resume work on my current project. Soon, I will write Carole a brief letter. But first, I stand, grab my two plastic cups and walk to the community bathroom to brush my teeth.

Each side of the bathroom has five sinks. A stainless-steel surface serves as a mirror in front of the sinks. I use the sink toward the back of the room because it has the mirror with the fewest scratches, providing the best reflection. Still, the reflection looks about as good as I would expect to see if I were to look into a skillet. By now, I’m used to these kinds of prison mirrors.

Before leaving the bathroom, I fill my coffee cup with hot water from the spigot.

Commentary and Questions:

This opening section describes how I would start a typical day. Notice that it’s methodical, with a clear plan on what I want to accomplish.

1.     Describe the adjustment strategy that you’re using.

2.     In what ways does your routine prepare you for success?

3.     How would journaling influence your adjustment in prison?

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