Things That Go ‘Down’ in Prison

by Daniel A. Rosen |

I know it sounds like an off-kilter “Jeopardy” category, but it’s been my life for the past five-plus years. A lot of things seem to go ‘down’ in prison – lockdowns, shakedowns, even beatdowns – but never up. Handcuffs, violence, or the threat of violence are always lurking, either among inmates or between inmates and guards. Inevitably, when you get a little too comfortable and forget that, something happens to remind you where you are.

The other day, a friend of mine – a kid other inmates referred to as my “son” because I looked out for him – got to fighting and was locked up. He had words with some new guy over some minor slight, and the macho posturing evolved into him going into the guy’s cell and knocking him out. Not ten seconds later, the goon squad was running in here shouting at us to hit the floor, so they could cuff both the combatants and frogmarch them out of here.

The day after I arrived to prison, I saw a guy beat down badly on the rec yard; turns out this white kid had insulted an older black guy and then claimed membership as an Aryan Brother. I got as far away from the action as I could, while the real Brothers sent the kid to the infirmary. Gang beefs are the cause of most dust-ups around here, but drug and gambling debts also play their part. Often it’s some combination of those three things.

Another day when a fight was brewing on the yard, the guy about to get beat unthinkingly ran for the closest fence and started climbing, just to evade his pursuers. With three rings of fences, there was no chance he was getting very far. But the dummy got an escape charge anyway; a nickel tacked on to your sentence, as everyone knows.

I’ll admit to having one fight myself, when I caught someone stealing from me to feed his drug habit. To ignore it would have meant open season for anyone else similarly inclined. I gave the guy a chance to come clean, but when he lied, I did what I needed to. The crazy bastard hit me with a padlock during the dust-up, but he got the message and the rest of the cellblock did too. Nothing else went missing from my locker.

As for shakedowns, they used to happen quarterly before Covid – the schedule was almost as predictable as the change of seasons. The goon squad (all prisons have one, they go by various names) comes through the dorm or cellblock, strip-searches everyone, then tears through all your stuff. They almost never find drugs or weapons this way, but that isn’t really the point. They’ll dump out foot lockers and file folders, x-ray your mattress, confiscate some petty garbage no one really cares about just for show, and then everything’s back to normal. Rinse and repeat, see you next quarter.

You know they have to take something, so if you’re smart you learn to leave out some obvious and worthless items: empty jars or bottles, old newspapers, stuff like that. If the officer wants to be a jerk, he’ll unfold all your clothing and shake it out, go through every photo and piece of paper you have, take anything unusual or that isn’t in its original container. Maybe he’ll grab “extra” toilet paper or the cardboard under your flimsy mattress if he’s in a bad mood. But it’s rare to catch a charge this way; they don’t want to do all that paperwork. And yes, extra toilet paper is considered contraband.

Since Covid, we only get shakedowns when there’s a good reason. If someone OD’s or gets stabbed, or medical supplies go missing, bet on a visit from the goons. In fact, a kid OD’d in here last year – he got lucky and the Narcan worked. After he was rushed out of here on a gurney, we were locked down for two days and then the shakedown came, the fourth in eight weeks. As if they’d find anything on the fourth try. I guarantee you anyone who was holding had long since used or flushed their stash. The kid got sent to a substance abuse program at another facility.

Lockdowns are the worst of the ‘downs’ and we’ve had several this past year related to Covid. If you happen to have a cell to yourself it’s not so terrible, but if not – being confined 24/7 with a virtual stranger to a space the size of a parking spot has to qualify as cruel and unusual. Either way, lockdowns can last for a day or a week (or more), and you won’t know which until it’s over. That uncertainty takes a mental toll too.

The longest I’ve endured over these years was a 12-day total lockdown a few years back, and I did have a cellmate then. You’d better have some books to read and letters to write when those days come around. It’s funny how hard it can be to adapt when that cell door doesn’t open at the usual time and you’re told the bad news, and you’ve no idea when it’ll open again. The guys who’ve been down a long time just accept it and settle in for however long it takes. If you don’t call your family for a few days, they’ll understand what’s going on.

On the plus side, what goes ‘down’ in prison must eventually come up too. Lockdowns end, and you can shower and make that phone call home. Black eyes heal up and beefs subside because everyone has to live here together. And you can usually get back whatever you lost in a shakedown, for a price – it’s just stuff, after all.

What’s harder to get back is any sense of security or agency. Of course, if you can accept that you’re not in control of anything here besides your own behavior, you’ll be a lot happier. But making decisions for yourself, accepting responsibility for your actions, taking an active role in shaping your own life and future – these are skills you’ll need in the real world, and you won’t practice them much in prison. You’ll be pushed and pulled and told to stand for count five times a day, most every choice made for you. When things finally look up and your day comes around, and it’s your time to walk out the door, you can only hope you’re ready.

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