By Michael Satterfield (111556D)
What can be said of it?
Those days of confinement?
My mind floated
Often above the ceiling
Could I suggest quietly
That I was free in that cage?
Of course, there all of those…
Many physical restrictions.
The razor wire that coiled
Wrapping itself around the entirety
Of those structures
The structures always constructions
Of concrete, steel, and maybe iron,
How hard everything felt
How no physical thing could be soft…
The people ground together
Like unoiled gears
Shattering themselves as they halt
The machinery of the repetitive days.
What should I say about the smell of pepper spray?
The way it would linger
In oily pools on the floor
Accenting the blood splatter
Still fresh on the wall.
Violence was always welcome
To break up the monotony.
In that place I learned to laugh
About acts of savagery
and the humiliation of myself.
The mind preferred laughter to tears
And refused to accept
that any physical thing
should be taken too seriously.
An excess of severity and seriousness
Would only lead to rigidity
And simultaneously soften the spirit
There must be-
There has to be-
A method of explanation that may
Help to fully encompass the way-
The ravenous mouth
Of the criminal justice system
Swallows up lives
As it seeks to fully establish itself
Through a twisted form of economic
And social stratification
Which reproduces and perpetuates itself…
How as a whole we humans begin-
To program ourselves into believing
That crime and criminality
Is in in fact a choice
We imagine that the situations
That lead to such things
Can be avoided
That there always was a means of escape.
Standing naked in a room full of men
Being carefully examined for…
Fun or contraband or just as a reminder
That I was owned by the state
It was normal and is normal.
Yet, my mind was free.
It was as free as anything could be
In those days of insulation
Surrounded by a multitude
Of other humans contained
In that same expansive and expensive cage.
On a very ordinary day
I would stand with my hands on my head
My legs spread
While hands probed me
Gently, or roughly, and always invasively
They examined me by touch.
I would stand in a line
At least twice a day I would wait
For that treatment.
That was normal, that was comfortable, and safe.
What words can I use-
To express in completion
What it’s like to be
Institutionalized, dehumanized, and civilized?
Stare out the window. The roof is flat; it looks like asphalt. Take a deep breath. Watch the seagulls, a dozen of them, now less, now more. Sit in my chair anxiously watching them. Haven’t got a clue how the gulls came to be here so far from the ocean. Do you know why they stay? It’s the trash. There is bread thrown out every day. Loaves and loaves of the stuff are tossed out. Then there are the bags of garbage full of food. There’s always a bunch because few people can stomach the prison’s food. Plus, there’s always fruit tossed out since, a lot of the time, it has already started to rot. But the things no one can stomach, the gulls can thrive on. They’ll evolve a hundred years, a thousand years from now; if the prison survives so long, their descendants will be here. They will change, becoming ever more adapted to prison; they will no longer be of the sea. They will be prisongulls.
Outside the window, one of the gulls has a blue handball in its mouth. It lands and drops it on the roof, and the ball bounces. The seagull leaps up and snatches it. The others tackle it to the ground, the ball falls, it bounces again, and there is a fury to capture. Another gull seizes it and is tackled. The gulls are like children playing a sadistic game I used to play. Cannot recall the name, but how sweet it is to think of such creatures enjoying the same savage fun. It endears them to me. Perhaps they know in some way that such a brutal place is well suited for them. The frenzy plays out across the rooftop; swiftly, beautifully, they rise and fall upon each other nearly weightlessly. It looks almost gentle if not for the feathers being shed. There is no blood, though. My games always led to blood being spilled, mine or someone else’s. Still, it always seemed like fun. Except for when it was…
The doctor is looking at me closely. He is waiting for an answer. Close my eyes, briefly recalling what he wants to know. He wants to know why I think I deserve to be sent to the minimum-security section of this prison or to go to another facility’s minimum security unit. “I want to start preparing for the street. I get out in two years. I feel like I need less structure to be better equipped for life on the walls.” I wish I could fully understand what life is like beyond these walls. Look back out the window. He is typing on his computer. The gulls are still playing with the handball. This isn’t the real world, is it? It’s January. There’s snow on the ground. Sure, it’s patchy, but there shouldn’t be birds here. They’re supposed to migrate, aren’t they?
The doctor says, “You have a very extensive history of drug use. Your drug scores are very high. What do you plan to do about your drug abuse issues?”
“I don’t know. Once I get on the street, I figure NA and AA are always free. I’m sure they can be beneficial.” Say this but know that he means in here. They want me to be “treated” in here. He tells me as much.
“Look, I’ve been locked up since I was 16. I’m 26 now. I only used heroin for a year. I’ve been clean in here for over ten years. I’ve seen barely more than a quarter century of life… but I can’t stand this place. Everyone is so immature. A bunch of little kids…. I know I screwed up my life, any type of life I may have had, but… come on, man. Drugs weren’t my main problem. Having no concept of the future was my main problem. Do you know what it’s like to have that sort of life? The sort of life where everyone you know is on something, where you don’t have anything to lose? Where you’ll do anything to escape for one moment? I understand that what I did wasn’t right. I understand that I should have seen some way out. I couldn’t then, but now I think I have an idea of how to be an average person and maybe be productive within society.”
He types on his computer. I sigh and look out the window. Failed to represent me properly. He has already decided that I belong here. That additional freedom should be denied to me. Stuck, and we both know it. Stupid to think I was going to leave here. I’m lucky I only have two years left. They can’t deny me that. They can’t add more time. My eighty-five percent covers that. Only have two years left. On a fourteen with an eighty-five…which is only under twelve years in prison… The gulls are still playing. Why don’t they go to a warmer or softer place?
The doctor finishes typing his suggestions about what is best for me. I am only a few points of data on his screen, attached to a number. That is all I am. All I can be in this place is a set of numbers with other numbers attached to them. There are my state and SBI numbers, but I am them. My name… fuck my name… I have more names than I need. They’re like the numbers- just things attached that define me for the benefit of other people. The doctor does not look at me but through me. “Is there anything else you wish to tell me?” He’s a bony caricature of a man. Don’t know how he can be so thin when he has sucked freedom out of the lives of so many men, a few taps on a keyboard… it’s so easy for him to throw our hopes and dreams away.
A vague possibility of a future denied, perhaps just put on hold, I do not know. Everything is white, grey, or beige, and I am dressed in tans. My state gear of khaki vomit-colored clothing always depresses and never cheers me. Don’t even remember what it felt like to feel at home. But honestly it isn’t as though I’ve ever truly known that feeling. But this place, this massive, soul-crushing place I guess it feels like it must be home. But that can’t be right.
The hall curves and it bends, walk down it to the officer’s desk. A cop made into a secretary sets my I.D on the desk. “There’s no movement. Get in the tank.” He says, not even looking at me. All the horrible things I’ve seen him do and he doesn’t even acknowledge my existence beyond what is necessary. Briefly remember his left boot coming down, blood splattering on the wall across from my cell. How long ago was that? One would think that such intimacy would breed some amiability, but no. Even if I have borne witness to him crushing skulls beneath his boots. Or seen this cop clown and a bunch of other goons stripping a trans woman in her cell for their amusement, commanding her to… Being a witness to what the prison cops do doesn’t matter. One wrong word and the only protection is to spend the rest of your time living the worst life in administrative segregation and those demented cops do much worse to inmates who snitch than I have ever seen this cop do. Better to be invisible. Than to be beaten until my mind and my body breaks.
“All right.” Mumble, eyes averted. Do not want to look him in the eye, either. Open the grey steel mesh door. He locks me in. The room has rows and rows of grey benches, its white walls, ceiling, and floor surround men dressed nearly identically to me. The shade of their tans depends on when they were dyed or how old the clothes are. Stand by the window because there is no room on the benches. Do not count heads. At least forty of us are in a room twenty feet by ten feet.
Listen briefly to three people talking about how the 85% law is going to be put to an end. Someone is talking about how the governor’s daughter got locked up under the law. How it would change because of that. I’ve heard this for the last eight years. The governor’s daughter is already out on the street. We don’t even have the same governor anymore. Any violent crime requires that 85% of the sentence is served, with 3-5 years of parole tacked on after we leave. The 85% law in NJ is mandatory sentences for violent offenders like me, where you have to do 85 godforsaken percent of your sentence. So, 10 is eight and a half. My 14 is 12ish, and so on and on. The state of New Jersey believes that I cannot be rehabilitated and that I will always be a monster no matter what I do. The five years of parole is to help facilitate my return to this place or another prison. Recidivism is every prison cop’s retirement plan. I stop listening to them talking about what they don’t know about. They are too new to this place.
Put my back on the wall. Look out the window into the courtyard. I want to stand beside the door. I used to, but the women who work in the upstairs offices are too beautiful, too real, and they hurt my eyes. It hurts too much to stand there with my desire and futility. Rub my eyes. The noise of dozens of voices suffocates me. Despite myself, I recall the feel of a woman’s lips, soft giving way, gentle tongue pressure. Her body opening to me… the heat of…her breath a whisper spilling… every secret of her skin… and… the whole world fading to nothing as she…
I was a monster. I deserve this, don’t I? Do I? Fuck it. It’s only two years. I’m short. I only have a little time left. Walk to the cage door and ignore those annoyed by my obstruction of their view. Damn it. There is a woman in tight jeans. Her body is shapely, evoking images that ravish my brain. She is bouncing on the balls of her feet and leaning on the desk. Is this intentional? Can she feel the dozens of eyes upon her, sense the desire of so many inmates focused on her? She turns, looks me in the eyes, and slightly smiles. She is in her early forties. Brown hair held back by a scrunchie. She is beautiful in the way all women have become beautiful to me. A look is all it takes…she seduces me with it, at once adrift in my imagination. Fantasies slither across the dark edges of my mind.
She walks away as they clear us for movement. It’s 10:30… the first time they stop inmate movement for no real reason began forty-five minutes ago. Close my eyes and hate knowing the time, the schedules of this world fight against images of her. Think of the seagulls. There’s nothing worse than a hard cock in a room full of men. How far are we from the sea? Don’t think and go with the flow. The cop opens the gate. Pick up my I.D., and clip it to my chest.
Work isn’t great. It’s picking up trash. It’s cold as fuck out in the courtyard. But it’s one of the only ways to get cigarettes steadily. There’s money in tobacco. The only thing better than smoking is commissary items I couldn’t otherwise afford. The doors open for the mess. Everyone walks out wearing tans, except those who have it like that, who are dressed in t-shirts and sweatpants. I could make myself like that, a worker, a runner for the cops on the tier. Not beat for that shit, though. I can live and find room to breathe other ways. I have for long enough… a little longer doesn’t matter.
Put my coat on and walk past everyone on the tier. I must get out into the courtyard. Fuck dinner anyway. Spaghetti- no meatballs, watery noodles, nasty sauce. But I am low on bread. I look at one of the kitchen workers until he sees me. “Yo, I need a loaf of bread.” RX pretends like he didn’t hear me. Put a loaf on my door, or I’ll pop you when I return.” Say it like the threat is friendly banter. Even if people don’t fight sometimes, they must pretend they’re willing. There are enough people who remember me from when I didn’t give a fuck about hurting people, enough people to make others a little afraid. Still, have to be respectful enough that they don’t want to test me. It’s a delicate balance. Because the truth is I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again. Do any of us really? Maybe… I remember hurting so damn much from my life before this place, and feeling all the weight of the years that stretched ahead of me; I just wanted others to hurt the way I did.
“I got you,” RX says, smiling as though pleased we’re friends, but we’re not; we’re just two people using each other when we can.
The cop opens the gate for me. No questions, he only says. “Have fun, trash-picker.” Smile like he’s said something clever. Walk past him down the steel stairs. I hate being on an exterior house. There are four houses named for the Cardinal directions. Two others are named for purposes they served years before; the titles mar them. Whereas my house South-2-C is pristine the same as it has been for dozens of years. Outside it is cold, the air a frigid texture that slips through my clothing and rubs its rough tongue across my skin, drawing out the moisture. Look round at the structure of the prison, the two rec cages, the central building where a cop should be but isn’t. It’s cold in that little building, and he has a warm office in the corner on the right side of West house.
My eyes hunt the courtyard, anyway, searching for those who might interfere. There’s no one to be seen. My eyes shift to the ground, still hunting, and at once they find cigarette butts. Stop and pick them up. Some are better than others but snatch them up indiscriminately. There’s a cigar in a puddle. Grab it greedily. Fuck my life. Fucking hate my life. The cigar is wet and slimy. Tuck it in my long johns, which are already stained from similar actions. Fuck my life. All right, I’m all right. I’ll be good. At least I beat these other motherfuckers to the tobacco between South house and the doors to the building. Still need to move quickly. Have to beat them to the rest. The gate to the central part of the building opens, and I walk through it, taking off my knit cap. Squeeze it in my hand. Ignore the comments of cops and their eyes that weigh me like scales. Ignore them. Go through the metal detector and walk down the right side of the hall. Go right to the central bubble, where the people in charge of movement are. Go down the hall, towards the canteen cage, past the storeroom, to the sally-port.
How did my life get so fucked? Because I am a devil, a demon, a monster, a piece of shit. This isn’t hell, however. This is only purgatory. I am on a short trip, 12ish years is not a life sentence. Never did I imagine prison would be like this. But I knew even when I was a kid, this was where I would wind up, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality of it.
Walk into the sally-port, and the carts are all lined up. My boss is in the bubble smoking a cigarette. Like to see the cops locked in cages. Smile and wave because I am a disingenuous fucking monster. Need a cart, no, not that one. Yeah, that one with the silver handle- it’s a smooth ride. Grab it. Go. Move. Walk swiftly back the way I came. Show the cops the bottom of my cart. They give it a cursory examination. If I had a banger to stab or a cutter to slice somebody with on the bottom, they’d have missed it. The cop in that cage sneers at me as she closes one gate and opens another. Getting paid eighty thousand a year to push buttons is hard labor. Now, she wants to watch me. Of course, there’s a nice cigarette butt right under her window. Can’t touch it, so move on. Walk toward East house. They’re always the fastest to finish mess and put out their trash. Find three butts on the side of the central room where the courtyard cop is supposed to be. He isn’t there. Of course, he isn’t. Grab the butts and push my cart to East house. There’s no one in the courtyard. It’s quiet, and it’s peaceful. Pick up scraps of trash. Find a Marlboro menthol light, enough on it for a rollie. Find a Parliament, squeeze the recessed filter, then shove it in my pocket. Someone brings out a trash bag, and they toss it on my cart. Start tearing out the filters of the cigarettes so there would only be the parts loaded with tobacco in my pockets. Pop a hole in the trash bag and shove the filters into the bag. Fuck it. This is my life. The seagulls circle overhead. A few begin to land. Bags of trash, juice crates, and bread racks are slid toward me. Grab unopened loaves of bread and their ends and toss them into the grass—the seagulls swarm. Watch them with a smile as they fight for the bread. Every one of them clearly isn’t anywhere near starving. They behave as though they haven’t eaten in days, however. Yeah, darlings, eat up. You all don’t want to see me go home, do you? Of course, they don’t. It’s cool. This is my life; I may as well resign myself to the fact that I can’t escape it. I’m scum. I’m a scavenger like them. Load the cart—juice crates to the back, bread crates in front of them, and trash bags on top.
Walk toward the next house. The birds follow me. Surprised I am alone out here… find an emptied-out butt. I toss it away. Already hit my own house so… Fuck it. Trey comes out. Idiot rides his cart like a scooter toward me. Watch. Watch him slow down, he’s looking near the cop’s room at the center of the courtyard. I laugh knowing he’ll not find a damn thing. Watch him as he comes over to South house.
“Yo, big bruh.” He’s such an idiot.
“What’s good? What’s really good?”
“You want me on the juice and bread?”
“No.” I don’t know why he asks. The fucking idiot knows what I want him to do. Toss the bags I already collected onto his cart. Turn around and spot some in one of the bags. They are long, wet, and gnarly, but fuck it. Snatch the butts right out. Toss them on his cart. Load mine up with the crates. They’re heavier but stack and load easier.
“I peeped that,” Trey says, tying bags together so they won’t fall off.
“So?” Grab the handle of my cart. Walk toward West house.
“So, break me off my dude.” Trey says.
He’s an idiot, and I don’t want to give him shit. But it’s easier than listening to him cry. “Hold up.” Stop. Give him one of the three butts I got out of the bag.
“Good look, big bruh.” He tells me.
It’s cool. Walk the rest of the way to West house. The gulls follow me. I tear open the bread bags from South house. Toss the birds every last scrap of bread. They go crazy for it. This shit’s all the same. Every day pick up trash and hunt for tobacco.
Trey watches me. Searches the area for butts. He knows he sucks at finding them, but there isn’t a one to be found. The west house workers haven’t even brought one trash bag out yet.
“The fuck?” Trey says. “We better not get stuck out here for the movement.”
Yeah. Walk over to the corner where the cop’s office is. There’s a trash can outside of it. I find five little cigarillo butts. I shove all but two into my long johns. Give Trey the other two as the West house workers emerge. They drop off some bags, some bread crates, and eight juice crates rather than just the four from lunch. Fucking assholes hold the juice hostage whenever they feel like it. One of the juice bags breaks. Walk it out into the grass, open it all the way up, and drop it on the ground. Step on it. Force all the vile orange liquid out. Pick it up and toss it back into the crate.
“Yo,” Trey says, smiling at a trash bag: on top is a long Kool butt. “There were mad of them in there so…” he shrugs.
I snatch it up. “Good look.” We hurry up and finish up the trash. We both want to get stuck waiting for the rec movement to end.
We go back to sally port. There are four other people, including Trey working tonight. Loading all the trash into the sally port takes only a moment. Everyone but me wants to hang around and play cards until it’s time to bring the carts in. I tell my boss I’m leaving- he doesn’t care. So, I go back the way I came.
I get back on to the tier. I look at the cops. “Yo, can I get my shower now?”
“Wait.” Nielson says, “I’ll bust you out with the workers.”
Say it with a wide smile. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Course it does. C.Os are geniuses.” Jackson tells me. “We get paid to sit around watching TV and tormenting scum fucks like you.”
Laugh like it’s funny. Laugh like it’s a joke. Walk back to my cell. Ignore everyone calling my name. Don’t have time for them. Nielson hits the switch that unlocks the door. Open it and lock me in. My bunkie is lying on his bunk in a sweatsuit. Look around my cage. Sigh heavily. “Reality is a bitch.”
“No, reality is a wonderful slut that will fuck you in every way imaginable and leave you wondering. Is this okay?” He says, sitting up. He sets his feet on the floor.
Laugh. Set the cigars on the desk and unload my pockets. Put all the wet shit in a pile, then set the dry shit closer to the edge of the desk. “You got some work to do over here. I’m going to twist us both up one for now, though.”
“Fuck, I love you, man.”
“So, it’s cool if I rape you later?” Strangely, the humor here frequently consists of what people believe to be the norm in prison. Rapes are so rare that in all my time in prison, there has only been one instance where I am confident someone was actually sexually assaulted. The prison has a population of a small town within it. I am sure most small towns have a higher percentage of rape than we do.
“Not in the mouth.” My bunkie tells me with a soft chuckle as he twists a six-inch length of toilet paper into a thin stick like form, into a wick. He leaves an end fluffy.
Make two rolling papers out of the wrapper from a roll of tissue. “Your ass better be clean, then.”
“Nah, I just took a shit and totally didn’t wipe.”
“I guess I’ll have a dirty dick then.” Roll our cigarettes.
“So, fucking wrong,” he says, laughing with me because we must find joy in the profane. Turn off a surge protector and unplug the electronic devices. Shove a piece of graphite taken from a pencil into each socket. I stick a third one through a small sliver of a pencil with a hole in it. I pick up the wick. Tap the third piece to the two in the surge protector, and catch the spark on the toilet paper holding the fluffy tip at a downward angle. The flame flares up. Invert the wick. Light our cigarettes and toss the wick in the toilet.
Bunkie starts preparing the wet shit to be dried. Unraveling the cigars, dumping the cigarette tobacco on the desk as we smoke. Look out the window. Feel like laughing. Feel like weeping. Outside, the world is insane. I am here but alive in it, apart from it, but still connected. A gull rides on the wind. Take a deep drag. It’s cold outside, not much better than in this cell. What would it be like to be free in the real world? What do I know of freedom? I no longer know anything. Watch the gull riding in the wind. He does not want to leave the prison. He must fear leaving. Here he has a life. It may not be pleasant, but at least he knows… I can go on. I used to cry alone in the shower when no one would know or see me. When did I lose the ability to weep? When did I become so incapable of shedding my sorrow?
This is my home. This is where I belong. If I had the power, I would tear down every wall. I would shatter every brick. Yet… could I? Watch my bunkie make sure all the wet tobacco is prepared correctly and set it in a hair net that he will attach to a fan. It’ll dry in a few hours.
Inhale deeply, as much as these lungs can bear. Exhale as the gull disappears. This is my life. Is there beauty in it at all? The sky is a sickly greyish blue. Everything else is concrete and cold metal. Inhale nice and deep, and search for relief. There is none. Bury all thought. Bury it deep. Live. Live. Live in this moment. There is no end…
Michael Satterfield was arrested at 21 for armed robbery. It was during his incarceration that he received a GED and began college courses. He now has a BA in Comparative Literature and is currently working on a Master’s degree in social work from Rutgers University. He has guest lectured at Monmouth University, Rutgers, and participated in academic symposiums at Rutgers and the University of Maryland. He has published two personal essays with the Harvard Education review and has also published numerous essays with the Rutgers Review. He currently works for a hospital with individuals dealing with substance use disorders. He lives in NJ with his partner, his two children, and three cats.