It’s the most important room in the prison, bar none. With three ancient microwave ovens, some battered washing machines and dryers, a leaking ice machine and a few faded counter-tops and tables, everything happens here every day. Need a four-course dining extravaganza? Go to the kitchen! Need your blood-stained sheets washed? Go to the laundry! Need to ice down your days-old sour milk cartons? Go to the ice room! Need your prison greens ironed? Go to the dry cleaners! Need a game of dominoes? Go to the game room! All things to all prisoners is this 20×40-foot dreary room with a cracked cement floor, stained white concrete walls, and a large, cold, picture window. Are you an animal lover? Well, early each morning, you can come watch an army of large ants fighting on the floor over crumbs left the night before, mostly by design. Want to hang out and just bullshit or look out at the layered concertina wire, towering brick walls and gun turrets that surround the prison yard several hundred yards away? Go to the veranda.
Early mornings and late evenings are always the worst time in prisons as prisoners race around to get ready for forced, meaningless labor, or sit alone and reflect on lost lives and dreams, afraid of the future.
It’s 8:00 AM on a Sunday morning and Freddie has already been hard at work in his kitchen for some two hours preparing for his weekly banquet. As he dices spoiled apples and dated turkey rolls, crushes bags of Dorito’s chips, and seasons rice and beans, other prisoners begin to stumble in wiping, from their eyes, what little sleep they got and waiting on line to heat their coffee, tea, or eggs at the microwave. While Freddie preps his meal, Joe is busy but a few feet away, in his grey prison sweats, ironing a tight and crisp crease in this prison greens as he gets ready for more visits. Like the mail, he holds the record for most visits as a steady stream of family, friends, and union members pass through Canaan each weekend to give him something to look forward to in his otherwise dreary life. Logan, as always, is all business as he walks in to confront his “nephew” who is already hanging out talking smack to some other young prisoners. Although not related, the two call each other “uncle” and “nephew” out of endearment. His favorite student, a young black man whose wife died, while he has been in prison, leaving behind three young, now parent-less, kids, broke his appointment to meet with Logan the night before to work on his resume. In walks “Leech,” with his small plastic trash can in one hand, to be topped off with ice, and a bag of dirty laundry in the other. Wallace and Jamal come in together in search of another Muslim prisoner as they ready for the second prayer of the still-young day. Justin, a pasty young white man from rural Maine, paces nervously, waiting to hear the loudspeaker call out “pill line, pill line, pill line” to take the edge off of another day before its pressure mounts.
“People gonna get high,” Freddie joins in as two other prisoners debate drug addiction and laws as they pass time waiting their turn for the washing machine. One, a young Latino graduate of Narcotics Anonymous, who later relapsed and got busted, is especially animated this morning. “The laws aren’t tough enough,” Flacco yells out, with tears in his eyes. “I fucked up and deserve the 24 months the judge gave me. Maybe more. I got no gripes.”
To Freddie, who rolls his eyes, 24 months is a joke, a walk in the park. To him, Flacco is just looking to score some points with the cops… outside and in.
“It don’t matter what they say or do,” Freddie says as he starts to ready a pie made of week-old bananas, sour milk, and Hershey’s Kisses. “Drugs been here since day one and ain’t leaving. Jail don’t scare a fiend. He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do and get high. Rich, poor, white, black, young, old, male, female… getting high is all you want. I know. I been there year after year, for as long as I can remember “
Cash nods his head in agreement. “Drugs are an illness,” he says, “and sending users or sellers to prison don’t do nothing but destroy families and waste money.” Joe joins in, as he always does on matters of politics and social policy, “Drugs are a disease.” Not all of them, or all amounts, he reasons, “but the government criminalizes health issues to warehouse the poor and extend the prison economy nationwide.”
Logan, now firmly but softly lecturing his nephew about personal responsibility to himself and his kids, joins in. “You’re right, Joe,” he says, “most prisoners in this country are in prison for drugs and nothing else. These sentences are insane,” he continues, “… it takes all the money from poor communities and inner-city schools and infrastructure and for what,“ he asks, as he turns his back to his prized student and continues his lecture to the others.
Justin, quiet throughout, although nervous but attentive, suddenly stumbles into the discussion. “I don’t know what to say,” but breaks his thought mid-sentence as he hears a faint message over the loudspeaker and fears he’ll miss his meds for the day. “I don’t want to get high, he continues, “but I ‘m going home soon and to what… I’ve got no skills, no job… no home. Where am I going?” He adds, “All I’ve done here is time. I don’t want to get high…”
“THEN DON’T!” yells Flacco interrupting in a loud almost-shout to intimidate him. “Then don’t!” he repeats, as he switches to his own fears. “I wish I could stay clean, too. All I want is to start over, “ says the young, now angry Latino. “I lost my family the first time,” he adds, “and they won’t come back to me. Now I’m all alone,” says the NA failure.
“I got depressed and relapsed, too,” says Juan, who has since entered the room to cook his eggs. He’s been getting high in the streets of Newark since 15, beginning not long after his dad was killed by cops.
“Welcome to the club,” says Robert. “My wife and kids are long gone. Just spilt… who knows where. And now with me on my way home after 17 years.” Wallace agrees as he looks out the now-open door for Curtis, anxious to go to prayer. “I lost my family here. They just couldn’t wait any longer for the miracle that never came.”
“What do you expect?” chimes in Jeff, as much a rhetorical question. “We’re all criminals… a country of criminals. How many of us are there now? 10 million, 20 million with convictions and prison records… or on their way to one,” as his voice trails off.
“I don’t know,” Cash joins in, “there are times when all I can do is shake my head. It’s nuts. Just fucking nuts.”
“Years ago, I didn’t know anyone from my hood without a prison bid or record. It’s probably true of my city now,” says Cash. “It seems like no family stays together, just a revolving door.”
Robert adds, “I can’t remember a time when my family was all together at the same time and on the same street. Me, my dad, my brothers… one of us always away or well on their way to it.” He turns to look out the window just as Spice joins in. “In Philly, nothing but cops, courts, and jail. You get all jammed up trying to get straight or to make a little cash… next stop, 5, 10 or 20 years… no bodies, it don’t matter… you’re gone. All you see in this state is jails, old and new, everywhere it seems there is a prison,” notes Logan. “No new hospitals or treatment centers or schools… nothing for our kids or their future but a public defender and a cell.”
Joe interrupts, “I just read an article on prisons and costs, it’s just unbelievable. The cost to jail someone, a non-violent person, is more than eight times greater than it is to keep him home with his family with supervision and community service. I’ll go get it,” says Joe as he returns the iron to the wall hook and leaves to get ready for his visit. Justin continues, “I tried to get help. I couldn’t. I tried to get a job. There was none. I tried to learn a trade. They laughed. It was a circle, a run-around. It never stopped.”
Justin agrees, “I had to go down south to get clean and when I did, and came home, they busted me for old shit. Here I was finally clean and in handcuffs.”
“What do you want,” says Flacco, “a medal?” as he returns to the room, still blaming everyone but himself for his own failures. “You get high because you’re weak… plain and simple!” he shouts out.
“Fuck off!” Juan yells back. “I wanted help. I tried to get it. There was nothing. All I got was closed doors or a long waiting line wherever I turned.”
“Yeah, right,” adds Curtis. “Just waiting. We’re always waiting, it seems, for the feds to come… to take us away.”
“You know the deal,” Spice adds in. “Spin me, turn me, give up your friend, your cousin, your mom.”
“It don’t matter,” adds Curtis, “They don’t care about the truth. They just want more and more bodies… dead or alive.
“The feds just don’t give a fuck,” adds Juan. “It’s all the same shit,” says Chris as he walks out the door with his coffee now hot and his anger not much cooler.
“It’s all about cops,” says Leech, himself now upset as he shakes his head staring out the window. “It’s about class and color and wealth. White folks don’t get busted the way we do,” adds Cash, “and when they do, it’s usually a walk. They get embarrassed, but then go on.” Upset, he leaves the room, slamming the door as he does.
Mike, who’s been sitting watching Freddie work, largely silent, is from the same mean streets as Robert. He’s been down himself for 18 years because of drugs. Now in his late 40’s with his family grown and gone, he’s seen it all as he’s worked his way down from deadly high security prisons, where he fought to survive one night at a time, to camps where the boredom eats at you day in and out. Big, tough, muscular and usually silent, there’s much more to Mike than the body he’s built up all these years. Late at night, he can be seen reading, often all night long, everything he can find from daily newspapers to magazines and books to treatises. “Most of these prisons are death traps and the rest unnecessary. No way the people in them need to be there,” he says, almost detached and academic, as he puts on his scarf and jacket and prepares to leave. “I’m just so tired of the revolving door.” he adds, “… young kids coming in, sitting, and years later leaving, old and broken, with new ones taking their place.” No one moves or jumps in as Mike speaks. He’s earned his say and respect from all… including many guards. “Lives lost, families destroyed, and for what?” he continues. “Why? Most prisoners in this country are not violent or dangerous. They should be at home. Community supervision is just so much better for all… and cheaper.” With his voice trailing off, he walks out the door into the morning cold.
Joe’s since returned, standing quietly by the ice machine, still waiting to hear his name called out for a visit, but now dressed in his pressed greens, wearing spotless white sneakers that he keeps bagged and only uses for such occasions. Agreeing with everything he’s heard the past few minutes, he weighs in on the double standard he sees at the DOJ in who it prosecutes. Himself a prominent older white man, he rails with passion about jails filled mostly with poor, young, inner-city men of color while huge corporate profiteers get a free pass. “Everywhere I look in prison, I see mostly black and brown faces. The white ones are all guards or a few small fries… guys busted for low-level frauds or insider trading. Where are the bankers?” he shouts out, almost like a Sunday morning pastor preaching to the choir, his face turning red with anger. “They ain’t here,” he continues. “Forget it. Where are the banks?.Where’s HSBC, or CitiBank, or Chase… caught red-handed laundering billions for drug cartels and others and they get nothing… a civil settlement and fines which they write off on their corporate taxes.”
In a room filled mostly with prisoners of color, you can hear a pin drop. As the 7 or 8 other remaining men in the room nod in agreement, the announcement finally comes for Joe’s visit. He straightens his greens and leaves, shaking his head as he walks out the door.
“Money, money, money,” says Leech. “It keeps politicians in office and us in prison. They could rebuild our cities, schools, and hospitals but won’t,” adds Robert, his hands shaking. Logan, now looking for his nephew long gone to work out adds, “Don’t be naïve. Prisons win elections. Crime pays,” he continues as he grabs his tea. “Law and order sells, it makes most voters feel good and politicians feel tough. Tough is good.” Mike nods his head in agreement as he takes a taste of Freddie’s as yet unfinished pie. “Pill line, pill line, pill line,” rings out. Justin stop pacing and almost smiles. He hurries out, on his way to the clinic to make it through another day. He’s not alone… dozens are already lined up when he arrives… jailed for drugs and now using drugs… just different ones… to survive jail.
One by one, the men leave the room as others arrive to repeat the morning ritual. Though it seems like many hours have passed, for the seven or eight men this morning, it’s only been an hour or so of pouring out their hearts and hopes. Their frustrations shared, it helps… at least till tonight when darkness and lonely despair returns.
For Freddie, he cleans the plates and bowls and tables. He’s about done as he packs up today’s menu and sets off to make his morning deliveries. In prison, it’s hard work to survive.