Save Yourself in a Reflection
A true recounting by: Theodore J. Cook
It was a cool March day, in 1999, when I caught my first glimpse of the castle like walls of Clinton correctional facility. It would be a day, that I will always remember like it was today; not twenty years ago. I was being transported via a correctional van, with other prisoners on board, to be housed at Clinton; until I could be transported to my next facility. I was reasonably nervous to be entering such an imposing structure, as the van pulled through the door. This was an alien environment to me; still is in some ways. You hear gruesome stories and see haunting movies on prison, but in some ways they do not compare to the reality. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of made up stuff about prison; but for all of the real stuff you don't want to be in one.
After a period of time sitting in the rapidly cooling van; it was the moment that I went from being property of Fulton County Correctional facility, to being the property of the state. Stepping down out of the van, with the other prisoners, was just the beginning of a long journey. I didn't fully realize it then, but since then, I have come to see it as what it was. That step, was one of the hardest steps I've taken in my life. Not because of the shackles or any other physical impediment, but because I knew without a doubt, it would be a long time, if ever, before I would leave my new home. I honestly felt lost and alone; a feeling I live with most days. This would compare to someone who moved out of their parents house, to another state, away from their family, for the first time; but with killers and all sorts of other criminals mixed in.
From there, we were led to a processing area; where we received a shaved head, our first of thousands of strip searches, and a set of state greens. After we were settled in our new uniforms; we got comfortable with the states favorite thing, hurry up and wait. When your nerves are stretched out; there is nothing worse than sitting on a hard bench, waiting around for the unknown.
Eventually the waiting was over when a grim faced guard approached. I was anxiously awaiting my next instructions of what to do and where to go, but what you expect has nothing to do, with what actually happens. The guard has his own agenda at the time. Looking back at it, it would probably be best compared to a hazing.
When he got his 180 lb six foot frame in front of me, instead of telling me where to go next, he asked, "what are you in here for"?
I knew that he already knew, since earlier I noticed him reading my file; which contains such information as charge or charges, disciplinary, medical info., and other relative info. In a typical eighteen year old mouthy way, I replied back, "You know what I'm here for." Well the dialog went down hill pretty fast after that. I definitely wasn't winning any friends in that moment. I did learn quite a ways to call someone a piece of crap; a couple probably even fit me well, but I'll get to more of that later. After what seemed far past what common sense dictated, I shut my mouth.
The guard was well prepared for this whole meeting, I unfortunately was not, and after I shut my too large trap he barked out, "take it upstairs".
Well this was something I was more than willing to comply with. My mistake with this though I was thinking he was talking to me. As I rose my 240 lb six foot five inch body up, off of the bench, his hands were already on me. He tried to push me back down; but my common sense was still not working too well, and I rose up to my full height. His hands still on me, he tried to push me backwards, but it didn't budge me one bit. Hot headed and caught up in the altercations, my body was releasing huge amounts of adrenaline, and I was ready for a tussle with this guard. That's when I noticed my next problem. This guard was not alone. There was another five guards about ten feet away, and they were all reaching for their nightsticks while they approached us. This was starting to become an even worse day for me. I didn't know how I was going to get out of the mess I was in, but I knew what was sure to be the final result if I stayed on my present course. I let my resistance go, allowing the guard, to manhandle me into a nearby garbage can. Rubber is really miraculous thing to be able to bounce back after that. This, thankfully, was the right move on my part, and was enough to satisfy them. Instead of the hospital trip or worse that I was looking at I only took a verbal lashing; which would be by no means the last I ever received.
A much more timid me, eventually went up the stairs to what looked like a booking room from some cop show. There I underwent my next series for processing, and was finally issued an I.D. card that was to remain on me at all times. It isn't much to look at; a piece of plastic with my picture and some basic descriptions of me on it. What it did have was my Identification number that I was to remember, and now is permanently branded on my mind. I can't even give my name without thinking that number. Plus as an added bonus to this, was another emotional scar I've born with me all of these years. The guard had his new pet prisoner to perform a trick for him; to show off the compliant demeanor that he instilled downstairs. He ordered me to drop and give him twenty five pushups. There was almost no elapsed time from the order, and me dropping down on the concrete floor to do the prescribe push-ups. I know that it was a demeaning thing, and by no means was it the last time I've done something that left a bitter taste in my mouth. I was eighteen and in shock; and to be honest a little scared. Not saying I would do it any differently now, but I wouldn't be in shock or scared; I would be more dejected and demoralized than anything else. Call me slightly desensitized, but not much surprises me any more when it comes to prison life; not saying that I understand all of the whys, I'm not sure anyone can.
After my performance, which pleased my audience, I was led into, what seemed to be, a never ending network of hallways. They resembled tunnels more than any actual hallway. They had this earthworm smell, and they were just as damp and cold as if it was a brisk rainy day. Dimly lit the concrete walls echoed with each step we took in them; but soon enough through twists and turns, I found myself sitting on a hard bench. I was told to remain seating until I was called for my next part of processing. I don't know exactly how much later, but what didn't seem too long, my next shock came to my young sensibilities. Skipping down the hallway was two prisoners holding hands. The one had an extremely long ponytail, make up on his face, and breasts.
From ponytail a, surprisingly, feminine voice issued forth, "You needs some friends"?
I was probably a homophobe back then. Something since then I have left behind. I don't know if this is a resulting of numbing of the senses, or a better outlook on life. Either way, I am not bothered any longer by how others perceive or express themselves; its their business. Regardless I wasn't like that on that day, and as a result I immediately jumped up, off the the hard bench I was sitting upon. I proceeded to tell them, "that they had better get the f**k away from me, before there there was a problem". I felt that this was a threat and odds that I found to be in my favor, and I was more than willing to vent some of my frustration from the day, so far, out on them. They must have seen the menace smoldering in my eyes, and judged my words to have value; since they turned around, and skipped back off down the hall. At least for my ego's sake I hope that's why they decided to leave, but more than likely they were done having their fun with me.
I sat back down, with the now reawakened adrenaline flowing through my veins, to wait for my next trial. It wasn't too long after this further submersion in my new culture, that I was called into a series of examining rooms to be physically and psychologically examined. Being found fit enough to walk around my new environment, I was told to go wait in a room down the hall for my next instructions. The already old, hurry up and wait was back.
When I arrived down the hall to the before mentioned room to wait, I found my next challenging moment. I came face to face and alone, for the first time since being arrested with one of my co-defendants. There I was with one of the people I grew up with, and all I was thinking of, was here is the person that I was convicted with, for committing a heinous crime. It seemed like my being was going to shut down from the emotions that were coursing through me. I was disgusted with even the sight of this, this... monster. In that instant I only had hate and rage in my heart for someone I used to call brother. This monster, more terrible than any that hid in your closet or under your bed as a child waiting to get you; for they were only imaginary, and this was a real one. When I was sentenced I made a statement, that I was not the monster that the press made me out to be, but I knew in that moment right there in front of me was the incarnation of one. That was the instant that everything truly dawned on me, and I didn't like the full realization. I was judging my co-defendant, but I was equally if not more guilty. It was like I was being doused with arctic cold water, in that instant. I knew I was wrong in what I said in my statement. I knew that I was that monster I saw reflected back at me from my co-defendant. I disgusted myself, and a loathing for myself filled my heart.
I also knew, some how, in that instant; if I would ever be able to look at myself in a mirror again, I would have to change from my very core out. The first step was in court the day I made my statement; even if I didn't truly understand the depths that I plunged. The next major step, with an even better understanding for what I truly became the day I committed my crime, would be this one. I let go of all the anger in my heart; at everyone and everything, except for myself. I would not let hate dwell in me anymore towards anything or anyone, but for myself; for the hate I feel myself, I'm still working at it. I might not have the right to forgive my co-defendants for what we did, but that day I forgave them anyway. For myself, I still seek forgiveness from everyone, and I mean everyone whose life I devastated by my actions the day I committed my crime.
The internal war I fought in that room was over, but the wait I had to endure there had only begun. I engaged my co-defendent in sporadic discussion; briefly interrupted by the coming and goings of other prisoners, who used that room as a break room, from their work programs. I can't say after that discussion we were back to the brotherhood we had before, but I believe that we understood more the devastation we had wrought. I wish that I could tell you what exactly was said, and the reactions that those words brought; but it is not solely my tale to tell. Nor can I tell you if it had more or less meaning to him, as it had for me.
Eventually I was escorted further through the bowels of the fortress to a waiting cell. The cell was not the most comfy thing I have ever seen. It must have only been six and half by five feet big. The sink hung over the cot and the toilet simultaneously, and I knew that the cot, which was wall to bar would have my feet almost out of the cell when I finally laid down. This or a similar cell was my new housing for a long time. I stepped across the threshold into this claustrophobic nightmare emotionally and physically taxed. Upon my full entrance into my cell there was a loud bone jarring clang as the gate was slammed shut behind me. The culture I found myself emerged in was carrying on up and down the cell block. They were yelling from cell to cell about all sorts of stuff, and occasional lines, of tied up shoe laces or something similar, was being sent from cell to cell passing bowls of food or cigarettes to each other. I might have marveled at what was going on, but I could not concentrate on anything at that time. The very life felt leached out of me, as I stood there slack jawed and stunned.
Later on that night I sat on my cot, and I mourned. I mourned for the person who I could've been, I mourned for the person who I found out that I was. During the push-up fiasco, I heard the guard tell one of his buddies that I would be one of the ones who could make it. Here it is twenty years later, and so far I have made it. I definitely haven't made it fully intact. I have lost and gained parts of me, in an amount, that I can say I am no longer that eighteen year old, but I can equally say I am not also any of those I mourned so long ago.
I did run into that guard again years later. There was no hard feelings on either of our parts. I was amazed that he even remembered me, but I will always remember him. He in that hazing, helped shock me into an environment that is not natural; even if it is needed to contain the monsters like I was. This is an environment that can destroy every fiber of your being. Few will survive it without some sort of change. Most will undergo some sort of altering to their psyche; good or bad. will only bed decided much later than when it occurred. Regardless, that hazing set the tempo for all of the rest after, and left me with the only beginning I would want for my prison stay. I would like to thank that guard, because of him and my choices that day; I have become what I am this day. If I'm ever to be released though; a guard can just toss me out into the street. I won't need any assisted culture shock to send me on my way; going will be enough for me.
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