My time in jail
To get the real story on prison, you have to ask an inmate. Or, better yet, become one.
by Chris Wright
Photographs by Mark Ostow
When the guard ordered me to take my clothes off, I began to suspect I'd made a
mistake. When he said, "Bend over," I was sure I had. But I did it: stripped,
doubled over, and braced myself. The world looks very different when you've got
your head between your knees, peering into the face of a state employee who's
peering directly into your backside.
But then, it's not your backside anymore, it's theirs. The question is, what
are they going to do with it? By the time I found out the answer -- "spread
'em" -- all I wanted was to go home.
Funny, a few weeks earlier all I'd wanted was to go to prison.
In turn-of-the-century America, going to prison is the thing to do. One out of
every hundred American men is currently behind bars -- the highest proportion
of incarcerated citizens of any country in the world. The vast majority of
these aren't sociopaths or big-time hoods. Most prisoners are ordinary people
-- drug-possessing, drunk-driving, and petty-thieving people, maybe, but
otherwise just like you and me.
in Billerica, two inmates share a cell built for one. The shock of being thrown into prison's
cramped, dismal cells leads some first-time inmates to entertain thoughts of suicide.
How does it feel, then, to be an ordinary person thrust into this extraordinary
world? I'd begun to realize that for all the blood-and-guts prison movies I'd
watched, the overblown memoirs I'd read, the handwringing editorials I'd
avoided, I hadn't the faintest idea of what prison life was really like.
Besides, I was curious about the food.
To get a true sense of the prison experience, I figured, I'd have to go there
-- and go there as a prisoner. No guards and no inmates could know I was a
reporter. I'd need an alias, a crime, and the collusion of the prison system.
Right. I called the Middlesex County sheriff's office and told them my plan.
The guy at the other end laughed.
A week later, however, I got a call back.
"I don't see why not," said Brian Greeley, the sheriff's spokesman. Hell, even
I could see why not.
So here I am, sitting in the sheriff's office on the 17th floor of the
Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge, having the living crap scared out of
me by the sheriff's inner circle. This is when I get my first inkling that I
might be making a mistake.
The prison for Middlesex County is the Billerica House of Corrections. Though
not exactly Attica, Billerica isn't Disneyland either. The prison
superintendent and the sheriff's lawyer compile a torrid, profanity-laced
account of what I might expect to encounter behind Billerica's walls:
"Some guys will have cigarettes tucked up their ass, some will have drugs."
"They'll be asking a lot of questions: `Who did you rat out? Where's your
"They'll be shaking him down 'cause he's a new fucking fish."
"We should put him in with some seasoned veteran."
"We don't want him to get creased in one fucking night, either."
"That's a crapshoot."
I can tell they're enjoying this.
There's a hard-nosed attitude that reaches all the way to the top of the
sheriff's office. The sheriff himself, James DiPaola, is a no-nonsense
ex-narcotics cop. The superintendent at Billerica is a gruff bulldog of a man
named Paul Norton, a 21-year veteran of the penal system who peppers his speech
with prison's most popular adjective. Even the sheriff's chief counsel, the
silver-haired John Granara, often speaks more like a seasoned con than an
"You're taking a chance," Granara says. "Anything can go on in a cell. You
wanted the full effect, you're getting it, baby." He and Norton laugh. "Great,"
I squeak. And so Granara, Norton, and I hash out a crime and an alias and set a
date for my two-night incarceration -- two weeks away.
The prison at Billerica was built in 1929 to house 300 men. Today its main
building holds nearly twice that number, and its auxiliary buildings contain
another 500. Like most prisons in the US, this one is chronically overcrowded,
with two inmates sharing each of its single-occupancy cells -- a situation that
inevitably leads to trouble.
deceptively calm in the daytime, by night these desolate hallways ring with nonstop, head-spliting
In the past five years, Billerica has had two riots. One, in 1995, occurred
when fighting erupted among a crowd of 100 inmates watching a basketball game
on TV. The cafeteria was set alight. Riot police, state police, and local
police were called in. Tear gas was lobbed. The violence was quelled. TV was
banned. The second disturbance was in 1996 and involved 60 inmates. This time
the brawling was racial, between African-American and Hispanic inmates.
Earlier this year there was conflict between two rival Latino gangs: a local
gang called Ñeta and the New York-based Latin Kings, who are expanding
into the area. "We had inmates fighting in the yard," says one Billerica
employee. "We put 10 in the segregation unit and shipped some out."
Riots are rare, but fights are common. One of the more colorful incidents
occurred a couple of years ago during a game of floor hockey in the gym. A
forward had collided with a goalie and knocked his helmet off. Just like the
professionals, the two traded blows. Unlike the professionals, they ended their
fight with one player biting his opponent's ear off and spitting it on the
In the confusion that followed the fight, an inmate strolled over to the ear,
picked it up, put it in his pocket, went to the rec room, sat down beside
another inmate, and said: "I'll bet you a carton of cigarettes that I have a
human ear in my pocket."
Imprudently, perhaps, the other inmate said, "You're on," at which the guy
pulled the ear out of his pocket, only to have a cuff snapped around his wrist.
By the time authorities rushed the ear to the hospital, it was too late to
reattach it. That's the kind of thing prison does to you. When the inmate had
spotted that bloody object lying on the gymnasium floor, he hadn't seen a human
ear. He'd seen an opportunity.
And the guy who told me the story did so in the spirit of knee-slapping comedy.
That, too, is the kind of thing that prison does to you.
The day of my imprisonment, my horoscope reads: "The stakes are high, and there
will be no room for error. You feel lonely if you go out of town on
Strange as it may sound, having an ear bitten off isn't my main concern. Though
I'm assured by inside sources that most sexual contact in Billerica is
consensual, the figures on prison rape are not encouraging. According to the
advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape, 80,000 unwanted sexual acts take place
behind bars in the US every day, with a total of 364,000 prisoners raped every
year. As I enter the sheriff's office -- turn myself in, as it were -- I feel
like Buggered Man Walking.
I'm taken to Billerica by two officers, in the back of a cruiser. We spend most
of the trip rehearsing my story. If it doesn't add up, my fellow inmates might
think I'm a sex offender -- or worse, a rat. There will be no room for
About a mile from the prison, we pull into a parking lot, where I get out of
the car to let them shackle me in "full hardware" -- leg irons and handcuffs.
The last 10 minutes of the drive are spent in silence.
Finally, we pull up outside the prison gates -- or, more precisely, the prison
door. Billerica was built around the same time as Alcatraz, but it has none of
that prison's menacing stateliness. Three stories of blunt brown brick, it
looks more like a mill than a prison. Still, it's an imposing place, more so
when the first of its metal doors clanks shut behind you.
I enter the receiving area in a daze, an officer on either arm, and am told to
sit. The room is gloomy, a patchwork of dun, a dank basement. No wonder the
correctional officer -- or CO -- who books me in is so cheerless.
"Oh, a fucking limey," he says.
"The Orange and the Green don't mix," says another guy out of the side of his
mouth. I notice many of the officers have Irish names pinned to their uniforms.
I'd been told that Billerica is "incredibly white," but I hadn't thought that
this might translate into "incredibly Irish."
Too bad I'm incredibly English.
When I ask to use the bathroom, a CO says, "Don't you mean the loo?" The
laughter that greets this remark feels inappropriate, as if at a funeral. I
offer a weak smile and look around for the officers who drove me here. Gone. No
one here knows I'm anything but a common criminal. And it'll be this way for
the next 48 hours. You feel lonely if you go out of town on business.
What my stars failed to mention is that I'll also get in touch with my inner
naughty child. People say prison is dehumanizing, and it is. It's also
infantilizing. You are chided, bossed about, given that "I can't even stand to
look at you" look. Never mind the brutality of prison, it's the nagging
disapproval that gets to you. It's like being at the Registry of Motor
Vehicles, only here the clerks can put you in solitary for 24 hours.
They want to know my story. Name: Christopher Lancaster. Occupation:
construction worker. Birthplace: Ireland (a bit of ad lib). Address: London,
England. Offense: distribution of a class B substance. My story: I'm here on
vacation. I buy $500 worth of cocaine from some guy in Harvard Square. I'm
nabbed by a state trooper, arraigned, and released on $2000 bail the next day.
I plead guilty and get 6 months. And here I am, inmate #97827, being printed
and photographed, putting my head between my knees. It doesn't get any worse
Or does it? Following the strip search, I am given my prison blues -- blue
coveralls with INMATE written on the back -- and led to a holding cell, where a
handful of dispirited men -- convicted of God knows what -- loll about. One of
them looks at me as if my very presence were an affront. If you want to fit
in, the officers in the car had said, then swear. I press my
forehead into the heels of my hands and say: "Fuck me." I hope it doesn't sound
like an invitation.
I keep my head down and go to work on an imaginary hangnail. Eventually a CO
calls, "Lancaster." Pick, pick. "Lancaster!" Oh yeah. I'm sent up to an
infirmary, where I have a couple of vials of blood removed -- for syphilis and
TB tests, I'm told. Then it's off to another cell a few doors down. This one
has a single occupant, lying face down on a bunk, either asleep or dead.
As I enter, the guy on the bed stirs. He's chubby, maybe 20 years old. "They
can't break me," he says, apropos of nothing. Over the next hour, another six
or seven inmates are loaded into the 45-square-foot cell. There's none of the
brooding silence that marked the cell downstairs. These guys are all talk.
One hot topic is drugs. "If I had all the money I've spent on crack," says a
goateed guy, "I'd have enough for a house." Another is sex. "I like to go on
those chat rooms," says a muscular kid. "In two hours I've got 10 phone numbers
and I'm getting my dick sucked."
Given the circumstances, it's surprising that these guys are so eager to talk
fellatio. Then again, prison has a neutering effect: a year in the clink means
a year, theoretically, without sex. Talking about it is a way to reaffirm that
it exists. Prison also generates an understandable fear that your significant
other will seek sexual sustenance elsewhere.
"Mine better fucking not," says the goatee.
"I always dump my girlfriends before I come in," a redheaded kid says. "I'd go
At this, the chubby guy says, for maybe the tenth time since we've been in
here, "They can't break me." Then he gets up, walks over to the toilet, and
takes a piss.
Paranoia is a big part of the prison experience -- your girlfriend is screwing
your best friend, you've been ratted out, the guards have it in for you,
someone's going to jump you. I, though, have a paranoia all my own: someone's
going to suss me out. It's not such a stretch, even if no one recognizes me.
There's an inside joke that many of these guys know the law better than their
own lawyers. Sooner or later, one of them is going to ask me a question I can't
HOUSE OF HORROR:
three stories of blunt, brown brick, Billerica stands as a stark monument to the miseries
of prison life.
It turns out to be sooner.
The guy who gets the ball rolling is the largest in our group, but soon it's
coming at me from all sides. Where am I from? What am I in for? How long did I
get? How much was my bail? Who was my public defender? Then I have a
brainstorm, one that will serve me well over the next two days: "To be honest,"
I say, "I'd been partying for five days before I got busted. It's all a blur."
They seem to buy it. "Please God," I say, not acting now, "get me the fuck out
It's growing dark outside, which means we've been in this cell a good two
hours, with only a stiff ham-and-cheese sandwich to break the monotony. When
you're doing time, waiting becomes a kind of art. Some inmates are better at it
than others. "I don't want to be here," groans an older guy with faded tattoos.
"I never want to spend another fucking summer in this place."
But he probably will. In 1999, the recidivism rate at Billerica was 68 percent.
Most of the people in this cell have been here before, and most will come back.
One has spent 11 Thanksgivings out of the last 12 behind bars. "What I wouldn't
give to be out there," says the largest guy, staring through the window at the
A couple of the guys speculate about how easy it would be to escape -- kick the
bars out, make a run for the trees. Actually, few people escape Billerica. One
guy did it -- calling collect from the Dominican Republic a few weeks later to
rub it in. Less successful was the guy who clawed himself a burrow in the
moldering plaster of his cell, where he huddled until he was dragged out and
taken to segregation. Many more people "hang it up" -- commit suicide -- than
successfully scale the prison's walls.
One thing you learn in prison is that being locked up isn't always the worst
thing that can happen.
The top of the ladder at Billerica is James DiPaola, sheriff of Middlesex
County, who oversees the operation of the jail in Cambridge and the main prison
in Billerica. Before being elected sheriff three years ago, DiPaola was a state
representative from Malden, and before that a cop for 18 years -- three of
those as an undercover narcotics officer. He spoke to his former guest Chris
Wright at his office at the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge.
On crowding: "The average DOC facility has 500 people; we have about
1200. It's like a little city. There are control techniques in place to
maintain order. There are things we have to stay on and monitor. How close are
you to the worst-case scenario of `losing the place,' as they say, which means
the inmates taking over? What are the small things that could lead to a big
problem in the future?"
On the population: "There are factions in Billerica, gang factions --
whether they be rival Latino gangs, rival Asian gangs, or rival Latino-Asian
gangs. In the midst of all these potentially predatory individuals, you get
people who have a serious alcohol problem and are serving a year or two for
drunk driving. We have a lot of people who are actually mentally ill, who need
treatment for mental illness."
On the guards: "My biggest thing here has been to raise the
professionalism of the department. When I first took over, the officers were
doing three weeks of training -- the academy we're getting ready to start will
have 12 weeks. It's a tough, depressing job. Alcoholism runs high in
correctional officers, problems with family lives."
On being thrown in jail: "We had a suicide attempt the other night.
There's a real risk of depression and hopelessness. Someone who never got
arrested before suddenly finds himself thrown into a cell and he thinks this is
the end of the world. We try to let them know: you've got two and a half years
here. Relax, find something to do, use the opportunity to make yourself a
On rehabilitation: "It's easy for someone who's never been in the prison
environment to say, `Hey, to heck with them, throw them in the cell, feed them
garbage.' But we're dealing with somebody we're trying to motivate, and
motivation comes with a state of mind. I see it as a moral obligation to try to
get an inmate into the right frame of mind so that he's going to accept a
change in his life. We will provide opportunities for the inmate who shows he
wants to improve himself."
On prison conditions: "We're certainly not running a five-star hotel.
They're not eating prime rib every night and putting their feet up and smoking
cigars. But you treat a fellow human being as a human being, with dignity and
respect. You have to follow the orders of the COs. That doesn't mean that when
I want you to go to your cell it gives me the right to grab you by the hair and
throw you in there. The inmate has some expectation to be treated fairly. You
want to have that balance of fairness and being tough."
On whether that makes him a softie: "Anybody who thinks the inmates are
being coddled, I would challenge them to do what you did. Come on up to
Billerica and see for yourself."
To get to the place where we'll spend our first night -- the New Man unit -- we
have to navigate the "day room," where inmates gather to play cards, chat, or
skulk about. This is where the riot of 1995 started. As we pass through, a
chorus of derision goes up: "That's him! The guy in the blue!" It's a little
joke the inmates like to play on new fish.
The thing is, though, it isn't always a joke. Sometimes someone will see
someone he knows, and sometimes that someone will get something done to him. A
couple of the braver guys engage their antagonists. I don't. As we leave, one
inmate approaches the redheaded kid and sneers, "I'll see you later."
The New Man's lot is not a happy one. You're hassled by old hands, locked up in
a six-by-eight cell 23.5 hours a day for up to five days straight -- no
reading, no exercise. Then there's the humiliation. Before lockdown, we're
strip-searched again, right in the middle of a chilly landing. This time the CO
adds "lift your balls up" to the repertoire of shame.
It's meant to be unpleasant, of course. Every element of prison life, right
down to the tarnished steel dinner trays, is designed to remind you where you
are. There are three floors. Each stairway opens onto a landing, at the center
of which is an officer's station -- a cage in which dour COs sit before panels
of controls. Behind this there's another cage containing open shower stalls. On
either side of the landing there is a long corridor, lined on both sides with
solid metal doors, each with a small barred window. You cannot turn your head
without seeing bars or grates or a combination of the two.
We mill about waiting for our cell assignments: "Ramirez: K6 . . .
Lancaster: K7." As I make my way down the block, I feel as though someone were
chewing on my heart. Anything can go on in a cell. K7. I poke my head
inside. The color scheme is putty. There's a little metal shelf, a bunk bed, a
toilet and a sink, a window overlooking a litter-strewn yard. Beside the window
stands a beefy redheaded guy. I walk in and the door clatters shut behind me.
The first thing I do is swear. "Bloody hell," I say. D'oh! My cellmate
grins, revealing an incomplete set of teeth. "Oh," he says, "a bloody Brit." He
grins again to emphasize the point. It turns out he's of Irish descent, from
Charlestown. Assault and battery, 10 months.
"I'm Irish too," I lie.
Raymond is actually one of the more agreeable assaulters and batterers I've
met. He's 30, the father of three, a regular at Billerica. There's a rumor
going around the prison that Raymond died of a drug overdose, and every now and
then a CO will come by and say, "I thought you were dead." He shows me how to
stick a milk carton over the light for ambiance. We spend most of the evening
discussing what we wouldn't do for a butt.
Smoking has been banned here since last October -- for health reasons. Since
the ban, violence has risen, and cigarettes have become valuable contraband. A
single butt in Billerica goes for about $15. To be caught with one means being
put into segregation. This hasn't deterred the die-hards, though, who go to
near-heroic lengths to sneak a smoke. In our cell there's a piece of graffiti:
"I need a cigarette." Below this someone else has written, "Then suck my
By his breathing, I can tell Raymond has fallen asleep. I doubt that I'll be
able to join him. My bed has a biscuity plastic mattress, starched sheets, and
a scratchy wool blanket. It's hot and musty in here. And explosively,
If you're treated like a naughty kid for long enough, you start acting like
one. And many inmates, like naughty kids, make a hobby out of noise. They
rattle, clatter, and clang with unflagging energy. They tap on pipes and bang
on windows. One popular technique is to turn your faucet on a fraction, which
produces a jackhammer sound. An anti-lullaby.
Even worse are the human noises, the all-night squawks and howls, the nonstop
whoops and caws, the multilingual banter, the hissed whispers. Until now, I'd
comforted myself with the thought that if my cellmate started anything, I would
simply yell "Guard!" A ludicrous idea. I'd have to set off a small nuclear
device to be noticed in this racket.
I finally enter a brittle sleep, only to snap out of it a short time later to
see my cellmate, big Raymond, standing beside my bunk in the dark. Here it
is, I think, calmer than I'd expected. I look down at his hand. Instead of
a shank, though, he's clutching a Styrofoam box. Five o'clock in the morning
and it's breakfast time. Holy shit. I sit on my bunk and savor two cold, sloppy
fried eggs. Oh happy day.
Or not. I fall asleep again, and when the sun comes up I find that I've spilled
yolk down myself, over my sheets, over my blanket, even over my socks. Who knew
eggs contained so much yolk? Raymond thinks this is the funniest thing ever.
"This guy spilled his eggs!" he yells to the guy next door, who also seems to
enjoy the joke.
Nothing anywhere near as exciting as the egg incident happens until lunch, when
two more Styrofoam boxes and four cartons of milk are slid under the door. It's
a cowpat of shepherd's pie, not bad. We gobble the gloopy sauce and sticky mash
in silence. I've never felt more like an animal, and I've rarely had a more
After this, it's back to nothing again. I've heard that prisoners overcome
boredom by letting their minds soar, like birds. What crap. My mind soars
straight into a brick wall before sliding, defeated, to the floor. For a while
we try to amuse ourselves by watching ants. Raymond's more into it than I am,
using scraps of food to herd them. "You're like the Bird Man of Alcatraz," I
say. "The Ant Man of Billerica."
By the time the cell door opens, Raymond has taken to capturing his little
friends and chucking them in the toilet. Before long, I will get a sense of how
the ants must feel.
prison strips you of not only your liberty and autonomy, but your identity. Many inmates
respond with acts of fearful violence.
Now that our day in lockdown is over, it's time for us to join the general
prison population. As far as I'm concerned, general population is a one-way
ticket to Shakedown City, a trip aboard the Shanksville Express.
We're herded once more along the cellblock and out onto the landing, where I
catch the eye of a guy -- a boy, really -- who looks even more terrified than I
feel. (I'm happy, however, to note that he's a good deal better-looking than I
am.) I try to latch on to Raymond, but he's mingling like a guest at a costume
party where everyone is wearing the same costume. Several times I make a show
of patting him on the back in a Hey buddy! way, and then I get a
bombshell: Raymond's being sent to minimum security, and I'm going to medium.
Heading into the general prison population, once again I'll be on my own.
Here's everything I know about the general prison population at Billerica: the
average age is 32.8 years old. The maximum sentence is two and a half years,
though many of the inmates serve consecutive sentences, up to seven years at a
The top three crimes are offenses against a person, 48 percent; drug and
alcohol offenses, 18 percent; property crimes, 14 percent. A very
unhappy two percent are sexual offenders. Eight percent of the population
report a drug problem, 12 percent an alcohol problem, and 54 percent
a problem with both. The racial make-up is 70 percent white,
15 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black. There are no figures on what
percentage of the population hates limeys.
My main objective, as I set foot in the dreaded day room, is to look
nonchalant. Mainly I do this by whistling. It becomes my thing. I whistle in
the gym, whistle in the laundry room, whistle in the prison yard. A few inmates
give me the hairy eyeball, and at times I feel like I'm being circled, sniffed.
But no one hassles me, or even talks to me. Maybe they think I'm a nut. Watch
out for the whistling guy, he's bad news.
More likely they're just biding their time.
The longer I go unscathed, the more confident I get. I even pluck up the
courage to take a shower.
It's a fairly warm day, so I spend a lot of time in the prison's two yards. The
smaller yard, hemmed in by pocked brick walls, is a bit depressing. The larger
yard, though, is nearly pleasant. It has a baseball field, a basketball court,
a track, and rows of chain-link fences, each topped by a scribble of razor wire
that shimmers in the sun.
To help pass the time, I play a little game with myself: Guess the Crime. The
barrel-chested guy with squinty eyes -- robbery; the loner with the Beatles
hairdo and Karl Marx beard -- drugs; the portly guy who looks like an insurance
salesman -- booze; the cheerful teen -- auto theft; the glum guy with patchy
skin -- restraining order; the skinhead with the teardrop tattoo below his eye
I find the library and borrow a couple of books, Nabokov and Updike, then get a
bit of a twinge: maybe literary fiction will be seen as a sign of weakness.
Maybe I should have gone with Grisham. At one point, an obvious hard case
crosses my path. He doesn't say anything, just looks out at me from beneath a
thick, forehead-spanning eyebrow. I think he must have rehearsed that look for
a long time. After this, I'm feeling decidedly less sanguine.
Another guy walks over and asks if I'm new. I manage to choke out a yes. The
guy says: "Welcome."
When I get to my new cell -- the one where I'll ostensibly be spending the next
six months -- my cellmate is there. He's an older guy, mid 50s. He wears
glasses, the kind that make your eyes seem bigger, and a few straggles of hair
spring from his glossy head. He's in for operating under the influence. "I'm
just an ordinary drunk," he says, before showing me which shelves are mine.
Alan has had eight cellmates since he came here in November. "I won't tell
where the bodies are buried," he says. The only time he worries me, though, is
when a guy in another cell yells something about passing contraband from his
butt like a chicken laying an egg, and Alan starts clucking. Otherwise, his dry
humor is a nice change from the usual banter about cigarettes and blowjobs.
Like almost everyone else here, Alan's a repeat offender, and he seems even
more versed in prison culture than Raymond. He does that thing where you hold a
mirror outside your cell door to see what's going on. He points out the work
details that pass by. Then he points out a group of PC -- protective-custody --
inmates in the yard.
General-population inmates are let out of their cells six times a day: three
times to eat, and three times for recreation. For their own safety, PCs are
isolated from general population -- they eat, shower, and exercise alone. The
PCs are the snitches and the skinners (sex offenders), and they are the most
reviled people in prison. They suffer an endless stream of abuse, and, if the
chance presents itself, much worse.
One PC, a chester -- a child molester -- recently got snagged by a couple of
inmates. By the time they were done with him, the chester's teeth were
decorating his cell floor. One of the guys hit him so hard his knuckles came
through the skin. Another piece of Billerica lore tells of a rapist who was
castrated with a fork.
I must look worried, because Alan says, "Keep your head down, and you should be
okay." Then it's off to the cafeteria, with its rows of long metal tables, for
dinner: a cold pastrami sandwich.
Mealtimes in Billerica are a big deal. They are among the few routines in a
prisoner's day that suggest a semblance of civilian life. Beyond this, eating
offers rare sensual pleasure. If you see an inmate with a truly satisfied look
on his face, chances are he's got a mouthful of tepid chow. Prison food is by
no means gourmet, but it's plentiful -- and starchy and greasy -- and the
prevailing physique tends to reflect that fact. Prisoners are not the
glistening gym rats we see in the movies. There are few bulging biceps,
rippling abs, or chiseled pecs in here. Many inmates are, to put it bluntly,
Back in the cell, Alan is making himself a cup of instant coffee with a little
electric kettle. They sell kettles for $15.20 in the prison shop, along with
playing cards ($1.55), antifungal cream ($1.50), and squeeze cheese (70 cents).
For some reason, it's heartbreaking to see him content himself with this crumb
Over the next few hours, I genuinely grow to like Alan. He shows me how to tie
my sheets under the mattress so they don't slip off. He gives me a plastic soap
dish and a couple of packets of shampoo. And he explains the importance of
earning Good Time.
Good Time is given to inmates who attend meetings, take classes, and do work
detail. Keep yourself busy and you can earn up to 12 days' worth a month. Good
Time negates bad time -- every hour you earn is an hour knocked off your
At first I thought the whole idea was a bit cynical: you go to an Alcoholics
Anonymous session and rack up your Good Time, knowing you'll be sucking on that
bottle all the earlier. Then I go with Alan to an AA meeting. The inmates sit
and listen to other inmates' bitter confessions, and you feel that, no matter
what their motives are for coming, something good is coming out of this.
Besides AA and Narcotics Anonymous, Billerica offers violence-intervention
programs, GED courses, a life-skills class, a computer class, an auto-repair
program, even a barbershop where you can learn the art of hairdressing. Then
there are assorted work programs, which allow inmates varying degrees of
Without these programs -- and the Good Time they bring -- morale would plummet.
You can hear it in the way they talk: this is one of the few areas where
prisoners can feel some control over their fate, even regain a little bit of
dignity. And this is a good thing for everyone. After all, you can shut people
off from basic human needs for only so long before you're helping turn a petty
criminal into someone who would bite off an ear. As one prison official says,
"Eventually these guys are going to get out -- they're going to be your
As my cell door slams shut for the night, I come very close to giving up the
game. I'm tired of being bored, tired of being scared, and just plain tired. I
gaze out of the window and say, "I wish I was out there." Deadpan Alan lifts a
loose corner of bug screen and replies, "Go ahead, I'll hold the door for you."
Then he says, "I wish I was out there, too. Outside those fucking walls."
Next week, Alan has a revise-and-revoke hearing coming up, at which he'll learn
whether he'll be allowed to return to his life, or whether he'll have to spend
two more years in this cell. He's hopeful, he says, sipping on his coffee, very
hopeful. I'm starting to hate the lies I have to tell him, especially when he
browbeats me about going to meetings: Good Time.
My last night in prison turns out to be even more restless than my first. One
guy yells some Spanish word -- "Hoyoda!" it sounds like -- compulsively, the
way a caged lion paces. Then there are the indescribable clanks and clatters:
Buicks being thrown out of third-floor windows, aircraft carriers being dragged
along cobbled streets. I climb beneath my yolky blanket and listen to my
cellmate's snores, the songs of frustration filling the night.
The next morning, as always, the doors grate open before sun-up. Bleary-eyed
inmates shuffle toward the dining hall, scratching their arms, coughing.
Breakfast today is cold pancakes. Yum. Waiting in line to get served, an inmate
turns to his friend and says, "So, what do you want to do today?" They both
There's a lot of prison humor in prison. During the morning rec period, I
overhear a guy decline a game of cards: "I'm here for rehabilitation," he says,
"not entertainment." At lunch, we're given spaghetti. It's Ash Wednesday, and
so we have the choice of clam sauce as well as the usual tomato. "Clam sauce in
prison?" says an inmate to a nearby CO. "What next, chicken al-fucking-fredo?
Where is the punishment?"
When the excitement over the clam sauce dies down, the hall is filled with the
sound of mass slurping. An inmate opposite me, a huge black guy, wolfs down his
huge helping of spaghetti and complains about still being hungry. I can only
eat half of mine, so I offer him my leftovers. He declines, politely, and
offers me a carton of milk. Even more politely, I tell him I've had my fill,
and he gives the milk to a shaven-headed white kid before turning to a Hispanic
guy to discuss what sounds like a pretty nasty crime.
One of the biggest surprises I get at Billerica is the racial climate. I'd
expected a perpetual standoff. Though there are lines of demarcation between
the black, white, and Latino populations, on the individual level there seems
to be a fair amount of integration.
Just as I start feeling warm and fuzzy, I overhear a snatch of conversation --
"Kill that bitch" -- and notice a guy at my table who has a piece of gauze
taped to his neck. Apparently he got into a dispute over a card game. The gauze
is covering a bite wound.
Even so, later that day I am happy to fall in with a card crowd. We play
cribbage on a board made out of an old flip-flop. I am a pretty good player,
and soon I've strung a few wins together. It feels good: the Cribbage King of
Cellblock B. "I play better with a beer and a cigarette," I quip, and this
starts everyone going on about beer and butts. In a few hours, of course, I'll
be having a drink and a smoke. For some reason this makes me feel ashamed.
Afternoon lockdown is at 3:15. I'm supposed to be taken out of here at four
o'clock sharp. As Alan sits and sips his coffee, I can barely contain myself. I
fidget, pretend to read, fidget. "It's tuna and pasta tonight," Alan says. Sip,
sip. Then the door opens. Know-everything Alan -- Alan of the mirror held
outside the cell door -- looks startled. "I don't know what this is all about,"
A huge guard appears at the door. "Lancaster!" he barks. "Step outside!" As he
cuffs my hands behind my back, I can almost hear Alan's jaw drop. I am marched
along the cellblock, which erupts into a frenzy of noise. It looks as if I'm
being taken to segregation. "You've got the wrong guy!" a couple of them yell.
Some even batter their cell doors. Just like in the movies.
But I'm not going to segregation, I'm going to the superintendent's office.
"Uncuff him," the superintendent says to the CO who brought me in, who looks
uncertain about this. Then, "You can go." As the door closes, Paul Norton and I
burst into laughter, as if I'd just pulled some kind of silly prank. God knows
what the CO must have made of it all.
As Norton feeds me tea and cookies, all I can think is, I want out. I
want comfort, ease, a familiar restaurant booth. I want to have someone smile
and call me sir. Above all, I want a damn cigarette.
Outside, the officer who drove me here gives me two packs of smokes, Camels and
Marlboros: "I forgot your brand." Bless him. Back in Cambridge, he treats me to
Buffalo wings and a beer at the Ground Round. Puffing on a Marlboro, sipping on
a Sam Adams, I ask him about Alan's revise-and-revoke hearing next week, which
will determine whether he gets an early release.
"Slim chance," the officer says. "Slim to none."
That night, lying in my own bed, my wife cozying up beside me, I'm restless. I
won't get a full night's sleep for days, and right now I can't sleep at all.
Two nights in prison have left me jittery. When I close my eyes, it all comes
rushing back: metal trays, drowning ants, plumes of razor wire, "I owe you a
ass kicking" penciled on a cell wall, and Alan, sipping a cup of instant
coffee, saying, "Tuna and pasta tonight."
Chris Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.