They take your keys. Your phone. Your clothes. Your humanity.
In the United States, there are currently more incarcerated people than there are medical doctors, public school teachers, insurance agents, commercial airline pilots, police officers, and firefighters combined.
In total, nearly 6,899,000 adults in the United States were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in the last five years: that’s about 2.8 percent of adults (or 1 in 35) of the US resident population. This is the approximate number of people living in Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Kansas City combined. And while only five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, and has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world.
If you’re one of the unlucky many who is expected to be going to prison in the next year, you might be one of the 90 percent of women behind bars for murder who was a victim of domestic and physical abuse. Or one of the 48.6 percent of people incarcerated for a drug crime. Maybe you’re one of the 52,000 in a state prison for weapons charges, or one of the 253,000 serving time the state penitentiary for theft or fraud. Maybe you’re one of the 718,000 imprisoned for a violent crime. Or perhaps you’re one of the 16,000 in a federal prison because you’re in this country without a permit (this excludes the 41,000 undocumented workers in immigration detention). Whatever the case, your ultimate goal was most likely to get by, to get ahead, or to protect yourself—not to go to prison.
Nevertheless, here you are, checking into prison on your very first day, surrendering yourself over to someone else’s rules, jittery at the knees, and not knowing what to expect. In a perfect world, you might expect someone to have a little empathy for your situation and how confused or scared you are—someone to understand what led you here, or at least give you a hug (such physical contact is prohibited for inmates at most federal prisons). But this is not a perfect world. This is the United States.
I currently teach memoir writing to the inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine, and have been volunteering in the prison systems since 2007. Recently, I spoke to several inmates and former prisoners about their experiences and memories of their first 24 hours in prison. Different prisons run their details differently, from the clothes the inmates wear to the amount of time they get to spend socializing. But for the most part, the drill of the first 24 hours is fairly similar across the board. When you sign in, you sign away your autonomy. Your outsides and your insides are checked out, your possessions and freedoms cleared away.
I spoke to a range of inmates about some of their most poignant memories. Here’s what they had to say. Some I spoke to over the phone, some wrote me letters, or granted permission to share excerpts of essays they composed in the memoir writing classes I teach in prison.
Larry, 55, former inmate, served 10 years
In every prison, there is a lobby—Receiving and Discharge—where you go to surrender yourself. You say your last goodbyes. You go in and report, check yourself in no later than 1:00. You’ll have all of your possessions reviewed to determine what is permitted, [which varies based on the type of prison you are in, the level of security, and the crime you committed]. You receive a set of prison clothes. You get photographed and fingerprinted and given an identification card.
Then there is the admission and orientation interview, which determines if you can stay at this prison [or sent to a mental health facility, a hospital, or a different holding place]. You’ll be told where you’ll be housed, and if [you pose] any security or medical concerns.
You gotta be really careful what you say and who you associate with.
You meet your “unit team” [which includes a case manager, a certain number of correctional officers, and a correctional counselor, who is a regular officer trained in counseling] and get the quickest physical you’ve ever had in your life. This is done by someone who speaks broken English, who was probably a doctor in a different place but can’t pass medical boards in the United States, so they work as a Physician’s Assistant at the Department of Corrections. It’s a joke.
The staff badgers you and your state of mind. You meet a psychologist [and they ask you], “Do you want to hurt yourself?” and “Do you want to hurt anyone in this room?” Then you meet another unit team member [and they ask], “Was your story in the news?” and “Is there any reason you shouldn’t be in general population?” You agree to a bunch of things, like letting them open your mail and monitor your telephone calls.
You get shuffled off and get your uniforms. You get steel-toed boots, unless you’re a diabetic or someone who needs soft-toed shoes. You’re supposed to wear them during your work detail. You also get sneakers. You get a crappy hygiene kit: bar of soap, toothbrush, and toothpaste.
Then you go to a housing unit to meet your new bunkie or celly. You’re going to be living in a dormitory: either a two- or four-person cubicle with bunk beds, a two- or four-foot wall locker, and a mesh clothing bag for your laundry. That’s it. Then the welcome wagon comes by. The Christians—they want to save you. But they will hook you up with the good stuff, better soap and stuff. You’ll learn who is cuckoo on the staff. Some will be cool and help you out. But most prison guards are crusaders and have something to prove. They want to punish you. That’s why they came to work in the prison.
You go to the dining hall and meet your new best friends: generally people within your own race. Whites hang out with whites, etc. People show you around. Recreation has lots of stuff—weights, etc. Education—you’ll watch movies in here. You’ll find the leisure library, law library, workout room, laundry room, and hospital.
“ChoMos” (child molesters) are not allowed to hang around with regular inmates. No one will associate with them. And then you get the inmates that are walking around the track planning their next crime. Inmates are teaching others—it’s like college for criminals. And some cops have listening devices in the phones. You get 300 minutes a month, but you gotta have a preplanned list with who you’re going to call. It can also be a snitch line. You gotta be really careful what you say and who you associate with, what you tell people about.
Leanna, 27, serving a 37-year sentenceI’m catching snips of what’s being said, though I’m not registering any of it. I want so badly to say, “Don’t leave me here,” as I’m looking at the COs [corrections officers], feeling betrayed. I wonder if anyone can read my thoughts, the agony on my face. I’m handed a card and walked to a door. With a loud buzz and a thump, the door opens and we step through. I feel utterly alone.I start to take in my surroundings. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, or had any water, or peed, and it’s 4:30 now. Then I’m asked the intake questions: full name, date of birth, age, if I’ve ever been in a psychiatric hospital. If I’m having any thoughts of suicide. If I have any venereal diseases. What color socks I’m wearing. Where’s the last place I came from. This time, I’m wearing socks from the mental hospital. They’re gray. W.R., 52, serving a 22-year sentenceI can’t open my eyes. I catch snippets of conversation, “…we’ll have to cut it off…” I feel a hand tugging at my eyebrow and I jerk back instinctively. I look around and see uniforms everywhere. I’m in a small yellow room. It’s overwhelming; I don’t want to be here. I move by rote and remove my piercings.
I open my eyes and I’m in another room. Another hand is tugging and pressing forcefully on my fingertips. I look down and there is ink on them. Closing my eyes, something inside me goes very cold. Suddenly, I’m lying down. I see a rough cement floor and an odd metal bowl. Christ, where are my clothes? I huddle under the small covering like a frightened animal and realize I’m alone. There is a solid glass wall that reveals a large wooden desk. I’m lying on a very thin mat, disoriented. I have no idea how I got here. I realize I have to pee. I can’t get permission. I’m shocked to discover that the padded vest I’m wearing doesn’t cover me well, as I’m naked underneath. I tell the person behind the glass I have to use the bathroom and he points behind me angrily like I’m interrupting him (he’s reading a newspaper). I will not pee in front of him like an animal! Where am I, and where are my clothes?
Arlene, 30, serving a 35-year sentence
They strip you down to your birthday suit, a process that can be a little on the unnerving side when you don’t know who the person is. Then you are sent to the pods, where you get a roommate that you don’t know. You hope and plead you don’t get a roommate who pilfers, or whose personal hygiene isn’t up to par. And this can be particularly uncomfortable when you have to use the lavatory in front of someone you don’t know.
I could sit here and tell you life in prison eventually is all rainbows and cupcakes and kittens shitting glitter, but it ain’t.
Now we progress to the point of the story where everything that you own is yours but they own it. They tell you when you can shower, when you can shit, when you can eat. You surrender and you shut down. I could sit here and tell you life in prison eventually is all rainbows and cupcakes and kittens shitting glitter, but it ain’t. You just wake up every day and you gotta get through the day because you have no choice. You gotta find the sunshine and just get through the day. Because if you’re like me, you ain’t going nowhere for a long time, so you gotta find a way to make it work. You read, you teach yourself things, you watch the birds outside, you make friends and your support system, you find a way to laugh, you remember what kinds of things you still love.
These interviews and excerpts were edited and condensed for clarity.
Illustration by Cam Cottrill
Design by Dana Kim
Mira Ptacin is the 2017 recipient of the Maine Literary Award, the author of the memoir Poor Your Soul and the forthcoming book The In-Betweens. She teaches memoir writing at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, ME, and lives on Peaks Island. Twitter: @miraptacin