Suburbia, by Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
Below is an essay I originally wrote as part of my Master of Divinity Thesis at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. Entitled “Suburbia,” it chronicles the day I reported to Allenwood Low Security Federal Correctional Institution in White Deer, Pennsylvania. Your comments are invited – Jeff
I pulled on my sweatshirt and realized just how cold it was. It was freezing down this end of the hall. Suburbia they called it. It was the most sought after section of the unit. Far from prying eyes. Far from the glaring lights and acrid smells of the bathroom. Far from the incessant screaming in the television room that could last until midnight. But also far from the furnace that cranked out insufficient heat to make it down to this distant end of the unit on very cold Pennsylvania mornings.
Out the windows from my upper bunk I could see farmhouses in the distance, windows aglow with the soft light from their fireplaces. The smoke rose from their chimneys in streams of white until it spread out into a haze mixing with the otherwise flawless starry sky. The lights turned on one at a time with people that I imagined were awakening for all kinds of reasons. It was Sunday, and they would be having big family breakfasts. In a couple of hours they would be going off to church. This was Amish and Mennonite country, so maybe they would be driving horse drawn carriages to church. Route 15, the other roads and the churches were not visible to us – they were purposefully hidden around bends in hills and mountains apart from our eyes. Or, more likely, we were purposefully hidden away from theirs. The mountains stretched as far as my eyes could see. In some ways, it was the loveliest spot I’d ever seen. Two mountain ranges on either side of the valley made a majestic backdrop every time a storm rolled in, or as jets flew overhead. I could time the jets as they flew westward in the mornings, full of businessmen and their promise of glory for the day. And as they flew home again in the evening, on wings of victory or perhaps empty disappointment. I dreamt about flying home too. Or about life as it was before.
I knew I had very little time to spare – maybe an hour to write my letters before the others woke up and needed to share my space by the window at the end of the hall. First it was the yoga and stretching guys who went through their exercises quietly. They laid down towels and engaged in an incredibly disciplined daily routine. It was all about routine there as I’d learned and mine was no exception. Everyday was like every other day – it was what kept us sane. Kept me sane. They say that the hardest parts of a prison bid are the beginning and the end, and this was certainly true for me. The middle was just a string of Groundhog Days – each day pretty much like the next. So much so that anything that interfered was an unwelcome distraction.
After the exercise guys came the Muslims who needed room at the end of the hall to lay down their prayer mats. The window was on the eastern wall. Their purpose trumped mine so each morning I silently retreated and gave them their space. They prayed five times a day, the first time at the end of the hall at about 5:30 in the morning. Their seven or eight colorful mats tucked close together were a stark contrast to the dull, drab and dark hall. Shoulder to shoulder they bowed and prayed in unison. In five minutes’ time they were finished and the hall was mine again.
Everything was on prison time – so the exercise guys, the Muslims and I had to adjust our schedules to fit the institution clock. When the doors opened at 6 a.m. for breakfast, we all had to be ready. The doors waited for nobody. The prison was on controlled movements, which meant that the doors of the unit opened at the bottom of the hour for ten minutes, except for mealtimes when the doors stayed open until the meal was over. There were paths to cross the compound to get to the other buildings, such as the library, recreation, dining hall and commissary. We had ten minutes to get to the other side. If we were late, or got caught in the compound when the doors closed, we were likely brought to the Head Lieutenant’s office. From there, it was his decision whether or not we would be thrown into the SHU – the Segregated Housing Unit. Solitary Confinement.
I spent some time in the SHU when I first arrived at Allenwood. I reported on Easter Sunday, 2006 – none were too pleased to process an intake on Easter Sunday. But my sentencing judge had ordered me to self-surrender at the prison on that day. My friends Tom and Alexis had driven me out to Central Pennsylvania from Connecticut. It was a nice relaxed car ride – I spoke to my kids and some friends on the way. We had some laughs and a cry or two. We pulled over in a cornfield across the street from the prison complex to share a prayer together. I certainly wasn’t a religious person at the time, but my four years in Alcoholics Anonymous were percolating with every prayer we could muster just about then. Across the street the complex was huge. There were four prisons inside the gates of the outer complex – had guard towers and patrol cars. The low security prison to which I was designated was toward the outside – it was staring right at us. Nothing looked particularly “low” about it. It had two fences with sets of razor wire circling it. As we drove inside, I got that tingling, vertigo-type feeling in the back of my knees that I get whenever I get to close to something dangerous.
The building was mildly attractive, as was the entire complex. It looked kind of like the Long Island Railroad station where I grew up in Merrick, Long Island. It was Arts & crafts style, made out of cement block and lots of metal – a 1970’s design concept that somehow looked more modern then than when it was built. We walked into the lobby and I gave my name kind of like I was checking in to a hotel. Tom and I were asked to have a seat. About fifteen minutes later a guard came out and asked me what I was doing there on Easter Sunday. I showed him my court orders – he did not look happy. Nonetheless, he was pleasant as he asked Tom to leave. I hugged Tom good-bye and went with the guard as then escorted me through a metal door. From one moment to the next my life changed forever.
As we went through the door he spun me around, held my hands behind my back and slapped handcuffs on them. I had been anticipating this moment for over a year and not once did I consider that I would have to be handcuffed. At that moment I had my first inkling of how little I knew about surviving in prison – and what a naïve I guy I really was. I was escorted to a bulletproof glass teller’s cage behind which was a guard who asked me for my “register number.” I had no idea what that was – I’d never heard that term before. He asked me for it again and when I didn’t know he came out and taped a number on my clothes. That was my Federal Bureau of Prisons register number, and it became my identity for the next fourteen months.
I was next brought to a section called R & D – Receiving & Discharge – and it felt very much like its title – a place for FedEx packages. I was processed and then told to strip naked. They took all my clothes and put them in a box to ship back home. While I was standing naked in this cold room, on a cold cement floor, a man entered who I would later learn was the Head Lieutenant. He basically ran the day-to-day operations of the prison. He looked me up and down, and then asked me if I was the lawyer. I told him no, but that I used to be one. He seemed pleased with that answer. He then told me that there were 1500 men on his compound, and I was to be the only lawyer. There were some jailhouse lawyers working out of the library. He told me that I’d have no problems on his compound if I stayed out of other people’s legal business and I took no money or favors from another inmate. He told me that I was a short-stayer and he suggested I just do my time and go home without a problem. He asked me what I thought of that? I was standing there naked. I told him that making a few dollars from other inmates was the last thing on my mind. We got along famously.
Soon, I was given an orange jump suit to put on, re-cuffed and was marched across the compound to the SHU. It was a time-honored tradition at Allenwood to hoot and holler at new inductees as they were being led through the compound to the SHU on their first day. I certainly didn’t understand why people were hollering at me. The guards never told me where I was going or why. As I later learned, the only information I ever get in prison was from the other inmates, and I couldn’t believe half of that. So working through the information process was basically sifting through, trying to get “reliable” resources, and hoping that where they got their information was reliable too. As the saying went, in prison believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. That afternoon, I was a guy in an orange jump suit walking across a prison yard trying to rely upon some of my senses that were failing me rapidly.
When I got to the SHU, it looked like something out of the worst prison movie I had ever seen – it was dark and dimly lit, with rows of metal doors with tiny holes in them. I was put in a rubber lined holding cell, re-stripped and re-searched. I guess when they were satisfied that I hadn’t picked up any weapons or contraband in the 300-foot walk from R & D I was brought to a small cell and led inside. I was never told where I was or why I was there. I didn’t know if this was what the entire prison was like, if it was a holding area, or how long I would be there. I was just put in the cell. Inside the cell was a narrow bunk bed – barely wide enough for a grown man’s shoulders – a combination toilet and sink, a desk and a chair. And there I met my first cellie – a black man, around 50 years old, with dreadlocks down to his waist. When I came in, he didn’t smile, didn’t acknowledge my presence at all. He just pointed to the upper bunk. I understood – that was mine.
His first words came about ten minutes later when he told me to move fast. The sound of a cart moving down the hall meant we had no time to lose. The slot on the metal cell door opened, kind of fell down to the hallway side with a big clang, and quickly, very quickly, four covered trays of food slid in through the slot. I understood what he meant by moving fast. If we didn’t catch the trays they would have dropped to the ground and the food would have spilled all over. He caught each tray and quickly handed them to me. I put them on the desk. We sat on the floor, dividing the dinner between us. I had already decided that I was going to lose the forty pounds I had put on in the months I was waiting to go to prison. I looked in the trays, and saw there was a little meat of some sort, and lots of bread, potatoes and rice. Starches were apparently the mainstay of the diet – I asked him if he wanted my potatoes and rice. We became friends in no time. His name was Raoul.
Almost everybody who came to Allenwood was first brought to the SHU, Raoul explained. The party line was that they were waiting for a bed to open on the compound, and I found that might have been true to a large extent. The prison was very crowded, much more crowded than what it was designed for. So the SHU was used for extra beds. It’s one reason we didn’t want to be disciplined by a guard – they had an incentive to give our beds on the compound to someone whose been waiting in the SHU for a month. And it was a way of soothing the savage beasts. Inmates were being transported from to and from other prisons – sometimes they were on the road for as much a ninety days. It was called diesel therapy. In each stop they would get put into a SHU and not into general population. There was no way to know how long I’d be in the SHU, but Raoul suspected that I wouldn’t have to wait long: first timer, middle age, and most importantly, white. I later learned that some inmates are kept in the SHU “waiting for a bed” thirty days or longer. I only had to wait 16 hours before I was released onto the compound.
I was shoved out the door of the SHU without any other instructions than to report directly to the laundry. It was about nine o’clock in the morning, bright daylight, and my eyes were trying to refocus after having been in a dungeon for the past day or so. The light was blinding. I was wandering around in a completely empty compound – there was not a single soul it in except me. I had no idea that the compound was closed, what that meant, where I was or where the laundry was located. Of course, my orange jumpsuit was a dead give away that I was coming from the SHU and heading to the laundry. Where else would a guy in an orange jumpsuit be heading? A guard was kind enough to point enough to point me in the right direction – I think it was through a bullhorn.
The laundry was located at the far end of the compound, next to the commissary and dining hall. Once I got the lay of the land, which took me awhile, the layout of the prison kind of made sense. Things that needed to have loading docks and daily deliveries were grouped together. They were also strategically located close to trash receptacles. I had a lot of time to think about these things.
I got to the laundry and knocked on the big metal industrial door – my big rap was much louder than I intended. The door opened a sliver and a head popped out to tell me that I would have to wait for the move before I could gain entry. I had no idea what that meant, but after the door closed there was no way that I was going to knock on that door again. In about fifteen minutes, a siren went off and people started scurrying around all over the place. This, I understood, was the move. The door popped open, I stepped inside and I was first in line. I presented the clerk with the papers I had been given in the SHU – he sized me up for a uniform, t-shirts, shoes, a laundry bag, duffel, sheets, blanket, towels, a soap kit, and just about everything I would need to make my stay at Allenwood complete. Labels were ironed onto the front of my uniforms. I was told to try everything on because once issued, I was stuck with it. I looked like Gomer Pyle, the shoes hurt already. But who was I to complain? This was not a fashion show.
At the next move, I threw my duffel over my shoulder and followed the clerk’s instructions to report to my unit that was, of course, the farthest one on the other side of the compound. As I passed each unit, it appeared to me that they were named after counties or towns in Pennsylvania – a nice touch. I arrived at my unit in under ten minutes – Union A. I walked in the front door and came upon a lot of hustle and bustle. The guard station was right up in front. I presented my papers to the guard who looked me up and down, checked my register number and then showed me to an empty upper bunk in Cube 25.
Union A, Cube 25, Upper Bunk would be home for the next thirteen and a half months.
Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div is the Minister/Director of the Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse and Children Project in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is engaging in new forms of prison ministries providing religious and spiritual support to people affected by inner city, white-collar and nonviolent incarceration issues and their loved ones – before, during and upon reentry from prison. They are “the first ministries in the United States created to support people accused or convicted of white-collar and other nonviolent crimes and their families.” Website: prisonist.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: (203) 769-1096.