The Time I Went to Prison
If you’ve got a toilet bowl and a coat hanger, you can make apple pie.
By Juliana Neves, Loyola University
First, before I continue allowing you to think that you’re reading the work of a convicted criminal, I have to clear something up. I have never been convicted of a crime.
Yes, it’s a shocker. Now that’s not to say that I’ve never committed a crime, just that I’m a firm believer in the “It doesn’t count if you didn’t get caught” mantra.
So why would I go to prison with a squeaky clean record? Why, a philosophy class, what else? Yep, my philosophy class required that I serve hard time.
Every Monday night we would have a class on “Free Will and Predestination,” except our fellow classmates were prison inmates. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled that their daughter was going to prison (for obvious reasons), but I was excited.
What would it look like? Would it be more Shawshank Redemption or Longest Yard? I knew seeing Tracy Morgan in a skirt or Adam Sandler coaching a rag-tag football team was a long shot, but I had no idea what to expect.
Before going to Jessup, aside from background checks, we had to be “debriefed.” Debriefing is just a fancy word for getting the low down on going to prison. No tight clothes, no shorts, no open-toed shoes, no makeup and no jewelry. Only bring a pen, some paper and an ID.
Basically, look as crappy and as lazy as possible and you’re good to go. I was happy about this.
We drove up in the ugliest puke green mini-van ever manufactured: a 1997 Nissan Quest. From the outside, Jessup Correctional Institution looked pretty much like your standard movie prison: lookout towers, barbed wire, brick (lots of it) and a color scheme more depressing than the DMV.
To be honest, walking in was pretty nerve-wracking. We had one rule: Do everything the officer tells you and nothing she doesn’t. She, yes she, had that type of face that said “Do not fuck with me.”
She sent each of us through the metal detector, and then followed that up with a too-close-for-comfort pat down. After that we waited. We waited until another officer would escort us to the classroom. I felt weird laughing or smiling in the wait room—bullet holes in the glass windows really kill the mood. Finally, a man in a fez with a smile too big for prison appeared and told us he was bringing us to our room. I thought to myself, “This is going to be a weird night.”
He and the officer escorted us through a series of doors and hallways. One door could not be opened without closing the other. Left, right, right and left. By the third turn I had no idea where I was. At last, we made it to the yard.
The yard—it sounds intimidating. Unlike in Shawshank, it wasn’t an open dirt plain, but instead a series of sectioned-off areas divided by 15-foot tall barbed wire. I could see basketballs that had gotten stuck in the wire and I couldn’t help but think about how fun was a luxury here. I would later find out the sections were made to stop the spread of drugs.
We passed through one of the barbed wire walls, and I saw something I was not expecting. Men, many men just walking around. Old and young, just strolling from one building to another. None of them were in orange or chained at the ankles, some guys were even in jeans. If the prison had been overtaken, it was done subtly.
“Yo, Doctor D.” I turned to see a few men come up to my professor and shake his hand. Smiling and laughing, they were like old college buddies reconnecting. My professor was more like a rock star with every other person saying hi to him. The tension lifted with each smiling face.
The school building was another nice surprise. The walls were covered in beautiful murals. They promoted education and life more than a prison sentence. After chatting with a couple officers, we entered the classroom.
It felt like the first day of high school again, not like high school is a prison or anything, but you get what I mean: The pubescent awkwardness of waiting for the other students to walk in, except this time with inmates.
“Hi, my name is Leandrew. Would you like a glass of water?”
He had glasses and a big smile. He was the warmest face I had seen since going into prison. Slowly, the other men filed in. Just to combat some stereotypes: there were zero teardrop tattoos, no orange jumpsuits and a complete absence of ankle-chains.
Instead, every man shook our hand and introduced himself. After a quick introduction, we split up and got right to discussions about free will and predestination.
Some guys were serving life sentences, so I was curious what they thought about the idea. They were insightful and their conversations were genuine. I was often caught off guard, stuttering on my words because I was so wrapped up in theirs.
Big Mike: No shocker, he was big, really big. He reminded me a bit of DJ Khaled. He rarely spoke, but when he did he sounded like Gandolf.
Leandrew: The sweetest man you know. He never failed to bring me glass of water before class.
AI: His initials stand for Awesome Individual. The first day I didn’t even know AI was an inmate because he came in to class wearing jeans and a t-shirt. AI was the class clown, always filled with energy and was often told to shut up by the older guys.
Q: He was teaching himself Quantum Physics. When he told me that, I felt guilty for ever complaining about my high school biology class.
Tray: The “too cool for school” type. Not because he didn’t care about the material, but because he knew it all. He was one of the smartest men I have ever met. He was a walking encyclopedia who ate Lemon Drops endlessly. Every sentence that came out of his mouth was a quotation.
J-me (pronounced Jamie): Zach Galifianakis’s doppelganger. We sat next to each other everyday, and talked about everything. We goofed off when the professor wasn’t looking. He brought me a magazine cut out because he thought I should get my haircut like the model. He brought me a book to read just because he liked it and thought I would. I asked him questions about prison and I learned some interesting things:
You can get anything into prison. Anything includes wine, cigarettes and even weed.
The weed was shared between inmates and officers, often.
Stamps were used as currency
The color over your boots indicated how long you were in prison.
The color orange was reserved for the worst of the worst guys.
Whatever you do, don’t join a gang. (That seemed like an obvious one).
He could make an apple pie with coat hangers and portable toilet bowl. (Don’t ask).
They were funny, respectful, humble and most of all grateful. During that hour and a half, we all forgot where we were. Labels melted away. They taught me a lot about being grateful for the opportunities I have. I miss them all, especially J-me. I hope one day I can see them again on the other side of the bricks and the barbed wire.
And now, for the rest of my life, I’ll never forget that all you need is to give Martha Stewart a run for her money is a microwave, coat hanger, portable toilet bowl and apples.