I began my sojourn in prison early that evening in lockstep with eight other inmates. Our hands are cuffed in front of us, our ankles shackled with a two-foot chain that drags. We are chained in groups of three. We walk in a line with short steps known as the inmate shuffle. Getting out of step causes the ankle manacles to gouge the skin of the other two inmates, this equates to instant rage from stressed out criminals. I am carrying terrifying notions of what is waiting for me beyond the prison’s dark walls. My secret fear is in full panic mode.
The stainless steel chain drags across the dark parking lot making a merry tinkling sound that is at odds with my anxious state. We hobble from a marshals’ van, through a chain link fence topped with razor wire and pass through a second chain link gate. I shiver in the cold October air. A sea fog drifts in the harbor coating my skin with wet chilly mist.
Terminal Island Federal Correctional Facility (TI) squats on a man-made peninsula at the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor. The prison sprawls across 20 acres in a long bleak rectangle. Before us looms a depressing concrete building three stories tall with a few dark, barred windows on the top floor. On both ends of the foreboding wall are gun towers that drift in and out of a shifting fog. A guard stands outside a tower watching us; a riot shotgun rides casually on his shoulder. My upward gaze attracts a rap from a marshal’s baton, “Move it, boy.”
I shuffle forward, shoulders slumped, head down. The chain plays its merry tinkling cadence while I desperately try to deal with the reality of the looming prison. I am losing control of my life, yet all I can do is hobble forward as the prison sally port opens to devour all that I am. A dirty yellow light looms from the open steel door. All my senses argue against going through that ominous port. Reluctantly, I shuffle into the gloom of federal custody swathed in a musty feral smell.
We are in a dim entry at the base of a rusted steel staircase. The cement walls press in upon us. The walls are damp from the sea moisture laden air with patches of peeling pea green paint. My arm brushes against the damp metal scaffolding and comes away slimed with grime and wet rust. We climb the staircase in cadence, the solid thump of our shoes and tinkling of the chains echo off the walls. I accidently break step earning a deep snarl from the hulking criminal behind me. At the top of the staircase, they herd us into a holding cell where they remove the leg irons and handcuffs. I rub my bruised ankle.
The criminal whose ankle I gouged glares at me then walks over to a toilet with a half-busted off seat. The cell smells of tobacco, pungent body odor, and then strongly of urine as the man loudly relieves himself. I step to a barred window with small glass panes painted brown. One of the upper panes has been broken out. I go up onto my tiptoes to peer out. The metal rim has sharp glass fragments embedded in it. They gleam like tiny teeth as I press my nose into the opening. I am undergoing a sudden constricted, drowning feeling like being gulped down by a gigantic snake. Inside its throat, I peer out through the teeth-rimmed opening at the prison’s North Yard. Through the swirling fog, I see walls stained shades of black and gray from long exposure to smog and soot. The yard is bordered with formidable dormitories, each two stories tall, their gray walls slashed with twin rows of shadowed windows though some leak a pale yellow light. The grounds are covered with tarmac, cracked cement, and a few small lawns. A stunted tree stands alone in the middle of the yard.
“Get away from that window,” bellows a deep angry voice.
I turn around as a guard drags a black truncheon across the bars then stalks away. The large inmate I offended stands in a shadowed corner glaring at me.
After being fingerprinted, photographed, strip-searched, and issued prison jumpsuits, they lead us down corridors to a heavy steel door. The guard inserts a large brass key. Shoving the heavy door open, he grins, “Welcome to The Hole, boys.”
Jail Unit 1 (J-1) has three tiers of cells stacked inside a three-story building. I am dumbfounded seeing a huge steel cage squatting inside of a confining concrete structure. We climb a staircase to the second tier then walk along a row of cells with their despairing human cargo. The cells are ten-feet long, six-feet wide, and less than eight-feet tall. From the cells, adult male eyes stare. Some are fearful or hopeless, but many are predatory. There is the murmur of voices, mostly angry and threatening. I walk close to the railing, avoiding the physical threat exuding from the cells’ dark interiors.
The guard stops at a cell midway down and opens the grill. “Arrington,” he orders, “inside.”
I peer into the dim interior—abruptly the guard shoves me fully into the cell and slams the grill. It smells rank and stale like a musky tomb or damp cave. A steel toilet, its bowl soiled with a busted seat, crouches in the corner. I place a hand against the wall to steady myself. The concrete is grimy, my hand comes away slimed with a caking of tobacco residue that over the decades has turned a greasy nut brown. A dull glow from a dim yellow light recessed into the ceiling barely reaches the lower bunk, which is shrouded in shadows. A huge black man lies there. He is naked but for a pair of torn and stained boxer shorts. The man emits a heavy musk that fills the tiny cell. I look at his thick muscular arms, barrel chest, and hateful stare. I am instantly terrified but know not to show it. He glares with bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes.
“Hello,” I say warily, “My name is Steve.”
He shakes a meaty fist at me. “Don’t gives a damn what’s your name is whitey, stay out of my face or I’ll bust you up.”
Under threat and feeling exposed, I climb onto the top bunk. The concrete ceiling looms above me, it is like lying down in a cement and iron coffin with a half-closed lid. There is barely enough room to sit up. I shut my eyes and listen to the sounds of the cellblock. An argument spiced with foul words, and vile threats reverberates from the cell above. I hear the flushing of a toilet, a cell door slamming, and the creaking of bedsprings from the bunk beneath me. As the huge man rustles about, the upper bunk magnifies his movements—it is a very weird and disturbing feeling.
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