The Time Does You

Today was my second meeting with the therapist. Instead of continuing with the evaluation, he introduced me to one of his former clients who was released from prison eight years ago for possession of child pornography. The therapist thought it would be helpful to talk to someone who'd been in my situation and who could answer any questions I have about prison.

Tom was in his mid-fifties and sported a beard and mustache. His protruding belly prevented the last button of his leather vest from buttoning. This, in addition to his rosy cheeks, gave him the appearance of a biker Santa.

"Prison is harsh and unjust," he said as we sat down.

Before his incarceration, Tom was a high-level federal employee. When he went to his superior and threatened to go public with incriminating evidence against the department, his office was searched, his computer seized, and he was charged with possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to four years in prison—one year for each image he allegedly possessed. Neither he nor his lawyer ever saw the evidence. He appealed his case as high as the supreme court on the grounds that the sentence was unjustifiably harsh and for the lack of physical evidence. The appeal was turned down.

"When you first get there—it doesn't matter where it is—they're going to put you in the SHU."

The SHU, he said, stands for Special Housing Unit, and it's where inmates go when they misbehave. It's also where they put newly arrived inmates as a sort of "initiation." Inmates in the SHU are allowed outdoors only one hour per day and are constantly monitored with closed-circuit television cameras. The cells are usually windowless, the walls made of poured concrete which may be soundproofed, and the furniture is metal. Meals are handed to you through a "chuck hole" in the door.

"You'll be in there for three, maybe five days," Tom said. "And during that time, they'll verbally assault you, strip you naked, harass and humiliate you. They won't physically abuse you, but they'll scare you bad enough to make you think that they can."

Tom explained that the faster you learn the language and group dynamics of prison, the safer and better off you are. Each race, for example, has their own microwave, and I wouldn't want to be caught using a microwave that belongs to the blacks or Mexicans. The same applies to television sets.

Despite security, he said, drugs and gangs are commonplace. Drugs are smuggled into prison via bodily orifices. Gangs will attempt to persuade me to join them under the guise of protection.

"The best advice I can give you is don't ever let yourself be alone. Always be near other people, and blend in."

Sex offenders (or "cho mos") are detested by the inmates and are often the targets of threats and violence. "So if anyone asks what you're in for, the best thing to do is tell them your case is ongoing, and your attorney has advised you not to speak to anyone."

Tom's first job when he arrived in prison was folding laundry. He would fold up to 1,500 sets of uniforms for four hours every day. Food service is considered the worst job. Inmates sometimes hand back their food trays with shit on them, or they'll piss in their cups. The better jobs pay up to 35 cents an hour, and the money goes into your commissary account.

The commissary is a like a general store. Once a week, inmates are allowed to purchase whatever items they'd like—candy bars, toiletries, socks, stamps, instant noodles, shoes, televisions, etc. Some of the more clever inmates hoard stuff in their cell lockers and sell their wares for a profit.

Many inmates will stock up on prepackaged food from the commissary because prison food is as awful as one might imagine. Meals are prepared by the inmates themselves, and the menu consists mostly of carbs, fatty meats, greasy cabbage, and lots of chicken.

Inmates are allotted to spend four hours with visitors. Before and after you see your visitor, you must strip down and submit to an oral and anal cavity search. Visits are monitored and video recorded.

The most frightening thing about prison, Tom said, is the constant threat of sexual assault.

"Never go in the showers alone." During his incarceration, Tom described three instances when he was nearly raped while alone in the restroom.

In 2001, Human Rights Watch published a report that estimated 140,000 inmates had been raped while incarcerated in the United States. Another report in 2003 estimated the number of rape victims to be around 43,800. The truth is that no estimate is accurate because many victims refuse to speak out for fear of retaliation and humiliation. What is known, however, is that young men are five times more likely to be attacked in prison, and victims are ten times more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease.

"You're going get hit on a lot when you're in prison," Tom said lowering his voice. "Especially because you're young and attractive.

He warned that if I do choose to have sex, I should do it with someone who can protect me, because "when word gets out, there are going be plenty of others wanting your services, and some of them aren't going to be tender lovers."

Two months before his release from prison, Tom's wife of thirteen years decided she didn't want to be associated with a sex offender and filed for divorce. When I asked Tom how prison had changed him, he told me the most difficult thing was learning to trust again.

His final advice: Nobody is your friend. Blend in and find ways to fill your time. It's hard for awhile, but once you get used to it, you'll find it's true what they say: "You don't do the time. The time does you."