Prison Life: A Day
by Marilyn Buck

 guard-prisoner-relations  personal-narrative  political-prisoners  prison-life

Don’t let your throat tighten with fear. Take sips of breath all day and night. Before death closes your mouth. -Jalaluddin Rumi

The seemingly normal routine life behind the walls is more than sufficiently punishing and corrosive. When I awake, I do not shudder with fear to face another day of extreme measures; I worry more about becoming more inured to the casual cruelty that prevails. It lures us into becoming the very creatures the prison system advertises us to be and robs us of our humanity. I worry about succumbing, losing my will to resist dehumanization, and ultimately, losing my own sense of who I am as a human being.

What is normal and routine about in this world would be a nightmare to one who has not had to experience such indignity and lack of control over one’s self. Prison is a parallel world to the “outside”. Only if one has lived in a Black community, under marital law in Puerto Rico (or in other parts of the world), survived military invasions, or been held as a virtual hostage in an abusive, battering relationship, might one have an idea of what it is like to live in conditions where your every word and action is subject to censorship, control, punishment, and even possible torture, by guards hired to watch and secure you. Most new prisoners walk around in a state of shock, fear and uncertainty. The new prisoner is alternatively on the verge of tears or filled with rage at the way she is treated by the guards and “administrators”. She cannot believe that she has so few rights, and that there is no due process when a guard tells her that she must do as he or she says or suffer the consequences. Even to be transferred to another prison causes a similar, though less intense response. One must learn to negotiate the unfamiliar minefield-the personalities and boundaries of the prison guards as well as those of the prisoners, each of whom is arduously negotiating each day.

At 5:30 I rise, still tired from being awakened during the night by flashlights in my eyes during three “morning-shift” counts. After the 5:00 count I finally stumble out of bed into the cold dankness of the cell, three steps to the toilet. I move to the sink to wash my face, trying to open the metal locker without great screeching (so as not to wake my cellmates), both women younger than my own children would be. One moans at the sound of the flushing toilet, the creaking locker and the water dripping into the sink. Already I feel anxiety, knowing that I am disrupting her sleep and that she will jump up in a moment exasperated and frustrated. I know how it feels not to be able to sleep because of constant intrusions- loud voices, metal doors clanging, and cellmates who live on a different schedule.

I am fortunate that both my cellmates are considerate; we all get along in this space built for one prisoner. But the constant attention to consideration creates a tension-an artificial politeness, as well as the vigilance of constantly moving out of each other’s way, predicting the next move, like playing in a championship tennis tournament and trying to determine where the ball will land.

At 6:00 AM the officer begins screeching over the loudspeaker. Names and commands blare out. My ears strain to hear whether my name being called. I am on constant alert; I feel like Pavlov’s dog waiting for a bell- or an electrical shock. Even though I am aware of the phenomenon and resist it, I am subject to it. Every interaction- conversation, reading, even thinking- is subject to this harsh intrusion. Concentration flees. The act of being on alert-hyper-vigilant- almost 24 hours per day wreaks havoc on my nervous system.

I make a phone call. The person on the line stops; aware that I am distracted -the guards are calling out names. I have to ask my caller to speak louder so that I can hear over the constant din of voices and background noise. Morning is the quietest time; I have managed to work in the afternoons and evenings in order to have some moments of relative quiet in which I might concentrate and read or write.

Thinking is a luxury. Most of my thought processes have retreated below the conscious level. Someone is hollering that the iron is dirty and who is the trifling @#%^* who messed it up? Oh, to be like Buddha beneath the tree becoming enlightened. But he did not have to function in this world. He had the choice to get up at any moment.

I sit down to write; I look for what I need in a pile of papers. There is no place to store materials or books. We are permitted by policy to have five books. An hour of intermittent silence; the loud speaker intrudes only once. The fire alarm goes off at 9:05 AM. I sigh and hurriedly grab a book, water, and jacket. Is this one more false alarm, set off by someone smoking, or is it to be a unit shakedown in which we will be exiled to the yard for hours and hours? (I’m glad I am dressed, a habit of mine to be prepared, not to be caught off guard.) The guard announces, “Clear the unit!” Another comes banging on doors, “Everyone outdoors! Now!”

Women file out doors opened only in emergencies. Many are still in their nightclothes. They are among those who have contrived to sleep their days away. Most are very young, 20-25 years old. We stand outside in the chill wind. The alarm continues to blare, raking my eardrums. The smokers light up. I move further away from the crowd to avoid the press of bodies. Lieutenants stride purposefully through the crowd into the building.

Ten minutes pass. No order to leave the area. Relief. Today will not be a shakedown. Today I will not have to spend hours reorganizing my pitiful few possessions. I might still get something accomplished before work.

The Lieutenant walks out the door screaming, “You must stand behind the yellow line!” Two sisters who are deaf and mute remain standing where they were, along with several others who do not understand English and have not been here long enough to know that until everyone moves across the plain yellow line we will be forced to remain standing. Another woman, closer to the “offenders” goes and pulls then gently across the line. I am irritated at the whole show. I also realize that I’m irritated at those women who don’t move. I am irritated at myself for being exasperated at the other women, even though I understand that some have not moved as their own personal act of rebellion. I, too, have done that and may do so in some other situation in order to retain some modicum of my own power. Six more minutes pass. Everyone is now behind the line. The Lieutenant strides out through the crowd, ignoring us. Resentment hovers over us. Finally, a guard walks out to say, “You can return now.”

At 10:45 AM women come speed walking by from UNICOR1, on their way to lunch. By 11:30-11:45, my unit is released to lunch. We are “out last” this week because we were ranked last in the sanitation and safety inspection. One of the orderlies/workers did not have her steel-toed boots on when cleaning labels off plastic bottles with a toothbrush and bucket of water. A collective punishment for a petty procedural offense.

I have stood waiting at the front door to get out of unit among the first in order not to stand long in the line. Even so, as I stand in line, ten women come racing by to cut. I say something to the woman who cuts in front of me. She swings her hair and moves in front of her friend, looking back at me, a challenge in her eyes. It’s not worth the energy- but I am exasperated. I never get used to such lack of regard among the women. The lines are long, but we’re all anxious no to spend one minute longer than necessary in any given line.

Once inside, before I can get into the line there, the Lieutenant stops me, “Button your shirt! Take off your sunglasses!” I button my shirt perturbed by the ridiculousness of the rule. But it is a direct order. After all, I am wearing a tee shirt beneath my uniform shirt. I do not look provocative…I do not remove my sunglasses, telling the Lieutenant that they are prescription lenses. He already knows that, but says, “Let me see your eyes!” I sigh; do I really want to eat? I have made it this far.

I get my tray; before me is a scene not unlike Times Square at rush hour. Too many people in too little space. The women on the serving line are all ill humored by this time; the vegetables are steamed beyond recognition and the cantaloupe is gone. Only apples, the ever present last year’s apples. I look out on the floor. Against a low wall stand a number of the suited administrators: warden, bureaucrats, and department heads. Their policy is to be available to the prisoner population to listen to requests, problems. Most carry a small notebook into which they may write the prisoner’s name, then smile and say, “We’ll look into it.” I move into the fray. There is a line to get water, a line to get soup, a free-for-all to get a few wilted salad greens, already picked over. If one waits for the salad bar to clear out, one will never get anything. She who gets there first gets the tomato or the potato salad. I move off to find a place to sit, jockeying with my tray in order not to end up with it in my chest or on someone else. There are 300-400 women in this area. Some have left, thank goodness. Others could not face the dining room today.

I eat; juggle my way out carefully. I avoid getting pat searched- a daily gauntlet to run, which is done ostensibly to prevent women from taking even a slice of bread from the dining room. I do not have any “contraband”, but recoil at being patted down- felt up- by some female or even male guard. Eighteen years in prison has not inured me to the invasive violations of hands that assert the right to paw on my body.

Now I must hurry back to the unit to pick up my work materials- a bottle of water, which is hopefully less toxic than that in the tap. Off to work. The loud speaker sounds, “The yard is closed. Return to your work site.” We have ten minutes on the half hour to move from one area to another. A Lieutenant is yelling at some women across the yard to turn around and return to wherever she came from. The woman is pleading her case. I hurry and make it across without an encounter. The Education Department is a relatively safe place to work, unless the “suits” or a guard brings a tour through- new guard recruits, visiting prison officials (like the officials from the People’s Republic of China who were escorted through proudly a few years ago by higher-ranking U.S. Bureau of Prison officials). We go about our business. We are not anxious to engage in conversation with tour-types. We are not saleswomen for the criminal justice system.

I work as the correspondence clerk in the Vocational Training area (where computer training is given). I work with those few women who are able to pay for college correspondence courses, or other long-distance-learning courses, as well as take care of the “paperwork” involved in documenting prisoner activities for my supervisor. Both the supervisors in VT are interested in women gaining skills in order to get work that will sustain them economically once they are released. That is rare, inside prison walls. One can feel nearly like an efficacious human being here, except of course for the endemic male supremacy. A main perk of working here is that, as in the rest of the Education Department, the loudspeaker does not penetrate. It is usually quiet.

At 3:30 PM, we wait for the last students to leave so that we, the prisoner clerks may also return to the units for the nation-wide, official 4:00 PM standing count2 . Back to the unit. The guard is yelling on the loudspeaker, “Clear the unit, go to your rooms.” I try to get a cup of hot water for coffee before the unit is cleared. Success. I exhale and whisper-chat with one cellmate; the other is lying down. A few minutes later the loudspeaker blares, “Stand up for the count.” We strain to hear which unit they will count first. If we can’t discern the distorted sounds clearly we sit tensely, waiting to leap up at the sound of approaching keys, or we stand, waiting for 15-20 minutes.

After the count, there is a visible lessening of tension. Most of the “suits” are gone. Even the evening shift guards are somewhat less tense. The loudspeaker continues to invade, haranguing someone to go somewhere- all evening long, incessantly. “Mail call” is the one welcome announcement. Since we are “out last,” we must wait nearly an hour before being released from the unit to pursue evening duties, activities and have dinner. It is our unit’s day to go to commissary. At last the door does open and the mad rush begins. “No running!” Women stop running to walk fast. Do I have time to eat before my number is called? Yes, I rush to the dining hall, get through the line relatively quickly and gulp down my food. I do not want to miss my number. I need soap and tea. I rush out to find my number hasn’t been called yet. Relief. Now, how much longer? I have to go back to work, so I’m feeling pressed. Finally I shop and hurry back to my unit to drop off my commissary, hoping no one decides to come into my cell and make off with my bag. I don’t have time to put it away. Off to work. At 8:30 VT closes.

I rush back to the unit to sign up for laundry- it’s our tiers evening to sign up for the next day- an improvement from years of dashing at 5:30 AM to try to get a space. I get a wash-time when I can actually wash. Now I dash to try to get a shower before the 9:15 call for count. Fortunately, Only one woman stands in line before me. On my way back to my cell from the shower, I check to see whether a phone call will be possible. No, a line there too.

Once we are locked in for the count, I do not leave the cell again. I lay down to read the news from several days earlier. I try to relax and go to sleep. Hopefully, after 10:00PM the loudspeaker will fall silent. Barring a fire alarm or a guard waking me to give a urine sample, I will get a full night’s rest.


1 - UNICOR is the acronym for Federal Prison Industries. It is a highly profitable set of factories- from data processing to furniture-making, military supplies, etc. Prisoners are paid third-world wages, $1.10/hour is the highest wage. Women compete to work there, as it is the only source of income for most prisoners. With this small wage they can sustain themselves and perhaps send some money home to their families.

2 - Every prisoner must be standing upright at this count, unless one has the proper medical approval not to do so.