About shackles and haircuts by thadeusz
This story is fictional. It occurs in an equally fictional 51st state, somewhere between Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico : in the Deep South, in a very conservative state. The events described here are nevertheless inspired by the sad adventures of prisoners who had been arrested just before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and also by other more recent events.
I was 21 when I received my College diploma. My parents were no longer there to look at me : Dad died when I was a Freshman and Mom passed away during my Senior year. But Mira, my girlfriend, was there looking at me. I had succeeded to finish my studies thanks to a scholarship given by a Foundation for the Advancement of Colored People. I found this foundation very helpful and I wondered why they had established a special one to help colored people ! I am definitely an Afro-American, with a very dark skin and long hair for which I chose an afro haircut, with long and neat dreadlocks. I did not understand why there was a difference between poor black students and equally poor white students. Being a black person was never a problem for me in my Northern State. I grew there and could not imagine that it was different in other states. I was not stupid, I knew all about history and I knew of course that dreadful things had happened in the past, but I could not really imagine what it was now: in our United States, life could not be very different from life in my state.
I got a job in a bank, an excellent job. My boss was nearly obsessed by "honesty”. He wanted each of his employees to be perfectly "clean” and he warned me that if I made the smallest mistake, if I was ever simply booked by the police, my job would be gone. He also said that he had the necessary means to check if that was the case. I never knew whether that was true, but in doubt, I behave "as if” it was correct.
I got married at the age of 22 with my high school girlfriend, Mira. In those days, everybody called me by my name, David Blake and she became Mira Blake. It was great to be considered a good and respected citizen.
Very soon we had a son, Samuel, called Sam by everybody. A nice beautiful baby and later a nice little boy. Life was good to the three of us and I succeeded to save some money, which of course remained in "my” bank ! There, I also had some money left by my parents.
When Sam was little bit more than 7, Mira decided that she wanted to live with another man. She left me and took Sam with her. We got a divorce and the Judge decided that Mira was going to have the full guard of Sam, but that I could visit my son "from time to time”.
I was really desperate. I loved my wife, I loved my son and I had lost both of them since Mira had chosen to live out of state. One of my friend told me:
"Follow my advice. Take a few days off. Go on a binge, get laid with many nice girls and also get completely drunk in order to forget Mira and Sam. But don't do it here: the town is small. Your boss and everybody else would immediately know about it”.
I decided to follow his advice and went to a big city, in another state, in the sun, in the Deep South.
There I spent some money, got laid and drank a lot. I don't remember how much and in any case, at a certain moment I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was in poor shape and not very nice to be seen. But I soon realized that I was in a prison cell, without my wallet, without my driving licence and my watch, last present of my father. I waited there a long time. I was hungry and thirsty. After a certain time, when the sun was already going down, a man entered the cell. He was dressed in a blue uniform looking like a police officer or a City prison guard. Considering the place I was in, I assumed that he was the guard in charge of the cells in this part of the building. I asked him:
"What happened to me ?”
"I don't know. What is your name ?”
"Blake. David Blake. I am fine now, I am ready to go. Please give me my wallets and other belongings and I will go back to my hotel.”
The guard started looking at a piece of paper he had with him and said:
"I have no instructions about you, Blake. Certainly no orders to set you free.” and he left, closing the cell door behind him.
He came back a few minutes later with a prisoner's orange jumpsuit and told me:
"Take your filthy clothes off” (and they were filthy after my binge) "and put this on. Now.”
"But officer, I am not a prisoner. I have not been charged with anything” I replied
"A guy with your looks must be a criminal otherwise you would not be in a cell.”
"Maybe they put me here because I was drunk ?”
‘You are in my cell, so you put on this jumpsuit.”
"No ! I want a lawyer ! I know my rights” was my reply.
"A guy like you has no rights” was his reaction and he called two other guards.
The other guards came, hit me several times with their truncheon and undressed me by force. Finally, they dressed me up with this infamous orange jumpsuit and left me alone in the cell, without food and without water. I was more desperate than before, especially when I realized that I now looked like a prisoner and that, if my boss heard anything about this, I would lose my job.
Finally, I fell asleep and the rest of the alcohol in my blood disappeared. The next morning, another guard appeared, opened the door and gave me a piece of bread and a metallic jug with water, and locked the door again. I started to be furious and wanted to speak with someone able to understand the situation.
Around noon, or what appeared to be noon since I was still without my watch, the same guard opened the doors of all the cells and said:
"All detainees out. Form a file. Going to mess for lunch”
I was too hungry to complain again and decided to go and eat with the others and complain after. This was probably a mistake, but now I assume that if I had avoided that trap, another would have been prepared.
So I followed the others. We entered a big room provided with tables and chairs. There was also a counter with the food. I went to the counter, picked a tray to put my bowl full of food, my cup of water, a fork and a spoon (no knife available). I then went to the first available seat at the first available table. A big man, also in orange jumpsuit, was sitting next to the place I had chosen. He started to say:
"Hey you, with the dreadlocks, that's no place for a N*** ” (and there came the N-word which had never been used with me) "this is a white table. You go away to the N*** corner and quickly”.
I felt that this was beneath my dignity and I simply said:
"No ! I sit here, I eat here” and I started to eat.
The big man sprang on his feet, spit on me and tried to hit me, so I defended myself by placing instinctively my hand in front of my face. Unluckily, I was also holding my fork with my hand. The big detainee's fist fell on my fork and he immediately started to shout that I was trying to kill him. There was immediately an uproar and all the white detainees tried to aggress the black detainees who were in a totally different part of the room. The guards stopped the fight, got hold of me, took me away and placed me under restrain: they handcuffed me and placed shackles on my feet. They then brought me to the Chief guard's office. They explained to the Chief guard that I had rebelled, trying to aggress another detainee with my fork and provoking a disorder which could have started a rebellion in the detention facility. I tried to say that it was not true, but they did not let me speak adding that I had refused to put on a jumpsuit and that they had to put it on me by force, "according to regulations”.
The Chief guard reacted very quickly, saying:
"Boy, what you did is not acceptable. We don't want here a guy like you aggressing white detainees. I give you 10 years ADT for the aggression and 10 more years ADT for provoking a rebellion. You know what that mean ?”
"No” was my sincere answer
The guard holding me hit me with his truncheon saying:
"Show respect to your superior and say ‘Sir' when addressing him.”
The Chief guard continued:
"That means that whatever the sentence the judge will pass on you, you will have to serve 20 more years because of your bad behavior in this City Jail.”
He then told the guards to take me to a place he called "the cooler”. They made me go to a small cell in the basement, without any window but with a lamp which was permanently on. In the cell, there was a plank attached to the wall and the necessary facilities, but nearly no space to move. The guards also took away my shoes and socks "because of the shoelaces” and gave me instead plastic sandals, but they left me with the handcuffs and the shackles.
I spent some time alone in this cel, but I don't know exactly how much: I had no watch anymore and no possibility to look at the outside world. From time to time, a guard came and looked at me through a small opening in the cell door, probably to see if I was still alive. Several times, a guard brought a mess tin full of food with a spoon (but no fork) and a metal cup full of water.
I started to think and realized that my situation was serious: I had no more ID or driving licence, I was prisoner in some City Jail for reasons I ignored. On top of all this, all that occurred in a state from the Deep South where they did not have the same attitude towards black people as in my home state. I was also conscious that the 20 additional years represented a potential problem, but I was convinced that I could explain that to a Judge. I still had full confidence in the Judicial system of my country.
After a certain time, the guards came and took me out of the cell: they brought me back to the Chief guard's office. There, I could see that the Chief guard now had my wallet and my other possessions. I thought during a minute that he would set me free, but that was not the case. The Chief guard told me the following:
"Now I know who you are, David-Blake-with-the-dreadlocks, and where you come from. In MY town Police Officers found you drunk and asleep on the street in a white neighborhood, which is forbidden. They brought you here as is usual but they did not have time to book you because people of YOUR kind were rioting in the outskirts and their presence was required there. So now you are going to be booked and immediately after you will appear in front of a Magistrate who will sentence you for your crimes. Remember that you have 20 years ADT to serve on top of that.”
I tried to explain him what had exactly happened and how damaging being booked could be for me but he refused to listen to me and when I asked for a lawyer, the Chief guard said:
"The Judge will give you one if you don't have any.”
And that was it. The guards took me to a special room where they wanted to book me. Foolishly I resisted booking and tried to escape. I don't know why, but I was really out of myself. The guards of course captured me easily, booked me by force and then brought me to the Judge who was going to sentence me.
The Judge appointed a lawyer to take care of my case and then listen to the DA:
"Your Honor, the accused has been found drunk on a respectable street, for this he should be punished but not too severely. But he also rebelled while being booked and for that he must be punished according to the law of our state.”
The Judge looked at me and replied to the DA:
"Certainly, I will do all that is needed in this delicate case.” He then turned to my lawyer and continued:
"Everything would be much simpler if your client admitted his crimes and also accepted to be sentenced directly by me, without a jury. I might even be able to convince the Chief guard to reconsider the situation and cancel the two time 10 years ADT he gave your client.”
The lawyer told me that this would be the best for me since my ‘crimes' were proven facts, and that I might even be able to leave the court immediately, a free man. So, I did as my lawyer had told me and I accepted everything. When the Judge asked me:
"Do you admit all your crimes as mentioned by the DA ?” I replied "Yes, your Honor”.
"Do you regret them ?”
"Yes, your Honor”
"Do you accept to be judged and sentenced without jury ?”
"Yes, your Honor”
The Judge then asked the Chief guard, who had been called, if he accepted to cancel the 20 years ADT he had imposed on me, and the Chief guard accepted.
I assumed that all these exchanges were required by law for the record, and that the bailiff was carefully making notes of all that. I was feeling that now, with this nice Judge, everything was going to be OK again and that my nightmare would be finished.
At that moment the judge turned toward the bailiff and asked him an unexpected question:
"When do we have the next transportation ?”
"In four days” said the bailiff.
"In that case” said the Judge "I sentence the accused to the time already served plus four days, for the crime of being drunk and asleep in our city”.
Well, my dream of keeping my job was over: I was a convict now, or nearly an ex-con, and that would not be acceptable for my boss. This binge was causing me a lot of trouble.
But the Judge was not done, he continued calmly and nearly friendly:
"The accused must also realize that in this state we want to protect our guards and a mandatory sentence of at least 5 years hard labor is foreseen by the law in the case of a rebellion against prison guards inside a Correctional Facility. In the present case, the situation is aggravated by the fact that the accused rebelled while being booked, which might be considered as a Federal Crime. This accused has also proven, while awaiting a Judgement in the City Prison, that he is a brutal and dangerous man.” The voice of the Judge was now booming "For all these reasons I sentence the accused to 25 years hard labor without parole in the state penitentiary. Guards get hold of the prisoner, prepare him for his transportation which will take place in 4 days.” The Judge looked at me and continued "You will start to serve your 25 year sentence as soon as you enter the transportation van, immediately after you finish serving your lesser sentence for being drunk where you should never have gone. You misbehaved: I am now giving you time to reconstruct yourself.”
I was appalled by this sentence and I immediately said that I wanted to appeal it. The Judge told me that the trial was over and that I had to discuss all that with my lawyer, who was no longer in court. The guards took me to the sentenced prisoners cells and pushed me in one of them, after taking all my chains off, which was a small comfort. They did not let me call a lawyer telling me that I would be able to do it from the penitentiary, which I later learned, was not possible.
After 4 days in a cell looking like the "cooler”, but more comfortable since it had a window, other guards told me to come out and let them prepare me. They put a heavy belt on my waist and chained my hands and feet to this belt. On top of this they shackled me. It was difficult for me to walk and that was their purpose. They then led me towards a small van containing cages: I was locked in one of them. I could see that 8 other prisoners were with me, prepared like me for the "transportation” towards the penitentiary. We could not see outside: there were no windows, so we did not know where we were "transported” and through which roads we went. The trip was rather long and none of us felt like speaking: we were all thinking of the time we would have to serve in the penitentiary, we also wondered what our "hard labor” would look like. A few words were exchanged concerning mostly the length of our respective sentences. Mine appeared to be the longest one: 25 years. One of the guys warned me: "If you don't behave as they want, it will be more, much more.” I did not believe him. Anyway, I still intended to appeal the sentence. I was also the only one to have very long hair, very long dreadlocks and another guy told me: "They don't like dreadlocks, there”. I noticed that we were 9 prisoners and that 7 of us were Afro-Americans, which were only called "blacks” there.
When we arrived near the penitentiary, we were all told to keep quiet. The van entered slowly and then stopped. The door was briskly opened, and so were the doors of our cages. Guards appeared. They wore a totally green uniform, looking like an old Army uniform. They told us to get off the van and to hurry, which was not easy with our chains. I could see that the sky was blue, without a single cloud, and that the sun was shining. The weather was hot. The penitentiary limits were marked by a grid made of heavy bars and, looking through the bars, I noticed that the prison was in the middle of a desert, which appeared to be a sandy dry desert. We waited there, standing in the sun, with our chains.
Suddenly, a man in a guard uniform, but with many stripes on each sleeve appeared in front of us. He told us that he was the commanding officer of the penitentiary. He made a short speech:
"Prisoners, you have sinned, and your soul is now very dark. Luckily for you, you are now given an opportunity to redeem your soul by working hard, obeying orders and praying. By doing so and behaving well, you might hope to clean your soul and be again good and free citizens. I am your leader here, and you will address me by saying ‘Chief'. You will address each guard by saying ‘Sir'. During a first period you will keep your shackles: you are not allowed to speak when you are shackled, except to answer a question asked by a guard. These shackles are not a form of punishment but a way to let you be alone with yourself and concentrate on your work on the path to redemption. You will be told by the guards, in details, what we expect from you, but I can summarize it in two words: respect and obey. There will be lots of work for which you will not be paid, because you are sinners. If you refuse to work, the guards will make it enter into your body by force using their truncheon and, if needed, you will be whipped. Consider yourself as slaves for the length of your time here, behave like good slaves and I will be a good master for you. You will be transformed now in real prisoners of this hard labor camp: you will receive a special uniform and you you will be told how you must from now on honor this precious garment.”
He then turned to the guards and told them: "Proceed with the dog collars and then the rest of the new uniforms.”
He left us and one guard came near each of us, taking care of the transformation of "his” prisoner. None of us reacted to the Chief's speech. I believe that the others, like me, were afraid of what they had heard: remain with the shackles, in silence and be whipped if our work was not well done. In a second I thought about Lincoln, abolition of slavery and I realized that all that, although it was written in the constitution, was gone for me since I had to serve time in a hard labor prison.
While I was thinking about my previous life, the guard in charge of me took me by the shoulders and asked:
"What is your name ?”
The truncheon hit me immediately while the guard said: "Be respectful, remember what the Chief said about addressing the guards. Now, what is your name ?”
"David Blake, Sir”
"Better, but you must start and end your answer by ‘Sir'. Understood ?”
"Sir, yes, Sir” I did not have the strength anymore to even think about resisting
"Well, from now on you are no more David Blake but ‘prisoner 205437'. Will you remember this ?” and he raised his truncheon.
Trembling I replied : "Sir, yes, Sir”
"So, what is your name ?”
"Sir” I hesitated "205 … 437”
The truncheon fell immediately. "You forgot to end with ‘Sir' and you did not say ‘prisoner'. Repeat your name.”
"Sir, I am prisoner 205437, Sir”
Again the truncheon. "YOU are nothing. Never use the word I as long as you are here. Use ‘this prisoner' or your full prisoner's name. Understood ?”
"Sir, yes, Sir” was my shivering answer.
"So I now place a slave collar on your neck. This collar has your number written on it, so everybody can see it. It has also a small ring in the back so I can put you on the leash if needed.” And he did as he had announced, transforming me a little bit more into a real slave.
The guard then marched me to the barber, where all the others were already waiting. Apparently I had been a slow learner since I was the last one, but I could see how the barber was using his clippers with the others and I hated clippers. The barber was not only shaving the heads, but also the face and beards were promised to a sad future.
When it was my turn, the barber made me sit and "my” guard told him:
"Strap him, he is a rebel”.
It was thus completely strapped to the barber chair that I received my first prison haircut. The barber apparently had orders to cut my dreadlocks. He did this with a real pleasure. He first took scissors and cut one dreadlock near the front, then he pushed my head to cut one in the back. He really got hold of my head, moving it in all directions in order to cut my nice dreadlocks one by one. I had the impression that my head was now this barber's punching bag. At times, he hurt me but I was so afraid that I did not even think of protesting. When the barber was satisfied with his "dreadlocks-cutting” business, he took clippers and again took possession of my head, moving it in all possible directions. The other prisoners had had the possibility to adjust the position of their body to these forced movements of the head. Being completely strapped, my head only could move and it had become a "thing” in the hard hands of the barber, who was laughing whenever I felt so hurt that I made a funny face. My guard seemed also to like the game. The barber and my guard made it last as long as possible. Then the barber shaved my face moving my head towards his razor instead of doing the contrary. In the end, the straps were taken off and I was told to stand up. Since there was no mirror I wanted to touch my head to evaluate the damage, but my guard stopped me. Raising his truncheon he said: "Prisoners do not touch their head unless told to do so.” I immediately stopped moving my hand.
The guard kept me standing there and after a long time minutes he suddenly said: "205437, at my order, touch your head with both hands.” Then he waited again and finally said: "Touch now !”
Without a word I did what I was ordered to do and I realized that my head had been completely shorn. I wondered whether the guard wanted to show me that he could be kind or if he had chosen this way to teach me strict obedience to his orders. I assumed it was the latter and I carefully waited for the order to stop the action, and it came rapidly.
The guard took off all my chains and told me then to take off all my clothes, underwear included. He pushed me then, naked, to something that looked like a special place: the ground was wet in this very dry camp. He got hold of what looked like a garden hose and used its water jet to clean me. He then sprayed me with a disinfecting powder. Once that was done he gave me my prison uniform: all elements had horizontal black and white stripes. This included the trousers, the vest and the cover. On my vest, my "name” was plainly visible: "205437” was printed on my chest in big characters. He also gave me white plastic clogs. All these things were on the ground and I did not dare to pick them up. The guard noticed that and told me:
"205437, pick your uniform and get immediately dressed. Then don't move”
He then started to shackle me again.
I dressed as ordered and, without moving, asked :
"Sir, can I call a lawyer for my appeal, Sir ?”
"205437, you did not understand, you are a chained prisoner. You are not allowed to speak to anybody, not even a guard, except to ANSWER questions.” He was now shouting. "And you used again the forbidden I word”
The guard looked at me, now dressed and shaved as a real convict. He then told me that I had rebelled and agressed the prison officers before being sentenced and that I did not appear to understand fully my new situation. He considered that asking for a phone call while chained was another proof of my "rebellious state of mind”. He explained that I had to think and adjust to my new status, so he led me to a set of small cages, on the border of what seemed to be a parade ground and he pushed me inside one of them. When I was there, he ordered me to place my hands in my back and he handcuffed me in that position. He finally told me that I would stay there during a full week and that I was not allowed to look at the parade ground when the prisoners came every morning to start their working day. It was hot, but unexpectedly the uniform helped to survive and the cover protected me from the sun.
At the end of the week, the guard came, took me out of the cage and freed my hands but not my feet. He then led me to the barber for a renewal of my initial head and face shaving. The barber strapped me again claiming that my attitude was making him losing time, which made my guard laugh. Then the guard took me to the "cleaning garden hose” and finally to Chief guard. I had decided to try to look humble in front of the Chief. This one looked at me, seemed to like the way I was now dressed and my new attitude. Nevertheless he said:
"205437, you just spent a week idle in your cage because you rebelled once again. You have been sent here to work, not to rest in the sun. You must repay this idle week. For the sake of your soul, I give you one month ADT. Understood ?”
There was nothing to say except: "Chief, yes, Chief”
I had no choice but to accept the situation and wait till they took off these shackles to ask for an appeal. I decided to keep a low profile until that occurred.
The guard who was in charge of my "transformation” since I arrived in this penitentiary led me to a big room. In fact it was a big cage, with no walls but strong bars to keep the prisoners inside. But it had a tin roof which gave some shadow. This was going to be my "room” for the next 25 years, as mentioned by the guard. There were 10 bunk beds, a long wooden table and two benches, but no cupboard.
"205437, you are going to sleep here” said the guard, showing one of the beds which had already my ‘name' on it. "You will eat at this table with the other convicts of your platoon: altogether you are 19 now. You don't have a cupboard since prisoners here have no belongings except the uniform we give you. As far as this uniform is concerned, you must wear it complete, permanently, day and night. As soon as you are out of this room, you must have your cover on your head. Take good care of each element of your uniform: if there is something to repair you will have to pay for it by serving more time since the pay for your work goes to the company running this facility. This company is paying for your food, your housing and provides you generously with the necessary uniforms. I also give you a mess kit which you will need since you are now a normal prisoner. For the time being, I leave you shackled: remember that you are not allowed to speak, not even to another prisoner in this room. You can now rest until your roommates come back from work.” The guard left this "room”, locking the door behind him. I remained there alone and tried to do what the guard had told me. I climbed on my bed (an upper one) and tried to sleep on the hard plank which served as mattress. There were no drapes or covers, which was just as good since the weather was hot. I placed my head cover, the only thing I had available, on my face to avoid the light of the sun which came through the "walls”. But I could not sleep. It was the first time I was really alone and free to move a bit (in my cage I was under constant surveillance) and I started to cry. I realized that my life was gone now. Previously I was a respected citizen, with a college degree in Economy, with a wife, a kid and a good job. The wife and kid were gone and the job had been lost because of a stupid binge. I cried there for a long time. Then I decided to take all this like a Man and try to get free again.
When the other prisoners of my room came back from work, they did not talk to me: it was forbidden, but they showed by signs and handshakes that they accepted me as one of them. And so started my new life.
This new life is rather boring: it is constantly the same routine. But the type and amount of work we have stops us, prisoner, to take time to think by ourselves. And that is probably what the guards want, that is how they want us "transformed in brave, obedient and useful tools. Everyday, we are woken up early with the delicious sound of the penitentiary siren. A guard opens the door of our room and we go, in a file and in step, and assemble on the parade ground, where all convicts are prepared for work: those having no shackles must go through the shackling procedure and sometimes we are chained by pair for outside roadworks. This always take lots of time because all convicts have to be shackled before leaving the penitentiary for work !
As soon as we are shackled, we become very silent and stand still until all of us have received the water ration for the day, to be drunk only on the guards orders. We start then to move and work for a full day, repairing roads, building new ones, working in the fields or constructing buildings where we would never live. All that must be done in silence. Whenever one of us says something, or starts to sing, the guards immediately punish him by promising to send him to the cage, with shackles.
When we come back to the prison, we go back to the parade ground and the guards unshackle the "deserving” prisoners. We are then led to our room where we are locked again but remain free to move and to speak (for the deserving guys who don't have to wear shackles). And that is our day: we remain there until the next morning, trying to get rid of the tiredness due to our work. I was an intellectual in a previous life, but there I don't feel like thinking anymore. I simply feel like obeying, it is easier when you are exhausted.
The only change in our daily life is the Sunday program. On Sundays, each of us is taken to what I keep calling "the garden hose”. A guard cleans each of us with a strong water jet and another disinfect us with some powder. We then get a clean set of uniforms. We are then taken to the barber's place where more than 10 guards give each of us a refreshing head and face shave. In my case, I always feel bad when it is my turn to sit in the chair: each of these barbers behaves in the same brutal way. These barbers always get hold of my head, move it in all directions as if they want to move the head along the clippers instead of moving the clippers on the head. They then take an electric shaver and clean my face. It lasts at most one minute, but I really fear this instant which some of my co-convicts actually love. I am no longer strapped, but the threat of being strapped again is sufficient to make me behave as the guards want me to do. After that, all convicts assemble on the parade ground and the Chief guard reads a passage of the Bible to "help us pray and redeem our soul”. He keeps us then standing in the sun in order to think about his reading and pray. I must confess that I am unable to pray in this context and that I came to believe that God is never present in this penitentiary.
It took me more than 6 months to become a "deserving prisoner”. One day, the guard took me to the Chief guard and told him:
"Sir, this prisoner seems to have accepted his new status now. May I unshackle him?”
The Chief guard looked at me and said yes, but let him stay here.
The guard unshackled me and I stood still. I suddenly realized that now I had no shackles and could speak. So I carefully asked a question to the Chief guard, choosing very carefully my wording:
"Chief, this prisoner asks you the permission to be authorized to phone to a lawyer to appeal his sentence, Chief”
I could see the Chief guard who seemed to suffocate. Finally he said:
"205437, a prisoner here never places an appeal. You were sentenced to 25 years hard labor and you will stay here all that time, at least !” Then he looked at the guard and added: "You were wrong, this prisoner is still rebellious. He has not accepted his situation. Bring him to the cage where he will stay two weeks.” Then again to me:
"205437, you just gained TWO months ADT to repay your lack of understanding and of efforts to adjust which forces me to put you in a reflection situation.”
After these weeks in the cage, I was send back to my room, without shackles. This looked very illogical to me, but it was too comfortable to ask any question and risk any additional punishment.
After more or less a year in this prison, I was called to the Chief guard's office. I did not know why: since my last release from the cage, I behaved well, accepting all the orders given by the guards. It is true that I had "gained” several months ADT because of punishments given by the guards, but that was for simple facts such as being punished because another guy had spoken next to me, or because I had smiled, or simply because the guard had the impression that I made a funny face. My co-convicts had told me that all of them, during their first year, had gained several months ADT which represented as much additional working time for the company running the penitentiary. I really did not know why a big chief like the Chief guard wanted to speak to a lousy convict like me (that was the way I viewed myself). In other words, I was frightened.
The Chief simply told me that my sentencing Judge wanted to see me. So I would be transported back to court that day, as soon as the van would be ready. He also gave instructions to prepare me, adding that I had to be "clean” and thus to undergo the usual ‘shaving-watering-clean uniform' process. Once that was done, I was carefully completely chained as if I could have escaped in prison uniform and through the desert. I was placed in one of the cages of the now empty van which had brought new "slaves” to the grinding machine of the penitentiary. The van started to move and after a few hours alone in this van, I was put, still chained, in one of the small cells of the Courthouse. The next day, an Officer presented me to the Judge who had sentenced me. This one started a little speech I was totally unprepared to hear:
"Prisoner, what is your present name?”
"Your Honor, Sir, this is prisoner 205437, Sir”
"Well, 205437, I let you come here to tell you that your ex-wife was killed by the man who lived with her a few months after your divorced her.” So Mira was dead ! The woman who was at the basis of my problem was dead. I realized that I did not feel anything for her, not even for her being killed. But I wondered what had happened with Sam, our son? The Judge continued, unmoved:
"Your son Samuel Blake has been placed in an orphanage. The Judge who was in charge of your divorce made researches and tried to find you as ‘next of kin'. Thanks to the fact that you have been booked he found me and we agreed that your son should be in his father's state. Considering that you have to serve time in a state penitentiary, I made your child a ward of the state and I appointed myself as guardian. Did you know that your wife left some money ?”
"Your Honor, Sir, I thought that could be the case, Sir” Of course it was the money she took from me during the divorce.
"Prisoner, no I in this court ! Anyway, you must know that I let this money come to this state. With the help of your former banker I also let your money come to this state” That was what remained of my money, plus whatever my parents had left me. But the judge continued: "And I made a fund of all this money since people like you rarely become again able to use well such a lot of money. This fund is intended to pay for the education of your son. He will be raised in a state Junior Military Academy. In exchange for this expensive education he will enlist in the National Guard as soon as he is of age. This is what I wanted you to know. You can go now, prisoner 205437”
"But you Honor, Sir” I replied "This is not what this prisoner wanted for his son, Sir”
"Prisoner I forgot to tell you that I also revoked your parental authority, considering the human waste you have become.”
I decided to do all I could and ask for an appeal but the judge refused to let me call another lawyer saying: "Prisoner you are in chains and are thus not allowed to make any request. I sentence you to 6 additional months hard labor for showing such a lack of request for this court. Officer take him away”
The Court Jail guard took me away and brought me back to a Court cell where I had to wait during nearly a week for the transportation van, no longer in orange jumpsuit, but in chains and in my striped prison uniform. I thus earned one more sentence and the knowledge that this Judge would do everything he could to stop me appealing his first judgement. At first I was revolted, but then the usual obeying attitude tried to take over. I had also learned that my lovely son was now in this state and that this nice Northern and free Afro-American boy would become a Deep Southerner N***. And then I woke up from my submissive attitude. I had time to think without being exhausted by hard manual work. I remembered reading once about a french author who said that even in Prison, you remain free if you remain free in your mind. I decided to adopt such an attitude, if I could resist the manual work.
While going back to the penitentiary in the cellular van, it sounded funny to hear the new prisoners lamenting in the van, not knowing what would happen to them. I tried to warn them, but they did not believe me when I said that everything would be done to mentally break them down. I knew I wanted to resist but I did not know if I would be able to do so.
And I have not been able to resist the pressure. As soon as I was back, I was brought to the Chief guard's office. The Chief told me:
"205437, I heard you did not show respect to the court and got 6 more months for that. As far as I am concerned, I send you now to the cage to think about your foolishness. Of course, since you were absent to court during a full week, you will repay that with a month ADT. After your week in the cage you automatically get another one. Did you realize that you now have more than a year ADT, plus the 6 months the Judge gave you. Do you want to go on like that, prisoner ? You are on your way to stay here for a very long time. As Chief of this facility, I don't mind to have workmen for free. Is that what you want?”
I replied sincerely humbly "Chief, no, chief”
"Are you going to get better?”
Still humbly I said "Chief, this prisoner will do his best for that, Chief.”
"Guard, you will from now on give the hardest possible work to 205437, in order to help him concentrate on redeeming his soul. You will also leave him with shackles.”
While in my cage, I started to think about what what the Chief had told me. I had served about one year of my 25 year sentence in the penitentiary, but I had gained more than one year ADT. In fact I had now to serve one year and 3 months ADT on top of my original sentence, plus the 6 months of the new sentence. I had gained the right to serve more than one year after staying in this penitentiary for a full year!!! I felt lost. I was frightened that I would be in prison for good, for ever, for the rest of my life. I was so frightened that I stopped trying to "feel free in my mind” and decided to obey without any reservation all orders that would be given by the guards, to act the way the wanted without thinking. I could not discuss my fears of being stuck for good in this penitentiary, nor my decision to adopt a submissive attitude with anybody, not even the other convicts of my platoon, since I was isolated first in my cage and later, when I was out of my open air cell, I remained isolated by the shackles they left on my feet: I was not allowed to speak to anybody, and none of the prisoners dared to speak to me. I felt dreadfully lonely, wishing to become a deserving prisoner. I came to the conclusion that since they wanted me to consider myself as a slave, my only possible attitude was to behave like one.
And so I spent weeks and weeks, shackled and working hard under the sun. So hard that I did no longer have the time to think and remembering that I wanted to be "free in my mind”. I gave up and decided the fight was not worth it. They made me a slave, so I will behave as a slave should do. And from then on, my life as a prisoner was more comfortable, but I had given up Hope ! I was less punished, but from time to time I was sent to the cage and thus gained another month ADT. But I did not care anymore : I did my hard work to the best of my ability and obeyed, obeyed, obeyed. Once I was punished because I had really done very bad job and damaged an instrument. I knew what would come as punishment. I got 10 of the whip, in front of all the convicts as was usual for this form of (rare) punishment. The guards attached a leash to my slave collar and with this leash, they attached me to a special post next to the cages and administered the punishment. They then left me with this leash in the cage where I had to stand up during several days. But I did not mind anymore: I simply obeyed because I wanted to please the guards and the Chief.
The routine was dreadfully monotonous. I had nothing to mark the passing of the time, except the special Sunday ritual. In the beginning I did not like it. I especially hated the shaving process. I did not really mind having a shorn head. It was not as unpleasant as I had expected: I realized that in my present situation it was the best thing for each prisoner. But the guards assigned to barber duty were all very brutal and moved my head in an uncomfortable way, and my body reacted automatically. It went so far that several times, despite my good behavior, the barber chose to strap me, which made it even more uncomfortable. The same brutality was used by the guards when they used the "garden hose” to shower me: the water jet was so strong that I could not avoid reactions which led me several times back to the cage, and back to one more month ADT. But as time passed, I started to like this brutal ritual: it was my only contact with the outside world and his calendar, it was also the only change in our daily routine. I let myself sink in this routine and in this Sunday ritual. I even started to like the compulsory Sunday prayer, although I never prayed before. I had then a few minutes to think about myself and after a time to think about God.
Life went on. Routinely. I still had very hard work to do, probably the hardest work of the lot, and that kept me calm. I had no longer the shackles, except after being punished, but that occurred rarely now: I was considered as a good prisoner, a deserving and obedient and respectful prisoner. I was a prisoner who had given up the idea of even ever living outside the penitentiary.
After I had spend a little bit more than 8 years in the penitentiary as a convict, during a period where I had no shackles because of my good behavior, I was called to the Chief guard's office. I had no fear, simply respect for this important person. The Chief simply said:
"Prisoner 205437, your son is now 15. His guardian, your Judge, considers that it would be good for him and for his education to see you. He is now a cadet in a State Junior Military Academy and will visit you next Sunday after the prayer. Try to respect this free cadet, a ward of the State. Go now.”
My mind was in turmoil. I had not seen Sam since he was 7 and Mira took him with her. My Judge had told me that Sam was now a state ward and that he would be raised in a Military Academy. My reaction had cost me 6 more months in the pen. But all that was a long time ago. Since then I had adjusted to my life as a prisoner. I was not sure I really wanted Sam to see me in my prison uniform. I was afraid of the possible perturbation this could bring to my well organized life, based on routine and absolute obedience to the guards, but also resting now on the acceptance of the fact that I had been sentenced to a very long hard labor prison term.
When the next Sunday arrived, I was promptly ready. I was rather pleased that it was barber-cleaning-fresh-uniform day. I felt better after being brutally shaved, even better when the guard had used the full force of his "garden hose” to clean me and later when I was disinfected. I was thankful to the powers that be for receiving a clean uniform looking as well as was permitted by the regulations. This day, during prayer time, I prayed hard for my Sammy, hoping he would recognize me, hoping he would be as good looking as he was.
After prayer I was brought to a small room divided in two by a big table. I was told by a guard that I had to stand behind the table, that I was not allowed to try to touch my visitor or to take anything he brought with him. The visitor would be seated in front of me, or would stand as he wanted and I was allowed to speak to him, but I had to do it as respectfully as I would do for a guard.
When Sam entered the room, it was as if the sun himself had come in. I immediately recognized him. The boy was in uniform, a cadet uniform which looked like a real National Guard parade uniform. Sam looked smart in his neat uniform. He had several medals and was wearing a beret when he entered. He took it off immediately, as if it was an automatism. I realized that I had kept my cover, as was usual for us convicts and I took it off, but the guard who stayed next to me hit me with his truncheon and snapped: "Cover on, Prisoner”. And I immediately did as order, seeing that Sam was despising what he saw: what he saw did not look like the image of the father he might have kept in his memory, he saw a convict aged by his work outside in the sun. A convict who seemed to have no pride since he was hit by a guard for a simple cover. But I was only obeying promptly the orders to avoid being hit again .... After a few moments I decided to speak:
"Sammy, my son …”
The guard hit me again and said: "Prisoner, speak with due respect to this free cadet. And introduce yourself to him without mentioning your relationship.”
So, very sadly, I said: "Cadet, Sir, this is Prisoner 205437 serving a sentence of 25 years hard labor and more. This prisoner would be pleased to know how you are now and what are your future projects, Sir.” I felt I was ridiculous to say "Sir” to my own son, but it was that or being taken out of this room and losing contact with him. I am convinced he did not realize what had happened.
Sam replied: "You know very well that I am a proud cadet of this state Junior Military Academy. I am also a proud ward of the state since you abandon my mother and me, provoking my mother killing. Finally as has been told to you by my guardian, I will join this state National Guard as soon as I am of age, in two years”
"Cadet Blake, Sir, this prisoner knows that there is enough money for you to go to college. Why not study first and join the National guard later, Sir ?”
Sam was obviously angry at the way I was talking, but he replied:
"Prisoner, I did not want to see you but my guardian wanted me to visit you. Now I understand why: he wanted me to see what a shameful person you are. I don't recognize you as my father. I really despise you and your prison sentence. And I will join the National Guard even before I get my High School degree if I can because my guardian has given me the order to do so. In any case, I am a black man and so are you. People like you and me should never go to college. You did and that created all your problems. I want to be a good servant of this wonderful state.” And then came the worst : "Guard, I want to go now. Take this filthy prisoner out of my sight.”
The guard led me out of the room and since I looked nervous, he shackled me and handcuffed me before sending me to the cage. But that was his mistake, because in my cage I had time again and I started again to think. My son was nearly lost, but not completely lost. Sam had clearly said that "people like him should never go to college”. He was only 15 and he had to be protected against racism and against himself. The only person who could do that was me, his father.
I now know that I have to do something to protect and save my son. In order to be able to do that, I must be free, not for my sake, but for Sam's sake. Thus I must get my appeal, but that can only happen with the help of a man who knows the situation and is out of the prison. In order to create the contact, despite the fact that I am boiling internally for my child, I keep doing everything as before, as if I were still a good obedient prisoner. But that is no longer the case: now I am "free in my mind”, not for my sake but for my son's sake. I got hold of some paper and wrote my story. I passed this text to a fellow prisoner who was lucky enough to be sent free in the outside world. He is also an Afro-American and he will pass my message and my request for appeal to the NAACP. Now I hope. I am free in my mind but also apparently obedient, in order to avoid more pproblems.