Mr. X: My Life in Federal Prison – Bocce, Bunkies, and Books

Mr. X is a former business professional who committed a crime that landed him in federal prison. He’s out now and agreed to share his story with the readers of The Graveyard Shift. Off we go …

GYS: Describe your first day in prison.

Mr. X: The place itself wasn’t as bad as it was being away from my family. I kept wondering how they were, what they were doing, and what they were going to do. Also, my gut was craving my medication. Of course the prison staff didn’t care about either of those things. Don’t get me wrong, they treated my okay—they didn’t beat me or anything like that. But it was obvious that I was just a number. Even though what I’d done was not violent they still treated me as if I were another Charles Manson or Jeffery Dahmer.

Still, I was an addict and I needed medical help. But some of the guards thought otherwise. One thought I was faking and told me to knock it off or he was going to put me in the hole. I didn’t know what the hole was at that point, but it didn’t sound good. Another guard, a female, managed to get me to the medical department. That was a real experience. I wound up being really sick—lying in the floor vomiting quite badly into a metal trashcan. A nurse kept peering at me through a small, thick glass window. After twenty minutes or so she came out and told me to fill out a sick slip (a request to see the doctor) and the doctor would see me on his next visit to the facility, in two or three days. I ended up toughing it out, going cold turkey in my cubicle. My bunkie (cellmate) helped me through the ordeal.

GYS: You were in a federal prison, right?

Mr. X: Yes, it was a minimum security federal prison. Before I was arrested I never knew there were such places.

GYS: You mentioned a “bunkie.” Tell us a little about sharing a living space with another inmate.

Mr. X: Honestly, I was horrified at the thought. I’d never been in trouble before. I’d always obeyed the law—until I was sick. I’d never stolen anything, or hurt anyone. I never would either. So to be dropped in a dormitory with 300-400 criminals was a real shock to me. There were honest to God bad guys in that place. I met bank robbers, big-time drug dealers, and even a mafia underboss. On the other end of the spectrum were the tax evading doctors, lawyers, and dentists. I learned that lots of people in federal prison are business people—the guy next door—who committed white collar crimes. Crooks, yes. But harmless.

I will say this, I never met anyone in the system who didn’t deserve to be there. Me included. Sure, I heard lots of men proclaim their innocence, but that’s basically BS.

My bunkie, the man who slept in the upper bunk above me, was a decent sort of guy. He’d been drafted to play pro sports, but couldn’t seem to leave the drugs alone. Long story short—he got caught with a couple of kilos of cocaine before training camp. Next thing he knew he was living in a concrete building with several hundred men, many of whom had followed his college career on TV. What a shame.

GYS: How did you spend your days?

Mr. X: Well, if you believe what you see on TV and in the movies—the rock breaking and planning the next escape—you’ll be a little disappointed. Every inmate has to have a job. For the first year my job was in the prison kitchen wiping tables and keeping the little chrome napkin holders full. I worked the evening shift which also meant I mopped the floor after dinner was complete. The rest of the day I spent taking classes, reading (I read over 500 books during my time in prison), or out on the recreation yard playing Bocce whenever I could get in a game. The Italian guys monopolized the Bocce courts. Oh, that’s one thing about prison—the place is strongly divided into ethnic groups. Italians hang out together, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, etc. Even the TV rooms are segregated, and the wrong person better not wander into the wrong room.

When I finally made my way to camp for the last year, my job changed to working in landscaping. That was pretty relaxing—hard work, but relaxing.

GYS: Sounds as if your days were full. How about the evenings and nights?

Mr. X: I didn’t get out of the kitchen until around 7 p.m. so I missed a lot of action on the yard—the football, basketball, and soccer games. But I did get a chance to hear some of the music played by the various prison bands. They’d set up the music equipment on the yard and play for the guys. Some of the bands were really quite good. Even the bands were all ethnic based.

Did I mention food on the holidays? Special meals were prepared on various holidays, such as Mexican food on Cinco De Mayo.

Anyway, the yard was cleared at 9 p.m. We all had to be back inside our dorms for 10 p.m. count. They were very strict about the count rules. We had to stand perfectly still by our bunks—no talking—while two guards came by to count us. Any violation meant a trip to the hole (the hole is a no frills/no privileges jail hellhole inside the prison). After count was cleared (a buzzer sounded) we were free to watch TV, play cards, do laundry, cook food, visit guys in other cubes, etc. We just couldn’t go back outside.

Nighttime was also the time when guys got tattoos, drank alcohol, did drugs, etc. It was also the time to steer clear of the showers unless you wanted to participate in the goings-on in there. The showers were place to go to dole out punishment on someone. Groups of prisoners would grab an offender (someone who had disrespected them), drag the guy into a shower stall, and then beat the daylights out of him. And if he told what happened he got it worse the next time. Of course other things I won’t mention happened in there, too. Needless to say, I showered in the morning and in the early evening, during the safe times. It didn’t hurt that my bunkie was the size of a small bulldozer, either. People generally left him alone. I was shown professional courtesy—you didn’t mess with the bunkie of guys who could rip off your head with one hand.

Lights out was at 11 p.m. I was usually in bed reading by 10. I had to wear earplugs (the commissary sold them) to sleep because of the noise. Lots of talking at night. And the snoring! Oh God! Imagine trying to sleep in one large room full of men that snore like lions.

It was tough.

Leavenworth Prison dorm – circa 1910

We were permitted to purchase small radios and earbuds from the commissary, so I’d lie in my bunk at night listening to the sad-sack songfest played by radio DJ Delilah. Those tear-jerking tunes and pitiful stories about the lovesick, lonely fans of her show added to my misery and homesickness, yet I’d listen night after night until I drifted off to sleep.

And so it went, day after day and night after night. Three long years of no change, nothing new, same-old, same-old, and a clock ticking at the pace of a snail on barbiturates.

1 reply
  1. Martha Knox
    Martha Knox says:

    Although I was never sent to jail or prison, I once in a delusional job hunt was recommended by my college department head to join a cadre of teachers who would teach in a men’s federal prison. Yikes.
    They warned me not to bring a purse, wear a dress, heals, makeup, perfume, nor nylons. The interview took place inside a special room that was completely separate inside the prison.
    I was so naive. I had to leave my driver’s license at the guard tower.So I had absolutely no ID other than a little sticker on my shirt. It went downhill from thereon. Next they escorted me thru a long olive green tunnel out to a courtyard.
    Then I entered the “classroom. A cement block elongated room with slits in the walls. I asked the other teachers who sat at normal looking desks looking out at the adjacent classromms what those were for.
    “Oh, that’s for the guard’s rifles in case the prisomers get rowdy. Well, that nixed the job interview on my end, but I went thru the motions. I was so creeped out by the lack of life, no flowers, no animals, no babies, no kids, no softness, no colors-it was the antitheses of my life.
    The last blow was sirens went off.
    “What’s that?”
    “Lockdown” The teacher said. “One of the work gang walked off. We stay here till they find him.”
    So we were locked tight into the classroom and offices. I couldn’t wait until the prisoner was found three hours later.
    I never went back. It was the worst job interview in my life. I was depressed for weeks afterward and couldn’t believe my luck to leave that place in one piece.
    Later I found out a male prisoner held a sharpened pencil against a woman teacher’s throat and raped her while other prisoners watched before the guards rescued her.

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