Today, July 9th, marks my first month in federal prison. Is it a time to celebrate or a time to feel defeated, knowing both the amount of time I have already gotten through yet the sentence I have left? I don’t really feel either of those emotions. In some ways this month went by fast, in others, slow. Time has a way of doing that.
When I arrived and learned I had to quarantine for 16 days I was devastated. I now feel overly dramatic using that word, but at the time, I was. It felt like an absolute atrocity. Stuck in a room with none of my reading material, no access to phone or email, no time outside (yes, for the full 16 days in the middle of summer) and orders to not leave the room unless I needed to use the bathroom. All for a virus I am vaccinated against and tested negative for on the day I arrived.
On one hand, you start to think of all the people who have suffered far worse in terms of imprisonment and isolation, on the other, it is easy to become selfish and think about oneself and how an immediate situation is affecting you. There was some solace in that other people were up there as well, and that every other inmate at Yankton had to deal with this or something similar. As the old saying goes “misery loves company” but in this instance, I didn’t want anyone else to go through this simply because I had to. I’ll be happy for the new inmates who arrive and do not have to quarantine, whenever that time comes. But the time passed, albeit slowly, and I found ways to make the most of it. I also found ways to let it go – the correctional officers didn’t choose this for me, I’m not being singled out, and there’s no getting around it – it is a BOP policy. It is what it is.
Then one day, I get paged over the intercom “Laney, report to the officers station with all your possessions”. I’m free! Sort of, haha. And for the record, all my “possessions” at the time were my prison issued clothing (all size 2XL) that I had been wearing since arrival. So I head downstairs and am escorted out onto the compound to my new housing unit – walking with a newfound appreciation for the sun and fresh air, which I will never forget.
Coming on to the compound was exciting and not nerve racking as quarantine actually made me look forward to prison. Anything to get out of quarantine… I had begun to learn some of the norms of prison culture, slightly adapted to being away from Boise, and wanted more opportunity to socialize, read and learn. Your cellies don’t get a heads up that someone is moving in. One day they a hear a knock on the door and find out they’re living with someone knew. It’s kind of like being a guest in someone’s home, except you show up with everything you own and tell them you’re not leaving anytime soon. I lucked out and as I’ve said before, all five of them are great people. They’ve been through this for a while now and along with providing guidance they’re wise, funny and insightful. There’s something so genuine about sharing a small space with a lot of people – the simplicity, the mutual respect, the camaraderie.
After unpacking my things and getting settled in I find out via the change sheet that I have been assigned a work detail – I start work the next day in food service at 5:50am. I show up to 20+ people buzzing around a large industrial kitchen. The ‘pan’ they cook oatmeal in, for example, is an entire appliance unto itself, and the size of a normal kitchen range. I have to admit, I wasn’t excited about it. I’ve worked on my own, as a remote worker, for the last 10 years. It was a change to say the least, but all of this has been a change. As the day went on I met more people, figured out the flow of the kitchen, and better understood everyone’s role. I have worked in restaurants before but never in a place so efficient at feeding so many people. The kitchen is something to marvel at. There are benefits to each job in prison, and the kitchen provides ample food for it’s employees. For those who are interested in that, it is a great job. Plus, the team work atmosphere is actually really enjoyable. I was looking to find more freedom in my work (ironic, yes) and longer term projects to tackle. After talking with several inmates I found out more about the horticulture program at Yankton.
I’m quickly learning that prisons outsource very little. Once they spend money on the fixed costs of equipment their variable costs are extremely low. Labor in particular is cheap – my current pay is $0.12 per hour. So it makes sense to do as much as they can in-house and after working my first day in horticulture I was blown away by how comprehensive the department is. Every flower on this compound is grown from seed in an onsite green house, but only after spending time in the germination chamber. Every planting container reused, compost is harvested on site, we create our own mulch, do all our own tree work and have an arsenal of landscaping equipment…the likes of which I have never come close to encountering. It’s similar to a fully self-sufficient commune, except yeah, a few minor differences. After only my first day working in Horticulture I’m already proud of not only what the department can achieve, but what I think the current detail crew and myself will accomplish throughout the summer and the fall. That will make getting up for work every day exceptionally easy. Point and case – it’s Friday night and I’m enthused about Monday so we can get back to it.
Quarantine made me excited for prison, but at the time I despised the restriction and isolation. The kitchen and the early hours/time inside was not my favorite, but I now have a deep appreciation for what goes in to feeding all of us and the team of people that makes it happen. I do not care for experiencing the life lesson that possibly the bad things we go through are good for us – we just have to get through them. But I also do, because it’s the best I can make of this.
The thing is, prison itself isn’t all that bad if you have the right attitude. You keep your eyes open, don’t talk too much (no one ever gets in trouble for not sharing their opinion) and take advantage of the ample opportunities inmates here are afforded and you will have good days. You’ll laugh, enjoy the people you are with, and find some semblance of happiness while away. You reflect on what got you here, and how you won’t let that happen again. Sometimes you forget everything you’ve been through, but then you’ll be reminded. Like a wound that starts to heal, but you know will leave a scar. That rollercoaster ride can only be so bad for so long, and take you low so many times.
I don’t miss any of my things – my home, my clothes, my sporting equipment. I don’t miss going out for dinner, being able to make whatever I want when I am hungry or any of the activities and adventures I enjoy so much. I have a place to rest my head here, I have clothes to wear, and food to eat. I’ve found new sports I like playing.
The only thing I really miss is the people I love. There’s not any place in particular that I’d like to be with them or anything I think we need to be doing together, I just miss them – who they are and how I feel when we are together. That’s the hard part, and that time is what we can’t get back. All I can do is work hard and make good decisions so I get home soon and relish every minute we have together.