The bus was rocking over the bumpy Newark streets. Accelerating radically and then slamming to a halt to avoid hitting pedestrians or cars illegally parked in the bus lanes. I was dazed with my newfound freedom. The anxiety was palpable as I sat quietly gazing into the abyss of my future. I could have , in theory, gotten off the bus wherever I wanted. I could have taken it to the train station, boarded an Amtrak and been in Boston or in Maryland in a few hours. This thought was almost too overwhelming at the time.
The bus pulled up to my stop on Broad Street and I hoisted the garbage bags over my shoulder. I tried not to hit anyone while making my way clumsy down the aisle, I was not successful. I apologized to an older woman, she didn’t acknowledge my effort. I kept moving towards the front and took my first step off into freedom.
The first night in the general population at the county jail is when the reality of my situation set in. A mechanical sound of screeching metal startles me. I jump a little and realize the sound triggers the door to my cell to slide shut. The steel bars slam into the far side of the opening and then the sound of the electromagnetic lock engages. Securing me into a cement cage. This sound eventually becomes familiar and I’ll have trouble adjusting when they transfer me to another prison where there are no cells, only bunks nestled into pods. But tonight, the first night, I have ever spent in jail, the sound sends a chill down my spine. Reality sinks in as I sit down on my bunk and begin to think of what my life has become. Or worse, what it is going to become from here.
Other inmates are posted at the cell bars all night screaming back and forth, having a meaningless conversation with each other so loud that everyone on the cell block can hear. I do not think I can express the utter uselessness of the conversations. They yell at each other about what Kardashian sister makes more money, what Real Housewives of Atlanta is better, what drama unfolded on Black Ink. The types of conversations that I would sit and think to myself I couldn’t believe were actually being carried on by these supposed tough guy gangsters. But they were all night long. The acoustics of the cell block is amazing. The sound reverberates off the high concrete walls and there is nothing to absorb it. Essentially, we are in a massive concrete box, and the noise is deafening.
The first night in that cell is the worst night I have had since I was riddled with nightmares one time as a small child after watching Tales From The Crypt with my older sister. The real difference is now the nightmare is real. I wake up every hour or so and look around realizing over and over that I am in a cell. I see the locked cage in front of me and know I can not leave when I want. From what people have told me about my situation along with the charges I am facing, I am not going anywhere anytime soon. The depression begins setting in and that recklessness that I was living with seems so fucking dumb and childish now.
I was arrested for armed robbery. My mother had bailed me out for a $50,000.00 bond. I made it about a month on the street, still using heroin, until I caught multiple new charges within a few days of each other. Once the paperwork was processed and I was in violation of my bail terms, I was incarcerated, without the possibility of being bailed out again. So for the foreseeable future I would be a resident of the county in jail until I had my day in court.
All in all I was looking at a total of 89 years in prison, if they were to run all the charges consecutive at the maximum penalty, which is unreasonable. Realistically I thought I was facing around three years, which I could handle. I was wrong.
I am finally taken to court about a month into my stay. Standing in front of the judge in a courtroom which is massive and packed with approximately 200 people, the judge tells me the first offer the state is willing to offer is 10 years with a minimum of 10 years served. This means I would not get any time off for good behavior or be eligible for parole. I get dizzy and almost collapse in front of the audience. I turn down the deal and discuss options with my attorney. There are not many, other than going to trial, which will take about two years. I shrug and say, “Let’s go to trial.”
In my cell at night I can not stop my mind from racing. I struggle to keep suicidal thoughts out of my head but every time they creep in they seem more and more logical. The act becomes an inevitability. I start obsessing about razor blades. I use one to open my wrist just right. I would have to time it so the guard does not find me bleeding in my cell during his rounds. I figure there are too many variables and decide against it. I begin contemplating about the sheets and how they could be manipulated into making a noose. I think about tying myself to the vent on the ceiling but knowing my luck the thing breaks and I get an escape charge for opening the vent in my cell. Then I think of tying it to the bunk bed and leaning forward, but I don’t think I would have it in me to wait until the blackness settles in when I know I can just stand up. So I opt against killing myself for now.
The first few months of my incarceration is spent riddled with anger and fear. I wake up filled with hate, hate spewed towards anyone I come in contact with. The fear is masked by the anger. I am terrified of being beaten, robbed, exploited or worse.
My first brush with violence comes three months into my stay in county jail. I am sitting at a table in the common area playing cards with a group of people. The card game is becoming more and more aggressive. I could feel the animosity swelling all around me. I had no one sitting at the table who could mitigate the damage I did while taking commissary from these men while simultaneously speaking my mind about their inability to play cards. One thing led to another and I ended up being told I had to fight a guy unless I wanted to be labeled a coward, which is not an ideal thing in jail. Essentially, I would have to fight or have my personal items taken for the rest of my stay. I accepted the challenge and proceeded to walk to my cell, with the guy following close behind me.
I am not a fighter, nor have a I ever really been. Sure I had been in some school yards dust ups back in the day, but this was a totally different situation. I knew that people get beaten up so bad they are bed ridden for weeks here. People lose teeth, get stabbed, break arms and hands and these are just the things that are not reported in order to avoid getting put into isolation for fighting. These situations play through my mind as I walk to my assumed doom. I just think to myself, I hope I make it a decent fight.
I get to my cell door and walk through the opening. I think we are going to face each other and maybe give a countdown, yo know make it gentlemanly and fair. This is not what the other guy had in mind. There is a reason for the saying “prison rules” and I have first hand knowledge on where it was derived. My cell mate is sleeping and I wake him up and tell him to step outside for a minute, he looks confused but when he sees the fear in my eyes he understands and leaves without a word. I turn around to get ready, but before I know what is happening I am being punched in the face.
The first and second blow actually wake me up and I react well enough to make it respectable. Eventually we are both panting and exhausted, so it is a stalemate. The fight is over and I survey my wounds. I have a pretty decent red fist print over my right eyebrow, which will be a bruise in a day or so. My ribs hurt like hell but aren’t broken. My hands took the worst of it. I figure this means I inflicted the worse of the damage on the other guy. I walk out of the cell, sit back down at the table and try to get on with the day. My heart is beating so fast with adrenaline I can not concentrate. I leave the table after a few more hands and gather myself in my cell.
I look at myself in the mirror and tell myself this is it. This is what life has become. Violence over twenty-five cent packs of ramen noodles. I accept it and tell myself this is what life will be from here on out. I am going to be labeled a scumbag, a ex con, a criminal, and I might as well be the part. I concede to terrorize the public when I eventually am released.
About a week later, mother sent me a letter with a newspaper clipping tucked between the paper. The article is about how there are Pell grants available for inmates in New Jersey in order to pursue their education. I initially dismissed the article and put it on my desk, not thinking about it for months. I wasn’t in the right state of mind to process thoughts rationally. I was filled with self loathing and resentment. My grandfather, who I was extremely close with, was fighting his own battle. He was in his 90s and his heart no longer was strong enough to pump his blood through his body properly. This results in fluid building up around the heart and lungs.
My grandfather died while I was locked in a 9 by 12 cell. He lied wondering where I was in an upstate New York hospital bed, because no one had the heart to tell him what I had done. I spoke to him on the phone briefly the day he died and he cried. He could barely string together sentences as fluid collected in his lung. I told him I loved him and I lied telling him I was okay. I definitely was not okay. He died about three hours after I spoke to him. My mother told me later that night when I called her to check in. It was one of the low points of my life. I struggled with his loss and allowed it to fuel the anger inside me. Without substances being available to mute the pain, I was forced to allow myself to feel for the first time since I could remember.
As a result of my newfound emotions I choose to isolated in my cell most of the time. I read furiously trying to occupy myself. One day, almost two years into my stay in the county, I finished a book about groundbreaking experiments in the scientific community. CERN’s particle collider fascinates me and I begin thinking of physics and everything that is happening in research. I pick up the article which has been sitting on my desk for months and for the first time in years feel a tiny glimmer of hope deep inside myself. I tell myself there has to be options and I don’t feel so helpless and angry any longer.
I make the decision to pursue physics and change my life. It is a high goal which I find necessary to keep myself occupied for a long time, which is what I had. A lot of time to kill. And just like that, I decided not to live like Iwas planning to after I was released. I begin forgiving myself for the damage I have inflicted and try to treat people with respect and consideration. It works and I feel immensely better every day. The scars on my arms from intravenous drug use begin to heal, however the internal scars take much longer and never fade as drastically as the literal scars.
I have been in county jail for over two years. It is a nightmare of boredom and faux tough guys. I make it to the first day of my jury selection for trial and am allowed to wear a suit to court rather than an orange jumpsuit with “County Inmate” stenciled on the back. I am nervous as I am walking through the hallways of the court building and led into the courtroom where two years prior to the day I had almost passed out. My attorney is sitting at a table and leans over to me and says he has some news. He says, “The prosecutor has offered a five with an eight five running concurrent with a five with a five.”
This is good news. It means I will have both sentences running at the same time and will only serve a total of 5 years. I have already served 2 so three more doesn’t seem impossible any longer. Plus I had some studying to do so I figure I could use the time.
I almost jumped up and grabbed the offer from him to sign. I accept the deal and am officially under the supervision of the state. I am ushered back to the county where I pack my cell, giving away anything with a semblance of value to other inmates and wait for my ride to state prison eagerly.
I am eventually shipped off to state prison. The officers in charge of transportation show up on the morning of January 29, 2017 and tell me to strip off my county issued clothing and provide me with a grey jumpsuit, no underwear and the cheapest pair of flip flop sandals I have ever seen.
It is freezing out and the thin cheaply made jump suit seems to somehow extract heat from my body. They put me into the back of a van which has a specially designed metal box built into it. They refer to these as a dog kennel because they are literally a tiny metal box which is big enough for maybe two people but they shove four into these partitions. The ride from Warren County to the next stop takes four hours and it is unbearable. I have to pee the entire time, I am shackled at the feet with a chain running to my hands which are latched to a leather belt wrapped around my waist. I am so cold I shoved the entire way uncontrollably. The nerves probably do not help my shivering either.
We are eventually transferred onto a large bus which is completely dark with individual changes in the front and seats in the rear. They allow me to use a bathroom inside a building at the prison we stop at for the transfer. I feel a huge relief. The bus is completely full with men just like me heading to Central Reception and Assignment Facility (CRAF).
When we arrive we are taken off the bus and marched into the receiving area where we are stripped, given an optional shower, checked for contraband and given an oversized jumpsuit to wear until our state tans are ready. Tans are the general population uniform which consist of a tan shirt and tan pants. We sit in a holding cell and are fed lunch in a styrofoam container. We sit in the same cell for hours waiting for our housing instructions, finally they arrive. I am led to the intake block and am lucky to see my cell is the second in a long line. This means I am able to see the television. There are no books, other than religious materials, allowed in CRAF. This makes for 23 hours a day sitting in a cell with literally nothing to do. Having the ability to watch television makes it a little more bearable.
I am transferred to the 3rd floor a few days later and again am positioned in a cell with television viewing capability. One of my friends from the county is a runner (a person who is out of his cell serving meals and doing odd jobs) on this block so I am able to get a hold of coffee and more food. My cell mate however is a paranoid schizophrenic who screams at the voices in his head. Sleeping is difficult and I am a little worried he will try and kill me one night. Nothing comes from it and I am finally transferred to Southern State Correctional Facility two weeks after arriving at CRAF.
They tell us to pack up and usher us down the stairs to the bus which is waiting to take all the transfers to their respective prisons. I am seated next to a young man who weighs no less than 380 pounds and is literally so obese he is taking up both seats when I am told to sit the fuck down by the officer. I squeeze into the seat next to this fat guy and he gives me a look that says, “Sorry dude, I like honey buns, a lot.”
I stare off into space for the next three hours as we travel from prison from prison dropping off groups of men. The last stop of the day is mine. We arrive and I am actually relieved and excited to get the fuck off the bus.
Southern State is an open prison, meaning there are 6 trailers dispersed throughout a single compound. Each trailer has 8 wings with 6 pods in each. There are no cells and there are 2 bunks, a total of 4 beds, in each pod. It is much less restrictive than the county and there is more movement. For instance, everyone is assigned a job. My first job consisted of walking around the compound with a shovel and a bag and literally picking up goose shit for three hours in the morning everyday. I was actually happy to do it because I hadn’t been outside in two years.
I make my way to a building where I know some people and one of the head cooks has to keep pulling strings with the officers not to have me moved. For some reason when I arrived at Southern the officers immediately hated me. I literally said nothing to anyone for the first two weeks, but they saw something in me and assumed I was going to be a problem.
I began having books mailed in from a company who distributes books to prisons. I began teaching myself calculus and reviewing physics, which I had not done since high school. It takes me months to get a calculator approved to be sent in. Several times the administration approves a certain device and when it arrives they confiscate it because of one reason or another. Finally, I have my mother send me a algebraic calculator from the early 90’s she found on Ebay still in the packaging. This is the one which gets through and I am ecstatic the day it arrives. Occasionally the officers destroy my text books, saying they were searching for contraband. They typically make remarks about what a waste of time and money it is to me as I pick up books labeled Quantum Mechanics and Non Euclidean Geometry. I look at the officer who is the most vocal one day and say, “I am probably the only person in this entire prison, including staff, who understand what is written in this book.”
This does not go over well and more often than not my orders do not reach me. I feel satisfied with my statement and chalk up the loss of books to the cost of winning one interaction with an officer.
I spend my days working out in the weight room or in the big yard and studying. I only spoke to a few people because I did not want to be involved with a lot of the things that were going on in the prison. New Jersey prisons are second to only California for gang activity. With this comes violence and drug trafficking and violence.
The majority of people were getting high. Drugs are smuggled into the prison by one of the correctional officers who ran our building. He would later be arrested and the building would be torn apart by the specialized officers who travel from prison to prison searching for contraband. It ended up he was accepting hundreds maybe thousands of dollars from certain inmates and bringing in drugs into the building. He was arrested and charged. His time in prison will be spent in a specialized unit designed for police and judges who end up a resident of the state.
A ton of people were transferred to different prisons and put into isolation over the scandal. I just sat on my bunk and did differential equations while people’s worlds collapsed around me. I was just happy I wasn’t one of the people tied up in the mess.
I got a better job eventually. I was made an electrician which was actually a lot of fun. We had a workshop and were able to walk around the compound to different buildings fixing light fixtures and outlets and kitchen equipment. Working made the day go faster. The worst part of prison is the boredom. The way the days all bleed together and your mind becomes accustomed to no stimuli. Even with a job and studying, the lack of social interaction and being in public, was doing far more damage to me than I could have imagined.
After two years spent at Southern State I am transferred to minimum security and eventually a halfway house. The halfway house is terrible. If I had known how it was going to be I would have never put in for transfer. I was put into Tully House in Newark which is situated in a post apocalyptic looking area of the city. The purpose for the halfway house is to help those transitioning back to normal life get a job and secure housing, However Tully house seems to do whatever possible to prevent this from happening.
Bi-weekly drug tests are given with faulty instant tests, which sends many people back unjustifiably. I am not saying that no one in the halfway house was using narcotics, but at least ten people were sent back for known faulty tests and when they were sent back to CRAF and the lab tests came back without any positive results, they were either sent back to Tully or another halfway house somewhere else in the state.
Furthermore, Tully House seems to delay residents from obtaining jobs or going to school at any cost. I applied and was accepted to Rutgers for the Fall of 2019, at which time I would no longer be incarcerated, however Tully House told me that I was not eligible to attend school or obtain grants. When a group who advocates for inmates and acts as a liaison between them, the universities met what I was able to push through my application and I was accepted. Tully House had nothing to do with my success in being accepted to school, other than trying to oppose. I would be asked to attend meetings and orientations at Rutgers which was repeatedly denied by Tully House. I was not allowed to get a job or leave the building for 9 months after arriving. Even after I obtained a job, I was met by contestant opposition by staff to make it to work.
The halfway house was by far the worst experience of my total time incarcerated. Those residing as residents at Tully house were not the issue by any means. Mostly people were focused on doing what was necessary to be given work release or to go to school, but the staff were some of the most disrespectful people I have ever come across.
On May 19, 2019 I walked out of Tully house with all my belongings in two clear plastic bags. I walked the maze through the vacant houses and dilapidated commercial buildings to the bus stop where I boarded a bus to take me away from my life incarcerated.
The lasting effects of being incarcerated for 5 years have stayed with me, even today 2 years later, I have nightmares and panic attacks often. I am in counseling to manage PTSD from some of the things I have been exposed to while incarcerated which I feel no person should ever have to face. I am one of the moderately lucky ones however. The system is designed to encourage recidivism. Prisons are essentially warehousing men and women throughout the state. It is a business and makes a lot of money. In order to change and to make good on a promise I made to myself when I said I’d change my life in the county, I have been involved with advocating for formerly incarcerated and incarcerated individuals rights. Everyday is a struggle to put aside the stigma of being a formerly incarcerated individual and to try and move on in a positive direction. I have learned you can’t unsee or undo things from the pass, just learn to move on in the best way possible.