The Hoosegow Abyss: The Complete Fool’s Guide to Doing Life in Prison-Part 4

Michigan Intensive program Center

At night from a distance Marquette Prison looms from the black like a cold, damp, Romanesque castle and the first images in my mind, as our prison bus drew closer, were dungeons and torture chambers.

I was instantly relieved when we passed the prison’s main gate, arrived at a modern low building. My anxiety climbed when I saw fifty guards in full riot gear and shotguns, arranged in two lines, awaited us. One-by-one we were unchained from the prisoners next to us, though we continued to wear leg irons and have our wrists handcuffed and attached to our belly chains. The first prisoner exited the bus, the first guard chambered his shotgun; aimed at the prisoner’s head, the guard shuffle-walked the prisoner through the gauntlet of officers and into the prison. Once secure in his cell, the next prisoner was released from the bus and the routine repeated. The night was quiet and we clearly heard each chambered round. I prayed nobody would do anything stupid. If I was going to have to endure a beating, as many of the prisoners predicted, so be it. I wanted nothing to do with that shotgun aimed at my head.

The night was long since I was the last prisoners to be unloaded. The process went without event and I remember looking each officer in the face as I passed. The automatic doors opened and I entered a new building that smelled clean. The prisons I had been at were old and nasty with filthy floors, walls, and cells. In Jackson, the cells are stacked in a rectangular box four floors high, with each cell box located within the middle of a cell block whose outer walls contained many windows. I suppose the original idea was for prisoners to be exposed to outside light, but the reality was that somehow hundreds of pigeons got in and the windows were caked with pigeon shit.

Before being placed in cell 25 I was strip-searched and issued a set of green hospital type pants and shirt and a pair of black rubber slippers: no underwear, no T-shirt, no socks. Cell 25 was new and furnished with a 3’ X 6’ stainless-steel sheet as a bed that was bolted to the wall and covered by a thin mattress; a stainless-steel toilet cemented to the wall; another small stainless-steel sheet to be used as a writing surface, about 1 ½’ X 1’, bolted to the wall; and one foot diameter stainless-steel stool in front of the ‘desk’, bolted to the floor. Spartan, but it was a step up.

One-by-one we were asked if we wanted to shower and to my amazement many prisoners refused: of the 25 in my wing, I was one of 5 that accepted. I was hand-cuffed and escorted to the shower with an electronic door. Once in, I placed my hands through a door slot to be uncuffed and was given a bar of state soap that smelled like rotten meat and had the texture of sandpaper. But it was soap, and the shower was hot, and I was happy for the hot water running down my sore back, soothing the blows from the fire-hose nozzle. I was in a comfortable reverie when suddenly a disembodied voice from a speaker inside the shower said, “Rinse off. An officer will soon be there.”

Everything in the prison was remotely controlled: the shower water, all doors, all lights; and each cell and room was equipped with a speaker allowing minimal face-to face staff contact with prisoners. MIPC was like a spaceship on autopilot. We even had piped in music in our cells, with staff deciding the type of music and when it played.

Confusion

After my shower, I sat in my cell wondering when I was going to get that beating I was assured was coming. Instead, officers appeared on each wing carrying metal boxes strapped around their necks like those used by hot dog vendors at a baseball park. Each prisoner was given a paper cup and plate, and a small plastic fork. The officers served fried eggs. I love eggs! I was the last one on my wing to be fed and the officer placed two eggs on my plate and politely asked me, “Is that enough?” ‘Is that enough’, was he kidding!? I politely asked if I could have more and he placed two more on my plate, and again said, “Is that enough?” I timidly stuck out my plate again and he placed two more eggs on it.

There are two types of prison segregation: disciplinary, where you are in seg. for a specified amount of time for rule violations, then released back to general population; and, administrative, where you’re deemed difficult to manage and put in seg. Indefinitely. Convicts in long-term segregation suffer from depression, anxiety, paranoia, panic, and insomnia. Research shows that prolonged social isolation changes the way some genes are expressed resulting in such conditions as a 50% increase in the risk of dementia. And especially pertinent to prisons, long term segregation increases levels of aggression, thus establishing a vicious cycle of aggression — -isolation — -more aggression.

The officers served other prisoners and I noticed nobody else got extra eggs because many guys refused to talk to the officers or just growled when addressed, guys that had spent years in segregation treated like dogs so they responded like dogs. You keep a German Shephard caged and poke him with a stick and he’ll growl. Though I understood why these guys acted as they did, I knew I didn’t want to become a growling animal. I didn’t fully understand the prison world, so I didn’t know what all my choices were but I knew I didn’t want to be an animal.

A second officer appeared with another metal box, passing out bread and fresh milk. Marquette Prison had its own dairy herd to provide fresh milk daily. I ate and drank my fill and was ready for sleep. I lay down but overhead was a huge florescent light. I tried to locate a switch to turn off the light but couldn’t. As I searched for a light switch, I noticed a 5” X 8” window in the ceiling and wondered what it was for. Then I heard footsteps across the ceiling and saw an officer look through the window into my cell then move on. Every prison completes multiple daily counts where prisoners return to their cells and are physically counted. The results are then sent to the prison control center where they are tabulated and compared with a master count board. A cardinal prison rule is that if you are outside your cell without permission during count, you are considered trying to escape and face additional time and loss of good time credits. In other words, you don’t screw with the count. Normally officers pass in front of your cell and record your presence on a count slip. MIPC was designed to allow for a count with minimal contact between staff and prisoner.

My first night was sleepless with my light always on. In the morning, I asked the officer passing out breakfast about the light. He explained I had to ask for the light to be turned on and off. He added I could also have the radio turned on and off. I asked for the light to be turned off and the radio on, and the officer yelled to the control center officer, “Turn the lights off and the radio on in 25!” I smile as I’m writing this because Marquette is in the wilds of Upper Peninsula, Michigan, and during my stay at MIPC I listened to a lot of country western music. I learned to like it.

Except for the furnishings I’ve already described, my cell had nothing. Each time an officer came with food I made inquiries: Can I get something to write with? How about paper? Can I get any books? I was told what I was asking for were privileges I had to earn, so I asked what I could read about the program to know what was expected and available. To my surprise, instead of a pamphlet or booklet, a social worker by the name of Matt Thomas came to my cell. Matt explained the program and asked me questions: How old are you? How did you get sent here? He surprised me by listening, and after a while said we will talk again. Later he brought me a stack of paper and a short pencil, like the kind you get a golf course to keep score. I noticed he didn’t talk to anyone else and no one talked to him. I looked forward to talking with him again.

Though there apparently wasn’t going to be a beating, my actions on the bus weren’t forgotten. A few days later an officer came to my cell and placed handcuffs on me, and to my surprise put me in leg irons. I was escorted to the front office where I was greeted by a Michigan State Police officer. He said he was investigating the destruction of the bus. He said the officer in the back of the bus said I was the one who started the incident by throwing urine on him, and that I was later barking orders over the bus PA system. He also knew I was the one who spoke to the reporter when the bus was stopped. He said I was to be formally charged and would have to pay for the fifteen thousand dollars’ damage. He wanted me to confess to the yet unspecified charges. I had been down this road before with the state police in the Michigan Reformatory just a few months earlier when they wanted me to cop to first degree murder, saying that’s what I’ll be charged with if the prisoner who was stabbed there died. I laughed and told them if that’s the case when he dies, come see me. The prisoner lived and refused to name me as his assailant. Today I wouldn’t have such luck. Years ago, the prisoner code was that you didn’t rat on another prisoner. Today prisoners will rat out their mothers.

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The State Police officer did his best to convince me of my demise. I laughed and stood up from my chair and said, “Good luck proving that in court.” He assured me he could prove everything. I said, “I think it will be tough to convince a jury that me, an 18-year-old kid, 5’4”, 140 pounds, had ordered around 35 of Michigan’s most incorrigible prisoners, men that have been incarcerated 15–25 years, with much of that spent in segregation — -huge monsters feared by staff and prisoners alike — -to follow my orders on that bus.” Then I added, “And please keep in mind I had belly chains and leg irons on when I was supposedly doing all this.” He slammed his notebook on the table, and I said, “When you’re ready for the trial come and get me but be prepared to call every prisoner on that bus to testify how intimidating I was to make them do all this.” I then turned toward the door and was escorted to my cell and never again saw the State Police officer, or any other investigator, or prosecutor.

That afternoon, I was again handcuffed and thought the State Police had returned. Instead, I was taken to Matt Thomas’s small office where Matt instructed the officer to remove my cuffs, which the officer reluctantly did. Matt was 6’2”, 250 and wasn’t threatened by me. We spent an hour talking about my childhood, my family, and my crimes, and it seemed to fascinate him that I was basically a good kid until I wasn’t. He continually harped on the fact that I was a kid and asked if I had looked around at the men I was housed with. He told me that I shouldn’t be here, and I shouldn’t be serving life in prison. He said he had met many guys guilty of crime and none of them were doing life. I couldn’t tell if he was bullshitting or meant what he said. If it was an act, he was doing a good job.

The Program

Matt explained the MIPC behavior modification program consisting of six levels and I had to earn your way from level one to level six. I immediate put the information to use; I addressed officers with “Excuse me, but could you, or would you please”, strategies I didn’t bother sharing with the other prisoners who seemed content to growl at staff. I didn’t see the point of gratuitously nasty everyday attitudes toward staff. I mean these are people who can make your life miserable, so why piss them off all the time? Having to defend yourself is one thing, but nastiness as a general attitude seems rather self-defeating. That’s what too much segregation time does to you.

Soon I was allowed out of my cell after every meal to pick-up food trays and sweep and mop floors, a lot better than being in a cell 24/7 with no human contact except when meals were passed out. I asked for books but was only given a thick GED study guide. I hadn’t yet earned the right to novels or other types of books.

The talks with Matt continued and I eventually admitted to him I had a hard time sleeping; that I had a lot of guilt about my crimes. I told him I was raised a Roman Catholic and my crimes were a sin against God. Matt arranged for me to see the program psychiatrist, Dr. James Metizen, a tiny man even smaller than me. We had weekly therapy sessions aimed solely at my understanding my crimes so I could sort through the madness in my head about my victims. Sessions with Dr. Metizen were all business, unlike those with Matt where parts of our meetings were often socially relaxed like two regular guys kicking it in a coffee shop. Dr. Metizen often used a then new technique of video-taping our session for a half hour, then reviewing the tapes during the second half hour, with him asking me about my facial expressions, and what was I thinking when I said this or did that. I learned a lot in those sessions, like despite gaining insight into my behavior, there was nothing I could do to undo what I did. I had damaged innocent people and I was serving life.

I gained privileges, I learned new tricks. For instance, whenever I heard the main gate open I stopped what I was doing and started reading my GED manual. I figured out that every time staff made rounds, they took notes on what each prisoner was doing. The MIPC program was based on a point system and prisoners were awarded points for positive behavior. I swept and moped floors, picked up food trays, studied my GED book and greeted everybody politely and the points kept adding up. I was on a roll and soon was at level three where I was allowed out of my cell daily to use a small exercise yard for a half hour, or to watch TV. I learned that when I completed the program, I would be able to transfer to the prison of my choice, if it coincided with my security level, which meant I could go back to MR or Jackson. I pushed the envelope and said I wanted to go to the Michigan Training Unit, a relatively new prison for young offenders. It was below my security level, but staff said they would see what they could do.

Yo, Blood

Eventually I was allowed outside my cell when I finished my chores, so I wandered for hours trying to talk to other prisoners; that’s how I met “Blood”, a 6’3”, 260-pound monster who spent most of his day doing push-ups. Blood locked across the hall from me and I watched him: I counted the number of push-ups he did until I lost interest after a couple of hundred in a row! And these were real push-ups, not the namby-pamby push-ups most prisoners do. Each time Blood touched his chest to the floor, then went straight up the full length of his gorilla arms. His hands were twice the size of mine. When staff passed Blood’s cell they never stopped and averted looking at him. It was obvious they were frightened. Everybody feared Blood.

One night I awoke to Blood rattling the bars of his cell door. It was 3:00 am and soon everybody was awake. Blood ordered that everyone rattle their cell door bars. Hey, this was Blood, so everybody complied. Several officers came in and asked me what was wrong. I said ask Blood. They backed away from Blood’s cell and asked him what’s the problem and he said he was hungry. He said he knew they had food in their breakroom so “go get me some”. The officers tried to explain that breakfast was in three hours, but Blood didn’t accept that and again ordered our bars rattled, which we did. This time the officers said if Blood didn’t stop his behavior, they would call for a squad to come and subdue him. Blood smiled at them and said, “Go get ‘em”. About an hour later six officers arrived equipped with helmets, batons, and Mace, and with the lead officer holding a shield.

Blood’s cell door opened slowly and the lead officer with the shield stepped in front of the opening. Blood effortlessly reached over the shield and grabbed the officer and threw him down. Blood stepped out of his cell to meet the five other officers. He picked up the closest officer and threw him against the wall. As Blood tossed one officer another would try to grab him and in turn would get thrown against the wall. He threw them hard, sometimes two at a time, so that when they tried to get up, they were dazed and had a hard time standing. I realized the officers couldn’t use the Mace because they would spray each other and a lot of prisoner bystanders.

Blood took a break from the carnage and said, “If you’ve had enough, leave.” The officers left, and Blood yelled, “Bring me something to eat”. Once Blood returned to his cell and his door closed, an officer came back with a box of cereal and a pitcher of milk for. I remember thanking God that night that He hadn’t made me a big guy; with my attitude, if I were bigger, there would be a lot more problems in my life.

Taming the Beast

A day or so after the Blood debacle I was in the hallway outside Blood’s cell and noticed an unopened letter resting between his cell door bars. I ask Blood if he knew he had a letter and he snapped at me, saying, “I don’t need to hear anything that bitch has to say.” I didn’t get many letters so I asked if he would permit me to read it. He agreed. I read the letter to myself and learned it was from Blood’s mother. Blood was in his 40’s and was discharging (doing the maximum) off a 20–40-year sentence, so his mother had to be in her 60’s. It was a nice letter so I called him over to the bars and said in a low voice so no one else could hear, “This letter is from your mother.” Blood’s expression softened with a warm glow. He asked what did she say? I held the letter out for him to take but Blood backed away from the bars and said, “No, you read it to me.” That’s when I realized Blood couldn’t read. Blood came close to the bars and I read the letter to him. When I was finished, Blood laid quietly on his bed and closed his eyes.

The next time I saw Matt I asked if I could have some elementary school reading texts and be allowed to be in the TV room with Blood to teach him to read. Matt said they couldn’t take the chance of letting Blood in the TV room, but he (Matt) would get me the books and I could sit outside Blood’s cell to teach him. Blood learned fast and soon could read simple books with cowboy stories. He didn’t read well, but he had great comprehension. The more Blood read, the more manageable he was for staff.

My interactions with Blood made me think of what Hemingway said in A Farewell to Arms:

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that it will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there is no special hurry.”

Prison could not physically break Blood but it would likely kill him, first his spirit then his body. I liked him and just wanted there to be “no special hurry.”

Education turned out to be a key to my development: the more I learned, the more manageable I became. I was able to get a bachelor’s degree while in prison and didn’t have a behavioral infraction for over a quarter of a century.

I hadn’t been in the prison system long but I noticed that most lifers were noticeably less aggressive than those with set release dates. Lifers are resigned to being incarcerated a long time and they want to be left in peace. The exceptions are lifers who have reached a high level of nihilism, who see no meaning in life and therefore no reason to change. Meaning can be the hope of eventual release, but it also can be nursed by programming that gives lifers a prison bound purpose. To quote Milton from Paradise Lost:

“For the mind is its own place, and can make a hell of heaven, or a heaven of hell.”

I completed the MIPC program and got my GED, and true to their word staff requested that I be transferred to The Michigan Training Unit (MTU), in Ionia Michigan. However, Central Office staff said because of my past conduct they wanted me to do a year back at MR, and if I completed that period without incident, they would transfer me to MTU.

I left MIPC with recommendations that despite my life sentence, I be allowed to participate in appropriate offender therapy…something not allowed for lifers in Michigan prisons today. As a matter of fact, the Michigan Department of Corrections does not allow lifers to participate in many educational and vocational programs, the reason given, as stated as recently as August 2016 in a memo addressing lifer programs by Vocational Specialist Robert McGeorge, “You are serving life. You are never getting out. Why should we waste money on programs for you?” There are 5,000 lifers in Michigan prisons that will have nothing to do. It’s too bad Mr. McGeorge never met Blood or the officers that he injured. Maybe Mr. McGeorge would have found at least one reason to make programming available to lifers: The safety and welfare of corrections officers. Well, as they say, “You can lead a horse to water, but …”

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Joseph Abramajtys

Joseph Abramajtys

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