Prison by the Senses

By Frank McEvoy, Kyle Moran, and Craig Salathe

Descriptions of prison as the senses receive them (or are assaulted by them).

This is a project Clara and I have been batting back and forth for some time now. I tried to get my pen pals in prison to give me inputs, but no one really came up with much. Then, Craig Salathe in Texas submitted something that was really ideal, so I resent my people letters with his letter as a model, along with detailed questions from me.

Three people, Larry Harper, Arthur Johnson, and Kyle Moran sent me things this time, with Kyle, my more-or-less adopted son, an exceptionally good and witty writer, giving me enough, with the perceptive Craig Salathe from Texas, to construct an article.

Hearing: Art and Kyle commented on the noise in the plumbing. Art mentioned that that was a constant rumble where he was. The noise isn't surprising, since Kyle said the toilet is powerful.

The noises are vivid, as Craig discovered:

What I remember most of that first day was the cacophony of sounds. It was the loudest, most chaotic noise I had ever heard. Guards yelling, TV blaring at full volume, prisoners screaming, dominoes slamming against steel tables, but worst of all was the hollow echo as each of these sounds mixed with the others and reverberated down the corridors creating a deafening roar.

There are crowd noises, too. As Kyle writes:

There are always at least three or four people arguing and threatening to either kill each other or beat each other's asses. There are people raping, singing, and playing chess by screaming out numbers to move on their chessboards. There is a guy making animal noises like monkeys and dogs. It's loud, and the noise reverberates throughout the cellblock and my cell. But I've learned to ignore or not hear any of it, except the noises that stick out like the police walkie-talkie chattering and keys jingling to let me know when the cops are coming, or people yelling, "One time," or "Nine in the hole," meaning the cops are on the cellblock. It gets really loud when they open the food slots to feed us, because everyone is yelling and screaming out their food slots, trying to outyell everyone else. It quiets down at about 11:00 p.m. or so.

Sight: Beginning with the accommodations, cells are usually 8x10 feet. As has been commented in other places, that's the size of an average bathroom. (It's the size of my bathroom.) So, if I want to get a sense of what being in prison is, I can spend the weekend in my bathroom.

From everybody's feedback, there's not much to see in prison. Most people can't see out. In fact, one man I know had to baffle in the cells for confinement so the prisoners couldn't see out. The irony here was that he was soon sent to confinement for some months. Most can't see much from the door of the cell either.

Inside the cell is a different matter. Here, Kyle takes over:

The guards turn the bright-ass lights on at 7:00 a.m., and they stay on until about 10:45 p.m., sometimes until 11:00 or later. The cell is about 10x8 feet. It has a solid steel door with a vertical rectangular window of about 1.5 feet tall and six inches wide. It is a blue-painted door. It's latex paint that's all peeled off and covered with dirt, foot and hand prints, drops of dried food, spit, blood, and semen sporadically placed all over it. It has gang signs, people's names, threats, and so on written all over it and carved into it. The walls of my cell are concrete brick walls painted a dirty white color, covered in grime and dirt of pencil and pen graffiti, coughed-up green dried spit and boogers, semen, blood, and food. One corner of the ceiling is covered in about a thousand nasty-ass boogers.

The floor is poured concrete. It's pretty smooth, except for four or five rough spots where someone sharpened down a shank in the floor, leaving slight indents that look like grooves in the floor.

The toilet is stainless steel with a sink connected to it. When it's flushed, it's very loud and strong enough to flush a whole sheet without a problem of being clogged. On the wall is a polished piece of stainless steel that's supposed to be a mirror, but it's so scratched up that I can only see my outline in it.

The sights of the cells were not what struck Craig:

I had never seen so many faces full of despair. Gaunt faces, lifeless eyes. Practically everyone looked as if they had just been told they only had hours to live. In truth, for many, life was essentially over, due to Texas's new Get Tough on Crime laws. I learned quickly to adopt this same look because neither guards nor fellow prisoners liked to see smiles. Smiling meant you might have hope and the guards don't want you to have hope. Prisoners don't want you to have hope because, they have none and misery loves company.

Smell: Ironically, most of the people don't comment much about smell, or they say they really can't smell anything. That's not my description from the times I've been in jail with social work projects. I've always thought a prison had the smell of disinfectant over sweat over urine. Kyle noted, though, that he could smell a woman's perfume from a significant distance.

With the toilets in the cells (sometimes two-man cells), people like Art commented on the smell of excrement.

Kyle continues:

There really isn't anything to smell at all. Everything smells the same to an inmate because we've been here so long that we grew accustomed to the once-obvious smells.

Taste: Food. Generally, the cuisine gets low points. Most say there's not much flavor in the food. Kyle complained about a Kool-Aid-like drink at his jail. The containers read: "Causes cancer in laboratory animals."

Kyle continues:

The food is very bland, cooked with no spices or salt at all. Everything tastes mushy, bland, and tasteless. After eating the same meals for seven years straight, they all tend to taste the same -- they suck. So inmates use a ton of salt on their food to give it a little taste. That's why canteen food is a treat; we can taste that.

The water in my cell tastes bad, like raw turnips or something. It even smells pretty bad. We get juice with our food that tastes so bitter it'd kill a caterpillar.

Touch: Clothing is rough. Kyle Moran and Jeff Inabnit both mentioned they found the boots tough to use (particularly for exercise) and the clothing irritating to their skin, particularly in summer. Bunk padding is thin (a "thin mat on steel," as Larry Harper wrote). Kyle said his mattress is four fingers thick, his pillow two fingers thick. Backaches are common.

With cold, Jeff told me he often had to break the ice in his cell at his penitentiary. (Shades of a medieval castle, which it resembles.) For most, heat is the problem. I once heard that the cells in San Quentin during the summer can get above 110 degrees. In Florida, few prisons are air-conditioned, so most have to deal with stifling heat. According to Kyle:

In summer, it gets so hot and humid that you just lie in your bed in boxer shorts sweating, trying not to move too much as you fan yourself with a piece of cardboard or something. The humidity makes everything feel damp and sticky.

If your boots get wet, they turn your socks blue from the black dye in them; they stink pretty badly.

Various state legislators have introduced bills restricting amenities in prison (often bought by the inmates themselves) so they'll be the worst places a person can live. But they're that now; prison walls aren't built to keep people out. I can't imagine bleaker existences than the ones these fine, perceptive men described.

Justice Denied