“Pack your shit. You’re moving.” The officer stood outside my cell, number 1041. He was calling my name. He held a handful of mail. I was hoping for a letter from my 18-year-old daughter, whom I had recently gotten back in touch with after 12 years, or from my English pen pal who had helped reunite us. Instead, the only thing the officer had for me was the disappointing news that I was being moved … again. Last I counted, my numbers were 28 and 36: 28 cell changes, and 36 complete strangers I’ve been forced to room with. “Did you hear me?” the officer asked.
“Pack my shit for what?” I responded nervously. “I just moved here three weeks ago.”
“I don’t know, but I’ll be back in 20 minutes,” the officer replied. “So have your shit packed and ready by then.”
Twenty minutes. I had twenty minutes to finish the Ramen noodle soup and cup of red Kool-Aid—though I’d suddenly lost my appetite. Twenty minutes to take down the wet laundry hanging on a makeshift clothesline I’d made from a torn sheet. Twenty minutes to untie my TV, which hangs from the air vent, as there are no shelves. Twenty minutes to remove the bedding and roll up my thin mattress to take with me because the one in my next cell may be stained or soiled. Twenty minutes to remove the small collage of photos of my daughter and my pen pal taped to the wall. Twenty minutes to put the last 14 years of my life into two small boxes, slide them out of the cell door and say goodbye to my cellmate.
“Pack your stuff. You’re moving.” Those are some of the most distressing words to hear in prison. A knot forms in your stomach.
Your first thought is, “Why are they moving me? I get along with my cellmate, I’m not disruptive or belligerent to staff, and I’m familiar with the people on the gallery.”
As you begin packing your entire existence into two small boxes—your worn sheets, your books, your walkman cassette player, your headphones that work on only one side, all the things that keep you sane—anger creeps in. “Man, why these guards keep fuckin’ with me?” you think to yourself. “Why won’t they just let me do my time in peace?” Then Paranoia sets in. “Why are they targeting me?”
Then comes the “what-ifs.” What if I don’t get along with my new cellmate? What if he doesn’t shower or clean up after himself? What if he has a mental condition like schizophrenia or he’s a self-mutilator? What if our religious beliefs differ or if he has none, and he uses that as a basis for conflict and argumentation? What if it’s a friend of the victim in my case? You start to prepare yourself for the worst—for the possibility that you might be forced to fight and end up going to segregation. The memories of past cellmates flash through your mind. The one who didn’t bathe for the first week after he moved in—and might not have bathed at all if I hadn’t asked him to. Or the one who would scream and shout random obscenities on the gallery for hours each day, even when I was trying to sleep. And let’s not forget the heroin addict (yes, there are heroin addicts in prison) who sometimes left bits of puke on the floor beside the toilet and who stole my address book, impersonated me and told my family and friends that I wanted them to write to him.
The sick feeling comes again, stronger, as you don’t want to get hurt, nor do you want to hurt anyone. You’ve been working so hard to avoid troublemakers, so hard to better yourself and your situation. All that could be gone now…all because of a random move.
When you make it to your new cell, the tension is thick. It remains so for days to come as you get adjusted to your new cellmate’s routine, habits, and tendencies. In the past I’ve had cellies that were devout Muslims; that were quite judgmental and began most sentences with “Well, the Quran tells us…”, which took some getting used to as a non-Muslim. They also prayed five times a day, during which time they expected me to just stop whatever it was I was doing until they were done. I’ve also had cellies that coughed and sneezed without covering their mouths and picked their noses and touched common fixtures like the light switch or sink buttons without washing their hands first. I would have to go behind them all day with a rag and bottle of disinfectant soap. Like those times before, both you and your new cellmate will spend several days feeling each other out, all while you feel out the dozen other new faces of the gallery of cells.
As you enter the cell, you pay attention to whether or not he helps you move your property inside. When the door shuts, you see if he gives you space to situate yourself. You introduce yourself and tell him things like, “I’m really clean” and “I’m pretty laid back.” As he describes his habits, you gauge the appearance of his bed, and how he keeps his property, to decipher whether or not he’s a slob.
You take whichever bunk is open, then arrange everything to allow for some semblance of comfort. You wait to re-hang the collage of your loved ones, because you’re not yet sure if it’s okay to let your cellmate into your life. Once everything is done, you lay in your bed and think, “Here we go again.”
Written Inside is a podcast about life inside a maximum-security prison cell. Adapted from essays written at Stateville Correctional Center near Chicago, these intimate stories speak to the everyday experience of being incarcerated. Howard Keller Jr.’s story was voiced by Chicago actor Manny Buckley. Created by journalist Alex Kotlowitz and produced by WBEZ Chicago’s Colin McNulty.
This project is made possible in part by generous support from The Field Foundation of Illinois