It’s hard to endure going to prison for life — and hard to endure the ﬁrst day in a new prison, whichever it may be, even for someone who has over eighteen years in. You don’t know where anything is, no one knows who you are, your property hasn’t arrived yet, you’re hungry and grungy from travel, and it’ll be a couple of weeks before you establish a routine that helps slide the time. However, going from the tree world to county jail as a twenty-three-year-old was the hardest transition.
While waiting to be booked on murder charges, I was leg-chained to a wall of bars in the jail’s inner lobby during shift change. With each passing minute, my body — violently craving a dose of the methadone it had been given during seven days of heroin detox — grew hotter, sweatier, achier. The air was thick with dust and body odor and industrial-grade cleaning products. I fought the urge to vomit up the runny nose I‘d been shufﬂing back.
The guards, alerted to my arrival, had a little fun at my expense, slamming a heavy metal gate near to where I was chained, watching me jump involuntarily. The guard assigned to watch me sat in a chair and seemed to amuse himself with a latex glove he’d inﬂated. (I later learned that this friendly young guard was trying to distract me from the machinations of his gate-slamming coworkers.) To ease my muscles, which. on account of the withdrawal, felt like they wanted to rip themselves in shreds, I lay on the cold ﬂoor, comfy as one could be, tethered to a wall. There were no windows and. having been relieved of my watch earlier, I had difficulty convincing myself that the sludge of time was indeed progressing. As a sergeant walked past. he said to the guard: “Get him the fuck up.” And so I crawled back into the flimsy plastic chair, which now seemed even more uncomfortable. Quietly, so as not to invite attention from the others, I asked the guard how long it would he before l got put into a cell.
“I dunno,“ he said, not unkindly.
My eyes, warm and wet for want of methadone, glazed over and looked on my future: I would spend the rest of my life chained to that wall. However, there was one thing, and one thing only that I was thankful for: no longer did I have to spend all day, as I had for sixteen months, scrambling for money; hustling, lying to and stealing from everyone who mattered, all to get the hundreds of dollars it took to feed my habit every eight hours.
Chained to that wall, sick, hopeless, and consumed with amorphous fears, there was no way I could imagine a future — just several years away — in which I would be standing at a cooking station in Attica’s honor block. the smell and sizzle of coconut-battered shrimp accompanying leisurely conversation with Whit, Doc, and Yas, three close friends, men I’d come to think of as family. By evening I’d made my way into a cell. and several hours after that — courtesy of my attorney, who wanted to keep me safe, he’d later tell me — I was placed on suicide watch. In the small hours of my ﬁrst night in a cell, I was awakened by a guard and escorted to the inﬁrmary. He stood in the doorway as I sat on the cold gray cushions of an examination table, slowly taking in my surroundings. The walls were faux-wood paneling, the room was chilly and quiet, and the fluorescent bothered me. The nurse wasn’t warm and pleasant with me as had been the case with nurses and dental assistants from my life before. Thus, the system drew its boundaries, and pronounced me no longer worthy of the special attention I’d taken as my birthright. She addressed me in clipped monotone, as one would an intelligent animal. Lift you shirt. The stethoscope’s smooth, cold head on my chest gave me goose bumps. Deep breaths. Her hand swept across my back, and I warmed from the human contact. The nurse cinched a blood pressure cuff around my biceps and stuck a thermometer in my mouth.
The guard tried small talk with her while the machines took their measure of me. The nurse had short blond hair, wind-swept with gel. Her lips were pink and glossy. Moby’s “Natural Blues“ played from a radio in the anteroom, a soft, haunting melancholy. The last time I heard it. I was driving home from the city, a bundle of heroin and syringes under my seat. The song gave me chills and I felt like crying.
Instead, I waited till the thermometer was out of my mouth and asked for something to kill the pain. And. for the ﬁrst time, the nurse gave me a smile, and said: “Yeah, right.” The guard escorted me back to my cell.
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Suicide watch was more commonly called one-on-one, and meant literally that, a pair of eyes on me around the clock. Along with two faceless men, I inhabited a small, windowless tank containing three six-by-nine cells, a three-foot walkway serving as our front porch. Welded to the cell was a wooden bench too narrow for my “mattress,” so I moved that, and myself, to the cold, dusty ﬂoor. The soundtrack to domestic life — random mumbling, toilet ﬂushing, and shufﬂing feet — let me know that the two cells to my right were occupied. Less than twenty-four hours inm, I didn’t know enough to wonder why these men were segregated and not in general population.
But it was apparent that I was the only one being closely watched. A small desk had been brought in. along with an old cushioned desk chair, and placed in front of my cell. Every eight hours a new guard parked his or her ass in that chair and read the paper.
This wasn’t a bad arrangement for me. Being one-on-one gave me time to adjust to incarcerated life, away from the criminally-mature men in general population, and to learn things on my own. More than most people, I really needed to sort myself out; Despite being guilty of murder. I was a naive child of privilege, soft and immature.
I got to know the guards and they got to know me, some better than others. There were a few hard asses who wanted nothing to do with me, and spent their shift reading and avoiding any human exchange. But most were decent and many weren’t much older than I. We seemed to strike an unspoken, mutually beneﬁcial arrangement: I’d keep them awake and entertained, and they’d treat me like a human being, occasionally giving me some of their lunch. Already, I was relying on Willy Loman’s mantra: Be liked and you will never want.
On my second night, a big woman had watch. I’d become adept at surreptitiously reading their tiny nametags. “Hi. Miss Haynes.”
She was standofﬁsh. But, with eight hours together, her chair three feet from the bars, we spoke and became comfortable with the other’s presence. At some point I lost myself in silent contemplation. The withdrawal had me feeling particularly nauseated and gross. At seemingly random moments the guilt of what I‘d done would pierce the veil of shock. ﬂash across my mind, ﬂood the inner recesses of my being. I would cringe and whimper; fear, loathing, and self-pity‘? Sure, there was some of that.
In my puddle of misty despond, I reached up from the ﬂoor and asked Haynes to hold my hand. I couldn’t believe that I asked, or that she actually obliged me. (After eighteen years inside. this scene feels even more surreal and unbelievable.) She extended several ﬁngers, which I held through the bars. Sobbing, I thanked her, and curled into a ball before drifting off to a ﬁtful sleep. In those days, I still entertained the hope that I would wake up with a contented sigh and ﬁnd that this was all a bad dream. The magical thinking was, maybe if I wanted it bad enough. I would wake up at home, clean and no longer withdrawing, my victims alive, families made whole; my future still bright.
But one can never go home again, and besides, for twenty-ﬁve-years-to-life, this is my home. I’d like to think that I’ve done a few nice things with the place.
Adam Roberts is serving time for murder.
ADAM ROBERTS #00A6776
Fishkill Correctional Facility
271 Matteawan Road
P.O. Box 1245
Beacon, New York 12508