Someone once asked me what it was like to go to prison. Well, it’s a lot like you might imagine it would be, I thought. There’s violence, humiliation, deprivation, regret, guilt, shame and the darkness of depression and hopelessness. Even so, I knew that prison isn’t always like you might imagine it to be too. I’ve found friendship, generosity, accomplishment and when I squeeze my eyes hard enough a faint flicker of hope, too. So, not really sure how to answer his question, I told him this story instead:
Before I came to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, I spent three years waiting to be tried, then sentenced, at the notorious Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. It was there that I learned how to cook wine, how to make a shank and where I had my first prison fight. The ‘Burg was one dark and dangerous place. When a prison official told me that I was going to be “shipped up-state” the next day, I was anxious to leave but also glad to be leaving in one piece. At 4 a.m. the next morning, the clank of the lock turning in the cell-door woke me up and a guard hollered in, “Schilk, get your shit together, you’re going up-state.”
I rolled out of the bunk, into my dirty shower-shoes and then over to the john. After that, I ran some tap water into my cup, stirred in a large spoon of Keefe coffee and sat back down on the bunk. Wrapped in the foil from a cigarette pack, I had three Percocets with half the life already sucked out of them. I had brought them the day before for a few packs of smokes. I downed them with the coffee and reached for my Marlboros. I lit one up, took a drag and held the smoke deep in my lungs. A few minutes later I walked down the cell-block to the dark showers. The shower-room was pretty large, I guess about fifteen by twenty feet or so, and it was lit by just a single incandescent bulb that sat behind a protective grate. The place smelled like a dirty aquarium. All of the other prisoners were locked in their cells and when I walked into the empty showers, the jaded roaches didn’t even have the decency to run for cover. What the fuck? When I got back to the cell I dried off, dressed and packed my few belongings into a small cardboard box. Not much really: legal papers, some photos, a few letters, socks and underwear and some cosmetics. Then, from out of the foam mattress, I pulled out a little over a quarter ounce of sinsemilla that was tightly wrapped in a blue balloon. Right before I left the cell for the final time I stashed the weed the only place it could go—don’t ask—and grabbed my box and headed to the front of the block. Alter about fifteen minutes, two guards, with a couple prisoners in tow, unlocked the head gate and I joined the other guys for a short march to the chow-hall.
By the time I ate some tired cornflakes and had another cup of coffee the percs had kicked in. Now, three percs ain't much but they did take a little of the edge off. From the chow hall we were taken to the receiving room to be processed out. Our property was rooted through then packed up, papers were filled out then enveloped and we were strip searched, jump-suited and placed in a holding cell that already held three other prisoners, Ahh, the sweet smell of institutions: sweat, piss and disinfectant. I sat numb on the wooden bench for I don’t know how long until the jingle of handcuffs told me it was time to go. The clock on the wall said it was 8:30 a.m. Two Philadelphia sheriffs appeared, told us to pair off and handcuffed us by twos. My right hand was cuffed, across my body, to the left hand of the guy on my left also across his body. He was this short, heavily muscled, light-skinned dude who didn’t seem like the happy-go-lucky type. When he shot me a hard look, I thought, Yeah, I’m not so happy to see you either dude. What was crazy was his beard. Actually, I’m not even sure that it was a beard. It was so black and sharply defined; I thought he must put that bad boy on with a ruler and a couple Sharpies. I didn’t bother to spark up any conversation. There were six of us in all and we were placed in a Philadelphia Sheriff’s van, one set per bench-seat, with Blackbeard and me last in, seated directly behind the two sheriffs. Although they were separated from us by a heavy grate and a smeared piece of Plexiglas we could see them and they could see us well enough too. It’s worth noting that I was the only white thing on the van. Well, the two sheriffs were white too but that only made it worse. When the van’s engine turned, my stomach turned with it and we were off.
After some time in local traffic, we got on the Schuylkill expressway which was crawling with cars. Other than some thin music playing on the van’s radio no one said anything and we rode in silence. Alter what seemed like a long time, we finally got on route 202 and headed upstate. Although it was late February, it was sunny and it felt hot inside the van. On top of that, I really had to take a piss. As we drove along I stared out the window at all the regular people, in their regular cars, driving to their regular jobs and living their regular lives. From where I was sitting, that didn’t seem like too bad of a deal. Just then I saw a woman in the passenger seat of the car next to us looking directly at me. I turned away. I have to say that while I was glad to get out of the ‘Burg in one piece, I was still worried because I knew it wasn’t going to be much better where I was headed. I had heard all the stories: men being raped, men getting stabbed, men throwing gasoline on each other and men getting killed. I didn’t want any of that to happen to me.
Sometime later, we turned off the highway and, alter a few twists and turns, down a narrow road where I could see the penitentiary in the distance. Finally we drove through a clearing towards a thirty foot concrete wail and pulled up behind a local police car which was stopped behind a semi pulling a flatbed trailer. On the trailer was a section of what looked like a large construction crane. The whole rig was stopped halfway through the security gate into the prison and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Just my fucking luck. For about five or ten minutes we just sat there until the sheriff riding shotgun got out and started walking the short distance to a guard’s shack next to the security gate. It was past ten a.m. by now and my bladder was getting ready to burst. Mine wasn’t the only one, because at that moment someone behind me shouted, “Yo, sheriff, I got to take a piss.” When he didn’t reply, some of the other guys hollered up that they had to go too. I didn’t say anything. We saw the one sheriff come back and everyone quieted down as he got back into the van. Although it was hard to hear through the Plexiglas, it sounded like he said that the rig was stuck but that things might get moving soon. At that, the driver removed the van’s keys from the ignition, opened his door and made for the guard’s shack.
“Hey, tell them we got to use the bathroom here,” someone shouted. He kept walking. Now all at once, the guys behind me started shouting, right through my head, at the sheriff seated in front of me. I was sweating my ass off and had an overwhelming desire to get the fuck out of the van. I quickly pulled my right hand up to wipe the sweat from my face which yanked Beardo’s hand in turn.
“Hey, watch what you’re doing bro” he said, as he yanked his hand back. “Sorry about that,” I said, “My fault.”
Now the van was in open revolt and some of the guys were threatening to start pissing right on the van.
“What the fuck you want me to do, we’re stuck,” said Shotgun as his partner got back into the van. The next thing I heard was the unmistakable sound of someone pissing right behind me. The strong scent of urine quickly moved throughout the van.
The driver shouted, “Whoever the fuck did that is going to scrub this van or get his motherfucking ass kicked!”
“It was me, I told you I had to piss and I ain’t scrubbing nothing,” said the skinny pisser in the seat behind me.
Before either sheriff could respond, almost everybody started shouting that if they couldn’t use the bathroom soon, they were going to start pissing in the van too. At the same time, Blackbeard, who had remained as quiet as I was, looked over at me and together we both started shouting, “We gotta piss! We gotta piss! We gotta piss….”
“I’ll be right back,” said Shotgun and headed out towards the guard’s shack. After what seemed like a day or two, Shotgun returned, opened the van’s side-door and handed in a medium-sized paper coffee cup.
“Fellows, for now, that’s the best we can do,” he said.
I thought you’ve got to be fucking kidding. He wasn’t. So, starting from the back of the van, the cup was filled, carefully passed to the door to be dumped, then passed on to be filled and dumped again and again. When the cup finally made it up to me, it was damp and I hoped it wouldn’t collapse in my hand. What a fucking nightmare trying to undo my jump-suit, pull out my dick and piss into a soggy cup. All the while still cuffed to one very unhappy dude beside me. He looked in the opposite direction but his hand was inches from my dick as I pissed. More than anything I hoped I wouldn’t splash him but I absolutely had to go. Alter filling it up, I dumped the cup myself then turned and held it for him to grab. Blackbeard looked over at me and hesitated for what seemed like a really long time. Finally, he gave me a little shrug and when I nodded back to him, he reached his hand toward me and took the cup.
“So, that’s what it’s like to go to prison,” I said, to answer the initial question. And, in a lot of ways, it’s been like that ever since.
About an hour after our “coffee break” the big rig moved through the gate, then the police car and finally us. None of us scrubbed the van, none of us got our asses kicked and none of us mentioned what had just happened. By the way, over the years I got to know Blackboard, he goes by Dawud, and he’s actually a pretty good guy (although, it turned out that he really does color his beard with Sharpies).
|Thomas Schilk AS0255|
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426