Thursday, May 15, 2014

Day 1: First Impressions at Lompoc Camp

Our first minutes at the camp are filled with bustle and commotion, yelling and questions and fist bumps. I only remember snippets:

Being led to a bunk. "This is yours," the guard grunts, pointing up at a tiny steel cot perched atop another cot high above the floor.

"How will I sleep on that?" I wonder. "What if I fall off?

Cries of "Wassup," and "We got us some fish".

Not sure if the cries are directed at me. Apparently today's new crop of convicts is bigger than usual. It's as if the anthill's been stirred up.

A tall, middle-aged man with a big gut walks over. "At least you're white," he says to me in greeting. 
I've never been told that before. It's not exactly something I feel I should take credit for.

"Yeah, that I am," I answer. "So are you."

"This is my bunk," he says, pointing to the lower steel slab. "You're my bunkie."

He seems nice enough - I am white after all - but I begin to panic that I'm housed with some sort of neo-Nazi.  He holds out his fist.

"What's he doing?" I wonder. Moves it toward me. I'm a little slow, a little out of touch. Finally I get it: fist bump, the universal prison handshake. I raise my fist in reply.

My Aryan bunkie ponies up some stuff for me: holey sweatpants 4 sizes too big, some shorts that could fit a cow. But I'm not complaining. I appreciate the gesture: he's trying to welcome me. 

Someone hands me some more stuff - i don't see who: toilette paper, a thin brown blanket, a towel. I'm at a loss what to do next so decide to make my cot. Needless to say, I struggle. The bunk is about 6 feet in the air and only several feet wide. Every time I try to slip on the sheet, the paper-thin mattress slides off and falls. I realize that there's no pillow.

My Aryan bunkie laughs, takes charge. He shows me how to knot the sheet and tuck in the thin blankets.

Just as we finish the guard returns. "Time to move."

"What?" Aryan asks. "He just got here." 

"Mixup somewhere," he grunts.

The guard points to another bunk toward the front of the room. Another top bunk. Lower bunks are reserved for old-timers, a sign of prestige. I also notice that I'm being transferred to the Hispanic part of town. I'm not at all racist but have heard enough of prisonhouse race relations to be at least somewhat nervous. A short fat man with brown skin and closely cropped black hair smiles at me. I smile back. We bump fists.

"Gordo," he says.

I remember enough Spanish from high school to know that this means "fatty". A fitting name.

Just in case, I ask, "Is that your name?"

"Yes," he says as he gestures toward a folding chair beneath the bunk. "Use this if want," he says.

I don't understand the significance but say thank you. Later, I learn that he's inviting me into his house, bidding me to feel welcome. He's a long-termer and there are a lot of subtleties of prison-house culture (i.e., all of them) that I do not understand. He hands me some super-spicy Cheetos topped with hot-pepper sauce.

I decline.

He insists.

I try one. My face turns red, my throat burns. I feel welcome, I guess. I wonder if I should be suspicious.  Something inside me tells me no. 

I climb, wobbly and unsteady, to my bunk. Stare about. The place is hustle and bustle; cramped; bunks stacked floor to ceiling, no open space but a narrow path through the center. It reminds me of an overpacked airport after a storm. I can't imagine a day in this place, let alone a month, or a year, or two. My sentence stretches out in front of me like all eternity. I want to walk away, leave, escape, get out.  I feel isolated, cut off from the world. I don't yet understand the culture, the words, the rules, the rhythm of my new world. It's like moving to a new country....a country called 'hell'.

The hardest part is that, although there are a ton of rules, nothing is written down. Inmates pelt me with hours and rules and times. Be here, do this, don't do that. I wonder how I'll remember them all. I begin to write things down: time for lunch, where I can walk, where not, what to wear and when. How to wear your ID (inside your shirt so that it's hidden-go figure!). Some of these rules I learn by breaking them: my fellow inmates are great traffic cops, it's better to be stopped by them than by the gestapo guards.

Time out. To be continued tomorrow.

Originally Published 5/15/2014. Re-posted 1/14/2017

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