From the January-February 2015 issue of News & Letters
Crescent City, Calif.—Nothing can prepare you for entering the Security Housing Unit (SHU). It’s a world unto itself where cold, quiet and emptiness come together, seeping into your bones, then eventually the mind.
The first week I told myself: It isn’t that bad, I could do this. The second week, I stood outside in the middle of the prison yard in my underwear, shivering as I was pelted with hail and rain. By the third week, I found myself squatting in the corner filing fingernails down over coarse concrete walls, my sense of human decency dissipating with each day. At the end of the first year, my feet and hands began to split open from the cold. I bled over my clothes, my food, between my sheets. Band-Aids were not allowed, and even confiscated when found.
My sense of normalcy began to wane after just three years of confinement. Now I was asking myself, can I do this? Not sure about anything anymore. Though I didn’t realize it at the time—looking back now—the unraveling must have begun then. My psyche had changed. I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me, as easily as if it were a simple shift of wind sifting over tired, battered bones.
A GOOD DAY IN THE SHU
There’s a definite split in personality when good turns to evil. The darkness that looms above is thick, heavy and suffocating. A snap so sharp, the echo is deafening. A sound so loud you expect to find blood leaking from your ears at the bleakest moment. The waking is the most traumatic. From the moment your bare feet graze the rugged stone floor, your face begins to sag, knuckles tighten, flashing pale in the pitch of early morning.
The slightest slip in a quiet dawn can set a SHU personality into a tailspin: if the sink water is not warm enough, the toilet flushes too loud, the drop of a soap dish, a cup…in an instant you bare teeth, shake with rage. Your heart hammers against ribs, lodges in your throat. You are capable of killing anything at this moment. Flash attack: a beating, any violent outburst that will release rage. This would be the time it’s best to hold rigid. Take a deep breath. Try to convince yourself there’s an ounce of good left in you. This is not a portrait you wish anyone to see. And then a gull screeches—passing outside—another tailspin begins and you’re checking your ears for blood.
And this is a good day.