The Convict – Part 16

By Joshua Ryan

“Boss! Yes Boss!” College Boy said, dropping his hand and jumping to attention. By then, I was standing at attention too.

“Awright,” Officer Nolan said, giving us the kind of smile that you give to a couple of monkeys that you catch dickin off in their cage. “Fun time is over. Grab your gear and follow me, convict.”

I stood by the counter and stuck out my arms, and Brian stacked my gear on them. Bedroll at the bottom, followed by trousers, shirts, underwear, and sox. The baggie perched on top. My arms were loaded.

“Hey!” the officer said. “I thought he was dressin in.”

“Boss! Yes Boss!” Brian said.

“Where’s his fuckin cap?”

“Boss! Sorry, Boss!” Brian answered. The cap was lurking on the counter. He picked it up and put it on my head. Now I was dressed in.

“You trusties get away with a lot,” Officer Nolan said.

“Boss! Yes Boss!” Brian said. I could see he was smiling, and it was obvious that Officer Nolan didn’t see that he was. “Clean up in here,” he said. “Then get back to your cage.”

“Boss! Yes Boss!” College Boy said. “Cleanin up, Boss!”, as if he liked being ordered around by a rookie officer. He was winking at me when he said it. “Happy New Year, Boss!”

“Like I say,” the officer repeated. “You trusties get away with a lotta shit in this joint. You ain’t above paddlin, boy.”

“Boss! No Boss!”

“Keep that in mind, boy.”

“Boss! Yes Boss!”

Brian shot me a grin while the officer turned in my direction.

“March!” he said, pointing to the big steel door. He twisted a key in the lock, and the door rumbled aside. I headed through the opening. My arms were in front of me like a forklift, lugging my gear.

On the other side of the door was a wide, dim hallway. I looked to the left. At the end, far away, was an arch and a row of bars. Beyond it there was a space, then another archway, with two steel doors. That must be the place where they’d brought me in, I thought — the place where I’d arrived for processing. I didn’t know what time it was right then, but it couldn’t have been more than a few hours after the moment when they’d herded me through that arch with my briefcase still in my hands. Now I’d been processed. And now I was gonna be caged.

“Right, boy!” I turned to the right. In that direction, also, the hallway ended in a row of bars. I tried to see what was on the other side. What I saw was something huge and hollow, with the glint of many rows of bars inside it. The sign over the gate said CELLHOUSE.


Marching wasn’t easy. My gear was stacked between my arms and my chin, and I was wearing my heavy new clothes and my heavy new shackle. My boots rose and fell like a pair of concrete blocks. When I reached the line of bars, I could see another line of bars, twenty or thirty feet away from it. And on the other side of those bars . . .

The officer raised his cell phone. “This is Nolan. Open the Center Portal.”

The bars slid back. “Inside!” he said.

I walked through the opening. I was now in “the common entrance hall from which the whole cellhouse can be kept in prospect.” And at that point, I saw it all.

I remembered the time my parents took me to the Grand Canyon. My father drove, and I sat in the back seat of the car, looking at the pictures in the tourist brochures that we got at the last motel. Then the road came out of the trees, and I saw that there was a place, up ahead, where there was nothing beyond. We turned and followed the signs to the parking lot, and we got out of the car and walked toward the edge. Suddenly . . . there it was . . . something so enormous that your breathing stopped . . .   Something . . . and nothing . . . But something totally unlike the pictures . . .

That was the way it was when I saw it for the first time — the heart of the prison, the cellhouse. The zoo.

How can I describe the way it looks, the first time you see that giant cage? It’s so huge that all your eye wants to do is find the walls. The front wall is the curtain of bars that you’re looking through, the face of the gigantic cell that contains all the other cells. The side walls are stone, like the walls of a castle, 50 feet high and 350 feet long, each with a line of windows, narrow and barred and widely spaced, tall arched windows marching along the sides and completing their circuit along the back. The rear wall rises to a peak, with steel rafters bolted to its sides and a great rose window carved through the stone, in the center of the triangle — a window blackened by night and choked with bars, as if anyone could possibly climb to its ledge and try to escape . . .   You look from there up to the iron roof, thick with catwalks and spotlights and ducts for air; then your eye sinks to the pavement, 70 feet below, the pavement of stones shined and rutted by a century of boots, convict boots — the boots of convicts like you.

You see all that. Finally, you force yourself to look at the cellblocks.

There are two of them, set side by side in the center of the pavement, like toys positioned by a careful child. Two cellblocks, two enormous cliffs of cages, dwarfed by the enormous room. Each block has six tiers of cells, and each tier has two rows of cells, built back to back, with the bars facing outward; and there are 50 cells on every row. You find out the numbers later. What you see at once is the two stacks of cages rising like islands of steel under the huge rose window, the apex of the penitentiary, the cathedral of punishment . . . . You see it all, and you forget everything else.

“To the left, convict! Halt at Gate A!”

Then I remembered. One of those cages was for me.

There were four gates, one for each side or “range” of the two big blocks, and there was a sign above each gate: A, B, C, D. I could see what the barber meant when he talked to me: B and C faced each other in the center; A and D faced the outer walls; A and D faced the windows. A and D were the desirable locations. I was going to A. I was lucky.

I marched to the A sign and halted.

The officer raised his hand. There was a walkway suspended over the range, and an officer looking down from the walkway.

“Fish comin in!” Officer Nolan shouted.

“Fish comin in!” the other officer replied, gripping a long iron lever and shoving it down. There was a moment’s wait. Then the door in the bars rolled open, old and slow in its ancient grooves. “Through the gate, boy, and stand!”   I walked through the gate. I was inside the cellhouse.

On the left was the immense wall of stone, pierced by black windows. On the right was a steel staircase twisting up through the building, tier after tier, next to the mountain of cells rising up and beyond, into the distance . . . I remembered what the website had called the place where I was standing. It called it an “airspace.” Now I could see what an airspace was. It was a man-made canyon, deep and hard and narrow, with a vast steel roof rising over it, dark and mysterious, with lights shining like stars on the tiers and the walkways below. I was standing at the bottom of the canyon, dizzy with fear. I lowered my eyes. The cells started a few feet in front of me. I saw a sheet of bars, thousands of bars . . . Nothing moved; there was no visible sign of life. There was only a sound, a humming sound, not loud and not soft, a hum like the hum of machinery, huge and hidden — the sound of the men behind bars.

“Stairs right, convict! UP!”   I shuffled to the stairs and started to climb. The steps were high; the ceiling was right over my head; my pile of gear was hitting the steel walls that closed me in on either side; the officer’s boots were banging just behind me, pushing me up. I heard my own boots hitting the steps. BANG! BANG!   It was amazing, how loud it was. It was the loudest noise I’d ever made. BANG! BANG! BANG! It was the noise you make when you’re trapped and you’re pounding the walls: “Let me out! Let me out!” That was the sound that my boots were making — as if they were alive, and I wasn’t. The stairs turned; my gear was jammed against the wall; my panic kicked in again . . . then I felt the paddle smacking my butt. SWAT! SWAT! I stumbled forward, trying to keep my gear from splattering, and I tumbled up the steps.

Suddenly a spotlight hit me from above. I turned my eyes to the left. There, on the wall, was a black number 2. I’d reached Tier 2. The light was coming through the exit, and I went for it, automatically, trying to get on level ground. I was out on the walkway when the paddle hit me again.

SWAT! “What the FUCK do you think you’re doin, boy?”

“B- boss! Leaving the stairs, Boss!”

SWAT! “You will leave the stairs when you have permission to leave the stairs, boy.”

“Boss! Yes Boss!”

SWAT! “Put your gear on the floor, boy, and grab that rail.”

I put everything down on the floor, very carefully, not wanting to do anything wrong. The steel floor was clean and shiny, but I knew it would be a bad thing to let my uniforms get out of order. There’s a single railing on the outside of the walkway, and I grabbed it with both hands. It was made of steel pipe.

“Stick your butt out, boy.”

I stuck out my butt.

SWAT! SWAT! SWAT! SWAT! SWAT!   It doesn’t hurt so much to get paddled when you’re wearing those thick prison trousers, but it makes a much bigger noise. I knew that every convict on the range could hear the new con getting his ass beat, before he even got to his cell.

“All right, boy. Pick up your gear. You’re going all the way to Tier 6.”

I reached down and got my arms under my gear again. Then we headed back up the stairs. It was long and slow. My butt was on fire with every step I took and every stretch I made. Tier 3. Tier 4. At each landing I looked through the exit and saw the tall black window, opposite; at each landing I could see that I was climbing past a new set of bars on that window . . .   I was getting someplace. I was rising in my career. I was getting closer and closer to my cage in the zoo.

Tier 5. Tier 6. Now, when my feet hit the landing, there was no place higher for them to go. The spotlight was closer, but it was no longer shining in my eyes. It was shining someplace below me. “Exit right!” Officer Nolan said. I marched out and turned right, and started clumping my way along gallery 6.

Again, the dizziness grabbed me. I was afraid to look to my right, because that was where the cages were. So I looked to my left, into the abyss. I’d never been afraid of heights before, but this wasn’t the deck of the executive lounge. The walkway was barely four feet wide, and there was only that one thin rail between me and the drop to the pavement, six floors down. The arches of the windows were at eye level now. The ceiling was much closer, sloping down in a sickening way toward the top of the gray stone wall. Even the wall seemed closer, eerily close . . . Any way I looked, up or down or across that deep empty canyon, there was something disorienting to look at, something that made me wobble and afraid to fall. So I had to turn, and look at the cages.

Oh God! The convicts were next to me. Cell after cell, cage after cage, there they were, with only a thin grill of bars separating me from their shallow caves. Any one of the men in those cages could have pushed his arm out and toppled me over. And the tier was filled with cages.   Every three steps I came to another one. Steel bars, steel wall; steel bars, steel wall; steel bars, steel wall. . . . And behind every set of bars there were two convicts locked in the same cage.

Some of the convicts were lying on their bunks; some of them were sitting together on the bottom bunk, talking in low voices; some of them were pacing while their cellmates slept; some of them were standing together at the bars, watching the new con go by. They were white, black, brown; they were stocky and slender, short and tall. Some of them were gripping the bars, and some of them were just standing behind the bars, looking. They didn’t seem hostile, and they didn’t seem friendly. They didn’t seem like anything, except what they were. They were convicts, numbered and shackled and garbed in brown, looking back at another convict, numbered and shackled and garbed in brown. We were all the same species, and we’d been shipped to the same zoo.

There were black numbers stenciled above the cages . . . 261 . . . 274 . . . 287 . . . The officer walked me as far as 292. “Halt!” he said. I closed my eyes. This was the end. He was putting me into my cage.


To be continued …




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