By Joshua Ryan
I was dressed now in full prison garb, and I had nothing to do but watch the other convicts putting on their new identity — pulling their shorts over their butts, jamming their legs into their pants, lacing their feet into their boots, shouldering their coats onto their backs. The last one to start was a pretty little guy, 19 or 20. Maybe I should say that he probably used to be a pretty little guy, before they shipped him to prison. There was still enough of his prettiness to make me follow the lines of his plump little butt and his pert little dick as he stuffed them into his stiff prison pants. His dick was hard, going into his trousers. I thought I might be getting hard myself. I even remembered why I was there — to get my head and my dick in proper order and write that great and wonderful book about prison. How would I describe that guy? What words would I use…?
A door slammed; a muscular voice bellowed through the room.
“All right! Form up for the fish parade!”
So much for the convict bosses — an officer had appeared. He was a 40-year-old with a Marine Corps face. The tag on his crisp gray shirt said SGT GIDEON.
“See that line?” he shouted. Yes, there was a yellow line in front of the counter, so scuffed you could barely see it was there. “Toe it!”
Junior was just putting on his cap, and the kid was still shrugging his coat, trying to make it right, but we all toed the line. On one side was the officer, taut, badged, fully equipped. On the other side were the convicts — heavy, dumpy, ugly, with numbers instead of names or badges. You wondered why a man like that would spend his time dealing with garbage.
He went down the line inspecting us. I could see that even 43 and 57, behind him at the counter, were standing at attention.
“You!” he shouted, pointing at me. “Button up!”
Terrified, I shouted, “Yes, Sir!” and buttoned my coat up to my gulping neck. How had I forgotten that?
“Don’t let me see you fuckin up like that again, convict!”
He stood back a pace and let loose on everybody.
“Listen up! Any time you’re around an officer, any time you AIN’T around an officer but you’re out in the open, any time you ain’t locked in that little hootch we’re gonna give you, you will have your shirt and your pants totally BUTTONED, you will have your boots laced to the TOP, you will have your belt TIGHT on your WAIST, you will have your cap ON YOUR HEAD, and you will have your coat SECURED TO YOUR PERSON. You will be fully in UNIFORM, unless an OFFICER tells you OTHERWISE! You will be ATTENTIVE TO ORDERS and SQUARED AWAY at all times! You!” he yelled, turning on the cute kid, who was quivering with fright. “Straighten that cap! I said straighten it — not mangle it!”
And so on, up and down the line, until we were all “buttoned up” and “squared away.”
“Right,” he said, stepping back, as if we’d fucked up enough of his day. “I am Sergeant Gideon. It is my duty to welcome you to your new home, the State Penitentiary at Maskawa. You are going to be here for a long time, so you will have many opportunities to get to know this institution. You may already have noticed that there are two types of men on this island — the men dressed in gray and the men dressed in blue. The men dressed in gray give the orders. The men dressed in blue obey them. That’s why we’re so careful to start you off with the right gear. If you find yourself in a blue uniform on Maskawa Island, it means that you are here to obey. You are not here to question, complain, argue, or negotiate. Why not? I will enlighten you. There are some institutions in this state that exist to educate offenders, to ‘rehabilitate’ them and teach them ‘skills’ that will enable them to ‘succeed in society.’ That is not why this institution exists or why you have been sent to this institution. This institution is the end of the line. This institution exists to punish you. Maskawa State Penitentiary is a place where failures are sent to be locked up and punished, and you are here because you are failures.”
He stopped, as if he had finished. What were we supposed to do, applaud? But he thought for a moment and resumed his speech.
“It’s possible that you may not believe me. So I’ll give you the proof. A short time ago, you were someplace that wasn’t Maskawa. You were out on your own. Maybe you were working construction. Maybe you were driving an 18-wheeler. Maybe you had some job in a store. Maybe [he glared over at the young guy] you were pretending to be a student. Maybe [now I got the glare] you were sitting in a big leather chair with your nose in a computer, practicing your so-called ‘profession.’ You had money in your pockets. You had steak on your platter. You had a drink in your hand. Now look at you. You’re standing here in your convict suit, with your hair shaved off and a number on your back. You had every chance to succeed, and you failed. So you’re gonna be punished. This island IS punishment. You’ll be maintained on this island. You’ll be kept up to code. You’ll be fed and uniformed, you’ll be kept clean and healthy and managed and supervised, and you’ll be worked to pay for your maintenance. When you’re not being worked, you’ll be locked in a cell. And that will be your life. End of story.”
There was a moment of silence, as if someone had died. You could hear the shower head dripping again.
“Now,” he resumed, “these convicts back there at the counter will be issuing a little more gear.” I looked at 57 and 43. The two queens were still standing rigid, staring forward. “One thing they’ll give you is a little rule book. The rules of this facility. But right now, I’ll tell you Rule Number 1, which is the only rule that matters: You see somebody in a uniform like THIS” — he thumped his chest, and the thump echoed through the building — “you call him Sir, and you follow his orders. You don’t stop and think about it. And why is that? Because if you could think, you wouldn’t be here. So you’ll do what this uniform tells you. Got it?”
Somebody muttered “Yes, Sir,” and the rest of us repeated it.
“Got it?” he shouted.
“Yes, Sir!” we shouted back.
“All right. Remember that. Now, in a couple minutes these cons in back of me are gonna line you up and take your picture. Then they’re gonna give you your cell supplies, and they’re gonna issue your card for your labor detail. Tomorrow morning, you’ll report to your detail. You’ll be mustered and counted and put to work. You got a beef with that, stow it. You’ll work where you’re told to work. Right now, you’re gonna get your gear, and you’re gonna be marched to your cellblock, which is where you’re gonna live. You’ll live where you’re told to live. You got a beef with THAT, stow it. Matter of fact, you got a beef with anything, you better forget it. You ain’t in charge at Maskawa. You ain’t in charge of nothin. That’s all. That’s all you need to know.”
He walked off. “Line up at the wall, sweeties,” 43 said, pointing to a section of brick with a height chart on it. 57 came over and set up a camera stand. “Age before beauty,” he told me. “You’re first. Take off your cap. Camera wants to see your baldy. And stop fidgeting. This ain’t your senior prom. Turn left. Turn right. You’re finished. Back to the counter.”
At the counter, 43 was on the computer, pulling up my file. “These things come to us with the speed of light,” he said. “Wanta see?” On the screen were my mugshots. I only looked at one — the one taken from the front. You know what they say about a car wreck; you don’t want to look, but you have to. So I looked. It was unbelievably ugly. I stared at it, sickened. Full color highlighted the gray, suddenly balded scalp, the dark shadows under the eyes, the tightly buttoned collar. This was the picture of a hopelessly failed kinkster.
“Well, that’s you. Here’s your labor card. You’ll be glad to see that your special talents have been recognized.”
On the small green card was my name and number, and the words SCRUB SQUAD.
“That’s your labor detail. Means you mop the floors and shit.”
Another convict arrived, and I moved farther down the counter, still looking at my card. Now I’d be scrubbing floors for a living. That didn’t sound like an exciting subject for my book. Any book.
When we’d all been given our hiring notices, the queens at the counter started passing out our “cell supplies.” Each of us got two pieces of scratchy gray cloth that they called “sheets,” a gray laundry bag, a stack of stapled paper entitled RULES YOU MUST FOLLOW, and a plastic baggie with a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a plastic disposable razor, and some other junk inside. I used to worry that my toiletries were completely taking over the counter next to my sink — towels, shavers, shaving lotion, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, lotions, electric toothbrush, mouthwash, vitamins, pomade, sleeping aids … I wondered how that was possible? And I couldn’t figure out which to get rid of.
“Take it easy on that toothpaste,” 43 advised me. “It’s expensive. It’s gotta last.”
“Yeah,” 57 added. “And how much do you think YOU’RE worth, noob?”
“Not enough to keep an officer in Reception,” 43 said. “That’s for sure.” Because it wasn’t a guard who took us to our cells; it was two convicts who’d just come in through the back door.
These guys had their caps clamped low on their heads and were totally buttoned up in their denim coats. They were young, that’s all you could tell, but it looked like they were into their work.
“OK, fish! Hump up your gear! Git it together. You drop somethin, you gonna pay for it!”
“If they had any money,” 43 said.
“Money ain’t everything. Not when you got a great place to live.”
While they were laughing, we fish humped our baggies on top of our sheets and our sheets on top of our laundry bags and our laundry bags on top of our stacks of spare clothes, resulting in piles of stuff it would be hard to manage with three hands. Then they got the fish line headed to the door we’d come in through, all those hours before. I was amazed I could walk in those Frankenstein boots. But when they checked our numbers they stopped me and made me wait. “These guys are goin to C,” one of them said, motioning to the other convicts in the line. “You’re goin to B. I’m Greggy. I’ll take you there.”
I must have acted like I thought something strange was going on, because as soon as he’d walked me through the doorway and around a corner and convinced an officer to let me through a gate, he added, “Just luck, dude. Ain’t no difference between livin in one cellblock and livin in another. At Maskawa, everybody lives in the same kinda house.” He was like all the rest of them — he said “Maskawa” like he was proud of being a prisoner in this horrible place.
Which I was now seeing for the first time. Not the walls or the junky little street we’d been in before, but the great Maskawa Penitentiary. If what I’d seen so far was the back end of a factory in Rustbelt USA, what surrounded me now was the whole factory town. As soon as I shuffled through that gate with my gear in my arms there were five- or six-story buildings rising all around me — brick and stone, blackened by time and coated with bars, making no acknowledgment of any world beyond.
“Yeah,” Greggy said, “first time they see it, most guys look like you’re lookin. It sure was a big sight to me! I’m from West Frankport. Not even Frankport — WEST Frankport. Closest gay bar is 50 miles away!” OK, I guess it was obvious to everyone at Maskawa that I was gay. “That’s too bad,” I said, baffled by his chatter, overwhelmed by the masses of masonry and steel bearing down on me.
“Nah,” he said. “There’s plenty of gay at Maskawa! What would you think, anyway? It’s the biggest fuckin ZOO in the world. But wait till you see what’s around the next corner.”
Appearing before us, through the gap between two crags of brick, was a giant slab of concrete, with mammoth structures blockading it on all four sides. On the path behind, a wilderness of stone and brick, piled up with no apparent plan. Ahead, a wide concrete building with a barrel roof, like a high school gym, but vastly bigger and older and scarier than even my own high school gym had been. Facing each other, left and right, on opposite sides of the gray, empty plaza, identical mountains of brick, the approximate color of a blood clot, with black stone at the corners and black gabled roofs slanting upwards like the roofs of Notre Dame. Behind these, final as the curtains on some cosmic stage, were the prison walls, looking small and innocent compared to the gargantuan piles of masonry they enclosed.
“Welcome to the Yard,” he said. “They say it’s as large as three football fields.” He stopped, gazing at the place in admiration. “That building in front of you — that’s the Chow Hall. That’s where they feed us. Admin building is right behind. ‘Admin,’ meaning, like, where they run the place. Two cellhouses on the sides. A thousand dudes in each one of em — two cellblocks, back to back, 250 cells to a block, two dudes to a cell. That’s a thousand! They say those cellblocks are some of the largest in the world. The four blocks, they’re all the same. That’s why I said, you’re gonna be livin in Cellblock B, but you’ll get the same cell as everybody else. But I see you’re lookin at the stuff on the roofs.”
I wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. The tall black roofs were crowned with old-fashioned iron cupolas, with something moving inside.
“All the newbies wonder bout that,” he said. “They’re ventilators! Pretty clever for the 1890s, eh? That’s so we don’t get TOO sweaty in our little rooms! If you know what I mean!” The guy grinned at me. “But cmon. Gotta get you checked in.”
He pointed me toward the mountain on the left. It was almost sundown. The northern cold was coming in. Streaks of fog were already blowing across the Yard. Shuffling toward the place where I was going to live, I saw a facade broken by tall narrow crevices, black with bars, and windows dead black behind them. The scale was impossible — the thing was more than a block long, but there were only five windows, and each of them must have been 30 feet tall. At one end was a set of wide steel doors, with a smaller door set into one of them. “You’re here,” Greggy said. There was a speaker beside the door, and he talked into it. The lock clicked and he swung the door open. “Welcome to your new address.”
I saw a concrete room with an officer seated at a gray steel desk. He was as old and nondescript as the desk itself.
“Stand on the feet,” he said. There were yellow feet painted on the floor, and I stood on them.
“Another lifer,” he said.
“Yes, Sir,” Greggy said. “He got the whole thing.”
The officer gave me a contemptuous look, but I saw the sandwich and coffee that were sitting next to his computer. He had other things to do besides discussing my sentence.
“My advice,” he said. “Follow the rules. Time will go by quicker’n you think.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said.
“I see they made you a scrubbie,” he said.
I must have looked confused, because Greggy piped up. “That’s right, Sir.”
“Scrub Squad musters at Storehouse A. Remember that.”
“Morning after chow. Storehouse A.”
He reached for his sandwich. “Take him up.”
“Yes sir,” Greggy said.
The floor was stone, with two wide gullies that I knew had been worn into it by generations of convict feet. One of the gullies led to a gate with A carved over the bars; the other led to a gate named B. Greggy took me to the B gate. The lock buzzed and opened; the bars jerked on their metal track. “What’s the matter?” Greggy said. “Go on in. You’re expected.”
So now I was standing in Cellblock B, the place where I was supposed to spend my life. What I saw was a giant cage, 60 feet high and 300 feet long. Inside the cage were smaller cages, hundreds of them, stacked in tiers and serviced by walkways hanging over the abyss between them and the outer wall, the wall of the five windows I’d seen from the Yard. Greggy had said there were 250 cells in here — 250 cages. Those cages looked small, very small. Above them I saw the upward sweep of the roof; I heard the blades of the ventilators turning with a steady, despondent swish. There was another sound, a sound like that of a thousand insects. I looked for its source, but there wasn’t one; it came from everywhere. Then I understood — it was the sound of the men locked in cages.
Greggy was reading my mind. “You can talk in your cell, but you gotta keep it down. Pretty tough for young guys, right? Which most of these dudes are. But that old guy at the desk — he can get a posse of screws in here before you can make your second yell. Before you can even clear your throat! But yeah, now you seen the property. Your apartment’s up on Tier 4.”
The stairs were old iron, hung like an afterthought from the end of the cellblock; every step was bowed in the middle by the millions of boots that had hit it. My own boots might as well be iron, it was getting so hard to lift them. The stairs kept working their way up, turning back on themselves only to emerge at a landing on a higher tier. I was sure I was going to drop my burden — literally and otherwise. It would be easy just to fall over the little guard rails that seemed to be inviting me to end my sentence then and there. Probably a good thing that Greggy was behind me, bragging about the size of the place and how it was “built out of bricks made right here on Maskawa. And of course the stone comes from here. This island is all stone!”
But now I’d reached Tier 4, and I was treading the narrow walkway with a canyon on the right and cages on the left — cages full of men. Some were old, some were young, some were lying on their bunks, some were hanging on the bars, saying things about me. “Welcome to the jungle.” “Nother faggot.” “You my bitch!” “Hey girl, where you goin?” “You gonna like it here.” How could so many men be packed into so little space? The numbers above the bars grew larger — 410, 420, 430 … Then Greggy said, “Stop, we’re here,” and leaned over the side and shouted. “Break 435!” There was no echo — the place was too full of buzz. But the bars of Cellhouse 1, Cellblock B, Cell 435, rolled slowly open, revealing a two-foot opening through which Greggy told me to “Step inside.”
Inside was a double bunk, and someone lying on the bottom shelf. Before anything could happen, Greggy yelled “Close 435!” and the bars closed up. “So long!” he said, and I heard his boots pounding down the tier. I was alone with the stranger on the bunk.
I could tell he was tall. And heavy. The bunk was full of him. Waves of sexual fear flowed out of me; waves of masculine disdain flowed back.
“What’s your name?” he said, swiveling up and planting his feet on the floor. Big, thirty-something…
“I’m Steven,” I said, “Steven Meres.” Holding out my hand. Which he ignored.
“I’m Finn. Finn Kolchak. You got the upper. Lay your sheets up there.”
The upper bunk was a steel platform covered with a gray plastic mattress. Folded at the foot was a gray blanket; sitting at the head was a gray plastic pillow. As Greggy said, I was expected. The pillow was the size of a muffin, but at least they gave me one. The blanket was narrow but thick, and so scratchy that when I spread it out I looked at my hands to see if they were bleeding. There was no problem about arranging the sheets; they were barely large enough to cover the bunk.
When I’d completed my task, Finn was standing next to me. Between him and the bunks, the cell was full; there was no room for me. I was scared and I tried not to look at him. My Rules and my baggie of “supplies” were lying on the bunk. To waste time, I opened the baggie and looked at the shit inside. Thumb-size toothbrush, plastic razor, steel cup … What, no comb?…
“Toothpaste’s supposed to last six months,” he said. “Don’t try to borrow mine.”
“I … uh … I won’t.”
“Toilet paper lasts a month.” He pointed at a brown roll sitting on the floor. “Two weeks, now that you’re here. Don’t waste it.”
We looked at each other. He had crawled out of bed in his white boxers and tee. There was a tattoo of a dragon (not well executed) lumbering down his right arm. His eyes were brown; his face was weather-beaten; and of course his head was bald. He hadn’t been spending his time writing books. He had the kind of muscles that could kill me in seconds. I could see his eyes making a decision, whether to keep tolerating me or not.
At the back of the cell was a steel toilet (seatless, of course), with a steel sink built into the top. To complete the boudoir there was a thin little shelf above the sink. “You can put your razor and the rest of your crap up there. Take your space; don’t take mine. Suits and shit, they go under the bunk.” He bent down and shoved his pile of uniforms to one side of the space. I bent and put my extras next to his, with a tiny gap between. “OK,” he said, “there’s five pegs on that wall. You can hang your shirt and your cap and your coat on those two on the left. Rest are mine.” I took off my coat and cap and hung them on a peg. “Your boots go at the foot of the bunk. Next to the bars.” I knew I didn’t have permission to sit on his bunk, so I leaned against one of the steel walls of my new home, pulled off my boots, and put them where he told me, next to the boots he had taken off. “Toes out,” he said, and I turned the toes out.
I was just unbuttoning my shirt when he said, “Had dinner tonight?”
“It’s past chow time.”
“Here’s your food,” he said, pulling his dick out of his shorts.
I looked down at it. I’d seen all those movies and books. I’d thought that prison was going to be this hot, sexy place. Now a cock was sticking out at me, and it was like it came from some other world. I know it’s trite. I know it’s a cliché. But I couldn’t believe he was doing that.
“Eat it,” he said. “Now.”
It was long, thick, and uncut. He was stroking it, maybe to make sure it was hard, probably to show his pride.
“On your knees.”
It isn’t as easy as you think to get down on your knees in one of those narrow little cells, but as soon as I felt my knees on the steel I knew that nothing could keep from happening what he wanted to happen. And yeah, his dick was a total meal — heavy and smooth and juicy, with a musky smell that made me crazy. I’d never been a really good cocksucker, so he gave me instructions. By instructions I mean that he viced my head in his hands and pushed it wherever he wanted it to go. In two minutes his cum was filling my mouth.
“Lick it up,” he said. “I don’t want any stains on my shorts.”
So I did. Then he went over to the toilet and pissed like a racehorse.
Yeah, I was hard. My dick was working again. I’d needed that, even though I hadn’t been permitted to cum.
I stripped down to my shorts and tee and climbed into the top bunk. I was exhausted, so I fell asleep. At some point I felt him shaking the bunk. I reared up, thinking that he wanted more. But what he said was, “Turn out for count!” We stood next to each other at the bars while an officer shone a flashlight in our eyes and counted us. Then we went back to our bunks. In 30 seconds he was snoring. So that was my first night at Maskawa.
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