I feel like a sprinter on the blocks. I eye the competition, men in adjacent cells, all ready for the dash. I hear the door to the C.O.’s bubble open and shut. He drops his book bag and the clipboard he uses to take the afternoon list for chow and recreation on the desk. His keys jingle as he enters them into the lock box. Buttons are clicked and flips switched to open the gate at the end of the company. It slides back slowly and loudly clangs against its steel frame. That sound is our signal.
“Runners take your mark.”
Simultaneously each of the twenty-two cells on the tier are opened, and the sprint to the two phones in the day room (recreation area) begins. These two phones are a lifeline for forty-four men and their families. One of our few links to the outside world.
The winners reach the circle followed by fellow racers who begin to form a line of progression.
“Every time it’s the same two people! Why can’t we alternate?” one gripes. It’s inevitable that the two cells closest to the front are always the victors, indicating an unfair advantage.
“Man, they Phone Jones!” another says.
A “Phone Jones” is someone who lives on the phone. Every time they have an opportunity to use it they’re on it. The extremists have little consideration for others. Every time the gates open the race is on.
We are the privileged few of 2,200 men at Attica, we are the honor block. We have more time out of our cages for recreation, and recreation means a chance on the phone. We are allowed a half hour each morning until lock in, as general population goes to the yard. Our company officer assists with the escort of forty men to the yard at a time while we remain locked in.
The time allotted to the yard is one hour, which begins at first movement, not when all men are finally out in the yard. So as quickly as they go out, they are escorted back in. Meaning we also are locked back in, giving us maybe fifteen minutes in between to use rec time.
We are released another half hour before afternoon chow. The remainder of the day is very similar, locking in and out, being out no more than an hour at a time. Our affliction on honor block is light in comparison to our fellow prisoners. On average the general population in Attica Correctional Facility is given two and a half hours outside of their cells. That is all the time allotted for all men to use the few phones.
Those few phones were once run by gangs that shared it with their cronies. This system was changed last Mothers Day when a young man, on his third day in Attica, was stabbed to death for his use of the phone. Now, the C.O.’s run the lines.
Each block has nine phones for nearly five hundred prisoners. Prisoners alternate phone days according to their number, odd or even. Calls in the yard are limited to ten minutes, which begins with the call of your name over the loud horn, giving them less than ten minutes every other day to connect with their loved ones.
Connecting with those who love you assists in reestablishing your relevance and self-worth. It is of vital importance.
I’m a “Phone Jones.” Even an extremist at times. No excuses! I am what I am. I love my family, and have a need to connect with them and maintain strong familial ties. They are my treasure.
My heart aches also for my peers, I watch them suffering, struggling to hold on to the already weak connections that remain for them. I see them walking the yard with depression, despair, and desperation on their gloom faces. When their name is called for the phone, it’s as though they’ve been granted freedom.
Because family is the prisoners freedom.
They’re someone important again, someone special, someone loved.
Gloom turns to smiles and joy. If you stand close enough to the phones you are able to hear fathers wishing their children luck on their next school test. You can hear sons singing happy birthday to their mothers. You can hear husbands praying to and for their wives, assuring them all will be okay.
You can hear many men cry. Though you may not see tears on their face, their countenance tells of their deep pain.
Tragically, the phone is often called the stress box because of the news it can deliver; sickness, death, divorce.
Some men dial and can’t get through. They try the same number dozens of times, for years, praying for at least a ring. One ring can mean someone still cares. That they took the time and money to set up the prepay account, meaning they share in the same hope of connection.
I write my wife nearly everyday, and call several times, which I am incredibly grateful for. I hope these compensate for my temporary absence. My voice and hers…it’s as though we’re touching, and I long for the time we’ll be together out there, in the world.