Auburn’s front gate, with its dark steel bars, stood formidable. A plaque hung on the entrance talking about its history. That history included Auburn’s first prisoners keeping worms for silk, and assisting in one of the worlds first electrocutions.
The lights from the city beat down on its high walls. Thick snow flakes cast shadows over the compound. The bus entered the front gate with twists and tight turns. Suddenly a garage door opened up and several inmates dressed in full winter gear rushed the bus. They immediately opened the under panels and pulled out dozens of white draft bags. They moved quickly. In minutes, the bus pulled into the confines to the back entrance.
We were escorted off the bus into another building with bullpens. These were the most filthy of all. They were long, dark tunnels-caves. We waited until the officers finished their break. Once again our shackles were removed. We were sent to a nurse who asked the same questions as the men in Wendi. When we finished we were told to go out a back door, outside, and then into the cell block, called “The Depot”. The cells made me feel claustrophobic. We were made to double bunk. Logos of gangs and alias’ were tagged over every wall. The steel sink and toilet were crusted with the remains of its last occupants.
My bunky was a young spanish kid named Mike. He was from the Bronx. He was quiet, yet alert. We fumbled through the cramped space. The dim light at the back of the cell gave everything a gloomy look. There were no roaches though, as Auburn legend claimed.
The noise was non-stop. The moment we hit the block a thousand screaming voices hit us. It seemed everyone was playing a different kind of music. It was a contest to see who could play it the loudest.
The gallery was sixty plus cells long, with three floors above. Two porters passed out bed rolls. I recognized one of the faces. I said hello and asked if he remembered me from Comstock a decade ago. Vic was the camera man in Comstock’s visiting room. He was a giant with a full beard and dark skin. He had lost quite a few pounds and was now slightly balding. A rolled up cigarette hung from his lips. He nodded in acknowledgement as I passed by.
As my bunky and I settled in to our quarters for the night Vic came over and began to tell me about what he’d been through in the last eight years. It involved a couple of trips to the box. I didn’t inquire further. Seeing a familiar face was encouraging. I felt remembered.
Transit strips you of who you are.
More prisoners were escorted to their cells down the company. Three who were on their way to the upstate box remained handcuffed all the way. Once they reached their temporary cells, the cuffs were finally removed. As the officers passed by Mike and I each asked about the evening meal. We would be having more sandwiches. Once everyone was locked in the meal would be delivered by Vic the porter. Once it arrived Mike tore through his, devouring the contents in seconds. He laid on his bunk still hungry. I spread the two packets of mustard on the white bread, looking at his dissatisfied face.
I peeked in to my brown paper bag and saw the two broken up chocolate chip cookies. I offered them to hungry Mike, whose face lit up with joy.
After the light meal I paced back and forth to stay warm. Mike bundled himself under the thin green blanket, white sheet, and his state issued jacket. We made small talk. Mike told me he was on his way home in February and planned on becoming a mechanic. I told him about my transfer and where I was headed.
I shared my testimony with him.
I told him about how the Lord had moved in my life, how He blessed me all along the way. I spoke to him about my wife and children and how God blessed me with them. I shared the message of the cross with him and asked him if he’d like to pray. Surprisingly he said yes.
Before the night was over Vic brought me a tray of food to the cell. It was hot, and filled with rice, beans, chicken, and corn bread. I split the tray with Mike, and had enough to share with a neighbor as well. I was thankful that three of us men were able to eat a hot meal that night. We were alone and cold, but the kindness from a familiar face made that all go away, if only for a few moments. We were able to laugh about our dismal conditions.
The smell of cigarette smoke-filled the gallery. Some had smuggled them in their rear-end. They shared them around the gallery. Once the officers did their final walk Mike and I knelt down and prayed. I asked the Lord to press upon his heart to seek Jesus and accept the free gift of salvation. Unfortunately Mike didn’t make a confession of faith that night, but a seed was planted.
I slept with my head to the gate, though the noise kept me from getting much sleep. In the morning we were told to strip our beds and get ready to rollout. We were served another meal in a brown paper bag. Two cold eggs, four slices of bread and some apple juice. I drank the juice and nibbled on the bread. I gave the eggs to a neighbor.
We made our way back to the loading area, and again were strip searched in small closets with curtains. The cold shackles were placed on us and we were sent back to the cave to wait for the bus. Some were shackled to a new partner. I was alone, being the only one headed to Elmira. I was also able to sit alone on the bus once we boarded.
Before the bus pulled off the same speech was repeated. This time however, we were threatened that if we were caught talking we’d lose a bag of property for a few weeks. No one spoke the entire trip.
We first passed through Seneca Falls, and then headed down Seneca Lake. I saw the vineyards my wife visited so many times. That brought me great peace. I even saw places she worked, and restaurants she loved in Watkins Glen. I must have smiled the whole way to Southport box.
In Southport seven men boarded our bus. All were getting out and headed to new spots. One was Zey, who I had been in Attica and Comstock with. He was headed to Sullivan near New York City. He’d gained weight and now had a long, thin scar on his right cheek. Catching up on our lives, he noticed the ring on my finger and congratulated me on my marriage. It made me smile as he shook my hand a second time.
The bus rolled out shortly later. In just a few minutes we had arrived at Elmira. I was the only one to get off the bus. Everyone else remained eating another bag lunch. I felt bad for them. Some wouldn’t get those cuffs off until late that night. As I got off I said a few goodbyes and thanked the driver for getting us there safely.
I entered a large draft processing room escorted by another officer. As soon as we were inside he removed my cuffs and left me alone. I stood alone as dozens of men in reception passed by. Some were getting haircuts while others were getting their photo id’s. I recognized some of the men from the day before in Wendi, wondering why we had separate rides. I could have skipped “The Depot” but would then have missed the opportunity to share the gospel of peace with my bunky Mike. God is good.
I was directed into a room to see yet another mental health nurse. She asked a dozen questions and sent me on my way. After obtaining my photo ID I was escorted by two officers to the cell block, and placed in a clean, single cell. I was relieved to finally have arrived.
My trip was over, but my work was just beginning. I was excited, mostly because I was now so close to home!