“Damn bro, what happened to you?” a voice screamed out as we sat aboard a large white van within the walls of Attica.
“I was in Orleans and I got shot by some homies (blood gang members), cause I’m crip” a young raspy voice replied.
I turned to identify the men conversing but I was restricted by the ankle shackles that linked me to a six-foot-five white guy who boarded with three different carry on prescriptions for his mental health condition. His name was Brian, and he was going back and forth to court in Canandaigua battling a paternity dispute.
“Where you headed bro?” the first voice asked.
“To Bear Hill” the young voice replied.
“Man, when you get there you gonna get tore up. The bloods run that spot. When you get there you should pop off on the first person you see.” the first voice advised. This guy was a self-proclaimed addict. He bragged about being in upstate box several times. This was his fourth trip. He spoke about how he caught a dirty urine for smoking a deuce (k-2 synthetic marijuana) in the recreation yard. He fell out in the middle of Wyoming’s yard, nearly overdosing. He laughed the entire time he told the story.
We were all in transit to various places throughout New York States penal system. Some on disciplinary transfers, others on preference.
For nearly two years I had been attempting to escape Attica. The two and a half hour, one hundred sixty-four mile trip my wife and sons traveled every week to see me was becoming too much to deal with. In June of 2015 I submitted an area preference transfer with my counselor. I was told by several staff persons who I worked for that I would have no issues reaching Elmira, a place thirty minutes away from home.
Elmira is part of a three prison hub. Five Points, Auburn, and Elmira make up that “area” preference. Though my request was submitted for Elmira, New York state had the ultimate say in where I landed.
Within two weeks my request was approved. I was eager to confirm my destination. That was difficult to do when two different staff persons told me two different places. One was adamant I was cleared and set to go to Elmira. The other, looking it up on the computer with me in the room, confirmed Auburn. In frustration I revoked my request and settled on remaining in Attica. The burden of what my wife and children endured began to burn my heart. Six months would pass until I was eligible to resubmit the request. That following January I put back in.
I knew I was gambling. I had thrust myself into every program and work assignment while in Attica. I had made myself as comfortable as you can get in prison. Yet, no matter how good I had it, what my family faced was unbearable.
I wish I could say I was brave and bold, with no fear of the unknown. That was so not true. I honestly was afraid. Afraid of starting over. Afraid of meeting new people and establishing new connections and networks. So I prayed. And when I felt the fear rising up, I prayed again. Slowly the Lord brought peace my way.
It took about eleven months to be approved. One morning while on the phone with my wife the officer told me to pack up, I was on the draft.
A feeling of relief overcame me. I was excited about leaving. I had been behind the walls of Attica for just over eight years. I hadn’t seen a car, trees, or even people going about their everyday lives. I longed to see life outside. Most of all I wanted to give something back to my wife and children. The time to do that finally came through for me.
The officer let my wife and I finish our call. We prayed, standing in the gap for one another. After the call it was time to pack up. Nearly eleven years of incarceration had to be stripped down, folded up, and stuffed in to four draft bags. Each bag was a foot and a half wide and three feet tall. I debated with myself on what I wanted to keep and what had to go. One bag was filled with all my legal work. Pictures of my family, my bible, a couple of pairs of shoes, a few articles of personal clothing, and some toiletries all made the trip, along with the state issued greens I was mandated to bring. Everything else was given away to men surrounding my cell.
The block officer logged everything on an “I-64” form. Some how it got lost along the way. All my stuff was packed up on Wednesday, December 14, and I was left in my cell with a blanket, sheets, and a few snacks. I spent that night writing goodbye letters to friends I most likely would never see again. Some of whom pulled together that night and made me a meal they delivered to my spot.
By seven-thirty the next morning I was on the move. I was led to the draft room with six other men. One was on his way home. The rest of us to new facilities. We were corralled in a small bullpen and fed trays of dairy and fiber. The very worst combination you could eat while on the road shackled to another man. After another hour we were taken out one by one to be strip searched, then sent off to another area where we were shackled. We each had cuffs around our wrists, a chain around our waist, and one ankle shackle. The second ankle shackle was connected to another man.
Our first stop was Wendi. We were escorted into a holding cell with other travelers. The whole trip there was depressing. The van windows were too high above the seats to look out of. I could only look out the front windshield, which gave me car sickness. In the holding cells we were fed bologna and cheese sandwiches, apple juice, and two sugar cookies. Quickly the cell was filled up by men awaiting the next leg of their journey.
One elderly man rambled on about different spots he’s been, spanning nearly forty years. Others talked about different times they were lifted on different substances. A few argued about which prison was better and the privileges offered there.
The most bizarre moment was a nineteen year old kid with his face to the bars of the cell, his baby fat spilling out into the gaps as a he screamed a call, “Woo, Woo…Woo, Woo.” It was a call to his brothers in arms. His high-pitched voice sounded like a wounded child weeping.
Men in beige robes and shower shoes began to file through in single file lines. They made their way to the barber’s chair in one corner of the long room. Then they were made to go to the shower stalls on the other end. Once they were bald and clean they were escorted one by one to see a mental health counselor. Before they were allowed to enter the escorting officer told each man to close their legs and remain seated.
The door to that brightly lit room remained open as the counselor asked a host of questions, “Do you feel like you’re going to hurt yourself? Do you feel anyone else is going to harm you?”
The bullpen continued to fill up. One officer noticing this kindly opened the adjacent holding cell. I nearly dragged Brian’s large frame over with me. There was more room and a toilet. Nature was calling. I asked Brian to move with me to the restroom. He turned his back as I went, and I as he. A four-foot concrete wall was the only privacy we were afforded. A small fun house mirror hung above the steel sink. I looked in to it hoping part of me still remained.
More men came from all parts of the state. The cages were full of all different ages and races. The elders were given a seat. Brian and I stood as much as possible, preparing for the long trip ahead.
Finally we were told to move out. Before I was called I asked one of the porters to pass a message on to two old friends that I knew were there among the small population. I had joy in making a connection in an unfamiliar place.
One by one we were unshackled from our partners and given individual ankle shackles. We headed out in the frigid temperatures in the thin state issued jacket to make the second part of our days journey.
On this van we all had a window seat. The officer at the front gave a speech, “You’ll be stopping in Auburn for an overnight stay. It’s a two and a half hour trip if we don’t get into any mess like on the way down here.” The pudgy officer chuckled and continued, “The bathroom is for pissin only, PISSIN ONLY” he elaborated. “And make sure you close the lid. I don’t want to smell that crap! Oh, and this is a quiet bus. No talking!” he added.
After a sergeant boarded the driver pulled off. The snow fall was heavy that late afternoon. I had hoped to be in Elmira that evening. That wasn’t the case. Instead I was going to be staying the night in what is called “The Roach Motel.”
The driver moved slow through the rural roads and highways. The bus slid at times on the slick roads, extending our trip by an hour, but we got there safely.