by Michael Arnstein

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Otisville Prison Camp Day 1 – Part 2

I imagine when most people arrive at prison they're understandably very stressed out, scared, depressed, dejected about life in every way. I on the other hand felt quite upbeat, almost in a good mood. Why? I don't think you can plan your moods, they kind of happen based on a lot of variables.  I had a good night sleep, had a wonderful run in the woods with great friends, walked into and then Out of a real-looking prison in less than 30 minutes, walking by some really nice nature/deer, seeing recreational fields looking much like a summer camp facility; then warmly greeted by total stranger-convicts, it was all kind of a bizarre yet intriguing experience.  

Maybe I was mirroring the disposition of the people I had just met?  Subconsciously I thought I would meet depressed, angry and unfriendly people in prison, on the contrary, they took my bedroll out of my hands (as my huge jacket was enough to try and hold onto) and opened the door for me, welcoming me warmly to my new home.  (for those of you reading who remember the TV show from the 1980’s – It was a Fantasy Island moment, minus the tropical climate.)

The door opens up right into the mess hall which doubles as one of the TV rooms.  It’s about 330pm, Fox News was on and lots of guys hovering around on the side lines watching, more older guys sitting on these long middle-school like long tables, all lined up in a parallel organized manner.  It’s active, this is an ecosystem, a slice of humanity, strange fellows talking in jive, Spanish, Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, nyc-ceo types, it’s rich, rich moments that few people experience.  I’m in it. It’s a theater show without a script, very juicy, very very juicy. I’m in a cloud, but really digging it more than anything else.  It’s high school, college, nursing home, ghetto, frat house, prison, army, submarine, outpost somewhere in winter-russia, chess match, smell of money, fame and power stories that they make movies about.  I’m in. I’m in it.

The place was buzzing all around.  Most guys look up, I get a lot of head-nods ‘welcome to Otisville – they all knew right away I was ‘a new guy’.

I was kind of dazed not expecting to be submerged so quickly – life happens, you gotta be ready man, and I jump into action; brain jumper cables are attached, working.  I’m looking all around, taking mental notes.. no no, not mental notes, primal notes – kind of like what you would do if you crash landed in the ocean, adrift on a raft and then wake up washed up on shore on a deserted island…. you’d immediately scan and radar every detail, taking inventory of where shelter, exits, who’s who – the mind is on high-alert mode.

I see all types of people, scanning quickly in all directions, the Spanish guys, the brothers, lots of Jews, quite a few older guys, some young men here and there. No women of course, and oddly no sight of any ‘guards’.
Most people are dressed in these green army uniforms, some guys walk in behind me, they’re wearing a more lively green jacket, something that immediately looks like ‘Park Ranger’ jacket; I’m not sure if they are employees that work here or more inmates, the clothing is very official looking, no one looks like they are prisoners at all, I just didn’t get that feeling whatesoever.

I’m enamored with the uniforms – all the guys moving around make me feel as if I’m on an army base, no ‘prison’ atmosphere feeling at all, way more military.  I always felt like I missed an experience not being in the military service. I love anything ‘hard’, and military is how I often seem to live in my civilian life; my wife and kids can confirm that about me! I’m always busy doing something, anything to keep productive, training, training, training, I like ‘doing’.

The 3 guys keep talking to me, they’re giving me the low-down on a million things.  They explain that the 120~ inmates at this facility ‘run’ the camp, they also support the main prison utility like-needs. Each person here has some kind of job. Very much like the military, we make everything happen.  All meals/cooking, cleaning, upkeep, maintence, landscaping, loading/unloading/deliveries, water treatment plant, power plant, auto mechanic shop, warehouse, snowplow trucks, utility workshop, etc etc, the ‘camp’ is so much like an outpost in the mountains.

While inside, they move me sector to sector, the cubes (housing bunk areas), the mess room, kitchen, medical, laundry, showers, etc, it feels like I’m in a submarine, it’s close quarters, and people working together in what seems like a well oiled machine.

Another one of my first impressions feels like I’m in an old movie, it doesn’t’ feel like the year 2019, rather 1950’s post WWII. I can’t get over everyone in uniforms, just instantly a different world to me, and I’m in uniform too, I’m part of the crew, I’m ‘new’ but I somehow fit in right away.

The facility walls are standardized in color, construction materials are cell blocks, painted, brown, grey or muted green, this facility was not created by any architectural designer, the structures are simply ‘utility’ – to house men living and working together, no frills. I like it.  It’s damn simple, it’s a big man cave – And none of the guys here seem have issue with that.  We’re up in the forest, all of us on some kind of mission; some are engaged others may be on a kind of mental standby waiting for orders.

There are 2 main buildings; they are about 150 feet apart from each other, separated by some benches, a small gazebo, a rock garden that has a water pump waterfall flowing when it’s not winter time. The landscaping is simple, mostly rock, pine trees, no flowers growing here, but that’s ok, it’s cold cold winter time, deep forested trees, a tall grove of evergreens blowing in the wind, the Northeast woods; very familiar to me. I’m in my element.

The 3 guys that are hanging onto me, continue going over A-Z in rapid fire, they apparently know what my questions will be as a new guy and are answering most of them before I can ask. I interject ‘where can I run? Just tell me where I can run?’  They ask, ‘Where you going?’  I say, ‘I’m a runner, and I just need shoes and running and I will be happy’. They assure me I can run as much as I want and there’s a 0.4 mile loop; I’m ecstatic to hear that.  I decompress to focus on everything else that is a far secondary concern of mine.

I continue to get my bearings on what’s going on all around me, the facilities, general schedules, who’s who, all while more and more people come up to me and say hello, ‘welcome to Otisville’.  We’re now in the ‘cubes’ area where bunk beds are stacked, 2 in a ‘cube’, then separated by cell block walls about 6 feet, everything is painted white.  Row after row I see the same standardized living space, a small locker about 2x3x4ft.  Iron grey painted poles make up the construction of bunk beds, most have lots of chipped paint, these things are old, and still in good utility condition as they were made to last probably sometime 60+ years ago.  The bedding is thread bear oatmeal colored cotton blankets, pillows are lumpy, old, but the linens look clean, the floors are clean, the guys keep the submarine in good shape.  No smells, I realize this is a very good thing. We keep moving through the cube area towards another transition to what looks like small office room, just before we get there one of the guys in my chaperone group says we just left ‘Goldberg Estates’.  huh? It was the first of nonstop jokes and ‘inside’ lingo for locations of people, places and things; apparently lots of high end wealthy Jewish CEO’s bunked in this area.

My massive jacket is still wrapped around me, we get to an office door, one of the guys knocks, leans inside, there’s a guy all dressed in black colored military jumpsuit, he has a radio, lots of keys tied to his belt with a chain, ok, this is a CO (correctional officer), they ask him where I’m sleeping, he responds ‘take him to 52 upper’, they say ok, and then I’m off to building 2 where I will soon see a lot more…


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