by Michael Arnstein
Otisville Prison Camp Day 1 – Part 4
I'm outside, all alone, no fence, no bars, I might as well be taking a walk in the woods on a Sunday afternoon.But that's not really the case as one of many reality-check moments hit me, I say to myself 'holy shit, I'm in a prison? This is incredible, crazy! omg!'
I have been in Otisville for less than a few hours, now a few minutes of solitude after an intense maze of introductions. Man, this is like an out of body experience, a twilight zone, a made for movies scene. The words, emotions, the experience, it's hard to describe it, for some parts of this you just have to be there.
I walk towards the warehouse in a mix of heightened emotions, I make a conscious effort to enjoy the fact that my life is anything but boring. What I am going through right-now is totally off-the-wall, I'm getting every dollars worth in my life. It's exciting as hell, my life-soup is as tasteful as it could ever possibly be. I have no fear, depression, nothing of the sort, my first impression, my gut feeling is, I will find the good #gratitude.
I get to the warehouse in a few minutes, wind is blowing all around, I'm getting chilled pretty quickly. Most people that know me know my love for being in cold weather, so I must not mind being cold?
I welcome the winter, but I don't generally enjoy being chilled, I can embrace a chill better than most people, but I prefer to be well prepared with proper clothing so I can experience the beauty and serenity of the winter season. But I don't enjoy actually being freezing. So I'm eager to get some gear in the warehouse.
The door is closed, looks like no one is inside, I wonder if I'm at the right entrance. I pull on the door, it's locked, I bang and wait. I look around, looks like this is the only entrance other than the truck loading docks. The door opens, there's an older woman in her 60s, all dressed in black, she's wearing a military type waist belt with lots of keys swinging around, a metal chain, a beat up looking radio fumbling around as she looks at me with a rushed 'why are you here, why are you bothering me', then she says 'what are you doing here, main-line dinner is on now'.
I don't know what main-line means, but I need some clothes; I tell her I'm a new inmate and was sent to get some clothing. She waves me in, I get inside, it's a big large warehouse, a smaller sized Costco, nothing special, but it's cold, this place isn't insulated. The older woman is a paid guard for the prison, god knows how many years she's been living in this place, it's obviously beat the hell out of her spirit. I imagine many of the guards hate the prisoners, we come and go, they just stay. She asks for my ID number, I memorized it already and say "79003-054", she says 'good, most inmates don't remember their ID number'.
She points me to the back of the warehouse, says there are racks with clothing, 'don't mess up anything, the sizes should be in order. We have no pillows in stock they're back ordered, take 2 blankets, 2 pants, 2 undershirts, 2 button down shirts, a pair of boots, gloves, and switch your jacket out, you got that?'
I say, "yea ok, oh wait, what about socks and underwear?" She says, 'we don't give you that, you'll have to buy that from commissary'. (commissary is like a general-store where inmates can buy items that the prison does not supply for free).
She abruptly walks away towards a small booth/office, that's certainly heated inside, but I note it looks like a solitary confinement unit, I subconsciously note I'm glad I don't have that job. I walk down the rows of the warehouse, it's well organized, mostly pallets of food items, I see rows of frozen water bottles, the pallet is mangled from the expansion of the freezing water bottles, I wonder if they're all going to explode. I get to the clothing, she was right it's well organized, but the smallest size is still too big on me, they have waist size 30, I'm a size 28. I take 2 of the pants, one of the pants has a canvas belt in it already, they're clean, looks ok, no smell or stains, but they're worn, probably 5 years old. I used to shop at the salvation army when I lived in New Mexico 23 years ago, I'm in adventure mode, I'm totally fine with the old army looking clothing.
I take everything she said I should, I see a bucket with socks, they look old but washed, clean, but I see holes in them, I take them anyway. Socks are great mittens for running, learned that a long time ago being a long distance runner. I put a few pairs wrapped up in my bundle of clothing. I switch out my massive army green jacket for a proper size and I head back out. I wave to the woman through a glass window that I'm good, I'm leaving, she waves and I head back over to the submarine, I don't want to miss dinner.
The temperature is dropping for sure, I think it's supposed to be close to zero F tonight, I shuffle-run small steps holding my new wardrobe of old green military clothing, earthy brown thread bear undershirts flapping in the wind, I look back a few times to make sure I didn't drop anything. It's so cold, I love it, but I'm terribly under dressed in the moment and I am anxious to see what the dinner scene will be like. I scurry across a field laundry ball in my arms. I laugh at how little clothing I have to live in this place. I have 3 sets of bare minimum clothing, and judging by how cold it is, I'll likely be wearing 2/3's of what I'm holding in my arms for my running workouts. I open the brown double doors of building 2 where my bunk 52 is located, the place is a ghost town, no one in the building but me, I run down the high school hallway, drop my clothes on my bed, and run back over to the main building.
I swing open the doors fast, the wind vacuum zooms and blasts all around me again. It's dramatic. Noise. It's a full-on. Packed-house of convicts, a real movie scene. 120~ guys all dressed in a mix of grey sweat suits and olive green fatigues, most guys are wearing grey knit hats since it's so cold with the door opening nonstop. Everyone is sitting shoulder to shoulder on long horizontal tables, very much what you would see in a middle school lunch room.
Otisville is over capacity, the place is too small for the size of the crowd, everyone's talking loudly, not a seat anywhere. Out of the 120~ guys in this room I'm likely the smallest in physical size. No one really notices me, they all have their heads down, shoveling in the food on big plastic trays. They come up for air to respond to whomever they're talking with. I don't rush, I stand there, I take it in, it's out of this world man, just far-out that I'm in this place, totally front row seats. I survey. Brain is on. Think carefully, where do I go, what's the plan here. I see one guard standing in the far corner all dressed in black, doing nothing, just standing. I think maybe I should go to talk him? No no, don't do that, stay away from guards, so I just kind of stand there and try not to look like a deer in headlights, but it's surely how I look.
There's been nothing professional about my submersion into this world, it's sink or swim, no doubt.
Then someone from behind me taps me on the shoulder, I turn and it's another peculiar moment, a black guy, shaved head, mid 50's, doesn't look too mean, but is definitely a weight lifter, big arms, a little bit taller than me. He's wearing a totally different kind of shirt, it's black, some pattern on it, I couldn't tell if he was an inmate or a prison staff member. He says 'Hi my name is Mike, you must be a new guy?'
"Um, uh, yea, Hi, my name is Mike too, I just got here, just got my clothes. I kinda, I, what do you suggest I do, I know nothing?"
Mike says, 'don't worry man, I'll help you out, it's dinner time but main-line just closed, so I don't think you can get anything.'
He points over to the other end of the mess hall to what looks like a small garage door that's been closed over a long counter top, 'you see over there, that's where you get your chow, but they closed the window, you're too late. Are you Jewish? I nod 'yea', he then says 'If you're Jewish you can go to the kosher kitchen and maybe they will still give you something. But don't let the CO seeing you go on main-line and then again on kosher line, if they see you doing that they will give you a shot.'
I didn't really understand what he just told me. I am not going to lie, I'm slightly intimidated about black guys who are in prison, so I just say 'oh ok, thanks'.
I'm still looking around, glad that I'm not noticed by the animals shoveling in dinner. It's all just a wild wild experience for me. I might have had my mouth open and not realizing it, I probably looked like some kid who just got off his first rollercoaster, dazed, but also just realizing what true adrenaline feels like for the first time, in your blood, stunned, but wanting more!
This guy Mike keeps talking, 'Hey man, just so you know, I'm the prison barber, if you want a haircut I'm the guy ok'.
I look back at him, scanning him up and down, his shirt that had this strange pattern on it, it was a nylon loose fitting zipped up shirt, the pattern wasn't a pattern, it was a print of hair combs and scissors all over the shirt. My brain puts the round peg through the round hole, yes ok, I got it, this is some kind of smock.
I actually wanted to get a haircut. Though it surely wasn't something I expected to do in my first few hours.
My prison-virginity was being taken from me one way or another, I guess there's no better time than now, ok let's shave my head, I'm jumping in the deep end!
I told him, "hey Mike, you know what, I do want a haircut. But how about in 10 minutes or so? I want to see what they have at the kosher kitchen, ok?" Mike points me to a small room just behind us, he says 'sure thing, I'll be here waiting for you'.
"ok Mike, nice to meet you, I'll be back in a minute, lemme see if I can get somethin to eat' as I automatically change my wording to slightly-slang; letting Mike know I'm white, but I that I've been in the mixed racial world, that I'm al-rite.
He nods, in agreement.
I delicately walk as inconspicuously as I can over to the other side of the mess hall. Row after row I pass the chow hounds, I scan the food they're eating with laser analytical eyes, I see frozen carrot cubes, no butter/oil on it, score. chicken, no thank you; rice, looks white-ish; not for me, a fresh pear – definitely want that, and red jello blob. The trays they're eating from is not a flat tray, it's a 20×16 inch plate with about six compartments that are about 2.5 inches in depth, all the food is separated scoop by scoop from the main-line assembly-line kitchen crew. This place is organized. I like it. I do the same with my own food at home, one thing at a time, each time, don't mix, keep it locked up until I take it down, eating is a mission, I take it seriously. These guys do too.
But what the hell am I going to eat here, it was my greatest concern now that the fear of not being able to run was relieved by a few inmates. I need clean healthy fruits and vegetables or I will really suffer in this place. I keep calm, but expect bad news.
I see a yamikah, a guy with a beard, in his 60s, not heavy, looks pretty healthy, he's moving his hands fast working in a small room moving around eggs and what looks like potatoes. I walk over, I knock on the door, he turns to me, he see's I'm a new guy, he's very friendly, 'yes, hi, how can I help you, I'm Joseph you can call me Yosi, you new here?'
"Yes yes, thank you, I'm Mike, can you tell me where the Kosher kitchen is?"
He says 'this is it'.
I think to myself, this is it? This is a closet? The 'kitchen' is no more than 5 x 7 ft, like I'm really not kidding.
Shelves stacked to the ceiling, a preparation table, boxes behind him, a very small sink.
I don't say anything, I just focus on food, I should get something to eat.
'Are you Kosher?'
I struggle to answer, I fumble, I don't know what to say, my style of eating is incredibly aggravating to explain to people, I just don't know what to say, but I say 'uh uh, well yea, um, but I don't eat any meat.' He says, "do you eat fish?"
Sorry 'no' I reply.
"So what do you eat?"
'Uh um, do you have any fruit?' I think I kind of tilt my head to the side almost as if I expect him to think I'm kidding and laugh back at me.
Yosi it turns out is a angel from the fruit gods watching over me, he says 'sure sure, I'll help you, here here, take some bananas, here's an apple.'
My eye's open wide, omg, I'm ecstatic. 2 bananas, an apple!
I consume them standing right there in seconds.
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