dannie martin: a report from solitary

Excerpted from Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog. This is one of convict-writer Dannie Martin's essays.
A Report From 'Solitary'

Lompoc, Calif. (July 3, 1988) — I have written a number of pieces for "Sunday Punch" concerning prisons, their administrators and inhabitants. It's time, I suppose, to write one about isolation status in prisons. I won't need extensive notes for this one as I woke up in Isolation this morning.

The Sunday, June 19, issue of "Sunday Punch" carried a story of mine entitled "The Gulag Mentality." It referred to our new warden, R. H. Rison, and some changes he and the previous warden had made here at Lompoc.

On Tuesday, June 21, I was arrested as I went about my job emptying ashtrays in the main corridor. It was a tough job that took about fifteen minutes each evening, but someone had to do it — and I'll certainly miss it.

Two guards walked over, looked balefully at me for a moment, and said: "Let's go, man." I went, and as I walked between them down the hall, I thought we were going to the lieutenant's office, which is a pit stop for the average miscreant. But when we passed his office, I realized that I'm not average. I was on my way to the hole. Do not pass go.

I asked each guard in turn, "What seems to be the difficulty here, officer?" Each kept looking straight ahead. No response. Their visages were grim, their jaws determined.

The guard in charge peered through a little window in "I Unit," opened the door, and motioned me in. "I" cellblock is Isolation, and as one enters, there is a little cubbyhole where you are relieved of all possessions. An "I Unit" guard waited on the far side of a barred door to receive me. He handed my escorts a rolled towel containing one pair of green boxer shorts, a green T-shirt, and a green pair of woolen socks.

I didn't have to be told to strip, and I was soon naked. The guard in charge told me to turn around, bend over, and spread my cheeks. I always have to be told to do that.

I don't know what they hoped to discover. Perhaps they thought I had a newspaper article stashed away there.

When I had put on my boxer shorts and T-shirt, the "I Unit" guard handed a pair of handcuffs through the bars, and my escorts handcuffed me behind my back. In "I Unit," prisoners are handcuffed every time they move anywhere.

Once I was cuffed, they opened the barred door and motioned me up a flight of stairs. I felt some relief that I wasn't going to the basement. Basement cells have big iron doors instead of bars, and it's dark and you can't talk to your neighbor. I've been there a few times and don't really enjoy it.

After passing two more locked gates, the "I Unit" guard escorted me down the second tier to cell A-13. These doors are barred, with a slot for a food tray, and they open electronically. We waited as the guard at the front opened the door.

As I walked past the first twelve cells, I noticed that they all contained double bunks, and there were two men to a cell.

My door slid open. I entered, and the door slid shut. A familiar old clanking sound of finality. I backed up to the bars while the guard removed my handcuffs and handed me two sheets and a pillowcase. I noticed that the double bunk contained only two mattresses and no blankets. I told the guard I had just got over a bad flu and I needed a blanket.

"I'm out of blankets," he replied and walked off. By this time, I began to realize that I wouldn't get much from the staff. They all acted as if they were afraid to even talk to me.

It gets extremely cold in here at night. I spent the night under my two sheets feeling like a supermarket chicken in a meat-display counter. But I did have some company. I got a cellmate about an hour after I arrived. The first thing he told the guard was: "Hey, I need a blanket."

The guard looked at him, then over at me, and replied, "I'm out of blankets," and walked off. I told my new cellmate that he was just unfortunate to get me as a cellmate because the guard couldn't very well give him a blanket after telling me there weren't any.

I asked him what he was locked up for. Prison protocol demands that you don't ask a man about his original crime, but it is proper to ask what he's in Isolation for. It's hard to sleep in a cell with a man you know nothing about, as he could be a homicidal maniac.

He told me he was called to the lieutenant's office and told he was observed near the cell of a man who had been cut up badly with a razor blade in "K Unit." He was then escorted over here. He's twenty-one years old and a state prisoner from Alaska. He said he came to prison when he was fifteen years old and is serving ninety-nine years for murder. Other than that, he seems to be a pleasant, mannerly young man. We get along fine.

The following morning, a guard brought me a piece of paper signed by Lieutenant C. Gramont that says: "Inmate Martin is under investigation for possible attempts at encouraging a group demonstration." And "He is also under investigation that [sic] there may be a threat to his safety if left in open population." So I guess I'm here for my own good, but somehow I can't follow this line of logic.

This "investigation" is evidently independent of me. No one has asked my feeling on the matter, and the form made clear that I was under investigation for "a violation of Bureau [of Prisons] regulations."

A medical-staff type walked by my cell in a white smock. I told him I had an appointment today with the dentist. I'd had half of a root canal done and was to have it finished today. He told me to write down my name and number. I told him I didn't have a pencil. He had a notebook in his hand and a ballpoint pen in his smock pocket.

"I don't have one either," he said and walked away.

A convict brought me and my cellmate a blanket, writing paper, and a pencil stub, with which this article is written. So things are looking up. He said today (Thursday) it was on the news that I've been locked up. Every little bit helps.

Directly in front of my cell is a cage made from wire like that which you see on a hurricane fence. Daily, one or two convicts are allowed in there to walk back and forth like caged timber wolves. It's called recreation, but I'll probably pass when my turn comes. I'm an old, tired wolf who enjoys his bed and leisure time.

I'm sure I'll be transferred to another prison but don't know where or when. Or I could be put on the "merry-go-round."

In federal prisons, when a prisoner is en route, he's not allowed phone calls or mail privileges — the reasoning being that he could attempt an escape. So what is sometimes done is that they put a fellow like me on a bus and drop him off at Isolation for a few weeks at every prison they stop at. I've seen convicts get caught up in that for nearly two years, never able to contact anyone. It's known as the merry-go-round. Old convicts call it "bus therapy."

If things get really bad, I could be pumped full of psycho tropic drugs like Prolixin or Haldol and locked up in 10 Building at the Springfield, Missouri, prison, which is the final stop for troublesome federal prisoners. But that's another story. While the warden's options aren't unlimited, they are awesome in a way.

I hope this doesn't sound like sniveling, because it isn't. I knew the stakes of the game when I sat down, and I'll be in it until I'm cashed out.

There is massive prison construction going on in our country now. I feel that if the taxpayers have to pay for all this, they are entitled to an accurate view of how the prisons are staffed and operated. They are also entitled to know the thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints of the men in those prisons. I plan to keep telling it like it is. If I get on the merry-go-round, I'll find a way to talk about that.

I received eight letters last night from people who read me and appreciate my articles. My thanks and gratitude to them and all the others who have written. Please stay tuned.

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