A Path Through Cages

Cages. I’ve been in a lot of them.  It comes with the territory.

Most people envision the prison cell as the prototypical cage a person must endure while incarcerated. The residential cage. The cage with the melancholic man or woman inside, lonely, waiting miserably for the day when the door might open for freedom. This imagined cell is often stark and cold, with empty walls and a tiny window, usually too high for a view of anything other than the muddied glimpse of a partial cloud as it passes over the prison walls. This cell may have bars outside of which guards pass silently except for the jingle of keys, or it may have a solid steel door with a slot through which guards may peer.

While there are elements of truth within this vision of the prison cell, the varying elements tend not to be found together, all at once, in single prison cell, unless the cell exists in a movie. Like so many other things we have come to associate with prison, Hollywood is largely responsible for the imagery we have of cells. I think it is time to rectify the misperception a little bit.

But before doing so, I’d like to first talk about the fact that the prison cell is the ultimate cage, and by ‘ultimate’ I mean last in a long line of cages. The prison cell is the final destination. It is the cage that all other cages lead to.  Before finding myself actually living in a cage, I had to first pass through many dozens of other cages, some of them more temporary than others, all of them with different shapes, sizes, locations, and purposes. Prison is a journey through cages.

In my experience, the worst cage has always been the first cage. The beginning of the journey. I was placed into this cage in a Safeway parking lot in Los Gatos, California. I stepped out of my truck and was met by the police officers who would take me away. My arms were bent behind my back. Handcuffs were secured around my wrists. I was shoved into the backseat of a squad car, the door locked behind me.

The cop car is the most popular cage in America. More people will be held in this cage than in any other type. While its seat is relatively comfortable, sitting comfortably is not what one does inside it. The panic of arrest, the terror of future consequences, and the somatic instinct to struggle against the physical restraints, all of these consumed me as I sat, awkwardly, in the back of the cop car.  I banged my forehead on the metal grate that separated me from the front seat. I would be spending the rest of my life in prison.

From this cage I was transported to a different cage inside the Los Gatos Monte Sereno Police Department, just a few minutes away.  I was placed into a holding cell while I waited for the arrival of detectives, who wanted to speak with me before booking.  The holding cell was about three feet by six feet, with a single bench inside. It had concrete walls and a steel door with a fairly large window for viewing. I spent an hour or so in this cage. Occasionally, an officer would approach the window and ask me for information. One officer, who I could hear but couldn’t see, taunted me with the words, “Twenty five to life, Mr. Hahn. Twenty five to life.” As time progressed, the reality of my situation sank in. I wanted to cry. I didn’t.

After speaking with detectives, I was taken back to the cage in the cop car and transported to the main jail for booking. I was eventually put into a new type of cage, the holding tank. Similar to a holding cell but much larger, it held many people and had large windows which gave its inhabitants the feeling of being in an aquarium. On display. This holding tank is where I sat while I waited to be housed somewhere else. It was about twelve feet by twenty feet, with two benches on opposite walls facing each other and a short cinderblock wall which separated a toilet from the rest of the tank. There was a roll of toilet paper and a man was using it as a pillow as he slept in the shade beneath one of the benches. The fluorescent lights were blinding, their buzz deafening. On the walls hung a handful of collect phones, with advertisements for attorneys and bail bondsmen hanging between them.

Some of the men in the holding tank were sleeping. They were probably drunk, not facing very much time, comfortable with the amount of time they very facing, or all of the above. A couple of men were talking, sharing war stories and complaining about the nature of their arrest. Some used the phones, begging family members for help with bail. Others, such as myself, sat on the benches silently thinking, stewing, worrying, and lamenting.

The first semi-permanent cage I was put into was in “Siberia”, an old section of the county jail. It was a 125-square foot, four-man cell with two bunk beds, a toilet, and a stainless steel table with attached stools. There was a single collect phone, again flanked by ads for lawyers and bail bondsmen. A television hung from the ceiling, encased in a plexiglass box with holes drilled into it for access to the controls. No one shared the cell with me. I was alone.

The cell across from me was even a larger. It looked as though it held as many as twelve men. It had a shower in it as well. I was jealous.

I only lived in this cell for a couple of days before I was told I’d be moving to a different jail. I was placed into a new type of holding tank, awaiting transport. This tank was enormous. There were no phones or toilets, just benches which nobody really used. Fifty or more men were packed into this space, standing room only. The cacophony of dozens of loud conversations and the stench of so many men was almost unbearable. Aside from the back seat of a cop car this was the worst type of cage and I had to get into one every time I got transported anywhere. There was no telling how long I would have to wait in one of these holding tanks; sometimes it was just a few minutes, sometimes many hours.

For the bus ride to the next jail, I was chained to another man before boarding. The main seating on the bus was pretty typical and, of course, I had to sit beside the man I was chained to. The windows were covered with metal grating similar to that inside the cop car. I sat near the back. Towards the front of the bus were additional cages for people that had to be separated from the general population, usually people in protective custody but also women, who couldn’t be seated beside men. Hanky panky was definitely not allowed.

Once the bus arrived at Elmwood Correctional Facility, I was taken to the unit I would be living in. Again, I was placed in a holding cell before being escorted to the pod where my cell was located. At that point, movement from one cage to another would become routine. Every time I had court, I was put in a holding cell, then chained, then put on a bus, then transported, at which I point I was unchained, put in a holding tank, moved to a holding cell, and taken to court. When my hearing was completed, the process was reversed and I’d be back in my cell at the end of it all. A single, fifteen minute court appearance usually entailed an eight to ten hour process of movement through a dozen or so cages. It was so tiring and stressful that there were few things as welcoming as the sound of the door opening to my cell at the end of the day.

Most of my experiences during transport and their associated holding tanks were relatively uneventful, yet two incidents stand out. Both of them involved outdoor holding cages and exposure to the elements.

San Quentin State Prison, 2000. I’d been transported to San Quentin on a bus, had been processed through the prison’s human equivalent of baggage claim (called Receiving & Release), and was placed in a holding cage outside. This holding cage was constructed of chainlink fence and rested on the black asphalt of the main yard. It had no shelter. It had no toilets, no running water. It was June and the sun was hot. Perhaps we were only meant to have been held in the cage a short time, but that’s not the way it worked out. For close to six hours a couple dozen men and I were essentially cooked on the asphalt. Of course, we complained whenever we saw a guard, but such complaints went unheeded, as they most often were. Fortunately, nobody had a heat stroke or anything like that, but when I finally made it to my cell I was dehydrated, sunburnt, and suffered from a heat induced headache.

Duel Vocational Institute, 2006. This holding cage was also outside, and about ten of us were placed into it because the prison was having a hard time finding a place to house us. We’d been awake all night because of the transport, held in holding cages all day long, and finally put into this outdoor holding cage around eight o’clock in the evening. It was November and it also happened to be in the middle of what we in California call a “freeze”, a period lasting a few days during which the temperature is in the upper twenties or low thirties. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal if we’d been wearing normal clothes and a jacket.  But we weren’t wearing normal clothes; instead, we were in our prison issue reception clothes, basically identical to nursing scrubs.

It didn’t take long before we were chilled to the bone. All of us were visibly shivering. At some point, a few other prisoners walked by our cage and gave us a blanket, which we yanked from beneath the chanlink fence. For hours we huddled together, trying to savor the collective heat beneath the blanket. Eventually, we resorted to laying on the ground beside each other, quite literally spooning one another with two men on the outside and one in the middle. Every five minutes or so, we’d switch places and someone else would get in the middle to warm back up. We were finally housed sometime after midnight, and my cell felt like a sauna when contrasted with the cage I’d been in outside.

For the most part, cages are cages. I was in prison and, in prison, I should’ve expected to see a lot of them. But I was never prepared for just how many cages there were and in how many scenarios one had to wait in them. I waited in a cage to see a doctor. I waited in a cage to get to work. I waited in cage to go to a visit. Cages for showers. Cages for toilets. Cages for getting packages. Cages for appointments with counselors. Cages where I waited to get moved to other cages.

There were cages for men who misbehaved. The size of a coffin and lined with plexiglass, these were called “dummy cages”. Men who really misbehaved went to prisons within the prison, where there were even more special cages. There were special cages for men who weren’t allowed to mix with the rest of population, dog runs for humans. I’m sure there are other cages that I have never witnessed. The prison system seems to be very good at coming up with new uses for cages.

Finally, there is the cage I spent the most time in. My cell. If the worst cage is the first one, the best cage is the last one. All the cages in the criminal justice system lead to the final cage, the prison cell, and, thankfully, it happens to be the most accommodating of them all. Let me describe the cell I lived in at Folsom State Prison.

It was a small cell, roughly four feet by nine feet. If I stuck my right elbow out and touched the wall, I could reach the other wall with my left fingers (go ahead and try it now). Originally designed to house only one man, this cell housed two. On the right side of the cell, running lengthwise, was a double bunk. The space between the edge of the bunk and the wall to left was not enough for two people to pass one another. I could not do a standard push-up in the space beside the bunk.

Behind the end of the lower bed was a stainless steel toilet. On the wall next to the toilet was a sink with running water. Above the toilet area and spanning the rear wall of the cell was shelving for our personal belongings.

I always preferred the top bunk because it was right below the light. I liked to read and the area in the lower bunk was always too dark for my liking. All of my books were stacked on top of the shelves above the toilet. My television was wedged between the books. Below my television was my boombox and a stack of CD’s. My cellee’s television was cradled in a laundry bag which hung below the end of my bunk, near the toilet. This meant that if I had to take a shit while he was watching t.v., my cellee would have to watch me do it. It was unavoidable, unless we put up a curtain (which was technically not allowed).

My cell was clean. I had a small broom for sweeping it daily. The toilet was spotless and was cleaned with Comet after each use. The sink, too, was spotless. There was a small, homemade trashcan beside the toilet. Also beside the toilet was a homemade shelf where the hot-pot sat.

The floors were regularly waxed. The walls were freshly painted. My cellee enjoyed finding beautiful photographs from magazines, mounting them on cardboard, and tightly wrapping them in cellophane so as to look like framed pictures. These hung the wall. There were pictures of his family on the wall, pictures of my family, too. Some photos of nature. A photo of his favorite Indian guru. A photo of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. And the infamous photo of Raquel Welch from One Million Years BC, just like Andy’s cell in The Shawshank Redemption.

This cell was my home. It was the safest place I knew in prison.  I could take my shoes off inside of it. It was the most comfortable and accommodating cage I could find myself in. Everything I needed was inside of my cell: food, a way to cook it, books, television, a typewriter, music, a bathroom, a bed, and a friend.

My cellee and I had different schedules. I often went to yard at night where I would exercise, go to 12-step meetings, or attend Buddhist meditation groups. Sometimes he would come with me. A lot of the time he wouldn’t. I’d usually get back to the the cell around 830 at night.

Now, picture this, and ask yourself if this is the image of the prison cell you are accustomed to bringing to mind:

It has been a long day at work. I skip dinner in the evening because I know it is the only way I can make it to night yard. My cellee, Paul, knows this. I go to the yard, run some laps, take a shower, meet with some friends, and then go to an AA meeting. After the meeting, I come inside and walk to my cell block.

While I’m on the tier approaching my cell, I can hear music playing loudly. It is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Paul loves Pink Floyd, its his generation after all. A lot of the cells I walk by are dark, the only light emerging from them is the blue flickering of the televisions inside. But my cell, B2-25, is not dark. Warm light spills out onto the tier as welcomingly as the music does. I round the edge of the cell and look through the bars inside. The music is blasting. There is an old man with long grey hair hovering above two steaming hot pots like a wizard might hover above a cauldron.

“What’s up, man?” I say through the bars.

Paul looks up and faces me, smiling his big missing-tooth smile. “Hey!”

“Whatcha cookin’?” I ask.

“”Burritos! I got some chicken-on-the-bone,” he responds and goes back to stirring some food. I watch him flip some steaming tortillas on the hot pot.

“Right on. Thanks, man.”

“No problem. I hope you don’t mind, I used some of your summer sausage and mayonnaise.”

“No, man, its all good. Thanks.”

When the cell door opens, I take one step in and remove my shoes, shutting the door behind me. “I’m starving, man.”

“Well, let’s eat then.” And we sit on his bunk and wrap up some prison-style burritos. We laugh. I make him listen to Amy Winehouse. We talk about Buddhist meditation and Druid religious practices. When we’re finished, we clean the dishes in the sink and get ready for bed. We read for an hour or so and go to sleep.

In the morning, we wake up and do it again. We leave our cage in order to stand in others, but we always return to that cell. Our cell. Our home. Until we don’t.

2 thoughts on “A Path Through Cages

  1. My name is Jonathan. I did around 3 yrs in Missouri prisons then 8 in Federal. Im going to be honest. When i got to the part about cooking in the cell, i got choked up. Few will know the relief of the cell from the tensions of the yard, or just how IMPORTANT a good celly is, and how close y can GET to a good celly. Its the one dude your willing to close your eyes with…hopefully, lol. It just brought back alot. Did most of my time at USP McCreary, and fed max politics is basically CA politics. Anyway…i just thought id let u know, i get it. Keep your head up Wood. Good blog.

  2. Love your blog man!! My cellie was a bypoler sereno who would have conversations with himself always at night when I was trying to read.. Shit drove me crazy but as you know there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it without causing a big problem… I can imagine how nice it would be to have a decent cellie

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