In 2001, I spent more than a year enduring the empty space of a Segregated Housing Unit (SHU). At the time it was the greatest mental challenge I had ever faced. It was surreal to now find myself back in the SHU. A different prison, a different decade -- but not one thing in that cell felt any different. It had the same cold air, lights that never extinguish and, of course, four walls that slowly close in on you.
I don't care how tough you think you are... the SHU is tougher and you can't fight it. Fighting will get you to break faster. The only thing to do is find your balance--it’s truly an exercise in Zen. I walked the length of the cell then the width and took a mental note of the number of steps -- a little sanity insurance to help ground me in reality when those walls started moving in.
I wondered if I had any company. I got down on the floor and positioned myself near the east vent and called to the cell next door. Nothing. I repositioned myself on the west wall and called out. Again nothing. But I knew someone was there. As the Marshalls positioned me against the wall just prior to my cell entry, I had seen a face in the small window looking out at me. Our eyes met briefly in that quick glance. Maybe he was sleeping. Maybe he was a psych patient. Maybe he was here for his own protection. Whoever it was it didn't really matter. It could wait till morning. Neither one of us was going anywhere.
I felt tired to the bone. A few weeks prior I had gotten a message an indictment was on its way. Anticipation made sleep light and hard to come by. Now that the indictment had been delivered I knew what I was dealing with and it was time to catch up on some much needed rest. As my body searched for a comfortable position on the cold hard mattress I stared up at the many names and dates scraped into the steel bed frame above me. As my eyes searched for meaning or message in the strange hieroglyphics, I wondered if there were any stories from past tenants to decipher. The symbols began to overlap and dance then finally I drifted off into a heavy sleep.
I didn’t sleep long, my rest interrupted by a strange, unfamiliar noise. It was an exercise cadence that would soon become familiar to me. It would take place early every morning, called out in unison from five adjoining cells to the West. Loud Spanish that would echo out of the cells and down the empty hall. I would find out later these guys were from the Nuestra Familia, arch rivals to the Surenos who dominated the downtown facility. These guys were in the SHU for their own protection -- not their choice but administered segregation from the facility. I’ve seen these modern gladiators fight it out in a prison yard -- both sides valiant warriors. It was none of my business but keeping them apart was probably a good idea for everyone involved.
My neighbor never uttered a single word to me. An act of caution -- for all he knew I could be the enemy. So much for passing time through conversation.
The early morning passed and I could hear the wheels of the food cart making its way down the hall. Food slots dropped open and trays were passed into the cells. Breakfast. I picked at the tray -- sticking to the protein and staying away from the sugars. I needed to stay healthy and grounded. What I ate didn't fill me up but I knew it would keep me going till lunch. As the guard picked up the tray he informed me the Lieutenant was making his rounds and to sit tight.
Soon I could hear someone making his way from cell to cell. A long pause at each window for a quick inspection and inventory of each tiny room. The steps I heard were light but firm, centered, grounded, confident and now they were outside my door. After a quick glance through the small window the Lieutenant inserted the oversize brass key into the steel lock keyhole and the door to my cell rolled open.
The Lieutenant was a 6' tall, lean, capable looking black man. A no-nonsense old school guy who had made his way up the ranks with hard work and street smarts. I sensed nothing had scared this man for many years. He pointed at the small steel desk at the far end of my cell and I took a seat on the table top. This cell visit was off to an unusual start. Typically, conversations in the SHU equal you hunching down at the door slot talking to a face you can barely see through the small hole.
"Well, Mr. Christie, I understand you want to talk to me. What's this I hear? You’ve just arrived and already you don't like the accommodations we’ve arranged for you?” The Lieutenant opened the conversation with a deep voice and a hint of humor.
I replied, “Well, there is really no reason for me to be here in the SHU.”
“It wasn't our idea." He explained. "The FBI requested you be housed in the SHU and it is our standard protocol to follow the recommendations made by outside agencies."
I stressed to the Lieutenant it was unnecessary and that I would fight it and, again, reiterated that I wanted to be moved into the general population. This isolation was unwarranted. He told me not to get myself into a twist... that he would talk to the warden and she would make the final decision.
“I guess with your 1986 inmate number you won’t have any problems with the youngsters, no one will bother an old timer like you.” He said and as our conversation had come to a close, he added “I'm here all weekend if you need anything.” Both of us laughed as he exited. The door rolled shut with a loud bang and once again I was alone with my thoughts.
1986. My mind ran back to that year when I was arrested for a murder that never happened and a crime I never committed. I took that case all the way to trial and was declared not guilty. It had cost me a lot including a year of my life in a federal prison. I was in my late thirties then. Now, almost three decades later, in my mid sixties, once again I was inmate 84677-012.