Danny was a sharp young man and his first two years in prison were uneventful. He blended into the backdrop, making his spirit small and keeping to himself. After he got the feel of things he started a little barter business for extra commissary. He learned to weave picture frames out of empty cigarette packs. It was a tedious and time consuming task but time was something that Danny had in plenty.
Danny preferred the Camel shorts packs -- they made the best designs when folded properly. Folding and interlocking each section into works of art occupied his hands and mind as the minutes ticked away on his sentence. His small business was very successful until a dispute over payment and unavoidable fight brought Danny to the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU), a damp underground section of the prison, ending his business and taking away the little freedom he had left.
A prison inside a prison, the SHU (also known as “the dungeon”) housed the hard cases: the predators, the gay inmates caught in bizarre love triangles, the scared looking for protection and, of course, the always present trouble makers -- the non-compliant convicts.
Life in the SHU pushed the strongest minds to their limits. Residents remained locked in small, single man cells 24-hours a day, 7-days a week with little to no contact with the outside world. All meals were served in cell, there was no TV, no radio, and a very limited commissary. The freedom of the small confined yard quickly became a distant memory for Danny and the other SHU residents.
The SHU offered inmates 24 hours of bright artificial light with speakers and microphones going off regularly in each cell to facilitate constant surveillance and discipline. The lights were never extinguished and in the morning they would go from from night-time bright to daylight brighter. There was a rumor that portable showers would soon be implemented and then they would never get out for anything but attorney visits, the occasional no-contact family visit and, of course, discipline.
Isolation is one of the oldest forms of torture known to man. The sensory deprivation makes you feel obscure and nullified as a person. It serves the punishers as intended in every manner. Solitary confinement started as a short term punishment. Over time it morphed into a powerful tool that would be wielded against prisoners as swiftly as a Samurai would draw his long sword to cut down a defiant peasant in feudal Japan. Living in isolation, day after day, challenged even the strongest constitutions.
Danny had been placed in an end cell and, over his first year in the SHU, a variety of convicts were cycled through the only cell next to him. He couldn't see them but would communicate with them through the floor vent that carried the plumbing pipes from cell to cell. Using the piping system you could lay or sit on the floor and have a private conversation. A few of the passing inmates had been particularly colorful.
There was the schizophrenic who refused to take his meds and would talk to his imaginary cell-mate for hours and hours. Every so often, in a moment of clarity, he would ask Danny to confirm that no one was there sharing his cell. Danny would patiently remind him it was impossible because they were in the SHU in solitary single-man cells.
Then there was the gay inmate who had gotten caught in one of those oft-deadly prison love triangles. The warden took him out of general and placed him -- or actually “her” as she prefered -- in the SHU until everyone’s emotions simmered down. Although he would never admit it to anyone, Danny found her soft and rhythmic voice to be a pleasant change from the rough harsh voices of the all male SHU staff.
Then, one day, Mike "Mouse" Sanchez moved in. Mouse came from the west coast. A rumored member of an old school East LA street gang, 18th street, that had earned their street sway the hard way. He never talked about it but the signature single needle tattoo work and large number 18 across his back spoke for him. An ex-marine and hash smuggler, Mouse was a short slender man who had done his tour in Vietnam as a tunnel rat.