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Life Inside

The Big Chill

I had never been locked up before. No one told me that prison would be so cold.

It was done raining and the sun in the narrow window of my cell made the world look warm. But I was cold. It was always cold at the prison in Mason, Tennessee, which serves as a holding facility for prisoners waiting to go to trial or to another prison or, for some immigrants detained there, to deportation proceedings.

I was assigned to O block, a housing unit with two tiers of cells rising above a common area of a few metal tables with attached stools. There was a small microwave on a table at the bottom of the staircase that led to the top tier. Open shower stalls were along one wall of the area and a TV was mounted high on the wall opposite them.

I spent my time at Mason wrapped in a blanket. Most everyone stayed covered in their own blankets, which weren’t much heftier than a sheet but were the only means of staying warm allowed a prisoner. Reading, playing games, eating, watching TV—all done hunched in blankets. Guards wore coats; prisoners wore blankets. Guards were warm; prisoners were cold.

I had never been locked up. I had never been in trouble. I was beginning a sentence of 18 years. I would most likely serve less than 16 years of that time, as long as I stayed out of trouble. A first-timer has a lot to learn the cold was an effective teacher. Blanketed, confused cold, I learned first of all that I was no longer considered a person. Those early lessons included how to stand at the ready for headcounts, how to choke down tasteless boiled food, who sits where, who watches TV and who doesn’t, who speaks to whom, what words you can and cannot use where and how you may look at another person, if you look at him at all. All while cocooned in a threadbare blanket, while curling and uncurling your toes in flimsy canvas shoes.

On the inside there are certain myths about temperature. One is that low temperatures keep prisoners subdued. Most of the policies and procedures of the criminal justice system are based on notions like this. Notions voiced enough times by enough people and acknowledged with enough nods and shrugs until finally nods and shrugs become all that are required to establish the truth of a thing. Public safety: We achieve it with these notions.

When I climbed down from the top bunk that morning, the cold was already competing with the noise. (Like the cold, the noise never stopped. Even at night after we were locked in our cells, men screamed at each other.) I stepped out of my cell on the upper tier and stood at the rail, watching the activity in the common area below. Chess players yelled taunts at their opponents while blowing warmth into their cupped hands, then slammed pieces down on a chess board that was painted on a table top. Guys playing spades and dominoes danced around the tables slapping down cards and “bones” in a competition of style and vocal bravado that was more important than the games themselves.

My internal life was reached only by the cold. I could think of nothing else. When I got locked up, the psych drugs that my therapist on the outside had prescribed me were taken away; I was told during my psych evaluation at intake not to expect any such medications because they were not available on something called the “formulary.” The psych staff person looked at the list of meds I needed and said nothing further than “sign here.” I never knew what it was I signed. (I would eventually be given an antidepressant called Elavil without any consultation or evaluation beyond that first intake—which lasted all of 15 minutes, part of which was spent on the phone with my mother, crying. The dosages were routinely changed without explanation.)

I went back into my cell, got a bar of soap and one of the two hand towels I had been issued and headed for the shower stalls. Taking a shower was one of the ways to fight the cold, but it was also an ordeal for me because of the arrangement of the stalls. Anyone standing on the upper tier could look down into the showers.

But they faced the TV, so I could look over the heads of those playing games at the tables and watch TV while I was showering. That kept my attention off the thought that I was essentially shivering naked in a room full of potentially hostile men. At least for a few minutes, when there was hot water, I was warm.

After the shower, I climbed back up on my bunk and tried again to read, but after a few minutes the effect of the shower wore off and again I was cold.

I had one more way to get warm that was to go to the gym and then to the yard. It happened to be one of the days when O block was scheduled for recreation. Rain had been threatening, but the sun was shining.

Painted down both sides of every hallway at Mason there was a line. When walking down the hall, prisoners were required to walk the line. By the time I get out of prison, I will have stood in a line every day for more than 15 years. Prison is not just locks, gates doors; it is also lines.

On that cold day in Mason, I got in line at the door of the cell block to walk the line of prisoners and line up at the door of the gym, where I got in the line to go to the yard.

Around the walls of the gym were a few decrepit weight machines. A handball court was painted on the floor between two basketball goals; the basketball lines intersected with the handball lines as if to create enough confusion to discourage both games.

The gym was warmer than the block, but also potentially more dangerous. I witnessed the first of many beatings in that gym. It wasn't a fight. To call what I witnessed a fight would imply that the beaten man had a fair chance. He was surrounded and engulfed in punches and kicks. The object was to remove him from the general population of the prison. The beaten man, not those who beat him, was sent to solitary confinement.

I will never know the reason the man was beaten. It could have been something as simple as cutting in front of someone in a line.

Since I have been down, most of the violence I have seen erupted over trivialities like the placement of a chair on the wrong square of tile in the TV room. There are similarities between violence and cold. Sometimes cold too comes on suddenly, when you don’t expect it.

But violence and cold are different because I could never become indifferent to the cold. I wonder sometimes what I am becoming.

I followed the line to go outside to the yard, a few bare acres consisting of a dirt track surrounding an inner oval of sparse brown grass. The track was rutted by men walking in circles for days and months on end; the ruts, trudged by innumerable feet, were full of water from the morning rains. There was also a small pavilion, with a metal picnic table chained to posts in the concrete, as well as a lone exercise bike with a torn seat, rusted into immobility. There was a piss and shit-covered toilet in a rotting wooden shack tacked onto the outside wall of the gym.

Once outside, I had to stay there for the duration of the hour and a half allotted for recreation. So I joined the walkers.

Walking around in circles is what you make of it. It can be listless and tedious, purposeful and focused, or meditative. I have, as have all prisoners, become expert in walking circles. I first began training to walk circles when I was in a mental-health facility after threatening suicide. I wandered around, in circles and circles, quoting all the poetry I could remember, trying to find the mind and self I seemed to have misplaced.

It is important to walk the same direction as everyone else. It is also important to be careful who you walk with, if anyone. Who you walk with can identify your gang affiliations, your sexuality, or your charge. Because I am an out gay man and a sex offender, there are those who will not walk with me on the yard, or be seen talking with me too much, because they are afraid of being labeled either a “cho-mo” or a fucking fag. At Mason, I walked cold and alone.

Opening Statement

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Another lesson that prison teaches is how to create for yourself an eye of calm in a hurricane of violence, mistrust and oppression.

I thought it would be warmer outside than it was in the block, but after the morning rain came a cold front. The porous jumpsuits that prisoners wore served only for modesty, not protection from the elements.

So I walked faster to try to get warm. Then it began to rain. First a sprinkle, then a drizzle, then a torrent. The prisoners filed into the pavilion until it was overflowing. I stood shoulder to shoulder with other men toward the middle of the crush, trying in vain to stand still without bumping into anyone, which could be considered disrespectful and invite retaliation.

Because there was no lightning with the rain, we would not be allowed back into the gym. The temperature dropped. I stood with the other prisoners on that yard for another hour, wet and shaking.

We shape our reality and in turn our reality shapes us. I created the reality of my incarceration. I created it by betraying myself, my family, my friends and a community that had supported and nurtured me.

When I got to Mason, I cried at night, in my bunk, out of pity for myself, for the abused child in me and for the abuse and hurt that I had furthered by searching for and downloading obscene images of children. The cold of those nights, the shaking cold my tears, have now become a part of my identity, too. The cold has condemned me with a finality that no judge or prison sentence could match.

I finally got back inside the block at Mason. I finally got warm. I have spent these years working to heal. The warmth of a healed life is at least partial payment of the debt I owe to my children, their mother who raised them in my absence and all those I hurt. I know I will always be doubted by society, because people who commit crimes are never completely allowed back across the line into humanity that is especially true for sex offenders. We are tolerated, but always watched with a wary eye.

I am the only one who can truly know the whole of my restoration. I am the only one who knows completely that I accept who I am and the mistake that I made. I also know the strength I have found in myself over these years that began in Mason, Tennessee, when I was so bitterly cold.

Tracy Meadows, 58, is incarcerated at FCI Forrest City, a federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas, where he is serving an 18-year sentence for one count of distribution of child pornography.

Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, which operates the West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason, called the author’s allegations about his medical treatment “patently false” in a statement to The Marshall Project. Gilchrist said that privacy laws bar CoreCivic “from disclosing information about [the author’s] medical or mental healthcare treatment or history.”