"The cell is his true natural habitat.”
When reporter Alexander Nazaryan wrote that about me in a Newsweek article four years ago, I didn't challenge his assessment. Nor was I offended. It was true. When I did the interview I was a maximum A security prisoner. I had lived in one cell or another my entire adult life, and a few as a teenager. A cell was and is where I feel most at home.
But my current habitat is different. I am now classified as a medium A security prisoner. On paper, I suppose that's a good thing because it shows that I'm not as dangerous. I no longer have to be caged in a cell and escorted by armed guards everywhere I go. But I assure you, it's not a good thing.
Now I live in an open dormitory with 30 other men. Only 4-foot shelving units separate us from one other. The showers, toilets, recreational day rooms and cooking facilities are wide open, as opposed to being regulated by guards. Sharing space typically means cleaning up after other people. As I shit, I share the same air filled with the scent of my neighbor's body waste. I emit what becomes secondhand smoke from my nostrils.
My personal security has also been compromised. How am I supposed to sleep with killers, robbers, rapists and drug addicts having free access to me? I have to be fully clothed at all times. What little privacy the cell afforded me has been obliterated.
Animals go through several kinds of trauma when you remove them from their natural habitats. The stress can kill them. The stress of group living has been known to make prisoners like me maim and kill. Fortunately, my higher-order thinking skills have prevailed. Those skills, a few good people in my life and prayer have saved me from committing the unthinkable.
I did have a reprieve from my current habitat this summer. A coworker at Fishkill Correctional Facility’s general library tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, I had to be quarantined and observed for a minimum of 14 days. The circumstances were unkind to my coworker, but for me they were great.
Fishkill was using its Special Housing Unit—solitary confinement or the box—for quarantining prisoners. I smiled inwardly when I was told to pack up my property. I was headed to a single-man cell where, for the first time in years, I would be a man at peace with himself. Solitary confinement can be torturous, but for a prisoner like me it’s a vacation.
The medical staff was surprised to see me so cheerful, but the guards who knew me understood the situation perfectly. The cell had been my natural habitat since I became a prisoner in 1997. I had spent too many years in a maximum A security prison to be anything other than a maximum A security prisoner.
After being in the quarantine cell for some hours, I began to examine it. I took note of all the things a prisoner like me needs: Good stash spots. A built-in shower. Blind spots from the guards who peered into my cell through the 12-inch plexiglass window nested in the steel door. An outdoor recreational pen with a view of the Hudson Valley.
Long ago, when I was young, I read “Papillon,” a book about a prisoner on Devil's Island in the 1940s. When Papillon wasn't escaping, he was entrenched in the art of doing time. One of the things he did was to pace his cell. No matter how small the space was, he insisted on motion. Like a wild animal, he marked and patrolled his territory.
The cell where I was quarantined was five steps across. There were 13 steps between the steel door to the rec-pen fence. It was the best cell that Papillon or I ever had. For the same reason, it was also the worst. That cell was designed to deny me access to the world beyond it, save a medical emergency. There was no reason for another human being to enter it. Neither my jailers nor I wanted it any other way.
Former Navy SEAL Dick Couch wrote, "When SEALs get into trouble, they always try to get back to the water." That axiom is true for a prisoner like me. The only difference is that for me it isn't the water. It's the cell.
In the cell, I am Self, Lord and Master. In the cell, I am safe. I am home.
To someone like you, this sounds insane. But please don't judge me for relishing in these simple, inhumane pleasures. If I have to remain in prison for the rest of my life, I want very much to stay in a cell. For someone like me, little else is true.
Corey Devon Arthur was born in 1977, and has been incarcerated since 1997 for robbery and murder. He has earned his legal research certification and studied with Nyack College and Rising Hope, Inc. Arthur is a current member of the Fishkill Correctional Facility Inmate Liaison Committee and the former chairman. A writer and artist, Arthur is currently working on a trilogy of short stories and an art series about prison culture.