Before I even open my eyes I am reminded of where I am, by the yelling and smell of sweat in the dormitory, the hardness of the metal bunk beneath my four-inch thick mattress, the fluorescent lights burning through my eyelids, my anxiety.
When I do finally open my eyes, I see men moving all around me like an army of ants. It’s only 5:14 in the morning, but they’re already gambling on Texas Hold Em’ games while sitting on rusty footlockers, smoking cigarettes. Others are hustling for their living: washing laundry, sewing clothes or rolling smokes.
Gang tattoos cover most of the inmates around me, and I get on the offensive as my feet hit the cracked tile floor. I get my game face ready for the inevitable Machiavellian struggle of daily prison life and drop down to do a hundred diamond push-ups. I try to slow my monkey mind by thinking of my mantra: I am not weak. The weak do not survive, here. You’re a fucking warrior!
I’ve only been up for five minutes, but despondency is already poking at my psyche. I vow to myself never to let prison make me an animal.
When I walk into the dayroom to get hot water for my coffee, the morning news is on the tiny television, reminding me of my past life. Of my ex-wife’s breakfast-cooking. Of getting my son up for preschool as he feebly protested.
I return to my 18-square-foot living area and put my MP3 player on to tune out the melancholy. Like my friend Ernest says, I am destroyed but not defeated. I know that I am worthy of great things, but also that those things aren’t defined yet and they’re in a future that’s not guaranteed.
Suddenly, there is movement coming from the rear of the cavernous dorm. I sense a threat. Even though it’s not toward me, my heart beats faster and my palms sweat. I’m a pacifist in a violent world, only saved by my genetics. (I’m six-foot-four, muscular and carrying 220 pounds.)
An argument ensues but doesn’t evolve.
I put on my blue prison-issue pants and black boots, grab my identification card and get ready for my bunk inspection. Then I wait for the cattle call of chow announced through the loudspeaker by a bored corrections officer sitting inside a Plexiglas bubble waiting for his 12-hour shift to end.
While I wait for the door to open for breakfast—giving me an opportunity to walk outdoors and feel some sort of freedom—I finish my coffee and lock my footlocker. This box holds every possession I have in the world: ramen noodles, socks, T-shirts, family photos and a stack of Playboys.
Now, I definitely hear the sounds of a fight happening in the dorm: sneakers squeak, fists thump flesh, and heavy breathing fills the air. I turn to watch so I can evaluate the situation for a personal threat.
Two men tangle in punches until one slumps to the ground in a daze; it lasts 20 seconds before the two Latin Kings are separated by their brothers. There’s blood coming from one guy’s ear and his eye is already swelling shut as he moans. It’s a quarrel over a poker debt—none of my business—but still, my hands shake and I walk to the bathroom to get distance from the scuffle.
“Chow! Chow! Chow!” the loudspeaker orders. “Last call for chow!”
A frenzy of prisoners line up and clog the doorway. I hang back and let them go first then step outside into the crisp air of an autumn dawn in the Florida Panhandle. I follow the serpentine line of lost souls on the concrete sidewalk stained with the blood of stabbing victims.
The men shuffle their feet and talk shit to each other while walking to the most dangerous place in any correctional institution—the chow hall. I was a Krav Maga instructor in a previous life, and will not let anyone get the jump on me. But I’m a neutron (meaning neutral, or unaffiliated with any gang), and we always have to watch our backs.
The chow hall will be filled with 400 inmates: hungry, mentally ill and impatient. I used to work for an engineering firm, managing projects and designing plans. Now I work for the Department of Corrections. I once surveyed a plot of land for a future prison. Now I live in one.
I want to see my family again. My brothers and sisters. My sons. It’s been six years since I’ve seen my boys, six years since I caught a burglary charge while stealing from my fiancée's family. Trying to support my habit. Six years since painkillers ruined me yet again and doing cocaine was more important than leading a normal life. More important than my integrity and self respect.
I’m weary and loathing another calendar day imprisoned because of my addictions, but, suddenly, as I look up and around at the morning sky, I’m spellbound by its beauty. A light rain begins to fall. I have a panoramic view, and it almost brings a tear to my eye: violets, tropical pinks, and wisps of tangerine flood the horizon with a brand new day.
To the east is the monumental sunrise, gaining ground. All above are the cumulus-nimbus clouds of the gentle rain. And to the west is the most fantastic rainbow I’ve ever seen. I feel peace.
Damaged men snake through the gates and past barbed-wire fences down the concrete walk. They are followed by officers with pepper spray, and I look away from the sky for a moment. A rifle points from a window in the guard tower, its shadow looming over us.
Just before we walk inside, I turn to look at the heavens one last time.
I enter the fray. I can do this.
Ryan M. Moser is a recovering drug addict serving a 10-year sentence in Florida for nonviolent property crimes. His work has been published in dozens of lit journals and will be featured in an upcoming issue of Upstreet magazine. Ryan received an honorable mention in nonfiction essays from PEN America in 2020. Ryan is a Philadelphia native and father of two. A version of this essay was first published in The Wild Word.