When I look at a deck of Bicycle playing cards, I see 340 pushups.
Aces are worth one pushup. Kings, queens and jacks are worth 10. Number cards are what they are. Back in 2004, I could get through the deck two or three times every day before my arms gave out. County jail is a boring place. Time was not a problem.
I needed the bulk. At the time of my arrest both arms were covered in track marks. Life on the streets plus a steady diet of mainlined cocaine and heroin had taken their toll. My normally thin frame had withered to gaunt, along with my self-confidence.
Once I was arrested, the charges stacked up faster than the courts could keep pace: identity thefts, forgery, fraud and auto theft, not to mention probation violation. Every few days another store would match surveillance footage to a mugshot making the rounds—a dark-eyed photograph of me being booked into jail. My four prior felony convictions meant I was looking at a lengthy sentence, so when the prosecutor offered one to five years in exchange for just three guilty pleas, I jumped.
As you can probably guess from the plea deal, I am White. I was also young—23 years old when I was arrested—and my thin frame had me worried. I had never been to an actual prison, but I had spent hours in TV and film facilities like Fox River (“Prison Break”), Oz (“Oz”) and Shawshank (“The Shawshank Redemption”). I learned from those fictional spaces that there was a good chance I would be sexually assaulted shortly after I arrived. There would be chants of “Fresh Fish” and candy bars on my pillow. I would probably have to kick someone’s ass the first day. And all that was nothing compared to the dread I felt about the shower. Long before I was headed there, I was convinced that prison was a paradise for monsters and a hellhole for people like me.
That knowledge, false as it was, drove me. The deck of cards came out the day I realized I was going to prison. Whenever I was locked in my jail cell or had a few minutes to kill, I would flip and dip, trying to harden up. Between sets of 340 pushups, I pounded out situps, jumping jacks and knee curls. I also ate big meals and high-calorie snacks to pack on as many pounds as possible. But the hardest part for me was perfecting the dead-eyed stare I practiced in the mirror, hoping a cold exterior would be enough to keep me out of trouble.
The day arrived when a dozen of us were escorted to the front of the jail, then chained together and loaded into a van. Our next stop was the largest walled prison in the world, a dungeon in Jackson, Michigan. And from the second we arrived I realized something was off. Sure, the abuse I expected was there, but it seldom came from other inmates.
As soon as we arrived, I was stripped naked, told to shower, then photographed and given a number: 470236. The next step was processing, where I received clothing, bedding and a few basic hygiene supplies from inmates who appeared on the verge of dying from boredom. Then it was on to housing. The girth of the structure bore down on me as our group, now numbering hundreds, entered the prison wall, a brick edifice so massive that inmates are housed inside it. The single-man cells were barren and rusty. The prison was built a decade before Alcatraz began housing federal inmates, and it looked the part.
There is this scene in “Orange is the New Black,” just after Piper gets to prison, where she is offered a yogurt and refuses to take it without first asking, “What do I have to do for it?” That message was thick in the air as I locked-in for the first night. Who was going to try me? What would I have to do to prove myself? Would they come for me tonight? Day one in the penitentiary is a panic attack in slow motion.
The darkness had just started to descend when a raspy voice from next door whispered, “Hey man, you good?”
I was not good, not even close. But I knew better than to let my guard down. It was time to perform the cold-blooded inmate I had been practicing. “Yeah, this shit ain’t shit,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
And then it got weird. But not like I expected. My neighbor said, “You need a smoke?” In 2004 you could still buy tobacco, but smoking was not permitted inside the housing unit. He was smoking anyway, and he reminded me, “We are already in prison. What are they gonna do?”
His cigarette smoke floated around the edge of my cell, barely visible but enticing. I had not had a cigarette in months. Of course I wanted to smoke, but I couldn’t accept any gifts, not without first asking my version of Piper’s question: “What do you want for it?”
The laughter was soft and nostalgic, like he remembered this conversation from some other time. He said, “Nothing kid. You sound like you could use ‘em,” and then reached around the wall and held two hand rolled cigarettes out for me to grab. That was how I met Johnny. He was in for parole violation, waiting to be transferred to a level-three prison where he could participate in an educational program. And he was telling the truth; he expected nothing in return, except for the occasional late-night conversation through the wall about the shit they served for dinner or the frigid temperature of the cellblock. He was just a normal guy.
Johnny was not an oddity. The thousands of men who were caged with me were mostly good guys stuck in a bad situation. But many of us had clearly seen the same prison films and TV shows, because we expected the violence that seldom showed up. We were convinced that the penitentiary was a dangerous place full of terrible monsters, but it turns out that the abuse most of us experienced came directly from the system.
No inmate ever forced me to get naked so they could photograph my body, or to bend over and spread my ass so they could look inside me with a flashlight. No inmates ever agreed to feed me, then left me hungry night after night. No inmates ever put their hands on me or took my possessions. No inmates ever uprooted me from one prison and moved me to another without notice. These power moves were monopolized by the system, not the people caught up in it.
Are there fights in prison? Sure. And right now most of us can probably understand why that happens better than we could a year ago. When you are locked in a room with someone for months or even years due to a pandemic, things can get awkward, annoying or even explosive. The system is designed to make sure we pressure cook until we blow unless we are extraordinarily prepared to keep our cool.
Whenever I think about flipping those playing cards, doing my pushups and expending that energy in the service of self-preservation, I ask myself what would have happened if I had spent just as much energy studying conflict resolution, meditation, yoga, spirituality and other methods of anxiety relief. What if I had rejected the Hollywood image of prison and instead expected what I found: human beings locked in a cage designed to make us snap? I would have been better prepared had I developed the tools I would need every day to keep my cool, instead of just those I wrongly believed I needed to survive.
Benjamin Boyce was released from prison in 2005. He now teaches Communication classes at the University of Colorado-Denver, and he hosts “The Dr. Junkie Show,” a podcast devoted to harm reduction and ending the war on drugs.