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Filed 9:00 a.m.
09.22.2022

The Art of Bidding, or How I Survived Federal Prison

When Eric Borsuk went to prison with his two best friends, they found their ‘bid’ — their purpose — together. Then one day, everything changed.

An illustration shows an incarcerated individual within ripped pages of a calendar.

The first time I heard someone use the term “bid” was on my first day in federal prison, just four days before my 21st birthday. It was after the intake process, after I was fingerprinted, strip-searched, photographed, and given an inmate-ID card, an orange jumpsuit, and a roll of bedding. Before any of this, I’d been instructed by my pre-sentencing probation officer that I could bring “absolutely nothing” with me into the prison. “Just your body,” he’d said. So I left my eyeglasses at home, assuming I’d be issued a new pair. I walked blindly through a labyrinth of buzzing steel doors, deeper and deeper into the compound. When I asked about receiving a pair of glasses, one of the guards told me I’d have to wait until next year, since the eye doctor only came around once a year, and he’d just recently visited.

Shuffling down the blurry corridor in my cheap, prison-issued slippers, also known as “Bruce Lees,” I was eventually handed off to a nearly identically stout, bald guard at E-Unit. He unlocked the heavy door using an old steel key, like a clichéd prison-movie scene. Everyone stared at me, the fresh meat. As he led me through the unit to my cell, down the bleak concrete hallway, it was hard to fully comprehend that this was my new existence, my home for the next seven years.

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Once the guard was gone, a few guys cornered me in my cell and demanded to see my paperwork, the documents new arrivals receive, which detail their criminal charges — prison’s version of a welcoming party, which shows up mostly just to find out if you’re a pedophile. This task is usually carried out by a group of guys from one’s hometown, which is easy to learn since the last three digits of your ID number indicate which district court handled your case — a kind of proxy for geography — information that, along with your name, is printed on the front of your shirt for everyone to see.

The welcome party’s request to see your paperwork isn’t exactly a friendly one, and of course there’s a natural urge to resist. But refusing to show it is as good as admitting to being a child molester, so everyone just hands it over. Luckily for me, the crime I’d committed had gotten quite a bit of media coverage, so right off the bat one of the guys recognized me. “Oh, dang, you’re one of them art robbers!” he blurted out, chuckling in a high-pitched tone — and just like that, the interrogation was over. I was accepted into the community. In their words, it was because I was famous, but more importantly not a pedophile.

The year before, when I was 19, my two best friends and I robbed the Rare Book Room of the Special Collections department at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where one of them, Spencer, had been attending his first year of college. My other friend, Warren, and I were enrolled as freshmen at the University of Kentucky, which was just down the street. We later enlisted an acquaintance from high school, a guy named Chas, whose family was well-off, to act as both the getaway driver and financier. Among the millions of dollars’ worth of stolen artwork and rare manuscripts was a first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” The crime made headlines around the world, but it was an especially popular topic of conversation in our hometown of Lexington, about two hours from the prison. “A brazen plot doomed to fail,” read the front-page headline in the Lexington Herald-Leader, alongside our four mugshots, covering in exhaustive detail the case that had quickly been dubbed the “Transy Book Heist.”

Most new guys just end up lying in bed on their first day; the bunk becomes a sanctuary, a safe space where they hide from others, as well as a new reality — as if you could just go to sleep and one day wake up and suddenly everything will be back to normal. After watching me lie in bed all day, my celly — a skinny, middle-aged dude from Detroit — tried to offer some words of encouragement.

“Man, you gotta get a bid,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“You know — a bid. It’s how you do your time.”

We went back and forth on the details. It seemed like an arcane term that didn’t really make sense until you’d lived in the system for a while. From what I could gather, the word seemed to derive from the noun “bit,” pertaining to the length of a prison sentence, much like a “stretch” or a “stint.” Something like: “This seven-year bit is a fuckin’ bummer.”

“Bid” was something entirely different, more like a purpose or raison d’être. It was all about how you did your time, like finding a hobby or hustle to get you through your bit. For many guys, it was about winning, no matter what the endeavor was. Others just wanted to make money. Some guys used it simply as a way to occupy their minds. For everyone, though, it was all about escaping the slog of captivity. My celly told me he bid off a lot of things, but mostly just gambling — although he did like to dabble in some prison hooch from time to time. He said if I could find this thing — this sense of purpose — it would make all the difference in my life. Without it, he said, my sentence would feel like an endless misery. “Do the time,” he said. “Don’t let the time do you.”

All across the compound, there were countless ways of bidding, from gambling to religion, education to gang life, sex, art, and prison jobs (the average prisoner only made about 10 to 50 cents per hour). Sports were a popular way to bid. Sometimes nearly the entire compound would come out for basketball games between cell blocks, with stakes high enough that the court would be encircled by guys shouting and cheering and spilling onto the court itself. You rooted for your cell block no matter what, and over time couldn’t help but develop an allegiance to it.

Weightlifting seemed to be the most popular form of bidding. All day long you heard grunts and clashing iron coming from a covered corner of the yard, what we called the weight pile. It was a chaotic scene of unchecked alpha where you saw some pretty strange things, such as when one guy got so aroused while bench-pressing that he prematurely ejaculated in his sweatpants. He acted surprised when it happened, moaning in ecstatic bewilderment before slamming down the weight bar and running away in humiliation.

Then there was the annual bodybuilding competition known as the “Peel Off.” The name was pretty obvious, as the most muscular guys on the compound would literally peel their clothes off down to their underwear, which was twisted up tightly like a thong. Standing on top of the softball bleachers, they’d proceed through the standard bodybuilder poses — double biceps, lat spreads, side chest, etc. — flexing, holding, making awkward eye contact with the spectators, while a group of judges analyzed them from the front row. Some guys would starve themselves for weeks before the event so that their muscles would pop. It wasn’t clear if anyone actually knew what they were doing, competitors and judges alike, but no doubt every year they would crown a winner, the only prize being bragging rights.

Sometimes, perhaps inevitably, certain bids overlapped, propped up by their own sub-economies. Some guys bid off of gambling on the games — basketball, softball, soccer — while others sold food to the crowd. Cooking homemade (in other words, cell-made) food was probably the most common form of bidding. To do this, the cell chefs would often rely on overpriced commissary items, which they would use to concoct elaborate rice bowls, burritos, even pizzas, using just a microwave and simple ingredients like packaged meats, ramen noodles, and seasoning salt. Even if only momentarily, these meals gave you comfort and escape from the everyday wretchedness of prison life. The lack of acceptable food in the chow hall tended to wear on guys after a while. Slops of meat-mush, dirt-covered beans, rotten potatoes: The list of foul dishes runs on and on. Fajita Fridays turned my stomach the most, consisting of nothing more than a tortilla filled with a rancid dollop of stringy chicken innards.

If you couldn’t make it to the commissary, every unit had at least one “store man” to supply your needs, someone who stocked up on commissary items based on demand, then sold the goods for a marked-up price. Since you were allowed to visit the commissary only once a week, having a store man in each unit was essential. The convenience of on-demand goods kept him in business and his bid forever indispensable.

Another side of this equation was the illicit chow hall food trade, which consisted of things like eggs, meat, spices, dairy and vegetables. The chow-hall workers would smuggle items out of the kitchen to sell in their units. Since certain ingredients could only be obtained in the chow hall, this trade was a key component of the housing-unit cooking establishment. It also played into another overlapping bid: the prison hooch trade. To make an alcoholic beverage, you needed a steady supply of fruit (or other ingredients like potatoes or tomato paste), plus a great deal of sugar. Guys were constantly getting busted smuggling this stuff out. Time and again, you’d see them being frisked outside the chow hall, pushed up against the wall with their arms and legs spread apart, guards removing hidden bundles of contraband from their clothes, sometimes taped to their bodies. The guys who made it past the guards would hand off their spoils to the bootleggers, who then cooked the ingredients. The process basically consisted of bagging up a concoction of fruit, water, and sugar, then storing it inside cavities carved into a cell’s walls, allowing time for the fruit to ferment and the sugar to turn into alcohol. The process usually involved several people, most of whom kept watch.

My own bidding was heavily influenced by being incarcerated with Warren and Spencer. The three of us had been close friends since our early teens, when we started playing club soccer together in Kentucky. From the start, we all just clicked. Even at a young age, Spencer was already a gifted artist, and Warren a well-read thinker with political aspirations. Over the years, we encouraged each other to reject our Southern conservative upbringings for a more subversive approach to life, which may have had something to do with why we all ended up in federal prison together. One day you’re reading “Fight Club” and debating the finer points of German idealism, and the next you’re robbing a rare books collection for millions of dollars’ worth of artwork and rare manuscripts — a seamless transition.

That said, having friends in prison was a major boon, especially since we were young, and it was our first bit. There was something comforting in knowing that no matter how hard life got, my best friends were right there with me, going through the exact same situation. The three of us created our own way of bidding. The main principles were self-education, meditation, exercise, and artistic development. We saw it as a way to remake ourselves, stripping away layers of who we were according to how the place we came from had defined us. For me, this meant not so much that I would change through prison, but that, looking back, I hadn’t really existed as a real person until prison. The illusory values of my Southern, religious, conservative, materialist culture — and materialism in particular — suddenly faded, like a palimpsest, a ghost of a self. Once we’d shed our old skins and eaten enough chicken gizzards, when our hair and beards were long and tangled, when we were wearing rags for clothes and couldn’t care less about appearances or pleasures, when the insatiable, boundless and obligatory attachment to status and idolization and things was finally gone (all the things, never enough things) — that’s when we could start to rebuild.

To outsiders, our rituals made us seem a little crazy. (“Those three amigos are loco,” they’d say.) We made up words and ways of speaking that only we could understand. Warren, Spencer and I adopted new names for ourselves — Chip, Din, and Pep, respectively — based loosely on a skit on Adult Swim’s “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” We didn’t know exactly why the skit seemed central to our new circumstances, but whatever the reason, it went deep, as if the absurdity of the show mirrored the absurdity of our prison lives and life itself.

In time, this little madness grew into a philosophy of sorts, an ideal we strived toward that paradoxically only seemed attainable within prison. To do so, we needed to give ourselves up to this thing, this belief, this way of being. No one word could possibly define it, but we had to give it a name. We called it the “din.”

Prison is the great equalizer. Everyone plays by the same rules. Although many factors are out of your control, you have to walk a fine line between mettle and modesty to survive, all while trying not to draw too much attention to yourself. In many ways, prison is like a rowdy, high-stakes middle school full of aggressive and confrontational men all constantly and at once seeking to demonstrate masculine superiority, stoked by enough gossip to put a sewing circle to shame. Almost every day you’d hear rumors going around, complete fabrications started for someone’s own self-interest or amusement. But it was hearsay with real consequences, and so you had to stay on top of it. We even had a name for the rumor mill: “inmate.com.” For example, you’d hear guys start conversations like, “Yo, man, I heard on inmate.com…” or “According to inmate.com…” followed by some absurd statement that was almost certainly incorrect, like a prison version of the telephone game.

It took a while to accept that my old life was gone, that I’d be a completely different person after this experience. Prison changes you, there’s no question about it, but how you let it change you often dictates how you’ll bid, and accordingly, the direction your life will go.

Due to a lack of rehabilitative outlets, most guys continued their same lifestyle as before prison. Although one’s environment may have changed, the hustle did not. To go against this way of life meant to go against a deeply ingrained ideology of survival, one born out of inequity and practiced through self-preservation. In this sense, for many, it was not only unnatural but perilous to go against the long-established prison order — after all, no one wants to be culled from the herd.

Terms like “rehabilitation” were regularly tossed around by prosecutors, judges, probation officers and prison officials. Year after year, you’d wait for the rehabilitation to take effect, but nothing ever happened. Early into my sentence, it became clear that to make any sort of positive change in your life, you’d have to do it completely on your own, and against all odds.

Since the three of us had been arrested during our freshman year of college, and the prison didn’t offer undergraduate degrees, Warren, Spencer and I set up mock university courses for ourselves, using standard textbooks from core subjects like math, science, history, economics, foreign language and psychology. Much like a standard course load, our days were divided into different classes, with each of us overseeing the group’s progress on a particular subject. We were devoted to a rigorous class schedule. Because we were all housed in different units, we had to meet during open movements in unrestricted areas of the prison such as the library, yard or gym. At the end of every class, the instructor assigned work due for the following session. Seeing as how self-education was the objective, homework wasn’t seen as an inconvenience; rather, it was a privilege, although sometimes it did take some wrangling to get a Spanish assignment turned in on time.

Prison life, especially for anyone new to it, can be a merciless world to navigate. To survive, you have to adapt quickly and learn the language. A lot has to go right, and it constantly feels like a precarious balancing act with grim consequences. Sometimes it seemed impossible to go on living another minute in such a hopeless environment. But if you take it one day at a time, eventually it all starts to make some sort of sense. For a first-timer, the shift in lifestyle can be so drastic that it can feel liberating to finally find your own groove, and maybe even your own bid. It gives you a reason to get out of bed, push through to another day. The other thing about prison is that just when you think you’re starting to get the hang of it, everything changes in an instant.

I was in line at the commissary, same as every week, holding an empty mesh laundry bag and waiting to slip a folded-up order sheet through a slot in the wall so I could then catch the items as they came flying out of a nearby window. On this particular day, I wasn’t there for much, just a few essentials: ramen noodles, deodorant, batteries for my Walkman. My janitorial job only brought in about fifteen dollars a month, so there were never any opportunities to splurge.

Out of nowhere, I spotted two burly prison guards pushing through the crowd and heading my way. I didn’t give it much thought — I hadn’t done anything wrong — until they were looming over me.

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“Borsuk,” the larger one muttered. “Come with us.”

They walked me back into the compound, down a long corridor with what must have been half a dozen security checkpoints, and eventually to the lieutenant’s office. I couldn’t figure out what kind of situation I was walking into. I asked the guards if they knew what was going on, but they didn’t say a thing. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t good. The fact that I hadn’t done anything wrong only made it worse. I’d seen guys returning from the lieutenant’s office devastated after being informed of some terrible news back home. By the time I walked through the door, I was sure someone I loved had died.

The lieutenant on duty, an exceptionally short, mustachioed man with a high-and-tight haircut, was wearing his signature camouflage fatigues and Cavalry Stetson. He told me to take a seat, probably just so he could stand over me.

“You’re being reclassified,” he said.

“Reclassified … what does that mean?”

“It means you’re being shipped out — relocated.”

Relocated didn’t make any sense. I’d been at Ashland Federal Correctional Institution for two years with zero disciplinary infractions. For all intents and purposes, I was a model inmate.

I pressed the lieutenant for details, but he cut me off mid-sentence. “It came from high up,” he said, pointing his finger upward. “That’s all I can tell you. I’ve already said too much.”

I looked up. High up? What does that even mean?

“Alright, you’re dismissed,” the lieutenant said. “Take him to the hole.”

Before I could stand, the guards lifted me out of my chair and dragged me down the hall to the Special Housing Unit (SHU), an entire building full of solitary-confinement cells. Once inside, I was handed off to another guard, a freakishly muscular man who always reeked of cheap cologne — I called him Giò, after the Armani stuff. I imagined him getting ready for work every day, posing and flexing his muscles in the mirror, running gel through his hair, before drenching himself in a top-notch gas station-bought cologne.

Giò shoved me into a damp, dark shower stall, locked the heavy steel-barred door, and told me to take off all of my clothes. Then he disappeared. I was standing there naked, shivering, waiting. Death-metal music blared from somewhere nearby inside the building.

Giò was gone for a long time, but eventually he returned and tossed me an orange jumpsuit (the same kind I’d worn on my first day in prison) before walking me up a flight of stairs to my cell. When he locked the door and turned to leave, I asked if he knew why I was there, but he just walked away.

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The day faded, night came on. I lay on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. The hole was much louder than I’d imagined. Guys were shouting from virtually every cell. Most of them weren’t even attempting to communicate; they were just shouting, filling the maddening space with voices — a relentless babel that lasted deep into the night.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of the guards serving breakfast, sliding plastic meal trays through slots in the barred doors. Giò was shouting at an eccentric, self-proclaimed political prisoner with wild, frizzy hair, whom I’ll call Rooster. From what I could tell, the argument was over a packet of grape jelly, of all things. I heard someone whispering that Rooster was diabetic and wasn’t supposed to receive jelly with his meals. For some reason, Giò was convinced that Rooster was hiding jelly somewhere in his cell, and he was hell-bent on finding it.

The only way to get a glimpse down the hall was to slide your head through the meal-tray slots, a little trick I learned early on. I was skeptical when I first heard about the technique: By the look of it, you’d never expect that an adult’s head could possibly fit through such a narrow opening. But turned sideways, with your head parallel to the ground, at just the right angle, your skull slid right through. It was an odd sight to see a row of intermittent, disjoined heads floating along the hallway, but I could see now that the altercation was unfolding just four cells away from mine.

“Hand over the jelly!” Giò shouted.

Rooster fired back: “I don’t have any jelly, you fucking psycho!”

They argued, and argued, and finally Giò ordered Rooster to approach the bars and turn around with his hands behind his back. He pulled Rooster’s hands through the bars and handcuffed him, so that he was locked to the bars, unable to move. Giò then slipped on a pair of rubber gloves. We all knew where this was headed, Rooster especially, and yet we didn’t want to believe it was actually about to happen.

“What are you gonna do with those gloves?” Rooster asked, apprehensive. He was no longer shouting.

Giò pulled down Rooster’s pants so that he was naked from the waist down. I didn’t see him apply lubricant to the gloves beforehand, but I couldn’t say for certain that it wasn’t there. Giò jammed his gloved hand upward; Rooster let out a series of high-pitched shrieks and wails, all laced with utter desperation. He writhed violently and tried to get away, but there was nowhere to go.

“Just give me the jelly!” Giò shouted, straight-faced. The absurdity of this statement, as he jammed his presumably dry, rubber fingers deeper into Rooster’s rectum, made the whole thing that much more disturbing. It felt like an eternity — the guard’s grunting and shouting, Rooster’s desperate wails, the clanging of his handcuffs against the steel bars — but it probably lasted no longer than a minute.

Giò finally gave up, stepped back, and then stormed off down the hall, fuming and empty-handed. Rooster, meanwhile, stood there handcuffed naked to the bars.

“You fucking freak!” Rooster shouted in his sharp Southern accent, his voice cracking at the end. “I’m gonna sue the shit outta you!” A moment of silence passed — a rarity in the hole — before Rooster continued, “At least pull my pants back up, you asshole!”

After hearing that, the entire floor erupted in laughter, which is sometimes the only response to certain horrors. Nearly an hour would pass before another guard came by to help Rooster. The longer I spent in the hole, the more I came to learn that this sort of thing was just part of the routine.

The next day, Giò rushed past my cell shouting, “Dog-and-pony show! Dog-and-pony show! They’ll be here any minute!” He told us to make our cells presentable. “If you make me look bad, I swear to god, I’ll fuck you!”

I heard guys shouting, “Warden! Warden!” They all began hollering over each other, airing their grievances. I could hear Rooster shouting about what Giò had done to him, but his voice was mostly drowned out by the roaring chorus and pandemonium.

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Eventually, a group of suits, led by the warden, strolled past my cell. They scanned the cell block, stopped and studied me as if I were a creature on display. Unsure of what to do, I stared back at them and waited for someone to say something, but they weren’t actually looking at me so much as through me, as if I weren’t even there. As they started to leave, I jumped up from my bed.

“Wait!” I shouted.

The strange echo of Oxfords and high heels on the concrete floor stopped, and then in eerie unison, the group turned and stared back at me with cocked heads. They seemed stunned by the sound of my voice.

“Excuse me, sir, could you tell me why I’m here?” I asked.

The warden, dressed in a pinstripe suit, with black, slicked-back hair, walked over and brought his face up to mine between the bars, uncomfortably close.

“You know exactly what you did,” he said, then turned and walked away, his gaggle following. And that concluded the week’s administrative tour of the hole, the dog-and-pony show.

For the rest of the day, I tried to get the guard to let me make a phone call, but all he gave me was a dismissive “Fuck off,” over and over again. I was desperate to let my family know what was going on. I’d always tried to call them once a week, but if suddenly the phone calls stopped, I knew they’d be worried.

Someone in a nearby cell offered to help. He wrapped a stamped envelope, with a few sheets of notebook paper inside, around a pencil, then cinched it with a string. He made sure the guards weren’t looking, and then, like a fly fisherman casting a line, he tossed it down the hall to my cell, close enough for me to reach. Smooth, like he’d done it a thousand times before. I untied the knot, and the string slowly slithered back down the dim corridor to where it had come from. He said I could reimburse him for the stamp another time.

My cell had a desk, a thin slab of steel bolted to the wall. I set out to write my mother a letter. For a long time I just sat there, staring at the paper, trying to think of something to say. My mind was a thick fog I couldn’t shake off. Even simple sentences were difficult to put together. I’d been in the hole just a few days, but I was already feeling the effects of solitary confinement. I stared at the page all night, writing down beginnings just to erase them.

Dear Mom, Don’t freak out …

Dearest Mother, You’ve probably heard the news by now …

Mom, You’re not going to believe this …

In the morning, a unit manager, who directed my housing unit’s operations and security, finally came to see me. He was a bald, portly man with a pinkish hue, known to fly into sudden fits of rage. Nothing good ever came from interacting with him. I usually tried to keep my distance, but this time I couldn’t avoid him.

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With uncontainable glee, he explained to me that I’d been placed in solitary confinement because of a magazine article that had run a few weeks before. After nearly a year into our sentence, my co-defendants and I agreed to an interview with the late journalist John Falk for Vanity Fair. We’d communicated over the course of a few months, mostly through letters and telephone calls, and sometimes face-to-face in the visitation room. The article ran in the December 2007 issue, and apparently had infuriated our prosecutor, who used a quote out of context as a pretext to arrange our separation, claiming that we were potentially plotting future crimes. The line comes toward the end, when Warren is quoted saying, “Believe me, you haven’t heard the last of us yet.” While in isolation that could sound a bit ominous, looking at it in the context of the rest of the paragraph, it’s clear that Warren is speaking about a future after incarceration:

“In a few years we’ll be released. We’ll all be … still young,” Warren says. “We will be stronger, better, wiser for going through this together, the three of us. Before, in college, growing up, we were being funneled into this mundane, nickel-and-dime existence. Now we can’t ever go back there. Even if we wanted to, they won’t let us. That was the point all along. See, we have no choice now but to create something new, someplace else. Believe me, you haven’t heard the last of us yet.”

After two years of incarceration, one line from a magazine article was all it took for an assistant U.S. attorney to destroy whatever sense of normalcy we had left. He had us separated for the remainder of our sentences — about five more years — prohibiting all communication or contact, even during the probation period after our release, by registering us in the Central Inmate Monitoring (CIM) system. The Code of Federal Regulations states that inmates given CIM status “require a higher level of review … to provide protection to all concerned and to contribute to the safe and orderly operation of federal institutions.” When discussing the different CIM assignment categories, specifically that of “separation,” the regulations state that “[CIM] assignment may also include inmates from whom there is no identifiable threat, but who are to be separated from others at the request of the Federal Judiciary or U.S. Attorneys.”

The moment the request was submitted, we were to be moved immediately from the general population to solitary confinement in the SHU. They even put us on different levels so that we couldn’t communicate with each other, as if we were high-level national security threats.

The unit manager, I’d never seen him smile so much (or smile at all). He handed me a clipboard and said that if I would just sign the papers, he’d let me out of the hole and make it all go away. That sounded too easy. I asked him what I’d be signing. Just standard paperwork, he said. I flipped through the pages. From what I could tell, it appeared to be an admission of the charges. It was clear that he really wanted me to sign it, which made me suspicious. I worried he was trying to get me to sign off on my own separation from my co-defendants. I declined, and his face turned red. “Sign the fucking paper,” he said.

I refused.

We stared at each other, for who knows how long, before he grabbed the clipboard and barreled out of the unit without another word.

The day turned to night again … and again … and again. I kept thinking that someone would rectify the problem, the injustice of it, the random, casual cruelty of it all. But nothing ever happened.

There was always a long waiting list of transportees. Some, like myself, were being shipped to other institutions, while others were just entering the federal system. This meant that it would take months before I’d be shipped out, which would be another ordeal altogether. Federal prisoners are required to pass through one of two intake centers — in Georgia or Oklahoma — which meant that for several months I’d be transported around the country on buses and planes, from prison to prison, cage to cage, shackled and corralled, never knowing which institution I was going to or how long it would take to get there. For guys like us who were being transferred out of punishment, there was a popular phrase for the harsh treatment by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a division of the Department of Justice and the law enforcement agency in charge of the federal prison system. They called it “diesel therapy.”

While waiting to be shipped out, I’d spend most of my days reading and watching the snow fall outside the little sliver of window that I could see down the hallway. We were allowed one hour of “recreational” time outdoors every day, milling around a small, concrete area completely fenced off and wrapped in barbed wire. The schedule in the hole was 23 hours of lockdown, one hour of “rec,” which was intended to keep us all from going completely insane. But since it had been snowing on and off for about a week, the guards simply stopped taking us outside, presumably because they could use the inclement weather as an excuse to do less work — I’d always gotten the impression that they didn’t feel we deserved even one hour outside — even though the extent of chaperoning was watching us through a window inside the building.

After a week of 24-7 lockdown, we were all getting agitated. We demanded to be taken outdoors. None of us had proper winter clothes, just jumpsuits, slippers, and thin, cotton coats. But it wasn’t so much about the fresh air as it was to spite the guards and make them actually do some work.

The guards gave in, and before long we were all chained up and shuffling toward the doors. For an hour, we waddled around in a rotating circle, huddled together like penguins on a sheet of ice, while sleet and freezing rain pelted us in a sideways slant. By the end, my fingertips felt like a lost cause; the frozen concrete pierced through my Bruce Lees as if there were no buffer whatsoever between skin and ground. Once you were outside, you had to stay there for the entire hour, but it was the most alive we’d felt in a while. Still, once the doors swung open, every one of us rushed inside as fast as possible. We spent the rest of the day shivering under blankets in our cells.

An illustration shows an incarcerated individual climbing up a rope out of a cave.

Every few days, an orderly would come by with a pushcart full of books — mostly Bibles and romance novels, but every now and then, if you searched carefully, you could stumble upon a classic. I was fortunate enough to find Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in the pile. I’d lay in bed all day with this book, embarked on a maddening journey up the Congo River, deeper and deeper into delirium. Time slowed, and I slept at odd hours of the day. My mind wandered to far-off places only arrived at through isolation. At one point I woke to find my hand clutching a crumpled piece of paper with a quote that I’d jotted down: “…you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once — somewhere — far away — in another existence, perhaps.”

Occasionally, I mustered enough focus to write poetry. Thinking back to my time in E-Unit, I remembered waking one spring morning to songbirds, sunlight cutting across my cell. In that moment, or at least as I recalled it, I felt pure contentment. It was strange to be nostalgic for an old prison cell, but I suppose when you’re imprisoned within a prison, that’s just the reality of the situation. So every day, little by little, I worked on the poem, to get back to that space. When I was satisfied with it, years later back in general population, I sent a copy to the New Yorker, accompanied by a pompous, unhinged prison letter detailing the merit of my work and why the poem should be published in the magazine. I never actually expected to hear back from them, but to my surprise, one day I received a brief yet polite rejection letter in the mail, which I taped to the wall like a family photo — a badge of honor, something of a victory in its own right.

After two weeks in the hole, out of nowhere, a guard walked up to my cell and unlocked the door. With no explanation, he told me that I was free to go back to my assigned unit. I pried for details. He said that it had all come down to a coin toss, and apparently I’d won. But maybe that’s not entirely accurate. We all knew that Warren would probably be shipped out because the guards just seemed to have it in for him; I’d heard some of them thought he was a smartass. So, it was really down to Spencer and me. Since Spencer had once been caught in possession of a tattoo gun (he was the top tattoo artist on the compound, after all), and I had never received any disciplinary infractions, they decided to let me stay. There was no reason to ship out all three of us. This would still accomplish the intended goal of separation.

Back in general population, and knowing they had no resources down in the hole, I felt an intense responsibility to try to get Warren and Spencer out of solitary. I spent a few weeks studying in the prison’s law library about the CIM system and how one goes about appealing a co-defendant separation order. Naturally, it’s a very convoluted process requiring a great deal of research, and no one is there to help you. On top of that, all the required filing forms must be obtained through the members of one’s own “housing unit team” — unit manager, case manager, counselor, etc. — who are oftentimes the very people who put you in the situation to begin with, so they’re not exactly cooperative.

The first step is to make an attempt at a vaguely defined “informal resolution.” If that fails, it opens the door to filing a formal complaint with the warden. All this must happen within twenty days of the date of the incident or whatever triggered the complaint. Any complaint filed outside that time frame is declared invalid — which is absurd given that you’re usually being held in confinement during that time, without any resources, unable to even file the appropriate paperwork. (And if you are able to do so, it’s at your own expense — the printed materials, photocopies, envelopes, postage stamps, all of it.) After that, if you’re actually able to file a complaint, and you are not satisfied with the warden’s response, you can then file an appeal with the BOP regional director, which must be done within 20 days of the signed response from the warden. If you are dissatisfied with the regional response, you can then file a national appeal with the Office of General Counsel in Washington, D.C., within 30 days of the date the regional director signed the response. This is the last course of appellate action within the BOP. Multiple copies of each complaint and appeal must be mailed to all involved parties while following the BOP’s strict guidelines. If any form is filed improperly, it’s considered invalid.

It seemed impossible to find any joy in life — what little of it there was in prison to begin with — at least not while Warren and Spencer were still stuck in the hole, helpless and waiting to be shipped out. All I could do to get my mind off it was to exercise. I’d run outside on the track for hours and hours, wearing a maroon trucker hat that I’d been gifted by a friend who worked in the chow hall, that read “FCI Ashland Food Service.” My hair and beard were long, and my body turned frail from all the running. Sometimes I’d hear guys yelling at me from somewhere nearby on the yard, “Run, Forrest, run!” There was something in the pain that was reassuring. If Warren and Spencer were in pain, then I also needed to be in pain. I ran and ran and ran because they couldn’t.

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

I eventually contacted John Falk, the journalist from Vanity Fair, to inform him of the situation. After learning about what had happened because of his article, he wrote up and signed an affidavit stating that the prosecutor had misconstrued Warren’s quote and taken his own written words out of context. Seeing as how he was the one who interviewed us and penned the piece, he wrote in the affidavit, to say otherwise was a deliberate misinterpretation of the facts.

In the hole, the orderlies were the ones who made things happen. The guards would appoint certain well-behaved guys who had been in the hole for a while to become orderlies for the housing unit, meaning they were allowed to leave their cells for a few hours each day to perform cleaning duties. This allowed the orderlies the opportunity to pass “kites” (notes or letters smuggled and hand-delivered) and contraband not only within solitary, but also to guys in general population.

Occasionally I’d receive kites from Warren and Spencer. They were usually just telling me about how they were holding up and requesting “care packages” — simple things like toiletries, snacks, and batteries — since guys in the hole didn’t have access to most commissary items. Once I’d acquired the items, I’d place them all inside a bag and stealthily toss it over the barbed-wire fence into the yard of the SHU. From there, the orderlies would use a fishing pole-like device to hook the bag and haul it up through a window. Of course, the orderlies would charge a price for their services, especially since it was such a risky undertaking. Luckily, I had a friend who was an orderly in the hole, so he regularly kept me updated on how Warren and Spencer were doing. Through kites, he informed me that Spencer was working on an epic art collage created from pieces of torn magazine pages that took up nearly the entire space of his cell. Apparently, the guards found this amusing, so they allowed him to continue his work. It brought me happiness to know that even in the hole, Spencer was able to create art. There was something beautiful in knowing that the piece would exist only in that moment in time. The world would never see this artwork. Once he was shipped out, it would all be destroyed.

One day, the kites stopped coming. Soon I got word that, after being held in the hole for months, Warren and Spencer had finally been transferred, although no one knew where. Shortly after, I received notice that my appeals had been rejected.

For weeks, I walked around in a daze, unsure of what to do with myself. In essence, my entire prison identity had been based on my relationship with my co-defendants. Now that they were gone, everything felt off. It would be nearly a decade before we’d be able to see or speak to each other again, not until we were all out of prison and off probation. Guys noticed that I was acting strange and kept asking me if I was alright. It was unusual to see one of us alone for very long. Whenever guys would spot one of us without the others, they would always shout out, “Where are the other amigos?” Now, everything felt foreign. I felt vulnerable and exposed, like fresh meat all over again. For a while, I was reluctant to admit it to myself, but I knew what I had to do — I had to find a new bid, my own bid.

I dove back into my studies, hoping the coursework would be enough to carry me through the remaining five years. But right away I found myself oddly uninterested. It felt like something was missing, like I’d overlooked some glaring detail in plain sight. Ever since I was young, I’d always had a passion for writing, but growing up in my area of Lexington, there wasn’t much emphasis on the arts. I’d been raised to believe that writing wasn’t a real job, was more like an indulgence or hobby or a profession so far-fetched as to be laughable — like wanting to become an actor, something that other people did, not me. Becoming a writer was the sort of fantasy that could only exist in prison, because in many ways prison was a fantasy world. In confinement, guys created whole new realities for themselves. Prison was a place where you could become a version of yourself free of the judgment of society. And through this awareness, you could ultimately figure out how to bid.

I’d split my days into three parts: Exercising, reading and writing. Exercising and reading kept mind and body in sync, and writing was my main focus. For the first year or so, I researched, studied and outlined a manuscript. During reading hours, I devoured every book on writing that I could get my hands on: Ray Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing,” “Dreyer’s English,” Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” James Scott Bell’s “Plot & Structure,” “The Elements of Style,” Stephen King’s “On Writing.”

The library actually had a decent selection of books on the study of topics like English literature, grammar, prosody and prose. Most of the hardback covers had been torn off because guys used them to make pizza-cooking trays for the microwaves. They were dusty old books with titles like “Prosody and Meter: Early Modern to 19th Century,” or “The Origins and Development of the English Language,” or “Sound and Form in Modern Poetry,” or “A Grammar of Present-Day English.” If there was something I didn’t understand — like whether it was acceptable to split an infinitive or switch between active and passive voice — I’d set out to learn it. The fact that there was no technology, and only books, seemed to romanticize the learning experience. I read Whitman, Thoreau, Joyce, Lord Byron, Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck. I’d jot down notes in the margins and diagram the architecture of each novel.

At first, I was propelled by this idea that my endeavor was somehow profound — as if nothing had ever been written from within a prison cell. The process of shedding this delusion took much time and labor, but along the way, the compulsion to do something original was vital. That compulsion pushes you to endure insecurities and embarrassment and frustration. It makes the work constant. It becomes a pursuit.

By now, I’d moved to working almost exclusively in my cell, unless something needed to be researched in the library. Even though my cell was open during the day, it was the most private place I could find on the compound. Every day, I’d sit on a small, plastic stool, hunched over a roughly single square-foot piece of steel attached to the wall, a desk of sorts. Using pencil and paper, I’d write, erase, write, erase, write, while shuffling the sooty, graphite-covered pages into order. The way the desk was positioned, I had to write with my back to the door, which took some time to get used to — in prison, you’d almost never leave yourself exposed like that. Even when urinating, you glanced over your shoulder the whole time. But in overcoming this basic fear of sitting at my desk, there were other relentless distractions. My unit was so loud that I had to purchase earplugs from a guy who worked in the factory, which offered a little buffer from the noise but never completely solved the problem. Sometimes I’d cover my eyes with a ski hat in an attempt to find a creative space within the lightless concentration of a makeshift blindfold.

In time, I began writing a memoir. It felt like I’d never be able to write anything else until I got this one story out of my system. I called it “American Animals,” a phrase found in Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” one of the books we’d stolen. (The passage referred to cave creatures in Kentucky that stopped evolving eyes because they lived in complete darkness.)

After a while, the very idea of time as something quantifiable faded away. I wrote all day, every day, year after year. I devoted myself entirely to the ideal, as if it would not only lead to redemption and forgiveness, but also to a sense of purpose. I owed it to those I’d hurt — the victims, my family — and also to myself.

When I finished writing the memoir, I shelved it and started writing new stories that would purposely never see the light of day or be read by anyone, because in the end it was the devotion that mattered, by living presently and purely in the art as a way of fathoming ourselves. (Many years later, after prison, I’d eventually publish “American Animals,” and the story would go on to be made into a major motion picture of the same name. What a strange sight to see the title I’d spent months agonizing over while reading “Origin of Species” in my prison cell plastered on billboards in major cities around the world.)

After the three of us had been separated, the BOP placed us on a blacklist of flagged inmates, meaning that all of our incoming and outgoing correspondences were read and inspected. Still, every now and then, I’d receive letters in the mail from Warren and Spencer, who were residing at different federal institutions around the country. We used our coded language and signed off with names like “Archduke Ferdinand,” “Aung San Suu Kyi,” and “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” just to make things interesting for the prison officials reading our mail. Other times we just signed “Chip,” “Din,” and “Pep.” But names were irrelevant at that point anyway. On sunny days, I would drift outside to the yard after mail call with their letters in hand. Lying in the grass, I’d hold the pages up to the bright blue sky — the same blue sky as everywhere — and run my finger over the deep grooves of their frantic pen strokes, as their words grew sharp on the page in the sunlight. It gave me strength just to hold something that I knew they also had held, as if the pages were a part of their very being, their only lasting physical presence. After all those years, I could still hear their voices in what they’d written. They wrote of prison violence, books they were reading, small joys, and colorful characters they’d met along the way. They wrote of many things, but mostly about the bond we’d created, and how it continued to carry them through the day.

Editor’s note: The writer has changed some names of people mentioned in this essay but not the events described.

Eric Borsuk is the author of “American Animals,” the memoir featured in the motion picture of the same name. His writing has appeared in The Marshall Project and VICE Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, where he serves on the board of directors of Die Jim Crow Records, the nation’s first nonprofit record label for justice-impacted musicians. He also works with organizations around the U.S. to spotlight the stories of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.