Although I’m no stranger to prison, I still find myself scanning my surroundings as if I’m seeing SCI Chester for the first time. I study the bars on the windows obstructing my view of freedom, the rusted locks that trap me in my cell, the blank white walls winding throughout the prison. Sometimes I think about the psychology behind the color choice. Oddly enough, the blankness resonates with me. It reflects the emptiness that I’ve felt for nearly a decade of my 27-year sentence for murder and weapons charges.
In earshot of my cell, I can hear a frustrated father desperately trying to be the disciplinarian from a prison phone. Another man who’s clearly craving outside human connection can’t seem to get through. About once a month, he makes several calls back-to-back, but he never gets an answer.
As I make my way to the day room, every step comes with a different odor: Over seasoned processed foods, diluted cleaning chemicals, misery and the faint odor of urine coming from some of the elders who can no longer control their bladders. Many of these men are serving life without the possibility of parole. In Pennsylvania, “life” means life. It’s DBI — Death by Incarceration.
On the dayroom ceiling, I count about 20 cameras. They remind me that nothing in here is private except my thoughts, and even those don’t feel safe at times. And watching the CO who sits behind the desk watching me makes me anxious even though I’ve done nothing wrong. I shift in my seat, growing more uncomfortable by the second.
Hyperawareness like this can make the mind fragile. If you don’t tend to your mental health properly, you’re more likely to succumb to the psychological warfare of prison life.
To keep my mind strong, I’ve focused on being proactive. I’ve become a certified peer support specialist, a certified fitness trainer, a published writer and an Eastern University student who will graduate in August. And yet I still feel like an animal in here, like a horse that they’re trying to break.
Sometimes, from my seat in the dayroom, I watch my peers maneuvering through the human traffic with a sense of urgency but going nowhere fast.
In an attempt to disrupt the monotony of prison, we try to create our own personal routines filled with exercise, enrichment programs and constant work. Some of us play cards, watch sports or participate in hobbies such as sewing. But sooner or later, these routines also become monotonous.
This is the part of prison the media doesn’t talk about — the boredom and stagnation. There is just no escaping this perpetual state of sameness because every aspect of it invades your space and overloads your senses.
To people who are free, our collective boredom may seem minute. But life on the inside isn’t so much a physical battle as it is a mental one. It’s the little things that begin to chip away at your humanity and take a toll on your psyche.
And the more you survey your surroundings, the more perplexed you become. What is this bizarre place? You ask yourself. It’s a room without doors.
No matter how well you maintain your mental health, anyone who spends a significant amount of time in prison is destined to have some remnants of institutionalization. Certain habits stick with you even after you’re free, like wearing shower shoes in your own bathroom. And if you’re not careful, you begin to identify with the people who have control over you, like the enslaved person who says, “Master, our house is burning down.”
This dehumanization process begins the moment you enter one of these peculiar institutions. The COs strip us of our names and replace them with numbers.
To them, Jy’Aire doesn’t exist. They told me my name is ND-7319.
Since race is a social construct, it becomes easily interchangeable with your prison identity. You go from “Black,” “Hispanic,” “White” or “Other” to “Inmate.”
And because we’re forced to ask permission for simple things like going to get water, we’re returned to a childlike state. We have to wait to be fed. We’re told when to go to sleep. This lack of autonomy makes it harder for incarcerated people to adjust once they reenter society.
To me, the most dehumanizing and shameful experience in this room without doors is the strip search. While officials claim to only be looking for concealed weapons and contraband, it’s clear to me that this process is also designed to make us feel powerless.
Not all strip searches are identical. But generally speaking, a search begins with a CO escorting you to a room where you’ll have to remove your clothing, piece by piece, until you’re completely naked. Next, the CO will tell you to stand with your feet apart, spread your arms, and hold your hands open with your palms up. You will also have to lift up your arms to expose your armpits and run your fingers across your teeth and gums.
As if all of this isn’t invasive enough, the CO will command you to lift up your penis and testicles. Then he’ll have you turn around, lift up your feet, and show him your soles.
Worst of all, you’ll be required to bend over, spread your butt cheeks, squat and then cough.
I always hate being violated this way, but some times are more aggravating than others. Once, when I was coming from the gym wearing clothes drenched in sweat, a CO demanded a strip search. I had nothing to hide, but the idea of peeling off my wet clothes and then putting them back on was particularly annoying. The CO threatened to pepper spray me if I refused the search. To avoid a misconduct write-up and a trip to the hole, I did as I was told. But since he’d called in reinforcements, I had to strip in front of two officers instead of one.
In that moment, I felt defeated and dirty. I wanted to rebel — lash out, even. But I chose to comply because these COs hold the power to keep me incarcerated for longer. And giving into my anger would’ve affirmed the common stereotype of prisoners, that we are violent animals and should therefore be treated as such.
I often wonder if people out in society truly understand how much willpower, docility, and turning-of-cheek it takes to avoid trouble day in and day out.
While I know what my actions will be, I have no control over how people will respond. If someone chooses to walk up to me and randomly assault me, I can’t follow my natural instinct to defend myself. I’m expected to do nothing. I can never have a bad day, or even a bad moment.
The problem is that every vehicle on this expressway is trying to collide with me, including the police cars. I can’t get off at the nearest exit. I have nowhere to go. I can’t get away from the noise of the 81 other men who currently live in my unit.
Everyone yells even though we’re right next to one other. It’s like they’ve forgotten how to communicate. Maybe this stems from the feeling of never being heard in the first place.
But this is controlled chaos. None of us are living; we’re merely existing. When I look to the left of the day room and then to the right, I see several elders roaming aimlessly, completely devoid of optimism. I sure hope I can make it out of this room without doors before this happens to me. I hope we all make it out of this room.
Jy’Aire Smith-Pennick, 28, is originally from Wilmington, Delaware. He is a certified fitness trainer, a certified peer specialist, an Eastern University student and the founder of the clothing line Sir27. His writing has appeared in the Kitty Knight House in Germany. He is also an audio contributor to Prison Radio. Follow him on Instagram at @FREE_JYAIRE_SMITH, on Facebook at @Jy'Aire Smith, or contact him via Connectnetwork.com using ID number ND-7319.
When asked about the number of cameras in the unit’s dayroom, the press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections stated that “security operations [are] not public information.” For the same reason, she would not comment on specific strip-search incidents but did provide the state’s general search policies.