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“Prison Cell” by Still Burning is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

On the morning of June 19, 2019, the sky was dark and eerie, with thunder crackling and lightning lighting up the heavens. 35 of us shuffled — cuffed, black-boxed and feet-shackled — to the prison bus, looking like a scene from the movie “Shawshank Redemption.” 

When we arrived at Western Missouri Correctional Center, photos were taken of each offender’s tattoos, and then new mugshots were taken for prison IDs. After that, we were escorted to Four House and locked in our cells, which hadn’t been occupied for some time. Mine felt and smelled like an old, dusty, smoldering shed, one where there would be no escaping, only enduring — at least for the rest of the summer. It was also home to several species of insects that I had to serve with an immediate eviction notice. 

As sad and demented as it may sound, I liked it right away. It reminded me of when I bought my first house, which also hadn’t been lived in for some time. Because my cellmate worked in food service at our former institution Crossroads Correctional Center (CRCC), he was held back. This gave me plenty of time to clean and set up the command post, where I planned to kick off my campaign to pass a bill to reduce life without parole sentences. 

The first week went by quickly. We were given recreation every day, a welcoming change from the “keep ‘em locked down” policy at CRCC. The second week, an offender assaulted two correctional officers because he felt he was being cheated out of his hour of open wing time. I was expecting to be put on lockdown but we weren’t. Instead, they just locked us down in our unit for a day or so. The third week, there was a fistfight in the sally port of my housing unit as we were returning from the evening meal. In my understanding, the policy is that if two offenders are fighting and are told to stop but they don’t, they get the mace and are put in the Hole for 30 days. These guys stopped, so they didn’t get the pepper spray and only had to serve ten days in the sweatbox. 

After 19 blissful days of single-cell living, my cellmate Dave arrived. 

“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be, it’s worse,” he remarked. “It’s like leaving a five-star resort for a refugee camp. If I was a liberal, I’d blame President Trump.” 

The heat made him miserable. On top of that, he had planned to take a break from food service, but was put on the work assignment sheet two days after getting over here. Then he had to work on the serving line instead of in staff dining. He said the kitchen was filthy and wouldn’t pass a health inspection. When he cleaned the line on his first day, a corrections officer said it was cleaner than he’d ever seen it. 

Dave, among others, hated the communal showers (referred to by offenders as “the rainbow” or “the rape shower”). My first day here, I watched in horror as men piled into the shower, elbow-high and asshole deep — as many as five at a time — when returning from recreation. There were only four shower heads. It was as if they had to shower with naked men to prove their manhood, like a tribe ritual or a fraternity pledge. 

WMCC is drastically different from CRCC, in both good and bad ways. The staff doesn’t write up or lock up lower level offenders on B-side for cursing them out. Instead, the staff cusses them back. WMCC staff also likes to give out extra duty rather than write up offenders. A lot of Level 5 offenders (those convicted of violent crimes and have long sentences) are extremely thin-skinned and quick to react, assaulting staff or other offenders for any slight they perceive to be disrespectful.

For example, one offender became angry at a staff cook, who told him to “stop acting like a baby.” When he walked off the serving line, she asked another offender why he thought the guy was so offended. He told her that in prison, a “baby” is what people call a gay person or a punk (someone pressured into a sexual relationship with another offender). She apologized to the guy when he returned, and he apologized to her. At CRCC, he would have gone straight to the hole, without passing go or collecting $200. 

As the days and weeks go by, there will be many more surprises to come, of that I am sure, some good and some not so much.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Zachary A. Smith is a writer and artist incarcerated in Missouri. He has studied law for over 20 years and has earned a paralegal degree with distinction from Blackstone Career Institute. Smith is the author of the “Smith’s Guide” series.