Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

I’ve spent the last five years confined at the infamous Sing Sing penitentiary. I was able to stay safe and under the radar, carving a niche for myself as a program facilitator. All prisons are dangerous places, but Sing Sing’s danger was a danger I acclimated to. 

I saw my own threat exposure as a thing of proximity. I’m usually at the end of any given line. If there is a problem I try to make sure it’s in front of me. It’s my posture of maintaining a safe distance that has given me an edge. Even though I saw or heard about random acts of violence on an almost daily basis, I wasn’t very concerned. I was keenly attuned to the pulse of the place and that awareness became as autonomous as breathing. 

I don’t incur debts, I don’t do drugs and try to live doing the right thing (although I know I’m late to that game). I think of my comportment as practice for the street. I had cordial relations with most of the staff and my fellow cons. I lived a structured existence there, and my routine rarely varied.

On Feb. 23, I found out I was being transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility, about 40 miles north of Sing Sing. It should not have come as a surprise, but it did. I’d been poking the bear for a while. I wrote numerous complaints about medical care. I had been warned that enough complaints would get me moved to a facility more appropriate to my medical needs. For the record, no penitentiary provides appropriate care for anyone’s medical needs. 

A little voice in my head told me I should have kept my mouth shut, but my medical issues were real. I would have done myself an injustice in trading relative comfort over my health. My transfer won’t ameliorate the problems, but at least I’ll get new people to complain to. From a cynical point of view I could label the transfer retaliatory, but I’m a pragmatist and I understand it’s just business as usual in the prison industrial complex.

When you transfer to another facility you’re allowed four bags of property. I had accumulated seven, so I gave away the extra three bags of property to men who have little or no support from the street. I know exactly what that feels like. I’ve been there. 

Giving my stuff away, including my television, which Green Haven does not allow — was not some magnanimous act because I got it in the same way. It’s all about universal reciprocity. Early on guys gave me clothes and other incidentals that helped me get off the destitute list. It was my turn to pay it forward.

The hardest part of the transfer is leaving my comrades. There are two guys in particular who I love, respect and admire. We are there for each other. We helped each other grow in immeasurable ways, as all my close comrades have over the years. The three of us have almost 100 years combined behind the wall. We trade the wisdom of our years with each other. 

Being torn away from my brothers is an act of family separation emblematic of historical separations in families of color. One might say the comparison is a stretch, but those guys are my brothers and the sense of loss I feel is real and something I will have to heal from. Family are those who are present in your life mentally, physically and spiritually. I left behind my family — again.

Green Haven is only an hour away from Sing Sing, but it took fifteen hours to get here. In prison, we often have to hurry up and wait. Transfers are not exempt. I arrived here a little after nine at night and the five of us transferring in were met by five or six stone-faced, White officers. Sing Sing’s officers are predominantly people of color. Needless to say, I was anxious and guarded. The tensions of race and class hung in the air like violent storm clouds. I wasn’t sure if they were the kind that would pass overhead or turn into a deluge with stark and traumatizing damage before the sun rose again.

One of the things that has stood out to me here at Green Haven are the legions of old men, including some in wheelchairs. All of us have a history, and the criminal history of an individual that is documented in file cabinets, courthouses and online will never change, but we sure do. I look at the aging cons here and see myself somewhere in the middle of that continuum. I feel desperate hopefulness for freedoms unrealized and not yet imagined. I pluralize freedom, as my desperate hopefulness is not just about being physically free, but an all around validation of the current iteration of me and the potential inside of me in a place that prunes my growth as a matter of process.

There are of course, more young men than old, but I do not feel welcome in their presence. The generational difference is best mediated by a kind detente. The vitality of their youthful spirit has mutated into a hyper-aggressiveness and hostility. 

The silent and cold assessment I received as I moved onto the tier felt stalking and predatory. I usually find an in by asking a question about something benign that begets an answer accompanied by commentary about the broken or unfair state of things. My contrived diplomatic entreaty has proven to be an animus-dispersing technique that transforms me from a would-be interloper into an OG.

Like everywhere else in the world, COVID-19 has shut everything down. Green Haven is just beginning to open up again. I’ve been here a month, but have yet to receive an orientation. The social distancing here is like that of Sing Sing’s — it’s non-existent. 

They do a much better job of mask enforcement here, and I appreciate that. I know they have started administering the vaccines here, primarily to the elderly and medically vulnerable.

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.

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Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.