Photo by Reimar on Shutterstock

“Prison overload” is when the reality of prison existence is too much to deal with. It is not something that can be predicted, but when it happens, it will usually be cumulative. Some days, it’s an all-day event that brings sadness, anxiety, anger and fear. 

Today was one of those days.

I typically wake up before most to take a shower and get back into bed for a nap. This gives me a break before I have to interact with people. I marvel at the people I live with. We know each other’s habits, but don’t truly know each other. There are days we like each other, but don’t get along. Other days we get along, but don’t like each other. 

Their habits grate on my nerves, particularly when I’m struggling with prison overload. 

I wonder why a person has to vigorously stir their instant coffee at 5 a.m. Stirring it with a plastic spoon in a plastic cup will not help the coffee or the creamer dissolve any faster. Why do people walk away from the sink when they are brushing their teeth? I imagine showers of saliva raining down along the path they are walking. Worse yet is when they try to talk with a mouth full of lather. How long have they been in the bathroom? I put on my headset to play my TV as loud as I can to drown out the symphony of noise from all the people getting ready for the day.

I try to ignore the habits I see around me. How long did she wash her hands? Did she really lick her spoon and put it away in her locker without washing it? Did she just pick her nose or just scratch it? Why won’t she pick her feet up when she walks? Is she really humming and singing at 5 a.m.? She looks too happy. Wait until she remembers where she is. 

These are the kind of thoughts that preoccupy me on prison overload days. 

Then the officer of the day speaks over the intercom.

“Attention, building! We will be modified today!” 

Just like yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Staff shortages have meant months of being locked down, even more than during the early COVID-19 pandemic. We get to continue laundry but there are no day room privileges, no phone calls, no kiosk time to sync our tablets and no recreational yard time. 

I think about how I can fill the 12 hours between now and the time I can go to sleep. I skip breakfast, but a sweet roommate brings me a lunch box with a pack of frozen bread, frozen peanut butter, a frozen pack of juice labeled as jelly, a pack of crackers, a cookie and a sugar-free Kool-Aid.

I somehow make it to midday. My lunch has defrosted, so I make a sandwich and let the time pass in slow motion. Then I have to go to the bathroom. I hate this part of my day.

You would think that after nearly a decade of going to the bathroom in jail and then prison, I would be used to it, but I am not. It was worse in county jail where the bathroom and the bed you slept in were within arm’s reach of each other. The toilets there had a limited number of flushes which meant no courtesy flushing. Here in prison, there is a door with a window panel on the top and bottom of the door. We keep a towel available to drape across the top panel to give the illusion of privacy. 

Prison etiquette says to flush every time anything escapes your body whether it is gas or solid. So the constant sounds of flushing fill the day and a good bit of the night time, too. A spray bottle of body wash and water — or liquid detergent and water — is kept handy to be used as an air freshener. Everybody does their best to ignore the sounds and smells, knowing that everyone does their best when it’s their turn. The poor diet and lack of movement impacts the body’s functioning.

I still need to fill six more hours, so I turn on the television. We have a broadcast station that sends out more than 100 channels of mostly wholesome and educational content. My television gets 22 of them. Of those, about eight of them are in English. 

On this day, my choices in English were soap operas or talk shows, so I look for another time filler. I consider pulling out photos of my family and friends or old correspondences, but I decide not to open that Pandora’s box. I think about the phone call I missed. I was at least able to wish my sister a happy birthday in an email from my tablet, but it’s not the same. I hope she knows I did my best to call.

I decide to redo my bunk area. I first sweep and mop the area next to my bunk. I pull my mat down to the floor and untie all the knots. I shake it out to re-distribute the stuffing that tends to gather in balls rather than lay flat. I flop it against the floor, walk on it, massage it and try everything to make it cooperate until the stuffing comes together. 

The problem now is the mat is about five inches shorter, but I go with it. Next, I layer my winter blankets on top of the mat for extra padding. Then I lay the state-issued flat sheet, which is so thin I can almost read a newspaper through it. Once my bed is reassembled, I wrestle it back onto the bunk. How did that take less than an hour?

I pick up a book and read. Finally, I am transported away. But soon, I hear the officers come around for the 4:30 p.m. count. The big room light goes on and the officer at the window makes sure we are all alive. I go back to my book and before I know it, it is time to go to the chow hall for dinner.

The announcement comes: “Ten-minute warning for chow!” We get up and get dressed in our prison blues, get our ID cards, cup, spoon and mask. I go to the bathroom in case there is a yard down. We might have to sit on the ground for nearly an hour or get stuck in the chow hall with no access to bathrooms. I am ready with a minute to spare. 

I feel prison overload as I wait for the locked door to open. Finally, it opens and we all rush out. There is a science to walking to the chow hall. You don’t want to be the first 10 people into the chow hall because the first trays have been sitting around getting cold. Walking fast and then slowing down helps to ensure you are in the middle of the pack. The downside is that you’ll sit in the middle of the chow hall. The noise of the trays against metal tables, loud conversations of people who did not come for the food and officers yelling commands like, “Sit down!” makes meal time an unappetizing experience.

I have 15 minutes to finish my meal. I sit until the officer gives my row permission to stand up, dump the food that was too gross to eat and then walk back to the unit. Many go to chow just for the chance to be out of their cells, even for a minute. 

As we reach the door, we realize officers are conducting random pat downs to check for food or contraband. As I lean against the brick wall, prison overload begins to squeeze tight.

I make it back to my room and reach for my tablet. Surely someone has written to remind me that I am loved. I sync it, but there is nothing. It might be that people are too busy, the system is messing up, or that I am fading from the minds of those who used to be so much a part of my life. I try to breathe. My eyes start to tear up. It’s never good to allow other people to see you cry, so I pull myself together and reach for my book to distract me until my shower time.

I open my rusted locker and it tilts. I haven’t reported on its condition because I’m afraid the administration will replace it with one that is half the size. I roll up some cardboard from the lunch box and tuck it under the locker to re-balance it. 

Shower time is when I count my blessings. I have soap, body wash and toothpaste, thanks to my friends and family. My state towel is almost as thin as the state bed sheets, but it gets the job done. I retrieve my underwear from where I left them drying after my morning shower.

The typical shower time is 15 minutes. If you take more than 30 minutes, people will assume you are giving yourself some self-love. If you take less than 10 minutes, you are considered an “unhygienic, dirty, nasty bitch.” If you finish early, you just do some wall push-ups, squats or you just stand under the water. If you want to take longer, you pretend you forgot something and ask a roommate to fetch a soap bar, shampoo or razor to shave. 

I finish right at the 15-minute mark and put everything away and crawl into bed. It’s almost time for the 9:15 p.m. count. After that I can finally lie down and try to punch down all the prison overload thoughts and sleep before I have to do it all over again and again until a merciful God kills me. 

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.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Dorothy Maraglino

Dorothy Maraglino is a writer incarcerated in California. Writing is how she processes the world around her and devotes most of her time to short works that share the realities of prison.