Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi (Source photos by Bernard Hermant and Aliaksei on Unsplash)

upon entering prison I was immediately assaulted
by the neverending clang and clammer that reverberated
off concrete, steel, and plexiglass: men had to holler
to make their voices heard

above the din; dominoes and cards slapped the stainless steel table:
the loudspeaker in the ceiling blared staticky demands;
pneumatic doors hiss — banged open and shut; and
like a vacuum stuck on

industrial-grade toilets and central air wooshed.
Body tensing; I thought, I can’t live like this… years later
we were locked in our cells for evening count
when a hurricane knocked the electricity out.

As the central air died down, utter quiet
rose in the blackness. I felt
like I gained a superpower; I heard
guys breathing in their cells, their personal air crawling

through the cracks around our heavy iron doors. I heard
tinny music chirping out of someone’s earbuds. I heard blood
thumping through my body. My cheap sponge earplugs
had never silenced prison like this. I tensed, needing
to pee suddenly. How reliant had I become
on prison’s incessant racket! I realized
I didn’t want others to read
the tell-tale sounds of my piss — so I held it

in, cramping. Privacy in prison is priceless
and sounds betray
a lot about us, our functions, our actions. A thick stream
splashing heavily in my toilet might entertain

one man’s fantasy, or perhaps spark
his envy. The noise
had come to serve as a privacy curtain blocking
my cell’s doorway, an impenetrable blanket

that cloaked my unguarded movements, an invisible
hand shielding my mouth when I shared furtive words
in the dayroom. And something else: the sounds
had established a rhythmic baseline, the heartbeat

of prison life. Being ever present and familiar
all these years, the noise comforted
my need for stability. Its sudden absence now
terrified me on a visceral level, as if the natural order

of the universe had been violated. for a few minutes
I laid there fighting my rising panic. What if
it never came back on? i heard someone
mutter, ”ooohhh shit …” mirroring my sentiments.

a moment later the power flickered
on, the air crunk back up, and life sputtered
back to normal. when our cell doors opened
we poked our heads out, tentative and curious

about how others had responded. we glanced
at each other and laughed uneasily, trying
to hide our obvious relief, trying to shrug
off our discomfited feelings — but I could tell

I wasn’t the only one who’d felt the fear of being
enveloped by darkness, alone, with only primitive
sounds of breath and blood and
soft bodies echoing

through space
that’s wrapped in plexiglas,
steel,
and cold concrete.

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.

George T. Wilkerson

George T. Wilkerson is a writer incarcerated on death row in North Carolina.