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A dimly lit empty prison cell with minimal furnishings.
Photo by 3dmentat on Depositphotos

One morning, I was in the shower washing off the dregs of the day before. Although there was another person showering next to me, the other stall was completely separated by a stainless steel wall, which gave us privacy. There was no valve to adjust the levels of hot and cold. Instead, there was a button that had to be pressed to provide five minutes of hot water at a time. 

I was lathering up with my Dove bar of soap — a small but relatively expensive luxury — when an ear-jarring fire alarm rang. 

I waited until the very last minute, along with the other man, before getting out of the shower. That’s when we heard the jangle of keys. An officer discovered the two of us toweling off and told us to go downstairs immediately. My undershirt clinged to my still-wet torso as I walked into a long corridor, where I saw the residents of H Block lined up, facing the wall. I was surprised and dismayed, but I kept my expression blank. As I was escorted to the wall, I felt a mild draft. Goosebumps spread across my skin.

There are often good reasons for searches, but seeing the wall of Black and Brown men forced to face the wall by inscrutable White men disturbed me. Perhaps this was because I had just finished reading Charles M. Blow’s “The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto.” I had also started reading the first 70 pages of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste,” about the origins of caste and racism.

Would I have felt differently had the officers been people of color? I don’t know. 

As a drug dog sniffed us all, I thought of the antebellum South, civil rights and other protests. All that has happened in the country since 2016 has made me acutely aware of the Black and White divide and the lopsided power dynamics in this country. My reality and our racially charged history overwhelmed me. 

The experience allowed me to inhabit — for a moment — the souls of the ancestors, and I so profoundly understood the psychological terror, shame, degradation, frustration and anger they must have felt. 

These invasions of personal space are always meant to shrink our minds, bodies and spirits, but never had I felt the way I felt in the hallway with that dog sniffing me, making me feel as if I were the contraband. 

I was simultaneously torn between feeling demeaned and complicit in my situation. I felt helpless. I was silent, but I tried to stand with dignity. 

My ancestors lived under a physical reality I can only imagine. And yet they toiled forward and managed to find joy and purpose. They managed to sing, dance, live, love, make family and form community. 

With this in mind, I resolved to be judicious in my complaints, grateful for all that I have and welcoming of each new sunrise.

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.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.