Blue-hued mountain ridges
Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

We are about an hour into the trip, and despite my sheer exhaustion, I can’t move my face from the window. 

The same trees and abandoned houses that line every interstate fly by, but I am transfixed with the curiosity of someone just released from a time capsule. 

Inside, the van is stifling. Sweat is running down my neck. I can’t wipe it off because my ankles and wrists are restrained by chains. The metal grate on the window is rattling so hard I can barely think.

And I’m surrounded by incessant chatter. This is not a life-changing event for them. But it is for me. Elation tinged with mild disbelief is coursing through my body. 

Despite the distractions, nothing can spoil this day, which I have longed for. After 15 years in prison, I’m finally headed to a lower security level prison where I’ll have more privileges, an “honor-grade” prison, as they are called in North Carolina.

A monumental opportunity

One might be transferred to another prison for many reasons: the opening of a new facility, situational threats, an inmate’s request or the always suspect “institutional need.” 

But one positive, desirable reason is a custody-level promotion. Movement from a higher security facility to an honor-grade camp is monumental, an opportunity to work toward some semblance of independence and normalcy. Where we are housed can make all the difference in our sentence because it can mean placement closer to family, access to more meaningful programs and life among more stable inmates.

Getting a custody-level promotion was no small achievement.

North Carolina operates under the archaic system of mandatory minimums. This meant judges have little discretion over sentencing and one must serve a minimum amount of time before they are released.

For those with long sentences like mine, there is not much incentive to stay out of trouble. We must find a reason — a personal conviction — to do more than just exist.

I was not always a model inmate. A 25-year sentence in one’s mid-20s does not exactly engender the best behavior. The sentence was as long as my life. 

For several years, I spent my days lost in the chaos of prison life, dismissing any dreams of a future.

Solitary confinement, where I spent 15 to 180 days at a time, became my oasis. I was safe in there — not from physical threats, but from myself. In there, I could give in to my craving to escape into my head and live in an alternate reality. 

Eventually I decided I wanted more. I wanted to move to an honor-grade prison, a privilege granted to people who demonstrate good behavior and meet other requirements. 

Sometimes, I felt tempted to give up, hide behind excuses and blame my situation. But the closer I worked toward my goal, the more I wanted it. The idea consumed me. It felt almost like I was working toward gaining actual freedom. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, followed by a devastating personal loss. I started feeling like none of what I was doing mattered.  

My fear was sliding me into old behaviors, so I held a death grip on my self-discipline. I was paranoid that people would find out I was coming up for my “greens” (the uniform color for minimum security prison) and try to sabotage me. My already solitary existence became even more so. 

As my review date approached, I started downsizing and practiced packing to meet the mandatory bag limit. By the time I finished, I could carry my entire life in my hands. 

The day my dream of making honor grade became real, I was standing in the middle of the pod at mail call. My head spun and my hands trembled as I read the news. I didn’t know whether to shout (highly inadvisable) or run to my cell, so I could calm down before anyone noticed something was up.

I was jittery with anticipation and relieved to escape the level of hell I had been in for so long. I wanted to cry not only for what I had lost, but also because my life had reached a point where an admission into an honor code was an achievement.  

Less than two weeks later I packed out. 

The morning of my move still seems like a fever dream. Women crowded around me. Some wished me well, others asked for my discarded property. My anxiety spiked. I just wanted to go — to close this chapter of my life. 

‘Where I was meant to be’

Hours into the trip, my ears began to pop. Echoes of a past life roared through my mind as the bus passed through a small mountain town. I wondered if the residents walking by the town center or sitting at an outdoor café were aware of the power and energy that surrounded them. 

I looked over to an old pickup truck and swore Willie Nelson was in it. I could practically smell the patchouli in the air. With every foot of elevation we gained, I shed the weight of my past. This magic van was teleporting me into the welcoming arms of my future. 

When we pulled up, the sight was intoxicating. The prison appeared to sit in the embrace of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Expansive grassy yards rolled out before me. 

Finally free of my chains, I stepped into the sunlight. The crisp mountain air hit me. This was where I was meant to be. I am here.

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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K.C. Johnson

K.C. Johnson is a writer incarcerated in North Carolina.