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A row of prison cells
Photo by txking on iStock

No one in jail ever knows when they will spend their last night there until they are suddenly awakened in the small hours of the morning, usually shortly after midnight. When you hear that pounding on the cell door, you know it’s time to go to prison. 

I have been in prison for two years, two months and 27 days as I write this. Currently, I am housed at Correctional Training Facility in California, commonly referred to as Soledad State Prison. It’s a level two security prison. 

Before coming here, I was in the Humboldt County jail for seven months. 

According to the terms of my plea deal, I was sentenced to 10 years and eight months at 80%. That means that I must serve at least 80% of that time. The remaining 20% could be waived by the state for good behavior. Eighty is the highest percentage a felon must serve in California, reserved for those pleading guilty or no contest to violent felonies. 

My release date is early March 2026 though I hope to bring my release date closer by taking advantage of the classes, meetings and vocational opportunities offered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

A crime can be considered violent even if no physical contact was ever made between the offender and the victim. Crimes can also be considered violent even when no one was hurt. A good example is pointing a gun at someone. 

If it seems unfair that a violent criminal must only serve 8 of every 10 days to which they are sentenced, then consider this: Prosecutors and judges adjust their sentencing by factoring in projected time off, which is called “good time.” For instance, if the district attorney wants someone to go to prison for eight years, they ask for a sentence of 10 years. Of course, this makes the time-off-for-good-behavior system pointless.

Jails do not send inmates to prison the very day they are sentenced. Instead they wait until they have enough prison-bound inmates to fill a van or a bus, depending on the size of a county. Humboldt County sends a small van. Los Angeles County sends a large bus.

All convicts who are being moved wear a brightly colored jumpsuit that is only used during transport. For some, it will have been only months since their arrest, while others might have waited two or three years for their case to make its way through the county courthouse. Regardless, all of them are leaving the county of their arrest and are now headed for the nearest prison designated as a “reception center,” where the state processes prisoners, so they can begin their sentences. 

Most of the prisoners taking the nocturnal trip to the reception center, or RC as we call it, have been to prison before, some many times. 

The prison industry depends upon recidivism to keep its vast operations. But to be fair, many men are more than happy to meet them halfway. I know a prisoner here whose story is common — he’s 37 years old and has spent a total of 11 months as a free man since his 18th birthday. The longest he has spent on the outside in the last 19 years is three months. 

Those who have taken the ride before flaunt their status on the trip to “The Big House.” Those making their inaugural trip, like myself, are labeled “first-termers.” This word is not a kind one. 

First-termers are known to be troublesome, ignorant and pitiful because they feel sorry for themselves. A thousand lessons must be quickly learned, and the more experienced men tend to be sick of being their guidance counselors. The old-timers dread the “noobs.” 

This ride is the first time a first-termer feels the ponderous weight of being a prisoner. I remember watching the mountains, towns, rivers and the open road pass by, taking in as much as possible, knowing that this scene was about to go away for years.

Where first-termers are headed, their dreams of the free world will be replaced bit by bit by dreams of bondage. They’ll feel the outside world slip a little farther away with every passing day. 

On that ride in the dead of night, accompanied by guards trained to kill you, you let go of some of yourself and start picking up new thoughts and mannerisms. 

One thing is for sure, you are entering a big arena, and there is not going to be any place to hide. Right there, right then — that’s when you begin to do your time.

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.

Jeff Gatlin is a writer and a native California, where he is incarcerated.