Creative Commons License

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

Sign for SCI Mercer in Mercer, Pennsylvania
Photo credit: Google Maps

Have you ever had a vacation spot or hotel recommended for you to visit? As of this writing, I am on day five into a transfer to a new institution. I was invited to participate in the Veterans Services Unit at State Correctional Institution-Mercer, in Pennsylvania. It’s otherwise known as a promotional transfer.

Moving from one place to another in prison is like a free civilian preparing to move from one neighborhood to another. For me, it had been almost 20 years since I last transferred.

When it comes to a move of this magnitude, there are a lot of things to consider: having to pack up 19 years of property acquired through the years; leaving the few people I had grown close to; the uncertainty of whether I can acquire employment at the new institution within a reasonable amount of time. 

After being at SCI-Fayette for so long, I had some hesitation in making such a change. But Mercer is regarded as a premier institution, a place of luxury as far as penal institutions go. “Wide open, laid back” was one of the sentiments shared with me about the prison when I was considering the move. 

Prison is first and foremost security-minded, so when the transfer gets approved you only know that it has been approved. You have no advance notice of a day or time the transfer might begin.

The journey commences the day before you are physically transported. In the early morning, right after breakfast, I was instructed to pack up the contents of my cell, with the exception of some light toiletries and underclothes for my last shower. Then I reported to Receiving and Discharge with my property.

I loaded my footlocker and three mesh bags of miscellaneous items, including books, letters, photos and the important copies of articles I’ve written throughout my time here. My television, typewriter and some other fragile items were last to get packed. I placed them inside a tall plastic laundry bin used for transporting our personal belongings to R&D, among other purposes.

Transfers in Pennsylvania are allowed to take with them a footlocker and one TV box for a television, or two record-center boxes and one TV box. Any contents that don’t fit will be shipped at the person’s expense. It cost me $132.90 to send the rest of my property; it arrived six days ahead of me. 

With my stuff packed, I was escorted through the quiet and dark compound to R&D, placed in a holding cell, stripped naked, searched and provided with an orange jumpsuit. I was shackled at the feet and handcuffed, then whisked away. 

The ride to the new facility was wonderful in the beginning. After 19 years, it was fascinating to see the world outside of the prison gates and fence line. I watched cars and big-rig trucks through the security grates covering the bus windows. This had me sitting up like a young boy on his first field trip through the country.

I was intrigued by different state license plates and mesmerized by the neon lights of various businesses. I felt awe looking at the strange yet familiar mountain range boasting spring-colored brown and green leaves, and the little towns and trailer parks nestled inside the county’s valleys. 

The transfer was an all-day affair. 

Along the way, the transport team made various and lengthy stops at other institutions, picking up or dropping off passengers. Some guys were being kicked out of institutions, while others, like myself, had been given the chance to move to a better facility. It was a dramatic shock, watching the landscape flowing past only to arrive at the cold, stark atmosphere of a prison facility. 

I arrived at my destination in the early evening. There were meal trays waiting for us new transfers, eight other guys and me. 

The lower-level facility boasts a much smaller population, with a much different caliber of inmate. Staff here are more hands-off. The environment is not the same as the one I had known for so long. 

Right now, I wonder whether this move I made was a mistake, but I suppose that is mostly because I do not know anyone or anything about how this institution operates. It is only day five, after all.

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.

Jeffery Shockley is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.