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Aerial view of Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois
Stateville Correctional Center is one of several maximum security state prisons for men in Illinois. Photo by Rw2 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 2017, I had about 28 years left on my sentence. I had spent time in every max joint in Illinois by then. But one day, to my utter surprise, I was shipped off to a medium security prison.

Upon arrival, I realized how different things were in this prison. Instead of a housing unit that held 500 individuals behind iron-bar cells stacked five stories high, I was taken to a two-tier unit with less than 100 people behind steel doors. 

While walking to my cell unescorted, I quickly surveyed my surroundings and was amazed that the unit had tables, benches, a flat-screen television, a laundry room, telephones and a shower area. The cell I was assigned to had a countertop table and a plastic chair, a separate toilet and sink made of porcelain instead of steel, a small plastic trash can, hooks on the wall to hang things, and my favorite new commodity: a window. 

For about 17 years, all I had known were maximum security prisons, where you have none of these amenities. You rarely see the light of day in those places. You’re shackled with restraints before taking a step outside the cell, and escorted by an officer wherever you’re going. Unlike lower-security prisons, which rely on fences to secure the perimeter, the max prisons are surrounded by 30-foot walls. You get recreational time three times a week for an hour, showers twice a week. Otherwise you’re locked in a cell all day except for chow. You endure the violence. You endure the lockdowns. That pretty much sums it up.

Upon arriving at the medium security prison, I realized that I’d forgotten about little luxuries. Here, for example, I could adjust the knobs on a faucet sink to get the water temperature just right. At the max prison, with the steel toilet-and-sink combo, there were only push buttons for hot and cold water. 

One day, I was looking out my cell window and noticed I could see outside the compound through two fences topped with razor wire. We were next to a busy street, so I watched the cars and trucks drive by. Then I was startled by a loud “pop.” 

I immediately turned around. My door was open. I didn’t know what to do. The iron bars I had always known required an officer’s key to open.

Since arriving at the medium security prison, I had been gripped by paranoia. I was cautious. A part of me feared my transfer might be a setup. 

But my curiosity pushed me past the door. Other prisoners were outside lounging around. I asked one of them what was going on, and he told me it was dayroom time. Confused, I pressed further. He said we had an hour to be outside of our cell to shower, use the phone, do laundry, these sorts of things. 

That caught me off guard completely. Earlier when I encountered the dayroom, I had figured that all the tables I saw were for the officers to sit down and watch TV as they “secured” the unit. There was an enclosed booth where guards watched and controlled everything at the end of the unit. But other than that we were mostly free to do as we liked.

Not long after dayroom time, I was called up to the control booth through a PA system. When I arrived, an officer handed me a slip of paper with my name, and indicated a destination: “health care unit.”

Grabbing the slip, which reminded me of a hall pass from junior high, I sat down on the bench next to the control booth and awaited my escort officer. I waited and waited. But nobody came. At some point I heard the corrections officers laugh; they noticed I hadn’t left. The guards knew where I’d come from, how different things were there, so one of them sitting behind the thick plexiglass window gave me a wave indicating, “Get out of here.” I stood up and walked myself out of the unit.

Once outside, I realized I had no idea where to go. I just started walking. But paranoia crept back into my gut. I felt again like I might be getting set up, and a guard was going to jump out and accuse me of trying to escape. But no one did. 

I saw another prisoner walking by himself and asked him directions to the health care unit. He pointed in a general direction. As I began walking my paranoia faded and I became euphoric

I felt free, or rather I felt the illusion of freedom. I was still in prison, after all. But the feeling was nevertheless powerful and real. It carried a sense of gravity I had never experienced before. 

I had to stop for a moment and look around. Tears pooled in my eyes. There were no officers telling me to hurry up, no gun tower at every corner with guards brandishing mini assault rifles. Through the fences, I could finally see the outside world. 

I kept walking until I found the health care unit. When I arrived, I was politely told to have a seat in the waiting area. I sat there until I was called.

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.

Juan Hernandez is a writer incarcerated in Illinois. Find him on Instagram @jch_convictedart.