Prison was my world. Forty years, four months, and 14 days.
That’s how long I was locked up in the Louisiana prison system – 11 months in a Baton Rouge jail awaiting trial and sentencing; twenty years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola; eight years at the State Police Barracks in Baton Rouge; nine years at the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer; and two years at the C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy.
Literally and figuratively, I traveled the length and breadth of that state’ prison system: first as a convicted murderer, then as an award-winning journalist, and, finally, as a protected witness and a convict author. I gained vast amounts of knowledge and experience through those travels; some of which were harsh and brutal while others rewarding and enlightening. I do not recommend growing up in prison, maturing from a punk kid to a man. It is not for the faint of heart.
But there is something to be said about the prison experience.
You witness things the normal imagination cannot conceive, you meet people from every stripe of life, and you develop survival skills you never dreamed possible. Prisons are not just about rape, murder, and drugs. They’re about a caged humanity with all its frailties and strengths that make up the life experience. They are bustling communities of human beings separated from the free world by thick concrete walls or fences laced with razor wire but who must nonetheless face many of the same life problems as their free world counterparts.
There are two distinct things that never change in prison – lights and noise.
There is no darkness or silence in prison. Lights are security. Darkness arrives only when death visits. Otherwise the entire journey through the prison experience is under the glare of lights – even after the nightly call of “lights out,” there is the relentless glare of the “security lights” from the yard or from the ceiling lights in the halls that run in front of the cells.
It’s the same with noise.
While the sounds of noise are usually a byproduct of the security system that controls the caged humanity, they also emanate from the daily efforts of these tortured souls trying to navigate the treacherous, unchartered waters of prison survival.
Noise greets you with a sudden rush when the morning whistles awaken the prison, signaling the start of a new day with the “same-old” routines. The den of noise associated with an awakening humanity begins like an ancient drumbeat as the inmates slowly move about and prepare for breakfast and “work call.”
The noise becomes more intense as the human traffic moves to and from the chow hall for that first meal of knotty biscuits and water thin gravy. The walk is often in the dark, lit only by security lights. Curses, grumbling and crude laughter pockmark the traffic flow. Now and again two angry souls will charge each other to fight over some inane remark made in jest. Noise reaches its crescendo at work, during play either on the yard or in the gym, during recreation at cards or dominoes tables, and while showering as the day grinds to an end.
Finally, after “lights out,” sleep comes but against the backdrop of more noise, like the clanging of metal on metal as steel doors are opened and closed when the guards make their “rounds.”
Prison is filled with all these perpetual noises, often used to conceal the brutality of one’s own despair.
The brain is a peculiar device. It allows the eyes to grow accustom to the constant glare of lights and for the ears to learn how to filter out noise, much like a sleeping cat. It’s called survival – an inmate’s ability to adjust to avoid madness. You actually learn to use the light to your advantage – to finish a good book after “lights out” or to see a potential enemy approaching in a sneak attack. And you learn to use the noise as a buffer against unwanted sounds – focusing on a blaring TV to escape the constant, brutal slamming of dominoes on a metal table.
I quickly learned in April 2006 upon my release from prison that the lights and noises of the free world maintain a drumbeat that is much more invasive; and much more frightening, in fact.