Prison Welcome

A new inmate is delivered to prison like a parcel. The Receiving and Dignostics Unit at the New Hampshire State Prison is a four-story brick cellblock attached to the north side of the grim nineteenth-century main building. You enter R&D from an asphalt vehicle yard enclosed by a double chain link fence topped with razor wire. You walk, handcuffed, up a few concrete steps into an unfurnished room. You come with paperwork like any proper parcel. The courier deposits it in the pass-through under the plate glass window of the guard’s office.  There are no introductions. His delivery done, he takes his handcuffs and leaves you to your fate.

The day I arrived, several plastic bags of assorted clothing littered the concrete floor. I thought of the time I toured Dachau; the photographs of rooms piled high with prisoner’s clothes. The doublewide concrete cell I was led to was not reassuring. Two showerheads protruded from the back wall. The barred door slammed shut behind me. A muscular guard ordered me to strip and pass my clothes through the bars. “That, too.” he said, pointing to the cross pendant around my neck. I stood alone, naked and shivering. The peeling paint on the walls was a drab white and brown.  The floor was damp and had rusty stains around a fetid drain hole.

The guard shoved a packet of lotion at me.  Pointing to the back of the cell, he told me to shower with it. The water was lukewarm. The lotion had a chemical odor, like flea soap, that could not be washed off. It left a greasy film on my hair and skin.  I shaved off my beard on command with a disposable razor and hand soap in front of a steel mirror so scratched as to be worthless. I didn’t want to see my face anyway. I completed my physical transformation from a clear plastic bag of second-hand underwear and prison greens emblazoned with the names of assorted former inmates.

I carried the bag down the hall to the next processing step. The dim lighting and dingy brown décor were ubiquitous. I wondered if the whole prison looked this way. The guard indicated a caged-front holding cell. There were two other prisoners in the six-by-six cell. A concrete bench on the back wall and a stainless steel toilet/sink combination were the only furnishings. I sat down on the bench and tried to disappear. It was a trick I learned as a child. I was a shy, skinny kid with glasses. Sometimes the best way to avoid becoming a target was to sit in the back and keep your mouth shut. The less the others noticed you, the less they knew about you, the better.  I didn’t want to answer any questions. I didn’t know the right answers, the safe answers, yet. I closed my eyes and pretended to doze.

In the adjoining cell there was a heated conversation in Spanish. Somewhere down the hall the guards were laughing. They bantered about this one and that one. A female guard behind a desk called for the next inmate. One of my cellmates stepped to the door.  She pressed a button that unlocked the door with a loud buzz. She began to question him, entering his answers onto a computer. I strained to hear the questions, to mentally prepare for my own interrogation. I thought of how every personal identifier, except my name, had changed in the last six months. Back then, in my former life, if someone asked who I was I had a broad range of titles from which to choose: doctor, family practitioner, hospital staff member, church member, homeowner, husband, son, brother, father, “Daddy”.  None of these carried any weight in here. Some, if known, might even make my situation worse.  I thought of the new titles I had been given: convict, felon, inmate, sex offender. I couldn’t get my mind around any of them. I had been yanked out of my old life and dropped into an alien world. I had been stripped naked as the day I was born.

At last it was my turn to approach the desk, to answer for my existence.  I tried a nervous smile.  I was not returned.  The guard was impassive, a picture of efficiency. She did not even look at me. Her face was not un-attractive, but it had a certain angular hardness. I wondered why she worked in a place like this.

“Name.” That was easy.

“Address.” I started to answer and then realized I no longer had one. Our home had been sold while I was in the county jail. My family was temporarily living in a borrowed house. I must have looked confused.  She entered something and moved on.

“Birthday…height…weight.” I hesitated and looked at myself. I had lost a lot of weight in jail. I really didn’t know what I weighed. She looked annoyed.

“Approximately,” she said.

I guessed, “One sixty-five.”

She asked about medical conditions, allergies, medications.  Did I need a bottom bunk for any reason?

“Are you having suicidal thoughts?” It was asked so matter-of-factly, without the least interest. I could have told her that I prayed every day to die, that I desperately wanted to escape this nightmare that had taken over my life.  But what good would it do?  I would probably be trussed up and locked in an observation cell somewhere. I would be labeled as mentally ill. I would become a problem. I answered, “No.”

“Did you graduate from high school?’



“Yes.” I began to feel a burning in my face.

“What’s the highest level of education you have completed?”

“Graduate school,” I said quietly. I was ashamed to tell her that I was a medical doctor, that I had graduated from a prestigious school, that I had practiced medicine for fourteen years. I had fallen so far. I here past accomplishments didn’t matter anyway. Your past life was your crime, nothing more. Besides, I didn’t want to stand out from the crowd - a misfit among felons.

“What are your charges?”

I blushed and looked around. Was anybody listening? I lowered my voice even more. “Felonious sexual assault,” I said.  The words hung in the air like a foul odor. She didn’t recoil in horror. She didn’t react at all.

“I really messed up,” I added apologetically. I’m not sure why I said it. It was obvious she couldn’t care less. Somehow I needed to distance myself from the words I had just spoken, to show I wasn’t a monster, that I was capable of the human feeling of regret.

“What's your sentence?”

“Three consecutive three-and-a-half to sevens.” I had just learned that in court the day before. It was the first time I had spoken it out loud. I tried to say it without emotion.

She photographed me and made my laminated prison I.D. I returned to the holding cell. My processing was complete. I had become New Hampshire State Inmate #29992.

That day I was the last to be taken upstairs to One East, the quarantine cellblock for new arrivals.  It was 9 P.M. I picked up my plastic bag of linens and followed the blue-shirted guard into the stairwell.

“Horner, have you decided what you’re going to tell them up there?” His voice echoed off the concrete block walls.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you can’t tell them what you’re really in for. They’ll eat you alive.”

“What should I say?”

“I don’t know. Just make up something that goes with your sentence.”

I looked for a smirk, but he was serious. I realized this guy was trying to help me, to give me advice about how to survive - an ever-so-slight gesture of sympathy.

“Thanks,” I said.  I meant it.