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The letter X is spray-painted on a brick wall
Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

There is a major shakedown in progress.

I watch as guards mark an “X” on my window, for reasons unknown. I occupy a concrete single-man cell that is 10 feet by 6 feet and was once painted blue; now the color is faded and dull. A stainless steel toilet is situated in the right-hand corner, under a steel mirror and small light fixture. 

Two male guards open my cell’s door, demanding I remove my clothes and jewelry. The wooden rosary around my neck, my white T-shirt, then my shorts, underwear and socks all come off. The officer barks: “Lift up your testicles! Turn around and show me the bottom of your feet! Squat! Spread your bottom. Now, cough. Cough again.”

I replace my clothes and the guards handcuff me. They escort me outside to the yard and seat me in a row of 20 other incarcerated residents from my unit.

The others who are handcuffed beside me chuckle among each other, cracking jokes as if this was a fun day in the park. I reckon they laugh because they're nervous and want to avoid dealing with their own shame. Or perhaps the “inside” jokes are so funny they can't help but laugh.

All I can think about is how much I feel like an enslaved animal. The handcuffs cut off the circulation around my wrists and my arms behind my back. Hateful men in gray and black uniforms watch me with superior smirks. The sun beats down on me; my eye catches the green grass under my feet. An incarcerated neighbor hurls advice in my direction, “Keep your head up, big homie.” Although I am stuck in a state of silence, energy sometimes speaks louder than words. He read me. His words of encouragement hit home. They make me feel respected and seen in a place that makes you invisible.

Thirty minutes later, I am taken back to my cell. It has been completely destroyed: my belongings, everywhere. Personal letters and family photos are balled up; my books and magazines are scattered and tossed across the floor.

A cup of coffee I’d sipped prior to the invasion is now all over my clothes. Behind me, the guards slam the cell’s steel door so loudly it startles. I feel the impact shake me to my core.

I use my pillow as a cushion and sit on the bottom of my hard plastic trash can. I attempt to calm my anxiety while I survey the wreckage. I must gather myself, collect my thoughts and cool these fiery emotions before I crack.

I glance over at the mess they made, and for a split second I crumble. But as I begin to cry, I ball my fists. I stop myself and think: “Are tears going to clean up the harassment left all over your floor? Are they gonna free you, or help you discover peace?”

Oppressors came to rob me blind of any happiness they could find, to steal my dignity and pride as a man, to dismantle and paralyze my spirit and kill off my faith. But these things will not be confiscated so easily.

I spend hours reorganizing, cleaning and salvaging what I can. I spend time with a photo of my son as a baby. I use my fingers to iron out its wrinkles and creases as best I can. I push all of my books and magazines into a pile. One by one, I stack them in an orderly fashion and place them back into my locker. I hand-wash the coffee from my clothes and hang them to dry on a line I stretched across the cell. I sweep; I mop the floor. It’s a good cleanup job. Now there’s no evidence of the invasion.

Perhaps now I can turn the other cheek and just forget about it — if it wasn’t for the “X” still marking my window.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

John Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Michigan.