Eric Van Buren is sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States of America. Now he has been detained for a long time, and has experienced many lockdowns during his prison life.
He shares the story of one of them in the Pennsylvanian prison he stays in. It’s a story about deprivation, confinement, solitude, promiscuity, and anxiety.
I think in myself "here we go again. I am frustrated. I am angry. I am distraught.
The first indication: “Lock the fuck in! Lock the fuck in! Get in your cells! Sirens, gunshots, and sometimes concussion bombs shake the yard and can be heard inside cell blocks. From twenty to thirty staff members assemble in each cell. When you hear and see this, then it’s the beginning of a lock down.
As the cell door is slammed behind me, I hypothesize and try to figure out the probability of the time on lockdown. Then it comes; that echo from the insidiously ominous “click.” The “click” that sparks a moment of panic and feeling of entrapment. The “click” that tells you that you are now locked in your cell and there is nothing you can do about it. I feel I am being buried alive. My cell feels like a tomb. I turn to my cellmate to ask him “what happened?
Since he doesn’t know anything, I move to the window where I do a threat assessment. The prisoners who return from their jobs or from the yard always know more than those who were in the Housing Units. Since we can’t hear one another, we talk through furtive gestures or hand signals. If I can’t get anyone’s attention, I watch the number of prisoners passing by every second. The more that passes by, the less time we’re likely to spend on lockdown. My concern grows while I sit on my bunk and think. I am flooded with a wave of emotions that threatens to drown me. I grow disappointed because my daily routine has just been interrupted. I grow angry because my communication with my family and loved ones has come to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately, repeated lockdown is one way to lose communication with people. I am pissed and depressed all at once.
At that thought, suddenly, everything in my life starts to feel unsettled. But I can’t dwell on that because now worry creeps in; it tells me to think about my own safety. So, I go through the scenarios. Did a prisoner attack a prison officer, official or staff? If so, there will be retaliation. Did one of my “homies” 1 get into it with another group of prisoners? If so, the repercussions could last years. Someone could end up dead. Other things creep into my mind as well; like is my cellmate holding any contraband (weapons or drugs). If so, we are sure to be stripped searched while on lockdown and if they find it, they will charge us both. Being overwhelmed by these emotions, I lie back on my bed and curse. I think in myself “here we go again.͟ I am frustrated. I am angry. I am distraught.
Another prisoner from one’s hometown or neighborhood in the free world. ↩
If so determined, I could be tried for death penalty...
From food to death penalty
Lockdowns happen two every ninety days, in high level federal prisons, If I am lucky, this will only be for a week. But if I am unlucky, it will extend to 14-30 days. Hopefully, my cellmate has prepared himself for lockdown like I did because we are served cold food (bologna and artificial cheese) for seven days.
Prisoners usually have a lockdown bag under their beds. This bag consists of instant soups, chips and cookies. I hope my cellmate has his own, because if not, I will have to share mine.
In case of long lockdowns, managing food can be an extra dynamic that can be stressful in an already ultra-stressful environment. The last thing I need is a fight to death between my cellmate and I over food. For “lifers” like me, a murder done in self-defense can be construed by an overzealous Assistant United States Attorney as an “aggravating factor”. If so determined, I could be tried for death penalty. This law only applies to lifers. My cellmate, on the other hand, can kill me and probably get only eight years. The irony in my particular situation is that I was given a life sentence based on non-violent drug crime, and he was given a much lesser term of imprisonment than me for a murder. I laugh at that hypocrisy, scoff at the disadvantage and decide to outthink my cellmate for the whole time we are locked down. I will need my mind to tow the line.
I am sure to lose a valuable thing and a valuable person I communicate with during this lockdown
From lockdown to shakedown
If my family calls the prison due to my absence of communication, they will not be given information about what is happening and will not even be told if I am alive or well. I usually send out a letter informing my loved ones or family that I am on lockdown. Sometimes, I don’t send anything because I do not want to make my family worried.
I already know what will happen. It will take 72 hours before I get a shower.
We will get stripped searched and our cells will be searched.
There is discreetness of what may be taken during the cell search; usually things like pictures or cards - that remind me of my loved ones or family, my favorite pair of shorts, my workout shirt, or a hat. Anything that gives me serenity or stuff that seems insignificant like a particular pen (I write that special person with), a cup, a new pair of sneakers or an extra set of cleats (one to practice in one to play in). Things that seem small when complained about, but they hold strong sentimental value to a prisoner.
My biggest concern is losing my mailing stamps. Stamps are the currency in prison and losing my cache of stamps is equal to a person in the free world losing their life savings. These are things that worth great personal value; things I use to make it through every day in prison life. They’re things that don’t make me feel like a convict; they make me feel more like normal person.
Three things will happen on lockdown: (1) I will get stripped searched;(2) my cell will be torn apart during the cell search; and (3), I am sure to lose a valuable thing and a valuable person I communicate with during this lockdown.
The first day of lockdown is always the easiest. You catch up on all the sleep you have lost. Sleep lost by having to wake up as soon as the doors are opened; so as to be “on-point” for any eventuality. Several inmates feel relief, as I do, during the first day of lockdown, which I usually spend sleeping all day.
Read Kenneth Key’s testimonial about a prison shakedown here
Anger is usually the only thing that helps you survive during a lockdown
A walk between sanity and insanity
It is the second day of lockdown which I begin checking my cellmates’ mental fortitude, and making my threat assessment. Long periods of lockdown are mentally and emotionally taxing. A prisoner can lose his mind in a matter of hours on lockdown. Being trapped in a small cell with another person means that you have to put up with all their oddities and quirks, have to get used to his body odor and the odor of the bathroom when he uses it. So first, I have to make sure that my cellmate is not going through any personal problems. I wonder if he is making the same assessment on me.
The next thing I do is hone in on my inner strength. I do this to raise my tolerance. I will have to endure a lot especially the prison staff. On lockdown, the prison staff works harder and some of them angered or annoyed by this fact, which they take out on the prisoner. Other prison staffs are happy, why? Because lockdown gives them an opportunity to be more oppressive than usual. Then there is the staff that loathes prisoners so much that, during lockdown, this indifference becomes almost like another entity. Their indifference allows them to speak to you and treat you like a stray animal. They also use this indifference to try to strip you out of your inalienable right to be treated like another human being.
I’ve learned to use anger to combat these behaviors. Anger is usually the only thing that helps you survive during a lockdown, however, too much anger can take you to the darkest imaginable places.
Anger will grip you and turn on you and most prisoners with long sentences have felt this compelling emotion. It shakes you to the utmost degree and causes you to fight for your mental sanity. It’s a feeling so all-consuming that you never want to feel it again.
So, I tow the line. I have learned to use just enough anger to get me through the oppressiveness of prison without taking me into the brink of insanity. During lockdown, you may come face to face with this peril so you have to be prepared for this.
I am sure my cellmate has experienced this walk between sanity and insanity. However, no one speaks of it. No one can be perceived as being weak. So, I make sure that my cellmate and I have some outlet for this anger. We read, write or speak of better times in better places. Some prisoners totally reinvent themselves; they use fabrications to keep themselves sane, and some of them exercise. Whatever is needed, I will make sure we do to elevate any anger he or I hold close. The irony is that while I make sure we have an outlet, I also come up with strategies and scenarios to physically disable him. I found out that my cellmate must do the same thing with me because we both watch one another closely.
While being naked, the officer tells me to open my mouth; he checks behind my ears, he tells me to lift my genitals.
Strip-searched and vandalized
On about the third day of lockdown, I am awakened to the unified screams of thirty correctional officers (C.O.) telling me to “get ready for a shake down.” To “strip down” to just my boxers and shower shoes.
My heart begins to race and my anger increases slightly. I am mentally preparing to be taken out of my cell half-naked, handcuffed behind my back and walking backwards out my of cell to a shower stall.
At the shower, I am stripped searched. While being naked, the officer tells me to open my mouth; he checks behind my ears, he tells me to lift my genitals, he tells me to turn around and bend over so he can look up my rectum, then he tells me to squat and cough.
I am determined not to let him humiliate me during this process. In fact, I have prepared my body through rigorous exercise so it will humiliate him. I let him know with my eyes that I am not intimidated, thus he smirks and goes to the next stall. Even though I am waiting in the shower stall, I am unable to take a shower. I don’t have any soap, towel nor wash cloth, just a pair of boxers I have had on for three days and shower shoes.
Forty-five minutes later, I am escorted back to my cell because it has been thoroughly searched; it looks as if it has been vandalized. It takes my cellmate and I nearly an hour to clean up and find out what is missing. My cellmate is cursing and seems frustrated. I have to quickly get a hold of the situation before he explodes. The Officer has taken pictures of his daughter who he has not seen in four years and has had to watch her grow up via pictures. I find my personal items are missing as well; a picture of friends I no longer have. I end up falling asleep for I have been emotionally and mentally exhausted.
The next morning, I get an unexpected surprise. They allow us to go take a shower. This time I am allowed to have soap, a towel, and a wash cloth. I smile for the first time in four days. Things are always less tense on lockdown when prisoners take showers. My cellmate seems relieved, I feel relieved, and the conversation between me and him is less tense.
Even though we are still being served half frozen bologna sandwiches, I feel hopeful. Hopeful that lockdown will end soon and that I won’t lose as much as I fear once off in lockdown.
I pick up a book, read and wait for the warden to send a memo stating why we are on lockdown and when we will be coming off. I do not disturb my cellmate as this is the first night I will be able to go to sleep without having to keep one eye opened.
As expected on the 5th day of lockdown, the warden sends in a memo. It is slid under my cell door. I see it when I get up to use the restroom. The memo states what the warden will and won’t tolerate. He promises more lockdowns if certain behavior is perpetrated or continued. I ask my cellmate if he wants to read it. He shakes his head no and lies back down. I rip the memo up and flush it down the toilet. The memo is typical and will make no difference. In high level prisons, certain things are almost as certain as the principals of Universal Law. I lie back down and continue my routine of waking up, reading or writing, and exercising in my cell.
On the 7th day of lockdown, we are served an “enhanced meal.” It consists of frozen carrots and celery along with our half frozen bologna sandwiches. My caloric intake is around 1200 calories a day so I can lose weight. My cellmate and I both mention that it won’t be long now, only a couple days more. He sounds hopeful, I feel hopeful, and it happens.
The odd thing is that something in me is growing; a little fear and contentment. I know the longer we stay on lockdown the more likely I am to want to stay on lockdown.
I only have to deal with one person, I sleep when I want, I can exercise, and I do not have to interact with the prison staff. I feel “safer” in my cell with one person than in my Unit with one hundred or in the prison with one thousand people. I shake this feeling because if I let it grow, I will become a recluse. I will become “institutionalized” even more so than I am now.
The "click" that says prepare for the next lockdown. Prepare to deal with the reality of perpetual violence. Prepare for the volatility of everyday prison life.
Then comes the "click"
On the 9th day, I hear the cell doors being unlocked. My heart races as I have to transform from one mental state to another in few seconds. I have to be ready for every eventuality.
Then it comes. That “click.”
That echo from that insidiously ominous “click.” The “click” that tells you we are coming off of lockdown.
For me the “click” that lets me off and on lockdown is the worse feeling ever. It haunts my dreams day and night. It reminds me of my plight. It lets me know how fragile my life can be and how little control I have over my life. It mocks and laughs at me.
It is constant. It is there waiting for me every time I become locked in my cell. Every time I am placed on lockdown, every time I am allowed out my cell. It is permanent and makes me wonder if this will be my permanent place of rest.
I can only imagine how many other prisoners feel this way. We don’t speak about things like these, but I see it all in their eyes. They fear the “click” as much as I do.
The “click” that says prepare for the next lockdown. Prepare to deal with the reality of perpetual violence. Prepare for the volatility of everyday prison life. Prepare to explain to your family and loved ones why you left abruptly for the last nine days. Prepare, prepare, and stay for ever vigilant.
Eric Van Buren, for Prison Insider. — # 11044-068
P.O. BOX 759
Minersville, PA 17954