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Life Inside

How I Survived ‘Ninja Shakedown’ Cell Searches

Fear and anxiety during a three-day lockdown.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

Prison is a place of routines. Every morning, our cell doors open at the same time. My block is called to breakfast at 7:00 a.m. every day. I go to work at 7:30 a.m. every weekday, making products for state agencies and refurbishing computers for public schools.

When the doors break, I always head to the hot water spigot on our unit, with two cups full of instant-coffee powder in hand. By the time I get back, my cellie Duce is always sitting at a table just outside our cell. I always slide one cup down in front of him, then head back into the cell.

But today, something’s off. It’s late — I can feel it. My mental alarm clock is going off, telling me I should already be awake. But my other alarm, the sound of my cell door’s lock disengaging at 6:15 a.m. every morning, hasn’t. When I see 6:20 on my clock, I look out my cell window at another block across the way. All those guys are still locked in their cells, too.

The fact that the whole institution is still locked down usually means one thing: the ninjas are coming.

The Special Response Team, or SRT, do massive shakedowns — or searches. We call them the ninjas because of their black fatigues and the quasi-militaristic way they conduct themselves. They march in lines everywhere they go.

The one-day shakedowns are conducted by an SRT team of officers from our own prison. Officers who know us, who know that I’m not one of the troublemakers, that I keep to myself. But then there are the three-day shakedowns, which are conducted by officers from other prisons. The out-of-town officers treat every single person like shit. They always seem to be having a competition to see who can break the most stuff.

“Duce,” I say. “The doors never opened… Duce, I think the Ninjas are coming.”

“Wake me up when they get here,” he replies.

Having spent four years in prison, I have been through a few ninja shakedowns. But Duce has been in for 20 years. For him, big shakedowns are just a part of the routine.

He goes back to sleep while I enjoy my tap-water cup of coffee. Then I continue my own routine, using the toilet while pulling a sheet in front of me for some measure of privacy. But I turn the TV way down, just in case.

Shit — the TV! The TV, I realized, was contraband.

Normally, shakedowns are an opportunity to do some spring cleaning. Since neither my cellie nor I are into any dirt (gambling, tattoos, drugs, running a commissary-loan shop at 200 percent interest, etc.), we have nothing to fear from the ninjas.

We do usually have a few minor pieces of contraband, for the guards’ sake. Since they expect everyone to break the rules, you have to break the rules. You have to have something for them to take so that they can go on their way. Prison logic.

But not this time. This time, I was screwed — I had a TV in my cell that wasn’t mine. My friend Bumper had loaned it to me, and having someone else’s property is a serious infraction. I was liable to be tossed into solitary, no questions asked. I would lose my good job and my cellie with his compatible routine. On top of that, they’d take Bumper’s TV and I’d have to find a way to buy him a new one.

When Duce finally wakes up, I tell him about all my concerns. He puts my mind at ease by sharing the type of wisdom you gain after spending 20 years in prison: "Fuck it. You can't do anything about it now."

By the afternoon of the second day of the shakedown, the ninjas finally make it to our cell block.

Duce and I take turns at our cell window narrating what we see. There are two-man teams going into cells, in addition to a handful of SRT Sergeants and Lieutenants walking around. Then there is a group of support staff setting up paperwork and empty boxes at the tables in the middle of the block. They do the paperwork on any major contraband discovered and ostensibly help people send property home to their family instead of allowing it to be destroyed.

Guys are strip-searched, dressed in their boxers, and cuffed. They stand outside their cells facing the wall. That’s when the contraband rain starts to fall inside. Papers, nudie pics taped to walls, extra sheets and blankets, and extra commissary items are tossed out of cells.

Soon we see maintenance staff going into the cells with the SRT guys. They are taking off electrical and light plates, as well as the light fixtures, checking inside for hidden treasures.

We grow bored by the scene, and start to get our own cell ready for the shakedown. To help speed things along, we strip our beds and fold all the sheets and blankets. We unplug our fans and wrap up the cords. We even leave a few girlie magazines in strategic locations, to distract the officers.

The easier we make it for them, the easier they will be on us.

A key enters the lock, click, and our door opens. I try to get a read on the two officers as they strip-search us and put us out of our cell. They seem kind of bored by the whole thing, just two guys doing their jobs. Not the type of gung-ho assholes who are trying to save the world from my extra bar of soap. But then again, even cool-seeming guys can turn into the type of pricks who "search" a bag of coffee by dumping it all over a pile of your letters on the floor. Then walk all over it. Then walk all over it again.

As we are shown the wall next to our cell, Duce and I exchange a glance that says, Could go either way.

Some minor contraband starts to fly out of the cell. The obvious stuff.

The bed scrapes against the floor as they move it to check under and around it. Cellophane rustles as they check our commissary. They have a quiet conversation comparing the items we are able to buy at our commissary versus what is sold at their home prison.

Still, I'm just waiting for a head to pop out of the cell to ask about the TV. Dreading the possibility of seeing one of them cart it out to the tables. That would mean I was going down for sure.

After what seems like an hour in our cell, the officers come out. They uncuff us and tell us to go back in. It's over. I still have the TV.

The ninjas march out. A few inmate-porters are let out of their cells to deal with the piles of crap all over the unit. They intentionally sweep all the contraband closer to the cells so that the rest of us can put a hook on a string, toss it under our doors, and fish back anything we can fit under the crack.

There will be one more day of burnt boiled eggs for meals, hours of waiting in our cell, and the constant reality of intrusion. Then the shakedown will be over. Until the next one.

Wayne Snitzky is a 39-year-old inmate at the Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, where he is serving 15 years to life for a murder he was convicted of when he was 18.