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Life Inside

The Curious Case of the Prisoners in the Wrong Cellblock

A mystery unfolds during an urgent phone call.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

The female robot voice recording begins:

“Press one for English. Para Español oprima el dos.”

While pressing one, I notice two guys — from a different housing unit — walking into our cellblock. Both are young white men covered in tattoos, one with scraggly red hair and two-day-old whiskers, the other a clean-shaven blond. Suspiciously, they are wearing winter coats during the hottest stretch of summer.

When I make this call, Oregon is in a state of emergency. It’s been 49 days without rain, and over half a million acres of forest are burning. The nearest inferno is 59.8 miles away and has turned Salem’s air quality hazardous, while depositing ash on all our window bars.

It’s hot as hell, and they are wearing heavy coats. This alarms me.

Thick denim with textbook-sized pockets can hide weapons. Meanwhile, prisoners caught in unauthorized areas, as these two are now, can face solitary confinement. So they are here for a reason.

I scan the vicinity, accounting for friendlies and hostiles.

After 23 years of incarceration, I’m accustomed to being on high alert. Prison is always violent, always difficult. It’s true that the Oregon State Penitentiary itself is relatively safe and progressive compared to many of the nation’s correctional facilities, yet violence is still inherent to its structure. Any variable — mental illness, addiction, other dysfunction — can ignite chaos affecting every aspect of a prisoner’s life. Conflict can erupt at any moment, with consequences ranging from solitary confinement to loss of life. And the problem doesn’t have to be the prisoner’s own to cause suffering back home.

Having navigated this volatility for so long, I am adept at identifying pending bedlam and moving away from it in advance. Today, however, I am not moving: I'm determined to make this call regardless of hazard.

“Please be informed that your continued use of Telmate’s products and services shall constitute acceptance of Telmate’s terms of use and privacy statement, which are available…”

Telmate is Oregon’s sole provider of prisoner telephone services at $.16 a minute. The robot lady provides no instructions as to how to access and accept the terms, but since my only other option is to just not call home, I blindly agree.

The two guys look around sinisterly. One watches the officer who just began a tier walk to visually check all 50 cells in the two-story building. He will be gone for awhile, so now is the time for them to strike.

Adrenaline pumps into my body as war-zone butterflies flutter in my stomach. I taste my saliva as my pulse increases. I prepare for fight or flight.

“Please enter your pin code followed by the pound key.”

I hurriedly enter my 14-digit pin, hoping the impending trouble doesn’t spill across racial lines (I’m mixed race and identify as black). I mentally will the robot lady to speak faster, because incidents inevitably prompt lockdowns.

“Press eight for the inspector general.”

The blond guy watches the officer walk farther away and then gives the redhead a go-ahead nod.

“Press nine for the Prison Rape Elimination Act hotline.”

Red-hair plunges his hand into his pocket and darts into the cellblocks’ general-purpose room, where prisoners exercise on pull-up bars, do sit-ups and watch sports on TV while drinking 16-ounce sodas at $1.85 a pop. This unit is the only one in the entire prison that has a Coke machine.

“Go get a wheelchair, we got a man down!” the officer suddenly screams into his radio from the top tier.

Confused and disoriented, I wonder how the man down is connected to the out-of-area white dudes and their mission. Quickly glancing in their direction, I see that they too have paused to calculate the commotion.

“Please enter the area code and the phone number you want to call, or for international calls dial 011, the country code and the number.”

Punching in my numbers quickly, I know it won’t be long before security staff and medical nurses swarm to the officer’s summon. All I want to do is complete this call. Earlier, my wife sent me a message on a Telmate tablet (which costs a nickel per minute to use) which read: “Call when you can, we heard back from the editor.”

“Please say your full name and the facility at the beep and then press pound.”

“Sterling Cunio, Oregon State Penitentiary.”

“Sorry, voice not recognized.”

Officers and nurses pour into the unit.

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“Please say your full name and the facility at the beep and then press pound.”

“Sterling Cunio, Oregon State Penitentiary.”

“Sorry, voice not recognized.”

After the staff goes running past me toward the medical emergency, the two guys begin moving again.

“Please say your full name and the facility at the beep and then press pound.”

“Sterling Cunio, Oregon State Penitentiary!”

“Sorry voice not recognized. You have no access to this phone.”

Dial tone.

In my experience, the voice recognition software works, on average, one out of every five attempts I make to use it. Since the entire recorded process takes one minute and 37 seconds, I am fearful there won’t be enough time before the mayhem around me becomes a lockdown. Hanging up the phone to reset it, I pick it back up and hastily dial again.

Finally, I see that the medical emergency involves a 58-year-old named Dave who is a tutor in the education department. I see him flopping around on the tier, having a seizure. Nurses attempt to stabilize him while the officers strap him to a gurney in preparation for the rush to an ambulance. His friends and a few random gawkers have gathered outside the general-purpose room’s door.

“Press one for English. Para Español oprima el dos.”

Writers, lawyers, professors, and criminal justice reform activists have encouraged me to submit my writings to The Marshall Project and Vice’s “Life Inside” feature. So I sent a story about the prison wedding of my friend Michael, who in his late forties was dying in the hospice area. He was remarrying his first wife on the same day that another of my buddies, Arnold, was getting released, after 17 years of incarceration.

The story attempted to braid the two narratives — intersecting hardships, as is common inside, along with intersecting chaos, which was unfolding before me now. My theme in that earlier story was how the pain of never seeing a friend again is only overcome by the joy of seeing one regain liberty.

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“Please be informed that your continued use of Telmate’s products and services shall constitute acceptance of Telmate’s terms of use and privacy statement which are available ...”

The white guys are sliding their way through the crowd in their commitment to their still-unknown mission. Dave has been strapped on the gurney and is being hauled down the steps; he’s no longer moving.

“Please say your full name and the facility at the beep and then press pound.”

“Sterling Cunio, Oregon State Penitentiary.”

“Thank you for using Telmate.”

“Hey, we heard from the editor,” says Cheryl, my wife of 14 years.

“Yo, what did he say?” I ask in excitement, my eyes darting between environmental threats.

“He says it needs to be more narrow. It’s too many threads for Life Inside.”

Dave’s feet disappear through the door.

“Too much, what the fuck!” Now I’m thinking how to tell Michael the story isn’t going to be published.

“Are you going to write another piece? Maybe just focus in on something simpler...?”

“I wish anything around here was simple. I’ll call you later.”

As soon as the gurney passes by, the redhead makes his move, sprinting across the floor while pulling out three soda coupons and jamming them into the Coke machine. Shoving three cold drinks into his coat pockets, he slips out the door with his accomplice, back to the housing area they came from. Their mission is complete.

Glancing at the clock, I hang up the phone.

It’s been 12 minutes.

Sterling R. Cunio, 40, is incarcerated at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon. He was convicted of double aggravated murder, kidnapping and robbery for his role in a carjacking committed when he was 16. His earliest release date is 2066.