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A Day in the Life of a Prisoner

“We aren’t deadbeats — our days are, in fact, incredibly full.”

People are constantly asking me: What’s a day in prison like? Is it boring? Or are you busy? So the other day, I toted a pocket-sized notebook with me everywhere I went, scribbling down every single thing I did.

I thought I’d share my findings with you to show you that we prisoners aren’t deadbeats — our days are, in fact, incredibly full.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

At 1:30 a.m., I’m jarred awake in my cell by an officer wielding the brightest flashlight in the world. He gives me 10 minutes to throw on some clothes and escorts me to the isolation cells, where I strip down again for a thorough search and begin a three-hour suicide watch. This is my prison job: to sit with inmates deemed suicidal and just talk with them, and make sure they don’t try anything.

The 18-year-old black kid I’m assigned to on this day is soft-spoken, and severely depressed. (I’m 43 and white.) He opens up surprisingly quickly about the many horrors of his childhood. He’s lived a very hard life, which is typical for incarcerated people but is always deeply upsetting nonetheless. I almost cry several times. There’s not much I can do for him except listen, so I do so as if this young man is my own child.

Shift over, I’m strip-searched again and escorted back to my housing unit, where I take a quick shower, stretch, meditate, pray, then climb back under my itchy wool blanket and hit the sack around 6 a.m.

I wake up at 10, thanks to all the hooting and hollering outside my cell. I take a few minutes to center myself, climb from my top bunk and am met by my service dog in training, Ross.

As I dress, Ross wags his tail and prods me with his cold, wet nose, which never fails to make me smile.

I then hike down the Rock (our term for the cell block) to the communal bathroom I share with 48 other inmates, brush my teeth between four young kids who are rapping, handle my morning business on the toilet, and return to my cell once again, where I pour Ross another bowl of water, buckle on my pouch full of treats, then venture back out into the bowels of our unit with the dog in tow. We spend the next 40 minutes training him to follow my commands.

Next, I grab my tablet and a cup of instant coffee, and hurry to our (a prison email service) kiosk (a computer encased in damn-near indestructible stainless steel), which is my only window to the outside world.

There, I pay a guy a ramen noodle soup for holding me a spot in line, then plug my tablet in and upload and download emails.

Once finished, I jog over to our unit’s kitchen area, where I wait in line to use one of two microwaves shared by 96 convicts. Luckily, I’m able to heat up my coffee before I hear, “Five minutes til count time, people,” blaring over the PA system in the same dull, unsympathetic voice that has spewed these words multiple times a day, every day, for years.

“Be on your bunks and be visible! I repeat, be on your bunks and be visible for 11:30 count or you will get a ticket!”

During count, I write a few emails (to be uploaded later) and listen to the news on the radio as I lie in bed waiting for the guards to make their rounds. I then throw on my workout clothes (a pair of tattered pants covered in patches), shrug on my state-issued “winter” coat, and stand by my cell door, waiting for it to open.

Count times in prison are an imprecise science, from a convict’s point of view. Sure, they start at the same times each day: 5 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 4 p.m., 9 p.m., and midnight. But when each one might end is anybody’s guess. It’s basically purgatory.

On this particular day, I get lucky. Count is cleared at 12:10, which means I’m out the door and on the yard by 12:20.

I usually pick this time slot to head out to the yard because it’s virtually empty — most inmates are inside right now having lunch. I run a few miles, do pullups, pushups, sprints, and finish with weights and stretches.

When the prison opens its massive, razor-wire-topped gates at 1:40 for a controlled mass-movement to the yard, I head inside like a fish swimming upstream through a river of convicts. Hundreds of them. At times like these, I need to stay hyper-vigilant. In such a crowd, a man could get butchered and the guards wouldn’t know it until they discovered his bloodless corpse lying crumpled on the walkway after the crowd had passed. I duck and dodge, pausing a few times to say hi when someone calls out my name.

Safely back in my housing unit, I mark my place in line for the shower (there’s just one) by dropping my towel and soap dish outside the stall. I then fix myself a bowl of instant oatmeal using our hot water dispenser, stir in a spoonful of peanut butter, a handful of cashews, almonds, and sunflower seeds, mix a cup of milk (powdered), dig a few bananas out of my locker (purchased on the black market), then sit down to enjoy lunch as I await my turn to bathe.

The shower is the one place I’m guaranteed to find solitude, if only for ten minutes at a time. By now it’s around 3, so I grab another cup of coffee, return to my cell, pull up to the desk that my bunkie and I share, and study Spanish grammar before doing some writing in my native tongue. Sometimes fiction, sometimes poetry, sometimes creative nonfiction.

Today it's fiction.

From 3 until 6, I soar free. I delve into my fantasy world and live vicariously through my protagonists as they experience love and loss, battle evil, and fight to make their world a better place. (I am forced to pause for twenty minutes, though, while I jump up onto my bunk at 4:30 for count time.)

At 6:10 or so, I roll out with the herd of orange- and blue-clad convicts heading toward the chow hall. There we wait in one of two lines that snake between long dining tables lined with small circular stools as guards bellow: “Tuck in your shirts, gentlemen. Or you will get a ticket.” We eventually arrive at the filthy, food-splattered serving counters, where Trinity (our privatized food-service contractor) ladles us a tray of gray plop they call “Turkey Ala King,” a rock-like biscuit, and canned green beans overcooked into a tasteless, scentless mush. I choke down what I can, then scram. The chow hall, too, is a dangerous place to linger.

After dinner, I teach a writing class that usually lasts about an hour. Today, it runs over, because we actually have quite a lot of fun learning the difference between active and passive voice. Around 8 I call Mom. At $3 (almost twice my daily pay) per 15-minute phone call, I can only afford to speak to her once or twice a week.

Quickly and efficiently, with skill honed over many years of phone company abuse, Mom fills me in on her life (her feet hurt from standing up all day at work, and she’s getting a new roof on her house), and talks about my brother David’s upcoming wedding (it’s going to be beautiful). As usual, a robotic voice suddenly breaks in: “You have one minute remaining. Thank you for using GTL.”

Mom often cries. Sometimes I do, too. Then our phone call is over until next week.

At 8:30, I take Ross out the back door of our unit for his final potty break. I then jog upstairs to the microwave area, heat myself a ramen noodle soup, and pop myself some popcorn. 9 count hits. This is my chill-out time. For the next two hours, I sit on my bunk and slurp noodles and crunch popcorn while I watch T.V. or read a book.

Day complete, I kill my T.V. and lamp, stretch, meditate, then pray, and finally burrow my way under the itchy wool blanket again, and doze off.

One more day down. Somewhere around 3,650 to go …

Jerry Metcalf, 43, is incarcerated at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony, both of which he was convicted of in 1996.