I must show my hands, palms forward and pressed against the window in my cell door, before I’m released for Sunday morning yard. This is one of many protocols that maximum-security prisoners at Baraga Correctional Facility in Michigan have to follow in order to receive our privileges. But this is all about to change for me. It starts with a COVID-19 test.
“Buckley, you gotta get swabbed,” says the C.O. on the main floor.
“Stop playing with me,” I reply. Taking a test on this morning most likely means I will be on a bus to a lower-security facility by tomorrow morning. And a lower security level means more time outside of my cell. But I have trouble believing that I’m on my way out of here. It’s April 24, but the Baraga administration had told me my transfer wouldn’t come until the summer. Before “summer” it was last winter, and before that, two falls ago.
I walk onto the yard, squinting up at the blazing sun. The concrete is wet from the melted snow. “Buckley!” someone yells from behind me. I turn around and see the sergeant waving at me to come back to the unit. Back inside, I walk to a back room and see a nurse sitting at a table with a COVID kit in front of him. “Yup, this is the test before transfer,” the nurse confirms. A rush of joy washes through me and I can’t hold back a smile.
The nurse breaks the plastic seal, then stands up and sticks the long cotton swab far up my nose. I hate testing, but today I welcome it. Within 15 minutes, I’m fist pumping at the negative results
Returning to the yard, I wonder if the other prisoners can see the bounce in my step. I tell a select few the good news. They praise the transfer I’ve earned and advise me to never return to Baraga Level 5, where there are prisoners who've turned into crazy men.
I will miss the few guys I’ve bonded with here, but it is time for me to move on. I’m most likely relocating somewhere closer to my hometown. Somewhere where I will finally get to see my daughter.
At about 7 p.m., a C.O. comes to my cell and gives me two green duffle bags. I pack and hear my voice echo in the now empty room. Tonight I will lie on my bunk with no TV, no music and no food and wait for morning. Sleep will evade me, and I will lie in the dark analyzing my feelings. I will realize that it feels like I’m going home. But I know I’m not going home. I’m just going somewhere else.
At 5:00 the next morning, a C.O. tells me I have five minutes to get ready. I finger brush my teeth and wash my face with the hygiene products I didn't pack. You’re not going home, I remind myself.
At the control center, they strip-search me. “Lift your nuts,” says the C.O. “Turn. Cough. Squat. Dress.” After this all-too-familiar search, I wait two hours in waist and ankle chains with my hands cuffed in front of me. There are six of us prisoners sitting here in silence. We are all familiar with one another — we’ve been to medical or the gym together. But it feels like we’ll be pulled back to our Level 5 cells if we break the silence.
The van arrives a little bit past 7:15 a.m. It’s no different from a Comcast or Dish Network van, except for the Plexiglass over the metal gate that separates the driver from the passengers. We load into it and start chatting, appreciating the comfort of the cushion seats.
At this point, I should mention that we don’t know which prisons we’re being transferred to. They don’t tell us, supposedly for security reasons.*
“Where y’all think we going?” one prisoner asks the group.
“As long as it’s far away from here,” says another. He’s an older guy that I’ve known for a while.
“We might go down state,” I say.
“Somebody ask!” another prisoner commands.
But as soon as the transport officers get in the van, our silence returns.
When we exit the prison, I feel butterflies in my stomach. I’m excited to be outside the prison, but I’m also so nervous that my belly sweats. We drive past what I think is Baraga employee housing. I imagine a family with kids in one of the medium-sized homes. Then comes Lake Superior. I think about how, at times, I could smell the lake on the morning yard.
I look up and see the other prisoners staring out of their windows, too. Probably wishing they were in one of those houses or across the lake in Canada territory.
The road slims and the naked brown trees lining it are frozen stiff. The trees remind me of every Black male body strip searched in the Michigan Department of Corrections.
After about three hours, we exit onto another road and drive through a small town full of old buildings, fast food restaurants and stores. At a red light, I see a guy and a girl walking down the street hand-in-hand, oblivious to this van holding six convicted criminals. I wonder if being in love means you can only see the one you love, and then I smile at the thought.
Back on the freeway, there are three more hours of trees. Then we pull into Chippewa Prison, where we will stay for the night.
“But what prison are we being transferred to?” the older prisoner asks.
“A prison,” an officer replies.
The older inmate gives up.
Inside the segregation cell where I will sleep, I lie in the dark and visualize the naked trees. I see the couple running through the trees and laughing. Suddenly, the trees aren’t trees anymore; they are prisoners stripped naked. I feel the shackles I’ve been wearing all day in my sleep.
The next morning, I wake up to a C.O. slipping a cheese sandwich and an apple through the slot in the door. He returns after I eat. “I need you to strip and hand me your clothing,” he informs me.
I do it without protest. I lift my nuts. I turn around. I squat. I cough. I dress. Then I get chained up and sit with the rest of the men. Our original group is down to four. We board a school bus painted black, and we’re suddenly among about 30 loud prisoners experiencing this field trip.
I get a window seat and try to enjoy the view, but it’s just more trees until we get to the Mackinac Bridge. The bridge is shaky, and the railing is small, but this big bus holding us prisoners speeds up. Everyone starts talking about what would happen if we fell into the lake. We are shackled from head to toe and there is a locked gate barring us from the front of the bus where the emergency hatch is located. We’d drown to death.
But I look down at the green water, then I look as far as I can into the horizon. I think about where the sky touches the water. It is a good enough distraction. We pass over the bridge, down state to where there are fields, fields and more fields.
I’m not going home, just elsewhere.
According to Chris Gautz, a spokeperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, the agency routinely conceals destination facilities. “Anytime we take prisoners outside the secure perimeter, and if they know the destination, they could have communicated that to family or friends, potentially putting staff and prisoner safety at risk,” he wrote in an email.