About five years ago, I arrived here at San Quentin after a two-day bus ride from central California and was immediately led to Receiving and Release, or R&R. Sitting in the bullpen while waiting to be processed was a case study in the different ways people deal with stress. Some made nervous small talk and cracked jokes, only growing silent when someone shared information and rumors they’d heard about the prison we were on the verge of entering. A few of us sat quietly, taking it all in. All of us were pondering the same unanswered questions. How tense was the yard? Which old faces would we see? And most of all, who would we be placed in a cell with?
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation doesn’t share its process for determining who will live together in a cell, but as far as I can see, they rely upon one criteria, two at the most, to determine who will live with whom. The first is race. The second, if there is a second, is gang affiliation. So, for a person like myself, who has never been a gang member, it all comes down to the first item.
That night, I arrived at the cell I was being assigned to about five minutes before lockdown for the night. It was dark in the cell, with the only light being a small one coming from my potential new cellie’s television. I was hyper aware of the fact that I was about to enter a small, confined space with a person I didn’t know, and then be locked in for the night.
I could just barely make out a figure laying on the bottom bunk, and truthfully, he didn’t look happy to see me. Of course, this is par for the course, no one is ever happy to get a new cellie just before lockdown. What I couldn’t tell was if he would blame me for his displeasure, or the state. And I had about four minutes to decide whether stepping in that cell would be placing my life in danger.
Ray, who would become my cellie for the next few weeks, yelled out at me as I stood at the door trying to read the situation, “Better tell them you need a mattress before they lock you in. They won’t bring you one after lockdown.”
Gratefully, I rushed back down to the C.O.s. to request a mattress. I was grateful because I understood that my new cellie’s advice meant that he was cool, and we wouldn’t have any problems in the cell, at least for the night.
The next morning, Ray and I sat down to have the talk. It’s a rite of passage anytime you move in with a new cellie. What is his bathroom schedule, when
does he go to the yard, to sleep, or when does he expect cell time by himself? Does he believe in using headphones while watching television or listening to music? And of course, I shared all of my preferences as well, with the unspoken understanding that since I was new to the cell, it was my responsibility to adjust my schedule to accommodate his, if possible. If it wasn’t possible, then I would have to move.
Along with the talk, came getting to know each other. Though Ray was a
nice enough person, our race and our incarceration was really about the only
things we had in common. Ray loved to be social in the cell, I’m more of the quiet, don’t talk to me while I’m watching TV type. Ray liked rap music, preferably as loud as his tiny little speakers can crank it up, I’m more of listen to whatever you want, just do it with your headphones on guy. Ray had visitors at the cell door constantly. I’m really not into that either. For me, the cell is a place to get away from all the social interactions on the yard.
The cell itself was tiny. It takes five steps to move from the front of the cell to the back. Either Ray or I could stand in the middle of the cell and touch the walls on both sides. Three of the walls are concrete, instead of a fourth wall, there are bars spread about two and a half inches apart, with an opening that leads out to the tier. Anyone can walk by and look in at any time, and people often do.
Inside of the cell are two bunks, top and bottom, and a sink and toilet so close to the bed that I use them to step down from off of the top bunk. Also in this space are all my worldly possessions, of course my cellie, and all of his possessions as well.
Ray and I were largely compatible, with one exception that I noticed after a week or two. Ray used anger to deal with conflict. Since conflict in such a small space is inevitable, I knew I had to move.
Fortunately, there was a guy in the building whom I’d known for years. He was older, and always had a positive word and a smile for anyone he came across. I considered him a friend. Unfortunately, he also proved true that well-worn prison maxim, that you never really know someone until you live with them.
It wasn’t more than a few days, before I started noticing odd behavior from my “friend.” First, he started packing up all of his important paperwork and carting it outside with him every time he went out to the yard. I knew it was important stuff, because when I first moved in with him, he told me how happy he was to finally have a cellie he could trust, so he wouldn’t have to cart all of that stuff to the yard. Then, one day he stopped speaking to me. That morning I woke up, and as is my custom, after I brushed my teeth I said, “Good morning, Cellie.” No response. I tried again, a little louder, only to look up at him and find him glaring at me. From that day forward, he never spoke to me again while we lived in the same cell. Instead, we started communicating by other means. I started making sure to leave the cell when I expected him to arrive, and he would tell our neighbor through the bars whenever he got an appointment or his schedule changed.
It was during this period that I realized that choosing to live in a cell with a friend is usually a bad idea. Living in such a confined space with someone puts more strain on the relationship than most friendships can reasonably bear, so it’s best to start with a clean slate, and learn to compromise together.
After about a month or so, my cellie moved out and a guy I’d never met came to the door and asked if he could move in. We had the talk. We set boundaries, and though we’ve had more than our share of ups and downs, we’ve been living together ever since. One day, when we have more time, I’ll explain how we make it work.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.