MAY 9, 2016: The entrance alone is enough to make one pause. You report to the prison, and in the lobby you say good-bye to your loved ones, who are struggling valiantly to transfer to you all the strength their bones can give. Then the herculean guards come to escort you back out onto the sidewalk of Alameda Street where they lean you face-forward against the outside wall of the building that will be your home for the next four months. Pedestrians and vehicles pass within feet of you, seemingly disinterested as you are given your public pat down, little more than a brief curiosity in their day. “Stand up and put your hands behind your back,” and the familiar snap of the cuffs around your wrists. You can hear your wife crying out, “I love you!” but you cannot respond.
You are led down the driveway of the prison’s service entrance, and there in the underground bowels you are escorted through various barred gates and metal doors, arriving at a cinderblock cubicle. Your handcuffs are removed. It has been less than 10 minutes since you hugged your wife and friends good-bye, and the order comes, “Take off all your clothes, and put them on the floor,” and the last vestiges of life as you’ve known it are stripped away. After exposing every crack and crevice of your body to the guard’s searching eyes, your clothes are put in the blue net bag, and you are handed a white jumpsuit (size 3XL) to cover your nakedness. A pair of hard, black, plastic sandals for your feet, no underwear, no socks, just the essentials. No need for cuffs anymore; you’re in.
Intake requires a mere five-and-a-half hours. There are the mug shots, forms to complete, your DNA test, your tuberculosis test, a video from the warden to watch in your holding cell. The process itself could easily take only 45 minutes, but staff is seemingly disinterested in your waiting.
Finally you are escorted out and through endless mazes and up elevators, and you eventually arrive on your floor. The heavy metal door clanks open, and you step into your new, strange world like Dorothy stepping into Oz, except the only colors are olive drab, and you are the only Munchkin present. You are greeted by the disorienting din of a room packed with 130 raucous men, most of whom only casually glance to see the new arrival in his oversized white overalls. You do your best not to look weak, but you know it’s no use. You’re in. There’s no going back.
Dennis Apel is serving four months in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, having been found guilty of crossing the “green line” during peaceful protest at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and then refusing to comply with supervised probation.