JULY 13, 2016: You can never count on a “routine” day in prison, but today is about to become shockingly divergent from the normal. I’ve eaten my 5 a.m. bran flakes, written two letters, and sent an email to my wife, Tensie. It’s nearly eight o’clock, and I am sitting on a stool outside my cell writing down some reflections on an essay sent to me by my friend Doug. “Apel!” a woman’s voice yells from the common area. “Get dressed, and bring your ID.” I go into my cell, take off my shorts and sweatshirt, and put on my khaki pants and shirt, making sure my ID is in my breast pocket. I head up to see what this is about.
In the common area stands a guard who, after asking if I am Apel, escorts me to the hallway just off our unit where we wait to be joined by the woman who had called me. “What is this about?” I ask the guard. “You’ll find out,” he replies in a tone that tells me he is not in the mood for questions. When Ms. “B” joins us, we step into the elevator, and she casually asks me, “Have you ever been in the SHU?”
“No,” I reply, hardly believing what I’ve just heard. The Special Housing Unit is where inmates who are being disciplined are taken. “Why am I going to the SHU?”
“You’ll find out,” she answers. Then Ms. “B” begins questioning me about the column I am writing for The Santa Barbara Independent. Hadn’t I been told to stop writing it by Mr. “H”?
I explained to her that I had not been told not to write it, only that there could be consequences if I continued, such as delayed mail and emails because of extra monitoring. I also told her that I had been careful not to write anything that might compromise the prison’s security, and I remind her that I had written to Mr. “H” to advise him that I would continue to write the column and that I had heard nothing back from him in weeks. She then told me that my last column had talked about the prison toilets and that I was not allowed to write about the toilets. Then she adds, “But that’s not why you’re going to the SHU. You’re going for something else.”
I am escorted off the elevator and into a hall where I am told to face the wall and put my hands behind my back. The guard handcuffs me, and I am led through double steel doors and down a hallway and into an office. The well-appointed room has soft music playing and a large neat desk with a computer and a phone. Although the furniture in the room is very nice, against one wall is a grey steel seat with steel armrests, and I am told to sit there, still in handcuffs.
Shortly, a kindly man, Lieutenant “L” comes in and sits at the desk. He is very pleasant and seems almost apologetic that I am there. “Let me tell you what you’re here for. Yesterday the mail room received a greeting card addressed to you from “S” in Santa Barbara. Do you know him?”
“Yes, of course, he is a good friend of mine.”
“Well,” explains Lt. “L”, “the card tested positive for methamphetamines.”
I am speechless. I explain that my friend “S” is the last person who would be involved in drugs. He grows organic, eats organic, is vegetarian, and doesn’t even drink let alone use drugs.
“Do you deny it?” asks Lt. “L.”
“I don’t understand,” I tell him. ” I haven’t even seen the card. I don’t know what you’re asking me. I know my friend ‘S’ is not a drug addict, and I am not a drug addict, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“So you deny it?” he asks again, and I respond, “Well, yes.”
He then explains that I will have a hearing in five days, on the following Tuesday, to discuss my charges. He hands me a sheet of paper explaining that I am being accused of introducing narcotics to the prison. I ask Lt. “L” if this has anything to do with the columns I am writing for the paper, but he says he has no knowledge of that. I ask him if I can call my wife and let her know not to drive three hours down to visit me on Saturday, and he says he’ll see what he can do.
When we are done with our meeting two guards come and lead me, one on each arm, through a labyrinth of hallways to a small cell with a steel-barred door covered with Plexiglas. I enter the room alone, and the door is bolted behind me. The only item in the cell is a horizontal six-inch-thick rectangular slab of concrete on a pedestal with a steel ring embedded in the concrete at each of the four corners clearly to be used for four-point restraints. I am feeling very uneasy.
Shortly, a guard comes back and has me squat down with my back to the door and extend my handcuffed wrists through a slot in the bars. He removes the handcuffs. I am then instructed to remove all of my clothes and to hand them one piece at a time through the slot in the door; the guard throws them in a pile in the corner of the hall. Once I am completely naked, the guard asks me what size clothes I wear and leaves. It is cold in the cell, and I begin to shiver waiting for the guard to return. When he comes back a few minutes later, he hands me through the slot my new clothes: two pairs of orange socks, two orange T-shirts, and one pair of orange boxer shorts. When I am finished dressing, I put my wrists back through the slot to be handcuffed and to be led to my new cell where, once locked inside, I again back up to the slot on the steel door and extend my wrists to have the handcuffs removed.
It’s time to meet my new cell mate. Tim is a kind and pleasant man from Texas who is also wearing an orange T-shirt and boxer shorts and is as clueless about why he is in the hole as I am. About 10 minutes later, a guard arrives, and through the slot he hands each of us an orange jumpsuit, size XXXL. We gladly put them on over our underwear as the vent in the cell continues to blow frigid air, and we are both shivering. We then make up our bunks with the sheets lying there, but keep the blankets to wrap around ourselves against the cold.
I can scarcely believe all that has happened in the past hour since I was sitting on my stool outside the cell in the only unit I had known since I arrived in prison back in May. This begins a new chapter in my incarceration. My mind is flooded with questions and imaginings as I try to make sense of this sudden turn of events.
I think of my writing. I think of writing this story and wonder if it is even possible to share it. I think of my hearing five days from now and wonder if this is only the beginning of this saga. I think of Tensie and the kids and about how worried they will be when they don’t hear from me and whether they will be able to find out that I have been moved to the SHU. And I think of Vandenberg and the base’s testing of weapons of mass destruction and of stepping across the green line willing to accept the consequences of my civil disobedience.
This is clearly not a consequence I had envisioned. I had acclimated somewhat to my other environment, but now I am in a new, harsher, and scarier place.
“I can do this,” I reassure myself, even as I wonder what the next days will bring.
Dennis Apel served 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.