Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix My Time In Jail

To get the real story on prison, you have to ask an inmate. Or, better yet, become one.

By Chris Wright

APRIL 24, 2000:  When the guard ordered me to take my clothes off, I began to suspect I'd made a mistake. When he said, "Bend over," I was sure I had. But I did it: stripped, doubled over, and braced myself. The world looks very different when you've got your head between your knees, peering into the face of a state employee who's peering directly into your backside.

But then, it's not your backside anymore, it's theirs. The question is, what are they going to do with it? By the time I found out the answer -- "spread 'em" -- all I wanted was to go home.

Funny, a few weeks earlier all I'd wanted was to go to prison.

In turn-of-the-century America, going to prison is the thing to do. One out of every hundred American men is currently behind bars -- the highest proportion of incarcerated citizens of any country in the world. The vast majority of these aren't sociopaths or big-time hoods. Most prisoners are ordinary people -- drug-possessing, drunk-driving, and petty-thieving people, maybe, but otherwise just like you and me.

How does it feel, then, to be an ordinary person thrust into this extraordinary world? I'd begun to realize that for all the blood-and-guts prison movies I'd watched, the overblown memoirs I'd read, the handwringing editorials I'd avoided, I hadn't the faintest idea of what prison life was really like.

Besides, I was curious about the food.

To get a true sense of the prison experience, I figured, I'd have to go there -- and go there as a prisoner. No guards and no inmates could know I was a reporter. I'd need an alias, a crime, and the collusion of the prison system. Right. I called the Middlesex County sheriff's office and told them my plan. The guy at the other end laughed.

A week later, however, I got a call back.

"I don't see why not," said Brian Greeley, the sheriff's spokesman. Hell, even I could see why not.

So here I am, sitting in the sheriff's office on the 17th floor of the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge, having the living crap scared out of me by the sheriff's inner circle. This is when I get my first inkling that I might be making a mistake.

The prison for Middlesex County is the Billerica House of Corrections. Though not exactly Attica, Billerica isn't Disneyland either. The prison superintendent and the sheriff's lawyer compile a torrid, profanity-laced account of what I might expect to encounter behind Billerica's walls:

"Some guys will have cigarettes tucked up their ass, some will have drugs."

"They'll be asking a lot of questions: 'Who did you rat out? Where's your paperwork?' "

"They'll be shaking him down 'cause he's a new fucking fish."

"We should put him in with some seasoned veteran."

"We don't want him to get creased in one fucking night, either."

"That's a crapshoot."

I can tell they're enjoying this.

There's a hard-nosed attitude that reaches all the way to the top of the sheriff's office. The sheriff himself, James DiPaola, is a no-nonsense ex-narcotics cop. The superintendent at Billerica is a gruff bulldog of a man named Paul Norton, a 21-year veteran of the penal system who peppers his speech with prison's most popular adjective. Even the sheriff's chief counsel, the silver-haired John Granara, often speaks more like a seasoned con than an attorney.

"You're taking a chance," Granara says. "Anything can go on in a cell. You wanted the full effect, you're getting it, baby." He and Norton laugh. "Great," I squeak. And so Granara, Norton, and I hash out a crime and an alias and set a date for my two-night incarceration -- two weeks away.

The prison at Billerica was built in 1929 to house 300 men. Today its main building holds nearly twice that number, and its auxiliary buildings contain another 500. Like most prisons in the US, this one is chronically overcrowded, with two inmates sharing each of its single-occupancy cells -- a situation that inevitably leads to trouble.

In the past five years, Billerica has had two riots. One, in 1995, occurred when fighting erupted among a crowd of 100 inmates watching a basketball game on TV. The cafeteria was set alight. Riot police, state police, and local police were called in. Tear gas was lobbed. The violence was quelled. TV was banned. The second disturbance was in 1996 and involved 60 inmates. This time the brawling was racial, between African-American and Hispanic inmates.

Earlier this year there was conflict between two rival Latino gangs: a local gang called Ñeta and the New York-based Latin Kings, who are expanding into the area. "We had inmates fighting in the yard," says one Billerica employee. "We put 10 in the segregation unit and shipped some out."

Riots are rare, but fights are common. One of the more colorful incidents occurred a couple of years ago during a game of floor hockey in the gym. A forward had collided with a goalie and knocked his helmet off. Just like the professionals, the two traded blows. Unlike the professionals, they ended their fight with one player biting his opponent's ear off and spitting it on the ground.

In the confusion that followed the fight, an inmate strolled over to the ear, picked it up, put it in his pocket, went to the rec room, sat down beside another inmate, and said: "I'll bet you a carton of cigarettes that I have a human ear in my pocket."

Imprudently, perhaps, the other inmate said, "You're on," at which the guy pulled the ear out of his pocket, only to have a cuff snapped around his wrist. By the time authorities rushed the ear to the hospital, it was too late to reattach it. That's the kind of thing prison does to you. When the inmate had spotted that bloody object lying on the gymnasium floor, he hadn't seen a human ear. He'd seen an opportunity.

And the guy who told me the story did so in the spirit of knee-slapping comedy. That, too, is the kind of thing that prison does to you.

The day of my imprisonment, my horoscope reads: "The stakes are high, and there will be no room for error. You feel lonely if you go out of town on business."

Strange as it may sound, having an ear bitten off isn't my main concern. Though I'm assured by inside sources that most sexual contact in Billerica is consensual, the figures on prison rape are not encouraging. According to the advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape, 80,000 unwanted sexual acts take place behind bars in the US every day, with a total of 364,000 prisoners raped every year. As I enter the sheriff's office -- turn myself in, as it were -- I feel like Buggered Man Walking.

I'm taken to Billerica by two officers, in the back of a cruiser. We spend most of the trip rehearsing my story. If it doesn't add up, my fellow inmates might think I'm a sex offender -- or worse, a rat. There will be no room for error.

About a mile from the prison, we pull into a parking lot, where I get out of the car to let them shackle me in "full hardware" -- leg irons and handcuffs. The last 10 minutes of the drive are spent in silence.

Finally, we pull up outside the prison gates -- or, more precisely, the prison door. Billerica was built around the same time as Alcatraz, but it has none of that prison's menacing stateliness. Three stories of blunt brown brick, it looks more like a mill than a prison. Still, it's an imposing place, more so when the first of its metal doors clanks shut behind you.

I enter the receiving area in a daze, an officer on either arm, and am told to sit. The room is gloomy, a patchwork of dun, a dank basement. No wonder the correctional officer -- or CO -- who books me in is so cheerless.

"Oh, a fucking limey," he says.

"The Orange and the Green don't mix," says another guy out of the side of his mouth. I notice many of the officers have Irish names pinned to their uniforms. I'd been told that Billerica is "incredibly white," but I hadn't thought that this might translate into "incredibly Irish."

Too bad I'm incredibly English.

When I ask to use the bathroom, a CO says, "Don't you mean the loo?" The laughter that greets this remark feels inappropriate, as if at a funeral. I offer a weak smile and look around for the officers who drove me here. Gone. No one here knows I'm anything but a common criminal. And it'll be this way for the next 48 hours. You feel lonely if you go out of town on business.

What my stars failed to mention is that I'll also get in touch with my inner naughty child. People say prison is dehumanizing, and it is. It's also infantilizing. You are chided, bossed about, given that "I can't even stand to look at you" look. Never mind the brutality of prison, it's the nagging disapproval that gets to you. It's like being at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, only here the clerks can put you in solitary for 24 hours.

They want to know my story. Name: Christopher Lancaster. Occupation: construction worker. Birthplace: Ireland (a bit of ad lib). Address: London, England. Offense: distribution of a class B substance. My story: I'm here on vacation. I buy $500 worth of cocaine from some guy in Harvard Square. I'm nabbed by a state trooper, arraigned, and released on $2000 bail the next day. I plead guilty and get 6 months. And here I am, inmate #97827, being printed and photographed, putting my head between my knees. It doesn't get any worse than this.

Or does it? Following the strip search, I am given my prison blues -- blue coveralls with INMATE written on the back -- and led to a holding cell, where a handful of dispirited men -- convicted of God knows what -- loll about. One of them looks at me as if my very presence were an affront. If you want to fit in, the officers in the car had said, then swear. I press my forehead into the heels of my hands and say: "Fuck me." I hope it doesn't sound like an invitation.

I keep my head down and go to work on an imaginary hangnail. Eventually a CO calls, "Lancaster." Pick, pick. "Lancaster!" Oh yeah. I'm sent up to an infirmary, where I have a couple of vials of blood removed -- for syphilis and TB tests, I'm told. Then it's off to another cell a few doors down. This one has a single occupant, lying face down on a bunk, either asleep or dead.

As I enter, the guy on the bed stirs. He's chubby, maybe 20 years old. "They can't break me," he says, apropos of nothing. Over the next hour, another six or seven inmates are loaded into the 45-square-foot cell. There's none of the brooding silence that marked the cell downstairs. These guys are all talk.

One hot topic is drugs. "If I had all the money I've spent on crack," says a goateed guy, "I'd have enough for a house." Another is sex. "I like to go on those chat rooms," says a muscular kid. "In two hours I've got 10 phone numbers and I'm getting my dick sucked."

Given the circumstances, it's surprising that these guys are so eager to talk fellatio. Then again, prison has a neutering effect: a year in the clink means a year, theoretically, without sex. Talking about it is a way to reaffirm that it exists. Prison also generates an understandable fear that your significant other will seek sexual sustenance elsewhere.

"Mine better fucking not," says the goatee.

"I always dump my girlfriends before I come in," a redheaded kid says. "I'd go nuts."

At this, the chubby guy says, for maybe the tenth time since we've been in here, "They can't break me." Then he gets up, walks over to the toilet, and takes a piss.

Paranoia is a big part of the prison experience -- your girlfriend is screwing your best friend, you've been ratted out, the guards have it in for you, someone's going to jump you. I, though, have a paranoia all my own: someone's going to suss me out. It's not such a stretch, even if no one recognizes me. There's an inside joke that many of these guys know the law better than their own lawyers. Sooner or later, one of them is going to ask me a question I can't answer.

It turns out to be sooner.

The guy who gets the ball rolling is the largest in our group, but soon it's coming at me from all sides. Where am I from? What am I in for? How long did I get? How much was my bail? Who was my public defender? Then I have a brainstorm, one that will serve me well over the next two days: "To be honest," I say, "I'd been partying for five days before I got busted. It's all a blur." They seem to buy it. "Please God," I say, not acting now, "get me the fuck out of here."

It's growing dark outside, which means we've been in this cell a good two hours, with only a stiff ham-and-cheese sandwich to break the monotony. When you're doing time, waiting becomes a kind of art. Some inmates are better at it than others. "I don't want to be here," groans an older guy with faded tattoos. "I never want to spend another fucking summer in this place."

But he probably will. In 1999, the recidivism rate at Billerica was 68 percent. Most of the people in this cell have been here before, and most will come back. One has spent 11 Thanksgivings out of the last 12 behind bars. "What I wouldn't give to be out there," says the largest guy, staring through the window at the waning light.

A couple of the guys speculate about how easy it would be to escape -- kick the bars out, make a run for the trees. Actually, few people escape Billerica. One guy did it -- calling collect from the Dominican Republic a few weeks later to rub it in. Less successful was the guy who clawed himself a burrow in the moldering plaster of his cell, where he huddled until he was dragged out and taken to segregation. Many more people "hang it up" -- commit suicide -- than successfully scale the prison's walls.

One thing you learn in prison is that being locked up isn't always the worst thing that can happen.

To get to the place where we'll spend our first night -- the New Man unit -- we have to navigate the "day room," where inmates gather to play cards, chat, or skulk about. This is where the riot of 1995 started. As we pass through, a chorus of derision goes up: "That's him! The guy in the blue!" It's a little joke the inmates like to play on new fish.

The thing is, though, it isn't always a joke. Sometimes someone will see someone he knows, and sometimes that someone will get something done to him. A couple of the braver guys engage their antagonists. I don't. As we leave, one inmate approaches the redheaded kid and sneers, "I'll see you later."

The New Man's lot is not a happy one. You're hassled by old hands, locked up in a six-by-eight cell 23.5 hours a day for up to five days straight -- no reading, no exercise. Then there's the humiliation. Before lockdown, we're strip-searched again, right in the middle of a chilly landing. This time the CO adds "lift your balls up" to the repertoire of shame.

It's meant to be unpleasant, of course. Every element of prison life, right down to the tarnished steel dinner trays, is designed to remind you where you are. There are three floors. Each stairway opens onto a landing, at the center of which is an officer's station -- a cage in which dour COs sit before panels of controls. Behind this there's another cage containing open shower stalls. On either side of the landing there is a long corridor, lined on both sides with solid metal doors, each with a small barred window. You cannot turn your head without seeing bars or grates or a combination of the two.

We mill about waiting for our cell assignments: "Ramirez: K6 . . . Lancaster: K7." As I make my way down the block, I feel as though someone were chewing on my heart. Anything can go on in a cell. K7. I poke my head inside. The color scheme is putty. There's a little metal shelf, a bunk bed, a toilet and a sink, a window overlooking a litter-strewn yard. Beside the window stands a beefy redheaded guy. I walk in and the door clatters shut behind me.

The first thing I do is swear. "Bloody hell," I say. D'oh! My cellmate grins, revealing an incomplete set of teeth. "Oh," he says, "a bloody Brit." He grins again to emphasize the point. It turns out he's of Irish descent, from Charlestown. Assault and battery, 10 months.

"I'm Irish too," I lie.

Raymond is actually one of the more agreeable assaulters and batterers I've met. He's 30, the father of three, a regular at Billerica. There's a rumor going around the prison that Raymond died of a drug overdose, and every now and then a CO will come by and say, "I thought you were dead." He shows me how to stick a milk carton over the light for ambiance. We spend most of the evening discussing what we wouldn't do for a butt.

Smoking has been banned here since last October -- for health reasons. Since the ban, violence has risen, and cigarettes have become valuable contraband. A single butt in Billerica goes for about $15. To be caught with one means being put into segregation. This hasn't deterred the die-hards, though, who go to near-heroic lengths to sneak a smoke. In our cell there's a piece of graffiti: "I need a cigarette." Below this someone else has written, "Then suck my dick."

By his breathing, I can tell Raymond has fallen asleep. I doubt that I'll be able to join him. My bed has a biscuity plastic mattress, starched sheets, and a scratchy wool blanket. It's hot and musty in here. And explosively, apocalyptically loud.

If you're treated like a naughty kid for long enough, you start acting like one. And many inmates, like naughty kids, make a hobby out of noise. They rattle, clatter, and clang with unflagging energy. They tap on pipes and bang on windows. One popular technique is to turn your faucet on a fraction, which produces a jackhammer sound. An anti-lullaby.

Even worse are the human noises, the all-night squawks and howls, the nonstop whoops and caws, the multilingual banter, the hissed whispers. Until now, I'd comforted myself with the thought that if my cellmate started anything, I would simply yell "Guard!" A ludicrous idea. I'd have to set off a small nuclear device to be noticed in this racket.

I finally enter a brittle sleep, only to snap out of it a short time later to see my cellmate, big Raymond, standing beside my bunk in the dark. Here it is, I think, calmer than I'd expected. I look down at his hand. Instead of a shank, though, he's clutching a Styrofoam box. Five o'clock in the morning and it's breakfast time. Holy shit. I sit on my bunk and savor two cold, sloppy fried eggs. Oh happy day.

Or not. I fall asleep again, and when the sun comes up I find that I've spilled yolk down myself, over my sheets, over my blanket, even over my socks. Who knew eggs contained so much yolk? Raymond thinks this is the funniest thing ever. "This guy spilled his eggs!" he yells to the guy next door, who also seems to enjoy the joke.

Nothing anywhere near as exciting as the egg incident happens until lunch, when two more Styrofoam boxes and four cartons of milk are slid under the door. It's a cowpat of shepherd's pie, not bad. We gobble the gloopy sauce and sticky mash in silence. I've never felt more like an animal, and I've rarely had a more satisfying feed.

After this, it's back to nothing again. I've heard that prisoners overcome boredom by letting their minds soar, like birds. What crap. My mind soars straight into a brick wall before sliding, defeated, to the floor. For a while we try to amuse ourselves by watching ants. Raymond's more into it than I am, using scraps of food to herd them. "You're like the Bird Man of Alcatraz," I say. "The Ant Man of Billerica."

By the time the cell door opens, Raymond has taken to capturing his little friends and chucking them in the toilet. Before long, I will get a sense of how the ants must feel.

Now that our day in lockdown is over, it's time for us to join the general prison population. As far as I'm concerned, general population is a one-way ticket to Shakedown City, a trip aboard the Shanksville Express.

We're herded once more along the cellblock and out onto the landing, where I catch the eye of a guy -- a boy, really -- who looks even more terrified than I feel. (I'm happy, however, to note that he's a good deal better-looking than I am.) I try to latch on to Raymond, but he's mingling like a guest at a costume party where everyone is wearing the same costume. Several times I make a show of patting him on the back in a Hey buddy! way, and then I get a bombshell: Raymond's being sent to minimum security, and I'm going to medium. Heading into the general prison population, once again I'll be on my own.

Here's everything I know about the general prison population at Billerica: the average age is 32.8 years old. The maximum sentence is two and a half years, though many of the inmates serve consecutive sentences, up to seven years at a go.

The top three crimes are offenses against a person, 48 percent; drug and alcohol offenses, 18 percent; property crimes, 14 percent. A very unhappy two percent are sexual offenders. Eight percent of the population report a drug problem, 12 percent an alcohol problem, and 54 percent a problem with both. The racial make-up is 70 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black. There are no figures on what percentage of the population hates limeys.

My main objective, as I set foot in the dreaded day room, is to look nonchalant. Mainly I do this by whistling. It becomes my thing. I whistle in the gym, whistle in the laundry room, whistle in the prison yard. A few inmates give me the hairy eyeball, and at times I feel like I'm being circled, sniffed. But no one hassles me, or even talks to me. Maybe they think I'm a nut. Watch out for the whistling guy, he's bad news.

More likely they're just biding their time.

The longer I go unscathed, the more confident I get. I even pluck up the courage to take a shower.

It's a fairly warm day, so I spend a lot of time in the prison's two yards. The smaller yard, hemmed in by pocked brick walls, is a bit depressing. The larger yard, though, is nearly pleasant. It has a baseball field, a basketball court, a track, and rows of chain-link fences, each topped by a scribble of razor wire that shimmers in the sun.

To help pass the time, I play a little game with myself: Guess the Crime. The barrel-chested guy with squinty eyes -- robbery; the loner with the Beatles hairdo and Karl Marx beard -- drugs; the portly guy who looks like an insurance salesman -- booze; the cheerful teen -- auto theft; the glum guy with patchy skin -- restraining order; the skinhead with the teardrop tattoo below his eye -- assault.

I find the library and borrow a couple of books, Nabokov and Updike, then get a bit of a twinge: maybe literary fiction will be seen as a sign of weakness. Maybe I should have gone with Grisham. At one point, an obvious hard case crosses my path. He doesn't say anything, just looks out at me from beneath a thick, forehead-spanning eyebrow. I think he must have rehearsed that look for a long time. After this, I'm feeling decidedly less sanguine.

Another guy walks over and asks if I'm new. I manage to choke out a yes. The guy says: "Welcome."

When I get to my new cell -- the one where I'll ostensibly be spending the next six months -- my cellmate is there. He's an older guy, mid 50s. He wears glasses, the kind that make your eyes seem bigger, and a few straggles of hair spring from his glossy head. He's in for operating under the influence. "I'm just an ordinary drunk," he says, before showing me which shelves are mine.

Alan has had eight cellmates since he came here in November. "I won't tell where the bodies are buried," he says. The only time he worries me, though, is when a guy in another cell yells something about passing contraband from his butt like a chicken laying an egg, and Alan starts clucking. Otherwise, his dry humor is a nice change from the usual banter about cigarettes and blowjobs.

Like almost everyone else here, Alan's a repeat offender, and he seems even more versed in prison culture than Raymond. He does that thing where you hold a mirror outside your cell door to see what's going on. He points out the work details that pass by. Then he points out a group of PC -- protective-custody -- inmates in the yard.

General-population inmates are let out of their cells six times a day: three times to eat, and three times for recreation. For their own safety, PCs are isolated from general population -- they eat, shower, and exercise alone. The PCs are the snitches and the skinners (sex offenders), and they are the most reviled people in prison. They suffer an endless stream of abuse, and, if the chance presents itself, much worse.

One PC, a chester -- a child molester -- recently got snagged by a couple of inmates. By the time they were done with him, the chester's teeth were decorating his cell floor. One of the guys hit him so hard his knuckles came through the skin. Another piece of Billerica lore tells of a rapist who was castrated with a fork.

I must look worried, because Alan says, "Keep your head down, and you should be okay." Then it's off to the cafeteria, with its rows of long metal tables, for dinner: a cold pastrami sandwich.

Mealtimes in Billerica are a big deal. They are among the few routines in a prisoner's day that suggest a semblance of civilian life. Beyond this, eating offers rare sensual pleasure. If you see an inmate with a truly satisfied look on his face, chances are he's got a mouthful of tepid chow. Prison food is by no means gourmet, but it's plentiful -- and starchy and greasy -- and the prevailing physique tends to reflect that fact. Prisoners are not the glistening gym rats we see in the movies. There are few bulging biceps, rippling abs, or chiseled pecs in here. Many inmates are, to put it bluntly, fat.

Back in the cell, Alan is making himself a cup of instant coffee with a little electric kettle. They sell kettles for $15.20 in the prison shop, along with playing cards ($1.55), antifungal cream ($1.50), and squeeze cheese (70 cents). For some reason, it's heartbreaking to see him content himself with this crumb of domesticity.

Over the next few hours, I genuinely grow to like Alan. He shows me how to tie my sheets under the mattress so they don't slip off. He gives me a plastic soap dish and a couple of packets of shampoo. And he explains the importance of earning Good Time.

Good Time is given to inmates who attend meetings, take classes, and do work detail. Keep yourself busy and you can earn up to 12 days' worth a month. Good Time negates bad time -- every hour you earn is an hour knocked off your sentence.

At first I thought the whole idea was a bit cynical: you go to an Alcoholics Anonymous session and rack up your Good Time, knowing you'll be sucking on that bottle all the earlier. Then I go with Alan to an AA meeting. The inmates sit and listen to other inmates' bitter confessions, and you feel that, no matter what their motives are for coming, something good is coming out of this.

Besides AA and Narcotics Anonymous, Billerica offers violence-intervention programs, GED courses, a life-skills class, a computer class, an auto-repair program, even a barbershop where you can learn the art of hairdressing. Then there are assorted work programs, which allow inmates varying degrees of freedom.

Without these programs -- and the Good Time they bring -- morale would plummet. You can hear it in the way they talk: this is one of the few areas where prisoners can feel some control over their fate, even regain a little bit of dignity. And this is a good thing for everyone. After all, you can shut people off from basic human needs for only so long before you're helping turn a petty criminal into someone who would bite off an ear. As one prison official says, "Eventually these guys are going to get out -- they're going to be your neighbors."

As my cell door slams shut for the night, I come very close to giving up the game. I'm tired of being bored, tired of being scared, and just plain tired. I gaze out of the window and say, "I wish I was out there." Deadpan Alan lifts a loose corner of bug screen and replies, "Go ahead, I'll hold the door for you." Then he says, "I wish I was out there, too. Outside those fucking walls."

Next week, Alan has a revise-and-revoke hearing coming up, at which he'll learn whether he'll be allowed to return to his life, or whether he'll have to spend two more years in this cell. He's hopeful, he says, sipping on his coffee, very hopeful. I'm starting to hate the lies I have to tell him, especially when he browbeats me about going to meetings: Good Time.

My last night in prison turns out to be even more restless than my first. One guy yells some Spanish word -- "Hoyoda!" it sounds like -- compulsively, the way a caged lion paces. Then there are the indescribable clanks and clatters: Buicks being thrown out of third-floor windows, aircraft carriers being dragged along cobbled streets. I climb beneath my yolky blanket and listen to my cellmate's snores, the songs of frustration filling the night.

The next morning, as always, the doors grate open before sun-up. Bleary-eyed inmates shuffle toward the dining hall, scratching their arms, coughing. Breakfast today is cold pancakes. Yum. Waiting in line to get served, an inmate turns to his friend and says, "So, what do you want to do today?" They both laugh.

There's a lot of prison humor in prison. During the morning rec period, I overhear a guy decline a game of cards: "I'm here for rehabilitation," he says, "not entertainment." At lunch, we're given spaghetti. It's Ash Wednesday, and so we have the choice of clam sauce as well as the usual tomato. "Clam sauce in prison?" says an inmate to a nearby CO. "What next, chicken al-fucking-fredo? Where is the punishment?"

When the excitement over the clam sauce dies down, the hall is filled with the sound of mass slurping. An inmate opposite me, a huge black guy, wolfs down his huge helping of spaghetti and complains about still being hungry. I can only eat half of mine, so I offer him my leftovers. He declines, politely, and offers me a carton of milk. Even more politely, I tell him I've had my fill, and he gives the milk to a shaven-headed white kid before turning to a Hispanic guy to discuss what sounds like a pretty nasty crime.

One of the biggest surprises I get at Billerica is the racial climate. I'd expected a perpetual standoff. Though there are lines of demarcation between the black, white, and Latino populations, on the individual level there seems to be a fair amount of integration.

Just as I start feeling warm and fuzzy, I overhear a snatch of conversation -- "Kill that bitch" -- and notice a guy at my table who has a piece of gauze taped to his neck. Apparently he got into a dispute over a card game. The gauze is covering a bite wound.

Even so, later that day I am happy to fall in with a card crowd. We play cribbage on a board made out of an old flip-flop. I am a pretty good player, and soon I've strung a few wins together. It feels good: the Cribbage King of Cellblock B. "I play better with a beer and a cigarette," I quip, and this starts everyone going on about beer and butts. In a few hours, of course, I'll be having a drink and a smoke. For some reason this makes me feel ashamed.

Afternoon lockdown is at 3:15. I'm supposed to be taken out of here at four o'clock sharp. As Alan sits and sips his coffee, I can barely contain myself. I fidget, pretend to read, fidget. "It's tuna and pasta tonight," Alan says. Sip, sip. Then the door opens. Know-everything Alan -- Alan of the mirror held outside the cell door -- looks startled. "I don't know what this is all about," he says.

A huge guard appears at the door. "Lancaster!" he barks. "Step outside!" As he cuffs my hands behind my back, I can almost hear Alan's jaw drop. I am marched along the cellblock, which erupts into a frenzy of noise. It looks as if I'm being taken to segregation. "You've got the wrong guy!" a couple of them yell. Some even batter their cell doors. Just like in the movies.

But I'm not going to segregation, I'm going to the superintendent's office. "Uncuff him," the superintendent says to the CO who brought me in, who looks uncertain about this. Then, "You can go." As the door closes, Paul Norton and I burst into laughter, as if I'd just pulled some kind of silly prank. God knows what the CO must have made of it all.

As Norton feeds me tea and cookies, all I can think is, I want out. I want comfort, ease, a familiar restaurant booth. I want to have someone smile and call me sir. Above all, I want a damn cigarette.

Outside, the officer who drove me here gives me two packs of smokes, Camels and Marlboros: "I forgot your brand." Bless him. Back in Cambridge, he treats me to Buffalo wings and a beer at the Ground Round. Puffing on a Marlboro, sipping on a Sam Adams, I ask him about Alan's revise-and-revoke hearing next week, which will determine whether he gets an early release.

"Slim chance," the officer says. "Slim to none."

That night, lying in my own bed, my wife cozying up beside me, I'm restless. I won't get a full night's sleep for days, and right now I can't sleep at all. Two nights in prison have left me jittery. When I close my eyes, it all comes rushing back: metal trays, drowning ants, plumes of razor wire, "I owe you a ass kicking" penciled on a cell wall, and Alan, sipping a cup of instant coffee, saying, "Tuna and pasta tonight."

The Bartender

The top of the ladder at Billerica is James DiPaola, sheriff of Middlesex County, who oversees the operation of the jail in Cambridge and the main prison in Billerica. Before being elected sheriff three years ago, DiPaola was a state representative from Malden, and before that a cop for 18 years -- three of those as an undercover narcotics officer. He spoke to his former guest Chris Wright at his office at the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge.

On crowding: "The average DOC facility has 500 people; we have about 1200. It's like a little city. There are control techniques in place to maintain order. There are things we have to stay on and monitor. How close are you to the worst-case scenario of 'losing the place,' as they say, which means the inmates taking over? What are the small things that could lead to a big problem in the future?"

On the population: "There are factions in Billerica, gang factions -- whether they be rival Latino gangs, rival Asian gangs, or rival Latino-Asian gangs. In the midst of all these potentially predatory individuals, you get people who have a serious alcohol problem and are serving a year or two for drunk driving. We have a lot of people who are actually mentally ill, who need treatment for mental illness."

On the guards: "My biggest thing here has been to raise the professionalism of the department. When I first took over, the officers were doing three weeks of training -- the academy we're getting ready to start will have 12 weeks. It's a tough, depressing job. Alcoholism runs high in correctional officers, problems with family lives."

On being thrown in jail: "We had a suicide attempt the other night. There's a real risk of depression and hopelessness. Someone who never got arrested before suddenly finds himself thrown into a cell and he thinks this is the end of the world. We try to let them know: you've got two and a half years here. Relax, find something to do, use the opportunity to make yourself a little better."

On rehabilitation: "It's easy for someone who's never been in the prison environment to say, 'Hey, to heck with them, throw them in the cell, feed them garbage.' But we're dealing with somebody we're trying to motivate, and motivation comes with a state of mind. I see it as a moral obligation to try to get an inmate into the right frame of mind so that he's going to accept a change in his life. We will provide opportunities for the inmate who shows he wants to improve himself."

On prison conditions: "We're certainly not running a five-star hotel. They're not eating prime rib every night and putting their feet up and smoking cigars. But you treat a fellow human being as a human being, with dignity and respect. You have to follow the orders of the COs. That doesn't mean that when I want you to go to your cell it gives me the right to grab you by the hair and throw you in there. The inmate has some expectation to be treated fairly. You want to have that balance of fairness and being tough."

On whether that makes him a softie: "Anybody who thinks the inmates are being coddled, I would challenge them to do what you did. Come on up to Billerica and see for yourself."

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