by John Broman published on Vice
I live behind a series of walls, gun towers, and electric fences deep in the mountains of West Virginia at the United States Penitentiary, Hazelton, a.k.a. “Misery Mountain”. My conviction for armed bank robbery in 2002 has sent me through some of the most violent pens in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In the 13-plus years that I’ve been incarcerated, not much has changed behind the barriers that define my existence during what should be the best years of my life.
I am now in my fourth federal prison. At each sport, I left via the hole. At Federal Correctional Institution, Gilmer, a medium-security joint in West Virginia I wore out my welcome after supplying the inmates with weed and tobacco. At USP Pollack, in the swamps of Louisiana, I left with some broken ribs courtesy of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; at USP Canaan, in bumfuck Pennsyvalnia, I was wheeled out on a stretcher with eight stab wounds thanks to a confrontation with Mexican gangsters.
So I’ve seen a few prisons, enough to know that each has its trade-offs. The lower-security ones definitely have their advantages, especially on Thanksgiving.
“At FCI Florence [in Colorado], they feed you like a king,” a guy named Jon B once told me. Jon B is a New York native who finished his 15-year bid out in Colorado at a medium facility. “When I got my fully-loaded tray, I thought to myself that ‘club fed’ wasn’t just a myth. The trays were glutted with damn near half a turkey. Not the processed shit they feed you in the [higher-security] pen. I’m talking about the real deal. And pecan pie. Fucking real pecan pie. I bought seven slices of the shit.”
Hazelton is a bit more relaxed than other high-security pens. A shank doesn’t have to be included alongside your everyday attire and you don’t have to scope out the cell unit for danger every time you leave the shower. But the pen is still the pen. Regardless of where you are, there’s no way to call a time out and catch your bearings when shit does pop off.
That being said, we do have our days when everyone isn’t plotting against you. Thanksgiving is one of them. We celebrate Christmas and New Year’s here in prison, too. It marks the year winding down, another notch on the wall as we make our way closer to getting out or getting buried (for those doing life sentences).
On Thanksgiving, we come out of our cells with a little less trepidation towards our neighbors. I might hear a couple “Happy Thanksgivings” here and there as I head to the computer to check my emails. If I have any messages, I’ll respond in kind and send out my holiday greetings to the world before I head over to use the phone. Holidays are pretty much the only time when you know loved ones are waiting on your call. The communication is planned days prior so everyone in the family can make sure they’re together in one place when you dial in. The phone will get passed around to aunts and uncles and talking to them actually reminds me of what it feels like to be human and feel loved.
The vibe inside the cell units is lighter on Thanksgiving, the tension not so thick. The politics of the pound fall into the background as the excitement over the calls home and day’s football games nears. Even the correctional officers get into the giving spirit; offenses that would typically merit a trip to the hole are swept under the rug for the day.
From 9:45 AM to 11, we’re all locked in our cells until the COs finish a holiday count. It’s one of those physical reminders to let us know that we remain just a number in the system and we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Then, once the doors are unlocked, the festivities begin.