(An excerpt from McKenna’s upcoming book, Unmasked: The Prison Years, to be released Spring 2024)
- Part I
- Part II
- Part III
I walked the prison yard thinking about the value of my life. Value in the emotional sense of a cost-benefit analysis; did the good outweigh the bad? I had some important decisions to make in the coming days—and one was purely existential.
“This is part of the constant narrative going through your head, Andrew. You talk to yourself constantly. You’re losing it.“
–Review the bidding, Andrew.
The past six hours of my life looked like this: I stood in line with 600 other prisoners in the cutting northeastern sleet to get my weekly allotment of toilet paper—two rolls; I ate under-cooked powdered eggs for breakfast, choking down vomit on my walk back to Columbia Hall—a large white, cold building which housed prisoners from the Life Connections Program; I watched two men in tan prison uniforms nearly beat each other to death over a medium sized, overly ripe banana; and finally, I had a book thrown at my head and was called a faggot, over and over, by the anonymous mentally ill prisoner as he ran away.
So those were the cons. As for the pros? Well, I couldn’t think of one. True, I only had four more years to go on a nearly six-year sentence. So, there I sat in silence, gently rubbing a bump on the side of my head, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton, Ohio.
Then the words came playing back and forth through my mind—words that used to matter.
Things had fallen apart due to depression over the loss of my children and opioids, and there was no way to pick up the pieces behind prison walls, double security fences, and triple strand razor wire. Death by a thousand cuts. Untreated depression, followed by substance abuse and then full-blown substance use disorder landed me with a 65-month sentence in federal prison.
I once heard the term “Club Fed” used to describe laid back federal prisons with salad bars and golf courses.
Where are they? I laughed to myself. Where is this country club of a prison everyone talks about? This morning, around 3 am, I think I walked in on a rape in progress. A week ago, I saw a guy’s nostril torn from his face from a punch. His whole left nostril just detached and hung there bleeding. Where are the golf clubs and champagne?
While in transit to my first prison, I saw a guy stab someone at least thirteen or fourteen times. To this day I can still hear the sucking sound of the shank going in and out of his stomach as blood spilled to the floor, so much blood that I can still smell it.
Now, two years later, anytime I see two prisoners arguing over the television or their place in line, I get a cold sweat and become super aware of my surroundings—both classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A treatable condition. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a form of psychotherapy that works to alleviate trauma. Do they offer that here in prison? No.
No! I said to myself, pushing the thoughts away. I need something to snap me out of this f-ing depression or I’m not going to make it out of here alive. Enough thinking and talking about it. I needed to act, to do something. It’s easier said than done. Prison is an environment where action is met with hostile resistance. My only chance for a transfer out of this hell hole—Federal Correctional Institute Elkton was to apply for the Life Connections Program—or the “religious program” as it was known by prisoners—a new federal prison program created under President George W. Bush.
I’d heard about it from other prisoners, bits and pieces, but sometimes prisoners I found don’t have complete information. Prison gossip is never ending, too. One guy was talking about it in the chow line. He looked fairly sane, so I asked him.
“Sorry to interrupt you, but I can’t seem to find any accurate information on the religious program you’re talking about. I don’t know the official name. Of course, I knew the name—the Life Connections Program—but I didn’t want to appear too informed.
“Yeah, no problem, buddy. I was just tellin’ my friend here.” The guy was clearly sizing me up. I interrupted him, a sign of disrespect, so he was deciding whether I had disrespected him to the degree that he had to “check” me on it. If so, it could mean a fight. I’m constitutionally incapable of backing down from a fight—I think it’s the Irish in me. I’d rather take a beating then back down.
“This is how you live now Andrew. Can you continue living with this constant ridiculous hostility? Can you! “
He continued, “No, it’s called “The Life Connectors School,” I was gonna apply but turns out only homosexual faggots join, and they try to make you become a priest at the end. For one thing, I don’t smoke pole and two, I ain’t becoming a priest!”
The man looked angry.
“Why did you even ask this guy? You know better.”
“Oh well in that case, I’m not joining either. Ya know, for the same reasons.” It was clear that I was lying.
“God help me now please.” I decided to go see my cellmate, or cellie. He knows everything about prison.
“Nah man, no one gets approved for that here. You have to go through the chaplain … and he’s a hater.” My cellie was always on point with information like this. However, his explanations often made me nauseous; I couldn’t hear any more negative information about anything. I was already teetering on the edge, contemplating suicide almost hourly now.
“Trying to get a sober moment with the guy is your first challenge, Drew. He’s drunk by noon.” My cellie added. It’s always fascinated me how people think no one knows they’re drunk at work. Everyone knows! But rarely does the alcoholic catch it in time and make it to treatment before losing their jobs. Most companies either won’t fire you, or they can’t legally fire you, if you voluntarily get help for substance use disorders, including alcohol use disorder.
“How do you know so f-ing much? I got here before you did.” I said.
Cellie expounded. “He’s denied every whiteboy who ever applied for that program. Some people said he was found to be clinically insane and kicked out of the church in Rome. He came here jobless, homeless, the whole thing. And he still got the job. BOP hired him. Can’t say I’m surprised—they only hire people who can’t get hired anywheres’ else. I mean, did you see Kipper Snack over in E Building? The man is missing a front tooth.”
“No, please don’t tell me we have someone who goes by the nickname Kipper Snack. Please tell me it’s not true.” I was so disgusted with prison culture at this point. The nicknames, the gossip, the constant betrayal.
“Yup Drew, it’s true. And dildo the dentist did a number on him. Extracted one of his front teeth instead of his infected molar or whatever tooth is in the way back. The way Kipper Snack tells it, he tried telling dildo the dentist—”
“Stop! Please stop calling him that cellie. I’m begging you. Just call him the dentist, leave dildo out of it. It’s dark and depressing enough—”
“But he wouldn’t listen. Turns out dildo never passed his boards. Kipper Snack said the dentist looked angry. He gave Kipper Snack more gas, knocking him out cold. Dentist f-ed that man up.”
“He took the wrong tooth?” It was just one more story that was unbelievable, but very likely true.
“Yeah man, and Kipper Snack thinks he did it on purpose. He’s suing. Kipper Snack is gonna be rich.” My cellie had become institutionalized in an adjective kind of way.
“And the chaplain? Man, the power went to his head. He’s nuts, Drew. Don’t waste your time even applying.”
Appointment with the Chaplain
“Chaplain?” I knocked once, not twice or three times, once, like they taught us in the Marines. Always knock once before asking permission to enter the commander’s office.
“Come in, McKenna. Even though you’re late.” The chaplain looked at me with disdain. “I should write you a shot and send you to the hole for a couple weeks, what do you say to that?”
I had an explanation I wished to share with the chaplain. The correction officer assigned to my unit wouldn’t let a few of us prisoners leave the unit on time to attend appointments. Holding us up was part of the standard prison harassment package.
“Actually chaplain, if I could explain why I was late—”
“Shut your pie hole inmate. Sit!” The chaplain—a man of the cloth, mind you—sounded like a dog trainer.
“Yes, sir thank you.” I said quietly so as not to instigate any more lunacy.
“Are you Catholic, inmate?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure how to answer the question even though it was a simple one.
“Well, that’s an interesting question. Technically I was raised Catholic, but I haven’t been very active the past few—”
“That is dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb.” The chaplain pounded his fist on the desk in unison with every “dumb.” Just over his shoulder on the cinderblock wall hung a map of Nigeria. I stared at the map, and then back to the chaplain.
“Look chaplain—” He interrupted me, again.
“I wasn’t done saying dumb inmate! Dumb, dumb, dumb, dummy dumb.”
Already half dead inside, I sat emotionless. And then anger overcame me.
“I’m going to speak now chaplain. It’s my turn.” I was done listening to this turd. “I’m submitting my application for a transfer to FCI Petersburgh—the Life Connections Program. I need you to sign off on the paperwork. I’m not sure how we got off on the wrong foot here.”
The chaplain sat staring at me, his bloodshot eyes, reeking of booze. Man, addiction is a monster. Finally, he spoke with a strong accent. I couldn’t place it.
“What makes you think you have a snow globe’s chance in hell that I would do anything to help your white ass, boy?” The chaplain was as calm as could be, his voice measured and steady. But his eyes couldn’t fool me. His eyes were full of hate.
I stared past him at the clock on the wall, watching the secondhand tick along. I was carefully considering my next move. It was all or nothing for me at that very moment. I turned it up to 10 and put on my insane eyes.
“It’s snowball, not snow globe first off—you’re not making sense. And why do I know you’ll sign it? Fair question. And here’s your answer. Because God is my witness, Abdullahi Abubakari—yes, I know your name and I’m an educated man, you see—if you don’t approve my transfer, I’m going to call some old friends at the Justice Department back in D.C. and have your ass fired. You think I’m fucking with you? Check my inmate file. Try me. I’m begging you to try to stop my transfer to Petersburg. I’ll have your ass out of the Federal Bureau of Prisons before the day is through, your special visa revoked, and on a plane back to Nigeria before you can say ‘someone please kill me’” And then I leaned in and whispered, “You don’t believe me? Try me. Please, try me.”
We were practically nose to nose. Whoever said vodka was odorless was dead wrong. It was coming out of his pores.
I stood up and placed a large tan envelope containing two copies of my Life Connections Program application on his desk in front of him and made my way toward his office door to leave. I stopped and looked back at the map of Nigeria, then at him, then back to the map.
“I can’t say it’s on my bucket list.” Walking back to my housing unit, I thought about how I’ve never been much of a gambler. I’m not good at it. Yet today, I bet all I had. While I wasn’t a gambler, I was still a risktaker. “They haven’t stripped me of that, and they never will, I mumbled to myself.”
If Writers Write, Then Risk-Takers Take Risks
The next morning my counselor called me into his office. My stomach sank through the concrete floor of my cell. I was going to the hole for talking trash to the chaplain, threatening him with firing and deportation. Who did I think I was? They’ll tack on more time. I’ll never leave prison. My life was over.
“What the hell did you say to the chaplain, McKenna?”
“I told him I wasn’t a practicing catholic and that I probably would never visit Nigeria. That’s pretty much all I said….” My voice trailed off.
“You’re a strange bird McKenna, one of the strangest I’ve ever met—”
“Like a flamenco, or an ostrich? They’re strange. Just imagine if they could fly, we’d all have to walk around wearing hardhats.” I was just piecing together words at this point, nervous babble.
My counselor looked confused.
“I don’t know what you’re saying McKenna, but I need you to start packing your shit. You’re transferring to Petersburg.” My counselor was staring at the approval document, almost like he couldn’t believe it.
“The chaplain doesn’t approve many of these. Hmm, you must have caught him at a good time.”
“Yeah right, maybe just after his liquid lunch.” I said with the obligatory chuckle.
I was stunned, my emotions were being beaten around like a ping-pong ball, and then my brain went into a deep focus. I needed to confirm what I believed I had just heard.
“Counselor Jackson. Are you holding a document that applies to me? Am I going to the hole—”
“It’s your transfer order, now stop being so dramatic McKenna. These aren’t your military orders to the Pentagon for Christ’s sake. You’re an inmate. You got accepted to the Life Connections Program.”
The truth is, I no longer had “old friends” at the Justice Department I could call up, let alone get a man fired.
I know next to nothing about visa revocation (or even if the chaplain was here on a visa).
From the Federal Bureau of Prison’s website
Life Connections Program (LCP) is a residential multi-faith restorative justice program offered by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Bureau) which is available at five sites across the country at low, medium, and high security levels. It is an intensive, multi-phase program which instills values and character through a curriculum of personal, social and moral development. The LCP program utilizes various faith communities nationwide who serve as support group facilitators or mentors at program sites and release destinations to enhance community reintegration.
I was approved for LCP at FCI Petersburg, just outside of Richmond, Virginia. Little did I know I would soon meet a person that changed my way of thinking about the world.
Life Connections Program (LCP) is designed to bring together people of all ethnicities and all faiths to explore topics such as race, morality, faith, tolerance and acceptance to name just a few. The religious leaders teach, moderate, and facilitate the discussions. Pastors, Priests, Imams, Buddhist teachers, Rabbis from the local community come into the facility and work with the prisoners daily within their faith groups. Then the different groups come together to discuss topics.
Togetherness is a foreign concept in prison—just like in many real-world communities—races don’t mix. Blacks have their space, Hispanics have theirs and Whites get whatever is leftover—basically the opposite of life outside prison. The races overwhelmingly keep to themselves. Whereas with LCP, presumably by design, members of different races coexist, and due to prison overcrowding, exist on top of each other—think corporate diversity training by immersion.
The conversations often turn into debates, most everyone respects the process, and nothing violent takes place. In a violent space such as prison, it’s nice to take a break and have intelligent conversations where people can find common ground on issues, or simply disagree. Occasionally tempers spike, particularly around conversations about Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. But I’ve never heard of a fight breaking out.
It was during one of the “come together” groups that I met Kenny Robinson. Kenny, an African American gentleman from Charlotte, was taking the topic of civil unrest—rioting, looting, burning down businesses—to a higher level. Kenny is street smart, book smart, and people smart. He speaks succinctly and without effort. And I would say that Kenny is a gentle soul, if it weren’t for one simple thing—a sense that Kenny isn’t gentle at all. There’s something lurking underneath the surface. Not sinister, not violent, not unforgiving—but something nearby synonymously. Kenny would make a better friend than foe.
Kenny had picked up on the cynical belief of many whites that ignorance and mob mentality explained this behavior during civil unrest. And then Kenny, almost from a page from Richard Wright’s Native Son, described what it feels like to know you are smart enough, know you’re hardworking enough to succeed in society, but still never be afforded an opportunity.
“Imagine the frustrated level a young black man must feel to throw that Molotov cocktail through a window of a business in his own neighborhood. Do you really believe he is just an uneducated, ignorant negro, destroying his own neighborhood for the hell of it?” Kenny asked rhetorically.
Then he takes it a step further. Never given an opportunity is one thing, being intentionally blocked from opportunities is something else. Kenny went on to give examples of systemic racism. He ended with a plea to everyone in the room to learn as much as they can about anything that will help them advance in life and avoid incarceration: starting a business, taking a night course, learning to write a business plan, finding a mentor, aligning oneself with like minded, goal-oriented people, Kenny was obviously the most enlightened guy in the room.
The Birth of Freedom Fighting Missionaries
Kenny and I became fast friends, walking the yard, exchanging articles to read, discussing politics, religion and race. Kenny challenged a belief system about race that I didn’t know I had. As far as I could tell I wasn’t raised in a racist household or in a racist neighborhood. But then again, I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t know other than what I was exposed to. If it was wrong, how would I have known it, especially if I was a little kid.
I was just coasting along through life looking out for myself. While coasting, I had developed an under the surface belief that blacks weren’t as smart as whites and if they just worked harder, they could succeed. Where the hell did I get this idea? I never consciously thought about it or discussed this belief—I prefer to think that it lay dormant inside my subconscious brain, developed right under my nose, without a conscious thought. So, to hear Kenny explain his experience, and the experience of so many others, I began to challenge my prejudices. This wasn’t about accepting blame or becoming an apologist. This wasn’t the purpose.
As LCP went on, I started to develop empathy for many of the people around me—people from different cultures and different economic backgrounds, rich and poor. The key for me was recognizing their perspectives without trying to inject my beliefs about the merits of what they may have experienced. At first, I thought to myself that this was not the time or place. But then it occurred to me that my natural impulse to impose my beliefs on their realities was the very root of the problem—injecting my opinions and beliefs to help rationalize or explain their realities was egocentric, patronizing, condescending, belittling. My only obligation was to listen without judgment and accept their truths.
“They have no where to go, because they’ve had nowhere to begin.” Kenny explained. We sat watching a prison softball game. The whites against the blacks.
“No opportunities. And then after years in prison, it’s even worse. No one wants to hire a convict. You have your education, Drew. And you’re white. Everyone in here knows you’ll be fine when you get out. The world is still your oyster so to speak, even after robbing banks.” Kenny explained, and he was right.
“We need to advocate for these brothers coming out of prison—there’s no question about that. But how do you advocate for someone who doesn’t have a skillset to survive in your system?”
“Teach them, prepare them, guide them through it?”
“Now you’re starting to think, Drew. “People need opportunities—not money thrown at them. Money—handouts—doesn’t fix the injustices or make them go away.” Kenny was one step ahead of me. For the simple reason that he lived it, he watched it happen. Kenny was a witness to a broken system, and he had a front row seat most of his life. Handouts create complacency and complacency robs people of ambition.
“But helping people coming out of prison costs money,” Kenny knows I know this. “A non-profit organization. Raise money—that’s one way and see where that takes us. Grass roots, too, and see where that takes us. And I keep fighting, keep making noise.” Someone is going to listen.
“I could help. Tell me what I can do.” I said to my new friend Kenny.
Kenny had fire in his belly. I could feel it even though he was subdued as he spoke. This wasn’t just some prison, boredom concocted pipe dream. Kenny was fed-up.
“Think of all of these guys getting out and going right back to drugs, Stats say more than 60 percent have a history of addiction while on the street. Many have kept it going in here and—”
“They’ll go right back to it. Depression doesn’t just go away, Drew. They’re going to hit the street, no money, no job, a prison badge for identification, baby mommas all over the place asking for help. It’s the perfect storm for getting high, escaping their miserable lives.” Kenny was dialed in. He knew the truth and wasn’t afraid to speak it.
“Their reentry must include treatment Kenny. It’s the only way. Even for guys that came in and haven’t used for their entire ten-year bid. I know this sounds weak, but there’s trauma all over prison. You have trauma with a small t and trauma with a big T. Trauma isn’t just about war Veterans. This stuff is real.”
“I don’t doubt that. You make it sound like I’m not aware or something.” Kenny said with a laugh.
He knew what I was talking about—Kenny was involved with some big things on the street. The basic rule is that the more you move, the more violent it becomes. I heard those same words from guys I used to prosecute when I was in Washington DC. Some South American guys were charged with moving 40 metric tons of cocaine from the north coast of Colombia. Rivals getting stuffed in empty oil drums and left out in a field to cook for a week. Whole generations of families tortured and burned to death.
“That time you were in the hole, that couldn’t have been easy.” Kenny said.
“It was ok until the rat showed up.” I said.
“So, what else do people need coming out of prison. Jail too.” I asked.
“Everything you can imagine.” Kenny said shaking his head.
Rehab program uses prayer, friendship to help inmates – VIDEO
As time went on, Kenny and I discussed more troublesome societal problems. Life Connections Program, started by Republican George W. Bush, whether by design or not, was an exercise of spirituality, connectivity, and self-reflection. Living side by side with men of different ethnicities, races, and religions wasn’t as challenging as some might think. But living side by side with people from incredibly different backgrounds proved to be a real challenge.
It’s no great revelation to understand that we possess a lens—developed over our lifetimes—through which we see the broader world and our immediate surroundings. The closer in common our upbringings and life experiences are to another, the better we can relate to, and accept them as peers. At times I wish I had pursued studies in sociology rather than law.
I WAS ADDICTED to opioids during and after an ugly divorce where I lost the right to see my two young children. I tried to get help through treatment and counseling, but my loss was too great, and the depression was so deep that the help was not enough to pull me out of the darkness.
When I explained this to Kenny he understood. He didn’t share with me how he understood, but he didn’t have to; I could feel that he had experienced something.
When our conversations would turn to the concept of Freedom Fighting Missionaries, Inc., a reentry-based non-profit that Kenny later founded and lead to a resounding success, the necessity of mental health and addiction treatment would come up.
I would make the argument to Kenny that help and treatment options for those formerly justice involved folks reintegrating into society must be at the very core of any reentry enterprise.
One afternoon when we were walking the yard, I told Kenny a story about a particular incident while I was at FCI Elkton. It happened in my first year there when I got the flu. My untreated depression got worse every day to the point I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I had an opportunity one evening, after I was almost over the flu, to escape my thoughts, and I seized upon it.
Prison Hooch and The Hole
Fruit, water, sugar, and the bacteria germ—in a bag for four days—equals fire water. The germ eats the sugar and poops alcohol according to an old-timer notorious for his distillation. Prison hooch. It felt good to feel such an extreme emotion other than the mundanity of daily depression and anxiety. An escape from life—ahh, escapism—one that would bring me to my knees time and time again throughout my life.
I sipped the hooch that the Mexican had made. He told me it was so strong it would make me crap myself.
“I’ll take three then.” One bottle for my cellie (repurposed 16.9 oz. water bottles from the commissary) and two for me. Ounce for ounce, it was the strongest booze I had ever had–in or out of prison. Made of oranges and sugar and fermented in garbage bags for four days secreted in the walls of a shower stall. The heat and steam of a thousand showers helped cook it. It. Was. Fire.
The fight happened almost out of thin air
“I thought you said something to me … something you need to say?” The hooch had gone to my head and my brain wasn’t working. This was latent alcoholism coming back to life. I questioned Martinez as if he were a recalcitrant 15 year old who needed a reminder.
My blood was starting to boil. Mind you, this had nothing to do with the other guy. It was all about me. I had drank myself into belligerent Irish mind-violence.
When I woke up the next morning I couldn’t remember a thing, but I knew exactly where I was: The Hole
The hole is where they send convicts who can’t obey the prison rules. The hole is the prison within the prison. Dark. Dirty. Dank. Stank. And lonely. No cellie, no windows, no clock. I looked down at my watch and it was gone—confiscated.
All day it is completely silent. But from time to time, I would hear a voice mumbling something. I put my ear to the thick steel door and tried to hear what the person was saying. I could only hear my own breathing though. So, I held my breath. “Someone help me” … is all I could make out and I wasn’t even sure that’s what I heard. Then everything went silent again.
My sleep patterns were completely off. I didn’t know if it was day or night because there were no windows, just fluorescent lights on the ceiling that stayed on around the clock. And there wasn’t a clock. They removed time from your life.
Sitting on my rack in an orange jumpsuit, I find myself rocking back and forth with my head in my hands. I don’t remember the action of sitting or the action of putting my hands to the sides of my head. The seconds or minutes between standing near the door and sitting on my rack didn’t exist. Then, without thinking about it, I yelled ‘hello.’ I didn’t intend to yell hello, it just came out. Then I questioned whether I had just yelled hello. I started laughing. What is happening here?
Then panic struck me. My two sons! Will they be waiting by the phone on Saturday morning? My only call with them—every two weeks—was a few days away, or at least I thought it was. I took my ex to court—from prison—to force her to let me call them. I supplied the prepaid phone, bought the minutes, everything. She wouldn’t allow it when I initially asked her, so I filed a petition with the court. The judge and the boys’ law guardian thought it was a good idea, so the judge ordered her to let me have a call with them.
Would the boys think I forgot to call them? Prisoners aren’t allowed phone privileges in the hole. Would the boys think the call to them wasn’t important to me? Would they ever know it was the only thing keeping me going? Would they ever learn that I would silently break down crying on the phone because I was so sad that I wasn’t their dad anymore? That I wanted to hurt myself, punish myself that I had made choices like I did while they were just little babies? Would they ever know that I was sorry?
Back at the cell door I could hear the mumbling again. Barely able to make it out.
“Someone help me” ….
When I woke up, I didn’t know what day it was. They forgot to bring my breakfast again. Or was it lunch? I could see the tray on my floor but when I opened the lid, all I saw were food particles, crumbs, but no real food. I yelled out something about not getting my meal.
“You f-ing bastards didn’t bring my breakfast, or lunch or … what f-ing time is it anyway!”
I held my breath. No answer, and then I questioned whether I yelled at all.
Finally, someone came to my cell door and opened the little hatch. “Rec McKenna?” a voice growled. He hates his job. I stared at the open slot in the door. It looked like a big, open, metal mouth, “Well, McKenna, I haven’t got all f-ing day you complete ass stain. Now rec or no rec? He was referring to recreation. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
“Yes,” I stammered. I looked down and realized I had taken off my orange suit. I stood there naked, shivering. Why was I naked? When did I remove my orange suit?
“Well back up to the f-ing door and put your f-ing wrists through the f-ing slot.” I stood there staring at the slot. I started to answer but couldn’t form a sentence. I couldn’t make a sound.
“It looks like a huge metal mouth, doesn’t it CO?” I said. Then I thought maybe I was imagining the voice barking at me through the slot. I waited, holding my breath to make sure I could hear.
“F-you.” I heard as I stood staring at the slot.
“Did you hear me inmate? I just said f-you. Did you hear me McKenna? Did you hear me say f-you?”
“Were you talking to me, sir?” I said quietly. I was frozen for a moment. Then I slowly reached down and picked up my orange suit, slipping on one leg and then the other.
“Back it up, I want to take a sniff, McKenna. I want to sniff your back.”
“You want to do what?” I whispered this because I was afraid. I didn’t want the CO to think I was being a wiseass. I didn’t want to make an enemy. I didn’t want him to take a sniff. I buttoned my orange suit.
“Now back your ass up, McKenna or I’m walking away.” I slowly backed up, putting my hands behind my back.
“I’m going to smell your back McKenna and it better be fresh. If it’s anything other than fresh, no rec for you, got it?”
“But the water is freezing, and there isn’t any soap.” My tone was almost pleading; I was humiliating. I continued, “There’s no way it could be fresh under these conditions. The water is so cold it hurts my body, my … my back.”
“You don’t deserve water. No one who breaks the rules deserves water. You broke the rules. You attacked a Mexican.”
“I didn’t attack a Mexican, he attacked me. He was Cuban anyhow,” and then I thought for a second, “Does that even make a differ—”
“What’s the difference McKenna, they’re all idiots, you know that, stop playing dumb.”
I was backed up against the door. I had to kneel a bit to align my hands with the metal mouth slot. Suddenly, he grabbed my wrists and violently jerked them through the slot and yanked them upward. It felt like my shoulders were going to pop from their sockets; I screamed out in pain as he tugged harder. He pulled me backwards as if he was trying to squeeze my whole body through the metal mouth slot. No more of my arms could fit, my shoulders were now flush with the sides of the opening. My eyes were tightly shut, my jaw clenched in pain, as I shrieked. When he let go, I sprung forward and smashed my face against the frame of the steel bed.
He started laughing, and through his laughter yelled down to his comrades: “McKenna’s banging his face against the wall again, it wasn’t me I swear!” He opened the cell door, stepped in and stood over me. He raised one big black boot off the ground and kicked it towards my face. I quickly snapped my head away avoiding his boot. Frustrated, he reached down, grabbed the chain of the handcuffs behind my back and jerked me to my feet. My mouth was bloody, my front tooth loose. He walked me down the hall. The only sounds I could hear were his boots, and my bare feet, striking the dirty linoleum floor. Where were my plastic slippers?
“I forgot to smell your back, McKenna. Why didn’t you remind me?”
“I forgot about it too, CO, I’m really sorry.”
Rec time, get your rec time here!
I’m in a large cage outside, not another human in sight. I can walk 23 steps, turn left, walk 10 steps, turn left, walk 23 steps back and turn left again. I keep doing this, walking around the cage, counting my steps. By counting aloud I’m able to replace the self-talk from my mind; I’m fighting with every counted step to keep the thoughts away. My sons, four and five years old. The sweetest boys.
The roof is made of corrugated steel, the walls are tight chain link fence. I look out over a huge sandy expanse with nothing to look at except for, well the huge sandy expanse. The sun is super bright because I haven’t been out in days; things appear mirage-like. I can’t stop counting my steps in my head. I hear the sound of a Neil Young song—Old Man—playing softly and I look up and around for a speaker but don’t see one. And then it occurs to me that I’m humming the song as I count my steps, around and around. I pick up speed and try to stop humming and then I yell “STOP”!
My skin is itching, especially the tops of my thighs under the orange suit. I just dig at them with my fingernails. It felt so good, the itching would cease but then return in seconds and I would start digging again, and then I knew something—I was smiling. I could feel that my face was in the smiling position. Reaching up, touching my lips, feeling the corners of my mouth extended. It was a big smile.
Back at the cell door, holding my breath listening for something; CO’s footsteps, a voice, anything. But there was nothing.
I had submitted a slip for a sick call. Or did I? I knew that I needed to talk to a highly trained mental health professional because of my dark tormented thoughts, but I didn’t know whether the hole was staffed that way—a shrink assigned to my hole?
Maybe I just imagined I wrote out the slip. It would have been on a scrap of paper and written in pencil. I looked around my cell and saw that there wasn’t any paper or a pencil, so where would I have gotten those things to put in my request in the first place. Standing at the door again. “CO Sir! Can I talk to you for a minute when you get a chance? It’ll only take a minute, I promise I will be respectful of your time. I’m worried about something—I’m hearing voices.”
“I need to see the doctor, please. Please.” I yelled, but not in an offensive or aggressive manner. I was very careful not to sound pushy, or entitled, or elitist, or privileged, or aggressive or white. In fact, I sounded meek. A meek child. Because I was a meek child. And I was lonely and tired and to blame for being here.
My thighs started to itch again. Looking down at my thighs, I started to dig. My bloody red thighs. The skin was broken; my thighs were bloody, and I had caked blood and dirt under my fingernails. Half-dry caked blood and dirt also sat in the dug-out grooves of my skin. I thought about how caked blood and dirt must be forming in my mind and clogging my brain pathways. “Hey, McKenna!” Someone had screamed my name. It must have been the CO What the f did he want? I stayed silent for a few seconds and then yelled, “What?” I waited for the answer while holding my breath. I held it until I could hear my heart beating in my ears. There was nothing, no response. Not a sound.
I don’t think I ate today. I was standing next to my rack, naked with only my orange plastic slippers on. Then I sat down and rocked back and forth. I felt my jaw start to tense up and I was squeezing my eyes shut really tight until I felt pain in my temples. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth. My mouth was filling up with tooth sand. My eyes were tearing up from the pressure, then my hands were squeezing the sides of my head, and I kept rocking, and even though all of this was happening, without any conscious action on my part, I was fully aware that it was happening. And then there was silence.
Back at my cell door with my ear pressed against the steel, I heard a mumbling sound. “Please help me” …. Then total silence.
“Hey CO, sir, did you give medical my slip?” I could hear my voice travel out into the hallway and bounce around in the echo chamber. Then I heard the words played back to me just as I had said them. I thought the CO might be mocking me, but the words came back in my voice. The voice sounded worried, panicked. Sad.
I saw a rat today. It scurried past, hugging the wall. It was jet black and shiny with a long tail. The tail looked soaking wet. It stopped and looked around, not at me though. He doesn’t give a shit about you being here. This is his cell. You are a guest, one of a thousand in his lifetime. He sat on his haunches sniffing the stale gray air, then proceeded to the cell door, squeezed its fatness under it, and left.
I walked carefully towards the door to make sure the rat was gone. I stood close with my mouth on the crack.
“CO, I need to talk to someone. Please.”
As time went on, I saw more and more incidents in prison easily capable if causing significant trauma. I also saw rampant heroin use (it’s small, odorless, and easy to conceal, making it ideal for use in prison). Prison hooch was always available, and inexpensive to create yourself or buy from someone else. Mental health problems and substance use disorder abound for incarcerated people. Meager if any resources are dedicated to treatment. People transitioning from incarceration to society are already facing insurmountable challenges because of their justice system involvement. Depression and debilitating anxiety—not to mention post traumatic stress disorder—abound. Substance Use Disorder and co-occurring disorders are equally as common. Knowing what we know, no one should be surprised that recidivism rates are so high.
“Drew, that’s one of the craziest stories I’ve ever heard.” Kenny said.
I didn’t have much to say. I just stared at my hands, feeling tired after reliving it all.
“We’ll talk more about the reentry … the reentry mental health treatment, Drew. I see your point now.” Kenny sat with me in silence.
Part III with excerpts from Unmasked, a memoir (expected release Winter 2023)
In addition to attending groups and hashing out moral dilemmas, working out like a Navy SEAL was the one activity that saved my life in prison.
Working my body to complete exhaustion usually meant that I would get a few hours of sleep at night. If working out didn’t help me sleep, nothing else would. And those long nights staring at the ceiling, my mind processing hundreds of thoughts in rapid succession, represented my darkest moments. I missed my family.
It was sprint day. Matt, a professional boxer from West Virginia, would check out these small broken cones from the recreation department (really just a large closet with broken second-hand equipment donated by the local church).
Matt would space them out in the yard about 100 feet apart. The idea was to sprint from cone to cone and then back to the beginning, drop down and do push-ups to the point of failure, and get up and do it again. Five sets of this without rest. And then on to the medicine ball abdominal smashing segment of our workout.
Doing this with a solid night’s sleep and a decent breakfast would bring most people to their breaking point. Not Matt, he was a genetic freak machine, but I would often collapse, get dizzy or at a minimum, take a knee. Or any combination of the three.
The abusive workouts were the only thing that could snap me out of my depression and I couldn’t afford to lose Matt as my workout partner. He would exhaust me. He was my only chance—his workouts—that would give my mind the possibility of transcending dread and falling asleep at night.
“Doc please, I need something to help me sleep. Look at my eyes, look how red they are. I’m having night terrors. I had a dream that I was in a delivery room giving birth.” I was pleading with the doctor, at one point grabbing his arm which is strictly forbidden in prison. You aren’t allowed to grab a staff member’s arms, even if you’re pleading with them, even if you’re just trying to stay alive. Even if I was drowning in the pond. There are no ponds in prison. I couldn’t reach up and grab the life guard’s arm. There are no lifeguards in prison, just prison guards, and my guess is most aren’t strong swimmers.
“In the dream, Doc, I gave birth to a baby zebra, that’s not normal man.”
The prison doctor was pretty compassionate by BOP standards. The odd thing was he would always ask me if I was cleaning my pipes.
“Are you cleaning your pipes regularly, McKenna?”
The first time he asked I had no idea what he was talking about.
“What are you talking about doc, you lost me.” Then he would laugh and make hand gestures.
Oh come on.
There’s clearly something wrong with this man. I was there to discuss my sleeping problems and he was asking about my alone time.
“Doc, is that really relevant? I don’t mean to be rude, but is it relevant?”
“It might help with your neck pain.” The good doctor explained.
“But I don’t have neck pain, remember?” I’m here because I haven’t slept in three weeks.”
“Oh, I see.”
The doctor was looking at me with a blank glassy-eyed stare.
“What about your urination?” he asked.
He looked high on drugs.“That’s fine doc, look—”
“Should I check the prostate? When was the last time you had it checked by a professional?” Doc’s hands were shaking.
“I’ve only ever had it checked by a ‘professional,’ who else would have checked it for God’s sake doc?”
“You never know around here, it being prison and all,” The doctor stared right through me as if he were looking for an admission of guilt, a sexy story perhaps about my activities behind the wall.
I was becoming angry.
“The prison guards looked up my rectum with a flashlight after a visit with my mom. I’m not a big anatomy buff but I’m pretty sure they could have seen my prostate, not to mention a beating heart. It was a very thorough examination, albeit not by qualified healthcare professionals such as you, doctor.”
“Well they have to check for drugs coming in through the visitation room.” The doc said.
Here we go.
“My elderly mother visited. She’s a retired French teacher.” This fell on deaf ears.
“Even so, you never know.” The doctor was biting his nails and spitting them out onto the floor. I looked at his feet and noticed he was wearing flip flops.
“So doc, Ambien is out of the question? You realize my entire family is on Ambien and it works for them. There must be some type of cellular, genetic component connection and whatnot. It would follow that it would work for me, wouldn’t it?”
“No, McKenna but I can up your Seroquel.”
“But I can’t overdose and die on those. I just fall asleep and the noose breaks, doc.” I deadpanned.
“Well, I triple the dose then. See if that does the trick.” The doc replied.
Everyone agrees that prison isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. Men living together in cramped sweaty quarters unable to leave, living hundreds of miles from loved-ones, getting treated like shit by the staff, fed barely edible food. I understand the reasoning behind it: the worse it is in prison, the less likely we are to reoffend, right? Wrong.
Studies show that more than 40 percent of prisoners released to the community were rearrested or had their supervised release (think parole) within 3 years. Breaking these offenses down, 78% of the recidivism crimes are property offenses. Violent crimes are the least commonly committed offenses for recidivists.
Our penal system turned from rehabilitative to punitive about 40 years ago. Presidents and politicians in congress, and in state legislatures, wanted to appear tough on crime so they passed draconian sentencing laws where instead of trying to rehabilitate offenders with treatment for addiction and mental health problems, to teach trades and life skills such as conflict resolution or basic financial management, they instead warehoused them in overcrowded cages.
In the United States we have approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. This current era of mass incarceration—fueled by the 30-plus year war on drugs—has destroyed communities of color.
But this article isn’t about racism in our justice system. Our broken system impacts people from every race and ethnicity—no group is spared, except to some extent the affluent.
Every week, nearly 10,000 justice-involved people are released from jails and prisons into their communities worse off than when they entered incarceration.
They quickly find themselves hopeless, homeless, jobless, and poor—with nearly 55% struggling with mental health disorders, 87% with untreated addiction. With no marketable job skills, they often return to a life they once knew—committing crimes simply as a means to survive.
Freedom Fighting Missionaries (FFM), Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by Kenny Robinson, is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. FFM helps individuals and families who have been impacted by the justice system. Kenny to this day gives me more credit than I deserve, for encouraging him to keep fighting the fight in the early days of conceptualizing, planning and strategizing, in the days and months leading up to the official birth of his organization.
Standing up for those who are trying to get back on their feet, Kenny and his dedicated team restore human dignity on a daily basis. I can’t imagine any greater cause. Kenny and I are discussing bringing Freedom Fighting Missionaries, Inc., to New York State in 2024, with me leading the charge. I have met with a dozen individuals and organizations who believe in FFM’s mission and are eager to become involved.
I’ve said this many times in reaction to social media posts concerning the work (and recognition received) that Freedom Fighting Missionaries is doing.
Kenny will be in the history books someday as one of the most influential civil rights leaders this country has seen in generations.
If you have been involved with the criminal justice system and continue to suffer addiction or mental health challenges (my area of expertise), I encourage you to seek the help you need and deserve. If you need help finding treatment services please use our directory of rehabs on this website.
Don’t give up, you’re not alone.