A barbed wire fence • Creative Commons

On Wednesday, January 24, after I spent a long night watching the Australian Open, a prison guard bangs on my cell door in the morning. The loud chatter of prison is something that I’ve grown accustomed to sleeping through, just as much as the distinct knock of a guard has the opposite effect, rudely awakening me.

As I’m shaking the sleep off, the guard gives me a directive to get off my bunk and exit the cell. She proceeds to monitor me through the small opening of my door as I gather myself and fumble around to get dressed as quickly as I can.

When I ask what’s going on, she replies, “Fire drill.”

I’m not stupid. I’ve been here before. Her suspicious look betrays her true intention and is one I’ve seen countless times in the past, and it has nothing to do with a fire drill. The intensity of the situation could only mean one thing — shakedown.

Everybody who has ever been incarcerated before knows exactly what “shakedown” means. For those who don’t know, you’ll understand after you read this.

But let me rewind a bit, because this story actually begins two days prior to the banging on my cell door. On Monday, January 22, while my unit was at recreation, a prisoner from another living unit was taken away in an ambulance from what was later rumored to be a fentanyl overdose. Even before the rumors could finish making their rounds, there was another reported fentanyl overdose the very next morning. Their condition? Unknown.

However, the subsequent response from local prison officials is something known well by seasoned prisoners such as myself. And we all knew what was to come next. Punishment. It’s always the fault of prisoners according to administration. Who else, right?

So when all programming and recreation was canceled for multiple days following the incidents — many of us watched through our cell windows as people from the unit in which the overdoses took place were led away to another part of the prison — we each understood that we’d all pay a hefty price for what happened. But more so, we’d pay for the staff feeling like they were made to “look bad” to their superiors at headquarters.

For my safety, I will not speculate on how the drugs made it into a secured prison facility — drugs are not my specialty, nor is snitching. But to give our readers some context, our families and visitors are always put through an extremely rigorous inspection before entering the visitation area. We on the inside are stripped fully naked and searched thoroughly every time we make contact with anybody from community who is not prison staff or officially contracted by the prison.

Let that sink in for a bit.

Now back to my rude awakening. After I dress and get my shoes on, I walk down the dimly lit hallway to the day room area where I find everybody from my tier already dressed and ready for whatever comes next. As I make my way to the bathroom to pee, a guard bangs on the window, yelling that I’m prohibited from entering the bathroom area. Fire drill, eh?

My whole unit is then directed to walk through the rain to another part of the prison where the dining hall is located. Guards watch us the whole way, and even more wait for us when we arrive. Many of us are beginning to lose our patience. This was definitely not a fire drill, y’all.

After about 30 minutes of sitting in the dining hall without any useful information or access to a restroom or water, a sergeant finally enters with a piece of paper in her hand. “If your name and cell number is called, make your way outside and line up against the wall,” she announces.

As she reads from her paper, I hear it: “Sitthivong… E-10 lower!”

About half of the dining hall is called, and we all make our way outside. We’re then escorted to the receiving area of the prison where there’s a transport bus waiting for us. As some of us begin to panic and ask questions, the guards tell us that we’re to sit inside the bus while we wait to get run through the X-ray machine. They didn’t want us waiting in the rain. Oh, how considerate of them!

After about an hour, the scans are complete and we’re herded back to the dining hall. Eventually, we’re directed to head next door to the gymnasium. All the while, everyone now assumes that ourcells are probably being ransacked.

But there’s a bright side. There’s a restroom!

Six arduous hours later, when my patience had all but evaporated hours earlier, we’re finally allowed to return to our living unit. I’m a part of the last group back. What I saw upon entering my unit was not a fire drill at all, it was as if a real fire had ravaged our cells and then set fire to that fire.

Every single piece of my personal property had been searched and displaced. All of my books are dumped out of their storage boxes and discarded throughout. Pictures of my family scattered around the cell as if they were scrap paper. Clothing tossed around like trash. Personal electronics and random items confiscated for no apparent reason. Everything I own, reduced to piles in the middle of the floor. That’s barely the half.

Others reported similar experiences and even had sacred items desecrated, such as a holy Qur’an left in the middle of my colleague’s cell with a footprint on it as if to mock him. Another neighbor, who’s indigenous, had their sacred pipe taken in a manner that violates the Department of Corrections’ own policies regarding the handling of religious/spiritual property.

What adds insult to injury are the revelations that came out shortly after the shakedowns. All of the people whose cells were completely destroyed were the same folks on that piece of paper the sergeant had called out in the dining hall, made to get scanned through the X-ray machine.

What’s even more suspicious is that most of the people on that list, including myself, are writers, community organizers, cultural group members, and/or leaders in our respective communities. Many who weren’t on that list barely even had their cells touched.

It didn’t matter that I’ve never failed a drug test or been known to be a drug trafficker. Administration looked at this as their opportunity to punish who they wanted to punish and settle any old scores.

Over a week since the shakedown, and many of us are still putting our cells back together, trying to locate missing property, not to mention all that the guards broke which can never be replaced.

What’s happening inside these prison facilities is disturbing, y’all. The fact that the response to a health crisis is to punish people and destroy their personal property is disrespectful and highly concerning. What’s even more concerning is that many of us know that they’re not done with us, especially since no one ever holds them accountable for their actions.

If history is any indication, then we know our families are next to be punished. Prison officials will continue to blame community for things they’d rather not address within their own ranks, which usually means even more restrictions on us and our people, and less access.

All this while the State is actively working to shut down any positive peer-led programs that could actually contribute to constructive solutions.

It’s almost as if they want us to fail and are doing this shit on purpose, huh? Nah, can’t be. The system would never do that to us! Right?

Until next time, keep dreaming.

***

Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him with questions for “On the Fence Line” via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, PO Box 900, Shelton, WA 98584.

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