“You’re useless Morey!” The sergeant hates me on principle, but right now it’s for my lack of enthusiasm in dragging giant logs up a steep, slippery slope for no apparent reason.
He’s a little man with a bulldog temperament, frustrated, I imagine, by his inability to punish me with push-ups until I vomit and/or pass out. So he attempts belittlement with words that would I guess maybe hurt, him?
But for real, telling me I’m weak and a bad worker has the same effect as being called a retard and a princess by some of the other corporals. It makes me smile, but only on the inside. Smiling with your face is a rule violation and could result in demerits which could lead to a hearing before the board and theoretically eventually being kicked out.
Where am I? I’m at boot camp, not real military boot camp. I’m far too old for that. I’m in prison boot camp, officially titled Special Alternative Incarceration, or SAI, in Chelsea, Michigan.
I’m here as part of my sentence, for drunk driving, for 90 days. Completion of the program ensures an 18 month parole. If I fail or leave or get kicked out I go back to prison, where I just spent five months, to finish my sentence, 21 months to 5 years.
The SAI compound is nestled in wooded hills at the edge of a small lake. Regardless of the scenic appeal the phrases swamp bog and death camp colored my perception as we rolled through the high gates into the parking lot.
The buildings are all one story cinder block with brick façades and short peaked roofs. The architecture is Faux Resort with fake beams and rustic trim belying a decaying and barren interior. Blinking fluorescent lighting reveals peeling paint, rusted pipes, and worn cracking linoleum. The perimeter is defined by a 12-foot-tall razor wire topped chain-link fence.
We were corralled into a bright white cinder block room where we stripped down to nothing but our skin and lined up to have our heads shaved. At one point the barbers were screamed at by the attendant corporals for not doing a crappy enough job. Although my head was shaved evenly some of the other inmates weren’t so lucky and were left with strips or mangy spots of hair.
I imagined this was to injure our sense of self, although why we would care what our hair looked like in this dump I couldn’t figure.
As we were changing into our ‘Reds’ (A pajama-style outfit we wore with big white trainers until we earned another get up called ‘Blues’) one of the corporals told me to tuck my laces into the tops of my shoes and as I bent over to do so he started to scream at me. I hadn’t said “yes sir.” He asked me if I had a problem saying “Yes Sir” and confused me by the yelling. I said “YES SIR.” I then had to repeat “YESIRYESIRYESIR” until my voice gave out and he decided I could stop.
I was offered the option of boot camp at “Quarantine,” which is where all Michigan felons are sent prior to being classified.
At the time there were certain requirements that had to be met for you to be eligible. You had to be an A prefix which meant you’d never been to prison before, and you had to have been incarcerated for a non-violent offense, also no sex criminals or arsonists. And you couldn’t have gone through the program before.
That was in August; by the time I arrived in December all that had changed and it appeared they were taking just about anyone. I was in with convicts just coming down from Maximum Security, also violent offenders, and guys who had already been through the program as many as three times.
THE RULES & REGS
At first getting information about what I was supposed to be doing and where I was supposed to be was very difficult. We weren’t supposed to talk to each other and there was a lot of ritual involved in addressing the staff.
Hands were to be pinned along the outside seam of your pants with fingers folded in and palms facing to the rear. You needed a gig-line and it always had to be in place. (The gig line was created by having your shirt buttons, zipper and belt buckle lined up). Shoe or boot laces tucked in always. No movement at all.
If you for instance touched your fly to make sure it was zipped fully you could be accused of sexual misconduct! Also you were absolutely never supposed to look the guards in the eye.
Even more important as the look was the speak. You existed only in the third person and referred to yourself in that manner. We all had the same first name, Trainee. “Sir” was the first and last word to come out of your mouth and you needed to request permission to speak almost before opening it. When it was granted you could continue. If you were given permission you had a limited number of follow up inquiries all beginning and ending with “Sir.”
You could request permission to know, to secure, to inform, or to carry on. Anything that didn’t fall into one of these categories was best left unsaid or some sort of punishment or humiliation would occur.
I figured out quickly that if you didn’t want to get in trouble don’t talk to them at all if possible. There were so many rules of behavior, and the possibility of forgetting at least one was so great that if a corporal wanted to give you grief they always could.
GETTING IN TROUBLE
I got in trouble a few times. For not removing my hat as I entered a building, for lying down on my foot locker, and once for talking in chow.
I was answering a question from some guy next to me and hadn’t yet perfected the skill of talking without moving my mouth. A corporal saw my lips move and snuck up to shout “HEY F*CK” at the side of my head.
He asked who I was talking to and since I’m not a ‘teller’ (snitch) I told him no one. He ordered me to go talk to the wall so I did. I went over and started yelling “BLABLAHBLABLAH.”
It went on for quite awhile and became difficult to keep up so I started a sort of sing-song rhythm and was about to switch over to “yadayadayada” when he finally told me to stop.
We had classes in everything. We spent three and a half hours learning how to create ‘head call’ rolls; a convoluted package involving soap, toilet paper, and whatever else you might need for the bathroom, rolled up in a towel just so.
I hated the head call roll, but even more so, I hated having to request permission to use it. You had to walk up to a black line in front of a desk where the corporal on duty sat. If your toes were touching the line, your gig line wasn’t in place, your head call roll wasn’t constructed or held properly you could be declined use of the toilet and have to repeat the entire process.
FUNCTIONING IN SOCIETY
Most of my time at boot camp was spent figuring out ways to get to the head without indulging the bit of theatre required. We also had ongoing classes that were supposed to educate us on how to function in society, get jobs, balance finances, care for our families… But for the most part, we watched the favorite war movies of whatever corporal was running the classes. I may have seen “Black Hawk Down” 10 times.
Being over 40, I wasn’t allowed to take part in any physical activity beyond the march to and from chow and classes.
If I was even seen jogging I’d be ticketed and threatened with expulsion. Why this was and why corporal punishment had been abolished I only knew through rumor.
I heard that the boot camp staff had killed a kid or two. That the prisoners had been push-upped to death and the state had been sued. That this was why the program had changed and they now let in just about everyone.
I thought coming in, that at the very least I’d leave the place in decent shape, but the opposite occurred and I ended up leaving 15 pounds heavier.
I met some truly terrible people during my 90 days, staff and inmates, but I also met some great people like Miss Brown the substance abuse teacher.
I only met one guy who felt that SAI had been a positive experience for him. He was 20 years old and about to graduate and told me that the valuable lesson he would take away from the place was patience. Well I suppose I learned the same lesson. I don’t know how I couldn’t after spending the good part of 90 days sitting on a cold steel footlocker, patiently waiting to be told it was my day to get my gig line in place, place my graduation trucker hat on my head just so, and stand in formation on the tarmac to salute and shout “YES SIR” for the absolutely very last time in my life.
Mike Morey is a Traverse City resident.