RJ Reilly recounts his experience as a prison guard in a forthcoming book, “The Cooler”. Here is an excerpt.
“I feel like I’m doing life in prison eight hours at a time.”
Strangeways Prison Manchester England 1977
Grime covered and filthy from a hundred years of foul weather and industrial pollution; Strangeways oozed agony and was the kind of place kids couldn’t stop staring at. After it got dark, I remember looking up at little yellow lights glowing behind tiny barred windows and thinking to myself, “I wonder what goes on in a place like that?”
For the last 20 minutes the inmate, naked and on the edge of hysteria, has been threatening to cut himself if he doesn’t get a phone call. It’s his mother he wants to call. The Sergeant on duty is trying to get him to slide the blade he’d removed from a “safety razor” under the cell door. The Sergeant tells the inmate, after he hands over the razor, that he’s going to open the tray slot. Then the inmate has to stick his hands out, get “cuffed up,” and then the door will be opened. After that, he’ll be brought out into the corridor, and the cell will be searched for anything else that might be used as a weapon.
The shivering inmate starts to cry and say “no” over and over again. Saying no is the only thing he has left; everything else has been taken away.
Suddenly the inmate begins banging his head on the small Plexiglas window in the middle of the heavy metal cell door. The thumping makes a deep tom-tom drumming sound that reverberates through the dark narrow cellblock. A purple contusion appears on his forehead.
“I want to use the fucking phone!”
The inmate starts to sob loudly. Tears and mucus run from his eyes and nose, over his cheeks and lips and into his mouth. He pleads for the phone, making no attempt to wipe his face.
“No, you need to pass me the razor. If you’re going to act like this, there’s nothing we can do.”
The Sergeant’s tone is dry and unemotional; he and the inmate are locked in a battle of no’s. Abruptly, the head-banging stops. The inmate goes over and sits on his empty metal bunk, opens his clenched fist, grips the thin strip of a blade between his thumb, index and middle finger, and starts slicing. He makes eight or 10 short but deep slashing cuts to the soft area on the inside of his elbow between his forearm and bicep. The blood oozes from the cuts in his arm in the shape of plumb colored leeches. It looks strange; it seems so dark and thick against his milky white skin.
“I told you I would! This is your fault! I’m gonna bleed out, and when I die, it’s all gonna be your fault.”
The inmate’s trembling voice echoes from within the nearly empty cell. It sounds like he’s in a meat locker. From a clip on his belt, the Sergeant removes a ring of huge brass keys and slides one quickly into the tray slot lock and turns it a hard quarter turn to the left. The tray slot falls open like a square metal mouth in the middle of the cell door. The Sergeant then removes his mace can from a pouch on his duty belt, points it through the tray slot and sprays a long sustained blast into the cell. The yellow stream of mace hits the inmate on the knee and then rises to find his neck and face. He empties the entire can and the inmate starts to choke, splutter and claw at his eyes. There’s blood everywhere—thick crimson blobs drip from the man’s arm onto his stomach, genitals, and legs. The inmate starts choking. After a few seconds he gains control over his gag reflex then begins screaming for his mother. Other inmates in adjacent cells start roaring and howling. Someone starts making horribly realistic squealing pig noises; someone else starts bleating like a distressed lamb. The corridor sounds like a slaughterhouse. The inmate in the next cell starts slamming the flats of his huge, hairy hands against the cell door and ranting in a loud hoarse voice, “Kill yourself! Kill yourself! You worthless piece of shit! Kill yourself! Do it now!”
The Sergeant looks at me and says, “Reilly, go and suit up.” Down in the locker room, three other guards are putting on elbowpads and kneepads, rubber gloves, and black visored helmets.
“Hurry up, Reilly, we don’t want to miss all the fun because you’re late for the party.” I stop and look at Officer Worth, a huge, obnoxious bully of a man, and slowly shake my head. I choose not to respond. I’m thinking about the inmate’s blood and wondering what kind of diseases he has. If things get messy and the extraction turns into a five man wrestling match, which is what usually happens, how am I going to keep all that blood off my skin, or worse, out of my eyes, nose, and mouth?
Worth is getting psyched up and telling stupid jokes.
“Hey, how many prison guards does it take to throw an inmate down a flight of stairs?” No one answers, we’re all too busy “suiting up” and trying to find a helmet that actually fits.
“C’mon guys! How many prison guards does it take to throw an inmate down a flight of stairs? … None, he fell!”
Worth laughs a ridiculous pantomime laugh and slaps his thigh. No one responds. We leave the locker room and walk in loose formation through the facility and back to solitary confinement. The entire prison is on standstill and locked down as the “planned use of force” gets underway. As the extraction team enters the solitary confinement block, the noise becomes absolutely deafening. The window of every cell door is filled with the faces of inmates all fixed with the same maniacal blood-thirsty grin, every one of them pounding, screaming, and whooping.
“Now this is entertainment!” yells a dark bearded Mansonesque inmate. As I pass his cell, he looks right at me, opens his mouth as wide as he can, curls his lips back and starts gnashing his teeth and rolling his eyes back in his head. The pungent smell of the cellblock fills my nostrils. Bad body odor, coarse chemical detergent, and the sweet metallic taste of blood wafts through the dark atmosphere and settles on the back of my tongue. I remember a doctor friend once told me, “Smells consist of particles; particles are pieces of the solid or liquid. If you can smell it, you’re ingesting it.”
As we reach the cell, the Sergeant makes a last ditch effort to get the inmate to comply with his orders
“This is your last chance, come to the door and cuff up.”
The inmate is sitting on the bunk, head down, forearms on thighs bleeding, and he’s ignoring the Sergeant.
“OK, men, he is not complying. Get ready to go in.”
The screaming and pounding from the audience of maximum security, solitary confinement inmates continues and intensifies. As fourth man on the extraction team, I’ll be the last guy to enter the cell. I stand on my tiptoes, peer over the shoulders of the three much larger men in front of me and try to get a glimpse of the inmate. The inside of my helmet stinks of tobacco and stale coffee. A new, young-looking nurse arrives, and I glance at her. We make eye contact, and she looks scared and lost. The roaring and bellowing in the dim narrow cellblock become fearsome and brutally loud, even with a helmet.
“Ready men!” the Sergeant yells. “When the door opens, get in there, restrain him, and then bring him out!”
The Sergeant moves away from the door. The other inmates sense the moment has arrived; they find the beat and in unison start thumping and kicking on their cell doors in a barbaric tribal rhythm. The Sergeant raises his radio to his mouth, keys the mic, and over the deafening din of the screaming, pounding inmates, the Sergeant shouts, “Control, open cell number 116!”
There is a moment’s pause, and the team tenses up. We all place our left hands on the back of the guy in front of us. The exception is Officer Worth. He grips the transparent plastic riot shield with both hands and shifts his feet into a boxer’s stance. Over the shoulders of the three big men ahead of me, I see the inmate get up from the bunk, he’s covered in blood, and it looks like he’s getting ready to fight; it’s impossible to tell if he’s holding the blade. The door clicks, clanks, then slides open from right to left. We rush in. Worth smashes into the inmate so hard the prisoner actually goes flying through the air, bangs against the back wall, and lands in a crumpled heap on the cell floor—a puppet with its strings cut. Dark, bloody handprints and a faint yellow dusting of pepper spray cover the inside of the cell; the overpowering smell of excrement, urine, and mace fills the air.
The inmate has emptied his bowels and bladder on the floor. The smell is so bad that it makes me choke. My eyes water up, and my vision blurs. I start coughing uncontrollably inside my helmet; so does the guy in front of me. I suddenly feel sickeningly claustrophobic. The other inmates continue to pound and scream. The number two man disappears from sight. He has slipped on a puddle of blood, and he tries desperately to get back to his feet. The inmate starts screeching like an animal; it sounds like he’s being eaten alive. I push into the cell from the back; the inmate’s bare and bloody feet appear on the floor between my boots. The number two guy is back on his feet. As quickly as I can I drop to my knees, retrieve the shackles from a pocket, slap them on both ankles, and yell out, “Legs secure!” I hold the inmate’s ankles together, pushing them down, pinning them to the concrete. I take a good look at his feet. They’re covered in horrible scabs and scars. Blood and feces are smeared all over the cell floor, and I am kneeling in it. The inmate is whimpering beneath the pile-up. The number two and three guys are trying to get his hands behind his back to get the cuffs on. One of them says quite calmly, “Heads up for the razor.” The lower legs and scab-covered feet I’m holding wriggle and flap for a few seconds. The inmate’s lower limbs are like a couple of huge exhausted fish in the bottom of a boat. I hold on and wait for the brief struggle to end. I raise my head to see what’s happening. Worth glance’s over his broad left shoulder to see who’s looking, lifts the shield with his right hand, glances over his shoulder again, then very quickly punches the inmate in the head four or five times.
“Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” Worth calls out.
The pig pile continues. Again Worth pulls back the shield and manages to punch the inmate twice, but this time both punches are brutally hard and hit the inmate square in the face, splitting both lips and his nose.
“Wrists secure!” calls out the number two man.
“Bring him out and take him to the chair.” yells the Sergeant.
The four of us pick up the handcuffed and shackled prisoner and back out of the cell into the cacophony of the corridor. The other inmates are all going berserk, yelling, pounding, screaming, and laughing. Someone is bellowing at the top of their lungs, “They’ve fucking killed him! They’ve fucking killed him!”
Someone else is screaming, “The nurse is a whore, the nurse is a whore!”
We carry the inmate down the corridor, through a gauntlet of unimaginable verbal abuse to an observation cell. He’s silent and still and feels like a large wet, rolled up rug.
Inside the observation cell, we position the inmate over the indestructible “restraint chair” which is bolted to the concrete floor. The chair has replaced the straight jacket and its big brother, the padded cell. Its thick nylon belts fasten diagonally across the subject’s feet, knees, thighs, waist, stomach, arms, and chest. Houdini on a good day couldn’t get out of “the chair.” The inmate gets slammed down with his hands still in cuffs and behind his back. A deep gasp of air escapes from the prisoner’s bloody mouth as his back crashes into the black plastic. Worth is doing most of the heavy lifting and loving it. The inmate appears to be completely broken. His face looks like five pounds of raw meat; he’s covered in blood and feces and so many bruises, cuts, and scars, and it’s hard to tell what is a wound and what’s not.
The Sergeant walks into the cell behind us and asks the inmate if he needs to see the nurse. I remember thinking that might be the stupidest question I’ve ever heard. The inmate nods and mouths the word “yes” but no sound comes out.
“Nurse, are you ready?”
The nurse nods sheepishly and steps forward.
Sergeant says, “Good job guys; now go get cleaned up and then write your reports.”
As I leave the observation cell, something inside me makes me turn around and glance at the inmate. As I look at him, he lifts his chin up from his chest, winks at me, and gives me an evil blood-bath grin.
Back in the locker room I strip and take a long shower. I scrub myself raw in a vain attempt to wash away the filth from the last half hour. As I dry off and start getting dressed, Worth is re-telling the whole extraction and casting himself in the starring role. For some reason, this makes me feel very angry, even furious. I want to punch him in the mouth, hard. Of course I don’t. He’d cripple me, then I’d be fired for unprofessional behavior.
The reports all read the same, almost verbatim. We write them and then re-write them, like we always do, making sure we’re all singing from the same sad song sheet. I stay almost completely silent throughout the whole thing. I remember thinking, if one more inmate dies down here they’re going lock up the people who run this place.
The reports all pass the scrutiny of the warden whose biggest fear in life is a lawsuit with his name on it.
The Sergeant’s report reads: “The inmate’s injuries are a direct result of non-compliance of orders to stop resisting.”
What isn’t in the report is that the inmate has a mental age of a 10-year-old, and most of the time he doesn’t understand what’s happening around him.
RJ Reilly didn’t set out to be an author—nor a prison guard. We blog about how he came to do both here.