What does the first day of a 5+ year prison sentence feel like?
By: Kenyatta Leal
I remember my first day because it was my worst day. I was sentenced to life in prison on September 25, 1995 and about a week later was transferred from the San Diego County Jail to RJ Donovan Prison for intake into the state prison system. The morning of my transfer a deputy came to my cell and told me that I was “catching the chain” to the pen. I had just made it to sleep as my cellmate and I had stayed up late playing chess and talking. He was a 19 year old 1st termer headed to the joint with a life sentence and every night he would ask me a gang of questions about prison life. I felt compelled to answer his questions in as much detail as possible because I knew he didn’t understand the danger he was headed into and he needed all the help he could get.
As I got myself together my cellmate sat up on his bunk, wrapped his arms around his knees and watched me like a child would watch a parent. My heart went out to the little dude because he needed more guidance than I ever could give him. I started to remind him of some of the things we had talked about but the deputy came back to get me. He told me to state my name and booking number then turn around and cuff up. I complied and when I turned back around to cuff up, my cellmate was sitting there crying. I will never forget that look of hopelessness on his face and I can only imagine the look on mine. I told him to keep his head up and I walked down the stairs with the deputy. Right then I said a prayer for that kid because as bad as my situation was, he was someone who had it far worse than me.
We got to the holding cell and there were about 20 others waiting to catch the chain also. They call it catching the chain because we’re all chained together as we go to the pen. The single file chain of men made its way outside and it felt good to walk around a bit and breathe in that crisp morning air. As we loaded onto the bus the deputies unchained us from each other, but we were left shackled at the waist and ankles. No one said a word on the bus and my heart was beating so hard I could hear it. The ride to Donovan took all of 20 minutes as the prison is literally within eye sight of the county facility from which I was transferred. The sun was just coming up as we pulled into R&R (Receiving & Release) at Donovan.
I couldn’t wait to get out of those handcuffs and leg irons; being shackled up like that is something I could never get used to. As soon as we walked into R&R I saw someone I knew from the county jail and he was all smiles as he asked me how much time I had. When I told him 25 years to life his eyes got big and he took a step back, as if I had some kind of virus he didn’t want to catch. His response surprised me. First it made me feel nervous, then worried that everyone else would respond to me the same way. He didn’t know what to say and neither did I. I tried to ease the awkwardness of the moment with small talk about my appeal but no matter what I said I couldn’t escape the growing despair in my gut; and that was only the first day.
We made it out of R&R around noon and got back on the bus to go to the “4″ yard. We pulled up next to building 16 and unloaded straight into the dayroom. Once inside, we walked into a gauntlet of correctional officers who immediately started yelling and telling us to shut the f*** up and not ask them for anything because we had nothing coming. After being strip searched and yelled at for about 30 minutes, we all had to sit and wait to be interviewed by the gang coordinator. While we waited, I heard familiar voices of people I knew who had caught the chain before me, asking if I needed anything. At that point I was so depressed and downtrodden that I didn’t respond verbally. I just shook my head.
After my interview, I walked upstairs to the cell where I’d spend the rest of the first day of a life sentence. I stepped inside and the sound of the cold steel door slamming behind me ricocheted around inside my skull, making me dizzy. I just stood there in shock. I remember wanting to scream but when I opened my mouth nothing but sobs came out. I was devastated. I heard people calling my name on the tier but I couldn’t speak. I closed my eyes hoping to find some relief, but what I saw in my mind’s eye were all of the horrible choices I made and the faces of the people that I hurt in the process. I thought about the times when I coulda, woulda, shoulda, taken action to stop this nightmare from happening, but it was way too late.
Looking back, it was as if I was on a runaway train to prison and every choice I made accelerated my imminent arrival. When I finally opened my eyes and looked around the filthy cell, there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. I felt like the most worthless piece of crap ever known to mankind. My life had just hit rock bottom and I couldn’t see any way up or out. That was by far the worst moment of the worst day of my entire life.