Going out on the chain is the initiation rite of coming to prison, and an experience which periodically reinforces and reaffirms incarnated people’s identity as prisoners. While being arrested, booked into county, strip searched, charged with a crime, going to trial or taking a deal, and even judgement and sentencing are all singular experiences in and of themselves they are experienced by many people who have interactions with the criminal justice but are never incarcerated for a extended period of time. Only people with a sentence of a year or more are sent to prison. Only people who are sent to prison experience going out on the chain.
It begins with uncertainty. Knowing that we will be on the chain but, due to the ever present excuse of “safety and security,” not allowed to know when. This week? The one after? Next month? Every week chain day approaches with trepidation and hope. The awful stress of waiting to be taken into the unknown. The possible relief of it finally happening.
Jail is but a prelude to the lessons in waiting to be taught in prison. As with any adventure, days and hours of tedium punctuated by moments of furious activity and terror. Horrible, terrible, uncomfortable things that would make us late for dinner, if dinner weren’t reliability late.
They come for us at an hour of the day so young it may as well still be night. Sentence length a measure of danger level. Simple noun-verb pairs tell us the cliff is approaching. “Get up! Cuff up! Let’s go” Strip search conducted in monosyllables. “Strip. Hair. Ears. Mouth. Dentures? Plates? Partials? Hands. Lift. Turn. Feet. Bend. Ok, grab a pumpkin suit.” A full sentence and permission to cover our nakedness. We feel relief, and hate ourselves for feeling relieved.
One by one, we are decorated with the historic jewelry of our status. Chains. They wrap around the waist and are adorned with pendants which appear suspiciously similar to a grade-schooler’s bike-lock. Wrists locked in cuffs attached to waist. Feet bound by anklets of their own. Bright orange cloth covers our flesh while our dignity has been left in the dirty laundry hamper.
We march with unfound rhythm, led out to a waiting bus. Some cling desperately to pride, backs unbowed. Others shuffle hunched, they scream without words “don’t notice me, I’m not here”. We each find a seat, scattered like dandelion seeds. United in shame, isolated in shared circumstance.
A rumbling, vibrating box, perfectly lacking in all comfort. Windows are the privilege it the tall. The vertically challenged have only our inner ear to mark motion and stillness. The hours pass. And pass. And pass. And pass. And pass.
Sentence length is a measure of danger level. Simple noun-verb pairs tell us the cliff is approaching. “Get up! Let’s go!” Some cling desperately to pride, backs unbowed. Others shuffle hunched, they scream without words, “don’t notice me, I’m not here”. Leaving the bus is disorientation. We haven’t really gone anywhere. Have we? Yet we are in a new place exactly like the old. Rife with the decay of neglect and old age. Buildings a reflection of their occupants.
Bit, bridle, and hobbles removed from wrist, waist, and ankle. Strip search conducted in monosyllables. “Strip. Hair. Ears. Mouth. Denture plates? Partials? Hands. Lift. Turn. Feet. Bend. Separate. Ok, grab a jump suit.” A full sentence and permission to cover our nakedness. We feel relief, and hate ourselves for feeling relieved. Miserable food, cold comfort. Yet, our flesh yearns for it like ambrosia. The rite completed, each of us retreat and retire to caverns of artificial stone with portals we control not.
Nothing has changed but geography. No divine epiphany. No insight welling up from within. Just the imposition of undeniable knowledge.
We are prisoners. We are not valued.
We are slaves. We are not important.
This is what it means to go out on the chain.