Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

Pulling Chain

May 30, 2022

By Randall T. James

By Randall T. James, U.S. penitentiary Lompoc (CA)

Do you ever wonder to your family member or just the person in the news after the courtroom drama of the trial ends? After the cameras go away and the media move on to the next ‘big story”? [Of course, in most cases, the prosecutors use the threat of a draconian sentence to get them to plead guilty and skip the ‘limelight.’ But even then, what happens next? Before they suddenly find themselves in prison?]

Here’s an insider’s tale:

The condemned man is shackled and transported to a county jail or other holding facility and for the next several weeks we lie awake at night in our two-person cell, listening for the rattling of chains. 

Then, one early morning, the rattling chains stop in front of your cell and the guard yells your name: “James, junk and bunk!” That means you have to pack all your junk and clean up your bunk. He’ll be back for you in a few minutes. During those few minutes, you yell at your friends two cells down and try to find a way to stall. But before you know it, the guard is rushing you out of your cell and you’re standing packed into a room with other men, naked — with guards probing every body cavity you have.

After that, you’re handed an orange jumpsuit, handcuffed, shackled at the feet and chained to several other inmates. A black box is locked in place over your handcuffs, to prevent any tampering with the keyhole. (If not used with care, it can cause a lot of suffering. The box requires that your arms remain in close proximity to one another and to your chest, making it impossible to bring your arms or hands together. This posture can cause the handcuffs to cut into your wrists whenever you move your arms.)

After being loaded into a van or bus, you’re taken to a “diagnostic center.” You see your city disappear behind you, and — in my case, at least — you end up in a rural area with horses and haystacks everywhere. (Most of these places are far from probing eyes.) This process of transfer, from one facility to another, which will be repeated many times over the years, is called “pulling chain.”

Once unloaded, you again are stripped and examined in all of your private areas. Then you’re hosed down with lice spray and debugged. After a shower, you’re given a physical exam and your sight and hearing are checked. And you’re handed a bedroll and a couple of sets of clothes. 

Last but not least, you’re stripped of your name. I was no longer Randall James. I had become inmate #183317 (today, 27351045). Then begins a journey into a whole other world, a world of make-believe where stamps are money, you’re herded around like cattle to chow and other functions, men use other men for sexual gratification, and a simple rule infraction can land you in solitary confinement for months at a time. You reach out to family and friends in desperation, but as time goes by, well, “out of sight, out of mind.”

This is our reality once we are convicted. 

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