color photograph of a man in an orange prison jumpsuit sitting behind bars reading a book
(via iStock)

The Michigan Reformatory facility is shutting down. There isn’t enough staff to properly run the facility, and their strategy of writing tickets to discourage inmates from being out of their cells isn’t working. We’re being transferred to facilities that fit our security level; some incarcerated folks will go up north, some will go south, and a few—including myself—will go across the street to the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility (MTU), a level-two low-security prison. 

We aren’t the only ones relocating to a new place—a few corrections officers (COs) will also be transferred according to their training level. I’m glad I won’t see these high-level security COs anymore. Fingers crossed for MTU.

“Where you think we going?” a fellow prisoner asks.

I am still dressing after being stripped. Outside, the halls are scattered with green duffle bags. I tell him anywhere is better than being up north. After about 20 minutes of chatter, the bars open one by one, and our names are called. We line up, get on the bus, and—in six minutes—pull up to the MTU facility, right across the street from the old, raggedy Michigan Reformatory. 

I’m excited to be here. There are so many opportunities: rehabilitation programs like Thinking for a Change and Advanced Substance Abuse Treatment, a vocational village that offers training in skills like welding and gardening, and courses via Calvin College’s prison initiative. This is my shot at practicing my second chance at life.

Knowing these opportunities are available encourages me to stay on track, but within weeks, I learn I am not eligible for any of these programs yet. I have to be three years away from my release date to be placed in most programs. Calvin College is the only course I can take. 

I still feel positive about the opportunity and submit a formal letter to my counselor. He tells me I am eligible but will be on the waiting list for a few months. More than a hundred prisoners applied for the Calvin College course. Until then, I have to keep my nose clean. I make room for new books, thinking I’ll pass along my old books to other incarcerated folks. In high-security prisons, we weren’t allowed to pass anything to anybody. I ask an officer if I can give my old books to my fellow prisoners, and he says it’s fine.

I ask the new COs for permission before doing anything around here: can I shower, go outside, walk to the day room, use the microwave, eat, sleep, sh—

“Yes! You are not in a high-level; relax, Mr. Buckley,” an officer tells me. The first-shift officers run the unit like an oiled machine. They talk to us and laugh a little at us transitioning from a high-security prison to a low-security prison. I could get used to being treated with a pinch of respect. 

Then, out of nowhere, high-level, power-drunk Michigan Reformatory officers arrive at MTU. One of them—CO SP—is removed within days from the Calvin College unit and placed in my unit. His obsessive ticket-writing behavior got him thrown out. 

I try to stay away from these kinds of officers. I’ve dealt with all kinds of aggressive COs, so I know how to maneuver around them. I walk on eggshells, making sure I don’t break any frivolous rules.

By the end of the week, like clockwork, prisoners shuffle to the desk to hear they’ve been written a ticket during CO SP’s shift. As they receive these petty tickets, all I can think of is: no programs for you. Try again next year. Sorry, try again. The eggshells I’m walking on turn into glass. I have to hold my tongue to keep from yelling. It’s hard to believe that such wonderful opportunities can be taken from us because of something as simple as a loitering ticket. 

Then, I learn something unnerving. CO SP and a female officer are in a relationship. If prisoners speak to her in a friendly nature, they’ll find out later that they’ve been ticketed for something petty. Jealousy is dangerous in prison, especially if it’s coming from a government employee. 

Their public displays of affection at work are a clear sign not to speak to her. Every time CO SP works his shift, she comes to our unit and sits in his seat. I tell myself I just have to get into the Calvin College program so I can be moved to the college unit. I stay in my cell as if I were back in a level-five prison. It’s the only way I know how to make it through.

Things get worse. CO SP sends an officer to my cell to antagonize my cellie. He shakes our cell down and takes my cellie’s TV, saying it’s not his. Other prisoners use the grievance system to ward off his wrath—rumor has it that this CO has more than 72 grievances written about him—and like magic, he’s gone. Other COs have expressed their disgruntlement toward this officer too, saying he planned to make the environment hostile for everyone because he wanted to be a permanent shift command officer.

In his absence, I hear that CO SP had gotten another officer in trouble by telling their superior that he had let out a prisoner CO SP had put on sanctions—or a 17-hour cell lockdown—just because he was tired of seeing his face. The prisoner got a ticket even after he’d asked to come out of his cell for a cup of hot water. No college for him anyway—he was part of a Security Threat Group (STG). STG guys aren’t allowed out of their cell after 2 p.m., have no access to the JPay emailing system, vocational programs, Calvin College—nothing. I wonder how they would ever gain any opportunities.

A week later, the officer with the rumored 72 grievances walks into our unit with a smile on his face. Everyone is surprised and angry, discouraged that the grievance system ostensibly put in place to protect us has done nothing. He takes his jacket off, goes to the back, and brings back a pile of grievances—a hysterical amount—and drops them onto the desk. He bends down toward the microphone and says:

“Keep writing them, you fuckers!”

The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.

Demetrius Buckley’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Michigan Quarterly Review—where he won the 2020 Page Davidson Clayton Prize for Emerging Poets—Apogee, PEN America, and RHINO. He is...