When I first entered the gates of Soledad State Prison in the winter of 2012, I walked across the yard holding a box called a “fish kit” filled with my prison-issued belongings. I saw the faces of hundreds who had already made the prison their home. I watched them stare at me with piercing eyes, their faces rugged and their beards of different shades. All dressed in prison blue jeans and worn, torn coats; some leaning against the chain fences, toothpicks hanging from their lips, others with dark glasses covering their eyes.
I will never forget when the steel cell door slammed shut behind me. I stood in the darkness trying to fix my eyes and readjust the thoughts that were telling me this was not home. That this tiny space would not, could not be where I would spend a nickel of my life. My mind kept saying “No! Hell no!” I thought again of the many prisoners I had seen moments ago standing on the yard. So old and accustomed to their fates.
I dropped my fish kit. I spread my arms and found that the palm of my hand touched the walls with ease. I pushed against them with all my might, until I realized how silly it was to think that these thick concrete walls would somehow budge. I groped for the light switch. It was on the back wall, only a few feet above the steel-plated bunk bed. The bed was bolted into the wall like a shelf. It was only 2½ feet wide by 6 feet long, and only several feet above the gray concrete floor.
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness by the time I turned the light on. But until now I hadn’t seen the swarms of cockroaches clustered about, especially around the combined toilet and sink on the back wall. When the light came on, the roaches scattered, dashing into tiny holes and cracks behind the sink and in the walls, leaving only the very fat and young ones still running scared. I was beyond shocked to see so many of these nasty creatures. And although they didn’t come near me, I began to feel roaches climbing all over my body. I even imagined them mounting an attack on me when I was asleep,
This was home. For hours I couldn’t bear the thought. The roaches, the filled plaster on the walls, the dirt balls collecting on the floor and the awful smell of urine left in the toilet for God knows how long sickened me nearly to the point of passing out. To find home in Soledad State Prison I had to summon an unbelievable will to survive. My first step was to flush the toilet.
To my surprise I found all I needed to clean my cell in the fish kit: a towel, a face cloth and a box of state detergent. There was also a bar of state soap, a toothbrush, a comb, a small bag of powdered toothpaste, a small plastic cup, a small bag of dental flossers and a 20-year-old National Geographic magazine.
It seemed that time was now on my side. I started cleaning vigorously. I began with one wall, then went onto the next, scrubbing them from top to bottom as hard as I could to remove the markings and filth. I didn’t stop until I had washed them down to the floor and they were spotless. If I had to l sleep in here, this was the least I could do. The cell bars, sink, toilet and floor got the same treatment. I was especially worried about the toilet. I had heard that prisoners were compelled to wash their faces in their toilets whenever tear gas was shot into the units to break up mass disruptions and the water was turned off. I imagined leaning into this toilet, and I cleaned it to the highest hygiene standards.
I spent hours, sometimes on my hands and knees, washing down every inch of my cell, even the ceiling. When I had finished, I was convinced that I could eat a piece of candy that had dropped on the floor. The cockroaches had all drowned or been killed. I blocked off all their hiding places by plugging up the holes and cracks in the walls with wet toilet paper.
After the first days passed, I decided to decorate my walls with photographs from the National Geographic magazine. The landscapes of Malaysia, Chile and other parts of the world have enormous beauty and I gladly pasted photos of them everywhere. These small representations of life helped me imagine the world beyond prison walls.
Over the months, I collected books, magazines and even acquired a radio/CD player. Windows to the outside world. I pasted many photographs on the walls. That is how I began my prison term.
Anger, pain, and fear.
Thinking “he” is always near.
Every day a nightmare,
Reliving every scar.
Knowing the next horror
Is never very far.
Barring every window,
Locking every door.
Not going to the mailbox
Or walking to the store.
My yard is now my prison,
My house is now a cell.
My little piece of heaven
Has become a living hell.
Why did this happen?
Where did I go wrong?
Afraid of every shadow
The night becomes so long.
Did he think about my future?
When he hurt me with his crime?
When he gets out of prison
I’ll still be doing time.
— Alessandro Milan
Alessandro Milan is serving time at the California Men’s Colony Prison in San Luis Obispo, Calif., for assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury. He began his time at Soledad State Prison. He wrote these pieces for The Beat Within.