My Prison Cell: A Place Kept Compulsively Clean
In February, Jennifer Lackey, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University, where I teach journalism, invited me to speak to a class she teaches at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison an hour outside of Chicago. Her students, fifteen men, are all serving long sentences, mostly for violent crimes. Some will be at Stateville until they die. I talked with the students about storytelling, and had them complete an exercise in which they described their cells.
I was so taken by what they wrote that I suggested that they develop these stories about the space, which, for some, had been home for twenty years. Over the past ten months, I have worked with them from draft to draft to draft. This process was not without obstacles. Sometimes, Jennifer couldn’t return my marked-up drafts because the prison was on lockdown. One student missed class for a month because, after surgery, he had to wear a knee brace, which the prison considered a potential weapon. Another student was transferred to a different prison. (I continued working with him by mail and phone.) One despaired at my comments and edits, writing to me that “this must be my last draft because clearly I’m incapable of doing it correctly.” But with encouragement and gentle nudging they kept going. Below is one of five of these stories that will appear on the site this week.
It’s not uncommon for me to receive a compliment from other inmates who take notice of how neat and organized I keep my cell. I love cleaning. Maybe a little too much.
I’ve been cleaning practically all my life. My mother demanded it from us. I can remember the day my mother put a mop in my hands. I was just six years old. We were living on the second floor, in the back end of a four-unit apartment building. There were five of us in a two-bedroom apartment. While my mother was showing me how to hold the mop handle—one hand at the top of the mop stick and the other in the middle—and how to maneuver it across the floor, my older brother and younger sister were each busy with a small rag in their hands, wiping dust off the few pieces of furniture we owned. This is how we cleaned our house every Saturday morning. So I come by my compulsion honestly.
Everything in prison is about routine. I’m an early riser. I like to wake up at five every morning, while it’s still dark outside and only the dim lights of the gallery illuminate my cell. The first thing I do is remove my clean underwear off the clothesline—a strip of torn sheet—that I have tightly stretched from post to post, concealed beneath the bottom of the top bunk. I’m referring to the boxers I purchased at the prison commissary, at four dollars and eighty cents for a single pair. I then brush my teeth and wash my face. Before drinking my first cup of coffee, I like to get my cell in compliance. In Illinois, every prison facility issues each inmate a large personal-property box and a small correspondence box. Before leaving the cell, an inmate is expected to put away his property, with the exception of a few items such as his television, small radio, a Bible or Holy Koran, and one pair of shoes. Anything left outside his property box can be considered contraband and confiscated by prison officials for noncompliance.
Since I wake up so early, I have to be careful not to make too much noise and disturb my cellmate, who is still asleep. At six feet four and three hundred pounds, I need to navigate our cell carefully. My cellmate thinks I’m a little off-kilter with all the cleaning I do, but he’s an amicable fellow and, honestly, I think he appreciates having someone keep the cell clean. It’s like having a maid. First, I scrub the sink and commode unit, using a small hand towel and an industrial concentrated liquid soap normally used for washing dirty trays. I obtained it from a friend through his detail assignment in the inmate kitchen. Then, quietly and methodically, I strip my bed and, with a damp towel, gently wipe the mattress. When I make my bed, I tuck in the bedsheet tightly around the edges of the mattress, military-style, so tight that you can bounce a coin off the taut sheet. Carefully, I’ll place the dark-blue wool blanket and two extra white bedsheets, all neatly folded, underneath the pillow.
Beneath the steel sink and commode, I keep a bath towel spread open across the floor, which I use as a floor rag. When I’m done making my bunk, I’ll flush the toilet once and then dip the floor rag inside the commode with a squirt of liquid soap and stir it until it forms into lather. I use it to scrub the inside of the toilet. Next, I wipe the floor of the cell. After washing my hands, it’s time for that hot cup of coffee and planning for the day ahead. Usually, my cellmate will still be asleep and won’t be up until much later in the morning. I’ve been fortunate to have a cellmate who cleans up after himself, and to an extent mimics my behavior.
Whatever plans I make for the day will depend on the day of the week. One thing is for sure: whether I’m scheduled to go to the law library, yard, or gym, it won’t be long before I’m back in the cell, usually two hours later, and back to cleaning again. Living on the first floor, I’m always battling the dust and dirt that descends from the four galleries above me. It’s not unusual for me to wipe down the cell bars or the floor two or three times a day. Every afternoon, I routinely remove the two correspondence boxes and shoes from the front of the cell so I can wipe the cell bars and the floor. Just like early every morning, I’ll scrub the toilet and the entire unit. There are days when I’m a little more thorough with my cleaning routine than others. I wash my underwear every day in the sink and hang dry them on the clothesline. At night, before bed, I’ll wipe the floor and clean the sink unit one more time. Some people think I’m obsessive, and I suppose I am. The other inmates on the gallery tease me by calling me Mr. Clean. But cleaning is a way for me to feel like I have some control over my life. I need that to allay my anxiety, as I continue to fight my case in the courts, trying to find my way back home.