August 17th, 2011
I arrive at the Oregon State Penitentiary, a little after 10:00 on Saturday morning. I park in the visitors parking lot and sit in the air conditioning of my Jetta for a moment wondering how it will all go down. This is prison after all, maximum security prison, and shit can go down at any time, any moment, any reason. I sit for a few more minutes a mixture of excitement and fear as I’m about to willingly enter this facility and spend an afternoon in the company of 2000 inmates milling about a court yard, what they call The Big Yard, with a handful of guards to keep them in check as they watch a rock band. I turn on the CD player where Iron Maiden continues “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. I’ve had the song on repeat for nearly the whole way down from Seattle. It seems fitting when coming to a maximum security prison where there are men doing time for rape and murder. Some are here for only a decade (only???), some for life, some on death row, which is the shorter version of life. Bruce Dickenson sings:
Somebody cries from his cell,
“God be with you!”
If there’s a god,
why does he let me go?
I turn it off. Perhaps they all think it, “Why me?” Maybe not. I guess I’ll find out on the inside, but some shit went down for them to end up here, and looking at the thirty-foot walls from the outside, I know right away I’d hate to be stuck on the inside. Yeah, there is indeed a ton of crazy shit that goes down in this world. Jim Morrison was right. People are strange. Crazy more like, mad, despairing, lost. How do people end up here? I turn the CD off thinking that I don’t want any shit to go down. No shit. That’s my motto for the day.
I’m here to see a band called The Slants, an all Asian group with a sense of humor and an eye to turn what some see as a derogotroy term into a positive. I admire that. I’d previously written about them when they played a show that was part of Seattle Fashion Week. There were beauties everywhere that night, models in all manner of clothing, a few of which even spoke to the likes of me. It was a good night. I figure today will be quite the opposite where the beauty is concerned, and the clothing. The band’s van pulls into the penitentiary lot as I’m still sitting in the car so I get out and grab my bag, head toward the prison. They see me and wave before heading off to the restricted parking area where they’ll need to check in their equipment item by item. I get to the van as the guards are going over the list and trying to match names they don’t know with pieces of equipment they don’t understand. One guard reads, “Uh … Vox 2×12 tube combo?” The guitar player points out the proper piece of equipment. It goes on, and on, and on, down to the clothing items, the strings, the picks, the pens and notebooks in my bag. I half expect them to count the hair on our testicles, “Uh … gentlemen, you’ll have to forgive us, but now it’s time to drop your pants.” Thankfully, that does not happen.
A few guards take the music gear and start to move off, one of them says, “The inmate roadie crew is setting up the tent and stage. See you inside.” They go in through a special side gate. Two other guards, one female, one male, lead us into the prison visitor lobby where they check IDs and give us orange vests to wear. The female guard gives us a warning, “Do not take these off at any time.”
The singer, Aron, asks, “Can we take them off while playing? We run around and sweat a lot, and it’s freaking hot today.”
“Not even while you’re playing. If something goes down, the guards in the tower look for those in orange vests and target those not wearing such for any shooting.” She pauses for dramatic effect. It registers. We all make the mental note to hold on to the orange vest above all else, even guitars and notebooks. She continues. “Now, since you’re playing in the Big Yard things will be much different than if you were just visiting. I urge you to pay attention at all times. There will be some police tape separating you from the inmates, but remember, it’s just tape. If something should happen, there will be two gates right behind the stage. Follow me or the other officers through the nearest one.”
Simon, the bass player, asks, “How will we know if something’s happening?”
“Well … screams, gun shots, mass hysteria, that kind of thing.”
Again, the sound of mental notes registering, the wheels turning. Hold on to orange vest. Check. Exit behind stage if shit happens. Check.
We go through the metal detector, and then the first set of bars shut behind us. We walk down the hall where another set of bars opens and then closes behind us. Two levels in. In this room, we exchange IDs for prison badges, and in the awkward moments those have when not knowing what the hell will happen, Aron says, “These vests make it seem like we’re challenging the prisoners to a game of touch football.” He’s right. We’re two levels in, we’re screwed if shit does go down, but the vests do give a comic element to the whole affair. They’re short with elastic around the bottom so they keep riding up. We all keep pulling them down. We go through another gate. It closes behind us. Three levels in. We walk down to the other end of the hall where our prison badge numbers are read to a man in a booth who controls the last gate into the prison. Four gates to get in, and we all make note, four to get out.
We get through and walk back toward the Big Yard. We’re among the inmates now. We pass a few doing odd jobs, a few lingering by a window. We step out of the building to the edge of the Big Yard where there are fences topped with barbed wire and concrete walls thirty feet high, men with guns in towers along those walls. The world looks very different from such a place. I get the feeling that our first interaction with an inmate will dictate the way of things, the amount or lack of shit that will go down. “Follow me,” the lady guard says. We do, and walking out into the yard, we are approached by a tall inmate, a thin bald guy who walks with a forward lean and an air of confidence, not arrogance mind you, just surety of self.
“All right, all right, all right. Here come the artists, the artists!” He shakes Aron’s hand and goes off on his business. We all watch him for a second before continuing out into the yard. He has indeed set the tone. We aren’t just six guys stepping into their world. We’re a piece of the outside world, a bit of everything normal and extraordinary that these guys have lost. I turn and watch him walk off thinking he must be a good guy to walk like he does in a place like this. I stop walking and scribble a picture of him in my notebook, write a few words, “tall guy…confidence…the artists”
“Uh … Mr O’Leary, please don’t linger behind.”
I catch up with the rest, smiling with the thought that shit will indeed go down, but nothing bad. It will be good shit. It will be music. Yes, that guy was right. The artists have come, and we will meet the prisoners, compare tattoos, and for a little while at least, experience life behind these thirty-foot walls.
The Slants played in the Oregon State Penitentiary on June 4, 2011. This article was delayed while waiting for pictures from within the prison to be approved by prison authorities. Parts II, III, and IV to follow.