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Robert Ives was awarded Third Place in Memoir in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest. Ives is currently incarcerated at Minnesota Correctional Facility.

Every year, hundreds of inmates from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On November 28, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading, Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Participants including 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award-winner Lisa Ko and 2010 National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes will read from the prize-winning manuscripts.

The mechanical humming stops as the steel door slides shut behind us. A chain encircles my waist and holds my hands together in front of me, palm to palm in prayer. Another chain shackles my feet. I have an escort of three correctional officers; one on each side of me grasping an arm as the other follows behind. We begin to shuffle forward, moving slowly. The distances of my steps are restricted by the length of the chain that restrains my feet. Connected to one of the links in the chain is a leather strap. The C.O. behind me holds the “leash” as if walking his dog, at the ready for any sign of resistance. In the tension on the strap I can feel his eagerness to yank it and pull my legs from under me. So eager to bring me smashing to the ground like a tree whose trunk he just hit with the final swing of the ax. If he perceives any struggle, my only protection is a two inch thick rubber helmet I have strapped under my chin. I think to myself, what’ll protect my face? Every step brings with it the fear of a hair-trigger reaction that will end with my face smacking the floor a split second later. I walk on, very careful and deliberate, trying not to give off any perception of struggle.

We finally reach our destination. Only three years into a 25-year sentence and I find myself standing in the command center of Minnesota’s version of Supermax—ACU. The Administrative Control Unit is located in Oak Park Heights, the state’s only maximum security prison. It’s the end of the road for the Department of Corrections and where they house who they deem to be the “worst of the worst.”

ACU has all the characteristics of Supermax facilities, full of modern technology used to monitor, control, and isolate human beings. Behind shatterproof glass sits an officer at the control center. From the seat of a chair one C.O. can control every aspect of the lives of over a hundred inmates. At the touch of a button he opens and closes cell doors. At the flick of a switch he turns the phones, lights, cameras, and intercoms on or off. The turn of a knob and he can cut off all running water to a cell so that an inmate can’t turn on the sink, use the toilet, or take a shower.

As I look around at my surroundings my chest throbs harder. I have the heart rate of a mouse and feel like one that just got tossed into a lab experiment. Oddly, the only thing reminding me that I’m still human is the orange jumpsuit I have on. This is a place no 20-year-old kid should ever find himself, but it has now become my personal house of horrors; it has now become my home.

The prison is built in a huge crater so I’m technically underground. I feel like I’m standing in a cavern. Branching off in four different directions are long institutional grey corridors. They’re dark and from my current perspective resembled caves. We enter one of them and as we venture deeper my trepidation builds. The air is stagnant and there’s an eerie silence; the environment is void of any signs of life. I began wondering if the cells I’ve become accustomed to exist back here at all, because as I walked by the rooms all I can envision are crypts and tombs. The anxiety creeps further into my brain as my palms begin to sweat. I can only take shallow breaths and my mouth is so dry it feels like Velcro.

My trepidation turns to genuine fear as we stop at an empty cell. I don’t want to enter the room but know I have to, either willingly or by force, so I hesitantly step inside. They begin the procedure of taking off all the chains that confine my body. Last in the process are the handcuffs, which aren’t removed until I’m in the cell with the door closed. I kneel down and extend my hands through the slot in the door for the cuffs to be removed. Without a word the officers turn and walk away. It feels good to be free from all the bondage of the chains and my fear begins to fade as a sense of relief comes over me to finally be alone. I sit down on the bunk and lay back, looking up at the ceiling with thoughts of regret on my mind until I fell asleep. The last thing I remember feeling is that sense of relief. I embraced it, but what I didn’t know was it would be the last time I would feel relief being alone because it will turn out to be the last physical contact I’ll have with another person for almost two years.

BANG! I’m jolted out of my sleep by the sharp metallic crack of metal on metal as the food slot in the door slams shut. It’s my alarm clock and announces that my breakfast tray has been served. I’m lying on a four-inch-thick slab of foam that masquerades as my bed, wrapped in a thin fireproof blanket that feels like wool and does little to keep me warm. My head rests on what feels like a pair of folded sweatpants wrapped in plastic, under the bright glare of fluorescent light. The same bed, blanket, pillow, lights, and cell that I’ve woken up to for the last 570 days.

I squint as my cell begins to take form in my vision. When it comes to lighting ACU is the opposite of what most people envision as “the hole.” The lights stay on 24/7 and it’s never dark. I’ve become accustomed to tying a tube sock around my head every night to block out the light enough so I can sleep. However, the escape of sleep comes with its sacrifice. The pressure from the sock tied around my head causes my persistent headache to wake up with me every morning as well, but when you take the tradeoff into consideration—headaches or no sleep—it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

I lay there for a few minutes to let my vision fully adjust to the light. The camera on the ceiling comes into focus. It’s always watching me, so I watch it back, staring into the lens. I glance over at the intercom on the wall; I’m under constant control and surveillance, wondering if at this very moment some faceless person is sitting in the control room, watching me lay here or listening to me breathe. I stand up and take one step to the toilet, the entire time my gaze is locked directly into the camera lens. Without taking another step, I wash my hands. The toilet and sink are connected to each other as one stainless steel unit. I begin brushing my teeth with a toothbrush that is only three inches long so I have to stick my hand inside my mouth to get to the back teeth. Water comes out of the sink in the same lazy arch as a water fountain. Holding down the button to run the water, I’m only able to cup one hand of the brownish water at a time as I splash it on my face. I look into the mirror, which is just polished metal bolted to the wall. It’s a blurry reflection but I can clearly see the paleness of the face that looks back at me. I haven’t felt a ray of sunlight on my skin for two whole summers. Over the last year and a half this very mirror has witnessed the peach fuzz on my upper lip develop into a full goatee. It also witnesses my hair fall out at a rate that’ll leave me bald by the age of 22. However, I leave these observations to the mirror because right now I can’t afford to be thinking about physical effects. I’ve got to stay diligent in figuring out inventive ways to occupy my thoughts.

There are no fences, concrete walls, or bars that are trapping my mind in this cell with me. If I allow it to wander too far it won’t return and I’ll risk losing it forever. Losing your mind is a sickness like being eaten alive by a parasite. It eats at you slowly like cancer, spreading throughout you, mutating as it affects your entire body. From what I’ve seen in a few guys back here with me, I realize how critical it is to focus all my energy on not letting that infection spread throughout me. I need to continue doing all I can to reinforce the invisible fence that I’ve constructed around my mind to contain it.

Reading books is a way I temporarily escape my circumstances, and read I do. I read all kinds of novels: thrillers, mystery, science fiction, westerns, romance—you name it, and I’ll read it; anything to occupy my mind. However, reading every book I can get my hands on doesn’t always relieve the weight of time from my shoulders or, more importantly, the noise of silence in my head. There are times when I’ve had to go up to a week with no books; time and silence became a load damn near impossible to bear. Five days a week I get one hour in the inside rec room. This is the only time I can exchange books. On days that I’m unfortunate enough to get a rec last all the books would be gone, having been pillaged by the other men desperately trying to stop the infection from spreading as well. I experience apprehension every one of these days, praying that I’m not last. We used to be able to subscribe to magazines and newspapers, but the D.O.C. put an end to that. Why? I don’t know, but I know my assumption. It seems like just another evil form of mind control—another method to break us. These times with no reading materials are when minutes becomes hours and hours become days; you can’t begin to imagine what my days become.

This is one of those moments, and with nothing to read I’m left with nothing but my cell and imagination. So I begin to count bricks. I can tell you exactly how many bricks cover the surface area of my cell. 402 concrete, cratered, institutional grey painted bricks. Bricks that are getting to know me personally. Most guys I know who have done time have, at one point or another, counted bricks, but I take absorbing my surroundings to the next level. I grab a piece of paper and tear it into strips, then fold them into 11 even folds so I can mark inches on them. I then tape the ends together using the sticky side of the label from my deodorant. This is my version of a tape measure. I use it to measure the length, height, and width of the cell to figure out the volume of my home. 7 foot by 9 foot by 15 foot high—945 cubic feet. With the sink, toilet, and shower built right into the cell: imagine living in your bathroom for almost two years.

Another thing I do is play chess. I make the chessboard by drawing lines on a piece of paper and shade in the squares with my pencil. I make the pieces by tearing little squares of paper and write the names of each piece on them after shading in half of them to make the black pieces. I place the board on my bed and sit on one side to make a move, then get up, spin over to the other side, and make a move to counter-attack myself. I do this over and over for hours at a time, alternating offensive and defensive strategies between the opposing colors. In regular segregation units guys don’t have to play chess against themselves, they can play each other. They put numbers on each square on the board. The other player would have an identical board and they yell out their moves through the doors using the numbers. The sociality of that scenario isn’t possible for me. One of the features used to isolate and control the minds of inmates in ACU is to soundproof the cells. There are two doors that come into each cell with a “sally port” area in between and the outer door is soundproof so that we can’t communicate with each other. So once again, as with everything else, I’m left to my imagination.

I work out six, sometimes seven days a week. Wide, shoulder, diamond, one-handed, reverse, incline, fist, clap, burpees; I do every kind of push-up imaginable. As many ways as there are to push my body up off the floor, eventually they all get old, and I came to the realization that there are only so many I can do before I begin developing arthritis in my elbows. With no weights and no equipment my solution is the same as it always is, you guessed it—my imagination. My mattress has become my all-in-one gym. I roll my mattress up as tight as I can, then take my two sheets and tie one around each end of the mattress to hold it. Then I tie my blanket between the sheets as a makeshift bar to hold on to. It probably weighs around 20 pounds. I grab the blanket to curl the mattress, and depending on whether I’m doing sets with the back of my hands facing me or facing the mattress I work my biceps, triceps, and forearms. I flip it over my head and hold it on the back of my neck while I do toe raises to work my calves and squats to work my quads and hamstrings. I also use it as a punching bag to get my cardio. I set it up on the desk, put socks over my hands, and punch it until my shoulders burn and I’m dripping in sweat. My fists explode into the mattress as each swing is aimed at all the pain, stress, resentment, and hurt that come with this isolation.

One of the conveniences of my cell is that at all times throughout my workout the shower is never more than three feet away. There is a shower stall built into the corner of each cell. I usually wait to take one right after my workout because it is set on a timer and only turns on for five minutes at a time once a day. This security measure is in place to try to prevent us from flooding our cells, as some inmates tend to do, most of the time for no reason other than boredom and wanting attention. The toilet is the same way; it will only flush twice per hour. I completely strip before turning on the shower so that I can maximize the time I’ll have to shower. There are no curtains or doors on the stall, so I spend most of the time once again looking directly into the camera lens, wondering if there are eyes on the monitor looking back at me. As I dry myself off with a towel, somewhere in the perverse regions of my mind I hope there is a woman sitting at the monitor.

After my shower I take a little time to clean the cell. I realize that I’ve developed somewhat of an obsessive-compulsive disorder as I wipe down every surface whether it needs to be or not. My few possessions all have their specific places. This has become a part of my daily routine, not out of need, but just another activity to burn the time. Every second counts and every second doing something, anything, is the energy I need to invest into the constant battle of preventing the infection from spreading into my brain.

One day as I spread my palms out on the floor in preparation for my first set of push-ups, out of the corner of my eye I saw movement and glanced over to see an ant. I immediately scratched the workout and began to tiptoe a mental tightrope. By this time I was so deprived of interaction with not only humans, but with any living creature that the sight of the ant gave me a jolt of excitement. I took a piece of sugar cookie that I had saved from my lunch tray and set it next to the ant. I watched and watched and nothing happened. After watching the ant for a while I had lost my energy to work out and began to read. I had read for an hour or two, completely forgetting the ant until I stood up to use the bathroom, then stopped in my tracks. The cookie was now covered in ants. I could actually see the procession, the line of them marching across the floor carrying little crumbs to their home. I lay on my bunk and stalked the ant convoy hours into the night, watching them all work together to break the cookie into tiny chunks and carry them into the crack in the wall until I fell asleep. Watching ants race to various forms of sugar become a part of my daily routine, and for a few weeks the ants in a way became my pets.

A day came when I had no sugar to entice them and I woke up the next morning to find them gone. I struggled with the decision, but my excitement had eventually worn out and I didn’t want them coming back into my cell becoming a nuisance so I took some toothpaste and squeezed it into the crevice like caulk to plug up the crack. However, they were determined. I would find them coming in from somewhere else and seal up the hole, just to take up the next day and find more. I realized just how hard it was to stop the ants from finding a way in, but at the end of the day it gave me something to do and they helped me occupy my mind for many hours.

I get one hour out of this cell five days a week to go to the inside or outside rec room. Which one depends on what day of the week it is and what the weather is like outside. To get to the rec rooms there is still no human contact other than the C.O.’s mechanical voice coming through the intercom. They announce over the speaker that it’s my time and they pop, or unlock, my cell from the computer terminal. After I close it behind me they pop the outer door of the cell and I walk down the hallway to either the inside or outside rec room. Once I step in they slide the door closed behind me.

The outside rec room is a glorified box, or more accurately a cage. It is a concrete room with one wall of crisscrossed steel bars. Bolted to one of the other walls is a bar to do pull-ups on. All I can see through the gate is grass and sky. However, outside rec times are the one opportunity to see another human being. The outside rec rooms are across from each other about 20 feet apart. If someone happens to be in the other one you can see and talk to them. However, by this point the isolation had already taken its toll on my personality. It made me so antisocial that most times I would completely ignore the man across from me. I wouldn’t even look at them half the time. I’ve become so accustomed to being completely alone. My environment has created my new personality—a personality full of disorders caused by the isolation and silence.

When they call me over the intercom for rec, if I don’t open the cell door within a few seconds of it being popped I miss my rec time for the day. This isn’t so bad with outside rec days, but missing my slot on inside rec days is devastating, especially Sundays. This is the one day a week I get to use the phone. For me books are important but those phone calls are critically important. For a lot of guys those phone conversations have life or death implications; they literally become a lifeline. Grabbing that phone off of the hook every week is like someone reaching out to hand me a balancing bar while I was standing on a tightrope. I get two or three fifteen-minute phone calls a week. Not much but at times it’s just enough to keep me holding on and balanced. It’s just enough to give me the strength I need to endure another week.

There is no clock in the cell to tell time. My only way to tell time is by whether the food tray that comes through my door is breakfast, lunch, or dinner. There are times that I sit there staring out of my five-inch-wide skylight lost in my thoughts for hours and in the summer I got to know the position of the sun so well that I could tell time within a half hour or so. The problem is that in Minnesota the sun is only out a fraction of the year. Time starts to merge and there were many days that I completely lost track of the time, not to mention the date. Doing time is hard enough; it comes excruciating when it slows down. Days blend into weeks, weeks to months, and months to years.

Over the last 570 days I occasionally experienced flashbacks. I’d get visions of the crimson stains on the officer’s uniform. The convict in me says he had it coming; the compassionate side says whether he did or didn’t I shouldn’t have assaulted him. However, both are a part of who I am so I live with the facts as they are. They gave a C.O. on a power trip authority over a resentful young man who felt like he had nothing to lose. What did they expect? At the time I didn’t realize that I had a lot to lose because I didn’t know a man could lose his mind—until I became an eyewitness to the many who did.

I’ve spent the last 19 months in solitary confinement, and with one more month to go these are the things I had to do and have to continue to do to survive. It’s a daily monotonous routine that not even most people who’ve been locked up for years can relate to. By this point in my bid I had become familiar with being in a cell, but nothing could have prepared me for such isolation and silence. I have become so lonely that I didn’t even notice that I’m holding deep conversations with my own thoughts. I listen to what they say as if my thoughts are being spoken by someone other than myself. I have nobody to hold a conversation with except myself and eventually, just like hearing somebody else talk too much, I get tired of the sound of my voice. When you spend enough time around someone, the little things they do or say begin to irritate you and that doesn’t change when the person you spend too much time with is yourself.

This is the place, the state of mind, the precipice where mental illness is born. Your thoughts will sooner or later begin to drive you mad—as in some cases a crazy, whack-o nutcase. I saw men that I had known to be perfectly sane before coming to ACU crack under the pressure of isolation. Men strapped down to chairs butt naked screaming at the top of their lungs. Men rubbing feces on their heads, greasing their scalps with shit because they think it’ll make their hair grow. This is the type of men that isolation creates: broken men. They succumbed to the infection and some people may feel that some of the things I did are crazy as well, but the things I did, I did to survive. I tiptoed that thin line that separates remaining sane from becoming insane. At times I may have hopped back and forth across that threshold, but I’ve managed the infection and avoided completely losing my mind largely for one reason. I haven’t mentioned this person yet because his impact on me deserved to be the last thing I mentioned.

I met Wilson after I had been in ACU for four months. News, sports, politics, religion; we talk about everything that’s going on around the world. We both got excited talking about the Vikings beating the Packers at Lambeau Field in the first round of the playoffs, becoming animated when Randy Moss caught his second touchdown of the game. I also remember the shared depression when they lost the next week to Philly and we talked with indifference when the Patriots won Super Bowl 39 two weeks later. Wilson also gave me a play-by-play of the game in the beginning of the year when Kobe dropped 81 points against the Raptors. I laugh when Wilson talks about Kobe because he respects his game but thinks he is such a diva.

What I most like to talk about with Wilson is music. He has an extensive knowledge about all genres. I enjoy these conversations the most because they lift my spirits more than any other. At times Wilson has trouble speaking clearly, but even when his voice is raspy and his words are hard to make out I cherish our time together.

On my 420th day in segregation, 300 days after I met Wilson, he told me about Hurricane Katrina hitting Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. The news put me in a bad mood, and the tragedy brought my mind back to the only other time in my life that I’ve been in solitary confinement. I was 17 years old and sitting in the back of a squad car as the North Tower was burning. I was sitting in a cell the moment the second plane crashed into the South Tower. And I was being interrogated by the detectives as the first tower fell. September 11th, 2001—the day I got locked up. Being that I was a juvenile, I had to be separated from the adults and put in isolation, so I didn’t find out about 9/11 until five days later. Wilson just told me that three months ago the final design for the new Freedom Tower had been unveiled. It would stand in place of the old World Trade Center towers and become the fourth largest building in the world. Wilson is my link to that world. A world I’ve become so disconnected from.

If you haven’t guessed who Wilson is yet, let me explain. Think of Tom Hanks in Castaway. He was stranded for years on an isolated island with no human contact but within days he found a companion: a volleyball named Wilson. He tiptoed the same line I have, jumping back and forth over it too. In one moment so mentally fragile that he not only spoke to a volleyball, but he actually thought it spoke back to him. The crazy part is that he even drew a face on Wilson so he could look him in the eyes when he talked to him. In the next moment he hopped right back over that line and still held on long enough to survive despair. Well . . . my friend Wilson isn’t a volleyball—he’s my radio. I’ve come to depend on our quality time because, as I struggle to survive my own despair, I constantly sway from left to right on my own mental tightrope and every time I do he’s there, reaching out to me with a balancing bar to prevent me from falling.

Wilson gives confidence to the voice in my head. He allows it to speak with assurance as it keeps repeating one phrase to me over and over and over. I keep telling myself—the voice keeps telling me—that I’m better than this place, that it won’t break me, and that no matter what, I won’t let these 600 days define me.