They shipped us out at four in the morning from the Martinsburg intake facility. That should’ve been a sign. A voice on the intercom awakened eight of us, ordering us to pack our stuff and exit our tiny one-man cells. We were led out front, stripped of our khakis, and given orange jumpsuits two sizes too big so we billowed and glowed like inflatable men in front of car lots. Our property was inventoried, the food items either thrown away or donated to some correctional officer’s secret stash. “Where are they sending us?” we asked in turn, each receiving the same answer: “Can’t tell you until we’re on the road.”
We finished our classification process and were finally going to a real penitentiary, but which? We heard good and bad about each: Mt. Olive and Huttonsville were the roughest, but they had the most action, whereas St. Mary’s was quiet like a prison you might see on Ghost Hunters as if no one actually lived there, but the guards were strict and intense. There was Pruntytown for the level-ones with outside clearance and the Anthony Center for younger offenders—we were certain we wouldn’t be headed for either of those. There were others, but we couldn’t recall their names.
The two months or so each of us spent at Martinsburg Correctional decided our fate. We had been photographed, our tattoos and scars logged. We met with counselors. We took IQ tests and five-hundred-question psych evals during which a recorded voice tried to trick us by asking ten different ways whether we heard demons or thought of killing ourselves as if we suddenly might slip up and shout, “Yes, the voice of Hell is in my head, but when I start to fashion a noose, he tells me, ‘Meh, my plans don’t really need you anyway.’” We received our rulebooks listing the grievance process and all the different acts for which we could be written up, earning us months in the hole or loss of good time. We were menaced by guards who acted like drill sergeants to see which of us would break. Some did. I doubt the eight of us were among them, unless of course the demons made us forget.
Guards shackled us hand and foot, with chains around our waists and a lockbox on our wrist-cuffs keeping our hands so close together that we couldn’t do anything except scratch our nuts and pray. I hoped it wouldn’t be a long drive, but we were in Martinsburg, closer to D.C. or Baltimore than any of the West Virginia prisons.
The armed transportation officers—a man and a woman—looked similar enough that they could’ve been twins. They had gigantic heads with sunburned faces and short brown hair. They stood so stretched in their uniforms that I couldn’t tell if they were muscular or fat, although I presumed the latter because they were on the road a lot.
The woman held a clipboard and read from it as she spoke. “Line up in the order I call your names. Anders, A. Coleman, F. Finny, J. Hume, A. Larkin, L. Lorne, T. Sansom, P. Williams, C.”
My name heading the list, I stepped to the front while the male officer checked my face against the first image on the stack of ID cards he carried. He did the same with the rest, walking down the line. “All good,” he said.
The doors opened, and both officers marched us in half-steps to the van. It was white, with West Virginia Division of Corrections painted on it. The windows were tinted and covered inside with wire mesh. Seats resembled the green vinyl benches of a school bus, with no safety belts—we’d slide around on our asses every time the driver took a sharp curve. Wherever we were headed, it would still be in West Virginia, which had no shortage of winding roads.
The male officer took my elbow and leveraged me up the steps. I expected him to direct me to the back, but he said, “Take the first seat you come to,” so I dropped onto the front driver’s-side bench, slid over to the window, and looked out through the mesh as if I had spider eyes.
Coleman sat next to me—an eighteen-year-old not much bigger than half my size. I didn’t look at him, but felt him staring as if considering whether I might hurt him.
Jeez, kid, I thought. It wasn’t like I meant to brutalize him in the van with guards three feet and a steel cage away. Besides, I was a non-violent offender: Forgery and Uttering, ten counts each, all run concurrently so my two hundred years had been converted to a single one-to-ten. I stole some checks from a neighbor with dementia. I filled them out and cashed them for drug money. Things could’ve been much worse for me. Instead, after time served here and at the Regional Jail in South Charleston, I was already eligible to see the Parole Board, and I had yet to set foot in a real penitentiary.
The female officer slammed the van door into place.
Coleman leaned toward me and said, “Where do you think we’re headed?”
“Don’t know,” I said, more grunts than words. For whatever reason, I didn’t think I should be friendly to this one.
“I heard one of the guards say something about Mt. Olive.” He had a bit of a tremor in his voice. Mt. Olive was maximum security. For someone of Coleman’s age and size, if he thought we were going there, I could understand why he might be anxious.
“That’s the max,” I said, less grunt-like.
“Hardcore,” said one of the cons behind us. “They’re gonna love you.”
“Doubt we’re going to Mt. Olive,” I said. “Not unless we failed our psych evals.”
“Could be,” the guy behind us said. “I got a history.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“I drew blood.”
“I didn’t.” I side-eyed Coleman. “Your hands bloody?”
He glanced down at them as if he didn’t know. “No.”
“You following the Satanic orders of your neighbor’s cat?”
He laughed nervously. “Uh, no.”
“Me neither. Not anymore.” I gave him half a grin as if to say, Relax, it’s fine. “Doubt it’s Mt. Olive. Whatever storage shed they plan to stash us in, I’m betting it’s not that one.”
The officers climbed in front, the man driving, and we started to roll through the open gates. When we were clear of the prison walls, the first thing the woman did was light a cigarette. She cracked a window and exhaled. Smoke filled the van, sending eight desperate prisoners into spasms of need. “You all don’t mind, do you?”
One of the cons in back said, “Can we have one?”
“Those motherfuckers,” another con said.
“What was that?”
It had been more than two months since we so much as smelled a burning cigarette. At the Regional Jail, tobacco made its way inside at least once a week, and sometimes we’d be lucky enough to sneak a hit or two off a slim stick rolled in a page from Genesis. No such luck in the twenty-two-hour lockdown at Martinsburg. Now we breathed that smoke in, and it smelled like our fathers, or it smelled like the right hand of God. All of us wanted that cigarette. I would’ve chewed through the cage to get it. I thought about tobacco so much that I knew I finally kicked my drug habit when I stopped dreaming about candy dishes full of pills and started dreaming about a pack of Kools.
“Where we going?” Coleman said—a well-timed distraction.
The female officer, still scanning the van to figure out who called her a motherfucker, took another drag, then flicked the butt out the window. “What do you think, Jones? Okay to tell’em now?”
“Up to you, Hanratty. I’m just driving.”
One of the cons behind me said, “It’s the Hut, isn’t it? I bet you we’re going to the Hut.” Huttonsville wouldn’t be as bad as Mt. Olive, but it kept a reputation for violence.
“It’s not Huttonsville,” said Hanratty.
While the rest of the cons shouted out their prisons of preference, I sat still, staring straight ahead, waiting.
C.O. Hanratty said, “Shut up, all of you, and I’ll tell you.”
The van went silent except for static on the radio and the clinking of chains as prisoners shifted in their seats. It was as if we were listening for lottery numbers or tornado warnings, as if we were waiting for the Parole Board to give us good news or, more likely, bad.
When Hanratty saw that we had followed her orders, she made a point of glancing at a piece of paper as if she didn’t know what was on it. “Congratulations, gentlemen,” she said in a game-show voice. “You’ve won an all-expenses-paid getaway to the Boone County Correctional Center, a three-hundred-bed facility in majestic Rock Haul, West Virginia.”
“Rock Haul?” said Coleman. “Where’s that?”
I side-eyed him again, while others booed and hissed. I think the cons behind him would’ve slapped him in the back of the head had their hands not been boxed near their guts.
C.O. Jones said, “He must not have done aces on the IQ test,” without looking over his shoulder. Through the cage, I saw him smirk in the rearview mirror.
Although I was smart enough to figure out where we were going, I didn’t feel enlightened about that destination. “Never heard of Boone County Correctional,” I said.
“Newer place,” Hanratty said, her voice returning to its normal flatness. “County-run and contracted to the DOC. Only been open a couple years. Used to be a hospital before the mines dried up.”
One of the men behind me said, “Yo, I got a buddy in that place. His old lady told me it’s off the chain.” He dragged that last word as if exhaling a puff of smoke. “Let you get away with anything down there. We’ll be blazing by nightfall.”
The others whooped and shouted until Hanratty told them to shut their traps. “Gonna be a long ride,” she said. “Their crew will meet us mid-way. Until then, you’re still Martinsburg property. I will write your asses up. Keep it down, and we’ll get along just fine.”
We rode in silence for a while, heading north toward Hagerstown, which surprised me, then west along I-68 through the carved, painted mountains, up and down the seven-percent grades, past the high, open spaces that looked like you could see past the edge of the world, although seeing it through wire mesh made it seem as if we were inside a box at the peak of a tall Ferris wheel or an enclosed car on a rollercoaster. Adding to this, we slid around on the benches, bumping into each other, groaning, straining to hold our places. After a couple hours, we finished with Maryland and crossed back into West Virginia. It was all green: miles and miles of green, an endless emptiness of green.
As we neared Morgantown, C.O. Jones reached out and turned on the radio. We heard the opening chords of “Welcome to the Jungle,” which brought new animation to us. One of the guys did an Axl Rose scream, and the rest of us laughed, nodded our heads, and sometimes sang along. We weren’t prisoners then; we were children on a family vacation, passing time, waiting for our long road to end.
Jones stopped the van near Morgantown to refuel and smoke, but he didn’t let us out to stretch our legs or stagger to the Sheetz restroom, though all of us needed it by then. He did what he had planned, and after a few minutes, we were back on the road, heading south.
Coleman said, “How much time you got?”
It took a second for me to realize he was talking to me. “One to ten,” I said. I didn’t add any details. “I’m already up for the Parole Board. Discharge in three and a half. You?”
“Five flat,” he said, then for some reason felt the need to add, “Strong-armed robbery.” He should’ve kept his mouth shut. I knew at that point that something was off. He wouldn’t have gotten a determinate sentence for Second-degree Robbery. It carried five to eighteen, and the Circuit judges almost always left it that way during sentencing. Five flat was more like a Conspiracy charge, which suggested he did something awful with his buddies and then ratted them out to get a better deal. Still, I tried not to judge him. He had his crimes, and I had mine.
My life spiraled out of control long before my arrest. I had been fired from my job as a security guard after my boss made a surprise inspection at three a.m. and found me asleep in the warehouse I was supposed to be watching. She offered me another chance if I passed a drug screen, but I declined to take it. I moved out of my apartment and back in with my parents after that, sleeping and using in a loft above the garage. The only thing they asked of me was that I help out our eighty-year-old neighbor Sheila Bennerman who had been their friend for three decades. Her dementia left her calling at all hours to ask for help because she couldn’t remember how to turn on a faucet or change a lightbulb. Mrs. Bennerman did see demons, terrifying ones, and strange men of various races who hid in her bushes and danced in her flowerbed. When things like that happened, my parents sent me over to calm her down and sit with her for a while, which I was good at, being dope-numbed and lazy.
Mrs. Bennerman couldn’t recall my name despite knowing me since I was five, but she didn’t have anyone else to help her. Her son lived in Oregon, and her daughter only came by twice a week to take her shopping or to the various doctors she visited. I was inside her house more than anyone else. When I saw that stack of checks, I was tempted to take them, but stopped myself at first. Then, the thought grew malicious in my head until I felt desperate, strung out, and in agony. Part of me believed I’d get away with it. Maybe I would’ve if I stopped after one or two. I wrote those to Cash for a hundred dollars each. By the third one, it felt so easy. So, the numbers grew larger. It was as if I wanted to be caught.
“…roughed him up, you know?” I missed most of what Coleman was saying, lost on a tour of my past. “Took his wallet. Don’t think he was hurt too bad.”
“We’re off the Interstate,” I said, redirecting the conversation.
“Yeah, man,” one of the guys behind me said. “We’re headed to Pruntytown.”
C.O. Hanratty said, “That’s right, gentlemen. In a few minutes, we’ll be stopping at the minimum-security Pruntytown Correctional Center. Once there, you’ll finally be free of our company. Can’t say it’s been a pleasure.”
C.O. Jones laughed so hard I believed he would’ve slapped his knee if his hands weren’t on the wheel.
“Of course,” Hanratty continued, “none of you will be staying there. You haven’t earned that privilege yet. Once your classification is lowered and you get your outside clearance—those of you that can get it—well, after that, who knows? We’ll be handing you off to transportation officers from Boone County. They’ll take you the rest of the way.”
“I hope we get there soon,” one of the men said. “I gotta take a piss.”
Jones barked at him in the rearview mirror: “You just hold it, buddy. You piss in my van, I still got time to bust your ass.”
The transportation officers from Boone County could’ve been clones of the ones from Martinsburg, except that instead of a man and woman there were two men, one black and one white. One was even named Jones, although the other’s name wasn’t mentioned. Their uniforms were less formal: blue slacks and a blue Polo with a fake badge embroidered above the heart. Jones, the white C.O., had mud on his boots and the cuffs of his pants. A crescent of hair replaced the Martinsburg Jones’s cropped cut. The unnamed officer wore a yellow-badged parka despite the summer heat, which told me we were in for a cooler ride the rest of the way.
“Y’all line up,” the new Jones said. “MCC wants its chains back. Y’all get ours now.”
The Martinsburg officers wanted their jumpers back, too. We were stripped out again and given others that were even bigger but a lighter shade of orange, more of a creamsickle. They said BCCC on the back rather than DOC like the ones from Martinsburg. We changed in a tiled room that smelled like urine and summer sweat. It smelled like high school. It smelled like misery. Then we were shackled again, but without the boxes at our wrists. Each hand was tied by a smaller chain to the chains around our waists so we had more movement but not enough to do much. We figured this out when, after the officers bound us, they led us to a row of urinals and told us this would be our last chance for the next four hours. We lined up and fumbled with our dicks through buttoned flaps in our new suits. It was like we had T-rex arms. If one of us stumbled while walking to the van, there’d be no way for us to protect our faces as we fell forward onto concrete.
Next, we were loaded onto the new van—much like the old van, except with duct tape over tears in the bench seats—in no particular order. I ended up in the same spot, but instead of the baby snitch, a guy named Larkin sat next to me. He didn’t say much, staring straight ahead through his meaty eyes as though he refused to lower himself to speaking to criminals. I respected that. The proverb silence is a virtue must have been written by a convict.
The new Jones drove, making me wonder if all Joneses were born for the wheel. He blasted the a/c, which we were grateful for, and country-western music, which we weren’t. No one griped about it. We didn’t know what to expect from these guards and preferred not to chance it.
For the first hour, we rode without chatter, the only sounds the occasional screeching of brakes and constant screeching of whichever country singer played the current three-chord lament. Only when the familiar horror of “Achy Breaky Heart” came on did our collective groans spill out, causing C.O. Nameless to say, “Shit, man. Turn it off. These boys don’t need to hear that. Cruel and unusual punishment. They got rights.”
C.O. Jones reached out and switched the dial to a rock station out of Charleston, which we were rapidly approaching. The sound of Robert Plant ooh-oohing and ahh-ahhing brought a cheer from the back.
“Don’t get used to it,” said C.O. Nameless. “Once we get past Charleston, ain’t nothing but whining and crying all the rest of the way.”
I wish I could say I felt guilty about what I did, that I regretted it and would take it back if I could, but that’s a lie a man must save for the judge who’ll curse him anyway. The truth is, if I got hooked on pills, I’d do the same or worse again—anything to stop the hurt. I awoke each morning in so much pain I cussed myself for having to live through it. Withdrawal was like the worst flu multiplied by a factor of ten: aches, tremors, cold sweats, fevers, vomiting, and diarrhea. I rolled around on the floor, contorting my body into unlikely positions, trying to relieve pressure on whatever part of me agonized the most. Knowing one little pill could take all that away, fixing my super-flu for a few hours, added anxiety, which amped up my distress. I would pawn everything, steal anything, sell my plasma, beg friends and family for loans I’d never pay back, or whatever else it took to afford that magic cure. This happened every day: super-flu, healing, super-flu, healing. At some point, my brain misplaced reality. I recognized no moral law except get well.
When I stood before the judge and accepted my fate, months after detoxing in a jail cell, I said I was sorry and meant it, but true guilt never occurred to me. I had been split into two men: the sick and the well. The sick man did the crimes. My public defender warned me that one can’t plead insanity because of drug addiction. Even so, I had been insane. It wasn’t me that stole those checks or cashed them; it was the other guy, the one whose eyes looked hollow, black-banded, dead—those same eyes gray where once they had been green.
Miles past Charleston, we left anything resembling a highway behind, the van swishing around S curves at top speed, slicing along a two-lane through dense, emerald woods. Several times Larkin slid over the vinyl, crushing me against the window’s mesh, then forced himself back to his spot without an apology. If I had said anything about it, we’d probably have to fight when the chains came off. Instead, I righted myself, bracing for the next impact, and listened as others swore and moaned, suffering likewise. “Watch out, fuckhead,” one man scolded, followed by Coleman’s voice saying, “Sorry, sorry.” Chains clanked and rattled to the rhythm of these fast curves. We sounded as if we were beans in a rolling maraca. Someone almost slid into the aisle, and someone else shouted, “Jesus!”
C.O. Jones didn’t slow. He took these curves as if he were drunk and behind the wheel of a Camaro. At one point, the van lurched wide, and we almost slammed head-on into a coal truck—one of the big ones that looked like a tank with cancer—before Jones zipped back into his lane, slamming us around again.
C.O. Nameless glanced back at us and grinned as if delighting in terror we felt as passengers in this death rocket. If only a country-western version of “Highway to Hell” had been playing on the radio, I would’ve considered the moment complete. Nameless kept his cool, though. He had been on this ride before. “Don’t worry, fellas,” he said. “Another ten minutes and he’ll have to slow down.” He paused, chuckled, added, “That’s where half the roadway’s gone.”
The men behind me grumbled. “What do you mean gone?” one of them said.
“Y’all didn’t hear?” He looked at me as if I had been the one speaking.
I said, “Hear what? We’ve been in lockdown.”
“Thousand-year flood,” he said. “At least, that’s what the news folks out of Charleston called it. Washed half the town away.” He paused, smirked. “Not so as you’d notice. Just old abandoned mills and mineworks, a couple of empty office buildings, and a high school they closed down before some of you were born.”
“Anybody killed?” I said.
“That’s the lucky part, I guess. Just one, and tell you the truth, nobody’s really sure if he’s dead or just passed out somewhere, too drunk to know his house is gone.” More laughter. “Really, I figured they’d have told y’all that. We were supposed to pick some of you up two weeks ago, but between all the debris, broken roads, downed trees, and FEMA jackoffs wandering around, we weren’t leaving Rock Haul anytime soon.”
Beside me, Larkin spoke up at last, his voice deep and slow, sounding how I imagined a talking black bear would after it ate its way through a marijuana field: “Which half’s the prison in?”
“The other half,” Nameless said.
I laughed. Others laughed. Inside, though, we didn’t laugh at all. We were headed for a backwoods wasteland—assuming we survived the journey.
Nameless continued. “The boys on the inmate road crew have been working their asses off, putting in twelve-hour days in the heat and stink, cutting up fallen trees, stomping through muck and sewage to clear the mess. None have hauled off a coffin yet. Would you believe those popped right up out of the ground?” When no one answered, he shrugged. “Me neither, but it was in the paper. Must be true.”
C.O. Jones finally eased the brakes, slowing the van to a slight roll. From my spot, I saw every place where the road had washed away, leaving a one-lane so that whatever vehicle got there first had right of way. Jones sped up again when he reached these areas, making sure he was the one who got there first.
As the van swerved into the intact oncoming lane, I saw what had once been a large, oval road sign, now a twisted brown mess of metal, both steel legs bent back at least forty-five degrees. It looked more like a satellite searching for a signal. The entire sign had been covered in ashy gray-brown mud, with only a single bright red ‘U’ left bare.
“What the hell?” I thought I mouthed the words, but heard them come out.
C.O. Nameless laughed louder. “That,” he said, “used to be our friendly greeting to newcomers like you. It said ‘WELCOME TO ROCK HAUL’ in bold capital letters, all hellfire red. Underneath that in little white words you might not notice, it said, ‘Home of Boone County Correctional Center,’ which, as you know, will be your castle. You see, we don’t have much in Rock Haul. Got no McDonald’s, barely any cellphone service, and the nearest Walmart’s fifty minutes away along these same treacherous by-God roads. But what we do have is a fine little penitentiary. You’ll see the wall coming up soon and, behind it, the clean red bricks. It’s the only building in town that looks sort of new, even though it’s decades old, going back to when it was a hospital. County cleaned it up real nice. Don’t know how long any of you will be with us, but we want you to feel like we care.”
“We try,” said Jones, dodging another cavity.
C.O. Nameless said, “If you’re lucky, you’ll get you a cozy cell with a window that looks out over all the nothing you could ever want.”