The Walls of Reformatory
By Mike Johnson, September 22, 1980
The green van slowly wound its way up the drive. The tires crunched over broken asphalt. Inside the van there was only silence. Deafening uncomfortable silence. The four prisoners in the back of the transport vehicle, handcuffed and leg-shackled, nervously looked ahead at the destination as it neared. Called the “Gladiator School,” the Michigan Reformatory was in plain view, in all its ugliness. Opened in 1877 to incarcerate males between the age of 16 and 25, the previous 100 years of use had somehow aged it 1,000 years. The actual prison itself was hidden behind a decaying filthy-white forty foot high concrete wall. It was an impenetrable fortress; ominous, secretive, and forbidding to all who approached. It relayed one message: THE OUTSIDE WORLD ENDS HERE.
Sitting in the back of the van I was petrified. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t breath. The obviously neglected once-white wall of the prison appeared as though it could collapse at any second. Yet I knew that it wouldn’t. It looked as though it had always been there. Forever.
Forever…that’s what the judge sentenced me to, forever, “Life.” I would always be behind the wall that had always been there. Seven months ago I was driving to school in my sister’s used Buick Skylark, worrying about the pimple on my nose. Now, at the ripe old age of 17, in chains, I was being driven towards the most menacing building I had ever seen, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
As we neared the prison, childhood fears, long lost in my subconscious, seeped up to consciousness. There’s monsters in that place. The thought overtook me, choking me with fear, making it hard to breath. I don’t want to go in that place…please don’t make me go in there. There was no one to turn to for help. I glanced over at the other three prisoners. They looked scared too.
“We’re here ladies,” stated the guard driving the van. The black kid with a jagged scar running down his cheek sitting next to me replied, “No shit.” In a hushed tone he added, “Yeah, and I’m gonna make it here this time.” I didn’t know what he meant, but I didn’t like the sound of it. It was as though he was trying to convince himself of something he knew he could never accomplish.
The van rolled to a stop in front of the main entrance to Gladiator School. The two guards climbed out of the van and unlocked the sliding side door.
“Let’s go ladies, everybody out,” ordered the driver. Cumbersomely, we abandoned the refuge of the van and stood before the entrance. The ominous filthy wall had ended, merging with a three story massive brick entrance. The structure was built in an elaborate old-style architecture – one which I couldn’t name, but images of European castles with dungeons hidden deep in the bellies immediately came to mind. The only thing missing from the old castle was a gargoyle perched on its roof. Please God, don’t let this place have a dungeon. I don’t want to be put in the dungeon.
While the presence of the castle was overbearing, the grounds in front of it were clean and orderly. The entrance offered sparkling glass doors. The grass was neatly trimmed. There was even flowers on each side of the entryway. It was a stark contrast from the utterly unkempt and neglected dirty-white wall which ended only a few yards away. That’s odd. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the stark contrast of the two parts of the prison. There was something to it, something that I should know. It was beyond my grasp.
As the others began to walk up the sidewalk leading to the entrance doors, I felt an instinctual urge to make a dash back to the security of the van. I could climb in, crawl under one of the seats, and grab hold of the steel leg…refusing to let go. I could do it. I could never do it. Suck it up and pretend you’re not terrified.
I followed the others through the glass doors. A guard was sitting behind a small counter, in what appeared to be the front lobby. It was stark and very clean. Another strikingly sharp contrast to the unkempt appearance of the dirty-white wall. in the depths of my senses, a thought began to build, but it wouldn’t bare itself to me, not yet. As I took a closer look at the lobby, I noticed the room was completely void of character. There was a guard sitting behind the counter, which faced a few empty aisles of hard chairs. There was no plants. No paintings. No decorations. Nothing. Just a guard behind a counter, staring off into space, lost in some unknown thought, orno thought at all. It looked like a stage designed for an upcoming play. A play with no actors nor audience. Just props. It wasn’t real. It was surreal. The guard didn’t even glance at us as we walked in. He was one of the props too. It wasn’t the fact that he didn’t glance up that struck me as very odd – it was that he didn’t care whether we walked in or not that was unsettling. I was beginning to feel very small, very insignificant. That’s when it hit me, the answer to the contrasting upkeep of the prison. They don’t care.
The men who run this place don’t care about the things that don’t matter to them…like the appearance of the wall…nor the prisoners inside the filthy decaying wall. I will be inside that wall in a few minutes. Decaying. They won’t care about me either. It was a startling revelation that drained the last bit of fortitude I had left in me. I’m all alone. I had to focus all my concentration just to inhale.
The two guards led us across the lobby, towards iron barred gates, which I immediately knew would lead us into the bowels of the prison. They looked like the gates to Hell. They were old, very old, thick bars. Paint was worn off in more places that it covered. I felt dread, I was trying to breath. Something terrible must be on the other side of such bars. There’s monsters in there.
With a grinding whirl, the gate groaned open and I walked into Hell. I was being devoured by steel and cement and air too thick to inhale. As the gate was closing behind me, I thought about all the prison movies I’d seen. The actors always grimaced as the gate slammed behind them, as though reality had finally sunk in. The slam of the gate behind me didn’t have that effect.
There was no awakening shot of reality. Reality had already set in the moment I saw the exterior of the prison from the van. I already knew my life was over. The monsters were going to eat me.
Articles written by Mike Johnson