Don't make eye contact.

There's anger here, like a concentrated gas. One stare held too long is a match and you can't know what will explode out at you. They all pass through here, on their way to work release or on their way to the noose. You know who's who by the jumpsuits, but not really. There are rapists and potheads mixed side by side, indistinguishable as they flow past, connected to each other two footsteps apart by the same chain.

What you see on TV is closer to county jail. The cells are furnished, decorated. They stand open while everyone is in the yard, accessible to anyone. People's family photos hang on the walls. Their books are stacked neatly on their beds. They look more like dorm rooms.

We move to the first gate, where we forfeit our keys, our wallets, everything in our pockets. We are lined up with the wives and girlfriends, humming with indignation. They let me keep my cigarettes, in case I wanted to sell them. They were not joking.

The guards can be trouble too. They don't just bring cigarettes in. There are commodities that are much more valuable.

To get to the actual cells, we go through a giant tunnel under the yard and the buildings. It is well lit. It is perfectly square - there are no nooks to hide in. There are gates at both ends. You cannot see one end from the other. We are surprised to see two men in grey jumpsuits walking toward us. They are a dime a dozen, and talking about us under their breath.

The yard is a yard. Chain link fence separates us and they hang on it like insolent teenagers. When the bell rings, they dawdle. Hurrying does not make the time pass more quickly. Punishment is meted out not in years of torture or years of solitude or years of starvation. Just years, one after another, moving so slowly.

All this is unremarkable. They did something to get here, here they are. They have jobs, books, personal effects. They are more or less men living their lives. What makes them different than us is just something in their past. If you squint, they look like so many bored office workers in grey flannel suits.

IMU stands for Intensive Management Unit. This is where we kept Charles Manson, when we took our turn with him. (He moves often, you know. He is not the burden of any one prison but of the system as a whole.)

Two gates let us in, like an airlock. We have to wait and through the glass, we see the crazed eyes of a young blond man. Dull-crazy. He is not fighting the guards on either arm. He wears handcuffs and leg-irons.

He is safely down the hallway, so they let us in. They are stripping him down and he turns back to grin at us. We go the other direction.

Everything is hospital white. Just-painted white, no cracks, no shadows, reflecting the fluorescents. Still, it feels very dark. And small, like the walls were electrified and something you wouldn't want to touch. Without windows for so many years, darkness has accumulated here. The darkness between the lights that never go out. The darkness of evil thoughts.

There is no yard for men in the IMU. We pass square rooms with giant bullet-proof windows. They are bare, and these are the yards. If the prisoner makes ten circuits around the perimeter, he has walked a mile.

There's a guy in the last yard. Now it's like the movies. He throws himself up against the glass, shouting at us like a Tourette's patient about the things he wants to do. Things he'll probably never do to a woman (or anyone) again.

Our final stop is the cellblock of the IMU. It is a round white chamber with a guard tower in the middle. Something from an abandoned James Bond set. The cells surround the outside, slim white lockers whose only window is a slot in the door where the men can receive trays or back up to be handcuffed. Even without windows, they know we are here. As news passes between the cells, shouting begins, banging on the doors. There is not much action in the IMU.

Sometimes an alarm goes off, signaling a lock-down. That means someone has escaped, control of a gate is lost. One of the carefully positioned safeguards that protects the outside word from the men in here is gone, and everyone must stay where they are. This is the last place a visitor, especially a female visitor, wants to be when that happens.

There is also a buzzer which goes off when someone is coming out of the IMU. There is an alarm whenever one of these men is outside of his cell. It goes off and we jump a mile in the air. The guards, the most sinewy, grizzled, frightening employees the Department of Corrections has, eyes like mean dogs, love this.

They hustle us out. Our friend in the yard is going back to his cell, and he grins wolfishly over his shoulder as we pass, hands behind his back waiting for the bracelets. They have also opened the bottom door, for leg-irons. He must be a special guy.

That was the only time we went that deep into the prison.

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