Lockdown & Shakedown: What This Means for Pen Pals

Toin Adams
by Toin Adams “I am Looking for the Face I had before the World was Made.” Used with permission.

If you haven’t heard from your pen pal in a while, you can call the warden’s office and ask if their building is on lockdown. (The phone number will be available online if you search for the facility.)

Lockdown means that inmates cannot leave their cells except for the group showers. Your pen pal is unable to go to the Commissary to buy paper, envelopes or stamps. This leaves your pen pal with whatever they have in their cell for writing you until lockdown is over. If your pen pal trades art, cleaning other inmates’ cells, girlie pix, tattooing, etc for stamps, etc, they can’t continue work until the lockdown is over and other inmates have been able to shop at the Commissary. People hoard more and trade less in lockdown.

Food is usually brought in a paper bag, like 2 peanut butter sandwiches, with the peanut butter often diluted 50% with deadly hi-fructose corn syrup. This is made worse because they cannot buy snacks. Also, all activities are cancelled, including going outside or making telephone calls. (Medical appointments usually still happen, however.)

Lockdown and shakedown are performed regularly to check for contraband like drugs and cell phones. If there was a murder or other violence, lockdown is often immediate while the situation is investigated. The contraband being sought is often weapons.

During lockdown your pen pal can receive mail and, if they have the means, they may send mail. However, remember that they cannot buy anything including stamps and paper. Because lockdown is so boring, it’s often a good time to send a book, printed blog posts or photocopied magazine articles.

Lockdown is a common occurrence and it can last for weeks. During lockdown, C.O.s (correctional officers) will search every cell. This is the shakedown. Sometimes the inmates can stand aside as their belongings are thrown on the floor, often damaging the few family photos or letters they have. Mattresses are flipped over and items in lockers swept to the ground. It’s a serious process, as C.O.s have a lot of places to search for contraband. After just one shakedown, things can become broken like inmate-bought radios and fans.

The process can be even slower if a prisoner becomes upset with seeing their valuables harmed. It’s a normal response; after all, how would you react to someone going through all you own like it’s worthless? Pepper spray may be used on the upset prisoner, which tends to travel into other cells. My pen pal had tear gas in his cell 4 times in one week due to C.O.s using it on others.

Other times shakedowns involve having inmates choose what they can carry out of their cells. What they can’t carry, like expensive text books or work boots, is thrown away by the C.O.s searching the cells for contraband. Obviously prisoners with disabilities are at a real disadvantage if they can’t carry much. Once the prisoner is out of the cell, they often wait in a line with other prisoners with what they carried. The C.O.s will go through their belongings. It’s often rushed and rough, so again photos are torn, fans damaged and your letters could be scattered around the floor with the belongings of other inmates. It’s not uncommon for things to be lost.

Pagans often lose their shrine and altar goods. The homemade prayer beads or a tiny pebble are confiscated. Altar cloths are stepped on and origami broken. These can be irreplaceable and leave your pen pal without any visual or tactile reminders of their religion.

Just like when transferred, during shakedown expect your pen pal to have lost important belongings like a drawing board, fan, all toiletries, books and your past letters. It’s NOT a scam and it doesn’t mean that your gift of a magazine subscription or a beautiful drawing was not incredibly precious to them just because they have lost them. They didn’t have much choice. Artwork they’ve been working on will be crumpled and snacks crushed under boots. It’s a time of stress because it usually comes with loss. Deciding what to take out of the cell is very difficult and frustrating.

Afterwards, your pen pal probably has to wait in line for the Commissary. Many items might be sold out. What little money they have probably must go to replacing their fan in 110° heat, or buying soap, lotion, shampoo and toothpaste, or stocking up on snacks. They’ll be depressed about what was lost and may not tell you or know how to tell you if it was a gift. You may have sent them the greatest Wiccan book they’ve ever read and it’s the nicest thing anyone has done for them in years. Still,  it’s often difficult to tell you that it’s gone. Pen pals tend to try to be “upbeat” especially in the beginning because they don’t want to scare you off with their real emotions. Also there’s a lot of pressure in prison to not be “soft” and complain.

Your pen pal might be anxious that you’re angry they have not written and not know what to say. A lot of prisoners don’t like to discuss prison because, frankly, it sucks. Having to explain shakedown can feel risky, like you’ll realize that they are in prison or bore you and you will leave. Or they can’t figure out a way to explain a shakedown without sounding upset and ruining their laidback cheerful facade. And because it happens so often, they may be tired of thinking about it and write you to get away from the stress of prison.

If it was a murder or other violent crime that caused the lockdown, you may want to help your pen pal process their feelings. You may be upset that a kid with a 10 year sentence for drug possession is dead, angrily saying “It was not supposed to be a death sentence!” You might worry about if your pen pal is in danger.

Unfortunately, your pen pal usually cannot mention anything more about the death or violence. As you know, all your mail is read. In times like this, it’s read more closely. Just expressing fear, anger or grief in a letter could lead to your pen pal being interrogated by the prison staff who are seeking suspects. After returning from interrogation, other prisoners who were involved may not trust your pen pal. Your pen pal is now at risk from both the staff and other inmates.

Often your pen pal will suspect that a lockdown is coming soon. That’s why they’re scrambling to stock up on necessities. They’re telling you that you may not hear from them for a while. You can and should keep writing – this is a really boring time. Tell them in advance that you are sorry if anything is lost or damaged in the shakedown. It’s easier if you bring things up and set the tone sometimes. They tend to follow the emotional rules of the person who has the most power, which is you.


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Lucumi in Prison

I’ve been lucky enough to have a pen pal who knows a ton about African Diaspora Religions and we’ve shared loads of papers, books, art and information. It’s really hard to find someone well educated but not dogmatic about these religions with whom to discuss them. There’s an Ifa reading Priest from Cuba also in the prison, but he speaks Spanish, we speak English, so I only get bits and pieces of how he practices in prison. He’s also teaching us how to tell the many conmen online claiming to be trained but just wanting money from the real deal. His father was involved with different Palo traditions and said what I thought after reading a couple books about it: “no good!” (Does anyone worship Kongo spirits as beautiful powers like the lwa or Orishas without mixing them with the Orishas as if they’re interchangeable? Seriously looking for Kongo based religion!)

Prison doesn’t really allow anything. It’s a soul crushing, dead end world of its own and anything you own can be taken just out of spite. Some Chaplains do their job of meeting the legal needs of inmates, but when you took a vow as a Pentecostal Evangelical Christian Minister to covert as many people as possible, you are not going to do your job as a prison Chaplain. Most Pagans in prison have never seen photos of altars or art of deities. That’s why Steel Bars, Sacred Waters has about 100 images. It’s hard to envision a future if you literally can’t visualize one. With even juice banned (it could be fermented into booze), what do incarcerated Pagans do?

O.K. Mojo gave me some examples of how he practices Orisha worship.

Blue Gatorade Yemaya Bath and Floor Wash

Leave the blue Gatorade on your Yemaya altar for 7 days for Her to bless. Mix the Gatorade with tap water. Use to wash your floor and door for Her blessings. Do a hand bath from feet to head if asking Her to bring something into your life. (A  hand bathe is like a sponge bath except you have no sponge.) Do a hand bath from head to feets to have Her remove something. Wash your head in it to purify your ori. (You can use Orange soda for Oshun.)

Milk Obatala Floor Wash and Bath

This comes from the Cuban Priest. Wash your cell floor with the milk finishing at the door, while praying to Obatala for purification and wisdom. Then wash your body with the remaining milk. Wrap your head in something white like a T shirt. Go to sleep and let it dry overnight. In the morning rinse yourself off the best you can. (You are supposed to get a daily shower, but it’s more like every other day in these chaotic prisons. Meals are similar – You might get one; you might not.) Wash your floor again, but with water.

Chapstick Candles

If you have no way to get candles but need a white one, let’s say for honoring your egun (ancestors), buy a stick of Chapstick. Twist the bottom until the entire stick is out. Cut it off at the base. Cut a vertical line along the Chapstick to push your wick into. (The wick can be any string that will burn.) Charge it with your prayers. Put the candle on your sink for safety and light it. Praise your ancestors. It will burn quickly and might be smoky depending upon the wick. The sink might hide it from the guards, but you could go to the Hole – no mattress, no clothes, no blanket – for this. This depends on if the guard is paying attention, “phoning it in”, flirting with another guard or inmate, or selling illegal cell phones or drugs. Knowing the temperament and goals of the guards is highly recommended. (It’s a low pay, long hour job. The Grey Market is different but usually well established at every facility.)

The ingenuity of Pagans who are not allowed any items that their religions require continually impresses me. On the outside I have met Pagans who for years say they’ll make a shrine when they have the money to hit up Michael’s, place a few Etsy orders, and buy half the supplies available at an online occult shop. My experience is that these Pagans are procrastinating because they are afraid that the deities are real, or they don’t know what they actually believe so they don’t really have a religion. With all my limitations from having Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, Pagans in prison inspire me to keep looking far out of the box for ways I can celebrate my deities!