By: Gunther Fiek
Posted by: Bob Chatelle
I arrived at Coffee Correctional Facility around or close to noon. It had already been a long night, dawn, and morning. I had not slept at all. After the bus left Dooly, it drove about an hour and 45 minutes north to Jackson Diagnostic and Classification Prison. Jackson is where all inmates who have been convicted in any county in Georgia are processed and classified first before being assigned to one of several prisons the state has. An individual can remain at Jackson anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Jackson is also where this state’s death row is located.
The bus drove to Jackson because that is a centralized location for all GDC transfer buses. It is also large enough to accommodate several transport vehicles, and has the manpower to handle the many inmates that would transition through on one of those transfer days. In addition, County Sheriff’s transport vehicles from jurisdictions around the state would show up to pickup someone who probably has a court date, drop someone who is returning from one, or who recently was convicted. There’s a huge fenced-in parking lot adjacent to the prison where all transfer buses from each facility and other transport vehicles park. Once we arrive there, we are once again told where each one of us is going, and then head out to the parking lot to catch that facility’s bus or county vehicle. Reminiscent of Georgia’s slave history, some of the men among the black inmate population call it “modern day slave trade.” (And it may also be because inmates are not paid for work in this southern state). It is quite a spectacle, though: A few hundred men, or close to it, walking around the parking lot, branded with “Dept. of Corrections” on the back of their state issued prison uniforms, handcuffed, with waist chains, and leg irons, doing their best to carry their bag, or bags, of personal belongings. In my case, four bags.
Although Georgia has modernized its bus fleet with new buses with state of the art security and safety equipment, the ride was still somewhat uncomfortable but tolerable compared to the old buses. Personally, I didn’t mind the almost two hour drive north to Jackson and then five hour drive south to Coffee. It had been around six years since I’ve seen the “free world” during a previous transfer. So this road trip gave me an opportunity to once again see people and places along the interstate and the rural roads, as well as the natural scenery that this state offers. Nevertheless, with every mile to my new destination, as the bus seemed to be driving further and further away from home, my family was always on my mind.
Once at Coffee, just as in any other facility, we were processed in the intake area. There was about ten of us who arrived. Our property was searched and inventoried, and we were also strip searched to make sure no contraband was introduced into the facility. While I was waiting for my turn to have my property searched and inventoried, a female sergeant called me to a small office to sign some paperwork and to have my picture taken for my new ID. Afterwards, she asked me if I knew why I was transferred. I mentioned to her that I did not have the slightest idea but was interested in finding out. She proceeded to show me the transfer papers. My jaw dropped when I read a comment placed right below my name.
Still in shock, I told the sergeant that it had to be a mistake. The person being described was not me — I don’t encourage or influence negative behavior. There was no way, and I attempted to discredit the note. Her eyes were fixed on the computer monitor looking at my records. All she told me afterwards was that my security score looked good (low) and that I would probably be asked about it when I go before the classification committee, where all inmates go within a few days of arriving at a facility. The classification committee looks into which programs or classes are needed according to our records or request, which work detail one will be assigned to, and housing assignment. She advised me that if I am asked about that critical note, that I could just explain to them what I had told her, and that it shouldn’t be a concern. It almost seemed as if she was assuring me that everything would be fine — I picked my jaw up and breathed with a sigh of relief. Boy, was she wrong. I was blindsided by an approaching storm.
After being processed in the intake area, all of us new arrivals were directed to a transitional dorm. There were enough beds there for around 60 men but surprisingly, almost all were empty. There were only four guys there who were permanent orderlies and responsible for keeping the dorm clean. We were all told that we would stay there for just a few days while new arrivals went through the orientation and classification process. Afterwards, we would be assigned to a permanent unit within the general population. I was worn out. But, before I settled in my temporary living quarters, I called my brother to let him know that I had arrived, and shared with him what I had learned about my transfer out of Dooly. He couldn’t believe it either.
(I had failed to mentioned earlier that, while still at Dooly, when I found out that I was being transferred, I phoned my brother to let him know. I didn’t call my parents since it was late in the evening and because they would worry — chiefly, my mom. She very likely wouldn’t have had any sleep. My brother said that he would let them know first thing in the morning).
As I expected, my brother mentioned that my mom got upset after learning that morning that I had been transferred. She was aware that a transfer could be eminent without any notice. But knowing that I was in a place where I had settled and found my place within the population, as well as with the staff, gave my mother a sense of comfort. Any change would again bring her much uncertainty … and perhaps concern. As soon as I ended the call with my brother, I called both my parents.
My parents felt relief after hearing from me. Assuring them that everything was fine, I then proceeded to share with each one of them my first impressions of my “new home.” However, I confess that initially I did not share with them what I had found out about my transfer. I just felt that it was better not to cause them any further grief or concern. My intentions were to share it with them in person when they came for a visit which we were already planning. To me, it just seemed that they would handle things better once they saw that it was still the old me, and how comfortable, professional, and clean this place is. As soon as the call ended, I accommodated some of my belongings inside the locker box located next to my bed, which was partially made, and then I crashed … at least for a few minutes.
I must have gotten into a deep sleep for a brief few minutes when all of the sudden, one of the guys in the dorm woke me up. It was dinner time! I was somewhat disoriented at first — it must have been around 4 pm. I found out that all meals were brought to the dorm while we went through the new arrival process. We weren’t allowed to mix with the general population until we were assigned to a permanent dorm. And soon after we had finished dinner, we were told that all of us would be going to medical for a quick physical.
It wasn’t until around 8 pm before we went to the medical unit. As we walked through the hallways, I could tell how huge this place is. For the most part, everything here is indoors compared to state facilities. We all stayed for our check ups until everyone was seen. It was close to around 10 pm before we returned to our dorm. I was beat for sure — and slept like a baby.
The next morning, on Friday, we had orientation. A counselor came in the dorm around 9 am with lots of paperwork for us to read and sign. We also watched a couple of informational videos. Afterwards, I called my mother around noon. We were having a good conversation and she laughed when I told her that I was freezing. I had spent years complaining about the heat at the state facilities (see my post: “The Heat is On”), and the A/C was a welcomed change – and adjustment – that is found at all the private facilities. It was really cold! So my mom was hearing something she hasn’t heard in a very long time. As I continued speaking to her, I saw the building sergeant through the windows standing outside the dorm, looking in as if trying to find someone. When we made eye contact, he motioned me with his hand to step out of the dorm. I told my mom that I was being called out and that as soon as I got back I would call her again. (Earlier that morning, I had spoken to the sergeant about some clothing I received that was way too big in size, and he had told me that he would try to get me the correct size). So I stepped out of the dorm and Sarge said to follow him. We entered a long hallway and walked to what would be a point of no return.
As we walked, I started casual talk about the facility and I shared with Sarge my first impressions about the place. We approached a door and entered a corridor that turned out to be a back entrance to the medical unit. I wondered what we were doing here, and I quickly realized that we were not here for my clothing. Since I’m listed for chronic care due to bronchitis, I reasoned that maybe I was here for some kind of check up. Sarge then turned around, and explained that I was being placed in administrative segregation, and that it was policy that all my vital signs be recorded before I was taken there. I was going to “the hole?”, I said. But, why? I asked him. He said that he wasn’t sure but that his boss, the chief of security, told him to place me in segregation because “something about [my] transfer.” I was aghast and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Then it hit me: My mom! She was at home … waiting for my call.
I pleaded with the sergeant to see if there was anyway possible to make a quick call home. I explained to him that I had been speaking with my mother on the phone when he summoned me out of the dorm, that I thought that it was for my clothing issue, and that she was probably at home in anguish waiting for me to call back. I implored in vain, though. We walked to the segregation unit and he handed me over to the building’s CO. While I was being escorted to a cell, I asked him about the phones in segregation and he explained that it would probably be the next day before the phone was rolled out. My eyes briefly closed and I shook my head slowly in a negative gesture – in disbelief. I could just picture my mom wondering why I was not calling back and could not get that out of my head — I sighed and my heart ached. I stepped into the cell and the CO secured the thick metal door behind me.