Illustration by Liza Burns
Illustration by Liza Burns

Diesel Therapy

Routine is comfort in prison, and the cops sometimes shake you up

by Ted Point

“Smith,” the officer called, standing in front of cell a few doors down from mine, his voice somewhat muted in an attempt to not wake up everyone on the tier. It was 3:45 in the morning in the quietest cellblock at the Oregon State Penitentiary. “Roll up!” he ordered. 

I heard the cell door, Smith’s cell, rattle. I knew that sound. It was the officer stuffing large clear plastic garbage bags through the inch-wide crack between the door and the wall. Smith was being moved. He had to cram all his belongings into those bags.

We know the routine: Two bags of property allowed per inmate. But here on the Alpha III honor housing block, all of us have accumulated a lot of property, a lot more than most of the other prisoners. That’s because we’ve been here a lot longer. We are the “long-term warehoused population.” Our decades behind bars and our long history of clear conduct have earned us the privilege of living here on the only block where it is actually quiet, a real selling point to those in the know. 

“The bus leaves in 30 minutes,” the officer said as he walked away. Was he making his way to another cell? Would someone else be moved out? Would it be me? I lay in my bunk with my eyes closed listening to the sound of his boots on the linoleum floor. I could hear the change in the acoustics as he neared the end of the tier and rounded the corner coming up to my side of the tier. I held my breath. He passed by my cell. Relief flooded over me. My cellie and I were safe. This time.

It’s about comfort, an odd word to use when talking about life in prison. But we get comfortable with our routine, and that’s the key to doing long stretches of time. The cops know this, and shaking it up is one of the Good Old Boys’ favorite undefined punishment techniques. “Diesel therapy,” we call it. They move you around. They give you a tour of the state by sending you to one penitentiary after another with 18 months or two years in between stints. 

Just when you start to feel comfortable, they move you again. Sometimes you get moved just as “routine maintenance,” the shuffling of prisoners from one institution to another to free up beds or fill slots in treatment programs. Or maybe just to keep the transport cops busy.

I was sinking my head into the warm spot on my pillow, relieved that the officer had passed my cell, when I stopped hearing his footsteps and I heard him call out, “Goggin, roll up.” Same routine. Bags stuffed through the crack of the door. Goggin was an old cellie of mine. We’d been through a version of diesel therapy together years ago.

When they finally racked up our cell doors at 5:30 am, Goggin made a beeline to my cell.

“Hey, let me know where you land,” I whispered.

“First thing I’ll do,” he said.

“Goggin,” the cop shouted down the tier. Goggin hightailed it back to his cell, slung one trash bag over his shoulder and dragged the other behind him.

It would be a couple of weeks before the first letter came. I knew then that it would only be a matter of time before the letters would dwindle to quarterly, then to that one annual Christmas greeting. I’d seen it, lived it, too many times before. The wheels of the machine continue to churn. Maybe they will bring you back this way, or maybe I’d end up where he was. You never knew. It was the nature of the beast.

“Ted Point” is a pseudonym for a prisoner serving a life sentence at an Oregon penitentiary. Behind bars for more than three decades, he is a member of Lauren Kessler’s Lifers Writing group.