The Demon in Cell #213

Below is a letter I wrote home from prison in 2012. During my first few months of incarceration, I was housed in the Maximum Custody section of El Dorado Correctional Facility in the initial stage of the prison process known as R.D.U. (Residency and Diagnostics Unit) where everyone goes to have their custody level determined. During this 23-hour lock-down (which was only temporary for me, until I was shipped-out to my final destination), there is very little to do except read books and write letters. Very little happened, except on this particular night, when I got to see what real prison was like, luckily as a mere observer.

I have included footnotes to elaborate on the experiences.


December 30, 2012

My Loving Wife,

So last night was an interesting, yet creepy experience. Just about every night, about a half-dozen of the R.D.U. inmates (if they want to) go to another cell house or another part of the prison and do some custodial work. It’s only for those who have completed R.D.U. and are waiting to get shipped-out, and it’s a chance to spend some much-needed time out of the cell and being active. I was asked to work last night and ended up going to Cell House B – also known as “Super-Max” – which is the highest level security cell house in the El Dorado prison (and possibly, from what I hear, the highest in Kansas).

After spending less than a minute inside that cell house, it occurred to me that I was seeing prison in its genuine quintessence. It was built with the same layout as my cell house – an open large room, two levels, both with cells lining the perimeter. But their cell house has some major differences. Their doors had no openings, except at the very bottom underneath. There were no tables or chairs on the main floor outside the cells (as there are in ours), and even the linoleum tiles had been removed, leaving an expansive grid of squares on the floor of bare gray cement. Even with the lights on, the Super-Max cell house was dark, every cell door was a shade of forest green with what seemed like blue mixed into the hue and the remainder of the room seemed blanketed in grays and off-yellows.

The entire cell house – all five cell houses in my section of the prison – is one very large triangle, open in the center  with a balcony walkway lining the perimeter of the second level and identical cells on the first level immediately beneath.

These men are locked-down 23 hours a day, always. And their time out isn’t like mine – we socialize in the open room, watch TV, etc. – their hour out consists of being cuffed-and-shackled, walked to the one-man shower (assuming they choose to shower, which appeared to be 50/50), or going to a different cell (roughly the same size as their regular cell) that contains a very crude workout apparatus (which was little more than several pull-up bars welded together). Otherwise, they do not leave their cells – at all.[1]

The cell house was a disaster. Dirty laundry was littered everywhere, along with ripped pieces of paper showered like confetti, mixed with the occasional candy wrapper or empty chips bag. And it was loud! There were inmates yelling from cell to cell, carrying on full (very descriptive, very profane) conversations. One inmate had a radio which he turned up all the way and placed at his door, filling the cell house with echoing melodies of gangsta rap; but oddly enough, also he played some country, some 80s pop, and even some Phil Collins and Bryan Adams. It was bizarre.

The only thing that didn’t surprise me was the smell. Stepping into that cell house and inhaling once, I inhaled the likes of dirty laundry, cheap air freshener, urine, sweat, hopelessness, despair, and rage. The odor hung in the air like a storm cloud in calm winds.

I was given a different prison jumpsuit to work in, and at first, I wasn’t sure why. After spending less than a minute in there, I understood perfectly. Upon entering the populated area of the cell house, my fellow workers and I were escorted to a small room with individual cages where we were stripped naked and searched[2] before approaching the Super-Max cells; it was insanely cold in there.

So I got dressed and got to work, sweeping the floor of the main Day Room with one other worker from my cell house, keeping an eye out for the one thing I wanted to see.[3] Rumor had it, he was in Cell #213. And he was. Every inmate in that cell house – one inmate per cell, obviously – had his name and picture taped to the wall next to his door.[4] So I swept my way down the perimeter walkway in front of the second level cells, making my way casually to Cell #213 – I saw his paper taped to the wall next to the cell number, and stopped. The name on his Face Sheet stood-out like a gargoyle in a dark rose garden: Dennis Rader.

dennis-rader-btk-composite-sketchI looked into his small narrow cell window – the only visual opening to the cell, but still thick and sealed – and the sight of him struck me with a chill; the reality struck me that a steel door and six feet of sticky prison air were all that separated me from the serial killer known as “B.T.K.”[5] He merely sat, a brittle skeleton covered in the skin of an old man. But his cadaverous frame and membranous face reminded me of the way Frank Peretti described what a demon looked like. He appeared to be fervently typing something on his typewriter, like Howard W. Campbell trying to justify what made him the monster he was; or perhaps he was answering fan mail; or maybe he was just writing to keep his mind off of the fact that he would never – ever – be free again. But regardless, I could feel the malevolence oozing from his presence – it was almost palpable. To my knowledge, it was the first time I’d ever been face-to-face with a real killer.

pmo_dennis_rader_5k_clr_701_t640So many things crossed my mind as I saw him sitting there. I thought about how this old man could have, at one time, been the very incarnation of wickedness, and yet, now he was nothing more than a fragile old man hunched over a typewriter. As he breathed, I could see the bend in his back slowly rise and fall, and his skeletal frame seemed to give off the figurative sound of wheezing – the broken and sulfurous inhale and exhale of this man, who was also part demon. For one very brief moment, he turned his head ever-so-slightly in my direction, subtly acknowledging my presence, like an apathetic old lion in the zoo; I could hear my heartbeat. I wondered how the other inmates viewed him – were they afraid of him; did they bully him; did they just not give a shit? I don’t know. The only thing I know for sure is that I’ve never felt chills in my body so strong as I felt as I stared into the window of Super-Max cell #213 – the prison cell of Denis Rader. I could only stand there for so long. Eventually, for my own good, I had to continue sweeping.

And as I mindlessly pushed my broom around the walkway, I caught something out of the corner of my eye, darting along the wall like a mouse. But it was no mouse. It was “fishing line.” Fishing line is simply a very long woven string made from threads pulled from prison blankets, pieces of mattress, or whatever else they can use. The inmates use these long lines to communicate between cells. Through what seemed to be genius ingenuity, nearly anything could be passed between cells using this string – anything from notes to food to clothing. These strings, with their little makeshift anchors, whipped all around the cell house making a mischievous skidding sound[6] as it skipped across the gray concrete floor. It was quite entertaining to watch. They even managed to attach a line across second level adjacent cells, across the balcony walkway. It was definitely one of the more impressive things I’d seen in a while. If only these guys had used their powers for good instead of evil; they’d be working for NASA.

And all-the-while, through all the shouting and cussing and filth and fishing line, the corrections officers sat at their desk at the center of the cell house triangle, doing nothing. In the RDU cell house, we get in trouble for being too loud, yelling from our cells, giving something (even a book) to an inmate in another cell; but in this cell house, these guards were ignoring the chaos that rained-down around them. This blew my mind, until I really thought about it.

The men in Cell House B – “Super Max” – are at the absolute bottom of the system. This was “The Hole;” this was “The Pit of Despair;”[7] many of these guys would never breathe free air in their lives again; what did they care if they received a “write-up” or got into trouble? These men literally had nothing to lose – nothing. And being in those guards’ position, they really needed to “pick their battles.”[8] And if they tried to enforce every rule on the books in that cell house, they’d be doing violent cell extractions day-in and day-out. Quite frankly, they didn’t think it was worth it, and I completely agree.

So after sweeping, mopping, restocking the cell house laundry supply, we were done, and exhausted. That was the most physically active I’d been in over two months. We were taken and strip-searched (again) and went back to our cell house after four hours of free labor.

I was allowed to take a shower when I got back, thank God. I felt disgusting after leaving that place and only wanted to scrub it off of me. And by the time I was finally able to put my head on my pillow, it was roughly 2:45am.

Considering the time, it took me a little longer to fall asleep than you might expect. All I could think of was how, earlier that night, I stood for (seemingly) a long time and stared at evil – pure evil – and the cold creepy chills I felt as I stood outside of the prison cell of Denis Rader will likely never be matched, ever. I hope that is the closest I ever stand to Satan, because that was pretty fucking close. Never again.

So there you go, an interesting story.



[1] Whenever I read or hear people say that people who go to prison “got it easy,” it kind of pisses me off. While I completely think that the people in Super Max absolutely deserved to be there – and most should never be let out – don’t fucking say they’ve “got it easy” unless you’re willing to attempt to live that life for a month – or a week, or even a few days. Yes, they deserve every moment of that – No, it isn’t some sort of cushy prison life.

[2] This was really awkward for me – just generally uncomfortable. But then I found out later that strip-searches were required at the end of every visitation session on the weekends, so eventually, stripping naked in front of a prison guard became so routine that we’d carry on conversations during the searches. It continues to amaze me how many odd things in prison became “routine.”

[3] Seriously, I felt like an incognito tourist.

[4] This paper was known as your “Face Sheet” and was more-or-less a vitals sheet that included all pertinent information, including the inmate’s charges. In minimum security, they just gave us our Face Sheets for no particular reason. Swapping Face Sheets became a common practice to find out what people were in for and brag about their crimes.

[5] No bullshit. Creepiest moment of my life. I mean, damn…

[6] It sounded almost identical to slowly ripping a piece of paper in half.

[7] …but these guys were just mostly dead, not all dead.

[8] Also a strategy for teachers dealing with students. Actually, as my time in prison wore-on, I began to see (from the guards’ perspective) how much minimum security prison was like high school – including several instances at Winfield of a subordinate (inmate) hooking-up with the one in charge (guard). Some of these female guards were predators when it came to these guys in prison. One of them brought in marijuana, K2, and tobacco on a regular basis for a guy I knew, and of course, they were fucking too.