Related: Welcome to Northwestern University at Stateville

I sit in the cell listening to Kendrick Lamar’s album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers on my tablet with my headphones. It calms me. Looking around the cell, the adage “Every man’s home is his castle” comes to mind. Nah, I say to myself, this all belongs to the Department of Corrections. At any moment a guard could come and force me to move somewhere else. I cannot consider a cell to be my home. Which is why I refer to it as the cell and not my cell.

A cell is the one place in prison where the prisoner has some expectation of privacy. However, that privacy can be confiscated at any time. Take, for instance, the night my cellie left for his graveyard shift in the prison kitchen, leaving me a few hours of alone time — a rare and treasured gem. I chose to use the time to get a good sleep.

But at about 3 in the morning, I hear keys in the door. Seasoned enough to know that keys in the door at 3 a.m. isn’t a good thing, I jump up. An officer opens the door wide, and turns on the light. “Go ahead, step out, Dixon,” he orders. “Shakedown.”

Bewildered, half asleep, I lumber out of the top bunk. A part of me fusses internally as I make my way into the dayroom. After sitting outside the cell for 10 or so minutes, I am allowed back in. The cell has been ransacked. The mattresses are flipped, clothes are strewn all over, trash covers the floor. As the officer hands me the official paperwork acknowledging he searched my cell, we make eye contact. “I tried not to do you too bad,” he tells me. “At least I didn’t find anything.”

I keep quiet. I channel my frustration into cleaning the cell. Forty minutes later, I’m done. I leave my cellmate’s bedding and clothes to the side for him to organize as he wants. That’s one of the stressful things about prison: Outsiders have access to our lives. Not only access but control. It can be demoralizing.

Sometimes the lack of control can take a bizarre turn. I was once moved to a new cell only to realize once I stepped inside that it was a “suicide cell.” That is a cell designed to limit an inmate’s access to harmful materials. Every unnecessary feature had been removed: the mirror, the desk, the bunk bed.

The entire cell consisted of only two structures: a metal toilet-sink combo and a concrete slab to sleep on. Usually we have a cheap version of an air mattress, but here it was a spongy material. As if the design wasn’t stressful enough, further inspection revealed what looked like body fluid. I began yelling to the guard, “Aye! CO, y’all gotta find me another cell!” The guard nonchalantly responded, “This ain’t the Hilton, inmate. But I’ll see if I can get you some cleaning supplies.”

The devil on my left shoulder urged, “Bug up! Kick this door, yell as loud as you can. They’ll change their attitude.” The angel on my right advised, “They knew this cell was dirty. They setting you up to get aggressive. Then they have an excuse to bring you under control.” I listened to the angel. The CO sent a worker with rags, disinfectant, and a mop bucket. I spent the next two hours wiping down every surface of that cell, top to bottom. 

On another occasion I was placed in a cell only to find hair and bloody boogers on the wall behind the single bunk. The moment I realized what I was seeing, my anxiety and anger began to rise. I remember thinking, Why would anyone be forced to live like this? I pulled out the disinfectant I’d learned to keep in my personal property box. Tearing off a chunk of the shirt I was wearing, I used it as a cleaning rag. As I cleaned, I whispered to myself, “Inhumane conditions can’t make me inhuman.”

I should mention that my penchant for cleanliness is not shared by everyone here. I’ve heard my fair share of inmates say things like “This jail, bro, I don’t care how I live.” Which usually meant they were OK with a filthy cell. Me, I keep my sheets clean, my bed made, my pillow arranged on the bed just so. My clothes are usually folded in a laundry bag off to the side of the bunk. On the floor, I neatly arrange my shoes. In prison everyone has a coping mechanism. Cleaning is mine. With every cleaning, I am regaining some control. Wipe by wipe, I also feel like I’m cleansing some of the bad choices of my past.

I haven’t always been this clean and organized. When I was young, my mother would fuss about my room. “Boy, if I come in this room one more time and find it messy, you gone be looking for a place to stay,” she’d threaten. I recall looking over the empty pop bottles and haphazardly tossed clothes and asking myself, Why she tripping? I was the typical teenager. Who would have thought that messy teen would learn to use cleaning as a way of restoring some power over his life. Cleaning is something I can do. Free of others’ interference. Free of others’ control.