“Atkinson, Crookendale, Bush — grab your stuff. You’re on a load. Down below!”
The guard checked us, one by one, against the pictures on our intake cards. Some of the guys slapped my hand and wished me well as I passed by. Most didn’t bother to look up from their books or papers. Guys came and went every day.
We stopped along the range, picking up more guys, a dozen in total.
“Your limos will be here shortly, gentlemen.”
I love sarcasm.
They handed us paper bags with our street clothes. We dressed and moved to a holding pen.
“Let’s go, boys — your limos are here.”
As we walked to the loading dock in groups of four, it became apparent that the guard had not been lying — waiting for us were three black Lincoln limousines. What the hell? There was no time for curiosity. They drove us downtown to the train station. Whenever we stopped at a light, people stared, wondering about the big shots in the convoy of limos.
We were led onto a train bound for Montreal, with a stop for us in Kingston. The crowd moved back to let us on first. The porter was from Nova Scotia — I could tell by his voice. I wondered if we were related. We took seats in front of the car, with guards sprinkled all around us.
The regular passengers seemed relaxed and unperturbed as they walked through the train, passing by our chains and the unarmed guards. Some convicts even struck up conversations with folks who sat nearby. I felt embarrassed. At the time, Canadian judges viewed doing time at Kingston a harsh punishment that they reserved for the baddest of the bad. Now I found myself fitting into that small category of Canadian misfits.
Two hours later, we pulled into Kingston, where three more limos were waiting — 1960 Chryslers. My curiosity was satisfied. So few men were sentenced to hard time that it was easier to arrange a limo ride than it was to keep a fleet of buses.
The ride to KP, as the Kingston Penitentiary was called, took 10 minutes.
Across the street from KP was a similar, somewhat smaller limestone prison — the Kingston Prison for Women, or P4W. I blurted out, “That’s where I want to do my time.”
A guard said, “No, you wouldn’t, son. I worked there. It ain’t a pretty place.”
It took me years to understand what he meant.
As the limos pulled up to the front gates of my new home, a guard came out of a little hut holding a Belgian-made, semi-automatic rifle. A long-barrelled revolver was strapped to his waist. Four uniformed prison guards walked out as the two, huge grey wooden doors studded with black metal bolts swung open, and we were driven in. I took one last look at the outside world before the gates swung shut.
I could see solid limestone walls and a world of bulletproof glass, gun ports, and the cold stares of faces that seemed never to have known a smile. The guards, some of whom were armed, made sure the doors were shut before they gave the word to let us out of the cars.
Two guards pulled an eight-inch-thick iron bar through iron rings protruding from thick metal poles set in the floor. With a clanging sound like an old bell, the big front gates were locked. Getting out was not going to be easy. They removed our chains, and I stretched cautiously, looking around at my new home.
The administration, classification, and reception building was to the east in a three-storey block made of limestone with thinly barred windows and doors.
To the south was a huge monolith of limestone with rows of two-storey windows almost hidden by thick iron bars. High above, a central dome rose 75 feet in the air, topped with a green copper roof.
Behind us was the north entrance, with its walls and armed guards looking down. To the west was the tallest of all the walls, with a guard tower and a guard walking along with a rifle strapped to his shoulder.
KP had been built in 1933, years before Confederation. It was a world unto itself, and I was trapped in the middle of it.
A guy I knew, Chicago, nudged me and nodded toward a double garage pressed up against the thick walls of the cellblocks. I could hear snarling dogs pacing around inside. On top of the garage, perched on a black iron pedestal, was a lawn jockey figurine — all big eyes and thick lips, holding a metal umbrella with a light under it.
Chicago whispered, “Ain’t that a bitch. You don’t see those much in the States anymore.”
I said, quietly, “Welcome to the Great White North.”
“No talking!” ordered a guard.
We followed him to the door marked “Reception.” They paraded us in front of a group of old men sitting behind a wooden desk.
“Atkinson, you’re first.”
As usual, everything was alphabetical. One of the old men spat tobacco juice into a small tin can beside the desk. He got up slowly, creaking like the chair he’d just left, looking at me like his aches and pains were my fault. He walked over to a wooden counter, shiny from use, and pointed to a chair. I sat there while another tobacco-juice spitter took my picture.
The old man said, “Step over here.”
This time I went to a small table with a black inkpad on it. He pressed my fingers, one by one, into the pad, then rolled my inky fingertips onto a thick piece of paper.
He handed my picture and my prints to another, even older, man who sat hunched over an ancient black typewriter. The unlit stub of an old cigar stuck to his lips.
“Sit here, please.”
Then, rapid fire: “What they pinch you for? What they hit you with? Where you hang your hat? Who’s your God?”
I gave it back to him the way he’d asked for it. “Robbery. Life. Toronto. Black Muslim.” He looked up at me for an instant and then typed what I’d told him on a pink card.
I don’t know why I lied about my sentence. I wasn’t in for life. I just blurted it out. It sounded like the right thing to say. Maybe I was thinking that it really was my life that was being taken away from me.
He tore the card out of the typewriter and handed it to me. “Don’t forget the number on the top of this card. It is your name from now on, son.”
My name was 9385Y. The “Y” stood for “Youth.” I was too young to vote, but I was old enough to rot in jail.
From The Life Crimes and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson: Leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang: A True Story by Ricky Atkinson, with Joe Fiorito. Excerpted with permission from the author.
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