Alpharetta, Georgia- I'm naked, and I'm not happy. In just under an hour, I've been subjected to two of three punishments I'd specifically asked to be spared from. On forms I filled out weeks ago, I ticked the "quiet menace" box over the "shouted orders" box, and in the "special requests" space, I explained that I didn't want to be naked. Yet here I am, standing in front of my three fellow prisoners all fully clothed bare assed. I'm being bellowed at by a very large, very intimidating man in a black police uniform. The four of us were "arrested" about an hour ago, and I'm being "processed" first: questioned, fingerprinted, photographed and strip searched.
I want my money back.
The Academy Training Center, located just outside Atlanta, "caters to men who are curious about prison life." The four of us have come to "experience authentic incarceration" In a facility staffed by "genuine law enforcement officers." As The New York Times recently reported, thousands of tourists are visiting the country's prisons; a billboard in Kansas beckons, "How About Doin' Some TIME in Leavenworth?" [See also PLN, Aug. 1998, "Prisons Promote Tourism".]
While visitors to the federal penitentiary In Leavenworth, Kansas, are on the outside looking in, the Academy offers more adventurous tourists the chance to experience prison life from the inside. The facility is about 5,000 feet square, with a large main room, two large cells, three smaller solitary cells, a shower room and a medical examination room. All this verisimilitude does not come cheap: two nights at the Academy 48 hours of being brutalized by actual prison guards is setting each of us back $1,400. With plane fare and my hotel room the night before, I've spent well over $2,000.
The Academy can accommodate six on a weekend, but thanks to a couple of cancellations, there are only four of us. We had lunch earlier in the day, after being picked up from our hotels. Our driver recommended we eat something we liked, since the Academy strove for an authentic prison experience in every detail including the food. We chatted over lunch. Three of us are gay, one straight. Do I even need to tell you that all of us are white?
Rob, the straight guy, is from Wisconsin. He's handsome, in his mid-40s, and has "done the program" before. His wife thinks he's camping. Sean, 32, slight and red haired, flew in from San Francisco, where he works for a computer company. He isn't sure why he's here, it just sounded "Interesting." Eric, short and dark, is the youngest at 29, and he flew in from Chicago. He just got his first good paying job and decided to splurge on a weekend behind bars. His boyfriend couldn't get away, otherwise held be here too. (By the way, I'm not using my fellow prisoners' real names.)
I've come to write about the Academy, but I don't want to spend the weekend in jail by myself, so I tell them my dad was a cop which is true and I've always wondered what jail was like which is not true.
After we lunch, the four of us drive off in one car, all nervous giggles. Rob follows a prearranged route, until we're pulled over by a "King County" police cruiser with flashing lights and sirens, the real deal. We're deep in the suburbs now, where urban sprawl meets rural spread. Two loud cops order us out of our car.
Nervously, I start drumming my fingers on the hood. The larger of the two cops grabs me and throws me on the ground, knocking the wind out of me.
I'm not giggling anymore. We're handcuffed, and the three of us who haven't "done the program" before are tossed in the back of the cruiser. The windows are blacked out, and a black plastic screen separates the back seat from the front. We hear one of the cops calling for a back up car to pick up Rob, but through a crack, I see Rob driving off in the civilian car in which we'd ridden to our arrest. Maybe Rob got a discount for letting the three of us new guys ride in the cop car. Fifteen minutes later we're at the Academy, me showing my asshole to the arresting officer.
More than a year before my first-and hopefully-last strip search, I called the Academy and spoke with Chip (he wouldn't share his last name, though he told me he was the owner and operator), also known as "the captain." When I told him I was interested in writing about the Academy, he was suspicious. I reassured him that I was a sex writer, and I didn't think there was anything wrong with what he was doing not the thing to say.
"There is absolutely no sex here," he told me. "We offer a prison experience that includes control, confinement, interrogations, and restraint. It's a realistic prison experience." Really? With no sex? I asked him if I could get a break on the fee he'd be getting publicity out of it, after all. "I don't like journalists. Two reasons: first, potential bad publicity; second, I employ real cops, real guards. Someone might see this story and say, 'Wow, look what the police are doing! The police are kinky! I don't want to get my employees into trouble at their day jobs."
The Captain kept me on the phone for more than an hour. The Academy is the only facility of its kind, he bragged, "the only place in the world men can go and experience real prison life" ... besides, of course, prison. The Academy has served hundreds of guys guys as old as 70, and as young as 25. No girls allowed.
The Captain, once a cop himself, noticed that "some people seemed to enjoy being locked up. It occurred to me that there ought to be a place you could go for this, without having to get arrested." So in 1980, he began offering prison "experiences" in his garage, one prisoner at a time.
The Captain agreed to let me come, with a break on the price $500: "that's cost" but on two conditions: that be got to see what I write and make cuts; and that I couldn't reveal that the guards were real cops and prison guards, something the Academy itself reveals on its website (www.academyent.com). The Captain's conditions were unacceptable, so I said I'd think about it. I waited six months, made a reservation and paid full fare.
Before we got off the phone, I brought up sex again. The Captain had to admit that men were coming to the Academy because prisons turned them on afterall, his ads boast of the Academy's collection of specialized fetishy bondage equipment. "Some men do get turned on," the Captain admitted, "but not even half. We provide an experience mostly to mainstream people, people who would never be arrested in real life. That's the experience they come for, arrest and imprisonment, not an erotic experience."
"I have a boner," Eric whispers, in the middle of an unauthorized erotic experience. We've been "inside" now for maybe 12 hours, it's hard to tell, there are no clocks or windows. Eric and Rob are in one cell, Sean and I in the other. Eric is in an iron collar attached by a heavy chain to shackles and leg cuffs-hence the boner.
Our needs are being seen to by three large guards: our two arresting officers and a new guard. How to describe them? There's a big one, a bigger one, and the biggest one. Two are dark, one is blondish-brown. If mid-30s, barrel- chested meat eaters with hard muscles under a hard layer of fat float your boat they were definitely floating Eric's you'd love these guys.
After our Initial "intake" after we were booked, strip searched, and given a freezing cold shower we were marched to our cells. The cell block is brightly lit, and separated from the main room by a metal door. There are three bunks in each cell, and in the corner there's a stainless steel toilet, seatless, and I'm hoping I won't have to take a crap until after I'm sprung Sunday morning.
Once the guards leave us alone, the three of us who hadn't "done the program" we three fags-start giggling again. What have we gotten ourselves into? Everything is so real, realness reinforced by honest to goodness police brutality. We trade horror stories: the big one slammed Sean up against the wall for giving him "a look." The bigger one picked Eric up by his neck because Eric couldn't make his bunk properly. The biggest one ordered me to look at a spot on the wall and then punched me in the chest over and over again, screaming, "Don't YOU look AWAY!" Our guards are very scary. We nickname them Patti, Maxine and Laverne.
The girls come and go, which means we prisoners are either bored where's the library, the TV? or terrified. There's no in between. If we laugh, or smile, or smirk, Patti, Maxine and Laverne bust our asses-screaming, slamming us into walls, applying pressure points that really hurt yet the girls intentionally say funny things. They remind me of the nuns at my Catholic grade school, mean and funny. We've been fed "dinner" (baloney sandwiches) and "interrogated." We'd been given a scenario at the restaurant to justify our arrests: we're supposed to have hidden some stolen money somewhere. Only Rob was playing along Rob was quite a good improv actor. When they interrogated me, I immediately ratted on Rob, telling them only he knew where the money was.
Then came the recreational bondage. The forms we'd filled out had a long list of bondage genres and, feeling game, I ticked off a few well, actually, I ticked off all of them except straightjackets, which give me asthmatic panic attacks.
The bondage games are the least authentic thing we've done. It hardly seems "in character" for the guards to drag us off one by one and tie us up, except to cater to our kinks. First they came for Eric, then Sean, then Rob. Then Maxine came for me.
She dragged me out of the cell, out of the cell block, and into the main room. I could see Sean naked and strapped to a gurney in the shower room. Laverne was holding a leather straightjacket. Did they read my form? After I was strapped into the jacket, they put me in leg irons and tossed me into solitary. Maxine told me I would sit there until I "decided to talk."
After about ten minutes, I started screaming, "I want to see the Captain." Asking to see the Captain who is somewhere in the building monitoring us via video monitors is our "safe word."
"What do you want to see the Captain for?" Maxine quietly asks me, dropping the bully routine. I explain that, on my forms, I said no straightjackets. Maxine looks sheepish and ... apologizes! He removes the straitjacket, and asks if I'm okay. I nod, and just as quickly as he dropped the bully routine, he picks it back up. He shoves me against the wall, takes his handcuffs off his belt, and cuffs my arms behind my back, linking them through the leg irons.
About two hours later, Laverne comes, releases me, and marches me back to our cell for the night, where everyone else is already lying in their bunks. I ask Eric why they left him in chains. "Because I asked them to."
More people get locked up in our country than in any other industrialized nation. Prison is about power and fear and control and punishment, and as we build more prisons, prisons loom larger in our collective subconscious.
Increasingly, the prison experience will become fetishized, and fuel the dominance/submission fantasies of new generations of sadomasochists how could it not? Won't pubescent kids touring cellblocks and gas chambers on their summer vacations tap into this?
In his book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, Daniel Parris argues that SMers, in a bid for mainstream approval, "de-allegorized" SM sex. By insisting SM was not about sadism and cruelty (and whips and chains), but about affection and tenderness (and whips and chains), SMers stripped SM of its transgressive power. "SM apologists draw attention away from the actual fantasy of sadomasochistic sex, from its symbolic allegory... excising the suspect narrative from the SM scene altogether [in an effort] to disassociate themselves from the hotly contested narrative of domination and submission."
If SM's old allegories have played out or been sold out, America's love affair with prisons can provide a new set of invigorated allegories.
Back at the Academy, it must be getting close to morning. I ask the other guys what they think our real life guards make of their pretend prisoners. They must know we're here for the thrills, despite what the Captain tells them. "Don't assume," Rob says from his bunk, "that these guys don't get off on this too."
Patti, Maxine and Laverne burst in. "GOOD MORNING, LADIES!" They unchain Eric, and we're all stripped and treated to another freezing shower. Then it's back into orange jumpsuits, line up for chow, and march to the cells with our trays.
Sean gives his breakfast a look, and Laverne who's taken a special dislike to Sean screams, "Would YOU like to SPEAK to the CHEF?" Eric laughs, and Maxine screams, "Do I HEAR little DOGGIES YAPPING." I try to stifle a laugh, but Patti nails me. Eric and I are ordered out of our cells, our food trays are kicked on the floor, and we're forced to eat our chow on our knees with our hands behind our backs.
It's Saturday afternoon or is it night? and Patti, Maxine and Laverne are in full howl: Sean is naked and chained to the cell's bars. It's cold and damp in the cell block, and Sean is freezing. 'When he complains, Laverne tosses a bucket of freezing cold water on him. Eric is locked up in the padded solitary cell. Rob, who disappeared after breakfast, reappears in guard uniform, and helps Laverne terrorize Sean. Rob's transformation seems inauthentic: how often do prisoners get promoted to guard?
After being made to stand naked in the main room staring straight ahead for, oh, about an hour, I'm allowed to get dressed. Then Maxine drags a large wooden bondage chair into the main room it's for me! Maxine and Patti can't find all the parts, which is my fault: "What HAVE you DONE with the SCREWS?!" "WHERE Is THAT one PART?!" they ask, grinning, clearly enjoying themselves, just like Rob said.
After I'm all snug in my bondage chair, Maxine slaps some duct tape over my mouth, and then all the guards leave. I lick around my mouth to loosen the duct tape, and wind up with a duct tape mustache. "You okay?" I ask Sean, who I can't see, but I can hear, still chained to the bars of the cell.
"That motherfucker," Sean says, "Laverne keeps asking me if I want to see the Captain. He's trying to break me. I'll show that motherfucker I can take it."
I start having an asthma attack the cells are cold and damp. I'm wheezing, and need my inhaler, which I can't get because, well, I'm still strapped to a chair. I start to panic, which makes the attack worse, and the straps across my chest are making it hard for me to heave air into my lungs.
When the girls return, I practically order Maxine to untie me. "Do you need your puffer?" he asks. They've read my forms after all. I nod, and he goes to my bag and gets it. Maxine holds the puffer up to my mouth and gives me a blast and nothing happens. I'm still wheezing. "You want to lie down?" he asks me.
An hour later, attack still in full swing and getting worse, I ask to see the Captain. I'd met the Captain the previous day, at the restaurant. He's an extremely short man, rail thin and balding, with an enormous mustache, the kind of guy the guards might beat up if they weren't working for him.
I tell the Captain I want out if I don't get out of the cold and damp I'm going to drop dead so the Captain takes me upstairs.
Since the police car is parked inside the building, I didn't get to see the Academy from the outside, so I'm a little unprepared for what awaits me at the top of the spiral staircase.
There are antiques and chandeliers and Persian carpets and huge arrangements of silk flowers on marble topped tables. It looks like somewhere your Auntie Mame might live. Out a window, I see other, huge, crassly upscale new homes. The Captain leads me up a Scarlett O'Hara staircase to an enormous second floor bedroom. He'll arrange to get me a ride back into town, and in the meantime, would I like a slice of pizza? I lean against the inlaid panel door after the Captain leaves, and discover it's hollow, as are the baseboards. Plastic woodwork.
I lay down on the bed, and look at the clock it's 6:30 p.m. I spent about 32 hours in the basement of Auntie Mame's house, which works out to roughly $44 an hour a steal compared to those $250 an hour houses of domination. I'm glad it's over, and I'm giddy at having been sprung; just like gym in fourth grade, all it took was one well timed asthma attack. There's a bathroom off the bedroom, and I take a long, luxurious, completely private crap.
Later, as I'm walking out of the house to catch a ride back to Atlanta, Maxine, Patti and Laverne appear to say goodbye. They shake my hand, and ask if I had fun. This moment at the foot of the stairs seems like an extremely awkward one for the girls, as our real roles come to the surface. I'm the paying customer, they're the hired help.
I was in charge all along.
[This article originally appeared in The Stranger. It is reprinted with the author's permission. PLN originally reported on the Academy in its News in Brief section several years ago. We thought our readers would be interested in learning about the latest private prison. Row long before Disney opens up "Prison World"?]
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