Editor’s Note: All actions depicted here were undertaken by consenting adults. A safe word (RED) was in place and could be utilized if someone was uncomfortable. Any firearms mentioned are unloaded/unarmed paintball & airsoft weapons; still dangerous, but not as lethal. Tasers and other devices were consistently used below the waist, and on the rear of the body.
Also note that some details have been omitted, skimmed over, and intentionally obfuscated, both to maintain the privacy of FCJ, and to ensure the secrecy of methods and practices.
One weekend in March I was invited to spend a weekend at FCJ in Iowa. Like most people, I had heard of and was aware that this place existed, but I never sought out the opportunity to visit. The role play looked like it was on a level that I wasn’t ever going to be able to meet. Plus, it’s in the middle of goddamn nowhere and I fucking hate traveling. Then, after plans for a similar experience in Florida fell through, some strings were pulled and I wound up with an invite to FCJ instead.
Unlike the previous experience in Florida, which had been very free-form and experimental, FCJ is several years old and well-established. Most of the kinks have been worked out (or in, as it were?), and the experienced players there know how to work all the various doors and locks. I was fortunate enough to experience the facility with some hardcore FCJ veterans who were more than happy to show us the ropes.
One of the first questions I get asked about this trip was what role did I play: prisoner or guard? Or if they know me well enough, they assume I was a prisoner. Those who truly know me know I signed up to be both a guard and a prisoner for the weekend, starting off first as a guard.
I flew up to Chicago a few days early to spend some time with my big bro Leo and other friends. Friday rolled around and the weekend experience began. Somewhere along the way, we decided that it would be a good idea to rent a 15 passenger van and drive all our people who had signed up as prisoners to Iowa from Chicago. As far as hare-brained schemes go, this one wasn’t the worst. Getting everyone changed into a jumpsuit and chained up went surprisingly smoothly; the only mistakes we made were forgetting one of the guys’ cellphone and wallet. Once everyone was all set, we headed out for the five hour drive.
Quick sidebar: the route took us through Galena, IL and the Driftless Area. Beautiful country, recommend visiting it if you get a chance. As far as five hour van rides with a bunch of mouthy inmates goes, the trip was easy. It was nice to be able to get a feel for everyone’s personalities in a fairly neutral environment. Just, maybe next time we can drive in from Des Moines instead :) Finally we arrived at FCJ and the real fun could begin.
One of the most important elements of FCJ is the authenticity of the experience. Right off the bat as soon as we arrived, the prisoners were marched out of the van, around the building and into the holding cell for intake processing. Fun fact about Iowa in the middle of March: It’s fucking cold. I have never been so goddamn cold, and I was bundled up pretty good. The inmates fared far worse and were incredibly motivated to make their way inside without much fuss. Once they’d settled into the holding cell, it was time to gear up and then the real fun could begin.
On the guard detail, we had Leo, our friend Wiki and myself (the SWAT team), along with Utah, Shackle, and Ric, all of whom are hardened FCJ veteran guards. Between the six of us, we made a truly excellent team. To top it off, Pitbull, who is an expert at this sort of thing was always lingering near us, happy to provide advice and nudge us in the right direction. Big man-behind-the-curtain vibes. One-by-one we started pulling inmates out the holding cell and processing them. The order was this: The inmate gets their mugshot taken, given the standard intake interview, and stripped out of their jumpsuit.
Here’s where we made our first mistake. We should have thoroughly searched everyone as part of this process, but we didn’t do anything more than a visual inspection. Had we done more thorough cavity searches, we’d have located several pieces of contraband, including multiple handcuff keys. As it was, the contraband we found on
C220010 should have tipped us off that there was trickery afoot. This man had the gall to try and smuggle in two different types of drugs (simulated, it was actually some M&Ms and a small baggie of brown sugar). He earned some time in the restraint chair, along with some additional charges for possession for his troubles.
After that, the inmates were fingerprinted and taken into the cellblock. Everyone got a few hits with the delousing spray, followed by a shower. Like I said, FCJ is thorough. Ric and Wiki handled most of the work in the cellblock while the Leo, Utah, Shackle and I handled intake. All in all it took us about two hours to get all five inmates processed through. Then it was lights out, and we sealed the door to the cellblock. At this point everyone was completely exhausted, so after scarfing down some McDonalds, everyone went to bed.
Thanks to being a light sleeper and being an hour off my regular timezone, I was up and ready to go (almost) first thing the next morning. I stumbled downstairs just in time to help deliver breakfast to the inmates before sitting down to finally eat breakfast myself. If you’re thinking this sounds like bullshit, you’d be right! I think the inmates have the easiest job at FCJ by far. All they have to do is sit in their little cells all hoity-toity and call the guards mean names. Meanwhile we’re running back and forth, escorting them to the bathroom and showers, setting up interrogations, running food back and forth, etcetera. All this while we’re watching our backs because we have no idea what these devious fucks are scheming behind our backs. It’s a full time job that I loved every fucking second of, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
UNSOLICITED ADVICE #1: If in the future we do another weekend at FCJ with this many guards and inmates, the guards should rotate duty shifts. Firstly, to reduce the number of guards on duty at the same time (increasing the odds of prisoner shenanigans and ‘fun’) and secondly to help prevent the guards from dropping dead from exhaustion. At the end of every day, the six of us were consistently down for the count.
Seeing as how we were at FCJ, a few people had various scenes they wanted to get into. I don’t recall what all we did exactly, but I helped put
P220004 in the floor cell. This is a small 2x2x5 foot cell built into the floor of the intake room, secured by a nice sturdy wooden door and several padlocks.
P220004 protested that he didn’t want to go in the cell, but Wiki whipped out a small taser that quickly dissuaded
P220004 from being uncooperative.
So by this point I was starting to get into the swing of things. I’m not the most assertive person on the planet, but watching the experienced guards interact with the inmates helped boost my confidence. By the time breakfast was over I was keeping pace with the verbal abuse and hurling back my own. When it came time to clap
M220011 (AKA: That fucking Aussie bastard) into some heavy restraints, I had no qualms about administering the necessary force (and taser threats) to get him to cooperate. I also stood guard for Shackle’s amazingly thorough interrogation of
C220010 (who had now been upgraded to death row status). Shackle, now playing the role of an FBI agent had a frightening well-researched set of files on all the inmates, and it was becoming clear that there was more going on behind the scenes than just a routine prisoner experience at FCJ. After the interrogation wrapped up (I’d never stood still for that long before), we headed back upstairs to take care of lunch before the next event of the day: the arrival of a new inmate.
It had been conveyed to the SWAT team that our presence was something of an outlier; an unexpected but welcome departure from the normal routines at FCJ. Sure, some inmate misbehavior was to be expected and corrected, but no one had ever done a full takedown scene before. So when
B220007 arrived late to the party, he was shocked, surprised, and excited to be set upon by three guys in full SWAT gear. Leo and Wiki did most of the work of holding him down, while I hurriedly slapped a pair of shackles and handcuffs on him, followed by a hood to keep him in a cooperative mood. We’d initially tried to use some disposable zip cuffs, but they proved to be surprisingly unwieldy.
Eventually we got him somewhat under control and safely stored in the standing cell cage for some cooling off time. It’s amazing how convincing a taser can be. We let him out just in time to spend some time in the yard with the other inmates. With Ric and Shackle covering the yard, Leo, Wiki, and I decided now was an excellent time to do a shakedown of the cellblock. I’d be lying if I said this was more about searching for contraband and less about sending a message to the inmates and fucking with them. It was just a little bit fun to absolutely trash their cells; throw the mattresses on the floor, dump out their toiletry bags, etc. Without finding anything we set about actually searching for contraband and found a handcuff key! I don’t remember if we decided to leave it there, or confiscate it, but it was definitely evidence that trouble was afoot. When the inmates were returned from yard time, the SWAT team took the lead, and made sure to change up who was paired with who and in what cell. In retrospect, we should have skipped this because it fucked up Ric and Shackle’s system, but also because we wound up pairing
After the inmates had been returned to their cells, we let them mingle amongst themselves in the common area before dinner. In the interim, Wiki voiced some interest in trying out some of the gear, and Pitbull was more than happy to oblige. This pup looked fucking adorable in an inmate jumpsuit with a big ole’ collar around his neck. We had some fun parading him around the cellblock a little before retreating back into the intake room and strapping him into the restraint chair. By this point our dinner (mmm chinese food) had arrived, so we released Wiki and got to the business of getting everyone fed. Again, being a guard is way more work than being a prisoner. We were taking their fuckin’ orders and bringing their food back to the cellblock.
Once dinner had concluded, it was time to get everyone ready for their court appearance. Our judge and attorneys were going to join via video conference in the main room of the house. We got the court room assembled and all the prisoners processed in on time, and court got underway. I saw Shackle begin to present his case against the inmates, but ducked out shortly thereafter to do another shakedown of the cells. We didn’t find anything this time around, which told us that our earlier search had ruffled some feathers. Now there was chum in the water, and everyone could smell it. Suddenly there were sounds of a commotion in the courtroom and we rushed back in.
Pandemonium had broken loose. Somehow,
B220007 had gotten ahold of the taser from earlier. Nevermind the fact that we had plainly, obviously set him up by leaving the taser on a table, sans batteries. The other guards, who were not in on the plan, were keeping a safe distance, and the inmates all chained together were close to rioting. I will never forget the badass swagger of Wiki as he walked right up to
B220007 and snatched the taser out of his hand. We got everyone sat back down so they could watch the premier of Bind’s latest video, which turned out to be an homage to The Twilight Zone.
As the source of the ruckus in court, we figured that
B220007 was also the source of everything wrong in the cell block as well. Certainly, putting him in the same cell as
P220004 had given them plenty of time to scheme. Less than an hour after we got everyone sorted back in for bed time, we pulled
B22007 back out for a more thorough search of their cell. After we chained their wrists through the cell block’s bars, we gave both of them a more thorough (but ultimately, superficial) search. Another shakedown of their cell turned up nothing new. We released
B22007 so they could clean up our mess, and cleared the cellblock for bed time. As he left though, Shackle caught
B22007 saying something to
P22004. Something that ended with “I can’t believe they didn’t find it”, followed by an expression of ‘oh fuck’ when he realized Shackle had heard him. When Shackle relayed this to us, it sealed the deal. We needed to do a final, thorough, top-to-bottom, left-to-right, no-stone-unturned shakedown of the cellblock. Now it was time for the real fun to begin.
Out of frustration or pity, Pitbull walked us through what we needed to do. Everyone needed to be pulled out of their cell. Everyone needed to be stripped bare-ass naked and searched again. Hair, mouth, ass, scrotum, toes. They needed to get new clothing, their old outfits needed to be searched by hand. The cells needed to be emptied, the mattresses pulled out, searched, and replaced with new ones. Toiletries carefully examined. Look in every place you’d think of to hide something, and then look again, because these inmates had nothing but time and motive on their hands. This was going to be the search we should have done at the beginning (but honestly, I think it was more fun this way). This consequently led to my favorite moment from the weekend.
Amongst the guards, we decided that I would take command during the search. I’d been getting more into the groove of bossing inmates around and I’d set myself apart as being willing to jump into that role. Just before we stormed into the cellblock, Pitbull took me aside and pulled out a shiny silver whistle out of a cabinet. Oh man this was gonna be so much fun.
At the signal, we yanked open the door to the cell block, threw the lights on, and I blew the FUCK out of that whistle. I didn’t have anything planned or rehearsed, I just jumped right into the flow.
“INMATES! ON YOUR FEET. BACK OF YOUR CELLS. HANDS ON YOUR HEAD. DO NOT MOVE.” I came in bellowing orders, backed by a voice that (I think) adequately conveyed how badly I wanted them to fuck around and find out. Once we’d gotten everyone’s wrists cuffed through the bars and stripped naked, I laid out my expectations for the next hour or so. The gist of it was that if they wanted to sleep in more than boxers and socks, I needed to find some fucking contraband. Almost immediately
B220007 ratted out
P220004, earning him the privilege of a sheet on his mattress for the evening. By the time it was all set and done, we’d recovered two phones and five handcuff keys over the course of all our searches (a new record for FCJ!). Once everyone was re-clothed and released back into their cells, we bade them goodnight and sealed everything up so everyone could get some sleep.
Sunday morning started off similarly to Saturday. All the guards were exhausted and slept in (PS: FUCK springing forward for daylight savings), as well as the inmates. I slowly regained consciousness and made my way downstairs to assist with breakfast. Leo and Wiki were still upstairs and I made the trip several times to nudge them awake. We had abuse to level at the prisoners again, and we’d need their help. Once they had been properly roused, I changed back into my SWAT gear and waited to see what the rest of the day would bring. I ran into Shackle in the intake room, and he started telling me something about a chain gang. Then everything changed, and the real fun began.
Me being the duplicitous little shit I am, I’d planted a conspicuous handcuff key in the cellblock, fully intending for it to be found and linked back to me. At that point, I’d be arrested and switch to being an inmate instead of a guard. When in Rome, right? So that part worked out great. Out of nowhere, Leo and Wiki grab me, quickly wrestling me to the floor in a move they had practiced on me the day before. I put up a good fight, but I was no match for the two of them. I was unceremoniously bound with my own zip cuffs (the nerve!) and leg cuffed so Shackle could begin my intake processing. Being on the opposite end of this experience was surreal in a way that I couldn’t quite register. I had the smuggest shit-eating grin on my face the entire time. It didn’t help that I’d picked out the perfect alias for myself: Donald Keedix (“but my friends call me Don”).
After this, it was off to the shower stall for a good old delousing. Protip: Do not get deloused in the middle of winter. It is a miserable experience. By this point the prisoners were absolutely besides themselves with excitement, practically crawling up the walls with excitement to see me dethroned and reduced to one of them. I took a quick shower while the other guards got the rest of the inmates back in line. Leo yanked me out of the shower and scribbled my inmate number,
K220014 on my chest, back, and ass before letting me put on an inmate jumpsuit and coat for the upcoming field trip. I was starting to get nervous now. Leo wasn’t acknowledging me outside of ordering me around, and I couldn’t tell what Wiki was feeling ‘cause he was wearing a mask. Ankles shackled and hands cuffed in front, I was ushered into the cell block with the other
scum inmates and left to fend for myself.
Boy howdy were those inmates mad at me. Which, fair. I deserved it. They tried (and failed) to inflict any sort of pain on me, quickly cycling through all their dirty tricks. I recall they settled on pressure points, after I refused to acknowledge their feeble attempts at bastinado and tickling. Eventually they gave up and I wound up with
P220004 sitting on me in The Hole. This was the only effective punishment they eked out. The guards noticed something fucky was going on and ordered everyone out into the common area. It was time to get ready for a quick jaunt over to the courthouse for some pictures.
This was going to take the form of a chain gang: all the prisoners in a line, attached by chains locked around our ankles. I was placed second from the front, right behind
P220004, separated from the other troublemakers. I still don’t understand why, it’s not like I tried to grab Shackle’s gun more than once (for the record, that taser is effective as fuck at getting me on my ass). Once everyone was settled in, we were marched outside. It hurt. It wasn’t stable. It sucked. Do not recommend. Instead of walking us to the van on the other side of the building, we were ushered into the outside yard while the guards reevaluated their plan. I started to reevaluate things as well.
I don’t know exactly what the cause was. Probably a combination of factors, but I was hurting inside. I’d been side by side with Leo and Wiki all weekend so far, us versus the inmates. We’d worked hand in hand on the shakedowns, had each others backs when it came to handling the inmates, and spent almost every waking moment together. We were brothers. Now suddenly, that was gone; evaporated in an instant. I wasn’t on their team anymore, and I certainly wasn’t with the inmates. I was utterly alone.
“Hey Leo,” I called out. He was supervising the other end of the chain gang. I gestured for him to come over. He didn’t trust me, and sidled over but stayed at a safe distance. I got as close as I could with the chain and everything, and told him “I am genuinely not having a good time here”.
“Oh,” he replied. “Well just use the safeword.”
Duh. I’d completely forgotten that that was an option. Now I was faced with an option I hadn’t considered. There was a way out of this, a way back to how things used to be, and all I had to do was say Red. But wouldn’t that mean acknowledging that I wasn’t as strong as I’d thought I was? Wasn’t this going to mean I was a coward?
There should be absolutely no shame in using a safeword, ever. We use them for a reason, because at the end of the day, what we’re doing is make-believe. It’s playing. We’re subverting our reality and inserting ourselves into a shared fantasy, where even if the circumstances aren’t real, people’s feelings and physical beings still are. I don’t use safewords often, but when I do it’s because something is truly, genuinely wrong.
That was definitely the case here. I had been cast out, stripped of my rank and power, and reduced to basically nothing. The code switching of becoming an inmate after being a guard had hit me far harder than I’d ever anticipated it would. I felt my lip start to quiver. As much as I hated the situation, as unpleasant as it was, that bond with Leo and Wiki was still there. No questions asked, no judgements. If I needed out, I could get out.
“Okay,” I nodded, trying not to let my voice crack. I couldn’t look him in the eye. I took a deep breath, choking back tears. “Okay, I’m Red.”
The switch flipped, and just like that it was over. Leo quickly set to work uncuffing me, removing me from the environment, lifting me back up. As soon as my hands were free, I grabbed him in a tight hug and buried my face in his shoulder. I wasn’t full-on bawling, but it was close. Once I felt better(safe?) enough, I let him go, gave Wiki a similar hug and ventured back inside, looking for my gear. All I really wanted to do in that moment was call my fiancé LittleZap, back in Atlanta, and bawl my eyes out. Unfortunately or not, I couldn’t find any of my stuff and in the interim frustration of searching my need to incoherently babble at someone faded quickly. I still wanted to call LZ, and I did as soon as Wiki pointed out where my clothes were (on the highest, darkest shelf, of course). We chatted for a few moments, he was doing his own thing at home and I didn’t want to distract him too much. I rapidly shucked my inmate gear and set about re-assembling myself as one of the SWAT team.
By the time the inmates had returned from their field trip, I had fully readjusted to life on the outside, and I was feeling much better. Everyone sought me out to apologize for how they had treated me, and I in turn reassured everyone that their reception wasn’t the source of my issues, and it really wasn’t. Obviously, I’d rather not repeat this experience, but I don’t view it as an overall negative thing. There’s a lot to be said for having a catharsis and a good sob on your buddy’s shoulder.
UNSOLICITED ADVICE #2: If you wanna play as both an inmate and do guard duty, don’t go guard ➡️ inmate! And if you do, just beware of how you’ll handle it emotionally. Some people might handle that transition better than others. I’d recommend avoiding it altogether.
I don’t know if it was me, or just the general vibe of the weekend, but we shifted from our typical guards vs. inmate roles and just hung out. The inmates were released, the guards relaxed, and everyone sat around and ate lunch together. It was nice. After that everyone split off to do their own scenes. Wiki and I wound up in the basement dungeon, chained together and then thrown in a cage for some one-on-one time, which was delightful. Leo made dinner for everyone upstairs; delicious barbecue chicken and baked potatoes, with apple pie with ice cream for desert. We set up a few tables outside and had dinner for the first time as a group, rehashing the weekend from everyone’s own perspective. It was a wonderful way to cap off an amazing weekend. My profuse and voluminous thanks to everyone who was here this weekend. Everyone played their own special role in making this experience unforgettable, and I’ll never forget it.
Some final shoutouts and thoughts as I wrap up this post:
I’m sorely disappointed I didn’t get to experience Shackle’s interrogation from the chair. I hope I get a chance to do that one day
Officer Riley, FCJ’s caretaker and final authority, was an amazing and gracious host, in addition to being an enormous sweetheart. Whether it was helping prepare dinner or making sure that everyone was comfortable for sleep, Riley made sure everyone had the best time possible.
In addition to not giving the guards any trouble,
D220008played the role of our bad guy for a short video we shot on Sunday night. We didn’t know he had it in him, but he played the role perfectly, and looked exactly how you’d expect a bad guy to look
Finally, a huge thank you to Bind for allowing us to host this weekend at FCJ, even though he wasn’t able to join us. I look forward to many more visits in the future.