Fortunately for McLain, he got to work in the kitchen, where he could keep an eye on what went into the food that ended up on his plate. "The Cubans would get angry and urinate in the food. Even worse than that, they threw in mice and rats. You wouldn't know it until somebody'd dip into the soup and there'd be a dead rat in it. The way the Cubans were treated, you couldn't blame them."
Outbreaks of violence were normal. "Every day, sometimes five or six times a day," McLain says, "there's a major beef—fights, knives, clubs. It's not the real world." One day he was talking to Sharyn on the phone when an inmate, angry that McLain was taking too long, picked up a fire extinguisher and cracked him over the head with it. McLain dropped the phone, stunned and bleeding. He couldn't report the assault—that would have made him a rat, a prison lowlife—so he sought treatment from an inmate who was a doctor.
The first time Sharyn and the children went to visit Denny in Atlanta was a chilling experience. It particularly pained Sharyn to see him in prison because she knew how claustrophobic he was. "When they closed the bars behind us, the kids and I wanted to die," she says. "It was dark and gray. There were the bars. The guy with the gun hanging out of the tower. Prisoners would hang out, whistling and making cracks as we went by. One day we saw a guy getting dragged out of there. He was in like a straitjacket, and they were literally dragging him out the door. An awful place."
"I like getting up in the morning. It's a joy."
The McLains grew closer during their visits. They sat at a table and talked as they had never talked before. "We discussed how we felt about one another," says Dennis. "Little things became very important. The kids could say what was bothering them."
With her husband physically out of the family's mainstream, Sharyn sought to bring him back into it spiritually, to make him feel that he was still the head of the household. "I told the kids, 'If you do anything wrong, I'll call Dad and tell him,' " Sharyn says. "They can't stand it for him to be mad at them." So, from behind bars, it was Denny who meted out the punishment at home.
Because he was so far away—Sharyn and the kids were living 450 miles to the south, in Tampa—visits were infrequent. Except for Michelle, then 13, all the family members had to work. "We just put it all in the pot," Sharyn says.
McLain knew that Sharyn and the children were struggling, and he felt guilty and helpless in prison. He wanted to be somewhere closer to them, but after 10 months in Atlanta, he was carted off to Talladega—a 12-hour drive from Tampa. He still fumes over that move.
"The Federal Bureau of Prisons does more to promote divorce than any group in the world," he says. "They take a guy and move him thousands of miles away from his family. It's cruel. Isn't it enough to take away a man's freedom?"
Like many imprisoned men, McLain struggled with depression. "You get so despondent at times that you don't think you'll make it to lunch," he says. "I lived to go to sleep every night."