My cellie and I had been together a week already and had long ago exhausted all the superficial topics of discussion available to us. With our only common ground being prison, all that was left for us was to share complaints over the food that was passed through our chuckhole and to exchange good-natured grunts of thanks when passing over a fresh styrofoam tray of something that promised to be sloptastic. There was no TV, no radio, or even reading material of any kind. This left us alone with only our thoughts as entertainment. It was into my muddled thoughts that the screams intruded. They were unintelligible but clearly not born of laughter or joy. They were the sounds of violence and anger.
I leapt from my top bunk, and for a split second was as light on my feet as a sneaky feline, but then momentum carried me further and I slammed my shoulder into the wall rather painfully in my over-eagerness for some kind of excitement and distraction from the interminable boredom and involuntary napping. (I say “involuntary napping” because when I laid there long enough without stimulus of any kind, I would slip into unconsciousness against my will.) With my face pressed to the perforated metal portion of the door, I tried to decipher where the screams and distant but familiar noises of someone getting beaten were coming from. At the time, I was on three gallery, so I was three stories in the air, which made it difficult to pinpoint the source of the scuffle. My cellie’s face was next to mine, just as starved for something to focus on, but he couldn’t figure where the fight was happening either. Within a minute, though, and much quicker than I ever would’ve thought, tac team members showed up in their riot gear to put a stop to it.
At that time, I was still being housed in a maximum-security facility, and hadn’t yet seen the tac team assemble, but I was about to witness firsthand how they operated. There were five of them, each resplendent in a bright orange jumpsuit, over which they wore various kinds of body armor—all of which was an intimidating shade of black—that protected their chest, arms, legs and hands. On their heads there were bulbous helmets with plexiglass visors. In their hands, they each held a two-foot wooden baton and a plexiglass shield that was about three feet wide by four feet tall—large enough to afford plenty of protection. Marching in formation—two by two with one in the lead—their boots slammed the concrete floor in practiced unison while they beat their shields with their batons and chanted a rhythmic grunt that reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West’s guards in The Wizard of Oz. It was a rehearsed and disciplined effort designed to unnerve and terrorize all onlookers. It was effective.
The Show Begins
The lead tac team member stopped at the door to the cell and I had a direct line of sight to it. In a booming voice that echoed through the cell house, he ordered the inmates inside to stand up, place their hands behind their backs, and face the back wall of their cell. A single voice hollered an obscenity that made it clear he wouldn’t comply with the order. The tac team member never took his eyes off the cell door. He raised his baton over his head and made a circular motion in the air, indicating he wanted the door to be rolled open, before bringing the baton back down to a readied position behind his shield. The door to the cell began to slide sideways, electronically controlled by the tower, and once it was open they flooded in.
While shouting aggressively for the inmates to submit, one, two, three, four of them rushed in while one remained at the door. For a quick moment, I turned my head around to survey the dimensions of my own cell and wondered how they could all even fit in there. Screams of pain brought my attention riveted back to the cell under siege. I couldn’t see into the cell, but there were muffled sounds of impact and grunts of exertion. The pained yelling continued for a few moments before being squelched. On the heels of that marked silence was the distinct clicking of handcuffs being tightened into place. Even from three stories below me, it came through loud and clear, and it sent a shiver of goosebumps across my neck and over my scalp.
A tac team officer backed out of the cell first, and he was holding his shield over the back and head of one of the assailants. The inmate was cuffed with his hands behind his back, wearing only his boxers, and there was blood visible on his head. A second tac team officer followed close behind with his shield covering and holding the inmate down so that the two shields formed a plexiglass pyramid under which the offender was made to walk while folded nearly in half at the waist. In this secure and helpless position he couldn’t raise his head to look where he was going, and was so off balance that if he tried to resist or fight back in any way, it wouldn’t take much of a nudge to put him on his face. The remaining two tac team members in the cell came out in identical configuration, but the second inmate had a t-shirt on. The front of it sagged heavily from his body and was more red than white. There was no way for me to know how much of the blood that I saw was spilt by inmates and how much by the tac team.
I was impressed by the smoothness of their movements, and it was clear that they had practiced a great deal in order to work together as a unit in such coordinated fashion. I was equal parts impressed and frightened by it. I was also glad that they weren’t coming for me.
The entire process didn’t take more than three minutes, and they were all shuffling carefully off the deck together. Efficient in their brutality. The inmates never came back, their property was packed and moved by a couple C/Os a couple hours later. My cellie and I passed the afternoon in lively discussion because the incident had finally given us something to talk about.