“If he tries to do anything just holler and I’ll come running. Okay? Now, what you’ll have to do is get ahold of him from behind. Around the neck. Just get both arms around him like a bear-hug and squeeze that neck and hold onto him for dear life. I’ll run in and crack him in the face. It’ll probably take three or four good hits so you’ll have to hold him tight.”
This was the direction which I received from Will, my good friend and spiritual mentor. There had been no preamble or explanation on his part, he simply walked into my cell, squatted on my toilet, and began talking. My cellie Stevie, who was the subject of Will’s instructional speech, was sitting ten feet away in the dayroom giggling at the Saturday morning cartoons like he was a little kid. It was annoying and unnerving, but Will advising violence was even more disturbing to me. I wondered what Will was seeing that eluded me.
I had been locked up in the county jail for just over four months, which seems like nothing after all these years, but at the time it felt entirely interminable. I hadn’t yet witnessed or been subjected to much of the depravity and violence which would eventually become commonplace to me. Perhaps not so much innocent, but more oblivious. Naïve, even. My only initial impression of Stevie was that he was a very big guy.
Stevie had come to the county jail directly from federal prison after having served seven years for bank robbery. Due to some idiotic legal and jurisdictional overlap he had to serve six months more in state prison. This meant he was only passing through the county jail. A transport van was usually sent out every Friday morning to shuttle offenders who had been sentenced to the department of corrections. That’s all Stevie was waiting on.
Stevie was ginormous. He was nearly four-feet across at the shoulders and literally had to turn sideways in order to walk through the narrow entrance to our cell. His chest and shoulders heaved outward from his frame, which tapered to a slim waist in the classic body builder’s V-shape. At five-foot-ten he was more than three inches shorter than me, but his incredible physical stature was such that he seemed to tower over me. I had never before in my life seen a person with such huge dimensions outside of an action movie star.
Since Stevie had just completed a seven year stint in prison, he brought with him his own peculiar sets of quirks. Due to the happenstance that we were cellies he felt that he was entitled to my food and assorted belongings. I am generally generous, so I did share with him, but he had expectations that were unreasonable. He also had no real sense of boundaries.
I’d often awakened to witness his phallus uncomfortably close as he urinated in the toilet, or I’d find him sitting on said toilet bare-chested with his pants around his ankles doing his business. The accepted protocol that had been established during my brief tenure in the county jail was that, since I was on the bottom bunk and the toilet was less than two feet away from my head, the person on the top bunk would drape a blanket to form a curtain barrier while defecating, and turn his back to me while peeing. Ideally an individual would wait to defecate once the cell doors were open so their cellie could leave the danger zone, but Stevie observed none of these small courtesies.
He wanted to chat my ear off long into the night and early in the morning. He mostly behaved as if we were longtime best buddies rather than two strangers who had been thrust together by whatever fate or circumstance. I merely figured that Stevie wasn’t in full possession of all his marbles. It wasn’t clear to me whether that was a condition which had developed during his incarceration or if that’s just how he’d always been. There was a certain childlike simplicity to him. A simplemindedness, like a big dumb kid. Harmless, I thought.
Stevie had been my cellie for three days when Will laid out our plan of attack/defense. He assured me that I didn’t know how close to danger I was. He said he knew guys like Stevie and how their mind worked. Will and Stevie were both black—I am not. I thought perhaps it was a cultural thing, but that didn’t quite make sense to me either. Will referred to Stevie as an animal, a beast. He warned/assured me that, given enough time, Stevie would attack me. The results of this would be a physical beating, or possible a sexual assault. Probably both.
At this point I did begin to wonder if perhaps Stevie’s inabilities to practice proper toilet protocol were subtle ways in which he attempted to get me accustomed to his nudity so he could eventually introduce a more interactive element. However, as far as Stevie beating me, I didn’t believe Will. I couldn’t believe him. I hadn’t seen any sort of violent tendencies from Stevie. I’d seen him get miffed or frustrated when he couldn’t find any cartoons on TV to watch, but he hadn’t flown into a rage. Not yet.
Friday morning came and Stevie was in his usual spot, sitting atop the one table in the dayroom, guffawing with abandon at the cartoons he had found to watch. There was an electronic buzz as the door to the cellblock opened, a guard stuck his head in and spoke.
“Jones, you going to the joint today. You ready?” Jones had taken a plea deal earlier in the week and had accepted his fate of a few years in DOC. He was up, showered, packed. His mat and bedding was rolled up and ready to carry out. No one looks forward to prison, but Jones was anxious to get the process underway.
“Yep, I’m ready. Let’s go.” The guard nodded and left. He reappeared in the walkway which separated our block from the one next to us. It was in this alley where all the controls for the door mechanisms were located. A security glass wall separated it from the block. There was a barred cage about four feet square that separated the cellblock from the entry door. For an inmate to leave the cellblock there is section of bars which slides to the side by electronic control, and protocol dictates that this must be closed before the outer door can be open. Jones stood with his possessions in front of the gate waiting for it to open for him.
It took Stevie a few minutes longer than it probably should’ve, but eventually he figured out that he wasn’t going to be moving on to the next stop in his journey. He wasn’t happy about this.
Stevie scooted off the table and stood face to face with the guard, mere inches and a layer of bulletproof glass between them. “Officer, what about me?” His query was ignored completely. The guard stared past him, looked through him. He appeared dazed, bored or sleepy. “I’m supposed to go too.” Still nothing. Jones was secured within the sally-port area, and the officer began to leave. Stevie matched his retreat on our side of the glass. “Hey, officer! Can I talk to you? Hey, officer.” The door to the cellblock opened and Jones scurried out. Stevie had exhausted his meager amount of patience.
“You fuckin’ bitch!! I’ll beat your ass!” Stevie pounded on the glass partition right next to the sally-port gate as he bellowed. The impact seemed to shudder the entire block and a fissure appeared in the glass, running from where his fist made contact up to the corner of the pane. The officer was suddenly wide awake and terrified. He slammed the door in a hasty retreat. “Fuck this, I ain’t staying here. I’m going to beat the shit out of somebody.” His eyes scanned quickly across the five other occupants of the cellblock.
I was sitting on my bunk in my cell. Will superstitiously stepped from his cell with a cup of coffee in his hand and stood just outside my cell. Not exactly blocking the door, but strategically place for whatever eventuality. Stevie gripped the bars of the sliding door, his forearms like puffed up bulldogs, and began to shake it so that it rattled loudly in its tracks. The pod vibrated and the sound clattered around the tiny space with deafening volume. Stevie continued to yank on the cage door while screaming and swearing in an irate rage. I have no doubt that Stevie could’ve dislodged the door from its moorings, but thankfully a sergeant showed up to quell his rabid behavior. The Sarge was wise and careful enough to keep his distance so Stevie couldn’t reach through the bars and grab him.
Stevie managed to tame his tone as he spoke. “Look, I’m just here from the federal joint. I’m supposed to be going to DOC. I’m not staying here. I already been here a week this past Wednesday.”
“I know you came here from the feds,” the Sarge replied, trying to placate his ward. “But we have other guys who are going to DOC and only room for six in our van.”
“I’m going today.” This was a directive from Stevie, not a request.
“Well, I don’t . . .”
“I’m fuckin’ going!!” Stevie screamed as he snatched at the gate and shook it. The Sarge’s eyes bulged with surprise, fright. He involuntarily retreated until he was backed into the doorframe. It took a quick moment for him to compose himself and stand taller as if to regain a sense of control or authority.
“Uh . . . let me just . . .” Then the sergeant was gone.
Stevie paced back and forth in front of the cage, sporadically shaking the bars or smacking them with the flat of his hand. He was cursing and mumbling an insane incantation, appearing every bit the animal that Will had swiftly perceived him to be. It was a long and frightening five minutes before the Sarge entered the alleyway again and informed Stevie that he was going so he should grab his belongings. Stevie hustled in and wrapped his mat and bedding up, tucked it under one arm and was gone without a word of goodbye or good luck. A few minutes later Jones returned with all his belongings and a look of defeat. Stevie had taken his spot on the transfer van. Jones returned to his cell without a word and laid down. His prison timeline would be delayed for at least another week.
With Stevie gone I didn’t miss him. I did, however, learn from the experience and grew a bit more closed off and wary of new cellies. I learned to identify signs of potential psychotic and violent men. I learned to survive.