Screams of anger and pain echoed along the black throat of the hallway. There was laughter too. I didn’t know if it was a game or if some guys derived a terrible glee from hurting people.
I’ve been privileged to spend several years of my incarceration in minimum security-type housing. This allows for nearly unrestricted movement outside my cell as long as I stay inside the cell-house. There are several specific times throughout the day and overnight when I am expected to be in my cell, and consequences would be severe if I wasn’t. However, the fact is that the doors have no externally controlled locking mechanism. The COs don’t control the locks—the inmates do. It’s a responsibility with which not all offenders can be trusted.
From a centralized dayroom with a control bubble for the CO to sit in there are two long hallways—one to the north, one to the south. There are two dozen rooms spread throughout both hallways. They vary in size with occupancies ranging from two inmates to twelve in a communal living arrangement. In optimal conditions it is impossible for an officer to see everything that is happening down one of these corridors, let alone both at the same time. I won’t be describing optimal conditions.
According to the plaque affixed to the brick exterior, the building was erected in 1936. I’d venture to guess that the electrical wiring for the entire prison complex was last updated sometime during the Nixon Administration. Short and isolated power outages were common during the summer heat when all inmate fans were pulling Max Power. This time in particular it was the depths of winter and the darkness was neither short or isolated.
For purposes of security, there is always some light glowing in prison. This may be a small light within the cell, one in the common area outside the cell, or illuminating the prison compound from high above. Daylight had faded to night forty minutes previous when without warning all electricity evaporated. Fans whirled to silence, televisions blinked off, lights were extinguished. The darkness was complete, but only for a few seconds. There was a pulsing, winking as every appliance briefly sprang to life again before plunging back to black that felt surreal, eternal.
There was zero ambient light. No residual glow whatsoever. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It was suddenly and utterly terrifying. Disembodied voices rose from the five other men in my cell and began to clamor on the other side of the cell door. I waited for my eyes to adjust, but there was nothing from which to draw light. I sensed movement but couldn’t see it. I pointed myself in the direction of the window hoping to see some distant light from another building or the lights on the road just outside the prison. Nothing. Panic of being suddenly stricken blind began to settle in. My throat constricted with an irrational urge to holler and let it be known that I was still present in the land of the living. Before I could let loose my not very barbaric yawp there was a glimmer of illumination.
“Everyone back in your rooms!” The rotund male CO lolled down the hallway, flashlight in his hand throwing arcs of light with each seesaw step. Calls for explanation and encouragements for him to fornicate with himself erupted from a dozen directions. He waddled further, undeterred, intending to impose his will by pure intimidation. It was an amazing display of either bravery or stupidity. I couldn’t discern which. If anyone had wanted to assault this officer in particular, or to strike out against an authority figure in general, the blackout would have provided perfect opportunity.
“In your cells or I start writing tickets!”
Some men retreated quickly, others took their time, but did comply. Three or four others stood their ground, testing the officer. My cell was at the end of the hall opposite the dayroom and from my doorway I could see the standoff between partial silhouettes. The CO stared hard for a moment at those who remained before retreating in a huff and a hurry. This left us in the dark once more. The CO didn’t return that night. It was maybe twenty minutes later when the assaults began.
Calm Before The Storm
I sat on my bunk, eyes straining to pick something out of the dark, wishing I had batteries for my Walkman so I could distract myself with music. The baseboard heater had gone cold and the frigid overnight temperatures were settling in. I wrapped myself in my blanket, wishing it wasn’t too early to go to sleep. My cellies had fallen silent in deference to the dark. As if it were some solemn occasion. There had been yelling back and forth between guys down the hall, but that had quieted as well. My cellie whose bunk was closest to the door had it propped open in case anything of interest or importance happened we’d be able to hear it. When something did happen it was abrupt and confusing.
Sounds of shoes slapping and squeaking against the polished concrete. People were running in the hallway. Bodies collided, a muffled holler of surprise and pain. Curses and screams followed. And laughter. Punches landing against a mass of muscle and bone. A tackle of some kind brought multiple people crashing to the floor. The distinct hollow sound of at least one skull conking against unforgiving concrete. Curses and kicks, then feet fleeing. Robbed of depth perception, it sounded like it was happening mere inches away, practically right in my lap.
I feared that at any moment I would be attacked and beaten. I had no enemies or reason to believe that anyone harbored desires to harm me. Unfortunately fear feeds on paranoia not logic. I folded my knees to my chest, scooted back on my bunk until I was against the wall and as compact as I could make my six-two frame. My entire body was enveloped in my blanket, as if it were some magic cloak or barrier to protect me. Only my head floated free. I wasn’t the only one feeling exposed. “Hey, close the door, man,” one cellie called out. A chorus of “Yeahs” followed, to which I added my voice. The sound of the door latching was a welcome one. The unmistakable click of the lock being engaged was sheer poetry.
I slept fitfully, fighting to stay warm. I didn’t have my fan blowing to block out background noise like usual, so the sounds of violence awoke me numerous times. Thankfully these remained sequestered on the other side of the cell door. The velvet morning was blessedly bright, but criminally cold. A long day of shivering was in store because the power wouldn’t be restored until mid-afternoon and temps never rose above zero. In the end this still didn’t feel as interminable as the night spent without sight, being jarred awake by the clatter of men beating one another.