Eating Fire

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I was on the floor with my stomach in my back, which means I was broke and starving. It also means there was no way I was going to miss chow, even though prison chili isn’t exactly a gourmet meal or even all that appetizing.

The familiar warm, sour smell of food going to rot assaulted my nostrils the moment I entered the chow hall, and saliva flooded my mouth in anticipation of the impending food I’d come to associate with that fetid aroma. The shuffle toward the slot in the wall where the trays were pushed out for inmates was unbearably slow. Once I finally got there, I was simultaneously uplifted and disappointed by the sight that greeted me.

The thick, pasty chili was served directly onto my tray—no separate bowl. Steam rose in a furious rush from the heaping wet pile of orange-red chili—which was a rare occurrence, since food was hardly ever served above room temperature. Both the large portion of chili and its piping-hot nature were blessings to be counted. Unfortunately, the accompanying piece of cornbread was little more than a sliver from the edge of the pan; the person cutting it had evidently been too quick with his knife and left a skinny, pathetic excuse for a full serving. Experience told me that it would do little good to stop the moving chow line to complain. The unwritten but strictly adhered-to policy when it comes to food service is that you get what you get, and you have what you have. It keeps the feed process moving along. Besides the cornbread, I was further disappointed by the wilted salad, paltry scoop of green beans, and cup of lime sherbet that was sure to be a sticky, melted mess by the time I got to it.

Once I was seated, I grasped my Spork with a hand that fumbled due to my overeager hunger, and I managed to deposit a single serving of searing chili into my maw. The shock of burnt tongue made my hand jump, my heart quaver, and my mouth open wide as I tried to drag cool air in past the fire I’d just fed myself. My eyes watered, and I swallowed convulsively to remove the flame from my mouth, only to feel it scorch my throat and innards all the way to the bottom of my belly. The gulp of lukewarm water did nothing at all to help, and by the time I recovered my composure, an unspeakable horror greeted me. My utensil had careened from my fist in all the commotion, and now it lay on the filthy, grimy ground directly between a few errant green beans and a sticky smear of milk left over from breakfast. I was eating dinner.

There was no way I would use that utensil to feed myself.

But there were few alternatives and precious little time to waste. Meals are timed in prison. Regulations state that inmates get ten minutes to eat. In reality, it’s usually closer to five. I stood from my seat and got the attention of the C/O monitoring the chow hall. Our exchange only brought more disappointment.

C/O: Sit down.

Me: Hey, C/O, I dropped my Spork on the floor; can I go get a clean one?

C/O: No. Go sit down.

Me: Well, how am I supposed to eat?

C/O: I don’t fucking care. Now go sit down or get a ticket.

I wouldn’t say that it’s a prerequisite that a person must be a complete jackstick to be hired as a C/O, but it is certainly a predominant personality trait amongst them.

I returned to my seat, disappointed and starving with a hellified dilemma to face. My stomach growled and howled for further feeding, my single burning bite having only teased its appetite for more sustenance. To my eyes, the chili suddenly resembled lava more than ever. The steam rising from it hadn’t abated much at all. I tried dipping into the mess to extract a chunk of the meat substitute that passes for cuisine and got burnt for my trouble.

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After a short pause to think it over, I crumbled the cornbread up and pushed it down into the brightly colored ooze. Then I added the green beans to the mix, scooping them out of their section of the tray and adding them to the communal mush I was creating. I ate the few pieces of lettuce by themselves, dipping them into the juice not yet soaked up by the cornbread. That didn’t take long, but I was running out of time. I couldn’t afford to baby my delicate fingers any longer, so I ignored the painful sensation and dug in.

Four awkward and messy fingerfulls later, with two digits and a thumb coated in magma, I was fighting against another heated mouthful and furtively glancing around my immediate area to see if anyone was pointing and laughing at me. Mostly I just got looks that conveyed a sentiment that can be summed up in the phrase, “What the hell…?” It wasn’t until I happened to see one of my fellow inmates remove the lid from his lime sherbet container that inspiration struck.

The circle of cardboard that covered the sherbet would be a perfect improvised tool to scoop some slop into my maw. No sooner had I realized this and reached for my dessert than the same C/O who had been compassionless to my Spork plight began to start shuffling guys out of the chow hall. I had almost an entire heaping serving of chili, cornbread, and green beans to be eaten by using a cardboard lid, and the C/O was only two tables away. I shoveled and swallowed; there was no time to chew. Chewing was for the weak. My makeshift spoon ferried food to my face with a speedy and metronomic pace that was uncanny. Kidney beans, green beans, tomato chunks, and faux meat were all forced down my gullet without thought. It was practically robotic.

I slurped my final bite off the sherbet lid just as the C/O was telling the occupants of my table to leave. He gave me a confused look while I licked the lid clean before tossing it on the tray. Once he recognized me as the guy who he’d denied a utensil, the edges of his lips tried to curl up into an amused grin, but he squelched it. He wouldn’t give me the satisfaction of seeing him as anything but a humorless crank.

I waited until I was the only one left at the table before picking up my mostly melted lime sherbet. I looked him directly in the eye, and then slammed the entire mucus-esque mess as if it were a shot of slimy, viscous liquor. Only then did I stand to leave. In so doing, I tried my best not to let the excruciating effects of my sudden brain-freeze show. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had rushed me, or that I had been deprived in any way of enjoying my state tray to the fullest.

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True to his Word

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.

Sometimes when a fuming, irate inmate is threatening to beat someone’s ass, he’s not just blowing off steam or spouting machismo. Sometimes, if given a sliver of opportunity, he will carry out each and every threat he utters.

Eight o’clock in the morning is too early for a lot of guys to make it to yard in prison. When one is locked behind a steel door with nowhere to go and nothing to do, time is relative, and Benjamin Franklin’s credo—“early to bed, early to rise”—becomes more or less moot. In fall’s bitter chill, and especially in winter, the warmth of one’s bunk beckons too tenderly to be ignored. Some inmates, however, will brave the metaphorical hell and/or high water to attend yard no matter the time of day or weather conditions. Dee was one of those dedicated few.

photo by Graeme Weatherston www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Graeme Weatherston
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Generally, an announcement was made as a reminder on each day there was early yard. This usually consisted of: “Get ready for yard.” Sometimes there was an additional: “If you’re going to yard, get up and get ready.” The standard procedure was to have C/Os stand at the far end of the deck opposite the front door and, when the time was right, announce that it was time for yard and electronically unlock all the cell doors. It was incumbent upon the inmate to push his door open during the twenty seconds or so that the lock was disengaged. Missing this opportunity usually meant missing yard.

On this day, the two officers walked up the wing, corralling inmates to the front and ensuring that all doors were closed and secured so no one could slip out and have full reign of the deck. All was going fine until Dee began banging on his door.

Hey man, open my door!” C/O Nieman had just pushed it shut, so the latch clicked closed to lock the occupant within. He hadn’t walked three feet past it when Dee began yelling, so he backed up to Dee’s door.

Why didn’t you catch your door?” Officer Nieman inquired.

I was just a little slow. I just missed it. I was taking a piss, man.”

Why weren’t you ready?”

I am ready.”

The bubble officer told you to get ready ten minutes ago.”

I am ready.”

Why’d you miss your door then?”

I had to piss!” A brief silence passed between them as they glared at each other through the perforated steel rectangle that served as a window into the cell. “C’mon, Nieman,” Dee said, sounding as close to civil as I’d ever heard him. “Open my door so I can go to yard. Everybody hasn’t even left the deck yet. Let me go to yard.”

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Nieman wasn’t known for his civility or reasonableness. In fact, he had a reputation as a prick. He lived up to it in the next instant when he answered while wearing the snide, self-satisfied smirk of someone who’s been given authority over another and abuses that authority at every available opportunity. It’s a common facial expression seen on C/Os in prison.

I don’t give a damn about your yard.” Nieman turned to continue on his course to the front of the wing, still sporting his signature shit-eating smile. But Dee had more to say on the subject.

You little bitch!” Dee’s voice boomed throughout the deck like a sudden and unexpected cannon report. He followed this by banging his heavy foot against his cell door, rattling it on its hinges, and making a racket loud enough to awaken anyone who’d been trying to catch a few extra moments of slumber. “You’d better open my muthafuckin’ door!” Dee’s words echoed again, and there was unmistakable menace in his deep baritone voice.

Quit kicking your door!” Nieman ordered upon returning to Dee’s cell. He tried to imbue his tone with the full authority of the badge he wore, but instead ended up coming across as almost petulant. He didn’t sound like the one in charge.

“You missed it. It’s over. Sit your ass down and stop hollering.”

I want to go to yard,” Dee responded.

No.”

Well, then I want to talk to a lieutenant, cuz this is some bullshit.”

I don’t give a fuck what you want,” said Nieman, still grinning. I believe it was that big grin that helped push Dee over the edge.

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What ensued was a verbal barrage from Dee wherein he likened Nieman to a small female dog, a single bit of feces, and intimated that Nieman engaged in sexual congress with his own mother. Interspersed amongst the insults were promises to inflict bodily harm upon the officer. These threats were filled with such vehemence and vitriol that what happened next was nearly beyond belief.

Following the incident, many speculated why Nieman did what he did. Most people figured that he was looking for a paid vacation, but I believe there are better ways to get a few days off that don’t include getting beaten to a bloody mess. Whatever his reasoning, Nieman weathered Dee’s irate cursing while wearing that same maddening grin, as if nothing but a warm spring breeze was wafting against his face. Then he opened Dee’s cell door.

Dee was known to most by a nickname of sorts: Big Dee. It wasn’t an ironic moniker, but an absolutely appropriate one. Dee had been locked up for over a decade, and all he did was work out. He didn’t read books to pass the time, or get a job, or go to school, or write letters. Dee pumped iron, hence his strict adherence to yard attendance. The results of his decade-long love affair with weightlifting were disgustingly impressive. He looked like a caricature of a monster or gorilla—everything was disproportionately huge. His muscles bulged everywhere, and his arms were bigger than the average man’s thigh. With eyes blazing rage, he appeared even more monstrous as he stepped from the cell and wasted no time in initiating his attack.

Dee punched Nieman twice in the face before grabbing him and throwing him to the ground like a rag doll. Nieman managed to push the panic button that sent out a call to all C/Os’ radios, but he couldn’t manage to get his hands up in any semblance of defense. Dee knelt over Nieman like the most dedicated penitent and commenced to worship at the altar of ultraviolence, hammering away at his helpless victim with enormous, vicious blows to the head and body.

Officers were on their way, but two porters arrived first. They each wrapped their arms around one of Dee’s gargantuan biceps in an effort to pull him off Nieman’s bleeding and motionless form. This slowed Dee down so that he could only hit Nieman a couple more times before four C/Os and a white shirt enveloped the attacker. After they all arrived, Dee didn’t resist much as they cuffed him up. They needed two pairs of interlocked handcuffs to accommodate his wide, mountainous shoulders. If Dee had resisted at all, I doubt they would have succeeded in subduing him.

Dee got a year across the board—one year added to his sentence, with that year to be spent in Seg. The two Samaritan inmates each had six months credited to their sentence for their exemplary actions. I didn’t see Nieman again for about six months, but when I did, he had mellowed only a little. He was still a prick, but perhaps not such an egregious one. This incident was the inciting act that was the cause of my first lockdown. It lasted for three weeks, and I believe the whole thing could have been avoided with just a little courtesy from either individual.

Uncommon Compassion

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“C’mon, quick; Tee needs you.”
I was mid-conversation with someone, but left him immediately without a word of explanation or apology. Tee was my cellie, my buddy. There was an urgency and seriousness in the messenger’s tone that begged no rebuttal or delay. Once I arrived at the cell that Tee and I shared with four other guys, I could immediately see that Tee was in agony.

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Proof
I’d known Tee for over a year to this point, and he had often made it known that he had a history of back pain that often precluded him from any type of strenuous exercise. There were times when I was less than sympathetic to Tee’s plight, and I even postulated that he was merely practicing his own brand of crying wolf as an excuse to be lazy. When I saw him poised in pain over his bunk, I knew I’d been wrong.

Stuck
Tee’s butt was hovering half a foot off of his bunk, as both of his arms were ramrod straight like stilts holding him aloft. His arms were shaking from exertion and exhaustion. His features were pinched together as he gritted his teeth against the pain.
“What can I do? Can you sit down?” I asked him.
“No,” he grunted.
“Do you want me to help you sit down?”
“No!” he managed to holler with some conviction and more than a little panic.
“Well, what can I do?”
“Get the C/O.” I turned to leave the cell and do just that, but Officer Osmond was already making his way down the hall in no kind of hurry at all. A crowd had begun to gather.
“He needs help!” I called to C/O Osmond.
“I know,” he replied. Apparently, someone had run and told him about the burgeoning medical emergency. He didn’t pick up his pace. Once he did arrive at the cell, he shooed the gawkers out of his way. “What’s wrong?” he asked as Tee continued his best impression of a statue.
“I threw my back out,” Tee replied, his voice straining to maintain normalcy.
“Oh,” Osmond said, sounding befuddled. “What’s that mean?”
“I threw my back out,” Tee repeated the phrase as if it were self-explanatory. “I can’t move,” he added as further explanation, but was only met with more of the officer’s vacuous gaze. “I’m stuck!” Tee finally belted out followed by a scream of frustration and pain as the exertion from the initial yelling sent hurt hurtling along his already agonized nerve endings.

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photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Callous
C/O Osmond called in a medical emergency over the radio, and medical staff were dispatched to the cell house immediately. Then he stood to the side, disinterested, and waited for assistance to arrive as if the entire situation were one big nuisance. Tee managed to slowly but surely lower himself until he was perched stiffly on the edge of his bunk, looking completely unnatural and uncomfortable. I stood there to support Tee, but was merely silent, useless, and helpless.

Guys outside the door laughed and made fun of Tee for basically hurting himself by standing up out of the bed. Our cellies all joined in the ridicule. C/O Osmond even added callous comments to the conversation and had a good chuckle about it all. I could tell that every breath Tee took caused him added discomfort. I wanted to yell at all of them to shut the hell up. When I heard the rattle of wheels in the hallway and saw C/O Arthur pulling a stretcher with two nurses and two other C/Os in tow, I figured things were only going to get worse for Tee.

Compassion
C/O Arthur had a reputation for being a colossal prick. It was a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. I stepped out of the way, expecting Arthur to further debase and belittle Tee as that seemed to be the popular pastime for the moment.

Instead, he was extraordinarily gently and compassionate. He asked Tee to describe the pain and how exactly it had manifested. Arthur crouched down onto his knees so Tee wouldn’t have to move his head in order to look at C/O Arthur as he spoke. Arthur seemed to hang on every word. The two nurses stood in the hallway and looked indifferent. The two C/Os appeared to be bored.

photo by Ambro www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Ambro
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Once Arthur had assessed the situation, he instructed the two C/Os to bring in the flatboard and put it on the floor. Then he provided them with a step-by-step tutorial on how they would assist him in moving Tee to the flatboard. It was clear from Arthur’s delivery and demeanor that he wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection from his helpers. With extreme care, the three C/Os gingerly lifted Tee bodily from the bunk and rotated his body to achieve the necessary repositioning. After Tee was seated awkwardly on the flatboard, C/O Arthur spoke in a comforting voice, as he assured Tee that it was necessary to move him again. With an uncanny tenderness, Arthur slowly straightened Tee’s legs and strapped them in place. Tee was lying on his back and Arthur manipulated Tee’s arms to cross them over his chest before securing them there. Once Tee was ready to be moved, Arthur and the other C/Os, including Osmond, cautiously carried him to the stretcher then fastened him to it before rolling it out of the building.

Afterward
All the talk on the deck was about Tee. Some were poking fun at him, others claimed he had just been faking it—for what purpose, I have no idea. There were some individuals who were aggressively cruel in their maligning of Tee, concluding that he was a stupid and worthless portion of excrement. It shocked and baffled me that a known crank C/O showed more human kindness to Tee than his own fellow inmates did.
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The Shakedown Artist

C/O Sellefft was a particularly thorough and brutal shakedown artist who derived a giddy thrill out of depriving inmates of their belongings. He has been heard to comment that he doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel like he has done his job, unless he writes at least one ticket per night. To say that Sellefft was “by the book” would be an insult to the book. Not only did he go way above and beyond what his actual duties called for, but he also gloried in the suffering that he caused. In layman’s terms, he was an unrepentant asshole. What’s worse is that his position of authority and the administration protected him from retribution. Like the quintessential coward, C/O Sellefft lashed out and then hid behind his badge.

yes, that's a prison tv.
yes, that’s a prison tv.

Petty
The first time he was in the building, he spent two hours shaking down a cell. For a daily routine shakedown, ten to thirty minutes is a good general rule of thumb. That amount of time provides the officer plenty of opportunity to have an adequately thorough look through everything and be satisfied that there’s nothing extremely inappropriate or illegal secreted within the cell. The extreme degree to which Sellefft searched was generally reserved only for annual shakedowns instituted prison-wide and conducted by the tac team members. Sellefft, however, went even beyond that by taking inmates’ property items that he had no right or reason to confiscate. In taking these things, Sellefft provoked a confrontation with an inmate in an effort to goad the inmate into doing or saying something out of bounds and worthy of a ticket. The blatant and overt antagonism from Sellefft towards his wards came to a head when he walked out of a cell with a television cradled in his arms.

Confrontation
Sellefft wore a smug smile as he walked to the bubble with the 13-inch TV set, but he didn’t quite make it there before being confronted by Deeno, the rightful owner of the television. “Whoa, Whoa! What’s up? What are you doing? Why are you taking my TV?” Deeno sounded righteously enraged, but was keeping it under control.

“Stop right there!” Sellefft yelled, holding one arm out towards Deeno in a warding off gesture that was a somewhat comical approximation of the Heisman trophy pose with the bulky TV standing in for the football. Sellefft’s tone sounded much more urgent than was necessary, as if Deeno were rushing to tackle him and was almost upon him rather than ten feet away. Deeno slowed down, but continued taking several faltering steps as he spoke.

photo by Stuart Miles www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net
photo by Stuart Miles
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“Why are you taking my TV?” he queried once more.
“It’s cracked,” Sellefft replied with confident superiority.
“What?” Deeno asked indignantly. Sellefft ignored him and continued his retreat to the bubble where he secured the appliance before turning to find Deeno standing right there at the door to the bubble. “What do you mean it’s cracked?” he asked.
Sellefft looked suitably flustered, but managed to maintain his air of arrogant authority. “It’s got a crack on the back of it.”
Deeno appeared to be genuinely confused before it finally dawned on him what Sellefft was referring to. “That?”
“Yeah, that.”
“It’s been like that for, like, four years or something.”
The prickish look plastered across Sellefft’s face wavered slightly, and Deeno tried to seize on this as a weakness. “Nobody else has had a problem with it before, it’s just old.” Sellefft recognized what Deeno was trying to do, and the hard ass glare came back to his face.
“No,” he replied. “It’s altered.”
“Altered!?” Deeno exclaimed, his voice raising to a screechy decibel. “It’s old.”
“No, it’s altered.”
“I’ve had that TV for thirteen years!” Deeno was outright screaming by this point which only served to put a smile on Sellefft’s face and made him cross his arms over his puffed-out chest like he was some kind of tough guy who was not to be trifled with.
“I don’t care,” Sellefft said, sounding like it provided him with an enormous amount of satisfaction to give the pronouncement. Angry and frustrated, Deeno looked desperate, like he wanted to lash out at his oppressor.
“I want to see a lieutenant,” he said, his voice carrying a tremor as he tried to keep it under control.
“I don’t give a shit.” Sellefft positively sneered this last, and I thought for sure it would be the final straw for Deeno.

New Tactic
“Alright then,” Deeno responded, his tone much more modulated than it had just been. “I need a crisis team.”

By invoking the crisis team, Deeno was effectively claiming to be in a state of mental or emotional crisis and thinking of hurting himself. This is an extremely serious claim to be made by an inmate, and Sellefft wasn’t qualified to judge the validity or veracity of Deeno’s assertion. If Sellefft had followed proper protocol, he would’ve called the lieutenant followed by the shift commander and informed them that an inmate was in need of a crisis team and then waited in the lieutenant’s office with Deeno. He didn’t do any of that.
“Prove it,” Sellefft said. Deeno appeared to be about as shocked as he would’ve been if Sellefft would’ve just hauled off and smacked him right across the face.
“What?” he managed to inquire. It came out more as a gasp of air rather than a fully formed word.
“Go hang yourself,” Sellefft replied.
“What did you just say to me?” Deeno asked, leaning his considerable frame towards Sellefft, the implied threat obvious in his body language. Sellefft leaned in as well, meeting the challenge head on.
“Go. Hang. Yourself.” Sellefft enunciated each word with exaggerated emphasis, letting them hover in the air between them for a moment before continuing. “Now, back up.”
He slammed the door to the bubble so quickly that it would’ve cracked Deeno in the face if he hadn’t retreated swiftly enough. Deeno stalked off back to his cell, fuming.

White-shirt-and-blue-shirt-officersRepercussions
It wasn’t long before Deeno came rushing back to the bubble where he waited for the lieutenant to make his scheduled rounds through the building. Deeno stood and glared at Sellefft while the offensive and unprofessional C/O blithely smirked his amusement.

As soon as Lieutenant Berg entered the building, Deeno filled his ears with all his woes, pointing an accusatory finger towards Sellefft throughout his tirade, and the loo listened attentively. Deeno reported his interactions with Sellefft as honestly as possible, capturing both his own frustrated anger and outrage as well as Sellefft’s arrogant stubbornness.

Being completely truthful turned out to be Deeno’s downfall, however, because he admitted to claiming that he needed a crisis team. Lieutenant Berg was professional and did his job by taking Deeno’s claims to be in crisis seriously. He was as kind as possible about it, and even let Deeno pack his own belongings, but in the end, Deeno was taken to the naked room to spend some time under observation on suicide watch until he could speak to the psych doctor and convince him that he wasn’t suicidal. C/O Sellefft had a good laugh about it once Deeno was gone.

Bad Luck
Deeno was back in GP in a different building in a week, but it took a month of him filing grievances and talking to every lieutenant, major, and warden he could come across to try to get his television back. Ultimately, he had to enlist his people to call from the world and take up the cause for him before his property was returned.

Sellefft’s reign of terror went on for another month for a total of seventy-eight days during which time every single person in the house was perpetually on edge. When he was replaced by a more reasonable officer, it was cause for celebration by all. Well, all but Deeno. Sellefft had been reassigned to the building where Deeno had been relocated to. Just bad luck I suppose. C/Os like Sellefft aren’t necessarily common, but whenever one does show up, he is a serious nuisance to every convict he encounters.

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Matinee of Madness

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It was a lazy Monday afternoon, the hectic frenzy of the first day of the workweek having ebbed to a lethargic pace. Fall was in full swing with a nip in the air bred from northern breezes. As is the popular course of action in these instances, meteorologists all across the dial saw fit to blame Canada.

A line of thirty guys walking two by two trudged quietly to chapel with C/O Snyder leading us like our own personal pied piper. There was no second escort officer bringing up the rear of our movement line as is proper protocol. A clear demonstration of why two C/Os are required was about to begin.

ID-10074945Just Talking
There were two pairs of men behind me, and the last couple in line were talking together in muted tones, so subdued, in fact, that I couldn’t distinguish one word from the next. Oftentimes, guys from different housing units use chapel as a meeting place to keep in touch with their buddies, trade merch, exchange sweet nothings. I attributed their confidential volume to them being friends (possibly with benefits) who sought some semblance of privacy for their conversation. Generally, guys have no sense of decorum, or any type of courtesy whatsoever, and a conversation between two people standing two feet away from each other can usually be heard by guys standing thirty feet away.

Whatever their relationship to one another was, or the topic of their talk, it seemed to change pretty quickly when the taller inmate finally said something I could understand. It was a vehement curse and insult. Then he smacked the shorter guy across the face with an open palm and pushed him into the grass where he stumbled and fell onto his back. The line of men continued to move, largely oblivious to the scuffle.

Falling Out
The initial aggressor collapsed onto his victim with fists flying in a valiant effort at a violent assault, but appeared to connect with nothing more than earth. After clumsily punching the ground half a dozen times, he changed tactics and tried a wrestling move on him. At least I believe that’s what it was meant to be—some type of ill-conceived chokehold that I imagine he saw employed at some time or another when Hulk Hogan was best known for his Wrestlemania showmanship rather than his racist rant.

It didn’t seem to be working, but he kept trying, and we kept walking. The fighters weren’t saying much of anything and most of the rest of the guys walking to church showed no signs that they even knew what was going on. The few of us near the back of the line who were aware of it all bore silent witness to the struggle, with necks kinked backwards and sideways as our feet continued their forward progress.

 

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Momentarily Invisible
Somehow the two men rolling around on the ground were doing so unseen by any authority figures. C/O Snyder at the front of our line had a somewhat legitimate excuse because he had reached a junction in the sidewalk which meant that the front portion of the line was essentially forming the short stem of a capital “L,” and the rest of the line blocked C/O Snyder’s view of the fighters. However, this happened in full view of at least four gun towers. Despite this degree of exposure, there was no announcement or warning shot. They just continued on.

The taller one—who had been the main aggressor—abandoned his cockeyed and futile attempt to choke his victim out and seemed to suddenly remember how to fight. He slammed the shorter guy’s head against the ground. The shorter guy lay on his back, dazed, and the taller guy swung his leg over to straddle him, basically sitting on his victim’s chest and pinning him in place. Having grown up with older brothers who were adept in the fine art of torturing younger siblings, I knew full well how helpless the guy on the bottom was.

The taller guy began to swing his fists once again, but this time there was nothing pendulous or cumbersome about it. His target—his victim’s face—was right in front of him and he jabbed at the exposed visage like a slightly twisted and curious kid poking a dead dog with a stick. The man on the ground could do nothing but absorb the impact of each blow against his forehead and cheeks. Finally someone noticed.

Visible
“Hey. Hey! Stop that. Don’t do that.” Our movement line had progressed far enough to provide C/O Snyder a clear line of sight to the beating, and this was his response. He sounded like an overtired parent scolding a troublesome, petulant child. Snyder wasn’t a bad guy, but he was clearly out of his element. He was tall and lanky and he moved like he was just out for a leisurely stroll rather than rushing to break up a fight. Snyder wore the perpetually vacuous gaze one might associate with Steinbeck’s Lennie character from Of Mice and Men. (Tell me about the rabbits, George!)

As he walked, Snyder called for help over his radio then stood near the two men and continued to provide mild protests and admonishments to cease their battle. “C’mon guys. Cut it out.” He projected zero confidence or authority, and made no viable effort to separate the two inmates or to physically intervene in any way.

All the men in the movement line had stopped by this point and were turned back around in the direction from where we’d come, openly gawking at the bizarre scene. One inmate beating another senseless while a C/O stood by and griped about it. I took a moment to look around in every direction and there wasn’t a single other person in sight. Not one C/O, inmate, counselor, or any other staff member milling about. C/O Snyder was the sole voice of authority, but he was the epitome of ineffectual. Being practically all alone—unobserved—in the middle of the prison compound provided a strange, surreal sense of vertigo, but we weren’t alone long.

 

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Flooded
In an instant, the area was flooded by C/Os and white shirts. The administrative building was only twenty yards from where the beatdown was happening—and that’s precisely what it had devolved to. The unfortunate inmate who was pinned to the ground had ceased to put up any kind of defense or show that he was even conscious at all. From the administrative building, a dozen security staff members poured into the area with an even larger number coming from the chow hall opposite and rushing across the field to the scene of the crime.

Lieutenant Waters was the first to arrive, though first only by a fraction of a second. He hit the taller inmate—who was doing all the assaulting—at full speed, collapsing him to the ground like a football special teams player making a spectacular open field tackle. Then it wasn’t football that Lieutenant Waters was playing at, it was calf-roping, as he had the assailant prostrate on his face, cuffed, and subdued in the time it took me to blink.

The matinee of madness was over and the plethora of staff that had responded to it was corralling us toward the chapel with authoritative voices and threats to take us to Seg if we didn’t start moving. We all walked toward our Bible Study and left the bloody scene behind. There was nothing more we could do.

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