Life behind prison walls and life on the outside have some remarkable similarities. In many ways prison is a microcosm of society with a lot of the same moving parts. I have endeavored to highlight much of this sameness, to demystify to some degree the incarceration experience.
In a lot of other ways the two experiences have nothing at all in common. I felt like my life was on hold on the inside. I educated myself, learned and strove to be productive. And to a large degree I was successful. This didn’t change the fact that the world moved on without me, leaving me behind no matter how hard I tried to keep up. It was an existence more than actually living. I know that may sound like a distinction without a difference, but I suppose if you’ve never spent any length of time locked away then you might not have any idea what I’m talking about.
There is a kind of emotional death that takes place out of necessity. Pondering the reality of prison and the years lost would be too much to handle, so mental compartmentalization occurs. Coming out of prison has included a resurrection of sorts. At the very least it has necessitated me learning how to live again in a thousand little ways that I never could have anticipated.
I’m still learning.
A woman in her fifties at my place of employment was making conversation to punctuate the dullness of the job. I wasn’t much paying attention, was instead lost in my own thoughts. Then she made a statement that jarred me from my reverie.
“I’ve never seen a fight in real life. Maybe a little pushing or shoving, but never ever seen a fight in person.”
It was a jolt to me because I had seen fights. During my lengthy period of incarceration I had witnessed too many physical assaults to accurately number. I didn’t have to wonder whose life was more the aberration, but this did lead me to some serious self-reflection as I am on the cusp of transition.
Some big life changes are coming, as if I haven’t had an enormous amount of change already in the past months beginning with my release from prison. I’m about to get married, become part of a family. A whole new start for me with challenges and potential pitfalls that I can’t even yet imagine. With new chapters come new priorities.
This will be my final post for a while.
This may be a disappointment to some of my loyal readers. To those who know me, I’m sure you understand. I need to go live my life, to put my past behind me and learn how to live again. This isn’t me turning my back on those friends I left inside or trying to forget their struggle. After sixteen years one month and three days spent behind prison walls I can never forget. I do have plans to expand and revamp this platform, to make it available for other voices than my own. But right now I need some distance. I need to live without the looming deadline of having to psychologically revisit the hell that was my life for so long.
Isaac was a twitchy, annoying, scheming pain in the ass. This didn’t mean that he deserved to get a beat-down. Actually prison protocol dictated that his actions warranted that very thing. But that didn’t mean that I’d stand by and let it happen.
“I need your help, man. Please. I need you.”
Isaac approached me with this preamble to a request without any further fanfare or explanation. His reputation as well as my own personnel history with him made me wary.
Isaac was no taller than five feet four inches, and that’s a generous estimation. He was a little guy, an easy target, and he was Jewish, which made him an instant outsider. Most people simply referred to him as “The Jew”, whether they knew his name or not. Sometimes, though not always, this was twisted into a derogatory slur. In the kind of casual bigotry that is commonplace in prison.
The pressing issue that had caused Isaac to rush up to me while I waited for the next game on the handball court was a predictable one. He had employed some less than scrupulous business practices—promising payment of outstanding debt to two individuals, but only having resources to pay one. His assumption was that he’d be able to lie or weasel his way out of paying his debt in a timely manner. Unfortunately he chose the wrong individual to stiff, so instead, Isaac faced the prospect of physical assault being perpetrated against him. No sooner had Isaac given me the bare bones of his dilemma when the instrument of his impending beating arrived.
Rockton was a dark-skinned black man with a shaved head and constant scowl on his face which gave the impression that he was perpetually mean or angry. I hadn’t enough interaction with him to know whether or not that was an accurate impression. The fact that he walked right up to where Isaac and I were talking, grabbed Isaac easily by his puny bicep, and began pulling him off toward the back of the yard didn’t bode well. The area where they were headed was more isolated and without great sightlines for the guard in the tower to see what was going on. Rockton’s intention was obvious to all. Isaac called my name, wrenching his head around to plead for my assistance. His eyes were bugged out and huge behind the thick lenses—he looked terrified.
“Whoa, whoa. Hold up. Hang on a second.” I had to quick-step in order to overtake them. “Wait up. Wait a minute, man.” I placed myself in front of Rockton and didn’t let him maneuver around. Rockton glared hate at me. I don’t know what I was thinking.
“Whatcha want?” His expression got even meaner.
“I was talking to him,” I replied, indicating Isaac with a nod.
“Let me talk to him.”
“Naw, I’ma beat his ass.” He tried to push past me, but I stood my ground. He let go of Isaac and stepped toward me chest to chest. He was mere millimeters taller than me, but substantially broader across the shoulders and chest. Intimidatingly wider. “Whatcha wanna do?” His threat was implicit. I still don’t know what I was thinking. Truth be told I was mostly reacting. The notion of letting Isaac get beat up didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t an option.
“I just wanna talk. Let me holler at you for a second.” I waited for an answer, literally holding my breath. Rockton didn’t so much back up as he did unflex his muscles which had been coiled and ready to strike. I sensed more than saw the crowd gathering to gawk. I sidled up to Rockton, turning my back to the looky-loos and attempting to transition from confrontational to conspiratorial. I leaned in, lowered my voice, and was thrilled when Rockton mimicked me.
“Look, I know the dude is a little snake,” I said, “but you had to know that before you did any business with him.”
“Naw, man. I didn’t. That’s it. Nobody told me that’s how the dude got down.”
“Alright, well, look, I got too much going on with the dude. You beat his ass and I’m screwed.” I waited for some objection. When he continued silently glaring I pressed forward. “How much does he owe you?”
Rockton appeared wary but eventually spat an answer. “Twenty.”
“Whatcha mean? Twenty bones, man! Twenty bucks!”
I cursed inside my skull and threw a grimace of annoyance and exasperation over a shoulder at Isaac. His buggy eyes bulged bigger, pleading. I bit my tongue against cusses and frustration, and turned my attention back to Rockton.
“Alright. I got it. I’ll take it. I got his debt. I’ll pay it, then you don’t have to mess with him anymore. Sound good?” Rockton stepped back as if I’d pushed him and he couldn’t believe what I said. “Sound good?” I asked again.
“Yeah, yeah. That’s cool.” He eyed me suspiciously. “You serious?”
“Yeah, yeah I gotcha. Just make a list. We go to commissary next week, I’ll take care of you, whatever you want. Alright? Just leave dude alone.”
“Bet,” he replied, as an acknowledgement of agreement, and then we shook hands to seal the deal. I told him my name and what cell so he could send me his shopping list, and our transaction was over.
Isaac was vociferously grateful. He couldn’t stop talking and making a big deal of what I had done for him. As payment he took it upon himself to give me the bagel and single serve packet of peanut butter from his kosher meals once or twice a day for a month. This began as a rare delicacy, but eventually it got so I couldn’t stand the sight of the bagel. Rockton received all he asked for and was never any kind of problem. I had problem with loosing twenty dollars because I’m not independently wealthy, but kindness can’t occur without sacrifice. My act of kindness had an unintended consequence of making Isaac follow me around like a lost puppy dog, constantly there and always annoying.
When faced with the prospect of watching Rockton trounce the smaller, weaker Isaac I just couldn’t look the other way. Funny thing is I never too much liked Isaac prior to my intervening, and I liked him even less afterwards.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
My buddy Brady had both done time in The Birdcage, so when the topic came up, we began swapping stories in a strange and twisted competition to see who had witnessed the most disturbing thing during his tenure in the infamously violent maximum security cell house. Eventually I had to concede victory to him. When Brady first recounted his story to me, his eyes took on a glassy, far-off look and his skin paled noticeably, as if he was reliving what he’d seen. Brady’s tale was especially frightening to him because it happened the first week he was in prison. It set the tone for his bit, as it was the first of many horrific experiences that let him know that prison could be a terrifying place.
He had been lying on his bunk, staring at the wall and bored out of his mind, and was ready to drift into a doze for the third time that morning. Days seem interminable in The Birdcage, so when it happened, it was a welcome change—something to focus on and talk about with his cellie. There was a commotion on the deck that was louder than the usual constant drone of talking and yelling. The noise quickly rippled and amplified throughout the spacious enclosure, and both Brady and his cellie looked out onto the gallery to see what it was all about. The show was only just starting.
A lieutenant and several C/Os had rushed to a cell, and the loo was already cuffing up one inmate through the chuckhole. Once the door was opened and the offender walked out, Brady saw that the guy was huge—a hulking gorilla standing in only his boxers, his heaving chest and rippled muscles accentuating his back and arms. If the guy hadn’t been allowing the authority figures to lead him away, it was unlikely they could have contained or controlled him on their own. His proportions were monstrous. As they led him off, he had something to announce to his cellie, who was still sequestered in the cell, and to the entire Birdcage. It sounded like bragging, taunting, and threatening all in one.
“Yeah, that’s right, I’ma get me a new cellie! After running up in that one, I wore his ass out!”
Being new to prison, Brady was not entirely familiar with the slang, but was pretty sure he understood what this meant. Once the first inmate was gone, two C/Os were left behind to contend with the remaining inmate. One C/O looked sick, like he was on the verge of vomiting, and the other’s face was a picture of fear and disgust.
The second inmate finally appeared in the cell doorway. He was a pudgy white kid, and his baby face was obviously streaked with tears and snot. He moved very gingerly—each breath seemed to hurt, let alone each step. His shirt was torn at the neck and hung down, exposing one nipple, which appeared far more embarrassing than it had to. The guy was trying feebly to hold his ripped clothing up to cover his nudity. The nauseous C/O instructed him to let it go, and the shirt flapped open to expose him again. The C/O managed to look guilty himself as he handcuffed the pudgy guy, but he manacled the cuffs in front of him rather than the customary, regulation method of cuffing an inmate’s hands behind his back. The same C/O placed a helping hand on the inmate’s shoulder and assisted him as he painfully shuffled forward in only his boxers and damaged t-shirt. The yelling from inmates filled the expanse of The Birdcage with a cacophony of callous insanity, and the victim was slowly escorted out.
The other C/O had disappeared inside the cell, but remained there only briefly before emerging with a dark gray woolen blanket. He draped it over the inmate’s shoulders before grasping the inmate’s other shoulder and helping him along. Before the blanket was put into place, Brady saw a dark and substantial splotch of blood on the back of the inmate’s boxers, and everything that he’d seen and heard up to that point suddenly crystallized into a disgustingly real and frightening portrait of prison life. The strong often take from the weak, and it’s not only commissary items that are being taken.
Despite the dreary, intense boredom that The Birdcage breeds, Brady said that he and his cellie returned to their positions of repose on their respective bunks. They never once discussed the incident.
When Gordie told me he was “gonna beat Kent’s ass,” I took it to be little more than bravado and blowing off steam. I empathized—understood completely his ire and outrage—so I let him vent. Never did I think that the meek and mild kid who had been my cellie over a year before would resort to the type of epic violence he was describing. A year in prison can change a man immensely.
After Gordie went to Seg for horseplay and I lost him as my cellie, I kept track of him as best I could. He fell in with an older crowd, guys who had been in prison longer than Gordie had been on the planet, and they schooled him in the nuances of doing time and practicing what they felt was appropriate racial enmity towards those with skin color of a decidedly darker shade. Since I only saw Gordie in passing every once in a great while and could only occasionally send a message through a third party, I no longer had much sway or influence over him. When he was moved back to my cellhouse and wing, I was happy to see him, but taken somewhat aback by his revamped persona.
His once open and easy-to-smile face held a perpetual scowl, and a cloud that hung over him kept most people at bay. He seemed interminably angry. I’d known him to be upset, to throw an occasional tantrum or have a bitch fit to complain about whatever was bothering him. This new element of his personality was entirely removed from that type of fleeting emotion; this was closer to a deeply felt and abiding rage.
Gordie had once confided in me that, due to his largely rural and sheltered upbringing, he had never actually seen a black person in real life, only on TV. As he was processed through the intake joint, he had been surrounded by hundreds of men of color, mostly from the inner city, spouting slang and profanity in their own patois. This was quite a culture shock for young Gordie. The vehement and vitriolic racist rhetoric Gordie had picked up in the year since he’d been my cellie was a shock for me. Hate speech peppered with racial slurs twisted his lips in a sneer of scorn; I had trouble believing that Gordie’s words reflected his true feelings. The racism was a perfect conduit for his newly cultivated rage, but as I saw it, the root of Gordie’s problem was his temper.
When Kent got caught getting tattooed in his cell, he was sent to Seg. He blamed Gordie for it, claiming that Gordie snitched on him. The “logic” employed in Kent’s argument for Gordie’s guilt was that Gordie, being a porter, had a freedom of movement on the deck that others didn’t, so Gordie was one of the only people who knew what was going on in Kent’s cell. While the notion of Gordie snitching is certainly a possibility, Kent was also a complete jackstick who went around showing off his fresh tats to EVERYONE. It’s more likely that someone else dimed on Kent and his cellie, but Kent believed it was Gordie. It wasn’t long before word got around that Kent was shooting his mouth off in Seg, telling everyone that Gordie was a snitching little bitch and that when he got out of Seg he was going to beat the breaks off Gordie. When Gordie heard about all the character defamation that Kent was aiming in his direction, he was livid.
Gordie went absolutely berserk; he ranted and raved about how badly he would assault and injure Kent if he ever got his hands on him. I fully understood his indignation and desire to seek retribution upon the person who was so grievously lying about him. Furthermore, prison “logic” dictated that if Gordie were to just let it slide and allow Kent to get away with his supposedly false claims, it would mean that Kent had more than likely been telling the truth. During his lengthy rant, Gordie drew upon his recently adopted ideals of white racial superiority and purity, impugning Kent’s character and worth because—even though he was a white guy—his mannerisms, behavior, speech patterns, and use of slang, as well as his musical preferences, all closely resembled those of the average black inmate. Gordie proclaimed that it would be his duty and honor to hurt Kent, who he deemed to be a disgrace to his race. The entire discourse was so far removed from the Gordie that I had first met, the Gordie I thought I knew seemed to be long gone.
When Kent got out of Seg, he came right back to the same cell house. (Although, to be accurate, he never quite made it to the house.) Since he had gone to Seg for tattooing, there was no official reason on record for Gordie and Kent to be kept separated. Through a window at the back of the deck, Gordie spied Kent coming. Gordie had been loitering on the deck, having completed his few assigned tasks as a porter, and was waiting for the bubble officer to announce that the chow line was on the walk. This announcement was expected at any moment. Gordie hurried to the front of the deck, to the door that opened to an entryway, which in turn led to the walk right outside the building. When Gordie neared the door, the announcement echoed through the gallery as if it had been timed to the nanosecond. “Chow line walking!” Just like the parting of the Red Sea for the children of Israel, Gordie’s path was made clear as both doors were electronically buzzed open, and he was allowed passage without an instant of scrutiny. After all, to all appearances he was just a hungry inmate heading to lunch.
Gordie was a slim, thin-limbed guy who stood about five-foot-nine and probably weighed between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Not exactly intimidating. Kent, on the other hand, had a physique that had clearly been shaped by weights and an advantage over Gordie of a couple inches and thirty pounds. It looked like it would be a lopsided bout, and not in Gordie’s favor.
Gordie walked straight up to Kent and punched him square in the nose with more force than I would’ve thought him capable. They were outside, in a corridor of sorts that was twenty feet long and five feet wide and bordered by fences on either side. This configuration was designed to corral inmates, but as Kent slammed into the fence, it also left him with no avenue of escape. Gordie didn’t say a single word as he hit him twice more in the face. Kent’s knees buckled and he slumped forward—flopping to the ground like he’d become unarticulated and was little more than a slack sack of flesh and bone.
Gordie appeared to have come unhinged as he descended upon Kent without pause, arms like pistons and fists like ball-peen hammers finding all of Kent’s soft spots. It was such a sudden and overwhelming beatdown as to be practically incomprehensible—the senses rejected it as impossible. Kent didn’t put up a fight. He didn’t even raise his hands as a defense. While Kent lay there, Gordie kept hitting him. He was a man possessed—nothing like the Gordie I’d once known.
Officers finally converged to pull Gordie off of his victim, and he was escorted to Seg immediately. Kent needed a stretcher to be escorted anywhere. Gordie was shipped out to another joint without delay, and I have no idea where he ended up. I also don’t know what kind of disciplinary actions were taken against him for his violent assault. What I do know is that I wish I didn’t retain the image of Gordie so thoroughly dismantling a man. I prefer to remember him as he was when we first met and were cellies for six months. I’m not sure that particular version of Gordie exists anymore, and I fear that it probably never will again.
// There was a bestial savagery to the beating, unsettling and primal, yet I couldn’t look away. My stomach twisted, turned, and churned as his fist smashed the man’s head and blood began to flow. Still, I remained transfixed.
My cellie Torrez and I had been together for nearly six months and had easily managed to fall into a comfortable routine of ignoring each other. We got along fine and would talk from time to time, but we didn’t feel the need to yack at each other all hours of the day. Having a cellie who appreciates the sounds of silence, especially first thing in the morning, is rare and something of a blessing.
Our shared morning ritual had evolved naturally, wordlessly, without any need for lengthy discussion or course correction. When the chuck hole was slammed open, we would both wake up, he would climb down from the top bunk and sit on the stool placed at the end of the bed to receive the breakfast trays, while all I had to do was achieve a seated position. Torrez would hand me my tray and allotted juice and milk. Then we would eat in silence, return the empty trays to the chuck hole, and he would climb back uptop for a few more hours of sleep while I silently went about my own personal morning ritual. It was a perfectly designed arrangement, mostly because it happened without the need for design or arrangement.
One morning when I awoke with the slam of the chuck hole and didn’t hear the usual sounds of Torrez moving above me, I sat up to check on him. He was still out like a light. I thought about waking him, but decided to give him a few extra minutes of rest as the breakfast porters took their sweet time delivering the trays. After relieving my swollen bladder, I took my cellie’s accustomed spot on the plastic stool and hunched over so my face was level with the chuck hole, and I could easily track my food’s progress. The porter had just given trays to cell number two. I was in cell eighteen; I had a while to wait.
From my perch, I could look into cell five, right across from me. When I did, I saw Sol—the man who occupied the bottom bunk of that cell. I couldn’t help but shake my head. Sol had only been in that cell for a couple weeks, but had already gone through six cellies because he’d treated each one of them until they decided to walk themselves. Since he had the physique and mentality of a deranged mountain gorilla, I couldn’t blame them for refusing housing. I was grateful that I hadn’t been placed in the cell with him. Sol was constantly loud, aggressive, and confrontational. With arms as big as the average man’s thighs, shoulders like boulders, and huge, scarred hands, he seemed to be built for brutality. Add to that the constant meanmug that seemed to be his default setting, and he was all kinds of intimidating. I shook my head again and wondered to myself why people felt the need to behave like that.
The porters passed cell five, and I stopped being a voyeur for a moment. I rubbed my hands across my face, trying to wake up a little more, before staring blankly at the floor as I awaited my breakfast. My attention was caught by words that were unintelligible, but harsh and clearly angry. I looked across at cell five in time to see Sol looking up at his cellie, making violent gestures at the tray in his hand and his cellie’s legs that were hanging over the end of the bed. I distinctly heard Sol say, “So you just gonna hang your feet over my food?” Once again I shook my head in derision, wondering this time why people couldn’t just learn to get along. Some simply appeared to be predisposed to violence.
As I watched—and quick as a blink—Sol dropped his Lunchables tray, grabbed the legs that appeared to be so grievously offending him, and pulled his cellie bodily from the top bunk before flinging him easily to the floor in front of the door. His head was just at the level of the chuck hole. I saw Sol’s huge fist smash into his cellie’s nose and the immediate splash of blood to color the morning. The force sent his cellie’s head out of my sightline, but I could see Sol’s heavy right hand hammering down.
I heard the impact of fist on face, and then the rattle of the steel door as the victim’s head rebounded off of it. His hands rose feebly in defense; I saw them flail uselessly, as if they’d become broken at the wrists. Sol brushed them aside easily with his left hand as his right continued to pound like a piston on his cellie’s unprotected head and face. Meanwhile, a constant stream of obscenities flowed from his throat like a guttural incantation. After a couple dozen vicious impacts, he finally stopped, heaving in a few huge breaths before screaming, “Stay down, bitch!”
He seemed calm as he turned and sat on the bunk. I could see blood seeping out from under the cell door, then I saw the shadows of movements as Sol’s injured cellie attempted to stand. “I didn’t say you could get up!” This came from the gorilla-sized Sol, and once again he was on the attack—slamming fist into face with sick, wet sounds of impact, the force of each bouncing his cellie’s head into the door like some kind of perverse pinball. Again and again and again. It was merciless, and he didn’t seem to tire of it. Eventually, after his victim stopped moving, Sol sat on his bunk. From my vantage point, Sol’s eyes seemed vacant, void of feeling, inhuman.
A C/O finally arrived to break up the one-sided pummeling after the damage was done. He ordered Sol to stay on the bunk and called on his radio for help. Though he was blocking my view, I heard the telltale sounds of a punch and a head ricocheting off the door. Even over the yelled orders of the C/O, I could hear these unmistakable sounds of violence. After Sol finally obeyed and sat on the bunk again, the C/O violated regulations twice—first by opening the cell door before securing the inmates within, and then by doing so without other officers there for support. I believe he did so because he didn’t want a murder on his hands.
The C/O pulled Sol’s cellie out hurriedly by one arm and slammed the door just as two other officers were jogging up. They helped handle the unmoving body, half-carrying and half-dragging it away. I saw a lump over the cellie’s left eye that had already swelled to the size of a baseball; his face was a bloody mask. Then he was gone. I sat there, feeling terrified and sick to my stomach over the display of undistilled violence. I’d lost all appetite for breakfast.
A couple of hours later, seven C/Os and two lieutenants came to walk Sol to Seg. A few hours after that, they brought in lights and cameras and treated the cell like the crime scene it was. I saw where blood had pooled by the door and the irregular spray patterns that decorated the wall and the inside of the door like one of Jackson Pollock’s early works. The IA officers collected their snapshots, packed up both inmates’ property, and left the cell bare, except for the bloodstains. Then they sealed it with a sticker that barred all entry into the cell. It was a full week before porters were sent in with flimsy paper painter’s masks and a bucket of bleach water to scrub away the blood and disinfect the contaminated cell. I never did find out whether or not the inmate died. If he did, I wouldn’t be surprised.
I’d only just sat down, but the animosity in the air was palpable, and the tension mounted before culminating in the angry threat. Gary was a bully, and his latest beef was with Trey, who was sitting across from him at the four-person table in the chow hall. I could see that Gary was trying to goad him into a fight, and I could see, too, that it was working. In prison, “bitch” is the gravest of insults, and to call someone that in public was akin to throwing down the gauntlet. To let it happen without standing up for oneself is to lose face, invite ridicule, and have it presumed that the slur is justified.
When I saw Trey’s back stiffen and his shoulders pull themselves taut, I began to force food into my mouth because I knew what was coming next. Time was of the essence.
“You’re a bitch.” It was said so meekly, quietly, almost begrudgingly as if he didn’t actually want to say it but felt he had no other recourse. Gary was out of his seat and around the table in half an instant, punching Trey before he even had a chance to stand. The poor guy never had much of a chance anyway. They were both only five-nine or so, but Gary was a solid and stout 185 pounds with a half-and-half mix of muscle and fat that made him deceptively formidable. Trey was all thin limbs and at least thirty pounds lighter than Gary. After absorbing a few haymakers to the face and chest, Trey managed to flail out a loose fist and poke Gary in the eye with an errant finger. It wasn’t exactly a victory, but it gave him a little confidence. Mostly, though, it just pissed Gary off.
I swallowed a chunk of hamburger and chased it with a couple tater tots, trying to clear my tray as fast as I could.
Gary swung rage-fueled right and left hooks that looked impressive but mostly missed his target. The target backed away from the onslaught, bumping into tables and blindly tripping over the legs of people who had turned around in their seats to view the spectacle. Even in retreat, Trey managed to land a couple of weak punches on Gary’s chest, but they didn’t slow him down or even seem to faze him at all.
I glanced to one side to see if any officers or loos on duty in the chow hall were paying attention, but for that brief window of time, not a single one was in sight.
Ketchup drooled over my lip as I swallowed mechanically and slurped lukewarm milk to lubricate the process.
When I returned my gaze to the show, Gary’s eyebrow was bleeding. Trey must have slipped him a good one when I wasn’t looking, but that only made him cocky. Trey overstepped, literally, as he lunged forward to swing on Gary. Instead, he slipped on the slick floor and went down hard. Gary collapsed onto his victim, and it was all one-sided from there.
I was chewing my final bite of burger when a white shirt finally made an appearance.
“Hey!” the loo yelled. He keyed the panic button on his radio, even as a couple C/Os appeared to flank him. The roiling mass of humanity that was Gary and his outmatched opponent had rolled and slid ten feet across the floor until the outside wall of the chow hall had halted their progress. Gary pressed his body against Trey, pinned him helpless to the wall, and drilled his head with repeated hard right jabs.
I lowered my shoulders toward my tray, keeping my head up so I could look back and forth from the oncoming authority figures and the continuing skirmish, and shoveled the remaining ketchup-smeared tater tot bits and mushy mixed vegetables into my eager mouth. I knew it was important to eat all I could before what would come next.
The overweight white shirt ran as fast as his ample girth would allow. The two C/Os passed him easily while yelling, “Stop, let him go, lay down on the floor!” Gary kept beating Trey’s head mercilessly.
I kept watching it all unfold, chewing as little as necessary before forcing the food down my throat.
The loo slowed enough to retrieve something from a pouch on his belt before continuing toward the fracas. He was yelling something unintelligible as he gasped for air. A small canister was in his meaty hand, and he held it in front of him at arm’s length as he ran. I had a brief flash of a memory from my childhood. Then pandemonium ensued.
The recollection from my youth revolved around an old Jim Croce song—music of that character and quality is what I was weaned on. “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” was the song, and the specific lyric was “…you don’t spit into the wind…” As a kid, I didn’t understand why not; I couldn’t grasp the physics of it. So one day, pedaling my yellow BMX bicycle as fast as my little legs could pump, I sped down the sidewalk of my idyllic neighborhood and hocked a major loogie right into the breeze blowing against my face. The spit smeared across my cheek and eye, providing me a valuable understanding of the lyric that had so confounded me. It appeared, unfortunately, that the fat lieutenant had never been a fan of Mr. Croce.
With his belly stressing the buttons of his shirt, the loo sped along. He began to yell again, and as he did, he pressed the button on the canister. A thick stream sprayed out before dissipating into a mist. The loo ran right into his own pepper spray just as he encountered the same slick patch of floor that had been Trey’s undoing. His entire portly frame went momentarily airborne—even as he choked on the spray—while he still held the button down and covered the entire area with the noxious fog. It wasn’t until his mighty shuddering collision with the floor that he finally stopped spraying.
The chow hall became a cacophony of conflicting howls and screams. The C/Os yelled for the fighters to release each other; the loo hollered in pain as he clutched his lower back with one hand while covering his burning eyes with the other. Inmates in the pepper-sprayed region coughed and cried out against the itchy pain in their eyes, nose, and throat. Thankfully, I was fifteen feet from the epicenter of the incident, so I was spared the worst of it.
More C/Os rushed onto the scene, hacking and yelling their way into the area and then gagging on the particulates of pepper spray polluting the atmosphere. There were moans and groans as officers struggled to control and cuff the fighters while a few other C/Os tried to heave the loo to his feet without causing him too much pain. Even as the C/Os tried to escape from the field of foul air, they yelled at inmates to sit down and stay where they were. As swiftly as the loo and officers had arrived on the scene, they all retreated—vanished—leaving behind only the awful cloud and a few splashes of blood on the wall courtesy of Gary and Trey.
The C/O in the guntower displayed himself and his weapon prominently to ensure that peace ensued, but he was unnecessary. No one was in the mood to fight. Every inmate, to varying degrees, was coping with his watering and stinging eyes, tickling and tingling nose, and interminably itchy throat that comes with exposure to pepper spray. We sat like that, suffering, chemicals floating in the air, for forty-five minutes in the enclosed space without a single open door or window that would allow the place to air out.
It would have been impossible to eat anything, so while I, too, endured the discomfort, I didn’t have to do it on an empty stomach. I counted that as a minor victory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.