“Hey, Eugene. Isn’t that your celly?”

A crew of guards had just swarmed a cell. I tried to pay them little attention as I stood around, making small talk with a friend.

“Yeah. It is,” I said, almost in shock.

It was more like relief. When I’d seen them heading to the area of my cell, I halfway feared they would soon be looking for me.

Apparently, something was bothering my celly, Trouble. One officer cuffed him up while the others looked on. A couple looked bored. Others tired to look tough. A few just looked fat.

But the look on Trouble’s face said it all: he was “locking up.” With his head hung low, a slim guy under 6 feet and covered in tattoos, he wouldn’t look at anyone. Under heavy escort, Trouble just wanted to escape the judgmental stares of the fellas. Taking the easy way out, he just strolled down the walk of shame.

Trouble tapped out.

The term “tap out” is the opposite of victory; it comes from mixed martial arts, a brutal sport. When one is wrapped up in a submission hold, the smart move is to submit in order to avoid getting choked out or having an appendage broken. For the sake of self-preservation, a warrior taps his opponent to let him know he surrenders.

In prison, we often use the term to clown or insult someone.

“That fool tapped out.”

“Don’t tap out. Man up.”

“You fucking punk. I heard you tapped out.”

Prison is also a brutal sport, marked by quick violence and constant fear. I can think of no other place in the world with a higher concentration of psychos, gang members, and thugs. I’m not saying these are the toughest fools in the world, but prison contains the most potential and actual killers per capita than anywhere else I can think of.

To be one of the fellas, one must be a gangster. Most prisoners are just trying to do the bare minimum. Many get exposed for not being about the business, and then just give up.

I consider myself a tough guy. At 44, it seems like I’ve been fighting my whole life. Now I’m mainly fighting off old age, I’m not the most skilled combatant, but my passionate refusal to let someone take advantage of me in a hostile manner has resulted in, by far, more wins than losses.

I am a soldier out of necessity, rather than by choice or desire. Violence is a regrettable requirement, but the fact I am a college-educated prisoner with a proclivity for prose, I win far more fights with my intellect and vernacular than with my fists. As a lifer trapped in the most violent, gang-plagued and intolerant system in the nation, I try to use my pugilistic skills (or good, rather than evil). I’m not a bully and don’t look for problems. I don’t avoid them, either.

I have a hard time just being me.

Although the courts would undoubtedly disagree, I consider myself a good dude.

Prison is a strange place. Separated from society, originating from some of the most disadvantaged and dysfunctional backgrounds imaginable, we inmates have established notorious norms. Prison turns us into animals. As a member of this incarcerated class, I lament the manner in which we conduct ourselves. While incarcerated, I endeavor to better myself by earning college degrees, publishing my writings, and litigating legal pleadings for myself and others. I am passionate about these things.

My cohort, on the other hand, is collectively passionate about other things, primarily drugs, gangs, and violence. California’s prison population is a bitterly divided system. We separate ourselves along ethnic and geographic lines, The Hispanics and blacks have cut themselves up in many sets and subsets, while the whites, my gang, are against all the blacks and about half the Mexicans. Peace is always temporary. The lines of nefarious demarcation keep us too close together.

It’s a fucking nightmare, to say the least. I do the bare minimum in this twisted game in order to maintain my good standing among my people. It’s complicated. Due to my passionate activism as a jailhouse lawyer and journalist, skills I supplement as an athlete who constantly works out, my people have no choice except to show me tons of respect. But the politics are so unstable I have frequently thought about tapping out. I’m sick of it. My arrogant sense of entitlement could easily be misconstrued as betrayal, and result in dismissal born the set in a brutaI fashion.

How Trouble left that day is nothing new. Every prison system has a place where inmates, whether they are afraid or have already been victimized, are housed for their own safety, called Protective Custody (PC). This includes prisoners who are high notoriety, like celebrities, cops, and lawyers, especially ex-gang leaders who have turned on their former allies. In California, PC’s are housed on Special Needs Yards, or SNY.

From the outside, an SNY isn’t any different than a mainline prison; it’s merely a facility that exclusively houses SNY prisoners. They receive, in theory, the exact same privileges, rights, and amenities, and lack thereof, as mainline prisoners. What they don’t have are all the gangs pushing a line of separation and hate. What they have is a prison without all the politics.

By tapping out, PC’ing up, or dropping out, one goes SNY, synonymous all.

So many inmates have dropped out in California that entire prisons have been designated for SNY inmates. I heard tens of thousands have gone SNY. I’m not surprised. Prison can be quite stressful.

The higher the level of security in a prison, the more stress one experiences. On a maximum security yard, the constant threat of violence is enough to cause the toughest of the tough to suddenly drop out. The tension is often thick, and the blood flows freely. I’ve seen hundreds of inmates just give up—too many times to count. It’s quite sad, actually, to hear someone tapped out, let alone see it, like with Trouble.

All meaningful programming was stripped from the prisons in the tough-on-crime ‘90s, when sentences skyrocketed under draconian measures like three strikes. Before rehabilitation programs grounded in civil liberties borne from the Civil Rights Era could ever take hold, prisons became the permanent residence for society’s knuckleheads, thugs, and deviants. Now, for the average inmate, it’s all about getting high, gang-banging and being as tough as possible. There’s nothing else to do.

Draconian sentencing laws keep us forever trapped in an environment we’ve transformed into a war zone.

In this war, all groups in prison have their rites of penological passage. Hispanics and blacks largely come from barrios and ghettos where all manners of gang membership make a seamless transition into the prison subculture. The hardest prison gangs, the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Black Gorilla Family—the EME, AB, and BGF—have been removed from the mainline and given indeterminate terms in the Security Housing Units in the prisons in Corcoran and Pelican Bay.

Although these notorious gangs are mentioned in the media, their isolation in the SHUs renders them non-factors. The mainline basically belongs to mainline prisoners who are aligned along racial lines and smaller gang factions.

The whites are loosely arranged by hometown and run together as a car, or collective. It’s like a gang, but with no real structure. White power inmates largely call themselves Woods, short for Peckerwood, with a very small number who call themselves Skinheads. Overall, it’s not as ominous as it sounds, but it’s definitely hardcore criminality.

“My homeboys told me I could get my letters,” said my celly, Allen, a few years before Trouble and I became cellies.

“That’s cool, bro,” I lied. I felt sorry for him.

In the underworld, members of gangs, cartels, or organizations have to earn their bones. One has to prove their capability under fire in order to be accepted into the collective. In the military, you prove yourself in battle, and receive medals, badges, and commendations. In high school and college, an athlete adorns their school’s letters on their letterman’s jacket to signify they played sports. It’s all about honor and respect.

Allen and I had absolutely nothing in common. In early 2007, as we did our time in a northern California prison called Susanville, Allen was 20 and I was 40. He made me feel old by virtue of his youth, although I could work him into the dirt when it came to exercise. I had tons of college, and Allen, a clean-cut youngster about my size of 6 feet, was a street kid whose parents were both criminals.

Pure and simple, Allen was white trash—the prototypical Wood.

In prison, you can earn your bones by putting in some “work,” like beating up or stabbing someone who has it coming, preferably a sex offender or snitch. By proving your mettle as a soldier, your homies award a “medal” by giving approval to get your hometown tattooed on your body. You are now one of the fellas, a “good dude” in the vernacular of the gangster. Whether you are a Hell’s Angel or a Crip, once you put in your work, you can fly the colors of your gang.

White boys and Mexicans love their tattoos. The skin on the darker blacks doesn’t make the best canvas for expressions of ink, so incarcerated blacks don’t seem as fixated with tattoos. Still, tattoos have always been popular. Thugs have always used their tattoos to signify their level and dedication to thuggery. That’s just how we do it in the pen.

When Allen finally got approval from his homeboys, I tried unsuccessfully to talk some sense into him. Like the process of earning the right to get the tattoo, the decision to have it “blasted” on the body is up to the dude who earned it. Like me, Allen didn’t have any tattoos. Since I am an older con who’s proven he’s one of the fellas, I could put whatever I wanted to on my body. I just don’t like tattoos. To a 2nd generation convict like Allen, however, earing his letters came as natural as going to prison in the first place—the two going hand-in-hand. When Alen told me about getting the green light from his homies, his excitement poured from him like water from a spigot.

“Man, I don’t know what to do, Eugene.”

“Why? What’s up, little homey?”

“I’m in not sure where I should get it blasted.”

“It’s not mandatory, stupid. You don’t have to get it.”

“I know. But I earned it.”

In mainstream society, a man of letters can blast MD, Ph.D., or JD after his name. For Allen, a kid who could tattoo some abbreviation of Shasta County on his body, he would now he a man of letters in the state pen, rather than, say, Penn State.

From Allen, I learned that the average young Wood endeavored to earn his letters. The opportunity to put in sonic work, however, is not always immediately available. Youngsters and even some older inmates are often anxious to earn their bones when they first get to prison. Already expressing a willingness to do whatever needs to he done, they have their “hand raised” to put in some work. If you try to weasel out after raising your hand, some other fools will gladly earn their hones while smashing your face…or worse.

Occasionally, a riot will break out and a whole bunch of youngsters can earn their bones at once. Rather than a mass wedding, it’s more like a Black Mass as the newly minted soldiers are welcomed into the coven of the convict.

While sex offenders and snitches are frequent targets, more often than not a young Wood earns his letters due to a dope fiend who can’t pay his debts, an idiot who disrespects someone, or some coward who won’t fight. So, they kick his ass, stab him, or kill him. Death is pretty rare, but it does happen. So does rape, I guess, but Woods and most of the other gangs in California don’t condone sex offenses, which apparently includes dudes fucking other dudes.

We call it politicking, or prison politics. We operate under a set of rules where we give respect to our enemies, and, of course, to each other. But we mainly have a “no-hands” policy, where other races or gangs can’t put their hands on someone outside their group. With so many factions made up of so many thugs, each with a crew of soldiers and youngsters with their hands raised, the politics of prisondom are nonstop. For those who earn the right to be a shot-caller—the big homey—the shots they call, that’s politicking.

In times of peace, shot-callers deal with internal problems within their cohort. It’s through fear of force that a gangster keeps his boys in line. The primary goal of the big homey is to maintain the peace between the races. If someone from a different car breaks the rules, disrespects someone, or doesn’t pay a debt, every gang is expected to handle their own business. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.

Prisoners are criminals and professional fuck ups. We don’t listen well. There is always someone who needs to be beat up or whacked, often referred to as regulating someone.

“Look, Little homie. Since you got your hand raised. I need you to do something.”

“I’m ready, bro.”

“Good. I need you to handle that fool.”

“What did he do?”

“That punk owes for dope and the Mexicans have made it an issue. Regulate that fucking piece of shit and you’ll be good.”

Allen was a soldier, a term reserved for someone always ready to “regulate” someone.

He had already put in more work than any youngster on the yard. To the young Woods, Allen was their hero. They considered him a fearless soldier, and they all looked up to him.

I liked Allen, but he was dumb as a post. Polite and respectful to excess if someone were an O.G.—original gangster is a term reserved for older cons and soldiers—but it gets irritating when some kid hits you with “yes” and “no sir” all of the time. Compared to many youngsters I met in prison, most of whom I thought were little punks, Allen seemed like a good kid who had a good ethic and loved his family, a lot. To him, however, everything has to be “gangster.” It was his favorite term, and he used it often.

Allen tried too hard to be gangster all of the time.

A fat piece of cake on his tray…“That was a gangster ass piece of cake.”

A bomb song on the radio…“That song was gangster as a motherfucker.”

A couple of youngsters kicking the shit out of some fool on the yard…“That was gangster.”

Allen and I became cellies when we got out of the hole. I’m a soldier as well, but I elevate my game to a higher level. My fight is with the system. I don’t put in stupid work, and don’t listen to the fellas. I am the one everyone comes to when they need legal help, advice, and guidance. I am the fellas. A trip to the hole on false charges by corrupt pigs just goes with the territory.

I thought I knew prison. From Allen, however, I learned how badly some of the youngsters wanted to earn their letters. At first it made me mad. Looking at my cohorts through the prism of my values often blinds me to the truth. So, I usually holster my acidic opinions and try to be objective. Many of these kids just don’t know any better. The glamorization of gang life had been indoctrinated into Allen’s generation by the gangster rap subculture that made prison seem cool.

Society likes to portray inmates as uber-dangerous super-thugs. From my perspective, the average prisoner ain’t that hardcore. True, prisoners are more dangerous than squares—civilians who don’t get into trouble—but Allen was more the exception than the norm. A very small number are far worse than Allen, and they are straight-up killers. Most inmates are redeemable, including young Allen.

They might have a change if they had decent role models. The system is so twisted it keeps us all screwed up, and always pits us against each other. Allen didn’t even know that Susanville was one of the few prisons that had a college program. To Allen, earning a degree just ain’t gangster.

This constant drumbeat of political pressure and underground insanity-—not to mention the huge sums charged for small amounts of drugs, and now tobacco, since it has been banned as well—leads to a steady stream of inmates who regularly tap out. It’s a tough game, and tough guys crack under the pressure all of the time, especially over matters of addiction.

I transferred from Susanville to Soledad Prison at the end of 2009, and this place is a perfect example of the SNY phenomenon. Central Facility is a huge mainline that holds roughly 2,500 low-level inmates. North Facility holds about the same number of inmates, except they are all SNY. According to protocol, they are cowards, child molesters, and snitches to be despised, hated, and stabbed. They are the enemy.

My fight is against injustice.

The problem with the prevailing logic is SNYs are growing while mainlines are shrinking. “Soon,” the inmates often tell each other, “those punk-ass SNYs will outnumber us.”

Being called a good dude is a high honor, while the SNYs are considered trash, scum, and punks.

The irony that we are a dying breed, and they seem to be the future, is not lost on me.

Personally, they could bring the SNYs over here and I wouldn’t care. I have no personal beef with those dudes, but I sure as hell wouldn’t take a trip to SNY lightly. I’ve thought about tapping out on many occasions because I’m sick of all the gutter politics. It’s just a thought. With nowhere else to go, it’s like a chance to try something different. SNY is a place where I could just be me without others sweating my program.

I’m too stubborn to tap out, I think.

Being on a mainline with an SNY in sight, I often think about all the good tapped out. It makes me wonder. It makes me take a long look at myself as I question where I should go as an activist. Our politics are a joke. As a gang, we are pathetic. As a college educated man, I’m embarrassed because being a Wood, and therefore straight-up white trash, is as good as it gets.

When Trouble tapped out, the stream of those who acted shocked or befuddled seemed to have no end.

“Why did Trouble lock up?” just about everyone asked me.

“I don’t know.”

“Did he tell you anything?”

“Not really.”

“I still can’t believe it,” one of Trouble’s homies told me.

With Trouble’s hometown tattooed across his neck—the same one Allen picked—this guy looked like a caricature of a gangster. I had to hold back a laugh. A seasoned thug and solider who has earned his bones through innumerable engagements with the enemy, Trouble’s homey acted as if he has never before seen good dudes locked up.

But it made perfect sense to me. A good dude who earned his letters long ago, Trouble was a couple of months away from parole. With SNY so common these days, he must have just decided to tap out one day. He simply didn’t want to run the risk of fucking off his date. I supposed, in hindsight, I saw the signs. Rather than hurt anyone’s feelings over their fixation with our stupid politics, I just played dumb.

Trouble didn’t trust his homies anymore.

I don’t blame him for locking up. Who knows, one of these days I might bow my head and follow him down the walk of shame.

“Hey, they just took Eugene away.”

“No way.”

“My homey told me Eugene wouldn’t even look at anyone.”

“He must have tapped out.”

“He fucked up. Now he ain’t a good dude anymore.”