Well, I originally contemplated about trying to sugarcoat what I had to say; but in the end, I arrived to the conclusion that it was best to not mince words and to just say things as they are … prison life is fucked up. I suppose that it doesn’t take Einstein to figure that one out. I learned this myself right after I began my stretch behind these silent walls of agony.
After spending less than a year in the county jail fighting a case that carried a life sentence and losing, I was shipped out post-haste straight to the joint, the pen, the big house. I ended up spending about a month in the Southern Prison Reception Center; which wasn’t at all that bad, because it was filled with thousands of other faces just like mine, mine being that face drained of its final traces of freedom and replaced by a determination to not be gobbled up by the prison monster, and end up another lost soul at sea in the dark belly of the beast.
I took my first cautious prison baby steps in that reception center very seriously. I used that opportunity to soak up as many lessons of how to exist within the midst of convicted and condemned men that I could. The first morsel of knowledge being that one must do all they can to not be taken advantage of, because if you let it happen once people will do all they can to take advantage of you again. Strength and wit became my new best friends; as I began honing my prison mentality, and developed my physical workout routine.
Not much action happened in that month as far as violence goes. Sure there were a couple of stabbings and beat downs, but not the amount of violence I had been led to believe occurred in prison. There seemed to be just enough to sober up the new prisoners into realizing that prison doesn’t forgive mistakes easily, and just enough to remind the old hands that there was still that invisible order about to manage the chaos.
I was then shipped out to Folsom State Prison from the reception center. Back in the day we would go to fish row for about a week. A committee would review each prisoner, then kick them out to the mainline. If one was lucky, they would end up being housed with a celly they were compatible with.
When I reached the mainline, it was so far so good. I lucked out and was placed with a guy who was both easy to get along with and had been around the prison system for a while. He taught me how the water flowed around there. Knowing this made it much easier to avoid making any unnecessary waves; and hence, help to prevent myself from getting into problems.
With my new found knowledge I also learned that it’s both a blessing and a curse to be seen as a new baby on the yard with potential, who is willing to learn and get with the program. The good part being that other prisoners are more willing to invest their time into becoming your friend, looking out for you and teaching you more valuable things one needs to know. The bad part being that the more people become your friend, the more you become expected to look out for the interests of other good prisoners, and are expected to be willing to utilize those useful lessons for the benefit of others in good standings.
My celly was considered to be a solid prisoner; and in prison, when someone with good credibility and a good reputation speaks of one well, that person is more readily accepted as being a solid person allowing more doors of opportunity to open wide. I became entrusted to perform errands and favors of importance; which allowed me to prove to those of concern that my celly’s faith and trust he had placed in me had not been mislaid.
All went well for a few months, then my celly got a tier-tending job in another block. This meant that he would have to move over there to live. One of my celly’s friends was lined up to do a cell move with him. I had no problem with my celly going over there and the other cat coming to my cell.
On the day of the cell move, I was told that the move had been changed. Instead of a two-way swap it became a three-way swap. My celly would go to his friend’s old cell, his friend would go to another cell, and a guy from that cell would move in with me. I did the best thing, and just went with the flow.
The day after the move, I was on my way to the yard when I was pulled to the side by my old celly and another guy. My old celly asked me if I was game to handle some “business.” I said sure, without bothering to ask what the “business” was. I had already figured that every favor I was asked to perform was a test, and I wasn’t going to deny my old celly any favors after he had looked out so tough for me.
No sooner had I said sure, that the other guy piped up to tell me that the cat who had moved in with me had to be taught a lesson. He said something about the guy having disrespected the wrong guy, or something to that effect. I wasn’t too focused on what more he had to say at the moment, as I wondered if I had made the right decision. That ship had sailed though, because in prison your word is your bond. I had already committed myself, so I couldn’t possibly back out now without making my old celly, or myself, look bad.
Mustering up all the cool I could, I attempted to clarify in my unshakiest voice exactly what kind of “lesson” the guy needed to be taught. I like to think that the confidence in my voice sufficiently covered over the sound of my sphincter muscle slamming shut once I realized there was no way to avoid having to deal with my celly. If my coolness did fail me, my old celly and the other guy sure didn’t let on that they had spotted any trepidation in my voice.
My old celly put his arm over my shoulder like a proud papa, because I had hefted up the gauntlet they had tossed at my feet, and I had accepted the challenge. The other guy smiled at what he must have perceived as my eagerness to make my bones. After a moment of my suffering in the silence, the other guy told me that my celly just needed a beat down … but, that if I happened to accidentally kill him, it wouldn’t be held against me. The other two guffawed at the black comedy, and I made certain to go along with their laughter. After leaving them, I began to try to figure out how to accomplish the task at hand.
Now, I had been working out regularly, and even before that I had never been a slouch. I had grown up watching karate and kung fu movies, and had seen enough boxing and wrestling on television, to be able to mimic a lot of the moves. Add a few drops of crazy into the mix, and I like to think that my fighting abilities are not lacking in some skill of their own.
I decided to wait until after dinner to take care of “business.” I did this for two obvious reasons. The first reason being that after dinner we would be locked in our cells, so there would be no way for my celly to get out of the cell should he want to run. The second reason was more of a selfish one, because if things happened to go bad for me, there wouldn’t be as many people out of their cells to see me get carried out on the gurney of shame for failing my mission.
To make a long ugly story short, that night I gave my celly the courtesy of not just laying into him without him knowing it was coming. I called him off the top bunk to the floor. I was feeling bad for the guy as I began explaining that he had an issue coming. But it became apparent that the guy didn’t appreciate the courtesy I had given him, as he started to pummel me before I was half way done with my little speech.
Once the surprise of the moment wore off, I was able to slowly turn the tables in my favor. My exercising had paid off, as he began to huff and puff as we bumped around the cell in a ball of flailing arms and legs during our close quarters match. As soon as I got the upper hand I showed the cat no mercy. I didn’t want to kill him, but I did want to beat him within an inch of his life for busting on me without warning, and that’s what I did.
I beat the boy’s biscuit like there was no tomorrow, until he had no choice but to accept his butt whipping. Once I taught him his “lesson,” I let the guy wash up, and then made him crawl up to his bunk. I was the hog with the big nuts in the cell, and felt confident enough to catch some sleep that night (with one eye opened at all times). At breakfast I went to the chow hall, as my celly stayed in to lick his wounds.
I let those who needed to know, that “business” had been handled as requested. I filled my stomach with a hot meal, and my ego with a nice helping of back slaps and way to go’s from the fellas. Surprisingly, the pain I had been feeling just melted away. I sported a banana grin, just like a kid who had taken his first crap in the toilet and was proud as punch at his great accomplishment.
As I returned to my cell, the tier cop gave me the old evil eye as I passed him. I began to suspect that something was wrong. Making it back to my cell, I couldn’t help but notice the empty cardboard box on the floor. The guard walked up to my cell as I looked around for my celly, and told me to pack up the guy’s personal property because he seemed to have fallen off of his bunk.
After the tier cop left, the tier tender zoomed up to my house and told me that my celly had checked in. He had me slide him all of my celly’s property, so that he could stash it from the cops, with a promise that I’d get my cut later. I gave him everything but the guy’s address book, which I tossed into the empty box.
When the tier cop came back, I gave him the box and told him that was all of my celly’s property. With a skunk eyed look, he took the box and looked inside of it. Instead of asking where all of the guy’s property was at, the guard just harrumphed as he turned to walk away, and commented to no one in particular that he was surprised that the guy was getting that much stuff back.
After the guard left, I sat back on my bunk and wondered to myself about what lessons I had learned through this experience. I came up with a few. Some being that when it came to handling this type of business I would need to begin disassociating myself from my emotion of wanting to be fair with the other guy, and hope that time wouldn’t end up killing off that part of my humanness, and that it always pays to have a little luck on your side. I also learned from the other guy’s mistakes, that crossing the wrong person’s path, and not pushing your advantage to the hilt, can come back to bite a guy on his ass real hard.
I know that to people out in the streets, this story must sound awful. I say this, because even to me all these years later it doesn’t sound like any sane person, or people, would do things like this. But when you’re stuck smack dab into the eye of a hurricane, your clarity isn’t always there; and sometimes you just have to let it carry you off through its ugliness, while just hoping that it’s not you who ends up suffering the worst of the lumps along the way.
Prison has a life and mind of its own; and no matter what, we all seem to end up losing, whether we fight it or whether we go with it. That’s messed up, but that’s also the straight dope, and it seems that the only lesson that will save one from all of the bullshit is just to learn how to stay out of prison. But for most, that’s the hardest lesson of all to learn.