Life Under the Knife
My job in the library was my only peace in prison. The library was a little room, it couldn’t have been more then the size of a rich person’s bedroom. But it was filled with half of a dozen racks of books. The library was attached to the prison school, which could not have been much bigger then the library. But the school was always bright, unlike the library which was dim. The room was a cold place, almost like a meat locker, without any windows to let light in. Just like the rest of this maximum-security prison, all closed in, without any view of what the outside world looks like. It was nothing like the library at the University I taught at. It was more like a large personal collection. I had my own makeshift desk, which was always piled with work to do. But work was my peace in this place. Work kept me away from all the animals that called themselves convicts. At times it seemed like I was in a cage with giant gorillas. Work kept me away from all the evil looks and hatred in the other prisoners voices. Just Mike Yeager, the other prisoner who worked in the library, and me back there. There were a couple of other prisoners who worked in the school part, but the library was our domain. Of course I would rather be starting off this week teaching my English class at the University, but that was almost a year in the past and this was the present.
Joe Rich came walking into the library, always the most professional cop with his short height and Yogi Bear hat, and said, “We are bringing some inmates from the hole to work on their GED.” He slowly looked around the library one more time with a serious look on his face. “I might need one of you to help out a bit.”
Joe Rich was a good guy and you always knew where you stood with him. He stuck by the rules and you knew he wasn’t going to break or change any for anyone. He wasn’t going to try to be your friend one day and then your enemy the next, like some of the staff were known for.
“Rich, you know I used to teach,” I said, “I’ll be happy to help you with anything, whether it’s tutoring, cleaning, anything.” I was hired to work in the library, but I will always be a teacher at heart. That’s were my strengths were.
“Lopez, I read your file,” Rich said, “I know you used to teach, but I’ll only need you to hand out papers, maybe tutor.” Rich let one of the papers he had in his hand almost slide on to my makeshift desk. “Here is the call out.” The call out was a list with names and times ofthe inmates that were going to be coming to school.
The school and the library were all called the education department. So even though they called me a librarian, I was hired as an education worker. There aren’t many jobs in this prison and having a job in the education department was the cream of the crop. We had our own work area and most importantly we had privacy, something that was a privilege.
Our job in the library was to supply each prisoners with books when they requested them. So any prisoner who wanted a book would place a book request to the library when they wanted them. We would get those requests and try to get the books they wanted. If we didn’t have that book, we would get them something close. After we had all the books for the day, we would place them in a plastic container and take it to the unit where the prisoners who wanted them were at. It was the officer’s job to give out the books, we just took them to the prisoners’ housing unit. We would do this for all the units in the prison, including the hole, segregation.
The noise in the school area was intense, almost like a subway station, I couldn’t see into the other room, but I knew the noise was the cops bringing in those prisoners from the hole that Rich told use about, radios and doors slamming. I decided to show Rich that I was always ready to help, I knew this was brown-nosing, but what the hell. Walking into the other room I could see four white kids in orange jump suits, their hands cuffed behind their backs. They looked like the type of kids you would see in the movies, with tattoos all over their arms, necks, and faces, which I assumed were Nazi tattoos. Everyone of them had frowns across their faces. The kind of look that says, fuck you. It’s like they put this look on so no one sees weakness in them. It seemed like everyone in this prison had that look. Growing up in the barrio, the Spanish neighborhood, I have never seen white kids with looks like that, but I have seen lots of Mexicanos that did.
The cops started lining them up the back of the class room against these line of doors that were almost invisible if you didn’t look directly at them. Each one of them had a large glass window that almost took up half the door. The doors had small holes with little doors on them, bean slots, which the cops used to put inmates’ handcuffs on while they were still in the cells. The bean slots could also be used to hand prisoners their school supplies. The cells behind the doors were small, just big enough for a built-in desk and a prisoner.
It took Rich and some other nameless cop a couple of minutes to get all four of the prisoners locked in. I just stood out of the way looking at the magazine rack that was in the doorway to the library. I could feel the inmates’ eyes burning into me, but I knew from multiple beatings when I first got here that to look at a fellow inmate in any way was asking for trouble.
“Lopez, come here,” Rich said as he opened the teacher’s desk. The teacher’s name was John Michaels, he was a free person who came here to prison to work every day as a teacher, not a cop. But Rich knew the routine, giving the inmates their books and work to do, and which books to hand out to prisoners. “Give these books and pencils to each one of them and tell them to start chapter 3 on page 20.” Rich didn’t look at me as he handed me the material. Instead, he searched for some unknown object in the everlasting pile of stuff in Michaels’s desk.
The four prisoners in the holding cells were talking to each other and to some of the other prisoners who were in school. The other prisoners where from normal population, prisoners who weren’t in trouble. Being able to go to school in this prison was a big thing, because as a maximum-security prison, inmates couldn’t leave their tier often. So the education department was a place that prisoner could talk about things that were going on in the other tiers.
They didn’t even notice me until I got to one of their cells. But as soon as I started talking to one of them, the others quickly went back to the prison gossip they were talking about. “Excuse me, here is your book and pencil. Michaels wants you guys to start on chapter 3, which is on page 20. It’s just a placement test to see were you are at in your education level.” I say other prisoners from population take the test before. After I finished telling the first prisoner I went to the next cell and told the next one. It felt good telling them what work they needed to do, because that hard core look that almost everyone walked around with faded. It was like when I talked to them they were students not prisoners who acted like animals on the tier. It was easier to see their human side when they knew I wasn’t going to test them for weakness. I think everyone had the “hundred-yard stare,” because they were afraid of looking weak in front of others.
I was almost done with the last prisoner when Michaels walked though the education doors. He always had a smile on his face. I don’t know what the heck his problem was or why he was always so happy. He looked like he was about my age, 33. But his bald head and his rolls of fat which rolled down his neck, chest, stomach, and legs of his 5′ 10″ frame, made him look older.
Michaels went right to Rich and started talking to him. They were probably talking about the prisoners in the holding cells, as they kept on looking over to where we were. “Hey, Mr. Lopez, do you have everything under control over there?” Rich asked. I nodded. “After they’re done, collect their test and bring them over.”
I felt more human working with students than I did in the library. These students were a lot different than the ones I had at the University. My students there didn’t kill people. Just thinking about my students killing people made me think of that night on the tier when Cowboy stabbed those other gangsters. That was a wild night. He probably was in the hole with these guys. I wonder if they’re going to charge him for the stabbings. “Excuse me, do anyone of you know Cowboy?” I asked the prisoners from the hole. I knew the correct term would have been to call them “homes,” but I just couldn’t bring myself to say it. I guess all that college and teaching grammar made it almost impossible to talk like other prisoners.
“Yeah homes, he’s in the cell next to mine,” the kid in the end cell said. “What’s up, you needs something?” The human face he wore when I was telling him how to do his school work vanished and was replaced by the hundred-yard stare that could burn through concrete. The tattoos on his neck, which I thought were Nazi tattoos, weren’t Nazi tattoos, but Mexican gang writing, VARRIO V. Even though he was white, I knew by the Mexican gang tattoos and the way he talked, that he was respected as a gang member among the Mexican gangs.
I thought it might be a bad idea to ask about Cowboy. I didn’t know him. He asked me one time to help him get his GED, then he got into the fight where he stabbed some other prisoners. That was the most violent fight I have ever seen. Cowboy and his friend took on seven others, not even worrying about the odds. “Well, uhh,” I stuttered. “He asked me a few months ago, before he went to the hole, if I could help him get his GED.” The three other prisoners from the hole fell silent, trying to hear me. It was the first time I had complete attention of several prisoners. It must have been the mention of Cowboy’s name that caught their ears. “I think they might start bringing you guys from the hole to get their GED.” He nodded his head as if in agreement and wanting me to finish. “Tell Cowboy that if he still wants his GED to put in a concern form stating that he wants to get his GED. I’ll do my best to get him down here as soon as I can.” That was all I could do for him, he had to send a concern form, which was a form that prisoners sent to the prison staff, whether it was a teacher or officer, to communicate their problems or issues, they also called them a kite.
“Odila homes, I’ll make sure he gets the whells,” which was Mexican slang that he’d give him the message. The way this convict talked, with his Mexican slang was completely out of character. I didn’t think he was going to talk like a Chicano gangster. I expected him to talk more like the Nazis do. I just nodded and told him thank you before I walked away collecting their school work.
I didn’t know why I felt good about trying to help Cowboy. He was respectful when he asked me to help him get his GED at first. Maybe it was the teacher in me that was happy about helping someone get an education. I gave the placement test to Michaels and went back to finish putting the books I had left away. It didn’t take long to finish and I decided to go and talk to Michaels about trying to get Cowboy down here to get his GED. I didn’t feel comfortable walking up to Michaels’s desk. It almost felt like I was going up to talk to the warden of the prison, not knowing what I was called for. The prisoners from the hole had already left and most of the students from population were getting ready to go back to their housing unit. Us prisoners who worked at the school usually left about a half hour after the students did, so we could gather the books and put away their stuff they left out. Michaels was busy correcting the placement tests I collected earlier.
He looked up at me with a smile on his face as I walked up to his desk. “What can I do you for, Mr. Lopez?”
“Well, there was this kid who was on my tier, who’s in the hole right now and one of the students who came from the hole today said the kid wants to get his GED,” I told him. “I was just hoping that we could get him down here a little sooner.”
“What’s his name?”
“It’s Fernando Pizarro.” He looked through his desk and pulled out one of his many folders and opened it.
“No, I don’t see his name,” he said, which wasn’t a surprise to me, because I just sent the message. “When I see his name I’ll put him down.”
I did everything that I could for Cowboy and it was up to him whether or not he put in a concern form to enroll in school. Trying to get Cowboy into school was something that I knew would be a good thing. The kid had bigger balls than anyone I ever knew.
I had a little over a year inside prison and I was getting used to my job and the way things were, such as convict rules and institution rules. Convict rules were simple, you don’t tell the cops anything, be ready to fight at the slightest show of disrespect. The institution rules were a little harder to follow because there were so many of them. But I was learning to obey both. You just didn’t open your eyes when other prisoners were selling drugs or beating someone up, that way you can honestly say that you didn’t know anything if the cops asked.
My job in the library was very relaxed. We could drink coffee if we paid for it. We also had a radio that we could listen to if we wanted. The only time I had a problem listening to it was when Mike Yeager played country music. I could handle any type of music, from Jazz to Rock, but not country.
Michaels walked into the library and placed a concern form on my desk in front of me. He never came walking up to me like that before, but I knew that I wasn’t in trouble because he still had a cheerful look on his face. “Is this the guy that you asked me about a few weeks ago?” I looked down at the concern form. It was dated two weeks earlier with Fernando Pizarro written in one corner.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“I’ll put him down for school, but I don’t know how long it will take to get him down here. It all depends on his behavior,” Michaels said. “But most of the time it takes a couple of weeks to get them here once I put their names down.”
“Thanks Michaels,” I handed the concern form back and he walked out of the room. I had no idea why it felt good inside to help Cowboy enroll in school Maybe I was getting attached to him, no that couldn’t be. It was probably the respect that Cowboy gets when people mention his name. When I see others show respect for him, it makes me feel good about doing the same, that’s all. Kind of like being the first one done on a test at the university.
I was on my third cup of coffee, almost noon, well on my way to getting a coffee high. The inmate I worked with, Mike, had the radio on my favorite rock station. Suddenly, I heard cops radios blaring and the education doors opening and slamming. Normally you couldn’t hear the doors to the education department open and close, so it was strange to hear them with the cops radios louder than normal and more than one radio. Joe Rich came into the library more serious than ever. “Both of you need to come cell up.” Walking into the other room there were two more correctional officers that I had never seen before locking up inmates from population. Both of the cops lookedjust as serious as Rich did.
In the months I worked in the library, we never had to be locked in those holding cells. “Hey Mike, do you know what’s going on?” I asked. The inmate I worked with, Mike Yeager, just smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “I don’t know.” Mike looked funny, with his long wild hair, showing off some of his missing teeth. I knew that if any prisoner knew what was going on, Mike would. He’s been here 15 years. “Hey Rich, what’s happening? You don’t have to lock us down. You know we aren’t going to cause any problems.”
“Something is going on in the units. I don’t know what, they just told me to lock you guys down.” Rich didn’t even look at me while he answered. I don’t think Rich would’ve told me what was going on even if he knew. It didn’t take Rich and the other two correctional officers more then five minutes to put all four of us workers and the seven student inmates in those holding cells.
Rich opened up the bean slots for us, so we could talk to each other. Rich even handed out magazines. After about 30 minutes in the cell, Rich started letting us out one at a time to use the bathroom, which was right next to Michaels’s desk. I could feel cold tension in the air. Something was going on in the prison and the cops didn’t like what it was. After another hour and a half, Rich said, “We’re going to start taking you guys back to the units,” as he collected the magazines.
They had each one ofus put our hands through the bean slots behind our backs and cuff them. The cop that was walking me back to the unit also worked in my unit sometimes but I never talked to him before. “Excuse me, sir,” I said. Normally I like calling them correctional officer, CO for short, but I wanted to be as nice as possible to find out what was going on. “What’s going on, why do we have to be handcuffed just to go back to the unit?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled as he walked me down the hall. Even when Cowboy stabbed those guys on my tier, they let the other tiers off lockdown within hours. But here we are handcuffed, being brought back to the unit almost three hours after they put us in the holding cells.
This is one hell of a life. One minute I’m as happy as I was on the outside and the next someone blood is being spilled right in front of my eyes. Cops always exercising the power on us. I hoped someone got killed for getting us locked down like that, I thought. Then it dawned on me that I have never wished death on anyone in my life. “What am I thinking?” I said out loud. The cop that was walking me back to the unit turned his head as if he heard what I said, but didn’t say anything to me. I was becoming cold. Before, I didn’t even like going to boxing matches because they were to violent. Here, seeing blood was an everyday thing. Before, it was normal for me to sit in window at home, reading a book. Now it was normal to see someone get beat nearly to death. I would think about how I was going to teach a class, now I think about how I’m going to stay away from the gangsters on my tier. Time in prison was making me cold. I said a prayer to myself, asking that I wouldn’t stay cold when I left this prison. When we finally got back to the unit, the foyer was crowded with officers. Most of them were right in front of the tier next to mine. What ever happened, happened there. When they finally got me in my cell and uncuffed me through the bean slot, I asked my roommate, celly, in Spanish, “Que Paso?”
“Someone broke off on net tier,” he answered in English with a thick Spanish accent. I gave him a questioning look as if I didn’t understand what he was talking about. “Un muerto,” he said, meaning one died. The prisoners in the neighboring cells were yelling like chimpanzees in a zoo, though the vents, so I stood on my toilet seat listening to what was being said. I heard something about a cop getting killed. I had trouble believing it, because I didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to kill a cop in prison. My celly just sat there watching the TV that I paid for like it was his own.
I knew that if a cop had been killed in this prison, it would be on the news. “Friend, could you turn the TV to channel 7 before 5 o’clock so we could watch the news and find out what happened,” I asked my celly in Spanish. He moved with the speed of a cat to turn the TV channel, also wanting to find out what happened. All the noise that was being yelled in the vents stopped as the news came on. It was silent, as if the whole prison was waiting for the news so they could find out what had happened. It was the top story. Two officers at the maximum prison were stabbed, one was in serious condition and the other in stable condition. My heart skipped a beat.
When I heard the news, I wished that the officers made it out of the hospital okay. Their names were Lopez and Smith. The one who was in serious condition was Smith. They said that Lopez was going to make it, but Smith was still in surgery and they would know more later. After the news said the officers names I heard noises that couldn’t be imagined. I Imew that it was people in their cells screaming and banging on their doors, but it didn’t sound like it. It was like we were in a zoo and the animals were restless, and even the most veterans zoo keeper would be scared to come in this zoo at this moment.
I went to the vent to listen to what was being yelled. I heard happiness in their voices, but for some reason I thought the happiness a disguise for fear, because I know that if anyone showed fear it would cost them any respect they had. No one in prison felt comfortable showing fear, including me. The yelling was a jumble of “Smith was a piece of shit,” and “Smith had it coming.” Everyone that was yelling in the vents was yelling about Smith and said nothing about the other officer. I couldn’t understand how anyone could deserve something like that.
I sat for a few moments trying to soak up what was being said and who was saying it. After a couple more moments I decided that if someone asked me what my opinion was about his issue it would be the same as everyone else. I knew this was the best way I could handle it. That way people wouldn’t think of me as weak. “Celly, did you know those officers that got stabbed?” I asked in Spanish.
“That shit piece,” he answered back in English. He had a cold smile on his face, a smile that looked real and hid nothing. He was happy at the news. Even if Smith was as bad as my celly said, I couldn’t believe how anyone could deserve something like that.
“You said it wrong, it’s ‘That piece of shit.’ ” I corrected him, not caring that that wasn’t as correct as it should be. “Were both of those officers pieces of shit,” I asked my celly. Even though I was almost sure that his answer was going to be the same as the first.
“I no know other one, jus that piece of shit Smith,” he answered with a big smile across his face. I wondered why it happened and how did it. The 5 o’clock news didn’t say anything about who did it, but I was sure that as soon as they knew they would put it on the news. Nobody even mentioned the other officer’s name, just Smith. That made me wonder what everyone else thought about the other officer.
We sat there watching sitcom after sitcom, waiting for the next news show to come on, so we could find out more about what happened. I sat there quietly, thinking only about the stabbing.
After what seemed like forever, the local 10 o’clock news came on. The stabbings were still the top story. This time they gave more information about it. They said that officer Smith had his throat slit and part of his face under his eye was cut. The other officer, Lopez, just had his face cut, but it looked like he was already released from the hospital. They also gave the name of the person who did it, Jay Walker. “Tha’ me homeboy Torpedo,” my celly said with his thick accent. At times I wished he talked in Spanish, but then again, how else is he going to learn English.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“He me homeboy. He stabbed anyone. He don’t give a fuck. Nobody fuck wit him. One time he stab this fool who won’t give shoes up,” he said. “Everybody know him.” I couldn’t imagine what would drive someone to do something like that. All I knew was that I was glad I didn’t see it happen in front of my eyes. It would’ve given me bad dreams and worst of all, the cops would ask me the sign statements about what happened.
“How long have you known him?” I asked, wishing to find out as much as possible and not knowing why.
“Five years,” he said. “Something like that.” He was no longer sitting, but walking around our tiny cell, even thought there wasn’t much room to walk. “He only 15 or 16 when he come to prison.” What a waste I thought, coming to prison so young and now never going to be able to leave. I know that he was never going to be able to leave after doing something like that. The system would make sure of it. What ever problem he had with that officer, there was other ways that he could have solved it. He will never get a chance to undo what he did.
I had trouble falling to sleep that night. Not because of what happened, but because the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how that could have been my throat that was slit. This was a dangerous place and I had to watch my step. People would be quicker to attack me just because of my crime. No one had respect for a sex offender. I had to stay out of people like Torpedo’s way or suffer their wrath.
I tossed and turned for what seemed like hours upon hours. I couldn’t fall asleep. And when I finally fell asleep, I had dreams of Torpedo’s mug shot on the news in front of me in person, cutting me again and again, not caring about my screams. He would just laugh and laugh, like his laughter was mixed with madness. Nightmare on nightmare.
The next morning the first thing I did was turn on the TV to the local news. They mentioned a little more about Torpedo, saying that he came to prison for armed robbery when he was 17. What a shame, I thought to myself being so young and never having a chance to go home and be with his family. He couldn’t have realized what was going to happen to him. He’ll probably spend the rest ofhis life in prison for stabbing those officers.
When the time came for the officers to open our door for breakfast, they didn’t open, which wasn’t much of a surprise, because of what had happened. I was pretty sure that they were going to keep us locked down for quite awhile.
About an hour later, the officers brought food on the tier. It seemed like an eternity before they finally brought food to our door. The food smelt sweet, like it was pancakes. By the time they finally brought the food to our door and slid the food though our bean slot, the pancakes were as cold as a fish, but I was hungry and had no trouble eating them.
Like zookeepers, they would bring us our meals in our little cages. We had no place to go and nothing to do. Luckily, I had money of my own from selling my house, and was able to buy my own TV I felt sorry for those that didn’t. We had to make do with almost nothing. We would use our sink to wash up, like a sponge bath. We would put up a blanket and get naked, and use soap and a rag to clean ourselves. We would use the same blanket when we would use the toilet. It is how we lived, the only privacy in our cells was a shielded blanket and our thoughts.
Having to be around my celly all day long with no place to go wasn’t the most pleasant experience. Have to worry about other prisoners hurting me. Having to be scared all the time. Or having to see blood on the floor whenever it was least expected. It was hell on Earth. I wouldn’t wish this life on my worst enemy.
Another bad thing happened, but life went on. I did my best to shut out the event, which took all strength and power. I just had to focus my mind on my books and my work at the library. If I didn’t I’d probably go crazy thinking about all the bad things that could happen to me.
The third day of lockdown, the cops opened our doors first thing in time for breakfast. Everyone was talking about what had happened to the officers. Every prisoner seemed happy about it. Whether it was true happiness or people just trying to fit in, I couldn’t tell, but everyone’s opinion about the stabbings was the same. They felt that Smith deserved it. They said that Smith was a man that would go out of his way to give you a hard time, meaning he had no problem making you feel less than human.
I seemed like the only one who was upset about what Torpedo did, but I chose to keep my opinion to myself especially if they could make me the next victim. I didn’t know much about jailhouse politics, but I was learning. If you didn’t go along with the common belief–like all rats deserve to die and cops too–they would assume that you were working with the cops and plan to get rid of you somehow.
As I was finishing breakfast some unknown cop yelled on the invisible loud speaker, “Education, get ready.” It was a pleasant feeling knowing that I was going to be given a few hours away from my celly. He was the nicest guy in the world, but after 72 straight hours with him without a break is to much. And even though I wanted to take a real shower, instead of the bird baths I had taken for the last three days, I decided it was best to go to work and take a shower when I was finished. That way we both got a break from each other for at least a few hours. We were at each others necks for all three days we were on lockdown.
When I finally started walking down the hallway toward work with the rest of the prisoners who were going to the education department, with our correctional officer escort, it almost felt like I was going to be set free, like a feeling of joy. Joy was a feeling that wasn’t normal in this place. Simple things, like calling home and talking with my family or being able to work in this institution can make the world of difference.
Walking into my work area in the education department was like a breath of fresh air. Mike walked in behind me, he was among the prisoners that were escorted from our unit. His hair looked as wild as ever and he had a smile from ear to ear showing one of his missing teeth.
“What’s up?” Mike asked. “It got a little wild over on my tier, I just wished I’d been able to see it happen.” He went right to his desk, which was a real desk, not like my table, which I used for a desk. If I stayed in prison a long time or if Mike quit, I guess his desk would be mine. But I didn’t want the desk. I wanted to go home soon. Mike started pulling out book requests from the plastic containers that were used to send books.
I grabbed some of the requests and brought them over to my table. “Did anyone who saw what happened tell you about it?” I asked. “Did you know that cop?” I added while I started organizing the book requests, waiting to hear all the details.
“Well, first of all,” Mike started, “That officer was the sorriest excuse for a human that ever was.” Mike stopped thumbing through the request forms and leaned back in his nice rolling chair, which was a lot nicer than my folding chair. I knew that he’d tell the story, everything, when he put his feet on his desk and his arms behind his head.
“You see, Smith liked to go out of his way to exercise his authority on us,” Mike said. “Even when there is no need.” Mike paused for a second. “In other words, he likes making our lives miserable. Well, he fucked with Torpedo one too many times, so Torpedo decided that he wasn’t going to put up with it.”
“Did you know Torpedo too?” I interrupted, hating myself for stopping Mike from finishing the story. I thought he might not tell the story if I did it again.
“Yeah, I knew Torpedo. He couldn’t have been over 21 . It wouldn’t surprise me if he never had pussy before. I think he came to prison when he was 16 or 17, something like that,” Mike said while he was rubbing his chin. “Well, I guess Torpedo was planing this for a while. He had one of his partners call Smith into one of the rooms. While Smith was talking to Torpedo’s friend, Torpedo came up behind him and slit his throat. The first cut couldn’t have been deep because Smith screamed like a stuck pig. They said he didn’t even sound human. I guess Torpedo grabbed him by his hair and pulled him to the stairs while he was screaming. Then that stupid-ass Lopez comes running to his rescue. Thinking he’s Superman. Well, Torpedo turns around and runs up to Lopez and cuts him once across his face.” Mike made a slicing motion with his hand across his face, which was covered with a big smile. “I think that took the Superman out of him. By that time some more officers were coming through the tier door.” A cold smile crossed Mike’s face. “You have to see Torpedo. He cant be over 5′ 4″ and all these cops are big mother fuckers, like 6′ 3″ and bigger. Well, Torpedo starts yelling, ‘Get the fuckout of here, mother fuckers,’ shank in hand, and all of them cops turn tail and run for the tier door like their lives depended on it. Well Lopez, the little punk, just laid there by the table scared to death and Torpedo tells him, ‘Sit fuck’n there.’ And that piece of shit Smith was crying ‘What did I do?’ Then Torpedo comes up and cuts him a good one across his face and Smith starts screaming again. I think that pissed Torpedo off more, because he gave him another cut across his throat, which had to be deeper because they say he couldn’t scream after that. Smith was lucky he didn’t bleed to death like he deserved. It took them lazy cops 20 minutes to come back with their guns and body armor to finally put Torpedo in cuffs, I’m surprised that he didn’t die.”
“Fuck, that sounds crazy,” I cursed.
“The best part of the whole thing was Smith screaming. Man, what I would have paid to hear that piece of shit cry. ‘What did I do? What did I do?’ I wish he would have killed him,” Mike said.
“My celly told me, he was right there. Witness to everything and some. But I just wished I could’ve been there.” Mike started going through the book request on his desk laughing to himself.
“What’s so funny?” He just nodded his head as if telling me nothing. It was like every prisoner who talked about what happened was happy with it. But they would only talk about Smith this, Smith that. None of them would even talk about the other cop. It was like nothing even happened to him. Smith must have been more popular.
It was the first time in my life that I found myself interested in hearing about others’ misery. I didn’t even like seeing those things on the news. And for not thinking it was right, I had no problem listening to all the facts.
This place changed me. Before I came here I wouldn’t have wanted to witness the stabbings of those officers, but for some strange reason I wish I could have seen it myself. I just hoped it hadn’t changed me for ever.
Walking into work almost two weeks later I noticed a call out on Joe Rich’s desk. He wouldn’t let us look at it until he was finished, because he thought we would be up to something. He was always think that the prisoners were out over on him, asking what we were doing with this or that. I think that at times he was just paranoid. At least we knew he wasn’t going to let us look at it. I’d sneak a look at it when he was doing something else. When Rich finally went to the restroom, I quickly picked up the call out and read the names. The third name I saw on the list was F. Pizarro. It was weird because I had butterflies in my stomach when I saw his name there. What the heck was wrong with me? Was I getting attached to him? No, that couldn’t be it. I was just nervous because I was breaking the rules to get him down here. It was for a good cause, to help him get his GED.
His name was on the call out for 1 :30, so I would not be seeing him until the prison counted everyone, which was at 11:00. I focused on getting my book orders done before he came, so I could help him.
When I came back to my unit for lunch I noticed a couple of officers walking out of my cell. They didn’t say anything to me as I walked past them, they didn’t even look at me. It looked like they just got done searching our cell. “Friend, did they search our cell?” I asked my celly as I closed my solid steel door behind me. He just nodded his head as if saying yes. But our cell wasn’t as trashed as it would be in a normal search. It seemed like they took extra care to put papers and books back the way they found them.
Normally, when they did a cell search they would ransack everything. Sometimes they’d even break things and not replace them, like a free-for-all at our expense. Some officers took pleasure in it. It was as if they did it just to make us mad, not looking for contraband.
The officers who searched our cell didn’t search like normal. They actually showed us some respect and put our stuffback the way they found it.
Returning to work after lunch was always one of my pleasures. It gave me a chance to get away from the other prisoners, with their evil looks and violent behaviors. As soon as I got back, I went into the library and finished what little work that I had left so I could help Cowboy when he came.
While filling in the few book requests I had left, I hear cops radios and the slamming of the education doors. The cops always had their radios turned extra loud. I wondered if it was to make prisoners mad or if it was something that was all in my head. Whatever the case, it was always like that.
I walked into the other room with some old book request in hand to ask Michaels if they were still good. I knew that the request were to old, but it was a good excuse to see if Cowboy was in yet. Sure enough, he was standing with the other prisoners, hands cuffed behind their backs. Cowboy didn’t even look at me, but for some strange reason I felt that Cowboy had his eyes on everyone around him and knew all his surroundings. He seemed like the kind of guy that wouldn’t let much get by him. It didn’t take Rich and two other officers long to lock Cowboy and the other two prisoners in the holding cells.
“Mr. Lopez, why don’t you hand out these test for me,” Michaels said, “and these pencils, too.”
I walked to Michaels’s desk and started grabbing the things he handed me without saying a word. I went to the inmates in the cells and gave the stuff to them. As I came to Cowboy I noticed his eyes looking at me, with a little smile across his face. “Francisco Pizarro, como estas?” I asked. His little smile automatically turned to a hard cold stare. The same hundred-yard stare that most prisoners have, which made me nervous, almost fearful.
“Hey homes, the name’s Fernando Pizarro, but you call me like everyone else, and that’s Cowboy,” he told me. I couldn’t tell if that stare was rage or just suprise. I decided not to risk it being rage and apologized to him.
“Hey, uhhm, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything about it, but–”
“I don’t even let these cops call me Pizarro,” Cowboy interrupted. I realized that he wasn’t upset, but just telling the facts. “I ain’t mad at you, so don’t trip, juz don’t call me that shit no more. And who the fuck gots you to call me that in the first place.” Cowboy started to smile a little bit as he told me this. The other two inmates in the next holding cells were completely silent as Cowboy was talking, listening carefully. They stopped paying attention as soon as they realized Cowboy wasn’t mad.
“No one got me to say that,” I answered. “I just knew your last name was Pizarro, so I figured that you mightbe a ancestor of Francisco Pizarro the Conquistador.”
“Get the fuck out ofhere. There ain’t no fucking Conquistador called Pizarro.”
“I’m serious, Cowboy,” I said, “He was the greatest Conquistador that the world’s ever known.” I could tell that he was getting hooked by this little history lesson that I was baiting him with. “He conquered all the Inca empire, him and his brothers. Like a mafia family, but with a legal mandate from the church.”