Planted in Concrete
I stood and stared at the vent on the wall above the toilet in my cell, holding a ripped piece of my sheet in my hand. I knew the next security check wouldn’t come for another 15 minutes, but I had been repeating this process for the last four hours or so. You lose track of time in a high security cell, so it could’ve been four hours or five, maybe six. I didn’t know. What I did know was that I had a decision to make, but I wavered.
Commodore. Commodore had me struggling with my decision. Commodore chastised me with his words and haunted me with his actions. I looked at the scratched Plexiglas minor above the stainless steel sink and I saw Commodore’s reflection. I heard his words in my mind. “I don’t got nobody. I don’t got no Mama, no Daddy, and my Grandma just died, I don’t got nobody.”
I looked back at the vent that was about one foot above the minor to the left (right next to the steel door of my cell). Commodore stood in a maximum security cell just like the one I was in. He stood and cried just like me. “I don’t got nobody.” Those were his words; words I couldn’t use. I had somebody. I had a mother, father and both of my grandmothers. I couldn’t use Commodore’s scapegoat. I was loved.
“I’m going to prison tomorrow.” Those were my words. I was 17 years old and I was going to prison.
Two days prior I had a dominate sentence hearing, because of a crime that I committed when I was 12 years old. The judge had to determine whether he was going to send me to prison to complete my 30 year sentence or send me back to the Texas Youth Commission (T.Y.C.) and allow them to process me for parole.
The judge signed my prison papers even before the last witness on my behalf completed his testimony.
Could I blame the judge? No. At age 12 I had committed one of the most heinous crimes ever by a juvenile. No, I couldn’t blame the judge. I had made my own bed, so I would have to lie in it.
I looked back at the minor. But I was afraid. I had 24 years and nine months left on my 30 year sentence. Could I survive that long in prison? I heard about the things that happened to teenagers in prison. People who went to prison from the Texas Youth Commission wrote back and told stories. “It’s a whole different game here in the pen,” they’d say. “They don’t just box here; they stab and use canned goods for weapons. Work out hard in the weight room and be ready for it all.”
I looked back at the vent as tears rolled down my face. I shed the tears of a coward ashamed to admit that I was afraid.
“Nobody gonna give you sympathy. You didn’t give your victim sympathy.” That’s what my group members told me when I first arrived at the Texas Youth Commission over four years ago, at my first group meeting.
I wasn’t just afraid of going to prison, I was just tired. I was tired of the nightmares. I relived the horrific crime over and over again. Sometimes I was the perpetrator, and sometimes I saw myself in my victim’s role. All of the time I could never do anything to stop it, and that sickened me to the core of my soul.
I was tired of the burden. I carried my guilt and shame like full body armor every day of my life, and that was killing me on the inside. I was ready for it all to end. I was a coward at age 12 and I was having cowardly intentions 5 years later.
Commodore. I made a promise to Commodore. I told him that I would live for both of us; that in the future I would create a youth organization in his name. I promised him that I would never give up, that I would never allow my burden to destroy hope. My burden was my punishment, rightly deserved, but hope held the key for me to be something better than I was at age 12.
I made that promise to Commodore, my brother not by blood but by the struggle that we both created for ourselves through the crimes we committed.
Commodore never made it to prison. Commodore killed himself a day before he could be driven to the prison processing unit. In the end, Commodore stood in his cell and convinced himself that he had nothing to live for. Commodore waited for the 15 minute security check to pass by and then he manipulated a torn strip of his sheet through the small metals squares in the vent; made a noose and then stepped off the toilet.
I looked down at the torn strip of sheet in my hand.
I would make a lot of people happy if I followed in Commodore’s steps. By my estimate, only a few would mourn me. I thought to myself, “Who would cry at my funeral?” I could only count four people.
In comparison, I thought that a couple of hundred people would rejoice. They would say, “He deserved death anyway. He would never be more than who he is anyway.”
In the end, it wasn’t about who would be happy or who would be sad. It wasn’t even about the pathetic life I lived. No. It was about my promise to Commodore. He said that he didn’t have anything, but I gave him my word.
I dropped the self-made hangman’s rope into the toilet and I admonished myself for having such thoughts. I would be more than most people thought I would be. People want me to give up. They even put me in the same cell that held Commodore. Was that a coincidence or was that done on purpose?
I looked back into the mirror and said aloud, “You a man now. Start acting like it.”
I started to stretch and loosened up. I would do push-ups and sit-ups to exhaustion. Got to get ready for prison.
I stood in the “intake cage” at my first assigned unit in West Texas, the Wallace Unit. All new inmates are sent to the intake cage to await housing. The intake cage was a fenced box that stood outside of the administration building, open to the elements and with a clear view of every housing unit at the Wallace Unit facility.
The Wallace Unit had only been opened for about nine months, for it was one of the many new units that Texas started to build in the early 1990’s. It was also a unit that housed a lot of youthful inmates, which was a very bad sign, for youth equals ignorance and violence in prison
I stood with a stoic look on my face, trying to give off a hardcore aura, but on the inside I had the butterflies that come from nervousness. I wondered how many people I would have to fight. Would someone try to stab me my first day here?
I already knew the drill. When I got to my dorm I would be asked where I was from and if I was affiliated with a gang. I was indeed affiliated; got initiated at T.Y.C., but I would wait to check the scene. Silence was my best friend. I was no fool.
There were two white guys in the intake cage with me and both seemed to be around my age. One guy had tattooed arms and a little muscle on him, while the other one looked like Opie from the Andy Griffith show.
“You tell them that you are a ‘wood’ and that you will fight for your right to be called a man,” the tattooed guy told Opie.
I looked at Opie and knew that no such thing would take place. Opie was afraid and it showed. I saw many like him come through T.Y.C. and my common sense told me what he was about to face.
However, I couldn’t worry about Opie, for I had my own problems. I had two very bad things working against me. First, I was a smooth faced teenager. Secondly, I was wearing a nice pair of Nike sneakers, which was like gold in prison. There was simply no way to avoid a confrontation because of my shoes, or so I heard.
All of a sudden we saw officers running to one of the buildings to the right. “Fight on J1; Fight on J1,” they said into walkie-talkies as they ran past. There were only four buildings visible; two of them sat in an “L” shape to the right of the intake cage and the other two sat in an “L” shape about 100 yards to the left.
After a minute, a lady in loudly-colored clothing pushed a wheelchair behind the running officers. I assumed she was a nurse. She wasn’t in a rush like the rest of them. She walked like she had been a part of that process a thousand times; someone who knew that rushing to the scene was dangerous, as well as useless.
I didn’t know what was really happening. I had butterflies in my stomach and felt a rush of adrenaline even though I had no part in what was happening on J1. For some reason, I felt that these same officers would be running to break up a fight between me and someone else in a matter of hours.
After a short time an officer emerged from J1 with a video camera that was aimed back at the J1 door. There was then a group of officers surrounding a solitary Hispanic guy in handcuffs who had his head down. The guy in handcuffs didn’t have anything on but his boxer shorts and some black steel-toed boots—state-issued boots at that time.
The closer the Hispanic guy got to us, the more I could make out the blood splattered on his chest and his boxer shorts. When he got to where we were in the intake cage, he just eyed each one of us one by one as he moved along. He had a smirk on his face.
About two minutes later the lady in loud colored clothing emerged from J1 accompanied by an officer who pushed a wheelchair. The guy in the wheelchair was a Black guy who was holding a towel to the side of his head. As they moved past us, I could see the Black guy got worked over pretty good. I saw him being wheeled out of the building, while the other guy had walked out of the building. I concluded that most of the blood on the Hispanic guy belonged to the Black guy.
All eyes seemed to be on the solitary Black guy in the cage, as if what we just saw was an omen meant for me.
I turned and looked at Opie and I could tell that he was thinking just what I was thinking, “I don’t give a damn where they assign me to live, just don’t assign me to J1.”
I stood in my cell and paced. I didn’t get assigned to J1. I got assigned to J3, G-wing, one of the buildings I saw to the left while I stood in the intake cage. I was told that “G” stood for “guerilla,” which was another prison term for “hardcore.” I paced, because I was told that as soon as the officer made his rounds on G-wing and left I would then get a “heart check.”
I paced with nothing on except my state issued white pants and my Nikes. Although I saw both the Black guy and the Hispanic guy earlier apparently fight in nothing but boxers and boots, I couldn’t see myself taking off my pants, because that was one step closer to being naked. I had no desire to be naked with another man in my cell.
At first I had butterflies, but the longer I paced, my anxiety turned into anger. A “heart check,” huh? These fools got me fucked up. I just look like I started doing time. I had been through the gauntlet before at T.Y.C. I made it through then, and I would make it through again.
I grabbed some toilet paper and wet it so that I could make myself a handmade mouthpiece. I learned that little trick at T.Y.C. I didn’t want to get my jaw broke on the first day at my new unit.
As I was looking in the Plexiglas minor to fit my mouthpiece, a figure graced my doorway. “Homie, where you coming from?” I looked toward the doorway and took quick inventory. The speaker was another Black guy about 20 pounds lighter than me—that put him at about 155 pounds. He had a flat top haircut (which was kind of funny), but he had scars on his face, which spoke volumes. He had on a wife beater and some white shorts.
I looked him in the eye and told him, “I’m coming from T.Y.C., Giddings State School.” After my response, Flat Top took inventory of me. He looked at the wet toilet paper in my hand and smirked. He looked at my chest and arms for tattoos; any signs of an affiliation. Finally, he looked down at my Nikes. Instinctively, I looked down at his shoes. He was wearing some beat up Chuck Taylor’s, about my size. Flat Top was in need of a new pair of shoes.
“What you willing to do for them Nikes?” Flat Top asked me that question while he stared at my shoes. So there it was, I had pre-fight jitters as I fingered the wet toilet paper. There would be no time to mold a mouthpiece, so I threw the toilet paper into the toilet
My opponent was physically smaller than me, so I felt confident. I was expecting someone twice my size. I felt a sense of relief at that moment and I even smirked a little myself.
“Hmm, I’m gonna do whatever it takes for these Nikes. They never leaving my feet. I promise you that,” I told him while never breaking eye contact.
Flat Top looked toward the front door to the wing for a split second and then stepped into my cell. I stepped back into my southpaw stance and tucked my chin. I prepared for combat.
“Well homie, we about to see if you gonna represent for them Nikes.” As he closed my cell door it clicked shut, meaning it was locked. There was nowhere to run. The ring was a 12 x 16 cell with a bunk bed, a table and a toilet. “They call me Feli,” he told me, before he got into his own fighting stance.
I stood looking in the mirror yet again, checking the damage to both my eyes and bottom lip. The whole left side of my face was on fire, and my left ribs were on fire, too. Feli wanted my Nikes badly, and he kicked my ass thoroughly. However, I didn’t ball up or beg for mercy. I fought. I learned quickly that in prison people rarely kept a score sheet of wins and losses. The only thing that mattered was that you fought, whether you won, lost or fought to a draw. Those that fought had respect and those that didn’t fight experienced some horror. That was how it was, plain and simple.
That son of a bitch, Feli, was like lightening and when I tried to wrestle he was like a slippery pole. We didn’t have much room to move, but Feli knew the cell well, for he moved in it like a pro. His punches stung and were accurate, and his size was misleading. Never again would I underestimate a smaller opponent.
“Look out Tee! Come on homie, it’s our go at the domino table.” I heard Feli yelling my nickname from the dayroom. “Fuck you.” I whispered to myself. How did we go from trying to knock out each other’s teeth to becoming domino partners?
I dabbed my lip again with wet toilet paper and surveyed the swelling on the left side of my face.
Damn. I might have two black eyes tomorrow. Fuck. I looked down at my feet at my Bo Jackson Nikes. They were still there. They were never leaving my feet.
“Look out Tee!” Feli yelled even louder. “Come on man!” I took one last look at my face and made my way downstairs to the dayroom. As I walked I surveyed the open area of the dayroom and looked for Opie. He got moved to U-wing with me, but I didn’t see him anywhere. I silently wondered what was up with him.
There were three Black guys sitting at the domino table waiting for me. One of them was Feli, who spoke, “Say ya’ll, this is my boy Tee. Homie got heart. He fought hard as a mother flicker for them Nikes.” Everybody at the table laughed … except me. I was then greeted with fist bumps and told names as I sat down to play partner dominoes with an individual who just tried to beat me up and take my Nikes. Feli acted as if nothing had happened; like nothing was wrong. I just followed suit like I knew it was a rite of passage, which it was.
It was at the domino table that I got the rules of the prison game. Don’t associate with people outside of your race. Don’t disrespect the Hispanics unless you were willing to kill one of them and stay away from the punks, unless you want to end up with AIDS. I was also told to go to commissary and buy a can of refried beans to always keep in my locker, because there was no telling when it would jump off. (A canned good in a sock was a weapon of choice during that time, and only refried beans didn’t burst after impact.)
It was explained to me that Feli was the “weed eater” for the wing. It was Feli’s job to test all young Blacks upon entering G-wing. If you fought, you were accepted. If you didn’t fight you were an outcast and a liability. All liabilities had to be identified because it could be a life or death situation at any time in prison. People simply had to know who would fight and who wouldn’t.
With my orientation complete, I played dominoes for the rest of the day before I went to the recreation yard later that night. I couldn’t play basketball because of my face and ribs, so I just watched the games while looking around the yard.
Eventually I spotted someone I knew from T.Y.C., Mario. “Look out Mario!” I called his name about four times before he looked my way. It felt good to know at least one person on the unit where I was assigned. Mario was about 40 feet from where I was standing, hanging with a group of Hispanics. When Mario finally turned to look at me, he looked at me with no recognition in his eyes arid then he looked off.
It took a minute for me to understand why Mario hadn’t acknowledged me. Rule number one: Don’t associate with people outside of your race. Damn. I turned away from Mario, understanding the reality that we both now faced.
A couple of hours later I went back into the wing with the intent to shower and call it a night. My cellmate had been at work the whole day, so I hadn’t met him yet. I was slightly curious about how he and I would get along. Would I have to go a few rounds with him behind my shoes? Shit. I hoped that wasn’t the case. I was told my cellmate’s name was “Money B” and I was told he was “as cool as a fan.” After I met Money B I felt grateful to have a good cellmate. Money B was cool, for real.
On my way to the shower, I saw Opie for the first time in hours. He was sitting at a table with a couple Hispanics. That was totally out of line, for the dayroom was segregated. We had tables and benches for Hispanics and blacks appropriately titled “Mexico” and “Africa.” There was only one table with four seats for the whites, but Opie sat at a table in “Mexico.”
I learned that prison is another world; a world most referred to as the “concrete jungle.” Minorities were the majority in prison and when I first got to prison I learned quickly that having colored skin was a distinct advantage. When I questioned Feli about why he thought Opie was sitting in Mexico, he simply told me, “That white boy is ‘riding.’ They’ll probably turn him out in about a week or so.”
Although I had never heard the expression “riding” before, I knew what “turn him out” meant. Evidently Opie didn’t fight. So he had no respect.
As I walked past where Opie was seated, I noticed that Opie’s face held no marks or abrasions. Opie evidently had made a deal. I felt sympathy for Opie, but silently I was thankful for my busted lip and swollen face. I was thankful for the pain.
I lay in my top bunk and looked up at the ceiling. The clock on my radio read after two a.m. My nightmares didn’t stop just because I was in prison. I had to open my eyes to escape the pain, only at that time my eyes were swollen, so I felt pain either way. For the rest of my life part of my punishment would be having to close my eyes and remember.
I reflected on the events of the day before. My first day wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Yeah. I had to fight, but that was the nature of doing time in the system. I still had all of my teeth, so I was thankful.
I thought about the fear I felt when I arrived at the Wallace Unit, and I reflected on how fear is often an illusion. The imagination always made things worse than what they were. I wasn’t at the Holiday Inn, but I wasn’t in hell either, well at least not yet. Money B had been in prison for seven years and he told me that doing time in prison would always be like a roller coaster ride.
There would always be extreme highs and extreme lows. He told me I hadn’t experienced the extreme low yet.
Money B also told me that tension was brewing on the wing. Word spread about what happened on J1 earlier that day. It seemed that the Blacks didn’t like how that fight went down. There would be a meeting on the recreation yard the next day to determine what to do about it.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t know either of the people that fought. All that mattered was that I would fight, and when it came down to a racial situation, it didn’t matter what gang a man was in, the “tribe” would come together as one to handle the situation. I proved myself worthy, so I was accepted into the tribe, and I was expected to show up on the recreation yard the next day. It seemed that my ass whooping resulted in some honorable responsibilities. I laughed quietly at the irony.
I wondered how it would all end. I had over 24 years left on my sentence. What would be the end result? I then thought about Commodore. I should’ve done more to convince him that he had a life worth living. I should’ve taken him seriously when he was talking about killing himself. He said he would do it, and he did. He deprived himself of the chance to see that it wasn’t that bad, He could’ve survived just like I had done, because he would’ve fought just like I fought. Damn, Commodore.
Regrets. That’s all I had in life was regrets. I shed my first tears in prison as I thought about my regrets. I had many. I let it all out that first night. There would be no more tears from that point on. I was in prison; weaknesses were taken advantage of. I wouldn’t be among the weak.
I let it all go, and then from somewhere deep down inside of me I embraced determination and became bound to perseverance. I didn’t know what it would take to survive, but I would survive. I was planted in concrete, but somehow I would bloom where I was planted.