Ed. Note: Names have been changed.
Someone’s word. This concept, which is entwined with the disposition of honor, is as old as recorded time. All the ancient religious texts contain parables having something to do with giving or following through on someone’s word.
Christ himself is referred to as The Word Made Flesh, who dwelt among us.
Unfortunately, giving your word has lost value and meaning over the years. I wish there was a way to soften the impact of this statement, but people constantly say or commit to do things they have absolutely no intention of following up on. Contracts are based on a mutual distrust, assuming one of the parties may break their word. Marriages (another contract) are being dissolved at record-breaking paces, causing unknown harm to children of such families.
Dope fiends are another example of such a person. When you find someone who is in the throes of addiction, they’ll say or do anything to get the next bag of goodies. Their mom, kids, next-of-kin: when someone gets lost on a substance, all of these things have a price. I’m not even taking a controversial stance by stating such; it’s been seen so many times, it’s common knowledge.
So, what happened? The short answer is, accountability. We stopped holding people to their word, like they did in the old days. People can make excuses, blame other people, hire lawyers; all different ways of shirking responsibility, as to not be held accountable for failure of holding up your end. Society has developed into a place aimed at being easy, which translates as, I can say and do anything I want, and you can’t do anything about it because I’m protected by the law.
In prison, there are no silly constraints on holding someone to their word. The idea of commitment and honoring verbal contracts is very real. A type of real which most people aren’t used to or ready for. Physical. You can be harmed for not following through on your word, and there’s a good chance no one will come to save you, leaving you at the mercy of your attacker(s). If all you get is punched and kicked, you’re lucky; many times, people go in a little harder, wanting to make an example out of you for the next guy who gets the dumb idea of not keeping their word. If you make and break a promise to the wrong person, you could lose your life.
Most of the riots I saw were because someone hadn’t kept their word, making a promise to the Dope Man, and then reneging on it. If the sale was between races, it would usually be resolved between Shot Callers; they’d get together, discuss what happened, and the offender’s own race would deal with it.
Sometimes, however, the Dope Man wouldn’t wait on Shot Callers and he’d end up handling business his own way.
When this happened, and people saw their race fighting with another race, riots ensued. Either spur of the moment or retaliatory, these melees would be intense, with the use of weapons being frequent and horrible.
Think Braveheart, but instead of swords and shields, you had shanks, locks-in-socks, mop bucket wringers, and spears made from broom handles. People using anything they could get their hands on.
Every once in a while, someone would come up with something really creative.
There was this guy named Kevin; black, mid-30’s, and generally a cool dude. He kept himself in-shape, had a good sense of humor, and didn’t seem like he was really tripping on the race thing. I didn’t know his history or backstory, but you could tell dude wasn’t banging on the streets. Seemed like he was very personable, which is generally a good way to be in the slammer.
When I first became aware of Kevin, these were my initial impressions. I liked the guy. We talked with each other sometimes in the TV area of the housing unit, or if we were in the workout area of the yard at the same time. Nothing major; mostly bullshitting about this or that, but it’s the conversation you’re after in the joint, and he was skilled in the art.
Later on, I saw a different side of Kevin which I was unaware of. A darker side. Apparently, he had a predilection for heroin, and he was very good at keeping it a secret. The only way I found out was by seeing him do it.
I happened to be visiting an associate who lived in the same dorm. I only looked briefly; as soon as my eyes picked it up, I looked away, so it wouldn’t look like I was minding his business. Had I not seen him using, I would’ve never known, nor would I have thought Kevin messed around.
Kevin wore a lot of his own personal clothing and usually had a full locker, which told me he had family and/or friends who still cared about him. Kevin hadn’t burnt every bridge he had with his loved ones yet. They were still buying all the bullshit lines addicts feed their families: how tough it was on the inside, how awful the food was, how little of the awful food there was, how if they sent so-and-so $50 for whatever reason, it’d really help him out. He hadn’t gone so far down the rabbit hole, they started telling him no, or they didn’t have it, in order to assert a little tough love and save money.
Kevin was also the type of guy who liked to share, when it came to getting high. If he bought a bag, he’d have a few of his associates over, crowed around a steel bunk bed, trying to get a peek at the homemade, heroin-filled syringe which was sitting on the mattress. They’d all help each other slam, rinsing the syringe with water after each use. They’d sit there for a minute, either passed-out or about to be. Then, they’d come to and jam out of the dorm in different directions.
He had a lot of people who were friendly towards him because he let people get high on his supply. You’d see him hanging out with people in the housing unit, or playing basketball on the yard, and all of his interactions seemed laid-back and cool. No one had any beef with him, and he seemed to get along with everybody.
Kevin was in a good place; everyone was cool with him.
Everyone except Ben and T.
Ben and T were two old, black lifers who were also crimies: they had participated in the same crime which had sent them both to prison; in this case, a kidnap/murder. They were actually both sentenced to die, but in 1972, the Supreme Court in California made a decision in People vs. Anderson which halted capital punishment. The inmates who where sitting on death row had their sentences commuted to life without parole, and literally gained a new lease on life.
Old habits die hard, however; by the time I’d become acquainted with the pair, they were known for dealing drugs. They weren’t friendly drug dealers, either. These guys weren’t walking around with smiles and high-fives for everyone. They were shiesty, and acted as such. Not the type of people you’d want to enter into a business agreement with.
Of course, this is exactly what Kevin did. He asked the drug-dealing duo for a front; two grams of heroin, which is a lot in prison, to be paid for by a specified date. Kevin figured he could sell a bunch of it himself, at least enough to cover the cost of the dope, and get high on the rest. Seemed like a solid business plan at the time, I’m sure. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.
Kevin, being the addict he was, couldn’t manage to stop doing his drugs long enough to sell any. He had a sizable amount, and wasn’t able to control himself. He went on a bender; probably managed to stretch those grams the better part of two weeks. Shooting up everyday, enveloping himself in the fogginess of mind unique to opium; he was using the substance as a means for escape from the actual prison he was living in.
Once the drugs ran out and the party was over, you could see a visible change in Kevin’s appearance. He didn’t seem as well put together; disheveled, if you wanted to get grammatical about it. Even though he didn’t have a large amount, he’d stretched the heroin long enough to get strung out and feel like shit when it was all gone.
Now, there were no friendly greetings or acknowledgements; dude walked around in his own little dopey, emo world, bummed he was out of his stuff. Spent a lot of time at his rack by himself, usually listening to music, or reading a magazine. He was acting depressed, like the game was over, or the jig was up.
It was, in more ways than one.
When Kevin had been buying the smaller pieces of heroin on a here and there basis, he didn’t have any trouble hiding his pastime from his family; the money they sent to his books was enough to accommodate his lifestyle, and he could spare what he’d pay for the product. I don’t think his family would’ve appreciated him spending their hard-earned money on dope which had been marked-up 1000%, but this didn’t matter to Kev. It was hard on the inside, you know? A brother had to find a release from the bullshit.
Problem was, Kevin started making promises he couldn’t keep; to others, and himself. He’d tried to come up on some dope, and he didn’t follow through. He could’ve recovered at this point, had he’d been honest; he might’ve been able to work something out with Ben and T, as he had yet to break his work to them. They probably would’ve taken him up on it, as Kev was known for having a full locker. Granted, they would’ve charged him an insane amount of interest, but he’d still have a good name and his health.
This isn’t what happened.
The date for Kevin came to pay his bill, and he didn’t deliver, nor was he honest. He started giving Ben and T the runaround; his people got off of work late, they’d do it this weekend when they had the time, etc. When the weekend came and went, Kev told them there’d been a problem with his ol’ lady’s car, but it get done this week, for sure. Didn’t happen.
Then, Kevin told the drug-dealing duo his family had taken care of the debt, and he had the Western Union receipt numbers to prove it. Of course, the numbers were bogus; Kev claimed he must’ve heard a number wrong, and he’d call back during his phone time the following day. When the time came, his wife wasn’t home, but he’d be sure to get a hold of her the next day...
Somewhere around the third week past his due date, Ben, who was the smaller, but no less nefarious of the two, came and paid Kevin a visit.
I remember when it happened, because news travels fast in the joint; Kev was heavily in-debt, and everyone knew it, thanks to the gossip of bored, dumb men. I was in the day room, waiting on a building unlock so I could go to yard, and Kevin was at the table next to mine. He was wearing some personal clothing: a grey sweater and sweatpants. When I saw Ben approaching, I paid attention: if he was about to do something to Kev, I didn’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity. No new charges for me, thank you very much.
Not how it went down, however. Ben didn’t have his prison mask on; he looked like he was coming to talk to a friend. This should’ve been Kevin’s first warning, and maybe it was, as Ben and his partner T were known for taking care of business; who knows. Since I was standing near the two, I overheard the conversation.
“Hey, man,” said Ben. “Lemme get at you a minute.” He wasn’t asking, but neither was he volatile in his approach. One brother to another.
“Yeah, man,” replied Kevin. “What’s going on?” He gestured to one of the empty stools at the table, and Ben took the seat. I continued to wait for the unlock, and eavesdrop on their conversation.
“Look, man,” said Ben. “Day already come and gone, you supposed to pay us. You gonna make us look bad, and I don’t want it to get to that point. Feel me?” Again, he sounded sincere. I didn’t detect any malice; just an old lifer trying to give this dude a way out. Apparently, Kev felt the same way, judging by his somewhat-eager response.
“Yeah B, I hear you. It’s been hard, getting a hold of my people. If I could do something for you-commissary every month, or whatever-tell me. I got you.”
“Yeah, man, we was thinking something like that,” said Ben. “Tell you what: head up to the dorm real quick before you head out, let T know you down with the new program.”
At this point, two things happened: one of the CO’s did the housing unit unlock, and my spidey-senses began to tingle, heavily. There was no way in hell you’d get me to go up to the second tier, into one of the dorms which had a blind spot. It was suicide. You didn’t know what could happen to you in such a situation, and there wasn’t anyone coming to save you. The exact scenario you’d want to avoid.
On the other hand, Kev didn’t really have much of choice. Ben was dangling a proverbial carrot in front of Kevin’s face, offering him an escape from his current circumstances. Kevin was already deep in Ben and T’s pockets; if there was a way to fix his situation where everyone was happy and he was able to keep his health, there’s no question he’d jump at the chance. Anyone would.
Which, I suppose, is exactly what Ben and T thought, too.
Kevin followed Ben up the stairs, and instead of going outside to get some exercise-time in with the fellas, I sat at the table I’d been standing next to, and pretended not to spy on the two. You don’t ever want to be caught bird-dogging someone’s business in the pen. All types of problems arise from not minding your own business, and all of them involve brute force. I was acting like I was scanning the building, waiting on an imaginary friend who was going to hit the yard with me, but in reality, I was trying to focus my attention on the dorm upstairs. If something was going to go down, I wanted to see it, plain and simple.
Turns out, I heard more than I saw.
In order to explain what happened next, I need to familiarize you with a device called an immersion heater, but more commonly known to convicts as stingers. They’re essentially and electric cord you plug into a wall socket, with a large metal coil attached at the end. You put the coil in a container of water, then plug the stinger in; five to ten minutes later, you have boiling water to make meals with. Ramen was a popular commissary item for which you needed really hot water, as was coffee, and they weren’t the only ones. A very cool accessory to have.
Unfortunately, like everything else in life, if you let cool stuff fall into the wrong hands, it can and will be corrupted.
Long before Ben had approached Kevin in the day room, T had been using a stinger, only he wasn’t boiling water. He was cooking baby oil. A whole pitcher’s worth. When Kev made the second-tier landing, Ben and T’s dorm was directly in front of them. Three steps, and he’s there. He took two, before T suddenly sprung up from behind the dorm partition wall, and threw the entire pitcher of scalding baby oil directly into Kevin’s face.
The sound I heard next is one I’ll never forget, truly. A mixture of fear and pain, it was so intense and high-pitched, you’d swear a man couldn’t make it. As he was screaming, he’d managed to turn around and jump over Ben, who was still a few steps below the landing, on his way downtown the stairs. The CO who was still in the housing unit stood there for a moment, looking at this guy running out of the building like he was on fire (which, in away, he was), and assessing the situation, no doubt. He looked upstairs, then went outside after Kevin.
I stood there, dumbfounded. I had never even heard of such a thing, let alone seen it. Talk about some medieval shit. When Keven had run by me on his way out of the building, I was able to get a glimpse of his face, and I could immediately tell something was wrong. Curiosity got the better of me, and I headed out of the housing unit while it was still open.
When I came outside, Kevin was standing with his back to the wall, surrounded by four cops. He was speaking to them, but I couldn’t get close enough to hear. I was close enough to see, however, and what I saw wasn’t pretty.
Kev’s face was melting off.
He’d managed to turn slightly when he’d seen T spring out from behind the dorm partition, so he hadn’t taken the boiling baby oil head-on; it was mostly the left side of his face which was thoroughly fucked. It was like a slice of hot pizza with mozzarella cheese, as you’re trying to pull it apart from the rest of the pie.
What made it all the more horrible was the contrast created from his injuries; in different areas, his cocoa-colored skin had bubbled away, exposing the off-white subcutaneous layer beneath. It made seeing the extent of his injuries all the more clear, and wiping the sight of them from my mind all the more difficult.
After a couple of minutes, the CO’s escorted Kevin to the infirmary, and I never saw him again. About 10 minutes later, a six-man squad came in and arrested Ben and T. Whether Kev had snitched, or the cops figured it out, I never knew, but the outcome was the same, so it doesn’t really matter.
I heard the pair of lifers ended up getting eight years added on to their sentences, along with being reclassified because of their new charges, and moved to a level-three prison. Their new living arrangement probably hadn’t hurt them as badly as what they’d done to Kevin. After the havoc Ben and T had caused, they probably wouldn’t see the outside world for a very long time. Lifers had to jump through hoops in order to be paroled, as even minor infractions could set them back years. Those two weren’t going anywhere.
Kevin’s two biggest infractions were breaking his word, and being dishonest. Maintain your honor and your good name at all costs. If, for any reason, something causes you to break your word, do not resort to deceit. Be truthful, and find a resolution. Hopefully, you’ll maintain trust and won’t burn a bridge.
Or your face.