Prison isn’t the lowest you can go.
It would seem as such to the common observer, but even as Dante’s Inferno had different levels of hell, so are there different miseries of prison one can experience. Step out of line, and a guy could go from being the man to being dead in the span of a day.
Even if one runs the most immaculate of personal programs, there’s the possibility of mental health issues. Whether developed in prison, or from birth, these issues can lead to long-lasting impacts at home, and in the community if not properly assessed and addressed. All too often, neither of these happen, and the individual becomes another statistic for recidivism, or worse.
While in the joint, these men affected by underlying mental health issues run around wreaking havoc, or fold into themselves and abstain from the outside world. Most of the time it was like living in a mental institution, no joke. Unshaven, smelly, digging for cigarette butts on piss-ridden bathroom floors: these guys had mentally removed themselves from a harsh reality; instead of confronting their predicament, they chose to run from it, and in the process, created a whole new set of unfortunate circumstances for themselves.
I would watch these mentally-ill men shuffling around the day room, brains swimming in Thorazine or Seroquel, and marvel; I couldn’t believe the State would put these guys in prison, instead of a hospital. Classification malfunctions would be the short answer.
For the most part, the ones who acted insane were left alone, or made the butt of someone’s cruel joke. Every once in awhile, someone would work one of them over; usually because the crazy person did some crazy shit, and a psycho saw an opportunity to get a free pass on physical harm.
Rise to the top, or stay at the bottom.
About halfway through my stint, I had an epiphany. I wish it was something dramatic; exciting to read, and a story unto itself.
Truth is, I’d slowly started drifting away from the fellas, and keeping more to myself. I’d also been reading Self-Help books, as I was already questioning the nature of my reality.
I would have nightmares about the wrongs I’d done; the people I’d hurt mentally and physically. I’d think about about the way I was living my life, and it made me sick.
Having to follow some Racial Creed, which put a limit on how far I could take a friendship with someone, based on the color of their skin. Getting into life-threatening mortal combat over other people’s dope debts.
Having to be part of a tribe which I felt didn’t represent me, at all.
Early one morning, I woke, sat up in bed, and had a clarity of mind and consciousness to a degree of which I’d never experienced. In the briefest of moments, I was able to see the trajectory of my future in an oddly linear fashion, and it scared the shit out of me. I saw myself catching another case, dragging my family over the coals of suffering, and being locked-up forever.
I saw prison being my reality.
Something in me flipped. I don’t mean a little flip, either; I was serious as a heart attack. I didn’t want to be in prison for the rest of my life. Having already experienced from my youth a little of what the Good Life had to offer, I knew the current set of circumstances was a catastrophe. All this time, I’d been denying the severity of where and what I was, and the realization of it all felt like a guillotine being held over my neck by a spaghetti noodle.
I stood, went to the bathroom, and did my business. I was completely lost in thought; I knew the error of my ways, and was coming to terms with having to change my way of life. I couldn’t be the same guy, or I’d get the same results. If I really wanted to be a better person, I’d have to start living a better life.
The type of life my grandfathers had been trying to teach me as I grew up: Be Honorable, Generous, and Kind. Maintain Discipline and Momentum. Have Courage; in Heart and Conviction.
Living by a Code.
I had to start immediately. It was my life, and my choice of how to live it. No man was going to direct me to my future; I was the captain of this ship, the Ruler of my Destiny. I’d made up my mind: I wasn’t with the bullshit anymore. If anyone had a problem with how I wanted to live my life, they could go and rightly fuck off.
Easier than it sounds, in the joint.
Your race is your tribe in prison. You do everything with and for them, including getting in riots and possibly losing your life. I was about to go tell my fellow comrades I no longer wanted anything to do with them, or their business. Not the type of statement which would fly over well with the fellas. No more back-up from me: I’m out. Saying something like this could get me killed; people’s feelings were going to get hurt, and usually when someone went against the grain, they were used as an example of why you shouldn’t. My skin was in the game, for real.
I withdrew from everyone for awhile. Stayed on my rack and kept reading; mostly self-help stuff, with a dash of fiction every now and then. I was doing what I could to eek out an existence, and stay the hell out of everyone’s way. I didn’t feel like hanging out and playing cards anymore, because I didn’t want to have anything to do with the crowd. Once I’d realized the necessity for the Code, I knew having a bunch of conniving dirtbags for acquaintances wouldn’t benefit me in the least.
This went on for a few months. People had noticed I’d been keeping to myself, but no one brought it up, or made it an issue. All types of problems could affect a man doing time. From missing a loved one, to the death of a family member; there were all kinds of different factors from beyond the walls which could really screw with a guy’s head. Sometimes they’d take it out on others, and other times they’d take it out on themselves. Fights were common, as was withdrawal. I was was trying to stay away from the former by doing the latter.
A lot of soul-searching going on, for sure. I had to figure out my next move. I wasn’t going to be part of the bullshit anymore; I knew in my heart I was done with the drama. Problem was, I didn’t want to lose my life. I’d been hiding out, and I knew it couldn’t go on forever. If I really wanted to be done, I had to make it known. Had to let them know: I’m out.
I had to call a meeting with the Whites.
Keith was an older, white guy; somewhere in his 50’s, close to six feet in height, and physically-fit. He and I had been in Reception together, and he was one of the few who’d fought when the riot with the Southsiders had kicked off. Solid guy, with a good sense of humor, who I also happened to play cards with now and then.
He was also the shot caller for the Woods.
Wood was the term for a white guy who wasn’t gang-affiliated, which was the category I fell into. We all stuck together like a gang, make no mistake about it. We were watching out for one another, and fighting each other’s battles. When something was about to go down, there’d be a meeting, and we’d act as one; not exactly a criminal organization, but a lot of the same markers.
Since Keith was calling the shots for the Woods, he would be the guy I’d talk to in order to assemble the troops. Sure, I could go around and individually talk to each white guy, but all it would’ve done was create unnecessary gossip and drama; not to mention, offend the guy who could sway public opinion in my favor. Not the wise route to take.
No, if I wanted to have a shot at this thing going down in my favor, I had to have Keith on my side. If he didn’t have a problem with what I was doing, he wouldn’t create a problem later on. He was the fulcrum point.
The morning I decided to make my move, I found Keith playing cards in the day room, along with three other individuals. Usually, four people playing cards meant a game of pinochle, which was exactly what Keith was up to. He saw me approaching, and spoke first.
“Hey, Bobby!” Super-friendly greeting, as if he were happy to see me. He must’ve been winning his card game.
“Hey, Keith,” I replied. “When you get a chance, can you swing by my dorm?”
Keith looked up and held my eye for a brief moment; probably searching for any hint of malice or treachery in my eyes. I didn’t have any for him, and it must’ve showed.
“Yeah, Bobby,” said Keith. “I’ll swing by your dorm after this game. Cool?”
"For sure, bro,” I replied. “I’ll be over at my rack.”
“Ok, I’ll be by in a few.”
Keith came over to my place about 20 minutes later. I had been reading a book, when he announced himself at the entry to the dorm. This was common practice; if you didn’t live in a dorm, or have any business being there, it could get you into trouble.
“Bobby! Cool to come in?”
“Yeah, man,” I replied. I sat up in bed, and moved some things around, in order to create a little space. “Take a seat.”
“Right on,” Keith said, as he sat on my bunk. “What’s on your mind, little brother?”
“Keith,” I replied. "You and I were at Wasco together. You and I fought together, when everyone else were hiding under their bunks, pissing their pants.”
“I know it, Bobby,” Keith interrupted. “You, me, and a few other whites faced a fucking army!” He laughed as he said the last part, and I chuckled along with him. We had fought an army. There were at least 30, maybe 40 Mexicans in that riot, and we had thrown down like our lives had depended on it. We could have easily ended up dead from the melee, but we made it out.
The mutual respect was there.
“So you know,” I continued. “I’m not afraid to do what has to be done.” I wasn’t asking.
“I do know, Bob,” Keith said. “I don’t think anyone questions it, either.”
“Cool,” I replied. “Because I have something that needs to be done, and I’m gonna handle it, regardless of what anyone says.” I maintained a calm demeanor, but on the inside, I was jittery with anticipation. Keith and I were cool with each other, until now, potentially. In so many words, I’d just told him I didn’t give a fuck about him being shot caller: I was going to handle business; only he didn’t know I was referring to my own.
Keith looked at me with a combination surprise and curiosity. His eyes widened, and his eyebrows started furrowing themselves, as if to ask me: who? He didn’t appear to be upset in the least; if he’d taken offense to anything I’d said, he did a pretty good job of hiding it.
“Who is it, Bobby?” Keith leaned in a little when he asked, like we were in on something together. He thought I wanted to beat someone’s ass; he had no clue I was referring to changing my life.
“Me, Keith,” I replied. I was looking him dead in eyes when I said it, so I’d leave no question as to if I was joking. I was at the point of no return. I’d voiced this notion into reality, and I’d just committed myself to riding out the consequences, come what may.
Keith looked at me as frozen, the smile still on his face. After a couple seconds, the grin faded into a look of concern, though the eye contact remained.
“Bobby,” Keith said. The sound in his voice was almost one of exasperation. “‘Why would you wanna do something like that, little bro?” He sounded genuinely concerned, as if I was a younger sibling he was talking to, and not a fellow convict. “Do you know what that does to your status? You’ll be written off, man. You don’t want that.”
He was right: I didn’t want to be written off.
I didn’t want to die in prison, either. I knew what I had to do.
“I respect you, Keith,” I replied. “It’s why I wanted to talk to you first.” Only part of this was true. I did respect him, and like him as much as I could anyone in there, but it wasn’t the reason I brought my business to his attention.
In reality, I needed him to call the meeting with the woods: if he called the gathering, it was mandatory attendance. When I said my piece, I knew everyone would be there to hear it.
“I know the consequences,” I continued. “I also know it’s my life. I’m gonna live it on my terms. If anyone wants to argue with me about it, they can get fucked. I’m ready to handle mine.”
Keith looked at me for a moment longer, thinking I was trying to commit suicide, no doubt. I’m sure he must’ve seen the look of naked determination in my eyes, as well; he didn’t take but a moment before he replied.
“Hey, man, I’m with it,” said Keith. “It’s your life, and you wanna live it. I respect that. Only thing is, you’re gonna have a ton of problems.”
“I’m looking to avoid all that, Keith,” I responded. “You’re going to help me do it, too.”
“How’s that?” A slight look of distrust began to spread across Keith’s face, as if I were trying to run some game on him. Didn’t blame him.
“I need you to call a meeting,” I said. “I wanna tell everyone at once, so there’s no confusing the issue. If anyone has a problem with my get down, we can handle it, right then and there.” I was straight-faced, and looking him in his eyes. I needed him to know I didn’t consider this some kind of game. I was dead serious, and I was trying to let it show. It must’ve worked; Keith didn’t take long in answering.
“Yeah, man,” he replied. “Might work out for you that way. If no one has any issue with it, I don’t see what the problem would be. Someone brings it up later, they look like a bitch.”
“Agreed.” I’d been thinking the same thing. When I said my piece, I not only wanted people to see me in-person; I wanted to give someone(s) the opportunity to speak up if they had an issue. I also wanted to see their faces; see who had a problem, but was too much of a coward to say anything.
“Ok,” said Keith. “I’ll set it up, bro. Are you sure you wanna do this?” Keith was trying to give me a way out, which I recognized as a gesture of concern.
There was no turning back. I was committed.
“It’s on, Keith,” I replied. “I have to do this. I appreciate your help, and you keeping this to yourself. You’re the only one who knows.” I threw the last nugget in there to get his attention, and let it be known: if this got out prematurely, I knew who’s dorm to visit.
“For sure, Bobby, yeah,” Keith said. “I won’t say shit. You have my word.” I could tell by the look on his face he understood what I was putting down; he seemed to pick it up, no problem.
“Cool, bro,” I replied. “When can we set it up?” The sooner, the better.
“Well, shit,” Keith said. “It’s still early enough where I could call a meeting for tonight, after chow. That good for you?”
“Perfect, man.” It was, too. There’d be no yard immediately after chow, so everyone would be in the building. No excuses for missing this meeting. “Let’s do it.”
“Alright then,” said Keith. He had a sound of resignation in his voice, as if he’d tried to talk someone down from a ledge, and they’d decided to jump instead. “I’ll set it up for after chow. Let’s say six o’clock?”
“Sounds good, Keith,” I replied. “I’ll see you then.”
The rest of the day was one filled with anxiety, and the dread of uncertainty. I had no idea what was going to happen next.
Keith had gone to each white individually who ran with the woods, making sure they knew there was a meeting after dinner. This wasn’t talk anymore. Everything was in motion; there was no turning back.
In reality, I didn’t know if Keith would honor his word, and keep his mouth shut. I felt as if he would, but I couldn’t be sure; for all I knew, he could’ve put a hit crew together and taken me out at will. I’d already packed my locker full of all my personal belongings, and made sure the lock was securely in place. If I did get rushed, I didn’t want people looting all my property afterwards.
I didn’t know how the meeting would turn out. All it would take is a couple of guys taking my terms personally, and I’d have a really bad scenario on my hands. Once the mob mentality kicked-in, I could be fighting against people who I never would’ve guessed wanted beef with me.
Even if the meeting went off without a hitch, then what? I’ll have labeled myself an outsider among my own people. They were the safety net; the protection I had against unwanted and unwarranted problems from the other tribes. Now, I would be looked at as lower than the other races, because I’d chosen severe ties with my own. There wouldn’t be anyone there to have my back when the shit hit the fan; no brothers coming to fight by my side.
The next few hours seemed impossibly long. As the time was nearing, I slowly lost the anxiety, and became completely resigned to what lay ahead. Whatever was going to happen didn’t matter, I just wanted the whole ordeal to be over with, so I could either live or die in peace. Were the whites to kill me then, or if I died in prison 20 years later, the results were still the same.
I wanted out of the cycle.
I made sure to stay in my dorm the rest of the day, chow-times included. I knew I had a strategical advantage by staying in the dorm. I was on the second tier, in a corner at the top of the stairs. From my vantage point, I could see anyone approaching from a good distance away; I wasn’t having anyone sneak up on me.
There was also the possibility of a sneak-attack. I could go to chow or out to yard, giving a hit crew the opportunity to hide under a rack, and/or behind a locker, and wait. I’d return to the housing unit and head back up to my dorm, none the wiser. When I finally laid down on my rack, they’d jump out and charge. I knew the maneuver well; I’d done it to others myself.
When the CO’s called chow time, I had no intention of going. Instead, I waited until everyone left the building, and I went to the restroom, since there was less of a chance I’d have someone run up and get me. I was trying to avoid being attacked while I was standing at the toilet, literally dick-in-hand. They’d shut the TV’s off when it was time for chow, so it was also more quiet in the building than usual. You learn to listen for anything in these scenarios: keys jangling, footsteps, the rustling of clothes, and whatever else gives you an edge.
The men began to returning to the housing unit roughly 15 minutes later. There was a hallway into the building called a sally port; it was narrow, and caused the guys to walk single-file, more or less. It made it easy to spot returning individuals, and I was looking for one in particular: Keith.
It didn’t take long before he entered the housing unit, and headed towards his dorm. He was on the bottom tier, all the way on the other side of the building. I began to walk at a quick pace over to Keith’s place, staying on the top tier; I’d use the stairs on the other side of the building to make ground-level. This way, I’d maintain a good view of the entire unit, should anyone try something crazy.
When I came down the stairs and went over to his dorm, I saw Kieth kneeling in front of his locker, putting his eating utensils away he’d just used for chow. I announced my presence.
“Keith.” I didn’t yell, but I was loud enough so I’d know he’d hear. His head popped up from what he’d been doing, and looked in my direction. He waved me in, and went back to messing with his stuff. I went over next to him, so I’d stay within the imaginary lines which was his area. Every convict had one, and it was something to be respected by all.
“Take a seat,” Keith said. I sat down on his rack, and he continued. “You ready to do this thing, Bobby?” I started to answer, but he kept talking, so I listened. “I like you, Bob. I can tell that prison isn’t you.” At this point, he took his head out of his locker, and looked me in the eyes, with a solemn expression written all over his face. “But doing this thing is permanent, kid. You won’t be accepted if you decide to change your mind later. You ready for that?”
“Keith,” I replied. “Let’s do this.” I was done talking at this point. I wanted to get on with it already.
“Alright, then,” Keith said. “We’ll do this over on C side, in the corner.” The buildings had three sides which housed inmates, and they were referred to by A, B, and C. We were currently on A side; the meeting would convene on the opposite side of the unit.
This was advantageous for me; the C side corner was less of a blind spot than A side, due to the positioning of the CO’s table. The cops would be able to see the gathering; it also meant if something went bad for me, they’d come, and hopefully stop it before I was dead, or had a long-term TBI.
“Ok, cool,” I said. “I’ll see you over there in a few.” I didn’t wait for Keith to reply, before I left his dorm.
I wasn’t trying to show it, but my eyes were all over the place. The building was quickly filling up from people returning from dinner; people were coming in to the building and heading in all different directions, creating a crowded environment. If someone was going to get me, this would be the perfect time to do it.
I made my way towards C side. Being at the table before anyone arrived was a critical step in my plan. This way, I could see who went where, and plan accordingly. There were a few different spots which guys could hide out (sometimes in plain sight), and rush an individual (me) when the time was right. Wanting to stay whole and intact, I had to make sure to watch everyone; see if they were stealing glances at me, or who was still in a group together, and if they normally hung out: little things which could cost your life if left unnoticed.
The TV area was still empty, as the CO’s hadn’t turned the sets back on yet. I could see who was arriving; at the moment, it was a bunch of paisas, since the schedule called for Spanish television. Another blessing: I wouldn’t have to worry about any Mexicans trying to kill me, since this was a white issue. Pretty easy to spot any Caucasians trying to hide amongst the Latin community.
I was still about 10 minutes early to the meeting, and I was on edge, trying not to jitter and give myself away. I thought the hammer was going to drop any second, but I couldn’t let my body betray me, or I’d be through. As the minutes went by, and men began making their way over to the table, I was able to hide my nervousness as we exchanged greetings, but just barely. These guys were all smiles and happy to see me, unaware the meeting was concerning my rejection of them as whole.
Let’s see what they thought in another five minutes.
Keith showed up promptly at six o’clock. He didn’t have any smiles or fist bumps for me; I was about to exiled, and he was the one passing the sentence. He had a role to play, and I didn’t fault him for it. Keith couldn’t act like my buddy, or he’d be suspect in a conspiracy, and could possibly be in danger. In the end, everyone’s going to do what they can to stay breathing.
A few more minutes went by before Keith started the meeting. There was about 30 guys there, give or take a few. Apparently, mandatory meeting meant different things to different people, as there was well over double the amount of whites in the building. Oh, well; this would have to do.
“Alright, listen up!” Everyone slowly began to quiet down; Keith waited until the last man had finished talking before he continued. “Thanks, everyone, for coming on such short notice. Bobby brought something to my attention today.” He stopped for a second, and looked in my direction a beat longer than necessary.
Pass the ball, Keith. I got this.
“I think I’m gonna go ahead and let him tell you what he told me.” Keith stepped back, until he was leaning against the concrete wall to the right of me.
This was it: the Moment of Truth. I looked around the table to see a bunch of confused eyes staring back at me. I normally didn’t get involved in these meetings to begin with; the fact I was not only here, but about to speak was something out of the ordinary, indeed. I made sure my body wouldn’t betray me in the clutch, then l leapt into the unknown.
“What’s up, guys,” I said. There were a few grunts in response, and I continued. “I don’t want to take up a bunch of your time, so I won’t make this long.
“I asked Keith to call this meeting, because I wanted you to all hear it from my mouth, instead of the rumor mill. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand what I’m saying; this way, you guys are watching me say it.” Now, there’s a few guys looking at each other with raised eyebrows; expressions on their face falling in the What the fuck? category. I saw a couple of guys start to whisper to one another, and continued immediately, as to not lose control of the gathering.
“I’m out,” I said, my eyes slowly making the circuit, meeting everyone else’s at the table. Most everyone looked shocked, but a few of the guys became visibly angry. I went on.
“I’m gonna live my own life, and no one’s gonna tell me a goddam thing about it.” Again, still scanning everyone there, who’d been stunned into silence. “I mean no disrespect towards any of you, but let it be known from now on: I won’t expect anything from you guys, and you all don’t expect anything from me. I’m done.”
As I met the stare of some of the old timers, the OG’s, I could see respect on their faces. They knew what I meant; they just weren’t up for the battle themselves.
However, some of the youngsters who were in attendance didn’t look so understanding. There were two in particular, named Tim and Pat, who’s displeasure had taken on displays of gesticulation, which is never a good sign. These guys usually hung out together, so it wasn’t a surprise they’d decided to take offense as a couple.
Tim was the larger of the two, in terms of height and physique. I’d never had any problem with him; in fact, we were in the workout area of the yard together quite often, and always had a head nod or a fist bump for each other. We were cool.
His partner, Pat, on the other hand, was a different story all together. We were not cool. Where Tim was tall and muscular, Pat was shorter, and sucked-up from years worth of intravenous drug use. Body-sleeved, more or less, as far as tattoos went. All the way up the side of his neck. This guy couldn’t find veins in the usual spots anymore, so he’d get creative, and go between his toes, or under his eyeballs.
As Tim and Pat started mumbling, I instantly got the gist of what was about to happen. Pat was a dirtbag, through and through, and now he was going to try and get his meathead friend involved, because he knew I thought he was a piece of shit. Pat was trying to even his odds, fully aware I’d mop him in a one-on-one. Oh well; So be it.
“‘What the fuck?!” Pat hadn’t waited more than a couple of seconds before he raised his voice, in a half-assed attempt to rally people to his side, no doubt. “That ain’t how-“
“And if ANYONE has a problem with how I’m gonna live my life,” I interrupted, “We can go over to the bathroom and handle business, right now.” I wasn’t about to let Pat steal the show. I needed everyone there to understand I’d take it all the way. Most had already decided it wasn’t worth the trip.
Pat stood there, silenced by my interruption and his fear. I’d called his bluff, and after looking at me for a second or two longer, he cast his eyes aside. Tim was looking at his partner, waiting on his cue; when Pat didn’t pursue his stupid quest, Tim once again followed his lead.
“Hey, guys,” said Keith, pushing himself off of the wall and torwards the table in the center of the meeting. “I was at reception with Bobby. I’ve seen him get down, and I know he’s not afraid to handle his. If no one has a problem with what he’s saying, then I say, let him do his thing, and let it be a dead issue.” He added the last decree as a measure against future retaliatory attacks against me, and I appreciated him doing so. He and I made eye contact, though there weren’t any smiles. I believe there was a recognition between us: I think Keith admired what I’d done, and gave me his little improv at the end as a parting gift; I’m sure he knew I was thankful in return.
After Keith had waited a few seconds, and made sure to look at everyone in attendance, he spoke: “Alright then. If no one has anything to say, that’s it. We’re good.” At this, everyone began dispersing from the area, and back to whatever was their normal routine.
I stood there, waiting for everyone to leave. I was still on edge, unsure of what might happen. Yeah, we’d just had a meeting, but these guys were thugs; they’d come to prison for breaking laws. If someone had something against me, I’d be a super-easy target.
I was the only person who had my back now.
“Bobby.” I turned slightly to face Keith. Everyone had left; it was only the two of us who remained. “Good luck, man. Don’t get caught up in anything, little bro. Stay safe.” He put his hand out, and I shook it. Then he turned on his heel, and walked away.
I was alone.
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