Ed. Note: The names in this story have been changed.
One thing that’s consistently amazed me is prison officials, lawmakers, and whoever else is paying attention seem to gloss right over the issue of contraband, and how it keeps getting into the prisons. You’re going to tell me pounds of marijuana and tobacco, not to mention cellphones, DVD players and the like, are all being smuggled into the joint inside of assholes? OK, I’ll give you the heroin and anything in powder form; I’ve seen the balloons going in and coming out, so I know that’s legit. But cellphones? I’ve personally seen a gym bag full of cellphones come in, and it wasn’t an inmate carrying it.
It was Jim Koch.
I’d been on the A.M. Kitchen Crew the first couple of years after I hit the Mainline. It was hell, for ten cents an hour. Unless you’re one of the cooks, there’s a whole host of reasons why a kitchen job is a huge bummer: the early hours, the awful job duties and work conditions, the fluctuation of Prison Staff (they don’t like the kitchen, either)-there weren’t a lot of “pros” in the Kitchen.
Facility Maintenance, on the other hand, was a much better position I’d finally managed to work myself into, and Jim Koch was one of the Freestaff there. He was cool in the sense that he was harmless and just wanted to be one of the fellas. He was stretching his earholes with those trendy ear piercings and dressing the part, but he didn’t have the juice to go all the way in any given situation. Underneath his cool-guy clothes and $20 haircut, he was scared. All the Freestaff were, mostly, so it’s not a diss against him personally. It’s just the way it was.
Jim would come to work on Monday and tell a bunch of pussy-starved gangsters about his weekend conquests. Sometimes he’d be hungover, whether from alcohol or something else. You’d get in the truck with him, and he’d drive to some discrete part of the prison and tell you, “OK, I’m gonna take a nap. Keep point (watch out)”. Then he’d sleep for a couple of hours. He thought he was one of the guys and trusted us like that. He wasn’t thinking what could’ve happened once his eyes closed. He could sit in that truck all day, smoking cigarettes and taking naps. Didn’t matter. When he came to work, he felt tough, felt cool, because he was hanging out with all of us.
Just begging to be exploited.
That’s exactly what happens, too. Sure, there might be a small number of inmates who wouldn’t want to take any part in receiving outside contraband from staff. I wasn’t one of them. Dude brings in a flask full of whisky and offers you a swig? How about digging a ditch on the side of a prison road for three hours, when suddenly, you smell that smell. Turn around and see dude looking straight at you with a shit-eating smirk on his face. Ooh, he’s being a bad-ass, breaking the law. Hangin’ with the cons.
I have to tell you, it was pretty cool. I hadn’t seen any alcohol or weed in years, before I got the Facility Maintenance job. I’d been being yelled at by overworked CO’s at 0330 in the kitchen. Now, I’ve got the sweetest setup I could’ve imagined.
Let’s start with the food: purely an as much as you want situation. Good food could easily be used as currency, let alone for eating. Then there were the little perks the CO’s would give you when you’d get a work order to fix their office or the like, and you did a good job. Extra soap and toilet paper, going easy on your property during a shakedown; little things which made a world of difference.
Once I became known to the CO’s as prisoner who could do facility repairs without having to wait on a work order, I was golden. I know it may sound silly, so I’ll run a scenario by you: You’re a CO, in a building with 300 inmates, and your staff bathroom is flooded. Put a work order in, wait a week or two, and Maintenance would be by to fix it...or you could just page me to the podium.
When they’d do searches, nine outta ten times my stuff would hardly be touched.
Back to these wannabe Freestaff who were getting off on hanging out with killers and other assorted thugs. Although I didn’t have a direct hand in the action, I could see from the sidelines that Jim was an easy flip. Too many times had he broken rules in front of inmates and had let them do the same; now certain imaginary lines had become blurred.
It’ll start with something small that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Smoking cigarettes from the same pack. Bringing food from home to share. Find one of these convicts who has an alcohol or drug problem, and let him catch a staff member doing their assigned predilection at work. The blackmail begins, and it won’t stop until someone’s in trouble.
Or maybe one of these Freestaff has seen their coworker make a quick $10,000 by bringing in some dope or some cellphones. Maybe a combination of the two, who knows. Dope has a felony attached to it, but surprisingly, bringing in cellphones does not, or at least it didn’t at the time. This was an avenue which was quickly taken by many Freestaff in search of easy money with minimal consequence.
To be sure, all of us in the beginning wanted to see him turned to the dark side, to an extant, since all of us would reap the benefits. When Mr. Koch switched from tobacco to weed to speed, I felt bad to see his decline and his ultimate demise. Really. He went from being a decent-looking guy in his late twenties to someone who looked twice his age, all in the span of about a year. It was a shame, because he didn’t seem like a bad guy; just a man who hadn’t realized he’s supposed to be a grownup.
There was a perverse type of pleasure he was getting from being a Freestaff Prison Worker/Wannabe Undercover Outlaw Gangster. He was getting paid, too. He had his chick go get a PO box somewhere and he started having people send money for drugs. Soon enough, prisoners were getting strung out, courtesy of Freestaff Koch. He had access to every yard in the institution, and as a matter of prison policy, every yard was represented by an inmate worker in Facility Maintenance. In other words, Mr. Koch had a delivery man for every single housing unit in the joint.
Lots of opportunity there.
I had a chance to spend a lot of time with Jim. To be fair, a sizable amount of that time was spent with him passed-out in the drivers seat of his truck, desperately trying to recover from whatever he poisoned himself with the night before. Still, Jim had plenty of things to discuss during the times that he was conscious, and after getting to know him a bit, I started to like him.
He reminded me of my younger brother in a way, and I eventually started to take concern as to the developing business plan he and his inmate partners were bringing to fruition. It seemed like he was coming to work strung-out more often than not. Jokes were being made about his condition in the morning meetings. We were taking job orders we weren’t filling. Work which Jim personally put his hands on came out looking like garbage, and he didn’t care. To sum it up, he was slipping, which is the first sign of one’s demise.
One of the Major Tenets of Prison Life is to mind your own business. Not doing so could wind up with you being seriously hurt and possibly killed. This is not hyperbole. This is how it is. When Jim’s involvement went from bringing dope to the shop for the fellas to supplying all six yards with drugs, I reverted to this rule. I was not going to say anything. I came in here by myself, I’m going to leave here by myself.
Once I saw he was adding cellphones to his repertoire, however, I thought he might be getting in a little too far over his head. Like, maybe he didn’t realize that people’s lives were on the line over payment of these products, and not just people on the inside, either.
Single moms, Grandmas, girlfriends, brothers/sisters sending money to people that live in cities you didn’t even know were in California. Sorry babe, I know rent is due and our 11 month-old needs diapers, but the big homie Sleepy told me I need to send a money order to the other homie’s ‘ol lady in Exeter.
You know, stuff like that.
I would venture to say that nine out of ten riots which occur in institutions are behind overdue debts. Serious business. Not something I’d want on my conscious, with all the people getting hurt. If that’s not bad enough, imagine what’s going to happen when the cops find out you’re the supplier. Any CO’s or inmates who where hurt during an altercation, or worse? That’s on you, Playa.
When you stop and think about it for a minute, it makes you wonder who would ever want to venture into some stuff like that. Takes a certain type of person, I guess, and in hindsight, I wish I’d realized that.
One day, Jim was heading over to one of the yard’s kitchen to get some trays of food. I’d been wrestling on whether or not I was going to speak to him about this for a few days, and I thought I might have the opportunity to do the right thing for the guy before he dug himself in real nice and deep. Like, no-coming-back nice and deep. No one immediately spoke up to go with him, so I said I would go and give him a hand.
We did a little small talk for a few moments, as we both got in the truck and headed down the prison road. I waited a little while until I broached the subject.
“Jim,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about some stuff lately that I wanted to run by you, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure,” he said. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“Dude, it’s the product that’s been coming in and the amount of it. There’s some people on the yard that are becoming some serious movers and shakers behind this stuff, and when someone gets rolled up and snitches behind this shit, I don’t want to see you take a major fall. You’re a cool dude and I’d hate for your life to get ruined for some Prison Gangsta stuff. You feel me, bro?”
I was being as genuine as I could be; I even let the prison mask drop off, so he could see it in my eyes. So he could maybe feel the fact I was looking out for him, as he had no idea what he was getting in to.
Jim was not feeling me, however. At all. As a matter of fact, he made a poor attempt at putting on a prison mask of his own, before turning in the seat of the truck and facing me.
“Look man,” he said. “I hope you getting all touchy-feely right now isn’t gonna make you start acting soft. I have stuff going to all six yards right now, and if you fuck it off because you think you’re making friends, well, there’s gonna be hella people pissed at you.”
Ok then. Prison mask back online.
“Look, you fucking retard, I’m not trying to make friends with your dumbass. I made a mistake in saying something. Thought I was looking out.” When you had to deal with staff, sometimes you have to come at them a little crazy, remind them we’re they’re at. As in, alone in a Chevy work truck behind Building 510.
He was silent for a beat, and I figured he was probably doing a little mental evaluation of the situation. The fact he’s so hungover, he can’t stay awake. Did my getting crazy with him warrant a trip to the Support Office. I guess he thought it didn’t.
“Ok, man. Better to not speak on things at all. Understood?”
“Yup,” I said. “Got it.”
I learned a valuable lesson that day; one I’m thankful I learned earlier into my prison stint, rather than later: just because someone is in a position that offers rehabilitation to inmates, it doesn’t mean they’re there for the right reasons.
I remembered all the stories that the old-timers would tell, trying to look out for a youngster. Things like Freestaff will fuck you over in a heartbeat, or Don’t think that they’re your friend. They’re some of the most corrupt people in the system.
Here was my chance to see it, firsthand. My opinion of Jim changed dramatically in that moment. I’d been watching out for this guy as he slept in his truck everyday, thinking I was somehow doing something good, when I wasn’t. All I’d been doing was enabling this asshole, opening up doors for him that he could never open himself. He’d been using me, and I went along with it, smile on my face, the whole time.
I was off Jim’s crew the next day. I guess he felt as though I was a risk, and didn’t want me around. The job actually went to a guy from Orange County that I’d been hanging out with, which was cool, I guess. I was put on Alex’s crew which was a huge bummer, considering that this guy was the most by-the-book guy in Facility Maintenance and he didn’t take any shit. He didn’t bend any rules; if he caught you doing something wrong, you’d get written up.
I ended up leaving Facility Maintenance a few months after I’d spoken with Jim. I had some associates who still worked there, and they kept me clued into the Fall of Jim. He’d been caught sleeping in one of his spots, and the CO that caught him was not amused. He was written up for it, asked to take a drug test, which he failed, and sent to rehab, courtesy of the People of California. Jim does his stint, and is then sent home.
He never came back.
I don’t know the reason he never returned. All I’d heard from the guys who worked there was he kept taking sick time. Then, he ran out of sick time and went on unemployment, I kid you not. Maybe he was still using; a Freestaff who was personal friends with Jim had voiced within earshot of the convicts that he was using meth. Maybe he was getting super paranoid, thinking the cops were building a case against him, just waiting to catch him red handed. That happens, more than the public probably realizes. Whatever the reason, he was never seen again.
All the dope stopped coming to the yards, which meant the prices skyrocketed because of scarcity. People started making promises to dope dealers they couldn’t keep. Now you have the riots, when multiple races are involved in the sales, which is something else which happened quite frequently. People getting hurt, their family’s and friend’s lives in possible danger, all over these super-small amounts of dope the addicted-ridden inmate couldn’t put down.
The guards and free staff who thought they were playing mobsters were able to leave the prison after their shift is over, thinking they were the shit. They’d played off of the fact that the yards were full of dirtbags, and for these guys who were behind bars inability to say no.
Jim had a temporary escape available, and many, many people took him up on it. He thought he was a gangsta, but he couldn’t keep it together. He ended up succumbing to the very sickness which he was spreading on the yards. Sad story, or poetic justice? A little bit of both, I think.