My dad died before I was born. Not as big a deal as everyone makes it out to be, either. It was much worse for the people who knew him, my mother especially. She was about three months pregnant with me when it happened. Eighteen years-old.
Can’t imagine, something like that happening to myself when I was eighteen, or one of my children. She suffered through it though, and came out the other end.
For me? I grew up, hearing stories about what a fantastic, loving, handsome guy my dad was. He was one of four boys, but clearly the best of the bunch, if I where to believe every tale that was ever told about him. I’d really missed out, not being able to meet him, to be raised and loved by him. I believe this to be true. Problem was, it didn’t hurt me the way it hurt others, at least not how I understood it at the time. There was curiosity, at wanting to know where I came from, but not the pain of loss. That fell on the ones who’d loved him.
The real damage came from not having a loving, sturdy-hand in the form of a father, or father-figure. I was raised by women, who tried their hardest, but by the very nature of their biology, couldn’t imitate the male role. There’s a definite yin-yang affect when a man and woman raise a child. Many may disagree with this, and that’s fine: they’re entitled to their opinion. I lived it, and had a ten-year opportunity to study what happens when there’s no father in the picture. I’m entitled to my opinion, as well.
I will say this: a man-woman child-rearing doesn’t need to necessarily be the form of husband and wife. Grandfathers, brothers, uncles: all of these men can and will influence your child’s upbringing, for better or worse. One of the many hard jobs of a single mother determining which males in her life fall in the former category, and not the latter.
When I arrived at Reception, it was a bit chaotic. I remember getting off of the bus, an alarm going off, and immediately having to prone-out, which is to lie on the ground in the prone position. Hot asphalt. Trying to raise yourself a little off the ground with your fingers and toes, so you can give your chest and legs a moment’s relief before they have to lay on the coals again.
There was this guy everyone called Turtle. This was on account of his face having that no-chin, upturned kind of look. He was a white guy in his fourties, had prison tats all over his body, including a few that would label him as part of a hate group. Talked like he was a hick, even though he was from Bakersfield.
It was weird; the first time I’d met people from California that didn’t sound like people from California, once I got to Reception. People from places like Oildale sounded like they were from Oklahoma.
Turtle’s extensive experience with being in the custody of the State allowed him to navigate the in’s and out’s of Reception fairly easily, meeting and making connections with people who could get him what he needed or wanted. I saw this knack he had for getting away with shit, and it intrigued me, to put it plainly. Keep in mind, I was still very fresh and knew nothing; in reality, people like Turtle were a dime a dozen in the joint. They were the ones you tried to stay away from. At the time, however, it seemed like one of the neatest things in the world.
The older guys, often referred to as OG’s or Big Homies, were the ones who had been through the system a few times, and knew exactly what was going on. The youngsters would flock to these Prison Daddies in droves, and these seasoned conmen knew exactly what to do with them. Teach them the rules. Put them to work.
Turtle scooped me up into his clique almost immediately. Normally, I would’ve fallen in with some Homeboys, but there weren’t any where I was at, so Turtle it was. He probably saw an impressionable, young-adult with a little size who he could use to back him up. Either way, there was a group of us, who would spend the days watching each other’s backs, looking for cigarettes or weed, or playing pinochle. Spades was another popular card game, as well. Kicking it tough, calling, next on a game of cards. Getting stuck in a type of Groundhog Day time-loop.
One day, Turtle was able to procure a bag of tobacco, as long as we put some money in this other inmate’s account. Back then, tobacco was contraband while you were in reception (they don’t allow it at all now). You weren’t allowed the privilege of smoking until you hit mainline. Anyone who had tobacco in Reception was raking it in, charging $2 a piece for hand-rolled cigarettes. The only people who were getting on that money train were those who had a connection in G.P., which Turtle just so happened to have. I made a phone call to my family, and gave an address to somewhere in Central California where they’d send a money order. We’d have our smokes in no time.
This was another reason why Turtle had always wanted me around: I still had people who cared about me, wanted to look after me while I was in that place. Turtle was a guy who’d been in-and-out a bunch of times; his bridges weren’t just burnt, they were obliterated. He’d found some young dummy who looked at him like he was the shit, and he’d capitalized on it, literally. Another reason I stress the role of Positive Male Influences: they can teach you how to spot a negative influence from a mile away.
The tobacco was being brought to us by the person I’d bought it from. His prison job was being a plumber, so part of the gig was, in order for him to come bring us our can of tobacco, we had to back up on of the toilets. No problem. Any chance we had to destroy state property was done with a smile on our face. Those toilets had pretty good power behind the flush, so you had to stuff a whole roll down there, in order to plug it nice and proper.
Next, he’d come with the Freestaff (who was likely in on it), unplug the toilet, and drop off the can. Then, the party begins.
That’s exactly how it all went down, too. You’d think we’d have to do some sneaky, James Bond-type stuff in order to get the can, but it was actually really easy. The inmate plumber walked by and tossed it on our rack. Here you go.
Like Christmas, we were all so pumped, rolling up cigarettes and smoking till we got light-headed. Reception had just got a whole lot cooler.
After we’d had a couple smokes, we went to the Shot Caller of each race and gave them a bit of the tobacco. It was a respect thing, more than anything else. That way, no one felt we were doing business one-sidedly, or excluding certain races from getting any of the stuff. It was also to discourage any type of snitching. When people felt wronged, they’d either snitch outright (point the finger,) or they’d dry-snitch.
What’s dry-snitching, you ask? It’s when you tell, without actually naming names or pointing fingers. An example of a dry-snitch would be someone walking by a cop, and loudly saying, ”Boy, I can’t breathe in the bathroom, with all that smoke in there.” C.O. overhears the rat-inmate, goes and investigates, smoking inmates get caught and in trouble. Better to try and avoid all that drama from the beginning, try and be cool with everyone.
Cool we were, too. We had what everyone wanted, period. People came with all their commissary, and we made a grip of sales. Our lockers were full of food, cosmetics, new personal clothing; we didn’t need anything, because we already had it.
Soon, we weren’t even going to chow. We’d stay back, and make these meals that we called spreads. Basic recipe would include some ramen, rice, beans, some kind of meat, and then whatever, after that. You could put all types of stuff in spreads, and we did. After we’d get full on our feasts, we had candy bars and other assorted goodies for dessert. High-life stuff.
Everything went fine for a couple of weeks. Sales were solid. Everyone had smiles on their faces, being able to finally have a smoke. People who I didn’t even know, of all races, high-fiving me or saying hi. It was cool, feeling like I was The Man. It was intoxicating, especially in the current environment. Dangerous, too.
We had a few outstanding tabs, but word was bond in the joint, so we weren’t too worried about people not paying up. It’d be disaster, if they didn’t. Once you have to get Shot Callers involved, people are going to start getting checked. If you’re dealing with other races, this could, at the very least, worsen race relations. At most, it causes a riot.
No one wanted a riot, either. It messed up everyone’s routine, or program in a big way. No commissary. No visits. No yard time. You’re on lockdown, unless you’re going to chow. Everything sucks, and you can’t wait for your program to get back to normal. Contrary to popular belief, no one wants any craziness or violence; they just want to do their time.
So, commissary comes, guys go get their store, and people start paying debts. We have a list, and we start drawing lines through names. One by one, people come, of their own accord. People valued the currency of their word, and all it took was one time to be known as a flake, or even a piece of shit, which you really didn’t want. Guys came with bags of stuff, and our list grew shorter. Pretty soon, it wasn’t even a list; just a single name.
Guy in question was a sureño (Southsider) named Flaco. As his name implied, he was skinny; probably running around tweaking out on the streets, by the way he looked. We looked about the same age, although I easily out-sized him. He was a gopher for his Big Homies, chasing down smokes and drugs, or collecting debts. He, like myself, started buying into his own hype, like he was somebody. Now here we were, having to chase dude down over his debt.
Turtle and I found him in the day room, sitting at one of the tables playing cards. He had three other Southsiders with him; by the look of it, they were playing pinochle. They all looked up when we approached, but I noticed Flaco quickly looking back down at his cards.
The other guys gave their heads nods, said their, “What up’s,” and went back to their game. It was Turtle who spoke first.
“What’s up, Flaco?” Turtle asked. Real friendly. Everything’s cool.
“What up, Turtle?” He didn’t even look up. No eye contact, nothing. Dismissive. He didn’t even bother saying anything to me, and that was fine. I didn’t want to talk. These guys were straight-up gangbangers out on the street. Robberies, torture, murder: name it, they were doing it. I didn’t mind standing in the background and keeping my mouth shut.
“We gonna be good on store, homie?” Normally, this is something Turtle would have asked Flaco privately, as to not make his private business public knowledge. However, by not giving Turtle the courtesy of looking him in the eye, Flaco was being disrespectful, albeit subtlety. Turtle was now returning the favor, minus the subtle part.
“Yeah, holmes, we’re good,” said Flaco. Still not looking at Turtle, either. All of his homeboys kept their heads down, as well. It was as if the sight of us had set these guys on edge, and the tension was radiating from their table.
Kind of funny; this guy had been all smiles when he was getting the tobacco. Now, he’s acting like he’s doing us a favor by paying us back.
“Alright, homie,” Turtle replied. He gave me a nod, as if to say, let’s go, and we left.
As we were heading back to our racks, Turtle shared something with me, very matter-of-factly:
“He ain’t gonna pay us.”
I was sort of shocked when he said it. My nerves instantly went on edge, as well. I knew what it meant, if Flaco didn’t pay. There’d be a riot. Even if it was an issue between two people, the sureños had a “no ass-beating policy,” which meant if you messed with one, you messed with all. There were no one-on-one fights with Southsiders; even if they said they’d give you one, they’d still all jump you. Once they started jumping off, they’ll be looking for any white guy to fight, whether they’re involved with our tobacco enterprise or not.
“So, we jumping off?”, I asked. As I mentioned earlier, I already knew what was going down; I was asking more to get Turtle’s confirmation on the issue. He was the OG-he’d be the one calling the shots on this party.
“Oh, yeah,” he replied. I could see the pissed in his eyes. He was mad as hell, the dude disrespecting him like he did. We were walking at a quick pace, on the way back to the racks. “If this kid don’t pay me, it’s going down.”
I believed him, too.
Once we got back to our dorm area, Turtle instructed the youngsters to gather up all the Woods, meaning whites. Once we’d all congregated at one of the tables in the day room, and Turtle felt reasonably sure all were in attendance, he began to speak.
"Alright, check it out: the Southsiders are in debt, and it looks like they’re gonna try and shine us. Be ready for it to pop off tomorrow.” He looked around at all assembled, making sure he’d made eye-contact with each one of them. He was serious as a heart attack, and he wanted everyone there to know it. He got a lot of Ok, sure’s and I’ll be ready’s, and then everyone went back to their rack areas.
I remember having a real hard time sleeping that night. This would be my first prison riot. There were a lot of people in my building; much more than I was used to from the county jail days. There were probably 30 or 40 sureños, and each one of them was a gang member from the streets, down for the cause.
Me? I was a 24 year-old white boy from Orange County who played guitar and liked long walks on the beach. Sure, I took karate growing up, but we were sparring; we weren’t trying to kill each other. I was going up against people who’s business it was to hurt people.
Good thing was, I wasn’t afraid. Sure, I didn’t want to get hurt, but I’d already been hurt, plenty of times. There was nothing these guys could do to make me not stand my ground. I’d already seen what happened to the guys that didn’t. No way, that was going to be me.
Besides, there weren’t any guns; a lot of these guys weren’t shit without one.
Next day, you could tell everyone was on edge. CO’s could sense it, too. Instead of playing cards at their usual table, they’d all congregated by the staff office, since it was effectively a Safe Room. If anything went down, they could lock themselves inside, and wait for the Calvary to come. None of the magazine reading or card playing; these cops had their eyes darting around the day room like a rat that got a whiff of feline scent. No kicking back today.
There wasn’t a lot of talking in the day room from the inmates, either. People were still at the tables, playing cards or drawing, but they were keeping the noise down. You had to hear, as well as see. When sneakers starting squeaking on concrete, you knew something was happening. If you heard rapid footsteps, it could be someone running up on you. One had to pay attention to their surroundings.
The smiles and laughter were gone, too. Everyone had their prison masks, or tough-guy faces on. No chit-chat with the other races; people you were cool with yesterday might be trying to smash your face in today. Everyone had their shoes on, too. You didn’t want to be caught bare-foot, or coming out of the shower with your flip-flops on. This was life or death.
We’d gone to chow in the morning, and it’d been completely uneventful. Not surprising. Everyone else probably hadn’t had the best night’s sleep, either. Come morning, it was the walking dead on the way to breakfast. Once inside of the chow hall, we weren’t supposed to talk, anyway. Helped the guards stay hip to everything going on. Helped the inmates stay half-asleep. People kept their heads down, their forks moving, their mouths full. Trying to eat everything as quickly as possible, so as to get out of the chow hall and return to the housing unit. Back to normal routine; back to free-movement, so you can group up with your people and prepare for war.
It was a little before noon, when we saw Flaco. We were on the top tier, trying to see where the cops were, so we could go have a smoke. Scanning the day room from our vantage point, we saw him; standing by some tables, a homeboy on both sides of him. I remember, he had a beanie on, and had it pulled down really low, almost covering his eyes.
All three were looking right at us. Mad-dogging us.
I looked over at Turtle to make sure he was seeing what I was seeing. He was. He wasn’t having any of it, either. This dude was an OG; if you wanted to play, he was up for a game.
I could see his jaw working; grinding down what he had left of his molars from all those years of tweaking. Face went red, too.
This was actually the kick-off point, and I don’t think even Flaco knew what he’d done. When you’re in the joint, you don’t mad-dog anyone. This wasn’t the streets, where if you look scary, people will run in the other direction. You were among the thugs, here. If you wanted to stare someone down, you were in for a fight.
Turtle knew what time it was, though. He threw up his hands, in the universal what’s up? gesture. He was making sure this kid was asking for it. Flaco returned the gesture, with a little more gusto than Turtle had given. This was when my adrenaline dump happened, and it came on hard. So hard, in fact, when my hands started to shake, I dropped the rollie I’d been holding between my fingers. It was happening.
“Let’s go,” said Turtle.
Everything moved pretty quickly. We went down the stairs to the day room, followed by six or seven other people. Less than ten of us. When we made the landing, Turtle charged Flaco, and cracked him upside the head with a right hook. I blitzed right along side of Turtle, so as he was smashing Flaco, I was punching Flaco’s homeboy in the face. A skinhead named Chuck who’d come down with us had taken Flaco’s remaining homeboy out as quickly as we had. I was starting to feel pretty good about myself.
Then all hell broke loose.
Southsiders came in from all sides, out of nowhere. There were about thirty of them, and we were immediately surrounded. I had five guys come straight at me, all swinging for the fences, trying to get their best shot. All I could do in that moment was keep my hands up, tuck my head, and block my face. I back-peddled 10-15 feet, taking hits to the top and the sides of my head the whole time.
Then I came to a game-changing realization, which helped me immensely for the rest of my time I served in prison.
These guys couldn’t fight.
I don’t mean to say it only the sureños who couldn’t fight; on the contrary, I’ve seen a few with some serious hands. What I mean is, most guys don’t ever learn how to defend themselves effectively. Most men have never studied a martial art. I was taking all these glancing blows, but no one had tried kicking out my legs, grappling with me, etc. These guys were just windmilling their arms, hoping to get a hit. Once I realized this, I let my old karate skills take over, and starting dinging.
I remember, everything I did was one hit. Some ese came running in, and I smashed him, right in the nose. Another guy to my nine o-clock punched me in the ear, and I kicked him in the chest, making him fall backwards over a day room table. I turned to see two more southsiders running in, and I swear, it was like whack-a-mole: Ding! Ding! Done.
I looked around the day room as quickly as I could, trying to assess what was happening. Sure enough, the cops had locked themselves in their office, and they looked afraid. Eyes wildly darting around, screaming for back-up in their radios; calm, they were not.
I looked across the day room and saw a white guy in the fetal position on the ground. Skinhead Chuck. He was surrounded by five or six sureños, being kicked and stabbed with a broken crutch. It was one of those aluminum crutches; the end had broken off, and it was hollow in the middle, like a tube. Each time they speared him with it, chunks were being cut out of his skin, like a cookie-cutter. While I was looking, they must’ve stabbed him four or five times. I started to make my way in his direction.
While I was taking in the view, reinforcements, commonly referred to as the goon squad, were making their way into the building. Problem was, the lead man couldn’t get his key into the lock on the gate. It could’ve been some convict had stuck something in lock-mechanism, so the key couldn’t have been inserted. It’s been known to happen. Most likely, though, the lead man saw there was total mayhem happening six feet away, on the other side of a locked door made out of steel bars, and his hands probably started jittering something fierce, from the adrenaline surging through his blood.
I didn’t see any of that drama going down, at the time. I was trying to get over to Chuck. Funny thing happened, two steps into that endeavor: Flaco, the guy who started this whole fucking mess, was standing about ten feet in front of me. He had a different homeboy with him; not like that mattered any: there were still two of them. New guy looked a little on the chunky side. Both guys had seen me, and I could tell by the recognition in their eyes and what was written across there face, they too, realized who was in front of them. In some sick, twisted sense of logic, I’m sure they blamed me for this whole mess, too. If only I wouldn’t have made them pay me back!
Suddenly, from behind, I hear multiple voices, yelling and screaming orders. Get down! Get down on the ground! Get down, now! Prone out! I look behind me. The CO’s haven’t got the gate open yet, but dude had the right key in the lock.
When I turned back to face the enemy, fat boy was already in a dead rush. He was about three feet away, when I front-kicked him in his stomach. As he doubled over, I grabbed the back of his head, and held on to it as I kneed him in the face a few times. That’s when I heard the steel door slide open, and boots come running in.
I let go of the homie, let him drop to the ground. I looked around again. Everyone was down, either by choice, or because someone had put them there. The only people standing were Flaco and me. I could see he was looking around, too, albeit a little more wildly. I knew what was going through his mind: all his homeboys were watching him, now that he was last man standing against this guero. He had to go all out.
A couple cops had already made their way over and were attempting to surround us. Others were taking up positions around the housing unit, making sure people stayed down. They were still yelling at us to get down, but at this point, that wasn’t an option. Had I proned-out, Flaco would’ve run over and stomped my head in. Nope. We had to take this one to the finish line, pepper spray be damned.
While they were stilling yelling at us to get down, Flaco let out a battle cry and charged. As he ran in, he tucked his chin down to his chest, and starting windmilling his arms. I kid you not, that was his fight-strategy. I instantly formed a strategy of my own. I cocked my left fist back, getting ready send some overhand heat. Once he got close enough, I fired, aiming for his nose. What I got was his forehead. No matter. He dropped.
That’s when I decided to drop, too. I took a few quick steps away from Flaco and his homie, then got down. I heard someone yell from the top tier, “That’s right, Bobby!”
I’d just made a name for myself in a big way, and wasn’t even thinking about it. I really didn’t have time to think about anything, before the lieutenant on duty was standing right over me.
“Cuff this guy the fuck up!” LT was pissed. They had given direct orders, and I’d directly disobeyed them. They didn’t like that type of behavior, for obvious reasons. I had a set of zip-tie handcuffs placed on me, and pulled extra tight. Had to feel it, you know. “You’re going to the hole, fucker,” he continued. The way he was upset; that shaking-angry I could see coming off of him: I thought he was going to kick me, or something. “I’m going to make sure you stay there, a long time, you little shit!”
I was picked up first, before everyone else, and led outside, to the open area in front of the housing unit. As I was being escorted out, I heard someone yell, Handled your business, Bobby!, quickly followed by, Shut the fuck up!
I came out of the housing unit and into what would’ve been an otherwise beautiful day. Crows were sitting on the rim of an unused basketball court, amused by our shenanigans. There were four or five of them, sitting on that rim, shuffling and nudging each other, in order to get a better view. The front of the building looked like a crime scene, because in all actuality, it was.
Once again, I’d found myself smack-dab in the middle of some shit.
Medical staff showed up shortly after, assessing the wounded as they were being segregated from each other. A young, female nurse was looking me over; top of my head was bloody, but they were all surface-wounds. No stitches. When she got to my hands, however, she became visibly excited.
“Excuse me!” She didn’t direct this to any CO in particular; she was still looking at my hands when she said it. A female in a men’s prison doesn’t need to address any particular officer, anyway. A woman’s voice in that environment rings out with the purist clarity, I assure you.
Sure enough, there was a guard by her side, lickety-split. They like to play the knight in shining armor role, making sure you aren’t talking crazy to female staff. Or worse.
“What’s going on?” I looked, and saw it was one of the first two CO’s that made it over to me in the housing unit. Mexican guy, on swole-status, too. Dude was ripped. I was hoping he wasn’t going to play any racial sides, start working me over a little, because I was fighting la gente.
“You need to cut these ties off him, right now.” When I heard the sense of urgency in her voice, I maneuvered my hands and craned my neck a little, so I could a better view of what was going on with my hands. They were a deep purple. Now that I was really paying attention, I could tell I didn’t have any feeling in my hands, either.
“Oh, shit,” said the CO. Apparently, they looked pretty bad to him, too. “Ok, hold on a second.” He reached into on of the cargo pockets on his pant leg, and pulled out a small folding knife. Blade was maybe three, four inches. That’s plenty.
“Check it out, inmate,” he said. When I looked at him, he had the knife, open, in his clenched fist. He had my attention. “I’m going to take these ties off of you, and put a new set on. If you try anything stupid, I’m gonna fucking stab you. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I’m not trying to get stabbed.” I wasn’t, either. Dude looked serious, and he was probably on edge enough, he’d do it.
“Alright, hold up.” I could feel the knife, trying to slide in between my skin and the plastic tie, and having a hard time doing it. They’d put those cuffs on, tight. The sudden pop, when the plastic severed was followed by a sharp, tingling sensation, as blood once again flowed through the veins in my hands. I made sure not to move. I didn’t want this cop getting jumpy.
“You can put your hands in your lap, dude,” the CO said. I looked up at him, saw the spark of kindness in his eyes: he was trying to be cool now. Ok, I’ll take it.
“Thanks, man,” I replied. I was working my fingers quickly back and forth, trying to get the circulation going. They still felt like needles, the nerves coming back, but it wasn’t as bad.
“I gotta tell you something, man.” I looked up, saw the CO smiling. “When I ran in, I was gonna start spraying you!” He was almost laughing when he said it, and I wasn’t mad at him for it. Everyone deals with battle in their own way. He continued: “The only reason I didn’t spray you, was because you had two dudes on you, and you were handling your business.”
I saw in that moment, how everything was, and how everything would be. You’re on your own. There wasn’t anyone coming to save you, cops included. You had to watch what you’re doing at all times, and, when the time comes, you handle your business.
I saw the cop still had a smile on his face, and I returned it, in kind. “Thanks for not spraying me, man,” I said. I meant it, too.
“No problem, dude,” he replied. “Now let’s get these cuffs back on.”
Copyright 2019, Bobby Dino, All Rights Reserved