After the riot in the housing unit, they rounded us up according to our race, and put us in holding areas, while the administration figured out where to place us all. Yard transfers, bed reassignments, making sure the right people go with the right gangs. It was a clerk’s nightmare, but they were inmate clerks, so it was an expendable person’s dreams being ruined.
I was in a one-man holding cage, awaiting my fate. The cage was so small and narrow, I couldn’t sit inside of it, because there wasn’t enough room for my knees to bend into a seated position. I was left to stand for a few of hours before I would find out where I was going. There were others in larger holding areas, but because the CO’s were wanting to make an example of me, I was put in the cage.
I was having guys tell me I was down for my shit, which is another way of saying someone’s a stand-up guy. Kind of funny, considering the current cage situation.
I didn’t care about any of their compliments, however; I knew I’d just been involved in a lot of trouble, and I was hoping not to pay the price for it. I can remember being super-anxious about the whole thing, but trying not to give anything away by my actions. Was I going to get another charge? More time? I was thinking how my family would react, my son; depression was creeping in around the edges.
After some time, one of the CO’s called my name. I looked in his direction to see him walking towards me, cuffs in hand.
“Put your hands through,” he said. There was a small, rectangular opening, about halfway up the door, which was there specifically for that purpose. I complied, and felt the steel clamp around my wrists. “Ok,” he continued. “You’re coming with me. Front of the line. Line up against the wall. Eyes straight ahead, no talking.” He directed me by holding my arm and moving me so I would stand with my shoulder against the wall. He then called out some other names, all of whom were placed in handcuffs, and lined up behind me.
“Alright!” The guard had risen his voice to just under a shout, as to get everyone’s attention. When he did so, two other CO’s made their way over to where we were standing. They were to be our escorts. "We’re going to go out this side door, single file, NO TALKING!” The guard giving the orders walked to the front of the line, and motioned me to follow.
We walked out to an already dark sky, even though the riot had taken place close to lunch. We’d been in holding for awhile. The night sky was free from most of the light pollution you get in cities, which meant you could see an ocean’s worth of stars quite clearly. There was a chill to the air, as well; we were in early October, when the autumn cold was starting to return. A deep breath brought the sensation to my lungs.
We came to a building with a large B above the entrance, signifying my new address.
I didn’t know it when I first walked up, but I was about to enter administrative segregation. Ad-seg, it was called. It had another name, too.
Being first in line, I could see this was not dorm-living. Two tiers, cell doors lining each level. The glass in the cell doors was only three or four inches wide, so when the people inside tried looking at all the new guys coming in, they had to have their heads stacked, one on top of the other, which kind of made for a comical sight.
As the guards exchanged paperwork, I stood, first in line, trying to look void of any emotion. I knew I had 100+ eyes staring at me in that moment, and the last thing I wanted to do was appear weak. I could hear different convicts yelling things out of their cell door, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Didn’t matter. Chances were, as long as I stayed in ad-seg, I wouldn’t be hanging out with any of those guys, anyway.
The rules of administrative segregation were much different than the general population. It was like prison inside of prison. You spent 23 hours a day in your cell. When you were let out, it was to shower, or go to the yard. You didn’t go to regular yard, either. You had a little caged yard, where a sliver of sun might come through, if you went out at the right time.
Food was a trip, too. They’d have us come out according to our race, then kitchen staff inmates would serve the inmates in the hole. No talking the entire time. You came out with your cellie, who was your dinner partner, as well. You had a set time to eat your food, in order to keep chow moving. The no talking part made everything seem a little more tense. Every time someone dropped a spoon, or hit their cup on the table too hard when they’d set it down; you didn’t know if it was an a)accident, b)argument, c)signal, or, d)fight-in-progress. You had to pay attention.
I was still getting used to the shock and awe of it all. I’d already had to prone-out a hundred times since I’d been at Wasco. It was ridiculous. People weren’t afraid, either. The goofy, care-free lifestyle I’d been living as a young man in Orange County was long gone, replaced by concrete, iron, and asshole guards who’d heard it all before. It was difficult, not to feel totally bleak and depressed, especially when you’d have to get naked, and spread your buttcheeks at the will of any CO, or prone-out on hot asphalt, trying to keep your body off the ground using your fingers and toes.
As I was led into the building, I was told by the guard at the podium I would be on the second tier, in cell number two. Easy to remember. When the CO told me to go, I started walking up the staircase, on the way to my new home. The electronic cell door racked open, allowing the door to slide open a few inches. I made the second-tier landing, and began walking down the row. About half-way down, Ernie stepped out, and my heart sank a little.
Another guy in his late forties or early fifties, but way more rough around the edges, Ernie was a guy you could tell didn’t do well in society just by looking at him. 6’3”, 250 lbs. of muscle; tear-drop eye tattoo, sleeved in tats all the way down to his fingertips. Voice so gruff, it was almost dog-like. When he’d talk to you, sometimes it’d be hard to catch everything, the way he sounded like he was barking.
Ernie was easy enough to get along with, in the righteous brother, good-wood sort of way. He knew all the rules, because he’d done lots of time, so he knew how things should be, and not to overstep boundaries. He also thought I was someone whom he could train. He started filling my ear and my time, non-stop, with lessons of how you should act in the joint.
Turns out, Ernie was there for a double-murder, and had two consecutive life sentences to do. He had to finish one till he could start the other, so they had him here, and in the afterlife, I suppose. I never got the skinny on who it was Ernie killed, but it didn’t matter much. I had to spend 23 hours a day with this guy, in close proximity, and it got intense, real fast.
First, I was taught how to play pinochle, and I had to learn in a hurry, because Ernie loved pinochle, and now we could play for hours on end. Two-handed pinochle, four-handed pinochle; there was time to learn them all, because we had more of it than we knew what to do with. Best of all was, I had Ernie there, to watch my progress at every step of the way, and bark at me if I didn’t get something right.
Then, there were the workouts. You’d better get used to working out, now that you’re in the joint, he’d say. We’d be doing this in an 8’x12’ cell, no less; musky doesn’t begin to describe what was going on, smell-wise, in there. Push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, squats; whichever exercise we could figure out how to do in that little space, we did, a lot. Then we’d talk a little garbage to each other, in order for us to really push it, and give the workout all we had. It was a little boot camp we’d made for ourselves, and we found various ways of taking up the time.
A few days after I’d arrived in ad-seg, Ernie and I were taking a break from our workout. It was close to lunch, which meant we’d be getting some mystery-meat with bread in a brown, paper bag. Ernie, who’d been looking out the window of our cell door, suddenly busted out laughing, startling me from a daydream.
“Bobby! You’ve gotta see this!” He was still standing at the window, looking out, waiting for me to come see. “Isn’t that the guy you punched in the head?”
I came over and looked; sure enough, it was dipshit Flaco, being escorted out of his cell. When I looked at his face, I saw three round bruises, about the size of quarters, on his forehead. Right where I’d hit him. I felt a smile spread across my face.
“HEY, MOTHERFUCKER!” Ernie again, and this time, he really made me jump. He was yelling out the side of the door, trying to get Flaco’s attention. It worked. Flaco looked up at us, tried to make a tough-guy face, then looked away.
“HAHAHA! THAT’S RIGHT!” Ernie clearly didn’t give a shit what this guy was going through, and wanted everyone to know it. I know Flaco must’ve heard Ernie laughing, but he didn’t let on. There was nothing he could’ve done, anyway; we were all locked in our cells. He was escorted out of the building, and I never saw him again. I don’t know where he went, but wherever it was, he stayed there, because he never came back. In your life one second, gone the next. Prison was like that, a lot.
The worst thing you can do is nothing, especially when you’re locked down in a cell, 23 hours a day. You want to talk about time dragging; it could go so slow, it’d start playing tricks on you. You’d try and sleep it away, only to wake up an hour later, in the same little concrete rectangle, more depressed than ever.
I wrote music, even though I didn’t have a guitar; I’d hum the melodies in my head and try and write them out, the best I could. Lyrics were easy, especially in place like where I was. Talk about living the blues: we were being held down by The Man on a daily basis!
I would also write letters to family. I’d write poems, which were kind of like songs, in their own way. I never thought of myself as a writer, though. I though of myself as more of a reader. I’d already read hundreds of books by the time I came from county jail to state prison. By the time my sentence was over, the number was well over a thousand. The reading and the writing sort of blended together for me, like a painter mixing colors on his palette. When I’d get in the mode, the time would fly into the wee hours of the night, my cellie snoring and farting in his sleep.
I’ll give it to Ernie, though: he liked it when I sang. Sometimes he’d request some song, and if I knew it, he’d want me to sing it for him, a cappella, and I’d usually oblige. People would hear it through the air vents, and some of them would applaud when I’d finish a song. Some would sing along, too. Guards usually didn’t say anything about it, unless someone played the idiot and yelled something obscene after a song was over. Otherwise, I’d sing, or someone else would, or we’d all end up singing together, trying to paint the grey with a little color.
Repetitive and bleak doesn’t begin to describe the monotony which was The Hole. Same workout routines. Same card games. Same people, or person. Reading was the one real escape for me, if you will; it gave my imagination a chance to roam freely. Everything else was beginning to become indistinguishable. The time started melding together, and became easy to lose track of, in the sense that you didn’t know if it was Sunday or Tuesday, or how many days/weeks/months ago something happened. The days were interchangeable, so it didn’t really matter.
When stuff did happen out of the norm, such as a fight, or CO/inmate confrontation, it made for a show which was usually discussed for hours, if not days. Female guards working a shift was another cause of entertainment for most of the convicts, too. Some of those guys were there for crimes against women, in some form or another, so you can only imagine some of the discussions which went on when women were present. I won’t rehash them here. Point being, any reason for a disruption from the usual regimen was going to warrant attention.
Days came, days went. It’s hard to recall exact amounts of time there, or at least it was for me. We stayed working out, eating our shitty rations, and playing cards. I became a proficient pinochle and spades player, though it’s hard to find anyone who plays either in regular society. In there, though? Nearly everyone plays one or the other, or both.
Just another way of passing time.
Ernie would keep his ear to the ground, trying to stay up-to-date concerning what was going on around the place. People would come by, cleaning the tier, or delivering food, and there’d be a kite: a little, folded note, slid under the door. He’d grab it, and read the impossibly-small handwriting, informing him of this, that, or the other. It made him feel good, knowing what was going on, since he couldn’t really do anything about it. He could write a note, hope his mission gets carried out. That’s it.
Truth of the matter was, I was a dumb 24 year-old, who’d never been a man, much less been in a men’s prison. Ernie knew to be aware of his surroundings, because the next bad thing to happen to someone could be happening to him. He knew to keep his eyes open. Keep his body ready. Always be on the lookout, so you’d see what was coming, and have time to react. I didn’t know any of this then, although, I was about to get a glimpse of what being prepared really meant.
One day, which had begun the same way as every other day, I had woke up, and was brushing my teeth over our small, steel sink. I hadn’t had any coffee yet, and felt like I could sleep for a little while longer; Ernie, however, was up, jumping around like he’d been awake for hours. Probably had been. While I was rinsing my mouth and washing my face, Ernie was standing at the cell door, standing in painstakingly-difficult poses, in order to soak up every conceivable angle of vision he could from the window. He was extra-interested in what was happening this morning. Enough so, I was able to notice.
“Something going on down there, Ernie?” I had just started to take a piss in our toilet, and whether he wasn’t looking at me out of respect, or he was trying to ignore my question, I don’t know. He didn’t answer, and I didn’t press. If he didn’t want to tell me, I didn’t want to know. Probably better off that way, I thought. I continued through my morning routine, which at this point was getting dressed. About five minutes went by, before I got a response from Ernie.
“Hey, cellie,” he said. “Do you wanna see someone get stabbed?”
I looked up at him, as I was pulling on my shoes. The question caused me to freeze for a moment; it was one of those things where, even though you heard exactly what someone said, you’re still not sure if you heard them correctly. Once I did realize what I’d heard, I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. I didn’t want to see anyone get hurt, but I didn’t want to come off sounding like a bitch in front of my OG cellie, either. Sad as I am to admit, it didn’t take me long to reply.
“Haha! That’s right, Bobby!” It was like we were going to the movies or something, the way Ernie became giddy at my being involved in this macabre-type of voyeurism. He proceeded to tell me the gist of it, which was the guy getting stabbed was no good somehow, and a kitchen worker was going to do it. I don’t remember any names, and honestly, I’m not even sure if any names were given. I remember both of the guys were white, and in their mid-thirties. If the guy getting stabbed was labeled as no good, it usually meant he was a either a snitch, rapist, or child molester; all three things which are horrible to be, and are dealt with in a horrible manner.
Ernie had caught wind of the whole affair through a homeboy of his who’d sent him a kite the night before. Homeboy knew it was happening over in our building, and was basically sending Ernie a VIP ticket to the show, knowing he’d be able to see everything. Then, Ernie could write a kite back to his homeboy, and tell him all about it. That’s the way it worked.
“Ok, Bobby, they’re getting ready!” Ernie was almost bobbing up and down with anticipation. “Come and stand on this side of the door, next to me,” he said. “That way, the cops won’t be able to see us tryin’ to look out.” His concern was legitimate; if the CO’s saw a bunch of guys staring out of their cell door windows, it would cue them to the fact that something was going on. You didn’t want to be the cause of tipping the CO’s off, either.
“Alright,” I said. “How do you want me to stand?” Ernie was occupying the spot he’d told me to stand in, so I was making sure I’d understood the request.
“Come over next to me, but squat down a little, so we can both see,” Ernie replied.
“Dude, I’m way taller than you,” I said. “You squat, and I’ll stand.”
Ernie had to think about it for a second before he agreed. I think he didn’t want to squat down because it would put his face next to my crotch, which would’ve looked funny. He didn’t want to be the butt of a joke, and I don’t blame him. In the joint, a bad nickname or rumor can last years.
“Ok, just watch where you’re sticking your dick,” he said. It was said as a joke, but meant as a warning; he didn’t want any pelvic thrusts happening near his face.
"Ok, bro,” I replied. I tried to stand as still as a statue. I was standing extremely close to my cellie. His head was directly under mine, and I could smell the Murrays Pomade he used for his hair. Ernie and I were getting along great, but that was only because I’d adapted to his program. The guy had somewhat of a short-fuse, was always amped up, and was here for killing two people. I wasn’t trying to get on his bad side, if you catch my drift.
We sat there, still as death, watching the main portal of the building. The kitchen crew was to arrive with our breakfast any moment, and with them, some main event-type of activity. This was going to be a big deal, and knowing before anyone else was making me anxious, truth be told. There were going to be cops all over the place; essentially, it would be a crime scene, and they would investigate it as such. All of it was to happen in the next few minutes.
When the kitchen crew did arrive, they brought with them the stainless steel carts which were carrying our food. Workers began to spread out like ants, setting seats and emptying food trays from the carts, and putting them on the tables. There were a few different white workers, but I had no idea who the hitman was. No matter; I had Ernie to narrate the entire episode.
“Ok,” he said. “Do you see the the guy with the blond hair?” I did, and I told him so. He was the only guy with blond hair. “He’s the one. He’ll probably hit him while he’s eating.”
What he was saying was surreal to me. As a matter of factly as one could, Ernie just pointed out an assassin, and date/time-stamped the victim’s death. It was almost hard to believe, because out in regular, non-felon society, people said stupid stuff like, I’m gonna kill you, or, If I see that guy, I’m gonna kill him, all the time. It was hyperbole, though; these guys were expressing anger, and no one was holding them to their word when it came to murder.
This time, however, was different. Much different. All-the-way different. When Ernie was describing this crime, I knew it was going to happen. I wanted to believe it wasn’t, don’t get me wrong; problem was, I’d figured out the Rules & Regulations of Convicts well before then. If there was a hit on someone, then someone was going to get hit.
I watched Blondie hurriedly walk around, doing a great job of looking like nothing was out of the ordinary. He didn’t look nervous, at all. Going around, setting trays of food in front of seats on the steel day room tables; he kept moving, going back and forth, getting trays, and setting them in front of seats. He probably did about ten or so, before he was finished.
When the kitchen workers had set all the places at the tables, they took their places next to the stainless steel kitchen carts which had brought the food. Once the allotted time for eating had finished, the guards would send everyone back to their cells. Then, the kitchen workers would come and take the used trays, putting them back in their previous positions, minus most of the food. It was very efficient, and extremely well-watched.
The guard yelled for Tier Two to be opened, and I remember Ernie and I giving each other a high-five when they did. If the hit had happened before we came out for chow, we wouldn’t get to eat for hours. The aftermath of everything which comes after an assassination in the joint is very thorough, and takes a very long time. This way, we’d be able to watch the show on a full stomach.
Ernie and I came out of our cell together, and went down the stairs to the day room. We followed the line, not speaking, until we were directed to our assigned seating. Even though I had nothing to do with what what happening, I was filled with a nervous anticipation at what was to come. I was tempted to take a closer look at the hitman when we came down the stairs, and past the food carts. I didn’t. I wasn’t going to front the guy off by looking at him; if I did, or tipped the CO’s off in any way, there’d be a contract on my head, just like this guy. An absolute, cardinal rule of prison is, mind your own business. Doing otherwise will, at the least, get you hurt; at most, you don’t get to go home alive.
I kept my head down, feet shuffling, in order to walk as slowly as possible, and followed Ernie to our tables. Once there, we’d take a seat, so the line could keep moving. We ate as quickly as possible, since we were on an arbitrary time limit. You didn’t know how long you had, exactly; when the CO would say, “Pick up your trays!,” you had to get up and go, whether you were done or not.
I sat there, shoveling food down my mouth, trying to be finished and ready to go. I didn’t want to be anywhere close to where this was about to go down. Who knows what this guy was going to try, after he tried to kill his mark. Was he going to take out a guard? If so, they’re going to shoot him from the tower. They shoot to kill, too. When you walk into the building, there’s a sign on the wall which reads, “No warning shots;” in case you were in doubt, they put it on the table for you right away. If bullets started ricocheting around the concrete building, the safest place for me would be behind my steel cell door. Same if they pepper-sprayed; we could put blankets in front of the cell door, hopefully barring any of that stuff from getting to us. When they sprayed those bottles of gas indoors, it circulated quickly and efficiently. It’d have everyone coughing, including the cops.
I was trying to think about anything other than what was about to go down. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait long; before I knew it, the CO called out, “Time’s up! Pick up your trays! Back in your cells!” We stood, table-by-table, and lined up, shuffling back upstairs, single-file, back to the cell.
Along the way, you’d pass those same food carts you’d gone by earlier, and hand your empty tray to a kitchen worker, who’d then put it back inside of the cart. You’d also grab your sack lunch, since your next hot meal wouldn’t be until dinner. We went through the motions, and were back in our cell within a couple of minutes.
When Ernie and I returned to our cell, we threw our sack lunches on our racks, and both took a seat; he on the toilet, me on my bed. We didn’t want to be standing there in front of our cell door, staring down into the day room, because it would tip the cops off to something going on. We waited for a few minutes, listening to everyone returning to their cells, slamming their cell doors shut. One-by-one, we heard them, until the last man had returned to his current home.
Then, the bottom tier opened. Ernie and I took our positions.
People came out of of their cells, and did the line-up/shuffle towards the food workers, who were handing out trays of breakfast. Heads down, still half-asleep, suspecting nothing. Most of the guys, anyway. I’m sure there were a few others, besides Ernie and myself, who knew what was about to go down, but you can bet the number of people was very small. If too much info hit the airwaves, you’d have someone snitching.
Before long, everyone was seated; the CO’s moved into a perimeter-defense type position, since there were only two on the ground, and one in the tower, who wasn’t paying any attention at all to the inmates. The inmate kitchen workers took up their positions as well, standing on the sidelines, by the food carts. There was one cleaning up a small mess, off to the side of the tables, but it wasn’t
Blondie. He was standing over by another cart, playing it cool, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Wait a minute, I remember thinking. Is this really going to happen? Don’t get me wrong; I knew already: if you gave your word, you’re supposed to keep it. Still, they kept eating, everything going normal, all the way until the cops told everyone to pick up their trays. This guy was playing it off so well, I was starting to think Ernie was full of shit, and he wanted us standing like this, so my crotch would be in his face.
Then it happened.
Before his mark could stand, our assassin had taken position behind him. In one swift motion, he grabbed the side of his mark’s head in one hand, and with the other, repeatedly stabbed him in the neck. He got him about five or six times before a CO could even react. The hitman probably stabbed the other guy 10-15 times before he let him go, and when he did, the dude staggered and tripped, trying to stand from his stool. He ended up falling on the ground, and proceeded to writhe around like a snake with it’s head chopped off, trying to use both hands to plug the holes on his neck. His own heart betraying him, the mark continued to leak, and began to slow in his movements.
I remember sucking in a huge breath, as I’d been holding mine the whole time the incident had occurred. I took an involuntary step back from the window, horrified at the mayhem I’d just witnessed. Blondie had poked so many holes in that guy’s neck, it was a tattered mess. There was blood everywhere, like someone had knocked a bucket full over. There was no way the victim was going to survive.
“Oh yeah, they got ‘em now!” Ernie was still at the window, watching all the action. He’d try his best to remember everything he saw, so he’d be able to shoot a kite over to the homeboys. “Time to block up the door!”
I came over and looked out the window, unable to resist my morbid curiosity. Both CO’s had pepper-sprayed the hitman, who was trying to lay prone on the ground, but was writhing in pain from the pepper spray. The gas would start circulating through the concrete building, and make its way to our door in no time. We grabbed an extra blanket we used for working out, and placed it at the bottom of the cell door.
The victim was laying prone on the ground as well, except he was in a pool of his own blood, and not moving at all. Both guards on the ground were making sure not to step anywhere near him, as one was radioing in what had happened. I was pretty sure he was dead.
If I hadn’t realized where I was at before, I completely understood now. Guys weren’t playing around in this place. There were no just kiddings or second chances. Dudes around here were not afraid to take it all the way, because you meant nothing to them.
Violence was the ultimate problem solver.
If you fucked up, you might die.