The following takes place in the Summer of 2006...
The sign was unmarred; the wide steel door gleaming proudly with a virgin layer of bright royal blue paint. It read: "No Hostages Will Be Permitted Through These Doors". This rather ominous message was then repeated in Spanish; just to cover their bases. Like the door, and the fences, the building itself looked fresh and brand spanking new, a real oddity in the penal world. I gave it 6-months before this place would be singing a song of a very different key.
"Well, that's good to know" quipped someone behind me, sotto voce. Another voice, this time heavily laden with the accent of Mexico, chimed in: "Hey Vato, how does it make you feel to know that if I take you hostage, they will just shoot us both? How's that for company loyalty?" His laughing was interrupted by a clicking, whinging noise, and then men were shouting. Underneath the din, I could hear someone wheezing, and when I managed to pull a 180 (not the easiest feat when you are chained hand to waist to foot) I saw a small man with a dark complexion laid out on the ground, doubled over. The other 11 men in the transport group were all attempting to get as far away as possible; which was not easy in such a small enclosure. One of the black-clad civigenic officers was standing over the fallen man, his collapsible asp baton now fully extended.
"How's that for shutting the fuck up!?!" he roared, his eyes quickly daring anyone else to smart off. He had the same barely controlled fury in his eyes that I had seen some of the guards at Limestone and Fort Bend. Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Whatever. I was just glad that they had been forced to lock the pistols and shotguns in a heavy steel deposit cage before entering the razor wire perimeter jungle. Very glad.
Above the "No hostages" door hung a tiny glass globe, which had a golden hue to it. Obviously a camera, and a fairly new one, at that. One of the transport officers spoke into his walkie-talkie, and the door swung open, revealing at least 6 more guards. Four of these carried the "trouble-maker" to a waiting wheelchair, while the remaining two ushered us forward in stentorian tones. It made me a little uneasy that the four who carried our fallen member so bodily looked very practiced at this manoeuvre, as if they had done this before. "Not their first Rodeo," as the expression goes in Texas. I did not see this man for several weeks, until he was released from seg into rec with the rest of us. I didn't recall him missing both of his front teeth; nor did I remember the huge black rings which now circled his eyes, but, hey, my memory is spotty at times.
He wouldn't speak with any of us in the yard. He just sat there, plumped down with his back to the concrete wall by the toilets, bouncing a blue racket ball against the partition. Every once in a while, it would get away from him, but he never went to retrieve it. He would just continue staring at the wall. Occasionally, someone would bring it back to him, and he would go back to lobbing it, as if he had never stopped. I used to believe that there would be a reckoning for this type of thing. Someone would ride in on their white horse and avenge the "bouncing ball" man, who no longer had his mind. I sometimes see this avenger in my own reflection, and it scares me, the things that my mind comes up with. I feel I am doomed to play Iscariot with my right hand or my left. If I had gone after the guard, really broke the spokes on his sadistic ass, I would be betraying this new system of ethics which had taken me so much pain and blood to construct. If I just sat there and watched them transform a man into a noman in the space of a few weeks, I would be betraying my own humanity.
Sometimes the idea of winning is an illusion.
It was the same day that I first saw the bouncing ball man that I started reading books on law; which is as close as I have been able to come to charting a safe passage between the Scylia of violent, reactionary style, disobedience, and the Charybdis of giving up completely; opening my own veins all over this concrete soil.
Even the holding cells to which we were lead were clean; which has to be some kind of penal first. The cinder-block walls were a clear, crisp off-white; all the metal was the same royal blue as the door. I didn't see any insects or mold, and the whole scene was vaguely creepy. It made me feel as if I had stepped into an alternate universe, or, you know, maybe one of "them thar fancy norther Yankee states, what where they don't snicker when someone says prisoners rights"
The van had mostly consisted of Fort Bend inmates, with a few men from several counties south of Dallas scattered in for diversity. I knew several of the men, including a very tall, very muscular black man called "Big C," an older, balding, pot-bellied gentleman named Roberto, and a quiet Philipino boy, who's name escapes me. We sat there for several hours, doing what everyone incarcerated does with the lions share of their time; waiting for something to happen. Big C informed me that he had been caught twice with weed in the past, and this was his third strike. In Texas, this can mean that they may try to label you as a habitual offender (pronounced "Ha-bitch-ual;" often simply called getting "bitched out.) The result of a habitual tag is a life sentence; which seemed an awful harsh punishment for an ounce of weed, but it didn't surprise me to learn that such things are commonplace in the state that gave you GW and Alberto Gonzalez. Most everyone in the holding tank knew who I was, and avoided the conversation of "time," for the most part. When someone didn't know, and asked "what I was looking at having to do," I simply told them that I had some unpaid parking tickets to take care of. People who knew otherwise usually smiled at that.
There was another van load of prisoners in addition to our own; and it ended up taking six or seven hours to process everyone. Our Limestone "Oranges" were traded in for Polk County IAH Navy Blues. Our property bags were searched; questions were asked. Eventually we were all assigned a tank number. Six of us from FB had the same tank, A-24. The long walk from the holding area offered me a pretty good view of the building, and it was obvious that this complex exemplified a newer concept in penal architecture; something more akin to Betham’s Panopticon than the typical concrete monstrosities to which I had become accustomed.
Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791
I saw very few guards. In place of them, cameras were in great abundance, and every hallway ended in a man trap, or a set of double doors wherein a person entered a small square area, and was then sealed in. When it was determined by the central control room the direction that person was to head, the appropriate doorway was opened for him. Thus, a few employees could run an entire prison, which is important if your goal is profit, as is certainly the case with privately run facilities. Everything was wide open, also. In place of many solid walls they opted for thick tempered glass. Again, I think this was a function of cost, as with glass walls one needs fewer cameras.
Upon entering the man trap for A-wing, the escort guard simply looked up at the camera and said his name, and the exit door slid open. Pretty nifty, I thought. A-24 was at the end of the hallway; which was maybe 200 yards long. As we walked down the run, we got our first glimpse of the tanks, which were laid out on either side of us; very small, with a long window which stretched the entire length of the enclosure. They were all laid out in a line, and it reminded me of a zoo. (Actually, that is precisely what it was, in a way.) Everyone inside the tanks showed up at the window to see the "new boots," and it quickly became a game of "look down, or look hard." After almost a year of incarceration, I knew quite well that there really was only one option.
All in all, we had a good group of men in A-24. The tanks were designed for 8 men, and there was less than 150 square feet of floor space, so you can imagine the potential tension such conditions might produce. You bond living like that (or go completely batshit loco), and it was fortunate that there were no real "psych" patients or chronic masturbators in the group.
We quickly divided up cleaning duties and created a TV sharing plan. The latter is absolutely essential for harmonious co-existence. I have seen more fights over the television then any other issue., by far (over 30, at least). Like everything in prison, the root of this is racial tension; the blacks want BET, the Mexicans TELEVISA, and the whites ESPN or the Discovery channel. To my surprise, we all came together and made a fair schedule which satisfied everyone. That is not to say that certain unnamed people (ahem!) didn't joke about certain selections which were made. Big C couldn't, for the life of him, figure out why A) anyone would climb into a boat to go catch Alaskan King Crab in the middle of the winter, and B) Why we cared if they did. His verdict: "you see bruthahs on that boat? Hell Naw! You Europeans is crazy. I keep my black ass on the solid."
As I am all for cultural and racial equality, I made sure to get in a few jabs when he was watching his rap videos and singing the lyrics.
Me: "There a setting on there lower than mute?"
Big C: "Nope, the volume buttons busted 'til 6 o'clock."
Me: "I was referring to you, Charles." (he hated it when I called him by his real name)
This back and forth eventually spawned all manner of ridiculous low comedy, wherein he pretended to be a white snob from the suburbs named Preston. ("Hey, brahs! you dudes know where I can find the nearest Starbuck's?"), and I became Tyrone Rone. It was a good thing that Big C had a well developed sense of humor, or else I would have gotten my face rearranged several times for re-translating my white commentary into "street". (When I whipped him at chess, for instance, "Man, I am good," became "I'm so fly, I put 20's on a cab, go pick up mo' hoes than the WNBA draft." He liked that one particularly, and would sometimes make me repeat myself in the yard.)
Very few people truly appreciate dry wit, and those who do seem to like it less when it comes from me. I have a gift!
Things quickly settled into a routine: wake up (whenever), shower (the tank had one shower and one toilet), eat lunch, go to rec for a few hours, shower, eat dinner, watch TV, read, die slowly inside, pray, sleep. Repeat often regardless of your desires.
Life incarcerated is really like a bad song stuck on endless repeat. Several days into our stay however, a new portion of the song began to play, and one that I had never heard before. I was asked if I wanted to work. I quickly responded with a rather excited affirmative, and was informed that I would be on kitchen duty at 11 PM the following evening. I couldn't wait to see what life looked like from the prospective of a trustee. The rest of that day passed slowly indeed.
*** PART II : COMING SOON ***
Poetry, by William Wantling (1933-1974)
I've got to be honest, I can
make good word music and rhyme
at the right times and fit words
together to give people pleasure
and even sometimes take their
breath away-- but it always
somehow turns out kind of phony.
Consonance and assonance and inner
rhyme won't make up for the fact
that I can't figure out how to get
down on paper the real or the true
which we call life. Like the other
day. The other day I was walking
in the lower exercise yard here
at San Quentin and this cat called
Turk came up to a friend of mine
and said Ernie, I hear you're
shooting my kid. And Ernie
told him "So what, Punk?" and Turk
pulled out his stuff and shanked
Ernie in the gut only Ernie had a
metal tray in his shirt. Turk's
shank bounced off Ernie and
Ernie pulled his stuff out and of
course Turk didn't have a tray and
he caught it dead in the chest, a bad
one, and the blood that came to his
lips was bright pink, lung blood,
and he just laid down in the grass
and said "Shit. Fuck it, Shhee-it.
Fuck it. And then he laughed a soft long
laugh, 5 minutes, then died. Now
what could consonance or assonance or
even rhyme do with something like that?
© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.