Thursday, February 23, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

"Here they come," Cliff, my cellie, said. Guards flooded into our housing unit on a search mission.

A few weeks ago, stainless steel stolen from the kitchen sharpened into shanks had been found in the gym. The Captain had slammed the yard for searches.

"Where they starting?"

"Downstairs," Cliff clued. "Won't get to us 'til later. You ever notice," he went on, "weapons are found in the gym all the freaking time, but no one ever gets stabbed in there. What's with that?"

Most of the prisoners on the yard are lifers, but not the ones housed in the gym. Due to a lack of bed space in California prisons, gyms have been stuffed full of more than a hundred bunks and filled with prisoners ten years or less to the house. Tensions run high in a space not designed for housing, but jammed full of unrepentant felons. Chaos reigns. Prisoners posture, flash sharpened steel, but since they're all ticketed to go home deadly violence rarely jumps. I've seen prisoners refuse to be housed in the gym, some begging, even crying, but the guards force them in anyway even to the extent of physically carrying them in and dumping them on the gym floor. This's usually closely followed by an alarm and the guards have to take the prisoner back out and to the hole. Federal courts have ordered the gyms closed for housing, but the deadline keeps drifting into the future.

"If I was going home," I answered Cliff, "I wouldn't be down for whacking anyone either."

"What's the worst lockdown you've been through?" Cliff asked idly.

"Longest was Salinas Valley. We were locked for over a year after a riot. Crazy days. Helicopters medically evacuated the worst of the wounded. Ugly."

"Not the longest, the worst."

"San Quentin."

"What happened?"

"Guess it was about ten at night when I heard a grunt and then footsteps running down the tier and then a thud, like a body falling onto the tier."

"Your tier?"

"No. I was on the fifth tier, it came from below, found out later it was the second tier. San Quentin's an old prison, bars not solid doors, so you can hear everything."

"What did you hear?"

"Guard on the gun post blew his whistle summoning help. But remember as a kid if you blow a whistle too hard, the pellet just spins and the whistle doesn't make much noise. That's what happened, the whistle just kind of squeaked. Then the guard started screaming, 'Oh my God, they killed him! He's dead!' I could hear the guard sobbing and then the lights came up and never went dim again while I was in that housing unit."

"Who was dead?"

"Wasn't sure anyone was dead that night, I just knew something had happened. In the morning, no one came on the tier to feed us. It was real quiet. Eerie. Wondered what was going on. About ten or so, guards in riot gear and black ribbons across their badges handed out breakfast, lunch and dinner all at one time. One guard was saying how he'd gotten the telephone call, rushed to work and was stopped on the way for speeding by the highway patrol. Guard told the patrol officer that a San Quentin sergeant had been killed, murdered, and the officer answered, 'He'll still be dead when you get there. Slow down.' Wrote the guard a speeding ticket. The guard kept repeating over and over what the officer had told him, said it in a monotone, a mantra, I could tell he was in shock. Mind blown. Scary."


"Didn't hit the TV News 'til that night. Reporter standing in front of the prison said a sergeant was speared in his chest by a sharpened bunk brace while making his rounds on Death Row. Not that it mattered, but the fourth and fifth tiers were Death Row overflow, the sergeant was killed on the second tier by administrative segregation prisoners. Of course one of the prisoners involved in the conspiracy ended up on Death Row."

"How long were you down?"

"Months. They didn't search for weeks. All we saw for quite awhile were the cops in riot gear handing out food once a day."

"How bad was the search?"

"Grim. TV's, radios went flying off the tiers. Freaky Pete, a Crip, was my next cell neighbor. When they trashed his cell, he said to a guard, 'It was pigs like you that got that sergeant killed.' Threw his property off the tier, damn lucky he didn't get beat to death."

"What did they do to you?"

"Got lucky. Just when they turning towards me, a crew of guards came by and said it was time to go downstairs where the sergeant had been killed and kick some ass. They locked me in my cell and took off. Nothing happened to me or my cell."

"Bad times."

"Yeah, but sometimes searches can be comical."

"How's that?"

"One time they were searching, nothing serious just something was missing, weren't crazed like with the death of the sergeant. Anyway, this nice middle-age woman guard was searching Freaky Pete's cell and she came out with a Bible she'd found in there, and said, 'This's a really good Bible, I read one just like it at home.' She seemed so happy that Freaky Pete had been reading the Gospel. She went back into the cell and the very next book she picked up, right underneath the Bible was a porno magazine. Ass Master."


"Yeah, Freaky Pete was twisted. I could tell she was upset by it, and you'll never guess what Freaky Pete said to her."


"He said, 'Got one of those at home too?'"

"No, he didn't!"

"Yep. That sweet woman tore his house up. I was back in my house for at least a half hour before she was finished with him."

"You've lived a life, Mike."

"I moved up to the old Death Row not long after that, it's called The Shelf. The Warden had placed Billy Ray, the Death Row shot caller for the whites, on the shelf to try and isolate him, keep him from calling hits in or out of prison. Billy Ray was in the last cell, they built a gate segregating him from the rest of the tier. We weren't even s'pose to talk to him."

"Born killer?"

"Don't know if he was born that way, but as he grew he got real good at killing people. Shanked and killed two guys on the yard before they segregated him."

"Scare you?"

"Oh, yeah. I was always very polite and respectful to him, he was to me as well, but I figured he'd kill me if he got a chance."


Twisting my head a bit, thinking, I finally answered, "When I was a kid I kept a snake. I fed him and he was my pet, but I'd look into his eyes and could see the coldness and knew he wasn't my friend. Billy Ray had those same eyes."

"Tough guy."

"You have no idea. Every morning, the guards would take Billy Ray out of his cell and lock him in the shower and search his cell. After he showered, they'd lock him back in his cell and search the shower. One day a piece of metal was missing from the shower. The guards went down and begged him to give up the metal. Billy Ray didn't answer, didn't say a thing. Finally, a pack of guards rolled up, blasted Billy Ray a bunch of times with the bean bag gun, rushed in and tussled with him until they got him chained. Billy Ray was leaking from about a dozen places when they dragged him down the tier, leaving a wide brush of red. My next cell neighbor was Baron..."

"Heard of him," Cliff interjected, "President of a biker club, killed a bunch of people over distribution of meth to the western United States."

"The very one. Baron called out and asked Billy Ray if he was okay, Billy Ray said, 'Not bad.' That's the day I realized I'm not a tough guy."

Kicking back, Cliff and I listened to tunes and waited for the guards to get to us.

Tray slot slid open, Cliff wearing only boxer shorts and shower sandals, went to the door and turned around for handcuffs.

"Give me your boxers," the guard ordered Cliff, he wanted to strip search us.

"Why, don't you have your own?" Cliff snapped.

The guard looked past Cliff to me and shook his head.

"Just do it, Cliff," I said softly, trying not to laugh.

After the strip search, we were cuffed and pulled out of the cell. "What's wrong with your cellie?" the guard asked me.

"Having a bad day, don't take it personal," I lied. In truth, Cliff' a career criminal and just don't like badges.

Sitting on a wooden bench in the dayroom, watching the search, Cliff whispered, "Maybe I shouldn't have said that."

"You are awesome, cellie, and it was funny, but wait 'til after the search next time to expose the guards to your sense of humor."

While our house was hit, more chained prisoners were pulled from cells. Property was sent though a scanner, searching for illicit metal.

After about twenty minutes, we were called back to our cell. My property was out of my locker, but stacked neatly on my bunk. Cliff's was strewn haphazardly all over the floor.

"Mike!" Cliff said angrily, "He trashed my stuff and took..."

"Only took..." the guard began to interject.

"Just give him a receipt for everything you took," I interrupted both of them.

"Doesn't need a receipt," the guard answered.

"If you took anything out of this cell that doesn't belong to you and didn't leave a receipt that's theft. You're a thief," I said conversationally, no particular heat behind my words.

The guard's face got tight, and he pulled out a pen and filled out a search receipt and placed it on Cliff's bunk.

"Thank you," I said to the guard. "Now you're a correctional officer documenting an authorized search. Have a nice day."

Door shut, cuffs unlocked, Cliff raged, "I hate this!"

"Part of the prison life style," I murmured. "Only two choices, let the guards do their thing no matter how retarded and petty or let the Billy Rays run the dungeons. Feel safer with the guards."

Eyes widened, Cliff considered my words and started picking his belongings off the floor and stacking them in his locker.

-The End-

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Wayne Hunter. All rights reserved.

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