Thursday, January 7, 2016


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By Samuel Hawkins

I wasn't sure what was wrong with Scotty. He wasn't his usual self. You’d have to know him to understand him, but he was a good guy. He was friends with my crime partner before I ever met him. But our friendships overlapped, separated only by the years that we were in prison together.

You see JohnBoy, my crimey, was at Monroe with Scotty back in 1998 until 2004. I did not get to Monroe until 2008. Scotty was still there. I ran into him in the unit dayroom where he was playing Scrabble. This caught my attention. 

I enjoy playing Scrabble, and consider my game to be above average. I am pretty confident when it comes to reading, writing and spelling. I have an ace in the hole. My mother is a retired school teacher. I learned to read and write at a young age, which puts me a step ahead of many of the individuals who play Scrabble in prison. I used to play a penny a point or ten cents a point. I almost always won, and my wins covered my losses. 

I asked Scotty if he wanted to play for money. He was cocky and liked to talk shit, as I would find out. Good at it too. He called me a 'youngster'. I was 36. I sat down, and we played a game. Casual, no wagers. He beat me by almost a hundred points. This was no easy feat. I recognized immediately how good he was. I made my own excuses in my mind, as we played again. The results were similar. I felt challenged. I did not like to lose. Losing only created my need to win, made it grow even more.

So we began playing Scrabble in the evenings. It was there in the dayroom that we began talking, discussing time and common acquaintances throughout the prison system. This is how I found out that Scotty knew my crimey. He told me that he used to beat JohnBoy the same way he was beating me. There was not much I could say. I hadn't won a game in over a week. I was scoring in the high 300's. But he was scoring over 400 almost every game. These Scrabble games were a feeling-out period for both of us, although I think we both had a pretty good idea that the other was okay. It takes a lot for acquaintances to become friendships in prison because everyone has trust issues.

I saw Scotty often because we lived on the same side, A&B units. So we shared the same dayroom, chow hall, yard and gym together. In passing we began to greet each other. More than just the nod acknowledging another brotha' in prison, with spoken words. Occasionally we would find each other in the chow line together and we would eat together.

As time went on I encountered Scotty playing basketball, or we would be out on the yard, sitting on the rock. The conversations that ensued brought me to realize that his was another situation where someone had come to Washington from somewhere else and never left. Scotty was from down South, by way of Chicago. I never found out what brought him out here. I just never asked. But he ended up with a life sentence somewhere around 1985. He was a convict, did his time. I never knew him to complain about it. He did his own time, minded his own business. 

As time went on we both allowed each other into our respective circles. I would borrow something from him from time to time, and make sure I returned it. When I was on my hustle, I might sell him a couple of sticks of weed. Eventually I moved from B-unit over to A-unit. I was on the same tier with Scotty, and we saw each other every day. I had to pass by his cell to leave the unit. Now what I have to make clear to you is that Scotty talks a lot of shit, and he does it real well. He can make you laugh, or make some square hot under the collar. But it is good natured and fun. That's just Scotty. I ain't too bad at talking shit myself. So we went back and forth. It was just a part of our friendship, and everyday life. It didn't matter if it was 7 am, or lock up at 8:30 at night.

After the guard was killed in the chapel, they started sending the lifers out of Monroe. The reason given was that the guy who’d killed the guard was a lifer. Scotty got caught up in the sweep and was soon transferred to another facility. The thing about prison is some of the friendships created there a can be very strong, so long as you are both at the same facility. Good friends, road dogs, whatever. But as is the case when you are transferred or a friend is transferred, new acquaintances become new friendships for everyone. That is not to say that the old friendships no longer exist. They are just on pause, until you see them again.

So when Scotty left, I found a new Scrabble partner. I talked shit to another friend, and occasionally I asked if anyone had heard anything about Scotty. Two people who once had considered each other a friend who, while not close, were close enough to have common concern for the other. We were still brothas in the joint together, faced with many of the same thoughts, and longings. Men with pride, and mothers, families, and fears.

Then I was shipped out. I was not a lifer and I didn't leave for almost two years after Scotty. But I took the same trip he had. Through the reception center, a transfer point between facilities, I found myself at Stafford Creek, in Aberdeen, Washington. And, of course, Scotty was there. We were in separate units, so I didn't get a chance to play any Scrabble with him, but that didn't mean I didn't see him, and that didn't mean he didn't talk the most shit about whuppin my ass on the Scrabble table. We hadn’t kept track of the games, wins and losses. But Scotty would tell you that he had about a hundred to five win-loss ratio against me. I liked to think it was somewhere around a hundred to fifteen. Depending on whom you believe, well, you know, either way, it was cause to talk shit. 

I had been at Stafford Creek for about seven months when I got jammed up and went to the hole. I did my 30 days and got out. But I lost my long term minimum, and they sent me to medium. Right there with Scotty. By then, Scotty had a long-standing, continuous rivalry with an old brotha that everyone called 'Old School'. They played Scrabble for two to three hours every day. On the weekends this might extend to four or five hours or more. I couldn't get a game in with Scotty or Old School. I watched from the sidelines and checked out new words I learned from watching them.

Despite not playing Scrabble, we still socialized, both of us working in the kitchen together and we still talked more than a little bit of shit. I had been in medium custody for about five or six months when I started to notice Scotty losing weight. He didn't spend as much time in the dayroom playing Scrabble, and he wasn't talking shit like he used too. 

Prison is a place where men have to deal with many things, not the least of which is loss. We come here and live our lives, and superimpose prison over the outside world, we do the best we can while the reality of this scene reminds us each day that we are not free and that we are just watching time pass us by. In all of this, we are still human and vulnerable to good days and bad. So if you see someone that you know and recognize that something is wrong, you may comment on it. But if they do not acknowledge it or they say everything is cool, that usually means they don't want to talk about it. Prison has moods. Men in prison also have moods. They can change as easily as the wind in a storm. So we just give each other a respectful space. Eventually things will go back to the way they were. It could be an hour, a day or a week, depending on the situation. Maybe a guard said something to him. A write up, infraction. Missed commissary. Someone didn't answer or accept a phone call. A death in the family. Divorce papers. You get the idea. It could be anything. 

Then I began to notice Scotty going to medical, and he wasn't coming to work every day. I didn't want to intrude on his mood, but I was concerned about him. So I asked his cellie, a guy that I knew pretty well. He didn't know exactly what was wrong with Scotty, but he said he was sick. He told me that Scotty couldn't be too far away from the toilet, because he needed to go to the bathroom a lot. His cellie was a young brotha, and it was kind of difficult for him to be in the cell with this situation. I found out that Scotty didn't want to ask him for help, nor tell him what was wrong, and was basically lying in bed all day.

I took it upon myself to talk to Old School, and asked him if he knew what was wrong with Scotty. Maybe he’d talked to him about his situation. He had. Old School told me that Scotty didn't know what was wrong. Medical wasn't doing anything for him, except postponing treatment or diagnosis. Standard level of medical services in prison. 

Occasionally I would catch Scotty in the dayroom at the microwave or getting ice. I would pull up on him and talk for a minute or two until he was done and heading back to the house. His clothes were hanging off of him by now and his face was haggard. It was disturbing to see him like this, wasting away before my eyes. I was scared for him. I thought that he must have cancer. I know that black men over forty are prone to have prostate or colon cancer. At a higher risk.

The next time I saw Scotty out of his cell I addressed the issue of what medical was doing for him. Essentially nothing, he told me. It disgusted me to learn this. I asked him if he had anybody on the street who would call the prison. He said he did. I told him to give me his information and I would try to have some people call Olympia (headquarters) on his behalf too. Then he told me he was eating but shitting everything out. Sometimes using the toilet between 20-25 times a day. And medical wouldn't do anything. He was still in the general population. His cellie told me that it was even worse than Scotty had was saying. He wasn't just shitting everything out, but he also had blood in his bowels. So the cell was becoming a mess. Sometimes he wouldn't make it to the toilet in time, and so the stank would attach itself to the cell. He would sometimes have to clean in the dark at night, and wouldn't get everything cleaned up. This was difficult for both Scotty and his cellie. Two brothas; one young, one old and both of them had their own pride. 

I told my partner that if it got too bad and he couldn't deal with it I would trade cells with him and move upstairs with Scotty. I felt that it was the least I could do. For both of them. I thought that it would help the situation. And I didn't have any problem with assisting an older brotha who was a good guy, trapped in this system for thirty years and fighting one more battle against the system. Literally, he was fighting for his life at this point. It was scary to see Scotty, looking the way he did. Even the unit officers were commenting on this. Asking us if he was okay. The simple humanity inside even the most hateful and spiteful people was awakened by the drastic, visible change in his health. Let alone the individuals who were humane and treated us civilly and came to work to do their job, and feed their families.

By now, Scotty was rarely seen outside of his cell, unless he was going to medical now. I would stop by and check on him each day, and Old School was cooking meals for him. This was very troubling to me. When I went to work in the kitchen, inmates and staff alike would inquire about Scotty. I did not hide my thoughts. After so long in prison I was bitter towards the system. I hated what it stood for. I felt like the system was created to ensure that we served our time for doing wrong in society. But they turned around and did wrong, and no one was there to hold them accountable. Anyone that looked at Scotty could see he needed medical care. They provided him with 'baby wipes', and 'red bags' to put his soiled clothes in, and dispose of as 'blood & body' waste. But when I would stop by to talk to him, he said that they didn't have a prognosis, but he was scheduled to go to the outside doctor. But...he didn't know when. I knew that if Scotty was on the street, he would have been admitted to the hospital. 

The days passed. My anger grew. But what could I do? Sometimes when I talked to Scotty I felt like he had given up. I didn't see the spark, there was no fire there. Was I watching this brotha die? I felt sad. I spoke to the Sergeant, who was also a black man. He had to understand the severity of this situation. He called medical and argued with them. They did not want to accept Scotty. When he was through talking to them, he came out and went upstairs to Scotty's cell. He talked to him, one brotha to another, and told him that he had to declare a 'medical emergency'. Scotty did not want to do this. He wanted to remain uncomfortable in the comfort of his own cell, with his own belongings, as close to home as he had ever been in thirty years. Our cell is our home, and we fill them with our own creature comforts. I completely understood this. 

Eventually Scotty was convinced to declare a 'medical emergency'. When he did the medical staff came over with a wheelchair to transport him to medical. Scotty, the man that he was, looking like he was a breath away from death, accumulated the strength, courage and determination to stand up and walk out of the unit. Not wanting to display any weakness. This was a prideful man.

After he was gone, people talked about how fucked up it was that 'they', meaning 'the man', the system and these 'white folks' did Scotty like that. But after a few days Scotty was gone, and to most people, forgotten. I sought updates from the orderlies who worked in medical. We got some updates, and sent messages up to him. Scotty went out for surgery, but still was going to need another one. We got the word that at least it wasn't cancer. I wanted to get up there to see Scotty. But there really was no way. I thought about this, and asked some guards if they could get me up there. None of them could. I asked around the joint. There was one guy that could make it happen. He was a Sergeant in another unit. 

A couple of people had heard about a project I was working on. Actually it was a proposal. I talked to my cellie, who was going to be my editor. The plan was to come up with a program called 'Men of Compassion'. Prisoners would be able to visit other prisoners who were housed in medical. Think about it. If you are in prison already, you are in a lonely place. Now imagine that you are so sick, possibly even terminally ill, and you can't even have visitors from general population. Someone to talk to, maybe play cards, dominoes or chess with. To have to sit there each day, not knowing if you are living or dying is bad enough. Doing it alone is even worse. You feel completely abandoned. You see, medical in prison is not like on the street. The staff in prison are doing their job. Not that they are all bad people. But they cannot extend the same amount of care as a nurse on the street, because there can be no 'fraternization'. Even the appearance of it can lead to 'termination'.

I drafted the proposal and sent it to a lady who’d also had heard of what I was doing and was impressed. She took it up the chain of command. During this time I made a stealthy visit up to see Scotty, escorted by the Sergeant. When I walked through the door of his room/cell, I saw him, and I smiled. He wasn't back to normal, but he looked so much better than when I had last seen him walking out of the unit. It felt good to see him smile. I gave him a hug, and we started talking. Tears came to Scotty's eyes as he expressed some of his feelings to me. He told me that he never knew I had the side he’d seen over the past few months of his struggle. I asked him what he meant. He told me that he had always seen the young gang member side of me. The tough guy, convict, hustler. I knew he was talking about the exterior personality I present not only to others, but even to myself. I understood. I told him just because that is all you see, that is not all there is. I saw the tears in his eyes, and mine became watery too. This was a moment shared by two men in prison, who realized that despite the outward appearances, we were still human after so many years.

That day Scotty knew he was cared for. He admitted to nearly giving up. But that inner strength, the determination that makes you wake up each day even with a life sentence let him choose not to let that life sentence run out so soon. The sergeant looked in the cell and told us we had to wrap it up. We talked for a couple more minutes, then I left. We both felt better that night.

I was bombarded by people who knew I went to see Scotty. All of the concern was resurrected. It was genuine, but many people in prison just live day to day, and after a few days, they forget all about yesterday. So many days are the same, one after the next. I just couldn't let yesterday be forgotten.

Eventually Scotty made it back to the unit. They’d kept his old cell and he moved back in by himself. He had gained most of his weight back, and all of his shit talking and humor. I knew that when he told me they had him wearing a diaper up there in medical.

Samuel Hawkins 706212
Washington State Penitentiary
1313 N. 13th Avenue
Walla Walla, WA 99362 

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CS McClellan/Catana said...

Even outside prison, most people wear masks. It isn't always easy to tell what's underneath until some kind of crisis comes up. Prison is bad enough, and the level of health care even worse, usually. It's a tragedy that the need to keep that mask on rather than confess to being human can put life at risk. Without you, and the few others who could drop their masks for a while, Scottie probably would have died.

urban ranger said...

An interesting story, well presented. Thanks, Samuel - keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

You write well and I read your all your pieces. Thank you Samuel

Jenneke said...

Thank you for the story, it was very interesting to read and i'm glad to read your friend pulled through. It does make me wonder what was wrong with him though.

Anonymous said...

Maybe some kind of ulcer

Anonymous said...

This is a very well crafted and humane piece of writing. I often look at 'Minutes Before Six,' but am sometimes put off by the length and verbosity of the prose although I'm sure that the guy writing needs to say it all.William van Poyck was the master,so insightful about the world, not just his situation and precise in his comments. Sadly I suspect that those who grandstand themselves by writing here from DR get under the skins of the authorities who are not shy of encouraging the governor to sign their warrant. Anon UK

Janice G said...

You touched my heart.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for writing this piece. It could not have come at a better time. I read this the day after I received a letter from my brother about a health issue and his lack of health care. I didn't really give it much thought because he words his letters in such a way that would keep myself and my mother from worrying too much about him. But after reading your story something just clicked and I realized I needed to take action. So we called everyday for a week (such a poorly run organization - I have a hard time believing that someone who works at a prison has no clue who is in charge, or can't explain the process). After not getting anywhere I was forced to open a complaint with a 3rd party. And that seemed to get my brother the medical attention he needed. Anyway just wanted to thank you again because had something happened to my brother I would have forever felt guilty for not realizing the severity of the situation he faces. The level of depravity by those who chose to work in this field is inexcusable - I have no desire to comprehend what enables these people to be so indifferent and uncaring (especially in the medical field).

Wala Damra said...

wow this was very touching. thank you