Thursday, March 1, 2018

Dialing 911

By Timothy Pauley

“One´s scared and the other´s glad of it,”  Johnny declared in disgust as we watched the latest spectacle of manliness unfold in front of us.  When the recreation movement was announced, two new guys in their early twenties left the two-man cell they shared.  The moment they were outside and in front of about a dozen guards, they turned toward one another and began exchanging blows.

“Stop fighting!” a guard yelled as he and six others formed a ring around the pair. Immediately both “fighters” got down on the ground and put their arms behind their backs. No more than thirty seconds after it had begun, they were being marched off to the hole. The rest of us, however, had to remain on the ground for about ten minutes before they would allow us to resume normal activities. They had to “clear the code.”

When I came to prison decades ago, violence was of major concern to nearly everyone at the facility.  There was many “blind spots” where visibility was poor and staff presence was unlikely.  These were the venues of choice.  Anyone who was not a complete idiot remained vigilant in these places.

Little of this violence was random, but a person still had to be careful.  You didn´t want to be the guy who walked around the corner just as someone you didn’t know was stabbed. Now you´re a potential witness.  What are the chances this guy is going to trust you enough to let you walk away?  Such an encounter was to be avoided at all costs.

Any time two guys had a beef that needed to be settled, they´d find somewhere to go deal with it.  Dealing with it could range from a verbal thing to a fist fight or a life or death battle. The bottom line was that you were expected to go handle your business in private. Failure to do this usually resulted in long-lasting negative consequences associated with being perceived as weak in the land of the strong.

In the alternate reality that was prison, this was taking responsibility for oneself.  Even if a guy didn´t know how to fight, the mere act of being willing to step up and show some courage counted big.  It also kept frivolous spats and irresponsible behavior to a minimum.  Failure to live right had consequences.

A lot has changed over the years.  In those earlier days, no matter how badly you wanted to punch a guy, you waited until the guards were out of sight.  That´s just how things were done.  Picking a fight in front of the guards was called “dialing 911”.  Two cellmates waiting until they were in front of the guards to fight, well, that was damn near an act of treason.

The same held true for loud talking at someone.  If you had something negative to say to someone, you got out of earshot of the guards and you kept your voice down.  Raising your voice at someone and catching the guard´s attention was also dialing 911.

In a long slow decline of personal integrity, the aberration has become the norm.  Today, when a prisoner has a beef with another guy, they typically have it out right in front of the guards.  There is usually no attempt to conceal their activities.  Quite the contrary.  Usually great trouble is taken to make sure the guards are there to the rescue.  Either by yelling at one another or actually fighting, as long as it´s right in front of the guards, there is little danger of sustaining any serious damage.

In the end, it´s just a matter of who can get in the most punches before they are both rescued.  But the combatants are, nearly always, marched off to the hole with their heads held high as if they´ve done the honorable thing.  The indisputable fact that they just told on each other, and themselves, is a detail of which they remain blissfully unaware.

Many believe this whole practice originated with “the mission”.  Sometime during this moral decline, a few unscrupulous older prisoners were able to figure out a way to manipulate younger prisoners to do their fighting for them.  If an older “shot caller” decided he had a problem with someone, he´d often put some young guy -- one who wanted to fit in a little too much -- up to attacking the guy, typically in front of the cops.  To make these youngsters feel like they were actually serving some vital purpose, they named this practice “running a mission”.

For the shot caller, this was a perfect storm.  If he owed someone some money, or had a personal problem with someone, he could just convince one of these kids to go attack the guy. Next thing you knew, the guy he owed was in the hole and he no longer had to pay. Or the guy who´d wronged him was in the hole and he could justify not taking steps to resolve their dispute. Either way, the problem was gone and it cost nothing but a little conversation to make it happen.

For the youngster´s part in all of this, he´d get out of the hole feeling like he´d established himself.  Most enter the prison quite apprehensive about this and with one simple act they are seemingly able to “be somebody”.  And, of course, they were not in any real jeopardy because they made the move right in front of the cops, who promptly rescued whomever was getting the worst of things.

The majority of the time, things play out according to this script.  Every once in a while though, it doesn´t work out according to plan.  Like when one of these youngsters gets to thinking he´s now somebody and starts expecting a certain level of respect he hasn’t earned.  That can end in a real fight that doesn´t take place right in front of the man.  These types of encounters tend to impress upon the mission boy his actual place on the food chain.  And with no element of surprise and no guards to rescue them, this type of fight almost never goes the mission boy´s way.

Then there are times when the guy to be attacked finds out about the impending attack. Sometimes mission boys can´t keep their mouths shut. On those occasions, the guy who was behind it all, sitting back waiting to watch the show, is usually in for a big surprise. Sometimes he never recovers from said surprise. Whenever either of these things happens, the old time convicts will laugh.  That´s what happens when a guy dials 911…

Timothy Pauley 273053
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777


Joseph Muldoon said...

I don't think posts like this are helpful to the mission of MB6.

A Friend said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A Friend said...

Joseph Muldoon - why?

porky2017 said...

very interesting look at the politics of behind the walls of a prison
keep them coming..

piscator said...


I volunteer in progressive incarceration program for juvenile offenders, but had no idea what life was like behind 'real' bars; until discovering this website. Your article is highly insightful for a newcomer like myself!

I'm a true believer in education and prison reform; but in reading MB6 one thing troubles me. As a practical matter, how do you segregate those inmates who sincerely desire an education from the 'disruptive' element?

This is the secret to the success of the better private schools (and some charter schools). They don't admit and/or expel students who disrupt the educational mission. Whether such exclusion is right or wrong, it works.

In another volunteer program in our local public schools, my job (along with others) was to work with 'troublemakers' individually, so they wouldn't disrupt the classroom. It was a very effective program that raised student scores across the grade.

So how could that be done in a prison system? How do you separate or otherwise create a safe space for sincere inmate scholars that nurtures their educational development? It's hard for me to picture, in an environment that fosters so much violence.

Best regards, piscator

Joseph Muldoon said...

The author thinks the idea that inmates preferring to sock it out in front of guards who can be counted upon to break it up before someone gets seriously injured rather than to do it in a place out of the guards' view so that the violent interaction can run its course uninterrupted is somehow a lamentable sign of "a long slow decline of personal integrity".

The author writes:

"Today, when a prisoner has a beef with another guy, they typically have it out right in front of the guards. There is usually no attempt to conceal their activities. Quite the contrary. Usually great trouble is taken to make sure the guards are there to the rescue. Either by yelling at one another or actually fighting, as long as it´s right in front of the guards, there is little danger of sustaining any serious damage."

That's a bad thing? It would be better if there was danger of someone sustaining serious damage?

That is a profoundly warped moral calculus.

In an ideal world, there would be no violence in prison. That is not a realistic option unfortunately, but if there is going to be violent interactions in prison, it seems to me that if the current trend is to engage in it in full view of guards so as to ensure there is little danger of serious damage being caused, that if anything is certainly preferable to a prison system in which such interactions take place in 'blind spots' where there are much better chances of serious damage occurring.

Posts like this don't engender sympathy or empathy for inmates; they're more likely to leave new readers aghast and thinking "that guy is exactly where he needs to be".

The author's moral compass is in need of serious recalibration. The guiding 'moral' principle in evidence here is some sort of juvenile machismo ethic more concerned with how inmates inflict violence on each other than with the violence itself, with an apparent indifference to the serious damage that can result from such interactions.

I've read a number of this particular guy's posts. He's a good writer and most of his contributions to this site I have read have been good ones.

But this isn't the first post of his that struck me as counterproductive. I remember another post of his (entitled "I Concur") in which he described
inmates engaging in a contest of sorts to enrage a particular guard. The way it was written the reader was clearly expected to sympathise with the inmates in their effort to get the guard to "reach aneurysm" level frustration.

But the post did not have the intended effect on me. I wasn't convinced by what I read that the guard in question really was the jerk described (though it's certainly possible), and thought it just as likely this was just a negative caricature of a guard by a problem inmate who the prisoners were deliberately provoking.

TC27 said...

@ Joseph Muldon

Not sure I agree with your view that his calculus is warped. Starting fights to gain or maintain status in the knowledge that there is very little risk of serious injury because authority figures/others will quickly intervene is common in playgrounds, bars and other situations in the free world....but the point is in almost all cases these fights would not happen if the instigator(s) knew they had to carry out the violence to its logical conclusion (and risk serious injury).

Maybe the author is a realist about serious violence in prison but is tired of being surrounded by constant low level violencethat probably causes his pod to go into lockdown and lowers the chances conditions being improved or privileges being earned for the population as a whole.

He may have expressed this in quite a macho way but I guess thats inevitably the way prison will condition people to think.