Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Clash of Values

By Timothy Pauley

I came to prison in a different era. Everyone was screwed at the first place I was sent. Not literally, of course, but screwed in that none of us had any consideration coming from the prison administration any time soon and we would all remain there until they decreed otherwise.
This dynamic lent itself to the creation of a different set of values, values one was expected to adopt immediately or risk serious consequences. Some of them were actually helpful: mind your own business, keep your eyes on your own path, pay your bills on time, and clean up after yourself were among the values that seemed likely to make a better community no matter where one lived. 
Some of the other values might not make as much sense to those who have never experienced incarceration. “Don’t tell,” was one such value. Once one chose to run afoul of the law, it was expected they would handle their own affairs and never seek intervention by the guards. That was considered of paramount importance. Many people have been assaulted or even killed in prison for violating this principle. 
In that particular environment, child molesters were unheard of. While I’m sure there were many incarcerated somewhere, they were not sent to the penitentiary, or at least, not the part of the penitentiary where I was. Molesting a child was considered the worst crime a person could commit and if one had showed up, bad things undoubtedly would have happened to him.
Towards the end of the 1980’s the Department of Corrections instituted an objective classification system to determine facility placement. Almost immediately, most of us became eligible to transfer to other, less screwed, places. I was one of the first to bail.
When I went to my new medium security facility, I was somewhat surprised by what I found. The first time I went to the yard, I kept encountering people who’d left the penitentiary under dishonorable circumstances by checking into protective custody. Nearly all of them had told on someone I knew. Some of them had told on people I considered my friends. It was a different world. 

But that wasn’t the extend of the differences. There were also groups of somewhat strange looking guys walking around. They were obviously not penitentiary material. Most acted as if they didn’t belong to our subculture. I soon learned these were the sex offenders. 
In spite of the values I had to internalize to survive at the penitentiary, I really did not consider it my responsibility to police the yard. If putting up with rats and child molesters was the cost for living in a better prison, it was a small price to pay. I certainly did not try to befriend them, but I didn’t do anything to torment them either. I was glad they were there. It meant my family was a little safer. 
As the years passed, I ended up visiting several medium security prisons. Some of the old cons would always lament that the world was going to hell when a child molester or a rat could walk the mainline (a common term for general population). Yet very few of them were any more likely to do anything about it than I was. It was the new normal.
The old cons grumbling about the good old days had an impact on the younger generation. While it was easy for these men to ignore the negatives of the old system. The youngsters they bragged to did not have the ability to process the information they were hearing properly. Many of them tried to emulate the impossible instructions issued by these malcontents. 

The first time I saw Spike, he had just run up the stairs to the second tier, vaulted the rail, and jumped down to the bottom tier on a dare. He must have practiced this move, because he managed to pull it off without even falling over. Spike would have been right at home in an episode of Jackass. 
He was about nineteen years old and wanted to be one of the fellas. When I saw him sit at the table with Smitty and Buck, I knew no good would come of this. Smitty and Buck had bother been kicking around the system as long as I had. They pinned for the good old days and spent most of their time telling war stories from the penitentiary of old. 
Spike was in awe. He drank it all in day after day. Before long I could see him trying to act like Smitty and Buck wanted. When he would target a particular sex offender for verbal abuse, I could see Smitty and Buck sitting across the room laughing it up. Afterwards they’d congratulate Spike and pump him up for more such ignorance. 
The interesting part of all this was whom Spike chose to victimize. While there were several groups of sex offenders sitting around the dayroom, Spike never chose the known rats.  The guys who would immediately report him to the guards were invisible to him. He had nothing to say to them, and rarely even looked at them. My suspicion was that Smitty and Buck helped Spike identify the least likely to tell.
Then came Byron. One day Spike’s cellmate was sent to camp. The next week, Byron arrived and was assigned to Spike’s cell. Byron obviously did not fit in. I pegged him as a child molester immediately. I’m sure Smitty and Buck did too.
That evening, I watched as Spike sat with Smitty and Buck, asking for advice on how to handle his misfortune. He was obviously distraught. Living with a child molester would hurt his reputation. Yet he didn’t know quite what to do about it. 
Smitty and Buck were playing for free. No matter how this played out, they would not be held accountable for the outcome. Their only stake was amusement. They gave poor Spike all kinds of terrible advice. The worst of it was that Spike should make Byron refuse to return to his cell for count. 
The guards knew Spike didn’t like sex offenders. They knew Byron was a sex offender when they assigned him to Spike’s cell. They were just waiting to see what he’d do about it. It seemed they, too, were in this for purely amusement. 
At first Spike spent evenings after lockup raw jawing poor Byron. He would call him names, make fun of him, and even threaten him. Each morning Byron would emerge from the cell looking a bit more stressed than the day before. It began to look like he might kill himself at some point in the not too distant future. 
After a week, he’d finally had enough. When it was time for nine-o-clock count, Byron refused to return to his cell. He was promptly taken to the hole. The next morning, Smitty and Buck gave big props to Spike. They lauded him as of some kind of hero. It was pathetic.
Three days later, Byron walked back into the unit. He approached the desk to get his cell assignment. The guards put him back in the same cell. At nine-o-clock count, Byron refused to return to his cell and was sent back to the hole. Now Spike was really proud. He was starting to build a reputation. A reputation based on victimizing the weak. 
Then days later, Byron returned to the unit. Mercifully, the guards put him in another cell, one where he would be left alone. Problem solved. But Spike didn’t see it that way. 
The following day I was sitting in the dayroom. I saw Byron emerge from his cell and walk towards the bathroom. He didn’t get five steps and Spike raced across the dayroom to confront him. He followed poor Byron, taking shit to him the whole way. He continued all the way until Byron ducked back into his cell. Even then, Spike stood in front of the window in Byron’s door, making lewd gestures. 
I saw this same thing happen three times that day. While this was happening, there were three tables of sex offenders sitting in the day room watching. All of them would undoubtedly have summoned the guards immediately, had Spike done this to them. But he didn’t, so everyone just watched. 
That evening I encountered Byron at the gym. He was alone and dejected, standing against the wall, probably dreading the moment he had to return to the unit for another round of abuse. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t let it go on.
“Hey man, why is that guy picking on you like that?” I asked
“Because he thinks I’m a child molester,” came Byron’s reply.
“Are you?”
“Not really.”
“What does that mean?”
“I was eighteen. My boyfriend was fifteen. His parents didn’t even know he was gay until they caught us having sex. I got a year and a day for indecent liberties.”
Not the answer I had expected. I pondered this information briefly, then began questioning him on his trips to the hole. I quickly learned that the guards had made several attempts to get Byron to tell on Spike. They promised him they’d take Spike to the hole and keep people from picking on him. 

When I asked Byron why he refused to tell, his answer was another surprise. He told me that the cops had ruined his life and sent him to prison for the consensual relationship. He did not trust them to all of a sudden change up and start protecting him now. 
The thought that he kept nagging at me was the old values. Byron had been a stand-up guy. He’d gone to the hole twice yet refused to tell on Spike. He was a shining example that one didn’t have to be a tough guy to take responsibility for themselves. He’d refused to allow the guards to manipulate him into screwing over Spike. The is type of mindset actually made our world better and Spike was trying to punish him for it. 
Finally, I told Byron to come get me next time Spike picked on him. At first, he was suspicious. I could sense he thought I too might be playing him. So, I broke it down for him.

“Look that guy’s not picking on you because you’re a child molester.”
“Then why’s he picking on me?”

“He’s picking on you, because he knows you won’t tell on him. He’s picking on you because you’re not a rat. That’s unacceptable. I want to help you fix this.”

For the first time since his arrival at the facility, Byron smiled. We left the gym with an understanding. I could tell he was still skeptical, but I could also see that he was allowing himself to ponder the possibility of no longer being a perpetual victim. He was ready to try that on for size.
When I returned to the unit, Spike was sitting with Smitty and Buck. I approached and asked to have a word with him. We went to a table a short distance away, where Smitty and Buck could see us but not hear the conversation. 

Spike was shocked when I told him the purpose of our conversation. Smitty, Buck and I went way back. We’d all been at the penitentiary together. Undoubtedly, they’d told Spike was a good convict. The only problem was, Spike didn’t know exactly what a good convict was. In all likelihood, I was one of the people he had been trying to impress. 

Initially he was resistant to the concept of leaving Byron alone. He couldn’t comprehend why I would be telling him this. Sensing his resistance, I challenged him. I told him that as long as he picked on all the sex offenders, he would pick on Byron too. If he didn’t want to pick on the ones who would tell on him, then he had to leave Byron alone. Or he could just pick on me instead.
When Spike returned to tell Smitty and Buck about our conversation, I couldn’t help but watch. They had a very animated conversation for several minutes. Then it abruptly stopped. That had to be the moment Spike told them I’d invited him to pick on me instead. They didn’t seem to have much advice on that one. 
In the days that followed, I caught a number of sideways glances from Smitty and Buck. After all, I’d ruined their entertainment. But to my knowledge, Spike never bothered Byron again. 

I may never know what this did to my reputation. I’m sure the Smittys of the world would not view my intervention too kindly. But that matters little. Living to impress the Smittys of the world is not a good game plan. My life continued much as it has been. My hope is that when a guy makes a decision to not cry to the guards about every little thing, they will be rewarded, and will be the lasting legacy from this whole episode. 

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

No comments: