In this instance, he was impatient, and he was desperately trying to get the phones turned on at “unlock”. The rule is simple: the phones do not come on until all doors are shut, period. (Now, clearly there is no intellectual or safety reason for it, it’s just procedure.) Of course his cell door was the one not closed and frankly, he and his celly had been in and out a number of times. Nonetheless, he proceeds to the day room door and tries – and I say “tries” because again, the guards go to great effort to ignore you standing there- to get the guards to turn on the phone by yelling at them. After a few unsuccessful attempts to get the guard to respond, he becomes increasingly agitated. To no one in particular he screams, “Fuck… these guards are assholes.”
Possibly a very accurate statement, (but clearly no more than he) so I say to him, “This happens every Monday. The guards use the fact that there are transfers between prisons to reduce our privileges, like turning on the phones. Their argument is that people are moving around and they don’t want people on the phones at that time…but the fact is, the buses left at 4 in the morning…Just get everything locked down… like your door closed… and he has no excuse.”
He looks at me and screams, “Don’t fucking try to tell me what to do. I ain’t taking that shit. I’m not like the rest of these punks around here. You ain’t going to tell me what to do. I’m not taking that shit.”
So I get up and start walking toward him. My motivation isn’t to scare or intimidate him; I just don’t want him screaming across the day room (that is so I tell myself). That’s a license for the guards to shut us down. If they do, shut us down, it interferes with everyone’s “unlock”, and then he then has 27 guys pissed-off at him. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do,” I said. “I’m just saying learn to use the system, don’t let the system use you. As long as we don’t have doors open or violate some ridiculous rule the guard has concocted in his own mind, the problem’s his, not ours.”
This knucklehead never heard a word I had to say. I guess he wanted his “homeys” to hear that he was being a man.
His mistake, though, was to call the rest of our colleagues’ punks, because it registered with everyone in the room. They now knew this little shit respected none of them, and that is a no-no. ‘Cause now you got no friends, and this is a dangerous place to be alone.
There was also a tell-tale sign he was a coward. As I got closer, he was still talking loud and cursing, but all the while he was back peddling. The last thing this asshole wanted was a confrontation. I guess that’s why they call them gangs, because alone, most of them are weak.
So I stop advancing. I’m clearly in the wrong. I’m not diffusing the situation, I’m adding to it. I also have to admit to myself that my goal wasn’t really to help him. At a certain level I knew he would be an asshole, and I knew I’d get my chance to punk him in front of everybody. Hell everybody there was looking for that opportunity.
In his retreat, he put a table between us. “Look” I said, “no one’s challenging you; I’m just trying to save you some grief.”
I returned to my seat and let him have his space. He took a seat near his room quietly in the corner. This was no tough guy.
Primo, a Mexican inmate who speaks only Spanish-at least Primo let’s on that he speaks only Spanish- was the first to come over. He had sized up the situation and wanted me to know “your back is protected”. My rooming with Niko had elevated my status amongst my Latino brothers. I was officially the most protected inmate in the module: black cats for obvious reasons (but mainly because I helped them with paperwork) and my Latin brothers because frankly, Niko could whip them all. (Which points to an interesting observation: Niko was quiet, mannerly, respectful-of everybody. He looks for harmony. Those are the really tough guys in here.
Smitty, never missing an opportunity to exercise his status, headed for our colleague. I could hear him explaining that “the man is trying to help you.” But again, our “asshole” was hearing none of it.
I let it go – but I’ll continue to watch him. Like I said, I believe him to be a coward. And I also believed him to be dangerous. You can never turn your back to those in here like that. Much like Danny Boudreaux, the child killer who refused to take his Depakote, my colleague in H mod was an unlikable character and probably had been his entire life. And further, much like Danny, he knew it. No amount of logic was going to change him, and his lack of compassion for anything, including himself, rendered him unsalvageable. He was, and is, lost forever; no rehalitation here.
For now, I simply walked away. The last thing I needed was to engage in behavior that could keep me here longer. I’ve always argued that the absolute prerequisite to being a member of a society is that you renounce violence. The jailers try to impose those requirements in here, but they know that ultimately they don’t apply. This is not polite society. It really is a jungle.
And much like animals in the jungle, different modes of survival have been adapted and selected for by the inmates of Solano County: from camouflage to fierceness.
A person I’ve come to find humorous is Primo. He has set up a barrier by speaking only Spanish, and he has avoided confrontation by literally ignoring everything and everyone. I would not have known of his ruse had it not been for Niko discussing one of their conversations.
Officer Grundy, a petite female, brunette, whiny and quite cynical, was the floor officer that day. “Unlock” came to an end, and it is precisely at that time that Primo decided he was going to prepare himself a meal. He ignored her warnings to return to the cell. He placed different articles of food into the microwave, literally lost in his own world, and continued the process as if she had said nothing.
Officer Grundy bursts into the day room, and screams at the top of her voice, “Unlock is over; you need to be in your cell.” Primo looks – at least I think he looks -directly at her, almost inquisitively. It is the kind of look a dog gets when it sort of cocks its head and looks at you like ‘what? What do you want?” Primo doesn’t miss a beat. He continues preparing his meal. It’s like she was not even there.
She screams again, “Get to your cell”. But again, Primo makes no movements, nor any type of recognition that he has heard her, or that she is even present in the room.
Slowly and methodically, Primo collects his food and leisurely walks toward his cell. Grundy throws up her arms and storms out. The tower guard unlocks Primo’s cell and he disappears.
Niko and I simply laugh at the spectacle. We both think there’s probably something drastically wrong with him, but much like Corey, who’s now at the state hospital, his methods work for him in this place.
Sometimes, though, people’s methods don’t work for them, and more often than not, Smitty is one of those people.
A young black guy, recently in some kind of MVA, was admitted to H mod in a wheelchair – that’s makes a total of five. He is a big, muscular, good-looking kid. He also appears very mannerly and respectful of others. He is clearly part of the hip-hop generation and is quite knowledgeable on rap music, the artists, and who is in actuality giving a good versus a great performance. I must admit that the intricacies are lost on me, but that’s why they call it a generation gap.
Breakfast sometimes catches you off guard – particularly when the screamer, whose whereabouts in Solano County I have yet been unable to surmise, acts out all night keeping the building awake with his drumming and curdling screams for mercy. As a result, a number of our colleagues arrive at breakfast irritable. Such was the case for Smitty – in a wheelchair – and our new colleague – also in a wheelchair. While both of them may have legitimate injuries, you do get the impression that in the event of a fire, you would be looking at both their backs as they raced for the door.
Anyway, a young white colleague decides that he isn’t going to eat his chunk of cornbread this morning. A wise decision, because frankly three pieces of bread aren’t really a breakfast anyway. Our young colleague in the wheelchair – a substantial size kid and I do want to emphasize that – lays claim to it.
Smitty who somehow either doesn’t hear him, or doesn’t care, approaches the table with the bread on it and our young colleague speaks up, “Hey, that’s my bread.”
Apparently Smitty is in no mood to be “spoken to like that”-whatever that was- this morning and in the ensuing moments a screaming match takes place. I’d like to precisely share with you the words that were exchanged, but frankly, it was in some gangster-ghetto-hood dialect, in which I am not familiar. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about – another casualty of the generation gap. They might as well have been speaking Hungarian. Nevertheless, we’re only picking up our breakfast trays and so everyone retreats to their respective cell.
The confrontational dialect continues as each argues their point from their respective cell. Again, the conversation might as well be in Hungarian, so I can’t give you the specifics, but it’s obvious it’s escalating.
“Unlock” arrives and it becomes frightenly obvious Smitty has made a grave mistake. And as far as I’m concerned, that mistake is in confronting our young wheel-chair bound colleague. He, in actuality, is about 6’4”, 240 lbs, and it’s all muscle. He has removed his shirt; it is now tied around his head as a bandana. He has placed socks over his hands and forearms as boxing gloves, and he is standing – no wheelchair – urging Smitty to come into his cell out of the watchful eye of the floor officer, Officer Weary. This guy’s muscles have muscles and all of them are fasiculating as he is preparing for battle.
Now I and everyone else in the mod are thinking, “Smitty is dead, plain and simple. This guy is huge”. I’m thinking, “Don’t look to me for help on this one dude; you’re on your own. I’m not going to hang onto this guy’s leg or arm to help you out. That’s suicide.”
Yet to Smitty’s credit – but certainly from a distance – he continued to make his point. He is desperately trying to impress on my young colleague that no disrespect was intended (but he doesn’t want to jeopardize his status through retreating).
To all our luck, the screaming aroused the attention of Officer Weary, who got up from his desk and walked over to look into the day room. While Weary is quiet and pretty much straightforward, he’s also much larger than any two of us and no one in their right mind wants to be involved with him, either.
Cooler heads therefore prevailed. The combatants retreated to their respective wheelchairs, and I retreated to the yard for my monthly look, and feel, of the sun.
An older Latin colleague then took the opportunity to further diffuse the situation. It was wonderful to actually feel the level of raw emotion dissipate. But such is life in Solano County; the simplest thing can lead to the most complicated confrontation, particularly in H mod where there is a tremendous assortment of characters.