Possibly you’ve known someone you really liked, someone you wished the best for, wanted to help, but there was nothing you could do for him or her. Doomed seems a bit melodramatic, but bad luck doesn’t capture the ill fortune that befell them. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be an explanation. But there must be; there has to be a Rosebud somewhere.
I knew many guys in prison who’d had terrible lives; for most I could trace it to their childhoods, societal clichés—born in poverty to a crack addled mother, raised in a ghetto, etc.
Victims who then created victims.
But Stone Cold was born into a rich family with stunning good looks, the stereotype blond square jawed high school quarterback with the cheerleader girlfriend. He showed me pictures of himself with his girlfriend beside his red convertible—the All-American Hero.
Yet something happened; I don’t know what, but the result has been a wasted life with decades in Federal and state prisons for robberies, burglaries, assaults, and drugs.
I first met MW at Nash one evening my first week down when I headed to the chow hall. A massive guy with broad shoulders and pumped chest grabbed me from behind, almost smothering me.
Oh NO, I thought, here it is, my first assault—just like in movies and on TV, but the guy said almost lovingly in a deep southern accent, “Mr. Peterson, I’ve been waiting to see you. I knew your son and will help you in any way I can. Just tell me.”
When he released me, I saw a warm smile on a face that featured one of the crookest noses I’d ever seen, as if the guy had spent his life in a boxing ring without ever having a doctor repair the damage.
“You wrote about me once,” he said. “But you didn’t know it was me.”
It had been during my column writing days for the Durham Morning Herald. In one column, I wrote about out-of-control crime exemplified by the shooting of guests at a city motel.
“I wasn’t a guest,” MW said. “It was a drug deal gone bad. The other guy—he wasn’t a guest either--shot me and Duke Life Flight had to chopper me to the hospital to save my life.”
MW showed me the wounds—they did look life threatening.
When he was transferred to my unit, every morning regardless of weather he was at the door to the rec yard waiting for it to be opened, then he would run to the weight pile and work out. Every morning in driving rain or in zero-degree weather.
His moniker was Stone Cold because he resembled the former WWE wrestling star. Though a gentle gerbil to me, he had a darker side that resulted in frequent trips to The Hole and transfers to another unit; he rotated units the entire time he was at Nash.
MW had a violent temper. It wasn’t a hair trigger—there was no trigger. It would just go off like a land mine: BOOM. No preamble; no warning. Just BOOM!
An example: after taking a shower upstairs one day, MW came out naked carrying his towel over his shoulder just as the Unit Manger came onto the block with the Sergeant.
He yelled up at MW, “Put the towel around your waist. No nudity on the unit.”
The officer at the desk, Lurp, yelled, “I’ve told him that a hundred times.”
MW ran down the stairs (naked) and yelled at Lurp, “You lying fat piece of shit, you never told me that.”
The Sergeant put his hand on MW’s arm, “Put your towel on and come with me.”
He and the Unit Manger took MW to the Sergeant’s office. They talked to him about ten minutes: Relax; take it easy; forget about it; this is just a warning—from now on put the towel around your waist. Now go back to the block.
Mike left the office, crossed the hall, entered the block and immediately ran up to the desk and shouted, “You motherfucking worthless fat turd, you never said anything to me.”
The Unit Manger and the Sergeant ran into the block, grabbed MW and pulled him back into the Sergeant’s office. “Take it easy, goddamn it. We just told you that it’s ok, forget about the incident. There’s no write up.”
They talked to him another five minutes, then sent him back to the block. As soon as he walked in, he ran up to the desk yelling, “You cocksucking bucket of shit, I should break your fat ass in half.”
Once again, the Unit Manger and Sergeant ran onto the block and dragged MW off.
Now that’s it, they said. We’ve told you three times there’s no problem. We’re ordering you to shut up, go back to your cell, and forget about this. Understand?
MW nodded, crossed the corridor, went into the block, and ran up to the desk screaming, “I’m going to rip out your heart you worthless hog. You never said a word to me about a towel.”
Well, that was it. The Unit Manger and Sergeant cuffed MW and took him to The Hole.
He spent a couple weeks there and was transferred to another unit.
MW was simply unable to control himself. He has been released from prison twice since, very briefly, and then it’s other robberies, burglaries, and larceny of a motor vehicle. And his family has money! They cared about him. I met them once at Visitation; I was teaching GED. His father asked me to get MW in the class—he didn’t have a high school education. I tried,
begged MW to sign up, but he wouldn’t do it. He was in his thirties then and I think ashamed to admit he didn’t have a high school diploma.
He’s in prison again and won’t get out until he’s 56. But then what? He’ll remain a denizen in the prison system until he dies, even if we discover Rosebud.
I never saw MW again, but he sent me two notes, one about Sidewinder who had just been sent to my unit. “He is a good guy. A stand-up guy. Take care of him,” MW wrote in rather delicate script.
Sidewinder turned out to be a sweet little old man with a strange sideways gait, the result of an injury long ago. He had been in prison since 1977 for murdering his father.
Sidewinder was “Shelled,” a term for nuts, whether you came into prison that way or as a result of decades incarceration.
He had no means of support and none from a job because he always forgot he had one. He lived on coffee and “lean backs,” blood pressure pills that in quantity made you lean back or fall down or never get up. He was very trim and constantly begged coffee. If you gave him a 15cent packet of instant coffee at 8:30, he’d be back at 9 for another packet, and on and on. I would give him a $3.50 bag every Monday and tell him not to come back until next Monday, but he never knew when Monday was, so he’d still hit me up every few hours.
When I once asked why he killed his father, he started a story about Hitler and Nazis, so I said forget it, though I now wish I’d listened; it would have been a fascinating tale.
We wondered what he would do if he ever got released. Someone suggested he could get a job as a greeter at Walmart: Toys? Aisle 5. Got a coffee?
He should have been released years ago because of a change in the law affecting prisoners sentenced before 1979, and in fact he was scheduled for release in 2008, but he needed a “home plan” for release, so DOC contacted his brother in Yadkin County to set it up and the brother scheduled a visit with Sidewinder—his first visit in 30 years!
When the day arrived, we helped Sidewinder get presentable—he was usually pretty scruffy looking—and waved him off.
When he returned, I asked how the visit had gone. Good, he said.
The next day I had a visit and asked Officer S who handled Visitation how Sidewinder’s visit went. Terrible, he said. His brother told him don’t ever come back to Yadkin County.
Poor Sidewinder. And he thought it’d been a good visit. I wondered what he’d consider a bad visit? No matter, DOC decided that the law change didn’t apply to him and he wouldn’t be released after all. He’s still in prison. Just as well. Walmart is getting rid of greeters.
MW’s note of recommendation about another guy, Danny, turned out wrong. I don’t know why MW liked Danny—maybe he just felt sorry for him because Danny didn’t have any outside support or friends, and he had a life sentence for a murder. He’d been down 23 years.
I didn’t like Danny because he was as morose as Eeyore, sullen, moody, depressing, and had negative comments about everything. He lied, bragged, gambled, and took dope. Worse, he hated blacks and claimed he was a Lumbee Indian, though he was unquestionably black himself.
As far as I was concerned, he was a complete piece of shit, but MW had vouched for him. I figured he knew something I didn’t. He didn’t.
Danny was tall, early forties, and mostly he played cards at the poker table. He also had a cell, but he didn’t have—as far as I could tell—a job that was a prerequisite for a cell.
In short, things didn’t add up with Danny.
The biggest and most anxiously awaited event of the year was when Christmas packages arrived. Once a year, inmates could receive a package with up to $100 of food ordered by relatives or friends from a company owned by former guards.
Inmates spent days deciding what to order from a long list of cookies, candies, chips, etc., then they sent the list to relatives, but many relatives couldn’t afford $100, so the day packages arrived was joyous for some, sorrowful for others.
In 2008, I was on a bunk and couldn’t fit all the food in my locker when the package came, so I asked Danny to store some in his cell. Since MW had vouched for Danny, I trusted him.
Every now and then, I would go to Danny and ask for some of my package, but then shortly after Christmas when I was on the weight pile, someone ran out to tell me that Danny had just been moved to another unit; he was gone.
With all my food! It turned out that he had gambled most of it at the card table and got in serious debt. In exchange for snitching, the reason he had a cell in the first place, the Po-leese moved him to another unit.
I was pissed! Not only had he stolen half my Christmas package, when he got to his new unit, he’d bragged about it.
Johnny Blood, the guy I relied on to solve my problems (stories about him in the book), delivered a message to him for me: Meet me in the chow hall tomorrow; we need to talk.
He sent word back, “Fuck you, I got over on you.”
I was beside myself. Losing face in prison is dangerous, a sign of weakness others will try to exploit. Rae Carruth, the former NFL pro, was constantly challenged, sort of like famous gunslingers in the Old West, but he could handle himself physically. I was too old for that, so I’d had to rely on allies I’d made through “business” dealings, particularly Johnny Blood. Johnny had a price; I could afford it, so I turned to him.
Two days later, Danny went into Protective Custody, taken to The Hole for safety, but to stay in PC, an inmate had to explain why he needs protection and from whom, so the following day I was called to the Admin office. A Captain showed me an inmate’s picture on his computer screen. “Do you know this guy?”
“Yes, that’s Danny.”
“We heard he stole some things from you.”
“You didn’t hear it from me.”
He tapped his screen and another inmate’s image came up, a young Blood who had been on a bunk beside me before he was sent to The Hole for getting a dog paw tattoo. I had had dealings with him before. (several stories about him and Bloods in the book)
“You know this guy?” the Captain asked.
“Yes. I don’t know his real name, but everybody called him Street.”
“Danny says you have a hit out on him and Street is supposed to do it. He’s in PC because he’s afraid you’re going to have him whacked.”
“What does Street say?”
“He says he hasn’t talked to you since he got out of The Hole and was sent to another unit.”
That was technically true; he hadn’t talked to me, but Johnny Blood had talked to him for me and subcontracted the Danny problem to him. I shook my head in disbelief. “Are you telling me that anyone on this camp can go into PC just by saying I have a hit out on them? That’s stupid.”
He nodded. “I know. But tell me--just between us and off the record--do you think it’d be safe to take Danny out of Protective Custody and put him back on the yard?”
I thought a moment, then shook my head. “Probably not.”
He laughed. Danny was shipped the next day to a more miserable prison.
Now it was ok that others knew Danny stole my Christmas package; he’d been made to pay.
One day a guard at visitation told me that an inmate had just been caught smuggling in cigarettes (all tobacco had been banned years earlier). I knew this guard better than most because I had visits every week from friends, relatives, lawyers, and the media. S was usually on duty for media visits and once got in trouble with his boss, Captain Lucita. Frau Himmler!
During an interview for a newscast, S laughed when I asked him if he was going to strip search me on camera. That exchange appeared on the news and Captain Lucita told him he had not acted in a professional manner—guards don’t laugh, she said; she certainly never did.
I told S that everyone knew where cigarettes were coming from; it wasn’t through visitation. Visitors might sometimes slip an inmate cash, pills, some weed, tobacco, but it was not the main source of contraband. Guards were.
I told S that the going rate to a guard for a carton of cigarettes was $275 cash.
He looked at me and said with a straight face, “How many do you want?”
I laughed because I knew he was joking. He and most guards were honest, but temptation was too great for some: $275 for a carton of cigarettes that could be bought for $35. One carton a week would bring a guard an extra $1,000 per month, half his salary. Tax free.
Since there’s no story in good guards, I’ll tell you one about the murderous Sergeant Foreskin (not his real name, but close).
For inmates, a good guard minds his business, ensures order, doesn’t harass inmates, and doesn’t see himself as part of the judicial system punishing prisoners. He’s there to earn a paycheck and make sure no one gets hurt. They’re the majority.
But Robo Cops, sick sadistic guards, inflict as much pain and suffering during their shift as possible. Unfortunately, the job attracts such men.
Pedophiles go where they can find children—scouts, priesthood, coaching; troubled twisted individuals go where the defenseless are—prisons, nursing homes, shelters.
Prison is miserable and dangerous. Dealing with inmates, some very disturbed and vicious men, challenges the most even-tempered guards. Despite this however, most guards handle themselves well, but some make the situation worse. Zoo workers know better than to rattle the cages of dangerous animals, yet some guards purposely rile inmates to make inmate lives miserable.
Smalls, Callahan, Copeland, Savage, Gilbert, Hardy, Minot would walk into a quiet orderly unit with the sole intent of causing uproar. They’d rattle bunks to wake guys who were asleep, drag others off for searches, push unstable guys to the limit, tease and torment others to the point they’d snap, then write them up for disrespect. They’d fuck with inmates in a hundred ways for pleasure and amusement, but we would just laugh when little Barney Fife--100 pounds with glasses, squeaky voice, pressed starched uniform and shined boots tried to terrorize us. He didn’t have any credibility and would shrink when someone snarled at him.
People who torture animals are sick. Guards who torment inmates are sick.
While outraged at animal and nursing home abuses, the public believes inmates deserve whatever treatment they receive. There’s no PETA for prisoners.
Inmates are vulnerable targets. Public perception is of big burly tattooed miscreants, but many are mentally deficient disturbed men who need to be in hospitals and institutions, not in general inmate population among murderers and rapists, yet prisons now serve as a dumping ground where the strong become even stronger, and the weak are lost, easy prey for bad guards.
Levon, a mildly retarded inmate on a bunk in the Day Room next to me had a severe kidney problem; he had to go to the bathroom frequently, but the guard kept the bathrooms locked and wouldn’t unluck them for him, so he had to piss himself. When out of desperation Levon pissed down the shower drain, the guard wrote him up and sent him to The Hole.
Sergeant Foreskin had been relieved at another prison where an inmate was beaten into a coma and died. The News an Observer investigated. The official story claimed the inmate had tripped and caused his own injury, but Foreskin’s vicious clubbing was caught on camera. He sat out the ensuing investigation at Nash, supposedly not allowed contact with inmates, but he couldn’t help himself; he constantly tormented inmates.
I avoided him as much as possible, but I always felt his eyes on me.
Once I was unexpectedly called to Visitation; Foreskin was at the desk. He looked at me with killer’s eyes. “Peterson, you have no idea what I want to do to you,” he said, hands unconsciously twisting.
I knew exactly what he wanted to do to me, but I said, “I still need to go to Visitation,” adding for good measure and protection, “It’s one of my lawyers. He knows all about you.”
Cruel and vicious abuses are legion; every inmate could relate dozens. Cool Hand Luke, The Longest Yard, Shawshank, The Green Mile feature these guys, but they’re in every prison.
Officials invariably side with officers (like Catholic Bishops sided with perverted priests) unless the abuse is on camera, but even then, the tape has to survive; frequently it disappears.
I wrote about guard corruption in the book, and also about the legendary insane Officer Carter who aimed a rifle at the Time Warner cable guy—in uniform, up a pole, outside the wire.
On one visit day I was last to leave. The yard was closing for Count Time when no inmate movement was allowed, but S called over the radio to see if I could to go. The tower radioed that it was ok because Officer Carter was still on the yard monitoring inmate traffic.
“Has she had her meds today?” he asked--on the radio for everyone to hear. Then other posts started calling in about her, and of course she had a radio to hear it all.
But Carter was a rock of sanity compared to Capland.
Like anywhere, promotions are supposedly based on performance; not always though.
Carter had a lot of seniority but had been passed over for sergeant many times. She took it well; even she knew she was nuts. But then Capland was promoted, a woman even loonier.
Capland was a terror (Carter just wacko), and obsessive compulsive; a serious drinker too. She’d leave the unit relatively stable for a break, then return thirty minutes later weaving. We could smell the alcohol.
However, she was a Lumbee: female and Native American--two important cards for promotion. Poor Carter only had the white female card to play.
On night duty, the Sergeant had to sit with her simply to calm her down; she could not sit still. We’d all keep a nervous eye on her, see her start twitching like she had hives, then she’d jump up, let out a war hoop and start terrorizing the unit, literally run around bunks to sniff them while guys were trying to sleep.
“What the fuck are you doing, you crazy bitch?” guys would yell at her, and then it was on until there was total uproar and the Sergeant had to drag her away, the unit in chaos.
Only Capland cared what was on a bunk chair. If a book, newspaper, t-shirt was on it, she’d wake the guy to move it. Constant harassing nut stuff. Other officers hated her because she caused them so much trouble: when she’d start inmate fires, they had to put out the flames.
When a sergeant left, an officer had to be promoted. We knew it would be a woman because the ratio of female to male sergeants was embarrassing. Capland got the promotion.
Poor Carter--even we felt sorry for her. Nuttiness was no longer an excuse because someone even crazier had been promoted.
Usually when officers were promoted to Sergeant, they’d mellow--the race was over, they won; they relaxed. Not Capland; she became worse. With more power she became intolerable; guards under her transferred to other units, but we inmates were stuck.
Pimp Daddy, a unit manager!, carried Hugging a Thug to a new extreme.
Rarely in his office, Pimp Daddy spent most of his time on the rec yard joking with gangster Bloods.
He didn’t know what to do with me when I was sent to his unit, the notorious “Chesterville,” filled with child molesters.
“You’re the most popular inmate in the system,” he told me unhappily. I think he meant “famous,” but I said nothing and tried to stay out his way, which was easy because I was white.
Pimp Daddy was a black Mason, as were the assistant chain gang guard assistant warden and the warden himself. He had all the protection he needed, so could spend mornings and afternoons with Bloods, perhaps reliving his younger days as one. He gave them prize jobs and ignored transgressions.
Racist and corrupt, he got away with years of malfeasance until the admin bathroom ceiling next to his office collapsed and a ton of weed fell on the floor in plastic bags.
He was transferred to another prison. Kept his rank and salary.
I had a lot of trouble with Muslims at Nash. Those stories are in the book, but one, the most explosive incident was due to my mother. On Mother’s Day!
There were about 40 Muslims at Nash, 9 in our unit where I taught GED. Several were in my class and I got along well with all the others—except Hakim (or Hakeem), the head Muslim. I do not know why he disliked me, actually, despised me; we’d never spoken and had had no encounters of any kind.
Nevertheless, he would move five feet away whenever we got close, like in the canteen line. At first, I wondered if I had B.O., but then realized it was simply disrespect, so of course I tried to move away from him first.
Hakim was tall, thin, had a beard, and a distinguished presence. He was also an arrogant sonofabitch who, in my opinion, considered himself above everyone else. He was in for murder, had a twenty year sentence, and was taking courses offered by Nash Community College.
Though his name in Arabic means wise, I didn’t think he was very smart because, while disdaining white infidels, he had them do his homework; he never would have passed the courses otherwise.
There were six metal tables, each with four attached metal chairs in the Day Room for the 75 guys in the unit to get together to talk, play cards, put puzzles together, read or write letters. One was just outside my cell, about eight feet away.
Every morning, Hakim would come down from his second floor cell and put his school materials on the table, then place books on the four chairs so no infidel could sit on the chairs. He kept his materials on the table all day when he was in class, and only used the table at night, usually when he was watching TV. It was monumental disrespect to everyone else in the unit, and I could not understand why the heathens put up with it.
It shouldn’t have bothered me—I did not use the tables—but it did; it was a thumb in the eye to the rest of us.
The insult festered in me, and like any irritant, it grew worse over time, until I couldn’t stand watching him come down every morning and seize the table.
On Mother’s Day, I decided to act.
Of all the brave and noble things I’ve witnessed in my life, the bravest was what my mother did in September 1954. It was the most traumatic incident in my youth.
My father, an Army major, was stationed in Japan on the island of Hokkaido. We—my mother, two younger brothers (6 and 3), former sister (1) and I (10)—had just arrived at Misawa Air Force Base in Northern Japan and moved into a barracks reconverted for families. Next to us was a huge water tower with an air raid siren on top. A foxhole six feet deep, large enough for several families was behind the barracks/house.
The first thing we’d been warned of was that if the siren went off at night, we were to turn off all the lights lest enemy bombers use the house as the zeroing target and take cover in the foxhole and stay until—in the best case scenario—the all clear was sounded.
September 1954 was the height of the Cold War: Russia had the atom bomb; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been executed the year before as soviet spies; the Korean War had ended in tenuous stalemate; the French had lost Vietnam three months earlier, defeated at Dien Bien Phu; Eisenhower was sending “advisors” to prevent more South Asian countries/dominoes from falling; the Army-McCarthy Red Scare hearings headlined newspapers.
The summer’s blockbuster movies were atomic sci fi horrors Godzilla and Them; school children practiced taking cover under their desks when the Russians attacked—any moment!; bomb shelters were built.
The memory of Hiroshima loomed in our minds and photos of mushroom clouds over Bikini Atoll hovered in everyone’s consciousness. It was a frightening time.
Misawa Air Force Base was the closest U.S. military installation to Russia, literally minutes away from Soviet MiGs and bombers. The enemy was Russia; my dad was stationed in Japan “just in case.”
The first night we were in the house, the air raid siren went off. It was the loudest noise I’d ever heard, louder in memory than anything I’ve heard since, including B-52 strikes in Vietnam, and I was more afraid than at any other time in my life and that includes real war.
The Russians were attacking; it was the end of the world.
My mother ran into my bedroom with my baby sister in her arms and told me to get my brothers and go outside to the foxhole. We ran downstairs as my mother turned off the lights. The siren kept wailing.
When we were all huddled in the foxhole, we saw an upstairs light on in the house—the only light in the entire base. My mother handed my bundled up sister to me and said, “Stay with your brothers and sister,” and she scrambled up the ladder to go back into the house to turn off the light.
I screamed, No, Mom, No! I knew the house would explode any moment as bombs rained down with my mother inside. I kept screaming the entire time she ran up the stairs, Mom! Mom! It probably only took her two minutes to get back, but it seemed forever as the house vaporized over and over in my mind.
We huddled together for what seemed an hour waiting for the bombs, but instead an airman appeared with a flashlight peering down on us. “What are you doing?”
It was merely a practice, he explained, something they did once a week. Everybody was used to it, so they stayed inside and just turned off their lights. No one had told us this.
The image of my mother risking her life to save us—believing, knowing she would be killed—is as indelible in my mind now as it was sixty-five years ago. I suppose that’s why I’ve never been afraid since, not even in war, because I knew nothing I did could compare to my mother’s bravery--any risk or sacrifice on my part would pale to hers.
So that Mother’s Day in prison as soon as count cleared, I walked out of my cell and put books on three seats at Hakim’s table and sat on the fourth one. My mother had not risked her life for me to be a coward. She’d taught me that if there was a problem that bothered me, confront it—don’t sit back and whine. Hakim reserving that table bothered me.
When Hakim came down, he was out of his head, but even if he swept my books off the other seats, he couldn’t sit at the table with an infidel; all he could do was pace and fume.
I almost blistered my ass sitting at the table; I didn’t move all day. No one, Muslim or otherwise, came near me. Finally, just before lock down, I collected my books and went back to my cell. Hakim immediately rushed down with a spray bottle to disinfect the table and seats.
The next morning after count cleared, I remained in my cell looking out the window as Hakim raced downstairs with all his books in such a hurry that he fell and dropped them. I didn’t go out because I’d proved my point—I could get the table anytime I wanted.
But after that, tension between Muslims and me was palpable. The final incident was a near riot. While about forty of us watched the season finale of Lost, Hakim and Jabbar, the second ranking Muslim, a student in my GED class, were called to the sergeant’s office. When they came back they pointed at me and started screaming, “That faggot motherfucker just had us shipped.”
For the next hour, Hakim and Jabbar stood on the mezzanine yelling at me. Everyone fled the TV area, leaving me to watch the show in the middle of the Day Room all by myself; I just ramped up my ear phones. The next morning they were gone.
Rae Carruth, a friend, and also a Muslim at the time (he changed religions about as often as he changed clothes, once even considering Jehovah Witness), caught up to me later in the day. “Everyone is saying you had Hakim and Jabbar shipped. I’m just giving you a heads up. Be careful.”
“You guys can’t be that stupid,” I said. “You think I control the shipping list and buses? You think the warden does what I tell him? The authorities are playing you. They wanted Hakim and Jabbar gone because there are too many Muslims here. You’re getting too powerful so they shipped your leaders after they had an incident with me to make it look like it was my doing. Now you guys aren’t mad at prison officials, you’re mad at me. You fell for their line completely. Stupid!”
As we talked, Captain Lucita, Frau Himmler!, the Security Threat Group head, walked by. We did not get along, and that is putting it very mildly.
“That was really clever,” I called to her. “All the Muslims, even Rae here, think I had Hakim and Jabbar shipped. You wanted to get rid of them—and you did in a way it wouldn’t fall back on you.”
She feigned innocence but smiled. Soon wiser Muslims realized what had happened and several apologized to me. Except for the Prayer Rugs on the Telephone Incident (in the book), I never had another problem with Muslims.
Native Americans figure somewhat prominently in my family history, but back then in the far West, they were called Indians, so that’s how I’ll refer to them in this story.
My mother hated Indians to the day she died in 2002.
That is so politically incorrect we’d say. “We’re not crossing the plains in covered wagons anymore.” Yet no matter what we said, she never got over enmity for Indians; they terrified her.
Born Eleanor Bart in 1920, my mother grew up in Reno, Nevada. Bart had been shortened from Bartolino by her grandmother, my great grandmother who emigrated from Italy in 1894.
Nonna thought that Bartolino was too woppy, so she shortened it to Bart. She didn’t do it legally, just one day told her children their name was now Bart. She also claimed relationship to Black Bart, the notorious stagecoach robber, but Black Bart—Charles Earl Boles—was born in England and died years before Nonna arrived at Ellis Island. There was no connection whatsoever; it just made a good story along with lots of other family fiction. (read the book for the story of The Man in the Coffin, one of the most outlandish family tales)
After trekking across country during the Silver Rush, Nonna opened a hotel in Manhattan, Nevada, just up the trail from boomtown Goldfield where Virgil Earp became the county’s deputy sheriff in 1904. His brother Wyatt had opened the Northern Saloon in Tonopah, the “Queen of the Silver Camps,” then later joined Virgil in Goldfield in 1905 and became a pit boss in one of the saloons.
Manhattan is now a Ghost Town (population 124), but you can still find Nonna’s old hotel.
Her daughter-in-law, my grandmother Bart became a teacher in Tonopah when her husband, my grandfather, died in 1951. She retired as the oldest teacher in Nevada in 1968. I used to visit her in Tonopah, half way between Reno and Las Vegas, not a ghost town, but with a population of about 2,500, a fraction of what is was during the Silver Rush.
Nonna claimed her hotel was a “rest home” for prostitutes who serviced the silver miners, but my Uncle Jimmy (mother’s brother) doubted it was restful because there was a bar on the first floor which the Sheriff constantly threatened to shut down because Nonna served whiskey to Indians. That became the first Indian story in our history.
Serving liquor, called firewater, to Indians was illegal then, so when the sheriff came in one day and saw an Indian passed out, sprawled across the bar, a glass of whisky in front of him, he shouted at Nonna, “I got you now, you old bitch.”
Nonna, who was indeed a tough old bitch, grabbed the glass, downed the whisky, and slammed the glass back on the bar. “Whatta you got now,” she said to the Sheriff?
She later moved to Reno where James married Maude Porch and had my mother.
Nonna became very wealthy and lived to a very old age. I remember playing dominoes with her when I was ten, fascinated with her shaking palsied hands moving the tiles, and terrified of her dark bedroom where she had an altar for the priest who came every week.
In 1949 she built her mausoleum in Mountain View Cemetery for $5,000, an incredible sum then, about three times the price of a car.
That mausoleum, called Nonna’s Dead House, caused the biggest fight in family history. There were only four crypts in the mausoleum, one for her and for….3 of her children, but she had five, so it was a Race to Death to get a spot.
The first to die was my grandfather, her favorite. But his wife Maud would not let him be buried there unless she could lie beside him when she died. Nonna said NO! Maud wasn’t Italian and Nonna wasn’t about to spend eternity with a Welshwoman; a Catholic convert.
As poor granddad spent a week on ice, the family fought over a spot for Maud, my grandmother Bart. Finally, Nonna relented; she deeded a crypt to my grandmother who then allowed James to go into The Dead House. After the funeral, Grandma Bart came to Atlanta to live with us. A week later, Grandma got an hysterical call from my Aunt Marie, her sister-in-law, Nonna’s second child.
“Ah, Maudie, Maudie, it’s terrible. I was just out to the cemetery. The smell! The bugs! Rats! The crypt must have broken open.”
Grandma dropped the phone and passed out on the floor. When she revived, she told my mother who called her brother in Reno. “Jimmy! Run out to the cemetery, something’s wrong with Dad’s crypt.”
My Uncle Jimmy rushed out to Mountain View to check on his poor dead father.
Of course there was nothing wrong. It was just Marie’s way of getting even.
Jimmy had more trouble with the family over The Dead House a year later when his son, my cousin Terry swallowed Drano; a glass with residue had been left on the sink. Terry was two. The acid ate through his throat and stomach; he lingered near death and funeral arrangement were made. But Nonna said he couldn’t get a spot in The Dead House because he had not been baptized; she was not about to spend eternity with the unbaptized.
Terry survived, leaving one crypt unaccounted for. Mom got it in 2002. She’s with Nonna and her mother and father. Marie and her husband, my Uncle Henry (Francisconi), are in plots in front of The Dead House.
Now back to Indians. Seventeen miles north of Reno was a Shoshone Indian Reservation in Hungry Valley (a clue to living conditions?); it’s still there. The most famous Shoshone was Sacagawea who helped Lewis and Clark on the Snake River.
With nothing to do on the reservation in the early part of the 20th Century, these fierce looking Plains Indians with broad faces, narrow eyes, and leather darkened skin would come into town and drink, sitting all day around the train station or passed out on the sidewalks before the casinos.
Indians and tales of Indians were still vivid in the West where my mother grew up. The massacre at Wounded Knee had occurred not many years before, in 1890. My father’s mother, who lived until I was in high school, was born in 1876, the year of Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The Indians terrified the citizens of Reno, most especially my mother because her mother, my Grandmother Bart threatened, “If you’re not a good girl, I’m going to give you to the Indians.”
She held this over my mother’s head throughout her childhood. Bad behavior or bad grades meant the rest of her life as a squaw on the reservation. Once she even brought mother downtown to the train station to give her away, packing no belongings--“You won’t need anything. They’ll give you feathers to wear.”
Mom was raised a devout Catholic, but the threat of Hell paled to that of the reservation.
My own encounters with Native Americans began in the Marines; the USMC has long been an escape route from poverty for them, the most famous being Ira Hay from a Pima reservation in Arizona; he is immortalized in the bronze statue of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. His life, partly because of his fame, was sorrowful. He died at the age of 32 in an abandoned adobe hut on the reservation.
I met far more Native Americans in prison, mostly Lumbees, a North Carolina tribe not yet recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lumbees are an impoverished tribe, certainly compared to Cherokees who reap vast sums from casinos. Pep, a full-blooded Cherokee I knew received $10,000 semi-annually from casino profits.
Oxendine, a large friendly Lumbee who nevertheless would have terrified my mother, approached me one day on the rec yard for a favor. Most requests were financial for canteen items or stamps, but Oxendine’s request was special--he wanted my help to stay at Nash so that he could be closer to his family in Pembroke, North Carolina.
At the time, rumors swirled that hundreds of inmates would be shipped to other institutions because of severe overcrowding. Nash had grown from 600 inmates to 900 with 60 men on bunks, me one of them, in the dayroom sharing 4 bathrooms. The US Supreme Court had ruled that similar conditions in California were unconstitutional.
Guards fueled the rumors and said a list of inmates to be shipped and another of guards to be downsized had already been drawn up. Even though Nash was overcrowded, most of us felt it was a safer and more desirable prison than others in the state. For me, Nash was closer to family and friends who visited weekly; I did not want to move, but word was that the first inmates to go would be trouble-makers on bunks without jobs.
Me! A major trouble-maker on a bunk without a job.
I was sufficiently worried to contact my lawyers to ensure I wouldn’t be shipped away because of the impending hearing and my need to be close for attorney consultations, but Oxendine didn’t have a lawyer to help him, so he approached me. He wanted my help to get into GED class. He told me he couldn’t read or write and wanted to take the Adult Basic Education course, but because so many guys were trying to get into the course, no more applications were being accepted.
“They’re all trying to get into GED so they won’t get shipped,” he said.
“Like you,” I said.
“Exactly,” he answered. “Help me get to the head of the list.”
I asked him if he really wanted to learn to read and write. He said yes; he was ashamed that he couldn’t even write a letter to his children. Though I understood his desire to read and write, I knew it didn’t match his desire to stay at Nash close to his family, but I said I’d do what I could.
There was no point going to Ms. Snow, the head counselor who made all inmate assignments; I’d had a contentious relationship with her for years; indeed, that would have sunk his chances, so I approached Ms. J, the GED teacher. I’d been her assistant when I taught GED before I went to The Hole. I’d gone to her several times before, and because all my recommendations had caused no trouble and graduated, she put Oxendine on the list to be tested, and then placed him in the Adult Basic Education program.
Oxendine was so grateful that he badgered me endlessly on the rec yard. “What can I do for you? What can I get you?”
I told him I didn’t need anything, but that didn’t deter him; he’d bring me bags of chips and candy bars until I said stop.
Finally, I told him there was something he could do: Tell me Lumbee stories.
He did. We’d sit on the barren dirt yard and he’d tell me sad tales of Pembroke and life on that reservation--awful stories of misery and want, brutality and corruption, stories like his of young men who ended up in prison like himself, barely able to read and write.
I encountered many Lumbees at Nash, a number way out of proportion to the general population, much higher than that of any other ethnicity. They were all quiet, even gentle guys who stayed pretty much among themselves.
The homicide rate for Lumbees has ranged from 10 to 20 times that of the rate for whites in the United States, and 5 to 7 times that of whites in North Carolina; it is almost double the rate for blacks in North Carolina. The suicide rate is likewise wildly out of proportion. In a tribe of only 55,000, a thousand Locklear’s, Lowery’s, Hunts, Chavis’s, and Oxendine’s have been incarcerated.
I asked Oxendine why? Why so many Lumbee murders and suicides?
“There isn’t much else to do,” he said, and I thought of my mother and that desolate reservation outside Reno a century ago. There were also Shoshone reservations in Death Valley (Furnace Creek), Skull Valley (Utah), and other desolate places as awful and forlorn as Apache and Navajo reservations in New Mexico and Arizona where Native Americans account for an inordinate number of prisoners in jails and prisons.
Oxendine didn’t have an answer for the future, and I doubted his own would be brighter after he had learned to read and write and went back to Pembroke.
Probably not for Chief either. Chief was in my unit, but we never exchanged more than a couple words; he was the stereotype of the quiet Native American. Strong; a massive weightlifter.
We spoke more in The Hole where we were not supposed to talk at all. That story is in the book, but the epilogue was when we met in the 6x6x10 wire dog cages outside. We each had gone out for some fresh air. Fifteen minutes allowed every day.
Chief had gotten into a drunken, eye gouging ear biting brawl (Chateau Tomato Paste) with several gang members (Folk Nation) over a radio. He was a very tough guy my mother would have run screaming from.
That day, I watched him bend over and gently pick up a caterpillar. He let it crawl up and down his finger, then he carefully placed it in the grass outside his cage.
“I wonder how it got in my cage,” he mused.
I pointed behind him to a bird’s nest in a drain on The Hole’s roof. “Probably a bird dropped it on the way to the nest,” I said.
He nodded, then stared with the most—yes, enchanted—look at the baby birds until he was cuffed and brought back inside.
I didn’t tell him that the mother or daddy bird would probably swoop down and get the caterpillar after we left.
Who needed more tales of carnage?
Spider was an evil sonofabitch—mean, stupid, and a bully, but tough. He had been down for years and played the role of the “convict”, except he spent way too much time talking to the Po-leese seeking favorable treatment, a sure sign of an inmate, not a convict. He was in prison for involuntary manslaughter with an habitual offender charge added; he got a 50 year sentence, but was released after twenty.
I had a single encounter with him. One night not long after I arrived, he banged on my cell door, making a scene for everybody to watch.
“I don’t like you,” he shouted. “I don’t care who you are or how famous you are. To me you’re nothing and nobody.”
I just stared at him.
“You heard what I said?” he demanded.
“I heard.” Then I shrugged. “I don’t know you and don’t want to know you, so let’s solve the problem quickly--don’t ever talk to me and I’ll never talk to you,” and I slammed the door on him.
We never exchanged another word. When I asked Gino Gambatti, my Mafioso mentor (read the book to learn about him and his compare Mario Biagini), what Spider’s act had been about, he said Spider was testing me. He did it with everyone except those he knew would not take any shit off him; he was the classic bully.
Mario was 23, in with Mario for drug trafficking. They’d been working for their “family” in New Jersey. Both were heavily tattooed monster weightlifters. No one every fucked with them and for some reason they’d adopted me soon after I arrived in prison.
“Spider ever try that with you?” I asked Gino.
He’d just stared at me. “He’s still alive, isn’t he?”
I kept careful eye on Spider after that and watched him challenge new arrivals to prove his toughness. He was tough, years of incarceration had hardened him, yet he was early fifties, overweight, and not in great shape anymore. He’d been beaten with a mop ringer at his previous prison, had his jaw broken and a metal plate inserted in his head. No one had come to his aid; that should have taught him a lesson, but he couldn’t admit that time had passed him by.
His second clocking happened shortly after confronting me, a revelatory incident about the Prisoner Code all inmates had to live by.
Gino had preached the Code. It was sacrosanct: “Do not get involved in other guys’ problems and conflicts. See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing unless it’s a buddy or gang brother. MIND YOUR BUSINESS. Mario and I cover for each other; that’s it.”
Everyone else stressed the Code. DO NOT GET INVOLVED. It was a commandment like DON’T SNITCH. Prisoner Law.
Easy enough, I thought. Until the Spider/Kevin incident
Kevin, called Little Eddie Munster, was an excellent chess player, short, chubby and soft, intelligent, articulate and friendly. Early thirties, married with two children, he was so mild mannered that one would not have guessed he was in for two murder attempts, the knowledge of which should have warned off Spider who played a couple chess games with Kevin and got his ass beat.
I had played chess since high school, wasn’t bad, but after watching Kevin play, I knew better than to challenge him—prison was humiliating enough without getting beat at board games.
Chess is very popular in prison. The most unlikely play—monsters; WWE types--and they’re good, partly because they have all day to practice, but prison chess differs from chess on The Street in that it is noisy and pieces are slammed down for emphasis: “Now what are you gonna do, motherfucker?”, as a bishop is whammed on the board.
It’s also played quickly; seldom are more than 30 seconds taken for a move: “You gonna play or not, motherfucker? I don’t have a life sentence to wait for you.”
But no matter how quickly opponents played or how forcefully they slammed down their pieces, Kevin never lost a game. Everyone was good natured about it because he was too good to beat and he was a gracious winner. Only Spider couldn’t take losing to him.
After one game, Spider began to pick on him, brushing up against him, making insulting remarks that became humiliatingly sexual: “Get out of my way, faggot.” “Don’t come near me, queer.” “You trying to suck my dick?”
I liked Kevin; we talked about books—he was a history buff and had reviewed several books in scholarly journals. I called him Squid because he’d been in the Navy; he called me Jarhead. However, Kevin’s naval career did not end well. To support his family, he worked nights at a convenience store. One night when he showed up after duty, the store owners told him a case of beer was missing and they fired him. He protested that he was innocent, but they terminated him anyway.
He went back to base, got a pistol, returned to the store, and shot them both. Not so mild mannered after all.
In prison everyone is dangerous. The meekest turn in a moment if pushed too far, but you often don’t know what too far is until too late.
Spider’s taunts escalated, but no one said anything because inmate law decreed: MIND YOUR BUSINESS. DON’T GET INVOLVED.
I was embarrassed for Kevin but abided by the Code.
After a particularly vicious encounter in front of everyone one night, Spider got popcorn and settled in front of the TV to watch a movie in the day room. Kevin went to his cell.
The movie was Animal House, fitting I thought, and fondly remembered, so I settled to watch it too. I was engrossed until popcorn and drinks flew across the screen.
I don’t remember this in the movie, I thought, and when I looked around, I saw Kevin clubbing Spider with a sock stuffed with something heavy.
Spider was down, trying to protect his face as Kevin kept hitting him.
Suddenly Mark jumped in and wrestled the sock from Kevin. When Spider scrambled up, Mark tossed it to him. Spider, a half foot taller and fifty pounds heavier, wrapped the sock around Kevin’s neck and began to choke him out. The rest of us, about forty men, stood in a semi-circle watching. Kevin began to turn blue. Spider pulled tighter, lifting him off the ground.
I was watching a murder—frozen. I looked to others; no one moved or said anything. At the last moment, a guard rushed up and pepper sprayed Spider. Kevin dropped to the floor and Spider kicked him in the head with a steel-toed boot. Mark hid the sock.
Spider was cuffed and taken to The Hole. Guards recovered the sock and brought Mark to The Hole for aiding in the fight. Kevin was brought to medical.
That night in my cell I couldn’t sleep. I’d just stood there while Kevin was being murdered. Why hadn’t I done something? What had become of me?
I thrashed for hours in self-disgust. Then I resolved I would never let that happen again. Fuck the Code. What kind of law excused murder? I couldn’t live that way.
The next morning when it came out that Kevin had put bars of soap in the sock instead of metal combination locks that would have caused greater damage, guys were derisive: “What a fuckhead. He should have killed Spider.”
Worse denunciation was heaped on Mark: He had interfered; he’d broken The Code.
No one disparaged Spider. He’d been attacked from behind, fought back bravely, then was pepper-sprayed by a guard.
Gino was on the weight pile that afternoon when I recapped what had happened. His analysis was succinct: Kevin was an idiot to have used soap as a weapon; Mark never should have gotten involved, and Spider handled himself well.
“So I should have just stood there and let Spider kill Kevin?”
Gino gave his inevitable Italian shrug, lower lip raised, hands slightly opened. “Who cares?”
“I care! I won’t ever let that happen again. Fuck your Code. I won’t stand by and let some get murdered.”
Another shrug. “Then don’t.”
“But the Code! Your fucking Bible!”
He smiled. “Who gives a shit about that?”
“You do. That’s all you’ve been preaching. You hypocrite!”
But he ignored me and went back to lifting weights.
I stormed back into B Block thoroughly pissed at Spider, Kevin, Mark, Gino and myself.
Only that night after spending another couple hours rehashing everything did I realize what Gino had done. He’d taught me the most important lesson yet: there is no sacrosanct Code. We’re in the jungle. You’re not accountable to anyone. You do what you have to do to survive.
Next morning, I confronted Gino. “I’ve spent two sleepless nights because of you. There is no fucking Prisoner Code, is there? Its’s like laws everywhere. You break them all the time. You would have saved me if Spider had choked me out, wouldn’t you?”
He looked to Mario. They smiled. “Probably not,” Gino said.
“You asshole,” I said.
The Most Dangerous Man in Prison
On my way to chow one afternoon in my sixth year down, Banger, a 24 years old black inmate built like a Buick and able to bench-press one, pushed me against the wall in the unit day room.
“What is wrong with you old white guys?” he demanded.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“That motherfucker Old Man Johnson! He’s got a pacemaker. I could hit him in the chest and he’d be dead.”
That was true. Old Man Johnson (ten years younger than me) was a vicious child molester who deserved to be have his pacemaker driven through his heart; he was a snitch, constant complainer, and inveterate troublemaker—a miserable piece of shit by any standard. He had just yelled at Banger for slamming the shitter door which was next to Johnson’s cell, but it wasn’t Banger who had done it, and now Banger was pushed up against me—another old white guy, leaning into my face, yelling.
After six years in prison, I knew how to handle this. I pushed back gently. “Let me tell you something, Banger. You know who the most dangerous man in prison is? An old white guy.”
I’d learned that line years earlier from a Klansman, an old wreck with stringy gray hair and bedraggled teeth who told me one day on the yard that the Po-leese had finally stopped harassing him.
“Why have they been harassing you?” I asked.
“I was STG and they finally took me off it.”
“You? Security Threat Group?” I asked incredulously.
He looked about and whispered, “KKK.”
The Ku Klux Klan? In this day and age? Just mentioning the Klan in 70% black prison could get him killed. But he told me he’d survived because other Klansmen sent him enough money long ago to buy all the protection he needed. That money he told me once made him the most dangerous man in prison—he could get anything he wanted—but now he was a shell and had no money. Worse, no protection.
I leaned in closer to Banger, our lips almost touching. “You think I’m going to put on my boots and go into the bathroom with you?” Putting on boots and going into the bathroom was code for fighting.
He grinned evilly. “Better not.”
“That’s right; you’d pound my ass into the concrete. But how much do you think it’d cost me to find someone to go in the bathroom and beat your ass? A cigarette? What do you think I could have done to you for a carton of cigarettes?”
He smiled. “Hell, I’d beat my own self to shit for that.”
Mending fences and proving a point, I took ten stamps out of my pocket and gave them to him to buy a cigarette.
He laughed. We bumped fists and went our separate ways.
Being able to bench press a Buick is strength and strength usually tops intelligence: a dummy can take out a smart guy with one blow, and brains won’t protect you from a raging behemoth, but strength ranked below connections like gang membership.
However money trumped everything. It bought strength and better connections.
You don’t have to be able to lift a Buick; you can pay someone to do it for you. Money purchased drugs, tobacco, canteen, cell phones, protection, sex—a willing female guard or punks--behemoths, hits, even bribed guards and administrators.
Banger could lift the Buick, but he couldn’t get what he really wanted, in his case just a pack of cigarettes. For that he needed someone with money to buy the contraband—an old white guy like me with USMC disability retirement. While prison rules only allowed me to spend $40 a week, there were ways around that.
Prison is the world’s worst fraternity; everybody has been black balled. It’s Hell, where the Damned are, with many devils, but after eight years, I’d learned to function well among them.
One of my favorite of the several hundred GED students I taught was Jay Bird. Fierce, with a blond ponytail to the middle of his back, Jay Bird was hard core Folk Nation who’d fight in a nano second. He’d robbed and murdered two elderly women when 22, wild on dope, and he had stayed wild for thirteen years incarcerated when I met him.
One warm night outside on a fifteen minute class break we took off our shirts. Noticing his scarred chest, I said, “Jesus, how many bullet holes have you got?”
He told me he’d been in a shoot-out with the police after the murders. “Five,” he said, pointing to four wounds on his chest. I waited. “I shot myself in the balls when I was 12; I dropped the pistol and it went off. Want to see the scar?”
I knew then (Ok, I knew earlier) he was nuts—what kind of lunatic shoots himself in the balls? Even worse, what kind of lunatic admits it? But Lord did he want to learn. He tried harder than anyone, but he could not take tests: he’d panic, then lose control completely, a frightening event which took two guards to quash. Storming out, he’d swear he was never coming back—“Fuck it. Fuck all you motherfuckers”—but he’d be back the next night. He really wanted his GED, and when he finally passed, he was so proud. He wept.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever done in my life that I could be proud of,” he said.
With two murdered women and his nuts shot off, I knew this was true.
Happy story? Not quite. Soon after receiving his diploma, he got his throat cut in a fight. Little Jay Bird did it, Jay Bird’s smaller Folk Nation gang brother. Friends!
Little Jay Bird—not so little, just in comparison to Jay Bird—was an intelligent articulate well-groomed guy in his late twenties, more college preppy than gang member. Drugs brought him to prison and will keep him there much longer.
At another prison, Bloods attacked him in his cell, cut his throat—nearly severed it—and left him to bleed to death. He almost died because while guards knew of the attack, they did not help him. Other Folk Nation inmates saved him.
When he got out of the hospital and was transferred to Nash, he came to me for advice. He felt he had a negligence case against the prison system and asked if I knew a good lawyer who might take his case. I recommended someone to contact. He did. The lawyer expressed interest and said he would visit him for more information and bring a contract.
Little Jay Bird was very excited and thanked me profusely.
But then came the second throat cutting. Like Oscar Wilde wrote about orphans: losing one parent is misfortune, losing two sounds like carelessness. Similarly, one throat cutting might be a lawsuit, but two means…find another lawyer.
The fight was over a basketball game. When I first arrived, Nash had 600 inmates. That increased to a seriously overcrowded 900 by the time I left, yet whenever anything major happened—beatings, stabbings, deaths, whackings, gang fights, etc.—I always knew the malefactors. Knowledge being power, I made it a point to know all those who had dope, cigarettes, cell phones, cash, stamps, shanks, etc. Who needs boy scouts in Hell?
The pick-up basketball game was between Folk Nation inmates and Bloods. Words were exchanged, serious words of a racial nature: the N word, cracker, redneck, honky, all prefaced and suffixed with the ubiquitous motherfucker.
One Blood had been egregiously disrespectful, so Folk Nation Brent was chosen to cut him in the chow hall that evening.
Young, tall, and an excellent athlete, Brent had been in the Marines, was from New Orleans, and spoke French. I had been in the Marines, my daughter Margaret was at Tulane, and I wanted help with French—he’d been tutoring me. We had a good bond.
As I entered the chow hall that night, Brent rushed out very agitated, almost in tears. I asked him if he was all right. He shook his head and ran off. He had not cut the black inmate.
Back in the unit, other Folk Nation inmates taunted him. Lots of drinking was involved and matters escalated. He was called names, his manhood questioned. When Jay Bird threatened him, Little Jay Bird stepped in. Jay Bird pulled a shank, but Little Jay Bird was quicker and sliced his throat.
Guards rushed onto the rec yard. Seriously bleeding, Jay Bird picked up a horseshoe to go after Little Jay Bird. The Assistant Unit Manager told him to drop it. Jay Bird didn’t.
The Assistant Unit Manager, a mousey little man, pepper sprayed Jay Bird, but missed his face and sprayed the throat wound, sending Jay Bird into a frenzy of pain and fury. He threw the horseshoe and hit the Assistant Unit Manager, sending the guards on rampage, beating Jay Bird to the ground with clubs. They dragged what I thought was a lifeless Jay Bird to Medical in a river of blood.
He survived of course and went to Max Con—very serious disciplinary lockdown. Little Jay Bird was sent to The Hole—less serious segregation/isolation--and lost hope for his lawsuit against the Department of Corrections. I missed them both, and Wild Bill too who was sent to Segregation for causing an extended lock down that night because guards couldn’t find him after the throat cutting—he was passed out drunk under a shitter.
I encountered Jay Bird a few years later when a hurricane swamped the prison where he’d been sent; those inmates were brought to Nash for temporary housing on bunks in the gym. We hugged, bumped fists, and joked about old times. He asked to “borrow” stamps to buy dope. I gave them to him.
What’s a mentor/teacher/friend for?
One day in my third year of incarceration, my workout partner BillyG—27, a former college football player who fell off a roof doing construction work one summer, broke his back, became addicted to pain pills, then turned to crime to score more pills for his habit—and I were having lunch with Gene, down for murdering two women, one in Alaska, the other in N.C.
An aggravating factor in his sentencing was that he torched their bodies in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the evidence.
Gene was 45, stocky, with close cropped hair and a shaggy beard. A devout, what I call a “performing” Christian--“Look at me, Look how religious I am”--Gene knew the Bible backwards and forward, but he was the main procurer of contraband from the Optical Plant which made Medicaid glasses for the state. He was also blackmailing some of his civilian bosses who were stealing Medicaid glasses worth hundreds of dollars on The Street.
“I’m ready to be released,” Gene announced in the chow hall after saying grace over food that did not deserve any grace whatsoever. “I’m rehabilitated. I’ve learned my lesson.”
Billy, a jaded guy who contravened, usually successfully, every rule from possessing extra clothing to smoking weed, sneered, “Yeah? What have you learned?”
Gene assumed a pious pose. “I learned never try to burn the bodies.”
Gene will probably never get out, but if he does, I am certain that he would never try to burn a body again. He did learn that lesson.
As for Billy, now 42, he’s been “rehabilitated” four times. He got out again just two months, but….
An Unrepentant Murderer
Tommy W, in for two murders, claimed to be Native American—a Cherokee, but he got no casino money from tribe profits. He had nothing and no outside support.
54 years old, an ominous giant who’d put on so much weight in prison, he wore a thick rubber band around his waist because of hernias.
Fearing that he would die unless he lost at least one hundred pounds, he began walking around the unit track: 11 laps made a mile—but he could not do one.
Seeing me do 55 every day--I’d pass him three or four times before he gave up on his first lap--he asked for help in losing weight. I told him that while exercise was good, diet was more important, but he knew nothing about calories, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, etc., so I explained them to him and put him on a strict diet.
“No more Fat Boy Cakes?” he cried.
“Fat Boy Cakes,” sweets like cupcakes and other pastries, were favored items in the canteen. When the civilized world banned Trans fats, I think the excess was sent to prisons: the much in demand apple turnover had nine Trans fats and his Fat Boy Cakes had 12.
Following the diet religiously, Tommy shed pounds quickly; instead of passing him two or three times for each lap he did, it got down to one; finally we were walking together. That’s when he told me about the crime that brought him to prison.
Before he fell, he had a Native American shop in Fayetteville and earned a good living with his Lumbee girlfriend. The woman was wild in and out of bed and the relationship volatile--great sex and great fights until it was all fighting with mutual death threats.
She got a restraining order on him and had him locked up in the city jail, then with him behind bars, she took all his money and merchandise and ran off with a younger guy.
Out of his head when released, Tommy tracked her down with his Indian skills. He traced her to a cabin in the woods where she had holed up with her boyfriend. The cabin was in a clearing and he saw lights inside. As he stealthfully crept closer with his shotgun, the dog on the front porch, recognizing Tommy, jumped up yipping happily.
As Tommy stood on the porch ready to burst in, the front door swung open; the woman had heard the dog. They faced each other a couple feet apart. He raised the rife. She screamed.
“I told you I’d kill you, you bitch,” Tommy yelled and pulled the trigger.
The woman screamed again and ran. The young guy rushed out of the bedroom to see what the screams were about. Tommy raised the rifle and pulled the trigger, blowing the guy’s head off. Caught between her headless boyfriend and Tommy with his rifle, the woman stopped, not knowing where to go. Tommy shot her head off also.
After checking the bodies and getting blood all over himself, Tommy ran back through the woods, jumped in his car and drove off, but he didn’t have enough gas to get far, so he stopped at a gas station/convenience store. At night when payment had to be inside, he went in, wild eyed, dripping blood, looking like a rampaging zombie. The clerk fled to the stockroom as Tommy put money on the counter and went out to fill his tank.
He drove to the beach and sat for hours on a pier. His life was over, he knew. The only solution was suicide so he went to the car for his shotgun. But he didn’t have any more shells--he’d dropped them as he ran through the woods.
“Fuck it,” he said and turned himself in. He got two life sentences.
“It was worth it,” he told me with great satisfaction and no remorse whatsoever.
Obsessed with losing weight, Tommy walked 6-8 hours every day regardless of weather. Every Friday we went to the gym to weigh ourselves. The pounds literally evaporated off him.
Everyone was impressed. Rae Carruth, who’d packed on a few extra pounds, decided to get down to his NFL weight. I decided to drop ten pounds, and Rae got Big Show, the first baseman on our ball team who’d zoomed to 300 to join him in a contest: Tommy and me vs. Rae and Show for $1 a pound lost. They quit after losing $20 the first week—which, by the way, they never paid. Criminals!
Tommy set an unbelievable goal: lose 100 pounds in two months. I told him it couldn’t be done, but if he did, I would buy him all the ice cream he could eat.
He did it! I bought him a gallon of ice cream from the canteen.
Flushed with success for having lost so much weight, he decided to write a diet/exercise book, but I told him it wouldn’t sell--no one could follow his regimen: walk 6 hours a day and not eat anything.
Disappointed that he wouldn’t become a best-selling author, he decided to earn money by using his Native American heritage as a hustle, so he joined the Native American Circle that met twice a week at the chapel. Participants who brought authorized peace pipes were allowed to smoke tobacco that was distributed by the chaplain. This was the only tobacco allowed in prison because it was deemed for a religious ceremony; all other tobacco had been banned.
Of course Tommy and others smuggled back the tobacco to sell on the black market. Tommy’s profitable hustle ended when 20 pounds (!) of tobacco disappeared from the locked safe in the Chaplains office. After that, peace pipe smoking was scrutinized by the assistant warden.
Undeterred, Tommy found another hustle: he made faux leather mojos and wallets out of boots stolen from the warehouse.
Religion always seems to provide.
Justin and the Dwarf
One day I was on the track with Justin, a 22 year old bipolar schizophrenic who couldn’t read or write. GED classes were not a realistic option for him, but as the GED teacher, we met when he asked me to read a letter he’d received from his girlfriend Rita; I was happy to. Then he asked me to write a letter to her, which I was also happy to do. Soon I became his secretary and spent thirty minutes every day reading his mail to him then taking dictation.
Despite his fearsome visage—shaved head, razor wire tattoos on his face and neck, deep facial scars, pug nose, crazed eyes—and a hyper demeanor, he was a sweet kid so grateful for my help that he followed me everywhere. Guards called him my “henchman”, a role he would have been happy to perform. He desperately wanted to be wanted. If I’d said, “Justin, attack!” he would have thrown himself on anyone, but it never came to that—I had two other henchmen who were able to handle any mayhem: Johnny Blood and Z.
Doomed when his dope dealing mother and grandmother hid heroin in his diapers, bipolar and schizoid, Justin’s “adult” convictions began at 16. He didn’t miss a year after that.
Once while on the rec yard with him, I saw some black buddies bench pressing 405 pounds. I called out, “Aren’t there any white guys who can lift that much?”
Justin immediately ran over and effortlessly lifted the bar.
“It’s my retard strength,” he bragged. He also bragged about his “Crazy Check”—a Social Security SSI payment that he received those rare times when he was on The Street.
That day while walking with Justin, I spotted The Dwarf ahead of us on the track. I’d heard a dwarf had been shipped to Nash, but this was my first sighting of him.
I stopped. “My God, look at that,” I cried, watching his tiny legs and huge ass. “Isn’t he adorable?”
Justin didn’t think so, but I headed toward the unit. “I gotta go in. I can’t stop laughing.”
As soon as I left, Justin went to The Dwarf and said, “Mr. Peterson thinks you’re adorable.”
The Dwarf went nuts. “I’m not a fucking doll! I’ll kill that motherfucker!”
Utterly pleased with himself, Justin came in, but he didn’t say anything to me.
The next morning Johnny Blood told me that I had a big little problem--The Dwarf was pissed; he had threatened to take me out.
“Why is he pissed? I’ve never talked to him.”
After Johnny told me what Justin had done, I understood, so I sought The Dwarf in the other block. When he saw me approach, his lips curled. I told him we had to talk, so we went to chairs in the day room. I tried not to laugh as I watched him scramble onto one like a three year old, but lost it when I asked him his name.
“Everybody calls me Shorty,” he said.
“Well, duh,” I said.
He jumped down furiously, but I managed to calm him, and we became friends thereafter. He was especially pleased when I asked him to be stat man on the unit softball team I coached though he had to stand on the bench to see the game.
He was a great asset because he could trash talk the opposing team into striking out and committing errors.
Unfortunately, he also trash talked our own team and was in constant danger of being strangled by everyone including the umpires.
Alas, The Dwarf didn’t last long at Nash and he barely made it out alive—snitching, theft, any number of violations,
Justin didn’t last long either; he was too volatile. Just before he was shipped to another prison, he grew more and more unstable and I was the only one who could handle him. I realized that he had run out of his medications and told guards and staff that he needed them desperately.
Days went back with no refills.
Finally he exploded during the weekly “clothes change” when we turned in dirty gear for clean clothes. Something happened in which Justin did not get the size skivvies he wore and he had a total melt down.
A black guard put a hand on him and told him to shut up. Justin went on a racist rant, slapped the man’s hand away, and had to be restrained from attacking the guard.
That was that and Justin was shipped away, but assault charges were dropped when it came out that he had not been getting his required medications.
Not long afterwards, the unit manager called me into his office. “Your boy has escaped,” he told me.
“All right, your henchman. Justin. He made Honor Grade and had only two more months to do when he escaped, stole a car, and was apprehended outside Atlanta.”
I knew Rita had moved to Atlanta, so it made perfectly good Justin sense to me.
“Why did he do that?” the unit manager asked.
“Because he’s fucking nuts,” I said.
So he got an escape charge, spent another year in prison, was released, and has been in and out of prison every year since. He can’t help himself and never will.
But you know, he’s a really sweet guy.
He killed a Hells Angel. That should give you an idea of the kind of guy he is. Actually, he’s a real good guy. But...feral is a little strong, yet wild isn’t strong enough. Crazy might be the best description, yet I write that with great fondness.
My first bulldog was Dudley. In The Staircase, there’s a clip of us playing on the beach in San Diego in 1969 when I was in the Marines. I loved that dog, but there’s no getting around it, he was deranged. Sometimes without warning he would throw himself on a tree and try to climb it. There were no squirrels or anything else in the tree he might be chasing; it was just some mad impulse to climb a tree. Once he got so far up an apple tree he couldn’t get down; we had to go up and get him. It was a bizarre sight: an English Bulldog perched on a branch in an apple tree.
He also had a thing about motorcycles. That’s not terribly unusual for dogs, but Dudley carried it to extremes. Once near Fort Knox, he was in the backseat of my Cutlass Convertible as I was driving home at about 60 mph when a motorcycle roared past going the other way. The top was down and Dudley jumped out. All I saw in the rearview mirror was him hitting the pavement, tumbling over and over.
I pulled over immediately and jumped out expecting to see his dead body in the bushes, but instead, I watched him get up, shake himself off and amble back towards me. Another time on a Dallas freeway, he jumped out and chased a motorcycle going the other way. I pulled onto the median and chased him through traffic half a mile, screaming his names as I dodged honking cars.
He also had an eyeball that every now and then popped out of the socket. I was horrified the first time it happened and spent five anxious moments massaging it back into place. Then I got used to it, but when it was out, he looked like a mad dog in a horror flick.
You couldn’t help but love a dog like that.
That’s sort of how I felt about Kruger. I called him The Kraut, which he took as a great compliment. He really was German, someone out of an old Fritz Lang or von Stroheim movie; he would have been right at home in the SS.
The Hells Angel guy picked up Kruger in his truck when Kruger’s car broke down. They knew each other and had smoked pot together a few times; I think Kruger knew the guy’s sister intimately. Kruger was 19, very scruffy and a bit of a flake, if Hitler could have been called a flake. To Kruger’s shock, the guy put his hand on Kruger’s crotch and started to fondle him.
Kruger jumped out of the truck.
The guy pulled over and came at Kruger with a pistol—he could not let his gang bros know that he was gay,
Kruger held up his hands and said, “Whoa, whoa, dude, take it easy; everything’s cool.”
“You won’t tell anyone?”
“Nah man, it’s cool. I don’t care if you’re queer.”
Not the wisest remark.
The guy shot him, but missed and took aim again, so of course Kruger pulled his own pistol from his waistband and emptied the clip on him; six bullets!
He tossed the body in the front seat of the truck and drove off. But to where? It was too late for a hospital—he was dead—and the morgue would just cause him embarrassing questions, like: Why are there six bullet holes in him? What are you doing with the corpse?
So he drove down a deserted road, smoked a joint, and tossed the body in a river, but before the corpse floated away, Kruger waded into the water and took two necklaces, several rings, a watch, and a rope bracelet off the body. These were traced back to him, and of course his fingerprints were all over the truck which he tried to sell to someone.
In the end, Kruger pled guilty to second degree murder and was given a life sentence.
His first prison violations came within two weeks—Disobey Order and Verbal Threat. He got eight violations that year, 6 his second year, 5 the third year, 6 his fourth year, and on and on. Many of the violations were for “weapon possession.” Lots of young guys have shanks for protection, and Kruger was determined that no one was going to take his ass.
He spent a lot of time on Lock Down at Central Prison--maximum security and the site of the state’s Death Row.
Kruger’s background is pretty much a cliché—foster homes, unruly behavior, and juvie court. Unsurprisingly, he grew up with several standard prejudices, but also with some unconventional views. He was a self-described Viking; Thor was a god. This was way before Marvel Movies and Chris Hemsworth.
When I met him, he had been down fourteen years, facing the rest of his life in prison. We spent a lot of time together on the weight pile; he was very strong—he could jerk a 135 pound bar over his head with one hand. And very intelligent, but like many Germans, he didn’t have much of a sense of humor. He understood jokes, but rarely found them—or anything—funny. He also had an unnerving trait of cocking his head when he looked at you, and his eyes would become…well, possessed: demonic. At least they stayed in the socket.
And of course he was absolutely paranoid. Prison does that to guys: people are out to get you—guards and other prisoners; you are constantly checking behind your back, but The Kraut raised paranoia to another level: he saw everything as a threat and everyone as an enemy—with two exceptions: Al G and me, Al because Al had survived Death Row and was the meanest motherfucker in prison, and me because I was old, constantly battled the guards, and frequently on TV, a sure sign of success and wisdom in his mind. He listened to our counsel.
He met Al at Central Prison when Al was taken off Death Row after 9 years. Al had been convicted of murdering three men (he later told me there were several others; I believed him). He got off Death Row on a technicality and is now serving three Life sentences—he’s 79.
Al took Kruger under his wing (sort of Pterodactyl and baby Pterodactyl) and told him he would not survive unless he settled down. When Kruger would go bug eyed and begin volcanic rumblings, Al didn’t even have to talk to him; he’d just sit silently beside him, sort of like Yoda, if Yoda had been a mass murderer.
Alas, I had to talk to him to calm him down. He’d start screaming about someone who had offended him, threaten murderous mayhem, and I’d say, “Let’s take a walk.” We walked miles around the track. I’d listen to his grievances and gently point out that perhaps they weren’t so grievous, or even meant, and suggest alternatives to “shanking the motherfucker.”
I even found a healthy outlet for his aggression.
Not having learned from my last coaching lesson (softball: story in the book), when several Hispanics asked me to coach the newly formed unit soccer team, I said yes. I’d had dealings with several of them and had helped other Hispanics in GED class.
Six had been in my class; they were smart and quick, but English was their second language. They could take the GED test in Spanish, but we had no study materials in Spanish.
My Spanish certainly wasn’t good enough to help them. Though I’d taken four years of Spanish at Duke, my grades had been abysmal. I’d managed to pass only two of the four years and at one time held the record for lowest grade ever scored on a Romance Language final exam: 17. It might still be a record. And that score came with immense help from fraternity brothers—one of whom was Spanish. What added to the indignity was that I thought I’d done well.
How bad was my Spanish? Once near Barcelona, my Simca caught fire and all I could do was point to the flames—I’d forgotten (may never have known) the word for FIRE!
Wanting to help the Hispanics, I went to Captain Lucita and asked for assistance in getting Spanish study guides because she was from Puerto Rico and the only Spanish speaking officer. I thought she’d want to help, but she declined brusquely, so I had friends on the Street send me four copies of the Steck-Vaughn Spanish language GED study book that cost $25 each.
Before they could take the test, Frau Himmler had all the Hispanics shipped to other prisons.
The incident intensified my “Fuck you” attitude to officials.
Though not confident of my Spanish language ability, I felt confident about coaching soccer because I’d coached soccer teams in Germany and the US and gone to hundreds of games when my son Todd played. I called the team Real Nash (after Real Madrid), which all the Hispanics understood and appreciated, but it confused everyone else: “Is there an ‘unreal’ Nash? I want to go there.”
We never lost a game, a little because of my coaching, but mostly because the Hispanics could play soccer—it was their game. They had played in Mexico and Latin America since childhood. Rae Carruth, the NFL pro, told me that soccer was his second-best sport and talked about joining the team, but finally declined to play—I think because they were better and he wouldn’t have been the star.
Luis was the star. He and Speedy were MS-13, the most vicious brutal gang in America with ties to Mexican and Columbian drug cartels. Founded in El Salvador, they’ve spread throughout this country. Murder, dismemberment, torture, drugs, prostitution, sex trafficking highlight their criminal activities that reached North Carolina in early 2000.
Even my Mafia mentor Gino warned me about them: “They are some evil evil motherfuckers.”
But I got along well with Luis and Speedy. They were excellent soccer players and good team members. I had several “business” dealings with them in which I lent them stamps until “payday” when their drug deals came through. They paid me back immediately.
All was good until one day on the rec yard as we were all chatting and joking at the fence I asked Luis about MS-13.
His eyes flashed like lightning, all amicability gone: DANGER DANGER DANGER!
But Speedy quickly interceded. He patted me on the head gently and said, “Just coach, Mr. Peterson,” and both of them walked away.
Luis, Speedy and the other Hispanics were illegal aliens and would be sent back when their sentences were over.
We practiced every afternoon on a portion of the dirt rec yard, mostly offensive strategy with Luis as striker; Speedy handled the defense with Jorge as goalie. They were really good.
My major contribution was to bring Kruger to the team. The Hispanics had ball skills, Kruger had utter fearlessness: on and off the field. Even the MS-13 guys respected him, and of course he bonded well with them. He and Luis were awesome on attack, especially Kruger.
My coaching advice was simple. I told Kruger to charge the player on the other team with the ball: scream and run at him, but don’t touch him--no fouls. He did. Picture a crazed screaming murderer charging you at full speed. You might run away—the other player invariably did. Kruger would then take the abandoned ball and charge the terrified goalie, scoring effortlessly.
The first time Kruger did it, the ref blew his whistle and red carded him.
“For what?” I yelled, running onto the field.
“He’s scaring everybody,” the ref said.
“I told him to do that. He didn’t foul or touch anyone. There’s no violation.”
The ref pulled me aside. “Jesus, Peterson, tell him to calm down. He’s scaring me too.”
When the season ended, I gave up sports for good, except for weight lifting where I encountered someone just as forbidding as Luis, Speedy, and Kruger: T Monsta, and that sums him up perfectly—picture a gigantic tattooed boulder. He was a 32 year-old brute with shaved bald head, thick arms, legs, and neck, yet he had a soft almost gentle smile, and he loved to joke and laugh.
I would have been killed a hundred times except for my age and jokes. Humor is one of the most prized assets in prison; making people laugh counts for a lot, like jesters in old royal courts. You just have to make sure the behemoths get the joke. Fortunately, T Monsta got the jokes.
He was in for murder of course—actually two murders and an involuntary manslaughter. He was a very bad boy and prison had not tamed him. Among his many write-up/violations were: Assault with Weapon, Taking hostages (!), Substance Abuse, Bribery, Active Rioter (!) and naturally, Gangs/STG.
Since prison is so much about violence—who cares about college degrees or penmanship awards? —you had to respect guys like JS, Johnny Blood (lots of stories about them in the book), and T Monsta, Alpha Plus Plus males in a jungle of Alpha males. They dominated by sheer force. And I did respect them--not just for their strength, but for their savvy and survivor skills. They were brutes, but clever ones who had managed the shoals of prison for decades.
I never feared JS or Johnny Blood because there was trust and mutual respect. T Monsta…not so much. I liked and respected him, but I think it was his baby-faced smile that kept me more cautious with him than with the others. I always had the feeling that while we got along great and always joked, he’d stab me just for the fun of it with that smile on his face.
At the time I knew him (through JS and Johnny Blood), T Monsta was the number two Blood, a definite shot caller. We got off to a rocky start over his name.
When we first worked out on the weight pile, he told me his moniker was T Monsta, but his real name was Todd.
“Todd? That is such a gay name,” I said.
“What!” he shouted, moving in on me threateningly.
I immediately put up my hands: “My son has never forgiven me for naming him Todd. He’s always wanted to change it because he said it was a gay name.”
“It’s not! And I’m not!”
I smiled. “I know, and neither is my son.” That seemed to mollify him.
A few days later while I was on the phone talking to my son, T Monsta walked by. I called him over and handed him the phone. “Here’s another gay Todd you can talk with.”
They joked and laughed. Later T Monsta asked me why I was using the unit phone. He offered me his contraband cell phone to make calls.
A cell phone was required for upper echelon gang members—for business and status. You couldn’t have bling, but a cell phone was a must and often suitcased when not in use because authorities considered them such a threat that possession of one brought an escape attempt charge and I-Con, deep deep isolation.
I declined T Monsta’s phone offer because I would never use one. I feared the phone might be seized and when Frau Himmler ran a check on all calls, mine would turn up with disastrous publicity consequences. Besides, I didn’t make many calls and I could afford them.
But then he asked me if I wanted to go to the yard and watch porn on his phone. I knew I should have run straight to the chapel, but the temptation and irony were too great—in prison, on the weight pile, watching porn on a contraband cell phone—so of course I said yes.
Alas, like many “thugs” at Nash, T Monsta had a short shelf life. He was too threatening to guards (inmates too) and was shipped to a higher security prison.
Most thugs were happy to go to Close Custody (highest security level) because they’d have more freedom/excitement and be with friends/gang brothers. T Monsta looked forward to it.
His projected release date is 2027 when he’ll be 50. Perhaps he’ll have calmed down by then, though I’m not sure I want to be around to witness it—if I’m still alive; I’ll be 84.
Kruger will still be in prison, but I hope not—he’s mellowed enough for release.
Luis and Speedy will have been sent back to El Salvador, and that will be just fine.