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.