It was my third summer of incarceration, and I’d spent it outside working out and running the Hamster Wheel as much as possible. I was a short distance sprinter in high school, and I was accustomed to outrunning most everyone. However, if you could make it 400 yards without me catching you, you had a good chance of getting away. That summer I’d told myself I was going to change that, and I set my sights running the mile. I remember watching a woman on television from Kenya shred everyone in the mile. She established a steady quick pace, and then sprinted the last 1/3 of the mile. Wow. That’s 1760 feet of balls to the wall fury. Absolutely inspirational. I told myself if she could do that in just under 4 minutes, then I sure as hell could run a 5:00 mile. It was something I’d never done in my life, and something most people can’t do. I was determined to prove to myself I could do it.
My first mile clocked in at a 7:07. Dismal. But I knew I could get that number to fall with each successive attempt. By the end of the summer I was regularly running 5:25. I was one good running afternoon away from checking off one more thing from my bucket list. On this afternoon, I ran my fastest mile, at 5:05. It would remain the fastest I’d ever achieve. Little did I know that it would be the last time I’d run the mile for months to come.
I had just finished showering and was getting dressed in the cell. My cellmate, a black old school convict who was pulling time for murder came dashing into the cell. He knew I had showered and was getting dressed, and for him to interrupt me meant it was serious.
“They’re locking us down,” he said, his expression serious.
“Okay,” I said. “Do you know why?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, a couple of his friends came pounding at the cell door. My cellmate clicked the door open and a quick conversation ensued. I didn’t catch all of it, but I did catch the gist of it: a number of white inmates had killed a black inmate. In addition, the convicts had taken over an entire cell block. The situation was serious. As a matter of fact, it was the most serious it could get–murder driven by racial hatred with hostages.
I immediately left and headed two doors down to my buddy’s cell. The cell was full of guys I knew, all of them as concerned as I and my cellmate were.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked.
“A bunch of dudes just took over cell block “A” and are going around killing dudes,” said Meat Head, an old school convict pulling time for double homicide.
What the hell? I thought. Despite it all, I wasn’t totally surprised. The tension amongst the population was palpable these past few weeks. There had been fights between white and black inmates, and when this happened there was always a spike in tension.
In one of them, several black inmates jumped into the middle of a fight between a black convict and a white convict, with the white convict being badly hurt. To top it all off, the fight was gang related. Back then the gangs and hate groups were always causing problems. It seemed never ending.
“LOCK DOWN!!” Yelled a guard from downstairs. No sooner had he said this, several more guards came running in. I saw looks on their faces that I’d never seen before, looks that told me bad stuff had happened.
I went back to the cell.
My cellmate was sitting in the chair, and I took a seat on my bunk. Apparently, according to my cellmate, he was in the chowhall when guys witnessed a group of white cons make a bee line for one of the cell blocks.
I’d later learn that they would spend the next several hours barricaded in the unit after killing an inmate. It would take armed officers to get the convicts to surrender in the end.
For the next 3 months we’d remain locked down. For the first week none of us were allowed out of the cells, not even to take showers. Meals were bag lunches of peanut butter and jelly that were delivered directly to our doors. Then, about week 2, we were allowed out once a day for showers only, and by week 3 we were allowed out for indoor ‘recreation’ (which involved milling about or sitting at the tables in the day room area of the cell block) for a few hours a day. Each time we had dayroom priviledges like this, the cell block automatically segregated itself. Sometimes there were fights, and when these happened the tension spiked again. It stayed this way for months.
Back in the cell it was very stressful. The tension was palpable even though neither of us had an issue with the other. My cellmate was a very smart, bright individual who passed his time writing short stories for national magazines that paid him to do so. He never involved himself in any of the jackassery that went on around there, and he certainly didn’t keep bad company. Yet, both of us felt the tension over what had happened. It was a 3 month learning experience. In the end, everyone calmed down and went back to doing their time.
What happened all those years ago shaped my views for the rest of my incarceration. It taught me to be aware of my surroundings at all times, and to always have a plan of action if things went bad unexpectedly. To this day I automatically watch my surroundings when in large groups. For years this sometimes annoyed my visitors because I’d always be looking past and around them. When confrontations break out now, I watch everyone but the guys fighting. I’m always asking myself, “What’s really going on here?”
Those past events also reinforced my views of tolerance. No matter what type of hatred I hear guys spew, I find myself thinking that they really don’t know what they are talking about. Because hate is insidious.
Nothing good comes from it–ever.