Your cellmate is the most important person you’ll interact with while you are incarcerated. You are forced to live with this individual 24-7, and you will spend many hours locked in the cell with each other. It’s important that you afford respect to your cellmate (or “celly” as we say around here), for you must close your eyes at night with this person only a few feet away from you. No matter how big and tough you may think you are, sleep is the great equalizer.
I spend alot of time thinking. Most of the time it’s about current events and happenings in my life, but sometimes I find myself thinking back upon the past. I know I’ve said it before, but time has a way of putting things into perspective. My first year incarcerated was a frightful one. I learned through trial by fire how to survive in This World. You either fight to survive or you fold and are swallowed into oblivion behind these walls. That first year was a lonely one for me. Not so much because I had no one here that I could talk to, but because I realized for the first time that family is all that matters in life.
Sometimes when I sit and think about what life is like here I shake my head. Other times I laugh to myself, and yet others I’m amazed. Living in This World is like living in another universe. There’s so much going on around me at any given moment that if I could illustrate these events for you in real time, you would be astounded.
My first fight came within weeks of me arriving in This World. Everyone faces this moment at some point, it’s just the nature of the Joint. If you are new, you will be tried and tested by a host of individuals, tricksters, scammers, thugs, and gang bangers; the list is long. If you are young, predators will be after you. The Bubba’s of This World plot and scheme the moment you’ve arrived.
My first fight was an eye opening experience. I learned a number of things on that day, the first being that there are no rules in a prison fight. The second being that you should never fight an opponent that’s bigger and stronger than you in a confined space. At one point I found myself pinned with two thumbs being pressed into my eyes. But the most important lesson I learned was that if you keep company with trouble, expect trouble to find you.
My first cell mate was a bald-headed annoying white guy everyone called “X.” What did X stand for? I don’t know, but someone told me he had earned the name for killing a guy who informed on him while he was on the streets. X was a racist. He had a swastika tattooed on his shoulder and skulls and tribal work that sleeved his arms. X believed that white people are the rightful people of the world and that the country was being overrun by foreigners. He claimed affiliation with the AB (Aryan Brotherhood), a hate group that believes in white supremacy. Here in This World, the AB and gangs are the source of most the problems that occur. They control the flow of contraband into the institution, and they are behind assaults, extortions, and the daily movement of weapons and drugs amongst the inmate population.
I had lived with X for a few weeks at this point and had been subjected to daily rants about the ‘Niggers,’ the ‘Jews,’ and the ‘Chinks’ and the ‘Wet Backs.’ He railed about secret societies and conspiracies and several times had tried to persuade me into seeing his twisted view of the world. Each time I politely resisted his efforts. What I didn’t have the heart tell him was that 1) I thought he was a friggin’ nut job, and 2) I’m not white, but have a mixed Oriental and European background. Frankly, he frequently said a number of things that offended me. If I weren’t so naive back then believing that you could reason with people like this, I’d’ve fled from the situation right from the start.
Then one morning X was up early talking my ear off about the Muslim inmates and how all of them were terrorists, and that Islam was the religion of pedophiles and the devil. What type of religion, he had said, promised virgins for a devout life? But Islam wasn’t the only religion he attacked and misrepresented. The Bible, he claimed, proved that white people were the children of God. He’d cite verse to me and even had a number of publications, photocopied black market hate material, that he used as a reference in his effort to get me to see the light. How he even got the stuff in the first place was beyond me, but he had it nonetheless.
At one point I couldn’t take his ranting any longer and so began pushing back at him. I questioned the accuracy of his beliefs and pointed out that there are many, many good people who aren’t ‘white.’ I argued with him about the inaccuracies in his statements, and pointed out how a number of things he believed had long been exposed as fraud or outright untrue. I argued with him for hours that day, going from verse to verse in the Bible, pointing out how if he simply read the previous verse or the following verse he’d see the proper context. This was a terrible mistake. His attitude flipped from optimistic recruitment to dark hate. I was so naive, believing I could reason with an individual like him. I was about to learn a hard lesson.
Count time came and went, and X didn’t say another word. By now I realized I crossed some sort of red line. By the time count had cleared, X’s entire head was red. I found myself thinking of ways to defend myself if he ever decided to jump at me. He wore a knee brace all day and had complained about his knee for weeks. If I had to, I thought, that would be the first place I strike. X was a big dude. I’m guessing probably 60 pounds bigger than I was. Hell, back then I was all of 150 pounds soaking wet–if that.
When count cleared, chow was called. I hadn’t seen X since the doors broke, and wondered where he’d gone. I went to chow, and by the time I finished eating, I had convinced myself things had blown over.
When I returned to the cell block, I was confronted by a fat, bald-headed white guy I’d never met. He was maybe 5’10” and 220 pounds, and he had a head that was shaped like the bottom end of a bowling pin. I had no idea what his name was, and I remember thinking that he reminded me of a character from The Goonies, so Goony is what I’ll call him. X had paid the guy a carton of smokes to fight me, put a paid hit out on the little New Fish, all because I was willing to disagree with him. X was such a coward that he had to pay someone to do his bidding.
We stepped into a neutral cell and I immediately started swinging. I didn’t know how to street fight back then, no technique, no strategy–nothing. I swung out of fear, and I threw punches as fast and as hard as I could. To my amazement, I caught Goony off guard. I literally landed 15-20 punches before he was able to hit me once. At 150 pounds, I discovered I was fast, lightning fast.
Goony had a glass jaw. Despite my small stature, I’d stunned him. When his legs went soft and he stumbled, I fell upon his neck, choking him from behind. I squeezed with all my might, and for several seconds he made awful choking and gurgling sounds. I laid all my weight on his neck and torso, but to my horror, Goony simply stood back up. With me on his back, he proceeded to ram himself (and me in the process) into every wall of the cell. I was like a rag doll clinging to his neck for dear life and I remember thinking, Why won’t he go down? Why?!
Goony rammed me into the frame of the cell door, and pain surged up my spine. To my horror, my arms grew tired from all the effort, and I was running out of gas. Fighting is very energy intensive. Until that day of my life, the last thing I fought with intensity was a largemouth bass while fishing.
I felt my strength waning.
Goony made another heave, and I was loosed from his back. He turned and punched me in the head and face so hard that I saw stars and heard a humming noise. I felt a gush of warmth down my front side, and when I looked, there was blood raining down onto my white T-shirt. To my horror, there was blood everywhere in the cell. It was on the floor, my hands, my shirt; his hands, face, and shirt; the walls, the sink…bloody handprints and smears all over the place. When I realized that his nose was bleeding, I felt a renewed confidence. It was fleeting however, for I soon realized that most of the blood was my own. My nose was bleeding uncontrollably, so much so it rained down in a spraying torrent.
The next moment I found myself grabbed into a bear hug. My feet lost contact with the ground, and I was lifted into the air and slammed onto the concrete cell floor. Goony came flying down on top of me, knocking the wind out of me. I gasped for air and tried to push him off, but I had literally run out of gas. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I could barely fight back.
Pinned and unable to move, He punched my head and face repeatedly. Each time I shifted my head away he would punch with his other fist, left-right, left-right, left-right, left-right, left. He kneed me in the groin several times, and the pain made me want to throw up. What the hell?! I thought. He can’t do that! There’s rules to fighting!
I managed to free an arm, and I punched the asshole in the face. His flat nose squished under my fist, and he let out a groan. I felt warmth all over my face as his nose began gushing. He tried to grab my hand, and when he did I was able to free my other arm, punching him in the side of the head. I punched him on the other side of the head with the other fist, alternating again, with what little effort I could muster.
Goony groaned and swore at me before rolling off and away as he tried to protect himself. I scrambled to my feet and was immediately grabbed and slammed to the floor again, except this time he wasn’t just fighting anymore.
Pinned again, and with Goony sitting on my chest, he pressed both of his thumbs into my eyes. I felt his thumbs push into the side of my eye sockets, literally pressing my eyes in and to the side. The pain was excruciating, and I screamed as I thrashed my head left and right, trying to keep him from pressing deeper. Somehow I managed to roll onto my side to protect my face, and Goony bit me on my side until I screamed.
It was at this miraculous point where he literally ran out of gas, too. He’d beat my head and face so hard and exerted himself so much trying to subdue me that he had exhausted his fat ass. At the same moment that he gassed out, I caught a second wind and pushed my way from beneath him.
When I stood up he put a hand up with palm out and said:
“Okay, okay, I’m good. You good?”
What?! I thought. The hell if you’re good!! Through blurred vision and with blood cascading down my face, I soccer kicked him as hard as I could in the chest.
“Fuck you!” I yelled at him. When I kicked him, he doubled over forward onto his hands and face. I kicked him in the head and I stomped both of his hands. “Fuck you, fuck you!!”
I went to stomp him again when someone suddenly punched me in the head from behind. I turn to see the cell door open and two of X’s friends coming at me. One of them punched me in the stomach, and when I doubled over, the other one punched my jaw with a left hook. I saw stars again and fell to the ground.
I curled into a ball to protect myself and was kicked and punched several times in the head and side. One of them stomped me on my neck and head with a booted foot, and darkness closed in on me. When I came through, someone else had come into the cell and he was telling the other guys, “That’s enough.” He then helped me to my feet and asked if I was okay.
I was having a lot of trouble seeing, and I remember thinking, I’m gonna go blind. I don’t even remember what I said, if anything. My mouth and jaw hurt. I was just glad it was over. Both of X’s friends left the cell, and so did the guy who had helped me up. He returned later with clean T-shirts and towels for me and Goony to clean up with.
I looked into the aluminum mirror above the sink and saw myself for the first time since the fight began. My nose was bleeding, I had an inch long gash on the side of my head that looked like a mouth had opened, a gash above my right eye, and scrapes all along the sides of my face. Everything was bleeding. I almost panicked when I saw that the whites of my eyes were blood red, that they were bleeding inside!
When I pulled my T-shirt off, I had dark red welts on my sides from being kicked, black and blue welts on my chest, and a black and blue bite mark on my side. I rinsed my head and face in the sink, using the towel to clean myself up. Goony looked at me and said, “Man, you can’t let anyone see you.”
I know what he meant when he said “anyone.” He was referring to the guards. I didn’t see any way to avoid being noticed other than to try and stay in my cell until I healed. I would need weeks to heal. I was certain of it.
I was, however, happy to see that I had inflicted damage to Goony’s face, hands, head, and chest (the soccer kick). I found satisfaction as I watched him wring blood from his towel when he cleaned up in the sink. Piece of shit, I thought.
I needed stitches for the gash on the side of my head. I was sure of it. I finally got my body to stop bleeding, and I changed T-shirts. Someone else came into the cell and helped me and Goony discard our bloody clothing. He bagged our T-shirts and towels, tucked the bag under his clothing, and left the cell. Someone else came in and said he’d help me make it back to my cell (which was upstairs). We left the cell and Goony behind and made our way to my cell. Someone went to distract the guard so he wouldn’t see me pass.
Once I was back in my cell, X was absent. The guy that helped me said his name was Anthony, and he swore he would get X for putting a paid hit on me. I told him, “Don’t worry about it; it’ll be fine.” He then “stitched” my gash with superglue. He literally glued my skin back together, and I would’ve never guessed in a million years such a thing could work. That day marked the beginning of my 24 year friendship with Anthony.
As the evening wore on, guys came by to let me know that they didn’t think I deserved what had happened. Some guys brought me Ramen soups so I’d have something to eat while I hid in my cell healing. Apparently several guys pulled up on X and made it clear that if anything else happened to me, it was his ass. When he finally returned to the cell, he wouldn’t even look at me. He was not liked by very many people.
The following day, shortly after lunch time, the yard dogs came to my cell and cuffed me. Someone had snitched on me for the fight. I was dragged to the captain’s office and questioned.
“Who did this to you?” the captain asked.
“I fell playing basketball,” I said.
The captain stared at me for what seemed like a very long time. By the time he spoke again, the shift lieutenant and the major had arrived. They didn’t say anything though. They just shook their heads at me.
“So that’s it?” the captain said.
“Have it your way then,” he said. “You’re just gonna go back to the same cell. You know this right?”
“I think you should go to medical then. I better not hear about anymore basketball games.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
The captain grunted disapproval at me. He then summoned the yard officers again, and they brought me to medical where my wounds were tended to by a nurse. She looked at my eyes and tasked at me at least a dozen times before she finished.
“Do your eyes hurt?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“Can you see fine?”
“Mostly,” I said.
She scheduled me to see the doctor, gave me a baggie of aspirin and ibuprofen, and told me that if my eyes worsened in the mean time to come back to medical immediately.
I was then escorted back to the cell block and returned to my cell. When the evening passed and guys realized I hadn’t given up Goony, I discovered that I had new friends. The fight was a defining moment for me in the sense that it cemented how other guys would see me for decades to come.
While I lost the fight, I passed the test.
As for X, he eventually got beat down by his own friends. I have no clue what he did to piss them off, but I’m sure he deserved it. I couldn’t help but smile when it happened.
The bus ride from the reception center was six hours long. I had been at the Lorain Correctional Institution for 30 days. It’s one of two corrections receptions in Ohio. Each inprisons more than 2,000 men who will be put through a series of evaluation tests to determine where you will serve out your time. Corrections is big business in OH. Over the course of a year, each reception center processes thousands and thousands of new prisoners.
We had finally left the interstate and were now traveling down a rural state road. Fields of corn rolled past, and the landscape started to look the same, flicking past like pages in a picture book. At first we passed houses on either side of the road, but now they were far and few between.
The bus hitched and began to slow. Some of the old school convicts stirred from their slumber, and someone said we were close. Close, I thought. Man, this is really happening.
The vehicle rolled up to a feeder road and onto prison grounds. I saw double sets of chainlink fencing with razor wire–rows and rows of razor wire–glinting beneath the sun. Behind the fencing were large brick buildings with white barred windows. They gave the facade a sinister look and reminded me of teeth. I saw people in identical clothing walking about.
“Hey,” said the guy sitting beside me. He hadn’t said a word the whole trip, but had come alive all of a sudden. Both of us were shackled at the ankles and handcuffed and wore the same bright orange zip up one piece emblazoned on the back with the words ‘DRC INMATE.’ “This your first time?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He grunted to himself. “I’m David, but everyone calls me Spider. What’re you locked up for?”
“I shot a cop.”
Spider’s eyes widened, then squinted. They looked me up and down as he took the time to determine my truthfulness. Whatever skepticism had washed over him dried up just as quickly, and his demeanor brightened.
“No shit,” he said.
The bus slowed with a loud pshhht! of the air brakes. I watched as we pulled up to the giant electric gate. Whatever conversations that were found were suddenly lost as everyone moved for a window. I squinted between the metal mesh and bars to see what was happening.
The gate slid slowly open and the bus trundled forward before it creaked to a stop again. The gate slid shut behind us. The driver killed the motor and silence filled the compartment. I heard and felt beneath the floor board the banging of the underside storage compartments being opened, inspected, and then slammed shut again. A big guard roamed about around the bus with a long metal pole in his hand. It had a flat round mirror at the end, and he thrust it beneath the undercarriage as he walked. Someone opened the hood and inspected the engine compartment before slamming it shut.
I heard the radios crackling as the guards communicated and the bus came alive again. Another giant gate in front of us slid open now, and the bus lurched forward and onto the compound. The bus drove up to a back door of a row of buildings that reminded me of what the back of a strip mall might look like.
A guard stepped onto the bus and said: “Listen up, girls. When you hear your name called, step forward. Get off of the bus and follow the stairs up to the door. There is no talking; if I hear you talking, I’ll put your ass in the hole.”
He then began calling names from a list, and the bus started to empty. My name was one of the last ones called, and I was thankful. I didn’t want to be the first person off the bus. I suppose it was my last attempt and desire to not have to recognize that this was really happening. I was apprehensive of what I’d see and experience, and my stomach was in knots.
When I stepped through the door of the building I found myself in a hallway. There were several guards, and they escorted all 30 of us down the hallway to the receiving department and into a large holding room with concrete benches.
One by one we were strip searched and given new clothing, state issued prison uniforms which guys call “blues,” because the pants are blue and the shirt is blue. My uniform had my name and number on the pants and shirt as did everyone else’s. Everyone was issued one laundry bag, two additional sets of state blues, three washcloths, two small white towels, three pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear (“tighty-whitey’s” as guy’s call them), three white T-shirts, a dark blue toboggan, and a cloth belt with a side clasp. All of the clothing was and is made by inmates throughout Ohio at other institutions. I was then given a small booklet outlining all the rules you’re expected to follow.
“When I call your name, come over here to get your picture taken,” said a different guard now. He seemed nicer than the first one. He was motioning toward a corner of the receiving department where stood a camera on a tri-pod. There an inmate was taking the pictures. He had tattoos up and down his arms, and he didn’t seem the least bit worried or concerned about anything. It was a stark contrast to how I felt.
“Hey, man,” said the convict behind the camera. “What’s your name?”
“Christopher,” I said.
“Great to meet ya, Christopher. I’m J.D. and I’m gonna your picture for your ID card. I’ll take three photos. Two looking that way”–his hand motioned left, then motioned right–“and then one looking at the camera.”
“Okay,” I said. The guy seemed pretty cool, and for the first time in a month I started to relax a little. I wondered if everyone else here was like him.
After I had my ID made, I clipped it onto my uniform. One by one we were escorted to another door, this one leading onto the yard. The guard opened the door, and I stepped back into the sunshine.
“Your housing unit is over that way,” he said, and pointed. “Follow the walkway all the way around, and it’s the building on the left.” He then closed the door and left me standing there. I suddenly felt vulnerable and alone.
I followed the walkway across the yard, and I had the absurd thought, Follow the yellow brick road, kid. Just follow the yellow brick road. I had my laundry bag slung over my shoulder. There were guys everywhere, some standing or walking about, and others sitting on bleachers or playing basketball in front of the cell blocks. Everyone seemed to be watching me as I passed. Where, I wondered, were all the other guys that I rode in with? I looked about the yard but saw none of them. It was just me.
I came upon the front door of the cell block, a solid steel door with a slit window and a giant metal handle. What am I supposed to do now? I wondered. Do I just wait here? Do I knock? I peered through the window. I saw steel tables with seats that were bolted to the floor, metal benches bolted to the walls, a guard’s booth with two guards, and 50 to 60 convicts milling about. Some played cards at the tables, other were in groups standing around. Someone in the crowd noticed me at the door and told one of the guards who then let me in.
The cell block had two tiers, essentially an upstairs and a downstairs. A metal railing ran the length of the second tier, and all the cells had steel doors with vertical slit windows. Cell doors had numbers identifying the cell (I was headed for 265). You could only enter a cell by having the guard electronically unlock the door. I couldn’t help but notice how loud it was in the cell block.
I arrived at 265, and the guard downstairs punched buttons on a control panel to open the cell door. There was a loud angry buzz, followed by a heavy lock turning over, and I stepped into my new home. The first thing I noticed was how hot the cell was. The air hung thick, and it felt like a sauna. There’s no air conditioning in the cells. It’s something you eventually get used to.
My new accommodations measured 8’x6′, basically the size of a standard bathroom. There was a steel bunk bed and a stainless steel toilet and sink combo. I had the bottom bunk, which I later learned was a fortuitous event as no one ever gets a bottom bunk coming straight off the bus.
My cell mate was an old school convict that was pulling his 12th year in a 15-life sentence for murder. A big, burly bald headed white guy who was relieved I wasn’t black. I’d learn in short order that he was a racist of the highest order and was affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood. He was also a bit unhinged upstairs, as he clung to damn near every conspiracy theory that he ever heard. Within my first 24 hours as his cell mate he had tried recruiting me toward his stilted, racist worldview. He also introduced me to his distorted religious beliefs, that the Bible says that white people are the children of God. I hadn’t even unpacked what little possessions I owned and he was already cramming this crap down my throat. Little did I know that within the coming weeks my first fight would be with one of his friends over the issue of race.
Later that evening I made my way onto the yard for the first time. I went down to recreation (or “rec” as guys call it) to check out the facilities and the weight room. There was a simple asphalt paved quarter mile track, and around the track were pull up bars, dip bars and push up bars, all permanent and cemented into the ground.
The track was full of cons working out doing push ups or others exercises. Some guys walked and talked, others hung in groups smoking cigarettes or weed. I was surprised at how much drugs there was and how unconcerned guys were about blazing up right there on the yard. There were no guards in sight, save for the occasional passing of the armed perimeter truck. On the yard you were on your own.
That night I lay in my bunk wide awake. You could hear the conversations other guys were having as they either talked through their windows or through the air vents. Eventually the din and the noise of the day slowly faded as guys one by one clocked out.
At some point I found sleep, but it was fitful and filled with nightmares. What did I dream about? Oh, I don’t know. Dreams are fleeting, you know? I’m sure they centered around scenarios of me screaming and running for family, as this was a dream I had for many years. Sometimes I’d wake, heart pounding with a scream in my throat. If I really did scream in my sleep, my cell mates never told me. Sometimes I’d jerk awake late at night, having failed to save a family member or outrun some tragedy, and I’d cry myself to sleep.
For most guys, the first day is more than just a ‘first day.’ It is the beginning of a long journey of discovery, trials, and tribulations. Some men never complete this journey and are consumed by time. Others survive but are for the worse. As for me? The first day marked the beginning of the end of an old life. And like the caterpillar, I have left that life behind me and now fly toward a future that I didn’t believe existed all those years ago.
Time has a way of putting things in perspective.
For better or for worse.
*If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with your friends. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for you! Also, if you know of other blogs written by inmates, please let me know because I enjoy reading what other guys write. Frankly, it helps keep me sane.