Inside the belly of the beast you learn really quickly that you’ve got nothing coming, from anyone. You walk in by yourself, and God willing you’ll leave the same way. The things you’ll experience in between those two moments can easily warp your psyche. The choices you make in the Penitentiary are very much a matter of life or death.
These actions and reactions not only apply to those of us that haven’t been home since Bush was in office, they also carry over to those who willingly walk into a warzone 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
Even though our sides are clearly drawn, we’re all still here together. We’re all human beings who exist behind an electric barbed wire fence with an 8 foot thick wall and gun towers armed to the teeth with every kind or lethal and non lethal weapon known to mankind.
Although the life choices we made are on two opposite ends of the spectrum, they led us both to this one horrid destination, the Penitentiary.
Growing up in the affluent suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I never had any REAL interactions with the law. I got arrested, a lot, but when you’re a young white male from a well off family, all the harassment and beat downs are things that only occur in the movies. It also helped that I’d make bail, immediately, for whatever charge I happened to get picked up on.
All of this changed when I was lodged in the Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh while awaiting my extradition to Tucson, Arizona for a marijuana trafficking charge. Without the option of making bail, I had to sit and bide my time behind the wall. It didn’t take long for me to find out I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This discovery came courtesy of some higher ups who were a bit displeased about narcotics flowing through their institution.
My cell was raided at 7 AM as I was sitting down at my desk rolling a joint. I threw the devils cabbage into my mouth quickly and stood to face my assailants. Immediately, I was slammed to the ground and had my arms jacked up behind my back as I was cuffed. I was then lead out of the unit, my head used as a crude battering ram to open EVERY fucking door we went through -which is a shit ton in jail- until we made our way to a nice and discreet location, the captain’s office.
Behind closed doors, and the prying vision of video camera’s, I was beat while still cuffed, for not giving up information.
‘Holy shit.’ I thought to myself as I kept getting hit in the guts. (They do try their best to stay away from the face shots, thank God.) ‘This shit really happens.’
After the kidney rearranging, they dragged me up to the hole and locked me in a cell. For the next 10 days I had NOTHING. The clothes on my back and the puddle of piss left under the steel bunk from a prior occupant who said ‘fuck it’ and degraded himself down to a God damn wild animal, were all I had. I was only 20 years old when this hellacious act taught me the #1 rule of prison, the cops can and will do ANYTHING they want.
I have experienced and witnessed uncountable atrocities by the hands of my overseers, all while locked away from the camera’s reach. Beat downs, starvation, deprivation and mental abuses that your average American would rather kill themselves than endure. Yet to both of us, cops and cons, is just another part of our reality.
I’m a convict through and through. I have the case and incident reports to prove that I will fight the cops at the drop of a dime. Although it’s strictly forbidden from interacting with the cops, in convict code, I’ve gotten to know and even become friendly with most of my ‘caretakers’ over the years.
Inside our 128 man units there are two officers working at all times. Every three to six months this rotation will change. So pretty much for half of a year these officers are paid to learn and know your habits. They listen to your phone calls, and read your emails. Whether you like it or not, they know EVERYTHING about you. If you’re fighting with your girl, or your mother died, they know. They see who the dope fiends are and who has the power. They know whose buttons they can push and who will try to cut their head off for confiscating stolen vegetables.
You learn really quickly who is cool and who isn’t when a CO starts to work a compound. A rookie you can see coming from a mile away. The look of sheer terror in their eyes from hearing the same stories we did growing up lays a spotlight directly on their shaky knees. The other tell tale sign that a turnkey is fresh meat, will come from the non stop searching and pat downs. You can almost see the numbers spinning in their minds as they race to topple the ‘recommended’ number of frisks in the training manuals. When I notice a rookie on the compound, or in the unit, I dip, duck, and dodge at all costs.
From a banana to my fucking bone crusher, anything in my possession that’s unauthorized immediately gets stashed. Years of prison life has taught me to NEVER lose your last bit of food, or your knife, because you never know when you’re going to need either of them.
For those officers with some years under their belts, you can see the swagger as they walk and work the compound. The vet’s have seen and done it all while they make a damn good living being a member of the biggest gang in the system. They move more confidently through the chaotic maze of the penitentiary because they know the #1 rule, the cops will ALWAYS win!
Now, the vets I can deal with. I almost like them more than most of the ‘convicts’ on the yard. We’ve both been around the system. Cops have transferred to the same prisons I have and fought on the same battlegrounds. We both have come to understand and accept the only other thing you need to know about prison, the Penitentiary will run itself.
No matter how locked down a compound is, convicts will find a way to make shit happen. Drugs, knives, gambling, booze, and violence will always ooze from the pores of the prison walls. It’s just unstoppable. There’s too many people, with WAY too much time on their hands, scheming on their next Penitentiary million.
The veterans know this, so they simply sit back and enjoy the paycheck. They’re not chasing down this stolen onion here, or that homemade knife there. They’re well aware whatever gets confiscated will only be reacquired after the convict gets released from the hole. That is to say they even make their way back to the overcrowded Special Housing Units of the BOP. Now they have to worry about a man who more than likely has some predisposition towards violence (with a side order of mental psychosis) plotting on how to puncture every vital organ of said officer as they spend a month in segregation. This is followed by another 30 hours of cutting a Rambo knife with a tiny pair of nail clippers out of a solid steel bunk bed. To say that you wouldn’t want one of these individuals lurking around you ALL day would be an understatement. The old timers are also more than happy to allow their far more exuberant co workers the opportunity to shine when the ‘deuces’, or body alarms loudly sound off across the compound.
There’s no shortage of beefed up, buzzed cut ex military alpha males sprinting to the scene to take someone’s head off with a tackle that would get them a try out with the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a convict that’s been on the receiving end of said body slam -while fighting off two gang members- I can honestly say my “saviors” dished out more pain than my swastika sporting enthusiasts. The rookie’s enthusiasm for action is one that I’ve also witnessed save multiple lives.
Recently at my Penitentiary a high ranking gang member got ex’d out by his Puerto Rican cohorts. Two assassins snuck into the sleeping gang leaders cell at the break of dawn and proceeded to stab him everywhere. From the top of his head down to the bottom of his feet, the defenseless gangster got stabbed over 20 times, one of those wounds was a death blow to the femoral artery. As the barely conscious Boricua staggered from his cell followed by a trail of all his bodily fluids, the 1st responder on the scene calmly made a tourniquet with a discarded sheet and put compression on the gushing kill shot. Said action taken kept the pleading prisoner alive long enough to receive medical attention.
This act of heroism isn’t lost on me and is one of the biggest reasons why I ALWAYS try to stay on an officer’s good side. You never know when your number is going to get pulled in the Penitentiary. No matter who you run with, or how bad of a motherfucker you are, the ONLY ones that ARE going to save you are the ones in uniform.
Having this knowledge and understanding rule #1, make it easy for me to say “thank you” after a cell search that didn’t conclude with a tornado hitting my house. It also makes it that much simpler to say “how are you doing?” to the men in blue as I navigate a treacherous prison yard that could explode into WWIII at any moment.
Every convict will tell you that the CO’s are your enemy, and I won’t even begin to disagree after 15 years of carnage. They’re also the ONLY ones that I KNOW who will come when the shit hits the fan.
Soon I’ll be released at the end of July and this whole nightmare will be over. Although I’ll never receive the “get back” I swore I’d have on a few particularly sadistic CO’s, I’ll also never have to worry about losing every single fucking thing I own just because someone is having a bad day. As much as I’d like to buy the officers a beer who saved me when I was stabbed 8 times in a race riot, I’d also just as much never see them again for the rest of my life. Until the time comes that I’m home walking amongst the living, I’ll continue to go about my day knowing we’re all here living this twisted and depraved life together.
*Words by John ‘Judge’ Broman. John is set for release shortly. A gofundme page has been set up to assist John have the best start when he gets out.
**Art Direction by Ainsley Jade.