It would have been a great leap of faith for me to believe, even momentarily, that the US Pen in Atlanta would be any safer this time than it had been when I was there twenty years earlier. At twenty-six, me and my co-defendant, were the youngest convicts there with the exception of a brotha from DC who was only twenty-two. And hell, yeah, The Big House was dangerously violent, but it was a different kind of menace than I had encountered at any of the other places I had previously been in the Bureau of Prisons. In the more youth-oriented places I had been such as the “Gladiator School” at the Reformatory at Petersburg, the beefs which were constant were mainly due to petty squabbles. In Atlanta, the vibe was different. Everything centered around money. All the big-time Mafia people were there as well as a host of other moneyed convicts so at any given moment, just as many deals were made in the pen as were made on Wall Street. Some deals went bad.
Another surprising thing about the vibe in Atlanta was that you could remain neutral. That was like a breath of fresh air to me because mostly everywhere else in the BOP when the beefing started, you were forced to choose sides once the lines were drawn. In the youth centers, the wars were always racial, or geographical, (such as north vs south, or East Coast versus West Coast), so the tendency to get drawn in was always a possibility. The Big House was an exception. In Atlanta, even if it was your homeboy that got murdered, you knew that he had put himself in that position, and you also knew that he had been given a chance to make it right. Those were the rules. A man lived or died by his own merits. So unlike an incident I encountered in the state joint in North Carolina. I was just coming back into the system, and for some strange reason got transferred out of my district, and was shipped to a remote prison camp in the mountains where whites outnumbered blacks five to one.
It was a well-known fact that this was one of the most racist camps in the state. What else was well-known was that “The Mountains” was where they sent brothers who they wanted dead. The white convicts had store-bought knives provided them by racist guards. Anyway, when I arrived at the camp, I instantly got word that a bunch of white convicts were going to try to kill me because my brother had killed a friend of theirs in a prison fight a few years earlier, I was like, damn, I got beef and I haven’t even done shit! Turned out no bloodshed was required.
Okay, back to the storyline. Upon my second return to USP Atlanta, this tension was caused entirely by the staff. It was like they wanted us to rebel. I mean it was oppressive, and the guards were constantly finding new ways to punk us. In a search to find answers to why the staff would want us to tear the prison up, and perhaps kill some of them in the process, it was discovered that a internal war was raging between the warden and his minions, and the prison union. It was never really determined which faction wanted the riot, but it was clear that one side had figured that a riot would make the other side look bad. In an effort to undermine the warden, the guards in the union would call in sick, leaving the prison under-staffed at critical times.
What never ceased though was the constant harassment and brutality. More than one prisoner was killed in the infamous SHU, Special Housing Unit, of the prison. ( A few years ago, indictments were handed down against guards in Atlanta for those brutal acts). Needless to say, in the case of an actual riots, a lot of the prisoners, myself included, had a ‘hit list’! I had the names of only two guards on my hit list, but if a riot ever jumped off, I was going to make it my duty to hunt down this pair and then to slaughter them like rabid dogs. That’s how much I detested them.
Let me say this, and this has nothing to do with the recent tragic murders of those four prison officials because that was an wholly different situation, but a lot of prison guards who get killed were killed for a serious violations. Oftentimes, the guard was not blameless. A convict beat a guard with a hammer, killing him. The public was outraged, but what they didn’t know was that the guard had been flirting with the convict’s wife when she had come to visit. That may not have justified his murder, but at least, it had been a catalyst. Or what about the crooked guard who cheated a convict out of his cash in a drug deal.? Or what about the guard who planted contraband in a convict’s cell?
Oh yeah, I must confess this because it goes a long way towards showing just how funny and strange life is. Remember those two guards on my hit list, the two that I so badly wanted to kill. Well, both of them–yes—both of them—-did me favors that I never expected! I mean it wasn’t anything big or fantastic, but it truly, truly meant a lot to me. What is more amazing is that neither of them had to do what they did. Still, I was floored by the acts. I know that it will sound so petty and trivial, these favors, but you can’t begin to imagine what a single act of kindness means to a convict who has been starved of any compassion for years.
The first act of kindness was as follows. It was a bitter cold evening, and I had to go to the commissary where the line was always extremely long, especially if your cellblock was the last one let out after the evening count. I had this thing with authority and I fought against it in my own unique way. The prison had a policy that if you wore a coat that you had to open it for inspection just about any time you passed a guard at one of the many checkpoints around the prison. They do this to insure that you are not walking around ‘strapped’ (carrying a knife.) Since I considered this a violation of my person, I never, ever, under any circumstances, wore a coat. I might be freezing, but I would deny them the pleasure of making me open my jacket.
No matter how long the line was, jumping line was a n0-no unless you were on a suicide mission. Added to the misery of the cold, one of the guards I didn’t care much for was running the commissary that night. He spotted me at the back of the line, and yelled at me. I ignored him as he probably knew I would. He started ranting and raving until I finally went to see what he wanted. When I got to him, I was determined to not get punked in front of the line. When I got to where he was, he winked his eye and yelled that he wanted me to pick up the trash inside the building as punishment for not heeding his call. The guard knew I was cold and he allowed me to stand inside the building where it was warm. He even let me go first when the commissary opened. That was a WOW moment for me.
The second incident occurred a year or so later. I was on lock-up, and didn’t have access to any reading material. This second guard had worked in the cellblock where I stayed a number of times, so he knew very clearly how much I loved to read. In the evenings, I would sit outside my cell-door and read. Convicts from both sides of the block would bring me magazines and newspapers. None of the other guards ever said a mumbling word about me sitting outside the cell on the range—except him. He would always order me to not sit on the range, and he would search down my cell, and he would confiscate all the books and magazines I had because the rules said that we could only have two books and two magazines in our possession at any one time. He made it a habit to take my books. Anyway, he was the guard assigned to worked in the lock-up where I was. And lo and behold, he used to smuggle magazines in to me. This was another one of those moments…WOW!
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