The Forrest In The Trees

By Mike Powers

One of the volunteers who comes to the Diboll Unit to minister is a woman who is still on parole from a life sentence. Her desire to come back inside these walls - which I can only imagine must be a powerful emotion every time she comes through the gates - and share the love of Christ with men who need to get salvation and encouragement is highly commendable. But something she said the other day really made me think about how blessed I've been while doing my thirteen flat.

Since the first day I came to prison, I've never been beaten up. Do you realize how awesome that is? Believe me, I'm not some sort of macho man or anything. I've tried to stay as fit as some of my medical problems will allow. When I first came down, I was still playing basketball just about every rec time, and I do cardio in my own cell. But I'm not one of the muscle-heads who crowds around the universal weight machine every rec. In fact, my crowd tends to make fun of those guys. There's a lot of material to work with.

Just the other day, my peers and I were standing in the commissary line, which is at least 100 yards away from the weights. Still, from that distance, we could clearly hear the loud clanging of the weights being jerked around and the Monica Seles-like cries of the he-man that was doing the jerking. You would have thought this poor guy was hoisting himself up over the side of a cliff in a life and death struggle for survival. About fifteen minutes later, I was making my way back to the housing area and passed right by this same man, still screaming out the pain cries of his massive workout. If there was fifty pounds on the plate set, I'll be a monkey's uncle. But I digress.

I haven't had to be cowardly or buy protection. Yeah, I've kept my mouth shut sometimes when I wanted with all my heart to blurt out some sarcastic remark or drop the mic one-liner, but that's a small price to pay. It seems to me that the first leading cause of fights in prison is pride. And the sad thing about that is that, all too often, the pride issue is a result of a misunderstanding instead of an actual insult. Let me give you an example.

A few years back, while I was still living in the buildings on the Stevenson Unit instead of the cubicle dorms I would later graduate to, I was entering the shower area where two guys were already in the stalls. It was one of those socially awkward situations where it would be impolite to say nothing, but, hey, after all, what do you say to a guy taking a shower in a man's prison? I ended up saying, "How ya' doin', fellas?"

One of the men was a black guy big enough to be the screamer from the workout I described above. He said, "Fellas'? Who you callin' a ‘fella'?" Now, it took me a minute to respond, because there are some lingo difficulties for people new to the prison experience, and I was going over any possible way I might have inadvertently blundered into disrespecting the man. For instance, I thought nothing of messing around with my buddies in the free world by calling them a "punk" - as in a mouthy brat. In prison, however, the word takes on a whole new meaning  "punk" is a person who sells himself sexually for money or favors or one who allows himself to become somebody's sexual partner for protection. So, in here, it's a term of great insult. "Fella", however - Texas slang for "fellow"-- carries no negative connotation whatsoever, so to clarify, I said, "Yeah. You know, like "Goodfellas"." He let me know loud and clear that he wasn't "no fella." So loud and clear, in fact, that some of his homeboys heard him getting rowdy and came over to the shower area. They asked their buddy what the problem was while giving me the evil eye. "This white boy callin' me a ‘fella." The gang leader said, "Yeah, so?" The big guy in the shower stall kind of looks at him like he's lost his mind. "I said, he called me a ‘fella'!" The gang leader looked at his big homey in the shower stall, looked at the other homies he'd brought with him to the shower, and they all bust out laughing. "Man, you trippin'."

Believe me, I was glad to know for sure that "fella" wasn't some kind of urban slang for big sissy, but I wasn't out of the woods yet. The fact that big homey had lost face with all of his fellow gang members (get it..."fellow" gang members?) kind of put him in a bad humor, and so I didn't say anything else, I just got in my shower and did my thing. Anyway, nothing ever came of it, except big homey never spoke to me again, which is probably a bonus as far as I was concerned. Also, I learned to just let that awkward silence hang in the air when entering the shower area. Not friendly, I know. Not the way to build community, yes. But, neither is taking undue insult at harmless words.

When I think about the number of men I've done time with who have survived riots, attacks, brutality, and all manner of evil, I can only thank God in heaven for my preservation. When I was still fresh in the system, on my transfer facility, there was a problem between two Hispanic rival gang members. For the most part, the cappos kept everything in line, but this time, it got out of hand. They lived in two separate dorms, but one of them went to chow with his group and "fell out of place" (went somewhere he wasn't authorized to go) to the rival's dorm. He had a sharpened pencil in his waistband. He put his hand on the door to the dorm, and they let him in. It just so happened that his antagonist was asleep on his bunk. He took three jabs in the neck before other inmates could drag the attacker off of him. That man survived his attack even though he had to wear a bandage around his neck for months afterward and talked in a whisper the rest of the time I was there.

As far as being safe myself, I can honestly tell you it has been supernatural. I try and give God all the help I can by staying out of the way of trouble, but in prison, trouble will come and find you. So, when I tell you how blessed I am to be protected, think of poor old Mr. Magoo making his way blindly through the pitfalls of life. That's the way it's been for me, too, in a way. I went into the chow hall one time at the Stevenson at the back of a line of men coming from my dorm. Moments after I entered, two men came up behind me and they were already engaged in an argument about a religious matter. To really prove their zeal for God, they came to blows. Not a good witness, I'd say. They wouldn't stop, even when the officers came with their pepper spray drawn. Needless to tell, I don't like the stuff, so I hurdled the two who, by now, were grappling on the floor of the hall, and ran out the door. Just in time, too - No one else made it out before they closed and locked the doors and let the pepper spray fly. Shortly after, the combatants exited in cuffs, covered with the bright orange residue of the spray and coughing and gagging madly. They were closely followed by two hundred other guys, also having fits of their own depending upon their relative proximity to the fighters. Some had sniffles. Some looked like they'd just survived a World War I era gas attack.

You would think that mediation would prevent a lot of the fistacuffs in here, but alas, no. In fact, it's just the opposite. What will often happen is that someone will try to intercede between two people arguing, and then he's quickly accused of "taking sides", and then the argument escalates into a riot. I once saw a misunderstanding about someone's vote during a channel check turn into a fight involving six men simply because a third party tried to intercede and explain what the original problem was. It didn't work out too well for any of them. Three of them were sent off to "rock and roll" units where they probably weren't going to watch much TV anyway, because they'd be too busy watching their backs. The others did six months in seg where they don't watch much of the tube, either.

Sometimes this works out the other way, though, There was a cappo on my transfer facility that everyone called "Esse Frogger." Frogger was a mischevious dude, no doubt, but he had a great sense of humor, and he obviously wouldn't have been a gang leader if he didn't know how to handle the rough stuff. Anyway, a very big black guy and a skinny little white guy were about to get in a fight because the white guy was called a "little dude". Man, he was mad as a hornet about being called "little dude." Just as they were about to start whaling on each other, Frogger burst out in song, "Little dude, little dude, little dude. Little dude, little dude, little dude!" Of course, everyone that heard that bust out laughing, because it was just so crazy. The fighters looked at each other like, "What are we supposed to do now?" Then they bust out laughing, too. All the tension blew out of that dayroom like air out of a popped balloon. I was always impressed with the way Frogger handled that situation, and if it had come from anyone else, it probably would have caused a bigger blow-up.

Really, I understand some of these fights. Even though they might break out over trivial matters, if you stick enough full grown men this close together long enough, there's bound to be conflict. After all, some of history's epic wars were fought over "elbow room". Why expect any better of some locked up felons? But there is one kind of fight I absolutely do NOT understand and absolutely despise - that's the "click". This happens when two or more inmates gang up on a lone victim for whatever reason. If you ask me, no matter the reason, clicking on someone is really a chicken squat way to handle your business. Might as well put a big sign around your neck that says, "I'm a yellow-bellied coward who can't handle my own battles." Sadly, this doesn't stop it from happening. I've seen it too often, and there's nothing to say to redeem it. It reminds of those punks on the street that go after an old homeless man with bats or something. I think a good punishment for these kind would be to line up all the other inmates on the rec yard and make the culprits "run the gauntlet". Let them get a taste of having everyone around you take a swing at you. I don't want these guys to die or nothing like that, mind you. Just learn a lesson. Fight fair, or don't fight at all.

That's something that takes courage, and honestly, that's something you must have in here. Fear is something you can't help. Every man will sooner or later have to face fear. Courage isn't the absence of fear; it's victory over it. And courage is something that gets a lot of respect in here. I told you guys about some of the legal work I've done in here, helping inmates fight unfair or wrongful convictions. One of my "clients" was a fellow that was far less than completely truthful. (I know you're shocked.) Thing is, you've got no reason to lie to me - you're already in jail. Still, over almost two years of working with this guy, I would repeatedly near completion of a key motion or writ, and he would either want to change strategies or his story would so change the document would be worthless. Finally, I got frustrated enough to terminate our work. Now, this guy was huge, and he was mad. He was locked up for robbing and murdering his girlfriend, too. I knew it was going to be rough, but I stood my ground and told him he'd have to find another writ-writer. All the guys standing in line heard him bellowing and fuming, but I didn't flinch. Everyone was impressed by that, and little things like that can buy you a lot of credit in here.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez