Tense Moments in Prison
Duck for Cover, or Take a Stand?
In prison just as in the outside world, one encounters people who are not quite as mentally stable as most. But the tensions created in prison are heightened by an inmate who doesn’t have appropriate filters, one who speaks without much thought for who he might be offending.
Such is the case with Brian, a man given to sudden and random outbursts. Sometimes these eruptions take the form of a felt need to act like a parrot for 20 minutes or so, hopping up on stools and flapping his elbows while shrieking wild bird calls. Other times his expressions take the form of some rap chant he has invented, and he wanders through the unit weaving among the inmates yelling his verses at the top of his lungs to no one in particular. There is an amazing tolerance among the men in spite of these behaviors, and Brian even has a number of men who have befriended him and include him in games of dominoes or cards.
But Brian has another side that causes so much tension on the unit that I sometimes wonder how he has managed to stay alive for so long. He is a very vocal racist, and he seems oblivious to the reactions he gets when he spouts his unfiltered opinions in the presence of black inmates. I’m thinking of two incidents in particular during which I was thinking I may need to duck for cover having cringed at what had come out of his mouth.
One was during the media blitz covering the shooting of the Dallas police officers at a “Black Lives Matter” rally. Brian, with a string of expletives, insisted that black people were whiners who were treated no worse than anyone else by the police. He ranted on and on until he was finally confronted by one of the black inmates. The debate became more heated and escalated until finally one of the black man’s friends took him by the arm and led him away saying that it was not worth his time. I had done nothing during this incident other than prepare myself to make a hasty getaway in the event of a violent outbreak. I had decided in the moment, for right or for wrong, that to confront Brian in this situation would only cause things to escalate. But, in the end, I felt like I had given up a sliver of integrity in order to save my own skin. I wished I had said something.
The second incident happened the night I returned to my unit from two weeks in the SHU. The last night of the Democratic National Convention was being televised, and I had decided to watch it to get a better sense of Tim Kaine and to hear Barack Obama’s address. I was sitting at the “white” table, and Brian was sitting next to me, loudly offering his political views, mostly disdain for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton, again with a healthy string of expletives. But when President Obama came on to deliver his speech, Brian began to criticize him so loudly I could barely hear the address, even with my ear buds turned all the way up. I glanced over at the “black” table and could feel the tension rise. Brian was being exceptionally rude and obnoxious, even for him. Instinctively I stood up and, without saying a word to Brian, walked over to stand by the black table. As Brian fell silent, and I continued to watch the address, I felt a tap on my shoulder. One of the black men pointed to an empty seat at their table and invited me to sit down. When I thanked him and took my seat, the man sitting next to me, a man with whom I had never had a conversation, held out his clenched fist in an invitation to tap knuckles and said, “Welcome back.” I never would have imagined that he would have known that I had just spent two weeks in the SHU. I saw respect in his eyes and felt my sense of integrity reviving, thanking God for small (or maybe not-so-small) graces.
Here is one other random act of kindness that deserves mention. I was in the kitchen/dishwashing room where I worked with (among others) Jeff, my friend and cellmate from before I went to the SHU, and with Frankie, my current cellmate. It was there that Frankie almost lost it all.
Frankie was an interesting guy, 37 years old and in one institution after another since he was 13. But he had managed to modify his behavior in the past few years so that he had accumulated “good time” and was excited to have been scheduled to be released from prison in September. In the few months I had known Frankie, he had the first incident in years that threatened to take away his “good time.” One night he cussed out a lieutenant. His incident report recommended that his good time be taken away, but at his hearing he was given leniency because the lieutenant had woken Frankie from a deep sleep at 11 at night and Frankie wasn’t in complete control of his response. He got to keep his good time but was on notice for the next six months to toe the line or lose it.
A few weeks later, there was another incident. We were at work in the kitchen when Frankie was told by the C.O. [correctional officer] to do a job that Frankie was refusing to do. I watched in horror as Frankie claimed that the job was not in his job description, and the C.O. claimed that his job description was to do what he was told. It was now a matter of which one would save face. The C.O. told Frankie that he would either do the job or be sent to the SHU and his good time taken away. Frankie could not bring himself to back down.
That’s when out of the blue, Emmett stepped up and with a smile on his face said, “I’ll do it!” Emmett was new to the kitchen and didn’t really know Frankie, but he defused the situation with a sudden and random act of kindness. “You’re lucky,” said the C.O. to Frankie, his eyes flashing, and just like that Frankie was off the hook and, for the second time in a month, walked away with his good time intact. Emmett, with his big smile and even bigger heart, walked away a saint, whistling as he did the job that Frankie had refused.
Dennis Apel served four months in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, having been found guilty of crossing the “green line” during peaceful protest at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and then refusing to comply with supervised probation.