Fights in jail or prison are like diarrhea – explodes everywhere.
I’ve had my share of fights over the years. I’ve probably forgotten as many as I remember. Most jail or prison fights are over in seconds. They’re not drawn out boxing matches. They’re explosions of violence.
Looking back, what I find remarkable is not the fights I’ve had – split lips, black eyes, sore hands, scratches – but my reaction to other people’s fights.
I was a teenager sitting in the mess hall of maximum security Elmira Correctional Facility. One corner of the mess hall was taken up by an indoor gun tower – round gun ports set in thick, angled glass. Officers paced in front of the glass, holding what looked like shotguns. Dozens of ceiling pipes were above my head, and the old-timers explained these were used to drop tear-gas canisters.
There were more officers stationed all around the room, toting wooden batons.
One minute, a few hundred inmates were eating; the next, two inmates exploded to their feet, fighting.
No one told me what to do in this situation. I was two months into my 18th year. I leaped to my feet, planning to move to the closest wall under the gun tower so I wouldn’t get shot.
The fight lasted 10 or 15 seconds – a long time in a prison fight – before officers broke it up and dragged them out.
I sat back down at my table and the guys asked me what I thought I was doing.
Years would pass, and I would see countless fights on all sides. Between inmates, there are cuttings and stabbings, and there are vicious, unprovoked beatings by officers.
A lifetime of violence desensitizes you.
I didn’t realize how far desensitized I was until 2012. I was in the Monroe County Jail, sitting in a visit with Susan [Ashline]. Half-way through our visit, I heard a crack behind me. I didn’t even turn to look, but I could see everyone else – inmates and visitors – watching.
Susan was staring at it and said to me, “They’re fighting!”
“So what?” I told her. “We’re having a visit.”
Here was a sane, law-abiding citizen surprised by a fight, and I didn’t even turn to look. I was more disturbed that she as distracted by two men fighting than I was that two men were fighting behind me.
Around the same time, also at the Monroe County Jail, there was another fight. Fifty-three inmates got popped out of their cells for breakfast. I had sat down, poured half my milk carton into a bowl of cereal and started eating.
One or two bites in, I heard inmates arguing over a chair, some cracks and scuffling, and a deputy yell, “Lock in!”
Inmates jumped up, leaving their trays behind, and fled to their cells. I stayed at my table, eating. The fight was still going on. Now, the two guys were rolling around on the floor. More deputies ran into the unit yelling, “Lock in!”
Besides the two fighting, I was the only inmate still out.
Deputies dove on them, and one ran up to me yelling, “Lock in or get sprayed!”
I stood up, picked up my tray with one hand, and kept eating with the other. I walked while eating.
When I finished, I set the tray on the floor, grabbed the half-carton of milk and took it into my cell and locked in.
After hauling the two fighters off, a deputy came to my door and asked why I didn’t lock in.
“I didn’t want my Rice Krispies to get soggy.”
“You were willing to get pepper sprayed over Rice Krispies?” he asked.
“I’ve been pepper sprayed for less.”
Also published on Medium.