Thursday, September 19, 2013


An inmate in the prison workshops sat in the back for months before speaking.  When he finally spoke, it was to challenge my take on one of the stories we were discussing. The story, to me, was a dead-end event of violence and the comforts of drugs. He disagreed, with thinly veiled contempt, with my recommendation that the writer consider an audience bigger than a prison audience, other inmates.

He said he didn't care what the "free world" thought or understood of prison life. He did not care if the story never incorporated some larger significance, went beyond the mere incident. Further, he called into question my authority to make any judgment about prison writing. I, after all, knew nothing of prison life.

He scared me, and that was the first time, doing the workshops, I had felt that way.

He was a "brother" in the AB, the Aryan Brotherhood, and had the tattoos to broadcast his status. He was also an imposing figure, a wrestler with the crushing hands, bulk, and neck of someone to steer clear of.

One time, during a lock-down, as chance would have it, he and I were the only two in the workshop. Face to face for two hours. I told him he scared me, the only inmate ever to do so. He smiled, and let down his guard a bit. He said he had a reputation to maintain and that he could not afford to be seen with me, or as anything like a teacher's pet, or even someone interested in something as effete as writing.

I got it, and we began to play out our roles as nerdy teacher and tough-guy disruptor with a little more humor. He began to write in ways that defied the AB code. He even wrote a piece about a Jewish guard saving the life of a skin-head. That piece was published recently in the The Sun, A Magazine of Ideas.

He was transferred  after about two years in the workshop, and I was sad to see him go. I missed the energy he brought to our meetings, the incentive he gave me to stay alert and on my teaching toes.

After the piece in The Sun came out, I heard that he was beaten nearly to death, and had many bones in his face broken. The last news I heard was that he was under protective custody. I don't know the motive behind the assault, or who the perpetrators were, but doubt and disloyalty in certain groups is not tolerated.

I also do not know it he ever saw the pieces I published in our inmate magazine or if he ever received his copies of The Sun. I do know that he had the guts to speak words that might get him shunned or worse, that he found a way transmute some of his hate into a harsh and beautiful truth.

I will take copies of his story in to workshop this week and will see how the inmates respond.  I will let the truth speak for itself.

Here is a short version of the piece:


            A few years back I served time in the State Penitentiary in Winslow, Arizona.  They moved a middle-aged man into my cell who called himself Tattoo D.

            The first time we went to the shower I noticed the swastika tattoo on his chest, and when I asked about it, he confirmed that he was a skinhead.  D. was nice enough to me, but he had a habit of heckling the Correctional Officers, especially if the C.O.’s name plate above their badge read “Cohen” or “Rosenberg.”  There was one C.O. in particular that Tattoo loved to hate.  His name was Goldberg.  D. would swear at C.O. Goldberg for the most trivial infractions C.O.s are expected to follow.

            About six months after D. and I were cellies he overdosed on heroin.  He was not conscious or breathing, and I could not find a pulse.  His lips, eyes and nose were the blue of death.  I panicked and did the only thing I could think of; I started kicking the cell door like a donkey and yelled “MAN DOWN!!” out into the cluster.  When the C.O. came and looked into my cell, I thought his eyes were going to jump out of his skull.  He popped the cell door and began CPR on my corpse of a cellie.  Then more C.O.s came and watched the scene unfold for a few minutes, until I heard one of them say something I will never forget.  He said, “Hey, Goldberg, give it up, man, let that Nazi die.”

            Goldberg did not give up. He performed CPR on Tattoo D. alone for the entire 45 minutes it took to get the medical staff to my cell.  When a female nurse finally took over for C.O. Goldberg and he stood up, he looked exhausted¾his hair was messed up, he was dripping sweat, and his glasses were at an odd angle.  All he said as I was being locked back down in my cell was, “I couldn’t stop.  I don’t think it would’ve been right.  Maybe he’ll change his mind about some things . . . if he lives.”

            I heard D. did live, although I haven’t run into him or Goldberg again throughout my years in the system.  I can’t say whether or not a Jewish C.O. changed a skinhead’s mind about some things, but he sure as hell changed mine.


1 comment:

  1. Is there any thing of this world that is grounded?