The Hoosegow Abyss-Part 2
Onward to the Michigan Reformatory where Eddie G. learns the basics of prison politics and how to organize Hispanic prisoners in an atmosphere of violence, gets involved in a stabbing, and is classified to be sent to the new Michigan Intensive Program Center (MIPC) via Jackson.
MR was the second oldest prison in Michigan and its original grey stone fortress design was bastardized by the addition of mismatched cement cellblocks (aka “rocks”) and a red brick administration building with the physical elegance of a two-pecker goat.
MR, as befits a nineteenth century prison, has a rotunda that radiates doors and hallways leading to cell blocks, offices, and prison services. The design follows a variation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon configuration that affords surveillance and centralization.
Prisons have numerous and intricate population divisions. In addition to Black and white, there were groups for Flint Blacks, Detroit Blacks, Saginaw Blacks, Grand Rapids Blacks, ad nausea. At the time of my arrival MR housed around 40 Hispanics who were distributed between three groups: Older Hispanics with a bunch of time to do; younger Michigan-born Hispanics; and Hispanics from Mexico, Texas, and other Southern states who caught their cases (usually drug related) in Michigan.
My reputation as someone willing to step in and assist other Hispanics in tough situations proceeded me to MR. On arrival, I was greeted by a bunch of Michigan Hispanics and showered with essentials like good soap (not state issue crap), toothpaste, and “luxuries” such as candy, chips, and even cologne. It was like Christmas. I soon learned the Hispanics were divided, with half of them following an older guy (25–26?), and half wanting younger leadership.
Learning to Organize
The many Hispanics looked to me for leadership. Because Saginaw is near Flint, I was able to form some alliances with Hispanics and even Blacks from these cities. I thought prisoner groups naturally defined themselves by their differences, but that we could more effectively control our environment if we understood our common interests. At the same time, I sensed I could only go so far with my kumbaya racial efforts, bucking the history of prison race relations, and the ubiquitous snitches that are always looking to stab you in the back if they see an advantage.
I attended informal gatherings and talked with guys and listened to their concerns. I also reached out to Texas Mexicans. I learned that in Texas prisons three Hispanic divisions would not be tolerated, that if you had a problem with one Hispanic, you had a problem with all Hispanics. I also realized I better learn to speak better Spanish and spent time with convicts willing to talk to me in Spanish and correct my usage. Hell, if I was going to form them into an alliance, I had to be able to communicate with them.
At the time MR had a Spanish organization called La Causa, which functioned as little more than an opportunity to socialize. I attended a few meetings and realized this was an organizing opportunity. I decided if 40 Hispanics were going to function within a sea of competing Blacks and whites, changes had to be made. We had to have a solid power base in order to negotiate from a position of strength.
I explained to our group that because of our divisions other groups perceived us as being weak, and if we stood together, we had a better chance of being respected. I guessed that the three Hispanic divisions couldn’t yet function as one with respect to internal matters, but we probably could pull off functioning in a coordinated way with regard to issues outside the Hispanic groups. I hoped we could build on external success to help us deal with internal matters.
The “Rule” we agreed to follow was simple: if a Hispanic saw another Hispanic having a problem with a white, a Black, or a whomever, he was expected to jump in and help the Hispanic in trouble even if he didn’t like the guy, or even if the brother Hispanic was fighting a midget. You had to help! And if word got back that you didn’t help, then you became my problem.
It wasn’t long before our new rule was tested. I was with three Hispanics in the MR yard when we were confronted by fifteen Blacks and the fighting started. It ended when a guard on a nearby building roof shot into the dirt in front of us. We noticed one nearby Hispanic didn’t get involved. All of us involved went to the hole for five days then were released back into general population. At our next La Causa meeting I confronted the guy who didn’t help after eye witnesses said they saw him do nothing. The group found him guilty and beat the living hell out of him while I stood by and watched nodding approval. Hell, I riveled a psychopath like Donald Trump when it came to getting others to do your dirty work.
It was important that my Michigan Hispanic group form an alliance with the Texas Mexican group, and in order to bring that about I decided the Tex-Mex needed to learn to read and write English because they had no access to any education programming. I joined the MR chapter of the Jaycee organization and made outside contacts with certain sponsors that worked with the administration to create a Hispanic library and bring in elementary school level reading books that we could use to teach English. This cemented relationships and brought the Tex-Mex Hispanics into the fold. Then I discovered that many Hispanics could not get access to the prison general or legal library because none of us had a relationship with the inmate clerk who worked in the library.
Prisons have always had paid inmate clerk positions to assist staff. There are far fewer clerk positions now then there were in the past, but back in the time at MR there were many such positions, and these clerks controlled everything that went on in their area of responsibility, even the keys to a particular operation. If you wanted something done, you had to deal with a clerk and pay his fee. For instance, if you had a request for the Quartermaster, he would say, “See my clerk.” Every area in the joint was controlled by clerks: the school, library, maintenance, recreation; even the Control Center, the security nerve center of the entire prison, had a clerk. I was the Chaplain’s clerk and daily opened the chapel, a free-standing building within MR. Because the Chaplain split his time between two prisons, he was in the chapel 2–3 days a week, while I was there every day.
Politics and Violence
I soon realized that many of the clerks also got themselves elected to the Warden’s Forum, a group of prisoners who met with the Warden usually once a month. Each rock (cell block or cell block wing) elected two forum representatives. I decided to run and got elected. Belonging to the forum gave me access to many clerks in many areas. For instance, our Hispanic group now had access to the clerks in maintenance where many of the weapons were made. They made knives that easily looked store bought: single sided blades, double sided; even for a little more money you could get a serrated blade. Hobby-craft clerks would sell you custom made leather handles and sheaths for your knife to be worn on your forearm, or calf, or strapped to your back or chest. You were limited only by your imagination. MR had a print shop where clerks made rather nasty devises weighted with lead; weapons that broke bones maybe but not skin.
A few of the weapons makers were master craftsmen. I remember one guy who worked in the carpenter shop and had a gift for woodworking. We were allowed to have writing/drawing boards (sort of like a drafting board, but smaller), usually 1 ½ feet long and about 14 inches wide. The guy who made the boards would hollow two grooves the width of the board wide enough to hold two knives that were placed in the groves. He then joined the two halves of the board with silicon adhesive and placed end caps to complete the board. The board was then sanded and finished. A thing of beauty. You could go into the yard with a drawing pad attached to the board. If the need arose for weapons, you broke the board open over your knee and presto: two knives. Our Hispanic group agreed to never show weapons unless we were going to use them. And in fact, many problems between groups were resolved without using weapons because we knew everyone was armed. As far as I can see, it was Henry Kissinger’s policy of mutually assured destruction, just writ smaller.
Prisoners without resources would arm themselves with pop-in-a-sock using cans of soda pop sold in the inmate commissary. Slip a can of pop in a sock and you had a cudgel that could do a lot of damage. And the great thing about pop-in-a-sock was that nobody questioned you for carrying a can of pop, or having a sock in your pocket. You would often see a group of guys sitting on the grass in the yard on a sweltering hot day with a cold unopened six-pack of pop located between them.
Did people get stabbed or hit in the head with a pipe or pop-in-a-sock? Hell yes. But we had inmate nurses that worked in health services that could stitch you up if the injury wasn’t too bad.
Once in a while, officials realized that something had to be done to remove weapons and would search the yard with metal detectors to locate weapon stashes: different stashes for different groups. The cleverest move I witnessed by staff happened after night yard on a hot August evening. One cell block (500 men) at a time was permitted to have yard. It was J-block’s yard time and a group of five guards gathered at the block’s entrance, which consisted of a cement ramp (to accommodate wheelchairs) bordered by a four-foot metal railing on each side of the walkway. Usually after yard was closed the block doors were opened and guys would stroll in. This time the guards ordered us to line up single file. Naturally those carrying held back, while those without weapons came forward. As the line of prisoners slowly progressed into the block, knives, pipes, and sheaths were dropped along the walk. After all, if they caught you with a sheath, they knew you must have had a weapon. I headed to the chapel figuring that if I was stopped, I would say I had to check to make sure I locked the chapel doors. I stood out of the way because I wanted to see who was likely to carry a weapon in the event of future trouble. I was amazed that guys I considered laid-back were dropping some serious weaponry. Good information to know. Finally, I saw one of my buddies enter J-block without interference carrying his drawing board and a pad of paper.
In time I befriended the Control Center clerk, an older white guy named Walt, one of the most influential prisoners at MR. A prison Control Center is the security operations hub. I wanted a buddy moved from another block to a cell near me and I asked Walt if he could help. He smiled and said for a small fee anything was possible, so for $2 I had my buddy moved. When I realized how easy that was, I slowly had Hispanics moved from all over the prison to my block. Of the 54 cells on my side of the rock, I had 27 Hispanics moved two or three at a time. I also had about 5 Hispanics moved to cells on the other side of the rock. This solidified my position, plus it assured me I’d win any floor election, or at least be able to select who I wanted to win.
When you assume a prison leadership role you have to expect to be sooner or later challenged. Some people think it’s the law of the jungle, but it’s just like politics in the free world. My most serious challenger was an older Hispanic, an individual who was not so bright even among a crowd of dim bulbs. My would-be challenger presented a direct and disrespectful challenge to the Tex-Mex group and I stepped in to try to keep the peace. Understand that this guy was the prison middle-weight boxing champ, a guy who loved to fight. He expected me to fight him and I had previously seen him beat two guys who I knew were real good fighters. I backed away and he said, “I knew you were a punk.” I had backed away to retrieve a welding rod I had shaped into an ice pick but was stopped by staff before I could get back to my adversary. I did 60 days in the hole for possession of a weapon then returned to the same cell block to be challenged by the same guy. I watched him slap a Tex-Mex around, take his property, and tell him he was going to turn him into a girl. Bluntly stated, things ended differently this time: My challenger was stabbed 11 times, 5 of which skinned his heart. He lived and I did 90 days in the hole from which I was then transferred to the Michigan Intensive Program Center (MIPC) in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a behavior modification program designed to deal with the most incorrigible prisoners.
I arrived in MR in September and left in April; of my eight months there, I had spent five in the hole. I approach my time in solitary as one would a religious retreat, thinking about my relationship with the world and who I was and wanted to be. I experienced the rush of power that accompanies leading others, the feeling of controlling something bigger and more important than myself. Segregation time afforded me time to plan where and how I would employ my new found organizing skills. Instead of merely reacting to other people and situations, I now understood how to proactively deal with those people and situations.
It would be an understatement to say I was apprehensive, even scared, of going to MIPC. What concerned me most was how little information convicts had about MIPC; even staff knew little other than the joint had just opened and we were to be its first prisoners. But what MR showed me is that I could deal with anything thrown at me and control it, grab it and mold it to my liking, and even create a new reality. Yet, this time I was starting with nothing.