Yes, I Witnessed Violence in Prison – Part 1

Jeffrey Deskovic speaking in Davis at the Annual Vanguard Event

By Jeffrey Deskovic

“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.

For some reason, many in society have a fascination with prison life and prisons. Perhaps it is because it is a world that is unknown to them. Attempting to capitalize on that somewhat morbid interest, there have been television shows, such as Prison Break and, of course, the movie The Shawshank Redemption, most recently, and a whole host of other movies over the years. I am here to tell you, from 16 years of personal experience, that just about all of the prison depictions, including the above mentioned, are not realistic.

The reality is, for the most part, not as bad as portrayed in some ways, and yet, in other ways, much worse. A common misconception is that rape takes place all of the time. Although it is true that rapes sometimes happen in prison, the entire time that I was in prison I was aware of only one rape that took place. On the other hand, the prison experience was much worse that what is depicted on television.

In a recent, prior article entitled Mental Games I Played In Prison, I attempted to describe the general lack of human dignity and the mistreatment. I attempted to sum up everything by stating that prison was a non-stop obstacle course in which the guards, staff, and other prisoners were all potential obstacles to regaining one’s freedom, and that violence, and the threat of violence, permeated the atmosphere. In this column, I will attempt to explore, in greater detail, the subject of violence in prison, particularly incidents that I witnessed.

There are so many reasons for violence that occurs in prison that it is impossible to list every conceivable one. Yet, I can explain some of the common denominators. It goes without saying there is a general level of frustration that comes from being in prison that has to do with being rendered powerless in virtually every way; being subjected to a lot of nonsensical rules that really have nothing to do with preventing escape or maintaining safety. Dealing with the non-professional attitudes of some of the guards and other prison staff; being treated as less than human; being given small quantities of food that is often badly prepared, sometimes to the point of being inedible; and being unable to afford quality legal representation are leading causes of extreme frustration in prison. Additionally, putting two people in a cell that is not too much larger than an average bathroom, and that was designed for one person is a common occurrence and the cause of much frustration. Other factors include the increased irritability that comes from being in a very hot environment in the summer time that is poorly air conditioned.

Drugs cause problems in prison as well. Another important source of frustration in nearly every state prison is the existence of gangs, whose activities add to the overall level of violence, and make things more dangerous because if, for whatever reason, one wound up in a disagreement that turned physical, with a gang member, they would likely have a potential problem with all of them. Some of the gangs I encountered included: The Bloods, The Crypts, Latin Kings, Niyettas. There were other groups that were not considered gangs but were recognized as official prisoner organizations by the prison administration. And, those organizations were forces to be reckoned with because they protected their own members, and, similarly, if you had a problem with one of them you had a problem with them all.

One of those …. was the Black Muslim, believers in Elijah Muhammad

Another were the Five Percenters, who believed that the Black Man was God, and the white man was the devil.

There were the Muslims, as distinguished from the Black Muslims who believed in the prophet Muhammad, and did not believe in Elijah Muhammad. Additionally, there was a collective of Whites, who did not have the power generally depicted on television, nor did they express open racism, tending, instead, to be of the closet racist society although it was common knowledge amongst inmates that they privately held such views.

Such a high level of violence in the atmosphere kept everyone on their toes all of the time. But that mindset tended to lead to paranoia, sometimes causing violence in and of itself when prisoners misinterpreted things, causing them to pre-emptively strike in order to defend themselves, thus bringing about the violence they were afraid of in the first place. In such an environment, little things have a tendency to mushroom, and a simple matter, such as someone being owed a pack of cigarettes that they have not been paid back with an actual value of four dollars, could be seen as an issue of extreme security demanding a violent response, based upon the fear that to let that go, one might be afraid that others might want to take advantage as well, or that they might be perceived as weak.

Over the course of my time in prison, I managed to learn and develop many survival tactics. One of those tactics involved maintaining an awareness of who was in the area that I was in at any given moment. That ranged from the people in the cells next to me, to everyone on the gallery and in the whole cellblock. I did this at every place I went to in the prison. I learned to group everybody into different categories. Some were potential threats to me, either directly or indirectly. Others, by the very way they carried themselves, had a dark cloud above them and needed to be avoided so that when they eventually self-destructed, or got into trouble, I wasn’t taken down with them.

One wanted to avoid such individuals if, for no other reason, because when somebody might decide to attack them, and you were in their company you might very well be attacked as well. in this regard, I had to decide which people were safe to talk to, and whether someone could be hung out with. Over time I learned to feel tension in the air, and how to read signs that indicated violence was impending.

Similarly, I studied the personalities of the guards, so that when I saw them working in my area, I knew what to expect. There were those I had to walk on eggshells around, others who ran “hot and cold”; some who were professional and from whom who I could ask a small favor; those who were all right. I was constantly seeking ways to insulate myself from becoming a potential target. For example, if I learned that a particular guard who could be a problem liked a particular sport, I would watch the sporting event the night before so that I might talk with him about it the next day.

As regards more serious concerns, I learned to put my back to the wall whenever a fight broke out in my presence so nobody could take advantage of the fact that the guards distracted and strike at me. Similarly, if there had been a disagreement with another prisoner, even over something slight, it would be of paramount importance to know where he was at all times and to be on the back of the line when it came to leaving the cell so as to keep everybody in front of me where I could see them.

There were other preventative measures as well. For example, staying away from prisoners who were looked upon unfavorably by the rest of the prison population so as to avoid guilt by association. A similar line of reasoning was applied to those who had problems with other prisoners, in order to avoid getting dragged into things. I learned early on to refrain from gambling, talking out of the cell bars to people, or purchasing things “on the juggle”, which meant that a prisoner would advance you an item on credit, but you would need to pay back double the amount. Problems might also occur when somebody did that in anticipation of a money order from family that was either late or never arrived at all.

The recreation area in prison is both a place of a little bit more freedom, allowing prisoners to exercise, play sports, chess, cards, have a conversation, take a shower, and have a little bit of contact with the outside world by watching television and using the telephones. But, unfortunately, it is also the place where more violence takes place.

One of my earliest recollections involved an inmate who was blasting his radio late at night, refusing to turn it down when asked. The prisoner whose request was refused took matters into his own hands, throwing water into the radio as soon as he was able to get out of his cell. That incident prompted a violent response the following night at recreation. The radio owner punched the other guy in the face, and since each of them were involved in quasi-religious organizations that normally protected their members during times of danger, an all-out melee overwhelmed the recreation area.

I remember an incident from which I still don’t understand how the guy survived. I was watching television at recreation, when suddenly I heard a commotion; and, turning around to see what was happening, I saw two prisoners attacking a third.

They wound up puncturing his lung with a shank. A shank is a term for a prison-made knife, or other sharp instrument. I have to say that, on that particular day, the correction officers did an outstanding job in getting the gurney to the victim and speedily getting him medical treatment.

Another incident involved a prisoner named Tee, who had been incarcerated for 20 years. Normally, those who are old timers, whether because of physical age or because they have been in prison a long time, were given respect, and most would not bother them. Part of Tee’s job was to take pictures of prisoners when they purchased picture tickets. The job afforded him the privilege of being able to go to the visiting room, where he hoped to find someone who would write to him. He also earned a bit more money for commissary, which is where prisoners purchased hygienic items, stationary, and some food items.

Tee was responsible to ensure that the number of pictures he took matched the number of picture tickets he had collected. If not, he would get into trouble. A couple of gang members attempted to get him to take extra pictures of them, and, fearing he would get into trouble, he refused. Later that evening, they attacked him, cutting his face and one of his eyes with razor blades they had smuggled into the recreation area. I can still remember what a bloody mess his face was to the extent that I would not have recognized him as he was escorted out of the area holding his eye were it not for my overhearing another prisoner say who it was.

Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.  Jeff is now a practicing attorney.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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