Static

We were in the chow hall eating lunch, chili dogs with packets of brown ketchup, when we looked up to see the Paisas abandoning their tables mid-meal, as though all at once they had received a covert transmission ordering them to mobilize.

“Something’s up,” said the man beside me.

An inmate once compared the tension preceding a prison brawl to static, an invisible stirring in the air. That afternoon we felt its pull; we saw its effects in the sidelong stares, vigilant postures, and aimless milling. The blacks congregated in front of the units, speaking in monosyllables. The Paisas meanwhile lingered along the sidewalks, quietly attuned to a frequency all their own, awaiting another transmission.

First timer Francisco picked up on the static, too. He noticed the blacks looking skittish at dinner. “Maybe we’ll see another show with our meal,” I said, referring to Cisco’s first week on the yard when he and I witnessed a man get slammed over the head with a tray of food. Spectators were pelted with lettuce and soured ketchup packets. French fries bounced off the warden’s fine trench coat and landed at his feet. Dinner and a show.

On the evening of the Paisas’ walkout, as we were preparing for Bible study, the PA system clicked on and ordered us back to our units. We gathered our Bibles and started to leave but stopped just short of the chapel door, for outside beneath a leaden sky, upwards of 600 men had assembled into two opposing armies, neither budging, PA system be damned. The blacks and Mexicans stared at each other across a distance of some twenty yards, as if divided by a steep cleft. No one spoke; no one moved. Static. The quiet seemed a blight against nature, for how could such a great force exist without an equally great thunder? Respectfully abiding, even the wind held its breath. And on the outskirts, looking grossly inadequate, stood the warden in his trench coat and a handful of officers. One CO held a rifle.

I’ve never witnessed a riot, though I’ve heard gruesome accounts from those who have. Steve told me of one man whose head was skewered through the eye socket with a splintered broom handle. Rod said that whenever things kicked off in the State they’d string magazines around their torso to deflect knives. So that evening when the two armies converged–a single trill sounded from the Mexican side like a battle cry–I was convinced I would see death, murder, for the first time in my life. This will change me, I thought. But the armies stopped within spitting distance of each other. The men stood down, the shot callers stepped forward, and, incredibly, the two sides began to negotiate.

Back inside the chapel we speculated on the outcome of the arbitrations and regaled one another with terrifically violent stories of past riots. Some of us, black and brown, joined hands and prayed for peace on the compound. Watching the negotiations from the window, I recalled the Paisas’ earlier exodus from the chow hall and was struck for the second time that day by the organization of that seemingly unruly mass of men, their diplomacy and self-governance, how quickly and efficiently they were able to communicate, assemble, and act as one homogeneous body. And compare that to the officers with their protocols and hierarchy and sophisticated radios, the authority of an entire government behind them, standing at the sidelines overwhelmed and underpowered with only a rifle and handful of rubber bullets.

We’d be locked down for the next seven days, pending the investigation. We’d be confined to our cells, then later handcuffed and escorted into back offices and made to give statements and answer questions: “Do you have any reason to feel unsafe at this facility?” Having self-surrendered, it would be my first time placed in handcuffs.

At the end of the investigation, after operations have resumed, a memo would be sent to the director of the Bureau of Prisons summing up the disturbance, the near riot, and the staff’s quick and efficient response: Issues were identified, protocols observed, roles assigned, procedures executed, culprits detained, and order restored, all within the span of a week, with no injury to staff or inmate.

Absent from that report would be any mention of the men’s self-mediated negotiation and subsequent disbanding, for not more than ten minutes after the two sides converged did they arrive at a peaceable resolution and quietly–and wholly of their own volition–dissolve back into their units. Ironically, those who led the negotiations would be charged with inciting a riot and thrown into the hole.

Nevertheless, despite whatever assurances such a report might claim, what everyone knows, and what I’m only now beginning to realize, is that it isn’t the wardens and lieutenants and officers but the inmates themselves who run the prisons.

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