Everyone in prison is ready to help in some way or another, but the word “help” has a very fluid definition. It can mean to do something to assist, but also to extort or rape or kill.
I learned it’s better to be as independent as possible in here.
Here’s one prisoner’s story: When Leigh was locked up at the Wichita County Jail, he noticed a lot of especially cigarettes (hand rolled). He also noticed that they would get pissed off when he refused their “generosity.” He later saw other prisoners who came in and went for the game. If a person took just one thing from the helper, they would be expected to give the helper anything, anytime they asked. You give them ten things for every one they give you. That was about the only help he saw in county jail.
In time, Leigh went to a transfer facility [before you go to prison] called Middleton. It was a little different. Most people there were scared. They tried to help by giving advice about prison life. It was mostly about how to conduct oneself when they arrived at an assigned unit (which are larger and more violent and have more criminal activities than jail.)
The advice consisted of making sure one chose the right criminal organization to join, for various reasons. People would offer food, drugs, tobacco, writing supplies and about everything else one could think of in order to encourage others to join whatever gang the helper belonged to.
Leigh found that, in prison, motives usually rule people. The motive may be buying servants to do their bidding; they may be trying to buy a friend because they are cold and afraid and lonely; or they may be attempting to create a secure economy for themselves so when they need something and do not have it, someone else will feel obligated to provide it to them.
Sometimes, the obligation would be used to put steel in a person’s hand and point them towards another person. To “help” someone in prison can mean to “herd” them towards something. People have so many needs and wants. Hunger and sex and fear and so many other human things drive people in so many directions.
Leigh saw a lot of help given and a lot of obligations created.
When Leigh arrived on Coffield State Prison, the help/hurt factor was a lot more intense. In fact, the word “help” took on the meaning “hurt.” Leigh watched some of the same people he’d been with at Middleton, who had proclaimed how unbreakable they would be, get “helped” into lives of sexual slavery or extorted out of an ever-increasing amount – or both.
Somehow, a rule was accepted that allows one person who helps another to rob, rape, beat, or kill them – and very few people would intervene. Leigh was constantly offered “help” in the form of material things – or with claims from someone that they’d already helped him by preventing violence to him from a phantom antagonist. Lies where “help” translated to “nothing” in actuality.
Coffee encapsulates best what is meant by “help” in prison. Everyone will eventually get a cellie who has the proverbial jar filled with coffee in the back of the cell on the floor. When they get a new cellie, “Mr. Coffee” will tell them something like, “Oh, hey, anytime you need any coffee, go ahead and get some from the jar back there, just be sure to pour a bag into it sometimes.”
The reality of the situation is that for every three to ten bags of three dollar coffee the new cellie puts in, Mr. Coffee might put in one, and often it will be the cheap crappy coffee that most people are glad not to get. The obligation factor is still emphasized in order to ensure the situation when Mr. Coffee gets hostile and pretends that he thinks his cellie is not putting bags of coffee into the jar. Then Mr. Coffee will complain to his homeboys and attempt to assassinate the cellie’s character and create a situation where no one will view violence towards the cellie as unjustified. And Mr. Coffee will then start turning up the heat by making other claims such as the cellie isn’t doing his part to clean the cell – or some other fabrication.
It’s all just a game to extort the cellie and control him in the cell. Seems trivial until someone gets raped or beat to death with a fan motor or an entire dayroom full of people turns into a bloody melee. Maybe it is just someone trying to help, or maybe they’re trying to use everything someone is and has and leave their husk face down in a pool of blood. Three out of four of Leigh’s cellies has owned a jar of coffee on the floor, which Leigh never touched. And three out of four of those cellies acted like Leigh used up their coffee – until Leigh said something to the effect of, “No, I never even give anyone a chance to try.”
Well, what about the religious people down at the chapel? Surely, they are the ones who will help those in need, with no ulterior motives. Yeah, right. Leigh quickly found through observing their behavior that certain caricatures portrayed in movies – showing devious persons infesting the prison religious scene who oppress and victimize other prisoners and are protected by prison employees they serve – are very accurate.
He would watch new prisoners be approached by the majority religious groups represented in the chapel in the exact same way the gangs would approach new prisoners. Food, safety, acceptance, and even drugs and sex (very discretely) are offered in return for helping to further the political agendas of the religious groups seeking numbers or to manipulate chaplains and volunteers for material benefits and other things. Those who do not go with the flow are fed to the gangs for recruitment, extortion, sexual servitude, etc. The chapel body is no more than a large gang itself and would even let the gangs know who was “with them” – as gangs do with each other to let the other gangs know that there will be repercussions for messing with one of theirs.
Over the years, with the violence factor lessening due to the Safe Prisons program and the Prison Rape Elimination Act, favors and privileges not accessible to other prisoners (free world food, computer access, being allowed to use musical instruments and a recording studio conned out of volunteers and prisoners laundering funding through certain churches, and so forth) are offered in return for doing the bidding of a select few in what amounts to a turnkey/snitch mafia of corrupt prisoners with smiles upon their faces and theological memorization.
Leigh has learned that the best “help” a person can get in prison is from themselves. The best way to help others is to do so with no agendas, and always to remind them that in prison, for countless reasons, they should rely on the least amount of help from others as possible. It’s like a haunted house full of people who are vampires seeking to drain you dry of something or the other.
Life, death, pain, loss, grief, fairness, truth, lies, how cold you are, how warm you are, getting out, staying in, family, friends, integrity, love, hate, vengeance, blood, your screams, please – nothing matters to the monsters who crawl through the halls who want everything you have and will attempt to get inside of you through your mind or any hole in your body to feel and have what they want.
Some, who choose to make themselves “optimists,” blind themselves to things and find ways to cope with their losses and their pain. Others who choose to be “pessimists” go crazy as most of their fears come true and they see no way out. The rarest are the “realists” who take things for what they are and don’t put themselves in harm’s way.
In prison, “help” is a fickle god.
Tracy Lee Kendall is serving 60 years in Texas for murder.