Nice guards don’t last long. Grandmothers here for the health insurance cry at the sight of blood; at the ritual brutalizing of nineteen-year-olds cuffed and parked along the hallway, too stupid to lay down when the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) team came. Guards either get with the culture or quit. Turnover is a big problem. Too many are either wide-eyed “new-boots” wandering in protective herds or hardened “convict-bosses” with a sleeve full of five-year stripes reminiscing about the Wild West days of pre-Supreme Court turnkeys and electrified riot shields, as institutionalized as their wards. This place attracts a certain sort of people.
What’s really initiating is your first riot.
You have seen men beaten before. Men sprayed. Men screaming naked down the hall, foaming mucus, a great black troll. A man in a wheelchair slammed by three deputies on a courthouse floor, shrieking “I have a spinal injury-Please, don’t!” You’ve grown a hardened crust over your soul like a soldier in war, and you’re proud of it. But you know nothing.
It begins with an argument in the hall. Great injustices happen all the time here, but it’s the little things that spark an explosion. (The shooting of an archduke led to World War I. The self-immolation of a vegetable seller started the Arab Spring. The Rodney King video unleashed the LA riots.)
They close the steel doors. You’re serving French fries on the assembly line, behind an armored counter like a zombie submarine. Human squirrel-monkeys chatter and crowd you, and a sea of panicked faces suddenly surges the steel mesh inches from your face. Yelling. A hundred and fifty white bodies slosh the chow hall like bathwater at the first sting of CS gas. It fills your chest like needles. You need to breathe. You can’t breathe. Oxygen hurts. Streams of gas piss from guards’ fingers, dyed orange to mark the guilty. Acid rain, air aflame. Fight or flight. No choice now. Everyone moves.
Guards’ faces change from angry to confused to victim. No one quite knows why, but all sense the door to hell has been opened. Lunatic hands still shove in trays and shriek for French fries. French fries!
They rush the front door–two-inch steel with a padlocked hole size of a shotgun mouth. It clatters open. A black tube appears. Dozens pushing against it like a barbarian horde, a funnel for slaughter. Six of their own guards are still inside.
A 400-pound kitchen captain barrels in behind the fortified food line, screaming at you to cover the food from the impending toxic whiteness, to pull the hot pans with your bare hands. Five of his floor workers face a war-zone outside. Pouring red his Kool-Aid. Neatly stacking his blue trays. Fighting for their lives.
Outside, the chow hall door opens. Spacemen enter. Gas masks and shields. Six black “fire extinguishers” fog the air, sending men scrambling. Human bug-spray. A lanky lieutenant leads them forward in a tight formation called “The Snake,” an invading army. Rome against the barbarians. Inmates trip over bolted tables, a school of panicked fish.
You flee out the back, a coward following the grey suits to safety instead of cudgeling them with plastic pitchers. They order you all to stop and surround you like POWs, coughing mucus into hankies, counting you again and again to find out how many they abandoned. When you get to hell, you imagine you’ll be given a number and counted and miscounted forever by academically-challenged demons. You end up in a storage room like a Berlin bunker; they smile and tell you you should be thankful.
Later they take you back out there with a fire hose to tie a wet towel to your face and push the scores of abandoned jackets like shed skins into one monolithic pile, testifying to some mute disaster, and load them by the hug-full into a laundry wagon. You pick up the little silver still-warm cylinders fired into the greatest concentrations of people. The desperate doors. As they scattered, the gun would’ve stalked them, cool and efficient, a gas-masked eye aligned above the sights, peering through the murder-hole in the door you pass every day at lunch. Standing there now with the scattered props and hose-water dripping from the cavernous ceiling, you can easily see the drama:
Tear gas is almost beautiful as it unfolds, almost alive, rising in a boiling pillar like an Old Testament God, a hissing white phantom coming to swallow you, big as the room, an invisible strangler, a solid advancing fog filled with men. Everything becomes a dream. Then the bodies hit you. There are stampedes of horses and stampedes of bulls and stampedes of men. Canisters pop through the air, clattering and spinning and hot enough to burn. You can pick one up with a towel and throw it, or dunk your jacket in a toilet and smother it, or wrap your shirt over your nose and pour water into your own eyes. Two faucets stood in the corner, connected to two great vats, one water, one Kool-Aid, both open and drained, mutely testifying to the throngs of men who crowded under their icy torrents, one red as blood, all trying to breathe water. Drip, drip.
Plastic sleeves lay where advancing guards tore out packages of fifty zip-ties each. Worse than handcuffs. In handcuffs you could at least swivel your wrists. But that’s what your life becomes soon as the first steel clack-clack-clacks around your wrist bones: Calculations. Can you sit down or must you squat in a hallway? Can you stand or are you forced to sit down until your legs buzz like live wires? Can you unbutton your own fly before you piss yourself? Can you reach your mouth to eat? Can you move your feet? How far? Sixteen inches? Measure it. Can you awkwardly throw a basketball during your solitary hour outside without ripping a tendon? Will your letters fit in your property bag? Will your Bible cause you to exceed five books and/or magazines? Like living in an airline checkout forever. Can you extend your arms and touch all four wails? Yes, I knew you could. I did too.
They dragged the prisoners away in groups often to count and sort in the gym. They will all be found guilty. Every one. Even the ones who laid down with their hands behind their backs to be obediently trampled checkerboard black. How can they possibly sort the guilty from the innocent-when you were all wearing white? Ship ’em all to Closed Custody, let God sort ’em out. It actually takes more suicidal courage not to fight back, when you know what they do to their prisoners of war.
The hallway’s eight crash gates are all sealed. Standing at one end, you can see a straight quarter-mile through the bars to the other. All is silent.
Edward Ji is serving LIFE in Texas for attempted capital murder in Texas.
Edward Ji #01575341
12120 Savage Drive