In prison, there are a lot of vulnerable people. Many of them probably should not be in a prison setting. It’s been estimated that at least 30% of those who are incarcerated have some sort of mental or emotional disability. I suspect the figures are a lot higher. But, in many states, including the one I’m in, prisoners with psychological problems are locked up with everyone else convicted of a crime. This helps to exacerbate the common “predator-victim” mentality.

Most convicts believe that if you are not a predator, you are a victim.

As soon as a new inmate arrives, everyone starts sizing him up… is he going to be a pigeon — or a hawk? If a person is young, small, or even passive, they are “ripe for the picking.” Often, tougher convicts, or a gang of weaker ones who have banded together, tend to spot potential victims as soon as they hit the “yard.” It’s worse when a person has a disability, is gay, or has a crime that is not “socially acceptable.”

The predators generally will bully and intimidate their prey. Many of the preyed-upon become virtual slaves, at the tougher inmate’s beck and call. Often, the weaker or more passive men will be forced to turn over part of their commissary purchases (called a “tax”). Others are beaten, raped, or worse.

I have been incarcerated for over twelve years. For the first few years, I did my best to “stay off the radar” and keep to myself. When I had to, I went along with the prison mentality: if it was not my business, I stayed out of it. Since I was a burly, 260-pound guy who looked like a biker, most people left me alone. What happened to other guys was none of my concern.

Until Peter.

Peter was a nineteen-year-old bisexual inmate who was rumored to be a convicted sex offender. That was already at least two strikes. He was also small, weighing maybe 120 pounds. To top it off, Peter had a mental disability. He was smart, but was slow to respond, or pick up on verbal cues. I met him one day in the prison gym. A mutual friend introduced us, telling me he was worried about Peter. My friend asked me to look out for him. I told him that Peter was welcome to hang out with us, but that it was not my job to defend him if he “crossed” someone. As far as I was concerned, it was “every man for himself.”

As we walked toward the recreation yard, Peter confided to me that he was being “taxed” half of the money he received from his family. I told him I couldn’t get involved in his situation, but he could hang out with our group. I also advised him it would be best if he didn’t go anywhere by himself.

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Walking out of the gym, a known gang member called out to Peter. The man said he wanted to talk to the boy in private. I kept on walking, hoping that Peter would ignore the summons. He didn’t. He told me and my friend that he’d be out in a minute, and went into the restroom with the gang-banger.

Ten minutes later, while my friend and I were sitting on a small hill in the rec area, the prison siren went off. When that happens, we inmates must sit with our hands over our heads until the “all-clear” is given. We sat there for over twenty minutes and then we were escorted, a few at a time, back to our units, where we were ordered to stay in our cells. The yard went on total lock-down. Later, when we were allowed to leave our cells, an inmate who’d been one of the last to leave the gym told me what had happened. Peter had been severely beaten, and his neck had been broken.

He died almost instantly.

It was then that I made a vow to myself: if I had anything to do with it, I would no longer sit by and let vulnerable inmates be taken advantage of. It has been a long, uphill battle, but I — and a few other inmates — are making progress. Some of us will take the most vulnerable inmates under our wing, and help them learn the ropes. We teach them how to avoid trouble, or get themselves out of it, without being a “rat” — telling on someone, which just makes prison life more miserable. We are not always successful. The predators still get to some. Some will even convince the “fish” [new inmates] that they will protect them… for a price. I tell them I also have a price: friendship.

Since then, I have been labeled a predator myself. I’ve also been harassed and called a “gang leader” by the administration, causing me to be moved to the more undesirable units, and costing me more than one prison job. I have been in conflict with inmates who do not want me “stepping on their toes” or interfering with their business. And I have been called all sorts of names, because of who I hang out with.

But I don’t care. If I can help keep the pigeons away from the hawks, I have a purpose. If I can save one life, my life is worthwhile… even in prison.