The expression “when the time hits you” is used in reference to inmates with long sentences.  It’s the moment when long-term incarceration forces an inmate to assess the gravity of his situation.

I’m talking 15-year sentences — or more. Now, I don’t wanna scare anybody, but in today’s America anything less than fifteen years is not considered long-term incarceration and crying about it or just making too much noise in general could make you the victim of an assault. No, I’m speaking of the convicts housed for serious crime: murders, assaults, robberies, or the repeated felony offenders who have accumulated time in various ways. When that time hits you.

Courtesy of Andrew Phillips

They walk a certain way – boldly. Talk a certain way – freely. The look in their eyes can be best defined by their status – convicted. Most of these people have accepted their realities, to some degree. The prison population does not intimidate them in any way. Rather they are the prison.

Most selling, trading and/or other black market schemes are run by these people. They are so deeply rooted in the prison yard, you couldn’t dig them out with a Bobcat. When that time hits you.

I had been incarcerated three years, six months, serving a 30-year sentence for murder, robbery, and tampering with physical evidence. I was at Eastern Correctional Complex, maximum custody, dorm 6. I had gained a reputation for hustling and dealing. Mainly, I had mastered the art of how to slip a razor blade into the locking mechanism of a cell door while in mid-conversation with my mark. It would appear locked and would pass inspection, but I could come back to, let’s say, an unattended cell, swipe my identification like a credit card, and gain access to the cell. I often made beeping noises when I did this. If you were one of the fortunate ones whose family sent them money and lived comfortably, but unfortunately had a conversation with me, I later cleaned you out. When that time hits you.

I stayed up most nights, not to think or do anything specific, but there was this particular female guard who captivated me. She was short, with short blonde hair that she never styled the same way twice, soft blue eyes and a smile that she shared freely. I was 21, she was maybe 20. When she came down the hallway for late night count, every man was at his door window — if you weren’t you were gay. Some men masturbated while they watched her. I know this because they spoke profoundly about it often.

Most nights, however, were quiet. This one seemed the same, until someone yelled, “Let me eat that pussy, bitch!” Which was followed by, “What does it smell like?”

I lost sight of her as she headed down the hallway, and then someone yelled, “Let me fuck that ass out, bitch!”

Now, out of all the obscenities I heard yelled at female staff, I found this one strangely funny because of how crazy it sounded. I started laughing, but when I looked up, she was at my cell window staring right at me. Thank God she didn’t have a pistol, because if she only had a single shot Dillinger, I would’ve gotten that bullet.

Her and I had a bit of a rapport. We used to talk at breakfast before she went home. We had a lot in common because of our ages. We would get so caught up in chatter that some of the older guards would say, “Alright kiddies, break it up.” Then we’d go our separate ways, but not before saying our customary goodbyes. She’d say, “Stay outta trouble.” And I’d say, “Be safe.”

But that night she looked at me coldly and there was nothing I could say. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and yet too proud to change my facial expression. I watched as her eyes began to water and the disgusting slurs grew into a crescendo. Then, while staring directly at me, she yelled, “I hope all you mother fuckers die in here!” — and was out the door without hearing a reply. When that time hit me.

After a while the dorm grew silent again that night. I sat there contemplating apologizing to her at breakfast, but I imagined how the future conversation would take place, me pleading my case to this cop as other inmates strolled by on their way to breakfast, looking at me with disgust and contempt, for succumbing to this girl. I quickly thought better of it.

The words “die in here” slipped into my mind. I decided to watch TV, and then I did some push-ups. “Die in here!” It came back. If I did all my time, I would be 48 when I got out. None of my uncles were 48, nor was my aunt. My father wasn’t 48. Hell, two of my father’s brothers died before 38 and my mother’s brother was 36! Why the fuck did I take this time? I’m going to die in here! What was I thinking? I can’t do this.

I hit the emergency call button, and they answered, “What ‘s the problem?”  I took a moment to gather myself before saying, “Nothing.”

To this day I don’t know why I hit that button. Maybe to hear somebody’s voice, maybe to just break the silence for a moment so I could collect myself, but none of it mattered. It didn’t stop the tears. I was overcome by a hopeless emotion, and I let it take me to dark places. I tried to rationalize all kinds of ways I would get out. My appeal? Yeah, that would work. The flimsy bar in my cell window? A miracle? Then my eyes fell to the razor blades in my locker I had used to shave myself earlier… THAT was not the outta here I wanted.

For the rest of the night, I thought, how am I going to make out, and not die in here? That thought stayed with me for nights, then weeks, months, and years. It has ultimately changed my life because it forced me to ask myself a very important question: “How do I live in a way that prevents me from dying in here?”

I struggled with that for awhile and I don’t have it all figured out yet, but that question has brought about dramatic changes in my life, more than I can begin to explain. But I can tell you this, I don’t use my credit card anymore.

To the female guard out there, I won’t say your name, but for the longest time I hated you, especially when you made that time hit me, but now I thank you. “Be safe.”

Andrew Phillips is serving 30 years in Kentucky for 1st degree robbery (for stealing marijuana from a dealer) and murder (for killing that dealer). 

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