2017 marks a tragic year in North Carolina prisons. Five Correctional Officers (COs) were murdered by inmates who believed they had nothing left to lose. In one incident, a CO was bludgeoned to death in front of a group of prisoners. In a separate incident, four Pasquotank COs were stabbed and beaten to death by four prisoners trying to escape. Dozens of prisoners witnessed the violence.
In both cases, helping the COs would have been a normal response for anyone in the free world, but such an altruistic act by a prisoner would carry deadly consequences. In prison, altruism is a dangerous choice that marks you as someone who interferes in someone else’s business. In many ways you are considered equal to or worse than a snitch.
As human beings we think, feel, and act much like the rest of society, but how do you reconcile the desire to help someone in dire need when doing so endangers your life? This taboo immediately entered the minds of many who witnessed what happened between Torrey and Vic.
Vic had a bad habit of wielding the TV remote like a scepter. And he was the king of television shows by divine right. He flexed no massive muscles, nor was he even a little intimidating. Barely 5 feet tall and mildly retarded, the only weapon in Vic’s arsenal was a too close relationship with certain guards.
He did what he wanted because no one on the block felt like “dealing” with him, and making the guy see reason required Gandhi-like patience. Sure, Vic hoarded cleaning supplies, watched a lot of Westerns and Cop shows, and stank up the block with a Hobo fire every time he wanted hot coffee, but it was less trouble to work with him than against him.
Torrey decided he would be the one to put an end to Vic’s crap. A stalky white guy with muscles gone to fat, Torrey was not well-liked. But the general attitude on death-row has always been live and let live. Maybe if he wasn’t so pompous, with every story centered on his drug-dealing in prison, “sexploits” in the free world, and how much more intelligent he is “than 90% of these sissified bitches” the high-pitched whine of his voice might be funny. Like Alvin and the Chipmunks funny. The only person that finds Torrey funny is Torrey.
Initially, Torrey reasoned with Vic, “Stop turning the TV when I’m watching it or without checking what other people want to see. You’re not the only one in the dayroom.”
This worked for as long as Torrey sat at one of the six steel tables in the dayroom, or stood at the rail of the second tier of our 24-cell block. As soon as he left, Vic resumed control of his kingdom, turning to an episode of Gunsmoke or Hawaii 5-0.
When Torrey found out he took it personally. “This goddamned snitch is turning the TV and darin’ me to do something to him. I aint’ gonna keep puttin’ up with this shit.”
Torrey’s rant was not even directed to Vic, just the dayroom in general. He tried to draw in anyone who made eye contact during the tirade, drawing support from the attention and punctuating each point with a grating giggle. For some of us it became a game to avoid being held hostage by any of Torrey’s conversations.
Don’t miss other stories by Lyle May, including, SLEEP on Death Row
A week or two after Torrey’s last rant, the guards found two gallons of “Buck” in a surprise shake-down on another block. The blame should have fallen on Big Time for being careless in hiding his homemade wine. The guards went straight to it as if they knew where to look. Big Time blamed a snitch rather than accept responsibility for the loss, but we later discovered a guard in the control booth saw Big Time hide the bloated white plastic bag. Things are never so simple in prison.
Big Time’s bust ignited Torrey’s rage to the point he began making plans to deal with Vic. “I’m sick of this son of a bitch,” he fumed. “I’m gonna fuck his ass up. I know he snitched on Big Time.”
Even after someone told him Vic had nothing to do with the bust, Torrey was adamant. “I don’t care what no one says; Vic told ’em. He’d tell on his own momma if he thought ‘the man’ wanted to know.”
By then it was obvious Torrey was trying to justify his hatred of Vic, using him as an outlet for the frustration prison breeds in every man’s heart. There’s no escaping the helplessness of a life or death sentence and opportunities to balance that inadequacy do not come often, if ever. When they do, responses tend to reflect the shortcomings that land you in prison. Hatred, cruelty, bigotry, conceit, mental illness, and more. These flaws corrupt prisoners’ decisions because so many were not taught another way, will never be taught another way, because prison stopped being about rehabilitation. There’s no mercy, only retribution.
Maybe Torrey told us what he intended to do so he would feel obligated to carry it out; as if speaking the future into existence made the act of harming another person a force of nature, instead of a decision he controlled. Shorty and Ladamian tried talking him out of it, but their attempts were half-hearted. Nobody cared enough about either man to get involved beyond that.
After breakfast on New Year’s Day, several of us were in the dayroom talking about the NFL play-offs. Ladamian called me to his cell on the top tier. Vic sat on a stool at one of the tables, his back to a TV as he rested between sets of push-ups. When I got to Ladamian’s cell, he nodded in Vic’s direction. “Watch.”
Torrey came from behind and to the right of Vic, hitting him with a hard right hook to the face. The meaty smack absorbed all of the sound and attention on the block. Vic fell and when he tried to stand, Torrey hit him again and again, each blow harder than the last. “I told you this would happen. I warned and begged you. You’re stupid ass wouldn’t listen. Stand up bitch.”
Stunned, Vic held his mouth, blood dripping from his chin to spatter the floor. “I ain’t done nothing to you!”
“Don’t be a coward all your life. Stand up and fight me like a man, bitch.”
Torrey slapped him hard, knocking Vic to the ground. “Fine. I gave you a chance.”
Torrey kicked him in the stomach, groin, and face, drawing a grunt from the smaller man each time until he flopped around in agony.
“Torrey! Torrey that’s enough!” Shorty looked concerned. “You’re gonna kill him, he’s had enough.”
Vic lay on the floor wheezing and holding his face. Torrey stood back, arms akimbo. “What you want me to do? Keep allowin’ this piece of shit to say and do anything he wants? Nah. Fuck that.”
Struggling to his hands and knees, blood a steady drizzle from his face, Vic sobbed. Torrey kicked him to the ground and began stomping him.
I felt sick and shaky. Ladamian muttered, “This isn’t right. We need to stop this.”
He started toward the stairs but was blocked by Shorty.
Shorty held out an arm. “Don’t. Stay out of it.”
Nobody else moved, but a number of looks were exchanged. Surely he would stop soon.
“Stand up,” Torrey said.
Vic tried to crawl away.
“Stand up and I’ll stop kicking you.”
Vic struggled to stand, made it to his feet and fell backward. “I can’t. Please. I thought we were friends.”
Vic’s right eye had swollen shut. Streaks of blood marred the floor amidst a constellation of droplets.
“You ain’t my goddamned friend. Now go tell ‘the man’ I beat your ass. You tell him everything else.”
Torrey went to his cell to pack for the inevitable trip to solitary.
We watched Vic use the wall to stand, push the intercom button next to the block entrance, and wait for the guard in the booth to appear. When no one did, he staggered out of the open doorway and down the hall looking for help.
In the stillness that followed, I never thought Vic deserved to be punished for any real or imagined transgressions. Nor did I think Torrey was in the right. It was a grossly, over blown, vicious assault for a petty grievance in a limited mind. Those who knew or suspected it would happen, however how much we scoffed at the idea and ignored Torrey’s mounting rage, were complicit. We let things get out of hand because this is normal in our environment. Prison is a harsh place where altruism is discouraged and violence expected. I witnessed one man brutally attack another and saw only my failure to stop it. Mindless adherence to a prison mores held my feet in place.
In prison, there are three kinds of rules: institutional policy, prisoner mores, and personal standards. Institutional policies are straight forward and easy to follow, whereas mores are intricate and complex. Of the three, your personal standards matter the most because you must live with these decisions. Helping someone in need should be a universally rewarding act of selflessness, but in prison it is not. Had I physically prevented Torrey from hurting Vic, or taken the man under my protection, it would have incited Torrey’s violence and made me responsible for anything Vic did, I could have become the target, or maybe nothing would have happened, but acting would have been better than standing still. Maybe hope is that, in the future, if I’m in the position to prevent an act of violence, I will have the courage to follow-through on my own standards, and that it’s the right choice.
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