An early scene in The Shawshank Redemption has the old-school convicts watching the new fish get off the bus and placing bets on which one will break first. Some guys, you can immediately tell, don’t belong here. They ain’t gonna make it.

We size up new officers the same way, easily identifying the nervous, self-conscious, jumpy types that won’t last long enough to send that crispy new uniform to the laundry. A few days and they’re gone, never coming back. Some won’t even return to pick up a thin paycheck. 

But the real sport is picking out the next officer to get stabbed or beat down doesn’t matter, that counts too. It’s always a short list we collectively agree upon, narrowing our judgments by evaluating two tell-tale character traits. 

Attitude.

And mouth.

A condescending little attitude, a crusty smugness, really grates in here. We know the officers are happy to go home at night, leaving twelve hours of hassle behind but it’s the ones who go out of their way to remind your age-confined ass that they’re free and you’re not that soon become disliked, then despised, and then hated. Like, seeing me surviving on a Ramen soup, then gloating about the beer and pizza you’ll enjoy at 7 o’clock. Or acting like we’re all stupid and they’re somehow much, much smarter by virtue of their GED and set of keys. 

Ultimately, though, the proximate cause of every assault on staff is mouthiness. We are prisoners, we are in an environment where ego is essential, and we are constantly under pressure to maintain that ego. Hostile, disrespectful words are an attack on that ego, and those words are what always light the fuse. 

Wrong words, wrong tone, wrong tenor, and SNAP it’s on.

One example: “Quit acting like a bitch and cuff up.” SNAP. My friend Scottie went off, breaking the officer’s jaw. The officer quit, Scottie spent the next fourteen years in the hole.

Don’t miss: “The Convict Code of Silence” by Wayne Snitzky

That’s just one of the scores of incidents I’ve seen in my 30+ years of doing time. But a more recent incident, one that made national headlines, better illustrates the point. 

Back in the fall of 2019, in A-Cellhouse at Indiana State Prison, I had my money on young officer Schmitt as a prime assault-victim candidate. I generally don’t give a shit about the officers one way or the other, but this asshole intentionally left the cellhouse door open for an hour on a Friday night, just before shift change, letting in 40º air. My clock thermometer read between 53º and 57º the next seventeen days, which Schmitt found wonderfully amusing. That, and the way he smarted off to prisoners daily, had him at the top of my list.

 Unfortunately, though, he got fired, or “let go,” or whatever. He was gone, and that was good. 

But then some staff-needy brainiac brought him back. As a sergeant, no less. And they put him back in A-cellhouse, our most violent setting. Now I was “all-in” on Smart Mouth Schmitt to be the next “Officer Down.”

Jackpot.

On February 21, 2021, Schmitt punched the winning ticket, somehow setting off 38-year-old Tymetri Campbell. Campbell had nothing to lose, having pled out to three murders in exchange for a no-hope 130-year sentence. 

Whatever was said is still disputed, trickling to me, as news does, through the prison grapevine. But Campbell was tolerating none of it, repeatedly stabbing Schmitt until his screams alerted a nearby lieutenant. Lt. Eugene Lasco, 57, rushed in, attacking Campbell, thereby turning Campbell’s frenzy from the severely wounded Schmitt to himself. 

Now, I know Lasco, and he’s not a big guy. And he’s about my age, so I know he’s not as strong as he once was. Lasco had guarded me while I was in the ICU at Franciscan Hospital, and he wasn’t a bad guy and wasn’t some kiss-ass either. He was a good officer, and a professional, and in saving Schmitt’s life he was doing exactly what a professional is supposed to do. 

But it cost him. He died. The last thing he saw was the inside of the maximum-security prison, with an angry murderer atop him. 

Lasco didn’t deserve this fate. He had been here for many years, and he knew how to balance authority, which is essential to the job, with respect, which is equally essential. He was never mouthy, and he would never leave a door open on a cold night just for spite.

Schmitt came out of the ordeal cut up pretty bad. But he’ll live. His wounds will heal, and his life will move on. I’m sure he’ll never work at I.S.P. again.

But quite a few of us, quite a few, wish he would.