Justin Hightower

Prison gangs are in every prison in New York. Here’s a story about why we fight.

2010 was mid-roar. Springtime in Greenhaven Correctional Facility in New York state was marked by an uptick in gang violence. The night of June 10th could have been a case study.

Under a sky so blue not a contrail drifted, iron weights rose and fell above the freshly cut grass. On the court, facedown in an ever-blossoming pool of blood, was a 38-year old African American man named Hans Toussaint, otherwise known as Gonga Lee.

Days later, while Hans and I were shackled together on a prison van destined for Solitary Confinementville, New York, I had looked at his swollen-shut eyes and wondered why I had risked my freedom, my life, for his drug habit. I also wondered what had made the other Bloods who had been there Rove, Demon, and Dl  do the same. None of us had met prior to Greenhaven, shared any meaningful ties, or could even call ourselves friends. And yet we had all gone ahead and mixed it up with the Muslims when one of theirs, a friend of mine named TM, had whooped Hans like a country mule – over a joint’s worth of weed. Crazy.

That night began like any other.

The yard dropped at 6:30 p.m. As soon as I stepped outside I could feel the heat rising off the concrete. The sun was high in the sky. The air was rich with grass and manure, and smelled faintly of iron. I made a beeline for the weights. Did some push-ups. Bench-pressed some rusty old dumbbells. Here and there I made small talk with whoever was dumb enough to listen to me. The bulk of prison conversations are fraught with foolishness: Nothing violent ever happens here, or This ain’t no real jail as though the razor wire and cavity searches were part of the overall ambiance. Everyone strives to seem somehow removed, unaffected by the stabbings, the beatings and rapes.

Around 8 p.m. I hit the showers, a raised concrete bank of five nozzles split by low, immodest walls. I soaped up. Rinsed. I was toweling off when someone shouted, “Gonga Lee’s been stabbed!” Still soaked, I slipped into my dingy clothes and headed to “the hood,” a pair of picnic tables we called ours.

Rove, Demon and D1 were discussing what had happened to Gonga Lee. The story came in a breathless rush: TM had approached Gonga Lee with his hand out (after having apparently sold him some weed days before), Gonga Lee had spat on him, literally, and then TM had worked him like a sock puppet. Well.

I spotted Gonga Lee drooling near the handball court, still trying to decide who and where he was. His shirt was covered in blood.

Options were discussed. There was the obligatory tough talk, you know, guys suggesting savage acts of vengeance that surpassed the violence of a Tarantino film. What went unsaid, what we were all thinking, was that we all had things going for us— college courses, conjugal visits, et cetera— things we’d lose if we behaved like animals. In each man’s face was a silent plea: Somebody stop this, it’s nuts. But no one had the courage to talk sense; we were all too afraid for that: afraid of looking like cowards; afraid of the weakness that goes hand in hand with humanity; afraid of what the yard would think. Gonga Lee was a high-ranking homey, highly regarded by our hierarchy of nut-jobs. What we could all agree upon was this: If we did not retaliate, and soon, hits would be placed on all of us. That Gonga Lee had earned his busted jaw — to say nothing of the subsequent shame and loss of status – no one, I suppose, could deny.

So we sent someone to cut my friend.

The someone we sent was just some kid who wanted to be down. Prison gangs are famous for getting lap-dancers (wannabe members) to do their dirty work. We all stood back and watched as this skinny, oily kid crept up on my friend like a weasel keen on a chicken’s egg. Part of me, hell, most of me, was hoping the Muslims jumped on him; TM was my friend, and I have an intense dislike of people cutting my friends. But the Muslims never saw the kid coming, and neither did TM, and all at once the kid’s hand was blurring and TM was flinching and the yard was quieting to better absorb the bloodshed. The kid was already a good fifteen feet away by the time TM realized he was cut. The crowd was stirring. TM fingered what was left of his ear, looking like a bear among buzzing bees. Soon both he and his Muslim brothers figured out who had sent the hit. And then all fourteen of them came and surrounded us.

Violence, Webster’s tells us, is the use of extreme force or sudden, intense action, usually without justification. So violence, then, depends upon justification or – dare I say, the idea of justification – which gets fairly fuzzy when you factor in perspective. Forgive me if I’m rambling, but I’m trying to convince you (or perhaps myself) that Rove, Demon, Dl and I aren’t the animals we sound like. I could tell you about Rove, who, despite his wicked intellect, was too young to articulate the convictions he firmly felt; or about Demon, the way he always had a joke ready, the way he’d give you the shirt off his back without expecting jack in return; or about D1, who read two books a week and rarely, if ever, spoke. But would that make a difference? Would it mitigate the ugliness we’d all perpetrated on our own kind?

They came at us from all sides. I had been trying to suppress that familiar fluttering feeling when a dark shape came at me. There was no time for thinking: I stepped in and hit him like I was trying to break my arm. Vaguely I recall something long and black falling from his fingers. I landed very few punches after that. There were so damn many of them, it was all I could do to bob and weave. Someone jumped on my back. My knees nearly buckled. I still remember the foul taste of his calloused fingers as they found purchase inside my mouth, pulling. The dust rose and the fists flew and the COs screamed; though none of them moved in to break it up. Funny that. At one point, TM and I made eye contact: we both turned and found someone else to fight.

From the tower a gunshot roared. Those who weren’t too hurt to fight hit the dirt. Soon, all eighteen combatants were back in their cells and wondering why they were not naked and freezing in the box. Later, we learned that the box had been full. We also learned that, in order to justify the gunshot, the COs had falsely accused an additional thirteen prisoners of having been in the fight. The prison was on lockdown.

The next day I lay in bed, thinking. I remember watching the sunlight slide across the floor of my cell, slinking away as night came, fading the cell to dark once more. I had made a decision knowing I would regret having made it. I did not understand myself. Words failed me.

When you cut a man’s face — say, with a folded can top whose edge you’ve serrated with a pair of toenail clippers — you are making a statement on behalf of your set: Look at this guy’s face. You could be next. This simple act, which has all the earmarks of an airfield filled with wooden fighter jets, is how prison gangs maintain respect. The reason prison gangs crave respect, despite what you may have heard, is because gang bangers live in constant fear. This fear is so powerful, so virulent, it spurs a member to abandon his personal self — his individuality, his sense of right and wrong, his humanity — and join a group of cowards who, by sheer numbers, seek to avoid harm by inflicting it upon others.

Of course I couldn’t have understood this then; how could I have? But the guilt I felt worked like a seed, and the seed was germinating.

On the following day, upon returning from a visit with my Dad, I found myself waiting on the lower tier for a CO to escort me back to my cell. Someone was calling my name. I looked over and saw Rachman waving from his bars. He had been in the fight, but not on my side. Rachman was Muslim. I stepped closer, said, “What you want, man?” and glowered for effect.

Would you believe that he took my hand and shook it, that he looked me in the eyes and asked if I was all right? He did. And for almost an hour we talked like old friends. What’s more, I wasn’t even mad at him, nope, not in the least. In fact, I understood exactly why he’d been there fighting. Much to my astonishment, Rachman said he understood our position: “Sheet, TM was wrong. He shouldn’t have put his hands on yo big homey. Ya’ll had to pop (retaliate). Ya’ll woulda been in some deep sheet if ya’ll aint. But thas how it goes when you gangbangin. Lotta time in the box.

Two days later I was shipped out of Greenhaven, along with Gonga Lee, Rove, Demon, and D1. But even before we were boated out, all the Bloods and Muslims started speaking again. I’d be lying if I said there was an air of camaraderie about the place, though it sure as hell seemed like so. It was almost as though everyone understood that these things happened in prison, and because of the predatory environment, appearances had to be kept. Prison is a crazy place:  it is accommodating but alien, vast yet suffocating, abysmal but shallow. It’s horrifying how easily prison will make you hurt someone you have no reason to hate.

I got out of the Bloods. I realized that it is virtually impossible to consider someone your “brother” without the visceral love that comes with such, which is to say the prevailing emotion one feels in a prison gang is fear. One can, of course, tell someone what to feel, but doing so, which is nothing less than tyrannical, unveils the facade of brotherhood: while it ensures obedience, it confirms that fear is the central theme of gang membership. And since one cannot risk love without risking danger, brotherhood becomes impossible.

I am not certain, however, that prison gangs are either positive or negative. Their existence strikes me as a reaction to the climate of violence created by corrupt Corrections Officers. But that’s another story.  And besides that, what do I know? I’m no philosopher.

Justin Hightower was released in 2019, after serving time for 1st Degree Robbery in New York.