FWOP! It shocked me even though I saw it as it happened. “Snake” walked up to the woman, punched her in the face and then roughed up her husband.

And we were in Sing Sing’s … visitation room.

About a month before, Snake was in the yard when members of an enemy gang stabbed him in the face. He tussled with several of them, but the guy who cut him slipped away in the scuffle. When a person gets cut in prison and officers don’t know who did it, the victim is placed in protective custody against his will.  So Snake was escorted to the Involuntary Protective Custody Unit, or IPC, a separate area of the facility. Often, the victim is transferred to another prison, so he’s unable to get revenge on the person who attacked him, because they may never see each other again.

So here we were, a month after that he was stabbed in the face, Snake found himself in the prison visiting room sporting an ugly four-inch gash down his left cheek. (Because Snake was in IPC, he had to sit in the front of the visiting room where the officers could keep an eye on him.) Snake’s visitor was an elderly woman.

I was seated about halfway to the back of the room with my visitor, but even from that distance, I saw the pain on the elderly woman’s face at the sight of the scar on Snake’s face. They seemingly had a nice visit, enjoying microwaveable food and vending machine drinks while chatting away the hours. I assumed she was Snake’s mother.

Maybe two hours later, a guy named Smokey entered the prison visiting room. Snake, seated at the front of the room, spotted Smokey immediately, then turned his face. Smokey didn’t see Snake, probably because Smokey’s eyes were so focused on locating his wife and children and when he spotted them, he bee-lined to the table his family sat at, which was only about three tables in front of me.

He hugged and kissed his wife and kids. He said something I couldn’t hear and his daughter (about 4 years old) laughed loudly. Together they walked to the vending machines in the rear of the room and bought processed chicken wings, Skittles and four cans of Hawaiian Punch.

As they ate, Smokey talked and his family laughed loudly. They were clearly a loving family, and Smokey looked like a caring husband and father. You never would’ve guessed that it was Smokey who’d ordered the hit on Snake a month earlier.

But Snake knew.

About fifteen minutes into Smokey’s visit with his family, Snake’s visit with his mother was coming to an end. He hugged his mother goodbye and she left, with a worried look on her face. Because he was in protective custody, Snake had to stay in his seat until an officer was available to escort him back to IPC. Sometimes that took hours. In the meantime, Snake was supposed to remain within sight of the officers.

Smokey, a few rows away, was busy tickling his son (about 2 years old) when Snake got up and started walking toward the back of the room. The officers were busy with other things – like watching the area where visitors took photos with their loved ones or the corner play area set up for child visitors or pat-frisking prisoners going to the bathroom – to notice that Snake had left his seat.

When I saw Snake stop near Smokey’s table, right behind Smokey’s wife, and rear his arm back, I said to myself, “He wouldn’t do that.”

Then I heard a FWOP! Smokey’s wife literally flipped “head over heels” – her chair flipped over, her upper body disappeared, and I saw her black high heels in the air for a moment before they fell limply to the floor. Her son and daughter both screamed “Mommy!” at the same time.

Before Smokey could even react, Snake grabbed his collar with one hand and punched him in the face with the other, until Smokey fell to the floor. Once on the floor, they wrestled for what felt like hours – but was probably 30 seconds.

By the time officers intervened, Snake was on top of Smokey and choking him; Smokey’s children were screaming and crying and other visitors and prisoners were edging away from the scene. The officers dragged both men to their respective corners.

Snake was handcuffed and returned to IPC. Smokey was taken to the medical unit in cuffs. Smokey’s wife walked out holding her head with one hand and swaying from side to side as her crying children walked beside her.

That experience made prison real for me – it reminded me that even family members are not off limits to prison warfare.

Jermaine Archer was finally released from Sing Sing in December 2020 and is home with his wife and family for his very first Christmas in 23 years!