Tex McClain had nothing but his word. Old and sick, having outlived anyone in society who might help him, he had to live by his wits to earn coffee and cigarettes. Old Tex’s word was good. If he told you a certain prisoner was a bad credit risk and wouldn’t pay back a loan, you’d be a fool to give him a dime. If he told you he’d hide your knife in his cell for a week for a carton of cigarettes, and the guards discovered it, he’d go to solitary confinement for months before he’d tell who the shank actually belonged to. If he considered you “good people,” he’d do anything to help you. And if he thought you’d cheated him or snitched him out to “The Man,” he’d kill you and suffer the consequences. That’s why he’d spent most of his life in prison, and why he’d die there, his word and honor intact. Tex McClain was a stand-up convict.
Tex McClain and many old-time convicts like him adhered to “The Convict Code.” The Convict Code wasn’t written down anywhere, you wouldn’t find it in the Department of Corrections rules or the inmate handbook. They didn’t teach it in Life Skills class, or explain it in orientation. If you were “all right,” someone might tell you about it. That’s how I learned The Convict Code.
When you come to prison you are observed and judged by everyone around you: are you weak or strong, poor or rich, gay or straight, a snitch or not, “good people” or “a piece of shit?” How you are judged, how you respond to an initial testing period, how you exhibit your manhood, character, or lack thereof will determine to a considerable extent how difficult or hard your time in prison will be. One’s reputation often becomes a matter of life or death.
Before venturing any deeper into prison life, the explanation of a few items is in order. There are several terms that have become fraught with confusion and misinterpretation that need defining and discussing.
The words convict, inmate, and prisoner are often used interchangeably, although their meanings and connotations have implicitly greater differences than their explicit definitions.
The dictionary defines convict as somebody serving a prison sentence, from the Latin, convincere, “to prove wrong.” Up until the 1960’s, or thereabouts, anyone convicted of a crime and imprisoned was a convict. Stand-up refers to somebody who faces danger or obligations boldly or bravely, who confronts adversaries fearlessly. Stand-up convict.
Inmate, from the late 16th century, formed from IN + MATE, “companion,” is defined as somebody who has been confined within a prison or a psychiatric hospital. This definition coincided with the rise of institutionalizing “insane” people — “an inmate of an asylum.” In modern times, the prison authorities rarely refer to prisoners or convicts, preferring to call those under their “care, custody, and control,” inmates. A “good inmate” kowtows to the guards like a lickspittle lap dog, wanting to please his masters. Good inmates happily scrub the guards’ toilets and wash their trash cans. They will answer all questions truthfully, including snitching on other prisoners. Good inmates consider the guards to be their friends. There is no such thing as a stand-up inmate.
A prisoner is somebody confined in a prison as a punishment for a crime or while awaiting trial, or somebody who has been captured and is held in confinement in a place. A prisoner of war is somebody who has been captured and held captive by the enemy during war.
The word, prison, arose in the 12th Century via Old French, from, ultimately, the Latin stem, prension, “seizing,” from prehendre, “to seize.” “Seize him!” Book him, Danno.
Interestingly enough, that Latin word, “prehensile,”— able to grasp something, like a prehensile tail, is derived from the same source of the words, apprehend, apprentice, comprehend, comprise, depredation, impregnable, predator, prey, prisoner, reprehensible, reprieve, and surprise. How they link together!
In contrast to prison, an institution is a place where people who are mentally or physically challenged are cared for. In our modern times, sadly, no one cares anymore.
Alongside that term, “institutionalized,” has two definitions: 1. established as normal—having become an established custom or an accepted part of the structure of a large organization or society because it has existed for so long, and, 2. dependent on the routine of institution—lacking the will or ability to think and act independently because of having spent a long time in an institution, such as a psychiatric hospital or prison.
Don’t Miss Charlie’s story about Prison Gangs
With the widespread dispensing of psychotropic drugs, longer terms of imprisonment, and a growing percentage of sick, aging prisoners nationwide, institutionalized zombies not only tax the straining prison systems, but also become helpless prey to young prison predators.
To our society’s shame, the “system” is set up not to “fix” or repair or rehabilitate prisoners, preparing them during their imprisonments to rejoin society as people who can be useful contributors, but rather to break them down, make them compliant, in a word, institutionalized.
In the classic movie, “Papillon,” Steve McQueen portrays a prisoner on the French prison exile colony off the coast of South America, “Devil’s Island,” a man who is determined to survive on his own terms, the brutal imprisonment conditions that either destroyed the other men, turned them into animalistic beasts, or broke their spirits entirely. Modern prisons are not nearly as heavy-handed as their turn-of-the-century counterparts inflicting the Napoleonic Code, but the process of long-term institutionalization of prisoners is no less effective as a means of control.
While we are at it, we may as well define a few more terms that are subject to misuse and misinterpretation in this context.
“Corrections” is the system of dealing with criminals by imprisonment, rehabilitation, parole and probation. “Correctional” means of, or involved in, the system of dealing with criminals by imprisonment, rehabilitation, parole, and probation. A “correctional facility” is a prison or other institution where criminals are held and treated.
“Guard,” as a verb and noun, has at least a dozen lengthy definitions in the Encarta World English Dictionary, (copyright 1999 by Bloomsbury Publishing) the source of all the definitions used here. Definition 2 — prevent escape of—to watch over and prevent the escape of somebody held captive, as a verb — “Two MPs were guarding the prisoner,” and as a noun, definition 2 — a person or group that protects, watches over, restrains, or controls somebody or something — “The prisoner broke away from his guards.”
On the other hand, “officer,” has several definitions, none of which are associated with “prison guard.” The primary meaning refers to somebody of rank in the armed forces. “Officer” can also refer to an elected or appointed official, a police officer, or somebody who has a specialized or responsible post in authority on a ship.
A euphemism is a word or phrase used in place of a term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant, or offensive. The prison system uses “correctional officer” as a euphemism for “prison guard,” although it is more than that. The negative connotation of “prison guard” does not infer the so-called inflated status of “correctional officer,” a prouder term that elevates a historically lowly position.
In contrast, use of “inmate” as opposed to “prisoner” or “convict” denigrates the person, to deliberately make somebody appear less important, mentally deficient, disparaged, and belittled. These usages embody strong psychological overtones designed to build up the self-esteem of the guards at the expense of the convicts or prisoners. Name it and claim it — old-time convicts will tell new men that if they call themselves “inmates,” and answer to that sobriquet, that’s what they are. An old-timer is quick to correct a guard who refers to him as an inmate. “I’m a convict, not an inmate.”
When I came to prison, after spending close to two years in the county jail awaiting trial for murder, I was known to many prisoners who’d met me in the county jail and preceded me to prison, so I was already a step-up on many men newly-arrived in prison.
An old man named Bill O’Quinn gave me some of my first lessons in the convict code at Union C.I. (Correctional Institution) in Raiford. Bill had been a Navy frogman, a predecessor to the Navy Seals, during World War II. The night before D-Day, June 6, 1944, Bill O’Quinn and other frogmen swam to shore on Omaha Beach wearing black wet suits, armed only with sharp, deadly knives, their mission to locate the German machine gun emplacements and cut the throats of as many Nazi soldiers as they could. Bill O’Quinn personally dispatched unwary Nazis in several machine gun nests, saving the lives of untold American G.I.s when they waded ashore hours later. Bill was a solid, stand-up convict. He died in prison, but not before I listened to and learned from Bill’s words.
“You make a few big decisions that will eliminate a lot of little decisions. Are you a man or a woman? A straight person or a homosexual? If you are a man, and someone approaches you in a sexual manner, your response is automatic. NO. What are you?”
“I’m a man,” I said. “I’m old-fashioned. I like women. I don’t like men.”
“Good,” Bill said. “I don’t, either.”
Are you going to be a good guy or a bad guy? A bad guy talks to the guards, snitches out others, steals, lies, cheats, is of weak character. A good guy is strong, keeps his mouth shut, doesn’t gossip, and minds his own business. A good guy can be trusted. He’s “got your back” if trouble goes down. He stands on his own two feet, doesn’t depend on others, doesn’t borrow money, and doesn’t go into debt. He doesn’t run in gangs. He is a stand-up convict. Bill further defined the terms.
A stand-up convict controls himself. He doesn’t fool around with punks, homosexuals. He avoids drugs and alcohol. Ninety per cent of prison murders involve homosexuality, bad debts, drugs, alcohol, or snitching. Eliminate those vices from your life, and your time will go much easier.
Of course, that is the ideal, the goal, and no matter how “stand-up” a convict might be, he is not perfect, and may not always attain the loftiest pinnacles of behavior. An alcoholic, for example, in the despair of prison, may brew prison wine and sell it, his only talent, and most likely will drink his product, with various consequences, and still be a stand-up convict in most ways. But he won’t rat out another man in competition with him. Even lost, broken, abandoned men can retain shreds of dignity by being stand-up convicts; resisting. Alcoholism rates in prison are high, and many otherwise stand-up convicts continue to drink, get drunk, or get high, unable to control addictions that possibly caused their imprisonments. Stand-up convicts aren’t saints. They are tough, hardened men, but not all can attain the degree of self-control required to be a complete stand-up convict.
“Back in the day,” as they say, if a prisoner talked to the guards, he was viewed with suspicion. Don’t get me wrong — prisoners and guards have always talked, had conversations about various things. But stand-up convicts always had one or more convicts with him when he talked, as insurance, so nobody got the wrong idea. He might be complaining about the food, or the mail not being passed out, or the canteen being closed, but he was definitely NOT talking about who was making wine or selling pot. Those types of issues were none of his business. Let the guards do their jobs without help from him.
If a prisoner was known as a snitch, a bad risk, or fooled with homosexuals, he was shunned by stand-up convicts. They didn’t talk to him. They didn’t “see” him. Times have changed.
As the prison system has changed, as prisoners have changed, as the old-timers have died out, a “new convict code” has arisen.
The average age of today’s prisoner is increasingly younger, he is more drug-addicted, more violent, with more “mandatory” sentences, less chances to ever get out, more “L-WOP,” life without parole, less hope, more despair. The rise of crack cocaine in the inner cities has filled the prisons with angry, young black men, robbers, carjackers, murderers, who just don’t care. Crystal meth addiction has had a similar effect among the poor whites. The same goes for Hispanics, especially with the rise of street drug gangs. Many of these gangs started in prison, and then spread to the cities, like a Superbug virus.
These violent addicts have no regard for themselves or others. Prisons have become increasingly dangerous places as these young men form and join gangs, running wild inside. Assaults, robberies, and thefts from each other increase tensions and turmoil. There is no more “honor among thieves.”
Nowadays in prison, you’re just as likely to find a big, strong, muscular young man unashamedly and openly partnered in a homosexual relationship, selling drugs, setting up other prisoners for theft, and snitching out some of his drug customers, so they will flunk urine tests and go to jail. He will build up points with the guards as a “good inmate.” This same “good inmate” will have a visit on Sunday with a young lady, a girlfriend, or a wife, perhaps a child or two, and she’ll never suspect that her “man” was involved in unprotected sex last night with that HIV-infected man sitting at the next table with his mother. It happens all the time. That good inmate will often operate with the guards’ approval and protection, acting as a conduit for the lucrative smuggling and sales of cell phones, drugs, and tobacco to other prisoners. Their positive drug tests will be thrown out, and they’ll be warned of impending shakedowns. Good inmates are rewarded.
Under the “new convict code,” none of the “inmates” involved in such activities feel like they are doing anything wrong. The old moral codes have been tossed out the window. In the new convict code, someone who is capable of doing all those formerly taboo acts is a role model, respected by his peers. If he can tell on a few others and get his homosexual lover moved into the cell with him, he is admired as somebody who has influence and can get things done. If he can juggle male and female lovers, in prison and outside, his status is elevated even higher by those who subscribe to the new way of life.
Why has this happened? There are many reasons. Newspaper columnist Thomas Sowell wrote that we are raising a generation of barbarians in our inner cities. Since he is an African-American, he can make that statement without being accused of racial-profiling overtones. Black, white, or other, our society is in decay, the moral fiber has frayed, and our prisons have become the canaries in the coal mines to warn us about this impending disaster. It is already burning here in prison.
The guards searched old Tex McClain’s cell one afternoon and discovered two ounces of marijuana under his mattress. Someone “sent the man,” snitched him out. The guards knew the reefer wasn’t Tex’s. He had nothing, certainly not a stash of valuable drugs. On the front deck of our building, several “goon squad” guards surrounded the frail, sickly Tex and questioned him. Listening to the exchange was a lesson in the convict code. Tex suffered from emphysema, could scarcely breathe, hacked and coughed almost continuously, but wasn’t nearly as sick as he pretended to be to the guards. Nor did he fear them. He once told me, “They can kill me, but they can’t eat me.”
GUARD: Now, Tex, we know this pot ain’t yours. You tell us who you’re holding it for, and we’ll let you go.
TEX: (coughing) Y-You know I can’t do that.
GUARD: C’mon, Tex. Give us a name. Who gave you those 2 ozs.?
TEX: (head down, hesitant) I wish I could. You know I do. But if Old Tex told you who that mari-ju-wana belonged to, I’d get in so much trouble.
GUARD: No you won’t, Tex. Work with me. Give me a name. You ain’t afraid, are you?
TEX: Hell, yeah, I’m afraid. I can’t tell you. My life wouldn’t be worth shit if I ratted ‘em out. You wouldn’t (cough, hack) believe me, anyway.
GUARD: Yeah we would, Tex. I promise you we’ll protect you. Give us a name. Just the name.
TEX: (thinking about it) I really wish I could.(cough, wheeze, hack, spit, cough) But you’d just call me a liar, and you’d lock me up anyway. I can’t trust ya’ll. You ain’t gonna let me go. I’ll get in worse trouble if I tell you.
GUARD: No you won’t, Tex. We’ll believe you. Give us a name, and we’ll let you go.
TEX: (cough, wheeze, looking up, cocking his head, eyeing the guard skeptically) You will? You promise?
GUARD: I give you my word, Tex. Whose reefer is it?
TEX: (takes a deep breath) Okay, I’ll tell you. Before he went on vacation, Sergeant Dragline gave me the reefer and told me to sell it for him and give him the money when he got back!
(Now “Dragline” was the prison nickname of the huge guard sergeant over the goon squad. One leg had been damaged in a motorcycle accident some years before, and “Dragline” dragged the stiffened leg behind him, like an injured Frankenstein monster. A notorious brutalizer who hated prisoners, he was also intelligent and cunning and considered himself to be on a holy crusade in which anything he did was justified. He was eventually fired to placate the feds.)
GUARD: You lying son-of-a-bitch! You’re going to jail!
The guards manhandled Tex, pulled his thin arms behind his back roughly, handcuffed him, and with guards grasping each arm, hustled him down the steps.
As he was being led away, he shouted, “I told you. You didn’t believe me. You lied to Old Tex!”
Outnumbered, surrounded, with no hope for escape, Tex maintained his dignity, manipulated the guards, reversed the situation on them, and led them on a merry chase for awhile. I could only admire his hidden nobility, his refusal to violate the convict code, and like the Russian aristocrats who had lost everything, captured by their enemies and facing death, refused to give their executioners the satisfaction of seeing them beg for mercy or humiliate themselves. By all measure of the world that confined him, Tex McClain was a failed person, an elderly, burned-out alcoholic, the ultimate loser who would be buried in a prison graveyard, with no trace of his life except for a small, metal plate stamped in the auto-tag plant with his prison number. But to me and those others who watched him perform that day, he was a real man, a stand-up convict, the proud equal of any man, his dignity intact.
A week later, Dragline came back from vacation and walked up to Tex’s cell in confinement, staring at the old man lying on his bunk.
“So I gave you some reefer to sell for me while I was on vacation, huh?”
Tex laughed, coughed, mumbled a few words. Dragline unlocked the cell door and held it open.
“Get up, you crazy old bastard.”
“Where’m I going, Sarge?”
“You’re going back to the compound, dumb ass. Now grab your bag and let’s go, unless you want to stay in lockup.”
For an instant, Tex was surprisingly spry, hopped out of the bunk and headed for the door and daylight. Even Dragline had respect for a stand-up convict.
Charles Norman has been serving LIFE for 1st degree murder in Florida since 1979, a murder he says he did not commit.
Charles Norman #881834
Lake C.I.19225 U.S. Highway 27Clermont, FL 34715