Kool-Aid reminded me a lot of an uncle I have: older, kind, but also large and gregarious. I used to walk laps around the yard with Kool-Aid, listening to him tell me about his daughter, him asking about my loved ones in the kind of genuine way that is sometimes rare in prison. He was by far of the more pleasant sort you meet on the inside.

I watched him almost get murdered a decade ago.

* * *

Most mornings you could find Kool-Aid sipping coffee in the dayroom, slowly, easing his way into the day as he watched the local news. He’d say hi to me every day on my way to breakfast and my prison job. He’d often be in the dayroom when I got off work 8 hours later, as though he had never moved. I’d walk in and see what he (and anyone else in there) was watching and talk to him a bit. An older Black man from the country, he was usually watching fishing or hunting shows on TV, and we’d talk a little about that, about the largest fish we ever caught, the biggest deer, about the land, about growing things.

His favorite thing to grow was weed. Kool-Aid was a simple man, in prison and out. Give him a couple hits from a blunt or joint, and he was cool all day long.

It was what he did inside, a low-level purveyor of marijuana that someone else had smuggled in. He bought and sold enough to be able to get a little buzz most days. Grams here and there. Despite the close margins you get by for a lifestyle like that, he often offered to smoke with friends for free. He reminded me of a devout Rastafarian with close-cropped hair: it was something like a sacrament to him, something to be enjoyed as a gift from God and to be shared with those around you.

Weed almost got Kool-Aid shanked to death. All because he accidentally dropped some.

* * *

East-Side, from Detroit, was on my dodgeball team (some prisons’ rec-departments allow dodgeball). We called him “the Assassin” because of how good of an arm he had. He was Kool-Aid’s bunkie, and everyone on the team laughed when he’d show up to games stoned… especially because he still had a great arm.

Back in the unit, we had one of those fluid groups where people gravitate together and hang out for days/weeks/months. Tattoo Eric, Yooper Pete, Pitbull, Kool-Aid, East, and me could usually be found in the dayroom or hanging out, playing cards or shooting the breeze at a table in a common area. A short-lived but solid-enough community, the kind you see existing in prison and post-apocalyptic zombie shows.

One day, East comes to me with some headphones he just bought off someone, asking my advice on how to go about erasing the original owner’s prison number, which the prison property-room engraves on all purchased personal property. [Despite the prison’s best efforts, it’s pretty easy to alter or erase the engraved numbers on things. Sometimes the item is stolen, but more often than not, the owner just wants to sell it because it is old, falling apart, or needs drug money… and the prison doesn’t allow prisoners to legitimately sell anything to anyone else. You use a scouring pad as sandpaper to buff out the number, apply stolen tile-floor sealant, and use a pencil hooked up to an AC/DC adaptor as a soldering gun (or use a tattoo gun) to melt or engrave a new prison number. This way, officers inspecting the item won’t confiscate it for it not belonging to you.]

Don’t miss: Chris Dankovich’s article on the underground prison economy

I knew who East bought the headphones from, and knew they weren’t stolen. I thought it weird that he emphasized that he needed to get them done THAT NIGHT, though. I thought about that statement the next day…

* * *

I’m putting on a shirt, sleep still in my eyes from just having woken up, when I heard a deep, blood-curdling scream. I look out my cell door and don’t see anything. I step out. “Stop… STOP!” I hear alongside the sound of plastic chairs being thrown.

I see East-Side, a crazed look in his eyes, covered in blood, a large prison shank in his raised hand. “You gonna set me up?! I’m gonna kill you, b*tch! ”

There’s a pole in my way. I step to the side, and as I do I see Kool-Aid, about 40 yards away, letting go of his face to throw a chair at East-Side. His hand immediately goes up to the side of his face dripping blood. In a fraction of a second, another bystander throws a chair at East-Side as East-Side chases Kool-Aid down and strikes him in the arms with the dagger. Kool-Aid gets that chair up and blocks the following blows as he screams. Officer-after-officer arrive and get between Kool-Aid and East-Side. East-Side smiles a menacing grin, puts his hands up, and drops the shank. “You’re lucky, b*tch!” he shouts as he’s handcuffed and escorted away.

The prison’s emergency siren blares. We’re locked in our cells for hours. Crime scene tape put up. State Police officers come through. No questions asked though: East-Side walked to the Hole boasting about what he did and why.

* * *

Kool-Aid kept his weed on him, in a pocket sewn into his pants. He slept in those pants. Some weed fell out. It fell off the side of the top bunk, where Kool-Aid slept, onto a shirt of East-Side’s.

[Kool-Aid confided in us that day that he wasn’t sure whether he had lost some of his weed, or if his bunkie had somehow stolen some from his pocket while sleeping.]

East-Side came to the conclusion that Kool-Aid was trying to set him up, when he [East-Side] only had a sentence of about 24 months left. Saying nothing to anyone before the attempted murder, he smoked the weed, got a shank, asked me how to alter his headphones (apparently so he could keep them at the maximum-security prison he was going to), and went to bed intent on killing his bunkie in the morning. That morning, East-Side woke Kool-Aid up by stabbing him in the face and neck before Kool-Aid managed to push past him and run for his life. He only survived because in that cellblock, the doors don’t stay locked.