An obese, red-faced prison guard, his grey hair greased back, gets up from his swivel chair and shouts, “Hey retard, get over here!”
He points at me and then in the direction of a faded orange brick wall. Two rookie guards are ordered to follow with their nightsticks in hand. They place me inches in front of a black steel door. Above it hangs a blue ribbon with the inscription: Attica United.
I’m headed to my work assignment in the facility law library, where I assist illiterate prisoners in researching case law, preparing legal briefs and appealing grievances. All prisoners in my block must pass through the lobby, a foyer with desks, chairs, and dust-covered windows. This is where guards congregate to lounge, do crossword puzzles, and shoot rubber bands at each other. This is also the hub where collective intimidation occurs.
Confused, I respond, “Yes, sir, what did I do?
The door to the lobby is slammed shut behind me, preventing the other prisoners from witnessing what’s about to take place. But they know. All have experienced it.
“Shut up and put your fuckin’ hands on the wall, spread your feet and don’t move until I tell ya!”
“Don’t know how to fuckin’ dress yourself? Your shirt’s not tucked in the back. What, mommy never taught ya how to dress, boy? Well, fuckin’ mommy ain’t here. Start dressing fuckin’ properly or we’ll do it for you!” He looks at the rookie guards and smiles.
“Yes, sir, my fault, it won’t happen…”
A fourth guard, short, stocky, pale-faced, with military tattoos, boasts, “Yeah, because we’re dying to fuck someone up, go out on comp. It’s the holidays, and we need a paid vacation. I’ll fuck you up. Let me fuck him up!” he says anxiously to the guard with the greased hair. A fifth guard moves to my left side. In my peripheral vision I see his tight-fitting navy blue leather gloves, clutching his two-inch thick nightstick, which he affectionately calls his “nigger stick” and boasts about his father “killing shit” in the ’71 riot. In a major league batting stance, he lines up my head as if it were the ball. His tobacco breath bums the side of my face, while the pale-faced guard moves to my right side and digs through my pockets, pulling out my identification card he announces, “Rodriguez.”
“He’s Mexican,” he exclaims, as if he’s discovered the last word of a crossword puzzle. –
“You’re Mexican, Rodriguez?” the guard with the greased hair inquires.
“I’m Puerto Rican and –”
“No! You’re whatever we fuckin’ want you to be. Fuckin’ bean-head retard.” He lets out a snort.
“You know it’s because of donkey fuckers like you our country is so fucked up. You sneak over our border, steal our jobs, we should just gather you Mexicans out back and put bullets in your fuckin’ heads.”
“But spay the women,” the pale-faced one interjects.
“But then again, another of you fuckers would pop up like a Whack-A-Mole.” The lobby erupts with laughter and knee slapping.
In moments like this, I silently return to memories of my abusive stepfather and a bully I encountered as a teenager. The helplessness, powerlessness of it all, causes my heart to beat faster.
As the profanity and racial insults continue, the pat frisk begins:
“Keep your ugly Mexican hands high and flat against the wall, look straight at your little friend.” A small photo of an Iraqi prisoner in his underwear with a leash tied around his neck stares back at me, placed here to induce humiliation. I feel my face get hot.
“Spread your feet wide apart, now back towards me, keep’ em coming. Stop!”
I’m an inch short of losing my balance. The greased-hair guard grabs the back of my neck, squeezing it, so I can feel the pressure, while the pale-faced guard gropes my chest, underarms, reaching around my waist with his thumbs tucked under the band of my underwear, he removes my belt; my pants begin to sag. Sliding his hand slowly in the crevice of my butt, up, down a few times, then towards the front where he squeezes my testicles, enough to cause a jolt.
Tightening his grip on my neck, greased hair warns, “Don’t move again, fucker!” He presses my face against the door. Pale-face continues, grabs my penis, stretching it, once, twice, commenting, “Nothing here.”
Next, greased-hair demands, “Take your right hand slowly and place it behind your back while lifting your left foot, as if kicking yourself in the ass, and remove your left shoe with your right hand and pass it back, through the side on my right.”
After a few minutes I can feel the blood draining from my hands and arms; everything goes numb. My legs tremble and feel like they’re going to collapse. But I know the penalty for coming off the wall, so I fight it. I breathe.
The room is thick with tension; these guards can hardly contain themselves as they anticipate my fall. Some other guards, in spectator position, make monkey calls to distract and humiliate me. I feel like I’m in a deranged game of Twister, but instead of the room filling with laughter if I fail to connect left foot on yellow, right hand on green, the lobby will run red with my blood.
After a repeat process with my other arm and foot, I’m told to pick up my shit (sneakers, socks, pants, in that exact order). My legal papers, which I painstakingly organized in my folder last night, are scattered across the lobby floor, soaked with a liquid that smells like bleach. I hurry to collect my things. It’s no secret that the only thing these guards hate more than minorities, are minorities that work as law library clerks.
Greased-hair shouts: “Hurry the fuck up and get to work before I write you a misbehavior report for being outta’ place.” I hear their laughter as I put some distance between us. Sounds of high-fives echo behind me.
Walking fast through the gloomy tunnel-like corridor, I’m shaken but know this isn’t the time to absorb what just happened. I still have to pass two other check points. A simple phone call placed to one of their comrades and this same process could be repeated, and with a worse outcome.
Anywhere else, these pat frisks would be considered sexual assault, the racial insults as hate speech. I could file a civil suit or lodge a complaint to their superiors. But here they’re commonplace, administered countless times a day, and a grievance is of no avail—it would just bring retaliation.
Grievances are often sent to the block sergeant for investigation. I’m interviewed and warned, “Stop bitching. This is the life you chose, drop it!” Grievance denied. Next, I’m paid a visit by the guards I complained about, clutching copies of my grievance. I’m threatened with bodily harm. My cell power is turned off, disabling the sink and toilet. I’ll sit in the dark with the stench of urine and feces; angry, resentful, and full of fear. I can forget about eating in the mess hall because they won’t open the cell, not for a few days, while they plot their assault.
All guards are feared, and will hurt you. But the ones with the dark blue leather gloves, which they proudly display from their back pockets like gang colors, are particularly brutal, notorious for sending prisoners out on stretchers with missing teeth and kicked in testicles. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Ultimately, I’ll be told to get on the wall again, attacked by six or seven of them, sent to the hospital, then the box (Segregation Unit) with a 24-hour lockdown and labeled “Assault on Staff.” Other guards, in a show of camaraderie, will spit in my food, rip up my mail and write false misbehavior reports claiming I violated some prison rule. My stay there easily turns into years, resulting in my mental breakdown.
Fortunately, I make it to work without another incident. I reach into my folder to organize and prepare my papers for typing, hoping this will ease my mind. The words are smudged and illegible. I can’t work. But I must remain here for the next six hours.
I feel angry, fearful, and violated as I recall what just transpired. From the many years of trying to navigate this abuse—my heart having to absorb so much—I can feel my sanity slipping away. That’s their objective: break me down into submission or fear retribution. I withdraw emotionally, with a feeling I never thought I’d experience again: despondency. It’s in this moment that I vividly recall every time I was bullied, how I held in the despair, anger, and shame until it erupted. I killed the person who bullied me.
I wonder how these guards are recruited. Maybe like the gangs are: find the most aggressive brutes. I question the example these guards set for our rehabilitation. They enforce the rules, then, break them in the most barbaric ways, often reinforcing the very abuses and traumas many of us have suffered prior to incarceration. Or were they trained to be racist, hateful aggressors? A disturbing thought. A mentor once told me, “The rage, though usually contained in prison, lingers deep within and often surfaces when those released confront rejection or indifference as they attempt to reclaim their lives.”
But some don’t even make it home before the rage is unleashed: Breaking News- -Prisoner Assaults Three Guards. Society is then led to believe that this uncontrollable prisoner just decided to assault guards for no reason. What the news fails to investigate and convey is that the prisoner had been subjected to the same, oft-repeated, abuse I had, the pat frisk — and probably far worse, he’s called a monster, a savage. Never let him out of prison. Meanwhile, the guards are touted as heroes; they move up in rank and pay. There’s hardly any oversight of this systemic abuse and guards are basically in charge of monitoring themselves.
Though such incidents leave me depressed, angry and not wanting to leave the cell, I achieve some solace with thoughts of one day having a life beyond these walls. I’ll continue my studies in criminal justice, perhaps try and work for NYCLU on prisoner rights, those without a voice, and hope to obtain some recourse for this abuse of power.
After work, as I walk back through the gloomy corridor before reaching the lobby, I’m tight with fear. I walk with my head slightly down, behind two prisoner co-workers, who are taller and provide cover. I see him, the ring leader with the greased hair. I see his tattoos, which earlier had escaped my notice: red and orange flames, and daggers pierced through black human skulls, covering both arms. A large blue poster hanging above his head reads: Support Your Local Corrections Association. Without us, how safe would you really be? Reclining on a cushioned chair, feet up, his shirt buttons straining to contain his belly, he’s gorging himself on a pile of hot dogs from the mess hall—food the state provides for prisoners. The pale-faced guard with military tattoos passes hot dogs to other guards.
I make it back to my cell, exhaling with relief as the gate slams shut behind me. I sit on my bed in silence. Today, I made it back safe. Tomorrow is another day.
If you’d like to contact Jason directly, please write to:
Jason Rodriguez #98A5650
PO Box 700
Wallkill, NY 12589[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]