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Stories for the Long Silk Road

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Joel Blaeser: Confucius, Chapter One

It was a hot October day when the buzzers hummed throughout the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Talladega, Alabama, sounding out like an electric foghorn for all of the inmates to hear. Every sixty minutes they signal the prisoners that it is time to rotate to chapel, the law library, the recreation yard, the weight pile, the barbershop, the art room, and at night, their cells. The doors are closed at 9:30 pm during the week, and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Cells doors electronically open between 6:00 and 6:30 am. Final count is at 9:30 pm, but there are times throughout the day that all prisoners are counted. The main count is 9:00 and 10:00 pm. Movement is similar to class periods in school, although this is the school of hard knocks and criminals. Prisoners know where they need to be, and just like high school, if a prisoner needs to see the nurse or doctor, they better damn well have a hall pass. In a Level 4 Medium Security Federal Prison, guards in the gun towers or on a roving perimeter truck watch, and they are all Cracker Jack marksmen. They can and will shoot you dead if you are wondering around without a pass. If you move with a pass and it is not during “movement” time, you not only have a written pass, but you have radio clearance from the prison staff over the guards’ intra walkie-talkie system.

It was 6:30 pm, and my unit was last to eat dinner. I rose from the table with a stretched stomach. Food in prison isn’t exactly gourmet, but there is plenty of it: a lot of vegetables, rice, beans, potatoes, legumes, juice, and milk—all you can eat. Each prisoner also gets one meat portion per meal. Each federal prison has a commissary as well that prisoners can shop at once a week. Federal prison administrators were wise to allow prisoners back to the chow line for all of the sides, because I think it was Bob Marley who put it best in his song: “A hungry man is an angry man.”

As I made my way out of the chow hall, I took the hard light-blue colored plastic cafeteria tray to the dishwashers. My tray was licked clean so there was no need to empty it into the large trash bin before I put it on the conveyor belt leading into the dish room. It was steamy hot room where the prisoners were paid relatively good at $35 per month. IT was a hot day as the sun blazed away through the barbed wire surrounding the prison. It was mid-October, but was reminiscent of a summer day. As I opened the door to the outside, I took a breath of the warm dry air.

Like most of the medium security prisons, FCI Talladega is dotted with 8 or  9 structures built across a twenty-five-thirty acre plot. There are about six housing units, each with two sides to them, housing about 100 prisoners per side, per fifty cells. Scattered over the rolling southern landscape with a chapel, art center, lieutenant’s office, The Hole (a jail within the prison), indoor recreation center, weight pile, chow hall, and a law library, barbers room, all connected by a series of sidewalks, between which are perfectly manicured lawns and shrubs. A Federal prison compound is a mini city with 1,000-4,000 residents.

As I left the chow hall, I was still not sure were to go. I had worked out that day at my regular 2:00 pm workout time. I had only been on this prison yard for fifty-five days, I had made friends, but I was still learning who was who, and was just released from the hole for a huge incident with a black prison staff lieutenant.  I continued to walk towards my living unit unsure of where to go after chow. I stood about 75 yards from the chow hall in this cement circle with sidewalks coming from the recreation yard, living units, and chow hall—a flat turnstile of sorts. I could see my housing unit and I could see the chow hall. The yard was up over a hill and I could not see it unless I walked another 100 yards. It was eerily quiet, and I could see no one. I remember having quasi plans to meet Dean out on the yard to hang out. I still stood there motionless, not knowing where to go, or what to do. I was calm in my decision. I looked back at the chow hall, looked up to the hill, and then towards  my housing unit. I sat there for two minutes. Again I thought about how quiet it was. I became indecisive and uneasy. Two prisoners I had never seen before appeared out of nowhere. They were silently walking towards the law library. I decided to meet Dean out on the yard during the next move at 7:00PM.

As I turned, out of the corner of my eye I could see the conspicuous changes that stood out on nearby buildings. I noticed extra bars welded all over the glass windows on the chow hall just minutes before when I had finished eating. It was not like that when I had arrived. There were extra bars welded on the entry door and window to the prison commissary. New solid steel doors had been put up on the front of the lieutenant’s office.

Having arrived in Talladega fifty-five days earlier from the FCI in Pekin, Illinois, I had not yet been assigned a cell due to slight over-crowding in the federal prison system. I was assigned a bunk in a common area in the cell block, and my belongings were kept in a large steel locker. Prisoners in my situation waited two to eight weeks for an open cell.

I pulled the heavy steel door open to my cell block, and the silent peace in my mind was interrupted  with chaos as I stepped into a jungle of raving mad convicts and inmates. Prisoners were wildly smashing fire extinguishers into staff office windows, enraged men were ripping water pipes out of the laundry room, and still others were ripping other exposed pipes down from the ceiling. Anything that was not welded down was ripped away from its mount. Every one of the vending machines in the unit was completely broken open and emptied out.

Prisoners were screaming, swinging the cold brown painted steel pipes and bars wildly on doors, chairs, and windows, taking years of frustration out on the cold prison. The bin was deafening and surreal. I stood there in silence, watching all of this as if it was a movie. No one noticed I was there. More importantly, no one cared I wasn’t scared or exhilarated. I started to smell the faint smell of burning building, but not this building. All of a sudden the fire alarms went off, and this just added to the melee of noise and chaos as a backdrop that far from overshadowed what was going on. I looked to my left, and two large tattooed guys and one large buffed out black dude cracked a large weight bar with weight plates on it into the case manager’s office. Every prisoner in the federal prison system has a case manager in his housing unit. The office contained a safe holding all of the prisoner’s records. Each record, or jacket, contains original copies that had followed him from court, and prison to prison throughout the term of his sentence. These convicts were trying to bust the door down and burn up all the files, and hence their histories. They were swinging this bar with 135 pounds on it into the case manager’s office. Bang. Bang. Bang as It was swinging back and forth,  the end of the steel bar was hitting the steel door so hard it was sparking. I could smell the sparks, and the brown steel door was becoming dented. The smell of fire and smoke was getting stronger, but I could not see either. My adrenaline was flowing through my veins. I stepped over to help in trying to break the door open. They were taking shifts, six hands on the bar moving left to right, crashing into the door, over and over. We could not break it down.

At the end of the hall was another overlooked vending machine. We smashed the glass open by breaking open the sides. Glass and candy flew all over like a piƱata at a birthday party. I could hear the washers and dryers being ripped out from the laundry room behind me. The prison was in a violent out-of-control rage. There was not a prison guard to be seen anywhere.

Across the yard, the violence raged even more viciously. Madness erupted on the yard. Pipes cracked skulls as blood spattered in racial rifts. In other units, prisoners stacked six or seven mattresses together and lit them on fire. Snitches and rats were beaten and raped. Prison guards were tortured and humiliated.

I could see in my unit a quasi-division taking place: a group of white inmates gathered on one side of the upper tier along the rail. The units in Talladega are shaped in a triangle with two levels, stairs at each corner, and a common area in the center of the triangle, open to the ceiling. Cell doors ran along the edges of the triangle in two tiers, each about ten feet wide. The white guys were armed with knives and pipes. I came up to the second tier and was given a shank. Impulsively I ran down toward the vending machine to gather more of the candy bars that were strewn about the hallway.

“Get your ass back here,” Burl yelled. He was an older, southern white inmate, and knew I was vulnerable on my own. If I were to get into a scuffle it could mean an all-out war in our unit. “We gotta stick together up here,” he said. “You can’t be tempting the rugs like that.”

In prison, races stick together. If there is a problem between two people of different races, both sides of the entire race are involved then, riot or no riot (according to convict law).

I ran quickly across the lower tier towards the vending machine. I passed a Rug (Brother) Black, swinging a heavy metal mop ringer into a steel table bolted to the brown cement floor. His wily eyes followed me down the length of the tier. I reached the spilled candy, scooped up four or five candy bars, and ran back fast and steady. Two prisoners ran in from the front door of the unit.

“They’re coming in with guns! Get down! Get down!” he yelled.

It was now 8:30 pm, and dark outside. I scrambled up the steps to the upper tier and dove into a cell with Burl and his celly, Beaux. The cells in Talladega had steel self-locking doors, and we slammed it shut, locking ourselves in.

There was this alarm that went off through the loud speakers that was even louder than the fire alarm. Screeching sirens only added to the chaos. Hours passed and complete darkness set in. I watched outside my new cell window. Burl and Beaux were sitting on the beds. Armored vehicles with large racks of lights were starting to surround the entire prison. Someone was going over the fence right by my cell window. Gunshots echoed outside, and bullets went whizzing by the cell window. I heard a helicopter thunder above us. I knew the BOP did not own helicopters for purposes of security, so I knew somebody must have declared Posse Comitatus. The vehicles outside looked camouflaged, and were not anything like the American pickup trucks that rode around outside the prison fence for normal security. Now that the military or national guard had arrived, the prison staff burst into the units. They shot guns with tear gas canisters attached. Hot flashes from the tips of shotguns flashed just beyond the perimeter fence on the prison yard. I heard a prisoner scream off in the distance.

Prison guards were also screaming, “Lie down! Lie down!” as they came into our unit. The prison staff was clearly scared as hell. You could hear it in their voices. This was a medium security prison, and this was not supposed to happen here.

Prisoners scattered to nearby cells, or hit the deck if they were trapped in the middle of the common area. This was a familiar command that the prison guards yelled when there was a fight and they needed to gain control. Prisoners complied or were beaten while they were brought to the hole. The guards’ yells were always authoritative and loud, but for the first time, their words trembled with trepidation and fear.

Armed with twelve-gauge shotguns, the guards were dressed in combat gear (or as Ninja Turtles, as the convicts said) with full masks, padded jackets with shock plates, high-laced steel-toed leather boots, shin pads, and helmets. They fired tear gas down the hallways. We toweled the bottom of our cell door to keep the tear gas from seeping in. Outside the window you could now hear the burning of buildings, and see and smell heavy smoke being blown around the prison yard. My heart was warmed, and I was exhilarated with joy for my fellow convicts of all races and creeds. We had done this. I was proud to be a prisoner and living in this prison at this time. This was history in the making.

The tear gas started to seep through the seams in the sides of the steel door. I started to choke uncontrollably alongside Burl and Beaux. They were better off because they were heavy smokers and not in top physical shape like myself. They were not as effected by the smoke as I was. I watched out of the window at the top of the cell door as guards blasted the canisters of tear gas as convicts lay motionless on the ground. The canisters were not designed to be shot at humans, but the guards took some revenge and aimed at prisoners lying on the ground. Bones shattered as one prisoner was shot in the leg. He screamed and rolled around in agony.

Once the guards had everyone down in our unit, they dragged the remaining convicts into their respective cells, one by one, injured or not. After we were all caged, they stormed through, and yanked us out of our cells for final count.

“Your prison number,” the guard spat and screamed as he pulled me out of the cell by my collar and slammed me up against the cement cell block wall. Two other guards stood on either side of me with what looked like stun guns poised and ready. I stated my number calmly and coolly as I had before over the past thirty-five months. I was thrown violently into the cell, landing on the floor. Burl and Beaux remained outside, explaining why I was in their cell. They were shoved in a little more gently. They were southern boys (in prison for drug trafficking), and had lived in this prison for there whole bit. I was new, and a “Northerner,” being from Chicago. As the door shut, the prison guard looked in and said, “Blaeser, you can stay here for the time being.”

Six hours later, I was still awake. The prison was quiet. There was searing smoke from the fires across the compound. The wind shifted and we had to shut our window. It was 4:00 am. Burl, Beaux, and I talked a lot about ourselves. Finally, on an AM radio station, Paul Harvey mentioned something about a Federal Correctional Institution( FCI ) in Tennessee and Talladega. It sounded very innocuous, and was only a ten or fifteen second sound bite. By 7:00 am, the story had grown bigger with an interview by a young boy who said his father Langston Hughes had started the riot in Talladega because of the crack law. As soon as the story picked up momentum, it was then dropped altogether—not a peep about it on any radio station. It was as if it had never occurred. They referred to it hours later as a minor uprising, then nothing was said about it.

For the next five days, I stayed locked in this cell, an eight by ten foot cement walled room with two beds, a toilet, sink, and a window this was a corner cell on the 2nd floor, the biggest one in the cell block. Burl and Beaux were brothers busted on the same case. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics web page the federal prison system in 1995, at the time of our riot, had 106,536 people who were incarcerated in federal prison. Of those, 55,172 were incarcerated for drugs, about 53%. Today there are approximately 216,902 people in Federal prison, of which about 55% are locked up for drug related offenses. These are non-violent consensual crimes, as opposed to non-consensual crimes such as rape, murder, bank robbery, and treason. Then and now, blacks compose almost 37% of the sentenced federal prison population. Talladega was officially on lock down status, which meant convicts and inmates were locked in their cells twenty-four hours a day. It is only during a riot that all prisoners’ rights are temporarily suspended—who would have thought? We were cut down to two meals a day, brown bag lunches consisting of two bologna and cheese sandwiches, and an apple—a far cry from the chow hall food. We were not going anywhere: no shower, no recreation, no work, no chow hall, no nothin’. The three of us passed the time by playing cards, doing push-ups, and sitting around speculating about the damage to the prison.

The catalyst for the riot seemed obvious: over the past several years (1991-1995), the U.S. Sentencing Commission had reviewed discrepancies in drug laws that federal defendants were sentenced under. They reviewed the discrepancies and lessened the laws pertaining to LSD, marijuana, and L verses M methamphetamine. The Sentencing Commission recommended to Congress certain specific changes that effectively reduced these sentences and sentence guidelines pertaining to such sentences. The guidelines became more uniform as there were some major disparities before the changes. In the eyes of many, they made the law more lenient.

For example, Federal LSD sentences are determined based upon the weight of the drug, and are not supposed to be determined by the carrier medium. A thousand hits of LSD on paper is only the fraction of the weight of a thousand hits of LSD on a thousand sugar cubes. The difference in sentences is ten years. The second example, in the case of marijuana cultivation says that if you are arrested for forty-nine marijuana plants, the plants are simply weighed with the dirt removed from the roots. If you are arrested with fifty plants, even if they are seedlings, each plant is calculated as one kilogram (or 2.2 pounds). a difference of about 8 years. Each weight (for LSD and marijuana) corresponds to a number or level in the Federal guideline manual. If it is a second offense, it becomes a category two enhancement; a third offense is a category three enhancement, and so on.

Once the Sentencing Commission votes on a change, Congress can act to override the change. If they choose not to act on the change, the changes become law. These three changes (LSD, L versus M methamphetamine, and marijuana cultivation) primarily affected white defendants.

In 1995, the Sentencing Commission proposed a reform for the powder cocaine and crack cocaine discrepancy. For the most part, the general public was and continues to be unaware that powder cocaine and crack are the exact same drug. For years, the mainstream media portrayed crack as a drug that contributes more violence against society. Seemingly, a racially motivated debate, considering powder cocaine impacts white communities and crack cocaine impacts blacks. In reality, they are the same drug. Crack is simply powder cocaine cooked down with water and baking powder. Same drug, same addiction, same crime against society, vastly different sentencing guidelines. On average, crack cocaine offenders receive 5-8 times the amount of time as powder cocaine offenders for the very same weight of drugs.  After careful review, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended that offenders convicted of crack cocaine charges receive the same mandatory minimum sentences as powder cocaine convicts. After all, they are the same drug. The difference is primarily the drug dealer and user. Powder cocaine is the white man’s drug and crack cocaine is the black man’s drug.

Congress, who had not shown any interest in intervening in the Commission’s recommendations for LSD, methamphetamine and marijuana woke from their slumber, called a session and voted down the recommendation by the sentencing commission. They cited that crack cocaine was substantially more damaging to society and therefore required significantly harsher sentencing guidelines.

When Congress’s action was reported on television and radio news channels playing in America’s prisons, madness ensued and riots broke out almost simultaneously  in 13 Federal prisons across the country, Starting in FCI Talladega. The Bureau of Prisons’ press office worked quickly to spin the story to the American public. It was reported that there were only mild disruptions at three or four prisons around the country, and that very little damage occurred. Guards weren’t injured and the safety of the American public was never compromised. There were no reports for the need of the National Guards response to the regain of control of the prisons. There were no reports of brutality and murder. There were no reports of attempted inmate escapes.

Congress’ action that day ignited a fury in the black inmates. 35% of blacks in  Federal prison were serving time for crack cocaine convictions. The riots were a backlash of anger and frustration. Good old America, the land where all men are created equal, except if you are black. Upon hearing the news, the black inmates went berserk. They unleashed their anger and attacked guards, white inmates and prison property. In retrospect, I'm grateful that I decided to return to the unit that evening, rather than venture out into the yard. The yard was a battleground that far exceeded the violence in my unit. I might have been killed that night if I had turned left down the sidewalk.

FCI Talladega remained on lock-down status for a long time. After the second day, the guards removed all of the radios from our cells. We were locked away from the outside world, and from news and information.

I lucked out. My new cell mates had an extra mattress that they set up on the floor for me. We were cramped with three guys in the cell, but I was passing the time with two levelheaded guys, and for that I was grateful. For the most part, we sat around in semi shock.  We played poker and some checkers, and spent a lot of time vegetating and waiting. Burl had a sinus problem. He smoked cigarettes and continuously spit snot into this jar. He salivated a lot. It was gross. His problem was probably aggravated by the lingering stench of burnt wood creeping in through our cell window.

After the fourth day, somber guards started rotating three to four inmates out of the cells at a time. They ushered us quickly to an ice cold shower. We were afforded this privilege one more time a couple of days later.

During the entire week, the guards were quiet. Burl and Beaux were good old white boys who had been serving time in Talladega for years and knew most of the staff. They asked questions about what was going on, but they only received silence in return.

On the fifth day of lock down, three surly guards appeared in front of our cell.

“Joel Blaeser, you are expected in the lieutenant’s office.”

The steel door of our cell had a small slot where bag lunches and mail were passed through. The guards ordered Burl and then Beaux to stick their hands through the slot to be handcuffed. Then they directed me to stick my hands through, behind my back, and they clasped the cold metal cuffs around my wrists. Once we were all fettered, they unlocked the door of the cell. I stepped forward and a large mustached guard wrapped his hands around the cuffs behind my back.

“You understand that if you pull in any way, shape or form, that I will take that as an aggressive act and will take action against you,” he said.

I nodded and started the slow walk down the hall. As we walked down the gangplank in front of the other cells, I heard inmates muttering.

“No talking!” I heard one of the guards bellowing behind me, and he pounded his Billy club on the cell door.

The cell block was quiet, which was highly unusual. As we walked to the lieutenant’s satellite office at the end of the unit, we passed broken windows that had been boarded shut.

We arrived at the lieutenant’s office where several guards wearing full combat gear stood around his desk—riot gear typically reserved for disruptive situations where a guards safety was considered at risk. It shocked me to see them dressed this way, and my heart rate skyrocketed.

The lieutenant was sitting behind his desk. Although I had only been in Talladega for a brief time, I knew the lieutenant because of a very combative and uncomfortable run in with him about a month and one half prior.

The mustached guard who had escorted me to the office pressed me down into a chair in front of the lieutenant. A beefy guard towered over me with an enormous can of mace, which he pressed up against my face.

“Joel Blaeser, you are being charged with starting the riot,” the lieutenant sneered through over-sized clenched teeth.

The mace can remained uncomfortably close to my eyes. The lieutenant leaned forward across his desk.

“I’ve got you now mother fucker,” he said.

I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want to get hit with the mace.

Over the course of that day, all of the inmates in Talladega were given a shot. A shot is what prison officials call a citation or a charge. They were given one for bad behavior. When an inmate receives a shot, he is often sent to the hole, and can lose good time served, which can add days or months back onto a sentence. The very best behavior and you still have to serve 85% of your sentence.  My shot was a number 101 insighting a riot, this is the second most severe “shot” in prison next to a #100 for murder.  People who get these two kind of shots most always get a trip back to Federal court for a additional charge and more than likely more prison time adding onto their sentence after pleading guilty or losing there trial.

In addition to receiving shots, twenty-two inmates were escorted to the lieutenant’s office and were charged with starting the riot. Most were interrogated at length and blasted in the eyes with mace for denying their participation. I managed to escape both the interrogation and the mace. This wasn’t because I was favored, but because I sat quietly. (I was also the only white prisoner accused.) The lieutenant knew that I had nothing to do with the riot. He grouped me with the instigators in a flagrant effort to get even with me for the previous argument we had over my beloved green duffel bag I had brought to Talladega from another prison.

Back in the cell, I sat in lock down with Burl and Beaux for another day. Early the next morning, several guards surfaced, cuffed me through the door and pulled me out. They slapped on ankle shackles and walked me to the front of the building where there were a few other prisoners waiting with more guards. We were put into a lineup and each had to call out his name and prison number. The guards flanked us as we walked single file towards the front door. As we approached, the smell of soot and smoke grew more intense. A guard opened the door, and we stepped out onto the compound for the first time in a week.

It was a dark and misty morning. The sun hid behind thick fog. We walked along the sidewalks and stopped periodically at different units to pick up a handful of additional prisoners. As we collected more inmates into our lineup, we went through the count again, shouting out our prison numbers on command. They weren’t going to lose track of any of us. We continued to cross the compound and the damage became more evident. Slowly the magnitude of what happened registered. Piles of rubble lay where two units used to stand. The recreation facility was a crumbled heap of brick. There were large charred outlines on the ground where entire buildings used to be. Enormous piles of concrete and steel had been hauled away. There was a pungent burnt smell permeating the compound. Windows were blown out in multiple buildings. We marched on. The sound of our jingling shackles broke the silence. As we approached the chow hall, we picked up even more additional prisoners, which meant stopping and yelling out our numbers once again.

We passed a group of prisoners lying on the grass in handcuffs. They were attempting to sleep on the ground while guards hovered over them with guns. With two units burned to the ground, there were hundreds of prisoners displaced without cells.

We arrived at the lieutenant’s office headquarters, and were held in a waiting room. They provided a sack lunch for each of us: a bologna special at 6:00 am. We sat on low stainless steel benches bolted to the concrete floor. I recognized some of the faces. Rodney Davis was a black inmate whom I had never met, but his case was notorious. In his early twenties, he was caught by the DEA with powder cocaine. At the bust, they asked him how crack cocaine was made from powder cocaine. He cooperated  unknowing they were agents, and answered their questions. The feds rewarded him by batching some crack and charging him with that offense. Due to the crack and cocaine sentencing discrepancy, Rodney got an extra fifteen years on his sentence.

Down the line I saw jew boy sitting restlessly. He was a black guy who sold weed, but demanded every penny he could get, so everyone called him jew boy..

“Fuck those punks,” Cheap Bastard said, loudly enough for the guards to hear. “We got ‘em.”

We sat there quietly eating our sandwiches. Guards called names and each inmate was summoned to a nearby stall that looked like an office cubicle.

“Joel Blaeser,” a guard yelled out.

I rose and shuffled over to the cubicle. They were calling out names alphabetically, so I was one of the first to go through check out. The guards patted me down thoroughly before removing my handcuffs and ankle shackles. Two guards stood nearby with stun guns on hand in case I made a move.

I removed my prison-issued tan pants, brown belt, and pale tan shirt. I knew the routine well. It was the same search for contraband every time an inmate enters or leaves a prison. Talladega was my fifth prison in three years, but I had spent time in another ten prisons or so due to transfers from one jail to another.

I stripped naked and lifted each leg to show the guards the bottoms of my feet. I raised my hands high over my head and then twisted them back and forth with my fingers spread open widely. When directed, I stuck out my tongue and lifted it up and down, and then left to right. I tilted my head back so the guards could peer up my nose. I ran my fingers through my hair. Then I bent over and coughed hard as i spread my ass cheeks, coughing was a mandatory part of the routine. The guards gave me a marshal travelling uniform, which looked slightly different than the prison uniform. I put it on slowly, knowing that once the cuffs were back in place, I wouldn’t even be able to reach down to scratch my balls.

A guard secured the handcuffs back onto my wrists and wrapped a chain around my waist. My handcuffs were then covered by a black box that restricted my arm movement back and forth. I had never been black-boxed before. They were reserved for extremely dangerous prisoners and weren’t used frequently. My handcuffs were then clipped to the belly chain, fettering my hands to my torso. Finally, he returned my ankle shackles in place. Movement from here to the next prison would be extremely limited.

Normally checkout takes several hours because there might be 200 inmates moving in the prison. This time there were only twenty-two of us leaving. Normally checkout requires going through property slips and other various checks, but this time I wasn’t taking any property. It was all destroyed in the riot.

I scooted out of the cubicle, back into the waiting area, and parked my rear on a bench. jew boy stood off to the side talking loudly to several other inmates.

“I had that bitch, and man, did I fuck her up,” he thundered proudly.

Apparently he had cornered a female guard in the law library, but I couldn’t believe he was talking so openly about it. It was common knowledge that inmates that attacked guards would get serious time added to their sentences. jew boy only had a few years left to serve, and yet he was talking plainly in front of guards who could hear him.

“I pummeled her with a bat. Ripped off her clothes and beat that cunt with a mother fucking bat. I fucked that bitch so hard. Razer, that pussy, was trying to pull me off of her.” He motioned to Razer, another black inmate sitting alone on the bench. “Shit. Lucky bitch had my cock rammed inside her.”

I sat there in disbelief. I kept thinking that maybe the guards had put him up to this in order to lure other inmates into bragging about what they had done. No one jumped in. His chest puffed with ego. A nearby guard gave a cold stare.

Outside, an old prison bus squeaked as it pulled around to the front. The guards prepared us for departure. They put us back into a single file line and asked for our prison numbers. We filed outside through a gate and stopped for yet another count. The air still reeked of soot.

The prison bus was a big aluminum Greyhound-style bus from the 1980s. Inside, a thick mesh screen ran along all of the walls and windows like an iron womb. The drivers and two marshals stay up front, protected behind a metal cage. The marshals were armed with shotguns.

As we boarded the bus, a Talladega guard yelled out for a final count. We each shouted out our number in order. We piled into the bus and each took a seat. I settled into a window seat near the back. The guard handed off the paperwork to one of the marshals and stepped off the bus. The doors creaked shut behind him. The driver pressed on the gas and released the temperamental clutch. We lurched forward and drove out of the prison gates.

Curiosity consumed the prisoners on the bus. We hadn’t been told where we were being sent. For security reasons, prison staff always kept the location of a transfer a secret until the arrival. But that didn’t keep us from asking.

“Are we going to Terre Haute?” one inmate yelled.

“No. No. It’s Oxford,” another suggested.

“You guys have it wrong. We’re going to Lewisburg,” another chimed in.

“It must be USP Atlanta.” Everyone chattered in agreement that they thought of Atlanta right away.

The marshals at the front of the bus remained stone faced. I watched out the window as the bus hummed along the highway, passing exits to Atlanta and points north. Several hours into the drive, I felt horror. Images from my argument with the lieutenant a month earlier flashed in my mind. I saw his angry face threatening me.

“Marion,” I stammered before I could stop myself. “They’re sending us to Marion.”

In the rear view mirror, I saw the driver’s plastic face break into a sinister smirk. A immediate hush settled over the bus. Nobody said a word. Quiet and somber faces stared forward. A brother finally broke the silence.

“He’s right. We are probably going to Marion.”

Joel Blaeser, lover of life, is the author of soon to be published memoir "Letters From Marion".

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Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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