From the Prison Writing Project
In prison you learn a sixth sense. It is difficult to explain, but you can feel a change in the air. I liken it to a parent who suddenly realizes it’s quiet in the house; too quiet. This one day, as I read, I felt the hairs on my neck stand and there seemed to be an oppressive weight on my eardrums, like I was too deep in water. When I looked up, there were three men entering the tank. I had never seen them before. They were there to “smash someone out,” to beat someone to death.
I sat on my bunk and watched them beat this man, as he begged for mercy; I did nothing. I watched as a man was beaten so badly that he had few teeth left in his head, and I raised not one finger to help him. I heard his pleas, the whimpering moans, and gurgling breaths as he began breathing his own blood. I was again helpless, like that three year old me who watched his parents walk away, and once again there was nothing I could do. I watched the prison system destroy yet another life and I knew that soon a phone would ring somewhere and another family would be torn apart. A mother would weep for a child she could not help, a father would feel as though he may have done more, and a child would grow up never knowing the person his dad could have been.
After an eternity, there were guards beating at the Plexiglas and screaming for the men to stop. They did not stop. Finally, bloody and broken, the man drug himself to the exit. A guard in the picket popped the door so he could try and get out of the tank. Totally terrified about what was happening in front of them, the guards outside the door slammed it shut again.
The man’s hope was shattered and his head sagged as one of the men grabbed his pants leg and drug him back into the middle of the room to continue his punishment. When “A-response” arrived the man was no longer moving. Tear gas filled the tank and breathing became difficult. The toxic fumes, combined with the 100 degree temperatures, made the air sharp and it was hard to imagine I could take even one more breath. The three gang members were exhausted from their work and offered little resistance to the officers as they hand cuffed them. My eyes burned from the spray, but it was the event I had witnessed that had damaged the way I saw the world.
If I am going to be honest with you and myself, it’s the tooth that still messes with me. I am no dentist but I think it was a bicuspid. Gleaming white, it stood out against the grey concrete floor of the tank. One end was pointed and the other was covered in traces of blood turning it pink, such an odd almost feminine color in such a dark sadistic place. It sat under a metal dayroom bench for a week.
I thought about the man it had belonged to. A man with hopes and dreams. A man that had made a mistake, perhaps even a terrible one, but that had not been sentenced to death. A man who was executed anyway for a three dollar gambling debt. Life went on in the tank, but this lost piece of his humanness haunted me. It became a testimony of the humanity that would leak, at times pour, from me as I morphed into a strong enough animal to survive. It brought to mind all the lost men in prison, who may as well have been a bloody tooth under a bench for all society seemed to care.
After looking at the tooth for a week, I scooped it up in a piece of toilet paper. That night I brought it out to the recreation yard, and off by myself, I buried the tooth. I don’t know why I did this, maybe because I hoped someone would remember me when I was gone. When they came for me, I hoped against hope, a piece of me wouldn’t be left in that place, being kicked around for weeks until someone finally swept it up into a make shift card board dustpan to throw away.