Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Rabbit Punch

[This was written during the 2nd week of May. I wrestled heavily with whether to post it immediately or wait until I got out. Obviously, I chose the latter. The reason will be apparent by the end of the story. As always, comments in brackets are not part of the original text; they are current remarks.]

Recently, my work detail involved clearing the outfall area west of the base. The outfall area is a large concrete ditch, perhaps 20 feet across, with a 30' grass buffer on each side, that carries storm water runoff from the base out to Perdido Bay, west of Pensacola. [Perdido Bay is also the state boundary with Alabama.] The entire outfall is about 1 mile long, but the concrete portion is just over half of that. [If you go to this Google Map of the base, and click on "Satellite" view in the upper right hand corner, you will see narrow clearing on the left edge of the map jutting down to the left. That is the "outfall."]

First, we cleared the grass on the slopes directly along the ditch with weedeaters, a hot and dirty job made worse by the horse flies that seemed to literally chase after you. Another inmate used a large tractor-pulled mower to cut the remainder of the grass. This job took a couple days.

The following day (Wed), we cleared back some of the limbs and brush along the outer edges of the greenways bordering each side of the ditch. This required pole saws, pole hedge trimmers, and a wood chipper (pulled by a tractor) large enough to handle 6-8" diameter limbs.

Since we are outside the base fence and there were probably 10-12 guys on the detail, Joe, our very large RSSI supervisor (see picture below from RSSI website.... I'll let you guess which one is Joe), maintains a presence at virtually all times, making sure we are supplied with water while chain-smoking cigarettes on his John Deere Gator.

(click to enlarge)

Unfortunately, except for one inmate who has experience in the lumber industry, the rest of us are rank amateurs at this -- a recipe for disaster which is exactly what happened next.

While other inmates cut the overhanging branches and cleared brush along the ground, I fed the limbs and branches into the chipper. We were gradually making our way along the outfall. In the process of pulling down some large branches that had been cut, I was perhaps a little too "energetic" and some of the branches brushed one of the guy's head. It addition, the inmate with the pole hedge trimmer was perhaps swinging a little too freely around the same guy.

He exploded.

This was surprising because he had always been a friendly, mild-mannered guy that I had a good relationship with. Nonetheless he began yelling at me. The chipper and trimmers are very loud and I wore yellow foam ear plugs (along with a dust mask, safety glasses, and work gloves) so I could only tell he was angry but not what he was actually saying, but I knew why he was mad and tried, along with another inmate, to calm him down. Then it happened.


I was rabbit-punched in The Rabbit Hole.

With his open right hand, he hit me on the left side of the head across my ear. Fortunately, he had on work gloves so it didn't hurt that much; I was more startled than anything. He then walked away as I turned away.

A moment later, I looked back and the guy with the pole hedge trimmer was flat on the ground and not moving. He didn't get up for about a minute.

For whatever reason, Joe was not in the vicinity. A couple of other inmates about 50 yards away witnessed the assaults (and found them quite entertaining it seemed) but were more concerned about getting the guy up before Joe got back than about seeing if he was OK. I really didn't know what to do.

While I have not heard it directly from a staff person [this type of issue was not discussed at orientation], every inmate has told me that, in the event of a fight, all parties will be shipped to another prison -- no attempt will be made to determine culpability. All are guilty. [I still don't know if this is true or not, but I didn't know how to find out.]

As a result, most fights, especially those involving no injuries, are never reported to the staff; they are resolved (i.e. covered up) among the inmates. Some inmates advised me not to even write about it, advice I am obviously not following. [Actually, I mailed this letter to my wife to publish the first week of June, but later told her to hold it until I got out.]

[The following paragraph was part of the original post written on the assumption that this would be published while I was still in prison and that BOP would read it while I was still in prison (which obviously is not the case). Don't think that did not make me a little nervous.]

If BOP is small-minded enough to ship me to another prison based on this account, then I will write about that also! I am writing this blog to share my life in prison with those who don't get the "opportunity" to experience it themselves. I can't not share this incident. In fact, about 5 minutes after it happened, I couldn't wait to get back and write about my first "assault."

I know how bizarre it probably sounds, but I didn't take this personally. I'm not the one who lost his cool -- he was. I know he's embarrassed and mad at himself but he seems incapable of apologizing. He simply makes excuses and gives explanations. He has been in prison for some time and admits that it is making him "crazy" and he is constantly dealing with anger [both at himself for screwing up and the system that put him here]. I actually started to feel sorry for the guy; he must be miserable.

Also, as I stated in the sidebar in the left column of this blog, I have coped with this legal experience by almost viewing myself as a character in my own drama. This whole experience has been "Alice-in-Wonderland"-like and getting hit today felt like one inmate-actor hitting another inmate-actor. It's just part of this whole prison script. It's not real. It's no more personal than if my cat had scratched me or I got stung by a bee. In 6 weeks I return to reality and these "characters" will be left behind. I am not going to let myself get too caught up in this.

Ok, so what happened afterward? I know you're wondering.

Well, 5 minutes after the assault, we were back working as if nothing had happened. It was kind of strange. Two people had just been assaulted and nothing was happening. We returned shortly for our lunch break and I mentioned the incident to a friend at the toolshed and another in the cafeteria. They were both shocked, but agreed that I handled it correctly [that is, by not retaliating].

At the toolshed, one of the inmates who witnessed the incident (calling it "just a little ventilating") was concerned that one of my friends would not "mind his own business," but I assured him it would go no further. As wrong as the conduct was, I was not hurt and I had no intent in pressing the issue further.

A bigger problem, however, was the other guy who was hit. He did not realize that I had also been hit before him (his back was to us and it was noisy) until I told him later. He was still sore and, in fact, he could not eat lunch. He did not rejoin the work detail in the afternoon. I told him I really did not want to escalate this further and he understood. [UPDATE: His jaw continued to hurt for some time afterward. Eventually, an impacted wisdom tooth was removed by the prison dentist. He was near the end of his sentence and has since been released, I believe.]

The afternoon detail went fine as if nothing had happened earlier in the morning. I don't know what tomorrow will hold but I don't expect a repeat performance.

I can forgive and forget an isolated incident but if someone interprets my response as a sign of weakness to be exploited, then I may have a bigger problem on my hands to deal with. We'll see.

[UPDATE: I was never assaulted again. My relationship with this inmate continued as if nothing had happened. I would occasionally walk up to him and hit one of my fists into another and smile at him, silenting teasing, and reminding, him about the incident. I have no idea if he respected my choice or not. There were definitely other inmates who indicated that they would have "still been fighting" had it happened to them. I am sure some viewed me as "weak;" others viewed it as "strong." I have always viewed restraint and de-escalation of conflicts as positive qualities. I don't think they are highly valued traits in prison.

Fortunately, being in a prison camp is the greatest protection against violence because no one wants to get shipped. I have no doubt that had I been in a medium, or even a low, I would have had a problem on my hands.]


Anonymous said...


This is sad, that this assualt was not reported, and I see your point, but I am pretty sure this looser was some how justifying his actions to other inmates, using it as bravado, a sign of strength, and power. Was he physically bigger and stronger then the 2 of you who got socked? In my mind I believe you did the right thing, a sign of strength but unfortunately in FPC it's probably seen as a sign of submission and a sign of weakness. I don't think he was mad at you probably mad at the system and took it out on you. Would you also agree that the living conditions cramped rooms and space causes boiling tempers. This guy must not have any feelings of guilt.

If the other inmate did not return to work that afternoon, what excuse did he give? You would think someone (team leader) would notice a bruised jaw? call on an investigation. Did the assaulter not know that violence will only add to his problems (low-med) security prison means lots more retriction.

I really believe that you are a very bright person, and I also believe that majority of the inmates are street smart (not bright) but not intellect wise (the big picture or being well rounded). IE not white collar probably in for other things.

This episode happened 65% into your stay, I can just imagine if it happened when you got there? I am sure you may have acted differently?

Bill Bailey said...

Actually I don't think he was thinking -- he literally lost his mind for a moment -- "crazy" was the word he used. Of course he knew the potential consequence of his actions -- he expressed concern to others that we were going to "rat" on him. I'm sure he was worried about it for some time.

I learned after a short while in prison not to overanalyze what I might have done to trigger a response from another inmate or why, in general, an inmate does what he does in a given situation. There are so many "issues" that each person is wrestling with that you would only be guessing as to the "cause" of some behavior. You just have to let it go and move on.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to be true to yourself and not allow the institution and other inmates to shape your attitude and behavior; otherwise, you will find yourself being pulled in so many different directions that you will not even recognize yourself anymore. I didn't expect prison to be a rational place. Therefore, I tried not be surprised when crazy things happenned.

Anonymous said...

"In 6 weeks I return to reality and these "characters" will be left behind." "Fortunately, being in a prison camp"...

I think these are the two key factors in your case: the very short period of time left in the prison, and the place being a prison camp. Considering these circumstances, I would have done the same thing as you did - leave it be.

But, had the circumstances been other: a sentence of length of few years, in a low, or medium level prison, the situation would have been quite different. I definitely think there would have been a much bigger problem on your hands to deal with. That's the situation countless prisoners face every day in prisons and jails: the violence and decision of how to react to it.

Would you have acted differently if it happened when you had, say, 2.5 months left?

Bill Bailey said...

I think the biggest thing that factored into my decision was the person who hit me. We were actually casual friends at the time and it came as a total shock. I viewed it as an isolated incident in which he simply lost his mind and it would not repeat itself (which it didn't).

It would have been different had this been someone who had always expressed dislike for me and finally escalated that to physical violence. In other words, had I interpreted this as the beginning of a pattern of bullying, I would have responded differently.

If this had been a low or medium, there is no doubt I would have had a different problem, maybe not from the same inmate, but from others would thought I was weak or vulnerable and, therefore, could be exploited. My guess is that in that situation I would have paid one of the prison gangs for security... and they would put out the word that I am not to be touched. (At least, I am told that is the way it works... we don't have gangs in a camp.) That would have been my one equalizer... money. Indeed, even in camp, I had one inmate tell me that for $500 he could arrange to punish the guy who hit me. I don't know how serious he was but obviously I didn't take him up on the offer.