I once heard the story of an elephant rehab in Thailand. It was said that people would trap these Asian elephants in the wild and take them for logging or circus work. The elephant would be placed in a box too small for it to lie down or sit. The elephant wouldn’t be fed or watered. They’d be beaten and screamed at until they broke. It was said that it could take an hour, a day or two, but eventually the elephant broke. The people who do these jobs are called spirit breakers. It was said that a circus elephant could be tethered with a simple rope and the tent could be burning down around them, they’d cry out for help but if none came they’d die in place without the will to save their own life. They’d literally forget their own strength.
Locked doors, popped slots, styrofoam trays. Six AM. It started like any other day in pandemic prison–frosted flakes and coffee cakes. I didn’t even get out of bed to eat it.
“Sit it on top of the locker for me,” I said to my cellie.
I reached beneath the head of my mattress to pull out my watch and radio. I turned the radio on and began my daily toggle between Morning Edition, The Breakfast Club and The Steve Harvey Morning Show. After the heartbreaking stories, rumor reports and prank phone calls, I was prepared to begin my day. Anxious to get back to Almanac of the Dead, a novel I was 502 pages into, I jumped down from the top bunk, slid my bare feet into a pair of crocs and commenced with my morning hygiene. About that same time the unit officer was unlocking the upstairs cells for their daily “socially distanced” recreation. As I brushed my teeth I was startled by someone screaming out. Laying on his own bunk, my cellie and I locked eyes as he yanked his headphones off.
“Am I tripping?” he asked.
Spitting out toothpaste before I answered, I said, “Nah, somebody’s screaming. Probably off the deuce (K-2).”
“You probably right. My cellie before you used to fall out and do the same thing. Laying in his own throw-up!” he responded.
As I finished washing my face someone ran past our assigned cell and started kicking the locked door leading to the unit team officers. I slid my glasses on and went to the cell door to see what was happening. The inmates who were out for the rec were going up the steps, into their cells and closing their doors without prompting. As she opened the unit team door I heard the perturbed voice of the officer working our unit yell, “Why are you kicking on this door?”
The inmate replied, “There’s an emergency!”
My counselor, the unit manager, the officer working the unit next door, along with the officer working our unit all sprinted past my cell. To my left I heard an officer’s key unlock a cell door. The officer from next door then reentered my field of vision escorting an inmate. The inmate collapsed directly in front of my assigned cell with his back resting against the door. Reaching both hands in the direction of the officer, who was standing over him, the inmate said, “He tried…he tried to kill me.”
Looking down at the inmate I could see that his brown t-shirt, khaki pants, and exposed skin all seemed as if they had been airbrushed with blood. I didn’t see any visible injuries. Through the door I said to him, “You’re going to be alright.”
He leaned to the left, resting on an elbow, and put his back against the wall. Medical staff and additional officers were running into the unit in response to the incident. At the door of the opened cell a nurse began shouting “A.E.D. A.E.D.”
I turned to my cellie and said, “That’s the defibrillator.”
The officer in front of my cell lifted the inmate he’d been escorting to his feet and walked him into the unit team area. There was a puddle of blood left on the floor where he’d been sitting. I looked down at the floor of the cell to see if any had run under the door. It hadn’t. An officer dashed from the unit team area pushing the emergency medical gurney that’s normally mounted to the wall. Pushing the gurney as a team, medical staff quickly reentered my field of vision with an inmate lying in a fetal position on his left side, facing away from my cell.
My cellie asked, “Who is it, Tay?”
Being only my 29th day on that side of the housing unit I was having trouble identifying who was on the gurney by the back of his bald head. I said to my cellie, “I don’t know. Come look.”
As he approached the door I moved to the rear of the cell. Pretty swiftly we reversed roles and I was the one asking, “Who is it, Robb?”
“I can’t tell. I can only see his back.”
He watched as the inmate was rushed out of the unit and then said to me, “He’s gone, Tay. You can get back over here.” He moved to the rear of the cell.
As I began to approach the cell door a masked officer looked through our door’s window. He looked left, right, and down at the floor.
Arriving at the door I asked, “Are you looking for anything?”
With extreme hostility and what I took for an unspoken accusation, he answered, “It’s none of your business what I’m looking for!”
I paused for a brief second before saying, “Whatever just went on out there we had nothing to do with. We’ve been locked in this cell since yesterday.”
“Get the fuck out of the window!,” he responded.
With the officer being shorter than me I could see clearly over his head to the cell doors in my line of sight. In every single one of them someone was looking out of the window.
I said to the officer, “I don’t have to get out of the window.”
He responded, “Get the fuck out of the window!”
Defiantly, I turned sideways offering him my profile so that I wasn’t technically looking out of the window, but I didn’t move.
“Go to the back of the cell!” he said.
Still not facing the officer, I reached to turn on the light before going to the back of the cell. Prior to making contact with the light switch I heard the reverberating clank of the bolt in my door snapping open. I turned to face the opening door. The officer held a can of O.C. spray inches from my face. I brought my right hand up between my face and the spray nozzle and pushed the can away. Swinging a loping overhand right that I easily pivoted away from, the officer stood in shocked disbelief at my having landed a straight right to his solar plexus. We both stood in resounding silence with our hands at our sides, staring at one another, a quiet understanding that a scratch line had been drawn. Crossing that boundary, a second officer pushed past him into the cell. Before he could raise his hands I fired a succession of rights and lefts to his face, watching his head snap back and forth like a speed bag. As he came forward, attempting to grab onto me, I backed away punching from my heels. Losing my right croc, barefooted, I swung until I ran out of space. Impeded by the back of the cell I could see the fury in his blue eyes as he was finally able to grab and wrestle me face down to my cellie’s bunk. From his vantage point looking down, I imagine he saw Malcom X holding an M-1 looking out partially parted curtains, saw Basquiat’s crown with I AM A MAN beneath it, saw John Carlos and Tommie Smith standing on podiums with Black fists raised, and it being enough to entice him, provoke him, to wrap both hands around my tattooed neck, lock fingers, and squeeze.
Raging, he screamed, “You want to hit somebody? Huh? You want to hit somebody?” Over and over.
Cut off from oxygen I awaited someone pulling him off of me. I remember thinking, “Where is my cellie? Where’s Rob?” right as blows started raining down on me. My back. My face. Both sides of my ribs. Unable to see behind me, I knew from the rapidity of the punches that no less than three people, officers, were hitting me. None of the blows were as concerning as the cracker’s hands wrapped around my neck.
“You want to hit somebody?!”
As he continued to scream with my neck in his clutches I closed my eyes and relaxed. I’d seen the George Floyd recording. I’d commented to my cellie at the time that I couldn’t have been just standing around watching that take place, that I would have done something to get the cop off his neck. Now look at me…in the same situation. He squeezed my neck so tight that I couldn’t get the words “I CAN’T BREATHE!” out. I wondered if something is crushed as blows continue to land.”Where the fuck is Rob?!” I thought to myself.
“You want to hit somebody? Huh? You want to hit somebody?”
As blows continued to rain the cracker released my neck and said, “Give me your hands!”
Still not knowing where Rob is, I say, for his benefit, “I CAN’T BREATHE!”
About five more blows landed before the officer repeated, “Give me your hands!”
As he eased off of my back another officer jumped onto my right side pinning my right arm between himself and the bed. My left arm was trapped underneath my body.
“Give me your hands!”
“I can’t,” I answered.
The officer who’d choked me pulled my left arm from under my body and cuffed the wrist. The officer on my right side shifted just enough for me to yank my right arm free and offer it for restraints. Cuffed, I was lifted from the bed by my underarms.
Glancing to my left I spotted Rob on his knees, head bowed with his hands clasped in a praying posture. The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught, “You pray and then get up and do something, like it won’t happen any other way.” Frederick Douglas said he prayed and prayed for freedom but never got it until he started praying with his feet. I know the Bible says the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains. I’m forever grateful that Rob had that type of faith.
I was lifted off of my feet and carried from the cell by my underarms. Before exiting I kicked my left croc off with the hope of being allowed a pair of shoes. I was placed chest down on the floor outside of the cell, partly in the now smeared puddle of blood, as an officer called “Leg irons! We need leg irons!”
Standing over me, the officer who’d choked me yelled, “You hit like a bitch!” As he berated me I looked around at the female staff members that were present feeling slightly embarrassed on their behalf.
Another C.O. screamed, “Eat it!”
You don’t need to be a quantum physicist to become a correctional officer. The C.O. screaming “eat it” at the top of his lungs was proof of that. Clearly he arrived late to the party and mistook the smeared blood they’ve laid me in for O.C. spray. Nevermind the fact that I’m not coughing; nevermind the fact that tears, nor snot, aren’t running out of my face; nevermind the fact that none of his colleagues are standing around coughing, he’s adamant that I should “eat” the spray. Stupid muthafucka.
Meanwhile, the other officer screamed again, “You hit like a bitch!”
I responded, “See me without your homeboys. You KNOW what’s up.”
A Black officer whom I’d known fairly well said to me, “Baldwin.” Nearly on parallel plains, I laid on the floor of the mezzanine level as he stood on the entry level, we locked eyes he gestured with his hands and mouthed to me “calm down.”
I could hear who I judged to be a lieutenant, by the authority of his voice, somewhere behind me say into his radio, “Get me some leg restraints down here!”
A female voice, caucasion and outside of my direct line of sight said, “Baldwin.”
I answered, “Yes ma’am?”
“Baldwin, you scratched me.”
“I apologize for scratching you,” I responded while questioning myself about when and how that happened.
She then said to me, “Baldwin, do you have anything I need to know about?”
Aware that there were at least 30 officers and staff members standing around, I asked, “Who am I speaking to?” She identified herself as the new unit manager. Anger flaring at her “dirty diseased nigger” insinuation I retorted, “Since you find it appropriate to ask me about my medical history in front of everyone I will direct you to ask health services anything you want to know about me otherwise you won’t know a thing!”
She replied, “Baldwin you need to work on your communications skills.”
I watched an officer come through the front door and up the steps with a set of shackles. I raised my left and right feet as the shackles were snapped on by the officer who’d choked me. I was lifted from the floor and stood up. As the officers on each of my shoulders spoke to one another, my counselor, another Black man, stood a few feet away. Leary of all of the white officers surrounding me I asked him if he could escort me. He grabbed my left shoulder effectively taking me from the custody of the officer who’d been holding my left side.
I asked him, “Did you open my door for them?”
“No,” he replied.
“Why did they come in my cell?”
As the thought occurred to him he said, “The top ranges were out, right Baldwin?”
“I don’t know.”
There were three officers with cell keys. The officer who escorted the guy to the unit team area, he never returned, my counselor, and the lady working the unit I was in. She opened the door.
As he and the officer on my right began to escort me down the steps to the entry level, I said to my counselor, “I’m barefoot. I need some shoes.”
“Hold on, Baldwin,” he said.
As we walked toward the front door I heard two conversation streams. One was the female officer who was working the unit saying, “No, he’s the second incident. The guy from the first incident was still in the back. He told me that his cellie tried to kill him so he tried to kill him back. When we opened the door he was on his chest choking him. When we pulled him off the other guy wasn’t breathing. He took a breath when medical got here.”
At the same time the first officer to my door was saying, “I wanted to see if the guy pushed any weapons under his door.”
At the entrance to the unit I again asked my counselor about shoes.
“Hold up, Baldwin. Just walk for me, here comes the Captain.”
Trying to make out the Captain’s face I realized that I’d lost my glasses somewhere in the melee. Taking those barefoot steps onto the cement outside I began to feel how tight the shackles were. I looked down and saw them cutting into both shins and both Achilles heels, blood running from each point of contact. I told my counselor and the escorting officer that the shackles were too tight. I said that they could leave them if they were going to “…put me on the cart and drive me wherever we are going but I won’t be able to walk there.”
The white officer to my right said, “…just take small steps until we make it there.”
I stopped and asked them to loosen the shackles if they wanted me to continue. Pulling even with us on the walk the Captain said, “Get him some shoes!” and kept moving.
My counselor called after him, “Captain, Captain. Is it alright if we loosen the shackles?” Never breaking stride or looking back the Captain entered the unit. The officer to my right asked what cell I was in and radioed for shoes. Seeing the blood pouring down to my feet as we waited, my counselor loosened both shackles. While we stood by for shoes the inmate who’d collapsed in front of my cell was loaded onto the back of a cart that was parked outside of the unit. The cart drove by us with the inmate lying flat on his back, uncuffed and unshackled, with his eyes closed.
The officer to my right said to my counselor, “He looks like he’s unconscious.”
My counselor said, “I think he may have hurt his leg.”
I said to them both, “He’s not unconscious. He’s thinking about the situation he’s in.”
An officer arrived carrying the same pair of crocs I’d lost in the cell. Knowing they were unreliable in battle I thought to myself, “Damn you, Rob!”
Proceeding down the walk and clearing the unit to my right I could see to the parking lot at the front of the institution. There were two fire trucks and an ambulance there, with flashing lights and muted sirens, preparing to take the guy who was wheeled out on the gurney to the hospital. At the foot of the walk we were met by a lieutenant and two officers from Unicor, the prison industry. The lieutenant relieved the escorting officers with the two Unicor cops.
My counselor said to me, “Alright, Baldwin.”
“Peace,” I said to him.
The lieutenant told the Unicor corps that we’d all be going to the lieutenant’s office. Inside the lieutenant’s office the officers had me stand directly in front of a chair. When I attempted to sit I was told to stand back up, so I stood with an officer at each shoulder. From the inner office, the lieutenant who’d walked us there told them it was alright for me to sit. Seated with an officer on each side of me, I felt my hands go numb and alerted the officers that my cuffs were too tight.
One of them bent to examine the cuffs and said, “Shit, they are too tight!”
He asked the lieutenant if it was alright to loosen them. The lieutenant said to me, “Is that the one you assaulted my officer with?” and to the officer he said, “Leave it. When he goes to get medically assessed, if medical says it’s too tight, we loosen it!”
As another lieutenant entered the outer office from the compound, he picked up the phone. I looked to my right, saw a fountain and requested water. The officers passed the request to the second lieutenant.
Re-entering the outer office he said, “For Christ’s sake, I’m not a sadist. If the man wants some water let him get some water.”
Taking cautious swallows due to the lingering pain in my throat I could hear the lieutenant on the phone giving my name and register number to someone on the other end. He said that he was requesting a “29.” I had no idea what that meant. Right as I finished drinking water the second lieutenant took a picture of me. I sat back down.
The Unicor cops asked me where I worked. “P.M. rec crew,” I replied.
“Oh, one of those no show, no pay jobs. How come you never came to Unicor?”
I didn’t have the energy to get into a 13th amendment, legal slavery discussion with that white man so I responded, “I have friends and family that love me. They make sure I’m well taken care of.”
After sitting there another 45 minutes or so the second lieutenant came from the inner office and told the officers it was time to take me to medical.
Standing outside of Health Services an officer approached us and asked the cops escorting me, “Are you taking him to decontamination?”
One of the officers answered, “No. He didn’t get sprayed.”
“What?! He didn’t get sprayed? Damn!…they should’ve sprayed him,” he retorted with a plum-colored face of anger. Looking at each of them I noticed I was the only one without a mask on.
When the doors were opened we stepped into the waiting area. My unit secretary, another Black man, was there. “Baldwin,” he said by way of greeting.
I told him that my cuffs were too tight. He came over and examined them. He asked the two officers escorting me for a handcuff key. They relayed to him what the lieutenant had said. “What?!” he responded. He went on his way to the back of medical to confront the lieutenant who’d arrived before us. I said that I also needed a mask. He returned five minutes later carrying a mask and a defeated look. He said they were getting an examination room ready for me and that they’d loosen the cuffs there. He placed the mask on my face, pulling the elastic straps behind each ear. Shortly after, the lieutenant came to the lobby and explained to the two officers that when we went to the exam room they were not to make a sound, that the only voices to be heard on video recording were my voice, his voice and the nurse who’d be doing the assessment.
Seated on an examination table with the two cops still each holding a shoulder, I heard the lieutenant outside of the exam room’s entrance announce to the camera the time, date, and that it was a use-of-force examination for “Tamar Baldwin.” He pronounced the ‘Ta’ with a short-a-sound instead of ‘Tay.’ He entered the room with his camera man and the exam proceeded.
The nurse said to me, “Can you tell me your name?”
Stressing the ‘Tay’ I said, “Tay-mar Baldwin.”
She then asked, “Mr. Baldwin, can you tell me what year it is?”
“1968.” Understanding the historical reference, or thinking I was that fucked up, the camera man laughed audibly.
The nurse looked confused, cocked her head and slowly repeated, “Nineteen-sixty-eight?” as a question.
“Nineteen-sixty-eight, twenty-twenty, it’s the same.”
Next she asked, “Mr. Baldwin, can you tell me what happened?”
Cognizant that my response could be used as evidence in a judicial proceeding, I said, “A misunderstanding. Some pushing and shoving, no big deal.”
She started her examination by pulling my shirt up, looking around my body and noting marks and bruises. She took my mask off, pulled my top lip up and my bottom lip down, examined my face and asked how I got the fresh scratches, scrapes, and bruises.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
She then went to my hands and asked me to move my fingers.
“I can’t. I can’t feel my hands. The cuffs are too tight.”
She looked at the cuffs cutting into my wrists and said to the lieutenant, “They are a little tight. You should loosen them.”
The lieutenant came over and placed a second set of cuffs on my wrists before removing the ones that were cutting odd blood flow to my hands. The nurse examined my hands asking about the scrapes and calluses on my knuckles and about the fresh blood and cuts on my wrists.
“They’re from the cuffs,” I told her.
She then examined my legs noting the dried blood trails and sores caused by the too tight shackles. Completing her examination she placed the mask back onto my face. The lieutenant spoke directly to the camera stating the time and date and pronouncing my name correctly as a sign off. I was escorted to the Special Housing Unit (SHU).
Arriving at the SHU I was asked the routine processing questions.
“Do you take any medications?”
“What size jumpsuit?”
I was placed into a dry cell where an officer asked me to toss out everything I had on as he passed the SHU items through the slot. After changing, a Black officer that I was familiar with came to the cell to ask what happened.
“Same old bullshit. Caviar and crackers,” I told him.
He laughed and told me the location of my guys that were in the SHU. I asked that he try to get me on the range with some of them. He said he was just the “rec officer” so couldn’t put me any particular place. As the officers pulled SHU rec, alerted them of my presence, my guys shouted me out on the way to the cages.
The officer who stripped me out came back to the dry cell and asked me to pass him the “medical” mask I was wearing in exchange for a canvas one. The dry cell had neither sink nor toilet so I told the officer I was thirsty and that I needed to take a piss. He asked me to give him a second. An hour passed. Each time he walked by the cell I reminded him, but I never got either. Right as the SHU staff began handing out lunch trays to the inmates on each range, commissary officers arrived to serve SHU store items and a big white dude appeared at the door of the dry cell with a three-piece briefcase and a bus roll. The briefcase, I knew from experience, contained cuffs, shackles, belly chain, a black box and padlock. The bus roll had pocketless elastic waist pants, t-shirt, boxers, socks and a pair of Jackie Chan’s (blue canvas slip ons).
I said to the officer, “Trans-Seg?”
He stared without reply. He then opened the slot and asked me to “throw out everything you have on.” Except for shoes, which I stood on top of, I dropped everything out of the slot.
To alert the female staff Big White Dude called out, “I’m stripping one out up here!” He then said, “Baldwin, back away from the door.”
With my bare feet still on top of the safety-vest orange SHU crocs, I slid back. He said, “Open your mouth. Pull your bottom lip down. Your top lip up. Lift your tongue. Move it side to side. Pull your ears down. Run your fingers through your beard. Hold your hands up. Let me see the back of them. Spread your fingers. Lift your arms. Alright. Lift your penis. Lift your sack. Turn around. Lift your left foot and let me see the sole. Now your right foot. Squat and cough.”
Done with his search he pushed the bus roll through the door, allowing it to drop to the floor. I slid forward, picked it up from the floor and unwrapped the masking tape from around it. I stood on top of the Jackie Chan’s and dropped the SHU crocs out of the slot.
I got dressed and asked if I could get one of the lunch trays before we left. He said, “They may have something for you up front.”
Popping the latches on the three-piece briefcase he asked me to “step back to the door.” I put both hands, in front of me, through the slot. He put one end of the chain in my right hand and asked me to feed it around my waist, while he held the opposite end in his left hand. I passed the other end to his right hand. Now letting both ends of the chain hang free through the slot he placed the cuffs on my wrist, double locked them and snapped the black box into place on top of them. He then pulled both ends of the waist chain forcing my midsection flush against the door. He fed the chain through itself, cinching the excess and pulling the rest through the black box, securing it in place with the padlock.
He called for the SHU lieutenant. She came to the door with a commissary officer (a slightly less big white dude) and the Black rec officer. Big White Dude directed me to turn around, go to the back of the cell and to put my forehead against the wall. When I’d done as he instructed the commissary cop and the Black officer came into the cell, each placing a hand on a shoulder. Big White Dude came next and asked that I lift my left foot up on “tip toe.” The left shackle was secured into place and double locked. The same procedure was completed with my right ankle. The SHU lieutenant then came into the cell and checked each restraint to ensure that they weren’t too loose, regardless of whether they were too tight. She gave a nod of approval and asked the commissary cop to escort me along with Big White Dude.
Passing a fountain on the way from the SHU I asked for a drink of water. Big White dude said, “You’ll get some up front.”
As we waited in the vestibule between the SHU and Health Services I asked about the condition of the guy that was rushed out of the housing unit on the stretcher.
“Who, Wiley?” Big White Dude asked.
“Is that his name?” I replied.
“What was he smoking deuce?”
“I don’t know what he was doing. I don’t know him. I’m just asking if he’s still alive.”
“I don’t know,” he said nonchalantly.
I left it alone. He then said to me, “When this door opens we’re going to walk straight through to operations and then out the door.”
“Operations? I don’t know where that is,” I said more to myself than to him.
“I’ll tell you where to walk.”
The door opened and the three of us walked through the back hallways of Health Services into Receiving and Discharge (R&D). We went directly to the rear exit of R&D. As we walked I saw the officer who choked me outside on the walk. I pondered how the situation would play out once the door popped. An officer came from an office at the front of R&D and informed Big White Dude that we weren’t cleared to leave, yet. Upset at that development Big White Dude and the commissary officer escorted me to the front of R&D and put me into a holding tank.
Thankfully, there were both a toilet and a sink inside. I stepped to the toilet and fought the waist chain just enough to get the front of my pants down and relieve myself. At the sink it was too far of a stretch for me to be able to wash my hands. I sat on the cement bench, leaned forward, bringing my face close enough to my hands to pull one side of the mask off. Back at the sink I was able to press the cold water button with my left hand and bend at the waist to drink my fill. I sat back down on the bench.
The Nigerian physician’s assistant came into R&D. I got up and called him to the window, “Man, they won’t give me anything to eat. Can you get me something?”
“They will not feed you?” he asked.
“Nah, that Big White Cracker won’t feed me.”
“Okay, hold on.”
He called out to Big White Dude, “This inmate said that he is hungry and you will not feed him.”
“I told him we have food up front.”
“You will feed him then?”
He came back to the door to repeat all that I’d already overhear them saying. I sat back down. After another half hour or so I could see that they were preparing to leave so I went to the sink and drank some water. My throat was dry and burning from being choked. When the cell door was opened I stepped out and waited next to Big White Dude while the commissary cop gathered paperwork.
I asked him, “Are you mad at me?”
“Mad at you? Why would I be mad?”
“Maybe that other cop is your homeboy. I don’t know, but I know that you won’t let me eat.” He stared off into the distance without answering.
When the commissary cop returned we exited the rear of R&D. On the walk toward the front lobby the commissary guy said, “9/11. Everyone remembers where they were that day.”
“Man,” I thought to myself. “It is September 11th.”
I looked at the commissary officer and said, “That was fucked up.”
Before arriving at the back door of the front lobby we detoured toward the executive office building. Stepping inside I was guided to the custody station. At the desk an officer asked my name, register number and social security number, checking them against what they had on file. After confirming that everything was in order the SHU lieutenant walked up to the custody station holding a digital camera. She asked for one of the officers to remove my mask. When it was done she took a picture of me and we were cleared to leave.
Walking out the same door we entered we were joined by an officer from custody, who asked me, “Where are you on your way to?”
He spoke directly to the anxiety I was experiencing. I didn’t know if those crackers were setting me up for the kill Shawshank style. Maybe they were planning to pull over somewhere along the route, shooting into the back of my head and saying I’d attempted to escape.
I looked at the custody officer and answered, “I’m going wherever they’re taking me.”
He laughed, saying, “That’s a good answer,” knowing damn well I had no idea where I was going.
We entered the front lobby. I paid particular attention to the pictures of Bill Barr and Donald Trump hanging on the wall. They’d been clearing the way for a lot of federal executions. I wondered whether they’d even authorize a cursory investigation if these crackers downed me on the side of a highway.
We were met in the front lobby by the lieutenant who told the Unicor cops it was alright for me to get some water. The commissary and custody officers shook his and Big White Dude’s hands and exited the way we’d come.
With Big White Dude and the lieutenant each holding a shoulder we stepped out into the free world. We were met by another officer who stepped out of the driver’s seat of a white Chevy Impala. He walked over and he and the lieutenant guided me into the rear passenger side of the Impala. The Impala had a cage and safety glass separating the rear and front compartments leaving mere inches of clearance for my legs.
I sat down on the rear seat with my legs outside of the car. I scooted over onto the driver’s side with my legs extended across the seat. The driver reached in and buckled my safety belt. Big White Dude walked to a white Ford hybrid. Once everyone was seated, off we went with the Ford Fusion trailing us.
I turned in my seat to take one last look at F.C.I. Jesup. Aesthetically, it’s the most beautiful prison I’d ever been housed in. I was surprised to feel that I was going to miss it. State or federal, it’s the only prison I’ve been in that had trees and bushes on the compound. I was going to miss the black huckleberry bush outside of Education. I don’t know if I was the only one on the compound who picked and ate these berries but I was selfish enough not to spread the word about them.
There were these really tall sparse pine trees outside of Religious Services. Birch trees along the walks to the unit. Two trees at the entrance to Health Services, one a white tree that I was never able to identify. It looked as if all its bark had been stripped off, but it was just the way it was. There were two types of palm trees. Arriving at Jesup I knew that the taller ones were called Hollywood palms. The shorter ones were new to me. They became my favorite tree the moment I saw them.
Speaking to my counselor on the day I arrived I said to him, “We don’t have palm trees in Baltimore. What kind of trees are the short ones that look like pineapples?”
Picturing them he smiled, “The short ones? Those are Sago palms. I have a bunch of them planted in my yard at home. They’re beautiful, right?”
“They are,” I answered.
“What about those little birds that look like pigeons that are all around here?”
“The little brown ones? Those are doves. Y’all don’t have them in Baltimore?”
“Nah, we have regular old pigeons. I’ve never seen them before today,” I said.
“We hunt them too, they’re good eating.”
I was going to miss my unit team also. When I arrived they were all male. The unit manager, the unit secretary, the guy who attempted to loosen my cuffs in medical, my counselor, the counselor for the other side, the guy who asked me to calm down when I was laying on the floor, the case manager from the other side, all Black men.
My case manager was a white man. Initially, I strongly disliked him. I could sense his biases. Over time, as I spoke to him, and I’m no apologist for bullshit, I came to understand and even like him some. I learned that he is a byproduct of his Evangelical faith. He believed that all lesbian, homosexual, and trans people were going to hell. He supported Trump for these stated reasons, “The economy. He’s bringing our troops home. He’s against abortion and he’s against gays.”
He’d say, “Baldwin, you’re Muslim. We believe the same things.” Most times I’d just listen to him, but sometimes I’d respond. I told him that I’m not dogmatic so I question things my religion teaches and that I could think of quite a few people who’d beat lesbian, gay and trans folks to the front of the line to spend eternity in hell. That I’m not against any woman choosing what to do with her own body.
My case manager would tell me what they talked about in church that past Sunday and I know that his white Evangelical church was way different than the Black Baptist church I grew up going to. He was who he was but I’ll admit that he went above and beyond to help me with anything I needed. I’d never had an all male unit team before and don’t expect that I ever will again.
The fat cat, that I’d falsely accused of murder, who lived under the bleachers in the gym. I was going to miss it too. I’d see these piles of feathers in the grass all around the compound and thought surely that cat was ungrateful. People fed it oysters, mackerels and clams everyday. The officers fed it cat food. And still it was eating birds? Coming back from watching a movie in Education one morning, at the foot of the walk to my building there was a falcon standing on top of a dove, eating it, leaving a pile of fat feathers in the grass.
The Canada geese. They shit all over the compound. They hiss at you. They walk around with feathers stuck in their beaks from fighting each other, all day. I hate Canada geese, but they’re kinda cool. They allow the little sparrows and starlings and chickadees that the crows chase and take food from, to hang out with them. The crows never land in their mix. The turkey buzzards that take food from the crows don’t fuck witht the Canada geese. When I was younger, a seagull tore a chicken box from me, ate my Western fries right in my face. As soon as a seagull lands, all of the Canada geese run right at it. Canada geese are bold and pretty fearless. They’re the only birds that would eat directly from my hand. They never leave a man behind. Before taking flight they sound off, honking all loud, snapping their heads around on their long spindly necks like the little girl in The Exorcist so that everyone knows, “We’re about to fly.” They form that V. I read somewhere that a Canada goose flying alone can make 18 mph, but flying together in that V they make 62 mph. I love Canada geese. I was going to miss them, too.
Looking back at Jesup out the rear window of that white Chevy Impala I began to believe I had Stockholm Syndrome. I had to be bugging.
In the car listening to the lieutenant and driver talk about purchasing R.V.s, curiosity getting the best of me, I interjected to question whether R.V.s were diesel or not. I was told that they’re mostly diesel. Bored and wondering why I even asked that question like it fucking mattered to me, I again allowed my mind to drift.
I recalled being on the compound at Jesup after the sun had set and looking up at the moon, stars, planets, and man-made celestial objects, pointing out the International Space Station. I’d tell my guys, Killah-B and Scott, that they could send me there to complete my sentence. I’d tell them how a human that stayed in outer space for an extended period of time would be taller when they returned to Earth. I’m 6’0” tall. I’d say, “If I finish my bid there I’d be 6’3 or 6’4 when I got back.” Maybe they were driving me to Cape Canaveral for launch?
My fantasy was dashed when we got on an entrance ramp or 95 North. I know going north from Georgia we’d cross into South Carolina. I thought of the four F.C.Is there; Estill, Edgefield, Bennettsville and Williamsburg. Using a process of elimination, I knew that I wasn’t going to either Estill or Bennettsville. Estill had recently been hit by a tornado and evacuated. Bennettsville was a care level one facility and because I have asthma and hypertension I had to go to a care level two facility. That left Williamsburg or Edgefield. I was hoping they’d drive me clear out of the Southeast Region on back to the Mid-Atlantic, my home region. I was wishing for F.C.I-Butner in North Carolina or F.C.I-Petersburg in Virginia.
Shortly thereafter I saw a “Welcome to South Carolina” sign, state motto: While I Breathe I Hope. I nodded my agreement with the sentiment. That was my first time riding in a car in over 12 years, I’d only rode in vans and busses, it was disconcerting. I kept feeling that the guy was driving too fast. I peeked over his shoulder once and saw that he was doing 90. The Fusion hybrid was having trouble keeping pace and Big White Dude radioed that he must be driving on electricity alone because the car wouldn’t accelerate fast enough. I got tired and took a nap.
I snapped to attention when I felt the Impala braking hard thinking they were about to try that Shawshank shit. I saw that it was a traffic jam and dozed back off.
I awoke as we exited I-95 knowing I hadn’t slept very long. The lieutenant asked the driver, “How much longer we got?”
“Maybe a half hour,” he replied.
The lieutenant pulled out his phone and called who I assumed to be his wife. He told her what time to expect him home and the crazy driver had made the “four hour drive in three hours.”
We passed a bunch of fields, farms, tractors and country homes before pulling onto the Williamsburg complex. We made a left onto a lane where a Black man sat outside of a trailer. He got up and flagged the car to a stop. He asked the driver to roll all the windows down. He stopped at each window to take our temperatures with a laser thermometer.
The lieutenant told him, “The guy in the car behind us has a big ass head. You won’t even have to lean in to take his temperature. Once he rolls the window down his head will fall out of the car.” They laughed and chuckled it up for a while.
We drove off and pulled up to the front lobby of F.C.I. Williamsburg. In front of the building was a row of palm trees, possibly Hollywood palms but they looked sick and nothing like the ones at Jesup, painted white halfway up the trunks. The lieutenant exited our car and walked into the lobby.
He came back accompanied by two lieutenants. They both wore white shirts, poke proof vests and eyeglasses. The larger of the two had a belly hanging over his belt buckle, and his vest struggled to cover his girth. Halfway to the car they stopped walking and stood there talking. As they spoke the larger one leered through the rear passenger window at me.
Big White Dude in the Ford Fusion got out of the car and walked over to the Impala. Another white car pulled to a stop about twenty feet from the Impala. The driver stepped out and held an M-16 across his chest. The driver exited the Impala. As the lieutenant continued to stare at me, I could sense he was as racist as the electoral college’s foundation, as racist as Storm Thurmond, as racist as Linsey Graham Cracker. As the driver and Big White Dude stood outside of the rear driver’s side door,the three lieutenants approached the vehicle and walked around to my door.
The lieutenant from Jesup opened the door, reached in and unbuckled my seat belt. He said to me, “Alright, you can come on out.”
“On this side?” I asked. “That’s going to be difficult.”
“You’re right.” He closed the door and told the other officers.
Big White Dude and the smaller lieutenant from Williamsburg walked to the rear passenger door and told the other officers I had to come out on the passenger side.
Big White Dude and the smaller lieutenant from Williamsburg walked to the rear passenger side door. Big White Dude opened it and said, “Come on and slide across.”
I slid out the way I’d gotten into the car placing both feet on the ground before standing to my full five-fifths. Electoral College attempted to stare daggers into me. I looked right back at him.
The irony of my situation wasn’t lost on me. As I stood there in manacles and shackles, I thought of the many people who looked like me, long before me, that arrived on a plantation somewhere in South Carolina surrounded by armed white men they didn’t know. This was the state which imported the most slaves per capita. More African slaves than white people. One hundred and fifty-five years later I arrived at a plantation, my seventh plantation–Bruceton Mills, West Virginia; Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; Oakdale, Louisiana; Pine Knot, Kentucky; Glenville, West Virginia; Jesup, Georgia; now Salters, South Carolina–the exact same way.
As my open enemy and I stared holes into one another, he looked down at the stack of papers in his hand then back up at me and asked, “Are we going to be alright?”
“I would hope so,” I answered.
He looked back down to the papers in his hand and said, “You have a shitload of seps.”
I asked, “Are any of them here?”
“No,” he responded.
I continued clipping his response, “Because me and my separations can walk the same yard.”
I was ducking nothing. Big White Dude was at my left, the smaller lieutenant from Williamsburg to my right, Electoral College out in front of me, and the lieutenant from Jesup brought up the rear as we entered the front lobby of F.C.I. Williamsburg. Mounted to the wall, from the same two photographs the Executioner-In-Chief and his personal Attorney General tracked my progress.
Approaching master control, a nurse in full PPE rushing through a side entrance yelled, “Take him back out, now!”
As we turned and walked out, Electoral College asked, “Where do you want us to take him?”
She answered, “Take him to the bathroom in the break room!”
Entering the break room the three of us, Big White Dude, the smaller lieutenant and myself, stepped into a staff restroom. The nurse followed us in. She pulled my mask off and without warning she put a rapid test up both nostrils so deep that I teared up.
“Damn!” I said, exasperated.
As she turned to leave, Electoral College, standing outside of the bathroom door, asked, “Can we take him in now?”
“How long will it be?”
“I’ll call you in 15 minutes or so.”
Standing there waiting I turned my head, looked at the toilet and asked if I could take a piss.
“Not here,” Electoral College answered.
Of course not here, I have to use the coloreds-only facilities I thought to myself. I was tempted to ask if he was Dylan Roof’s father, but better judgement prevailed. I listened to the four of them kick the shit like inmates, talking about how many years they had to go.
I turned to Big White Dude and said, “You know I’ll never forget you, right?”
He looked at me with his eyes open wide unable to hide his guilt. “Why’s that?” he asked.
“From when you took down the buttnaked bandit.”
The lieutenant from Jesup looked into the restroom and said, “Man, they’re still talking about that?”
He and Big White Dude both laughed. The lieutenant explained to the two clueless Williamsburg lieutenants that the buttnaked bandit was an inmate at Jesup who’d strip off his clothes and run around the compound.
The nurse radioed Electoral College and said I was clear to come in.
For the second time we approached master control. A Black woman inside the bubble asked my name, register number and social security number. After confirming I was me, the lieutenant from Jesup removed my mask, pulled a digital camera from his pocket and took a picture of me. The slider was opened and we walked out the back door of the front lobby. We crossed an asphalt driving path and entered the back door of R&D. There we were greeted by a slim Puerto Rican officer.
He said to the police escorting me, “The computers are down I can’t do anything, but take a paper fingerprint.”
They walked me to the end of a long desk. The Puerto Rican guy got out a fingerprint card, placed my right thumb on an inkstrip and rolled it onto the right thumbprint section of the card. He passed me an inkpen and I fought the waist chain to scratch out an illegible signature at the bottom of the card.
As they stood there talking I listened to the radio traffic and heard Food Services sending out trays to the housing units. I asked Electoral College, “Are they going to have a tray for me when I get to the SHU?
“They’ll have one for you”
“Are you sure? I wasn’t on their count. Can you check?”
“They’ll have something for you.”
The four officers took me inside a large bullpen. I walked to the toilet to take a piss.
Electoral College said, “Hold up, Baldwin.”
“What’s up?” I said.
“Let us get your shackles off.” I walked back over to them and positioned myself knees down on the cement bench. After the shackles were removed I stood up to start back to the toilet.
“Hold up, Baldwin, let me say something to you real quick,” said Electoral College.
“Man, what’s up?!” I asked already knowing what was coming.
“I’m the S.R. One Lieutenant…” as he spoke I was left wondering what the fuck an S.R. One lieutenant was. I played with the lettering in my mind. S-R-1? S-R-O-N-E? Supremacy Reigns Over Nearly Everyone. “What happened at Jesup, happened at Jesup. Here if you have something coming you’re going to get it. But I want you to know, if you fuck with my officers, and I know the ones to do it and get away with it, if you fuck with my officers, we’re going to fuck you up. I mean it, we are going to fuck you up. Now, I’m telling you don’t push that button in the cell unless it’s a medical emergency…” As he spoke, I’m sizing him up knowing damn well this devil, fat tub of lard, Porky Pig looking muthafucka, couldn’t do a thing with me. He’s another one that knows he ain’t shit without his homeboys. “…if you need anything ask the officer doing rounds. If they don’t get it, I’ll be around Thursday-Sunday, everyday, you let me know, alright?”
Disgusted I stared at him for a few moments for a few ticks before saying, “I don’t know what that was about, but whatever.”
“I’m going to have them bring your SHU clothes down here. What are your sizes?” I gave him my sizes and he said, “Let us take your cuff and that chain off.”
He placed a second pair of cuffs on my wrist and unhooked everything. Big Whie Dude placed everything back into the three-piece briefcase. They all stepped out of the cell, locked the door and popped the slot. I reached through and the cuffs were removed. The Jesup officers exchanged handshakes and left.
I began removing all of my clothes. The Puerto Rican guy told the remaining lieutenants, “He’s taking off his clothes.”
The smaller lieutenant came to the window and said, “Hold on Baldwin.”
I kept removing my clothes while he watched. I stepped back, opened my mouth, pulled my bottom lip down and my top lip up, lifted my tongue, moved it around, pulled my ears down, ran my fingers through my beard, raised my arms, held my hands out, turned them over, spread my fingers, lifted my penis, lifted my balls, turned around, showed him the soles of my feet, squatted, coughed, then went to take a piss.
When I was done he asked me to pass all my clothes out through the slot. He asked me for the mask I was wearing and the Jackie Chan’s. He handed me my SHU clothing and a new mask. I got dressed.
Two SHU officers had come to escort me. Along with the smaller lieutenant, we exited the backdoor of R&D, walked though a few patches of grass and entered a backdoor into medical. We walked down a dimly lit corridor and entered the SHU through a side entrance. I was put into a holding cell and uncuffed.
Across from the cell was a Paisa, who told me about Williamsburg. He said, “There isn’t a bit of money here, but they’re opening a Unicor in January. The food is pretty good, too.”
I told him where I’d come from and why. He told me he was in the SHU because two Cubans had beat him with locks. He’s just gotten back from an outside hospital.
I stopped a Black officer and asked him about food.
“They didn’t feed you?”
I told him that I hadn’t eaten all day. He said there was no food left over for me but that he’s call Food Services for a tray. He came back a while later to let me know that one of the Food Service officers would drop a tray off on her way home.
A half hour later a tray of baked ziti was brought to me. I ate and the officer returned to tell me that the SHU was all filled up and they had to find a cell for me. He told the Piasa that he had to go into Covid-19 quarantine because he’d left the institution.
I waited another hour before a white C.O. came to me and said, “We have a cell for you but it’s kinda funky, you’ll have to clean it.”
“So long as there isn’t shit or something on the walls.”
“There’s no shit.”
“Okay,” I responded.
Along with the Black officer who’d ordered the food, he cuffed me and pulled me from the cell. As we walked the white officer commented again about how “funky” the cell was.
“It isn’t shit, it is?” I asked him.
“No. It’s not shit. It’s a hard cell though.”
“Hardcell? You mean like a restraint cell?”
He answered, “Yeah, but you aren’t going in restraints. You just have to stay there until Monday when we’re able to do SHU releases.”
We arrived at the gate to the range where another white officer unlocked the door. We stepped onto the range and stopped at the very first cell. The door was already opened and they herded me into it. I was struck by a piss odor that caused my head to snap back. It smelled like an East Baltimore alley.
I stopped walking, faced the wall and said, “Fuck nah! Man, I’m not staying in here.”
The Black officer said, “Please don’t do this.”
The white officer said cheerily, “We have cleaning supplies for you.”
“Cleaning supplies? Man that’s bodily fluids. You are supposed to get a hazmat team that will dress in the proper gear to come clean this. The same people who handle blood spills.”
The white officer, “Do you want us to get you gloves?”
“Gloves? No. I don’t want gloves. I’m not cleaning it. I’m not trained to clean it. Y’all can take me back to R&D, I’ll sleep in bullpen.”
“We don’t have any officers to watch you in R&D,” the Black officer said.
The white cop at the gate said, “What’s the matter? Does he want gloves or something?”
The Black officer said, “No. It smells like piss in here. He says he doesn’t want to stay in here.”
The turnkey at the gate said, “Okay, just step out and close the door for a second.”
“Man,” I said. “What, I look stupid? Y’all ain’t getting me like that.”
The guy at the gate said, “Baldwin, just for a second. I’m not trying to get you with the okey-doke. Let them leave out, for a second.”
I chill. They step out and lock the door behind them. The man at the gate tells them, “Go look in the cell next door. Is there anyone in there?”
“No,” one of them answers.
“Open the door,” one of them opened it. “Does it smell like piss?”
“No,” one of them answers again.”
“Flush the toilet and run the water to make sure everything is working.”
I hear the toilet flush. “Is everything working?”
“Yes,” one of them answers. “Put him in there.”
They move me to that cell, another hard cell. After they close the door, pop the slot and uncuff me and pass me a spray bottle, with disinfectant inside, and some cleaning rags through, I looked around at the cell. There was a cement slab with a mattress on top of it, a sink and tablet. Unlike normal cells in the SHU there was no shower. I cleaned everything, the walls, the floor, the concrete slab, the steel fixtures that a restrained inmate is handcuffed and shackled to, the toilet, the sink and the cell door.
Done cleaning, I announced my presence to the tier. “Attention on the range! Attention on the range! My name is Tay. I’m from Baltimore. I came here Trans-Seg from Jesup, today. I’m down here in the hard cell. I just wanted to let all the good men know I’m here.”
There was a knock on the wall from next door. “Yo, Tay, you said you’re from Baltimore?”
“I used to live in Baltimore when I was younger.”
“Yeah on East Pratt Street in Flag House Projects.”
“That’s not too far from me. How old are you?”
“I’m 39 also.”
“I used to go to Lombard Middle School. Somebody got killed in front of our building and I was standing there looking. My mother moved us back to the country the next week.”
“Where are you from?”
“Where at in North Carolina?”
“Man, that’s where my family is from. My grandmother came to Baltimore from there. Do you know any Langston’s?”
“I know all the Langston’s. Boris, Mista, Tina, Tasha, Kenya. Matta fact I got a baby from one of your cousins but her last name ain’t Langston. She a Langston, though. One of you cousins play for the Seattle Seahawks right now!”
“I heard. My mother told me that during the playoffs last season.”
“My name is Dimo. Are you coming to the compound?”
“I don’t know I have to see what they’re going to do with me. I’m still a Jesup inmate, right now.”
“If you come out there, find me. I have a whole bunch of pictures of your family.”
“Bet it up. Peace, Brother.”
There was a call from further down the range. “Aye yo, Tay.”
“My name is Will. I’m from New York, ya heard.”
“You said you just came from Jes-sup!?”
“The low or the medium?”
“Did you know a Blood from the Bronx named Frank White?”
“Tall dark skinned brother. Yeah I know him. We were in the same unit.”
“That’s my man!”
“He was a cool brother.”
“Aye, I just was in Yazoo Low. Do you know you homie Goose?”
“Sherman, yeah, we went through the supermax at the same time.”
“Yeah I used to go to school in Baltimore, too.”
“Yeah what year did you go?”
“I started in 2008.”
“Do you know Archie?”
“The barber. Yeah, that’s my man. He’s from New York, too.”
“That’s the good brother. We’d hang out from time to time. He’s a spoken word artist. Archie The Messenger.”
“I didn’t know that but he spit a rap for me before. He had the apartment on list with the guy umm…ummm…”
“Yeah, Rah. You know your shit!”
“Will, do you know Guy?”
“Derrick Grear. Yeah, where is he at?”
“He’s on my texting service but he should be home. The last I heard from him he was waiting for the halfway house at Yazoo Medium.”
“Damn, if you hear him tell him to get at me.”
“No doubt, Peace Brother.”
When we were done talking another came from further down the range.
“Were you ever in West Virginia?”
“Yeah, I’ve been in U.S.P. Hazelton and F.C.I. Gilmer.”
“What years were you in Gilmer?”
“I was there from April 2015 to October of 2018.”
“What unit were you in?”
“I was in B-4. What’s up?”
“Tay, this is you old cellie, Mousey from Richmond.”
“Mousey, aww damn Mousey. How you doing, Brother?”
“I knew that was you when you told Dino and Will ‘Peace, Brother.’””
“Ha-ha,” I laughed.
“I’m alright, Tay,” Mousey said.
“How’s you grandmother, Mousey?”
“Man, she’s doing good. Still doing her Jehovah’s Witness thing. You know after you took me to the Nation service I called her and told her I was Nation.”
“For real?” Was she upset?
“Man, I’d been fucking up so long she was just happy I was doing something different.”
“That’s alright, Brother. I know you’re getting short. How much longer before you go?”
“I’ve got two more years now. You know I’ve been gone for 18?”
“Don’t I know it. You’re 36, right?”
“Are you going back to Richmond?”
“Hell no! I’m going to Charlotte with my mother. Me and Moms good now. She got herself together. I’ll slide though Richmond to check up on grandma, but I can’t go back there. Fuck, nah!”
“That’s what’s up.”
“After they do the next round I’m going to send you some paper, envelopes, something to write with and some stamps down there.”
“Cool, Mousey. Thank you.”
“I know you’d do it for me.”
“No doubt. Peace, Mousey.”
“Peace, Big Brother.”
Dear reader, yes #PrisonsKill, and they do it myriad ways. They’ll try to break your bones, break your windpipe, break your heart, break your mind, break your comfort, break your dreams and break your spirit. First, they label you. They’ve labeled me Security Threat Group, Post Picture File, High Accountability Inmate, Black Lives Matter, Black Panther, in their last attempt at labeling me they investigated whether I was involved in Antifa. They’ll label me anything but what I am. I AM A MAN. I won’t forget my strength.
While I breathe, I hope.
By Tamar Malik