Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

My first time in the Florida Department of Corrections was by far the worst of all my time in prison. Columbia Correctional Institution, where I did three and a half years of a four-year sentence, was just like what you see on reality TV shows like “Lockdown” and “Oz.” It was there that I witnessed my first murders and suicides, and my first glimpse at true hopelessness. It was there that I saw convicts who had embraced a ‘don’t give a fuck” mentality — people with nothing to look forward to and nothing to live for, and who act accordingly.

During that period, the most dangerous times for me mentally and physically seemed to be when I was sentenced to disciplinary confinement, also known as “Slam” or “The Box.” It wasn’t that I had provoked an altercation, but I always ended up bumpin’ it out with my bunky. If you lock two people with conflicting personalities who are not particularly content with their current situation in a concrete room together with no privacy and one toilet, it tends to spark tension, to put it mildly. Then, when something happens, there is no one to stop the fight, be the voice of reason, or to say when someone’s had enough.

Up until this stint, I thought I’d seen just how gritty it could get in prison. I’ve seen guys’ heads split open with combination locks or stabbed with handmade plexiglass swords. But nothing I had seen to this point compared to what I witnessed while in Slam this time. Things get real when you’re locked in a cell and left to your own devices with someone you just don’t like. 

I had been in confinement approximately 25 days of a 60-day sentence when it happened. On the evening in question, I was reading a Wilbur Smith novel, the only book I had available. My bunky, a young fellow who called himself Future, was standing at the door. 

He was busy watching for correctional officers to walk by and do their security checks, so he could get on his pipe and call his girlfriend. Pipe is a slang term for cell phone. He would shove it up his butt no less than three times a day, an event that forced me to stand at the door as a lookout so he wouldn’t get us both hemmed up with an additional 60 days for yet another cell phone charge. 

After some time he turns to me and says, “Damn, dem downstairs in da corner be goin’ ham.” He was referring to two inmates fighting. Taking a peek out of the little slit plexiglass window in our door, I looked down to see two guys pit fighting each other viciously, their bodies coming into view occasionally through their little slit plexiglass window.

We had no trouble hearing them beat the living shit out of each other as their bodies slammed and bounced rag doll style on the walls and door of their cell. The ruckus reached such a pitch that the other inmates on the block started mule kicking their doors in an attempt to get the authorities to quell the situation — not because they cared about the two combatants, but because their incessant body bashing was inhibiting their sleep. Finally, the noise drew the attention of a sergeant who looked in on the mayhem and did nothing but tell them to knock it off. Eventually, he turned tail to go alert the captain on duty. 

By the time “Captain Come Lately” arrived, the two had been fighting for at least a quarter of an hour, maybe more. It’s hard to tell the time in the Box because there is no clock, the windows are frosted over, and the lights are always on. 

After some choice verbal warnings, the captain gave instructions to his sergeant to unlock the feed flap in their door and unleash an entire can of the caustic spray that is unofficially known as “Black Jesus.” I’ve been hit with it before and although it is a religious experience, it is not holy. It is of the fucking Devil. 

After the fumes dissipated a little, the Captain ordered his underling to extract the two inmates. One after the other they placed their hands behind their backs to get cuffed up through the feed flap then the door was rolled open. I did not expect to see what came out of that cell. 

The sergeant walked in the open door and emerged with a handcuffed inmate of normal size and build. I was expecting Goliath the Breaker. He looked no worse for wear aside from the fact that he’d obviously been fighting bare-knuckled. As I looked closer I noticed he had an inordinate amount of blood dripping from his lower lip, covering his chin and chest. I came to find out it wasn’t his blood. 

The sergeant removed the other handcuffed inmate and he looked much like his friend. He had an orange tint covering his whole body, a result of the gas. He was also missing his entire right cheek! Not the part located under the eye, but the part that covered his teeth and gums. A 4-inch by 3-inch swatch of this guy’s face had been bitten and ripped off completely off his face. All his dental work was exposed. 

The captain donned rubber gloves and went into the cell, emerging with Buddy’s face flap, shaking it comically like a cold cut in the face of a dog that wasn’t there. I wondered if he regretted his career in corrections. I said to myself, “Be glad that that wasn’t you. And be glad you never have to see something like that again.” I was completely correct, about the first, 100% wrong as to the second. I just didn’t know it at the time.

Flash forward almost ten years. I’m back in prison doing my second bid, this time for five years at Graceville Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility. I had just been moved to a different quad. I had tested positive for COVID-19 and they were stumbling to quarantine as quickly as possible. 

This dorm housed a guy who simply went by Bud, and Bud was crazy. One morning in the milk line, a fight erupted between him and another guy called Jitter Bug. Not many words were exchanged before they were tied up together fighting. It appeared that Bud was whispering sweet nothings into Jit’s ear, but what he was actually doing was chewing Jitter Bug’s ear off. 

Correction officers rushed in and separated them. As they came apart, Bud spit the ear, or what remained of it, at Jitter Bug’s chest where it fell silently to the ground at his feet, earning Bud the nickname “White Tyson.”

Bud went into the Box, and Jitter Bug was shipped to the closest available hospital to reattach his ear, which, as it turned out, was too damaged. Interesting epilogue: Jitter Bug returned to the compound where only a few weeks later he lost his finger, not by getting it severed in somebody’s mouth, but by leaving it between the door and the frame while a guard was closing up the cells for count time.

After all was said and done, things returned to “regularly scheduled programming.” I wondered what was to become of Bud. Was he being sent to C.M. (Close Management), the Box for guys who are already in the Box? Would they charge him with the maiming of a fellow human? 

One day, I looked out on the Yard, and there he was. His punishment was one week. One week in the Box! That’s how backward it can get in here. I’ve seen play fighting carry a 60-day sentence, but have seen a real deal fight only carry a 30-day sentence. Removing pieces of flesh or entire body parts seems to only constitute a week. 

I was in Columbia Correctional Institution from 2010 to 2014. In that time, I spent a total of 90 days in Slam. I was in two fights in the Box and six on the compound. The fights cost me a total of eight teeth. Four months before I went home, a 45-pound locker was dropped on my head, causing a brain bleed and six days in the infirmary. I didn’t fear much after that place. I was never more scared than when I was there. 

Here at Graceville, things are so far so good. But my guard remains up, my eyes peeled. Wish me luck. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Calen "Wolf" Whidden

Calen "Wolf" Whidden is a writer incarcerated in Florida.