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Photo by Michael & Diane Weidner via Unsplash

On a cold, gloomy day in November of 2002, I was arrested on charges of robbery and murder. I was 28 years old. After being processed and fingerprinted a dozen times, I was moved from one smelly holding tank to the next. Eventually I was stripped of my street clothes, and the pride that went along with wearing them. Through a small slot in a heavy steel door, an officer handed me a pair of dingy boxers and T-shirts.

“Hey, man!” I shouted. “This crap has already been worn!”

“That’s all we got right now,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. He went on to say: “Don’t worry about it. You’ll get used to it.”

I let out a deep sigh of frustration and quickly fired back: “This is some real bullsh— man, and you know it.”

A few minutes later, the same officer handed me a thick red shirt with bold black letters from my county stamped onto it. After putting it on, he handed me a matching pair of red pants. I would later find out that this attire was known as “Double Reds,” given only to the most violent offenders. Not only did these clothes suggest that I was mentally insane, but they required me to be escorted in wait and leg chains whenever I was moved to any section of the jail. I hated those chains.

After being shuffled around to other parts of the jail, I ended up on the fifth floor of the new jail a year later. I was moved due to good behavior. The new jail was an attachment to the older jail, built some time in the 50s or 60s, or so I imagine. I say this because each cell had iron bars, like the ones you see in old movies.

And each set of bars had layers of different color paints, which had chipped away in certain spots — layers that equaled more years than I could probably count. But the new jail was much cleaner, with more sunlight and a better view of the city. This was a big difference compared to the darkness that seemed to enclose the old building I was in. There was something about those iron bars that made me feel more trapped and vulnerable, adding to my deepest fears and anxieties. To make matters worse, I was depressed and still addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Being in the new jail was more like a high school reunion; I ran into cats I hadn’t seen in years. One by one, they filtered in from different neighborhoods. Some were doing one year violations, while others were facing “three strikes” or awaiting trial for crimes that carried life sentences. Then there were those who fell somewhere in between: the staggering drunks, the dope fiends, petty shoplifters and the cut-throats who made a dime however they could. We were all in there together, dealing with the chaos and bracing for the inevitable.

It was around that time that I met Jesse, a Northern Mexican gang member a few years younger than me. His tattoos and fierce determination to function like he did was just a small testament to a commitment he had made years prior — one that normally ended up being noticed by higher affiliates later on in prison.

“Bang! Bang! Bang!” That was the sound of a correctional officer’s flashlight hitting the solid wooden door of my cell. It was barely 8 o’clock in the morning. “What the hell is this?” I asked in a low tone, while trying to gather my senses.

“You’re getting rolled up,” he said. “You’ve got 15 minutes. You’re going to the ‘Hole.’”

“To the Hole? What for?” I shouted back, irritated that I had been blasted out of my sleep. I was annoyed by the thought of being sent back to that dungeon, and only having 15 minutes.

“They’ll tell you when you get there. Pack it up!”

The tone in his voice made it clear that I couldn’t argue my way out of this one; there was no wiggle room. Besides, his six-foot-five frame had a way of making people feel uncomfortable. I briefly entertained the idea of resisting, but it was short lived.

Now, in a hurry to wash my face, brush my teeth and use the bathroom, I gathered up as much stuff as I could. In the process, I ran across a book that belonged to Jesse — the northern Mexican gang member I mentioned earlier. I had sold it to him, but I was still reading it. Up to this point, a year in the county jail hadn’t taught me anything. I was still entrenched in criminal thinking; I didn’t see anything wrong with lying, stealing, cheating and depriving people of their property. As a result, instead of giving Jesse back his book, I sold it to someone else. “I’ll never see that sucka again,” I thought to myself, while being escorted out of my unit in handcuffs.

After a brief trip to the hold for a couple months, I was sent back to the new jail. This time I was on the 6th floor, but so was Jesse. I hadn’t even been there a week before he recognized me one day near the shower.

“Say, homie,” he said, aggressively and with piercing eyes that seemed to only be focused on me. “That was some pretty foul sh— you pulled when you left, homie.”

I tried playing it off with a silly smirk.

“What you talkin’ bout, man? I know you ain’t trippin’ bout that book.”

Jessie’s face became more tense; words weren’t going to subdue the emotions and frustrations running through him.

“I need that, homie. Bottom line!” he said. By now, Jesse wasn’t talking about the book. What he was saying was that we had to fight. His clenched fist and posture made that clear. Before I could even respond, he had thrown the first punch — a wild hook that would have caught me something terrible had I not been quick on my feet. I responded with several rapid blows of my own, and a body slam that was heard by a nearby correctional officer. We ended up tussling for another minute or so before being pepper sprayed. Soon after, we were cuffed and taken to the Hole. I had won the battle, but lost the war.

This incident was a critical moment for me in jail. It showed me that people will sometimes be willing to risk their lives with their reputation and honor are on the line. Not only did it show me that there are real consequences for my actions, but also that the world we live in is not as big as we think. From that point on, I made a choice to never take advantage of people. My life is certainly worth more than the cost of that book. Yours is too.

Nearly 20 years have passed since that incident took place, and in that time, I’ve witnessed some of the most brutal attacks, because some people still feel the need to take advantage of others. But from here on out, you have a choice to make, just like I did. 

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.

Bernard (A. Raheem) Ballard is a writer, originally from upstate New York, who is incarcerated in California.