Photo by Pierre F. Lombard (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I am a barber, or to be precise, I am the Black barber. There are 1,000 men in this section of prison, where there are four barbers: a Black one, White one, a Mexican one and a fourth for the others. The barbers accommodate every prisoner’s personal grooming needs. 

One day, I was giving someone a haircut while four other men waited for their turn. Of course, all of them were Black.  As I was cutting my client’s hair, an officer suddenly approached me and pulled me aside. 

He spoke so low that it was close to a whisper. 

“I got an inmate coming over from the clinic. He’s moving into this building, cell 110. Two inmates decided to jump him today, and now he has a black eye and a busted lip. The guys who jumped him were two young, White inmates.”

He continued: “The (victim) is White, an old man, 74 years old. He was living in 5 Block and supposedly wouldn’t take a shower, so the two other inmates took it upon themselves to jump him and toss him in the shower, fully clothed. We have put both of them in the hole for aggravated battery, sent him to medical, and now he’s on the way to this building. I’m gonna let you know right now that nobody better lay a hand on him!”

Questions swirled around in my mind. Prison is  — sad to say — a separatist affair, especially across racial lines. There is an unwritten rule to “take care of your own,” so why was the officer asking me, the Black barber, to help a White guy? Why didn’t he ask the White barber? 

The officer then said, “Everybody respects you. You know the run of this place. Nobody would dare cross you, so I am bringing this to you. I need you to cut his hair, clean him up for me.” 

From the way he spoke, it felt like more of an order than a request, but I got the picture.

“Does he have soap? Clothes? Property?” I asked.

The officer replied, “I’ll get him fresh clothes and they are bringing his property over as we speak. I can see the look on your face, Mr. Hart, but I need it done!” 

I nodded, and the officer walked off. I informed the other fellas that the shop would be closed for the next hour because I had to do something for the officer.

One of the guys spoke up, “I overheard some of what was said, and you mean to tell me that you are cutting a White dude’s hair with the Black clippers?” 

I rolled the clippers around in my hand and replied, “These clippers ain’t Black or White. They’re just clippers, and if you got a problem with it, find somebody else to cut your hair ‘cause I already let the officer know that I would do it so that’s what I’m gonna do!”

The guy who spoke walked away, but the others stayed in their seats, probably out of curiosity or because an hour of prison time was actually not that long, and they didn’t have anything better to do. 

As I waited for my upcoming appointment, I cleaned my barber tools and swept the area. 

After a bit of time, an elderly, thin White man walked in. He had clear green eyes, long hair and a scraggly beard. His hair and clothes were damp, likely because he was thrown in the shower earlier. His left eye was swollen shut and was developing a purplish hue. His bottom lip was split. The officer from earlier accompanied him. 

“Go on over there old timer, Mr. Hart is gonna clean you up!” the officer said.

The man hobbled over.

As soon as he sat down, I was hit with a strong odor. This man smelled like a wild animal and was in desperate need of a bath. 

Despite his scent, I tried my best to complete the task that I was given. I looked him in the eye and introduced myself. I found out that the old man’s name was Gary.

I asked Gary what had happened to him. He explained that some guys told him to take a shower, but when he told them he had no soap, shower shoes or deodorant, one guy socked him in the eye, knocking him to the ground. He recalled another guy joining in on the beating.Together, they dragged him to the shower and turned the water on. 

An idea popped into my mind. I excused myself and went to my cell to retrieve a fresh towel, a pair of my cellie’s boxers that I knew would fit, a bar of Irish Spring soap, a pair of shower shoes, a brand new Speed Stick deodorant, a bottle of shampoo I had been using, five packs of Top Ramen, a pouch of tuna, a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. I put everything in a plastic bag and brought it down to the barber area. I handed Gary the items and pointed him toward the shower. 

“We will find you some clothes by the time you are finished showering and brushing your teeth,” I told him.“You will not get attacked in this building. Nobody will lay a hand on you,” I added.

After a moment, Gary took his new hygiene items with him into the vacant shower. While he showered, other inmates in the building began approaching me, inquiring about the old, beat-up White guy. I explained to them that Gary appeared to be down on his luck, so I had given him a few things. I also mentioned that he needed clean clothes.

Once Gary came out of the shower, he placed all the toiletries I had given him on the table next to the ramen packets and tuna. He sat down in my barber chair, and I resumed cutting his hair. 

As I was working, a strange thing started to happen. One guy walked up and dropped a few more ramen on the table. Shortly after, another guy brought a bag of chips and someone else left a bag of coffee. Then came some clothes, more soap and a bottle of lotion. These gifts were coming from guys doing time, guys who had never met this man in their lives.

As I continued to cut Gary’s hair, tears began streaming down his face as more and more people continued to add their donations to the table until it was completely covered with gifts.

Towards the end of the procession, a young, White dude came over with a pair of Nike sneakers in his hand. They were used but clean. 

“Try these on, Old Timer,” the young man said. “They should fit, and if so, throw those old boots away.”

I stopped cutting Gary’s hair to let him try on his new shoes. Sure enough, they fit, and his old boots went in the trash. 

By the time I shaved his scraggly beard off, Gary looked like a new man. The officer stepped out of his office, and paused to absorb the scene. He knew he didn’t have to worry about anybody laying a hand on Gary here. He was one of us now. The officer made eye contact with me and mouthed, “I owe you one.” 

As it turned out, Gary ended up being a great asset to the building. He turned out to be  an artist and drew top-of-the-line cards for every occasion. Whether it was for a birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Easter, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day or any other special occasion, Gary never failed to make the most beautiful, one-of-a-kind cards.

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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Walter Hart

Walter Hart is a writer incarcerated in California.