EVEN THOUGH I'VE GOT the required tattoo-the one that says DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR-and I've been in and out of the required institutions since I was nine years old, the simple truth is that I've lost my nerve and I can't go back. The tattoo was applied with India ink and the sharpened tine of a dining hall fork. I was in the baby jail on Rikers Island at the time, trying so hard to impress the few white boys in my housing area, that I believed my own advertising.
That's the trick, of course. If you mean to survive in the Institution without giving up your soul, you have to believe that you're ready to kill at any moment. The myth goes like this-if the other cons think I'm willing to kill (or die) for what's mine, they'll leave me alone. If they think I'm soft, they'll suck out the last drop of my blood. All prisoners subscribe to this myth, even the ones who give up that last drop. Even the snitches.
It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. With no money, no friends on the outside, no one coming to visit, now or ever, what else have we got except the belief that there's some value in never taking a backward step?
I was in my cell. Eight days before I was scheduled to go out on parole. The cell block was in a lockdown because a Rican he-she named Angel had shanked his husband, Pito, with a filed-down plastic toothbrush. It wasn't much of a cut and rumor had it the two would make up as soon as the hacks let Angel out of the box. Meanwhile, it was every con in his cell while the Squad went through the usual bullshit shakedown. As if they didn't know we'd dumped our weapons and our contraband as soon as Pito began to yell.
The Squad came onto the block about ten minutes after the stabbing. They wore black padded vests and black helmets with plastic face shields-a platoon of Darth Vaders accountable only to the warden. In the minds of the corrections officers, fear of the Squad was all that stood between them and the convicts.
But on this particular day the Squad seemed as bored as we were. Angel and Pito had been removed by the time they came pounding onto the block and the cons had gone back into their cells without being ordered. Still, the Squad went by the book. They called us out, one at a time, for questioning, while the corrections officer in charge of our block tossed the cells, scattering our possessions.
"I didn't see nothin', boss. I was in my cell when it happened." No expression of concern on my face, though I could end up in the infirmary for a cocky smile imagined by a paranoid CO.
A deputy warden named Maason wrote down every word I said, nodding as he went along. Everybody knew that Pito loved to kick his sissy's ass. The stabbing was Angel's way of telling Pito where the line was-part of a prison ritual so boring it made time into God. Angel wasn't trying to kill Pito. If Pito died, Angel would have to find someone just like him. That or become a prison whore, which in the age of AIDS means certain death.
The dep grunted and sent me back to my home-a one-man cell on the only block in the Cortlandt Correctional Facility that wasn't given over to housing areas twice the size of basketball courts. It took me five years to get that cell. I put myself on a waiting list when I came through the gates and paid ten cartons of Kools to the posse who controlled the block when my turn came up. Of course, I could have bought a cell at any time, but the going price for new fish was a thousand dollars cash. Which is why my neighbors were wise guys or big-time Colombian dealers like Pito or embezzlers with enough brains not to show fear.
The Squad left after the dep finished his investigation, but the lock-down would continue through the night. Baloney sandwiches in the cell, no gym, no yard. In a Max A institution like Cortlandt, withdrawal of privileges was a routine punishment, even for those who hadn't participated in the infractio