It was a lazy Monday afternoon, the hectic frenzy of the first day of the workweek having ebbed to a lethargic pace. Fall was in full swing with a nip in the air bred from northern breezes. As is the popular course of action in these instances, meteorologists all across the dial saw fit to blame Canada.
A line of thirty guys walking two by two trudged quietly to chapel with C/O Snyder leading us like our own personal pied piper. There was no second escort officer bringing up the rear of our movement line as is proper protocol. A clear demonstration of why two C/Os are required was about to begin.
There were two pairs of men behind me, and the last couple in line were talking together in muted tones, so subdued, in fact, that I couldn’t distinguish one word from the next. Oftentimes, guys from different housing units use chapel as a meeting place to keep in touch with their buddies, trade merch, exchange sweet nothings. I attributed their confidential volume to them being friends (possibly with benefits) who sought some semblance of privacy for their conversation. Generally, guys have no sense of decorum, or any type of courtesy whatsoever, and a conversation between two people standing two feet away from each other can usually be heard by guys standing thirty feet away.
Whatever their relationship to one another was, or the topic of their talk, it seemed to change pretty quickly when the taller inmate finally said something I could understand. It was a vehement curse and insult. Then he smacked the shorter guy across the face with an open palm and pushed him into the grass where he stumbled and fell onto his back. The line of men continued to move, largely oblivious to the scuffle.
The initial aggressor collapsed onto his victim with fists flying in a valiant effort at a violent assault, but appeared to connect with nothing more than earth. After clumsily punching the ground half a dozen times, he changed tactics and tried a wrestling move on him. At least I believe that’s what it was meant to be—some type of ill-conceived chokehold that I imagine he saw employed at some time or another when Hulk Hogan was best known for his Wrestlemania showmanship rather than his racist rant.
It didn’t seem to be working, but he kept trying, and we kept walking. The fighters weren’t saying much of anything and most of the rest of the guys walking to church showed no signs that they even knew what was going on. The few of us near the back of the line who were aware of it all bore silent witness to the struggle, with necks kinked backwards and sideways as our feet continued their forward progress.
Somehow the two men rolling around on the ground were doing so unseen by any authority figures. C/O Snyder at the front of our line had a somewhat legitimate excuse because he had reached a junction in the sidewalk which meant that the front portion of the line was essentially forming the short stem of a capital “L,” and the rest of the line blocked C/O Snyder’s view of the fighters. However, this happened in full view of at least four gun towers. Despite this degree of exposure, there was no announcement or warning shot. They just continued on.
The taller one—who had been the main aggressor—abandoned his cockeyed and futile attempt to choke his victim out and seemed to suddenly remember how to fight. He slammed the shorter guy’s head against the ground. The shorter guy lay on his back, dazed, and the taller guy swung his leg over to straddle him, basically sitting on his victim’s chest and pinning him in place. Having grown up with older brothers who were adept in the fine art of torturing younger siblings, I knew full well how helpless the guy on the bottom was.
The taller guy began to swing his fists once again, but this time there was nothing pendulous or cumbersome about it. His target—his victim’s face—was right in front of him and he jabbed at the exposed visage like a slightly twisted and curious kid poking a dead dog with a stick. The man on the ground could do nothing but absorb the impact of each blow against his forehead and cheeks. Finally someone noticed.
“Hey. Hey! Stop that. Don’t do that.” Our movement line had progressed far enough to provide C/O Snyder a clear line of sight to the beating, and this was his response. He sounded like an overtired parent scolding a troublesome, petulant child. Snyder wasn’t a bad guy, but he was clearly out of his element. He was tall and lanky and he moved like he was just out for a leisurely stroll rather than rushing to break up a fight. Snyder wore the perpetually vacuous gaze one might associate with Steinbeck’s Lennie character from Of Mice and Men. (Tell me about the rabbits, George!)
As he walked, Snyder called for help over his radio then stood near the two men and continued to provide mild protests and admonishments to cease their battle. “C’mon guys. Cut it out.” He projected zero confidence or authority, and made no viable effort to separate the two inmates or to physically intervene in any way.
All the men in the movement line had stopped by this point and were turned back around in the direction from where we’d come, openly gawking at the bizarre scene. One inmate beating another senseless while a C/O stood by and griped about it. I took a moment to look around in every direction and there wasn’t a single other person in sight. Not one C/O, inmate, counselor, or any other staff member milling about. C/O Snyder was the sole voice of authority, but he was the epitome of ineffectual. Being practically all alone—unobserved—in the middle of the prison compound provided a strange, surreal sense of vertigo, but we weren’t alone long.
In an instant, the area was flooded by C/Os and white shirts. The administrative building was only twenty yards from where the beatdown was happening—and that’s precisely what it had devolved to. The unfortunate inmate who was pinned to the ground had ceased to put up any kind of defense or show that he was even conscious at all. From the administrative building, a dozen security staff members poured into the area with an even larger number coming from the chow hall opposite and rushing across the field to the scene of the crime.
Lieutenant Waters was the first to arrive, though first only by a fraction of a second. He hit the taller inmate—who was doing all the assaulting—at full speed, collapsing him to the ground like a football special teams player making a spectacular open field tackle. Then it wasn’t football that Lieutenant Waters was playing at, it was calf-roping, as he had the assailant prostrate on his face, cuffed, and subdued in the time it took me to blink.
The matinee of madness was over and the plethora of staff that had responded to it was corralling us toward the chapel with authoritative voices and threats to take us to Seg if we didn’t start moving. We all walked toward our Bible Study and left the bloody scene behind. There was nothing more we could do.