When I first saw him lying there with his eyes open and emptied of all their light, I felt certain he was dead.
I’d been in and out of the building all day—work, healthcare, work, chow, work. Every time I returned to my building, I’d nabbed a telephone and tried to get through to my friend but always without any luck. After I was in for the final time and done for the day, I began walking down the hall toward my cell, but only took three steps before reconsidering. I turned around quickly on my heel and immediately began moving back through the dayroom, making a beeline for the only phone cubicle that wasn’t occupied. Based on my track record for the day, I wasn’t very optimistic about my chances, but I had to try.
I got through! My heart raced ahead of itself, as I was stupendously elated to speak to one of my precious few tethers to the world. The longer I’m incarcerated, the more I’ve come to understand just how important it is to have these connections. Unfortunately my friend’s voice on this occasion sounded like it was coming from a million miles away and filtered through a howling hurricane, so I only caught maybe every tenth or twelfth word. I smashed the receiver painfully into one ear while jamming my index finger up to the first knuckle into my other ear in an effort to block all the background noise whirling around me. Even with ambient noise squelched, it only served to make the garbled voice come in with more volume but still the same amount of insufficient clarity. I grunted out sporadic affirmative vocalizations—ahuh, yeah, yup—but wasn’t able to make much sense of the disjointed, one-sided discussion. My confusion over the conversation only lasted a few short minutes because I quickly had reason to be confused about something completely different.
“GET OFF THE PHONE! NOW!!”
The C/O doing the yelling was only a half dozen paces behind me, and I nearly leapt loose of my skin to skitter away in the wake of his screams. I’d never seen him before, had no type of relationship or rapport with him, and the withering, hateful look he shot my way made it clear that I had somehow unwittingly waltzed myself into a dangerous predicament. I froze and stared dumbly at him; I was caught in the harsh glare of his gaze. When I didn’t move fast enough, the C/O cussed me out thoroughly before questioning my mental acuity and competence. Then he yelled again for me to get off the phone and go to my cell, this time inserting certain choice curse words into his demand.
“I gotta go. Gotta go back to my cell. Something’s happening here. Gotta go, bye. I’ll talk to you…whenever. I don’t know. Bye.” I hated having to leave my friend hanging in uncertainty, not knowing what was going on or if I’d be okay, but didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Once I was off the phone and on my way through the dayroom in the direction of my cell, the C/O I didn’t know turned back toward the hallway opposite mine, presumably to go find someone else to swear at.
There wasn’t a single other inmate in sight. At that time of day, the dayroom and hallways are usually teeming with guys coming in from work and the gym. Most of them are trying to get in the shower. I didn’t know what, but clearly something serious had happened.
C/O Cantos was my five-day officer, and I got along with him well enough. I also knew him to be capable of being strict, or even a crank at times, so I wasn’t sure in which direction his inclinations leaned, especially in the heightened circumstances that had suddenly arisen. As I approached Cantos, I raised my hands above my head and shrugged my shoulders up to my ears while plastering a confused but conciliatory look on my face. The whole act was meant to convey that I was both sorry and that I didn’t know. It worked.
“It’s okay, you didn’t know. Just get to your cell.” He didn’t have to tell me twice, and I actually jogged the final fifteen feet that got me out of the dayroom and into the hallway.
My cell was at the end of the hallway, fifty feet away, and while I had quit my jogging, I kept a quick pace. I could see one C/O standing in front of my door. He was in profile to me and was looking down at the floor in front of him, but the way the hallway angled to the right made it impossible for me to see what he was looking at. Then he looked up at me and stabbed a stubby finger in my direction.
“What are you doing? Where’s your cell?” I pointed past him and was about to pick my speed up a bit more when a flutter of footsteps and jangle of keys from behind me caught my attention, and I had to investigate. With a glance over my shoulder, I saw four lieutenants, one sarge, and three C/Os bearing down on me with no-nonsense looks across each of their faces. “C’mon, straight to your cell. Hurry up.” I turned back forward to see the C/O who was blocking my door waving me in with frantic arm motions like he was some kind of spastic ground control operator guiding an airplane home. With all that authority hot on my heels, I was grateful for the excuse to haul ass. So I did. It wasn’t until I was practically on top of Tall Boy’s supine form that I saw him and reflexively slowed my speedwalk to a crawl to gawk in shock. I finally knew what all the fuss was about.
Tall Boy was tall. Go figure. He was over seven feet but managed to seem even taller as he walked with his back ramrod straight so that his body always appeared to climb to the sky. Despite the latter half of his moniker, Tall Boy was actually quite elderly—closer to seventy than he was to 60—and he used a cane to help him walk. His right leg was the problem, and it was clear that he struggled with the effort to downplay his limp as much as he could, but it was impossible to erase altogether. I suspect his extremely erect posture was born from pride and was his way of overcompensating for the limp. I didn’t know him well, but he’d always come across as a nice old guy. I couldn’t imagine what crime or perceived slight that he may have committed, but he didn’t deserve what was done to him.
Tall Boy’s oversized frame was stretched out on his back, legs splayed to the sides with the toes of his enormous booted feet pointed heavenward. He looked like a statue or monolith that had been toppled in some violent uprising. His eyes were vacated of all recognition and life—only blank, unseeing orbs gazing up at nothing. He wasn’t blinking. Two of the three florescent overhead lights had burnt out leaving the corner area cast mostly in the shadows. An ideal spot to ambush someone.
The blood pooling around Tall Boy’s head was the dark corona of some perverse fallen angel. A C/O had been concealed from my view by the curve of the wall, but I could see him as he stood over the body and held Tall Boy’s cane in his hand. He wore latex gloves and was carefully examining the tool to see if there was any evidence to suggest it could be the murder weapon. Or the attempted murder weapon. As I was hurried into my cell, I feared it would be the former.
Evacuation and Investigation
Nurses came with a flatboard and hauled Tall Boy away. His head was wrapped in a white bandage that had quickly turned red with blood. His feet hung limply off the end of the board. I couldn’t discern any signs that he was alive. C/Os thronged to the building and a shoddy assembly line of sorts was set up. Each inmate was pulled from his cell and stripped by two C/Os who then checked his body for blood, bruises, or any other markings that could be indicative of a struggle. Next came a ramshackle interview conducted by the Internal Affairs lieutenant and an IA C/O. My cellies claimed all they heard was a loud banging sound, and thought maybe someone had dropped their property box. Since I had only just come in from work and then jumped on the phone, I had nothing to contribute to the discussion. Nothing ever came of any of it. No one went to Seg or got in trouble. There were rumors that Tall Boy had died, that he went to a hospital outside prison, and that he had been transferred to another joint. I have no idea what actually happened to him.