There was a bestial savagery to the beating, unsettling and primal, yet I couldn’t look away. My stomach twisted, turned, and churned as his fist smashed the man’s head and blood began to flow. Still, I remained transfixed.
My cellie Torrez and I had been together for nearly six months and had easily managed to fall into a comfortable routine of ignoring each other. We got along fine and would talk from time to time, but we didn’t feel the need to yack at each other all hours of the day. Having a cellie who appreciates the sounds of silence, especially first thing in the morning, is rare and something of a blessing.
Our shared morning ritual had evolved naturally, wordlessly, without any need for lengthy discussion or course correction. When the chuck hole was slammed open, we would both wake up, he would climb down from the top bunk and sit on the stool placed at the end of the bed to receive the breakfast trays, while all I had to do was achieve a seated position. Torrez would hand me my tray and allotted juice and milk. Then we would eat in silence, return the empty trays to the chuck hole, and he would climb back up top for a few more hours of sleep while I silently went about my own personal morning ritual. It was a perfectly designed arrangement, mostly because it happened without the need for design or arrangement.
One morning when I awoke with the slam of the chuck hole and didn’t hear the usual sounds of Torrez moving above me, I sat up to check on him. He was still out like a light. I thought about waking him, but decided to give him a few extra minutes of rest as the breakfast porters took their sweet time delivering the trays. After relieving my swollen bladder, I took my cellie’s accustomed spot on the plastic stool and hunched over so my face was level with the chuck hole, and I could easily track my food’s progress. The porter had just given trays to cell number two. I was in cell eighteen; I had a while to wait.
From my perch, I could look into cell five, right across from me. When I did, I saw Sol—the man who occupied the bottom bunk of that cell. I couldn’t help but shake my head. Sol had only been in that cell for a couple weeks, but had already gone through six cellies because he’d treated each one of them until they decided to walk themselves. Since he had the physique and mentality of a deranged mountain gorilla, I couldn’t blame them for refusing housing. I was grateful that I hadn’t been placed in the cell with him. Sol was constantly loud, aggressive, and confrontational. With arms as big as the average man’s thighs, shoulders like boulders, and huge, scarred hands, he seemed to be built for brutality. Add to that the constant mean mug that seemed to be his default setting, and he was all kinds of intimidating. I shook my head again and wondered to myself why people felt the need to behave like that.
The porters passed cell five, and I stopped being a voyeur for a moment. I rubbed my hands across my face, trying to wake up a little more, before staring blankly at the floor as I awaited my breakfast. My attention was caught by words that were unintelligible, but harsh and clearly angry. I looked across at cell five in time to see Sol looking up at his cellie, making violent gestures at the tray in his hand and his cellie’s legs that were hanging over the end of the bed. I distinctly heard Sol say, “So you just gonna hang your feet over my food?” Once again I shook my head in derision, wondering this time why people couldn’t just learn to get along. Some simply appeared to be predisposed to violence.
As I watched—and quick as a blink—Sol dropped his Lunchables tray, grabbed the legs that appeared to be so grievously offending him, and pulled his cellie bodily from the top bunk before flinging him easily to the floor in front of the door. His head was just at the level of the chuck hole. I saw Sol’s huge fist smash into his cellie’s nose and the immediate splash of blood to color the morning. The force sent his cellie’s head out of my sightline, but I could see Sol’s heavy right hand hammering down.
I heard the impact of fist on face, and then the rattle of the steel door as the victim’s head rebounded off of it. His hands rose feebly in defense; I saw them flail uselessly, as if they’d become broken at the wrists. Sol brushed them aside easily with his left hand as his right continued to pound like a piston on his cellie’s unprotected head and face. Meanwhile, a constant stream of obscenities flowed from his throat like a guttural incantation. After a couple dozen vicious impacts, he finally stopped, heaving in a few huge breaths before screaming, “Stay down, bitch!”
He seemed calm as he turned and sat on the bunk. I could see blood seeping out from under the cell door, then I saw the shadows of movements as Sol’s injured cellie attempted to stand. “I didn’t say you could get up!” This came from the gorilla-sized Sol, and once again he was on the attack—slamming fist into face with sick, wet sounds of impact, the force of each bouncing his cellie’s head into the door like some kind of perverse pinball. Again and again and again. It was merciless, and he didn’t seem to tire of it. Eventually, after his victim stopped moving, Sol sat on his bunk. From my vantage point, Sol’s eyes seemed vacant, void of feeling, inhuman.
A C/O finally arrived to break up the one-sided pummeling after the damage was done. He ordered Sol to stay on the bunk and called on his radio for help. Though he was blocking my view, I heard the telltale sounds of a punch and a head ricocheting off the door. Even over the yelled orders of the C/O, I could hear these unmistakable sounds of violence. After Sol finally obeyed and sat on the bunk again, the C/O violated regulations twice—first by opening the cell door before securing the inmates within, and then by doing so without other officers there for support. I believe he did so because he didn’t want a murder on his hands.
The C/O pulled Sol’s cellie out hurriedly by one arm and slammed the door just as two other officers were jogging up. They helped handle the unmoving body, half-carrying and half-dragging it away. I saw a lump over the cellie’s left eye that had already swelled to the size of a baseball; his face was a bloody mask. Then he was gone. I sat there, feeling terrified and sick to my stomach over the display of undistilled violence. I’d lost all appetite for breakfast.
A couple of hours later, seven C/Os and two lieutenants came to walk Sol to Seg. A few hours after that, they brought in lights and cameras and treated the cell like the crime scene it was. I saw where blood had pooled by the door and the irregular spray patterns that decorated the wall and the inside of the door like one of Jackson Pollock’s early works. The IA officers collected their snapshots, packed up both inmates’ property, and left the cell bare, except for the bloodstains. Then they sealed it with a sticker that barred all entry into the cell. It was a full week before porters were sent in with flimsy paper painter’s masks and a bucket of bleach water to scrub away the blood and disinfect the contaminated cell. I never did find out whether or not the inmate died. If he did, I wouldn’t be surprised.