The sound of metal keys banging against the iron bars of the cell door pierced through my sleep, tearing my dream to shreds.
"Wise, get up and get dressed!" The guard's sharp command brought reality crashing down on me. "The warden wants to see you right away!"
"Damn!" I muttered. As I mechanically swung my bare feet onto the cold concrete floor, the previous night's events came slowly back. About 9:30 p.m. a large group of us was crammed into the tiny A-Block shower room laughing and joking about the basketball game we had played earlier in No. 4 yard. Suddenly, the shower door swung open and a captain burst in followed by four of his biggest officers.
"All right, men," he shouted. "Rinse off and roll out! We've got a lockdown!"
Our laughing and joking ceased. Lockdown means trouble, big trouble in a prison. Silently, we stepped from the shower, wrapped towels around our waists, and marched back to our cells. One new kid started to ask the guard what was going on. But an old con gave the kid a hard look and signaled for him to shut up and keep moving. Even when curiosity is burning a hole in your gut, you ask no questions and give no answers. Just assume the worst and concentrate on survival. Especially during a lockdown.
Back in our cells we learned the reason for the lockdown. Guns had found their way into the hands of prisoners here at the ancient Maryland Penitentiary in downtown Baltimore. Two guards had been taken hostage. Here we go again, I thought to myself before climbing onto my bunk and falling asleep.
Now, less than 60 seconds after my feet first hit the floor, I was dressed, handcuffed and taken from my cell. A haunting silence hung in the air as guards hustled me off the tier. There was no music playing, none of the usual talking back and forth, nothing but the eerie feel of fear and uncertainty.
"Have a seat, Wise," Warden Sewall Smith said as I entered his office and my handcuffs were removed. About 45 years old, Warden Smith is a slender black man, a little over 6 feet tall. When I first saw him, almost 20 years ago, Warden Smith was working in the south wing segregation unit as a guard. I found out that we were both from the same West Baltimore neighborhood. We were confronted with the same challenges as kids but we made different choices. He chose school, church and the Army. I chose fast crowds, busy corners and quick cash. Now he was the warden and I was doing life for murder.
Across the paneled walls of the office were pictures of the warden shaking hands and smiling with different state officials. This morning the warden's hands were shaking and his smile was gone. The lives of two of his officers were on the line and I could see both worry and determination on his face.
"Wise, I'm sure you know what's going down in C-Dorm," he said through tired eyes. "The inmates are going to release one of the hostages in exchange for a chance to air their grievances on TV. I don't know if it's because you're the president of the Inmate Advisory Council or if it's because you're their homeboy or what . . . " He stared even harder.
" . . . But they want you to be present during the negotiations. My main concern is getting my officers safely back to their families."
He paused for a moment when he saw the frown on my face.
"Look," he said, "this isn't like the last time. . . . "
The "last time" had been three years ago. A bloody battle had broken out in the prison yard, injuring several guards and prisoners before the prison's Quick Response Team stormed in, firing its shotguns. Two prisoners, one known as Li'l Man and one called Hugo, had been hit, as well as one of the guards. Afterward, a standoff began. Prisoners on one side, police on the other, with the injured lying in between. Though I'd only been a bystander, the assistant warden called me to the center of the yard.
"Wise," he said, "go tell those guys to drop their weapons so there won't have to be anymore shooting. They'll listen to you."
I looked down at the splotches of blood. I thought about the brutality and inhumane conditions I've seen in my years behind bars. I knew that once the guys dropped their weapons, no one would protect them from the guards waiting in the south wing. It wasn't an issue of whether they would listen to me or not. Regardless of their youth, they were not children waiting to be told what to do. They were men who had earned the right to think and decide for themselves. So I just turned and walked away. Then, once the guards regained control of the yard that day, I was handcuffed and taken to the hole for refusing the order to intervene. The hole only added to my fears that vulnerable prisoners are easily brutalized by their guards.
No, this wasn't like last time. So far, no blood had been spilled in C-Dorm. And so I agreed to sit in on the negotiations and asked Warden Smith only that a brother named Rashid be present. There were two Islamic groups in the prison. I led one and Rashid led the other.