Prison is really `a living hell'

June 19, 2000|By Ricky R. Williams

JESSUP - "If I had known 20 years ago what I know today, I would have saved myself so much pain," he said. "My rap buddy told me to let it go. He said da guy had robbed somebody else and da guy put 'em in a body cast for six months. My rap buddy said he wasn't worth da bullet he'd die by. But, you know the code back then said if someone disrespected you, you had to deal with him. My rap buddy's still home, and I'm here serving a life sentence. I just couldn't let it go. Now I will have to die in prison."

If I had known 10 years ago what I know today, I would not have been sitting on a prison bunk listening to a conversation among three older inmates.

I listened as they talked about the code and how it governed their thinking and conduct. They shook their heads in disbelief as they reflected on how they had based their morals and principles on a code with no values and no ethics - the worth of a human life when compared to a bullet: The bullet was a pearl and human life a mere grain of sand. One man dead meant nothing if he had violated the code.

It sounds crazy now, but as a teen-ager living by the code translated into acceptance. Enforcing it made others respect and even fear you. You valued the expectations of the thug-life crowd, the live-and-die-by-the-code crowd, more than life itself. You lived for today, only today.

I thought prison was having to stay in the house and off of the streets. My father was the warden of my confinement, my mother the assistant warden. The nosey next door neighbor who told my parents everything I did was the security chief. Teachers were correctional officers who wanted me to conform and, therefore, deserved to be hated. School was disciplinary segregation because it tormented my mind. Rules, of any kind, were cruel and unusual punishment.

Foolish me.

Real prison is a living hell. You sleep in a 6-by-9 cell or in a dormitory with 90 to 100-plus mind-sets. Some friendly. Some dangerous. Some treacherous. It is hard to tell.

You hear one radio blasting gangsta rap. You hear another blasting disco or rock. You hear Jerry, the news, and the soaps. You hear yelling and what sounds like 1,000 voices. What you cannot hear is yourself think.

The hard bed, the dingy walls, the dusty floors, the dim lights, the cold bars beat the life out of your spirit day after week after month after year.

You cannot imagine bricks and bars sucking all of your strength.

No less than 1,200 individuals surround you at all times, and still you feel so alone.

You move where you are told. You sit where you are told. You do not stand where you where told not to. You eat what they give you (the same food on a different day, week after week).

You are a part of a riot though you have long parted with negativity. Tear gas and pepper spray cannot tell troublemakers from peacemakers. Your eyes, skin, and lungs burn. You cannot breathe. You cannot see. Attack dogs and aggressive officers in riot gear bite and beat and don't ask questions until the chaos is over.

You are in that little cell, day after day, for 24 hours, for weeks or months or however long it takes the lockdown to be lifted.

Someone snaps and floods his cell. They shut off the water. The hard-boiled eggs, bologna and cheese and peanut butter you have been eating since the lockdown push its way out. The water is off. You cannot stop nature. You cannot flush the toilet. It just sits there afterward. You cannot take a shower. It is hot. It is two of you in the cell.

You hear about a stabbing or rape. You knew the guy who got killed. You taste the bitterness of fear. You see predators turn to prey. You feel the fire getting hotter and hotter. You close your eyes. You open them. You are still here. Your head and body feel heavy. Your emotions are drained.

You do not want to see anyone. You are tired of being around the same people every day, all day. Nothing personal. It is the sameness and sleepless nights that battle for your sanity.

You stare at the ceiling and notice a reddish stain. You wonder if it is the tears of blighted and forgotten inmates who lived by the code and whose restless souls now bleed regret.

You fight back tears. You want to go home. You can't. You want to die but know only the strong survive. There is no reward for surviving this hell.

This is the consequence of rejecting society's code of conduct that allows you to be what you want, go where you want, eat what you want and to enjoy life as you want.

Had I known as a teen-ager that my parents were trying to steer me in the right direction, that the nosey neighbor believed it took a community to raise a child, that teachers and school stimulated the mind and developed productive citizens, I would have spared myself 10 years of agonizing confinement in a Maryland penitentiary.

Wishful thinking will not remake my bed. I made it hard. Now I have to lie in it. I used to think it would get softer.

It didn't.

Trust me. You cannot escape it. One wrong decision can confine you to a lifetime of painful consequences.

The writer

Ricky Ricardo Williams, 32, born in Trinidad, raised in New York City and a Long Island suburb, is serving a 30-year sentence in the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup following his conviction in December 1990 for cocaine trafficking and related charges. He had been arrested in Salisbury in March 1990. He is up for parole in March, 2001.

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