Reading Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence dredged up some old memories. I think I have enough kicking around in my head for two or three posts. I probably have enough stories for a dozen posts but that’s really not the point of all this. I’ll get to the prison stuff in a second but bear with me as I finish talking about the book.
One of the great things about Mr. Miller’s book is how he describes violence as this very large thing — this elephant — that all of us have *some* experience with. The key here is that we often forget how big of a thing violence is (and some of us really don’t know how big it is). For example, the boxer trains for a very controlled form of specialized violence. Will those same sport skills work in a street setting under ambush conditions? Probably not. Yes, maybe in a one-on-one street fight with no weapons, but the second a gun or knife is pulled then the boxer may be in trouble.
“There is some overlap in skills; some lessons transfer. But a black belt in Judo will teach you as much about a sudden assault as being mugged will teach you about Judo. And my experience will always be your word of mouth.” — Sgt. Rory Miller
One problem with the martial arts (big picture) is that many schools try to do it all. That is, they teach sport competition, tradition, fitness, spiritual growth, and “real world” self-defense all at once. Or, as Miller notes, it’s very likely you are being taught “self-defense” skills by someone who has never really been in a fight outside of the dojo. It’s also very likely that your instructor was taught by someone who never has had to use his or her skills in a self-defense setting. Yet, the second they strap on that black belt people think they are experts in violence.
Patterson Goes to Jail (short version)
After four years of factory work I finally went to college. Partially due to having family working in human services, and partially because back in the Stone Age we did not have college career counselors, I ended up a double major in criminal justice and psychology. I eventually settled on criminal justice and psychology became my minor.
I was still young enough to think the world could be saved. I did not want to be a police officer and was mostly considering parole or probation. With no opportunities in sight, the closest related experience I could find was correctional officer.
Four Years of Stupid
Here’s the bullet point summary:
- Approximately two years in a maximum-medium security Midwestern prison (i.e. dubbed “gladiator school” by inmates at the state pen.)
- Another two years in a minimum security drug and alcohol rehabilitation center (dubbed “the Hilton” by those same state pen inmates)
- Never been in a solo use-of-force (I’ll come back to this in part II)
- Once helped cut someone down who hung themselves (they lived)
- Saw at least 50 fist fights
- Saw way too many naked men (strip searches and UA’s suck!)
I’m biased towards corrections officers. No offense to the cops that may read this blog but generally speaking, I think the guards have it worse. For 40 hours a week, the correctional officer is stuck babysitting the idiot that the cop arrested (and they usually do this unarmed and for less pay). Moreover, nobody really understands what prison workers do. It really is a contained secret city with it’s own set of rules. The cops get all the press — some good and some bad. The CO generally gets the shaft.
Maybe Only Parts of the World Can be Saved?
What was prison like? When I’m asked that question I usually tell this story: It was my first month on the day shift and my first month on the yard. Here I am filled with Freud, Durkheim, and all sorts of theories that explain why people are messed up. I got A’s on most of the tests so this means I can fix things, right?
So I’m walking around with a corporal who was essentially my Shepard and we come upon two inmates. One is spitting on the ground and is paying the other tokens (a form of inmate currency) to lick up the spit.
I totally freaked out. “Aren’t we going to do something? This is against the rules!” Corporal laughing: “Nah man, it’s not worth the paper work.” He was right.
After about a month of dealing with stupid like that Freud, Durkheim, and all the rest went right out the window.
The Beginning of the End
I started to notice some of the prison veterans. These were the case workers and officers who had worked in the system for 10 or more years. Many of their faces looked like 10 miles of bad road. Seriously. This is one of those memories that will stay with me until I die. They looked that way because of what they have had to endure. The thing I could never understand is why some looked that way while others with 10 or more years, did not. Some adjusted okay, others not so much.
Violence is a Large Thing
Most case workers and correctional officers are just average people. They are not the silver sun glass-wearing billy club-thumping moron that Hollywood likes to portray. Granted, there are a few of these in prison, too. The silver sun glass archetype is the person who relies less on verbal skills (de-escalation) and more on force to get the inmate to comply.
Part because I paid attention in training and part because I saw violence as a dangerous last option (i.e. many inmates have AIDs, hepatitis, etc.), all my use-of-forces were with others. I was also very lucky.
It was this regular exposure to stupid that also got me dabbling with the martial arts. Prior to prison I had made it half way to black belt in Tae Kwon Do. During prison I dabbled in boxing as a means to supplement our PPCT training.
We Have a Mini-riot and it’s Patterson’s Day Off
Like I said, I was lucky.
We had increased gang tension which led to a small fire on one of the units, a fist fight in the gym, and television cameras at the gate. I was 100 miles away on my day off when I saw it mentioned on television. This was pre-cellphone so when I finally returned the whole prison was on lock-down.
So you think you know violence?
Two officers were assigned to gym duty (i.e. an indoor basketball court). This means it’s you and about 30 or so inmates in a contained area and you are unarmed. Outside of the gym is turnkey — basically a crossroads of intersecting corridors. Turnkey duty sucked. Every hour on the hour inmates were free to move from point A to point B. The poor bastard at turnkey had to unlock doors so inmates could get to where they had to go. Oh, and you also were expected to do some pat searches (one or two roving patrols would often help at each hour).
Anyhow, “gates and doors” had just ended and the inmates had stopped moving for the next 50 minutes. Two officers are in the gym and once tired guard is at turnkey when the gang fight breaks out. The gym guards try to break it up while turnkey calls it in. The assistant warden just happens to be in the area and arrives with what there is of a roving patrol. A few of the RP go in to help but things have degraded into a mini-riot. Prison doctrine requires you to contain riots because you might lose the entire prison. So what does the assistant warden do?
He locks the door to the gym as the last guard goes in.
The CERT team and various staff are assembled but by the time they enter the gym it was mostly over. I later chat with Corporal S. He said hearing the door lock behind him was one of the worst sounds he had ever heard. All officers involved get bruised and battered but nobody dies.
So you think you know ambush?
In Meditations on Violence, Miller stresses how quick a typical ambush happens. Inmates may not have the technical expertise of a black belt, but they more than make up for that in aggression and speed.
So I’m back on shift during lock-down week. Due to the aforenoted “riot” we are on lock-down. This means normal “gates and doors” is canceled, inmates who need to be somewhere are escorted, and past that they are stuck in their cells for most of the day.
During lock-down we were feeding one housing unit at a time — basically escort the whole unit into the chow hall and then lock the doors. We had about six officers in the chow hall, camera coverage, and maybe another six within a minute of the chow hall. I’m guessing maybe 60 – 100 inmates in the chow hall during this time.
I happen to be one of the six on duty in the locked chow hall. Everyone going in and coming out was supposed to have been searched. Well we missed something. So I’m leaning against the wall watching the inmates eat. One Hispanic gangbanger is walking by another inmate when he suddenly reaches into his pocket. He has a sock and in that sock is the padlock from his locker. He proceeds to beat the living hell out of the seated inmate with the sock lock.
Every officer in the room had training, some had served in the military, and a few had martial arts experience. However, it took us all seconds to punch through the ambush fog and respond. Bear in mind that we were not the ones being ambushed, yet it still took us seconds to act. In those seconds inmate victim was hit at least a half dozen times by inmate attacker.
So I have a college degree and I’m dogpiling on a murderer to save a murderer from being beaten to death. I’m doing this in locked room full of inmates, I don’t have a weapon, and we are outnumbered.
Dumb, Patterson. Really dumb.
We get the attacker restrained and the attackee off to the infirmary without incident. Truth be told I think that the rest of the inmates in the chow hall were as surprised as we were. Surprise probably also explains why the place didn’t come unglued and why the rest of the inmates didn’t stomp us.
This is part one. At this point I was starting to think I needed to get the hell out. However, I had not seen enough bad for that to become a priority. We’ll save the bad for part two.
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