Here is another excerpt from my prison memoir, Prisonpath. The stories are about the inmates and correctional officers that I encountered during my fifteen months in state prison.
I had nine days of local prison experience behind me. It was never good to make assumptions about people outside of prison, but it was a major mistake to make assumptions inside of prison. I was placed in the prison hospital ward for two weeks because of health issues. I had met various inmates during my first days of prison, but the thirty-eight year old Russian was unique. Actually, he was not really Russian. He was half Korean and half Tajikistan. He was born in Tajikistan, which was formerly part of the Soviet Union, and now it was a poor country of six million. He had not completed college. He went to Moscow and joined a gang of almost two hundred members ruled by an Armenian. The Russian was assigned collection of loan payments, but he did not enjoy the process that was applied to the collection of the street loans. Unfortunately, he could not give up his membership in the gang as one would at the local country club. There were very strict penalties for leaving the Armenian’s gang. He decided it was best to come to the USA.
He came to the USA on a travel visa in 1996. After the travel visa expired, Immigration tried to deport him several times, but Russia and Tajikistan would not accept him. He had a history of drug use in Moscow. In 2000, he entered into the land of heroin and never left. He had been in and out of different jails for the last eight years. The Russian made money to pay his habit by stealing car parts. After a serious car accident in 2008, he spent time in and out of hospitals. He contracted a severe infection. Part of his hip had to be surgically removed. When I met him, he was in need of a hip replacement, and walked with crutches. Without the crutches, he had a severe limp. The prison authorities refused to authorize corrective surgery.
The Russian took me under his wing. He taught me some basic rules of prison life:
- Never touch the property of another inmate without permission. This is a major taboo in prison society and violations will be severely punished.
- Never tell any inmate–your release date. A lifer or someone with a substantial sentence out of meanness could place contraband in your cell and inform the officers. You would be screwed and have to endure additional years in prison.
- Never snitch, if you did, you would be severely punished for this violation.
He discussed other rules that were necessary to prison survival.
The Russian and I played chess every day. He also played chess with his father, who lived in London, by telephone.
I would learn throughout my stay in prison that an inmate‘s life was more tolerable if he could purchase food from the prison commissary. The county prison food was terrible, but I would later learn that it was better than the crap that they called food in the state system. One day the Russian shared noodles with me. He gave me additional food when I had not received my order from the commissary.
The hospital cell was in immaculate condition because the Russian cleaned the ward every day. He told me how necessary it was to have a clean cell, if you wanted to avoid becoming sick in prison. He would do almost all of the cleaning. Because of my age, he felt that was his responsibility to help me and to teach the rules of prison culture to me.
During my stay at this county prison hospital ward, we received the vagrants that were brought by the local police. The vagrants were strung out on drugs or alcohol. One small Hispanic man was brought in with tattered clothes, completely disoriented, and smelled of piss and shit.
Nobody wanted to come near the man including our nurses, but the Russian helped him that night to go to the toilet. The Russian was self-educated, bright, articulate, and decent. When I discussed his leaving the land of heroin, his reply was, “Heroin is part of me and I would not be the same man without it.”