A new section of grass opened up an invitation to play some Yard football.
Wasco State Prison: Level III, Yard “A”
Occupancy Design: 2980
During Stay: 2900
After five or so months several administrative necessities and inmate services were still in limbo, yet Wasco had become a full-blown, overcrowded prison. Corrections recruits and lesser-experienced custody personnel had reached that fork in the road that saw “prison guards” head in one direction and genuine corrections officers in another: some had found careers, while it seemed others were using what they were learning for shortsighted “payback-with-a-paycheck.” It was most palpable in their treatment of us, but also in the shit they talked behind each others’ backs. Guards saw only the role they thought they should play and were more likely to adopt prison slang and the values that stick to it like barnacles.
Those who aspired to move up the ranks, on the other hand, sought better solutions for their stress and used diplomacy with inmates, even a joke or two. Still, good guys and bad, guards and COs alike would sometimes do an about-face or just plain quit. In that first year, several Badges were removed for offenses ranging from fraternization to being flat-out accomplices in the commission of an assault. Two female Badges were caught having sex with inmates.
We grumbled about the bureaucratic holdups to the construction of A-Yard’s exercise and recreation areas. Fortunately our brand-new prison was still in its taxpayer showcase stage, so there was plenty of money to throw around to keep us busy UCLA instructors were brought in, extension courses and painting classes offered, and music teachers were hired. If an inmate wished, he could even choose from a number of plaster-of-Paris figurines to paint and mail home!
Newspaper articles covering “the birth of a prison” were hung in the lieutenant’s office and in our cells. Landscapers installed half-grown rose bushes close enough that we could watch them perish from neglect. We almost felt loved.
Entertainers performed for us, too: every other week a music act was brought in—blues, salsa, and classic-rock cover bands. A stand-up comic named Lotus Weinstock did a set for us once, sticking it out despite the heckling she received for her effort. Impressed, I managed to talk my way “backstage” to introduce myself after the show, and Lotus became an encouraging, external lifeline when we exchanged correspondence later on.
Back then we were model inmates in a symbolic new facility, and those tours given to CDC brass, other wardens, local politicians, and citizen VIPs just kept right on rollin’.
Til suddenly it all went away.
As months six, seven, and eight crept by, the fanfare died down and increasing numbers of Yard casualties just plain died. The creative-arts instructors and the bands disappeared. By month ten the suits stopped coming, and the place began to feel ordinary, lonely, and bleak. We had less to plan for, to lose, look forward to, or mock. A wave of creative encouragement and access had crested. The fiscal honeymoon was over, and Wasco’s prominence faded in favor of another soon-to-be-finished facility somewhere further up the San Joaquin Valley.
No one, not even the Badges, knew how long it would be before the weight lifting, softball, or other “approved physical activity” equipment would finally be unlocked; we only knew it would happen on a whim. As for the grassy turf we were still kept from walking on, announcements posted on unit bulletin boards taught us that grass needed “time to strengthen.” Nobody bought that, ’cause while the equipment sat fenced off, the sprouting grass became a beautiful green expanse—a big, emerald-colored pond.
Many referred to it impatiently as “that grass shit.” But for some, watching it grow was the most tranquil activity there was. After all, post-dinner lockups pretty well eliminated the possibility of stargazing, so some of us compensated by daydreaming at the edge of that big pond during the broiling afternoons. Most guys complained daily that the field had long been durable enough for sport; angry speculation was rampant and conspiracy theories were on everyone’s lips. “The sham is over: Give us the grass!” Some said the COs had it easier with our movement limited to the walkway. Others thought the warden would never open the grass, that it was his own twisted little Circle of Truth he’d make us walk ’til we died.
I figured the Badges in the taller towers and on exterior catwalks didn’t want to look down at undeserving inmates stomping what had become a soothing view for them, too. What else could they gaze at, the employee parking lot and the Kern County dirt? They’d probably do whatever it took to delay A-Yard’s opening. ’Course there were “official” reasons, too: “departmental pictures” and a pending Governor’s tour that never happened.
But finally, ten months after first population, the grass field was cleared for use. During the noon announcement that day men stood frozen as the PA crackled, “Attention! The grass is open!” followed by all sorts of threats and warnings. We actually thought it was a joke. There was uncertainty, silence, suspicion, and finally chaos. The relative serenity to which we’d grown accustomed was smashed by cheers and challenges. Thirty guys in sagging pants stormed the grass, hootin,’ hollerin’ and holding their jeans up—some with more success than others. And suddenly purity and perfection were out the window as every single blade of grass soon got the same treatment as that Encino lawyer on his third DUI, hanging on the bars of a packed County holding cell.
In the days that followed, I dismissed thoughts of wandering out after my shift to watch arguments over the racial balancing of softball teams. On day five my curiosity got the best of me. I squatted at the edge of the grass, figuring I’d check out the scene for a minute to take in a little of the sun that had slipped through the clouds. Further out were Latinos of every stripe mixed with a crowd of gangsters, playing their version of softball with shirts buttoned identically from top to bottom and cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
It had taken only a single day for gambling kingpins to rise and a pecking order to form. Bets were placed on anything involving points or casualties; welshers were slashed or beaten; and screamers with shattered knees were thrown out of the path of victory. The medical office was overwhelmed. I was hooked.
Guys were wagering small radios and TVs, smokes and postage stamps, shoes, sugary foods, new underwear, old underwear, sunglasses, and tattooing supplies. Pots containing tattooing inks—whether Yard recipes or bottles of genuine India Ink—were as much a high roller’s gamble as playing for heroin.
“Economy heroin,” which I preferred over its many other prison names, was most often carried in someone’s cinnamon roll and was the A-#1 commodity at Wasco. For reasons relating to its extreme value and the need for a courier to live day-by-day with a clavo of it up his ass, heroin was handled only by the experts. Back when our numbers were less than a thousand, they used small boogers of the stuff to expose security lapses and perfect Visiting Room handoffs. By the time our Field of Dreams opened, everyone knew an inmate who could place bets with tar. For the most part self-regulation, enforcements, and paybacks quelled rogue dealers, but lockdown after lockdown resulting from drug-related violence only fueled our fire for that grass field.
Once the grass was cleared, though, lockdowns became that much more difficult to endure. Each time we regained access I watched how our Fútbol enthusiasts—Mexican, Central, and South American—made the absolute most of that grass. Thanks to immigration hysteria and asinine sentencing laws, their numbers in California’s prisons are as large as any ethnic group’s. They were “chicos” who shared their Sunday feasts, who didn’t beg and seemed a tighter, more focused, and less-arrogant bunch for it. Collectively they’re called “Ejercito de Ilegales,” or the “Army of Illegals.” But most know ’em as “The Border Brothers,” which is what they call themselves: “Hermanos de la Frontera.” Seeing them charge up ’n’ down the field made it difficult not to feel gratitude for the simple act of running. The only thing invading their intense concentration was the blare of the loudspeakers every time violence erupted: “DOWN! DOWN! DOWN! EVERYBODY DOWN!”
These weren’t usually guys who could afford mail-order radios or televisions, and they didn’t receive visits or packages from their faraway families. Since it’s difficult to collect-call a village in Guatemala, they certainly didn’t crowd the unit’s payphones. They had very little, but most of the time their dignity seemed to soar. Their stories always involved some aspect of family separation far greater than my own, yet they were humorous and optimistic. Despite the sensory deprivation of incarceration, they seemed to appreciate the simple things that others overlooked. Things like that grass.
Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park” came to mind as I watched the penitentiary pig iron get tossed around at the weight pile and COs root at the ground nearby for buried or bloodied treasure.
“ … Sat-ur-day … in the park … think-it-was-the-4th of July …” coincided with an argument on the basketball court as Peckerwoods grouped together on a bench, no doubt muttering about the shame on white culture they could assign to other races.
“ … people laughin’, people playin’ … a real cele-bration, dat dat dat dat daa … ”
I strolled over to an in-progress yanqui football game in an area the Whites claimed as their own—much as they could with steroid-gulping snipers over their heads. The game had just begun—a thuggish Football of the Damned. Not my scene. But I checked it out, mingling and marveling ’til it got old, which took about four minutes. Then, making moves to simply drift off, I was careful to sidestep and circle the action before turning away. I didn’t want anyone to find my body language dismissive. But just when I thought I could slink away, I was stopped by a hairy, eye-level chest, covered with badly inked skulls and barbed wire.
“Hey Library, you in?” At that I was encircled by Shovel and Smoker’s friends, plus Lumberjack and several other heavy breathers hungry for fresh meat. Among ’em were guys I either didn’t know or had failed to get to know in polite time. One fella I’d argued with a few days earlier over my cost for erasing his late book-return fees stepped up, suddenly interested in my answer.
Why had I wandered into this bunch in the first place? Oh, right, because I had a fallback position: I was aboard one of the first two buses on the Yard. I helped break in the joint. We had a nod. We had a code! Problem was most of the other guys had since transferred out, taking the secret handshake with ’em. And anyway, trading on that commonality would be like hiding behind it. Codes aren’t revealed; they’re honored.
I had no Plan B and my hesitation was obvious. So I decided a quick but furious try might get me something like an initiation—renew my Yard card, so to speak.
“Alright, fuck y’all. Let’s go!”
My proclamation brought laughing shouts from those who didn’t want me on their team. Great. Sixth grade all over again. I hate football, and I don’t even know what the damn rules are. Not that anyone looked like they were playing by any.
Minutes later I stood with the side that finally accepted me, and when the ball was kicked off I launched. I would die for it. I’d take their punishment and whatever else they had. “C’mon fuckers!” I yelled as I sailed through the air before having the wind slammed outta me. A big guy from my own team bashed me right down onto the beautiful grass; it felt cool like a pillow and I couldn’t breathe. Everyone thought it was marvelous. I didn’t entirely hate it. I was up pretty fast, too, and so were the cheers—up fast ’n’ loud. A needlessly hard slap on my back almost caused my knees to pop out from under me.
“WHAT THE FUCK?” I turned and demanded from no one.
Shit, what have I done?
Next to me Smoker screamed, “OKAY! Let’s fuck, you dumb bitches!”
More laughter and jeers from the sidelines blended with the sound of ’Woods threatening each other, me, and “any fool Toad” that even thought about jumping into our game. It was a completely improbable scenario, but leave it to Peckerwoods to plan for it. Why would a black guy even get close to this side of the field, let alone throw himself into this pit of inbreds? The towers would open fire on a mixed-race football game anyway! Although they are failing to keep this bunch of walleyed Nugent fans from assaulting each other, so who the hell knows?
That last thought, by the way, was pondered on my back. The next time I was knocked to the ground I found that, incredibly, I was involved in a genuine mixed-race game. The boot that had just stomped my foot belonged to a huge black dude called Uncle. Pain aside and though I expected the worst, I was delighted the game had taken such a symbolic turn.
Twice more I was shoved to the ground by the second biggest guy out there, a reject from the Island of Dr. Moreau who’d previously promised to squash me. It was against this big imbecile that I kept putting myself on the line, a six-foot-two, 240-pounder everyone called “Load.”
The fifth time I got put down Kimo picked me up. He’d seen me out there, joined the game without asking, and was left alone to play. Kimo the independent—making teams uneven just to see who’d tell him to get lost.
“Can you believe this? Everyone’s watching!” Kimo nodded at the tower guards. “And they’re not stopping it!”
“They will once fingers start gettin’ bitten off!”
Kimo crouched next to me to take on Load, who flattened us both with an NHL elbow-drive. We began taking turns as “primary target.” Thirty minutes later and well past the point of playing to achieve anything, it became our sole intention to just give the giant Chernobyl deformity our bodies to shove away like dry brush so our meth-fried quarterback, Shovel, could get the ball somewhere up the field. Kimo made Load’s viciousness feel more like an amusement park ride.
With the taste of dirt in my mouth and my back stinging badly from that anonymous slap, I relished being part of the game and free of routine trepidations. Time and time again, fists up, jaw clamped, I ran straight at Load until WHAM! I got blasted onto my back. Each time it took a little longer to get up and it was a little harder to gasp back my wind, but I always made an effort to pull Kimo down, too. I even tripped him twice to watch him get steamrolled. I felt I was upholding something, confirming ruthlessness just for the sake of it. But it was fun ’cause it was about a ball, not skin color or whose tattoos said what. And if I was gonna get dragged off to the medical office as a result, these assholes damn well better be whistling the theme to The Bridge on the River Kwai as they yank my cold body up the walkway.
Twenty minutes later the game had turned ghastly. It was a mystery and a miracle that no alarms sounded, but we sure as shit weren’t gonna send anyone over to see why. A guy on my team was pushed into a smaller guy, and as they went down together the short guy’s belt buckle took off a good chunk of the other dude’s lip. The torn flesh wiggled before spurting like a geyser. He took off running to Medical.
But I was determined to maintain my gritty demeanor, if only to show stubbornness to those who doubted me. Having each earned our team a touchdown, a now bleeding Kimo and I high-fived each other at every break. A few veteran COs stood by, improbably watching and laughing. By the time the game had been going for forty minutes, most of the swastika-covered cheerleaders had gotten bored and left. I was having a blast. At each hike I ran howling like a foaming-at-the-mouth psychotic on a Bronx subway toward the poor fool with the ball, only to be hurled into the air by Load, who’d always find a way to land on me.
My proposal that we play ’til we got kicked off the Yard was welcomed with another hard slap to my shoulder. I glared at Kimo between some of the plays after that to keep him on his toes. If I couldn’t quit, neither could that midget Korean neat freak. We pounced at every play, and together successfully got the crap slammed out of us for another ten minutes.
The older COs finally walked out and broke up the game just before the pre-dinner count. They were led by Sergeant Ford, who had us gather around so he could congratulate us on good sportsmanship and pissing off the on-duty nurse. Since my team was ahead when we were told to give up the ball, Ford called it. Head-throbbing glory was ours.
“When I came on duty and saw you all out here,” Ford yelled, “I just about quit. Look at you idiots!”
Unifying laughter filled the field.
“Y’all know you’re not allowed to play tackle: what the fuck?”
As Ford spoke inmates were ushered back to their units by the COs. “We let you continue ’cause you were gettin’ along, but you aren’t gonna get me fired, so I hope you enjoyed yourselves.”
I looked up at the dusk, the darkest outside light I’d seen since being incarcerated.
“From now on, gentlemen, tackles will be treated like a Yard altercation.”
I was stoked: I’d gotten mangled in the only full-blown Search ’n’ Destroy Inaugural and Commemorative Tackle Football Game that might ever happen at this prison—and not one bullet, beanbag round, or riot gas canister had been fired.
The rest of the Badges accompanying Ford grouped us by unit and marched us in. Kimo looked over and grinned.
“You surprised the shit outta me, son!”
“You can’t become your own country unless you play with the politics.”
“Thanks, Confucius. I’ll remember that.”
A day later, when Load slugged me in the heart and said, “Fuck you, Library, you did alright,” I knew I really had managed an initiation. He was an illiterate who thought breathing was math, but he knew the routines of almost every man at Wasco, especially those who entered and exited the education building.
To guys like him, the satisfaction and purpose in my walk to and from that building symbolized an access he’d never have. So it was good for me to let it get mangled a bit; it showed I could be a good sport who deserves the quasi-diplomatic immunity typically afforded those with access to staffers. Things like this would help me avoid most Yard politics and gang-affiliation pressures. And I learned I actually can find things to enjoy in others without surrendering to ideals I don’t value or respect.
This is an excerpt from John Nelson’s prison memoir, “Where Excuses Go to Die.”
Read more on Men in Prison.
Photo credit: Flickr / Kathryn,