I was about halfway through my evening jog when I saw Skinheads congregating in the corner of the yard. About ten in number, they huddled in right field’s foul territory along the fence that bordered the Pagan religious grounds. They were up to something.
On my next lap, I took of note of their shifty eyes and their apparent lack of conversation. The one with the horns tattooed on his skull looked off in the distance toward the entrance to building five. Another one peered behind me, presumably toward the gun tower above the entrance to building one. I kept jogging.
The next time I passed, the same two Skinheads were maintaining their long-distance scouts, while a handful of others appeared to be focusing on something in the workout area immediately in front of Greystone Chapel. I removed my headphones and continued onto my next lap.
Next go-round, I saw that almost all of them were directing their attention to the pull-up bars on my right. Perhaps it was time to end my run, albeit early, and go take a shower. If something was going down, I didn’t need to be near it. I had a visit the next morning. Mom was coming.
I slowed to a walk and headed toward my laundry bag, hanging on chain link fence between the group of Skinheads and the workout area. I grabbed my bag and casually took a sip from the water fountain, using it as an opportunity to scout them out a bit more.
Skinheads were on the move. In my direction. I was relatively confident that the they weren’t coming for me, but I could never be too sure. There was always the spectre of Robbie Aitken. Swinging my bag over my shoulder, I turned around and watched the crowd of Skins pass in front of me, headed left toward their target. I slowly headed for the outfield near first base, which is when I heard the rumble begin.
Grunting. The slap of skin. The thud of dozens of fists on flesh. A cry for pain. I nonchalantly look over my shoulder. I had to ascertain the race of the victim. I prayed to myself that he was White, which would mean that I wouldn’t have to get involved.
A man was on his knees, erratically waving his arms in a vain attempt to thwart the blows that befell him. Fists struck his face, his head, his neck. Taking a couple of boots to the abdomen, he made an attempt at fleeing and his scrambling brought him in my direction. He was White. He looked like a Skinhead as well. An internal affair, then.
I had to be cool. No alarms were yet sounding on the yard. I had to excise myself from the situation without drawing attention to the melee beside me. Running would be snitching. Ignoring everything my body wanted to do, I walked carefully forward, pretending that the eddying maelstrom wasn’t following close behind.
As my shoes touched the grass in right field, the alarms went off. I would have to get supine soon. “Everybody get the fuck down!” I heard from a distant corner of the yard. Anybody left standing would be considered part of the problem.
The fighting continued and swirled near first base. “Down on the yard!” shouted a voice over the loudspeakers. My peripheral vison indicated that almost everyone was sitting or lying down. Everyone, that is, except myself, the Skinheads beside me, and the men in green converging upon us. All eyes were on me, or, at the very least, on my section of the yard. My performance was key.
I dropped my laundry bag on the ground and faced the fight. The victim was curled into the fetal position in the dirt as feet and fists continued to pummel him. I made a show of watching the fight, just to let any White boys on the yard know that I was aware of what was happening and willing to jump if needed. But I wasn’t needed, so I took a knee.
I planted both of my hands into the grass in front of me and started to get down. Suddenly, the ground beside my hands exploded in a poof of dust, followed immediately by the crack of a gunshot, which echoed off the granite walls of the yard. The gunner had opened fire and he had almost hit me. The moment crawled, hearing only the alarms and the thud of my heart.
Without thinking, I stood up and scurried to a place about twenty feet deeper into right field. More shots rang out. Maybe two. The echoing made it difficult to tell.
I laid face down in the grass and inhaled deeply the dusty air of earth. Fear caught up with me. Placing my right cheek on the ground, I faced the infield. All of the skinheads were on the ground. Gunshots do that. A faint jingle of keys emerged from the cacophony and the guards were upon us.
The officers dragged some of the skinheads away from the victim, who was bleeding in the dirt. Some Skinheads were handcuffed. Radio chatter between guards revealed that a gurney was on the way. About a dozen or so guards arrived and started taking away handcuffed Skins, presumably to the hole.
One of the guards standing nearby me yelled at another, “Hey, what about this one?” He was pointing at me.
“No, not him. Just these guys”, the other one replied, indicating the remaining skinheads near first base. Phew, I thought. About a year earlier, I had decided to start growing my hair long in order to avoid being confused with Skinheads. It had been in preparation for a moment just like this one and it appeared to have worked. There were cameras directly in front of Greystone Chapel which probably would’ve cleared me of any wrongdoing, eventually, but it wouldn’t have happened before my visit the next day. Or before spending at least a week in the hole.
The gurney arrived and officers lifted the bloody, dirty, moaning man onto it. He was moving his arms and looked to be okay, relatively speaking, but I didn’t envy his predicament. He would, in all likelihood, never walk the mainline again. To the SNY yard he’d have to go. (see: “Classifying A Prisoner”)
The remaining skinheads were escorted off the yard. Thirty to forty minutes passed uneventfully. Guards in front of building one appeared to be scouring the yard, looking for gun casings (they have to collect the shells that get ejected from the gun when they are fired from the tower). A couple of nurses arrived on the baseball field and began examining inmates. When she got to me, she told me to sit up and remove my shirt. I did as she asked.
“Do you have any injuries?” she asked gently.
“No, but I wasn’t involved.”
“Were you struck by anything? Metal fragments? Anything like that?”
She took down my name and CDC number, and then proceeded to fill out a document which provided a record of my medical examination. No injuries. The nurse moved on to the next inmate and I laid back on the ground.
I noticed that a little yellow flag had been inserted into the dirt where that bullet had struck the ground right in front of me. I looked around and saw two other flags, one of them almost all the way out in center field. What had that gunner been shooting at and why had his aim been so erratic?
I would get my answer just a bit later, while eavesdropping on a conversation between a lieutenant and another officer.
“Unit one, entry.”
“How many shots?”
“And we have the casings?”
“No, no casings.”
“None of them can be located?”
“No, and that’s because there aren’t any.”
“His fourteen jammed, couldn’t get it to fire. So, he used his sidearm.”
You had to be fucking kidding me, I thought. Only guards in towers and catwalks carry firearms. They typically carry two firearms, a Mini-14 rifle and a sidearm. The Mini-14 was meant to be used on the inmates below, and the sidearm was intended for the nearly impossible scenario in which a prisoner finds access to the tower.
The conversation I overheard told a rather remarkable story. The gunner had been firing at us from above the entrance to building one, which was between 50 and 75 yards away. A fairly long distance for moving targets. His rifle had jammed up or misfired, so he resorted to using his sidearm. A pistol. To fire into a crowd, near a crowd, however one wants to look at it. The bullet that had struck the ground right in front of me had been meant for one of the characters maybe 15 or so feet away from me. I couldn’t believe that a guard had used a pistol to fire wildly into a crowd from across the yard.
My brush with death wasn’t lost on me. If I had laid down sooner, there’s no telling what would’ve happened to me. Perhaps the gunner wouldn’t have shot in my direction, or perhaps he would’ve shot in the exact same spot and my life story would be significantly different.
Either way, I was fortunate that the victim had been White. If he’d been any other race, we would’ve been locked down and I would’ve missed my visit the next day.
Photo Credit: Ruger