A weekend in the hills

Smith, Phillip Vance, II



A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips The first time I went to prison . . . I was twenty-one and serving several sentences for a smorgasbord of petty crimes. I had been sentenced to a little over a year for larceny of a person, possession of a stolen firearm, possession with intent to sell marijuana, and taking the police on a high-speed chase. A Sheriff ’s Deputy drove me to Polk Youth Center, one of three North Carolina youth prisons. The prison was far out in the boondocks, miles away from any major city. During the trip I soaked up the sights of the farms and small towns we passed, knowing I wouldn’t see the real world again for some time. Horrid visions of prison rape invaded my mind and wouldn’t leave. I asked myself: ‘ What are you going to do if someone tries to rape you?’ I had no answer. I hoped that because I was black it would be easier on me, but there was no way to be sure. I envisioned many scenarios in which I wouldn’t have much choice other than to let someone rape me. In the end, I convinced myself that no one knew what to expect when going to prison for the first time, and it probably wasn’t as bad as I thought, yet I was still petrified of the unknown. After a few hours in the transport van we turned into a vast parking lot. At the end was a massive gray monstrosity constructed of huge blocks stacked on top of each other. Narrow slits embedded in the concrete served as windows. The place was surrounded by three fences, each interlaced with concertina- wire. The van entered a sally port. I was helped out and led to a holding cell where the Sheriff ’s Deputy removed my shackles and handcuffs, then handed over my commitment papers to the prison guards. There was no long line of naked men shuffling in a dehumanizing train toward a communal shower like I’d often seen in prison movies. It was a civilized and routine process. A single guard brought me a bag lunch with a baloney sandwich and an apple. When I finished eating, he strip searched me, then handed me a prison uniform. After all of this was done, the guard asked me, “You bang?” lofl3 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips He was a young black guy like me. Not much older than I was. I shook my head. “Nah. I’m not in a gang.” He nodded with a smirk, like he was holding a secret he couldn’t wait to share. “Know how to fight?” I stared at him and thought that he was sizing me up somehow, deciding how I’d fair against others in the prison. I was honest. “Not really.” He let out a slow chuckle. “Nobody respects a coward in here. All you gotta do is put up your fists and swing. What’s so hard about that? If you can, get a knife.” I didn’t know if he was joking or offering sound advice. He volunteered nothing more. Another guard arrived and walked me out onto the prison’s main yard. Polk Youth Facility housed men aged nineteen to twenty-one. I was led to one of four open dorms, or processing units, where new arrivals were housed until they were formally admitted into the prison system. We entered Dorm Four. . The housing dorms were two tiers tall and no more than wide-open warehouses with a high ceiling and rows of steel bunk beds lined up against the back wall of each tier. The entire front wall of each dorm was a huge plastic window that gave a direct View to every inch, with no blind spots. The open space in the middle—the day room—held gaming tables where young men slammed dominoes or sat eating and talking. The toilets and showers were in an enclosure fronted with a plexiglass window that afforded anyone passing in the hallway a clear View of men seated on porcelain thrones or lathered in soap while showering. There were four dorms that held siXty—four men each, milling about like animals in a cage. That was my first thought when peering into the blocks as we walked past. It was like walking through a zoo—a zoo built for people. The Sergeant gave me no words of wisdom. He simply stuck his key in the lock, pulled the door open, then told me, “You’re on bunk one.” Once I stepped inside, the door slammed behind me, then the lock engaged with a meaty echo. It was like walking to the guillotine, yet I kept my head held high and tried to ignore the gawking eyes, determined not to project the fear I felt. The cell block suddenly looked bigger and the men inside it more menacing. I walked past men smoking cigarettes, men staring up at a television, men leaning against walls and staring off into space like they had nothing better to do. Young men crowded every nook and cranny, 2ofl3 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips and most everyone was black. I had no idea that so many black men were in prison. Bunk #001 was a bottom bunk in the corner next to a wall, and the only one not occupied. I unrolled the plastic mattress and sat down on it, then I stared at my new home wondering, ‘How did I end up here?’ The black guy on the bunk next to mine was laying down reading a magazine. He glanced over at me. “What up?” he asked. I wasn’t sure how to answer. One piece of advice an older guy in the county jail had given me was to “Pick the biggest sum ’bitch in the block and whup his ass. That way no one else will want to mess with you. ” That, he assured me, was the only way to gain respect. This guy was pretty big. If I beat him up the whole prison would hear about it. He was dark black, bordering on the color purple, and muscular. He lay there with his shirt off, chest standing at attention, biceps round and tight, stomach flat and ribbed with abs. This dude was built like a professional wrestler and looked like someone I’d rather run from than fight. “Yo, don’t talk to me,” I told him. “You don’t know me.” He took off his glasses and rolled to a sitting position, facing me. “What the hell you say?” “I-uh. I . . .” I gulped back my fear and stood up. “I said you don’t know me. Don’t talk to me.” Fists curled at my sides. My heart was a choo-choo train chugging at full speed in my chest. What else could I do? I needed to project strength so they would leave me alone, though strength was alien to me. He stared at me with hard eyes. Finally, a deep throated chuckle rose from within him. “That’s what I thought you said.” My fists clenched tighter. “Why are you laughing?” This was the sum ’bitch who’s ass I was supposed to whup, but he wasn’t feeding into it. “I’m laughin’ because you come in here tryin’ to act tough, but you ain’t gotta be like that.” I paused. “I don’t?” He shook his head, laughing heartily now. “Nah, man. All you gotta do is relax and do your time.” He laid back down. A moment later, he asked me, “Want a cigarette?” I did. Taking the cigarette wasn’t the smartest thing to do. After doing time for a while, I later learned that 3of13 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips one of the most profitable hustles in prison was called ‘One-for-two is ’. A new guy would come in, and an old con would offer him a cigarette or a pack. Once the new guy took it, he owed either two cigarettes or two packs back, unbeknownst to him, until the time came to pay up. Later, I saw groups of men running to new guys entering the block waving cigarettes in his face, enticing him to take one. If I’d known before hand, I wouldn’t have taken it. I was new to that game. It turned out that this guy wasn’t charging me a thing. He’d given me the cigarette with no strings attached because he thought I needed it. His name was J T. I was lucky that he hadn’t taken offense to my challenge. The situation could have gone sour fast. JT was the most notorious gang leader in Polk and fresh out of the hole for beating someone senseless. He was a seasoned vet with the stripes to prove it. After getting to know him a bit, I revisited our first meeting and surmised that the only reason J T hadn’t bashed my head in was because he sensed that I wasn’t a threat. Even with my best game face, he’d seen right through me. During my stint at Polk, I saw J T in action quite a few times. The first incident was on the rec yard. He squared off with a guy who was wielding a horseshoe as a weapon. The guy swung with all his might, but J T didn’t back down. He held his own until ten of his gang rushed to aid him. The outcome wasn’t pretty. Two officers were supervising the yard that day and both just happened to be looking the other way when it all went down. Goons like J T were highly intelligent. If you were in a group near them, they would sit silent and watch you, listen to you, deciding if you could be trusted long before a word ever passed between the two of you. They ran poker games, had officers supplying them with drugs, and they kept a hand in every hustle from which they could make money. In principle they were not much different than preachers, CEOS, or prime ministers—with the exception that social status and money wasn’t what set them apart from others in their surroundings. Their toughness, bravado, and the courage to go further than the next man in any given situation made them who they were. The tougher the leader, the more prosperous the gang, and the more numerous the ranks. Everyone wanted to play for a winning team and trump losers at each turn. The second time I saw J T get into it was in the chow hall when some guy jumped the line in front of him on chicken nugget and french fry day. Anybody who knows anything about prison knows that you never get between a convict and his chicken nuggets and fries. The altercation began as all prison fights did. J T insulted him, the other guy met his verbal challenge with one of his own, then J T swung and ended 4of13 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips the conversation. The dining hall was full of officers. They stood as still as We did when J T wailed on the guy with two hard punches to his face. The guy tried to turn and run, but J T caught him from behind and rammed his face into the cinder—block wall. That’s when the officers went into action and ran over to break it up. J T didn’t give them time to douse him with pepper spray. He calmly faced the wall and allowed them to handcuff him. He’d been through it many times before. They had to scoop up the other guy. They sat him on a stool at a nearby table. He was so punch drunk that he kept sliding off, so they left him laying on the floor until nurses arrived with a stretcher. There were fights six days out of seven, in every housing unit. Any argument could turn into fisticuffs at the drop of a hat. Certain words were said to be automatic fighting words: coward, faggot, pussy, bitch. We stepped over men who’d been knocked out and lay motionless on the floor. ‘Not my business’ is what I told myself as I hurried on my way. When watching fights, I found myself nervous and afraid as if I was in the midst of the action along with the fighters. I resisted the urge to turn away because I didn’t want to look like a coward, though I despised the violence. Fighting was not just a means of proving yourself, it was a way of life. Most prisoners called Polk Youth Center “Gladiator School I didn’t, because I had no aspirations to be a gladiator. I only wanted to survive long enough to get out alive. Prison was a pretty diverse place as far as life experiences went. I found people that I got along with and we passed the time in any way that we could. I can’t say that I was friends with them, but we grew close in the safest way that our incarceration allowed. It was hard to trust someone. You had to beware of people befriending you so they could get something out of you, or get you to do their bidding. I didn’t have any contact with my family. I didn’t call my mother while at Polk because I felt guilty about the way I’d lived my life in the free world. I came from a good, middle-class family, and I never had to do the things I did to end up in prison. My mom had done all she could to help me. In return I’d lied to her, stolen from her, and betrayed her trust in ways that no son should. Because I wouldn’t reach out to my family for financial help, my commissary account was on zero at a time when prison was slowly becoming a pay your own way enterprise. North Carolina eliminated parole and enacted Structured Sentencing laws in 1994. In the following years, over five billion federal dollars was spent to build six prisons, but the bulldozers still couldn’t keep up with the exploding prison population. As a direct result of those tougher sentencing laws, the number 5of13 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips of prisoners doubled in a decade. More prisoners meant that less money was available for nutritious meals or hygiene items to provide for prisoners who couldn’t afford to buy basic necessities. On top of that, the prison system began charging all inmates unfairly for general services. Getting sick and going to see a nurse would cost you five dollars. If you were given an infraction for leaving the housing dorm with your shirt unbuttoned, ten dollars was deducted from your commissary account to process the paperwork. If you needed to send out a money order to your family or to oder a book, the prison charged five dollars, even if the amount of the money order was fifty cents. The saddest part was that prison jobs were few and most paid forty-cents a day, a meager wage set in the l970’s and inconsistent with modern inflation rates. Over the years the prison’s fees and commissary prices increased astronomically, but prison wages did not, thrusting the majority of poor prisoners like me into an abyss of debt to the state. I wasn’t alone in my poverty. The majority of the young men at Polk were poor. Many had been raised in impoverished communities, whether urban or rural—which was usually the reason for their incarceration in the first place. The psychological effects of poverty in prison were detrimental. Dinner was served around three- thirty in the afternoon in preparation of lock down for the night. By seven o’clock hunger was gnawing a hole through my stomach. It was hard to see other guys go to the canteen and come back to the block with microwavable cheeseburgers, pizza, chips, and ice cold sodas that I couldn’t buy. I sat on my bunk watching them eat, sniffing the air and closing my eyes to the glorious scents wafting up my nose. It made me think of ways that I could get something delicious to eat too. Poverty in prison created a violent madhouse of young men desperate to obtain things they needed and wanted. A poor prisoner’s only way to provide for himself meant stealing from other prisoners. It was no different than a pride of lions feasting on a herd of tender gazelles. I wasn’t brave enough to straight up rob somebody. For a few months I just did without. Instead of eating all of my food at chow, I stuffed bread into my pocket to eat later that night. Taking food out of the chow hall was a punishable offense, but I had to have a snack at night. Personal hygiene items were more difficult to obtain. I had none. In the middle of summer I smelled like a mule. We weren’t allowed to shower until after seven p.m. Throughout the day I could be seen washing under my pits in the common sink. The only soap provided us for free was made with a heavy 6of13 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips dose of lye, which dried out my skin. After a shower I’d sit on my bed and itch until my body produced enough sweat to make it stop. This discomfort was why I committed my first and only act of thievery behind prison walls. My mark was smaller than me, so I didn’t fear a fight if I got caught. The guy had left his locker open while he took a shower. I hurried over and stole a half-bottle of lotion and a stick of used deodorant before he came back. When he realized the items were missing, I was the main suspect. Everyone knew I didn’t have any money. The next day a prisoner I knew came to my bed and handed me a brand-new bottle of lotion and a stick of deodorant. “Give that guy his stuff back,” he said. “You ain’t gotta steal from nobody. If you need something, let me know. I’ll make sure you get it.” I returned the lotion and deodorant. It wasn’t fear of violent repercussions that made me give it back. It was the fact that someone had given me what I could not provide for myself. If I’d been able to support myself, I wouldn’t have stolen the items in the first place. A lot of crooks weren’t sneak thieves like me. The biggest black dudes you ever want to see walked up to a scrawny white kids and handed them commissary lists a mile long. The white guy would scrunch up his eyebrows while reading the list of hamburgers, batteries, hair grease, and do-rags, then ask, “What’s this?” The brother would respond, “Your rent is due. After you make my list, get yourself a soda.” The extortionist would leave the victim to think about what would happen if he didn’t buy the items. Nine times out of ten the kid bought the stuff, and the extortionist would hand him a list everyday until the kid shipped out to another prison or went home. For the rest of his time at Polk he would be known as a Joan Bug, or extortionee. Some guys fought back. I once saw a skinny white kid hit a huge black guy in the head with a lock wrapped inside a pair of socks. He’d hit him from behind, and when the black guy fell, the white kid didn’t stop. The whole pod stood by and watched as he beat the man until the sock was bloody and soaked red; until the officers rushed in and broke it up. What was the offense? 7ofl3 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips The black guy had told the kid to buy him a soda and not to come back in the pod without it. Extortion was a common means of survival. Black men weren’t the only abusers. Bullies came in all shapes and sizes. Big white guys who had juice were just as bad. They had no racial biases. They preyed on any weakling that allowed it. Over time some perpetrators developed an addiction for instilling fear in someone lesser. James Baldwin once wrote that: “Power is what the powerless want.” That statement rang true for young men who grew up poor and ended up in a prison system that only cared to treat them poorly. That inner rage had to go somewhere. It did not dissipate. It engulfed. As a young man trying to survive in prison, I knew that our bad actions were a learned behavior perpetuated by our environment. We were surrounded by violence, could not escape it. When immersed in the liquid of a negative culture, the waterlogged skin can only prune with the effects of that foreign substance. The longer you remain submerged—as a witness to violent acts—the more normal your perception of it. Up appears down. East, west. Wrong becomes right. The officers egged-on the culture of violence. Most were young and black and had come from the same run-down communities as the prisoners they held charge over. Acts of aggression were accepted and maintained by the notion that prison was supposed to be violent, if only because the prisoners were getting what they deserved as retribution for people they had hurt. The problem with such an attitude from the staff was that us young men would someday return to our communities more violent than when we went in—without the tools of change needed to polish our tarnished pasts and become productive citizens. This should have been cause for alarm, not just for public safety, but for any effort meant to curb recidivism. Men who were skilled in hurting others for survival would only return to prison. Because violence is a learned behavior, once instilled, it must be unlearned for change to take root. Change will never happen if the officials running prisons allow violence to fester in the minds of all warehoused in their correctional institutions. I was not spared from these acts of aggression. but I can’t say it was without justification. There came a day when I had to pay for the lotion and deodorant I stole from someone smaller than me. Two gang members approached when I was at my locker. One grabbed me from behind and secured my arms. The other stole my lock that had been given to me by a prisoner who was released a few weeks 8of13 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips earlier. The gang members laughed when they dug around in my locker and found it virtually empty. I didn’t fight back. If there had only been one guy, I might have. I’d seen men beaten badly for minor insults. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I let them take it without resistance. It was a case of the predator becoming the prey. When they left, my fear remained. I went to the Sergeant’s office and asked to be moved to another cell block. The Sergeant wanted to know why, but I wouldn’t tell him. I just kept saying that I wanted to move. He pressured me and finally concluded, “I know why you want to move. Your punk-ass came in here trying to act hard and somebody showed you how soft you are. I don’t feel sorry for you. I ought to send you back in there and let them beat your ass.” He tried to convince me to go back in the block and fight whoever I had the problem with. He didn’t know there were two of them, and in a bad way, it wouldn’t have mattered. He was right. I was soft. To act any other way was unnatural, no matter how hard I tried to be something else. But the fact remained that I couldn’t force myself to face those two men, so I asked to be moved again. The Sergeant put me in solitary confinement. He said it was protocol, but I didn’t believe him. He wanted to punish me in some way. As the officer had told me on my first day at Polk, “Nobody respects a coward in here.” What I had done was called Checking Off. In other words: running away from bullies. Checking off was a grave offense in prison. Men weren’t supposed to be fearful or vulnerable, and to check off was an admittance of just that——the ultimate sign of weakness. Because of that experience, I never stole from anyone in prison ever again. My cell in the hole was filthy. The previous occupant had drawn a dartboard on one wall with smeared toothpaste and tried to hit the bullseye with slimy boogers. I had no idea so many boogers could come from one nose. It took me an hour to clean with water and a wash rag. I spent three days there, but those days changed my life forever. I was disappointed in myself for checking off. After thinking about it, I couldn’t forgive myself for not standing up to those men. I made up my mind that I would rather die than back down from another fight, no matter how many enemies I faced. Also I read two complete books on my first day in there. I was twenty-one years old, and those were 9of13 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips the only books I had ever read cover-to’-cover. I loved reading them so much that I thought about writing my own. How hard could it be? I’d always been creative, but I had never written down my ideas. The thought of writing a book excited me. I On my second day in the hole, I began writing. I wrote late into that night, all the next day, and up until they told me to pack what few belongings I had because I was moving to a pod in regular population. In my new cell block, I wrote everyday. I wrote poems, raps, and short stories. I didn’t think about being successful or that I could make money. I just loved writing. It made me analyze things in ways that I’d never thought of before, and I felt that I was good at it. When I shipped out of Polk Youth Center six months after arriving, I took more than bad memories and a chip on my shoulder. I carried with me a talent that I would not have found if I’d never been locked up. Next I was housed at was Marion, an adult spread. I was surrounded by mature men, some of whom had been serving time for thirty or forty years. i Hormones didn’t rage as much in adult prisons. In the youth prison, a boy would challenge you to a fight in front of everyone to prove himself. Most adult convicts wanted to do their time as peacefully as possible. Marion was a high-security institution, so I had my own cell. I rarely came out. I’d look myself inside and write until my hand cramped and I couldn’t hold a pen any longer. I hardly ever went out on the yard. I never watched TV. All I did was write. After a few months, I was transferred to Avery/Mitchell, a medium custody prison. This prison didn’t have cells. The cell blocks were open dorms with bunk beds like Polk Youth Center. I wrote more and more to escape the cramped conditions and monotony of prison life. I hooked up with a guy who drew personalized greeting cards for prisoners to send home. I wrote poems for his cards, and we split the profits down the middle. Writing soon became my only means of making money behind the wall. Once the greeting card business got going, prisoners asked me to write personal poems for their loved ones. I wrote in any and every way that I could. I wrote to survive, and writing became my saving grace. I still felt the oppression of being locked up. I was frustrated, angry, and fed up with living like an 10 ofl3 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips animal. Writing helped to contain those feelings, but they didn’t disappear. Then I got into it with Dom. We’d gotten into an argument one night. He was loud and outspoken with his opinions and only said some things because he knew they got under my skin. A confrontation with him had been brewing for a while. The next day, someone told me that Dom was going around telling people that we’d argued and I had backed down from fighting him. I hated fighting, and at that point I only had thirty days left before my release. Soon I would be out in the world. Prison would be the last thing on my mind, but for some reason, I couldn’t let it go. It bothered me so much that I felt that I had to do something. Later that night, I ran up on him while he was sitting on his bed listening to his radio. The first blow was a solid one to his chin. He collapsed back on the bed, and I pounced on top, pinning his arms beneath my knees. Some foreign force charged me~—a rage that I’d never known. I punched him until my knuckles were raw and swollen and it hurt me to strike him more. I did not feel human. I was a rabid animal in the wilderness snarling as he clawed at his prey. Dom was not a person to me within that moment. He was the anger I’d been feeling since my bid had begun. He was those two men that had stolen my lock and laughed at me. He was an officer that told me not to talk in the chow hall, when to wake up, go to sleep, eat, watch TV—he was the mountain of my anger come to a bloody head. I did ten days in the hole that time. When I had time to think about it, I felt like a coil that had once been wound too tight and was now released and relaxed. It was a strange experience to feel on edge for close to a year, then find peace only after an act of rage. It was strange and disheartening. It was not my nature to hurt people. I had not hurt anyone while committing the crimes that had landed me in prison. This foreign feeling of rage was new to me. I was forced to confront a side of myself that I never knew existed and wished had remained hidden within the catacombs of my unconscious psyche. Psychotic people often describe a compelling need to give into sexual or violent impulses—impulses so strong that they can’t function without them being ever-present thoughts in their daily lives. Once they have committed a savage act, they feel at peace, and the impulse is no more. I am not psychotic, but I believe that these traits are within us all. Some people are never put in a position for violence to manifest. Normal people live in a bubble of peace for the most part. They do not 11 ofl3 A WEEKEND IN THE HILLS by Vance Phillips recognize violent traits in themselves. It’s not much different from relating to a movie where a regular Joe is forced into some act of violence in order to save a family member, or the world for that matter. Violence seems justified in that situation—necessary. Yet that violence is not a new presence. It was always there. Prison is a breeding ground for Violent minds. It imposes a need for brutality, giving an ordinary person the motivation to be violent in circumstances when their back is against the wall and they feel that they have no other choice. Because I’d fought Dom, my prison sentence was extended another two months. I was released from prison on a brisk winter morning with $3.36 in my pocket. I had no clothes except for the prison garments on my back. I had no place to sleep for the night. Homeless and hopeless, I did not last long. Less than a year later I was back in prison serving a life sentence for murder. Could I blame the prison system for releasing me with no place to live, no money, and no hope? Sure. It was not the responsibility of the prison system to take care of me once I was released, but they did have a duty to ensure the safety of the public. That means giving newly released prisoners the best possible chance to make it in the free world. If not, then they do nothing but perpetuate high recidivism rates and the revolving door that has become our criminal justice system. I cannot wholly blame the prison system for my current incarceration, but I can honestly say that the ill-treatment of all people behind bars will only end up with the same results. The public continues to speculate about why recidivism percentages are so high. No one ever stops to think that how people are treated in prison is the biggest contributer to that problem. If you lock someone up, beat them or allow them to be beaten, then release them into the world with no means to support themselves other than the criminal education they received behind bars, what other outcome could you expect? 12 ofl3

Author: Smith, Phillip Vance, II

Author Location: North Carolina

Date: June 15, 2018

Genre: Essay

Extent: 12 pages

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