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Surviving a “Max” Prison
By Lee Gutierrez – Guest Blogger
STARTING, prison with a “MAX” classification. Placed me in one of the most aggressive and hostile environments created by man. A maximum security facility is where isolation and punishment is the “norm.” The officers go out of their way to de-humanize the inmate, by a heightened atmosphere of constant fear. Using offensive insults, relentless disrespect and threat of violent abuse. All in hope of getting a reaction, a chance for a mob of officers to put “boots and batons” to work. Shock and awe are the intent. The results are swollen faces, broken bones and sometimes death.
This atmosphere of hate breeds more hate. The average inmate who has made bad decisions or wrong choices, but with no violent streak within, is conditioned to be violent. He loses his trust of people, thinks everyone is out to get him, becoming aggressive in nature. Their desperation and survival instincts take over stripping them of their humanity.
This mutation of character is something I strain to prevent from seeping in and infecting my soul. I pray that this horrific experience can be left behind, discarded as a defective shell to be forgotten.
I have always believed in the God of my parents. Having been raised Catholic, my higher power is a loving power. He shows me how to have compassion for others, fairness in judging with patience and clarity when reacting to potentially violent conflict. He is not a mystery to me. I accept that the path of Jesus is the way to a fulfilling life. What I didn’t have was a personal relationship with Him. I never attempted a direct conversation or used His strength or His love to protect me.
In the last two years I believe I have been shown signs. Symbolism of how people react to this menacing environment. I’ve witnessed nature, more specifically, birds that have been trapped in our environment. One particular event that has affected me, I will share with you.
IN THIS MAX, we are given one hour of recreation. If we have no programs to attend we will spend up to twenty-two hours in your cell each day. So most inmates take advantage of that hour. In snow, rain, at night or in one hundred degree heat, we are in the courtyard. The courtyard, or “yard,” is the typical reference for the area in the center of the compound surrounded by thirty-foot brick wall. On top of the walls there is a three-foot mesh fence. The perimeter of that fence is topped with thirty-inch diameter of concertine (razor) wire. A turret stands high on the east side of the yard with eager snipers ready to “lock and load.”
The real estate is divided by imaginary lines, segregating the various cultures and groups. The Latinos are near the handball courts, the LGBT congregate under the east side TV, the white dudes hang at the north side tables. What appear to be gang oriented folks are by the tables on the northwest corner. The common ground is the west side where telephone banks stretch along and the south is the weight pit with the “sports” TV just north. The boundaries are cut and dry. Where exactly I fit in was the million dollar question. As an American with no real “street smarts,” I felt like an enigma. The various leaders of each territory didn’t know what to make of me. I was an island in hostile waters.
Taking the advice from an acquaintance whom I met in A.A. prior to starting prison, his advice was to not stand still. He told me not to hang with one group or the other. He had been incarcerated and had learned this lesson the hard way. He explained that is was better to simply walk the perimeter of the yard, jog, even run and avoid people that would try to stop and talk to me. Their intentions are to hustle me, or worse. The expression he used was “to be motorcycle.”
He said, traveling alone will show strength without having to prove myself. Most men are there just doing their time and want out. After a few months I will see who is real, who is a creep, and who is dangerous. He told me that eventually my motorcycle will turn into a car. He said that I will walk with people whose minds think alike. I took his advice and for the most part it worked. I must remember to tank him when next we meet.
THE EVENT. Sometime in early November 2013, I was still in motorcycle mode. My routine of cross-training include exercises such as shoulder dips, pull up bar and wide base push ups. The day was blustery, wind bursts came from the north side driving through the yard, smashing against the (thirty-foot) wall creating a vertical jet stream. I noticed all types of birds playing in the jet stream dive bombing, chasing other birds as if at playing chicken. Seagulls from the Hudson River were the most daring, scraping along the wall, pulling up and away just before the menacing concertine wire.
While jogging the perimeter, I heard a tinny bang, then high pitch squawks. Turning towards the direction of the noise I saw a frightening view. A pigeon was caught in the concertine wire, flapping its wings. A seagull was hanging a few feet from the captured pigeon, the gull’s wing embedded in the wire; the more it struggled to free itself the more damage it was causing. His bright grey feathers over its wing started to spill red.
I gathered from what the inmates who were directly under the birds screamed that the birds collided in mid-air, bouncing into the wire. The scene became a magnet, attracting people from each group. Watching both birds struggle was like spilling blood in the water – a shark frenzy was gathering.
Trying to act indifferent to the situation, I pushed through my urge to stare at this violent spectacle. As I looped around with each lap, the mob grew. No longer able to resist my morbid instinct, I went back. I couldn’t divert my eyes. For the first ten minutes both pigeon and seagull frantically fought their capture The pigeon inside the circular concertine wire attempting, slapping the top of its wings under the razor, catching, pulling, tearing feathers, going nowhere, gaining no altitude. The seagull was worse off, it had lost its footing, its weight driving the razor deeper into its wing. After a few moments, the C.O.s called, “Rec is over. Line Up!” The yard closed. Leaving the yard with no spectators to see the fate of the birds.
The next day at Rec having started my workout, I forgot the event from the day before. Thirsty form my run, I went to the water fountain to quench my thirst. Looking up the seagull popped into view, hanging from its wing motionless. Its poor wing had been hyper-extended and was covered in red. Head and body pointing doenward, it was apparent that its wing had snapped. It must have suffered for hours.
To my astonishment, the pigeon was perched right where it was left and was now standing in the wire perfectly still. It had amazingly survived its capture. It appeared calm. Continuing my laps I couldn’t help but notice that the pigeon would bob its head left – and then right – as if looking for a way out. Near the end of Rec I noticed that the bird, no longer caged in the wire, was perched on the rooftop. The bird had taken a simple leap of faith forward and was free. Still, it sat on the rooftop not moving. I think it did not realize that it was free from capture, that it was free to fly away. After a few moments, it began limping; apparently its feet had been injured. All of a sudden it spread its wings. Flapping like a drunken sailor it took off, flying to and fro, getting its bearings. Finally, the pigeon darted away in a straight line. Away. Away, blending into the vista. Then POOF -it was gone.
TO THIS DAY, I still carry the image of these birds embedded in memory. The wonderment of of these creatures, God’s creatures and how fate played out for them. Two different species thrown into a hostile environment. Both seemed doomed to suffer a long painful end. How can it be that one suffered and died a miserable death, and the other suffered but survived? Not only survive, but had the strength to shake off its misery and continue its life with peace in its natural surroundings?
For me, the answer must be God. He truly works in mysterious ways.
This event has helped me make sense of how to survive and even thrive while incarcerated. During my time in a Max, I witnessed both seagull and pigeon. There was the inmate (seagull) who refused to to give up his way of thinking. He resists conforming to a peaceful, less aggressive way of dealing with life. Like the gull, he chases what he thinks is valuable to him, with no care for the consequences. Even when caught, convicted and incarcerated, he continues to think he has control over his environment. He takes chances, hustles other inmates, steals and extorts. He risks his life by pushing back on the officers when he is disrespected. As he seagull does, this inmate fights the system lashing out as hard as he can, refusing to accept and surrender his will to his higher power. He remains broken, won’t change, he and others will die.
THANKS TO GOD, the other inmate does as the pigeon does, even having lived a life of chaos, chasing what he desires, not thinking of the consequences. But once he realizes that he is captive, he sits quietly rethinking how he might respond in his new, more aggressive environment. He accepts the consequences of his actions and patiently waits to be released. He takes this leap of faith.
A Note from the Author:
I would like to thank you for taking the time to read my message. My goal is to help the next person, by sharing my incarceration and redemption journey. I’ve opened my heart and mond to my Higher Power. If you allow yourself the gift of God in your life, you will NEVER be alone.
Please let me know your thoughts. If you have any experience you are willing to share with me, please write. Let us start a dialogue in which we can help each other get through the tough times, and spread hope to the hopeless.
Lee’s current address:
German (Lee) Gutierrez
P.O. Box 1000
Woodbourne, NY 12788
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