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How to Survive in Prison
Never pee on an electric fence.
I know, I know, that’s a completely whacked out thing to say. Probably wasn’t what you were expecting, right? Hey, you asked. What paper you with again? Some crappy little tabloid that needs a quick fix? Oh. Uh…that was off the record then. But I’m serious. Whatever you do, never, ever pee on an electric fence.
Most people don’t get close enough to an electric fence in their life to find this out the hard way. Count yourselves lucky. Even people that do, once or twice in their lives, or guys like me that see ‘em everyday, just aren’t that stupid. I mean, there are some stupid guys in here, but even the crack heads and Strong Top aren’t dumb enough to whip it out near 30,000 volts. Can you imagine? Sad part is, I don’t have to picture it.
I’m no scientist, but I know there’s a lot of stuff in urine. The human body processes a lot of crap every day, and, I guess some of it conducts electricity. Don’t ask me what it is, ‘cause I don’t know. You’ve got computers, you can look it up.
This is a hell of a place to wind up. You saw all the stuff they had outside to keep us in, right? Cripes. They’ve got less security on Army bases. They don’t call it “maximum security” for no reason. Everybody’s heard the stories. I think your paper printed one or two of them. 400 of the country’s most dangerous criminals put together in a building, what kind of stuff do you think is going to go down? Bad stuff, I’m tellin’ ‘ya. Everyone’s so worried about us getting out, they don’t think a lot about what happens once we’re in. We have the highest prisoner mortality rate in the whole federal penal system. Guys drop like flies in here.
Me? Hell, I’ve had my share of close calls. I’ve never done anything as stupid as peeing on an electric fence. I guess I’m lucky, in a sense. My mistakes never got me killed in here. But then, if I’m lucky, I wouldn’t be here in the first place, would I?
You got a cigarette, by the way?
You don’t smoke? Good for you! You look like a nice kid. You don’t need to start destroying your lungs just yet. Us, we got nothing to lose in here. Most of us are here for 20-plus years or life.
Me? You wanna’ know about me? I’m flattered. Well, let’s see. I guess that I am lucky, to be honest. I’m lucky that the pigs didn’t lock me up earlier, that I had the chance to live a little bit. I can’t tell you much, because then I’ll be screwing myself over. I can’t tell you much because then I’ll be screwing myself over. I’m due to get out in a couple years; I don’t need to admit to something stupid and get thrown back in here. But what I can tell you is I had a hell of a childhood and a sweet relationship with the guys in Vegas. I can tell you there are some people that wish I had never gone West but can’t whine about it anymore. I can also tell you that in 1997, I caught my lying cheat of a wife in the hot tub inside one of the rooms at the MGM Grand with a bellhop not much older than you. After that, long story made short, I ended up here. Let me give you some advice. Don’t get married, at least, not yet. Get around. Have some fun. Be happy. I see you’re not wearing a wedding ring. Keep it that way, ay kid?
When you were coming in, you saw that wall next to Cellblock A, right? The one that was all scratched-up all over? We call it the “Blood Tally.” There’s a happy little bit of prison history here. Apparently, there was a riot the very first day the prison was opened, back in ’67. There was one fatality, some guy named Joe “Tally” Henderson. The “Tally” was because he was born in Tallahassee. Good ol’ Joe got himself gutshot all over that wall out there. Nasty stuff. That was the beginning. Guys die in here all the time, but it’s almost never the usual stuff that happens in prison like a shank to the ribs or whatever. Here, there’s always some kind of irony attached, some really terrible death that sort of…I don’t know…fits. And every time some sap in here checks out, we make another scratch, or “tally”, on the wall. It’s like a counting thing. On your way out, go take a closer look. See how many scratches there are.
You’re looking a little lost. Let me explain that irony thing a little better.
So there was this guy here a little while back, Raul. Never found out his last name. Never needed to. Word was, he had killed a couple people out in Kentucky. Vicious little freak. They caught him because he left too much DNA at his crime scenes. Wanna know how? I’ll you how? After he was done with them, he peed on them. Disgusting. No respect for the dead. Not that I had any either, but come on, seriously? There’s a limit.
Raul was a wiseguy and a little bit too cocky. When he came through Roll Call, he was the only one who was smiling. Roll Call is when they bring the new guys to the yard and kick them off the bus so they can see where they’ll be spending most of their life for the first time. You ever see “The Shawshank Redemption?” It’s exactly like that, except without Morgan Freeman. Some guys, the first time you see them, they come out all serious-like, as stoic as you can get. Other guys are real nervous. You know, they don’t look at anyone, keep their heads down, don’t talk. I’ve seen a few guys break down and cry their eyes out. Pathetic as hell. One time, the second this guy got off the bus, he rushed a guard and tried to take his gun. It’s harder to get dead much quicker than that.
Not many guys smile except for the crazy ones or the guys that are full of themselves. Raul just stepped off that bus with a big ol’ smile. This guy was all about smiling. I don’t think he ever stopped. Everything was just a huge joke to him. He grinned at me and at every one of us in turn. Even the guards. He looked back over his shoulder and thanked the bus driver for the ride.
So I was sitting outside the next day during the rec hour. Strong Top and me had just got done with some weights. There’s a couple benches out there, and we were sitting on one about 70 feet from the fence or so. Strong Top’s a big buy. I swear to God, he’s gonna’ collapse one of these things someday. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. But anyway, we’re sitting there minding our own business and making no trouble like the good little prisoners we are when Raul decides we’re his new best buds and plops down next to me.
“Hey fellas, what’s shakin?” I remember that he let the last “n” be long and drawn out. I’ve never heard a grown man ask me that before. Greasers weren’t cool even before I went to prison.
“What do you want?” I already didn’t like this guy.
“Whoa, whoa, chill out big daddy. I’m just sayin’ hi. Nothing wrong with that, is there?” He looked at me like I was going to answer. “Is there, big guy?” He asked that to Strong Top that time. I thought something was going to happen right there. The last time somebody called Strong Top a name having to do with his weight…That’s a story for another time. He’s tough as anyone I’ve ever seen, but he’s very sensitive about his weight. He could crush the kid like a graham cracker, but all he did was quietly stare back.
Raul was oblivious to any impending doom. The guy didn’t take a hint. “Man, those pigs in the towers thing they’re hot stuff, don’t they?” When you came in through the fence, you saw all those tall buildings put near the border, right? Those are guard towers. They keep a couple of sharpshooters up there 24/7. I’ve heard they wear night-vision goggles when it gets dark, which is contrary to the traditional method of detection by floodlight. Obviously, they’re up there to make sure we don’t try to bust out. Kinda extreme, in my opinion. What are we gonna’ do, try and climb the electric fence?
“Why don’t you go say hi to them?” That was Strong Top talking.
And he says. “You know, I think I will,” and just gets up and walks toward the tower, whistling, happy as can be. I can see the guy at the top bring his gun around. Everybody else in the yard, they stop what they’re doing and watch this idiot. We all think he’s going to get himself shot. Me and Strong Top, we can’t believe it.
Raul stops a few feet short of the tower and circles around it, looking up. The black barrel of the rifle is following his every move. He just keeps looking up and smiling. “Hey up there!” He’s shouting up at the guard now. “Hey pal, you got a light?” No answer. “Can I borrow a lighter? And a cigarette? I could really go for a smoke right now.” I guess he didn’t know that nobody was allowed to smoke in this prison, not after what happened to Smokey Joey. Poor kid. That had been a few months ago.
He kept going. “You think I’m going to be staying here that long? This ain’t no Alcatraz. You’re going to come into my cell one morning and I’m gonna’ be long gone. I’ll be miles away, laughing at you because you guys are nothing. You hear me? You got nothing on me.” Raul wasn’t very bright. “I’m better than all of you. You’re nothing.” Blah Blah Blah. But then he goes, “Here, here’s what I think of you.” And he walks right up toward the fence and starts going like he’s at a urinal.
To be fair, I don’t think he knew it was electric. I guess you can imagine what happened next. That was the first time I found out that urine conducted electricity. You don’t need to know the details. They turned off the fence eventually. There were guards and doctors running around, trying to revive him. We were pushed back to our cells twenty minutes early, but he was long gone by then. Rumor was that when they carted him off, he still had a big ol’ smile on his face, what was left of it. Like I said, there’s this irony in death here.
So that’s about it. This is a bad place, kid. If you’re gonna’ do something bad, make sure you don’t get caught and sent here. I’ve only got a few years left in here, but there’s always that chance I won’t make it. When you write this story, make sure you get my good side. It might be all that’s left of me. The guard’s coming in. Time’s up for today I guess. Come back and visit if you want. I got plenty more stories. And just remember, no matter what you do: Never, ever pee on an electric fence. See you around, kid.