By R. Banks

Originally published in Rooted Magazine.

The images of the three men’s silhouettes cast between me and the cell’s bathroom lights will forever be in my mind’s eye. They danced a dance of life and death that night over seven years ago. Someone had broken the sacred rule of breaching the security line and I could hear the consequences.

This was not a security line set up by officers but by inmates. The perimeter was made of several gang members that were posted up to prevent unaffiliated “neutrons” or “peons” and also members from other gangs from being involved in their “business.” Usually the penalty for crossing into or approaching the perimeter line resulted in only a stern warning or a push or shove to direct the offender back and away from the security line. Away from the world outside, these prison walls have lines within them that are never to be crossed. Lines made by the officers, but also the inmates under their keep.

I watched, transfixed, wondering at the sounds that changed from the slaps and pops of skin clashing with skin into the sounds of metal being pushed into the body, and the eerie tell-tale sounds that came each time the huge rods, sharpened into shanks, were pulled back out, creating a suctioning metallic whistle I’ll always hear so clearly. One of the Vice Lords pulled a rod out of the man’s back that was over a foot long. His silhouette announced that I was witnessing my first stabbing.

Little did I know, standing there that night years ago in the darkness with my coffee cup in hand, that this was the first of the many horrible things I would later witness and become victim to myself. I have seen so much in my short fifty years; but the last fifteen years have taught me many things that a man needn’t have learned. It is said here: “It is what it is,” and this can be a sour truth.

Luckily, the man who accidentally walked into Vice Lord security lived. He had attempted to use a push broom to defend himself, which almost cost him his life. Using a weapon against a gang member, or a “representative,” in most cases results in the forfeiture of one’s life, or, as some call it here, “our early release date.”

I sit here now, years later, and I know that the man I was that night never could have seen what knowledge the future held for him, for me. The hustles, the game, everything in life here that was to be revealed, good or bad. The difference is how we use this knowledge bestowed upon us. And If we are willing to help others avoid walking these same paths.

I have used the last fourteen years, seven months and four days, every experience, all the loss, as gain: steps that I now use to climb up and away from the evils created by the hate, greed and lust of man, including myself. Some circles are created to trap a person, and it takes years, if that person is lucky, to step away from them and the evil therein: addictions, involvement with gangs by being under their rule and labeled a “peon” or “neutron” (being neutral and considered harmless to other gangs).

But this also meant being the target sometimes of oppositions, having the job of storing and keeping hidden contraband, which sometimes includes tools (shanks). I had a knack for making large quantities of contraband seemingly disappear on a moment’s notice. Risking my health and my freedom in doing so. When I looked in a mirror, the view I saw was of a skeleton of the man I’d once been before the rule of drugs and the ones who used them took lord over me. I had lost my willpower; my choices were being made by others, and most importantly, I had watched my friends and my family slowly fade into a thing of my past.

One day someone I respected said, “If you’re using dope or contraband, you are part of the problem for it being brought in.” I had already seen this. All those times, for years, I was the reason that a child’s food wasn’t on the table or that the utilities had been cut off, and a child as well as his mother or grandma did without because they had sent the money to their relative in here who lied and told them that they were being extorted or owed it for food or hygiene and if it wasn’t paid, they would be hurt by gang members. By ensuring the safety of the contraband, I also ensured these people’s pain…those words echoed, and still do, in my head.

This echo strengthened my construction of the ladder I used to pull myself up, out, and away from that well of despair and addictions. These things and people that had separated me from my true self and my family for so many years were now my reason to focus on a way out. Instead of being the puppet I had been for them, I would trust in God. I saw a way to climb up and out of this loop with my name, my integrity, and my life intact. I saw a way to protect my family on the outside from hands reaching out from in here to harm them.

I thank God for the strength to go through the tests and trials. I honor my parents for having shown me what heart is, and the definition is to never give up. I know God is real. That is not a belief for me; it is the knowing that without his guidance and love for that person I was, this man I am now would not exist today. I thank God for every good and bad day alike.

I look at my left arm now and I think back on each scar that leaves my arm as ugly as the circle that I climbed out of: it isn’t what it is, it’s what you make it. Now, when looking out of the cell’s windows, I see not only a change within the prison’s fences and walls. I also see the change that has taken place within myself. I now have the strength to move forward with my life, both here on the inside and on the outside of the gates if I’m ever released. I look out onto the prison yards at night and I see a future much brighter than the glow of the yard’s lights.

24 September, 2023