How I Made It Through a Prison Riot
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there are quiet moments — or weeks — that go with riots.
The author writes for Vice and The Fix. He has written seven true-crime books.
My homeboy had a bunch of rubber bands and quarters on his desk. “What the fuck is this?” I asked him. Instead of telling me, he showed me. He grabbed like 20 rubber bands and braced them against his fingers like a slingshot. He stacked five quarters on top of each other and pulled the rubber bands back, inserting the stacked quarters at the taut end. “Watch this,” he said as he released the tension. The quarters slammed into the desk like a jackhammer. “Damn, homeboy,” I said, shocked at the impact. He smiled and told me, “This slingshot will break glass.”
I was at Federal Correctional Institution Manchester, a medium-to-high facility in the foothills of Kentucky, in October 1995, serving a mandatory minimum sentence for LSD when the crack riots jumped off. Rumors were circulating for months that the Federal Sentencing Commission was going to pass an amendment to correct the 100-to-1 crack/cocaine powder sentencing disparity. But when the House of Representatives voted down that proposal, which would’ve gone into effect November 1, all hell broke loose.
With over 800 prisoners loitering in front of the cafeteria and no one going in to eat lunch, prison officials knew what the score was. They broke out the video recorders and suited up the sort team, who resembled a squad of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that stationed themselves in our vicinity as the captain, assistant wardens and warden came to see what our grievances were. We called it a food strike, but it was really an act of defiance.
The protest leaders voiced their opinions loudly and were quickly apprehended, handcuffed and escorted to the Special Housing Unit (SHU), commonly referred to as “the hole.” The rest of us were given a choice: Go back to our units or go to SHU. Maybe we should have collectively exploded right at that moment to show them that we meant business, but instead we moved back to our housing units like complacent sheep, the instigators removed. Prisoners kept compliant loudly, but it all seemed kind of bluster to me.
“Man, fuck these cops, dog,” my homeboy said as we walked back to the unit. “I can’t believe the whole compound is getting punked out like a bunch of bitches.” I could hear other prisoners grumbling too, and I knew it was going to jump off when we hit the block. As soon as we got locked in, the unit prisoners started breaking TVs and phones and lighting trash cans and mattresses on fire. Smoke swirled in the dimly lit cell block as my homeboy got his homemade slingshot and started making dents in the reinforced glass. “Fuck the feds,” he shouted right before the quarters slammed into the window, cracking the glass.
I saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, about 20-strong, marching on Whitley B, one of the eight housing units in the prison. Apparently the whole compound had erupted.
“Man, fuck this bullshit,” I said and retreated to my cell. I unlocked my locker and checked out the commissary I’d bought from the store the week before in preparation. Unlike many prisoners, I was ready for the strike, riot and subsequent lockdown. I looked out the slim window on the cell door and saw pandemonium erupting. A group of Mexican gangbangers had someone down in the common area kicking the shit out of them. “Cut that shit out,” the CO yelled, but when the gangbangers turned on him, he fled the unit, unlocking the front door and stepping outside, before locking it again.
Through the bars on the window facing the compound, I saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, about 20-strong, marching on Whitley B, one of the eight housing units in the prison. Apparently the whole compound had erupted, and they were moving in to restore order. I knew we’d be on lockdown shortly as a steady stream of noncompliant prisoners were ushered out of Whitley B heading toward SHU. The sort team dragged some, carried others and in general treated the protesting prisoners like subhumans. It wouldn’t be long before they hit my block and did the same.
A couple of times my homeboys came into my cell and tried to cajole me to join in the fun, but I wasn’t with it. I was at the beginning of a 25-year sentence, and although I was extremely angry at the amount of time I got, I decided to channel my anger into something positive. The sort team finally made it to our unit and locked everyone down. Those who refused were carted off to the hole, where we found out prisoners were sleeping four and five to a cell. Buses were coming in and hauling the more unruly prisoners off to USP Terre Haute and USP Atlanta, penitentiaries with extra hole space. It took some of those guys six to nine months to get transferred back to Manchester.
I saw a Muslim Imam get forcibly moved to the hole in restraints for complaining about the bag lunches we were getting every day for weeks. He also made an issue about the barely three showers per week we were afforded for hygiene purposes. Months later, I heard a bunch of crazy stories about dudes getting four-pointed to the bed or knocked down a set of stairs in handcuffs by COs. Retribution was a bitch.
Me, I looked at the lockdown, almost six weeks long, like a sabbatical. I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to get shipped off to a high-security prison, the fate of many. My locker was full and I’d stocked up on books, magazines and letter-writing supplies. I went through the motions and kept to myself, reading and writing and trying to stay out of the drama.
But by the end? Relief. Living in a room the size of your bathroom with another man 24/7 can be taxing, to say the least. It was nice to get back out on the compound when the lockdown ended.
It felt like freedom, even though I was still locked up.